April 2010

He was a most strange looking man, much bigger than average and rather stout.  Slovenly, dishevelled, deaf, almost blind with myopia; he slobbered, he dribbled, was host to all manner of people, and his personal cleanliness left much to be desired.  In truth, he stank.  And he had a variety of strange tics and habits.  As he walked along, he’d touch every railing and if he thought he’d missed one, he’d rush back and touch it again.  He used to count the paving stones and he’d pick up and collect orange peel.  When he visited friends he would wait at the doorstep and as the door was opened,  pirouette twice,  pause and then leap over the threshold as if jumping over a fence.   And when he was concentrating he would screw up his face, twist his mouth into the oddest grimace and also make the oddest utterances.   

Rude and opinionated, he didn’t mind what he said to people and was given to blurting out his opinions in a way that seems to resemble what we now know as Gilles de la Tourette’s disorder but his utterances were snatches of sayings or prayers,  the preoccupations of a man who  lived in his head rather than the blasphemies and vulgarities associated Tourette’s.  Dr Johnson knew how to behave when he had to.   

Yet, for all his oddities, he was one of the most respected men in the country. His prose is lucid, insightful and reads well  two and a half centuries later.  His compilation of the first English Dictionary was an amazing feat of intellectual achievement.  During his lifetime he was admired by the most intelligent and creative in the land; Walpole, Pope, Defoe, Garrick, Reynolds, Fanny Burney; anybody who was anybody.  They provided much needed recognition and meaning to his life.  He enjoyed conversation immensely

But it wasn’t just the great and the good that he befriended.   People of all walks of life called on him and were guaranteed an audience.  His compassion for the underprivileged was legendary.  People were drawn to him; he looked after them and they in turn took care of him. 

Dr Johnson feared madness all his life.  He had good reason to; his behaviour was, to say the least, eccentric.  Nowadays, his idiosyncrasies might be considered features of severe obsessive compulsive disorder, while his dedication to his dictionary, his habit of always making lists, might suggest Asperger’s Syndrome.  But how much of his strange behaviour, especially touching railings, counting paving stones and leaping over the threshold a consequence of severe visual impairment and deafness? As a child, he was so severely myopic that he once crawled all the way back home in the gutter.  After that his friends would give him piggy-backs home in return for help with their work and protection from bullies.  Children with severe sensory deficit from birth can be extremely gifted, artistically and intellectually.  Was Dr Johnson such a person? 

But was there also an emotional reason for his strange personality? Did young Samuel inherit a melancholia along with a love of books from his father?  Did his mother’s snobbery and grievance play its part in creating an unhappy home environment?  It appears that she may have suffered post partum depression; she found it difficult to bond to her son, who contracted scrofula from his wet nurse and was once taken to London to be cured by Queen Anne (Scrofula, tuberculosis of the lymph nodes in the neck, was also known as the King’s Evil and was reputed to be cured by the touch of the monarch).  Another son, Nathaniel, Samuel’s brother, died in mysterious circumstances.  So did Samuel compensate for the emotional deficiencies of family life by finding meaning in words and writing?  He was a child prodigy, so far in advance of everybody at his Lichfield school that he got a place in Oxford, but he didn’t fit the Oxford scene.  Unable to pay the fees, he left after a year.  For a time he thought he could become a schoolmaster, but his strange behaviour distracted the pupils and undermined his authority.  

Dr Johnson always had a deep dread of loneliness.  He needed human society desperately.    Without companionship, he was all too vulnerable to guilt and melancholy, the black dog that stalked him all his life. 

Many of his friends were also marked out by their idiosyncratic genius.  James Boswell, his biographer and travelling companion, depicted the Hebridean Johnson in a brown travelling coat with pockets so deep they could hold the two folio editions of his dictionary.  On the face of it, there could hardly have been two such dissimilar friends.  Boswell was a man of great appetites.  He could not manage without casual sex, which he would procure from prostitutes, and suffered chronic gonorrhoea throughout his adult life, dying early from  urinary retention and renal failure.  Johnson was, it seems, somewhat sexually repressed but shared Boswell’s desperate need for human contact.    

Another close friend was the artist Joshua Reynolds, founder president of the Royal Academy.  Like Johnson, Reynolds had problems with perception and communication. He was deaf all his life and had a hare lip, making his speech difficult to understand.  Later in life, he suffered from  cataracts, but wore glasses and carried on painting.  Reynolds was, for a time, linked romantically with Fanny Burney, a witty, amusing woman, who wrote the Bridget Jones novels of their time, but Fanny wisely noted that Reynolds had already had two ‘shakes of the palsy’, and she herself had survived a mastectomy without anaesthetic and  wasn’t prepared to take him on. 

But Dr Johnson need people around him all the time.  When Hetty, the wife who was 20 years older than him, died, he filled his house with waifs and strays, like blind Annie Willamson and her eccentric father and his black servant, Frank Barber, who inherited his estate.  He also developed a strong attachment to the blue-stocking,  Hester Thrale, and was so devastated when she fled to Italy with Senor Piozzi, the opera singer that he refused to communicate with her ever again.     

Perhaps Johnson could never abide solitude because he was not at peace with himself. Life, according to Johnson,  was to be endured.  He always considered himself unworthy. He prayed to God to forgive his slothfulness and selfishness.  He feared that if he became too self conscious, it would cut him off from God and then he would be truly mad. He even gave Mrs Thrale a padlock to chain him up with if he went mad.  

In his dictionary, Dr Johnson defines mad as ‘disordered in the mind, broken in the understanding, overrun with any unreasonable or violent desire’.  But over the years, madness acquired social connotations. People are considered mad if they don’t fit in with the accepted conventions of society.  As Boswell wrote, madness discloses itself by deviation from the ways of the world. The Soviets incarcerated writers, who dared to criticise the system in state asylums

From a social perspective, Johnson might well be considered mad.  He just didn’t fit in.  he didn’t dress or behave like others in the intellectual society he might have belonged to. He was strange, bigoted and politically incorrect.  Johnson didn’t just behave like other people; he didn’t think like them either.  People came from far and wide to listen to his unconventional take on life.  It is the same now.  Those who express their ideas freely and with confidence are given an audience.  We celebrate their ‘madness’.  We might think of Grayson Perry or Alan Bennett or even Stephen Hawking.  Johnson was  regarded as a national treasure in his day.  His oddness was recognised to be the mainspring of his creativity.

Compiling his dictionary provided a whimsical outlet for his idiosyncrasies and probably  kept him sane.  Under the entry Oats, is written, ‘a cereal which in England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people’.  Horse is defined as ‘a quadruped that neighs.’   The definition of a Lexicographer is – ‘a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge!’  Surely not! 

Johnson has a touch of the Edward Lear about him, but he was no dangerous lunatic.  He wasn’t disordered in the mind or broken in understanding.  On the contrary, it was his mind, his struggles to discover the meaning of things that made him one the sanest people of the age.   

An unshakeable faith in the existence of a man who was born of a virgin and sprang to life again after he had been murder could be regarded as a severe psychotic delusion, but for the society in which Dr Johnson lived, not to believe in that would have marked him out as mad.  Perhaps Johnson thought too much.  Perhaps he had too many doubts. He genuinely feared he might go to hell for his beliefs, but although the guilt of it all threatened to drive him mad,  his struggles for meaning kept him sane. 

Johnson debates the nature of madness in his allegory, ‘Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia’.  In it, he does not disavow a person’s beliefs as long as those as the meaning of those beliefs can be explored.  Anxiety, guilt, remorse, frustration is how we react to unliveable situations.  They are the drivers of change.  Life exists in the striving after meaning.  If melancholy is your situation, poetry is your deliverance.  Writing the dictionary saved Johnson from the purgatory of his indolent thoughts and slothfulness. Prince Rasselas had to escape the Happy Valley of CBT,  in order to find the real world. 

When patients in a mental home cease to rail against their incarceration and begin to comply, they may seem less mad,  but they have relinquished  their sense of self and the meaning of their suffering.  To get over a crisis, people have to see things differently and that takes courage.  You have to risk madness in the pursuit of meaning. 

Adam Phillips (Going Sane), as ever, goes one stage further.  He writes that madness is a moral obligation.  Too many people are trapped by convention.  They cannot take the risk.  The dangers are too great.  Nevertheless, it is the possibility of change, the frisson, the anticipation, that makes people happy and for that they must risk madness.  It was all too painful for Lear; he did indeed become disordered in the mind to escape from his own intolerable reality.   But when change is impossible, people can only manage.  Freud did not claim to bring happiness into people’s lives; just to help them change misery into everyday unhappiness.  

Towards the end of his life, Johnson couldn’t see and he couldn’t afford candles.  He gave way to the madness that he’d struggled with all his life.  He burnt all his papers, diaries everything; he fed the fires of hell so they would consume his guilt.  Then he stuck a knife into his painfully swollen leg to release the poison.

‘Dr Johnson on Madness’ was the topic of an Inner Circle seminar convened by Dr Anthony Stadlen at Dr Johnson’s house in Gough Square on November 8th 2009.

They were made for each other,  weren’t they?  Not so much a marriage made in heaven as an accident waiting to happen. 

There was George W. Bush, the rich privileged son of a previous senator and president, the playboy, the drunkard, the ne’er-do-well, who went into politics by default.  He was governor of Texas for a time but really didn’t have to do very much.  He went into the presidential race with no experience in national government whatsoever. He might have been a quiet reflective president who slipped into the job and worked well with people, but I doubt it.  He was too much of a maverick, too much of a loner; he wanted to be a hero too much.  He was dangerously out of his depth, reliant on the same hawkish advisers that his father had when he was in power.

Then there was Blair.  Again, not a committed politician.  As a student, he was an actor.  He performed in a rock band, he enjoyed the limelight.  The law initially gave him his theatre; he could master a brief quickly and deliver the essence of it with skill and eloquence.  When Blair entered politics, he found his true vocation.  He had great appeal.  He could dress something up as if it was brand new and exciting.  He introduced the concept of New Labour.  He was the man of action and change, a complete contrast to John Major’s grey man.

Then there was God.  George W. had found God during a visit to Billy Graham in the 1980s.  From that moment he realised that God had singled him out to be President.  It was God who suggested he send  troops into Afghanistan.  It was God who commanded him to send troops into Iraq.  But this was introjection;  George W had assumed messianic qualities.  “It wasn’t me Guv, it was God.  He commanded me to do it”. 

Tony Blair was more reserved about his religious convictions.  But like Bush, he was born again.  He was an Anglican who became a Catholic.  He was convinced of the moral righteousness of war in Iraq.  It was his duty to get rid of evil dictators whenever he met them.  Again, one wonders why he didn’t attempt to do anything against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.  But with God on his side, how could his troops fail? 

Then there was 9/11.  The sense of outrage was felt throughout the American continent and around the world; George W. had to do something.  So he declared war – war against terror!   Blair was much better with words than Bush was.  He became Bush’s  PR manager.  They convinced each other they could conquer the world.  They were a hubristic duo, both convinced of their moral rectitude. They didn’t listen to counter arguments. They disparaged those who opposed them, even those in their own governments.  Blair disbanded the cabinet government and set up his own foreign affairs and defence departments within Number 10.  His foreign minister, Jack Straw, was side lined.  Blair wanted his place in history and so did Bush.  So they ignored international law and opinion.    

The war went as predicted.  It was over in about 6 days.  Saddam Hussein went into hiding, but was eventually caught and assassinated.  Bush went on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of California wearing a flying jacket and was photographed with the words ‘Mission Accomplished’ emblazoned on the bulkhead behind him.  But they both failed to plan for the peace. 

There was widespread looting and destruction. The lawlessness went on for several years and engaged hundreds of thousands of troops at great expense to both countries.  But the American provisional governor had disbanded  the Iraqi army and police force and isolated the more reasonable elements that might form a new government.  The Americans and their British allies knew best.

The Hubris Syndrome; Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power was written by David Owen, the former  British foreign secretary in 2007 and published by Politico’s.

The U boats lay in wait for us as soon as we rounded North Cape.  There was only a narrow passage between the tundra and the ice, and as they closed in on the convoy underwater,  Stukas from their Norwegian bases, dive bombed us from above.  It was hell!   The sea was always rough and water washed over the guns froze immediately.  If anybody fell overboard, they didn’t last more than 3 minutes.’

I listened but couldn’t identify with Ron’s experience. It felt disloyal to do so. Hadn’t Dad been sent up to Orkney to risk his life protecting the Arctic convoys?  Hadn’t he crashed and nearly died up there?  Did he deserve to have his wife stolen, his family disrupted by one of the sailors he protected?   So I suppressed my curiosity. 

Many years later, I grew to love Northern Finland.   So when I spotted  ‘Running with Reindeer’, that described an exploration of the Kola Peninsula,  the destinations of the Russian convoys, over 10 years in the nineteen nineties, I had to find out more.  

But it was the author, Roger Took, who intrigued me.  Why on earth would a sensitive, rich middle -aged man, an art historian and museum curator, an establishment figure, want to spend so long in  what he described as one of the most unfriendly and inhospitable places on earth? 

But Took was a man obsessed.  In just one month, he learnt to speak Russian well enough to get by and arrived alone in the derelict port and abandoned goods yards of Murmansk with its grim government buildings and decrepit five story apartment blocks.   His stated purpose was to find the remnants of the Saami, the Lappish peoples, still living in the far north of Russia, and to discover how much of their culture still survived.  

But there was more to it than that.  Took went out of his way to court suspicion, discomfort and danger.  There was little that was uplifting in his book.   He trudges across the tundra in freezing rain with inadequate shelter and food, he falls up to chest into bogs, he spends a night in a filthy cabin where he witnesses a drunken homosexual gang rape,  he visits restricted inlets where decommissioned  submarines rot, their reactors disintegrating and turning the sea radioactive, he sees mountains devastated by open cast mines and  he records a landscape blasted and polluted by nickel smelting.   He does finds isolated pockets of Saami, but realises that their traditional way livelihood of reindeer herding, hunting and salmon fishing was ruined collectivisation, their culture corrupted by alcohol and prostitution. 

His is a grim tale with no redemption.   So why wasTook so attracted to this, the most devastated and corrupt aspects of civilisation that he returned again and again.  That question bothered me increasingly as I persevered with the turgid academic prose of his punishing narrative.  What was it about this guy?  There was an unrelenting darkness about him.  But why?  I had to consult Google.  

I was shocked to discover that Roger Took is in prison.  There is a long article, written for The Spectator in 2008 by Carol Metcalfe.   He had bragged in his blog about being part of a group of men, who raped and murdered a 5 year old girl in Cambodia.  Although Took dismissed this as fantasy, there were scores of incriminating images on his computer and he had been paying his step grand-daughter to have sex with him.  Wikipedia lists difficulties in his marriage, another woman he could not forget, sexual frustration and a fragile, sensitive personality.  Any review of his book, which was nominated for an international prize for travel writing, has been removed.           

 So were Took’s expeditions deliberately punitive or just an escape from the perversity of his privileged lifestyle?   Was his book an attempt to purge himself of some dreadful shame? 

What made Took a paedophile?  Did an unduly close and controlling relationship with his mother make committed  mature relationships with women seem too threatening.   Did the difficulties he had in his two marriages instigate the need for the kind of controlling sexual relationships, he could procure only  with emotionally needy and vulnerable children?  Did his celebrity and privilege create a sense of entitlement; the feeling that he could indulge his perversions?  

His book fails to provide any answers to these questions, but the final chapter does allude to encounters with teenage prostitutes in Murmansk in 1998.  Ron had also mentioned picking up Russian women in Murmansk; the Winston Churchill House of Friendships catered for the needs of foreigners,  but few sailors ever realised the terrible price the women would pay for friendship.

In the more remote villages, they live in long houses, constructed of bamboo and rattan,  cook on open wooden fires, squat on the dirt floor to eat from a low table and sleep on a low wooden platform.  They wear traditional clothes, grow their own vegetables and hill rice, brew their own rice whisky, fish, hunt for game and forage in the forest for herbs, fruits and berries. The community is to all intents and purposes, self sufficient, living in a manner that has changed little for thousands of years.

And the people seem robust and healthy, the trimmed physique of the men carries not an ounce of fat, their teeth are intact, their skin not infected with sores. The women are strong and bear healthy infants at their hips. 

The children are infinitely curious, open and engaging.  They want to know about everything and are fascinated by my equipment; camera, glasses, binoculars, books, pencils and especially postcards.  I show them how to draw and how to play noughts and crosses.  They pick up the idea very quickly. They go to school in the village until they are about 11 and then help in the fields.  Some girls, who couldn’t have been more 12 pass with baskets on their back and machetes on their belts, heading for the creek.  An hour later they return, their burden of firewood supported by the wooden yoke across their shoulders and a band of rattan around their foreheads.

But Northern Laos is a land in transition. Even in this village, one of two young men have a moto, a small fifty cc motorcycle, there is a rusty satellite dish outside one house servicing the village’s sole television that is powered by car batteries, and there are two solar panels outside another house, from which emanates as from some magic cave, the multicoloured winking lights of mobile phone chargers. A UN team is doing a survey to work out how they might build a proper latrine and pipe in water from a reservoir in the hills.     

This village is lucky.  The changes that have taken place have not changed the basic structure and function of the community.  The community is still run by a committee of village elders.  The government has had little impact, yet!  

Elsewhere, the changes are more drastic.  The communist government has devised a  policy of moving rural villages to the main roads. The new houses are based on a traditional design, but more are made of wood and brick instead of bamboo and rattan. They have lost their soul; their identity. People work in the new rubber plantations that have grown up along the deforested hillsides. Others take a moto or tuk-tuk to work in town.  Community is being eroded; individual expression is more the rule.  Under one house, a toddler was careering around in a fancy baby walker,  in brand new pink baby suit and flashing new trainers.  And the Chinese are coming.     

There is a big school in the roadside village. The children gather from miles around and play on ‘the green’, the big area of hard dirt in the centre of the village. It was like a painting by Pieter Bruegel. There were home-made whipping tops, a hopping game of tag, a game where children took it in turns to hop down a track balancing a bean on their free foot. There was a game of skittles played with big beans that skimmed along the concrete floor outside the classrooms, there was a skipping game where the rope was held very high and the girls had to reach up and pull the rope down with their foot. Older boys played boules and a few kicked a football about.  Sinoy, one of the local guides, made a small square shuttlecock by weaving strips of banana leaf together into a box and inserting a stick topped with a leaf or a bit of plastic in the top. It flew perfectly and we played endlessly batting it to each with hands, feet, knees and forehead. It was great fun! Games reinforce companionship and community and are all the more important at a time of such rapid change.  

But people seem less open and friendly, the nearer the village is to the road.  Maybe they sense danger.  Strangers stop and buy food from stalls set up at the roadside.  It’s easy to see they might soon be stopping for sex; perhaps they already do.  The proprietor of the guest house is the local Mr Big, a swaggering, obese young man dressed in a bright red top emblazoned with the Manchester United logo, long French football shorts and brand new trainers. The children eat sweets and have pot bellies and a permanent dribble. Every young person has a moto and a mobile phone; it’s obligatory. There are more satellite dishes and most houses are supplied with electricity. This was not just a village in transition; the whole culture is in transition; in fact the whole developing world is changing, fast.  Traditional ways of life are disappearing or retained as window dressing for the tourists. Eco-tourism is big up here, only don’t look too carefully.  The cultural reality of it is disappearing before your eyes, managed by fat boys in designer gear who marshal groups of ethnics for photographs.

Of course, it does not do to romanticise this too much.  The forest can only support a small number of people and there are nutritional and infective risks if population levels increase.  An expanding population is going to need more intensive farming and access to town.   

In Hanoi, a wonderful Museum of Ethnography has been created for people to understand their vanished ethnic heritage. It feels infinitely sad that it is necessary to create a museum of a way of life was quite viable and wondrous in its diversity.  Yes, progress cannot really be halted but progress is a kind of meaningless unification.  Piped water, electricity, television, motos and other labour saving services and devices may make life easier, but what they take away is invaluable; the identity and meaning of a culture that has evolved over thousands of years.           

Most exploit the change, of course; they have to, but it doesn’t always bring happiness.  Our guide, Pon, is a sharp young man caught between cultures.  He clearly loves trekking through the jungle and knows ‘everybody’, bring medicines for the shaman’s stomach ache, cigarettes for his male friends, smiles and love songs for his girl friends and the occasional T shirt for the children. He enjoys his role as envoy between cultures.  But when we visited him in his home with his lovely wife and cute son, it was clear that he is  not happy. He has been exposed to a western way of life that he can never have. He has the expectations of western lifestyle, but his salary as a guide is limited and he is too dependent on meaningless charm to exact additional large tips from his clients.  His wife does not speak English.  They live with her parents. He can’t travel, see the world, he can only look at the television.  He is trapped!

The same dichotomy was all too apparent on the coach that took us from the sprawling dust of Phnom Penh to The Cardamom Hills along the highway built by the Thais in 2008.  The video played endlessly showing images of young men in sharp suits, driving long shiny black sports cars (sometimes a sports car is just a sports car but often it’s not), and picking up pretty young girls, whom they transport to a moonlit lake to sing their songs of romantic love. The story is always the same; if you want the doe-eyed girl of your fantasies, don’t be a loser and work in the fields, but get yourself sharp clothes and a smart car. Cambodia is still dreadfully poor, but these videos purvey an impossible dream, a dream that makes every young person feel like a loser. London was never paved with gold and Cambodia can never be Beverley Hills! That’s the reality.

‘Just follow me dad!’  Alex reached the end of the lane and then turned left into an relentless wall of oncoming traffic, easing his bike across the path of motos, tuktuks, cars and trucks which just turned a little to miss him without altering their steady 20 mph, until he blended in with the flow of traffic going in our direction.

It’s an experience driving in Phnom Penh.  There are few traffic lights and roundabouts and  no obvious rules.  Drivers and cyclists just seem to know how others will behave and avoid them as they would just as if they were walking along a crowded pavement.

It’s the same if you want to cross the road on foot.  Just step out into the flow and keep walking slowly and deliberately so that nobody has any doubt of your intensions and they drive round you. 

Despite the volume and chaos of traffic, we saw just one accident, when somebody fell of their moto at the side of the road.      

Drivers are not neurotic in Phnom Penh.  There are no stops and starts, no irritations, no speed merchants, no horn honking or shouting just a blending into a steady inexorable flow of traffic.  Everybody seems to know what is expected.

But the way, they drive their motos looks incredibly dangerous; police in England would have a field day. Mothers balance children on the handlebars as they drive one-handed through  heavy traffic.  A family, a little baby sandwiched between mother and father, careers along in the flow.  A man controls his moto one-handed while wheeling a bike with the other.  Another balances a big water tank on the handlebars and peers round the side of it.    

Sundays evenings are the busiest time. Then everybody seems to go for a ‘promenade en moto’.  It’s the time to see and be seen.  Men ride upright in shiny suits while their women sit side-saddle in their best pyjamas.   And their children stand up on the seat in their designer football strips and wave.

‘Nobody wants a hung parliament.  Politicians of different convictions would never come to a decision.  It would lead to paralysis.  It would destroy confidence in the economy just at the time we are recovering.’   At least this is what Labour and the Conservatives think.  Well, they would, wouldn’t they?  They’ve worked hard to establish clear water between themselves and they want a free hand to do things in their own way.  ‘Only a party with a single majority can create a leader to make big decisions that are necessary.’ 

But hang on a bit.  Are the parties so far apart?   The Prime Ministerial debate on Thursday night was more like the X Factor than a clear exposition of policy.  Yes, the Lib Dems would scrap Trident, the Conservatives are wary of Europe and would give people more say in how schools, hospitals and local government is run,  Labour claims to be the only party with the knowledge and experience to run the economy.  But when it comes it comes down to it, isn’t this just political posturing – the need to say something different?  Wouldn’t all these stances need debate and modulation to arrive at a  policy that is likely to work? 

There is actually more that joins the parties than separates them.  Difference are of more of style than content.  We can always point to any government that has been in charge as long as Labour has and accuse it of ruining the country.  Novelty always seems more attractive.  But will a different party lead to different government?   The economy, war in Afghanistan, schools, the health service;  it seems that there is little room to manoeuvre.  What is required is a steady concensus.  People are fed up with the constant back biting and bickering of party politics.  It would be good to see Vince Cable sitting down with Gordon Brown and coming to an economic strategy that we can all trust.     Exit from Afghanistan is surely something that we all want and is too important to be left to party politics. 

Most governments in Europe are coalitions.  Are they any the worse for that.  Look at Germany for example.   Britain insisted on proportional representation after the war to prevent a return to totalitarianism.  Germany has been a model of success and stability since that time.     

 The problem with government is the politics.  Domination by a single party does not make for the best decisions; only those that are expedient.  The same could be said of our first past the post system.  It may facilitate decision making, but at the expense of important perspectives.   A significant proportion of the electorate are green, yet they are unlikely to get a seat.   The Lib Dems may capture the popular vote, but they will not necessarily get many more seats than they already have.    

Single party governments are  always looking over their shoulders to their supporters; the Unions, big business and the wider British public.  After a lifetime in medicine,  I am convinced that the NHS fails the majority of ill people, but no party dares address that.   I think our lives are too regulated, but any attempt to unpick that is accompanied with cries of outrage leading to reinforcement of health and safety.  There is too much fear in politics.  While an established coalition might affront the democratic principles we are so proud of and lead to fears of totalitarianism and tyranny,  there are times when it seems the only way to deal with a crisis.

Crisis creates opportunity for change.  We had a coalition during the war.  Even characters are dissimilar as Churchill and Attlee found they could work together.  Beveridge could bring on the Welfare State.  Surely the economy is too big a crisis to be left under the control of a single dominant politician, who shows every sign of being susceptible to paranoia.   But will the public see that?   Has the economy really created the crisis of a European war or is it like global warming – we know it’s there, but they effects of not hit us yet?  

The choice is this election is not really one of policy.  It’s all about personality.  I thought all three leaders performed really well on Thursday.  As polls indicated, there was really little to choose between them.   The choice, it seems, is between the devil we know and the bright new kids on the block, who we don’t.   Governance should not be about  politics.  This is not the way to solve problems. I think it’s time for proper joined up government we can have confidence in.

Our world and everything in it including ourselves has been shaped by water.  Yet how much do we understand it?

Left to itself, water approximates to a sphere, circular currents bounded by surface tension,  but when subjected to gravity, then the circular forces in the water turn the flow into a spiral form (or two spirals in one), bending it from side to side and creating meanders in rivers as silt is taken from the outside off the curve and deposited on the inside of the next bend. The same spiral arrangement also exists where water from different sources come together – the warm waters of the gulf stream spiral around the colder currents, the clear Rio Negro and the muddy Amazonas spiral adjacent to each other for scores of miles after they merge above Manaus.    

Add an external force like dropping a pebble in a bowl and water will adopt a natural frequency of vibration depending on the configuration of the container.  Vibration may also be imposed by wind or obstructions to flow, creating ripples, that can be recorded on sand and rocks.  The gravitational effect of the moon exaggerates natural rhythm of water around the globe.  

Waves in open water are created by the wind on the surface or a rising sea bed close to the shore. Although the wave moves, the water in it just circulates. Rays and other fish swim like a wave through the static circulating water.  The wave ‘breaks’  when wind accelerates the top and causes it to overbalance or when the rising shore line slows down the base.   This creates a horizontal air/water vortex that churns and oxygenates the water. 

In contrast, the standing wave generated by the fall of water in a weir is static and water flows through it.   So the wave is a feature of water, but does not necessarily relate to its flow.  

An obstruction in a river or the flow of a stream of water into a static pool,  creates vertical vortices; paired boundary areas where fluids of different pressures coalesce and mix.  

Multiple sources, sinks and currents combine to create more complex fluid structures that has been compared to a symphony in which different instruments have their own entries and rests and are brought together by an invisible conductor.  Flow must be turbulent for exchange to  occur.  If it is channelled through a straight pipe, or settles at the bottom of a deep pool, it cannot form vortices, transfer of material cannot occur and water stagnates .

Water is a complex, sensitive medium that can respond to the environment to create a multiplicity of forms.  Living creatures start their live as suspensions of cells in water.  They must therefore be  influenced by flow patterns of the medium of suspension and develop out of these patterns   So simple multi cellular organisms living in water often adopt spiral forms.  Snails have a spiral shell.  The muscle fibres of the heart adopt a spiral arrangement with compartments forming at the junction of different flows (oxygenated blood from the lungs and deoxygenated blood from the rest of the body).  Movements of fluid are incredibly sensitive; they respond to minor change.   Nerve cells seem to line up at the boundary zones where the effects of those changes have most effect. 

Now if we imagine that the world and everything in it was initially composed of fluids initially, then we can see how solid forms in nature conform to a vortex configuration.  Vortices are consolidated in rocks when they cool.  Jellyfish are 96% water and resemble complex vortices.  When their mantle contracts, they produce mirror images of themselves in the vortices they leave behind.  And look at other vortex forms, the cochlea of the ear, the semicircular canals, which in the lamprey are still fluid vortices, the turbinate bones of the deer, the intestine of the lungfish is spiral in form, the intestine of the cow circular. Even the embryo starts off as a complex vortex of cells, whirling boundaries where things occur, cells are laid down, nervous connections are created.   We might even envisage organs being created out of paired vortices).     

Water cannot just be understood by its chemical properties.  It is the stuff of life, the circulation that runs through all living things.  Sensitive Chaos; creation of flowing forms in water and air was written by Theodore Schwenk (1910- 1986), anthroposophist, engineer and director of The Institute of Water Research and Flow Science in the Black Forest.  It is a remarkable, thought provoking book that escapes the stagnation of research protocols and methodology and allows the imagination to flow unimpeded; the sort of book that makes us reflect on what might be so.  That, surely, is the  essence of science.    



‘To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is any purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying.  But no man can tell another what this purpose is.  Each must find out for himself, and must accept the answer that his solution prescribes. If he succeeds, he will continue to grow despite all the indignities.’   

So writes one time Harvard Professor of Psychology, Gordon Allport in his preface to Viktor Frankl’s abiding monument,  ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.   He claims it as the central theme of existentialism.  We might, however question whether it is always necessary to suffer in order to grow.  There is something Calvinist in that notion.  But what Frankl shows us through his narrative is how it is possible to withstand the most dreadful pain, torture and privation by finding and retaining an essential meaning in life. 

Viktor Frankl was a jewish psychiatrist, living in Vienna in 1939.  He could have escaped to America; he had a visa, but he could not bring himself to abandon his parents to their fate.   He was arrested by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz, but he survived.  He wasn’t a Capo, a privileged collaborator; he found the meaning in his suffering to survive.    

‘Man’s Search for Meaning’  focuses on everyday indignities and privations, the cruelty, the lack of food, sleep and adequate clothing, the lice, dysentery, work, and endurance.      

After the initial shock of becoming a number instead of a human being, a prisoner enters into phase of apathy and indifference.  He tries not to be noticed, merges in with the crowd, gives an impression of smartness and fitness for work; does  anything that would stop him being singled out and sent to the gas chambers.  Many gave up, refused to work and accepted their fate, but those who survived discovered and nurtured an essential purpose in life that was worth clinging on to. 

 Frankl describes how the memory and love for his wife kept him alive.  In the midst of the most dreadful degradation, he focussed on thoughts that uplifted the soul;  an image of mountains, the coming of spring, music, snatches of poetry, the book he wanted to write.      

There is nobility in suffering,  Frankl claims, opportunities to find a moral compass and retain human dignity.  Suffering can bring out the best in a person if he sees meaning in it.

Fyodor Dostoevsky said that the only thing he dreaded was not to be worthy of his sufferings.    Those who let their inner hold on their own dignity and meaning, eventually fell victim to the camp’s degrading influence.   They gave way to introspection and retrospection, lost purpose and hope, and just lay on their bed of stinking straw and were taken away to die.     

Frankl described a strange timelessness in the camp.  Hours or days of degradation and pain, passed slowly, but months and years passed quickly, punctuated by suffering.  Survivors saw it as a provisional existence, something to be endured for as long as it took; they retained the hope  they would be free. 

Prisoners were supported by  the companionship of mutual privation.  They tried to help each other.  They kept each other warm at night, they remove the lice from their hair, they shared their food, they told grim jokes. They were a kind of community; they trusted each other.  Religion was a potent bonding force; prisoners often gained solace by praying together every night.

Unfortunately, their suffering did not always end when the guards left and the camp gates were opened .   Release was all too often associated with bitterness and disillusion.  Life had moved on.  Their family had died.  There was no work and they had lost the companionship of shared suffering.  Others could not understand   

For Frankl, his experience in Auschwitz became the mainspring of his life.  From it he developed a philosophy of hope and a psychotherapy for those in despair, based on the discovery of the meaning  of their suffering.   It was Niezsche who said, ‘He who has a why (a purpose) to live can bear almost any how.’   Frankl explains that the ‘why’ of existence is was not so much what we expect from life, more what life expected from us in terms of work and family.   Life ultimately means taking responsibility.   Sometimes action is needed, sometimes contemplation, sometimes it’s just necessary to accept fate.  When a man realises that suffering is his destiny, he will accept it as a challenge.  Such thoughts can keep a prisoner from despair.   Again, Nietzsche,  ‘That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.’

Few of us in the west have ever been tested in the way Frankl was.   But meaning can be threatened in other ways,  such as the  death of a spouse, the devastation of divorce, the collapse of love, the loss of purpose in retirement or unemployment, the estrangement from one’s children, the disillusion with a cause or faith.   When people lose meaning and purpose, then they succumb to an inner emptiness, an existential vacuum,  the boredom and loneliness, which lies at the base of much of the unhappiness of modern life. 

Empty people try to fill their lives with thrills and diversions;  the sexual libido becomes rampant in existential vacuum, so does the pursuit of power, the addiction to shopping, alcohol, drugs, the accumulation of money.  It is pure escapism into immediate gratification, a frantic search for meaning in sensation.  ‘We had such a wicked time, I got smashed, the sex was fantastic!’ 

Such diversions rarely lead to meaning.  Quite the reverse;  often the will, the hope, the purpose and the self respect dies a little more.  Frankl states that people can transcend the thrill-seeking self and discover a meaning in their lives by creating a work or a deed, by experiencing something or encountering someone (such as falling in love), and most of all, by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering. 

He claims that we can be ennobled by taking on the suffering another would have to bear, like giving up a relationship that would devastate them, an ambition that would cause them pain. This might give suffering a meaning, but it is avoidable.  And is martyrdom and self sacrifice ever a valid route to redemption and happiness?   Only if the sacrifice has a deeper meaning to the integrity of the ‘soul’,  outside of the act itself.   

 Survival of identity and meaning  (what I tend to regard as the soul) is more important than mere corporeal integrity.   The anorexic starves their body so that their basic identity and meaning can thrive.  And for many other sick people,  illness endures the meaning of what has happened, until a person can bear to bring it to mind.   If the meaning and purpose are devastated by life’s vicissitudes, then the body will easily become vulnerable to disease.  Mind, body and soul (meaning) are a continuum, which contains health and happiness.   

‘Man’s search for meaning’ was first published in 1946 in German under the title of ‘Ein psycholog erlebt das konzentrationslager’.  Frankl developed the existential concept of logotherapy from his experience.  Unlike psychoanalysis, logotherapy  does not dwell on the past, but focuses on the  development of a meaning in a person’s suffering that can break the cycle of loneliness and unhappiness.   

It’s the finest, most delicate thread in the world and can be dyed and woven into smooth yet light clothes fit for an emperor let alone a modern man of distinction or a lady of style and discernment.  This cloth is the bee’s knees, the cat’s pyjamas or, to more explicit, the beautiful lament of the doomed moth.  Yet for thousands of years its existence was a closely guarded secret, hidden behind a thousand mile wall in the fastnesses of Northern China.  Anybody who tried to take the secret out  was instantly put to death. 

According to legend, the Empress was sitting under a mulberry tree when a white egg-shaped cocoon fell into her tea and she observed a thread uncoiling from it. She picked up the end and started to wind it round her finger.  It didn’t break and just kept on coming and coming.   

Eventually, having leant how to dye, weave and fashion clothes from this precious thread,  the Chinese traded it to the rest of the world via the Silk Road, an overland trade route though the legendary Samarkand and the deserts Central Asia to the emporia of Europe.  The Venetian, Marco Polo followed the same route in the opposite direction to bring back knowledge of China to the west.

 The Silkworm (Bombyx mori) is the caterpillar of a pallid moth native to Northern China.  Over the centuries, it has been inbred to the point where it can no longer survive in the wild. It has a fat body and small wings and cannot eat or fly.  It just reproduces and dies within five days, just enough time for  the female to lay, on the underside of a  mulberry leaf,  200 to 500 lemon-yellow eggs that eventually turn black and hatch into tiny caterpillars.  The emerging silkworms are fussy eaters, dining only on mulberry leaves ( Morus alba)  for 4 to 6 weeks until they are nearly 3 inches long, having moulted several times.  When the silkworm has had its full of mulberry leaf, it spins a cocoon from a single strand of silk made of protein secreted from two salivary glands in the caterpillar’s head. This process takes 3 or more days.  The silk covers a hard brown-shelled pupa, from which the adult moth emerges.

In Northern Laos they let the caterpillars grow, feed them on fresh mulberry leaves until they form cocoons and pupate. Some of pupae are allowed to hatch into a silk moths and produce a new crop of silkworms, but the rest are first steamed to kill the pupae (which  would break the silk if they emerged as moths).  Next the cocoon is dunked in hot water, (rather than tea), to dissolve the sticky coating that binds the silk.  Then they wind the half mile strand of silk that makes up each cocoon on a small wheel, spin the threads from several cocoons together,  dye them and weave them on a small loom to make the cloth.  The Loatians do all of this in the space under their houses on stilts, the silkworms protected from predators in small mesh cages. 

I wonder if the cocoon altered the taste of the Empresses tea.

You see people like Michael Baird all the time at scientific conferences; pudgy, balding, slightly unkempt,  full of their own self importance.  But Baird, like many academics, was a lazy man; a one discovery wonder.  As an Oxford post-doc, he revised  one of Einstein’s theories, an achievement of brilliance that won him the nomination for a Nobel Prize some 20 years later.  Since that time, he had relaxed and reaped the rewards of his eminence, delivering lectures, giving out prizes, opening  research institutes, and offering his support to worthy causes and his name to organisations.   Maybe his prize had given him a sense of entitlement; maybe he had always had it.  But Baird believed he deserved the trappings of eminence.  And, if he wanted something, he was quite entitled to go out and get it?  Sex, food, devotion, recognition, it was all the same to him.  They were his just deserts. 

There was something decadent about Michael Baird.  He didn’t look after himself.  He lived amid his own rubbish in a run-down apartment in Paddington.  He was overweight; he ate all the wrong food.  He ignored his doctor’s warnings.  He just didn’t seem to care. He had been married 5 times; each marriage only lasted a few years and was childless.  He didn’t work at a relationship; he took from it and then destroyed each of his marriages by other affairs, often with quite unsuitable people. 

It was as if he didn’t value himself very much or could only be valued in the eyes of somebody else. Yet, why was he so attractive to some women?  Is it that they saw somebody worthy of rescue?  Does his fame, his celebrity, the semblance of power, have something to do with that? 

Michael was a chubby baby and at the age of six months, he won the local bouncing baby competition.  He was all dimples and smiles, he couldn’t fail.  He never looked back.  His mother, trapped in a loveless marriage devoted all her attention on him, fed him the most tasty dishes, and  even when he was older and at university, she went on a cordon bleu cookery course so that she could cook him food he would enjoy. His father, meanwhile, fostered Michael’s interest in electronics, mechanics; the ways things worked. Michael was a special little boy.  He was clever and got a place to Oxford.

As Michael grew up, his mother needed more excitement.  She 17 love affairs in 11 years and exhausted, died of breast cancer when Michael was about 23.  Michael never talked to his father about this and forgave his the tragic lack of meaning of her life.  He had, after all, inherited it, but in a different way.  Despite the nobel prize, Michael’s life always threatened to gravitate to meaninglessness.   He inhabited an existential vacuum, sustained by food, sex and the admiration of others.     

The scene was set.  The accident had to happen.  Michael was appointed the nominal head of a climate research institute near Reading.  He wasn’t really interested in the job, but it had a certain amount of kudos and a reasonable government salary.  Besides, he didn’t have to do very much.   Tom Aldous was a young clever post-doc who had read all of Michael’s work and realised that the Baird Einstein conflation held the secret for not only artificial photosynthesis but also the utilisation of the suns energy to split water, releasing oxygen and also hydrogen which could be used as a fuel.  Michael wasn’t really interested, he just wanted a quiet life with plenty of food and plenty of sex.  Aldous’ enthusiasm was an embarrassing irritant. 

Patrice, Michael’s fifth wife had discovered Michael’s latest affair and with it a string of other extramarital liaisons, so she embarked on a relationship with their builder Rodney Tarpin just to show him, but Tarpin became violent.

While Michael was away on a somewhat bizarre polar conference on a boat in a field in Spitzbergan, Patrice also took Aldous as a lover.  Michael came home early and discovered Aldous in the sitting room in his dressing gown.  Aldous, fearful that he would lose his job, ran towards Baird but slipped on the polar bear rug, banged his head on the corner of the glass table and died instantly. 

Michael assessed the situation instantly.  Nobody would believe he hadn’t killed Aldous. He found Tarpin’s box of tools in the cupboard and smeared the hammer with Aldous’ blood, wiped Tarpin’s hairs from a comb on Aldous’ hand and then left.  He got away with it.  Tarpin was convicted and went to prison, but Baird lost his position in Reading. 

Things started to unravel when he used Aldous’ work to set up a company to investigate artificial photosynthesis with an American collaborator.   His old institute accused him of plagiarism, his collaborator started to pull out and his current girlfriend Melissa, who had had their child, came to Texas only to discover that Michael was having a torrid sexual liaison with Darlene, a local waitress.  Tarpin was out of prison and in America looking for him.

It was as if Baird had carried a dark shadow with him all his life.  No matter what good happened, his work, his fame, his marriages, it would always destroy them and eventually it would eventually destroy him. But why?   Was he brought up with few scruples and the conviction he could get away with anything?  Could he not bear the burden of a greatness he felt he didn’t really deserve?  Was he just so frightened of exposure that he would lie, cheat, steal, deceive; do anything to avoid it?   Life held no meaning for Baird; things had come too easy.  Apart from rare bursts of enthusiasm, he never worked very hard, so nothing had any value.  He just existed, took the easy path and came to despise the man he had become.  In a way, one feels, he welcomed the whirlwind about to envelope him.  It would either kill him or give him a reason to survive.    


Solar is Ian McEwan’s latest novel, published last month.  He has taken  on the difficult modern phenomenon  of narcissism entitlement and ennui and has created an unlikeable character and a disturbing novel, in which moments of farce merely serve to emphasise the essential darkness.    

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