Suffering – why is there so much pain in the Universe?

Hold on! We don’t know whether there’s any life in the rest of the universe, so let’s just stick with earth.

First question – do all life forms on earth feel pain?

To make the answer easier we can put all life into one of six kingdoms – bacteria, archaea (bacteria-like, but uniquely different), protists (very simple micro-organisms – diatoms, amoebae), fungi (from athlete’s foot to mushrooms), plants and animals.

The first five have no observed mechanisms for feeling pain, so we can say with some confidence that the vast majority of species don’t suffer. A planet with only these life forms would be a true Eden!

So what about animals? We’re different. We can’t make our own food from air, sunlight, salts and water like plants can, so we have to move around to gather energy to fuel our growth, reproduction, fight disease and so on. If we move into a dangerous situation it’s an advantage to be aware, so early on in evolution animals developed systems for recording pain – sense cells, nerves and brains. Muscles also evolved to help the animal escape. Tiny animals have simple systems and humans have very complex ones, but basically the idea is the same – they are essential for successful survival. These facts begin to answer the problem of pain – the ability to feel helps us survive in a world full of possible dangers. Some people are born unable to feel burning if they touch a hot oven and their lives are very difficult (congenital insensitivity). Sadly some people use our ability to feel pain to exert power over us, even to torture and murder.

But there’s a positive side.

Can a rose or a toadstool feel pleasure? They don’t have any mechanisms for feeling, so we must assume – no. But we animals can. Humans enjoy a vast array of pleasures from physical wellbeing, sex, family care to delight in the universe’s beauty, music, art, literature, architecture, scientific discoveries – the list is endless. And many people reduce pain and suffering by caring for those in need and bringing happiness to the sad and lonely.

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Unseen Manchester

St Marys RC -Hidden Gem 2We walk Manchester streets, eyeing shop windows – not noticing that just round the corner is the hidden gem of St Mary’s, the oldest Roman Catholic church in Manchester. Originally built in 1794 in a poverty stricken slum area, it’s now surrounded by grander buildings – the John Ryland Library, the Town Hall and Albert Square. Its roof and tower collapsed dramatically in 1835 – no reports of any deaths, but great alarm. You can see it was rebuilt in a medley of styles – Norman, Gothic and Byzantine.  Pugin said, somewhat unkindly, ‘It shows to what a depth of error even good men fall, when they go whoring after strange styles.’


Here’s Barton Arcade, coyly hidden off St Ann’s Barton Arcade - Fe frame 2Square.

Victorian exuberance at its best – an early use of decorative cast iron with an extensive glass curtain wall, built in 1871. It has 2 octagonal domes, one of which is visible in the photo. The interior is light and airy, with 3 tiers of balconies. It’s probably one of the best examples of cast iron and glass in Britain.

Restored in the 1980s it houses shops and offices.


Watts &Co Warehouse - largest Fe stairs 2On Portland Street is the magnificent sandstone ashlar facade of the Britannia Hotel. It has only been a hotel since the 1980s and its earlier history is remarkable. It was built in 1856 as a textile warehouse for the wholesale drapery firm of S&J Watts and is the largest textile warehouse in Manchester. James Watts started his business in a small weaver’s cottage in Didsbury and eventually became Mayor of Manchester. But why not go inside? The sweeping cantilevered staircase is beautifully made of iron and lit by magnificent candelabra.Watts &Co Warehouse - WW1 2

In the portico at the entrance stands a bronze statue of a WW1 guard wearing a Tommy helmet and in battle gear, with a fixed bayonet on his rifle. This is a memorial to all the employees of Watts & Co who died then. It was designed by the sculptor CS Jagger who also designed the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London.


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Native Australians in Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens

me sydney bridge, opera house 2A haven in the middle of this busy city! You can wander quiet paths among mature trees watching the birds and insects busy about their lives. Or go down to the water’s edge and look across to the opera house and Sydney Harbour Bridge.


For people-and-plant enthusiasts there’s plenty to see. Once the Cadigal aborigines lived here and took care of plants and animals for thousands of years. forest red gumThis picture is of a dead Forest Red Gum. It’s over 200 years old and knew the Cadigal people. The carvings are made by an aborigine from another tribe as a memorial to the lost Cadigal people.  There were about 80 of them – an extended family group. Some were murdered by the first Europeans and others died from small pox brought by the settlers.


This Grass Tree has a tall upright flower spike. It was called gul-gad-yo by the Cadigal and was used to make a very strong glue.grass tree After a bush fire resin leaks from the trunks and forms lumps. The native Australians mixed these with warm water and hot ash from crushed and burnt mussel shells.





This is the Queensland Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris), one species in a genus containing 31 species – 30 in Australia, 1 in New Guinea and fossils in New Zealand. bottle treeIt has inconspicuous yellow flowers and grows in desert areas. It stores water in the massive trunk. Native Australians use it as a water source and eat the starchy roots and seeds.

Many other plants were carefully tended over centuries by the original inhabitants. Each family group covered a particular area and practised a moving agriculture in which they moved to a fresh site once they had used up the resources of the old one. They were careful to leave enough seeds and young animals so the area was never exploited to destruction. By carefully tending their resources they were able to live in harmony with their surroundings for thousands of years.

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Christmas Roses

helleboreVery early long-lasting flower, 2 to 3 inches across, many shades of whites, greens, pale yellows, maroons.  Friend of early pollinating insects. Clumps of attractively shaped bright leaves, the whole about 18 inches high.

What’s not to like?

The Christmas/Lenten Roses in my garden have been in flower since January, and still look good now, early April.   I say Christmas/Lenten Rose, because I don’t know which mine is!  Hellebore niger is the Christmas one, while Hellebore orientalis is Lenten.  I suspect mine are hybrids like most garden varieties.  And they aren’t related to roses at all – they’re in the Buttercup family.

Easy to grow where the soil drains well and is not too dry, they enjoy a good compost mulch.  Many people remove the outer leaves just before flowering as they get tatty and can suffer from nasty black blotches.

Breeders have a wonderful time with these plants, bringing different coloured speckles to the flower centre and edges.  Some flowers are cup-shaped, others open and flat, and today’s most popular are doubles.  They tend to hang their heads, so if you want to enjoy their colourings you have to lift them up gently.

Or do as I have done here and display them on a plate of water.hellebores on plate  You can just see the central seeds forming.  They are quite large and will seed around the garden a little. And every new plant will have a different coloured flower from the parent – though you have to be patient until it reaches flowering age – a couple of years.

I like them best left out in the garden to enjoy through the snowdrop season, the crocus time and now the daffodils.  In the last picture they are among daffodils and sharp green euphorbia at the back.

hellebore, euphorbia, daff


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My Dinosaur Tree

ginkgo plant I now have a Gnome in my garden. No, not plastic or terracotta with a fishing rod!  My gnome is Ginkgo biloba ‘Gnome’, a dwarfed variety of the dinosaur’s tree which can grow up to 40 metres in height – so a full size one’s a no-no for my tiny suburban garden.

Yes, dinosaurs munched on them!  Ginkgos are the only survivor of a group of trees that were around even before these great creatures.   Fossil leaves date from 270 million years ago. Ginkgos don’t have flowers – they evolved before that amazing combination of flowering trees and pollinating insects. You need a male tree (cones) and a female tree (2 ovules) for seeds to form.  And these stink of sick when they fall to the ground!

The maidenhair tree! I’ve loved ginkgos ever since I first saw one growing in an arboretum. Its unique leaves account for its common name as they are a bit like those of maidenhair fern (Adiantum). The leaves are fanshaped and two gingko leaveslobed, while the veins radiate from the base but never form a network as in other trees. They turn a beautiful butter yellow before they fall in autumn and next spring’s leaves are bright green.

Once they were widespread across the globe.  Now they may be extinct in the wild, though some probably grow in remote parts of China.  They’ve been popular in cities and gardens for many years and are very long lived as the wood is resistant to air pollution, pests and diseases.  The ‘Old Lion’ in Kew Gardens, London, was planted in 1762 by King George III’s mother, Princess Alice.  Some in the Far East are reputed to be 2,500 years old.

A medicine tree! Ginkgo extracts have been used for centuries in China, Japan and Korea.  Now you find them everywhere for such conditions as dementia and vertigo, though research is unclear about the benefits.  The seeds are poisonous unless well prepared.

All in all a fascinating plant – and one that I hope will give enjoyment to passers-by for years to come.

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Bardsey Island – near but not near enough

ynys enlliBardsey Island, the Island of Bards.  In Welsh, Ynys Enlli, the Island of the Tides, often called the island of saints as 20,000 are reputed to be buried here.  A pity the weather was too poor on my visit to make the fearsome crossing of Swnt Enlli (Bardsey Sound).

During my summer holiday in North Wales I detoured for a couple of nights to Aberdaron at the very end of the Lleyn peninsular.  I greatly admire the poet R S Thomas, who was priest at St Hywyn’s church here for many year  The church holds poetry readings during the summer – I was too early for the August one unfortunately. Another miss!

bindweed, lleynInstead of visiting Bardsey Island I walked the excellent coastal path and admired the wild flowers – sea pea, harebells, red campion, bindweed, bell heather among others.  Everywhere sea birds battled with the wind and rain, and their calls added to the music of pounding waves along the cliffs.

Farm walls in this area are made of stone covered with turf.  Their height and effectiveness are increased by gorse and blackthorn scrub growing on the top.  Warm white sheep with long noses and dark spots in their ears stopped grazing to watch me – this is the Lleyn breed, a versatile animal which is bred as far from Wales as County Down, Scotland, Cornwall and inbetween. Fat cattle with shining coats grazed on the fine pastures and corn fields ready for harvest grew good crops of oats and barley.

From Aberdaron you can make a day crossing to the island or even stay a week in one of the houses. The land was bought by Bardsey Island Trust in 1979 and several families live there. Farming practices are in keeping with the Trust’s wishes – oats, turnips and swedes are grown and animals include goats, ducks, geese, hens, sheep and Welsh Black cattle.

As far back as the Stone Age people lived on the island, and some hut circles remain. In the sixth century Cadfan (Gideon in English) settled here from Brittany with his followers and built St Mary’s Abbey, which was taken over by the Augustinians in the thirteenth century and dissolved under Henry VIII.  Only the ruined bell tower remains.  Pilgrimages have been popular here since Cadfan’s day and today there’s a 150 mile Pilgrim Way from St Winefride’s well in Holywell along the coast to Bardsey.

The island’s  reputed to be a beautiful and peaceful place where you can find rare lichens and purple loosestrife, watch manx shearwaters, choughs, kittiwakes and fulmars and if lucky see grey seals, dolphins and porpoises.

Lleyn cliffsI may have missed those on my cliff walk, but I did enjoy watching a hare lope lazily among the gorse scrub.


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How Charmingly Sweetly We Sing

Here’s our ladies’ choir getting ready for a performance in the local church hall. Yes, we’re mainly a bit long in the tooth, but that doesn’t affect our tone – we’ve been charming all kinds of groups for over 40 years.  Because they usually ask us back!

We do have some young ’uns too – our drummer boy is eleven and keeps us with it beatwise, especially for Yellow Bird and Chattanooga Choo Choo.  He’s guardian of the train whistle for that one.  We also have a teenage soprano with a lovely voice – she does the solo in the Vicar of Dibley version of the Lord’s My Shepherd.  We whack out Rhythm of Life in 4 parts, collapsing with laughter if we’re all still together at the end.  And our version of What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor defies description – it comes with actions but we’re rarely get ’em together (age related forgetfulness?) but it has the audience hooting with mirth every time.

We sing at some 25 venues every year.  Classical, jazz, folksongs, musicals, with different songs in spring and autumn and Christmassy ones in December – so lots of rehearsing.  As well as concerts for the public, many of our concerts take place in sheltered accommodation, occasionally in carehomes for people with dementia.  Here we change our programme, taking maracas, triangles, tambourines and so on, and those of our audience who can, join in.  Often people, who generally sit silently in their own little world, will join in with remembered songs from their childhood, and this is very moving for us and their carers.

Generally we don’t charge, but we do ask for donations and last year we raised £3000 for local charities.  Since 1993 we’ve raised nearly £30,000.

Sounds busy – but it’s lots of fun – both rehearsals and performances are full of laughter.  And we’re a social group too, caring for members and friendly towards our very varied audiences.

Yes, we ‘can sing both high and low’ as the Bard put it, and I hope no one who listens to us thinks with Coleridge –

‘Swans sing before they die – ’twere  no bad thing

Did certain people die before they sing.’



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Snowy Mespilus

A small and beautiful tree!  Mine has been stunning this spring, covered with white flowers with five petals.  At the same time the young leaves unfurl, a mass of copper-pink among the white.  Glorious!

Now the petals have fallen like spring snow and the leaves have turned light green.  The fruits are already forming and will soon be ripe – the tree is also called June Berry.  The berries are small, red or purple.  They’re edible but I leave mine for the local wildlife, especially birds that busy themselves among the foliage, gorging on this bounty.  The only downside is the mess from the droppings!

In autumn the leaves turn scarlet and crimson before they fall.  The bare tree has a fine shrubby outline, still a joy to look at during the winter.  It’s a delightful tree for a small garden, easy to grow, reaching up to 10 or 12 metres in 20 years.  According to the pundits it prefers moist, welldrained, non- alkaline soils.  Well, mine grows magnificently on my very dry neutral to alkaline soil, so there! Under it I grow spring bulbs, aconites, small-leafed periwinkles, little Euphorbias and lily of the valley, so the ground always looks green and cheerful.

Its common name, Snowy Mespilus comes from the Latin name for the medlar, once a very popular fruit tree. Its Latin name is Amelanchier, and it’s in the Rose family.   It’s very hardy, and has coped well with the sudden late frosts and snow this spring. There are a number of species, some are trees and others shrubby.  It hails from North America where it’s also called Service Berry, Wild Pear or Plum and Shadbush.  Shads are wild herring found in New England rivers, and the tree flowers in spring when the fish run, so accounting for the name.

All in all, an asset to any garden.

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Pudding Norton – Lost Village

A lonely ruined tower – all that remains of the deserted village of Pudding Norton. Its strange name is lost in the mists of time – it was called Nortuna in the Domesday Book, and no one knows where ‘Pudding’ comes from. In aerial photos the outline of old streets and cottages is clear, but on the ground all you can see is mysterious humps and lumps.  These cover the grassy field surrounding St Margaret’s church tower.

I was on a  farm walk – in the rain and mud – looking at the methods the current landowner uses to encourage wildlife.  He provides areas of winter food and wetland for birds and the farm is well known for the large number of farmland bird species such as grey partridge, turtle dove, lapwing and linnet.  He is also steward of this lost village, a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Why and when did the inhabitants leave? No one really knows.  Old records show that before the Black Death in the fourteenth century there were fifteen households and the village was still in existence in 1428.  Peasant farming was hand to mouth – livestock feeding on open fields caught disease from one another and foot-and-mouth, cattle plague and liver rot were everywhere. Corn harvests were often poor as soil nutrients were taken up in the crop and little was returned for the following year. Bad weather and problems of farming heavy soils further tipped the balance against the peasant. Even worse it was a time of inflation, rising rents and declining wages.

The Fermour family of nearby East Barsham Hall had acquired the land by the sixteenth century.  Sheep farming was profitable and the Fermours were taken to court for destroying houses, stopping up the common ways and taking over land for sheep. The villagers were unable to feed themselves and gradually left. By the end of the century Pudding Norton village was deserted.

This was the time when Robert Kett led a revolt against land enclosures and was hanged for rebellion at Norwich castle in 1549.

Wandering among the grassy mounds I thought about the sad plight of those poor folk.  But I was also happy to see the care the current farmer takes to encourage wildlife. We all know about the threats to our wildlife as urbanization takes over the country side and our increasing population requires farmers to grow food ever more intensively.  Farmers are greatly concerned about the loss of birds and wild plants, as they, more than any urban dweller, are in continual contact with the land.

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Norwich is England’s First UNESCO City of Literature

Here I am at the Lord Mayor of Norwich’s celebration of the award of UNESCO City of Literature – we’re the first English city to gain this, and one of only six cities worldwide – the others are Edinburgh, Dublin, Melbourne, Reykjavik and Iowa City.

The reception was held at Blackfriars Hall, part of the St Andrew’s complex which consists of two ancient halls, crypt and cloister, and dates from 1270.  Now fully refurbished! It was full of the local great and good in the literary world – a great opportunity for networking! I met many interesting people from members of the Writing Centre (it encourages new writers) to publishers and a re- acquaintance with a fellow teacher from my time in Lowestoft.

So why has Norwich gained this award? Many reasons.  Our history – the first woman writer lived here in the 1300s – Lady Julian, a devout anchoress, much sought out for her good sense as well as her piety.  We have a reputation for dissent and free thinking – in 1549 the local farmer Robert Kett led a revolt against the enclosure of common land and actually captured Norwich, then England’s second city. Elizabeth Fry the prison reformer grew up in Norwich, as did Harriet  Martineau who risked her life protesting against slavery in the States. This reputation has led to our being designated the first UK City of Refuge and a sanctuary for persecuted writers round the world.

Our university – the University of East Anglia – pioneered Britain’s first Creative Writing MA.  Graduates include Ian McEwan, Mohammed Hanif, Kazuo Ishiguro and Andrew Cohen. We’re a world class centre for new media and science writing with the most advanced archive centre in Europe and one of the most used public libraries in the UK.

I could go on!  But basically you get the idea – Norwich is no alsoran, and Norfolk is not a complete backwater – remember Lord Nelson!  We have our own Trafalgar memorial to him in Great Yarmouth.

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