21 lessons for the 21st century, by Yuval Noah Harari

If you can’t afford to waste time, you will never find the truth”. When you think about that, it’s either nonsense, or it’s the deepest profundity. Yuval Noah Harari’s book contains a handful of similar memorable quotes – another is “the problem with evil is that in real life, it is not necessarily ugly. It can look very beautiful”.

Overall I found this work rather negative, much harder to read than his excellent “Sapiens”, reviewed here. Today we rightly go to some length not to notice or to judge the characteristics, background or ethnicity of people. It really ought not matter, and of course it doesn’t. Now, with some writers you have little idea who they are, or what their politics are. The author is invisible; the story, the writing, is all. John le Carre is one such. But Yuval Noah Harari is not. The reality is that when reading him, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he is gay, very secular, and a Jewish left-leaning university professor. He seems to have a very low view of the human race, which may be partly understandable, but it is not a view I share. I have no time for that depressing but popular school of thought that sees humankind as a Bad Thing.

An important point he does make is that this is not a timeless age, these are very changeable times. He notes that a man in 1020 A.D would have been able to predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that things in 1060 A.D would be pretty much the same. That would be true through much of human history perhaps, until the 20th century. Then the pace of change really does start to pick up. Exactly why that was, would be the subject of more debate still.

Harari argues that today, in 2020, NO-ONE really knows what 2060 will look like – and this was written before COVID-19. How much less now? I can’t even see what the state of civil society will be in six months from now, much less forty years. In 1920 you might have dared to predict 1960 with some degree of success. But he suggests that to dare to predict 2060 would be pointless. (Actually, there are a number of writers and philosophers who do make just such predictions, though Yuval Noah Harari, as someone working in this area of thought, seems oddly unfamiliar with their work.)

He argues that the central skill that our young people need today, is not (only) the traditional “three R’s” or even STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), but the ability to deal with change. And that our schools – us in effect, we elders – have failed to deliver this. Resilience – the ability to adapt, to be open to change. To recreate oneself, to re-engineer who and what we are. As someone once said to me, “the jobs of the future are the jobs of the imagination”. How do we recreate ourselves, not once, but again and again and again over the course of a career? How do we earn a crust in a world we can’t even imagine now?

But for all Harari noting that the pace of change may be accelerating, it is worth recalling that developing technology rendered it ever thus. There are not many fletchers, thatchers, archers, or ostlers around today. When trains were invented in the mid-19th century, coachmen, coach drivers, owners of coaching inns and so forth fought long and hard to restrict or prevent the spread of railways. They knew – they knew! Their jobs were going to disappear. But new jobs emerged. New trades became necessary. Harari argues that new jobs will cease to emerge as technology develops and as machine learning and AI improves, but again, I don’t share that view.

Dealing with constant change is just one of a number of important themes and ideas emerging in Yuval Noah Harari’s book covering some of the great philosophical questions of our time. Overall, his analysis of dramatic and unknowable change for the next 40 years, is somewhat despondent and a little overstated. Rather like George Orwell does in “1984“, he underestimates the power of cynicism, inertia and idleness, to say nothing of snobbishness, pride and vested interest. It’s a bit like when classic mid-20th century science-fiction predicted that we’d be on Mars by the end of the century. It never happened – not because we couldn’t, but because we didn’t. We couldn’t be bothered, or because other matters (the Vietnam War for example) were more important.

But one premise does keep me thinking: what if you were ruined tomorrow? What if – as Harari wonders – everything changes and your livelihood completely disappears? What are the steps to reinventing yourself? How do we deal with ultimate change? We’re all going to die eventually, so ultimate change really ought not, at least for Christians, be too hard to deal with. But the post-Christian mind, or the un-Christian mind, has less training to deal with that, perhaps. How do you deal with constant change in life? Not once but again and again and again?

Seismic survey in the North Sea, 1989

Starting work at midnight, everyone piles into the instrument room at the absolute last possible minute. I’ve been on crews where you start work at 11.35 and your oppo leaves exactly at midday or midnight. On this crew, it was the other way round – you start work exactly at just before 12, and your oppos leave about 12.25 or so, earlier if possible. It doesn’t matter which you do – so long as everyone does the same thing.

We’re in a long line change. The first thing we learn is that all the starboard guns are on deck for repairs and the gun mechanics need a hand. Us two assistant observers head for the gun deck on the instant, followed later by the Observer, once the handover is complete. There are several problems. A supporting U bolt needs replacing and welding into place. One gun has a water leak in the umbilical line. Another gun needs it’s actuator replacing. This last we can do; it’s just heavy work with spanners. All three observers and all three gun mechanics work hard for a while, and eventually all the tasks are completed. The guns are launched at the last minute – only just in time as the survey line starts.

We shoot the survey line; it is mostly uneventful. An observer watches the tell-tales on various computers, of the seismic cable and the guns, and the navigator (or surveyor) steers the ship. It is 3a.m and blowing Force 5-6. There is some swell noise on our seismic recordings – that is, the sea is rough enough to start distorting the reflected noise from the guns when it appears on the seismic streamer, which is towed around 8m under the sea surface.

After the end of line, I perform a set of daily diagnostic tests on the recording instruments. This is a contractural requirement. It’s routine work but we do it for a reason, to spot problems as they crop up. After the test, it is 7.50a.m. My colleague replaces me watching the streamer, and I go for breakfast: sausages, bacon, tomatoes, chips, toast and marmalade, and tea.

We come round onto the next line, and prepare to start shooting, but the wind has risen to Force 7-8, and the swell noise in the direction of the line is unacceptable to us or the client’s representative. We have some options on this prospect – we can swing round to try a line in a different direction. The new information is programmed into the navigation computer by the trainee navigator, his boss keeping a watchful eye. Time passes: the swell noise is no better.

Then there’s a call on the intercom from the bridge, about the rising wind and worsening sea conditions. We agree; it is too rough to continue shooting. I’m despatched to the mess to tell the gun mechanics to stand by to recover all the guns. By now it is Force 8 outside and Seismariner is starting to move. The guns are recovered in stormy weather. Driving rain is hammering down, hissing on the surface of the sea. Because of the weather it takes a while, about an hour, to get all the guns aboard safely. Next, I accompany the chief mechanic and a gun mechanic up onto the quarter deck to help bring in the booms. These extend 21m either side of the vessel and are controlled hydraulically. It is pouring with rain and a sharp gale is ripping at our clothes. We’re all glad to get back inside afterwards and clean up.

I sit down shortly afterwards in the instrument room with a cup of tea. Everyone is sat around, talking. The wind is still Force 8. It’s not a BAD storm, but storm warnings are being broadcast on the teleprinter. The words “cyclonic depression” are seen. It is 10.30a.m. Suddenly, Phil, the deputy party chief, makes his decision – “get the cable in!” We stare: it’s a three-hour job in the wet and cold, and hard work. We finish work at noon…

But Phil has a hunch about the weather; that’s what they pay him for and he is right. There’s a delay about then as a trawler crosses our stern about a mile back – on top of the cable. Crash dive the cable. Fire flares into the rain and wind. By the time we start recovering the cable, it is 11.15a.m. One or two out of every five waves or so is slopping into the back deck and getting us wet; it is quite rough. Progress is slow, pushing and shoving with no hydraulic support. It seems to be getting calmer outside. It IS getting calmer; the sun appears. We wonder at our bosses decision. He appears on the back deck, telling us that Seismariner is in the eye of the storm – the “cyclonic depression” he saw on the teleprinter earlier. The sea goes down to barely 8 or 9 foot waves.

All of a sudden though, just about noon, the wind comes up again, from a different direction. Foam and spray are everywhere all of a sudden; the sea is white. Phil’s boss, the Party Chief, makes a rare visit to the back deck and endorses Phil’s decision: “Get it in QUICK” he says. The wind is now Force 10 and gusting to Force 11.

Marine seismic in the Tropics – 1989

Getting up for work at 11.30p.m, I’m happy, because I know this is the last shift of the trip. At midnight I join my colleagues on the gun deck and help the mechanics with recovery of the starboard side seismic guns. For me this is mainly a business of pulling in towing strops, and fixing the hook of a “concertina winch” in certain places on the gun array to bunch the array up or “concertina” it. The gun deck of this old vessel is too short to fit the seven gun array when spread out to its full length.

By 12.30a.m the booms are raised, the big Norwegian buoys are stowed out of the way, and the towing strops have been tightened to pull the slack loops out of the sea to avoid them being caught in our propellor. Shortly, we will recover the seismic cable, and for that, the vessel must be driven backwards.

In a flat calm the single short cable is recovered swiftly. Mostly just a matter of pushing and shoving to keep it neat on the winch drum, which is driven hydraulically. Newer seismic vessels have fairleads and winches which can be used as ways to mechanise this pushing and shoving, but not the Seismariner. What can take hours of potentially hazardous and unpleasant grafting in cold and wind of the North Sea, is forty minutes of tedious work in a flat calm in the overbearing heat of equatorial Africa.

Cable recovered, the ship starts to steam towards Mayumba in the Congo, where we will off sub-contract navigation radio receivers by ship’s boat. (This was a couple of years before differential GPS navigation equipment became commercially available). We all adjourn to the crew mess for a well-earned pot of tea. An hour later, work restarts, and I join the mechanic Eric down in his domain in the guts of the ship. Starting at 3.a.m, I help him strip down and replace the big end bearings in four huge water pumps – 12 bearings in all. It takes three and a half hours and two pots of tea to finish the job.

By now it’s 6.30a.m and it is pouring with rain. This is quite usual at this time of year in this part of the world. Our FRB (Fast Rescue Boat) is made ready to transfer the navigation equipment. The sub-contractors gear – receivers, cables, antennas etc – is made ready on the foredeck. The rain stops, but oppressive clouds remain. The jungle close by is steaming and looks threatening. A short break for what we call “breakfast” (though working nights, it is the main meal of the day), and then the crew is ready. It is an assistant observer (myself), the mechanic (the late Eric Gray), and the Assistant Party Chief (Mick).

We lower the boat, and Eric takes her round to the boarding ladder. I climb in along with our client’s representative, the Texan Dave, and we’re off. The ship grows smaller in the distance as we move inshore. We can discern – with eyes, ears and nose – more detail of the jungle and the beach ahead. As the seabed slopes up to the shore, a huge swell develops, white rollers crashing onto a sandbar. We search without success for a way into the lagoon beyond, passing as we do so, the wreck of a coaster bigger than Seismariner. Her rusted bridge is all that remains above the sand and water. We know that getting into the lagoon will be easy – but getting the boat out again through the immense surf will be impossible.

It’s exciting stuff for a young man: the small boat, the sea, the strangeness of the African jungle close by. We can see people waiting for us ashore, but defeated for the present, we head back to the mother ship. On the way the outboard engine stops, and Eric toils to fix it in heavy, pregnant silence, except for the slopping of wavelets against the gunwhale. The four of us in the boat breath a sigh of relief when the engine whizzes into life; we make it safely back home, and are lifted out of the water.

A while later, a second attempt is made at a slightly different location, and all the equipment and the client rep. are safely dropped ashore. It takes three separate trips to move everything, but all is complete by 10.30a.m. The FRB is recovered once again, and we leave the bay at once, steaming for Pont Noire in the Congo, some ten hours journey away at 12 knots.

After another brief tea break, I spend the final 45 minutes of my shift conducting electrical tests on cabling removed from the gun arrays. My results recorded on a scrap of paper, it’s time once again for “Swarfega” at the close of my 63rd consecutive twelve hour shift – and the last one.

My journey home was instructive. I had no ticket for the last part of the journey (from Paris to my home) and more cash to cover this was offered. I was counselled by my colleagues to refuse this offer as the actual ticket would cost more than the cash being offered by the company administrator. Several of us were taken to the airport and flew in an antique 737 with Lina Congo, to Brazzaville. They did not even pressurize the 737 and it flew at 6000′ the whole way. As it was only the 4th or 5th time in my life I had been in an aircraft at all, this passed me by. Those who knew better were petrified. At Brazzaville we changed onto a 747-combi (half passenger, half freight) of UTA. This was in fact the first long-haul flight I ever took. The flight was to Paris via Doula in Cameroon, and Marseille. All was well until we landed at Marseille at 6a.m the next day, and that’s where we stayed. Owing to fog in Paris, we remained on the tarmac at Marseille for four hours, with neither refreshments nor breakfast served. We eventually arrived at De Gaulle early afternoon. It was February in Paris – foggy.

I spent the rest of the day trying without success to get a flight to England – anywhere – Heathrow, Birmingham, East Midlands. Late in the evening I gave up and took train into central Paris, and secured myself a train ticket to London via the Bologne-Dover ferry. This was 1989 – LONG before the Channel Tunnel. I remember several things about that journey. One of them, is buying a Croque Monsieur from a vendor near Gare St Lazaire, and the second, is sitting in a compartment on the train (that dates this story – compartments??) with a number of men – clearly pilots and aircrew – who claimed to be from Mauritius but who were clearly Scythe Ifrican. This was in the days of apartheid when everything and anyone remotely white South African was considered rather bad form in liberal society. These gentlemen, it must be said, were perfectly upright and pleasant fellows.

We took train from Gare St Lazaire (the first and only time I’ve ever been to that particular station in Paris), crossed the channel, and then on a cold winter’s morning, more trains, from Dover to Victoria and on home. I arrived home on 3rd February 1989, having left on 27th November the previous year. A good trip.

A holiday in Spain, and a visit to the wilder shores of Marx, by Theodore Dalrymple – 2016

Another bit of travel writing and a book review from the past – to help us all while we are all still locked down. In late summer 2016, my wife and I and our oldest daughter took a short holiday at a little village in Nothern Spain. We flew from Gatwick…

…interesting to reflect, sat in LGW (North) at least following my recent reading of Theodore Dalrymple on Marxist regimes, that there are no policemen airside, at least none in uniform and none that I could discern in plain clothes. Although as John le Carre (I think) writes, in a civilised country you will never know who the watchers are…

The flight to Barcelona was harmless. Passport control in Barcelona took a while, which ired me somewhat, but we were through soon enough.  It WAS a Sunday. An unusually pleasant and flirty rental car lady took us through the details of the car rental documents, and soon enough we were on our way to Barcelona in an Audi A4 – a quite dreadful machine….

Dalrymple writes very well, kind of like a superior English version of Bill Bryson, humorous but not as flippant or as coarse as Bryson can be.  He puts into eloquent thought, what I have long felt to be true of myself: writing of a visit to some long-forgotten tomb in Vietnam, he notes something that applies to every experience of my life, great or small, banal or timeless and glorious. “It is the fate of intellectuals to leave no experience, however ravishing, to remain in the memory untainted by theorising”. Me, I must think. To think, is to be. To be unable to think, is to be nothing. And going on holiday, allows time to think, amongst other things.

Leaving the airport, we drove right into the centre of Barcelona, and parked up in a tiny inner city car park within a few hundred yards of the Sagrada Familia.  It was a very cramped car park and used only with some difficulty, particularly with a shiny new rented saloon car.  Next door we found a café and stopped for a very welcome brunch.  For me, a croque-monsieur and latte.

The Sagrada Familia was wonderful, everything I expected and much, much more in terms of light, colour, space, columns, stained glass, carvings and architecture.  Later we had afternoon “tea” of coffee and cakes.  Then we navigated our way of the city, and thundered along the coastal freeway north towards the Costa Blanca.  We arrived in the village and were taken to a little village square, where we were very fortunate to witness one of the those “people towers” in the midst of a little party or carnival.

We lazed by the pool over a few beers, and then, in the gloaming, had a light supper, bought in the supermarket back in Barcelona.  The supper finished by candlelight and was enlivened by some great conversation. A good start to a holiday anywhere in the world.

Next day, we had a pleasant morning; we bought some groceries in the nearby shop. 40 Euros including some amazingly cheap San Miguel, six huge litre bottles for 7 Euros. Then, another ham/cheese/tomato/bread lunch about 1p.m – a slow and languid day on holiday. In the evening we went out for supper, to a restaurant down the street.  Plenty to eat; meat croquettes, frittata, rabbit, chicken, and fish, all washed down with Sangria.  There was a downpour whilst we were there, and there was much lightning visible in the distance – but it was never a serious thunderstorm. During the night the wind got up and was banging doors, waking us all up.

Theodore Dalrymple has written a number of very readable works, including Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses and Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, and my favourite, Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality. He used to contribute a rather dry and amusing, if somewhat distressing column to the Daily Telegraph, covering some aspects of his work as a prison doctor. His writing leans to the view that in the west, liberal views can have a tendency to minimise the responsibility of individuals for their own actions, and to lead to the creation of an underclass. I don’t think you’ll see him at the same parties as Robert Fisk or George Monbiot.

But he has written here a very humane and gentle account of journeyings in forgotten Marxist lands. Cuba. North Korea. Ethiopia. Cambodia. Albania. Some of them are Marxist no longer; others remain under the jackboot. His travel writing can be a little superficial, but it’s not less informative for all that. Reading it only serves to reconfirm my opposition to all forms of Communism – Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, Trotskyism, call it what you like. Heinlein called it “malevolent silliness.

Next day dawned very fresh and clear after the rain. After breakfast we hiked up to the local hermitage, and thence round the mountainside in bright sunshine to a monastery.  The views were wonderful.  We had an excellent lunch at the monastery; there was a set three course menu for 16.5 Euros, and some San Miguel. Very good service. And so back through the late afternoon to the flat at Palau, whence we three lazed by the pool and had laughter.  An excellent, first rate day of holiday.

Another relaxing morning with a “holiday breakfast” feeling.  I come down dressed to find my wife and daughter relaxed, taking coffee. I buy croissants and we have us a pleasant breakfast in this little courtyard, tastefully converted from some light industrial premises of the past. In this case, it was once a blacksmith’s yard. It is cool, it is clean and it is quiet, and it is private.  A little fountain provides a constant background tinkling. Outside an archway at the rear are some rather ordinary flats, and a terraced garden with a tiny swimming pool.  To the right, the hills.  To the left, the coastal plain. The property, says mine host, has been in their family since the 17th century.  Whilst it ostensibly sleeps eight, there is only one big double room.  Upstairs, two rooms, a double and a twin, a good bathroom and a large mezzanine lounge which could be used to sleep more people at the expense of privacy.  Downstairs, a good kitchen, an indoor dining area and lounge (although at this latitude dining indoors is probably only necessary from late November to late February) and a second lounge room with a huge futon.  There’s a delightful second bathroom, open to the sky (through a window of course).  The skylight opens on one of the three rooftop terraces boasted by the house, which would make some people edgy about using the shower. You would want to be careful if the house was full.

But all good things come to an end. We had to go home eventually:

Emily Barker at St. Peter’s, Tandridge – flashback to 2018

This is a remix…since nobody is going anywhere right now, I consider it legit to repost earlier blogs about travels and events, the better to cheer us up in these days. There follows an account of a pop concert at St Peter’s church, Tandridge, in October 2018.

Earlier this year we attended the first pop concert in 800 years, at St. Peter’s church, Tandridge village. It was an unseasonably cold night in March, and late snow lay on the ground. Tonight, we returned, in mid-October, on what was another unseasonable night. This time, however, the weather was very warm. To be able to walk around on a mid-October night in shirt-sleeves is most unusual.

This event, like it’s predecessor, was a benefit gig aimed at raising money for the fabric of this wonderful and ancient church.  In this case, money is sought to install a much-needed loo: prosaic, but a vital human need.  And this evening was both human and prosaic, warm and uplifting, but friendly and community-oriented.  The Rector, Andrew Rumsey, introduced the evening with a warm-up act of a brace of autumnal songs that might have even been written for the occasion.

The actual support act for Emily Barker were two gents called Roy Hill and Ty Watling. These gents looked and sounded like characters from Mark Knopfler’s “Sultans of Swing”

…Check out guitar George
He knows all the chords…

Mind, Ty Watling did indeed know how to make his guitar cry and sing, and that he went on to do.  Roy Hill was of indeterminate age, and was in good voice, and made banter with the audience about how much better this was than their usual pub gig.  They started dark, with a song about pain beginning, and finished with a deeply moving number about failing mental health, yet, they were always somehow encouraging, humane, and uplifting.

Emily Barker came on and immediately impressed everyone with her beautiful clear voice and her guitar playing.  This evening has seen a series of guitarists bringing great joy and beauty into the world through their playing, song-writing and singing, like Chet Atkins:

…Money don’t matter as long as I scatter a little bit of happiness around
If people keep a grinnin’ I figure I’m a winnin’…

In between the numbers she told us stories of her early life with a discernable Aussie twang.  It is always engaging when pop stars do that – you want to know that they do go to the shops, that they were once kids in the back of a car going on holiday, singing along to cassettes.  She performed an old Bruce Springsteen number – “Tunnel of love” – to illustrate this story.

Somehow, the fact that she is a supremely skilled professional guitarist and pianist, a powerful and gifted singer and a talented songwriter did not discourage or demotivate. After the concert I was speaking to a lady in the audience who has Downs Syndrome.  She wants to write songs – and she was saying, by no means demotivated, how high the bar has been set by Emily Barker.  The lesson is, everything is possible; anyone can do anything if they set themselves to it.  A lady you might pass in the street, wearing blue jeans and a cardigan, has a voice like Aretha Franklin, a solo voice so beautiful, so powerful, as to carry an entire church in stunned silence.

“To one, he gave five bags of gold, to another, two, to another, one bag, each according to his ability” – Matthew 25:15.  It’s what you do with what you’ve got that matters, not how much you’ve got.

There’s a pattern emerging here with these concerts: Not so much inspiring, as inspirational.  Do new things. Dare to create, dare to do something new with your bag of gold.

Thirty days of lockdown

Have I traded the muse of the poet, the heart of a prophet, the freedom of a writer, for the mess of pottage we call a regular income? Maybe not: everyday things like a regular income have a higher value than we imagine, at any time, and particularly in these times. Others have been and are being blessed, in many ways, because I keep on keeping on.

Thirty years ago a band called The Lilac Time released a song called “Return to yesterday”. It is a delightful song, but the words have told a story ever since and are apposite for today, more than ever before. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s no going back to yesterday – though we none of us, not one of us, have quite realized it yet. They sang We’ll face this new England like we always have / In a fury of denial / We’ll go out dancing on the tiles

There follows some personal reflections from the first month of living in this new England.

16/3: “The road ahead gleams in the rain like a silver ribbon. It holds endless possibilities”… I’m sure this date will live for a long time – the day when the closed-in living began. I dislike the expression “lockdown”. Today an old man fell over and I helped him home. I missed the PM’s broadcast when he told us all to stay indoors.

18/3: Each day, writing for ten minutes on one single subject. Today – weariness. The variety of weariness is not thin: it falls from the sky in many forms. I have known it in many ways, some good, some bad. Waves of sleepiness. An alert, diamond-like wakefulness. The unwillingness to talk; the irascibility. The pleasant weariness of a job well done.

20/3: “Revolution, slow time coming” – Buck 65 – Blood of a Young Wolf. Today it feels like defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. We need to find a way, in this time of sameness, when many of us are living AND working at home, to mark the beginning of the weekend – which otherwise seems to be just the same as the week.

22/3: Listened to a heart-warming Youtube address from our friend Bishop Andrew Rumsey, in which we’re encouraged to “plant seeds and stay grounded”. In the garden, fantastic, delicate patterns of filigree, in the skeletons of last year’s leaves. Friendly robins come close – and when I find a piece of flint, I am drawn to reflect on wealth. What is wealth?

25/3: Today is my wife’s birthday. We had tea together in the morning and she opened her presents. Dinner out will have to wait, perhaps. A good day at the office, although I found it literally, not metaphorically, somewhat tiresome. At 4pm, tired and I’m not going to go for a run. It seems inappropriate. In my object writing I reflect on visiting my grandma by omnibus, in the mid 1970’s.

27/3: Another sunny morn: the light remains beautiful at sunrise, grazing the stalks in a nearby field, highlighting the folds of the land. I am daunted and awed by the compassion and the creativity of others. I feel borne down by endless lecturing on social media – STAY INDOORS they say, and then I block them or hide them. I will be run over yet by the grinding wheels of collectivism. Though I do mostly stay indoors.

28/3: But what do I know of isolation? I fear for those in tower blocks with north-facing windows in a sea of grey tarmac; for those in damp and dingy bedsits. For those crammed in one or two rooms with squalling kids and sullen or angry partners. We have become, perhaps (as a Dutchman I know once said) “a nation of wuss”. We ought not become a people who are perfectly capable of controlling negative thoughts – but don’t…

29/3: Today I built a desk and shelves in the garden shed. It looked just like the image my wife printed – make it like this picture, she suggested. I am no joiner but it looks well enough. Building it did wear me out though – a long physical day in the cold actually made me dizzy. But that was low blood sugar. We dealt with that with some hummus and a very strong Gin and Tonic.

30/3: Today I broke a tooth, upper left molar, Oddly enough I am not the only person who has done so amongst my social media circle. There is no discomfort. Yet. Just as well.

31/3: I do love the early mornings. Never thought I’d be a lark rather than an owl. Heartened to read of pushback against the way the police have interpreted Boris’s Coronavirus Act 2020. I long for the day when it is repealed completely, but I confess I do not find that likely. What really depresses me is that there are people who fully approve of these new restrictions on our civil liberties.

1/4: Though I took a good day “at the office” I am depressed. I read an article in “Wired” about the future, and this has cast me down. I ought not have read it. Lord, fit me to serve You faithfully and set my face like flint to the task ahead.

2/4: I ran 10km in 58 minutes. I read about metaphor – a collision between ideas that don’t belong together. In metaphor, conflict is essential. Later, I read a senior lawyer who reminded us that it is the job of the police to uphold the law, not ministerial preference. The Prime Minister’s word is not law. This seems important to me, though perhaps not to others.

4/4: Weary with my own sense of individualism, my own ostensible lack of interest in what the community thinks. Make a better team player, O Lord! Teach me how to care. And yet, like “Blurry Face” from the American band 21 Pilots? I DO care what you think.

5/4: My birthday and Palm Sunday. Liberty – “it’s my birthday, and I wants it”. Now is not the time to release your inner Gollum, Nick. But what a lovely day; some gifts of railway books and a case for one of my guitars – though this lovely gift will only come into its own later. Technology provides a chance for my wife and I to meet and chat in a virtual space with all three of our kids.

7/4: Milder weather. I feel a tangible sense of guilt that I am less disciplined in the afternoon than in the morning. I’ve done my best work by 10a.m. In the late afternoon, my heart and brain are mush.

8/4: Sat for the first time this year in a little bower we have created at the end of the garden. A neighbours’ daughters are playing. One can hear the inherent bossiness of little girls, and perhaps of the first-born, as the older bosses the younger around. The sound of children playing is one of the greatest sounds. What is your favourite sound?

9/4: I ran 10km in one hour before 0700 and collected a birthday beer from outside the house of a friend. Thanks Paul!

10/4: I come into the kitchen and hear some politician on the radio droning away about how many items of PPE have been made – 325 million items of this or that – and for a weird and unpleasant moment I actually become Winston Smith. This feeling I have to shake off: Dylan writes “if my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d stick my head in a guillotine” and it were true of me on occasion.

12/4: Easter Day: So many others have more positive attitudes than mine. What with the endless bad news, with the police overstepping their powers, with social distancing and the twitching of social media curtains, my heart remains heavy for Merrie England. On the plus side, my daughter recommended Margaret Attwood’s “Oryx and Crake” which I started reading immediately.

13/4: It is now a month since I was at the offices in London SW1! The weather breaks to grey, flat skies and gusting wind. Today I ran 10240m in 56 minutes which is fighting fit.

16/4: We’re all finding ourselves, from time to time, in difficult places. I remember again – or at least try to – those who are less fortunate. I finish work and find I cannot face looking at computer screens anymore. ’twas ever thus perhaps. I want something physical, tangible. I shall practice guitar.

18/4: I’ve finished Anthony Lambert’s “50 great train journeys” and Andrew Martin’s “Night Trains”, and I’m reading Tristram Hunt on the English Civil War. Along with “1984” it is possible that this last may lead me in directions that are not entirely constructive – but I can do no other.

It is fully spring now. Flowers are coming out; seedlings are sprouting. We may hope that such growth is not only horticultural but cultural as well, in the months and years to come.

Hiking in Cornwall – 2017

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Here’s a look back in the diary, to a baking hot June day, the start of a walking trip round the very toe of Britain. We walked from Penzance to St Ives over five days.

On that hot June day we took train from Paddington to Penzance. A journey that started with selfies taken in front of a statue of Paddington Bear; a journey through the very heart of England. We arrived in Penzance, and we found our Air BnB, settled in, and then strolled around the town, visited a chinese chippy, and bought a bottle of cider on the eve of our walk along the Coast Path.

The following day we shouldered our packs, and set off through the optimism and sunshine of a June morning. We walked through suburban Penzance, through lanes and past white houses. Through greenery and parks, and out onto the coastal path. Plenty of money evident here; these are houses built for wealthy merchants. There’s plenty of money here still. Onwards, along the beach, through Newlyn in the breathless hot morning, to that place we spell Mousehole. Rather like the name of a certain well-known port wine, the name of the delightful little village has to be pronounced responsibly.  

At Mousehole we stopped for morning tea at a café owned by an Englishman from the north country. No Cornishman he. We stopped for lunch at Lamorna. I’d never even heard of Lamorna until I planned this coastal walk. Sat on the seawall, we had bread, tomatoes, and cheese. Water was sufficient to wash down such a simple repast in such a beautiful setting.

This was our first day carrying big rucsacs. At Penberth Cove, labouring through the unrefreshing heat of the afternoon, we found an unlooked-for and most welcome supply of cold fresh water. We filled up our water bottles and walked on out up the valley. Tired and worn, we walked through potato fields to Porthcorno, another place I’d never heard of. At the village, the telegraph station was prominent – this was where early telegraph lines from across the ocean, emerged from the heaving waves. The “Cable Station Inn” was the former works social club; it looked and felt like a works social club still.

A young woman of about 22 in a skirt so short I hardly dared even look at her, showed us to our room. Refreshed after a shower and a nice hot cup of tea, but oh so tired after this our first day’s walk (and in such hot, sunny weather) we made our way to the bar for supper. The staff prepared long lunch baguettes for us, to fortify us on our walk on the morrow. This was a shame, as we shall find out: we paid for ‘em, but we only ate about a quarter of them.

Next morning, the weatherbeaten and worn-looking proprietor Mick made breakfast for us whilst humming and singing in the kitchen.  Bless him, he never so much as asked us what we wanted – it was literally – not metaphorically – “take it or leave it”. But a Full English was more than welcome: we took it.

After lingering to chat with the friendly and engaging Mick, we made our goodbyes and set off. Your actual “Lands End” was about halfway along our route today. We found it as dire and as commercial a place as ever we’d visited. That said, having hiked there through the blue salt sea air carrying a heavy rucsac, I found myself thinking, I could just murder a Cornish Pastie: So I bought one.  My wife tasted it and liked it so much I had to go and buy another one for her. And that, my friends, was the end of the lovingly prepared baguette lunch from the Cable Station Inn in Porthcorno.

We hiked on into the afternoon and came to Sennen Cove, a magical place, and again, a place I’d never heard of. Turquoise sea, yellow sand, a little town comparable to Croyde in North Devon, but with a better beach, perhaps.  We had ice cream, and we noticed a glorious cross adorning the wall of one of the surf companies. The first beach we passed by, though it displeased my wife to pass it without stopping. At the second beach – called Gwynmer – it was made clear to me that we would be stopping for a swim. Right you are! And so we did, stopping for a refreshing swim in the sea.

In coming off Gwynmer, we left the SW Coast Path and found ourselves navigating across country to St. Just.  This worked, though full reliance on mobile phone mapping software was necessary.  We got to St. Just and we were worn out. Our Air BnB host here, at a tiny terraced house on the main street, was a pleasant and outgoing lady. She recommended the Kings Arms and so we ate there. The following day we bought lunch baps from the pub landlady’s other business, a sandwich shop in the main square.

During our walk, which was again in very hot weather, we met a very heavily pregnant lady. She was trebly conspicuous, as being perhaps a little older than pregnant ladies usually are, and also she had a dog which had been paralysed from the waist down but had recovered: the dog had a very unusual gait. Our walk took us through an area of industrial heritage – in amongst the lovely green valleys, various ruins and workings. We lunched by a babbling brook nearby another glorious lost beach. As we did so, yet another heavily pregnant lady passed us, her bump out in the hot sunshine.

As the afternoon wore on, we found ourselves at the Tinners Arms in Zennor, where we thought we’d stop for a quick pint in the heat of the day. It was that kind of moment…just a swifty before pushing on suitably refreshed, across the fields to our accomodation for the evening. But in conversation with the bar staff it became clear that there was high demand for tables at the Tinners Arms at Zennor – even mid-week. It was in fact the only licensed premises for miles and miles. We booked a table on the instant! Later, when we did sit down for dinner, our meal was punctuated by the apologetic tones of the bar staff turning away casual enquirers.  Glad we were to have booked in advance.

Onwards to Tremedda Farm, Zennor: We found ourselves sat outside on an Italian portico, not yet 7a.m and already quite warm enough to sit here in the shade. There’s a refreshing breeze and the wind is rustling in the nearby trees. This house, of Italianate design, is delightful. From where we are sat, it feels Roman, foreign almost, but we gaze out onto an English – or perhaps Cornish – garden.

Last night we had a conversation with the couple in the room next door, an American couple a little older than we. It turned out that she had been brought up in the same small town on Long Island as my wife. There followed a great “small world” conversation whilst they reminisced.

The weather has been very kind to us. Yesterday we met a lone young woman hiking the Cornish part of the SW Coast Path. She said that she had “not expected a heat wave” – and she was an Englishwoman. The peace and the silence has been enough too; the opportunity to slow down, to de-clutter one’s mind and consider what is, and what is not, important. The underlying issues may not be resolved, but being on holiday enables one to get before God, seek His kingdom first, and put things into perspective. Richard Foster writes, in “Celebration of discipline”, that we “must pursue holy leisure [Otium Sanctum] with a determination that is ruthless to our diaries”

From Tremedda farm, onward through the fields, eschewing the strongly up and downstairs coastal path. Thus, we arrived in St. Ives late morning and refreshed, rather than late afternoon and jaded. We dropped our bags off at our accommodations, and went swimming in the sea, then we had a lovely fish lunch in a pub on the quayside. In the evening we took bus acoss the ithsmus back to Mynack, which we’d passed on foot some days before. We watched the Illyria Theatre Company perform “Pride and Prejudice”. There were only perhaps five of them, each taking multiple roles. Elizabeth Bennett wore a dress and Dr Martens boots. The whole thing was hilarious. The Mynack threatre is to be recommended, though the seats – stone benches cut into the hillside – are hard. One can rent cushions for a small fee. The atmosphere is magical, particularly for performances at dusk. It did mean a late finish; we were not back in St Ives til after midnight.

The next day, in cooler weather, we set off on our pilgrim walk north-south across Cornwall, from St Ives to St Michael’s Mount. The “St Michael’s Way”. We hiked on towards Penzance, across the width of Cornwall, in improving weather and improving mood, and then on the following day on foot to St Michael’s Mount – which I confess I found oddly uninspiring and somewhat disappointing.

Our return to Surrey was via a visit to relatives on the Devon/Cornwall border. Train from Penzance to Plymouth, and then later a rather excellent dinner at the Cornish Arms in Tavistock. G&T’s in what to my eyes were vases. I had the Ox Cheek. We raised a glass to my wife’s late aunt, recently passed away – for one might say that this fine evening out was to her memory.

And then we two took train from Exeter – but this time, a Southwest Trains service to Waterloo. We took this service, though slower, because it was less costly to travel first class, and because we could change at Clapham Junction. Everything was OK until we got to Woking when trespassers on the line caused massive delays. Never mind: overall, a fun time and relaxing. We were lucky with the weather though.

The Colditz Night Exercise in 2019

No-one will remember, in years to come, the fact that this year’s Colditz Night Exercise was in fact cancelled due to flooding on some of the country lanes where the hike was due to take place. But already at the point of cancellation I could see that COVID-19 was going to rear its ugly head. No-one would have batted an eyelid had I cancelled the hike due to the Coronavirus.

The Colditz Night Exercise is not unique; any number of similar events take place each year in Scouting up and down the country. When I lived in Derby, there was something called the “Fez Night Hike”, named not for a Turkish hat but for the first names of the three Explorers that started it. The arrangements may differ – but the principle is the same. Young people in Scouts and Explorers gather in teams to conduct some form of initiative hike during the hours of darkness, then sleep on the floor of a hall or Scout hut, have breakfast, followed by a brief award ceremony.

We’re all stuck indoors now: so I looked back in my diary and found a brief account of the 2019 hike, to cheer us up.

I‘m very tired this Sunday afternoon after Colditz. Outside there is an attractive long and slanting summer light, dust-filled and orange, fading to evening as I sit here. Just now there was a brief and somewhat indistinct thunderstorm…This was my third Colditz as District Commissioner. I fretted and worried beforehand. I always do. I organised and administrated my way through the preparations in the weeks beforehand and I had my deep concerns. But it was alright on the night. It all went well. All my concerns were unneedful in the face of the unstinting efforts and tireless contributions of my colleagues and fellow Scouters. A few people stood out; I’ll name them not on a public blog. But everyone contributed something; All played their part – the drivers, the caterers, the spotters, the adult walkers themselves.

We recce’ed the course. In the grey afternoon we put out all the signage at the checkpoints. In the evening we gathered at the school gym. The young people and their elders arrived to the usual organised chaos – an empty hall soon disappeared under a sea of roll mats and sleeping bags. We watched in dismay as the weather deteriorated. The first teams were delivered to the start of their hikes around 9 p.m, in lashing rain and gusting high winds. The rain beat on the tarmac, thundered on the roof of the minibus. Flooded roads, gouts of white water spraying up from the bus.

The last teams got “on the hill” as it were (or onto the North Downs country lanes) at 22:11 – about eleven minutes behind the ambitious and detailed plan created by my ADC (Scouts). So far so good. On events like these there then follows a quiet time. One recalls previous Colditz Night Hikes. Driving along a road sometime after 2a.m through patches of mist. A team of girl Scouts sat in the minibus on the way to their drop-off, singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” at the top of their lungs. The time the Surrey police called out their helicopter because a suspicious householder thought they’d seen armed men in the woods. Or perhaps it was just Scouts with sticks? The time a group of Explorers went the wrong way through the woods – and found and rescued an old man who’d fallen over on his way home.

A few minor hiccups emerge: a checkpoint at such and such a location has fallen over and can’t be seen – drive out there and fix it. A youngster is poorly and needs pulling out and escorting home. Then, not long before 1 a.m, the fastest team – group of Explorers – calls in to say they have finished. How did we do this before mobile phones? The weather starts to clear, and by 2 a.m it is a cold and bright moonlit night. Up on the North Downs, where this year’s routes are, the temperature starts to fall.

I pop up to the refreshments base at Botley Hill to see how things are going. Everyone is standing around shivering, adults and youngsters. Soup and hot chocolate are flying off the shelf. While I was there, two Saturday night idiots, one of them in a red sports car, arrive and start to show off, drifting and skidding their cars round the tiny Botley Hill roundabout. Scouts and leaders look at this display, shaking their heads. Everyone is somewhat bemused by how crass and stupid it is. These people are supposed to be grown men! What did Shania Twain sing? “OK. So you’ve got a car”.

In deepening cold the last teams were extracted from up near Chelsham Common at the quite late time of 4a.m. But they finished! A big shout out to all for their efforts put in. It really is true to say that it is the taking part that matters, not the winning. A distinctive of these slower teams was that little or no navigational assistance was offered to the young people by their leaders. That is certainly not true of all the teams, whatever the leaders may say…

Running back with the last team, I experienced a deep, almost physically nauseating wave of weariness. Anyone who ever stayed up overnight will understand this – tiredness comes in waves. But you may be sure it was most unwelcome while driving a minibus full of Scouts. Only by a supreme effort of will and opening the driver’s window, did I avoid putting the bus onto the grass verge.

Back at base at the Oxted school gym, I needed a break and a cup of sweet tea. While I was “resting” two of us laboriously cleaned one of the minbuses, removing the protective plastic sheeting we’d installed on the seats earlier in the evening. These buses were rented to us by St Bede’s School in Redhill, and they were almost brand new. They even had that “new car” smell. A shame to let them get dirty, even if they are there to be used. Even the best behaved teenagers are in general very hard on the interior of minibuses.

The Scouts slowly settled to some sleep. The ADC (Scouts) laboured over the sums – who was going to win? A hero (again unnamed) drove round all the routes and removed the signposts at the checkpoints. In the cold blue light of early dawn, a colleague and I drove through to Redhill so I could drop off the cleaned minibus, and he gave me a lift back. A trip from Oxted to Redhill and back – twenty miles round trip – in less than fifty minutes. All but impossible in the day time. Back at base, an hours kip. Then, it’s bacon buttie time and the awards!

Who did win? It doesn’t matter – every youngster who ever took part in a Colditz Night Hike has won. How many people do you know have escaped from Colditz right here in rural East Surrey? How many people do you know have hiked through the night in pouring rain, dove into ditches hiding from cars, enjoyed that camaradie of tiredness, and finally fell asleep in the company of others, on a cold hard floor? #iscout #skillsforlife.

What is wealth?

Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
– Bob Dylan

In a short story by Len Deighton, common soldiers on the front line were discussing what wealth was. Some said true weath was posession of land. Others, said it was energy- fuel, oil, gas and coal, even wood. Still others, said it was gold. One said it was time. For many in the world, it may be not having to scrounge their next meal.

What then is true wealth, where is true value? What things are the most important in our lives? What – conversely – is dispensable? C.S Lewis paraphrases Jesus’ hard-hitting story in the gospel by noting that there is a journey every one of us must go on, a journey on which we may not take our right arm or our right eye. What is really important?

I’ve been thinking about wealth during this first week of working from home. As a boy I read a children’s book on survival (Puffin, “How to survive“), and in it there was an acronym for helping you get your priorities right in – for example – an air-crash. The acronym was PFAWF. Protection – First Aid – Food – Water. In that order. It strikes me as being a most instructive acronym. and indeed possibly quite counter-intuitive. It’s not obvious. Dealing with someone’s wounds or looking for water won’t help you, if you and your casualty can’t survive the night.

As a Scouter taking young people to camp, I recognised a number of things that someone looking after people out of doors in the UK cannot have too much of. The first would be hot water. The second, tarpaulins. As someone who has done a lot of business travelling, I’ll acknowledge that in the end, the only really important things on my person for a long-haul journey would be my passport and my credit card.

In the garden yesterday I picked up a piece of flint – there is much of that round here, situated as we are at the foot of the chalky Downs. More of that flint later. What’s important? What is wealth? Water? Air? Of course. What represents wealth? Cleanliness may – or may not – spring from wealth. Plenty of poor people are clean and tidy of course, and there may be unclean rich people, but it’s fair to say that the means to keep oneself clean and tidy – access to water, clean clothes etc – is itself wealth. Wealth may be access to privacy or indeed, being able to feel the sun on your face.

For a prisoner in a labour camp, wealth may be access to slightly more food. Prisoners held in slave camps dream of fatty foods – cakes and so forth. Wealth may be a brief moment of respite and peace; it may be just a cushion under your arse. It may be a pair of shoes that don’t leak. It may be a pair of shoes. It may be shelter from the rain and the grinding, incessant winter wind.

Back to the flint: our ancestors used flint as a tool. There was a far-off turning point in pre-history when humans became greater than animals, a point when our ancestors’ lives became slightly more bearable than the life of a brute beast. At that point, you find sharp objects – tools. You find pieces of flint. Tools. Knives. Lewis and Clark explored North America with little more than rifles, knives and axe heads, and the means to sharpen those tools. Today for all the technology that surrounds us, we could barely live like hunter-gatherers without sharp implements. That piece of flint once represented wealth. We should consider today what is important -what represents true wealth, and that which is dispensable.

One who looks forward

“One who looks forward must see this: that things will not remain as they were”

So says J.R.R Tolkien’s character Hurin to his wife Morwen, on the eve of a great battle in the elder days of Middle Earth. On my morning walk today, before starting work-at-home, I could see that things would not remain as they were. The very first thing I saw was that an elderly neighbour, taken to hospital after a fall yesterday, was now back at home. The next thing I noticed was that London’s orbital freeway, the M25 – within six hundred yards of us here – was as noisy and therefore as busy, as on any other day.

But then I heard woodpeckers – their distinctive noise the machine-pistols fired by the advance guard of spring. And I knew that things were going to change. There’s a hint of colour in the air; the depressing grey of winter is slowly fading to green. The birds are singing. Spring is coming.

What will become of us? This is a legitimate question, not defeatist or negative in any way if asked appropriately. Often, dystopian stories portray apocalyptic events as happening suddenly – almost overnight. In a hundred brief minutes in the cinema Hollywood shows us earthquakes, super-storms, wars and plagues, fiery meteor strikes. We see what happens first to the collective, and then, a focus perhaps, on one hero or heroine and their family.

But changes are now afoot that are not so sudden, nor so dramatic – yet, nonetheless profound, deep-rooted and potentially long-lasting. Changes that have the power to affect us all individually as well as collectively. Changes wrought not so much by the disease COVID-19, as by the consequences it brings in it’s train. Our leaders are starting to calculate the human and economic cost of those consequences, and they are, I think, proving to be very difficult sums. There is perhaps a thin, unyielding mathematics to be performed. As yet, most of us have not so much as sat down in front of the maths teacher.

Big events are being postponed – football matches, concerts, gatherings, parties. But there’s an implicit assumption that things will return to normal, that in due course things will be as they were before. I am not so sure. As one who does looks forward, I foresee that things will not remain as they were, nor will they return in the short term to how they were before. To 2019, there is no returning.

Of course we must take care to be positive, upbeat and appropriately encouraging – but at the same time, we must prepare for living differently. Living kinder, living slower, living more locally. A lot of people face financial difficulties in the months ahead as the economy shrinks. There’s potential hardship and ruin for many, except we find a way of sharing what we have, better than we do now. God knows I’m no expert on this…but I think there’s opportunities ahead for us all to demonstrate that we do see that things have changed, and we can do things better and differently.