The Final Reckoning?

In the middle of the fourteenth century, the continent of Europe was ravaged by the Black Death – bubonic plague. It decimated a terrified population, killing perhaps one third of them, maybe more. Where it had come from, what was causing it and how to deal with it were not things fourteenth century man had any means of figuring out. As is common in such situations, scapegoats were found, two of the most widespread and despicable being the alleged poisoning of wells – i.e. water supplies – by lepers and by Jews. But perhaps the most common supposition was that God himself had sent it as a punishment for the sins of mankind. Even his agents in the world of men, the clergy, were not immune.

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And today, there are many people regarding the relentless advance of the coronavirus as punishment from God or some other ‘higher power’. Maybe they’re onto something – when you think about the present state of our world, it’s not difficult to start believing that plumbing the depths of mendacity, uncaring, and savagery that we currently are, there may come a divine reckoning – and could this be it?

But I think that’s too easy – it’s shifting the blame. The world we live in is within us – not the other way about; this world is a world of our own making. If it’s a punishment, it’s one we’ve brought on ourselves. We, as a species, have, for millennia, behaved so often in a self-centred, uncaring, cavalier, brutal way towards not only the earth we inhabit and to many native peoples, but even towards our own selves. So that we are now in a situation where we breathe poisoned air; we eat fish contaminated with plastic and fished from overheating, poisoned oceans; we eat and give to our children food sprayed with pesticides and laced with chemical additives; we are slowly but surely pushing to extinction a great number of wildlife and plant species, maybe even rendering the whole planet ultimately uninhabitable. We have stood by and watched grow up around us a society in which stress, anxiety, self-harm, drug use, depression, suicides, addictions of all sorts, along with other debilitating and even fatal conditions are on an ever upward curve. And to try and cure/ameliorate those things, we ingest medication – more chemicals – by the truckload. Who knows what heinous cocktails we are brewing and may already have brewed? If truth be known – no-one.

Technologically we’re very clever. But clever is not wise – and pursuing our present level of cleverness without commensurate wisdom is a recipe for disaster. As the old saying has it – splitting the atom was very clever; making a bomb from it was at best profoundly reckless, and at worst profoundly immoral. While patting ourselves on the back for being so technologically astute, we fiddle and play with a universe that we make little attempt to understand, love, cherish or work with rather than against, more often treating it as an exploitable resource. We have either to learn humility or have humility thrust upon us.

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We are an integral part of this extraordinary universe and this extraordinary universe is an integral part of who we are. We and it are one. In poisoning it, we poison ourselves; we are in danger of becoming a virus against our own people.

 

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13/15 February 1945

The other day, I listened to an interview, recorded very recently, with a British man, now over 100 years old – a prisoner of war I suspect – who was caught up in the bombing of the German city of Dresden by British and American air forces, 75 years ago. He came across as a very ordinary man, honest and straightforward, probably with little education beyond the elementary that would have been standard when he was school age.

Talking with the interviewer, he describes scenes so harrowing you just don’t want to hear of them – at least, in one sense you don’t. But in another, you do; we all do; scenes which we need to hear about in order to lead us to feel in our hearts what he did that night – a night when the ‘stupidity’ of war, as he put it, was so blatantly, cruelly exposed. And to realize what equally inhuman cruelty is being visited on other human beings, on a day-to-day basis even now, by governments in our name.

Describing those scenes, as he does, in his dry, undramatic – yet from time to time emotion-choked – words, brings home a truly terrifying reality. It would be a thick-skinned listener, man or woman, who did not have to wipe a tear from their eye. Towards the end of the recording, the interviewer asks him if there had been any one event that night which he would remember above all others.

Yes, he said. There was. It was after the bombardment had ended and he was working with a German fire crew. They discovered, in a corner of a cellar so choked with still burning hot rubble and fallen masonry that it took them an hour to get into it, four women with two small children, still miraculously alive. It took the men another hour to get them out. Having achieved that, in the midst of the still red hot chaos of the firestorm the British and American bombers had created, everybody in that fire crew – “ – don’t matter what nationality they were,” he says, ” we were holding each other and were so happy we’d found these people alive – we were united in the feeling that even in the midst of something as terrible as that, people are really all one.”

‘People are really all one’.

Those few words, spoken by a very ordinary man who, with his companions, had lived through a man-made hell, is a summation of all that is in the Bible, in Vedanta, Zen, The Tao etc. And he knew the truth of it, not simply because he had lived it, but because he was it. He knew that because he was that. As are we all.

For information – In four night raids, over 1200 British and American heavy bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tonnes of bombs and incendiary devices, creating a firestorm which destroyed 6.5 square kilometres of the city and killed 25,000 people.

 

Posted in Governments, has life a point?, human conflict, human intellect, Human intolerance, Life, love and living, Paths of Glory, spirituality | 11 Comments

Listen to the Birds

I will remember the December just gone as having been mostly grey and grim. And wet. On many days, in the little park below my kitchen window, the leaden skies seemed to hang so low they could hardly have been above tree-top level. And in the rare, brief appearances of a watery sun, you could see your face and the bare branches of the trees reflected in the puddles that were everywhere in the sodden ground.

There was hardly ever any wind – and it was strangely quiet. Just the odd cry or shout from the children’s playground; a dog barking; distant traffic. It was like the world was waiting for something. And seldom, in that stillness, the sound of a bird.

W and I sat in the park many times, looking around, wondering where they were. The occasional wood or feral pigeon would zoom down out of the murk, peck at a few minuscule specks on the wet pathways, then clatter up and away, leaving the park birdless once more. Where, at times like that, do the birds go? Do they tuck themselves away in the deeper recesses of hedgerows, briar patches and nooks in the eves of houses where they wait out the cold and the wet?

But then, only a few days after Christmas, things began to change. I was walking through the park on my way back from the shops one morning when I was brought up with a start by a sound – a bit like the far off rippling of a fast running stream. Listening, I slowed right down. As I moved forward, the sound grew in volume until it became clear it was coming from somewhere above me. I stopped, looked up. The topmost branches of a tall plane tree were swarming with tiny birds! It looked and sounded like each one was chattering and twittering at full tilt with all those around it. They were little more than silhouettes, hopping around and fluttering against an overcast sky, but I could see them clearly enough to recognize the shapes of tits, great tits, blue tits. It was like the bird world had come alive again!

And since that day, so it has continued. Yesterday, the blackbirds who live in the park were scuttling around, rooting among the dead leaves on the ground, shattering the peace with the occasional alarm call; one was perched on the TV aerial of a nearby house, singing his exquisite, flute-like song. The four or five robins who live in the park were all out there, singing. One was no more than a metre and a half from me, quite unconcerned by my presence, as I stood watching him, his red breast pulsing with his beautifully wistful song. (I say ‘him’, but he might have been a her – the robin sexes look alike and both sing). And as I was watching him, a sudden squadron of half a dozen brilliantly green, ring-neck parakeets with their scimitar-like wings and long, trailing tail feathers swooped by overhead like jet fighters, squawking like banshees as they raced away into the trees. It really felt as though something had happened to jolt the birds from their hideaways and launch them into a new, expectant round of life and living.

I wonder if birds instinctively recognize when the year changes – and I mean not when our numbered Gregorian years shift from 19 to 20 etc, but when the natural, seasonal change occurs – at the time of the winter solstice, December 21st/22nd. I wonder if they sense when the dying of the old year is done, and the birth of a new one is about to take place. Then out they come, tweeting, singing, soaring through the air, looking for a mate with whom they can ride life’s new wave.

I’d like to think they do. Birds, after all, possess mind-bogglingly complex instincts. How does a tiny, delicate creature like a willow warbler, for example, weighing only a few grammes, manage to make its way every year, the four or five thousand miles from Central Africa to the UK in order to breed, then make it all the way back again? How is it birds such as swallows often come back to the same nest site in the UK that they had the year before? How does any migrant bird know when it’s time to leave either one of those countries to begin the journey to the other? And yet, unfailingly, they do.

You can learn a lot from birds. Sit by a lake in a park and just watch the ducks, the geese or the swans. Don’t think – just look and be. It’s a meditation. They go calmly, quietly and in an enviably stately manner about their business. Every now and then, there might be an irruption of squawking and flying feathers. But after only a few seconds of purely ritualized confrontation, the combatants will part and once again, go their separate ways with little more than a shaking down of their feathers, as if to dispel any residue of irritation or anger. Such wisdom. Were they to act as we do, each combatant would retire to his own clump of reeds and recruit an army.

We could learn a lot from birds. And the state we’re in at the moment, we sure need to learn a lot from somebody.

 

 

Posted in Birds/birdsong, Human intolerance, Life, love and living, London, mindfulness, Nature, spirituality, Uncategorized | 25 Comments

A Random Act of Kindness

A long time ago, I was eight years old. I was an only child. I lived with my mother and grandmother in a small town in the south Midlands. We had little money. Mum worked in a large grocery shop in the centre of the town and earned just about enough to feed the three of us – plus a dog called Rex. She and my father had split up when I was about three. I had – and still have – no visual recall of him, but throughout my childhood and teenage years, men became for me symbols of affection and reassurance. I missed him desperately. But Mum would never talk to me about him.

All this left me – at home at least – a rather isolated and lonely child. And Mum, ever under the often crushing thumb of her overbearing, domineering mother (my grandmother, a woman in her sixties and herself cruelly wounded by life) found coping with me more than she could easily handle most of the time. So it would be fair to say it was hardly a carefree, happy household. I took every opportunity to get away from it. I’d go out and play all day in the street with other kids or go on walks over the nearby fields with the dog, Rex whom I regarded as my best and truest friend.

I had few toys. We couldn’t afford them, and the few I had were given by friends or by my dear Aunt Daisy. They were the usual sort of things in those days – toy cars, model soldiers. Or games like draughts. Aunt Daisy (not her real name) was Mum’s elder sister who lived a few miles out of the town and whose effect on my life as I grew older was to be so vitally important.

But one toy which I was given – second hand, by one of the men, I think, who worked with Mum at the grocery shop – was different. So different it made my heart thump with excitement. It was a small, silver handgun. And it excited me so much not because it was a gun – guns of any sort, as such, had never held any particular attraction for me – but because of how others would envy me and what that would do for my self-esteem.

Added to that, it was a seriously grown-up object – or so it seemed. You could flaunt it with nefarious intent; you could play with it, brandish it, manipulate it in your hand and flick it around in the air then drop it with aplomb – you hoped – into your pocket like the cowboys did into their holsters. And from what I’d seen in photographs it looked  like the real thing – all shiny and metallic. I could conceal it in my pocket so nobody knew I was ‘packing’ such a thing; just one squeeze of the trigger, and it would produce a satisfyingly loud ‘click’. And to top all that, I knew that when I showed it to the other boys at school, they would be aglow with with admiration and envy.

So I took it to school. And I was right – that day, I was king of the playground – at least as far as the boys were concerned. And when school was over, I marched along on the way home – it was a two mile or so walk – brandishing it in the air, pointing it at passersby and clicking its trigger. I was accompanied by two of my school friends, eager to bask in the reflected glory.

Every day, there were a lot of us kids from the school making our various ways home at the same time – no parent turned up in a car to pick you up in those days. We’d straggle along in loose little gangs, gaggles of both girls and boys, playing, shouting, laughing, arguing as we went, groups which would thin out bit by bit as homes were approached.

Along the way, we had to cross a fairly busy road bridge over a railway line. Few of us ever used the pedestrian crossing – that was just boring. Instead, we’d line up on the kerb at the side of the road, flicking our eyes this way, then that. Then, sensing the moment, we’d dash out and run across as fast as we could, dodging the traffic. And that’s what I did that day with those two friends. We rushed across the road, then leapt breathlessly and in triumph up onto the kerb on the far pavement. But even as I stood there with them, panting and laughing, I sensed a sudden darkness – something bad had happened. I shoved my hand into my trousers pocket. There was no gun.

And I knew! I knew what must have happened, and I spun round to look at the path I’d taken across the road amid the traffic. And yes – there it was, lying in the road, it’s lovely silver body gleaming against the black road surface. And as I looked, the wheels of car – in slow motion, it seemed – were aimed straight at it. My heart stopped. I knew there was no saving it, and I watched the wheels, one front and one back, run right over it – as though it had been planted there specially for them – and squash it flat. A strange, two-dimensional silver picture-image on the surface of the road was all that remained of my dear gun.

Could life really be this cruel? I howled. It was hardly twenty four hours since I’d been given it. I really didn’t know what to do with myself. My two companions were at least as shocked by my reaction as they were by the demise of the gun. I stood on the kerb, staring through my tears at its remains being vapourized as wheel after wheel ran right over it. I didn’t know how I was  going to get home that day.

But then something else happened. Kids were still crossing the road in little groups. And from one of these groups, a girl of about my own age, seeing me crying, broke away and came towards me. I can see it now as clearly as the moment it happened. She stepped up onto the pavement, came right up to me and asked me what was the matter. I burbled something about my toy gun, then pointed to the fast disappearing remains of it in the road. She looked. Then turned back to me, reached forward, opened her arms, and threw them around me and pulled me, sobbing, to her.

Who she was I had no idea. I still don’t. She may have been from another class in our school. She may have been anyone from anywhere. But whoever she was, her arms around me and her clear young voice in my ear expressing her heartfelt understanding and commiseration with me over my loss, calmed me and settled me enough to enable me to face the rest of my walk home.

I can see now, looking back, how, in my confused, childish way, I’d known, as her arms went around me, that she had brought to our encounter something of which I had seen all too little in my life. Many years were to pass however before I was able to understand that what she had shown me, unasked and without question, was that so often maligned and misunderstood thing – love. Real love; that which asks no question – nor for anything in return. Real love; the recognition of oneness.

I’ve thought about her many, many times in the years since and wondered where she came from. She couldn’t have attended the same school – had she done so, I would surely have caught sight of her again. But I never did. And I never have. It’s almost as though she’d arrived on planet earth simply to be with me in that moment – then was gone again immediately after. There are after all, as the great man wrote, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

So whoever you are and wherever you are – Thank you. You have been a profound  influence in my life.

Posted in boys without fathers, has life a point?, Life, love and living, mindfulness, spirituality, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

People are funny. Aren’t we?

 

There’s something odd about us. Isn’t there? Like – here we all are, but apart from being the result of a few minutes’ abandon by an unknown man and woman (identity revealed later) we’ve no idea how we got here; now we’re here, we don’t know what the point is or even if there is one; we don’t know where we were – or even if we were – before we arrived; we have no idea where we go – assuming we go anywhere – when we die; everything in our known universe, including ourselves, is in the process of disintegration; and when we’ve gone, the trail we leave behind is hardly more enduring than that of a bird through the sky. Very odd.

 

Nothing, it seems, is permanent – apart, that is, from this constant state of impermanence. For all we know, we may have been blown here on the wind; and if that’s the case, the wind will surely blow us away again. To quote Omar Khayyam, who had a thing or two to say about all this –

“Into this Universe and why not knowing,

Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:

And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,

I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.”

On the face of it – we’re pointless. Maybe we’re just some one-off quirk – a hiccup in the mechanics of the universe – a cosmic accident having no purpose and ending in nothing.

Except – it just doesn’t seem that way. Oceans of midnight oil have been burned over the centuries in the struggle to find answers to those questions.  And given the present level of complexity and sophistication of the human mind, it might seem odd that we are little nearer an answer than were the builders of Stonehenge. So could it be that our irrepressible curiosity is – as many have posited – an outcome of our terror of the dark – the fear that we really are just a pointless accident going nowhere?

But – ask yourself the question – would you turn your house out looking for something you knew wasn’t there? The fact is – we sense something. But call it God, Nirvana, Shangri-la or the Land Beyond the Rainbow – we have little idea what it is we sense. It is not an idea; words don’t work with it either. And although intangible and not of our everyday world, it is, even so, with us, at some level  all the time if we look, in the background to that same everyday world. So how is it that this thing has managed to elude, over so many centuries and throughout so many cultures, the probing of some of the most adept minds and intellects that have turned their spotlight on it, often spending their lives on that and little else?

If there’s an answer to that, I think the clue is probably in the words ‘mind’ and ‘intellect’. They have both acquired, over the centuries, huge power – to the point where, today, they virtually run society. I suspect the belief is common that by their use and given time, we are capable of ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’ anything and everything – the workings of our own brains, our bodies, nature, the planets, the stars, space itself and ultimately, the workings of the whole universe – so that then, we can write – “Universe – done. QED.”

I don’t think so. The mind and the intellect are not the be-all and end-all. There is something else. Watch raindrops as they fall on the petals of a flower; look deep into the eyes of a child; listen to birdsong at sunrise; watch an autumn leaf drift gently to the ground; close your eyes and listen to Rachmaninoff. The mind, the intellect have no part. Bring them in, and the magic’s gone.

That, of course, still hasn’t answered the initial questions. But for those who believe that we will, one day, know and understand all things, here’s another one – where and by what means did we arrive at the conviction that all things are even knowable? That everything in the universe, without exception – even including the universe itself, can be the object of ‘knowledge’? Knowledge exists only as a duality – that of the knower and the known. But what if the knower and the known are one and the same? How then would you ‘know’ that which is your own self? As the ancient eastern aphorism has it, would it not be rather like getting the thief to surprise himself in the act?

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Epiphany in the Park

At about eleven o’clock the other morning, I was coming back through the park from the shops. It was a morning like many we’ve had in London recently – quite cold, about 7C, slightly misty, and although not actually raining, the atmosphere was damp enough to make the metalled path wet.

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There was no other person in sight. The children’s playground was silent and deserted. There was no wind to move the bare branches of the trees. The only birds I was aware of were a robin singing his poignant little song somewhere in a tree or hedge close by, and one of the park’s resident band of crows stalking imperiously through the damp grass.

I rounded a bend in the path and started to descend the slight hill towards my exit. As I did so I became aware of a figure at the bottom of the hill coming towards me. It was too far away for me to make out, in that misty, overcast light. any detail. But as we drew closer, I saw it was a woman, medium height, short grey hair, maybe in her mid-fifties and wearing a three-quarter length coat. I had never seen her before.

Some people, as you pass them in the street, glance your way and say, “Good morning,” or whatever. Others make it plain, some distance before you actually pass each other, that they want no contact – they look the other way, or make out to be absorbed in thought. But then, occasionally something else takes place.

As this woman and I passed each other, we looked at each other and instantly, from both of us came a completely spontaneous smile. It was not one of those fleeting half-smiles. It was free, open, fully meant and felt. Then we were past each other and gone. I didn’t look back and I’m quite sure she didn’t either  – it hadn’t been that sort of smile. It had had nothing to do with gender; it had been in no way sexual. Yet brief as the exchange had been, it had carried within it something very powerful; some sense of absolute recognition.

Recognition of what, though? I had never seen her before, nor she me. There had clearly been no physical recognition. We were two strangers who had passed one morning in a park – and were gone thereafter from each other’s life. But something of it remained, and remains with me now.

As I continued my walk back home, I cleared everything from my mind in order to try and see that brief exchange for what it had been. And gradually, with a sense of something I can only describe as wonder, it came to me. At that moment of passing, at that moment when our glances met and we smiled, some part of me recognized its own self in her; and in her likewise, that same part of her recognized itself in me. It was not personal; it had nothing to do with male or female; black or white; affluent or destitute; or of any race or nationality. It was that which, like a single river with countless tributaries, flows within every one of us and is common to us all. It is that which, when the temporary trappings of our individual selves are stripped away, is who we really, ultimately are. It is life, unstoppable, eternal. We are life. And we are one.

Some years ago, I wrote a brief meditation on this subject, slightly amended for this post – 

“The problems of our world stem not so much from our failure to act as though we – its peoples – are one, as from our failure to recognize that we – its peoples – are one. We have, for millennia accorded life-or-death importance to superficial differences which are of no more significance in the world than the mosquito on the back of the elephant. Thus we resist one of the most profound and uplifting truths of ourselves as human beings.

Whoever you encounter and wherever, look into your brother’s eye, your sister’s eye and see there yourself.”

 

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So – we’ve remembered

Dateline – 1105, on the morning of 11 November 2018.

So – here in London, England it’s gone eleven, and we’ve ‘Remembered’. Now we’ll go out and sell more guns and bombs to Saudi. And to anyone else who’ll listen.

Remembering is easy. Putting a stop to the carnage is harder. In fact, it’s proved so hard since 1918 that we’ve never actually stopped. We’re still at it. Families are torn apart, men, women and their children maimed and killed. But they’re not British bombs and guns, we say. You see, we stipulate that our bombs and guns are not used in life-threatening scenarios. So imagine – two Saudi air force men are loading a bomber with weapons for a raid on The Yemen. “We haven’t got enough bombs to fill her up, mate, this time,” one says to the other. “What d’you mean?” his colleague replies, “there’s a whole other pile of them over there.” “Ah, no,” says the first, ” we can’t use them. They’re British bombs.”

We justify it because – we say – so many British jobs depend on it. If it were the other way around, would we be happy to see our children’s limbs blown off in the interest of guaranteeing a job to someone in another country? And the other justification – if we don’t do it, someone else will – that’s not even worthy of a school playground.

The way we act on Armistice Day smacks to me of hypocrisy on a grand scale. It is hijacked and so professionally stage-managed by the Establishment that millions are persuaded to go along with its tragic thoughtlessness. I don’t doubt the momentary  sincerity of our leaders as they lay wreaths and pray. I don’t doubt the momentary genuineness of the tears on the faces of the Chelsea Pensioners or on those of the watching public. But I do doubt their real awareness of what they’re doing, and what good, if any, their shows of profundity are worth.

The so-called ‘Great War’ was nothing noble. It was an obscene exercise in prolonged, officially choreographed barbarity. Any doubters should watch Peter Jackson’s recently released film of it – ‘They Shall Not Grow Old.’ The film is put together entirely from original contemporary film footage and the voices of allied combatants. No animal on earth behaves in the way those men – on all sides – were brutalized into doing. Brutalized by so-called ‘leaders’ – politicians and military chiefs who, by rights, should have been convicted of war crimes.

Towards the end of the film  when British soldiers, many of whom were still in their teens, and their German prisoners were socializing together over cups of tea in the British trenches, there are many comments like, “What was the point?” “We just wanted an end to it, no matter who won.” “It should never have happened.”

Men on both sides, had seen their mates blown up or gunned down, the flesh ripped from their faces, their insides spilled out into the never-ending mud. And when the end finally came and the last gun fired, there was no celebration, no whooping for joy; no throwing of helmets into the air. Just a dumbfounded silence in which a shattered and demoralized ragtag army collapsed, exhausted to the ground at its feet.

When they arrived back home – almost a million less of them than went out (not including the million and a half wounded) – they were largely ignored. No-one wanted to hear about the appalling conditions and the gut-churning horrors they’d endured. Thousands of them could find no employment. Having gone through a living hell on behalf of their country, they felt no longer wanted by it.

Is this what we want to ‘remember’ on Armistice Day? Is this why we have military bandsmen in their proud, colourful dress uniforms playing their brightly shone instruments? Why poppies are everywhere? Why politicians, dressed as for an upper-class funeral, lay wreaths at memorials, expressions of profound grief on their faces? And what’s the point if, in the background to that, we’re still selling to other countries, guns, bombs, missiles far more horrific in their destructive power now than those of 100 years ago? What has it all been about – our ‘remembering’? Anything much?

The greatest thing, perhaps the only thing, we can do today to sufficiently honour the memory of those men who fought, on all sides in that conflict, is to strive, every one of us – politician, man/woman in the street, parents – to do everything in our power in our everyday lives to reduce our tendency to personal conflict – conflict with partners, conflict with work colleagues, personal conflict of all sorts. War is but a macrocosm of the strife between individuals. Without the latter, there could be none of the former. And if the monstrosity of wars like that is not enough to make us change our way of living – then perhaps nothing is. And ominously, that’s the way it seems. One hundred years on, on almost every continent, there are wars, riots, terrorist incidents, even the embryonic resurgence of the far right.

Time is running out. If we don’t get serious very soon, on a global scale and address this fault line in our makeup, it will finally run out and our race, like the dinosaurs, will be consigned to history. And by our own hand too.

NOTE: Peter Jackson’s film can be viewed, till Sunday 18 November, on BBC iPlayer, and probably, at varying dates, at cinema’s around the UK. A lot of it is not easy viewing.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Governments, Human intolerance, Paths of Glory, Uncategorized | 9 Comments