Charles Darwin was born on 12th February 1809. He didn’t do especially well at school, being more interested in bugs and beetles than in Latin grammar. His father thought he ought to study medicine, but Charles quit medical school after less than a year, saying he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. He went to Cambridge instead, and developed an interest in geology and natural history.
As you know, I do funerals. That is, I conduct Humanist funeral ceremonies. Some think there’s a form of etiquette for funerals. What matters, surely, is being well-mannered, considerate, and sensitive to the feelings of the bereaved. I don’t think it matters what you wear, as long as you behave in a respectful manner.
Strangely, some of the rudest, most disrespectful people I’ve come across have been buttoned-up elderly women who’ve talked in carrying whispers throughout (they’re probably the same ones who talk during the matinees at the Wolsey Theatre), or deaf people who’ve ignored the available loop system, sat at the back, and asked their neighbour ‘What did she say?” every few minutes. I have, so far, resisted the urge to tell them to shut up.
When I was in my teens I lived on Merseyside and worked in a bank, and when I didn’t have to work on a Saturday morning I used to go hiking around North Wales with my best friend for the weekend. Catching the ferry across the Mersey at tea-time on Fridays meant wading through a crowd of commuters all going to Birkenhead and beyond. Many of them spent the short time on the ferry walking around the deck in the same direction – clockwise. My friend and I delighted in walking in the opposite direction, just to annoy everyone. We had large rucksacks, so were guaranteed to be a nuisance to the conformist commuters.
Next Sunday, the 7th December, I’ll be contributing to the annual Celebration of Human Rights at the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich at 10.45. This year’s theme is Women’s Rights, but there is precious little to celebrate. Maybe that seems pessimistic of me, but I can’t help feeling that because the majority of women and girls in this country enjoy more freedom and independence than their great-grandmothers enjoyed, we’ve become complacent. For the majority of women in developing countries, as well as a huge number who live in the so-called ‘developed’ countries, women’s rights are still a dream. I get quite irritated by women who preface a remark about some relatively minor inequality with ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ Feminism means equal rights for women, and who would argue with that?
When I was a child my parents were members of a Caledonian Society, a social club for Scots people. They had children’s parties several times a year and one of them was for Halloween. At that time I didn’t have any idea how it originated, I just knew that it was fun to bob for apples in an old tin bath, carve a pumpkin lantern, and dress up in a scary costume while the grown-ups pretended to be frightened of me. There was no trick or treat – that was a later American import.
Anyway, now that I do understand what it’s all about, how does a Humanist respond to Halloween?
It’s nothing personal you understand, as I’m sure they’re all very nice people, but I’m getting a tad irritated with weather forecasters. Whenever they mention that there’ll be more fine dry weather they tell us it’ll be lovely, and every time they hint at the prospect of a spot of rain they sound positively apologetic.
The earth in my garden is rock hard, the grass has turned brown, my water butt is empty again, and in any case I really don’t have the time or energy to lug cans of water around to my poor parched plants. It’s not just the garden that’s wilting; I’d really like to feel wet, and breath air that’s been refreshingly ionised and washed of all the dust and pollen.
Why is it that rain seems to be regarded as a bad thing these days? What’s wrong with getting wet? It’s natural, in what used to be our temperate climate, to experience changeable weather, not weeks and weeks of clear skies.
I don’t want to start a town versus country argument, but I wonder if all this anti-rain sentiment is due to the ability of urban man and woman to control so much of his or her environment? Is it because so many people seem to want to keep nature at arms length? Yet we’re part of nature, made of about two thirds water, and like all growing living things we need rain.
Frogs love rain. I’ll never forget the rainy night I drove through Needham Market after a drought. When I got to the bridge over the river on the road to Creeting St Mary, there were frogs everywhere, hopping about like fools. They were visibly plumping up after being dry for weeks. It took ages to drive through without squashing any. When it rains I’ll be out in my garden, soaking up the rain like those frogs.
So let’s hear a cheer for wetness; for thunder storms and rainbows and puddles; for the sound of running water and the shine on leaves; for greenness; for snails and slugs and frogs; for rivers rising and ponds filling; for ducks dabbling and swans swimming.
If you don’t like it, stay indoors.
A talk given at Ipswich Crematorium’s Open Day by Margaret Nelson in 2003
My mother died suddenly at a party at my sister’s on Christmas Eve, just after she’d demonstrated how to do the can-can to some children. I don’t what they thought about a woman in her mid-70s doing high kicks, but she was very proud of being able to kick her own height. I told her it was time to go because I still had things to do for dinner the next day. She fell with an almighty crash as she lifted her arm to take her coat off the hook by the door. She was dead within the next ten minutes or so, having had a massive cerebral haemorrhage. It was a great way to go, especially after we’d nursed my dad through cancer that same year – he’d died six months earlier – and she’d said she didn’t want to die like that, but wanted to go like her mum, quickly, without fuss.
In a way, doing Thought for the Day might be considered good training for a political candidate, as most politicians these days have to present their ideas in as few words as possible. We live in a sound-bite age.
There aren’t many people who can hold an audience in thrall with a speech lasting two or three hours, rather than the two minutes I’m being allowed this morning. I’ve only heard a couple. As an art student, I attended a lecture by the great American architect Buckminster Fuller, who invented the geodesic dome – you can see them at the Eden Project in Cornwall. He spoke for three hours without notes in a small lecture theatre, in a heat wave, but it was fascinating stuff and none of us wanted him to finish, despite melting.
If Sue Lawley asked me to go on Desert Island Disks, my luxury item would have to be a regular supply of chocolate.
It would be more difficult to choose just one piece of music. My favourite varies from week to week. I’ve been listening to a new Hoagy Carmichael CD this week, so Stardust is my current favourite.
And which book would I choose? Again, that’d be difficult, but if I were shipwrecked in the next couple of weeks maybe I’d ask for Staying Alive, an anthology of poems edited by Neil Astley. In the introduction he quotes someone saying, ‘Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.’
I’m fond of quoting the French humanist Michel de Montaigne. He died on the 13th September 1592, but his observations are as relevant today as when they were written.
At forty-two Montaigne had a medal struck with the words, Que sçais-je?, meaning ‘What do I know?’. He’s best remembered today for his essays, where he examined what he did or didn’t know, accepting that we can’t know everything, while questioning everything. The essays were, in effect, his autobiography, but they didn’t give an account of his life in chronological order – I was born, I did this or that, etc. Instead, we get to know him through his thoughts, which are much more revealing than a conventional autobiography.
His portrait on the cover of my ageing copy of his essays, published in the late ‘50s, shows a bald man with a clear gaze, who looks as though he’s thinking about what to write about the experience of being painted. His translator, J M Cohen, describes him as modest, truthful, humorous, and objective. I’ve learned that he was fond of cats. He wrote, ‘When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is amusing herself with me, or I with her?’