All aboard for a spontaneous evening

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One of the many things that disappear when small children take over your heart and your home is the ability to do spontaneous things out of interest. Much stronger reasons are needed to justify abandoning the chicks in the nest without warning, leaving your mate to find last minute worms and put up with all that chirping. Those reasons include traffic jams, emergency health issues and paid work. There may be one or two more but it’s a short list and it certainly doesn’t include lectures by interesting authors in other cities.

It is the unexpected dose of spontaneity that makes my trip to meet author and philosopher Alain de Botton for an interview in Basel last May so remarkable (to me). Picture the scene. I’m sitting at my desk on the outskirts of Bern cobbling information together on some distinctly non-literary topic. Probably something about an international tax agreement, climate change research or Swiss politics – I can’t quite remember. It’s a rainy Tuesday, or possibly Wednesday – definitely midweek.

On my Twitter feed which just happens to be open I notice Alain de Botton tweet the news that he is speaking in Basel that evening. I decide to pass on that snippet to other people who might be free to do things at the drop of a hat. On to the next thing. And then a few minutes later I get a tweet from de Botton himself along the lines of: ‘It’ll be fun. Why don’t you come along?’

Well of course you know the reason why. This is an unplanned midweek evening activity after a working day. Having left the house at 7 a.m., and expecting to do the same the following day, I am already fending off the niggling thought that I might be short-changing the children on essential mothering hours. I’m hardly going to make things worse by not coming home, am I?

Actually, a few phone calls and tweets later that is exactly what I decided to do. I got the all-important green light from father bird, sorted out tickets to the sold-out event by arranging to go in a professional capacity and found myself sitting on a train to Basel a few hours later avidly reading my newly-bought copy of Religion for Atheists, de Botton’s latest bestseller.

That evening, sitting in the back of the hall in the Literaturhaus, I enjoyed the pure pleasure again of doing something cultural out of interest – something more than just going for a meal, hitting the playground or going on a work assignment. I got some time to listen to new ideas, to reflect on them and be moved by some of the human truths that bind us all together.

Below is the link to the story I wrote for following the talk in Basel. Turns out it’s been 20 years since Alain de Botton’s first book was published. He’s been a busy bee.,_20_years_a-writing_.html?cid=36044606

Have you done anything spontaneous recently to shake up the routine? Do tell.

By the Old Gods and the New


It is one hundred years since French mathematician Émile Borel first coined the metaphor of the typing monkeys. Finally, a mathematical theorem everyone could remember and broadly understand, even without a proper grasp of the concepts of infinity, probability and time.

(Quick reminder – an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters given an infinite amount of time will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare.)

Here’s another one to ponder, more historical pattern than a theorem. Isolate a group of people for long enough and they will make up their own religion. In Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin has done a masterful job of illustrating this human phenomenon.

From the Old Gods of the Forest to the Faith of the Seven, the Drowned God to the Lord of Light, there’s something for everyone in Martin’s brilliant array of belief systems. Fire, water, sand, horse blood, ancient trees – anything can be ascribed sacred properties in his fantasy kingdoms, as in the real world.

Of course not all religions evolve over countless generations, some enterprising folk fast forward the whole process by putting together their own faith package either from scratch or rehashing a new version of what’s gone before. If Martin has the imagination to create a dozen religions, clearly there are enough creative individuals out there with the ability to produce one.

Once the basic stuff is established – the back story of the religion, who or what to worship and a description of the afterlife – there is the option to make up a set of rules for everyday life. It doesn’t matter how silly these rules are, people will lap it up.

Baseball caps must be worn at all times by anyone over the age of ten, breakfast must be eaten within four minutes of waking up, no drinks may be consumed cold, brush you hair only with your left hand, no sex on Mondays, no work on Tuesdays, hop on one leg on Wednesdays. Throw in something about women being simple minded, dangerous, or in some way tainted with evil and you are onto a winner.

My own religion Clarism involves a lot of tea lights and a special devotion to butterflies and tomato plants. I’ll spare you the complicated story linking these elements. Followers are marked with chalk on their foreheads and always carry pepper on their person. Each new convert is allowed to add one line to our holy book in the quest for the one true story. And we’ll all live forever in the eternal lake of dreams.