October 2017

spotted flycatcher

Last week, I brought a cardboard box in from the outhouse to dismantle and put into the recycling. As I went to pick it up several hours later, a large reddish-brown moth flew out and fluttered against the window. I had to let it out even though I knew that with the temperature dipping towards freezing, it was unlikely to survive. Moths and butterflies have declined by 50% since 1990. The moth snow storms that I used to see in the headlights while driving along quiet country roads in summer are no more; I rarely have to clean squashed insects off my car windscreen. Also gone are the clouds of flying insects that used to cluster around the gas light in my tent. Perhaps if I had caught my moth it and put it in a matchbox, it would have survived until next summer and I would have made a gesture. But I didn’t.

Even if my moth had survived and laid a million eggs, it would have made no difference. The bigger picture is overwhelming. A group of amateur scientists from Germany has just reported the results of a thirty year survey of flying insects caught using Malaise traps in 63 nature reserves throughout the country. The results are shocking: a 75% decline in the biomass of all the flying insects over 30 years; 82% if they just included the summer.

We already knew there has been a dramatic decline in honey-bees (45% since 2010) and butterflies, but this is the first reliable study that has included all flying insects. Flying insects pollinate 82% of flowers and are food for 60% of birds as well as 100% of European bats and many freshwater fish.

Insectivorous birds have also shown a dramatic decline. Spotted Flycatchers always nested in the road where I live, perching on telegraph wires to dive for insects, but it must be 10 years since I last saw one. Cuckoos are specialist feeders; they especially like those big hairy hawk moth caterpillars, like those of the Tiger Moth. I still hear them on the moors a few days each year, but they have disappeared from the valleys. Swifts, those screaming ton-up mobsters that used to race around the village in May and June have also disappeared. It’s the same picture with Redstarts and many of our summer visitors from Africa. Overall, farmland bird numbers have dropped by 55% since the nineteen seventies and numbers of common insectivorous birds such as starlings, swallows, thrushes and warblers have fallen by 35%.

The reason for the decline is almost certainly due to the widespread use of pesticides; that and the increasing amount of land given over to arable and the intensive planting of monocultures. Rachel Carson realised why this was happening way back in 1962 when she wrote ‘Silent Spring’. Meadows of wild flowers at a rarity in Britain now. Instead we have wide swathes of what are essentially poisonous deserts where the insects and the creatures that feed on them cannot survive. Although the German survey was conducted in protected nature reserves, these were surrounded by poisonous agricultural land. Even corridors of hedgerows and wild flowers at field margins have been grubbed out and ploughed over.

Of course, environmentalists will want to know how representative the German study is, though the fact that it was conducted carefully over 30 years and many different sites must suggest the similar results would be seen in other areas and countries employing intensive agriculture. Similar studies should be instigated in other countries, but we can’t afford to wait another 30 years for the results. We have to act now.  It may be that wilder regions in countries, like Scotland and Finland, or islands that employ organic farming methods, might retain their flying insects and have a much more healthy biodiversity.  If so, we will need learn from them.

Could these trends ever be reversed? Should governments just ban pesticides forthwith? Is there a political will? Would it make any difference? How can we protect the environment when there is so much anxiety over rising populations and food security? Notwithstanding that argument, 30% of our crops are pollinated by flying insects.  If that were to fail, we would soon have a food crisis and insufficient resources to rectify it.

Similar arguments apply to marine environments. On the same day that I heard about the German insect study, I also learnt that the proposal of the Tasmanian summit to establish an enormous marine sanctuary in eastern Antarctica has been blocked by Russia and China because they wanted to protect their rights to fish there!

The threat to life on our planet by climate change, intensive agriculture, land clearance, not to mention global conflict, are now too urgent and important to be left to individual nations. We need to establish an international organisation with the authority to legislate on the measures that must to be taken to protect the planet and to hold individual states to account. But I guess things will have to go past the point of no return before politicians have the will to act. We are living in such dreadfully insecure times, I wonder if there is a connection between the threat of environmental disaster and the rise of populism? Is it all a desperate quest for somebody to make it right?





The Hoatzin

They were all over the path and on the field beside it. There must have been about 50 of them scampering about, twittering to each other and occasionally bending forwards to peck at some insect or seed. They were Japanese pheasants, slightly smaller and much duller than our own magnificent pheasants, which we regard as indigenous but were actually imported by the Romans from their natural range to the east of the Black Sea. I ran closer and they scattered and ran away, behaving not so much like birds but like little dinosaurs. It reminded me of a scene from ‘Jurassic Park’. Flying is a last resort for pheasants; with their small wings and large bodies they can only make it to the next copse or area of scrub. Other ground nesting birds, the American Road Runner, which is actually a type of Cuckoo, the Stone Curlew, and the Great Bustard, also seem to resemble dinosaurs more than they do birds.

So have birds evolved from dinosaurs? Our notion of dinosaurs, large lumpen grey-green reptiles that roamed through swamps or terrifying blood thirsty monsters as large as a double decker bus would seem to make that highly unlikely.  Nevertheless, the discovery of the Archaeopteryx is Southern Germany in 1861 shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species, seemed to settle the question beyond any doubt. This strange creature, which was about the size of a pigeon, but had a skeleton like a lizard and wings with flight feathers, was heralded as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. Only a few specimens were discovered, but deep in Amazonia there is a strange bird that sort-of resembles Archaeopteryx. This is the Hoatzin. I spotted one once while travelling up Rio Negro beyond Manaus in a small motor boat. It was about the size of large pheasant, with a bald face, big maroon eye, punk-like spiky crest and the most striking rufous red wing and tail feathers which it displayed frequently. The Hoatzin is the sole member of the family, Opisthocomidae, which is thought to have split off from the evolutionary trajectory of other birds after the extinction of the dinosaurs. This weird chimera eats fruits and leaves, which it ferments in its chambered crop like a cow. For this reason, it is also called ‘the stink bird’. Hoatzins are too heavy to fly far, preferring to spend most of their time eating and calling noisily to each other. The chicks have one other curious atavistic feature, claws on the first two digits of their developing wings, which, together with the claws on their feet, help them climb trees. So that was it: the evolution of birds from dinosaurs rested on the Archaeopteryx, a strange bird living in the Amazon basin that resembles the  Archaeopteryx, and few other strange creatures, such as the Hesperornithes, large seabirds that resembled divers but had teeth, and the flightless ratites (Ostriches, Emus, Rheas, Cassowaries, Kiwis and Moas).

Nevertheless, for more than a hundred years, the fossil trail from dinosaurs to birds ran cold. No new feathered reptiles were discovered. Palaeontologists muttered about freak mutations, but nothing seemed to make much sense. Then twenty years ago, in the sediments of prehistoric lake beds in Liaoning Province, North Eastern China, local farmers started finding strange fossils.  These were identified as dinosaurs but they all had feathers. In many cases these were just hollow quills with tufts that probably served to insulate them from the cold, but some had flight feathers and wings, which were probably used for display before they evolved for flight. Under normal circumstances, the soft tissues of fossils, including feathers, would decay and be eaten by insects, but the Liaoning lake beds were covered by a layer of volcanic ash, which preserved the structure of fossils in great detail. The fossil beds are so extensive and the specimens so numerous that new discoveries are being made at a rate of one a fortnight.

Palaeontologists now have a complete fossil record of the evolution of birds from Therapod dinosaurs, depicting the development of every change: reduction in size, a light, air-filled skeleton, flight feathers, a beak like structure, the loss of teeth and a unique system of air sacs for breathing. Microscopic examination of the feathers has even revealed melanosomes, little packages of colour, so it is likely that like birds, these small theropods were multicoloured and probably used their plumage for display.

Dinosaurs were the dominant species on Earth for 200 million years between the Triassic and Cretaceous epochs and over that time achieved a remarkable diversity. They were extinguished when a six mile wide asteroid plunged into what is now the Gulf of Mexico, 65 million years ago, but they did not die out completely. The survivors evolved into birds and crocodiles as well as a host of reptiles. But why was it that birds survived while most other groups died out? Was it their small size? After all, it was the shrews, that survived to diversify into mammals. Could they have escaped the destruction of their habitat by flying? Did their covering of feathers allow them to survive the prolonged volcanic winter at would have followed the asteroid impact?

The recent discovery of these spectacular dinosaur fossils in Liaoning overwhelmingly supports the hypothesis that birds are descended from theropod dinosaurs and is probably the best-documented major evolutionary transitions in life history.  As ever, these new discoveries raise lots of new questions, but what an exciting time to be a palaeontologist. The irony is: this exciting discovery comes just as we are on the brink of another species extinction.




It wasn’t so much a problem when human beings lived in small hunter gatherer tribes of 20 to 40. Then, they worked together, sharing the tasks of hunting, foraging, making fire, cooking, shelter, defence to ensure their survival. The dilemma occurred after they learnt how to grow, harvest and store food and to domesticate wild animals and were able to settle in stable communities that grew to hundreds and then thousands of people. This necessitated the allocation of roles for purposes of food supply, trade, defence and public health and a system of laws to regulate societies.

Initially such city states were ruled by strong or powerful kings; warlords who defended the community and organised the people by force. As the threat of invasion receded, this type of leadership could so easily become tyrannical and burdensome. Democracy or ‘rule by the people’ was introduced in Athens in about 500 BCE. Plato, writing at the time, feared that allowing people to govern themselves would lead to anarchy or mob rule, which would inevitably revert to tyranny or dictatorship. It is perhaps no surprise that he favoured a benign oligarchy of philosophers, but what arose in Athens was a somewhat larger more representative ruling body of ‘free’ citizens, that excluded slaves, foreigners, women and children.

As states increased in size, direct rule by the people led to chaos and inertia. It had to be managed. Democracy’s dilemma has always been how to guarantee the right of every citizen to have a stake in the running of the state, while ensuring that decisions regarding defence, food supply, trade, property and public health could be made under sound logistical and moral principles without undue argument and delay. The answer was to elect or appoint people who could represent different factions within the community. However, only those with sufficient political and moral training were considered able to supervise the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the state. Some states created an extra tier of organisation to safeguard effective governance. The government of ancient Rome offered power to the people through the election of tribunes, but political authority was held by the senate, who listened to the tribunes and transformed the will of the people into workable laws. America’s congress is based on the Roman model with a house of representatives and a senate. Each state within the union appoints two senators. While representing the interests of each state in the political process, they review and debate bills, treaties, and proposed legislation and oversee the president’s administration.

An ideal democracy, while acknowledging the diverse opinions of the electorate, must, none-the-less modify voter preferences to ensure good government. Such transformation of popular needs and concerns into effective legislation needs to be conducted with transparency, honesty and equity, ensuring that the opinions of different factions are heard and debated in order to attain a workable consensus. Moreover, the legislative, executive and judicial roles of government should be kept separate so that each is independent. Finally, the decisions of government should be carried out in accordance to a written constitution, which is nevertheless subject to periodic review.

How many modern democracies operate entirely according to those principles? The answer, of course, is none, although most claim accountability to the people they represent. Practical expediency necessitates at-best, compromise and at-worst, subversion.  As a system for running a state, Churchill once declared that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.

In his recent book, ‘Democracy and its Crisis’, the philosopher, Professor Anthony Grayling, outlined three reasons why modern democracies, particularly those in the UK and US, are failing. They are: governments are too self serving of their own class and faction, the electorate is inadequately represented and insufficiently informed and there is too much interference in government by external agencies.

An Elected Dictatorship.

In the UK, the prime minister and her cabinet effectively run the country, subject to the ‘approval’ of parliament. They organise both executive and legislative functions of government and are only accountable to the people inasmuch as they can either be endorsed or rejected after five years. Bills may be delayed by resistance in The House of Lords, but they cannot be blocked. Even the judiciary lacks the power to strike down laws made by parliament, although it can ask parliament to reconsider laws that contravene legislation on human rights. In the nineteen seventies, Lord Hailsham called the UK system of government an elective dictatorship. This has not changed.

A similar system exists in the United States.  Executive authority resides with the President and the House of Representatives, though the senate does have the power to overturn legislation. For a good part of the history of the United States, there has been a de facto combination of powers with the legislature and executive, both houses of congress and the President working together when the same party has a majority in the house and the senate.

The distortions and inequities of the electoral system and party divisions means that governments of both countries do not represent the diverse views of the population or even majority public opinion. Instead, the executive government represents the background and experience of those members, the President or Prime Minister have appointed. You would at least think that the executive could be held to account by their individual members, but the reality is that in the UK they are bullied, bribed and blackmailed by the ‘whips’ into supporting the party line. It was the whips made sure that article 50 was triggered for Britain to leave the European Union, even though the result of the referendum was only ever meant to be advisory document and only 37% of the electorate voted for it. On a matter as important as leaving the EU, a two thirds majority would have ensured that the people truly decided. Unfortunately, the executive was able ‘to make it up as it went along’, partly because Britain does not have a written constitution. Even party manifestoes are less an agenda for the next parliament than a wish list that may be discarded as situations change.

Both the current UK and US governments could be accused as being out of touch with the electorate and only serving the interests of a small executive group. History teaches us that such unrepresentative government can lead to envy, riot, and replacement by a more populist regime, risking another form of dictatorship. This has already happened in the US while in the UK, an alternative government is biding it’s time, waiting for the current incumbents to implode.


Government should represent a diversity of views, but the absence of proportional representation in the ‘first past the post system’, operated by both the UK and the US, means that certain views are under-represented or not represented at all. Climate change is arguably the major threat facing mankind, yet tackling it is only championed by The Green Party in the UK. Although, over a million people voted for the Greens in 2015, only one member was elected. And in the United States, Donald Trump, a candidate with no qualification for parliamentary leadership, won more states, even though  Hillary Clinton, with three years experience as Secretary of State, got 3 million more popular votes. The major parties argue that proportional representation would lead to coalition and weak government, but coalition would mean greater representation of the views of the electorate and less manipulation by class based ideology and powerful external agencies. As such, it would be more democratic.

Fake News and Bullshit.

External agencies, particularly the news media have too much influence on both the electorate and MPs. Post truth, fake news, distortion, propaganda, ad hominem attacks, even the caricatures of cartoonists like Peter Brookes create what political commentator and presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, Evan Davis, calls ‘bullshit’ and can all too easily affect the way people think and vote. Bullshit is the political journalist’s stock-in-trade; they are there to probe, to question, to stir things up. It gives them access to the levers of power without any of the responsibility? But it none-the-less undermines our faith in any kind of government. Many people were manipulated to vote for Brexit by exaggerated fears of foreign intervention and immigration?

Social media has made this much worse. Google and other social media outlets can create profiles of every voter. This allows them to target voters in key constituencies or states to swing the vote in a particular direction.

Government can be manipulated by donations from rich individuals or sponsorship from big corporations, while within government, networks of military and civilian officials have a major influence what the executive decides.

For the Many not the Few.

Most MPs and members of the US congress have grown up at a time of peace. Britain and the USA and most of Europe have had no wars on their soil for over 70 years. This may explain an attitude of complacency on the part of government. David Cameron – remember him – failed to factor in a vote to leave the EU or appreciate the inherent inequality in income and opportunity that many in Britain suffered. ‘For the many, not the few’ chimes with the resentment and aspirations of lower paid workers. They are fed up with excuses and inaction, fed up with being fobbed off with the same tired old rhetoric that promises everything and never delivers, fed up with the brouhaha of party politics, fed up with the way the news media create a crisis out of everything. Although we may recognise the criticism of the government of the day and the promises for something different and better as just so much bullshit, we nevertheless are drawn in by somebody who promises to transform the political arena into something different, more can-do. This is the appeal of self appointed populist leaders like Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, though only the latter can claim hard won experience of government.

So now, a hundred years on from a proletarian revolution in Russia, the US seems threatened by a new form of tyranny while British democracy is rapidly losing all credibility and influence. Can we ever pull ourselves back from the brink and reform the democratic system? Or do things have to get much worse before there is the will to change them? Can we introduce a fair system of proportional representation? Can we reform parliamentary procedures and abolish the party whips? Can we ensure transparency of funding for elections? Can we abolish the manipulation of elections by profiling and targeting voters? Can we in Britain replace a defunct House of Lords with an effective and more representative senate, able to challenge the executive when necessary. Can we increase the political effectiveness of local communities? Can we hold the media to account to fact-check what they publish?

It seems that if we are ever to change our system of democracy, we need to be more involved. Government is too distant and centralised. If people could become more involved in local government, they would understand the workings of democracy. Then their deliberations could feed up to higher levels of government. But how many would wish to be involved? Call me an old cynic, but my experience in running a charity suggests that most people would rather others did it for them. Perhaps if we educated our teenagers to understand how democracy works and gave them the vote at 16, they might feel motivated to make a difference.


John McEnroe

But they were. It was like life and death to each of them. They were remarkably alike, both in history and temperament. Both were tennis prodigies. Bjorn Borg was just 15 when he played in Sweden’s Davis Cup team and beat the number 20 in the world. He was 19 when he won Wimbledon for the first time. John McEnroe was only two years older when they met on Centre Court. But how did they become so determined to be the best in the world? Was it all to do with their parents? While their mothers gave them the love and self belief, it was probably their strict fathers who forged that backbone of steel that meant that neither could ever give up. Confident of the stability of the family and the sole focus of their parents’ ambition, they had to be the best. It was unacceptable to be mediocre. Good enough was no good at all!  If they were not the best, they were nothing.

Tennis is a gladiatorial contest, in which you live or die by your own skill and will to succeed.  Perhaps it is only teenagers have that obsessional drive and dedication to satisfy the ambitious love of a demanding parent.

The young Bjorn Borg had a volatile temperament and could lose it when he was not winning and had unfair line call. He was trouble. It was only when his coach, Lennart Bergelin, who had also represented Sweden in the Davis Cup and ws once number 9 in the world,  told him to channel his fury into the next shot and not waste it by ranting at the umpire, that he began to change. He became the ice man, turning the air conditioning in his hotel room down to zero to keep himself totally cool, totally focussed. McEnroe called him the machine, but his psychological mechanism had a tightly coiled spring, that was only be released when he got on court. McEnroe probably had the same degree of aggression; his rants at the umpire released the pent up tension, allowing him to gather himself and stay in control.  The 1980 Wimbledon final was the perfect match: ‘the ice man’ versus ‘superbrat’.

McEnroe had the upper hand to begin with and won the first set. The commentators were already writing Borg off. But in second, Borg served an ace and announced his recovery with a vengeance. He won the third as well. McEnroe looked flustered and confused before the beginning of the fourth, but Borg said, ‘C’mon. It’s a great match’. That set was so evenly matched, it went to a tie break. Borg had six match points, but McEnroe came back each time, gaining two match points which Borg nullified. McEnroe eventually won the tie break by a phenomenal eighteen points to sixteen. They had to play a fifth, but that also went to a tie break, which Borg won. it was an amazing match, the like of which has never been bettered on Centre Court. McEnroe won the respect of the British crowd on that day and although he never stopped ranting, he was great entertainment and had many supporters.

Psychoanalysts might say that the McEnroe’s rants and Borgs tightly controlled narcissistic rage were Oedipal expressions of aggression at the harsh parent who had first call on their mother’s love. But if so, how did they grow out of it?

Borg played McEnroe the next year but lost and retired from tennis. He said at the time he didn’t mind losing. Something had changed. Perhaps he had nothing more to prove. He was persuaded to come back on the tour some years later but was never good enough. The fire had gone out. Perhaps getting married, living abroad and starting his own business distanced him from the influence of his parents. McEnroe is still playing tennis, competing in veterans tournaments and commentating on radio and television. For a time he tried to be a rock star, but it didn’t work. He has mellowed, become more thoughtful and developed an engaging, self deprecating humour. He doesn’t have to win any more. It is like they have both grown up. Tennis is no longer life and death. There is more to life. Their narcissism had been tempered by the realisation that they have to work with others to be at peace with themselves and successful in life. They have been socialised. Borg is a successful businessman with a big fashion company in Sweden. He is happily married and has three children. McEnroe, as far as we know, is also contentedly married with five children. Borg was his best man.

The Swedish biopic Borg/McEnroe has been released this and is in cinemas now ,

much ado about nothing

Shakespeare at the Globe is really for the tourists. There is a lot of dancing and singing and the actors mingle with the audience in the well of the open air theatre. It can all be great fun.

One imagines Shakespeare set the original play at a time immediately after The Battle of Lepanto (1571), where the Spanish/Italian forces of the Holy League defeated the fleet of the Ottomans in hand to hand conflict on galleys in the Gulf of Patras in the Ionian Sea. The victorious forces, but notably the friends, Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro return to Messina, where they set about renewing their conquest of the local women. Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter, rather curiously named, Hero, but Don Juan, Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, tricks Claudio into believing that Hero is unfaithful. Hurt and enraged, the gullible Claudio denounces her on the day of their wedding. She faints and Claudio is told she has died. Meanwhile, the guards, the cognitively-challenged Dogbery and his assistant tell of Don Juan’s plot to convince Claudio of Hero’s infidelity.  Claudio is stricken with guilt and loss but is told that he can redeem himself by marrying Hero’s cousin.  Meanwhile Beatrice and Benedick, whose relationship had consisted of trading insults – always a sure sign of sexual interest – are each tricked into believing that the other loves them. This causes them both to pause their hostility and let down their defences. It has all been a lot of fuss about nothing.  Don Juan is banished and in a double celebration, Claudio discovers at the alter that the ‘cousin’ is really Hero and Benedick and Beatrice consummate their love.

Setting Much Ado about Nothing at the time of the Mexican Revolution (c 1914) was quite brilliant. In that colourful and somewhat romantic conflict followers of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata included women as well as men. The victorious revolutionaries arrive on a packed goods train with a Mariarchi band on the roof and a lot of shouting and shooting.  This highly charged context of revolution lent itself to a surfeit of sexual excitement and intrigue, where relationships were apt to get confused. It is a fast moving play,  Matthew Dunster, the director, was inventive in casting.  The spirited Beatrice and the surly Benedict worked well together as revolutionaries and lovers. Don Pedro was a leader (Zapata?) who had more serious things on his mind than romance. The treacherous Don Juan became the sinister Donna Juanita and instead of Dogbery and his guard, there was an inept and linguistically challenged American camera crew, who captured Juanita’s treachery on film.

With such a young, energetic cast, plenty of action and splashes of humour, all set in Shakespeare’s Southbank open air theatre, it must have been as much of a hit in 1598 as it was last week.

PROD-The-Child-In-TimeBBC 1 have recently broadcast a production of the play based on Ian McEwen’s ‘The Child in Time’ with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role. It was not an easy viewing. There can be few people, who could not identify with the panic of losing a toddler in the supermarket. One minute, Kate is there and playing happily, then she just disappears. Stephen runs round the store calling her name, he asks everybody, ‘have you seen a little girl in a yellow coat’. Nobody has. Then he has to go home and tell his wife, Julie, what has happened. She is angry, distraught. She blames him. They are incapable of comforting each other.

How can a marriage survive something like this? She moves out and lives by herself in Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast. He carries on; always looking for his daughter, never giving up hope. On one occasion, he visits Julie and on the way home calls at The Bell Inn. Looking through a window, he sees a young woman he recognises and smiles at him. She smiles back. When he tells his mother about it, she says, ‘Yes, I was there thirty years ago and so were you. I had just discovered I was pregnant with you’.

Stephen writes childrens’ books and, sponsored by his publisher and close friend, Charles, he sits on government committees discussing childrens’ literacy.  In a strange, somewhat disjointed development, Charles goes mad. He gives up his job, moves to the country and reverts to being a little boy, playing in the woods, climbing trees, building dens, only returning home when his wife rings the bell for mealtimes. Stephen tries to understand him, but ultimately loses patience. Confronted with the inanity of his behaviour, Charles cannot hold it all together and hangs himself in the woods.

Later, after Charles’ funeral, Stephen is at home asleep. He has unwrapped an intercom system and left one phone on Kate’s bed and taken the other to bed with him. He is awakened by Kate’s voice telling him that she is with mummy. The the phone rings to say that Julie is in labour.  He arrives in the hospital just in time for the birth of his baby boy. it feels as if this will heal all their pain.

McEwen writes harrowing psychological novels. At one level, we identify with the plight of this young couple. The book came out twenty years before Madeleine McCann went missing in Spain. Unless the author is a psychic, he could not known how much that   very public abduction gripped the nation for many weeks and months.  Madeleine McCann is still frozen in time.  She has never been found.

How heartbreaking to lose a child. Even if you find them years later, they are no longer the same person. A missing child never grows up.  Such extreme grief is a form of madness. Stephen catches glimpses of Kate; he hears her voice. Once, he is so convinced that he has seen his daughter that he goes into a school and kneels by the desk of a little girl who looks like her, only to be kindly convinced that there is no way she is Kate.

Maybe McEwen is playing with the idea of reality and madness. Did the child ever exist except in Stephen’s imagination? Did he and Julie both want a baby so much that his mind hallucinated Kate and her devastating disappearance?   Is that why the police were not more involved and why nobody in the store remembered seeing Kate?  Did Stephen really have a flashback of seeing his mother through the window of The Bell Inn?

Was Charles’ attempt to recapture his lost childhood in the woods a literary device, a metaphor for recapturing a lost or absent childhood. Stephen is, after all, a writer of children’s fiction. It’s his stock in trade? But why was the prime minister involved and the Child Education Committee? Was that also a device to underscore the emotional significance of childhood, so often ignored by tests and grades devised by educationalists?

We might suspect all of those, but the author cannot possibly comment.  McEwen’s skill as a writer lies in stimulating his readers’ imagination, not in providing the right answers.

Desperate Dan

At a recent conference, entitled ‘Men on the Couch’, which took place on the top floor of Foyle’s book store in Charing Cross Road, the Israeli psychoanalyst, Eyal Rozmarin, a somewhat intense, bald headed young man with a light beard, answered this with a story.

A mother had taken her young son, aged about 4 or 5 to a park to ride his bike. There she met a friend and chatted, while her little boy cycled round and round in ever decreasing circles. Inevitably he crashed and fell off, scraping his knees. He seemed a little shocked and was clearly in pain, but he did not cry. His mother looked round, told him to be careful, and got on with her conversation. Her son, his knee bleeding, looked at his mother, but not getting anything more in return, got back on his bike and cycled away, much more slowly. He had learnt what it was to be a man. Real men don’t cry.

War and Masculinity

Being brought up shortly after the Second World War, I can relate to that narrative. My father had been badly injured during the war, but we were always told how brave he was. As his boys, we had to be brave. The same message was repeated during my ‘all-boys’ public school. We couldn’t allow ourselves to show any vulnerability; this would just attract bullying. We had to tough it out.

In 1915, the same year he wrote Mourning and Melancholia, Freud penned his ‘Thoughts for the times on war and death‘. Europe was obsessed with nationhood and militarism. A mechanised arms race was heading to oblivion, tearing apart the idea of a more cosmopolitan identity. Although Freud wrote that war was a primitive regression to violence, he was nevertheless impressed by duty and bravery. These were the demands made by society to men. Men had to do or die. Women had to bear the anxiety.

Strangely, for somebody who understood human frailty, Freud does not identify with the danger and terror experienced by his sons, who were in the army.  Instead, he  proselytises that ‘the full meaning of life is to be found, not in anxious attachment, but heroism, glory and the risk of death’. Freud is with Siegfried. So is Tolstoy: in War and Peace, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky declares he would give up all attachments to wife and family for one moment of glory.

I have known rock climbers claim that life is more exciting and more meaningful when they are in most danger. Nevertheless, glory on the battlefield, can seem a narcissistic delusion that justifies sadomasochism. Dying is no longer threatening, it is seductive.

The idea of glory permeates the bedrock of our culture. It is there in all Abrahamic religions. Samson was raised to save the state of Israel. God sacrificed his only begotten son to die in order to save mankind. Glory justifies the fanaticism of Isis, the rhetoric of Donald Trump, the provocation of Kim Jong Un. But what is glory but a kind of homo-ecstatic drive?

My friend Maurice embodies the same male archetype. He shows the same compulsion in fighting for justice as he does in flying alone around the world in a 70 year old light aircraft. Is he mad? Yes, in a sense he is; there is a delusional grandiosity in it all, a quest for fame and glory, but also, like all action heroes, a desire to risk all to right a perceived wrong.

The emotionally unavailable father

The roots of ‘masculinity’ are thought to reside in our earliest relationships. As Donald Winnicott famously declared, ‘there is no such thing as a baby’, there is just the relationship between the mother and her infant. Mother is the complete life support system, supplying warmth, nourishment, protection, shelter and love. With fathers entry into this maternal dyad, there is a split, a conflict between desire for all the comfort and safety that mother provides and a prohibition of that desire. Much is repudiated and foreclosed with the arrival of the archetypical father, but what emerges is gender identity. Boys identify with the masculine element; they learn what it is to be male, to subsume one’s needs and desires into a cause. In previous generations, boys were meant to be boys and learn to serve in harm’s way. Losing a son at war was the ultimate sacrifice a family could make.

The archetypical father is proud and ambitious, but cannot show his feelings. His sons grow up without their father’s love. In the Old Testament, Isaac could not oppose his father, the only way he could show his love was to be sacrificed. The consequence of failing to live up to the notion of manhood is shame. The boy who fails to show courage in the face of adversity and danger is not living up to the ideas of manhood and is shamed in the eyes of himself and others. But he is in a bind. Either he gives way to desire and fear and is weakened by it. Or he goes for glory and either dies or never quite makes it. Shame is an inevitable consequence of this notion of manhood.

A changing world

The world has moved on. Gender roles and identities are much more fluid. There is no reason why women cannot identify with manliness, especially if they were brought up to be self sufficient and resilient. Last weekend, I sat opposite two women at breakfast in 22 York Street. They were both in their late fifties or early sixties. One was an adviser to NATO and had been a pilot in the US Air Force, the other had served in a parachute regiment and was now an instructor/mentor to the military in Europe. The each told stories of their fathers exploits during and after the D day landings and had been brought up admiring their father but not able to gain their love. They both embodied a masculine idea of bravery. These days, they might complain that they were born the wrong gender, but they each explained that after they had demonstrated that they could do the job just as well as a man, they were accepted as part of the fighting team and their biological gender was irrelevant.

The military metaphor no longer seems appropriate. The male stereotype is a generalisation, that seems too heavily influenced by the wars of previous generations and the idealisation of an emotionally absent father. Although gender dimorphism have been demonstrated in the organisation of the brain and the behaviour of infants, and sex hormones have a major influence on behaviour in adolescence and beyond, this basic biological predisposition is overlain with many layers of identification and meaning. Conflict, competition, ritual, routine, rigidity and justice may well seem more engrained in the male psyche, but they do not define masculinity. Many women show the same attributes, while some men can be just as adaptable, caring and understanding as women. 30% of psychotherapists are men.

Masculinity under threat

If we can believe what we are told in the media, the idea of masculinity is under threat. Traditional roles, not only in the workplace but also as husbands and fathers are being questioned. Men are no longer necessarily figures of respect and fear. Although women have not yet achieved parity in many occupations and professions and are still more involved in childrearing and housekeeping, enormous changes in family dynamics have taken place over the last 50 years. Housework, cooking and the rearing of children are more shared than they ever used to be. Father isn’t always the one who goes out to work while mother stays at home. Both parents tend to be in employment, leaving their children to feel like emotional orphans during the week. But at weekends or holidays, both may play an equal role in the care of their children. There may be little separation of roles. Father may be present but not visible or separate. This may make it difficult for children to know how to be. Who are their mentors? Who can they identify with? What is their notion of being a man or a woman?

Within the last few years, an increasing number of young people are declaring themselves neither boys nor girls, not even gay or Lesbian but transgender or non-binary or just ‘queer’. What does this mean? How has it come about? Is it a product of single parent families and the absence of a father figure? Or is it more subtle than that? Is there no such thing as a man any more? If both parents are absent for much of the time and both equally involved when they are present, is it any wonder that many young people grow up with a degree of gender ambivalence that may be all too readily influenced by cultural icons and celebrities.

Nevertheless, basic differences still exist. We only have to observe the ways men talk to each other compared with the ways women communicate. Men still tend to be competitive, they test each other out before admitting them to their tribe or club. Women are more inclined to a one to one sharing of confidences. Men and women support each other in different ways. The testosterone-fuelled urgency of aggression and desire means that shame probably features more prominently in men than women. After all, the nature of the sexual act means that it is men who ‘do things’ to women, who play a more passive role. Men are still expected to be stronger than women. They are expected to accept ‘sledging’ or ‘banter’ from other men and give as good as they get, even if it might become physical. Many women want their men to be strong, but at the same time berate them for not having feelings. Men may sometimes feel they can’t do right for doing wrong, and may wish to avoid the interdependency of attachment. The rise of feminism may well have felt threatening, even castrating for many men.

Impacts on a future society

Have the changes in gender politics that have occurred over the last 50 years produced a society that is more tolerant and understanding, but at the same time one that is weaker, less secure and decisive? Does this only apply to white middle classes? If so, has it led to more divisions in society? How will this impact on the next generation? Will the circumstances of our precarious global existence plunge us once again into a militaristic model of existence, rekindling the notion of manliness?