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“I have noticed in the changing fortunes of a long life that the periods of the sweetest joy and keenest pleasures are not those whose memory is most moving and attractive to me. Those brief moments of madness and passion, however powerfully they may affect us, can because of this very power only be infrequent points along the line of our life. They are too rare and too short-lived to constitute a durable state, and the happiness for which my soul longs is not made up of fleeting moments, but of a single and lasting state, which has no very strong impact in itself, but which by its continuance becomes so captivating that we eventually come to regard it as the height of happiness.

Everything is in constant flux on this earth. Nothing keeps the same unchanging shape, and our affections, being attached to things outside us, necessarily change and pass away as they do. Always out ahead of us or lagging behind, they recall a past which is gone or anticipate a future which may never come into being; there is nothing solid there for the heart to attach itself to. Thus our earthly joys are almost without exception the creatures of a moment; I doubt whether any of us knows the meaning of lasting happiness. Even in our keenest pleasures there is scarcely a single moment of which the heart could truthfully say: ‘Would that this moment could last for ever!’ And how can we give the name of happiness to a fleeting state which leaves our hearts still empty and anxious, either regretting something that is past or desiring something that is yet to come?

But if there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate on its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but his duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or feat than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul…

What is the source of our happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own God. The feeling of existence unmixed with any other emotion is in itself a precious feeling of peace and contentment and cherished by anyone who could guard against all earthly and sensual influences that are constantly distracting us from it in this life and troubling the joy it could give us. But most men being continually stirred by passion know little of this condition, and having only enjoyed it fleetingly and incompletely they retain no more than a dim and confused notion of it and are unaware of its true charm. Nor would it be desirable in our present state of affairs that the avid desire for these sweet ecstasies should give people a distaste for the active life which their constantly recurring needs impose upon them. But an unfortunate man who has been excluded from human society, and can do nothing more in this world to serve or benefit himself or others, may be allowed to seek in this state compensation for human joys, a compensation which neither fortune nor mankind can take away from him.

It is true that such compensations cannot be experienced by every soul or in every situation. The heart must be at peace and calm untroubled by any passion. The person in question must be suitably disposed and the surrounding objects conducive to his happiness.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Meditations of a Solitary Walker


Kramskoi wrote: “My God, or Christ, is the supreme atheist, a man who destroyed God in the universe and placed him in the very centre of the human spirit, and goes to his death, calmly for that reason… What is a real atheist? … He is a person who draws strength only from himself.”

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann

More on this tomorrow.

Melyvn’s Bragg’s programme on Soren Kierkegaard, part of the “In Our Time” series is not only a very clear introduction to Kierkegaard, but a thought provoking bridge between philosophy and Christianity, and a meditation on the nature of Christ.

Listen again


Jonathan Rée, Visiting Professor at Roehampton University and the Royal College of ArtClare Carlisle, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of LiverpoolJohn Lippitt, Professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Hertfordshire

A C Grayling is a British philosopher.  For neatness, I’ll group him with Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.  He is a philosopher in the analytical tradition and a loud voice in that popular chorus of atheists that seek to put religion where they believe it belongs.  This is a short piece that he wrote in the March issue of Prospect.  He seeks to show that God does not exist.
Is it impossible to prove a negative?
“The claim that negatives cannot be proved is beloved of theists who resist the assaults of sceptics by asserting that the non-existence of God cannot be proved. By this they hope to persuade themselves and others that at least the possibility remains open that a supernatural agency exists; from there they make the inflationary move from alleged mere possibility to not eating meat on Fridays. They are, however, wrong both about not being able to prove a negative, and about not being able to prove supernatural agencies exist and are active in the universe. Seeing why requires a brief refresher on the nature of proof.
Proof in a formal deductive system consists in deriving a conclusion from premises by rules. Formal derivations are literally explications, in the sense that all the information that constitutes the conclusion is already in the premises, so a derivation is in fact merely a rearrangement. There is no logical novelty in the conclusion, though there might be and often is psychological novelty, in the sense that the conclusion can seem unobvious or even surprising because the information constituting it was so dispersed among the premises.
Demonstrative proof, as just explained, is watertight and conclusive. It is a mechanical matter; computers do it best. Change the rules or axioms of a formal system, and you change the results. Such proof is only to be found in mathematics and logic.
Proof in all other spheres of reasoning consists in adducing evidence of the kind and in the quantity that makes it irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even lunatic to reject the conclusion thus being supported. This is proof in the scientific and common-sense meaning. The definitive illustration of what this means, especially for the use that theists would like to make of the myth that you cannot prove a negative, is Carl Sagan’s “dragon in the garage” story, which involves the teller claiming that he has a dragon in his garage—except that it’s invisible, incorporeal and undetectable. In response to which one can only ask— if there’s no way to disprove a contention, and no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that something exists?
No self-respecting theist would go so far as to claim that “you cannot prove the non-existence of God” entails “God exists.” As mentioned, their point is merely to leave open the possibility that such a being might exist. But Sagan’s dragon dashes even this hope. For one can show that it is absurd, irrational, intellectually irresponsible or even lunatic to believe that fairies, goblins, the Norse gods, the Hindu gods, the gods of early Judaism (yes, there were several: go check), and so endlessly on, “might exist.” It would compound the felony a millionfold to grant this and yet insist that one’s own (Christian or Muslim, say) deity “nevertheless” exists or might exist.
For a simple case of proving a negative, by the way, consider how you prove the absence of pennies in a piggy-bank.”
It is a brave attempt – to prove that God does not exist in such a short piece – but, in my honest but uninformed opinion, it fails miserably.  He makes his argument by playing with the meaning of “proof” and moving away from his own position as a master of logic.
To prove something is not, he says, to derive a conclusion from a premise (such as (1) All men are mortal: (2) Sophocles was a man: (3) Therefore Sophocles was mortal).  No, in order to prove something he says it is sufficient to show that to believe in it would be “irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even lunatic”.  He thinks he can do this easily in relation to the tooth fairy, and, therefore, even more easily in relation to God.
I went to London yesterday and, in a few spare moments, went in search of the world’s best chocolates to tickle my mother-in-law’s taste buds at Easter.  These works of art are fabricated by Pierre Marcolini who has a chocolate shop in the Grand Sablon in Brussels, but allows some of his divine chocolates to be sold in a tiny, antiquated grocer’s shop housed in a building owned by the writer, Jeannette Winterson in Spitalfields, well on the way to the East end of London. 
Inside the timeless facade, the shop is dark and a fire burns in a cast iron grate.  A beaten copper counter glows orange in the subdued light and the flickers from the coal flames.  Behind the counter sits a moist quiche lorraine, the odour of which I carried around in my nose for hours afterwards, taking careful sniffs, not wanting to use it all up.  The divine chocolates sit in a Victorian dark wood glass fronted case.  Gilded chocolate and ruby red hearts rub shoulders with almost black squares neatly labelled in gold writing to give an indication of the contents of their precious centres – thyme and orange, or lemon and tea.
But I digress, for the real star of the show was the stunning spire of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s church, Christ Church, Spitalfields.  For a very brief moment the sun pierced the clouds to shine just on its stone facade so that it shone golden against a grey backdrop of clouds.  Everyone stopped and took photographs and then, in the blink of an eye, the sun had gone and, but for our photographs, we would almost never have believed it possible and possibly irrational or absurd.
 Click-> Verde & Co.
Verde & Co
Grocers and Italian Warehousemen
40 Brushfield Street
Spitalfields E1
Tel: 020 7247 1924

A few years ago, when Lola B was not quite four, I became a student again.  One eccentric lecturer thought that pubs were more conducive thinking places than conventional classrooms, especially since cigars could, then, still be smoked in them.  Our small group of a dozen or so students met in a variety of drinking places to study the workings of the European Court of Human Rights and to help the lecturer prepare to take on the British Government in a case brought by the families of members of the IRA killed by the British security forces in Northern Ireland in 1987.  The case resulted in a second landmark decision for this human rights maverick against the United Kingdom, Kelly and Others v UK.  The Court found that the UK had failed to properly investigate the deaths of IRA members at the hands of the security services, whilst the earlier judgment condemned the use of a “shoot to kill” policy by security services operating in Gibraltar. 

We felt enormously connected to the fight not least because we mocked up the hearing before it happened – in another pub somewhere in Cambridgeshire.  Together with another student, a keen military expert, it fell to us to “represent” the families of the terrorists.  I can place my fellows students now as a chief state prosecutors in Norway and Egypt, a UN lawyer in Geneva, a lawyer drafting judgments in relation to Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, human rights activists in Hungary and the former Soviet bloc.  I was lucky to have met them all.  I remember one particular sunny day, sitting on the tables that sprawled outside an ancient pub by the waterfront, as a moment of pure bliss.

Now every Tuesday I go back to the same waterside village to attend a philosophy class.  Our group is somewhat bigger and considerably older, and we meet instead in the local sailing club.  Our long table stretches along the floor-to-ceiling windows that open out onto the river wall.  I often take my terrier with me and take him for a run along the river wall before the class begins.  The river is prone to spilling its banks and so there is a marshy area behind the river wall, full of tussocky grass and ponds, over and around which my dog practises Harrier-like leaps and mad runs when his rigid tail takes on a right-angled bend and nothing will deflect him.
Each term we have a new subject.  This term it is, loosely, Consciousness, or Arguing about the Mind.  One half of the class will never speak, whilst I am locked in mortal combat with one half of the remainder.  We rarely divide along traditional, predictable gender lines, but along the analytical/Continental fault-line that divides philosophers.  I have long given up any hope of seeing the world as the analytical scientists do.  Each week this term we have four or five articles to read and discuss, usually by living philosophers, but we have read extracts from Descartes, and will read articles by doctors too.  As a fitting finale to the course, we hope to attend a confrontation between Daniel Dennett and Lord Winston entitled “Religion is the greatest threat to scientific progress and rationality that we face today.” 

Naturally we are concerned not only consciousness but also with the entity we called the “self”.  Absent a self we cease to exist or, certainly, descend into madness.

Daniel Dennett has written his understanding of this ghost-like being.  He is an exceptionally eminent American philosopher and a committed atheist, often spoken of in the same breath as Richard Dawkins.  I suppose it is relevant to his atheism to mention here that his father died when Dennett was five in an unexplained plane crash.  It is irrelevant but interesting to mention that he claims credit for having introduced the first frisbee into England whilst a student at Oxford University.  He is a “materialist“, convinced that there is no duality between the body and the soul, but that science can offer an explanation for everything.  Materialists have become the dominant force in the philosophy of the mind, dismissing dualists as religious self-deceivers, and trying to explain consciousness.   Almost always the materialist will fail to explain two other ideas which are connected to consciousness, and which present even more problems, namely “intentionality” and “free will”.  Consciousness is enough of a problem, and even here the world-class materialist, Dennett, is less than convincing. Daniel Dennett is sure that “We are all, at times, confabulators, telling and retelling ourselves the story of our own lives, with scant attention to the question of truth.”  We are “inveterate and inventive autobiographical novelists.” Our autobiographies are our “selves”. Our self does not exist in any more meaningful way than as a fictional character like Sherlock Holmes, for example.  A fictional character is very different from something that actually exists in fact, in reality.  In respect of real things it is possible to ask any question and for the answer to be either “yes” or “no” (the principle of “bivalence”.  Ask whether a particular car has four wheels and the answer is either “yes” or “no” depending on how many wheels the car actually has. Our “selves” are different, unlike motor cars.  You can ask whether my eyes are blue and the answer will be “yes” or “no”, but you cannot ask such a question about my self.  My self if a bit like a centre of gravity.  We treat a centre of gravity as existing in the sense that we know where we situate it, but we cannot see it, or touch it, and its situation is conditional upon other things existing in a particular form.

Our selves are dependent upon the information they receive from our bodies.  Things that happen to our bodies happen immediately afterwards to our fictional selves.  If you hit my body, my fictional self records that it has been hit.  My body is like a robot.  It does not choose to feel or not. It simply records in its brain what happens to it, though it is capable of a randomness that appears as unpredictability.  The record takes the form of a fictional novel.  It is, moreover, a fictional novel that can be rewritten over and over again, and parts can be refined with more detail added after the event.  The “me” after rewriting is different from the “me” before rewriting, a phenomenon which would be “utterly mysterious and magical” if my self was anything other than an abstraction.

Why would we tell ourselves these stories?  If I believe that science will be able to explain everything,  I will look for an evolutionary explanation.  Daniel Dennett is a confessed adaptionist, and what follows is his evolutionary explanation.

Before we were conscious (before we had given our “self” a name”) we communicated with each other but only in instinctive ways, blurting out information without any filtering at all.  When we had problems in this primitive state, we would blurt out a question to those around us and we came to be designed so that we provided answers when thus provoked by a question.  Then one day somebody asked a question but there was nobody around to answer it, and then an answer came to him from a part of the brain separate to the part that had asked the question.  After a while this talking and listening and responding got shorter until it all happened in the brain without the thought having to be vocalised by one part, heard and responded to by another part.  Conscious verbal thought had arrived.

It is a non-question to ask what the self is, since the self is an abstraction that does not have any real existence except as a work of fiction.

My self is made up of my stories, but, being a lawyer, I usually try to check them for veracity against all available evidence and to keep my self-delusion to a minimum.  I hope they are not fiction, and that I am more than the sum of my own confabulations.


Dennett, Daniel, ‘The self as a center of narrative gravity’, in Arguing About the Mind.

Searle, John R, Mind, A Brief Introduction, OUP, 2004

I wanted to know how much the Ministry of Defence paid out to a family of a solider killed in action and was reminded of the Military Covenant which exists between the soldier and his country:

“Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices – including the ultimate sacrifice – in the service of the Nation.  In putting the needs of the Nation and the Army before their own, they forego some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces.  In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service.  In the same way the unique nature of military land operations means that the Army differs from all other institutions, and must be sustained and provided for accordingly by the Nation.   This mutual obligation forms the Military Covenant between the Nation, the Army and each individual soldier; an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility which has sustained the Army throughout its history.  It has perhaps its greatest manifestation in the annual commemoration of Armistice Day, when the Nation keeps covenant with those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in action.

This summary is part of a much larger document – Soldiering – setting out the standards of behaviour expected of those serving in the British Army.  I found it a very surprising document which emphasises above everything the necessity of a proper morality, but a morality which cannot be taken as a given since the Army, like society, is subject to changing forces.

“British soldiers no longer come from societies which share broadly common roots and horizons based on traditional, usually Christian ethics and morals. Traditional ethics can be widely regarded as reactionary and authoritarian. Contemporary morality puts a higher premium on individual rights than on duty to society. Notions of duty or obligation are much less apparent, except in terms of respect for the rights of others. Material rewards play an ever greater part in the benefits expected by individuals in return for their labour. The rise of the importance of the individual in society, and the associated stress on the rights rather than the responsibilities of the individual has profound implications for the Army. Established structures and traditional principles are questioned. So even those who volunteer to be soldiers do not necessarily share common standards and values. Hence it is fundamental to the Military Covenant that the Army is responsible for identifying and articulating its ethical tenets, adjusting as appropriate to wider change, and inculcating and sustaining them in its soldiers.”

General Sir Richard Dannart sticks to his guns.  His ethics are firmly Christian, evangelical and include an insistence that soldiers are told that death is not the end.  In October last year he gave a talk at Spring Harvest (a well known Evangelical Christian festival) at which he said: 

 ‘In my business, asking people to risk their lives is part of the job, but doing so without giving them the chance to understand that there is a life after death is something of a betrayal, and I think there is very much an obligation on …a Christian leader to include a spiritual dimension into his people’s preparations for operations, and the general conduct of their lives. Qualities and core values are fine as a universally acceptable moral baseline for leadership, but the unique life, death, resurrection and promises of Christ provide that spiritual opportunity that I believe takes the privilege of leadership to another level.’

Soldiering is aspirational as much as it is contemporary.  There are sections entitled Self-less Commitment, Discipline, Integrity, Loyalty, Respect for Others and the extract below is taken from the section on Courage.

“Courage is not merely a virtue; it is the virtue. Without it there are no other virtues. Faith, hope, charity, all the rest don’t become virtues until it takes courage to exercise them.  Courage is not only the basis of all virtue; it is its expression.  True, you may be bad and brave, but you can’t be good without being brave.  Courage is a mental state, an affair of the spirit, and so it gets its strength from spiritual and intellectual sources. The way in which these spiritual and intellectual elements are blended, I think, produces roughly two types of courage.  The first, an emotional state which urges a man to risk injury or death – physical courage. The second, a more reasoning attitude which allows him to stake career happiness, his whole future on his judgement of what he thinks either right or worthwhile – moral courage.  Now, these two types of courage, physical and moral, are very distinct. I have known many men who had marked physical courage, but lacked moral courage. Some of them were in high positions, but they failed to be great in themselves because they lacked it. On the other hand, I have seen men who undoubtedly possessed moral courage very cautious about physical risks. But I have never met a man with moral courage who would not, when it was really necessary, face bodily danger. Moral courage is a higher and a rarer virtue than physical courage.  All men have some degree of physical courage – it is surprising how much. Courage, you know is like having money in the bank. We start with a certain capital of courage, some large, some small, and we proceed to draw on our balance, for don’t forget courage is an expendable quality.  We can use it up. If there are heavy, and, what is more serious, if there are continuous calls on our courage, we begin to overdraw. If we go on overdrawing we go bankrupt we break down.”

“Courage and other broadcasts”, Field-Marshal Sir William Slim

The Armed Forces Compensation Scheme has been running since 2005 and is intended to provide a no-fault compensation for injury or death where service is the only or main cause.  Pensions are payable to surviving adult dependants and to children.  In the case of a surviving spouse, the deceased’s salary at the time of death is multiplied by a factor to reflect his or her age at the time (0.853 at age 28 and 0.913 at 33, for example), and a pension equal to 60% of this reduced salary is paid to the spouse.  Children are entitled to a pension of about 10% or 15% of this figure, depending on the number of children in the family. An additional Bereavement Grant of up to £20,000 may be payable.  Many soldiers take out additional insurance to cover for the eventuality of their death and the existence of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme does not prevent relatives from bringing an action in negligence against the services, claiming a higher amount in damages.  The 2007-2008 Request for Resources made by the Ministry of Defence to the Treasury asked for £1,027,007,000 to cover the cost of providing pensions and compensation.

I could not see that a single mother losing her eldest son would be entitled to anything as of right, though I know that money is paid out – perhaps if the mother can show she was financially dependent on her son.  There again, I suppose money is no compensation at all.  It is a Mother’s worst nightmare.

 You come across a huge number of people who say that they are much happier and that their lives have turned round now that they believe in God – I’ve just read about one this morning.  I cannot remember ever meeting anyone who said that they were much happier and that their lives were going swimmingly now that they had lost their faith and become an atheist. 

Which is not to say that people do not lose their faith and still have successful lives.  They never, however, make the causal connection between the loss of faith and the subsequent success, a causal connection that those who have found a faith, or rediscovered their old faith, make between their faith and their happiness.  Why is that?


“I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject in solitude, and find relief to my my mind there.  But there the questions still recurred, “Are these things true?”  Still the answered followed as instantaneously “They are”.  Still the result accompanied it, “Then surely some person should interfere”.


Thomas Clarkson stood 6’2” tall, topped by red hair and apparently lacking any sense of humour.  His role in the movement to abolish the slave trade in the United Kingdom is largely unsung: William Wilberforce gets all the credit.  Yet it was Clarkson who travelled more than 35,000 miles around England in seven years, on rotten roads either on horseback or in uncomfortable carriages, gathering all the evidence that was necessary to convince the many wavering Members of Parliament that the slave trade should be abolished.

After graduating from Cambridge University in 1783 with a degree in Mathematics and becoming an Anglican Deacon, he decided to stay on at Cambridge to become a clergyman like his father.  Thomas Clarkson’s interest in the slave trade began when he chose to enter an essay competition in his second year of postgraduate studies at Cambridge in 1785.   He had to write an essay in Latin entitled Anne Liceat Invitos in Servitudinem Dare? – Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will? 

At first his only interest was to repeat his previous year’s success when he had won first prize.  In researching the essay, however, he began to uncover the true extent of the slave trade and was appalled.  He began by reading Anthony Benezet’s Some Historical Account of Guinea.  Benezet had been born in France a Huguenot and had experienced discrimination himself in Catholic France before emigrating to Philadelphia.  There he set up the first girls’ school in America and subsequently the Negro School in Philadelphia.  A Quaker, like so many of the abolitionists, Benezet published, at his own expense, pamplets which had a huge influence both sides of the Atlantic.  He died before the abolition of slavery in either Britain or America.

The prize, which Clarkson won, was after all neither here nor there.  He read the essay aloud at Cambridge and then rode to London, stopping to rest his horse on the way.  As he paused, 

“a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamaties to their end”. 

This was his moment of conversion.  For the rest of his life he would work himself to blindness on occasions, driven on by the need to abolish the dreadful trade, first through an English Act of Parliament and then, subsequently, attacking the slave trade in America.  Coleridge described Thomas Clarkson as “the steam engine of the movement”, a movement that had William Wilberforce as its political face but which also counted the Lakeland poets, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, and Mary and Charles Lamb as its advocates and firm supporters of Clarkson.  Wordsworth wrote a sonnet in Clarkson’s honour in recognition of the passing of the Abolition Act in 1807 and Coleridge later said of him:

“He, if ever human being did it, listened exclusively to his conscience and obeyed its voice.”

Of course, it was never enough for Clarkson that the trade in slaves should be abolished.  His goal was the abolition of slavery itself.  It was a long battle, lasting for the whole of the rest of his life.  Although the trade in slaves was outlawed in 1807, slavery was only abolished by the Emancipation Act of 1833.   Not content with trying to abolish the slave trade in England, he spent five revolutionary months in Paris between 1789-90 trying to persuade the National Assembly to abolish the trade also.  France seemed poised to follow England’s lead until internal politics overtook the National Assembly.  His health collapsed at this point and he retired from the fray, almost penniless. 

Wilberforce helped to raise funds for him and so he was able to buy a small estate on Ullswater in the English Lakes.  He married, and his charming intelligent wife soon captivated the Wordsworths and Coleridge.  She became one of Dorothy Wordsworth’s closest friends.  The Clarksons left the Lakes and settled in East Anglia with their children. 

From 1816 they lived outside Ipswich in Suffolk where Lord Bristol made available to them Playford Hall,  a mellow red brick Tudor mansion with leaded windows surrounded by a wide moat and beautiful gardens.  On his earlier travels Clarkson collected signatures to support the parliamentary bills seeking abolition of the slave trade. When Thomas Clarkson visited Manchester, at the start of the campaign in 1787, a petition was signed by nearly 11,000 persons, more than one fifth of the city’s total population. Later in 1792 Manchester’s petition carried 20,000 signatures. The people of Manchester wove the cotton produced from the slave-labour plantations, but their support was in stark contrast to the neighbouring slave trading port of Liverpool. On a visit to the latter, also in 1787, Clarkson was threatened with his life and almost thrown off the docks.

Brooke’ s Slave Ship

Methods were used by the abolitionists that set the pattern for political campaigns today.  Pamphlets were printed and distributed.  One particularly effective pamphlet showed how 482 slaves could be packed onto one ship – the Brookes of Liverpool – and shocked almost all who saw it.  Josiah Wedgwood manufactured unglazed stoneware cameos like the medallion below by the thousands and gave them away to supporters of the movement. People began to boycott goods produced using slave labour – sugar and rum.  Wedgwood slogan “Am I not a man and a brother” and the image of the manacled kneeling slave would be taken up by the abolitionists in America.

Clarkson died in 1846 at Playford and was buried in the churchyard there.  In 1996 a plaque to commemorate him was placed near Wilberforce’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.

One wet Friday night, a couple of weeks ago, we sat on makeshift seating in an old church to watch a play about Clarkson’s life by a young theatre company.  Wilberforce was played by an Afro-Caribbean actress who had grown up in Bangladesh.  The audience was the usual crowd of left-wing pensioners and charity workers.  Lola Button was the only child and got a bit fed up.  The Time Line below is from the centre of the play’s programme.

Read a much longer account of Clarkson’s life here.





 Dear Stavros,                                                                                                                     
It has been challenging to think about what might make a difference to the levels of poverty, particularly child poverty, in this country, and wondering whether anything that works here is likely to have any bearing on poverty in the US.  I’ve thought about it a great deal over the last few days.  I am not sure I have any solutions at all, nor that I am well-placed to make even tentative suggestions.  And I doubt that I am about to say anything that you have not already thought of.                                                                                                                                   The fact that some people escape poverty and succeed in education shows that there is no necessary causative link between poverty and poor educational achievement. Since poverty and poor educational achievement are often found together, it would be fair to conclude that there is, however, some kind of association or relationship between the two. I began to write two comments in response to yours, but neither got me very far.                                         

The first was a complicated explanation of the welfare benefits system here in an attempt to show to you that the benefits are not overly generous and do not encourage reliance on the state except to the permissible extent of providing for essential needs in a civilised Western democracy.   I had calculated the amount that an uncomplicated family of two adults and two children would receive (about £10,500 plus rent), and had tried to show how their income would almost double if between them the parents found work of 30 hours a week or more at only just above the minimum wage, thereby demonstrating that the present system already encouraged people to find work.  The figures I calculated were only interesting, however, to those in the UK.  It is their relative purchasing power that might be interesting to you, and I cannot make comparisons with income and prices in the US.                                                

I would say, however, that the welfare system provides benefits for all that are adequate (but no more) for a no-frills life style that would not include the ability to buy “white” electrical goods without a loan or to own a car or to go on holiday, or to eat out in restaurants or even enjoy a coffee in a café except very occasionally, or to buy clothes except at thrift stores, or to own and run a computer, or a dog, or smoke much.  There is enough to pay utility charges (electricity, gas, water), basic food and cleaning materials, basic clothes, and a small amount left over for discretionary spending.  A system of government loans is available for the purchase of washing machines, cookers, beds and so forth repaid by deductions from the welfare benefits, and – of course – we have comprehensive healthcare free at the point of delivery.  There are free libraries for books, and welfare benefits operate as a passport to other benefits such as free school meals, free medicine prescriptions, free dental care.  Accommodation is met separately by local councils benefits as are local taxes.  Any family rendered unintentionally homeless will be entitled to be housed.  In short, there is an adequate safety net, but few people would voluntarily enjoy life in the safety net for long.            

Working Tax Credit, the “carrot” benefit to get people back to work, is actually a redistributive tax that concentrates money on families (but discriminates against two parent families, sadly – another bee in my bonnet).  It is fairly generous and includes a large amount for childcare so that women are not prevented from working.  A single parent only has to work 16 hours a week in order to qualify for the benefit.                                                   

My second attempt at a reply was made up of a list of the issues that seemed to me to be relevant to a family’s poverty.  These were issues such as disability (mental or physical), debt, parents’s own level of education, lack of aspiration, envy, a desire to keep up with the Joneses manifested by a national obsession with cars and labels or marques, and so on.  Just as you can peel away layer after layer of an onion, it seemed as if these issues were, by and large, only superficial manifestations of something else going on underneath.  People get into debt because they spend more money than they have.  They spend more money than they have often not because they need to (though this is occasionally the case).  They overspend because they need – for some other psychological purpose – the things that they are purchasing with that money: the lady who had been caring for her husband dying from cancer for the last seventeen years … let it all get her down and bought some new clothes to cheer herself up. Often it is symbols of the next social class (or our more successful peers) that we aspire to acquire in order to feel better about ourselves – it is true for all of us.  As if a few more possessions will make us a little happier.                                

In relation to depression, another issue which needs addressing, I think that a large part of it is reactive depression, that is, the depression comes upon someone because of the powerlessness they feel in relation to their circumstances.  These circumstances of their life are not as they would wish them to be; they would wish them to be better.  Of all those issues that I could think of, that present themselves with sad repetition at the advice centre, it seemed that most (with the exception of physical disability) related in some way or another to a self defined in relation to The Other.  I think comparisons are generally unhelpful and have a tendency to leave you feeling bad.                                                                                 

The Other has a great interest in keeping the poor poor, for in doing so he hopefully ensures that he does not become one of them.  He knows that the border that separates the Haves from the Have-nots is porous and people percolate through it in both directions.  The Other hates the idea of being poor and those who are themselves poor must know this.  There seem to be two possible responses to this knowledge that poverty and the poor are despised – passive acceptance (which we might also call hopelessness) and rebellion.    

Rebellion, in turn, may take two forms which I shall call “positive” and “negative”.  In the positive form, rebellion refuses the label that The Other wishes to attach to the poor,  and the poor determine that they shall cease to be poor by working as hard as they can, saving as much as they can and generally living a good life for themselves but they do not seek to define themselves in relation to The Other.  In the negative or nihilist form, rebellion takes rather the form of the spittle flinging angry troll whose aim is to defeat the Other and who defines himself specifically in relation to what the Other is not. Both may result in social mobility of the poor out of their poverty, but one is likely to produce happy, productive, loving  people whilst the other produces sad men and women whose success is only ever defiant,not satisfying, and who will never be happy until the Other has been completely conquered.                                                                               

Then there are those who can never move out of their poverty.  Principally there are those who have a disability which prevents them from working.  I think the majority fall into this category.  They will always be poor because they cannot work and it is not their fault.  But that does not necessarily prevent them from encouraging and supporting their children in education.  Benefits are increased for this group of people, although children often find themselves losing their childhood caring for their parents.                           

Others stuck in poverty have lives so chaotic and so scarred by abuse, addiction and excess that their survival at all is miraculous.  If they have children, those children will almost certainly be taken into the care of the authorities and placed with foster families.  Currently a local group of women entrenched in this position – all drug addicts and working street prostitutes – have been “engaged” by an intensive multi-agency programme.  So far the news is good – some of the most hardened street prostitutes are actively working to improve their lives and those of their children, to combat their drug addictions and related criminal behaviour, and to move towards a more stable existence with a panoply of support from specialised agencies.  It took the most devastating events to produce this level of combined action by the police, social services, housing providers and drug charities, but it is encouraging that their determined work is paying off for the time being.  Others are not so lucky.  This is a very powerful account of one person’s attempt to help one such chaotic man: Stuart, A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters which describes some of the people who find their way to our advice centre when it’s winter and cold outside.                                 

So, if some people escape poverty, but others don’t, what is it that makes the difference? I toyed with the idea that it was love.  A loving, supportive family is a much nicer springboard than a background of abusive familial relationships.  Yet some people escape poverty exactly because those very abusive relationships have motivated them to leave it all behind. I have been fascinated by the myth of Pandora’s box for a long time.  Depending on who you talk to, there are two very different versions of the myth – both of which are explained in the Wikipedia link.  In one version, all the evils contained in Pandora’s jar are unleashed on the world.  Hope, the only thing left in the jar, remains locked away inside forever, and we are condemned to a hopeless existence surrounded by demons trying to trip us up at every turn.  In the second version – the one I grew up with – the same evils are unleashed but hope is there too as the antidote to evil.  Both versions of the myth have their supporters but I believe that we choose which version we support,  not generally on an intellectual interpretation of the original texts, but based on our instinctive inclination towards the world.  I wonder whether this Hellenic antidote of hope might not equally be renamed faith.  It is not hope or faith that makes the difference when you are poor?                                                          

Can something as basic as an inclination towards the world be encouraged by the state?  It seems unlikely.  The role of the state is to provide the safety net of essential provisions – a good education, adequate welfare benefits, protection from criminal harm, public transport, adequate essential health care including non-medical care for mental health problems – but individuals provide the essential difference, I think. Whilst the state may provide the school, it is the inspirational teacher who will make the difference.  Whilst the state may provide the mental health services, it is the caring counsellor who will make the difference.  Whilst the state may provide the welfare benefits, it is the next-door neighbour or the friend that drops round every day that makes the world seem less lonely.   

Almost twenty years ago I read a book, the memory of which has stayed with me. It was written by Bob Holman, a professor of social work, who chose to live on one of the most deprived housing estates outside Glasgow.  It was his belief that every mother wants the best for her child, that every mother has hope in relation to her child, but that circumstances in the first five years of the child’s life in the family could make or break the future of that child and determine whether or not hope prevailed.  Working with non-governmental organisations such as Home-Start and New Pin and motivated by his Christian faith, he pioneered early interventions in struggling families – these organisations provide practical help with washing clothes, cleaning, shopping, respite child care, and a kind person to listen and support vulnerable families.  The emphasis has to be on a “bottom-up” approach that involves the very people that need the help,  but the Other being kind makes an enormous difference.  Much, much later this sort of work was adopted by a Labour government as government policy under the name Sure Start 

So that’s what I think it comes down to.  Hope and Love, or Faith and Love, and in default of that, caring support for vulnerable families through charities and volunteers – but you need to get in early. Oh, and in school teaching girls to respect themselves and their bodies, and teaching boys that there are things that matter more than how much money you have.  Tracy Chapman gets it right, I think. 

I’ve ducked the subject of why children of some ethnic backgrounds do better than others for now.  Briefly, I think the economic and social origins of different ethnicities are probably important in determining the value those parents give to education and the aspirations they have for their children.  It would not, for example, be accurate to group together all Asian children since their educational outcomes are very different depending on the nationality of their parents.  I would hate to be a policy maker.  If I’ve learnt nothing else from my work at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, it is that it is very difficult to generalise about people. I wondered if you agreed, or if you had other suggestions…

There’s a profile of Bob Holman here: 

And an interview with him and an ex-resident of the Glasgow estate here:   


New Pin, now Family Welfare Association:  


Driving up from Denver to Steamboat last summer, windows down, wide open roads, steady speed, ears popping as we climbed even higher towards the mountains, a new country to explore, and Alison Krauss to keep us company.  Mmm (in a kind of Colbie Caillat way).

Down to the River to Pray is my favourite of Alison Krauss’s songs. 

She’s recently teamed up with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on a new album, Raising Sand.  Thank you, Marie, for telling me about it, in an indirect fashion!  I’m looking forward to listening to it.  Here is an interview with both Alison Krauss and Robert Plant woven through with extracts from the new album (long – over 8 minutes).