New review of Where’s Sailor Jack? : ‘‘…romantic, poignant, and extremely funny, exactly what I want from a family saga.’ – Stephen Carver, Blot the Skrip and Jar It

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On Humanists, Scientists, Chimpanzees and MPs

I have spent perhaps too much time in these blogs arguing theism as the most rational world view with our present understanding of modern Physics. The science broadcaster I most enjoy is Alice Roberts, who from outside my expertise always seems thorough and logical, and her programmes are a joy to watch. She has recently become President of the British Humanist Association, and has started a campaign against the state funding of faith schools. It’s difficult with present attendances to argue against this proposition, apart from noting that it does seem a shame to lose 1500 years of our mainstream culture and to ask if she is sure that’s what people really want. She also says that humanism is the most rational and positive philosophy to life. She must know different people from those I know, including myself! I can see no evidence that the world gets better for our occupation of it. Having watched this week Attenborough’s programme on chimpanzees and the Brexit debate in the Commons, the similarities are too obvious to need spelling out. We are flawed creatures.
Next year, she also becomes President of the British Science Association. I hope in that role she recognises that her views are not shared by many scientists, particularly not physicists who try to understand quantum uncertainty and entanglement, and to reconcile their search for fundamental principles against Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. When the life sciences confront the quantum, their conclusions might not be so certain.
The real challenge to faith doesn’t come from science though, or from the philosophers that science has falsely usurped. I’m a cradle Anglican who still takes comfort from our gentle view of the Christian faith, that there is a judge and there is redemption. One of my favourite Bob Dylan quotes is that the devil runs the world, but God is the judge. These are not sayings to be taken literally; faith is a mix of history and allegory. I probably put more in the latter category than most believers. I’d have preferred it if, in the words of my fictional character Bob Swarbrick in No Precedent,(the midquel to Where’s Sailor Jack? I’ll publish next year): “Luther would have persuaded the Catholic Church to come to its senses over indulgences. James would have banged the heads of Peter, Paul and John together so they didn’t contradict each other quite so much, and lay the structures for two millennia of dispute. Adam would have said to Eve: “Of course we can eat that bloody apple unless it gives us tummy ache. That’s what we’re meant to do.”
Sadly, that’s not the history. But redemption is always possible, even for those dreadful MPs on both sides of the house who are too far up themselves to look for it. Some of the chimpanzees seemed to find it in the Attenborough programme.

Lancashire Born v Lancashire Adopted

Seeing how Where’s Sailor Jack? follows, in passing, the fortunes of Lancashire cricket from 1950 to date, I thought I’d have a bit of fun picking two teams from the whole period, one born and bred, one from anywhere outside the county. In the latter case, I’ve only picked players who played at least three seasons for us, so sadly no place for Graeme Pollock or Michael Holding for instance. I’ve made one or two startling omissions, such as Mike Atherton, as we have a surfeit of Lancastrian-born opening bats and his major contribution was to England. I’ve tried to find a balance between the fine players of the early fifties, the great one-day era of the late sixties, the years where we drifted, and the championship winning team of 2011.
The home team lines up in batting order as: Cyril Washbrook, Winston Place, Geoff Pullar, Neil Fairbrother, Andrew Flintoff, David Lloyd, Jack Simmons, Geoff Clayton (wk), Roy Tattersall, Brian Statham, James Anderson. The away team is Farokh Engineer (wk), Barry Wood, Jack Ikin, Clive Lloyd, Ashwell Prince, Stuart Law, Wasim Akram, Glenn Chapple, Ken Higgs, Gary Keedy, Muttiah Muralitharan.
Only Geoff Clayton, Glenn Chapple and Gary Keedy are uncapped.I make no apologies for the inclusion of so many of the Gillette Cup winning generation, when the rest of the country used to play each other to see who played Lancashire in the final. I particularly wish I could have found a place too for Harry Pilling. Some fine bowlers have had to be ignored, but with Statham, Anderson and Flintoff, the likes of Shuttleworth and Allott just couldn’t get in, and similarly with Peter Lever from whichever side of the bed in Todmorden he was born on. Warren Hegg was close to the wicketkeeper slot, but Geoff Clayton brings back the late fifties and early sixties. I’d have loved to have found a spot for Peter Marner, but like Frank Hayes, he wasn’t quite consistent enough. And regrettably, nothing for Steven Croft and Karl Brown, Blackpudlian and Boltonian, at the wicket when paradise was regained on that glorious day of redemption, which partly gave me the idea for Bob and Richard in the novel. But thank you all for the memories.

Seven Types of Wishful Thinking

I’ve just finished that fine philosopher John Gray’s book, Seven Types of Atheism. As a counter to the modern orthodoxy of a woolly humanism, it is superb. The view that things can only get better as progress occurs by using a scientific approach ignores that humans are animals no better or worse than their provenance permits and that science is morally neutral. His argument is that humanism has taken over from Christianity, making the same mistake in thinking there can be immutable laws to life. The convolutions of a Rawlesian view of justice demonstrate how arbitrary and inadequate humanist laws are, as was the Jewish law. Having previously dismissed the existence of the Christian God as incompatible with the random and cruel world that exists, he then turns on the Christian notion of personhood as a soul with free will, arguing that brain science has effectively demonstrated a total absence of free will, indeed that there is no source of personhood. If we accept this, we could use our manifold instincts to live our natural lives in whatever circumstances we encounter, invoking animistic spirits if that’s how we feel. No meaning can be attached to events, to history, to our lives. The whole concept of salvation from our natures is not only flawed, but rendered unnecessary. Concepts of immortality are not grounded in any experience.
Much of what Gray says is how I feel. But I’m a cradle Anglican who, while making no exclusive claims for faith bringing salvation, finds that the imagery of the Christian message is deeply satisfying. Buddhism may be more cerebral, Christianity more visceral. I prefer Dylan to Leonard Cohen. Story can take you beyond logic and beyond history. The beauty of the King James Bible, the uplift in my spirit(s) from singing Victorian hymns, the joyful memories of the teenage Church Youth Club, will remain in that recurrent assembly of neuronal connections in the brain that I call me. That vastly more connections occur that I am not aware of as I live an instinctual life doesn’t negate this sense of personhood. That it will only exist until death or dementia take it away does create a feeling of sadness, a feeling more intensely suffered with the death of a loved one.
I don’t think that the notion of one God is incoherent. I’ve argued this on these pages before. As a Physicist who can’t accept infinite regress as an explanation, who understands enough of the Maths to be staggered at its ability to tell us so much about the physical world but nothing about how sensations feel, and which as Gödel has shown can never contain a full explanation, I can only keep my head together by taking the infinite and the spiritual out of the physical system, perhaps occasionally meeting on edges.
I’ve nothing against animism. My lovely old dog died last year and we put his ashes under an old oak tree on the Common, his favourite walk. A few weeks ago, there was a deer grazing under the tree who stood looking at me before eventually slowly disappearing into the bushes behind. It was comforting but proved nothing conclusive. I’ve had surprising occurrences which invoked memories from my deceased Mother and Father, a natural explanation of which would involve statistically impossibly large coincidences. They’ve led me to conclude that they or I projected the event or someone up there is taking the michael. I did have one moment when the world unaccountably stood still in my youth. I fancifully pretend it was a point where the edges met, and my resurrection body was taken ready for my spirit to play on at death. That would be a result, a youthful body and a mature soul.
One time, the dog ran off as I let him off the lead, down a busy road to some food he’d spotted a few minutes before. Worried, I chased after him, only to trip over a flagstone and crash over, cutting knees, arms and hands. He’d just reached the food. He heard me fall, looked round, looked again at the food and trotted straight back to see how I was. I’ll give full personhood to animals.
I’ll do my best and fail to live a life that follows natural instincts as informed by the occasional neuronal connection I’ll call conscience urging me to treat others as myself. That won’t earn me salvation. But what I want to be saved from is eternal death.
I know, I want never gets.

Three Trinities

Christianity has the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son who is the Word, and the Spirit. Buddhism has the Trikaya, meaning the three bodies. These are: the Truth body: the body of mutual bliss: the created body in space and time. I’ve just had reason to return to the earlier work of the brilliant mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. My youngest son who is in his final year of a mathematical physics masters will have the privilege of hearing him lecture next week.(The lecture is on his present focus of Twistor Theory as a pre-cursor to space-time and quantum gravity.) He describes three worlds: Mathematics: The Physical: Mental Consciousness. He is an atheist promoting humanist values, but not one who denies the possibility of God. Indeed, he pours scorn on those who see multiverses as a convenient replacement for the God hypothesis. He sees the mathematical world as always within the scope of reason, if only in principle as he accepts that Gödel has shown that a mathematical system can never explain itself. The entire physical world is governed by the Mathematical world. The mental world is dependent on the physical. He does allow that all these assertions may be subject to exceptions. He particularly believes that consciousness may at its root be quantum mechanical and be non-computable. To this end, he postulates brain structures capable of collapsing the quantum wave.
Those of you who have read my ‘Where’s Sailor Jack’ saga will recognise that as similar to the worlds I’ve tried to create. I am a theist from a Church upbringing which has set my belief system, apparently permanently, as I’ve seen no reason to reject the sense it’s made as I’ve lived a life. Penrose doesn’t think we’ll understand much more of the mental world until the mathematics of the physical has a better, underlying theory. I’m too old, even if he isn’t, to handle the complex Maths of that next stage, if ever I could. I wish him and his successors good luck with that, and hope my son will reach that next level. I’ll have to stick with religion and the arts to see through a glass darkly as far as the grave.

Remainers or Brexiteers?

I’m working on a midquel to Where’s Sailor Jack, starting in 2015 and thus set in the years of the Brexit vote and its implementation, if indeed that actually happens. As such I can’t finish it until next year at the earliest, which is perhaps as well since progress in writing the book is proceeding no faster than the negotiations. I have introduced two new, female characters in the book; a mother, Lucy, in her forties and a daughter, Maddie, in her twenties. They are Brexiteer and Remainer respectively. Of course both Bob and Richard, the two heroes of the first book were both Remainers, having far too much to lose to wish to risk the opposite. Both also grew up in the aftermath of the second world war and hoped that the EU might have provided at least another generation of peace in Europe, even with the omission of Russia from its membership and the economic issues resulting from the folly of a single currency with Germany at the helm.
Maddie is a bisexual, seeing Europe as the future and its institutions as protection for her liberal values, despite the Eastern European countries being more socially conservative and the catholic traditions of the south. Lucy is a lapsed catholic, beginning to return to her former faith. The cultural changes from non-christian immigration still rankle with her. Bob, living in the Fylde, also hankers after a more homogeneous, although in his case an Anglican, past, without wishing to reverse any changes. Richard, in Hertfordshire, is more accepting of the multi-cultural society as it is a fact on the ground for him. They both blame the Tories and Cameron for imposing a referendum into a parliamentary system. And both have a dilemma now that the nation has voted to leave. Instinctively, their hackles rise when the remainers, BBC to the fore, hideously metropolitan in tone, describe the brexiteers as unknowledgeable and thick. They will never countenance any view that the metropolis is more progressive than the north-west. Also, since the vote, the devaluation of the pound has been good news for the north-west, the region growing faster than all others with a maufacturing recovery and housebuilding taking off. Bob had always argued that EU membership and a high value to the pound had mainly favoured the south-east and financial services. Richard had benefited more than most from that, but he is a Lancastrian to his core. As a result, both of them now feel that democracy demands that we leave. Bob actually wants that to be the case, Richard wouldn’t mind if we stuttered and stayed. One thing that unites them is agreeing with the recent group set up of intelligent people who now favour Brexit with a proper critique of the perplexing Treasury scenario analysis, brilliantly reported in The Sunday Times by Bryan Appleyard, another son of Lancashire. The negativity of the outcomes in these scenarios was guaranteed by the assumptions made. Bob and Richard, veterans of the business world, have seen many an analysis similarly skewed. They’ll make the most likely assumption, that those from the metropolitan élite are the the dickheads!

A Northern Intellectual

Do you choose who you are? Anyone who reads these blogs will know that I identify as a Lancastrian, football and cricket loving, middle-of-the-road Anglican; physicist, philosophical dualist, centrist politically with a liberal core but respect for tradition; the last Victorian and the first baby boomer, a Bob Dylan fan who loves the imagery of language and appropriation/assimilation in art, more an integrator than a differentiator while expecting nothing to have an ultimately logical answer; with engineers and businessmen who find their world both necessary and meaningless; in other words, I identify with the power of paradox. Is it what’s happened to me in life that’s left me like this or was I like it from the start?
I still have the accent of my home territory, despite having lived only twenty of my seventy-two years there. Many northerners in the south lose theirs. I’m not aware of having made any conscious effort to keep it, but there again I do like having it. I could as easily gone on the humanities side but nobody who has been fortunate enough to read Physics can ever regret it. I pursued a business career, successfully until it inevitably ended in failure, a result either of my roundedness or my quirkiness. I’ve written a novel, a family saga, which I was happy with, though bounded in my place and time, which tried to show characters who took everything with them.
None of my identifiers are unique. The number of people who share all of them, temporal and philosophical, probably number of order 10,000, maybe a millionth of the world’s population. There’s no point pretending I have the only valid perspective of the world. So it’s important to understand and not judge others. I must put myself in their shoes, something which today’s orthodoxy is close to useless at. Maybe it has been ever thus.
So I’ll continue to see myself as a northern intellectual, looking over from the house next door, a bit like the Manchester Guardian before it chose to lose its accent. I feel I have no other choice that I’m prepared to make. I think I was born this way.

Soon will be near to us once more

I’ve always loved Christmas. We still kit out the conservatory out as Santa’s Grotto, despite the children being in their twenties and not here much. The memories of the family Christmas when I was young and those when our kids were are equally magical. Sadly, there are only a few cousins left from the cast of thousands who’d be at my Grannie’s in the fifties. All the previous two generations are gone. “Someday soon we all will be together, If the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Those were the words of “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” as heard through the war. Born as it finished, I saw those who’d hoped for it ten years later and that’s precisely what they were doing. Frank Sinatra took out the ‘muddling through’ and made it “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” That’s what Christmas is to me, the star of wonder. O God, lead us to thy perfect light when our time is through. I pray the darkness will not overcome it.

Madonna or the Magdalene?

I spent an interesting hour in the company of Bettany Hughes watching BBC4 last night. She’s always good value. Her programme was about how the cults surrounding Aphrodite/Venus developed through history in different cultures, mainly pre-christian but with a brief reference to the Madonna. My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? is a family saga, which assumes monogamy and love between partners as the norm, while the storylines substantially are about the difficulties in complying with that norm.
In the midquel to Where’s Sailor Jack?, provisionally called No Precedent? (I do like titles with question marks but they’re damned difficult to punctuate), now about half-written, I’ve created an alluring character, a young woman called Maddie, who is happy with more than one partner at once, of either gender. She does not feel that this is sinful, and as she throws away her family’s catholicism, will come to deride the notion that she stands in need of salvation.
I realised last night that I am writing her as a modern-day Venus, sometimes in blue jeans but mainly in a short, tight skirt when she’s wearing anything at all.If I allow her approach to life to become the theme of the book, don’t I negate the finely-nuanced acceptance of the basic Christian message of the first novel? The fall as depicted in the Garden of Eden, perhaps a little later than the first Aphrodite, is from a state of innocent obedience to guilty disobedience to the will of God, with no interim state of either guilty obedience, which some would accuse Christianity of, or innocent disobedience, the status perhaps being claimed for Maddie.
I’ve also realised that Maddie subliminally was suggested to me by Mary Magdalene. Maddie shows selfishness and deviousness with her fellow humanity, not seeking harmony in her pursuit of pleasure. If you take the gods out of the narrative, she does still for me stand in need of repentance and salvation, as do we all.
I’m sure that the development of the cults of Venus and the Madonna has been happening since humans came into being, and before. One time, my old dog ran off to investigate some food he’d spotted a few hundred yards back. It was along a main road, and I worriedly chased after him. I tripped over a flagstone and crashed to the pavement, cutting myself nastily. He heard, turned and ran back to me. He had a conscience. I was his lifetime partner. He didn’t have to forsake all others but he put me first. The Madonna or Mary Magdalene are both in the story.

Wonder where the wonder’s gone

I know there’s a lot of depressing stuff in the News at the moment, such as the imminent nuclear war, but nothing has depressed me more than the recent religious survey. Less than half the population have any religious faith, and only 15% even say they’re Anglicans. I grew up in a Lancashire village just after the war when the vast majority were churchgoing Anglicans. Those that weren’t could be Methodists, Catholics whose ancestors had stuck with the old faith, or the odd atheist whose position was defined in opposition to Christianity. The community, 230 miles from London, was in direct line from that which developed 1300 years before when ancient Briton met Anglo-Saxon, perhaps with a bit of Dane thrown in early on. Yes, by then we had a picture-house, but the main entertainments were the church dances, the beetle and whist drives, and the annual gala (pronounced gayla as it should be), led by the prize silver band escorting the Queen of the May, where I won threepence for finishing third in the six-year olds race. A war had just finished and rationing was still on, but the mood had moved to one of hope.
This isn’t an anti-immigration piece: indeed I share the mourning for our past with reflective people from all colours and creeds I now talk to in London suburbs. Dog walkers of all ages form a group that thinks about what relationships mean. It isn’t an anti-liberal piece. I would have voted for nearly all the ‘progressive’ legislation passed since the sixties. It may be a piece with anti-metropolitan leanings but that’s not today’s concern. It’s not a piece to re-argue my view that theism is entirely rational, indeed more in line with the evidence from modern Physics and the theories from modern Maths than the alternatives of multiverses and actual infinities. It’s not about dualism or dual aspect monism, splitting the mental and physical, giving neither primacy, which I’ve also said enough on. It’s not saying we make reality, but it is saying that what we make is real.
The past is real. The universe is finite, a bit bigger than the universe of the six-year old me but finite. There’s no creator if it’s infinite, and if so nowhere to keep anything. No creator and there’s no sense of wonder to be felt when you look out at the night sky or across Ullswater to Helvellyn. What’s left is the frustration that the equations, all you then have by way of explanation, will never solve, with you wondering hopelessly why that’s the case. Now thank we all our God…

Somewhere a place for us

A recent debate with a friend has left me wondering about the distinction between somewheres and anywheres as propounded by David Goodhardt in his book The Road to Somewhere. This categorisation has been widely used by commentators to differentiate between leavers and remainers in the EU membership referendum. I can imagine the glee with which they read about it, guaranteeing as it did that they had fresh material for several future columns. Or in my case, for a blog.Those of you who have read Where’s Sailor Jack? will know from the biographical notes and from the themes of the book that I have strong links with Lancashire, particularly with Poulton-le- Fylde and Bolton, the home territories of Bob Swarbrick and Richard Shackleton respectively. This latter surname from just over the boundary with Yorkshire was my nod to my own distant ancestry on the male side. To this list, I could add Southport, Liverpool and Manchester where I have either lived or worked. But I did spend the bulk of my working career in London, and I live in Home Counties affluence. I moved from living in a Poulton terraced-house with an outside lavatory as the war ended to going to New College Oxford, the Wykehamists’ college, in 1964. Such was the unique opportunity for the favoured few intellectually able boys (and just a few girls) at that stage.
I voted Remain for three separate reasons: the economic risks from leaving: the wish to avoid further European wars: my children were voting Remain. If I had my way, the EU would also have Russia in too for the second reason.
My friend pointed out to me, after my usual, tedious eulogy for 1950s Lancashire, that anywheres are also from somewhere, not that I had remotely argued the opposite. I think the main critique of what I choose to write about is that it is arguing for the past as seen from both a temporal and geographical distance. It would be fair to accuse me of having a love-hate relationship with the socially liberal London-based media, for whom my principal criticism would be that they don’t know their own country very well. They also irritate me in the way they inveigle themselves into the editorialising position at the end of every discussion. It’s a skill I wish I possessed.(I do actually have even more problems with locally-based authority figures who know their own domains only too well and as a result wish to impose petty controls.)
I’m a philosophic dualist accepting separate physical amd mental domains that meet in reality. In Physics we used to say that the field is fundamental. I expect I will continue to strive to be rational in the decisions down to me while otherwise remaining a northern, Anglican, Bolton Wanderers supporting, family-centred male from the Fylde, capable of voting for all three main parties depending on time and place. In life, it’s the story that’s fundamental. We’re somewhere any old how.