Alice Roberts: ‘The government said a couple of years ago that it would make humanist weddings legal, but it has dragged its feet.’ Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images The government is dragging its feet on legal recognition of humanist weddings despite growing demand for such ceremonies, the television scientist Alice Roberts has said. Roberts, who is president of Humanists UK, called for the process of changing the law to be accelerated. “More and more people are turning to a humanist way of marking the milestone events of life: the birth of a child, celebrating a marriage and remembering a loved one,” she said. “The government said a couple of years ago that it would make humanist weddings legal, but it has dragged its feet.” In Scotland, where humanist celebrants have been permitted to conduct weddings since 2005, there are more humanist weddings than weddings in the Church of Scotland and the Catholic church combined, she added. “The government needs to make this happen soon.” In England and Wales, couples opting for a humanist ceremony have to undergo a separate legal wedding in a registry office. Nevertheless, Humanists UK – of which Roberts is president – recorded an almost fourfold increase in such ceremonies between 2004 and 2012, while Church of England weddings fell by 28% and Catholic weddings by 34% in the same period. Roberts is anchoring a new online course, Humanist Lives, beginning next month, in which scientists, artists, politicians and campaigners explore humanist beliefs and values. “Humanism is much more than an absence of faith. It’s a positive belief in humanity and the power of rational inquiry; a framework for how to live your own life and create a better, fairer, more inclusive society,” said Roberts. “It would be helpful if humanism was more widely recognised. We are a largely non-religious society, with a very small number of people going to church every week – well under a million regular churchgoers in the C of E, fewer than members of the RSPB [Royal Society for the Protection of Birds]. “Yet we still have an established church in a diverse multicultural society, with reserved places for Anglican bishops in the House of Lords, and the C of E extending its reach and influence into education. It would be better if religion was not tied up with the state.” Roberts, a biological anthropologist and television presenter, grew up in a deeply religious family, but gave up going to church when she was 15. In recent months, she has been criticised for sending her children to a Church of England primary school, and her mother, a retired teacher, has publicly challenged her opposition to faith schools. “Like so many parents, I had no choice about where my children went to school,” she said. Her children did not get places at non-religious schools near her home, leaving no alternative to a faith school. “We want all local schools to be inclusive, community schools.” She also wants BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day to be opened up to humanists – and to be the first to present the item. “You can have a view on ethics and morals from a non-religious rational perspective. I get so frustrated when the religious and theological view of morals and ethics is privileged over non-religious perspectives. It’s deeply anachronistic.”
‘Women are accustomed to speech designed not just to parlay information, but to make people feel more comfortable.’ Photograph: Shannon Fagan/Getty Images Every week my dad’s family would gather at an auntie’s house and argue about the best route to Ridley Road. They would drink tea and describe, with glee and not a flake of detail spared, the buses they’d each taken, and the madness of having started in the wrong place, always. Arguments about shortcuts and the benefits of the No 38 would roll around the table like pennies as whole weekends passed quite happily with absolutely nothing of worth or depth apparently being shared at all. Like a Monet, the fine art of small talk (an art that is under threat) is best viewed from a distance. “I hate small talk,” is a phrase one hears regularly today. “I have no time for it,” boast introverts, swishily. It is classed as the very worst of the talks, the Garibaldi of the talks, the Home Alone 3 , the Phoebe, the Ryanair, the Niall Horan of the talks. It is treated with a disdain usually reserved for Esther McVey by Lorraine Kelly. Small talk is commonly spoken of as shallow, as dull, a stain on the otherwise flawless shirt of our humanity. Christ, there are even apps to help you avoid it, as if small talk were a traffic accident that must be driven around. As Uber trial an option allowing customers to select “Quiet preferred” when they book a car, alerting their driver to their preference for “no small talk”, it’s time, I think, to plead its case. The art of small talk has many disciplines. There is the small talk of bus routes among a family, their performances of being different yet the same played out in journeys across their shared corner of town. There is the small talk of a first date, where questions about the weather offer opportunities for strangers to relax into a shared language, one that will reveal staircases to climb down into deeper conversation later. There is the small talk of parties, a social lubricant comparable to a large icy drink. There is the smallest talk possible in Instagram comments – the daily validations of friends with fire symbols and hearts. All is valuable, all is essential. Asking a stranger whether their mother really loved them is rude. Complimenting their shoes first is essential But despite its lowly ranking in the communication charts, it’s far from a simple skill. Pictures from Trump’s recent visit showed him strolling with members of the royal family, their faces fixed in familiar “Lovely weather” smiles, leading the BBC to ask a communications expert for small talk tips. Keep to “safe topics” she said, “then move on to asking the person something about themselves, like how they are enjoying the day. That sometimes gives you a clue about the person… and can spark a conversation subject or common interest.” I love this. It reads like an emotions poster for children with autism, and yet it is incredibly helpful for awkward-identifying adults. Print it out! Laminate it! This is the stuff of life. One benefit of the crippling gender norms we’re raised beneath is that advice like hers will seem obvious to many women, who are accustomed to speech designed not just to parlay information, but instead to make people feel more comfortable in a room. When we come to understand this, suddenly the acceptance that talk can be graded, from real to false, from important to trifling, appears quaint. Big talk, the kind that stops wars and builds bridges, is seen as valid, while small talk, that simply eases a day, is weak. Yet it’s the gentle stroking of interactions and new relationships, whether that of nervous people at a party or a doctor and their patient, that binds our social lives together. Big and small talk coexists, often in the same half hour. I’ve been thinking recently about the conversations I had with new mothers on maternity leave, all of us grey-faced and hollow, and how it would swing in seconds from the difficulty of getting a buggy on the train to postpartum sex. The rhythms of small talk were like a lullaby. But, of course, I understand why so many loudly dread it, even aside from the idea that they’re too busy for such superficial communication. I understand the feeling that in 2019 connection is rare, and important, and that small talk is seen as a threat to it, but unfortunately, bowling up to a stranger and asking whether their mother really loved them is rude. The foreplay of complimenting their shoes is essential. And I write as somebody who, interviewing celebrities in short hotel-room-sized slots, must ask about their sexual assault within four minutes of shaking hands. I write this, too, as somebody who shrivels at certain small talks, including, but not limited to, whether cream or jam goes on the scone first (answer: death) and a Netflix show that everyone agrees is “good”. But even these hell-chats have a place in creating pockets of companionship, educating ourselves about how our fellow humans communicate, and so I lean into them, and ask questions about butter. Because as we continue to cleave from each other, finding new and ever grittier cracks of division, the small shared moments of weather, buses, telly and cake play an ever larger part. Email Eva at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman
Try as she might, our reporter can’t manage early nights and mornings. Yet new research now suggests that we can reset our body clocks. Tonight’s the night, I tell myself. I’ll go to bed early. It’s 10pm and I have a mound of work to motor through the next day. If I grab half an hour in front of Netflix, I’ll still manage to wake up in time to get a head start – right? Wrong. One sitcom episode becomes, er, four – and it’s nearly 1am when I eventually stumble to bed. By the time I make it to my desk (which is in my bedroom) the next morning, it’s past 10; I’ll end up working late that evening to compensate. Clearly, I’m doomed to be a slovenly night owl for evermore. However, the latest research suggests our body clocks may be more malleable than previously thought. A study by the universities of Birmingham and Surrey and Monash University in Australia found that people going to bed in the early hours could shift their schedule forward by up to three hours in under a month. It looked at 22 young adults who were turning in at around 3am and getting up at about 10.30am. They were charged with adopting a routine that involved them sleeping and rising two to three hours earlier – along with engaging in “sleep hygiene” techniques, such as ditching caffeine and skipping weekend lie-ins. Not only did everyone taking part manage to stick to the regimen, they also found it beneficial: anxiety levels, stress and depression all dropped significantly. The prevailing thinking around whether we’re larks or night owls insists genes have a large part to play. Indeed, I always assumed my groggy breakfast-time persona could be blamed on my father, who lounges in bed like a teenager on his days off. But the Birmingham study suggests it’s not purely down to DNA. “There is a big genetic component, but there’s also flexibility – the system can respond to training,” says the study’s co-author, Andrew Bagshaw, a scientist at the university’s Centre for Human Brain Health. Neil Stanley, the author of How To Sleep Well, agrees. “We shift our timing when we go on holiday, so it’s obviously within our capabilities.” This is a soothing lullaby to my ears; I’ve grown sick of my late schedule. It’s meant I’ve spent my whole life feeling like I’m running behind. As a teenager, I struggled to get out of bed in time for the school bus. I regularly snoozed through 9am university lectures and I was frequently tardy for my former job at a culture magazine. (Which, mortifyingly, didn’t start until 10am.) When I became a freelance journalist in January, I thought I’d finally escaped the guilt-inducing shackles of the 9 to 5. Then I realised that unless I got up in time to pitch stories to editors before early-morning features meetings, I’d be penniless. Over the years I’ve tried, and failed, to change – but deep down I’ve always assumed I’m destined for a life of pub nights rather than power breakfasts. Yet Bagshaw says my ideal 11pm to 7am night is within my reach. First, I need to make a consistent effort to go to bed promptly. (No more hoping time will miraculously expand to accommodate my Netflix dependency.)Sticking to regular breakfast and lunch times and getting as much natural light as possible in the morning will also help, he says. Meanwhile, Stanley recommends making gradual changes. “Move bedtime half an hour earlier for a week or two, and then add another half an hour, and so on.” He also makes the crucial distinction between going to bed and going to sleep. “It’s lights out time, not bedtime, that you’re modifying.” But, hang on. Are larks inherently healthier? Or is it merely that early risers have an easier ride because they naturally suit standard working times? Bagshaw admits it’s probably the latter. “If you’re a late person and you’re trying to fit into the 9 to 5 you’re going to feel tired and you’re not going to get sleep at the time that’s good for you, nor the duration you need.” Comedian and writer Stevie Martin, who has written about being a night owl for the website Refinery29, says it’s the vilification of waking up late that leads to negative emotions, rather than the hours you keep. “I felt so much happier when I stopped setting goals like ‘get up before 9am every work day’ and allowed myself the freedom to start whenever my brain switched on.” So should I be rallying for systemic change rather than trying to fit my square peg of a body clock into a 9-to-5 hole? A bit of both, says Stanley. “You can modify your behaviour, but you can also modify your lifestyle. If you’re a night owl, don’t get a job as a milkman.” Additionally, advice for aspiring early risers applies only if you work conventional hours. Henna Sinha, a junior doctor at Homerton University Hospital in east London, says her shift rota, which includes regular nights, means she has scant control over her sleep pattern. “I just have to go into work when I’m asked. It’s all very well saying go to bed earlier, but that doesn’t really work if your bedtime is 7am.” Nevertheless, Bagshaw says the study’s techniques aid sleep, whatever the schedule. As flexible working becomes increasingly common, hopefully the narrative that lauds early risers for being healthy and productive, while dismissing nocturnal types as lazy creatives, will melt away. But until then, it’s heartening to know I can adapt during periods when I need to rise early. I won’t chastise myself if it’s tricky, though. As Stanley says: “You can’t remake yourself. You can cope with new routines – but it will never be what you truly are.”
‘When you confessed you were barricading yourself in your bedroom at night, we knew you couldn’t go on living alone’: the letter you always wanted to write. Last Friday was one of the most profound days of my life. You remembered you were going to try out a new living arrangement and had packed some carrier bags to be helpful. DVDs were mixed with food waste and clothes, but we sorted out what you needed. I worried about how you would react when we arrived at the home and saw people having lunch, some being fed, everyone a stranger. But you bravely took your seat at the table and tried to start a conversation about Elvis. That no one answered you breaks my heart but, like you, they were hard-of-hearing. Still, you ate lots and later told me you liked this “hospital hotel”. That day and the next, as I hung around while you settled in, I learned what love looks like from the “family members” (staff). They explained to me that you are now more a “feeling person” than a “thinking person”, and that what you need most is love. I have always felt that you are someone the universe looks after. Many years ago, you changed your life completely. Alcoholism had brought you low, left you homeless and drinking on the streets. But you found Alcoholics Anonymous, where you made many friends and got back in touch with the three daughters you had left behind. For decades, when I rang to ask how you were, you would say, “Never better” – and you meant it. Three years ago, you couldn’t make your niece’s wedding. I was filling you in on all the gossip when you got confused about who she was. I felt fear grip my heart; I knew the decline had started. You were diagnosed in 2017 with vascular dementia. What an effort it must have been, Dad, for the next two years, living alone, trying to cope. Your main concern was not to worry us, but you couldn’t keep up the charade for ever. When you confessed that you were barricading yourself in your bedroom at night because you were frightened, we knew you couldn’t go on living alone. It has been five days now and I think about you constantly. I hope you settle in. Your AA friends have set up a rota to visit or take you out to a meeting almost every day, if you are up to it. You told someone there you don’t like your new bed, so today they are taking you to your flat to collect your old one. They listen to you. The universe is still on your side. I can’t wait to see you this weekend. . We will pay £25 for every letter we publish. Email firstname.lastname@example.org including your address and phone number. We are able to reply only to those whose contributions we are going to use.
I hear a sound above my head, like the talons of a large eagle brushing the floorboards. Just before lunchtime on Saturday, the oldest one arrives with three of his friends in a small, fully packed car. They are off to Cornwall on holiday, and they have come to collect a stack of board games in preparation for a week that promises only rain. They’re also taking the dog. My wife had tried to dissuade them – questioning, I suppose, the ability of four male twentysomethings to keep an animal alive for a week – but I was in favour. They’re ready to set off, but I can’t find the dog’s lead, even after looking in all the usual places twice. The dog follows me anxiously as I search. “You’ll meet new people,” I say. “It’ll be fun.” What I mean, of course, is that it will be fun for me. I can’t wait to spend a week without a dog that barks whenever the doorbell rings and has a habit of leaping into my lap without warning several times a day because its need for attention has suddenly reached the status of emergency. I call my wife about the dog lead. “I lost it,” she says. “It fell off my neck while I was in the park.” “They’re about to leave,” I say. “Where are you?” “I’m stuck in traffic,” she says. “Give them a bit of string or something.” In the end they take a long, non-official Chelsea scarf to use until a new lead can be sourced. I watch them load the car with games and foodstuffs from my kitchen. The oldest one gets into the back, dog on lap, and the car executes a stately three-point turn. The rear window rolls down, and my son’s friend sticks his head out. “There’s room for one more, Tim,” he says. “No thanks,” I say. I walk back up the path and shut the door behind me. I hear nothing but a gentle ringing in my ears. The cat comes out of the sitting room, looks up at me and miaows. “Shut up,” I say. When my wife returns home I barely notice, because there is no dog to go into rapturous hysterics at her arrival. “How’s my lunch coming?” she says. “I haven’t started,” I say. “You said 1.30pm.” “No, I didn’t,” she says. The youngest one walks in, fresh from bed. “Morning,” my wife says. “Where’s the dog?” he says. “The dog is on holiday,” I say. “And so am I.” I wake up late the next morning, without a dog on my feet. My wife is already up and dressed. I go downstairs to drink coffee and watch her garden. We tend not to garden together, because the plot is divided into our separate sectors of responsibility, with many contested boundaries. I hear a noise above my head, like the talons of a large eagle brushing the floorboards. The noise moves right to left and pours down the stairs. A moment later, a small pointed head peers round the kitchen door. “Billy,” I say. Billy is a permanently embarrassed lurcher whose outlines are blurred by a nimbus of rough grey fur. He’s not our dog – he belongs to the youngest one’s friend, who evidently spent the night – but he knows his way around the house. “It’s been a while, Billy,” I say. Billy’s sad, black eyes fix me with a look that says: Oh, Christ. I’m so sorry. “Our dog isn’t here, I’m afraid,” I say. “Gone on holiday.” Billy studies the floor with an expression that seems to say: this is awkward. “It’s fine,” I say. “Can I get you some water?” I fill the dog’s bowl and set it down. Billy regards it with boundless mortification, as if thinking: really, I just couldn’t. “Don’t worry, Billy,” I say. “You’re my kind of house guest.” Billy canters to the back door, rearing his head like a mortified pony. “Outside?” I say. “No problem.” I open the door and he walks gingerly across the grass to a flowering peony. He sniffs it, and then lifts his leg. My wife looks round. “Billy!” she says. Without lowering his leg, Billy manages to turn his head all the way round to me. His eyes, peering out from his cloudy head, seem to say: this isn’t going well.
Lying on my back in a cyan sea, both ears underwater, I felt every problem I had could sink into the sand and bury itself. Not many people have heard of misophonia – which is ironic, because it has everything to do with hearing. It describes extreme reactions – in my case, mostly rage, but in the case of others it may be anxiety or disgust – to certain sounds. I don’t actually know whether I have misophonia. It seems low on the list of conditions I have to worry about, or potentially worry about, but there is no doubt I get disproportionately irritated by certain sounds, all of them human-made. The issue is that while some sounds are inconsiderate (leaking music from headphones, for instance, which I think most people can’t stand), others are socially acceptable. Kids constantly shrieking are just expressing themselves; someone can’t help if it if they need to clear their throat repeatedly. The man nonstop clicking his lighter during a bus ride wasn’t harming anyone, but I had to politely and apologetically ask him if he would mind stopping, because otherwise I wasn’t sure I would end the journey with my nerves intact. I have a two-stage strategy with continuous whisperers in the cinema: a dagger stare, then going over and asking them to shut up. It will come as no surprise, then, that I find absolute silence almost a divine state. Lying on my back in a cyan sea recently, both ears underwater, staring up into a sky uninterrupted by clouds, I felt as though every problem I had could sink into the sand and bury itself. It was almost total silence: the world on mute; the chatter of Twitter buttoned as it leaves opinionated mouths. I don’t hate all noise. In fact, I have written a column in this magazine about the various sounds of sport, most of which I adore: the swish of nets; the squeak of trainers on courts. I hate whispering in the cinema, but I love it on the ASMR playlists I listen to. I enjoy the clack of a keyboard. But being awake during the night, when sound sometimes stops like a needle being lifted from a record player, is stunning. A physicist will say there is no such thing as “absolute” silence. The lowest sound level in the natural world is that of particles moving through gas or liquid, known as Brownian motion. But tech companies have tried to top this, creating sound-sealed rooms known as anechoic chambers. Apparently, spending 45 minutes or so in one will make you go a bit mad – it is that quiet. I would still like to know if there are any in the UK that will let me visit.
It’s a girl (posed by models). Photograph: Milorad Kravic/Getty Images/iStockphoto There are gender-reveal parties, and then there is what just happened in Florida. A video has gone viral of a US couple using an alligator to announce to the world that their next baby – the 10th between them – would be a girl. The father tied a balloon to a stick, bopped the alligator on the head until it lashed out and bit the balloon, some pink dust flew out, and that was that. Incredibly, this is not a world first. Such a stunt is a high-risk strategy; partly because the father looked positively disappointed by the result and partly because the response has been downright hostile. Lots of people hate gender-reveal parties, and for obvious reasons. They are attention-seeking and narcissistic. They seem to imply that one result will be more desirable than the other. They are the subject of mercilessly regimented how-to guides. They are unnecessary. They are binary. And, in this instance, they seem to lack awareness of the consequences of blasting an alligator full in the face with chalk dust. Despite all that, I don’t mind them. Not that I would ever stage a gender-reveal party for myself. Of course I wouldn’t. I hate any sort of party: I even tried to talk my wife out of having a wedding reception. But a gender-reveal party seems solipsistic, because the only acceptable reaction to learning whether your baby will be a girl or a boy is to say, “OK, good” and then move on. It shouldn’t matter, so imagine how little it will matter to all the people who have to trudge to your house to watch you fire a confetti cannon. They can be irresponsible, too, such as the gender-reveal party in Arizona last year that started a 47,000-acre wildfire. Or the one that accidentally shot lit fireworks into a screaming crowd. And let’s not forget the screaming fight in an Ohio restaurant when attendees refused to clean up their glitter. However, I do see how a gender-reveal party can serve a function. There are the reveals – as with the alligator one – where pink comes out and the father looks aggrieved at being denied a son. The purpose there, obviously, is to remind the mother to pack her things and run away as fast as she can. But my favourites are the gender reveals that involve older siblings. Because those are useful. The arrival of a second baby is always an almighty disruption for the firstborn child and, especially if they are young, it can be hard to prepare them. If getting them to pop a coloured balloon will help to make them excited about their new brother or sister, if it makes them feel as if they are more involved, that can only be a good thing. So, if you are having a gender-reveal party – especially if it is on behalf of your existing children – then good for you. I am all for them. Just don’t make me have one. And never invite me to yours. Especially if there are alligators around.
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