Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Good Life

Mikey on the chair-plane. M Charlton 2005

Driving to Wales this morning, Dylan asks me, 'What happens if you work too much Dad?'
'You'd have lots of money, but not enough time to spend it.'
'That's tricky,' he replies. 'I think it's best if you just work enough to be happy.'

Having recently despatched the concept of fairness in a single sentence (see here for how), Dylan was applying his uncluttered four-year-old mind to the modern dilemma of the work:life balance.

Cash rich: time poor – or often the opposite – is the lament of many middle class households. But the concept of the work:life balance, so beloved of lifestyle gurus, misses the more interesting question of how best to spend the life part. What is it that constitutes the good life in a modern context, and how are we to attain it? It's another of those ponderings that takes up too much of my time.

Plato would have approved; he believed the good life was a one of contemplation, philosophy being the highest form of living. You might argue he would say that wouldn't he, but this school of thought is a common thread amongst the ancient thinkers. They were perhaps the first Westerners to record that the quality of life was about more than material gratification.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition which followed, closeness to God replaced the idea of the philosopher king, the good life defined by strict moral behaviour leading to spiritual redemption. Frederick Nietzsche dismissed this as the morality of slaves, urging us to find meaning in our lives by pursuing our dreams; God is dead, he said, we must find our own salvation.

Nietzsche is a notoriously obscure philosopher with unfortunate fascist connotations, but his prescription that we strive to be an a-moral Ubermensch is closer to most people's concept of good living than is following the Ten Commandments. I have a lot of empathy with the idea that we should chase our dreams and that a successful and happy life consists of catching at least some of them.

In a more modern and liberal context, AC Grayling (who would be horrified to be compared to Nietzsche) has written eloquently of how, in the absence of God, we should strive foremost for a life that is richly filled, rather than simply long-lived. Of course, we would like to have both – but so often we settle for sort of sub-life that wastes time and opportunity. At the recent DO Lectures in Cardiganshire a range of inspirational speakers gave tips for more productive living; ditch the TV, was top of the list.

But chasing our dreams is only part of the solution. God may well be dead, but we still have a need for something deeper than the here and now. Bertrand Russell, in his book The Conquest of Happiness said that we need to feel part of the past, and connected to the future.

This seems to me to be right; intuitively we want our children to have a safe and secure childhood, to be loved and feel wanted – we know too, that those who suffer trauma are often disconnected in adult life. Similar claims can be made about nationality, and religion – to deny people their sense of continuity creates a void that no amount of possessions can fill. And as to a connection with the future, children are again our most obvious salvation, but there are other ways to feel we have contributed beyond ourselves – through work, or art, or the example we show to others.

Russell also hit on a very practical idea that I have held to be true ever since I read it as student. He said we need to have at least one interest that we pursue entirely for its own sake – not because it advances us at work, for social climbing or because of pressure to conform, but because we love it in itself.

As I write these words I am reminded of the Olympic cyclist Rebecca Romero, who switched from rowing to track cycling in pursuit of a gold medal. Her victory in Beijing struck me as hollow, as if all that mattered to her was winning; there was no apparent love of the activity itself. I think also of her haunted face on the podium in 2004 and compare it to the joy of my kayaking friends last weekend, as they returned from paddling at sea – these are world class performers too, but their motivation is different, and I know which I think is the closer to a good life.

Returning to the 'work' side of the equation, many of these ideas apply equally to our jobs. We want our work to be satisfying; it is good to care about what we do and how we do it. Similarly, a sense of heritage can be an important aspect of our personal and community identity (think of the shipyards and coal fields, the recent demise of Woolworth's) and a secure future is fundamental to what the management types call 'employee engagement'.

Most of us rightly consider our work as primarily a means to an end, particularly in the context of the modern limited company, where individual contributions are seldom meaningful in isolation of others. But occasionally we see the work:life values wildly inverted and the result is sort of tragedy.

A previous boss of mine was apt to wax lyrical about the importance of family – in practice he came to the office at 6.00am to avoid the traffic and left at 8.00pm, supposedly to do the same. In reality, he defined himself by work; hitting the numbers was as much a personal challenge as business imperative; by his own admission he saw little of his children growing up and tried to make amends with his grandchildren. Even more tragic, the editor of a newspaper I worked for, so defined himself by his role, that he committed suicide when he was asked to step aside. We were given the news when he failed to show for his leaving party.

Recently, the psychologist Martin Seligman has written about what he calls authentic happiness. His hypothesis is that we each display a tendency to certain 'virtues'. By virtues he means those character traits that are universally regarded as good by societies everywhere and throughout time – examples include courage, a love of learning, care of others, leadership, creativity, sympathy – in all he identifies over twenty. Seligman claims that the truly happy life is the one in which we have the opportunity to pursue those virtues that are closest to our nature. So in my case, I need to finding time to think, and create and be inspired and develop a deep knowledge of certain subjects – ideally I need do these things with my family and at work too. I know that when I mange it, I feel most happy and motivated; most alive. For others, the recipe will different, but the concept is the same.

Seligman's ideas take us full circle – for it was Aristotle, the student of Plato, who said that a life of virtue was the definition of a good life. Much though I hated studying Aristotle, I think I now agree.

But, I'm not so sure about Dylan. 'What makes you most happy?' I asked him as we crossed the river at Carmarthen this morning. 'That's easy,' he said. 'It's trains every time.'

Monday, September 21, 2009


The Bitches - all photos copyright Deborah Cook

On the far tip of Wales, a kilometre or so to the south west of St David's Head, lies Ramsey. The stretch of water between it and the mainland offers the hint of safe passage from St Brides Bay to the North Pembrokeshire coast. In reality, Ramsey Sound is the site of countless shipwrecks, and still today it catches many sailors unawares.

Twice a day the great mass of water stretching from the Severn Estuary, round the Gower and past Milford Haven makes an inexorable journey into the Irish Sea. Pulled by the alignment of the sun and moon a small ocean of water is forced through the Sound, creating the largest tide race in Europe. Porpoises have learned to gather at the end of the channel, waiting for the fish that are drawn there; this weekend saw a rather different gathering of the clans.

At 4.30 am on Saturday morning I could hear rustling downstairs. My friend Debs had come to stay, inviting along a group of fellow kayakers; they were preparing for an early morning paddle. These are not your run of the mill kayakers; Debs, a professional for twelve years, is one of the foremost white-water paddlers in the world. Her friends are equally competent, and just as well, for the September equinox creates the biggest tides of the year.

The tide race is known as the Bitches, though the name really belongs to the rocks that funnel the water into narrower channels. As the sea is pulled through the Sound, it is forced over a shelf and further squeezed between jagged pinnacles, creating the waves, holes and towbacks which are the reason the kayakers come. At full flow, over 300,000 cubic meters of water will pass every second - a drifting boat would be a carried at twenty miles an hour over waves and rapids as big as than those in the Grand Canyon.

The Bitches has become a popular destination for tourists, who venture out on thirty foot ribs, powered by water-jet engines. It's a thrill seeker's paradise, but it is usually done in the daytime when the tides are much smaller and there is safety cover to hand. Paddling out before dawn in a ten foot plastic boat, is a different prospect. It is an entirely different experience too.

Certainly, the kayakers have come to test themselves against the power of the water, to feel their adrenaline rise with the tide - but that is only part of the story. For in the early morning, as the light slowly fills the sky and the roar of the water subsides into white noise, this is a silent, spiritual place. I was once there when the sea was so calm it held the reflections like a painting, the horizon of the over-fall melting into an infinite sky. A bull seal watched me from the eddy, boils of water turning me in endless circles round his huge dog-like head. All around me was elemental chaos, and yet I barely noticed.

In my late twenties and early thirties I paddled the Bitches hundreds of times. It was the reason I first came to Pembrokeshire; I learned to roll a kayak there; it was where I saw my first sunfish; I made life-long friends of my kayaking partners; eventually I bought a house nearby. I once went there with local expert Andrew Middleton - we were alone that day, but nothing could go wrong, could it? Except I capsized and on rolling up I somehow managed to slice open my nose with my paddle, nearly fainting from the rush of blood; Andrew nursed me back, all the while reassuring me it was only a scratch. We laughed afterwards. Good times.

Debs and her friends return mid morning. Their sleeping bags and mats are still strewn over the floor; after a tidy up, they join me for a late breakfast in the garden. Geraint and another Deborah had travelled most of the previous night to be here; they'd had three hours sleep before I heard them leaving before dawn. Andy and Cat were glowing as they recalled the early morning light and the power of the waves. Their chatter reminded me of when I was younger, though they are all of them much better paddlers than ever I was.

Andy asks me if I still go out in my boat. Not often I tell him, explaining that the pull of children and family is pretty hard to square with the demands of serious kayaking. He is a marine architect working in Southampton, which he describes as 'not the best place for white-water', adding that his life is 'all week in the office and weekends on the motorway.' He talks eloquently of the tension between pursuing his career and a yearning for greater freedom, the time to pursue his dreams. It is a tension I knew well at his age.

Geraint asks if I want to paddle that evening; I'd be fine he tells me, the skills would soon come back. Debs kindly offers to watch by me. 'We can go out at flat water,' she says 'before the tide turns.' I am tempted to accept, to sod it all and take a chance. But then I weigh up the odds, and think of the consequences, and remember too that it is the equinox...

I am touched by their generosity but politely decline. 'Are you sure?' Geraint asks, one last time. I nod, and am happy with my choice, knowing that for me the tide turned a good few years ago.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Sometimes it's the snatched opportunities that we remember most. Trips we plan too carefully often fail to meet our expectations, leaving us deflated and wondering why we made the effort. When I think back it is often the chance encounters that are most vivid in my memory.

And so it was last weekend. I'd planned to go backpacking with Daniel, mapping out a route over the Beacons, researching a wild campsite – I'd even packed his rucksack. 'I don't fancy that route,' he said, just before we were due to leave. 'It's too far and too high, can't we go somewhere different?' We'd already had a row – typical teenage lounging as everyone else was getting about the morning – it was midday by now and I was keen to be off. 'We could go to the Doethie valley, but it's a bit of a drive to get there.' Excellent he said, I can sleep in the car.

The Afon Doethie rises in the southern hills of the Elenydd, falling steeply into the wider curves of the upper the Towy near Llandovery. The Towy is a favourite with picnickers, who splash in the gravel beds, much to the annoyance of fishermen casting their lines into silent pools. A few miles upstream the Doethie valley marks the end of the road; the only way onward by foot or horseback. At its head, only five miles distant, the valley joins the high plateau of hills above Soar y Mynydd and the Llyn Brianne dam. Anyone wanting a pick up would need to persuade a driver to make a thirty mile diversion to meet them over the watershed.

We started our walk here, it was late afternoon and we were hoping to make camp by a copse of oak trees that I knew to have flat ground. When we arrived, there were jays in the trees, being harried by what looked like large hawks, though I wasn't certain. It was early and we decided to carry on, reaching the track to Soar y Mynydd as the sun began to dip into the horizon. From here we walked to the old youth hostel at Ty'n Cornel, once an isolated farm accessible only by the drove road from Llanddewi Brefi. I love this place, rescued from closure by the Elenyndd Trust, it is the best and most remote hostel in Wales. The volunteer wardens, Mark and Bronwen, greeted us with traditional northern hospitality, 'Would you like cup o tea?' We would, and we decided to camp in the hostel garden.

The hostel has a small snug; there is one conversation and you either join in or bugger off. We started the evening as strangers, sitting round the fire, and as so often happens you realise it's a small world. Bronwen was studying creative writing and Mark told me story of how he and a friend had once walked four miles to a pub in Pembrokeshire only to find it had shut up shop the week before. That pub is next door to my house, and I vaguely remember two blokes sitting on the wall one evening and their disappointment as I told them they'd be waiting a long time if they wanted a pint.

As we retired to the tent the sky was alight with stars; I could see the Andromeda galaxy, the Milky Way a thick band from horizon to horizon, the occasional meteor falling through Leo. The tent was thick with dew, and we snuggled into our bags leaving the door open to the night. 'I like it here,' Daniel said, and fell asleep.

Next morning we packed and ate breakfast with our new friends; a woodpecker joined us on terrace, picking at the nuts in a feeder. Some of the hostelers were off home, one chap was walking to Dolgoch, the other hostel run by the trust – it is lit by gas lamps and has a church organ in the sitting room. We would retrace our steps, descending with the river to the car near Rhandirmwyn. Not a cloud above us, the bracken damp and smelling of earth; two ravens sat on the oak trees where the jays had been. It was swift walk; Daniel strode ahead of me, leaping over the pools and squelchy ground; his back now as broad as mine, his body chiseled and hard. The river, young too at this height, cascades its way over rocks and drops, foaming and turning, gouging in haste to reach the flatter landscape.

I walked the last miles some way behind Daniel, enjoying the silence, the company of the river. As I stopped to drink the peaty water a dragonfly rested on my arm, its huge eyes watching me, daring me to move. It followed me for a while, attracted I think by the colour of my rucksack, until I reached the road at Troedyrhiw farm.

Daniel was waiting at the car, lying on the grass and looking at the sky. We had parked near the cave of Twm Shon Catti, the welsh Robin Hood. The legend says he lived in these hills before building a manor at Tregarron and becoming a pillar of society. I wonder if he ever returned – snatching a visit on days when the sun shone, the river tumbled through the autumn bracken and dragonflies hovered by the streams. There are few better places in Wales.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The artist at work

Ideal portrait - J Skinner

I have written before about my painting tutor John Skinner; he was one of the greatest influences on my life. Uncompromising, challenging to the point of being confrontational, he would scorn anything he saw as false or trivial. His biggest ire was reserved for those who sought recognition at the cost of integrity.

I was thinking about John and what he'd make of my writing, whether I'm as true to my ambitions as he encouraged me to be when painting. You have to accept failure he'd say, to be prepared to risk everything for the chance of success. If you know what you are going to paint, then it is merely craft; you must respond to the marks, developing from a notion, building it up layer on layer - but always holding onto the feeling; the underlying desire to communicate something that is beyond yourself.

John was talking about painting, but the process of writing is much the same. Most of what I write develops as I type - I had only a vague idea what I'd say as I started this post. I like this process, love it even; it keeps me sane in the madhouse of life. In some ways I envy those who don't feel that need, but I wouldn't change places, for it is worth the struggle.

I have a short film of John working and often play it to remind me of what I've written above. I found a version of it on youtube and I thought I would share the link. Notice how the painting changes as he works on it. Notice too the the scale of his ambition. Whether you like the painting or not is beside the point; it is the process that is important. Watching it today brought to mind how we often end up in a different place to where we had planned to be - and a good thing too, for life without surprises would be boring indeed.

Here is the link

The music is composed by his son.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fair's fair

Whitesands-M Charlton, 2000

For some time I've been considering writing about the ideas that interest me; the kind of problems I spend hours pondering in my study. I've been putting it off, not because they're especially difficult, but for fear they'd be so dull that I'd lose my followers. Then Dylan said something that made me change my mind.

The other day my older boys were discussing an incident which had happened at school. They felt an injustice had been done to a friend and we got to talking about what was fair and what wasn't. Suddenly Dylan interrupted our chatter with, 'Being fair is easy; it's what you'd like to happen if you didn't know who you were.'

I was stunned. Not just because this is a pretty sophisticated idea for a four year old. But also because it is about the neatest summary of John Rawls' Theory of Justice that I've heard since I studied it at university. That the idea should be so intuitive to a toddler perhaps explains why it has been so influential, even though you may never have heard of John Rawls.

Rawls' believes that we are all self interested; no matter how hard we might try to be 'objective' we just can't do it - we are always influenced by our own experiences and perceptions - with the best will in the world we are all biased to some extent. How then, can we ever decide what is fair and what isn't?

He proposes that the best way is to put ourselves in a position where we have to decide the rules before we know exactly who we are. If that sounds strange, here's how it might work...

Imagine you are abducted by aliens. They bundle you into their space-ship and zoom off to a new planet. On the way, they explain (they are friendly aliens after all) that this new planet will be exactly like ours: it will have an economy, rich people, poor people, culture, the usual divisions - in every respect, just like the world you came from. And it's going to be your job to decide the rules of fairness - of justice - which govern this new planet. The great thing, they explain, is that whatever you decide, is what everybody will accept as normal, fair and reasonable.

What an opportunity! The aliens say you can chose any rule you want - indeed, they encourage you to maximise your personal advantage; after all they picked you out as someone special.

So, for example, if it were me they had abducted, I might chose a rule that says middle class men with balding hair should be treated as kings. Or that my sons should be given special privileges at school and work. For a few billion miles, as the spaceship heads through the galaxies, I might ponder all the riches I could have.

But as I near the destination the aliens explain there is a problem with their 'people transporter'. I have to chose the rules before I leave the spaceship, but they can't be certain exactly how or where I will arrive. I'll certainly get there in one piece, but I might arrive as a man or a woman, white or black, rich or poor, disabled or able bodied,a smoker or not... Given this technical hiccup they suggest, I might want to reconsider those rules that I've previously chosen?

Damn it! There goes my plans for a life of luxury. My problem is that I want to maximise my advantage, but I don't know who the heck I am going to be. Rawls calls this situation the veil of ignorance (am I getting boring here?). And in this situation, he says the rational thing for me to do, is to chose the rules that are the fairest for everyone. Only by being fair to everyone can I make sure that I won't be unfairly treated when I arrive. It's pretty clever when you think about it.

You might say that's an interesting story, but what relevance does it have to the real world? People aren't being abducted by aliens and you already know who you are.

Well, you don't need to be abducted to conceptualise a similar situation. What rules would you have chosen for South Africa in the Sixties if you didn't know what colour you would be when you arrived? What rules would you determine for European immigration if you didn't know your nationality? What rules for religious tolerance if you didn't know your faith? The same for private education, tax rates, subsidies to the arts or science...? It's an interesting, and sometimes sobering, filter to apply to many of our thoughts on what is fair and what isn't

To complete the story, its worth mentioning that Rawls carried out a series of controlled experiments, (in a more sophisticated version of the story I outlined above), asking people to decide what the rules of fairness should be. What did they chose?

There was a surprising level of agreement on four things:

- That there should be no 'free riders' - people who sit outside of the rules
- That there should be 'true' equality of opportunity - and that means some extra help for those worst off
- That positions and progress should be open to all, and awarded on merit - the merit point is key
- That the richest people should only be allowed to get richer, providing that by doing so they also benefit those less fortunate than themselves.

Some of these conclusions are more controversial than others; the point is, they were what was chosen by a wide range of people. It is interesting, I think, to apply them to our problems today - consider the last one in relation to third world poverty, for example.

I often ask myself if it is fair to do this or that, how to respond when there are competing demands on time or resources. The answers are seldom straight forward, and there are many other theories we might follow to reach a conclusion. But I think Rawls' approach is a good starting point, and one that we instinctively grasp. As Dylan succinctly said, 'It's what you'd like to happen if you didn't know who you were.'

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Books I'm reading # 4

I've not been reading a great deal lately, but what I have managed has been good.

Starting with my Sony Reader, I found you can buy a cover with an inbuilt light; it works well and I can read long after Jane has dropped off with her book open on the duvet. I've said before the real problem with the reader is that there are few good books available to buy in the e-format; this probably says something about my taste, but at least it means I've started to read some old classics.

So after years of watching the Muppet's take-off on DVD, I finally read Treasure Island. I'm not generally a fan of novels with a strong narrative, but I loved it. Who couldn't like a book with the line, 'Many's the night I've dreamt of cheese, toasted mostly.' (Ben Gunn). I'm currently reading Robinson Crusoe which I'm enjoying too - though we all know the story, in fact, not a lot happens for large sections of the book, which is generally how I like it.

Alain de Botton has improved immensely as a writer. His latest book The pleasures and Sorrows of Work is a wry look at the modern workplace and should be required reading for pratty 'development managers' the world over. The Architecture of Happiness is less immediately funny, but it is immaculately researched and packed full of intelligence. In Britain, we have become obsessed with housing as an investment; de Botton helps us to look at architecture from other perspectives and we come away richer in a different sense.

Thirty years ago my university tutor said to me, 'If you want to understand Communism, don't bother with the text books, read Arthur Koestler's, Darkness at Noon'. I did, and thought it was brilliant, so it is strange that I've reading nothing else by him since. Scum of the Earth deals with the early days of Hitler's attack on France. Koestler's description of his incarceration as a political alien and his reflections on the reasons underlying the French collapse are documentary writing at its best. But the second half of the book is largely an edited reprint of his journal, with huge sections deleted for reasons of privacy - it didn't quite work. Nonetheless, compelling in parts.

My work colleagues bought me Kurt Hamsun's, Hunger for my birthday. Not sure what that tells me, but it sure is an excellent book. A young writer is slowly starving; he must eat to live and yet he 'feeds' off his hunger to write. Hamsun was charged with being as a 'Quisling' (that was a new word to me) in his native Norway, for his support of the Nazi occupation - and his books were burned in public (some irony there). It raises the question of what importance we should place on the writer's life as opposed to their work; Koestler too has been postumastly dubbed a misogynist and rapist.

Emyr Humphreys', Old People are a Problem is a collection of short stories set in twenty first century Wales. Humphreys is a much underrated writer, or perhaps I should say he deserves to be better known, for he gets significant critical acclaim. The short stories are not his best work, but they are a good take on Wales and a particularly modern problem.

How to Drink, a liquid cookery book by by Victoria Moore. I liked the idea behind this book; it is (I'm sure deliberately) not dissimilar to Nigella Lawson's, How to Eat, being as much discussion and information about drink as about the recipes. And it's more than cocktails too; how to make the prefect iced coffee for example. A great Christmas present for those people who are hard to buy for - at least I'd have liked it, but then I've gone and bought it already...

And finally, Ocean by Phillip Plisson, an out and out coffee table book. Plisson is best known for his photographs of lighthouses, particularly those off the coast in Brittany. Ocean has a wider range, but the images are equally breathtaking - a book to linger over, a glass of scotch in hand, the wind driving the salty rain into the walls of my house by the sea.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Genius at work

One of my favourite blogs isn't a proper blog at all. It is the Orwell Prize, the first on-line publishing of George Orwell's personal journal. Each entry is released exactly seventy years to the day he wrote it - his life and the world around him, gradually unfolding. It is an extraordinary read.

For months the diary covered little more than his kitchen garden, recording the progress of flowers, vegetables and chickens. Typically he'd write: dug a patch for the leeks, gave liquid manure to the Larkspurs; planted Godetias. 12 eggs (4 small). Orwell seems obsessed with his chickens, recording their broody moods, egg production, the amount he sells and at at what price. Some days he simply writes: 12 eggs (1 small)

But in recent months (the daily publishing makes it seem contemporary) he has also recorded the build up to war. In the entry which follows the one above he writes with equal calm: Invasion of Poland began this morning. Warsaw bombed. General mobilization proclaimed in England, ditto in France plus martial law.

This is typical of Orwell, recording his mundane chores alongside world changing events, the banality of his domestic life contrasting with profound observation of the wider world. Part of Orwell's genius was to pass comment as if he were an innocent outsider - giving the impression of a naive wisdom, and tricking us into believing we might have had the same insight.

In fact, the diary is steeped in careful scrutiny. His recording of the build up to war is meticulous; sources noted, newspaper articles appended, due consideration given to other nations besides Britain. Similarly his garden diary records the seasons and the nature of his district: Blackberries are ripening... many Finches beginning to flock.

Seventy years ago last Tuesday he recorded the British Declaration of War. There is an irony that after following events so diligently he misses the broadcast. I found the transcript on Google, it is worth reading in full, but the extract below illustrates well enough:

We and France are today, in fulfilment of our obligations, going to the aid of Poland... and now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will play your part with calmness and courage...

By Thursday, Orwell has returned to his home after travelling to London. He writes, 'returning to Wallington after 10 days absence find weeds are terrible. Turnips good & some carrots have now reached a very large size. Runner beans fairly good. The last lot of peas did not come to much...

There is something about the juxtaposition of the two worlds that fascinates and moves me. I think it's because my life is so far removed from either of their concerns. If I need eggs or carrots, I go to the supermarket; military conflicts are generally distant, experienced through a TV screen or the Internet. The tone of the British Declaration is from a world beyond my comprehension. I can't imagine a general mobilisation, or how I'd feel if my sons were called up to fight. And yet I know all this happened a mere fifteen years before I was born - and more than that, both of Orwell's concerns (food and war) are still the dominant fears in the world today. Orwell's diaries remind me how lucky I am.

I can't think of a contemporary equivalent to Orwell. At his best, Tim Garton Ash can write with great intelligence and liberalism of thought - but not with Orwell's range or skill. There are others who have written of the same events with the benefit of hindsight and detailed research (Jonathan Glover's, Humanity, a moral history of the twentieth century is a stunning work that comes to mind) - but that is different to writing 'live' and recording the world as it changes around you.

My friend Sara once said to me that Orwell gets better with time; it's only now that we realise just how good a writer he was. I agree. Oddly enough I'm not a huge fan of his most famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm; I prefer his essays and documentary writing. And his diaries too are fascinating insight into genius at work.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pets - the last chapter

Jumbo, 1940 - 2005 (ish)

In my last post on pets I mentioned the sad tale of our much loved tortoise. We acquired Jumbo from a friend who emigrated to New Zealand; she in turn had inherited him from her Grandmother - we estimated that Jumbo was sixty years old.

Everyone loved Jumbo, even our neighbours, who turned out in force when he went on one of his great escapes - it became quite a social event; once it took us two days to find him. When we did, he was strolling merrily along the pavement towards Sainsbury's.

We built him a stronger and higher pen after that - but he foxed us by digging his way out! So I built him 'Colditz pen': wire mesh top, deep sides, overhangs for shade, reinforced corners. We even took it to Pembroke so he could be with us for the summer. But ultimately, it was this act of care - and his determined escapology - that was his undoing.

Not only did Jumbo escape from Colditz pen in Pembrokeshire, he also scaled a three foot stone wall, made his way through a tightly wired fence and headed for freedom in the fields beyond our house. Boy, did we search those fields! Day after week after month after year... For a while we thought he would be okay; we even reckoned he might have survived the winters. But when the pipes froze last January even the boys decided it was a bit much to ask.

Jane has carried the guilt for years - for it was she who moved the pen nearer to the wall before he escaped - and if you think I'm joking, I'm not; like I said, everyone loved Jumbo. For the last five years any mention of the word tortoise in our house has involved hushed tones and eyes to the floor.

Or at least, that was the case up to yesterday. Because, what else do you buy a forty eight year-old blogger for his birthday? I suppose it's obvious, when you think about it.

So welcome to Lilly, our new Horsfield Tortoise. She is all of four inches long, very feisty, a touch frisky and definitely well enclosed in her luxury home. In fact, I rather like her cage myself: sun lamp, shady area, plunge pool, green salad on demand...

I could get all philosophical, because I was pondering how odd it is to buy a pet that you know will probably out live you. Who, for instance, should I leave her to after I'm gone? They might emigrate and give her away to a friend, and then just think what might happen? But I won't go down that line, because it would be silly.

So I promise that's the end of my series on pets.

No more; absolutely no more, ever...I said, ever...