Travelling by the book

My tutor at Cambridge, Professor Nick Hammond, authority on the history of ancient Macedonia and on the life of Alexander the Great, used to coach me on what he called “exercises of the mind.” He knew I played tennis for the university and he put it to me that just as I trained hard for the tennis so should I stretch to exhaustion the muscles of the mind. Once he gave me to read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and to read it again until my brain could at least begin to make some sense (not much I confess) of its hard and complex ideas.

A full life, he also told me, involved extensive exploration. In youth this might very well mean setting forth to experience lands and cultures far and wide. But as important was travelling within merely the circumference of your skull and that never ended. He was right of course. Before long, explorations in the mind become more important than travelling in the flesh.

Here are a few explorations;  there are dozens every day if one reads enough.


  • One is threatened life and limb every hour of the day. One only has to see the gory headlines or read the latest health warning, for instance, that Alzheimer’s may be caused by not brushing your teeth properly to realise that risk is ever-present in our lives.

There is a book that measures risk for an enormous range of activities and experiences. It is fascinating. It uses a measurement called a MicroMort defined as a one-in-a-million chance of dying from an accident on an ordinary day in Britain. For instance, giving birth in Britain exposes the mother to 120 MicroMorts (I fear the count in Guyana would be considerably higher) which is about the same risk as 2½ days of active service during the most dangerous period of the war in Afghanistan.

The book also gives a vivid way of expressing risk called the MicroLife which is the amount by which a given activity shortens or lengthens one’s life: for example, smoking 15-24 cigarettes a day takes away five hours of life each and every day from a smoker older than 35. But then 20 minutes of moderate exercise gives an hour back! Be guided.

But the book isn’t all grim and serious stuff. It is perfectly aware of Kingsley Amis’s words of wisdom: “No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two years more in a geriatric home.” The book is: The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter. Look it up and assess how much risk you want to take while satisfying man’s natural urge to experience life to the full.

  • In the New Yorker Adam Gopnik writes about the conservative thinker, orator and magnificent prose writer Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Burke was intimately and influentially involved in all the great events of his life – the need to defend parliamentary democracy, how Britain ruled its empire, the struggle for Independence in the American colonies and the Revolution in France and the rise of Napoleon.

It is fascinating to read how this man of tradition and ancient British values came to be persuaded through a simple realization of what is right and just that Warren Hastings, who controlled India as Governor General of Bengal for the East India Company, must be impeached for the cruel oppression and corruption of his rule.

And it is even more instructive how he came to be persuaded that it was impossible for Britain to continue ruling the American colonies. He saw clearly that it was useless to go on governing that country from a distance and completely unjust to tax people who could not vote for the people who taxed them. The greater patriotism was to recognize the rights of others. Adam Gopnik sums it up: “He thought the idea that you could run an empire as a balance sheet was crazy. Life took place in a theatre of values and traditions, and it was fatal to translate them into a merchant’s language of profit and loss.” Burke was wise enough to see with absolute clarity what all those who seek to lead and rule should see: what keeps a nation together and functioning properly is certainly not partisan advantage or economic success and spin-off profiting for one’s own placemen; it is a community of interests and values in which all can share.

  • There is a terrible epidemic of domestic violence – men abusing, injuring, killing women – in Guyana. What is this? Is it something new or has it always been like this but not reported as much? Whatever the case, it is a horrifying national scandal.

Growing up I was taught and early on took absolutely for granted that it was an unforgivable sin for a man to so much as raise his hand against a woman. Hitting a woman was not only an unthinkable violation of ordinary social behaviour but it was also a serious breach of an unspoken code of honour. That, I suppose, will seem laughable nowadays – come on, Ian, codes of honour belong to the age of troubadours and knights in shining armour! – but I remember this attitude as a fact when I was young.

There is a little poem I like simply because it gives a small but telling example of a woman not standing for nonsense of any kind – not accepting, not forgiving, not relenting – which is as it should be. It is L A G Strong’s cameo verse The Brewer’s Man:

  Have I a wife? Bedam I have!

                                But we was badly mated.

                                I hit her a great clout one night

                                And now we’re separated.


                                And mornin’s, going to me work

                                I meets her on the quay:

                                ‘Good mornin’ to ye ma’am!’ says I:

                                ‘To hell with ye!’ says she.


More for all and all for more

The global poverty rate has been cut in half in about the last 20 years, so why not try our best to eliminate poverty in the next 20?

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A life-long love of poetry

I love poetry. It is the quiet passion of my life. When I was a child my mother read me old nursery rhymes at bedtime and they had the lilt of poetry in them which stayed with me forever.

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Golden orchids

The golden shower orchids in my wife’s garden are particularly lovely just now.

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Laughing at our masters

I cannot think why, but politicians take themselves very seriously indeed. I thought I might see what the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations (obtained at Austin’s excellent bookstore which every thinking citizen should visit at least once a week) has to say about them.

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More than once I have quoted what the great historian Edward Gibbon wrote in his Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: history, he wrote, is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” The latest crimes are as bad as ever.

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