Bach’s passionate challenge


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Lots of us find Bach enchanting. His mathematically complex music seems to satisfy a dual need for order and feeling. So I booked a ticket to hear his St John Passion performed in the glorious Sheldonian Theatre last night, fully expecting to be moved.

I got something more. It was the first time that I have really paid close attention to the words. I heard that familiar story of Jesus’ trial and execution, but found that the soaring music amplified its meaning to send a shiver down the spine. A spiritual challenge, but a joy too.

If you have time today, then ignore all other distractions and join Bach to meditate on some of this:

“My soul, think how a heavenward-guiding flower springs from the thorns that pierce the Saviour’s head. Consider in anxious relief, in bitter joy, with a heart torn between grief and consolation, how his suffering is your most precious treasure.”

History is valuable. Don’t let students censor it.


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History. That shared memory, sustained by the written word and whispered back to life by its remnants all around us. Did you know, as you stand with your Friday pint of craft beer upon the pavements of Southwark, that William the Conqueror’s men were burning, raping and killing on that very spot nearly one thousand years ago? Or that another thousand years earlier, Roman settlers prayed and traded and loved on a crossroads where you now ponder your own week? Do you think about how the Elizabethans – not so different from us – enjoyed the darkly unsavoury life on this freer side of the Thames? These people lived in the past, but they are right beside you. What does the separation of time matter, when you share the same space with your ancestors?  If you are aware of history then you can enjoy the present even more.

Bomb damage to Bank tube station.

Bomb damage to Bank tube station on 11th January 1941, which killed 111 people. Here it is merged with the same spot today.

Yes, I am being romantic. But not too romantic. This aesthetic experience of the past is a real phenomenon. In his book The Aesthetic Brain, neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee describes how “bringing knowledge to bear on whatever we are looking at has a huge impact on our experience of seeing.”  Specifically, we find the experience more rewarding:

“Late visual processing recognizes objects and the meanings and memories and associations triggered by these objects. Along the way from sensations to meaning, emotion and reward systems are activated.”

Antler comb, 10th-11th century. British Museum

Antler comb from the British Museum. 10th-11th Century.

History adds this meaning, and we love it. The British Museum attracts seven million visitors each year, yet it contains mostly everyday objects. We do not usually take much interest in combs, but the one pictured above is different. There is nothing visually exciting about it. Its aesthetic value lies in its provenance: it belonged to someone living in the 11th century. And so this comb sits proudly inside a glass case at the British Museum, to be viewed at our pleasure. We find it rewarding to see simple objects knowing they passed through the hands of our forebears.

Portrait of John Ruskin

Portrait of John Ruskin in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

Even things which are beautiful in themselves can gain added value from historical meaning. For example, look at the little portrait pictured above. It depicts Victorian art critic John Ruskin, and holds two levels of fascination. First, examine its surface features, and it is a beautiful painting. The artist, John Everett Millais, took care not just to represent Ruskin himself, but also to achieve absolute realism in his rendering of the rocks and water that make up his surroundings. The result is perhaps more pleasing than reality itself. This is not all, though. It gets better. The second level of fascination lies in the peculiar history of this portrait. The artist described painting it as “the most hateful task I have ever had to perform.” The reason? During the many hours spent finishing the fine details, the artist Millais had fallen in love with John Ruskin’s wife, Effie. Sitting in the same room as this man who had vocally and financially supported his struggling beginnings as an artist, Millais was left to ponder the dark betrayal he was about to inflict by destroying his marriage and taking Effie for himself. Everyone involved in the affair is long dead, but this portrait remains. It was there, its very brushstrokes moved by perfidious hands. We are left viewing the same portrait as before. But this time mere historical knowledge has enhanced our experience of it.

Being near the objects our predecessors touched is the closest we can get to meeting them in person. Places too. The Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy once described himself as a kind of ‘ghost-seer’. The same expression appears in his writing, to describe those who dwell in romantic connection with the past. Reading the way Hardy renders yesteryear into near-poetry, it is hard to resist becoming a ghost-seer oneself. He describes the experience of first seeing Oxford’s medieval architecture:

“The saints and prophets in the window-tracery, the paintings in the galleries, the statues, the busts, the gargoyles, the corbel-heads – these seemed to breathe his atmosphere. Like all new comers to a spot on which the past is deeply graven he heard that past announcing itself with an emphasis altogether unsuspected by, and even incredible to, the habitual residents.”

History is everywhere. As Peter Ackroyd writes in his new history, “There is scarcely one spot in England that does not contain memorials of an ancient past.”  But knowledge is the thing. We need knowledge to experience its allure. The late historian Arthur Marwick underlines the importance of history by appealing to the emptiness of life without it:

Without knowledge of the past we would be without identity, we would be lost on an endless sea of time. The simplest answer to the question, ‘What is the use of history?’ is: “Try to imagine what it would be like to live in a society where there was absolutely no knowledge of the past.’ The mind boggles.”

None of us has a comprehensive historical knowledge which would enrich our experience of every place we visit. That is why we have statues, memorials and blue plaques. They gift us that knowledge, adding meaning and enhancement to otherwise plain spaces. We are enriched.

Must Rhodes fall?

A disturbing student movement puts this enrichment at risk. With a 2,500-signature petition, the group Rhodes Must Fall seeks to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. They claim that its presence is “an open glorification of the racist and bloody project of British colonialism… As long as the statue remains, Oriel College and Oxford University continue to tacitly identify with Rhodes’s values, and to maintain a toxic culture of domination and oppression.”  The principle is that we should censor these representations of history to prove we have moved on from it.

Oriel College Oxford High Street facade

The statue (top) which ‘openly glorifies’ a ‘racist and bloody project’.

It would be a dangerous precedent. History is full of imperfect characters who deserve destruction under the same principle. We commemorate them with statues, memorials and plaques all over the country. But for the most part these statues were erected by admirers long dead. So their survival does not imply continued endorsement of their actions or philosophies. Instead, they serve a different purpose now. Even though those men and women who were respected in their own time might look bigoted to modern eyes, knowledge of them adds depth and texture to our experience of the history-infused world around us.

We have lived through a period of censorship not dissimilar to the kind proposed by Rhodes Must Fall. During the 16th Century Reformation, churches were sacked to enforce conformity with the new theology. Gloriously coloured windows smashed, sublime artwork burned, and precious tombs vandalised. We mourn that destruction now. Just when we could be enjoying a profound link with the beauty of our ancient past, we find that long-forgotten politics has snatched it from us.

Much better to live with our history. Today’s peaceful and prosperous existence is the unlikely result of a long, juddering journey. Representations of our imperfect past remind us of that, and enhance our present. Leave Rhodes standing. And everyone else for that matter.

The inequality of Facebook?

Here’s a dilemma. Why do we worry about economic inequality? Some argue that it is psychologically harmful to have a large gap between the richest and the poorest. It causes status anxiety. This kind of anxiety leads to social problems too. (See the book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone for this argument.) So what matters is the size of the gap, not just whether the poorest have their basic needs met.

Does this gap have to exist in reality for it to be harmful? What if it is only perceived? If we think that other people have a higher status than we do, then we become anxious about it. We might turn out to be wrong, but at that point it is too late to avoid the anxiety we felt earlier.

Look at your Facebook news feed. All those photographs of expensive dinners. The weddings, engagements and babies. Parties and perfect-looking friendships. Facebook presents a polished version of our friends’ lives. The reality is probably more up and down, but it is mostly the ups that are posted on Facebook.

We therefore perceive a wider inequality. Unequal because our Facebook friends seem happier, more successful, less troubled than we are. It is irrelevant that they are not the same in reality. It does not matter if in secret they live lives more like our own. We feel status anxiety nonetheless.

Below I link to a study that suggests this effect is real. People are happier without Facebook, and it seems to be because they stop comparing their own lives with the synthetically polished lives of their friends. So should we start worrying about social media inequality alongside economic inequality? If not, then to be consistent do we need to drop the ‘status anxiety’ argument as a good reason for fighting economic inequality?

The study:


A ticking clock that puts our short lives in perspective


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This clock is 300 years old. It ticked as the French Revolution tore its bloody way through Paris. It ticked as the first steam train emerged from a Welsh valley. It was ticking still as the telegrams started arriving from the Western Front. It ticked while each of its owners toiled about his daily worries, unaware that none of them would matter three centuries later.

It ticks now for you – briefly. It will tick for others soon.

Tories: how can we be so uncaring?


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The general election revealed the worst side of the British people. A quarter of the electorate voted Tory. One thing is clear: whole swathes of the population lack basic empathy.

I know what you’re expecting me to say here. You are ready to read the kind of angry anti-Conservative rhetoric that seems to have taken over our social media feeds, our workplaces, and even our streets. Perhaps you expected me to write something like this:

“What upsets me more than anything is that millions of people actually voted Tory. This election was about morality… That is what’s heartbreaking – that millions of people didn’t care about the lives of society’s most marginalised.”

Or this:

“To those who are arguing that high levels of anger are ‘unnecessary’ and an ‘overreaction’: f**k you. Do not belittle people’s genuine despair and fear at the general election result… This is people publicly and vocally saying that they cannot and will not take 5 more years of this life-destroying s**t… We’re talking about a party that has literally driven people to suicide through their brutal cuts to public services. And you want people to calm down?… If that doesn’t make you angry, why the f**k not?”

Or maybe even this: #FucktheTories I am not going to write anything like that. Instead, here’s my contention: It’s not the Tories who are lacking empathy here. The ones lacking empathy are those who really really, truly truly, cannot understand why anybody would vote Conservative. Those who shout loudly that Tories want to hurt the poor, drive the disabled to an early death, and redistribute more wealth to the yacht-owning mega-rich.

Nobody is like that.

As the journalist Isabel Hardman expressed pithily, “If you genuinely can’t understand why someone voted for another party, the problem might be that you spend too much time talking to yourself.” Isabel is assistant editor of the Conservative-leaning Spectator magazine, so of course she would say that in the smug afterglow of election victory. But she is not the only one. Even Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore criticised the self-satisfied ‘echo chamber’ of social media: “If you can’t even have a conversation with someone who votes differently to you, how do you begin to imagine you might bring them back to your way of thinking?”

It is easy to understand why people vote Labour. For example, in the 2015 book ‘Why Vote Labour‘, Dan Jarvis MP wrote this about their conception of deep freedom: “A genuinely free society is achieved not only through absolute rights like freedom of speech and freedom of worship, but when everyone has the opportunity to lead the lives to which they aspire without being chained to forces that restrict peoples life chances like ill health, substandard education and poverty pay.” Labour governments tend to be more interventionary. They seek to obtain this kind of freedom through direct measures. These measures are easy to see and popular. Labour seems ‘nice’, irrespective of the less visible consequences further down the line.

It is harder to understand why people would vote Conservative. Just after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral I wrote about ‘Why your Conservative friends are so nasty’. I argued that they’re not nasty at all, but the difficulty in explaining their policies makes them seem that way. Conservative governments tend to avoid instant but clunky intervention.  The ‘niceness’ of their policies depends on their long-term effects. For example, “Thatcher’s government privatised industry where possible, so that the profit motive would act as a guarantor of efficiency; they limited the power of unions, believing that short-term resistance to reform in unprofitable industries led to longer-term decline; they sought to lower direct taxes even on the wealthy, arguing that the effect of individuals freely spending their money was more effective than government spending in creating economic growth and therefore jobs too.”

If you cannot understand the intentions behind Conservative policies, then they just seem like cold-hearted actions. Add to that some genuinely difficult short-term consequences, and no wonder it’s so easy to think the Tories are evil. And if you really believe that, it is easy to be whipped up into synthetic indignation. The kind of spewing rage that we saw on the streets of London this weekend.

A mature society cannot let its understanding remain that superficial. Dig deeper! Try to comprehend a politics that is not always instantly ‘nice’, but nonetheless well-intentioned. Get beyond the echo chamber of social media. Ask questions without presuming the answers.

In the meantime, thank goodness the real world is not as cold and inhuman as the anti-Tory protesters think it is.    

Political parties are not all the same. This book will help you prove it.


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‘Edmund Burke: The First Conservative’ by Jesse Norman

Political parties: “They’re all the same!” runs the familiar refrain. I understand why you might say that. It’s hard to find out what our politicians are really thinking. We rely on the kind of superficial, agenda-driven media coverage you can digest with your cornflakes. Eventually we get hold of election manifestos, but they are a mere shadow of the real thing, the result of unseen compromise and populist calculation. We scrabble around in the dark, guessing at motives. Without further enlightenment the politicians all feel pretty similar.

Are you thinking what we're thinking?

No wonder Michael Howard failed so dismally with his 2005 election campaign: ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’

There is a solution. Modern political parties are philosophical groupings. They gather people who hold similar values; people who tend to agree on the kinds of policy that are best for society. If you can understand what brought them together, then at last you have proper insight into what their politicians might be thinking. You’ll see gut politics, before calculation and compromise take their toll. Political parties don’t all look the same once you understand their diverging philosophies.

Edmund Burke book front

‘Edmund Burke: The First Conservative’ by Jesse Norman

This book will help you understand the Conservative Party. The author drops you straight into the commotion of 18th Century life, and shows you Edmund Burke: “the greatest and the most underrated political thinker in the last 300 years.” Burke’s energetic writings and magisterial rhetoric championed an intellectually robust conservatism before the movement was properly born. Forget about the lazily false accusation that conservatives are nasty supporters of the rich at the expense of those in need. For Burke, the nation is a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” He believed in “personal liberty but not individual licence,” bounded by social order. He believed in careful political reform that makes progress without jeopardising what we have already achieved. And he believed in a strong society of balanced institutions, within which everybody has the safety to flourish. It’s the antithesis of today’s liberal individualism.

We discover that Burke is a deeply caring man, but one who was led by considerations of practicality and consequence before token political posturing. “Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption.”

But of course the long-dead Burke cannot tell you everything you need to know about conservatives nowadays, no matter how well the author colours him back to life. History moved on, and philosophy matured through Burke’s intellectual legacy. Even liberal individualism pops up in the modern Conservative Party. Today’s Conservatives are a patchwork coalition with three overlapping philosophical strands: free market ‘Thatcherite’ conservatism, one nation conservatism, and traditionalist conservatism. This May’s election manifesto will reflect at least some thought from all of them. Better get reading then…

See ‘Edmund Burke: The First Conservative’ on Goodreads

Like what you hear? For a modern treatise that owes much to Burke’s ideas, enjoy Roger Scruton’s A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism.

Tony Blair: a vulnerable role model


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‘A Journey: My Political Life’ by Tony Blair

Tony Blair’s autobiography is a work of fascinating dissection. The slick and latterly despised figure we knew from newspapers and television bulletins peels away to reveal someone on the same journey of self-improvement as we are. “I was the same jumble of failed dreams, thwarted hopes, and disappointed expectations as well as the achievements. I used to look at successful people and think: I’m not sure I could ever be like that.” Viewed with an eye to his ever-vulnerable development of character and leadership, plainly controversial decisions become finely nuanced personal challenges. Whatever you think of Tony Blair’s politics, this book leaves the ambitious reader with plenty to learn from.

Rating: ****

See ‘A Journey: My Political Life’ on Goodreads.

The strength of quiet people: Susan Cain’s advice for introverts


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‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ by Susan Cain

For a long time I resisted buying this book. I have spent years refusing to admit to a deeply introverted temperament, considering it a personal weakness. And it turns out there are millions more people in the same quiet position. Yet Susan Cain argues that introversion need not be a weakness. Deployed well, qualities common among introverts (perception, analysis, persistence, concentration and sensitivity) can be of great benefit in life, leadership and work. On a practical level, Cain offers guidance: on maintaining the necessary bursts of extroverted behaviour, on managing the resultant social fatigue and craving for ‘downtime’, and on playing to our strengths wherever possible. What a relief!

Rating: *****

See ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ on Goodreads.

C.S. Lewis’s witty insight into religious morality


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‘The Screwtape Letters’ by C.S. Lewis

I often argue that religious morality has a deep advantage over secular morality. Both look similar from the outside, but religion continuously spurs a person to self-examine inner motivations and honestly assess their own character in a way that the secular stimulus of societal censure cannot manage alone.

C.S. Lewis examines this ‘inner life’ through the imaginary medium of two disgustingly-named devils strategically conspiring to win a soul for Hell. It works well. He lays bare the little tricks that we use every day to disguise our true motivations even from ourselves. We are proud, for example, of our ‘unselfishness’ – which is really the exact opposite of the selfless love that should be the only reason for acting.

It is a witty book too, which is perhaps what saves it from a descent into bland sermonising.

Rating: *****

See ‘The Screwtape Letters’ on Goodreads

We still need the sacred in a mechanistic world


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‘The Soul of the World’ by Roger Scruton

We may have lost God, argues philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton, but we still need a sense of ‘the sacred’. Don’t be so quick to dismiss such a concept as vague nonsense. Like much of Roger Scruton’s thought, it is impeccably nuanced and rewards close examination. He argues that the sacred is of fundamental relevance to a life well-lived, and then plunges into a definition and defence of it that weaves together human experience of other people, civilisation, society, law, architecture, art, music and religion. Mechanistic explanations of the world have served us well, he says, but fall far short of a full human understanding of it. Important features emerge from the mechanics, but are not reducible to them. A full understanding of music cannot be reached by describing a sequence of pitched sounds. A painting is more than an arrangement of pixels. Consciousness is more than the firing of neurons. There is something missing — something that is crucial to the way we humans interact with the world. Much valuable insight ensues, even if you worry that Scruton has opened up a chasm which he cannot quite fill.

Rating: ****

See ‘The Soul of the World’ on Goodreads