Archive for December, 2015

two lights.jpg

Just after the sun set I saw this moment – where the moonlight meets the twilight. Knowing, of course, that these are both the light of the same sun.

I watched a fascinating and moving documentary on French TV on Sunday. It was about a French family, a father, mother, teenage son and two younger daughters sailing a boat up the east coast of Canada to Greenland and as far north as they could go.

The further north they sailed the less they encountered towns and villages, but when they did stop, they’d be welcomed by local Inuit people. Although they couldn’t speak to each other in a common language, their interactions were friendly and curious. There were lots of smiles and a welcoming into homes to share some food.

I was reminded of holidays in Brittany many, many years ago, where our little son, probably only about 5 years old at the time, would spend all day playing on the beach with another child who was there. The children didn’t speak the same language but they had fun for hours. When we asked him what the little girl’s name was he replied “I don’t know” with an expression which suggested he didn’t even understand the need to ask the question.

It’s been my experience as I’ve travelled in other countries that strangers are helpful and friendly. There is some fundamental affinity between human beings.

I know all that can go very wrong very quickly however. A few days ago I was reading one of Montaigne’s essays (On coaches), where he described the reports of the “New World” which were just becoming known at the time (he lived in the 16th century). The tales he told were of the Spanish greeting the native peoples of Mexico and other “New World” countries, presenting themselves as peaceful and friendly, then deceiving and tricking them….slaughtering, capturing and torturing them. Demanding gold from them. The descriptions of the violence are as awful as anything you’d see in “Game of Thrones”! Montaigne was shocked by it –

Who ever set the utility of commerce and trading at such a price? So many cities razed, so many nations exterminated, so many millions of people put to the sword and the richest and most beautiful part of the world turned upside down for the traffic in pearls and pepper!

He mused about how things could have been so different –

What an amelioration for the entire globe, if the first examples of our conduct that were offered over there had called those peoples to the admiration and imitation of virtue and had set up between them and us a brotherly fellowship and understanding?

In other words, what if the explorers had presented the best of themselves instead of the worst? What if they had behaved in such ways that the native peoples had admired them and wanted to imitate them instead of fearing them? What if the whole goal of the exploration had been an increase in “brotherly fellowship and understanding” instead of exploitation and theft?

Makes you wonder, huh?


These tales of violence seem both far away and disturbingly close. We certainly haven’t evolved to a better way. There are still wars of religion, torture, exploitation and even domestic violence. However, I do think there is a glimmer at least of hope because there is something I can do. And that you can do. Every day.

We can tune in to our natural human attraction for other humans and approach them with our best selves rather than our worst. I can, and you can, meet others with a desire to “increase brotherly fellowship and understanding” (that’d be sisterly too by the way!!)

Can’t we?

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leaf and stone

I have a large mulberry tree in my garden and at this time of year, every morning there is a small carpet of leaves on the ground waiting for me to come and gather them up.

There is also a sandpit in this garden. Someone, sometime, presumably created it for children to play in, and my littlest grandchildren played in it in the summer time. For the rest of the year I arrange, and re-arrange some stones we bought in a local store and rake the sand from to time, almost like a Japanese garden but on a much smaller, more amateur scale! My landlord, when he saw what I’d done asked if I’d arranged a “petit menhir” – a small circle of standing stones. I hadn’t thought of them like that but circles of standing stones are in my genetic memory so the idea has stuck.

Some of the mulberry leaves fall into the circle of the stones and when I got down to the sand-level I managed to take this photo.

I love the contrast of the transient, seasonal leaves and the apparently unchanging stones on the sand.

I say “apparently unchanging” because I know that everything is constantly changing, but some at such a slow rate that a single human lifetime is not enough to spot the difference.


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In his essay, “On Experience”, Montaigne wrote

Nor is there anything more remarkable in Socrates than the fact that in his old age he finds time to take lessons in dancing and playing instruments, and considers it well spent.

Socrates? In his old age? Dancing and playing music?! Well, I never…..

I thought about that the other day when I saw the starlings gathering again in the trees at the top of vineyard. They gather in their dozens, then their hundreds, and then, I suspect (because I haven’t tried to count them), in their thousands. As they settle into the trees they begin a great commotion, all singing and whistling and shouting it seems at the same time. They can keep this up for several minutes and so far I haven’t been able to figure out whether or not they are singing together or just all singing at the same time.

No matter really, because all of a sudden the whole flock falls completely silent – not a cheep! The silence is always, and I mean always, followed by flight. Suddenly they take off as one and fly away from the trees.

Then you can see something quite remarkable. The flock will divide into sub-groups and be joined by yet others you hadn’t even noticed coming. They will swoop down onto the vines, or soar high into the sky. I have no idea how you predict which way they are going to fly next and I can’t see that they all follow a single leader.

They really do seem to fly as one great organism.

I don’t know why they gather and behave like this. I fancy they just like singing and dancing. A bit like Socrates did, it seems…..

When they fly directly overhead the sound of their wings beating the air can take your breath away.

I’m sure they enjoy what they are doing even more than I enjoy watching them, but they affirm for me somehow how one of the best things to do in life is to enjoy living, to celebrate your music and your movement and your ability to join with, and flourish with, others…..

starlings in the tree

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I’m lucky to live in a place where I can see a lot of sky. I don’t think I’d like to live somewhere where I could only catch glimpses of it.

I notice the sky. A lot. I notice it when I open the shutters in the morning. This morning there was a pinkish orange/peachy glow from the rising sun. Now the sky is blue again. I find I only need to gaze up for a few moments and I see something which catches my attention – a high trail of white from a jet hurrying from the south to the north (or vice versa); a single bird hovering so high above the ground I can’t begin to understand how it can spot its prey in the vineyard; some clouds gathering, floating on by, changing shape every second.

Clouds catch our attention a lot, don’t they? Well, not so much when they are uniformly grey and stretching from one horizon to the next, but especially when they form shapes.

Actually I can’t tell you how often one particular Peanuts strip comes to my mind when I start to think about the shapes which clouds make! Wait, I’ll have a look…..oh, yes, here it is!!

peanuts clouds

What do you see when you look at the cloud I photographed yesterday and posted at the beginning of this piece?

Do you see a dragon? A crocodile? What?

Two things spring to my mind when I start to reflect on our ability to see recognisable patterns in clouds – patterns which we can name – the first is about imagination and how it is always active and always busy creating the reality we experience. It’s not something we switch on and off. We use it all the time to see….to see the physical world, to make sense of it, to interpret it, to make and recognise symbols and be inspired.

The second is about the astonishing pattern-making/pattern-recognising power of the human mind. It’s such an integral part of who we are that we aren’t even aware that we are doing it. But we are. All the time. Seeing not just the patterns of the physical world around us, but the hints, suggestions and representations which are unique to each one of us.


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I’m a strong advocate of individual health care.

What I mean by that is that I am wary of health care delivered on the basis of statistics and generalities.

It was not my experience as a General Practitioner that I always knew best. I might try my best every day, but every day there would be patients whose blood pressure had not come under control, whose infections had not cleared up, whose pain was not relieved. So every day I had to modify my decisions and change them to better suit the individuals who came to see me.

Health care practiced on the front line makes you wary of generalisations. You quickly realise you can’t apply the same treatments to everyone with the same conditions.

I think there are three main, rational, real life reasons underpinning that experience.

Firstly, every individual is unique. Not only are no two individuals the same biologically, but every individual has their own history, their own influences, potentials and predispositions. Added to that every individual has their own beliefs, values, preferences and priorities.

Secondly, life is an emergent phenomenon, and so, so is health. There is no such thing as simple cause and effect in Nature. No intervention produces predictable outcomes in all circumstances.

Thirdly, life is not a series of discrete events. There is a lot of talk in health care about outcomes, but what are outcomes? Life is a process. What happens today is influenced by what happened yesterday and what might be possible tomorrow, and all of that will change every single day.

In my view, the health care choices for each individual are best left to the doctor and patient together in their ongoing relationship, not decided by politicians, insurance companies, managers or drug companies.


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Marilynne Robinson in her new book, “The Givenness of Things”, says

Suppression tends to obscure evidence of its own failures, since fear is as likely to inspire ingenuity and stealth as it is compliance

Just before I read that I was reflecting on how much attempted power and control there is in our world.

We see it in the way fear is used – to control behaviour and to suppress diversity and difference.

But no living creatures can be controlled. You’ll have encountered the phrase “as difficult as herding cats” before, but maybe there is no creature harder to control than a human being.

You can suppress human beings, manipulate them, enslave them, make life difficult for them, but you can’t control them. There isn’t an empire in the history of the world which hasn’t disappeared. I heard Ursula Le Guin accepting a reward recently and she said whilst it was difficult to imagine living under a different regime from the current capitalist one, there was once a time when people believed in the divine right of kings and it didn’t look then as if that could change. She was making a plea for writers of imagination to help us to imagine a better system.

Can we use our fears to inspire our ingenuity rather than the pursuit of power?

Especially since control over Nature or over others is always such a transient delusion.

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setting sun behind tree

Sometimes as the sun sets it looks bigger than it does on most days.

Yesterday was one of those times.

There’s a lot I like about this shot.

I like the wavy edge of the sun. We tend to think of the sun as a perfect circle but when we see the close up photos taken from satellites and with telescopes we see that it is a huge furnace of fire, constantly sending flames and gases into the rest of the universe.

I like the shades within the colour of the sun. I put on my exposure bracketing to capture a number of different exposures because a straight point and shoot bleached out the sun and made it appear white, when, in fact, it was the rich redness which drew me out into the garden with my camera. This particular exposure captures the colours I saw most closely.

I like the tree on the horizon just in front of the sun. If you are in the habit of watching the sunset from a particular place you’ll be well aware that it disappears below the horizon slightly further east, west, depending on the season. Just now, in December in France, the sun is moving slowly further east. In midsummer it settles down way further west than where this tree is growing. So, in fact, I could only get this particular image from this particular spot in the garden yesterday. Even if the sun sets as beautifully again tonight, it won’t be setting exactly behind this tree (leastways, not from my garden)

Aren’t all those aspects of this image wonderful? The irregularity of the edge of the sun, the changing shades of colour, and the particularity of the place, which is created by the unique combination of the observer’s position, and the day of the year.

I adore this uniqueness.

I love this transience.

I delight in the beauty of ever-changing Nature.

I relish these rhythms of the year.

I am grateful for the opportunity to see and to be aware.

And it warms my heart to share.

I hope this enriches your life today.

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sun over the vines

Montaigne writes about life –

I enjoy it twice as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends on the greater or lesser attention that we lend it. Especially at this moment, when I perceive that mine is so brief in time, I try to increase it in weight; I try to arrest the speed of its flight by the speed with which I grasp it, and to compensate for the haste of its ebb by my vigor in using it. The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it.

The first thing which struck me when I read this paragraph was “….depends on the greater or lesser attention that we lend it.” I’ve thought for a long time that attention is a great magnifier. Whatever we pay attention to gets bigger, more intense, or more significant, it seems to me. That’s what attracted me to the work of the positive psychologists such as Seligman. It seems to me that the more attention we give to a fear, the greater the fear becomes, so is it not better to give more attention to strengths, hopes and potentials and make them bigger instead?!

The second thing which struck me was his use of the terms “weight”, “speed” and “vigor”. In each and every one of these instances he is making the case for an intensity of engagement. This reminded me of the work of the philosopher, Robert Solomon, whose book, The Joy of Philosophy, is subtitled “Thinking Thin versus the Passionate Life”, and of Liz Gilbert, in her “Big Magic” where she talks of the “amplified life”.

Montaigne precedes this passage with a musing on the phrase “pass the time”, and here he is arguing that we shouldn’t just let time pass, we should embrace life fully and so experience it more intensely than we do when time is just drifting by.

The third thing which struck me was “The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it”. He wrote this when he was older (it’s from the essay “On Experience” which is the last one in the third of the three volumes of the “Essais”). How often do you hear people who have had an accident or serious illness, say, in the full awareness of their mortality, that they now intend to live life more fully? Such crises are often described as “wake up calls”. This is the same idea, isn’t it?

So, what is Montaigne saying here that I’d like to take on board today?

That I want to live today with awareness, with passion and with intensity. I want to fully experience the one and only chance to live today.

That’ll do!

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Here’s a couple of thoughts – is the scientific method the way to be sure of things? And, is there only one scientific method?

What provoked those thoughts? An article in the Guardian citing research about jihadists

What kind of person becomes a jihadi terrorist? Specifically, what kind of educated person? The overwhelming majority of graduates recruited into Islamist terrorism studied engineering, science and medicine. Almost none are social science or arts graduates, according to research. The insight could have important implications.

Almost half (48.5%) of jihadis recruited in the Middle East and north Africa had a higher education of some sort, according to a 2007 analysis by Diego Gambetta that is cited in Immunising the Mind, a new paper published by the British Council; of these 44% had degrees in engineering. Among western-recruited jihadis that figure rose to 59%.

The author of the paper, Martin Rose, describes what he terms the “engineering mindset” which, he claims, makes science and engineering graduates more susceptible to jihadist indoctrination.

The culture of science teaching, says Rose, resolves all too easily into a right and wrong, correct and incorrect binary. This damages the ability of science and engineering students to develop the skills of critical examination.

……three specific traits that characterise the “engineering mindset”: first, it asks “why argue when there is one best solution?”; second, it asserts “if only people were rational, remedies would be simple”; and third, it appeals to those with an underlying craving for a lost order, which lies at the heart of both salafi and jihadi ideology.

It does seem that the jihadists see the world in a binary way – black and white, right and wrong etc – “That is perhaps why, in Isis-controlled territory, university courses in archaeology, fine art, law, philosophy, political science and sports have been eliminated, along with drama and the reading of novels.”

This claim that a training in science and engineering leads to seeing the world in binary ways and assertions of certainty is totally contrary to what I just read in “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. He describes a number of revolutions in human development – the agricultural revolution, the cognitive revolution and finally, the scientific revolution. Of the scientific revolution he says

The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions…….modern people came to admit that they did not know the answers to some very important questions, they found it necessary to look for completely new knowledge.

This seems to suggest that scientists might be best placed to say “I don’t know”, rather than to make claims about the possession of “THE TRUTH”.

Isn’t a good scientist always unsure? Does a good scientist ever claim they have the complete, final, definitive knowledge or understanding of anything?

Well that’s what I thought about science until I oversaw a science student’s notebook one day. The scientific method described there was of “Observation; description; explanation; prediction; control”. That shocked me when I read it but suddenly a particular approach to science made sense to me. I hadn’t taken on board that the ultimate goal of science was control. I thought it was explanation – possible explanations!

But a little further on in “Sapiens” Yuval Noah Harari writes

In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto titled The New Instrument. In it he argued that ‘knowledge is power’. The real test of ‘knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge


Back to Bacon again! The sometimes claimed “father of the scientific method”. I never warmed to him with his desire to dominate Nature and human beings.

So also there are two kinds of empires, as rewards to those that resolve them. The one over nature, the other over men; for the proper and chief end of the true natural philosophy is to command and sway over natural beings; as bodies, medicines, mechanical works, and infinite other things

So maybe here’s the link – its a particular type of “scientific method” which is a quest for certainty in order to wield power.

Maybe it’s time for us to invest more in the humanities if that’s what is required to produce critical thinkers who can live with the reality of uncertainty.

Rose suggests that the British Council, the organisation funded by the UK to spread British cultural influence around the world, should involve itself in education reform, to “humanise” the teaching of scientific and technical subjects. A broader-based education would give vulnerable students the intellectual tools to develop an open-minded, interrogatory outlook – and to question authority, whether scientific, political, religious or scientific.

And maybe it’s time to promote a different scientific method – one based on wonder, curiosity, and the humble belief that we never know everything about anything.

But then, “que sais-je?”

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simple web

I’ve seen some amazingly complex and elaborate spider webs in my time, but look at this one I stumbled across early one morning recently.

I reckon this has been spun by a truly Charentaise spider. One of the commonest phrases people use in the neck of the woods is “soyons zen” (“let’s stay zen” – meaning keep calm, take it easy, relax…..you get the drift!). The creature which is one of the emblems of this region is a snail, and a small town near me (Segonzac) is one of the “Citta Slow” network.


People say the River Charente flows slowly and calmly. It’s not in a rush. It doesn’t get all white spray and choppy (at least not as it flows through Cognac), and the way that river lives becomes yet another potent emblem of the Charentaise way of life.

duck family

So what struck me about this web was its bare, sparse, simplicity. And it’s that simplicity which appeals to me so much. I find a real beauty in it. Yes, I admire, and can easily be in awe of, the complex and the elaborate, but simplicity just hits the mark so directly and powerfully, don’t you think?

I know, some of you might be thinking “that spider’s not going to catch many flies with that web!” and I thought that too, but then I got to thinking, who says spiders never make webs just for the sheer fun of it? Who says spiders only have one reason to spin a web? And how does whoever says that, know?

Maybe some webs are spun to catch morning dew.

Maybe some are spun to be beautiful.

Maybe some are just spun because a spider is just being, sorry…… becoming, a spider!

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