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Sir Hermann Bondi

Sir Hermann BondiThe funeral of Sir Hermann Bondi takes place at midday today in Cambridge. Sir Hermann was 85. He was a staunch supporter and former President of the British Humanist Association, and was Vice-President when he died.

Sir Hermann came from Vienna to study at Cambridge in the 1930s, just before Hitler took over. There isn’t time to detail his distinguished career now, but his obituaries are worth reading. He’s described as a mathematician, astronomer, civil servant, and teller of homespun jokes. As an astronomer, he worked with Fred Hoyle on the origins of the universe. As a scientist and civil servant, he was responsible for getting the Thames Barrier built. He was Director General of the European Space Agency and Master of Churchill College, among many other roles.



Those who know me probably won’t be surprised to hear that I used to get into trouble at school, not because I was a juvenile delinquent, but for asking so many questions – too many, as far as some of my teachers were concerned. They expected us to absorb all the facts, dates, grammar and maths they taught us, and not to spend too much time questioning where all of these things came from, and what they were for, and whether they were likely to be any use to us. Questions like that tended to hold things up, so that my class might be in danger of failing to cover the whole of a carefully planned syllabus, and risk failing an exam. I’m sure that some of my teachers regarded me as a confounded nuisance.


Since the 7th July, there’s been no shortage of opinion about what we ought to do about terrorism. The official line is that we stand resolutely together against it. The trouble with this is that we don’t know which direction it’s coming from, so we’re not sure where to stand.

Some young Muslim men in Leeds were interviewed in the street by a BBC journalist, and one said something about the silence in remembrance of the dead. He didn’t condone the bombing, he said, but wondered why the deaths of those people in London had warranted a silence, while the deaths of thousands of civilians in Iraq didn’t? It was a fair comment. Within days of the London blasts, a suicide bomber killed 90 people and injured over 150 in Musayyib, south of Baghdad, and the British medical journal the Lancet has just put the Iraqi death count at over 100,000. It’s hardly surprising that many young Muslim men are so angry. That doesn’t make them all potential terrorists, but anger is a potent recruiting tool for terrorism.

Procrastination is the thief of time

BucketI should have been doing all sorts of useful things yesterday, like tidying my office and trying to find all the unpaid bills and unanswered letters. Then there was the usual outbreak of dirty dishes in the kitchen. Dunno who leaves them there, but if I ever catch him or her there’ll be hell to pay.

Anyway, it had been raining, so there were lots of lovely puddles and drips to play with around the garden. Instead of going straight to my desk, I wandered around with the camera, taking pictures. Several are of the ripples and splashes in a bucket of water by the greenhouse as I dropped pebbles into it. Yes, I know. It might sound uninteresting, but I was engrossed. You had to be there – well, no, actually you hadn’t. You’d probably have thought I was barking mad, standing there in my pyjamas and dressing gown, taking photographs of a bucket. The dog was a little perplexed. She came to keep me company but had no idea why we were hanging around the greenhouse for so long.

It’s all very therapeutic, playing, and idleness is an underrated quality. Jerome K Jerome wrote, “It is impossible to idle thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do,” and my all-time favourite procrastination quote is from Douglas Adams; “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

My son suggested that, to illustrate this point, I shouldn’t bother to write anything for today, but come into the studio and ad lib. I said that might unnerve these lovely BBC people, as they know I left my script in the garage a couple of months ago and had to borrow a pencil and paper when I got here. If I do that too often I’ll be deemed unreliable – which I am, but cleverly hide. Then there’s my short-term memory problem; I might forget what I was going to say.

So what’s the point of all this, you may be asking. There isn’t any. Does there have to be? That’s the beauty of procrastination and idleness. It frees us from having to justify what we’re doing, or not doing. If you haven’t already, you should try it sometime.

Anyway, as you can tell, I haven’t been completely idle. After I’d written this script, I felt ready to do some real work – when I’d had a spot of lunch. After all, as the American philosopher George Santayana said, “There is no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval.”


When intelligent people display ignorance of world affairs, such a poverty and global warming, I can’t help feeling they’ve put some effort into staying ignorant. If you don’t know or care about the suffering of other human beings, you won’t feel any compulsion to do anything about it.

Many of us are keenly interested in what will happen in Scotland next week, at the G8 summit. I’m afraid that all the emotional hoo-ha generated by Live 8, the so-called ‘anti-poverty’ international music event, may distract attention from the issues, rather than highlight them. The Edinburgh march may have some influence on the world leaders at Gleneagles, but the pressure needs to be continuous and widespread.

I’ve changed my mind

Apparently Baroness Mary Warnock has been attacked by Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips for changing her mind. Baroness Warnock, now 81, has had a distinguished career as a head teacher, academic, moral philosopher, and public servant. Melanie Phillips is most well-known for expressing her opinions in various newspapers.

What’s most upset Ms Phillips is that Baroness Warnock has modified her views about the integration of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. Mary Warnock strongly influenced this education policy in the early 1980s, but has now written that the policy needs to be reviewed. This is fair enough – the idea of educating children all together, to overcome prejudice and isolation, seemed good at the time. The problem was that, if it was to work, it needed smaller class sizes, and, in an ideal world, children who knew how to behave themselves. As most people know, bullying is a serious problem in some schools, and special needs children are often the victims.

Elmsett’s woodland

I’ve always been keen on trees. I’ve planted them whenever I’ve had the space. Thirty years ago, I lived near Oxford, where I planted a balsam poplar. It smelt gorgeous after it rained. I’d love to know if it’s still there – someone might have cut it down.

A year ago, the Green Light Trust had a stall at our village fete. The trust supports and encourages those who want to establish community woodlands – woods planted by and for local people. I registered an interest in establishing one in Elmsett.

Democracy & Citizenship

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

The dictionary definition of democracy is: ‘a system of government or organisation in which the citizens or members choose leaders or make other important decisions by voting; a country in which the citizens choose their government by voting.’ It’s not as simple as that; there are many forms of ‘democracy’, and many self-styled ‘democrats’ who are anything but.

The British and American governments claim they’ve taken democracy to the Iraqi people. There’s been a lot of rhetoric about ‘freedom and democracy’ from George Bush, but freedom from what, or to do what? This new ‘democracy’ is fragile. Interim Prime Minister Allawi is forming a coalition to challenge the Shia candidate, Ibrahim Jaafari, for the role of Prime Minister in the new government. Allawi wants Iraq to remain a secular state, not an Islamic one. If the Shia leadership has its way, Iraq could become a religious state like neighbouring Iran, which is not a democracy. The democratic process could be exploited by those who seek religious dictatorship.


Whatever you think about Iraq, and the reasons it’s in a mess, you surely can’t help but admire the courage of the Iraqis who risked their lives to vote for an interim government. At one polling station, a suicide bomber killed himself and a policeman, and badly injured a number of voters. Despite this, they cleaned up the body parts and carried on queuing. Can you imagine anyone doing the same in this country?

Hearing the news, I remembered the election in South Africa in 1994, when people queued for hours. Everyone was desperate to make their vote count.

Turnout in our elections over the last few years has sometimes been very poor. It’s apathy or a shower of rain that puts people off, not bomb threats. Why is it that so many can’t be bothered? Some might say that they feel it’ll make no difference if they vote; that the politicians are only interested in what they think at election-time. Others may feel that the ya-boo-sucks style of politics we see at Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons is off-putting. They’ll ask, why should we vote for people who can’t even behave like grown-ups? I think most women feel this way. We can’t be doing with all those silly goings-on.


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.