Monday, June 26, 2006

Principles for Life

Last Saturday (24th June) the Priory of England and the Islands of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem held its Annual Service of Commemoration and Re-dedication in St Paul's Cathedral.

The ceremonial aspects of the service are always an impressive sight and it is a delightful honour to participate in the event. For the past two years, the event has been particularly pleasurably following the completion of the cleaning of the inside of St Paul's Cathedral, which in itself is now beautiful and awe inspiring.

Traditionally, Christian services end with The Blessing. It occurred to me several years ago that the words used in the first half of The Blessing at the end of this particular service in themselves form a creed which could be well-followed by people from any faith or even those who are without faith; they could be termed Principles for Life:

Go forth into the World in peace;
be of good courage;
hold fast that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak;
help the afflicted;
honour all people.

I, for one, find those words thought-provoking and motivating on each occasion I hear them.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Carpe Diem

On mornings like today, when the sun is streaming though the curtains at an early hour and the birds have seemingly been singing all night, it is very easy to rise and make the most of the available hours. Winter does not make it quite so easy. However, getting up at an early hour has never been a great problem to me and with good reason. I am a great believer in making the most of every available minute. Indeed, on the basis that life is too short, the one pill I would happily take above all others would be the one which renders sleep unnecessary.

W. F. Deedes, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph and one time Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister, is still, at the age of 93 years, working as a journalist. In this respect, he is a man I admire. In an article by Stephen Robinson in yesterday's The Daily Telegraph (19th June 2006), the question is put to Deedes as to 'why, at the age of 93, he still switches on the laptop each day'. Apparently, Deedes's reply, whenever such a question arises, is to quote from the poet A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad (1896) no. 4:

Up, lad: when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.

It is an adage to be well abided by.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Confused Words from a Living Temple

The above title is taken from Les fleurs du mal (1857), by the French poet and critic, Charles Baudelaire. He wrote:

Nature is a temple, where, from living pillars, confused words are sometimes allowed to escape.

Although I very much doubt that Baudelaire had the American Presidency in mind when he wrote those words, they do strike a certain chord today. By contrast, Shaw and Wilde certainly had the American people in mind when they said:

England and America are two countries divided by a common language.
Attributed to George Bernard Shaw

We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.
Oscar Wilde The Canterville Ghost (1887)

The above quotations sum up that which continues to be very evident in our two societies today. Unfortunately for America, their current President has done nothing to improve our view that Americans have a poor grasp of the English language. The following quotes were sent to me by email. They have all been attributed to George W Bush:

The vast majority of our imports come from outside the country.

If we don't succeed, we run the risk of failure.

One word sums up probably the responsibility of any Governor, and that one word is 'to be prepared’.

I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future.

The future will be better tomorrow.

We're going to have the best educated American people in the world.

I stand by all the misstatements that I've made.

We have a firm commitment to NATO, we are a part of NATO. We have a firm commitment to Europe. We are a part of Europe.

Public speaking is very easy.

A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls.

We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.

For NASA, space is still a high priority.

Quite frankly, teachers are the only profession that teach our children.

It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.

It's time for the human race to enter the solar system.

As the writer of the original email commented, ‘God help America!’

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Birthday Blues

Today is the birthday of a very good friend of mine. In the time honoured fashion, I have congratulated him and wished him a very happy day. Indeed, two days ago my wife and I, along with some other friends, spent a most enjoyable day assisting him in celebrating his birthday two days early…well, it was Sunday, the sun was shining and it seemed like a good idea.

The aspect which always intrigues me is that the aforementioned birthday boy doesn’t like to celebrate birthdays. The fact that we did so this year was more the result of an arm-twisting by his wife than a joyous desire of his own. As I understand it, he would rather just forget about birthdays altogether. I know that he is not alone in this feeling as I have heard many others express similar sentiments in respect to their own birthdays. For such dejected souls, it is just a day which reminds them that they are yet another year older.

I take the opposite view. As we cannot escape the biological fact that we are ageing, why not use that special day to rejoice in the miracle that was our own birth and celebrate the fact that we are still alive? At the very least, it provides an excellent excuse for opening the odd bottle of champagne! By all means forget the precise number of years, but let’s not lose the opportunity for a good party.

For the past ten years or so, I have decreed that my own birthday should be a day of personal indulgence. It is a day on which I refuse to work. If it happens to fall within the working week, then I will take a day’s leave. The day is my own and I spend it in whatever way pleases me, which often means a mix of book shops, sight-seeing, a leisurely lunch, time for quiet personal reflection and a celebratory dinner in a quality restaurant. From my perspective, too many people allow their own birthday to whiz by without a second glance and then it is off on the frantic 365-day race to the next one.

Indeed, so highly do I rank the importance of celebrating birthdays that my wife and I have just recently celebrated our joint centenary. Having realised that our birthdays this year add up to one hundred years and, acknowledging the fact that neither of us is likely to make it to one hundred on a solo basis, we decided to party now. As I said, any excuse to open the champagne!

So, I believe my friend ought to take a leaf out of the book of the former American financier and presidential advisor, the late Bernard Baruch (1870 – 1965) who was quoted in Newsweek (29 August 1955) as saying:

‘To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.’

I am sure that it is an adage well worth adopting.

Happy Birthday Harlequin.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Word of the Week – Sesquipedalianist

This beauty of a word was discovered in the Books section of The Daily Telegraph (Saturday, 20th May 2006).

For the article A Writer’s Life, the journalist, Helen Brown, interviewed the author Will Self. I quote from her article:

‘In the public imagination, Self is a freak-show sesquipedalianist.’

Somehow, I think that is attributing too much to the public’s intellect. I would not mind betting that the majority have no idea as to the meaning of the word ‘sesquipedalianist’. I admit to being in the same category until I delved into the New Oxford Dictionary of English (NODE). Before then, it took me about ten minutes to even say the word with any degree of fluency!

According to the NODE, the adjective, sesquipedalian, means ‘polysyllabic, characterized by long words, long-winded.’ It originated in the mid 17th century, being derived from the Latin, sesquipedalis, meaning ‘a foot-and-a-half long.’

Rather an appropriate word for such a meaning. However, anyone reading this article can now consider him or herself to be a sesquipedalianist by virtue of their newfound knowledge. I am reliably informed that one cannot be arrested for it.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Revival of Enid Blyton

Having been born in 1960, I was blessed with the chance to read Enid Blyton’s books before they were frowned upon by the educationalists. I thus thrived during my formative years on a diet of (amongst other titles) The Famous Five and The Secret Seven.

For me, The Famous Five were the winners and I followed each adventure with avid attention. How delighted I therefore was when The Daily Telegraph last week offered its readers the opportunity to obtain seven audio books of The Famous Five stories. With true dedication, I collected all the tokens and now wait for the parcel to arrive.

One reader enquired within the letters page of The Daily Telegraph as to whom the audio books were targeted, ‘us or our grandchildren?’ Well, I have no doubt as to the answer to that. Indeed, I would have thought it was obvious. Armed with my portable CD player and headphones, I, for one, will be taking a trip down memory lane the next time I have to endure a train journey to London. The very thought causes amusement as I can see now the scenario: a carriage of men, complete with pin-striped suits and copies of the Financial Times, with Dr T. amidst them all, listening to Five Go To Mystery Moor. I am sure they would understand if they knew – well, at least they would if they are more than forty years old.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Education versus the Art of Learning

The present Government has a bee in its bonnet regarding education: witness Tony Blair’s emphasis on ‘Education, education and education’ at the Labour Party Conference in 1996.

I have great difficulty with such dogma and would prefer that young people were not "educated" but taught the "art of learning", a subtle difference perhaps, but an important one.

By consulting the New Oxford Dictionary of English (NODE) we are presented with the following definitions:

Education: ‘The process of giving or receiving systematic instruction.’

Learning: ‘The acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience or being taught.’

The former implies a passive process and does not necessarily result in the desired outcome. The latter, however, is very much an active process and does ipso facto achieve the aim. I ask you at the outset, whom would you consider the more intelligent or wisest of men: the "educated man" or the "learned man"?

It could be construed that education is a process of loading the brain with the specific information the teachers, schools and, increasingly, the Government (consider The National Curriculum) wish the population to be programmed with. This has shades of George Orwell’s 1984, wherein the state controls every aspect of daily life.

This was touched on by John Dryden who, in The Hind and the Panther (1687) said: ‘By education most have been misled…

On the other hand, being taught the art of learning implies being given the ability to acquire information for oneself, perhaps in accordance with one’s needs and desires. It implies the ability to think for oneself and fosters curiosity. This in turn can prove to be a valuable asset throughout life and not just a process undertaken whilst at school.

Naturally, guidance does need to be given to young people in the earliest days of their schooling. They do need some essential foundations upon which they can then build their own knowledge base. The manner in which the teachers put across those key skills is all-important. Consider the following words from William Arthur Ward:

‘The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.’

The first three teachers are able, with varying degrees of success, to fulfil the need of educating their pupils. However, the fourth teacher is the one who will instil within them the art of learning.

The film Dead Poets Society (1989) touched on the subject of teachers who could inspire, demonstrating the heights to which the pupils could intellectually ascend if unconstrained by rote learning. In the film, the teacher, Keating, exhorts his pupils to ‘Seize the day’ and to ‘Make your lives extraordinary’.

In one particularly memorable scene, Keating says to his pupils:

You are souls at a critical juncture. Either you will succumb to the will of academic hoi polloi, and the fruit will die on the vine – or you triumph as individuals….learn to savour language and words because no matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas have the power to change the world.’

He continues:

‘You must strive to find your own voice. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Why be resigned to that? Risk walking new ground…never be ordinary.’

As the American poet, Robert Frost said in his poem The Road Not Taken (1916):

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I argue that education alone does not empower people to achieve the ability to be those individuals. It is the willingness to constantly question and learn which does. There is a danger that we fall into the trap of believing that, because we have educated our young people in accordance with The National Curriculum, then our job is done. It is not. It has only just begun. Have a National Curriculum. However, do not make it the end-point. Rather, our task should be to ensure that education is simply a means to the far more important aim of arming our youngsters with the skills and ability to undertake life-long learning and thereby have the courage to take the road ‘less travelled by’.

I leave the final words to Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Ernest (1895):

‘The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.’

Perhaps those who decide on the political agenda of this country should take note and be prepared to think again.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (8)

Thursday, 25th May 2006

Harrogate, a delightful Georgian spa town to the east of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, was to be the location for today's excursion. It was, of course, a shopping trip - a matter that often strikes fear into the heart of most men. However, in Harrogate it is possible to turn the event into the most civilised of activities, as I will endeavour to demonstrate.

The first priority is to set free one's wife. Usually, that is not difficult, being of great mutual benefit. Then, having set a rendezvous time several hours hence, one can begin to really enjoy oneself.

Today, I started with a visit to Jenny's Tearoom, set within the stylish Montpellier Mews. There is, of course, the alternative of the famous Betty's Tearooms. However, the latter does not have the facility for sitting outside. On a warm sunny day (as was today), Jenny's Tearoom has a secluded courtyard which is most pleasing and, at ten o'clock in the morning, almost deserted. There I spent a refreshing half hour, imbibing Earl Grey tea and an enormous toasted teacake, whilst writing notes for a later piece (on the subject of 'Education versus Learning') for this blog.

Suitably refreshed, an amble though the spacious, randomly arranged streets (taking time to appreciate the architecture of the buildings above one's usual line of sight), led me to Waterstones Bookshop. Not the largest of this chain, the Harrogate branch is nonetheless of great interest and the staff pleasant and helpful.

One hour later, I exited carrying the spoils of the Book Hunt:

i. The Jesus Papers by Michael Baigent. (An act of charity - he has an expensive legal bill to settle after the failure of his recent case against Dan Brown in respect to The Da Vinci Code.)

ii. The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. (Sub-titled, Unlocking the Poet Within, who can resist Fry's wit, coupled with a deep intellect, as he meanders through the complexities of writing poetry? His foreword opens with the line: 'I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry.' Great stuff!)

iii. The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin. (A novel about which I know very little other than it was offered to me free of charge with my other purchases. It would have been churlish to reject it.)

iv. Talking Heads by Alan Bennett. (An audio book of the first six classic monologues.)

v. The History Boys by Alan Bennett. (Another audio book, this one of the recent BBC 3 production of his award winning play.)

After a lightning raid on M&S for a re-supply of socks, underwear and silk ties (the problem with not having a bountiful supply of present-giving aunts is that I do not receive a year's supply each Christmas), I made for the Parish Church of St Peter, set in the heart of the shopping area.

St Peter's Church is attractive and spacious, with an abundance of stained-glass windows and an intimate side-chapel for private prayer. After the hubbub of outside, it presents an oatranquilityand tranquillity.

Spiritually revived, I shunned the lure of the second bookshop (Ottakers), the numerous antique shops and the tourist attractions of the Royal Baths and Pump House (both of which I have visited in the past), to relax in the sunshine whilst overlooking the war memorial gardens. Finding a quiet bench, I whiled away another half-hour perusing the contents of Fry's book.

Finally, the time of reunion arrived and, in the company of my wife, I adjourned to the Drum and Monkey, a highly rated fish restaurant, where we partook of a delicious cold fish platter accompanied by the, most acceptable, house dry white wine.

Of course, after such a delightfully alcoholic lunch, there is nothing better than to retreat home for the obligatory afternoon's eyelid inspection.

Several hours later, I sit here writing this postcard, with the light of the day slowly fading, surrounded by the aforementioned books (amongst others), armed with a glass of whisky and listening to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

A civilised day or not?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Thought for the Day

I came across the following in an introductory video at the museum known as The House of Manannan, the museum that tells the history of the Isle of Man:

‘A story is the tale of a journey told by a traveller to a traveller. For, although he may be thousands of miles away, he who is prepared to listen also undertakes that journey.’

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Postcard from the Lake District (2)

Wednesday, 24th May 2006

After heavy rain overnight, the day started by looking very wet and grey. However, owing to the recent acquisition of a new electronic gadget, I am now in a position to gaze into the future and matters were definitely going to improve by lunchtime.

One of the great facets of our cottage in the Yorkshire Dales is that we have shunned modern technology, in so far as we do not have a telephone (well, no land line anyway) and no television. The downside of such an arrangement has been the inability to access the Internet. A little magic box called a Blackberry has changed all that. The Internet can be accessed by wireless means and thus, courtesy of the BBC, I can tell that the weather is going to be fine this afternoon. Cue journey to the Lake District.

The object of our desires today was Lake Coniston. This particular lake, of course, is famous for Donald Campbell's ill-fated attempt to break the water speed record in 1967. The village of Coniston is also famous for the Ruskin Museum and, further along the lake, on its eastern shore, is Brantwood, the former home of the 19th century writer and art critic, John Ruskin. His grave can be found in the churchyard at Coniston.

However, all that was to be saved for another day. Today, we were to undertake a delightful walk along the western shore of the lake and then up through the woodland and over the fell above the lake.

One of the great delights of Lake Coniston is that, compared to Lake Windermere, there is almost a total absence of tourism. No hoards of people in over-filled car parks, no ice cream vans, no packed marinas with yachts and motor launches and very few buildings amidst the lakeside woodlands. Indeed, we saw one small boat throughout the entire walk (no sign of the National Trust's Venetian Gondola today) and met no one else save for a horse rider up on the fell. We were in a state of delightful solitude.

The path alongside the lake passes in and out of woodland, where, many years ago, iron ore used to be brought by barge to be smelted using charcoal produced from the coppiced wood. At this time of year, the gorse bushes are coated in bright yellow flowers and the heady aroma of the white May blossom intermittently wafts past. Beside the path, the fresh, light green tips of young ferns are starting to push through the soil, their small curly heads gradually unfolding to reveal delicate fern leaves.

The lake itself was smooth and blue, with just a slight ripple occasionally breaking its surface, causing a sparkling effect in the spring sunshine. Multiple streams tumbled off the fell side, down through the woodland and across our path before ending their journey at the lake's edge; the water lapping alongside the pebbly beaches being crystal clear. It was a scene possibly unchanged for generations and certainly one that Ruskin would recognise.

Leaving the lake after about one and a half miles, we entered Torver Common Wood and began ascending to the fell. The wood is mainly deciduous with just the occasional conifer. As a result, it is alive with bird life, chaffinches being the most vocally obvious today. That said, the call of a male cuckoo (or perhaps more than one) was with us for most of the journey, the distinctive sound always well into the distance. Why that should be so, I do not know. They are the most frustrating of birds, as, despite being an avid birdwatcher for almost thirty years, I am yet to knowingly see a cuckoo in the wild.

Breaking out of woodland into pastureland to the east of the village of Torver rewarded us with the sight of a low flying buzzard within one hundred yards of where we stood.

The pastureland had other delights of a botanic nature. Alongside the edge of the woodland, primroses were still in flower (their botanic name, primula, being derived from two Latin words meaning 'first rose'). Bluebells were also in abundance, whilst in the grass meadows, buttercups and daisies were omnipresent. Where the land was boggier, swathes of Common Cottongrass sported their white, cotton wool flowers. Really of the sedge family and not a grass at all, the flowers of these plants used to be utilised in making candlewicks and stuffing pillows.

Briefly passing through Torver village, we entered Torver Common and continued up past the Torver Tarn. Torver Tarn is a small reservoir, now redundant, as so well supplied is this area with water. (My apologies to readers residing in the drought-hit southeastern areas of England for rubbing that one in!)

The final leg of the journey passed down through a beautiful tree lined valley called Mere Gill, at the base of which the Torver Beck, swelled by the recent rain, tumbles noisily on its way. Here, horse chestnut trees are in flower; a tree I take particular delight in at this time of year, as the flowers look like large conical candles, giving the trees a decorated 'Christmas tree' appearance.

Just before reaching the road, as if taunting me, a cuckoo calls from away across the opposite side of the Gill. One day I will catch sight of one!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Call me Sentimental, but…

Every now and then one comes across something that tears unexpectedly at the heartstrings. Such an event occurred whilst recently driving on the Isle of Man.

It was as I rounded a bend in a small village just south of Douglas that I caught sight of the fresh remains of a mallard drake lying at the side of the road. Feathers still scattered the road around the lifeless body.

Moving over to avoid hitting the corpse, it was then that I caught sight of the drake’s mate, standing aimlessly on the pavement in between making small movements towards her late partner. It was a scene of instant poignancy and sadness that has since remained with me.

As I said, call me sentimental, but…

Friday, June 02, 2006

Thought for the Day

Learning is the fine raiment of the rich man – and the riches of the poor man.
Manx Proverb

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Postcard from the Isle of Man (4)

Monday, 22nd May 2006

The final day of this current trip and the morning opened with the omnipresent rain. However, the agenda for the day consisted of two museums, both of which were indoors. So, undaunted, we set off for our second visit to Peel, over on the west coast.

Apart from Peel Castle (about which I have already commented in a previous postcard), Peel is home of the award winning House of Manannan.

Manannan is the ancient Sea God, worshipped by the earliest of the Manx peoples. He is used at the House of Manannan to narrate and guide the visitor through the history of the Isle of Man from the earliest of Celtic days, through the arrival of the Vikings and on into the modern era. It is a concept that works very well.

Indeed, the entire museum works very well and is probably the best I have personally come across anywhere in the world. Utilising the most modern of computer technology, reconstructed, walk-through settings of life in a Celtic roundhouse and a Viking longhouse are brought vividly to life, as are scenes of the old 19th century quaysides and kipper factories, etc. Additionally, the museum is home to Odin’s Raven, a reconstructed Viking longboat, which was actually sailed from Norway to the Isle of Man as part of the Millennium of Tynwald celebrations.

The entire tour (which again we made as almost the only two visitors – which we were for most of the time) takes about three hours and I can honestly say that it is worth every minute. Every step of the way captivates and holds your imagination.

One spin off for me was the prompt to learn more about the Celtic races as a whole, a matter about which I previously had only sketchy knowledge. As a result, I am in the process of reading a book entitled The Celts, First Masters of Europe by Christiane Eluère, which gives a most informative overview of the Celtic history.

* * *

The afternoon was spent back in Douglas, visiting The Manx Museum. Compared to The House of Manannan, the Manx Museum is a more conventional and dry museum. However, that said, we were treated to a most interesting film (in a modern auditorium and as the only two viewers) regarding the history of the island and its people. Perhaps if we had visited this museum on our arrival to the island, we would have found it of greater interest.

What is certainly true is the fact that the Manx National Heritage has put together an island-wide historic trail (known as The Story of Mann) in a way which is most inspiring, educational and entertaining. It cannot be praised too highly. Indeed, the judges of the European Museum of the Year Award (just one of the many accolades won by the island) are quoted as saying:

“Now and again one comes across an achievement which is truly revolutionary and which is capable of having great influence on development elsewhere in Europe…and the Isle of Man has become an essential place to visit for anyone who wishes to see how to do the job better.”

I know that we will most certainly return, for we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what this gem of an island has to offer.

The Power of Love

Looking through my writing archives for the month of March, I came across the following article, initially published in my weekly column for...