A Timely Message

The following is an extract from a speech that Robert Kennedy gave in 1968.  It has no less relevance today, 48 hours before the inauguration of the incoming president of the USA.

“If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us.  We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.
And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year.  But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all.  Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans”.

For those who don’t hail from the USA, please replace the words “America” and “Americans” with those that are either relevant to their own country or, preferably, global.

Planet of the Apes, Anyone?

When I was a child, more years ago that I care to remember, despite Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, we were brought up on the idea that human beings were set apart from the other animals. That we were, in fact, the most intelligent of species at the top of the evolutionary tree. At which point, a quote from, I believe from Mao Tse Tung when asked what he thought about western civilisation, is reported to have replied “It’s too soon to say”. One which is only bettered by a reputed response from Mahatma Gandhi to the same question, that he thought that “It would be a good idea.” Anyway, already I digress from the point, which is “Is our uniqueness not absolute but rather a matter of degree?”

Now anyone who has ever watched almost any of David Attenborough’s wildlife programmes will have seen how much ingenuity many of the other species exhibit. And that’s before we consider how similar our behaviour is to our nearest living relatives. Yes, I’ve watched programmes that demonstrated how amazing are octopi and ones where members of the crow family exhibit a capacity to solve problems that are, shall we just say, quite a degree of intellect. Yet, what was shown was their skill in solving what you could call “technical” problems; the ability to find a way out of a maze or get food from a deep container of water (fill it with stones so that the food rises, if you’re interested).

Well, an article in today’s copy of The Guardian described something on a very different level, what is called cultural intelligence among Long Tailed Macaques in Bali. After spending nine months filming them, researchers have found that they seem to have become expert at evaluating those items that tourists value most in the form of mobile phones, wallets and glasses and targeting these. “So what?” you might say. Well, here’s the interesting part. The researchers discovered that the Macaques actually bargained for greater rewards, eg more food, for the return of items that were seen as more valuable. In one case, it took 25 minutes for an item to be returned after 17 minutes of “negotiation”. Moreover, as these were feral animals, they have learnt this behaviour through from their elders. “Planet of the Apes”, anyone?

If You Build It, They Will Come

This title, as any film buff will know, comes from a film starring Kevin Costner, in which he builds a baseball pitch miles from anywhere, in the belief that, if he does so, people will turn up. Which, of course, they do.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I believe in the inherent good nature of the great majority of humanity. Moreover, it’s a belief that is supported by experience, including over 40 years in practical projects in the voluntary sector in which those on the receiving end in society were able to solve their own problems. In the most notable of these, those who were homeless and/or unemployed, men and women, were able to build their own homes. At which point, the response from some of those not in these situations was, “If they could build their own homes, they wouldn’t be homeless.” Something that rather ignored the fact that it wasn’t ability they lacked but the  resources.

The point about this approach is that, like most other things in life, you start from where people are and not where you’d like them to be and that you don’t judge and penalise them for the situation that they find themselves in. How can you when you probably know very little about them? Which brings me to the matter of today’s blog about a scheme in Manchester where, three years ago, Andy Burnham the Mayor, made, what might have seemed, a fanciful commitment, to find homes for 200 of the city’s most entrenched rough sleepers. Crucially, neither addiction, a criminal record or history of eviction were to be a bar to the tenancy. Neither did applicants have to get “clean” first.

Despite some early scepticism, 356 long term rough sleepers were given a roof over their heads along with “wrap around” support. The result has been that 79% of the tenants are still housed, that 45 of them have started training or are in employment while 133 have had help with mental health problems and 97 have made use of alcohol or other drug services. In cases where the project has not worked well, tenants have been given “managed moves” instead of being evicted. Three years down the line and the scheme has become one of the UK’s most successful homelessness projects. From the initial expectation, from one of the partners in the organisation’s financial management, that at least half the tenancies would be expected to fail, the project is one of their “shining stars”. The Mayor is quoted as saying that many people now have safe, warm homes and the support that they need and, as a result, can look forward to a positive future. It just shows what can be done when there’s a will to do so; something that we’re all witness to if we just look around.

Doesn’t Time Fly When You’re Enjoying Yourself?

When I look at my website, I see that it’s nearly two years since I last posted a blog; hence the title of this one. In fact, as you discover as you age, it’s less when you enjoy yourself that time flies and more as you just get older. So, I’m going to write about some things that I’ve read about or that have happened that lifted my spirits. However, before I start on those blogs, perhaps a short personal update might be opportune.

On the footie front, having taken us supporters on a roller coaster ride to the Champions’ League final, Spurs not only fell at the last hurdle but compounded the matter six months later by summarily dismissing their esteemed manager. They then compounded things even more by appointing one Jose Mourinho, someone who doesn’t endear himself to me with his behaviour. Still, it’s also given me the opportunity to add another chapter or two to my book, “Why Don’t You Just Support Arsenal? The Life and Times of a Spurs Supporter”.

While I’m on the subject of books, I also need to say that I’ve also written by first work of fiction, “Finally Meeting Mum” which I’m now trying to get an agent for. It’s an autobiographical novel in which I meet someone who died over 70 years ago; even my wife thinks it’s “brilliant”. There is no higher praise. Check these, and my other books, out on https://mikedaligan.com/books/ I’m now working on my second novel with two other works of nonfiction in hand, one of which is nearly finished.

On the downside, this time last year, I returned from the New Year break with the worst illness I’ve ever had. It kept me bedbound for nearly a month and was, it turns out a really bad virus. I haven’t had any checks but both Gaynor and I are pretty sure that it was Covid. On a happier note, we will become grandparents to our daughter whose own daughter Rosalyn Ada (the latter name after my mum) is due in a couple of months. Which prompts the question, “Is knitting something that prospective grandmothers take to without any previous training?” Lastly, we’ve had some major works done to the flat which we’re extremely pleased with. We plan to complete this renovation work by tackling the garden when the weather gets better. In fact, we’ve already started by replacing the old decking and the pergola frame.

 We’ve also managed to continue, albeit intermittently, with our weekend walks seeking out those highways and byways that most people don’t notice. What we’ve found, and Gaynor has written about and photographed, has been a delight to both of us. If you’re interested check out https://hiddenwithinplainview.co.uk/. This probably includes about one third of our walks over the past four years, with the rest still to be uploaded. Finally, having been unable to run for nearly three months due to the virus, I picked up again in late Spring and am still pounding away, largely over the Heath and surrounding roads. I have to admit that running through empty streets during the first lockdown was an amazing experience. Running down an empty Euston Road made me feel that I was in a sci fi film.

So, yes, time does fly when you’re enjoying yourself and age is no barrier to that enjoyment. Long may it continue!

An Early Morning History Lesson

It’s 4.30 am and I’ve been woken by the need to write; this time about three momentous events that have occurred this week.

The first is the decision by the Labour Party to hold another referendum on remaining or leaving the EU. A referendum that, if it is held, will be the third one. For those who are aware of their history, the first one was held in 1975 when we voted to stay in. As a matter of record, at that time, I voted to leave and have since changed my mind. So the referendum that was held nearly three years ago was, in fact, the second one that many Brexiteers tell us that we can’t have when, in fact, that’s what they had in 2016. Just a thought.

The next one was my wife’s surprise birthday party last Saturday. Organised by our daughter and yours truly, we managed to keep it a secret; something I’m normally not very good at. It was, probably, the best party I’d ever attended and one that we have a video record of as a permanent reminder. We also have a book in which are recorded her friends’ thoughts about her. It is a little treasure trove.

Our daughter, Ellie and her boyfriend, Alan, had taken Gaynor to lunch so that we could get everything ready which we did. Seeing her response when she came into the room to be confronted by over 40 people. Family and friends stretching back to school days, some of whom had travelled 400 miles to be there. To see such love and affection was a joy and showed me that I’m not alone in my estimation of her. The fact that, when she walked in, they were wearing bee masks made it all so much more of a surprise. For those of you who aren’t aware, bees are Gaynor’s favourites.

The last one was Joan Baez’s farewell concert. Something which, again, gladdened the heart. Now aged 78, the voice may not be as achingly pure as it was when we were all so much younger but it was as powerful as ever as, was the message. As the years rolled away, I was reminded of my youth and a glorious age of enormous social change full of colour, hope, optimism and the most incredible music. Ms Baez did not disappoint and I was left with a lump in my throat on a number of occasions. Why can’t the world be like this all the time? Is that too much to ask?

So, it was a quiet person who journeyed home to a couple of glasses of wine and a comfortable bed. Until that early morning awakening and a determination to keep that spirit alive so that we don’t let succeeding generations down quite as much as we seem to be doing at present.

5.15 am and here endeth the history lesson.

Now, Where is that Video Camera?

DSC00801You can’t help but notice that, in this country, we currently live in troubled times. A situation made considerably worse by the fact the circumstances of our travails are self inflicted and likely to have adverse, long time effects. So much so that, even this optimist has become more cynical of the behaviour of those in government. Hence, someone who takes great pleasure in the written word, couldn’t be bothered to write. So, in an effort to break out of my languor, I’m trying to develop some new skills. If you’re interested, please read on.

Those who know me well know that I’m an avid reader, as is Gaynor, my wife. So, it was no surprise that my family gave me books at Xmas. Indeed, you’ll see a selection of them in the photo, taken, of course against a background of just one of our sets of bookshelves. So, what have my Xmas presents got to do with my first blog in two months? Well, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that all the books are nonfiction; something that constitutes about 80% of my reading matter. Ranging from history, ecology, cosmology, anthropology, politics and biographies, along with my family, that library is the bedrock that anchors me.

So, from this you’ll gather that I’m somewhat driven by the need to know; something I later found out was commented on, when I was a child, by lovely my Aunt Doreen, one of the relatives who brought me up. I’m told that she once said “That boy’s got a mind like a sponge. He just soaks up everything.” I take that as an enormous compliment. Moreover, that thirst for knowledge isn’t slaked by the passing years. If anything, it gets stronger.

This quest for knowledge and reason is, however, set within a strong set of beliefs; things that those who are religious would call faith; except that mine have no need of supernatural beings and related to my faith in the essential goodness of, what I would call “ordinary people”.  Something which, present times notwithstanding, was amply demonstrated in my work as a charity Director for 20 years. There I witnessed, what a government minister at the time, described as, “the extraordinary abilities of ordinary people”.

So I’m about to start a series of blogs, both written and video, looking at personal and social change. Along the way, I’ll be challenging some of the myths that are perpetuated to maintain the status quo and prevent the emergence of the sort of society that, I suspect, most of us would prefer. On that is based on a little less “Sod you, Jack” and a little more sharing and caring. First, though, I need to work out how to use the video camera!

The Impact of Instantaneous, Global, 24 Hour, Bad News

Now it can be quite normal for those of an older generation to look back on their youth as some sort of golden age and I’m no exception to this. In my defence, however, I did grow up during the 50’s and 60’s, the latter of which was recently referred to on Radio 4 as “a golden age, the likes of which we are unlikely ever to see again”.  So, maybe members of, what I refer to as “the lucky generation”, have some justification for our memories.

Interestingly, we also grew up during the Cold War when the threat of nuclear annihilation, the so called “Mutually Assured Destruction” or “MAD” was also very real. The Cuba Missile Crisis probably being the epitome of those times. At which time I was a member of Her Majesty’s Forces with responsibility for maintaining the War Room map in Germany. Now there’s a claim to fame for you. Well, probably, more by luck than judgement, the human race survived. Although it might well have been a close run thing. So, why am I worried?


Well, much as we tried not to think about it, the effect of that Cold War climate and the persistent, imminent threat that it generated, was unlikely not to have had an impact on our thinking. The world is still here, albeit facing the greater threat of climate change. However, what I’m concerned about today (and as pervasive as the climate of those Cold War times) is summed up in the title of this blog. Along with the unhealthy effect that that that may well be having on a new generation. I further worry that its insidious nature is in danger of having a really detrimental effect of the wider society and I use the word “insidious” because at least we knew that nuclear weapons weren’t a good thing.

Now, anyone who’s ever read, listened to or watched the news knows that the majority of it is bad news. The good stuff hardly seems to figure. It’s almost as if it was a side issue and “bad” news becomes “the” news. Another factor is its global and instantaneous nature. It wasn’t so long ago that news spread far less quickly. So that, by the time, it reached these shores, it was a report of something that had occurred some days before; probably from somewhere far away. Then there is the fact that is 24 hour news that doesn’t ease up. All of this, it should be noted, direct to your mobile, a device that seems to create an imperative in itself. This, one which, if reports of the number of times people use daily it are credible, means that it tends not to be ignored. And that’s before we get on to the vituperative nature of much of the social media that surrounds us. Now, I’m no technophobe but it seems to me that we might have a perfect storm.

So, do I have cause for concern that we might be going through a sea change that will do us more harm than good?

Memories of a Free Spirit

Yesterday, along with her family and other friends, I said goodbye to someone who, everyone referred to as, a free spirit. A much overused phrase but one that, in this case, was accurate. Moreover, someone who was the epitome of those heady, colourful, creative times that were the 1960’s.

Now, I have to admit to not having seen Anne for quite some time since we first met.  She was then going out with one of my oldest friends, eventually marrying him. Soon after, I moved to Yorkshire and her and Bob emigrated to Australia. Given what I knew of them both and the culture that I thought they were moving to at the time, I wasn’t too surprised when they moved back a few years later. By this time, they had their first child, Matthew, followed, two years afterwards, by Toby. Unfortunately, Bob and Anne later divorced and, among other things, Anne went back to university. Bob and I have remained good friends, but the divorce took Anne in other directions, just as mine had done for me. In her case pursuing her dreams of travel; mostly as a single woman on her own. Now that’s real freedom of spirit for you.

Well, it wasn’t until a few years ago that, at a party, we met up again and it was as if it was yesterday. We chatted and I was reminded of older and more caring times. Little did I realise then that that would be the last time that I would see her. Well, unfortunately, a few weeks ago, Anne had a heart attack and the flame that was that that free spirit was extinguished.

So, yesterday, to the sound of Van Morrison, we entered the chapel in Richmond, to be followed by a plain cardboard coffin, to pay our respects.  The fragility of the coffin along with its simple rope fastening, in stark contrast to the usual sealed, heavy, polished wood casket. Somehow it made Anne seem part of the celebration of her life instead of being an absent friend. It was as if you could have reached out and touched her. To the accompaniment of lightning and loud cracks of thunder, I learnt things I hadn’t previously known, all of which confirmed the memories of her that I’d had. The strains of Tom Waits followed, as did, inevitably perhaps, “The Times They Are a Changing” from the inimitable Robert Zimmerman. Unique music for a unique person.

So this is a sad goodbye to a free spirit and the embodiment of those times that Joan Bakewell recently described as “a golden age, the likes of which we were unlikely to ever see again”. Sadly, true. So, thanks, Anne, for helping to keep them alive.

Food for Thought

My eldest grandson, Chris, is now studying for his MSc in Physics and living just down the road from us. So, on a Sunday evening, he pops over and we get a takeout. While he’s here, we chat about our shared belief in the current theory that the universe is made up of tiny bits of string and other matters.

Well, last night, we got onto artificial intelligence and the benefits (largely, but not solely, Chris) and the concerns (largely, but not solely, me) that the development of this branch of science might bring. Along the way I said that, although science might come up a great many ideas and their practical application, it was then up to society, as a whole, to decide whether any particular developments might then be continued, or not (and, yes, I know how idealistic that particular notion is). I cited, for example, nuclear research, something that had led to the creation nuclear weapons; the former being amazing and the latter, less so. We then got into the finer detail in regard to AI. We discussed computer generated music and whether technology could ever have written the music of Bob Dylan, for example. Can, in fact, a robot develop the idiosyncrasies of a human mind and what would the world be like if they did so? If I listened as much as I talked, I think Chris felt that they could.

So, my point is? Well I woke up this morning with a thought in my head. If they did and we continued to develop such entities, they could become complete replicas of humans with all the foibles of the latter. In which case, what would be the point of developing them in the first place when we have the original versions already. More importantly, what would be the outcome for humanity if we did? Food for thought there, for sure.