Category Archives: Life & Philosophy

Passchendaele, Hedd Wyn, and enduring beauty

The centenary of the start of the battle at Passchendaele carries a particular poignancy in Wales. Amongst the first wave of casualties was Ellis Humphrey Evans, a farmer from Trawsfynydd in the foothills of Snowdonia, who wrote poetry as Hedd Wyn, and whose poem “Yr Arwr” – “The Hero”, would have seen him receive the Bardic Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod. Ironically Hedd Wyn translates as Blessed Peace, but it is clear that the reluctant soldier found little peace or blessing amidst the mud and squalor of First World War Belgium.

There is, however, an enduring and heart-rending beauty in the poetry that Evans left behind, and which is exemplified in his poem titled “War” (this translation by Louis Flint Ceci) :

Alas, this is an age so mean
That everyman is made a Lord,
For all authority’s absurd
When God himself fades from the scene.

As quick as God is shown the door
Out come the cannons and the sword:
Hate on hate on brother poured
And scored the deepest on the poor.

The harps that once could help our pain
Hang silent, to the willows pinned.
The cry of battle fills the wind
And blood of lads–it falls like rain.

In common with other First World War poets, Evans struggles to reconcile the peaceful orderliness of the world he has left behind, with the godless devastation of the battlefield. The observation that the suffering and pain of war falls disproportionately heavily on the poor and least powerful, is one that is repeated throughout the poetry of the time (and has been borne out in every conflict to the present day).

The senseless loss that is represented in Passchendaele is perhaps best described by Evans’ cousin, Gerald Williams, who still lives near the Gwynedd farmhouse that Evans’ was forced to leave on conscription : “All the cream of the young men had been killed – a whole generation wiped out – for what? I don’t know – it doesn’t make sense whatsoever. I don’t understand war at all.”

 

Box A, Box B or both boxes?

I’m up against it a bit time-wise today, but thankfully the Guardian has come to my rescue with a humdinger of a logic problem that has all sorts of philosophical implications.

The link to the problem is here.

I’d love to know what approach you’d take and why, so please don’t be shy – leave your comments below!

Better by design

There was a fascinating programme on BBC2 television last evening, reviewing the design innovations of Sir Kenneth Grange. Across an astonishingly diverse career, Grange has been responsible for the design of the Kenwood Chef, disposable razors, and the InterCity 125 locomotive. It was great TV and the sort of thing that the license-fee funded BBC can do, but which would probably be almost impossible to get commissioned on a commercial channel.

Prompted (I guess) by the programme, there was a feature on product design and marketing in today’s Guardian newspaper. Alongside a discussion of the Kenwood kitchen aid and an old style telephone handset, there are features on lip balm (some contain chemicals that actually make your lips dry so that you end up using more of the product!); and Heineken beer (with the smiley face ‘e’s that are deliberately designed to create a sense of happiness and fun in the branding.

Good design is critical to the success of products in a consumer-driven society; but it’s also important in terms of the quality of our lives on a day-to-day basis. Another story in the news today focuses on nature deficit disorder. This is the term being used to describe the impact of lives that are increasingly mediated through technology (television, computers, smartphones, tablets), and where many people spend virtually no time in the open air and green spaces, simply ‘being’ in nature. There is an emerging body of evidence that this is bad for us both psychologically and physiologically. Actually spending time in a green space looking at plants and trees, watching squirrels and birds, is good for our bodies and minds. And denying ourselves these simple pleasures can lead to physical and mental ill-health.

Mindfulness has gained something of a cure-all reputation in recent months, and there is (probably rightly) some cynicism about the extent to which it can really have all the positive effects that are claimed for it. Nevertheless, at the most fundamental level, creating space to simply be, focusing on the here and now in the physical world and concentrating on really experiencing the world around you as it is, seems to offer one route to addressing the damaging side-effects of an over-reliance on technology and indoor-living.

Perhaps we all need to think about designing in some time to appreciate the natural world around us as much as the wider, virtual world accessed through our screens. Have a good week everybody.

The positive impact of worrying

I used to have a poster on my bedroom wall which read : ” Don’t tell me that worrying doesn’t work, most of the things I worry about don’t happen!”

The reality of this has been brought home to me this week, when a number of potentially stressful situations – sources of severe worry at different times – have all been negotiated more or less successfully. Of course, the psychologists will point to the fact that a moderate amount of stress is a necessary precursor to successful completion of difficult tasks. We need to be ‘up for it’ and ‘on top of our game’ to be able to perform to our full potential. That has been true for me this week, but to be honest, it’s also quite wearing. There is a need to balance the stressful times with some rest and relaxation. Batteries need time to recharge. Stress enzyme levels need to be rebalanced. It’s not possible to keep operating at full speed all of the time.

So – sorry – no : there’s no chance of me making any progress on that list of jobs in the flat this weekend! 😉

Facebook wisdom : an unrepresentative sample!

For today’s post, I am drawing on some of the accumulated wisdom of Facebook that I’be collected over the past couple of years. These are the memes, cartoons and pictures that have either made me laugh, or touched a nerve, or otherwise given me pause for thought.

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This first cartoon fits firmly in the laugh out loud category. The look of trepidation on the sock facing the washing machine, and the reassuring appeal of his ‘partner’ to remember the buddy system is beautifully observed.

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This second one is both funny, but also touches on a more profound truth for anybody who is involved in education professionally, or who is simply a parent. Children and young people spend far more time being controlled, and exhorted to conform, than being encouraged to develop their creativity and flair. Another favourite meme features the slogan, “In a world of Kardashians, don’t be afraid to be a bit more Bonham Carter”, and appeals to the same principles as the dog cartoon.

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For reasons* that I can’t write about today, but that I will almost certainly return to when the time is right in the future, this final Peanuts cartoon carries a particular poignancy at the moment. It gently reminds us that however difficult things may get, life always deserves a chance to win through. That helps me to smile even at very sad times.

 

 

* In case anybody is concerned, this is about work rather than anything to do with family or my personal situation.

Truth stranger than fiction

I caught the end of a fascinating news report on BBC Breakfast this morning. Author Jeanette Winterson had visited a school in the Cotswolds to help the children there critically review the Cinderella fairy-tale, and then re-imagine it for the 21st Century. You can see the report and watch the video here. In part, the purpose of the visit was to explore the inherently sexist nature of the traditional narrative, and the version created by the children brilliantly re-writes the story’s ending to create a vision of an empowered and independent Cindy becoming co-founder of a successful business in partnership with the prince. The sassiness of shortening the name to Cindy, and the ambition shown for her by these primary school children is charming and inspiring in equal measure. The opprobrium of many of the viewers who contacted the BBC following the story, declaiming the ‘ruining’ of traditional stories, was as depressing as it was predictable.

Juxtaposing this story with the “you couldn’t make it up”, real-life story of Donald Trump promoting his public-school educated, merchant banker buddy Nigel Farage, as a potential UK Ambassador to the US,simply proves the old adage that truth is often so much stranger than fiction. But the sexist, racist, elitist messages that both Trump and Farage openly endorse, make the work of Winterson and a whole host of other, less prominent, people who are continuing to promote ideals of equality, fairness and justice, even more vitally important.

It is Edmund Burke, 18th Century parliamentarian and philosopher, to whom is attributed the saying that “for evil to triumph it is only necessary that good men do nothing”. Of course, taking our lead from Winterson, we need to change the “men” in the quote to “people”; but now more than ever, Burke’s sentiment must be a clarion call to everybody who opposes the narrow-minded, myopic, xenophobic, homophobic, mysogynist narrative of Trump, Farage and the motley crew of ultra-right wing ideologues that cling on to their coat-tails.

Fairy tales are quaint and can be indulged more liberally when the prevailing wisdom in society sees them as artefacts of a by-gone era when we were less enlightened. When the core messages of a ‘woman’s place in the home’, economic dependence on men, and a good marriage as the principal means of future security, are now part of mainstream political discourse, then its time for all of us to re-write the fairy tales.

Retail therapy? Torture more like

Why on earth do people go into city centres at this time of year? Today, I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Charlotte and Joanna, and that’s been great. But we spent it in the centre of Manchester with what seemed like millions of others all ostensibly Christmas shopping. In reality, we were mostly shuffling from shop to shop, elbowing our way through the throng to get close enough to the items that we were interesting in buying, and then queueing in long lines for the privilege of sealing the deal. Our trip was mostly successful, and we’ve managed to tick a few things off the list of presents that need to be bought before 25th December. But it’s hardly a relaxing and life-affirming experience. As someone who tends to go shopping only when I have a clear idea of what’s needed, from where, and at what price, ‘browsing’ doesn’t come naturally (surely that’s what the internet is for?). But the concept of browsing when the things you’re looking at don’t feature at all on any list of things needed (scented candles at £43 a pop, anyone?) is so alien to me that I don’t think I’ll ever completely understand it. On the plus side, we are at least back in the hotel in time for the Spanish football… 😉