Archives for category: Philosophy

I must have been about eight or nine years old when we first met. You were a couple of years older, a big difference when you’re that age. I took an immediate liking to you, which I guess had something to do with your appetite for adventure and propensity to get yourself into all manner of mischief but never be found out. You’d mastered all the essential schoolboy skills, climbing trees and making campfires and building dens and making bows and arrows. What you saw in me I shall never know. I was a scruffy, tomboyish little girl with muddy fingers and tangled hair. I cannot remember the first time we went exploring together, but I do have many fond memories of random incidents from those early days. You used to knock on my door, and politely ask whichever parent opened the door whether I could come out to play. Sometimes we would go to the park with the other children, but usually we would venture farther afield, to the woods and beyond. One day you borrowed your Dad’s toolkit, and we constructed a rather solid tree house in an old oak tree, which remained our base for a time that was seemingly immense, but whose exact duration was made indeterminate by the distortion of childish memory. There we kept all the interesting things we found, of which there were many. To our young eyes they seemed so exotic, although most of them were simply bits of junk. We made a fabulously dangerous go-cart out of some logs and an old pram, and I once remember rolling you down a hill in a huge barrel we’d unearthed from a hedge.

I cannot remember much about what you were like in those days, or the things we talked about. We barely noticed each other, but fell in love with the wonders we discovered. Once we stumbled upon a large agricultural show just outside Oxford, where you insisted upon nosing around the poultry section. I still have a vivid image in my mind of the creature that so enchanted you, a pristine little white duck with a bright orange bill. “Quack,” she said to you. She said it as though she really meant it. At three pounds, you decided she was a bargain not to be missed. Having fumbled through the rubbish in your pocket, you produced three coins, which you proudly presented to the duck’s owner.

“Can I speak to your mummy or daddy first?” he asked in a gentle voice, crouching down to your level. We skulked away, and approached several kindly strangers of the appropriate age, asking them to pretend to be your parents. None of them were obliging. That was the first time I ever saw you cry.

Then there was the time I became fascinated by a derelict farm building we found on the edge of the woods. It was a solid stone structure with no roof, and only a small window, which was obscured by a board. I could see the branches of a tree protruding from the top, but aside from that had no idea what was inside. One day, you gave me a leg up, and I niftily manoeuvred myself into the space between the walls. It was smaller than I’d expected, and apart from the tree the only contents were dead leaves and an old white porcelain toilet.

“What’ve you found?”

“You’ll never guess!”



“Old furniture?”

“Sort of…”

“What is it?”

“A dead toilet!”


“I think I’m stuck in here!”

“Awesome… in that case I may need to rescue you! We’ll be like a medieval knight and a damsel in distress!”

There was something strangely attractive about the idea of you rescuing me, even though I was so stubborn in those days that I usually refused help from anyone unless it was vitally necessary.

“You just hang on there a moment… I think I’ll be able to use the tree to climb out!”

After a while of ineffectual scrabbling around, I eventually managed to clamber up the tree and emerge triumphant from the building.

Our adventures continued until we grew out of them as the inevitable adolescent dulling of the imagination set in. As teenagers, we would spend hours browsing second hand bookshops, and explore the world by reading through the thoughts and perceptions of others. Both of us had an unquenchable thirst for philosophical questions, and for a time sank into our own little world of conceptual thoughts.

I cannot remember you going away to university, although you’ve later assured me that I gave you a fine send-off. You went to Cambridge of all places, which provided an endless source of amusement to your father, who was a Fellow of History at Christ Church here in Oxford.

My memory of the first time you returned from Cambridge is still incredibly vivid. It was the Christmas holidays, and your knock on my door was somewhat unexpected. What followed took me completely by surprise. You cannot have changed much in the few months you’d been away, but my perception of you had become entirely different. From that moment on, I saw you not as merely a boyish playmate, but as a man, and a very handsome man at that. The way you perceived me must have also altered, as a few days later you took me out to one of Oxford’s finest restaurants. The suddenness of our metamorphosis from partners in childhood mischief into an engaged couple never ceases to amaze me. Throughout your time at Cambridge we kept in touch frequently with long letters, and as soon as you finished we were married.

Following your graduation, we embarked on a gap year together. You had a battered and decrepit old car with a mind of its own, which we drove around Europe. We discovered beautiful cities, Paris, Venice, Bruges, Copenhagen and many others. We wandered around the countryside and had picnics in fascinating derelict buildings, which I still enjoyed exploring despite the aforementioned incident. My mind to this day contains a vast memory album of the countless forests and castles and beaches and streets we journeyed through, our travels enhanced by their accompanying flights of imagination.

Once we had landed back in the chilly reality of autumnal Oxford, you accepted a teaching post at Pembroke College, where you became a prolific historical writer as well as a tutor and lecturer. Whenever I tried to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your work, you always thought I was only saying it to be nice. The truth is that I found your articles almost as inspiring as our travels because of the amazing gift you had of bringing history to life. Although you always showed the utmost interest in my career as a nurse, I often find myself wishing I’d done something more inclined to stimulate the imagination, but in those days life was difficult for women in academia.

One rainy afternoon, we wandered around a museum, where both of us became fascinated with a collection of very old maps. This was the beginning of your study of cartography, which continued for many years. The ancient maps you studied were things of beauty, but your interest in them extended much further than their intrinsic qualities. You were forever speculating about the courageous explorers who discovered the far away lands depicted, the people who designed the maps, and those who were to later use them as instruments for navigation. The thing that intrigued both of us was that attempts to create images of the world from above so massively predated mankind’s ability to fly.

One of your projects inspired us to journey through Africa during one of your sabbaticals, taking with us an ancient and bizarrely misshapen map. This proved to be frighteningly accurate in a peculiar sort of way. The bits that were obviously drawn too large took a disproportionately long time to negotiate, whereas the shrunken bits tended to be flat, empty expanses of land. When we returned to Oxford, you presented a highly entertaining paper on your findings, and later wrote a book about it.

Shortly after you finished your book, our adventures were cruelly cut short. It pains me to write much about what happened, but it will suffice to say that I was amazed by your bravery. I’ll never forget that day in the hospital when you took my hand and said to me, “I really wish I didn’t have to leave you, but please try to think of it as my next great adventure. It’ll be the first one I’ve ever been on without you. Make sure you live life to the full, then I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about when we meet again”.

I’ve planned a few expeditions on my own, but haven’t quite plucked up the courage to go on them just yet. My initial project was to decide upon something I could do in your memory. I thought about revisiting all those places we’d been to, albeit travelling more comfortably than we did when we were young. Then I remembered something one of your academic friends, a physicist, had said to me many years ago at a college dinner. He told me about how his perception of the world had altered when he acknowledged that the universe consisted of four dimensions, one temporal and three spatial. Our adventures took place not just in space, but also in time. They are embedded in their unique points in the past, reachable only by memory. I could travel back to the places, thus revisiting the images from my memories in three of the four dimensions, but it just wouldn’t be the same. Not only do places change, people’s perceptions of places change, as do memories. I am content with my vast collection of remembrances, and as a tribute to you I hope to publish them in the form of a light-hearted travel book. I know that’s what you would’ve wanted.

Some people dedicate a bench in the park to their loved one, others plant a tree. My memorial to you is noticed only by the observant, a quirky tribute to the quirkiest person I’ve ever known. It is an inscription on the wall outside our house.

“We walked everywhere. We discovered places.”

This is a story I wrote a few years back and found on my old computer. There will be more soon…

It was within about a week of starting my work at the school as a trainee English teacher that I realised there was something different about Oscar’s lessons. He was supervising my classes, and I was becoming increasingly flustered as I struggled simply to get the little darlings to sit down, shut up and pay attention. On one particularly bad day, Oscar spontaneously stood up and joined me in front of the mob. Within a few minutes, the children were utterly spellbound as he brought the works of Shakespeare to life before their eyes. For a moment I felt rather lost and helpless, but it wasn’t long before I was in as buoyant a mood as the children, throwing myself into the role of Lady Macbeth as the classroom transformed itself into a sordid lair of dark plotting. It was only after the lesson had finished and I was driving home in the dreary November twilight that I was hit by the full realisation of what had happened. It was a wonder that anyone had been able to get those adolescent thugs even to stay in their seats for two minutes, let alone appreciate the finer points of literature.

During the next couple of weeks, I sat in on a few of Oscar’s lessons at my own request. I was never disappointed and quite often even my own expectations were exceeded as he led his enchanted audience on literary quests through legends as vivid as firework displays. Having collaborated in Macbeth’s dark works, they proceeded to become lost in the hopeless passion of Romeo and Juliet and delight in the ridiculous irony of Much Ado About Nothing.

One December lunchtime, when the rain was blattering down outside, I was drinking coffee in the staff room with Oscar and pondering on his miraculous success. For a while I had been wondering whether to ask him how he did it, or whether that would be a stupid question considering that he had probably accumulated a cluttered shed-load of little teaching tools during his many years of experience.

“Oscar,” I ventured, “I know that this is probably a stupid question because it would probably take several years to answer, but how do you manage to teach like you do? I mean… not only do they listen to you… they actually seem interested… no… more than interested…”

“Goodness me,” exclaimed Oscar, beaming, “of course that’s not a stupid question! I’m guessing you’re thinking it has everything to do with experience, but I know many teachers who’ve been around far longer than me and still have difficulty keeping bums on seats, let alone getting ideas into heads. There is one secret, my child, and that is to open doors to new worlds… vibrant worlds of imagination for young minds to explore.”

“But I’ve seen you open many doors to many different worlds, and surely each door needs a different key… and surely you’ve needed a great deal of time to accumulate such an extensive bunch of these keys to imagination?” I asked, continuing with his metaphor.

“No, you misunderstand… there is only one key… and that one precious key will open any metaphorical door you’ll ever need to open. The key, my friend, is inspiration.”

I almost jumped out of my seat.

“But I am inspired!” I cried, “I absolutely adore literature, especially Shakespeare… that’s why I decided to be a teacher in the first place… and that’s why it frustrates me so much when they don’t listen!”

Oscar shook his head, and smiled at me in a way that somehow subdued me.

“But do you actually feel inspired… I mean when you’re there standing in front of the class taking a lesson?”

“No,” I answered, frankly, and added rather pathetically, “I feel terrified.”

“I don’t blame you, many teachers my age still feel terrified… but the key is to give the kids inspiration by completely exposing your own to them… it’s not easy, it makes you feel awfully vulnerable… it’s like handing over to them a very personal part of yourself… I’m talking crap, aren’t I?”

“Not at all… but what I want to know is how, when you walk into the classroom to find little Ryan Spinks climbing onto the top of a cupboard and Stacey Jones sitting at the front daydreaming and picking her nose… well… how do you stay inspired?”

In response, Oscar told me a story about the gap year he had taken after university. He had been, he explained, “a bit of a hippy, really”, and had engaged in the rather clichéd gap year activity of “a squalid and impoverished backpacking expedition with my then-girlfriend”. He told me about a colony of monks he had discovered in Tibet, who led simple and uncomfortable lives in a monastery carved into the side of a bleak mountain. They put him up in a peculiar and craggy little room, which he thought was absolutely wonderful. The girlfriend, however, disagreed, and quickly became disillusioned with living in “a cave” with “an unwashed hippy”. The monks taught the young Oscar all about inspiration, and how it is the key to a happy and fulfilling life. He never told me what faith, if any, they followed, and I didn’t ask because I gathered he realised it didn’t matter. They were primarily freethinking philosophers, and seemed perfectly happy in whatever they believed, despite their materially deprived lifestyle. After a couple of weeks, the girlfriend went home in a rage (“you and those bloody monks!”), but Oscar stayed. He never saw her again after that.

When Oscar came to leave the monastery, he was intent on making sure that all he had learnt would stay with him throughout his journey through life, insofar as that was possible. When he asked the monks for advice on this, they huddled together for what appeared to Oscar to be rather a long time, after which the eldest of them came forward and spoke to him.

The eldest monk gave Oscar a single word, and explained to him that whenever he feels uninspired he must repeat this one word to himself in his head, and he will instantly feel inspired again. At that point, Oscar had the impression he had been short-changed. One word? He wondered if the monk had been mocking him, and meandered back to the airport in disillusionment. Maybe the girlfriend had been right all along, he thought. He berated himself for losing her… for being so gullible as to listen to a bunch of hermits living on an inhospitable mountain. “It was simply the atmosphere of the place”, he thought to himself, “captured my imagination and carried me away… and now I must be sensible and come back down to Earth”. It was at that point, he told me, that his mind started nagging him.

“Try it… just once, Oscar… after all, what have you got to lose?”

He shook his head, as though in doing so he might physically dislodge the thought, but it refused to go away. Eventually, he somewhat grudgingly obeyed it…

It worked. He felt immediately at peace with the world, creative, as he had only a few hours ago before he had left the sanctuary of the mountain.

It was here that Oscar finished his tale.

“It still works,” he said with a smile, “I have no idea how or why it works, it shouldn’t do… after all, it’s only a word.”

“Tell me the word!” I exclaimed impatiently.

He smiled serenely and shook his head.

“I’ve never told anyone, not even my wife. In fact, you’re one of the only people who I’ve ever even told the story.”

For a few days, this conversation was constantly spinning around my mind as I attempted to make sense of it. I even dreamed about it. If only I knew what that word was…

Then it dawned on me one nondescript afternoon just before school broke up for Christmas that what the word was didn’t actually matter. Maybe the monks just made it up at random, but that is something that I shall never know, and nor will Oscar for that matter.

I have now been teaching for several years, and have one several awards for my work at comprehensive schools in deprived areas. Of course, I would never go as far as to say that I have anything comparable to Oscar’s talent for inspiring young people, but they do at least listen to me.

Whenever I feel uninspired, I think about what Oscar told me… about opening doors to new worlds…

It never ceases to work.

Existence is weird. True, she is fairly weird herself, she thought, but nowhere near as weird as existence. We find ourselves wandering around on the surface of a spherical rock, thinking beings living within fragile bodies of flesh that will eventually turn cold and stop moving. True, the better the inhabitant looks after the body, the longer it is likely to last, but none of them last forever, and after that, who knows what will happen to the conscious mind?

It was thus that she found herself unable to come to terms with what it means to exist, or with being human. She found it helped to pretend to be fictitious, and to that end would habitually refer to herself in the third person in the narratives she created in her mind.

But what of human nature, she thought. She watched them in the street outside, scurrying unquestioningly about their business, hanging around on street corners, sprinting after buses. The things other people cared about often fascinated her in a detached sense. It was like a zoologist observing a different species. The football fan gawping at the screen, enthralled by the suspense as to whether a man he had never met from a team linked to a city he had never visited would succeed in kicking a small spherical object into a net. The couple in the street, engaged in a loud argument over nothing that seemed consequential. The professor who dedicated his life to writing papers within a narrow field that he considered groundbreaking but only a few people ever read.

They create Gods in their own image and likeness, Gods of steel and stone, of retail and finance and progress, of learning and ambition. These they worship with their time, traipsing aimlessly around the shops on a Saturday, jealously hording their material belongings and the money, which, whilst in reality being merely a set of tokens to be exchanged for life’s luxuries and necessities, in their minds has been raised to its own godlike status. Eventually, there comes a time when, gazing into the shiny face of his own created God, one of them notices his own reflection, and seeing in his God his own imperfections, strikes it to the ground in anger before anyone else has a chance to notice, to see the ugly truth. And so, to pretend that nothing has happened, and to construct the next God, more sophisticated than the last. This time it will work, they tell themselves, for we have made progress. And so the cycle continues…

The postman delivers the letters to your door, and if you’re lucky you might have a parcel.

The spiderman delivers the spiders to your door, and if you’re lucky you might have a tarantula.

The dustman comes early in the morning to take away your waste.

The batman comes late at night to take away your bats.

…and thus the natural order is maintained, in some parallel universe not dissimilar to her own. She had learnt not to let the absurdity of existence worry her, but instead to embrace it and revel in its unpredictability.

“Do you ever find yourself observing the people around you as though they’re a different species?” she asked her companion in the café.

“As a writer, I often try,” he replied, “and I often strike up random conversations with them too, but then I sometimes end up falling for them by accident…”

She gazed out of the window, watching an unspectacular youth of indeterminate gender amble nonchalantly by.

She wondered whether he’d understood a single word she’d said.