As we sit around the campfire this week:

  • A story as told by the physicist Richard Feynman
  • A follow-up to the story about Kevin Carter, the photographer
  • A tale of Love in extraordinary circumstances
  • Some thoughts about judging it right.

A story for scientists.


"I was upstairs typewriting a theme on something about philosophy. And I was completely engrossed, not thinking of anything but the theme, when all of a sudden in a most mysterious fashion there swept through my mind the idea: my grandmother has died.
Now of course I exaggerate slightly, as you should in all such stories. I just sort of got the idea for a minute... Immediately after that the phone rang downstairs. I remember this distinctly for the reason you will now hear... It was for somebody else. My grandmother was perfectly healthy and there’s nothing to it. Now, what we have to do is to accumulate a large number of these to fight the few cases when it could happen."
Richard Feynman


In last week’s edition, I talked about a photographer who proved that, when it comes to storytelling, a picture really can be worth a thousand words and more.
Many people know the name of Kevin Carter. He has been much talked about, written about and even sung about.
From what I learned during our conversation, when I met him in 1992, I suspect Kevin would have seen the deep irony embedded within some statistics which have now been published in a number of respected journals around the world.
At Shebang - and at Starlab generally – we tend to be rather sceptical about statistics, and in this case the way they have been derived is less than clear.
Nevertheless there is a clear correlation within these published figures that is unmissable and which makes its point.
  • 1 billion of the earth’s inhabitants are defined as ‘starving’
  • 1 billion of the earth’s inhabitants are defined as ‘obese’

[All of us should be clicking on the famous Hunger Site, of course. If you don’t know it, you should.]

I can remember telling Kevin a tale, which summed up something deep which he knew and understood. Disturbing and brief it took place during the twentieth century. Its location is known to me, but the place is irrelevant, it could have happened anywhere

  • A mother, starving, poor and on the run, took refuge in an open grave, clambered in and cradled her baby there, hoping to be safe for a few moments.
    She had no food, no money, nothing.
    The baby in her arms tried to drink from her breasts, but she had no milk, she was dry.
    The mother, bereft of hope, began to cry.
    Thirstily, the baby drank of the liquid, drank the mother’s salty tears.
    And the tears killed the baby.
  • Kevin Carter had money worries and was criticised – as many photographers are – for taking pictures of suffering when he should actively have helped. But it is also known that the despair of the world became his despair, and many believe that that was the main reason why he took his own life. In the last edition, we expressed the hope that we would find his award-winning photograph.

    We have.

    Kevin’s picture shows a child in Africa, looking for food. Nearby, barely yards away, the child is being watched...


    The second story in this edition is true as well.
    It is also a tale of people in extremis; it is powerful, and, for me at least, it is uplifting.
    I watched this tale unfold; and what I missed, my friend Graham told me about.
    The story is about Graham’s mother and father.
    In the early 80’s Graham’s mother suffered a stroke. It was a devastating blow, and the family rallied round to take care of her.
    Graham’s dad had been so close to her that he found it very difficult to be without her.

    It was especially difficult to make arrangements for her, to get things organised.
    Mum’s power of speech appeared greatly to have been diminished. She could "’nkyou” for thank you.
    And she could say "Eskom”. That was more or less all she could say.
    As time went on, mum found a way of saying everything though, using those words.
    She agreed on business arrangements, said hullo to family and friends, laughed, chatted, requested the bathroom, asked for seconds, acknowledged that she understood, all with the expression "Eskom”
    Now her husband had one ailment after another, and for much of the time they were in hospital together.
    Then Dad was struck a very harsh blow. He had a stroke.
    In fact he had a very similar stroke to Mum’s
    He too lost much of his power of speech.
    What he could say was reduced to "Es, please”, "nkyou”, rather like Mum’s vocab. He had a sentence too:
    "Three five silly bugger.”
    At this stage Mum and Dad were moved in together. They began living together again. "Eskom, Eskom”
    "Three five silly bugger.”
    Love bloomed again.
    "Eskom, Eskom”
    "Three five silly bugger.”
    . "Eskom”
    "Three five silly bugger.”
    Using those expressions they sat and chatted for three years.
    "Eskom, Eskom”
    "Three five silly bugger.”
    They had meals, had fights, spoke of their love, sold their house, gave messages to their children and grandchildren, had a life.
    Graham and I wanted to do a play about this, with old actors who wouldn’t have to learn long speeches, but who - through sheer will and the desire to communicate - could pour feeling and meaning in a million ways into just those two expressions
    "Eskom, Eskom”
    "Three five silly bugger.Three five silly bugger.”


    I had a teacher who said ‘Art is knowing where to draw the line.’
    And in stories, it there is a fine line between delight and rightness, and something overdone.
    ]Some of these musings have to do with meals. You will have noted that I have just been going on about hunger – the irony has not escaped me.
    Indeed one of my favourite cartoons shows a waiter talking to two bourgeois types, and saying ‘Would Madame and Monsieur care to feel guilty about the starving people on this planet before or after coffee.’
    There are many strata in society, and each group their own needs and mores.
    We simply have to do what we can, as life keep up its habit of going on.]

    Recently at a dinner party I witnessed a well-judged moment of weirdness, edginess and embarrassment.
    Quite suddenly, after the meal had barely started, very quietly, a guest asked of the hostess, ‘May I have a bath?’
    It was very edgy, and the question was brief. There was no long preamble, and – best of all – no explanation.
    Just, ‘May I have a bath?” Even the absence of a please made the question hang in the air, deliciously surreal.
    The hostess was in control. Without a nano-second’s hesitation she said ‘Of course.’
    The silence was fleeting. We all heard the traffic, people outside, a dog barked.
    The guest was given a towel. he went into the bathroom, left it slightly ajar. That particular bathroom was near the dining room. While he soaked and softly splashed, he called out helpful remarks to the rest of us. After a little while, he re-emerged; he was relaxed, sweet-smelling, poised.
    There are many things he would have asked to do which could have been milder; we can all think of what he might have done that was over the top.
    From start to finish, though, it was deliciously done; everyone carried it off, judged it right.
    A few weeks later I encountered somebody judging things completely wrong, but timing them right.
    I had supper in a local restaurant. [Yes, I did say, one or two of these vignettes do involve food] The woman who runs the place is very friendly, and rather attractive, but it is clear that there is a certain waywardness in the establishment from time to time.
    What I mean is, that on this particular night she was as drunk as a skunk.
    She wove back and forth with the orders. She didn’t stagger, but blew hither and yon, like a poplar in a high wind; her face never came into focus all night.
    The well-judged timing though came after I had had my escalope milanese and salad, my wine, and my coffee. I had asked for the bill, and she took a little while to come back.
    When she did, she stood before me, smiling woozily.
    On the tray that she set down before me were: an escalope milanese, a salad, a glass of wine, and a coffee.
    She had brought me a second version of an the meal I had just consumed.
    It was movie moment, a bit like ‘Groundhog Day’, in which Bill Murray lives and relives and relives and relives the same day until he judges it right.
    You might have thought it was a good use of filmic techniques and that it was interesting philosophically.
    A friend of mine judged it correctly, but in the wrong way, perhaps; he thought it was ‘a bit repetitive’.
    At least he got the point, and besides it is really hard to make judgments, as history has shown from the days of Socrates to this era of O.J. Simpson and hanging chads.
    Writers are forever getting themselves into a stew about those walking grey areas law and ethics and morality. They need help from a pornographer of my acquaintance.
    He runs a science fiction shop in Newcastle, but also houses within his emporium a bookcase stacked with porn. I asked him what the hell was going on.
    ‘It’s fantasy, innit?’ he explained.
    I hardly need to describe him, but he is portly and sports a pony tail at the rear end of a very bald head.
    I knew he wouldn’t have the patience for a lengthy confab, so I narrowed down my questions; ‘Do you have any limits?’
    At this stage there were mutterings and teasings from a colleague of his who was emerging from the toilet, drying his hands. His smaller, thinner friend shouted across to us, ‘He don’t have ###**## **#### limits, he’s a ##**## ***#####!’’ his
    Our pony tailed friend called back ‘ I do have ####***###*** limits! I **####*** tell you where I draw the line:’
    And then he told me. The man was clear, he knew his boundaries, he knew his morality, he knew his mind, he knew what was what. For him, he had judged things right.
    ‘I draw the line,’ he said, as if talking to a foreigner,’ I draw the line at children, and donkeys up ##**##.’
    He was as clear could be. It was easy to see how he had come by his decision about children. Donkeys and anal sex, well, one can understand the revulsion. What was less easy to grasp was why stop there. What did that include? No matter. The man had worked it all out. I almost envied that.
    There are famous stories of wise judges such as Azdak of Solomon, dispensing testing two women battling over a child to see who the real mother is. And a celebrated tale in South Africa describes a wise man settling a dispute over the apportioning of farmland between two brothers:
    One brother is to do the dividing, and then the other one gets to choose which lands he wants. You just know that the one cutting up the property will do it with utter fairness; he will judge it right.
    We could carry on talking about judgements all night, but it’s way past your bedtime. Let’s just finish with some graffiti spotted not so long ago:
    ‘It is not enough that justice is done. It must be seen to be believed.’