Back when I was studying for my A-levels, in an English lesson studying King Lear a fellow student took issue with what he perceived as the play’s relentless misery and suffering, my English teacher, Brian Merrikin Hill (an extraordinary man of whom I have written elsewhere), posed a question to us. “Given only the two-way option, what”, he asked us, “would you rather be: an ignorant but happy pig or a wise but unhappy Socrates?” Largely unthinkingly, responding more from current hormonal urgings, the hedonists and soccer jocks plumped for the former, the chin-stroking intellectuals the latter.

Little, it seems, has changed in the many decades since I pondered the question, stroking my chin the while. I asked it of my Theatre Studies classes when presenting them with those three sisters always yearning plangently for a one-way ticket to Moscow. And the split is much the same now as it was way back then.

I’ve just rediscovered a little Larkin parody, written some years ago with Brian’s question still very much in mind. I’ve sent it to my musical oppo Steve Moorby as a potential song lyric so maybe there’ll be the opportunity to ask it of a new generation of on-the-spot philosophers!


From the fastness of our dreams
where no clouds obscure the view,
we put aside our petty schemes
and envy deeds that others do.

Is there more to life than this?
we ask at break of every day.
The morning call, the goodnight kiss,
the foot upon the primrose way?

Safe or sorry, choice is clear:
not pig in sty but Socrates.
Or yield to ignorance and fear,
and live life in parentheses.

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DJ+1 b&w

I am old enough to see how little I have done in so much time, and how much I have to do in so little.
Sheila Kaye-Smith (one of my mother’s favourite novelists).
[We] get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
Paul Bowles (one of my favourite novelists).

I wish I could do with ease as my heading invokes – seize the time and place no trust in tomorrow. Difficult, though, when that stubborn illusion of personal immortality that gets one through childhood and youth finally yields to a sense of timespan and fragility.

And yet, between the jumping-at-shadows bouts of vulnerability when a sudden awareness of the body’s incapacities against the vitality of the consciousness bring gloom, I do take heart. Yes, I keep forgetting names (and I read that this is where the dereliction begins), but I can think and feel as passionately as ever. And age appears not to have significantly diminished what my headmaster described in the 17-year-old me as ‘an overbalanced sense of justice’. And a powerful sense of a spiritual dimension  within us all remains firmly in place alongside a quiet certainty that there is no God. I take great pleasure in the company of my friends; I laugh a lot; I read constantly; I’m writing steadily again; music continues to excite and move me in equal measure, both in the listening and in the playing; and I celebrate daily that I have much loved family both immediately about me and only a digital phoneme or a pixel away whose years cover the spectrum from a nudge above the decade right up to a shoreline whose edges I can remember well. Sufficient unto the day…

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Some years ago a friend sent me the following extract from the Editor’s Letter in the then new Canadian arts magazine Hobo.  It struck me as an unusually thoughtful and eloquent meditation on a subject of fundamental importance in any contemplation of the human condition – the need for uncertainty. Read it and then write a list of all those great truths in your life of which you are absolutely certain. It may take a time to decide, but it won’t be a long list.

The beauty of uncertainty is that it motivates us to seek certainty.  We are compelled to replace doubt with conviction, to replace confusion with clarity.  Nothing is more disparaged than the person who is lost, hesitant and anxious, yet the true path to fulfilment comes from these conditions.  The artist, scientist, entrepreneur, athlete and traveller all embrace uncertainty as their muse. What is going to happen next is more enticing than what is happening now.  The thrill of anticipation, the mystery of the unknown, the open road, mistakes as portals of discovery, the inevitability of change, purpose from chaos, questions leading to answers, failure as the threshold of knowledge.  All of these conditions inform the life of the adventurer, the human being who is engaged and becoming.  The beauty of uncertainty is that it prepares us to embrace life in the face of death, allows us the strength to deal with the freedom to choose.  To willingly exchange the fear of uncertainty for the security of certainty is to admit defeat… 


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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
T.S Eliot (Little Gidding V, Four Quartets)

As an adolescent besotted with the notion that within poetry lay every wisdom worth knowing, this jangled with meaning, but remained just out of reach. In age, it tolls like a bell.


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NPG x88613; Brendan Behan by Ida Kar

I value kindness to humans first of all, and kindness to animals. I don’t respect the law; I have total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and old men and women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.
Brendan Behan

Sometimes, when the tide of self-serving, self-justifying, pompous, trite and sanctimonious flummery is on the rise, in search of a morsel of enlightenment we turn to the simple heart-over-head declaration.


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I have known Alan all my life.  He lived with us for my first 20 years and remained an integral part of the close family structure even after he moved into his own flat.  Indeed, it was my belief up to the age of 4 that all families included an Alan.

He took the spare room in our South London flat in 1938, shortly after my parents married.  Alan was ‘our waif & stray’, my mother used to say of the callow 18-year-old youth who moved in.  Joking reference was also frequently made – by Alan, as often as not – to the ‘wicked stepmother’ who, on her marriage to Alan’s father, threw Alan and his younger brother out of the house to fend for themselves.

Behind these euphemisms lay real distress and sacrifice. His unworldliness notwithstanding, Alan possessed a keen mind and a fearsome intellect and, in more favourable circumstances, undoubtedly he would have gone on to university.  Instead, he was articled to a firm of chartered accountants and was beginning to impress when war broke out. Alan joined the RAF and saw service as a flight lieutenant navigator in Coastal Command seaplanes and flying boats in India, Malaysia (then Malaya) and South Africa.

During the war Alan kept in close touch with my mother and father, regarding them increasingly as the family that, to all intents and purposes, he never had.  Although they were only a few years older than him, he deferred to them very much as parental figures, particularly during the early years following his demobilisation and return to professional life.  To my father he accorded a deep respect and regard, drawing from him a passionate interest in music and theatre and a tolerant and liberal view of humanity unusual in those years of fierce ideological polarisation.  To my mother he gave a love and loyalty that never wavered.  His devotion was such that, although he got close a couple of times, he never married, and he remains a bachelor now. And to me from the start, he gave absolute loyalty, never seeking to usurp a parental function or stand duty as a much older brother, but simply being uniquely the ‘Alan’ that for my first 7 or 8 years I assumed to be a standard familial component.

Well into my adulthood, I never seriously questioned the nature of the unconventional triangular parenting that I received.  Somehow the roles of each of them integrated seamlessly and, on family outings, boarding school visits, annual holidays and at Christmas, Alan would be there too.  And when, in his 60s, following retirement from a senior partnership in an internationally renowned firm of accountants, Alan bought a villa in the South of France, it was axiomatic that my parents would be co-resident with him there. 

When my father died at 89, automatically Alan became my mother’s carer, taking responsibility for both the domestic and financial management of her affairs and, increasingly as her frailty increased, her physical welfare.  In this final office, right up to my mother’s death in 2008, he always deferred always to me – not out of any sense of yielding to me family prerogative because of the ties of blood, but from his entirely natural grace and courtesy. For my part, as an only child curiously blessed throughout my life by the presence of this man who came to stay, I cherished these last rituals and processes of the family life from which I came. And if I came to question the true character and meaning of Alan’s unwavering devotion only in recent years and to wonder at the balance between fulfilment and pain that, over time, it has brought, I was happy to take my place, this time at a corner of this final triangle, knowing that utter loyalty, gratitude, discretion and selflessness would inform that constancy. 

On the morning after the day my mother died, Alan and I spoke on the phone. He had left only minutes before Mum stopped breathing, unable to endure witnessing her last moments and I was telling him how simple and peaceful her passing had been. As we concluded and were saying our goodbyes, having arranged to meet at his flat the following week, he suddenly said, “She was the only woman I ever really loved”. He wanted me to know this, but no response was expected or required and no reference has been made to the declaration in the 10 years since Mum’s death. 

Alan is 95 now and still living in his flat in Central London, near Hyde Park. He is very frail and has 24-hour care. But, with lapses in moments of exhaustion, his mind is clear and still he speaks of his incalculable debt to my parents for taking him in and becoming his family. When he too passes the last fixed point of that strange, sustaining triangle will  be gone and, very late into my own life, I shall finally become the orphan who remains behind.


Sometimes I see us
as two figures
in a landscape, empty

but for us, Chirico-still,
our long shadows
in alignment at last.

You tended
the edges of my life
from the start

the good steward,
the chatelain. But although
the hard, white lighthouse

beam of that other
indivisible love shone
high above my head,

even then its
cutting edge cast
light enough to read by.

Now my father’s dead
and my mother smiles,
lost in her sheets.

And still you radiate
(burning up hope
and your few years)

that love indivisible
whose fanatic heat binds us
in that empty place.

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Sisyphus on the move..!

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