Sunday, March 29, 2015

Stefano's Snack Bar

Anybody who knows anything about me knows that I do a lot of my thinking and writing in coffee bars around London.  There is one in particular that I now treat as a kind of home from home, and I want to write about it because it is nearly the last of its kind in central London.  It is called Stefano’s Snack Bar and is at 56 New Cavendish Street, W1, half-way between Marylebone High Street and Portland Place.

It is run by an Italian family, father, mother and son, Stefano himself being the son, with Giorgio and Santina his parents.  I like going in there for many reasons.  First, because of the very warm welcome I always receive, a refreshing change from the more impersonal or even non-existent greetings in those anonymous coffee shop chains now filling up every London street.

Then I particularly love the homemade chocolate slices which Giorgio makes, sometimes, I think, specially for me, or by the tray-load for any seminars we run from our Harley Street clinic just round the corner.  And finally, they have the cheapest and best espresso coffee in London, a great temptation for me as I pass them at least once or twice a day on my way from my flat to the clinic.

If you are in the area and want to stop for a cup of coffee, do pop in and tell them that Nora has sent you.  They will give you a special welcome.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Changes that creep up on us

Sitting in the train yesterday I was brought up short by one of those endless announcements that now annoyingly punctuate every journey.  “Customers are advised….”  Each time I hear the word “customer”, it irritates me.  Since when have passengers transformed themselves into customers?

I think of customers as people who pay for some service, passengers as people who travel in some kind of vehicle.  Is this then another sign of today’s overwhelming interest in money above all?  And what was wrong with seeing me as a passenger, as all travellers in any vehicle have always been known as?  I somehow can’t see an 18th century coach driver calling his passengers customers. What is the rationale behind this, I wonder, except perhaps to give some work to some office somewhere in British Rail charged with finding new ways of saying old things?

It intrigues me why a change such of this has been thought necessary.  And this has set me thinking about other new ways of saying old things which have puzzled me.  There is, for example, the recent replacement of the good old word “alias” by the clumsy abbreviation “aka” (“also known as”).  Again, what was wrong with “alias”?

And then, to add to the odd things I have noticed, comes the disappearance of the Request Stop for buses on London’s roads.  In the good old days there were two sorts of bus stops, the ones at which all buses stopped irrespective of whether anybody was waiting.  You simply got up from your seat in the bus and waited for the bus to stop without ringing the bell.  And if you were waiting at the bus stop you did not need to wave the bus down, but just waited for it to stop, as you knew it would.  Request Stop signs were red, unlike the main stops which were and still are white, and were the ones where you, as a passenger (not a customer!), would need to stop the bus by signalling to it.  If you were not paying much attention, and did not signal quickly enough, the bus simply sailed on by.

Then I started to notice that people were ringing the bell inside the bus at whatever stop we were coming to, Request Stop or not.  And buses no longer stopped at stops which were not Request Stops. When did they start doing this and why?  Now everybody rings the bell at every stop, and everybody puts out a hand to stop the bus they want at whatever stop.  I realise that I don’t know whether all the red Request Stop signs have been replaced, or are simply being ignored, so today I will be looking out of my bus window (my usual mode of transport wherever I go in London) to check this.

This is another sign of the fact that we are now constantly being asked to do more and more work ourselves.  Where before I could leave it to the bus driver simply to draw in at many of the stops, now I have to make sure that I take steps to stop him (or increasingly her).  And in a book I read recently, it was pointed out that the computerized world of ours, by giving us the tools to do things like booking our own travel or buying our own shopping in supermarkets, actually makes each of us individually work harder and harder doing things which in the past other people did for us, such as travel agents and shop assistants.  We simply used to ask a travel agent to book us on a flight on such and such a day for such and such a place, and then waited for the phone call telling us that they had made the booking, and the letter to arrive with the airline ticket.  Of course there weren’t all the cheap flights around, and this is what we may have to accept in return for cheaper flights.  Yet even expensive flights, like mine to China, now require that I do all the work on my computer, trying to fathom all the complex choices I am confronted with, just as it is now up to me to make sure that I stop any bus I want to get on to.







Monday, March 2, 2015

A few thoughts on astrology

My family knew a very interesting old Viennese man called Dr Oskar Adler, who has influenced me in some surprisingly different ways.  He was what we call a polymath, one of those now rare breeds of multi-disciplined people with interests and training in widely ranging areas of life.  He was a musician, a marvellous violinist who, I was told, had taught the composer Arnold Schoenberg the violin, a mathematician and – and this was where he most influenced me – a widely respected astrologer.  I have on my bookshelves a copy of his large four-volume treatise on astrology (in German).  It is beautifully written and very profound, one of those works which has given me deep insights into human behaviour.

I have a rather confused understanding of astrology.  I think I would have described myself years ago as a sceptic, and yet time has changed me.  One of the changes came about by attending a short astrology course in London years ago, when for the first time I began to appreciate that there were indeed individual human characteristics which could be symbolized by a person’s relationship to the planets in the heavens.  At first I needed a lot of convincing that this could be so, until the class was one day given the astrological chart of a famous anonymous person and was asked to try and work out who that person might be.  To my utter surprise we came up with the correct answer (it was Princess Diana, much in the news at that time).  We then compared her chart with that of Prince Charles.  This comparison clearly showed that they were set on a collision-course, aspects of the one chart clearly clashing violently with those of the other.  This was my first venture into the arcane world of astrology.  As a surprise by-product, it has added much to the understanding of human nature which my five element studies were teaching me. 

There are 12 astrological signs and 12 officials spread between the five elements, though unfortunately we cannot equate one with the other.  If we could we would have an easy way of diagnosing an element simply by asking our patients their birth dates.  But the 12 different areas of life in both systems have certain surprising similarities.  The fact that human characteristics reveal themselves in different ways but with features that can roughly be summarized in 12 categories in both acupuncture and astrology has always added greater depth to my understanding of the elements.  In a way this is a comforting reminder that there really is nothing new under the sun.  And my deeper understanding of the psychological relevance of what a study of astrology shows us came originally from these four books of Dr Adler’s.

Of course there is also a branch of acupuncture which relies heavily upon Chinese astrology, something I know little about, but which represents another diagnostic tool used by acupuncturists.

I treasure deeply two things Dr Adler taught me.  He said that each of us owes it to the world to pass on whatever we have learnt so that we can give others the opportunity to learn from us in turn, even though we may never know where our thoughts land and whose lives they will enrich.  There is one phrase of his which has echoed for me down the years (in German, but I will translate it).  “What would have happened if Mozart had not written down his music?”  And Mozart, we must remember, died a pauper with no idea that his work would resonate for millions in future generations.  This gave me, and still gives me, the impetus, and almost the duty, to write and to continue writing, in the belief that what I write may help somebody somewhere learn in turn from what I have learnt from life.  We all owe it to others to hand down whatever thoughts we have had in whatever medium – blogs such as this one, novels, poems, paintings, music, sculpture.  Only in this way will we help preserve for future generations what is valuable in human culture.  And however insignificant we feel our contributions may be, we should still find the courage to make our thoughts public in the hope that they may contribute something to the lives of others.

The second, more esoteric, lesson I learnt was Dr Adler’s insistence that if we cannot find something we have lost, however hard we search, then that object has really disappeared and will not allow itself to be found.  We must then try to put it from our mind because it will reappear at some point in the future when the time is right and usually at quite an unexpected time and in quite an unexpected place.  I have put this to the test numerous times, and it does appear to be true.  I remember once frantically looking for something in a room where I knew I had last put it, only to find it two weeks later in a room I rarely used right at the back of a drawer I would have sworn I had never opened.  I also found my house keys at the bottom of the dustbin after losing them for a few days!  In both cases I had no recollection whatsoever of putting the things where I found them.  Now if I lose something, I just wait, and usually, but not always, it reappears in an unexpected way, long after I have given up searching for it.  Try this.  You may find that Dr Adler was right.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Are we living in an age of Metal?

I would recommend all of you to read a book by Andrew Keen, called The Internet is not the Answer (Atlantic Books 2015).  It sounds important warnings about the world we live in, and the risks we are running of remaining, not the free agents in a free world we like to see ourselves as, but ever more like slaves entrapped in a world controlled by the large corporations, such as Apple, Amazon and Google, whose power over us grows by the day.

The author points to a worrying aspect of today’s world, our current obsession with ourselves.  The rise of the mobile phone and Instagram have disturbing consequences, one of the most frightening being what he calls our “self-centric culture”, in which “if we have no thought to Tweet or photo to post, we basically cease to exist.”  And “the truth about networks like Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook is that their easy-to-use, free tools delude us into thinking we are celebrities.”

I have often thought that the electronic equipment most of us feel to be absolutely indispensable to our modern lives, and which is intended to link us ever more closely to one another, ironically leads instead to our distancing ourselves more and more from each other.  The cameras in our mobile phones are encouraging us to look at each other through a lens, rather than in the eye.  The messages we send are beginning to stop us speaking to one another, voice to voice.  We now text rather than talk.

The young woman sitting opposite me in the cafĂ© (see my last blog of 24 February) made no contact with anybody during the time that I watched her, all her human interactions being through her electronic equipment.  It felt as though she lived in a bubble all on her own.  As Andrew Keen says, “The truth…is that we are mostly just talking to ourselves on these supposedly “social” networks…. (It is) an Internet in which the more social we become, the more we connect and communicate and collaborate, the lonelier we become.”

Finally, to add to these rather depressing thoughts, a little comment by the writer, Robert Macfarlane, whose lovely books about walking in nature and in the wild all of us should also read.  In an article of his in the Guardian, I read that the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary now includes words like “chatroom” and “broadband”, but not “bluebell” or “kingfisher”.  I also read that they are now discussing whether children should continue to be taught handwriting in school, presumably because it is assumed that they will no longer be using pen and paper but tapping away on their keypads to communicate.  All these different developments underline the seismic changes going on around us.  No doubt many of these may herald exciting new departures which we should welcome.  Others, though, represent losses.  I am sad that children’s vocabularies may no longer include bluebells or kingfishers.

Are we perhaps starting to live in an age of Metal, that element which mourns the loss of what is valuable, and in its imbalance may cut us off increasingly from each other and from the world around us?