Trees v. Oafs

It’s widely agreed that air pollution is a grave risk to health, and that trees are a natural and free means of reducing its effects, as the foliage absorbs a great deal of the lung-rotting stuff. So it stands to reason that street trees should be valued and protected, especially in traffic-choked parts of big cities, like West London, where I happen to live.

Instead, some oafs in charge of street trees at our local Council last week arranged for the beautiful mature trees in my road to be brutally pruned and stripped bare after they had come into abundant fresh leaf.  I tried physically to protect the tree outside my house, but failed.

Pruning and pollarding should be done in winter when the tree is dormant and the necessary work doesn’t affect it. By the same token to do it when it is putting all its vitality and energy into producing its brand-new foliage is sheer madness. The result can be seen in my road where all we have now are tree skeletons, with a few pathetic leaves hanging from the odd broken branch, hardly able to survive, let alone cleanse the air for us. As a council tax payer I felt I had the right to object to this barbarism, so I wrote to Ruth Cadbury, our MP who is also involved in local matters, asking her to help find and discipline the ignorant council official responsible for the serious damage.

She promptly replied,  expounding in great detail her thoughts about Brexit.

So I wrote to her again, pointing out that I hadn’t contacted her about Brexit but about our street trees. “It shakes my confidence to note,” I added, “that you didn’t read my email before replying to it.” Hard to believe, but the same thing happened again: me writing to her about trees, she replying about Brexit. “Would you please ask your secretary,” I wrote, my blood pressure rising at speed, “to READ messages instead of automatically sending out the wrong answer? I expect a reply to my reasonable complaint.”

I’m still waiting. Looks like a long wait. It allows me to contemplate this alarming pattern of incompetence at the highest level, where our local and national decision-makers dwell, in Olympian isolation from us ordinary folk,  ignoring our needs, not even bothering to read our messages; we are only allowed to foot the bills.

If Brexit didn’t exist – oh delicious fantasy – what excuse would our officials have for not doing their work properly?

I’m just wondering.








Mislaid in Translation

After meeting the multilingual staff at a large business I ‘ve had dealings with, I thought of the Tower of Babel, and how human arrogance had destroyed the happy original state of all humankind speaking the same language. To refresh your memory, that was a long, long time ago when a tyrant ordered his people to build a city and a tower that reached straight into Heaven. Understandably God became annoyed and confused the people, so that they all spoke a different language, nobody understood anybody else, and the Tower of Babel  only survives as a symbolic expression.

Fortunately we have interpreters, dictionaries, translators and, most conveniently, instant  Google Translation. Now I have a soft spot for Google; the name itself suggests a soft toy with bulging eyes, but more importantly it’s a fabulous time-saver for my work as a researcher: clicking a key instead of traipsing to the nearest reference library is a huge improvement. Except that…

I started with a simple task: translating into English the Austrian equivalent of God Save the Queen, namely praying for the Emperor: “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”. The nearest version of “erhalte” is “maintain”, but Google Translate rendered it as “God receive Franz the Emperor”, hardly a good wish, since God only receives us when we are dead. Unabashed,  I continued with the first line of the Marseillaise, “Allons enfants de la patrie”, but instead of a translation Google simply repeated the line – in French. Oh, come on,  surely you can do better than that? I was getting cross – all right, I thought, I’ll give you a really hard task: the text of an old Finnish folk song that I learned years ago on a holiday in Finland. It starts with “Kultani kukkuu, kaukana kukkuu” and let me spare you the rest, but its meaning is important: “My darling is calling, calling far away, on the shore of  Lake Saima she’s calling, there is no boat on the shore that would bring over my darling.”

“Kultani”  literally means “my gold”, and it’s the Finnish equivalent of “darling”. However, Google produced this amazing version:

“My culture is falling, far from fall, on the shore of Saima, there is no breast on the shore that my gold is worth.” Eh? How did a simple love song become a report of a questionable open-air sale of inferior bosoms, not worth any gold?  Totally confused, I accidentally clicked a key on the list of available languages – it offered Kyrgyz.

Thanks, but no, thanks. There are occasions when the only thing to do is to depart with dignity. This is one of them.






Shrink, shrank, shrunk

Now that’s a promising subject to research, or – less pompously – to ponder: the phenomenon of shrinking, both individually and collectively. Consider how old ladies are automatically qualified as “little”, yet that’s not how they’ve always been. Blame the shrinking of their intervertebral discs (“a layer of cartilage separating adjacent vertebrae in the spine”) which starts some time around fifty, with wide individual variations. It’s a quiet, insidious process, leading to major changes. For women, their midi skirts gradually become maxis, and the opening and shutting of windows and cupboard doors above a certain height grow more strenuous. Men don’t escape, either: “I grow old…I grow old…I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled,” laments J. Alfred Prufrock in T.S.Eliot’s great poem in which the discs, although not mentioned, play a role in the sad hero’s “Love Song”.

One’s area of mobility also shrinks. I’m full of admiration for intrepid people of advanced age who undertake highly uncomfortable journeys for no commanding reason, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Looking up at an airliner flying over my garden where I am sweeping up leaves, I recall the many occasions when I went off at short notice to Sri Lanka, the Yang-Tse or Reykjavik, just so, because I felt like it;  yes, it was fun, and cheap air travel has certainly shrunk the world, but now I’m happy to spend time sitting on a riverside bench and watching the Thames flow by. What with gulls, moorhens, acrobatic gulls and the occasional haughty swan, there’s plenty to see.

Less pleasurably, one’s circle of friends also shrinks. Some die, others move to the country and become rare visitors. To make up for these losses, e-mail and Skype bring closer some far-flung friends and acquaintances, although not with the closeness of a real face-to-face meeting. Ah, but “that was then. this is now”, I remind myself, applying this irrefutable antidote to fruitless nostalgia.

Yet it’s not all shrinkage and loss. Far from it. What expands is one’s ability to sort the wheat from the chaff, one’s true values from some trendy rubbish; to laugh at one’s own idiocies and accept those of others with a friendly shrug. To become flexible rather than rigid and not start sentences with “I always…” or “I never…”Quite a lesson to learn rather late in life, but – what’s the hurry, anyway? One’s individual future may seem rather brief, but it can be full of goodies.

One more thing that is expanding very slowly and gently is the distance between my front door and the corner shop.


Going, going, gone

There is nothing like an old address book to demonstrate the impermanent nature of most things. According to a wise Hindu saying, “The world is a bridge, cross it but build no house on it”, yet a longing for permanence is part of human nature,  and hence a guarantee of disappointment. My address book is barely ten years old, yet turning its pages is like looking at an old battlefield full of casualties, namely crossed out entries, corrections, additions and a few mysterious squiggles which must have meant something when I made them but don’t do so any more.

Some deletions are tinged with sadness: a cross on the margin means a death. Others refer to the ending of an old  friendship or a disappointment in a new acquaintance who seemed fine at first but then proved to be the opposite. Each one evokes a  story complete in itself and makes me wonder about the functioning of memory: why does it preserve unimportant details with crystalline clarity but refuses to produce their important framework? The French refer to “un trou dans la mémoire”, a hole in the memory (which is probably bottomless), and that’s as good a metaphor as you can wish for.

A friend of mine has a charming fantasy about her brain: it’s a big hall full of filing cabinets chock-a-block with knowledge, all precisely sorted and referenced, and there is a little man rushing around at lightning speed, producing the correct file which the owner of the brain needs in order to recall a particular memory. It’s all beautifully organised and highly efficient, but in the course of time the little man begins to age, he loses speed and sometimes puts stuff into the wrong file or even loses half of it, causing the owner of the brain much frustration. Now that’s a fantasy I can wholeheartedly share.

There are some puzzling entries in this modest spiral-bound address book, the names and particulars of  people whom I cannot identify for love or money, but who must have seemed important enough to be recorded for future reference. Do my name and data suffer the same fate in other address books? Who is this person in Nicosia, in the Algarve or in an unpronounceable Polish town whose name consists of nothing but consonants, whom I can’t remember but at one time intended to contact? Search me.

Oh, never mind. There are the others, close friends, dear people who don’t move house for decades, who keep their mobile numbers and e-mail addresses unchanged and represent a kind of permanence in this shifting world. As a matter of fact I know their data by heart, but it’s good to have them anchored in writing, just in case that hole in my memory grows a bit bigger. Beyond a certain degree of maturity (no, there are no old women, only mature beauties) one needs the mental equivalent of belt and braces.

I take enormous care of my address book. It’s got to last as long as I do. Once I’ve moved on, leaving no forwarding address, I hope it’ll end up in a recycling box, not in a rubbish bin – although by then even that won’t matter very much. But now just let me marvel at exotic passwords and wonder whether a close friend will ever stop moving residence, forcing me to record her new addresses over the best part of a page.

It’s all good fun, with a gentle philosophical undertone. Just enough to remind me to cross the bridge but build no house on it.









Thanks, thumb!

I was chopping vegetables when the knife slipped and made a small but deep gash in the top of my right thumb. Quick action: disinfect, slap on sterile plaster, cover with waterproof finger stall, carry on cooking. Except that without my invalid thumb which responded with sharp pain to the slightest touch, things had become rather difficult. Didn’t know thumbs were so important, I thought, but then of course,  monkeys and apes apart, only we humans have thumbs we can bend across our palm, enabling us to hold things, write, paint, cook and carry out innumerable tasks from vegetable chopping to the finest art work. One might claim that without the human thumb civilization would still wait to be established, since  all  other members of the animal kingdom have to use their paws, claws, teeth, beaks and tentacles to cope with infinitely simpler tasks.

To spare my sick thumb I started using my left hand and was embarrassed by its clumsiness. But then it has never had a good press. The left-hand path is that of black magic. Less ominously, when I was a child and broke or dropped something, my mother invariably accused me of having two left hands. Now I just wanted a single competent one, even if I had to bring it up to – ouch – scratch. But how?

Minimal research yielded plenty of advice. I was to draw simple shapes – circles, triangles, squares – with my left hand, then write down the alphabet with both small and capital letters. Wear my watch on my right wrist for two weeks. Throw and catch a table tennis ball with my left hand, and finally  use a tin opener and a corkscrew with same. To master these skills was to yield the additional bonus of simulating my imagination and creativity, since hands and brain hemispheres are diagonally connected, and the dictatorship of right-hand-left-brain needs to come to an end.

Oh dear. What I wrote with my left hand might have been the work of a young monkey with learning difficulties. To cheer myself up, I moved my watch to my right wrist –  but invariably looked at the left one every time I wanted to check the time. As for using a tin opener with my left hand, I didn’t even try after attempting to peel an apple with same: the apple won with ease – or should I say hands down…

Back to theory, the last refuge of the impractical. I discovered that nearly 80% of humanity is right-handed, the rest left-handed, except for a tiny minority that is ambidextrous. And this isn’t exactly new: on the skeletons of our remotest ancestors the right shoulder and arm are always stronger than the left, suggesting that the cavemen threw their lance or boulder from that side. Even language confirms this distinction: “right” is positive in its several meanings, while left is negative. This is especially true in Arab countries where the left hand deals with physical functions and therefore is regarded as unclean.

I was beginning to feel sorry for my left hand. As if it weren’t enough that it can’t write properly or catch a ball, it’s also supposed to be inferior. But then, by way of instant consolation I found a new report claiming that the number of left-handed people is growing rapidly and many of them are outstandingly gifted, successful people. Perhaps, as usual, Nature will have the last word, and if the proportion of enviable left-handers increases sufficiently, their reputation will also improve.

What a wide horizon has opened up over and beyond my chopping board!  The temporary uselessness of my sore thumb notwithstanding,  sometimes it’s quite rewarding for the kitchen knife to slip.



DIY – or rather not?

I have a soft spot for Google. The very name is endearing – to me at least it smacks of the nursery, belonging to a slightly battered  favourite toy. More importantly, the programme itself is the greatest ever time-saver and tracker of references, providing information for which in pre-Google days (feels like the last Ice Age) one had to traipse to the reference section of the nearest Public Library and painstakingly dig out the needed data. So I follow all news concerning Google with interest, which is how I came across the following information (quoting from memory):

Google’s voice-activated Assistant Duplex can carry out entire phone conversations by itself. This technology has been worked on for many years and is still being developed, to help consumers do daily tasks, such as booking hair appointments or making restaurant reservations.

Eh? But surely consumers have been coping with those tasks ever since hairdressers and restaurants have existed, or more precisely since we’ve had telephones. What difference will it make whether I or Duplex books my much-needed hairdo? Actually Duplex could make a total mess of this simple task, as – unlike I – it can’t check other entries in my diary. The whole idea is a no-brainer, and to hear that many years of hard work have been invested in its development sounds depressing. “Mountains are in labour, a ridiculous small mouse will be born,” Horace wrote over 2000 years ago, and a better metaphor could hardly be found. Are there no other tasks for our awesome technological skills to carry out?

But perhaps I should scrutinize the true motivation behind the invention of Duplex. And the first thing that springs to mind is that according to C.G.Jung, the human being’s greatest passion is idleness. Now it’s safe to assume that Jung knew what he was talking about, but even so his view is confirmed by a somewhat downbeat text I once saw in a collection of international folk wisdom:

“It’s better to sit than to stand, better to lie down than to sit, better to sleep than just lie down, better to be dead than just asleep.” Well, that seems a trifle drastic and we can safely ignore it. What remains is the lasting love of idleness – workaholics, please stop reading – and its immediate result: the need to find someone or something that’ll do the necessary work instead of us. To achieve that should be enough for the average idler, but there’s the added pleasure of superiority, of having Duplex – or Alexa or the increasing army of electronic slaves – to do our bidding.
The more I ponder this, the less attractive we people sound, even if having electronic slaves instead of human ones sounds a great improvement. Also, the principle of “use it or lose it” chimes in a warning. Just imagine, if we gradually transferred all useful activities to Duplex-style electronic assistants , becoming unskilled in the process, and one day the global supply of electricity would run out (as we are told it will ), we would quickly perish from sheer helplessness. Which might be a chance for the Duplex lot, boosted by Artificial Intelligence, to take charge of the world.
But hang on! All that passivity and idleness is only half the story.  Put against it the lasting popularity of DIY in home and garden, the innumerable brave and often calamitous attempts to make one’s personal world a better place, and the gloom begins to rise. Personally I’m immune to any such ambition but still  remember my amazement when a highly erudite friend boasted to me of his greatest ever achievement – replacing some cracked tiles in his bathroom. The way he sounded, he might have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps it’s time for me to revise my set of values.
So here we are, passionately idle and passive on the one hand and hyperactive and creative on the other. No advanced version of Duplex will ever combine those two opposites. We are a crazy mixed-up lot, and I just love it.


A Quick Tour of the Place Below

Did he or did he not deny the existence of Hell? The controversy about the official opinion of Pope Francis may still be going on – I’ve lost track of its progress – but it reminded me of the time, some years ago, when I was vividly interested in the subject, although not for religious reasons. History of Art was one of my subjects at university, and when it came to selecting a subject for my dissertation, I chose the various depictions, both verbal and pictorial, of the underworld and particularly its infernal region. This was partly a reaction to too many sugary Madonnas and Babies, preferred by my professor, but mainly a rebellious wish to explore a fairly unpopular subject.

The first thing I discovered was that climate determined the prevalent temperature of Hell. In hot countries it was unbearably scorching, but up in the far North Pohjola was a dark, terrible and forever frozen place of icy despair. Ancient Greece chose a moderate climate for an underworld that wasn’t particularly hellish; indeed, its worst feature was the three-headed dog Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades, its best (in my view) Lethe, the river of oblivion, washing away all memories and, by doing that, healing all wounds.

Continuing my search in Southern Europe, Dante’s Inferno with its nine concentric circles of torment almost made me abandon my project: it was so perfect, so superbly organised and all-embracing that it seemed futile to move beyond it. It offered a rich menu of sins – lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery, which, except for heresy, are still practised today, and each variety was illustrated with poignant real-life stories of the sinners who were stuck there for all eternity. But then I realized that it was enough to read the morning paper with a special focus to find gorgeous current examples of those sins. Clearly, lust was behind the inappropriate behaviour of more or less eminent men reported almost daily (sorry, chaps, women can’t catch up with you here, and this gender gap has to be treasured), gluttony cum greed was behind the wave of obesity hitting us, wrath and violence were the parents of conflict, fraud fed the financial pages of the press, and treachery wasn’t hard to find, for instance in politics. But since we live in a secular society, the “sin” bits don’t come into the story; neither does the fear of ending up in Hell.  There are other fears – ending up in prison, going bankrupt, becoming a social pariah, losing foolishly one’s  celebrity status and so forth, but somehow these lack the dark glamour of one’s individual version of the infernal region.

My project suddenly grew wings with the discovery of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the 16th century Dutch painter of superhuman imagination. His depictions of Hell can be studied endlessly without solving the multiple puzzles of his symbols. Little wonder: it seems clear that Bosch was playing a double game, painting images that were outwardly acceptable to the Church authorities and his wealthy patrons, but hiding  behind them was the message of the medieval Cathar heresy. Once I entered the world of Bosch, there was no need for much else…years later I still haven’t solved his intricate, beautiful puzzles and go back to them every time the current world becomes dreadfully colourless.

Yes, Hell is a subject of endless fascination. Still plenty to explore in its depths. And it comes as a let-down to remember the much-quoted dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the peak intellects of the 20th century. He simply said, “Hell is other people.”



The Joys of Junk Mail

I hesitate to admit it, but sometimes junk mail, spam and otherwise, has a weird charm which the proper official kind lacks. It’s the sheer outrageousness or touching stupidity of some “cold call” e-mails that I find refreshing, especially because they tend to come in waves, bearing similar contents. Perhaps there is a secret hub somewhere in cyberspace that sends these waves; at any rate they come and go fast enough to remain entertaining. Some time ago it was the onslaught of the Nigerian Widows, all of them passionately religious and oh, so generous, offering me half of the fortune left in a British bank by their careless late husbands, if only…. Resisting them was fun but disappointingly easy.

Next came – repeatedly – an apparent, genuine-looking appeal from a close friend’s real-life friend, stuck abroad penniless after a mugging, begging for an instant loan to get her home with her small child. This might have been a successful identity theft, had I not known that the real person was about 20 years too old to have a small child.  Impostors should be good at research.

But recently the tide has turned. Instead of asking me to get someone out of trouble, I’m being inundated with generous offers. Several heads of recruitment are so impressed with my background (my what?) that they offer me impossibly tempting jobs – working from home, getting huge salaries, ample time off, and so forth. The fact that they know precisely nothing about me doesn’t make them less keen; reading their comments on my non-existent qualifications makes me wonder whether I’ve been underestimating myself all my life. What a pity that the last thing on earth I want is a job.

And now it’s a deluge of Gift Cards that’s hitting me, from well-known firms that apologize for having overcharged me or just want to thank me for my custom over the years, notwithstanding that I’ve never-ever visited their shops. “We’re giving you this awesome surprise”, one e-mail from a well-known chemist’s chain declares, although the prospect of two free pieces of soap does not fill me with awe. ( “Awesome” seems to be the latest linguistic import from the USA, used with abandon – and a total lack of judgement.)

My Gift Cards remain unclaimed. I’m trying to give away stuff instead of acquiring more. But oh, what joy to receive these bits of harmless nonsense, interrupting my real everyday work.

If nothing else, they remind me not to take that real work, or myself, too seriously.






Get moving, Quintus!

To give him his full name, it was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, surnamed Cunctator, “the delayer”, and he was a Roman statesman and general who lived around 280-203 B.C. His masterful delaying tactics during the second Punic War worked well against Hannibal’s dreaded forces; in fact they were the earliest known form of guerrilla warfare. This makes him sound quite a fearsome character, yet his surviving statue shows a handsome, gentle looking young man, holding his chin with one hand while presumably pondering what to delay next; contemporary records describe him as being mild mannered and slow-spoken, despite holding huge power.

Now before you begin to wonder what on earth this noble character  of 2200 years ago has got to do with us here and now, let me admit that his monumental lack of urgency has made him a living presence for me, unfortunately in a totally negative way. Almost daily some news item sheds light on an urgent problem affecting us all, together with a suggested official solution to be introduced – some time in the future. The latest example of this concerns the alarming obesity epidemic spreading in this country. According to official figures, one in five children arrive in primary school being obese or overweight, and – worse still – one in three leave primary school in that condition. The serious health risks of obesity are well known; it is a contributory factor to all major diseases from heart disease to cancer, and is therefore the No.1. candidate on the list of preventable baddies.

Prevention immediately  becomes a practical task if we contemplate the dietary disaster that makes the nation fat, the evil effect of the Junk Food Industry that turns out nutritionally empty but calorie-rich rubbish, made tasty and tempting by the galaxy of chemicals politely known as “food cosmetics”. Advertising brainwashes the public to buy and eat the stuff; only a few British schools have recently begun to teach children about healthy eating.

But at last our decision-makers have woken up to what’s going on around the nation’s expanding waistline and seem to be shuffling into action. According to a recent announcement, the relevant Government department has instructed food manufacturers to cut calories by 20% – by 2024. To do this, we are told, would slash costs to the NHS by £45 billion and prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths. Terrific – but for Heaven’s sake, why wait for six years to hit the target? Why this desperate lack of urgency that would make Quintus the Delayer smile with happy recognition? Surely this timetable won’t inspire food manufacturers to start improving their output in a hurry?

Parkinson’s Law, first formulated in 1955, states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” So if I were a food manufacturer and knew that I had six years to make my calorie-rich junk product healthier, I wouldn’t do a thing for five years or so. After all, according to another “law” by some anonymous sage , “If you wait until the last minute, the job only takes a minute to do.”

The art of delaying has a language of its own, lavishly used in official communications. “At the earliest opportunity”, “in the foreseeable future” and suchlike should act as alarm bells, warning us that again there is no hurry and therefore no fast result involved. Of course there is no reason why we as individuals shouldn’t become awkward and try to speed up events. I’ve done it many times, failed in 40%. succeeded in 30% and at least got things moving in the remainder.

And, being of an impatient disposition – sorry, Quintus the charming Cunctator- I’ll continue to fight unnecessary delays wherever they crop up. There will be plenty left for others to cope with.




Welcome to the Madhouse

“Oh, cheer up,” said my irrepressible friend on the phone, “Spring is coming, the first daffodils are out, why are you so gloomy?” I gave a non-answer and changed the subject. But afterwards I made a quick mental list of the strictly non-personal reasons, the ones concerning every single one of us, for my mood that was as cloudy and chill as the February afternoon outside, with no  precocious daffodils able to brighten it.

O.K., this is what happened that day. I switched on the radio and gathered that global sea levels had risen in the 20th century at nearly double their previous rate. Coastal habitats have been devastated, soils eroded and contaminated, flooding doubled, and with the glaciers melting we can no longer stop the process, only slow down its pace. (I live near the Thames and yes, recently the tides looked pretty swollen – surely West London isn’t yet on the list of doomed habitats?)

Switch off radio. Pick up morning paper. Long piece full of statistics about human overpopulation. Every 12-15 years we add another billion to our bulging masses, I read, and the impact on the environment is devastating. An expert called it “A barrel of explosives”. Oops – as these days explosives figure often in the daily news, this makes me shiver. Overconsumption, loss of tree cover, inadequate fresh water, starvation, increased pollution, new epidemics, you name it, we’ll have it.

As if this weren’t sufficient, the scientific journal that arrives in the mail confirms that at present  we are using up the renewable resources of 1.7 Earths, and by 2050 we’ll need three Earths to keep us going. Where on…no, where outside Earth are we going to find them? Just to pick out one grim detail, in the last 40 years our planet lost one third of its arable land, due to erosion and over-cultivation. Beyond a certain limit artificial fertilisers can’t make up for the loss of healthy fertile soil; first the quality and eventually the quantity of the crops plummets and all that remains is dead soil and the fertiliser run-off poisoning rivers and brooks. More people, less soil to grow food for them – surely something is very wrong here?

Enough is enough. Can’t take any more gloom and doom. Instead, I browse the sunnier uplands of the internet and read the messages of  the various civilian groups that, scattered all over the world, swim against the mainstream, trying to mitigate the damage caused by the unwisdom of the Establishment. Crowd funding, signatures by the milli0n, powerful  grass root initiatives  which succeed against heavy odds: things begin to look and feel  hopeful. No, perhaps it’s not too late, it’s still seven whole minutes to midnight. If those in power, the global decision-makers applied themselves to the task, they could stop the rot and start the healing process. End spending unimaginable fortunes on arms and plant forests instead. Feed the starving. Make contraception available everywhere to curb population growth. Educate and empower women and girls to add their special gifts to community life. Teach men to express their anger by non-violent means.

Wow, what a beautiful programme. It covers several topical needs. The next step is to involve those in power, the ones not caught up in corruption, fraud, nepotism or sex scandals to get going, inspire and lead us towards success. Surely they are aware of the huge risks of the moment and are busy seeking solutions?

So what does President Trump, head of the world’s No.1. superpower  think about all this? Well, actually he doesn’t. He’s preoccupied with the utterances of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and sends him this message: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

If it weren’t about the possibility of nuclear annihilation, this would remind me of nothing more important than small boys arguing behind the bicycle shed, on the level of “my Daddy is bigger/stronger/richer than yours”, or, more ominously, “my knife is bigger/ sharper/more expensive than yours”. Unfortunately this time the parallel doesn’t work, except in the lunatic logic of the madhouse.

And then my friend on the telephone wonders why I sound so gloomy.