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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Issue 129: May 2005

[Return to related issue of Nonviolent News]

Plain sailing for the salesman
He got on the 'chicken bus' in the highlands of Guatemala and began to sell his wares. He wasn't an evangelical evangelist or one of the waves of purveyors of varied refreshments who would sweep through the bus from back to front at stops. He was, to begin with, differently dressed, by western standards kind of retro chic, smartly turned out in denim with shoulder length hair tied back. As I do not speak much more than the cupla focail of Spanish, it was hard to get the full meaning of what he was talking about but it was clear that he was recommending his product as a cure all - good for the skin, good if you had drunk too much coca cola or eaten too much chilli and had an upset stomach, presumably good for everything in sight. When he finished his spiel or spake, like other salemen there, he handed out his product to anyone who was interested in looking at it closer up, taking packets from a neat little leather case he carried which would not have been out of place in Italy.

Maybe about 8 or 10 people on the bus bought the product at 20 quetzals (this would exchange for UK£1.30 or around €2, but the equivalent western European purchasing power would make it nearer £5, €8 or more). He left the bus. And when the bus broke down we saw him counting his takings with a distributor by the wayside, waiting on another bus to take him back and sell some more.

What had he sold? Packs of perhaps twenty or thirty tablets of pure fenugreek. Now I don't know the medicinal properties of fenugreek, used in cookery, but I do know that the amount of product in each tablet was probably only a couple of grams. For their 20 quetzals, customers had probably purchased something like 50 or 60 grams of fenugreek. At a market they presumably could have purchased twenty times or more that weight in fenugreek for the same price. For poor people, 20 quetzals was actually an appreciable price.

The salesman was a professional. Not everyone bought his product but he spoke convincingly and his manner and dress were different, but not outrageously so. He was selling a cheap everyday product packaged into small quantities in a way that people paid considerably over the odds, and seemed happy to do so. It was not an outrageous product, it was actually a common spice, but he spiced up the image of it so much that people paid a high price. While fenugreek in capsule form is much easier to take than loose, presumably wrapping the same amount, or more, in a small piece of bread or tortilla washed down with water would be an easy enough way to get it into your stomach.

This all got me thinking of how things in general are sold, what is sold, and also how we sell even a political message. While I am certainly adverse to selling anything at a high price, or deceptively, I think often the peace, nonviolence, or other political message is not very well communicated. Sometimes we are effectively talking to ourselves more than to our target audience (I see this at demos all the time). This guy knew his stuff and knew his audience. He wasn't preaching to the converted, he was converting a number of those he preached. Effective communication? We have a lot to learn.

Mary Harney, Celtic Tigress, pounces to kill for her country
The April issue of FEASTA e-mail newssheet carried an interesting, nay, amazing exchange from the Dáil between Tánaiste Mary Harney and Green TD John Gormley. Verily, Ireland is the Celtic tigress that eats her young (cf J'aime Joys, 'Ireland is the sow that eats her farrow'). I am tempted to ask how ignorant can you get, but unfortunately the philosophy of economic growth as panacea has not been burst as a bubble yet. But it will. And by the looks of it when it is already too late to turn back the tides of climate change and rising sea levels. How sad that an intelligent person like Mary Harney should be so naïve, but then the Progressive Democrats would sell their grannies, no, I exaggerate, just their grannies' houses and the roofs above their grannies' heads if they got the chance, all in the name of economic progress. The exchange is worth quoting at length.

John Gormley: The legislation does not address the root causes of our health crisis. Like conventional medicine, it deals with the symptoms of the problem. We may be - I say "may be" because this is disputed - living longer, but we are becoming sicker. As pointed out in the latest Feasta review entitled Growth: The Celtic Cancer, which I advocate as recommended reading for the Tánaiste.
Ms Harney: It is a joke.
Mr. Gormley: It is not a joke.
Ms Harney: It recommends poverty is good for one's health.
Mr. Gormley: It is an excellent document.
Ms Harney: I read a bit of it.
Mr. Gormley: That is good because I will remind the Tánaiste about a few key statistics in it.
Ms Harney: It proposes we go into recession because that would be good for our health, namely, if we were unemployed and poor.
Mr. Gormley: The review is not joke because it is founded on the fact that...
Ms Harney: The review is mad.
Mr. Gormley: It is not mad.
Ms Harney: It is crazy stuff.
Mr. Gormley: It is an excellent piece of work. I commend the authors of it, in particular my Green Party colleague, Dr. Liz Cullen, for her fascinating and insightful contribution. What it states is the key to solving the problems we are currently experiencing in our health service. I am glad the Tánaiste has at least dipped into it.
Ms Harney: I was so amazed by what I heard about it that I had to read it to see if it could possibly be true.
Mr. Gormley: It is all true.
Ms Harney: It states that economic success is bad for our health.
Mr. Gormley: The Tánaiste wants to believe what the Taoiseach calls the right wing economists who write for The Economist who would have us believe that we are living in some sort of nirvana in that they claim we have the best quality of life in the world. That is bunkum. This publication puts paid to that myth.
Ms Harney: It suggests a recession would be good for our health.
Mr. Gormley: We do not have the best quality of life in the world. A question I have put over and over again to the Minister's predecessors, and which I will put to her, is the role played by stress in causing illness. We have to examine stress levels...
Ms Harney: The Deputy is causing me stress.
Mr. Gormley: I will try not to.
Ms Harney: He should think about my health.
Mr. Gormley: I might be bad for the Tánaiste's health if I do, but I will try not to cause her so much stress.
I will give a few statistics. A survey of 1,000 people carried out in 2001 on behalf of the Mental Health Association of Ireland found that 73% reported finding life more stressful than five years previously, 19% of the respondents said they were smoking more and 17% said they were drinking more in order to cope with stress. The national health and lifestyle survey of 6,539 people in 1999 to ascertain what people believe would best improve their health found that the majority reported that less stress would improve their health regardless of their age, sex and social background. A follow-up report in 2001 also reported that stress was the most common answer from males and females in reply to that question. These are the facts.

In an on-line survey in 2001 a sample of 2,000 students were asked if they thought that the level of stress experienced by the general Irish population had increased, in response to which more than two thirds said that it had increased a great deal, 30% said it had increased a little and only 3% said it had not increased at all. All the indications show that stress is increasing.

One of the surveys I find fascinating was one on depressive disorders. In 2003, research involving a representative sample of 12,702 women in four European countries found that women in Dublin were more susceptible to depressive disorders than in similar cities in other countries. It was found that one in three suffered from depression. One of the authors, Professor Patricia Casey, commented that this study was conducted at a time of economic boom when one would expect depressive disorders to reduce.

They have not reduced. This is this problem. The Tánaiste created the Celtic tiger, so she claims. She has created this mess, this level of illness and now she claims she will fix it, but I do not believe she will.

The work in question, FEASTA Review No. 2, Growth: The Celtic Cancer (published November 2004, ISBN 1843510626 is available at €15/UK£9.95 direct from FEASTA - post free but please specify 'Mary Harney Special Offer'! FEASTA is at 10A Lower Camden Street, Dublin 2. Phone: +353 (0)1 405 3615. It is also available online at the FEASTA website. You can receive FEASTA's e-mail Bulletin by ordering it through their website at

Time travelling
Travelling hopefully, travel broadening the mind (or the arse, depending on your version), travelling light, travelling on holiday, travelling for is very much part of what we are today (and that is not even including ordinary, everyday commuting). Ever since the coming of the railroads from the 1840s or so, our countries and the world have been getting smaller. And since the advent of cheap air travel, particularly over the last twenty or thirty years, travel has been becoming commoner, and more frequent. Indeed it is not uncommon for well to do middle class families or adults to take two or even three holidays a year as well as a number of mini-breaks, most of which entail travel by air. And as an island, people on the island of Ireland have to take to a boat or plane to get very far.

But one source of terminal boredom has been the ongoing debate over Dublin Airport's second terminal; where should it be, who should build it (private/public) and to what specifications. And the likes of Michael O'Leary of Rian-Air has been getting his vested interest stuck in. And we hear about which minister in the government backs what. Do you know what I'm going to tell you about where Dublin Airport's second terminal should be? Nowhere. Because the Irish government, in common with the rest of the so-called civilised world (= carbon burning) should be seeking to restrict air travel. I know I sound like a killjoy but there is no way about it. Air travel is a major component of global warming and becoming more major by the day (I read that, on current projections, 75% of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK will be from airplanes by 2050). And up there in the higher atmosphere, pollutants are much slower to degrade. We cannot afford to go on churning out airplane pollution like we've been doing; new planes coming on stream may be cleaner, but only relatively, and with increasing numbers travelling more frequently the overall level of pollution is going to grow and grow. Bye bye Bangladesh, bye bye Florida, sorry the sea levels rose so much, we didn't know.....but no, you can't come and stay in our countries or areas...

Firstly, we do need aviation fuel to be taxed. And if fuels were taxed according to the amount of pollution they cause then aviation fuel would become pretty expensive. Other restrictions may need to be made - a quota system of some kind perhaps per head of population, perhaps taking into account geographical factors (e.g. islands and the like).

It will be more difficult to travel but not impossible. You've heard of slow food, well, why not slow travel. But people who can currently afford it will not be able to go so far so often. That weekend in Prague may be a week instead - a day or two to get there to begin with. So people will demand better facilities nearer home.

Our world has still got its head in the sand. Unfortunately, as it does so, the tide is coming in faster and higher than before. Hopefully we won't drown before we get our head back up again but at the moment it's stuck down so far it's going to be touch and go. I hope it's not terminal.

His Downfall
The film Downfall (Der Untergang) is a very powerful exploration of one of the iconographic times in the twentieth century - the fall of Berlin and the suicide of Adolf Hitler in his bunker. Oliver Hirschbiegel has made a film which treats its subject not just with warts and all but also beauty spots, and thus more true to life and less like a cartoon of black and white. The Adolf Hitler portrayed in the film (played brilliantly by Bruno Ganz) was possible of kindness and consideration to those he felt close to while at the same time having no concern for the fate of the German people - the German people had failed in the task he had set for them, of becoming a master race and rulers of the universe, and therefore deserved to perish along with him. At the end, he alternated between knowing what was coming and fantasy and delusions about German army successes. There was cowardice, courage, fanaticism, betrayal, self-deception and often humanity among those portrayed, the betrayal including the poisoning of the young Goebbels children by their mother (shown in a shockingly matter of fact way in the film) who later unflinchingly faced a bullet from her husband before he immediately shot himself.

Based on books on life in the bunker and the last days of the Third Reich (its 'thousand years' reduced to a mere twelve), it is shown through the eyes of Traudl Junge (she died just a few year ago, played in the film by Alexandra Maria Lara), a young personal secretary to Hitler. The most telling moment for me comes in the last words of the film when, as an old woman, Traudl Junge herself reflects on her young self and the fact that she did not know about the genocide of Jews and other atrocities which were carried out; she had eventually realised that "it was possible to find out". It is still possible to 'find out' what is going on today, but do we want to? Circumstances have changed, human nature has not, and genocide was being practised in Europe (yes, Europe, where circumstances have moved beyond the mass slaughter of the early and middle twentieth century) only a decade ago at Srebrenica, not even thinking of events further afield. In a recent issue (NN 126) I expounded how the problem is not that we are so different to the Germans of the Nazi era but so much the same; our circumstances may be different, but we respond in similar ways.

In an era when Europe is becoming a fortress, and wars will be fought on other people's territories, mainly at other people's expense, do we really want to run the risk, the expense, the effort, of 'finding out' what is happening? Iraq may have the trappings of democracy but at what cost to the people of Iraq and the world? And do we care enough about where our raw materials come from and how they are obtained? Or, indeed, how much our oil habit is drowning parts of the world? Someday our children or children's children may ask us questions we have grave difficulty in answering. These may not be of the magnitude of the questions asked of Nazis, but they will be questions we will find distinctly uncomfortable.

Putting your best foot forward
I have been known to go hill and mountain walking from time to time, here, there, and occasionally further away. The grass is always greener on the other side of the mountain, I can attest, even when you get over to the other side. I'm not quite sure what it is about the human condition that likes looking down on places from afar and a height, a different perspective, I suppose it's a mixture of natural beauty, the juxtaposition of land, sky and perhaps sea or lake, the feeling of being a part and apart at the same time, it's a whole mixture of feelings and emotions. Different seasons of the year give different pleasures and thrills, whether it's the summer sunshine (or in Ireland more likely the sun shining through rain clouds!) or even going through snow in winter. - surviving incessant rain is not particularly thrilling though maybe arriving home is! I do like to take a map and compass if going off a well-trodden and easily recognisable route - unfortunately a few people die most years on Ireland's hills and mountains, including some people from outside the island who don't realise how treacherous such places can be, even with Ireland's low level mountains (1,000 metres tops) given our weather which can reduce visibility to zero from normal in a minute, and give you hypothermia in peak summer. Another pleasure is of course the physical exercise which is good for the body and usually the sole.

But what if your sole or your heel or your toes hurt because you've a new or uncomfortable pair of trainers or boots and they're rubbing like hell? Maybe they are just new, or not right for your feet, maybe you forgot your extra thick socks. Maybe it's an extra long hike putting a lot of pressure on a part of your foot. Well, the secrets of the universe are in simple things, and maybe I should have known about this since I was knee high to a hilly grasshopper, but I recently discovered, courtesy of a hike guide, there is a cheap, effective method of preventing blisters when you start to feel the danger signals (a 'hot spot' of a threatened blister). Forget your expensive second skin plasters from the chemist. Go for duct tape. Yes, that fibre reinforced strong tape, usually silver grey but coming in a variety of colours. Slap that neatly and flatly (not Michael) on the danger zone and it acts like a second skin to ward off the blistering blisters. It's good, easily available and cheap. It comes in a variety of makes (one of which is confusingly, deliberately, called 'Duck'). Now you're no excuse not to go for that long walk or hike.... I've also seen the same product recommended for curing verrucas (wearing it on the affected area over a period). Nonviolent News Useful Tip No 423....Coming soon, Tip # 424 - A Hundred Uses for Tofu Containers.

Well, there we go, that's it for this month including salesmanpersonship through to protecting your feet via a stressed out Tánaiste (let's be charitable to her regarding the above, if she wasn't stressed out herself or on the gargle you'd think she was just plain ignorant), all human life is here in this Colm. It's May and summer is coming in, the evenings are lengthening, or should I say the evenings are exactly the same length but they're brighter these days. So the perennial weeds are coming up in the garden, and the exams in the schools and colleges. Oh what a joy! Until I see you again in June, yours, Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

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