Monthly Archives: May 2018

The Philosopher and the Spider

The Philosopher and the Spider

The spider was trapped,

under the rim of the urinal.

We don’t know its origin,

or its means of arrival.


The spider didn’t know

when it had begun.

The spider didn’t know

when it would end.

The spider hunkered down,

not far from the u-bend.


Its daily weather forecast:

intermittent showers, of golden rain.

We don’t know if it felt pleasure;

we don’t know if it felt pain.

We don’t know a spider’s feelings,

or if it even has a brain.

All we can state, for certain, is this:

the spider lived, every day, in showers of piss.

Perhaps, for the spider, this constituted bliss.


Every time he needed to take a leak,

the philosopher observed the spider,

over a period of weeks. Should he intervene?

The consequences could be huge,

if he extracted the spider from its daily deluge.

How would it react? He had no idea.

He hesitated, torn between compassion and fear.


He did what philosophers do: he thought.

He pondered distinctions between “could” and “ought”.

Having probed the matter, in all its dimensions,

he acted, upon the best of intentions.


Two days later, the philosopher hung his head,

when he finally saw where his intervention had led:

the desiccated husk of the spider – dead.

I’ve had a keen interest in philosophy ever since coming across Colin Wilson’s “Beyond the Outsider” in my local public library at the age of sixteen.  It introduced me to Wilson’s “New Existentialism”, awakened my interest in philosophy and the history of ideas, and my life was suddenly transformed.

Unfortunately, philosophy and poetry have turned out to be not the easiest of bed-fellows, whenever I’ve tried to combine the two of them.  When I read about the philosopher Thomas Nagel and his encounter with a spider, however, I thought it might lend itself to poetry, and the above poem is the result.


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“From the age of six, I had the desire to copy the form of things. From about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but, until the age of seventy, nothing I drew was worthy of notice.”

So inured to defeat, to rejection, am I,

these days, I can barely muster a sigh

of resignation. No tear brims my eye.

“At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish.”

These days of defeat, it’s a wonder why

I don’t pack it all in; stop living a lie.

 “Thus, when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and, at ninety, to see further into the underlying principle of things.”

These days of dejection, I can’t even cry,

but I summon my forces, and I try

to think of my hero, Hokusai.

“So that, at 100 years, I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and, at 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.”

 What’s not to love, about Hokusai?

His images, his words, will never die.

He is 79 years of age, at home with his artist daughter, when his house catches fire. He grabs his paintbrush, and jumps out the window. His daughter grabs her paintbrush, and jumps out after him. They lose all their possessions, clothes, and painting materials. They are nearly naked, and look like homeless beggars. Hokusai’s greatest works still lie ahead of him.

 As long as there’s life, there’s hope, so I

summon my strength, and think of Hokusai.

He was born in a Dragon Year. On a Dragon Day, in his 90th year, he paints his last great work: a dragon flies into the sky around his beloved Mount Fuji, and disappears into the heavens…

In June last year, BBC4 showed the premier of a film entitled “Hokusai: Old Man Crazy to Paint”.  It was a documentary/biography of the Chinese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).  I watched it, and was fascinated and enthralled.  I didn’t know much about Hokusai at the time, apart from the fact that he was famous for his painting The Great Wave, which must be one of the best-known images in world art.  I had no idea that he had continued to paint until his ninetieth year, that he was also famous for painting whole series of views of Mount Fuji, and that he had a daughter who was also a significant artist in her own right.  I found his unquenchable optimism endearing and admirable.  About a year later, I watched Simon Schama enthusing about Hokusai, in one of the BBC2 “Civilizations” programmes, and my fascination with Hokusai was re-invigorated.  I started having ideas about writing a series of poems about Hokusai’s life, linked to his series of paintings of Mount Fuji, but then realised it might be a bit ambitious for my meagre talents.  I ended up producing the poem above, which attempts to summarise what Hokusai means to me. 

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The Misconception

Felski Knew

Felski knew it, he always knew:

working in a library, that’s what I would do.

A librarian; he knew that’s what I would be.

Anthony Felski, Form Lower 6C;

he always knew that’s what I would be.


Every time we met, after having left school,

we’d say hello, how are you, we’d run the rule

over what’s happened to her, what’s happened to him,

the friends, the relatives, the kith and kin.

Then “How’s things at the library?” he would say,

and I couldn’t deny it; there was no way.

Somehow, he divined it, he always knew:

working in a library, that’s what I would do.


So I could never tell him of the misconception;

he could never get to hear about the rejection.

It would devastate his mind, his soul,

to find that I was, simply, on the dole.

So I said it was boring, but, as he well knew,

it was the only job, really, that I could do.


It never happened. They rejected me;

I never was to work in a library.

A tragic rejection, a real tragedy;

perhaps not for Felski, but a tragedy for me.

It was destined for me; what I should do.

As it turned out, it was all I could do.

And it was Felski who knew it; he always knew.

I fell in love with reading very early on, mainly through discovering the wonders of the Children’s Section in our local public library.  My love of reading, and of public libraries, has continued throughout my life.  I am fortunate enough to live within a fifteen-minute walk from Peterborough Public Library, and fortunate, also, in that Peterborough City Council seem intent on keeping our wonderful library going, in the face of numerous library closures throughout the country.

As I went through my teenage years, and approached school-leaving age, I had to start thinking about what I was going to do after school, and working in the local library seemed an obvious choice.  I remember my mother taking me to see the Chief Librarian (mothers used to do that sort of thing, in those days), with a view towards my starting work there – but, for some unknown reason, it never transpired.  I ended up doing a Business Studies course (which I hated) and, eventually, drifting into Teaching English as a Foreign Language.  Despite my failure to get a job at the library, however, one of my acquaintances at school – a boy called Anthony Felski – somehow got the idea that I was working at the library, despite all evidence to the contrary.  It became a running joke among my close friends, who were well aware of the fact that Felski was labouring under a delusion.  I’ve always thought that Felski was right, in a way; that I should, really, have become a librarian, and my working life has been one long mistake ever since.

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