Passionate (a poem)

We are passionate about what we do: every small detail matters to us.

We are passionate about retail.

We are passionate about design.

We are passionate about all things data.

We are passionate about combining outstanding quality ingredients to create perfectly-matched, scrumptious sandwich fillings.

We are passionate about our work.

We are passionate about your work. 

We are passionate about loose-leaf tea and want to share that passion with you.

We are passionate about hair.

We are passionate about creating the world’s finest gourmet popcorn.

We are passionate about helping others fall in love with Jesus.

We are passionate about our product.

We are passionate about your product.

We are passionate about getting the best solution for our clients, not just a ‘good enough’ solution.

We are passionate about our olives.

We are passionate about changing the way you think about laundry. 

We are passionate about the world of makeup, the universe of transformations.

We are passionate about pickleball and introducing others to this beloved game. 

We are passionate about parking.

We are passionate about the continued growth potential for probiotics.

We are passionate about the art of great barbecue.

We are passionate about the next generation of start-ups.

We are passionate about sharing our beef production messages with key influencers.

We are passionate about our mission.

We are passionate about your mission.

We are passionate about pasture: turning a field of grass into milk.

We are passionate about trees and we won’t kill them unless we absolutely have to. 

We are passionate about reclaimed wood, and we are glad that you are too.

The jaded calendar revolves

christmas tree

I wrote this little piece for Times Higher Education. Happy Christmas.

Christmas is just a few days away. I am one of the last left in the building on the day it closes for the break. Some colleagues come in briefly to pick up essays to mark. But the students have all gone, now that the factory bell of the last coursework deadline has sounded. Walking past the student village on my way to work, I saw parents loading a semester’s worth of their children’s lives into cars.

In universities, Christmas is only half-observed. Christopher Hitchens used to write an annual anti-Christmas piece complaining that it gave him a sense of what it must be like to live in a one-party state. Nowhere—airports, hospitals, waiting rooms—was safe from the “the collectivization of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy”. Maybe not, but universities come close.

At school we marked it all, from the first day of advent to the end-of-term carol concert. (“Time wasted on foolishness at one’s children’s schools” was another Hitchens complaint about the season.) But semesterised rhythms mean that Christmas and the university are always slightly out of sync. The students seem more interested in Halloween, or perhaps that is just because it comes bang in the middle of term. The tradition of card-giving among my colleagues has largely died. Some cite environmental reasons, but actually it is because no one can be arsed.

The more festive lecturers prepare mulled wine and mince pies for their classes. The Scrooges among us just hand round one of those party boxes of Celebrations (an annual experiment which demonstrates empirically that students will always leave mini-Bounty bars uneaten).

And now we enter this weird interregnum. Christmas is still to come, but the university’s Christmas is over. The academic factory will soon go dark for the only time of the year. This (pace Lord Adonis) is our one season of enforced idleness.

At the school I went to, my mother was a teacher. Waiting around for her after the final bell had gone, I came to enjoy the melancholy of a school building at the end of day, with the Polyprop chairs stacked on tables, the newly-mopped floors smelling of bleach and the unpeopled corridors echoing.

A university on the last day before the Christmas break has that same eerie feel. Only the remnants of other lives remain. One feels the weight not only of all the ghosts of university Christmases past, but of the years hurtling scarily by. “The jaded calendar revolves,” as Louise MacNeice put it in his poem “An Eclogue for Christmas”.

I pass by the school office, which is silent and stilled. There are slithers of tinsel wrapped round PC monitors, and the usual office-party leavings: a half-empty carton of apple juice, some soggy Doritos, a few chocolate marshmallows wrapped in foil. The Christmas tree’s lights are off. The last post lies unsorted, including Christmas cards that will not now arrive in pigeonholes until January. As I buzz myself out, I switch off the lights behind me and say goodbye to yet another year.

My skin runs with delicate flame


I wrote these programme notes for the production of Romantics Anonymous running at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London until the end of the year.

Romantics Anonymous is about two people who are meant for each other but who are separated by shyness. The methods they use to defeat their timidity—group therapy, self-help tapes—may be modern, but the story is old. For shyness, especially between lovers, is an ancient and universal problem.

In some of the earliest surviving fragments of poetry, lovesickness is linked with shyness. One of Sappho’s verses, written around 600 BCE, lists her symptoms when she looks at the woman she loves: ‘O Brocheo, I see you / And speech fails me, / The tongue shatters, / My skin runs with delicate / Flame …’ The idea of the cheeks as what Pliny the Elder called ‘the seat of shame’ was so familiar to Romans that the similar-sounding words, pudor and rubor, shame and redness, were often lyrically juxtaposed. ‘Purple shame,’ wrote Ovid in his Amores about a bride being gazed on by her husband, ‘appeared on her guilty face.’

This link between love and shyness was consolidated in the ideal of ‘courtly love’, which emerged in the courts of twelfth-century Provence and was spread throughout France by travelling troubadours. ‘Every lover grows pale at the sight of the beloved,’ wrote Andreas Capellanus in his Art of Courtly Love (c. 1184-6). ‘A lover is always timorous.’

Courtly lovers preferred unfulfilled desire to the consummated kind. Their sweet, self-ennobling longings came to dominate the western idea of love. According to Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophil and Stella (1691), lovers are always tongue-tied, ‘dumb swans, not chattering [mag]pies’. In his essay On Love (1822), Stendhal writes of the lover reproaching himself for ‘lack of wit or boldness’ in the presence of the loved one, when in fact ‘the only way to show courage would be to love her less’.

In the mid-1960s, Dorothy Tennov, a psychology professor at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, became interested in why this ideal was so persistent, and why unrequited love was such an affliction of the shy. She had first noticed the phenomenon when students, distracted and late with their essays, broke down in tears in her office and turned out to be nurturing unspoken passions for fellow students or tutors. After interviewing many sufferers, she devised her own word, limerence, as a more specific term for infatuation or being in love.

Limerence, Tennov argued, could produce a ‘sometimes incapacitating but always unsettling shyness’ in the presence of the loved one, and around other people as well. Its symptoms were heart palpitations, trembling, blushing, a churning stomach, awkwardness, stuttering and even fainting. Limerents were consumed with anxiety about whether their feelings would be returned; inconveniently, the fear that they might not be returned only enhanced their desire. Limerents took a lot of convincing before they accepted that their love would never be reciprocated—especially if, frozen with shyness, they had not made their feelings known. They seemed unable to avail themselves of what the writer Diana Athill calls the quickest and most reliable cure for a broken heart: the killing of all hope.

Nowadays limerence—the kind suffered by the protagonists of Romantics Anonymous—tends to be frowned upon. In her book Why Love Hurts, the sociologist Eva Illouz argues that unrequited love, idealised in poetry since Sappho as a sign of profundity and sensitivity, has now become an embarrassment. Contemporary love is meant to be the coming together of enlightened self-interest, with partners offering intimacy and commitment in return for the same. In an age that values emotional mutuality, unrequited or unspoken love signals immaturity and low self-esteem. A new word has emerged to describe this unenviable state, a word that once meant destitute and deserving, but now means clingy and insecure: needy.

And yet people in love carry on being shy, and the solutions to this problem become ever more resourceful. Texting, which the Finnish company Nokia introduced to its phones in the mid-1990s, took off first among taciturn young Finnish men. They used it as a way of communicating with girls without the signals being scrambled by blushing faces or tied tongues. Two sociologists from the University of Tampere found that a Finnish boy would rarely tell a girl he loved her, but would text loving messages, taking up to half an hour to edit and redraft them. He would usually write ‘I love you’ in English because he found it easier to express strong feelings in a second language.

In the Philippines, texting quickly assumed a similar role. Filipino courtship rituals are traditionally coy and convoluted. The man, who is meant to do all the running while the woman plays hard to get (pakipot) in order to preserve her honour, is often torpe, too shy to admit his feelings. And so elaborate, hedge-betting rituals have evolved. The man might begin with harana, the Spanish-influenced serenade of courtship sung beneath the woman’s window on hot Filipino nights, with his friends brought along for moral support as well as close harmonies. Things might then move on to ‘teasing’ (tuksuhan) by mutual friends, or using a ‘human bridge’ (tulay) between the prospective lovers, until such time as they can be persuaded to go out together on their own. The cellphone allowed young Filipinos to circumvent these face-saving routines and instead test the waters by text. By the turn of the millennium Filipinos were sending 10 per cent of the world’s text messages.

And so it is the world over. Texting lets those more dexterous with their thumbs than their tongues be more intrepid than in real life. Kisses added to the end of a text can be quickly recanted if they fall on flinty ground. And we can now make use of a whole menu of shy or embarrassed-looking emoticons with sweat drops and blushing cheeks. It is almost as if human ingenuity came up with the idea of the cellphone to solve this simple and eternal problem. We all want to open our hearts to others—but we are too shy.

Image: Where softly sighs of love the light guitar: a Visayan-Filipino serenade, Philippines, c1905. US Library of Congress.

No country for old men

I wrote this for Times Higher Education about Kieran Setiya’s new book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.

For an academic, midlife has an odd feel. Life is linear; university life is cyclical. Each year, amid the sweet, melancholy, annual death that is autumn, the cycle begins again. You are a year older but are surrounded by young people who are not.

There is another, complicating factor. The managerialism of the modern university is project-driven. Its audits and assessment exercises consume much time and worry and then vanish like snow, to be replaced by something worse. After you have been through enough of these iterations, the organisational amnesia—in which every year becomes year zero and we are always “moving forward”—starts to feel quite surreal. Meanwhile you welcome new colleagues, attend retirement dos and go to funerals. You are “moving forward” all right—in one direction.

We midlife academics carry on doing the same job as best we can. But we now know that we are auditioning for another role: the academic ghost we will one day be, haunting the corridors and rattling our chains. Our role model is Stoner, the freshman-composition drone at the University of Missouri and eponymous hero of John Williams’s classic novel. At 42, with a failed marriage and failed career, he “could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember”.

Kieran Setiya is nothing like Bill Stoner. An MIT philosophy professor with a happy family life, he recognises his good fortune. And yet, six years ago, at the age of 35, he began to think of the life he had worked so hard to build and to see it as a series of diminishing returns. There was “something hollow in the prospect of doing more of it, in the projected sequence of accomplishments stretching through the future to retirement, decline, and death”. He became filled with “a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness, and fear”.

First world problems, you might think, and Setiya has anticipated this objection. The midlife crisis is partly a phenomenon of the affluent West and, at least as a named entity, fairly new. Only in 1965 did the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques publish the paper that coined the phrase. The way it has entered the vernacular hardly invites precision and rarely elicits sympathy. Whenever I hear that someone is “having a midlife crisis”, I invariably hear the implication that this is a self-indulgent (and usually male) vanity.

But the midlife crisis, as Setiya shows, is real and gender-unspecific. Recent studies identify a U-curve of human happiness, with depression and anxiety peaking at age 45. Some of this may simply mean that “shit happens in midlife”, to our health and our work and family responsibilities, and we call it a midlife crisis because we can. But the crisis also has deeper existential causes.

Our lives, Setiya argues, are founded on incommensurable values, which cannot be evaluated using a simple felicific calculus. He grew up wanting to be a poet, then wondered about following his father into medicine. Being a poet or a doctor cannot be compared with being a philosophy professor, for none of these fates subsumes or cancels out the others. Trying to choose between incommensurable values inevitably generates midlife regret and a feeling of missing out. It is the price we pay for the plurality of our values and our freedoms.

Setiya is happy to call Midlife a self-help book, even if he concedes that he has written it partly to help himself. It is a model for how to write philosophy clearly and non-technically without lapsing into banality or truism. Setiya writes enlighteningly about his own midlife crisis without it ever sounding like a whine. His voice throughout is warm, lucid and sane.

For a self-help book it certainly refuses easy consolations. Some of the advice Setiya gives is, he must know, no help at all. In the face of one’s physical decrepitude he advises anticipatory nostalgia. “Imagine how you will feel about the face in the mirror, the body you inhabit today, when you look back from ten or twenty years,” he writes. “It could and will be worse.” (Thanks.) He also argues that cognitive therapy has no answer to the perfectly rational fear of death. (Thanks again.)

But some of Setiya’s advice is genuinely useful. If you think, as he does, that you would have been better off as a doctor, then recognise that you are ignorant of the texture of such a life, “the enveloping substance of the work that makes it so worthwhile”. This “amplitude of life, its unfathomable particularity” is what is missing from our midlife regrets. The answer is to focus on the rich and irreducible details of our actual lives. “Do not weigh alternatives theoretically,” he writes, “but zoom in: let the specifics count against the grand cartoon of lives unlived.”

Setiya also makes a distinction—especially useful, I suspect, for academics—between telic and atelic activities. The former aim at terminal states; the latter have no end but are valuable in themselves. Many academic projects, like publishing articles and applying for grants, are telic. To do them well “is to complete them and so to eliminate meaning from your life”. The best one can feel is what Setiya calls “the emptiness of satisfied desire”.

His advice is not to spend more time doing obviously atelic activities like going for walks or sitting in parks. (I suspect he knows his neurotic peers too well.) Rather, if you over-invest in telic activities, the solution is “to love their atelic counterparts, to find meaning in the process, not the project”. Only thus will we escape “the self-subversion of the project-driven life”.

It seems to me that Setiya, as a philosopher, misses something else about middle age: it turns us all into anthropologists. “In middle age a liberation takes place,” the poet Michael Hamburger wrote in his memoir A Mug’s Game. A “fourth factor” appears alongside the id, ego and superego, “smiling or unashamedly laughing at their silly little squabbles”. This fourth factor is a relativist not an absolutist, a comedian not a tragedian. The middle-aged are converts to life’s essential absurdity.

Our students are often described as “digital natives”—not always true, in my experience. But students are natives in the sense that they are too young to know that the reality they swim in was once different and will be different again. In midlife the world feels slightly skewed, its languages and behaviours newly strange. The rituals of the modern university begin to feel as curious as the rituals of the Trobriand islanders must have seemed to Malinowski (although not as much fun).

The midlife academic is sailing to Byzantium, but may be stuck halfway, feeling adrift and disorientated. Diana Athill writes beautifully about old age as “like coming out onto a high plateau, into clear, fresh air, far above the antlike bustle going on down below me”. That is the state I hope one day to attain. I will be an unembittered, obliging onlooker, with only benign feelings towards those still stuck in the country that, as Yeats wrote, is not for old men. If anyone knows a way to attain this state, please tell me how.

I Spy at the Seaside


I wrote this for Times Higher Education about the academic on the beach.

You don’t really need a guide to the British beach, do you? You have been coming to the seaside all your life. Everything—the coin-slot telescopes, the bucket-and-spade sets, the coloured windmills on sticks—is the same. That singular smell, a sweet bouquet of ozone, salt and seaweed, opens up a wormhole back to childhood.

But did it ever occur to you that the beach is also a training ground for scholars, an outdoor library-cum-laboratory? In his famous “two cultures” lecture, C.P. Snow decried the gulf of mutual incomprehension between the sciences and humanities. He should have spent more time on the beach. For this is where human culture, nature and dead matter meet, where you learn to be interdisciplinary. And as you keep returning to the beach as the years go by, you make your way through the disciplines.

First you are a scientist, albeit a clueless eight-year-old one. On every trip to the beach you carry your copy of I Spy at the Seaside. The number of points you score depends on the rarity of what you spot: five for a lugworm’s coiled casting, ten for a razor shell, thirty for a gooseneck barnacle. For even on holiday you are a little high achiever, collecting ticks, marks and gold stars—a perfect apprenticeship for the endless measurement and self-surveillance of academia, it turns out.

A sand grain is your first lesson in non-human scale: infinitesimal in the singular, immeasurably vast in the plural. The horizon over which the sea disappears feels like another kind of infinity, until your dad disappoints you by telling you that it is only three miles away. The rock pools that you study with your shrimping net are a tutorial in biodiversity, life’s gift for enduring and multiplying in uncongenial places. In the sea, as you scream with delight at the oncoming surf, you are a trainee oceanographer. You have an inkling that those weird things, waves, are not things at all but processes: not water so much as energy using water as a medium.

Scientists recently worked out the perfect type of sand for sandcastles. The grains have to be fine-to-medium to cohere, irregular in size to interlock, and wet enough to stick together: ideally, eight-parts sand to one-part water. As an eight-year-old apprentice engineer, you may not know that precise formula. But you do know which type of sand will neither crumble from dryness nor collapse from sogginess. And you know just the right dampness of grain so that your castle turrets, moulded inside the indented base of the bucket, stay upright.

The years pass. You are older now, bored with sand and waves. You have turned into a social scientist. You begin to see the beach as a frontier—between the wild and the domestic, between anarchy and social order. For here the riders of sand yachts and kite buggies have to share space with families playing rounders and sunbathers snoozing on towels, in states of proximity and undress they would never countenance in their normal lives. The beach is a self-policing community, where social rules and hierarchies are put on hold—a great site for sociological fieldwork.

Nowadays, though, the beach has brought you back to your true home: the humanities. “Here I am, before the sea; it is true it bears no message,” wrote Roland Barthes in Mythologies. “But on the beach, what material for semiology!” Now you wander, Monsieur Hulot-like, among the beach-dwellers, all of them performing “fun”, with their picnics and games and self-mockery. You come across many versions of the parents in that Philip Larkin poem, all of them “clumsily undressed” and teaching their children how to live by “a sort of clowning”. And you realise that this fragile search for meaning, this grabbing at happiness on the wing, is all we have, all that separates us from nothingness. Without us meaning-making animals to notice it, the beach is just liquid, sediment and foam.

The beach now seems to you like an accelerated demonstration of the impermanence of all human culture. At the end of each day on the beach, everything—deflated beach balls, damp swimming trunks, uneaten sausage rolls—must be packed away. Sandcastles are stamped on before the sea devours them. Names writ in sand with a stick are erased. The crisp footprints of children, running in joyful circles, vanish.

At last you tire of parsing everything for meaning. You are on holiday, for heaven’s sake. Life is too short to waste time explaining it all. As Shakespeare wrote—although somehow it’s hard to picture him at the seaside—“like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end.” Time to switch off your too-busy brain. And so you stand, as mute and unthinking as one of Anthony Gormley’s iron men on Crosby beach, watching the sun sink below the sea as the waves break on the sand.

Photograph: Ian McAllister, 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)

Liverpool contrarian


This is a longer version of a piece I published in the Guardian a few weeks ago on Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

I see it every day, straight ahead, as I drive down Hope Street in Liverpool on the way to work. A ring of flying buttresses, like a tent’s guy wires, soar towards a central cone and a glass lantern tower topped with a crown of thorns. Medieval cathedrals were meant to stop the breath, to astound pilgrims and worshippers by defying gravity, human scale and other earthbound limitations. This younger version looks similarly unlikely: an upturned funnel of Catholic chutzpah. One might call its architectural style “Liverpool contrarian”. How odd that people can walk past it without even looking up.

50 years ago this weekend, at Whitsun, Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral was opened and consecrated. In 1967 many of the city’s buildings were scarred by bombs, marked for the wrecking ball or covered in soot. And here was this proudly modern structure, rising up out of a town of blackened stone. The architect Michael Manser likened it to “a gargantuan concrete aberration from the Apollo space programme”. Locals nicknamed it the Mersey Funnel or the Wigwam.

It was built cheaply and quickly, after Edwin Lutyens’s original plan, for a massive Romanesque domed church, was abandoned for being over cost and overdue. Even this more modest building seemed like a triumph of faith over evidence. Church attendance was in decline; the great age of cathedral building had ended 600 years earlier. The cathedral’s key ingredient, reinforced concrete, was being more commonly used to build multi-storeys, high rises and motorways. Seeing Almondsbury interchange under construction in 1966, the minister for transport Barbara Castle had declared: “These are the cathedrals of the modern world.” A planned inner ring road in Liverpool was about to cut the new cathedral off from the city centre. But this urban motorway never got built, and much of that brave new 1960s architecture of concrete and steel has since been bulldozed. The cathedral is still here. Unlike your average flyover, it was clad in white ceramic and Portland stone, so it still looks almost new.

Its opening coincided with two other events. On 25 May 1967 Penguin published the poetry anthology The Mersey Sound, bringing this underground movement, hitherto confined to the upstairs of Liverpool pubs, into the mainstream. A week later, on 1 June, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper. A series of events on in Liverpool this May and June, “50 Summers of Love”, celebrates this triple jubilee. In truth, linking these three things—cathedral, anthology, album—is a stretch. By 1967 the Beatles had left Liverpool and belonged to the world. The Mersey poets’ manor was the art-school, Bohemian enclave at the other end of Hope Street. Their poems often namechecked “the cathedral”—Brian Patten imagined it dissolving in “a white-hot fireball”. But they meant the Anglican one, the sandstone, neo-Gothic goliath half a mile to the south.

From a distance, though, the Wigwam does look a bit like a piece of 1960s pop art. The writer Nicholas Murray, a teenager in 1967, recalls being bussed in to see it from his school in Crosby. “I have never forgotten the impression it made,” he writes in his book So Spirited a Town, “of newness and modernity and light.” Like Murray I was raised a Catholic and I associate it, like him, with shadows and secrets: badly-lit Victorian churches, low-wattage votive candles, knee-knackering confessionals with the priest’s face a pinkish blur behind the grille.

Now I work in a university building that was once a convent, across the road from the cathedral. From my desk I can see the lantern tower, and hear the four apostle bells cranking up, ready to slice the air with noise. YouTube has silent British Movietone footage of the cathedral’s opening, with a shot of the Sisters of Notre Dame waving from what looks like my office window. Working in this building, with its holy water fonts, leaded windows and Our Lady grottoes, brings it all back. Sometimes I think I can smell that familiar Catholic musk, made up of frankincense, candle wax, old missals and damp. The new-style lecture theatre consoles even look a bit like altars. “The mass is ended,” I feel like saying when I am stood behind one. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

The cathedral over the road has a very different feel. “The ministers at the altar should not be remote figures,” Archbishop Heenan of Liverpool had written in his instructions to the architect, with the Second Vatican Council in mind. “They must be in sight of the people with whom they offer the sacrifice.” The architect, Frederick Gibberd, solved this problem with a single blow. He was doodling on the back of an envelope and the idea just came in a rush, he said, “like a composer with a new tune in his head”. Simple: a thin shell, like a tent, raised above an altar.

Unlike most cathedrals, which are partitioned into nave, transepts, sanctuary and choir, Gibberd’s is a single flowing space: a giant room, rinsed in warm reds and blues from the stained glass. “Architecture finds its highest expression in the art of enclosing space,” Gibberd wrote at the time, “and nowhere is this spatial enclosure more sublime than in the Cathedral.” For the altar he asked a local stonemason, Leslie Rumsey, to source him a single slab of white marble. After two years searching in Italian quarries, Rumsey found a nineteen-ton block near Skopje in Macedonia. This huge slab sits in the room’s centre, so that every seat is within 80 feet of it.

Along with many other non-believers I can take a perverse pride in feeling unillusioned—like the atheist in Jan Struther’s poem “Prayer”, facing “the flying spears of grief/Unarmed, yet proudly keeping/Faith with his unbelief”. These days my unbelief is faint-hearted enough for me to slope off to the cathedral now and then, to sit at the back while a service is on. The Dean has one of those soft Liverpudlian burrs that marry perfectly with the cadences of the King James Bible. I heard that, just before the cathedral opened, they fired blanks from a service revolver all round it, and timed how long it took for the reverberations to die away. It took six seconds: too long, according to those who know about acoustics. But I have come to like the elongated echo, the way the words bounce off the walls and wash you in a bath of liquid vowels.

The sociologist Grace Davie has argued that cathedrals appeal to us today because they offer “vicarious religion”, a “believing without belonging”. As we stand at the sidelines, taking off our cycle-clips in awkward reverence, the cathedral fulfils what Davie calls “the desire for anonymity—meaning the option to come and go without an explanation, or even a greeting, and to move gradually from one stage of commitment to another”. We have outsourced the job of worship to a dwindling core of professionals. At cathedral evensong, even the singing is sub-contracted to the choir. And yet you never feel left out. Instead you feel as if a space has been carved out for the mind to wander and find its own equilibrium, before you are decanted once again into the noise and haste of your own life.

Others seem to use this building in the same non-committal, no-strings way. On the piazza that Gibberd built over the roof of Lutyens’s crypt, impromptu games of football break out. On the outdoor plinths, packed lunches are unfurled. On the 56 steps up to the entrance, the same man jogs eternally up and down, like Rocky Balboa on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“The ancient temple was made only for god; the cathedral is made for all,” wrote the French art historian Marcel Aubert in 1937. “Vast, high, protected by its vaults, amply lit, it shelters all its children who come there to hide, to seek reassurance or information.” The cathedral was never just a place of worship; it was a little town, offering both sanctuary and community. When Amiens cathedral was finished at the end of the 13th century it could fit all the city’s population, nearly 10,000 of them, inside it. Until the department store arrived in the nineteenth century, cathedrals were the only lavish building that was open to all.

Nowadays public places can feel almost too welcoming. The cathedral invites you in but without seeming needy like this. It never asks you to “get involved” or “have your say”. It does not offer free Wi-Fi. It has none of that jazz-hands jolliness where everyone is “excited” and “passionate” to be serving whatever it is they are serving you. (The same tin-ear jauntiness led Tesco to claim, in an advert this Easter promoting its offers on cider and beer, that “Good Friday just got better.”) Unlike the Apple Store in Liverpool One—a bit like a cathedral, I think, with its grand entrance, light-filled nave, and huge altars where believers come to worship the iPhone 7—there is no danger of being pounced on by evangelists seeking converts to the techno-faith.

The cathedral is a place to go, in other words, when the rest of the world feels shouty and oversold. It asks nothing of you, other than that you match its quietness with your own. Since libraries became spaces for “social learning”, and the quiet zones on trains became just slightly less noisy zones, a cathedral is now almost the only public place where us deep introverts can inhale that scarce and precious drug, silence.

Before I begin to sound like a full-time miserabilist, I should say that what really draws me to the cathedral, since I do not believe in God, is my faith—battered but basically intact—in other people. You don’t need to believe in an afterlife to find solace in Gibberd’s church-in-the-round. But you do need to believe in this life, and in the value of spaces that show an unspoken solicitude for others, that feel solid and anchoring, that allow us to mark time against them and give shape and form to our existence.

The final element of Gibberd’s plan, the ceremonial steps up to the main doors, was not completed until 2003. (An ancient plaque bolted into the brickwork tells the story: “This project is funded by the European Union…”) Like Rome’s Spanish Steps, these steps draw the eye but also lead your gaze up and beyond them. You can best feel their effect by walking along Hope Street in the late afternoon of a December Sunday. It’s dark and cold and you have that stomach-tightening, fag-end-of-the-weekend, work-in-the-morning feeling. But the tower is brightly lit from the inside, the bells are calling people in for carols, and the steps motion you up to warmth, light and hope.

Photo: West elevation of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral © Andrew Dunn, 4 December 2005, Wikimedia Commons.

Welcome to the real world

A phrase I’ve come to hate is ‘the real world’, as in ‘you should try living in the real world’ or ‘welcome to the real world’. My world is just as real as yours; or rather, there’s only one real world and we’re all of us in it. This is what the American poet Richard Hugo (1923-82), who worked as a technical writer for Boeing before becoming a poet and creative writing teacher at the University of Montana, had to say about this ‘real world’:

‘I hate that phrase “the real world.” Why is an aircraft factory more real than a university? Is it? In universities I’ve had in my office ex-cons on parole, young people in tears racked with deep sexual problems, people recently released from mental hospitals, confused, bewildered, frightened, hoping, with more desperation than some of us will ever be unlucky enough to know, that they will remain stable enough to stay in school, and out of hospitals forever. I’ve seen people so forlorn that I’ve sat there praying as only an unreligious man can pray that I don’t say something wrong, that I can spare their feelings, that I might even say something that will make their lives easier if only for a few moments. Sad drug addicts too. Not people you usually meet in industrial offices. Often they are coming to me because I’m a poet and I’m supposed to be wise, to have some secret of existence I can pass on to the forlorn. In some ways the university is a far more real world than business.’

(From The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 99)

Colour-coded sentences

coloured-sentencesIn his book Pale Blue Dot (1994) the late Carl Sagan wrote about the famous 1990 photograph taken from Voyager 1, showing the earth as a tiny speck of colour in a square of black. As part of something I’ve been working on, I colour-coded one of my favourite passages from this book according to its parts of speech so I could see them more clearly. I thought it looked pretty so I’ve posted it below. The results are surprising. Style guides often tell you that the verbs should drive a sentence and you should avoid overly nouny sentences. But that last 80 word sentence of Sagan’s (which the style guides would also say is far too long) is full of nouns, and has only one verb – and it reads like a dream.

Key: Nouns Verbs Articles Adverbs Adjectives Prepositions Conjunctions

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived thereon a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The most comforting speech in the world


Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk who spent almost all his adult life in the Abbey of Gethsemani in the Appalachian region of northern Kentucky. For the last part of it he lived alone in a hermitage, a cinder-block cabin in the nearby woods. In his essay ‘Rain and the Rhinoceros,’ he writes beautifully about rain, both in cities and in his own woodland:

‘Meanwhile the obsessed citizens plunge through the rain bearing the load of their obsessions, slightly more vulnerable than before, but still only barely aware of external realities. They do not see that the streets shine beautifully, that they themselves are walking on stars and water, that they are running in skies to catch a bus or a taxi, to shelter somewhere in the press of irritated humans … But they must know that there is wetness abroad. Naturally no one can believe the things they say about the rain. It all implies one basic lie: only the city is real. That weather, not being planned, not being fabricated, is an impertinence, a wen on the visage of progress.

Of course the festival of rain cannot be stopped, even in the city. The woman from the delicatessen scampers along the sidewalk with a newspaper over her head. The streets, suddenly washed, become transparent and alive, and the noise of traffic becomes a plashing of fountains. One would think that the urban man in a rainstorm would have to take account of nature in its wetness and freshness, its baptism and its renewal …

The rain that I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world turns by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer …

The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!’

Effete betrayers of humanity

From Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence, here is a list from 1953 of words approved by the East German government for describing the British:

‘Paralytic sycophants, effete betrayers of humanity, carrion-eating servile imitators, arch-cowards and collaborators, gang of woman-murderers, degenerate rabble, parasitic traditionalists, playboy soldiers, conceited dandies.’