I give £20 to a “poor” woman and feel terrible

Emerging from the offices of NHS England at the Elephant and Castle, I’m approached by a woman of about 40 asking if I can help her. I’m unfastening my bike from a stand and so can’t easily walk away. She’s no more badly dressed than me and doesn’t look in poor health.

“I’ve tried to change money,” she says, holding out folded but obviously foreign banknotes, “but it hasn’t worked. I badly need £5.”

In London these days you are approached several times a day by people asking for money. It’s been my policy to decline and instead donate to a charity and be more confident that the money will be well used. It always feels bad to decline, but it’s such a common experience that the pain is minimal. (A similar adaption allowed people to commit terrible crimes and not feel bad.)

This woman had established a conversation even a relationship with me. I reach into my pocket, but in this age of “contactless” payments I rarely have any change. I’m divided: one part of me is urging me to walk away; another part is thinking “like it or not she’s got me and ‘just this one time.’” I get out my wallet, but I have only two twenty-pound notes.

“I have only twenty-pound notes,” I say hesitantly, stopping short of saying “that’s too much.” But the woman, an expert, detects my hesitancy and knows how to respond.

“What if you give me that and I give you £10?”

“OK,” I say, finding it too hard to say no and reflecting that if she badly needs £5 she already has £10.

I give her the twenty-pound note, and she bundles a pile of coins into my hand. “It’s all I’ve got,” she says.

We part. To be fair to her, there was about £8 in the change she gave me, but she’d obviously collected all those coins from others she’d approached.

As I cycled away I felt terrible. The woman was clearly a panhandler, a low-grade but competent con-artist. She’d lied to me, and I’d known that from when she first approached me. I don’t care a fig about the £20 (or £12), and at least I hadn’t given the money to a drug addict (least I didn’t think so), but I’d given away money to a lying woman when I could have used it for something worthy (although I probably wouldn’t have done).

I’d been had, and I didn’t like it.


David Bomberg: a brilliant artist second only to Van Gogh in being neglected during his lifetime?

David Bomberg is second only to Van Gogh in being a brilliant artist neglected during his lifetime, argued Simon Schama in an impassioned lecture that had me in tears at the end. (“You cry over everything,” my wife says. “I don’t cry over real life,” I respond; but one day I surely will.)

Bomberg was born in 1890, one of 11 children in a poor Jewish family. His father was a drunkard, but his mother recognised his talent, buying him materials and giving him a room in which to paint, when they had only a few rooms for the whole family.

In a scene worthy of a Hollywood biopic, said Schama, there was a day when the young Bomberg was sketching a Michelangelo cast in the Victoria and Albert Museum and a tall, older man came and admired his picture. That man was John Singer Sargent, and he helped the career of Bomberg.

Although neglected for much of his artistic life, Bomberg did have a one-man show in London in 1914. The exhibition included the Mud Bath, still perhaps his most famous picture. As the picture shows, Bomberg was influenced  by the Cubists, Vorticists, and Futurists but never went to pure abstraction. The figures are hard to see in the Mud Bath but obvious in a forerunner and in sketches he made for the final picture.




Bomberg enlisted in the army and spent the war as a sapper and a runner, seeing terrible sights. He was never a war artist, but war influenced his paintings. He spent most of the rest of his life (he died in  1957)in relative poverty, rarely selling pictures, neglected by the art establishment, and growing more angry and bitter. Schama argued that antisemitism was part of the neglect, and he read out words from Kenneth Clarke about Jews having no visual sense and concluding “I wish we could stop Jews from painting.” Herbert Read did not include any of Bomberg’s pictures in his book on British modern art, and the Tate has not had a retrospective of Bomberg’s work for more than 20 years.

It was in his final embittered years, argued Schama, that Bomberg reached his zenith, painting excoriating self-portraits and landscapes that have a deep spirituality. For Schama, Bomberg has the spiritual, contemplative power of late Rembrandt and is in a British tradition of Blake, Ruskin, and Turner.

Such conclusions seem exaggerated to many, including Chicken, but (not having seen the original paintings but only the pictures projected by Schama) I agreed with him. His final self-portraits I found particularly powerful, again the inspiration of death.


Bomberg, David, 1890-1957; The Last Landscape (Tajo and Rocks, Ronda, Spain)


Bomberg, David, 1890-1957; Self Portrait

Bomberg, David, 1890-1957; Last Self Portrait


The message of “Marriage Story”: do whatever you can to avoid getting divorced

Marriage Story is more like a play you’d see on the London stage than a Hollywood film by which I mean it’s largely verbal rather than visual, has few characters, and is thoughtful and nuanced. (Nuanced, I’ve noticed is an “in” word, a snobby word that means “sufficiently complex and uncertain that it requires a large brain like mine to follow it.” The word has already become a pompous dead word, so I won’t use it again.) We much enjoyed the film, and during the night “my committee of sleep” decided that it had a message. The message is: “Do whatever you can to avoid getting divorced.”

The film is the story of a divorce, making the title ironic—and perhaps giving a clue to the message. The film begins with each of the couple—played excellently by Scarlet Johanssen and Adam Driver—reciting what they value about the other. They both have much to treasure. They have written these documents at the prompting of a counsellor, who wants them to rediscover what led them to get married. It’s all that we know of the history of their marriage, and the counsellor’s tactic fails as Johanssen walks out of the session.

From now on it’s a story of divorce. The problems that are pulling them apart seem small and manageable. She prefers Los Angeles, he prefers New York. She’s an actor, and he is a theatre director. Both are excellent at what they do. She acts in his plays and in that way is subject to him, directed by him. This relationship seems to spill over into their marriage. She’s offered a part in a television series to be made in Los Angeles and wants to take it, both to return to the city and to make her own mark. He agrees but is dismissive of television. We, the audience, think that they could sort these things out (or at least I did).

She’s the one who wants to get divorced and goes to Los Angeles taking their eight-year-old son with her. They have agreed that they will resolve everything without lawyers, but a Californian divorcee advises Johanssen to get a lawyer. The divorce lawyers are ghastly caricatures who provide the comedy in the film. For them divorce is a competitive game that they love and has made them rich. They care nothing for their clients/victims, although Johannsen’s lawyer—a mutton-dressed-as-lamb harridan—hugs Johanssen, admires her dress, and promises to buy her cookies.

In two comic excruciating scenes the lawyers exaggerate the sins of each of the couple while the couple sit silent and uncomfortable. These scenes alone might be enough to stop anybody filing for divorce, but equally painful but less comic is the crucial scene where the couple try to sort things themselves but spiral out of control in an argument that culminates in Driver shouting in Johanssen’s face that he wishes her dead.

By the end of the film they are divorced, but we are left thinking they’ve made a mistake. Johanssen’s lawyer boasts that, ignoring her client/victim’s wishes, she has got 55:45 child custody: “We’ve won.” Then their son discovers the list his mother wrote for the counsellor of what she loved about his father, and as the language is difficult his father has to help him read it. Johanssen says that Driver can look after the son when it’s not his turn, and in the final scene Driver walks through Los Angeles, where against his will he is now living, and is alone.

The lawyers have triumphed and taken most of their money, but the couple and their child have lost.


The story of a failed search for truth told in a picture book

“You are a hopeless literary snob,” my wife says, and she’s right. I turn up my nose not only at airport novels and chicklit but also at fantasy, crime, science fiction, and until now picture novels. I would never have read Logicomix except that it was recommended by a friend whose judgement I respect, but now I’ve learnt something of the advantages of picture novels. I see an analogy with opera where the power of music allows ludicrous stories to be wholly believable. Logicomix allows ideas that might have proved too heavy in pure text to be imparted quickly, lightly, amusingly, and enjoyably.

The book tells the story of Bertrand Russell’s search for ultimate mathematical and logical truth, a truth that didn’t depend on axioms. That story is mixed with the story of Russell’s life, arguing that his obsessive search for truth resulted from his childhood when his severe Victorian grandmother kept from that his dead parents had lived in a ménage à trois and that his uncle was mad. The stories are carefully interwoven, showing how the two are inter-related: “We focus on the people. Their ideas interest us only to the extent that they spring from their passions.” The book also has sections on the authors, the illustrator, and the researcher, showing the debates they had over the direction of the book. This might sound irritating but works well.

The story begins with Russell, a famous and imprisoned pacifist from the first world war, giving a lecture in the US at the beginning of the second world war to an audience that includes pacifists and people against the US entering the war. They expect him to support them, but he answers their request for their support by telling the story of his life. Most of that story is the search for truth with other philosophers, particularly members of the Vienna Circle.

The search is a failure, an exciting failure that inspired much future philosophy. Russell’s Principia Mathematica (named boldly after Newton’s book of the same name), which he wrote with Alfred Whitehead, was some 2000 words long and filled with formulas. It failed in its objective to find truth based on rational proof rather than axioms and assumptions, and was read right through by only one person, Kurt Gödel, who is famous for his Incompleteness Theorem, which ended the pursuit of ultimate truth. “What I have proved in essence,” says Gödel in the picture, “is that arithmetic and thus also any system based on it is, of necessity, incomplete. The novel continues: “That is the beauty, that is the terror of mathematics…There’s no getting round a proof… Even if it proves that something is unprovable.”

The book says that only Gödel read Principia Mathematica, but surely Ludwig Wittgenstein, Russell’s genius pupil, must have read it, if simply to destroy it. In the novel Wittgenstein summarises the message in his Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus as “The things that cannot be talked about logically are the only ones which are truly important….All the facts of science are not enough to understand the world’s meaning.” Logic is not the answer, even though in Russell’s words it “is a tool like a knife, you can use it to cut bread with or kill.”

The logicians failed, and not only did they fail intellectually (perhaps brilliantly) but also in their lives with their partners and children, as the book describes. “Maybe what brings them to logic is fear of ambiguity and emotion, fears leading to bad parenting.” Russell ends his lecture in America: “The journey from my earliest days to today, from Doubt to Certainty…a journey of some joys and more disappointments, the latest of which is the realization I’ve failed.” In response to the Nazis he is not a pacifist, irritating many in his audience.

I urge you to read the book, especially if like me you have been dismissive of picture novels.


Other quotes  took from the book

Even Old Euclid has to take something for granted. This moment marked a terrible disappointment…But ignited the rest of my life.

Sure, Frege, Russell, Whitehead were excellent map-makers…But eventually they confused their reality with their maps.

Wittgenstein believed that before being a logician he “should become a human being…And so he took Schopenhauer’s word for it: “there is nothing like a good near-death experience to humanise you.”

It’s the oldest story around: instinct, emotion, and habit get the better of human beings.





The roots of a dream: we are all frauds

Everybody must wonder if your dreams are telling you something. I’m never sure, but last night I had a dream that may have been telling me something. At least I think I can identify where it came from.

It was one of these dreams that felt very real, not a hallucinatory dream. As always, I remember it only broad terms. The dream took me back to my days as an assistant editor at the BMJ. We learnt very much to our surprise that the editor, whom we all respected. had been guilty of a huge financial fraud. We were shocked and unsure how to respond. Later in the night after a brief waking I dreamed that I had had the earlier dream and was still unsure how to respond.

I think that I can identify the origins of this dream. Yesterday I posted a blog I wrote in 2016 highly critical (even cynical about) medical journals: https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2016/04/19/richard-smith-what-are-medical-journals-for-and-how-well-do-they-fulfil-those-functions/ Yet I spent 25 years joyfully working for a medical journal. I was a fraud.

Yesterday as well I was fretting about the climate emergency, which it becomes clearer and clearer is going to destroy us remarkably soon. I remember that the aim of every boy scout (and I was one) was to leave the world a better place than we found it. I will do the opposite, along with all my contemporaries. While we imagined we might be improving the world we were destroying it. We’ve been frauds.

When I got up I felt better than when I went to bed, but fraud continued in my reading. Logicomix is a remarkable comic book that is the story of Bertrand Russell’s life and his search for truth. In his search for truth he was greatly excited by the idea of sets, an idea that then was new but is now taught to primary schoolchildren. But the discovery for which Russell is most famous is the discovery of “sets that don’t include themselves.” A paradox, ranking alongside the liar’s paradox: “Friends, I am lying to you. If I’m telling the truth, I’m lying. If I’m lying, I’m telling the truth.” Russell’s discovery undermined the work he most respected. In his continuing (but he knew doomed) search for absolute truth he wrote Principia Mathematica, which is huge and was probably read right through by only one person. He failed.

Next I started reading How to Read Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Boyard. He makes convincingly the case for non-reading while at the same time increasing our love of reading. His book, which seems to promote fraud, is far from fraudulent.




John Steinbeck the environmentalist (from 1954)

These quotes from John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday show he was an environmentalist way ahead of his time. Silent Spring was published in 1962.

The canneries themselves fought the war by getting the limit taken off fish and catching them all. It was done for patriotic reasons, but that didn’t bring the fish back. As with the oysters in Alice, “They’d eaten every one.” It was the same noble impulse that stripped the forests of the West and right now is pumping water out of California’s earth faster than it can rain back in. When the desert comes, people will be sad.

“The doctrine of our time is that man can’t get along without a whole hell of a lot of stuff. You may not be preaching it, but you’re living treason.”

I guess a man is the only kind of varmint sets his own trap, baits it, and then steps in it.

“I bring you tidings of great joy. The human species is going to disappear!”… yes—we are about to join the great reptiles in extinction….We have played the final joke on ourselves. Open the beer! Man, in saving himself, has destroyed himself.”



A story of a Mexican village that rejected modern medicine

The Forgotten Village is a novel (well, more a story) that can be read in less than an hour and is unaccompanied by beautiful if hazy black and white pictures on every page. It’s the story that John Steinbeck wrote in 1941 for a film of the same name that was released that year (and can be seen on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7-lx78PrHY)

Two ideas, which Steinbeck describes in a brief introduction, lie behind the film:

“It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.”


“Birth and death, joy and sorrow, are constants, experiences common to the whole species. If one participates first in these constants, one is able to go from them to the variables of customs, practices, mores, taboos, and foreign social events.”


They made the film by creating a simple story, and the story was essentially, Steinbeck explains, a question: “Too many children die—why is that and what is done about it, both by the villagers and the government?”

The crew then went to the remote and very poor Mexican village and found local people to act the story. It was simple for them to act the story because they were familiar with every part of it.

At the beginning we meet a family who include a son, Juan Diego. The whole family is pleased because Esperanza, the mother, is expecting a son. But Paco, Juan’s younger brother, becomes sick. The curandera, the wise woman (played in the film by the real thing), came to cure him. “It is the airs,” she said, “the bitter airs. They have gone to live in his stomach. I will prepare an ancient cure. My grandfather had it from his grandfather and he from his.”

Juan Diego is unconvinced, observes that many children in the village are sick, and visits the teacher, the only man in the village “who had been to the outside world.” The teacher says: “I think it is the water. I think the germs are in the pueblo well.”

[This aligns with the battle over the cause of cholera fought out by Western science in the 19th century.]

The teacher visits Paco, but his advice is rejected. The curandera is furious: “You will kill the people with your foolishness.”


“But Paco died and became a little saint—gone straight to heaven without sin or sorrow, without shame or burden.” The neighbours came end danced all night; it is not good to be sad at such a time.

Sickness continues among the children, and the people process to the church and pray for the sickness to end. But it doesn’t.

The teacher organises a slide show to try and educate the people. “Here in our village, there are little animals that live in the water. They are the murderers of our children. But there is a way to cure it. We must clean up the water and cure the children. The serum from an infected horse can cure the children.”

The mention of horse blood was a mistake. “Horses’ blood,” the chief said. “Are we animals? Are we horses or digs or rats? What is this horses’ blood? What is this new nonsense?” The village rejected the ideas of the teacher.

Juan Diego believes the teacher is right. He decides boldly to go for help. He has never been more than 10 miles from his village but now he travels to the city to ask for help. “The city was terrible for him.” But he persisted, found a doctor, and arranged for a medical team to visit the village.

But the village rejected them. The curandera “was afraid for her business.” She called, “The horse blood men are here.” The people hid their children from the doctors. The doctors disinfected the well, but when a child died the villagers thought it was because of poison from the doctors. They drive the doctors from the village.

Juan Diego tries to treat his sister secretly, but his father finds out and expels him from the village.

The doctors pay for Juan Diego to go to school in the city. “They come from the villages to learn, boys like you, Juan Diego, and girls. They learn not for themselves, but for their people. It will not be quick, Juan Diego; learning and teaching are slow, patient things.”

Two reflections:

The story is current in that people in Northern Nigeria, Pakistan, and other countries have rejected vaccines on grounds similar to those of the  Mexican villagers of the 1940s. Indeed, lots of people in high income countries reject vaccines for similar reasons.

Modern medicine can reduce death rates dramatically, but it cannot supply meaning to death in the way that religion did for the Mexican villagers.