Archive for the ‘Bi-polar diary’ Category

Not at all NICE

Friday, November 29th, 2013

The government’s pompously named ‘National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’ have just made a quite stupid edict on smoking which disregards all the evidence. They propose banning smoking by all patients anywhere near hospitals, including patients in mental hospitals. They  further propose that nurses should be banned from smoking.

These proposals are NOT based on any scientific evidence.

Science has clearly established that smoking helps manic depressives manage their condition, whatever the effects on their physical condition.

Science also causes us to ask why many nurses smoke but so few doctors.

Doctors are the cornflake that rise to the top of the pack, in Boris Johnson’s world.

Nurses are relatively poorly paid. But they are the people in the front line helping patients cope with their problems.

Smoking perhaps helps them to cope with the  stresses of their job.

Wrecking the NHS

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

David Cameron is backing his health minister on the proposed reforms to the NHS.  These reforms mean that the profit motive irs going to affect decisions that should be made on medical grounds. and they undermine the essence of the NHS. Which was to make health care available to all, rich or poor.

The NHS is not perfect. Never was, never can be. But it is the jewel in Britain’s crown. It is the best health service in the world and the envy of other countries. I owe my life to the NHS, because in 1954 I contacted a fatal illness, tubercular meningitis. My life was saved by my mother’s doctor, Dr Pitman, a scion of the Quaker shorthand family. She came to to see me when I arrived home one Friday evening at the end of the university term with a terrible headache. She came to see me severa9l times that weekend. She came to see me several times that weekend.

Because she cared. The Cameron reforms turn GPs into businessmen.

TB meningitis was incurable until a new drug, izonasid was discovered by an American scientist. I was one of the first to benefit from it in this country.

I could equally say that the NHS nearly killed me. Because the university doctor had told me, that I was suffering from exam stress and should take a couple of aspirins.

Since then I have nearly died three times.

First in the 1970s, when I got pneumonia, treated at home by my GP, Donald Grant, of the Caversham Practice. Because he visited me regularly he realised that I had a nasty disease called strepocochous. and whisked me off to UCH hospital one Sunday afternoon.  Donald apologised for nearly killing me.

I told him that he had saved my life.

Second time was in the US in 1980 when I was employed by City University. I had a terribly irritating rash by the time I got to New York. I went to accident and emergency at the hospital, but was refused treatment on the grounds that my insurance did not cover the costs of hospital treatment. My life then was saved by the GP of the friend with whom I was staying. Who correctly diagnosed anphlactic shock. He pumped me with adrenilin.

And I lived to tell this tale.

Third time was a few years later. When I realised that something was terribly wrong. My breathing was very slow and I was thinkly about Keats’ ‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die.’

Instead of dying, I rang the Caversham Practice. And at 2 AM their duty doctor, one Rachael Miller got out of the bed she shared with Jonathan, and came to see me.

She immediately dosed me with adrenalin. She also told me that I should have an emergency pack, in case I was hit by this again.

So that’s why I think Cameron is wrong.

We need GPs who are motivated by their professional concerns.

Not by the profit motive.


Guardian blunder on pic of riot-free Britain

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Some whizz at The Guardian decided last Thursday to give readers a rest from the pages and pages of pictures of the riots that have been sweeping the country. They sent one of their regular photographers, Graeme Robertson, down to our neck of the woods. He produced this splendid photo which evokes the tranquility to be found here. People looking for 185m. fossils, long before the advent of 24-hour news. Children bathing in the sea, matched over by Golden Cap. ( Note. The Cap is only Golden when the sun  is shining on it.)

The caption, however began, ‘Visitors comb the cliffs at Lyme Regis……’. Lyme Regis is in fact  two  miles east of Charmouth, as was admitted in the correction column the next day. But the photo was taken about a mile further east. Charmouth beach has a lot more people on it in the middle of August, which I hope to show by a pic of my own below.

Meanwhile I can confirm that society is not broken around here. Dorset police reported to our Neighborhood Watch, also on Thursday, that despite the National Disorder, they had made just three arrests. For incitement to riots. The local youths apparently are reading the social media but not taking to the streets. No shops have been trashed on our streets.

I would have blogged on the riots were it not for the fact that my daughter got married on Saturday, 6 August, the day the riots took off, and I have been busy since then with visitors who stayed around because Dorset is a good place to take a holiday.

Just found a pic I took myrself in 2010 from the same spot.  It was taken in May before tthe holiday season getsr started.

This is the first blog that I have written called Letter from Lyme Bay. It is now five years since I started blogging under the banner of I changed the name after a few weeks, because I thought Xcity was meaningless to anyone who did not know the journalism course at City University London.

The Daily Novel name came out of my ruminations about the origins of British journalism, particularly Charles Dickins, and how novels frequently tell more of the truth than much journalism.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, especially when I found that the domain name was still available. But it now seems pretentious. And worse, missleading. Because I have not been writing fiction.

I am trying the new name on for size. It will evolve alongsride  some changes in style and direction.

The men who knew nothing

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Rupert Murdoch and his son James appeared before the House of Commons select committee to answer the allegations of phone hacking. Continually they claimed they knew nothing about what had been taking place at the News of the World. Murdoch said that he had been let down by people he had trusted.

This from a man who was born into the newspaper industry. Hhis father  Keith Murdoch ran Australian newspapers and he was interduced to the best of popular newspapers when he went as in intern to the Daily Express tutored by Ted Pickering on Fleet Street tactics.

He worsted Robert Maxwell in 1969 in his bid for the News of the World because he convinced British opinion, including myself and my colleagues at The Times that he understood newspapers.

Then he was an unknown factor in Fleet Street. But he appealed to many because he was critical of the British establishment.  He was bidding nfor the News of the World, whose editor had delivered a disgraceful attack on Maxwell with an editorial which described the News of the world as ‘British as roast beef’.

In fact the News of the World owes its popularity to appealing to the public appetite for the juicy court reports of those cases which detailed sexual misdemeanors and the like. Rupert Murdoch carried on that tradition.

His second acquisition was quite different. The Sun was a rebadging of the Daily Herald, a celebrated Labour supporting paper. It was an attempt by Hugh Cudlipp, the Mirror newspaper boss to provide a popular newspaper similar  to the News Chronicle.

Murdoch transformed it into a down market tabloid, boosted by Page Three unclothed babes and good sports coverage. Combined with trenchant political coverage at election times.

Thus the famous front page when Neil Kninnock was fighting an election as leader of the Labour Party – ‘Will the last person leaving Britain turn off the lights.’

Subsequently Murdoch supported New Labour under Tony Blair. Since those days Murdoch has enjoyed access to whoever occupied Downing Street.

Under cross examination today Murdoch was asked by his visits to David Cameron via the Downing Street back door. He declared that he had many such visits when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister.

But both he, and his son, James, claimed they knew nothing of the phone hacking by the News of the World. They said that they had turned over to the police evidence when they found it.

Their stance was that it was the job of the police to conduct enquiries.

Meanwhile the police were being interviewed by another House of Commons select committee. John Yates, the assistant commissoner whose job it was to look again at the hacking allegations, was blaming Rupert Murdoch’s men for not coming clean with what they knew.

Yates revealed that he had asked David Cameron’s chief of staff whether he should talk to the Prime Minister about these matters. The reply from the Downing Street offical was that he should not raise the matter.

So David Cameron became one of those who knew nothing.

The performance in the House of Commons has been totally transparent. The popular press will no doubt focus on the shaving foam comedian, demolished, not by the police, but by Murdoch’s third wife Wendy, who felled him with a right hook.

Perhaps she should be made chief executive of the Murdoch empire. Rupert is clearly long past retirement. James Murdoch was squirming claiming he knew nothing.

Neither is capable of managing such a large company, where control is held by the Murdoch’s though a devious arrangement whereby some shares have votes and others don’t.

A practice which should be outlawed.

Today’s performances demonstrate that the Murdoch era is over. And that the Met Police has much to answer for.

So the sooner we get a new head of the Met the better.

Invaded by grand-children

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011


Grand-children in the house.

Tearing through my study.

Running up and down.

Eating all my breakfast.

Laughing all the time.

Blogging is impossible.

Tranquility quite gone.

But would I be without them?


I was like that once.

And, sometimes they delight me.

Make me laugh and smile.

So, stay my little darlings.

Enjoy your-selves all day.

But, please, please,

A little quieter.

So that I can think.

And get my act together

To write a blog today.

First essential for journalists – a capacity for friendship

Monday, January 17th, 2011

One of the journalistic verities on which I was reared, was that the good journalist should have no friends, only contacts, who he must be prepared to ditch, if events required it.

But the opposite is even more true.

And there was never a time when it was not more important to assert this opposite. With the rise of networking and twitter, and Facebook and Wikileaks.

I have seen this clearly only in the last few weeks, because one of the best journalists I knew Gerard Mansell, who nearly became the boss of the BBC, in the late 1960s, died just before Christmas, aged 89. I was mortified because he was an exceedingly good friend to me, when I was trying to get the City University journalism course off the ground, in 1981, when he had just retired as Deputy Director General and head of Bush House.

I have not yet written his obituary, because I still have not been abl9e to check three things about him, which he told me, but which have not been mentioned in the published obituaries.

I was mortified, because although he lived recently only one hundred yards from my London flat, and I had met him in the local supermarket two or three times, I had not invited him for another jolly dinner, good food, good wine and interesting conversation, about journalism, then and now.

Since then I have been spending more of my time catching up on other old friends, before they die!

But I did manage to get to Gerry’s  funeral, when his capacity for friendship was recognised so emphatically, that I realised it was not just me, who thought he was exceptional on that yardstick.

Co-incidentally, over the Christmas break, I had an email from an ex-student of mine from the 1980′s, Sajid Quesrani, who came to as an experienced Pakistan  TV journalist, and went on for much of his working life in that role. He referred me to a speech made to US army recruits at West Point, which asserts that leadership requires solitude, and that (and here I have to summarise a complex argument) and that the ability to endure solitude, depends on having deep relationships with friends.

In other words the good leader is not the ‘loner’ with no friends. He is a person sustained by enduring friendships, which helps him (or her) to make the difficult tough decisions leadership requires.

“Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back”.

This restores my faith in the America I know, and the Americans I know, who maybe a minority, but who are a powerful minority.

And restored my dismay at Secretary of State Clinton, who clearly wants to get an Australian prosecuted as a traitor by the American courts. (She wants to get him, rather than that other Australian Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox Television, still suggests that Obama, who is more Christian than I was in my teens, is really a closet Muslim.

Sajid’s email arrived just after the hate rhetoric of Sarah Palin had led to the assasination of a liberal and Jewish senator.

I know a lot of Americans support her tea party, and its tactics.

But not the Americans I know, and, certainly not the giants of American literature and politics, who have helped to free me from the prejudices of my childhood.

In deepest Wolverhampton, where the local MP first warned the world of the rivers of blood, likely to arise from the black faces arriving in the Black Country (so-called not because of black faces. There weren’t any til Powell swanned in, from guess where, Australia,  to win the seat. And in those days, they were taking over the houses  in the Waterloo Road and in other working class terraces, which whites were only too happy to be leaving. It was the Black Country, because of the smoke from the blast furnaces, which thankfully is no more.)

Yes, need in the US, in Britain, and world wide about the limits of free speech. About the internet, but also about the mainstream press.

Julian Assange, whom I have not yet met, because he is holed up in another part of the country, will probably be crucified. But the boss of Fox ‘hate” television, Rupert Murdoch, is poised to get even more power over the British media.

On that well-trusted formula, a murder a day.

Britain, the US and the world deserves something better.

The full text was printed by The American Scholar. I print it below, because I cannot think of another way of getting it to my readers.

So in the old fashioned terms I am breaching their copyright. Dut not for personal gain.

But to let the world know that America is not just Obama, Clinton, and the Bush family. It is the people who produce journals like The American Scholar.


Spring 2010

Solitude and Leadership

If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts

by William Deresiewicz

The lecture below was delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October of last year.

My title must seem like a contradiction. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.

Leadership is what you are here to learn—the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why.

We need to begin by talking about what leadership really means. I just spent 10 years teaching at another institution that, like West Point, liked to talk a lot about leadership, Yale University. A school that some of you might have gone to had you not come here, that some of your friends might be going to. And if not Yale, then Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and so forth. These institutions, like West Point, also see their role as the training of leaders, constantly encourage their students, like West Point, to regard themselves as leaders among their peers and future leaders of society. Indeed, when we look around at the American elite, the people in charge of government, business, academia, and all our other major institutions—senators, judges, CEOs, college presidents, and so forth—we find that they come overwhelmingly either from the Ivy League and its peer institutions or from the service academies, especially West Point.

So I began to wonder, as I taught at Yale, what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart, and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like  leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even ex­cellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me.

See, things have changed since I went to college in the ’80s. Everything has gotten much more intense. You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. We didn’t begin thinking about college until we were juniors, and maybe we each did a couple of extracurriculars. But I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as junior high school. Classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors. I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12.

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.

That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea. To explain why, I want to spend a few minutes talking about a novel that many of you may have read, Heart of Darkness. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen Apocalypse Now, which is based on it. Marlow in the novel becomes Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen. Kurtz in the novel becomes Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. But the novel isn’t about Vietnam; it’s about colonialism in the Belgian Congo three generations before Vietnam. Marlow, not a military officer but a merchant marine, a civilian ship’s captain, is sent by the company that’s running the country under charter from the Belgian crown to sail deep upriver, up the Congo River, to retrieve a manager who’s ensconced himself in the jungle and gone rogue, just like Colonel Kurtz does in the movie.

Now everyone knows that the novel is about imperialism and colonialism and race relations and the darkness that lies in the human heart, but it became clear to me at a certain point, as I taught the novel, that it is also about bureaucracy—what I called, a minute ago, hierarchy. The Company, after all, is just that: a company, with rules and procedures and ranks and people in power and people scrambling for power, just like any other bureaucracy. Just like a big law firm or a governmental department or, for that matter, a university. Just like—and here’s why I’m telling you all this—just like the bureaucracy you are about to join. The word bureaucracy tends to have negative connotations, but I say this in no way as a criticism, merely a description, that the U.S. Army is a bureaucracy and one of the largest and most famously bureaucratic bureaucracies in the world. After all, it was the Army that gave us, among other things, the indispensable bureaucratic acronym “snafu”: “situation normal: all fucked up”—or “all fouled up” in the cleaned-up version. That comes from the U.S. Army in World War II.

You need to know that when you get your commission, you’ll be joining a bureaucracy, and however long you stay in the Army, you’ll be operating within a bureaucracy. As different as the armed forces are in so many ways from every other institution in society, in that respect they are the same. And so you need to know how bureaucracies operate, what kind of behavior—what kind of character—they reward, and what kind they punish.

So, back to the novel. Marlow proceeds upriver by stages, just like Captain Willard does in the movie. First he gets to the Outer Station. Kurtz is at the Inner Station. In between is the Central Station, where Marlow spends the most time, and where we get our best look at bureaucracy in action and the kind of people who succeed in it. This is Marlow’s description of the manager of the Central Station, the big boss:

He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold. . . . Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy—a smile—not a smile—I remember it, but I can’t explain. . . . He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . . . He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? . . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause.

Note the adjectives: commonplaceordinaryusualcommon. There is nothing distinguished about this person. About the 10th time I read that passage, I realized it was a perfect description of the kind of person who tends to prosper in the bureaucratic environment. And the only reason I did is because it suddenly struck me that it was a perfect description of the head of the bureaucracy that I was part of, the chairman of my academic department—who had that exact same smile, like a shark, and that exact same ability to make you uneasy, like you were doing something wrong, only she wasn’t ever going to tell you what. Like the manager—and I’m sorry to say this, but like so many people you will meet as you negotiate the bureaucracy of the Army or for that matter of whatever institution you end up giving your talents to after the Army, whether it’s Microsoft or the World Bank or whatever—the head of my department had no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going, and beyond that, as Marlow says, her position had come to her—why?

That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.

I tell you this to forewarn you, because I promise you that you will meet these people and you will find yourself in environments where what is rewarded above all is conformity. I tell you so you can decide to be a different kind of leader. And I tell you for one other reason. As I thought about these things and put all these pieces together—the kind of students I had, the kind of leadership they were being trained for, the kind of leaders I saw in my own institution—I realized that this is a national problem. We have a crisis of leadership in this country, in every institution. Not just in government. Look at what happened to American corporations in recent decades, as all the old dinosaurs like General Motors or TWA or U.S. Steel fell apart. Look at what happened to Wall Street in just the last couple of years.

Finally—and I know I’m on sensitive ground here—look at what happened during the first four years of the Iraq War. We were stuck. It wasn’t the fault of the enlisted ranks or the noncoms or the junior officers. It was the fault of the senior leadership, whether military or civilian or both. We weren’t just not winning, we weren’t even changing direction.

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

Now some people would say, great. Tell this to the kids at Yale, but why bother telling it to the ones at West Point? Most people, when they think of this institution, assume that it’s the last place anyone would want to talk about thinking creatively or cultivating independence of mind. It’s the Army, after all. It’s no accident that the word regiment is the root of the word regimentation. Surely you who have come here must be the ultimate conformists. Must be people who have bought in to the way things are and have no interest in changing it. Are not the kind of young people who think about the world, who ponder the big issues, who question authority. If you were, you would have gone to Amherst or Pomona. You’re at West Point to be told what to do and how to think.

But you know that’s not true. I know it, too; otherwise I would never have been invited to talk to you, and I’m even more convinced of it now that I’ve spent a few days on campus.

That’s the first half of the lecture: the idea that true leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions. But how do you learn to do that? How do you learn to think? Let’s start with how you don’t learn to think. A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.

One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers and used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter. In other words, they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

Now that’s the third time I’ve used that word, concentrating. Concentrating, focusing. You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like dutyhonor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

…….. what happens after you fulfill your commitment to the Army? Unless you know who you are, how will you figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life? Unless you’re able to listen to yourself, to that quiet voice inside that tells you what you really care about, what you really believe in—indeed, how those things might be evolving under the pressure of your experiences. Students everywhere else agonize over these questions, and while you may not be doing so now, you are only postponing them for a few years.

Maybe some of you are agonizing over them now. Not everyone who starts here decides to finish here. It’s no wonder and no cause for shame. You are being put through the most demanding training anyone can ask of people your age, and you are committing yourself to work of awesome responsibility and mortal danger. The very rigor and regimentation to which you are quite properly subject here naturally has a tendency to make you lose touch with the passion that brought you here in the first place. I saw exactly the same kind of thing at Yale. It’s not that my students were robots. Quite the reverse. They were in­tensely idealistic, but the overwhelming weight of their practical responsibilities, all of those hoops they had to jump through, often made them lose sight of what those ideals were. Why they were doing it all in the first place.

So it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.

But let me be clear that solitude doesn’t always have to mean introspection. Let’s go back to Heart of Darkness. It’s the solitude of concentration that saves Marlow amidst the madness of the Central Station. When he gets there he finds out that the steamboat he’s supposed to sail upriver has a giant hole in it, and no one is going to help him fix it. “I let him run on,” he says, “this papier-mâché Mephistopheles”—he’s talking not about the manager but his assistant, who’s even worse, since he’s still trying to kiss his way up the hierarchy, and who’s been raving away at him. You can think of him as the Internet, the ever-present social buzz, chattering away at you 24/7:

I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt. . . .

It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.

“The chance to find yourself.” Now that phrase, “finding yourself,” has acquired a bad reputation. It suggests an aimless liberal-arts college graduate—an English major, no doubt, someone who went to a place like Amherst or Pomona—who’s too spoiled to get a job and spends his time staring off into space. But here’s Marlow, a mariner, a ship’s captain. A more practical, hardheaded person you could not find. And I should say that Marlow’s creator, Conrad, spent 19 years as a merchant marine, eight of them as a ship’s captain, before he became a writer, so this wasn’t just some artist’s idea of a sailor. Marlow believes in the need to find yourself just as much as anyone does, and the way to do it, he says, is work, solitary work. Concentration. Climbing on that steamboat and spending a few uninterrupted hours hammering it into shape. Or building a house, or cooking a meal, or even writing a college paper, if you really put yourself into it.

“Your own reality—for yourself, not for others.” Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.

Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today. And when I say “revolutionary,” I am deliberately evoking the American Revolution, because it was a result of precisely this kind of independent thinking. Without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.”

Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.

This is what we call thinking out loud, discovering what you believe in the course of articulating it. But it takes just as much time and just as much patience as solitude in the strict sense. And our new electronic world has disrupted it just as violently. Instead of having one or two true friends that we can sit and talk to for three hours at a time, we have 968 “friends” that we never actually talk to; instead we just bounce one-line messages off them a hundred times a day. This is not friendship, this is distraction.

I know that none of this is easy for you. Even if you threw away your cell phones and unplugged your computers, the rigors of your training here keep you too busy to make solitude, in any of these forms, anything less than very difficult to find. But the highest reason you need to try is precisely because of what the job you are training for will demand of you.

You’ve probably heard about the hazing scandal at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain that was all over the news recently. Terrible, abusive stuff that involved an entire unit and was orchestrated, allegedly, by the head of the unit, a senior noncommissioned officer. What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that going on in your unit? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice, especially if you risk losing the loyalty of the people serving under you, or the trust of your peer officers, or the approval of your superiors. What if you’re not the commanding officer, but you see your superiors condoning something you think is wrong?

How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?

These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself—morality, mortality, honor—so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first fire fight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe.

How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic.

After the swim was over

Monday, December 27th, 2010

By 11 AM on Christmas Day the sun was shining brightly for the annual Charmouth Fancy Dress swim, but the terrace thermometer was still just below zero. There was an air of excitement and camaradie amongst the people streaming down to the beach whom I joined.

It gave me just the same kind of feeling I first experienced, aged 8, when I first began going to the match at Wolverhampton Wanderers’ football ground, Molineux. This year in Charmouth the excitement and anticipation was heightened by the fact that our house was furnishing five of the players, who were preparing to dash into the waves to provide the entertainment for the crowd, when the clock struck eleven.

My elder daughter, Holly, wearing my best multi-coloured night shirt, bought from Liberty in Regents Street many years ago. Her bloke, Lee, sporting a vast lamp shade from a 1930s lamp standard. Their son, Joe, 8, in a mouse outfit. Plus cousins Pagan and Mela,  who have come from New Zealand for this Christmas in the snow.

And ice, which became

more and more treacherous as we neared the beach. Mindful of my aged brittle bones I lagged further and further behind.

I reached the beach in time to hear the screams and cheers as the event happened. But could see nothing through the wall of watchers lined up in front of me.

It only lasts five minutes. I was trying to push through the crowd to take some pics of any swimmers still in the water, but the crowd was now moving in the

opposite direction, as the swimmers rushed out to grab their towels, and drink the coffee laced with brandy provided by their helpers.

My role in this event was to take the pics and provide the eye-witness report.

And I had failed.

And failure never loses its bitter taste, however many times you have experienced it.

Had I had a different kind of journalistic training, I could have faked it.

I remember, years ago, Colin Jones, who like me had been invited to the launch of an oil tanker. As the bottle of bubbly broke against the hull of the ship, a taxi drove into the shipyard. Colin’s train had given up the ghost at Goole, but, undaunted,  he had jumped into the nearest cab and rushed on to the launch.

It was a noble failure. And it was a not very important event. But since The Economist, then, and now, was a decent, if paternalistic, employer, he had no difficulty in getting his expenses paid.

As for me, in 2010, I offer you a pic of the scene down on the beach just after the swim.

And another of our house here as we found it when we returned last Tuesday. (This picture was taken by my neighbour, Neil.)

My non-papal thought for Christmas Day

Friday, December 24th, 2010

For most of my lifetime, Conservatives in Britain, have argued that the BBC was a left-wing ramp. As soon as I came to meet BBC folk , when I started work as a journalist in 1955, I found they came from all political viewponts.

But they all adhered to the BBC myth of impartiality, when it came to dealing with the news. They were impartial and they challenged the people they were interviewing.

Be they communist, liberal, labour or conservative.

They challenged everyone.

Except the Church of England and it’s head, the Queen.

To them, the BBC adopted a reverential attitude. In the a950s, Richard Dimbleby, in the early years of television got top ratings, when he drew the nation into worship of the House of Windsor, with prayers conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But mostly, the BBC people learnt to put aside their personal fopinions and comment ‘objectively’.

Which is why they are still the most respected news organisation in the world.

Fast forward to Christmas 2010 when the Cameron governmment has taken away the ministerial responsibility for deciding on the future of the future of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, from Vince Cab9le, who is  well known as a left-wing member of the Liberal Democrats, whose vote Cameron needs to stay in power.

Because Vince Cable was caught out in a sting, by the mainstream British press which is owned by men (and they are nearly all men) whose only commitment to journalism is that they have acquired sufficient wealth to buy newspapers.

Like the Barclay twins, who currently own one of our best right-wing newspapers, the Daily Telegraph. Which sent in the reporters to LIE. To pretend they were loyal constituents of Vince Cable, come to seek his advice at his surgery for constituents.

They were young and nubile. And Vince unburdened his heart, and very foolishly told them, that, yes, he did agree, that Murdoch was not good news.

He even went so far as to say he had ‘declared war’ on him.

Which was not at all surprising,  because politicians, left and right, are all worried about the huge power of the Murdoch empire. His arguments in his meetings with the Cameron lot, have already had their fruits in the measures announced by this government.

Although Cameron has said he loves the BBC, he has drastically slashed its budget. Meaning that the BBC will have great difficulty in providing the in depth news coverage, all Brits of my generation have taken for granted.

And, now, he has given the responsibility for the Murdoch decision, to his Conservative Minister of Culture, who has frequently declared that Rupert Murdoch is the best thing that happened to British journalism.

This is the same Rupert Murdoch, who bought a serious, but loss making British newspaper, The Sun. Loss-making partly because it was originally half-owned by the trade union movement, the Daily Herald, and in 1968, it had been renamed, The Sun, and relaunched as a broadsheet, left of centre paper.

Murdoch turned it into The Sun, which we all know. Which made him millions by bringing soft porn to the breakfast table. The naked breasts of dolly birds, ready to be pasted by the work stands of the British workers.

In terms of British politics, Murdoch, the capitalist, was not a doctrinaire right winger. He was no friend of the British Conservatives, who had treated him as an upstart Australian, and he was only too happy to dance to Tony Blair’s tune. The tune of making Labour acceptable. Meaning, acceptable to the money makers.

Murdoch went on to storm America. And made more millions from his Fox Television, which caught the rising tide of American right wing Christian fundamentalism.

Yes, you’ve got it right, that was the channel which said that would be President Obama, was not a Christian, but a secret Muslim!!!

Murdoch, since I first met him in 1968, has become a born-again Christian. And politically he has declared his faith in the Republican Party in the US, donating millions of his riches to them.

If Sarah Palin, gets the Republican nomination, she can rely on the Murdoch empire to support her with money and his media empire pundits.

In terms of money, Murdoch now has more than the BBC, which in his many attacks, he portrays as the wicked giant.

But the newspaper which caught out Vince Cable into admitting that he did not think increasing Murdoch’s power was a good thing, The Daily Telegraph, did not even tell it’s own readers what it had found out.

They launched their attack on another of his off-the-cuff comments. Whereupon, one of the Telegraph journalists, leaked the story to a BBC journalist.

So the BBC, which is the all-powerful organisation, which Murdoch wants to throttle, launched the news that Vince Cable was out to get him, thereby ensuring Cable’s downfall.

And, threatening the future of the BBC itself.

The BBC journalists, quite properly, printed the story and gave it headline treatment. Knowing full well that it might harm the BBC, but it was most obviously news in the public interest.

Whether it was referred up to the Director General, the BBC’s boss man, I know not. But even if it had been, he could not have stopped it.

Because the BBC is a public service broadcaster, supported by the license fee of ALL of us, right-wing and left-wing, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Atheist.

This story was hot news. The nation should have been told, even if the Telegraph was hesitating.

And, now at last, Thought for the Day.

Mark Thompson, the present boss of the BBC ‘brand’, has mostly done a good job, of keeping it afloat, in the face of attacks by Murdoch and many of the other rich men, who want to save the world by capitalism.

But, while the Daily Telegraph was organising its Cable sting, Thompson had been for some months, been plotting to put his own personal stamp on the empire of which he is the chief executive.

He is a Roman Catholic, educated by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst, which is one of the two private schools, to which the Roman Catholic elite can send their children, if they are rich enough.

Thompson has mostly done a good job, in hugely difficult times, of keeping the BBC going, as the only effective public service broadcaster on the planet.

And he persuaded himself, that it would be a great journalistic coup, if he got the Pope to deliver Thought of the Day, a programme on BBC Radio Four, which invites religious leaders to preach to us all.

So the BBC minions negotiated with the Pope over several months, and he finally agreed to deliver his Catholic message on Christmas Eve, thus pleasing British Catholics.

And upstaging the Queen. Due to speak on Christmas Day, and according to the leaks, going to talk about Sport. (Maybe she has been reading The Sun, which is actually much better on sport than politics.)

The Pope, of course, though he played it coy, was only too delighted to be give the opportunity of preaching to the Brits, and be rated deserving of talking on Thought for the Day.

Now back in the 1950s the Catholics had mass appeal. Today, their congregations, are almost as pathetic as the Church of England, in terms of the masses.

The majority of Brits, unlike the Americans, no longer go to church. Many of them are atheists, or agnostics.

But the BBC won’t allow none-believers on this slot. It’s OK now if you are a Muslim following Allah, or a Jew, who thinks Jesus Christ got it all wrong, but not if you want to submit a thought for the day, which says you, the bloke in the street, might well gain from thinking about how to live your lives if God does not exist.

Including the Roman Catholic god, which, who is only now getting round to the fact that condoms help ordinary folk not to have children, which they don’t want and cannot afford to rear.

Why has no-one asked for Thompson’s resignation?

In pushing his own, no doubt very genuine beliefs in the Roman Catholic god, he has steered his journalists on a route to violate  just what makes the BBC unique in big media organisations.

BBC journalists are not their Master’s Voice. Speaking what they know is the bias of their boss and owner, be it Murdoch, or Lord Rothermere, or the Barclay Twins, or Georffrey Robinson, curent owner of the New Statesman, or the owner of the left wing Tribune, whose name I do not have to hand.

Murdoch and Rothermere pay the piper. So they can call the tune.

The BBC is paid for the the licence payer.

And that’s us, folks.

An off-white Christmas

Friday, December 24th, 2010

In our part of Dorset it looks as if it is going to be an off-white Christmas. No more snow is likely but the four or five inches already here irs far more than we are used to. The locals were saying in the pub that the Christmas Day swim should be cancelled because Lower Sea Lane, now a sheet of ice, is a death trap.

Higher Sea Lane has had a bit of grit. Emphasis on the bit. This afternoon it was a mix of snow, brown slush and black ice.

When I went around to return the giant lamp to my neighboor this morning it was still below freezing. I slipped on a chunk of ice, saved my by grabbing the nearest bush, which happened to have thorns, drawing blood. Even on this short journey my were fingers were frozen by the time I got back.

Other places are used to it. But Charmouth is on the English Riviera. We often don’t get any snow at all.

By mid-day the sun was shining, inspiring several of my neighbours to come out with their spades, and chip away at the mixture of snow and ice on our street, which is not gritted because it is private. The thermometer on our terrace rose to 4 degrees, and the sun, with a bit of thelp from the central heating rocketed the study temperature to 22 degrees, which felt like the tropics.

But then I was brought up in an age when us Brits thought it wass only the sissy Americans who thought it necessary to heat their houses to 15 degrees.

Even at 4 degrees the sea, though not frozen, was pretty colld. But my younger daughter decided to practice for tomorrow’s swim, braving the ice on Lower Sea Lane. She is on a health kick and has become used to breaking the ice to swim in Hampstead Heath ponds.

So even if the organisers decide to cancel the official Charmouth fancy dress swim, the Jones family will be running into the waves, with me taking the pics.

Hope to post some tomorrow, if my fingers are not too frozen to press the shutter button.

Summer back in the bleak mid winter

Friday, December 24th, 2010

Had finished the last blog and was in the middle of writing an email9 to a friend, when Holly came in.

It is now a very grey dawn. No more snow in the night, but there is enough left on Stonebarrow  hill it give Charmouth  the look af a winter wonderland.

She wanted to know if Summer was with me.

Apparently Holly had woken at 2 AM. Gone to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and found summer there.

She ran to our room to tell us. Janet woke up  immediately and was so pleased she jumped out of bed and did a little jig.

I just turned over.

But she had gone missing again.

Holly said maybe she had been in the house all the time, because when she found her last night she was warm not cold. And this time she could not have run out because all the doors were firmly closed. While we were talking Summer walked in.

Not at  all frightened. She walked around exploring, around the doxes of old files and into the bathroom.

Where she went is a mystery we will probably never solve.

As we may never really solve the mystery of dreams.

I now know for a fact that, what I thought was a vivid dream fragment of Holly at the bedroom door announcing Summer’s return, was most definitely hard reality.

In my main dream last night I was in a Bloomsbury square, either Bedford or Fitzroy. I had a clear vivid image of it, and also of my former colleague from The Times in 1970, Hugh Stephenson. He was asking for £38, which was my share of the lunch bill.

And was getting impatient because I was taking so long to extract the notes from my wallet and the coins from my purse.

Finally, he told me not to bother. And disappeared through a foot-wide gap between two tall buildings, shouting:

‘See you at the river’

It was as real as reality.

But I have been in Charmouth all night.

And now, at 8.20 AM, half a bright red sun has broken through the cloud above Chesil beach. There is a band of dark grey cloud above it. And above that a strip of pink.

A pink Christmas Eve, and the Pope is going to do Thought for the day for the first time ever.

Or is that tomorrow?

Time for breakfast.