Category: philosophy


AMORTALITY by Catherine Mayer (Vermilion, 2011)

“What a drag it is getting old”.

Mick Jagger wrote these words when he was still in his early 20s. It’s a line from ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, the first track on The Rolling Stones’ 1966 album Aftermath.

Far from being the usual affirmation of the ‘sex,drugs and Rock’n’Roll’ lifestyle, this atypical Stones song addresses the plight of stressed housewives who turn to prescribed drugs to calm their nerves. Jagger adopts a mockney accent in an attempt to convince us of his sincerity but it all sounds very mannered and false.

If Jagger still finds aging a drag he hides it fairly well. Now in his mid-70s he’s still performing concerts and impregnating young women with abandon. He is living proof of what Catherine Mayer calls ‘amortals’; those who refuse to ‘act their age’ and live as if it were impossible to die.

With improved healthcare, it’s not just the  wealthy who are living longer with plenty of energy left to burn. Mayer observes that “there is no such thing as age appropriate behavior anymore” and refers to the growth of this ageless living as a “grey tsunami”. Fast approaching 60 and having run my first full marathon last year, I feel that I’m an active member of this tidal wave of ‘amortals’ but found the book disappointing.

It was conceived as “a guide to an uncharted phenomenon” and in the opening chapters the author is at pains to reassure us that it is not intended as a polemic. However, by the end, she gives up any pretense of objectivity when she challenges institutionalized ageism, stating : “I hope readers will take from this book inspiration to push for change, on a personal level and as consumers and voters”. So much for not being polemical! Continue reading


The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (Picador, 2016).

lonelycity“When you have no-one, no-one can hurt you”. The bleak lyrics by Will Oldham from ‘You Will Miss Me When I Burn’ by Palace Brothers are hardly life affirming. Olivia Laing takes a more positive line from Dennis Wilson’s ‘Thoughts of You’ in which the Beach Boy sings how “Loneliness is a very special place”.

However, I doubt that many people equate loneliness with specialness. Most of the time it’s a condition that generates feelings of shame, self loathing and depression. The invisible cloak we wear is a burden rather than a protection.

The ‘adventures’ of Olivia Laing’s compassionate and insightful book nevertheless show how being alone can be, and has been,  the stimulus to greater self knowledge and the impetus towards personal creativity. Continue reading

SAPIENS by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage Books, 2014)

41mjx6yzfel-_sx324_bo1204203200_History is full of big mistakes and there’s a common notion that we should study it to avoid repeating the errors of the past.

However, Yuval Noah Harari explains one of the key problems with taking lessons from previous cultures and generations is that “History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic”.

Such a view could give credence to the belief that “History is just one damn thing after another”.

Harari’s populist approach to the subject is a breath of fresh air. He has been criticized for his lack of scholarly rigor but his non-elitist position is that historians cannot and should not assume an objective, dispassionate position. Continue reading


plantbasedThe UK monthly magazine ‘Cook Vegan’ is from now on to be known as ‘Plant Based’ and carries the subtitle ‘The Food Revolution’ .

In the editorial to the first issue under the new name (October 2017), assistant editor Blake Roberts writes  “Everything in this magazine is still vegan and we only want to expand and improve upon the content that you’re used to. However, we believe that if we are to make veganism more accessible for all, it is important that everybody feels part of it; under our new title we feel we can encourage seven more people to embrace a plant-based lifestyle”.

In this way he is seeking to reassure readers that this is a magazine that is solely focused on diet, health and recipes. It is still all about cooking, in other words.

But he also raises a more questionable point. Reading between the lines, he is suggesting that the label  ‘vegan’ is problematic in that it is automatically connected to lifestyle choices that go beyond what you keep in your fridge or serve up at mealtimes. Continue reading


brainThe final section of case studies in Oliver Sacks’ ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’ is called ‘The World of the Simple’.

The first of the four essays examines the case of a young woman called Rebecca who, because of a number of physical and neurological handicaps, had spent her life being branded as a moron.

Sacks admits that he also initially regarded her as little more than a “broken creature” and something of a hopeless case. The neurological tests he carried out only served to confirm her retarded state. But when he saw her outside the clinic, he formed an entirely different impression.

He witnessed her instinctive and serene response to nature then later observed that when she danced or performed in theatre workshops she exhibited none of the awkwardness and clumsiness he had assumed was her permanent condition.

All this forced him to question how such subjects are judged; he wrote: “I thought, as I watched her on the bench – enjoying not just a simple but a sacred view of nature – our approach, our ‘evaluations’, are ridiculously inadequate”.

Reading this chapter made me reflect how the same inadequacies Sacks described can routinely be found in our educational institutions. For instance, standardized testing in schools is,at best, only a measure of one aspect of a young child’s intelligence. Continue reading

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