Pandemic Golf

Yes, this is just a walk the length of our local golf course, deserted – at least, by people playing golf – due to the current lockdown.

Turning away from the links, some of the view is like the opening shots of Secret Army. Will we ever get out of here, and back to normal life?

This has been the first dry day for a week, but the paths are not wet – because they’re frozen.

The patterns of winter trees are the best.

Last walk of 2020

It’s been a long year.

Here it is in close-up:

Sometimes it felt like struggling through tangled branches…

Or going through odd places, seeing things from a different angle:

It seemed to go on and on…

Until the last sunset

In the absence of the promised New Year’s Eve party – cancelled due to tightening restrictions (York got moved to Tier 3) – our walk south of the city was the perfect send-off.

Goodnight, 2020. A weird, cruel and thought-provoking year.

The circumnavigation of Beningbrough Hall

In theory it’s easy to cycle from York, where we live, to Beningbrough Hall. In practice, though, it’s been raining almost continuously for a fortnight and cycling through mud isn’t everybody’s cup of tea (It’s a great route in the sumer, though).

We grabbed the one suny morning we had this week, and we drove there.

There’s been a stately home on this site since Elizabethan times, but the present pile was built between 1702 and 1716, in a style inspired by its owner’s two-year tour of Italy.

It went through many incarnations. One owner, a passionate horsewoman, ran a stud farm here. It also served during World War II as a billet for British and Canadian air crew.

Like many stately homes, Beningbrough Hall passed into the hands of the National Trust when its last private owners had to find money to pay Death Duties.

We caught some fleeting sunshine on the Chapel in the grounds.

“Is that river supposed to be there?”

It’s the point where the rivers Nidd and Ouse meet, but they’ve also ‘met’ a few fields, hedges and trees into the bargain.

Not to mention parts of the path…

Running the premises, from the National Trust’s point of view, hasn’t always been easy. In 1979 they teamed up with the National Portrait Gallery so the main rooms could be used for art exhibitions.

In better, non-pestilential times, you can go inside and view interiors and art without having to book in advance.

It speaks volumes that the present exhibition is on the subject of Well-Being (and that it ends on Hallowe’en).

Stay safe, everyone.

Park and glide

Many families go for a walk in the country on Boxing Day. We tend to try and beat the rush, and go in the run-up to Christmas. We’re often out and about on the shortest day or, in this case, the day before. Dusk falls at 3:30 pm, so it’s generally not a long walk.

From the top of Sutton Bank, Yorkshire spreads out like a giant, sage-green quilt.

Someone wants their memories always to remain here.

Sutton Bank, as a scarp facing into the prevailing wind (South West), is ideal for gliders. The Yorkshire Gliding Club has been here in its present form since 1934.

The gliders make an eerie whistle as they ghost overhead.

Moved by seeing the horse hill figures of the Southern counties, a local businessman suggested creating one on the hillside of Sutton Bank. The Headmaster of a nearby school got wind of the idea and, in 1857 with the help of his pupils, made it a reality. The work involved marking and carving out the figure by stripping away the topsoil, followed by transporting tonnes of white limestone to the site.

Their horse is so Victorian! He stands, stolid, as if waiting for work – unlike the ancient horses who inspired it, who run like waves across the wild landscape.

Book Review: ‘Science and Secularism’ by Dan Dana

Science and Secularism by Dan Dana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


‘Science and Secularism’ is a journey, described three times and in three ways.

It starts with a brief life story – how the author got to the beliefs he holds now. Next come the Haiku sets, evoking his wonder at natural phenomena – a wonder which, he argues here, needs no additional thought of a ‘creator’ of any kind.

The final section sets out the most typical argument in favour of atheism: that there is no measurable evidence for a ‘creator’, nor any logical explanation of how such a thing could exist.


The opening section, with its description of the revelations about different religions, about merging into broader and broader ‘families’ of faith, is a nice sequence – representing literally a broadening of the mind.

The logic is sound: with so many religions, which in some places contradict each other but each of whose followers believe is the ‘right’ religion, which one is right? And whichever it is, the others, if they’re different, must have something wrong with them.

It is rather spoiled by an ambiguity in the third paragraph, near the beginning, in which the sentence structure implies that the adults in the culture to which he was born – or possibly adults in most cultures – had no understanding of Science. Also, to be honest, I wondered how one can breach a moat.

By taking the “there’s a huge variety of religions among people, leading to inevitable contradictions and thus the question of which one is correct” line of argument against religion as truth rather than the more traditional “There is no direct evidence of God” line, the author has also indirectly tackled the “yes but there’s no direct measurement of ‘love’ either – only of the effect it has upon people” counter-argument to the latter. After all, unlike with any ‘God’, all human beings are in agreement about what ‘love’ is, and what it does.

So: is Atheism a faith? The argument posed here is that it is not, because with no direct evidence for any god(s), it’s the most reasonable thing to believe.

The haiku sets are in two sections: Secular, and Science.

Among the Secularism Haiku (sets 1 – 10) I most appreciated the second, with its joke about ‘Not collecting foreign stamps’ bordering on the Zen. Does ‘nothing’ – i.e. the lack of things – have an existence all of its own?

The Science Haiku (sets 11 – 27) evoke the ‘sense of wonder’ the non-religious feel, without the need to invoke a ‘creating power’ of which to be in awe. Even after more than half a century of fascination with astronomy and cosmology some of us, myself included, still feel like “a wide-eyed passenger hurtling through spacetime.”

I loved the wry humour of “this haiku’s not infinite – I’ve reached the edge now.”
The penultimate haiku, in praise of water, which exists in a tiny range of temperatures and makes life possible, included a nice metaphor – Mars’ skeleton key – while the final haiku sets out our stark existential choice.

The Haiku sets are followed by the final section, dedicated to debunking Creationism, the angle taken being that Pandeism (the belief that a creator, having created everything, now becomes the things they have created and so is no longer directly detectable). This has in common with the more conventional religions, the question “where did that creator come from?” The hypothesis of non-linear time is an interesting one – that there was literally no time before the act of creation, in much the same way that you can’t travel further north than the North Pole.

My problem with this final section is that it suffers from the same shortcoming as Dawkins’ ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, namely the desire to invoke in the reader awe of what there is in nature, while at the same time taking meticulous care to avoid any spiritual angle, religious or otherwise. This puts a severe limit on the imagery and metaphor, and neglects the observer/writer’s relationship with the world being described – and all good writing is, in one way or another, about relationships.

For an idea of what’s missing, Rachel Carson’s ‘The Sea Around Us’, for example, while a scientific and factual description of the world of the oceans, maintains a sense of beauty and awe in the reader by endowing the world described with a certain mystery – as if to say, here is what we know, but also here is our place in it; here is what we have in common with it; and finally an implication that there is always more out there that we have yet to understand. None of this can be done, it strikes me, if one adheres too strictly to the ‘material’ outlook at the expense of all else.
The narrative then turns to Supernaturalism – the mystical belief that entities exist beyond empirically observable reality, outside the laws of nature, specifically the Standard Model of particle physics. The coverage of recent advances in cosmology and other sciences is wide-ranging and thought-provoking, but to me, referring to some phenomena as ‘supernatural’ simply begs the question of what lies outside the standard model but is yet to be explained by a better scientific model.

To those who, like me, have not grown up in a religious milieu, and who’ve not had to ‘escape’ from a religious upbringing, this final section seems a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
However, the Haiku sets and philosophical sections together would make a thoughtful gift for friends who are wrestling with the contradictions between alternative world views – religious and non-religious. Or indeed with the many contradictions between and within religions.




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An appreciation of the life of a cherry tree

I probably love trees far too much. And this is what happens.

Back in the spring of 2007 we decided to liven up a rather boring (as in, privet hedge, lawn, nothing else) back garden with some fruit trees. So after a spot of research – what size? What type? Are there local varieties that do well in sunny, frosty Yorkshire..? – we chose two pear trees (Conference and Buerre Hardy) and the cherry tree (Stella). These were joined, two years later, by a plum – a present from my workmates in Leeds when I resigned the job there. Tsar – of course!

Round about that time, the cherry produced its first fruit.

To my shame I have no pictures of it in blossom, so here’s a neighbouring tree I spotted more recently when photographing some consequences of this year’s amazing dry, quiet spring.

Our tree grew rapidly, outpacing our ability to harvest anything from it – the birds always grabbed the lot first. Until this year.

Was this brought on by 2020’s uncanny, clear spring? Or simple maturity? Or, strange to wonder, the tree sensing its days were numbered – because we were beginning to talk about it as a problem?

Harvest (well, a tiny part of it)

This year we picked more than 500 cherries, each magnificent. As every year, I keep the stones (along with the dozens I find on the lawn where the birds have dropped them!), scattering them, throughout the autumn, in any place I think could do with a tree.

Autumn.

At this point we were still just thinking the tree could do with a drastic prune. We’d done this before – about three years ago – but that only made it grow faster! By the time I took this shot, it had grown taller than our garden is wide. The two little pear-trees on their modest rootstock were really struggling.

So. A tree-surgeon came and did the deed.

The red hue of the wood is painful to see. As if I’d murdered someone.

I shall miss our tree. This time of year, I miss the shapes I could see in its branches – and the shadows they made on the kitchen wall when I turned the lights out last thing.

But its giant roots had stalked under the lawn and reached the house, putting up new trees along their lines as they did so.

Our cherry tree was a victim of its own success.

It hasn’t gone – its roots are still alive. The new trees that grow from them, I know from having severed roots before, won’t die as a result of being cut off from their giant Source.

We shall dig them up, and plant them elsewhere.

The world in your living room

This giant inflatable globe – yes, your eyes do not deceive you – featured in a recent publicity stunt for One Planet York. And it speaks volumes about our city that such an item already existed, and all we had to do was borrow it!

Oh, and of course find a way of inflating it, outdoors, for a photo-shoot for One Planet York, and the start of York Environment Week this week.

This website has details of what’s going on.

There are virtual and 3-d events (what is the opposite of ‘virtual’? It’s not fair to say ‘real’ because a virtual event is also real…), so you don’t have to be local to join in.

Book Review: ‘Downtime Shift’ by Robert Holding

Downtime Shift by Robert Holding


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘Downtime Shift’ has a great premise: agents of the 29th century are sent back in time – a whole number of turns from ‘Point Time’ round a ‘loop’ of some 800 years to ‘Down Time’ (our own time) – to steer their past events in order to tweak their present-day, perfect civilisation, a civilisation completely overseen by the EYE, a vast and complex AI.

We meet Evelyn in the prologue which alludes to her intense training preparing her to take her place as one of these agents: a ‘Shifty’. It is implied that she was somehow ‘surplus to requirements’ in her pre-training life, but this is never fully explained.

Tension builds slowly as one is led to wonder what the motives of Psychologist Dr Janeen Hellander are: does she not want Evelyn to complete the task assigned her? And if she doesn’t – if she’s a saboteur – will General Tarran McAndre find out?

We get a lot of Evelyn’s inner world – the account of her meditation at the close of chapter 1 is particularly evocative, as are many of the landscape descriptions throughout. The landscape, it turns out, in a way has its own secrets…

What made the story drag a little for me was the lack of much conflict or suspense after that. Everything just seemed to go off too well, with hardly any obstacles or surprises for the two main characters.

There was plenty of psychological to-ing and fro-ing, with different characters ‘squaring up’ to each other for lack of trust, feeling-out for each other’s weaknesses. In many of these encounters the reader is made to hop between the characters’ points of view, which not only makes the narrative hard to follow but also destroys the tension – if you know what both are thinking, you know what the outcome will be – and worse, you are not properly ‘in’ the mind of either.

The dearth of dialogue ‘tags’ or small beats during the long exchanges of conversation made the logic hard to follow at times, and a programme (‘Echo’) is mentioned only once throughout – we never get to find out what it is.

The story, at its heart, is a lively and futuristic exploration of two questions in ethics: the classic ‘trolley problem’ – should you deliberately kill in order to save a greater number of lives? – and the more contemporary question of to what extent we should allow Artificial Intelligence to take over our lives, even if it is for the common good.

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A walk in the fog

An eerie stillness on the A19. No, that bus-stop definitely isn’t haunted – what were you thinking?

Illuminated leaves, and light-paths across the silent road.

There should be a film noir figure in a dark coat and hat lighting his 3rd cigarette under that lamp.

The Millennium Bridge looking like a Portal to Another World.

Isn’t it strange how the fog, by taking away parts of the view, gives you more to think about?

Book Review: Babel

Babel by Gill James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is the second book in a Young Adult trilogy with an exciting ‘premise’: in a fractious interplanetary empire the Peace Child is half-negotiator, half-hostage. With an interesting twist on the classic ‘prophecy/chosen one’ narrative, we meet Kaleem and wonder, what will he be called upon to do, and will he be able to deliver?

The story opens with a ritual euthanasia (‘Switch-off’) whose Master of Ceremonies, although evidently quite experienced with his role in a practice which appears to have been customary for some time, is nevertheless haunted with guilt.

Only in the story’s closing chapters do we find out why.

The cultural background has some reflections of our own world, including culture shock – we meet young women who are dealing with the differences between progressive planet Zandra and more ‘traditionalist’ planet earth (‘Terrestra’). One point that puzzled me and which was never fully explained was the agonising over why they ‘had to teach’ somebody from Terrestra ‘about there not being a God’, when this didn’t seem particularly necessary.

We get to meet the two main characters very much ‘from the inside’, with plenty of inner monologue of their thoughts and plans and, in a nice ‘nothing-ever-changes’-type touch, Rozia’s diary. Her notes seem a little soppy at first, but we soon see her true character. The portrayal of awkward teenage love is particularly realistic.

Although many of the earlier chapters end with wrap-ups, there are still some good points of tension:

What was Kaleem’s mother’s involvement with the immiserated and resentful ‘Z Zone’?

Will Kaleem’s antagonist succeed in raising the population there against him?

And will Kaleem succeed in reconciling the freedom-embracing, impoverished but life-loving people of the Z Zone with the more ‘civilised’, complacent, and even a little selfish (through having had life too easy), people of the Normal Zone?

An interestingly prescient aspect of the plot is the source of the movement against ‘Switch-Off’ in the Normal Zone. No spoilers, but they wouldn’t have been ‘the usual suspects’ for radical thinking when the book was written, back in 2011.

The story confronts the reader with a moral dilemma – ‘Switch-Off’ vs. letting people fall ill and die naturally. The premise is that the fight against illness will sharpen people’s minds and empathy, and indeed the medics’ expertise in dealing with imperfection, for example when people get injured, or have to deal with new diseases such as the ‘Starlight Fever’ mentioned as an incident in the past in the opening chapter.

My one criticism would be that the prose is uninspiring – there’s too much “he was anxious” “she was relieved”, “there was something bad going on and he had no idea what it was,” and the like, when better and more immersive expressions could easily be found. And we never get convinced of why ‘Switch-Off’ is so dreadful that it must be stopped – other than its being the only way of reconciling Z-Zone with the rest of Terrestra.

‘Babel’ is a very Moral tale – bordering on too moral (depending upon your point of view). The choice of name for the population management programme particularly jarred, at least with me.

However, in the end the ‘Chosen One’ trope gets a nice twist, and we are left wanting to know what happens in the next book of the trilogy.



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