Out of the Wreckage

I haven’t had time to read George Monbiot’s book ‘Out of the Wreckage’. This excellent post by Zoe O’Kill gives a good summary – and an excellent overview of our predicament related to the insane neoliberalism that our politics seems to be increasingly in thrall to, both sides of the pond but especially the US.

Zoe is lost in thought

I’d like to begin by wishing everyone a happy new year! I hope you all managed to have a lovely holiday period despite the impacts 2020 has had on all of us.

I’ve definitely had a dry patch with ideas for posts. I kept coming up with ideas that felt easy or boring and I realised that I didn’t start this website to aimlessly post without any real intention. It was to allow me to learn and to share what I’d learnt with all of you. I love to read, learn new things, and to write, that’s why I made this blog. Getting back to that root motivation has been important to me. I would rather post quality over quantity and share something truly interesting and beneficial with you all. Something I’ve put real work into learning about and producing. That is what brings on today’s post and future posts…

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What is Philosophy for?

Mary Midgley was 99 when this book was published. This was also the year she died. What was so important as to keep this English philosopher active to such a great age? She had seen generations of academics come and go, and observed the follies of many thinkers in varying disciplines, who even denigrated the purpose of philosophy itself. She’d probably fought many battles. And now she had the clarity to write in a small volume what was the essence of the need for philosophy, in the process pointing out its wide range of applicability and the limitations of its critics. This is a wonderful, clear and refreshing book, remarkable for one of such advanced years.

So what is philosophy for? Midgley has a simple answer, in the spirit of a whole line of philosophers since the time of Socrates: “it is surely the effort to examine our life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its big confusions and resolve its big conflicts.” She goes on to ask why people need to study philosophy at all: “because it explains the relations between different ways of thinking”, suggesting that new developments in thought largely come from seeing across the disciplines, rather than from following tracks within them.

Midgley lived through the times when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and academia in the UK was required to become more ‘relevant’. Many traditional philosophy departments were forced to close and what were left focused on the business of ‘research’. Her attitude to such research is well expressed: “…I don’t do any, because I’m certainly not organizing any static mining operation of this kind. I suppose that instead I try to follow the argument (as Plato said) wherever it runs, and I may finally catch it in a territory quite far from the one where it started.”

Why did she write the book?

What makes me write books is usually exasperation, and this time it was a rather general exasperation against the whole reductive, scientistic, mechanistic, fantasy-ridden creed which still constantly distorts the world-view of our age.

This gives a good clue as to the content. I will pick out a few areas where Midgley’s views are far from the mainstream, but largely accord with the ideas you have read in this blog and elsewhere on the needs for a New Renaissance.

Read More »

Queen’s Gambit

We just completed watching the popular Netflix miniseries Queen’s Gambit, the fictional story of a female chess prodigy Beth Harmon, based on a novel by Walter Tevis.

The story is well told, in such a way as to make it interesting to non-chessplayers. As an ex-chessplayer, to county standard, I can say that it does get over quite well the reality of playing chess at the time – the fictional period is round about the time I was regularly playing chess. You really get the feel of the excitement of playing the games, but without need to understand precisely what is going on at the board. Indeed, the chessplayer cannot easily tell what is happening. But the drama is excellent.

It does give an idea of the misogyny that was prevalent in the game at the time, which reflected the wider society. Boys just did not believe that girls could really play chess as well. Although in the USSR things were different. Women’s world champion Nona Gaprindashvili was a very strong player, as I discovered when drawing with her in a simultaneous diplay in Cambridge in the 1960s.

This is also a deep psychological story, of how Beth copes with a deep trauma from childhood and how this affects her chess and relationships, again well done.

When she goes to Moscow (funnily enough around the time when I was involved in a real chess trip to Moscow), the film also only hints at the extreme measures taken by the USSR to ensure its hegemony at chess. The shenanigins of the matches between Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky and between Anatoly Karpov and Victor Korchnoi are notorious. She would have needed seconds along with her to survive.

And finally, when she has beat a Russian opponent, he hugs her – a modern sexism for effect in the film, but no, it would not have happened then.

Still, it’s a great story. I give it 5/5.

Featured image is from Netflix publicity.

Our Story

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

In the beginning, after the big bang and the formation of the earth and living beings, human beings emerged embedded in the dream of nature. There was no differentiation.

Gradually there emerged language and groupings of people.

There were some societies where the connection with nature remained strong, where language worked in consort with the one, where men and women each brought their own strengths to that cooperation with others and with the one. They developed wonderful creativity in their cave paintings, and a wonderful science that enabled them to comprehend and relate to the cosmos through great stone constructions. They told stories that passed through the generations, passing on archetypal knowledge, lessons of experience to each new generation.

With the coming of written language, some feared that the knowledge of connection would be lost. They wrote it down, hidden away for when ignorant barbarians came, which surely they did.Read More »


wildingIsabella Tree’s book Wilding (2018) is one of the great books of nature writing. It had me spellbound from start to finish.

First, there was the great adventure of giving nature its head in a marginal farm at Knepp in Sussex, inspired by similar experiments in Netherlands, with the removal of fencing and the introduction of cattle, pigs and ponies. Remarkably the land soon reverted to a mixed landscape of trees, scrub and grassland. Biodiversity increased incredibly. Almost extinct species came back to life and thrived. It’s a story to warm the heart of anyone with a feeling for the natural world.

Of course there was opposition from conventional farming and a view of what the countryside ‘should’ look like, which simply goes back to around the 1800s. Part of the story is how these obstacles were co-opted or overcome. The thing is, the experiment was clearly a huge success from a biodiversity perspective and will surely provide a model for many others.

There are within this book many insights into the history of farming, and why things are as they are. For example the Victorians first created the deep ploughing tools that enabled the draining of marginal farmland and the production of crops. But there has been a price to pay. Along with corresponding ‘improvement’ of water courses to transmit water as quickly as possible, and the widespread use of sheep grazing and grouse management in uplands, this has created the environment where the flooding that we see today after heavy rains becomes inevitable. Left to itself, nature slows and tames the waters, and it can learn to do so again.

Really inspiring are the stories of the return and thriving of nightingales, purple emperors, turtle doves, water voles, hares and others.

And finally, there is the story of the soil, how soil health has improved, different sorts of earthworms thrive, and how approaches such as that taken at Knepp could play a major role in helping to reverse the increase of carbon dioxide that threatens human societies the world over.

They can also help us to get back in touch with nature and our souls, from which the mad money/technological dream has been increasingly distancing us.

Yes, read it.

And you can now go on safari at the Knepp estate.

Featured image shows longhorn cattle grazing wild at the Knepp estate,
from the Knepp website.


How do indigenous peoples perceive the world? The remarkable film Aluna gives an idea. But this is no ordinary action film or documentary. Alan Ereira produced a BBC documentary with the Kogi indians in 1990 to transmit their first warning to mankind to change course and become a part of nature again. Why should we listen? To quote the above website:

The Kogi are the last surviving civilization from the world of the Inca and Aztec, and their cities are untouched by our world. The mountain they inhabit is an isolated triangular pyramid rising over 18,000 feet from the sea, the highest coastal mountain on earth. It is on a separate tectonic plate from the Andes, and its unique structure means that it is virtually a miniature version of the planet, with all the world’s climates represented. The mountain is quite literally a micro-cosmos, a mirror of the planet on which every ecological zone is represented and in which most of the plants and animals of the planet can find homes.

Following that first documentary, the Kogi retreated to their mountain village in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Their message perhaps had some effect on the Rio 1991 environmental accord, but has apparently been more recently ignored. So they contacted Alan again and asked him to create another film to try to get their message across. The result is Aluna.

This is like no other film. Adjectives such as slow, unclear, rambling come to mind as it meanders through the story of the Kogi, their coming to London to collect a golden thread, their return and the unrolling of the golden thread around the coast that surrounds the mountains in which they live, to help the healing process. Yet it is also fascinating.

Their message is that the earth is dying because of the actions of so-called civilised man, who they call ‘little brother’. We need to stop and change the way we live and perceive the earth.

As the thread unravels between the seven river estuaries in that coastline their message slowly becomes clear. The industrial ports that have been placed at the river mouths, and the mines and related deforestation, are destroying the rivers themselves. What happens in one part of the river changes the whole river. It is a living being.

They fly up into the mountains by helicopter. We see their beautifully neat village. The nearby river is much reduced from what it was. Vegetation is dying because of this and the foreign species such as eucalyptus that have been planted by the government.

Higher up in the mountains the snows are gone and the lakes are drying up. The mountain ecology is dying. On the coast, macaws that used to be there are no more, lagoons are dying. The Kogi’s world is dying.

A scientist from a UK university flies in and confirms that modern ecology is now beginning to understand that the Kogi view of the river is indeed correct. The different parts are indeed interconnected. Upstream is affected by downstream; they are one system.

It is difficult to deny that the Kogi view is indeed correct and our world is slowly dying, bit by bit, generation by generation. Each new generation sees the baseline as what it was when they were children, so the change does not seem so dramatic. But yes, our natural world is dying. Hence all the species extinctions that we are warned about.

We need to change before it is too late. Covid-19 is clearly a warning shot across the bows by nature.

The new world that emerges must take care of nature from thereon and stop this crazy exploitation and destruction of our home.

So don’t watch this film for a great cinematic experience. It is not that, and you may find time drags watching it. But it leaves a mark on your soul, and gives a feel for the way the Kogi holistically see the world. It is haunting, and may lead you and the rest of us to do (or rather be) something quite remarkable.

In Tune with the Infinite

“There is a golden thread that runs through every religion in the world. There is a golden thread that runs through the lives of the prophets, seers, sages and saviours in the world’s history, through the lives of all men and women of truly great and lasting power.”

Ralph Waldo Trine

in tune withI sometimes like to reread and reflect on books that have resided on my bookshelves for many years. Ralph Waldo Trine‘s book In Tune with the Infinite was inspirational when I read it in 1987. Here was a philosophical and spiritual exposition in readable form that I could relate to and that seemed to make sense. The pages of my copy are now yellowed at the edges, but the text still makes absolute sense. Since its publication in 1899 sales of this book number in the millions, so clearly many agree with this assessment. Notably it was said to have been very influential on one Henry Ford, who created the Ford motor company.

Academically, Trine is now classified as part of the New Thought Movement, which Wikipedia characterises as holding that

  • Infinite Intelligence, or God, is everywhere
  • divinity dwells within each person, people are spiritual beings
  • the highest spiritual principle is loving one another unconditionally
  • thoughts are carried forward into manifestation and become our experience in daily living.
  • sickness originates in the mind, and “right thinking” has a healing effect.

The magic of Trine’s short (208 pages) book is to bring this down to simple language that is easily comprehended, a true popularization of psychology, philosophy and spirituality. Along the way he explains important concepts such as

  • the importance of optimism,
  • the effect of mental attitude and faith in focusing thought into fruition,
  • the effect of fear as the enemy of life forces,
  • the effect of thought on healing,
  • the importance of love,
  • the finding of one’s own inner spiritual centre,
  • ignorance and selfishness being at the root of all error,
  • the corrosive effect of negative thoughts,
  • living by example,
  • the importance of the inner guide – conscience, intuition, wisdom,
  • it is the truth that makes us free,
  • the refreshing power of sleep,
  • living according to inner soul direction – not to suit others,
  • as we sow, so shall we reap,
  • being a friend to the highest within us.

The basic philosophy and psychological/spiritual guidance in this book are, I think, just as valid today as the day they were written.

Trine’s book continues to give and give to each new generation of readers.

In the 80s I also read Prentice Mulford’s book Thought Forces, which was on similar lines, shorter but less readable.


Taking Appearance Seriously

The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought

by Henri Bortoft

taking appearance seriouslyThis challenging book explains where Western thinking went wrong, and points the way towards the revolution in thinking that is needed to get back on track.

I read it on Kindle some time ago, probably not wise for such an erudite work, but it did make it easy to recall a lot of key points by downloading my highlights.

Almost by definition, this is difficult reading, because it does not ‘come from’ the place where Western thinking habitually does these days.

Henri Bortoft has a good shot at making this understandable to such as myself, with an interest in philosophy but no great training or professional expertise. It is of course inspired by the thinking of Goethe, one of the giants of our intellectual history.

I’ve included my edited notes in the following, which may help to give an appreciation of the staggering scope of this book and of Goethe’s thinking. But there is no escape from the effort of reading the book itself if you want to understand its quite revolutionary message.Read More »

Ambition Unbridled

lustrumRobert Harris writes very engaging novels based on historical events. Lustrum tells the tale of the great Roman orator Cicero, from the period when he was seen a saviour of the Roman Republic, to the time just a few years later when he was exiled from Rome by populist forces. The story is written from the perspective of Cicero’s secretary Tiro.

The story articulates well the threat to the Republic coming from the influx of money and veterans from the victorious generals Pompey in the East and Julius Caesar in the West. The hapless senators of the home Republic are increasingly subject to the machinations of these men, making Rome increasingly ungovernable.

One figure stands out in this story – the ambitious, ruthless, implacable Julius Caesar, clearly destined for power and apparently unwilling to share it with anyone else. Cicero recognised the threat, but was in the end unable to do anything about it.

I also read Dictator, the third volume of Harris’s Cicero trilogy, but found it a bit of an anticlimax as it tries to make sense of the complex events that followed, from Cicero’s exile from Rome to his death 15 years later – as Rome subsided from rule by the triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus into civil war, leading of course to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire.

Featured image is 16C bust of Julius Caesar by Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci.


End of an Empire

fate of romeWhy did the Roman Empire collapse? Kyle Harper’s very readable book The Fate of Rome makes a persuasive case that this was much to do with climate change and epidemic disease, both of which were consequences of the process of Empire itself.

It is salutary to reflect that such a political system is a process that has consequences on its environment and its citizens and their well-being. The parallels with today’s climate change and threatening global pandemic are obvious.

We could see this fatalistically in cataclysmic terms, or we can see it optimistically as being a story in need of constant renewal and redirection. It’s our choice.

My notes below outline the Empire’s story.Read More »

All about the numbers

When a particular subject lights something up inside you, it’s worth taking notice. For me, one of those is the numbers – specifically the whole numbers, or integers. Thus was I from childhood drawn to mathematics, and later to Greek philosophy via Pythagoras. The former gave the outer mechanics of numbers, the latter suggested that numbers had a more mystical and imprecise meaning, leading to later interests in subjects such as numerology, and to astrology, where the numbers lurk in the background.

So I was a sucker for these two books which approach the numbers in completely different ways:

  • Music by the Numbers by Eli Maor
  • The Archetype of Number and its Reflections in Contemporary Cosmology, by Alain Negre

music by the numbersFor people such as me, Eli Maor has written an engaging book about the relationship between music and mathematics. The development of musical scales from Pythagoras to the early 20th century is an interesting story, reasonably well explained, from Pythagoras’s whole number ratios through the equal tempered scale exemplified in the work of JS Bach to the experiments of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

The fascination still seems to lie in those magical simple ratios of musical resonance: the octave 2:1, the fifth 3:2 and the fourth 4:3, from which are derived the Pythagorean Scale, which is nearly ‘right’, but in the end not adequate for use in orchestras with different sort of instruments, as Maor explains. Always the whole numbers are beautifully simple, but prove too limited to describe the real world, hence the subsequent invention of all the panoply of mathematics, irrational numbers, imaginary numbers, the calculus and on and on.

And in the end, always and tantalisingly, the maths cannot fully describe the real world, which we know thanks to the insights of Kurt Gödel.

archetype of the numberAlain Negre’s book is about number as archetype – the qualitative aspect of number, which was revived in the 20th century by psychologist Carl Jung and physicist Wolfgang Pauli. All begins with 1,2,3, and 4 – just as with the Pythagorean scale. The qualities of these 4 basic numbers are explored and particularly related to the work of Jung, and to the triplicities and quadruplicities of astrology.

There are rather incomprehensible (to me) chapters relating the numbers 3 and 4 to current theories on the evolution of the cosmos – rather speculative, I think. Negre goes on to suggest that the astrological zodiac with the 12 signs is another projection of these number archetypes, including discussion of the axis crosses and the oppositional polarities in a chart of the 12 signs.

So the book is both familiar to me, in an astrological sense, and almost incomprehensible when relating to modern cosmology, which must be partly due to my own failure to keep up with this field. In fact, I had a similar reaction to an earlier work some years ago Number and Time by Marie-Louise von Franz. It feels like there is something important there, but the author has not quite managed to express it in a way that is easily comprehensible to me (of course this may be a commentary on me, rather than on the author’s work).

So yes, number still has that magical pull, but these books didn’t greatly enlightened me. Nor did they blunt that fascination with the numbers.

Music by the Numbers is much the more readable.

God and good

god coverStruggling through the brainache of what is it all about soon leads you on to the subject of God, and what constitutes a good life. This is another source of brainache, but fortunately there is a guide, in the form of Keith Ward’s book God, subtitled A Guide for the Perplexed.

Why did I read such a book, published as it was in 2002? It was actually a posthumous present from friend Chris Lyons, who died 3 years ago now. A wonderful part of Chris’s funeral was the opportunity to select one of the books from his extensive library as a gift. Browsing through the books available I was drawn to this one by Keith Ward, who is variously described as priest, philosopher and theologian. I had some years previously seen Keith give a stimulating talk at a Mystics & Scientists conference.

My conclusion

Keith Ward has made a valiant effort to take us through and help understanding of some of the many contradictory strands and threads in the Western understanding of God over more than two millennia. Most major prophets, philosophers and theologians are there.

This is not easy reading. but rewards the effort taken to understand. There is no final answer to the question ‘what is God?’ Ward stresses that “thinking about God is not just an intellectual exercise. It is thinking about the best way to live as a human being, and about the deepest understanding of the world in which we live”.

I’ve found this book a helpful guide, but it’s in the nature of the subject of the mystery at the core of human existence that, although somewhat enlightened, I am no less perplexed than I was before reading it!

Also perplexing is the insistence of materialists in regarding the ‘hard problems of science’ as a more helpful concept than ‘God’.

Overview of the content

How does Keith go about this exploration into God? It is impossible to give any sort of summary, but I will at least give his chapter headings and some idea of the topics covered and the luminaries involved.

1. A feeling for the gods,

Once the world was seen as full of gods, such as in Homer’s Iliad. These gods are now seen as symbolic constructs of the human imagination, representing creative energies and deep powers. This was a world of the poetic imagination, that we struggle to understand today, and that poets such as Blake and Wordsworth tried to reconnect with.

2. Beyond the gods

Then came prophets and seers who spoke with inspiration from deep within. They saw beyond the world of the gods, culminating in the second Isiah who came to the concept of the one God, unknown and unknowable. Monotheism. This idea of God, adopted by the Christians when they came along, culminated in the work of Thomas Aquinas in 13C. This God of classical Christianity could not be defined or described: “We cannot know what God is, but only what he is not.” This unknowability of God lies at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other traditions. There was no old man in the sky.

3. The love that moves the sun,

God is said to have passed down to the Jews, via Moses, the (ten and more) commandments, included in the Torah. Two great commandments were emphasised – to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. These were later adopted by non-Jewish Christians who renounced the Torah around 7C but retained the spiritual essence. In 17C Calvin developed this to such a demanding ethic that it could not be fulfilled, so required the forgiveness of God. The rationalist Kant actually retained a religious approach to morality, contrary to how he has been sometimes reported.

4. The God of the philosophers,

Plato’s (3C BC) philosophy of love of wisdom turned from the world of appearances to the inner vision of goodness itself, and beauty and truth – the true home of the soul, as in the Upanishads. Platonism was largely adopted by Christianity, notably through Augustine in 4-5C. God was the creator of matter and of the form of goodness. Aristotle’s vision was slightly different, but God was still there as the perfect being, acting as an attractor to all beings. In 11c Anselm defined God as ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’.

5. The poet of the world

The classical view of the timeless immutable God dominated European thinking about God for 1000 years, culminating in Aquinas. The Protestant revolution introduced God as entering into human history. Rather than turn towards the eternal, man would shape the material into perfection – the world of science and technology. Established authorities were challenged and in 18C came the American and French Revolutions. The incomprehensible Hegel proposed that the whole of temporal reality was the self-expression of Absolute Spirit/God, seeking to realise its own nature. (Marx and Darwin turned things round, and matter was at the centre of existence – nature evolved and history was a dialectical process). Pantheism and panentheism are perhaps the ultimate expression of Hegel’s view. In 20C Whitehead’s process philosophy sees the world comprising countless millions of agents each making their own moral choices towards the good, guided by love – all experienced as part of God.

6. The darkness between the stars

In 16C Francis Bacon heralded the coming science and its practical impact in ‘bettering’ the human condition. In 19C Kierkegaard went in a different direction ‘subjectivity is truth’. Faith in God is a subjective matter, a commitment of the self despite objective uncertainty. In 20C Ayer and logical positivism took things to ‘logical’ extremes – all meaningful statements must be verifiable, talk about God was meaningless. Even he later admitted this was going too far. For Sartre life is absurd, except for the meaning we give it for ourselves, there is no God. Tillich is more traditional, seeing God as the power and ground of being, the ultimate symbol of the good we strive for. Wittgenstein said little about God: “Whereof we cannot speak, therefore we must be silent.” Modern spirituality tends to emphasise the good rather than God.

7. The personal ground of being

There is an interesting discussion of the problem of evil, with thinkers Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietsche. God needs to be in some way transcendent to avoid being tarred with the inevitable evil. Tillich suggests that God is the personal ground of being, but not a person.

Featured image fresco Creation of Adam from Sistine  Chapel ceiling, by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada via Wikimedia Commons

The Flip

It has long been apparent to me that the pervasive materialistic perspective of human societies, driven by the great success of capitalism and science/technology, is slowly undermining the very ecosystem on which it depends. Human beings have become the scourge of the earth and the oceans, to the extent that those who are more aware desperately struggle to retain aspects of our natural world.

the flipA different way of looking at things, a different perspective on life the universe and everything, is needed. Jeffery Kripal’s book The Flip suggests that there could come a tipping point after which a new world view will have come into being and be generally accepted. Kripal holds a Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, Houston.

What is the flip, and could it happen quickly? This quote from an Amazon reviewer gives an idea:

“This book is a brief plea for the importance of bringing consciousness back into the humanities and then the humanities back into science (moving beyond materialism)”.

Kripal’s book is basically concerned with the underlying paradigm of science, presenting material that will be partly familiar to those interested in the boundaries of science and spirituality. He gives many examples where scientists previously embedded in the materialistic paradigm have become converted to a wider view through their own experiences of so-called paranormal experiences, which science should be open to, but many scientists tend to discount because of their materialistic lenses.

The relationship between quantum theory and consciousness is particularly explored. Many of the pioneers of quantum theory were convinced of the limitations of materialism and had a more mystical perspective on life. Kripal explores these in a very readable manner, considering alternative metaphysical views that I’ve already summarised in an earlier post on The One Reality.

Then Kripal moves on to a stimulating consideration of the use of symbols that ‘point between’ the concrete aspects of reality, and the related concept of synchronicity. Dreams and mysticism are ways of approaching such symbols, which take us back to earlier levels of human experience.

In a concluding chapter Kripal moves on to summarise. It really does matter how we think of consciousness and the cosmos. From seeing ourselves as separate beings we come to see ourselves as aspects of an interrelated whole. But will that make us better human beings? Kripal makes us think, but there is no definitive answer!

As in Plato’s allegory of the cave, many individuals already have flipped, and are seen as strange and unrealistic by the majority. But the zeitgeist does flip – a look at history shows us, and the evident climate breakdown and chaos in contemporary Western politics suggests that something really is ‘in the air’.

It seems to me that, to effectively address climate breakdown and ecological collapse, humanity really does need to ‘flip’.




The Seabird’s Cry

the seabird cryI’ve always enjoyed time spent by the sea, and particularly Britain’s cliffs and the plethora of seabirds to be seen there. Beeston Cliffs, St Abbs Head, South Stack, Duncansby Head, Summer Isles, cliffs of the South West of England and Wales, and more… So many places. Until recently I never questioned if these great massings of seabirds would ever not be there. Yet they are in perilous decline and danger, as are seabird colonies the world over. Industrial fishing, pollution and climate breakdown are presenting insuperable problems to many species. The spectre of multiple extinctions looms.

In his magnificent and illustrated book The Seabird’s Cry, Adam Nicolson takes us through the glory of common species of seabirds, the threats they face and the effects on populations, mostly declining. It is a story at the same time beautifully told, yet almost impossible to bear.

A few of my notes will give a flavour, or skip to the summary below.

  • Fulmar, the most streamlined of birds. Able to fly without effort in a gale, which would ground most birds. Fulmars once supported the population of the remote island of St Kilda, at times the only source of food.
  • Puffin, specialised for deep diving in search of fish and not good flyers. Live in colonies of burrows, and rear but a single egg at a time. Many populations have been decimated or lost, such as the Westman Islands off Iceland.
  • Kittiwake lives on high cliffs and the open sea, good flyers but shallow divers. Call sounds like their name: kittiwaaak. Persecution in 19c led to the 1869 Seabird Preservation Act. Populations in steep decline.
  • Gulls, opportunists, shore birds. White camouflage for taking prey. Prolific breeders, cannibals, expanding on land where they can find food. 34 species.
  • Guillemot, deep diver, long beak. Very close nesting on cliff in families.
  • Cormorant /Shag, bird of greed. Dark one. Shallow diver. Need to dry feathers to restore insulating properties, hence the characteristic ‘wings out’ stance. Many die young. Expanding inland.
  • Shearwater, dip wingtips in water hence name. Related to Fulmar. Sleep in burrows, wait for night cover before entering. Many migrate to southern hemisphere. Strong sense of smell.
  • Gannet, plunge divers. Dense colonies, eg currently on Bass Rock. Ferociously competitive. Currently booming in North Atlantic.
  • Razorbill, chicks fledge with father at sea. Declining. Relative of the extinct great auk. Retells the story of the great auk.
  • Albatross, among the largest birds with 11ft wingspan. Live by the wind, travelling many thousands of miles. Follow ships and have inspired many sailors. Live for many years and whiten as get older. Declining, spectre of extinction.


In his last chapter Nicolson summarises The Seabird’s Cry.

Populations of seabirds across the globe have fallen by 2/3 in 60 years. Just cormorants and gannets buck the trend. The culprits are fishing practices, pollution and climate change. His words express this so much better than I can:

“There are no grounds for complacency… The great extinction is going on every day and the rate of change in the nature of the oceans is almost certainly too rapid for many of the inbuilt resilience mechanisms to cope.”

“The grand cry of a seabird colony, rolling in its clamour around the bays and headland of high latitudes, will become a memory, its absence unnoticed because people will not miss what is not there. ”

“What is to be done? Only all that can be done… the rate at which we are changing the atmosphere and the ocean, both its temperature and its acidity, needs to be brought under control. “

At stake is humanity’s whole relationship with nature. Are we to destroy the paradise we were born into, because we got too many, too unthinking and too greedy?

“The seabirds and their colonies were and are a last bastion of wholeness…”

A necessary, poetic and disturbing book.

Featured image of northern royal albatross by Benchill [Public domain]

The Shortest History of Germany

shortest history of germany.jpgI’ve been reading this little 227 page paperback by James Hawes. It does a great job of outlining the history of Germany for a popular audience. Having had a severely deficient education in the history department, I feel that this sort of knowledge should be the baseline of all Europeans, whether Brexited or not. This is after all the history of the centre of our continent.

Take some of the key points:

  • The Roman Empire  in its greater form was established by Julius Caesar. In 58BC he gave name to the peoples beyond the River Rhine that he could not easily conquer: the Germanii. He even used them as bodyguards.
  • Around 16AD Germanicus eventually claimed the territory between Rhine and Elbe for the Empire. This was not particularly secured and eventually a defensible ‘wall’ was built roughly along and to the west of the Rhine (The Limes).
  • When the Empire began to fall apart there was eventual ‘renewal’ by Constantine 306-337, changing the focus of the Empire to the east at Constantinople. But the Empire gradually fell apart with successive waves of invasion from the east – goths, franks, huns, vandals and so on.
  • After the fall of the Roman Empire the franks attempted renewal resulting in Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire around 800, extended beyond the Elbe to the Oder by Otto in 948, but this extension to the east was fragile and the place was run by independent lords who became known as known as Junkers. The HRA lasted for many hundreds of years of manoeuvering between Kings, Emperors and Popes.
  • The peak was around 1229 when Frederick II briefly liberated Jerusalem without a fight. The teutonic knights that had helped pilgrimage to the holy land were given the new task of subduing an area in what is now Poland/Russia – Prussia.
  • In 1356 the Kings freed themselves from the Pope and established control on future Emperors.
  • The Reformation was begun by Luther on the Elbe and took root to the east, the west remaining Catholic. Conflict began. There was a temporary truce in Charles V’s Peace of Augsburg (1555), but eventually 30 years of war (1618-48) that destroyed much of Germany, but the Prussian/Junker state survived and prospered through great power machinations.
  • Following the French Revolution of 1789, Napoleon effectively re-established the Holy Roman Empire – his hero was Charlemagne. He established the Confederation of the Rhine that got the west Germans organised again.
  • After the first defeat of Napoleon, Prussia was ‘given’ some of these west German states, instigated by Britain – to provide a counterweight to a possible French resurgence.
  • This was eventually crystallized by Bismarck into the dominance of an aggressive Prussian Germany. In 1870 Napoleon III fell into a trap set by Bismarck, and France was overrun in the subsequent war. A new German Empire was declared, and France lost territories. By 1887 the seeds were set for the coming 1914 world war, as France/Russia faced off against Germany/Austria.
  • Following the end of WW1 the liberal Weimar Republic desperately tried to re-establish a functioning country despite the over-burdensome terms of Versailles. They were undone by the 1929 Crash, with resulting reduction in American support and rising unemployment. The Nazi party gradually arose from the East, where their main support lay, and eventually got into power due to misjudgements that they could be ‘controlled’. They could not, and WW2 came to complete the battle against Prussian dominance.
  • The new West Germany was basically the old confederation, once a core part of the Roman Empire. The new East Germany was basically the residual Junker/Prussian state, Prussia itself having been obliterated.
  • Following the collapse of the USSR in 1989, Chancellor Helmut Kohl engineered the recombination of the two Germanys, which has proved a major drain on the West German economy ever since. One has to wonder, was this wise? Polls show the East to be poorer, older and more right wing…

For me, this is a stunningly informative and thought-provoking book, putting in context much of European history and throwing light on modern events. (Apologies for my own oversimplification and misinterpretations.) Essential information really for understanding our world.

And of course, it is completely different from the Neil MacGregor’s Germany, reviewed a few years ago.

Fermat’s Last Theorem

fermat coverI was a sucker for this book, having been fascinated by the history of mathematics from an early age. As Simon Singh’s book Fermat’s Last Theorem explains, the origins of this theorem came from the early days of mathematics, with Pythagoras in Ancient Greece. Everyone knows Pythagoras’ theorem that the sum of the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, e.g:

32 + 42 = 52

In fact, it was eventually demonstrated that there are an infinite number of triples of integers x,y,z for which

x2 + y2 = z2

Mathematicians puzzled for centuries as to whether a similar equation might be possible with higher powers of any integers, i.e. cubes, power of 4, 5, 6,…

xn + yn = zn

Pierre de Fermat was a supreme mathematician of the 17th century, who worked largely alone, rather than with colleagues. When his work was subsequently examined he was found to have made major advances to mathematics in a number of areas. In particular there was a famous note written in a margin that he had found ‘a truly marvellous proof’ that there could be no instance where such an equation was possible, yet there was insufficient space in the margin to explain it. This became a challenge to all the top mathematicians since then.

Simon Singh takes us through much of the history of mathematics in recounting the development of efforts to solve what had become known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. And a fascinating tale he tells, with potted histories of the involvement of many leading mathematicians over the centuries – including the story of the 21-year-old Frenchman Evariste Galois, who jotted down what proved to be key insights during the night before he was shot and killed in a duel early the next morning.

Finally there came the assault by Cambridge mathematician Andrew Wiles, working for some years in a solitary fashion similar to that adopted by Fermat himself. Finally, in June 1993 Wiles outlined to a packed meeting of leading mathematicians a proposed argument that demonstrated that Fermat’s Last Theorem was true. But this was only a prelude to drama, as a fault was discovered in the logic of his proof. It was not until October 1994 that Wiles and a colleague finally laid rest to centuries of speculation and completed their proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Simon Singh makes the development of deep ideas in mathematics in some way accessible to us, even though we could never understand the detail. Few people do!

Featured image of Pierre de Fermat from Wikimedia Commons

The first duty of government

alternative warBe careful what you read! A quick reading of  J.J Patrick’s book ‘Alternative War’ gives much insight into what’s going on behind the scenes of global politics. The book is not well written, but the message gets through, and it is all rather disturbing. It leads me to some reflections on the current situation in the UK, which is apparently largely oblivious to these machinations.

One of the books main themes is the ongoing Russian project to destabilise and undermine the Western powers, clearly exemplified by, for example, events in Ukraine, cyber warfare, clear influence on the US presidential election and the Brexit campaign. It would seem that one of the Russians’ prime aims is to undermine and ultimately destroy the European Union, thus leaving Russia as the dominant power on the European continent.

That this sort of thing was happening would have been apparent to Prime Minister Cameron, briefed by the intelligence community, when he called a Brexit referendum which could clearly undermine the European Union, weakening both EU and UK, in line with Moscow’s aims.

The use of social media in campaigns, and the ability and willingness of the Russians to exploit them in pursuit of their aims, would also have been familiar to a well-briefed leader. As would the fact that such use of social media and the sources of funds used are easily hidden.

Heedless of the danger, Cameron embarked on that referendum. Cameron also knew, and weakly campaigned on, the fact that the UK would also be economically affected. As we know, the referendum was marginally won by the ‘leave’ side. This was arguably significantly helped by Russian financial and IT interference. There has never been any effective UK investigation into such interference initiated by the May government.

And our security situation became much more precarious with the election of Donald Trump, clearly assisted by Russian interference (Wikileaks), and who has many links with Russia, even if there was ‘no collusion’.

So here we are now, over three years on, still arguing with EU on the form that Brexit will take, probably about to be led by Johnson, whose effectiveness in the Brexit campaign (compared to Cameron/Osborne) and willingness to lie, was probably the other main reason for the Brexit decision.

Now we know in much more detail just how detrimental Brexit will be, both economically and security-wise. Yet, lemming-like, the Conservative Party continues to insist that the dubious Brexit result must stand. We must become poorer and less secure, the people have spoken.

Actually all it seems to be in fear of Nigel Farage, whose suggested links to Russia and sources of money (according to the book) are likely to be well known to the intelligence community.

Possible answers to the current conundrum are clear

  • a new general election,
  • getting the May deal through (or not, hence remaining) via a second referendum where the issues are made crystal clear
  • or revoking Article 50 in the national interest – which is arguably the most sensible thing to do.

But a happy ending is seeming unlikely, which will leave UK adrift from Europe, and in a period of chaos, subject to the machinations of greater powers.

Now, the first duty of government is surely to ensure the ongoing sustenance and security of the people. Has the Conservative government really served us well, in creating this precarious situation?

Featured image of Pr Punch’s history of the Great War by John Bernard Partridge via Wikimedia Commons

Senatus PopulusQue Romanus

spqr coverI guess this will be my only blog title in Latin, a conceit from an early education that included this ancient language. It means ‘The Senate and People of Rome’, often abbreviated to SPQR, which is the title of classicist Mary Beard’s book.

Rigorous but readable, Mary tells the tale of 1000 years of ancient Rome. I enjoyed it, probably more so, and with greater insight, than I did reading the abbreviated version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire many years ago.

She begins in the middle, around 63 BCE, with the story of Cicero putting down the conspiracy by Cataline and other members of the Roman Senate itself, a story that is well understood because Cicero himself was a writer, many of whose works have survived, and history is written by the winners. The true story we do not know!

Mary then takes us back to the beginnings of Rome and the legend of Romulus and Remus, the foundation story of Rome. As Rome began to expand and co-opt nearby communities there eventually emerged what is characterised as a time of absolute kings, which ended around 490 BCE when Tarquin was defeated, a Republic was declared, and kingship got a bad name. Pairs of consuls were elected and ruled on an annual basis, overseen by the Senate – or rather such a system eventually emerged. Rome expanded, co-opting subject peoples into the system, particularly the army.

While Cicero was still alive, ever expanding overseas adventures led to the emergence of two major figures, Pompey in the East and Julius Caesar in the West. After years of accomodation, in 49 BCE Caesar ‘crossed the Rubicon’ and engaged in civil war with Pompey. Pompey was eventually defeated and Caesar became dictator, or Emperor. Not for long, he was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Amazingly this led to many years of stability as Augustus Caesar dominated the scene for many years, dying in old age (possibly).

Problems of succession then dominated for the next 14 Emperors. In 212 ACE Caracalla extended citizenship to all inhabitants of the Empire, and a different game began, with ever-increasing turnover of Emperors. This is where Mary Beard leaves the subject, to be taken up by someone else!

Mary cautions against trying to draw lessons for today from these historic events. But what is clear from Rome’s history is the danger of any state becoming identified with one man (it’s always a man!). Then there is the inevitable problem of succession, competitors, warring factions, and wars. This is what democratic systems avoid, by providing for the people to elect a new leader from time to time. So beware any leader or faction which seeks to extend his/its leadership beyond the specified time, who wants to rule for life or be a one-party state, in fact any dictator, populist or otherwise, and any party that seeks to rule forever. I won’t name names.





thriveWhat does it mean to thrive, or to flourish in life? Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive aims to answer this.

During heady days of spiritual exploration in the early 1980s, we attended a workshop by Tai Chi Master Chungliang Al Huang. At the workshop was a young and obviously intelligent lady, a bit pushy, Arianna Stassinopoulos, along with her mother. This was the lady who later became Arianna Huffington, co-founder and leading light of The Huffington Post. Arianna is also the author of a number of books. Thrive was published in 2014, so I’m a bit late catching up with it.

Thrive basically summarises all those good spiritual and personal growth ideas that were around in the early 1980s and which have been put into exemplary practice in Arianna’s hugely successful life – successful in terms of her influence on the world.

  • What is true well-being?
  • What does it mean to have wisdom?
  • Where is the sense of wonder in our lives?
  • How important is it to give, as well as to receive?

These are the subjects of the main chapters of this book. Much of it you will be familiar with, some of it may be new to you. What I can say is that it’s well written, makes much sense, and says things that are worth saying. Great stuff!

Interestingly, Arianna’s key inspiration was her mother – an almost obsessively ‘giving’ person, as was evident in that 1980s workshop!

Utopia for Realists

It’s surely obvious that the current economic system is not working, what with increasing inequality, increasingly low wages at the bottom, squeezed public finances,  financial crashes, resulting populism, ever-increasing automation, ineffectively-addressed global warming and so on. And it seems equally clear that the global elite haven’t a clue what to do about it and plan to just let it run while they continue their comfortable lives.

utopia for realistsRutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There brings up the heretical suggestion that we can do something about it, all we need are the visionary ideas and the determination to follow them through.

There is no reason why we cannot end poverty, give free money to everyone (basic income), move towards a shorter working week, pay important workers like nurses and bin men a commensurate salary, and open borders once the imperative to move anywhere but home is removed.

That sounds like a Utopia, you say. Yes it is. But we need a stretching vision of where we want to get to and then maybe we’ll start moving there.

Bregman cites the fascinating story of how neoliberal free market ideas moved from being the interest of just a few economists in the years after WW2, when Keynes dominated economic thought, to becoming the dominant force behind world economics from the 1970s to the present. These ideas have now run their course and are actually the cause of the predicaments we increasingly find ourselves in.

We desperately need these new Utopian ideas to gain momentum. So go read Utopia for Realists.

What human energies could be freed up for a New Renaissance!