Off the Rails

You might expect that, now I am at leisure and living beyond the end of that line, I’d have had lots more opportunities to write, and would be producing blog posts by the dozen – but in fact it’s not been until now that I felt one coming on. It’s partly the need to reorientate my perspective on everyday life, while at the same time getting to grips with all the jobs around the house and garden that have been neglected until now. And of course I don’t any longer have that strangely stimulating combination of movement, crowding and solitude which, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, daily train travel provides. So far I’m actually finding less time to read, rather than more – a matter I shall have to put right.

But, behind it all, I do feel some sort of altered perception quietly forming itself. I’m finding a quiet pleasure in repetitive, mentally undemanding tasks – maybe many of us need more of this sort of offline activity in which to make some sort of space to stretch our mental limbs. However for now, I’d just like to revisit my first week of retirement, which was something in the nature of a holiday. We did a little bit of gentle travelling which gave me plenty of opportunity to just look, in the spirit of innocence that I wrote about last time. And so here are a few highlights, revisited with the help of some photos and not too much commentary.

The middle of the week saw us in Sussex, up on the South Downs. I hope this picture, taken in the high clump of trees known as Chanctonbury Ring, gives a feel of the day:

Chanctonbury RingAnd a few days after this rare rural idyll, we were in  a city – Norwich, which I often visit for family reasons. Like all cities which have a long and rich history but are still thriving, there are piquant juxtapositions of old, young (and perhaps middle aged) wherever you look. Here’s one I happened to record:

In NorwichOr there is just the old – sun on the cloisters at Norwich Cathedral:

Norwich Cathedral cloistersAnd in the cathedral itself, there’s an evocative artwork by the Brazilian sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco:

Ana Pacheco sculptureWe are told it’s based on a scene from Virgil’s Aenead – Aeneas carrying his father from the ruins of Troy. I found it quite compelling – it’s the size of the faces, and the way their expressions are rendered, that commands your attention. The style seems like a blend of contemporary and medieval, giving a sense of the timelessness of the emotions depicted; and the cathedral setting adds to this. It put me in mind of some of the topics I’ve thought of writing about here: current attitudes to religion, and how humans and their ways of thinking can change (and also how they don’t change) across time.

More about the artwork here while the exhibition is on.

Second Childhood

Commuting days until retirement: 0

     Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything.

Shakespeare’s seventh and final age of man is maybe responsible for the notion of a second childhood as something negative – a feared disintegration of the faculties. I’ve noticed that the word ‘childishness’ in this passage is sometimes rendered as ‘innocence’. Which is good, because that’s where I want to place my emphasis. Second childhood for me is not so much about senility – indeed, I’m lucky that, so far, my eyes, teeth and taste are largely undiminished. Whether or not I have ‘everything’, I’ve got those; although I suppose at my age, in Shakespeare’s time, I would more than likely have been losing them. And as for ‘mere oblivion’ – no sign of that yet, thankfully.

The Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of Man: William Mulready (1786-1863)

Perhaps I’m on the sixth stage, ‘the lean and slippered pantaloon’. Aside from the fact that I’m not quite as lean as I ought to be, it’s not such a bad description of me in retirement. And the innocence part? Well, when you get to my age, the future may not be something you want to think about too much; or to put it another way, it is something there is rather less of than there was previously. All the more reason, then, to concentrate thoughts on the present.

And it’s the present that I associate with innocence – think of the first childhood. No past, little notion of the future, but a welter of here-and-now, immediate sensory experiences to be lost in. These are what philosophers call ‘qualia’ – those very basic sensory elements of which our conscious life is built. In recent posts I’ve been arguing against a contemporary trend in science and philosophy to believe that these are somehow illusory, not real. I hope that posts to come will, by way of describing some of my own experiences, help to lay bare the implausibility of that position.

And more importantly, I want to take the chance to regain some of that childhood innocence, with the renewed opportunity to live in the present. Working life is more often than not about deadlines, career worries, and dealing with colleagues or clients who may not always be cooperative. Timetables and schedules drown out the immediacy of the present moment, and much time is spent squinting at images and characters on screens, rather than contemplating real, solid things. Perhaps this increasing abstraction and virtualisation of our working lives has somehow influenced attitudes in scientific thought towards the status of our sensory experiences.

And while I’m aware that my retirement is ultimately financed by that seething corporate world, I have no misgivings about leaving it behind in my own life. Instead of stressing my brain in front of a computer, I’ll be stretching my limbs as I dig in the garden; instead of straining to follow the jargon-filled chatter of a conference call, enjoying the sounds of wind and birdsong.

Innocence and Experience

Songs of InnocenceSongs of ExperienceIt’s conventional to see these two as polar opposites. But however it might have seemed to William Blake, I would suggest that it’s possible to combine them in a fruitful way. Everything was of course very different when I took in the sounds and sights of a summer suburban garden when sent out to play by my mother all that time ago. But now, taking up my garden fork after sixty intervening years, an important part of the experience will be the same, even if embedded in the context of a lifetime’s acquisition of new ideas and perspectives, after long experience.

I deliberately used the word ‘experience’ twice in that last sentence, with two entirely different meanings. The instance at the end is what could be called the Blakean one – lessons learnt, maybe pleasures undreamt of in innocence, but with the concomitant hard knocks suffered and come to terms with. My earlier use of ‘experience’ denotes what we might call ‘pure experience’ – the immediate stream of sensory events before our minds; in other words, what I hold in common with my childhood self. You could argue – and I certainly would – that if we can rekindle an appreciation of the latter sort within the context of the former, there is much to be gained. As Blake himself observed, ‘Without contraries is no progression.’

The constraints of the working life that I have described are perhaps, if in a rather less sinister way, the modern equivalent of Blake’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ which appear, appropriately, in his poem London – my own place of work. It’s in casting them off that I hope to reacquaint myself with that kind of experience which is almost synonymous with innocence.

That’s the potential that I feel a second childhood has for me, as I stand on the verge of it. The dilapidated railway buffers in my new title image signify only an end to daily work and commuting, not any other sort of conclusion. Beyond them there’s a whole new field to explore.

Another Antiversary

Commuting days until retirement: 100

I thought I had invented the word,  but on googling, I find there’s nothing new under the cybersun. Antiversary, according to my search, has been adopted to mean the anniversary of a split-up, or a divorce, rather than a wedding. Well I’m going to stick with the meaning I coined back in March 2013 at the time of my 500 day antiversary: it’s the celebration of an event a given time before it happens, rather than after*. And here I am at my 100th. Days, of course, not years; the prospect of another hundred years of commuting would find me under the train rather than in it.


Napoleon at the start of his ‘100 days’

“100 days” always reminds me of a prime minister who,  in 1964, before the start of my working career, gave himself that time for ‘dynamic changes to get Britain moving again’. This was Harold Wilson, in 1964, whom I am old enough to remember quite well.  I expect he was consciously taking a leaf out of the book of previous politicians – but presumably not the one who was originally associated with the phrase. This, it seems, was Napoleon, who returned from exile in Elba to rule France again, on 20 March 1815. His last cent jours as Emperor ended after defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

It was in the USA that the yardstick of 100 days was taken up as a way of measuring the effectiveness of presidents on taking up office, and the first, and most successful, was Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose ‘New Deal’ began America’s recovery from the depression. Inevitably, later presidents, and indeed Harold Wilson in Britain, did not bask in such widespread approval after their own inaugural 100 days. Fortunately I don’t have to fight a battle or put a country back on its feet, but just coast gently towards the day when the work really begins: house and garden to be taken in hand, years of accumulated debris to be cleared, vegetables to be, grown, blog posts – and perhaps other things – to be written. How much time I will have for all that is, you might say, yet to be determined. And at almost the same time as my 100 days ends, that of another government in the UK will start. What sort of government that will be, and whether indeed it will last that long, is anyone’s guess at the moment.)

So now the much-anticipated moment has moved closer, and become certain; we’ve taken the financial advice and started to make the arrangements, and I have made my intentions public at work. I mentioned in a recent post how broaching the subject of retirement might be a bit of a conversation-stopper in terms of company culture. When I made my announcement at an informal meeting, I felt a sort of collective frisson shiver through the room, as younger colleagues suddenly sensed the proximity of something thought of as remote and unreal. “Congratulations!”, said one, with a sort of well meant awkwardness.

I’m not sure whether I deserve to be congratulated on anything, but it’s obvious to any reader of this blog how much I savour the prospect of retiring.  However after nearly fifty years of working life, with few breaks, there’s a rather uncomfortable feeling of cutting myself adrift from my source of sustenance. The only time I have known the branch I was sitting on to have been sawn off was when the company I was working for folded; but now here I am, busy doing the sawing myself. Can that be sensible?

Safety net

My pension, seen as I hurtle towards it
(Ed Berg/Wikimedia)

It’s as if I’m together with fellow workers in a building (as of course I literally am) but in the metaphorical building I’m thinking of, some, leaving for other jobs, simply take the lift down to the ground floor and walk sensibly out of the main door into another building. I’m a bit concerned about the way these suicide-related images keep occurring to me, but here’s the only retirer I’m aware of at my workplace – me – gaily jumping out of the office window on the assumption that his pension safety net is held,  stretched out, by strong hands far below.

Maybe it’s the prospect of doing nothing while being paid – it doesn’t seem real to me. Yes, I know it’s more that I’ve actually built up a fund over time by making contributions, etc etc – but there’s still an eerie unreality about the thought of spending the day doing as you please and still getting money, even if rather less than before.

So a hundred more commuting days left, which I celebrate here with strangely mixed feelings. No snatch of doggerel to celebrate this antiversary, as there was for the 500th – for one thing, I exhausted all the possible rhyme words for ‘antiversary’. For a while now I haven’t been inspired to express myself more seriously in poetry, either; but perhaps retirement will give me a chance to look out that muse from wherever she’s hiding. But I am planning to revive one poem for the New Year.

And I’ll only add that, while engrossed in tapping this into my tablet on the train, I failed to notice the station I should have changed at, and had to get out at the next stop to go back and catch a later connection. I’m not even a competent commuter any more. Definitely time to think about stopping.

*My son suggests that the word should be ‘anteversary’ (ante = before). So there we are. I can have my word and the divorcees can keep theirs.

On Being Set Free

Commuting days until retirement: 133

The underlying theme of this blog is retirement, and it will be fairly obvious to most of my readers by now – perhaps indeed to all three of you – that I’m looking forward to it. It draws closer; I can almost hear the ‘Happy retirement’ wishes from colleagues – some expressed perhaps through ever-so-slightly gritted teeth as they look forward to many more years in harness, while I am put out to graze. But of course there’s another side to that: they will also be keeping silent about the thought that being put out to graze also carries with it the not too distant prospect of the knacker’s yard – something they rarely think about in relation to themselves.

Because in fact the people I work with are generally a lot younger than I am – in a few cases younger than my children. No one in my part of the business has ever actually retired, as opposed to leaving for another job. My feeling is that to stand up and announce that I am going to retire will be to introduce something alien and faintly distasteful into the prevailing culture, like telling everyone about your arthritis at a 21st birthday party.

The revolving telescope

For most of my colleagues, retirement,  like death, is something that happens to other people. In my experience, it’s around the mid to late 20s that such matters first impinge on the consciousness – indistinct and out of focus at first, something on the edge of the visual field. It’s no coincidence, I think, that it’s around that same time that one’s perspective on life reverses, and the general sense that you’d like to be older and more in command of things starts to give way to an awareness of vanishing youth. The natural desire for what is out of reach reorientates its outlook, swinging through 180 degrees like a telescope on a revolving stand.

But I find that, having reached the sort of age I am now, it’s doesn’t do to turn your back on what approaches. It’s now sufficiently close that it is the principal factor defining the shape of the space you now have available in which to organise your life,  and you do much better not to pretend it isn’t there, but to be realistically aware. We have all known those who nevertheless keep their backs resolutely turned, and they often cut somewhat pathetic figures: a particular example I remember was a man (who would almost certainly be dead by now) who didn’t seem to accept his failing prowess at tennis as an inevitable corollary of age, but rather a series of inexplicable failures that he should blame himself for. And there are all those celebrities you see with skin stretched ever tighter over their facial bones as they bring in the friendly figure of the plastic surgeon to obscure the view of where they are headed.

Perhaps Ray Kurzweil, who featured in my previous post, is another example, with his 250 supplement tablets each day and his faith in the abilities of technology to provide him with some sort of synthetic afterlife.  Given that he has achieved a generous measure of success in his natural life, he perhaps has less need than most of us to seek a further one; but maybe it works the other way, and a well-upholstered ego is more likely to feel a continued existence as its right.

Enjoying the view

Old and Happy

Happiness is not the preserve of the young (Wikimedia Commons)

But the fact is that for most of us the impending curtailment of our time on earth brings a surprising sense of freedom. With nothing left to strive for – no anxiety about whether this or that ambition will be realised – some sort of summit is achieved. The effort is over,  and we can relax and enjoy the view. More than one survey has found that people in their seventies are nowadays collectively happier than any other age group: here are reports of three separate studies between 2011 and 2014, in Psychology Today, The Connexion, and the Daily Mail. Those adverts for pension providers and so on, showing apparently radiant wrinkly couples feeding the ducks with their grandchildren, aren’t quite as wide of the mark as you might think.

Speaking for myself, I’ve never been excessively troubled by feelings of ambition, and have probably enjoyed a relatively stress-free, if perhaps less prosperous, life as a result. And the prospect of an existence where I am no longer even expected to show such aspirations is part of the attraction of retirement. But of course there remain those for whom the fact of extinction gives rise to wholly negative feelings, but who are at the same time brave enough to face it fair and square, without any psychological or cosmetic props. A prime example in recent literature is Philip Larkin, who seems to make frequent appearances in this blog. While famously afraid of death, he wrote luminously about it. Here, in his poem The Old Fools he evokes images of the extreme old age which he never, in fact, reached himself:

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin (Fay Godwin)

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening.

Dream and reality seem to fuse at this ultimate extremity of conscious experience as Larkin portrays it; and it’s the snuffing out of consciousness that a certain instinct in us finds difficult to take – indeed, to believe in. Larkin, by nature a pessimist, certainly believed in it,  and dreaded it. But cultural traditions of many kinds have not accepted extinction as inevitable: we are not obliviously functioning machines but the subjects of experiences like the ones Larkin writes about. As such we have immortal souls which transcend the gross physical world, it has been held – so why should we not survive death? (Indeed, according some creeds, why should we not have existed before birth?)

Timid hopes

Well, whatever immortal souls might be, I find it difficult to make out a case for individual survival, and this is perhaps the majority view in the secular culture I inhabit. It seems pretty clear to me that my own distinguishing characteristics are indissolubly linked to my physical body: damage to the brain, we know, can can change the personality, and perhaps rob us of our memories and past experience, which most quintessentially define us as individuals. But even though our consciousness can be temporarily wiped out by sleep or anaesthetics, there remains the sense (for me, anyway) that since we have no notion whatever of how we could provide an account of it in physical terms,  there is the faint suggestion that some aspect of our experience could be independent of our bodily existence.

You may or may not accept both of these beliefs – the temporality of the individual and the transcendence of consciousness. But if you do,  then the possibility seems to arise of some kind of disembodied,  collective sentience,  beyond our normal existence. And this train of thought always reminds me of the writer Arthur Koestler, who died by suicide in 1983 at the age of 77. An outspoken advocate of voluntary euthanasia, he’d been suffering in later life from Parkinson’s disease, and had then contracted a progressive, incurable form of leukaemia. His suicide note (which turned out to have been written several months before his death) included the following passage:

I wish my friends to know that I am leaving their company in a peaceful frame of mind, with some timid hopes for a de-personalised after-life beyond due confines of space, time and matter and beyond the limits of our comprehension. This ‘oceanic feeling’ has often sustained me at difficult moments, and does so now, while I am writing this.

Death sentence

In fact Koestler had, since he was quite young, been more closely acquainted with death than most of us. Born in Hungary, during his earlier career as a journalist and political writer he twice visited Spain during its civil war in the 1930s. He made his first visit as an undercover investigator of the Fascist movement, being himself at that time an enthusiastic supporter of communism. A little later he returned to report from the Republican side,  but was in Malaga when it was captured by Fascist troops. By now Franco had come to know of his anti-fascist writing, and he was imprisoned in Seville under sentence of death.

Koestler portrayed on the cover of the book

Koestler portrayed on the cover of the book

In his account of this experience, Dialogue with Death, he describes how prisoners would try to block their ears to avoid the nightly sound of a telephone call to the prison, when a list of prisoner names would be dictated and the men later led out and shot. His book is illuminating on the psychology of these conditions,  and the violent emotional ups and downs he experienced:

One of my magic remedies was a certain quotation from a certain work of Thomas Mann’s; its efficacy never failed. Sometimes, during an attack of fear, I repeated the same verse thirty or forty times, for almost an hour, until a mild state of trance came on and the attack passed. I knew it was the method of the prayer-mill, of the African tom-tom, of the age-old magic of sounds. Yet in spite of my knowing it, it worked…
I had found out that the human spirit is able to call upon certain aids of which, in normal circumstances, it has no knowledge, and the existence of which it only discovers in itself in abnormal circumstances. They act, according to the particular case, either as merciful narcotics or ecstatic stimulants. The technique which I developed under the pressure of the death-sentence consisted in the skilful exploitation of these aids. I knew, by the way, that at the decisive moment when I should have to face the wall, these mental devices would act automatically, without any conscious effort on my part. Thus I had actually no fear of the moment of execution; I only feared the fear which would precede that moment.

That there are emotional ‘ups’ at all seems surprising,  but later he expands on one of them:

Often when I wake at night I am homesick for my cell in the death-house in Seville and, strangely enough, I feel that I have never been so free as I was then. This is a very strange feeling indeed. We lived an unusual life on that patio; the constant nearness of death weighed down and at the same time lightened our existence. Most of us were not afraid of death, only of the act of dying; and there were times when we overcame even this fear. At such moments we were free – men without shadows, dismissed from the ranks of the mortal; it was the most complete experience of freedom that can be granted a man.

Perhaps, in a diluted, much less intense form, the happiness of the over 70s revealed by the surveys I mentioned has something in common with this.

Koestler was possibly the only writer of the front rank ever to be held under sentence of death, and the experience informed his novel Darkness at Noon. It is the second in a trilogy of politically themed novels, and its protagonist, Rubashov, has been imprisoned by the authorities of an unnamed totalitarian state which appears to be a very thinly disguised portrayal of Stalinist Russia. Rubashov has been one of the first generation of revolutionaries in a movement which has hardened into an authoritarian despotism, and its leader, referred to only as ‘Number One’ is apparently eliminating rivals.  Worn down by the interrogation conducted by a younger, hard-line apparatchik, Rubashov comes to accept that he has somehow criminally acted against ‘the revolution’, and eventually goes meekly to his execution.

Shades of Orwell

By the time of writing the novel, Koestler, like so many intellectuals of that era, had made the journey from an initial enthusiasm for Soviet communism to disillusion with,  and opposition to it. And reading Darkness at Noon, I was of course constantly reminded of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the capitulation of Winston Smith as he comes to love Big Brother. Darkness at Noon predates 1984 by nine years,  and nowadays has been somewhat eclipsed by Orwell’s much more well known novel. The two authors had met briefly during the Spanish civil war, where Orwell was actively involved in fighting against fascism, and met again and discussed politics around the end of the war. It seems clear that Orwell, having written his own satire on the Russian revolution in Animal Farm, eventually wrote 1984 under the conscious influence of Koestler’s novel. But they are of course very different characters: you get the feeling that to Orwell, with his both-feet-on-the-ground Englishness, Koestler might have seemed a rather flighty and exotic creature.

Orwell (aka Eric Blair) from the photo on his press pass (NUJ/Wikimedia Commons)

Orwell (aka Eric Blair) from the photo on his press pass (Wikimedia Commons)

In fact,  during the period between the publications of Darkness at Noon and 1984, Orwell wrote an essay on Arthur Koestler – probably while he was still at work on Animal Farm. His view of Koestler’s output is mixed: on one hand he admires Koestler as a prime example of the continental writers on politics whose views have been forged by hard experience in this era of political oppression – as opposed to English commentators who merely strike attitudes towards the turmoil in Europe and the East, while viewing it from a relatively safe distance. Darkness at Noon he regards as a ‘masterpiece’ – its common ground with 1984 is not, it seems, a coincidence. (Orwell’s review of Darkness at Noon in the New Statesman is also available.)

On the other hand he finds much of Koestler’s work unsatisfactory, a mere vehicle for his aspirations towards a better society. Orwell quotes Koestler’s description of himself as a ‘short-term pessimist’,  but also detects a utopian undercurrent which he feels is unrealistic. His own views are expressed as something more like long-term pessimism, doubting whether man can ever replace the chaos of the mid-twentieth century with a society that is both stable and benign:

Nothing is in sight except a welter of lies, hatred, cruelty and ignorance, and beyond our present troubles loom vaster ones which are only now entering into the European consciousness. It is quite possible that man’s major problems will NEVER be solved. But it is also unthinkable! Who is there who dares to look at the world of today and say to himself, “It will always be like this: even in a million years it cannot get appreciably better?” So you get the quasi-mystical belief that for the present there is no remedy, all political action is useless, but that somewhere in space and time human life will cease to be the miserable brutish thing it now is. The only easy way out is that of the religious believer, who regards this life merely as a preparation for the next. But few thinking people now believe in life after death, and the number of those who do is probably diminishing.

In death as in life

Orwell’s remarks neatly return me to the topic I have diverged from. If we compare the deaths of the two men, they seem to align with their differing attitudes in life. Both died in the grip of a disease – Orwell succumbing to tuberculosis after his final, gloomy novel was completed, and Koestler escaping his leukaemia by suicide but still expressing ‘timid hopes’.

After the war Koestler had adopted England as his country and henceforth wrote only in English – most of his previous work had been in German. In  being allowed a longer life than Orwell to pursue his writing, he had moved on from politics to write widely in philosophy and the history of ideas, although never really being a member of the intellectual establishment. These are areas which you feel would always have been outside the range of the more down-to-earth Orwell, who was strongly moral,  but severely practical. Orwell goes on to say, in the essay I quoted: ‘The real problem is how to restore the religious attitude while accepting death as final.’ This so much reflects his attitudes – he habitually enjoyed attending Anglican church services, but without being a believer. He continues, epigramatically:

Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness. It is most unlikely, however, that Koestler would accept this. There is a well-marked hedonistic strain in his writings, and his failure to find a political position after breaking with Stalinism is a result of this.

Again, we strongly feel the tension between their respective characters: Orwell, with his English caution, and Koestler with his continental adventurism. In fact, Koestler had a reputation as something of an egotist and aggressive womaniser. Even his suicide reflected this: it was a double suicide with his third wife, who was over 20 years younger than he was and in good health. Her accompanying note explained that she couldn’t continue her life without him. Friends confirmed that she had entirely subjected her life to his: but to what extent this was a case of bullying,  as some claimed, will never be known.

Of course there was much common ground between the two men: both were always on the political left, and both,  as you might expect, were firmly opposed to capital punishment: anyone who needs convincing should read Orwell’s autobiographical essay A Hanging. And Koestler wrote a more prosaic piece – a considered refutation of the arguments for judicial killing – in his book Reflections on Hanging; it was written in the 1950s, when, on Koestler’s own account, some dozen hangings were occurring in Britain each year.

But while Orwell faced his death stoically, Koestler continued his dalliance with the notion of some form of hereafter; you feel that, as with Kurzweil, a well-developed ego did not easliy accept the thought of extinction. In writing this post, I discovered that he had been one of a number of intellectual luminaries who contributed to a collection of essays under the title Life after Death,  published in the 1970s. Keen to find a more detailed statement of his views, I actually found his piece rather disappointing. First I’ll sketch in a bit of background to clarify where I think he is coming from.

Back in Victorian times there was much interest in evidence of ‘survival’ – seances and table-rapping sessions were popular, and fraudulent mediums were prospering. Reasons for this are not hard to find: traditional religion, while strong, faced challenges. Steam-powered technology was burgeoning, the world increasingly seemed to be a wholly mechanical affair,  and Darwinism had arrived to encourage the trend towards materialism. In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was formed, becoming a focus both for those who were anxious to subvert the materialist world view, and those who wanted to investigate the phenomena objectively and seek intellectual clarity.

But it wasn’t long before the revolution in physics, with relativity and quantum theory, exploded the mechanical certainties of the Victorians. At the same time millions suffered premature deaths in two world wars, giving ample motivation to believe that those lost somehow still existed and could maybe even be contacted.

Arthur Koestler

Koestler in later life (Eric Koch/Wikimedia Commons)

This seems to be the background against which Koestler’s ideas about the possibility of an afterlife had developed. He leans a lot on the philosophical writings of the quantum physicist Edwin Schrodinger, and seeks to base a duality of mind and matter on the wave/particle duality of quantum theory. There’s a lot of talk about psi fields and suchlike – the sort of terminology which was already sounding dated at the time he was writing.  The essay seemed to me to be rather backward looking, sitting more comfortably with the inchoate fringe beliefs of the mid 20th century than the confident secularism of Western Europe today.

A rebel to the end

I think Koestler was well aware of the way things were going, but with characteristic truculence reacted against them. He wrote a good deal on topics that clash with mainstream science, such as the significance of coincidence, and in his will used his legacy to establish a department of parapsychology,  which was set up at Edinburgh University, and still exists.

This was clearly a deliberate attempt to cock a snook at the establishment, and while he was not an attractive character in many ways I do find this defiant stance makes me warm to him a little. While I am sure I would have found Orwell more decent and congenial to know personally, Koestler is the more intellectually exciting of the two. I think Orwell might have found Koestler’s notion of the sense of freedom when facing death difficult to understand – but maybe this might have changed had he survived into his seventies. And in a general sense I share Koestler’s instinct that in human consciousness there is far more yet to understand than we have yet been able to, as it were, get our minds around.

Retirement, for me, will certainly bring freedom – not only freedom from the strained atmosphere of worldly ambition and corporate business-speak (itself an Orwellian development) but more of my own time to reflect further on the matters I’ve spoken of here.

Jam Tomorrow

Commuting days until retirement: 255

George Osborne

The saintly Mr Osborne

My unlikely hero of the hour – well, of last week, anyway – is the gentleman whose title derives from a medieval tablecloth bearing a chessboard pattern: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Right Honourable George Gideon Oliver Osborne M.P. I’m as cynical about politicians as most people, but just occasionally one of them does something that seems so aligned with my own selfsh interests that I develop something that looks fearfully like a soft spot for them.

In this case, of course, it was the recent budget. Before the budget, the number of commuting days you see at the top of this post was in danger of being at least doubled. It works like this: as you might not know if you’re very much younger than me, the money you are putting aside as a pension throughout your working life (or not as the case may be) is not taxed by the government; but the downside of this has always been that you were not allowed to do whatever you liked with it when you retired, however sensible your plans might be. Your only option was to use it to buy an annuity, which would supply you with an income in retirement. You could shop around for the best deal, but once you had signed up for one, that was it; you were in it for life.

With all the recent economic shenanigans, and the record low interest rates, annuity rates have been flatlining. I was increasingly aware that if I had retired in May 2015 at the age of 67,as I had planned, the income I’d be stuck with wouldn’t be what I had once expected. My best option was to hang on grimly for another year or two in the reasonable hope that annuity rates would look up a bit.

But since last week Mr. Osborne has unexpectedly changed all the rules. Now when people retire they will be able to grab it all and run – or perhaps set off in a Lamborghini or on a world cruise, as the media have not been slow to point out. I’m fairly hopeless with money, but not that hopeless; and at least there’s no need to wait around for things to look up before retiring. I can choose whatever investment option looks best for my income, and then update it as often as I want.

It still means halving my income – this is the time if life when you wish you had thought more about boring things like pensions when you were younger. But of course they were only relevant to old people, that curious species that had nothing to do with you. I was only guided into saving what I did by various advisers whose wisdom I belatedly recognise; otherwise I would probably have left it until it was much too late.

But for me, it’s worth it to sacrifice a comfortable income for the incalculable improvement in quality of life that consists in having the time and freedom to develop my own thoughts, rather than being harnessed much of the time in the traces of my employer’s narrow aspirations. (Necessarily so, but narrow nonetheless: you see why this blog is anonymous.) And so the figure at the top of this post is safe for now, and I’m starting to salivate at the prospect of jam tomorrow; maybe not today, but definitely sooner than the day after tomorrow. The jam in question may be rather abstract – not the sort of item to appear on an accountant’s balance sheet – but it’ll taste good to me. Mr. Osborne has obliged me by giving the top of the jar its first vigorous opening twist.


Commuting days until retirement: 500

Five hundred days to go – I couldn’t let that go by without comment. It’s a sort of backwards anniversary, or anti-anniversary. Let’s call it an antiversary.

So here’s something to celebrate it:


A quincentennially starred antiversary
Needs observance that’s more than just cursory.
Despite notions you’ve got
From my profile shot
I’ve come a long way from the nursery.

My hope from today’s antiversary
That my pension will build to a bursary
Means I cannot start shirking
But must go on working –
For time is a fearsome adversary.

(If you’re a pronunciation freak, I’m sorry about the last line. I was out of rhyme words.)

Reading on the train – and weightier matters

Commuting days until retirement: 523

If you have to sit on a train for any amount of time (an hour or so each day in my case) there is the decision as to how to spend it. From observation, here is a list of the most common ways, in rough order of popularity:

  1. Fiddle with your smartphone
  2. Read the Metro or Standard (free newspapers) – or do Sudoku on the puzzles page
  3. Look out of the window.
  4. Stare straight ahead, avoiding of course any eye contact with the people opposite you
  5. Read something, or play a game, on your tablet computer
  6. Read a book or e-reader
  7. (If male) take a friend with you and talk incessantly about football

Well, I go for 6, and seem to get more reading in on commuting days than other ones. (You can probably tell that you wouldn’t find me involved in 7). And that gives me an opening into what I’ve been reading recently – a book on Alan Turing, published at the time of his recent centenary. And there’s also a link with something that’s currently topical.


If you don’t know about Alan Turing, here’s a brief description: born in 1912, he quickly showed himself to be a mathematician and thinker of genius, becoming a Fellow of Kings College Cambridge at the age of 22. He’s famous in the first place for his pre-war paper On Computable Numbers which not only offered one solution to a long-standing problem in mathematics, but also laid for the first time down the basic theory of operation of the modern computer. This of was of course before his work on code-breaking at Bletchley, where in complete secrecy at the time, not revealed until the 1970s, he played a central role in saving Britain from being starved into submission by Hitler’s U-boats. After the war he continued to work on embryonic computers. Another famous paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he speculated on the ability of machines to ‘think’, and proposed the much-discussed Turing Test, appeared in 1950.

He was homosexual, and in 1952 rather artlessly reported to the police a theft from his house by an overnight partner. The police immediately became more interested in the possibility of what was then the crime of “gross indecency” than the burglary. He was subsequently prosecuted, and sentenced to be chemically castrated by taking an oestrogen substitute, as an alternative to prison. In 1954 he was found dead, having half-eaten an apple contaminated with cyanide, a chemical that he had been using in experiments. The inquest verdict was one of suicide, and this is widely believed to be correct. However it’s also thought that he carefully devised the means of his suicide so that his death could be believed – especially by his mother – to have been an accident.

And the interest of the book I have been reading is that it mostly consists of a biography of him written in the late 1950s by his mother, which has long been out of print. And she does indeed strongly defend the accident theory, and manages never once to refer to his homosexuality. She would of course have known about it, having attended the inquest, and almost certainly knew earlier – but of course at the time she wrote it would have been especially bad form to have mentioned, after anyone’s death (let alone one’s own son), what would have been thought of as a shameful secret.

His personality


Alan Turing in 1934

What does emerge very strongly from her account is his exceptionally attractive personality. This is not just her own assessment, but supported by letters from friends and colleagues who wrote to her after his death. Many acts of generosity are recorded, and it is noted by many how he would take great pains to help the understanding of those less talented than himself, without any sense of talking down to them. He could be eccentric, unpredictable and often scatty – but entirely without side or pretension. I particularly like a story relating to the OBE awarded to him for his war work. (It doesn’t seem much of a recognition, given the magnitude of the achievement – people have been knighted for far less – but I suppose that had something to do with the secrecy.)  He was certainly proud of the award, but friends noticed that when, in the course of his many practical experiments, he opened a tin full of bolts, screws and metal components, there was the OBE medal, knocking about among them.

In the second part of the book is a shorter account by his older brother John, apparently written some time in the 1980s. This repeats much of the material in his mother’s account, but is viewed through the very different lens of John’s personality – not such an attractive one, you feel. He does indeed acknowledge his brother’s genius as well as his human qualities, but we are very soon aware of a curmudgeonly streak being on display. He announces at the start that in his mother’s work

a false note has been struck somewhere: could Alan have been quite that paragon of virtue that my mother describes? Yet, if an elder brother ventures to suggest the contrary, it can easily be suggested that he is jealous and sour. This is a risk I must accept. My only concern is to put the record straight, however hazardous the enterprise.

Well, pomposity appears to be another quality we can ascribe to John. But re-reading his account I am finding it difficult to see that Alan’s supposed faults are really anything more than unconventional behaviour seen from the standpoint of a rather stiffly conventional onlooker. Examples are his habit of turning up at the houses of friends or family, with short notice, at unsocial hours, or writing many more letters to professional colleagues than to his family. Irritating, perhaps, but hardly heinous. ”Worst of all”, he laments later, “was the unsightly condition of his hands, with every finger picked raw in a dozen places… I felt sicker and sicker until I devised a special system to prevent me from looking at them at all.”

His mother’s failure to mention the homosexuality he puts down to “Edwardian reticence” – but continues, unconscious of any irony, “I am trying to make this memoir as truthful as I can, so I will not go to the length of pretending that I like homosexuals.” (I suppose we can excuse prejudice on the part of someone born in 1908). He mentions the testimony of Alan to a psychiatrist, passed to John after Alan’s death, that Alan “loathed” his mother. I’m not sure what to make of this – I imagine that, as psychiatric testimony is likely to be, it could have been very ambivalent. But I suspect that John Turing did not do subtlety.

Gay marriage

I’m writing this at the beginning of a week in which there will be a vote on gay marriage in the House of Commons. It’s tempting to wonder how Alan Turing’s life might have differed in such an age as ours.  Well, it would have been longer, but otherwise there’s probably no meaningful answer. His personality was formed as a highly intelligent gay man in a society which he knew couldn’t cope with the notion of anyone being gay.

The same malady, in an attenuated form, still exists today. It’s among straight people that controversy mostly flares when it comes to the question of gay marriage. Individual gay couples (like anyone else) may be either keen on marriage, or not bothered about it. But for many straight people, the gay version “undermines the institution of marriage, which should be between a man and a woman.”

This is piffle. To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you feel, as many do, that marriage is a valuable institution, you can hardly be upbeat about its state today, when a big proportion of those marrying eventually divorce, and others feel they can dispense with it altogether. How can the inclusion of many gay people who are anxious to marry do anything but strengthen it?


So would Alan Turing have wanted to marry? An even more meaningless question, I think. In fact, he was at one time engaged, in the conventional sense, to Joan Clarke, who was a fellow codebreaker at Bletchley and no mean mathematician herself, by all accounts. John Turing met her on visits home and evidently thought little of her – an “unpromising female” whom he compared unfavourably with his own girl friends. In his account, she was “safe” (i.e. unattractive), and he prides himself on his ability, which Alan lacks, to deal with women who are not “safe”. It becomes fairly clear that his real problem was an inability to cope with an intellectual woman: he does speak explicitly of his distaste for Alan’s lack of small talk, and keenness on intellectual debate.

Turing Memorial in Manchester

Turing Memorial in Manchester

According to Andrew Hodges’ biography (recommended – see below) Alan warned Joan, a little disingenuously, that he had “homosexual tendencies”, but found that this did not discourage her. Eventually, he ended the engagement altogether, evidently feeling that it could not work in the long run. The relationship had lasted through the summer of 1941, fuelled by many shared enthusiasms, and was not the cursory and “farcical affair” which Alan’s brother attempts to portray. One imagines Alan caught between his own nature and the crushing conventions of his society, unsure of how far he could compromise.

If we have made progress since then, I think it has to do with the dawning realisation that the goodness in human nature doesn’t need a monolithic structure of social dogma to ratify it – it will flower anyway, whether conventional or not. Alan Turing was a good man who lived outside that structure, and paid a penalty for doing so. Unlike his older brother, he was ahead of his time, in more ways than one.

The book I read was :
Turing, Sara, Alan M. Turing: Centenary Edition. Cambridge University Press 2012

An excellent biography:
Hodges, Andrew, Alan Turing: The Enigma.  First pub. 1984, Vintage Paperback 2012

Andrew Hodges maintains a Turing website at

If you can it’s well worth seeing the stage play by Hugh Whitemore, Breaking the Code, which has also been produced for BBC TV – and is now, I have discovered, on YouTube.