An ‘unbelievable’ instance and a trip to Avebury

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First, the ‘unbelievable’ instance.

I was driving to Avebury today to meet some friends and colleagues (see above) with a shared interest in place and more besides. Early in my journey I had to negotiate heavy traffic getting out of Bristol, which included a certain amount of interplay with a very large, shiny and generally expensive-looking Land Rover.

When it passed me for the second time I noticed its numberplate: “POO2U”.

My first thought was that, dyslexic as I am, I must have misread it. But no, a little careful manoeuvring allowed me to check that this was, indeed, the numberplate. When I got home this evening I checked the price of such cars. They cost in excess of £60,000. My first reaction this morning was to try and make some kind of joke of what I’d just seen – “it must be a senior Tory minister returning to London from a trip to the regions in a car with number plates especially commissioned for the occasion”. But it’s really not funny when a person who can spend that kind of money (or have it spent for them) on a car even entertains the idea of signalling “POO2U” to the driver and passengers of every car they pass. Infantile is only the start of it.

I’ve been wondering for a long time if there’s an image that could encapsulate the culture of possessive individualism. This morning I may have seen one. What’s more it may well have sharpened my sense of the importance of a conversation around empathy that took place at lunchtime, during which I was alerted to the writing of Edith Stein. I knew nothing of this extraordinary woman before today, and what follows is a hasty paraphrase from the Internet.

Edith Stein, (1891–1942), was born into an observant German Jewish family, became a philosopher, a Roman Catholic and then a Discalced Carmelite nun. An atheist by the time she was in her teens, she become a nursing assistant and worked in a hospital before completing her doctorate in 1916 from Gottingen University and obtained an assistantship at Freiburg University. Baptised a Catholic in 1922, she went on to teach at a Catholic school of education. Forced to quit her teaching job by Nazis legislation, she was admitted to the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Cologne and entered the Order in 1934. In 1938 she was sent to a Carmelite monastery in the Netherlands for safety but was arrested by the Nazis on 2 August 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where she was gassed on 9 August 1942. She was canonized by Pope John Paul 11 in 1998. Two of her works came up today – On the Problem of Empathy and Essays on Woman and I realise from our conversation that at the very least I need to read the first.

Avebury, which I’ve not visited for a while, belongs to another world entirely from the one inhabited by the emotionally retarded owner of the very expensive Range Rover.

Most impressive of all, for me, are not really the stones themselves – although some are vast and extraordinarily weathered and all of them part of a magnificent if elusive whole – but the ditches.

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These are somehow more extraordinary for being ‘just ditches’, but ditches on such a scale as to make your mind boggle when you remember they where made, quite literally, by hand and, equally impressive, have persisting over such a length of time. You get some sense of this if you watch more adventurous people than myself physically engage with them as did these three women.

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All in all, a day of good exercise, good company and compelling conversation.

We were not, however, the only beings enjoying Avebury on a fine early autumn Sunday. Right from the moment I got out of my car I had a real sense that the rooks were being particularly active around Avebury today. I can only guess as to why, but found myself taking great pleasure in their flights, in small and large groups, and it their happy gregariousness generally. I think something of their mood rubbed of on me, and it was a real pleasure to have their constant company during the day.

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