img_3106For the past three weeks, I have taken up residency on the side of a mountain. Such a statement might evoke in the mind the image of a mendicant curled up on makeshift bedding in a cave, set amidst a barren rockface devoid of vegetation bar a scattering of scrubby thickets. You might envisage him crouching over a self-made fire, warming his hands or heating up a tin can of water to wash his face or assuage a galling thirst.

Well, while not wishing to disappoint, I must admit that the reality may not be quite so poetic or self-mortifying – but it is a whole lot better.

The mountain in question – Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel – is one of the most spectacular spots on the surface of the planet. At night the mountainside is ablaze with lights from top to bottom. The view from its crest looks out across the Mediterranean, around a crescent bay, taking in the ancient crusader port of Akko, the borders of Lebanon and off in the distance, the peaks of the Golan Heights. And in the heart of Mount Carmel, visible from all sides, a luminous gem shines out as a beacon of hope in a troubled region. The golden-domed Shrine of the Báb is set amidst luscious, verdant gardens cascading down the mountainside in the form of nineteen spectacular terraces, vivid with colour, birdsong and unsurpassed beauty.

Situated behind the Shrine of the Báb, there is one particular feature of this garden that particularly moves me when I visit it. It is a circle of towering, ancient cypress trees, standing sentinel-like in a spot where once, more than a century ago, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh, sat with His son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and indicated where He wished the remains of His forerunner, the Báb, to be interred. The Báb had been executed in Persia in 1850 and His earthly remains had been secreted away in His homeland for close on half a century. With “infinite tears and at tremendous cost”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – while still a prisoner of the Ottoman empire until 1908 – managed to direct the Bahá’ís in Persia to deliver their precious charge into His safekeeping.

Receiving the remains, acquiring the land and rearing that edifice were among the greatest challenges and achievements of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s life.

“One night,” He recalled “I was so hemmed in by My anxieties that I had no other recourse than to recite and repeat over and over again a prayer of the Báb which I had in My possession, the recital of which greatly calmed Me. The next morning the owner of the plot himself came to Me, apologized and begged Me to purchase his property.”

On the day of the first Naw-Rúz He celebrated after His release from captivity – 21 March 1909 – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a marble sarcophagus transported to the vault He had prepared for it. In the evening, “by the light of a single lamp, He laid within it, with His own hands—in the presence of believers from the East and from the West and in circumstances at once solemn and moving—the wooden casket containing the sacred remains of the Báb and His companion,” wrote Shoghi Effendi.

“When all was finished, and the earthly remains of the Martyr-Prophet of Shíráz were, at long last, safely deposited for their everlasting rest in the bosom of God’s holy mountain, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who had cast aside His turban, removed His shoes and thrown off His cloak, bent low over the still open sarcophagus, His silver hair waving about His head and His face transfigured and luminous, rested His forehead on the border of the wooden casket, and, sobbing aloud, wept with such a weeping that all those who were present wept with Him. That night He could not sleep, so overwhelmed was He with emotion.”

Last Saturday, I was privileged to join some 1000 Bahá’ís – pilgrims, visitors, guests and staff of the Bahá’í World Centre – gathered on that same mountainside and, in an act of solemn reflection, circumambulate the Shrine of the Báb, 100 years to the day since ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had completed that singular act which, wrote Shoghi Effendi, “indeed deserves to rank as one of the outstanding events in the first Bahá’í century.” 

How transformed is this rocky mountainside since the night when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá brought the Báb’s remains to their final resting place, close to that circle of cypresses, in a mausoleum befitting a Messenger from God Who had declared His mission on the very night of the very same year that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself was born.

Last year alone, the Terraces of the Shrine of the Báb attracted some 640,000 visitors and their beauty is being universally acclaimed. Last Monday, in Jerusalem, a special reception was held to celebrate the addition of the Bahá’í shrines and gardens to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Commenting on the achievement, Israel’s Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, said that the shrines reflect peace, beauty and tolerance. He said it was not only an honour for Israel to have the Bahá’í Holy Places within its borders, but it was an honour for UNESCO to have them on its list of the world’s most culturally significant places.

“The sacrifices of the Báb and the dawn-breakers of the Cause are yielding abundant fruit,” wrote the Universal House of Justice at Naw-Ruz, the exact centenary of the interment of the Báb’s remains on Mount Carmel, “The magnificent progress achieved over the past century demonstrates the invincible power with which the Cause is endowed.”    

As we processed from the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, along the semi-circular arc path to the Shrine of the Báb, I turned back and glimpsed the multi-coloured parade of humanity in all its diversity, moving together as one soul in many bodies. I remembered the dramatic circumstances surrounding the Báb’s own execution and the vain hope of the clergy and rulers of His land that, with His swift demise and the brutal massacre of some 20,000 followers, the fire He had ignited would be quenched. The vision of humanity I glimpsed on Saturday demonstrated to me the futility of such attempts to snuff out this inextinguishable light – efforts which persist in Iran to this day. “He doeth as He doeth and what recourse have we? He carrieth out His will, He ordaineth what He pleaseth.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s depositing of the remains of the Báb in the bosom of Mount Carmel marked the beginning of the World Centre of the Bahá’í Faith. It was an act of love and obedience carried out by a son on the instructions of His Father. A seed, still bursting with life and potential, had been salvaged from a savagely felled tree and planted in new soil where it could take root. The circle of cypress trees, silent witnesses to momentous events, are now overshadowed by the efflorescence of Carmel, both in the magnificence of the gardens that now adorn its slopes and the vibrant variety of human hues that gather there in their thousands to pay homage to the martyred herald of their Faith. Today, these are the fruits of that seed, of that act of obedience. 

As the Universal House of Justice noted, “It is but a portent of the ultimate realization of the oneness of humankind.”


6a00d8341c630a53ef011279446c4a28a4-800wiOftentimes we are reminded of the thwarted “best laid plans of mice and men” although, as the comedian Eddie Izzard once mused, it’s hard to imagine what exactly the best laid plans of mice actually might consist of.

But now it seems that we’ve had it wrong all along – and on two counts. Firstly, the original Robert Burns poem – pithily titled To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough – refers to “The best laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men”.  I always thought that mice having plans was a tad far fetched. But scheming mice, that’s another thing entirely. I’ve had first hand experience of some of those in the less salubrious rented accommodation I’ve lived in.

Secondly, it now seems that it’s not mice that make the plans – it’s monkeys. Or a Swedish chimp called Santino, pictured, to be precise. Yes, scientists all over the world are going ape about an article just published in Current Biology magazine. Since I can’t recall ever having bought a copy of this no doubt excellent journal, I am relying on information reported elsewhere that Santino, resident of a Swedish zoo for the last 12 years or so, has consciously planned hundreds of stone-throwing attacks on the visitors ogling him in his cage.

The keepers at Furuvik Zoo found that the cheeky chimp collected and stored stones to later use as missiles. He gathered up the stones whilst in a calm state, prior to the zoo’s opening. Then, he lobbed them at the visitors who were getting him agitated hours later. And who can blame him, I ask? I’d probably do the same.

But this, say the experts, suggests that Santino was able to anticipate a future agitated mental state – something that has been difficult to definitively prove in animals – and make plans for it. Unable to readily access his hypnotherapist, his anger management tapes, or an innocuous Smooth Classics CD to soothe his addled nerves, Santino chucked igneous remnants at his tormentors.

“I bet there must be a lot of these kinds of behaviours out there,” the research’s author Mathias Osvath is quoted as saying, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if we find them in dolphins or other species.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like animals. I really do. But, quite apart from the fact that I find it hard to believe that a dolphin could ever handle stone throwing with his little flippers (although I am sure he could spit a sardine at an annoying spectator as he leaps through his hoops), I think this is another one of those stories where well-meaning animal enthusiasts attempt to prove that animals really are the same as humans.

Take, for example. “Here,” it says, “you will find original paintings that are made by elephants using their own creativity and volition, entirely unaided or directed by human hand.” And what, pray tell, do these fine examples of elephant art look like? Well, exactly the kind of images you’d expect if you stuck a paintbrush up the nostril of an elephant swinging his trunk. I am sure the titles of the pictures on sale there – including “Deeply Moved”, “Angels will Prevail” and “Flames of Passion” – are not the creations of elephants, unaided or directed by human beings. Elephants happily christen their paintings with the same trumpeting sound they use for everything else – and no doubt subsequently baptize them too with other creative outpourings. When an elephant comes up with something remotely resembling the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa, then I will be willing to accept that animals are the equals of human beings.

And what of the highly intelligent dolphin? “Dolphins are often regarded as one of Earth’s most intelligent animals,” says the Wikipedia entry on these lovable creatures, “though its hard to say just how intelligent  dolphins are.” Well, of course it is! They don’t talk. They click!

“Dolphins are so clever that they break sponges off and put them on their snouts to protect them while foraging”. That’s truly remarkable. If any human being did that, they would be considered bonkers. When it’s a dolphin, absolutely brilliant! But when did the first dolphin land on the moon? Who was the first dolphin to perform a heart transplant? Or even sauté his favourite plankton in garlic butter? It’s not the same is it?

“The animal,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes, “although gifted with sensibilities is utterly bereft of consciousness, absolutely out of touch with the world of consciousness and spirit. The animal possesses no powers by which it can make discoveries which lie beyond the realm of the senses. It has no power of intellectual origination. For example, an animal located in Europe is not capable of discovering the continent of America. It understands only phenomena which come within the range of its senses and instinct. It cannot abstractly reason out anything. The animal cannot conceive of the earth being spherical or revolving upon its axis. It cannot apprehend that the little stars in the heavens are tremendous worlds vastly greater than the earth. The animal cannot abstractly conceive of intellect. Of these powers it is bereft. Therefore these powers are peculiar to man and it is made evident that in the human kingdom there is a reality of which the animal is minus. What is that reality? It is the spirit of man. By it man is distinguished above all the other phenomenal kingdoms. Although he possesses all the virtues of the lower kingdoms he is further endowed with the spiritual faculty, the heavenly gift of consciousness.”

So there we have it. It is clear that there is much to learn still about the animal kingdom, and God bless the biologists and scientists who get excited when they discover the project management abilities of baboons and the excellent budgeting skills that locusts demonstrate.

To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man” says Bahá’u’lláh. That is true. But I wonder if that works mutatis mutandis.

starIf it was your task – or a matter of joy for you – to present someone with a precious gift, how do you expect they might respond? At the very least, you might look for an appreciative thank you or some gesture of gratitude. It would hurt – to say the least – to not only receive no such appreciation, but instead find a door slammed in your face, fall foul of a virulent tirade or, worse still, be the victim of an active attempt to cut off your hand to prevent such a gift being presented to others.

Such has always been the reception meted out to the great Messengers of God, those divinely-inspired teachers who periodically attempt to uplift the human spirit and nurture society through their words and deeds. Look at how the master of the English language, Shoghi Effendi, describes the response of humanity to the message of Bahá’u’lláh, forty years of Whose life was given up to chains, banishment, exile and imprisonment, in the promotion of His gift to humanity:

“Unmitigated indifference on the part of men of eminence and rank; unrelenting hatred shown by the ecclesiastical dignitaries of the Faith from which it had sprung; the scornful derision of the people among whom it was born; the utter contempt which most of those kings and rulers who had been addressed by its Author manifested towards it; the condemnations pronounced, the threats hurled, and the banishments decreed by those under whose sway it arose and first spread; the distortion to which its principles and laws were subjected by the envious and the malicious, in lands and among peoples far beyond the country of its origin—all these are but the evidences of the treatment meted out by a generation sunk in self-content, careless of its God, and oblivious of the omens, prophecies, warnings and admonitions revealed by His Messengers.”

At the level of those who govern society, little has changed in 160 years. Indifference is one thing, but active repression is a more frightening response entirely. In Iran, the seven members of the country’s informal administrative committee of the Bahá’í community have been held for almost a year in prison, facing an uncertain future. Rather than enquiring into the high ideals that motivate them, the positive services that they could offer their society, the principles that so guide and shape their lives that they would rather offer up their necks than deny them – rather than that, they are branded as deceitful spies, manipulative enemies, a threatening danger to society.

“Who,” asked Shoghi Effendi, writing in 1941, “among the worldly wise and the so-called men of insight and wisdom can justly claim, after the lapse of nearly a century, to have disinterestedly approached its theme, to have considered impartially its claims, to have taken sufficient pains to delve into its literature, to have assiduously striven to separate facts from fiction, or to have accorded its cause the treatment it merits? Where are the preeminent exponents, whether of the arts or sciences, with the exception of a few isolated cases, who have lifted a finger, or whispered a word of commendation, in either the defense or the praise of a Faith that has conferred upon the world so priceless a benefit, that has suffered so long and so grievously, and which enshrines within its shell so enthralling a promise for a world so woefully battered, so manifestly bankrupt?”

Now however it is the ordinary people of Iran who are demonstrating their capacity to move beyond petty narrow-mindedness. In a powerful appeal addressed this week to Iran’s Prosecutor General by the Bahá’í International Community, it is the ordinary citizens of Iran and their staunch commitment to justice who are the recipients of appreciative gratitude:

“We see the fidelity shown by the young musicians who refused to perform when their Bahá’í counterparts were prohibited from playing in a recital,” says the letter. “We see the courage and tenacity of university students who stood ready to prepare a petition and to forgo participation in examinations that their Bahá’í classmates were barred from taking. We see the compassion and generosity of spirit exhibited by the neighbours of one family, whose home was attacked with a bulldozer, in their expressions of sympathy and support, offered at all hours of the night, and in their appeals for justice and recompense. And we hear in the voices raised by so many Iranians in defense of their Bahá’í compatriots echoes from their country’s glorious past.”

“What we cannot help noting, with much gratitude towards them in our hearts, is that a majority of those coming out in support of the beleaguered Bahá’í community are themselves suffering similar oppression as students and academics, as journalists and social activists, as artists and poets, as progressive thinkers and proponents of women’s rights, and even as ordinary citizens,” concludes the letter.

Such acts of kindness, such fraternal understanding paints an entirely different picture of a people whose lot it is to be tarred with the same public image brush as the authorities that govern their lives.

As for those who suffer selflessly behind bars, who cling on to their belief in the essential goodness and nobility of human nature, who willingly disbanded their informal administrative arrangements to demonstrate the goodwill they have consistently shown to the Islamic Republic of Iran for thirty years – as for them, they perhaps have attained “starship”. Not, of course, a spacecraft designed to shuttle between planets. Rather, the state of being a true reflection of the sun of truth.

The acts of Bahá’u’lláh, wrote His forerunner the Báb, would be “like unto the sun, while the works of men, provided they conform to the good-pleasure of God, resemble the stars or the moon.” By observing His teachings, they would “regard themselves and their own works as stars exposed to the light of the sun,” said the Báb, “…then they will have gathered the fruits of their existence; otherwise the title of ‘starship’ will not apply to them. Rather it will apply to such as truly believe in Him, to those who pale into insignificance in the day-time and gleam forth with light in the night season.”

Gleaming forth with light in a time of darkness is perhaps the greatest gift of all to offer the world.

You might think I’m some sort of masochist but, once a year, I carry out a fast. In fact it starts tomorrow.

For a relatively few days, I refrain from eating and drinking between the hours of sunrise and sunset. And, believe it or not, I find that those early mornings give me a wonderful time to reflect and get my life in order – and after a while I feel healthier too. When I am at home, I also get to see the amazing skies over Wellingborough out of my kitchen window. Look at that picture, un-photoshopped, the real thing! Castle Fields at 0610hrs.

I’m not the only one: I just did an online search on the word fasting and it came up with almost 12 million references. There’s: fasting for healing, fasting for weight loss, fasting to look like Carol Vorderman – and fasting as a powerful spiritual discipline. That’s the one I’m interested in.  

A Christian colleague told me that when he and his wife have to make an important decision, such as whether to buy a new house or something to do with their son’s education, they fast for a few days to clear their minds so that they’re inspired to do the right thing. 

Not everyone though is so sympathetic to the idea. When one of my fasting friends told her workmate during our last Fast why she wasn’t going out for lunch, the colleague said, “I would never let my religion make me do that”. 

It struck me as very curious – this notion that somehow a religion would, or even could, make me do something that I didn’t want to do. I was under the impression that I have the freedom to choose how I want to live and what I want to believe. 

I chose to be a Bahá’í because its writings and the friendships I have in its community inspire me, its teachings are attractive and good for the world, and service brings me fulfilment. And I choose to follow its powerful spiritual disciplines, if you like, because I tried them out, tested them and found them to be beneficial to my well-being – and true. 

“Being one, truth cannot be divided,” say the Bahá’í writings, “and the differences that exist only result from attachment to prejudice. If only men would search out truth, they would find themselves united.”

The freedom to search for truth is one of the blessings of living in this society. In some parts of the world, the decision to change one’s faith is a capital offence. We have the freedom to choose a faith or choose not to have one. 

Some months back, I saw an article which said, ‘Freedom from religion in Britain is becoming as important as freedom of religion. Nearly two-thirds of British people do not claim membership of a religion or never attend a religious service.’ 

While I personally think society would be much healthier and happier if everyone lived their life according to powerful spiritual disciplines, the freedom to choose is more important than enforcing someone to do something against their will. 

Mae West summed up choice thus, “Between two evils,” she said, “I always pick the one I never tried before.”

cms50dcLast Thursday, more than a dozen of the United Kingdom’s top comedians – including Jack Dee, pictured, Jo Brand, Omid Djalili, Alexei Sayle – put their names to a letter in The Times, expressing their concern about human rights in Iran, particularly the danger being faced by the national administrative committee that has been looking after the affairs of the country’s 300,000 strong Bahá’í community.

These seven, ordinary citizens have been detained in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for eight months now. They have been denied access to their legal counsel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi. Up until recently, no case has been brought against them. It’s now been reported, though, that their files are to be handed over to the Revolutionary Court and that they will face serious charges including “espionage”. The possibilities of a fair, independently observed trial – and, based on previous precedents, the likely verdict when such a charge is leveled – are grim to say the least.

Over the past two decades, we have grown used to celebrities voicing their opinions on all manner of issues – from global warming to the fur trade. For many years, comedians have annually done their bit for Comic Relief and Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Ball, while rock’s megastars strut their stuff for famine-stricken lands and Nelson Mandela’s AIDS charity.

Such public displays of conscience are not without their critics. Cynics mock the celebrities’ intentions, dismissing their efforts as self-righteous, self-aggrandizing, ego-boosting publicity stunts. When this particular letter was reported on Sky News, some of the comments that readers left on the website were, to my mind, extraordinary. “These so-called comedians want to make me puke!” wrote one, “Is it the fact they honestly think it will make a difference? No chance! Is it to look like they give a **** in the public eye? Absolutely! Their hypocrisy stinks beyond belief.” “What is the point of writing a letter?” wrote another, “Do these guys honestly believe that Iran will listen to a bunch of westerners with no moral or religious integrity?” “Once again so called “celebrities” jump on the political band wagon about something they probably know nothing about,” retorted one reader. “If they’re so interested in politics then why don’t they become politicians ? But of course the work isn’t as easy and the pay and lifestyle isn’t as good is it?” asked another.

Rather than being a fashionable cause, the case of the Bahá’ís in Iran is like so many examples where innocent people are facing the most extreme hardship or persecution but aren’t actually dying in droves. The UK media generally isn’t interested, so supporting such a case is not destined to get these comedians widespread exposure to boost their already high public images. This one has barely been reported at all, save for an excellent interview with Shirin Ebadi on Channel 4 News. In fact, this cause doesn’t really fit into the predominant liberal grain, of which comedians are most likely to be the representatives. Why? It’s about religion, for a start. Generally speaking, people don’t want to start interfering in a matter that has, at its root, a difference of theological interpretation. For most comedians, religions are more for poking fun at than to be protected or defended. Furthermore, people seem dubious about speaking up against certain elements in Iran’s regime. They suggest that such widespread stories of oppression and human rights, despite being independently reported and condemned by respectable agencies, are either fuelling the flame of Western antagonism towards Iran or are even the fabrications of countries intent on intervening in Iran’s affairs.

Faced with a multitude of social ills, charities and causes to speak out about, celebrities in Britain are in a unique position. They are, at the same time, people of influence and targets of public vitriol. Ours has become a celebrity-obsessed nation. An article in this week’s New Statesman marking the 30th anniversary of the start of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister dates the beginning of such a culture back to the prevalent mores of the 1980s where wealth, selfishness, enterprise, getting ahead, were to be valued above the welfare of society which the Iron Lady famously denied existed.

Newspapers today report that the unhealthy obsession with celebrity culture is damaging the academic success of British students who are ignoring career aspirations to pursue the chance of fame instead – fame, not for their achievements, but for being famous. This obsession with celebrity is seen to be a symptom of a larger cultural obsession with three As – affluence, attractiveness and achievement – not in themselves inherently harmful, but with the great potential to cast into the shadows other values such as three Cs – community, charity and commitment. One American psychologist James Houran, has written that in a secular society the “need for ritualized worship can be displaced onto celebrities.” “Nonreligious people tend to be more interested in celebrity culture,” he says. “For them, celebrity fills some of the same roles the church fills for believers, like the desire to fit into a community of people with shared values.”

Fulfilling that role presents celebrities with huge responsibility. They are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Wherever one’s sympathies lie for the ailing Jade Goody, there is no doubting that her very public life and death is boosting by the thousands the number of women going to have screenings for cervical cancer.

When our own government spoke up a week or two back for the safety of the Bahá’í leaders in Iran, how many national and regional newspapers reported it? None.

When this group of comedians signed their letter, the story was reported in the Daily Telegraph, on Sky News, in the Glasgow Daily Record, Metro, on teletext, in the Western Daily Press and, most excitingly, on This is – evidence enough, if any were needed, of the power of celebrities in our society to bring an issue to the fore. That is something, I believe, that comes with the territory and to be applauded. The courage on the part of these comedians to speak out deserves our gratitude. In all seriousness, it is no laughing matter.

69198732_ph3It’s half-term week for schools in the south of England and London’s Underground was packed today with grandparents and parents roving the capital on a quest for activities to divert their children.

The national Bahá’í Centre is situated close to the Natural History Museum – always a hardy perennial with those kids who for some reason like to be scared out of their wits by the very realistic animatronic figure of Tyrannosaurus Rex. But my tube journey also takes in Holborn, the train stop for the British Museum.

This morning I was amused to overhear the following conversation between a bright young boy and a woman who I assumed was his grandmother.

“Are there skeletons in the museum?” the boy asked, a fearful expression on his brow.
“Well there are Egyptian mummies which have skeletons in them…” Grandma smilingly replied.
Trepidation crossed the lad’s face. “I’m scared! What if they come alive?”
“They won’t come alive,” she replied calmly. “Skeletons can’t come alive. They’ve been dead for centuries. That’s why they are in a museum.”
“Some skeletons can come alive,” said the boy. “I’ve seen them.”
Grandma had an answer for everything. “That’s only on television”
“Yes, but what if they come out of the television?” he asked.

There was a certain logic to his line of thinking.

I remember as a child being very fearful of just about everything. At that time there had been a spate of high-profile kidnappings that I had overheard on the news. Someone calling himself the Black Panther had abducted a 17-year old heiress and demanded £50,000 ransom money. I was convinced for some reason that I was going to be kidnapped too. It didn’t help that a rumour swept round the children in our junior school that the Black Panther had been seen at the local swimming pool the night before.

Now when I think about it, why would Britain’s most wanted criminal be taking a quick dip in the Canterbury municipal baths? And, come to think of it, how would anyone know it was him? Did he have Black Panther emblazoned on his Speedos?

But for a child with an imagination such as mine, reasoning doesn’t help. Even my parents flippantly saying, “Don’t be stupid. We haven’t got any money” failed to assuage my paranoia of being kidnapped. Every time we travelled anywhere and a car was following us for any reasonable period, I would duck down out of sight on the backseat convinced that I was being pursued by someone who was out to get me. I wouldn’t sleep in the bedroom at the front of the house because a ladder could easily be propped up to reach the window.

Even today, when there are so many more frightening things bombarding young minds and kids are much more savvy, a child’s imagination is extremely vulnerable. The other day a friend of mine’s four year old daughter came home in tears from a birthday party at which the parents had stuck on a video of Indiana Jones. I don’t know which episode in the series it was but there’s not a lot of difference when you are four years old between melting Nazis, voodoo priests, or resuscitated skeletal aliens. They are all terrifying and, for a youngster unaware of the craft of special effects, all real. How could they be otherwise?

I am not sure what the answer is. I suppose bedtime fear has been and will always be part of growing up. Children, I guess, need to be helped not to give energy to their imaginings. A looming creature on the wall may be nothing more than the shadow of a tree outside the window. But when a child invests energy in the imagined danger, it takes on a whole new, potentially threatening life.

I suspect praying with children before bedtime can help redirect energy. “In a time to come,” predicted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “morals will degenerate to an extreme degree. It is essential that children be reared in the Bahá’í way, that they may find happiness both in this world and the next. If not, they shall be beset by sorrows and troubles, for human happiness is founded upon spiritual behaviour.”

That would seem to be a good measuring rod for what we choose to do with our children not just at half-term but all year round. But when will the museum of spiritual behaviour and positive thinking be opening? And what would they put on display?

Dancing on Ice


scampi_and_chipsI can honestly say I’ve never been a suffererer of paraskavedekatriaphobia. In fact I’m rarely aware of what the date is on any given day, which makes the phobia even less likely to impinge on my consciousness.

Paraskavedekatriaphobia, in case you haven’t come across the word before, is the fear of Friday 13th. According to one American stress management centre – or center, as they would have it – an estimated 17 to 21 million people in the USA are affected by this condition. Some people are so paralyzed by fear that they avoid their normal routines in doing business, taking flights or even getting out of bed. Some $900 million in business is lost every Friday 13th, which comes around at least once a year.

If I had known what was coming last Friday – Friday 13th February – I probably wouldn’t have got out of bed either. I was involved in a very nasty four-car smash as I drove home in the evening from visiting a friend. The first piece of bad luck was the sudden freezing of water on the road that turned its surface into a lethally invisible skating rink. The second piece of bad luck was my car skating with the gracelessness of Torville and Dean-wannabes into a snowy bank at the side of the road. The third – the car that slammed full speed into my passenger side as I sat trying to reverse out of my predicament. The fourth, another passing car that attempted a toeless lutz, bouncing off at least two other vehicles that had stopped to assist me.

The life of my trusty Nissan Micra, about whom only that day I had been singing praises and saying how she had never let me down, is over. She has gone to that heavenly playground for little cars who chug and splutter no more – the Parker Fry scrapheap in Huntingdon.

Once all the formalities were over with the police and ambulance men, the exchanging of numbers with the other drivers for insurance purposes, the RAC sent out a truck to pick up what was left of the car. The driver was a relentlessly cheerful chatterbox who, I suspect, has developed his repartee from years of experience picking up people like me, in a state of adrenalin-soaked shock.

“It’s Valentines tomorrow, innit?” he opened, as I plugged in my seatbelt. “The missus said to me, ‘Surprise me’. I says ‘Aw, don’t say that love. If I buy you flowers you say ‘Did ya get ’em at a garage?’ If I get wine, you say you don’t like it.”

“Oh…er…what about going out for a meal?” I suggested, wondering what had hit me – with admittedly a little less force than that first car 90 minutes earlier.

“Nah. She don’t eat anything fancy. She’s a very simple eater, the missus. Me, I like a steak with peppercorn sauce. She just likes pork chops out the oven. No sauce, nothing. Just pork chops and mash.”

“Cinema?” I tried, once more.

“Nah. She’s a smoker. She says if she can’t have a fag in two and a half hours it’ll drive her up the wall.”

Eureka! I got it. The perfect gift. “Nicorette patches,” I said. He didn’t look impressed. “Well, you can say to her that she wanted to be surprised,” I added.

“Yeh, I’ll slap six of them on her and go to the pictures!” Then, my cheery rescuer regaled me with the story of his Valentine’s Day proposal several years ago. How him and the missus-to-be had got all dressed up and gone to a fancy restaurant but she, only liking pork chops, was not impressed. They ended up in a Travelodge eating scampi and chips from a newspaper, with him having to reach into his sock at an opportune moment to bring out an engagement ring.

“It was really surreal,” he said.

I couldn’t have agreed more. How appropriate to raise the spectre of surrealism on such a bizarre night – the forces of nature propelling different lives to intersect for fleeting, never to be repeated interactions. And how wonderfully talented are the British at dealing with crises – the stoical stories, the jokes, banter and camaraderie. I thanked God for not being more badly injured than a few cuts to my hand, and for my garrulous rescuer.

So my Friday 13th was not particularly a day of bad luck. In fact, quite the opposite – if you had seen the state of the cars after the accident, you would have said it was a day of particularly good luck. No one was badly hurt and I was driven home by a man who made it his business to keep me nicely distracted from the shock of what had happened. By the time he dropped me off, Friday 13th was over and the paraskavedekatriaphobia suffererers were no doubt getting out of bed ready to embrace St.Valentines Day. Good luck to them.