Archives for the month of: May, 2014


Stitched almost 500 years ago with now faded threads, the picture inside the octagonal frame catches your eye. This section of the Marian hanging—a patchwork of 36 embroidered panels reputed to have been sewn by Mary, Queen of Scots during her imprisonment in England— shows a palm tree being climbed by a tortoise. Unlikely as it may seem, this insignia was symbolic of the marriage between Mary and her second husband, the 19-year-old Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Not, you may think, some derogatory commentary sewn by a less than gracious courtier, but the insignia adopted by Mary herself at the time of the marriage and also used as an emblem on her Scottish coinage. Quite what Darnley thought of being depicted as a tortoise to Mary’s majestic and ultimately unscalable palm tree is not recorded, but one cannot help feeling that such an image could hardly have got the marriage off to a great start. Undoubtedly, it was a marriage of unequals, but no need to rub it in, even with embroidery.

As things turned out, the palm tree should have perhaps eschewed this particular tortoise. Despite his good looks, his philandering, drinking and petulance led ultimately to him being superfluous to requirements and, although he was the father of Mary’s newborn son, he was most probably murdered 18 months after the marriage.

Mary had become a queen when she was only 6 days old on the death of her father James V of Scotland. She became a queen for a second time at the age of 16 when her young husband, Francis the Dauphin, ascended the French throne. As a sovereign in her own right as well as by marriage Mary should have known that there are always problems when unequals are thrown together.

The scale and heft of one distorts the position and poise of the other at both ends of the cosmic scale, and everywhere in between. The stellar giant that sits uneasily beside a small planet uses its gravity to rip the later apart, while the relative enormity of an atomic nucleus will deflect the path of the almost imperceptibly small electron. The very large and the very small sit beside each other throughout our natural world, but never comfortably, and never without consequences.

Perhaps the greatest consequence is blindness. Frequently, in our eyes, the large will obscure the small. The scale of what is foremost may render anything lesser that is nearby all but invisible. We will always have to work harder to see, to define and to understand anything that sits adjacent to the massive. This invisibility through proximity is not just a feature of size but also of power, of brightness, and in Mary, Queen of Scots’ case, of majesty. Lord Darnley was insignificant when viewed at her side both in life and in historical perspective. He was a bit player in her story—not the other way around.

The consequences for discovery begin to become clear. How will we uncover the small when all we can see is the large; the dim when we are blinded by the bright; and the lowly when we are taken aback by grandeur?

Overwhelmed by the inequalities of scale our senses are drawn to the obvious. We overlook simply because we are overwhelmed. But, what is small and lurking in the shadows may be the most significant of all. If this fact escapes us, we stumble in our business of discovery and trade merely in the foreground, neglecting the less than obvious riches behind.

The lessons here are simple. Look beyond the obvious to see and understand anything that is obscured by its proximity to size and grandeur. Take care with the scale of inequalities and the impact it may have on our powers of discovery. And, always remember, tortoises can’t climb trees.

© Allan Gaw 2014

My books available on kindle:

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“No sausage dogs” the sign outside KaDeWe appears to say. I expect it’s really ‘no dogs’ but the picture in the red circle is unmistakably a dachshund. It is Germany, so why wouldn’t it be, but I think they have to be careful in being so specific. For a department store that boasts of ‘luxury boulevards’ of fashion I suppose dogs, sausage or otherwise, are simply out of the question.

The clientele of Chanel and Longchamps and Prada, to name but three of the high end concessions, who patronise this exclusive Berlin department store could hardly be blamed for wanting to spend their money free of barking and dog hair, but I wonder if they have expressed a special concern for sausage dogs.

The list of what is forbidden in the store is eclectic to say the least. No smoking is the least obscure, but as well as no photography, and of course no sausage dogs, there is also no roller blading. Now, I can’t help thinking the list of likely annoyances might have extended to a broader range of misdemeanours. But, no, roller blading and sausage dogs are up there with smoking and snapping, and the list ends at just those four. Eating, drinking, folk dancing and the riding of unicycles appear to be quite acceptable.

All of which makes you think about ethics, or at least it made me think about ethics, while I was waiting for my wife and daughter to emerge from the cut throat world of the sale rails.

If we choose to follow an ethical code composed of rules, as many do, then the nature of those rules bear some scrutiny. The most obvious set of ethical rules are the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament, but other contenders are the Hippocratic Oath and the so-called Golden Rule, which usually takes the form from the Christian bible of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. The latter exists in variants in just about every world religion and is often talked of as the closest thing to a universal morality.

Rules, however, are not without their problems. The more specific they are, the easier they are to interpret, but ultimately the less useful they become. If rules are very specific with regard to circumstances they can only be applied in those circumstances, but if they are framed in the form of more general principles then they have much broader application. But, also broader and more varied interpretation.

The very specific prohibitions of KaDeWe leave little room for interpretation when it comes to their intentions, but they are also open to mischievous misinterpretation, especially by pedants such as myself. The management of the department store clearly want their beautiful shop uncluttered by pets and snapping tourists and teenagers with no intention of making a purchase, which is why, perhaps, they have focussed in on roller blades. But maybe they are also responding to a precedent. Perhaps one day when someone was roller blading merrily through the store, past the Mont Blanc counter and through Dior, they were able to state that there was no sign to forbid them. The management may have responded accordingly to make sure the rules would be on their side in the future. One wonders how they might now respond to pogo-sticks.

Steering clear of specifics might have been better. Rather than ‘no roller blades,’ how about ‘no behaviour that we and/or our clientele will find annoying’. Worded like that, however, the rule becomes difficult, if not impossible, to follow. How am I to know what others will find annoying? Perhaps, we need to resort to ‘no behaviour that any reasonable person would find annoying’. Again, assumptions are being made upon which the prohibition is founded. Who’s reasonable? Probably not anyone who might think it acceptable to walk their sausage dog through the food hall.

So, where does this leave us in the field of such practical ethics? What ought we to do when visiting KaDeWe with our fistfuls of euros? How about the golden rule—only behaving in the way that we would like others to behave around us? Not very specific, or at least not obviously so, but in fact a simple principle that encompasses a whole raft of dos and don’ts. By asking individuals to weigh up every decision—every ought or ought not— against a standard of their own expected behaviour, we can dispense with the specifics and can avoid the pitfalls of overlooking prohibitions that we have never even thought of. No need to consider modes of personal transport the youth of Berlin will come up with next, or to restrict your concerns to dogs—all animal life will surely be covered.

Then again, some would say the rules are there to be broken. Perhaps it was simple perversity that made me want to break the rule in the first place and take a picture of the very sign that forbade me to use my camera, but whether I also did so while roller blading my dachshund through the store, I shall leave to your imagination.

© Allan Gaw 2014

If you want to read more about Ethics, particularly in relation to Clinical Research, have a look at my book, ‘On Moral Grounds’.

My books available on kindle:

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