All I can do here is mark the attempt to destroy temples at Palmyra, and remember how others burnt the library at Alexandria and destroyed the Buddhist library and university at Lalanda, in the 13th century AD. Lalanda it seems was lost almost through inadvertence, simply not understanding what you destroy. Did the Turks mean to destroy Smyrna so totally in 1922?

Destroying Palmyra is about the destruction of heritage and culture, at the highest level that makes us human. And it’s intentional destruction. That’s what sets it apart. Brute invaders wantonly destroying had little understanding of what they destroyed, Here we have something different: history seen as a perversion and a visible sign of a debased humanity. Calculated and willed destruction. Whereas we see Palmyra as its highest expression.

There’s an Islamic notion of paradise intertwined with all this destruction. IS would do well to read Dante, and the different levels of hell he matched to the levels of the misdeeds of their earthbound perpetrators. Or to reflect of the notion of karma, reaping what you sow.

But we are of course In a different world, where different and crueler criteria apply.

I have no solutions, and I’m not writing this in anger, though I have felt fury. I’m writing this simply to mark the threat to Palmyra and to record my own sense of how much it matters.

In a country of so much human suffering should we care, and does it matter? And, yes, of course, it does.

Watching and listening

Saturday evening gave us a beautiful sunset and we sat outside and watched the bands of red build and fall away. Our last, almost our only supper in the garden this summer?

Retreating indoors there was that marvellous final sprint from Mo Farah in the World Cup 5000 metres. Would I could have seen it live. Then, by way of total contrast, listening on the iPlayer to Andras Schiff playing the Goldberg Variations at the BBC Prom. A lightness of touch and an intensity, and a profound hush across the RAH.

A few seconds and a full hour – both will stay with me.

And that sunset wasn’t half bad.

Gooseberries …

Today I’ve planted a gooseberry bush. There is a first in one’s life for everything. For now it’s straggling, but I look forward to a rich harvest, and gooseberry crumbles and fools and ice cream in years to come. I read that gooseberries and gooseberry bushes were especially popular among cotton-spinners in late 18th century Lancashire, which may in a minuscule way explain why we had one in my North Cheshire edge-of-spinning-country garden in the 1950s. I have I believe a silk-weaver in my Lancashire (Leigh) family tree. But I’ve yet to find a cotton-spinner.

Cotton mills were well-established in Manchester by the early 19th century. Up to 80,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Fields at the time of the Peterloo Massacre. Spinning had been industrialised on a massive scale, and there would have been no space for vegetable patches, and no gooseberry bushes.

High-rises don’t allow for small spaces out back. They remain emblematic of an older, more stable and (as we imagine it) quieter life, preserved now maybe in smallholdings and the gentle art of pottering.

The apple tree, the gooseberry bush and the rhubarb patch: part of old England…

Exploring multiverses

Now for something just a little more heavy duty …

I’m intrigued by multiverses, one version being that every possibility that exists in any and every moment could exist somewhere, spawning an infinite number of universes. We’re only aware of the one of which we’re a part. Robert Frost wrote about the road less travelled. Imagine each road as a universe. It would be simple if there were two roads. But we know there could be many, infinitely many, diverging out from each of our lives, from everyone’s life.

It’s possible to challenge free will on the grounds that every action is pre-determined, every action whether human or physical has an inevitability. But according to quantum theory many possibilities exist, nothing is therefore inevitable, and it’s only the act of observation, when a wave function collapses, that crystallises a moment, and then it’s the case that ‘all actions [that a wave function allows] will actually occur’.

Even more does this make my own life unique: the thought that could be countless other ‘me’s, generated each nano-second of my existence.

I may worry about my identity, and losing it at my death, but I could have countless identities. It’s simply that we don’t know about each other.

Buddhism allows for this possibility. There is no restriction on births in time or indeed space. But there is no place for karma in quantum physics! And rebirths in Buddhism could eventually lead to enlightenment, and there is no enlightenment in a quantum world. Just extraordinary and infinite subdivisions of time and space .

And that is my thought for the day.

There is still a place for karma, and rebirths, if you believe in them. Mathematicians may explore and explain other possible universes, an infinity of them, but we have the world as we live and experience it.

So, much as I wonder over Schrodinger’s cat, and achieve a feeble half- or quarter-understanding, I’m in the end content to wake each morning and wonder at this extraordinary world of which we’re apart.

One world is wonder enough.

Blackberry breakfast

Walking on a summer’s morning in Bushy Park, by a river (no name!), between the river and a stream, where no-one else goes. I can run, walk slowly, meditate as I walk, stop and linger, hear the slightest of sounds, watch fish swimming upstream, catch burdock burrs on my shorts, break a hemlock stem, pick early blackberries.

I see but don’t read articles on secret places in newspapers. They tell you where they are. Any special place that depends on quiet. Where? They tell you. There is space to fill in newspapers.

I will not divulge the whereabouts of my secret corner.

I’d not had breakfast that morning, and the two blackberries which melted in my mouth at maybe about 9.30 were my first food, and first of the year. And that was the high point of a beautiful day. Silence and sweetness and all things simple focused down to a single moment.

Ravilious and Rembrandt at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Place in our modern world has been usurped by space, extended space, we’re always looking beyond the boundaries, for the next place along the line, rather than exploring where we stand….

The Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is all about place, about the artist’s acute sense of landscape, and all the man-made items (fields, chalk figures, fences, ships, propellers…) which give each landscape its identity.  I’m reminded of Finlay MacLeod’s wordlist drawn from the Isle of Lewis (see Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, pp16,17): recording a living landscape woven through with the workings of man over many ages.

Ravilious is painter re-creating landscape, but the sense of place is almost palpably real.

Also in the Dulwich gallery is Rembrandt’s A Girl at the Window. This is enigmatic, extraordinary, a simple place, by a window, real, and yet imagined. Place needn’t be landscape!

Barbara Hepworth (exhibition at Tate Britain, summer 2015) identified not with a specific landscape, but with the forms of landscape, the Yorkshire hills of her childhood, and the hills and tors and megaliths of west Cornwall. Place is internalised and abstracted, but the sense of connection remains, and Hepworth’s work is all the more powerful if we’re aware of that Cornish link.

Also at the Tate just at the moment – Tracey Emin’s bed. If ever there was ‘place’ it’s this… but it’s momentary, woman-made, personal. And with no connection with any external landscape. Place without history and connections other than what we can glean about her own life story. Very much a place for our own time.

She was asked by the Tate if she’d like to choose two paintings to place on the wall near her bed – a curious kind of installation, and all the more so given that she chose two Francis Bacon paintings, one of a woman slumped over a settee, the other of a dog. The images are cerebral, disturbing and simple, they have no history, and the dog indeed needs a circle drawn around it to give it any kind of ‘place’ at all.

We need a place outside ourselves, place with history and with future, place where we’re part of a continuum. Ravilious and Hepworth do of course freeze place in time, but at the same time they open our eyes as observers, they enhance the experience of place. And as they moved on, to the next painting, the next sculpture, so do we as observers.

But in the case of the Rembrandt I have to admit I’m loathe to move on! There’s something in her gaze, and we don’t know who she is… There is history there, and a future, an enigma we’ll never resolve.

Miracles of life: 2]

I blogged last year on Democracy, under the heading ‘Miracles of life’.

No. 2 is love, love beyond even altruism, love that’s simply an attitude of mind. Read on to see what I mean.

I don’t have in mind as yet a third, though …  what about dance, which took over science and art in my last blog?


Love beyond altruism, beyond the love of partner, family or friends, though they are all miracles in themselves.

Love that’s simply an attitude of mind. In Buddhism there are the four brahmaviharas – lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Sympathetic joy – joy in the good fortune of another simply for their sake and not your own. Compassion – experienced as taking the part of another, not as an outsider, offering good works.

If love is woven into your life, then joy is its natural concomitant. Not a short-term ecstatic joy, but one which ties into peace of mind, and which blends into equanimity. Equanimity – it can sound too bland a word, but in the sense of balance and harmony it lies at the core of any fulfilled, contented and compassionate life.

Love in this sense is our ‘Buddha nature’, our original self.

It’s all to easy to make anything you write on love sound like a mini-lecture, or just a little bit, or a whole lot, pompous!

But for 2500 years that link between love, joy and equanimity has been tried and tested, and it works.

There lies the miracle.

A smile at the last

‘Lao Tzu cultivated the way of virtue, and his teachings aimed at self-effacement. He lived in Chou for a long time, but seeing its decline he departed; when he reached the pass, the Keeper there…said to him: “As you are about to leave the world behind, could you write a book for my sake?” As a result Lao Tzu wrote two books, setting out the meaning of the way and virtue in some 5000 characters, and then departed. None knew where he went in the end.’ (My italics.)

(Quoted in the introduction to the Penguin edition of the Tao Te Ching, 1963)

I remember as a schoolboy being intrigued by the Emperor Charles V departing imperial glory and retreating for his last years to a monastery. Why would he do that?

And later, in my 20s, by the music master with a smile of his faith at the end of his years, in Herman Hesse’s The Glass-Bead Game.

I’ve always imagined my last days as being a time of calm when, within and without the world, I would have a smile of my lips.


We make so much noise in the world but when our time for making noise is over, it’s wise to recognise the fact and seek the silence that lies before, behind and after the noise. At that point we no longer want to know the world, as once we did, and the world loses interest in us. Our power to influence the world long gone, we may smile at the consequence and inconsequence of all we’ve done, and rest gently in the silence.

The rhythm of the dance

Taking my inspiration from an article in the current Tate Gallery magazine, by headteacher Kevin Jones.


STEM – science technology engineering and maths should be STEAM, adding the arts – I like that.

A child is twirling around while circling a tree. “I’m orbiting,” he calls back when asked. Kevin Jones writes: “In a child science may well be a dance. There is wisdom in the dancing child who doesn’t know that art and science are different – who uses them equally to express his creativity.”


“Butterflies are very interesting. Here these things are little grubs for a while. And then they go into a little coffin. There they are in a sarcophagus, and then they come out and dance with the angels.” (Roger Tory Peterson)

“Dancers are the messengers of the gods.” (Martha Graham)

It may or may not be the case that everything in the universe dances, but the child, the butterfly and the dancer all pick up on rhythms that lie in the very nature of things. If we’re carried along by the dance, if we are the dance (“how can we know the dancer from the dance,” to quote WB Yeats), then the world just might reveal a few of its secrets. If we walk, and each next step is predictable, then we might as well not move at all.


Somewhere I read a quote about Royal Academicians being grumpy old men. Really, I thought? Then I remembered the academicians as portrayed in Mike Leigh‘s Mr Turner movie.  I don’t believe in all this grumpiness. But maybe they should take up dancing.

Turner came over in the movie as an old curmudgeon before his time. The dance for Turner lay in the way he handled colour. Could it be we all only have so much dance in us? Could that explain the grumpiness…?

The world as it hasn’t quite happened, but almost might have, by Mr JM Keynes

The Economist reminded me of JM Keynes’s essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, in which he predicted his grandchildren would hardly have to do any work at all.

If not for our generation but for a future one he may be right, as the hollowing out of the middle, between cognitive and manual jobs, gathers pace. But it won’t of course be the workers’ choice, unless by some unforeseeable and unprecedented magic work can be shared out so we all do a little in a world where education is equal for all, and work is somehow fashioned for every ability.

It’s worth checking some sections of what Keynes’s has to say. The italics below are mine. The wealthy I fear continue on their wearisome way.


“I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not-if we look into the future-the permanent problem of the human race.”

“Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

“Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me-those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties-to solve the problem which has been set them.”

“But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”

“I look forward, therefore, in days not so very remote, to the greatest change which has ever occurred in the material environment of life for human beings in the aggregate. But, of course, it will all happen gradually, not as a catastrophe. Indeed, it has already begun. The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed. The critical difference will be realised when this condition has become so general that the nature of one’s duty to one’s neighbour is changed. For it will remain reasonable to be economically purposive for others after it has ceased to be reasonable for oneself.”