Saturday, 18 April 2015

The last illusion

The philosophers of the last century devoted themselves with fervour to the destruction of the religious, political, and social illusions on which our forefathers had lived for a long tale of centuries. By destroying them they have dried up the springs of hope and resignation. Behind the immolated chimeras they came face to face with the blind and silent forces of nature, which are inexorable to weakness and ignore pity. 

Notwithstanding all its progress, philosophy has been unable as yet to offer the masses any ideal that can charm them; but, as they must have their illusions at all cost, they turn instinctively, as the insect seeks the light, to the rhetoricians who accord them what they want. Not truth, but error has always been the chief factor in the evolution of nations, and the reason why socialism is so powerful to-day is that it constitutes the last illusion that is still vital. 

In spite of all scientific demonstrations it continues on the increase. Its principal strength lies in the fact that it is championed by minds sufficiently ignorant of things as they are in reality to venture boldly to promise mankind happiness. The social illusion reigns to-day upon all the heaped-up ruins of the past, and to it belongs the future. The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. 

Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.

Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

Maybe global planners aim to promise mankind happiness in the form of a global consumer culture. Perhaps their plans are sound and a micro-managed consumer culture offers a facsimile of happiness most people would settle for.

A few may mourn the death of freedom, dignity and fulfilment, but do we currently have enough to fill the coffin?

Friday, 17 April 2015

The statue

This is another excerpt from my aunt's memoirs describing her childhood in the back streets of Derby almost a century ago.

Empire Day. 
We prepared by walking the evening before to the field with the pond in the centre and there picked red tipped daisies. Behind the churchyard we’d find bluebells or birds eye and at home, made button holes to pin to our frocks. I can’t recall a wet Empire Day. One year it was so hot that, singing in the playground, one girl fainted from the heat. To the accompaniment of a piano brought into the playground for the occasion, young voices sang with gusto Flag of Britain, Land of Hope & Glory, Rule Britannia and many more. We’d end with the National Anthem and then troop home for the rest of the day.

A great number of small incidents come to mind, after all most of life consists of trivial events which we either enjoy or if unpalatable, try to accept with as much equanimity as possible. For obvious reasons I’m sticking pretty much to the former. In any case, isn’t it better to bear in mind the happy times rather than bemoan the sad?

Cohen’s Bazaar
My friend Glad and I were about ten or eleven I suppose, we’d run errands, saved the ha’pennies until we’d sixpence each. Just before Christmas we went to Cohen’s Bazaar in St Peter’s Street, a forerunner of Woolworths.

I can’t remember what Glad bought but my choice was an open fluted glass dish the colour of dark topaz for my mother. I was thrilled with my purchase. It was of course wrapped in newspaper, nothing so extravagant as brown paper at Cohen’s and walking home (there was no money left for tram fare) I was terrified lest my prize should slip through my fingers. Dripping wet but with the goods intact we got back. I hid my present in the bedroom, managed to find a square of reasonable paper to wrap it in. Mam kept that dish for years, long after I was married.

The statue
If I went into town on an errand for Mam I sometimes was given enough to pay the tram fare and if so, chose the open top deck when possible. The tram stopped at Bloomfield Street. Sitting on the left hand side I could see over the wall and into the garden of one of the big houses. Impolite it might have been but that garden rapidly drew my eyes. Flagged path, old fashioned flower borders and shrubs, trees, immaculate lawn. And to cap all this loveliness a statue of a chubby boy. I fell in love with that grey still figure and always looked for him.

Ever since, the ambition to own a statue has never diminished though my taste has changed and I would if I could, choose something for my garden with a more classical beauty. After my husband retired – he was seventy – he went to sales galore to try and get me a statue but no success. Eventually, being a stone mason, he said he would carve one for me himself. Alas he became ill and unable but I can still see in my mind’s eye that little chubby boy amongst the roses and lavender.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Puppy power


The political temperature seems to rise and rise again as each party scrabbles for votes. Ed Balls is an angry man, he recently slammed David Cameron’s plan to give a puppy to every family on minimum wage.

“This is yet another example of the Tories shamelessly stealing our policies and presenting them as their own,” said a furious Mr Balls in a TV interview.

“As everyone knows, we have already pledged to give a goldfish to low income families,” he added. “It is a much more practical idea than puppies. For a start, goldfish emit far less greenhouse gas than puppies - adorable though puppies are of course. But we are thinking of the environment while the Tories are just desperate for votes.”

Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems has declined to enter the fray even though his party is committed to giving out a million free ant colonies, one to each child who correctly guesses what Mr Clegg will do after the election.

UKIP have sensibly steered well clear of this particular hot potato, but the most vociferous critic of all is Natalie Bennett of the Greens. Her party originally intended to present all new members with a packet of grass seed to grow their own lifestyle.

Unfortunately many Green party members misunderstood the scheme and have been cancelling their membership in order to rejoin and claim their free grass seed. Sadly the scheme had to be abandoned.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Totalitarian genes


Suppose our genes have opted for a global totalitarian regime as the only alternative to permanent war or nuclear annihilation.

Or suppose they have opted for the role of global peasants as the only alternative to unsustainable development.

In which case our genes may be taking evasive action against perceived threats. The threats don’t have to be real of course. As long as a majority of genes believe they are real. Perhaps the twisted sods have no principles...

...our genes that is.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The things which weigh heavily

The things which weigh heavily upon my mind are these—failure to improve in the virtues, failure in discussion of what is learnt, inability to walk according to knowledge received as to what is right and just, inability also to reform what has been amiss.

The things which weigh heavily for me are the three stooges above. Confucius hit the nail on the head twenty five centuries ago, so are we slow learners or just thick? Too easily persuaded I suppose.

After twenty five centuries we may as well accept that Confucian wisdom isn't likely to enter politics any time soon. Peace, a functioning economy and the rule of law are the best we can hope for. Voting won't change anything because the only real power is the power of money.

Collectively we voters have lots of money but we allow too much of it to be stolen by the state and spend too much of the rest on Sky television, mobile phones and suchlike. There is no sign that this will ever change and quite possibly that's the best outcome we can hope for. 

Monday, 13 April 2015


Elections are all very well, but each one seems a little less sane than the last and the current charade seems to be the worst of the lot. Even the acting is crap. Although charades are not supposed to be taken seriously we are surely entitled to a touch of sparkle from the political furniture - or candidates as we tend to call them. 

I’m sure we are losing the democratic plot here. Or maybe, ghastly thought,  this is the plot. Of course plotting is what democracy is all about, but we are where we are and due vote democratically are we not? Apart from the electoral fraud, gerrymandering and rigged voting system of course.

Made-up-on-the-hoof promises seem to be all the rage at the moment but people keep making fun of them. MarkMac and Demetrius have posts on this most popular and topical comedy.

These soundbite-sized promises are mostly... or should I be calling them pledges?  Don’t political poseurs refer to their promises as pledges or has that word been tossed overboard because it reminds everyone of furniture polish?

Anyhow, nobody but a party loon would believe their promise/pledges and even then he or she would have to be a fringe loon. Imagine being a fringe loon. Cut off from the cynics at the centre, cut off from the great mass of uninterested normal folk, cut off from everything that makes life worth living. Crikey it’s a grim thought isn’t it? There should be a charity for them.

Speaking of charity, I’m hoping someone will promise free marzipan for pensioners. Something seasonal to go with the winter fuel allowance we are forced to spend on Christmas booze in order to kindle some inner warmth and maybe even a hint of goodwill. It’s not that I’m particularly fond of marzipan, but it has that distinctive seasonal aroma of almonds - or cyanide as we chemists often call it.

So what will the loons promise next I wonder, because I really don’t have high hopes for a cornucopia of marzipan. Cracking down on bad things, pouring money into good things and generally avoiding anything which might tax... oops, wrong word... and generally avoiding anything which might cause political offence.

So what could cause political offence apart from almost any serious discussion on any subject?

...nope I’m struggling with that one.

Storytellers both


Although it is useful and even essential to make distinctions where they are real, it can be equally useful to set conventional distinctions to one side.

For example, take the distinction between scientists and journalists. Conventionally these are distinct and even morally distinct professions, but there are a number of obvious similarities.

Many scientists must publish or die.
So a good story may be better than an accurate one.
And a rehash is easier than something new.
And consensus is easier than radical.
And genuine investigation is expensive, the outcome uncertain.

Overall conclusion? Aiming to offend neither paymaster nor expectations is a sound policy for journalists and scientists - or anyone else for that matter. Should we be surprised if science has interesting similarities to journalism?

We see the similarities in numerous areas such as nutrition, health, the environment, psychology, sociology, cosmology, materials science, battery technology, novel fuels and nuclear power. The line between science and the storyteller's art becomes blurred, often disappearing altogether.    

Both scientists and journalist tell stories of variable quality, originality and integrity, in part due to similar pressures. On the whole our society doesn’t see it that way, but the pressures and the consequent parallels are striking. There are differences of course, but what if the pressures converge and the similarities become even more significant?

As with journalism, science generates a range of output from high quality reporting of the natural world to its own version of the gutter press, wallowing in scare stories, personalities and general clamour where the paymaster is king and nothing else matters.

The trick is to tell one from the other.