The strange, inherent, ridiculous, and amusing contradictions in being human

Julian Barnes expresses beautifully in the following passage the strange, inherent, ridiculous, and amusing contradictions in being human.

“We live broadly according to the tenets of a religion we no longer believe in. We live as if we are creatures of pure free will when philosophers and evolutionary biologists tell us this is largely a fiction. We live as if the memory were a well-built and efficiently staffed left luggage office. We live as if the soul–or spirit, or individuality, or personality–were an identifiable and locatable entity rather than a story the brain tells itself. We live as if nature and nurture were equal parents when the evidence suggests that nature has both the whip hand and the whip.”

The passage comes from his short book entitled simply Death. Later in the book he observes (in my translation):

“Every life is a succession of clichés, but luckily it doesn’t feel that way.”

The only part I don’t agree with is that “We live as if the memory were a well-built and efficiently staffed left luggage office.” I’m very aware that my memory is mostly holes, mostly empty. Almost every day, including twice yesterday, I meet people who tell me we have met but of whom I have no memory. Almost all of my mother’s memory has gone, even to the point of not remembering who she herself is. I may well follow, but at the same time events from 60 years ago can emerge from my memory like a burst of gunfire; whether or not they actually happened I can’t remember.

Julian Barnes


How futile every hope is, that we have…a great poem by Lorenzo the Magnificent

I’m mightily impressed that Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492) had time to write poems as well as running the Medici bank and renaissance Florence and commissioning art from Michelangelo, Leonardo de Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and many others, And what a poem, beautifully and starkly translated by Ted Hughes.


How futile every hope is, that we have,

How illusory all our designs,

And how crammed this world with ignorance,

We learn from our master–the Grave.


Some think singing and dancing and parties are life,

Some let quieter matters guide their minds,

Some detest the world and its substances,

Some live in a secret they know nothing of.


Vain worries and thoughts, and diverse fates

For the while variety of creation,

Find us, each time, straying over the earth.


Each thing has a moment–that flies,

For Fortune’s sickness of perpetual motion.

Nothing is still. And nothing lasts. Only death.


A dinner that opened a new world for me

Formal dinners can be extremely boring, but sometimes you can get lucky and sit next to somebody really interesting. I got lucky last week when I sat next to Jay Richardson at a Cambridge Union dinner: I learnt something and was introduced to what I think will prove a treasure trove.

Jay told me that he was the “access officer” of the Union. I thought at first that that meant access to the building, making sure that people in wheelchairs could get in. But I was wrong: the job of the access officer is to get more people, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, to join the Union. I said that I thought that dining in dinner jackets was not a good start.

But then we got onto the interesting stuff. Jay is a composer. I asked if he played an instrument. He does–he’s an organist in one of the colleges–but he told me that you didn’t have to play an instrument to be a composer. That surprised me. I asked him how he composed. Did he sit at a piano? Did he use a computer? Did he have a synthesiser that would play the music he was composing, making the sound of the strings, the brass, the woodwind? No, he said, he did it all in his head. Many composers do use software that will create the sound of an orchestra, but he thought it too unlike the real sound, too messy; it got in the way of his composing.

I fund it astonishing that he could create the sound of an orchestra in his head. It seemed to me inhuman, that you could hold in your head the sound of a 100-piece orchestra with its 30 or so different instruments and compose a symphony. But then I thought of Beethoven, deaf and unable to hear his music even when it was being played by a real orchestra.

I asked about the difficulty of getting an orchestra to play your work. Wasn’t that expensive, especially with the need for rehearsal? He said that it wasn’t too bad if you had a “residence”– and he has one at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge. He told me as well that English orchestras can play a piece without any rehearsal. He told the story of the recording of the music for Star Wars. An American orchestra said it would need weeks to rehearse. The producer said that would be impossible, and then two English orchestras bid against each other, with one eventually recording the score after a rehearsal of just one or two days.

Could I listen to his music? He told me that he is just about to have a piece on Spotify–and he has had a piece played on Radio 3. But the place to go to hear is Soundcloud, “a sort of YouTube of new music.” I asked if it mattered to him whether people enjoyed his music. I imagined he might be composing something very modern and difficult, but he was clear that he wanted people to enjoy his music.

I’ve now been to Soundcloud and listened to two pieces by Jay. I like them both very much–they have the still, pure melancholic sound that I love. on every street is an exquisite piece for solo cello, performed by Joy Lisney in the chapel of Jesus College Chapel. my body is an ocean is an evocative piece for piano that is almost as much silence as music. I have already listened to these pieces several times and will continue to listen to them, and I will explore other pieces by him and by other composers on Soundcloud.

Rarely has a dinner brought such a return.







A morning of five generations

While making toast with Alexander, my three-year-old grandson, I hear on the radio that Ken Dodd, the comedian, has died at 90. Suddenly five generations are connected.

They are connected because I remember going with my grandmother to see Ken Dodd at the Palladium. I was perhaps 10, it was 1962. I called my grandmother Nana, and I loved her. She was Irish, warm, and gentle with red hair. I can remember the smell of her, a mixture of face powder and Kensitas cigarettes.

I had a much closer relationship with her than any of my other three grandparents, all of whom I knew. Nana’s husband, Jim, wasn’t much interested in children. Usually he wore a dressing gown, but sometimes he exchanged it for a loud check suit. He’d been a comedian, a song-and-dance-man, a fast bowler, a bookie, and an embezzler. My father’s father, Major Bill Smith, had been in the Indian army and was stern and Victorian. He always wore a suit and shouted at people with long hair. His wife, Ethel, was worn out, fat, and slow–very gentle but very distant. She died before I could ever know her properly.

It was just Nana and I who went to see Ken Dodd. Nobody else. My memory is that we were so high in the gallery that I had to look down between my knees to see Ken Dodd. I can still remember one of the jokes he cracked: some people came in late, and he shouted “That’s the team from British Rail, just arriving.”

Nana, born in 1904, had danced in the music halls, and that’s where she met Jim. They may even have had a double act. Jim led her a merry dance as a husband, probably both beating her and being unfaithful. I’m not sure, but he certainly beat my mother, who sometimes thinks he’s still alive and can’t forgive him. When I look at the photo of Nana from the 1920s I see how beautiful she was. I just remember her as old, although she would have been 58 when we went to see Ken Dodd, eight years younger than I am now.


Ken Dodd was described on the radio as the last of the music hall comedians, following on from Arthur Askey (who lives in the flats where my brother Brian lives), and Max Wall, whom I saw perform at the Greenwich Theatre in the 70s. Ken Dodd was famous for his stamina and his love of being on stage, giving five-hour shows well into his 80s. My brother, a comedian, has performed with him.

What will Alexander remember of me in 56 years’ time? Will he remember how this morning we made breakfast together, had a porridge-eating race, drew pictures (the picture shows his drawing, “No Spiders,” done his morning), did the washing up (with him making a mess), and sang? The answer is that he won’t, although I hope that we will have time together when he’s older and will be able to remember me.

Is my relationship with Alexander different in some fundamental way different from my relationship with my grandmother? On reflection I think not. Love is stretching across five generations.


Sex with vegetation

D H Lawrence preferred nature to people. In the passage below, it seems to me, he describes sex–only with vegetation rather than another human. I think he writes this partly because of his preference for vegetation over people but also because he couldn’t in “Women in Love” published in 1920 write about sex between humans. He did in “Lady Chatterley’s  Lover” published in 1928, and we all know there that led.

The context of this extraordinary passage is that Rupert Birkin (surely modelled on Lawrence himself) has been hit over the head with a lapis lazuli ball (very Lawrentian that, he loves colour) by his ex-lover Hermione Roddice (modelled to her dislike on Ottoline Morell ). For many this passage will seem ridiculous, like a pastiche, but it worked for me.

Birkin, barely conscious, and yet perfectly direct in his motion, went out of the house and straight across the park, to the open country, to the hills. The brilliant day had become overcast, spots of rain were falling. He wandered on to a wild valley-side, where were thickets of hazel, many flowers, tufts of heather, and little clumps of young fir trees, budding with soft paws. It was rather wet everywhere, there was a stream running down at the bottom of the valley, which was gloomy, or seemed gloomy. He was aware that he could not regain his consciousness, that he was moving in a sort of darkness.

Yet he wanted something. He was happy in the wet hillside that was overgrown and obscure with bushes and flowers. He wanted to touch them all, to saturate himself with the touch of them all. He took off his clothes, and sat down naked among the primroses, moving his feet softly among the primroses, his legs, his knees, his arms right up to the arm-pits, lying down and letting them touch his belly, his breasts. It was such a fine, cool, subtle touch all over him, he seemed to saturate himself with their contact.

But they were too soft. He went through the long grass to a clump of young fir-trees that were no higher than a man. The soft sharp boughs beat upon him, as he moved in keen pangs against them, threw little cold showers of drops on his belly, and beat his loins with their clusters of soft-sharp needles. There was a thistle which pricked him vividly, but not too much, because all his movements were too discriminate and soft. To lie down and roll in the sticky, cool young hyacinths, to lie on one’s belly and cover one’s back with handfuls of fine wet grass, soft as a breath, soft and more delicate and more beautiful than the touch of any woman; and then to sting one’s thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs; and then to feel the light whip of the hazel on one’s shoulders, stinging, and then to clasp the silvery birch-trunk against one’s breast, its smoothness, its hardness, its vital knots and ridges—this was good, this was all very good, very satisfying. Nothing else would do, nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that there was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waited for it; how fulfilled he was, how happy!


Women in Love

Grandad in the pub

Alexander is in his high chair singing:

“Grandad in the pub

Grandad in the pub

Wibble wobble

Wibble wobble

Grandad in the pub.”

He actually sings “pump” rather than “pub,” but I know what he means and thought I would translate.

Alexander likes to sing, and I like to sing with him. I also sing with my 88-year-old demented mother, and she usually remembers the words better than I do. There’s something deeply human about singing, and it allows us to connect when complex rational speech is useless.

I’m not sure why he sings about me being in the pub. I don’t often go to pubs, and I’ve rarely been in a pub with him. But when we were playing in the piazza (don’t worry, Venice, Clapham’s piazza will never upstage yours) the other day, he kept wanting to go into the pub. I stopped him.

Then he sings

“Grandad up the tower

Grandad up the tower

Wibble wobble

Wibble wobble

Grandad up the tower.”

He knows what scans, and his high, thin voice is lovely. When we dance, as he loves to do, he keeps better time than me, as Lin likes to point out. But where did the idea of me being up a tower come from? I didn’t know that he even knew the word tower.

But then he resorts to a favourite:

“Grandad eating porridge

Grandad eating porridge

Wibble wobble

Wibble wobble

Grandad eating porridge.”

Porridge features a lot in our lives. I can imagine that as an old man the only thing that he’ll remember about me is my love of porridge. I’m happy to be remembered for that.

Nationalists versus citizens of the world

Citizens of the world are a liberal global elite who arrogantly ignored the damage being done to citizens of somewhere, nationalists, and so brought about Brexit and the election of Trump. No, citizens of the world recognise that you can simultaneously be a citizen of somewhere and of the world and that our most pressing problems–climate change, inequality, and mass migration–are global, and hold the key to solutions to those problems; and citizens of somewhere, nationalists, threaten democracy.

This is my attempt to summarise the position of the two opposite sides in a debate last night organised by Intelligence2 based on Theresa May’s quote: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere.” David Goodhart, creator of the idea of citizens of somewhere and everywhere , and David Landsman, a diplomat turned businessman, were the citizens of somewhere; and Simon Schama, the historian, and Eiif Shafak, the Turkish novelist, were the citizens of the world.

There were some 300 people in the Emmanuel Centre, and probably everyone in the room, including the speakers, were part of the liberal global elite, even though there were some who did not see themselves as citizens of the world. There probably wasn’t anybody who didn’t have a university degree, and everybody agreed that the fact that such a discussion could be held with polite, informed, and often funny interchanges was fundamental to democracy.

Indeed, the reminding by Elif Shafak that democracy is much more than regular elections was my main take-home message; I knew it, but I  needed clarification of the idea and reminding of it. I went to the debate with my son, James, and he, a keen student of politics, thinks that only 5% in Britain could describe the basics of democracy.

Elections are fundamental but alone are not enough. It’s because so many people think of elections as the same things as democracy that tyrants (Putin, Erdogan, Sheika Hasina, etc) manipulate them to give themselves the appearance of mass support. Elections become simply part of the tyrant’s toolbox.

Also essential for democracy are the rule of law, freedom of speech, and human rights. If one of them fails, democracy is undermined.

James emphasises that Britain is a representative democracy. We elect people to spend time studying and thinking about the many issues we face and take decisions on our part because we don’t have the time or knowledge to take wise decisions on everything. One of my favourite ideas is that of “rational ignorance”: it is wholly irrational to try to know all about everything.

So Brexit–where people, even the very smartest, didn’t know what exactly they were voting for and where the campaign was fuelled with disinformation (lies)–was the undermining of our representative democracy.

Back to the debate, there was more agreement that disagreement. It’s a false dichotomy to think that you have to be either a citizen of somewhere or a citizen of the world: you can be both. People also agreed that when the “us” starts seeing the “them” as a threat things are turning sour.

There was, however, disagreement over whether “moderate nationalism” was a good or bad thing. Goodhart thought it honourable, real, and no threat, whereas Shafak thought it a starting point for tyrants to undermine democracy; it’s happening not only in her own country but in Hungary, Poland, and across the Middle East.

The speakers also disagreed over whether Brexit and the election of Trump was democracy working–in that the liberal elite have been forced to pay attention to the plight of those left behind by globalisation–or a threat to democracy.

Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? Shafak answered by quoting Antinio Gramsci’s “Pessimism of the intellect, Optimism of the will.” Actually she said we should have pessimism in the head and optimism in the heart. I liked that in it describes me.

Citizen of the world