Immoderate Greatness. Why Civilizations Fail:  Time to build an ark?

Immoderate Greatness. Why Civilizations Fail, by William Ophuls (2012) – Notes

This short book, only 70 pages of well-spaced type and beautifully clear prose, packs a strong punch. It ends with the question of whether it is time to build an ark. Has our civilization declined to the extent that we should prepare for an uncertain future, in which humanity may survive, but civilization as we know it will not?

In a series of short chapters, Ophuls discusses six major factors which lead to the breakdown of a civilization. Rome is an example of this. Ophuls organises the six factors under the headings Biophysical Limits and Human Error.

Biophysical limits include ecological exhaustion, exponential growth, expedited entropy and excessive complexity.

Ophuls points out that we have consistently degraded and exhausted our natural resources, resources that are critical to our long-term survival. We have overlooked the consequences of continuous growth and failed to understand exponential growth, which is both insidious and explosive. The solution, he says, lies in controlling growth; we cannot flout or evade the laws of nature for ever.

Ophuls also points out that civilization expedites entropy. Through increasing technological advances the movement of energy from more useful to less useful increases. The greater civilization becomes, the more citizens produce and consume, and the more they produce and consume, the larger the increase in entropy (energy return on investment is negative). The only way out is strong checks on will and desire, i.e. powerful negative feedback.

But as civilization grows with associated excessive complexity, it becomes harder for the human brain to adapt and solve the problems. Linear minds cannot comprehend non-linear systems. Limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing complex systems.

The wise way forward would be to renounce ‘immoderate greatness’, but human error (moral decay and practical failure) prevents us from doing this.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the parallels of all this with our civilization today, which Ophuls believes is already in a state of well-advanced decline, due to moral decay and practical failure. Ophuls describes this as the age of decadence in which we want to hang on to what we’ve got and buy off our enemies; there is an increasing sense of entitlement and loss of responsibility; there is growth in civil dissension and argument; and a society that is increasingly value free and no longer believes in anything much or takes anything seriously. Such a society is governed by a force that we can call moral entropy, and becomes dysfunctional and ungovernable. Morale is gradually eroded, and discord increasingly fomented by a succession of practical defeats. What used to work no longer does and the social contract unravels.

Ophuls believes there is no viable way forward. Ecological problems, exponential pressures, thermodynamic losses, risky complexity, moral decay and human incapacity are evident everywhere. Biophysical limits with human fallibility lead to eventual and inevitable collapse of civilisation.

Evidently the natural lifespan of a civilization is about 250 years and our time is up, so the task is to salvage as much as possible and prepare for an uncertain future. This requires present sacrifice; renunciation of greatness in favour of simplicity, frugality and fraternity. Is it time to build an ark?

I can recommend this book, but it is a sobering read.

Source of image

The Master and His Emissary – Wiki Notes

This is an image of the front page of a wiki I have created to record my notes on Iain McGilchrist’s ‘ground breaking’ book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. During this time of enforced lockdown, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to re-read and engage more slowly and deeply with this very long and dense text.

The wiki is open to the public for reading and comment. Here is the link – http://iainmcgilchrist.pbworks.com/w/page/140284002/FrontPage

Iain McGilchrist’s thinking and ideas seem even more relevant today than when his book was published ten years ago. He claims that we live in a world dominated by the left hemisphere. In the concluding chapter of his book he describes what the left hemisphere’s world would look like, if it managed to suppress the right hemisphere altogether. It is easy to recognise our world, the world we are living in now, in much of what he describes. For this reason, the book is an important one for our times.

If you are interested and would like to know more, but don’t have the time to engage with this long and dense book, or have tried it and find it over-whelming, the wiki notes might help, but I must stress that any errors are mine. In addition the selection of what to attend to is mine. Someone else’s notes might read differently, and no doubt the notes would be different if I myself wrote them again at another time. So these notes are no substitute for reading the book.

 

There are also other ways to access Iain’s ideas, which include a variety of articles and videos. I recently listed them in another post – Introducing the Work of Iain McGilchrist

I agree with Jonathan Rowson, who in his review of the book wrote:

‘[A] grand theory for our times. If properly understood and acted upon, it has the potential to transform our view of ourselves and our cultures, and prevent us from making a huge number of mistakes that might otherwise seem like sensible decisions  … a truly wonderful book.’

From Global to Local – the need for decentralisation

Two years ago, when attending a 4 day course on the divided brain, organised by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist, there was an informal discussion amongst a group of participants who were suggesting that one way of addressing the problems of our planet would be a return to living in small communities. If I remember correctly, 250 was suggested as a good size for these communities; why 250 I don’t know, but there was reference to Dunbar’s number which is 150, the number of relationships the average person can retain.

At the time I thought surely it will never be possible to return to living in small communities, when so many people now live in huge cities. Tokyo has a population of more than 38 million, and many people have claimed to love living in cities, with their hustle and bustle. I have lived in a village for 35 years, now with a population of around 1600, which is significantly more than when we moved in, but it has never, in this time, had a population as small as 250 or 150 people.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the World Localization Day conference and realised that it not so much a question of size of communities as of localization. It’s not that we try and go backwards, but that we try and hold globalisation and localisation in balance. This has become so evident during this COVID-19 pandemic. For some things we definitely need globalisation; for example, for the development of vaccines, and test and trace systems. But what we have seen is that it is in local communities and neighbourhoods that people have found the most support during this pandemic.

In my village, a group of volunteers was established within 72 hours of the lockdown. This group of about 35 people, take care of the vulnerable and isolated, doing their shopping, collecting their prescriptions and generally offering any help that is needed, even down to walking dogs. And whilst the local supermarkets (of which there are at least 10 within a 20 mile radius) have upped the number of online deliveries they offer, it is the local village shop, and the local farm shop, which have provided the individual service that anxious customers have needed.


Source of image

The World Localisation Day conference was organised by Local Futures, which has been ‘working for four decades to raise awareness about the need to shift direction – away from dependence on global monopolies, and towards decentralized, regional economies’ in order to ‘renew ecological, social, and spiritual well-being’. The conference highlighted the work of small groups all over the world who are working to strengthen their local communities, supporting the work of local businesses, and in particular promoting local growth of food.

I found the conference a very positive experience, full of hope and the real belief that localisation is a way forward. Interestingly, now that I have heard this message, I have realised that many people think in a similar way, but express their ideas in different contexts.

So, for example, I recently heard David Lammy (Labour MP for Tottenham and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice), an invited speaker for the Being Human in Conversation series, say that some challenges can only be addressed globally, but that cultures that don’t allow local powers are struggling. We have to attend to the local. We have to address the day to day concerns in our own neighbourhoods. (For the full talk see – https://youtu.be/xSBe-p5QrxM)

Similarly in an event organised by the London School of Economics and Political Science – Brexit and the Post-COVID-19 Options for the Economy – it was said that the UK should get serious about decentralised governance.

The need for decentralisation has been discussed for years. I first became very aware of it in 2008 when participating in Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ massive open online MOOC on Connectivism and Connected Knowledge, when they made it plain (when discussing how the internet functions) that distributing power, knowledge and control across decentralised systems will always be better than relying on the lynch pin in a centralised system. On his OLDaily newsletter Stephen Downes has listed a number of articles that discuss decentralisation (enter ‘decentralisation’ in Search).

 

 

 

 

 

And yesterday in a talk given to the Oxford Internet Institute – What Big Tech does to discourse, and the forgotten tech tool that can make tech less big, Cory Doctorow said that we must be in control of our own technology and be able to adapt our own tools to the circumstances we find ourselves in, rather than relying on the ‘big players’. Our resilience to future crises depends on this, he said.

The need for greater decentralisation and more localisation has been understood for years, but it seems that people have to see it in action to believe that it is possible. There have been signs during this pandemic that more people are beginning to think about and understand these ideas, but it remains to be seen whether enough people will support the movements to effect change over the long-term.

A daily bathe in Nature

In this time of almost global lockdown, there has been renewed recognition of the importance of Nature to mental health. The Earth is a source of life, and in a crisis people turn back to it.

Here in the UK, the public (excluding the vulnerable and those with underlying health issues) have been encouraged to leave their houses once a day, to exercise, to walk, or to cycle for a short time, in the vicinity of their homes. City dwellers have been astonished by the traffic-free streets, which now means they can hear the birds. Animals, such as deer, are beginning to wander the traffic-free streets of some towns. The decrease in pollution has led to clear skies and clean air. Spring has been experienced more vividly than usual, particularly since the UK has been bathed in glorious sunshine for about a week now. We have been reminded that the birds, trees, and plants, are completely unperturbed by what is going on.

I live in a very rural area, so the glory of Spring comes as no surprise, but I recognise that my relationship with nature and my garden has grown in recent years, more so since I retired, which has given me more time to work or sit in my garden, to keep watch over it, to become sensitive to its needs. But I think I understand the wonder that some are feeling this year at the beauty of Spring. I remember about 20 years ago getting a new job which required me to travel all over Cumbria, the particularly beautiful county I live in. Before this I had been working flat out as a schoolteacher, going to the same classroom every day for eight in the morning, and rushing home in the evening to my growing family. I scarcely lifted my head. I still remember clearly when I got my new job, which started in the autumn, and was driving all over the county; I was bowled over by the beauty of the countryside. I realised that I hadn’t seen the autumn colours for years. It was an eye-opener. In this current crisis the splendour of Nature is proving to be an eye opener for many.

In this week’s ‘Start the Week’ radio 4 programme, Andrew Marr discusses the hopefulness and beauty of nature with his guests Sue Stuart Smith, author of The Well-Gardened Mind: rediscovering Nature in the Modern World and Jonathan Bate, author of Radical Wordsworth: The Poet who Changed the World. It was Wordsworth who said that a daily bathe in Nature was necessary to his health; he recognised that his health had suffered after prolonged periods of city life. Wordsworth’s famous poem Tintern Abbey emphasises how important this relationship with Nature was to him, and how profoundly stabilising the memory of a place in nature can be. It restores the human spirit.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D00374

Both Sue Stuart Smith and Jonathan Bate realised that despite their belief in the benefits of developing a relationship with Nature, particularly at this time of COVID-19 lockdown, many people will not have access to open spaces, or gardens. From her research Sue Stuart Smith suggested that even just listening to the sounds of nature, birdsong, or running water, or being able to smell damp earth, or particular plants such as lavender or rosemary, can have deeply calming physical effects on us. A lot of people can probably testify to this from tending their window boxes or balcony plants.

And failing this, Jonathan Bate suggested that we can read our way into Nature. Wordsworth’s poetry can transport us into Nature.

(For the full poem see The Poetry Foundation website)

I have now not left my house/garden for more than four weeks. We fall into the category of people who the Government has advised to self-isolate for 12 weeks. Although I have always loved my garden, I have never been so grateful for it as this year.

Man’s Search for Meaning

At the end of this month I am supposed to be going on a four-day course on The Mystique of Existentialism. I say ‘supposed’, because given the current fears around COVID-19, either the course will be cancelled, or I will opt out.

The course outline says that the intention is to discuss the human condition that thinkers the likes of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre dwelt upon.

Suggested reading for the course is At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I was pleased about this because I have already read and blogged about the book which I thoroughly enjoyed. See Human Existence is Difficult. Existentialism and Phenomenology.

Serendipitously I also recently came across an article about an interview between Nigel Warburton and  Sarah Bakewell, in which he asked her to recommend five books on existentialism.

Of the five books that she recommends, I have only previously read Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre, again for a course, about five years ago – an introduction to philosophical literature. Sarah Bakewell starts her discussion with David Cooper’s book, but I jumped straight to Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.  Frankl wrote the book in 1945 in nine successive days.  I am late in discovering this book, but it still seems very pertinent for our times.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was a Holocaust survivor. In the book he describes his experience of the concentration camps, and questions whether a life of suffering can also have meaning. At one point he writes about how the memory of his wife, and conjuring up her image, sustained him and kept him going. He came to understand that ‘The salvation of man is through love and in love’. He also quotes Nietzsche’s words ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.

One of the strongest messages to come out of the book is that man has a choice of action, a choice of how to respond to the circumstances he finds himself in.

‘…. everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

‘…. Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.’

As Sarah Bakewell says; ‘…we always have the freedom to make of it [a given situation] what we will, according to our own choices, to impose our own meaning on it.’

This seems like a strong message for our times.

Travelling in Cambodia with a wheelchair user

This post is being written from my perspective as the wife of a wheelchair user, rather than the wheelchair user himself. I hope it will be helpful to other wheelchair users who are thinking of visiting Cambodia. Each disabled person is uniquely disabled and therefore has needs specific to their condition. In our case, the wheelchair user is an incomplete quadriplegic, who is permanently in a chair and cannot transfer unaided.

Angkor Wat

Cambodia is probably the most challenging place we have ever visited, from the perspective of access for wheelchair users. We didn’t see another wheelchair user in the two weeks we were there, during which we travelled between four places. We were told that Cambodian wheelchair users (because of course spinal and other catastrophic injuries occur in Cambodia just like anywhere else) stay at home and don’t go out, which is not surprising since there is virtually no provision for them. We were also told that Cambodians would not marry a disabled person, or stay married to a person who becomes disabled during the marriage; we were treated with curiosity, given that we have been married for more than 50 years!

Having said all this, in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh we were able to make use of a mobilituk, a tuk-tuk adapted for wheelchair users. This made a huge difference to how easy it was for us to get around, and we certainly missed it when we visited Kep, where one wasn’t available.

It was so much easier and, more importantly, more comfortable, for our wheelchair user to be wheeled into the tuk-tuk, than be lifted (bundled!) into a car, boat or jeep. And, having left the winter in the UK, it was a treat to travel in the open air, despite the dust.

So travelling round Cambodia was hard, but also memorable, maybe because it was hard. This was our itinerary from January 12th to January 28th, 2020, organised by Cambodian Travel Partner.

Day Date Location Hotel Schedule
1 14-01-20 (we started a day late because of flight delays) Siem Reap Victoria Angkor Transfer from airport to hotel. Tuk-tuk tour of Siem Reap. Blessing from resident monk in the pagoda. Dinner and dance show in the evening.

Victoria Angkor Hotel

2 15-01-20 Siem Reap Visit Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Bayon) and Ta Phrom temples by tuk-tuk.
3 16-01-20 Siem Reap Travel by open jeep through rural areas. Visit Rolous market before driving to Tonle Sap. Visit Kampong Khleang and the floating village, by boat. Phare Circus in the evening.
4 17-01-20 Battambang Battambang Resort Travel by car to Battambang

Battambang Resort Hotel

5 18-01-20 Battambang Take a tuk-tuk to visit cottage industries around Battambang. Visit Wat Ek Phnom Temple, Well of Shadows Memorial, and the bamboo train.
6 19-01-20 Battambang Visit Wat Banan Temple, Phnom Sampeau and Vineyard by tuk-tuk.
7 20-01-20 Phnom Penh Pavilion Travel by car to Phnom Penh. Tuk-tuk ride to the river. Sunset cruise on the Mekong river cancelled because of access difficulties. Offered a full body massage instead!

Pavilion Hotel

8 21-01-20 Phnom Penh Visit Wat Phnom and Royal Palace by cyclo. Take tuk-tuk to Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
9 22-01-20 Phnom Penh Free day. Visit Koh Dach Island by tuk-tuk.
10 23-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Travel by car to Kep

Villa Romonea

11 24-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Visit Kep Mangrove Forest by car and boat. Visit Kampot Pepper Farm by car.
12 25-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Free Day
13 26-01-20 Kep Villa Romonea Free Day
14 27-01-20 Phnom Penn Travel from Kep to Phnom Penh Airport by car. Return to UK (Manchester) via Bangkok and Dubai.

Our itinerary didn’t work out exactly as originally planned because due to storms in Dubai all our outward  flights were delayed, and we arrived a day late. We flew with Emirates as far as Bangkok, and then Bangkok Airways to Siem Reap. Emirates were very helpful with the delays, putting us up, free of charge, in the Novotel Airport Hotel in Bangkok for a night. These delays meant that whilst Cambodia Travel Partner had scheduled a free day in each place (which is a really good idea), we missed the one in Siem Reap, because we were a day late, and we missed the one in Battambang because we decided to spread the itinerary over two days rather than cram it all in to one day. I think having some slower rest days for a wheelchair user is essential for an enjoyable, stress-free trip.

In terms of access – everywhere in Cambodia is difficult. This was our experience:

Despite a lot of communication with our travel agent when planning the trip, not one of the hotels had a room with an adapted bathroom. I loved all the hotels and was pleased that we stayed in such lovely places, but the rooms were not disabled friendly, which meant a lot of lifting.

Scarcely any of the sights we visited were adapted for wheelchair users, although the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum had ramps, one of which was so uneven and steep that we needed to ask for help. All the temples could only be accessed via flights of steps.

Wat Banan Temple, Battambang

Our wheelchair user saw a lot from the outside, but missed a lot of the inside, for example the exquisite bas reliefs in the Bayon Temple and Angkor Wat.

Bas Relief, Bayon Temple, Siem Reap

If we had travelled with a group of heavy lifters it would have been possible for him to see a lot more, but we travelled as a couple, so whilst lifting wheelchair plus occupant up a few steps was possible, with the help of the driver and guide, it was not possible for the flights of steps which often faced us. I am always conscious when asking people to help (and they almost always do – people all around the world are so amazingly kind and helpful), not only of the effort required, but also that it would be very easy for these untrained volunteer helpers to damage their backs or other muscles. But if you travel with a group of in-the-know friends or carers, then it would probably be possible to lift the wheelchair user up flights of stairs to see sights such as the bas reliefs.

But the Cambodian people are very kind and our travel agent couldn’t do enough for us, constantly checking that we were OK and making alternative arrangements if we needed them, such as arranging complementary full body massages for us when we found we couldn’t access the boat to go on the sunset cruise on the Mekong River in Phnom Penh.

Mekong River, Phnom Penh

So, on reflection, this was an ambitious trip to take on alone, as a couple – but we did it and had a memorable experience. From the perspective of our wheelchair user, he knew it would be a difficult trip so found it an adventure. The trip therefore met his criteria for an enjoyable holiday. I also knew it would be difficult, but it was harder than I expected.

Cambodia is unlike any other country I have ever visited and we have visited quite a few developing countries. The Angkor temples are truly wonderful to visit and rural Cambodia is fascinating. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is stunning and Tonle Sap with its floating villages is unlike anything I have ever seen before, even if it brought back memories of Lake Titicaca which we visited in 1977! But it is impossible to avoid being affected by Cambodia’s recent history. The Cambodians want visitors to know about this terrible period in their history, and the horrific atrocities that were committed by the Pol Pot regime, but it is hard to take, and very sad.

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that we are both in our 70s, so any younger wheelchair user reading this should bear this in mind. Whilst you might not mind being bundled about like a piece of baggage in your younger days, it becomes a bit more of a trial as you get older, although if gaining access means being treated like a piece of baggage, it is usually worth it, no matter what age.

Having now had a chance to see quite a bit of Cambodia, for which I feel very privileged, if I were to go back, with or without my companion wheelchair user, I would want to spend more time in Siem Reap at the wonderful Victoria Hotel, taking full advantage of the hotel’s beautiful environment and leisurely visiting all the Angkor temple sites, although this probably wouldn’t be so appropriate for a wheelchair user.

For a complete photographic record of our trip see my Cambodia Flickr Album

Some references we explored when planning our trip

You are Jürgen Habermas!

Jürgen Habermas in 2014 at the age of 84

I have spent the start of the new year, trying to bring some order to the hundreds of documents on my laptop and was surprised to find a document in my 2014 folder with the title – ‘You are Jürgen Habermas’, which included the following text:

Author of The Logic of the Social Sciences, you recognize that the primary activity of human beings is to interpret the meaning of things in the world around them. As human beings themselves, researchers also interpret meanings and cannot therefore keep their own perspective separate from their research. Since there is no absolute truth, research must instead use reason and argument to arrive at the best interpretation. Go use your hermeneutics to conquer the world!

It turns out that this was the result of an online quiz – ‘What’s your epistemology?’

I don’t take these quizzes seriously. They are just a bit of light-hearted fun to occupy a spare moment, or when procrastinating, but I was interested that six years later I get the same result, and given that I haven’t written a blog post for a couple of months, sharing this seemed like a gentle restart.

I don’t know a huge amount about Habermas, but I do like his advocacy of communicative action and Ideal Speech Situation.

Keith Morrison (2008) makes these ideas accessible in his paper ‘Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity’ where he writes:

A complexity informed pedagogy requires communication that includes:

  • Freedom to enter a discourse, check questionable claims, evaluate explanations and justifications;
  • Freedom to modify a given conceptual framework and alter norms;
  • Mutual understanding between participants;
  • Equal opportunity for dialogue that abides by the validity claims of truth, legitimacy, sincerity and comprehensibility, and recognises the legitimacy of each subject to participate in the dialogue as an autonomous and equal partner;
  • Equal opportunity for discussion, and the achieved—negotiated—consensus resulting from discussion deriving from the force of the better argument alone, and not from the positional power of the participants;
  • Exclusion of all motives except for the cooperative search for truth.

All this feels very relevant at the beginning of 2020.

And, as an aside, the quiz included this lovely image:

A painting by a Swedish artist new to me – Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939)

Happy New Year to anyone reading this post.

Reference
Morrison, K. (2008). Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity Theory. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1). https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00394.x

Carrot Cake

I don’t remember when I first tasted carrot cake, but I have known for a while that it is my favourite type of cake. It still surprises me that I like carrot cake so much. Carrots are not an especially preferred vegetable, although I do eat them in a variety of ways.

When I was eight years old I was sent to boarding school, a bit of a traumatic experience for any young child. One of the better memories of this four year experience was that each and every child in the school was given a small allotment plot in which we could grow whatever we wished. Amongst other things I grew carrots. Even if you are not keen on eating carrots, they are beautiful plants to watch grow. They have such lovely feathery foliage, magical for children, and even more magical when you pull them up to find a crop of carrots underneath, a crop that you can actually eat. Although I’m not a big fan of boarding schools for young children, looking back, I think it was very enlightened of the school to encourage children to tend gardens and grow their own crops.

But back to carrot cake. At eight years old I didn’t know there was such a thing as carrot cake. I was brought up on Victoria sponges and the like. Carrot cake only came into my life when I took up cycling about eight years ago. A frequent, local, flat, 20 mile ride involves a half way stop at a café which, up to today, I thought sold the best carrot cake ever, particularly delicious with cappuccino ten miles into a bike ride.

I have many a time told the café owners this, but after today will not be able to do so again, because today some friends came for lunch and brought with them really the best carrot cake ever. Evidently the recipe was a BBC Good Food one. My friend told me, ‘I’ll tell you that this is the recipe, even though I know you will never bake one.

Recipe: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/3229/yummy-scrummy-carrot-cake

From now on I will associate carrot cake with a really enjoyable lunch with good friends, but also with the query in my head about whether my friend knows me better than I know myself. Yes, it’s true that I haven’t baked a cake since our children grew up and ‘fled the nest’. I decided I had had enough of baking, but also just two of us simply cannot eat a whole cake these days, even over a few days. But will I really never bake another cake? And what is it that my friend knows about me that I don’t know about myself? It’s always intriguing to consider how others perceive you.

Who would have thought that carrot cake could lead to these memories. I have to put this down to the fact that the cake in itself was an especially memorable experience, invoked by the senses, which triggered off more memories, which in turn were invoked by the senses. I think even Descartes would have had to trust his senses that this was an absolutely delicious cake.

Visiting Kolkata with a Wheelchair User

Visiting Kolkata with a wheelchair user is a challenge and certainly not for the faint-hearted. Hand-pulled rickshaws are being phased out, but there is little sign that facilities for wheelchair users are being phased in. I think it would be fair to say that Kolkata is the most inaccessible city for a wheelchair user that we have ever visited. We were there three days and in all that time of being out and about for eight hours each day, I didn’t see one other person in a wheelchair. Given the difficulties of getting about this is not surprising.

If you are a wheelchair user, and are thinking of visiting Kolkata, then here are some of the experiences we had that might inform your visit.

First, a little background so that you can compare your condition with ours. It is not me, the author of this blog post, who uses the wheelchair, but my husband, so I am writing from the perspective of the carer of a wheelchair user. I can’t imagine a wheelchair user travelling to Kolkata without a carer, although I do know that there are some extremely intrepid young wheelchair users who travel the world alone. We are not in that category.

My husband is in his 70s,  a quadriplegic, partially paralysed from a spinal chord injury. We are fortunate that he can still stand and, with support, bear his own weight, but he cannot walk. So he is permanently in a wheelchair and is not a user who, for example, needs a wheelchair at an airport because of the walking distance required. He simply cannot live or get about at all without a wheelchair.

We arrived in Kolkata from Kerala, travelling with Indigo airlines. Some airlines, in this case both Indigo and Etihad in Kolkata, don’t have a lot of experience with wheelchair users  (or at least not with wheelchair users who cannot walk and cannot get out of their chair without being lifted). And they have no experience of more active wheelchair users who travel with a bicycle attachment, as we did. Not surprisingly the lithium dry cell battery for this attachment caused great concern, despite the fact that we have a certificate showing that it is safe to travel with. And we also learned that the airport staff, whilst extremely polite and kind, do not know how to lift someone who is paralysed. It is essential to speak up and say exactly how it should be done, or demonstrate, or do it yourself. Everything at the airports therefore takes longer than expected, however much information you have provided before-hand. So be sure to allow time for this.

 
At Kolkata Airport

We had, of course, booked our hotel prior to travelling, making specific requests for a disabled friendly building, bedroom and bathroom. We arrived to find that there was a flight of steps into the hotel and a very steep ramp, too steep for me to push even this very light wheelchair user up and scarily steep for going down, but a group of the hotel staff did this very willingly. We also found, on arrival, that we had been allocated a room with the shower over a bath. We asked for a room change and finally were given a room with a walk in shower. However, when it came to it, and after we had unpacked, we found that the door to the bathroom was not wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through. We were told that all the doors in the hotel were the same width. We also met this problem in restaurants, when we asked for access to a bathroom. But it is amazing how with a bit of imagination it is possible to find ways round these sorts of problems and make things work. Sometimes we surprise even ourselves with our ingenuity.

For the three days we were in Kolkata, we had booked a car and a guide. The guide was wonderfully informative and the driver turned out to be an absolute gem. The car we used was a Toyota Innova, and the seats were too high for my husband to be able to get in. This meant that the driver and I between us had to lift him in and out several times a day. The guide wasn’t strong enough to do this. I always worry that willing, but inexperienced helpers, are going to end up pulling a muscle or damaging their backs. But the driver and I had this off to a fine art by the end of the three days. You might ask why we didn’t have a smaller car, where the seats would have been lower. The answer is that we needed a car big enough to take our wheelchair which doesn’t fold. A good driver is also essential because of the traffic. Kolkata is so crowded with traffic and people that suitable parking, to enable a wheelchair user to get into and out of the car safely, is very difficult to find. Our driver was a master at making this work, holding up traffic if necessary.

Although we were driven around Kolkata, we obviously had to get out to visit the sites. Most places were, in one way or another, inaccessible to a wheelchair user, but, as we have found elsewhere around the world, people are usually very willing to help, and, in a crowded city like Kolkata, it is fairly easy to find four strong people to lift the wheelchair and occupant up (or down) a few steps. Despite this most of the sites were inaccessible for a wheelchair user. There were often too many steps, so we either gave the site a miss, or my ever patient husband waited outside while I had a quick look inside. Leaving a vulnerable person alone on a pavement in a crowded city is not ideal, so I never lingered.

Outside the Indian Coffee House

These are the sites we visited, or rather, I visited; many of them my husband viewed from the outside. At least it was warm and didn’t rain while we were in Kolkata, so waiting outside was not as uncomfortable as it might have been.

Site Accessible Notes
Dalhousie Square, now known as Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh (B.B.D. Bagh) Yes No traffic on a Sunday morning so easy to wheel round.
St John’s Church Yes Accessible via a ramp.
Job Charnock’s Mausoleum Not inside Can only be seen from the outside.
Rabindranath Tagore’s house No Flight of steps to enter.
The Flower Market

 

No. Flight of steps to enter, but flower sellers can be seen along the pavements outside the market.
The Indian Museum Only in part Access difficult and very crowded. Steps into the Bharhut Gallery to see the famous railings, but the public helped to lift. No access to the first floor galleries for us, because our wheelchair was too wide to go down the corridor to the lift.
Walk along the Hooghly river starting at the Princep Ghat Monument Yes Good path once over the railway line.

 

Birla Mandir Hindu Temple No Long flight of steps to enter.
Mother House Yes One step to enter and a further step inside. The Sisters were very helpful. No access to Mother Teresa’s room which is up a flight of steps
Jain Temple Access to the grounds only No access to the temple. Flight of steps.
The Book Market Yes, but very difficult Pavements very crowded and uneven.
Indian Coffee House No Flight of steps.
South Park Cemetery Yes Some surfaces were difficult to wheel over.
St Paul’s Cathedral Yes Access round the back via a very steep ramp. Ask inside for the back door to be unlocked.
Kalighat Temple No Steps to enter. The surrounding area is very crowded. The number of people make it an unpleasant, if interesting, experience for a wheelchair user.
Victoria Memorial Yes Loose stones on the walk up to the memorial building makes wheeling very difficult. Entrance is via a ramp round the back, but at the top of the ramp is a flight of steps. Public needed to help lift. Very crowded inside.

A site that we didn’t have time to visit, but probably would have been accessible, is the Botanical Gardens. We were sorry to miss them.

So not only were many of the sites inaccessible, but the experience of the three days for my husband was of being bundled in and out of a car and up and down steps like a piece of baggage.  I asked him if, as a wheelchair user, it was worth visiting Kolkata. His response was that most things can be made to work, so it depends on what your motive is.

For us the motive was that Kolkata is where I was born and I wanted to see it once more, having not been there for 65 years. We both found that this was motive enough to make the visit interesting and worthwhile, but it will definitely be a one off.

Would I, as the carer of a wheelchair user, recommend Kolkata as a place for a person in a wheelchair to visit? The answer to this question would have to be ‘No’. Kolkata simply does not cater for people in wheelchairs and I think it will be a long time before this becomes a priority. It has too many other issues and problems to address.

But, as we have shown, with enough help, with a positive mental attitude, and under the right conditions, it can be done. These conditions, from our perspective, are that:

  • You can afford to stay in the best hotel possible, have a car permanently at your disposal, and have at least two people helping you.
  • You are small and light, and use a small and light wheelchair, ideally a folding wheelchair. The crowds of people, the steps everywhere, and the amount of lifting needed, make this very necessary.
  • You are not afraid to ask people for help. The people of Kolkata give their help very willingly.
  • You are scrupulous about keeping clean, particularly your hands, so wear gloves and use plenty of hand wipes or antiseptic gel.
  • You are careful where you eat. We relied on our guide to choose suitable restaurants and decide on the menu.
  • You have a patient, tolerant disposition and a sense of humour.
  • You have a motive for visiting Kolkata beyond tourism.

I took photos at all the sites we visited. You can see them here – Kolkata, 2019

I have also written posts about visiting Venice and Rome with a wheelchair user.

Revisiting Calcutta (now Kolkata) after 65 years

I was born in Calcutta in 1946 and lived there until I was eight years old, when my father decided that we must leave. India was no longer a comfortable place for the British – at least, in hindsight, I think that was what he thought. I was too young at the time to appreciate the problem. Leaving India was no easy decision. My mother cried for months after returning to the UK. My father who had been financial director of a well-known Calcutta firm, Shaw Wallace,  had to start again in the UK as a junior accountant, making tea for his seniors.

I do not remember a lot about my early childhood in India. I put this down to the trauma that the whole family suffered on our return to the UK. We were all grieving for India, and I, at the age of eight, was packed off to boarding school. I don’t think my mother could have coped any other way.

At the beginning of this week, 65 years later, I was in Calcutta again, only this time I was calling it Kolkata. (Many of India’s city names that I grew up with have been changed). I was only there three days, and on this occasion that was just the right amount of time – time enough to see many of the key tourist sites (see my Flickr album),  time enough to get a feel for the city of my birth, and time enough to listen for the ‘voices in the ground’. I learned this wonderful and so apt expression, which describes the sense of ‘deja vu’ experienced, or that history is speaking to you, from a blog post recently written by Lisa Lane.

It would be fair to say that I was fascinated, excited, stunned and appalled by Kolkata all at the same time and in equal measure. The first thing that hit me was the seeming chaos everywhere (although we didn’t visit new Kolkata, which we were told is calmer, cleaner and quite different to the old Kolkata that we were seeing). The difference from the tranquil Kerala backwaters we had just left, could not have been more stark.

When we asked our travel guide how he copes daily with the chaos, his reply was that since he was born and brought up in Kolkata he is ‘habituated’. The noise is incessant, with constant blaring of vehicle horns, despite the sign ‘No horns’ on taxis. The traffic is nose to tail all the time, with apparently no driving rules. It’s every man for himself. You cannot move for people, not only on the streets, but in all public places. I cannot see how Kolkata will ever surmount the problems which are obviously associated with being over-populated. But most troubling was the dirt. A clean place felt like a sanctum. The shame is that in old Kolkata all the original buildings with their wonderful balconies and shutters still exist, and could look amazing if they were cleaned up. We were told by our excellent guide, Manab, that this won’t happen because the owners have to pay higher taxes if the housing they are living in looks ‘smart’. Evidently these homes which look so grimy on the outside, are quite different on the inside, well maintained and cared for.

Manab also told us that the Kolkata we see today is not the same Kolkata that was home to my parents, my brother and myself in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In those days the population was much smaller and the streets and buildings were cleaner, he said. The problem started with partition and a massive increase in population for which Kolkata was not prepared and is still not prepared; immigrants are still arriving from Bangladesh, to sleep under tarpaulins and use standpipes for washing, along all the streets of old Kolkata. For me, this was a sight that could not be ignored. I wondered if I would become ‘habituated’ to this if I lived in Kolkata.

Despite all this, Kolkata is not a miserable place. Incredibly it seems to work, with people going about their daily business seemingly impervious to the chaotic hurly-burly around them. For Manab, an educated, well-read, knowledgeable and travelled man (a retired electrical engineer), Kolkata is truly a ‘City of Joy’. He had read Dominique Lapierre’s book of the same name, which he said he enjoyed, but thought it over-emphasised the problem of poverty in Kolkata. I found it hard to understand this perspective. Poverty on the streets of Kolkata seemed to me to be overwhelmingly in your face everywhere. But Manab also said, when we visited the Kalighat Temple to the goddess Kali, ‘All life is here’. With this I could and did agree, and it was this that made Kolkata such a rich and colourful experience. It was so alive – teeming with life.

My parents are no longer alive. I wish I had talked to them more about their 15 years in Kolkata. I wonder if they ever visited the Kalighat Temple. I somehow doubt it. I once asked my mother why she didn’t know more about Indian cookery. The answer of course was that she didn’t have to cook. I suspect that my parents, for the most part, lived in a British community bubble. I got an inkling of what that must have been like when we visited the Tollygunge Club, where my parents were members – an oasis of calm compared to the streets we had driven through to reach it. I can remember having weekly riding lessons there at 6.00 am before school, and also spending Christmas Days there.

In those days the Club was exclusively British, but Anil Mukerji, the current President of the Club, who kindly gave up an hour of his time to show us round, made it plain that there is no longer a place for anything exclusively British in India.

For the most part the impression I got is that the people of Kolkata are immensely proud of their city with its incredible buildings such as the Cathedral and Victoria Memorial, which they fully acknowledge are their inheritance from the time of British rule. As Anil Mukerji said, good and bad has been done on both sides and now the UK and India are friends. Whether or not this is true, it is the people of India that stand out for me. They are so wonderfully generous of spirit, so wonderfully tolerant, patient and kind.

So did I hear ‘the voices in the ground’ in Kolkata? I certainly walked a small way in the footsteps of my parents, even finding the address on my birth certificate, 10 Palace Court, Kyd Street, where I must have lived on first entering this world. I felt excited and happy to be in Kolkata again after so many years. Despite not recognising a single thing, it felt familiar.