The great dictator


I recently rediscovered Charlie Chaplin’s “great dictator speech”. I’ve never seen the full movie but this scene is where the man who looks like the dictator makes a speech to the country and says what he actually thinks (not what the actual dictator thought!)

There are a couple of sections which really stand out for me and seem more relevant now than ever.

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

I believe that. We seem to live in a time of rising hatred and fear, of increasingly divided societies, but is it helpful to generalise so much? To see a world of “us” and “them” rather than a world of richly diverse individuals? There may be individuals who do really want to live by others’ misery, not their happiness, but that’s not been my experience in life. It’s not hard to encounter everyday, simple acts of kindness. But there’s not enough emphasis on that is there?

Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery ,we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.

We humans have created a way of living together based on competition and greed. But aren’t we just as capable, if we so choose, to create a way of living together based on kindness and gentleness?

Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.

You are not machines! You are not cattle!

Well that is right at the heart of the reason why this blog is called Heroes not Zombies. We humans are unique, amazing, fabulous creations. The machine model goes nowhere near an explanation of what we are like. We are not like machines. We are more like “complex adaptive systems“. And by saying “you are not cattle” he means you are not “the group”, “the herd”, “the tribe” even, or any such generalisation. There has never been anyone identical to you, not now, not before and there never will be. Your personal experience of this life is utterly unique. You can’t be reduced to a statistic.

You are a “one off“, not a “one of”, a unique human being, not an example of a “kind”.

I don’t know, but I think it’s worth remembering that these days…..

Autumn moon


The other evening the faraway glow of the sunset and a tiny sliver of moon both caught my eye at the same time. So I stepped outside with my camera.

I’ve got some shots of just the sunset, just the moon, and the sunset and the moon in the same frame, but this one includes the foreground and I love it all the more because of that.

Here I can see the last leaves of the mulberry tree in front of the now bare plum tree with the silvery sliver of moon hanging high above them as the sun, which has by now sunk below the horizon, casts such a gorgeous palette of reds, oranges, tobacco and yellow, and the lights of the neighbouring village begin to twinkle before the stars do.

I love the setting sun, and I love the dawn. I love that rhythm of day becoming night, and night becoming day. I love that we can’t pin either the dusk or the dawn down to a precise time, in the way that the meteorologists tell us the exact time of the sunset and the sunrise. I love how the light disappears so slowly and reveals just some of its diversity which is hidden in the white light of noon. I love how it reappears in the same way it disappears but in an entirely different place.

I love the phases of the moon. Look closely and you can see the whole moon in this photograph. Here’s a close up which shows you that more clearly


This isn’t a fantastic shot, but it’s handheld and spontaneous. It does show the whole sphere of the moon and the white crescent is more obviously the reflected white light of the sun than we sometimes realise. But just think how this photo was taken at the same time as the one above. That deep, deep red light of the setting sun caressing the Earth, and that radiant, dazzling white light of the now hidden sudden bouncing off the Moon.

I love the autumn too. Like the Spring it’s a season which makes you more aware of the rhythms of the Earth, and in particular, more aware of the constant nature of change.

So in this one moment I see the rhythms of the seasons, of the sun and of the moon.

I rather like that!



In this season the leaves begin to fall and one of my daily activities is to rake them up. Before I moved to France I lived in a second floor apartment so leave raking wasn’t part of my life. I’ve found that I really enjoy it. It gives me great pleasure. I know it’s not the same as a zen monk raking his stones, but there is something of that quality to it. I don’t rush it and the sweeping movements with the rake feel strangely relaxing. It’s also really pleasing to gather the leaves into a heap, then to scoop them up to take them away to the “déchetterie” for composting another day.

I am constantly amazed by the variety of shapes, sizes and colours, and often pause to look at a leaf more closely, to turn it over in my hand and feel its texture.

Once I’ve finished raking it feels like having tidied up, or cleaned a room. It’s satisfying. You can immediately see the results of your efforts.

The other morning I opened the front door, unlocked the shutters and stepped outside to see what I’ve captured in this photo. During the night the wind had worked differently from usual. Instead of scattering the leaves everywhere it had gathered them together into this heap under the tree. I hardly needed the rake that day. I just had to scoop up the leaves with my hands.

I remember years ago I used to read an American magazine entitled “Wired”, and they had a regular column of “new words”, neologisms which people were starting to use. One which really impressed me at the time, and has stayed with me ever since, was the word “pronoia”. You know the word “paranoia”? Which means the delusion that the world is conspiring against you. Well “pronoia” means the delusion that the world is conspiring to help you out!

I had a real sense of pronoia the morning I took this photo……

As I sat down to write this post I remembered a thought which has been attributed to Einstein, although I believe there is no record of him ever having actually said it.

“I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves. For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process. If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning. But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives. God does not play dice with the universe,”

Well, even if he never actually said it, it’s still an interesting thought to turn over in your head for a bit, isn’t it? So many people live as if the universe is harsh and hostile and they need to struggle against it, to overcome it. Yet others believe the universe couldn’t care less and that everything that occurs is completely random and meaningless, even an individual life. But there is this third option, which is that the universe is actually a creative, “friendly” place. If you think that way, then every day becomes filled with wonder and delight. Every day you encounter something, or someone, astonishing.

I prefer the third stance. I think there is too much beauty and elaborate complexity in the universe for it all to come down to either malign intent or apathy. There’s something amazingly wonderful about a leaf, a season, an ecosystem, a bird, a person…..I’ll never tire of being amazed by, and trying to understand, my daily life.

Thoughts from the vines


I’ve lived here for two years now, so this is the third time I’ve seen the vineyards turn golden like this. The vines are fascinating all year round but in this season they are particularly beautiful.

I was just recalling some of the thoughts I’ve had which have been directly inspired by this countryside. The landscape around here looks just like this. It is so different from the wild mountainous landscape of Scotland. But once the grapes are harvested, the processes involved in turning them into cognac are very similar to the ones used to turn barley into whisky. The culture of blending, tasting and savouring cognacs is very, very like that of whiskies with each distillery producing distinct flavours depending on the ground on which the plants were grown and the work of the master blenders in the distillery. Two or three hundred years ago some of the distillery workers from Scotland came to this part of France and applied their knowledge and skills from whisky production to the local cognac.

The vineyards around here are old. There’s a noticeboard just outside this village telling the story of how in the 1700s particularly hardy vines were brought here from America to improve the local crops. The vineyard where the noticeboard sits is called “the field of experiences”, or, probably a better translation would be “the field of experiments” (I think I prefer the “experiences” over “experiments”, but that’s just me).

From these two little discoveries I realise how the distinct, unique character of this environment has been influenced by other parts of the world, other peoples, other plants. Nothing exists in isolation.

The “vignobles”, or vine workers, are busy all year around. The harvest was completed last month and one of the next tasks is tending to the individual vines, to remove any less healthy ones, any which have passed their best. I was startled by this work the first day I encountered it because it can involve using a tractor with a type of drill attachment to dig out certain plants. It sounds more like roadworks than fieldworks. Throughout the year the vine workers tend to each plant over and over again. Every single vine is pruned by hand. That’s another thing which surprised me. I don’t think farmers attend to each plant individually in a field of grain. I’m not sure that would be possible. But these vines are not like fields of grain. They are, more obviously, rows of individuals. From a distance, as in these photos, it is hard to see them as individuals, but to the vine workers every single plant requires their full attention.

That balance between the one and the many is something which is often at the front of my mind. I thought of it often in my work as a doctor, always mindful that even if this next patient was bringing me a story of a particular disease or disorder, they were always more than “another case of…..”. They were always a unique individual who required my full attention.

One final thought, before I finish today…..I’ve learned that although the landscape around here features vineyard after vineyard, that each vineyard too is different. One of the most important differences is the soil. Take a look at this map –


Each of these coloured areas produces a completely different flavour of alcohol. The large distilleries which produce their own distinctive blends of cognac will select certain amounts of grapes from certain regions, knowing that the flavours of each region are very different. Those differences have a lot to do with the different soil types, and a lot to do with the micro-climates created by the particular landscapes and locations.

I often wonder about our relationship to the physical world. How the environment, the water, the climate, the shape of the landscape, all influence us, how we, as human beings respond to and, in turn, shape the very environment in which we live.

We hear quite a lot about “identity politics” at the moment. Over the summer I read a piece of research which investigated the beliefs and attitudes of young French people to explore what influenced their identity. The conclusion was that the strongest influence on their identity was geography. They felt French because they lived in this part of the world called France. Not because they belonged to a particular race or religion, but because they lived in this land. That gives me hope.


Changes over time

I want to share three photos with you today.

There is a large stone wall along one side of the garden where I live. It is covered with a plant called “Boston ivy”. In the winter it is bare…just a web of brown creepers clinging tightly to the stonework. In the summer it is a dense, deep green. Towards the end of summer millions of seedpods hidden behind the leaves, pop open in the last sun of the day, cascading down through the vine creating a sound that is for all the world like a waterfall.

But at this time of year, the change are at their most striking. The leaves turn golden, yellow, and a whole spectrum of reds –

red ivy.jpg

Then as the leaves fall, they reveal a forest of yellow stalks to which they were attached –


I’ve never seen anything like that in any other plant. After a while, all the stalks will fall to the ground too. But as the leaves fall away, they reveal the dark purple berries which hundreds of birds seem to desire – at least it seems that way to me as I see how busy they are every day just now.


I think the red colour of the stalks which hold the berries is astonishing.

Such variety! Such variation! Such daily change! Something new to see and to enjoy every single day…….

Goddess in the garden


I stumbled upon a goddess in the gardens today. She looks well pleased now she’s finished painting all of the leaves yellow.

I think she’s every right to be pleased. She’s done a fantastic job!


The rhythms of life


I stood with the morning sun at my back and gazed at the leaves of the vine which covers the high wall at the edge of my garden here in the Charente.

This is my third autumn living in France and from the Autumn Equinox I’ve been anticipating the glorious sight of these leaves. I can’t look at it too much. It captures my attention and utterly delights me.

This third time round strengthens my awareness of the cyclical nature of the seasons. Time no longer feels linear to me. It’s beginning to feel more like a spiral.

As I prepared to take this photo I noticed my shadow and instead of changing the direction of the shot, I consciously decided to include the shadow. Shadows pass much more quickly than seasons do but laying the one transience over another multiplied the effect for me.

I’ve written before about transience, and how it is celebrated in the Spring at the time of the cherry blossoms in Japan, and those memories and ideas popped up in my mind as I prepared to take this photo.

As I look at the image again now, I’m drawn more to ponder how my experience of time has changed in these last two years. The Charente in France has a snail as its logo to represent the “slow life” which is characteristic of this region. That’s one of the reasons I moved here. Slowness, in this way of thinking about it, increases awareness. A “slow life” involves taking the time to savour, to relish, to delight in the everyday – the air, the colours of Nature, the birdsongs, the flavour of vegetables grown in your own garden – you get the idea.

But I realise now that time has changed for me in other ways too. It’s not just that it passes more slowly. I’m more aware of the seasons now than I have been at any other time in my life. We had quite a cool and wet Spring, but from the Summer Solstice, the temperatures shot up and stayed in the high 20s, low 30s (centigrade, my American friends!) pretty much every day up to the Autumn Equinox which came with mists and cooler morning air. When autumn comes the vineyards which stretch in every direction from my garden turn golden, yellow, brown and red. It feels like living in a work of Art.

There are two more rhythms I’m aware of. My every day begins with my opening the blue wooden shutters which cover every window of the house, and ends with my closing them again. The shutters need to be opened and closed from outside, so my day starts with my stepping out into the morning, and ends with my gazing up at the stars. And there’s the final rhythm I’m aware of – the moon. Tonight is a full moon, a “super moon” apparently. I’ll look forward to seeing it.


How do you experience the passing of time? What rhythms are you aware of?