Archive for the ‘books’ Category

How to live. Well, there’s a question which always feels fresh. There are whole sections of book shops dedicated to this question and an enormous diversity of ways of addressing it. You’ll find some advice in the Popular Psychology section, some in the Philosophy section, some in the Mind, Body, Spirit section, the Religion section, and on and on.

What’s the secret?

Probably there is no secret, and anyone who claims to have everything all worked out….well, what do you think?

Still, it’s a question which won’t go away so when Sarah Bakewell published “How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer” back in 2010, I couldn’t resist. I really enjoyed it back in 2013 and this week I’ve started to re-read it.

Montaigne lived from 1533 to 1592 in the area around Bordeaux in the South West of France. I won’t tell the whole story here, but he was part of a wealthy family, and retired from Public duties as Mayor of Bordeaux at 39 years old. As the inscription hanging on the wall of his study says, he decided that after years of duties and responsibilities he was going to dedicate the rest of his life to freedom, tranquillity and leisure.


Montaigne’s chateau.

What he did for the next twenty years was enjoy life, have conversations, read and study, travel, and write. He decided to write to explore what it was like to be Michel Montaigne. He described his writings as attempts – that’s why they are called “essays” (from the French, essais, meaning to try). With great honesty and humility he set about reflecting on his past and present experiences. Sarah Bakewell, who spent years studying his writings highlighted the fact that this exploration was about trying to discover how to live, and in her book comes up with twenty “answers” to explore aspects of his thought and his life.

He didn’t write a self-help book. He didn’t write a manifesto. He didn’t write “the key to the secret of Life”. But what he did write has turned out to have much more staying power than it might have done had he done so. Over the next almost 500 years, reader after reader comes across Montaigne’s essays and recognises themselves. We think, goodness, how did he know that’s what I feel? Or how I deal with that? Or what I think? Because in exploring himself and sharing that, he helps us to understand what it is to be human.

I can’t think of a better introduction to this amazing man and his writings than “How to Live” [ISBN 978-0099485155]. I’ll share a few of the attempted answers in future blog posts, but let me just quote you a nice little summary of some of Montaigne’s personal principles which I found in Antoine Compagnon’s “Un été Avec Montaigne” which I picked up in bookshop near Montaigne’s chateau one summer.

Prenons le temps de vivre; suivons la nature; jouissons du moment présent; ne nous précipitons pas pour rien

My rough translation of this is to take your time to live; follow nature; enjoy the present moment and don’t rush into anything. (If you are a fluent French speaker, feel free to improve my translation!)

In other words, he predated the current “Slow movement” by almost 500 years, encouraged us to live in the now (which Eckhart Tolle has popularised), to live mindfully (and isn’t mindfulness everywhere just how? 12,200,000 hits on google today!), and to learn from Nature so that we can live according to natural principles instead of trying to fight against them (a lesson we are a long way from learning with our contemporary technology, economics, health care and relationship to the global environment)

Let us permit nature to take her own way; she better understands her own affairs than we.

Montaigne was classically educated and drew on the teachings of scepticism, stoicism and epicureanism. In fact he was the kind of sceptic I thoroughly identify with (not the modern, arrogant, sure of themselves and their own opinions variety!). He felt that knowledge was never complete so we could always learn more, and that no one person could have access to all knowledge so everyone’s opinions, experiences and views were interesting to discover. This approach made him humble and this comes through everything he wrote and did.

He didn’t tell people how to live.

Instead he reflected on his own life and shared it.

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I read Barrie Condon’s, “Science for Heretics” a few years back and returned to it recently. The subtitle of the book is “Why so much of science is wrong” and his aim is to provoke the reader into questioning both the claims of science and its methods. He uses the device of three characters, The Believer, The Sceptic and The Heretic, throughout the book as he considers several fields of science including mathematics, physics, and medicine.

The Believer is one for whom science reveals the Truth and will one day enable us to understand everything in the universe. The Sceptic accepts the basic tenets of science but retains some doubts about whether of not we will ever be able to understand everything. The Heretic doesn’t buy the whole project. He thinks the universe is not completely knowable and that our scientific theories which shape our views of what we see are simply the projections of our human brains.

He particularly attacks the use of theory in science which tends to be translated into “laws”. He clarifies that no such “laws” exist and sets out the case for a return to observation and experimentation instead. I really enjoy his writing style and some passages particularly stood out for me.

For centuries we have been measuring all sorts of things but generally only recording the results we expected and ignoring the rest.

This captures two of my main objections to so much of medical practice – the reduction of human beings to measurements and the belief that the particular measurements which are made allow us to completely understand a patient and their illness. Although I have heard of a medical teacher say “Don’t listen to patients. They lie all the time. You can only trust the results.”, my own experience of doctoring couldn’t be more diametrically opposed from that view. ONLY the patient’s experience can be trusted. Measurements, sadly, frequently mislead, and ALWAYS need to be set in the context of this individual patient.

Life saving claims for medicines need careful examination. Drugs do certain things which are beneficial to the human body in disease, but they inevitably have other effects which can be deleterious or even fatal.

I wish more doctors made that more clear every time they write out a prescription.

He’s even better on physics and cosmology.

For me, the two most important things he has to say are, firstly –

Science gives us theories that purport to explain how the universe works. This breeds confidence in scientists who then go on to do things that carry certain risks. These risks are rationalised away on the basis of existing theory. Even if our Heretic is wrong in saying that all theory is actually erroneous, history shows us that most or perhaps all theories ultimately prove incorrect. Our perceptions and calculations of risk are therefore also likely to be erroneous. Science generally also assumes a high degree of control over experimental conditions and again this faith seems misplaced. While we may routinely underestimate risk, we also routinely overestimate our ability to control it.

This is SUCH an important point. He’s arguing for a greater use of the “precautionary principle”. Instead of assuming that everything we produce, all our chemicals, all our technologies are safe until proven otherwise, we should be more wary. What we need is a whole lot more humility and the ability to confess that we really don’t know very much at all. And we certainly way overestimate our ability to control things. It’s the arrogance of believers which frightens me most – people who are so sure that they, and only they are right – I’m on the side of the Heretics in Barrie’s terms. It’s likely that what we think we know at any point will be proven not to be quite right in a few years time (or, indeed, to be completely wrong).

The second important conclusion he reaches is that there are no fundamental laws of the universe…..apart from, maybe, two –

As well as a possible law for uniqueness, the Heretic is open to the possibility of a second law governing complexity, namely that it increases with time.

Well, there he puts his finger on what I’ve written about many times on this blog – that the most important characteristics of the universe are its tendency to create uniqueness and its trend of ever increasing complexity.

Take those two undeniable features on board and try and practice science or medicine by measuring, generalising and trying to control the future! Good luck with that.

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I have a life long love affair with books. My grandpa used to read to me when I was young, working his way through books like “Tales of a Grandfather” by Walter Scott, and collections of myths and fairy tales. I’ve always been intensely curious and had a fascination for both the local “reference library” and for story books from the “lending library”. Goodness knows how many books I’ve bought in my life, and I really don’t know how many I still have. I do know that most people who have come to my house seem surprised by just how many books there are, so I guess I have more than most people do.

I love bookshops, old and new, and I adore browsing around the booksellers at fairs and markets. It was a market like the one in this photo which caught my imagination whilst on holiday in France many years ago, and probably seeded my idea to retire when I did, and come to live in France. I had decided I wanted to live part of my life not just in another physical part of the world with a different geography, climate and history, but I wanted to live in a different culture. In particular I wanted to immerse myself in the language and literature of France…..it seemed to offer both different ways of seeing and understanding the world, and to open up whole areas of thought and observation which was unknown to me.

But I didn’t switch away from English to French. I still read a lot more English than I do French. I’ve been here just over six years now and it’s fulfilling all I’d hoped for. Of course, with the pandemic even bookshops were closed, and certainly markets and fairs were cancelled, but that hasn’t slowed down my reading.

There are a couple of very famous French books I’d recommend to anyone – they are so famous that they’ve been translated into many languages so chances are you won’t need to learn French to be able to read them. They are “The Little Prince” by Saint Exupery. It’s a brilliant, thought provoking story, beautifully illustrated. Many, many years ago I found a book in a bookshop in Aix en Provence. It’s called “Donner un sens à l’existence” by Jean-Philippe Ravoux. He’s a professor of philosophy in Aix, and the subtitle is “ou pourquoi Le Petit Prince est le plus grand traité de métaphysique du XXe siècle” – so, it’s, roughly, “Making sense of existence” – “or why The Little Prince is the greatest work of metaphysics in the 20th century”. It’s a brilliant little book, which draws on Saint Exupery’s story to enable the reader to explore a philosophy of life. I love it. Sadly, I don’t think it’s ever been translated into any other languages. However, don’t despair, just read The Little Prince. I really, really recommend it.

The second very famous French book which I recommend is Montaigne’s Essays. OK, the full collection is HUGE, and the original in Old French, beyond me. But I have copies in both French and English. However, what I’d recommend to absolutely anyone is Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”. It’s brilliant. It’s really an easy read and I think it makes an utterly fabulous introduction to the life and work of Montaigne. The man was a genius and his essays have been translated into many languages and still stand the test of time.

If I really get into recommending books I’ll never stop! But I thought I’d just share these two works with you today – because they continue to be my favourites, I have never stopped re-reading them, and you are likely to be able to find translations into your own language.

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I saw this woman yesterday standing outside a supermarket in the middle of town. I was struck by the size of the books she was holding, and which she couldn’t resist opening and starting to read. It turns out they are a trilogy of YA fiction by a famous French author, the third volume having just been published, which is maybe what inspired this woman to buy all three.

I understand this compulsion. I’ve always had way too many books on my shelves….well, way too many in the sense that I couldn’t read them all in one lifetime. But that doesn’t stop me buying new ones. Suffice it to say I read a LOT!

I’ve had a fascination for stories all my life. In my earliest years I remember my Grandpa reading to me – he read me all of Walter Scott’s “Tales of a Grandfather” and he read me collections of myths, legends and fairy stories which he bought for me when I was born. My mum used to have a photograph hanging on the wall of her living room. It was a black and white print showing my Grandpa reading in the local library. I guess I got that gene!

I’ve told countless people that when I worked at the NHS Centre for Integrative Care (which I did for the latter two decades of my career), I used to look forward to meeting a new patient every Monday morning because I knew they would tell me a unique story – one I’d never heard before. In fact, story was the very heart of my engagement with these patients who, largely, suffered from long term conditions which had failed to respond to drug treatments.

Did it surprise me that they had failed to respond to drug treatments? Nope. Because there aren’t any drugs for people, there are only drugs for diseases and drugs to suppress symptoms. Drugs don’t heal. At best they create an environment conducive to healing. It turns out it’s people who heal, not drugs. It’s people with self-defending, self-repairing, self-balancing, self-creating and growing interwoven complex systems who heal.

I found that stories were the way to understand a patient. Not symptoms.

I read a piece about a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Karl Deisseroth, yesterday, and in that interview he said

Anybody can read a diagnostic manual and see a list of symptoms, but what really matters to the patient is a different story

see it here

which reminded me of a passage by the English philosopher, Mary Midgely, which I read many years ago –

One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them.

Wisdom, Information and Wonder. Mary Midgley

and of this passage from philosopher Richard Kearney

Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living.

On Stories. Richard Kearney

In fact, that latter passage came into my head as I took this photo – here’s a woman absorbed in stories, standing next to empty supermarket trolleys and with her back to the stalls of food laid out in front of the shop.

Stories, I found, weren’t just the way to understand a person (to make a diagnosis even), but they were also the way to heal. By helping someone create a new story, I could stimulate that complex of healing systems within them, and spur them on to more than relief from suffering…….More than? Yes, to more self-awareness, more self-compassion, and to a re-evaluation of their life choices, habits and behaviours.

Stories can set us free.

Mind you, it’s also true that we can get trapped by stories – the stuck, multilayered ones we’ve been taught as children, or been brainwashed into believing by others. But even then, the answer, the release, the movement forwards, lies in the creation of new stories……our own, unique stories which allow us to realise our hopes, express our singularity, and live the life we want to lead.

Stories, you see, have a magnetic pull. We don’t live without them.

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This pandemic has hit the pause button around the world. Who’d have thought that so many habits, so many routines, so many automatic choices would have become as disrupted as this? While the climate crisis has been demanding that we think more carefully about our use of fossil fuels, along comes a pandemic which massively reduced travel by plane and by car. Having got used to seeing the sky above streaked with plane trails most of most days, now it’s a surprise to see one. The numbers of deaths and injuries sustained on the roads in France is a fraction this last year of what it’s been in recent years.

But will everyone just rush back to doing exactly what they used to do now that restrictions are easing?

Maybe not. Many of us have become wary of crowds and of sharing time and space with many strangers in confined places now. Many people have discovered that working from home gives them more time with family and friends, and less time crowded onto commuter transport and are keen to maintain at least some element of that now. “Flexible working” is one of the commonest phrases around just now and how that’s going to impact on city centres and vast office complexes, who knows?

Health care is creaking at the seams with exhausted, over-worked staff asking themselves if they can carry on. Education has been massively disrupted and it’s not at all clear how to get it back on track.

Many people haven’t been buying nearly as much “stuff” because the shops have been closed (or they’ve changed their buying habits to buy online now instead).

But how many of these changes have been based on our personal, conscious, choices?

I think it would be a shame to pass up the incredible opportunity this enforced pause has given us. We can take a few breaths, reflect, and ask ourselves – where do we want to go from here?

I know many people are already doing that. There is a surge of demand in France for houses with gardens now, as city dwellers trapped in apartments for weeks on end are thinking, “I don’t want to be stuck inside like this again.” Connect that to the remote working or “teletravail” and people are thinking – we don’t need to live stuck in small apartments, breathing polluted air and spending our days in crowded offices. We can find a place with a garden about an hour from a city centre, enjoy working from home for part of the week, and travel in to the city for face to face work when we need to.

I got thinking about all of this when I came across this old photo yesterday. It’s a ship’s compass and steering wheel (there’s probably another name for a ship’s steering wheel but I can’t think what it is at the moment!). I’m wondering now – what about my own life? My personal life? Do I want to look at my navigation maps, set a new direction on my life compass and steer my way in a new direction?

Well, you could argue that that is exactly what we all do every day. Except we tend to do it on autopilot – our direction is set by employers, advertisers, politicians and authorities. But what I’m wondering about is how to shift the balance now – away from zombie to hero – to more conscious, more deliberated choices.

I just had a birthday too, and I think when birthdays come around I often find myself doing a bit of reflecting…..thinking back over the previous year and asking myself what I want to change now, and in the year ahead.

Are you doing that too?

Are you reflecting on the quality of your every day? Are you reflecting on your habits and priorities? Are you thinking of changing direction?

I reckon this is a good time for collective change too – it’s a time for us to ask the question – “Am I a good ancestor?” It’s a question I’ve come across a few times in recent weeks. How am I living – yes, me personally, but also me, collectively – and will this way of living be likely to create a good world for my grandchildren, for my grandchildren’s grandchildren? Will they look back and reckon that we have been good ancestors?

I do think it’s time for us to change direction – away from consumption and money grabbing – towards more compassion, care and collaboration – towards a better way of living with the rest of Life on Planet Earth.

So, here’s a place to start – David Attenborough has a book out – “A Life on Our Planet” – you can read it, or you can listen to it as an audio book. Or you can watch the film version on Netflix. I recommend it. His work is pretty much always inspiring but this is perhaps his clearest description of what’s happened over the last 90 years he’s lived on this planet, and ends with huge hope and optimism, really inspiring us to change direction.

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The phrase “The Floating World” is a beautiful one. I thought it was quite magical the very first time I came across it. I think where I first read it was in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “An Artist of the Floating World”, a book which I still think has the ability to put me into an entirely different state of mind.

The original Japanese term for “The Floating World” is Ukiyo.

Ukiyo means “floating/fleeting/transient world”.

In the past it referred to a “pleasure seeking” urban culture but in modern usage

“the term ukiyo is used to refer to a state of mind emphasising living in the moment, detached from the difficulties of life.”

I really like the phrase and, in particular, I like the modern usage of the term. Living in the moment, detached from the difficulties of life, sounds pretty appealing to me. But there’s a strange paradox there, isn’t there? From one perspective I think the advice to be present, to be really aware of the time, place and circumstances which we call “here and now” is the only way to really engage with reality. After all, if our minds are busy wandering off down memory lane, or busy creating fantasies and fears about the future, then life, itself, is passing us by.

But on the other hand, what’s this “detached from the difficulties of life”? Is that a good piece of advice? Is that not escapism? Well, I suppose it could be escapism. T S Eliot said humans beings couldn’t bear too much reality after all. The entertainment industry and the psychoactive drug industry are both heavily focused on detaching people “from the difficulties of life”. Didn’t the Romans say the way to rule a people was through “bread and circuses”? In other words, make sure they aren’t hungry and keep them distracted with entertainment. Well, seems to me that’s still the most used strategy by those who wish to wield power over others in this world – whether they be politicians, businessmen or members of the 0.01%.

But isn’t there also a long, well established teaching about the power of non-attachment to reduce suffering in the world? Actually, I don’t think “non-attachment” and being “detached” are the same thing, but I won’t go into that in any more detail here.

My dilemma is how to be fully present, fully engaged with my life, moment by moment, yet not drown under the weight of difficulties, my own, those of others, or those of society.

Well, here’s where the floating world idea comes back strong. Look again at the ways of translating “ukiyo” – floating, fleeting, transient. Let me pick up that last word first. I have no doubt at all that an awareness of transience heightens my senses of delight and wonder. I relish the seasons of the new fruits and vegetables. I’m glad that those seasons don’t last all year round. I love to see the migrating birds arrive in my garden, and knowing that they will only be here for a few weeks before the fly south again, somehow, intensifies my delight in seeing them. I’m already looking forward to the hummingbird moths and the different coloured butterflies which will be attracted to the buddleia bushes in the garden once they flower. Knowing that we don’t live forever makes it all the more important to engage with life every single day…….not to run away from it, or pretend it doesn’t exist, but to fully engage with it.

Ultimately, this idea of a floating world is a counsel to “flow” through life, and that, I would say, is one of my highest aspirations. I want to experience the flow of Life through the cells and fibres of my being. I want to experience the flow of Nature, of existence, of the Universe, through the creation of every single unique moment and experience of my life.

I like it. This notion of a “floating world”.

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This is another of my most favourite photos. I took it one day from where I was living back then, just outside of Stirling, in Central Scotland. The largest mountain here, whose peak is hidden behind the dense, black cloud, is Ben Ledi. I’ve taken many, many photos of Ben Ledi because when I lived there and looked out towards it every morning I realised it didn’t look the same two days in a row, and that surprised me. I suppose I thought of mountains as unchanging, or, at best, as changing very, very slowly over millennia (although maybe they formed over extremely short periods of time as the Earth’s crust heaved and shook, and deep layers of ice flowed down from the North Pole).

When I was struck by just how different Ben Ledi appeared to me every single day, I realised that “the mountain” wasn’t just a piece of rock sticking up above the rest of the land. I realised that my experience of looking at the mountain was formed by all the elements…..the rocks, the plant life, the sunlight, the rain, the wind and the clouds. That realisation brought about a new understanding for me about the embedded nature of everything that exists. We don’t see “any thing” in isolation. We see whatever we are looking at in its dynamic, complex web of interactions and relationships with the rest of the world in which it exists. And we see whatever we are looking at within a relationship too – the relationship between me and the mountain – and that as I changed each day, so did my perception of the mountain.

This particular day we had pretty dramatic weather. You can tell from the colour and density of that cloud which fills the top half of the image that it was a day of rain and storms. The cloud base, as you can see, was low. It completely obscured the top of the mountain. But then suddenly the Sun broke through and sent these searchlight beams of intense, vivid light, below the cloud, and yes, even below the mountain……It looked as if the ground itself had caught fire!

How unusual – to see the sunlight BELOW the mountain! To see the sunlight BELOW the heavy black clouds!

That inversion of the normal reminds me of the famous image printed on the classic tarot cards – the image of the “Hanged Man”. I’ve read that some think that image relates to the Norse myth of Odin hanging upside down. Here’s a passage I remember about that myth (from Rachel Pollack’s commentary on Haindl’s paintings)

As an older and wiser version of the God Odin, the Hanged Man sacrifices the Emperor’s desire to dominate the world around him. He reverses his previous beliefs, and so gives up what other people find important: success, power, pride, the ego’s sense of being unique and special and separate from the rest of the universe. He gains understanding, peace, union with the Earth, the joy of life.

It also reminds me of the Leonard Cohen line – “there’s a crack, a crack, in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Finally, as I thought of a title for this post, I came up with “The Sun under the Mountain”, which immediately sounded like a hexagram from the I Ching. I looked it up – “Ken” is the trigram for the mountain, and “Li” is the one for the sun or fire. Ken over Li gives the hexagram number 22 – which goes by the name – “Grace”.

Isn’t that fabulous?

Maybe this image brings up other stories, lines from poems or songs for you. Maybe it evokes other memories or sensations. Does it?

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Here’s something which I reckon is part of the daily experience of the vast majority of us…….the weather changes all the time. This weekend, it’s mid Spring in the Northern Hemisphere, but I read on both the UK and French weather forecasts that it will be more like Autumn than Spring today. There’s obviously one of those big weather systems active over Western Europe and its bringing lower temperatures, rain and wind. But yesterday afternoon we sat outside in the garden, in the sun, and chatted with one of our neighbours, and, earlier, we hung out a washing on the line and it dried in no time.

I know that we can hit a run of days where the weather seems much the same, but, mostly, it changes every day, and it changes all day long.

This photo I’m sharing today shows rain falling on the next village across the other side of the vineyards. Sometimes it’s like that. We can see the rain coming, or passing us by. We can see the storm gathering, or the sky clearing. We can see the sun’s rays making their way across the Earth towards us.

My point is……change is an inherent characteristic of reality. We live in a dynamic, lively, changing, evolving universe. Our lives don’t stand still (even when it feels like that). The communities of cells which constitute a human body are alive, growing, dying, developing or being replaced, minute by minute. The human mind doesn’t stand still. Our neurones fire constantly. Even when we are asleep.

How are we going to respond to that?

Get angry, frustrated and upset that reality won’t bend to our Will?

Many spiritual teachers have taught that there lies the root of human suffering.

But it often doesn’t feel good to be constantly reacting to circumstances and bending to the Will of others does it?

Is there an alternative?

I think there is. It’s in adapting. It’s in flexibility combined with integrity. It’s in making the time and space to allow response rather than reaction. It’s in knowing that we have freedom. Freedom to choose, what Victor Frankl, said was the ability to decide how we wanted to respond in any given situation (I strongly recommend his “Man’s Search for Meaning”)

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One of the things I’ve been thinking about since this pandemic began is money. Not my own personal finances, but money in society. Since the last big economic crash in 2008 a lot of governments brought in austerity measures because they said things like “there is no magic money tree”, and “we have to balance the budget”. But then once the pandemic took hold all of a sudden there were billions, literally billions more dollars, pounds, euros etc spent….and that huge increase in spending looks set to continue.

What’s happened?

Did somebody find the magic money tree after all?

It was thinking about things like this which led to me to explore a bit of economics and, no, I’m not about to deliver an economics lecture here, and reading a few books hasn’t made me an expert. But I thought I’d just share some of the more useful insights and ideas that I’ve discovered. Maybe I should also say that most of the economists I’ve read who have seriously impressed me are women. People like Kate Raworth, whose “Doughnut Economics” model makes it easy to see how there is a sweet zone between failing to deliver on the needs of human beings, and over-taxing the environment, and so threatening the existence of all life on Earth.

People like Mariana Mazzucato who describes how we can rethink the role of government in society and orientate our decisions around a sense of public purpose.

But I started with Stephanie Kelton, and read her “The Deficit Myth”. This single book turned my thinking about money upside down.

However, all I want to share with you today is to prompt you to ask yourself the question “Where does money come from?”

I took the photo I’ve posted here in Japan many years ago. It was in the grounds of a temple, and it shows lots and lots of coins which people have thrown into the water. We humans have a tendency to do this in many cultures – throwing coins into fountains, into wells, or into ponds, and making a wish. When I look at this photo I realise that I think of money as something physical – either coins, or notes.

However, the truth is that for me, and I suspect for most of you, most money isn’t physical at all any more. I’m retired so I my income is a government pension. The government don’t send me coins and notes each month. They use a keyboard to tell my bank to increase the size of my bank balance. Most of that balance is spent on things like rent, energy and telecoms, and food. Pretty much all of that spending doesn’t involve my handling any coins or notes at all. I set up a regular instruction to my bank, or I use a plastic card at a till, and the number in my bank balance goes down, while the number in the landlord’s bank balance goes up, or the number in the energy company’s bank balance goes up, or…..you get the picture.

Now I didn’t really think about that much till I read Stephanie Kelton’s book. But there has been a huge shift in the world, away from what was called “the gold standard” where the money created by the government was linked to the amount of gold they had their vaults, to what is now termed “Fiat currency”. The dollar and the pound, for example, are “fiat currencies”. Only the issuing government can create that money, and it does so by using a keyboard to change the size of various bank balances.

I used to think the government spent the money they raised – in other words they tax us and use those taxes to spend on Public services etc. But I hadn’t thought it through. Stephanie Kelton makes it clear that it’s the other way around. The government can’t take in tax any money other than the money it has already created. In other words, nobody creates new money apart from the government. Well, if you do, it’s called forgery or fraud!

So, when the government wants to spend some money on, say Covid tests, hospitals, supporting businesses, then it does that by creating money on the Central Bank computers. That’s the magic money tree that seems to have been discovered.

But wait, I thought, you can’t just keep creating more and more money, can you? Well, it seems you can’t. You can keep creating more and more money until society’s resources are fully engaged. Beyond that, inflation occurs. What then? Take some of the excess money out of the economy through taxation is the suggested answer.

Huh! Well, honestly, I had never thought of it that way.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that government finances are NOT like family finances. And the big difference is….we can’t print money when we want it, but the government can.

OK, there is an awful lot more to learn and understand about all this, but Stephanie Kelton’s book is a great starter.

Does this interest you?

Maybe not, but it interests me because it seems as clear as clear can be that our current economic and political systems are not working. Covid has exposed our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses and our true deficits. If we don’t address those then this isn’t going to be the last pandemic to wreak havoc on us all.

Here’s a nice little summary of the key points in The Deficit Myth

And here’s my favourite podcast for learning more about these ideas.

Honestly, money isn’t something I’ve given much thought to in my life….well, apart from my own family finances that is……but the new ideas of Kate Raworth, Stephanie Kelton and Mariana Mazzucato are a total revelation to me, and they actually make me believe a lot more is possible than I had realised. They give me hope.

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When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?

Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’

What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together

to make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?

T S Eliot. Choruses from The Rock

Is there any greater social creature than the human being? Our offspring are more dependent on us, and for longer, than any other living organism. Babies just wouldn’t make it to adulthood without the intense and dedicated parenting and care they need. Even the very structure of the brain of those who are deprived of love and attention in the first few months of life is poorer than the brain of a child who has been cared for. They develop less brain cells and less connections between the cells they have.

Children learn much faster than adults, but we all learn through strong social bonds. We learn by mimicry, by copying others, by adopting the attitudes, values and behaviours of those around us.

Ideas and insights spread like wildfire around the world. So do emotions, whether they be fear and despair, or joy and celebration. Emotions are infectious.

Think of the experiences you’ve had in large groups – whether are a spectator/fan at a sporting event, or a member of an audience at a concert, or festival. The experience of collective excitement and joy is transcendental. It is deeply moving.

Solitary confinement is the cruellest, hardest form of punishment meted out on human beings.

We need to belong, we need to connect, we need to form relationships. We need to love and be loved.

Not one of us would last long without the contributions and actions of countless others.

So why do we “huddle close together” as Eliot’s Stranger asks? Maybe it’s not because we all love each other. We don’t. Maybe it’s not “to make money from each other”, although that seems a strong possibility!

I think it’s because we are born into communities, and we live our lives in them. Back in the depths of history people lived in tribes, then they settled with the development of agriculture, and created larger and larger communities in towns and cities. The last couple of hundred years has seen an acceleration in urbanisation and more of us now live in mega-cities than at any point before. Yet, cities don’t hold that well together, do they? They all seem to have wealthy, privileged areas, and vast tracts of poverty and deprivation.

In the last few decades it’s become easier and easier to communicate over distances and now we have “virtual communities” which don’t share geographical territory together but are often much more cohesive and close than the “physical communities” we find in cities.

This pandemic has forced us from the physical into the virtual. It’s driven us into asynchronous communications of messaging and emails. It’s connected us through connected screens, and forced us out of shared workplaces and shared physical spaces of entertainment and recreation.

We’ll start getting back together in our towns and streets soon.

But I still like Eliot’s challenges from the Stranger. I think it’s a great idea to reflect and ask ourselves – what kind of communities do we want to build and/or belong to? And why?

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