Faithless Priests

“The leadership of the congregation has been unbelievably amazing, supportive, wise, patient, loving, and encouraging. They have offered to stand by me as heresy trials have been threatened…”

A journalism test piece I wrote during a short-lived attempt to get out of the games ghetto – I never pushed to get it published. 

The outside of New Unity church on Islington’s Upper Street doesn’t look much like a church. You could believe that the pale brick and painted wood belonged to a cheap village hall. But not to a congregation that’s been around since the Great Fire of London and that had Mary Wollstonecraft as a congregant. Investigate more and you find a sign proclaiming that the current chapel is a result of the German bombing campaigns of the 1940s. But I’m not here to judge the external merits of the building. Inside, there’s the unusual item I’m here to see; the smiling Andy Pakula.

Reverend Pakula is an unusual leader for the 350 year-old congregation because he’s been an atheist for his whole life. “(I grew up) in this Jewish family where we had a Christmas tree, no one ever talked to god, clearly no-one ever believed anything.” he tells me. “I’ve always been an atheist, except when maybe when I was five and I wanted to run faster. And that had nothing to do with god – I just wanted to magic it. ”

The first recorded English-language use of ‘atheist’ is in John Martiall’s 1566 A Replie to Mr Calfhills Blasphemous Answer Made Against the Treatise of the Cross, as an insult. Indeed atheist was exclusively used as an insult in 16th and 17th century Britain, meaning ‘one who lacks moral restraint’. The first person I can find who reclaimed atheism as a positive word was Jean Meslier. This seemingly-pious French village priest wrote a strident Testament, published posthumously, which was the first defence of atheism. (We only know about the Testament because Voltaire Bowdlerised it into a defence of deism.) Meslier also seems to have been the first person we can say for certain was a faithless priest.

After studying at MIT and working in biotech for many years, Pakula joined a Unitarian church in America. Soon, after he started the long process of seminary study that resulted in his acting as New Unity’s minister since 2006. All normal, if he hadn’t been an atheist. Yet the two core pastimes of ministers in monotheistic religions seem to be prayer to, and praise of, the god. Pakula can’t indulge in either of those. So what does he do, as a priest who has declared he has no faith?

“Unitarian congregations are all different, they’re not like franchises. There’s no one to tell you what to do. Some of them would be ‘of course god exists’. I try to be open and I hope I say things that allow for many interpretations. But you know, I talk about real life and why hope and compassion are important, and why change is hard… I believe in love.”

I suggest to him that his function is something like a community social psychologist. “Yes. Especially positive psychology, not abnormal psychology… Every person has worth and dignity. Go from there. You can make that religious and say every person has an immortal soul. You can take the Hasidic, Qabalistic view about the fragments in the divine in everyone. Hinduism with Atman and Brahman is lovely. We can work with that, it’s just stories. I base (my value system) on the values that I think will make a better, more peaceful, loving just world. What else can we really be for?”

Can we still call this a religion? Well, the UK supreme court has recognised that god isn’t necessary for a religion, recently ruling that Scientology is a religion. On that reading, secular organisations like London’s Sunday Assembly may one day get state religious backing.Of course, Revd. Pakula is unusual amongst atheist priests in that he’s ‘out’. Though the numbers are unknown, many more clergy are still ‘in’, hidden away in congregations around the world. A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that 1 in 6 protestant priests in Holland were either atheist or agnostic.

Of course all clergy express doubts. Many faiths emphasise that part of being a good theologian is testing your faith. But for some that process of testing can be catastrophic. Daphne (not her real name) is a Baptist Reverend in the UK. Her congregation emphasises a process of breaking down and rebuilding beliefs as part of the training process. “One of the first things that they try to do is strip down what you’ve inherited.” she says “They help you to own what you really believe. Then they question you… some people come away with a huge frustration over the institution and faith. They end up with a deeper faith, but they can’t cope with the hypocrisy of the institution.”

And some end up with no faith at all. For a priest that has lost his or her faith, the next step is hard. That’s because being a priest is more than being a font of godly power. It’s also a profession which comes with associated benefits. To be a priest, is to have a house, lifestyle, income, car, family, and community, all tied to that role. To step away from that – or even to risk it – must seem huge. Most faiths inculcate you with an ethics that praises openness and truth-telling. And as a priest and community leader, your role is to be a clear standard for that moral system, no matter the consequences.

Yet as the incentives against honesty include the loss of everything that defines you, it’s a hard thing to step away from. According to letters published by her postulator, even Mother Teresa managed to conceal her loss of faith for over fifty years. After all, it’s not like there’s a clear career path for ex-clergy. Thankfully, many of the more progressive Western faiths are supportive, like the Unitarians. The Church of England tacitly allows Christian non-realists to be ministers – that is, ministers who do not believe in the objective existence of a God. This has allowed ministers such as the former head of the Church of Scotland, Richard Holloway, to come out as non-believers. The PKN church in Holland is also supportive.

Gretta Vosper is similarly lucky. Her faith – the United Church of Canada – has been ordaining women and LBGT ministers for many decades. Yet until Vosper came out to her congregation, it hadn’t had an atheist minister. “I preached an utterly spontaneous sermon deconstructing the idea of a supernatural, interventionist god called God.”

Unusually, the board of Vosper’s congregation decided to follow her. “We met. I openly acknowledged that I did not believe in god although at that time I did not call myself an atheist. I used the term non-theist…I acknowledged that this took me outside of what they had called me to do in ministry with them and they considered what they wanted to do. And they decided they wanted to head out in this direction and see where it led. The leadership of the congregation has been unbelievably amazing, supportive, wise, patient, loving, and encouraging. They have offered to stand by me as heresy trials have been threatened and been with me through everything. I feel so privileged to be in a congregation with them.”

Leaving god has also allowed the values that Vosper teaches to shift. “We place (positive values) before us in the same way we once placed god which was, to be true, simply a projection of a collection of values. We have distilled the good ones and use them. And I often speak of the future as a kind of god against which we can assess our actions. Are we living and making choices that will be judged positively by future generations or are we not?”

Vosper is now a member of the Clergy Project. This community, created by Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola, hosts discussion for religious leaders who’ve lost their faith. It currently has 556 members, including Christian clergy, rabbis and imams. Of those, around a quarter are still serving as ministers. A message from Richard Dawkins welcomes new members saying. “It is an aspect of the vicious intolerance of religion that a mere change of mind can redound so cruelly on those honest enough to acknowledge it.” The project financially supports ministers who want to use outplacement services to find new roles. Vosper is working to expand their remit to the conversion of congregations. “We have not yet set up a process to support clergy as they transition their congregations beyond belief but I am hoping to be able to do that with TCP’s support.”

The project emphasises anonymity because few faiths and nations are as forgiving of atheism as the Unitarian church or the UK government are. The International Humanist and Ethical Union’s 2013 report noted, “The non-religious are discriminated against, or outright persecuted, in most countries of the world.” It also showed that 13 Islamic countries have the death penalty for atheism. Last year, the UK government granted asylum to an Afghan atheist, as apostasy carries the death penalty in Afghanistan. Given that the majority of Islamic scholars agree that the punishment for apostasy is death, an imam who loses his faith is in a dangerous situation.

For that reason, all the clergy I spoke to were thankful that they lived in a society that tolerated their beliefs. Daphne says, “All the ministers in our area are basically preaching ‘let’s be tolerant, welcoming and open for our communities, however messy life may be’.”

Sources:
http://clergyproject.org/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14417362
http://iheu.org/you-can-be-put-death-atheism-13-countries-around-world/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10510301/Scientology-is-a-religion-rules-Supreme-Court.html.
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=20snAQAAIAAJ&q=%22to+entre&redir_esc=y#v=snippet&q=atheist&f=false
Interviews with Pakula, Vosper.

Stupidity’s Unpopular Cousin: Intellectualism in the UK

“to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas.”

This was written in 2014. I didn’t post it because it didn’t seem culturally relevant. It does now.

Because I’m arrogant, I self-define as an intellectual. It surprises me how highly-ranked it is in my self-image, probably below ‘Jewish’ and ‘tired’, and above ‘shy’ and ‘Mancunian’. But it’s a word that’s not clearly defined and which means different things to many different people. Look, I asked twitter what they thought it meant.

That’s a huge range of definitions. For me, in contrast, to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas. To me, to understand a flaw in your moral reasoning and to correct it then requires a concomitant adaptation in your behaviour. For example, to recognise that your concept of utilitarianism is out of whack with anti-vegetarianism, and to change your beliefs and your behaviour. To me, that’s intellectualism.

But, as that last tweet from Mark Johnson hinted at, many more of the replies I got were negative about the word – indeed, many saw it as pejorative. Here’s a selection.


https://twitter.com/Grabcocque/statuses/481462368531398656
https://twitter.com/Grabcocque/statuses/481463246999023616

So it’s posited as arrogance, out-of-touch, ivory tower behaviour; someone who might know lots of things, but nothing practical. Two jokes from RPS writers reflect that – another example of humour reflecting our prejudices very neatly. Jim’s in particular is an astounding summary of what I perceive to be the predominant British feeling about intellectuals (though, as an action-intellectual himself, I doubt he believes it.)

Wherever they’ve gone, what’s clear is that intellectuals in the UK are not well-regarded and mostly not visible. I first noticed it in secondary school as self-awareness slowly dawned. Myself, I liked getting answers right and gathering more knowledge. Yet some of my peers seemed to decide that standing out was bad, and that being smart was standing out. As we grew, it became uncool to try hard. Uncool to know the answers. I clearly remember my English teacher shaking his head at me when I was the only person to put my hand up for an answer and asking “why do you always have to be different, Dan?”

Of course, that’s different from anti-intellectualism – that’s anti-smart as a sub-set of anti-different. But it certainly feels linked. And this negativity certainly reflects a divergence of the English intellectual from the French public intellectual, where Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir and their kin were fêted, and public intellectualism is still active. As Daniel Little has said of America, “the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television” is not visible here. We have a scraping of aged public intellectuals, mostly on Radio 4 – but there aren’t new ones coming through. Our popular culture shies away from thought.

It’s possible that this a bleed-over from the more practical American culture. Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963, which I’ve yet to read, so I’ll quote from Christopher Hefele’s succinct Amazon review:

“Unfortunately, America’s practical culture has never embraced intellectuals. The intellectuals’ education and expertise are viewed as a form of power or privilege. Intellectuals are seen as a small arrogant elite who are pretentious, conceited, snobbish. Geniuses’ are described as eccentric, and their talents dismissed as mere cleverness. Their cultured view is seen as impractical, and their sophistication as ineffectual. Their emphasis on knowledge and education is viewed as subversive, and it threatens to produce social decadence.”

There’s another possible cause for the decline in the UK, pointed out by Kim Blake, which is demographic. The aristocratic / bourgeois generation of 19th century intellectuals, who didn’t have to work but merely thought, vanished with the leisured aristocrats – Tony Benn (AKA Anthony Wedgewood Benn, Viscount Stansgate) may have been the last of those. Similarly, Kim implied that many of the autodidact generation which formed twentieth century British’s public intellectual cadre came from a narrow background.

It is notable that these people have vanished. Perhaps with the slow death of social mobility and the running down of Victorian infrastructure, the reading rooms and small public libraries where they studied vanished. Perhaps the Methodist work ethic that drove many of them has also vanished. Either way, two sources of British Intellectuals vanished. Yet many people still feel like the capability to be an intellectual is out of reach, is something for another class.

To self-define as intellectual in the UK, then, is to define yourself as arrogant, out-of-touch and ultimately useless to a large subset of the population. Thankfully, intellectuals, by my definition, won’t really mind about that. They’re more concerned with being true to their own ideas and being morally right.

Ostrava: In the Shadow of History – Geographical

On the edge of Ostrava there’s a sharp-sided hill. If you stood on it, you’d have a view over the old city, and you’d marvel at the number of smokestacks you saw. They’re all shapes and sizes and surround the old town centre like widely-spaced fence posts. If it was wintertime, you’d also marvel at how the hill you’re standing on is free of snow, while all around is white satin. Putting your hand on the ground, you’d find it oddly warm.

Like the old buildings and the smokestacks, this hill – called Ema – is a symbol of Ostrava’s inescapable past. It’s formed of the waste from the ironworks in the town’s centre. The last slag was dumped on Ema in 1993 and despite that 22-year gap, it’s still hot. Beneath the streets of Ostrava lies a massive anthracite deposit that made the area the ideal location for iron smelting, and which had been exploited for more than 200 years.

Source: Ostrava: In the Shadow of History – Geographical

I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe

Dan Griliopoulos, games journalist:

“There’s no inherent meaning in life, but that doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. First off, you’re raised, deliberately or accidentally, with an array of beliefs, values and prejudices by family, school, and society, that mesh or clash with the things you biologically like – that is, nature and nurture shape your preferences. So there’s already things that you value, more get put on you fairly quickly, and you get to spend your life exploring their precedence, their acceptability to society and its laws, and whether you really like them or not.

So, what I’m saying is that value is inherent to us all, which provides a grounding to meaning. I’m not saying that such a meaning is justified, but if you’re smart, lucky and/or ruthless it might be internally coherent by the time you hit adulthood, which is more than most off-the-shelf meaning systems out there (whether that’s philosophies, health systems, or religions). Meaning is a human thing – to go looking for it in the alien, unconscious universe is nonsense on stilts.”

Source: I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe

In Flight: Philadelphia, World Cup Final night

The security in Philadelphia is so slow and so badly organised and so repetitive that despite having 90 minutes to make my transfer to Washington I miss it. Now some people reserve their especial opprobrium for American security. That, I can understand. Others pick out American bacon. Or American exceptionalism. Or the infiltration of the American mil-industrial complex into everyday life…

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The security in Philadelphia is so slow and so badly organised and so repetitive that despite having 90 minutes to make my transfer to Washington I miss it. Now some people reserve their especial opprobrium for American security. That, I can understand. Others pick out American bacon. Or American exceptionalism. Or the infiltration of the American mil-industrial complex into everyday life.

But, for me, the bugbear is American cheese. Cheese elsewhere in the world varies from the English plays on cheddar and stilton” to the Spanish “it should be hard and sour enough to counter a ham” to the Italian “it has to go with pasta” to the French “if you can’t smell it from the next town, it’s not ready to eat”. Even in the famously lactose-averse Japan, “where there isn’t grass to feed a cow”, they make good imitation cheddar these days (and have learned to love everything French, even if they can’t digest it.)

But American cheese is… I mean, what can you say. I was brought up on Fungus the Bogeyman, so to me something yellow and runny and salty and body-warm is pus, not cheese. Even the American waitress says that her Canadian mom won’t touch the stuff.

So I’m in Philadelphia. And I’m trying their speciality, the Philly Cheese Steak. Which is neither cheese, nor a steak, nor, according to the friendly Philadelphian oracle I’m sat next to, a normal Philadelphian speciality. He recommends I have a burger instead. But I always have to try the speciality in every area I go. (Which is why I’m dreading going to the Philippines, because I really don’t want to try Balut.)

Let me describe it. First, you have a large, cheap hot dog bun, which means you could confuse it with a Bahn Mi, if you had poor eyesight. Then, inside, there’s… uh. I mean, the inside is sprayed liberally with American cheese, which tastes just like the plastic cheese you get in Heinz Macaroni cheese; that is to say, a little like vomit. Then they put chopped steak on top of it. Again, chopped steak seems to be rough minced meat, presumably delivered in huge frozen bags, then fried. Then you add other toppings, to stop / increase it tasting like acid reflux.

Actually, considering the middling-to-shitty journey I’ve had so far, I wolf it down. It tastes like bile but I eat every crumb, and kind of enjoy it. I’m watching extra time of the world cup final as the two teams fail and fail and fail to score, and the company and beer’s good enough that it just hits the spot.  The tap water tastes like a swimming pool though.

(Five minutes later, I want something else to eat. I suspect it fart-collapses like a balloon when it hits your belly.)

Aside from that, I see nothing of Philadelphia. I was half-expecting for everyone to be an AIDs sufferers wearing a baseball cap, but the bright sunshine outside and the opaque blinds mean I can’t even see the airplanes outside this heaving bar – just the Americans in all their varied whitebread forms. Who groan as a group louder at the ‘kids do the stupidest things’ programme that’s on afterwards, than at the most important football game in four years.

I can’t leave the airport – my flight might be three hours distant, but that’s not enough time to get from an American airport to the city and back again (and I REALLY don’t fancy going through security…) So I’ll just sit here, musing about American homogeneity, and resisting the urge to order another cheese steak…

In Flight: London, 5 a.m.

Streets bare of anything but the orange glow of emergency lighting. Stretched black shadows of key workers (coffee shops, fast food joints) waiting thin and angular at bus-stops. Miles of normally pounded pavement getting a brief respite save for the endlessly-walking homeless and solitary drunks, wearing spirals and curlicues into its surface.

London at 5 a.m. is a different city.

Flowers in the dark

Streets bare of anything but the orange glow of emergency lighting. Stretched black shadows of key workers (coffee shops, fast food joints) waiting thin and angular at bus-stops. Miles of normally pounded pavement getting a brief respite save for the endlessly-walking homeless and solitary drunks, wearing spirals and curlicues into its surface.

London at 5 a.m. is a different city.

It’s a city that’s perfectly balanced in transition. They say a modern city never sleeps. While that might be true of cabbies, who are probably the unhappy few saying that, 5 a.m. is definitely the time at which London settles in its restless insomnia, in which it shuts its eyelids and lets the cleaning fluids have a few seconds of desperate reparation.

The driver of my blacked-out van doesn’t proffer a name. He’s young, Machinist-thin, with uncut brown hair long at temples and back, a growth of stubble that might be called a moustache, but looks more like a receding away of flesh than an outreaching of hair. He is utterly silent as we drive over the flyovers between the aggressively-huddled towers of Westway. The radio blares utterly generic Capital music, insomniacs calling into say that, yes, they can’t sleep either, and that while they stare dry-eyed at the ceiling, the knowledge that someone else is up and awake and communicatible, that someone else suffers as they do, is a tacit comfort, .

There is no talk of dawn yet. The sky is the blue-grey of powdered gypsum as we drive, out over the wastes of Westfield. The air in the van smells of soap and sweet and something more sickly and unwelcome. I think it might be me.

Beneath the van, the tarmac roars endlessly. A soft thump-thump-thump talks of roadworks and Britain’s ad-hoc attitude to pipe-laying. Where in Islington and Kings Cross the workers were awake at the Greengrocer, the Fishmongers, the unhallowed platforms of the station-cathedrals, here the suburbs are still asleep. Only toilet windows betray the dark, talking nervously of nightlights and scared children. A solitary petrol station attendant yawns his way towards the shift’s end without the expected armed robbery.

As we head to the quarter hour, I’ve crossed the whole city and my diver has taken some abstruse private route to the airport, whipping me through Acton, seemingly still dead since the Martians passed through. The radio plays generic-o-pop, mingling electronic high tones with multi-tracked balanced singers and trance beats. Still this town sleeps. One optimistic man trudges up the station steps to join a waiting, confused cluster. In the supermarkets, the lights are on, pumping out power to save on security guards.

My skin is sore and dry from so little sleep and perhaps from the light of the laptop. As we pass Chiswick, my hands ache and ache. I rub them together and they make a noise like sheets of paper hissing across each other. The other vehicles around at this time all seem to be dark and polarised like me, with dim figures sat in the back. 5 a.m. is for cabbies it seems. Even at this time of the morning, empty roads, an idiot still feels the imperative to aggressively cut-up the other cars. Whence a rush at this dead time, in this dead city?

At Brentford / Hammersmith, the tower blocks are lit. This is Monday, 5.20 and there are already tie-clad workers sitting, male and unmoving, in the windows of the tower blocks we fly by, already giving up their lives to the sucking screens. A gust of steam sits above the Glaxo building frozen like a cloud.

The gray is clocking out now, turning the shift over more fully to the blue, which is hazily pulling itself together under gray’s stern tutelage. We are on the M4 now and the roadside signs, which once pointed to far-off Bath and Winchester and other pilgrim routes, now advertise Heston services, with runic incantations telling us that the great demon M&S BK COSTA may be summoned here. We pass our first breakdown of the morning, slowly being winched onto a ponderously-flashing truck.

Off the motorway, down past prefabs and roundabouts. This no-man’s land holds caravan parks and fields. Sleeping truckers grumble and mutter in their parkway lay-bys, thousands of miles from home, ten feet from a real suburban bed. Dark ponies and horses are foraging on the fields opposite the trucks and the semi-detached houses.

We pause at lights. My lips are dry, and my face cracks a yawn. My driver strokes the fluff abandoned by the receding of his flesh and sucks his lips. His suit looks thin and cheap and I wonder how he keeps warm. Billboards float by, then more ponies, their heads down amidst cherry blossom and graffitoed sheds and long car parks filled with identical cars, any colour so long as it’s not fun. On the right, a pointy-nosed private jet dreams of growing into another Concorde beneath a WWII derrick hosting a radar dish.

A squeeze between two affectionate bollards and we’re here. The Terminal. Plastic and metal and concrete and barbed wire and endlessly routed paths and instructions everywhere. We stop and smile goodbye. He wishes me a good trip; I wish him a good day. Inside, I doubt day will suit him.

Rose-Tinted Eyes

“Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips” – Laurence Olivier. (Quote taken from a wonderful New Yorker piece by Roger Angell.)

My eyesight’s never been good, but it was never bad either. When I was a kid, I guessed it might be bad (my dad was four-eyed all through my childhood, until the 90s when he started forcing the primitive contact lenses of the day into his battered orbs) but the reason I pestered my mum for eye-tests wasn’t that.

I wanted to have glasses because intellectuals wore glasses. It’s like I was psychically connected to Pol Pot but had come to different conclusions – instead of wanting to murder all the intelligentsia, I wanted to be them. I was much younger than him, of course, and much less bitter. So the first time I sat in that big leather chair and the man slipped the glass discs into the metal frame with a “better or worse” each time, I was nervous and happy.

And it turned out I needed glasses – not much, but enough to get some cheap NHS plastic specs that looked like they were extruded from the husks of iridescent insects. They didn’t suit me – for years they wouldn’t suit me – but my dad has pictures of this hairy-headed stick insect with the fat head and the chitin eyes.

The glasses helped, a touch. But the weird thing is that they just twisted everything slightly better into focus. Without them, I can see detail at distance and up close equally well – but it’s just blurred. It’s not like it gets more blurred further away, it’s just that closer than a certain point it’s sharp, like a camera lens with a broken focus ring. I suspect I’ve misunderstood something fundamental about the operation of eyes and this is just how everyone experiences the world. But until someone tells me so, I’ll just say that I can see imperfectly better without glasses than I really should be able to.

Perhaps connected to that twist, my eyes have always been odd. Not merely the short-sightedness, nor the colour-blindness, but the interpolation of elements into the world. It would be fairer to say that my brain is odd, to be fair – the interpretative bit is somewhat out of whack, being certain about things it has no right to be. Anything man-height on the street – parking meters, cable boxes – is interpreted as a person, even with my glasses on.

But with my glasses off, ach, it’s a whole nother world. Larger objects get that interpretation, mountains become bent giants, trees become flowers. It’s a psychedelic world at times, especially if I’ve had a few drinks. And a beautiful sky is still a beautiful sky.

What’s notable though, and what prompted this, was that it does something beautiful to people. The reinterpretations of people, particularly women, can be delightfully generous. When I look at an older woman without my glasses on, my vision just fills her in as she might have been when she was younger. Wrinkles are smoothed away, cheeks are filled out, curves are smoothed. I get to see her, as Olivier says at the top there, as she sees herself, “Seventeen with red lips”.

Older men… I see as older men. Men’s body shapes change when they hit an age, especially with the milk-fat Western diet, and the loss of hair is distinctive. But in a rare man, I see that flexibility of foot and spryness of movement, and conceive them as younger than they are.

Similarly, with certain young gangly men, it’s less generous. It fills them in as old earnest men, the sort of gentle English beanpoles we’ve all encountered, particularly if their body language has been aped from an old father. I can think of two slightly-stooped young men I know, who my side-vision tells me need a nice cup of tea and a biscuit.

Now, my eyes are getting worse. I can’t deny that I need my glasses to type now, which I never really needed two years ago. And a companion to this is that these interpretative illusions are happening more. I regret the loss of acuity, obviously; my success in my profession is partially based on vision and accuracy. But I can’t help enjoying the way that it’s making the world more fantastical and beautiful.