It’s iris time

The iris in my mother’s garden is white. If it looks mauve, that’s because the picture was taken in the evening light. It is now forty-five years old and looks as it does at the moment for only a brief time each May.

It is white, but it and its companions might have been any colour. They were gathered from the rubbish heap, rhizomes discarded because they had been muddled with others, either after they had been cut, or in the dispatch shed where the irises were packed before being sent off to addresses around the country.

We were free to take rhizomes from the rubbish heap, they had no value and a handful of them might turn out to be a range of entirely different colours.

Two summers were spent at the nursery. Two months in 1978, and four months between completing A-Levels and starting university in 1979. A total of six months of work, and hardly any awareness of what an iris looked like.

By the time the summer came and the season for cutting and dispatching rhizomes arrived, all traces of the flowers had long since disappeared. That they were May-flowering was an easily learned fact, but there was no memory of how the fields of the nursery had looked during May.

Irises seemed half-dead, unattractive plants, it was a mystery why people went to occasions like the Chelsea Flower Show and placed orders for dozens to be sent to them by post.

The nursery’s specialisms were irises and peonies. The peonies were even less attractive than the irises. Peony roots were sent to the customers. Presumably these roots had once been the source of beautiful flowers, but the brown clumps that were dug and posted gave little clue of the potential they held.

On one occasion, being allowed an afternoon in the packing shed instead of out in the fields, it was odd to look at the peony roots and consider how much people would pay for them. The top price was £6.50 or so for the more expensive ones, that’s around £40 each in 2019 values. Who would spend £40 on a single peony that might not grow at all? (Some of them didn’t grow: irate customers would arrive at the nursery seeking out the foreman who would tell them calmly that he was afraid that the foreman was not around the yard that day).

Peonies never found their way onto the rubbish heap, presumably they were too valuable to muddle. Forty-five years on, the irises are staging their brief annual show.

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Artificial intelligence cannot cope with teenage boys

The Financial Times carries an article stating that ‘AI will create a serious number of losers.’  The article states that AI tools ‘will shake up everything from medical diagnostics to teaching and copywriting, a range of jobs will be eradicated.’

One can only assume that the DeepMind founder who is making such claims has not met the boys of the Second Year class on Wednesday afternoons. The poor electronic device intended to replace the teacher would find itself unplugged so they can charge their phones, its pleas for order would be met with paper balls and darts, and everything it said would be ignored.  Anyone who tried teaching electronically during lockdown will know how it failed completely with unwilling students.

However successful computer programmes may be, the possibility of them demonstrating intelligence comparable with that of humans is still remote.  The intelligence demanded for daily human life demands countless skills and choices, it demands the answering of unanticipated questions, something beyond the capacity of a computer programme, which can only base its response on the information it has been given.

As a Religious Education teacher, it seems that the greatest difficulty for artificial intelligence will be in responding to moral questions. One of the issues raised in objections to driverless cars is how they make moral choices. An adult pushing a child in a buggy steps off of the pavement without looking: should the car hit the adult and child or should it swerve to the right for a head-on collision with a car coming in the other direction? Someone writing the programme to allow a vehicle to travel autonomously would have to decide what the programme should instruct the car to do, someone has to take the moral decision because the programme is incapable of doing so by itself.

Real artificial intelligence will have emerged when a programme can argue with itself, and with other programmes, about what is right and what is wrong. Perhaps, given the speed of technological progress, that possibility will arrive sooner than expected, but for that point to be reached, programmers will have to teach value systems to their machines, they will have to install a code of ethics as part of the computer’s thought processes.

Who is going to decide on the moral values of artificially intelligent computer programme? Whether it is taking the decision to run over the child in the buggy, or the decision about which lives to save in an accident and emergency ward, someone is going to have to write the moral software. The point when a computer can take decisions for itself seems still distant..

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Happy to talk

The four boys sat around the table talking, there was not a phone in sight. I went over to them and said how encouraging it was that they were content to just happy to talk.

Talking was a serious business when I was a child. Harold and Glady called at the farm at Pibsbury each Sunday evening. Friends of my grandparents they would sit in the farmhouse sitting room and talk about the events and news of the week. It was an evening just to talk.

Glady’s name was presumably ‘Gladys,’ but, if it was, it was never used. Names were not necessarily what you might have assumed. My grandmother was known by everyone as ‘Cis,’ a name that apparently arose from her little brother’s inability to pronounce her name ‘Geraldine’ (why ‘Cis’ and not ‘Sis,’ I never discovered). My Auntie Gus’s full name was ‘Augusta,; something I only discovered years after she had died. Glady’s full name might have been anything.

In memory, Glady wore a hairnet during her Sunday evening calls, but that might be a conflation of memories of Glady, Gus and Ena Sharples from Coronation Street. In memory, Glady was not very agile, but that cannot have been due to her age.

While Harold and Glady seemed very old to a small boy, they were of my grandparents’ generation, which means the Sunday evening visitors were not yet sixty, for I was twelve before my grandmother was sixty and thirteen before my grandfather reached his sixtieth birthday. It is odd to think that the couple that I now remember as elderly were younger than I am now.

Glady always liked a very firm chair upon which to sit. Perhaps she had orthopaedic problems, perhaps the desire for a hard chair was just a matter of personal preference.

Sitting upright on a firm seat could sometimes give the sitter an almost regal air.

Auntie Gus would sit bolt upright in her sitting room, in the chair where she passed the days sat beside Uncle Jack. Jack had suffered severe hardship as a prisoner of war and as forced labour, in a coal mine during the First World War, and it would have been easy to have imagined reasons why he would have found a straight-backed chair to be more comfortable. It would not have been so easy to have explained why Gus chose such seating.

Perhaps straight-backs were cultural. Born before the Great War, Harold and Glady and Gus and Jack would have been shaped by the culture of their times. The body language of an upright stance suggests confidence and transparency and a willingness to conform with the rules. Perhaps sitting straight-backed was a mark of respect to one’s host. Perhaps it was an indicator of the seriousness with which talking was taken.


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Beltane in Glastonbury

On Monday, it will be the first day of May, a bank holiday Monday

The last time May Day fell on  Monday, a trip to Glastonbury brought an encounter with a large crowd gathered to mark the pagan festival of Beltane. Their faces were painted green, their head dresses woven from ivy, they wore outlandish clothes, many of those gathered might have stepped out a scene from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. 

There was an air of celebration, laughter, joy. People were smiling and animated in their participation in the activities. Proclamations by a man in the costume of a town crier were greeted with loud acclamation. Sounds of drumming and chants were followed by a procession down the high street by musicians and a group carrying a large wooden pole. Reaching the bottom of the street, the procession moved into the middle of the crowd, where there was a loud declamation, before the whole assembly moved off, making slow progress back up the street, with the pole in the middle, followed by those carrying a long dragon made from fabric and held aloft on sticks. The pole was a tree trunk into which various symbols had been carved; when the procession reached its destination, it would be erected as a maypole.

The gathering radiated energy and enthusiasm, people of all ages had come to participate in the Beltane ceremonies, but also to enjoy themselves as they did so.

Posting on Facebook, a couple of dozen photographs of those gathered for the celebration, a friend from an evangelical church in England immediately posted a comment saying ‘heathen.’  A retort posted by someone else said that said that at least they didn’t bomb people in the name of Jesus. Further discussion ensued, including the suggestion that most of those present were probably anarchists or libertarians and were probably not so far removed in their attitudes from the apostles in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, who regarded even personal property as something that could be sold to help the poor.

If one had talked to the ‘hippies’ who comprised the majority of the crowd, their values would have included a respect for the Earth; a commitment to living environmentally responsible lives; a favouring of vegetarianism or veganism so that animals did not suffer cruelty, and so that there would be a more efficient use of agricultural land; a commitment to peace and an end to the spending of trillions on weapons of destruction; a natural acceptance of the equality of women; an attitude of inclusion towards strangers and towards minorities; a tolerance of those whose views differed from their own.

Being a Financial Times-reading, rugby going, white, middle class Protestant male, I would have had little in common with those in the parade, but I couldn’t help envying their happiness.

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Foreign voices

‘Where are you from, sir?’

I have given up saying that I have lived thirty-six of the last forty years of my life in Ireland.

‘England,’ I said.

‘Where in England?’

‘Somerset,’ I said.

Except when I was back in Somerset for four years, the same question was asked. Standing in a classroom in Weston-Super-Mare, I was asked. ‘Where are you from, sir?’

‘I’m from here.’

‘I know you are now, but what about before?’

‘I was born in Taunton, I grew up in Langport, I did my A Levels at Strode College in Street. I’m from here.’

‘But you’re not really from here, sir.’

‘Where am I from, then?’

‘Are you American?’

‘No, I’m definitely not American. I lived in Ireland.’

‘My friend said he thought you were Irish. I thought you were American.’

The bell had gone and the class had moved to their next lesson. The teacher whose room I had occupied had come to set up for the class that was to arrive.

‘One of that class thought I was American,’ I said.

He had laughed, and, in his soft Texas voice, had added, ‘some people think any accent they don’t recognise is American.’

To be honest, the first time I encountered a Dublin accent, when riding on a train through England, I thought it was American.

Except that I don’t have a Dublin accent. A colleague who served with the British forces in Northern Ireland thinks there is an occasional trace of an Ulster accent, but nothing further south.

When I used to make pieces for radio programmes and listened back to them, I was always convinced I had lost little of the West Country burr with which I had grown up. I always imagined that it would not have been a problem to walk into the livestock market or into a village pub and to immediately blend in with the local conversation.

The Somerset accent is one of the regional accents that has withstood the spread of so-called Estuary English. Apparently the flat vowels of the south-east came to Bristol and could go no further, it was something to do with the way particular sounds are formed.

Whilst the Somerset accent has remained in Langport, the dialect has almost disappeared. The local vocabulary has become standardised English. The words may be spoken with an intonation different from that of Estuary English, but they are the same words.

Perhaps it is too late now for me to hope for a recovery of the dialect, perhaps holding onto enough of a burr to appear foreign in Co Meath has been an achievement in itself. My primary school teacher would be delighted that it is many years since I last used the word ‘baint’ to declare unwillingness.


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