Friday, 24 August 2007

Thought for the Day - BBC Radio Bristol

These are the scripts for four “Thought for the day” broadcasts for BBC Bristol’s Breakfast show in August.

24 August
I’m sure Geoff [Twentyman, presenter] one of those people who leaps out of bed in the morning needing no more than the sight of the morning sun to energise him, but most of us don’t start functioning until we’ve had a dose of caffeine or two.
As vices go, that’s pretty minor. After all, I know many smokers who find the first cigarette of the day the sweetest puff of all, and that’s because it’s the one they most crave. And there are sadly some who wake up needing a stiff drink to get going.
We rightly tell our children that this sort of behaviour is not clever. But when we add that it’s not cool either, why should they believe us? Unfortunately, cigarettes and alcohol clearly do contribute to the outlaw appeal of so many musicians and stars. Amy Winehouse, for example, yesterday received four nominations for the prestigious MOBO awards, including one for a defiant boozer’s song with the refrain, “They tried to make me go to rehab / I said no, no, no”. Actually, last week even she finally said yes, yes, yes but it was the earlier nos that made her hip and edgy.
The Rolling Stones also got a huge cheer at the O2 arena in London earlier this week when Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards lit up on stage, in defiance of anti-smoking legislation.
So it’s no use just saying fags and booze aren’t cool, because to many people they clearly are. If we want the message about the harms of cigarettes and alcohol to be credible, we cannot deny the inconvenient truth that they both nonetheless have a rebellious appeal. A cool fool is, alas, no less cool for being a fool.

17 August
I’ve got a bit of a thing about people not saying what they mean simply and clearly. For instance, in the reporting about the causes of the stock market losses of recent days, we’ve been hearing a lot about “sub-prime lending”, an ugly phrase invented by financial institutions which basically means high-interest loans to poor borrowers.
I’m also bothered by the causal way we use the word “spiritual”. This is on my mind since this morning I’m off to speak at the Festival of Spirituality and Peace in Edinburgh. Given I’m an atheist, you might think this is spiritual correctness gone mad. But in fact the S-word has become so vague, anyone can claim it. People say they are spiritual to indicate that they may not be religious, but they are not shallow either; That they believe there is more to life than the simple materialism of wealth and possessions; That they have moral values; That life holds some meaning or purpose for them; That in addition to science they appreciate art and beauty; That they live not only for the moment and pursue more than mere fleeting pleasures.
In all those senses, atheists can certainly be as spiritual, or even more so, than the religious.
Of course, spirituality without spirits sounds like a bit of a contradiction, which is why I’d rather we stopped talking vaguely about spirituality and just said exactly what we mean by it instead. For now, given the way the word is actually used, godless heathens who believe in neither spirits nor souls can rightly be called spiritual. It would just be more accurate to say that we’re simply human beings not only with animal needs and desires, but hearts, intellects and imaginations.

10 August
Imagine you’re at a meeting of a British train operator. Someone who speaks as only a manager can asks you to think out of the box about blue-sky suggestions to enhance the customer journey experience, 360-degrees. Once you’ve worked out that what that means, what might you suggest? Cleaner trains? More services? Greater punctuality? A buffet car that is not absurdly called “the retail outlet”?
Well, First Great Western have come up with a more novel idea. They’ve hired Sally Crabtree to be their first ever “poet on the platform”. From Tuesday, for three days, the former international gymnast will be showing off her performance poetry skills at eight stations, including Temple Meads, Bath Spa and Reading.
No doubt some people will complain that the only kind of performance First Great Western should be worrying about is its own.
Train companies have no reason to rhyme
They just need to make their trains run on time
But before you join the chorus, is efficiency really all that matters? Imagine a country where everything works but no effort is made to make things fun, interesting or beautiful. Has such a nation ever existed? And, no, “Canada” is not a fair reply.
Would such a functional country be a good place to live? I doubt it. Even the Ancient Romans knew that in addition to bread, the people need circuses. One reason Bristol is such a good place to live is because of free events such as the recent harbourside festival and this weekend’s Balloon Fiesta.
Life isn’t just about getting from A to B but enjoying the ride. If all we ever worried about were the functional aspects of living, we would never truly live at all.

3 August
Britain is famous for being a nation of animal lovers. Whether it’s a Sunday roast, chicken tikka masala or a full English Breakfast, we just can’t eat enough of the blighters.
Odd then that we also find ourselves getting sentimental about our cute little furry friends. Earlier this week, for example, we heard the heart-warming tale of a baby rhesus macaque monkey which mysteriously turned up in a Dorset garden. Fortunately for the scared simian, home-owner Marty Wright didn’t get out his shotgun, but tempted the frightened animal down from the tree with a banana, and called the RSPCA.
Before you say “ahhhh”, however, remember that the animal had probably escaped from a vivisection laboratory. We live in a contradictory country, where last year, £100,000 was spent trying to save one northern bottlenose whale stranded in the Thames, but millions of other mammals reared in factory conditions are devoured without a second thought.
So is it simply misplaced sentimentality which makes us care more about some animals than others? I don’t think so. When we see a frightened, vulnerable animal, like the Dorset monkey, our emotional response isn’t just a silly reaction. It’s an expression of our moral capacity to recognise suffering in a fellow creature and be moved to do something to alleviate it. This ability to empathise with the plight of other conscious beings is not an indulgent add-on to morality; it is an important part of what motivates us to relieve or avoid human suffering too.
That’s why our warm feelings towards animals reveal more than mere sentimentality. Whether we go as far as to be vegetarians or not, we should remember that the animals we eat can also suffer, and we should not be indifferent to their pain.