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.

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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.

Keep the Dream Alive

A good friend of mine once, rather kindly, said of me, “To Mike, age is just a number” and, until very recently it really was. So, despite the passing of the years, I still work, run, go to the gym, walk for miles around London at the weekend with my wife and generally do still do all those things that I’ve done for years while pushing myself into new areas of endeavour. My first novel, now underway, being one of them. I’m also more reconciled to the person that I am while, changing those aspects of my behaviour that I feel need changing and find all this both worthwhile and rewarding. Indeed, I think that I would argue that these things help me to remain fit and healthy in mind and body. However, I can’t deny a certain drive that makes me do all those things in the first place. Moreover, it’s a drive that doesn’t seem to go away. Perhaps I’m making up for those first 30 years, when life got in the way, by making sure that it doesn’t these.

Yet, I have to admit that the past few years have tested even my youthful dreams, forged in the 1960’s, in ways that I didn’t imagine that they would.  This has, of course, been compounded by the death of some of the iconic figures from that remarkable period; one characterised by enormous social change for the better, opportunity, hope, optimism, colour and some amazing music. Glorious, it was to be young and alive during those heady times.

Well, I may have been tested but, stubborn as I am, that doesn’t change my ideals or my desire to “keep on trucking on”. Something I intend to do for quite some time yet. So, when your ideaIs are put to the test, just redouble you efforts. If nothing else, it will keep the dream alive for those that follow.  After all, anything that shows up these nightmare times for what they are, needs to be celebrated. Even if it is just to show that there is another way. So, take that first small step towards changing your own life and, in doing so, have more of an impact on the wider world. If you do and I’m any example, I guarantee that you’ll never look back and your life will be much the better for it.

A Real Big Society

As I’ve described in my autobiography, “The Other Side of the Doors” (https://bit.ly/2Ar8QjI), I used to live what, to most people, would have seemed a normal life. I was married, had two children, a mortgage, a job and commuted to London every day. Yet I knew that a different life existed; I just couldn’t find the door into it. Well, as you might have gathered from the title of the book, I did. In my case, it was via a divorce, following which, with custody of my children, I moved to another part of the country to become a full time student. It was life changing. So much so that I started on a long road that led me to where I am now and not somewhere that I ever thought I’d be. On my sixth career as an author and speaker. So, apart from the self promotion, what’s this got to do with anything?

Well, it’s got to do with realising your talents and putting them to good use in a way that benefits both yourself and the wider community. Building, in fact, those “little pieces of Wonderland” that I write about ( https://bit.ly/2SiIJSU).

Now, I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to do this for almost 40 years, mainly in sustainable development and self help projects. These latter, ones in which, those normally on the receiving end in our society, are given the opportunity to solve their own problems in the most practical of ways. That they were very successful was demonstrated by the comments of one government minister who, on visiting one of these projects, described it as “demonstrating the extraordinary abilities of ordinary people”. The minister shouldn’t have been surprised at that untapped talent and what, once realised, it was capable of.

Now, in this scheme, not only did people, who were homeless and unemployed, build their own homes but they also learned skills other than building. They learnt about organisation, management, budgets, planning, design and a whole host of other things. They also developed self confidence. So, the next time I write about “little pieces of Wonderland”, please consider that they don’t have to be just “pieces”. If more people were given the opportunities, those pieces could be joined up to become more of a whole. In this way, developing that, previously unrealised, talent makes for a better society. You might even call it a “Real Big Society” made up of more fulfilled people in a more sustainable land. Now wouldn’t that be something?