Archive for June, 2016


Two themes played out strongly in the EU referendum and they are themes we can see around the world these days.

They both centre around difference and our attitudes to the “other”.

Immigration was the defining theme of the referendum. The consequences of making that the issue are what we are dealing with now.

On one side people from other countries have been portrayed as a problem and a threat, taking away jobs, driving down wages, flooding schools, hospitals and doctors’ clinics and bringing cultural beliefs and practices which “are not British” (People often say “British” when they mean “English”, and vice versa, but British in this context, is indeed almost exclusively English). When the Leave campaigners say “I want my country back”, do they mean their culturally and racially diverse country, or do they mean a white, English-speaking one?

Since the referendum result hate crimes, racial abuse, insults and demands to “go back to your own country” have multiplied. They are directed towards people who aren’t white and to people who are speaking a language other than English.

The fear and hatred of the “other” is building walls – social walls which separate and exclude, political walls which prevent free movement of people between countries, and even calls for physical walls (as we hear from Donald Trump in others who want a wall between Mexico and the US).

I find all of that horrifying.

On the other side there is are declarations of support for the “other”. From the sharing of the stories of people who were born in one European country but now live in another one, (#IamanEUmigrant on twitter), to a Scottish government Minister making a video of his visit to both a Polish cafe and a Portuguese one in Edinburgh to reassure the people who work there that they are welcome in Scotland – see here

So maybe we need to build a different kind of wall. Walls can be built to exclude but walls are also boundaries. They can say “don’t go beyond here”.

I think all of us who respect difference, uniqueness and the “other”, all of us who believe in the freedom of people to move around the world to study, work and live in other countries, all of us who abhor racism, should build our wall of diversity and say no to all forms of racism.

It’s not ok to say “I’m not racist but……” because after that “but” will come a racist expression.

By creating respectful, loving relationships we can form a barrier to intolerance and bigotry.

We do need boundaries in life, so let’s make our own good ones.




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better before

I came across this article in the French “Philosophie” magazine this month. Translated into English, the headline says “It was better before”, and the article goes on to explore this particular, common, state of mind.

It begins with a dissatisfaction with the present, but instead of that stimulating creative thinking motivating people to turn that dissatisfaction into positive action, the mind turns backwards to think back to a past which quickly becomes a utopian illusion.

When Donald Trump says “Let’s Make America Great Again” – what previous time is he referring to? When the UK Leave campaigners said “I want my country back”, which country were they referring to? A country of the past, but an illusory one. When they said “Let’s take back control”, when did we ever have it? Which controls are they referring to?

The fabulous Woody Allen movie, “Midnight in Paris”, beautifully plays with this way of approaching the world –

When was that time? The time of Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast“, or the time of the “Belle Epoque“…..or just when exactly?

The article argues that older people are more likely to think this way because they have less life left to look forward to. A young person might look at the future and see it full of potential, where an older person might look at it and see illness, decline and death.


Maybe that partly explains one of the voting patterns seen in the EU referendum, where older people voted Leave, and younger ones, Remain.

I saw one elderly Englishman struggling to hold back tears as he said “I’ve got my country back”…..and I wondered, what country is that then? And how, exactly, have you got it back? But the emotional power of his view was clear.

I think there are many other factors at play in what’s happening in the UK just now, but I’ll leave them for other posts in the days ahead…..meantime, I think it’s worth asking people who have been seduced by the illusion of the utopian past to say more clearly what they intend to do now. Now that they have voted to go back to wherever they think it was, what do they want to do today?

In fact, I think that’s a question for all of us, because illusory past utopia or not, the present has changed for us all.

Let me modify my question so we can all join in…..what are YOU going to do today? Now that we are where we are? (And, yes, I’m asking myself for an answer too!)


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redstart close.jpg

This morning I woke up to the news that the referendum vote on the UK’s membership of the EU had been won by the Leave campaign.

I immediately felt sad, not least because I see this as a victory for the forces of xenophobia and misinformation. I’m a great proponent for diversity, for the celebration of uniqueness and for integration (the definition of which is “the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between well differentiated parts”).

But I found something else happened too. I tumbled into anxious feelings of uncertainty. Question after question flooded my brain.

Will I have to give up living in France? Will I need a residency permit and visas to visit other European countries instead of having the right to live here and to drive across the borders into Italy, Spain, Belgium or wherever I else I want to visit freely? What will happen to the currency exchange? To the value of my pension? What about my children and my grandchildren? Will they now lose the right to travel, study and live in this richly diverse continent?

Oh, the questions kept coming, and the answers are unknowable.

Then I looked outside and there he was again. The redstart. I’ve written before about my experience of a particular redstart in this garden but since yesterday he’s been perching on a chair right outside my front door and whistling loudly. He’s never done that before and it got me wondering.

What’s he trying to tell me?

Is he in trouble? I even went and looked where his nest is but couldn’t see anything wrong. He can’t be hungry. There’s an abundance of food around just now. He looks healthy and vigorous. Nope, I couldn’t figure it out.

Then I thought, well maybe he just likes it there. On the back of that chair.

Or maybe he’s just enjoying being close and asking for some attention.

Well, you know what he did? He called me right back into the here and now. The worries, the unsolved problems which might not even ever exist, all faded away. I just enjoyed looking at him, listening to his song, and taking his photograph.

Attention to the present and the particular does that for us. It makes today, this moment, more real, more vivid, and more enjoyable.

Thank you, Mr Redstart.

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ceramic plate.jpg

I came across this medieval ceramic plate in a museum recently. Here’s what I thought.

How beautiful!

How unique!

Look at the two birds and how together they almost seem to create third bird in the middle, looking out at me!

What a delightful scene! Two birds kissing. Or one bird feeding another.

What a great example of integration – the creation of harmonious bonds between individuals.

I still think all of that.

But something else struck me as I uploaded this photo to share with you……maybe some people will look at this and see it as two birds fighting? Maybe they’ll see it as conflict and competition, not bonding and dancing?

Then I realised that everything we encounter has an element of the Rorscharch Ink Blot test to it – what we see in it is what we bring to it.

If that’s true, then we can experience more love by bringing more love to the table.

Here’s one of the reasons I immediately saw an image of bonding –

hoopoes feeding.jpg

This is a picture of one Hoopoe feeding another in my garden last year.

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A number of things struck me as I looked at this sundial.

The first thing I did was look at my phone to see “what time it is” and my phone said midday. Yet, the sundial said ten o’clock. How come? Is the sun slow today? Or did someone make a mistake when they carved out this sundial? Or has time changed since this sundial was created?

The next thing I noticed was that the sundial starts at 4 am. That’s quite early for France. I know up in Scotland in the summer time it will be light by then but in Paris? Maybe….I don’t know. Perhaps more strangely though, it seems to finish about 3 pm. Surely that wasn’t anywhere near sunset, even centuries ago! So there must be a reason they didn’t think it useful to measure time after three in the afternoon. Or was it just that the sun didn’t cast any shadows on this particular sundial after that time in the afternoon..?

Henri Bergson, the philosopher, wrote a lot about time and he mentions two kinds of time – measured and experienced. I hadn’t thought about time that way until I read him. But it’s true, we humans haven’t always measured time. With our sundials, our clocks and watches, we divide everyday life into pieces, naming the pieces as hours, minutes or seconds, and counting them. But this is completely man-made. It’s totally artificial.

In reality time passes, not in discrete pieces, but as a continuous flow. This chopping it up into bits is a human invention. I’m not saying it hasn’t been useful to do that, but it’s just a bit of a surprise when you suddenly realise that. We could have agreed to chop it up differently. Couldn’t we? Have you ever thought about that?

I saw a watch for sale the other day. It was called a “slow watch”, not because it ran slowly but because the face had 24 hours on it and it only had one hand which moved slowly from hour to hour. Maybe that’s not so different from this medieval sundial!

Bergson talked about experienced time as “duration” – we experience time passing, but we don’t experience it passing in a steady, consistent of constant way do we? Sometimes “time flies past” and sometimes “it drags”.

Csikszentmihalyi, describes “flow” as being a particular experience of time. I love his description of that. Here’s his TED talk about it –


So how do you experience time?

Might be fun to stop and think about that a few times over the next few days and see just how differently we experience, or make, time in our own lives.

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mermaid sleeping

As I walked along the beach I stumbled across this mermaid sleeping…

The man who has no imagination has no wings. Muhammad Ali


Everything you can imagine is real. Pablo Picasso

The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless. Jean-Jacques Rousseau




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night sky flower.jpg

I’ve just finished reading Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature” which is her biography of Alexander von Humboldt. I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a big read but a great one. I must confess I’m one of the apparently many who has never heard of Humboldt but am I glad I know something about him now.

One of the most amazing things about Humboldt is how he saw, described and wrote about Nature as a complete interconnected web, and he did this at the end of the 18th, and beginning of the 19th centuries. What an insight! What a vision! What an understanding! His enthusiasm for Nature and his insatiable curiosity are infectious, even now. But it’s his underlying fundamental insight which thrills me most. He describes ecology before the word was even invented. He sees the damage caused by short term economic greed and, more than that, he describes the environmental consequences of these short sighted actions. He demonstrates how the interconnected web of Nature means that these simple minded grabs for wealth will produce long term, far reaching negative consequences for many.

Seeing our world and everything in it as intimately, inextricably interconnected is the basis of holistic science. This is a science of wonder, exploration and discovery. He uses the best scientific instruments of the time to measure whatever he can measure, but he does something which scientists today so often fail to do. He uses the measurements to discover the connections. He puts things together rather than dividing them up. He sees nothing as existing in isolation. In other words he uses reductionist methods in a holistic way.

Reading about him is one of the clearest examples ever of integration. The two halves of his brain both worked brilliantly together. He pursued the new and climbed the highest mountains to see the world as a whole (right cerebral hemisphere). He measured, analysed and categorised (left cerebral hemisphere). Then he put it altogether in a vast web of contexts (right cerebral hemisphere again). What a great demonstration of using the whole brain. Of course I’m simplifying here. I’m sure he didn’t use his brain in such a linear fashion, but, still, I think it’s magnificent.

I thought about him again as I looked at this wonderful flower (see the image above). It’s called “Night sky”. Isn’t it stunning? Doesn’t it immediately show you how the human brain both discovers and creates connections?

That we can see the starry heavens in the soft purple petals of an earthy flower…….


Here’s a short video clip of Andrea Wulf talking about her book –

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As I walked between the trees at the side of the Charente in Jarnac this caught my eye.

I don’t think it was only the pink and yellow colours together which grabbed me. It was the surprise at seeing this delicate flower growing right out of the trunk of the tree. Now, I’m not a botanist, just someone who is insatiably curious, so I don’t know what this flowering plant is. But I’m pretty sure it isn’t a usual part of the tree it’s growing from. There weren’t any other flowers like this further up the tree.

As usual, an image like this sparks a few trains of thought.

How do we notice what we notice?


Isn’t it usually difference which catches our attention?

One of the commonest kinds of difference which we notice is movement. By definition, motion is difference. It’s a change of place in time. It’s the flight of the barn owl from my house to my neighbour’s barn. It’s bats flying round and round the garden at dusk. It’s the sudden appearance of light and shadows as the sun appears from behind a cloud.

Another common difference to catch our attention is sound. Any sudden new sound. The wailing of a siren in a city street, the alarm call of a blackbird which has just spotted a cat, the distant church bells striking noon. The sounds we don’t hear are those which are constant. We only notice them when they stop.

What’s new is different too. We’ve got two cerebral hemispheres, and the right one, in particular, is wired to seek out whatever is new. The left might seek the familiar, but the right is attracted to novelty.

So maybe that’s another reason I noticed this strange and beautiful pink flower growing out of the tree trunk. I’d never seen anything exactly like it before.

Not least because I don’t know what this flower is, I don’t know what the nature of the relationship is between the flower and the tree. Is it parasitical? Is the flower gaining something from the tree, but not contributing anything? Or is it commensal, with both the flower and the tree benefitting from the relationship?

One of the keys to creative development and growth is integration. Integration can be defined as “the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between well differentiated parts”. In other words, it’s when there is a bond, a good, healthy, mutually supportive bond, between two very different organisms or objects.

I’d like to think this image represents that. It certainly increases my awareness of such an idea.

Integration isn’t just about the relationship of course. It’s about the well differentiated parts as well. And that brings me back to the idea of difference.

When we are surrounded by attempts to force us into pre-determined moulds, by monocultures of chain stores and pressures to conform, it can be hard to express our differences in a positive way. There’s so much fear these days of “the other”, of strangers, immigrants, of other races, other genders…….

How different might the world be if we pursued integration instead…..by not only tolerating, but celebrating difference, and finding ways to create mutually beneficial relationships between them?

Might be beautiful. Might be surprising. Might be attention grabbing.

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On May 10th this suddenly appeared in the grass one morning. I definitely didn’t notice it before so I think it emerged overnight.


What is it? I had no idea. So I decided to wait…..


May 19th, 9 days later. Still no idea what it is but I put a little flowerpot next to it to stop me accidentally kicking it over or mowing it down when I was cutting the grass. What was it going to do next? Unfurl like a fern? Reveal itself as an asparagus? I’d just have to wait a bit longer…..


May 25th. A further six days on. Wow! Look how tall it’s grown! I still can’t tell what’s going to happen next. I’ll wait another week….


June 2nd. Oh look at these beautiful, delicate flowers it has revealed now! I took a photo from above too….


Well, that’s been worth waiting for, don’t you think?

I still don’t know what it is. The app on my iPhone, “Plantnet”, suggests it is a “Broomrape”. But maybe one of you has better botanical knowledge than I do and can either confirm that, or make a different suggestion?

Becoming…..it’s the only way to find out what anything “is”. See that tagline at the top of my blog? “Becoming not being”? Life is an emergent, dynamic process, constantly developing, changing, growing. Isn’t it just beautiful and awe inspiring to watch?

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