The signs of ageing are always taken to be the obvious ones like wrinkles, cataracts or greying hair. I know that for men the social attitudes to these things are different; a craggy brow and sinking jowls can produce a kind of grandeur in the male face that is much harder to replicate in women. In the not too distant future these physical signs of age may eventually be much reduced (or even eliminated) but this will not mean the end of ageing. In a less superficial sense ageing will always be with us.
“You’re as a young as you feel” is the common cry among those who feel that age is creeping up on them, and the unspoken (and rather pathetic) implied continuation of this phrase is “And I feel really young”.
The last thing I would want is to feel young again, even if this were possible. I remember only too well the lack of self confidence, tongue-tied indecision and general misery of being young. Youth has its positive side, but this is seldom apparent to the young themselves. Trying to find one’s place in the world is a fraught business at the best of times, and the problems of youth are many; young people adopt all sorts of absurd ideas; the adolescent whose legs are growing out of kilter with the rest of his body has an ungainly stride; and the embarrassing effects of a breaking voice on the pubescent male are a penance. Who would want to revisit these things? In contrast age brings a certain gravitas to even the most unlikely candidates.
Even if the passing years do not bring great wealth they bring a certain stability to one’s finances. The young always begin with nothing; wealth, influence, or the sense of acceptance at the lack of theses things – they all have to be acquired over the years. To most of us offspring come with the passage of time, and the trials of having a young family fade as one’s own children shake off the insecurities of youth and progress into adulthood.
The undoubted bodily vigour of youth is not something I would wish to retain or return to. This slowing down in physical activity is another sign of ageing that is likely to remain long after most other such indicators have been banished to the past. The middle-aged may retain a youthful appearance in the future, but I very much doubt they will ever run as fast. The sight of an 80 year old running the Marathon may become more common, but such a competitor will always come way down the field at the finishing line. The twenties are the most physically productive age, and I can see no likelihood of this ever changing.
A certain forgetfulness is a general feature of the ageing process, but that does mean we are all irredeemably stupid. Our brain mass may decrease as its age increases, but the number of wrinkles in the brain tissue grows exponentially. As the wrinkles signify knowledge, this produces the wisdom of age. We may forget more things as we age, but we have an awful lot more to forget. The young brain is a huge blank canvas; it has masses of potential but little content. Potential is a wonderful thing, but it would be sad if that was all an old brain had to offer. We have far less space to store new memories, but that is fair enough as we have little time left to acquire them.
Some people lose all their memories, and this seems sad; but if you don’t know that you have forgotten everything there is a certain seemliness about this. Senility has dropped out of the lexicon of ageing, to be replaced by dementia. This is a pity, because senility has a direct correlation with the concept of ageing, coming from the Latin word senex, an old man. Dementia merely means a loss of reason, which can occur at any age. Senility was used where now we would say an old person has Alzheimer’s. Not one in a hundred has any idea what are the precise symptoms of this disease, and the use of the term only obfuscates the condition. The non-specific term senile dementia was far preferable; we all recognise that it affects the old, but this malady is not an inevitable consequence of ageing.
Like it or not, ageing is something we are all going through. Fighting it is a pointless exercise. Rather than hanker after lost youth you should celebrate the signs of ageing; stop regarding yourself as a time-expired old has-been and return to the idea of the wise elder. You still have a lot to offer.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES
Since Sunday 21 May 2017 there has been a brand new railway station to serve Cambridge Science Park; Cambridge North in the Chesterton area of town. Now we need a similar station to serve Norwich Science Park, and a village just south of Norwich -Cringleford- is the perfect place for it. It is on the Cambridge line, and only a short bike ride from the Science Park. There is a level crossing on Low Road at Cringleford, and that means that if a station were built there it would have no need for an (expensive) footbridge; just a couple of platforms (not three as at Cambridge North). It would not need an expensive station building either. There looks to be plenty of space nearby for a car park/cycle park, and a bus service could connect the station with the hospital/science park/university. It could continue to the city cente. The station would be roughly half way between Wymondham and Norwich stations.
A short distance up the track is another level crossing on Intwood Road. A station here would be slightly less convenient for Cringleford villagers, but the station would not really intended for them. It has even more space for a car park, and this could be closer to the railway too. Either site would be much cheaper to develop than Cambridge North, although knowing the way new projects like to splash the cash it probably would not done as inexpensively as I like to think. Perhaps now is little soon to start building such a station, but if the Science Park at Colney grows as we all hope it will, it is not too soon to start thinking about it. It has more in favour of it than the proposed station in Thorpe for the Broadland Business Park; at least it is on a line between two major business hubs (Norwich and Cambridge), unlike the Bittern Line where the Broadland Business Park station would be, which only runs to the seaside at Sheringham.
A new station for Broadland Business Park would cost £6.5 million we are told, which is not a great sum of money as such things go. Cambridge North was projected to cost £44m has in fact cost £50m. My scheme at Cringleford could be done for far less. Nor, unlike the Broadland scheme, do I foresee a requirement to increase the number of trains on the line just to service the new station; with the increased demand for transport links with Stansted Airport and Cambridge I anticipate a more frequent service on the Breckland line anyway, once the Ely junction has been upgraded. However we must think of a better name for the new station. Nobody has a clue where Cringleford is; how about UEA International anyone? They like impressive titles in Norwich (look at the ‘international’ airport). Perhaps Norwich Science Parkway would be more appropriate. I would of course support both Broadland Business Park and Norwich Science Park stations, whatever they are called.
I don’t expect such an improvement to be built in my lifetime; I would be happy merely to see the reopening of Soham station, which everybody is talking about but nobody is doing anything to advance. The reopening of the Wisbech branch, that still has the track in place – some of it even using modern concrete sleepers, though overgrown with weeds- would cost no more than Cambridge North Station, £50m. I won’t even mention the promised link from Bedford to Cambridge which would cost hundreds of millions. Opening up the old Varsity line providing the possibility of through trains from Norwich to Oxford is a tantalising prospect. Such enhancements to the railway network are long overdue, but they are long-term projects, so I should be glad the new station in Cambridge is now open. I don’t suppose I will ever use it (not being much of a scientist), but I may see it from the train. It is a small step, but a welcome one.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
It is the sheer variety of the English landscape that fascinates me. France and Germany have varied landscapes too, but they are larger countries. We in England have such diversity crowded into our small land.
I contrast the picturesque beauty of Kent (the Garden of England) with the featureless expanses of the French scene just across the English Channel. I regard this division as emblematic of the charm of the English landscape. There are beautiful parts of France, but these do not include the land around Calais.
I am sure you know what I mean, but to demonstrate this let me take you on a virtual tour of the country. We will start near the centre of England, where the Grand Union Canal makes its leisurely way through rural pastures. From there we pass across the verdant Cotswolds, the Malverns and the Mendip Hills to the bleak grandeur of Devon’s Exmoor and Dartmoor. The rocky cliffs of North Cornwall stand against the Atlantic rollers that frequently pound the coast. Returning through Dorset there are the marvellous sweeping green headlands and crumbling Jurassic cliffs that meet the English Channel. The North is a combination of moors and dales where livestock graze the landscape; further south the lower lying fields of Lincolnshire and Norfolk are the bread basket of the country, with acres of arable land punctuated by commons, streams and woodlands. Finally in the North West are the majestic mountains and still waters of the Lake District.
There is little countryside in England that could be described as boring. In contest to the interest of England Canada has vast tracts of snowy wastes to the north; there you experience a brief summer, but the vanishing snow and ice only reveal scrubby grass, firs, myriads of flies and no people. The shifting sands of Arabia consist of dunes and hills but no greenery, apart from the occasional oasis. In England the wide expanses fertile but flat lands where the watery Fens have been reclaimed by ingenious Dutch drainage experts might appear a bit dull, were it not for the towns such as Wisbech and Ely that provide such beautiful relief.
The mountains in England do not provide the spectacular crags that those of Scotland and Wales do, let alone the majesty of the Alpine peaks. Grass rather than snow graces their summits for most of the year. Nature has smiled on us, and the great variety of our geology gave our island people a head start in the push to modernity. All around our shores ports flourished as first canals and then railways connected the inland regions of England with an avid export market.
Coal mines blighted many areas of the landscape, but most of the activity took place underground and out of sight. Lead and tin mines were places of early industrial hardship, but have left behind the picturesque ruins of pumping stations on the Cornish coast. At regular intervals the cathedral cities from Canterbury to York, Wells to Lincoln and Salisbury to Durham provide centres of elegant restraint. The people of England have grown to resemble their landscape; industrious, various but accommodating and friendly; so at least I like to imagine.
Surrounding it all is the sea, that greatest boon to the country. This scenic backdrop to the countryside provides us with a bulwark against foreign invaders, an ocean highway to the wider world, a food resource in the form of fish, a place for the production of green energy from the winds and (maybe) tides.
There is so much to be grateful for in the landscape of England. Let us try to preserve it.
‘This creature, when Our Lord had forgiven her her sin . . . had a desire to see those places where He was born . . . and where He died . . .’ This passage sums up the Book of Margery Kempe. She is forever seeking forgiveness for her sins, but rather annoyingly she never tells us what those sins were. From her earlier life we may take it that they concerned thoughts of a sexual nature. Once the sins were out of the way, her mind turned to thoughts of travel. It could be to Canterbury, or York, or further to Rome and Jerusalem. No modern-day tourist could have a more packed itinerary, given the necessary restrictions of the time -the early fifteenth century. For some reason, among all these journeys she undertook, she frequently fell into fits of weeping, though what so seasoned a traveller could have had to weep about is not entirely clear.
As you might have guessed, it is easy to find Margery Kempe a little tiresome at times, but if you step back from her privileged prayerfulness and concentrate on what she reveals of the history of her period, the Book of Margery Kempe is fascinating. Coaches were unsprung affairs in the Middle Ages, and roads were miry and rutted, so travel by wheeled transport was uncomfortable. If you had a heavy load to carry you had to use an ox-cart, but otherwise the poor walked everywhere while the wealthy went on horseback. The distances involved could be staggering. For the more far-off destinations going by ship was unavoidable, for at least part of the way. This had its advantages as well as its drawbacks; the passengers had no option but to sit back and enjoy the ride (if possible), either in the open air or below decks; on the other hand the waves could make the passage not only rough but perilous, for the small ships then in use. You could easily endure seas sickness, or even end up drowned.
With the choice of going by car or train it is quite a trip for me to go from Norwich to Ipswich, but without such modern means of transport Margery thought nothing of going there to see her daughter-in-law off en route to Germany. Upon bidding her son’s widow farewell and leaving the Suffolk port, Margery had almost reached her home when she was seized by an overwhelming desire to accompany her relative abroad. This volte face she naturally attributed not to herself but to the will of the Holy Ghost. The master of the vessel readily agreed to take her aboard, and only her daughter-in-law, who was looking forward to returning to Danzig, was unimpressed; I wonder why?
Margery Kempe was born around the year 1373 in Bishops Lynn – now called Kings Lynn. Edward III was coming to end of his long reign; his ambitions in France had led to the Hundred Years War, a problem for those wishing to travel in Europe. Margery’s family were rich merchants, and both her father and husband were prominent members of the local Corporation. Wool was providing great riches across East Anglia, and Wool Churches were springing up in villages around Norfolk. Her wealth enabled Margery to travel with an entourage of confessors and hermits, despite having fourteen children; she had plenty of servants to care for the youngsters back home. Her education was fairly basic, and she authored her autobiographical work through dictation.
Wherever she went she was able to call on the local vicar, friar or Prior to discuss religious commonplaces with him, which she recounted in her book. No doubt the prospect of a charitable donation made these pleasant chats mutually rewarding. Charity was expected but not demanded of the public. It is revealing to read what Erasmus has to say on the subject; although dating from a hundred years after Margery Kempe’s time, it could be just as true of today’s charitable giving. He says that people were likely to be more generous if observed in the act, and there were nimble fingered pilgrims who could remove a coin from the altar while apparently depositing one.
In all her travels Margery Kempe did not neglect a pilgrimage to nearby Walsingham. Starting from Lynn she would have joined pilgrims from abroad who had landed at the port there, before journeying on to Fakenham; there other pilgrims from Norwich, the Midlands and London all met up before going on to Walsingham. Once there the devout would visit the chapel built as a replica of the House of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The building was draughty, having no doors or glass in the windows. More congenial were the dramas enacted in the Common Place, the market just outside the chapel. Margery went for spiritual solace, but many of the pilgrims were the sick, in search of a miraculous cure. Walsingham is again a place of pilgrimage, the medieval streets drawing tourists from around the rest of the country. [I am myself due to visit Great Walsingham in the near future, but that is to visit a relative who farms there.]
On her travels in Italy Margery was abandoned by her fellow travellers, who only agreed to let her accompany them if she stopped talking about God and instead devoted herself too eating, drinking and merry-making. It was in such unaccustomed riotous good company that she arrived in Venice. She stayed there for over three months, getting her spiritual refreshment by attending church every Sunday with a group of nuns. Eventually she could not resist reciting a verse from the Bible, whereupon her friends accused her of breaking her word. For the last six weeks of her stay she dined alone in her bedroom. In spite of Margery Kempe’s own religiosity, it is plain that not everyone was similarly inclined, even in the supposedly devout Middle Ages.
From Venice she took ship to the Holy Land. From the Mediterranean port of Jaffa she travelled inland on a donkey to Jerusalem. During the three weeks she spent in the Holy Land she visited Bethlehem and the river Jordan, as countless others have done both before and since. She returned to Italy and visited Rome. Once back in Lynn her restless nature soon had her off on her travels once more, this time via Bristol to St James, Compostela, in Spain.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
Downing Street was built at the end of Charles II’s reign by Sir George Downing, after whom it takes its name. It is suggested that Sir Christopher Wren was involved in the design, but the terrace was cheaply built as a speculative development; at this time (the early 1680s) Wren was occupied with designing the (never built) King’s House in Winchester, and it seems that Wren’s input to the architectural appearance of Downing Street was small.
George Downing was born in Dublin in 1623 and educated in the American Colonies. This was a bold move for the first part of the 17th century. He was among the first nine students to graduate from Harvard College in 1642. He then went to the West Indies as a preacher, but abandoned that career for government positions in England. He became established during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, but moved easily into the new political realities of the Restoration period. He retained an interest in America and was responsible for the English assuming control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch. He was at the time Ambassador to The Hague. The city was renamed New York after Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York. Downing was opposed to the Dutch as the main commercial rival of England; this was the time of the Anglo-Dutch wars. By the end of his life he had amassed a great fortune, and was regarded as exceptionally mean. In 1663 he had become Sir George Downing, having been raised to the baronetage, and his grandson the 3rd baronet (who was not so close with his money) founded Downing College in Cambridge. Downing having spent his early adult life in America, there are Downing Streets there too, in Manhattan and Massachusetts, named after him.
The construction of Downing Street preceded the evolution of the post of Prime Minister. I have to mention East Anglia in this context, and Sir Robert Walpole was the son of a Norfolk country gentleman who was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge. After a successful business career he went into public life as a Whig politician. He was the first person to be regarded as Premier Ministre, a French phrase initially used as a term of contempt by political rivals. His official title was First Lord of the Treasury, and so it remains today. It was King George II who provided the house in Downing Street, now known as No. 10, as his official residence. This was in 1732, half way through his period of office. Since then it has remained the official home of the Prime Minister. There have been 75 Prime Ministers since Walpole, although the scope and nature of the position have changed over the 300 years since its inception, not least being the appearance of women among its holders. Only one Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, has been assassinated and that was over 200 years ago.
Downing Street used to be just another public street in Whitehall, and it was popular among tourists to have their picture taken outside the door of No. 10. I remember going into Downing Street to see the seat of Government with a group of school friends on a visit to the capital. This was during Harold Wilson’s time as PM, and there were already mutterings among the security community about public access to so important a cul de sac. Harold Wilson however would have no restrictions placed on the public who wished to visit the street. It is a sad refection on the changed nature of the country that it would be unthinkable today to allow anybody, without impeccable credentials, into Downing Street; let alone a bunch of giggling schoolboys.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND
Expertise is an essential ingredient of successful industry, and indeed of life itself. Who would want a house built by amateur bricklayers and clueless electricians? It wouldn’t just be uncomfortable, it would be positively dangerous. If everybody accepts these experts in manual employment, what is the problem with experts in more intellectual positions?
There clearly is a problem, and to see where it lies one only has to look at the dire warnings from almost all experts of the immediate consequences of a vote to leave the European Union last year. Compare these predictions with the actual result, the pretty even tenor of the economy since June 23rd. Incidentally, it is no good saying that the economy was only saved by the prompt action of the Bank of England in taking emergency measures; the experts should surely have included factors like this before making their predictions.
They clearly got it wrong, but this does not mean that those like the Governor of the Bank of England are not experts. I say this not only because Mark Carney is a member of my old college (and therefore highly intelligent?). If I were by some impossible circumstances responsible for managing a minor branch of a provincial bank I would cause mayhem by my complete lack of expertise in financial affairs. Unlike me, Mark Carney (the Governor) is an expert at managing money, but he is certainly not an expert at predicting the future. Who is? We no longer believe in the prophetic ability of seers and soothsayers, so it is rather perverse to believe in economists’ ability to foresee events.
To take another example; which economists predicted the financial crisis of 2008? They may have produced interesting theories to explain it in retrospect, and that is where their expertise lies. The trouble is that they think they can project their theories into the future. However accurate these theories appear to be, the nature of the subject changes over time. Unlike an expert chemist, who can with absolute certainty make a prediction that a given reaction will produce a given result, this is not true of economists, however much they would like this to be so. In the social sciences like economics this kind of certainty is impossible. People are not chemicals, and will always change in all sorts of unexpected directions.
The problem is the experts’ hubris. They like to think they can do what they can never do, and when they fail they bring experts in general into disrepute. We, the public, are almost as much to blame as the experts; if they had been right about Vote Leave (and they could have been) we would look concerned and say that we should have listened to the experts; but what I have said about predicting the future would still have been true.
There is far too much futurology about today. The newspapers, instead of reporting things which happened yesterday, are full of speculation about what is going to happen tomorrow. When (or sometimes if) the event does happen, these predictions are often hugely wide of the mark. The journalists never learn from their mistakes; they have already moved on the next future event. It would be much more sensible to give due consideration to events that have already occurred.
It is important to recognise what experts can and cannot do. I will leave the expert painter and carpenter to one side for now, and concentrate on the academic expert. Experts are not always right, even when considering the past let alone the future. They may claim a superior understanding over that of non-experts, but they should not assert omniscience. They should above all not claim to be able to predict the course of the future. Some events may be easier to foresee than others, but with anything that is not immutably fixed luck rather than judgement determines the outcome.
I am sorry for those who have to learn English as non-native speakers of the language; the pronunciation alone must be a puzzle to them, not to mention its many other illogical features. Spanish is spoken exactly as it is written, which certainly isn’t the case with English. You may try to guess the correct pronunciation of English words, and sometimes you may be right – but with many words you would be hilariously wrong. Though and thought are only one letter different, but in sound they are quite separate; even the initial ‘th’ is pronounced differently. The ‘gh’ is another conundrum; from the entirely reasonable ghost to the entirely unreasonable hiccough its tough!
This brings us to the vexed question of homonyms, homophones and homographs. There is no unanimity about the precise difference between these words, but broadly homographs are words spelled the same but having different sounds and meanings; the metal ‘lead’ and a ‘lead’ as clipped to a dog’s collar are examples of homographs. Homophones are words which sound the same but you spell differently, like the metal ‘lead’ and to be ‘led’ astray. Homonym can refer to both homophones and homographs. I cannot say if there is another term for those words that both sound the same and are spelt the same (i.e. homonyms), but have different meanings; like ‘spelt’ (i.e spelled) and the grain ‘spelt’. I don’t believe that most languages are quite so complicated and confusing.
Before Dr Johnson produced his lexicon there was no generally recognised source to go to for instruction on the correct spelling (and meaning) of English words; there were several alternative ways to spell the more complex ones. One need only read Chaucer to get an idea of how the language has developed. There have been frequent the attempt to reform the spelling of English in the last three centuries, and this became formalised in America with Noah Webster’s spelling books produced in the early 19th century. Many of these reforms did not catch on in England, but the loss of the final ‘k’ in words like publick and logick certainly did; but quite why it has remained in such words as sick and quick is not entirely clear. The foreign origins of such words as academick may explain this, as Latin (from which they come) has no letter k. As far as the sound is concerned, there is no difference. Although the dropping of the ‘u’ from words like colour and neighbour took root in the US, soop (soup) and tung (tongue) never did, despite Webster’s attempts to popularise these spellings.
It’s not just the sounds and spellings that words have that confuse us; the meanings too differ greatly according to which side of the Atlantic you are. Take the concept of army vets; in Britain this could well refer to members of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. In America this could only be veterans of the armed forces. Cell phones versus mobiles, standing in line versus queueing, pavement or sidewalk; these are but a few of the diverging ways the language had developed across the pond.
English pronunciations, meanings and spelling are hard for foreigners to pick up, but English grammar on the other hand probably confuses native speakers more than foreigners. Most European languages require a certain awareness of grammatical constructs to formulate sentences, but few English words are inflected. That means they do not change according to their case, tense or mood. An exception is ‘I’ and ‘me’, and this causes endless trouble to us Brits (or we Brits!); if I mentioned that these words were the subject or object of a sentence respectively your eyes would start to glaze over, and if I said nominative and accusative you would probably need to have learnt some Latin to know what I was talking about. I have even heard the Prince of Wales saying that ‘It is a great honour for my wife and I’; it should of course be ‘It is a great honour for my wife and me’. Few people would say that ‘it is a great honour for I’ but for some reason the inclusion of another person in this sentence makes most Britons lose all sense of verbal rectitude.
My Great Aunt Ruth was born in 1890, to a warrener whose job it was to harvest the rabbits on Jeremiah James Colman’s estate. It was a very ordinary job in which Phipp Peachey, my great-grandfather, disgraced himself by selling rabbits under the counter to the local butcher. This was a serious thing to have done, but he kept his job; however he was no longer allowed to wear the Colman livery. This was apparently a great ignominy for him.
Ruth Peachey was educated at the local village school in Trowse. When she had finished her schooling she was retained as a pupil teacher, which was still how new teachers were trained in the early years of the twentieth century. This was quite a step up for a warreners daughter, but she was not the first of her family to go down this route. Her eldest sister Thurza had already qualified as a teacher. Another Trowse born youngster was called Bertie Hardy, the son of a bricklayer. Three years older than Ruth, he had already qualified as a teacher.
Bertie and Ruth were married in 1912. When the First World War broke out Bertie joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private. He went on to become a sergeant. I do not know how good he was at the language when he arrived in France, but he obviously took full advantage of living among foreigners to improve his linguistic skill. After returning from the front he secured a job teaching French at the City of Norwich School. This was established in 1910 by Norwich City Council as a boys’ secondary school, to be built at Eaton on the edge of town. The most intelligent boys from the City’s Primary Schools were awarded scholarships, to be educated until the age of sixteen. The CNS, together with the Blyth School for girls, were in fact Grammar Schools, although most such schools were set up following the 1944 Education Act.
Ruth was very interested in politics and was a member of the Independent Labour Party. She was proud to call herself a Socialist, and once she was elected to the council she rose rapidly through the ranks. During the Second World War she established MAGNA (Mutual Aid Good Neighbour Association), a voluntary group that supported the vulnerable. In 1950 she was appointed Lord Mayor. For her inauguration she revived the Civic Coach, pulled by two dray horses from Steward and Paterson’s brewery. The coach had been in storage since before the war.
As her Lady Mayoress Ruth had her daughter Marion. How Ruth’s husband would have been described had he wished to fill the position I do not know; her predecessors as female Mayors were spinsters, so the problem had not arisen. As it was Bertie was more than happy to remain in the background. An only child, Marion was a graduate of Oxford University. Like her father she had studied French. All this was a long way from laying bricks and catching rabbits in the Norfolk countryside.
Aunt Ruth retained a great interest in politics, and she lived into the era of Margaret Thatcher. In spite of their very different political backgrounds, she was enchanted by the prospect of a female politician rising to the very highest power in the land. ‘Mark my words,’ she predicted, ‘she will be a great prime minister’.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
WHY AM I NOT ON TWITTER?
Some people may be so dumb they can express their thoughts in 140 characters or less, but I can only begin to say anything meaningful in a thousand, and even that is pushing it somewhat. For some reason, although I have never signed up to this inane application, I get regular emails on my gmail account which include some of these vapid Twitter messages. I occasionally glance at these before I delete them, but I have never once read anything even remotely interesting. It is a sad reflection of our online culture that so many people are so mindless as to take any notice of them. I see that the President of the United States explains his policies on Twitter; but I have to respect him of course.
I find it hard to say anything in favour of Tweets. It is not just the ridiculous 140 character limit which puts me off; it is the phenomenon of the ‘Twitter Storm’. I am not on the silly program, so if I were ever to be the subject of such an outpouring of internet bile I would never know. Let them say what they like, it only exists in the ether. So many celebrities can massage their egos by getting a big following on Twitter, by saying boring commonplaces; that is until they post something unguarded which is mildly interesting. Then the resulting Social Media firestorm drives them to take cover. Stephen Fry was for a period not on Twitter, having for once inadvertently used his 140 characters to say something controversial. It makes me feel rather pleased when the famous get it in the neck, so perhaps there is something to be said for it after all. But you still won’t find me on Twitter.
Social Media is a relatively recent thing. I can remember when Twitter started up, and most commentators said it would be here today and gone tomorrow; who would want to use it, and even if they did, where was the money in it? There must however be some way of converting these fleeting comments into cash, because their gross income for 2015 was revealed as nearly $1.5 billion. Other Social Media outlets are Facebook, which I use to a certain extent, Streetlife (ditto) and LinkedIn. This last one I do not think I subscribe to, but from the regular communications I get they obviously think I do. It is principally aimed at improving your career prospects, although if it really does anything of the kind is rather doubtful. As I am a retired resident in God’s waiting room, it is of no relevance to my situation. Why do I get requests to sign up as a friend from people in places like Arizona and Pakistan? What relevance to their business advancement can I possibly be? It is mildly rewarding when someone puts another entry down on my list of accomplishments, but no-one except me will ever read it. I have recently been getting cheery messages to congratulate a friend on seven years in his current job, but unfortunately he died a year ago. One of the websites my historical work appears on is Academia.com, a facility which makes available my academic papers to other researchers. It is always interesting when someone clicks on my paper – I had two clicks only yesterday – and I hope one day to get some more tangible feedback.
Do you remember Friends Reunited? That was an early example of Social Media, although when it started the term had not been invented. It shut down years ago, but at one time it was the way many of us first discovered the magic of the internet in connecting people. It is a fast-changing world; when I got my first email account 20 years ago it wasn’t of much relevance because none of my friends even had a computer, let alone an internet connection. The process of connecting relied on dial-up, which besides assaulting your ears with the sound of cats fighting meant you could not use the phone for the duration of your internet use. Cell phones, or mobiles as we call them in this country, which would have provided alternative phone access were rare and expensive. Fast forward to today and everybody has a Smartphone; on my laptop I could not imagine life without checking my emails several times a day, or getting all the latest news on-line. When I need to relax I listen to obscure Baroque trio sonatas on Youtube, and of course keep up to date with my blog.
WordPress is one of these Social Media websites in which I take a daily interest, visiting my site multiple times. This is because it is WordPress that hosts this blog. I certainly have a growing and dedicated following, although I think I will never again achieve the 16,000 visits I got in one day, through a chance mention on Reddit. My blog puts me in touch with lots of interesting people; family members whom I have never met; in some cases never even heard of. They email me out the blue, and so do friends and relations of strangers I have referred to. I get told interesting sidelights on places and events I have mentioned, and requests for further information on all sorts of things. These all come through the magic of the internet, but so too do the spammers and scammers which are part of the down side of the web. Except for these I am always glad to have more emails; it is rather frustrating when a flurry of activity is apparent on a page of mine, whether it is on Academia or WordPress, but I never learn why. Who is viewing this page? I will never know unless they tell me, so please if you are interested in my blog, do let me know. I promise not to pester you forever afterwards.
Vice is an old-fashioned word, and it is an old-fashioned idea. Vice is certainly a moral concept (or rather an immoral one), but people don’t talk much of morals any more either. It’s not that they don’t have morals any more, but they are different ones. Racism is considered by all right thinking people to be quite abhorrent, and smoking is universally condemned, even by many smokers, but neither is ever called a vice; a vice is too understandable a failing to have any place in the vocabulary of today’s guardians of moral virtue.
The vices that intrigue me are the moral lapses of drinking and smoking. Alcohol and nicotine are drugs, and as such addictive and mind altering; they are also not good for your health. Regardless of the health angle, it is over indulgence (part of the addiction that accompanies the drug) which turns these activities into vices. There is another aspect of wine and tobacco however, which as far as I am aware do not apply to any other drugs; they have an appeal to your taste buds. Not all drinks have this quality – vodka for instance is a tasteless liquor, and although it can be flavoured, the sole reason for drinking it is to make you drunk. Cigarettes too are just a convenient way of getting your nicotine fix. But fine wines and quality cigars are a different matter; whatever you think of the harmful effects of consuming them, you have got to admit they have a place in the firmament that is the palette. Caffeine would be another drug one could say this of, but the connection between the flavour of the coffee and the action of the drug on your wakefulness is remote, if it exists at all. Drinking de-caffeinated coffee (in moderation of course) cannot be classed as a vice at all.
There are other vices that pop up all over the place; gluttony is one. There are more obese people than ever, but they are never called gluttons; they are regarded as people suffering from a health condition. To suggest that it is immoral to overeat would cause furrowed brows and pursed lips among our medical professionals; but it is a perfect example of a vice. It is wrong to eat too much, but it is a perfectly understandable thing to do. The lack of exercise is another feature of modern life, but we do not call people who take the lift rather than go up the stairs lazy. Lazy though is what they are. Laziness is another vice that has been given a bland alternative name; in this case ‘a sedentary lifestyle’.
Nowadays debt isn’t regarded as a moral matter at all, just an arrangement for the prosecution of business. This has not always been true, and debt used to be thought of as a morally bad thing. The older generation when I was a young man certainly thought so, but no longer. A credit card is merely another part of your wallet. Here I am talking of the attitudes in Western Democracies. In this respect, as in so many other ways, the views the Muslim world have totally lost touch with the modern way of thinking. In Islam it is prohibited to charge interest on debt, although I think ingenious financial wizards have ways of getting round the problem, or no Muslim would ever be able to get a mortgage.
THE BLOG FOR THOUGHTS OF VICE