Archive for the ‘humour’ Category

At one point in my career I flew to Tokyo to teach a number if times over a ten year period. I loved it. Japan was THE most different culture and society I had ever experienced at that point, and when you are somewhere so different from what you are used to, then you notice things which might otherwise have passed you by.

One morning I was in a coffee shop for breakfast and it struck me as strange that I, like pretty much everyone else in the shop, was sitting drinking my coffee alone. In fact I took this photo of a woman who was sitting on a bar stool facing a wall – I guessed that they had decorated the wall with such a lovey photo of a flower to make it more pleasing to sit there with your back to the rest of the room. I tended to seek out a seat next to a window, but it was a tiny coffee shop so there wasn’t much choice.

Now, as I look at this photo again, in the midst of this pandemic with coffee shops in France having been closed since October, it doesn’t seem so strange any more. I can imagine a new norm emerging where people choose to sit more separately than they used to. Maybe not, but it just seems that “normal” isn’t “normal” any more!

What will “normal” be like later this year, and into next year? I guess none of us know. But I do remember how odd it seemed to me that so many people went about their ordinary business in Tokyo wearing masks all the time, and I sure don’t see that as odd any more. Will that become part of our new norm? Here in France people have always had a degree of physical intimacy which was significantly beyond what I’d experienced in Scotland. The normal greeting would be to “faire la bise” – to kiss on both cheeks (for someone you knew anyway!) Well, that’s all gone. Will it return? Or will keeping a social distance become the “new normal”?

I genuinely don’t know. Part of me thinks this pandemic is changing us forever, and, after all, there is never any “going back” in life. But part of me also thinks that people will “revert to form” at the very first opportunity, and rapidly re-establish their pre-Covid habits and behaviours.

All that raises the question of what we are going to do collectively……how we are going to live together having gone through this experience. After all, a lot has become more obvious, not least how interconnected we are on this planet. The massive inequalities have become clearer. Is there political and Public will to tackle that? People who were pretty much disregarded have now been shown to be “essential workers” (which does get me wondering who the non-essential workers are……I’ll leave you to think about that one for yourself!). Will we change our priorities about Public Health and Social Care? Will we change the way we look after our elderly and vulnerable? Perhaps even more importantly will be turn against mass consumption and so called “growth” to put our efforts into tackling the big problems of climate change and loss of biodiversity which are probably at the root of the pandemic anyway?

There are plenty of reasons to hope that “normal” has changed, will change, and that we will not even attempt to hang on to the ways of living which got us into this mess in the first place.

Thank goodness “normal is not fixed”.

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I saw this on the wall of a church in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in Southwest France. A “rencontre”, as you can probably tell from the drawing, is a meeting. I haven’t seen this portrayed in other churches but I really liked that it was displayed so prominently in this one.

For me, the key to understanding Life is revealed in connections, relationships, or bonds. In fact, it is revealed in a very special kind of connection – one which increases “integration”.

Integration is “the formation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts”. I think this is easily understood when you think of the human body. We have several organs, from a heart, a liver, a pair of kidneys, a pair of lungs, a brain, and so on. All of these separate, distinct, structures have their own particular functions to carry out and they must carry them out in a way which is more than harmonious…..they must act to promote mutual benefit. The “integrative” connections exemplify collaboration and co-operation. Our organs do not compete with each other….not for energy, food, or protection. Not in a healthy state, anyway.

So, here is the basis of natural health – harmonious, well-integrated, collaborative relationships between distinctly different parts.

You can scale that up – so that a healthy society is a diverse one composed of unique individuals who relate to each other in mutually beneficial ways. You can scale it up further to consider whole ecosystems, or even the global biome, and see that this is the basis of Nature.

Much has been made of the role played by competition in Nature, and in particular in the story of evolution. But, competition has only ever been one part of the story. Without collaboration, without the creation of mutually beneficial bonds, Life would not exist, and it certainly wouldn’t evolve.

When I see this image of a “rencontre” I’m also reminded of the story of the Little Prince and the fox, as told by Saint-Exupery in his “The Little Prince”. In particular I remember the passage where the fox asks the Little Prince to “tame” him – by which he means to create a bond between them, and gives the example of rose which the Little Prince tended to in his home. The Little Prince claims that his rose, of all the roses in the world, is special to him. He cares for her, looks after her, and feels for her. What makes her special is the bond – the bond of care. The fox points out that if he and the Little Prince form such a bond, then they will be very upset when they have to part – because these bonds of care matter to us. They matter to us more than anything.

We can’t have too much of this type of connection in our world. In fact, we need a whole lot more of them – we need the bonds of “integration”, the “mutually beneficial” ones, the bonds of “care”.

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There’s a way of looking at history where you can trace the development of a theme over decades, or even centuries. One of the themes I’m aware of is control.

Maybe the control issue has become particularly apparent because of this pandemic……in two ways.

Firstly, there’s our inability to control the spread of the coronavirus. Yes, I know, governments around the world and thousands of scientists are trying to exactly that – control the spread of the virus. But they can’t really. They can bring in measures which enforce changes in personal and collective behaviour to try to reduce the opportunities for the virus to jump from one person to another, and some countries are managing that better than others. But we can’t get rid of the pesky thing from the whole planet and as we live in a hyperconnected age reducing the incidence to zero in one country doesn’t guarantee it won’t make its way back.

Secondly, we are now subject to more controls, more restrictions than most of us have ever known. We are being monitored, surveilled, documented and followed to unprecedented degrees.

This second kind of control is not specific to infections of course. In many walks of life we are now subjected to increased levels of control. I retired from clinical practice as a doctor almost six years ago now, but in the last few years of work the level of monitoring and control of my daily “performance” increased many fold. A combination of “annual appraisal”, “revalidation” and “job plans” with an emphasis on what can be measured eg patient numbers and consultation length, diminished professional autonomy and steady forced everyone to somebody’s declared “norms”.

A lot of the desire for control is extremely well intended, but a lot of it isn’t. I’m not sure where the balance lies these days, but I suspect most money and resources go into enabling those with power and influence to keep and increase what they have through the control of the rest of us. A lack of transparency creates the suspicion that extra controls “in your interest” aren’t really in our interest!

But all this goes a long way back doesn’t it? And I’ve been thinking this morning how one of the origins is the idea that Man is separate from Nature and that we are either chosen to, or that we are choosing to, dominate and control Nature. Nature is seen as something separate from us, something to be exploited, a resource to be tapped, and potentially damaging phenomena are to be fought and controlled.

But that’s not right is it?

We are not separate from Nature. We emerge within all that is. We exist within the existence of the whole world. We are unfathomably hyperconnected with the whole of Planet Earth.

When you look around, you see that other forms of life thrive without having such an emphasis on control. Look at this photo I’ve shared today. It’s one plant which uses a particular form of seed dispersal – wind. It gambles the whole of the future existence of its species by letting go. It creates the forms and methods which give it the best chance of working well with the rest of the planet, from the wind, to the sun, to the soil, and holds its sons and daughters up to the heavens, then waits. Waits for the wind to blow, and to carry them to fertile lands.

OK, so we aren’t plants. And I’m not saying we can live the same way that they do, but there’s a lesson here, don’t you think? Something to reflect on. It’s in that action of “letting go”. Letting go in a way which maximises your ability to survive and to thrive.

How are we going to do that? How are we going to shift away from obsessive desires to control to learning to work with, to collaborate, to share, to learn with humility that we can’t control nearly as much as we’d like to?

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I love the concept, and the phenomenon, of flow.

Look at these grasses below the water. You can easily tell that the water is flowing strongly and making them all point in the same direction. You can even see the water. But you can’t see the flow.

It’s like when I’m in the garden. It can be a cloudless, blue sky day, or a grey, cloudy day, but at around 4pm I will feel the wind start to blow on my face. I’ll hear it rush through the trees, shaking their branches and rattling their leaves. But I can’t see it. I can’t see the wind. Just the effects of the wind.

Flow is like that. It’s an invisible force made visible by the way it shapes the world.

Look at this river. You can tell that it, too, is flowing fast, can’t you? There aren’t any rocks sticking up for the water to foam against but you could swear you can see the currents. Beneath, through, within, the water, is the flow.

We are like that too. We human beings. Life flows through us, shaping us, bending us, pushing us on, encouraging us, driving us onwards. Life flows through us making us grow, mature and develop.

It doesn’t help to resist that flow. Well, that’s not completely true, is it, because there is something in response, in reaction, which is a kind of resisting, a kind of pushing back on, leaning into, or standing against, which shapes us.

Flow doesn’t have a starting point.

Flow doesn’t end.

Flow is.

Many years ago, as I walked to the train station one day on my way to work, I came across an excellent example of how to respond to flow –

Surf it!

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This year a new bird has taken up residence in a neighbour’s barn. He’s a “Little Owl”, and, yes, that’s his common name. His scientific name is “Athene noctua”. The “Athene” part goes right back to the belief that this owl had a special connection with Athena, and the “noctua” part comes from the Latin for “Minerva”, who was the Roman equivalent of Athena. As such, this little creature has long been held to represent wisdom and knowledge…..pretty much just what we need more of in our world.

I’ve watched him come and go and the other day there noticed he wasn’t alone. Seems he and his mate have a nest up high behind the roof beams at the back of the barn. He’s a pretty wary creature though so it’s been hard to get a decent photo. However, yesterday, looking out of the window of my study, I could see him sitting on a nearby roof. I slowly raised my camera to my eye, taking care not to make any sudden movements which might attract his attention, even though I was inside my house, and he was outside on the roof. I zoomed in, focused, and pressed the button. I can’t say I really clearly saw what I was getting a picture of, but when I uploaded it to my computer I realised he had totally clocked me.

He is looking directly at me!

How does one living creature possess that knowledge? How do we know that we are being looked at? I bet you’ve had an experience where you are sitting reading a book or having a coffee and, suddenly, you become aware that someone is looking your way. You look up, catch their eyes, and they either hold their gaze, or, more commonly, quickly look away.  I’ve often wondered how that works. What are we picking up? It’s not about casting our eyes around the world and just noticing someone else’s direction of gaze. We seem to be able to detect something, and it also seems this is a talent which is not exclusive to human beings.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience with an animal. Here’s a photo I took one Spring day when the first lambs were in the fields.

Tell me this little one hadn’t clocked me!


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Look at this tree. Those aren’t leaves, they’re birds! Hundreds of them, thousands maybe.

I’ve never seen such a large flock of birds near me before. Maybe you haven’t either. What do you think your response would be? Would you think of Alfred Hitchcock?

Not me!

I didn’t think of that for a moment.

I was fascinated, entranced, drawn outside with phone and camera to do my best to record something of this phenomenon.

Here’s what I put together from my short video clips and some photos.

Later, while reading Montaigne, I read

He who fears he will suffer, already suffers from his fear.

It got me thinking about the stance we take towards the world, about our default attitude. Because isn’t there so much fear around? In fact, it seems to me that fear is often used deliberately as a weapon of control.

What’s the greatest fear?

Some say it’s the fear of death. That this “existential fear” is the foundation of all other fears. For example, as a comedian I heard once said “I don’t have a fear of flying. I have a fear of crashing!” People who fear the dark, fear what dangers might be hidden in the darkness. People who fear dogs, fear that the dogs will attack them. People who fear illnesses, fear suffering and death.

Montaigne says if you spend your life fearing suffering, you’ll be suffering throughout your life. Yet so much of the health advice offered to people is based on trying to avoid death (the greatest fear).


If fear is our default, we don’t just suffer, we live in a shrinking world, fearing difference, the “other” and change.

What’s the alternative?


Dread one day at a time??!!


The great thing about alternatives to fear is that there are so many of them.

There’s courage. Courage is the determination to go ahead even when you are feeling fear. That’s something I’ve been practising since coming to live in France. When you start to live in another country with a different language, not only are customs and habits different but at first you’ve no idea how to ask the simplest things. So a trip to a post office, or the local Mairie, or the garage can be quite intimidating. Until you summon up your courage, and just go. And, in my experience here, each and every time I discover there has been absolutely nothing to be afraid of. People are friendly and they want to help. (Then next time you go the fear has diminished, or even gone away entirely)

There’s wonder. Wonder and curiosity. That’s the response I had when I saw all the birds. That’s the attitude I hope to take into every day – l’émerveillement du quotidien.

There’s love. Love comes with a desire to make connections and with an intention to care, or at very least, not to harm – and that applies in relation to plants and animals as much as to other human beings. How often does it seem to be that when your intention is a loving one, that you meet the same response? When I was a GP, my partners and I built a new clinic and the reception was an open one – no glass or metal barriers between the patients and the staff. We were warned that we’d be vulnerable to being attacked. It never happened. Not even remotely.

Fear closes.

It closes us off from the world and from life.

The opposite is whatever opens – courage, wonder, curiosity, love…..add your own favourites at the end of this sentence!

I prefer the opposites for what they bring in themselves, but I resist fear for another reason. I don’t want to be controlled. Heroes not zombies anyone?


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Tiffany time Ginza

Money, money, money……time to change?

Oxfam recently reported that the 85 richest people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest HALF of the population of the world.

Oxfam said that this elite group had seen their wealth collectively increase by $668m (£414m) a day in the 12 months to March 2014. It found that it would take the world’s richest man – Mexico’s Carlos Slim – 220 years to spend his $80bn fortune at a rate of $1m a day

The rate of inequality is increasing rapidly. Thomas Picketty, the French economist whose book “Capital” has taken the world of economics by storm, has shown that this trend is set to continue because the returns on capital are so much greater than the rate of growth in the economy.

Is this accumulation of wealth into the hands of so few healthy? Is it just? Is it fair? Is it acceptable?

The extent to which inequality causes harm was laid out very clearly a few years back in “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (no relation to Picketty!). Their work showed strong correlations between the degree of equality in a country and the extent of a wide range of social and health problems.

What can we do about it?

The Oxfam report makes a number of suggestions

With an endorsement from Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, the report said a 1.5% billionaire wealth tax would raise $74bn a year – enough to put every child in school and provide health care in the world’s poorest countries.

A billionaire tax? Is there the political will in the world to deliver that? What else does Oxfam suggest?

a clampdown on tax dodging; investment in universal, free health and education; a global deal to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030; shifting the tax burden from income and consumption to capital and wealth; ensuring adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee; equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal; and the introduction of minimum wages and moves towards a living wage for all workers.

Herman Daly, who worked for the World Bank from 1988 – 1994 suggests two very interesting measures to tackle this growing problem.

we need a serious monetary diet for the obese financial sector, specifically movement away from fractional reserve banking and towards a system of 100% reserve requirements. This would end the private banks’ alchemical privilege to create money out of nothing and lend it at interest. Every pound and dollar loaned would then be a pound or dollar that someone previously saved, restoring the classical balance between abstinence and investment.

Now, there’s a fascinating idea! That money should represent something REAL in the world! With all these elaborate “financial instruments” money and measures of economic “health” of countries is becoming increasingly detached from real activities, real use of resources and real people. Maybe such a proposal could begin to shift the balance back from capital to labour? He also suggests

a small tax on all financial trades would reduce speculative and computerised short term trading, as well as raising significant revenue

That latter idea is what others call “the Robin Hood tax“.

So, there’s an interesting selection of ideas – a billionaire tax, a move towards 100% reserve requirements and a financial transaction tax. Which political party is trumpeting these ideas? Which political party is prepared to put tackling inequality these ways at the heart of its manifesto for upcoming elections?

Anyone? Anyone?

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Big rock beach

I noticed this huge rock on a beach recently (OK, I agree, how could you NOT notice it!?)

I suppose I was a little surprised that some people had chosen to sit right in front of it……were they hoping to shelter from the wind? Or were they seeking some shade from the sun? Or, maybe, just maybe, they were working up to having a go at shoving it out of the way?

I’m guessing a LOT of people have wondered about moving that rock. I mean, there it is, sitting RIGHT in the middle of beach! So, why hasn’t anybody done it yet?

Then I got the answer – it’s down to “structured procrastination” –  as John Perry describes it –

All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it.

So maybe the people sitting on the beach there are doing some marginally useful things instead – like increasing their vitamin D levels by sitting in the sunshine, or measuring the temperature to check for global warming, or counting seagulls to for an RSPB environmental monitoring project, or……..

Or maybe this is not about procrastination at all, maybe it’s about being fully paid up members of the slow movement, like Christopher Richards, the founder of the International Institute for Not Doing Much (Christopher, thanks for sending me an email a few years back, I think my reply might be heading your way soon).

What an inspiration for slowness……..watching a rock change!

Hope you’re able to enjoy a nice slow holiday this summer (and if you haven’t figured out how to use structured procrastination to actually book that holiday up yet, check out John Perry’s book, “The Art of Procrastination” – just make sure you’ve got “Buy with 1-click” switched on)


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Maya Angelou was wonderful with words. You’re probably coming across some of them just now as the internet spills over with memories and thoughts about her provoked by the news of her death.

Here is one of my favourites

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

I especially like this one because I just don’t accept the sole point of living is to make it to the end. Is a Life survived for a number of years something you’d aspire to? Isn’t the sole goal of survival ultimately 100% doomed? (Nobody makes it out of here alive!). You can spend a life like a robot, or, in terms of this blog, like a zombie, on some kind of autopilot, surviving, but there’s something else you can do. You can thrive. You can flourish. You can express the uniqueness you are in this universe, and become what only you could become. You can live with passion, fully engaged with the wonder of the everyday (l’émerveillement du quotidien), you can connect, feel, respond, use your imagination to put yourself in the shoes of others, you can laugh, live with a twinkle in your eye, and you can do it with beauty, grace and, yes, style.


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Strictly reserved

Translated, the message is “This bench is strictly reserved…..for people who really need to sit down”

I like it!

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