personal

Oxfordshire Photo

I don’t these days get round to posting a weekly photograph all that often, partly because I’ve not been doing so much photography recently.

But a few weeks ago we had a day out in Oxfordshire. I had a meeting in Oxford in the morning and we then meandered our way home via Islip and Brightwell Baldwin, both of which have ancestral connections for me.

This is a wonderful, clearly very old, thatched stone cottage which backs onto Islip churchyard – indeed it is the churchyard wall!

Islip Thatch

We shall be revisiting both Islip and Brightwell Baldwin.

Another Daft Meme

OK, so I spotted this meme on Facebook the other day. Although I’ve answered some of these questions before there are some here which are new. So I give you the whoel sequence, which I’ve de-Americanised.

  1. Person you were named after? No-one as far as I know.
  2. Last time you cried? A couple of weeks ago when we lost our 1-year-old boy cat.
  3. Do you like your own handwriting? No; at best it is produced by an arthritic spider.
  4. What is your favourite lunch meat? Cold sausage or garlic salami.
  5. Do you still have your tonsils? Yes. My parents (probably wrongly) refused to let them be removed.
  6. Would you bungee jump? No way – ever.
  7. What is your favourite cereal? Barley growing in the field ready to make malt for beer!
  8. Do you untie your shoes when you take them off? Only if I’m wearing them at the time.
  9. Do you think you’re strong? No; neither physically nor mentally.
  10. Favourite ice cream? Good strawberry or good chocolate.
  11. What is the first thing you notice about someone? Face, head, hair.
  12. Football or baseball? Neither really, but football if I must choose.
  13. What colour trousers are you wearing? The Emperor’s new ones.
  14. Last thing you ate? Banana.
  15. What are you listening to? Silence.
  16. If you were a crayon, what colour would you be? Lime green.
  17. Favourite smell? Coffee, baking bread, frying onions, spices, roses.
  18. Who was the last person you spoke to on the phone? Taxi company.
  19. Tattoo or piercing? Piercing, though I’m happy with both.
  20. Hair Colour? Mostly grey, going on white, but some remaining mid-brown.
  21. Eye colour? Blue.
  22. Favourite food to eat? Curry.
  23. Scary movies or chick flick? Neither; I can’t abide films.
  24. Last movie you saw? It’s so long ago I have absolutely no clue.
  25. What colour shirt are you wearing? Again, the Emperor’s new one.
  26. Favourite holiday? Sun, sea & sand to relax and do nothing (or something if I choose) but not lying around getting grilled.
  27. Beer or wine? Both, but beer preferred.
  28. Night owl or morning person? Neither.
  29. Favourite day of the week? Probably Saturday.

OK, so now it’s your turn. Just cut’n’paste the questions, replace my answers with yours, and post to your blog, Facebook, wherever. Enjoy!

Ten Things

Summer is here. Well at least we’ve had a few glimpses of it. So Ten Things this month has a summery theme.

Ten Summer Things To Do

  1. Eat ice-cream
  2. Watch a cricket match (in person not on TV)
  3. Eat strawberries (and cream, of course)
  4. Sit in the garden (or on the beach) drinking wine
  5. Swim nude
  6. Paddle in the sea
  7. Go to a garden and enjoy the roses
  8. Sit by the river and watch nature and the world go by
  9. Spend a day in the nude – in your garden or on the beach – and enjoy the feel of sun and breeze on your skin
  10. Visit a farm to pick your own strawberries, asparagus etc.

Of course, doing these things is not necessarily restricted to summer, but they’re all better in nice weather. So now we just need the sunshine!

Your Interesting Links

There’s a lot in this month’s edition so let’s get straight in …

Science & Medicine

Medics are now saying that arthroscopic surgery for degenerative knee problems (ie. essentially arthritis) does not actually do any much good.

[TRIGGER WARNING] Breaking the taboo of talking about miscarriage.

Another new study shows that, against expectation, women who source online and use abortion drugs do so with very little need for emergency medical help.

And yet another on reproductive medicine … It seems the folk contraceptive “Thunder God Vine” (Tripterygium wilfordii, above) really does prevent conception.

On the physics of having a shit.

More new research has found that daily small doses of cannabis can slow brain decline with ageing – at least in mice.

And here’s yet another instance where it seems we’ve had it all wrong … apparently eating cheese does not raise the risk of heart attack or stroke.

It has long been thought that the way we categorise colours is cultural, but surprisingly it appears to be genetic.

Sexuality

Porn is allegedly having a “terrifying impact” on men. Girl on the Net lifts the lid and finds the evidence rather thin and attitudes biased.

Is the “Dildo of Damocles” daunting? What does/will happen when sex toys connect to the internet?

Environment

It is estimated that the Fukushima accident gave everyone on the planet radiation exposure equivalent to a single X-ray – although unsurprisingly those in Fukushima received rather more it was unlikely to be more than two year’s worth of background radiation, so tiny in the overall scheme of things.

Hedges are as important for the environment as trees, at least in cities.

In another non-obvious finding, research is showing that beaver dams keep streams cool.

History, Archaeology & Anthropology

There are some amazing things happening in palaeoanthropology at the moment, not least that researchers have discovered how to extract DNA from the soil around archaeological sites.

Another of those amazing pieces of palaeoanthropology is the number and age of the Homo naledi finds in South Africa.

At the other end of Africa, a 4000-year-old funeral garden has been discovered in Egypt.

In a recent, and rather more modern, find a rare medieval text printed by William Caxton has been discovered lurking in University of Reading archives.

One of our favourite London bloggers, diamond geezer, visits the Parisian Catacombs.

Finally in this section, another of our favourite London bloggers, IanVists, explores an abandoned railway tunnel used by the BBC in WW2.

London

Which brings us nicely to London itself … Londonist suggests some of London’s more secret places to visit.

Meanwhile Time Out tells us nine things we mostly didn’t know about Euston Station.

Lifestyle & Personal Development

The Guardian magazine on Saturday 27 May featured Laura Dodsworth’s upcoming book Manhood: The Bare Reality in which 100 men talk about manhood through the lens of “me and my penis” as well as having their manhood photographed.
This a follow-on to Bare Reality: 100 Women, Their Breasts, Their Stories
Pre-order Manhood: The Bare Reality from the publishers Pinter & Martin or from Amazon.
[Full disclosure: I was interviewed for this book and there’s a little bit of me in the article, although unless you know you’ll never find it.]

Following which here’s Lee Kynaston in the Telegraph on male pubic hair grooming. My only question is “Why?”.

The key to happiness is not knowing oneself, but knowing how others see us.

But then scientists and philosophers also doubt the ancient claim that vigorous self-examination makes you a better person.

Food & Drink

WFT is alkaline water? Oh, I see, it’s no different to what comes out of the tap.

If you like sushi, you might no longer as its popularity has brought rise in parasitic infections.

People

I wasn’t quite sure where to put this next item, but it is one for the railway buffs amongst us … Geoff Marshall (no relation) and Vicki Pipe are doing All the Stations: They’re travelling to every train station in mainland UK, documenting and videoing as they go. Their videos are all on the All the Stations channel on YouTube; watch the introductory video first to see what they’re planning.
[Geoff Marshall has twice held the official record for travelling the whole London Underground in the fastest time, so he had to be up for another challenge!]

Shock, Horror, Humour

And very finally here are some stories of what happens when scientists take research specimens through airport security.

More in a month’s time.

Personal Ethics and Morals

Almost every individual – excluding perhaps those insane persons who have no sense of right and wrong, but certainly including everyone from religious leaders to gangsters and serial killers – has a set of ethics.
… … …
Each person draws portions, sometimes bits and pieces, of their personal … ethics from an almost random variety of sources, such as their childhood upbringing, a dramatic or otherwise pivotal life experience, religious beliefs, discussions with family, colleagues, and friends, and the ethical teachings of whatever philosophers [they] may have read.
https://www.irmi.com/articles/expert-commentary/where-our-ethics-come-from

I’ve written a number of times before about ethics and morals (see for example here and here). But stimulated by a conversation with one of my friends (yes, somehow I do still have one or two!) some days ago I’ve been moved to return to the subject at a more personal, rather than philosophical, level.
 
What follows is a summary of some of those “bits and pieces” I’ve garnered over the years as my personal ethics and morals. These are the things which I try to live by.

  1. Causality. Things are as they are for a reason which is seldom disclosed to us. There are more things in heaven and earth than we can ever know or understand.
  2. Respect People. Always treat others as you would wish them to treat you – with respect, dignity, kindness, equality, compassion and integrity. Essentially this is the old adage: do as you would be done by. Or in the words of Matthew 7:12, Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. Or to spin it the other way: if it harm none, do as you will. If you can do this one thing, all the rest pretty much follow.
  3. Respect Nature. We are but a small part of this Earth. It is not ours, it was here long before us and it should be here long after us. We are merely it’s current custodians and as such we should behave as ethically towards the Earth, Nature and all living creatures as we should to other human beings. Do not rape our natural resources or screw the environment. That doesn’t mean being vegetarian, living off-grid or the like – after all eating plants and felling trees can be considered murder just as much as eating animals – but it does mean respecting what you do eat (we almost always raise a glass to the animal we’re eating), recycling as much as possible, and not consuming for the sake of it. Do not play god; there is no reason to suppose we know better than Mother Nature.
  4. Be Honest. Be open, honest and truthful in all things and at all times. Open government and fair dealing. Admit it when you don’t know; don’t guess.
  5. Respect Relationships. Never do anything to unhook or put in jeopardy anyone else’s relationship. This is something I formulated for myself as a teenager: that I would never do anything to harm or unhook another relationship. It didn’t matter how much I fancied the girl (and for me it always has been girls) in question, nor how strongly or loosely committed the relationship; if there was a relationship the parties were strictly off-limits as anything more than friends. It just seemed to me to be ethical, kind and respectful not to meddle while the relationship existed. (This is one reason Noreen and I knew each other for several years before we started dating.) I have continued to live by this, not just as student on the pull, but as an adult where others might have seen/wanted an opportunity for adultery.
  6. Freedom of Speech. Be liberal and relaxed in dealing with other people’s views and beliefs. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and is entitled to express those opinions even if I don’t like it. I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death, your right to hold and express your opinion. To do otherwise is but a short step to censorship.
  7. Beliefs. Each of us is entitled to believe whatever we like. Just don’t expect anyone else to share your beliefs. It’s not what you believe that’s the problem, but what you think I should believe.
  8. Use Your Abilities. Do everything to the best of your ability.
  9. Don’t Judge. Don’t be judgemental: you can never know how someone else feels inside, what motivates them, nor how their relationship works, so don’t assume or judge.
  10. No Revenge. Don’t hold grudges or be vengeful – be compassionate and forgiving; understand the other person’s position and move on. It’s OK to be angry; it’s never OK to be cruel.
  11. Admit Errors. If you’re wrong, be strong enough to admit it, apologise and if possible do something to remediate the error. Never blame others for your failings.
  12. Never Regret. Do not regret anything which has happened, even if you now know it was not the best thing to do. If it’s good, that’s great. If it isn’t, it’s experience to learn from and move on. We all do things that with hindsight we wish we hadn’t; but they cannot be undone and rarely properly repaired. Regret is unhelpful and destructive.
  13. Be Responsible. You are responsible for what you do, say and think; accept that responsibility. However you are not responsible for other people’s emotions, beliefs, actions and reactions; nor they for yours.

That’s the high level stuff and I feel sure I’ve left something out. I can’t think any of it is very startling, but it is interesting to put it all together – something I’ve never done in quite this way before – as it really does make one consider whether the whole is self-consistent. Of course, I’ve not yet made any attempt to integrate this with my core constructs (such as I know them).

And below all that are my personal beliefs, like the legalisation of sex work and marijuana; nudity and body acceptance; the scientific method; the absence of deities; etc.

Heavy stuff. I need a gin & tonic.

Five Questions, Series 9 #1

OK, so let’s get going with the answers to this ninth round of Five Questions.

★☆☆☆☆

Question 1: Has reading a book ever changed your life? If yes, which one and why?

Yes, very definitely. That book (or series of 12 novels to be precise) was Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I’ve written about this, in many ways, many times, but here is (a lightly edited version of) what I wrote recently for the Anthony Powell Society Newsletter in a column headed “My First Time”.

A child of intellectually bohemian parents in the 1950s I was always encouraged to read. We went to the local library every week and I was allowed to read anything in the house: dipping into my father’s Penguin Lady Chatterley shortly after publication; reading Peyton Place (how? why?) under the bed-covers; plodding through Ulysses in my mid-teens. But being a boy and a scientist reading fell by the wayside, not helped by my reading very slowly and finding the classics taught at school tedious beyond belief.

I rediscovered reading for pleasure as a post-graduate student, when I devoured chunks of Evelyn Waugh, Clochemerle, Laurie Lee, Gormenghast, Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice, plus the likes of John Gower and Piers Ploughman.

After Noreen and I married and moved into the house, Noreen’s best school friend, Jilly, was staying one weekend in early 1983. Jilly trained as a librarian; both she and Noreen read far more than me; talk naturally turned to books. Jilly, knowing I enjoyed (some) Waugh, suggested I might like AP.

Thus began my encounter with Dance, naturally at the beginning. I found A Question of Upbringing very slow; I really didn’t see the point, but I persevered. I decided to try the next book – try everything twice, to see if first impressions were right. Lo, by the end of A Buyer’s Market I was hooked.

This was the summer I had off work with glandular fever. On good days I picked our soft fruit and made jam. On bad days I read and watched cricket on TV. In between I had an affair with Jilly! (It’s OK, it was an open secret even at the time!)

So that summer I read Dance, with some gaps between volumes as the next of the (first) Marc Boxer Fontana paperbacks was sourced. The war trilogy especially captivated me; Temporary Kings was strange but powerful; the finale, weak.

By then AP had become one of my “heroes”. In the early 90s, I wrote my first webpages and it was natural to include a little about my “heroes”. Whereupon I realised there was almost nothing about AP on the internet: my AP page expanded and become a separate website.

In 1997, at the time of the Channel 4 films of Dance, I started getting emails from around the world; this stimulated me to set up the APLIST [the Anthony Powell related email discussion list on Yahoo Groups]. Then when, in March 2000, AP died Julian Allason rang me: “We must celebrate the man,” he said, “we must have a conference”. Recovering my composure we arranged for half a dozen of us to meet in Julian’s Chelsea rooms, when it became evident we needed an organisation on which to hang the conference. Thus was the Anthony Powell Society born. The rest is history; I’ve been the Society’s Hon. Secretary ever since.

Since that first reading I’ve reread Dance in sequence only once; however I dip into it continually – so continually that I’m not sure I could now read it straight through again. But I’m keeping that option for next time I’m laid up for a while.

So yes, reading Dance caused a huge change in my life, nearly 35 years ago, and that change is still happening; the Anthony Powell Society is always throwing up something new; it has me places, and introduced be to people, I could never have imagined.

Five Questions, Series 9

Yet again it is around a year since I started my last round of Five Questions.

So here is this new series of five questions, ranging from the interesting to the downright crazy and even morbid.

★★★★★

The five questions for Series 9 are:

  1. Has reading a book ever changed your life? If yes, which one and why?
  2. How do we guarantee “this” (whatever it is) never happens again?
  3. If you had to be executed but could choose the method, what method would you choose?
  4. How many even prime numbers are there?
  5. If you had to marry your “significant other” where you met, where would the wedding be?

Like the last series, I will post answers on a regular basis, because I’ve decided to write the answers up front, possibly before this post even goes live!

As always you’re all invited to sing along and join the karaoke – I’d like it if you all joined in! You can either answer the questions, as I answer them, by posting in the comments or by posting your answers on your own blog (in which case just leave a comment here so we can find your words of wisdom).

The answer to Question 1 should appear in a few of days time and then they’ll be at roughly weekly intervals.

Enjoy!

Ten Things

It’s just over 500 years since Sir Thomas More first described what he called Utopia in 1516. So this month’s Ten Things celebrates More’s fabled island nation.

Ten Essential Elements of My Utopia

  1. Always a perfectly sunny warm early summer weather
  2. No death or life-threatening illness; all illness cured by love
  3. A perfect ethical code that everyone follows, hence a world without greed, hunger, thirst, violence or war
  4. No rat race and no oppressive employment
  5. No fossil fuels and hence no polluting transport or power generation
  6. Magic carpets for transport
  7. Good, free education for all; higher education which everyone wants to attend for the sake of learning
  8. No religion or politics; no political parties
  9. A universal respect for Nature and the environment, hence a green and pleasant land
  10. Everyone is open-minded with a universal acceptance of nudity, sex & sexuality, freedom of speech.

Unfortunately we all know that Utopia is, by definition, unattainable, for if we ever got there there’d be another Utopia just beyond reach. The grass is always greener, and all that!

Notes to My Younger Self

Inspired, as so often, by my friend Katy I wanted to write down some of the useful things I would have liked my younger self (I’m thinking teenager, student) to know and which I could now impart – but of course can’t until such time as someone perfects time travel. In fact some of these things I still have to learn properly.

In no particular order …

  • You are right, ballroom dancing is the work of the Devil and you do well to scorn it. Likewise ballet, opera theatre, film and mainstream classical music, while not works of the Devil, are best avoided if one is to retain any sanity.
  • No, you never will be able to do practical things like drawing, woodwork and plumbing. Just be glad you can pay someone to do it for you.
  • You will rediscover books and reading.
  • Yes, cats are magic.
  • Bucking the usual trend you become more socialist as you get older.
  • Your parents were right: sugar really is bad for you. But they were wrong in asserting that chocolate and cheese cause acne.
  • No, you still won’t have a clue what you’re doing, where you’re headed, or why. You will drift along.
  • You never will be fashionable, cool or handsome. And you don’t care if people think you’re either stupid or eccentric. Those that matter, don’t mind; those that mind, don’t matter.
  • Your father was right: God is bunk.
  • Being kind and compassionate is good. But no-one said it was always easy.
  • You will never regret eating (good) chips. But they do need salt, and vinegar, tomato ketchup or mayonnaise. In fact you’ll never regret eating good food.
  • Yes, you can believe six impossible (and contradictory) things before breakfast.
  • However hard you try, and however much you enjoy playing, you will never be good at ball games. It’s a matter of basic lack of athleticism and poor hand-eye co-ordination.
  • Try anything twice, the second time to be sure your first impressions were correct. Regrettably this means no one-night stands.
  • Yes, beer will be your downfall.
  • You’ll remain a dull, introverted, frightened, small boy who needs recognition and to be in control. This is not failure, it is what you are – or rather what your dysfunctional father made you. You do not need to be like this; life is hard enough already. You’re in the top few percent intellectually and could go far if you develop some more self-confidence.
  • Learn not to be so perfectionist. Yes it is what a research scientist needs, but in other spheres “good enough” is usually good enough.
  • Anger is destructive; excitement, panic and worry are all overrated entertainments. Learn to let stuff wash over you sooner rather than later. And don’t worry about things you have no control over. Measured calmness is prescribed.
  • You’ll never do enough, or the right things, to satisfy your father. Ignore him. Be confident enough to call his bluff. If he doesn’t like it, that’s his problem, not yours. It’s your life, not his.
  • You never will make friends easily and throughout life you’ll have very few. But those friends you do have will be influential and formative.
  • Do not be in awe of people “above” you. They’re human too – just as fallible but able to talk a better game.
  • Treat other people as you would like them to treat you, with respect and courtesy. If you treat people as you’d like them to be, you give them the space (and incentive) to grow; treat them as they are and they’ll stay that way.
  • You don’t have to believe in any god(s) to be moral. Morality comes from within and knowing what is just and compassionate.
  • Things happen when they happen, and for a reason. You don’t have to be a fatalist, but maybe you shouldn’t push back too hard either – although you should stand up for what you believe to be right.
  • You will change you mind, ideas and beliefs over time. This is good; it means you’re thinking about things.
  • It does get better.

Open Door

There’s been this meme circulating recently, especially on Facebook, about people having an “open door policy”. Leaving aside that I generally don’t get involved in such viral nuisances, I’ve not engaged with this because (a) the wording felt wrong and (b) it is not new for us and should not need saying.

About 35 years ago Noreen and I made a deliberate and considered decision not to have children. Instead we said that we would always be available for our friends, their children, etc. if and when they needed us.

All our friends know this (at least they all should know this!); most have been told at some appropriate time. And as the younger ones reach an age to properly understand (generally around 15-16, but sometimes earlier), we have a quiet conversation with them about it. What we say is ad lib but generally something like:

Know that we are here if you ever need us. No parents, however good they are (and our friends really are brilliant parents) can provide everything a child needs. However open, frank and honest your relationship with your parents there will always be something you don’t want to talk them about – but something you would like to discuss with someone detached and outside the family. That is what we are here for. You can come and talk to us at any time and about anything; literally anything: boyfriend/girlfriend problems, exam worries, sexuality; if you’re in trouble and need bailing out of the police station; if you need a bed for the night; if you want to talk about life and what direction you’re going; or you just want someone to talk to. Remember, we may be geriatrics, but we’ve been there ourselves. We were students in the heady hippie days of the late-60s/early-70s so we’ve either done it or we have a friend who has. You are very unlikely to shock us – one way or another we’ve encountered most things. We don’t do judgement. And we aren’t going to tell you what you must do. We’re here to listen and to help you work through whatever is worrying you. Just pick up the phone or turn up on our doorstep (call first if you can to ensure we’re at home) at any time; day or night. And most importantly anything you tell us is in complete confidence; it will not be repeated to your parents/family/friends unless you specifically ask that it is. This is what we are here for and why we chose not to have children of our own. Here’s a card with our contact details; put it in your wallet and keep it in case you ever need it.

Yes, this is indeed a part of why we are here. Having someone detached to talk to is important. (It’s like mentoring at work: I always did it and vowed that I always would even if management told me not to.)

Over the years we’ve helped a number of friends in various stages of separation and relationship problems, medical worries, and confusion about life. We’ve even been called at 3AM by a friend about to appear in court and who expected to end up in jail (they didn’t). More than one of our friends has said to us that although they’ve never needed to take us up on this, it is a great comfort just knowing we’re there if needed. There are several friends for whom we are either “spare parents” or “spare siblings”, which is a good way of looking at all this.

This is more than just having an “open door policy” or “a friend in need”. It is about the meaning of life; being a true friend; and being ethical.