Coot family

Baby coots are just so cute. This family was feeding on the lake in the evening sun at Stover Country Park, Devon.

According to the Wildlife Trusts, the saying ‘bald as a Coot’ refers to the white patch, or frontal shield, just above the bird’s bill, rather than its lack of feathers.

V2

A fascist dictator is losing the war that he initiated. With one last throw of the dice, a brand new and unstoppable weapon, he aims to turn the tide, but it turns out to be one last defiant gesture.

November 1944, the Nazi armies are in retreat as the Allies advance across Europe. But the Germans under Werner von Braun have developed a rocket that can send bombs across the channel, but without accurate aim. A launch programme aims to terrorise the population of London.

In his book V2, Robert Harris tells the story of the ‘successes’ and failures, particularly from the point of view of an English woman trying to track down the launch sites, and a German man somewhat half-heartedly engaged in the launch processes. Their two stories are effectively interweaved in a compelling narrative – Harris is a great storyteller.

At the end of the war, the engineers under von Braun were of course transmitted to the USA, and became the core of the subsequent space programme, leading to the first Moon landing in 1969. They were always more interested in creating rockets to fly into space than they were in warfare.

The consequences of war are many and unpredictable.

Featured image is of a V2 rocket awaiting launch.

The Deep Self 

Many today seem to have ‘forgotten’ the essential truth that, within us, behind the surface world of the ego, there is a deeper self that is connected to the whole – the essential spiritual approach to life, the source of our morality and creativity. Steve Taylor‘s recent poem expresses this beautifully.

The Deep Self

There is another self inside you –
not the restless self that always ruminates 
about the future and the past 
not the fragile self that craves for attention 
and is wounded so easily by disrespect
not the anxious self that can’t live inside itself 
and is always reaching outside for distractions. 

There is another self inside you 
that doesn’t consist of concepts 
that isn’t sustained by thought 
that isn’t enclosed inside your body 
and doesn’t feel separate to the world.

There is a deeper self that rests 
quietly, almost imperceptibly
behind the tumult of your thoughts 
like the still blue sky behind dense, swift-moving clouds. 

And your deep self is always ready to emerge 
whenever you release your attention from thoughts 
and let your awareness spread gently around you
opening your senses to the world. 

Then your surface self grows softer, more porous.
Spaces appear between thoughts 
and the deep self slowly seeps through
like sunlight through dissipating clouds.

As you become your deep self
you sense a shift of perspective 
as if dust is falling from your eyes 
and a landscape is becoming more distinct –
brighter, more spacious, less dangerous.

You feel relieved, as if you’ve woken from an anxious dream. 
The problems of your surface self
and the dramas of your surface life 
seem trivial, almost comical. 

Now you feel connected to the world –
not an observer, but a participant
as if your being is fluid and permeable
flowing back and forth between you and the world 
sharing the essence of everything you see. 

You’re no longer restless and anxious
now that natural harmony flows through you. 
You’re no longer fragile and incomplete
now that the wholeness of the world includes you. 

And you feel the joy of self-recognition 
of becoming who you always were  
since your deep self is not another self –
it is simply you.

1965 Berlin

On our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia we crossed the iron curtain between West and East Germany. On the way out there was minor drama, when the easy-going West German border guards had taken the original of a key document listing the 24 members of our party, leaving only a photocopy for the dour  East German guards. They were not happy, but ultimately let us through. It was all a bit of a drama for me, as a totally inexperienced tour leader. Fortunately, we were subsequently in the safe hands of the Eastern student organisation that was running the trip for us.

On the return journey, we went through then-divided Berlin. After a long rail journey across Poland, we arrived in Berlin early evening, and hastily dismounted onto the platform. We soon realised that something was wrong. The station was deserted. A couple of us went seeking help, and found ourselves emerging into totally darkened streets. The light dawned – we were in East Berlin and the train had gone! Back in the deserted station, we saw that there was another train due to go to West Berlin in a few minutes time. We embarked onto this one and soon arrived in West Berlin, without further trouble, other than checking of documents. Was it really that easy to cross the curtain?

West Berlin was a huge contrast – lively, brightly lit, people going about their business as in other European cities – a graphic illustration of the difference between lives on the two sides of the curtain. Of course, many in the East wished to escape to the West. As we saw the next day, the Berlin Wall was massive and surmounted with barbed wire, before the no man’s land where would-be escapees were regularly shot.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, manifestation of the thawing of the hearts of men and women. Thank God for that, and what joy was in our hearts at that time. This makes it all the more tragic that Vladimir Putin now appears intent on dragging us back to those days of European division.

Featured image:  Berlin Wall from Potsdamer Platz 1965.
For the rest of the trip, see 1965 Prague, 1965 Kiev, 1965 Odessa, 1965 Moscow.

1965 Prague

The first match of our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was actually in Prague. I was struck by the similarities of Prague with Vienna, which I had had the good fortune to visit on a school trip a few years earlier. The spirit of the people seemed similar, yet more depressed. Many of the magnificent buildings bequeathed by history were in much need of repair. Prague was not thriving at this time.

During our time off we explored some of the great historic sights – the powder tower, cathedral, astronomical clock, but my main memory is of doing all this sightseeing while playing blindfold chess with friend Brian Kerr. Maybe we did not adequately attend to the magnificence around us.

Little did we know at that time, but the spirit rising that we sensed was soon to be inflamed by the Prague Spring led by Alexander Dubček‘s reforming government and then crushed by the Russian invasion in August 1968. We later learned in horror and admiration that in January 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire in protest, in the very same Wenceslas Square we had wandered through.

The parallels with the current invasion of Ukraine are all too apparent. Russia seeks to rule by fear and compel compliance, and punishes those who will not submit.

There is an echo of an earlier religious reformer, Jan Hus, who died by burning at the stake for heresy, by order of the Catholic Church in 1415, memorialised in this statue before the Tyn church.

The cycles of history go on and on.

Featured image is from cathedral door at Prague.

1965 Moscow

The final stop of our 1965 chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was Moscow, then capital of world chess. Of course, we lost the matches, as we were each playing against significantly stronger players. But what stays in memory is the impressions of the then-capital of a mighty empire – the USSR.

1965 GUM

The people seemed drab and depressed, compared to Western Europe, and compared to Ukraine (see previous posts 1965 Kiev and 1965 Odessa). The GUM department store had queues and empty shelves; the system did not appear to be working well for people here at the centre.

This suggested to me that the USSR was not a great success for its own peoples. It had clearly not recovered from WW2 as well as the West, and the people had not correspondingly benefited. Why would Russians wish to go back to those supposedly glorious days through the current ventures in Ukraine and other parts of the Russian border?

Paradoxically, there was also evidence of good organisation, modern technology and buildings suggesting a glorious history.

Worker and collective farmer

All this intermingled with drab buildings and worthy statues to the glory of the working man, rather strange to Western eyes. This was, after all, supposedly a communist state.

So I have very mixed impressions of Moscow at that time, a period when nuclear war between USA and USSR was only narrowly averted – times of peril that the Putin regime seems determined to go back to.

Tsar bell

My only other photograph from that visit was this one of the huge Tsar Bell, considered to be the largest bell in the world. The bell was cast in the 1700s but never struck for real, because a fire caused a bit to split off before it could be hoisted into position to ring. That somehow seems to sum up Russia.

Fleeing Ukrainians – why does it never stop?

Jane Fritz gives insight into the history behind Ukraine’s current suffering, with some superb Chagall paintings included.

Robby Robin's Journey

When we think of paintings by the famous French painter Mark Chagall (actually Russian-French), we typically think of his dreamlike themes and brilliant use of colour.  Always imaginative.  Often free-floating.

But he also painted powerful paintings that didn’t dance and weren’t dreamlike.  Powerful, yes, but free-floating, no.  One such powerful painting has been posted many times on social media recently, and appropriately so.  It’s entitled La Famille Ukrainienne.  The Ukrainian Family.

UkrainianFamily

Only, of course, Chagall didn’t paint this work of art in the past 6 weeks, since the Russians invaded Ukraine and started unleashing such devastation, brutality, and death.  He painted it sometime between 1940 and 1943, when Ukrainians were fleeing the war and destruction brought about by another Russian, Stalin’s “Great Terror”.  It is uncanny – and heartbreaking – to realize that this scene could just as easily be depicting what is going on right now, 80 years…

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At Garner State Park

We visited Garner State Park mid March. This Texas State Park lies on the Frio River, an hour or two’s drive from San Antonio. There are extensive camp grounds and many recreational opportunites afforded by the river and surrounding hills. On a very hot day we could just get a flavour of this picturesque area, see the following photos.

This impressive and popular park was built as a New Deal job creation project and is named after John Nance Garner, who served as Roosevelt’s vice-president from 1933-1941. This is a model for government action when times are hard for the people. Thousands benefit from this historic government investment every day.

The good old Texan attitude to covid-prevention is shown on the sign on the back of a camped pickup, see featured image.

Sapiens

Daughter left a copy of Juval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) lying around. I finally got around to reading it. What a great history of humankind: from the early variants that led to Homo Sapiens, to the great flooding; from the nomadic life to agriculture, cities, pyramids and early civilisations; to the dominance of religions and empires; to banks and money, the renaissance; and the development of science and capitalism; the industrial revolution and its empires, and the modern world of ‘permanent revolution’.

It’s a rollicking, engaging and informative tale that runs apace. Harari tells a good story and clearly knows a lot about the subject.

Unfortunately his description is one of surfaces, rather than of the spiritual depths of humanity – in a word, materialistic. Try this quote from page 263:

“…a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences… our liberal… systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature… which gives meaning to the world… the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief… Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there.”

This is of course nonsense. Science explicity deals with what can be ‘objectively’ measured, which explicitly avoids any question of inner experience and the soul. By definition it cannot understand ‘the sacred inner nature’ of every individual.

This does somewhat question the validity of Harari’s later speculations about the relationship of machines to future intelligence and possible supplanting of homo sapiens.

That aside, this book is a great read, and his speculations are stimulating!

As he indicates at the end, humans have become almost like gods in their powers, and yet we are wreaking havoc on the earth. He ends with a salutary note:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Could that be because we have lost touch with that sacred inner nature, and hence lack wisdom?

Great blue and snowy

The point where the outflow from Houston’s Barker reservoir runs into Buffalo Bayou is a great for a spot of fishing. Here a great blue heron waits patiently, intent on the running water. A snowy egret waits to the side, a good distance from the prime spot.

Seeking Jean Gebser

“We partake every moment of our lives in the originary powers of an ultimately spiritual nature.”

Jean Gebser

Jean Gebser, philosopher, linguist, poet, who described the structures of human consciousness. Born Hans Gebser in Poznan, then Germany, 1905. Left in 1929 for Italy/Spain/France, changing name to Jean. Escaped to Switzerland at the outbreak of WW2. Died 1973.

Having seen many references to the work of Jean Gebser, I wanted to find out more about the man himself and his ideas. His main book The Ever Present Origin seemed difficult to get hold of, and is reputed to be ‘difficult ‘, so I tried the summary of the man and his ideas in Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness, by Jeremy Johnson (2019).

Basically, Gebser’s work is about human consciousness and how it has evolved and is evolving. He categorises five stages of its evolution, which I roughly describe in the following gross over-simplification.

  • Archaic – original consciousness of the whole, without differentiation.
  • Magical – perfect identification of man with the universe, without separation, all appears magical, a part of ‘the dreaming’.
  • Mythical – becoming conscious of the universe and others through stories and myths.
  • Rational – mental, logical. Man is separated from the world and reasons about it.
  • Integral – becoming aware of, transcending and yet benefiting from the perspectives of all the previous levels.

As stressed by Johnson, this is not intended to be a developmental schema, although it clearly describes the stages of development of humanity to date. But then, neither Johnson’s book nor Gebser’s work are easily read or understood – Gebser has his own specific terminology that I will not attempt to go into here. Johnson has made a heroic attempt to lead us into the thinking of Gebser, and his book is well worth reading, if you are so inclined. Each effort to understand helps us to get in touch with the inspirational quality of this work. He quotes Gebser, giving an indication of the true poetic scope of this work.

“The simple is in us. It is participation—participation in that which is unknown yet evident to us: a tiny seed in us, which contains all transparency—the diaphanous world, the most irradiated and most sober beatitude. It is so completely comprehensive and whole that neither our intelligent, super-clever, caged-in thought nor our pitiable-pitiful and needy-strong longing—how much poverty it renders visible!—can even divine it. And yet, it is within us.”

Jean Gebser April 26 1973

Of course, there are parallels between Gebser’s analysis and the work of Iain McGilchrist, referred to in other posts. The current left-brain-dominant mode of being is the equivalent of the rational stage, and the co-operating left and right brains that McGilchrist envisages are the equivalent of the integral stage. See Scott Preston’s post Gebser and McGilchrist for more insight.

Jean Gebser is also referred to extensively in Ken Wilber‘s work, such as in the lengthy masterwork Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. All these guys are on to something fundamental about what it means to be human, and the direction of any New Renaissance of the human spirit.

All neat and tidy

During the 39–45 war the houses on our road near the southern edge of Lincoln were fortunate to have a long allotment appended to the end of the back garden. In childhood I loved this shaggy space, rows of vegetables and rhubarb, fruit bushes, a deep hedge where redcurrants and brambles grew, patches of weedy long grass, waggly old apple tree to swing on, and a chicken coop, until the fox got in.

After the war the allotments continued for maybe 10 years. Then the land was sold by the Council for house building. Our outdoor space was reduced to the back garden, with lawn, fruit trees and flower garden plus surrounding privet hedge, and the front garden with rose bushes and more privet.

As I got to help out, I soon realised that the purpose of gardening was to keep these spaces neat and tidy. The privet needed regular trimming, any ‘weeds’ appearing among the flowers were hoed away, imperfect leaves were removed, lawns were regularly mowed and plantains removed.

That was until my brother and I grew older and destroyed the lawn by continually playing soccer, or football as we called it. But that’s another story.

I’m led to reflect on this as I look at today’s English suburban gardens. Sadly, the modern trend has been to destroy many front gardens to create car parking, or simply to create low-maintenance areas of gravel or tarmac, even weirdly coloured synthetic grass. All neat and tidy. And lifeless.

Back gardens have also suffered to a lesser extent. Expanses of decking or stone patios create more lifeless, tidy spaces. Weeds and insects are destroyed with toxic chemicals from the Garden Centre. All this part of man’s apparent continued assault on nature. But all neat and tidy.

Thankfully there is increasing awareness of the devastation of insect and bird populations caused by this domestic obsession, and the equal dedication to low cost neat and tidy farming, with its sterile monocultures, hedges shaved to minimal depth, lack of field margins and spaces for field-nesting birds, no wildlife corridors.

It is clear that in this respect the trend of modern life is a sustained attack on nature. Nature is not neat and tidy with sharp edges. It’s alive and messy, with shaggy edges. Biodiversity needs to be encouraged everywhere. Gardens, fields and parks must include wild space for nature. Weeds are actually plants well suited to their environment. Within limits they can be tolerated, providing a variety of sustenance for nature. Crops will not thrive on denatured monocultures for centuries. This neat and tidy obsession needs to end. Now.

Featured image is Eden Park Recreational Area, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

All is well

Those of us who reflect on the affairs of humanity can sometimes get the feeling that things are not going well at all, which can get a bit depressing. So here’s reminder from Steve Taylor (again) that here, in the present, the only place we can be, all is well.

All is well

You have to remember that all is well
even if you feel overwhelmed by the chaos of the world
and menacing dark thoughts swirl through your mind.  

You have to remember that all is well 
even if you feel encircled by enemies 
and your life seems a futile struggle.

You have to remember that all is well 
beneath the turbulence and confusion
like the deep stillness of the ocean
beneath roaring, surging waves. 

You have to remember that all is well.
Then your faith will sustain you. 
Your confidence will strengthen you.
    
Then the radiant stillness of your soul 
will calm the turmoil of your mind
and guide you through the darkness, like a compass. 

And soon the chaos and stress will subside.
You’ll return to natural harmony
with the deep inner knowing that all is well. 

Featured image is a sunset at Barmouth.

Psychological disorders, power and the future of humanity

Steve Taylor has written a great post in Psychology Today on The Danger of Dark Triad Leaders: The link between psychological disorders and power. So what are dark triad leaders? Steve explains:

While some psychologists like to think in terms of specific disorders like psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder, I prefer — like many psychologists nowadays — to think in terms of a “dark triad” of three personality traits that appear together: psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. This makes sense because these traits almost always overlap and are difficult to distinguish from one another.

Dark triad personalities crave power and find powerful positions easy to attain, because of their ruthlessness and manipulative skills. Since they lack empathy and conscience, they have no qualms against deceiving and exploiting other people in their rise to the top. Since they are often charismatic and charming, they often gain the support of ordinary people, who are impressed by their apparent confidence and decisiveness.

Sounds familiar? This psychological abnormality attracts to itself others of similar mindset, forming a pathocracy:

Of course, such leaders don’t work alone. Once dark triad leaders gain power, moral and responsible people rapidly fall away, and other dark triad personalities collect around them. The government quickly becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski referred to as a “pathocracy” — a government made of individuals with personality disorders.

The history of the last 200 years shows too many examples of such pathocracies across the world; there are many today, with Putin’s Russia currently the most evident. There is an urgent need for the world to work out how to manage human affairs without such individuals and pathocracies gaining further hold. They bring out the worst in humanity, such as what is now happening in Ukraine. There will be little prospect for humanity for many thousands of years if one of these dysfunctonal cabals unleashes nuclear or biological terror across the world.

Photo of Himmler, Hitler et al: Newsweek

1965 Odessa

Another tragic atrocity is apparently beginning with Putin’s recent first shelling of Odesa, third city of Ukraine. I spent a couple of days there during our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia in 1965, when the Russian name Odessa was used.

At the time this Black Sea resort was a playground for the upper echelons of then-communist Russian society. I’d never seen so many overfed people before we went on that beach.

The harbour at Odessa is linked to the city by the Potempkin Steps, created in 1841 and made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin.

Potempkin steps

Look down the steps at the port, and you can see why this city might be regarded as strategically important.

I recall that this was an attractive city to walk around, all now at risk to Putin’s cowardly cruise missiles.

Opera House

These four photographs are the only ones I have from that trip. Such insanity that one man and his cabal could apparently be on track to destroy all this. For what? Some illusion of Russian greatness, a phantasm of Putin’s imagination? There is nothing great about destroying the work and life of millions.

Crumb wars

Throw a pile of crumbs or seed onto the prom at Crosby, and it doesn’t last long. First, the gulls take the best bits.

Then comes the starling cleanup squad.

It’s all over in seconds.

Reflections on Knutsford Heath

The heavy rains of recent week gave the opportunity for unusual photographs on Knutsford Heath. Normally it’s just green grass.

In the background to the right, behind the woman in red, is the Longview Hotel, now closed down. It was in this hotel that the white-suited journalist Martin Bell initially stayed during the election campaign of 1997. Running on an anti-corruption campaign with cross-party (and my) support, Bell displaced the previous sitting MP Neil Hamilton. Hamilton famously confronted Bell on the heath at the time, in what became known as the Battle of Knutsford Heath (see video). It’s difficult to believe that was now 25 years ago.

Also relevant to the theme of this blog, the Longview was where, in 1993, we hosted Lord David Ennals, once UK Secretary of State for Social Services, when he came to give the first of the Knutsford Lecture series of ‘Visions of a New Renaissance’, under his title ‘Practical Non-violence’. The gracious elder statesman gave us insight into the the resolution of then-world conflicts, including those in former Yugoslavia and Georgia. Le plus ça change…