The Boiling Frog

Commuting days until retirement: 370

In my post a while back about psychogeography, I mentioned a book called Tunnel Visions by Christopher Ross. Ross is the man who took a job as a station assistant on the London Underground, primarily just to observe and reflect on his fellow humans as they travelled, the very readable result being this book. I had mislaid it in the disordered book-drifts that lie about our house, but finding it again recently I re-read it. In the book Ross mentions a previous professional job which he left in order to travel and experience other cultures – he occasionally refers to these by way of contextualising some of our own peculiarities. Returning to England, he took the Underground job to further his own particular philosophical investigations. I was interested to find that, in the book’s Amazon reviews, there’s one by someone who came across him in his original job, and and mentions that he was a very capable tax lawyer. Evidently his need to engage with the world in a fresh way outweighed any material benefits or intellectual satisfaction in the job. Here’s his preferred metaphor for the fate he had escaped:

Boiling frog

Wikimedia Commons / Arthur G Cox

The boiling frog was a favourite object lesson and it was always hopping into my mind. In order to push back the boundaries of scientific discovery, scientists found out that frogs have nervous systems poorly adapted to register slow incremental change. So if you sit one in a saucepan of water and slowly heat it, the poor frog will stay where it is and boil to death.
We become chiropodists and lawn mower salesmen by a series of imperceptible ‘choices’ and by the time we realise what we’ve done, we’re boiled.

Well, I’ve no doubt that the world is replete with happy and fulfilled chiropodists and lawn mower salesmen, but you know what he means. Of course there are those who have a life plan settled in their minds when they are barely out of childhood, and proceed to stick to it – I’ve met one or two. Michael Heseltine, the former Conservative minister, famously wrote his down on the back of an envelope at the start of his career. It involved making a lot of money, entering parliament, and audaciously ended with ‘Prime Minister’. Only that last step eluded him.

And there are those like Ross himself – the free spirits – who are determined to try and make the world yield up its secrets by taking a more fresh and unconventional approach, probably giving up much comfort and prosperity in order to do so.

But most of us are much more like the frog. You start off in the career stakes with one of the jobs that happen to be there when you need one – most likely the one where your personality chances to gel with the people in the interview. And sooner or later you happen to see an ad for another job with a better salary, and which you realise you now have the experience for – and so on. And by this time you may have children who need feeding and housing, and you can’t step off the treadmill even if you want to.

I rather think, looking around the train at my fellow commuters, that some of them have the air of well-cooked amphibians. Maybe I can claim not to be thoroughly boiled, but can’t deny that I am at least lightly braised. I envy Ross his courage and independence, but I wouldn’t have given up the chance to raise children: parents can find at least as much fulfillment, and valuable life experience, as any philosophical nomad.

Maybe that’s something he still aims to fit his life around; I don’t know – he doesn’t say. I have searched the internet to find out what he’s been up to in the 12 years or so since the book was published,  but haven’t found anything. But I doubt whether he’s fallen back into the evil scientist’s flask.

What about you? I’d like to hear whether you consider yourself to be gently simmering, or good, fresh and raw.

Watching the World Go By

Commuting days until retirement: 381

Not another description of me, looking out of the window of my commuter train, but a few thoughts prompted by looking at some early film footage. A recent programme on Channel 4 looked at the rise of Hitler, using contemporary film from the 1920s and 1930s, which had been digitally enhanced and colourised to a startling level of realism. The thoughts I wanted to share concern not the subject of the films, but the medium itself.

Edweard Muybridge

Edweard Muybridge (Wikimedia Commons)

Most people have some awareness of the early history of moving pictures, the notion having been conceived almost as early as photography itself. Probably the first pioneer of the medium was the somewhat eccentric, but evidently brilliant, Edweard Muybridge. (He had changed his name – as he did several times – from the original Edward Muggeridge). Born in England, he lived for most of his life in the USA, where on his first visit he suffered a near-fatal blow on the head in a stagecoach accident. He recovered, but perhaps this accounted for some of the eccentricity. Some years later, in 1875, on he was tried, again in America, for murder, having shot dead his young wife’s lover. The defence entered a plea of insanity, but he rather gave the lie to that with a speech on his own behalf which was both cogent and impassioned enough to sway the jury to acquit him with a verdict of ‘justified homicide’.

Muybridge's horse

Muybridge’s horse (Wikimedia Commons)

Having started his career as a bookseller he later became a professional photographer, and in 1872 he was commissioned to settle a debate over whether all four hooves of a cantering or galloping horse were ever out of contact with the ground simultaneously. Having established by means of still photographs that they indeed were, he developed a fascination with the possibilities of capturing human and animal movement photographically. His earliest efforts, in the late 1870s, involved placing a number of cameras along the side of a track, and and using various mechanical methods to trigger them sequentially as a moving horse passed by them. Showing the result involved laboriously copying the photos as silhouettes on to a disc, from which they were projected using a device which Muybridge invented and called a Zoopraxiscope.  The animation above shows a modern rendering of his original images.

By the turn of the century integrated, hand-cranked film cameras had been developed, and so, like insects from their pupae, we see the people of over a hundred years ago emerge from their frozen monochrome images into a jerky, half-real life. And in retrospect it seems as if the lack of realism was accentuated as the medium began to be put to use for entertainment. There was already the Victorian tradition of high melodrama, and on top of this actors had to find ways of expressing themselves which did not use sound. The results now appear to us impossibly stilted and artificial.

Alongside this, however, entrepreneurs of the time had, luckily for us, spotted another opportunity to exploit the new medium. They realised that if they were to film ordinary people going about their business, those people may well pay a good price to be able to see themselves in an entirely novel way. And indeed they did. So we have a wonderful resource of animated scenes from streets and other public places of the era. Until recently these early examples of ciné verité haven’t been seen very often, and I’m guessing that the most important reason for this is that other limitation on realism – the speed of the original cameras. They were hand-cranked to the highest rate that the early mechanisms would allow, but this couldn’t match the frame rate of later twentieth century equipment. The choice has been either to slow it down and put up with jarringly jerky motion; or the easier way, of simply showing it at the conventional frame rate so that motion appeared much faster.  The latter option has been resorted to so often that it has given rise to a trope: accelerated motion equals the past. Even more contemporary footage showing mocked up scenes of an earlier era has sometimes been artificially speeded up, in order to borrow a little authenticity.

But with today’s digital techniques that is now changing. Not only can individual frames be cleaned up and clarified, but new frames can be interpolated into the instants between the original ones, slowing bodily movements and restoring a natural appearance. This new realism was what struck me about the scenes I saw of 1920s Germany – but we now have an increasing number of such enhanced early films, going back to around 1900, thanks to those original entrepreneurs. There are a number of examples on YouTube, so I have chosen one to insert here. It shows a selection of scenes in England around 1900. I like to pull the image up to full screen and immerse myself in it, imagining that I am walking the streets of late Victorian or early Edwardian England, and I try unsuccessfully to think the thoughts I might have been thinking if I had really been present then. Although these are humans like us, how do they differ?

Well, most obviously in their dress. What always takes my attention is the ubiquity of hats. I searched through this clip for anyone without one. There us one smartly dressed man standing at the back of a very well-heeled looking family group, who has perhaps just stepped out of the door behind him. Otherwise all I could find was one small child (who had probably lost his) and the rowers on the river and (who are stripped down to their sporting gear, with their hats probably safely awaiting them on pegs in the changing room). Evidently if I’d been alive then I would have considered it almost unthinkable to have left the house on even the shortest journey without something on my head – whether I was rich or poor. And even the rowers are followed by another group of men out for an afternoon boat trip, and they are fully hatted and suited as they brandish the oars. I was also taken by the man who appears about 40 seconds into the sequence, approaching the camera while, in an apparently habitual gesture, he strokes back each side of his carefully manicured handlebar moustache. His bearing suggests that he considers himself the epitome of 1900 cool. He unceremoniously sweeps two children out of his way before moving off to the left. That action in itself suggests that a rather less indulgent attitude to children was commonplace then.

But looking at urban streets at that time, and allowing for all the obvious differences, there still seems something unfamiliar about the movement of the crowd. I realised what it was when watching the 1920s German footage. At that time, in the inflation-hit Weimar Republic, the streets were full of half-starved unemployed, with little to do but – yes – watch the world go by. The film clip above shows people in a more prosperous time and place, but in most of the street shots you can nevertheless see a number who are just passively standing. Some of course are staring at the novelty of the film camera, but you can see plenty of others just watching in general.

Consider what entertainment was available: if you were to stay at home, and were not a reader (many of course never got the chance to be) you either had to make your own entertainment, or go out and find it. And so the street provided the most immediate – and cheapest – way to occupy the mind. In a typical street scene today, virtually everyone would be rushing somewhere unless forced into stasis by a wait for a bus, or by a queue of some sort. And even then they will often be busily talking on the phone or texting. While most of our 1900 public are also on the move, they have to make their way around that now-vanished residue of watchers who are happy to stand and stare at the rest of the world getting to where it wants to get to. And a visual medium in its very earliest form has given us a sense of what life was like without the visual media we are now so used to.

Accident of Birth

Commuting days until retirement: 390

My commuter train reading in recent weeks has been provided by Hilary Mantel’s two Mann Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. If you don’t know, they are the first two of what is promised to be a trilogy covering the life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose to be Henry VIII’s right hand man. He’s a controversial figure in history: you may have seen Robert Bolt’s play (or the film of) A Man for All Seasons, where he is portrayed as King Henry’s evil arch-fixer, who engineers the execution of the man of the title, Sir Thomas More. He is also known to have had a big part in the downfall and death of Anne Boleyn.

The unique approach of Mantel’s account is to narrate exclusively from Cromwell’s own point of view. At the opening of the first book he is being violently assaulted by the drunken, irresponsible blacksmith father whom he subsequently escapes, seeking a fortune abroad as a very young man, and living on his very considerable wits. On his return to England, having gained wide experience and the command of several languages, he progresses quickly within the establishment, becoming a close advisor to Cardinal Wolsey, and later, of course, Henry VIII. I won’t create spoilers for the books by going into further detail – although if you are familiar with the relevant history you will already know some of these. I’ll just mention that in Mantel’s portrayal he emerges as phenomenally quick-witted, but loyal to those he serves. She shows him as an essentially unassuming man, well aware of his own abilities, and stoical whenever he suffers reverses or tragedies. These qualities give him a resilience which aids his rise to some of the highest offices in the England of his time. In the books we are privy to his dreams, and his relationships with his family – although he might appear to some as cold-blooded, he is also a man of natural feelings and passions.

Thomas Cromwell and the Duke of Norfolk

Thomas Cromwell (left) and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk – both as portrayed by Hans Holbein

But the theme that kicked off my thoughts for this post was that of Cromwell’s humble origin. It’s necessarily central to the books, given that it was rare then for someone without nobility or inherited title to achieve the rank that he did. What Mantel brings out so well is the instinctive assumption that an individual’s value is entirely dependent on his or her inheritance – unquestioned in that time, as throughout most of history until the modern era. As the blacksmith’s son from Putney, Cromwell is belittled by his enemies and teased by his friends. But at the same time we watch him, with his realistic and perceptive awareness of his own position, often running rings around various blundering earls and dukes, and even subtly manipulating the thinking of the King. My illustrations show Cromwell himself and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, a jealous opponent. By all accounts Norfolk was a rather simple, plain-speaking man, and certainly without Cromwell’s intellectual gifts. So today we would perhaps see Cromwell as better qualified for the high office that both men held. But seen through 16th century eyes, Cromwell would be the anomaly, and Norfolk, with his royal lineage, the more natural holder of a seat in the Privy Council.

Throughout history there have of course been persistent outbreaks of protest from those disempowered by accident of birth. But the fundamental issues have often often obscured by the chaos and competition for privilege which result. We can most obviously point to the 18th century, with the convulsion of the French revolution, which resulted in few immediate benefits; and the foundation of a nation – America – on the ideals of equality and freedom, followed however by its enthusiastic maintenance of slavery for some years. Perhaps it wasn’t until the 19th century, and the steady, inexorable rise of the middle class, that fundamental change began. As this was happening, Darwin came along to ram home the point that any intrinsic superiority on the basis of your inheritance was illusory. Everyone’s origins were ultimately the same; what counted was how well adapted you were to the external conditions you were born into. But was this the same for human beings as for animals? The ability to thrive in the environment in which you found yourself was certainly a measure of utilitarian, or economic value. But is this the scale on which we should value humans? It’s a question that I’ll try to show there’s s still much confusion about today. Meanwhile Karl Marx was analysing human society in terms of class and mass movements, moving the emphasis away from the value of individuals – a perspective which had momentous consequences in the century to come.

But fundamental attitudes weren’t going to change quickly. In England the old class system was fairly steady on its feet until well into the 20th century. My own grandmother told me about the time that her father applied to enrol her brothers at a public school (i.e. a private school, if you’re not used to British terminology). This would have been, I estimate, between about 1905 and 1910. The headmaster of the school arrived at their house in a horse and trap to look the place over and assess their suitability. My great-grandfather had a large family, with a correspondingly large house, and all the servants one would then have had to keep the place running. He was a director of a successful wholesale grocery company – and hearing this, the headmaster politely explained that, being “in trade” he didn’t qualify as a father of sons who could be admitted. Had he been maybe a lawyer, or a clergyman, there would have been no problem.

Let’s move on fifty years or so, to the start of the TV age. It’s s very instructive to watch British television programmes from this era – or indeed films and newsreels. Presenters and commentators all have cut-glass accents that today, just 60 or so years on, appear to us impossibly affected and artificial. The working class don’t get much of a look in at all: in the large numbers of black-and-white B-movies that were turned out at this time the principal actors have the accents of the ruling class, while working class characters appear either as unprincipled gangster types, or as lovable ‘cheekie chappies’ showing proper deference to their masters.

By this time, staying with Britain, we had the 1944 Education Act, which had the laudable motive of making a suitable education available to all, regardless of birth. But how to determine what sort of education would be right for each child? We had the infamous eleven plus exam, where in a day or two of assessment the direction of your future would be set. While looking forward to a future of greater equality of opportunity, the conception seemed simultaneously mired in the class stratification of the past, where each child had a predetermined role and status, which no one, least of all the child himself or herself, could change. Of course this was a great step up for bright working class children who might otherwise have been neglected, and instead received a fitting education at grammar schools. Thomas Cromwell, in a different age, could have been the archetypal grammar school boy.

But given the rigid stratification of the system, it’s not surprising that within 20 years left wing administrations started to change things again. While the reforming Labour government of 1945-51 had many other things to concentrate on, the next one, achieving office in 1964, made education a priority, abolishing the 11 plus and introducing comprehensive schools. This established the framework which is only now starting to be seriously challenged by the policies of the current coalition government. Was the comprehensive project successful, and does it need challenging now? I’d argue that it does.

R A Butler

R A “Rab” Butler

To return to basics, it seems to me that what’s at stake is, again, how you value an individual human being. In Cromwell’s time as we’ve seen, no one doubted that it was all to do with the status of your forbears. But by 1944 the ambitious middle class had long been a reality, showing that you could prove your value and rise to prosperity regardless of your origins. This was now a mass phenomenon, not confined to very unusual and lucky individuals, as it had been with Cromwell. And so education realigned itself around the new social structure. But with the education minister of the time, R.A. Butler, being a patrician (if liberal-minded) Tory, perhaps it was inevitable that something of the rigidity of the old class structure would be carried over into the new education system.

So if an exam at the age of eleven effectively determines your place in society, how are we now valuing human beings? It’s their intellectual ability, and their consequent economic value which is the determining factor. If you succeed you go to a grammar school to be primed for university, while if not, you may be given a condescending pat on the head and steered towards a less intellectually demanding trade. We would all agree that there is a more fundamental yardstick against which we measure individuals – an intrinsic, or moral value. We’d rate the honest low-achiever over the clever crook. But somehow the system, with its rigid and merciless classification, is sweeping the more important criterion aside.

Anthony Crosland

Anthony Crosland

And so the reforming zeal of the 1960s Labour government was to remove those class-defining barriers and provide the same education for all. The education minister of that time was a noted intellectual – private school and Oxford educated – Anthony Crosland. His reported remark, supposedly made to his wife, serves to demonstrate the passion of the project: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland”. (In Northern Ireland, it should be noted, he was less successful than elsewhere). But the remark also suggests a fixity of purpose which spread to the educational establishment for many years to come. If it was illegitimate to value children unequally, then in no circumstances should this be done.

You may or may not agree with me that the justified indignation of the time was leading to a fatal confusion between the two yardsticks I distinguished – the economic one and the moral one. And so, by the lights of Labour at that time, if we are allocating different resources to children according to their aptitudes – well, we shouldn’t. All must be equal. Yes – in the moral sense. But in the economic one? Even Karl Marx made that distinction – remember his famous slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?  All that the reformists needed to do, in my opinion, was to take the rigidity out of the system – to let anyone aspire to a new calling that he or she can achieve, at whatever age, and under whatever circumstances that their need arises.

Back to personal experience. I can remember when we were looking over primary schools for our first child – this would be in the early 90s. One particular headmaster bridled when my wife asked about provision for children of different abilities. The A-word was clearly not to be used. Yet as he talked on, there were several times that he visibly recognised that he himself was about to use it, spotted the elephant trap at the last moment, and awkwardly stepped around it. This confused man was in thrall to the educational establishment’s fixed, if unconscious, assumption that differing ability equals unequal value. (We didn’t send our children to that school.)

Over the years, these attitudes have led to a frequent refusal to make any provision for higher ability pupils, with the consequence that talent which might previously have been nurtured, has been ignored. If you can afford it, of course, you can buy your way out of the system and opt for a private education. Private school pupils have consistently had the lion’s share of places at the top universities, and so the architects and supporters of the state system ideology have called for the universities to be forced to admit more applicants from that system, and to restrict those from the private sector. Is this right? I’d argue that the solution to failure in the state schools is not to try and extend the same failed ideology to the universities, but to try to address what is wrong in the schools. A confusion between our economic and moral valuations of individual threatens to lead to consequences which are damaging, it seems to me, both in an economic and a moral sense.

The plans of the present UK education minister, Michael Gove, have come in for a lot of criticism. It would be outside the scope of this piece – and indeed my competence – to go into that in detail, but it does seem to me that he is making a principled and well intentioned attempt to restore the proper distinction between those economic and moral criteria – making good use of individual ability where it can be found, without being condescending to those who are not so academic, or making the distinctions between them too rigid. And of course I haven’t addressed the issue of whether the existence of a separate private education sector is desirable – again outside the scope of this post.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King
(Nobel Foundation)

What, at least, all now agree on is that the original criterion of individual value we looked at – birth status – is no longer relevant. Well, almost all. Racist ideologies, of course, persist in the old attitude. A recent anniversary has reminded us of one of the defining speeches of the 20th century, that of Martin Luther King, who laid bare the failure of the USA to uphold the principles of its constitution, and famously looked forward to a time when people would be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. The USA, whose segregationist policies in some states he was addressing, has certainly made progress since then. But beyond the issues I have described, there are many further problems around the distinction between moral and economic values. In most societies there are those whose contribution is valued far more in the moral sense than the economic one: nurses, teachers. What, if if anything, should we do about that? I don’t claim to know any easy answers.

I kicked off from the themes in Hilary Mantel’s books and embarked on a topic which I soon realised was a rather unmanageably vast one for a simple blog post. Along the way I have been deliberately contentious – please feel free to agree or disagree in the comments below. But what got me going was the way in which Mantel’s study of Cromwell takes us into the collective mind of an age when the instinctive ways of evaluating individuals were entirely different. What I don’t think anyone can reasonably disagree with is the importance of history in throwing the prejudices of our own age into a fresh and revealing perspective.

Fate – Grim or Otherwise

Commuting days until retirement: 469

life-after-lifeThe existence of each one of us, and the crucial events of our lives, are entirely dependent upon a chain of often minor and unrecorded preceding circumstances. Yes – a rather pompous-sounding and trivial observation, but when seen from a subjective point of view it can seem to assume a more profound significance. What prompts this is the novel I’ve just finished, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

It’s a theme that often surfaces in contemporary fiction: in Making it Up Penelope Lively takes the events of her own life and allows them to develop in plausible directions other than the one in which they actually did; David Mitchell (the novelist, not the TV personality), in his first novel Ghostwritten, traces interlinked chains of causality around the globe in which, giving just one example, a fleeting encounter in a London street has critical consequences for the future of humanity.

Kate Atkinson has been a favourite of mine since her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She has a Dickensian ability to create an extensive collection of characters each of whom are entirely convincing, and whose interactions with each other may surprise you, but are never less than believable. In fact I find her characters more realistic, and less caricatured, than those of Dickens.

In Life After Life her realism becomes a little more magical. It concerns Ursula Todd, born in 1910 and witnessing the events of the 20th century in a variety of different ways (or not at all) as repeated versions of her life take different courses. I’m not giving anything much away – as both of these events come at the very beginning of the book – if I tell you that in one life she dies at birth, and in another gets to assassinate Hitler before he becomes Chancellor of Germany. Ursula’s large and believable family (Atkinson is particularly good at families) also individually suffer a variety of fates alongside Ursula’s own. The close juxtaposition of earthy reality and fanciful metaphysics comes off, for me, entirely successfully.

So what about the metaphysics of real life? Just to consider this blog, it owes its existence to a whole host of preceding factors. Among them is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, as is the precise trajectory of a shell in the battle of the Somme in 1916, which, had it been very slightly different, would have resulted in the death of my grandfather. As it was, it landed close enough to him to give him what all WW1 soldiers hoped for – a ‘Blighty wound’, which was a passport back home.

A scene at Pozieres during the Battle of the Somme

A scene at Pozières during the Battle of the Somme

Torquay in the early 20th century

Torquay in the early 20th century

But the first my grandfather knew of it was when he came back to consciousness in a hospital in Torquay. Like most who have been through experiences like his, he never said very much about them. However some measure of what he had been through lies in the fact that he felt moved to return to Torquay for a holiday nearly every year for the rest of his life. His son, who would have been my uncle, was not so lucky, though. He lost his life in the first months of the second world war at the age of 19. I was told how likeable and outgoing he was as a character, and I’m sure he would have gone on to have a family. I sometimes spare a thought for my non-existent cousins.

Photo: Steve Cadman

Photo: Steve Cadman

Most of us are aware of certain fateful moments in our own lives – at any rate in retrospect. The one that often returns to me took place when I was on a work trip to New York. My hotel room had a view over the United Nations, giving me an almost cheesily memorable backdrop for my thoughts as I sat there. And my thoughts were about a woman of my acquaintance, and how a postcard suggesting we should go out together would be received, if I sent it to her.

The indecision finally resolved itself, and I sent the card. It gives me a curious, vertiginous feeling to think that the existence of my very real, and now adult, children hung in the balance at that moment. You may wonder what their reaction would be on reading this. It would be Oh God, not that story again.

Well, my nearly-wasn’t wife and I are shortly off to Venice for a long weekend. The idea is to have a relaxing break, but having just run the gauntlet of the Ryanair online check-in process we are starting to wonder. Anyhow, I don’t expect to encounter any life-changing events there; but if I return with any memories worth mentioning they may find their way on to these pages.

Memento Mori

Commuting days until retirement: 477

After my stay in what is officially an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, here’s some beauty of a less conventional kind. I glimpsed it out of the train window, and it stayed in my thoughts, and maybe dreams, for a few days afterwards. Since it’s right by a station I was able to return and photograph it.

broken shed
At this point I wondered whether I should simply leave it there for you to enjoy (or not), but since writing is what this blog is really about, I’m going to go ahead and write about it.

What this perfectly exemplifies for me is all those abandoned and forgotten enclaves of wilderness that are constantly close to us, especially in an urban environment. Many of them seem to be created by the presence of railway lines, which carve out little squares and triangles of unusable, inaccessible land which grow weeds and irresistibly attract plastic bottles, tin cans and all the detritus of the surrounding activity. Activity that’s hard to escape from if you need to earn a living, serving a multiplicity of ephemeral but urgent needs. (I’m sounding like an Church of England sermon.)  I wanted to say that forgotten outposts like this pictured one, by contrast, lie outside the frantic zone, and just are. This example is just by the main line where hundreds of thousands of commuters pass daily with their laptops, iPads, dry cleaned suits and power hair styles. Some of them, like me, must give it their attention as they stare out of the window.

I like the way that it immediately changes the perspective that my mind is locked into much of the time. The effect is like one of those stark portraits of an elderly person on the fringes of life, usually from a third world setting, that you often see in the work of a professional photographer. You are struck by the deep wrinkles, the inscrutable expression and the steady gaze. Here it’s the thoroughly wrecked appearance, as well as the utter unregarded dereliction, that invokes some obscure emotional response. Dirt and decay. How did it come to suffer not only broken windows and a holed roof, but also a total structural dislocation, as if picked up and thrown down by a giant hand? It seems to mock the vertical regularity of the flats visible behind it.

It has itself been regular, designed artefact, originally formed out of the surrounding chaos only to be irresistibly drawn back into it – and I think that’s the morbid attraction of a sight like this. For the purposeful, dressed and coiffured commuters who pass by daily it’s a reminder of the disorder and death on the fringes of their assiduously chased aspirations. I’m reminded of the famously death-averse (and dead) poet Philip Larkin, and his poem titled with a jaunty irony Next Please. He characterises our hopes and ambitions:

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.

But concludes

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence.

Too much to read into a picture of an old shed? If I have made anyone unnecessarily gloomy I apologise. Perhaps blogs should carry warnings, like films or TV programmes: This post contains thoughts that some readers may find depressing. But I like a good wallow.

It’s commuting, but not as we know it

Commuting days until retirement: 487

No commuting this week: we are spending our Easter holiday, as we have for several years now, on Scilly, a group of islands 30 miles off the coast of south west England. And this break in the usual rhythm of my life is a chance to – among other things – think about the differing rhythms of some other lives. I believe the island where we are staying, Bryher, is the smallest inhabited one of the group – it has a permanent population of about 80, added to seasonally by people like us.

Imagine an island about two miles long, with the mildest climate in the British Isles. Its south-eastern end, sheltered, with palm trees and colourful flowers, has an almost tropical feel (Green Bay), while its north-eastern extremity consists of moorland covered in heather and ending in cliffs facing out into the Atlantic storms (Hell Bay). To live here is to be permanently surrounded by exceptionally beautiful, almost deserted, scenery. In order to enjoy this you’d have to accept being cut off from the mainland – in the sense that it requires an expensive boat or plane trip to get there. You have phone, TV/radio and the internet, of course (eagerly adopted by these islands when it arrived), but work here mostly consists of farming or servicing the tourist trade – in other words a lot of tough manual labour.

But there are other blessings: almost no motorised transport, apart from tractors, quad bikes and a few Land Rovers, and a complete absence of crime. Nobody locks their doors, and if you’ve ordered food from the shop it may be delivered while you’re out, neatly put away in your kitchen or fridge. It’s perfect for idle holidaymakers like us: there’s a hotel, two other restaurants, a well-stocked shop and, as of this year we discover, even a pizza takeaway open two evenings a week.

Scilly-commute0Commuting, where it exists, is of course something completely different – maybe by boat, between islands. Young children here commute to school by a short boat trip to the next island, and older ones board weekly at a secondary school on the largest island. But here’s a commute which I rate as the most desirable I have ever come across. There’s an artist who works on the island, and has what seems to be a good living. Paintings in his recognisable style appear in hotels and other settings around the islands as well as the nearby mainland. The island hotel has adopted a detail from one of his paintings as its logo, and he sells prints and merchandise to many of us tourists. In the picture below you can see where he lives and where he works. This is a commute that I could put up with indefinitely.


Gardening Leave

Commuting days until retirement: 499

A cold, windy garden, seen from a warm study

A cold, windy garden seen from a warm study

A day off, supposedly to do some gardening, but the sub-zero wind is keeping me indoors. Delicate plants, we office workers.

A chance, at any rate, to reflect on that back and forth journey that the rest of my fellow commuters have resumed for the week. When you look at all those other blank faces on the train, you do wonder about what’s behind them. When they look around at their fellow passengers (carefully, so as not to catch anyone’s eye), what are they thinking about this repetitive enterprise that we are all involved in? Why does it take place – beyond, that is, our individual needs to make a living? Backwards and forwards – reciprocal motion, like the pistons in a car engine. The pistons keep the car moving, irrespective of where it’s going, and of course we commuters, busy driving the engine of society, have no more idea than do the pistons where our vehicle is headed.

No doubt that is unfair to some, who have occupations with a very explicit social purpose. But I’d guess that the majority of us work for private companies, and are driven by the profit motive – a force as amoral as the torque of the car engine, which may be propelling the car towards sunlit uplands of some sort – or over a cliff edge. The difference in our case, of course, is that there’s no driver, no consciously directed intention, no steering wheel.

Or is there? Here we could head into either politics or religion, those two traditionally taboo topics of polite conversation. But it’s religion I’m thinking of. A few posts ago I referred to a Bible-reading passenger sitting right next to me on the train. I see such people regularly, and no doubt they are quite clear about the purpose question. But the rest of us?

Winning the argument

It seems as if the atheists are currently winning the argument. Once rather less focused, nowadays they have some strident and articulate standard-bearers. This has perhaps lent some conviction to the waverers among us. There was a time when religion, for most, was more of a social badge. My father, for instance, would unhesitatingly write “C of E” (Church of England) on any form that asked for religion, but would never be seen in a church, other than for weddings or funerals. And this wasn’t hypocrisy: he was quite up-front about his beliefs, or lack of them. More recently, most people would mutter something vague to the effect of “Well, I think there must be something…” if asked the religion question.

But now, surveys and censuses show that there are a many more who will happily call themselves atheists, or at least agnostics. The New Atheists, as they now tend to be called, have got across the message that we don’t need a purpose imposed on us from above – we can formulate our own. We don’t, furthermore, require a God or a scriptural set of rules in order to tell right from wrong. And our sense of wonder has its needs catered for by the impressive discoveries of science.

So I think, on the face of it, I have pretty good credentials as an atheist. I more or less agree with the above statements; I don’t believe in an old man in the sky, or some more diffuse entity of which he is a personification; and creationism seems to me a ragbag of prejudice, ignorance and wishful thinking, as opposed to the coherent and justified body of theory which evolutionary biology gives us. Large, received bodies of doctrine from organised religion I am unable to swallow. So why is it, that if I see, for a example, a TV debate between an atheist and an apologist of religion, I feel myself instinctively sympathising with the religious point of view? (That’s assuming the religious side doesn’t represent creationism, or some swivel-eyed variety of fundamentalism.)

Stop worrying

Could it be the unbearable smugness which seems to hang like a cloud around the atheist programme? Individually, the most vocal atheists seem to be perfectly decent people, and some – for example Dawkins and Hitchens – are (or were) brilliant writers in their different ways. But somehow the public face of the movement seems to patronise us, with its inverted holier-than-thou expression.

That ghastly bus advertising campaign didn’t help: for those who don’t know it, there was an atheist-sponsored poster campaign on London buses a few years back, with the slogan ‘THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. SO STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE.’  Of the many reasons why this is objectionable, it’s difficult to pick out the worst. I would go for the fact that many people are worried a lot of the time, and not enjoying their lives, and for whom the existence of god is the last thing on their minds. So to be be dogged by fatuous slogans such as this does not make things any easier for them.

At least the campaign provided us with a bit if fun, when a religious group complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The advertising code of practice lays down that ads must be “Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful’. Well, we can probably get away with the first three here, so that leaves the issue of truthfulness. Which leaves the hapless ASA with the task of ruling on the probability of the existence of God. I have heard of no outcome to this, so perhaps they are still deliberating. Or maybe they judged the probability of the existence of God to be the same as that of Carlsberg being the best lager in the world.

Stuff and experience

No – for me, what is most importantly wrong with the atheist agenda is what it leaves out, what its vision simply doesn’t encompass. There are many aspects to this, so let’s start with the moral one. Of course, we can agree, our morals don’t come direct from the ten commandments. or any other body of doctrine. They come from the fact that we are sentient, conscious beings, who know what it is to suffer, and understand the importance of not inflicting such suffering on other beings – and of promoting their happiness and wellbeing.

That of course, I know, is a massive oversimplification, culturally, historically and emotionally – but it still has at its heart this question of consciousness, of private experience. No scientific theory yet has come anywhere near providing an account of this which can assimilate it into our account of the physical world. There’s ‘stuff’, and there’s ‘experience’. Science deals with the first; morality has more to do with the second. I’d maintain that the question of how, or whether, we can unify our knowledge of the two lies at present outside science, and will remain so unless science becomes a very different kind of enterprise.

These mysteries are, I would maintain, part of what religion is a response to – they are its stock-in-trade, what it is most comfortable with. But for the atheist/materialist agenda it’s necessary to assert that science has either explained them already, or will have them under its belt after some more investigation. I would respectfully disagree – and hope to expand on this in future posts.

More commuter’s tales

Commuting days until retirement: 503

This morning’s train journey had something of a surreal air about it, and the oddities started at the ticket office. This was the day when I surrender my monthly arm and leg in exchange for a season ticket. There was one passenger ahead of me, already at the window, and it was clear from his tone of voice that all was not well.

‘But I need it to claim the expenses!’
‘Well look, I’ve done you a photocopy. ‘
‘But they don’t accept photocopies! I have to have the ticket!’
‘I can’t do that. It’s railway property.’
‘I only need my ticket!’
‘You don’t buy a ticket. You buy the journey.’

This last point proffered with smug satisfaction, as an argument clincher.

ticketsAnd after only a few more exchanges, to my surprise, the passenger gave up. I wouldn’t have. And the clerk in this office had always seemed quite affable – I hadn’t put him down as a jobsworth. I thought of the vast majority of tickets I have ever bought, which have ended up in the bin at home. Will the railway send the bailiffs round one day, to enforce a mass repossession of these cherished items? The sheer Orwellian absurdity is difficult to believe. If the clerk had just given back the ticket, would he have ended up hanging by the wrists in some fearful house of correction for errant railway employees? I can just imagine it, under one of the dingier railway arches near the back end of Waterloo, where screams are heard on dark foggy nights.

‘Now once again. Who do the tickets belong to?’
(Yelp of pain)
‘Yes, that’s right – they belong to us.’

I had to catch the later train – the earlier one would have been before the ticket office opened. So a few minutes later I was on it, standing room only. Once we were under way there was a beep and a throat clearing – the driver had something to say. Drivers on the PA system vary in my commuting experience, from completely taciturn (a blessing if you’re reading) to chronic verbal diarrhoea. This one was well to the latter end of the scale.

I have an announcement, particularly for those who have joined the train at the last two stops.’ (Pause for effect.) ‘The state of the train is not at all what it should be today. It’s filthy. I can only apologise for the state of it. Last night we had late night revellers using it as a pigsty. Frankly I’m embarrassed to be driving this train. It’s a mess.

At this point, passengers are nervously catching each other’s eyes, in the British manner, not sure whether they dare to embark on a shared joke. They don’t quite manage it, not in my carriage, anyway. I look around, and it doesn’t look that much different from usual. I catch sight of one beer can under a seat, but that’s all. Meanwhile the driver is getting into his stride.

And this morning we had a cleaner off sick. So that’s why the train is in this state. It’s not good enough. It’s a shambles. You don’t deserve to be subjected to this.

It seems as if our main function is to be witnesses to this man’s grief.

The only crumb of comfort I can offer you is that I will be making representations at the highest levels about this. It’s unforgivable and something must be done.

Well, I hope for his sake that these higher echelons will have a sympathetic ear for him. But I rather suspect that they’ll be too busy counting their precious bits of cardboard.

Bus travel, a politician and a dark brown comestible

Commuting days until retirement: 504

These days the last leg of my journey into work is by bus. This is because, given my advanced age, I qualify for a bus pass, which saves me enough money to make it worthwhile. What hadn’t really struck me was, as my daughter had already told me, how much more civilised a form of transport it is than the tube (underground or metro, for non-UK readers). Instead of a brutal ten minutes of shoulder-to-shoulder, er – (as I try to think of a suitably claustrophobic word here, my spookily intelligent phone keyboard suggests ‘wrongness’. OK – ‘shoulder-to-shoulder wrongness’ will do very well.) So instead of ten minutes of that, a long way underground, I have twenty minutes of mature reflection as I survey busy London streets from wide top deck windows. And the frequent background of Eastern European chatter creates a sense of being delocalised, as if I am viewing the frenetic urban activity below from some privileged, remote vantage point.

And here's some proof, found in the back of a drawer by my sister. Also proves my age, unfortunately.

And here’s some proof, found in the back of a drawer by my sister. Also proves my age, unfortunately.

As this mobile ivory tower lurches and judders around corners and through traffic lights I sometimes think of a dictum of Margaret Thatcher’s: ‘If a man of over 26 finds himself on a bus he must consider himself a failure.’ I’m 64, so I don’t know what that makes me. And in this connection I also think of a school friend of mine, who, when we were about 12 or so, was quite single-mindedly fascinated by everything to do with buses. I caught the bug too, and for a year or two would join him on ‘Red Rovers’ (bus tickets that gave you travel all over London for a day), visit bus garages, and even take black-and-white photos of buses with our Kodak Brownies (remember them?). I can recall my mother gawping at my photo album, and obviously wondering what sort of psychological backwater her son had ended up in.

Well, (typically for me) the enthusiasm didn’t last long. But my friend proceeded to a career in management with London Transport, while marrying and raising a family. I haven’t seen him for a while, but I’ve heard that now, with that responsibility discharged, he is doing what he always really wanted to do – he drives a bus. And this seems to me to be a resounding success in life, although it wouldn’t register on the Thatcher scale.

Before expanding on the character of the former prime minister I naturally checked by Googling the quotation, to only to find that she never actually said it. It’s a sobering experience, having launched your carefully engineered, watertight Titanic of an argument, only to have it encounter the iceberg of a factual inaccuracy. My lifeboat will have to be the thought that it wouldn’t have been attributed it to her unless it had seemed to fit. And the point I was going to develop – which is now thrashing about in the freezing water but still alive – was how essentially one-dimensional her outlook was. Much more a conviction politician than many others, and one of immense strength of personality – but as we all know, a current gathers greater force when constricted into a narrow channel.

Margaret Thatcher, as depicted in TV's Spitting Image

Margaret Thatcher, as depicted in TV’s Spitting Image

Perhaps this accounts for how polarised people’s opinions about her tended to be. Either you admired the ‘iron lady’ strength of character, or if your politics differed, then what you saw as forceful wrong-headedness inspired a forceful dislike. Thus she became the Marmite of politicians: I don’t know if this is known beyond the UK, but Marmite is a yeast extract spread which is famous for being either adored or reviled – indifference is rare. (I’m an exception; I can take it or leave it, and I mostly leave it.)

Which takes me back to a residential poetry course I did a few years ago. One of the tutors was the poet Sean O’Brien. When the Marmite controversy arose at breakfast one morning, he nailed his colours firmly to the Marmite-lovers’ mast. (On Thatcher, his politics would put him in the other camp – see for example his wonderful poem Cousin Coat.)  I hope he won’t mind me playing fast and loose with his copyright, but the next day the following little poem appeared, and has since found its way into his collection November.


The Plain Facts of the Matter

There are two tribes this world can boast:
The Marmite-lovers and the damned.
Fact is, though, everybody’s toast
Whatever breakfast they’ve got planned.

It’s not for us to turn away
The sort who shun the dark brown jar,
But sure as sure come Judgement Day
The Lord will know who His folk are.

Believe it or not

Commuting days until retirement: 513

We commuters have our darker evenings, when everything goes wrong (why always evenings, when we’re on the way home, and not when we’re headed to work?) but there seem to have been remarkably few of those for a while. Until today.

Well, it wasn’t that bad – only an hour’s worth of delay. Seeing that my usual fast train was going to be very late I had made a snap decision and got on the non-delayed slow one. Mistake. We ended up stuck interminably in a station half-way, while everything, including the slow/fast one, overtook us.

But of course if you’re a reader there’s an up side to this. And I now have on my Kindle the Will Storr that I mentioned last Sunday, and was attempting to read that. I say attempting to – a couple of seats from me was a bishop, purple and splendid, and having a magisterial speaking voice to go with it. Clearly he was used to projecting his words around cathedrals, and so our railway carriage had very little chance. He was talking to his wife, who sat opposite him. I hadn’t really thought about it, but the decibels must be an occupational hazard if you’re the wife of a bishop. (Or the husband of a bishop, if we ever have any of those.) The subject matter, on the other hand, was not at all episcopal, but quite mundane, even though rendered beautifully and sonorously – perfect, in fact, for undermining the concentration.

And so that is how my exploration of why we believe what we believe was disrupted by a booming bishop.