Monday, March 18, 2024

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 the Scunthorpe Telegraph in March 2011: 

The Power of Love

Earlier this month (March 2011), the national newspapers reported the death of L/Cpl Tasker, a military dog-handler working in Afghanistan. What makes this sad loss of a member of our armed forces even more poignant is the fact that his specialist dog, Theo, died of a seizure three hours after the death of his master; such was the bond between the two.

The above case may not be considered unusual by animal lovers, who often form strong emotional bonds with their pets. That the same applies to humans is also well-known; I have often encountered stories where someone with a serious illness has evidently stayed alive against all odds, simply to meet an important personal or family deadline (a wedding anniversary or landmark birthday, for example). The determined power of the human spirit is the only factor deciding on life or death. Never, however, had I met the situation in person until shortly after I qualified as a doctor: ‘She refuses to die whilst her husband is still alive,’ said the staff nurse.

I was in the first week of my first hospital job as a House Surgeon in Kent. Mary (as I will call her) was in her mid sixties and extremely frail. She was quiet and undemanding, and held little in the way of conversation apart from requesting a daily report on her husband. Her diagnosis had been confirmed some four months previously; inoperable cancer of the ovary. Over the ensuing months, Mary became progressively weaker, being unable to take food and surviving on the occasional sip of tea and the fluids being dripped into her veins. Such was the extent of her emaciation that her skin appeared to have been wrapped like Clingfilm around every curve and contour of her bones.

Mary’s husband used to visit her every day at 2.15pm precisely. He was a dapper little chap; always in a tweed jacket and tie, and carrying fresh flowers. He would give her a gentle kiss on the cheek then sit down in an armchair next to the bed. A few words might pass between them, perhaps some small happening from events back at home. However, for most of the time they would remain quiet; content in that easy silence that comes of many long marriages. Often, Mary would sleep. For his part, her husband remained vigilant, quietly stroking her bony hand; reassuring her by his continued presence. Then at 5pm, he would rise, give her another kiss, move the odd wisp of hair from her face, give her hand a final two-handed squeeze, pick up his cap and leave. Mary would follow him with her eyes until he disappeared from view. All of this I would observe from the distance of the ward office.

One day, in the cruel way that fate often works, Mary’s husband suffered a major stroke, which left him paralysed and unable to speak. As a result, he was admitted to another ward within the same hospital. Both being too ill to move, the only contact between them was Mary’s daily enquiry after her husband. Then, at 8am one weekday, the telephone call came through to the ward to inform us that Mary’s husband had died in his sleep during the early hours of that morning. The ward Sister broke the news to Mary, who listened carefully but showed little in the way of emotion.

Just after lunch, my pager summoned me back to the ward and I was asked to see Mary. I knew at once that she had passed away. I stood there, quietly pensive, noting the hand stretched out towards the empty chair beside her. As the nurses averted their red-rimmed eyes, I knew that I was not the only one to be moved by her death. For many months, Mary had survived against all odds, taking strength from the power of her husband’s love and her love for him. Then, within a few hours of being informed of his death, she had simply stopped living.

I still wonder at how the power of love fuelled Mary’s resilience. The story of L/Cpl Tasker and his dog Theo reminded me of this story, and of how love for another being is sometimes stronger than any medicine.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Speaking of Love

 The following article was first published in my column for the Scunthorpe Telegraph (27 Feb 2014):

Love is the Most Powerful Emotion

I have previously referred to the writings of Kahlil Gibran, a late 19th century, Lebanese poet and philosopher. He is arguably most famous for his powerful and mystical work, The Prophet. In that book, he speaks to the reader of many experiences from across the rich spectrum of human emotions, drawing out the central essence of each individual sentiment and passion.

The ability to portray emotion is one of the most fundamental traits central to the concept of being alive, conscious, knowing and having a sense of self-identity. Whilst not alone within the animal kingdom, as human beings we are driven by our feelings; perceive a mental stimulus and our bodies respond accordingly. It is a well-known fact that a positive state of mind can bring health benefits, whilst a negative or pessimistic outlook can be detrimental to health.

Next to its antithesis anger, the sensation of love is arguably the most powerful of emotions, imbued with a depth and richness of nuance that is hard to satisfactorily reflect in the written word. Thousands of artists, writers and poets over the centuries have chased after its elusive form and meaning; only some have come close to succeeding. The problem is not for the lack of a choice of descriptive words in the thesaurus, or hue of colours on the artist’s palette. The real issue is that love in its purest and truest form is an awesome, irresistible and overwhelming force that has the power to dominate a person’s every waking moment. It is not the same as lust, which is harsher and fleeting in nature. Love has a vastness of strength that overcomes all obstacles; bonding the human spirit to that of another, regardless of distance or time. In the words of his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul tells us, ‘love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things; love never ends.’

It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the death of a loved one truly has the power to ‘break one’s heart’. In this column in March 2011, I related the story of an elderly lady who was in hospital and seriously ill. She remained alive for months beyond medical expectation, purely because of the strength of the relationship between her and her husband, who unfailingly visited every day. One day he had a stroke, was admitted to hospital, and died a few days later. The news was gently given to his wife the same morning, and that afternoon she died.

Kahlil Gibran advises the reader thus: ‘When love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep. Think not that you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course’; though he also warns: ‘And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation’. A truth many a bereaved person knows only too well.

[In Memoriam: Winifred Gertrude Jaggs-Fowler SSStJ (1931 – 2014); for whom three months of separation after 72 years of love was beyond her heart’s endurance.]

Thursday, March 14, 2024

A Short Meditation on Death

The following, a meditation on the subject of death, is an article first published in my column for the Scunthorpe Telegraph (28 November, 2013):

There is a Season for Everything

Just as a glorious summer must be followed by a mellowing autumn and the ravages of winter, so to must the vigour and splendour of young life be followed by the imprecations of old age and, subsequently, inevitably and irrevocably, death. For, as Ecclesiastes 3:1-9 simply informs us, for everything there is a season, and just as there is a time to be born, so too is there a time to die.

Yet even within death, there is beauty, hope and comfort. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O grave is your sting?’ The words of 1 Corinthians 15:55 confront and challenge the nemesis we all share, and many fear. Shakespeare grappled with the same sentiment in Sonnet V1; ‘Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart/Leaving thee living in posterity?’ For Shakespeare, children are one of the answers to the ravages of old age, for who can fear death if they are able to see younger versions of themselves living on even whilst death snatches at the breath of the parent? In the face of such posterity, how can death ever be the conqueror? A parent may die, but in the face of death, they live on through the breath, heart, mind and eyes of a son or daughter.

What promise, then, for the dying person, other than being assured of vicariously living through the lives of their offspring? Individual religions see death in slightly different ways. For most Christians, there is the promise of a life after death, in the company of God in Heaven, surrounded by the souls of long departed loved ones, and where pain and sin are no more. 

Muslims believe that this life is but a short trial in preparation for the next realm of existence. Buddhists take the view that death is not the end of existence. For a Buddhist, death is just the closing of a chapter, following which a new chapter immediately begins. One automatically follows the other; just as death is followed by re-birth. Hindhus believe that death is not a great misfortune and not final. It is just a natural process in a soul’s journey, by which it ‘reassembles its resources, adjusts its course and returns again to the earth to continue its journey’.

In his marvellous book, The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says that ‘life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one’. His whole chapter on the subject of death is worth reading, and has brought many people great comfort at times of deep distress and in the face of perceived adversity. Therein is a mine of treasures, but two more lines on the subject are particularly emotive: ‘For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? … And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance’. May it be just so.

[In Memoriam: Robert John Lawrence Fowler (1927 – 2013). May your breath now be free and your dance be joyful.]

Sunday, March 03, 2024

Jung's Synchronicity

I am currently reading a book on Carl Jung, called Decoding Jung's Metaphysics, by Bernardo Kastrup. In a chapter on 'synchronicity' (what most people might call coincidence), Jung is quoted as saying:

It is perfectly possible, psychologically, for the unconscious to take complete possession of man and to determine his fate down to the smallest detail.

That stopped me in my reading tracks. I was immediately reminded of a thought which occured to me whilst in my late teens. It was whilst pondering my future career possibilities, and went something along the lines that I should be best placed psychologically as a 'doctor without any patients, a priest without a parish, or a don without any students'.

Now, in my 7th decade, I find myself as a retired GP, a priest without any parochial affiliation, and a Visiting Fellow at a university (which is at least included within the Wikipedia definition of what constitutes a 'don').  

I wonder what Jung would have to say about that?

So, some years ago, when I wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek comment in one of my newspaper columns regarding the idea that I am going to live to 120 years, perhaps that was more than just an arbitrary thought? Perhaps it was another case of synchronicity? Only time will tell...

Reading further, I found Jung saying:

The world surrounding you right now presents itself physically to you as an integrated whole. Moreover, this whole has a message: it is interpretable as the dream of a greater and more comprehensive consciousness. Every bit of the physical world, across space and time, may express global archetypal meaning; it may be telling a story. From this perspective, it is entirely legitimate for you to ask yourself: 'What does the world around me mean? What does its imagery symbolically represent? What is it saying?'

As with Jung, I am inclined to believe that there is a force at work in this world that is determinate. 'Divine Providence' is perhaps another way of looking at it - that being God's timely preparation for future eventualities. Of course, as a priest, you would expect my belief in God, and I do believe that God speaks to us in a wealth of ways. However, what is more important in this context is that we should truely 'watch the signs', just as the prophets of centuries past did. For some reason, probably because of the increase in scientific understanding, humankind has become less inclined to consider matters of prophecy as being relevant. I think we do that at our peril. Or, to put it another way, if we do 'watch the signs', we might take courage and reassurance from having an insight as to how our story is going to unfold. 

Perhaps the Oracle of Delphi (and such like) was less of the 'myth' that we now assume her to be. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Watching with John Henry Newman

I have recently been reading Newman: The Heart of Holiness (2019), a book by Roderick Strange about the priest-poet, John Henry Newman. In a sermon called 'Watching', dated 3 December 1837 (p.33), Newman discusses what it means to be 'watching for Christ', writing:

'Do you know the feeling in matters of this life, of expecting a friend, expecting him to come, and he delays? Do you know what it is to be in unpleasant company, and to wish for the time to pass away, and the hour strike when you may be at liberty? Do you know what it is to be in anxiety lest something should happen which may happen or may not, or to be in suspense about some important event, which makes your heart beat when you are reminded of it, and of which you think the first thing in the morning? Do you know what it is to have a friend in a distant country, to expect news of him, and to wonder from day to day what he is now doing, and whether he is well? Do you know what it is so to live upon a person who is present with you, that your eyes follow his, then you read his soul, that you see all its changes in his countenance, that you anticipate his wishes, that you smile in his smile, and are sad in his sadness, and are downcast when he is vexed, and rejoice in his successes? To watch for Christ is a feeling such as all these; as far as feelings of this world are fit to shadow out those of another.'

There were two further quotations which particularly caught my attention:

 'So it is with the souls of holy men. They have a well of peace springing up within them unfathomable; and though the accidents of the hour may make them seem agitated, yet in their hearts they are not so.'

'The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world does not see. He is the greater part of his time by himself, and when he is in solitude, that is his real state. What he is when left to himself and to his God, that is his true life.'

I think these are good descriptions as to what it is that one seeks in the pursuit of holiness - holiness simply meaning to live a life near to the presence of God. It is described very well in the 'Collect for Peace' (as found in the Book of Common Prayer's 'Office for Evening Prayer') as 'that peace which the world cannot give...'

A Collect for Peace.

O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

It is a beautiful prayer, the words of which are, in themselves, like liquid poetry when slowly and quietly spoken aloud. I am sure Newman had them in mind when he was writing.


Friday, February 23, 2024

The Metamorphic Power of Travel

Speaking (or rather, writing, as I was in my previous post) on the subject of cruising, whilst I was aboard the Artemis I was treated to a new literary quotation every night - each one on a little card placed on my pillow along with a square of chocolate by my cabin steward. Well-knowing that I delight in collecting quotations and am not particularly bothered about chocolate, my astute wife quickly realised she could trade her evening's quotation for my square of chocolate.

Many of these travel quotations were new to me. So, instead of devouring additional calories, I amassed a pocketful of erudition. The following three quotations are some of my favourites from this particular harvest:

"Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind."
Seneca (4BC - 65AD)

"Don't tell me how educated you are; tell me how much you travelled."
Muhammed (7th century)

"The world is but a canvas to the imagination."
Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), Author

Added to Robert Louis Stevenson's sentiment regarding travel, as remarked upon in yesterday's post ('On the Subject of Cruising'), one aspect that fascinates me is that, taken collectively, they span some two thousand years, and yet the sentiment remains identifiable and understandable, even within the modern world. Travel does indeed expose us to new destinations, new cultures, new ideas. It allows us to understand the similarities, as well as the differences, between people of different races, and to develop a genuine and lasting appreciation of the same. 

However, for all that, perhaps there is an even deeper consideration to be had. Above all, there is the undeniable fact that travel has the power to change us - that is, if we are openly receptive and allow it to work its magic. As a result of perceptive and receptive travel, each one of us becomes a new person, with new knowledge, a better informed mindset, and a wider outlook on life in general. As the British essayist and novelist, Pico Iyer, wrote:

'A person susceptible to "wanderlust" is not so much addicted to movement as committed to transformation'.

If allowed to take its full effect, that transformation works on a personal level, but also has the power to spill over into our personal groups and communities, to our families and our friends, and ultimately, to our social and work environments.

In effect, travel produces ripples of change, and left to work unhindered, those ripples have power to transform the world - for the better, if we allow it to be so. 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

On the Subject of Cruising

"Never a ship sails out of bay but carries my heart as a stowaway."

Roselle Mercier Montgomery, poet (1874 -1933).

Fourteen years ago this month, I had the great pleasure of spending two weeks cruising around the Caribbean aboard P&O's Artemis, in celebration of reaching my half-century.

For me, cruising is one of the greatest pleasures in life. Which, for those who know me well, may be considered somewhat of an unusual statement. Cruises are often considered to be relaxing, and I am not renowned for my ability to idle away time (or certainly that was the case back in 2010). Beach holidays, for example, certainly do not do it for me. However, I do find that cruising is one of the quickest ways to relax. I can spend entire days sitting on my cabin's balcony, happily reading or simply watching the water as I mentally compose a stanza or two for another poem. In fact, the first daft of my novel, Lamplight in the Shadows, was completed whilst onboard a cruise ship. 

The reason for this apparent paradox is quite simple. Whilst cruising, one is in the process of actually going somewhere. It is not a stagnant process (like sitting on a beach). Psychologically, I am content with the thought of being in the process of travelling to a new destination. The fact that I am not having to make any effort in bringing about that process is additionally satisfying, as well as relaxing. It doesn't even matter what the destination is, as long as one is moving.

That latter thought is very much in tune with the 19th century Scottish novelist and essayist, Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote:

"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is the move."

I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Reflections of a Tourident

The following article was first published in Pissouri Contact 46, 10 October 2009, a local newspaper in the hillside village of Pissouri, Cyprus. Sadly, the newspaper ceased publication a few years ago. 

Reflections of a Tourident

It is possible (albeit unlikely) that the Oxford English Dictionary will one day include the following entry:


noun. 1 a person who is new to, and still learning about, a community, but who owns and occasionally resides in a property within that community. a cross between, or combination of, a tourist and a resident.

My wife and I are touridents in respect to Pissouri, having taken possession of our new apartment in the village in the spring of this year, and only managing three short visits thus far. However, there are advantages in such a position.

One benefit is that Pissouri is still an open book to us. We know what the picture on the cover looks like, and have read the blurb on the fly-leaf. However, we have thus far only progressed through the first few chapters of the contents, and most of the story is yet to reveal itself to us. Some characters appear on a regular basis, there are constant introductions to new ones, and many more exist, of whom we have only heard snippets and have yet to physically meet. Meanwhile, we are gradually treated to two unravelling storylines. The first, where the historical meets the contemporary. The second, where tradition meets modernity. The Cypriot meets the newcomer (and vice versa) and different cultures interact. The result is a plot worthy of that classic English novelist, Thomas Hardy, and just as enjoyable.

An aspect which is very evident to us is that Pissouri is a community. It is not just a collection of disparate individuals, who happen to live near to each other (as is often found in cities). Furthermore, Pissouri is a friendly community, consisting of individuals who know each other, who live and work together, who share interests and visions, who depend upon each other, and who strive to achieve collective goals for the better of the society in which they reside. That is the outward face of Pissouri. For the new-comer, whether it is the casual day-tripper, or the tourident, Pissouri has the appearance of a congenial family.

However, like all extended families, there are naturally disagreements, arguments, irritations, clashes of personalities and, inevitably, a few 'black sheep' whose actions are unpleasant and disturbing. Metaphorically speaking, I have now read sufficient pages of the narrative, to understand some of these issues. However, far from spoiling the picture postcard image of Pissouri, these issues make Pissouri even more genuine; even more of a community; even more of a family. Perhaps surprisingly to some, therein lies the village's strength. Families must learn to live with each other and make allowances for the likes and dislikes of individual members. Where there are differing points of view, compromises have to be reached and harmony restored. That is the richness of family life. Without such interaction, relationships are bland and nothing is achieved. Diversity of thought should bring people closer together in order to find and develop the common ground. That is, I believe, what is happening in Pissouri, and has probably been happening for many years past. The rich tapestry which is the modern Pissouri is the summation of all that has gone before. The beauty is that every now and again, someone will twist the kaleidoscope and the picture will shift slightly again, bringing new dimensions to what is already priceless.

My thoughts will probably say nothing new to those members of the collective community of Pissouri who were either born in the village, or who have been resident for many years. However, as a tourident, we are looking at the community with a fresh set of eyes, and what we see is, overall, a power for the good. We feel that we have recently married into a new extended family. We are slowly getting to know how the family ticks, but what we have learned thus far is that Pissouri is a friendly and welcoming community, and one to be valued. It is a community we are glad to have joined.

And remember, when the word 'tourident' does enter the Oxford English Dictionary, it was here that you first read it!

2024 postscript: The word 'tourident' has yet to appear in the OED! But there is always time... :)

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Notes from a Reading of Thomas Merton

Last evening, I was in the splendid company of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, priest, writer, and poet. 

Sadly, Merton died in 1968. However, he left for us a tremendous literary legacy, much of which is accessible to the 'lay person' and not just meant for those of an academic mind. Through his books, one can truly be in his company and be inspired by his words of insight and wisdom.

Anyway, back to my reading of last evening. I was engrossed in what Merton said about (and indeed, wrote to) the Russian writer, Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr Zhivago. Dr Zhivago is one of my all-time favourite books. It falls into the literary genre of an historical-novel; the love story of a beautiful woman and a physician-poet, set amidst the social turmoil of Russia between the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Second World War. 

To Pasternak, Merton wrote:

'all our work remains yet to be done, the work of transformation which is the work of love, and love alone.'

He continued:

'All great writing is in some sense revolutionary. Life itself is revolutionary, because it constantly strives to surpass itself.'

The act of reading, alongside his writing, was extremely important to Merton. To further quote from him:

'I always have at least three books going at the same time'. 

That sounds familiar, and I can further concur with him when he says:

'The real joy of reading is not in the reading itself, but in the thinking which it stimulates and which may go beyond what is said in the book.'

In Merton's mind, for a monk, reading and thinking are inseperable processes from that of meditation. I am sure the idea is not confined to monks. Anyone with a love of silence and contemplation will warm to his words.  

Continuing that theme, Merton wrote that the books he read (which were, not surprisingly, mainly theological and philosophical in nature, although also including some novels such as Doctor Zhivago and also the poems of William Blake)...

'and others like them, have helped me to discover the real meaning of my life, and have made it possible for me to get out of the confusion and the meaningless of an existence completely immersed in the needs and passiveness fostered by a culture in which sales are everything.'

That world to which Merton refers still exists. It is the materialistic world of capitalism and commerce, and it is not a world that I warm to. As I sit here writing in my library, I know that it is a world metaphorically and literally "on the other side of the wall" to my own world of God, love, and books. However, it is increasingly a world that is strange and unrecognisable to me. It may be a product of age, but I find myself retreating further and further from that world, and in the process, rejecting what it stands for - with the exception, of course, for the ability to purchase more books...

and ice-cream.

Monday, February 19, 2024

A Postcard from Peru

In recent times, Peru has been increasingly featured in foreign news items, as government agencies have issued warnings advising increased caution when travelling there, owing to rising crime levels and general unrest. It is a great shame that it should be so. Peru is a beautiful country with a fascinating culture and history, as I discovered at first hand when I had the good fortune to tour there some eighteen years ago. At the time, I wrote a poem, trying to encapsulate the varied and astonishing geography, culture, and economy I witnessed. The result was 'A Postcard from Peru', published in my first collection of poetry, A Journey with Time (Lulu, 2008):

A Postcard from Peru

High above the Colca Mountain ranges,
beneath the cloudless, blue, Andean skies,
in a land little transformed by changes,
the sacred condor flies.

Beneath the snow-capped mountains hid by haze,
observed by villagers in clothes quite gay,
llamas, vicunas and alpacas graze
and haunting pan-pipes play.

O’er the waters of Lake Titicaca,
on floating islands of totora reed,
the Uros people chew leaves of coca
and fish to herons feed.

Braving earth tremors in Arequipa,
well-sustained by Pisco Sours,
English tourists haggle to buy cheaper:
the dollar here empowers.

Via the catacombs of San Francisco,
a shaman of the Island of the Sun,
through cactus-strewn plains of the Altiplano,
travellers’ days are done.

Behold the Ice Maiden, Juanita;
the Garden of Lovers in Lima Bay;
the Orient Express is a feature:
rolling on – no delay.

The towering walls of Machu Picchu
instil with awe, inspire, expand the mind.
Support the local trade, we beseech you:
‘Just one sol – that’s most kind!’

From the ancient tombs of Sillustani,
down the pre-Inca terraced, rocky slopes,
to borders protected by the army,
Peru portrays its hopes.

© Copyright 2006 Robert M Jaggs-Fowler

Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Value of Indolence

Following on from yesterday's post, I unearthed an entry from my journal, written in March 2010 at the time of my first reading Lawrence Durrell's Bitter Lemons of Cyprus. The following paragraphs are reproduced from it...

Cerebral Tai Chi

'Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.'

So wrote Lawrence Durrell in his 1957 book, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus. He later described the necessary travelling companions in order to achieve this utopia; namely, loneliness and time, declaring them as 'those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything'.

He was, of course, writing about his time in that wonderfully complex, Mediterranean retreat otherwise known as the Birth Place of Aphrodite. Indeed, it is where I am now writing, accompanied by a welcoming, though yet still cool, morning sun; its rays reflected by the expanse of yellow wild flowers and intensely luxuriant grasslands which rise behind my home here. The only sound is that of sparrows in a nearby carob tree, interspersed by the distant call of a wood-pigeon, and the soft mewing of a ginger cat, which has seated itself expectantly on the terrace outside my kitchen door, and which now stares back at me in the hope that I have something more exciting on offer than the occasional man-made 'meow' I return to it in the spirit of trans-cultural friendship.

Durrell is a writer I immediately warmed to. His work speaks of a man who understands the enormity of the mundane, the intrinsic value of indolence, the desirability of solitude, and the wealth of material residing just out of reach within the grey cells of one's mind, just waiting to be freed by the onset of some melancholically-induced cerebral exercise.

Cyprus is an island which allows for all of that. It is impossible to ignore the whispers from centuries past that filter through the rocks, like vapours through the pores of a living, yet antiquated, historical tome. 'Listen to me,' the land murmurs; 'listen and feel; listen and learn; listen and understand.'

So I listen, alone and unrushed. I allow the sounds of nature to filter through the labyrinth of neurones which somehow act as the repository of my thoughts; I let the rocky terraces speak to me of the island's origins and the tales of centuries past, laid down within it like seams of history, layer upon eventful layer, and I feel my mind tuning in to that same wavelength which endeared itself to Durrell, as it has to so many writers over the centuries. Yet, as I do so, my thoughts stretch, not just back down the monumental ages belonging to this island, but laterally across to the other side of the world, to the Caribbean Sea, where I sailed less than two months ago, and where, alone and with all the time in the world to muse, I cerebrally travelled back not just centuries, but through millennia, to the time of the world's earliest existence. It was a cathartic moment, and one which I tried to capture in a haiku, written whilst sailing:

Wave laps against wave:

wind's primeval voice echoes

from the start of time.

That, I believe, is precisely what Durrell understood could be achieved from travelling introspectively, with time and solitude as one's companions. It is achieved through bouts of unmoving contemplation; that splendid quality the Moslems know as kayf. It requires no more than the gentle stretching of the grey cells. However, the reward is immeasurable.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

Moments ago, I placed aside a book which left a lasting impression on my mind when I read it for the first time a few years back. I speak of Lawrence Durrell's book, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus.  

Written in 1957, the book relates Durrell's experience in Cyprus during the years 1953-56; a transition period between a soft, relatively untroubled Cyprus (if that is not a historical misnomer) and an island of great political upheaval and social unrest. Durrell captures the flavour of living in Cyprus with the detailed eye of a poet and artist. His story is truely bitter-sweet; revealing the hidden delights of Cyprus and its charming people, whilst also unpeeling the deep-seated angst of a trouble nation. It is a story that not only draws you in; it engulfs you until you share in the emotional turmoil. As a result, the final chapter will cause pain for the sensitive reader; and so it should. There are lessons for us all to learn from this chapter of history, and from the depth of human relations it portrays.

The book also reminded me of a personal pilgrimage I undertook a few years ago...

The island is still divided between a Greek southern Cyprus and a Turkish-controlled northern area, with a United Nations buffer zone in between. It is possible to visit both sides, albeit with various passport formalities. However, it is difficult to reproduce Durrell's enigmatic car journey from his village of Bellapaix, near Kyrenia, to Paphos, along the coastal road via Pano Pyrgos and Polis. Nonetheless, from the village I consider as my home in Cyprus - the hillside village of Pissouri - it is, possible to undertake a significant portion of the journey in reverse; a journey I once undertook, driving to Paphos and onward to Polis, with a detour to see Aphrodite's Bath, before continuing on along the north coast road to the border village of Pano Pyrgos.

The route is a beautiful one, taking in breath-taking views of coastal panoramas, set against the steep wooded rocks of the Troodos Mountains. That said, it is not for the faint-hearted, as most of the villages at this time of year (February/March) are devoid of activity, with nowhere for refreshment or refuelling. On top of which, there is the constant reminder of being close to a troubled border, with guard posts, small army camps, and abandoned damaged buildings scattered around the hills and valleys. Neither is there a quick way down. Having commenced the journey, one is left with a choice of driving back the same tortuous route, or traversing an even more tortuous route across the Troodos. (Drivers take note - a car with an automatic gearbox is a must. Mine was a manual gearbox and my left leg was very glad when the journey was over!)

For all that, the long and arduous journey was worth every mile of effort. Unfortunately, time did not permit me to tackle the last portion of the journey to Bellapaix on that occasion. However, it was a priority for a later trip, when I took delight in exploring the much-exulted ruins of Bellapaix Abbey, as well as paying a visit to the house where Lawrence Durrell lived during the aforementioned years. 

Although some might consider such a pilgrimage a slightly foolish undertaking, there is no doubt in my own mind that experiencing at first hand some of the scenes described by Durrell in Bitter Lemons of Cyprus greatly assists one with understanding and reflection. Nonetheless, whether you undertake the actual journey, or simply have an interest in Cyprus and its history, I wholeheartedly recommend Durrell's book to you. I defy you not to take something personal from it.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Book Review: The Dying Keats: A Case for Euthanasia

The Dying Keats was written for the 20th Biennial Keats Memorial Lecture in 2009. 

With 50 years' experience caring for the elderly and dying, its author, Dr Brian Livesely, has successfully researched and crafted a succinct argument for improved medical care for the dying; drawing on the distressing death of the 19th century poet and apothecary, John Keats, in order to illustrate how doctors so often fail their dying patients. 

Keats died at a young age from tuberculosis. Denied drugs such as opium to ease his terminal suffering, he experienced distressing symptoms up to his death, causing him to describe his final days as 'this posthumous life of mine'. Livesley describes this as the 'Keatsonian Experience', and compares it to euthanasia in the truest sense of its meaning, that being, 'a good and comfortable death'. 

As the author points out, it is astonishing that today's care of the terminally ill is often little better than that experienced by Keats. Livesley believes this to be due to the reluctance of doctors to consider death as a diagnosis that requires treatment. He reminds us that 'dying should be a humane experience for us all'. 

It is a sobering and thought-provoking read, not only for clinicians, but for anyone contemplating their wishes for the tail-end of their life.

The Dying Keats: A Case for Euthanasia
Brian Livesley
Matador (2009)
ISBN: 978-1848761-711

Thursday, February 15, 2024

A Writer's Prayer

As I restart this blog, I am reminded of 'A Writer's Prayer', written by me in 2008. It seems a good time for such a reminder, as it has already prompted me to delete two possible drafts for risking contravention of the last line of the prayer...

A Writer's Prayer 

Heavenly Father,

may the cloud of words,

which is omnipresent over my head,

with your blessing, pour down

as a shower upon me.

let it percolate through my brain and,

via the conduit of this pen,

reappear as sentences,

formed and erudite,

upon the paper in front of me.

May those sentences be the source of pleasure to many,

provoke thought in at least a few,

and be the cause of harm to no one.


 © Copyright 2024 Robert Jaggs-Fowler

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

A Poem for St Valentine's Day

Today is, of course, also Ash Wednesday, a day on which Christians traditionally repent, confess their sins, and renew their comitment to follow a life commensurate with that exemplified by the life of Jesus Christ. However, by a quirk of this year's calendar, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine's Day, a day celebrating love. Love is at the very heart of the Christian message, so what better way to observe Ash Wednesday than to also observe the value of human love? 

So, here is a poem dedicated to love. It was written some years ago, and is part of my second collection of poems called On Quarry Beach.

An Intermezzo for Love

Draw back the curtains of the night;                                                                                                              prolong the beauty of twilight.                                                                                                                      May the crimson skies once more show,                                                                                              reflected in the moon's soft glow,                                                                                                                  the softness of your features fair,                                                                                                            enhanced by joy, devoid of care.

And when, at last, the dark descends,                                                                                                        let love's embraces make amends                                                                                                                for all perceptions of neglect.                                                                                                                Then, let sleep come without regret,                                                                                                  bringing dreams devoid of sorrow;                                                                                                      recharging minds for tomorrow,

such that, when the dawn once more breaks,                                                                                                a new love for each other wakes;                                                                                                    empowering hearts to seize the day                                                                                                          and, all deeds done, once more to say:                                                                                                    draw back the curtains of the night;                                                                                                    prolong the beauty of twilight.    

(c) Copyright 2024 Robert Jaggs-Fowler                                                                                                                              

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Anthropic Principle & Seeing Through the Glass Darkly

The Late Professor Tony Hewish FRS made some fascinating statements about the Anthropic Principle. Essentially, he maintained that the universe was fine-tuned for the existence of life. To understand this, he asked us to think of a UCM (universe creating machine), on which are hundreds of dials to fine tune gravity, electromagnetism, etc. According to Hewish, if any of these knobs were slightly out of the precise setting, we would not exist. He maintained that even if the gravity’s dial was changed by a tiny fraction of a percent, enough to make you one billionth of a gram heavier or lighter on the bathroom scales, the universe becomes so different that there would be no stars, no galaxies, no planets – indeed, no life.

Tony Hewish won a Nobel Prize for astronomy. So, it seems that he does know something about such matters. He wrote that the setting of the UCM is comparable to getting the mix of flour and sugar right to one grain of sugar in a cake ten times the mass of the sun. Or the equivalent of getting a hole in one in golf, when the distance between the tee and the hole is thirteen times the distance between Earth and Pluto. Just think about that for a moment.

More and more, science is showing us that ‘something else’ was at work in creating the universe as we know it, and that it is not likely to have been a chance thing. The Late Professor John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest, believed that there is ‘a Mind’ involved, saying:

“As a scientist, what I’ve been saying is that the universe in its rational beauty and transparency, looks like a world shot through with signs of mind, and maybe, it’s a capital M – Mind of God that’s we are seeing. In other words, the reason within and the reason without fit together because they have a common origin in the reason of the Creator; who is the ground of all that is. An ancient verse in Genesis comes to mind, which says that humanity is made ‘in the image of God. I actually think that this is what’s makes science possible.”

In other words, we can only do science in the first place, because we think like God thinks. We are in God’s image.

Now, what if ‘God’ is the remnants of some ‘super intelligence’ formed billions of years ago, that needed to ensure its own survival by creating the conditions from which it would one day re-emerge and slowly evolve again? Slowly discover and understand all that was needed for it to become once again a super intelligent life form – a post-human race? The ideas of transhumanism and post-humanism become increasingly relevant if one thinks along those lines – and maybe we really do ultimately meet God – in the form of super-advanced life forms. We see God face to face, as we have already known for thousands of years – we see ourselves reflected as in a mirror – we see the God we know dwells in us.

And maybe that is why some people are called to be priests – because those people have a innate understanding that God is really with us now, buried deep inside our weak, earthly human forms, searching for the way to become whole and omniscient and omnipotent again. Maybe God is what really drives us forward, and makes some of us so agonised in our frail attempts to reach out and touch what we know instinctively is there within us, but have yet to acquire sufficient knowledge and understanding to truly grasp the enormity of what we are and what we shall be.

If that is so, it is not surprising that, as St Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13.12), we see through the glass darkly at present, because to do otherwise could become an all-consuming torment.

Welcome (Back)!

Welcome to Musings of a Literary Doctor, a blog which is very much in keeping with its subtitle - the product of my periodic, eclectic, and sometimes (often?) eccentric cerebral meanderings, as I journey on life's ever-fascinating and varied path. 

As you will see, the blog has lain dormant for a few years. However, all previous posts dating back to 2006 are available in the archive. 

So, whilst you are waiting for me to finish honing my quills, do please venture into the recesses of yesteryear and harvest whatever takes your fancy.

See you soon! 

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...