Life models

5 03 2016


Aristotle believed that spending time with children was necessary and one of the ways to lead a happy life. Children could bring out the best in people, he thought. They could teach adults patience and kindness and deliberation. Aristotle’s no- nonsense practical philosophy encouraged people to look for activities that were good for their own sake rather than as a means to an end. Time spent with children was good and the parent, guardian or teacher who recognised this would feel the satisfaction of a job well done. No other reward was necessary.

In my early days of teaching before targets took the fun out of the job, I spent many lessons weeping not in frustration, but with the kind of helpless laughter that only a classroom filled with thirteen-year-old boys can generate. Their glee and game-for-anything attitude inspired me to take risks. One class acted out their own comedy scenes from Twelfth Night in makeup and hastily improvised costumes and I will never forget the boy playing Malvolio rolling around on the floor, school trousers stuffed into his pulled-up socks, so breathless with trying not to laugh he could barely speak.

Playing to the boys’ natural sense of irony and wit and wanting to puncture the competitive corporate male school ethos as well as liven up a drab temporary space, I put up fairy lights, lugged an old-fashioned typewriter into the room and set another group the task of making Valentine cards from Henry V to Catherine, the tackier the better, with chocolate prizes for the most schmaltzy. They went mad with red velvet, pink pens and glitter. Some of the boys were so determined to outdo each other they wrote their love poems in French. The cleaners complained all week about the mess, but we had the best fun.

Those boys have gone through university by now and some may even have young children of their own. I wonder if they remember those lessons as I do? It was not so long ago, but it seems to belong to a more innocent time when there was no guilt attached in allowing pupils to play and improvise. Now that I have been so well schooled in lesson aims, agendas and learning objectives I know that were I to meet those classes all over again I would be a different sort of teacher: less spontaneous, perhaps, less experimental, less good-natured. More efficient, more measured, more professional. I wonder which teacher they would prefer?

I’m interested because few children forget their teachers. I still remember Miss Hayes, my teacher from infant school, who patiently showed me how to tie my shoe-laces again and again and ignored my embarrassment and frustration at not being able to tell the time. Miss Hayes was soft voiced, smiley and super efficient, which combination of virtues made her not only sensible but safe. I worshipped her. I loved my junior school and Sunday school teacher, too, Miss Smith because she took an interest in me and acted as something of an early mentor, gently drawing me out on my reading and my ideas. I even spent time at her home, unthinkable now.

My early teachers weren’t so interested in my fun, but they were interested in my welfare and my development. They became role models because of how they conducted themselves and I admired them for this. Miss Smith was tall and wore big square glasses and long wool skirts and flat shoes and she was the most sensible person in the universe. As a wobbly ten-year-old she was everything I needed in a teacher. She had weight and grace and dependability. She was a woman of virtuous character and I knew that I could trust her to show me who I was meant to be. For this is the real purpose of teaching, as Aristotle understood. This is education as it is supposed to be.

In ancient Greece, children absorbed knowledge from spending time with adults who had enough experience of life to explain things properly and clearly. The philosopher believed that children needed the right role models if they were to develop good character and that education was much more important than wealth. Our modern system of education with its emphasis on passing exams in order to achieve success in a well-paid career would make no sense to Aristotle. He believed that finding fulfilment is our life’s work, and if we are going to reach our potential we need to know where we want to go. I’m grateful to my early teachers for showing me the way.


But Hitler was a vegetarian

3 11 2015


People who want to find flaws in the arguments for not eating animals will often, semi-jokingly, point out that Hitler was a vegetarian. Their anti-vegetarian logic flows something like this: if a carpet-munching, insane mass murderer loved animals enough not to eat them then sane, rational people should not do so because that makes them affiliated with him, the tiny nasty Fuhrer.

In response, it’s likely that Hitler almost certainly ate bread as part of his diet, but few people would give up eating sandwiches or baguettes to avoid being associated with the eating habits of the Fuhrer, so why does his preference for vegetables provoke such an emotional reaction?

Perhaps what stirs people is not so much what Hitler decided to put on his plate (or not), but the effrontery of Hitler taking an ethical position. For many, Hitler cannot be ethical because, of course, Hitler was evil. Ethical positions held by evil people are suspicious therefore we shouldn’t trust them. This curious line of reasoning conveniently lets people off the hook of considering the difficult, embarrassing problem of whether to eat animals or not.

Like many people who grew up in the seventies, I ate animals. Favourites from my childhood diet included crispy bacon sandwiches with spicy brown sauce, sausages cooked to dark sweet stickiness and sandwiched between the crackling crusts of soft white bread, steak and kidney pie, especially those flabby ones in the tin that puffed up to a glorious golden crispy wonder, liver and bacon and onions.

Just thinking about those meaty favourites makes my mouth water. If someone were to offer me a steak right now, I would have trouble resisting, which makes me, I suppose, an inconsistent vegetarian. Sometimes I tell people that I’m a pragmatic vegetarian, who sometimes eats meat, but that is a pretty indefensible position. In fact, it’s really no position at all.

Like many people, I suppose, I want to leave my options open. I want to enjoy the clear conscience that comes from only eating plants and not harming animals, but I’m also someone who loves to cook for people and eat with family and friends, and most of the people I love to cook for and eat with are not vegetarian.

I’ve got round this for a number of years by only cooking meat on special occasions. I believe that if I’m going to eat meat then it should be locally sourced, organic, free range, the best, by which I mean the least harmfully reared meat I can buy. Lamb I consider to be more ethical than pork or beef because at least lambs are allowed to live outside for most of their short lives. Last Christmas I bought from my local butcher a plump free range duck that was lovingly slapped as it slid into its plastic bag. This bird had been branded a ‘good bird,’ simply by the warmth of the butcher’s touch. It tasted delicious, along with the potatoes cooked to a crisp in the sweet clear duck fat.

A year on, and I’ve read more and thought more about the ethics of eating animals and now I’m not so sure I would enjoy the duck without more than a twinge of guilt. A butcher’s banter is no longer enough to reassure me that every bird had a decent life. Free range and local does not necessarily mean a happy bird waddling around by a pond with its friends before someone came along with a bag to whisk it away for slaughter. The duck might, indeed, have been a duckling only six weeks old and fattened up with growth-promoting feed to increase its breast so that it could adorn my Christmas table. Huh!

In preparation for a seminar on food ethics, I’ve been reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Much of his reasoning resonates. He believes that the question of eating animals is ‘not only our basic ability to respond to sentient life, but our ability to respond to parts of or own (animal) being. There is a war not only between us and them, but between us and us.’ By which he means that eating animals is part of the human story.

I’m at the beginning of a new story in how I work with and relate to animals and I want to start off on the right footing, so to speak. I would no more think of eating one of my animals than I would think of eating one of my brothers or sisters. It isn’t sentiment that stops me considering their flesh as meat, or romanticism, or even squeamishness. It’s a sense of morality. I wouldn’t eat my horse, or any horse for that matter, because it would be wrong to do so.

The reasons for this wrongness are many. Firstly and obviously, I have other options and don’t need to eat them to stay alive, but even if I were starving and had no other option then I would still choose to gnaw on bark or eat dried leaves than sacrifice my horses to feed myself.

How can I know this? During the two and a half years I spent researching the German and Russian occupation of Poland in the Second World War I read many accounts of people eating rats, cats, dogs, squirrels, pigeons and crows simply to stay alive. In one vivid account, people who had been imprisoned in cellars for months ran out and risked their lives to drink the blood of horses. Many horses perished to keep people alive.

I understand the desperation that would drive someone to kill an animal in order to stay alive. I have read enough about the effects of starvation to know that it drives people mad and convinces them to abandon their ethical principles. Under these circumstances, many people would think that they didn’t have a choice. It would come down to this: either my life continues or the animal’s, and my life is more important to me than the animal’s so unfortunately the animal must give up its life to save mine.

When Jonathan Safran Foer’s Jewish grandmother was offered meat by a Russian after coming close to starvation under German occupation, she refused. The meat was pork. It wasn’t kosher. The author was surprised by her decision. Why wouldn’t she eat pork to save her own life? Her response illuminates the ethical position so simply, so beautifully and so powerfully. ‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing left to save.’

If animals matter to us, to make them suffer in their billions worldwide just so we can farm them for cheap meat through the food industry is indefensible and certainly unethical. The question which intrigues me though is why a diet without meat is so difficult for many people to contemplate: why are so many people, and I include myself here, prepared to look away from animal suffering and heap their surrendered flesh on to a plate simply because it tastes good? It just seems such a flimsy reason. My thinking is that eating meat is so bound up with conditioning and habit and mind-set that taking an ethical position on animal suffering is nowhere near as straightforward as taking an ethical position on human torture. Most people aren’t implicated in torture, but most people are implicated in what happens to animals. I’m interested to know what you think. In the meantime, I’m sticking with eating apples for a while.

Wonder work

19 10 2015

Belinda with Sheranni

When I tell people I teach philosophy and I also work with horses, they often ask whether there’s a connection. How do you get from philosophy to horses? I understand the link is not that obvious. Philosophy is an abstract indoor sport practised mostly by men in book-lined rooms. Horses, on the other hand, are physical creatures of the outdoors that require a lot of looking after mostly by women in muddy wellingtons. Indeed, it has taken me many years of practising philosophy and horsemanship side by side to properly see how the two connect. Once I made the connection, though, I began to see links everywhere, and that’s when life started to get really interesting.

Plato says that philosophy begins in wonder, and that was my starting point with horses. Early in my life I was drawn to horses because they were something to wonder about, to think about and dream about. The quality of my wondering about horses was very different to the quality of my wondering about dogs and other domestic animals, including the cats and rabbits and guinea pigs I grew up with. Horses enabled me to think and feel more deeply. Horses opened my mind to imaginative possibility, which changed as I developed and matured from someone who just wanted to ride horses to someone who considers horses as valuable teachers for humans. I recognise this opening as the beginning of an intense philosophical journey.

It’s tricky to talk about animals meaningfully. For some reason people get prickly about it. The usual defence mechanism is the charge of anthropomorphism. It is considered wrong to talk of animals as if they have human characteristics and human emotions, but as the philosopher Mary Midgley points out every new thing we meet has to be understood in human terms. We can’t invent a special language to discuss animals any more than we can invent a special language to discuss God. She notes that the concept of anthropomorphism is very old, and applied to early Christians who believed that God morphed into a human shape. The understanding of animals was added on to the end of the early definitions of the concept and is not really central, more of an afterthought.

As Midgley says ‘Anthropomorphism is a remarkable concept. It may be the only example of a notion invented solely for God, and then transferred unchanged to refer to animals.’ Nowadays the term is used quite forcefully against those who would like to open up the debate about our relationship with animals. It makes me think of how we humans like to have everything so neatly categorised: us in one box, animals in another.

Perhaps the reason is to maintain our superiority. We humans think we’re so special. We invented language and art and comedy. We invented science, sport and religion, but not necessarily in that order. We can climb mountains, visit the moon and design buildings that stagger the imagination. Let’s not forget the internet, the new wonder of the modern world. Our achievements are living proof of the genius that calls itself humanity.

Except that only a tiny bit of us is actually human. A little over one per cent of a human being is human. Think about it one point three per cent of you is responsible for your human achievements and for your human mistakes. One point three per cent got you to where you are today. The rest of you belongs to the chimpanzee.

We share an immune system with our closest relatives chimpanzees, gorillas and orang utans, the structure of our blood proteins is the same and the circuits of our brains. We are much more similar to animals than we think.

Which brings me to horses. The limbic system in the mid-brain of a horse, (that’s the mammal bit) is nearly identical to the limbic system of the human brain. The Limbic system is responsible for social and emotional responses, as well as blood flow and heart rate. What is remarkable about horses is that they can mirror our emotions and ways of thinking back to us very accurately indeed. Horses are very good at showing us what we don’t want to know! Which is why they are such valuable teachers in the field of human development.

Animals are part of our continuing human story. Understanding animals can take us beyond anthropomorphism and into new arenas of thought and, yes, wonder. Over the past year of developing a social enterprise which connects socially isolated people to horses, I’ve been exploring this story and getting people to think of themselves more as social animals in order to develop wisdom, wonder and well-being in their lives. The stories they have shared with me have inspired and challenged me to think differently. New thinking always feels like a gift and this is one that I hope to share with you over the coming weeks and months.

Elen with Dragonfly

Imagine being seven again and finding wonder in every encounter.

What’s the point of walking?

27 07 2015


I’ll never forget a friend asking one day: what’s the point of walking, I’d rather read a book? I have to admit when I’m pressed for time, or when it’s really lashing it down, I’d much rather be curled up inside with a good book. My idea of heaven would be a library set in a tree house overlooking a meadow. There I would live in complete bliss with all the inspiration I need right before me. This week I’ve been forced to walk because an elderly dog I’m currently looking after detests going in the car. So in deference to his seniority, I’ve clipped on his lead most evenings, to his tail-swinging delight.

Because I wanted to make the most of our time together and make the walks interesting for us both, I made sure we took a slightly different route each time. One evening I took my camera to record some sights along the way, and was rewarded with good light and some wonderful work on a suitably ethical sculpture trail.

2015-07-22 18.41.00

My favourite was Walking on an Empty Stomach by Malcolm Gurley, an arresting image of a hiker with no middle, which was playful, but also poignant as it made me think of soldiers severed on the battlefields of the First World War. Its incompleteness was ghostly. I also loved the old goat made from recycled textiles and the giant plastic snail made from recycled milk cartons.

Walking is something I rarely do now unless I have a dog. I used to walk for miles along the cliff path when I was working on novels, and the process of walking helped to generate the rhythm I needed to write. I gave up proper walking when I started to train my horses. Most of my walks now involve the company of a horse and while I love these walks, I can’t really lose myself in the landscape or my own imagination because I need to be fully present for my horse.

Walking dogs doesn’t require the same focus or attention as walking horses. Walking dogs takes me to different kinds of places, and it allows me to notice what’s happening close to home. This week my walks have shown me that the town in which I am so fortunate to live is vibrant, social and ethically aware. Some seaside towns are tired and traditional, and don’t bother to welcome visitors with anything new. A sculpture trail is a good place to start people thinking about what we do with the stuff we chuck away. I’m glad that Teignmouth cares enough to engage with the question.

Adventures in Ethics

18 07 2015

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Is there anything you would be prepared to give up to save the planet from human excess? I put this question to one of my philosophy groups this week after admitting that I was trying to give up buying bottled water, not always easy when I’ve gone out in hot sun completely forgetting to take a drink with me.

Graham said that there were some things that he would be prepared to give up, but not at the expense of marital harmony. His wife was against any form of ethical living and his attempts to sort out their rubbish for recycling really annoy her. I joked that he’d have to start taking out the rubbish under the cover of darkness and he said that it was no joke. One night his wife caught him eating something perfectly edible from their kitchen bin, and went ballistic. He wondered whether ethical living was worth the hassle he would get from someone who thinks that people who care about such matters are basically nutters.

Painful as it was for Graham to be so compromised in his own household, antipathy and even downright aggression to people who want to live according to ethical principles is fairly commonplace. Judging by the amount of rubbish in my street and the road I walk regularly, there are more people chucking food wrappers and drinks cans out of cars than there are people prepared to pick up the litter. If I want to live ethically, I can’t walk past the grey, flattened bottles, the plastic bags and the drinks cans washed up along the hedge without picking them up, and most of the time I resent having to do so, even while I’m ranting at those who DON’T CARE.

There are many objections to living ethically. Here’s a list of some of the most popular ones.

Living ethically is dreary

Living ethically is earnest

Living ethically makes others feel guilty

Living ethically is difficult

Living ethically will change who I am

Living ethically will make people dislike me

I’m too old for ethics

I’m too young for ethics

Ethics can’t make a difference, as the planet is already doomed.

I’ve decided that I can’t really teach ethics without at least trying to address some of these objections and practise some of the philosophical ideas I’m inviting people to explore.

So, I’m committing to a year of living ethically and I’ll be sharing my adventures in regular posts. For starters, taking the first objection on the list, ethics really needn’t be dreary. Ethics can be fun and it can also involve young people, who love to get involved, as long as the ethical is served up with a generous dollop of spontaneous play. I’ll offer an egg-hunt as my first example of how ethical living can be an adventure.

One the morning after their sleepover I’d promised Anna and Elen pancakes, but I had run out of eggs. We had a choice. I could either nip to Tesco Express and buy some and make the pancakes pretty swiftly, or we could go and feed the goats and ponies and buy the eggs on the way from a local farmhouse with a little roadside stall and a tin for the money. Guess what the girls chose? We went to the farmhouse, but the stall was empty. There are no guarantees of success with this way of shopping. I knew of another farmhouse with eggs and an honesty box, but it was two or three lanes away, and we were by now starving. The girls had to make another ethical choice: go to the supermarket or go to the second farmhouse. Guess what they chose?

The farmhouse had eggs, and what eggs they were, all different colours, from hazelnut brown to sky blue to olive green. We bought two dozen, some for us, and the rest as gifts. We admired these eggs. We talked about them. We wondered about the hens that had laid them. We put them on the counter and photographed them. And then we made golden pancakes and ate them.

If you’re willing to share, I’d be fascinated to know about your own ethical adventures.

To be an entrepreneur

29 06 2015

guinea pig

I started my first enterprise with my brothers and sister when I was around twelve and they were aged ten, eight and six. We spent a good deal of time discussing our vision, our goals and our plans for expansion. We built up stock and cut costs by accepting donations for our equipment and running expenses. We already had one long high-sided box with some chicken wire tacked to the top; it wouldn’t be difficult to make or find another. The guinea pigs we were breeding to sell all lived together in the box and seemed comfortable enough.

We were feeling really excited about finding customers and marketing our business. Who wanted to go to a dusty pet shop and choose a sad, caged guinea pig when they could come to us and select from a whole squeaking mass of the happy little creatures. Our guinea pigs were different. They had twinkly eyes and little twitching pink noses. They were irresistible. We shone with pride. People would be able to tell just from looking at us that we were doing this for love, as well as profit. We didn’t know any other children entrepreneurs who had bothered to start something so amazing. We were certain we had found a niche in the market.

The guinea pigs found their own gap and began escaping at night. First one or two would go missing and we would find them huddled under the tumble drier in the laundry room of the old hotel where we lived at the time. We plonked them back in the box, but every morning a few more would escape and we would coax them out from under the drier until one terrible morning we went to the laundry room and saw that every single one had disappeared. Dreams of our global guinea pig farm crashed as we realised we had lost everything.

We didn’t have the heart to start again. In any case it was much more profitable carrying suitcases up the stairs for the hotel visitors and occasionally washing glasses. We moved into a new league of entrepreneurship when the coach parties rolled in for cream teas. We put our collaborative skills to use by each taking a team role: one to take the coats and umbrellas from the elderly ladies, one to hang them up (the coats not the ladies), one to issue the cloakroom ticket, and the littlest, brightest, shiniest one to smile and say thank you as the saucer overflowed.

We recognised from an early age that entrepreneurs don’t waste time when one business fails to get off the ground; they instantly start another. Entrepreneurs like to live by their own efforts, and there is nothing more satisfying than building something from nothing and having people want to invest in what you have built.

I started a social enterprise knowing that I wanted to link philosophy to connecting with animals because whenever I taught philosophy I nearly always ended up having a conversation about animals and the so-called species barrier. As a child I never really saw any difference between myself and animals, or trees or beetles, or ticks, or stones. To me, it was simply life in another form, and I was always utterly curious about life, which is important if you are going to attempt to do any kind of work in philosophy.

After seventeen years of teaching philosophy it is being, the raw material and energy of philosophy that intrigues me. Being is a constant, fresh puzzle and this has been illustrated by some of the children I’ve taught this year. An essential part of being is having something to care about, if I’m getting all phenomenological, something for being to be concerned with. These children rescue greyhounds, they care about orcas being kept in captivity, they dream of music or menus or oceans. They’ve shown me that when you care enough, you have everything you need to become who you are.

As I reach the final stage of my year at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, I’m realising how important it is for an entrepreneur to hold on to the open mind of the child. To trust that your enterprise will find its own form and to trust that even if your box is empty one morning, you will still be able to go out and build something, not be someone.

I’m really sorry though about the guinea pigs we lost. We made some careless mistakes and we really should have organised a night watch, but we were beginners and I suppose we can be forgiven for that.

Trust the animal to choose

15 06 2015


Since I wrote about trust I’ve been thinking about times when I’ve had to trust my animals to get themselves out of trouble. This is what might be called high-stakes trust, when there are no other options than to submit to assistance. I think many animals are experts at assessing when to trust humans and they need to be, especially when their lives are at stake.

Tinker’s life was not at stake, but she was at risk of severe injury when she got both her front and her back legs caught in fence wire. She had been boxed in around the gateway by her bolshy aunt Bella and had tried to save herself by plunging forward, but in her rush to escape she had got caught between two strands of fence wire and stood wide-eyed wondering what to do next.

The scene from War Horse of Joey trapped in razor wire on the Western Front came into mind. That horse had no chance of escaping without tearing himself to pieces, and now this young Dartmoor pony was in the same predicament. If she lunged forward she would shred her chest and neck and shoulder on barbed wire. If she tried to move backwards there was a danger she would tear her legs all the way up to her quarters.

Her instinct was to push forward and she was breathing hard and straining with her chest trying to force her way through. Fearing that she would pull the fence down, I moved her back and she responded before trying again to free herself. My mouth went dry as I imagined the terrible wounds she could inflict. I saw her fine flesh torn like raw meat. I felt powerless to help her.

Just then the field owner arrived in his truck and my hope soared. I shouted at him to come and help us, but the wind took away my words. He had lost his mobile phone in the field around a year ago and so I couldn’t even call him. Unknowing of the crisis down at the far end of the field, he left with his usual cheerful wave, closing the gate behind him. In that moment I felt the horror of what I was sure was going to be disaster. Fear dried my tears against the back of my eyeballs.

Tinker struggled again, and I could tell that she was getting fed up with the situation. Any minute now she was going to shove her way forward through the fence. I knew that horses could still run with horrific injuries and not feel pain because of the adrenaline. I needed to act quickly to stop her.

Taking a few deep breaths, I explained to her that she was trapped and that pushing was going to cause terrible injury. She quietened and blew on to my hand. I then explained to her that what she needed to do was to help me to find a way to get her out of this situation. She became very still. Her eye was huge and dark and liquid. I wanted to help her, I explained, but I needed her co-operation. I needed her to help me find a way out of trouble.

What happened next was truly amazing. She arched her neck and then very slowly lifted her hoof up to chest height, like a dancer practising stretches. She continued to lift it and together we wiggled it clear of the wire and slowly, very slowly eased it over the top of the fence and down to the ground. Then with the same deliberate, careful movement she lifted her other front foot clear and together we moved that one down to the ground. I had a sense that we were working together as a team, choreographing each move. Eventually we got all her legs free and she sauntered off and began to graze as if nothing of any consequence had happened. By now I was shaking and needed a few whole droppers of Rescue Remedy.

Afterwards I was able to think about how resourcefully the pony had solved this problem. She had tried different ways to free herself and had to overcome her instincts in order to co-operate with me. She had probably never before been in the situation of having to totally rely on a human being to get out her out of trouble, but she was willing to give it a try. I don’t think she realised that it was her only option. I think she was so fed up with waiting that she was open to suggestion.

This is truly remarkable in a semi-feral animal who mostly thinks of survival.  It was fascinating to witness Tinker change from an animal committed to self-preservation to an animal making an informed choice about how she might preserve her being. She worked out how to lift herself out, and that saved her from injury and taught me a profound lesson about trusting the animal to find the best solution to a problem.

Since that incident my relationship with Tinker has strengthened. That day we found a greater understanding and respect for each other. We learned that we could rely on each other when things got difficult and neither of us needed to fight for the upper hand. I realise that this semi-wild mare is even more sensitive, aware and intelligent than I thought. I suspect that she will always be a little wayward and I’m sure there will be plenty more scrapes, but now I know her better I trust that she will work her way through the next problem with confidence.

This illuminating talk by Caroline Ingraham explores some of the reasons why we should give animals choices.