Category: Philosophy

A Common Culture

Rather than wake this post-referendum morning to a nightmare, I chose to imagine we British had embarked on a marvellous adventure. Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes. Cellophane flowers of yellow and green, towering over your head. Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she’s gone … gone … gone … gone … and then I woke up!

Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou.

This familiar moment of waking confusion illustrates the phenomenon of human empathy, our extraordinary ability to imagine what it is like to be others. Written well over 2000 years ago in China, it also shows an awareness of animal consciousness that predates modern science. And after months of bruising debate, we Brits have to stop treating the other side as less than human and rediscover our fellow-feeling. This could take a bit of humour to achieve.

Humour is another word for perspective and we might take a lesson from the French philosopher and writer Michel de Montaigne, writing a mere 500 years ago on his love of viewing things from different perspectives:

When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her?

Who awakes and who dreams here? Is the cat or the writer the prime mover? Or are they cooperating in a shared reality that neither can grasp without the other?

Where do I end and you begin? It’s a question no easier to answer than the famous Zen teaser – what is the sound of one hand clapping? For all our airs and graces, I’ve heard it said that complicated creatures like ourselves exist only as taxi services for billions of bacteria. Bill Hicks called homo sapiens ‘a virus in shoes’, though he probably wasn’t thinking about our function as high-rise housing for germs. Can we make a larger claim for ourselves, I wonder?

Some people don’t like being called animals. Some people think the earth was created in seven days four thousand years ago, along with all the pretty sky lanterns. Me, I’m just happy to host four billion years of evolution and love my slow-cooked triple brain with its reptile instinct for survival, mammal feeling for emotion, human capacity for … er, well, for … hmm, jury is still out on that one!

Some people even argue we’ve devolved. They could be right, given we all descend from the limited gene-pool of a few thousand individuals interbreeding to keep warm between ice ages. Brrr … thank goodness we invented global warming!

Whoops, back to the drawing board! Proving our worth turns out to be an act of creativity, if not downright invention. At least Wordsworth got it right: the child is father to the man. Paradox is the only truth, it seems, unless it isn’t. When we were kids, two little words could thrill like no others: let’s pretend. This was an invitation to suspend disbelief and conspire to create an alternative reality. No worries about who we were back then – it was all about who we could become. And love was all you’d need.

Egged on by masters of children’s literature like Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame, AA Milne and Spike Milligan (click his name for my fan letter!) there was nothing I loved more than to create serialised stories and puppet plays and strip cartoons for the entertainment of my friends and siblings. I was never into solo gratification – my biggest kick was always experiencing other people’s pleasure. Above all, I tried to make them laugh. My humour would later take a satirical turn with Monty Python and Pete & Dud and Joe Orton, but let’s stick with 1963  when I discovered the magical surrealism of Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury.

Suddenly Let’s Pretend became What If? The coldest winter for years found me on the back doorstep with a new library book. I’d returned from school and my parents were late home. I didn’t have a key so I sat down in the ice and snow and started reading. The book was Bradbury’s Silver Locusts, later renamed The Martian Chronicles. When they arrived a couple of hours later, I’d finished it without even noticing the cold. I’d been somewhere else.

13 is an impressionable age. A few months later I first saw the Beatles on children’s television – my post A Life in Music describes this and other unforgettable cultural encounters. The girls made lots of noise but we boys were just as astonished. Nobody could have predicted the Moptops – the patronising nickname the British press gave them – nor guessed the effect they were soon to have on a USA still stunned from the death of their inspirational young president.

The world needed a miracle and the Beatles were it. Their story resembles a new myth: four heroes go on a quest to Hamburg and return with the holy grail, the keys to a kingdom, only they turned out to be musical ones. Suddenly, Tin-Pan Alley’s manufactured stars with feet of clay had to make way for a scruffy bunch of ordinary blokes with their feet on the ground and the attitude of a playground gang out to conquer the world. They watched each other’s backs.

John was leader of his own band but he let Paul in because he recognised his own limitations. That selfless act set the pattern for collaboration. In the early days they wrote ‘playing into each other’s noses’. Paul came up with She was just seventeen, never been a beauty queen, a naff line which John changed to You know what I mean – at once vague and packed with sexual innuendo. This photo, taken by Paul’s brother Mike, actually shows them composing the song in Paul’s living room!

When John sang ‘You Gotta Hide Your Love Away’ to Paul, two foot tall became two foot small by mistake but Paul liked it and it stayed. Paul suggested I can give you golden rings, I can give you anything, Baby I love you. John laughed and they came up with the much tougher, raunchier Drive my car.

The examples multiply. Paul suggested John develop a story in ‘Norwegian Wood’. John provided Paul’s ‘Michelle’ with the bluesy edge of a repeated I love you. ‘Eleanor Rigby’, whose grave was later discovered yards from where John and Paul first met, contains lines from all four Beatles and one ex-member.

They held their ears to the tracks. ‘Here, There & Everywhere’ took its shimmering quality from ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys. The Lovin Spoonful’s ‘Daydream’ inspired ‘Good Day Sunshine’ – fitting, perhaps, after founders Sebastian and Yanovsky met at Mama Cass’s house to see the Beatles TV debut which gave them the idea of forming a band that wrote songs. The same show kickstarted the Byrds.

And like the Byrds, influenced by Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney moved away from their early ‘Moon in June’ lyrics to autobiography and social comment. ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ were the results of a pact between John and Paul to write about their childhoods. ‘A Day In The Life’ combined contrasting but complementary songs from John and Paul, a trick they’d first pulled in ‘We Can Work It Out’. John suggested the Question and Answer pattern of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, intended as a singalong for Ringo. And in 1995 the surviving Beatles worked on a demo from John to produce ‘Free As A Bird’. Paul said, ‘We came up with this holiday scenario. I rang up Ringo and said let’s pretend John’s gone on holiday and he’s sent us a cassette and said finish it up for me.’

Yeah, let’s pretend 

… no good, my imaginative powers are not what they were! I wish these words were still worth something this morning but the light is harsh and the voice of the young has gone unheard …








Child Father To Man! The Shocking Truth!

I was struck by this comment from siddiebowtie in response to my previous post:

It’s as if the powers that be are determined to suck the souls out of children as early as possible so they’re nice and pliable – devoid of will or hope – by the time they reach adulthood so that they can be more efficient slaves.

That might sound a little extreme but what if you could only reply True or False? Which would you plump for? With a heavy heart, I’d say True. And how about this for an educational philosophy?

Our aim is to prepare young people for the workplace by developing the habits, skills and knowledge they will need to secure employment.

At first sight, that may look OK. But then the questions begin. Do we live to work or work to live? Can it be right that our children spend over two-thirds of their precious and irreplaceable development years on little more than job applications?

And even if you think we humans have no value beyond our economic function, it doesn’t stack up. Who knows what the world of work will be like in 2035? And when these kids step on the first rung, what then? What use will they be if they only have starter skills?

Starter skills – aka ‘the basics’ – are popular with politicians because they can be tested on the cheap. Don’t worry that they narrow the curriculum to the point of dumbing down and take all the fun out of learning. Schools don’t need real books when they’ve got reading schemes, nor computers when learning is by rote and the teacher holds the key to knowledge. And don’t get me started on original sin and the need to curb enthusiasm in the very young!

You don’t make something heavier by weighing it. That is to confuse cause and effect. Similarly, I’m good at grammar but I learned to read and write fluently without it because my interest was fully aroused. I just got it. I didn’t learn to talk by mastering phonetics and I didn’t learn to ride a bike by naming its parts. Time enough to become technicians when we’re up and pedalling.

We need a Plan B. How about this for a starter skill?

“Every child is an artist. The challenge is to remain an artist after you grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

Let’s go beyond it. Every child is an artist, poet, philosopher, dancer, nature-lover, explorer, comedian, scientist, sceptic, teacher, boundary pusher, truth speaker. This morning I heard about an experiment where they gave unschooled slum kids computers and asked them to find and understand advanced concepts. The results astounded the scientists. No instructions were needed. The key was to have a group of nine year olds round a single computer.

The best teacher I ever had gave us afternoons to do themed projects guided by her questions which asked for much more than research. We had to share our findings with classmates and then – working in groups to organise and adapt our material – present it to other classes and groups of adults. Helped by our watchful primary school teacher we did displays, lectures, readings, performances, interviews, recordings and more. She expected us to aim high and trusted us to take risks. We struggled to interest others. We gave up our free time. We didn’t need to be tested on what we’d learned. And we learned loads.

Nietzsche said, ‘Become what you are’. This is rather like the Buddhist notion of waking to our innate nature. Learning, meditation and compassion are the ways in – or perhaps, the way back, because what we discover was there all along. TS Eliot (Little Gidding, Four Quartets) puts it as well as anyone:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

I want to write about childhood because it is the common ground we all share beneath the cultural divides that come later. Every child is a natural rebel and together they are the archetypal cross-border tribe. The indigenous Australians had the right idea giving their kids mentors in neighbouring tribes. Ah well, our kids go walkabout online …

I’m getting silly. Time for my cocoa. When you’re my age the past looms large, so be warned … there may be self-indulgent writing about my childhood to follow! In the meantime, here’s Don DeLillo talking to The Guardian’s Xan Brooks about his regular reunion dinners with long-lost childhood friends:

‘And when we meet, we talk about growing up. And all of us remember absolutely everything the same way. I mean that there’s no argument, it’s very strange. It’s as though the last 50 years have been …’

A happy dream? A hallucination? ‘A waste of time,’ he says and laughs.


Just poured myself a beer …

It’s time I let rip. Most of my posts are composed like school essays, plenty of notes and constant editing to achieve A* and all that stuff. This one comes straight from the black hole somewhere deep down. First thought, best thought … Alan Ginsberg had it right. DH Lawrence too, he never edited anything he wrote and you sure in hell couldn’t uninvent him! DHL was a great admirer of Walt Whitman, another literary berserker. Anyway …

A bottle of beer by my side, JB Hutto’s Stompin at Mother Blues on the hi-fi … real music, check it out! … and a solid determination to let everything I type stand, no matter what! Deep breath, here goes!

We are an evolved species. We share that with every other species on the planet. That means we are as good as it gets. We know how to survive. It shouldn’t be beyond our collective wit to create a sustainable world for future generations of all species. Make no mistake, we find ourselves with a hell of a past – much of it recent – to expunge. In my lifetime, on my watch, we have even entered a new era named after ourselves – the Anthropocene.

But for most of our history we were in partnership with nature. We knew how to play her with finesse, living off her without taking too much. We only took as much as we needed to survive. Honourable, you might say. Something happened – the jury is out on the what and why of it – to make us want a cushion, an excess of protection against what nature often in the form of other humans threw at us. We created money, property, secure investments and whatever took us through the night …

Panama is the outcome, Panama and all the other so-called tax havens in the world that separate humanity more than any bogus division that has been devised – and devised by whom, one might ask, but isn’t that a whole other question? – bogus divisions such as race, creed, class or colour. Modern science has proved we’re all the same under the skin so get used to it. Everything you read is propaganda of one sort or another – this excepted, of course! – and most of us are pretty good at spotting spin. Hemingway said the most important thing a writer needed – and which of us isn’t a writer? – is a built-in crap detector. I know when I’m talking shit and so do you.

That’s what I mean. We’re an evolved species. We been around a long time. Strip aware the bullshit culture we’re all immersed in – me included, I’m not pulling rank – and we’re left with inherited instinct coupled with an awareness of the instinctive sense still alive in others. I look at the reproductions on my wall – may science be praised! – and see the art of Monet, Turner, Japanese prints, Van Gogh. Coming out of my speakers – the JB Hutto ended – is Boo Boo Davis, erstwhile harp player turned drummer with Muddy Waters, singing along in Howling Wolf style with a superb Dutch band. This was another random choice from my CD collection. Anything I don’t like goes in the bag for Oxfam. This is a stayer. It connects with history.

We are here to fulfil the hopes of our ancestors. We live the life they imagined. They weren’t all struggling in the mud. Our own idealism didn’t spring from nowhere. We may have been lucky to encounter idealists in our own lives – I cite my granddad and his daughter, my mum, as personal examples – but all they did was strike a chord in our inherited potentiality for this stuff. We are primed for hope and mad optimism, like it or not. Depression is a stupid cultural imposition. The human brain is hardwired for happiness.

I speak as one whose glass is half full. If you’re interested, it’s Hobson’s Rich Ruby Porter aka Postman’s Knock 4.8% Vol. Never mind half full, it’s nearly empty. What say I open a bottle of something else? You’ll have to shout, my internet is kinda slow … OK, we’re agreed on another beer, or is that just me?

Right, glass refreshed, onwards! Only connect, said EM Forster. Great … the question is, what to what? Duh, you’d have to be stupid not to know the answer … everything to everything else. We can do this stuff. The elephant in the room is death … and who doesn’t love elephants, with their long memories and touching graveyards? Pun intended …

Our awareness of the Grim Reaper is universal. It binds us together. Birth, taxes, death. Get used to it. Unless you tried to buck the common trend in Panama, or wherever. My dad was a tax inspector. He was proud that he helped shift the burden from poor to rich. To live in a land was to accept its rules, to feel honoured that you could contribute to the fairness that made your nation great. To honour the spirit of the law as well as its letter.

I didn’t always get on with my dad. To be honest, he was a bit of a cold fish. His own dad was lost at sea in WW1 … which of us isn’t affected in some way or another by that appalling conflagration? … so without a role model himself, he wasn’t that great a dad. Plus there was that big generation gap in the 60s … we were something new, man! My mum took dad to the musical Hair and he wasn’t comfortable with hippies crawling all over him on their way to the stage although my mum was up for anything. He and mum had their problems and for a while I was piggy-in-the-middle so dad was hard to get on with.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, my dad was spot on when it came to the morality of taxation.

Where was I? Oh yes, death. Our common knowledge of death binds us like nothing else. Some fantasise about an afterlife, but what if this is it? An all-too-brief window of wonderfulness? Doesn’t that make it all the more precious?

I’m 67. Who knows how much longer I’ve got? As they say, I’ve had a good innings. My generation is probably the luckiest ever to have lived. Free cod-liver oil and orange juice on the NHS, no war, no obesity after rationing and before fast-food, the mind-expanding experience of rock’n’roll and all that entailed, full employment, the sexual revolution … I’m starting to bore myself, need I go on?

Waddya mean, pour another drink you old soak? I told you this would be uncensored. A friend of mine once said I had a shopping-bag mind. By this he meant I no sooner made one point than I would answer it myself much as a supermarket shopper would pluck items from here, there and everywhere. Probably comes from the observation of my parents’ incessant arguments … one long argument, as it happens. I’m painfully aware of both sides of every question.

Right, where were we? The CD has ended, time for another. What’s it going to be? I have a big collection. Another random choice. I bet you can hardly wait.

Can. Ego Bamyasi. Life is good, each day borrowed from nowhere, the music continuing as long as it can. Joke, haha. Gallows humour is all we have. Best make the best of it. Seriously, though, the sweet thing about not believing in the sweet hereafter is that here and now is all the sweeter.

Did I just say that out loud? What I crave above all is a natural reverence for life to replace the crazy cults that crave a higher existence beyond. Life can be hard. Keats called it a process of soul-making, envisaging a heaven on earth. Nietzsche said what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Buddhism offers a useful description of what we’re up against to achieve higher consciousness:

Ordered from the least to the most desirable, they are: Hell–a condition of despair in which one is completely overwhelmed by suffering; Hunger–a state dominated by deluded desire that can never be satisfied; Animality–an instinctual state of fearing the strong and bullying the weak; Anger–a state characterized by an unrestrained competitive urge to surpass and dominate others and often a pretence of being good and wise. These four states are referred to as the Four Evil Paths because of the destructive negativity that marks them.

Continuing, Humanity is a tranquil state marked by the ability to reason and make calm judgments. While fundamental to our identity as humans, this state can also represent a fragile balance that yields to one of the lower states when confronted with negative conditions. Rapture is a state of joy typically experienced when desire is fulfilled or suffering escaped.

Which of us hasn’t been there and bought the T shirt? And could Google be the portal to a new stage in human evolution? If so, we need to evolve a way to use it to our advantage. The facts are out there but we need to teach our children how to access them … or perhaps, get them to show us! As I understand it, the higher worlds available to us all here and now are Learning, Realisation and Compassion. These are the escape routes from the lower worlds. Together, they constitute Nirvana.

Or as near vana as you can get. Let’s not get precious about this …

Moral: keep studying, keep your mind open, keep your empathy flowing. As to the last, I’m intrigued by the French poet Rimbaud’s phrase Je est un autre – I is another. For me, this is a cry against the egoism of subjectivity and for a more objective fellow-feeling … I contain multitudes in the words of Walt Whitman … but I’m open to other interpretations.

Anyway, the beer has run out and the CD has ended. The rest is silence …


The Window

Brussels is the latest western city to feel the agony of loss following Paris, London, Madrid and New York. Refugees from failing states flee intractable civil wars in huge numbers, leaving behind many more in terrible suffering. The world’s leaders appear divided and bewildered in the face of multiplying problems: economic, political, ideological, sociological, environmental, ecological. The words of WB Yeats, written almost a century ago, have an uncomfortable resonance today:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I thought I knew this poem but one phrase has just struck me for the first time.

‘The ceremony of innocence.’ Could something like this, I wonder, be a way of rescuing our beautiful but fragile world from the twin and perhaps conjoined threats of life-killing consumerism and death-wish fundamentalism?

To answer this question, I’ll take a short digression.

I’ve been reading the travel writings of the Japanese Zen poet Matsuo Basho. Over 300 years ago he set out on a series of journeys designed to strip away the trappings of the material world and bring spiritual enlightenment. Old and unwell, he travels in all weathers, visiting shrines to historical figures and beauty spots mentioned in old poems. The sense of an ancient culture still surviving in Basho’s day is astonishing. Of one Samurai warrior, already 500 years dead, he writes:

His life is certain evidence that, if one performs one’s duty and maintains one’s loyalty, fame comes naturally in the wake, for there is hardly anyone now who does not honour him as the flower of chivalry.

Speaking as a would-be pacifist, I understand that this refers to an ancient code of conduct far broader than crude militarism. People 1000 years gone are described as vividly as if they still lived. Everywhere he goes, Basho sits down to write chains of haikus with local people, each person contributing a poem in response to the previous one:

I was told at Oishida on the River Mogami that the old seed of linked verse once strewn here by the wind had taken root, still bearing its own flowers each year and thus softening the minds of the rough villagers like the clear note of a reedpipe.

This reminds me about the Songlines of the indigenous Australians, those epic linked verses describing natural landmarks that guided young men on Walkabout all over the continent. Children had mentors in neighbouring tribes, a powerful force for peace. Like the indigenous American tribes, the first Australians had a sense of their wider nation as one people. All three peoples worshipped their ancestors and revered nature, which I take as proof that evolutionary awareness is instinctive.

Basho’s travelling companion Sora writes with almost Darwinian curiosity about ‘a pair of faithful osprey nesting on a rock’ at Kisagata lagoon:

What divine instinct
Has taught these birds
No waves swell so high
As to swamp their home?

They visit the lagoon to see an aged cherry tree which featured in the following haiku written by Saigyo, an ex-Samurai turned itinerant poet,  500 years before they get there:

Buried in the waves
So that it seems
Fishermen's boats are sailing
Over the waves of blossoms -
A cherry tree at Kisagata.

Basho idolised Saigyo and modelled himself on him. He was particularly impressed with this poem:

My sincere hope is
To leave the world in Spring
Under the blooming cherry -
In February, if possible,
On the eve of the full moon.

Saigyo died on 16 February 1190. Somehow I am reminded of the indigenous American idea of choosing the place where you will go to perform a last dance at the moment of your death. To live life to the full, we should embrace death as teacher and friend – in other words, an equal. We are life and we dance with death. Accept that with good grace and the dance will be elegant, joyous, serene.

Perhaps this might allow us to find a fresh way of looking at the world, happy just to be here. This is hard to envisage but I’m encouraged by Nietzsche’s curious statement, ‘Everything is permitted because nothing is true.’ After all, kids play Pretend quite naturally.

Some people say that the hippy vision embodied in the following Steve Miller song was just a game of Pretend but I am inspired by the accompanying pictures which our ancestors, bless them, would find astonishing and like something out of a dream. We should renew our capacity for everyday wonder. What else could have drawn us outdoors when we were young or Basho when he was old? And as we reflect on Brussels and consider the bumpy road ahead, it’s worth remembering that others have travelled this way before. In the words of the song:

think love you’re surrounded

we are one you and I


Earth Rise


I reckon it all comes down to where you stand and one blessing of growing old – there are things to look forward to, kids, so hang around! – is what Philip Larkin called ‘the long perspectives’. TS Eliot said that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’ but I subscribe more to the Keats view of life as a process of soul-making, which I think means developing the sensitivity and courage to see what’s really there.

A good friend of mine suffered from depression. He once told me that he started feeling better when he stopped focusing on the differences between himself and others and began to understand that everybody was just the same. This discovery is at the heart of one of my favourite poems from another person prone to melancholy:


His Country   by Thomas Hardy

I journeyed from my native spot
Across the south sea shine,
And found that people in hall and cot
Laboured and suffered each his lot
Even as I did mine.

Thus noting them in meads and marts
It did not seem to me
That my dear country with its hearts,
Minds, yearnings, worse and better parts
Had ended with the sea.

I further and further went anon,
As such I still surveyed,
And further yet – yea, on and on,
And all the men I looked upon
Had heart-strings fellow-made.

I traced the whole terrestrial round,
Homing the other side;
Then said I, “What is there to bound
My denizenship? It seems I have found
Its scope to be world-wide.”

I asked me: “Whom have I to fight,
And whom have I to dare,
And whom to weaken, crush, and blight?
My country seems to have kept in sight
On my way everywhere.”


The same simple yet profound insight inspires Sting’s song ‘Russians’, which ends with these words:

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too

It strikes me that the way to resolve our differences is to search for common ground and focus on what we share. Ordinary people the world over cherish the common decencies – a belief in fairness, generosity and mutual respect amounting to a faith in the power of love. This is no surprise given that we are all descended from the same genetic stock. Put simply – and setting aside any distractions of race and nation – we all share the same mother. And now worldwide communication gives us a chance to deepen our familial bonds by evolving a common culture based on the best of our shared past.

I don’t mean to make this sound easy. We need imagination to break the straitjacket of stereotype before we can make common cause with strangers who have grown up in different cultures. Dreams and the world of the imagination offer us a key to unlock our prison of alienation, or otherness, as the following poem suggests:


Through Nightmare   by Robert Graves

Never be disenchanted of
That place you sometimes dream yourself into,
Lying at large remove beyond all dream,
Or those you find there, though but seldom
In their company seated –

The untameable, the live, the gentle.
Have you not known them? Whom? They carry
Time looped so river-wise about their house
There’s no way in by history’s road
To name or number them.

In your sleepy eyes I read the journey
Of which disjointedly you tell; which stirs
My loving admiration, that you should travel
Through nightmare to a lost and moated land
Who are timorous by nature.


Understanding other cultures is no easier than grasping the life experience of our ancestors, but I reckon that making the effort to do both creates a strong bridge between people. History, despite what Henry Ford said, is not bunk. Take the long perspectives and shallow differences fade into deeper similarities. Space and time are one, says Einstein, when everything is relative. And science tells us we are all related. We share a sense of wonder for the natural world of which we are an instinctive part, as this poem shows:


from More Poems   by AE Housman


I lay me down and slumber
And every morn revive.
Whose is the night-long breathing
That keeps me man alive?

When I was off to dreamland
And left my limbs forgot,
Who stayed at home to mind them,
And breathed when I did not?


– I waste my time in talking,
No heed at all takes he,
My kind and foolish comrade
That breathes all night for me.


I’ve always wondered what the missing third verse contained. Did Housman want out of his blind craving for life? Perhaps he’d stopped seeing himself as a work in progress, though he does seem grateful to his unseen alter-ego for ploughing on regardless. Jung felt we shared ‘a collective unconscious’, which modern science might interpret as our genetic heritage. And to quote the late Paul Kantner, we are – for good or ill – The Crown of Creation.

Let our reign do us honour, I say …  which it still may, if we ever learn to sing with one voice – Wordsworth’s ‘still, sad music of humanity’, perhaps. So in the spirit of peace and reconciliation I offer my own humble contribution to the book of common prayer:

Our ancestors

Who live within us,

We salute you!

May your goodness bear fruit

And your dreams come true

In the light of this new day.

You gave us the power

To learn from our mistakes,

As we let others learn from theirs.

May we build upon your example,

For your ways are our ways now

To pass on to future generations.

So be it always.


Only Connect


The delightful word serendipity, meaning ‘the occurrence of events by chance in a beneficial way’, was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole before or at the beginning of 1754, from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific letter writer, and he explained to one of his main correspondents that he had based the word on the title of a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes of which ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.

I’ve seen it suggested that the OED‘s definition of the word – “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident” – is at variance with Walpole’s original meaning. However ‘faculty’ suggests a natural ability which could be called ‘sagacity’. Another name for it might be ‘common sense’.

My question would be, are such discoveries just happy accidents or has our successful evolution left us stronger instincts to recognise connections than we sometimes realise? My answer would consider the huge popularity of the detective story, where scattered clues tell a hidden story …

Misfortune befalls The Three Princes of Serendip when a camel driver stops them on the road and asks them if they have seen one of his camels. Although they have not, they have noticed signs that suggest a camel has passed along the road. Ever ready to dazzle with their wit and sagacity, the princes mystify the camel driver by asking him if the lost camel is blind in one eye, missing a tooth and lame. The camel, they say, carried a load of butter on one side and honey on the other, and was ridden by a pregnant woman. Concluding that the princes have stolen the camel, the driver has them imprisoned. It is only after the driver’s neighbour finds the camel that they are released.

The princes are brought before the Emperor, who asks them how they could give such an accurate description of a camel they had never seen. It is clear from the princes’ reply that they had brilliantly interpreted the scant evidence observed along the road.

As the grass had been eaten on one side of the road where it was less verdant, the princes deduced that the camel was blind to the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, presumably they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was clear because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

The deduction regarding the pregnant rider is more complicated than the rest and is somewhat lewd, so those of a sensitive nature may wish to skip this passage.

“I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman,” said the second brother, “because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. Because some urine was near by, I wet my fingers (in it) and as a reaction to its odour I felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said the third, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating.”

It’s all rather far-fetched, of course, but there’s something fascinating about the scientific method used here. There is also an element of teamwork involved, as with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson who remind us that teams work best when they are free to disagree. (Many marriages, my own included, offer plentiful evidence of this!) Several great scientific discoveries were made by two people, where one alone might not have put the serendipitous two and two together. And most people know how apparently unrelated events, when discussed, can lead to fresh insights.


Here’s a humble example. A few days ago I read three WordPress posts back-to-back whose mutual connections set my head spinning. The first called for sustainability to become the new religion, dedicated to our offspring, where blasphemy would be conspicuous consumption and the failure to recycle. The second described how university scientists have determined the best technology to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and try to reverse global warming. It turns out to be trees. The third spoke of a spirit of inquiry which forgets previous knowledge, questions without agenda, listens with openness and curiosity … and suggested tree-climbing as an example of natural investigation teeming with insight and revelation.

Compassion. Learning. Realisation. Only Connect and you can achieve Enlightenment!

Or so I’m told. I do know that time is short. Perhaps we serve (and save) time best by indulging our natural love of serendipity. Language in its widest sense has roots in history and enables us to bring the disparate world together. But things being various, let our legacy be to keep them that way …



If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Philip Larkin



Free Radical


The idea that life unfolds to a pattern laid down by gods or fate or whatever has never appealed to me. Whenever people – worse still, peoples – believed they had a pre-ordained destiny, it was bad news for indigenous races and minority groups. Modern science has replaced the model of a clockwork machine universe with something much more fluid and dynamic and, yes, exciting. My poem explores this idea of a creative potential that is the polar opposite of passive acceptance. Only as free individuals can we become one people.


                 Thinking Out Loud

The particle collider in our head
Holds fragments of the past that whirl around
In circles, frozen orbits of the dead
Through inner space. They never make a sound.

When silence grows too loud we open wide
Perception's doors and welcome in the new,
Observing past and present worlds collide
In teasing spiral glimpses - all too few -

Of what's to come. They crash and burn,
Though not before the camera of our mind
Snaps every possibility in turn
As if the future's there to be divined.

But how could everything be stuck that way?
We generate the world afresh each day.

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