I went to a comprehensive school in south Wales where I learnt almost nothing except how much I wanted to get away. Photos of the school’s rugby players adorned the walls of the dining room. Today, the most notable person I can find who attended the same school is a minor Tory MP, one who is almost insignificant, yet who manages to exude a disproportionately huge amount of slime. I’m not a fan.

I realised that if I was going to learn anything I’d have to do it myself. My parents didn’t read books, there were a few around the house, but most of them were inherited from grandparents. There was a Guinness Book of Records and ‘Fun on Wheels’ a book of games to play in the car on long journey.

My parents did buy a set of Encyclopedias, however. They were blue, gold embossed, with my father’s not my mother’s initials, embossed on the covers of each of the 24 volumes. I don’t think either of them ever opened one of them.

That was a long time ago.

But I was lucky that I had a group friends who were interested in the world: politics, art, music, poetry. Some even read books. Books. If it wasn’t for my peer group I would never have read a thing. Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate writes that nature overides nurture but peer group can be decisive in a young person’s future.

When I was a teenager I wanted to know everything. I made a chart of my bedroom wall. In the middle was the word EVERYTHING. And it moved out from there. Well, that was the plan.

I bought books on the basis of their covers. Sometimes I struck lucky. I bought Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation because ofthe explosively orange cover which I realised later was a painting by Max Ernst.

I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know where to begin. School was just a random mess of stuff, a Shakespeare play, Boyle’s law, algebra, something about chlorophyll. Nothing connected, nothing made any sense to me. No teacher gave me any direction.

But then I came across philosophy. I don’t remember how. And I thought, ah yes, philosophy, that’s a quick way of getting to know everything.

And then there was the Teach Yourself Books, which still exist. Then they had bright yellow covers. Egg yolk yellow. I began with Teach Yourself Philosophy by C E M Joad. My father recognised the name. C E M Joad. He was a sort of know all from the 1940s, an intellectual who, for a short time, had the status of Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw. He died in 1953. This was not a book on contemporary thinking. Look up his Wikipedia page, he was a monster.

But CEM Joad’s book was a start. I skimmed through it, saw words like Metaphysics, Empiricism, Aesthetics and Logic. But, as I tried to read all this it seemed like a lot of fuzzy words about nothing. I bought other books in the same series, I couldget them for less than a pound in the second hand bookshop in the market. The pages fell out, but that was ok. It gave me an excuse not to read them.

David Bowie left school with almost no qualifications (an O level, like a GCSE in art), but wanted to be an intellectual, so he carried a book on existentialism around in a jacket pocket. I can’t remember whether it was Sartre or Camus. He wanted to impress. But then he started to read the book, and so his world began to open up. What began as a pose became an obsession.

I bought Teach Yourself Zen. What a great word Zen. Teach yourself Zen. The author was one Christmas Humphreys. What a first name! Christmas!

Christmas Humphreys was a QC. He was also a Buddhist. I’ll come back to Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys in a minute.

So, to Amersham with my friend Simon, who runs a workshop out there. I hoped to see the gravestone of Arthur Machen, a Victorian flaneur and writer of weird fiction, who was born in south Wales, but lived his last years in quaint, decorous, Amersham, way out on the far western end of the Metropolitan line.

We walked through some woods, up on to hill, from where he pointed out the horrible mess left by the first excavations for HS2. I don’t want to go on about this, but it was horrible.

And so to the churchyard where we soon found Arthur Machen’s gravestone, bright in the morning sun, newly restored. And so we ambled back along the path, but then Simon saw someone he recognised, a woman in her seventies who he had once known from
one of his workshops and who he described as a pain in the arse. She was half-heartedly weeding around a grave. He hoped she wouldn’t recognise him, but she did, and they had a painfully polite conversation. He mentioned we’d been to see Arthur Machen’s gravestone, but she didn’t know who Machen was, but, she said, you know who else is here, and I’m not supposed to tell you but just over there in an unmarked grave, lies Ruth Ellis.

Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, in 1955. Ellis didn’t deny the murder of which she was convicted. She was clearly guilty. But like many who fall foul of the law, she suffered sexual and physical abusive. Her father was the abuser. Her sister conceived a child with him.

Yes, Ruth Ellis was guilty. The death penalty has since been abolished but the UK’s penal system is no less fucked up. The UK has one of the biggest prison populations per head in Western Europe. Bigger than Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Belgium, much bigger than then Netherlands, Norway or Iceland. Most of the women serving sentences are victims.

But the UK’s penal system is fucked up because those at the top, the barristers and the judges, are privileged, public school fuck ups. Like our recent political leaders. And much of the blame must lie with this country’s elite public school system. A school system that allows fuckwits with limited empathy and no knowledge understanding of how most people live to swan into top jobs.

Growing prison populations, like obesity, are a sign of inequality, and, let’s say it, of right wing governments. They create inequality, then come down hard on those whose lives are so difficult they can’t cope.

The thing that struck me when reading about Ruth Ellis’ trial was that the prosecution was led by none other than Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys.

A Buddhist sending a woman to her death. How did he rationalise that?

And then I discovered that Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys was also prosecting counsel in the trials of Timothy Evans in 1950 and Derek Bentley in 1953. The former whose story is told in the film ’10, Rillington Place’ and the latter in ‘Let Him Have It’ Both were hanged and both were subsequently cleared and declared innocent. Both were of very low intelligence.

So, Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys was pivotal in the deaths of two innocent and vulnerable men even before Ruth Ellis came to trial.

And then I read that when the Derek Bentley trial went to appeal, one of the judges who took part was none other than Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys’ dad. His fucking dad! I see no conflict of interests there!

Roughly 7% of the UK population goes to public school. Yet even today, 65% of judges are public school educated. It’s a fucking disgrace.

And if there is any doubt in your mind about the weirdness of our judicial system, of its blatant unfairness, or the underlying social inequalities that pervade it, I ask you to search the name of the judge who passed sentence on Derek Bentley, Rayner Goddard. When you do so also use the words ‘ejaculate’ and ‘trousers’.

Even if during that trial Christmas wasn’t coming, Goddard was ejaculating in his trousers.

(This is a transcript of ‘Amersham’ – from my podcast ‘These Weird Isles’.)

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My Dad RIP

My Dad died in June. He was 96 and right up to just his last few days was still talking about all sorts of random stuff. Here’s the eulogy I gave at his funeral:

Roald Dahl, a Cardiff boy, wasn’t supposed to have been the nicest of people, but in the preface to what I think is his best book, Danny, Champion of the World, he wrote something like this:

What a child wants – and deserves – is a parent who is sparky.

Well, my dad was literally a sparky. He was, for a few years, an electrician. But he was also sparky. He was sparky, kind, generous, and wonderfully, brilliantly eccentric. He was a great father. He was also my friend.

Just last week, in going through his things, I found a newspaper article, probably from The South Wales Argus, reporting his retirement as a magistrate. He was on the bench for 26 years. Here are a couple of paragraphs from that article.

‘Wishing Mr Strong well for his retirement, court clerk Jon Badman said ‘I can honestly say that in the 19 years I have been clerking here, whenever you have been chairman of the bench I have always looked forward to an entertaining day.’

Entertaining? He was a magistrate, not a juggler!

And then later, in the same article, there’s this…

‘Mr Strong, who joined Newport magistrates in 1971, wore a flamboyant Donald Duck tie to mark his final day.’

Dad had a range of ridiculous ties. My brother Roger is wearing that Donald Duck tie tiday, I’m wearing one featuring Homer Simpson and my son Jake wears the one decorated with those guardians of the law, the Mister Men.

Yes, Dad was eccentric. He often wore a deer stalker and, for a while, had a large badge of an eye pinned to the back of it. The eye was a lenticular image, one that appeared to move – so the eye winked as he walked the short distance from car or motorbike to his office. He’d also smoke an upside down pipe, and in his pocket carry a plastic moustache, which he loved to produce so he could utter his most loved pun ‘I moustache you a few questions.’

About ten years ago, after slipping on the garden path and falling on a metal joist he ripped his face open, knocked out half his teeth. But the next day, when I went to see him, horribly bruised and disfigured, he laughed as he told me how he had not only taken himself to hospital, then discharged himself, but got up early that morning and go out, as usual, to buy milk and paper, and enjoy the horrified look on the faces of passers-by. ‘I look like the elephant man!’ he chuckled.

Moving back through the years to my infancy, I remember how he taught me the word onomatopoeia, as that was the word he used when he wanted me to get out of the bath. Andrew – on a mat appear – now!

But for most people who knew him he was their optician. I remember the four floors of HJ Strong, on Upper Dock Street, which got successively more cluttered and ramshackle the further up you went. A bit like Dad’s psyche – superficially he was bastion of the community, but get to know him, climb up the dark upper storeys of his mind, and you discovered a wildly imaginative and slightly messy man.

Dad never cared about money or material things. He was a little bit chaotic, and his stories were often rambling and circuitous. In those last weeks in hospital he often engaged nurses and doctors with his exhausting stories. When he began to hold forth, fixing a nurse or orderly in a storytelling trance, I would quickly take my leave, fully expecting by my visit the next to day to find him still going and the staff comatose on the floor.

Over the course of his life Dad had many hobbies and interests: he loved making cine films, took hundreds of photos, he loved motorbikes, airguns, (a fascination that skipped a generation) and there was golf, of course, but there was also his interest in electronics – he built a remote controlled caddy which later evolved into gokart for the grandchildren. He designed what he called the cupot, half cup, half pot, which he sent to Dragons Den; he learnt the clarinet for a while, practised dowsing, and, inspired by the cranky theories of Erik Von Daniken, once built a pyramid in the attic at home in which apples would supposedly stay ripe and he proposed blunt razorblades could miraculously regain their sharpness.

In his last weeks he was as interested in everything as he always was. I made a note of the topics of some of our conversations: the fall of Rolf Harris, Frank Skinner, the German radar system, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a game called centrifugal bumblepuppy, JPR Williams, Morse code (while in hospital he insisted to one of the doctors that a bedside monitor was spelling out his initials) and how the nationalisation of the coalmines led to the demise of the coconut matting industry.

He was a kind, generous, warm-hearted and eccentric man, a brilliant father and, considering his generation, incredibly liberal. He loved the Goons and although he owned very few books, he had at least three by Spike Milligan. He was quirky, funny, loveable. I will miss his monthly calls to check his premium bond numbers, the regular visits to his flat to go through the same paperwork I went through the month before but which he’d manage to jumble up into a confused mess. I’ll miss scrabbling around on the floor of that flat to retrieve his glasses, remote controls and batteries. There were batteries everywhere. I think at the last count we’ve discovered about 120 in his flat.

I’ll miss his silly voices, his rambling stories. I won’t miss his ridiculous ties, they’re still with us. The banana tie, Homer Simpson, the Wallace and Gromit, the Mister Men, Donald Duck.

Goodbye Dad.

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Tokyo is a city that works, despite a population of 39 million, the throngs in the subway, the malls, the markets. There are so many people, people who sit silently on the subway, who move quietly through the streets, who rarely raise a voice. Listen and the loudest thing you’ll hear is an electronic chirp in the the underground, or the consoling bleeps at a crossing.

In Shinjuku, where we stayed, three and a half million people go through the station every day. That’s the combined population of Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Bristol and Glasgow. Every day. And they move so quietly, almost serenely. And the trains arrive and depart on time. Exactly on time. Tokyo works. Which cities in the UK work so well?

Millions of people, a river of humanity, flow through, so Shinjuku station has become a city in itself, a bright, infinite warren of shops, cafes and bars. It goes on an on forever, as far as the eye can see in every direction.

We debated how to get from the airport to our hotel. The options were monorail, overground, subway, bus or taxi. We chose bus, as it meant we would see the city as we covered those twenty miles.

But as soon as the bus left the airport it entered a tunnel, and, as it turned out, the third longest road tunnel in the world, eleven miles long. When we emerged we had seen nothing of the city, we felt like moles, blinking into the light.

And what light! Light everywhere…buzzing swirling light. On the Shinjuku city streets there was something else. The quiet. There were thousands of people on the but so little noise. The Japanese are so quiet.

And the roads too, at least those at ground level, were uncongested, largely, I think, because traffic goes underground and, as we looked up, overground. The city sky is criss-crossed with overpasses, with roads and monorail. Think Bladerunner. The sky full of scribble, a concrete action painting.

Tokyo’s tunnels and malls, its subways and monorails, these keep the streets quiet. People are respectful of each other, there is a distinct and overt awareness that to be noisy is antisocial, discourteous. There is almost no litter, and weirdly, few litter bins. On two occasions when I was looking for a bin someone appeared to take my litter from me, and with a polite bow, whisked it away.

Litter and litter bins, subways, malls, traffic, it’s all hidden away. I’d like to draw a parallel with their toilets, nearly every one we saw, whether in hotels or small bars, had a control panel to activate squirts or, in some cases, sound effects.

The sound effects are there, I assume, to mask the noise of your functions.

Tokyo is a a city of masks, of hiding, of partition.

Two forms of traditional Japanese theatre, Noh and Kabuki, use masks. Replica masks are on sale everywhere. And the Japanese, too, wear masks. They wore masks before the pandemic, and they wear masks now, on the subway, in the street. We had to wear masks on the 14 hour flight.

The city is quiet, but so is the subway, where talking on phones, for example, is frowned upon. There’s less visual noise underground, too, far fewer adverts, and far more useful information than on, for example, the London underground. It is visually quieter.

Every person with whom we had any exchange was incredibly helpful, courteous, polite. We were shown kindness again and again. We had a few interactions with authority, at customs, on the subway, on the tram – and each time received smiles, reassurance.

We used Shinjuku station regularly and never got close to understanding it. The station is on five levels and each level is vast. Radiating from the station underground are six miles of shopping malls. Sometimes we would emerge just across the road, other times we would find a huge walkway which would take us very close to our hotel. Think of an underpass the size of a street, brightly lit, clean and usually full of people, full of shops. Multiply it that by ten. And then imagine it bright, clean and almost silent.

Silent except for the weird electronic bleeps, softly alluring snoring sounds, some like birdsong, on subway stations (I’m sure one was a cuckoo) and above ground, there are the cute noises emitted when it was safe, at last, to cross the road.

Every underground line has its own jingle, a sound played to warn you the doors are closing. (One line in Tokyo had the theme from ‘The Third Man’ as its jingle.)

How does a city of this size, with so many people, feed itself? One thing I’d read was how few farmed animals there are in Japan – meat eating was banned for 1200 years (until around 1872) – but meat consumption has accelearted in the last hundred years. Naively I thought we would see sushi restaurants everywhere, but there were just as many restaurants offering steaks. Burger King and MacDonalds are all over Tokyo. We were offered shark cartilidge, innards stew, horsemeat sashimi, diaphragm, then there were tuna eyes the size of tennis balls, one vendor proudly picked up his restaurant’s menu and pointed to a section written in English, to a dish I still think about now: squid guts. We’re vegetarians, and although these offerings may revolt British tastes, I applaud the Japanese omnivores for their steadfast resolution to eat everything. Most of this stuff is in burgers, anyway.

We saw several MacDonalds and Burger Kings. There are Starbucks everywhere, too, even Costa, but these are often in beautiful buildings, as if the Japanese authorities squeeze the US corporations to succumb to a Japanese aesthetic.

There is no obvious sense of any concern about climate change. Even if meat consumption is everywhere – I was surprised to see cheese – and this is a country obsessed with plastic, everything is in plastic.

I am aware of a charge of hypocrisy here – after all a 14 hour return flight from the UK to Japan emits a huge amount of carbon. I am vegetarian, almost a vegan, I try to live ethically. I’ve been aware of climate change for a least 30 years – it’s one of the reasons I gave up meat. I have taken very few flights in that time. On the few occasions I took my children abroad, we flew once, then travelled by ferry and train. I realise this is expensive, and yes, I am fortunate. Heathrow to Tokyo was non-stop, and as such is more fuel efficient than covering the same distance in short haul flights.

I am aware of the dangers of criticising others, especially another cultures, for their huge consumption, for their apparent disregard for the climate crisis, when I have just taken a long, carbon emitting flight.

But I’m going to make a few observations anyway – at many temples we had to put on a mask, take off our shoes and put them in to a plastic carrier bag taken from a dispenser in the temple wall. And in front of every department store is a machine for wrapping wet umbrellas in a plastic sheath. But is there somewhere to deposit these plastic bags? No, you take them home.

Food in stores is wrapped in layers and layers of plastic, capsule toys come in spheres of blue plastic, books, magazines, sheathed so that when you open them they feel untouched by human hands. One of the most bizarre things I saw: a single, large strawberry in a plastic dome: 4,000 yen, about £25.

Plastics, masks, subways, shopping malls, road tunnels, they keep things partitioned, hidden, silent, quiet. And consider the traditional Japanese house, the paper walls, these serve no purpose other than to separate, divide, hide.

Japan is an island with a language no one else in the world speaks and uses a written script that is an amalgamation of at least three systems. It is a country and a culture which is proud, independent and isolated. And yet there is little overt patriotism. We saw very few Japanese flags. I recall seeing only one.

The Japanese writing system uses logographic and syllabic systems. The logograms are single characters that represent a word. Japanese children have to learn somewhere in the region of two thousand logograms. And then there’s the syllabic system. And yet the Japanese seem to be in awe of America, and of the English language. Many shops have English signs over the door, many without any Japanese. A man from Osaka, one of the very few we met who spoke English, told us that the Japanese think the English language is cool, even if most don’t understand it. So you get shop names like ‘Snobbish Babies’, ‘Springy Clothes’ and ‘Fashion Leg Shop’.

And then there were the road crossings. Yes, Shibuya crossing is the busiest in the world, some estimates suggest up to 3,000 people cross it at any one time. We crossed it, and couldn’t help but feel everyone else there was crossing it because it was such a famous crossing. Cross over, cross back. But Tokyo has a million crossings with a million red and green figures, most of them with hats. I liked their little hats. I don’t think I saw one person wearing that hat. It looked like a straw boater.

But if the red hatted figure is illuminated, you do not cross. You do not cross even if the road is only the width of a table, you do not cross if there is no traffic as far as the eye can see. You wait. You wait just as you waited at the junction ten metres back, and as you will probably wait at the next one. And as there are many crossings it will take you twenty years to get to the end of the street.

Just obey the rules, regardless of whether they make any sense. I got so frustrated with waiting at a red man when the road was clear that I began documenting the crossings. I have about two hundred photos of these places. Waiting, waiting,waiting.

You do not cross and you do not get cross. We witnessed only one argument, a passenger arguing with a coach driver. And he was screaming and raging. You do not cross and you do not get cross. But when you do, you lose it. You completely lose it. I have a theory about this, I call it all or nothing. The Japanese are all or nothing. I’ll explore this in my next podcast on Kyoto.

We walked an average of eight miles a day. From Shinjuku to Harajuku, then on to Shibuya. From Ginza to Tsukiji fish Market to Shimbashi. We walked and waited at crossings, we walked and marvelled at the cleanliness, this litter free world. We realised even the cars are clean, we saw only one grubby van, and that was just slightly dusty.

We walked and when we were lost someone popped up to show us the way, even if they had no English, they would show kindness and patience and try and point us in the right direction.

These podcasts are about these weird isles, not those weird isles, but after spending time in Japan I have become more aware of some very British idiosyncrasies.

Compared to Japan the UK is raucous, racially and culturally diverse, iconoclastic, more creative and maybe, carefree. And without doubt compared to Japan, the UK is a fucking shambles.

You can’t leave Tokyo without the sense that they’ve got so much right, and when they look at us, in the UK, they must think us dirty, noisy, rude, choatic, maverick, anarchic. But they must also sense that maybe we’re more cynical of big brands, of capitalism, perhaps, less trusting, more open, more global. And we’re certainly not so intimidated by peer pressure, nor so repressed.

But maybe many of us outside of Japan wear metaphorical masks, just a little. In the UK there is tendency towards politeness, towards the same suppressed rage.

But like the UK, Japan is an island that sits off a vast continent. Unlike the UK, though, its language is not spoken or written by much of the rest of the world. And in this sense Japan is alone, perhaps cut off, and this, though, may be its strength.

Even to those who have spent theirlives studying Japan and the Japanese, it will never be understood, never grasped. And this, perhaps,is its allure. To outsiders it will remain aloof, a parallel universe, a blank canvas – a country of infinite complexity and endless dreams

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‘Sedated’ may, at first glance, appear to be a book about the pharmaceutical industry, but it is much more than that – it is well reasoned and passionate attack on the way many of us live, particularly those of us in post-industrial western societies.

There has been a huge rise in anti-depressant use since the 1980s, particularly in countries that have espoused radical right of centre policies: privatisation, deregulation, low taxes, a tightening of government spending, the underfunding of public services.

In ‘Sedated’ James Davies makes a powerful and convincing argument that these policies have led to a mental health crisis. In 2020, for example, seven million people in the UK were using anti-depressants.

Inequality, deprivation, poverty, these, Davies asserts, are the main causes of the mental health epidemic. There is a correlation between marginalisation and poor mental health. So we should not look at the individual as the cause, but at economic and social structures. By blaming the individual and by promoting pharmaceuticals as the solution, we are, Davies writes, promoting ‘the medicalisation of distress’. And this medicalisation furthers the profits of the drug companies.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was, at one point, number one in Amazon books despite its cost: around $88. It’s a huge book listing 370 mental disorders, these created by a panel of psychiatrists, many linked with big pharmaceutical companies who, in turn, buy the book and distribute, free, to clinicians. These professionals, many overworked and doing what they can, prescribe the pharmaceutical company’s drugs, eg anti-depressants, anti-psychotics. It’s not a huge leap to imagine that some of the disorders have been included so that pharmaceutical companies can devise cures. But do the drugs work? Davies suggests many don’t. What works better, is therapy.

So, when, in 1998, the then Labour Government was presented with a case for using therapy as a cheaper alternative to medication, it did so without considering that for talking therapies to work, practitioners had to be given sufficient resources, and perhaps the most important resource was time. This initiative was not just a cynical means of saving money, there was good evidence to show therapy is more successful than medication at treating certain forms of mental illness. What emerged was IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies). And the story of what happened in IAPT is the narrative of many public services. The service is introduced with good intentions, but then, when the costs are examined, calls begin for more rigorous assessment and as these systems kick in, practitioners become overloaded, start gaming the system. James Davies compares what happened in IAPT to what has happened in the education system. And as an ex-headteacher, I know he is absolutely right.

The DSM, (see above), anti-depressants, and to some extent even IAPT, have at their core the suggestion that there is something wrong with the individual. What James Davies suggests is the problem is structural, woven into the way we lead our lives, particularly in countries, like the UK and the US, where people experience huge inequalities.

In the UK, for example, the richest fifth own 50% of the wealth, the lowest fifth only 4%.

Pfizer, who makes Sertraline, the biggest selling anti-depressant in the world, have a clear interest in maintaining this status quo.

For example, Pfizer funded the PHQ9 and GAD7 questionnaires, used by clinicians to diagnose depression and anxiety respectively. These questionnaires were devised by a team at Colmbia University with a grant from Pfizer. Pfizer produce, among other things, anti-depressants, including Sertraline, or Zoloft, the most commonly prescribed anti-depressant in the world. (18 million prescriptions in 2021).

The bar set in these questionnaires is very low, for example:

Over the last two weeks how often have you been bothered by any of the following problems:

– little interest or pleasure in doing things? Feeling down, depressed or hopeless?

– trouble falling or staying asleep or sleeping too much?

– feeling tired or having little energy?

If presented with such a questionnaire most of us, perhaps after a particularly bad week, might score highly. But would we want anti-depressants?

The drug companies fund the DSM, fund the questionnaires, and sell their drugs.

Davies writes this: ‘There is nothing scientifically valid or indeed clinically helpful in reclassifying understandable human suffering as mental pathology.’ And then he expands the probable causes of human suffering as marginalisation, disadvantage, abuse, neglect.

Davies asserts that medicalisation depoliticises depression, or its cause, suffering. He suggests the massive rise of anti-depressant use since the 1980s was triggered by radical conservative or neoliberal policies of Reagan and Thatcher – both influenced by the economist Milton Friedman, of economic freedom at the expense of social democracy, privatisation and personal wealth instead of funding of social support structures. It should be remembered that Friedman advised the dictator Pinochet after the military coup in Chile in 1973. Pinochet’s regime murdered hundreds, perhaps thousands of its own people. Despite this, Friedman called what happened there a ‘miracle’.

Neo-liberalism puts individual responsibility and freedom at the core of its belief. Low taxes, for example, at the expense of public services. The individual is responsible for his or her own destiny. Therefore when things go wrong, it isn’t economic conditions, it isn’t the lack of a support network, it’s the individual at fault. (Remember, it was Thatcher who said ‘there is no such thing as society.’) So, instead of challenging the system, we blame the individual, and prescribe them anti-depressants, even though there is growing evidence to suggest that the drugs don’t work.

There is a clear link between poverty and the prescribing of anti-depressants. Or, perhaps more subtly, it is a link between inequality and medication. Here Davies cites ‘The Spirit Level’, the 2009 book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The book asserts that in every major aspect of life, health, education, justice, individuals in societies with less inequality fare better. It’s an astonishing book, one that sits alongside ‘Sedated’ as a quietly measured, yet explosive demolition of radical right wing economics.

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At War with the Universe

I loved Benjamin Myer’s The Gallows Pole almost as much as Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Yet superficially, at least, these two novels have almost nothing in common.  The Gallow’s Pole is set in the late eighteenth century Yorkshire, its protagonists are the Cragg Valley Coiners, counterfeiters, they live in smokey stone houses, they stink, they swear. Olive Kitteridge is more or less a story of a late middle aged woman in a small town on the east coast of the USA, she’s blunt, sometimes brutal. Each chapter of Olive Kitteridge is almost stand alone, characters breeze in and out, but Olive is like a shadow passing through, she is grumpy, ungracious, flawed and fully human. She’s not particularly happy, just about OK. (Did Strout deliberately choose those initials? Of course she did!) Meanwhile David Hartley, self-styled king of the coiners, is a Robin Hood, a gangster, he is superstitious and dangerous, dispenses his own violent justice to those who cross him. Olive and David are difficult, unpleasant people. They are flawed, unpredictable, yet both have a quality that somehow makes you root for them. This quality, whatever it is, I cannot isolate nor define. Perhaps it is their honesty, their reluctance to comply with polite society, their intolerance of etiquette, their resistance to being nice. I wouldn’t invite either into my house, yet there I was, smuggling them in every day, eager to know what they were up to. Because David and Olive are in a war with life, their struggle is ours, David’s against injustice, poverty, the might of the state. Olive battles stupidity and sentimentality. And both are all too aware of the cold indifference of the universe. This is, perhaps, a clue, a key to their psyches. They have grown a tough skin but somewhere beneath is a soft heart. They are hard to like, but easy to love. Occasionally Strout peels Olive open and we hear something like this: ‘Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety in the sea of terror that life increasingly became.’ Olive and David are like tiny children, who wake at night in impenetrable darkness, but who, instead of hiding under the duvet, yell out at the bogeymen, the invisible demons. They take on the universe, its meaninglessness, and somehow, in doing so, show us courage, and even when all seems lost, how to keep going.

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Geoff Dyer’s Not Books

Four or five years ago I was wandering around Bristol when I saw someone who looked like Geoff Dyer walking up the street. I knew it couldn’t be Dyer because he lived in Los Angeles, but scurried up behind this lookalike, overtook him and walked by again, this time trying to get a closer look. It was him, of course.

He was there to promote his latest book White Sands – I soon discovered he’d be in Waterstones later that day giving a talk, so I went along. I’ve followed Dyer’s career for many years. I’d heard him on the radio reading from one of his earliest books, a novel, The Search. The book was disappointing, a bit flat, but nevertheless Dyer’s voice, his take on things had stayed with me, so when he started to find his feet as a non-fiction writer, I soon followed. And I loved what he wrote. Out of Sheer Rage is a sort of non-biography of DH Lawrence. Dyer is researching Lawrence, has an advance, a deadline, but he can’t get the book finished, so instead writes a book about not writing a book. Dyer is very good at not doing things. Hence the title of a later book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.

In the spirit of Dyer I didn’t buy a signed copy of White Sands and still don’t own a copy. It was serialised as Radio Four’s Book of the Week, I’d also picked it up several times in bookshops to flick through it. There’s a chapter on not seeing the Northern Lights. It was another book of nots. So I was not buying it.

Last week Dyer turned up in Bath to promote his new book The Last Days of Roger Federer which, as Dyer was keen to explain, is not a book about tennis. This is a book about endings, but not abrupt endings, but declines. How someone’s decline sets in long before things end completely. It’s a book about finitude. About ageing, and about time. The book is 86,400 words long, the same number as there are seconds in a day. Nietzsche, for example, lived long after his madness set in, and Bob Dylan, according to Dyer, still makes records long after he has since being any good at all.

So is Dyer in decline too? He admits to feeling a bit creaky: he plays tennis but his knee is messed up. He had a mild stroke some years ago (he mentioned it at the Bristol talk), but his mind seems still capable of pinpoint accuracy. He is extremely funny, most of his books are smart but some are hilarious too, and in Bath he talked for almost an hour and his performance was worthy of stand up. Certainly funnier than Ricky Gervais’ Supernature.

I bought a signed copy of The Last Days of Roger Federer but like many of my signed first editions, I won’t read it. I’ll keep it on my shelf, out of the sunlight, and it’ll stay there until my last days when my son or daughter will come and throw it in a box and take it to a charity shop.

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What We Can Learn from Germany

Go into any bookshop in the UK and look in the German history section – the vast majority of books are related to World War Two – there is almost nothing on German post war reconstruction, or the origins of the state. Britain’s inability to see beyond the war has prevented us from learning from German success, and their achievements are, of course, very many. From the arts, the sciences, manufacturing, Germany is a world power: Adidas, Aldi, Audi, Bach, Beethoven, BMW, Bosch, Dr Martens, Einstein, Lidl, Mercedes, Porsche, the printing press, Puma, Wagner. Alexander Von Humboldt has more animals and places named after him than anyone else. Heard of him? Why not?

William Hershel discovered the planet Uranus from his back garden in Bath. I spend much of my time in that city and am struck by how few of the residents have heard of him or know there is a museum there dedicated to the man, his equally famous sister and their discoveries. Hershel, like Humboldt may be less than well known because they were German. And the British, particularly the English, have a bit of thing about Germans. (When England play Germany at football commentators always refer to the two countries having a rivalry, but I’m pretty sure it’s one way – the Germans don’t think about the English anything like as much.)

John Kampfner’s Why the Germans Do It Better is a great book with a terrible title. Kampfner is in awe of  the Germans, but not so much that the book avoids being critical.

If the Germans are more successful than the rest of Europe and particularly the UK it maybe because their economy is distributed, geographically and productively. 80% of Germany’s GDP comes from family businesses. And two thirds of these businesses are in places with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants. Compare this to the UK, where we are a predominantly service based economy. One astonishing fact exemplifies the difference between Germany and other major economies: Berlin is the only capital city where GDP per capita is lower than the rest of the country.

Germany was unified in 1871, before then it was made up of the states of the Holy Roman Empire, each with its own prince, or elector, its own identity. This maybe one origin of Germany’s more distributed economy. German unification came too late for any major colonial influence, the country did not grow rich on the proceeds of the slave trade. The Germans had to create their own wealth. Germany introduced compulsory education sixty years earlier than the UK and by the early 1800s had fifty universities compared to just Oxford and Cambridge in England. (Scotland was also ahead of England in this respect). The printing press was invented by Gutenberg in Mainz – in 1785 Germany circulated 1,225 periodicals and by 1913 more books were published annually in Germany (31,051 titles) than any other country in the world. In 1900 illiteracy was lower in Germany than France or the UK – all these factors led to the creation of an educated middle class, and in turn helped give rise to the family businesses that fuel the German economy. German law requires significant employee representation on the supervisory boards of large companies. Germany has many faults: its obsession with cars and coal, successive coalition governments that are often slow to act, huge, disastrous, infrastructure projects (the Tempelhof Airport) and a less than world class banking system. But if the UK (and particularly England) can learn from Germany then we must all put the past behind us and maybe think of the country as a friend rather than as a rival.

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The Georgian Star

The Hershel Museum sits in a quiet street of terraced houses just outside the centre of Bath. I’ve passed it many times, seen the modest plate that marks it. In the back garden of this house, in 1781, William Hershel, musician, church organist, composer of symphonies and amateur astronomer, discovered the planet Uranus. Hershel was from Hanover, but left his home to escape conscription and was soon joined in England by his sister Caroline. The reigning monarch, King George III, was also from Hanover, so Hershel wanted to name his new planet George, or ‘the Georgian Star’. Despite not succeeding in this, the king appointed Hershel his court astronomer, and in the years to come, Hershel was to build a telescope, in Slough, so huge that it remained the biggest in the world for fifty years.

The discovery of Neptune, in 1846 has, to some extent, obscured Hershel’s achievement, and minimised the profound effect it must have had on contemporary thinking. Uranus was the first planet to be discovered in modern times. Each of those already discovered is visible to the naked eye and were known even to the Babylonians. Neptune’s discovery doubled the size of the solar system, and, at the same time, made Earth, and thus all the achievements of humanity, shrink down to tiny speck, just one more, orbiting our Sun. Furthermore Hershel recognised that some of what were thought of as nebulae, clouds of cosmic dust, were other galaxies, and the recognition of this could only serve to reduce the sense of humanity’s importance, and maybe question belief in a deity.

Hershel’s first obsession was cataloguing double stars – pairs of stars which appear to be close; some of these he recognised as being binary stars, a term and distinction which is still in use today. Meanwhile his sister, who at first accepted the role of his assistant, noting down his observations in the light of the kitchen while he sat at his telescope in the garden, began her own quest, and today is celebrated for her work on comets, one of which bears her name.

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Octopus Consciousness

Consider this: an octopus has one central brain and possibly eight smaller brains, each for the independent control of its limbs. It also has skin that reacts to colour changes in the environment even though the octopus cannot see colour itself. How? Its skin can see. Therefore it’s possible that the octopus has several forms of consciousness operating independently. Maybe the limbs communicate with each other, and thus the octopus has three levels of awareness: the central brain, the limbs and the skin. All this is explored in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s  dazzling ‘Metazoa’, a book which blew both my minds, particularly when Godfrey-Smith considers the consciousness of the octopus in light of experiments on split brain patients. Then things get very weird. If, after surgery, or damage, a patient’s brain has weak communication between its two halves, then the patient may recognise objects, but not be able to name them. Such patients live in a world that is separated into things and their names, and somehow the two never quite hold together. It is only by what Godfrey-Smith calls ‘switching’ that the patient can function – the patient must learn to switch perception from one side of the brain to the other: the vigilant right brain flips to the more forensic left. ‘In a wide range of animals, the left side of the brain specialises in identifying food, the right has an aptitude for social relations and threats.’ Maybe all humans use ‘switching’, one moment concentrating, focusing, the next, vigilant, open to new impressions. (Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary‘  explores this subject in great depth).  Could the octopus do something similar – switch its focus from central brain to its limbs, or even to its skin? ‘Metazoa’ is a book about consciousness, or perhaps subjectivities. Bees ‘are masters of logical abstraction’, insects and slugs have emotions, fish can count and even discriminate different genres of music, cuttlefish dream, rats hatch plans. With such intelligence in life forms we may have assumed were lacking in complexity, maybe its time to reconsider our attitude to all other beings, and accept that although humans may be more destructive, we aren’t so special after all.

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Knausgaard’s End

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s huge six volume series My Struggle concludes with a gigantic 1100 page bruiser of a book, aptly title The End. Knausgaard’s writing has been termed ‘auto-fiction’ – his books tell the story of his life, all characters are real people, but unlike a conventional biography, this is life in all its maddening, repetitive detail. I’d like to be able to compare it with minimalist music, but at least that can have some beauty. Knausgaard’s six novels are crudely written, dwell on his insecurities and are dense with endless, insignificant minutiae. He pours coffee, smokes cigarette after cigarette. He worries, makes tedious trips to the shops and the park, stares out of windows. And yet there is something else happening here. It’s as if we’re trawling through our own lives, but with an intensity of focus on all the trivia: cooking sausages, loading the dishwasher, remembering the colour and smell of children’s clothes, the feel of warm rooms in summer, of cold streets in winter. Knausgaard creates a vivid reality, he seems to have an acute visual memory, seems to hold details of moments from decades ago that the rest of us have forgotten. In this last book he attempts to rationalise his obsession with the banal: in a long digression on the power of language in the rise of the Nazis, Knausgaard rejects reaching beyond the quotidian, elevating the world to something more than it is. There is desire for what is authentic, for what matters, for the human world. This is why, he seems to be saying, I have filled five volumes with getting up, making breakfast, doing the laundry, and, in this last book, worrying what others he has written about will think of him. He has a hyper-vigilance, a tension, a constant anxiety. When it’s remembered that book one of the series describes his father’s death, stirring up Knausgaard’s hatred for the man he regards as a thug, then there is some explanation for this vigilance: since he can remember, Knausgaard was bullied and beaten by his father. Many passages recall him waiting to hear his father come home, terrified what mood he would be in. These are novels of fear, of a lifelong insecurity, and although there is love and laughter here too, there is an overwhelming sense of man battling to be free. This, then, is his struggle.

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