Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cutting back

Last spring I was preparing for a bike ride that would take me across the UK from Aberystwyth to Great Yarmouth. And on my training route I'd always cycle a particular lane - it had the most fabulous hedges, all overgrown and shady and bursting with wildlife. I saw a bullfinch there in March, a hare lolloping down a side track, brimstone butterflies right into summer - when I returned in the autumn the hedge was heavy with sloes.

On Saturday I was back on my bike, starting my training for another charity ride (you'll hear more about that in another post). I was looking forward to that lane; indeed, as I approached it I was thinking how, when passing through much of the middle of England, it was the hedgerows I'd liked best. Throughout the ride, there'd been pretty much a direct correlation between bushes and birdsong - I remember commenting as much to one of my colleagues.

So I was in light mood as I pressed on the pedals and into Common Road. Only the day before there'd been goldcrests in my garden, long tailed tits on the silver birch and a blackcap on the forsythia. The warmer weather was hinting at spring - perhaps that bullfinch would be there again - or a flock of yellow hammer? There was a sharp cerulean sky.

Some people might think it peculiar that a little bit of hedge trimming could conjure any sadness. After all, it's only a few gnarly trees - overgrown bushes really.  Didn't I read somewhere that it's good for certain species if the lanes are kept in order?  And doesn't pruning make the trees more robust in the long run?

It's true that pruning makes the hedges thicker.  And cutting every few years, even quite severely, is probably better for wildlife than annual trimming. For every summer of growth it's estimated two additional bird species will come to nest - so cutting less frequently is a good idea.  On the other hand, there are butterflies which only lay eggs on new growth and many birds prefer low hedges - for these species, regular trimming is what's needed. The ideal is to prune every three years in careful rotation, ensuring no area  is reduced too severely at any one time.

But all that is clearly too much hassle for the farmer on Common Road. I reckon it was ten years since he last cut those hedges (ironically quite good) - and when the time came that something had to be done, he wasn't going to be worried about the niceties of yellow hammers or bullfinches. Judging by the results of his mechanical flail I don't reckon he's bothered about much in nature at all. He's not only cut the thinner growth, he's slashed the nearby trees, splintered the blackthorn into shards, even smashed his own fences. In all, he reduced the hedge by over six feet.

I know most of it will grow back; I know that Common Road isn't a conservation imperative, and I know it probably looks worse than it is. But there's something quite brutal about all this. Something that doesn't feel right - a sense that with just a little more care, it would have made such a difference.  As it is, there'll be less birdsong on my training rides this spring, and I guess this autumn I'll be going elsewhere for sloes.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Past imperfect 8 - the God question.

 My first book of philosophy. 

The first book of popular philosophy I read was Bertrand Russell's, Why I am not a Christian. It is still in print and remains one of the best summaries of why we should reject religious dogma. Russell's contemporary equivalents - Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling - are all writing in his shadow.

Not that they should be ignored. Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is an exemplar of applied logic and ought, in my view, to be a standard text of any critical reasoning syllabus. Christopher Hitchen's God Is Not Great would be a strong contender for additional reading; his litany of the inhumane consequences of religion is as breathtaking as it is horrifying. 

It therefore won't surprise you to learn I'm an atheist, and have been since I read Russell's essay at the age of eighteen.  I've never flirted with agnosticism because I'm not a fence sitter, and in any case it's largely atheism in disguise. For all my adult life I've held to this view and not been so much as mildly persuaded there's any evidence to the contrary.  

Yet for all this, I've always been fascinated by some of the great themes of religion: what constitutes the good life, what gives it meaning, and how should we treat others? Much of the philosophy I studied was concerned with ethics and justice -  not a far cry from the central concerns of many creeds. I share with many religions a reverence to the natural world, and can feel awed at the enormity, the inexplicably of it all. In a way I'd 'like' to be religious; to discover answers to these ultimate questions; to have a  sense of purpose and a belief system that is simpler and more reassuring than the vagaries of humanism.

The problem is I can't bring myself to overlook what I see as religion's conflict with everyday reason. The literal beliefs of all the great mono-theistic religions strike me as ludicrous and the modern interpretive versions as equally unconvincing and at times rather desperate attempts to maintain the faith. On the subject of which, I can't accept that 'faith' is in any way compatible with, or an acceptable alternative to, the logic we expect and exercise in almost every other aspect of our lives.  I am in short, a post Darwin rationalist. 

I have other misgivings too, in particular the exalted status we give to religion in society. Last week's judgement that town councils should not begin their working sessions with prayers seems to me to be entirely right (imagine if we did this at the office). I have profound misgivings about the teaching of biblical stories in primary school and I cannot agree that religious education should be taught in a way that disavows criticism. Contemporary wisdom is that all beliefs should be respected - imagine taking that approach to physics!  I could go on, but none of these are matters of faith.

It would also risk the impression that I'm hoping to convert you to my stance, which is truly not my aim.  Rather I'm trying to explain why I feel as I do. To put into words why, when I see the Alpha Course advertised at our local church, I rail at it's claim to be a genuine enquiry. To declare my incredulity at a friend who recently explained she'd not read The God Delusion because her faith made it irrelevant. To shed light on why, try as I might, I find it so difficult to understand those who are comfortable with faith.

And yet...

And yet...  a high percentage of the most interesting, caring, humanitarian people I know are religious. Many of my friends are either committed or deeply interested in matters of faith - our discussions are always challenging and engaging; I admire them for their enquiry if not their conclusions and certainly respect that they are seeking answers just as I always have. What's more I find their value set is almost invariably closer to mine than most secular others.  For all Hitchens and Dawkins bemoan the historical consequences of religions, when you bring it down to an individual level it is seldom threatening. In general - fundamentalists and strident evangelicals aside - I rather like people who have faith.

What's more, the vast majority of my religious friends are highly intelligent - people who in other aspects of life are an inspiration and influence on my views. What is it, I often wonder, they see that I don't? What is it I am missing? I may have held my views since reading Russell's essay, but if they could only help me here, I'd be delighted to change.  Perhaps surprisingly, it is their very faith which is my only chink of doubt on the entire God question.

Except of course, the imperfections of personal logic, especially when applied by our self-interested and inadequate intellects - I'm well aware that the goal of objectivity is more of a dream than a realisable state. At its most slippery, rationality becomes rhetoric.

But for all this I believe reason is the best we have - to be applied by each of us, to the best of our ability, with humanity and generosity, but without compromise. Bertrand Russell was a long way from flawless, but the essence of his message remains true to me, and has shaped my thinking - albeit imperfectly - for all my adult life.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Collections 17 - end of day fish

My grandmother used to display glass fish in a cocktail cabinet; next to frosted whiskey glasses and souvenirs from seaside holidays. There were figurines from Spain (though she'd never been) and a resin cast of two hands holding a book inscribed with a poem titled Mother. At the bottom of the cabinet were two drawers of  assorted 'treasures' - I remember a half packet of cigarettes marked with the date she'd smoked her last.

I adored my paternal grandparents. My grandfather was blind and crippled with arthritis; my grandmother stricken with 'nerves' and, until she gave up, constantly puffing on Embassy Virginia. They'd lived through two wars, the great depression, and even seen Newcastle win the FA Cup: a generation gap that's almost unknown today. But for all they were of a different era, they could sense enough of our world to know things weren't right at home. As a teenager I'd cycle to their house on a Saturday - or midweek in the holidays  - and they'd be complicit in the secret when I visited with my father on Sunday mornings.

So my Grandparents' house was a place of refuge - emotionally and sometimes physically. And you know, I think that's why I like glass fish - they remind me of that cocktail cabinet, and how important that house was to my childhood.  I can't think of another reason. For glass fish are rather ugly, most of them of the same designs; they're seldom worth more than a tenner and sell at car boots for pence.

Yet I have boxes of them. To be honest, most of them are in the loft and it's sometime since I payed for any or was given one as a gift. People used to do that when we first bought our cottage in Wales; that was the height of my fish collecting phase. And it's probably not coincidental that my grandfather used to say he dreamed of living in a cottage, of being close to nature - even if he did see it in idealised terms and would have quickly missed his Wallsend council house. Our cottage had a Fifties feel to it then, so I suppose the fish fitted the decor too.

But there's another connection - and I've never told anyone this - I once broke one of my grandmother's fishes. As I waited for a belt round the ear she picked up the shards, rearranged the figurines and gave me a hug - never mind she said, there's more treasures in the drawers. That behaviour would be nothing special now; but at the time it was to me astonishing, and I remember lying awake and thinking how I might find her a replacement.

I never did do that. Though I still have two fish on display in my cottage. They're made of the speckled glass that is known as 'end of day', after the practice of using up the last of the molten pot to create unusual objects at the end of a shift. Later it became a general term for designs that were flecked with colour, the result of rolling glass specks into a clear mixture. I suppose I like the idea that many of these are improvised pieces; I like too their unpretentiousness and to some extent the way they border on kitsch.

I doubt I'll collect any more fish - and frankly the ones in the loft ought to be ebayed for charity. But I'll always keep a few. And just this week I took one down, to place in a bookcase, next to some worthless yet priceless treasures of my own.