Yesterday was Pentecost.  In the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, a strange power was bestowed upon the eleven, and suddenly they developed fluency in foreign languages.  Or did they?  Some people thought they were just plastered.  “What?” said Peter.  “At nine o’clock in the morning?”  I wouldn’t rule it out.  I’ve met plenty of people, plastered, at nine o’clock in the morning. 

Pentecost is an obverse to another biblical tale, that of the Tower of Babel, a civic project gone wrong, an enormous skyscraper and a monument to humanity’s pride that collapsed in a heap of rubble.  Then everybody began to talk gibberish.

I once imagined I had a Pentecostal moment.  Having no German, I heard Mrs Merkel speaking on the telly and thought I could understand her.  But when I subsequently attended a German class, I had to conclude that I must have been drunk after all.  However I persevere.  Maybe Pentecost doesn’t happen in an instant, but takes a lifetime.

Peculiar to the German language is the entity of the separable verb.  An example would be aufstehen – to get up.  The prefix auf separates from the rest of the verb and goes to the end of the clause or sentence.  Er steht um 7.00 Uhr auf.  He gets up at seven.  On the other hand, verstehen – the verb to understand – doesn’t behave like this.  Ich verstehe nicht, said the man in the rubble of the Tower of Babel.  I don’t understand.  He doesn’t say Ich stehe nicht ver.  That would truly be gibberish.  Verstehen is therefore an inseparable verb.  Tipp – the separable verb has its accent on the first syllable, but the inseparable verb does not.

If there’s another verb in the sentence it usually sends the separable verb to the end where it joins itself up again.  Ich muss morgen früh aufstehen.  I have to get up early tomorrow.  But then if you are going to modify the infinitive aufstehen it is liable to separate again, at least partially.  Yesterday I got up early. Gestern bin ich früh aufgestanden.  Sorry.  Too much information.  Zu viel Information.         

When I first discovered separable verbs and realised how ubiquitous they were, it crossed my mind that there must be some separable verbs in English.  After all, the languages are alike in so many ways.  The German for interview is Interview.  A ghetto blaster is a Gettoblaster.  We may say in our complacent way that these are loan words, words the English have deigned to rent out.  But then, the German for brutal is brutal, and who can lay claim to being first to plant the national flag in the realm of brutality? 

So I’m on the hunt for a separable verb in English.  How about to understand?  I stand the meaning of life under.  To withdraw.  I drew from the conflict with.  Construe.  I strued the German prose in English con.  Not quite.  How about uphold?  I held these values up.  Close, but no cigar.    

So I’m thinking of starting a campaign to introduce separable verbs into English.  This could have a moral, ethical, political undertone (or perhaps, to borrow another German trait, a Moralethicalpoliticalundertone).  I might say that I self-identify as separable, and, incidentally, my preferred pronouns are… (or rather, my ferred pronouns are… pre).  I might accrue acolytes.  The separable community would get short shrift and, much like the apostles, become objects of scorn and derision.  We might deface statues in order to make prefixes migrate.  We would be arrested, and then we could insist on speaking separable English, via an interpreter, in court.  Parliament, ever sensitive to the rights of minorities, would debate the introduction of bilingual signage on our roads, railway stations, ambulances, and police cars.  Ware the gap be.  You must in the back upbelt.  It is the law.  Irate letters would be written to the Herald by Disgruntled of Duntocher: “The separatists, and those of their ilk, should hang their heads in shame.”  I would reply, “Gruntled the correspondent from Duntocher may be dis, but he only carps and snipes in order the course of justice pertovert.

I know what you’re thinking.  I’ve lost the plot.  Incidentally, I’ve had a wonderful musical weekend.  Can you believe it – on Saturday Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and Benjamin Grosvenor played, to a packed Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.  What a coup for the impresario.  And on Sunday I played my viola in a concert with the Dunblane Chamber Orchestra.  Mozart and Mendelssohn.  Beautiful music.

Why didn’t I write a blog about it all?  I suppose it’s human nature, or at least my nature.  Even when we have nothing to moan about, we are always liable something uptodream.                                                               

The Longest Debate in English Letters

If you chance to browse through a textbook of medical ethics, you will sooner or later come across the four principles of Beauchamp and Childress (Beauchamp TL, Childress JF, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 7th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2012).

  1.  Respect for patient autonomy
  2.  Beneficence
  3. Non-maleficence
  4. Justice

These principles are said to underpin our entire approach to patient care, and to remind us at the deepest level of not only what we do, but why to do it.  One could write a textbook on each of these four elements alone, but here are just a few notes. 

  1.  Autonomy captures the idea that patients are entitled to be fully informed as to the nature of their condition, and the therapeutic options available, in order to give consent, or not, to a proposed course of action.  It may be surprising that it is often the patient who is first to surrender this right, with a shrug.  “You’re the doctor.  You know best.”  Patients may think better of medical paternalism than do doctors.  And then, some patients are more autonomous than others.  How autonomous is a child, or a patient with dementia, or with a psychotic illness?
  • Beneficence requires that a proposed treatment be to the patient’s advantage.  That seems self-evident, but what if the patient exercises his autonomy to request a treatment that the doctor considers futile, or even harmful? 
  • Primum non nocere.  First do no harm.  Non-maleficence might be taken as a synonym for beneficence, therefore redundant.  But then, there is no therapy in the world that is not attendant with unwanted effects.  Every proposed therapy requires a risk-benefit analysis.  There is a saying in medicine: show me a drug that has no side effects, and I’ll show you a drug that doesn’t work.
  • Justice reminds us that every individual patient is part of a community.  If the health budget is finite, then spending the entire budget by prescribing an exorbitantly expensive drug on an individual, is going to be unjust to the rest of the community.  Hence, bodies such as the National Institute for Clinical Excellence in England (NICE) must make decisions as to whether certain drugs can be prescribed on the NHS.  “We have had to make some hard choices.”

Whenever I come across Beauchamp and Childress’s Four Pillars, I always think of a scene from the film Dead Poets Society, in which the English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) has a pupil read aloud in class the introduction to a textbook of poetry, in which the anthologist provides the reader with a systematic approach to the estimation of a poem’s intrinsic worth.  Two critical criteria – I forget what they were – are pinpointed on a graph’s x and y axes in order to produce a curve, or perhaps an area under the curve, that will represent a quantification of poetic value.  Mr Keating draws the graph on the blackboard, and the pupils dutifully copy it down.  But then they are somewhat taken aback by Mr Keating’s next comment.


I have to admit I tend to respond to Beauchamp and Childress with Mr Keating’s reaction.  The four principles represent medical ethics in retrospect.  You can imagine a hapless medical practitioner falling short of B & C’s standards, and finding himself up in front of a medical disciplinary committee, a group of august dons who take several days, or even weeks, to mull over a decision that the practitioner might have had to make in ten minutes.  By and large, people who work in front line medicine don’t utilise an ethical calculus.  Rather, they do their best, quite simply, to give tender loving care.

Mr Keating was teaching in a posh New England boarding school for boys, cramming the next generation of Ivy League scholars, in 1959.  I wonder if he was aware of an event that took place across the Pond on 7th May, 1959.  C. P. Snow gave the Rede Lecture in the Senate House in Cambridge, entitled The Two Cultures.  I have an idea that Keating might have applied the excrement word to Snow’s thesis, just as F. R. Leavis did in his Cambridge Richmond Lecture in 1962.  Snow thought that society was fractured, and therefore harmed, by a schism between the arts and the sciences, or more exactly between artists and scientists.  The fact that Leavis’ reaction to this was viscerally antagonistic reminds us of a polemic that has dominated English letters really since the industrial revolution.  Leavis was antagonistic towards the theories of utilitarianism, and it is no surprise that the only Dickens novel he admired was Hard Times, Dickens’ own reaction to the utilitarian calculus of “the greatest good for the greatest number”, and thus, the quantification of human souls.  Dickens wanted to help the poor individually, but he didn’t want to create a welfare state.  Perhaps George Orwell turned out to be more of a utilitarian champion when he realised that liberalism, romanticism, and sentiment can only take you so far.  Who was it said, campaign in poetry, govern in prose?     

I thought of all this, of Beauchamp and Childress, Mr Keating, Dickens, Orwell, Snow and Leavis, when I heard Sarah Montague conduct an interview last week with some health care gurus on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.  Digitalisation is apparently the coming thing.  (Didn’t England’s erstwhile Health Secretary Matt Hancock tell us as much?)  The NHS lags far behind.  Everybody needs to be on line.  The benefits are immeasurable.  All that data will be available to all these health care professionals at the click of a mouse (except the data I never recorded, because the patient told me something in deepest confidence).  When I was in practice, I was never so glad as when the computers crashed.  The third eye in the room went blank and I could turn my undivided attention to the living individual in front of me.

But now, apparently, if you are a Luddite, perhaps because you are elderly or decrepit or demented or just plain bloody-minded, then frankly you are going to get a poorer service.  It’s regrettable, but there it is. 

I wonder what Messrs Beauchamp and Childress would have made of that.                   

Douze Points Liverpool

Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Russia correspondent, came on Radio 4’s Today programme last week to show off his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Eurovision Song Contest.  I picked the clip up on Sunday’s Pick of the Week.  Nick Robinson asked him on the spot to reproduce various obscure competition entries, as requested by listeners, over the past sixty seven years.  An accomplished tickler of the ivories, Rosenberg never hesitated for a moment.  All that banality was, literally, at his fingertips.  By way of explanation he said that he had been obsessed with Eurovision since the age of six.  I was completely overawed.  I can well understand how somebody could memorise, say, the 32 piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, but Eurovision?  I ask you.  It was like watching a trapeze artist juggle seven balls while simultaneously performing a triple somersault, without a safety net.  Or perhaps more like reciting the phonebook from memory.  One is not so much stunned by the act itself, as by the fact that it should ever have been thought worthwhile to undertake.  Incidentally I can quite see why the music industry is worried that Artificial Intelligence may become the main composer of new music.  It would surprise me if it has not already happened.    

I didn’t tune into Eurovision, but I feel confident the best song heard on the evening would have been You’ll Never Walk Alone.  It has become, via Liverpool FC, a Liverpool anthem.  Originally it was a Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the musical Carousel.  Then, with the arrival of the Mersey Beat in the swinging sixties, Gerry and the Pacemakers covered it, in their own inimitable fashion.

“You’ll neh-

– eh-eh-eh-eh-vor…



Gerry and the Pacemakers kept going until 2018.  I guess latterly the name of the band might have assumed a medical connotation.  

If You’ll Never Walk Alone belongs to Liverpool, are there other songs similarly the exclusive property of other cities?  Of course. Maybe It’s because I’m a Londoner, Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen, New York New York, it’s a helluva town (subtle that, it’s not merely a repetition of NY for its own sake, it’s NY the city and NY the state), I left my Heart in San Francisco, and nearer to home, The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, and I belong to Glasgow.  Kirk Douglas once sang I belong to Glasgow in the Alhambra, or maybe the Metropole.  That was courageous.  People die in Glasgow.  I’m ambivalent about I belong to Glasgow.  It’s a song about drunkenness. 

I belong to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow toon,

There’s something the matter wi’ Glasgow for it’s goin’ roon ‘n roon…

I’m only a common old working chap, as anyone here can see, but

When I get a couple of drinks on a Saturday

Glasgow belongs tae me!

(To be sung maestoso.  Or maybe lachrymoso.) 

I thought of I belong to Glasgow the last time I heard the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in concert, an occasion I have previously described in this blog.  In Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall they played a programme they were taking on tour to Europe, and indeed, they were to play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto (with Leif Ove Andsnes) and Shostakovich’s 10th symphony in Vienna’s Musikverein.  They also took an encore.  It was a medley of reels beautifully orchestrated by the orchestra’s former principal horn.  I suppose it would have gone down well.  I could well imagine the staid audience of Vienna clapping along, much as they clap along to the Radetzky March on New Year’s Day.  But I don’t much care for these depictions of drunken ceilidhs.  Malcolm Arnold indulged in one in his Scottish Dances.  Peter Maxwell Davies did the same in his Orkney Wedding with Sunrise.  I find these musical excursions painful.  And remarkably tin-eared.  But then there are lots of people who are quite happy that we remain in a condition of pliant intoxication.  I would much rather they just brought out a lone piper to play a lament for the Highland Clearances.  On BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions on Sunday the anthropologist Mary-Ann Ochota pointed out just how abnormal is the landscape of the highlands.  It is thought of as an untouched wilderness but, were it so, it would be forested, as is Canada at the same latitude.  In fact it was cleared of human habitation, the land being given over to sheep and, for the benefit of the aristocracy, deer.  Mary-Ann Ochota called the events of 1746 “cultural genocide”.  The music she chose to accompany this tragedy was a Gaelic lament in a setting by Sir James MacMillan.   

It seems extraordinary to think that Kenneth McKellar once represented us in Eurovision.  Different world.  I believe this time round the UK came second last, and only succeeded in beating Germany.  That may be a source of some amusement at the Goethe Institut this coming Thursday.  Großbritannien 24 Punkte zu Deutschland 18 Punkte.  Boombangabang.                                     

Mind the Gap!

On Saturday I occupied a Coronation-free zone, not because I have any objection to a bit of Pomp & Circumstance, but because I have an aversion to watching daytime television.  You can never feel more spare nor redundant than when you sit in broad daylight watching reruns of Columbo and Murder She Wrote.  You transmogrify into a pensioner indifferent to personal appearance, in a threadbare suit and a cloth cap, eating a McCallum in the Silver Slipper or the Cosy Neuk, no longer rising to life’s challenges.  So I switched off all devices and I hunkered down to carry on revising my tome, the one that got put on ice on the brink of publication, when my publisher – well, stopped publishing, and instead went into administration.  Bit of an existential crisis, for me, and the rest of the stable, but what can you do?  Cast your bread upon the waters, and find another publisher.  I have a cunning plan.   

My self-imposed absence from the Coronation proved itself to be a source of inspiration.  I remember experiencing the same thing during the first lockdown in 2020, when our activities became very circumscribed.  All we could do, remember, was keep away from one another, put on a face mask and join a line of shoppers two metres apart outside the supermarket, and get some exercise within a five mile radius of the house.  Under that regime, I wrote a book in six weeks, putting down two thousand words in the morning, and taking a bucolic stroll in the afternoon.  I recall the spring weather was extraordinarily good, and the empty skies, the absence of the din of traffic, and the incessant birdsong were a revelation.  We discovered beauty spots in our immediate vicinity that we never knew of, and we all said, “We mustn’t go back to our bad old ways.”


During these afternoon strolls, further inspirations for my book came unbidden, and when I returned home I scribbled them down before I forgot them, and I would expand on them the following morning.  Despite everything, it was a rich time.

I recaptured some of that on Saturday.  Putting a completed tome on ice for a period might be a useful strategy at the best of times.  When you take it out and as it were defrost it, you read it with fresh eyes.  I knew, for example, that one particular chapter didn’t really work, but now I believe I have found a way to fix it.  And hopefully I did.  Then I went out and took a stroll round the skirts of Stirling Castle and got a further inspiration that allowed me to return home and solve another problem.  Of course solving a problem can have a knock-on effect and create further problems.  It’s a bit like playing with a Rubik’s Cube. 

When you get involved like this, the tome becomes all-consuming.  You can begin to neglect household chores, regular exercise, other hobbies and pastimes, and – most insidious of all – people.  You become preoccupied.  In his Booker Prize winning Amsterdam, Ian McEwan writes about a composer who believes he is on the brink of producing a work of genius.  He is out in the wilderness, utterly possessed by his art, when he comes upon, or thinks he comes upon, a scene in which a man is about to commit an act of violence upon a woman.  He does not intervene and he moves on.  Not that it matters one way or another, but his work of art turns out to be a dud.

Absolute concentration, the ability to focus intently on a labour of love, is a benison, but you should never allow it to blind you to the challenges that life will unexpectedly hurl at you.  You need to recognise a portal of opportunity, for yourself and for somebody else, and be prepared to drop everything in a heartbeat and walk through it. 

With that in mind, on Sunday I thought, it is churlish to stay holed up in this writer’s garret, and turn your back on the world.  So I went to Dunblane Cathedral and, as it happened, got a kind of digest of the Westminster Abbey ceremony, at least its spiritual content, and some of the music.  I confess I could have done without I was Glad.  Didn’t Lionel Logue say to King George VI in 1937 that he wouldn’t be glad, at least according to the film The King’s Speech, because it doesn’t half go on a bit.  I could have done without the Vivat! Vivat! section.  I believe it is optional.

Then I picked up the Souvenir Edition of The Sunday Telegraph.  I don’t normally take the Telegraph, but I thought the array of splendid pictures would give me a flavour of the day.  I’m always fascinated by the expression on the face of the King, the cocked eyebrow, the half-smile, an almost apologetic demeanour, and the sense that you and he are sharing some private joke.  I believe the King has a keen sense of the absurd.  Wasn’t he a great fan of the Goons?  It’s as if he is passing a subliminal message: isn’t all this pageantry and opulence utterly ridiculous?  Who knows, maybe the King is a closet Republican.

He and the Queen released a brief public message wishing everybody a safe and happy Coronation Weekend.  Oh, and, said the King, “Mind the gap.”  The sense of farce is never far away.  I could imagine a staunch Republican picking up on this remark and saying something along the lines of, “Aye, mind the gap right enough.  The gap between the rich and poor!  Who is paying for that solid gold state coach?  We are!”  I can’t say I can get enthusiastic about this particular form of anti-Royalist argument.  It always reminds me of Judas Iscariot, who was highly critical when a young lady wasted an entire bottle of precious spikenard anointing Jesus’ feet, and then rubbing the nard in with her hair.  Tut tut.  That precious ointment could have been sold, and the money given to the poor.  (One of the gospel authors felt compelled to add that Judas didn’t really care about the poor, but he held the purse strings and was hiving off a share for himself.  Artistically at least, I think the author would had better had left this remark out.)  Anyway Jesus gently rebuked him, and reminded him that the poor ye will always have.   

On Broadcasting House on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday morning, a King Charles impersonator gave us some further public service messages concerning the vicissitudes of British Rail.  At least I think it was an impersonator, though I really couldn’t tell the difference.  Such is the modern world.  You can’t believe a word you hear, or a picture you see.  For all I know, the Coronation was computer-generated on a back lot in Hollywood. 

Back to the tome.  Cogito ergo sum.             

Death & Taxes (again)

It’s that dismal time of year again.  In this world, said Benjamin Franklin, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.  I have received from HMRC the notice to file, then a follow-up request from my accountants to assemble and forward the data so that they may render it intelligible.  I needed an accountant when I was in medical practice, and I retained her services thereafter because I once inadvertently made an error in filing a tax return, and got penalised.  I confess I find the tax system – take, for example, the computation of a tax code – to be completely incomprehensible.  Best leave it to the professionals.  Nadhim Zahawi, erstwhile Chairman of the Conservative Party, and indeed Chancellor of the Exchequer, got similarly stung with a tax bill of eye-watering dimension due to his alleged failure to declare something or other.  He made the case that he had made an honest mistake and should not be penalised.  HMRC said, “There are no penalties for innocent errors in your tax affairs.”  But I can tell you from personal experience that this is not the case.  I was penalised, not for criminality, but for stupidity.   

Then there’s Gift Aid, a wheeze, I believe, of Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor.  I don’t get it.  Either you pay your dues to the Commonweal or you don’t.  If the exchequer can do without the equivalent of 20% of all the money we donate to good causes, why not abolish Gift Aid and tax us less?  Periodically I purge my shelves of books I have read and will not reread, and donate them to the charity shops.  They say, “Do you do Gift Aid?”  I say “No”, and assume the enigmatic expression of somebody who has a private vault in the Turks and Caicos.           

April is indeed the cruellest month, but I have procrastinated my way out of April and now it is May.  The trouble with assembling the data for a tax return is that it all comes through in dribs and drabs.  This is all the more true for me because I have lived my life in two hemispheres.  I can always find something better to do than grasp the nettle and collate the data. 

So…  Last Monday: a walk up to the Saltire that flutters on the ridge of the Gargunnock Hills.  Slipped and fell in a puddle.  I cursed, then thought, don’t sweat the small stuff.  Your skeleton is intact.  Tuesday…  Lunch with two Homo sapiens + dog, thereafter a walk by the River Teith and Doune Castle, made famous by Monty Python.  We talked about the relative merits of tea versus coffee.  One of the party was averse to tea.  This reminded me of a book I am currently reading, Love and Let Die by John Higgs (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2022), a social commentary charting the progress of two more or less parallel phenomena in the UK – James Bond and The Beatles.  Bond hated tea and the Beatles loved it.  It’s a class thing.  There’s the difference.  I put in a good word for a favourite tea of mine, Russian Caravan.  Lo and behold, what should appear on my back doorstep two days later, courtesy of Amazon, but a canister of Russian Caravan.  I was touched.  Tax return remained untouched.

(I must pause to wave to my local shopkeeper, who occasionally reads this blog, and whom we chanced to meet on the banks of the River Teith.  He said to the Non-Tea-Jenny, “Do you read James Calum Campbell’s blog?”  She said yes. I said, “You see, some people are faithful.”)    

Wednesday was not a good day for a tax return because I needed to get my car to the garage early in the morning to diagnose and treat a wheel problem.  I dropped the car off at 0830 and spent the day in various Stirling coffee bars studying German and drinking coffee.  Car got fixed.  Ergebnis!  Thursday morning was another early start, to get into Glasgow and attend the first German class of the new semester.  Viel Spaß!  No taxes.  And on Friday more friends reconvened in my local for another luncheon.  We had a lively conversation about the perceived harms of various human activities.  A friend wishes three pursuits to be banned – rugby, boxing, and motor racing, specifically Formula 1.  Presumably the first two damage individuals, and the third damages the planet.  I guess he’s got a point.  But I don’t fancy this curtailing of individual freedom, across the board.  I pointed out that Professor David Nutt, who does research into the benefits of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of severe depression, got the sack when he said that the drug Ecstasy is safer than horse-riding.  I guess the government didn’t like that.  Some methods of breaking your neck are posher than others.  My friend conceded that boxing had frequently been a way out for people trapped in disadvantaged communities.  Remember Brando On the Waterfront:  “I could have been a contender.”

The tax return remained on ice.

On Saturday I attended the RSNO concert at the Royal Glasgow Concert Hall.  Leif Ove Andsnes, one of the greatest pianist in the world, played one of the most technically difficult pieces in the repertoire, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.  Magnificent.  Then the orchestra played Shostakovich 10.  Its brief second movement is said to be a terrifying depiction of Joseph Stalin.  Shostakovich used to keep a suitcase packed in his apartment in case Stalin’s thugs came for him in the night.  No wonder his music is so anguished.  I learned from the RSNO’s principal clarinettist’s preamble that he said, “If they cut my hands off, I will compose with my teeth.”  Stalin died the same year as Shostakovich 10’s first performance (1953 – by a strange coincidence, Stalin and Prokofiev died on the same day).  So the 10th Symphony lightens up towards the end.  The RSNO are on top form – the wind playing in particular was quite exceptional.  They are about to go on tour in Europe, and they are going to play this programme in the Musikverein in Vienna.  The conductor urged us all to attend.  I think he was being facetious; tickets will, I dare say, be hard to come by.  I’ve been in the Musikverein.  It is a beautiful hall – not that large, and somewhat reminiscent of the City Halls in Candleriggs, Glasgow, only more ornate, with its great Rieger Orgelbau organ dominating the wall behind the orchestra.  Still, Candleriggs hosted Charles Dickens and Frederik Chopin, so can stand its own ground.       

Sunday is a day of rest and not a day for accountancy.  Cathedral, luncheon, walk, private piano recital. 

And now it is May and the work is yet to do.  Not that any outstanding tax bill is likely to amount to very much.  I put that on record, because I have a friend in my local Fitnesscenter who joshes me about my enormous wealth.  Because I am a retired doctor, I must live in a Schloss of 240 bedrooms, at the end of a private highway a mile long, the whole shebang maintained by a retinue of servants.  I assured him my policies and their curtilage were quite modest, as I had dissipated any wealth I may have accrued by wasting my substance on riotous living, then selling all I had and giving the proceeds to the poor.  I was not believed.    

And this morning I nearly choked on my Pakeeza Ayran Lassi when I read in the paper that next Saturday I will be invited to chant, “I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law.  So help me God.”  I seem to recall Our Lord advised us not to swear.  Just let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.  I’ve just had an idea.  Next Saturday I’m going to shut all doors, eschew all newspapers, switch off all devices, and do my tax return.      

The Third Man

I was greatly taken by Dunbar’s Belhaven Hill School Choristers’ singing, in Dunblane Cathedral on Sunday.  They sang the Howard Goodall setting of the hymn Love divine, all loves excelling.  A fine melody, highly wrought, and deeply emotional.  I almost blubbed!  There followed a New Testament reading – Luke 24: 13 – 35 – the road to Emmaus.  I don’t think this story appears in any of the other gospels.  Following the crucifixion, two men in a state of perplexity walk the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and are joined by a mysterious third figure.  T. S. Eliot alludes to this event in The Waste Land.

  Who is the third who walks beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

–  But who is that on the other side of you?

In his notes on The Waste Land, Eliot alludes to Emmaus, and also to an Antarctic expedition, possibly one of Shackleton’s.  When a group of people are in a state of total exhaustion, they may hallucinate the presence of another individual within their midst.  The composer Edmund Rubbra incorporated the tale of the road to Emmaus in his Ninth Symphony, a choral work depicting the events between the crucifixion and the Ascension.  It is a very striking work, but it is extremely austere.  I’ve said it before: nobody does austere like Rubbra.  It is arresting, but not consoling.  It is not Brahms’ German Requiem.

Nobody knows exactly where the village of Emmaus is, or was, if it ever existed at all.  I suppose archaeologists could be minded to draw a circle with centre Jerusalem and of radius seven miles, and then organise a series of digs around the resulting circumference.  But I hope they don’t.  I prefer to think of Emmaus as a mirage.  Nothing good would come of its discovery.  Some entrepreneur with an eye for the main chance would market it as a tourist destination.  “Perplexed?  Chill out in Emmaus, at the five star Cleopas Hotel.”  The shops would be bulging with tat.  Third Man mugs and tea towels.        

Then, at 3.00 pm on Sunday, the balloon went up.  Fortunately it was only a rehearsal.  But all over the UK, millions of smart phones squawked.  At least, so I am led to believe.  I had switched my phone off.  I felt a sharp stab of irritation at this latest government wheeze, to have the entire populace jump to the threat of terror, tsunami, or nuclear annihilation.  Sometimes I wish politicians would cease to have initiatives. 

And what?  Mend potholes?  In the language of the literati, it’s a “trope”, or a “narrative”, that our governments should put all their grandiose plans on the back-burner and just “concentrate on the day job”.  You know, health, education, law and order, the economy.  I even wonder about that.  The whole idea that the government “runs the country” seems to me to be a fallacy.  They don’t run the country.  We – that is, you and I – run the country.  The running of the country, that is, the conduct of human affairs throughout the realm, is nothing but a Grand Integral of all the activities that take place, day in day out, in schools, universities, hospitals, GP practices, care homes, High Streets, shops, check-out counters, businesses, trains and boats and planes, court rooms, prisons, churches…  And so on.  And the really important transactions that take place, the ones that really matter to individuals, are mostly one-on-one.  Sometimes I think that the more powerful the offices government ministers hold, the more redundant and effete they become, because they have removed themselves from the intimacy of a one-on-one transaction, in order to develop all-encompassing strategies involving an App.

Of government, my father used to say, “We are not well led.”  I cannot think that this state of disillusionment is healthy.  The trouble is, if we lose faith in governance, it becomes extremely difficult to retain a sense of self-worth.  We begin to feel that our contribution to the “Grand Integral” is worthless, because not valued.  This is why people go on strike – not because they are overworked and underpaid; but because they are undervalued.  You strike because you no longer feel you have a stake in the maintenance of the Grand Integral.   

Anyway I had my phone switched off and I didn’t hear the klaxon and, presumably, the directive to “duck and cover”.  In fact I was walking with a companion along the disused railway line to the west of Callander (disused thanks to the Beeching Axe and yet another initiative).  We walked in the direction of the Iron Age fort at Bochastle, passing an ancient Roman settlement on our right.  I don’t suppose it would have been a much sought-after posting for the centurions, here in the far north-western reaches of the Roman Empire.  “Lovely scenery!”  “Yes, but the locals are not cooperative.  Trouble is, they have no stake in the empire.”  As we walked past the Romans, I don’t think we were joined by a third individual.  But you never know.

I subsequently learned that the balloon had failed to go up for a substantial number of possessors of G4 and G5 smart phones.  The organisation of libations in breweries comes to mind.  I’m not proud that I take delight in an administrative foul-up.  I suppose I must to some extent share the vandalistic attitude of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed.  An Edinburgh professor has written a letter in today’s Herald describing how, when he asked a couple of youths not to try to set a bus shelter on fire, they said, “Why?  Everything’s f***** anyway.”  I can understand why teenage hackers take delight in fouling up government computer systems.  They are thumbing their noses at authority.              

A plague on all their fancy initiatives.  Of all the UK’s previous PMs, I think I admire Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman the most.  He seemed able to keep things on an even keel between 1905 and 1908.  Every September he went off for six weeks to the Spa town of Marianbad where he read German literature.  I think Rishi Sunak should consider emulating Sir Henry.  Moreover, he shouldn’t take his mobile with him, with its latest pernicious App.  We need to be protected from the madcap schemes of the powerful.  Lloyd George used to say of Churchill, “The trouble with Winston is, he will get out the maps.”                                              

Intimations of Mortality

Dilemma of the week: should I go to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall next Saturday and hear the Royal Scottish National Orchestra play Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique?  Three reasons to go:  (1) The RSNO is on top form.  (2) The orchestra has just returned to the concert hall following the hall’s refurbishment (they had decamped to the City Halls, which are beautiful but rather too small for the orchestra), and (3) the Tchaikovsky is wonderful, and I remember being greatly taken with it when I played it in orchestra as a teenager.  But against all that, it is cripplingly sad, even morbid.  As I’ve said somewhere before, sad music is an indulgence to the young.  It is only later that some sadnesses acquire a particularity.  There are irreversible sadnesses.   

All sorts of mythologies have grown up around Tchaik 6.  A week after the first performance the composer was dead, having drunk contaminated water and succumbed to cholera.  There is a conspiracy theory that the St Petersburg establishment found his homosexuality distasteful and, to all intents and purposes, left him alone in a room with a pistol containing a single cartridge.  I incline to think this is all nonsense, that Tchaikovsky was very proud of his work, and had no inkling that it was to be his last.  The symphony certainly looks ahead musically.  I would suggest that Stravinsky had in mind the descending clarinet solo in the first movement, marked adagio mosso and then ritardando molto, when he composed the descending clarinet solo leading to the final section of The Rite of Spring.  Tchaikovsky diminuendos to pppppp (he was prone to hyperbole), the last four quavers scored for bassoon, often performed on the bass clarinet because pppppp is extremely difficult to achieve on the bassoon.  Then there is a tremendous syncopated orchestral eruption, Allegro vivo.  Same in the Stravinsky, similarly syncopated, in which we commence the final, sacrificial dance of death.  This is why I also hesitate to attend a performance of The Rite.  Its closing passages are a depiction of a panic-stricken nightmare. 

Most mythologies that surround final works are worthy of debunking.  The last (second) movement of Beethoven’s last (32nd) piano sonata, Opus 111, has such an air of finality about it that it almost sounds like music from beyond the grave.  And didn’t Beethoven go on to say that he found the pianoforte (or perhaps fortepiano) an unsatisfactory instrument, and that he was abandoning it?  But then he went on to write the Diabelli Variations.  Diabelli only wanted one, and he gave him 33!  The last movement of Beethoven’s last work, the string quartet Opus 135, bears the portentous heading, “Muss es sein?  Es muss sein, es muss sein!”  Must it be? It must be, it must be!  It sounds reminiscent of Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament and his determination to carry on living, and composing, despite his deafness.  I will seize fate by the throat!  But Muss es sein turns out to be just a joke about his laundry bill.  The last movement of the Opus 135 is sunny, and it is impossible to think of it as an intimation of mortality.  Rather, the Op 135 is interpreted as the composer’s embarking on a “fourth period”.   

Gustav Mahler is another composer thought to be obsessed by his encroaching demise.  The mythology here is that he tried to dodge the poisoned chalice of writing a ninth symphony, by composing in its place a song cycle on a symphonic scale, Das Lied von der Erde.  Then he wrote the ninth symphony.  But he never got to finish the tenth symphony so in the end was unable to hoodwink fate.  The final song of Das Lied is overtly a farewell, “ewig, ewig…” – the passage that reduced Kathleen Ferrier to tears when she performed it with Bruno Walter.  It has to be said that Ferrier’s recording of Das Lied is beyond description.  But then she was a very rare creature.  A soul.    And Mahler 9?  I would suggest he got the idea for the protracted string section coda from the closing bars of Schubert’s Unfinished.  Maybe that was another attempt to cheat fate.  Mahler’s Unfinished Symphony.

We can’t talk about musical Schwanengesang without talking about Sibelius.  Retrospectively, his last (seventh) symphony, in its emphatic last cadence, has an air of finality about it, and his last significant orchestral work, Tapiola, dissolves into a terminal Arctic blizzard.  Yet at the time there was no intimation of impending closure.  Sibelius was working on an eighth symphony.  But any fragments have disappeared.  He seemed to lapse into a thirty year alcoholic silence.   

Still, I think there are expressions of finality in music that are not merely our own subjective and retrospective interpretation, but really exist within the music.  It seems to me that the closing passage of Arnold Bax’s last symphony, No. 7, is the culmination of a huge orchestral arc.  Bax favoured the compositional form of the epilogue.  Epilogues finish his second, third, sixth, and seventh symphonies.  The epilogue to the seventh is quite short, quite serene, and very beautiful.  It is an expressive articulation, so to say, this is my last symphony.

Again there is Shostakovich’s last symphony, number 15, with its playfully sardonic references to Rossini’s William Tell, and Wagner’s Tristan, punctuated by chilling and doom-laden chords, and culminating in the percussion section’s depiction of steadily ticking clocks.  Tick-tock-tick-tock.  This was Shostakovich’s last symphony but not his last work.  That was the viola sonata.  It seems to me to owe something to the mood of the close of Bela Bartok’s sixth (and final) string quartet, itself charged with the aura of culmination.  The Shostakovich closes in a slow threnody, ending in a protracted low E sustained on the viola’s C string, against the final utterances of the pianoforte.  Is there any more poignant expression of finality?

Yes.  Stravinsky again.  His last significant work, Requiem Canticles, and its last movement, Postlude.  Its duration is little more than two minutes, these containing protracted silences.  Then, at last, these quite extraordinary, quintessentially Stravinskian chords.  The last utterance.

But enough of pathos, gentle reader.  Sir Thomas Beecham used to end his concerts with a “lollipop”, designed to lower the temperature after all the doom and gloom.  From pathos to bathos, from the sublime to the Cor Blimey.  Talking of bathos, there are two radio trailers currently doing the rounds on Radio 4, for up-coming dramas.  They are risible.  Contemporary drama is incapable of freeing itself from “grittiness”.  Great Expectations sounds like a gangster movie.  Somebody – is it Miss Havisham or Mr Jaggers? – resembles a Dalek.  And Marie Antoinette…  The ham acting is absolutely excruciating.   “You think you’re really sumpthin’ don’t ya?”  So Louis XVI. 

Rolling Stones

Rumour has it that the Stone of Destiny, kidnapped from Westminster Abbey in 1950 by a group of Glasgow University students and brought north of the border, is on its way back dyne scythe for the king’s coronation next month.  But it’s all shrouded in mystery.  Nobody is ever quite sure of the location of the stone.  I once thought I saw it in Scone Palace, but it turned out to be a replica.  I saw the real thing – as far as I know – in Edinburgh Castle.  But there may be an advantage to the stone’s safety and security if its location is uncertain and there are various pretenders to its identity.  It’s like that scene in Spartacus where the Roman soldiers demand of a group of insurgents that their leader identify himself.  Everybody stands up and says, “I’m Spartacus!”  Then there’s that gag about a cab driver who pulls up at a crowded taxi rank and calls, “Taxi for Spartacus!”  A mythology grows up.  Every stone of suitable dimensions claims to be the Stone of Destiny, just as, in the 1940s, every Scottish newspaper hack got the scoop when Rudolf Hess crash-landed his plane en route to seeing the Duke of Hamilton, and in the 1950s, every Glasgow policeman arrested Peter Manuel.      

Back in 1950, the kidnappers, pulling the stone out of Westminster Abbey, dropped it, causing a chip to drop off the old block.  They had to do a patch-up job.  At the time the whole escapade was widely thought of, indulgently, as a student prank.  I can’t imagine it would go down so well these days.  At the very least, the students would be “rusticated”. 

The stone is currently being analysed in minute detail by Historic Environment Scotland, and a team based in the Engine Shed in Stirling.  It’s a fantastic place, a museum specialising in engineering and industrial materials in Scotland.  Prior to the pandemic I was a frequent attender, but with the first lockdown it was closed to the public, and has never reopened for the casual visitor.  They have a beautiful map of Scotland, a composite photograph taken from outer space, the size of a badminton court.  And a very good coffee bar. 

The Engine Shed specialises in 3D digital technology, chiefly used to map ancient Scottish buildings such that they can be visited virtually.  Now this technology has been applied to the stone, much as Egyptologists might study a mummy using X-ray, CT, and MRI.  3D printing can also replicate the stone. 

Once the coronation is over, I believe – barring any Perfidious Albion skulduggery – the Stone will end up in Perth, in the City Hall, currently being refurbished as a museum. It’s a beautiful building, not far from the banks of the River Tay, and in the vicinity of Perth’s theatre and concert hall.  A fitting destination.                

But personally, I can’t get too enthusiastic about a piece of rock.  Relics don’t appeal to me.  A stone is a stone is a stone.  I’m not in search of the Holy Grail.  One grail is much like another, if you ask me.  If somebody tried to sell me a sliver of wood from the Holy Rood, I would instantly recognise a scam.  And even if it was the real deal…  Why should a Fender bass guitar be worth a fortune just because Elvis played it?  Martin Luther knew the sale of indulgences to be a scam.  He pinned this, his thesis, alongside 94 others, on the church door at Wittenberg.

Still, there is a stone atop a hillock at the ancient site of Dunadd Fort, by Kilmartin, in Argyll, which is well worth a visit.  The site is not a particular tourist attraction and can easily be missed on the route from Lochgilphead to Oban.  Here, the ancient Scottish monarchs were crowned.  There is an indentation in the stone, a footprint, into which it is said the crowned monarch placed a bare foot.  The total lack of the trappings and accoutrements of tourism around this site seems to enhance its mystical atmosphere.        

Justin Welby, in his Canterbury persona, was exercised about another stone on Easter Sunday, the one that closed up Jesus’ tomb.  Who moved the stone?  I’m not sure that there’s much to be gained from the forensic approach to Easter, though I can see how people might be attracted to attempts at historical reconstruction.  The actor Robert Powell, who played Jesus in film, described during a recent appearance on Michael Barclay’s Private Passions, how when he came to render the Sermon on the Mount, in one take, he was struck by the reverberation of his own voice echoing from the stones of a natural amphitheatre.  The effect was to reduce the film unit, the hard-bitten sound engineers and camera crew, to tears.  Powell, without any particularly strong religious belief, became convinced that Jesus the person must have existed.    

Some stones, of course, are more precious than others.  There’s a gold mine just up the road from me, in Tyndrum.  There’s gold in them thar hills.  The human activity of mining gold, or panning for gold, strikes me as being quite odd.  Gold is a soft metal.  Aside from its decorative value, and its role in dentistry, it doesn’t have much utility.  Certainly it is immutable, but then so are many other elements, for example, helium.  Gold, for some reason, is the ultimate precious metal.  You might say mankind conferred the property of preciousness upon it, recognising it as being rare and non-corrosive, and therefore a potential candidate for the basis of a currency.  And yet it seems unlikely that gold became precious just because some ancient Witenagemot declared it to be so.  Rather it has a mystical, talismanic quality that is quite irrational.  Of course, it’s all very well my saying that gold mining is futile, but no doubt if I dug up an ingot in my curtilage, I would be perfectly happy.

Or would I?  Somebody in my village won £92 on the lottery at the weekend.  He showed me the ticket.  I don’t do the lottery so I don’t know how these things work, but he showed me two groups of six numbers.  If two of them had swapped places, he would have won forty six million pounds.  “Count yourself lucky!” I said.  “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…”                    

The King’s Speech

I was tremendously impressed by the king’s address to the Bundestag last week.  Slipping apparently effortlessly between English and German, he appeared entirely relaxed.  I got the impression he was speaking Hochdeutsch that was scrupulously korrekt whilst still idiomatic.  I suppose a native German speaker might have proofread his text, might even have composed it, yet I didn’t get the impression the king was merely lip-syncing.  I think he knew what he was talking about.  I suppose he has been trained all his life to address august bodies.  But still, to address the assembled Bundestag in German… He appeared to go down very well.  Funnily enough, the part of his address which I least understood was given in English.  He made a reference to Miss Sophie’s “the same procedure as every year, James?” which elicited laughter.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  I wondered if it might be some reference to a James Bond movie, perhaps some thinly veiled double entendre from Miss Moneypenny, but no.  It was apparently a reference to a theatrical sketch from 1963, entitled Dinner for One, aka The 90th Birthday (German: Der 90. Geburtstag), written by Lauri Wylie, and starring May Warden and Freddie Frinton.  A deluded upper class English lady presides over a dinner party for four guests who are all in fact absent because deceased.  The butler serves up a four course meal of soup (mulligatawny), fish, chicken, and fruit, each course accompanied in turn by sherry, white wine, champagne, and port.  The butler is required to fill in for the absent guests, thus toasting the hostess sixteen times and becoming progressively more and more plastered.  There is plenty of slapstick, chiefly the butler’s repeatedly tripping over the head of one of these absurd tiger skin rugs from the colonial era.   Apparently this sketch is hugely popular in Germany, and is shown every New Year’s Eve. 

To be honest, it left me cold.  That probably says more about me than about the sketch.  But drunkenness is seldom funny.  There is a sketch by Rikki Fulton, in his persona as the Reverend Jolly, giving an armchair “Late Call” homily on telly, unaware that the water decanter he takes copious advantage of contains neat gin.  When I watch it, I feel like Malvolio in Twelfth Night.  I need Sir Toby Belch to berate me.  “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”  I wonder if the Germans might be similarly unmoved by Henning Wehn (the king called him Germany’s comedy ambassador), who tells the tale of a child, seemingly, to his parents’ consternation, unable to speak, until one evening at the dinner table, aged five, he announces, “The soup is cold.”  His parents, overjoyed that he is no longer mute, ask him why he has not spoken before.

“Until now, everything has been satisfactory.”

The king made reference to his forthcoming coronation in Westminster Abbey next month.  This reminded me of the coronation of his grandfather, George VI, immortalised in the movie The King’s Speech, in which Colin Firth played the king, and Geoffrey Rush, his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue.  At the coronation rehearsal, Bertie berates Lionel for sitting on the throne above the Stone of Scone.  It’s a vignette about kingship, un coup de théâtre.  Charles will occupy that seat next month. (At least, as far as we know.)  I wonder what George VI would have thought if somebody had told him in 1939, that his grandson would address the Reichstag at a time of peace and harmony, at least across Western Europe.  At the time, his own challenge was to control his stammer and address, on the radio, The United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and the Empire.  He pulls it off in the movie, somewhat aided by the allegretto from Beethoven 7, and subsequently soothed by the slow movement of the Emperor Piano Concerto.

There is a powerful scene in The King’s Speech in which George VI asks the Archbishop of Canterbury to find a place for Lionel Logue in the pew reserved for the immediate royal family.  Canterbury, who is a snob and who thinks Logue is a parvenu and a charlatan, scratches his chin and says, “Well, of course sir, I’ll see what I can do, but it is going to be very, very difficult.” 

I’ve come to regard that reply as a marker for the establishment’s consummate ability to close ranks.  I’ve just finished reading Jon Snow’s The State of Us (Bantam, 2023).  It’s really a book about inequality in the modern world, especially in modern Britain.  Grenfell Tower lies at its heart.  It’s about the disadvantaged in search of the life more abundant, who are continually fobbed off with the rejoinder, “Well, of course, I’ll see what I can do, but it is going to be very, very difficult.”    


Nicola Sturgeon told a Loose Woman that she had a kind of epiphany while watching Jacinda Ardern resign the NZ Premiership.  Ms Ardern told New Zealand that she had nothing left in the tank.  (Actually she head neigh thung leeft un tha teenk.  Such is the Great New Zealand Vowel Shift.  Or shuft.  Perhaps soon we shall be mutually incomprehensible.)  Ms Sturgeon experienced a pang of envy.  She realised that she too, was burned out, and that she too had to go.  That was the right decision for her; but was it also the right decision for the party she led, and for the nation of which she is still (at time of writing) First Minister?  She realised in short order that it was.

This reminded me of my own time-to-go epiphany, albeit from a less public stage.  I was skulking one Sunday morning, like Nicodemus, at the back of Dunblane Cathedral, when the man in the pulpit said, “What is it, that you’ve been meaning to do for quite some time now, but that you just haven’t got round to doing?  Do it now!”  I had an odd hallucination.  In a scene reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial, it was as if the entire cathedral emptied itself of everybody, save for me and the man in the pulpit, who was addressing me across a vast acreage of deserted pews.

“Do it now!”

My memory tells me that the following day I tendered my resignation. 

Yet that can’t be right.  I know that I ran my intention to depart prematurely past my accountant, to make sure that I could continue to live in the style to which I have become accustomed.  This may be met with howls of derision, because it is well known that senior doctors are so immensely wealthy and are under such an enormous tax burden that it is no longer worth our while to get up in the morning and go to work.  But you need to understand that as a younger man I wasted my substance on riotous living, and in addition spent an enormous amount on an expensive hobby, aviation.  So I know that I popped across to Dunfermline to run it all past the bean counters.  Once it was established that I was happy to quaff Oyster Bay Brut rather than Dom Perignon or Krug, I was given the nod.  I was so euphoric that I left the accountant’s, jumped into my car in the carpark beside the Abbey, and reversed smack into a neighbouring Peugeot. 

Well, I did the right thing.  I popped a note of abject apology, with contact details, under the Peugeot’s windscreen wiper.  Then I phoned my insurance company.  They took me through a checklist.  “Did you suffer an injury?”

“No, nothing like that.  I imagine I was only going at half a mile an hour.”  

“Was the occupant of the other car injured?”

“The other car was empty.  It was in a carpark.”

“Did the airbags deploy?”

“At half a mile an hour?”

“Did the police, fire, or ambulance attend?  Did extrication require cutting equipment?  Did you attend ‘A & E’?” 

“At half a mile an hour?”

“Are the injuries deemed to be life-changing?”

And so on, relentlessly.

Now if I am right that I had my epiphany on Sunday, and tendered my resignation on Monday, then I must have visited my accountant before I had my epiphany.  In other words, sitting at the back of the cathedral, I already knew I was going.  I didn’t have an epiphany at all.  It’s a confabulation.

Once you’ve made up your mind to go, there’s no going back.  The government might raise the pension pot tax threshold from £1.0m to £1.8m – they might stuff the consultants’ mouths with gold (actually I think Nye Bevan stuffed our mouths with silver) – but I doubt if it will tempt many retired surgeons to go back.  Once the working environment becomes intolerable, there is no amount of remuneration that can compensate.  For Ms Ardern and Ms Sturgeon, it was the toxicity of social media that was instrumental in compelling them to quit.  For me, it was the intrusion into my consulting room of a third party, the computer, bringing along its own agenda which was not my agenda, nor that of my patient.  Meanwhile, across the channel, M. Macron is trying to raise the pension age for the French apparently without recourse to the usual democratic processes.  Bonne chance avec ça.  Aux barricades!  The King is not crossing the channel today, not so much because of security concerns, but because of the bad optics.  M. Macron greeting His Majesty, and the Queen Consort, at the Palace of Versailles?  Too reminiscent of Louis XVI.  I feel sorry for the king.  If he is anything like his mother, he will never quit.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is unlikely to suggest to him, obliquely, across the vastness of Westminster Abbey, that he abdicate.         

Was my own epiphany a confabulation?  This week Matthew Syed talked about confabulation, in the last of his current BBC Radio 4 series Sideways, a different way of looking at the world.  He told the story of how as a young man he had given a talk to a group of 100 well paid bankers, and had bombed.  He thought he would never stand up and address a crowd of people ever again, but then he got a grip and decided to learn the art of public speaking.  He joined Toastmasters, and never looked back.  He even returned to address the same group of financiers, and was a great success. 

It’s a nice story, one of suffering a set-back, and using it as a pivotal moment in order to make a change for the better.  A salutary and inspiration tale. 

Except that it wasn’t true.  Matthew Syed had been attending Toastmasters for at least two years before he gave the disastrous talk at Goldman Sachs.  It’s not that he made the story up, or even consciously embellished it.  Confabulation and lying are not the same thing.  But we like to cast the experiences of our lives in terms of narratives that make sense. 

Perhaps Boris Johnson’s narrative, that he never attended any parties at No. 10, is a confabulation.  He told Harriet Harman et al that, as part of his work, he needed to thank the people who were giving of themselves 110%, 24/7, to save the nation.   You see, he said, with evident irritation, people just don’t understand…  I thought he was going to start thumping the table.  No epiphany there.