Ton up!

One-hundred years old today.  Happy Birthday!

The New World

Below the stars

Before I went to live below the stars,
I was be-taught the task-of-life that did await
Completion at my hand.  Then loomed the gate
That led to lands so full of strife and wars.
And, as I passed where none may dare refuse,
A cloud of deep unknowing shrouded me.
I lay as in the arms of that which hews
The finest features from the clay and dews.
Of dust now was I fashioned ; lacking sense ;
No pains beset me yet, as I was warned.
Of warmth and shadow was I made in dense
Awareness.  Sounds, a part of me intense.
Was this the tenor of life enjoyed below?
Alas no more than this was I allowed to know.

© Jamie MacNab 2013



What do we know, we creatures bound to soil,
Of heaven’s glory?  Have we looked within,
Below the tangled log of daily broil,
To depths profound, where memories begin?
Recall genetic thirst, my anxious heart !
Regret your waywardness at Lethe’s shore ;
Where lost was all that you did know to start
Your worldly life anew.  So speaks the lore.
My mind, recall the sorrowing mother, Eve,
Who likewise feasted, disadvised, on fruit
That wiped her mem’ry, leaving her to grieve
On that which might have been, had she stayed mute.
What do we know, we creatures, bent by toil?
We from amnesia’s folly must recoil.

© Jamie MacNab 2013

How odd it is that the paradoxical creature called Man ever acts to destroy himself at the very point when one would expect him to burst into a bloom of a sublime civilisation.  Wherever we look, advanced civilisations bring themselves down.  China, India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Byzantium, Rome.  It is as if we can take only so much civilised life ; then, if we take just one more step, we are overwhelmed by the desire to destroy ourselves – as if the goodness is just too good to be true ; too good to be allowed to live.

Of course, the details of the fall of each of those great civilisations differ ; but that leads us to conclude that there must be some general principle at work.  Perhaps a close inspection of each of them is needed ; and also a close inspection of our own rise and fall.  And we would be wise to assume that we shall indeed fall.

Are there signs that our civilisation is falling?  Do we see writings and deeds that indicate it?  Do our own thoughts show it?

The rise of Christendom, especially in Northern Europe was spectacular.  Just eighteen-hundred years ago we were brutal.  Within four-hundred years we were on the path to civilisation.  We may see that by examining the writings and the arts of those times.  The rise continued, with many fits, starts and relapses, right up until the early nineteenth century.  Then we peaked.  The best – in science, writing, poetry, painting, sculpture, music and singing – was all but over.  We had ceased to produce inspired architecture.  The aristocracy had ceased to be of the best.  The age of the industrialist had arrived, and these men copied the achievements of their predecessors and cheapened them, making unimagineable fortunes in the process. 

By the late twentieth century, almost all art was banal (at very best) and otherwise utterly vulgar.  Science consisted of footnotes to the great, and was, itself, subordinated to manufacturing.  All was done in the name of money and profit.  Today, you cannot see a reference to a work of art without its price being highlighted.  Even our great historic buildings have their value reckoned only in terms of cash and, perhaps, utility.

Possibly the last straw for our civilisation was burned in this late period.  For now, such is our love of cash, that we have exported the most profitable of our business – because foreign labour is cheaper.  And we are left with the sterile occupation of simply managing other people’s money as our most edifying industry – but without the energy and art of Florence.  It is a travesty of all that our ancestors struggled to achieve.

Is our civilisation in decline?  I doubt if this generation knows how to answer such a question.

Do right and fear not

Surely, Man is the most paradoxical of creatures, given both to sublime love and kindness but also to the basest hatred and cruelty.  And devious, too, so that even his religion may be pressed into service to justify his sins.  But his conscience ever troubles him ; and, for that, we must thank God.

It may take centuries to tame his nature even a little ; but the taming is real, even if fragile.  Fragile especially in the presence of fear.  


In contemplation of unmissing fate
My mind and heart so often disagree.
A thought begins, refusing to abate;
A pulse arises, longing to be free.
But what of freedom if it leads to chains?
And what of love if not of trials and truth?
Your patient soul discerned the fateful lie
That falsely tells of joy (and smiles agley)
While leading would-be blameless lives awry.
In tides and races, conjured far to stray
From that which first had drawn them, souls are lost.
So what, braveheart, do promises of bliss
Amount to in the scheme of love’s true cost?
To anguished souls – to this and only this.

Jamie MacNab

Rachel’s tale

See this, and be renewed. See this, and live afresh.

Aristotle was never one to ignore a challenge.  His curiosity about the world was unbounded.  His thinking laid the foundations for what we should call scientific thought.  When we insist on making accurate and detailed observations ; and close and controlled reasoning ; we are borrowing the words and thoughts of Aristotle.  His calm and rigorous thinking is, in large part, what has made our modern world.  If he had never lived, we should all be the poorer for it.  He lived to be just sixty-two.  What else might he have bequeathed us if he had lived another twenty years?

His principal teacher was Plato, an Athenian aristocrat who rejected the easy (and corrupt) life followed by his contemporaries so that he might follow his curiosity about the qualities of life and the world.  In fact among many ideas, he invented a new and important word, poiotes – the ‘whatness’ of a thing or ‘of-what-kind-ness’.  Cicero translated this as ‘qualitas’ ; we know it as ‘quality’.  It is strange to realise that, before Plato, nobody had a word for the ‘whatness’ of anything.  And, if there is no word for a thing, it cannot be properly examined.  When we pass a shop window where we see a sign telling us of the ‘best quality’ of some item for sale there, our minds are at once connected, by an invisible thread, to a man who lived nearly twenty-five centuries ago.  And, if we follow that thread to its source, we discover much, much more.  Plato founded his Academy, the first institute of higher education in the Western world.

And now, moving backwards in time again and still feeling the thread, we come to Socrates, the jobbing sculptor (or maybe stonemason) who had been a soldier (heavy infantry) and who was the teacher of Plato the aristocrat.  Perhaps he was the most peaceable man in pagan Europe.  But he wrote nothing.  Almost all we know of him comes from his pupil, Plato.  He was sentenced to death by a corrupt democratic court – ironically on a charge of corruption.  He was afforded the chance to escape into exile but refused it, for he preferred to die in his beloved Athens.  So he drank the prescribed chalice poisoned with hemlock and went without a fuss.

We owe so much to so many for the good that we enjoy here in the West ; but for our understanding of worldly things and of philosophy, we come close to owing the most to these three pagans.  Without these three pagans, our arts and sciences would be very much the poorer ; perhaps they would not exist.

It was quite a long time after the lives of these three that their philosophies took a practical form.  Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that their ideas should pop up in the last place on earth we should expect – in a place where for long centuries the native philosophy had been hard and severe ; in a place where long lived a hard and warlike nation ; in a place called Nazareth.

It’s amazing what you can think of on a blowy Wednesday morning.

It’s sometimes amazing how people can be persuaded to believe in far-fetched tales.  I don’t say fairy tales, because it is easy to see how a loving and beautiful tale can fire the imagination.  No, I mean the sort of far-fetched tales that are usually found in serious publications.

For example.  Most people have no great difficulty in accepting the common explanation for those odd things called rainbows.  They have read how a rainbow requires three things for it to exist.  It requires sunlight : water droplets : and an observer.  Take away any one of those things, and the rainbow ceases to exist.  And most people also understand that if you approach the place of the rainbow too closely, so as to see the water droplets, the rainbow also disappears ; it ceases to exist.

The really startling thing about a rainbow is that it exists only in a sentient mind.

But how many people have thought about another of the ordinary common things that also disappear when you get close to them?  Take the leaf of a tree, for example.  From a distance, it appears to have a shape and a certain solidity about it.  But physicists assure us that the leaf is actually constructed out of minute particles called atoms ; and these atoms are constructed out of even smaller things such as neutrons, protons and electrons.  And when you approach the leaf so closely that these tiny things might be ‘seen’, you will find yourself looking at what is mostly emptiness.  And the leaf disappears entirely.  Just as the rainbow disappeared when you got too close.

We are not talking about metaphysics here, just everyday experience.  The whole world is made up of two parts ; or are there two worlds?  Firstly we have the world of rainbows and leaves (and rivers, mountains, flowers, cattle, etc., etc.) ; and secondly we have the world of what we might call the ‘particles’ (the atoms, etc.).  The first world is made up of representations in our conscious minds ; representations that arrive to us via our senses.  The second world is not represented to our minds at all, because its constituents are out of reach to our senses.

But the really startling thing is that the everyday first world cannot without the second, occult world.

So we have a first world of representations and also a second world of the unrepresented.  A manifest world and a hidden world.  And it is easy to think of these two quite different worlds when we set our minds to it ; but it is very difficult indeed to keep them near the front of our minds in our everyday living.

When we stroll in the countryside or in the town, it is hard to bear in mind that the things we see, touch, hear, etc., – the fields, the sky, the clouds, the trees, the telegraph poles, the ground under our feet – are actually comprised of entities, such as atoms, electrons, protons, etc., which are quite beyond our senses and are not represented to our consciousness at all ; and that occult world is mostly empty space ; a sort of ghost world.  There is no light there, no colour, no solidity, no softness or hardness, no heat or cold, no sounds, no scents or flavours ; for these are all sensory qualities.  And our senses cannot reach down to that world.

Is it a sub-sensory world?  or a super-sensory one?

At any rate, it is not a material world, for matter is defined by our senses.  It is a world that exists in consciousness only in the form of ideas.  And these ideas are described in complex logical propositions that only a few specially trained mathematical people understand.  And even those specially trained people do not have a satisfying explanation of what the propositions mean.  So it is that this non-material, non-sensory world is a mystery ; a mystery that can never be represented to our conscious awareness.

Either we must accept that our familiar world of things – trees, meadows, clouds, rivers, other people, etc. – is a representation (re-presentation) of the insensible world of atoms, etc., or we must reject the theories of physics as nothing more than an elaborate delusion.  We cannot have it both ways.

What are we to call this non-sensory, occult, mysterious world that underlies our familiar world?  This invisible world that we are quite sure exists, but whose existence cannot be proved by the evidence of our senses?  It sounds very much like a spiritual world.

Turns of the Stars


Imagination plays the central part
In making sense of absent Sun and Moon ;
Whom Earth herself conceals, in playful art,
As if to test our faith.

And when the rose, the fragrant heart of hearts,
Slips waning from her own autumnal heights,
Do not our minds find peace ; as when she parts,
There’s  promise of next year?

Our  homely orb has turned full over-night ;
New day is come, even as New Year.
With hopeful eyes, we seek the light,
The rosy-fingered Dawn.

Will she come?  Will she come?
Our rosy-fingered Dawn?

Jamie Macnab 2013

Christmas reminds me of so many things.  Isn’t it a marvel that we are able to be reminded of things?  I mean, why on earth should stardust take the shape of a thing? a thing that lives and breathes ; a thing that does all the things that stardust cannot do ; a thing that remembers what it has done.  Remembers.  Remembers !  Why in heaven should stardust want to remember things?

But, if we are really made of stardust, then remembering things is what stardust does, for we certainly remember things.  I remember reading a most interesting article on the economics of farming.  It was many years ago, but the general scheme of the article still remains fresh.

If you look closely at a map of England (especially England) you’ll find that the towns and villages of any size are almost all medieval.  You know this (if you have Google Earth) because you will usually find the betowered stone church and its graveyard ; generally the hallmarks of the Middle Ages.

And the towns are spaced about fifteen miles apart.  Those who claim to know about these things tell us that this spacing is no accident ; the spacing means that a farmer needed to travel no more than about seven-and-a-half miles to his nearest market ; and that distance has been calculated as the longest that a farmer can travel economically in a day.  Any greater distance would take more time to travel, and he would face increased costs in feeding his oxen that towed the cart ; and the space that would hold the ox’s fodder could not be used to carry produce, so his sales turnover would be reduced.  Also he might have to pay for an overnight stay in town.  At least, those are two of the reasons given to explain that figure of fifteen miles.

Well, we are free to believe these kinds of explanations, or not, as our inclinations take us.  But they are useful, if only because they give us a little window that throws light on our human nature.

We might ask, “Why on earth should anyone be interested in why our medieval towns happen to be fifteen miles apart?”  Of what use is such information?  We might as well ask, “Why on earth should anyone be interested in how big the universe is?  or how old it is?  or how it began?”  Who cares?

But care we do ; and how shall we answer ourselves?  I think it’s because we have an insatiable appetite simply to know things ; even things that have no practical use at all.  In particular, we desire to know the truth of things.  We are not satisfied with just any answer that comes to mind.  We dig deeper, we think, we imagine, we debate, we argue, we even come to blows with those who disagree with us.  We seem to be driven by some demon into finding the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Well, let’s ask another question.  “If we are so keen and so well-equipped to seek and find the truth, why don’t we always find it?”  Name any subject – the right kind of food to eat : the way to grow cabbages : the tastiest whisky : the best way to treat back-ache : the causes of depression : the quickest way to build a road : the most comfortable car : the fastest aeroplane : the best time of the year to fly to Mars : the biggest known galaxy : the smallest particle : the way our memories work : the meaning of life -…. the list of subjects over which we argue about the truth is quite endless.  Even questions which ought to have been answered centuries ago remain unresolved.  And fought over.

And we must not be fooled by what we read.  It may well be the case that the theory of Professor Knuttekase, regarding the age of the universe, is published everywhere as the incontovertible truth which every respectable astronomer believes and every student is taught.  But we may be quite sure that there are dissenting voices ; soft voices which are never read about, because it would be professional suicide to publish them – even if a scientifically respectable publisher could be found.  It reminds us that what is politely known as peer review (peer approval) is in fact a kind of tyranny ; it ensures that there is little publishing, debate, or even thinking, outside the box of convention.  Peer review has an obvious purpose :  to preserve the reputation of Professor Knuttekase and the material wellbeing of his generously funded department.

So, when we return to the question of why the medieval towns of our country are fifteen miles apart, we might find the answer is much less complicated than modern minds make it to be.  Perhaps they are fifteen miles apart simply because King Knut decreed it (but forgot to make a note of his reasons).

It is apposite that we should think of things like this at Christmas.


May love lend wings

May love lend wings to prayers we send
In memory of those who fell ;
That they may fly, all hurts to mend
In hearts where evermore shall dwell

And shall that love be felt, by those
Who know the pain of sadness’ darts ;
To draw condolence and repose
From understandings in the heart’s

Let formless thoughts, that drift as mist
In troubled minds, so be distilled here
To form the stream of words that list
Coherent prayers designed for sheer

For there’s a purpose, suffering
In grief’s unholy mad disguise ;
That, discovered, shall surely bring
Fresh comprehension, wherein lies

Jamie MacNab 2012

By the Babe Unborn

If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,

If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.

In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.

Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.

G.K. Chesterton


This poem is one of those which shows that Chesterton had a wonderful gift for seeing things from different points of view ; through different eyes ; and with different minds.  He had an acute understanding human nature.  Even his more adventurous speculations have the ring of truth about them which make us feel that, even if they are not quite true, they ought to be.  They are like the sympathetic wishes of a child, as yet un-wearied by experience.

Here he looks at the world through the inner eyes of a yet-to-be-born child.

As we all know, the scientific way of seeing the world has brought immeasurable benefits to all mankind ; so many benefits, in fact, that many decent people cannot bring themselves to see the world in any other way.  They just know that the only realities are those which arrive to us through our physical senses.  If a thing may be seen, touched, heard, tasted or smelt then it is real ; if not, then it is fantasy.

The principle that underlies this way of living is the very respectable m.k.s. system.  The m.k.s. stands for metres, kilogrammes and seconds, which are the standard units of length, mass and duration – the very bedrock of good science.

Once upon a time, when people were generally better educated than they are today, it was understood that this way of seeing the world was intended to provide a very specialised form of knowledge – scientific knowledge.  Such knowledge was never intended to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Universe and all the things in it.  A scientist’s specialised way of understanding the world was no different, in principle, from a carpenter’s specialised way of seeing the world ; or a plumber’s, or a farmer’s, or a train-spotter’s.

But, with generally falling standards of education, a truly extraordinary state of affairs has arisen.  It is now seriously proposed that, if a thing can be measured, weighed and timed, then it is real.  And many people of a scientific disposition now say that, if a thing cannot be measured, weighed and timed, then it is illusory ; and they add that anyone who believes otherwise is either mad or evil.

Mr Gradgrind would have thoroughly approved of all this, of course – before his daughter, Louisa, through her sufferings and by God’s grace, came to his rescue.  If he were alive today, he would be ashamed.

One of the sadnesses that arises out of today’s scientific outlook is that its more zealous believers are now quite incapable of seeing in any other way.  For them, life has lost its meaning ; in place of life, they have mere existence.  But there is hope, even yet ; for a few of them are asking, “Why is our civilisation in decline?”  In decline at the very time we should expect it to be entering a new phase of development.


I watched the stream ; its easy glide before my eyes
Did mesmerise my soul and grant it peace.
And then, imagination grasped the water’s rise
And sent it wand’ring, lazy, without cease.
And still my pupils followed where it went,
Absorbed by magic, held in lucid flow,
So eager to anticipate what’s meant
By whirls and eddies that glitter so.
But is there good to take, in orb or mind,
By lifting Nature from her proper ways?
Those waters, past, may ne’er be set behind
In proper place, their mission re-assigned.
Leave brooks to windle on their earthy beds,
For Fancy sleeps in well-appointed heads!

Jamie MacNab 2012

I would that I might see the world anew

Too long had I surveyed the world with eyes
A-jade by sights imagined, deeds performed
By lifeless bits of fair-named dust,
For which no purpose might I then discern.
Then on this hopeless tangle, Reason shone
Her bright and sturdy beam ; to lay upon
That rhymeless scene the sense that might espy
A happy answer to the question, Why?
Why Reason ‘mid a world of matter made?
Why speculation ‘mid determination?
Why, then, is our imagination laid
Upon that foreign field of desolation?
From cause to hard effect, I thought me thence
To subtle reason, rhyme and consequence.

Jamie MacNab 2012

Some people see the universe as a place of causes and effects ; a place where matter acts upon matter, like innumerable billiard balls rushing around and colliding with one another.  And what happens in such a universe is afforded by (and limited by) only the material nature of the universe itself – the natural laws as commonly understood.  It is an exciting vision of reality, if only because it leads us to ask, “Who established these laws?  “How far does the writ of the Law run?”

Other people see the universe as a place of reasons and consequences ; a place where every tiny event occurs for a reason and every outcome serves a purpose.  This too is an exciting vision of reality, if only because it leads us to ask, Whose reasons?  and, Whose purposes?

Yet others see the universe as a kind of synthesis (or association or collaboration) of these two views.  And this is an exciting view for a number of reasons, the most exciting of which is that it may validate our intelligence as a proper means for suggesting hypotheses about the workings of the world as a whole.  It is apparent to me that a purely cause/effect, mechanical understanding of the world offers no hope of our science being anything more than a delusion.

I can remember, when I was about twelve or thirteen, being told how the eyes work.  It was part of a physics lesson and occurred after we had covered optics generally.

The gist of that lesson was this.  The eye admits light, through the cornea, the lens and two kinds of liquid media, and then establishes an image of the outside world on the retina.  Due to the workings of the aperture and lens, this image is upside-down.  Thus, the brain has the task of turning the image the right way up so that we can make sense of it.  If the brain did not do this, then the world would appear upside down to us ; and this would be both very confusing and untrue.

In retrospect, I can see that Mr Chaplin told us this story because we were just beginners at the subject, and the true story would have been a very complicated diversion from the purpose of the lesson, which was optics and not cognitive psychology.

But there was a time (up to the seventeenth century) when this story, about the brain having the task of turning the retinal image the right way up, was once the authorised version of the biology of seeing.  In those days it was perfectly obvious that the retinal image was upside-down, for anatomists had actually seen it in their experiments with eyes taken from real animals.  It was therefore equally obvious that the image had to be turned the right way up again.

But George Berkeley, who was arguably the most subtle of the three great empiricist philosophers, disagreed.  He said words to the effect that, “The brain neither knows or cares which way up the image is ; and nor do the eyes.”  The eyes are merely instruments for gathering light ; the brain works with the effects of that light so as to make an image in the mind.

If that is true, however, how do the eyes work out what is up and what is down?  They must do so, because we can see ‘up and down’.  Berkeley’s answer was that the eyes naturally know nothing of up and down.  And nor is there some little man living behind the eyes who studies the retinal image and knows that it is upside down.

The eyes deal only with light.  Upness and downness are dealt with by a separate system.  He called this separate system the sense of touch ; though nowadays we call it the proprioceptive system ; the system whose nerves are sensitive to tensions in the ears, skin, muscles, tendons and bones.

It is the proprioceptive system which tells us, for example, whether our arm is moving up or down ; or right to left ; or backwards or forwards.  For example, if the arm moves up it feels heavier ; if it moves down it feels lighter.  More subtly, it informs us of every detail of our posture.

So, how is it that we are able to see and recognise whether our arm is moving (say) from left to right?  It is because the eyes learn to associate movements of the retinal image with feelings from our muscles and bones.  So, when we move our arm to the right, the retinal image of the arm moves ;  while (in synchrony with that) the muscular signals give a movement to the right.  The fact that the retinal image of the arm moves to the left is neither here nor there, because we take our primary cues on direction from our muscles, not the image in the eyes.

Similarly, when we keep our body still, and see an object move across our field of vision, the muscles that control the movement of the eyes register particular tensions which indicate the direction of their own movement as they follow the image.  The visual system takes its cue on direction from these muscular tensions.

There are a number of interesting consequences to Berkeley’s observations, and he indicated them as hypotheses ; but it was not for some two centuries that the confirming experiments were done.  In the first half of the twentieth century, several experiments confirmed that the eyes “neither know or care” which way up the retinal image is.  People were fitted with spectacles which inverted the images they saw.  At first, the world appeared very confusing ; but within hours the people could walk about safely ; within days, they could drive a car safely ; within weeks they could fly an aeroplane safely.  The nervous system simply adjusts itself to the new circumstances.

Similarly, spectacles have been worn which rotate the retinal image through various angles ; others switch left to right.  All with the same effect – the vision adjusts to the new conditions.

There is much more to tell of the path that Bishop Berkeley opened to us, but I must stop here for now.  Suffice to say that the movements of the body are vital to developing and maintaining healthy vision ; for the senses do not exist independently of each other ; they are integrated.

Also terms such as left and right are not absolute, but are relative ; but they are established by convention.  There is no homunculus (little person) inside the brain or mind who makes sure that we get orientations and movements ‘correctly named’ ; the nervous system has been so designed and established that it takes care of all that.

If there is an observer of all our sensory information, then it is not something that the material sciences may do experiments with, for it would need to be super-sensory in order to perceive its data objectively.


Are we ready to become aware of ourselves?

I have been fascinated with the material world for as long as I can remember.  It isn’t true that young children take the world for granted ; some at least do ponder on the origins of things and their destinies.  But there was one thing that I did for long take for granted – my consciousness ; in fact, when I was very young, I did not even think of consciousness.

But what is consciousness?  It is one of those things that is not revealed to us through the senses.  Rather it is our consciousness that informs us that we have senses.

We have a difficulty in describing what consciousness is without using metaphors.  For example, some psychologists have described it as a screen on which our world is projected.  But a screen is a material thing, while consciousness is not ; and so it is a potentially misleading linguistic device, for people have a habit of treating metaphors as if they were literal descriptions.

So consciousness is not a material thing, not detectable by the senses.  And what, therefore, is its proper classification?  It must surely be spiritual ; i.e., a known real thing which is not detectable by the senses.  And it is a thing which has the thoughts of psychologists tied in knots as they ponder it.

We are in the habit of asking, “Where does a thing come from?”  We are fascinated by origins.  But where does consciousness come from?  The current orthodoxy in psychology says that it is an ’emergent property’ of the brain.  According to this hypothesis, the complexity of the brain somehow causes consciousness to arise from it.  But still nobody knows how this occurs and nobody is any wiser as to what consciousness is.

But then the idea arises, “Why should it be matter that gives rise to consciousness?”  For isn’t it at least equally likely that it is consciousness that gives rise to matter?

It’s the pits !

It must have been in about 1971 that I was in Ireland, visiting my wife’s parents.  We used to go there once or twice a year in those days, and I got to know the locals quite well.  One evening in winter we were with old Michael and Katie (of the MacCoilidh family) in their marvellously warm living room in their little cottage by the main road.  Someone (not me) suggested that we ought to be singing so as to bring cheer to the bleak frosty night outside.  That was a cheap trick because none of those three would be the first to sing a single note ; and so I was obliged to go through my entire repertoire – all borrowed from the Dubliners –  and all of which I faithfully murdered, in both tune and word.  But nobody cared for the musical niceties ; the point was that we had a wail of a time.

After a while, old Michael rose from the fireside.  He was a short man with jet-black hair and blue eyes ; he was wiry and as strong as a typical farmer of those parts.  He said little, but always his words were kind ; and always he had a ready smile.  And always he was rather shy.  So now, having risen from his chair he stood, slightly bow-legged in the way of farmers, by the door to the scullery and back garden.  As if he was not sure of what to say next, he tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned me to follow him.  Into the pitch-black of the garden we went, Michael leading and me not having a clue of where we were or where we were going.  Utter darkness.

“I expect ye’ll want to pay a visit,” he whispered when we were out of earshot of the ladies inside.  “Come, follow me.”

After a few more yards, took my arm so as to point me in a particular direction.  “There, now, this is the place, d’ye see?”

Actually, I couldn’t see anything.  But, by following the sounds of my host, I probably managed to do the decent thing ; but I shall never be sure, because Michael was far, far too much of a gentleman ever to remark on another gentleman’s bad aim in circumstances such as these.

All this came to mind a month or two back, when I was reading the adventures of a Victorian parson who was the incumbent of a remote country parish.  In those days, ordinary country people had no inside toilets ; indeed, they had no proper toilets at all.  It was the task of the man of the house to dig the pit that the entire family would use for their convenience.  The procedure was quite simple : when the stench of the pit became obnoxious, he would dig another and use the rubble to fill the old one.  And, if he failed to maintain these arrangements, he would soon have the parson on his doorstep to read the Riot Act to him.  Wives knew how to make good use of parsons in those days.

And all this came to mind again yesterday, when I read of the doughty Indian bride who refused to live with her husband until he provided a toilet fit for a lady to use.  Of course, he protested.  He couldn’t see why his new wife shouldn’t just use the ground in some corner somewhere – just as he did.

Well, she wasn’t having that!  “I want a proper toilet,” she demanded ; and vowed to stay at home with her parents until the man of her dreams came up with the goods.  I couldn’t help wondering how different her life would be if she had a good, old-fashioned Victorian parson to turn to.  He would soon have had that idle young man busy digging a proper pit ; he would probably have boxed his ears as well.

Now, I don’t know what life is like in a poor village in India ; I can only guess.  But, thanks to the country parson, I do have an idea of what poor country people are like.  He describes the poor people as being very poor indeed.  But they were so often very far from being pleasant.  They (both men and women) tended easily to violence and drunkenness ; and, of course, idleness.  Their children were often disastrously neglected and abused.  What the poor people needed, almost more than anything else, was leadership ; for they were incapable of improving themselves.  And it was generally the parson who provided that leadership, assisted by whomever he could recruit.

Also, with people such as these, a deal of bossiness was needed, for the poorest of people lack the discipline needed to lead useful lives.  They lacked both discipline and knowledge.  One has to admire the country parsons ; after all, nobody forced them to devote their lives to the poorest.

I imagine that parts of rural India are not much different from rural Britain in ages past.  But, that example of the bride and her lavatory remind me of the great differences between Oriental thought and Western thought.  Of course, we are not supposed to make unfavourable comparisons, are we?  We are supposed to be all relativistic and multi-cultural.  But the old complaint, that the East is fatalistic, has truth in it I think.  Does this explain the poverty in an ancient civilisation (like India’s) where almost fantastic degrees of wealth have been enjoyed by the elite for so long?  How do we explain an ancient country very rich in minerals, in agricultural land, in abundant fisheries, having such abject poverty in its midst?

Can it only be a lack of leadership?  Or is it more to do with aims?  After all, to be a leader, one must not only be bossy ; one must have a clear idea of where to go ; and an idea of how to get there.

And what about Katie and Michael?  For all I shall ever know about that dark night, they might have had the most resplendent toilet facilities in all Ireland – perhaps it was just that the light bulb had blown.

A meeting of minds

I have never been an habitual reader of the Bible.  This is a failing, I know, but my carelessness goes back to my childhood, at a time when I suppose I identified the Bible with school assemblies – and I more or less hated school.  It is the same with our great authors – Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, et al ; I associate them all with school, and I have more or less ignored them all until comparatively recently.

As a result of all this, I am not like a cradle Christian, and for that I am somewhat grateful for my early life.  I am grateful not least because I spent so much time trying to make sense of the crazy world of the adults in my life that I became insatiably inquisitive about all things.  But, most of all, I became inquisitive about people and what makes them tick.  In other words, I am religious without being hampered by religiosity.

Of course, much of what I learned came from books ; for it’s all very well to observe behaviour in order to learn, but it is vain to try to invent theories that explain that behaviour without reference to greater minds who have given the matter more thought.  And in the course of my explorations, I have learned that it is also vain to trust the theories of others uncritically.  There are few experiences more depressing than a correspondence or a conversation with someone who quotes Shakespeare by the yard or the Book of Genesis by the metre ; or a blogger who pastes whole column-feet from Wikipedia.

With regard to my approach to learning, I recently came across two kindred spirits, and I stress that they are both far more clever than I ; and the second of those spirits is possibly far more clever than most people give him credit for.

DH Lawrence is not particularly well-known for his philosophy and his religion.  But I do recommend his very last book, published a year after his death.  It is called Apocalypse.  In it he addresses the meaning of the book, and compares his understanding with the many other opinions that have flourished since the earliest times ; opinions which range from the scholarly to the downright loony.  I have skimmed through Lawrence’s Apocalypse, as I usually do with a new book, and have only just begun to read it.

In the Introduction, there is a quotation which caught my eye : Lawrence wrote this :-

I am no ‘scholar’ of any sort.  But I am very grateful to scholars for their sound work.  I have found hints, suggestions for what I say here in all kinds of scholarly books, from Yoga and Plato and St. John the Evangel and the early Greek philosophers like Herakleitos down to Frazer and his ‘Golden Bough,’ and even Freud and Frobenius.  Even then I only remember hints – and I proceed by intuition.

Now here we have someone who is no mere book-learner.  He gathers information and proceeds to think about it ; and from his thinking he receives trustworthy intuitions – spontaneous realizations about the meaning of what he has read.  He does not feel bound by what he has read, but uses his readings as a springboard to deeper understandings.  He is a true seeker of knowledge.

Also he writes elsewhere that you can divide books into two classes : those that do not bear re-reading : and those that do.  A good book, he says, will offer new revelations at each successive reading.

Now all this is just what I should have said if only I had Lawrence’s skill with thoughts and words.  For, surely he is right on both counts.  For books by even the great writers are not there to be taken at face value ; they are not there to be slavishly believed and slavishly quoted from.  Even the greatest books are there to be intelligently interpreted and re-interpreted ; this is the secret of their greatness ; this is the seat of their power ; this is the key to the evolution of human consciousness.  Any other approach comes close to idolatry.

But there are limits to interpretation.  The aim is to allow the meaning of the original text to evolve ; to keep its spirit alive ; for it is the spirit that gives the text its life.  The aim is not merely to change the meaning of the text, for that is not evolution, but substitution, and that is likely to end in meaninglessness. I regret that many interpreters make that mistake.



Atop the lonely mountainside
There sits a lonely child ;
The chill that penetrates his bones
Makes hard his soul and wild.

He thought him freedom he would find
When once he broke him free
From labours of the rocky climb.
But it was not to be.

Thirteen long years of study toiled
To learn the ways, the thought
Required ; that adults said they knew.
He sees that all was nought.

The liberation promised him,
By those whom learning thralled,
Scant record left ; now he could see
That ignorance him walled.

Forlorn he sat, that lonely youth,
Beside a wind-stripped tree,
His intellect was numb with cold
His mind and soul agree.

The wide warm world before him spread
Beneath his rocky perch ;
So many things unknown to him
Appeared in mists to search.

‘Twas there the knowledge that he sought ;
A-far from barren prose ;
‘Twas there the brooks of living flowed,
Where dwells the summer rose.

There, too, the creatures of the wood
Are born to roam and fly
According to their natures’ will,
So free from pedants dry.

How, far below, each lifesome thing
Did raise its smiling head !
Their gazes turned to meet his eye
And sullen hues were shed !

High-hearted now, he raised his soul.
Or did his soul raise him?
He cared not which nor gave it thought,
Such joy did fire his whim.

And with his soul, he raised his eyes
(Or did his soul raise them?)
And saw, above the kindly mist,
A sight worth more than gem.

A mountain tow’rd afar from where
His climb had left him sad ;
All clad in green and topped in white,
All for the new-woke lad.

Resolved he was, from that point on,
Exploring for to go ;
To seek belov’d enlightenment
And cast away his woe.

‘Begone!’ he cried as down he swept,
By rock and thistle foul,
Forever down to that old ground
Where doubts went cheek by jowl.

‘Let come that light!’ he cried again,
As through the town he sped,
“Which melts the gloom of pallid thought
Where doubt and dust are bred.’

Behind him left he bricks and slate
And streets of tarmac black ;
Such speed he had that all was blur,
No thought of going back.

Now on he raced, by path and lea,
Towards the vista seen
To offer promises of joy,
Of treasures bright and keen.

‘Cross moor and hill, through copse and fen,
By dells’ and dingles’ charm,
The young man scythed his merry way.
And learned he nought of harm.

His tomes were but a mem’ry now,
His pains a source of strength.
Long dreary hours of classroom talk
Were shrunken in their length.

So here at last, in Nature’s arms,
The spring of all that’s wise,
He felt he had come home at last,
Had won a mighty prize.

‘Mid scents and sounds, and colours soft
He felt the taste, the zest
Of perfect peace, once only dreamed.
So laid him down to rest.

Jamie MacNab 2012

To a greater good

I have only visited a convent once ; it was in the middle-north of England where the friend of a friend was serving.  I was fairly young at the time and knew next to nothing of religious life, so I had only a jumble of ideas of what to expect.  My first surprise was that they let me into the convent at all ; I had half expected that I would be required to wait outside while my companion went in to chat with her old school-friend.  But, in fact, there is a homely and comfortable reception area made for the purpose of entertaining all kinds of visitors ; and we were both made very welcome.

I began to wonder what on earth I could contribute to this meeting of old friends.  Are nuns allowed to speak to men?  Or even to listen to them?  I prepared to make my own vow of silence for the duration but I needn’t have bothered, for the sisters were only too eager to chat ; not, I hasten to add, out of a wish to discover news of the wicked world beyond their walls, but out of simple friendliness mixed (I think) with a charming politeness.  They understood my dilemma.

The talk was of many things, but mainly about news of the girls’ mutual acquaintances ; but this broadened by degrees until even I thought of something to say.  The nuns spoke mainly about their work, which reminded me that even they had to earn their living.  All this was unexceptional.  And there was absolutely no talk of religion or vocations or the good life.

Perhaps it was that delightful visit of forty years ago that silently prompted me to buy a DVD which explored further the life of the religious.  It concerns the lives of the sister at the Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Notting Hill ; in the heart of London. It is called No Greater Love, which reminds us of Jesus’ words that there can be no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.  And that is what these girls do ; they devote every minute of their lives to the betterment of the world and its people – their friends.

Of course, a worldly cynic might say that there is no great sacrifice in retreating from the world in order to work and pray.  Some might even say that it is abandoning the harsh world so as to lead a comfortable life ; and is it possible to deny that some, at least, have done that?

But when you consider more closely the training that the sisters have been through, it is not easy to be so dismissive ; for their transition to religious life, and then their everyday lives, are far from easy by our standards.  I received an insight into this when I watched another film, The Nun’s Story,  in which we meet Audrey Hepburn and Peter Finch in leading roles.  This film is based on a true story and, as far as I can tell, is pretty much true to form.

It concerns a Belgian girl who comes from a prosperous family and whose father is a leading medical doctor.  We follow her from her decision to decline a comfortable life, through her pains at telling her family of her decision, on to her fairly terrifying training, and further to her years in Africa as a nurse.  We also see her assigned (to her disappointment) to escort a sick patient back to Belgium by sea ; she has no choice because she is the only nurse who has the necessary medical knowledge.

To her immense disappointment, she was to have no return to Africa and the patients she loved.  Being a nun, it seems, is the surest way of learning to cope with personal anguish ; of learning to find happiness through losing one’s self and one’s desires – in the service of a greater good.

The end of the story comes not in the safety of the convent.  And it comes as a surprise.

Lives renewed

It’s good news for a British couple who won over £40million on the lottery, but I wonder about how it will change their lives.  Will the change really be for the better (no pun intended)?

I have read, at various times, how big winners have vowed that their new riches shall not make them wasteful or greedy.  They promise that they will continue to live in their modest house, keep working as usual, take normal holidays and, at most, indulge themselves in a few of life’s little luxuries.  All very well and good, we might think.  But it does disturb me that a wealthy person should hold his old job, which he no longer needs to maintain himself and his family, rather than resign it and give another person the chance to earn an honest living.  Likewise, isn’t it a little selfish to keep the old terraced house, when they could so easily make it available to a young couple who really need it?

Thoughts like these were going through my mind as I read a charming book about a 19thC parson.  He was not a wealthy man ; but he did know that, one day, he would inherit £2700 – not a great fortune even in those days ; but certainly enough to remove any acute financial anxieties he otherwise might have had.

As a curate, he was keen to have his own parish ; to be his own boss, as it were.  But the parish he greatly wished for – and which he might have successfully applied for – was beyond his means.  He had noticed how the run-down vicarage was constantly being fixed by carpenters, masons, tilers and so forth.  And the poor parson must have been at his wit’s end to keep the place habitable.

So the curate gave up on that idea.  He resigned his curacy (as his time was up) and lived at his parents’ expense while awaiting a new opportunity.

Well, the question arises, “What should the child of wealthy parents do to occupy his time?”  He would not have thought of taking a job, and thereby deprive a poor man of the chance of making a living.  He would not go into trade, for the same reason.  He might applied for another curacy ; but that would have deprived a promising newcomer.

So, he did the decent thing.  He simply made himself useful to other parishes, as well as his old one.  He was greatly respected and had many friends among both rich and poor alike.  He had saved lives, he had helped farmers with their labours, he had dug the gardens of poor widows, and he had given hope to many.  And he never took a shilling.

Perhaps the curate had read some of William Cobbett, who was a farmer, “Money,” he said, “Is like muck – no good unless it be spread.”  So the wealthy have a duty to spread their money ; to spend it wisely and to invest it honestly.

We might add that time also is for spreading ; for giving in charity ; for receiving with gratitude.

I don’t know what the lucky couple, who won the jackpot, will do with the aid of their fortune.  But I hope they don’t do anything vain, like hang on to their old jobs, their old house and their old habits.

One thing at a time

It’s strange how we seem to spend so much time either looking forward to the future or else remembering the past.  How often are we in the here-and-now?  Aristotle recommended that we take up the art of contemplation to remedy matters.  And who better to make that suggestion?

How to begin?  First, ensure that you will not be disturbed for the next fifteen minutes or so.  Then make yourself comfortable.  Close your eyes.

Contemplating, Aristotle said, is simply paying regard to a series of statements or ideas which are infallibly true.  They must be so, because if there is any doubt about the truth of a statement, then you will start thinking about it – and contemplation must involve no thinking.  It is just regarding, or ‘looking’ at ideas that come to mind.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Well, try it and see.  Aristotle himself found that there are not very many of our notions that are truly infallible.  Like his masters, Socrates and Plato, he concluded that, while we have lots of opinions about the world, not much of what we know is truly true.

He began his exploration of contemplating something like this.

“I am a man.”  (Well, that’s not a bad start.)
“My name is Aristotle.”  (No!  The name my creator gave me is unknown to me.)
“People call me Aristotle.”  (That’s sort of OK)
“I live in Athens.”  (No.  Has this place always been known as Athens?  Will it for ever be called Athens?)
“I live in a city people now call Athens”  (OK)
“I am fifty years of age.”  (No.  I have no proof of my exact age ; I have only the opinions of others.)

…. and so on ….

And so he indeed went on.  And, as he went, he had to amend almost all his ideas about himself and the world ; he had to compromise on the exact truth ; he had to admit opinions under the guise of truths.

It’s awfully hard to live fully in the here-and-now.  Maybe that’s why my own thoughts turned back to school-days while I have been writing.  I remembered a puzzle that Mr Fryer set us all those years ago.  “You think that one plus one equals two, do you?”

“Of course!”  we replied.
“Well, arithmetic is a language,” he said, “And its meanings all depend on how you use it.”

To the blackboard ….. (and I hope I remember this right!) :

a = b
a+a = a+b
2a = a+b
2a-2b = a+b-2b
2(a-b) = a-b
2 = 1

Well, it took us a bit to work that one out (we were young and thought we knew everything).

What larks!

I have never been a great fan of television, but I have come to appreciate the availability of tv recordings ; in fact, I have a growing pile of dvd records which do much to brighten the winter days.  But I do wonder sometimes at the antics of the broadcasters.  The BBC, especially, seems to be very intent on some kind of political mission designed to change the ways in which we see ourselves.  It is not enlightening, I think.

A month or two ago I enjoyed watching an entire series of stories made by the BBC some years earlier.  It had the charming title Larkrise to Candleford.  It was really well-made and featured some accomplished actors and actresses.  Of course, it was not beyond criticism concerning some matters of fact, but that generally counts for little in fiction ; we tend to filter out such discrepancies in favour of enjoying the story.

The story is set in rural Oxfordshire in the late-ish nineteenth century ; an exciting time in which great changes were taking place, most undoubtedly good and some not so.  As well as the usual ‘human interest’ aspects, the story is very much concerned with how ordinary people were adjusting to those changes – and in some cases influencing them ; in particular the people of the hamlet of Larkrise and of the small town of Candleford

But there were some puzzles in the plot.  For example, the hamlet and the town were separated by about seven miles ; and yet people would pop off on foot from one place to the other at the drop of a hat on some trivial errand or other ; as if they were going to the corner shop.  But, even in that great age of walking, working folk did not make a round trip of fourteen miles on a whim.

Most of the characters in the stories are memorable, as one would expect in fiction.  One that particularly struck me was the country rector.  He was widower, quite ancient and stuffy, and with a bit of a posh accent as you might expect.  He was a dyed-in-the-wool, rabid Tory,  of course.  But he was also a deeply unpleasant man.  One of his rather pious parishioners even referred to him as a ‘brute’ and a ‘sadist’.  His daughter had been so suppressed by him that she could hardly show any personality at all, being almost crippled by shyness.

I thought all this rather odd, and rather BBC-ish, but not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility.

As if set to balance the dreadful rector, we had the village stonemason.  He was a right-on liberal with advanced political ideas ahead of their time.  His self-appointed task seems to have been to educate the locals out of their complacency and to lead them from serfdom.  He was so inflamed by the injustices of his world that he would risk everything to voice his complaints.  He was made to suffer in consequence.  A champion of the poor indeed.

It was the stonemason who wrote a very rude letter to the very top man at the Post Office in London, complaining that the poor people in his village had to pay an unreasonable sum to the Post Office merely to receive a telegram.  The reason for this surcharge was that the village was more than seven miles from the local post office ; hence the delivery costs had to be paid.  Indeed, such a charge on poor people was unjust.  At a time when a farm labourer was lucky to earn ten shillings a week, three shillings and sixpence was a heavy price for a telegram (which, by its nature, would require urgent attention on an important matter).

Well, I thought it was so very like the BBC to portray Victorian people in this way ; choosing the best and the worst to make its political points.  But then I remembered that the tv stories of Larkrise and Candleford are based on the recollections of a person who actually lived there ; the BBC series was an adaptation of her writings.  The story was not pure fiction.  So I bought Flora Thompson’s books – three of them under one cover.

What a surprise!  Miss Thompson’s recollections of the people she knew in her youth are very much at variance with the BBC’s interpretation of them.

The rector, it turns out, was actually very much respected in the parish ; and a welcome visitor in just about every household.  He was a personally charitable man who took his duties seriously. If he was a Tory, he certainly wasn’t a brutish and sadistic one.

And what about the right-on liberal, agnostic stonemason who fearlessly provoked the mighty Postmaster General to secure justice for his fellow villagers?  What about this David who challenged Goliath?  Well, actually, he didn’t.  It was the village innkeeper who did all that.  Ah, but the innkeeper was a nice devout Christian, you see.  And, to make matters worse, Miss Thompson explains that he was a Catholic.

Well, the BBC can’t have Christians (and especially Catholics) taking up the cause for the poor, can we?  So, the corporation just switches everything around.

There are a number of other serious discrepancies of a similar kind in the BBC series.

Why does all this matter?  We might ask, “Does the truth matter?”  Is it right to distort Miss Thompson’s recollections so as to make political and religious points?  We might bear in mind that these are real people.  Is it morally right to defame the dead rector?  to insult his daughter?  to deprive the dead innkeeper of his credits?

The BBC would argue that is right to do so.  After all, its politics are of foremost importance ; that is why it exists.  And, to the BBC, what is history if not something to be amended so as to augment its political message?  The reputations of dead individuals count for nothing at the BBC.

I can’t help asking, “What are the great weaknesses in the BBC’s arguments for a ‘liberal’, atheistic, socialistic society?”  Are those arguments so shaky that it is really necessary to lie about them and about the alternatives?  And can that atheistic, socialistic society long endure if it is based on lies and distortions?

And doesn’t the BBC insult its clients with such distortions?  Does it imagine that we are all fools?  Or does it imagine that only its poorer and less educated clients are fools?

Or could it be that the socialist/atheist/iconoclast factions are now so strong in our country that they just know that they can re-write history to their hearts’ content without fearing any opposition or serious criticism?

What are we?

I was just reading a book in which JRR Tolkien’s name cropped up, together with a few lines of his.

Although now long estranged,
Man is not lost or wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
And keeps the rags of lordship he once owned.

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
Through whom is splintered from a single White
To many hues, and endlessly combined
In living shapes that move from mind to mind.


We make still by the law in which we’re made

(JRR Tolkien)

These thoughts of his remind me of how far humanity has fallen in the last few hundred years, during which time so many people have been beguiled by the easy doctrines of physics (especially) that they have come to think of themselves as machines – biological machines, to be sure, but machines nevertheless.

Now it is true that there is much that is mechanical about a person – as a trip to the dentist will remind us ; but there is also so much more that is not mechanical.  For example, can consciousness be properly described in mechanical terms?  is love a mechanical process? is free will mechanical?

Tolkien here straightens our ideas, I think.

A Happy New Year

Just a note to wish everyone a Happy New Year. ‘May your days be merry and bright’.

I have so often wished for the gift of being able to write as the great writers do.  And, together with that gift, I have wished for another ; that of thinking as they do.

As you probably know, Jonathan Sacks is our Chief Rabbi.  Read here what he says about how our Judaeo-Christian heritage has shaped us and so much of the rest of the world.

“We are not better than the others, and yet we have a better time of it. We, the small minority who live in peace and affluence, must tread a quite different road to heaven from the great majority, who face death in poverty and fear, in suffering and hunger.

And yet I believe that these suffering souls will be happy for all eternity, because they are the least of His little ones and so God’s most beloved children.”

Fr Werenfried van Straaten


I read Fr Werenfried’s Thought for the Day every day ; because I have come to understand that there is more to his life than preaching good.  He has actually done good, so that many, many people have had cause to thank him.  And I thank him.


By Highstone Mead there blooms a rose
Whose blush can tell where lies her heart
(As far from her as swallows fly
For distant lands, these shores to part).

For ever must the kindly Moon
Entangle with her darkling thought ;
And braid her flowing hair with lace
Of silver bearing hope un-taught.

Does Queen of Night in truth concern
Herself with cares of hapless love?
And can Selene equal shine
On mortals’ grief from high above?

“Do rays that fall on one of two
Effect the same on other side?
And make the holy combine whole?
For faith!  Let golden hope abide!”

So speaks the rose in colours soft
As heart uplifts to praise the Moon,
Who blesses all that in her trust.
The parting shall be over soon!

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Ike ponders previously untold History of Humankind and Money