Mansfield full of marchers once again

The moment when the People’s March for the NHS rounded the corner of Mansfield market square on Wednesday 27th August was incredibly moving. The shops had shut by 5:30pm, so the square was fairly quiet apart from the crowd gathered around a small stage to welcome the marchers. Their arrival completely transformed the atmosphere: they arrived chanting slogans, wearing fluorescent vests and determined expressions, and carrying traditionally decorated banners.

Seeing those banners crafted by the NUM Ex and Retired Mineworkers Assocation and other unions felt like a glimpse into the past, when Mansfield hosted huge demonstrations in the mid 1980s during the miners’ strikes. We have a proud history of struggle, and here we are again protesting against more closure and sell-off. This time we are protesting against the erosion of our National Health Service through privatisation.

We have a local vested interest in preserving the NHS as it is: the miners of Mansfield and district helped build it through their taxes, believing it would be there for themselves, their children and grandchildren and the common good. So they are rallying to support a march headed up this time by women: 30 mums from Darlington walking the route of the 1936 Jarrow march, 300 miles from Jarrow to London. Both groups – ex and retired miners and mums – stand to loose the most from the current asset-stripping of the NHS, and it was inspiring to see such different groups come together under a common cause.

I stayed for the music, drama and some of the speeches, but small children’s needs dragged us away before the crowd broke up. I took away new pride in our town, and fresh determination to defend what’s ours. I just hope that the momentum this march is gathering as it approaches London on the 6th September sends a strong enough message to Westminster that we’ve had enough: it’s our NHS, free and fair for all, and we want it to stay that way.


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Quantifying Occam

So who – or what – is Occam, and why must it be quantified? Occam’s razor is an old maxim in science that rules you must choose the simplest theory to fit your data, and cut away the more complicated theories. It was first articulated in the 14th century by a monk called William from the village of Ockham in southern England, but has never been fully understood, or even shown to be correct, because the notion of simplicity of a scientific theory has never been properly formalised.

It’s something that Noson Yanofsky, who is based at the computer science department at Brooklyn College, New York, is hoping to make some progress on, using a combination of graph-type maths and tricks from computer science. I met him in Cambridge and wrote a profile on him and his work, and recent book The Outer Limits of Reasonfor the Foundational Questions Institute website.

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The perfect chocolate fudge cake recipe

I love chocolate but all too often when it is made into a cake it seems a waste of good chocolate, because the sponge can be too dry or the icing too sweet and sticky. But now I have finally found a chocolate fudge cake recipe that I love. This one isn’t too expensive or difficult to make, and actually improves with time, but needs eating within five days. As if it would last that long. IMAG1178[1]

This is how much is left on day two. It’s actually more moist than yesterday, the crumb just as smooth, and the icing has a slight crunch. I think it cost me about £3 to make, and didn’t involve anything more unusual than 1 bar of good quality dark chocolate and half a tub of natural yoghurt. Here’s the recipe (adapted from the Devil’s food cake in Divine Heavenly Chocolate Recipes by Linda Collister, and icing recipe from my friend Sarah Butler):

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees/GM 4. Grease and bottom line 2 large cake tins (or 3 medium).

For the sponge:

1x100g bar dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)

175ml boiling water

4 tblsp cocoa powder

1 tsp bicarb

125g unsalted butter, softened

175g light muscovado sugar

175g caster sugar

2 large eggs at room temp, beaten

1 tsp vanilla essence

300g plain flour

200ml natural yoghurt (or 125ml sour cream)

  • Break up chocolate and melt in a medium-sized heat-proof bowl over steaming water, stirring until it melts.
  • Pour boiling water, a little at a time, over the cocoa and whisk until smooth, add bicarb. Stir into the bowl of melted chocolate.
  • Put softened butter and both sugars into a food processor and whisk until light.
  • Gradually beat in the eggs, vanilla, and alternate spoonfuls of yoghurt and flour.
  • Finally add the chocolate mixture (and some milk if it’s too stiff), and divide between your cake tins.
  • Bake for 25-30 mins until skewer comes out clean. Turn out onto wire rack to cool.

For the icing:

80g unsalted butter

50g cocoa

scant 100ml milk

230g icing sugar, sieved

  • Melt butter in a small pan and stir in cocoa, cook gently for 1 minute
  • Remove from heat and stir in icing sugar and sufficient milk to get a smooth, pouring consistency. You may want to leave it a few minutes to let it thicken a little.
  • Pour/spread it over one cake and sandwich the sponges together. Cover the top/sides and decorate.

The cake pictured made grandma and great grandma, who is 99, very happy – and great grandma finished off an enormous slice of it!

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How do you condense a trip that changed your life into a Powerpoint presentation?

I’m scheduled to give a talk about my trip to the Holy Lands next week, so I need to prepare for it. But I’m struggling with it, to be honest. Perhaps there’s a fear that I won’t do the wonderful people I met justice, that I won’t present the political situation correctly, that it will somehow become smaller to me by condensing my experiences into a Powerpoint presentation.

To start: who are the audience? A mixed group of Mansfield folk, some old, some young (the talk follows immediately on from ‘Pizza and Praise’ attended mostly by young families), some with professional jobs, some who have never traveled further than Skeggie. They are interested because they know me, or know of me through Church. They probably want to learn a little of the land and people’s lives, and find out what I learnt about the human condition that they can take away with them. I need to make it fun and interactive for their sakes.

Maps will have to feature – I love maps, I used to stare at our giant World Atlas for hours as a kid. Food will also be an important aspect, and perhaps the photographs will be minimal. I want to avoid ‘death by Powerpoint’.  I hope people will come away with a better appreciation of what it means to be Arab and Palestinian, and how we can share our lives and spirituality with the Palestinian church in Nazareth.



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Thoughts on 12 Years a Slave – and looking for the seeds of hope in Israel/Palestine

Last night my friend and I went to watch 12 Years a Slave on Odeon’s cheap night. It certainly portrays the violence and brutality of slavery in the southern US states in the mid 19th century, but it includes so little about black resistance, and any other anti-slavery activity at that time. There was always black resistance to slavery, whether through organised revolt or individual runaways. Solomon Northup describes in the book how the woods were full of fugitive slaves. The film completely misses the most interesting part of the story – what did Northup do after he was freed, how did he work for abolition?

During my time in Bethlehem I took part in Wiam’s program of discussions on non-violent protest and movements where oppression has been lifted. Slavery came up during our session on Martin Luther King. The big difference here though was that we were looking for the signs of hope – how small actions, like seeds, can grow into a big movement that brings about real change. Over the past few weeks Keith and I and others in the community at St Marks and beyond have been delighted by how the EndHungerFast campaign has grabbed people’s imagination, with huge page spreads about hunger in the UK in various national and local papers, and lots of people joining the fast. That all started from the tiny seed of an idea and a few enthusiastic people to make it happen. And we hope it will result in real change.

After watching 12 Years a Slave I felt disempowered as a woman. The central part of the film focuses on Patsey, detailing her victimhood in which she is despised and hurt by her master’s wife and raped and obsessed over by her master, culminating in him flaying her almost to death. The film leaves her (some time later as she has recovered from the flaying) collapsed in the road, deserted as Northup escapes his brute of a captor. What can we, as viewers, do with that? What happens to her, does she survive at the farm? Does she walk free in 1965 when slavery is abolished? I wanted to see something of the female strength of spirit, to see what makes slaves like Patsey human, together with the other women, resistant to such violence. Perhaps their resistance was simply through one another’s friendship in the suffering. It’s only by seeing the humanity like this in ‘the other’ that racist hearts are changed, and situations like the Palestine/Israel conflict resolved.

Of the books that I read leading up to my visit to the Holy Lands, I related best to Crossing Qualandiya. It’s an exchange of letters between a Palestinian mother and an Israeli mother after a chance meeting abroad that turns into a true friendship. Through the letters they learn so much of the mundane detail of one another’s lives, as well as one another’s political views, so that any concept of ‘the other’ disappears – the women suddenly find they care deeply for each other, worrying over news reports, wanting the best for their friend’s wider family, and so truly wanting a lasting peace. I believe the Palestine/Israel conflict is perpetuated by those who have a financial interest in maintaining the status quo, with no regard to the loss of humanity on both sides of the conflict. We need to nurture the seeds of hope – and see one another’s humanity.



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Nazareth – home of angels

I am staying for three days as a guest of an Anglican priest called Nael and his family Mira and Clara (3 years) here in Nazareth. They live in a top floor apartment in a newly built outer part of Nazareth on a hill with beautiful views of the surrounding country.

Nazareth is a large Arab Israeli town in the north of Israel. It’s really beautiful. It was Palestinian until 1948 when it was taken over from British rule by Israel in the war then, and although the people here are Palestinian by descent they have Israeli nationality and are called Arab Israelis. They don’t have to do national service but also there are disadvantages to this identity – but within Jewish identity there are classes and advantages based on acceptance with certain groups, so it seems people accept their standing, and Christians, Muslims and Jews coexist peacefully. Nazareth is getting more visitors, and I was impressed by the growing number of restaurants in the town centre.

Today I visited an Anglican school here called Christchurch, meeting teachers and children, seeing classes during lessons and facilities, which are excellent. It’s a semi-private school, the government pays 60% of teachers’ salaries and student fees comprise the rest.

Many aspects struck me, particularly how quickly the students have to specialize – they take Bagroot exams aged 16 that are just less than our A level standard and in 5 subjects: maths, a science specialism or other choice like history or computing, English, Arabic and Hebrew. I was shocked to discover that arts are completely excluded because of the tough triple language requirements. If students want to get into university they have to take further exams in the year after school in special private tutorial groups, so going to university is tough. And the universities in Israel have a 10% quota for Arab Israeli students that once filled cannot go over, so for some subjects, like medicine, it is extremely hard to get a place. The head teacher’s son here is now studying medicine in Hungary because he didn’t get a place at an Israeli uni as an Arab.

All the classrooms have smart boards, and it is a large but close-knit community, many of the staff were students here, and the parents are very supportive. Outside space for sports is very different to the UK: just one astroturf basketball court for a school of 1400.

I was so warmly welcomed and there is great enthusiasm for partnership working with two schools in Mansfield, so we came up with ideas for how it could work and the next step. The head teachers at the elementary and secondary schools Manal and Eva kindly took me out to lunch at a great restaurant in the centre of Nazareth, and to a nearby orthodox church with an ancient spring. We got on really well.  I then enjoyed visiting Manal’s family at her compound nearby, which has amazing rooftop views of Nazareth and a large upstairs Jacuzzi! Her daughter also sang and played her (new) guitar – she is really talented.

Nael then came to pick me up to bring all his family to visit another family from the church before the husband leaves for his building job in Burkina Faso for a 2-month stint. We ate tabouleh – chopped parsley with cracked wheat, onion and lemon juice – and baked savory pastries then cake, with whiskey. Whiskey is the traditional drink when you visit someone here in the evening. I think Keith would like this culture!

I chatted with a teenage lad at the house who saw me visit his classroom during a maths lesson. He said Nael recently organised a visit to an Anglican church in the West Bank and they were so pleased to meet this sister church, although there will be no return visit to Nazareth of course. He said the West Bank people viewed people from Nazareth as like angels, because of their peaceful coexistence. I haven’t seen many Jewish people around today, I think they live in largely separate villages and towns away from the Arab Christians and Muslims, but there is much to be thankful for here.

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Desecration in Hebron

Today Geoff and I visited Hebron, hailed by my Lonely Planet guidebook as ‘without doubt the hidden jewel of the West Bank’. It is the largest Palestinian town, larger than Ramalla, and visiting it felt like a real adventure. Our guide for the adventure? A former PLO activist who has spent 11 years in prison. Abu Hassan looks like Maradonna, he is not much more than 40, and is very free with his opinions – hence the 11 years he has spent behind bars so far. He tells us that his family has lived for generations in Jerusalem, but since 1967 he can only get a temporary residence permit that lasts ten years, “and I must prove to the occupiers I live within Jerusalem otherwise I will loose my residency!” He cannot marry someone in the West Bank because since 2005 no residency applications are allowed.

This chimes with what I know about the Dean of St George’s wife called Rafa. She is a Palestinian Christian born in Nablus and has been married to Hossam for ten years now. Under international law, after 5 years she should take on her spouse’s citizenship, but the Israeli government has ‘suspended’ the law, so she has had to renew her residency permit every 3 months – recently upgraded to every 12 months – just to live with her husband and three children at St George’s. To make it worse, she is not allowed to work, drive or even open a bank account or phone contract. Talk about second-class. I would so hate that.

Anyway, onto Hebron. We drive along an Israeli highway that only allows cars with yellow number plates (residents of Jerusalem/Israelis). Palestinian villages along the highway have to use smaller roads that tunnel under the road, the highway separates many farmers from their olive groves, with the obvious economic disadvantages. We pass new Israeli settlements set on hilltops near Hebron – rows of porta cabins fenced around with barbed wire. These will become the next built-up settlements, all on Palestinian land. “They are killing the idea of a 2-state solution, there is nothing left,” says Hassan.

He explains that everything – the walls and fences, the checkpoints, they are all done in the name of security, but what it is really about is taking and controlling the land. This is proved when we return to Israel-proper through the Jerusalem checkpoint: with Hassan’s yellow number plates we sail right through, no security, no checking of anything in the car, because Hassan looks Israeli and behaves like he owns the place. It is a completely racist system!

Onto Hebron we continue. As we drive through the outskirts we spot a butchers with carcasses hanging up, and I kid you not: we saw a carcass with a camel’s head. They eat camel in Hebron traditionally, because of the proximity to Bedouins. IMAG0342[1]

Hassam explains that Hebron is divided into two: H1 and H2. H1 covers 80% of the land area, is home to 120,000 Palestinians; H2 covers 20% of the area – including the main market streets and 70% of the Ibrahim Mosque – and is home to 500 Israelis, guarded by 4,000 soldiers. Under the 1997 Hebron  agreement Israel is supposed to have withdrawn from Hebron.

We progress through the turnstiles and X-ray checkpoint up to the Ibrahim Mosque.  We take off our shoes to enter, and I am told to put on a cloak thing, I presume to cover my hair (Geoff doesn’t have to, but then he doesn’t have much hair!).  As we look around Hassam tells us the awful history of this place. In 1994 an American-born Israeli Dr Baruch Goldstein, a member of a far-right movement, opened fire on 800 Muslims praying in the Mosque. He would have had to go through the same checkpoint we did – but Israelis are allowed to carry arms, so if it was assumed he was a soldier or guard he would have been able to carry in his assault rifle and amunition. He injured 300 and killed 29 people before someone knocked him out with a fire extinguisher and others beat him to death – Hassam pointed to the corner of the room where it happened. With unbelievable audacity, Goldstein’s wife is still trying to find out who actually killed her husband.

While we are there, 20 or 30 soldiers file into the Mosque to be told something about it, two soldiers at the end stand poised with their assault rifles up. Hassam points out that the soldiers never IMAG0303[1]take off their boots: they refuse. I am completely shocked – this is such desecration. And of course, no Palestinians are allowed into the synagogue part, which used to comprise the Mosque. Why can’t the soldiers be told about the patriarchs from their synagogue side? We see the dividing wall. I learn that the Israeli government condemned Goldstein’s act, but the extremist settlers celebrate it: there is a shrine to him somewhere. And the Palestinians has suffered the most as a result: Hebron was closed for 6 months (we drove past the gates to the city, which the soldiers often close even now), the Mosque was closed for 9 months, and when it was re-opened it was divided into the synagogue and mosque. “But it was never a synagogue!” says Hassan.

We take pictures of the tombs of the patriarchs, of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah, but by now I have little enthusiasm for this. We are shown a pretty sort of pulpit made of 500 pieces of wood without nails. We leave.

Next we visit what used to be the main market streets: they are deserted, a wasteland of peeling paint and rusted shop canopies. 1700 stores here have closed. This is because the settlers have taken over the central area and the road has been closed off to Palestinians. Incredibly, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the street should be opened, and has made 20 or so rulings on Hebron, but the army refuses to enact them. “This is not a democratic IMAG0319[1]state!” says Hassam, “It is a military state! People don’t know this.”

But it is not completely deserted. There is one building with an open door, there is black graffitti over the door (settlers again) and Hassam tells us it is a Mosque. The Imman is 90 years old and his house is just above the Mosque behind, and used to be accessed via a short stone staircase to the Mosque. But the army have put massive concrete blocks up to bar his way down to his mosque, so now he has to walk a long way around through the checkpoint to get to it. We open the door and he is the only person there, and he beacons me in, asking me to take off my shoes. It is a smallish square room that smells incredibly musty, because the roof is damaged and he is not allowed to repair it, so the rain comes in and wets the carpet. The settlers have set fire to the mosque 6 times, you can see the smoke damage to the ceiling, along with the peeling paint. In the corner I see a small foam bed and blanket where he obviously rests. For some reason, as we walk away from this place, this is what gets to me most: the vindictiveness against this humble 90-year-old imman.

Geoff and I then take a walk into the settlers’ neighbourhood alone, because Hassam can’t come, and find a couple of interesting signs. One speaks of 67 Jews killed in 1929 and that the land was stolen from Jewish people then, demanding it back (they have taken it). And another commemorates someone who was killed in 2002. It’s a pretty depressing sort of area, although we see one newish-looking playground, with a soldier patrolling above the barbed wire. When we leave a soldier asks to see our passports.

Hassan then shows us where the market areas have gone to, and there is netting strung above the street to protect the vendors and customers from dirty missiles. We see the evidence for them: teabags, dirty nappies, bags of urine, thrown from the settlers’ houses onto the market that still hang there.IMAG0337[1]

We buy some beautiful crafts made by the Hebron Women’s cooperative in the Souk, then carry on into H1 which suddenly is vibrant with life, market traders calling out and masses of articles to buy. Wherever Geoff and I go people say ‘welcome’ and ‘where you from?’, we find that people are so friendly and pleased to see us. It is a normal city at last, but speaking to some boys younger than me I can see the strain in their faces. And there is so much poverty here now: it is no longer the gem it once was.IMAG0334_BURST002_COVER[1]

On the drive home we learn of Hassam’s past: he was first arrested aged 13, charged with stone-throwing (he swears this is not true) and spent 6 months in prison. His family weren’t told where he was for 62 days. “It killed my childhood,” says Hassam. “I became a hater when I saw any soldiers.” When he was 15 his brother was killed by settlers. “Then I joined the PLO.” Six months later, aged 16, he was accused of different activities for the PLO and given 12 years in prison. He was released during international peace negotiations after six years, “I was lucky,” he says. After being out for just one year he was re-arrested and given 15 years due to his PLO membership and work for the youth movement of the PLO. He was initially given 8 years but at the trial he was asked whether he felt any shame for what he’d done. “I said, ‘the only shame I feel is to stand before you, the occupiers, for this trial’, so they doubled my sentence to humiliate me.” This doesn’t sound like justice to me. Hassam got lucky again, he was release early again when 2500 prisoners were released during the Oslo Agreement. Since then he has been in prison for shorter periods due to his work as a political tour guide. Geoff asks Hassam how he copes with it all? He is obviously a very clever person, not fulfilling his potential ferrying people like us about. “I love to dance,” says Hassam. We learn that he likes 80s music, and is an avid supporter of Arsenal – he will watch a match this afternoon. “If I didn’t dance every night I would go crazy!” We ask is he has any Jewish friends, and he tells us he had a Jewish girlfriend, although she wasn’t practising.

Geoff and I chill out in Jerusalem by visiting the Armenian Cathedral of St James’ for the 3pm prayers, with wonderful gregorian chanting, then we have mint tea and baked treats in an up-market tavern in the old city where the ovens are 800 years old.

I must now go to meet them for traditional chicken dish Mousachen at a  restaurant nearby. Shalom!

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