13 July 2013

The frantic promotion of the proposed HS2 rail line — a white elephant in the making — is a reminder to those of us living outside London that we suffer from a disability: one so severe that it is worth spending £40 billion to shorten the journey to the capital by a few minutes. Our condition will get worse as centralisation proceeds and London’s gravitational force becomes ever stronger. Eventually ‘the provinces’ will evacuate their contents into the south-east, and England will be a megalopolis surrounded by deserted villages, towns and cities. Such are the apocalyptic thoughts of someone who now finds himself having to travel from Stockport to London several times a week because that’s where the events, meetings, headquarters or whatever are to be found. This week, I had to spend four days in London to participate in the national conversation.

London is sometimes a compromise meeting place for provincials holed up in different corners. So this was where, on Tuesday, I met up with Raja Panjwani, who is studying the philosophy of physics at Oxford. He has agreed to subject the MS of my next book — Of Time and Lamentation. Reflections on Transience — to critical examination. The book aims, among other things, to snatch time from the jaws of physics. For many people (and not just physicists) the last word on time — its nature, its existence or nonexistence, its relationship to everything else in the universe — is whatever physics says it is. If Einstein says that the difference between the past and future is an illusion, then it is an illusion. If physicists, in the course of developing a Theory of Everything, find they can do without time, then time is unreal. This dismissal or reduction of a mysterious and fundamental facet of our existence is an egregious form of scientism.

Claim your gift

Back to London on Thursday to chair the Steering Committee of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD). This group was co-founded by an immensely brave and visionary general practitioner, Ann McPherson, when she was seriously ill with pancreatic cancer. She was outraged that the so-called representative bodies of the medical profession such as the BMA and the Royal College of Physicians overrode both public opinion (80 per cent in favour, 75 per cent of those with religious beliefs) and the views of 30-40 per cent of their members, by opposing legalisation of physician-assisted dying for terminally ill people with unendurable symptoms. Anyone who believes that good palliative care renders such a law unnecessary should read the account of Ann’s death (written by her daughter Tess, herself a hospital consultant). It makes harrowing reading.

And so to Friday, the 65th birthday of the NHS, the fifth day of an NHS-packed week: Monday, the launch of my book NHS SOS; Tuesday, a defence of a non-privatised NHS against the combined forces of Stephen Dorrell and Alan Milburn at the Royal Society of Arts; and Wednesday, an appearance on the Daily Politics to disagree with Tory doctor and MP Daniel Poulter. But today I am on home territory. Our little group, Stockport NHS Watch, chaired by my wife Terry, was formed to document the consequences of Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act (2012) which, as I have pointed out before, has the therapeutic value of a Semtex suppository. We joined one of many celebrations in Trafford, where the first NHS patient was treated. Our huge polystyrene birthday cake, with an axe marked ‘Privatisation’ embedded in it, reflected our fear that this birthday might be the last. That Lansley’s plans for marketising the NHS got through parliament without electoral mandate is a terrible reminder of the democratic deficit in Britain today. The extent to which the Bill was influenced, promoted and eased in its passage through parliament by individuals who stand to benefit personally would make Transparency International blush.

And so to the weekend, sitting in the sun, writing the Guardian obituary for one of the most admirable people I have ever known. John Brocklehurst, emeritus professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester, died peacefully just before his 90th birthday. His commitment to making the world a better place was unchanged from the time when, as a devout Christian, he joined the Grenfell Mission in Labrador, to his later years when he became an avowed humanist. There could be no better demonstration that morality does not necessarily require religious underpinning. In our many conversations in recent years, we never discussed Cameron’s Big Society — where the rich shall get richer and the weak shall go to the wall. It would have disgusted and depressed us too much.

Raymond Tallis is a philosopher, a cultural critic and a former clinical scientist

Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.

Show comments
  • Simon Fay

    Can’t even read beyond the first couple of lines but still feel moved to wish London could be walled off like the DDR, or the side of Skull Island that housed King Kong.

  • crosscop

    Escape from London? One day soon the English will actually have to liberate their capital city – or like Constantinople it will be lost forever.

  • john

    Since all attempts at regional policy in the UK have failed, we just go with the London plus 200 mile suburbs theory. You either live in London or you commute to it from wherever. God help us if the London economy tanks (as it probably will).

  • Swank

    I prefer ‘philosophic’ to ‘a philosopher’. The ingredients for ‘philosopher’ are so rare that we are lucky to find one in a century.

    • Wittgensteinsfoot


      • Swank

        Philosophy isn’t a hobby you can just take up, like windsurfing. Very few have the enchanted combination of temperament, memory, raw intelligence, perceptiveness, education, perseverance and even bravery that is needed for the discovery of truth — or whatever there is to be discovered.

        • Wittgensteinsfoot

          Your final statement – ‘or whatever there is to be discovered’ – is capable of launching a thousand post-grad degree programmes. All pointless. Whatever there is to be discovered via philosophising, it most certainly is not ‘truth’. Philosophy is a language game in which words are rearranged in clever ways and ‘meaning’ is then assumed to be extractable from the resulting patterns. Ultimately however there are only tautologies (lots of them). Words are not mathematical signifiers, they do not ‘link’ to nature in the same ways. When Einstein rearranged the mathematical symbols E, M and c he created new knowledge about the way nature works. When philosophers rearrange linguistic symbols they create knowledge about the way language works, but not nature. Alas. There endeth the first lesson (humorous retort).

          • Swank

            Read Thomas Pangle, Harvey Mansfield, Pierre Manent, Jan Blits on Shakespeare, and above all Leo Strauss. Warning: You won’t understand a great deal without paying very close attention.

          • Wittgensteinsfoot

            Oh goodness me no, can’t be doing with PP. Overcame that futile urge a long time ago. I counter-suggest that you read Wittgenstein’s ‘Philosophical Investigations’. Warning: you will initially think that you understand it.

          • Studley

            Yes, that’s always the danger!

          • Wittgensteinsfoot

            Real Madrid: 1, Surreal Madrid: Fish

          • Guest


          • Wittgensteinsfoot

            Well i never! That is the most severe case of Chameleonitis I have witnessed in some considerable time. I have half a mind to study it in considerable detail. But my pie is cooked.

          • Studley

            Ha ha ha! : )

Can't find your Web ID? Click here