here is my usual warning of spelling mistakes, punctuation horrors and possibly ill-thought out ideas. this one is a reaction to peering into rock pools. I haven’t yet found time to reply to people’s comments on last blogs, but thank you to those that left them whether negative or positive ( a much smaller thank you to the negative ones obviously, said through clenched teeth in a mockery of good manners)
One of my favourite train journeys is from London to Cornwall. It is a pleasant, sometimes beautiful, crossing through the pastures and countryside of southern England, but from Exeter St Davids to Newton Abbot it can dazzle and enlighten even when an umbrella of storm clouds overshadow it. The rails are as close to the sea as any train line I know. Tunneling through the cliffs and then almost avalanching onto the coast, it is a vision of the immensity of nineteenth century endeavour. If you are not content mulling over this feat of engineering (while trying to put the number of casualties incurred in its construction to the back of your mind), then you can enjoy the natural beauty of the sea which, on a stormy day, spits on the train windows. And if that’s still not enough, you can enjoy the views of crazy golf and deckchairs that have a nostalgia of things past yet still functioning. It is the remembrance of the smell of a cake immediately followed by being offered a plate of that same cake (I’ve not read Proust, but I’m told smelling cake figures prominently in his work) .
Looking out of the window on Friday, the rocky beaches of Dawlish were busy with children peering into rock pools in threes, fours and fives, looking for something of interest left stranded in a natural zoo created that morning by the tide. As I looked at this succession of images of inquiry, made flick book like by the trains rapid progress, I thought of my own son’s excitement at any crevice or pool. Those hours of holiday hope on the beach, waiting for something to surprise him with its shape or colour or movement, creating a multitude of questions, many of which I probably couldn’t answer without later recourse to my own childhood Ladybird book of the Seaside. This is one unchanging thing. However much society seems to change, whatever dire warnings are given that the delinquents are on the rise, children still look down in rock pools with hope and excitement. Our duty as adults is two-fold, to encourage that inquisitiveness, and to not lose it ourselves.
Carl Sagan once wrote, “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them”. It is a pity that from pub conversations to political diatribes, being cocksure is far more important that being correct.
There should be no shame in being inquisitive, unless your inquisitiveness involves placing video cameras in a public toilet or being overly enthusiastic in prodding dog faeces with your bare hands, but the older we become, the more we seem embarrassed to have questions. Once our schooling is finished, so our questioning must end. It seems better to appear knowledgeable and remain ignorant, than to admit to any limitations. “Why did you burn down the old people’s home?” “I thought I had misheard the instruction, but I didn’t want to show myself up by asking the lady to repeat herself. Yes, it was a mistake and many died, but let’s remember it was burnt down with confidence, and of that I am proud”.
We pretend to know bands or places or people because it seems to embarrassing to reveal our ignorance – “oh yes, I have heard of Naked Picnic, they’re on Domino records aren’t they?” “I think I’ve been to Boblangley by the sea, is that where the monastery is made of post it notes and butter?” and so on…
In western civilization, many of us can be blasé about knowledge, once we know the way to the shops and how to plug something in we can get away with the main question of each day being “how much is that?”
We are bombarded by so much information and digital achievement that rather than seeing more, we can become blind to everything. There is so much to notice we end up noticing nothing. When I was sitting in The Camden Head attempting a conversation after a show, I looked around and thought, “less, less”. Obviously the bar is hectic with a multitude of booze brands, then the walls of adverts or imagery of jazz musicians smoking near a trumpet or whatever (I saw them all of them, I saw none of them), then a screen was showing some Samurai set Kurosawa or other while the music was set so loud no one could be heard, yet everyone was talking.
How do we attempt to maintain inquisitiveness?
If talking to teachers is anything to go by, formal education has the problem that targets are frequently set for knowing facts, but less space is made for inquisitiveness or instilling the desire to question and wonder why things are as they are. It is hard to work out an exam to test just how much interest people have in knowing more, so better they know the kings and queens of England by heart (something Michael Gove seems very keen to instill in the young, as if his education policy is hoping to create the best pub quiz team in the world). I am sure most people reading this have a story of them or some friend questioning a teacher’s version of events in class and being slammed down harshly with a hint of Stalinist glare for daring to question the official history. Rather than constantly changing what children learn with faddy curriculum changes, it might be better to think of how they learn and what they are learning for – is it to know, or is it to understand? I know some teachers chomping at the bit to just err a little from the curriculum to inject a little more fascination into their classrooms. At times it sounds as agonizing as John Peel being forced to play the official Radio One playlist with no room for Steel Pulse or The Delgados.
The fun of having children is that it is a constant challenge of finding answers and attempting to work out what may not need to require a full answer now. Oddly, the clichéd child question “why is the sky blue?” is one many of us can’t answer, though numerous sitcom moments should have had us reading up on it by the second trimester. A few weeks ago my son saw someone with cerebral palsy and he wondered why he moved in the manner he did. And so I set about attempting to describe why this man’s body behaved differently to his. At four and a half he many not be able to comprehend it all, but as I talked and worked out my explanation I had a greater understanding by the end of it too. A few days later, on a trip back from the circus, I was talking about an event of a few years ago. My son asked where he was when this happened. I explained that it was before he had started to grow in mummy’s tummy. He then asked where he was. Before I got back any further I was told that we would deal with earlier non-existence at a later date, so my son and I got back to I spy. Hopefully if I bring him up well enough, my son will know how limited I am by about eleven or twelve.
Some say that you need to stop and smell the flowers, but don’t stop at the flowers, look to the trees, the sky, the bus stop, the sand and the pylon. At least once a day every day I find myself wondering “why is that like that?” I take a little extra time out for conjecture, and then I go to my bookshelf, the library or the internet.
In my current show tour show (see www.robinince.com for details. A gauche plug amongst the sentences) I used to talk about being delayed on a train outside Oxenholme. I looked out of the window and realized that it framed more life than there is in the rest of the known universe. There may be a planet with a greater richness and variety of life out there somewhere, but we can be certain that we would have to travel in a method perhaps imagined but not yet possible to have the slightest glimmer of hope of finding such a place. It was a mundane thought but looking out of the window has not been the same since.
It’s that moment of reaching down to grasp a fallen acorn and having that split second realization that the actions of recognition, bending down, and picking up, and at the same time breathing, digesting and hearing, all without any conscious thought, is an achievement of billions of years of heredity, mutation and replication. A bog standard human performing an everyday act that cannot be replicated with the finest factory made equivalent.
When things are new, we marvel at their novelty, but that soon wears off and they are just something waiting for its built obsolescence to occur or to remain forever unnoticed. At End of the Road festival this year, as I was only there for 48 hours I thought I wouldn’t bother with queuing for a shower, instead I relied for the shell of cleanliness that a few baby wipes can provide at morning and night. The idea of daily showering seems so much part of our lives that some people were a little taken aback at my decision even before I could have stunk beyond my normal level. And I thought, go back a few years, bathing was frequently a weekly thing, a horror or delight on a Sunday with an extra one on a Wednesday for the lucky (see the fild Deep End for more background). When hot water became instantaneous it must have seemed like a wonder and yet now if it take 30 seconds for the boiler to kick in we start swearing at the tap.
As Charles Darwin’s letters and books show, when he voyaged with the beagle his mind was frequently “a chaos of delight”. It seems hard to imagine how astonishing the flora and fauna he saw were to man more used to collecting bugs in Victorian woodland, fortunately his evocative writing helps trap the sensation.
“the delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind. If the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butterfly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect, one forgets it in the strange flower it is crawling over” 
Now we can experience the colours and the alien beauty of Cape Verde or The Galapagos Islands simply by watching television or purchasing a DVD, and the beauty is alien no more. On occasion we walk down a street we have walked down two hundred times before but look up to see a building we’ve never been conscious of before, and we need to be aware that that is one of many everyday things we are not noticing. There should be nothing childish about the childish enthusiasm of looking in a rock pool, it is human enthusiasm and thirst to know.
It only takes a little thought to sit and stare and then just add some thought to that, or to ponder. We think we have no time to ponder, yet how could we have no time when we have time saving contraptions in every corner. What happened to the time saved? I can’t have lost all of it tweeting and watching youtube?
Some people suggest we should live each day as if it was our last, but I wonder if it might be better if we live each day as if it was our first.
We need to tell children and remind adults why we have the society we live in. the television you watch, the hot water you enjoy, the painkillers, vaccines and seaside railways, are all the result of others inquisitiveness. How unthinking and unthankful should we be to enjoy the results of others imagination and questioning, while switching off our own.
My Happiness through Science tour, which is on similar things to this post, starts again in Swindon on 14th September, then off to Leicester, Lincoln, Exeter, Settle and so on. www.robinince.com for all dates
While on the Beagle Voyage, after a day on the Cape Verde Islands, Darwin is awe struck by what he has see and writes, “it has been for me a glorious day, like giving to a blind man eyes”. The poet Ruth Padel, a descendent of Charles Darwin wrote a lovely collection of poems on his life – succinctly title Darwin: A Life in Poems and one is titled Like Giving a Blind Man Eyes. It can be found here.
 I had thought this excerpt was from Voyage of The Beagle, but can’t find it there. I originally found it in Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes