Saturday, December 29, 2012

New and Improved


I have arrived now in Adelaide to spend some time with my parents, my sister and her family. My sister, her husband and I have spent a pleasant evening discussing the evils of the modern world. We have been indulging in the privilege of being grumpy old men and women. English and Australian readers will probably be familiar with the television show of the same name (more or less) in which older men and women bemoan some of the aspects of modern life. There is, indeed, a wealth of material to draw upon. Much of this centres on technological “advances” and “improvements” in life – suitably served in quotation marks, of course.

Although I indulge in this pastime light-heartedly (I do actually enjoy many of these technological advances) I think it is fair to ask whether all of the advances that are presented to us are really improvements. For example, at Melbourne airport (at least in the domestic terminal) it is now possible to check in one’s own luggage, without waiting in the normal queues. This has been the case for at least 18 months. When I was in Melbourne 18 months ago the system had been in operation for only a short time, and there were several staff members helping people to use the new system. This is understandable, as people were naturally unfamiliar with it. However, today, eighteen months later, I couldn’t help but notice that there were still several staff members assisting people. I could not quite remember how to use the system at first myself, and, in the end, although I didn’t ask for help, two staff members were kind enough to assist me through different parts of the process. Now I was happy to accept the help, but it struck me that only one person would have been required in the old, traditional system. It also occurred to me that I now had to join two queues, one to get the ticket for the bag, another to actually check the bag in. There would be a third queue if my bag was overweight and I had to go to yet another point to pay excess baggage. These queues will only grow as more people come to use the new system. So will this system, in the end, actually save anyone’s time, either that of the passengers or that of the staff? I think it is fair to say that there is reasonable doubt about the matter.

My sister was also telling me about a new self-checkout system operating in some of the supermarkets. I haven’t yet used the system myself, but on my sister’s account it is a little challenging to use, at least initially. I’m sure in time people will get used to it. But will it ultimately save time? Will it result in reduced prices? (Here, I struggle to contain my laughter.) Probably not. We, the consumers, will be paying the same, if not more, for a reduced service, while companies increase their profits. I can well imagine that checkout rage will also increase as people wait behind others who are struggling to use this new “convenience”. Every customer will soon be their own checkout operator; very convenient indeed, but for whom?

In these two examples, the store and the airline are getting us to do their work for them, while selling this to us as an improved service. Perhaps they will want us to fly the planes ourselves next? Perhaps soon we will enjoy the privilege of stocking the supermarket’s shelves for them? If these changes were also to result in financial savings for the consumer, I might be more impressed. But I don’t think one has to very cynical to believe that it will be the companies that pocket the savings (if any) not the consumers.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Favourite song


Moving back to the theme of favourites, what is your favourite song? If you are like me, that changes over time and with your mood. There are many elements that go into the creating of a song, and in some it might be the melody that I like, in others the rhythm, and in yet others the lyrics. It might even be the way that a song is sung by a particular performer at a particular time. Others I may like because I associate them with a time or place that is important to me. My favourite song at a particular moment may be one that I have heard recently. So like so many questions, this simple question, “What is your favourite song?”, is not so simple after all. It touches on your very life history.

The song or songs that you nominate as your favourites may also reveal something about you as a person. The same could be said of anything that expresses what we call our “taste”. It may be a painting, a movie, a book. Our taste, the things that resonate most with us, reveal us precisely because of that resonance. We have the effrontery, sometimes, to talk about good and bad taste. There is a terrible snobbery in this, and even an element of cruelty. People are offended when they are told they have bad taste, or superficial taste, precisely because it reflects on them as a person. If I say that a person has bad taste I am asserting my superiority, my better judgement, my greater refinement – I am saying, “I am better than you”. It is a personal attack. We know that our likes and dislikes reflect our inner being. If I were to tell you the name of my favourite song, and you were to digitally sneer at me, I would be hurt.

Not all expressed differences in taste necessarily carry this sense of judgement. Sometimes we are prepared to acknowledge that a preference for opera, say, over jazz, while perhaps reflecting inner differences, implies no superiority of the one over the other. All too often, however, we are tempted to assert the superiority of our taste over yours, all as part of the deeply entrenched battle for top position that dominates so much of life. For this reason, then, we are often only inclined to reveal our true and innermost tastes to those with whom we have developed a close and trusting relationship. Otherwise, we will pretend to love the music we hate, and hate the music we love, to avoid losing face.

I have not told you my favourite song. And, in the light of the discussion, I withdraw the question. I don’t think we know each other quite well enough yet.

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Maybe they'll remember me by Philip Newey. On sale now.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On the inside


I am struck by how difficult it is relating to people. I have discussed language and communication many times here, and clearly this contributes to the difficulties that occur in relationships. But there is more to it than this. One of Sartre’s characters once said:  l'enfer, c'est les autres, “Hell is other people”. To other people, we are objects in their world. There is no way that they can get inside us and feel the world as we feel it, see it as we see it. We can sometimes guess what might be going on inside another person, by the outward signs (including language) by which they manifest themselves in the world. But we can never be as sure of this as we can be of our own experience – at least, we believe that we can be sure of our own experience, although drugs and psychosis should make us hesitate about that too.

Add to this the fact that most of us are somewhat wounded and battered on the inside, no matter how “together” we might like to appear on the outside. And because of this woundedness we build up defences, that often take the form of an attack on others. The best form of defence, etc. etc. We are also very sensitive to what appear to be attacks by others upon us, even though they might not be intended as such. All of this makes relating to others very difficult. 

So why bother? At one level the answer is simple: We need each other. Working together we are stronger, more versatile. But there is a deeper reason than this, and one that perhaps defies a purely pragmatic explanation. There are moments when we really do feel that we connect with another person, that we meet at some place that feels “real”. This may not last long, but it is one of those moments that make the rest worthwhile. Perhaps it is a recognition that we are not, in fact, alone in this world. That those other creatures moving around out there, that look and sound something like us, really are like us. They have an inside, just as we have. 

So, I guess maybe you are all real after all (well, most of you – I have my doubts about the little green elf sitting in the corner).



Tuesday, December 25, 2012

This is Australia


It was nine a.m., and I was sitting in my daughter’s house, looking out of the window at her garden, in a fairly typical Australian suburb. It was already 25° C. The sun seems (and probably is) much brighter here than it ever seems to get in Europe, the world is much drier. There is a mixture of native and exotic plants in this and the other gardens that I can see. But it is the eucalyptus and the melaleucas that stand out most. The houses are all red or cream brick, mostly with red-tiled roofs. Magpies are perched on the branches of the big gum tree in the garden across the road. I can hear the noisy myna birds, probably on the roof – these are not native, but are certainly ubiquitous. One glimpse of all this, and I know immediately that I am in Australia. The colours, the sounds and the smells are somehow uniquely Australian, even when they contain exotic elements.

It is this that constitutes Australia for me. Not the beaches, not the wide open expanses of the outback, but this suburban vision. Australia is one of the most highly urbanised populations in the world: sub-urbanised, really. Not many people actually live in the cities themselves. Most live in the vast expanse of suburbs that surround these business centres. There is a sense of space, even in these suburbs. Perhaps this is also one of the things that changes the quality of the light. Once in the suburbs the buildings are low, the sky seems more vast, the sun has more freedom. Even the eucalypts, with their distinctive open canopies, seem to frame, rather than limit, this openness.

It is also this mixture of the native and the exotic, which seems so very characteristic of Australia. It is noticeable in both the plant life and the bird life. European visitors will find here many of the birds they are familiar with: pigeons, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds. But this seems to add to, rather than replace, the local avian fauna. Alongside these introduced species are the magpies, the lorikeets, the honeyeaters. Magnolias and jacarandas grow alongside eucalypts, flame trees, melaleucas and bottlebrushes. In the suburbs, at least, this seems to work, even though ecological purists might object. There is also an increasing mixture of cultural and ethnic origins among the human population, with cultures sitting happily side by side, and sometimes mixing and spilling into each other. A good thing, I think, although not all would agree.

It is difficult to capture and describe what makes Australia Australian. Australians struggle a great deal with this, with trying to describe, or even establish, a clear identity. Yet somehow it is clearly there, a gestalt that can’t really be captured in words or photographs. You just know you are here, the minute your feet hit the ground. When coming through customs, and the customs official says “G’day. Anything to declare, mate?”, where else on the planet could you be? Perhaps they are trained to say this; perhaps they make themselves more ocker to satisfy the incoming tourists. But, Jeez, even that tells you you’re in Australia!

Monday, December 24, 2012

'Tis the season


“’Tis the season to be jolly...” It’s nice that we have a season to be jolly, otherwise, how would we know when to be? Most importantly, I wouldn’t want to be jolly out of season. What a terrible faut pas that would be. How embarrassing to be the only jolly person in, ermmm, grumpy season. When is the season to be grumpy, anyway? Or is that every other time?

It seems that the word jolly derives from the Old French jolif, which in turn may derive from the Old Norwegian word jol, which in turn may be related to “Yule”. Lots of maybes and might bes and possibles in this etymology. So it may indeed be the case that we can only be jolly at Yuletide, because to be jolly is to be “yuley”: full of the Yuletide spirit.

Being jolly is a little bit weird anyway, isn’t it? It’s not just being happy. Jolliness seems to involve a great deal of chuckling and the bouncing of body parts. There is a certain physicality to jolliness that is lacking in mere happiness.

Thinking about it, it is probably just as well that jolly-season is limited. I can well imagine that I might want to shoot someone who was jolly all the time. But for today, be jolly. Chuckle; bounce body parts, your own and other people’s. But be sure to limit your unbridled jolliness to Yuletide.

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Bon Noël to those who celebrate it; Bonnes Fêtes to those who don’t. Either way, have some jolly jollification.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The "Fall"


I am a very self-conscious person. Now we are all self-conscious of course. By this I mean that we are all able to take a step back and observe ourselves – we are conscious of our “selves”. There is an “I” which recognises and observes the “me”. We can recognise ourselves in the mirror. But I tend to take this to the extreme. The part of me that is observing me is quite noisy and intrusive. It is always watching, checking, and – this is the worst part – judging. This process is virtually unceasing for me, which means that it is very difficult for me to just “feel” something. Even while this is happening, a part of me – and it feels like a large part – is watching rather than feeling. This is amplified even further when someone actually asks me how I feel. In that situation, not only am I judging and assessing myself, but also wondering how the other person judges and assesses me. Am I feeling the “right” thing? Is there something wrong with me if I don’t?

Most animals (or so it seems – but it also seems to me that it is very difficult to measure such things) do not have this “self” consciousness. Now I am more than prepared to be proved wrong about this. But in any case, it is possible to imagine a state of mind in which one simply feels something, or experiences something, without this overlord (superego?) intervening. It may even be possible to move the centre of our being, so to speak, from one of these positions to the other (there may be other positions too). That is to say, I can live in the me that is experiencing, or the I that is observing. It is likely that as a very young baby we tend to live in the me, and the I only develops some time later. This is why babies (like many animals) are not self-conscious in the sense I am describing it here. This is why they can poop, fart and burp without shame (which is how self-consciousness often manifests itself). It seems to me that many meditative and spiritual practices are actually techniques for living in the me rather than the I. I have never been very successful with these methods. I find it very difficult to get out of the I.

It is not a huge step to conceive of this development of the I, this separation into two parts, as what some religions have traditionally referred to as “The Fall”. Now I know that this is not an original idea, but this is not an academic treatise, so I am not going to go in search of the sources. It is clear to me, anyway, that this bifurcation of the self into at least two parts, the I and the me, is a source of pain and loss. We long to return to the state of unity that existed prior to this. It would seem to be easier to live simply as me, to live in the moment, or however else this might be phrased. Unfortunately, I do not believe that we can ever return to this state of innocence. And perhaps it is not even desirable in the end. I haven’t found the answer to this yet, and almost certainly never will. But I suspect that the path should not be backwards towards a pre-existing (real or imagined) state of unity. Rather it needs to be forwards, towards a higher state of unity. And here we are, once again, at the Hegelian dialectic, at least according to my limited understanding of this. We begin with this initial unity, which falls apart into a thesis and antithesis (I and me). The challenge is to find the synthesis which brings these together in a new unity, which is not the same as the initial unity. I’ll send you a message from there if I ever make it.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Favourite literary characters


I am curious to know who are your favourite literary characters? If you are not that much of a reader, perhaps there are movie characters that stand out for you. And what is it about those characters that make them particularly interesting or attractive to you? They might be heroes or villains, major or minor: it doesn’t matter.

When I asked myself this question, one character in particular springs to mind. This is the character of Mary Hare in Patrick White’s novel, Riders in the Chariot. Many of you may not be familiar with this novel, or even with this author. He is, so far, the only Australian author to win the Nobel Prize for literature. I suspect he is not widely read these days, even in Australia. Nevertheless, Riders in the Chariot has been one of my favourite novels since I first read it in high school. And, of the four central characters in that novel, Mary Hare remains one that I love.

The novel tells of four very different people, with extraordinarily different backgrounds and cultures, who share a particular type of mystical experience, each in their own way, and whose paths converge to some degree. Many of the names White chooses for his characters in this novel are unashamedly symbolic and/or ironic: the Jewish holocaust survivor, Mordecai Himmelfarb, for example, whose last name means “heaven’s light”; and Ruth Godbold, who appears almost in the guise of motherhood and nurturing incarnate. Mary Hare is one of the four characters who share this experience. The Hare, like the rabbit, is associated with fecundity; but, with reference to Mary Hare, this is very different from the fecundity associated simply with giving birth. It has more to do with the wild, untamed growth of the natural world. Mary Hare is the reclusive, unpretty, eccentric daughter of Norbert Hare, who had built an extravagant, grand house called Xanadu, modelled on images from Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan, on the edge of an Australian town. Long after her parents have died, Mary lives on in the house, allowing it to decay around her, accompanied only by her housekeeper/tormentor , Mrs. Jolley (who most definitely is not). Mary rarely leaves the house, except to crawl through the overgrown gardens to some secret places that are special to her. She is wild, timid and very animal-like. Ultimately she seems to simply to dissolve into the natural background.

To me, not only does Mary Hare embody nature in “nature”, so to speak, but nature within the human being also. She is the timid, shy creature that lives within us, and peeps out from time to time, but is so often kept in check by our own internalised version of Mrs. Jolley. Mary Hare is the part of us that wants to play in the dirt, that wants to kick of our shoes and feel the sand between our toes, or perhaps even to take of our clothes and feel the sun and rain against our skin. She is that from which we emerge, and that to which we ultimately return.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Did the world reboot?


Well, the world didn’t end. At least, I don’t think so. Perhaps it did. Perhaps it crashed, and was rebooted. Would we be able to tell? I hope people aren’t too disappointed. I’m sure many people enjoyed the pre end-of-the-world party. Now they can enjoy the world-didn’t-end party; or perhaps the new-world-party. I’m sure that there are those who will continue to believe that something significant happened, secretly. And it would be kind of nice to think so. It would be nice to think there had been a shift of consciousness of some kind, and that the planet might enter a new phase of peace and harmony. I’m sure we would all wish for such a thing – well, maybe not everyone.

I guess the problem with that is this: once again it requires something to happen. Now the verb “to happen” has its roots in the concept of chance. We still find this in words such “perhaps”, which basically means “by chance”, and “happenstance”, which means “a chance occurrence”. Even the word “happiness” is related to this, and at its roots means “to be visited by good luck or good fortune”. So all of these ideas depend on something intervening from the outside to bring about some kind of change. They depend on something happening to us or to the world, rather than depending on us. If the world is to change we cannot depend on external forces to bring this about, be those forces described as God, Fate, cosmic powers, aliens or anything else. If the world is to change it will arise from within us; it will be because of things we do, rather than because of things that happen to us. Unfortunately we often seem to lack the will for such change.

This end of the world phenomenon is not the only stimulus for change. At the end of each year, many of us commit ourselves to change in the form of New Year’s resolutions. How many of us realise those goals? If we can’t stick to a simple resolution, such as to eat less chocolate, or to exceed the speed limit less often, how can we possibly hope to attain the larger goals? Most of us are weak, and the slaves of our own habits. Behaviours and belief patterns are not easy to change. For that reason I am not optimistic about the possibility of some kind of shift in consciousness that will bring peace to the planet. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope for such a thing and, more importantly, to strive towards such a goal. This hoping and this striving are already a foreshadowing of what we are hoping and striving for.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Just suck it up


Nothing quite makes long distance flying comfortable, except perhaps travelling first class, which will forever be beyond my budget. Even then, the old jet lag can really knock you about, especially when travelling from west to east. The flight from Europe to Australia is one of the tough journeys. On this last occasion it took only 24 hours or so, which is the shortest I have managed. Still, it’s something to endure rather than to enjoy. Is there any way of getting comfortable in those seats? If so, I have yet to find it. So there is just intermittent and disturbed sleep, with odd meals served at the oddest hours. People are surprisingly well behaved most of the time, despite the discomfort, the annoying waits and the sleep deprivation.

All in all, travelling seems easier now than it was a few years ago, although not necessarily more comfortable. The check-in and security process runs fairly smoothly, a remarkable task given the volume of traffic at some times and places. Of course, there are always those who are ready to complain. Now, I’m not going to complain about complainers. The world needs complainers, if for no other reason than to make me proud of how calm and understanding I am in potentially stressful situations. And the complainers also make the staff worth every cent they earn. I imagine that one of the most important parts of their training is how to deal with disgruntled travellers. Are there also classes in how to be a disgruntled traveller? There must be, surely, as some people are so very good at it. It is a talent, if not quite an admirable one. But seriously, I do recognise the urge to complain, when one is tired, and things appear to be taking longer than they need to, or people seem to be acting like petty tyrants. But I also know that complaining in such a situation may momentarily make me feel better (that wonderful sense of self-righteousness indignation!), but it won’t actually achieve anything, other than, perhaps, to slow things down even more, and make the officious official even more officious. So while I may at times feel the need to complain and whinge, I also recognise that this is as much a function of my own state of mind at the time, as it is a reflection of the actual situation. So, I generally just take a deep breath and suck it up.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Growing old... well, older


I wonder how old I look to other people? (No, I’m not seeking flattering remarks.) Do I look as old as a 55 year old man might have looked to me when I was a child, or a teenager, or in my early twenties? I look at myself in the mirror and, of course, I see the grey hairs among the vaguely mousey brown ones. I see the odd patches of white in my eyebrows – which, incidentally, if I did not restrain them from time to time, would quickly overgrow my entire face like the jungle reclaiming an abandoned city. I know, if I permitted my beard to grow out, there would be more white than brown. I see the wrinkles, I see the sagging jowls. All this I see; but it creeps up so slowly on one, that it is easy to think that one has always looked this way.

How we see ourselves physically is mirrored by how we see ourselves on the inside. There are experiences – more like impressions – that have stayed with me throughout my life. I seem able to put myself right back inside that experience at that particular time, relive the sounds, the smells, the emotions. At least that’s what I think I’m doing. There is no real way to assess this objectively. Am I the “same” being as that little boy who used to play alone so often during the English summers? Am I the “same” being as that awkward, strangely hairy, long-limbed teenager who would blush at the drop of a hat? When people look at me, don’t they realise that I am still actually only forty years old, or thirty, twenty, ten? In many ways I have the same fears still, the same hopes, the same dreams.

Yes, I am on my third change of spectacle lenses. Yes, I groan now when I rise out of a chair. Yes, hair now grows from places where previously there were no follicles. Yes, I probably forget more than I once did. But I still feel like me. I sense continuity with that little boy, that teenager. Sometimes they still pop up their heads and take charge for a while.

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PS. This is my first blog from Australian soil. I hadn’t realised how much I missed the sound of Australian magpies carolling in the morning! 

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Transition

I have lived for three years in this room, here in Lausanne, Switzerland, and this is to be my last night here. It is a strange sensation, because, as I prepare to leave, those three years seem on the verge of just melting away. I can well imagine, upon landing in Melbourne, that it will seem just yesterday since I left Australia. It is going to take me some time to determine how my sojourn here has changed me, what I have now become that I probably would not have become had I remained in Australia.

I have no idea precisely how large this room is, in terms of square metres. I rarely pay attention to such things. It is a studio apartment in the lakeside region of Ouchy. I am just a block back from Lac Leman (Lake Geneva, as the rest of the world sometimes calls it). There is in this apartment just the bedroom/lounge room, a small kitchen alcove with two hotplates and no oven, and a bathroom with a shower and toilet. There is no balcony. Some would find the room claustrophobic and confining. Myself, I have not been bothered by such sensations. I adapt very easily to my physical (if not necessarily my cultural) surroundings.

My window looks out at another apartment building across the street, where, on the lower section of the roof during the summer months, the family that occupies the ground floor of that building would eat their evening meals. At the moment, I look out only at some scaffolding and shade-cloth: they are adding a floor to this building.

Will I miss this room? Will I miss Lausanne? I think I will miss living in a foreign country, despite the occasional difficulties. Some of the people I will miss. I have enjoyed the sense of adventure. I have enjoyed being “unusual” to the people here. Back in Australia I will not stand out. I have a feeling that the urge for further adventures will stay with me.

I am sure that I will look back on these years and wish that I had made more of my time here. I could have seen more of the country, and the surrounding countries. I could have met more of the local people. Nevertheless, at the very least it has been a time of transition, which has allowed me to develop as a writer and, I hope, as a person. Now, I am ready for the next phase of “me”.

In just a few hours I fly out of Geneva, with 24 hours of travelling to look forward to. After 45 consecutive daily posts, I am going to be on the move over the next two or three weeks, and my postings are going to be fewer and erratically spaced. Hang in there, and I will get back to the daily routine as soon as I can! I am restless, keen to get the journey started and finished. The next time I address you will be from downunder. See you then.


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Check out my review of Darrell Drake’s unusual fantasy novel Everautumn.  Well done Darrell. Four Stars from me!

P.S. Don’t forget to buy my novel before Christmas! Click on the book cover above and to the right, or here. (There was a problem with the link to my website before, which I have now corrected – check it out again if you couldn’t get there before.)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Apocalyptic Ravings


Most people have probably heard about the most recent “end-of-the-world” predictions. According to some, the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world this coming Friday, 21/12/2012. Oh well, no need to mow the lawn then. Of course, those in the know assure us that the Mayan calendar predicts no such thing. And anyway, even if it did, why would we give it a second thought? What is this strange obsession that (some) people have with doomsday prophecies? Why do people, far from being terrified by them, actually appear to delight in them?

I have, in the past, mingled with whacky apocalyptics of the Christian variety. The end of the world fills these people with, well, for want of a more appropriate term “joy”. It isn’t really joy, of course. It is some strange, perverted, corrupt shadow of joy. But even people without any obvious religious convictions appear to be, on the one hand, extremely gullible when it comes to ancient or modern apocalyptic ravings; on the other hand, they seem almost perversely eager to see the world end.

Now, I am under no illusions that either the human world or the natural world is some kind of paradise or utopia. Both can be very dangerous. I am also under no illusions that life is easy. I have suffered from fairly severe depression at several periods in my life. As Annie Lennox once wrote and sang: “Dying is easy; it’s living that scares me to death.” Even so, I have never particularly looked forward to death; and I have never sought escape through the end of myself, or wanted to take the world down with me. What I have wanted, at those terrible times, was to be happy, not to be dead. Perhaps it helps that I don’t believe in any life beyond this one. This is it. This is what I have to work with. And I am going to do the best I can.

This world is both a wonderful and a terrible place. Human beings are capable of the committing the greatest cruelties and atrocities, and of showing the most amazing love and creating the most astonishing beauty. Sometimes the same person is capable of both. Perhaps all of us are. Of course there are problems in this world. Often they seem insurmountable. But I sometimes wonder: Do these apocalyptic calamities, that so seem to capture the human imagination, serve to distract us from the actual calamities that face us today? Do we use these calamities to relieve ourselves of responsibility for mowing the lawn? Perhaps it is easier to deal psychologically with imaginary threats to the planet, which are so obviously beyond our control, than with those more real and immediate threats that are very much within our purview.

Fortunately, although people seem to get excited about predictions of the end of the world, I doubt that most people take them terribly seriously. They do still mow their lawns. They continue to plan their activities for the weekend after the world has ceased to be. They continue to invest in the stock market. Perhaps the fascination is just an echo of our primitive fears in the face of a world we scarcely comprehend. And perhaps, alongside this, we would like to be relieved of the burden of responsibility. We are not responsible if someone or something else is ultimately in control and deciding the fate of the world.

Anyway, these kinds of apocalyptic ravings are always good for a laugh. They brighten an otherwise fairly mundane day.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Happy Christmas, or Happy Holidays?


I am not obsessed with political correctness. In fact, I think it is often ridiculous, as most of us do – fortunately it provides good comedy fodder. Nevertheless, it is important to be somewhat sensitive when we are using language. I have spoken about language frequently in this blog. Language is something we take completely for granted; and, perhaps more foolishly, we assume that the person we are addressing actually understands what we are saying. We assume that they use a particular word in the same way that we use a particular word. I suspect this is rarely the case. Words carry meanings and connotations for each of us as individuals, based on our history, that others probably don’t share. There is an intensely personal dimension to words, beyond any shared superficial meaning. I am very conscious of this even as I write. I am forever astonished that we manage to communicate at all; and not at all surprised by the enormous communication breakdowns that occur only too frequently, whether it be in interpersonal or international relations.

There are particular sensitivities around words that mean a great deal to us personally, or to the culture with which we identify. Unfortunately, among these words are “Happy Christmas”. Some people, who do not have a Christian background, may be offended if these words are addressed to them. I remember, when I was working as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital, that one year I distributed Christmas cards to the staff. One staff member became quite angry, because, as a Jehovah’s Witness, they did not celebrate Christmas. I did not know that the person was a Jehovah’s Witness, nor, in fact that JWs did not celebrate Christmas. They could have perhaps reacted differently – thanking me, but informing me of the fact rather than becoming angry. There could have developed some mutual dialogue and understanding.

Others become upset when they are advised to use expressions such as "Happy Holidays", rather than "Happy Christmas", sniffing political correctness in this, and reacting accordingly. They perceive this as a threat to their own traditions. Obviously this is one area where political correctness can go completely overboard, and we all tend to react to such excesses. However, people who react against such political correctness in this context often do not harbour any firm Christian convictions themselves. Really, when they say “Happy Christmas” they don’t mean much more than “Happy Holidays” in any case. The holiday just happens to be called “Christmas”. Australia is not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian country. The Christmas season has, for the majority of people, long since lost its religious connotations. Not many people who wish me a Happy Christmas will be attending any kind of Christ Mass. I tend to say “Happy Holidays” in preference, because there is more than one holiday at this time of year, and this term covers everything. It also covers the fact that other people celebrate different things at this time of year, or don’t celebrate anything at all; and, yes, it does show some sensitivity to other peoples’ beliefs and customs. Switzerland has a much stronger and more deeply rooted Christian tradition than Australia; yet “Bonnes Fêtes” is found in the shop windows more often than “Joyeux Noël”, even with Father Christmas and his reindeer in all their glory on display.

I don’t mind if people say Happy Christmas to me, even if I no longer identify with the Christian tradition. Similarly, I don’t particularly mind when Americans wish me a Happy Thanksgiving, even though I obviously don’t celebrate it. Part of me does wish that they could see beyond their own particular cultural blinkers; but I don’t become angry or upset.

We all wear our own particular blinkers. Political correctness, for all its excesses, can serve as a reminder that our way of seeing things is not the only way of seeing things; that we live in a society in which people come from a whole range of cultural and religious backgrounds. I would hope that people from other cultures and with other beliefs are not offended if someone wishes them a Happy Christmas. I would hope they might accept this as a sincere token of well-wishing, and perhaps as the beginning of a meaningful dialogue. Equally, it doesn’t hurt us to be aware that other people have different values and beliefs than our own. We don’t have to surrender our own values or beliefs. But let’s take the time to hear and understand those of others.

So, Happy Holidays, Bonnes Fêtes, to you all.

Friday, December 14, 2012

This time a primary school!


As I write this, news is breaking of yet another mass shooting in the U.S.A., this time in a primary school. Early reports (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-20730717) are that as many as 27 people, including 18 children, have been killed.

One wonders how many more such incidents it is going to take before the politicians and people of the U.S.A. finally wake up to the need to change that country's gun laws. And don’t anybody DARE, at least not on my blog page, to defend those laws.

I am angry, as every other person on this planet should be angry, and I won’t say anything more today.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I don't wanna see your butt

Photograph from Tobacco Free Michigan
 (http://www.tobaccofreemichigan.org/tfmDrupal/?q=node/50)

Why do cigarette smokers think that it is ok to crush their cigarette butts on the ground and leave them there? Why do they think that it is ok to toss their butts out of the car window? I am genuinely puzzled by this. I’m not assuming that smokers would litter more than the general populace, apart from their butts. There is not, surely, a separate set of values that goes hand in hand with smoking. So why, then? Do they think it doesn’t matter? Perhaps they think it’s someone else’s job to clean them up. And it’s just one small butt, after all. Well, maybe two, three, four.... let’s say, twenty cigarettes/day/smoker, with perhaps five tossed to the ground; let’s say that one billion people smoke worldwide. That’s only five billion cigarette butts/per day finding their way into our soil and water system. That’s only 1.825 x 1012 cigarette butts per year. That’s 1,825 followed by nine zeros. A cigarette butt weighs approximately 0.006 ounces (0.18 g) – so 1.825 x 1012 cigarette butts weigh over 340,000 ton (UK), or almost 350 million kg. (This is about 1,000,000 polar bear equivalents – unfortunately there are only about 20,000 polar bears left; the rest have choked on cigarette butts.) Bear in mind (no pun intended) that this is probably a conservative estimate. Of course, not only is this an enormous quantity of litter, but cigarette butts contain (some) of the toxins that would have ended up in the smoker’s lungs. Thanks for sharing that with the wildlife, folk.

I can imagine, in a few thousand years, when human beings have finally driven themselves to extinction, an imaginary observer pondering in amazement the cigarette butt beaches that line the coastlines. An interstellar tourist attraction, perhaps. Hey, that might even be good for the economy... if there was one.

It doesn’t take much effort, surely, for a smoker to dispose of their butts responsibly. Wait, I have an even better idea: quit smoking and join the complainers! I guess the general message here is that our seemingly small actions do matter.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Not a Phone-atic


Alas, I am, for the moment, tragically bereft of a mobile phone. I feel a little ashamed owning up to this, as though I were locked outside my front door naked, or were admitting to some grotesque deformity. These days, mobile phones are like a natural extension of the hand. In fact, most people today are more or less reduced to possessing a single functioning hand, because the other will be busy texting, or performing other arcane functions.

The mobile phone that I did possess, and which has apparently succumbed to old age, represents a model that can now only be found in museums dedicated to ancient technology. It was one of those oddly antiquated phones that, well, made and received phone calls. I exaggerate a little. It did also have a camera, and I did once accidentally take a photograph of my right knee.

The truth is that I hardly ever used it. I guess I am just not that talkative. There rarely ever seemed to be anything that couldn’t wait until it could be said in person, or via a land line. And I am not important enough that people absolutely have to get hold of me right now at this very moment, else the law of gravity will cease to operate or the one opportunity to cure cancer will be missed. True, I may have missed out on Justin Bieber tweeting “What r u up 2?”; and I may have learned only too late that Paris Hilton was going to the beach. But somehow I seemed to survive.

There are, of course, occasions when a mobile phone comes in handy. It is useful to have a phone when travelling (which, of course, is precisely when I don’t have it). I think the reason I bought one in the first place was to be able to call roadside assistance if I broke down, or when I next locked my keys in the car. (Remember when cars had those oddly etched metal objects that used to slip fetchingly into an appropriately shaped ingress?) Except, of course, that I would inevitably break down where there was no signal available.

Suddenly, however, mobile phones have become a necessity. Have you noticed those terrifyingly asterisked fields in forms you have to fill out online? Those fields that MUST be filled, by divine decree, or else the world will be devoured by fire and demons will break in from the dark side! The mobile phone number field is increasingly asterisked. I had to fill out such a form the other day, and I broke into a sweat, wracked by guilt and anguish, because I was no longer the owner of a functioning mobile phone. Of course, I could enter the number that they would not be able to call, or I could make a number up, and that (I hoped) would soothe the wrath of the gods. But it would not accept my old number anyway, in any of the formats I tried (with or without international codes; with or without spaces or dashes – perhaps I should have tried Roman numerals?). I guess they don’t want my business.

Anyway, when I return to Australia in a few days, I suppose I will have to acquire a new mobile phone, and I suppose it will probably be one of those to which I can attach myself when in need of life support. Indeed, I suspect that some people may die or suffer severe brain damage if they are detached from their phone for more than two minutes. Except, of course, that for those people the phone already functions in lieu of a brain.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In Search of love


It is a strange thing, this quest of a man to find a woman, and a woman to find a man. It is not strange at all, at one level of course: like all living creatures we have an inner imperative to reproduce, to pass on copies of our precious little packages of DNA. But the quest for emotional intimacy, for someone with whom, at least ideally, we can spend the rest of our life, is a strange and tortuous one. I suspect, although I do not have the socio-historical evidence to back this up, that the ideal of “romantic love” that so often accompanies this quest is a very modern one. I wonder where it came from? What need does it fill? What is the loss for which it attempts to compensate?

When we are young, our personalities and values are often not yet fully formed, our ambitions and wishes only vaguely outlined, as we enter into this partnership for “life”. There is an upside and a downside to this. The upside is that the man and the woman (or the man and the man, or the woman and the woman) being not yet fully formed, help to form each other. They are still malleable enough to mould their lives and personalities around each other. Mistakes can be made, but there is still plenty of time to correct those. The downside is that two peoples’ personalities, beliefs, goals and values can begin to diverge, as they take shape. What seemed a good fit ten years ago, no longer is. There are, of course, many reasons why a relationship might not endure, but this is surely one of them. And we must note that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Religious convictions aside, perhaps men and women have not, in fact, evolved to remain in a single, lifelong relationship. Perhaps it is the persistent illusion or myth that this is the case which makes the failure to do so worse. I do not intend to belittle the emotional, psychological and economic consequences of the end of such a relationship for both the couple themselves and for any children involved. Nevertheless, perhaps the myth does not aid the process.

Despite these initial failures, the quest for a partnership continues. Perhaps men are more prone to launch themselves hastily into this pursuit than women. It is my impression that this is the case. But now, as people enter mid-life, there are additional problems. As often as not, we are now dealing with people whose personalities are well-formed, and even solidified. Lifestyles, goals, beliefs and values are all now more or less set in concrete. Each individual is now used to their own space, they have their own habits and quirks, and, in general, their lives are very “busy”. So now we have the problem of trying to fit together two solid objects, with hardened edges, and without a great deal of space or time in which to do so. Now there is no moulding and shaping. Pretty soon, edges will clash, and there will be breakages. I do not have any suggestions to offer about how to deal with this issue. I only wish to emphasise here that it is an issue; and that people who are “seeking a relationship” may not always recognise this, or be honest enough to acknowledge it.

So the problems of forming a relationship do not go away or even diminish as we grow older. They do, however, change. The desire for such a relationship also never seems to go away or diminish. Does the type of relationship we are seeking change? Perhaps. But that is another story.

Monday, December 10, 2012

"Does my ass look big?"

Wife: “Honey, do these pants make my ass look big?”
Husband: “Sweetheart, your ass is huge. And it’s gonna look huge, no matter what you wear.”

(Note: As a concession to the fact that most of those reading these posts are from the good ole U.S. of A., I have employed the word “ass” here in reference to the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius muscles. Non-American readers, please note that the speakers are not referring to a member of the genus Equus.)

A few times at gatherings, the question has arisen: When is it appropriate to lie, if ever? This is where we get into one of those areas that are tricky both philosophically and socially.

Philosophically, truth is not as easy to define as it might seem. When the sky is clear, is a simple statement such as “The sky is blue” true? Or perhaps we could ask, how true is it? Why is there a problem? Well, first of all, what do we actually mean by “the sky”? Is there any such thing as the sky? Because (I hate to break it to you) there is not a nice blue dome overhanging us. “The sky” is as much an artificial construct as “the equator”, perhaps more so, because at least one can precisely delineate the position of the equator, whereas it is impossible to say where the sky begins and ends. Then, of course, there is the problem of “blue”. There is no precise wavelength (as far as I am aware) by which blue can be defined: blue is a region of the electromagnetic spectrum that grades gradually into violet in one direction and green in the other. We have all had arguments, I imagine, over whether a garment of clothing is more bluish than greenish. And then, is every part of the sky blue, or are some parts bluer than others? And finally, of course, there is the problematic word “is”, in honour of which countless volumes of philosophy have been constructed. “The sky” “is” “blue”, because the blue(ish) wavelengths of light are absorbed by gas molecules and then scattered in every direction. So is it blue, in the sense that blue is really a quality that can be attributed to the sky itself?  This simple example is just that, an example. Almost any simple statement we make can be broken down and analysed in this way, until its obvious truth is far from obvious. I think this is probably why I am a little insane. “In” “my” “own” “mind” “I” “am” “haunted” “by” “quotation” “marks” “!”

From a philosophical perspective, therefore, we probably rarely tell the “truth”.

And then there is the social context. Socially, what do we mean by a lie? Does it mean the same as in the philosophical context? I suspect not. None of us, I think, would accuse someone who called an ugly baby beautiful of lying. (Ok, I know some of you will say that there is no such thing as an ugly baby. In a way, I think that just confirms the point I am making here). Speech in a social context is not simply about truth in an objective or factual sense, if there is any such thing. Speech is also, and perhaps primarily, about communication. Which is why we can say something like, “I’m feeling blue” today. This is certainly not true in a literal sense. But we are prepared to concede that it may be true in another, less clearly defined sense. Indeed, no one (except perhaps the speaker) is any position to challenge the veracity of such a statement. Then there are also statements that we characterise as “little white lies”. “Sweetheart, your ass could never look big in anything.” (From an evolutionary perspective, this may be an excellent example of survival of the fittest. Only males who exhibit this capacity to lie “whitely” survive to produce offspring.) And when someone asks, “How are you?”, and you reply, “I’m fine, just fine”, when, in fact, you may be anything but – would anyone accuse you of lying? In this case, the function of speech is neither to convey truth nor to communicate. It is part of a non-verbal ritual in the same way that a handshake is. The words are no longer really words, just conventional sounds.

So there we are. I’m sure it’s all clear now.

It’s probably worth noting that the husband in the opening dialogue represents an earlier, now extinct species of hominid.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Now for THE big question


This may possibly be a little controversial. I am going to venture to say something about “God”. I remember as a young teenager, when we were asked to present a talk before the class, that I chose as my subject: Why I am not a Christian. This was based largely on a reading of the book of the same name by the English philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Of course, at the time – I would have been sixteen years old, I suppose – I wanted to stir up trouble! What I want to say today is not designed to stir up trouble. When people learn that I used to be an Anglican Minister, one of two (or sometimes both) things happen. First, many people assume that I must still be religious. They find it difficult to believe that someone could abandon their faith entirely. Others want to know what brought about the change. I have been through two conversion experiences (so to speak): one from non-faith to faith, and then back again, or so it would seem. Nothing, however, is ever as simple as it seems.

Only an entire autobiography would answer these questions in anything like a satisfactory way – and even then, probably not. For that reason, I am often reluctant to begin the conversation. Any partial answer is likely to lead to misunderstanding, in one direction or another. The same is almost certainly true of what I write here.

Here, today, I want to broach only one aspect of the issue; and it concerns the use of the word “God” itself. I love words; but this has to be one of the most problematic words of all time. If I am asked: Do you believe in God? the simplest and most straightforward answer is: No, I do not. To a large extent, this is because the word “God” has virtually no meaning. It has no meaning because it can mean virtually anything to anyone, and often does. It’s as though we were to take the word “table” and apply it to any man-made flat-topped object with four legs, or perhaps three, or perhaps even one. But we don’t stop there, because many chairs have four legs, and many other man-made objects have flat tops also. So perhaps the word table might apply to them, also. But why stop at inanimate objects? After all, many animals have four legs – perhaps “table” could apply to them also. Or to animals with more or fewer legs. Eventually the word “table” loses all usefulness. Thus it is with the word “God” – it has been, and is, used to mean so many different things that it no longer really means anything at all. You and I could both use the word in a conversation, but it might have quite different (and even contradictory) meanings for each of us. We might think we were agreeing, but far from it. Conversely, I might say “I don’t believe in God”, while you might say “I believe in God”, and we would think we were disagreeing; in fact, however, our beliefs could be identical. For example, I might believe in some kind of higher human consciousness – even a collective consciousness; but I would not attribute the word “God” to that, because I do not interpret it as any kind of transcendent or ultimate reality. You might believe exactly the same, but be quite ready to refer to this as “God”. I do not believe that any meaningful conversation can be held about God – certainly not without a great deal of preliminary discussion. Perhaps a lifetime’s worth of discussion.

So it is by far simpler to say that I don’t believe in God; because the chances are that I don’t believe in whatever it is that you happen to call God. Or, if I do believe in that, I don’t think that the word God applies to it. It is entirely possible that you, or some great theologian (perhaps you are one!), could come up with some kind of description/definition/concept of God to which I would happily give my assent. It would probably still not be the word that I thought best applied to that concept.

In a very brief nutshell, what I do believe is this: That a purely mechanistic and materialistic description of reality does not provide an adequate description of that reality in which I believe myself to be living. That probably, eventually, requires that I extend my understanding of reality, rather than seek an explanation for this “other” outside or beyond reality. Does this “other” require my devotion? Does it provide me with any moral guidelines? Can I have a relationship with it? No. It is fascinating. It fills me with awe, because it is mysterious. But I do not worship it. I owe it nothing. It does not “love” me. Basically, what this boils down to is the simple recognition that this is a weird bloody world, and that’s pretty cool. For some people, this might be exactly what they mean by “God”. For me, though, to call it that tells us – I was going to say, that it tells us nothing about it. But that isn’t the problem at all. It tells us far too much about it, most of which simply does not apply.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Musing about these musings


What is it that prompts these musings that I present each day. I must own up to a secret. I usually have a few pieces sitting ready for posting at any one time, just in case I have no time to write anything, or if, for some reason, nothing occurs to me on any particular day. Because, let’s be honest, I am not that creative or inspired. Some days go by without any sense of having been brushed by the Muse, in order to create one of these musings. (What is this Muse up to at the moment, having me muse about my musings?)

It is often something I read, or hear or see on the TV that triggers the motion: a series of thoughts that perhaps lead somewhere, perhaps not. Indeed, much of my writing proceeds in this way. I rarely have a “plan”, even when I start a novel. There may be one or two seeds, a few ideas. Most of these will have vanished before the process is complete. If I get stuck, I will often just continue to write: anything, whatever happens to be on my mind at the time. And sometimes, if I am lucky, something begins to emerge. It’s a little like planting seeds in a garden, when you have no idea what plants they are from. Some fall in good soil, some on stony ground. What is going to grow there? Some seeds grow, some don’t; some smother others. Some have to be uprooted, some transplanted; some pruned, some fed with fertiliser. From this emerges some kind of garden. It bears very little resemblance to anything I might have imagined at the outset.

I think this processes kind of works (if it does – you be the judge) because life itself is rather like that. Do we have plans? Some of us, some of the time. And if we have no sense of where we are going? Do something. Put one foot ahead of the other. Move. Move or die. When we look back, after ten years, at what has grown, does it resemble at all the plan with which we began? Probably not. At least not in my case. So I hope that my books and stories resemble life in this way. I, as the author, often really do not know what is coming next. So I am as surprised and pleased or hurt as I hope you, the reader will be.

This musing has followed exactly the process that I have described above. This ending was not anticipated by the sentence that began it all.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The big questions


I no longer consider myself to be a religious person, but, at this time of the year, it is difficult not to acknowledge the hold that religion has upon the human psyche. Is this a good thing? I am not sure. Is this something vestigial from our prehistoric past, that was once a key to our survival in the world? I’m not sure. Is it something that will help us survive in the future; or will it, rather, be the death of us? I’m not sure.

I do believe that religion taps into themes and symbols that are deeply rooted in our psyche. How are we to understand our place in the world? What does it mean that one day I will no longer BE? How am I to make decisions in the face of so much information, and so little information?

I will not presume to claim that human beings are the only creatures on this planet (or in the universe) who have the dilemma of trying to understand their place in the world. But for some reason, for us, living does not come naturally. By that I mean that our instincts (as powerful as they remain – deny them though we might) are not the only things that guide our behaviour. We have the capacity, although not always the will or strength, to transcend our instincts. This is both a strength and a curse. It gives us something which we often call freedom, so that somehow our actions do not appear to be predetermined; there is a something, a me, that seems to intervene between the past and the future, so that the present and future is not determined simply by the configuration of the past. I am aware that this is an area of controversial and complex philosophical debate. Nevertheless, it is what seems to be the case; and we live as though it were true. But this capacity, this freedom, is also terrifying, because, as the Existentialists recognised, freedom, the capacity to choose, is like stepping into an abyss. No wonder we sometimes seek fixed points, religions, dictators, which can show us the way. These things, we perhaps hope, can set us free from freedom.

And then, there is our awareness of death. Again, I would not presume to claim that this is unique to our species. Our consciousness, our sense of self, our perception that we are shapers of the world, and not simply shaped by it, is very powerful. We find it difficult to conceive that this light that burns within us could ever be extinguished. And it is literally (and I use the term “literally” literally) impossible to conceive our non-being. Understandably, we rail against this. And yet death is potentially the very thing that gives meaning to our lives: the full stop that gives meaning to the sentence, as I have suggested before. However, most of us probably feel that we are not given the chance to complete our story. But then, perhaps we are only a chapter in the story after all. Or a sentence in the chapter.

Religion is about the big questions, questions like these. Are the answers always helpful? Probably not. Can we actually hope to find some final answers? Probably not. Should we continue to ask the questions? Most definitely yes!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fiction is truer than fact


“Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” 
― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country



I wish Neil Gaiman had written “forgotten” rather than “forgot”; but the point is well taken. Indeed, I would claim that tales are truer than fact, at least potentially. I make this claim, because life in general is very messy. As a research biologist, one of the things I would attempt to do is design an experiment that removes some of the messiness and noise from the world. Conditions are created in which it is possible to focus, preferably, on the results of changing a single variable. Of course, such a perfect system is not attainable, and there always remains some unwanted variation due to other, uncontrolled factors. Fiction writing is something like this. In fiction, we concentrate on one or a few themes and explore them in detail, excluding extraneous material. One of the simplest and clearest examples of this is the form of the parable, as seen in the gospels. Here a simple story is told that usually highlights a single, important point. This reveals a “truth” that could otherwise be obscured by the noise in the real world. I put “truth” in inverted commas, because I find myself somewhat on the side of Pontius Pilate here: “What is truth?” Truth, I believe, is time, place and context dependent. A parable never contains the whole truth and nothing but the truth; but it is a partial truth that might otherwise be overlooked in the clutter of the real world. A parable is, at the same time, untruth, because it ignores other important factors or pieces of information.

The same is true of more complex forms of fiction. They are abstractions from the real world, and are, therefore, able to reveal truths that might otherwise be overlooked. Of course, they are also untruths, as implied by the very word “fiction” itself.

Here is a theme that recurs frequently in my thinking, and probably, therefore, in my writing here. It is the idea of “the coincidence of opposites”. This is a concept that goes back to early Greek philosophy, but also gained currency in the Late Middle Ages, and is also evident in the psychology of Carl Jung. It is the idea that something can be simultaneously its own opposite. The road up, is also the road down. A story can be true and untrue at the same time; and, in being so, is somehow more “true” than it would otherwise be. This reflects the complexity of whatever this thing is in which we live, this “universe”, this “world”; and, even more so, this thing that we are: human beings.

Of course, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a story is just a story. (And/or not.)

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Don't forget to check out the special offer on my book, Maybe they'll remember me until Christmas.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Political and economic train wrecks


As you may know from my previous posts or other sources, I am heading back to Australia very soon, after three years living here in Switzerland. One of the things I am not looking forward to, upon my return, is what appears to be, for want of a better word, the degenerate quality of Australian politics. I have probably been spoiled, living here in Switzerland where, for the most part, politicians behave (and are treated) like responsible adults. Of course there are rat bags, and there is the inevitable lunatic fringe. But, by and large, politicians here actually focus on getting the job done, rather than on what they have to do to be re-elected. And they think long-term. Furthermore, and this is practically inconceivable in Australia, politicians from different political parties actually cooperate on getting the job done. The executive arm of government consists of a body that includes all the main parties.

From what little I read about the political situation in Australia, and from what I hear from friends over there, the situation, which was already bad when I left, has become even worse. There is nothing but mud-slinging and petty bickering. It is astonishing that anything gets done at all in the country. Or perhaps it doesn’t. Or perhaps it does because, in the end, the country has learned to get on with business without heeding these politicians. Let them squabble in the playground, while the people get on with their lives and keep the country afloat.

I suppose there is little hope of anything ever changing, but I really do wish that Australia would stop choosing as its models the failed political, social and economic experiments that constitute the U.K. and the U.S.A. There are other models in the world, some of them here in Europe, which work far more effectively. Of course, the failed and failing systems, here in Europe and elsewhere, make much more noise. I am not suggesting that there is any single country in the world which has managed to get everything right. But I would urge Australia to tear its eyes away from the big train wrecks, fascinating as they may be, and listen for the softer, smaller voices.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The body and the mind


I have spent the last couple of days and nights feeling rather ill. Two days ago my dinner decided to poison me. Something most definitely did not appreciate being eaten, and decided to fight back. I spent that night feeling nauseous; and what was being expelled from the lower half of my body is not something we should discuss in polite society. The nausea has continued off and on for the past two days, and the nights have been disturbed, often by strangely vivid dreams. It’s been difficult to read. These are also the first words I have been able to write since this began; a sign, I hope, that I am coming through the other end.

I have been restless, unable to concentrate, unable to sit still. Only lying on my bed would occasionally bring relief; until a wave of nausea also made that position untenable.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, it is at times like this that we can really appreciate the link between the mind and the body. This has been apparent in at least two ways. First, there has been my inability to concentrate, and related to that, my inability to write. Whatever toxins have been flowing though my body have affected my mind also. My thought processes are not independent of the physical substratum on which they depend. Although we recognise this when our body is struggling, are we also conscious of this at other times – when we feel “creative” for instance? What is going on in our body when the words of the Muse seem oh so clear?

The second way in which my body has affected my mind is through these dreams that I have mentioned. It’s as though the discomfort in my body is also seeking an outlet through the thoughts and images created by the mind. These dreams were written in the language of my body. I suppose, to some degree, this must always be true. But, again, we only really become aware of this when something changes: when we become ill, for instance.

I’m sure it’s true that the process can also work in the other direction: that our thoughts can affect the health of the body; that our mind can express itself through our body. At least, I am told this. And, from time to time, perhaps I have experienced this. For the last two or three days, however, my body has clearly carried out a coup and made it quite clear who was in charge. And that’s ok. I suspect, under the circumstances, it knows best.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Musical memories


There was a television show on a few nights ago, in which the British public had voted for the top 60 number one music hits of all time. I find these programs quite interesting. For one thing, they reveal which songs are the real stayers. I am always a little sceptical about the more recent hits that are inevitably voted amongst them. Will they still be remembered in ten or twenty years time? Some of them probably will; others almost certainly not. The previous night there had been another show, tracing the history of the Rolling Stones, through their eyes (at least to some extent). Both of these shows were in celebration of an anniversary. The first, in celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the British pop charts. The second, in celebration of the Rolling Stones’ fiftieth year together. It’s difficult to imagine!

British television features a multitude of these kinds of shows, which, perhaps in a simplistic fashion, explore the cultural history of the nation. I’m not sure if the United States has the same fascination with its cultural history; or perhaps we just don’t see that nation’s versions of these programs here.

There is naturally a degree of nostalgia involved when watching these shows. Of course they evoke memories of where we were and what we were doing at the time. We have the opportunity to laugh at our outrageous (or boring) fashion sense at the time. Remember when “big hair” was in vogue? But there is, at least potentially, a slightly more serious side to this interest in popular cultural. The music, fashions and popular culture of the time are not divorced from the politics and social issues of the day; as indeed is still the case today. For instance, there are very profound reasons why reality television has been so popular over the last decade or so. I could speculate about those reasons, give my opinions. My intention is not so much to do that, on this occasion, but simply to point out that it is an important question to explore.

Returning to the top hits program, there were some really moving moments for me. For example, can anyone not be moved by the raw emotion of the video in which Sinead O’Connor sings Nothing compares to you? And then how could anyone not be delighted by the elfish, slightly crazy, but delightful Kate Bush, singing Wuthering Heights. These pieces, not just the songs themselves but the whole video and performance, are really significant works of art. I would be happy to see them “hanging” in an art gallery. The song by Procol Harem, A Whiter Shade of Pale, is not just a cleverly crafted pop song, but, as one of the writers observed, “a duet between organ and voice”, and as another person commented, “an impressionist painting in words”. The central melody of that song is, of course, a reworking of a piece by Bach. Using that piece in such a different context is itself a very creative idea. I am sure that there are songs being written and performed, videos being constructed, at this very moment, that will be every bit as enduring as these earlier songs. As with many things, time will decide.

Some among you may have no idea what I have been talking about in that last paragraph. Kate who? Procol what? That’s ok. Just know that in 30 or 40 years time, you will be looking back and doing the same thing with the music that is big at the moment. At least, I hope so.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

When I wake up: A Story

Now for something a little different. I thought occasionally I might share with you a short story, some micro-literature. These are fairly spontaneous pieces that I write from time to time, as an idea comes to me. This one today I have called: When I wake up (not too original). I wrote the first paragraph without any notion at all of what would follow. It contains a naughty word, so you have been warned!

When I wake up

When I wake up the world is a giant Kinder Surprise, being shaken by an enormous impatient child, and I am the little toy rattling around inside. Except that nothing moves, apart from my heart within my breast, and the duvet, lifting in rhythm to my breathing.  Quite why I feel this way is not at all clear to me, and perhaps never will be. With the shaking comes the sweating, then a kind of diminishing shudder: a spinning top finally coming to rest.

I had opened my eyes, but, initially, to no avail, as the room is well-sealed off from the light. Only gradually do I see the edges of the window outlined, and the green glow of the light on the transformer, embedded in the power cable for the computer. Kryptonite, I think. That is how kryptonite might glow in the dark. Surprisingly bright for such a small light source; and now that I have noticed it, it turns the room into an ominous underground cavern.

Vague images are fading from my mind, sensations rather. I had been in danger, but from what, I have no idea. The sweat begins to dry on my body, leaving me chilled. I bury my arms beneath the duvet. For the moment, there is little chance that sleep will return. My heart still thumps within my chest and, oddly, in my right ear. I lie awake, waiting for the hour or so to pass, until it is time to get up.

*********************

I decide to walk to work this morning, trying to shake free of the fuzz that clouds my mind and vision. Already I am exhausted, with the whole day still stretching before me. I experience the odd sensation of being followed. I contemptuously deny the urge to look back over my shoulder. “Get a fucking grip!” I don’t think anyone nearby detects words in this sudden expulsion of breath. Throughout the day I am edgy and jumpy. Colleagues learn to stay clear. Fortunately I can hide in the office for most of the day. Little gets done. After a hurried lunch, during which I keep to myself as much as possible, I find myself drowsing at my desk. Supporting my head with one hand, pretending to look at the computer screen, but seeing nothing through half-closed lids. But as my eyes close, I feel it again, that innominate dread, and jerk awake suddenly from a great height.

*********************

Again that evening I decide to walk. The frosty air is pleasant on my face, tightening the loose bags beneath my eyes. I punch in the code on the door to my apartment building and enter the corridor. Always at first the air inside feels too warm. I check the mail box. Nothing. Up one flight of stairs. Someone ahead of me unlocks their door: the rattling key in the lock, the slight, almost air-lock sound as the door closes – “whooomph” – behind them. At my own door, I lower the key towards the lock, and freeze. Despite the uncomfortable warmth, I freeze. There is a sound.

I think it is a sound, although it is perhaps too far down the registry to actually be heard. It is, at least, akin to a sound. Then I become aware of it in the cells of my body. I may dissolve. But just before the point at which this seems inevitable, the movement takes on a new amplitude, and the enormous, impatient child begins to shake the giant Kinder Surprise that is the world, and I rattle around inside it.

I am almost relieved, as the pressure is released. I am not sure if the pressure within the world had been creating a resonance within me; or whether the pressure within me has generated a sympathetic response in the world. Either way, it is a relief to be free of it.

It is, now, only a building shaking.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Scarlett


I was just looking at some photographs of my granddaughter, which my daughter posted on Facebook. Scarlett is three months old, but I have yet to see her in person. I will have that opportunity when I return to Australia in two or three weeks time. I will actually get to hold her (and, no doubt, change some nappies!). It will also be the first time that I have spent Christmas with my family (meaning my own children and their families) in I don’t know how many years. After three years away, and having spent that time basically living in a furnished box in Lausanne, I have a feeling that this Christmas will be a very special one. And yes, I guess I am getting a little emotional and sentimental in my old age. This is a time of enormous change, for all of us. Me, changing countries again, and jobs. My daughter, with a new baby. My son and his young wife, and their recent move to New Zealand.

Of course, looking at young Scarlett, it is impossible not to think about her future, and the future of this world into which she is born. I don’t exactly believe in the innocence of children. I think we all come into the world with a very self-centred streak, which is necessary for survival. But looking at her smile I see, not innocence, but naturalness (perhaps that is the same thing?). There is a natural quality to life at that age, before we dress it up in all kinds of social conventions. Scarlett can laugh, cry, fart, burp, fill her nappy, with equal ease, without being at all embarrassed or self-conscious about those behaviours. Of course, we need social conventions. I don’t really want to be in an elevator when someone else farts. But looking at Scarlett, it is good to be reminded that there is a natural animality underlying all of our social conventions, and that this is not a bad thing – certainly not bad in the moral sense; just not always appropriate or convenient if we are to live together in this world. Let’s not confuse social conventions with morality.

The years ahead will not be easy for Scarlett. But when have they ever been? I have now reached the status of an Elder in society. At least, I would have done so in some societies – I’m not too sure about this one. I don’t feel very clever or very wise – which is, perhaps, the first step towards wisdom. But maybe, just maybe, I have learned a few things along the way, which Scarlett can take great delight, as she grows, in proving wrong.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Stars in our eyes


It is a curious thing, this world of independent ebook publishing. We hear a great deal about how important reviews are in helping to sell a book. I have also mentioned before (Reviewing – the situation) how I feel that the number of five star reviews given to self-published books is misleading and, I think, ultimately unhelpful.

Here are some numbers to consider (these were correct at the time of writing):
·         Fifty Shades of Grey, currently #683 in the Kindle Store, has an average ranking of 3 stars (from 14,107 reviews).
·         The Da Vinci Code, currently “languishing” at #47,508, has around 3.5 stars (4,144 reviews).
·         The current #1, Notorious Nineteen: A Stephanie Plum Novel, has around 3.5 stars (70 reviews), and has been in the top 100 for 80 days.
·         The 2012 Mann Booker Prize winner, Bringing up the Bodies, has a somewhat better ranking at 4.5 stars, but only manages the #2,746 position (not that I wouldn’t kill for that!).
·         The 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction (no prize was awarded in 2012), A Visit From the Goon Squad, has 3.5 stars and the #3,882 position.
·         A Farewell to Arms, Moby Dick, and Joyce’s Ulysses, all average 4 stars; Women in Love manages only 3.5.

It is far from clear to me:
1.      What meaning and value the reviews on Amazon have.
2.      What relationship there is between reviews and sales.
3.      What relationship there is between reviews and the actual quality of the book.
4.      What relationship there is between the number of stars a book receives and its popularity.

There is a great deal of anecdotal information bandied about; and perhaps I am just adding to that here. My point is that the situation is far from clear. There are doubtless many, many factors that influence the sales of a book, and also many, many factors that influence the mind of the reviewer. The actual quality of the book is only one of these, and perhaps not, by a long way, the most important.

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