The distant relatives…


I listened to a discussion on the radio this morning in which Adam Rutherford made a rather startling statement. It went something like this;

We each have two parents, four grandparents, 8 great parents, 16 great great grand parents and so on… so it is that the genetic ties that bind us backwards towards our ancestors reach outwards into ever greater numbers.

At a certain point however, the mighty family tree that roots us collapses in on itself. It can no longer stretch long limbs into ever greater diversity because the numbers of humans are limited. Mathematics must dictate that at some level, all of our family trees must entangle.

The startling point made by Adam Rutherford was that this shared family connection is not a feature of pre-history when we all shared a cave, or were cast out from a garden. He said that the tangling must actually take place around 600 years ago.

At that point, if you draw a line through all European family trees, they will intersect. It is not that we do not all carry slightly different strands of genomes from all over the place, just that the individual mixture is far less significant than the shared whole.

Quite literally, we are all part of one family.

What is it that forces us towards exclusivity? Perhaps this is mathematics also- that we simply can not hold in our minds the countless twists and turns in our inherited DNA.

It is like trying to count the grains of sand on a beach, or to name each one of the migrants massing at our borders.

The distant relatives are coming to visit. How inconvenient.

But no matter how much we pretend them to be something ‘other’, it remains a fact encoded into our very DNA that they are not.

They are we.



Breaking the spell of loneliness…


I am not a natural socialite. Close friends will scoff at the very idea. It is not that I do not love people, their stories and their humanity, it is just that as I get older I appreciate more and more my own interior space, made safe by the love of my family.

This is at odds however with a deeper more universal truth about who we are as humans; we are above all things a social animal, made to live together, not apart. Accepting that we are all variations on a bell curve, it is a matter of common observation that our society is increasingly individualistic and isolating. We interact via screens, and our interaction is filtered, constructed, lacking flesh and authenticity.

Does this matter? I have written before about the relationship between loneliness and all sorts of health outcomes;

  • Measurable genetic and immunological benefits to good social contact
  • Biological changes as a result of physical contact- hugs for example.
  • Increased incidence of cardiovascular problems in people with lower amounts of social connections.
  • Lower general morbidity associated with higher amounts of social contact.
  • A study finding lower incidences of strokes on women
  • Lower blood pressure in men, and a faster return to normal blood pressure after stress.
  • Measured differences in the narrowing of arteries.
  • The unexpected fact that if you have contact with more people, you are LESS likely to have colds.
  • Memory loss in old age declines at twice the rate in those poorly integrated.
  • General links between enhanced cognitive performance and social interaction.
  • A reduction in mortality for those who attend regular religious services! (But not just to ‘warm the pew’.)

There is also a rather important connection between loneliness and materialism/capitalism which I talk about more in this post. The accumulation of stuff, and the exultation of buying power over just about all else is a recipe for unhappiness and disconnection.

I received a CD in the post today- I think this is perhaps the first time I have ever ‘pre-ordered’ an album but the combination of talent and timeliness was too much to ignore. The album is a collaboration between George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan, and here is the blurb from George;

It is our natural destiny to be apart, to fear and fight each other: this is a claim that has gathered momentum ever since Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan. It is a claim with no foundation. We evolved in a state of mutual reliance. Defenceless alone, we survived  only through cooperation.

But the mythic destiny appears, in the 21st Century, to be approaching fulfilment. Our time is distinguished from all other eras by its degree of atomisation: the rupturing of social bonds, the collapse of shared ambitions and civic life.

An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the world. The results are devastating: depression, paranoia, anxiety, dementia, alcoholism, accidents and suicide all appear to become more prevalent when connections are cut. To stand back from the state into which we have fallen is to marvel at this misery. It is to witness seven billion people walking past each other.

A new ideology of detachment celebrates social collapse with a romantic lexicon of lone rangers, sole traders, self-made men and women. Corporate lobby groups and thinktanks argue that the defining characteristic of human relationships is competition. They insist that our primary aim is to maximise our wealth and power at the expense of others, to engage in a Hobbesian fight of all against all.

But the levels of altruism and empathy human beings display are unique among animals. While other species might go to great lengths to help close relatives, humans assist people with whom they have no familial connection, sometimes at great cost or risk to themselves: I think, for example, of the Jewish boy my Dutch mother-in-law’s family hid in their attic during the German occupation.

The claim that we are inherently selfish suits those who wish to hold us apart, the better to control and dominate. It persuades them that their ruthlessness and greed are merely a fulfilment of their biological destiny.

So how do we respond to this trend towards social breakdown? An article I wrote about it for the Guardian went viral, and several publishers asked me to write books on the topic. I could think of nothing more depressing than sitting in my room for three years, studying loneliness.

I wanted instead to do something engaging, that might not only document the problem, but help to address it. And what has more potential to unite and delight than music? So I went to a musician whose work I greatly admire, and proposed a collaboration. We would write a concept album, a mixture of ballads and anthems, some sad, some stirring, whose aim was to try to break the spell which appears to have been cast upon us; the spell of separation.

I suggested that I would sketch out the stories and a first draft of the lyrics, and Ewan would turn them into music. It has worked out better than I could have imagined: I hope you will agree that something quite special has emerged from this collaboration.

Our aim is that it should not stop here, that we should use our performances to help bring people together, to overcome our stifling collective shyness and make friends among the strangers in our midst. “Only connect”: a century on, E.M. Forster’s maxim remains the key to happiness.

On first listen, this is music with something important to say. It is also beautiful. Buy it.

Or don’t bother- phone a friend and suggest a trip to share a beer.

Go for a long walk through the woods and speak of unimportant things.

Laugh a lot.

Fart and express faux-disgust.

Let the space between you shrink a little.

So that when you part, you do so with soul enlarged

(Should that friend be me, I am busy  blogging/pontificating about loneliness I am afraid.

Tomorrow maybe, or the day after that.

But should I stew too long

In the self dug pit of my own presence

Throw me a rope my friends

Let down some tolerant tresses

So I my rise towards you.)

Education policy in an age of Neoliberalism…


What you see depends on the way that you look. The way you look depends on the set of goggles that you look through. The lens in those goggles will always be full of distortions. These distortions become our  truth.

I was reminded of these simplistic truisms again when listening with increasing frustration to the current debate in the UK about reintroducing grammar schools into our education system. I listened aghast to politicians describing how this is a good thing as Grammar school contribute to social mobility and allow talent to be be nurtured. They went on to describe with apparent passion how selected individuals who have now reached prominence came up through grammar schools, and how selecting the best and the brightest pupils aged 11 to give them the very best chance of success is simply good sound common sense.

It is as if the 1950s never happened…

It is as if all the learning from the failures of the tripartite education system has been forgotten…

It is as if the evidence describing the negative impact of selective education on disadvantaged groups has been ignored…


In case you are new the this debate, perhaps a little education policy history might be of use…


What is a state education system for? Essentially it is an exercise in social engineering. We educate according to the needs, priorities and prejudices of those in power.

After the 2nd world war, building on research by Sir Cyril Burt (of which there are serious questions around the validity) we established a tripartite education system in the UK. This was based on the idea that it was possible to test the intelligence level of children at a young age and so predict their likely educational potential. Having done this, pupils could be allocated to one of the three different kind of schools in order to make best use of this potential; Grammar schools (for the most able), Technical Schools (and under developed set of schools intended to provided mechanical/technical expertise for industry) and Secondary Modern (for the rest.)

I remember the well the tyranny of the approach of the 11th plus examination when I was in primary school. I was convinced I was going to fail. Imagine then my relief when it was cancelled in my area of the UK and replaced by comprehensive education. In fact, by the time I went into secondary schools, my home town (Sutton in Ashfield) had a brand new experimental ‘community school’, a kind of super-comprehensive, intended to place the school at the centre of the town.

school photo

Croft Primary school. I am in yellow on the back row. 

What had happened to change things? Quite simply, inequality became a political priority. Comprehensive education was an attempt to address the fact that selective systems of education tend to enshrine disadvantage. It is a complex pattern however, which can be understood from this American paper that reviews a lot of the relevant research about the British schooling system. How middle class kids achieve better results is complex, but it seems clear that selective education enhances this advantage.

At present, inequality has no real political capital. Corbyn’s troubled Labour may be seeking to change this, but no one that matters is listening. Britain is becoming more unequal, including our education system.

Some sobering news for education systems in Scotland, via the Joseph Rowntree Foundation;

  • The gap between children from low-income and high-income households starts early. By age 5, it is 10–13 months. Lower attainment in literacy and numeracy is linked to deprivation throughout primary school. By age 12–14 (S2), pupils from better-off areas are more than twice as likely as those from the most deprived areas to do well in numeracy. Attainment at 16 (the end of S4) has risen overall, but a significant and persistent gap remains between groups.
  • Parental socio-economic background has more influence on this result than the school attended.
  • Children from deprived households leave school earlier. Low attainment is strongly linked to destinations after school, with long-term effects on job prospects.

And the UK governments answer to this?

Bring back grammar schools.

Back to those goggles again…

If you look at this issue through a set of lens that are distorted by Neo Liberal ideology, grammar schools begin to make perfect sense.

Here it is described brilliantly by George Monbiot in The Guardian;

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.


Do not fear…



This is the command most commonly used in the Bible. Interesting huh? Out of all the commands that we might have inherited from thousands of years of history covered by the writings in the canon of Christian scripture, this is the one that resonates most frequently. Why? It is almost as if fear has a toxicity in terms of human relations that we should no under estimate.

I was reminded again of these words when listening to More or Less on radio 4 t’other day. The programme is all about numbers – not my natural medium – but in this instance the numbers were concerned with deaths by terrorist acts in the West.

Death  by unknown random malevolence has become the fear most reflected in media output and our political rhetoric. Is is strange then to note that many more people died in a previous epoch of terror in the 1970s.

There are a number of problems with this kind of fear;

  1. The point of terrorism is to induce fear and panic out of all proportion at a population wide level. If we allow the fear to dominate our thoughts and action then the men and women of violence win
  2. Death is inevitable and everywhere. Risks of untimely deaths through road travel for example are vastly higher to each and every one of us. Yet we do not fear this kind of death- it is an acceptable risk, incorporated into daily life
  3. Fear of terrorism justifies huge acts of violence, oppression and human rights abuses carried out by our own governments
  4. This kind of fear obscures other evils in our communities that might matter more; growing inequalities of wealth, health and opportunity, scapegoating of outsiders, spiritual poverty

Did anything good ever come from fear?

Of course, fear can keep us safe. At some level, healthy fear and respect of danger is an essential part of human evolution. We need to fear tigers, fire and the precipice. Translate this fear into the complexities of a post industrial society however and things become more more complex.

It could be argued that there is an epidemic of fear sweeping though western civilisation. Despite living in a time when we are living longer than any time in history, when crime levels are falling, when most of us live safe, prosperous lives, the levels of clinical anxiety appear to be rising everywhere. The Mental Health Foundation released a study suggesting that nearly half of people in the UK feel more anxious than they used to, and one in five feel anxious all the time.

Chronic clinical anxiety is a terrible thing to experience and let us not pretend that it is in any way easy to overcome, no matter the growth industry of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Lilly-the-pink calming tablets. My point here is to wonder how the underlying circumstances that lead to a population wide increase in anxiety came in to being. Is it because we have allowed a certain kind of fear to be endlessly celebrated, recycled and displayed?

My suggestion is that nothing good comes from this kind of fear. It drives wedges between us and our neighbours. It prevents us from embracing experience and passion. It denudes human experience.

It celebrates protectionism and revenge over openness and reconciliation.

It is incompatible with the way of love.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6

Chiff chaff


The TFT on the EU referendum…

Military flags, Lichfield Cathedral

I thought it time to make some comments as we approach the referendum vote that may or may not lead to the UK sticking two fingers up at Johnny foreigner once again and once more fortifying the old white cliffs for the sake of good old Albion.

Here we go;


I do not like referendums

The Scottish in/out one was the same; it reduced great complexity down to a simple binary seductive question. We elect governments to govern. Referendums are the means by which governments abdicate responsibility. I hate the way they divide people, often along narrow sectarian grounds. I hate the fact that all sorts of things that really matter are obscured behind the fog they create.


Any question has two answers, any answer has a reply, any statistic has a contradiction

We learn nothing from the so called debate, apart from the futility of the debate itself. Therefore what drives our vote will almost certainly NOT be reasoned reflection after a careful examination of the facts. We will decide based on narrow totemic issues that arise from our own prejudices and associations.


Immigration is all about inequality, not border controls

Speaking of totemic issues, this one may well be the clincher in this referendum. On the one hand we hear that we need immigrants in the UK; they are by far a net contributor to our economy. On the other hand the fear and resentment that they create (aided and abetted by the politics of hate and by certain newspapers) means that this debate has nothing to do with economics. It is obvious to anyone however that what drives immigration is rampant inequality. Yes war and famine may create mass movements but the real engine is the fact that we in the west have far more than we need and do not want to share it with the poor south. Brexit ignores the issues and focuses instead on blaming the victim. It all makes me feel ill.


In or out, nothing that matters will change very much

The debate about national sovereignty and democracy makes much of the fact that here in this island we need to be in control of our own fate, our own destiny. But of course, we are NOT. Power is wielded by the powerful and this will not change. The poor will remain poor and those who are privileged will continue to pamper themselves at the expense of the rest. When we talk about leaving Europe in order to ‘make our own decisions’, I find myself wondering WHO will make our own decisions? At a time when political power is ever more concentrated in the hands of those who are from a tiny section of society. At a time too when even success in theatre, in comedy, in rock music is related to the wealth of your parents. The bourgeoisie control not just the means of production, but even the means of distraction.


The questions that matter are not being asked

In the wake of global recession, what have we learned? What has been our response? Who have been the winners and who have been the losers? What about the environment? What about enforced inequality? Are we simply retreating ever more into our little enclaves of security and adopting a ‘me-first-and-mine’ mentality, and the rest can just go hang? The EU debate is at best irrelevant to these questions, and at worst is distracting, destructive and confusing.


There is a crucial difference between Internationalism and Globalism

The real power in Europe is held by Globalised corporations, whose motivation is to maintain an unequal status quo in order to maximise profits. Much of the debate we hear about Europe is focused on whether British companies will be able to make more or less money in or out of the European union. Yet we all know that capital is global. Lest I sound naive, I know that the complexities of our economy can mean that small shifts in things like ‘confidence’ can result in company closures and redundancies, but let us not kid ourselves that globalised corporations care much for borders, no matter how elastic. The City of London will not be diminished, and yet in its shadow, we are all reduced to nothing more than consumer units.

Internationalism on the other hand is a political principle which advocates a greater political or economic cooperation among nations and peoples, and whose ideological roots can be traced to both socialism and liberalism. It grew in the wake of world wars and offered the prospect that we humans might aspire to something greater than just narrow self interest. Internationalism has known many failures throughout the cold war. It has been used to justify all sorts of political and economic expediencies (such as the Gulf war for example) but it remains an ideal that appeals to the best in us.

The EU has roots in both Globalisation and Internationalism. I am repelled by the former and remain hopeful about the latter.


Small is beautiful, but connectedness is strength

The UK is a small place full of smaller places. Scotland is a smaller place, full of even smaller places. If we are serious of democracy, we have to be able to make real decisions at a local level. But equally, we have to be able to look outwards and seek to share and co-operate. We have to see the benefits that come from fair trade and intellectual/cultural exchanges with the other. Both these things are worth striving for. Neither of them are gifted by staying in or coming out.


Beware who you share a platform with

There has been a lot of this recently; people united across the political spectrum because of their support for one side of the debate or the other. The process demands this. But if one thing above all will influence my vote it is the sight of Gove and Boris moon-facing me with another dire warning about European interference about the bentness of our bananas.


All institutions are flawed

European ones are, so are those in the UK. All are formed by compromise between the powers and interests that they seek to mitigate. Sometimes they carry the circumstances of their formation within their DNA longer than might be regarded as useful, and so all have to be subject to constant reform if they are to remain relevant. The bigger they are, the harder this reform is however and the further this is from the lives of real people.


WWJV? (What would Jesus vote?)

He would be too busy caring for the poor and broken. He would probably be looking after refugees.



Summer is here

You can tell it is summer because the PS Waverley is slapping up and down on the Clyde and I am playing cricket again…

me missing
Here I just survived an attempt to attack that went through everything…

Cricket this year is a little strange, as Will and I are playing for different teams in different leagues. It was always going to happen I suppose as he is a lot better than me now as a bowler and a batsman. Yesterday I inched my way to 28 for Bute against Kilmarnock before getting out flailing at the death of the innings. He hit 56 for Greenock against Irvine including a six.

However there is something of worth in preserving the remaining small sports clubs that used to be scattered throughout Scotland. My home team (Innellan Cricket Club) has struggled of late for all sorts of reasons, and so we have arranged a ‘soft merger’ with Bute Cricket Club. We will support their league fixtures and they will play for us in our Sunday friendly fixtures. This meant that I had to register to play for Bute in the League, and so I can no longer play with Will.

Small club life is demanding but in this time when we are all increasingly isolated behind our many screens and gated patches of shrubbery, I value cricket more than ever.

Kate Tempest gets to the heart of the matter…

(HT to Si Smith for this…)

I am in awe of this performance on so many levels. Mostly however, I am reminded of how much we need our poets and prophets, but also how difficult it is for their voices to be heard above all the electronic noise.

Here is a thought. Each an every passing year for the past 10 years or so, we have stored more electronic images in that year than we have in previous history. Quantity has replaced…

Well, what has it replaced?

I simply am not sure any more. Which is why we need to hear the outside view. Step forward Kate;