Tuesday, 2 June 2020

In a churchyard...

It's 180 years today since the birth of Thomas Hardy: poet, architect, novelist, playwright, musician, countryman and legend.

Hardy (like his protagonist Jude) didn't go to public school or Oxford. He didn't inherit wealth. He worked, as an architect. And wrote in his spare time. It was architectural business - not literary - that took him to Cornwall in 1870. While there he met the woman who was to become his wife, the woman who, over a long marriage, he would neglect and whose death he would mourn so painfully that it inspired some of the English language's best poetry.

Here's one of his poems not directly inspired by the death of his first wife. 'While Drawing in a Churchyard' is sometimes subtitled 'Song of the Yew' and it is the yew tree, that ancient tree of churchyards, that speaks to the poet. "Death isn't as bad as people think, y'know," the tree seems to say.

But then, that was Hardy's own view!

'It is sad that so many of worth,  
Still in the flesh,' soughed the yew,  
'Misjudge their lot whom kindly earth  
Secludes from view.

'They ride their diurnal round  
Each day-span's sum of hours  
In peerless ease, without jolt or bound  
Or ache like ours.  

'If the living could but hear  
What is heard by my roots as they creep  
Round the restful flock, and the things said there,  
No one would weep.'  

' "Now set among the wise,"  
They say: "Enlarged in scope,  
That no God trumpet us to rise  
We truly hope." '  

I listened to his strange tale  
In the mood that stillness brings,  
And I grew to accept as the day wore pale  
That show of things.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Just one more thing...

No doubt the assembled hacks in the Rose Garden behind 10 Downing Street were all waiting for their Columbo moment. Either that or they're all as fawning as the obsequious Laura Kuenssberg and as puffed up as Robert Peston, who both seemed content to play pat-a-cake in their top-of-the-bill questions to the man-in-chief, the power behind Johnson's throne and Machiavellian puppet-meister, Mr Cummings.

I'll spare the rest of them. Perhaps they didn't get the chance? I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. And ask, on their behalf...

1. Why Cummings' wife, Mary Wakefield, didn't either drive or take a share of the driving if the journey back to London was a worry?

2. And if it was, why Cummings didn't simply catch the train? There's a mainline station at Durham. Once he was cleared for work he could've been off on the 0620 and in the office a few hours later. Failing that, what with him being so important ("I decide each day what to tell the Prime Minister") why didn't he call for a ministerial car? Or a military helicopter? Even Thunderbird 3? He's clearly so pivotal to government strategy (he said so himself this afternoon, many times) they'd have chartered a private jet for him if he'd asked!

3. And why was it necessary for Mary and Dominic Jr to accompany him back to the capital anyway, to a house he'd already said he'd 'fled' when falling ill as it was being 'targeted'? If his family farm was such a safe place, why not leave his wife and child safely there, to convalesce? No need for dodgy outings on your wife's birthday to Barnard Castle, possible pit stops for refuelling on the A1 southbound and unscheduled wee-stops in a wood. Just Dom, in a carriage on his own, on the train.

Oh and one more thing...

All that guff about 'other people maybe not agreeing' with his actions is fine up to a point, with an elected politician. Because we can vote them out if we don't believe them at the next election. But we're stuck with Cummings until Boris tires of him or decides he's a political liability or something.

Or until Cummings tells him what to do!

Friday, 22 May 2020

Homeschooling is what keeps me going...

It’s been estimated that over 800 million children worldwide have been unable to attend school during the coronavirus pandemic. For them, the new normal has been a mixture of boredom, fear and, hopefully, some fun. But from June, our new, fairly relaxed routine could once again become the old 9am-3.30pm regime of registers and regimented learning.

Whatever the outcome of the debate over reopening schools, I’m not counting days the days until the school bell once again starts ringing. It's no surprise that four out of the five NHS recommendations for healthy mental health are covered by a daily dose of home schooling. Getting up and getting going every morning is what has kept me going... especially when the going got tough.

I began by thinking lockdown was a breeze: no school run in the morning, the kids at home with work set by the school that I could supervise and mark and then, maybe, some time to myself to work. At the time I was in the middle of writing a medical memoir on life with chronic, long-term pain caused by a condition that requires self-injecting disease modifying drugs up to twice a week. Even then, I didn't really begin worrying.

Then, the daily death toll started rising; more and more information started to appear about the virus, and my mood darkened. My next-door-neighbour’s friend and colleague, a nurse at the local hospital,  died of Covid-19; I was (belatedly) sent the dreaded shielding letter. And lockdown suddenly began to feel like a siege. There were sleepless nights where I was tormented by all sorts of real and imagined horrors. My lockdown dreams became frighteningly vivid. But come what may, next morning there were lessons to learn. My daughter and I went on a garden bug hunt; we researched the Bayeux Tapestry; we painted pictures and, when the sun shone, played. And then the next day, we did it all again. And again.

Far from feeling like Groundhog Day the daily routine felt good. My kids have been having some excellent online music lessons. And that meant I had to know what day of the week it was so we were ready with the laptop. And, of course, I had to force myself to get up. And get going.

The NHS's five steps to mental wellbeing are:

1. Connect with other people. Good relationships are important for your mental wellbeing.
2. Be physically active. Being active is not only great for your physical health and fitness.
3. Learn new skills.
4. Give to others.
5. Pay attention to the present moment (mindfulness).

I'm connecting with my children, obviously, and for a more sustained period of time than is usually possible; I'm learning new skills, too, never having been a primary school teacher! Steps four and five are integral to our routine. I'm giving (time, attention, sometimes expertise and experience) and forced by the nature of an inquisitive nine-year-old's constant questions to be 'in the moment'. Add some regular physical activity on our daily family walks and we've got the whole lot covered.

So it's getting up and getting going every morning that has kept me going. Of that I'm certain. My book might be on hold but I've come through some pretty tough times stronger and happier. Every day is now a school day. But it's what the kids teach me that's been the most important lesson.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Does God Exist?

I suspect there are plenty of people asking that question at the moment...

And although my latest book might not help answer it, it will help students come to grips with the complexities of a philosophical question like no other, a question of ultimate meaning and a question that underpins, in many cases, the meaning of our actions.

It's another in the series of notes from my days standing at the front of a classroom, revised and re-written as a book, rather than a collection of handouts designed to help students whose teacher might just occasionally have talked a bit too much to keep pace with a packed curriculum.

Anyway, in the spirit of the times it's free to download on Kindle Unlimited and only 99p (the cheapest Amazon would allow me to make it) elsewhere. Here's an extract...


The problem of evil predates Christianity. It was being discussed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (371-270BC) over two hundred years before Christ’s birth and before that, polytheistic deities like the Olympians were as likely to deliberately cause human suffering as attempt to prevent it. The problem of evil is a particularly difficult one for the Christian religion because, as one of its greatest saints, Augustine (AD354-430) wrote in his Confessions:
“Either God cannot abolish evil, or he will not; if he cannot then he is not all-powerful; if he will not then he is not all-good.”

In case you’re wondering if all this ‘god-blaming’ is a bit unfair you have to appreciate that, in Christianity (as well as Judaism and Islam, for that matter) god has all the superhero qualities needed to stop bad stuff happening, once and for all. Christians believe god is:

Omnipotent: he’s all-powerful, there’s nothing he can’t do;
Omniscient: there’s nothing he doesn’t or cannot know;
Benevolent: he’s kind and loving, not just a little but a lot;
Immanent: he is with us, in the world, always;
Transcendent: he also exists beyond our universe and our universal laws.

And Christians traditionally holds that all these qualities are always present, always, forever. (I.e. god can’t be omniscient on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Benevolent only on Tuesday and Thursday.)

The next important thing to realise is that the category of bad stuff, or evil, is divided into: 

Natural evil: earthquakes, disease and other natural disasters; 
Moral evil: suffering caused by human actions - theft, murder etc; 
Physical evil: bodily pain, emotional anxiety etc. 
Metaphysical evil: things ‘wrong’ with the natural world - imperfections and privations.

Original Sin

So religion—Christianity especially—has always had a problem with pain and suffering. Evil. Bad stuff. Because it so often seems to happen to good people. And if God (with a capital ‘G’) is wholly good and all-powerful, He (with a capital ‘H’) should both want to stop it and be able to do so. But He doesn’t. It persists. We suffer. Why?

There have been all sorts of creative solutions (or attempted solutions) to this problem, from shifting the blame to the devil (which still begs the question as to why God would either permit it in the first place or allow it to continue) and from the devil, to man. And woman. Especially woman. Because, as it says in Genesis, God was especially hard on poor Eve, promising to:
…greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

That passage (2 Genesis, 3: verse 16 should you wish to know) has got a lot to answer for. But then, the Book of Genesis as a whole has plenty to answer for. For a start, there’s God’s curse on Adam for listening to Eve in the first place:
Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (2 Genesis 3: 17-19)

And all was for an apple… Not any old apple, though. Because the forbidden fruit that the serpent persuaded Eve to pluck was from a special tree, the tree of knowledge. And God didn’t want that tempting fruit being taken because, as the serpent hisses:
God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Ye Shall Be As Gods. That gave humans a huge advantage, made mere homo into sapiens. Because knowledge is power. But it is also pain, the pain of being cast out from the nescience of Eden to the knowingness not only of the harsh, new realities of life (the bruised heel, sweating brow, pain of childbirth) but the knowledge of the paradise that was then but had now been lost.

This explanation for ‘evil’ (which in the philosophy of religion means all manner of bad stuff, whether it’s caused by people or natural forces) is that all our problems are caused by the ‘original’ sin. We’re all being punished for what Adam and Eve did. Things were all right before they behaved so badly and disobeyed god. There was no coronavirus in the Garden of Eden; earthquakes didn’t happen; and Adam and Eve didn’t argue with each other. But once banished, shit hit the fan big time!

You can download Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B086YVM3W6/

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