A short story that’s meant to be in the style of HP Lovecraft

In an unusual move for the blog, I’m posting an original piece of fiction. The first draft was done about a year ago, though I’ve only just got around to finishing it. It was inspired by a collection of short stories I read by H.P. Lovecraft.

In the autumn of 2013 I found myself one Sunday sat on my sofa in my tiny flat in south London. The nights had been drawing in for some weeks, though on this day, the sky had darkened early due to a low pressure system to the west of Ireland kicking off numerous isolated storms, complete with heavy rain, thunder and lightning. To the modern, enlightened and rational mind, there was nothing unusual about this; it was an event that was predicted on the weather forecast and duly played out as expected.

Yet as the sky changed colour in the minutes leading up to the first drops on rain, I became aware of the failing light not through looking out of the window, but by the increasing difficulty with which I was able to read the volumes I had been perusing that day. To many a person in the 21st century, the common instinct would be to simply switch on a light with little thought, let alone to consider darkness as being a thing which needed to be repelled. Had the switch been within reach I would have joined them, but this afternoon I had an unusual lethargy which stayed my hand. I remained rooted to the sofa for a few moments more.

From my position, I could look to the right and see out of the bay window, across the road. The sky outside had that faint tint of mustard yellow that one is familiar with just prior to a storm or a heavy shower. Yet something seemed amiss. I couldn’t work out what it was, but I had difficulty in taking my eyes off the foreboding sky. There was something to see out there, something loosely tangible, but it just eluded me. I wondered if it is was the sort thing best spotted by looking away and viewing it in a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of one’s eye, but which might scurry away if you dared to look at it full on.

No. Instead this was more like something camouflaged; something right in front of me that could be discerned if one looked long enough and hard enough. So I looked, yet I did not see. This sense of something that was just not right did not escape me. Was it my imagination?

Ah. It was the light level. That’s it, it must be. But it’s not quite the light level. It’s something about the light. Though it was more yellow than normal, it wasn’t the colour that perturbed me. Somehow, the light was lower than it shouldn’t have been. Yes it was gloomy, but it was fractionally darker than there seemed good reason for.

In the dim room, I continued to look out to the tree on the far side of the road, puzzling over why it seemed to gloam at such an hour as this. The obvious reasons seem not to apply; the window wasn’t dirty or anything like that. Was it possibly some kind of pollution? That seemed absurd, yet something about that last idea planted itself like a seed in my mind. Yet it’s not quite pollution either. It was more like something in the air outside of the window; something hanging in the atmosphere that occluded the view by an amount that was just marginally more than that which would be imperceptible, yet which would likely be ignored by the unobservant.

A group of people passed by on the other side of the road, so I observed them as they walked. From one point of view, I wanted to see if they reacted to the darkness around them; from another, I looked at them to see if the same effect of the light could be seen around them.

To my disappointment, the answer was negative on the first count. Lost in their own conversation, their environment was a mere background player, barely noticed by any, though they noticed enough to avoid tripping on the paving slabs pushed up by the tree roots.

On the second count, however, the answer was true. There was something about the colour of their shirts which just seemed wrong. It was as though they had been washed many times and faded, but it wasn’t quite that. My inability to specify the problem was increasingly frustrating though as my anxiety grew, so did my certainty that something was wrong.

I looked for a few minutes more, staring out of the window pondering a variety of possibilities, each flashing through my mind for a few seconds. Yet the more I thought about it, the further a rational answer seemed to be. I needed something else to do, or else I might just sit here forever, always wondering, never doing, unable to move.

With something of a more strenuous effort than I was used to, I forced myself to avert my gaze from the window pick myself off the sofa and turn on the light.

With that small flick, the curious lack of light that had so preoccupied me was now filled with the slightly yellow glow of the tungsten filament above my head. It was an old bulb, I must admit, and I am not sure I could get a replacement if I so wished. But as long as it worked then there was no need to replace it. I could forget what fleeting atmospherics were outside and resume my reading, perhaps with a cup of coffee if I could muster the energy to go to the kitchen.

As my eyes fell back upon the pages, I noticed that the dimness I had noticed earlier remained. How could this be? The light had been switched on, filling the room with a level of artificial incandescence that would surely eliminate any gloom. Yet here I was, struggling to read the words in front of me. I raised my head to look at the bulb which should have illuminated the room.

As I did so, my chest seized momentarily, as it seemed that there was an almost imperceptible cloud of something within my very living room, hovering between me and the ceiling. It was exactly the same kind of intangible thing that had been between me and the tree on the far side of the road. Had it penetrated the glass and come indoors?

Or had it been here all along?

With a shortness of breath and a quickening of the pulse, it dawned on me that the unsettling, subtly different kind of darkness was not outdoors. Indeed, it wasn’t even above my head in some kind of ethereal form. As I bowed my head in resignation, what had been primarily a visual phenomenon became one that was auditory. Like a whisper in my ear, only generated not by external source of sound, there came not words, but a sense of words, the sighing of an internal monologue where the essence is enunciated without a single parting of the lips. “I am the darkness. I am inside you. I am here to stay. I am you.”

A critique of the Church Times 100 best Christian books

Recently, the Church Times published their list of the “100 best Christian books” (you can view the full list here). Any such list, whether it be of books, films, scientists, etc. will inevitably elicit a response from those who don’t agree with the list. An American website entitled Modern Library has 2 lists, one from a selected panel, one from (some subsections) of the American public. I think it’s fair to say that the latter disagreed somewhat with the former. For example, the latter list has as their top 3: Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand), The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand) and Battlefield Earth (L Ron Hubbard). Any reasonable reader should be able to posit a flaw in the methodology that gives such an outcome. One may also see a similar list for nonfiction which is also dominated by Rand and Hubbard. Thankfully, neither feature in the Church Times list!

So with the Church Times top 100, as I read through the outcome and could not help but be led to question the methodology though I would also say that the outcome was not quite as wildly off target as that of Modern Library.

Methodology

Martyn Percy, the chairman of the judges, admitted, “The panel was mainly, but not exclusively, Anglican.” Why might this be? Well, despite the apparent universal name, The Church Times is not a magazine that deals with the whole Church, it is focused just one denomination, that of Anglicanism.

Almost anyone reading the list would see that not only have the judges reflected a traditionalist bias, but that they are on the particular anti-reformed end of the scale. There is also a confession of an anti-evangelical bias:

“We spent some time mulling the lasting influence of recent Evangelical literature: Billy Graham’s Peace with God, David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, and Norman Warren’s Journey Into Life, to name but a few, have sold in their millions.

The works of Jim Packer and John Stott, likewise, have enjoyed significant influence. But the comparatively meagre attention that Stott and Packer receive today may reflect a more fluid market, and emerging diversity within Evangelicalism. Many titles in this category tend to have an immediate but short-term relevance rather than long-term resonance.”

It would not be unfair to paraphrase this as an assertion that all evangelical writings, nomatter how influential, are merely flash-in-the-pan and have no lasting impact. Even those overtly evangelical writers they do pick come from that niche intersection of being both evangelical and Anglican; namely C.S. Lewis and John Stott. The exclusion from the list of non-Anglican evangelicals also implies that not one of them could be considered a top 100 book. The only possible concession to such a haughty attitude might be that evangelical theology is much more about ideas than about the celebrity status of a book’s author. So while Stott may not be selling all that many volumes today, his way of expounding the gospel does still reverberate across many churches today, though preachers are far more likely to namecheck Jesus than Stott.

In considering this, one might think of the likes of The Purpose Driven Life, though in this case I would be inclined to agree with the panel by not including it. Influential it may be, but not necessarily in a good way. Though if one were to relegate books based on their theological soundness (a subjective criterion, if ever there was one!) then I would certainly advocating dropping quite a few of the catholic writers off the list, possibly starting with Julian of Norwich.

In conversation about the list, someone else wryly pointed out to me that of the 20th century writings, many were done in the 60s and 70s which may well coincide with the formative years of those on the panel of judges.

Perhaps a far more balanced approach would have had the panel include equal weightings for Baptists, Methodists, charismatics and Eastern Orthodox.

Outcome

So with that noted, what of the final list? As stated earlier, I would heartily applaud the inclusion of many of the books on the list. I would question the positioning of some of them, though. For example, having recently read and reviewed Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, I would very much disagree with the implication that there are only 3 books in the history of christian literature which are better. Might it be included in the top 100? Possibly. But in the top 10? No way. It’s adherence to medieval Catholicism make it decidedly dodgy theologically, so must be approached with caution. Is it influential? Well, it’s been in fashion of late and it is noteworthy for being the earliest known example of a book written in English by a woman.

I would question having so many works of fiction so high (Divine Comedy, Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost). While they are each great works in their own right, each of them has their own drawbacks. Not least in possibly how we view the concept of hell, where these have been possibly been more influential than sound biblical exegesis. I must also confess that I’m not a huge fan of poetry. While I can admire the Great War poets likes Sassoon and Owen, it’s not a form of literature I’m drawn to. So I wouldn’t be so keen to see it high up the list.

In terms of history, I was pleased to see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People included, but was puzzled at the omission of Eusebius’ History of the Church. One might have considered Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity, which has garnered much praise since its publication a few years ago, though I confess I’ve not yet read it. The inclusion of Duffy’s revisionist piece, The Stripping of the Altars, adds weight to my argument of particular favour given to an anti-reformationist view. Even if one were to include it, then might it not be reasonable to include a more balanced approach and at least have Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea alongside it?

The final word here has to belong to the most obvious omission of the lot. It is reflective of the anti-reformed bias that pervades the selection. Given the criteria of the lasting influence of the work, and given the inclusion of equally weighty volumes such as Summa Theologica and Church Dogmatics which, though influential, are not widely read in their entirety, there can be no excuse for the exclusion from the list of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. You might disagree with some of its content (as I do) and tone (likewise) but it is utterly baffling that any group of christians can sit down together, think about the greatest and most influential books on christianity and leave it out.

Appendix: my own lists

I haven’t read the majority of the books on the list. Some of them are gargantuan works and I would be surprised if many have read them all through from start to finish. Some are reviewed on this blog, others I read before I started reviewing books (so I may need to revisit them). If you are interested in them, I have included links to reviews of them. Since this is a post about lists, it seems only fitting to include a few of my own. They are no less biased than the one produced by Church Times, they are simply different.

Those that I have read

Those that I have partially read, but not finished in their entirety

  • The Divine Comedy – Dante
  • Summa Theologica – Thomas Aquinas
  • Church Dogmatics – Karl Barth
  • Paradise Lost – John Milton

Those that I own but haven’t got round to reading yet

  • The Rule of St Benedict
  • The Dark Night of the Soul – St John of the Cross
  • The Cloud of Unknowing
  • Fear and Trembling – Soren Kierkergaard
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son – Henri Nouwen
  • Jesus the Jew – Geza Vermes

Omissions (obvious and some less obvious)

  • The History of the Early Church – Eusebius
  • Run Baby Run – Nicky Cruz
  • Variety of Religious Experience – William James
  • Knowledge of the Holy – AW Tozer
  • Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Kenneth Bailey
  • The Divine Conspiracy – Dallas Willard
  • Knowing God – JI Packer
  • Velvet Elvis – Rob Bell
  • Hannah’s Child – Stanley Hauerwas
  • The Early Church – WHC Frend
  • The Normal Christian Life – Watchman Nee
  • The Ragamuffin Gospel – Bennan Manning
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion – John Calvin
  • What’s So Amazing about Grace – Philip Yancey
  • The Hiding Place – Corrie Ten Boom
  • God on Mute – Pete Greig
  • Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion – David Hume
  • Morning and Evening – CH Spurgeon
  • The Desert Fathers
  • The Cross of Christ – John Stott
  • Too Busy Not To Pray – Bill Hybels

My personal top 10

  1. The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  2. The Resurrection of the Son of God – NT Wright
  3. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Kenneth Bailey
  4. Hannah’s Child – Stanley Hauerwas
  5. Letters and Papers from Prison – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  6. The Screwtape letters – CS Lewis
  7. Confessions – Augustine
  8. God on Mute – Pete Greig
  9. Knowing God – JI Packer
  10. Institutes of the Christian Religion – John Calvin

Book Review: Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich seems to be fairly in vogue at the moment. Over the last couple of years, this work of hers seems to get mentioned more and more as a source of great inspiration. As a literary work, it stands out as being one of the earliest books we have preserved written in English by a woman. At this point, I must admit that for many years, having heard of Julian of Norwich, I had assumed that she was man as I have never come across a woman called Julian before.

Upon noting the time period and knowing a little about the book (aided greatly by the helpful introduction by A.C. Spearing) this was always going to be a book that was somewhat out of my comfort zone. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised when I say that when it comes to views on the medieval catholic church, I am broadly in line with John Calvin and when it comes to mysticism, I take a dim view not unlike that of Karl Barth. So Julian of Norwich was never going to sit as easily on my shelf as, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jürgen Moltmann or Alister McGrath.

One could be so minded as to approach it with a pre-emptive critical attitude, looking for errors and things to disagree with. It is a very tempting stance to adopt, nomatter what we read, whether it be in areas of religion, politics, science, history, philosophy, etc. Yet I do not think that that would be a particularly helpful approach. Maybe some of you reading this are aware that by and large, I subscribe to a reformed understanding of christianity and read this with the viewpoint, “What does this protestant think he’s doing, reviewing of the great catholic writers of the middle ages?” Maybe.

Instead, I have tried (harder perhaps than normal) to maintain an openly cautious view. That is, to always be willing to listen to what an author has to say, but not to be quite so open-minded as to accept in uncritically. One must test everything by an appropriate measure. So if I am reading science, I must assess by the empirical evidence available. If it is philosophy then I must measure against….um….I’ll have to come to that one. In matters of christianity it is to assess by its accordance with the scriptures. Test everything and hold on to what it good. So, on with the bulk of the book.

It comes divided into two parts: the shorter version and the longer version. The shorter version describes the “showings” that Julian had while she was ill. She tries to enumerate them, though as she writes they come across very much as one. When she was in the throes of illness, someone held up a crucifix in front of her face. And in her vision it became more than a statuette; it bled. She was the only one who saw it, none of the others in the room with her saw what she saw.

The longer version also recounts the showings, so there is some repetition. More than that, though, this part records Julian’s later reflections. So it is inherently more theological than the shorter part, but not ‘theological’ if we think of that term as a rigorous study of the scriptures, their linguistics and the cultures out of which they came. This is more a kind of dream interpretation, in a kind of Freudian way, if you will forgive my anachronistic analogy.

One of the points brought out in the introduction and is evident throughout is that Julian doesn’t want to be seen as sticking her neck out. So at several junctures she wants to emphasise that what she is speaking of is in accordance with the teachings of her church, that being a pre-reformation medieval catholic church. Examples of this include her advocacy of penance and salvation coming about by works that we do. There is no place for grace in her theology. It is this, possibly more than anything else, which ought to give us cause to doubt whether her vision was truly from God or if it was simply an expression of flawed catholic understanding of christianity.

One of the things that struck me was Julian’s constant used of the word blessed to describe Jesus (and sometimes Mary), with particular regards to his body, his face, his blood during the fairly grim affair his execution. I grant that it may be an issue with the translation, but it seems to me to be very odd to describe Jesus’ death as being in any way blessed. It goes quite against the grain of “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” and, in spite of the presence of blood in her vision, it goes someway to sanitising the cross. While it may be the means through which blessing comes, it is not, in my view, a blessed thing itself. If we heed Julian we forget that it was an instrument of death, of humiliation, of utter defeat. It is only if we take in the whole of Easter and take in the victory of the resurrection that blessing can flow. Yet Julian barely mentions the resurrection. This again, shows her sticking to the core tenets of catholicism, with its lopsided view of the Easter weekend.

It is also worth noting that Julian departs from anything that could be described as mainstream theism, as she openly advocates a form of panentheism by stating that God is in everything.

At chapter 51 (don’t worry, they’re all quite short!) the tone changes and Julian presents us with a parable: The parable of the Lord and the servant. This is ostensibly a picture simply of a person falling over. But the discussion that follows actually very closely follows a Pauline mode of thought by identifying Jesus with Adam. So while Paul saw Jesus as the new Adam through whom new creation would come, Julian takes the view that they play a similar role in the fall, only that while Adam fell and sinned, Jesus was then made to fall and become sin because of this. Therefore the two people become one, the servant, as they fall at the feet of the Lord.

After this, there comes an interesting few chapters where Julian identifies Jesus as mother. It is this, more than anything else where I think the renewed interest in her lies. For it plays very much into a 21st century conversation of gender politics, particularly those upset by historical church patriarchy and the all too frequent portrayal of God as being intrinsically male. So we are offered a much more maternal view, which fits in well with Jesus’ own description of gathering people under his wings like a hen would. My own thought on this, is that may reflect more on the perceived gender roles of mothers and fathers at the time, that it may be necessary to view Jesus as a mother, though I wouldn’t deny Julian’s view on this point, as it is most creditworthy.

So we come back to the question that must be asked by anyone who approaches Julian’s writings: was this a vision or a delusion? How we answer this will radically affect what we take away with us.

Julian seems to recognise that some may think that this was a vision of delirium alone. As such, she includes a chapter to say that there was an additional “showing” whereby Christ told her that this was all truly a vision and not a delirium. She concludes with a rather stark warning, that one must wholly accept everything she has to say or else be branded a heretic. To do so, though, goes against scripture which she holds so dear, by encouraging us to be wholly undiscerning, to not test her words. I have read her words, prayed about them, tested them and found them wanting. So while there is much here that is good and worth considering, one cannot in good conscience wholly and uncritically believe this to be a true vision, but rather it probably came about as a result of a delirium caused by illness which brought to mind much that was already in her mind, whether through her own meditations and the teachings of the church which she was a part of.

Book Review: Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

From a layman’s point of view, Wittgenstein has a fearsome reputation in the realm of modern philosophy. This is his best known work and contains the most extensive account of his thinking from his own hand. So one approaches it with a feeling that borders fear and respect. No one can expect a light read.

I picked this up the day after finishing Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but could only manage 2-3 pages on most days.

Before dealing with the substance of the book, a word first about the structure of the book. The whole book is divided into numbered paragraphs varying from just one or two lines to a page in length. On the left hand side is the German original text, on the right hand side is the English translation. The original translation was provided by G.E.M Anscombe (no relation, as far as I know) which has been then modified/corrected. The introduction is quite baffling. It seems designed for the purist who is very familiar with Wittgenstein’s work, as there is an in-depth discussion about various manuscripts which went towards making the final work. For the most part, I think this can be skipped over.

So what of the text then? We hit a problem with the first paragraph. The opening gambit is a quote from Augustine’s Confessions, only instead of providing a translation either into German or into English, it has been left untranslated in Latin. So unless you are fluent in Latin or have a copy of the Confessions to hand (thankfully I did) then you will be left none the wiser as to the starting point. In case you don’t have Augustine, the passage used is translated thus:

“When people gave a name to an object and when, following the sound, they moved their body towards that object, I would see and retain the fact that that object received from them this sound which they pronounced when they intended to draw attention to it. Moreover, their intention was evident from the gestures which are, as it were, the natural vocabulary of all races, and are made with the face and the inclination of the eyes and the movements of other parts of the body, and by the tone of voice which indicates whether the mind’s inward sentiments are to seek and possess or to reject and avoid. Accordingly, I gradually gathered the meaning of words, occurring in their places in different sentences and frequently heard; and already I learnt to articulate my wishes by training my mouth to use these signs.”

What we then get is really a philosophy of language. Through a number of examples, Wittgenstein explores what we might mean by the word ‘mean’. He refers back occasionally to an earlier work which I haven’t read which asserts that language is built on propositions like “[this is that]“. Given the intricate nature of his writings, it is quite hard to summarise.

If I were to attempt to do so, it would be that he gives us a philosophy of “ish”, a sort of getting the gist. His contention is that philosophers have made the mistake of trying to separate words from their meanings. Rather he contends that the meaning of a word is given by its usage. This is explored at some length with a number of examples, but for the purposes of this review I shan’t do a thorough critique. That would require far more space and time than I have for here.

What he doesn’t address adequately is what happens with misunderstandings. i.e. if I use a word and mean one thing when another uses the same word to mean a different thing, how might we resolve the misunderstanding that inevitably ensues?

The book isn’t divided into chapters, so the argument rather drifts from paragraph to paragraph. Because of this, there are no clear delineators between topics, yet one can clearly see that the subject drifts if one flicks through 5 pages at a time.

Another major topic that is covered is the issue of subjectivity. He does this via talking about pain. I couldn’t help but think of a recent show at the Edinburgh Fringe that a friend of mine did, called Ruminations on the Nature of Subjectivity, as that could well describe a good chunk of Philosophical Investigations. It’s noticeable that Wittgenstein chooses his examples very carefully, so as to emphasise the strength of his arguments, though I could readily think of other examples that would go someway to undermining his argument.

That said, he doesn’t really construct an argument as such. Where one might expect something akin to a proposition followed by a line of reasoning to demonstrate the truth of the proposition or to have a line of reasoning culminating in a conclusion, Wittgenstein’s meandering musings don’t really seem to go anywhere. At times it feels like he goes round in circles. So when we get to the end of the main part of the book there are no great theorems, it just ends rather abruptly.

We then have the philosophy of psychology which was previously known as Part 2. One can see why it has the two names, as it follows on very much in the same vein, talking around the nature of subjectivity, but here drifting into the realm of psychology. It is in this part that we get introduced to the famous duck-rabbit which serves as one of a few illustrations about what we “see”. This is all very fascinating stuff, even if the way it is approached is not exactly user-friendly.

So, reading this as someone who is not a Wittgenstein aficionado, much of it came across as rather obtusely put, even if the basic ideas were fairly easy to grasp. I already came across a summary of Wittgenstein’s work while I was reading this, in Plato and a Platypus. This rather backs up my review so far. This is not for the faint-hearted, but one shouldn’t be put off by that. There is much here to mull over, though I may need to read a bit more around Philosophical Investigations in order to fully get it.

Book Review: Creation by Adam Rutherford

I first came across Adam’s book whilst listening a radio show when he was promoting it and for some reason agreed to a debate with a creationist (if you are so inclined, you can listen to the discussion here). I’ve been familiar with some of Adam’s work with the Guardian newspaper for a number of years, though this is the first book of his that I’ve actually read. It has to be noted that there are really two books here in one, though I choose to review them here together. The big trick the publishers pulled was to not put the two parts consecutively, but to flip one upside down and then putting them back-to-back. So you end up reading from front to centre, then turning the book round and doing the same again. The upshot of this is that, reading on public transport as I do, people kept giving me funny looks as they thought I was reading upside down.

The Origin of Life

The name kind of says it all. Only it doesn’t. Before we get to the origin of life, we first need a bit of preparation. This is ultimately the story of the history of life. But it is a story told in reverse, with the culmination being the story of the very beginning of life. So we begin not at the dawn of time but with a discourse on a very modern understanding of cell biology. This is something of an overview, familiar to many, but necessary if one is to locate the rest of this half of the book (and indeed the other half) in its rightful place.

So we get a very quick rundown on our understanding of evolution which runs broadly along the lines of many an account you will probably have read. As he’s a biologist, Adam does rather overplay the importance of Darwin in the history of science, rolling out the line (which I doubt is original to him) that evolution was the single greatest idea that anyone had. As a physics-inclined mathematician, I would have no qualms with saying that Darwin was a great scientist, but I would only rank him alongside, not above, the likes of Copernicus, Gauss, al-Khwarizmi, Linnaeus, Mendeleev, Newton and Riemann. Back to the book…

What is life? It’s a necessary question and one that is deserving of a discussion. Adam recaps some of the definitions we should all be familiar with from our school days. Yet it certainly differed a bit from my school as I had always understood that while there was no set definition, viruses were a considerably grey area. Interestingly, though they are pretty much looked over here, they do appear in The Future of Life (see below). The answer arrived is runs along the lines of, “[we may not be able to pin it down, but we know it when we see it]” which makes for an interesting viewpoint given how the rest of the first half of the book develops, as the origin of life looks considerably different from what we would commonly recognise today.

From here we hone in on DNA as being the signature of life, but Adam presses further to suggest that RNA is probably a much older form. This not an unusual idea, but the non-scientifically trained reader may start to go a little cross-eyed at this point. So while Adam does a very good job of presenting his subject in accessible way, the topic at hand is intrinsically a bit tough.

We then get a look at the more basic components of life before finally getting to the question in hand: how did life begin? The answer is, of course, we don’t know. What we have a series of possible answers and Adam gives us his view on some of these. The view he advocates is that the building blocks developed simultaneously rather than sequentially. These combined to create RNA which was then subject to what we would now call a process of Darwinian evolution. He goes into more detail than I have space for here, talking of experiments which show that this is a possible route.

Yet saying ‘it is possible’ is about as far as one can go. Adam looks at a few other hypotheses, such as the “warm little pool” and panspermia (the idea that life arrived on a comet or meteorite). It’s interesting, particularly with regards to the latter, that Adam is rather dismissive yet he doesn’t apply the same scrutiny to the idea he advocates as he does to the one he rejects. So while both are possible, and both might possibly wrong, the case is not adequately made in this book for why one is preferred over the other.

The Future of Life

So we come to the second part. You can read them independently or in reverse order, but I would be surprised if the majority of readers picked this one first. As has been noted by some other reviewers of this book, this half doesn’t quite have the same great flow to it that the first half did. For some time, I trundled through, thinking it was a bit hodge-podge with Adam just looking at bits that, while interesting, didn’t give an overall narrative as he had done with the origin of life.

Part of this is the newness of it all. Much of the science he describes has only been pioneered in the last 10 years or so, long after I ended any formal education in biology. So Adam describes an area of science that is very much in its infancy but which has already come on leaps and bounds in its short lifetime. Though he rightly points out that genetic engineering is really what nature does anyway, and which Gregor Mendel did with his pea plants in the 19th century. It’s that our capabilities to manipulate genetic code is now much more direct, made possible through other forms of engineering, and so enabling the kinds of experiments that Adam describes.

It was in this section that Adam makes reference to the ‘immortal’ HeLa cell, which is named after Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom the cell was taken and who is the subject of the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which is next on my list of science books to read. So hopefully, I’ll get through it before Christmas.

When considering the future of bioengineering, one name should instantly spring to mind to anyone who follows science: Craig Venter. To some he is a hero, to others a villain. He competed with Francis Collins (who is curiously not mentioned by Adam) to be the first to map the human genome project. Collins did this on a not-for-profit basis, but Venter is very much on the side of profiteering from biological research, to the extent of trying to patent genes. Adam goes into some discussion of exactly what patents and copyrights have been applied for, with a level of critique in his writing, though he doesn’t quite go so far to as advocate the public availability of all research. But he does go someway in this direction.

At this point, I probably ought to add a disclaimer that the company I work for publishes a considerable number of books and journals in scientific research, some of which Adam may subscribe to or own. So I acknowledge that the profits made from these publications contribute to my salary. One of the issues the company is facing is the increasing demand for open access journals and how to meet the demand without the profit margins being pushed into decline.

Adam is, unsurprisingly, an advocate of the trials of GM crops. He gives us a potted history of the anti-GM movement which has an interesting link over to one of my former hangouts, the Rothamstead Experimental Station in Hertfordshire. Some may take issue with the way he tells the story, with Adam being resolutely pro-science whilst advocating reasonable safeguards. Having recently read Silent Spring I wonder what Rachel Carson might have made of the modern progress made in GM crops.

There is no real neat ending here, as this is very much a fledgling science. Adam presents us with some possibilities, but I would not be surprised if we look back at this in 25 years’ time and find that the field has developed in ways that are unexpected or have gone down different routes from the early sketch that we are given here.

So in conclusion, this is a very good book written about a fairly tough subject. It is not the most abstruse topic for those who are reasonably scientifically literate, but for those who specialise more in the arts then this may prove tough. But I would struggle to find a better book to recommend on the most modern advances in biology. Told with good humour and in a lively style, Adam remains a gifted communicator and I look forward to any future publications he may author.

Book Review: Plato And A Platypus Walk Into A Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

This was my “coffee table” book that I dipped into every now and then, after finishing Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities. It’s a book that I had been after for some years, but could never find it for a reasonable price. One day, I was exploring around the philosophy section of the Waterstones flagship store in Piccadilly I spotted it out of the corner of my eye.

The subtitle of the book gives the concept: explaining philosophy through jokes. From the start, I found it to be a delight. The general structure is that the authors give a short précis about a topic in philosophy before demonstrating it in use in a joke. Many of the jokes are those you will have heard before and though this is not an analysis of humour, it does help understand the absurdities that create the humour – or rather, it helps to understand why the absurdities are absurdities.

What we have then is a whistle-stop tour of the history of modern western philosophy. We take in a broad scope of metaphysics, philosophy of religion, feminism and philosophy of language, amongst others. The explanatory elements are always done in a tongue-in-cheek way, yet this isn’t done at the expense of their pedagogical element. If you want an introduction to philosophical ideas, I suppose you could get Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, which, though I’m sure it’s very good, wouldn’t quite have the same verve about it that this work has. I admit I made fairly short work of it, as it was just too interesting to read a few pages at a time. I wanted to keep going.

Even the setup included a Socratic dialogue that runs through the length of the book, with one character trying to demonstrate to another what philosophy is all about. The only criticism I might have about it is that it does demonstrate a bit of an American bias at times, so every now and then, you might just be jolted into thinking, “what the heck? That doesn’t belong there” against some throwaway comment or a reference to a celebrity you’ve never heard of. Unless you think Immanuel Kant is a contestant on American Idol, that is. Mind you, I’ve heard of a tv show featuring Aristotle, Bentham and Spinoza entitled The Only Way is Ethics.

I would estimate that it would be almost impossible for you to read it and not learn something. I would also say it would be exceedingly difficult to keep a straight face throughout. Hugely enjoyable, and one of my favourite books of the year.

A Voter’s Manifesto (part 5 of 5)

Link to part 1

Link to part 2

Link to part 3

Link to part 4

Education

Education is a tough one for me, as it’s not a sector that I have much experience with or recent exposure to. I am aware that there have been sweeping changes made recently, mostly implemented by Michael Gove, and that they have been hugely unpopular with those who actually work in education and understand the sector far better than either Gove or I do.

In the past, we had universities without tuition fees. Scotland scrapped tuition fees. We should follow Scotland’s lead and return to tuition that is free at the point of use. Yet universities should not be privileged above other forms of education. The recent rise of apprenticeships has been a good thing and continued investment in this area, with post-secondary education funding being split in the proportion of people going to university to those entering apprenticeships.

The start of a child’s education is important, and the closure of many Sure Start centres was a backwards move. This should be reversed, so as to enact and signify a real commitment to the future of our young people.

Education should not be merely about learning facts and rote recall. Any amendments to the syllabus must not be so radical as to disrupt teachers or students. A fair balance must be sought whereby knowledge is valued, but where understanding of how to use facts is also highlighted.

As well as the academic subjects, there must be a recognition of the value of the creative subjects and sports, but no child should be expected to do well in all fields.

Immigration

The recent rise of the far right, including but not limited to, support for the EDL, BNP, UKIP and some portions of the Conservative party, show that there is an appetite for a discussion on immigration. Such a discussion need not be conducted on the same racist terms that its agitators choose to frame the debate in.

Unfortunately it needs to be stated that there should no quotas on either gross or net migration. Any public discussion on the matter must include a proportionate measure of the facts, not speculation, including but not limited to the numbers of migrants, the numbers in work, the number unemployed and their net contribution/cost to the economy.

Tobacco & gambling

Tobacco and gambling provide some little amount of leisure whilst at the same time causing a great level of harm. Profits derived from these industries will be taxed at a flat 90%. This is not intended primarily as a tax-raising measure, but as a deterrent against such corrosive industries that do more harm than good to society.

Culture

For too long, there has been disproportionate spending on the arts focused on London. This needs to be more equitably distributed. However, as it is a non-essential part of the economy, I would not propose any above-inflation increases in funding.

Defence

In the words of Tony Benn, “If you can find the money to kill people, you can find the money to help them.”

Any company which manufactures instruments of death will be subject to a 100% tax on their profits, with those funds ringfenced to the medical treatment of those wounded (both physically and mentally) as a result of war. If this means that they are no longer able to carry on in business, so be it. I would rather spend money on unemployment benefits for a short time than on war.

The nuclear weapons programme, Trident, is to be wound down and eventually scrapped. Yet this should be done gradually, so as to ease the unemployment that will inevitably ensue as a result of this corrective measure. The collective engineering expertise that is currently employed by the defence sector may be gainfully employed elsewhere, not least in the construction of new  power stations, new homes, new transport infrastructure, to name a few.

Concluding remarks

Thus concludes my preliminary sketch of a manifesto. I could go into much more detail on more issues. I have also chosen to not include my more radical ideas as I don’t think they could be realistically implemented in the next parliament. Instead I have opted for optimistic realism rather than pie-in-the-sky thinking. Though no doubt some will think I have opted for the latter.

This has been something of a wishlist. Things I would like to see included in a manifesto which I think I could vote for. But on top of all of these, what I would love to see is an honesty in our politicians that while they will aim for these, that they will fail. No party in my lifetime has successfully met all its targets and fulfilled the promises made in their manifesto. So I will be less inclined to vote for anyone who promises the earth.

Unforeseen circumstances will arise for which there is no manifesto promise, but which needs to be dealt with during the course of the parliament.

The real aim though has been twofold. One has to been to clarify my own thoughts, and indeed I could go on tinkering with this for ages. But the other one is for your benefit. It has been to stimulate thought. You might disagree with me wholly and that’s OK. If it gets you to think and wonder what sort of things you would want to see, then you can get a jump start on the political parties and examine their manifestos with something in mind. If you are a member of a political party, you may even have some say in shaping the policies that end up in a manifesto.

I have not written this in a way that has been designed to persuade. I have not asked that you agree with me. But I would do so on this final point. In a democracy, we should all count equally and be allowed to have our say and to be listened to. We need not be limited in our choices by the options that are presented to us. We can be imaginative in coming up with solutions to the problems we face as a society. If we can present alternatives to our politicians and stand strong in our beliefs, then there is room for democracy to work.

So that’s my manifesto. What’s yours?