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Birds

StarlingFrom 1911 to 1986 coalminers relied on canaries to warn them of dangerous gases. The birds were taken down the pits in cages and if they showed signs of distress, the men knew they must get out quickly. Canaries react to very small quantities of deadly carbon monoxide. They were made redundant when cheaper and more reliable electronic gas detectors were introduced. The miners missed the canaries, which were treated as pets

In a way, our wild birds fulfil the same function as those canaries, because their behaviour can warn us of changes in the environment. Rachel Carson wrote her book ‘The Silent Spring’, published in 1962, to warn about the damage caused by the indiscriminate use of agricultural pesticides. If all the birds were poisoned, what would that mean for us? Not just a silent spring, but serious damage to human health. Although there are much tighter controls on pesticides now, we still rely on birds to warn us of danger, though now it’s more to do with global warming and loss of habitat.

What an alien might think

I tend to take the name of this slot literally, so I offer some thoughts for today. Today is the 8th January 2005, at the beginning of the 6th year of the 21st century, and we (by ‘we’, I mean the human race) have enormous potential, vast resources, and great knowledge. So why do we make things so difficult for ourselves? I often try to imagine what a highly intelligent alien from another part of the universe would think, if she or he were to come and see how we carry on. An alien with superior intelligence and an ethical approach to life might ask how we can be both so stupid and so clever.

Hungry?

Ice creamAre you hungry? I am a little – haven’t had breakfast yet – but I’m not worried because I know I’ll get something to eat within an hour. Why do I ask?

A few thousand years ago, before they changed the name of the midwinter festival, it was a time when rituals were performed to ensure the return of the sun. The death and rebirth of the sun mattered very much to people who feared that if the days didn’t lengthen again, they wouldn’t be able to grow the crops they relied on for their survival.

Not Christmas

My friend Yvonne says she asked herself, why go through the same routine as lots of other people over the festive season, and decided enough was enough. She remembered the magic of a child’s Christmas when she was young, with a stocking and presents like new jumpers hand-knitted by kind aunties, but she couldn’t see that it was good for families to ‘beggar themselves’, as she put it, to meet rising expectations these days. Is that what it’s all about? Spending money you haven’t got to buy things you don’t need, and far more food and drink that any hungry person could consume in a month?

Leave me out of it

I hate it when I get included in things without my permission. For example; in a recent radio programme (not on Radio Suffolk), the presenter, who said he lived in the countryside, gave the impression that most of us who live in the country are angry about the hunting ban. “Not true!” I yelled at the radio. I take exception to being associated by default with those who demonstrated outside parliament a few weeks ago, since no one’s ever bothered to ask my opinion, and I get the impression that the subject doesn’t get much of an airing in my countryside neighbourhood anyway.

Then there was the case of poor Boris Johnson, sent to apologise to outraged Liverpudlians for daring to allow his leader writer to suggest that the mass mourning for the unfortunate Mr Bigley was nothing of the sort. The anonymous journalist had written what lots of us had been thinking, including lots of Liverpudlians; that we grieve for those we’ve known and loved, not for those we never knew, however much we may sympathise with their families and friends.

On being an atheist

I swear, dear listener, that I don’t earn a penny from the BBC for saying nice things about them. I don’t even get paid for getting out of my lovely warm bed at some ungodly hour to come and talk to you. Well, it’d have to be ungodly, because I’m totally ungodly, or god-free. So it gives me great pleasure to tell you that next Monday the BBC begins what it describes as ‘the first ever television history of disbelief’ with Jonathan Miller on BBC4. I look forward to hearing Jonathan Miller, who I expect to be erudite and witty. It will be good to hear someone talking about atheism, including his own atheism, without a hint of apology. What is there to apologise for?

Reflections on Justice

A Humanist point of view – Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource Forum of Faiths

You might say that I’m contributing my paper under false pretences. Firstly, although the Suffolk Humanist group, Suffolk Humanists, is affiliated to SIFRE, we wouldn’t describe Humanism as a ‘faith’. Faith is defined as ‘a strong belief in something, especially without proof’, or ‘a specific system of religious beliefs’. It’s also defined as having complete confidence or trust in something, but since Humanists are essentially sceptics, we’re not inclined to have faith in anything that isn’t proven. Humanism is an approach to life for people who live without religion and who care about right and wrong.

Letting rip!

We had some fun at a Humanist meeting last night, thanks to you, Mark [Mark Murphy, BBC Radio Suffolk presenter]. Well, partly thanks to you, and partly thanks to Lesley [Lesley Dolphin, also from Radio Suffolk, and Mark’s wife]. She asked me to be a Crabby Old Woman on her programme a couple of weeks ago – I think you’d told her I could be a bit grumpy sometimes.

We copied the idea at our meeting, when everyone was told they could have a rant for five minutes about something that really annoyed them. I took my red plastic tomato timer from the kitchen, but I needn’t have bothered. As soon as someone started, everyone else joined in to say how much they were annoyed by the same thing. The subjects included junk mail, excess packaging, premium rate phone calls, queues when there’s nowhere for elderly people to sit down, and litter. One of our members despaired at the way we have lots of graduates but not enough people with practical skills, due, he says, to the decline of vocational education. Another spoke about the prevalence of straw polls, on TV and in newspapers, which don’t actually prove anything because they’re not conducted scientifically. It sounds very grumpy indeed, but the thing that struck me was that we laughed a lot. It was like a group therapy session, being encouraged to let rip. Everyone enjoyed it.

Silly seasons

It’s August bank holiday – the end of the summer holidays and the beginning of autumn. Keats wrote, ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, not ‘Season of soggy cereal crops’. You used to know where you were with the seasons. Not any more. Everything’s topsy-turvy, seasonally. We’ve had warm winters and soggy summers, early springs and late autumns. The birds and beasts don’t know if they’re coming or going. There are lots more bugs about, because there haven’t been the hard frosts to kill them off, while seabirds off the Scottish coast have failed to breed because the small prey they feed on have all swum north in the milder seas. We may not face the same sort of flooding as those unfortunate people in Cornwall did the other week, but the seas are rising, and our Suffolk coastline is retreating.

Portraits

Last Saturday I went to the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It was the second time I’d been. Last year’s winner, Charlotte Harris, painted a canvas four feet square of her grandmother, just her head and shoulders. The old woman’s skin has a translucent fragile quality. She’s looking down with a pensive expression – what was she thinking? What stories could she tell? This year’s winner, Stephen Shankland, painted a mother and child; nothing like those we see in religious paintings, but a real flesh and blood young woman looking straight at you, while her baby plays with a ring. The artist has captured a moment, probably with the aid of photographs. It’s almost impossible to paint small children and animals in the same way that you can paint an adult – they won’t keep still.