Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Who'd like a ginger biscuit?

Isn't it strange how you forget things . . . vital episodes of your life. Well, perhaps not vital exactly, but certainly formative.
There was a sense of familiarity last week, when I was writing to you about the Kentish cob nuts of my youth. I'd done this before. Telling stories had a sense of deja vue. And, suddenly, I remembered. It was a memory from way back in childhood.

Could you do with some more reminiscences? If you've a moment to spare, this should make you smile . . .

I went to boarding school at the age of ten. For reasons that I can't remember, I started in the summer term and, accordingly, was the only new girl in the dormitory. Having been brought up on a misleading diet of Enid Blyton, I had come fully prepared with the compulsory 'midnight feast' - ginger biscuits, kindly donated by a neighbour from home.

The lights had been switched off. Everyone had subsided under the bedclothes.
"Er . . . would anyone like a ginger biscuit . . .?" I enquired nervously.
After the initial surprise, nine small figures sat up in bed and looked at me expectantly. I reached under the bed for my suitcase, took out a tin, and proceeded to pass ginger biscuits round the room.
There was some exploratory chewing, followed by grunts of appreciation.

But I was not to be let off so lightly. Somehow (a ten-year-old girl can be very gullible) I was persuaded into believing that tradition dictated each newcomer told a story to the dormitory before everyone went to sleep. Anxious to be accepted by these critical new companions, for whom biscuits were clearly not enough, I embarked on something I'd never done before . . . I started telling stories.

Believe it or not, I continued telling sleep-inducing stories for the next six years!

So, as you can see, you are the successor to a dormitory-full of dozy adolescents - before you drop off, would you like a ginger biscuit?!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's all happening!

Oh dear, how do I, someone totally unversed in IT skills and science, explain another fascinating item that I heard the other day on the 'Today' programme?
But it needs to be shared . . . so I really must try to explain it to you.
Please be patient . . . I'll do my best.

Have you heard of B.C.I?
B.C.I, so it appears, stands for Brain-Computer Interfacing, which, in layman's terms, could also be translated as 'brains control instruments'. Apparently (and this was what amazed me), scientists have now reached the point whereby they can send messages via computers using an internet connection plus nothing more nor less than the power of the mind. For example, someone sitting at a computer here in London could, without the use of a keyboard or a mouse, send a mental message to someone in Manchester asking them, for example, to move their right arm. The person in Manchester, sitting at his computer, would receive the message via his computer and, in accordance with the request, move his right arm.

Please don't ask me how this miracle works. I've no idea. But to the speaker it was no miracle, it was a vital step forward involving both a detailed knowledge of the working of the brain and advanced computer science.

What is not so good is the news that the military are investing millions into this research. No wonder. If you can bring down an enemy aircraft by communicating directly with its control panel, it's far cheaper, and more effective, than using missiles. I suppose it's also more environmentally-friendly, although I rather doubt whether this comes into military calculations!

But let's be positive. Another avenue of research, and one that I whole-heartedly support, is that of wheelchairs for the severely disabled. How marvellous for someone in such a situation to regain their independence of movement purely by the power of thought.

I don't know how you feel, but to me it's mind-boggling (probably that is precisely the right word!) how everything in our complex, technological world is speeding up.
In a year or so's time, will I be able to chat to you on this computer using nothing other than thought?
Take heart, that's still a good way off! For the time being, in addition to the computer, I still need three essential commodities . . . a keyboard, a mouse and time!
Talking of time, let's take a moment in all our rushing, racing and marvelling to pause and reflect.
To do so is to realise that only a hundred years ago there were no computers, far less one operated by thought. Not only that, in those innocent years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the atmosphere was totally free of electronic communication.
Just pause and think . . . as you and I sit here now, our bodies are being constantly penetrated by electromagnetic wavelengths. We are positively vibrating with emails, telephone conversations, television programmes, radio broadcasts, texts, web-sites . . . you name it, our bodies and minds are continuously absorbing it. The air around us is crackling with information in a way that has never happened before . . . we breathe it in, we consume it, the frequencies penetrate our every fibre.Has it changed us . . . ?
I sometimes wonder.

Oh yes, and something else. Did you know that they're planning to reactivate the Large Hadron Collider in November?

It's all happening . . . !

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Great Nut Hunt

What delicious cob nuts, thank you so much. Were they from Kent?

You'll laugh . . . having lost my nut-cracker, and being quite determined to enjoy your kind gift, I've had to resort to a hammer! If I need to use a hammer, it's all the more impressive that rodents can crack open nuts simply by using their teeth.

Have you heard about The Great Nut Hunt organised by the PTES? It's a nationwide search for the endangered dormouse. People are being encouraged to scour the countryside in search of cob nuts bearing the distinctive drilled hole made by the tooth of the dormouse.
We can't lose the dormouse. Lewis Carroll, for one, would never forgive us.

Thinking of nuts and mice . . . can you cope with a nutty memory?

When I was small, and lived in Kent, we had a grove of hazel trees in the garden. You could see them clearly from the bedroom window. Every year, in early autumn, we were visited by a marauding army. They weren't interested in us, they weren't interested in the garden, all they had eyes for were the hazel trees and the ripening cob nuts.
Have you guessed what they were? That's right . . . rats!

They were beautifully well-regulated rats, trooping across the garden in orderly formation straight for the hazel trees. Once there, they shinned swiftly up into the branches where each rat would delicately pick off a single nut. Then, bearing his trophy above his nose, the rat would descend and join the single-file convoy returning to their nest.
Where the nest was, we didn't know. However, one thing was beyond doubt . . . it was a nest stuffed full of our cob nuts!

The rats' forays usually took place in early morning and early evening. I would stand at my bedroom window, watching in fascination . . . hoping that they would leave some for me. I, too, enjoyed the nuts!

It must be admitted that, during their period of occupation, the rat army were somewhat possessive about our garden. They regularly sharpened their claws on the gate-posts . . . sat nonchalantly washing their faces on the pathway . . . and often refused to give way to the postman.

But it was all over very quickly. With the last of the nuts came the last of the rats. Where did they spend the rest of the year? I've no idea. But I can personally testify to the fact that the Kentish rats of my youth were very well fed.

PTES need have no worries . . . rats, I feel, are unlikely to become an endangered species!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The turn of the worm?

Have you a moment to give a little thought to potatoes?
In your opinion, do potatoes taste the same as they did, say, twenty years ago?
I was talking to a friend the other day and he was bemoaning the fact that Jersey potatoes - the early potatoes that he'd enjoyed all his life - had lost their flavour.

Thinking about what he'd said, I remembered discussions I'd heard on the 'Today' programme recently about impoverished soil and the importance of worms.
It's ridiculous, isn't it, how you can fail to see the obvious. Stupid as it may sound, I had never before taken into account how human life on this planet is totally dependent on the health of the soil. We think in terms of the products of the soil, we say that we need bread, and meat, and milk. But, when it comes down to it, what are cattle and sheep other than soil on four legs? Without healthy soil to produce grass there would be no cattle or sheep. Without healthy soil there would be no fruit, no vegetables . . . no us.

Which was what the discussion was all about. It was sobering to learn that our intensive farming of the past decades has had a near-catastrophic outcome. The soil is losing its fertility. It is turning to dust. Over-laden with chemicals, ravaged by heavy machinery, deprived of the shelter of trees and hedges, it has finally become exhausted. Not only that, the vital importance of the earthworm, the co-creator of the soil, has been largely ignored.

Is it so surprising that the natural world has had enough? Look at the way weighty machinery has first compounded, and then sucked the life out of the soil. Look at our short-term attitude to use and disposal. Look at the vast quantity of non-biodegradable waste that we have asked the earth to swallow up on our behalf.

The question must be: is it too late? In seriously damaged areas, it seems we are substituting heavy machinery, and deep tilling, for the less invasive activity of spades. On some farms the earth is being fed with manure, rather than chemicals. Whilst other farmers are allowing their fields to lie fallow on a rotation basis, and thus recover from our greedy manipulation. They're even carrying out a soil survey and a worm count in 'The Archers'!

But let's look at the bigger picture. What is the reason for this exploitation of the soil? Short-sighted policies, world-wide, have governed that modern crops are high-yield varieties of vegetables, fruit and grain. However, in concentrating on high-yield we have unintentionally bred out a large percentage of the minerals and trace elements that are vital to our health. In giving priority to the commercially viable, we have neglected the nutritious. In craving the perfect, we have killed off other life-forms that are a vital part of the eco-system.
And have we ended up with perfection? Far from it! Not only do many of these new varieties lacks flavour, more importantly they also lack magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron. So much for our blinkered criteria that they crop abundantly, look visually perfect, and attract the buyers to the supermarket shelves.

Does this sound like an up-dated version of the story of Adam and Eve? Seduced by the sight and size of the apple, are we ignoring the possibly catastrophic consequences? Do we really want a second, unscheduled exit from The Garden of Eden?

So, what can we do? Speaking personally, I'm going to do my best to cherish the knobbly carrot, choose the bruised tomato, and opt for the bent banana. More than that, I'm going to take a common sense attitude to 'sell by' dates and be grateful . . . oh, so grateful . . . for every mouthful.

The programme-makers of 'Today' had a nice sense of irony. Shortly after one of these discussion, they broke the news of possible water on the moon.
Could this, they debated, mean more 'giant steps for Mankind'? We have the knowledge, we have the resources. Now that we know that there is water awaiting us . . . ? Who knows.

But, when it comes down to basics, even astronauts are made of flesh and blood - like the rest of us, they need to eat.
It's a salutary and reassuring thought, isn't it . . . despite our incredible technical abilities, not to mention impressive scientific know-how, we haven't a hope of putting another man on the moon without the co-operation of the humble earthworm!

Let's raise a glass of apple-juice to the turn of the worm!

Monday, October 5, 2009

A love story

Did you see that fine programme about faith on Channel 4?
I say that it was about faith, it might be more accurate to describe it as being about religion. As the presenter, Antony Thomas, said in conclusion, the tenets of the world's great religions, movingly expressed through the thoughts of their leaders, seemed to have more in common with each other than with many of their followers.

It's ironical, isn't it. The leaders grow closer whilst the fundamentalists seem to lurch ever further apart. What I've noticed, and I'm sure you'd agree, is that it's growing increasingly common for people to express a belief in God - in a spiritual basis to life - whilst having little or no faith in organised religion.

Yes, I know, the word 'religion' can be interpreted in a far wider context, but the general understanding is pretty limited. 'Religion' . . . a box to tick on a questionnaire. A tick that will indicate which, if any, of the world's great faiths gets your vote. Whichever box you choose to tick, you are segregating yourself from a vast proportion of the world's population. 'Religion' . . . a grouping by faith that has been demonstrated by history as disruptive, divisive and the cause of practically every known act of war or terrorism.

Where do I stand on this controversial issue . . . ?
My mind places me alongside those who, convinced of one divine source, would wish for unity. Thereby seeing an end to all sects and divisions, despite the undoubted good and charitable work that the individual religions undertake.
And my heart . . . ?
This is where life gets complicated! My heart over-rules logical argument and, for reasons of its own, supports the Church. It supports the Church because of my lifelong love-affair with its glorious places of worship, in particular its cathedrals.

Is this a trivial reason to over-rule logic? I don't think so.
Have you stood, as I have, spellbound under the dome of St. Paul's? Or driven across the Fens in the early morning, entranced by a distant mirage - the cathedral at Ely, shimmering on its unlikely hilltop in the distance? Have you been captivated by the phoenix that is Coventry . . . or mesmerized by the dazzling splendour of the east window at Salisbury . . . or discovered, in the crypt at Winchester, the holy well that drew pilgrims to the site long before Christianity ever reached these islands?

Nor is that all . . . far from it. Over and above these qualities of beauty and fascination, sacred buildings have another and far greater dimension to offer. They offer us the spiritual nourishment of the numinous . . . of sanctuary . . . of coming home.

Please don't think I'm ignoring the human component to these sacred buildings. To do that would be both foolish and ignorant. They didn't design or build themselves. Their sense of transcendence is not inherent in the stonework, it comes from centuries of worship, rite and ritual from devout religious bodies. It comes from people, like you and me, who go there in search of an encounter with the divine. Not only that, these buildings have been loved - and love, that most fluid of commodities, has seeped into their very structure.
But - and this is the critical question - how to keep the cathedrals and churches alive and active? A sacred building rapidly looses its spiritual component if it becomes no more than an historic tourist attraction. To foster the sense of the numinous you undoubtedly need a body of worshippers, you need a Church.

However, I mustn't get carried away by what the Christian tradition has to offer. In talking of wonderful, treasured buildings, I'm certainly not thinking exclusively of cathedrals and churches.

Just look at the glorious synagogues . . . the exquisite mosques . . . the temples . . . the shrines . . . all potent symbols of man's innate desire for worship, and his recognition of divinity in matter.

What's more, as we drive through our crowded towns and cities, the occasional glimpse of a spire, minaret or dome can - if only subliminally - remind us for a moment that there is more to life than the current traffic jam.

So, yes . . . we need the focal point of sacred buildings and shrines to feed our spirit. The forms they take are as imaginative and diverse as the cultures known to man. The same cultures who, through divine inspiration, have acquired a multiple means of praising their single, all-pervasive, divine source.
Shouldn't each facet of this diversity recognise and honour all the others?
'Religion' . . . the world's multi-faceted, mutually-enhancing belief system?

And, who knows, if the dictionary gets it right, might all the facets of that belief system finally fall silent in their sacred buildings and recognise their divine unity . . . you never know, they might!