Poetry and the human heart

As we move out from Lent and into the joys of Easter I started to think about poetry. The immediate trigger was Wendy Cope’s new collection: Anecdotal Evidence (Faber & Faber). You will know her as a fine and witty poet with the gift of making us think. She asks, in her eight line introductory poem what the use of poetry may be. She answers: “It’s anecdotal evidence/About the human heart.”

I am not in Cope’s league but it inspired me to look at some of my short poems written over the years. So I thought I would indulge myself by writing about some of them this week.

We have all experienced, whether male or female, occasions when an incident hits us so hard emotionally that we find the tears rising in our eyes, so this poem reminds me of my late wife.


She had seen many pictures on that day;
They were all good, and certainly very costly.
Some had even made her catch her breath.
Then she turned a final corner –
Feet swollen, ankles aching –
To see four snow scenes painted by Monet.
She stood there and cried for beauty.
She had not meant to cry and was ashamed.

My next poem, British Surgeon Lebanon ‘87, also concerns a woman but this is a British surgeon who took huge personal risks attending to the damaged and wounded in Lebanon (1987). It struck me that we can do dangerous and courageous things simply because we were there at the crucial moment. It is a great tribute to human nature.

Do you do it for love? I asked.
No, she said.
Why do you do it? I asked.
It came to my hand, she said.

While she was working, I saw some very unpleasant scenes. And I tried to sum them up in 3 lines which described an incident I saw.

The bullet entered under her nose;
Her skull plates heaved
And brought up brain.

Many years ago we had a French lodger. She was so beautiful that she triggered in me what we might call impure thoughts. She had no interest in me other than friendship. In the end it became so unbearable that I had to ask my wife to move her on.. But it was not before I wrote a little rhyme.

Long-stemmed she rose
Her voice cut glass
She’s my mistress
I’m her class.

Some hopes! So let’s move to something more intellectual. I hope you know Wagner’s Ring.

In Wagner’s Ring
Power is king.
With the world in tatters,
Nothung matters

But of course we must end with something religious. This one was called The Bible.

I doubt if King James wrote it,
But the one who did
Knew the force of short, brute words;
And did not, if there were no clear need,
Write polysyllabically.

I am sure that some of you use poetry as a way to express your anecdotal evidence about the human heart. If you do, or even if not, tell us whether you enjoy reading poems which seem to hit the button.

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Unnatural behaviour

This is, I take it, the best known passage on Natural Law. It’s only a couple of thousand years old.

“There is indeed a true law—right reason—that is in harmony with Nature and present in all things, unchanging and eternal and that guides us to our duty by its commands and deflects us from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. Its commands and prohibitions never fail to prevail with the good but they have no power to influence the wicked. It is not right to legislate against the requirements of this law and it is not permitted to limit its application. It is impossible for it to be repealed in its entirety and we cannot be exempted from this law even by the Roman people or by the Senate. We do not need to seek out a Sextus Aelius to interpret or expound this law nor will there be one law in Rome, another in Athens, one law at one time and a different one some time later. One eternal and unchanging law will govern all peoples at all times and it will be, as it were, the single ruling and commanding god of the whole human race. That god is the creator of the law, its proclaimer and its enforcer. The man who does not obey this law is denying his own nature and, by rejecting his human nature, he will incur the greatest of punishments, even though he will have evaded the other things that are thought of as penalties.” Cicero, De Republica III xxii

And some would also point to Antigone by Sophocles. Antigone upbraids Creon, the ruler, for forbidding her to bury her brother’s body.
“But all your strength is weakness itself against
The immortal unrecorded laws of God.
They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,
Operative for ever, beyond man utterly. “

I like to compare Natural Law to a washing machine. If we expect our washing machine to do its job well and to last a long time we need to respect its nature. It should be used according to its design and manufacture. We may be able to suss this out through examination, but we will be much helped by the maker’s handbook. The only difference is that we own the washing machine, so we are free to mishandle or even destroy it, whereas we don’t own our human nature, we receive it from God.

We are fortunate in having the maker’s human handbook: we call it Scripture. And we also have an expert, appointed by God, to give us the detail. We call it the Church. But beyond that, as Cicero and Sophocles suggest, we have a capacity to judge whether our actions are consistent with human natural law, or, like Creon, to act against it.

An example of such judgment is the recognition that human beings flourish in society, so it follows that, for example, stealing is against the law of our nature. The other approach is structural: from considering our physicality we can discern which activities are appropriate and which aren’t. Not surprisingly this has a strong relevance to the uses of human sexuality. Nevertheless the instructions as laid down are not the last word. That comes from our own judgment when we have to make decisions about our own choices of action. This also comes from our human nature, central to which is reason and free will.

We may need to remember this when others criticise us for holding on to moral values in a society which, for a variety of reasons, often strays from natural law. We do not disagree because the Church says otherwise: it is us, in the sight of God, who make the final decisions and are responsible for them.

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Money, money, money

Look at the date, and subtract it from 5th of April this year. You will know now how many days you have to make a decision which may save you from unnecessarily losing money. Read on.

Fortunately I receive a pension: I worked for 40 years and I have been retired for 21 years. It did not occur to me at that time that for every month I worked I was also paying for half a month of retirement. And I should have known better because my work was very much concerned with arranging pensions for my clients. My imprecations were not popular. I found that few people were enthusiastic about foregoing their immediate needs to provide for a remote future which might not ever happen. Buying a car, getting a house, enjoying a summer holiday were all too pressing – perhaps I should come back in a few years’ time when everything would be easier. The most impressive excuse came from an evangelical Christian who quoted “sufficient for the day is the evil thereof” to claim that taking thought for the morrow was sinful. He is, I assume, now praying in a garret.

Such attitudes are not surprising. Two different elements in the brain are working at the same time. One element keeps a watchful eye on the future, close or remote, and nudges us to prepare; the other prompts our enthusiasm for immediate reward. And, for many people, it is the second which wins. We have inherited brains which tell us that if we do not grab now we may not survive to grab in the future.

So let’s look at the problem, using a male aged 65. An annuity of £5000 costs today around £100,000 , so perhaps you need about four times that to buy a modest income for life. (I am only giving a simple example here to show the scale.) To that you will add the state pension – which may well be reduced because the younger generation think it is over generous. They will change their minds too late.

If we assume 30 years to retirement and 3 percent annual growth, the contribution from you or your employer will need to be over £2,000 a year for an annuity of £20,000. But there’s a snag: inflation. Assuming 2 percent (the Bank of England’s target) your modest pension will have substantially lost in value by then. Of course you can postpone your contribution for, say, five years, but the cost each following year will have risen by over a third. No doubt your salary has risen but by now perhaps you have children and one of you works part time. You may have to wait until the children have left home before you find yourself prosperous again – but your retirement date is now that much closer.

This is where the 5th April comes in. One way of bolstering up your future holding is to take out an ISA. The ration for this tax year is up to £20,000. Use it before 6th April, or lose it. While an ISA, unlike a pension, is paid from taxed income or existing savings, the proceeds are tax free. ISAs come in two main forms: a cash ISA– invested in, say, a building society, or an investment ISA– invested in stocks and shares. The first is safer but unexciting; the second is volatile but with higher potential. Which is best for any individual depends on circumstances, and may need professional advice – I can make no recommendation. But I can say that I have bought ISAs, or their predecessors, since they were first available. And I’m jolly glad I did: virtually all my long term savings are in tax free ISAs. A recent facility allows a transfer of ISAs to the survivor of a married couple.

You may say that this is rather depressing. Perhaps, but there is nothing so depressing as being short of income through the years of old age. We must be aware that crisis awaits us. We are having fewer children. And this is generally true throughout Europe. The inevitable result is that the proportion of taxpayers is reduced in comparison with pensioners – who come from generations of larger families. Contraception, women in careers and, ironically, advances in old age medicine also play their part.

Stanislas de Lestapis, the Jesuit demographer, foresaw, in the late ‘50’s, the severe long term economic problems awaiting the Japanese – as they took enthusiastically to contraception under American influence. It is now the most aged society, facing shortages of labour, medical and social care facilities. The number of people over 85 in the UK is predicted by Age UK to more than double in the next 23 years. I shall thankfully be dead. But you may not be.

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Surely that’s not true

Some years ago, in Toronto, I was part of a conversation in which an ‘intellectual’ lady snapped at her meticulous husband with Emerson’s words *Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I felt she was hard on the poor man so I pointed out that Emerson had said “Foolish consistency…”: which was rather different. Now I was not popular, and I haven’t spoken to the woman since.

I find that truths which turn out to be not so rather fascinating, so let me give you a few examples. Then perhaps you can add some others in your contributions. It will make a break from our serious debates.

The guillotine was not named after its inventor. It was used in Italy for years beforehand, and was introduced to France by a Dr Louis. It was at one stage called a louison. Dr Guillotin persuaded the National Assembly to use it to replace the existing cruel methods of execution.

A miniature, as we all know, is a very small painting. Or do we? In fact the Latin word refers to painting with red lead. Normally once used for illuminated manuscripts it can, etymologically, be of any size.

The minutes of a meeting are not a record related to time but to size. The record customarily used small handwriting.

When Hamlet wished Ophelia to a nunnery he was far from preserving her virtue. In the slang of those days a nunnery was a brothel.

Brides do not walk down the aisle but the nave. The aisles go down the sides.

The human body renews itself every seven years. While bodies are always changing, seven is a fiction. The number seven seems to be significant in our minds.

Galileo never dropped objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to demonstrate gravity. Or at least he failed to mention it. The story only appeared years later.

Another questionable story concerns Lady Godiva, who happens to be an ancestor of mine. Her bareback ride is not recorded until over 100 years later.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, as many Americans think. For example the British Sir Joseph Swan developed and demonstrated a carbon-filament bulb about a year before Edison’s success.

Now it’s your turn to contribute…

Posted in Quentin queries | 21 Comments

Are you in the race?

How racist are you? Once upon a time I would have claimed not to be racist at all. That was before I had my experience. Several years ago I was coming down a narrow staircase in the London Tube, and a West Indian was coming up. Naturally I moved to the side to give him clear passage. And I went on my way, feeling good about my liberal self. It was only later that I realised that my self satisfaction was racist in itself. I would not have felt it had he been a white person. I learn’t that one can be scrupulous in behaviour and yet retain questionable, but built in, attitudes.

It is of course an ugly quality. I recall walking around Covent Garden with a rather beautiful black lady friend. (change ‘black’ to whatever is the non racist description which is currently acceptable) There I was: clearly an English gentleman but with such a person on my arm. I was really shocked at the plain hatred shown in the expressions of several passers by. It was some 20 years ago. Is it different now?

You may remember the incident of the Washington official who used the word ‘niggardly’ in a speech. His illiterate listeners kicked up so great a fuss at such a racist word that he (as I recall) had to resign.

Of course this is by no means confined to skin colour. It is fortunate for some murky people that they can use the word ‘zionist’ instead of the word ‘jew’. And this is complex because one may, or may not, oppose Zionism on straightforward grounds. It is hard to distinguish rational approaches to such problems from those which are, in fact, racial in their inspiration.

A study was carried out in which the investigators applied for several, advertised, professional jobs. The CVs submitted each gave the same information but in some instances the name of the applicant was clearly Asian. It turned out that those which had an Asian name received significantly fewer invitations to a first interview than those with Anglo Saxon names, despite their equal qualifications. I doubt if the selectors were even aware of their bias.

I am not calling for us to eradicate racism, or indeed our propensity to associate characteristics with identifiable groups. But I am suggesting that, as far as we can, we should identify any elements of racism which we harbour. They may be conscious, semi conscious or even, as we think more deeply, unconscious. We may not be able to change the world but we can change ourselves.

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Virtue versus law

Insofar as I am reasonably literate in modern moral theology I owe a great debt to A History of Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century (Keenan). It is of course a demanding read, but clearly written. (Try Amazon) What is traced here is the movement from a moral decision wholly based on traditional law to a moral decision which is formed by the individual, taking into account his whole human nature and the circumstances which surround the decision. The various theologians concerned of course differ in details and emphasis, but the broad direction is common. Let me give you an oversimplified example (not taken from the book) which helps me to understand.

I imagine a homosexual man who, for whatever reason, has a strong orientation. He meets another man with whom he falls in love and with whom he would like to have a committed relationship. He decides that this would fulfil himself as a human being and offers to him the opportunity of love and commitment. And that is his choice.

We can all sit back and think about the mismatch between biology and orientation, or the Scriptural condemnations, or the Church’s explicit condemnation. But here, all that is beside the point. What matters is that the individual has used his reason to decide in line with what he understands is the good. And he rightly follows that.

That example is stark. But there are others. Let’s take a divorcée from a valid marriage who enters a second marriage. Must she insist that her new marriage should eschew sexual expression? Or, of course, a Catholic married couple who have good practical reasons to use artificial contraception. Again, whatever decision we think is right or wrong it is the individual who must choose.

We might contrast this with the moral theologian, Henry Davis SJ

“The Catholic Church insists therefore, in season and out of season, on the religious education of the child, explicit, dogmatic, determinate moral education… It says to the child: you must be good in the way I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.” (Moral and Pastoral Theology,1958 edition)

I find myself undecided. I recognise two contradictory predilections in me. One is the absolute importance of the decisions of personal conscience. So I am minded to follow the more recent approaches. But because of the moral teaching of Davis’s confrères (I was at school in the 40’s) my response is programmed to accept law. Were I the homosexual in the example above, I would accept the relationship – but then feel guilty throughout.

Can you solve my dilemma?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 17 Comments

The attraction of attraction

How attractive are you? The question was sufficiently important for The Times to publish two articles in January and to devote a leader to the issue. It appears that good looking people are more likely to be right wing than left wing: the Tories are simply more attractive. The reason, it seems, is that attractive people tend to be more successful in life, both personally and financially. I hurried to my own research database and in no time at all I found enough references to the effects of attractiveness to write a book.

Most of us, I imagine, are under the impression that we can make good judgments of the people we meet. But it would seem that the evidence we use is not based on our knowledge and experience but, quite simply, on what we see. To put it simply, we evaluate our fellows through their appearance. And, as I have written before, those initial valuations tend to stick in our minds notwithstanding later, contrary, evidence. On public transport I am usually insignificant, but last year I went to lunch at a smart club, wearing my best bib and tucker. Ladies stood up for me on the tube. And a street seller at Hyde Park Corner addressed me as “sir”.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Some 40 years ago a Canadian federal election was studied: it turned out that “attractive” candidates got more than twice as many votes as the less attractive. Yet a majority of the voters denied that looks had been a factor in their choice. A classic example is drawn from the television and radio debates between Nixon and Kennedy. The beautiful Kennedy was the winner on television, the dour Nixon succeeded on the wireless. But voting is free – how about court cases where good judgment is of the essence? Sorry.. in criminal cases the attractive are less likely to be convicted. In civil cases they are likely to get substantially higher damages. We know that attractive people are more likely to be selected for jobs, and that they find it easier to get financial investment and to procure loans.

As we look at these attitudes we may find ourselves considering where we personally stand in the scale of attractiveness. My beard is an issue: I was once told by my seniors that this was likely to slow my business promotion. This was at a time when beards were seen as farouche. However my wife, when it first appeared, described it as “like adultery but without all the hassle”. So I kept it. Interestingly, one study claimed that beards were attractive to women, but only for brief affairs. I cannot confirm that since my affair with my wife could not be described as brief. Other women were different: some came in closer, others moved away. The distinction was marked.

Voices are another aspect of attraction. A fascinating experiment showed a crime story where viewers from different parts of the country were asked to judge whether the protagonist was guilty or not. The verdict depended largely on accent. Birmingham and Glaswegian accents fared badly. But they are not alone: foreign accents in general also attract less trust.

Accent is an important issue. Higgins, in Shaw’s Pygmalion, got it right: “It is impossible for an Englishmen to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.“ And indeed, there is a built in tendency to believe and respect upper class accents. But there may be a limit to this: an accent which is seen to be affected may lose its power to persuade. I have no study which shows the influence of accent in political voting, but I expect it to be influential. How do you react to Jacob Rees-Mogg? But many parents, recognising the potential advantage, arrange for children to have elocution lessons.

A low voice we know, on the authority of King Lear, is an excellent thing in a woman, but so it is with a man. An interesting study showed that women listening to various male voices were attracted to the low ones. They could even visualise, often incorrectly, what the man would look like. Unfortunately such men were also seen as
more likely to cheat and unsuited to longer relationships.

The abundance of studies in this area may partly be put down to the fact that they are relatively easy to conduct, and tend to be newsworthy, as The Times supposed. We need to be careful of such studies, which vary in their reliability, but, overall, they provide a useful picture. We can put down such superficial judgements to evolution which requires swift reactions to danger or opportunity to promote our survival (my computer mouse has just clattered onto the floor, and my cat has shot out of the room). But there are also many occasions when second judgment is better for us and for those we meet

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