Monthly Archives: January 2015

Bibliotherapy, baby


Gift from the Sea (an extract) by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity –in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.

The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. For relationships, too, must be like islands. One must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits – islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides. One must accept the security of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency.


Bid Writing

I’m getting some practice in this weekend. I’ve written a few in the past and I can’t say I enjoy it especially. The first one I ever remember writing was pre-millenia to get funding for a van. We got the van. Maybe there wasn’t much competition.

Since then I’ve written three more, two successful and one not. I also drafted one over the Christmas holiday, and then decided not to submit it for reasons to do with capacity and financial projections.

I have a sneaking hunch that with a 75% strike rate so far, there’s only one way to go – down. On the other hand, maybe I should take some confidence from the positive stats and get on with this one.

What a boring post that was! Still, the van was maroon and pretty snazzy, and the driver, Phil, was made up as I recall. Whatever happens with this one, I got the van. That’s a life lesson I suppose, some of our experience is in the bank and no-one (not even subsequent failure) can touch those deposits.


The Philosophy of Forgiveness (continued)

I had at least one reader yesterday *waves* so feel duty bound to finish what I started; even though I know that the reader in question will be concerning themselves with striped mini feline japery this evening and not a lot else.

So, yes, I listen to podcasts at bedtime, often on philosophy, although tonight I might treat myself to the excellent Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole which is book of the week on Radio 4 and set in Harvard Medical School’s Neurology Unit. I digress. Forgive me.

According to the philosopher Lucy Allais, forgiveness means a willingness to see someone who has transgressed against you, not in the light of their wrongdoing with all the associated feelings of hurt or anger. Rather to be prepared and able to see them, if not as you saw them before the transgression, as still a person worth something to you. In short, you do not let an action, colour your whole relation to them. Forgiveness is a letting go, but it is not words, it is an internal process related to feelings.

At least that’s what I think she said, before I fell asleep.

Which brings me to how it feels when someone does not forgive, or when one cannot forgive another.

I think, on balance, it feels worse to be unable to forgive than to be personally unforgiven.

On which note, I commend the rather excellent Metallica song to you, of the same name. Which rather makes this blog post feel like The Weekend News I had to write at primary school, and this paragraph the quick ending I bashed out to get the thing finished before going out to play. In this case however I am merely sloping off to watch House on Netflix.

Now there’s a chap whose friends and colleagues know a thing or two about forgiveness.

What I’ve felt,
What I’ve known
Never shined through in what I’ve shown.

Be warned, this song was so good the band went on to record Unforgiven II and Unforgiven III. You may want to swerve this blog for a while, until we move on.

The Philosophy of Forgiveness

I have a long-standing habit of listening to spoken word at bedtime. I suppose I can roundly blame my mother for this, as she was a dedicated 1970s bedtime story reader. (It is fashionable to lump everything on upbringing these days, but hopefully for not too much longer as we finally consent to grow up as a generation and take responsibility for ourselves. In the meantime, I also blame Philip Larkin for pointing it out.)

Furthermore, I can blame my poor mother for an association my tired brain makes which is spoken word + head on pillow + close eyes = fall asleep in short order. It is, you understand, the spoken word that is the guaranteed soporific. Oftentimes, I try to close eyes + head on pillow and all that = is dancing thoughts leaping and pirouetting in my brain and keeping me awake.

My mother read me fiction, not the newspaper, so once I was older I replaced her with Charles Dickens. Not the actual Charles Dickens sitting on the bed, but an actor’s voice reading Dickens’ words – Great Expectations on audio. As I would fall asleep in short order it took years to hear the whole thing all the way through, albeit completely out of sequence. Then I broke my tape recorder and moved onto the radio – Radio 4, the World Tonight with Robin Lustig to be precise. The thing was, that the news would quite often rev me up, rather than wind me down, and after many, many years of this habit, I knocked it on the head as a bad job on many counts.

I moved on to Melvyn Bragg and the In Our Time podcasts, which are actually too long at three quarters of an hour for a bedtime story. The earpiece I wear to avoid broadcasting the show around the house (I am a little deaf) gets uncomfortable, so I don’t drop off into a deep sleep, rather I snooze uneasily and fitfully as Melvyn bustles his guests along, snapping at their heels all the while.

Which is a very lengthy preamble to say that now I listen to a rather excellent set of *podcasts by Philosophy Bites which is where I came across the philosopher Lucy Allais’ rather interesting interview on forgiveness.

Which I will say more about tomorrow, and illustrate with a song.

I know. You can’t wait.

*at about 15 – 20 minutes the perfect length for bedtime, and sufficiently engaging to nod off to. When the subject matter is intellectually taxing (that’s you Daniel Dennett) I simply employ the method I used as a child when my mother read certain sections of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and become immediately comatose.


I must see this film (National Gallery by Frederick Wiseman) for all sorts of reasons.

When human endeavour sometimes seems to me to be directed in all the wrong sort of places, art acts as a balm to the soul, an electric jolt to the eye, petrol thrown onto the flame of intellect.  You can mix those metaphors too and they work just as well: balm to the eye, petrol on the flame of the soul  – whatever way you mix it  – art makes you feel.

Way back when I moved to London, I spent many hours at the National Gallery.  Certain paintings became friends.  They still are.  I don’t call them, or write them, or send them gifts, but they are fixed in my heart.

Maybe that’s why I once I dreamed of a long conversation in an art gallery.  I half-started it once and it may have been the most important almost conversation of my life.  I have some slight hope that this film may be the final word on the matter, and then I can wake up.

On the other hand,  it may just be a nightmare, if the Guardian review is to be believed.

God it’s boring. I love the National Gallery and I was squirming in my seat. Why doesn’t Wiseman let the paintings speak for themselves? Again and again, he films audiences listening to curators or guides give lectures about the National Gallery’s works of art. One such talk would make sense in a portrait of the museum. But why repeat the exercise, again and again – and again?

Time Out critic’s conclusion ‘The film’s bold, brilliant climax’ sounds better to me.

Holding my breath: Paris, Yemen and Nigeria

I didn’t want to write a post about Charlie Hebdo, and the carnage that has ensued in Paris since Wednesday 7th January.

I didn’t want to write a post about the 37 people, mainly those waiting to enrol at a police academy, that were killed the same day in Yemen by a suicide bomber.

I didn’t want to write a post about a whole town called Baga, and surrounding areas, that were burned to the ground on the same day by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

I didn’t want to type that bodies were strewn all over the ground in Baga, with the loss of life estimated in the hundreds and thousands of refugees from the town crossing the border into the neighbouring country of Chad.

I didn’t want to read that according to some news outlets last year Boko Haram killed around 10,000 people in Nigeria.

I didn’t want to paraphrase the philosopher Immanuel Kant who said that all humans, and rational beings, were ends in themselves.

I didn’t want to ask the media why the weight of human lives lost in one part of the world are of far more interest than those lost in another.

I didn’t want one single life to be lost in the name of anyone, or anything.

But I wanted to bear witness to all the dead of the media, the dead in the media, and the dead ignored by the media this week.  The tragic victims of terrorism in France, Yemen and Nigeria.  And also to the 8 separate people killed in London, in the first week of the new year.  Today an 18 year old in Marylebone, and as the dreadful Wednesday 7th January 2015 closed out, with so many lives lost already, a 17 year old called Jeremie Malenge lay dying in the street in Homerton.

All lives lost, and for nothing that I can see, feel, touch, hear or speak to.

And yet, as I type, I know the numbers rise.  And all I am doing is holding my breath…  Holding my breath…

An afterword on fear of flying

I’ve definitely never written this before, and it’s likely of zero interest to anyone but myself. Still, that doesn’t usually stop me.

What I am suffering from when flying on an airplane, it seems, is an attack of subjective probability: the credence I give to the likelihood of any plane that I am on suffering some sort of catastrophe. Apparently, my credence should really take into account statistics on flying, which means that the whole business is more safe than houses. But, being awkward, or maybe simply more attuned to, and wary of, the hidden variables, I don’t. I take a very simple gambling perspective on flying: the plane will either get there, or it won’t. That’s a 50/50 chance.

It seems then, that in my fear of flying I start to take a Bayesian approach to probability, rather than a frequentist one; well at least until the hidden variables become too much for my brain to compute and I boil it all down to a binary sum game of survival: fly or crash, live or die, do or don’t. If everyone took this approach there’d probably be far fewer people in the air, but, amazingly there are still people willing to take far shorter NASA quantified odds on their survival.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield is a case in point. The first Canadian in space, he accepted odds of 9/1 surviving to go up in the space shuttle, and he did this more than once.

Fear of Flying: Statistics, Probability and a Shameless Distortion of Schrödinger’s Cat

If you have a mental image of a contorted feline, all twisted limbs, shoved in a box and mighty pissed off about its current status – stop right there. That’s not what’s this is about. I will however will be playing fast and loose with various theories (probability, quantum but probably not statistics).

I’ve struggled with a fear of flying since 2004. Shortly after Amberleigh House won the Grand National for Ginger McCain, I boarded a flight from Kingston, Jamaica back to London. It may have been Heathrow, it could have been Gatwick – I can’t remember which. It may be that you think that detail doesn’t matter, but actually it does, because did you know Gatwick ONLY HAS ONE RUNWAY? The difficulty with this arrangement at Gatwick is that if something goes wrong on the sole landing strip – those aircraft waiting to land there are fucked. And, as the World’s Busiest single runway that’s a lot of planes stacking up in the air…

Anyway, I digress. Back in Jamaica the plane took off, night fell, turbulence started. The seat belt sign was on for most of that flight, so much so that going to use the toilet felt like taking one’s life in one’s hands – which in a sense it was. Unsecured people’s heads smashing through the ceiling of the cabin didn’t happen on that flight, but it can and does happen – notably recently on a plane from Singapore to London. Sadly, turbulence does cause injuries when you aren’t strapped to the seat and god alone knows how the pilot and first officer actually fly the plane at the same time…

Anyway, flying back from the Caribbean I was a six months pregnant woman so utilising some sort of secret industrial bladder strength wasn’t an option and I had to unbelt myself to literally brave the trip to the loo. I am not sure I have ever felt so vulnerable. Irresponsible too. I was travelling with my partner and two year old daughter. As I perched on the terrible toilet seat to pee, suspended 30,000 plus feet in the air over the Atlantic I was metaphorically shitting myself.

I learned a lot about humans that night (mostly that we are dully sheeplike in extremis) and since then I’ve found out a lot more about aviation generally in a bid to overcome my fear. One rule of those doing the actual flying is:

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

This maxim explains the deafening silence from the flight deck and the interminable illumination of the seat belt sign nearly all the way from Jamaica. The Captain didn’t communicate anything to us the passengers, because he was too busy flying the damn plane through god knows what. I also now know that thunderstorms, despite the widely-touted claims about the robust nature of modern aircraft, are dangerous to planes and all who fly in them and, where possible, flight crew aim to give them a ten mile wide berth.

That night the plane plummeted up and down more than once. It was awful. And it seemed endless. I have since wondered if we were in a series of storms or if it was the plain old turbulence. What’s no comfort in these situations are statistics. Statistics allow us to rationalise the danger we feel that we might be in. One such statistic might be: of every 100 million people that fly every year, only 2 will die in an airplane accident. That statistic does nothing to reassure my overactive amygdala because it doesn’t make sense. After all, common sense not statistics dictate that if a jumbo jet goes down, more than 2 people out of around only 300 on board are going to die. I’m no math genius but numerically 300 is nowhere near 100 million. It’s simple common sense that tells us that in each individual disaster just about everyone is going to die. And over the Atlantic, in the middle of the night, you are all going to die. That’s a fact. Statistics just can’t help with any of that.

So when I board a plane then, I draw zero comfort from statistics. Instead I am focused on probability which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Statistics based on what has happened across the history of aviation tell me the plane will safely convey me from A to B and that my current chances of death on any flight are 1 in 50 million – good odds. Probability tells me that the proposition is more nuanced than that. Probability factors in all kinds of other things like: drunk, suicidal, over-tired, hungover, unhealthy or even one-armed pilots; maintenance crews missing important mechanical things that I don’t know the word for, the weather, ice, sand storms, volcanic eruptions, birdstrike, clear air turbulence that the airplane radar can’t detect, terrorists, plane flaws like those fires on the Dreamliners or metal fatigue in DC10s (I am a child of the 1960s – just) and hijackers. Probability will need to take into consideration the training the flight crew have and have not had, the amount of fuel that the plane has taken on, the nature of the route, and all the other planes that might be out there. It will also have to figure out how likely it is that a whole national Air Traffic Control system can go down, like the UK’s did towards the end of last year. I can’t do the math to say what probability theory tells me about my chances on any given flight are – the variables are difficult to quantify and, well just too variable.

Which brings me to the cat thing. As far as I am concerned, and now I have typed this up I have a horrible feeling that I have written this post before, when I board a plane it’s an either or situation. Like Schrödinger’s cat in the box, in the metal belly of the plane, I enter state of two possibilities – alive or dead – and no-one, including me, will know which possibility will have the upper hand until someone opens the box.

This post has obviously been occasioned by recent events over the Java Sea. It is also mindful that only yesterday a 7 year old girl knocked at the door of a house in Kentucky. She was bleeding and barefoot and the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed all the other four people on board, including her parents. Statistics and probability are no help to her – they only truly inform insurance companies and gamblers and aren’t so much applicable to the indivdual human condition.

Number crunching has it’s place, but we can learn a lot more from cats.