I used to say that my father was the only man I knew who would slow down when he saw a green light. I put that complaint down, now, to late adolescent irritability, and the tedium of our slow daily commute from Windsor to London in the early 1980s, my father driving, with exemplary patience, through traffic jams and endless traffic lights. I remember a friend of mine – a driver, unlike me – pointing out that it makes very good sense to slow down. If the light’s green now, he said, it will very soon change to red. Better to be prepared.

Sadly, as we grow older, we become ever more aware of aftermaths. Anticipation stretches beyond the high point, to include the waning as well as the waxing of things. For the optimist, perhaps, the other way round as well, the waxing as well as the waning.

So I’ve come to dread the 21st of June, Midsummer’s Day. I know it should be a day for celebration, and I do my best to enjoy it, but I can’t help thinking it’s the start of another decline, as the days begin to shorten from the 22nd. Although the 21st of December is, by the same token, the beginning of better things, gradual loss is much harder to endure than gradual gain is to enjoy.

Weddings depress me, too. There’s so much hope. I can’t help thinking of them as unrealistically optimistic, full of fragile joy, to be followed by the inevitable decline into bickering and divorce. I can’t blot out anticipation and simply enjoy the moment.

(On the other hand, breaking with melancholy for a moment, I did enjoy my own, and I’m as optimistic as I was five years ago.)



The trees are coming into leaf in Prague, though the air is still cool and the sun isn’t shining warmly. Spring is the loveliest time of year, my favourite season, perhaps all the more so because I know the lights will soon turn red again, and, with any luck, green again, eventually.

Walking home from the metro I was reminded of Philip Larkin’s almost optimistic poem:

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

A Better 2016!

Despite the fall-out from a four-course dinner party – a kitchen that resembles a warzone and a headache from too much wine and champagne, I begin 2016 as I ended 2015, as an optimist.

Human beings are fundamentally good and human imagination, together with the scientific method, continues to achieve miracles (well, actually, exactly replaces the need for miracles). The world gets better and better, even as it gets warmer.

hope and happiness

These are my hopes, if not my expectations, for the coming year (the order has no significance):

  • Further progress in the development of promising new classes of antibiotics based on microbes found in soil
  • Further progress towards the production of sustainable and affordable fusion energy
  • Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This issue lies at the heart of the humiliation and frustration that fuels Arab violence throughout the Middle East. In Gaza, those disappointed by the status quo are now turning to Islamic State, as, more than a decade ago, they turned from the relatively benign Fatah movement to Hamas. The longer peace eludes the protagonists in this conflict, the worse things will get. (I would love to include the elimination of Islamic State as a hope for 2016, but bombs and even boots on the ground won’t achieve it for the long-term.)
  • The further advance of secular ideas, or, putting it another way, the further decline of religion as a force in politics, law and morality. Secularism doesn’t necessarily mean brash, heartless materialism, or a world without values. Rather, it allows complete freedom of personal religious worship and belief (however silly those beliefs might be) as long as they don’t infringe the rights of those who hold different and equally silly beliefs.
  • Progress on the prevention of excessive global warming.
  • A British vote to remain in the EU. Despite its many failings the EU is, on balance, a very good thing, and I only wish that it could formulate and promote its values more effectively.
  • A decline in bureaucratic and business corruption. In some of the poorest parts of the world corruption is one of the chief obstacles to prosperity.
  • A decline in the domestic popularity of Vladimir Putin and the realisation that Russia and the West need not be enemies. When will ordinary Russians come to see that there are other forms of pride besides bare-chested strutting and the fabrication of a nationalism that thrives on hatred?
  • The election in the United States of almost anyone other than Donald Trump, though I hope that we’ll get a female Democrat President.
  • Stable economic growth in China.
  • The impeachment of Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa.
  • Quiet revolution and the triumph of secular democracy in Iran and North Korea.
  • Survival, perhaps even expansion, of the Schengen Zone.
  • Peace in Syria.
  • The decline of protest-fuelled nationalism in Europe. Immigrants are good for us.
  • The discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence
  • The detection of dark matter

What have I left out?

And my more personal longings:

  • Tickets for the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth
  • Elimination of Peruvian poncho-clad buskers from the streets of Prague
  • The tracing of the billion USD missing from Moldova’s public accounts and the prosecution of those in Government who stole it
  • Weight loss
  • Further cricketing success for England
  • Happiness and health for all my friends and family

Have a happy and a better New Year!


The World is a Better Place


It is worth remembering that, despite everything, the world is a better place than it was. In terms of lives lengthened by medical science, clean water and more abundant food, improved by education and freedom, made more effective by democracy, more comfortable by prosperity and the reduction of cruelty and pain, the world is in a measurably better condition than when our parents or grandparents were born.

The Western ideals of humane, secular, liberal, carefully capitalist democracy have triumphed. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are now to be found on every continent.


I remind myself, from time to time, that I was born into a Europe of fewer than a dozen democracies, and in the past 58 years the number has more than doubled. Dictatorships of the individual (Spain and Portugal), of the military (Greece) and of the people (Eastern Europe) have given way to a democratic much of a muchness, and all the better for it.

I am an optimist. It is right, of course, to rail against the setbacks, but  also sensible, occasionally, to celebrate our progress. Take this quiz and find out if you’re an optimist, too. Are you an optimist?

As for the dismal setbacks of the last few days, the answer to the threat posed by terrorism is not exclusion, but inclusion. The evidence suggests that human nature doesn’t differ radically from one place to another. Given half a chance,  most of us will choose safety, prosperity, freedom, even tolerance, rather than the empty promise of a utopia at the cost of brutality, starvation and personal danger. Most of us don’t want excitement.

Sadly, the idea of exclusion enjoyed a good day yesterday:

We can build a wall around the Middle East, as many might suggest, but let’s not forget to leave the oil pipes in place.

We can build a wall around Europe. But that would be both wrong (the vast majority of refugees are genuinely seeking safety, fleeing the very evils that we saw on the streets of Paris on Friday), ineffective (the terrorist will always get through), and withering (Europe needs new people and new ideas).

We can even exclude IS from ordinary consideration by calling them ‘psychopathic monsters’, as John Kerry did last night, in an otherwise moving speech, but more can surely be gained by trying to understand how people who must be essentially like us can come to be brutal and inhumane.

We can begin to exclude our own citizens (even more than we do already), as Marine Le Pen suggests. Send them home. Deny them citizenship. But narrow nationalism has a poor track record, even in Europe.

Societies are strengthened by inclusion. The Romans discovered this civilisation-building trick two thousand years ago, extending the rights of citizenship to the tribes they subjugated. The conquered flourished alongside their conquerors.

What should our Governments do?

Yes, spend more money on surveillance, and security, and if necessary ‘strip search’ new arrivals at our borders if that humiliation brings reassurance to the bigots, but let’s not destroy our own freedoms and become illiberal in the process.

Yes, ‘destroy’ IS if it’s possible, but ‘boots on the ground’, as President Obama calmly argued yesterday, haven’t won the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, and they won’t win the war in Syria. Certainly, if we don’t minimise ‘collateral damage’ we won’t make friends of those who survive our interventions.

But, above all, let’s find a long-term way of bringing optimism, freedom and prosperity to the Arab world. And no, I don’t know how to do it.

Reasons to be cheerful

Returning from a hard day’s work at the excavations of Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in March 1923, George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, took the top off a recent mosquito bite whilst shaving in the bathroom of his suite at the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor. Overwhelmed by bacteria, he died in Cairo just over two weeks later.

Some put it down to the ‘Mummy’s Curse’, but whatever the cause, he was vulnerable, as all humanity was before the advent of antibiotics, to accidental and catastrophic bacterial infection.

Until last week we were led to believe that we would all have to be more careful shaving, as bacteria learn resistance to antibiotics and graduate to superbugdom. The age of antibiotics was said to be approaching its end.

So, it’s wonderful news that the first new class of antibiotics for thirty years has been discovered and has proved effective in mice. There may even be plenty more where this class comes from (soil), and they may be of a type that bacteria won’t so easily acquire resistance to.

It’s true that we don’t yet know if this substance will work on humans, but if not this time, and this type, then another time and type.

I am an optimist, and this announcement encourages me. The world has become a much better place over the last few decades and it goes on getting better. I have boundless faith in human ingenuity. I believe even the miseries of cancer and other medical horrors might one day be things of the past (though the miseries of human unpleasantness may prove more intractable).

But whilst the world is getting better, it’s also getting warmer. If we’re quick enough though, perhaps we’ll even solve that problem. Controlled nuclear fusion is on the way (just another decade or two), and then, surely, there will be enough green (nuclear) energy to power vast arrays of air conditioners blasting cold air into the skies. Or something similar.