Category: Diary

William Wordsworth

William WordsworthThe English poet William Wordsworth began and ended his life in April. He was born on April 17th 1770, and died on April 23rd 1850. In 1843 he was made poet laureate.

Wordsworth is associated with the English Lake District, where he began and ended his life. A lot of his work celebrates the beauty of Nature and the English countryside. The Wordsworth poem I know best is the one about daffodils, which many of my generation were expected to learn by heart at school – “I wandered lonely as a cloud…” and so on. The poem was inspired by Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, who recorded her impressions of the daffodils in her journal in April 1802.

The trouble with poems like Wordsworth’s Daffodils, and some well-known bits of Shakespeare, is that they’ve become devalued through being force-fed to generations of schoolchildren who didn’t understand them, but recited them in a da-de-dah sort of sing-song voice. Then there’s the bit about lying on his couch, “in vacant or in pensive mood”, which sounds a bit soppy. P G Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster might have been inclined to call anyone who lay about on couches, dreaming about daffodils, “a drooper”, which is how he described Madeleine Basset; “one of those soppy girls riddled from head to foot with whimsy”.


BlossomMy mother used to recite a daft poem at this time of year: “The spring has sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the birdies is?” Tennyson was a little more eloquent when he wrote, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”

I don’t know about thoughts of love, but there’s definitely something in the air at this time of year, besides pollen. I heard something on the news the other day about fertility treatment for childless couples. Apparently you have more chance of conceiving during the summer months, when the days are longer and lighter. They haven’t worked out the science bit yet, but why should we humans be that different from other species, most of whom breed in the spring and early summer? Now that April’s here, the birds are nesting, the buds are bursting, the grass is growing and there are ducks wandering along the lanes, looking for nest sites, oblivious to the traffic. The natural world is all fecundity and renewal.

Terrible times

If whoever bombed the Madrid trains aimed to make those living in crowded European cities feel more vulnerable, they’ve probably succeeded, if only because it’s hard to ignore the films and pictures of the aftermath. Without paying a penny, euro or dollar, modern terrorists gain maximum coverage from the modern media, encouraging a siege mentality. The trouble is, the more frightened people are, the less clearly they think about the threat, and how to deal with it.

In countries like Columbia or Northern Ireland, ordinary people have been living with terrorism for years. Across Africa and Eastern Europe, random acts of violence are commonplace. That’s terrorism too – it just doesn’t make the news so often. Killing people in ones and twos doesn’t attract the same sort of publicity or sense of outrage as the destruction of the Twin Towers or the Bali bombing.

Darwin Day

Charles DarwinCharles 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.

What to wear at funerals

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.

Following the crowd

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.

Women’s Rights

Mary WollstonecraftNext 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?

Let it rain!

RainIt’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.

The literature of death and bereavement

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.