Archive for the 'religion' Category

Richard Holloway: Leaving Alexandria

August 19, 2019

5115JQXvznL._AC_UY218_QL90_  I very rarely read biographies or autobiographies, mainly because I’m busy leading my own life. However, I recently read an article in The Tablet (one of the more interesting weekly magazines at the moment) by Richard Holloway, and was prompted to get a copy of this book, which tells the story of his finding and losing faith, up to the time where he resigned as Bishop of Edinburgh.

I was gripped at the outset by his description of life in what I would describe as an Anglican junior seminary, because there were so many reminders of my own Catholic upbringing and schooling. The early part of his life and ministry can only be described as very High Church or Anglo-Catholic: he talks of ‘mass’, and goes to confession and participates in the evening service known as Compline…

The tone is not what one perhaps would expect of a one-time senior clergyman. The genuineness and honesty of a good man, and a real thinker shine through; he’s extremely well-read, as the literary references and notes show. I liked him for his liking of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Philip Larkin, both of whom speak to his religious condition at different times, and for being a solitary walker, too.

We read of his growing spiritual crises, with belief or lack of it in the Resurrection, and ultimately in God; for him, agnosticism is learning to live without an answer. In our unreligious times he makes a clear case for a place for religion in people’s lives, and certainly reminded me why, though largely rational myself, I cannot go with those who decry all religion as mere mumbo-jumbo and pixie dust. We are formed by our earliest experiences, and if they are shaped by religion, some need of spiritual consolation is, I have come to feel over the years, both inescapable and not something to be ashamed of. For Holloway, the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty: where you have certainty, you don’t need faith. This I found comforting!

Ultimately Holloway became ever more political and radical and questioning, until he reached a point where he felt he had lost his faith, and resigned his position. Having come to believe that religion certainly was a human invention, he wondered if perhaps God was, too. This is where he chimed in with where I have reached: out of our spiritual needs as humans, we make God after our own image. I can completely understand Holloway’s still being religious, and wanting religion to be there as a space for people to wonder and listen.

In many ways an unexpected pleasure of a read.


Ten of the strangest books in my library – part two

August 17, 2019

The Index of Possibilities

I haven’t looked at this for years: it’s a relic from my hippy days, a British version of the famous Whole Earth Catalog, an encyclopaedia for those alternative times, with pointers and links to all sorts of esoteric stuff, as well as the very early green movements, different spiritualities and radical therapy. It was a bible and an eye-opener for me back in my younger days.

Road Atlas of the Soviet Union 

Back in the days of the Soviet Union and its other socialist allies, consumer goods were in very short supply; this caused problems if you wanted a present for someone. You might have a really good idea of what you’d like to give, and no chance of buying it. Which is how I ended up with a road atlas of the Soviet Union as a present from a relative at some point in the 1970s. The idea that I’d ever get to drive on any of the roads in that country was a bit of a joke for starters. Then you think of the size of the country and regard the slimness of this volume and you get a better picture of the problem. Vast tracts of the country do not appear at all. Secrecy? No, just no roads at all. In some regions you can see a single road that proceeds for hundreds of miles, before stopping, ending: you make that journey all the way to the back of beyond, before realising that you then have to turn around and return the exact same way… Truly, this is a surreal book in so many ways.

I love it; it’s a very well-worn and well-used companion to travel books about Russia, and I supplemented it with a larger more general and larger scale Soviet atlas a decade or so ago

Sunday Compline

This is the slimmest volume in my library. I’ve written about my love of this religious office which brings the day to a close here. And, although I have a great nostalgia for the vanished Latin services and rituals of my childhood days – not out of any sense of belief, but for the spiritual feelings they still awaken for me – this is in English. Way back in the mid-1960s, shortly after services were done into the vernacular, a version of compline appeared, a decent translation using the same music, and there was a phase in the Catholic life of England when this service was much performed in churches. Only a couple of years ago I tracked down this copy at a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh, and was happy to pay ninety times the original cover price to own it. It’s a nicely produced and illustrated booklet, the same as the one we used to use all those years ago.

Baedeker’s Northern Germany

In the days when travel was a serious business and involved careful planning, Baedeker’s guidebooks were a must. This one is pre-First World War, and I originally bought it for its marvellous maps, but it’s also a mine of useful information about places that were formerly part of Poland and would become again after the war, as well as places that eventually became part of People’s Poland after 1945. The maps of Danzig (as was) I found very useful when reading Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, following Oscar’s adventures and peregrinations around his home city. There was also a Baedeker’s Russia from 1914, which was never widely distributed or sold because war broke out; it’s now one of the rarest travel guides there is, fetching hundreds of pounds and more. This, and the bizarre Nazi vanity project that was Baedeker’s Generalgouvernement (a tourist guide to the rump state created from the remains of Poland as a dumping-ground for unwanted people and site of extermination camps), are, fortunately, available free on the marvellous Internet Archive website.

Vassily Peskov: Eremites Dans Le Taiga

I was astonished when I originally came across a reference to this story, I think via a link to the Smithsonian website: a small family of Old Believers, a Russian sect, had lived completely apart from the entire world, in the depths of Siberia, for over forty years, leading a hand-to-mouth existence, when Soviet surveyors noticed signs of life in a remote area thought to be uninhabited. The story of the family’s existence and survival is almost beyond belief, and yes, I know that Russia is a truly enormous country, but to have vanished for so long in the twentieth century! The account was written by one of those who re-discovered and helped the family, and yes, I found it in French first…

Bonus: English as She is Spoken (A Jest in Sober Earnest)

Many years ago there was a concert interval talk on Radio 3 featuring extracts from this truly crazy book, which is a phrasebook and guide to conversation in English for Portuguese students, written at some point towards the end of the 19th century. The only problem is that the Portuguese author didn’t actually speak English, but somehow complied the book using a French phrasebook and a dictionary: a very high percentage of the English phrases therefore verge on complete drivel, and the book is a hoot. I found a reprint a long while ago and look through it for a laugh every now and then; if you’re interested it’s downloadable from the Internet Archive.

Ten of the strangest books in my library – part one

August 15, 2019

Liber Usualis

This is a very thick and weighty tome, originally published, I think, for use in monasteries. It contains the music for the main services, in plainchant four-stave notation. I bought it many years ago, not for the music but for the texts of various now long-lost Latin services, and it’s supplemented by a copy of the Tridentine Missale Romanum with Latin rubrics, and also a copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

Adolf in Blunderland

This satire after the manner of Lewis Carroll, complete with Tenniel-style illustrations and reworkings of almost all of the songs from Alice, mocking the Nazis and their leaders, is from the mid 1930s, obviously in the days before the real dangers of the Nazi project were clear to many, and knockabout humour was thought sufficient. I bought it when I was still at school, with five shillings – a sizeable sum in those days – of my pocket money. Unfortunately, even though I’ve looked after it carefully, it is showing its age.

Zbior Nazwisk Szlachty

You wouldn’t have expected the Polish communist authorities to have allowed the publication of such a facsimile, of a book which originally appeared in 1805 and is an index of the names of the Polish nobility. It was a gift to my father, which I inherited – our family name is in the book, and it’s a genuine one rather than one from the days when everyone was scrambling to have a gentrified name; it also means we have a coat of arms. Before you all grovel at the thought of my greatness, I should point out two important details: firstly that the nobility was abolished in 1919, and secondly that it was the name that was important, not wealth or property. A peasant could have a noble name, which brought respect and standing along with it, just as it did to a rich man. If you were among the 25%+ of the nation with a name, you could theoretically take part on the election of the king. Yes, you read that right…

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (along with Pliny’s Natural History, Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah, and The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition)

I’ve had a soft spot for Isidore for a long time, long before the Vatican named that early encyclopaedist patron saint of the internet. In that curious time known as the Dark Ages, after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire, monks sought to preserve knowledge, and Isidore complied twenty brief books of etymologies in which he attempted a taxonomy and collation of everything that was known. He ranges widely through arts and sciences; everything looks to God, and the gaps are haunting and the naivete charming or amusing at different times. As we now know, Arab savants also preserved and built upon the knowledge of the ancients, and two of the other texts I mention offer knowledge from their perspective, from mediaeval times. In our days, when we think we know so much, and with such certainty, I find it humbling and refreshing to see the sum total of knowledge, and the picture of the world from the viewpoint of an ancient Roman, a seventh century Spanish monk, or an Arab scientist. Perhaps far in the future, others will look back at our days and our learning and interpretations in a similar way…

Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (my edition)

I’ve written about the weirdness of this edition here. I commend the utopian vision to you as an interesting and curious read: the idea of a socialist United States is a marvellous one, but still as far off as it was back in 1887.

Voyageurs de la Renaissance

August 14, 2019

81HFTMPlypL._AC_UL436_  This was a rather more academic volume than I’d anticipated from its publication in a standard paperback line – almost Hakluyt Society depth and detail, as well as a number of extracts not being in modern French… they do things differently there!

Very interesting, though, to read a wide range of extracts from Spanish, Portuguese and French travellers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as Westerners were beginning to get to know (and occupy) far-flung regions. What strikes is the fascination and curiosity about those who are so different from ourselves, and also the determination, the sense of our duty and right, to forcibly convert all these peoples to Christianity for their own good. There is a common sense of Western superiority to foreigners, because we are Christian and have a higher level of development, and higher moral standards. One of the extracts showed Francis Xavier (a saint in the Catholic Church) trying to make sense of and explain Buddhism, and find connections between it and Christianity: his theological contortions and errors are astonishing and amusing.

Travellers to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire dwell on the harems and Turkish baths, often with many fascinating details, and also on apparent lesbian practices in the baths: there is a disapproving, prurient, News of the World-style to their descriptions.

There are also many short extracts about travels in Jerusalem and other holy places (for Christians). The accounts of French travellers to Florida and associated regions are rather tedious, but the first accounts of Cortez and other Spaniards of encounters with the Aztecs are very interesting: the days before they set out to conquer and destroy their civilisation, but already from the accounts of the quantities of gold and other precious metals, you can almost smell the cupidity. The accounts of human sacrifices are suitably gory, and the travellers are appalled. Similarly, in travels among native Americans, there is great fascination with cannibal rituals which are described in minute detail…

What I learned from the anthology was just how much travel and exploration there was going on so early; I’d heard of the well-known names and vaguely slotted them into the end 15th / early 16th time-frame, but there were so many people from so many countries out there, all hoping to make a fortune… the Portuguese were particularly numerous and widespread in the earliest days. Though it is interesting to see these first glimpses of how the West saw others, it’s also very depressing seeing how they treated them as simple folk, savages, to be fobbed off with trash and forcibly Christianised; the moral blindness in the travellers’ horror at human sacrifices and cannibal rites when they themselves will be complicit in genocide within a few years is truly shocking.

The overall concept of the book is an interesting one, but better than the execution, as ultimately it does come across as rather a mishmash. It’s scrupulously well-annotated, and there are many reproductions of original woodcut illustrations, but no useful maps, sadly.

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

A tour of my library – part three

August 10, 2019

61TD2aaM3XL._AC_UL436_SEARCH212385_ It’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to take a serious interest in art, and it’s a pretty eclectic one, given that I have no formal training or study of the subject: it’s a bit ‘this is what I like’, really. I’ve long liked photomontage, having come across the work of John Heartfield when I was quite young; I fell in love with the romantic visions of Caspar David Friedrich, and actually went off to Rügen to see the famous chalk cliffs which he painted: they are quite stupendous, although have not survived in the same configuration today. Turner I came to like when I went on spec to a major exhibition of his paintings of Italy in Edinburgh about ten years ago; since then I have sought out other exhibitions and acquired books of reproductions of his watercolours too. If there’s a particular movement I really enjoy, it’s Expressionism. The one book I will rave about is actually the catalogue from an exhibition I visited in Berlin a few years back, which set great works with similar themes and subjects from the impressionists and the expressionists side-by-side. It was an absolute eye-opener and I spent hours, completely engrossed.

Currently there is a shelf in my study dedicated to Poland and things Polish, including a good number of history books, particularly those of Norman Davies. I have also collected a number of memoirs written by Poles who underwent similar experiences to those of my father during the Second World War, as well as diaries of writers and other cultural figures from that period. The most interesting and curious book in this collection I inherited from my father, who was presented with it on a visit to Poland in communist times, and it’s a very odd book for them to have allowed to be published: a facsimile of – I translate – Index of the Names of the Gentry, originally published a couple of centuries ago. Our family name is listed and we have (had, rather, for one of the first acts of the reborn Polish state in 1919 was to abolish the gentry) a coat of arms! What you need to know, contextually, is that it was the name that mattered, not wealth, status, social standing… you could be a poor peasant family (like us) or stinking rich with an estate.


I gave up the study of history after O Level, taking up English Literature instead, telling myself I could read as much history as I liked when I liked, and have done just that. My reading hasn’t been structured or systematic. Particular interests have been ancient Rome, the Reformation, the Soviet Union, Poland and modern history generally. Roman history I studied at school, and it’s such an important part of the background to European life and civilisation it’s hard to avoid; I also remind myself that the Roman Empire lasted for far longer than the British or American ones… The interest in the Reformation links back to my Catholic childhood and the cultural vandalism that was the English Reformation, as well as my current interest in theology, as I attempt to make sense of my existence. And Polish and Russian history – well, that’s obvious.

Catherine Nixey: The Darkening Age

June 4, 2019

91nwQ0TuJhL._AC_UL436_ Some of my readers may be aware of my interest in the early history of Christianity: my wider reading has led me to explore how what seems to have been the original message of the teacher was developed and given a different spin by Paul and others as the new religion gradually spread across the ancient world, and how it gradually moved from an allegedly persecuted creed to one which took over the Roman Empire, and became as intolerant as it accused its predecessors of being…

The Christian world gradually replaced the classical one, and Nixey charts this process in her book. I’m not sure of how academically valid it is, in the sense that she seems to rely on not very many sources very heavily to advance her case, and to follow the modern and somewhat deceptive process of providing reams of notes at the end of the text, most of which merely give the source of a detail, rather than illuminate anything further. However, the general lines of her enquiry are most interesting and I learned a good deal.

Firstly, early Christianity destroyed far more of the classical world than it preserved, and this was for me an unknown story; the deeds of religious bigots and fanatics, egged on by early ‘saints’, were on a parallel with the more recent depredations of the Taliban – destroyers of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – and ISIS, destroyers of the city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The entire Graeco-Roman religious system was regarded as a creation of demons and therefore to be eradicated completely. The whole picture makes Henry VIII’s cultural vandalism of Catholic England in the sixteenth century seem rather petty…

Secondly, Roman persecution of Christians was far less deliberate and official than we think we know it to have been, largely due to effective Christian propaganda. Martyrdom was attractive, particularly to fanatics (no change there, then) and according to Nixey, possibly fewer than ten tales of martyrdom from the early Church may be considered reliable. On the contrary, Roman officials apparently went to considerable lengths to avoid executing Christians. A good deal of sanitising of history took place, and the lives of many ‘saints’ of the Church were actually full of intolerance and brutality, racism and anti-semitism, rather than their being the exemplars of the holy life that many believe them to be.

Literature suffered as well as the more obvious buildings and statuary; perhaps ten per cent of classical literature has survived, and maybe only one percent of Latin literature. What survived was censored: that of writers such as Catullus endured well into the twentieth century, and I can recall the classics teacher at school jumping over passages that were not considered suitable for mere schoolboys to read… This anti-intellectualism, this cult of ignorance reminds me of what I have read of the appalling behaviour of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. Back in the past, anything was deemed acceptable if it was labelled in the service of Christ; like the later Spanish Inquisition, such behaviour was above and outside the law.

I came across the names of a number of classical writers and historians of whom I had not heard – not for want of looking – in whose writing the other side of the history of those times is recorded. As I mentioned above, it may be that the writer has over-egged the pudding in her enthusiasm for telling her story, but all of this material does need to be much more widely known, researched and documented. It’s a necessary read, a profoundly depressing reflection on knowledge and ignorance, tolerance and intolerance; it shows that human beings do not seem to have grown any wiser two thousand years later, either. And lest anyone should feel that the book is an anti-Christian diatribe on her part, or this post one on mine, it is not so; it is the wilful cultivation and worship of ignorance, and the intolerance which flows from that, that is, and must always be, challenged.

John Barton: A History of the Bible

April 27, 2019

A1tPCMSb+DL._AC_UL436_This is a fascinating and seriously academic book; the author is an Anglican priest, but writes from a very open-minded perspective, casting his net very widely. The book is very carefully structured and presented, right from his opening thesis in the introduction, and references and bibliography are excellent. He seeks to cover as much as possible in the history of the scriptures of two major religions of the book, Judaism and Christianity, explaining the complex relationship between the two faiths, as well as the complex interrelationship of their scriptures and how differently Jews and Christians regard and use the Old Testament. This last, coupled with the notion that Jews have no notion of original sin, I found very enlightening. Barton explains clearly, makes helpful connections and draws many quite disparate strands together.

The first eye-opener was the lack of evidence for so much of the Old Testament history of the Jewish people, and the haziness of the existence (or not) of so many of the characters familiar to us. The Old Testament comes across as a veritable mishmash, confusing and confused, not susceptible to unravelling for clarity or veracity: Israel is brought down to the small-sized nation it was, and almost nothing in this apparent ‘history’ can be corroborated from other sources.

Although Barton explains and clarifies as far as possible (not very far!), I must confess to still finding myself mystified by the purpose of much of the Old Testament. I’m drawn to the familiar names and stories I first encountered in my childhood, whether they are truth or legend, and I’m drawn to the wisdom books, though many regard these as apocryphal, but I still find the prophecies and many of the psalms rather empty.

Barton outlines very concisely and clearly the historical context of the New Testament; indeed contextual background and connections are one of the strongest aspects of the book for me. Again, he is clear about the lack of clarity and definitive knowledge about Paul, about the practices, observations and rituals of the early church, and therefore how much may be later accretions. Increasingly as I’ve read more widely about the beginnings of Christianity, I’ve become aware not only of how controversial a character Paul is, but also of recent much more careful interpretations and evaluations of some of his attitudes, especially towards women; it is a caricature to describe him simply as a misogynist, which many tend to do.

Barton’s willingness, as a Christian, to examine and question everything and admit to the absence of so much certainty I find very refreshing: he is not defensive about this, even when considering the balance between what may be true and what has probably been invented in the gospels. But very little emerges with any definiteness. He feels that the teachings of Jesus Christ have been overshadowed by the construction of a religion centred on him.

He surveys the changes in the Christian Bible over time, through Reformation and translation, noting that the more extreme reformers – Calvinists and Puritans – interpret the Bible in a more Jewish way, prescriptive and ritualistic.

It’s an excellent book if you are deeply interested in the subject and along with the writings of Geza Vermes, will probably complete my current reading on the topic for a while. I often found myself astonished when I recalled that it was an Anglican priest writing, until I realised that clearly all his research had not shaken his faith, which is clearly grounded elsewhere than in unquestioning acceptance of the contents of a book, despite the reformers’ insistence on sola scriptura….

On the fire at Notre Dame

April 17, 2019

I’m one of the many millions of people horrified by the fire and destruction of Notre Dame in Paris. The disaster prompted me to remember that it’s almost exactly fifty years since, as a school student on my first French exchange, I was taken to see the cathedral; I’ve been back several times since. For me and others, it’s not the most spectacular cathedral in France, but its unique site does give it a special aura. And I found myself also wondering, what is is about this enormous pile of stones that exerts such an effect on so many people around the world, many of whom will not be catholics?

I was moved by the comments of the former Afghan leader who said that to see the destruction of Notre Dame pained him as much as when the taliban has destroyed the ancient buddhas of Bamiyan in his country, and I remembered, too, the Islamic state’s destruction of the Roman remains at Palmyra; I has been touched last autumn when visiting the Roman sites at Arles in Provence to see that the local archaeologists had erected a memorial to the curator of the Palmyra site who had been brutally executed by the fundamentalists for wishing to protect his country’s heritage.

From one perspective, these are all piles of stone, old monuments, buildings or statues. Once can visualise far better things on which to spend the hundreds of millions of euros already pledged for the reconstruction and restoration of Notre Dame… and yet, I’m in favour of that rebuilding along with everyone else.

The cathedral is part of France’s cultural heritage, part of Europe’s cultural heritage, part of the Christian past of the world. And statements along similar lines can be made about the other destroyed monuments I’ve mentioned above. It’s the nature of our attachment that interested me. There’s our sense of awe at the endurance through so much time of such a place – over eight centuries for Notre Dame – far longer than any of us will endure, even in the memories of our descendants. There is our connection today with people like ourselves who so long ago created such magnificent buildings. The dimensions are awe-inspiring, the physical beauty breathtaking, and the realisation of the colossal amounts of time and energy our predecessors expended to create such places must bring us up short if we think about it. No cost-effectiveness or economic rationales involved there! For me there’s also the sense that nothing we are building today is likely to last anywhere near that long. And if all these relics from our past did not have a special significance for so many of us, would we in today’s world lavish so much time and money on preserving them for the future?

Then there’s the deeper sense of what ‘the past’ means for us as individuals, the way we see ourselves and our world, perhaps against the background of time and eternity, and whatever one’s attitude to religion may be, I think it’s hard to avoid using the notion of the spiritual to describe the feelings of awe and of reflection that such places steeped in history are able to inspire in us: we are taken outside ourselves, beyond ourselves, in the direction of thoughts and feelings that are very hard to understand. And somewhere, it seems to me, we all can tune in to such feelings and perhaps we all have a need to experience them at different times in our lives…

Proud to be human

April 15, 2019

I regularly reflect on what it is that makes us humans different from other species – not necessarily superior, but different – and feel it is our capacity for reason, and our self-awareness. We have astonishingly complex brains, and when we use them sensibly, they are capable of incredible things; consciously we can hand our knowledge down through the generations, building on what has gone before. People have sought to know, to find out, to understand the workings of the world and the cosmos, and, because of our individual mortality and our awareness of this, have wondered about whether there is an ultimate cause or creator, and whether there is any other state of existence awaiting us after the end of this one that we know. It is possible that in our need for this reassurance, we have invented those very things… “Everyone is the first person to die,” the king is told in Ionesco’s masterpiece, Le Roi Se Meurt.

I can know of our human past and what we have achieved as a species – the good and the evil – because it has already happened and we have historical records of much of it; many of these achievements contribute to what I suppose is a sense of pride in our species: there have been great thinkers, scientists, inventors, writers, musicians… Our future is unknown because it hasn’t happened yet; some of it I will get to see in my remaining time, and an enormous amount of it I will not. And because I have an imagination, I know that there are things I would dearly like to see in my lifetime – a human landing on Mars, contact with other intelligences elsewhere in the universe, solutions to our problems (self-inflicted, I know) such as climate change; I wouldn’t mind a socialist utopia, either. On the other hand, I have no wish to live through war and ecological disaster, and sometimes fear for my descendants because of our lack of intelligence as a species.

There is a science fiction tour-de-force, written during the Second World War, I think, by Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men, in which he imagines the future of humanity into the incredibly far future, through a number of different incarnations, wrestling with enormous epochs of time – billions of years – as humanity moves to other planets, evolves new capacities, far outshines what we are currently achieving. And yet, there is the awareness that eventually we must die out. Various incarnations of humanity pass on, along with geological ages, and it’s with a pang that, quite near the beginning of the novel, our variant homo sapiens, First Man, and all our physical and intellectual achievements vanish as though they had never been… such a waste, it feels, in an unfeeling universe. And yet, surely, that is how it must be, however we comfort ourselves with other possibilities.

But one thing is for sure: life will outlive me. There is an Arabic saying I came across a few years ago which I love: one day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one. To me, that seems a thing to aspire to.

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