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Someone gave me these as a “thank you” present at the weekend.  She bought them from a bucket at the roadside.  I had never seen these flowers before – they look like agapanthus flowers but grow singley and have too long stems.  I think they are brodeaia laxa or triteleia laxa “Queen Fabiola” (nobody seems quite sure which), commonly known as Fool’s Onion or Ithuriel’s Spear.  The Hidcote lavender matches its periwinkle blue colour exactly. Brodeaia laxa is native to northern California where the wild form grows up to 20″ tall.

Queen Fabiola is the Spanish aristocrat and widow of the Belgian King Baudouin I.  She was named after the Catholic saint, Saint Fabiola, a twice divorced Roman woman who lived in the 4th Century and was a friend of St Jerome   After the death of her second husband, she renounced all her worldly goods and thereafter devoted herself to the care of the poor and sick. 

Roadside Flowers





Five litres of cider he’d drunk, and it was only 9.30am. He was quite coherent, considering. He had not had a bath for three weeks and he sleeps in his clothes, so he didn’t smell too pleasant. But you get used to the smell after a while, though it hangs around in your lungs for several hours afterwards. You almost notice it more when he’s gone.   The whiffs of poverty and dirt and self-loathing.

He’d made an appointment to have some help filling in a long application form for a disability benefit. The application form is about fifty pages long, full of very precise questions about toilet habits and washing and cooking and ability to walk. It’s very clearly set out, but it’s almost mandatory to puff out a deep sigh when you see one. You need stamina just to fill the form in, and most people who will qualify for the benefit need help, just to get through it.

The benefit is called Disability Living Allowance and is a non-means tested benefit, which means that Christopher Reeve would have qualified. I see it as a sign of the civilised society we live in, that we acknowledge that “shit happens” and that there is no rhyme or reason to disabilities. It is all of us saying that life is not fair. Money will not make things fair, but it will go some way to providing care for those who need it, or for providing respite for exhausted relatives. It is payable based on what you need, care-wise or mobility-wise, and is not based on what you actually receive in terms of care.

Many people who live alone don’t get their care needs met, but they survive by sitting in a chair all day, eating microwave meals, washing with a flannel, and wearing clothes with elastic and no difficult fastenings.  It is payable under special rules to people who are terminally ill.  That is, to those whose death might reasonably be expected in the following six months.  It is awfully difficult to get round to broaching that subject with clients.  There are special rules, too, for children with development disorders such as autism. 

The thresholds are pretty high.  For instance, it is not enough to have lost both your legs in order to qualify for the top rate mobility element.  You actually have to be unable to walk, and that means that if you wear prosthetic limbs and can walk with those then you will not qualify.  People in a coma don’t qualify either… Top rate care and mobility will pay over £110.00 a week.

My man this morning was in his mid-thirties, accompanied by a slightly older friend of his with whom he occasionally kips when he is not sleeping rough.  He’d been sent to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau by the Job Centre for help completing the application form for a benefit that would potentially double his income.  His medical condition was described in a doctor’s certificate as “anxiety attacks” and he suffered several that morning, frequently having to leave the room to recover, and preferring the whole waiting room to hear his toilet habits rather than close the door on the three of us.  I asked how long he suffered these anxiety attacks and he told me how his stepfather used to beat him, and how there was nowhere to get away, and how he was frightened in closed spaces because he couldn’t get away, and that he was frightened in the street, too, that somebody would come and get him.

His friend wasn’t keen to hear all the gory details, but neither was my client keen to be left alone.  Smoke-breaks for his friend left us short snatches of time to deal with the really difficult bits.  He mentioned his dog, and I asked about it, and asked some more, letting him talk and cry.  It turned out the dog had had a massive tumour and the vet had had to put it down.  He hadn’t been able to watch the injection going into his paw, and he sobbed as he told me that he’d carried the dog’s body down to his beloved river to bury it, and how he’d lit a candle on the mound of earth and said a prayer and how his drugged up friend had been hysterical and he’d had to comfort him rather than being able to be quiet in the moment.  I wondered if his dog had made him feel safer than he felt now.

I had to get him to write something, and he wasn’t keen.  I asked him how he’d got on at school and he replied “Sharks”.  He’d loved natural history, and knew everything about sharks.  He reeled off the name of several teachers he’d liked. He liked fishing too, and used to go to the mud flats on the estuary to dig bait.  He said he’d really enjoyed helping people when he was younger too.  It had given him a buzz.  I said if you put all that together, wasn’t it easy to imagine a life better than now, that he could aim towards, where he had a small flat, and a dog, and went fishing and digging for bait, and did some voluntary work to help people.  He said he could imagine that.  I gave him the number of Alcoholics Anonymous and he folded it up with his doctor’s note and put it away in his wallet.

His friend said he wanted to ask me out.  But I gestured to my wedding ring and he gallantly declined, saying just “Respect”.  Later he said that his goal was to find a woman to take to his sister’s wedding in the Caribbean in October, but that he could never take me “because I was not wearing proper shoes”.  I was wearing plimsolls – trendy French Bensimon tennis shoes that went wonderfully with my grey linen skirt, but plimsolls none the less.  I said that I’d had a lucky escape and must wear plimsolls more often.  It was all good humoured and kind.

As finally my client turned his back to leave, all I could see was the twelve-year old boy who loved sharks and digging for bait, and who loved his dog more than himself, and who had been beaten by someone he should have been able to trust.

Afterwards, I sat at my desk writing it all up and breathed heavy sighs.  The supervisor asked me if I was OK.  I was, but it’s a lot to soak up in a morning, twenty odd years of unhappiness laid out before you.

 Another related, similarly depressing post …

Faith and Hope and Not a Lot Else


Stuart: A Life Backwards

Will this man make you happy?

The government’s ‘happiness tsar’, Richard Layard, thinks he knows why we’re all so miserable – we’re overpaid, over-materialistic and lonely. But, he tells Stuart Jeffries, he has a plan to banish the blues in Britain, once and for all 


Stuart Jeffries
Tuesday June 24, 2008



‘Happiness is … ” begins Professor Richard Layard. He pauses. I sit forward in my seat expectantly. Which definition will the government’s happiness tsar pick? “A warm gun” (Lennon)?; “The greatest good” (Bentham)?; “The meaning and the purpose of life” (Aristotle)?; “The motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves” (Pascal)?; “The greatest gift that I possess” (Dodd)?This isn’t a small matter. How he defines happiness is one of the most fascinating questions in British public life today, because Layard is quietly effecting a revolution in this miserable, materialistic, overworked country. A Labour peer since 2000, he has been able to influence first Blair’s administration and then Brown’s into making his happiness agenda government policy. His calls for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for school lessons in emotional intelligence, and other allegedly happiness-causing reforms have been greeted warmly by education secretary Ed Balls, health secretary Alan Johnson, the health guideline-setting National Institute for Clinical Excellence and by local authorities up and down the country. Layard is founder director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, and runs its Well-Being programme. He speaks cheerfully of how the word “well-being” now figures in job titles at government departments, how the new government policy includes commitments to well-being, how the Office for National Statistics is developing the measurement of well-being, how Ed Balls’s Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning programme is devoted to making secondary school children focused on well-being. For Layard, you see, well-being is just another way of saying happiness.But what is this thing called happiness? After a pause, he finishes his sentence thus: “Happiness is inversely related to income at higher levels of income because of the declining marginal utility of getting richer,” says Layard. “Let me show you.” He draws a graph: on the X axis is income per head, on the Y axis is average happiness. A curve ascends boldly and then tails off ignominiously. At the bottom of the curve, you will find countries such as Zimbabwe or Russia, where increases in national income per head will increase levels of happiness. “Think of economic growth in India – it has been associated with rises in average happiness.” On the ignominious bit you will find a cluster of western countries, including our own, where such rises in income per head don’t cheer us up one bit.
When do income rises stop making us happier? Around $20,000, according to Layard. Or, in sterling, £10,128.89. After that there is an inverse relationship between more money and happiness. Quite a lot of you might be thinking you should apply for massive salary cuts, but that’s to misunderstand Layard: he’s talking about average national incomes rather than individual pay rises.
“When I realised that pursuing national income per head wasn’t necessarily a panacea, it was like a bolt of lightning. It made me question what economics is about. It made me ask, what is progress, if not rising GDP?” So, then, what is progress? “It’s the reduction of misery and the increase in enjoyment of life. If rises in income aren’t doing it, then you have to find out what does produce progress. That is where happiness comes in. Aristotle said that happiness was the only thing that man wanted for which he could give no reason. Anything else – income, sex or whatever – was always for something else, be it to buy things or for the future of the species. But happiness was, for Aristotle, a self-evident goal. And he’s right: men and women want to be happy.”
It is Layard’s contention that, during the past 50 years, consumer society has become dominant and yet happiness has declined. We are richer, healthier, have better homes, cars, food and holidays than we did half a century ago. Unemployment and inflation are low, and yet so are levels of reported happiness. This is due, he says, to a series of things – the break-up of the family, fractured communities, a loss of trust. “The same thing has happened in America, but it hasn’t happened in the same way on the continent. I think this shows we are suffering from the extreme individualism that we have reported from America. We are unhappier as a result.”
Layard talks in simple ways about these problems. “People would be happier if there were nice people when they went outside. But there is little confidence that there are nice people out there. Here and in the US levels of trust have fallen from 60% to 30% in the past 50 years. We are consumed with status, with envy.” This makes the world a much more discombobulating one than economists traditionally thought: individual preferences are not constant, but shift in rhythm to cultural trends and peer pressure. It’s a world in which one’s accumulated possessions depreciate in value. Like Jacob Marley’s chains, they drag us down rather than make us happy.
Layard had a problem, though. Happiness was not regarded as measurable. “I showed in 1980 that surveys showed happiness wasn’t increasing, even though income per head was. I stopped thinking about the issue then, because I couldn’t see how social policy could change that depressing fact; I had nothing to contribute because happiness was not yet objectively measurable.”

Then, in the late 1990s, something happened that revolutionised Layard’s career. Happiness became a new science. Or at least Layard, despite wails of derision from sceptics, says it did. Psychological researchers found a close correlation between reported happiness and activity in the cerebral cortex. As a result, Layard insisted, lots of the scepticism about reported happiness was misplaced.”I have been so struck with the sophistication of the science in this area,” he says. “It’s really impressive.” It gave Layard hope that he could both define happiness objectively, measure it accurately and then set about creating more of it.

What is happiness, Layard asked in his 2003 lecture series Happiness: Has Social Science a Clue? His answer was simple: “By happiness I mean feeling good – enjoying life and feeling it is wonderful. And by unhappiness I mean feeling bad and wishing things were different.” To his satisfaction, he had cut through a philosophical Gordian knot. Yes, many philosophers didn’t think the matter was so simple. And true, Nietzsche did write derisively in Twilight of the Idols: “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.”

No matter. Layard was reclaiming an Englishman’s birthright – the intellectual heritage of utilitarianism handed down by Jeremy Bentham, the 19th-century philosopher who argued that what was really important in ethics was “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. But Bentham was not advocating that each person should acquire more and more happiness in the way Imelda Marcos bought shoes. Just before he died Bentham wrote to the daughter of a friend: “Create all the happiness you are able to create; remove all the misery you are able to remove … And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom.”

Stirring stuff. Only one problem, identified by John Stuart Mill: “Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.” Everyone from Socrates to the Dalai Lama argued that happiness was a recalcitrant little bugger: you couldn’t create it, particularly not in someone else’s bosom. And so to set happiness as the overarching goal of social policy might seem to be a terrible error.

Layard discounts Mill, Socrates and everybody else’s views on this. He thinks happiness is something one can create by working on one’s dispositions towards well-being – or getting someone else to show you how. Layard has no doubt there are some of us who are predisposed, perhaps genetically, to being happy. Many of the rest of us, though, need help.

Last year, Layard visited Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom where government pursues the goal of gross national happiness (GNH). “Bhutan seems much happier than countries that have a materialist rather than moral ethos. Relationships are rather equal, there’s very little status anxiety.” He was impressed by the four pillars of Bhutan’s GNH: the promotion of equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development; preservation and promotion of cultural values; conservation of the natural environment; and establishment of good governance. “What really struck me is that as a matter of policy, there is very little extreme poverty. Bhutan realises that a redistribution of wealth that favours the poor most is better for producing happiness.”

Layard’s mission now is to make Britain a bit more like Bhutan. It is a mission that has revivified him intellectually and politically late in a distinguished career. He is 74, and has been married since 1991 to Molly Meacher, a social worker who specialised in mental health and now sits as a crossbencher. In his bestselling 2005 book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, he cited his wife as a key influence on his thinking.

In 2005, such was his access to government, that he presented a paper called Mental Health: Britain’s Biggest Social Problem? to the No 10 Strategy Unit. There he argued that the scourge of unemployment had been replaced by that of depression. He pointed out that more mentally ill people were drawing incapacity benefits than there were unemployed people on Jobseeker’s Allowance. Depression was thus bad for both GDP and GNH. One in six people suffered from depression or chronic anxiety, but only a quarter of sufferers were receiving treatment – mostly drugs. Layard recommended that CBT was as effective as drugs and was preferred by most patients.

In his subsequent The Depression Report he recommended scaling up CBT for people suffering from depression and anxiety through training an additional 10,000 clinical psychologists and psychological therapists. The report seemed to promise a great leap forward in British happiness: a national service of 250 local treatment centres, with 40 new services opening each year till 2013, would offer courses of therapy costing £750. Each course would pay for itself in money saved on incapacity benefits and lost tax receipts. Everybody – including the Treasury – would be happy.

But CBT, and Layard’s support of it, has been derided. Typical was the GP, Mike Fitzpatrick who, writing in the British Journal of General Practice, charged that Layard was committing a fallacy similar to that of his LSE predecessor William Beveridge, whose 1942 report predicted that improvements in health resulting from better health services would rapidly result in a reduced demand for health and welfare services and hence in a declining burden on the exchequer. It did not. “The notion that a few weeks of CBT will transform miserable people languishing in idleness and dependency into happy shiny productive workers is embarrassing in its absurdity,” added Fitzpatrick.

What does Layard make of such criticisms? “Nobody claims that CBT is going to cure everybody. There will still remain roles for medication, family therapy. And for some personality disorders it won’t be relevant either. But for many people currently suffering depression it will.” Isn’t CBT overrated? “No. CBT takes great trouble to evaluate itself. Other forms of treatment such as psychodynamic ones haven’t evaluated their methods.”

What are the success rates of these courses? “Something like 50%. Which is not bad. The main problem now is that not enough therapists have been trained.”

But it is not only depressives on incapacity benefit who need to be helped to become happy. British children need it too, Layard insists. A 2006 University of York survey found that UK children are the unhappiest of any wealthy European country. At the time, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said: “The selling of lifestyles to children creates a culture of material competitiveness and promotes acquisitive individualism at the expense of the principles of community and cooperation.” “He’s right,” says Layard. “We need better role models than Britney – for our children as much as for ourselves.”

But how? Layard hands me a book. It’s called A Quiet Revolution and it chronicles an initiative at West Kidlington primary school, north of Oxford. There, head teacher Neil Hawkes has sought to instil emotional intelligence in his children by devising a positive value lexicon. This consists of a series of 22 words devised by parents and teachers that have positive values. The lexicon includes trust, respect, love, friendship, humility, hope, simplicity, tolerance and (Gordon Brown’s favourite) courage.

Each of these words is dramatised in assemblies, and used throughout the school day – in the playground and in dedicated values lessons. “Deep understanding of the positive concepts gradually permeates the layers of individual consciousness by a kind of osmosis,” writes the book’s author Frances Farrer, “and ultimately is internalised to the point where the concepts govern action.”

Isn’t this the nanny state gone mad, I ask Layard. He replies that learning such values is about instilling character, which is the only way children can become strong, secure and autonomous. “So it’s not nannying. It’s the opposite. Any happy society is one in which people feel in control of their own lives. The government can develop a school system that encourages self-determining agents to flourish.”

Why should such inculcation of values be important? Partly, Layard argues, because we live in a mostly secular society. “I had an education that included a religious component and, even though I’ve become agnostic since then, I recognise that those with religious beliefs tend to be happier.” Layard contends that there has been a catastrophic “failure to develop a secular morality. People find it hard to talk about moral issues. A moral vocabulary is what is lacking for many children.”

In this, Layard claims popular support. He chairs the Good Childhood Inquiry set up by the Children’s Society. Its aim is to work out what might be good values to instil in children. His inquiry will report early next year, but he already has some ideas. “We need to get different people into teaching.” He wants to encourage more psychology graduates to become teachers, not least because they will appreciate the behavioural psychology that underpins Layard’s happiness philosophy. “We must use time in the school day devoted to values in a more distilled way. Again, the problem is that there aren’t teachers trained to do such things, so classes given over to values can be waffly.

“We need some people going into schools with missionary intent. Before I became an economist in my 30s, I was a schoolteacher, and at that time the missionaries were the ‘use of English’ people who, under the aegis of FR Leavis, believed that teaching great literature could provide a moral education. Like the Matthew Arnolds of the Victorian era, we need intelligent missionaries in our schools.”

He tells me about the Local Well-Being Project, a new three-year trial involving three local authorities (South Tyneside, Manchester and Hertfordshire) which has the goal of increasing happiness and which, if successful, could be replicated nationwide. The aim is to wean children from binge drinking, adolescent suicide, anxiety and depression into happier, more wholesome futures. Fingers crossed.

This new politics of well-being is one of the greatest experiments in British social policy for generations. It could be a wonderful thing, steering us away from the Scylla of materialism and the Charybdis of selfish individualism, just when we thought we were doomed.

Or maybe Layard’s happiness agenda is misplaced. It’s too soon to be certain. The revolution is still under way, and there are problems. There are waiting lists for CBT, and positive psychology classes have not yet delivered compelling results. But there’s a bigger concern. Aren’t you worried, I ask the happiness tsar, that this whole agenda is based on an imposture, and that happiness is neither a desirable nor an achievable political goal? “You’ll be happy to learn,” says Layard, as he kindly shows me to the lift, “that I’m not”.

Interesting article which raises lots of questions:
1.  Is it fair to blame America for our nation’s unhappiness?
2.  Isn’t it more likely that Nietzsche is to blame, if he killed God?
3.  If America is to blame, who imported her ideas into the UK?
4.  May I blame Margaret Thatcher?  I’d like to.
5.  Is happiness even a goal we should be pursuing?
6.  Isn’t happiness just a by-product of a good life? 
7.  Does happiness as a constant state, lasting more than a few weeks, only exist in retrospect?
8.  Are happiness and autonomy inextricably linked?
9.  Do unhappy people try harder and therefore achieve more?
10. Why is my dog always happy?












… doesn’t work.  It just doesn’t satisfy. 

I’m reading a book called Siblings without Rivalry.  The chapter dealing with fairness between brothers and sisters is entitled “Fair is Less”.  In it parents discuss with the two authors how it never seems to work when you tell children that you love them both or all the same.  That is because children do not want everything to be the same, but want to be loved differently for who they are:

“It was a difficult concept to explain.  I told them all the story of the young wife who suddenly turned on her husband and asked, “Who do you love more?  Your mother or me?”  Had he answered, “I love you both the same,” he would have been in big trouble.  But instead he said, “My mother is my mother.  You’re the fascinating, sexy woman that I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

   “To be loved equally,” I continued, “is somehow to be loved less.  To be loved uniquely – for one’s own special self – is to be loved as much as we need to be loved.”

Had I been the young wife, the husband’s comments would have hit the spot.  I’ll try to make sure I give the same individual attention to my daughters.  I think it works with friends too.  Friends want to know they are loved for who they are.  It is true of spouses, siblings and friends: if you are loved for who you are, then you do not have to worry about competition since you are unique.

The chapter goes on to deal with the difficult subject of parents who actually do prefer one child over another.  The mere thought of that turns my stomach over.  Some of the parents in the book declare clear favourites.  This passage begins with one man admitting that he prefers his daughter to his sons:

“I thought that’s one of the things we’ve been saying here, that we don’t have to worry about convincing the kids we love them all equally.  It is not even humanly possible to love them the same.  I’ll bet each person here has a favourite.  I’m the first to admit that my boys are good kids, but my daughter is the light of my life.”

All my alarms went off.  He sounded much too comfortable about a situation that was potentially dangerous.  Did he have any idea what pain he could inflict upon all his children with that attitude, including the “light of his life”?

“As I see it,” I said, “the problem is not one of having a favourite.  We all experience feelings of partiality towards one child or another, at one time or another.  The problem is how to make sure we don’t show favouritism.  We all know that Cain slew Abel when the Lord showed more “respect” for Abel’s offering.  And we also know that Joseph’s brethren threw him into a pit in the wilderness because their father loved Joseph more and gave him a coat of many colours.  That was a long time ago, but the feelings that provoked those violent acts are eternal and universal.

“Even here in this room today,” I continued, nodding towards the woman who had told the story of “The Haircut”, “we heard about a little girl who cut off her sister’s hair because her father was enchanted with it.”

“Rapunzel’s sister” looked at me intently.  “The truth is he was enchanted with everything about her.  He was never enchanted with me.”  Her eyes filled.  “I can’t believe it still hurts,” she said.

I wanted to weep for her.  And for all the other children who had to watch the glow in their parent’s eyes and know that it would never be for them.

“This is going to be a tough one,” I said.  “How do we protect the other children in the family from our enthusiasm for that one child who speaks to our heart?”

There was a heavy silence … [then several parents recounted their stories]

“What I hear all of you saying,” I said, “is that if we want to stop showing favouritism, we firts have to be aware that we feel it.  We need to be honest enough to admit the truth to ourselves.  Knowing our bias immediately puts us in a better position to protect our “less favoured children”; and it helps us protect our favoured child, as well, from the pressure of having to maintain his position and from the inevitable hostility of his siblings.”

   The woman who had spoken last wasn’t satisfied.  “What do we do about our guilt?” she asked.  “I can admit that I am partial, but I feel terrible about it.”

“Would it help,” I answered, “to tell yourself that it isn’t necessary to respond to each child with equal passion, and that it’s perfectly normal and natural to have different feelings towards different children?  The only thing that is necessary is that we take another looke at the less favoured child, seek our her specialness, then reflect the wonder of it back to her.  That’s all we can ask of ourselves, and all the children need of us.  By valuing and being partial to each child’s individuality, we make sure that each of our children feels like a number one child.”

Reading this threw up all sorts of emotions in me.  Not about my own daughters (whose picture I’m looking at now, and which makes me smile) because they are very different from each other, and it is easy to love each of them for their uniqueness.  They are physically, temperamentally and emotionally very different.   Both do continually challenge me to reassure them that I do not love the other more, and I do not think I am very good at satisfying them, though I could not bear to choose between them.

I think preferences are fairly rare.  Apparent (not real) preferences are less rare.  Especially where the siblings are different sexes, it is fairly common to see a father doting on his daughter, or a mother who declares she is in love with her son.  It is often easier, less complicated, to love an opposite gender child because they never threaten your own identity, nor do they need to overcome you before they can become adults themselves. 

In another situation one child might be very effective at claiming all the attention, and so appear to be the favourite, but the quieter, less demanding child in the background may pull the mother’s heart strings equally hard as she tries to bring her to the fore.

This was part of an email yesterday from a girl friend of mine who is thoughtfully doing her very best.  I am very proud of her.

I had two letters yesterday from W…  School.  B … (her daughter) is getting the 
Year 6 music prize at Speech day, and your godson is getting the Year  
4 effort prize!  I spoke to his teacher at sports day yesterday and 
she said he really deserves it as he has a fabulous report with all 16 
effort grades being A’s.  He might be an attention seeking little 
whatsit at home, but at least at school he is an angel.  I was so 
proud of them I cried when I read the letters, especially as B
gets so overlooked with D as a brother.

The book is excellent.


I saw this at the weekend, and liked the advice. 

June 22, 2008

Aunt Sally: I can’t forgive my mother but the anger is eating away at me

I was wondering about your thoughts on anger and forgiveness. I am terribly angry with my mother. I don’t want to forgive her, as I don’t feel she deserves it, but I know hanging on to these kinds of emotion isn’t good. My mother was cold and hypercritical, making me a shy and unsure child. When I developed bulimia, she was unsympathetic. She insisted I leave school at 16 to bring money into the house, although we were quite affluent. All my contemporaries went to university and did well, whereas I have always been skint, going from one rubbish job to the next. My lack of self-esteem and my self-hatred meant I never allowed anybody to get close to me, so I am rather lonely. I have finally stopped hating myself, although I wouldn’t say I like myself. I can live with myself, but I don’t know what to do with this anger. I see how much people who believe in themselves can achieve and what a nice life they have, which makes me angry for not trying harder and terribly sad for a life that could have been. I’m in my forties, single and childless, and see a lonely future ahead.

“Forgiveness” is such a big word. I prefer “acceptance”. If we accept that somebody is the way they are, and they are behaving in that way not to offend us, but simply because that is the way they feel and think, then we may find space for forgiveness. In other words, we forgive them for being who they are. We may as well, because if there is one single truth, it is that we cannot make other people behave in ways we would like. The only person we have the power to change is ourselves.

So, if we accept that people are themselves, what is there to forgive? Their bad behaviour, perhaps? That takes us back to a point of nonacceptance. If we don’t accept them as they are, we believe they should behave in a certain way, according to our criteria of what we believe is correct. In other words, I’m right and you’re wrong. Sure, we could go down that road, but really, there is no point. Trying to make somebody agree that they are wrong and you are right is like banging your head against a brick wall. If you keep it up, the only person you hurt is yourself.

So, give it up. Let it go. Accept that your mother is not the person you wanted her to be. She is the person, for whatever reason, she wanted to be or thought it was right to be or did not know there was any other way to be. Letting her live rent-free in your head is not going to change that. There is a saying about parents: “Shame on them for what they did to me as a child. Shame on me for what I am doing to myself now.” Yes, it was bad. No, it shouldn’t have happened. But it did, and now it’s over and you’re an adult in control of your own life. Or you would be, if only you would stop handing the responsibility for it over to everyone else. Just like your mother, the rest of the world is not responsible for the way you feel, and making them responsible (they went to university, they believe in themselves, they had mothers who loved them) is not going to change anything.

Nor is anger, which could be seen as an aggressive form of self-pity. Life is not fair, but why we believe that something as abstract and impersonal as life should be fair, I have never understood. It’s like ascribing human emotions to a tree and saying a tree should be fair. A tree is a tree. It is what it is.

You could go on hating your mother (and yourself) or you could try to make friends with yourself. Yes, I know being kind to yourself is a novel idea, but if you could find some compassion for your own difficult emotions, you might understand that everyone suffers from them, too — including your mother.

Here are three practical suggestions you might like to try. The first is to count your blessings. Write them down, every night. And please don’t say you have nothing to be grateful for. You have a roof over your head. You are able to work. It doesn’t matter how rubbish you think that work is: the truth is, you have choices. You are healthy, which is not to be underestimated. Challenge yourself to see the good in your life and, eventually, you will come to believe it.

The second suggestion is to help others. It will stop you concentrating so exclusively on yourself. You are not the only person in this world who feels bad. Reach out to others and you will feel less alone.

Third, pray for five minutes every morning. Set your intention for the day. I don’t mean that in the sense of organised religion — although it may be that you embrace it. Simply pray to your higher self. Pray for the willingness to let go of anger, to enjoy your life, for self-hatred to leave you. Pray for compassion for yourself and others.

Finally, remember this: living well is the best revenge.

1.  Rosa Mundi

2.   Dublin Bay climbing rose

3.   Wedding Day

4.   Pink rose with geraniums

5.   Rosa rugosa

6.   Nevada – a hedge of fourteen roses was a present from my mother for my 30th birthday

7.   Purple rose

8.   Buff Beauty

9.   Yellow Charles Austin, a David Austin rose

10.  White David Austin rose


New Hall is a college of Cambridge University.  It is now the one of only two University colleges (both at Cambridge) in the United Kingdom that continues to admit only women undergraduates.  It was set up as recently as 1954 but has acquired a formidable reputation in its short history so that now it leads the way in science.  Women have found its all-female environment a shelter,  particularly when studying subjects traditionally seen as male.

It was “new” not just in terms of its youth, but because it adopted its own admission examination.  It did not chose students on their “A” level results – results which often reflect the ability of an expensive school to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse – but instead attempted to test the innate intelligence of candidates.  Now it usually requires AAA at “A” level but still says “Very occasionally we will make a rather lower offer to a student who clearly has considerable potential but is currently disadvantaged (perhaps through weaker schooling or illness).”

A graduate of the college phoned me last night in high dudgeon.  “Soon I will be a graduate of Nowhere” she complained.  That was better than being a graduate of Oxford Polytechnic, I (half-)joked, but she then explained that the college had just announced the receipt of a large gift of £30 million, in recognition of which the college had decided to change its name to honour the donor.  This is the largest gift ever received by the University from a British couple.  But the name sounds very American.

From today it will no longer be called New Hall.  Instead it will be called Murray Edwards College.  Now, like me, you might be forgiven for wondering whether it was appropriate that a college with a fierce feminist tradition should adopt a name that sounds suspiciously male.  It seems an extraordinary thing to do, almost as if men have finally got their revenge on this thorn in their side.  Women have been given men’s names throughout history, either the name of their father, or the name of their husband in marriage, and feminists have often rebelled against this appropriation and retained their own names (which, of course, were often only their father’s names) in marriage.  My graduate friend has, at least some of the time.  So, it sticks in the gullet that the college has capitulated to a donor’s demand and sold out its tradition.  On Tuesday night in Cambridge there will be a demonstration against the renaming outside the college.

The renaming becomes all the more bizarre when you learn that Murray Edwards is not actually a person.  He is in fact two people.  One half of him is Rosemary Murray who was the founder President of the college.  The other half of him is Steve Edwards.  Steve Edwards is a man and cannot, short of a sex change, have ever been at New Hall.  His wife, however, is an alumnus, or whatever the female form of that is.  She is Ros Smith, a woman who together with her husband made a fortune in the high tech industry with a company called Geneva Technology which was sold in 2001 for $700 million.  How nice then that Ros should choose to honour her husband’s name with their bequest.  How unfortunate that the combination of Murray and Edwards should conjure up a man. 

Ros Smith came to Cambridge from a comprehensive school in Keighley in West Yorkshire.  The first President, Rosemary Murray, apparently only ever saw New Hall as a temporary name, and proposed that a sufficiently sizeable gift should entitle the benefactor to name the college. 

New Hall will not actually be legally re-named until next year, after the University has signalled no objection and the Privy Council has given consent to a change in its Statutes.

Until 1st May 2009, Murray Edwards will be the College’s trading name.  My friend will be brandishing a placard next Tuesday.

Steve Edwards, Ros Smith, and the current President of the college

Matthew, Ch 6

 1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

 2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

 3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

 4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

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Lord of the Flies

“I have to annihilate you. Don’t you understand? It’s nothing personal – I’d do the same to whoever was here. It’s not a choice, but a necessity, because I’m starving and there is not enough to split between two of us. One of us has to go. It’s the survival of the fittest. I’m going to make sure that I survive, even if that means the death of you. Sorry, I know that’s not a very Christian attitude, but there were people around fighting for survival before Jesus came along and told us to love everybody. I don’t believe in this “love your neighbour” stuff. That won’t get me fed. It’s all about power, not love, stupid. As Nietzsche said, God is dead. They didn’t just hug each other if they were hungry before Christ got hung on the cross. No, they ATE each other. If the chips are down, it’s dog eat dog. No room for sympathy or compassion. Instinct kicks in. It’s the concentration camp scenario, the sailors marooned on the island. It’s the Lord of the Flies. Abel and Cain. Nothing new, just normal behaviour in a famine. And, let’s face it, this is a famine to beat all famines. I’d eat you if I had to. I need you to disappear so I can have everything for myself. Look, it would be different if there was not this scarcity. If there was a glut of this stuff, then, sure, I’d share. I’d be as generous as the next person. But – get this – there is not enough for two of us, and one of us has to go, and it is not going to be me. Don’t whinge about it being mean. Don’t even suggest we share. You look as if you might be winning, and I cannot accept that. This is normal animal behaviour. There’s nothing immoral or moral about it. It’s just survival.

Why are you walking away? Why don’t you fight me then? Why don’t you want to survive yourself? Isn’t it worth anything to get what you need? Not that I care – it just means more for me.

Ah, that’s better, Mummy. You’re all mine, now. All mine.”

But the other one didn’t die. Sure, she was a bit stunted, but survival is about looking elsewhere for the things that you lack, if they are not where they should be. You don’t need very much to survive. Crumbs here and there will do until you meet someone who will share, who will give you their last crust rather than eat it themselves. Then, together, you will be able to feed others. It’s a bit like the parable, “Feeding the Five Thousand“. Which suddenly seems to make sense. As, I hope, do the pictures in the previous post.

I asked my husband yesterday whether he thought people think that I am going mad. He replied “Only those who didn’t know you were mad already”. I’m one of the sanest people I know. Or does that only confirm that I am mad?

[deleted at Lola B’s request.]