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Wow, Alexandra!

[I found the Jeff Buckley version on Friday, and played it over and over and over again, and then put it in a post-dated post for Sunday.  Little did I know that the winner of the X-factor was going to cover the same song for her finale, and that it was her new single.  I like it when things like that happen …]

I got round to reading the short article below last week.   From the October issue of Prospect magazine. 

I’ve been thinking about it off and on since. I was feeling slightly guilty about posting the YouTube Prank Call clip … I mean, it’s only funny because we’re laughing at Mrs Palin, and I’m not sure how nice that is …

Heard the one about the three theories of humour? Jokes are about humiliation, the release of inhibitions, or absurdity. The end of the world itself has the logical form of a joke. Geddit?

Jim Holt

Hobbes, Freud, and Kant walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Hey, which of you guys can tell me why humans laugh?”

Let me back up a bit. There are three classic theories of humour. The “superiority” theory—that’s Hobbes (also Plato, Bergson)—locates the essence of humour in the “sudden glory” we feel at the humiliation of others. It suits jokes about cuckolds, racist jokes and put-downs, like:

Angry guy walks into a bar, says to the bartender, “All agents are assholes.”

The guy sitting at the end of the bar says, “Just a minute, I resent that.”

“Why? You an agent?”

“No. I’m an asshole.”

The “relief” theory of humour—that’s Freud (also Spencer)—says that humour allows us to get around our inhibitions. The set-up fools our inner censor, and the punchline liberates repressed impulses. It suits naughty jokes—like this one, told to me by one of my students at a Catholic girls’ school. “Mr Holt, what’s better than roses on a piano? Tulips on an organ.”

And the “incongruity” theory—that’s Kant (also Pascal, Schopenhauer)—says humour is a matter of the logical abruptly dissolving into the absurd. “Do you believe in clubs for children?” WC Fields was asked. “Only when kindness fails,” he said.

A theory of humour must also account for laughter—a very weird thing. As Arthur Koestler said, “Humour is the only domain of creative activity where a stimulus on a high level of complexity [a joke] produces a… sharply defined response on the level of physiological reflexes.” Why the spasmodic chest-heaving, the strangulated respiratory gasps; so pleasant when issuing from oneself, so annoying when coming from the next table?

The superiority theory doesn’t really answer this question. The relief theory at least gives it a try. According to Freud, keeping forbidden impulses down takes an expenditure of nervous energy; when those impulses are liberated by a joke, this now-superfluous energy gets discharged through the facial and respiratory muscles. Not bad in theory, but there’s a problem. If Freud is right, the most inhibited people should be the ones who laugh the hardest at a raunchy joke, since they have the most repressed energy to discharge. In reality it’s the least repressed who guffaw the loudest.

The incongruity theory of humour, being the most intellectual of the three, should have the toughest time with physical laughter. Koestler called laughter a “luxury reflex,” since it doesn’t seem to serve any evolutionary purpose. But he did not live to see the advent of evolutionary psychology, which can find an explanation for anything. The neuroscientist VS Ramachandran offers this one for the origins of laughter. Imagine you’re ranging through the jungle with your hominid pals. Suddenly a threat appears: you hear another hominid band rustling around nearby. You and your comrades tense up into fight-or-flight mode. But then you spot that the enemy “hominids” are actually monkeys. To communicate that the threat is spurious, you emit a stereotyped vocalisation—one that is amplified as it contagiously passes through the band, so everyone gets the message. At the core of this evolutionary rationale for laughter—call it the “false alarm” hypothesis—is incongruity: a seemingly grave threat revealing itself to be trivial. For Kant, that’s also the essence of a joke.

The threat trivialised by a joke is often a very real one—thus jokes about sickness and death, Jewish jokes about the Holocaust or the charge of deicide that Christian persecutors historically brought against Jews because of the crucifixion (“What’s the big deal? We only killed him for a few days”). Pretending that such things are of no consequence makes them bearable. The same applies to metaphysical mysteries, like the one Heidegger made heavy weather of: why is there something rather than nothing? When an earnest student put this question to Sidney Morgenbesser, a waggish Columbia philosophy professor, he replied, “Even if there was nothing you still wouldn’t be satisfied!”

The cruel jokes explained by the Hobbesian superiority theory and the lewd ones explained by the Freudian relief theory must contain some sort of incongruous twist if they are to work. A look at the history of jokes reveals that the mix of ingredients shifts over time, with meanness and lewdness gradually giving way to intellectual pleasure in incongruity. That’s progress! Or is it? Chimpanzees, who separated from humans about 5m years ago, also laugh and grasp simple incongruity jokes.

In fact, only with civilisation do you get humour based on forbidden impulses and contempt for out-groups. But civilisation—which can be defined as cities plus writing plus sexual repression—goes back only 6,000 years or so. Here, then, is my bold prediction: in the fullness of time, humour will shed these low elements and revert to its original essence: delight in incongruity for its own sake. And our most remote descendants will laugh hardest at the thought that what appears to be the ultimate something—the universe itself—will eventually wink out in a Big Crunch or expand into trivial nothingness. Yes, the end of the world has the logical form of a joke.

I had a prank call once.  At least I thought it was a prank call.  I was at home with the children, several years after abandoning my legal career.  A woman phoned to say that she had been given my name by some of the people I’d worked with on the Tina Turner concert all those years ago.  They’d said what a good lawyer I was, just the woman for the job.  Was I interested in doing the legal work?

I asked what the work was about.  She said that she wanted to start a lap-dancing club in our home town, and would need to get all the permissions and licences in order for it to function.  Permissions and licences had been a bit of a speciality for me, but I began to smell a rat.  I am one of the people least likely to voluntarily have anything to do with a lap-dancing club, and I suspected that those who had worked with me previously had a pretty shrewd idea that that would be so.

I asked if the phone call was a joke.  She insisted it wasn’t.  But I was finding the whole idea so ridiculous, so incongruous that I just could not stop laughing.  I wanted to stop, but I just couldn’t.  I corpsed, slid down the wall with the phone in my hand, and my ears running with tears.  I could not speak for laughing.  Me, be the lawyer for a lap-dancing club … Oh, it still makes me laugh, but you probably had to be there. 

I can remember other similar bouts of uncontrollable laughter.  On the school bus, when the bus conductor got his wooden leg stuck in the strap of my leather satchel.  On a bus in Oxford when a enormously fat lady slid off one of the sideways facing benches at the back onto the floor.  In St Aldate’s Church, Oxford, when I was a student and one of the Bible readings included the immortal command to “delight in fatness”.  At two separate school concerts at my daughters’ school when two different novice trumpeters couldn’t hit their notes.  At a Burn’s Night Feast when I had to make a speech in reply to the toast, from the ladies, and found my own puns on Robert Burns (London’s Burning, Burn’s Unit, and so on) so funny that I was bent double under the table.  Not everybody behaves like this, which is slightly worrying.

Much more here

Sacha Baron Cohen

The sun was still low in the sky. Looking towards its lazy light, I saw how it coloured the river and the shining mud of the river’s banks a pale golden yellow, leaving only textures to discriminate between the infused water and the shore. Liquid gold flowing past rough nuggets. Turning the other way the bright colours of the yachts tied up along the pontoons were like national flags against the sky-blue water. Bright red. White. Dark blue. Small amounts of yellow.

Seabirds flew across the screen with the same frequency of as easy computer game. One now, flying horizantally from east to west. Another, later, swooping to land on the water, then taking off again. Now a pair of smaller sea birds. Then a heavy oil-black cormorant, like a sooty full stop, becomes long points suspendus as it heaves its heavy body up, its wings batting the surface of the water and punctuating the smoothness.

A small procession of yachts, only a lone man at the helm of each, take advantage of the ebbing tide to carry them out to the mouth of the estuary, letting the pull of the vanished moon multiply the impulsion of their engine, using the free water between the rows of moored boats.  A small red fibreglass tender is launched from the wooden ramp and floats away. A man in the boat, facing forwards, pulls on a cord to start the outboard engine clamped to the stern. Nothing happens. He pulls again, and again, and again, as the boat drift further from the shore. I start to watch with more interest, wondering if he has a paddle as well as the motor. The man turns to face the stern and tilts the engine out of the water. He examines it, perhaps regulating the choke, checking that the fuel is turned on, then he lowers the propellor in the water once more.  He jerks the cord. Again the engine stays silent. He pulls several more times, then stands up and gives the cord one more almighty pull with all the force of his upright body. The put-put engine jumps into life and the boat makes a more determined progression into the sun.

My dog jumps from tussock to tussock. Vertical takeoff and bouncing on landing. He mis-judges a gap and gets his feet wet and then takes off in a frenzy of excitement, his tail bent oddly at right angles, his hind legs strangely under his body, running round in endless circles until he collapses on the rough sea grass and rubs himself dry. Then, frog-like, he waits to see if I move. I stay still, taking in the glass-like blue beauty of the river and the sky, feeling my cheeks lift with a smile that reaches to my eyes and relaxes my body, slowing me down.

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?












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.

 Twenty years ago today I was standing on the football pitch at Wembley making history -just one insignificant person amongst more than 72, ooo young people.  600 million more people watched on television.  We heard Tracy Chapman sing for the first time in the United Kingdom, a small figure with a guitar, filling us all with her words. 

Then, in the dark, the stadium was filled with small flames as Dire Straits sang Brothers in Arms.  That feeling, of being there, of having been there together with all those quiet people listening in togetherness, is still ineffable after all those years.

This concert marked a turning point for South Africa.  The previous year had seen the extension of the State of Emergency, originally imposed in 1985 and intent on ensuring the survival of the apartheid regime.  By 1988 30,000 people had been detained.

The influence of the world was too much for the government to ignore.  F W de Clerk became the President of South Africa in 1989 and began freeing many black political prisoners.  On 2nd February 1990 he delivered his famous “unbanning” speech.  Nelson Mandela was released on 11th February 1990.   The first nonracial democratic elections were held on 27th April 1994 and Nelson Mandela became the President of South Africa.

One of the early posts I wrote on this blog was about the public profile of the armed forces.  It was provoked by my recent experiences in America, and by the reporting of a speech by Sir Richard Dannart which called for a more public show of appreciation for the work of the armed forces.  The public responded almost immediately with warm homecomings for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – no government involvement there.  Things have moved on.  Now a new report proposes a new public holiday to celebrate armed forces.  This article from the Guardian.

New report proposes a new public holiday to celebrate armed forces

The review of civil and military relations also called for a new law to make discriminating against people in military uniform a criminal offence.

The 40 recommendations include more state school cadet forces, encouraging service personnel to wear their uniforms off-duty, putting military awareness on the national curriculum and encouraging local councils to organise homecoming parades.Armed forces minister Bob Ainsworth said the report would “ensure that the work of our armed forces is better understood and recognised by the nation they serve”.
The Ministry of Defence said it would respond in detail to the recommendations later in the year but was already working on many of the proposals.

The report suggests that a Friday or Monday at the end of June would be a suitable time for an armed forces public holiday.

Ainsworth confirmed that the government was considering creating a new public holiday, adding: “We do want to take forward the proposal to recognise our armed forces.

“Whether that is a separate bank holiday of itself, whether it’s a weekend, is something we would consider.”

MP Quentin Davies, who was asked by Gordon Brown to undertake the review, denied that any of his proposals would threaten the significance of Remembrance Sunday.

“There are moments for sadness and commemoration of our heroes of the past, and there are moments to look to the future,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Davies said his inquiry had found a “divergence” between the military and civilians, with people showing less understanding as their contact with them had gone down. Former Conservative MP Davies quit the Tories to join Labour last year.

Ainsworth confirmed that the government was examining how it could implement Davies’s call for legislation making discrimination of those in military uniforms an offence, with assaults or threats of violence against anyone in uniform considered an aggravated offence.

It follows reports that personnel at RAF Wittering near Peterborough were told by senior personnel not to wear their uniforms in public for fear of abuse from people opposed to the war in Iraq.

The report also highlighted incidents including troops at Birmingham and Edinburgh airports being told to change into civilian clothes or avoid public areas, and injured veterans being abused by members of the public at a swimming pool,

Currently there are only 60 cadet forces in the comprehensive school system in England and Wales, compared with 200 in the grammar and independent sector.

However, the report’s proposal to expand them, which would see pupils who sign up given weapons training, is likely to prove highly controversial.
In March teaching unions denounced schools-based cadet forces as a questionable recruiting tactic.

The Conservatives claim the government has copied many of its own ideas.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Nick Harvey, said many of the proposals were common sense and should be welcomed but he said “pageantry should not obscure the hard facts” about the way the government treated the armed forces.

“An armed forces day is welcome, but it will ring hollow for those forces families who still have to put up with sub-standard housing,” said Harvey.

General Timothy Granville-Chapman, vice-chief of the defence staff, welcomed the report, adding: “The report compliments the work going on in the services, is comprehensive and makes firm recommendations which my fellow chiefs of staff will find very useful in harnessing appropriate public recognition and understanding of what we do.”

Last year, the head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, warned that a lack of public appreciation for Britain’s military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan was in danger of “sapping” the willingness of troops to serve on such dangerous operations.

We were like a gossamer spider’s web around the birthday girl, threads of connection linking each of us to the other.  Synapses waiting to fire, links waiting to be discovered.  One woman was a child psychotherapist, who lived very near to us, and who was happy to chat about some of my favourite subjects, and whom I would like to be a kindred spirit – so much did I like her spirit.  Another had been hiking with my parents-in-law when they visited Hong Kong many years ago, and breathed the same rarefied public school air as them.  Another outdid my passion for food and horses, raised pigs and kept chickens.  Another had taken her children to the small church primary school opposite our house, and had recently buried her husband in a beautiful village church high up, overlooking the river.  It was the church of my mother’s native village, and a recently discovered favourite haunt of mine.  She was generous enough to share her disappointment and her frustations.  Others I had known longer, from church or from my daughter’s school.  As as I knew some women already, others knew each other from another school, from a choir, as neighbours.

At the centre of the web was a friend to all of us, though we were, some of us, strangers to each other.  Ruth had assembled a group of women which whom she wanted to celebrate her birthday, and God had blessed us with glorious sunshine and a cool breeze.  A clutch of us were the same age as her, with children the same ages.  The others were smiling older, wiser, women whose children had flown the nest and who were enjoying their retirement or about to retire.

We began our walk at a small hamlet on a promontory in a wide shallow river fringed with reeds.  An old church surrounded by freshly mown grass and cherry blossom offered a cool, damp refuge from the heat of the afternoon.  Here, at Ikenhoe, more than a thousand years ago St Botolph almost certainly founded a monastery from which he evangelised the pagans. We poked around a bit, feeling the ancient carving on the 9th century Saxon cross discovered underneath the tower when it was being repaired.   At home we have two small watercolours of this church painted from shore of the river that we bought each other, and it is the backdrop to a portrait of my husband that hangs in our house.  Next to the church is a house.  The house that belonged to the great grandfather of the man who was renting us a house in Tuscany for the Whitsun holiday.  We knew that because we had been to collect the key to the Italian house only that morning, and he had told us, and the spider’s spun thread travelled back from there and wound round the places and the people.

  As the path leaves the church it winds down to the river.  We walked along the sand, next to the reeds until a bay appeared in which a small barge was moored.  The bay is enclosed in sandy cliffs up which I clambered in my wedding dress on my wedding day.  We had celebrated our marriage further upstream and had been taken away by a clinker-built fishing boat dressed overall.  Our boatman had landed us at the base of the cliff and our getaway car was parked in the yard of the pig farm at the top.  Nowadays there are steps cut into the cliff; then there was just a helping hand from my husband.  My own threads of history, glistening in the sunshine, pulled me backwards.

We walked on, each of us moving backwards and forwards through the group of women like bees going from flower to flower, alighting, tasting the honey and moving on, pollinating each other as we went.  Now flowers and bees in turn. 

Eventually we arrived at the red brick maltings that grew to fulfil Benjamin Britten’s dream of an international concert hall.  Here, in summer, we come almost nightly to sit on cushions with our children or our friends and listen to the best music in the world.  The concert hall restaurant looks over the river and it was from here that the two of us watched the little boat winding it way through the withies to come and take us away, whilst all our wedding guests knew nothing of our plans.

We all magicked books out of our rucksacks for our friend – The Time Traveller’s Wife, Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father, 1000 places to visit before you die, a audio-book of Middlemarch, a book of Italian recipes and food stories, and a crime novel. We had been wonderfully fed by the conversations as we walked, but we ended a beautiful afternoon with a meal altogether sitting in a cosy pub inside a wooden cocoon.  Ruth asked us to name one thing that we would take to a desert island and between us we furnished our island with a man (the widow), a pocket sprung bed, an armoire, a bottle of champagne, a pair of binoculars, a boat, a large bottle of olive oil, and an endless supply of anti-histamine cream.    I’m glad that Ruth allowed us to enjoy her birthday with her, to explore her friendship web.


This week is Nettle Awareness Week in the UK.  Only in the UK could a week be devoted to the glory of the weed that has caused more children to cry than any other, that has caused more adults to curse.  I liked the darker side that celebrity cook and food writer and herb specialist, Sophie Grigson, gave to the celebration.  She sees it as a clarion call to take our revenge on the nettle by reducing it to soup and, as we sup, to cry “Got you, you bastard!”

So, here are three recipes for nettle soup that take the sting out of the weed.  The first is one for all those aristocratic nettles that refuse to be cowed.  The second is a common or garden recipe that will work for all nettles, and the third is the recipe that I concocted this morning out of ingredients in my store cupboard.  All recipes are gluten free, and mine is dairy free.

All recipes begin with the instruction “First pick your nettles” …  In my case this involved the poignant use of Twiglet’s basket, lined with a tea towel, and an odd pair of industrial gloves that had at various times been used whilst painting the fence and tending the bonfire if the residue on the gloves was anything to go by.  One is supposed to pick only the freshest, juiciest leaves from the top of the plant.  The aristocratic version of the nettle soup recipe requires you to remove the leaves from the stalk, but I did not do this and can vouch for it not being necessary.  I filled half a basket with the nettle tips, then rinsed them (having substituted my dirty gloves for a pair of plastic bags since I do not possess washing up gloves).  Now my nettles were ready to use.

To amuse you whilst you consider whether you wish to go and harvest your own nettles, I thought I would tell you some of the more positive attributes of the dastardly plants.

First, they are a haven for insects, and butterflies in particular.  It is the stinging hairs that account for the nettle’s attraction because these prevent almost all grazing animals from venturing to eat them and leaves the insect larvae safe from harm.  Small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies are some of its most ardent fans.  These butterflies belong to the Nymphalidae or Brush-footed group of butterflies whose shortened front pair of legs are covered in hairs like scales.  Aphids overwinter in the nettlepatch and provide springtime food for ladybirds.  Nettleseeds are late summer food for birds.  One gardening tip is to plant nettles in a tub or pot, much like mint, and to position it, or sink it, into your border.  That way the nettles do not spread, but they can attract to your garden the butterflies that love them.

Secondly, nettles are supposedly very good for you.  In particular research has shown them to have effective anti-rheumatic/arthritic properties.  Research carried out by the Plymouth Nettles Research Group (I joke not) of the University of Plymouth post-graduate Peninsula Medical School has shown that nettles can help relieve arthritis symptoms.  They contain silica, particularly in the stringy stems, and it is this element that apparently helps joints.  Research was reported in The Lancet, the journal of the British Medical Association (vol 355 of 2000). Dr. Colin Randall, of Plymouth University, studied 27 patients who had osteoarthritis, none of whom had used nettles before. They applied stinging nettle leaf for one week, then white deadnettle (which doesn’t sting) as a placebo. They reported that pain and disability were significantly lower after one week of treatment with the stinging nettle, and there was a reduction in their use of drugs.

Other medicinal claims include treatment of internal kidney, liver and bladder problems and to treat diabetes.  Once you’ve read this you will never want to be without the nettle again:

Despite the unpleasantness of its sting, the nettle has been highly regarded in Europe since at least antiquity as both a food and a medicine, with both the Greeks and the Romans using it for a wide variety of medicinal purposes. In the first century, Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen reported the leaf of the nettle had diuretic and laxative properties and was useful for asthma, pleurisy and spleen illnesses. By medieval times the stinging nettle was in common use throughout the continent, being used for treating rheumatism, arthritis, allergies and eczema, baldness, bladder infections, cough, bronchitis, bursitis, anemia, gingivitis, hives, laryngitis, gout, multiple sclerosis, tendonitis, premenstrual syndrome, prostate enlargement and sciatica. According to Nicolas Culpeper in the seventeenth century, the seeds of the nettle were thought to be beneficial in the treatment of bites from “mad dogs” or the stinging of “venomous creatures.”

Seeds were also used at that time as an antidote to poisonous herbs such as nightshade and henbane. In early American medicine, bandages soaked in a leaf and stem infusion were used to stop the bleeding of wounds. An account of this use was recorded by Dr. Francis P. Procher, a physician in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Nettle leaves were also recommended as a nutritious food and as a weight loss aid by the famous American plant forager and naturalist, Euell Gibbons.

For some purposes the leaf of the nettle was recommended, for some purposes the stem, for some purposes the seed, and for others the root, and accordingly the whole of the plant was utilised in traditional medicine and revered for its healing properties. It was also popular as a food in many countries and we know today that nettle is highly nutritive, being rich in chlorophyll, beta carotene, vitamins A, C, E and K, several of the B vitamins, tannins, volatile oils, flavonoids, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphates, and various other minerals, especially silica. The stinging nettle is a remarkable nutritional treasure and has often been compared very favourably to spinach.

Today nettle is recognised as having astringent, expectorant, galactagogue, tonic, anti-inflammatory, hemostatic, and diuretic properties, and is recommended for treating bone and joint conditions, inflammation and irritation of the urinary tract and for preventing urinary system gravel, whilst the diuretic action of the plant has been shown to significantly increase urine volume and can help to alleviate bladder infections. However, the most popular application of stinging nettle today is the use of the root for treating the symptoms of prostate enlargement or benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH). This condition is hormonal in nature, caused by testosterone and the conversion of testosterone to the extremely potent dihydrotestosterone, a conversion which increases as men age. An excess of dihydrotestosterone causes pathological prostate growth. Estrogens also play a part as they too increase as men age and also stimulate prostate growth. These hormones travel around the body in a free state, as well as bound to proteins. One such protein is called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) and its role is to maintain a dynamic hormonal balance in the body. SHBG binds or attaches to hormones and carries them to different receptor sites on cell membranes throughout the body where they can be utilised in different ways. The effect it has depends on which hormone it binds to and which receptor site it is carried to. In the men estrogen and dihydrotestosterone bound to SHBG are usually carried to the receptor sites on the prostate gland and once there in excessive amounts it stimulates prostate tissue cells to divide and grow rapidly – resulting in BPH.

Some of the more recent research on BPH and stinging nettle indicates that the nettle root can interfere with or block a number these hormone-related chemical processes in the body that are implicated in the development of BPH. In clinical research, nettle has demonstrated the ability to stop the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (by inhibiting aromatase, an enzyme required for the conversion), as well as to directly bind to SHBG itself – thereby preventing SHBG from binding to other hormones. Other research also reveals that nettles can prevent SHBG that has already bound to a hormone from attaching to the receptor sites on the prostate, as well as to decrease the production of estrogens (estradiol and estrone) by inhibiting an enzyme required for their production. In summary, most of the intercellular processes required to trigger the prostate to grow new cells and enlarge seems to be inhibited by nettle root. Human and animal clinical studies have confirmed these effects and also demonstrated that nettle root works as well as the drug finasteride which is prescribed for BPH and is also better tolerated than the drug.

The effect of nettle root on dihydrotestosterone (DHT) levels has also made it a treatment for hair loss, as male pattern balding has often been linked to an excess of DHT, as has hair loss in women too. In folklore it was always believed that nettles were an effective treatment for baldness and modern science appears to validate this belief. Nettle root is also valuable as a source of lignans, a type of phytoestrogens, which have become more and more valued in recent years, and which accounts for its galactogogue property. Nettle root also contains a number of chemical compounds which appear to significantly stimulate the immune system.

(from Vortex Health)

Finally, when you are the only family left on this planet, you can use nettles to produce fibres that you can weave for clothes.  The fibres are currently only used on a industrial scale in Japan, but they are capable of producing a linen-like fabric, albeit coarser.  Hans Andersen’s fairytale, The Wild Swans, tells of the mute princess, Elisa, knitting nettle shirts to help her eleven brothers regain their human form after they have been turned into swans by the evil stepmother. But apparently nettle fibres were used for centuries in Scotland to produce fabric for tablecloths, and nettle fibres were even woven in Germany to produce uniforms for the army during the Second World War when cotton was hard to come by.


1 lb potatoes
½ lb young nettles
2 oz butter
1½ pts chicken or vegetable stock
sea salt & black pepper
4 tablespoons sour cream


Cook the peeled, chopped potatoes for 10 mins in salted water. Drain.

Wash & chop coarsely the nettles (Only pick the new, young tops,using gloves!)

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the nettles and stew gently for a few minutes. Add the potatoes and heated stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes or until tender.

When all is soft, cool slightly & purée in a blender, adding seasoning and the sour cream.


½ carrier bag full of nettles, tops or young leaves
55g butter
1 large or 2 medium onions, finely sliced
1 large carrot, chopped (optional)
2 celery sticks, chopped (optional)
1 large garlic clove, crushed (optional)
1 litre good chicken, fish or vegetable stock
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
3 tablespoons cooked rice or 3 rice cakes
2 tablespoons thick cream or crème fraiche
salt and freshly ground black pepperTo Garnish:
A little extra cream or crème fraiche
A small bunch of chives, chopped
A few sprigs of wild chervil or parsley, chopped 


Pick over the nettles and wash them thoroughly. Discard only the tougher stalks, as the soup will be liquidised. Melt the butter in a large pan and sweat the onion, plus the carrot, celery and garlic if using, until soft but not brown. Add the stock and pile in the nettles. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the nettles are tender. Season with salt and pepper, and with nutmeg if you wish. Puree the soup in a liquidiser with the cooked rice or rice cakes (you will probably have to do this in 2 batches). Return to a clean pan, stir in the cream and reheat, but do not let it boil. Check the seasoning, then serve, garnishing each bowl with a swirl of cream and a generous sprinkling of chopped herbs.

To serve cold:
An alternative is to serve this soup cold. After liquidising and adding the cream, pour the soup into a bowl and leave to cool, then transfer to the fridge for a couple of hours before serving. For accelerated cooling, fill a large basin or saucepan with ice cubes and water and place the bowl of soup in the iced water. Stir to chill, adding more ice cubes if the first batch melts. Stir well just before serving and ladle the soup out into bowls. Garnish each with a swirl of cream and a sprinkling of chopped chives and wild chervil.

Serves 6

Additional notes:
This is the basic recipe for nettle and other ‘wild greens’ soups, including fat hen and chickweed. It will also freeze extremely well. For a variation mix the nettle leaves with watercress or Cos lettuce. The carrot and celery are optional but make the soup more robust and full-flavoured. You can also add a few fresh or frozen peas, to give sweetness and improve the texture. Using fish stock will give a more unusual taste. If using a stock cube the best ones are monosodium glutamate free. If you prefer you can use a medium potato to thicken the soup instead of the cooked rice (or cakes) – peel and dice it fairly small and add it just before adding the stock.

Nettle Soup is featured in Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s ‘River Cottage Cookbook’, published by Harper Collins, ISBN: 0002202042, price: 19.99

3. Nettle and Coconut Soup


A washing-up bowl of nettle tops
1 onion, chopped
250ml of orange juice
1 tin of coconut milk
1 tsp Marigold swiss vegetable bouillon powder (or clear vegetable or meat stock)
Olive oil for frying onion


In a large deep saucepan, fry the chopped onion on a medium heat until transparent and just beginning to brown. Add the rinsed nettles and cover saucepan. Sweat the nettles and onions together until the nettles have wilted and started to give out their juices. This will take about 10-15 minutes. Add the orange juice and the bouillon powder and bring to the boil. Add the coconut milk and some water (about 1/2 litre) and continue simmering for a further 10-15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Liquidize the soup and serve hot or chilled.

There it was, sitting as still as a statue on a woodpile.  I whispered to myself.  It’s an owl.  And, slowly, slowly I edged closer to the bundle of fluff. A bundle of fluff about the same size and shape as a hairy coconut, but lighter.  Any moment I expected it to fly away, so I took photographs with every cautious step, but it let me get closer and closer until I was less than a metre away. 

It was a baby owl, its beak tucked forlornly into the soft young feathers on its chest.  Only around the end of its hunched up wings were there any adult feathers at all.  Perched on top of the logs it was a sitting duck, if ever there was such a thing.  Wolf had been hot on my heels and was inquisitively sniffing around, wondering what had caught my attention. 

I ran back to the house, dragging Wolf with me, hearing my husband’s car on the gravel, and together we returned to look at the owl baby again.  It hadn’t moved.  Occasionally it opened its circles of eyes, but mostly it kept them tightly scrunched closed as if it wanted this nightmare to go away.

We ransacked our bird books, looking for pictures of baby owls, and thought it most likely to be a baby tawny owl or perhaps a small owl.  Both were likely to be found in our neck of the woods.  I rang the RSPCA for some advice.  They said that we should try to return the chick to its nest.  Impossible because the only potential nesting place we could see was a natural hollow directly above the woodpile in the candle-covered chestnut tree, and impossible to reach.  We were advised to “contain” the bird so that one of their collection officers could take it to their wild life sanctuary in the next county.  Together we returned to the bird, my husband holding a wicker basket he had found. 

The bird stayed still, like a Furbie with flat batteries.  With a beating heart, I closed both hands around the bird.  It struggled, but only half heartedly, and seemed to fall over when I placed it in a corner of the basket.  We retreated out of the sun to the cool of a shed, optimistically left the owl with a small bowl of water, and covered him with a dark tea towel and sought more advice. 

This time, the bird safely contained, we were asked if we could take it to a local RSPCA office about half an hour’s drive away.  By now the baby owl had placed its bottom over the bowl of water, but otherwise was much as before.  With the basket on my husband’s lap, and Wolf constrained by his lead in the boot of the car, we drove to the centre which houses all the abandoned dogs and cats that the RSPCA is seeking to re-home. 

Tom, the bird man, took our owl away to a chilled room where he prised the young bird’s talons off the wicker basket and, wrapped in a towel, placed the bird in a plastic basket, the sort in which you transport small cats and dogs.  With a syringe he fed the grateful bird drops of water.  The beak opened and I saw the strange angular folded tongue before the beak closed and the water was swallowed.  Later it would be offered small dead rodents to tempt it to eat.  If the bird survived the night it will be taken tomorrow to the wild life centre from where it will, when it has grown adult feathers, be released into the wild.

Owl babies are pushed out of the nest when the mother and father cannot manage to feed them all.  It was probably Nature’s way that this baby owl should die, leaving fewer mouths to feed.  There are about 600 pairs of tawny owls in our county, a small enough number for it to make it worth while trying to save this baby.

Our daughters are away this weekend, staying with their grandparents.  They wanted to know all about the owl and are anxious to know whether it will survive.  We remembered how both of them had grown up on the story of Owl Babies, of three baby owls whose mother has left them.  The two younger owls, Percy and Bill, are very anxious that she may never come back, repeating over and over again “I want my Mummy”. Sarah, the oldest owl, seeks to reassure them that Mummies always come back.  It was a favourite book, with beautiful illustrations. This Mummy Owl came back, of course. The ending was different for our real little owl.   When his Mummy came back it was more of as case of “Percy, you’re one mouth too many too feed.  I cannot be doing with catching mice and birds for you any more,” and a big push out of the hollow in the tree.  All his inadequate wings could do was to break his fall.


Tawny Owl Chicks