In a few days, it will be New Year’s Eve, when Scots like my mother’s family celebrate Hogmanay. The Scots seem to attach more importance to Hogmanay than they do to Christmas, but at one time both were celebrated at the same time – on the shortest day, the 21st December. This was when ancient societies in the northern hemisphere performed rituals to ensure the rebirth of the sun because they depended on it for their survival.
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With all the fuss they’ve been making about pensions, you’d think it was news that we’ve got an ageing population. It isn’t. There’s been plenty of evidence for a long time that people like me, born during or soon after the war, are living longer, and that younger people are either not having children, or not having many. It doesn’t take much imagination or arithmetic to work out that there are fewer people to pay tax and National Insurance contributions to keep us in reasonable comfort in our declining years.
If everyone who produced a child became a responsible parent overnight we’d solve a lot of problems, but they don’t, so when I hear that “parents’ rights” are in the news, I anticipate nonsense. There are currently two news stories about “parents’ rights”. The first is about Mrs Axon from Wythenshawe, who’s going to the High Court to try to change Department of Health guidelines stating that girls aged under sixteen can have abortions without their parents’ consent and that doctors should respect their privacy. Mrs A thinks she ought to be told. The second story is about the Children and Adoption Bill being heard in the House of Lords, which will give divorced parents an automatic right of access to their children; a move backed by militant father’s groups.
Oh yes, you might be thinking, and a good thing too, but is it?
The 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 wonâ€™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 â€“ 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. Iâ€™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.
I 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.
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.
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.