Hallo, and welcome to The Thinking Cap. The idea behind this is a simple one: to provide food for thought.
It will be eclectic. It will be wide-ranging yet absurdly focused. Intellectually challenging but ridiculously lightweight. In fact, it’ll be thoroughly hard to pin down – because it’s that element of unpredictability that makes us think.
It’s an interesting time for democracy, as Egyptians vote in a referendum for more democratic government, and the wave of opposition to dictatorial rule in the Arab world seems to be reaching a climax , with disturbances in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain – and of course, violent conflict in Libya.
Back in 2006, Colonel Gaddafi gave a lecture at New York’s Columbia University in which he asserted that “ There is no state with a democracy except Libya on the whole planet.” Gaddafi denounced Western democracy as ‘fake’ and ‘farcical’.
He insisted that Libya’s people’s congresses gave people a much better chance to express their views than Western democracy which had to rely on newspapers for the airing of opinions – and that Western democracies have resorted to ‘eavesdropping’ on their people [– a criticism that, incidentally, last week, Wikileaks’s Julian Assange, made of the Internet]. Gaddafi even went on to argue that ‘explosions, assassinations and killings’ are simply the natural form of dissent in Arab countries.
As Gaddafi’s tanks mow down opposition and protesters in Bahrain are killed by their own government, it is very easy to dismiss Gaddafi’s words as ravings. And so we should. Any national leader who resorts to bloody slaughter to suppress peaceful opposition at once foregoes any right to moral authority – and any right to rule.
Yet, it is all too easy to slip into the assertion, as many Western commentators do, that the opposition in the Arab countries is fighting for democracy, when maybe what is uppermost is justice and freedom from oppression – and freedom to live their own lives. Maybe we should ask ourselves, just what democracy is and what it means.
The USA often presents itself as the champion of democracy. Yet interestingly, its founding fathers were not that enamoured with democracy at all. They intended America to be primarily a republic that championed liberty and rights, not a democracy. “A democracy,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 per cent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49.”
Another founding father, John Adams, was even more damning: “Democracy...while it lasts is more bloody than either [aristocracy or monarchy]. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” For Jefferson and Adams, the purpose of elections was simply the most reliable and pragmatic way of keeping the government ‘more or less republican’; not the embodiment of a great ideal.
It might well be argued that this is pretty much what elections today are about in most Western countries – something to bear in mind as the merits of first past the post and alternatives votes are discussed over the coming months. Yet I believe that democracy is an ideal, a vitally important one worth striving for and worth holding on to – but it cannot be won, nor preserved, by a few slick words or a subtle change in the voting system – or even a few well targeted air strikes. (The World’s Greatest Idea by John Farndon, is available at Amazon)
On 7th April, the Royal Court will be staging the first reading of the play Pagans by a young Ukrainian playwright, Anna Yablonskaya. The play has been widely acclaimed in Russia, and the screen adaptation of the play was awarded a major prize by one of Russia’s top film magazines on the 24th January this year. Sadly, Ms Yablonskaya will not be attending the Royal Court reading, for the 24th January was the day when a young suicide bomber blew himself up in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport – and Anna, arriving in Moscow to receive the award, was one of the victims of the terrible blast.
I cannot imagine the anguish of Anna’s husband, Artyom, who learned of his wife’s death when he rang her mobile phone and found it answered by the Russian policeman standing over her body. Nor can I imagine the anguish he must have felt in confronting their three year-old daughter Maria with the news that her mother was never coming back.
I have only heard about Anna Yablonskaya (real name Mashutina) since her death, so I hope family and friends will not mind me commenting, but it seems from all reports that she was a wonderful young woman. The translator of her plays, Rory Mullarkey writes, “Anna had that rare combination of intellect and heart, which made her wonderful to be around, both as a playwright and as a friend, and brought laughter and warmth to lives both real and imagined.”
Mullarkey tells how she often wrote about misfits, those who are lost in life, from failed musicians to traumatized soldiers, but wrote with a tenderness that stemmed the tide of despair. Maybe she would even have written with tenderness about her murderer, Magomed Yevloyev, a young boy from an Ingushetian village in the Caucasus. Or maybe, because she often wrote from a woman’s point of view, about the boy’s mother, whose feelings about her son’s appalling death are hard to imagine. The critic Pavel Rudnev apparently wrote of Anna’s work of her remarkable ability to turn whatever situation the desperate, dehumanised world offered into a “falling cat that always landed square on its paws”. That is indeed an ability to cherish.
The Russian and Ukrainian people have had far more than their fair share of bereaved mothers and children in the last hundred years and for my Russian set musical ‘Anya’ I wrote a song (performed above by Russian group Koleso) for a woman left holding a baby whose mother has just been taken to the Gulags, which was recently included in the Gate theatre’s Beyond the Gate show about new songs of war. It is partly a lament for all mothers who wonder how they can bring children up in such a desperate world. But it too has, I feel, a square paw landing.
The photograph is of Ms Yablonskaya’s beloved home city of Odessa, which I visited briefly 18 months ago. Odessa has seen many tragedies in the past, but charming wedding scenes like this are an every day feature in this beautiful city, which Ms Yablonskaya described as a living theatre.
For the last year, thinkers and commentators on the right have been peddling what they portray as a self-evident truth. That government spending is to blame for all our economic woes. Cut down on taxes and cut down on wasteful spending and, while it might cause a little hardship in the short run, a rosy future is promised.
But last week that was exposed as a sham in the place where these policies were pursued most vigourously – Texas. Of course, the media have kept rather quite about this embarrassing failure. The governor of Texas was recently re-elected saying we ‘have billions in surplus’ after cutting taxes and paring state spending absolutely to the bone. The problem is, it was a lie. It turns out Texas has a deficit of well over $25 billion – and no way of paying it back, since spending is already at rock bottom.
After state spending bailed out banks from their self-inflicted crisis a few years ago, financial markets – the same markets that created the crisis – have now turned the tables and are lambasting governments, from Greece and Ireland to the UK, for their soaring deficits. Cut, cut, cut, the IMF and their friends insist, and many have swallowed this message of unpalatable but necessary medicine.
But it’s a treatment regime about effective as bleeding patients was 200 years ago. As Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says, “Cutbacks in spending will weaken Britain, and even worsen its long-term fiscal position relative to well-designed government spending. There is a shortage of aggregate demand – the demand for goods and services that generates jobs. Cutbacks in government spending will mean lower output and higher unemployment, unless something else fills the gap.” The private sector cannot and will not fill the gap. Who with any sense is going to start up a business, or even expand dramatically, in such a bleak economic environment?
Perhaps even more to the point: it will wreck many people’s lives. All those millions of people who lose their jobs. All those millions of children whose education is blighted. All those millions whose life on welfare is made bleaker. All those millions who have work long hours on subsistencc wages. Yes, we’re all in this together – except for those who aren’t...
The world’s diners have become enamoured with fish. Nutritionists tell us it is healthy. Weightwatchers like it because it is free of fat. Gourmet chefs love it for its sheer variety of taste and texture. Even many ‘vegetarians’ who refuse to eat the meat of mammals and birds are willing to open their mouths to the flesh of fish. Specialist fish restaurants spring up in every city. Supermarkets have fish counters displaying exotic fish from all around the world.
The problem is, our taste for fish has driven the world’s fishing industry to rampage through the oceans on such a gigantic scale that many once teeming fishing grounds may soon be fish deserts. A change in approach is essential if wild fish are not to vanish altogether from the dinner menu.
Once the preserve of brave fishermen working local seas with only their instincts and the most basic equipment, fishing has become a global high-tech business. Huge boats work far from home using the latest detection equipment to locate shoals, and giant nets for hauling gigantic loads of fish from the sea. These boats have all the facilities aboard to preserve the fish and stay at sea for long periods.
Big, high-tech fishing boats like these have had an enormous impact on global fish stocks. Annual fish catches have risen 500% in the last half century, and not far short of 100 million tonnes of fish is scooped up from the oceans each year. The result, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, is that 52% of all the world’s commercial fish are ‘fully exploited’, 17% are ‘over-exploited’ and 8% are ‘depleted’. But these bare figures hardly conjure up just how severe the situation is.
Fishing quotas have been in place for decades but have not prevented many populations of once abundant fish being fished out. Northern cod, North Sea mackerel, Antarctica’s marbled rock cod, bluefin tuna and many other populations have all but gone. Ninety per cent of large predatory fish such as tuna, sharks and billfish have been removed over the last century. In 2006, Boris Worm, a marine ecologist at
Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, presented a study which projected that overfishing was proceeding at such a breakneck speed that the oceans would be entirely fished out by 2048. Some experts argued that Worm was overstating the problem, and one of his critics, Ray Hilborn, joined him on a new study, completed in 2009. Even this new study suggested that 63 per cent of fish populations were being fished at such unsustainable levels that they will inevitably collapse unless there is some change.
Nonetheless, there are grounds for hope. There are places where fish stocks are managed properly, and where there is only a limited amount of illegal fishing. There fish stocks do seem to show signs of sustainability and even recovery in some cases. Out of 10 regions in North America, northern Europe and Oceania that Worm and Hilborn’s team looked at closely, five showed signs of improvement, with diminishing rates of exploitation in recent years. In other words, politicial and government action can make a difference, and so can consumer pressure and choice to alter fishing practices.
The podcast is the second of a series of extracts from my forthcoming book, the Atlas of Oceans, to be published by Yale University Press in the USA and A&C Black in the UK early next year. It highlights the story of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, which were once the world’s richest cod fisheries, heaving with a seemingly boundless supply of this large and nutritious fish. After the big trawlers brought a brief surge in the Newfoundland cod catch in the 1950s and 60s, it began to plummet in the 70s and 80s. In 1992, the last cod was caught here. Many people doubt if cod will ever be caught here again.
The music is a simple piano melody of mine entitled “My Love is Far Away.”
Emotions seem to flow with an unmixed intensity over Christmas. For some, it is a time of warmth and joy that brings not only families together but often brings an extra charge to romance. For others, it is a time of pain and recrimination, of loss and loneliness.
Christmas seems to focus that need for most of us to love and to be loved. American author Washington Irving believed that the gloom of winter reminds of human comforts: “Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment.” (Old Christmas, 1850).
Irving also offered comfort for those for who the charm of another’s company that the season seems to highlight brings as much pain as pleasure – those whose love seems to be on one side alone. Loving someone and not being loved in return is one of the most distressing, humiliating experiences life has to offer. Yet, Irving wrote, “Love is never lost. If not reciprocated, it will flow back and soften and purify the heart.”
Here are two poems of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin on the subject, in English versions I based on a literal translation by Lilia Belokonova, including the famous ‘Nightingale and the Rose’.
The song ‘The Closed Door’ is from my musical Anya, sung by Russian group Koleso. It’s based on something I was once told about how a Russian woman’s heart is like a cottage in winter. How if she does not love you, all you will see is a barred door, and you will be left outside in the cold, seeing nothing but blank walls, while you freeze. But once she lets you in you will find a warm hearth, a place of light and joy, with thick walls to keep out the winter, a place of protection and warmth.
THE NIGHTINGALE AND THE ROSE
In the silent gardens, in the night, in spring,
An orient nightingale to a rose does sing
But she does not listen, does not feel, the lovely rose;
As the pure song soars, she'll flutter and doze.
And is this bird not like you to hymn beauty so cool?
Turn, turn, oh poet, why sing to her like a fool?
She does not hear, does not feel, a poet's sigh –
When you gaze at her she'll bloom, but not reply.
WHAT MEANING HAS MY NAME?
What meaning has my name for you?
Will it die like the melancholy roar
Of waves washing on a distant shore,
Or the night whispers that dense woods subdue?
Will it be left unsaid, unsung –
A fading epitaph in crumbling stone
On a neglected grave long overgrown,
Etched in obscure and ancient tongue?
What’s it to you? Forgotten quite
As wild new pleasures burst upon you,
It won’t ever stir your soul to flight
With recollections soft and true.
Yet maybe when the days hang dismally,
Pronounce it to yourself with longing,
Say: yes, there are memories of me;
There’s a heart in the world where I’m living.
“Who hears the fishes when they cry?” wrote the young American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau in 1839, dismayed by the impact of a corporation dam on migrating shad, and it seems a remarkably prophetic observation.
In February 2008, an international team of scientists led by Dr Benjamin Halpern, of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, USA, developed the first detailed global map of human impacts on the seas, using a sophisticated model to handle huge amounts of data. They divided the world’s oceans into square kilometer sections and combined data for each of 17 different human impacts to oceans, including fishing, coastal development, fertilizer runoff and pollution from shipping traffic.
Their map showed that just 4 per cent of the world’s oceans are now entirely undamaged by human activity. Climate change, fishing, pollution and other human factors have taken their toll in some way on all the other 96 per cent of the world’s oceans. Forty one per cent of the oceans are seriously damaged. Even the scientists working on the map were shocked to find that virtually nowhere seems to have escaped – and they believe that soon even the small area of pristine waters near the poles will be dragged in as climate change melts the polar ice caps.
The result was shocking because the true scale of the problems has been masked previously by focusing only on single problems and small areas. As Dr Halpen said, "In the past, many studies have shown the impact of individual activities. But here for the first time we have produced a global map of all of these different activities layered on top of each other so that we can get this big picture of the overall impact that humans are having rather than just single impacts.” And the big picture is so alarming that the authors of the map described it as a ‘wake-up call’ for policymakers.
One of the ironies is that marine life is coming under threat just as we are beginning to learn how astonishingly rich it is. Recently, the results of the extraordinary ten-year Census of Marine Life were announced. The aim of the Census was to produce the first ever comprehensive survey of life in the ocean. The oceans are so vast that the Census can only give an impression of what it is out there. Yet it has shown the variety of life in the oceans is much, much, much greater than scientists ever imagined. Thousands of previously unknown species have been discovered, and it is absolutely certain there are many more yet to be found. As the famous oceanographer Sylvia Earle writes in her foreword to World Ocean Census “The importance of the Census is made urgent because at the same time that more is being learned about the diversity of life in the sea than all preceding history, more is being lost.”
The podcast is the first of a series of extracts from my forthcoming book, the Atlas of Oceans, to be published by Yale University Press in the USA and A&C Black in the UK early next year. The book has been fortunate enough to receive some very positive comments prior to publication from experts in the USA from the Cousteaus to Carl Safina. “Atlas of Ocean is a magnificent work in every respect.” writes distinguished geographer Harm de Blij, “[It is] a highly important work [and] this volume does for oceanography...what Carl Sagan did for cosmology.” Famous oceanographer Carl Safina writes, "This book...is a realm to explore. A place for sparking ideas. You'll find yourself being drawn back to into it, as to the ocean itself, again and again." http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300167504
The music is a simple piano melody of mine entitled “My Love is Far Away.”
This is one of Pushkin’s most famous poems, about rusalka, the mermaid of Russian myth, whose charms drew men to their death, in an English version I have created from a literal translation by Lilia Belokonova. Rusalkas are alluring creatures of summer, who haunt the birches and willows above lakes in the pallid light of the moon, combing their long hair and filling the night air with their haunting siren song. Some have linked rusalkas to the banshee of Irish myth, the sad female spirits of the shee, the fairy mounds. Both rusalkas and banshees are bathed in fatality. Some say rusalkas are the undead spirits of girls who drowned. The lonely wailing of the banshee is a harbinger of death. The song ‘Shadowfall’ is from my musical Dreamweaver, which slips in and out of the world of Irish myth, and is sung by the lonely bard Ossian as he sits in the paradoxical and magical world of twilight out in the wilds, parted from his love, who is locked in the underworld. The singer is Glyn Kerslake. The engraving is from the painting ‘The Origin of the Harp’ by Irish painter Daniel Maclise in the Manchester Art Gallery.
RUSALKA by Alexander Pushkin
Down by the lake, where dark trees grow thick,
Lived a monk who hoped to be saved.
He drove himself on with the sternest of sticks;
He fasted, he prayed and he slaved.
As he laboured away with his humble spade,
He was digging his grave with each breath.
To the Saints every day, he earnestly prayed
To release him from life into death.
Then one summer's day, as he kneeled by the stairs
At the door of his tumbledown shack,
This anchorite gave the good Lord his prayers.
The forest began to grow black.
A mist over the lake like smoke did arise
And a blood-red moon rose from its sleep
To roll along slowly, through churning skies.
The monk gazed on the waters so deep.
As he looks and he looks, his mind fills with fear;
He can't understand what he's thinking...
But he sees all too clear, water bubbling near
Then all at once quietly sinking...
And suddenly there, white as first snows,
Pale as the shadows of night,
A naked girl from the waters arose
And emerges silent and bright.
She stares at the monk as she sits by the lake
And softly combs her wet hair.
The holy old monk, in fear starts to shake,
Entranced by her beauty so fair.
She beckons him on with a wave of her hand
And nods to him quickly, come to me.
Then like a falling star she's gone from the land
To plunge in the waters so gloomy.
All that long night, the old man can't sleep
All the long day, he can't pray.
His mind is filled with the girl from the deep;
Her loveliness won't go away.
Then once again, the woods dress in night,
The moon starts to redden once more
And there in full view, so lovely and bright,
Sits the naked girl down by the shore.
She nods to the monk with so teasing a gaze –
Blows kisses to him, sweet and wild.
And like summer waves, she splashes and plays,
And laughs and cries like a child.
Then tenderly moaning, she calls to the monk,
“Monk! Monk! Come to me! Come to me!”
Then into the lake, in a trice, now she's sunk;
Silence reigns again under the trees.
On the third day, by the enchanted shore,
Sat the passion-filled old anchorite
To wait for the maid, lovely as before,
And the woods filled with shadows of night...
When bright dawn came up and kicked out the night,
The monk was nowhere to be seen,
But some boys passing by said they caught sight
Of a beard, afloat on the waters so green.
Tomorrow, I’m going to the House of Commons. My book Do You Think You’re Clever? is one of the four books on the shortlist for the Society of Authors Education Award 2010, and this is where the award ceremony is being held.
The House of Commons is now, as everyone knows, a hotbed of intrigue, where glamourous young Russian spies inveigle their ways deep into the corridors of government. So naturally, I am expecting to take with me as my partner the comely young Russian Miss Olga N.
The beautiful and brilliant Miss N., an engineering graduate of the top St Petersburg University, returned to the UK in January last year after a few months absence, with the clear aim of befriending me.
In retrospect, it was quite clear that she knew that my book, which I was just about to write, would lead to me being invited into the very seat of British parliament just 21 months later!
Had I but realized it, I would have seen straightaway that the Oxbridge questions I write about in Do You Think You’re Clever? – off-the-wall questions designed to test Oxbridge candidates’ intellectual mettle – are really coded messages to sort out the next generation of Anthony Blunts for recruitment into the Russian spy network. Questions such as “What happens when you drop an ant?” are ingeniously framed to test a candidate’s knowledge of ANTs – Automated Nuclear Targets, while the sinister “When are people dead?” and “Chekhov’s great, isn’t he?” need no explanation!
Olga N. is currently working undercover at a nursery, where she has direct access to the young minds of our nation. The blonde Miss N’s influence is already becoming clear as one young tot was heard recently to greet her father with the phrase ‘dada’ – unmistakably Russian, “Da, da” or “Yes, yes”, and no doubt preparing the way for young Britons to submit readily to the Russian yoke!
These are unnerving times for members of parliament, and the song I’ve included here. “I’m getting wise to you...” is indicative of the dangers they face. It is from my musical In Love and War, written with Marc Folan. It is terrifically performed here by Peter Straker and Dawn Hope, with the inimitable Warren Wills at the piano.
[Note: to any ‘spooks’ who might have let their imaginations run away with them: while Miss N is very real, my version of her story above is entirely a flight of fancy!]
Recently, I’ve heard many people assuming that the utilitarian argument for university education is a given – that is, that its only value to the individual and society is to help them find a job, or do some practical research.
My own belief is that society benefits immensely from having university graduates in its midst – people whose education enables them to think more widely and deeply, or just differently. And the more there are, the better it is for society. This is the argument for education at all levels, but it’s often forgotten.
[And incidentally, our economic future in competition with the rising millions of university educated people in countries like China and India surely depends on having a highly educated population].
I am happy to pay taxes to contribute to university education for others because it makes the society I live in a better place for all. So we need to find a way to fund all those who express a genuine wish to go to university, free of charge. They will pay for it in the long run, through their taxes, just like everyone else.
Some say ‘why should I pay extra taxes’ for someone to go to university if I don’t?’ To me, that’s like saying I shouldn’t pay taxes to support the NHS if I’m rarely sick. We pay taxes to help make society a better place to live, not for individual gain.
It’s my belief that providing free university education will pay society back in spades, in both tangible and intangible ways. Indeed, raising fees to a level where only the well-off can afford to go then makes taxing everyone to support universities (which will still happen) genuinely unfair – because then taxes are being raised to pay for the education only of the privileged!
[By the way, I don’t think one should necessarily write off as a waste of money those who don’t have a passion for learning. I think people can benefit from university education in various ways.]
One of the most extraordinary and haunting scientific discoveries of the last few decades has been the existence of mirror neurons. These are nerve cells that fire when you perform a particular movement – but also fire when you see someone else performing the same movement. When we watch someone else performing a familiar movements, our own neurons ‘mirror’ them, firing exactly as if we were moving in the same way.
It’s no wonder, then, that people get so excited watching a game of football. Inside their head, each spectator is following every twist and turn, every kick and lunge, as if they actually were out there on the pitch playing themselves. Similarly, when a crunching tackle goes in and a player rolls on the floor in agony, we wince as we feel it in our imaginations.
Neuroscientists have not yet agreed what the purpose of mirror neurons is. Some believe they play a key role in empathy, that remarkable capacity to share in another’s sadness or joy or embarrassment.
It’s what makes watching a good film or reading a good book such a moving experience, as we follow closely the character’s emotional highs and lows. But it also a vital human quality that helps us care and understand others. It helps us literally feel as they do. It creates both a bond between us, and inspires sympathy, because we want to soothe another’s pain just as we would soothe our own.
Sometimes, it can seem as if one’s own torments, and the torments of the world are too much to bear. That’s when this fellow feeling can be a great comfort. Pain shared is somehow more bearable.
The song, ‘Peace in my heart.’ is one I wrote for a musical called Dreamweaver. Here it is sung by a talented young Swedish singer named Siri Loof , who also plays the piano. The trombone I added afterwards.
On Saturday, I went to my niece’s wedding. It was a beautiful, touching occasion and the young couple looked at their most beautiful – and deliriously happy . The magic of marriage still seduces hundreds of millions of people around the world each year, making nonsense of warnings of its imminent decease. In the online poll for “The World’s Greatest Idea”, marriage came last of all the 50 selected ideas, with no votes at all. I don’t believe this really reflects a complete lack of belief in marriage, but the demographic of those who voted.
Of course, there have been many jokes at marriage’s expense:
“Bigamy is having one husband or wife too many. Monogamy is the same.” Oscar Wilde
“I have great hopes that we shall love each other all our lives as much as if we had never married at all.” Lord Byron
“God created sex. Priests created marriage.” Voltaire
“Marriage is the only war in which you sleep with the enemy.” FranÃ§ois, Duc de La Rochefoucauld
“The Wedding March always reminds me of the music played when soldiers go into battle.” Heinrich Heine
“Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.” Groucho Marx
But nearly all these jokes are intended affectionately, and most people believe marriage is the greatest thing in their lives. Perhaps one of the most touchingly humane arguments for marriage was put by Robert Louis Stevenson in Virginibus Puerisque, ‘A man expects an angel for a wife;[yet] he knows that she is like himself -- erring, thoughtless and untrue; but like himself also, filled with a struggling radiancy of better things ... You may safely go to school with hope; but ere you marry, should have learned the mingled lesson of the world: that hope and love address themselves to a perfection never realized, and yet, firmly held, become the salt and staff of life; that you yourself are compacted of infirmities ... and yet you have a something in you lovable and worth preserving; and that, while the mass of mankind lies under this scurvy condemnation, you will scarce find one but, by some generous reading, will become to you a lesson, a model and a noble spouse through life.
So thinking, you will constantly support your own unworthiness and easily forgive the failings of your friend. Nay, you will be wisely glad that you retain the ... blemishes; for the faults of married people continually spur up each of them, hour by hour, to do better and to meet and love upon a higher ground.”
Three degrees below, the forecast says, and may be it will snow. I do hope it does. There’s both a thrill in falling snow and a sense of melancholy. One of the most haunting passages in literature I know is at the end of James Joyce’s story The Dead from The Dubliners – words which end, too, John Huston’s wonderful film of the story:
“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.”
In all this whiteness, it seems right to introduce some things from Russia, where three degrees below in winter is a heat wave. In London, a Russian friend of mine observes, it’s cold indoors in winter and almost warm outside. In Russia, it’s the other way round, with the outside colder than a fridge and homes warmer than an oven!
The song ‘The Sleep of Winter’, is from my musical Anya, set in Stalin’s Russia. It’s performed by St Petersburg group Koleso, hence the strong accents, and is a lullaby sung Anya as she cradles her dying father, released unexpectedly from his imprisonment in the Gulags. The wolfpack is, of course, a metaphor for NKVD, the secret police.
The poem ‘Frost and Sun’ is my English version of a poem by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, created with the help of a literal translation by my good friend from Voronezh Lilia Belokonova. Pushkin is one of the giants of Russian words, yet his work is surprisingly little known in England. That’s a shame.
FROST AND SUN by Alexander Pushkin
Frost and sun – what a glorious day!
Yet still, sweet friend, you sleep away –
It’s time, gorgeous, for you to stir:
Open wide your dreamy eyes
To catch the dawnglow in northern skies –
Rise up like a northern star!
Last night, remember, a blizzard seethed.
In sombre skies, the thick clouds heaved.
The moon, a livid blotch, struck shadows
Through the dark and churning brume,
While you sat miserably in the gloom –
Well now... look out through the windows!
Under vivid azure skies
A luxurious pure carpet lies –
Snow, sparkling in the brilliant light.
Bare trees present their blackening sheen;
Through the white, spruce growing green;
Beneath the ice, a river glistening bright.
Our room is filled with an amber glow
And now the kindling’s on the go,
Crackling merrily on the stove inside –
How nice to sit by its warmth all day!
But hey...why not order out the sleigh
With the chestnut mare and ride?
Swishing over the snow we’ll race.
Surrender, sweet friend, to the pace
As our urgent steed pulls fast!
We’ll shoot through lonely fields and thence
Through thickets so recently too dense...
To my beloved riverbank, at last.
A lot of attention this week focused on Lord Young for his remark to a journalist that in the current ‘so-called recession’ most people in the UK have ‘never had it so good’ because of low mortgage interest rates. Labour MPs clamoured for his resignation, and a stony faced David Cameron accepted it with alacrity saying that his adviser would be doing ‘a bit less speaking’ in future.
For people struggling to make ends meet or facing the very real prospect of losing their jobs, Lord Young’s comments did seem aggravatingly tactless. And yet what did he actually say that was shocking? The attention focused not on whether or not he was factually correct but on his insensitivity to those who were not better off – and his appearance of being smug.
It’s an interesting stand-point. Capitalism and its champions (including, one must assume, Young’s government colleagues) argue that we must accept the inequalities it brings in order to allow the market to be free. So the problem with Lord Young’s remarks is not that they went against government policy or were even necessarily untrue but that they contradicted the government message that ‘we are all in this mess together’. Of course, we are not. Even in the very worst of times, many people continue to do very well. And even in the best of times, many people suffer more than others. That is capitalism’s flaw.
Scientists, it seems, are becoming more and more keen on romance – as a topic of scientific research, I mean, (before anyone gets carried away imagining white-garbed men and women swooning over test tubes). And the media report their findings avidly, perhaps in the hope that the sharp eye of science will reveal the truth about love just as it has unlocked the mysteries of the atom.
Who knows if they’ll succeed? Many probably hope they won’t. The poet John Keats was upset enough that Newton’s discoveries about light threatened to ‘unweave a rainbow’ by taking away the magic. No doubt if he were alive today, the prospect of scientists unravelling the secrets of the heart would make him wish he wasn’t. But I suspect that romance will survive the scientist’s scalpel. Space seems even more awesome and beautiful now the Hubble Space Telescope has cast its penetrating gaze into its distance reaches. I have a feeling romance will stay equally awesome and beautiful however much we find out about it...
It all started with a book I wrote last year entitled Do You Think You’re Clever? which was inspired by the surprising, intriguing, strange, silly and even downright irritating interview questions tutors sometimes ask candidates for Oxford and Cambridge to test their intellectual mettle. That in turn inspired a Facebook site where all kinds of people have been contributing a wonderful variety of thoughts and comments.
I’m going to kick off with some excerpts from my recent book The World’s Greatest Idea, starting at the bottom, so to speak, with Sewerage, but climbing to higher realms with anything from Capitalism and Romance to the Internet and Quantum mechanics.
When the notion of writing The World’s Greatest Idea was first suggested to me, my first reaction was that it was absurd. How can such profound and complex ideas as justice or logic or Marxism be reduced to a simple popularity contest? And yet there’s something rather beguiling about the notion, something that slyly seduces you into thinking about it before you can stop yourself and say, “Hold on; this is ridiculous!”
Ideas matter. They shape our experience of the world. They bring us good things and bad. They alter our lives for better or worse. They change our beliefs and our hopes for the future. Ideas such as fire, metals and pottery dramatically changed how we live. Democracy and capitalism established fundamental principles underpinning the way society is run. Ideas such as the abolition of slavery and feminism are vital attempts to right a wrong. Each one of these ideas is important and has had a huge impact on humanity, whether good or ill.
The picture of the Walbrook sewer above is taken from the site of the Undercity.org. I hope they won’t mind me using it, by I thought their pictures of sewers were thoroughly beautiful and a fitting tribute to the builders that created them.