Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lamenting the past; changing the future

A walk on the beach - good place to think. M. Charlton

Time for another pondering. This one's a little harder to get your head round, but I promise it gets more interesting and relevant as it goes along. Stick with it and hopefully you'll see what I mean.

There have been lots of occasions for remembrance this year: in July, the last surviving soldier to see service in the First World War died; in September it was the 60 years since the end of World War II; in two weeks time it will be 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down. Each, in its way, giving us cause to reflect on the more terrible events of the Twentieth Century.

It is common to hear people say these events 'should never have happened'; sometimes they go so far as, 'I wish it had never happened.' We understand the sentiment behind these words, but if you stand back a moment they are fraught with difficulty.

Let's take an example to illustrate - the First World War - and let's imagine you had the supernatural power to go back in time and change events. It might seem obvious that you ought to do everything possible to avoid the human suffering, to stop that terrible war from ever having started. But pause a moment before you raise your magic wand?

The First World War was undoubtedly human slaughter on a grand scale. But consider my question carefully, would you actually chose to change history? Before you decide, consider that altering history will always have an impact on the present. Or putting it more directly, if that terrible war had never taken place, it is a dead certainty that you would not be here now reading this blog - and neither would your children be alive or your grandchildren too. Do you still want to wave your wand?

The First World War may have been a terrible event, but it led to changes in society which led to your grandparents meeting, and later your mum meeting your dad, and the rest, as they say, is history... To answer my own question directly, I would not stop that war happening even if I had the power to do so; I love my own children too much.

Of course, when people say they wished that such and such an event 'had never happened', they don't mean it in quite that literal sense. They merely express their sadness at its consequences; and aside from anything else, they know they cannot go back and change history. So isn't this just a game of words - the kind of academic puzzle which only philosophers enjoy?

Well, not quite. Because if you apply the same principles to the future it gets more interesting, and it can take you to some unexpected and perhaps uncomfortable conclusions.

Take, for example, the contemporary issue of global warming. We all know that we need to do something about the environment before it is too late. If we don't there will be terrible consequences for future generations; people will die, the world will be a lesser place...

But hold on a moment. What if we took only minimal action to reduce carbon emissions; what if the earth heated up and we saw large scale climate change? How then would future generations look back on us? I suggest they would view the past much as we do the First World War - they would lament our folly, but unless their life was so terrible as to not be worth living, they would not logically want events to have actually been different.

The philosopher Jonathan Glover acknowledges this is a serious problem. For if we take this view to it's conclusion it suggests that there is no moral consequence to the actions we take today. Whatever the state of the environment we leave for future generations they would choose to keep it, because to change the past would mean - putting it bluntly - that they personally, would not be alive.

And yet this is so counter-intuitive - on this basis we would take no action at all.

The solution says Glover - and you may have got there already - is that we have to think about 'conceptual' people rather than 'real' people. We know the real people of the future - the people who actually exist in, say, 200 years time - would choose to leave the past unchanged no matter what we do. We know too that whatever actions we take today will affect which real people are born in the future. But Glover says it is not our responsibility to try and chose between different sets of real people who may or may not be born - frankly, we can't do that. Rather, he says it is our responsibility is to maximise the conditions for human flourishing, whoever those people may be.

In a sense what he is saying is blindingly obvious; we should try to make the future a better place - a place where people's well-being is maximised, where there opportunities for a rich and fulfilled life are the best they can be. That is what we all would want isn't it?

But the idea of maximising human flourishing can take us to some uncomfortable places when we apply it to areas that are more controversial than the environment. Glover, for example, discusses all of this in the context of the genetic engineering of children. His book, Choosing Children, is not an easy read, but I suggest it is worth a look by anyone going through the traumas of IVF or genetic issues associated with conception.

If we agree that our obligation to future generations is to maximise human flourishing, then where does this leave us with regard to engineering the genetics of individuals? There is widespread concern over technical advances in this area - we may shortly have the power to influence the genes of our children and yet progress towards this is strongly resisted in some quarters. But leaving aside religious objections, on what grounds can we deny, say, the development of techniques to improve intelligence or physical well-being? Surely these would improve human flourishing too? And this is just the start of our moral dilemmas.

Glover describes a particularly difficult case of a profoundly deaf couple who wanted to ensure their child had the best possible upbringing - and so decided they would like to engineer it to be born deaf! Their reasoning was that they were better placed as parents to bring up a deaf child, and that the benefits of their empathetic nurturing would outweigh any disadvantage of deafness - indeed, the child, when grown, would not logically wish to change their disability, just as we do not logically wish to alter the events of the First World War.

The case above is arguable either way, but there are many less controversial genetic interventions we could make, which, for the present, the law prevents us. There are also the equally difficult cases, such as those involving judgements about whether or not to abort a genetically abnormal foetus. Glover's point is that we need something to help guide us in these decisions - something beyond the individuals who will (or will not) be born as a result of the decisions we take. We need this because we know that the individuals of the future would not wish to change whatever decisions we made. His suggestion is that thinking in terms of 'human flourishing' is our best guide to a profoundly complex moral problem.

So it is interesting, I think, how one thought leads to another - and how apparently obvious principles are not quite so straight forward when applied in different circumstances. And though we might think it all very high brow - there are times when such decisions will affect us all. It is conceptual thinking which helps us through this maze. And a starting point, I think the idea of human flourishing, is a good one.

In concluding this piece I ought to make some things clear. I hope it is obvious that I do not think any less of the horrors of the past than the next person. Nor am I taking any particular stance in relation to abortion or genetic engineering. I have a particular interest in IVF because it touched me personally, but beyond that I am interested only in how we find our way through these issues. It seems to me that Glover has something valuable to offer, and that it is worthy of careful consideration. I hope you found it interesting too.

After thoughts

Reading this piece aloud to someone they said, 'The only thing I don't quite follow is why I wouldn't be alive if the First World War hadn't happened.' It occurred to me that this conclusion may not be as entirely obvious as I thought.

When you think about it, many lesser events could have led to you not being here; if your parents hadn't met at that dance, or they hadn't gone to bed early that night... Of course, someone else might be here instead , someone very similar - but not YOU!

We are all a consequence of the past - both the world changing events and the apparently inconsequential choices made by others. The First World War was merely an example of a terrible event which we might wish to have changed - I could have chosen others further back in time.

It comes back again to the real you, as opposed to the conceptual you - the person who might have been born had events turned out differently. It is odd that in the relation to the present we have a clear obligation to the former and can judge the consequences fairly straightforwardly, but in relation to future generations it is much, much more difficult.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Earlier this year I wrote a post about a book on backpacking that I found again after many years of searching. When I first bought the book, aged 19, it had inspired me into the outdoors and in some small way was responsible for one of the better turns in my life. It was the writing too that had touched me and I wondered, whatever had happened to its author, Derrick Booth ?

Two months later I received the following email.

My Dear Mark

I am still alive and looking 82 in the teeth. But I can still appreciate the remaining crumbs of joy that fall off the table of life, such as the chance discovery of your blog. I am mostly blind and use every tool that technology affords me to shuffle through whatever life can offer me. A stroke robbed me of the use of my right hand, and I rely on a four-wheeled walker for my morning turn around the park.

When I wrote Backpackers Handbook while commuting on the train to Fleet Street from Felixstowe each working day as news editor of The Engineer I practised what I preached and refined my mantra of weight reduction of my pack and ignored my corpus! I now live in Sunnyvale, California, so please connect.

Many thanks. Derrick Booth

Wow! I spend ten years looking for a book and within a few weeks of writing on my blog, I get an email from the author. I wrote back to Derrick, thanking him for his message and, more importantly, for his book. Then the summer came and I didn't give it much more thought.

It was a strange summer; for the first time our elder boys wanted to spend time in Wiltshire rather than Wales. There were less camping trips too, less days walking together, less enthusiasm to be out with Mum and Dad - all this a symptom of their gradual growing up and away from us - quite right too, but it left me at a bit of a loose end. So I decided to join the Backpackers Club, and earlier this month I went for a weekend trip on the Marlborough Downs.

I arrived at the campsite mid afternoon. A chap called John was pitched in the spot next to mine; he had a minuscule tent and was brewing some tea whilst lying on what appeared to be an equally miniature yellow lilo. You look comfy, I suggested, hoping to strike up a conversation. 'I should be,' he replied. 'This is a NeoAir. It weighs only 260 grammes and has an insulation value of 2.5,' he shifted his weight on the gossamer thin mattress. I must have looked suitably interested because he went on. 'Biggest weight saving I've made since I bought this,' he pointed to his stove. 'It's a Pocket Rocket - less than 80 grammes and very stable. Pretty impressive, eh?'

Now, it would be easy to write a quirky piece about the way everyone I met was obsessed with their equipment. Like Baz who spent the nights under a nylon tarpaulin as way of carrying even less weight than the others; or Rambling Jay who waxed lyrical in the pub about the merits of her twig burning cooker. I could also tell you funny stories about the people. Like Mick, a postman whose hobby of backpacking struck me as somewhat of a busman's holiday; or John, of the aforementioned Neo-Air, who joked that his titanium pegs cost more than his nephew's entire camping equipment.

But I won't, because returning to John's description of the stove, the truth is, I WAS impressed.

All hobbies have their enthusiasts with a passion bordering on obsession - and often an accompanying language that outsiders find inscrutable. In this respect the backpackers I met were no different to many fishermen, or kayakers, or poets for that matter. I like people who have these sorts of enthusiasms. I admire their their desire to do things well, and to some extent, their bloody-minded refusal to conform and pass it all off as a joke. It is often that passion and obsession which drives them to do special things.

And so it was on the weekend. It turned out that Rambling Jay was returning to the outdoors after many years raising her children. She used her twig burning stove as a means of engaging with the socially disadvantaged children she worked with - they like making fires, she told me. As we walked along the Pewsey Downs she revealed she'd once been a kayaker and her last big trip had been to the Yukon delta, kayaking in search of whales.

There were people from all backgrounds; friendly, open, passionate and as mad as hatters the lot of them. A couple I met, at least as old as me, were regulars at orienteering in the mountains. 'We're not so good at the 20k mountain runs anymore,' they said. Twenty kilometres!

I could go on, but I have to cut it somewhere. So I'll finish by telling you about Baz.

I got talking to Baz at the halfway pub. He'd recently returned from a wild camping trip to the Picos de Europa, a place I've long wanted to visit but never quite got round to organising. He writes a blog too - and good one. I mentioned mine and my post about Derrick Booth. 'You mean the Backpacker's Handbook? I've got a copy of that. Brilliant book. It's in the club library you know. Best book on backpacking bar none - it was he who started all this lightweight stuff. And what a writer; reading him makes you want to get outside and walk!'

Anyone who knows anything about backpacking knows that minimising your load is as important to the lightweight camper as brakes and gears are to a bicycle. But the most important thing - the equivalent of the wheels, if you'll forgive me stretching the analogy - is a passion for the outdoors and a desire to experience it as simply as possible. That's what the obsession with equipment is really about - a means of carrying the minimum so you have less baggage in every sense.

Lying in my superlight tent after a hard day's walking I reflected again on Derrick Booth's email. What was it he had written? I use every tool technology affords me... as a means to ...whatever life can offer. And that, I think, is his most valuable legacy.


Post script

I'd enjoyed the weekend immensely, but back at home my back hurt from carrying such a heavy pack. Maybe, I should get one of those NeoAir mattresses? After checking the price I decided it was best left for the Christmas list. On the other hand, those titanium tent pegs were not that expensive after all... aren't they lovely.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Clearing the decks

Left handed life drawing - M Charlton

I've been away from the bike shed for a few weeks so I have some catching up to do and promises to keep. It's strange how I feel the need to do this before I return to my usual introspective ramblings. It must be connected with the way I write; I like to clear the debris, to restore order with an empty desk and a 'to do' list which is ticked from top to bottom; only then can I sit peacefully at the computer.

It was the same when I painted. I would spend hours tidying my studio only to return it to chaos in a flurry of mark making - and then I'd scrub it clean again so I could start once more. This process is the exact opposite of one of my heroes, Francis Bacon, who could only work in a basement studio crammed with the detritus of his life - it has since been recreated in a Dublin gallery.

October is my busiest time of the year; an inbox full of memos, budgets to approve, the dreaded 'year end' and the writing of the company report - or more precisely, The Annual Report and Financial Statements. I spend hours finessing words and phrases - was it a good result, or merely solid? Perhaps we should say robust, or pleasing, or sound? In the end, results were in line with expectations... Quite whose is beside the point.

Business has a language all of its own. Apparently innocuous phrases carry hidden meanings; a word like progress, when used in certain contexts, can have a subtle nuance as impenetrable to outsiders as the Geordie slang I grew up with - and sometimes as dangerous to get wrong. It is the only time of year that my colleagues are much interested in the particularity of words. But ultimately it is tiring.

I think that is another reason why I stopped writing these last few weeks. My head was all of a spin, no time to clear the decks; it was overflowing with clichés - which, as you know, should be avoided like the plague. My problem was, I hadn't the energy . But no matter, it is clear now and time to move on.

I'm indebted to Sara who works with me on these things and to Colin who doesn't blog so can't have a link but whose black humour keeps us all sane - and to Deborah and Kerrie, my assistants and sometime blog followers. Thank you all.

On the subject of friends, thanks also to those who wrote or left comment asking where I was. And welcome to my new followers, I hope you find something of interest. I note that Jimmy Bastard has added his name to the list - I'm honoured. His blog, its title ostensibly a cliché, is loaded with meaning, though not at all like the city-speak I write for a living. Take a look.

I have a promise to keep to my friend Fiona Robyn who has recently published her new novel, Thaw. It tells the story of Ruth who is 32 and doesn't know if she wants to live to be 33 - she gives herself three months to decide... I met Fiona about eight years ago on a business course; she moved on and now has four books published - good for her, I say through gritted teeth.

Fiona is planning to publish Thaw as a blog, a month after it launches in paperback. She is looking for 1000 bloggers to help her promote the launch with a blogsplash. I promised to mention it here. Follow the links to find out what she plans and how you can help - she has some interesting tips for writers on her website too.

Another acquaintance is the award winning writer, Rory Maclean, currently researching his new book in Berlin. We'd lost touch for a while but recently caught up via his blog. He sent me a link to the astonishing picture below taken at a recent street party in the city.

Photo from Rory Maclean

It is even more astonishing to think the Berlin Wall came down twenty years ago. I read recently that its collapse marked 'the premature end of the twentieth century' - that seems an astute observation, though I'm less sure that much has changed on our side of the wall. It's hard to know which of Rory's books to recommend, though my favourite is the quiet and charming Falling for Icarus, the story of his quest to build a plane while living on Crete.

Photo from Rory Maclean

I am going to Wales tomorrow, back to Pembrokeshire, the sea, and hopefully to start writing again. I hear a Spoonbill has taken residence at Newport; the crows are certainly roosting at Lochmeyler; and the starlings - hundreds of thousands of them - are returning at dusk to their small copse under Plumstone Mountain. Everything in its place it seems, and just as it should be.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Collections 7 - Paintings by John Knapp-Fisher

The chapel goers - John Knapp-Fisher 1987

In the opening passage of his book, John Knapp-Fisher describes his approach to painting.

My work depends upon feeling for and involvement with the subject; the elimination of non-essentials, the use of pigment as an end in itself. That is, the quality of the painting or drawing must have a technical value regardless of the subject matter. These things cannot be dealt with by any rule of thumb.

These are wise words. Most serious painters will understand and have experienced what he means. Perhaps this is why I like his paintings so much, and have been collecting them, in a small way, for twenty years.

John lives and works from his studio in Croesgoch, only two miles from my house. He came here forty years ago and has gradually built his reputation so that he is now recognised as one of the finest painters in Wales. He is best known for dark, moody Pembrokeshire landscapes, often painted as nocturnes, the sky inked black and the buildings set like a stage - no coincidence he used to be a designer in the theatre.

But John's work has a much greater range. Though the style is always recognisable, he also paints townscapes, boats, the estuaries of Suffolk, the river Thames, and fish. Indeed, he's the best painter of fish I'm aware of and one of the few things I truly covet is one of his oil paintings of mackerel or pollack.

My collection is small - as are many of his paintings. I have half a dozen sketches and water colours, some of them painted before he came to Wales. I have some prints too - an easy present is always to buy me one of his images. And I have a stack of postcard reproductions, some of which I've framed. My father-in-law has a large original - I helped him chose it on the condition I could have it when he's gone - hopefully a long time yet.

Of course, I have a connection with the places he paints and this lies behind my interest, though not quite as you might expect. The vast majority of his subjects are of places within five miles of his studio and hence my house too. I find this inspiring; at a time when international travel has acquired an over-inflated status, it is worth reflecting that we can find a lifetime's creativity just by looking at what is around us. Sometimes we look too far and not hard enough.

It is the sign of a good painting that we do not tire of seeing it. I enjoy my small collection and I enjoy visiting John's gallery to look up his latest work. Last weekend I called by and he enquired if I was still painting my postcards - he came to my exhibition a few years ago. I recall being delighted that he'd made the effort; I was pleased he'd remembered too. We chatted about the pictures he had on display - they were from his private collection; none were for sale.

I would not sell my paintings either, for they are an important reminder of the twenty or so years I have been visiting Wales. Indeed, they are an integral part of it - part of my feeling for and involvement in the landscape, and they have a technical value regardless of their subject matter - these things cannot be dealt with by any rule of thumb.

Painting by John Knapp-Fisher

Painting by John Knapp-Fisher

Promoted to glory

My neighbour died last week. Beynon was 83; he'd been ill since Christmas, spending his last few months in a nursing home. I once asked him if he had lived all his life in the village? 'Oh no,' he said, 'We used to live at Upper Vanley.' Upper Vanley is 300 yards from my house, about 50 yards past the village sign.

His wife Myfanwy is a redoubtable lady. She likes our children and tolerates them running over over her lawn to play on the green. 'We were not blessed,' she told me once, but we have lots of family. Every Sunday, she and Beynon would wave as they set off for church in their smart silver car.

I was sorry to have missed the funeral. We went round to say our condolences, taking some flowers. The living room was littered with cards, nestling between the vases and photos on the mantelpiece, TV, dresser, side table, china cabinet. It reminded me of Dylan Thomas's opening to Under Milk Wood - text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and rosy tin tea caddy... I can hear Richard Burton's voice as I type.

Jane asked about the funeral. Myfanwy told us the service had been held at the chapel in Trefgarn Owen. I thought you went to Newton chapel? 'I do,' she said, 'I'm a Baptist but Beynon was an Independent. Married for fifty years and yet we kept separate churches - very friendly though,' she adds with a smile. But she was having the last word - he'd been buried at Newton where her family were laid to rest, and more waiting to join them.

'I'll just put the plant somewhere safe,' she said. Opening the sliding doors to the parlour, I notice the table is lost under bouquets stuffed in vases, in buckets, on the floor; a pile of sympathy cards stacked on a chair for lack of anywhere else. 'I'm glad you've given me a pot plant,' she says kindly, 'What can I do with this lot?', her arm gesturing over the cramped room.

On the wall is a tinted photograph of her wedding day: she was a slim girl with dark curled hair but the likeness is still there. The picture beside it - same church, same photographer - is of her sister's marriage two years later. 'Evelyn lost her husband seven years ago; he died unexpected' she said, 'She comes round a lot, and we go to the WRVS together.' It occurs to me that she is entering a phase that many women of her age, and in this corner of Wales, pass through - husbands gone, but surrounded by family, church and community, their lives continue to be filled if not as full as before.

I love my house in Pembrokeshire but I've always thought it would be an isolated place to grow old. But this is an outsiders view; it is not so for Myfanwy. And though her life and her house might seem like something from a different era, there are values and comfort here that cannot be matched by the more cosmopolitan world I come from. In truth it is closed to me; no amount of integration - no absorption in its culture, its language, its landscape - could make me a part of that community in quite the same way.

As we are leaving Evelyn calls. There are two other cars pulling up on the drive. We say our goodbyes and ask if donations had been requested in Beynon's memory . 'Only if you wish,' she said, 'To help upkeep the churchyard; it's a local boy does the work and he needs it. Otherwise he'll have to look elsewhere.' I said we'd drop in an envelope. 'And he's keeping it tidy for me,' she winked.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The F word...

Jane was making lunch as I worked in my study on Friday. 'What are we having?' I asked. Just some ham and pickles. 'That's nice, isn't it,' I called to Dylan, who was at home because of a Teacher Development day. 'Oh, I don't know,' he sighed from the dining room next door, 'It's all fuck fucky fuck!'

There was moment's silence; my fingers stopped typing as I sat back to consider his reply. Jane, who is less contemplative about these things, came storming in from the kitchen. 'Who told you THAT word? It's a VERY naughty word.' You can imagine what followed.

Evidently he'd heard it at school - or so he says. Someone taught him it, but he's not sure who. Jane left him in no doubt that regardless of where he'd heard it, if he wanted tea, TV or indeed any sort of niceness he's better not use THAT word again. He's been at school a month, she moaned, and look what happens. At least Dan and Mike took about a year!

I tried a little diplomacy. After all he has no idea what the word means - and to be honest his Dad's pretty free with the odd 'fuck it' and worse when things go wrong. 'We're having none of your clever stuff, over this,' said Jane. 'If his teachers hear him speak like that, he'll be in big trouble. And in any case it's rude and uncouth.' I've learned when it's best not to argue a philosophical point.

All was soon smoothed over,the incident put down to a one-off. Until early on Saturday morning, when Mike was winding him up in a big brotherish sort of way. 'Stop being a fucker,' Dylan shouted from his bedroom. I turned over and looked at Jane...

Five minutes later Dylan was in no doubt at all about the F word and it's multi-variants. There would be no beach today, and no ice cream -there was even talk of soap and the washing of mouths. I stayed out of it, silently suppressing a smile at the accuracy of his comment to Mike. After all, he was being a nasty... brother. I doubt we will hear the F word again though, at least not for a few years.

Some parents get very wound up over swearing. I've seen mothers demanding to see the teacher, speak to the the Head, squaring up to other mums in the playground -on one occasion swearing so liberally it was fairly obvious where the bad influence might have come from. I'm more relaxed; it's a phase kids go through and usually a few tellings off will sort it. If they knew what they were saying it might be different, but frankly, Dylan could just as easily have said 'Tickety boo boo boobies'.

Jane wouldn't like that either. And neither would I, for though I might be bit less outraged than her at the F word, I basically agree: swearing is rude and uncouth -and somehow particularly so in children. Jane almost never swears and we none of us would in everyday speech. If I occasionally let fly, it's through anger or a stubbed toe - come on, everyone swears when they stub a toe, don't they? As my Mum would say, it's common.

I think the the subtleties of language are best left to adults; as far as Dylan is concerned it's a case of do as I say, not as I do. Which he's generally taken to heart - certainly he was repentant yesterday. And in the afternoon, as we gathered for some tea, he sat in his chair uncommonly silent - before letting off a long, and I have to say melodious, fart! Jane stared daggers at him as the three of us bigger boys suppressed our giggles. He looked at each of us in turn...

'Pardon me,' he said.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Must try harder.

Harbour walls - M Charlton

Two years ago,the Welsh poet Christine Evans was one of my tutors on a writing course. She had recently written a long poem, Burning The Candle, publishing it in an interesting format. Along side the poem she included a 'log of writing' which chronicled her daily thoughts over two months it took to complete. The log is twice as long as the poem itself - together they make a powerful piece of work.

It was after that course, entitled Journeys and Journals, that I started blogging. It seemed a good way to open up my writing, much of which was introspective and wasn't likely to be accepted for traditional publication. Maybe someone out there might be interested; in any case a blog is just a sort of daily journal isn't it?

I soon learned that blogs are not the same as journals. That should have been obvious given the vast array of blogs, most of which offer no pretence to care about such things. But as a writer, intending to use a blog as quasi-diary, the difference is more subtle. If the first defining feature of a blog is its electronic format, then the second is that it is immediately public - and that makes all the difference.

I'd say that writing a journal is largely a personal dialogue. The 'audience' is usually the writer themselves - and this is why the diaries of the famous give us such an insight into their personalities. George Orwell's journals are centred on notes he makes of his garden and his chickens; they build a picture of a quiet reflective man, taking comfort from nature as the world is sucked into a second world war. Christine Evans' log of writing has similarities; in her case, the contrast between the isolated Bardsey where she lives and her fears for the environment, her interest in science. Published retrospectively both these journals make fascinating reading, but I doubt they would have worked as blogs.

That is because blogs, even when written as a diary, are largely written to someone. As I sit here typing, I am, in a sense, writing to you - certainly I'm conscious that people will read this and I am crafting it now with that in mind. On the plus side, this makes for better writing - even a little polishing, generally makes for a more interesting read. On the other hand, the public aspect of blogging can restrict what is said; at worst, some blogs are so anodyne and trivial that you wonder why people bother.

Am I being harsh here? Many blogs are open in their omissions - it is common to refer to partners or children by initials, to avoid personal photographs - this hardly matters, even if at times it goes well beyond the requirements of internet security. Other blogs are clearly more concerned with social networking, the initial post little more than a prompt for comments and chat - what is 'not said' isn't important, and frankly what I'm saying now would probably be regarded as highbrow or irrelevant.

On balance I think the positives hugely outweigh the negatives. As someone whose initial goal was to transfer their introspective writing on-line, I've learned there many more possibilities and benefits. Not the least of these is that having an audience is an incentive to write more regularly. There are literally millions of people out there blogging every day - encouraged by the feedback they get - and that seems to me to offer huge potential for people to say something of value, to become interested in writing and perhaps take it a step further.

It is a pity that much of the writing community still takes a sniffy attitude to blogs, regarding them as somehow, not quite serious enough. I am guilty too; I know that in response to the question, 'What do I write?' I usually start by saying that I'm mainly interested in autobiography, a little fiction too. And almost apologising as an afterthought (how about that for alliteration), 'Oh, and I write a semi-serious blog too.'

As a consequence of blogging my writing has changed. Much of my blog is still concerned with the themes of landscape, family and fatherhood. But I have tried to expand into other areas, and the response of followers can be a useful measure of whether or not it is a success. I had thought my pondering on philosophy would be deeply dull, but it seems not entirely so - or are you just being kind?

There are other benefits to blogging too. In the Nineties I was lucky enough to travel to the US to visit Microsoft and number of newspapers pioneering the move to on-line. I was in the Los Angeles Times the day OJ Simpson was acquitted - it took one hour to get the paper onto the streets; the internet edition took 45 seconds. Blogs have the same capability, with the added advantage that they lack any censorship or editorial control.

So far from being a restrictor on what is written, blogs can equally be a force for truth and freedom. Dictatorships fear them because they undermine control of the media. The historian Tim Garton Ash argues that that blogging played a central role in the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe which followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and as recently as 2005 in Ukraine.

I'm certain that my efforts will never have that sort of influence, but if in a small way somebody listens to what I have to say, then that is success of a sort. It's a great joy for me as a writer too, for otherwise this can be a lonely and self indulgent craft. I often wonder why more poets don't blog their work - poetry books typically sell in tiny numbers; blogs might not have the kudos of a printed work, but is that what really matters?

And so to close, I had two encouraging compliments this week which prompted all this musing.

Firstly, my follower over at French Leave, gave me one of those blog award and said some nice things about what goes on here at the bike shed. She also nominated Jimmy Bastard, in whose virtual company I'm chuffed even be mentioned - check out the link and tell me if blogs don't have some brilliant writers. You might also look at French Leave herself, or Her On The Hill, or my friend Sara who ought to blog more.

And yesterday, I received a thank you card from Andy and Kat, two of the kayakers who had stayed in my house to paddle the Bitches. Their P.S. said, 'We looked at your blog - Andy's Mum (who is an English teacher) is using it as an example of good writing in a lesson.'

Now that really is a turn up, for when I looked at my old school reports the most regular comment for English was 'Must try harder.' Fair comment, I think.