December 16, 2010

Family & Friends

Okay …. I’ve not only met my sister-in-law and niece after a gap of about 20 years but I’ve also discovered I have a great-nephew too. He’s 9! I’m a great-uncle. I’ve never been a ‘great’ anything!

And my brother wants to get in touch after all this time. My first feeling is one of doubt, suspicion, but I also feel compassion. I also think I’m ready to be friends of sorts. That’s something both of us will have to work hard at.

And then there are the friends from long ago who keep appearing.

And all this in the space of about 2 months.

I’ve had some pretty profound moments around family and friends recently. No wonder it gets overwhelming at times.

December 14, 2010

Wellies

A friend emailed this to me yesterday. I laughed so much when I read it I nearly stopped breathing ……

The "Wellie Boots"
(Anyone who has ever dressed a child will love this one!)

Did you hear about the Pre-School teacher who was helping one of the children put on his "Wellie boot's"? He asked for help and she could see why.

Even with her pulling and him pushing, the little "Wellies" still didn't want to go on. By the time they got the second "Wellie" on, she had worked up quite a sweat.

She almost cried when the little boy said, "Miss, they're on the wrong feet." She looked, and sure enough, they were. It wasn't any easier pulling the "Wellies" off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as together they worked to get the "Wellies" back on, this time on the right feet.

He then announced, "These aren't my Wellies." She bit her tongue rather than get right in his face and scream, 'Why didn't you say so?' like she wanted to. Once again, she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting "Wellies" off his little feet.

No sooner had they gotten the "Wellies" off when he said, "They're my brother's "Wellies", my mum made me wear them.'

Now she didn't know if she should laugh or cry. But, she mustered up what grace and courage she had left to wrestle the "Wellies" on his feet again.

Helping him into his coat, she asked, "Now, where are your gloves?"

He said, "I stuffed 'them in the toes of my Wellies".

She will be eligible for parole in three years!

November 25, 2010

Keeping People Alive

I held something of my mother's the other day, for the first time in over 20 years. Having had nothing of hers in all that time it was quite a profound moment.

I remember a conversation we had one day, years before she died, about what happened to us when we died. One or the other of us suggested that whoever went first would give the other one a sign if there was life after death. Over the years I have felt that she came back to me in so many different ways, sometimes small ways, sometimes big ways, but I wasn't prepared for how big she came back this time.

Something returned to me and I'm not sure what it is yet.

I realised that life after death isn't about whether there is actually some kind of life after you die. Not for the living anyway. It's about keeping people alive to those left behind that really matters.

My mother lives on through me but she becomes more alive when I hear how she lives on through others who knew her. That’s another thing I haven’t had in over 20 years! At the moment it’s all a bit over-whelming, but in a very nice way.

I now have a closer family than I could have wished for to get used to, and I'm looking forward to every bit of it.

October 17, 2010

Wedding Day

I remember coming back from one of the regular summer barbeques by the river late one evening. It was getting dark and 15 or 20 figures were silhouetted on the sea wall against the darkening sky, like marionettes in a shadow theatre. Figures carrying boxes and bags and pushing bicycles and pushchairs, all laden down with the necessary equipment for the evenings barbeque. A friend who was visiting at the time remarked that it was “.. like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel”.

Yesterday’s wedding in the village was a bit like that too. Take away the modern equipment and utilities and the spirit is the same. The branching tree of individuals, relationships and events still feeds upwards and downwards to give life to the community as a whole.

Take away the speakers in the church grounds for those of us who could not get into the church and there is no difference to those who stood before us 100, 200, or even 400 years ago. Most of the men had beers in their hands, after all it was the local landlord getting married, people were coming and going during the service, children played and conversations continued, despite the service being played out from inside.

Festivities continued in the pub afterwards, during which all the speeches were made, amidst friendly cat-calling and calls for the important people who figured in this event. A huge feast was provided and there was free beer and wine. A convivial atmosphere abounded with groups of friends and acquaintances brought together in one common goal; to wish the new bride and groom a long and happy life together.

I have a commonality with others who stood before me. I have a place I share with others and where I feel I truly live. This is what makes me feel that I belong here.

October 15, 2010

Afghanistan's Child Drug Addicts

I watched the report by Ramita Navai on drug addiction amongst the population of Afghanistan last night (Channel 4’s Unreported World). Difficult to watch at times, it was a brilliant piece of reporting about a desperately tragic subject.
Children as young as 3 are addicted to morphine or heroin and the problem is widespread. The drug is often cheaper than food and eliminating pain, hunger and the psychological effects of war must seem an appealing alternative. Entire families can be addicted.
Children on the streets will beg, steal and prostitute themselves for money to buy the drug. For child prostitutes this brings about its own dangers. Apart from life-threatening STD’s the males among them also run the risk of being shot if caught, in a country where homosexuality is taboo!
A combination of war, the rise of warlords, and poverty are to blame. Morphine or heroin were often the only available drugs to treat injuries sustained in bombings and suicide attacks and it was cheap.
Because of the shame and dishonour brought on the families with addictions, the problem is difficult to treat. There is only one treatment centre, and that is in Kabul. The problem is nation-wide. The doctors and staff who work for the Nejat Center have been heckled and beaten up on their visits. Their visits can bring problems to the families as well, as close communities want to know what the doctors are doing there.
The taboos inherent in this subject made this a brave piece of reporting. There must also have been courage among the people who spoke out in this programme.
Extracts from Wikipedia >>
“As the Afghan government began to lose control of provinces during the Soviet invasion of 1979-80, warlords flourished and with it opium production as regional commanders searched for ways to generate money to purchase weapons, according to the UN.”

“In July 2000, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, collaborating with the United Nations to eradicate heroin production in Afghanistan, declared that growing poppies was un-Islamic, resulting in one of the world's most successful anti-drug campaigns. As a result of this ban, opium poppy cultivation was reduced by 91% from the previous year's estimate of 82,172 hectares. The ban was so effective that Helmand Province, which had accounted for more than half of this area, recorded no poppy cultivation during the 2001 season.

“War, economic instability, and poverty caused changes in the way villagers maintained their villages. Competition for scarce land and resources resulted in unsustainable practices, causing soil erosion and therefore making the land less productive.
The cultivation of poppy, however, generated greater profits than wheat farming for the farming villagers due to the higher yielding possibilities with less land (less irrigation of poppies than wheat is necessary), and greater demand for the profitable drug trade of the highly-valued opium, prepared from poppies.
Many migrants to places such as Pakistan and Iran witnessed the profitability of poppy cultivation in land development, through association with local landowners and businessmen, and were inspired to bring about the same economic improvement in their own lives and villages. Also, opium trade proved to be more cost-efficient than livestock trade, since large amounts of opium are easier to transport than livestock. Local shopkeepers used capital, which was acquired from buying opium resins from farmers and selling them to dealers at the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, to invest in their own small shops thereby generating further income.
Poor villagers saw this as a good investment opportunity, as it meant more efficient farming of one product, with the possibility of creating economic stability in their villages.”
Sources: Channel 4, Nejat Center, Wikipedia,  

October 11, 2010

Shopping For a Living

I spent the morning shopping in good company, stopped for coffee and a bacon butty, had some intelligent conversation, and got paid for it.

How good is that?

September 24, 2010

Help Ex-Offenders Back to Work

Change the Record is a new campaign from Nacro, the crime reduction charity, to help ex-offenders back to work by tackling discriminatory practice and laws that prevent them finding a job. The campaign focuses on amending the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.
The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is widely accepted to be out of date. It discriminates against ex-offenders and is compounded by CRB checks which are often used unlawfully to expose spent crimes or non-disclosure where people have been to worried to admit their past.
A Government Review of the act published in 2002 stated: “There are no winners...not those with a criminal record denied the opportunity to put their past behind them. Not employers who lose out on committed and conscientious employees, and on resources and skills that otherwise may not be on offer. And certainly not our communities, because denying employment opportunities to people with a criminal record increases the risks of re-offending.”
Change the Record

September 15, 2010

Family: Gaps and Connections

"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." Dr Suess

I found this quote by Dr. Seuss ages ago. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with it but it seems quite apt at this moment.

I was at my aunt and uncle's recently for my cousin's 50th birthday. It's coming up for 2 years since the first contact I had with them after 35 years, since my father died in 1974, and I started to piece together the emotions and events of the day.

I hadn't put much score on having family since I don’t know when, until I met my aunt and uncle again. They, my aunt in particular – his sister, were a very close link to my father; a big step towards filling a gap in my sense of who I am.

So what happened to that gap, the hole, in my life that was ever-present though I wasn't always conscious of it; that space left behind when those closest to me – parents – weren't there, that loss of a sense of identity, my (shakey) solid foundations gone? I think I may almost have left a bit of it behind.

Connection My other cousin died about 3 years ago and her son and daughter, my second cousins, were both at the party. I’d met one before but not the son. The man she was about to marry was also there. I discovered that not only did he have a boat about 20 minutes drive from where I live and that he and my cousin went there often, there is also a bench on the path overlooking the marina where she liked to sit and look at the boats. It’s dedicated to her. It’s somewhere I can go and sit and feel closer to her.

It was that sense of a link to her that led me to thinking about those links elsewhere in life. I lost touch with my mother's side of the family in 1988 after she died. Somehow that wasn't quite the same, she had been around longer for me to identify with as a person. There is still a gap there – the gap of loss. Loss of mother and loss of any blood connection to her. The sense of loss for my father feels bigger and deeper. Any connection I might have had with him seemed to have been severed long ago - during some of my most defining years as an adolescent.

I can't speak for my brother in any of this; he would have handled it very differently to me from an emotional perspective. It wasn't something we ever discussed as far as I remember.

The breakdown of my parents marriage seemed to shatter an illusion that I'd taken for granted. My world seemed to fall apart in shards the day they told my brother and I that dad was moving out. I felt like I'd been hit with a sledgehammer. I was 13.

Although my brother and I were both well aware that there were problems and our parents weren't getting on; the heightened emotion, the rows and silences, from both of them, that often started after we'd gone to bed, I never contemplated the absence of one of them from the family home permanently. My parents were just that – my parents – they would always be there. Wouldn't they? I think it was one of the first times the full realisation that my parents were … people! People ... human beings like all the other human beings I saw every day around me. People ... like my teachers, like my friends parents, like the shop keeper up the road, like me! They had problems and difficulties just like I'd been having.

Gap I don't know how long it took to get used to the absence of my father. That's a big word, isn't it? A-b-s-e-n-c-e. My brother and I saw dad regularly for a while and then visits began to tail off. We were getting older and finding other things to do with our teenage years. It still hurts me to this day to think of the times I got out of seeing dad and the ways I did it and how he might have felt at the rejection of those moments. It wasn't often I did this but it must have hurt him. I don't ever remember him talking to me about it though.

Gap A similar thing happened with my mother when I left home to go into the RAF. I had left the family home too, just like my dad. Mum was obviously not coping well with either me or my brother up to this point and even threatened to give both of us to social services once This was after dad had left. The impact that statement had on me has stayed with me for over 40 years! Perhaps she meant it at the time, perhaps not. Either way, I think it was a measure of how she wasn’t coping with us on her own. I’m not surprised with 2 adolescents on her hands, one following hot on the heels of the other in terms of age.

Life with mum was good and she did the very best for us but there were some things that put distance between us. My reaction, on leaving home, was to almost pretend it wasn't there. I often didn't call my mother for months at a time. I went home on leave but really used the house as a base, I guess.

I didn't have much contact with my father during that time either. He wrote to me a few times but after a while I neglected to write back and then I wasn't writing or phoning at all. He wrote to tell me grandma had died but I don't think I even replied. I wouldn't have known what to say. I didn't go to the funeral. Just over 2 years later he was dead. I was 19.

I remember feeling a sense of love for him once, something that continued at first after he'd left home. That feeling seemed to tail away and I realised I couldn't have him in the way I wanted to. He'd started to live a very different life-style by now. The love faded to indifference and some of the first bricks in my walls of defence went into place. I started to keep people out as well as keeping myself in. I also had other good reason to have a wall of defence as I was, by then, growing up gay in the attitudes, prejudices, and lack of understanding of the 1960's and 70's. I was terrified of being 'found out'. Being in the RAF didn't help and the walls grew stronger because of that as well. Drugs helped numb me from having to think about it or deal with it.

As the years went on and I started to realise I missed having my dad, I recognised even more the traits in me that came from him. It was my only sense of connection to him. I had no photographs and I was increasingly unsure of my memory of him, particularly of what he looked like. However tentative a connection it was, the sticky tape, not the first, was being applied to the holes, the gaps, in my life.

I was using bits of flawed memory to shore up the gaps in my sense of identity and belonging. To some extent it worked but I had no-one who knew dad anymore to talk to about him. All the real connections had gone. Gap 3 Perhaps part of my roaming life-style came from this as well. With no sense of belonging to a family, I also didn't really feel I belonged anywhere. I'd moved every few years from the age of 10 and didn't know which place to call 'home'. I had no roots to speak of.

Connection I built up my own roots in my own way but it was an all-encompassing root called England. Moving to Goldhanger changed all that. It felt more like 'home' than anywhere else I had ever lived. We made friends very quickly and lived through some of their trials and tribulations with them, cementing relationships quite firmly. After the break up of my relationship with my partner I realised I needed to move back to the village after spending a year away. I was very fortunate in securing somewhere to live and have been here ever since – I don't want to move away again. Not yet.

Gap My partners family very rapidly became ‘my’ family. i really felt a part of it with him and with them. I looked forward to them having children, I discussed things with them that they didn’t want to take to their parents. I was like step-dad, uncle and big brother rolled into one. But I was always aware I wasn’t part of their family. I was transient and sure enough I left in the end.

A big part of me has wondered whether I really did the right thing. If I can get on with my ex-partner as well as I do now and can discuss things openly and without any fear of damaging things, why couldn’t I stay and work it out? These are questions I’m going to have to ponder later. Suffice to say I didn’t.

September 07, 2010

Coast – A Settler Welcomed

The closing lines of Coast (BBC2) this week were:

“Our coast welcomes settlers and repels invaders.”

There’s something special about living by the coast. The big wide skies, the reflection of light on water, the smell, the sounds of the birds, the movement of air as the tide comes in and goes out again, the stillness at high tide on a calm day.

Boats It is also the first place where I have ever felt ‘at home’. A place that welcomed me and helped me to settle. The village I live in plays a major part of that sense of feeling at home but then so did Maldon when I moved there over 20 years ago. 18 of those years have been spent here, in Goldhanger.

That’s the longest I have ever lived in one town in my life. I feel I can finally say this is where I belong and that it is also where I come from – placewise. I’m finding out where I really come from through my aunt and uncle – from family.

July 24, 2010

All the Time in the World

Yaay!!!

2 weeks off work starts here. I’m looking forward to not knowing what time of day it is or even what day it is. I just want to be.

July 22, 2010

RainyMood.com

RainyMood.com

This is wonderful if you love the sound of rain. Open the webpage and just leave it to play in the background.

June 20, 2010

Altered State of Mind

When I was aged about 9 or 10, I discovered I could do something that I later realised changed not only my perception of the world outside and inside me, it also altered my state of mind in the moment of it happening. Or was it me altering my state of mind that changed my perception of the world at that moment?

It was also something I brought with me when the family moved when I was 101/2. It was a familiar comfort amongst new and strange surroundings.

I would lie in bed staring at the closed curtains aglow with the last light of day or the light of the night-time world outside. I suppose it all started by going into a day-dream (a trance-like state in itself) and I realised the window seemed to be going further away from me and becoming smaller as it became more distant. At the same time I felt a sensation in my back teeth as though they had swelled like balloons and were now too big for my head but they were still inside my mouth. The sensation spread through my head to the rest of my body. My whole body began to feel larger as if I were growing or expanding.

So now I felt as though I was very large and the window was very far away. I knew it was an illusion and eventually I could switch quite quickly between seeing it 'normally' and seeing it in that strange circumstance again. I wasn't doing this consciously at first, it just started to happen. It was shortly after that I learnt I could induce the state of mind consciously.

Over time I learned that I could also bring about a 'double' state of seeing the window small and distant and feeling very large and of feeling that I was very, very, small and the window was very large, both at the same time.

I now realise that one of the first things I had to do to produce this effect was to still my mind. It was what had happened as a result of going into a day-dream state and now I found I could do it at will. I could fade out the chatter in my head as though I had walked into a large, quiet room and left all my thoughts outside with the door open. I was aware of things going through my head but could keep them at a distance. It was like reaching a point where everything stilled itself. I felt as though I was floating and had almost no feeling of lying in a bed. My whole being was poised on a pin-point. A breath either way and the experience would start to crumble. Sometimes I could get it back, sometimes I couldn’t.

In later life, when I investigated the delights and tortures of visualisation and meditation, I used similar techniques to the small boy in me to bring about the right state of mind.  It enabled me to gain the mental and physical poise required for the exercise in hand.

June 08, 2010

Life’s Truth?

"Everything is both simpler than we can imagine and more entangled than we can conceive."

JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE (1749-1832)

January 17, 2010

New Moon over Abberton Reservoir

This evening a new moon hung low in the sky, reborn after a 3 day absence, a sliver of a crescent sinking until it appeared hazy and almost red. I stopped as I drove across Abberton reservoir to drink in the view. To the left of it hung Mars, shining brightly, their reflections glowing in the almost still waters like smudges on a painters canvas. The sky was clear and Orion to the South, the Pleiades overhead, and the Milky Way were clearly visible. Behind me the glow of Colchester, like a distant fire, lit the sky and the shores of the reservoir.

It was one of those sights I could have gazed at for hours, but the moon was sinking fast and as I neared home it was so low in the sky it disappeared now and again behind the gentle undulations of the Essex countryside.

January 15, 2010

The Wisdom of the Ancients

As far as I understood it in “The Secret Life of Chaos” (previous post), a simple mathematical theory explains the simplicity of the order of the universe. The universe may start out as dust but it is the external influences on all things that make them different. The external influences feed back on the order of things and brings about change. This is what makes chaos out of order, what makes one thing different from another. It seems to me that chaos and order are one and the same thing operating in a cycle.

We humans are here for the same reason a zebra has its stripes. It is the external influences on the order of all things that brought about the formation of our individual cells, our flesh and blood, our ancestors, our world, our universe, in the way we exist in it now.

Not for the first time I began to wonder if I was listening to something from the philosophy of the ancient Chinese rather than to modern science. I got the same feeling when learning something, in my own humble way, about quantum physics.

I was compelled to look through the I Ching (Book of Changes) and I came up with the following extract:

“There are conditions of equilibrium, in which a certain harmony prevails, and conditions of disturbed equilibrium, in which confusion prevails. The reason is that there is a system of order pervading the entire world. When, in accordance with this order, each thing is in its appropriate place, harmony is established. Such a tendency towards order can be observed in nature. The places attract related elements, as it were, so that harmony may come about. However, a parallel tendency is also at work. Not only are things determined by their tendency toward order: they move also by virtue of forces imparted to them, so to speak, mechanically from the outside. Hence it is not possible for equilibrium to be attained under all circumstances, for deviations may occur, bringing with them confusion and disharmony.”

Taken from the Richard Wilhelm translation, Book II, Part I, Chapter 1, p.282

The passage seems to me to explain the science behind chaos and order in a parallel way. The chapter begins by saying,

the Book of Changes makes a distinction between three kinds of change: nonchange, cyclic change, and sequent change. Nonchange is the background against which change is made possible. For in regard to any change there must be some fixed point to which the change can be referred; otherwise there can be no definite order and everything is dissolved in chaotic movement”.

So are we here because of an ordered chaos underlying and forming the universe?

To take the ancient wisdom further, there also seems to be a relationship between the formation of the eight trigrams in the Book of Changes, which form the 64 hexagrams, and the DNA sequence (see here on Wikipedia).

Don’t ask me what it means but,

the codons of a gene are copied into messenger RNA by RNA polymerase. This RNA copy is then decoded by a ribosome that reads the RNA sequence by base-pairing the messenger RNA to transfer RNA, which carries amino acids. Since there are 4 bases in 3-letter combinations, there are 64 possible codons (43 combinations)”.

This is where it starts to go a bit beyond my comprehension.

What I can see, though, is the parallel between this and the explanation of the formation of the trigrams and hexagrams of the I Ching:

From the doubling of the two polar primary forces (yin and yang), there arise four images corresponding with the four seasons. Through the addition of another line, there arise the eight trigrams. This in turn gives us the 64 hexagrams”!

The Chinese aren’t the only people who seem to have had knowledge of things only now being realised in Western science. In ancient India they had knowledge of Fibonacci numbers, which underlie the Golden Ratio (see here on Wikipedia) . . . but that’s another subject matter.

January 14, 2010

The Secret Life of Chaos

Broadcast: BBC4 Thursday 14 January 2010.

The Secret Life of Chaos.

Chaos theory has a bad name, conjuring up images of unpredictable weather, economic crashes and science gone wrong. But there is a fascinating and hidden side to Chaos, one that scientists are only now beginning to understand.

It turns out that chaos theory answers a question that mankind has asked for millennia - how did we get here?

In this documentary, Professor Jim Al-Khalili sets out to uncover one of the great mysteries of science - how does a universe that starts off as dust end up with intelligent life? How does order emerge from disorder?

It's a mindbending, counterintuitive and for many people a deeply troubling idea. But Professor Al-Khalili reveals the science behind much of beauty and structure in the natural world and discovers that far from it being magic or an act of God, it is in fact an intrinsic part of the laws of physics. Amazingly, it turns out that the mathematics of chaos can explain how and why the universe creates exquisite order and pattern.

And the best thing is that one doesn't need to be a scientist to understand it. The natural world is full of awe-inspiring examples of the way nature transforms simplicity into complexity. From trees to clouds to humans - after watching this film you'll never be able to look at the world in the same way again.

Useful References: Alan Turing (Wikipedia); Alan Turing (by his biographer); Benoit Mandelbrot (Wikipedia); Mandelbrot Applet.

January 12, 2010

Steps on a Profound, Perfect Journey

I advertise myself as “Past the half century mark. Still growing up and still getting it wrong.” Somebody very kindly left a comment on "Look Well To This Day For It Is Life" to tell me I’m not getting it wrong and that life is just a series of steps along the way. I’m very grateful that they took their precious time to read my entry and to write a response. Thank you, whoever you are.

While I realise they are right, I like the “… still getting it wrong” bit. It has a mischievous ring to it. So I decided, after some deliberation, to keep it.

I kinda like the idea of never getting to the point where I have life sewn up and getting it right. I’m here to learn and I want to continue to learn right up to the end. It’s half the fun of living. I know it’s not about getting it wrong either. It’s the ‘ah’s’ and ‘ooh’s’ and ‘aha’s’ of each step of the way that makes life exciting and helps me to grow.

So, Parker's Pen, whoever you may be, thank you for being another step along my way, part of my ramblings and wonderings and for making them matter. And thank you for sharing your story about your friend. I never found the poem you mentioned but I will continue to look.

Here’s to many more steps on my profound, perfect journey.

January 10, 2010

Reading & Meditation

I’ve just managed to hear the last part of Open Book on Radio 4. It seems I’ll have to wait a while for it to be available on iPlayer. Mariella Frostrup was talking to Edmund White and it was interesting to hear him say that part of him would have liked to have settled down and to have had children. Coming from a gay writer it’s nice to know I’m not alone in that sentiment.

Listening to the programme made me realise how little I’ve read lately and some of what the act of reading means to me. I’ve loved reading since I can remember. My mother always encouraged it and I could read very well by the time I started school. I would often take home the book that was being read in class and finish it at home that day, eager for the next book and impatient that I would have to go over it again and again. In hindsight, this allowed me to learn more and more about the language I use, and the subtleties of language used in any written work.

My English teacher in senior school encouraged me to look at what I was reading even more. Through him I learnt that Shakespeare and Chaucer weren’t just old writers who didn’t make any sense, they were accomplished authors who managed to convey a great deal in the language they used.

Reading is another way of looking at the world. The use of words that sometimes have little to do with the subject matter can vividly describe the subject matter itself. Poetry is a classic example of this. Reading and writing helps expand the mind, opening it out like a flower to encompass experiences and situations that I have no knowledge of and allowing me to grasp what they might feel like and look like.

Writing is the same. I must think about how I am going to describe a thing or a situation in a way that others will begin to grasp my meaning. This necessitates analysing something to find the deeper meaning in order to be able to describe it. This exercises the mind. As with physical exercise our brains need exercising too. This is what keeps us fit, healthy and strong.

So, reading and writing help us to learn about ourselves and the world around us. They promote conversation, bring people together, and stimulate our minds. They are the stuff that anarchy, religion, philosophy and science are born of – and give birth to.

Reading must also have a physical effect. I can laugh and cry at a story or written account and I can feel enormously happy or incredibly sad or angry. While I am reading something these emotions are very real in the experiencing, even though the situation is artificial. It is well known that emotions have a physical effect on the body and mind because of the production of hormones and chemicals.

I saw a programme on TV a while back that explored what reading can do to somebody’s brain. For a process that is not naturally learned, like speech and walking, it has an enormous effect. It exercises and increases memory, brings about empathy through glimpses into other people’s lives – however real or fictional, and it encourages a continuation of learning through trying to grasp the meaning of what is written.

Apart from reporting on the experiments carried out on the brain, the programme talked to people who were formally illiterate, or who may have not read much in their lives. Once they had found the right encouragement they began to read more avidly. All the things I have mentioned above were increased after time. One chap, a formal criminal, had even said that the more reading he did the more it made him think about the effect his former actions had on the people he carried out crimes against - something that had never entered his mind before. A clear example of empathy.