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

Archives: bob dylan

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.

One more locust?

I’ve been together through most of my life with Bob Dylan. It started in the upper sixth in 1963, the year made famous by Philip Larkin for the discovery of sex. Not in my world, it wasn’t. That took a few more years. A northern grammar school boy, what else could I be studying but Maths, Physics and Chemistry? Twenty miles down the road, the Beatles had broken through to mega-stardom, with the Mersey sound everywhere. There was some great stuff, along with classic pop coming from America with guys like Don and Phil, the Big O and Gene Pitney.

In these days before teenagers had learnt how to lie in until lunchtime, there was a two hour morning pop music programme, Saturday Club, on the Light Programme introduced by Brian Matthew. The Beatles were playing live, after which John Lennon was interviewed. “That Bob Dylan, he’s dead gear,” were the words as I remember them.

Once the show finished, I rushed out to the record shop to buy Freewheelin. I couldn’t get over how good it all was, head over heels at the wondrous ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. For me, everything after then, even the great British stuff that followed almost immediately like The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Spencer Davis and The Animals, would never claim my total allegiance.

I’ve bought every single Dylan album since during the last fifty-two years, as well as the one album out before Freewheelin’. We really have been together through life. In these years I’ve ploughed through science and divinity degrees, and had a long business career. I’ve also had a family, finally having learnt the game, if slowly, that Buddy Holly sang about. I’ve only just now written my novel, Where’s Sailor Jack?, so I certainly got to know my song well before I started singing.

At every stage Dylan has struck the chord. I was still catching up at Oxford when the savvy public school types listened to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ for drug references. I knew where I was from, so I was far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow anyway. I was friends with a few folkies, one of whom would have lent Pete Seeger her axe at Newport. I loved the electric stuff, happily paying whatever the price was to be ‘Stuck in Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’.

Into the seventies, I lived the pain in that incredible album Blood on the Tracks where every word was etched into my soul from him to me. In one of the concerts at Wembley Arena I went to, Bob wasn’t having his best night, but his acoustic version of ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard, apart perhaps from another concert when he did ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’.

His Christian phase didn’t faze me. I’m a lifelong unorthodox believer. Like Jesus, he only preached for three years. He saw that the lone soldier on the cross would win the war after losing every battle, the only sense to be made of life.

He’s taken all his songs with him into his old age. The devil might rule this world, but God is the judge, and he’s decided they’re eternal. No-one has written old age like Dylan. We’re all trying to get to heaven before they close the door. We stayed in Mississippi a day too long. None of us can go back, at least not all the way. We missed that moment when all old things became new again. So while it’s not dark yet, it’s getting there.

But thanks to him, I’ve always had the murmur of his songs, like a prayer, in my soul.

Those Autumn Leaves

I’m reaching the empty nest stage quite late in life, being 71 next week. My wife Janet and I are not fully there yet, but the return to university this week for our youngest means that we’re rattling round the house during the day. Our eldest has found pastures new, leaving just our daughter with us and then only evenings. And our family dog, Timmy, is nearly 15, has cancer and a failed kidney. He still soldiers on, leaving an acquaintance observing how he doesn’t want to leave us, but sadly we know that very soon he must. I’ve lost my sister and my Mum over the last few years, my Dad having gone in 1998. In that under-rated Dylan song ‘Nettie Moore’, he sings of there being no-one left here to tell. There still is, but nobody who shares with me where it started.

There’s an old joke from a Rabbi saying life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies. Rob Brydon and his wife in the advert go on a cruise looking forward to the glazed scallops for dinner that evening. I know I’m fortunate that such pleasures might still await, and if they do, I must make the most of them as gifts freely given. Yet I wish Dad was at the end of a telephone to talk to on a Saturday as the football finishes; that I was looking forward to visiting my sister’s beautiful garden as the Autumn leaves turn to flame; that my Mum was still here to ask the recipe of that suet crust we used to have on cold winter days. Most of all I wish it was ten years ago and summer, with Janet, the three kids,the dog and me piling into the old Espace around a picnic box full of sandwiches, sausage rolls, pork pies and cake, for a day out at Nicky Nook, Timmy unable to contain his joy at the prospect.

I swear that at the first glazed scallop on that luxury cruise, I’m going to think of that day with my eyes full of tears.

Life science certainty

I always watch Alice Roberts’ programmes on television. They are invariably well-made, and I found The Incredible Human Journey essential viewing. She upset me a bit recently when she tweeted: “I get really confused when churches ask me to give lectures because they’re looking for an ‘ecumenical’ approach. Perhaps they’re confused.” I don’t know if the double use of ‘confused’ is deliberate, but the remarks weren’t designed to be friendly to those who’d approached her. I’m not blaming her for not fancying an evening in a draughty church hall, even with a lukewarm glass of prosecco afterwards, but I don’t think that was her problem. She has no need for their hypothesis.
I’m not a life scientist. Prior to a long business career in the electricity industry I read Physics, and at the end of my career did a Divinity degree. I would readily admit to the usual physicist prejudice of thinking the life sciences to be a branch of librarianship. No doubt my medical friends would respond that physicists, along with theologians and businessmen, are neither use nor ornament, a charge I would find difficult to resist. Back in the sixties, when quantum mechanics was still hip, I can remember my delight in deriving uncertainty and exclusion principles with digitised quantum energy levels from continuum wave equations. I would never stand on firm ground again, but I am a cradle Anglican. Later I was to read how Gödel had effectively shown that no finite mathematical system could contain its entire explanation. Even Stephen Hawking now thinks that there will not be an ultimate theory of everything with a finite number of principles. Despite the ingenious ways that mathematicians find of dealing with infinities in their equations, I still think that the concept of a physical infinity is incoherent. Gödel agreed with this, preferring to take the infinite outside the system.
That’s not the same as postulating a loving, personal God. I do think that an intelligent being similarly standing outside the system could view the development of reflective beings that we humans have become as remarkable.(And our dogs too, I’m not being exclusive!) But does that imply purpose? There is no explanation that comes close to a justification to humankind for the sheer volume of sentient pain from natural and moral evil. If there’s a God he certainly doesn’t appear almighty. Yet without those tectonic plates shifting, would there have been the background for us humans to evolve in the Rift Valley?
I’m not a full dualist in the philosophical sense, as I feel the mental and physical worlds meet on edges, which I guess makes me a dual-aspect monist. I don’t give too much agency to the mental, accepting that I usually seem to do whatever’s convenient and then repent, but I don’t discount the possibility. As a physicist, it’s difficult not to see scientific explanations as reductionist, given our use of mathematics, even when the equations don’t reduce. Yet there is a world of virtues, perhaps also vices, which cannot be put into Maths. Life scientists do at least usually work in language, if not one readily available to the amateur. Perhaps they never feel that their discipline can’t contain its own answers.
There have been some strange coincidences in my life. My father was a keen amateur cricketer back in Lancashire. Just after the war, he clean bowled five batsmen in five balls to win the game. In 2011, on the thirteenth anniversary of his death, my youngest son George did just the same bowling for his Hertfordshire School Under Fifteens. My howl of disbelief and delight could have been heard back in Lancashire. Just coincidence, say some. But there’s no way they’ve assessed the probabilities, and no way I have the data to do so either. If they did, their statistics would look at the possibility of it happening to anyone, I’d look only at the possibility of it happening to me, thus probably shifting the odds against by millions. Others say it’s in the genes. Maybe, though I never bowled five straight in a row in my life and George had been all over the place until that final over. It’s like humour, if you ask why it’s funny, it no longer is.
My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? has a set of events that come together at one critical juncture. It’s a happy outcome for one, an engineer, who then declares all equations to be maya, the truth but not the whole truth. OK, the story line was contrived by me, though I never quite felt I wrote it. The philosopher Charles Taylor sees our sense of self as the story we tell ourselves about our lives. That’s why I wrote a novel. I do need a hypothesis. Dylan reckons that the devil rules the world, and God is the judge. I’ve no better explanation. To mean more, our stories need a loving God. In mine, he’ll have everyone in his eternity, the devil included.
I’m happy to drink the prosecco. The Communion wine is even better.

Is seventy the happiest age?

The papers have been full of a survey claiming that seventy year olds are the happiest people. I read about it in The Times yesterday. I don’t know if it was the same survey as The Mail covered today, which claimed that the biggest regret in life of the seventy year old is the one that got away. Maybe, but I reckon that by then the feeling is more one of relief. My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? has the characters at it in their sixties but after seventy you’re on borrowed time and the story of your life has been constructed, with the sub-plot of that special memory concluded before the last chapters. Also, to dampen any residual ardour, you can take a guess at what medications are now in their bathroom cabinet.
The Mail article seems to confuse being seventy with the seventies as the music they listed as septuagenarians listening to featured Queen and Abba. I’m sure we all appreciated Freddie Mercury and liked Abba, us men lusting after Agnetha’s bottom and the girls dancing about as well as she did, but that wasn’t our music. That started with pre-army Elvis, we learnt the game with Buddy Holly, progressed through the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison, had a spell as folkies, before being taken by storm by The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who and Dusty. We’ve been together through life with Dylan. As any older sibling would listening to a younger one’s taste, we thought seventies’ stuff derivative or pretentious, as in prog rock. Post punk, it got better so we could claim The Pretenders and Elvis Costello as ours. One of the biggest pains in the backside from being old is seeing the middle-aged in their positions of authority getting their history wrong. The narrative created by them concerning the fifties and sixties is invariably skewed by their own somewhat precious preoccupations.
Research a few years ago said people were actually happiest at 74. It would be great to think that the best is yet to come, but I think the reason for later-life satisfaction is that the strife is more or less o’er, the battle done, and we await our personal last trump. In the meantime, we want things for our children and grandchildren more than for ourselves, sometimes even when that’s the last cake in the tin.
I remember well the moments of triumph in my life, the net bulging, the Oxford acceptance, the early promotions. But all my childhood family have gone. There’s nobody left here to tell, at least no-one who’s remembers. Loneliness can be a function of age as well as circumstance. To be fair, the children do try to look interested.
Where I still have ambition, as in trying to promote my book, write a second one, or pen an interesting blog, I still have stress. The good fortune of being older is that worries come singly rather than in succession. The bad part is the exception to this of ill health and death.They’ll not seem like winning the victor’s crown. Yet the best victory is defeat.
And the best age to be is whatever you are today.

Who’s a boomer?

Born just after the war finished in late 1945, I always assumed I was a baby boomer. My class at primary school was told that’s what we were. But only the younger members of that class are now caught by the ONS classification. Someone born in 1964, a boomer according to the ONS, could only be the child of one for me, a consequence of the fallibility of condoms in the pre-pill era, not that they worked well if still in the top pocket of a jacket. Older boomers respected the music of their older siblings, like Elvis. They learnt the game with Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney.
Then came the sheer northern working class, grammar school (Ringo excepted) energy and vitality of the Beatles and the Mersey sound. That’s what I still think of as baby boomer music. It was the sound of delight from the first lower class generation to get a shout. The Beatles were immediately followed by The Stones, The Kinks, and The Who from elsewhere in the country. Male mainly, but we got the brilliant Dusty early. From the US, Dylan in a sense capped it all as he still does more than half a century later. One of the characters in my book sums up early boomer attitude to what followed when he was made by his wife in the early seventies to listen to a Yes album. “I’d rather listen to bloody Mantovani.”
I quote from Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde and even a Snow Patrol song in the book, but not Bowie. Although only a year younger than me, not a word of his crossed my mind while I was writing. Even those of us who’d gone to University were in gainful employment in the white hot heat of the technological revolution by the time he hit it big, the few who’d gone to Art School included. We heard him on car radios driving to the factory or the office.
The wall to wall coverage since his death has reminded me of the many songs of his that I did know, and they were good, but I enjoyed his Tony Newley impressions best! Conversations with contemporaries reveal similar views. There are at least two categories of boomer!

His Bobship – A life shared with Bob Dylan

I was in the upper sixth in 1963, the year made famous by Philip Larkin for the discovery of sex. Not in my world, it wasn’t. That took a few more years. A northern grammar school boy, what else could I be studying but Maths, Physics and Chemistry? Twenty miles down the road, the Beatles had broken through to mega-stardom, with the Mersey sound everywhere. There was some great stuff, along with classic pop coming from America with guys like Don and Phil, the Big O and Gene Pitney.

In these days before teenagers had learnt how to lie in until lunchtime, there was a two hour morning pop music programme, Saturday Club, on the Light Programme introduced by Brian Matthew. The Beatles were playing live, after which John Lennon was interviewed. “That Bob Dylan, he’s dead gear,” were the words as I remember them.

Once the show finished, I rushed out to the record shop to buy Freewheelin. I couldn’t get over how good it all was, head over heels at the wondrous ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. For me, everything after then, even the great British stuff that followed almost immediately like The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Spencer Davis and The Animals, would never claim my total allegiance.

I’ve bought every single Dylan album since during the last fifty-two years, as well as the one album out before Freewheelin’. We really have been together through life. In these years I’ve ploughed through science and divinity degrees, and had a long business career. I’ve also had a family, finally having learnt the game, if slowly, that Buddy Holly sang about. I’ve only just now written my novel, Where’s Sailor Jack?, so I certainly got to know my song well before I started singing.

At every stage Dylan has struck the chord. I was still catching up at Oxford when the savvy public school types listened to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ for drug references. I knew where I was from, so I was far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow anyway. I was friends with a few folkies, one of whom would have lent Pete Seeger her axe at Newport. I loved the electric stuff, happily paying whatever the price was to be ‘Stuck in Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’.

Into the seventies, I lived the pain in that incredible album Blood on the Tracks where every word was etched into my soul from him to me. In one of the concerts at Wembley Arena I went to, Bob wasn’t having his best night, but his acoustic version of ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard, apart perhaps from another concert when he did ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’.

His Christian phase didn’t faze me. I’m a lifelong unorthodox believer. Like Jesus, he only preached for three years. He saw that the lone soldier on the cross would win the war after losing every battle, the only sense to be made of life.

He’s taken all his songs with him into his old age. The devil might rule this world, but God is the judge, and he’s decided they’re eternal. No-one has written old age like Dylan. We’re all trying to get to heaven before they close the door. We stayed in Mississippi a day too long. None of us can go back, at least not all the way. We missed that moment when all old things became new again. So while it’s not dark yet, it’s getting there.

But thanks to him, I’ve always had the murmur of his songs, like a prayer, in my soul.

John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.

Find out more about John:

Website         Twitter          Facebook      Amazon         LiterallyPR

Or contact:

Info@literallypr.com