The Duke and I, on being human

Corporate grit. That’s how I think of the myriad little things that used to irritate me when I worked in corporate world.

One of those bits of grit was the term, ‘human resources’.  And in that I had an unlikely ally – the Duke of Edinburgh.

I was at an event for developing young Commonwealth leaders – as a mere observer – when he railed against this reduction of human beings to the status of nuts and bolts. Components in the great, grinding machines of industry and commerce.

I’m not sure he’d agree with most of my other views, but we are as one on that – humans are not mere ‘resources’.

It’s surely the simplest way to dehumanise humans, to deny them any agency or will. To regard them as mere tools. To ‘other’ them, to use a more recent piece of grit-speak.

Ask any dictator. The masses when homogenous are more easily controlled. An ocean of creatures, ebbing and flowing as one, lured by their great moon, their leader.

Kept in line by fear of a carefully cultivated ‘other’, a focus for aggression, grievances and hate. A stimulus to action.

In my last post I declared that the terrorist who bombed the Manchester Arena wasn’t human – and was rightly pulled up for my wishful inaccuracy.

Since then I’ve been thinking about what makes us human.

In the next few hundred words I can’t begin to reach a conclusion. Philosophers, scientists, anthropologists and  – yes – archaeologists, have written volumes on the subject.

But I’d still like to ponder that basic question: what is it, to be human?

What makes us different from other animals?

Or are we?

Wandering down the alleyways of our species and all its works is a complicated undertaking. No maps are adequate, no path ever seems to lead to a concrete destination.

And I warn you, this isn’t my usual style. It’s rambling, somewhat incoherent, long – and yet… I have to do it. Otherwise, these thoughts will keep on rumbling round my head. So I’m inflicting them on you.

Here goes.

Starting close to home, with the work of my in-house archaeologist.

Investigating the Deep Root of Human Behaviour is the title of his new five-year project, researching a change in stone tool technology that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago.

A change that was only possible because humans had evolved brains that could imagine. Its practical application being the ability to invent.

We often debate ‘what is human behaviour’ as we eat our evening meal.  Sad, but true. And over the years the change to the answers has been dramatic.

Stone age pick from South Luangwa, Zambia

First the criterion was tool use.

Humans alone use tools.

Uniqueness sorted.

Except  that other creatures do use tools.

Chimps use stones to break open nuts.

Dolphins put sponges on their beaks to protect them when fishing on rocky seabeds.

Georgetown professor Janet Mann discovered that dolphin mothers hand down to their calves the use of sponge tools, such as the one being used by this dolphin, for foraging

So the goal posts moved …

Humans are unique because they don’t just use tools, they make them, requiring forward planning. The ability to envisage something that doesn’t yet exist.

So what’s unique about that? Lots of creatures make tools.

Like the Mandrill at Chester Zoo who stripped a twig and used it to clean its toenails.

OK, so humans live in society, they cooperate.

Well, guess what, plenty of animals cooperate.

Right. Well, what about symbols? Humans, uniquely, use symbols.

Ha! Gotcha!


Apes – and even pigeons – have been taught symbols and can use them too.


What about rituals – non-practical routine behaviour? Finally, a truly human…

Nope. Take a look at this:

These chimps are throwing rocks at a tree, leaving them in heaps in a hollow trunk. Why? No apparent reason. Possibly the sound they make. Chimps have been known to bang on hollow trunks to make loud noises, like gorillas do in King Kong films 😉 Possibly for territorial dominance reasons. But why this? It’s a mystery. So far. Credit: ‘Ritual’ stone throwing by chimps in West Africa, article in Nature, Kühl et al 2016.

And so it goes on.

The gist of this is, there aren’t many basic functions, in terms of what our brains can do, that separate us from other animals. It’s more a matter of degree than kind.

But what about our physiology?

Well, that’s different.

Perhaps it’s simply a stroke of luck (or misfortune, depending on your viewpoint) that by evolving opposable thumbs (and having voice boxes that enabled complex sound-making) we became top species. For the time being…

Some believe we have a soul, a spirit independent of our biology. That’s what makes us different.

I wanted to believe that one, but recently heard an interview with an eminent scientist. She took LSD as a college student, had an out-of-body experience. Ever since, she’s been trying to find out if such an experience was ‘real’.  She’s no longer young – and as yet the results are negative.

But what about emotions? Aren’t they uniquely human?

Erm, no. Animals apparently feel fear and even, arguably, happiness.

What about abstract thought, then?

No, I’m sorry, this is getting beyond me.

I want to take a break from rational thought.

Turn to that man.

That bomber.

That human being.

What made him able to do what he did?

Most people will agree if I say it was an evil act.

Today I read a very clear analysis, by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent, of what’s behind this kind of act. At the risk of wearing out your tolerance, here are some key extracts:

… Salafi jihadism, the core beliefs of Isis and al-Qaeda, developed out of Wahhabism, and has carried out its prejudices to what it sees as a logical and violent conclusion. Shia and Yazidis were not just heretics in the eyes of this movement, which was a sort of Islamic Khmer Rouge, but sub-humans who should be massacred or enslaved. Any woman who transgressed against repressive social mores should be savagely punished. Faith should be demonstrated by a public death of the believer, slaughtering the unbelievers, be they the 86 Shia children being evacuated by bus from their homes in Syria on 15 April or the butchery of young fans at a pop concert in Manchester on Monday night.


One of the great cultural changes in the world over the last 50 years is the way in which Wahhabism, once an isolated splinter group, has become an increasingly dominant influence over mainstream Sunni Islam, thanks to Saudi financial support.


[Western] Leaders want to have a political and commercial alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil states. They have never held them to account for supporting a repressive and sectarian ideology which is likely to have inspired Salman Abedi. Details of his motivation may be lacking, but the target of his attack and the method of his death is classic al-Qaeda and Isis in its mode of operating.

The reason these two demonic organisations were able to survive and expand despite the billions – perhaps trillions – of dollars spent on “the war on terror” after 9/11 is that those responsible for stopping them deliberately missed the target and have gone on doing so. After 9/11, President Bush portrayed Iraq not Saudi Arabia as the enemy; in a re-run of history President Trump is ludicrously accusing Iran of being the source of most terrorism in the Middle East. This is the real 9/11 conspiracy, beloved of crackpots worldwide, but there is nothing secret about the deliberate blindness of British and American governments to the source of the beliefs that has inspired the massacres of which Manchester is only the latest – and certainly not the last – horrible example

Well, that’s how – but ‘why’, on an individual level, is still the question I can’t answer.

Why is this branch of Islam – why are these men – so intolerant? Why do they need to control and repress in this joyless, savage way?

Illogical, un-natural – it doesn’t seem to have an evolutionary benefit.

And I see it as evil.

Is evil a truly defining human trait? One that really distinguishes us from other animals?

And if so, why are we capable of it?

I wanted to do more with this post. Too much, I know.

To ponder why so many humans are manipulated – or managed, if you prefer the less emotive term – by so few. In business, in politics, in religion.

And radicalised by zealots.

I wanted to talk about artificial intelligence and the ‘evolution’ of robots. The machines we are told look set to assume our human role in this world.

But who don’t – yet – have emotions. Who don’t – cannot? – have souls.

Watching the clip in this report, of a robot approaching the Provisional IRA bombing that destroyed Manchester’s Arndale Centre in 1996, my husband said he felt fearful on behalf of the robot and sad it blew up.

I want to ask, do we, as humans, feel too much? Or not enough?

Are we too empathetic or too apathetic? Too hate-filled, too evil? Too blind?

Are those our existence-threatening weaknesses, our truly human qualities?

Some won’t notice the insidious usurping of the human role by robots. They will welcome the convenient, efficient, calmly-caring pseudo-humans that look after them or do their housework.

But what happens when humans – as a species – become redundant?

Or, to put it more coldly, what happens when we humans cease to be – resources?

Will we as a species, survive?

And, ultimately, what does it matter?

And to whom?

I’m heading for the hills.


The great question has been solved again, I am told. Now the behaviour that is uniquely human (for how long?) is the ability to make tools with tools. Though crows come close with string and twigs. Don’t watch Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ after thinking about this.

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In the midst of life

Saturday 17 December 1983. The Science Museum basement, London

Not many people – to my knowledge – had seen that basement. Apart from staff. But there wasn’t time for a good look around. There had been a bomb threat and we were being shepherded out at speed.

Little did we know but, not far away, a bomb had exploded outside Harrods killing five people. Ordinary people shopping, on a Saturday afternoon, at one of the world’s most famous department stores. Just a week before Christmas.

Here is how the New York Times reported it:

LONDON, Dec. 17— A car bomb exploded here today in a street crowded with Christmas shoppers outside Harrods, the department store, killing 5 people and wounding 91 others.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the blast, but Scotland Yard officials said they were convinced it was the work of the Irish Republican Army.

The dead lay with the wounded on the rubble-strewn street as the remnants of the explosive-laden car and others caught in the explosion burned fiercely.

Wrapped Gifts Strewn About

Some of the wounded, covered with blood and stunned by the explosion, sat numbly, waiting for help. Distinctive olive-and-gold Harrods shopping bags lay in the gutters, spilling brightly wrapped gifts into the street.

Not far away, in the museum district, we wondered what to do. Some idiots pressed close to the security cordon blocking the street, not thinking what might happen if a bomb did go off.

We decided to head back home.

Home was a flat in southeast London. Not a swanky area. Just a place I could afford to buy, after years spent renting dismal bedrooms in other people’s houses.

But it was mine. And I loved it.

The flat, unusually for London, gave me access to a big back garden shared with the other flats in that converted, Victorian, terraced house.

A huge tree shaded the far end.

Beyond it were three garages. Beyond them a workshop.

In that workshop were many whole and partial washing machines. And Sammy.

Sammy was Irish. And I treated him with extreme politeness.

Just in case.

Just in case he was a terrorist. An active member of the IRA, or the Provisionals.

I hoped he wasn’t, he was a pleasant chap. But he had all the necessary ingredients.

Irish, male, not too old, not too young. Lots of spare mechanical parts – either camouflage or useful – and an out-of-the-way workshop accessible only through our flats or down a cobbled back alley, past a gate.

Also down that alley was a row of garages, one containing a horse. Now and then I’d bump into ‘Fingers’ – so called because of his lack of them on one hand. Fingers was a rag and bone man. The cart pulled by that horse was his working vehicle.

I often saw him, sitting on a straw bale, feeding the horse, talking to it. Or passing the time of day with Sammy.

But daily life in 1980s London – and before it the 1970s – could be tense.

Roads closed for bomb alerts.

Bullet-marked walls.

Political figures assassinated.

Hostages taken.

Attacks on ‘soft’ military targets, like musicians giving concerts in public parks.

Constant vigilance on the underground. Occasional evacuation when suspect packages were found.

Pub bombings.

It was the ordinariness of those last three targets that made wariness an essential way of life.

But in the early ’80s, there was a kind of ‘arrangement’ with the IRA. Code words would be given to confirm that telephoned threats were real, usually giving time – in theory – for police to evacuate areas of civilians.

On the day of this particular Harrods bombing (there have been others) a warning was phoned and received. Other warnings were given, too, for shops elsewhere in London. Stretching the security services and paralysing the city’s commerce.

Members of staff at Harrods were given a code word over the PA system, told to look for suspect parcels inside the store. But the bomb was outside. That’s where people died.

In the worst years of the ‘troubles,’ many innocent people met their ends at the hands of the IRA, but also at the hands of other terrorist groups. And, yes, at the British army’s hands. I’m not on anyone’s side in this except that of the injured and dead innocent.

And the terrorism wasn’t confined to London, of course.

In 1996 a massive bomb was exploded in Manchester city centre by the Provisional IRA.

A warning was received 90 minutes before the blast occurred. This footage, published in 2016 by the Manchester Evening News, shows how touch-and-go it was that day.

Money poured into Manchester for extensive rebuilding – which some say spurred that formerly-smoky industrial city’s recent cultural renaissance.

Then, yesterday, terrorism found Manchester, again.


What we had in Manchester yesterday was a different kind of terrorism. Terrorism twenty-first-century style.

Young girls were having the night of their young lives. The princess of their fairy-tale dreams was live on stage.

Concert over, they were shopping, perhaps, for merchandise, when the bomb went off.

No warning.

The IRA’s cause was ultimately political, not religious – though religion, to be sure, came into it. I’ll say no more about that, there’s too much on all sides that can offend, hurt, be regarded as sympathetic or offensive to the ‘wrong’ side. Whichever that is.

But this ruthless, callous, cold-hearted man was driven by – what?

A man who thought the lives of young girls – living their dream for one night – were worth nothing.

What religion could condone such a thing?

These are not religious zealots.

These are not human beings.

Terrorism leaves us no choice but to carry on. It’s not being brave, it’s essential.

And we may – we will – feel fear. But evil won’t overcome, unless we let it.

I wish the world was free from terrorism, war and poverty.

But it isn’t. So, let’s all keep on hoping, wishing, voting – and doing what we can.

Just keep on being human.


[The image is Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, now a hotel.]

Posted in Britain now & then, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

High on a hill was a lonely …


Not a goatherd. And not so much lonely as alone.

It was the fords across the stream that did it, made me think of The Sound of Music. That and the hill. Which, to one used to the flat coast and inland marshes where we live, was a veritable mountain.

I was alone because the archaeologist is off on his travels again. To Zambia on a recce for a five-year project. His investigation into the ‘Deep Roots of Human Behaviour’  begins in earnest in July, at Victoria Falls.

Meanwhile, in his current absence, I’ve reverted to teenager mode. Again.

Clothes lie in heaps on the floor.

Books and papers litter the house.

Dishes queue to be washed.

There’ll be a frantic tidy-and-clean before the wanderer returns. Which will wear me out. But it’s worth it for the freedom gained by boycotting routines.

Freedom to roam, for example, without practicalities intruding. Like what to eat for dinner and whether it’s in the house.  I can always eat a tin of beans (there are some in the cupboard) if I want (which I don’t).

And so, when Sunday dawned, fair and lovely – and I woke far too early – I determined to embark on my own voyage and leave the mess behind.

I won’t bore you with (another) tedious tale of sat-nav related tantrums. Instead, we’ll just arrive.


Here I am.

Hot, a little bothered, but already breathing deeply and smiling as I drive into the car park.

Sitting to pull on my walking boots, I see two young women, with dogs, struggling to pay the £1 parking fee by mobile phone.

I offer a coin.  ‘Just pass it on when you get a chance,’ I say, as they effuse with thanks – and their dogs drag them away.

The quiet lane froths with scented blossom.

Stands of Queen Ann’s lace tremble in the gentle breaths of the warm wind.


Tiny white flowers I can’t identify gleam in the shadowy verges, under moss-dressed dry-stone walls.

Buttercups beam their golden love of butter, forget-me-nots line the hamlet’s street – and the world’s too pretty to be true.

The tiny hamlet of Wycoller, in its secret valley, is a charming place on a sunny Sunday afternoon. There are people and dogs, children and ice creams.

I cross a bridge and pass the enigmatic ruin, probable inspiration for Jane Eyre’s Ferndean Hall, but don’t stop. I’ve been here before, on my ‘fan-of-anything-Brontë’ tour.

Faces, everywhere, on my lone rambles … what can it mean?

The up side – a few feet have passed this way in clogs methinks

And the down side

Ferndean Hall?

The car-free road accompanies a stream.

I cross another stone bridge and pass through the first walker’s gate.  Head uphill, through placid sheep and lambs.

Safely grazing – and very calm

A little further along my way

Past holly, late in berry and evergreen trees with tiny, pineapple-like cones. Past whinberries, blushing pink and far from ripe.

Odd, isn’t it, to be out in May?

Strange, small, pineapple shaped things

Whinberries, or bilberries depending which side of the Pennines you are on, an ephemeral, joy of a fruit I picked as a child and ate in teeth-staining dark juicy pies. Mmm!

Past woody glades and tiny, gurgling streams.

I know, I should have cropped the grass, but it looked so gorgeous. I wish you could hear that stream

Past nestling farms and lines of reeds, bursting through springy, sometime-marshy turf.

Reeds like the ones in the picture above can be used as wicks in oil lamps as I learned on a school trip.The lamp is Roman and belonged to my father

And on I plod,  ever upwards.

Past pairs of what I assume are old stone gateposts – but may be merely wall-ends. Whatever, they are, they’re sans gates.

At length I approach the top.

Breathe deeply of fresh spring air, marvelling at the majesty around me.

A startled bird – a whimbrel? – hurtles from grasses, already parched summer-golden.

It’s there, elusive, in the distant blue of the sky

I sit on a rock. Watch as it wheels and dives with haunting, plaintive cries, entranced as it swoops by, so close I imagine I can feel the breeze of its wings.

Time passes. Two young men appear and amble by. The only people I’ve seen in an hour. Soon I spy them, way downhill taking a different route back.

And it’s time I, too, was on my way.

So ‘I leave and heave a sigh and say goodbye.’ Decide to try their route. Cross the top of the hill, then tread carefully down the steep, dusty track some non-human has made. And realise, there is no path.

I climb back up, wishing I had a walking pole.

Retrace my steps.

And for my pains see solitary, wind-warped trees I missed before.

A lamb resting and a sheep asleep.

I reach a shallow ford, shaded by trees, water glistening in the dappling light.

Not very deep, but the air was frantic with darting flies and my boots not waterproof

An ancient stone bridge – too daring for one with no head for heights, wearing clumpy walking boots, with no companion to catch me if I fall.

It’s quite a high arch above the stream, trust me, scarier than it looks here!

So I don’t ford this, let alone ev’ry stream, till I find my tea 😉

No, I regain the hamlet with an alternative, staider route.

In the tearoom, my Assam comes minus milk. I ask for milk. None comes.

My beef and mustard sandwich comes without mustard. I ask for mustard. Which arrives. On second request I have milk.

The waitressing girls, dippy teenagers, are bored. Need an adding machine to fathom six plus four.

Their poor boss rushes around, correcting orders, wrongly written by inconveniently long-and-blue-nailed fingers, awkwardly curled round cheap pens.

I wander back up the hill to the car park. Reluctant to leave such beauty and such peace.

What is it? No idea. It was beside the path on my way to the carp park [fishy, that! thanks, Thel for pointing it out – I’ll just keep clam and leave it!].

I cross the empty upper section of car park, seeking the place where I thought I could opt to be buried. I was wrong. But still, it’s a place trees may be planted, in memory of love.

I’d like to be buried with a tree planted above me. To know that I will, as I’ve always imagined, become food for a tree after death. A weeping birch perhaps? Or a beech? Or a strong, tall, pine with pretty cones?

Whatever.  I don’t really mind.  The tree will breed, live on. As long as Nature survives.

And so, wending my way homeward, Ms Satnav plays her usual games, but I shrug and carry on. I’ve topped up my well of inner calm, a gift from Mother Nature.

I reach home well before dusk, while the world’s still warm. Sit on our little balcony. Sip a glass of cold white wine.

Retire to bed too early and pass a restless night.

In the morning, as I sit in bed reading, long after the Prof would have been at work, the windows are blurred with falling rain – and the wind blows.

Behind the clouds the sun sings,

‘So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen,’  but not, I hope,  ‘goodbye.’

And I say,Adieu, adieu, to you and you – and you’.

Nature’s clocks – and my kind of time-keeping 😉


This wonderful place, Wycoller, has been owned by Lancashire County Council since 1972. It bought the land off the then water board which had decided not to flood the valley for a reservoir. It is now being divested from the county, which has faced such severe cuts to its spending from the last Conservative government that it can no longer afford such luxuries. I have written before about the world class mill-museums, our unique heritage, that are being lost. The people of Lancashire nevertheless voted in the recent local elections to have a council with a majority of Conservative members. No doubt they blamed their council not central government for the cuts. There is no fairness in this world.

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Nature notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments