Quotes from Les Misérables XIV: There has never been a grandfather who did not adore his grandson.

All these young men, so diverse but who, when all is said, deserved to be taken seriously, had a religion in common: Progress.

He suffered all the slights and unjust abasement of extreme poverty: a stern and terrible trial which brings the weak to infamy and the strong to nobility; the crucible into which Destiny casts a man, to make of him a ne’er-do-well or a demi-god.

To him a debt was the beginning of slavery. He went so far as to say that a creditor is worse than a master; for a master owns only your physical presence, whereas a creditor owns your dignity and may affront it.

There are fathers who do not love their sons, but there has never been a grandfather who did not adore his grandson.

Old people need love as they need sunshine; it is warmth.

In the deckchair


The origins of life: not as I thought

The earth was formed for five billion years ago and for many years was hot and battered. It seemed impossible that life, such a delicate creation, could exist in such circumstances. Conventional and complacent wisdom was that the planet cooled, the battering ended, and the power of the sun provided the spark for life to begin. Now we know that that’s wrong, as I’ve learnt from Nick Lane’s magnificent book Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the meaning of life.

Molecular biologists have traced back the “molecular clock” and proposed that life began on earth some four billion years ago, when the earth was an intensely hostile place. It seemed impossible that life could begin in such circumstances until scientists made a series of remarkable discoveries of bacteria in unlikely places:

  • There are “vibrant bacterial colonies in the high pressures and searing temperatures of sulphurous hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the oceans (known as ‘black smokers’).” This discovery showed in an instant with the “black swan effect” that life can exist without dependence on the sun.
  • “Self-sufficient (autotrophic) bacteria live in countless numbers in the ‘deep-hot biosphere’, buried up to several miles deep in the rocks of the earth’s crust. There they scrape a living from the minerals themselves, growing so slowly that a single generation may take a million years to reproduce.”
  • “Other bacteria survive radiation at the genetically crippling doses found in outer space, and thrive in nuclear power stations or sterilized tins of meat.”
  • “Still others flourish in the dry valleys of Antarctica, or freeze for millions of years in the Siberian permafrost, or tolerate acid baths and alkaline lakes strong enough to dissolve rubber boots.”

Who cannot be excited by the power and range of life? The discoveries might lead to the conviction of the existence of a god or gods, but they also lead to the conviction that if life can begin and flourish in such intensely hostile environments then life must be everywhere in the universe. The universe is infected with life.



Walking the Peddars Way

My main impression of the Peddars Way, the long distance footpath that runs from the Suffolk Norfolk border to the shores of the Wash, is of emptiness. We passed through hardly any villages. Much of the time we saw just fields, hedges, woods, distant hills, and scrub. Where in this crowded island and so close to London were the people, the houses, the villages? But the emptiness, the big skies, and the sheer lack of drama of the countryside were lovely.

Much of the Way is dead straight–because it follows a Roman road. We imagined the astonishment of the locals as a Roman legion marched through. But the Romans may have simply built their road along a more ancient way, a way used by Iron Age people to pass along the chalk ridges, keeping animals, mud and enemies at bay, to move from the sea in the South to the sea in the North. We saw bumps in the fields that marked the remnants of Iron Age settlements.

The military still have a presence: for many miles at the Southern end of the Way we walked beside large tracts of land owned by the military. The military swallowed villages, farms, churches, and pubs. Only fragments remain, little more than remains of the Iron Age people, who lived here for many centuries. But the military are present only sporadically, and mostly the military land is undisturbed by farming or pesticides; it belongs to nature.

Another impression is of decline. Once every village had a pub and shops; now few do. We stayed at a pub in Thompson, a spread out village, and the publican (at least we think he was) told us of the struggle to remain solvent. No pub can survive on just drink. They must do food and accommodation. Those born locally leave–not primarily because they can’t afford the housing (although that’s a problem because of second homes) but more because they can’t find employment. Our host on our second night described how her dead husband’s farm had 17 employees but now there is one. We saw giant machines bigger than buses working across the fields.

The farmers too are disconsolate, held captive by the five big supermarkets. The farmers’ produce must fit the image promoted by the supermarkets: big carrots are unacceptable, any blemish will not be tolerated, visual (if not nutritional) perfection is expected. And the prices are rock bottom. The publican on Thompson told us how this had been a perfect growing season–“sun then rain all through the spring and summer”–and the result is a glut of produce and low prices. Whole fields of onions, carrots, and lettuces are left to rot. The publican hears all this news on Tuesday nights, farmers’ nights, when the farmers gather from 9 to midnight (and often later) to share their woes.

But none of this was our concern. We were enjoying the emptiness. Our first afternoon we walked 10 miles from the beginning of the Way. We arrived at the Thompson pub in the gloom and downed a pint.

The next day after a giant breakfast and extended discussion we started late–at 9.30–in the rain. We had potentially 26 miles to walk, rather too much, and we had 16 miles to go before we could hope for food and drink. The cloud and the emptiness made for a melancholic but agreeable feel as we walked, trudged even, and talked of this and that, including mitochondria, the definition of health, Tamburlaine, and the idea of cutting the budget of the hospital sector by 50% and “letting them get on with it.” But David rescued us: after some 11 miles there he was with his Primus stove going for tea and an Eccles cake for me and an apple turnover for Robin.

We seemed to skim across the next five miles and arrived in Castle Acre, crossing the clear chalk stream of the River Nar and passing the substantial but ruined and skeletal remains of the priory, in heavy rain. We had longed for a tea shop, but it had closed five minutes before we arrived. We consoled ourselves in the pub with beer and crisps and as night was falling decided that 16 miles was enough.


The next day was even emptier: we walked eight miles and saw nobody until David again greeted us with tea. The path here coming close to the Wash was more rolling than further South and more beautiful. It was time to go home, taking lunch in the tea shop in Ely that claims to sell more different teas than any other tea shop in the world; nobody has yet proved it wrong. I’d like to have gone on, to have walked the coastal part of the walk. Here’s another reason to go on living.






Quotes from Les Misérables XIII: That light of liberty that men call death.

He was still a creature of impulse and spontaneity, qualities which prevent a man from being wholly bad.

“In the morning I write love-letters and in the afternoon I dig graves. Such is life, countryman.”

That light of liberty that men call death.

Work and suffering are the two faces of man.

What greater flood can there be than the flood of ideas? How quickly they submerge all that they set out to destroy, how rapidly do they create terrifying depths!

To see nothing of a person makes it possible to credit him with all the perfections.

Quotes from Les Misérables XII:  The act of brushing the teeth is the topmost rung of a ladder of which the lowest rung is perdition.

She was discoursing to her sister in the enchanting language of childhood, whose charm, like the splendour of a butterfly’s wing, vanishes when one seeks to grasp it.

The act of brushing the teeth is the topmost rung of a ladder of which the lowest rung is perdition.

She described the custom in Champagne and Burgundy of the four wines. Before the Revolution, when a great personage, a Marshal of France, a prince or great lord, visited a town in either of these regions he was met by the town council bearing four goblets, each of which contained a different wine and bore a different inscription – vin de singe, vin de lion, vin de mouton, and vin de cochon. They represented the four stages of intoxication – gaiety, quarrelsomeness, dull-wittedness, and finally stupor.

Certain things have been unlearnt, and this is good, provided other things are learnt. There must be no void in the human heart.

“The last time I saw Richard…” a game for all ages

Beth, my brother’s partner, emails me to describe the great hilarity she and Brian/Arthur enjoyed making up the next lines to Joni Mitchell’s, melancholic 60s song, The last time I saw Richard

Their efforts:

“The last time I saw Richard he was giving a talk about healthcare in Bangladesh and rereading seven volumes of À la recherche de la temps perdu.”

“The last time I saw Richard he was sampling a little grappa and drinking red wine at his Clapham table – Clapham tay-able”…

“The last time I saw Richard he was getting up at five to read Voltaire and going on a 20 mile hike and thinking about death.”

My efforts:

“The last time I saw Richard he was at the BMA’s Finance and General Purposes Committee but wished he was curled up with Trollope and feasting on whelks.”

“The last time I saw Beth she was on her eighth glass of champagne and doing the splits while imitating Theresa May playing Richard III”

“The last time I saw Brian he was on a Bus Replacement Service on his way to compere a funeral for the long lost uncle of his favourite greengrocer.”

This is a game that anybody can play.

  1. Just in case you’re interested the actual lines are:

“The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68/And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday/Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café.”



A blunt lesson on the doctor-patient relationship

I sometimes feel that doctors have undermined the doctor-patient relationship by constantly trying to be helpful. Adult-to-adult relationships are not all give on one side and take on the other, so I laughed out loud when I read in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy the advice that  Dr Kishen Chand Seth, an elderly tyrant and dean of the local medical school, gave to a patient:

“You stupid man. In ten to fifteen days you will be dead. Throw away money if you want to on an operation, it’ll only kill you quicker.’”

Many modern doctors must have been tempted to say something similar.

Dr Seth is annoyed by the way that the patient receives this excellent advice: “The stupid patient had been quite upset. It was clear that no one knew how to take or to give advice these days.”

Maybe that last sentence is correct. We are too inclined to mollycoddle, too reluctant to be blunt; and we may keep searching for the advice we want to hear rather than accept the best, often uncomfortable, advice.