Truth – the Universal Nuisance. (Part II)

I crossed the landing. The bedroom door was slightly ajar. What on earth was she doing? What sort of a state was she in? What was I about to see? And more than anything – why? why? why?

But before I go any further, I should say something about my mother. She was a fearful soul. Whether or not she had always been so I don’t know, but I suspect she had. Her early years and upbringing in a poor family in a very poor part of Sheffield in the 1920’s had been pretty tough. She was the youngest of six. And if the fact that facially and by temperament she resembled none of the other five was anything to go by, then their father was almost certainly not her father. But then, her mother – the  grandmother downstairs who ate her cake while looking the other way – was known to have been, in her day, a touch on what you might call the promiscuous side – her marriage notwithstanding. So my mother, like me her only son was, by birth, almost certainly illegitimate.

I’m sure that sort of thing was no more – or no less – common in those days than it is today. But there has been, since then, a quantum shift in the manner in which it is regarded. In those days, publicly, it was just not acknowledged, and if spoken about at all was done so in whispers behind closed doors. The truth was just too shocking. And I think that sort of attitude in society, an attitude which extended beyond matters sexual, was perhaps one of the prime sources of my mother’s deeply entrenched fear – in common with many, many others of her generation – of uncomfortable truth. 

So I approached the bedroom door. And very gently pushed it open. But I couldn’t see her – where was she?? Then there was her face – white and taut – just visible above the covers of the bed which she’d drawn right up to her chin. Her eyes stared wide at me. I sat down slowly, uncertainly, on the edge of the bed. She looked at me. I was, to say the least, a bit lost. “Why,” I managed eventually to ask her, “did you not tell me all that? Why?”

Her barely audible answer was, “I didn’t think you’d want me any more.”

There are so many levels of sadness in those words that it’s painful even now to relate them. I can only wonder at the psychological pain which she had for so long silently and voluntarily endured, as it lay in wait for that moment to come – a moment that would not be in her gift – when she would be, as she saw it, called to account. But that  moment had arrived; it was Now, in this room. And contrary to confirming and inflicting the pain she had, for all those years, anticipated, it had almost instantly dissolved it; the truth had set her free. 


I said my mother had endured her seventeen years of pain – ‘voluntarily’ – but it was hardly so. She was just another child victim of and struggler beneath a yoke I believe far too many people still have to cope with – that of ‘respectability’. 

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Truth – the Universal Nuisance. (Part I)

I was an only child, born into an ordinary working class family and brought up in my early years in the Midlands of the UK. The year I entered my teens we moved to a council house in a small town just to the west of London. My mother was what was called in those days a ‘housewife’, my step father worked in a local factory as a ‘time and motion study’ man. My grandmother, in her early eighties – my mother’s mother – lived with us. I attended a local grammar school.

Every weekday evening at six o’clock, more or less on the dot, the four of us would assemble round the table in the kitchen for ‘tea’ – bread and jam, home-made cake, cups of tea – and tinned peaches if you were lucky.

One of those evenings, when I was about seventeen, only a few minutes after we’d all sat down, my mother looked up from her food – a very strange expression on her face – and announced that she suddenly felt very tired and would go to bed. So saying, she pushed her chair back, stood up and left the room.

What?? What was that about? I looked across the table at my step-father. He looked back at me. I turned to my grandmother who was concentrating on her cake and looking the other way. The knife my step father had been using to spread butter on his bread, he lay slowly down on his plate.

What on earth?

He looked up at me. His face was taut. He cleared his throat. “We have,” he said, “something to tell you.”

What – in God’s name, was happening? With my grandmother avoiding my eyes, my step father looking like war had broken out and my mother now upstairs in her bed at tea-time – it felt like I’d drifted into a Ionesco play.

He started off. “As you know,” he said, “for you to be able to go to France in the summer, you have to have a passport. And to get one of those, we had to submit your full birth certificate. We didn’t have one, so we had to apply for one. It arrived in the post this morning.”

I waited.

“A full birth certificate,” he went on, “shows all the details not just of you, but of both your parents as well.”

I knew my parents had been divorced when I was very young. I could remember my father only vaguely. But what else was to come?

“Your mother was not married to your father. You were born – ” – and he looked across the table like he was about to pass me a hand-grenade – “ – out of wedlock. As they call it.”

I considered that. And although I had the feeling information like that should be having some profound effect on me, it wasn’t. It really didn’t concern me. “So that means then,” I said, “that I’m illegitimate.”

My step father swallowed the shock of the actual word, then nodded gravely.

I failed to see the problem. I remember saying to him, quite matter-of-factly, “I’m still me though, and I’m still here.”

But he hadn’t finished. “However – even though she wasn’t married to your father – she was married to someone else.”

Ah. That hit home. Who the hell?

“And on top of that,” he went on, “your surname is not ‘Grant’. It’s ‘Slater’. It says on this birth certificate simply that you are – ‘Jeffrey Slater, commonly known as ‘Grant’.”

That set me back a bit. Being told that my surname – mine since birth and part-indicator of who I was – wasn’t mine at all because my real surname was that of some unknown man to whom my mother had once been married, was rather like discovering some invader with me inside my own skin.

My step father’s face took on a serious, older-man expression.  ‘Life’s tough, son. I’ve been around the block.’

Once I’d gathered my wits back together however, despite the initial shock, I still felt as I’d felt before. And I said again, “Despite all that, I’m still here. I’m still ‘me’. And I think ‘Slater’s’  a pretty dull name compared with ‘Grant’.”

I fear I’d punctured my step father’s balloon. He’d been fairly sure, I think, that the atmosphere of portent he’d set up would somehow have impressed me with his own man-of-the-worldliness. But as in most things, sadly, he and I were in different hemispheres and that had had little effect. Nor had the revelations about my illegitimacy or even my surname in the end, because if I were ‘commonly known as Grant’ – then that was still, for all practical purposes, my surname. In fact, the only thing that affected me to any degree was the slightly uneasy sense I got that my very early life sounded like it may have been spent in some rather troubled circumstances. But I couldn’t see that even that changed anything about me or how I thought of myself as I sat there at that table that evening.

My step father was stumped and had nothing more to say. So he did the next best thing and just pointed a finger in the general direction of ‘upstairs’ and said, “I think you’d better go and see your mother.”

My mother, it turns out, had made for herself, seventeen years earlier, a horrible bed of nails on which she’d had no option but to lay ever since. ‘Why, why,’ I intended asking her as I went up the stairs, ‘didn’t you tell me those things a long time ago?’

To be continued…..

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Thread of Life

A short walk from where I live, there is an attractive area of green, dotted with low trees, that lies between a road and a row of quite smart modernish houses. I was crossing that green the other day when I saw a woman standing some distance from me outside one of the houses. She was quite short, grey haired and a little frail, perhaps in her 60’s. She caught sight of me and looked at me with that expression on her face like she wanted to say something but wasn’t quite sure if, for whatever reason, she should. Clasped between both her hands, were what looked like two large, unlabelled plastic bottles of clear water. As I drew closer to her, she plucked up her courage. “‘Scuse me,” she called out, “I wonder if you could do something for me.”

There was about her, something to which I immediately responded. “Sure,” I replied. “I’ll try.” It was an instant connection – one of those connections that lights up the moment, and is due not so much to anything about the two of you as individuals as to that sudden, felt awareness in both of a common thread; the thread that runs through and unites each and every one of us, heedless of age, gender, nationality, religion or no religion, culture, race, colour – whatever.

“Oh, thank you,” she said, and with some difficulty, held up the two bottles of water. “Could you please unscrew the caps on these for me – they’re so tight I can’t manage it.” And she smiled. “If I can’t get them off – I can’t do my ironing.”

I don’t know what I’d expected, but it wasn’t that. I was nonplussed – what had ironing to do with – ? – ah, a distant memory flicked through my mind of something called ‘distilled water’. I remember using it back in the days before steam irons, with which I used to dampen shirts etc. before ironing them. Maybe she still irons like that or even puts it in her steam iron. Either way – I assumed that’s what was in the bottles and took them from her. They were quite big and heavy – and the caps were not easy to get off, though I managed it and handed the bottles back to her. “You’d think, wouldn’t you,” I said, “that whoever provides these would make sure they were at least relatively easy to remove?”

“I know,” she replied, “you would, wouldn’t you? But they’re often like that.” Then with laughter in her eyes, she said, “And then I have to try and find a nice man to unscrew them for me!” She inclined her head just a little and gave me an affectionately coquettish look. “So you’ve helped a damsel in distress! Thank you so much.” With which she smiled again, turned away and walked back towards her house, happily clutching her now openable bottles of ironing water.

I continued on towards the road. It had been one of those brief, wonderful, out of the blue, spontaneous exchanges which, whenever they’ve happened to me, have made my day. If there is ever any doubt that all of us are one, that doubt is, in those moments, laid to rest.

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A Walk in the Park. Not.

The last time I posted on this blog was about four months ago, in early June – a little piece about life being rather like a ball of string. I left it a bit open-ended, with the intention of continuing it in a week or two’s time – early July probably.

But it wasn’t to be. Something got in the way -I think it might have been life.

W and I decided – it was a Friday afternoon – to go for an amble, face masks suitably fitted, around the little park. She, due to her Parkinson’s, would be on her mobility scooter, and I would walk by her side. The weather was intermittently sunny, blustery and with every now and then a really sharp, squally shower. So we dressed for that and off we went.

It was very nice, bracing. Not many people in the park. It was not everybody’s idea of walking weather – or for playing with small children in the playground. W however was very wary of the few people there were, especially those not wearing masks. And one of those latter – a man – was coming up behind us along the path. In order to let him pass on the right, I told W of his approach and then dropped back behind the scooter. I noticed its rear wheels moving to the left as she steered that way in order to give him plenty of room. But as they kept drifting further to the left it became clear she was giving him more room than he needed. Till the wheels actually started to leave the path and go up onto the grass – not a good place to take that sort of scooter. I remember thinking, ‘I wish she wouldn’t do that.’

The man passed me on the right. I glanced at him, and as I did so I heard behind me a crash, then a heart-sinking thump. I spun round to see the scooter over on its side, its heavy battery a metre or so away, and W flat on her back, where she’d been thrown, her face contorted with pain and shock.

The following fifteen minutes or so are a bit of a blur. Wondering if this really was happening, I phoned for an ambulance. Then between us, W and I managed, despite her  pain, to sit her upright. I then sat on the ground, with my  back to hers to support her. A squall chose that very moment to blow up, with tearing wind and lashing rain – along with an icy drop in temperature.

Almost every one of the few people that were out walking that day stopped in the rain and asked us if they could help. They were wonderful. At times like that, kindness, which resides somewhere in the soul of every one of us, is inspirational. One woman gave us an umbrella each! Another went to her home around the corner and hurried back with blankets and a bottle of water. Another went home and brought more blankets including a thermal one.

The rest is probably rather obvious. The ambulance turned up and parked by the nearest gate. The paramedics – a woman and two men, were brilliant. W had landed right on her hip and either the femur had ‘popped’ as I heard the woman paramedic muse to one of the men, or it was broken. W was given gas and air. Then wheeled away to the ambulance where she was given morphine, made as comfortable as possible and driven off to hospital. It was coronavirus time so I couldn’t go with her. I heaved the battery back onto its connector on the scooter, climbed aboard and drove it back to the flat.

The head of the femur was broken. W had to have a half-hip replacement which was performed two days later. She was in hospital for two and a half weeks. She was decanted from the returning ambulance in a wheelchair. We then entered the era of care worker and physio visits – four per day at first which, I must record, turned out to be first class – along with pain-killers, medical appliances in bedroom, bathroom and sitting room – a  world neither of us had ever before inhabited. Not what you expect or want on top of lockdown.

But you cope. It’s surprising what you can adapt to once you’ve accepted that this is the way it is. We pretty soon established a routine and began to settle down into a different way of living for however long it was going to take. W started to take part in various  Zoom sessions on the internet – singing in choirs, Quaker Meetings, even yoga! – or a very modified version of it, and then only some weeks after the accident. I eventually got  back to my daily three hours on my now three quarters completed second novel. But the days were long, full to overflowing, and for a few weeks, in addition to writing, I was more or less a carer. I couldn’t squeeze in a blog. Till now.

W has done brilliantly with all the exercises she was given to do and is now walking again, albeit only around this small flat and mostly very slowly. And she’s also able to take on one or two smaller household chores. So this morning, shortly after I awoke, the word ‘blog’ came swimming up at me out of the mists of night.

OK. So – this ball of string then……….

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Life is a Ball of String

One of the oddest things about us human beings is that we are a puzzle to our own selves.

We don’t know who we are. We’ve split the atom; we’ve been to the moon; one of us wrote Beethoven’s Fifth; another wrote Hamlet; another painted the Mona Lisa. We are capable of creating the most extraordinary beauty; we are capable of selfless compassion and of the most appalling brutality. We can create things of exquisite beauty and design weapons with mindless destructive power.  Even so, we don’t know who we are. Or where we come from. Or where we go. We don’t know what the point is. Or even if there is a point. Who on earth are we?

The only life I, or any of us, can ever really know anything about – like, absolutely know it – is my own. And that’s because I’m the only one who lives it – nobody else does. Other lives I see only from the outside – I hear about them, see a film about them, read about them or observe them as they take place. But the only first hand life there is for me – and it’s the same for every single individual – is this one – the one each one of us is living, right now at this moment. And we don’t just ‘live’ it – we are it; this life is who we are; this, for each of us – is ‘life’.

Which is why it seems a bit odd to me that so often, in order to try and find out a little more about this thing we call ‘life’, we look in places where it is not – places outside our own selves; as though the real essence, the seed, the crock of gold lies ‘out there’ somewhere. That’s not to say there aren’t things out there – books, TED Talks, churches, gurus, support groups – that can help in pointing us in the right direction. But something that helps you find what you’re seeking, cannot be, at the same time, that which you seek. So where, I wonder, did we get so pervasive an idea?

If we were tying up a parcel, and the ball of string we were using fell to the floor, rolled under the sideboard and ravelled itself up into a great tangle, in order to untangle it and finish wrapping our parcel, we wouldn’t go out and buy a book on balls of string or look them up on Google……

  ……we’d take time to investigate the tangle. 



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But what can I do?

There is at this time – not surprisingly – in the blogosphere, in the newspapers, the TV and radio news, a whole lot of talk about fear on the one hand, and on the other – hope.


The hope is that out of this pandemic there may spring, among us – the peoples of the world and our leaders – a new spirit of genuine international understanding and cooperation. It can hardly be a matter of opinion that such a thing is badly needed. We – i.e. humankind –  seem still to be in an almost infantile phase of our development where the few things that separate us are seen as more important than the myriads that unite us. Out of which thinking – or lack of it – spring wars and all kinds of conflict.

A passing intergalactic being, intelligent and sensitive, looking down at us from above, would assume that the loss through wars in the last century alone of well over 50,000,000 – that’s fifty million people – men, women and children – must have brought us finally to our senses. But they’d be wrong. The levels of deprivation and inequality, the depths of sheer physical and emotional barbarity that we are now seeing, on a day to day basis, is as awful as it’s ever been throughout our history.

One of the reasons, I’m sure, for that – perhaps the main one – is that so many of us make the assumption that it’s up to others. “What,” we ask ourselves, “can I – fearful little me – what could I possibly do to bring about change of that magnitude?” It would surely need an army of Joan of Arcs, Nelson Mandelas, Jesus Christs, Mahatma Ghandis, et al. So – as we know that’s never going to happen – we may as well have another drink and turn on the telly. Maybe write a letter to The Guardian in the morning.

But the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. There is no world outside  you; the world you perceive and inhabit is a projection of the inner you. That world will change only when you change. For change can happen only from the centre outwards – not the other way about. Every one of history’s ‘revolution to end all revolutions’ sowed the seeds of the next.


Changing our own individual selves is no joy ride. If you really are going to delve down inside your innermost self in order to adjust the things you find there that are out of adjustment – you’re going to come across a lot of stuff you’d perhaps prefer not to have to confront. And it’ll probably take you the rest of your life.

That’s our problem. It’s not easy. Nowhere near as easy as bemoaning the situation. And we’ve all done that; we all do it. But until each of us can find the courage and the commitment to attend to the root problem, the only change that is sure to come about is the one from bad to worse. 


Posted in Governments, has life a point?, human conflict, human intellect, Human intolerance, Life, love and living, mindfulness, Nature, spirituality, Uncategorized | 15 Comments

A seed of hope?

Some months ago, for a blog which I never published, I wrote the following –

“We’re in a mess, aren’t we? An even bigger mess than the one we were in a year or two ago. And we don’t seem to have any effective mechanism for dealing with it. Australia burns, the Middle East is exploding again; minute particles of plastic are in the stomachs of ocean fishes and in the lungs of our children; big cities, worldwide, are dangerously, murderously polluted – and as the problems multiply, our leaders (‘leaders’ ??) have the odd, high-level conference at which they tinker and sign a piece of paper. Little changes. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to predict that one day, and perhaps quite soon, our appointment with reality will arrive.”

That was three months ago – when we were in the waiting room; but now we’re in the consulting room looking reality in the eye. And what we see is giving us trouble. It’s not helped by the twin facts – a) that directly or indirectly, we have only ourselves to blame and b) that its approach was predicted by people whose advice was studiously ignored over many years by a number of our elected administrations. Let’s hope we and they can manage a more thoughtful, responsible approach to climate change – because lockdown’s not going to get us out of that one.


But now we’re into this situation, how do we cope – what are we going to do about it? Well – the first thing we’ve got to do is – live with it; live with something we don’t want to be living with; and live in ways in which we’d much prefer not to be living. It’s not what we’ve been brought up to expect in this neck of the globe. But that’s all we can do – live with it. And the sad fact is that for a lot of people, that’s grim – perhaps horribly so. It strains relationships with partners, with children, with all those around; it puts to the test our ability to handle our own selves – our  frustration, our anger – our fear, even. Fear of what? What is there to be afraid of? Plenty – read the newspapers, listen to the updates and rumours on TV and radio – there is only one story in town. And we, along with everybody else, have no idea when things are going to change – when life’s going to go back to the comfortable world we once knew – which actually wasn’t so comfortable a lot of the time really – in fact it was often bloody hard going, frustrating and worrying. But it was familiar. We knew our way around in it. For Chrissake, it was normal! But this!  Will things ever go back to how they were? There are rumours they might not. And while we wait to find out, all we can do – is – live with it.

Live with what though? What actually is it that we have to live with? Well – this may sound ridiculously obvious but at the same time, harsh – we have to live with what is – like it or not. There’s no point trying to make out we can live with what isn’t – in other words, with what we would prefer. In fact, even in that ‘normal’ world that now seems like in another lifetime – it was precisely the same. We may have deceived ourselves from time to time into thinking and behaving as though things were not really as they were – but they were, and any attempt to avoid the fact puts you on borrowed time till the account comes in to be rendered – often in embarrassment, tears, anger, let-down, disappointment – whatever.

So the situation we’re in at the moment is no different in its essence from all the situations we’ve been in every other moment of our lives – we are where we are, and what is – just is. It’s pointless comparing now with ‘back then’, or with what we might like ‘now’ to be. What we can’t change we have either to find some accommodation with, or give ourselves and everyone around us a hard time. William Shakespeare, who was surely one of the most perceptive and profound of all philosophers, wrote, “There is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” In other words, all events and all occurrences are, without exception, neutral – it’s only the individual perspective we bring to them that accords them a moral context. The runner who has just won the marathon for which he or she has been training for months, is over the moon; the runner who came second and who had just as much hanging on winning and coming first is, at the same time, in despair. Even the appalling attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 had its jubilant admirers.

There’s an old, old story I’m sure virtually everybody has heard. I quote here Wikipedia’s very nicely expressed version. “When an Eastern sage was desired by his sultan to inscribe on a ring the sentiment which, amidst the perpetual change of human affairs, was most descriptive of their real tendency, he engraved on it the words : — ‘And this, too, shall pass.’”


And if, in the meantime, we can find it in ourselves to fully accept the present as part of our lives now – then we may also find within both it and ourselves the peace and the clarity to see that this situation – like every other in life – has a reverse side. Turn it over and we may just discover there the seeds of hope – for change and renewal. And God knows, if we’ve ever needed them, we need them now.





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The Final Reckoning?

In the middle of the fourteenth century, the continent of Europe was ravaged by the Black Death – bubonic plague. It decimated a terrified population, killing perhaps one third of them, maybe more. Where it had come from, what was causing it and how to deal with it were not things fourteenth century man had any means of figuring out. As is common in such situations, scapegoats were found, two of the most widespread and despicable being the alleged poisoning of wells – i.e. water supplies – by lepers and by Jews. But perhaps the most common supposition was that God himself had sent it as a punishment for the sins of mankind. Even his agents in the world of men, the clergy, were not immune.


And today, there are many people regarding the relentless advance of the coronavirus as punishment from God or some other ‘higher power’. Maybe they’re onto something – when you think about the present state of our world, it’s not difficult to start believing that plumbing the depths of mendacity, uncaring, and savagery that we currently are, there may come a divine reckoning – and could this be it?

But I think that’s too easy – it’s shifting the blame. The world we live in is within us – not the other way about; this world is a world of our own making. If it’s a punishment, it’s one we’ve brought on ourselves. We, as a species, have, for millennia, behaved so often in a self-centred, uncaring, cavalier, brutal way towards not only the earth we inhabit and to many native peoples, but even towards our own selves. So that we are now in a situation where we breathe poisoned air; we eat fish contaminated with plastic and fished from overheating, poisoned oceans; we eat and give to our children food sprayed with pesticides and laced with chemical additives; we are slowly but surely pushing to extinction a great number of wildlife and plant species, maybe even rendering the whole planet ultimately uninhabitable. We have stood by and watched grow up around us a society in which stress, anxiety, self-harm, drug use, depression, suicides, addictions of all sorts, along with other debilitating and even fatal conditions are on an ever upward curve. And to try and cure/ameliorate those things, we ingest medication – more chemicals – by the truckload. Who knows what heinous cocktails we are brewing and may already have brewed? If truth be known – no-one.

Technologically we’re very clever. But clever is not wise – and pursuing our present level of cleverness without commensurate wisdom is a recipe for disaster. As the old saying has it – splitting the atom was very clever; making a bomb from it was at best profoundly reckless, and at worst profoundly immoral. While patting ourselves on the back for being so technologically astute, we fiddle and play with a universe that we make little attempt to understand, love, cherish or work with rather than against, more often treating it as an exploitable resource. We have either to learn humility or have humility thrust upon us.


We are an integral part of this extraordinary universe and this extraordinary universe is an integral part of who we are. We and it are one. In poisoning it, we poison ourselves; we are in danger of becoming a virus against our own people.


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13/15 February 1945

The other day, I listened to an interview, recorded very recently, with a British man, now over 100 years old – a prisoner of war I suspect – who was caught up in the bombing of the German city of Dresden by British and American air forces, 75 years ago. He came across as a very ordinary man, honest and straightforward, probably with little education beyond the elementary that would have been standard when he was school age.

Talking with the interviewer, he describes scenes so harrowing you just don’t want to hear of them – at least, in one sense you don’t. But in another, you do; we all do; scenes which we need to hear about in order to lead us to feel in our hearts what he did that night – a night when the ‘stupidity’ of war, as he put it, was so blatantly, cruelly exposed. And to realize what equally inhuman cruelty is being visited on other human beings, on a day-to-day basis even now, by governments in our name.

Describing those scenes, as he does, in his dry, undramatic – yet from time to time emotion-choked – words, brings home a truly terrifying reality. It would be a thick-skinned listener, man or woman, who did not have to wipe a tear from their eye. Towards the end of the recording, the interviewer asks him if there had been any one event that night which he would remember above all others.

Yes, he said. There was. It was after the bombardment had ended and he was working with a German fire crew. They discovered, in a corner of a cellar so choked with still burning hot rubble and fallen masonry that it took them an hour to get into it, four women with two small children, still miraculously alive. It took the men another hour to get them out. Having achieved that, in the midst of the still red hot chaos of the firestorm the British and American bombers had created, everybody in that fire crew – “ – don’t matter what nationality they were,” he says, ” we were holding each other and were so happy we’d found these people alive – we were united in the feeling that even in the midst of something as terrible as that, people are really all one.”

‘People are really all one’.

Those few words, spoken by a very ordinary man who, with his companions, had lived through a man-made hell, is a summation of all that is in the Bible, in Vedanta, Zen, The Tao etc. And he knew the truth of it, not simply because he had lived it, but because he was it. He knew that because he was that. As are we all.

For information – In four night raids, over 1200 British and American heavy bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tonnes of bombs and incendiary devices, creating a firestorm which destroyed 6.5 square kilometres of the city and killed 25,000 people.


Posted in Governments, has life a point?, human conflict, human intellect, Human intolerance, Life, love and living, Paths of Glory, spirituality | 11 Comments

Listen to the Birds

I will remember the December just gone as having been mostly grey and grim. And wet. On many days, in the little park below my kitchen window, the leaden skies seemed to hang so low they could hardly have been above tree-top level. And in the rare, brief appearances of a watery sun, you could see your face and the bare branches of the trees reflected in the puddles that were everywhere in the sodden ground.

There was hardly ever any wind – and it was strangely quiet. Just the odd cry or shout from the children’s playground; a dog barking; distant traffic. It was like the world was waiting for something. And seldom, in that stillness, the sound of a bird.

W and I sat in the park many times, looking around, wondering where they were. The occasional wood or feral pigeon would zoom down out of the murk, peck at a few minuscule specks on the wet pathways, then clatter up and away, leaving the park birdless once more. Where, at times like that, do the birds go? Do they tuck themselves away in the deeper recesses of hedgerows, briar patches and nooks in the eves of houses where they wait out the cold and the wet?

But then, only a few days after Christmas, things began to change. I was walking through the park on my way back from the shops one morning when I was brought up with a start by a sound – a bit like the far off rippling of a fast running stream. Listening, I slowed right down. As I moved forward, the sound grew in volume until it became clear it was coming from somewhere above me. I stopped, looked up. The topmost branches of a tall plane tree were swarming with tiny birds! It looked and sounded like each one was chattering and twittering at full tilt with all those around it. They were little more than silhouettes, hopping around and fluttering against an overcast sky, but I could see them clearly enough to recognize the shapes of tits, great tits, blue tits. It was like the bird world had come alive again!

And since that day, so it has continued. Yesterday, the blackbirds who live in the park were scuttling around, rooting among the dead leaves on the ground, shattering the peace with the occasional alarm call; one was perched on the TV aerial of a nearby house, singing his exquisite, flute-like song. The four or five robins who live in the park were all out there, singing. One was no more than a metre and a half from me, quite unconcerned by my presence, as I stood watching him, his red breast pulsing with his beautifully wistful song. (I say ‘him’, but he might have been a her – the robin sexes look alike and both sing). And as I was watching him, a sudden squadron of half a dozen brilliantly green, ring-neck parakeets with their scimitar-like wings and long, trailing tail feathers swooped by overhead like jet fighters, squawking like banshees as they raced away into the trees. It really felt as though something had happened to jolt the birds from their hideaways and launch them into a new, expectant round of life and living.

I wonder if birds instinctively recognize when the year changes – and I mean not when our numbered Gregorian years shift from 19 to 20 etc, but when the natural, seasonal change occurs – at the time of the winter solstice, December 21st/22nd. I wonder if they sense when the dying of the old year is done, and the birth of a new one is about to take place. Then out they come, tweeting, singing, soaring through the air, looking for a mate with whom they can ride life’s new wave.

I’d like to think they do. Birds, after all, possess mind-bogglingly complex instincts. How does a tiny, delicate creature like a willow warbler, for example, weighing only a few grammes, manage to make its way every year, the four or five thousand miles from Central Africa to the UK in order to breed, then make it all the way back again? How is it birds such as swallows often come back to the same nest site in the UK that they had the year before? How does any migrant bird know when it’s time to leave either one of those countries to begin the journey to the other? And yet, unfailingly, they do.

You can learn a lot from birds. Sit by a lake in a park and just watch the ducks, the geese or the swans. Don’t think – just look and be. It’s a meditation. They go calmly, quietly and in an enviably stately manner about their business. Every now and then, there might be an irruption of squawking and flying feathers. But after only a few seconds of purely ritualized confrontation, the combatants will part and once again, go their separate ways with little more than a shaking down of their feathers, as if to dispel any residue of irritation or anger. Such wisdom. Were they to act as we do, each combatant would retire to his own clump of reeds and recruit an army.

We could learn a lot from birds. And the state we’re in at the moment, we sure need to learn a lot from somebody.



Posted in Birds/birdsong, Human intolerance, Life, love and living, London, mindfulness, Nature, spirituality, Uncategorized | 25 Comments