Here I Go Again 1

Here I Go Again1

Sophocles, or one of the Greeks anyway, declared that you never go down to the same river twice. Someone else said never to go back to a place where you were happy. I certainly proved the latter true on my heart-breaking trip back to Darjeeling, my now-wrecked 70s paradise.
Maybe I’m a tiger for punishment or, more likely, I regard all generalisations with suspicion but I’m sitting in a train at Sants Barcelona waiting to pull out to Pamplona and my second go round with the Camino Francés. 
A promising start — just felt on top of the world checking in to the albergué in Pamplona, although slightly envious of the walkers coming in tired, road-worn and hanging out for a shower and a glass of wine. Oh well that will be me tomorrow. Fingers in good form on the guitar.
Next day I wander into an old church, or rather the old church. St Saturnine. Weird name for a saint but apparently the first bishop of Toulouse, came to Pamplona, converted the heathen and went back to Toulouse, a mistake as it transpired. Seems the pagan oracles had fallen silent in the presence of the faith and the pagans showed their displeasure by tying the good bishop to the tail of a bull at the top of their capitoline hill. The bull went crazy and the bishop went to heaven. The pamphlet in the church failed to mention whether this restored the oracular voices. One would hope so.
As it happened I had turned up in time for Mass, said by an old, humourless and bored priest to an aged and sorrowful crowd of about thirty. Can’t blame him for his mien, facing that crowd every day of his life. The church was floored by large wooden, numbered plates. Seemed a bit cheap to me, saving the trouble of naming the long gone interrees. Magnificent gilded altar with a plentiful pantheon of painted saints.The gazes of the old women left no room for doubt — idolatry, plain as day.

 

Day One under the belt. 

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First thing: snow! A remnant pile, anyway, outside the magnificent, old and expensive albergué at Roncesvalles. Arrived in sheeting rain and freezing cold just really before nightfall and immediately realized that I’m not prepared for this sort of weather. Mostly worried about my guitar, which I have not equipped with rainproofing inside its soft case. Offered a night’s accomm and the pilgrims menu for €22 I recklessly accepted and was rewarded with an excellent meal – an entire trout, very well cooked. The next day I left in the dark to beat the rush, heavy overcast but no rain thank God. 
I certainly made the right decision to flag St Jean Pied de Port and start at RoncesValles. A climb and descent of not more than 400 metres had my knees screaming for mercy. The ascents are strenuous and the descents painful, terribly so on the first day with a pack which is still, at 12+ kgs, a little too heavy. Two oddities encountered on the way: the letters SOS inscribed in the limestone of a distant hillside, twenty metres high if they were an inch, and a horse that wouldn’t take an apple. He looked on enviously as his brother – both stocky palominos, like most in these parts – scoffed his share, but when I offered him a portion he sniffed at it, took it in his lips and let it drop. I’m sure I have never known a horse decline an apple, a most curious thing. When I encountered them they were studiously licking each other’s hooves. Don’t ask me. Everything is somewhat awry in Basque country.
Arriving in Zubiri, 22 km under the belt and buggered I t was my misfortune not only to encounter but be officiously planted by the manager of the Municipal in the bed next to an Englishman who had pestered me the night before. This was one of that irritating tribe who interpret the taking up of a book or a musical instrument as a clear invitation to a conversation. Not that he had any conversation in him, and what he had instead I couldn’t understand as he was also one of that whispering sort who, when asked to repeat themselves lower their voices even further to do so.This guy had a masters degree in passive aggression.
Lying in my bed reading, exhausted and knees aching, I managed to eventually silence him with my monosyllabic answers, some of which made no sense as I hadn’t fully heard his question and just said any old thing. I fear I can be quite unpleasant when I require my peace and someone is determined to take it from me.
Around the dinner table at night, which I joined when the evening had advanced by four bottles of wine, all empty, I was assailed by the most withering blast of hatred I can remember. A middle-aged, sour-faced man was holding forth about his native Malta. I mentioned that it was the only island, indeed the only place in the world, to hold a royal title from the Queen in the person of the entire population, for steadfastness in the face of the German onslaught in WWII. He was well pleased to hear that, but then I made a joke, declaring that the trouble with Malta is that no-one, including myself, quite knew where it was, going further to ask people at the table. Only one, an affable American, could answer. (Apparently it is just below Sicily, so you won’t be caught out if you fall into the same trap.) This oaf went entirely off his head, and kept screaming at me, “You don’t even know who you are! Who are you? All you have is sarcasm and you don’t even … etc.) I made a couple of attempts at answering but as soon as I opened my mouth he went off again. In the end I had to make a joke of that by counting instead of answering. “One, two, …” “You don’t even know who …” It took a good five minutes for the others to calm him down. I finished by pitying him, and hoping the Camino does him some good; even from a drunk that kind of rant is a worry.  He left and I retired to play my guitar. After a couple of tunes a lovely young American woman, a soulful creature, came over and kissed me. I welcomed the sympathy – I had found the onslaught fairly disturbing, the sheer malice of it, and went on to suffer dreams in which I was abused by strangers.
I’m taking the time to write this morning for the first time, my second morning. I left Roncesvalles before dawn yesterday in order to beat the crowd to the Municipal, but I have the luxury of time today, knowing the capacity of the Jesus y Maria in Pamplona – more than 150 beds, and it’s not the only albergué.

 

Bizarrely, as I left Zubiri this morning I passed the Maltese taking a coffee at a sidewalk table. He lit up with a smile and wished me a hearty ‘Buen Camino.’ Of course I smiled and waved back. Why not?

 

It is 36 hours later. I’m in Puenta la Reina. Last night, in the Jesus y Maria, I had just stepped through the door when S——, the young English pest, appeared out of nowhere behind me. Fortunately the lobby was crowded and we ended up about six beds apart. But I must say I have softened to him in the interval. I withdrew to a quiet corner to play guitar and was soon joined by Simon, an Italian with a collection of harmonicas which he played like a master. The half hour of 
blues that followed drew a small audience including an enraptured Steve. But that wasn’t what softened me. Earlier, I had been talking to a rather enchanting South African woman who told me that she felt perfectly safe in Johannesburg and that she believed those who emigrated to Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere probably exaggerated the crime situation to justify their departure, to themselves as much as anyone else. I asked if she or anyone she knew had ever been car-jacked. She said not. S——, who was listening, interjected, “Well you wouldn’t be — you’re white.” Renée turned to him. “What?” He repeated his assertion. “Do you think only black people get car-jacked in Sth Africa?” I asked. “Yes.” Renée shook her head. “Have you been to Sth Africa?” “No.” “Then how do you know?” “Because it’s true.” “Fine,” she answered and turned back to me in dismissal. Thinking about it I understood that the poor bugger is so hopelessly insecure he has no idea how to conduct himself with other people. In fact he has told anyone who will listen how he hopes to find himself on the Camino. I pray that he does, because he desperately needs to. 
This morning, walking out of Pamplona, I started to pass a guy who was going much more slowly than me, as almost everyone does. I’ve been keeping close to my natural walking pace; most people amble. As I passed him he quickened to match my pace. He had been laying for me, the cunning dog, and wasted no time in cracking on. First, the credentials. He had done the Camino Catalunya (1,200 kms.) The Aragonés. The Costal. Etc. Then the criticisms. The (very lovely, helpful) people at the Jesus y Maria were not real hospitaleros because they had not done the Camino themselves and didn’t understand pilgrims. Eight euros was too much. Only he and his group of friends who slept on mattresses on the floor to help out at an albergué owned by a friend were real hospitaleros, understanding that pilgrims, true pilgrims, are saints and hospitaleros have to be angels who look after them. Mind you, most people on the Camino aren’t real pilgrims any more, it has become a tourist trip. Then he started preaching in earnest. “You don’t do the Camino; the Camino does you.” Twenty minutes and I’d had enough. “Excuse me,” I said, “I have to say my prayers.” It was the only thing I could think of that was guaranteed to get him off my back. I did say a prayer, to keep myself honest. I prayed that I wouldn’t get cornered by the saintly, sneering Adrian again. I passed him an hour later, firmly clamped to another victim and talking nineteen to the dozen.
I would hate to give the impression I’m having a bad time. I most definitely am not. I have met and chatted with some gorgeous folk. Last night half a dozen boisterous Italians cooked a huge pot of pasta and insisted that I join them. I had an extremely enlightening discussion with a Spaniard around my age who filled me in open the political situation in Spain, translate4d in the difficult sections by a sweet young Argentinian with some English. But I am starting to wonder whether it’s me or the Camino that has changed. Last time, walking five hundred kilometres, I met only one single pilgrim who bothered me in the slightest. I don’t mind, not really. It’s all interesting.

 

This was lovely – the bell tower in an ancient church between Zubiri and Pamplona. a sign invited me to ring the bell once and listen, which I did. It rang for nearly a minute, still in great shape after 629 years.
A great walk today although the most strenuous yet. 25 km, including a stiff climb up the Alto de Perdon (Mt Forgiveness), arriving to a crowd of familiar faces in this wonderful old town (Punta La Reina), the Centre of which has scarcely changed in four hundred years. Narrow streets that you wouldn’t know had any shops till you were alongside them. No big glass windows, just doors to long, narrow shops crammed with traditional produce at nominal prices. I decided to cook. Three lamb fillets, more green beans than I could eat, a bread roll and some delicious elephant ear mushrooms cost less than €4, about $NZ5.50. And two bottles of the best cider in the world. Basque still cider with a specially designed cork at €1.50.

 

The slot at the bottom is a special modification that enables you to pour a stream of cider from a great height in the traditional fashion by replacing only the narrower part. Spanish cider has no bubbles and is traditionally poured through the air to infuse it with a certain effervescence.
Then on to share pasta and wine with the table of joyful Italians. We struggle to communicate, and enjoy the struggle enormously.
I am beginning to make friends to the extent that, unlike the last time, I plan to confer on destinations so we can continue our friendship. Today I caught up again with Ellie, a thirty-something Dutch woman whose extreme sensitivity to the sun has forced her to leave the outdoor catering business she has built with her husband and extended family. A sweet Christian, she told me of a Sunday service coming up tomorrow in Dutch in Villamayor, which I’ll try to attend. So may Rudolph, a young Dutch vegetarian yogi type; very clear, bright-eyed, he finishes his days’ walks with no noticeable signs of fatigue. Several others. My Camino is shaping up well, from the slight sadness that hung over the first couple of days. I hold high hopes for even more improvement.
An easy day’s walk today, to the ancient town of Estella, dominated by a huge abbey that I’ll check out before dusk. ‘The gang’ is well found in the parish albergué, warm, well supplied, WiFi everywhere and only €6.00. The guitar will come out tonight. So glad I brought it; almost didn’t.

 

Continue reading “Here I Go Again 1”

Sam Harris, Free Will, the Brain and Me (or You)

Two items of information have popped up close together on my personal timeline which seem to shine a bright light on the long-debated question of determinism, so staunchly advocated by Sam Harris in his book ‘Free Will’, which I haven’t read and don’t need to read since he has already paraded the gaping flaws in his argument on YouTube.

The delightful Philosophy Tube (thanks Holly) led me to an address by Mr Harris in which he trotted out what seems to be his schtick: free will is an illusion because we don’t create our thoughts, they just occur as a result of all the previous influences coming to bear on the instant of their arising in our brain. Since we don’t create our thoughts, says he, we’re not responsible for them and the idea that we control our mind and therefore our consequent decisions and actions is an illusion.

I was irritated that in both the presentations I viewed that no-one thought to challenge his conflation of spontaneous thoughts with what is clearly a subsequent volitional process. “You might be sitting there, listening to me, trying to pay attention, and you have the thought, ‘Yeah, he does look a bit like Ben Stiller,’” he joked. This is true, but he fails to note that you then have a choice: wander along that pathway – ‘Hmm, I don’t think he’s as funny though, he’s taller,’ whatever –  or tell yourself to stop and pay attention to the content he’s delivering. Nothing advanced by Mr Harris even starts to convince me that this subsequent decision is pre-determined by all previous influential causes. In fact, he doesn’t even raise the subject, perfectly happy to treat random thoughts and deliberation as the same thing. But we all know they are not. Yes, thoughts pop up. But then we – we! – take over. We exercise judgement, draw conclusions, not at all as a deterministic process but by the exercise of will. Free will. Obviously our previous life experience, our genes, whatever, will influence this, but the choosing part is something we are absolutely in charge of.

Volition arises out of desire. What do we want? Science, experience have amply demonstrated that within certain limits we can train ourselves to want certain things and not to want others, the obvious case being addictions. We learn to want something that we previously had no interest in. Millions work every day at ‘becoming better people’ and many succeed. Action-reward feedback cycles kick in. We weed the old lady’s garden, feel good, do it again because we want to, become a better person. We make choices that changes us.

Harris would say that this is also deterministic, because it’s all just synapses arising out of previous synapses in an ineluctable, iron train of events.

For starters we can confound this proposition by using a logical trick. Our every brain moment, says Harris, is nothing more than the product of our past. Therefore our life runs on rails we can do nothing about. Determinism rules.

But life isn’t like that. We can and often do choose randomness, buying a lottery ticket being the obvious example. (I suspect Mr Harris has never bought a lottery ticket.) After that, what happens is greatly influenced by chance. So much for determinism.

But I am sure it’s all just a blind alley anyway because Harris commits a greater sin of conflation, equating the mind with the brain. No-one has ever established that the mind is equivalent to the brain. Harris boldly declares that science says they are the same thing but that is simply not true. The mind certainly operates within the sphere of the brain but it has yet to be scientifically demonstrated that they are the same thing.  In fact we are still not even sure what the mind is.

On the contrary, the other tidbit that came my way would seem to indicate, in a perfectly ‘scientific’ manner, that they are not. Recently a team from Nottingham University conducted research on people who had suffered cardiac arrest and survived. Of the 140 interviewed 37% said that they had coherent, memorable experiences while clinically dead. The brain shuts down within 30 seconds of the heart’s stopping. Yet these people went on having intelligible, often out-of-body experiences after this time limit. One interviewee experienced himself floating above the scene, in a corner, watching and hearing everything that was going on. He recalled a machine beeping twice.

His precise description of the scene was supported by those present. The machine he heard beeps once every three minutes. This man continued as some sort of entity, clearly with a mind, when his brain was dead, his body lying with its eyes having ceased to send signals to his brain. Yet he saw, for a period of at least three minutes.

Let’s just pick at this to be certain we understand its significance. For something to be scientifically provable, it has to be repeatable under the same set of conditions. But scientific proof is not the same thing as truth. If a pig flies once, somewhere, even if no-one sees it, then it is the truth that pigs can fly. It has not been scientifically demonstrated, proved, but it is the truth. This man, dead, continued to have conscious experiences. These were the same experiences, seen from another perspective, that the live people were having in the same time and place. It is not scientifically proven, but unless everyone involved is lying or deluded it happened. It is the truth.

We have heard these stories forever. They tend to be more or less similar. I conclude that what I have long suspected is true: my mind, me, inhabits my brain but it is not my brain. The preconditions of my brain do not absolutely determine what I do and the choices I make. They certainly exercise a very powerful influence. Changing course is difficult. I have always had major difficulties with impulse control so I know what I’m talking about. This is my personal life challenge: to not follow every impulse, to guide my actions by will and reason. It’s hard, but I do it.

I also detect in Harris’s presentations a common corrupter of scientific objectivity: the promotion of a virtuous outcome. Science is objective. It doesn’t care whether the world comes to an end, whether we are good to each other. Science is the study of what is. These days we see the scientific discussion about climate change high-mindedly distorted by the wish to achieve a desirable result, the continuation of comfortable human life. Data are suppressed, exaggerated, knowingly misinterpreted, because it’s good that they should be.* This is where science stops and preaching starts. Scientists should not preach.

Harris is preaching. He goes quickly to arguments for compassion. “If we truly understood that even the worst criminals really had no choice in the moment of their crime,” he trumpets, “we would have no hatred, seek no retribution. We might have to lock them away, but we wouldn’t hate them.” Which would certainly make for a better world. He advances logical reasons for philanthropy, saying that people who help others need have no religious reason for doing so, it makes sense anyway.

In fact in the two of his presentations I saw he spent more time preaching than discussing theory. That alone, casts a long, dark shadow over his credentials.

Sorry Mr Harris. You have not proved one damn thing.

* For the record, I’m a climate change doubter but not what is commonly called a sceptic. It is simply a fact that some of the IPCC data has been fudged in the ‘right’ direction, which doesn’t prove or disprove global warming. It’s just the truth.

A Sunday afternoon divertissement

Sunday afternoon, somewhere in Canton Aargau, in Switzerland. Pretty much the only lovely place I visited in my youth which remains just as beautiful. And, happy surprise, the Swiss are considerably less uptight than they were in the 70s.
I was invited to do as piece alongside three professional magicians. I was going to do it all in Schwyzertüutsch, which would have been quite a challenge, but apparently the Swiss get a laugh out of performances in English peppered with bits of their own dialect. So with my friend Tobias’ help I put together a piece and did it unrehearsed.
Consequently, at the point where I supposedly put the egg under my arm my mind went completely blank. Simply couldn’t remember how I was going to end it. got out unscathed, I think.

Check out Tobias, aka Buccini, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIjFfpA8i9U

He’s even funnier in Schwyzertüutsch!

In Defence of Meat

We are not ideally suited to a vegetarian diet. We can live on it but it has its limitations. So why be a vegetarian?

The front-line argument of every vegetarian I meet is factory farming. Granted, an obscenity. So what’s the best way to get rid of factory farming? Buy all your meat from small, local farms where the farmers live hands-on with their animals every day?  Or persuade everyone to change their fundamental nature, evolved over millions of years to make us supremely not only capable of eating everything, but thriving on an everything diet. We’re quite capable of vegetarianism, of course. But it is not what we’re built for.

Ohh, but the suffering of the poor animals, raised just to be turned into meat.

This is anthropomorphism at its purest. That argument supposes that because you wouldn’t like the idea a cow or sheep doesn’t. Its proponents project their consciousness and life experience on to an animal they know nothing about. I detect in this argument a transference of the individual’s anxiety about his own death.

It also begs the question: are they saying they shouldn’t be born? Would they rather not have been born, knowing they have to die? The gift of life is a gift to all creatures, surely? How can they know a cow doesn’t feel exactly the same way?

But it doesn’t. A cow’s brain is almost entirely devoted to looking for grass, choosing the best grass and getting it down ASAP. And its natural end in the wild is grim and painful and often slow, either taken down by a predator because they have grown weak or slowly starving because their teeth are worn away by all that coarse fodder. A good life eating grass and a sudden unexpected death is far preferable.

Then there is the argument that they suffer while being transported to the works. I worked at a freezing works when I left school. I didn’t see much distress, probably because the herbivores we raise for slaughter are herd animals. The most calming thing for them is to be close to other animals. Look at a truck full of cows or sheep on the way to the works. They don’t seem that uncomfortable, although killing on the farm is obviously preferable. I have a share in a farm that raises some animals, and when we kill our own the animal goes through no suffering at all. A shotgun to the forehead and they’re dead.

But if we can do without it, why not? It’s a good question, and it goes to who we are. We coevolved with the animals and plants we depend on. As hunter gatherers we had a relationship with the natural world which in spite of all our civilisation we still have. We derive a deep, instinctive pleasure from seeing healthy, contented animals in a field. Imagine a world where we never saw that. How grim. Oh, but there’s the dairy industry. There would still be cows in the fields. And sheep and goats in some countries. The animal doesn’t suffer, eats its grass, gets milked, everyone’s happy. That’s the illusion, but cows give milk, bulls don’t. All the bobby calves get sent off to the works. Animals die for milk. I once taxed a lacto-vegetarian with this, one who abstained from meat on compassionate grounds. “Oh no,” he said, “cows will go on giving milk for as long as you milk them.” Perhaps it is possible to force a cow to do that but it’s not what they do naturally and not how dairy farming works. The cows dry off in autumn, get pregnant, deliver their offspring in spring. Then they suffer the misery of separation, something that has them bellowing in pain until the truck finally arrives to take away the calves. Both mother and calf bellow all day and all night, because the truck can’t wait around for the farmer to cut out the calves. They need to be penned and ready to load when it comes. It is far more compassionate on those grounds to eat meat and abstain from dairy.

In any case the compassion argument simply doesn’t hold water. All life competes for food sources. There is no agriculture without killing. Even turning the soil involves the death of the creatures living in it. Here in England that does not just mean insects. There is a little vole living in every patch of ground the size of a cricket pitch, along with field-mice and moles. Death. Just see the birds turn up when ploughing gets underway to feast off the carnage. And once the plants appear creatures we call pests turn up in numbers.  Arable farming is largely the process of controlling, usually by killing, the host of other creatures who attempt to make a living off the farmer’s produce. Organic farmers have organic pesticides, or use mechanical and manual methods of beating off the pests. They shoot pigeons, pheasants and all the other seed- and fruit-eating birds, poison the snails and insects. Storing it leads to another protective war – traps for rodents, poison. There is far more killing involved in raising the diet of a vegetarian than that of a carnivore.

Then there is the carbon cost, high because vegetarians and especially vegans require such a varied diet. The average health foods store has food delivered from all over the world. A carnivore can live happily and successfully, in most countries, entirely on food raised close to where they live. If the world gave up meat the carbon cost would be staggering. Yes, I know the unconscionable carbon cost of raising soy and maize, trucking it to a remote factory farm, stuffing it down the throats of poor creatures who never see daylight, then trucking them to the works and shipping their parts all over the world. But that is driven by the tastes of the many non-vegetarians who eat far too much meat, and only eat the parts of the animal they prefer. Truck farming is not a necessity – it’s just more profitable. An organic farmer friend has proven to me that carefully raised organic animals can easily meet the needs of current humanity.

The dumbest argument of all: I often hear vegetarians presupposing that if all the land currently used to raised animals were used for growing plant foods, then … Most land is put to the use it is best suited to. A sizeable portion of the land currently in pastoral farming would simply not support crops. It would not become covered with good, moral, nutritious vegetables, the harvest of death. It would revert to forest, and what was left wouldn’t feed us.

Finally there is the supposed health issue. Too much meat is bad for us. Yes, it is. Too much. Or at least, that’s the current view, which has changed so many times in my lifetime I have quite lost track. Remember the butter scare? Turns out it was all a cynical hoax perpetrated by the manufacturers of edible oil products. Butter, in small quantities, turns out to be good for us. Whether or not it is bad for us, however, does not change the fact that the average English meat meal contains enough protein to sustain the person eating it for at least three days. Meatless days were common in the life of a hunter gatherer.

That’s why you can afford to support the local farmer. Buy, and eat, 40% less. Don’t buy a chicken, roast it and gorge. Buy half a chicken, or share a whole one.

What is unquestionably good for us is variety, because we’re omnivores, equipped with a variety of cutting and grinding teeth and neither the short, fierce digestive system of the carnivore nor the long, complex and often multi-staged one of the herbivore, but one of medium length, the best of both worlds.

Over millions of years we evolved to eat the diet of a hunter gatherer, a richly varied one of animal products including the fresh or dried meat, blood and organs of foraging animals, birds and their eggs, fish and other seafood, fruit, nuts, roots, leaves, and seeds. And a little honey and even the occasional insect. No refined sugars or starches, nor any milk products. Little salt. That continues to be the healthiest diet a human can consume. Provided the animals are given plenty of grazing and fresh air and water, there is simply no reason this should not continue to be our diet for the foreseeable future, and provide us with the most pleasing environment to live in.

POST SCRIPT: Culture Changing Perception

I was a vegetarian for about eighteen months. I used to tell people the thought of eating meat made me ill, I found it revolting, etc. etc. Of course I was lying, to myself more than anyone. One night I was walking past a takeaway and the smell of meat on the grill prompted an undeniable flood of saliva. Who are you kidding, I thought, and bought and ate a hamburger. It was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. That was the end of my flirtation with vegetarianism. I often meet vegetarians who say “I just don’t like it.” My natural inclination is to doubt them, recognising the same lie I told myself. But I have come to doubt this. I have friends who affirm with consistency and apparent honesty that they don’t like the taste, even the smell of meat cooking. How can this be? We are designed to eat and like what best sustains us. We can see how cultures such as the Pacific Island people, who had very little meat in their largely fish-based diet, react to the abundance of fatty meat and sweet food. They have such a highly conditioned drive to eat as much of it as they can on the rare occasions when it was available that in a modern Western setting they have huge difficulty avoiding obesity. Our wiring drives our tastes.

But is that changing? It may well be that enough social reinforcement can over-ride our instincts to the extent that our tastes actually change. I find evidence for this in the case of cigar and pipe smoke. In my childhood, constantly exposed to tobacco smoke, everyone – yes, everyone – loved the smell of the pipe and the cigar. In my infancy it was the fashion at medical school to take up pipe smoking. The pipe was the smell of a doctor, associated with care and nurturing. I, like everyone, loved it. I suppose the cigar was the smell of luxury and again everyone loved it. But there was none of today’s social opprobrium around these things, indeed my mother used to gather cigar ash and give it to us to clean our teeth because it was known to be a an excellent dentifrice.

Now, people genuinely find these smells unpleasant, something I have difficulty imagining.

So yes, perhaps today’s vegetarians have been so influenced by self-indoctrination and social reinforcement they really do dislike meat.

Is humanity experiencing a new pliability in the face of a bombardment of social programming at every level? Can this be influencing the apparent explosion in child sexual abuse? Surely one of our greatest instincts is to protect and treasure children. Psychologists have identified that the features we find beautiful are child-like in essence – very clear skin, big round eyes. Is this another example of culture causing is to get our wires crossed?

I find this disturbing. To be a member of a species that can be so easily alienated from its instincts worries me. My personal inclination is to keep my perceptions and my behaviour as closely attuned to my instincts as I can.

New Zealand Goes to War. And Gets What It Deserves.

Kiwis, a relative handful of them as always, are up in arms at the decision of the John Key Tory government to send a bunch of soldiers to ‘assist’ in the fight against Isis. ‘Undemocratic!’ ‘No consultation!’ ‘He has no mandate!’

I hate to be such a pedant, but feel obliged to point out that the waging war is a sovereign right of the state. There is no constitutional or legal precedent requiring any government under the Westminster system to seek a separate mandate to commit troops to any conflict. People voted Key and his cronies the right to do this when they elected him.

And that’s the nub of the problem. Few people gave it any thought. People use their vote without even knowing what it is. We have no civics education in our schools and most people have only the most passing acquaintance with what constitute their rights and freedoms. Nor do they care that much. They just go fishing or watch sport on TV as one by one they are stripped away in a manner and to a degree which would never happen in England or the US.

A proof: New Zealand has far more laws and regulations allowing agents of the state to enter and search private property without judicial authorisation than either the United States or the United Kingdom. You would be amazed. Customs officers. Immigration officers. Police, provided they trot out one of several legal exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant. Council officers following noise complaints, even, can enter your home and seize your sound equipment. They certainly can’t do that in the UK. Why not? Because people wouldn’t stand for it. Kiwis will.

One of the most hallowed and precious festivals of my childhood, Guy Fawkes, is virtually finished. The public can buy only a limited selection of fireworks for a few hours before November 5. Give it five years and it will be all over. On my local Gloucester Rd alone there are three full-time fireworks shops. The New Year vista from a hill overlooking the city at midnight was and always is an unforgettable spectacle as the whole city erupts in powerful aerial fireworks launched from backyards, parks and even high-rise patios.

This is important for all sorts of reasons Kiwis neither think nor care about. But in essence, why shouldn’t we launch properly certified fireworks? We are a free people. Oh, but they’re dangerous. People get hurt. One or two houses might catch fire.

Sorry, but on the numbers the simple ladder is a far, far more dangerous item than a starburst. People get hurt and die falling from ladders in numbers which dwarf the statistics of the worst Guy Fawkes night. In sensible England you will never, ever see a tall ladder against a house. Any work at height is done from cheap and effective scaffolding. It’s all emotion and in NZ, I’m sorry, but we follow the emotive issues every time, like children. Not that it’s just tall ladders. Step ladders are just as dangerous. Where’s the ‘ban the ladders’ brigade?

We need to grow up before it’s too late. We need to learn the value of our freedoms the easy way, since the hard and effective ways – the reign of tyrants and the threat of foreign invasion – have never been made available to us.

Think before you cast your next vote. It’s a dangerous thing. People, environments, whole species can die.

I was just about to … the Psychic Connection – Proved!

I was just about to call you. Surely the most common white lie of them all. But not always, and it may be the truth far more often than we imagine. This is my conclusion after three years of eerily simultaneous connections with a close friend. I’m now able to confirm, for myself at least, what I and many other people believe: that a communication without any visible connection between two people at a great distance is not only possible but may be common.

There are two kinds of proof. The first is by the scientific method. This requires a ‘control,’ a matching set of circumstances to the test environment minus the agent which is being tested. The standard double-blind randomised controlled trial of drugs is the most well-known example, and when the results are conclusive the world at large accepts the proposition as proved.

The other kind of proof is statistical. When something happens far more frequently than chance would predict, we can say for sure something is going on, but that’s all. What? Sometimes, often, there’s no way of knowing.

telepathyI have had a particularly close friendship with someone for three years. We are often apart and keep up with each other with texts and phone calls. The simultaneity of our connection occurs way, way more often than chance would predict. It has become commonplace for me to pick up my phone to call or text my friend and at or around that moment the phone rings or a text arrives. What does commonplace mean? At least one contact in four, perhaps more but certainly not less is simultaneously or near-simultaneously initiated at both ends. There are no causes. We just connect when we feel like it.

I say a quarter to be on the safe side – I actually think it’s more like a third. Why don’t I know? Because I’m reluctant to count, or ask her to count, in case it goes away. I have tried to get her to connect, focusing my mind, imagining her picking up the phone to call or text. No result. Whatever this is it is not connected in any way to the conscious mind and I fear the intrusion of consciousness may destroy this wonder. A wonder which has nothing to do with distance. It happened, repeatedly, when we were on opposite sides of the earth.

Spooky, eh? One day we may know what this is, how it works. But I hope not. I’ll plump for the mysterious but true any day.

That’s all. Scoff away.

Simon’s Skill (In which a boy discovers his metier.)

skater

Simon had little to complain of, enjoying good health and a successful and rewarding career. He fell into his line of work in a most unusual manner – he followed his father’s advice. At first glance this may seem unremarkable, but consider: although the giving of advice is generally considered essential to good parenting an overwhelming body of evidence points to its almost complete inutility.

Not so, however, with Simon Porter. His father, an undistinguished individual ignorant of the value of restraint in the dispensing of unsolicited advice, offered at a crisis in Simon’s young life a single item of counsel which the boy remembered and followed, prospering in consequence.

It happened as follows. Simon was an active boy and an only child whose enrolment at school put an end to years of aching solitude. He rejoiced in the novelty of schoolmates, joining in every activity with a will. He loved to run, jump, climb trees and throw and catch balls. To love something, alas, is not necessarily to excel and young Simon had legs of lead. For the first few years of infant school this was not an issue. True, it made him an easy catch in games of tag but since Simon innocently thought that getting tagged and becoming ‘it’ was rather the point of the game he failed to identify being slow on his feet as a disadvantage.

Until, that is, his first school sports day. With a mind to protect the tender sensibilities of the very young, Simon’s school restricted participation in competitive events to those over nine years of age. Having passed that milestone he enrolled eagerly in the foot race and gave it his all, cheered on from the sidelines by his father Eddie. Alas, the encouragement failed to prevent Simon crossing the finishing line several long and painful moments behind all the other competitors, including a number of girls. For the first time in his life he experienced the humiliation of conspicuous public failure, and was distraught.

In a flood of tears, he was taken aside by his father.

“Don’t worry about it son,” said Eddie, a comforting arm around the stricken child’s shoulders. “Look at those seagulls. Lovely aren’t they? You know what – they can’t run for peanuts but boy, can they fly!”

“So what?” wailed Simon, “I can’t run and I can’t fly either. I’m no good at anything.”

“That’s not true, son,” replied Eddie. “You’re getting quite good at cricket.”

This was true to a degree. Fairly well co-ordinated, and eager, he occasionally bowled a respectable ball.

“No,” he sobbed through a fresh round of tears. “I want to be best at something.”

This, on Simon’s record to date, was an unlikely proposition and both Simon and Eddie knew it. But Eddie was of stout stuff, and not to be put off.

“Son,” he said, “one day you will find something you’re best at. And when that day comes, remember what I told you, work at that thing and you’ll be a match for anybody.”

Eddie was a bus driver, and Simon loved the days when his father drove the school bus.

“You’re the best bus driver in the world. One day, I want to be the best bus driver too.”

“No, Simon old chap. I’m sure you can do better than driving a bus. You just keep your chin up, keep trying and watch out for that day when you find that something you’re really good at.”

“Do you really think so Dad?”

“Son, I know so.”

Simon loved his Dad, Eddie loved his boy, and Simon believed him. For a time he evinced a certain optimistic state of alert, only to be brutally brought low by his first organised game of football. Too slow for the paddock, he was judiciously placed in goal where he failed to stop a single ball, several of which were not, it must be said, travelling at any great speed. He slipped back into morose pessimism.

And there he might have stayed, were it not for the day that Michael Drummond turned up at school carrying, and for short bursts, attempting to ride upon, a brand new skateboard, one glorying in fat, multi-hued composite wheels, glittering aluminium trucks and dazzlingly artistic 3D decals on both sides. Simon blazed with desire. Something, something entirely convincing inside told him that here was a thing he could master. As he watched Drummond clumsily wave his arms about, toppling this way and that, the tides in Simon’s belly flowed like oil; he felt his weight shift, his feet change position. He knew, he absolutely knew he could do that.

He also knew better than to ask Drummond for a turn. Michael Drummond was a rich kid, at Simon’s school for an interval while he waited for a place at a high-toned public school. At the age of ten he had already learned to ape his father’s contempt for the working classes and would have relished the opportunity to mock Eddie’s inability to provide Simon with the plenty with which his, Drummond Junior’s, life was furnished.

Simon eyed the skateboard thoughtfully, wheels beginning to turn in his head. Today was a cricket day and Simon had his cricket bag beside him. He looked at the skateboard. He turned to his cricket bag. And back to the skateboard. Yes. Without question, the lusted-after plank on wheels was of a size to fit safely, with no tell-tale bulges, inside the bag.

Before the morning class session Drummond had resentfully submitted to the order to leave his skateboard in his cubbyhole in the hall, where a wall of open compartments served the school as a repository for personal items. Cricket bags, balls of various shapes and sizes, umbrellas and all the paraphernalia for which a wealthier school would have provided individual lockers were stored temporarily in full view. Students were strongly discouraged from bringing items of value to school. Occasionally there were thefts; less often, culprits caught and punished.

It all went very smoothly. Simon had a tender heart and drew heavily on mitigating circumstances to soothe his conscience. Firstly, only three weeks ago the odious Drummond had put on a show with his brand new pair of semi-pro inline skates, and rode to school on a feather-light and insanely costly carbon-fibre 25-speed mountain bike when not being chauffeured in his mother’s enormous new Range Rover. Possessing neither skates, bike, skateboard nor indeed any means of transport, Simon felt instinctively that here was an imbalance in the distribution of goods requiring correction in the interest of producing a more ordered state of things in the universe. Secondly it was due to no virtue on Drummond’s part nor lack of it on Simon’s own that Drummond’s father did something in the City which Drummond seemed unable to describe but which placed at his disposal enormous quantities of currency, whereas Simon’s father performed the essential but poorly rewarded service of driving a bus.

At twenty minutes to two, Simon, composing his features into a picture of mournful discomfort, raised his hand and asked to be excused. En route to the toilet he laid hands on the object of desire, slipped it between his cricket pads and drew the zipper tight. He then proceeded to pass a pleasant quarter hour in the cubicle waving his hand around in the imagined graceful arcs and athletically performed manoeuvres of a skateboard, an activity he found oddly satisfying.

Pausing at the washbasin to splash his face with cold water, Simon returned to class clutching his stomach and wearing an expression of acute unease.

“Please miss, I’ve just been sick and my tummy hurts. I think there was something wrong with my fish sandwich.”

“Oh dear,” replied the pliable Miss Spencer, “you should see the nurse.”

“Please Miss, no. She can’t do anything. I want to go home to bed, with a bowl.”

For emphasis, Simon gave a convincing rendition of a violent spasm, grabbing his stomach and bending over to dribble a generous amount of saliva onto the floor.

The fastidious teacher took two quick steps backwards, knocking over a large flask containing a live tadpole. “Oh goodness! Well, is your mother home?”

“I … think … so,” he replied, any residual guilt at deceiving the kindly Miss Spencer quelled by his resentment at her referral to a mother who had not been at home for more than two years.

“Then run along, and get better soon.”

“Yes miss. Thank you miss.”

“Alice, would you fetch the mop and bucket and Kevin, quickly,…”

Simon closed the door behind him, made for his locker, looped his arms through the handles of his cricket bag and set off for home, his heart beating wildly in anticipation brought on by the noticeably increased weight of the bag on his back.

A lesser spirit would have succumbed to temptation and had his feet on the skateboard once around the first corner. But Simon, made of sterner stuff, maintained the stomach-clutching and face-pulling act all the way home.

His father’s split shifts often found him at home during the school day, but this too Simon had reckoned with, timing his performance to coincide with his father’s departure for the afternoon roster.

Once inside, Simon fetched their small stepladder and took it upstairs to the spare room of the miniscule semi-detached he and Eddie called home. Mounting it, he lifted a faded cream ceiling panel, whose loose state he had discovered with a broom handle a month earlier, and slid the skateboard into hiding. Then he carried the ladder back downstairs and locked it away in ‘the shed’, a prefabricated tin box which stood at the bottom of the minute patch of weeds and bare earth known, without irony, as ‘the garden’.

Then he made himself a peanut butter and banana sandwich – a big one – and settled down to a pleasant afternoon reading comics, watching television and standing on a cushion, left foot forwards, imitating skateboarding moves.

For credibility’s sake Simon feigned sickness and remained at home the following day, exercising considerable discipline in leaving the skateboard in its place of concealment and staying indoors.

He was, as expected, identified as Suspect Number One and subjected on his return to school to a corrosive but futile grilling in the headmaster’s study. All accusations he countered with stalwart pleas of innocence and injured demands for a search of his home. He even withstood the gambit of being informed that his offence had been captured on CCTV, thanks to his furtive but thorough examination of the hall during the lunch break preceding his crime.

Simon was discomfited by the unexpected arrival of his father but his fears were misjudged. Eddie quickly grew belligerent at the disturbance of his routine in order to see his son browbeaten for the crime of becoming ill. Yes, the boy had looked poorly and was in bed with a bowl when Eddie looked in on him after his shift. Yes, he had clearly been unwell the next day. No, Simon did not have a skateboard and certainly not an expensive new one.

Eddie’s ire doubled when his demand to see the incriminating footage was countered by the transparent untruth that the equipment had unfortunately malfunctioned on the day in question. Feeling cornered, the headmaster resorted to a meaningful nod in the direction of the uncomfortable Miss Spencer, who meekly taxed Eddie on the matter of Simon’s lie about his mother being home. With a fierce glare Eddie demanded, “Why do you think?” at which the poor woman turned scarlet and fell silent, bringing the interview to an embarrassed close.

The victim attempted a crude stand-over, only to be dragged off and scragged by Simon’s classmates, not from any sense of fair play but from a general loathing of the boastful twerp. Nor was Simon’s defence the result of any conviction as to his innocence; on the contrary, although he remained resolutely silent he garnered a certain regard as the presumed agent of Drummond’s well-deserved deprivation.

Simon bided his time with exemplary patience. The only unfortunate aspect of the affair was the awkward necessity of lying to his father. This last shadow dissipated on the evening following the interview.

“So who is this Drummond kid, anyway?” inquired Eddie over their meal of fish and chips.

“He’s a rich dweeb, nobody likes him. He’s always turning up with new stuff just to show off. He’s got new skates, a wanky bike and his own iPhone. And an iPad, Nike trainers, the lot. His Mum brings him to school in this huuuu-uuuge car, and anyway, he’s only here for the rest of the term. Then he’s going to some big-time public school.”

Simon’s over-egging of the pudding did not escape the wily bus driver’s notice.

“Hmmm. Oh yeah? So you did nick it.”

“Yeah.”

“Where’ve you got it?”

“Hidden. Safe.”

“Don’t get caught with it, will you, for God’s sake.”

“No way!”

“Fair enough.” And with that, Eddie went back to reading the paper.

And so it was three weeks later that Simon boarded a bus, skateboard in the otherwise empty cricket bag, travelling to another part of the city where a park with ramps, bowls and rails attracted skaters of every size, colour and ability.

After half an hour’s studious observation, Simon set the treasured wheels on the ground, tentatively placed a foot in the correct position and pushed. A sublime compound of freedom, power and – at last – speed infused his being. His instinct had not deceived him – he was born to skate. A mere two hours later he basked in a round of applause and friendly overtures from other skaters upon executing and landing an Ollie, a beginner’s feat but even so one which usually requires days and even weeks of practice to achieve.

As he boarded the bus home, legs aching, bloody grazes on his knees and hands but with a heart full of joy, Simon inwardly thanked his father. He soon graduated to membership of the park’s circle of serious skaters, devotees of a sport whose top exponents are able to earn substantial sums by way of demonstrations, competitions and sponsorship deals.

Eddie Porter had been right after all. Simon took his advice, found his forte and went on to enjoy a prosperous and satisfying career.

Simon Porter at the age of thirty was one of London’s most secretive, discriminating and successful thieves.