Monday, April 29, 2013

OK. Here goes: Gun Control


It’s good to know that something like the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart exists in the US. It is so good to have someone challenging the status quo, presenting the counter argument. The United States is a paradox embodied. Consider this recent piece on Stewart’s show about gun control. It is, first of all, fantastic that such a piece can be made. Secondly, I celebrate the fact that in the US even the arsehole from the gun lobby has the right to be heard. (I’m not at all biased, by the way.). After all, without such freedom of speech, how would he have been given enough rope to hang himself? If I were a member of the gun lobby, I would be thinking about getting something done about that pesky First Amendment. After all, one wouldn’t want it endangering the Second Amendment!

Of course, the other side of the paradox is that the same society creates and fosters people like this Philip van Cleave (the gun lobby spokesperson in this video). I’ve no doubt that these people would be prepared to take up (their many) arms to defend the right to take up (their many) arms. I wonder how far such people would go. Hmmm. (I haven’t hmmmed here for some time.) I wonder, would they be prepared to undertake terrorist activities to protect their “rights”? Fortunately, it seems they won’t have to, because the United States Senate does not have the courage and the moral rectitude to pass even the most moderate gun control legislation. I can understand why senators would not wish to pass such important (if controversial) legislation... So that they can remain in power to not pass other important (if controversial) legislation.

By the way, if I were living in the United States of America, I would be far more afraid of “my fellow Americans” than of any external terrorist threat.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Winding Back


I have been writing this blog now on an almost daily basis since November 2012. There are 170 posts consisting of more than 81,000 words. There have been over 11,200 page views. The time has come to wind it back a little. The truth is, it is getting more and more difficult to think of things to write, so I am going to post a blog from now on only when I feel that I have something a little more interesting to say. Who knows when that will be!

Although I enjoy writing here, I also realise that the pressure I sometimes put on myself to think of something worth saying is not really necessary. By winding back, not only will I take some pressure off myself, but also, hopefully, what I write will be a little more interesting. I hope that you will stay tuned.

Also I take this opportunity to remind you to take a look at my published books here. I have one more book that should be ready to go before the end of the year, and I am also currently writing a fourth novel. When I have finally completed the second century of these blogs, I will also publish that as volume two of Give Us Today Our Daily Blog – although the title won’t be entirely accurate this time!

Thank you for your readership to date, and keep an eye open for coming instalments.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Kin


I spent some time with my eight month old granddaughter Scarlett last night, for the first time since Christmas. I had the honour of changing my first dirty nappy in what must be twenty-five or twenty-six years. Her nappy, that is, not mine. She seemed to accept me quite readily. Perhaps the physical resemblance between myself and my daughter is enough to enable her to identify me as someone to be trusted. Perhaps we even share some genetically based odour. To a biologist who has studied kin recognition, both of these seem reasonable hypotheses. I also had the privilege of giving her her final bottle of formula for the night at 10:30 P.M. She drank most of it; but chiefly, it seemed to me, she simply wanted to lie there in my arms, with the teat in her mouth, looking at me or at the light in the ceiling, reaching out and touching my hand, or my face when I leaned in towards her, making contented sounds – Scarlett, that is, not me; although I may have made some too. Only when I attempted to withdraw the bottle did she resist and begin to suck again, tricking me into believing she hadn’t finished yet. When I did finally withdraw the bottle she did not protest greatly, and made no objection when I laid her back down in her cot. Later, downstairs, I listened to her, through the baby monitor, chattering to herself and making more contented sounds.

I don’t want to make any profound philosophical or ethical observations here today. I think this just about says it all.

Image by Scarlett's mum, Natalie

Friday, April 26, 2013

We Can Be Heroes


I’m not a pacifist. I think there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to take up arms to defend oneself, one’s freedom and the freedom of others. I think, for example, that Adolph Hitler had to be stopped, and I doubt that peaceful means would have achieved this. I think that Apartheid in South Africa had to be destroyed, and peaceful means would not suffice. That is not to say that there is ever really a winner in war. The winners don’t really “win” even if, in the end, they achieve their goal. There is too much loss all around to ever call this a victory. Nevertheless, some conflicts ultimately serve a just cause. Of course, not everyone involved in a war serves that cause. Motives are rarely uncomplicated or untainted by personal gain.

Unfortunately, every war tries to paint itself as “just”; every war is a war for “freedom”. This is how war is marketed by its salesmen. So even many of those who become caught up in an unjust war may do so for noble motives. They bought the product that was sold to them. They believed the lies. They are not entirely blameless in these conflicts, but nor do they bear the brunt of the blame. We can honour their courage and respect them for the price they paid, without buying into the salesmen’s pitch.

Looking back over history, it is difficult to interpret the First World War as a just war, or as a war for freedom. The rulers of nations used their citizens as cannon fodder to settle their own petty disputes. The men and women involved died tragically, if bravely. Many had no idea why they were fighting at all. Salesmanship had elevated the enemy to demonic status, even though there were cousins at the helms of the nations involved. No, I don’t believe that this was a war for freedom, and certainly not a war in Australia’s defence. Nevertheless, I see the value of remembering the cost involved, as a reminder of the folly of war, and the folly of the leaders of nations.

I become uncomfortable when remembrances of wars past turn into hero-worship. It is a fine line between honouring bravery and sacrifice, and hero-worship. Heroism is something to aspire towards, but heroes should not be idealised or idolised. If we make our heroes unreal, we dishonour them, and make heroism impossible for lesser beings such as ourselves. Furthermore, heroism takes many forms. Sometimes just staying afloat from day to day takes tremendous strength and courage. I, for one, do not aspire to becoming cannon fodder for the leader of this, or any other nation. I have no desire to be transformed into someone who hates the “Hun” (whoever that is today), so that I can be persuaded to kill him with a clear conscience. Perhaps those who refuse to fight are also heroes, although propaganda will label them as cowards or traitors. Some men and women who fought or are fighting in wars may be heroes, some may not. Let us not turn our eyes solely towards war to find our models, our inspiration and our heroes. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Mini Exhibit


I can’t claim to be a terribly good photographer, but I have been trying my hand at some macro photography, and I thought I would share with you today some photographs I took recently in the botanic gardens here in Cairns, and also in my garden. I hope you enjoy them. I tried to take some photographs of butterflies in the garden, but could only manage the one here. While I was living in Switzerland, I can only recall ever seeing one very nondescript white species. Here in the garden there might be four or five (at least) different species of butterfly at any one time. Unfortunately, they were too elusive to capture here. I hope you enjoy this little offering. I will post them to Pinterest too.













Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Human Fragility


Human beings are so very fragile. We are easily “broken” by external traumas. We are just easily broken by internal imbalances and disorders. As fragile as the body is, so too is the mind. There is a multitude of imbalances and imperfections that can affect our emotions and our thinking processes. For many years I worked with psychiatric patients, and I have seen what a major psychiatric illness can do to a person. It is not just our bodies that are fragile, but our very selves, our sense of identity.

There is a whole other range of disorders that go to the heart of who we are, but which are not, strictly speaking, psychiatric illnesses. Although there may be some chemical processes associated with these disorders, they do not represent the kind of malfunctions that characterise psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. I am referring to the “personality disorders”, which constitute many of the conditions described on Axis II of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV). Personality disorders are not so much illnesses as learned patterns of behaviour that have become very firmly established over time. These disorders may have a genetic component, but owe, I believe, much more to “nurture” than to “nature”: that is, they are learnt over time as coping mechanisms. In a particular historical context, such as childhood situations, these behaviours may have served a useful purpose; but their retention during adult life usually leads to some level of dysfunction.

All of us have elements of some of these disorders embedded in our personality. Sometimes we are aware of them, sometimes we are not. We have all learnt ways of behaving, due to our earlier life experiences, which no longer help but hinder us. They are very difficult to overcome, like so many habits. They are often those frustrating aspects of our personality that make us say, ‘Here I go again!’ We fall into the same traps; we make the same mistakes; we react in the usual way. At least in this situation we recognise our behaviour, although it is frustratingly difficult to change. Many do not even have insight into their own destructive behaviour patterns. Sometimes I think they are the lucky ones, who can leave a trail of wounded behind them, but seem blissfully unaware and uninjured themselves. Seemingly. There is a price to be paid for our awareness of our failings. When we find ourselves there again, we deposit additional guilt and frustration into our already inflated account.

We can be so easily damaged as we grow and develop as people. I do not believe that there is any individual who has ever lived on this planet who has not been damaged in some way. Those who seem most “together” I regard with the greatest suspicion (perhaps that is one of my disorders). I wonder what an unspoiled human being would look like? I suspect that I would develop a strong dislike for such a figure. We are dangerously mistaken if we think that any of our “messiahs” have (or even could have) avoided such damage.

Perhaps if I am aware of my own flawed and damaged personality, if I understand the place from which my own negative and (self- or other-) destructive behaviours emerge, I will be more understanding of the failures of others. Or perhaps I am just too damaged for that.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Finding a Good Cause


I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] does not throw dice. – Albert Einstein

I find the human race’s reluctance to accept concepts such as randomness and chaos quite fascinating. I suppose, if one believes in a supreme deity, there can, by definition, be no such thing as randomness and chaos. Everything is planned, if not precisely predetermined. This is also true if, as an atheist, one believes in absolute determinism: what happens at this instant is simply the inevitable outcome of prior events. I suppose the idea of cause and effect is so deeply ingrained in us that we find the concept of an uncaused cause difficult to conceive (although that is precisely what theists do all the time!). Kant considered causality to be one of the a priori categories. It is one of the givens of reason, prior to any actual experience of causality. I guess you could say it is hardwired into the process of thinking and perceiving. As human beings, we cannot but think in terms of causality. Biologically speaking, this hard-wiring in the brain has evolved as a useful, indeed, necessary way to deal with the world around us. By and large we can depend on a cause to produce a particular effect. If it doesn’t, this is because there are other causes at work which we did not detect, or did not take into account.

On the one hand, we can see this as one of the grounds for skepticism concerning supernatural phenomena, particularly such things as miracles. We doubt claims that a miracle has occurred – a miracle denoting some break in the chain of cause and effect – claiming, instead, that we have simply not yet detected the actual cause(s). On the other hand, this can also be grounds for accepting the possibility of supernatural interventions. It could be argued that our reluctance to accept non-causality is simply due to the fact that we are unable to break out of this a priori category. For me, this latter argument does not carry much weight. In fact, supernatural thinking itself does not break out of this way of thinking. It simply posits an invisible, unknowable, unmeasurable cause. Only God himself is truly uncaused.

Quantum theory (and this is what Einstein is referring to in the opening quote) at the very least rewrites our concept of causality. Concepts such as “backward causality” begin to emerge: an effect “causes” the cause, rather than the other way around. Or maybe they cause each other. The concept of “self-causality” is perhaps not so very farfetched. Yes, it is all very weird, and I am probably misinterpreting it anyway. In reality, it is probably much weirder. Does this leave a new “gap” into which God can squeeze? Possibly. But it may also make the concept of God redundant again. Perhaps “self-causality” and even “un-caused-ness” are not, after all, exclusive properties of the divine; they may be basic properties of humble matter.

If it is possible to believe that any one “being”, such as God, can be uncaused or self-caused, why is it such a stretch to believe that an entire universe can be uncaused or self-caused?  In any case, if the concept of causality is just a constraint placed upon our way of thinking, a fundamental a priori from which we cannot possibly free ourselves, this whole discussion is probably a complete waste of time (“time” being another a priori category).


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Find out about my available published books here.

Monday, April 22, 2013

C-change


From time to time I have mentioned that I grew up on a diet of science fiction books and TV shows. Even the music I listened to in the early seventies had an SF feel to it. There was Bowie, of course; but there was also The Moody Blues – is there anyone else on the planet who remembers them? – with several albums, but most notably To Our Children’s Children’s Children, with strong SF themes. Rick Wakeman recorded Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1974; and a few years later Jeff Wayne recorded a musical version of War of the Worlds.

There was, and often still is, in SF something of a religious feel. Powerful aliens, or the advanced human race of the future, replace the gods, while evil aliens replace the demons and devils. Epic science fiction so often follows the theme of “good vs. evil”. This is much more than cops and robbers in space. It has a powerful mythological edge: dark and light abound. There is sometimes, of course, a dark, apocalyptic edge to SF. But SF is also, sometimes, the carrier of human hopes and aspirations.

Early in my new novel Angel’s Harp, a father says to his son (born in 1957, on the day that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1):  ‘We’ll be living on Mars by the time you’re all grown up’. I think it is fair to claim that during the sixties, this did not seem too farfetched. It seemed as though the human race was poised to cross some kind of threshold, perhaps several thresholds: spiritual, social and astrographical (as a space age equivalent to “geographical”). The human race was about to pass through a cosmological change – a C-change.

Of course, like so many things promised by the sixties, this did not come to pass. This religion, too, is largely lost, except among a lingering New Age fringe. The New Age did not eventuate.

From time to time, even in recent SF television shows (the Stargate franchise comes to mind) an alien race appears that wears the trappings that gods once sported. The utopian dream is not quite dead, it seems. It is not a bad thing to believe (or, at least hope) that it is possible to overcome the internal and external conflicts that plague us as a species. Even if it never happens, at least we can hold some vision of what it might be like. No doubt, being human, we can find a way to fight about which is the correct vision.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Regarding Rolf Harris

When it was announced some weeks ago that an 83 year old Australian performer had been arrested in Britain in relation to sexual offences (although no specific charges had been laid), it did not take a genius to work out that this was Rolf Harris. The official media did not name him, although his name resonated throughout the social media. When I heard it on the news, I did not need the social media to identify him for me. The “non-identification” was a complete farce. Many people in Britain and Australia were deeply shocked by the news. There was, from some at least, a sense of “Oh no, surely not!”

At this stage we know nothing about the allegations that have been brought against him, other than that they are “historical”, whatever exactly that means. I take it to mean that the events referred to, if they occurred, took place a long time ago.

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether Rolf Harris is guilty of any offence. What I do know is that the accusation, true or not, will probably destroy him. If he is guilty, many may say, “Good riddance. He gets what he deserves.” Why should he be rewarded with such a successful career and contented life (apparently) if he is guilty of destroying someone else’s life? If he is not guilty, of course, it is a very sad way for a man to spend the final years of his life: facing such accusations and charges. Of course, in all likelihood, given that these allegations are “historical”, there will be very little evidence to decide the case one way or another. We will be left with Rolf’s word against the alleged victim’s word. People will choose for themselves who to believe. Guilty or not, many will believe him to be. Guilty or not, many will believe him not to be.

What should be done in a situation like this? How does one establish the facts after such a lengthy passage of time? And what happens if the truth cannot be determined? I am at a loss to know. If there were some events early in Rolf’s life, should he be punished for them so many, many years later? I don’t know. Is it possible that a person can make up for the harmful deeds they may have done at some time in their life, by all the good they do later? I really, really don’t know. Some will jump in with quick, easy, neat, black and white answers to these questions. To me it all just seems so much more complicated than that. 

Until midnight Sunday (Pacific Standard Time; 6:00 P.M. Monday, Australian Eastern Standard Time) my new novel, Angel's Harp, is FREE to download from Amazon. Don't miss out !

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Welcome to My Nightmare

At various stages in my life I have performed in amateur theatre productions. There is nothing quite like “nailing” a role, sensing that you have the audience where you want them; feeling that you have succeeded in carrying them into this alternative reality.

Rehearsals, while often hard work, can be tremendous fun. Waiting in the dressing room, particularly on opening night, full of nervous energy, rather than nervous per se, although there is some of that, too. Running through lines in your head; putting yourself in the character’s shoe – literally. Then there is the after show party, when the funny stories are told, the near or actual disasters related. Over a period of perhaps six to ten weeks, life has an entirely different favour, and a vastly greater intensity. Then the emptiness, the inevitable depression when it is all over.

It’s not surprising, then that this life can invade your dreams, not only during and immediately after the run of the show, but even years later. There is a recurring dream that actors have. It takes various forms, but the underlying theme is always the same. In fact, there has been a play written about it called The Actor’s Nightmare by Christopher Durang. In this dream, I am usually waiting offstage, awaiting my entrance. Unfortunately, I have no idea what my lines are, what role I am playing, or even what the play is. This is one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable. Mixed with this is enormous guilt because I seem to remember not attending rehearsals, not bothering to learn the lines. Strangely, sometimes, there is also a slightly desperate sense of euphoria, as the conviction washes over me that it will all come to me when I get out on the stage. I have had a similar dream about an exam situation, in which I do not even know what the subject is, and I have a sense of guilt for not attending lectures or doing enough study. I awake from these dreams in a sweat and with a deep sense of dread.

OK. Here is where I say, very Forrest Gump-like, that “life is a bit like that”. Yeah, it’s corny, I know. But life is a bit like being placed on the stage without a script and without any description of the character you are playing. No wonder, sometimes, life itself can fill us with dread. There is also a little of the “exam” feel about it: are we being tested in some way? What are the questions? What is the subject? Why didn’t I study harder?!

Sometimes, perhaps just as desperately, there is this sense of euphoria, when we let ourselves go, and trust that the right words and actions will flow from us at the appropriate time. So far so good. Or not so very bad, anyway.

And then there are the dreams in which I find myself naked in a public place. Or is that just me…?


Until midnight Sunday (Pacific Standard Time; 6:00 P.M. Monday, Australian Eastern Standard Time) my new novel, Angel's Harp, is FREE to download from Amazon. Don't miss out !

Friday, April 19, 2013

Just Another Day in Baghdad

It’s a strange world. A few days ago there were the bomb attacks in Boston. At least three people died, with almost 180 casualties. Everyone would agree that this was a terrible tragedy. Then, just yesterday, the explosion in the chemical plant in Texas. Official reports are saying that from 5 to 15 people were killed with up to 200 injured. I fear that the death toll will turn out to be much higher. Homes around the plant were flattened. Another terrible tragedy. And finally (if only!) 27 people were killed by a suicide bomber in a café in Baghdad. Another tragedy? I’d like to think that we think so.

Everyone would agree that the bombings in Boston were a completely unjustified, cowardly, criminal act. No “cause” could justify such an act. I can’t help thinking, however, that placing such a dangerous chemical plant so close to a residential area was also, at some level, criminal. Or was it just incredibly stupid? Or sensible from an economic perspective? Could any sensible business plan justify such an act? Or were the homes and nursing homes built there afterwards? In which case, stupidity multiplied.

And then Baghdad. Is it right that what happens in the USA is somehow more important than what happens in Iraq? Is it because the people in the USA are more “like us” that the event in the USA grabs our attention, while that in Iraq goes largely unnoticed? Actually, I think it’s because such incidents happen so rarely in the USA and other western countries that they affect us so much more. In Iraq and other parts of the Arab world, it’s just business as usual.

Let’s think about this for a moment. We are more affected by tragic, but rare, incidents in the USA and other western nations, than by tragic, but frequent, incidents in other nations. We have become used to such events in those countries; and it is only when it occurs somewhere else, and somewhere closer to us in cultural terms, that it really affects us. The people in the United States (and elsewhere) can be grateful that these tragic events are still rare enough to shock us, to make the headlines, and to dominate the news. In other countries of the world, this is just another day.

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To celebrate the release of my new novel, Angel's Harp, it will be FREE to download from Amazon for 48 hours from just after midnight Pacific Standard Time, Saturday April 20 - that's just after 6:00 P.M. Saturday April 20, Australian Eastern Standard Time (8:00 A.M. Saturday April 20, GMT). Don't miss out on your copy!



Thursday, April 18, 2013

Summer Holiday


This is an extract from a novel of which I have written a few chapters, but which may never see the light of day. I am working on something else now. On the other hand, it may resurface in another context at a later date. I thought it could almost stand alone as a short story, so here it is. The events described didn’t happen, but they might have.

*

They are somewhere in Wales. He hasn’t understood the name of the town. They are staying in a small, two-storey cottage, overgrown with ivy, a thatched roof in poor shape. At the rear is a small orchard, probably apples. A shed, somewhat dilapidated, contains gardening tools, a wheel barrow and a small push-along lawnmower. One side of the wooden shed has almost collapsed inwards, but a heavy, ancient armoire props it up from the inside.

Simon enjoys walking up the steep, narrow staircase to the bedroom that he will share with Sally. He almost doesn’t mind that, sharing; it is just so exciting to be there. Up the stairs, then down a step into the room. Ceiling sloping towards the deep window, that looks out over the orchard, towards the craggy hills beyond.

On the ground floor, the small, cosy lounge room. Dark heavy curtains, dark heavy furniture. Tall bookcases filled with books. A deep purple leather lounge suite. A step down from the passageway into the narrow kitchen with the flagstone floor and big old iron stove. Pots and pans hang from the ceiling. At the rear a sunroom, with wrought iron furniture, white paint flaking off, magazines strewn on table and chairs. Dead flies in the dusty corners.

On that first evening the children are all very excited and noisy. Their father brings out the game of Monopoly. He is a quiet man, dark of skin and hair, with a sharp nose bringing his face into focus. He likes to read, to himself and to the children. He sets out the Monopoly board on the coffee table, and the first argument is over who has which token.

“I’m the car,” claims Simon, predictably enough.

“No. I’m the car,” Sally naturally asserts her counterclaim.

“Here you are, then,” says Simon, laughing. “Because I really wanted to be the ship!”

Ian is too young to play, but is given the dog token and some money, to keep him happy. Their mother sits quietly in an armchair, her eyes closed, her hand at her forehead. Every so often, for no reason that he could have explained, Simon stands occasionally, rising from his crouched position on the floor, and runs around the room, through the narrow spaces between the weighty furniture.When he bumps the chair in which his mother is sitting, for perhaps the third time, she opens her eyes suddenly and snaps at him.

“I have a rotten bloody headache, for Chrissake. Doesn’t anybody care?”

“Were we supposed to guess?” says the father irritably. “Go and lie down for a while if it’s that bad. We’re just having some fun.”

“None of you care,” she snaps.

And they aren’t having fun any longer.


In the morning the sun shines brightly through the light curtains and wakes them early. They hear strange sounds – birds, sheep, cows, chickens – and giggle together. Sparrows, pigeons and starlings are all they really know from their life in the flat. And their cat, Timmy. There are smells, too, drifting in through the open window, as the breeze lifts the curtain.

“Pooh!” says Simon. “Is that you?” There is a chicken run in the orchard, and a goat tethered nearby. They giggle some more.

Later, Simon and Sally are playing together down towards the back of the orchard. They are climbing trees and challenging each other to jump from the branches, higher each time. At the moment, the boy is climbing out along a branch that slopes upwards, so that, when he has crawled as far as he thinks the branch will still hold him, he is probably seven or eight feet from the ground. It is a long drop, and he quails slightly, doubt battling with an obstinate refusal to retreat.

“Simon, be careful. You don’t have to do it. You’ve already gone higher than I would.” His sister actually sounds concerned.

“It’s ok. I can do it.”

He thinks about crawling back meekly along the branch and lowering himself to the ground. Instead, he stands on the branch, which yields slightly under his weight, steadying himself using the branches above. It is curious, what he notices all of a sudden from this vantage point. For instance, the dust and pollen and insects adrift in the shafts of sunlight penetrating through the branches; the buzz of bees; distant traffic on the highway; the smell of crushed grass; an old nest in the branch just above his head; the engine of a tractor two or three fields away; also not very far away, the bleating of a late-season lamb.

He holds his breath and jumps. In the suspended time he sees the look, first of annoyance, then of horror, on his sister’s face, as she follows his trajectory. She raises a hand to her open mouth, then partly extends an arm towards him, as if the thought of catching him or breaking his fall has crossed her mind.

He lands heavily on his feet and the air leaves his lungs in a rush. But, being slightly overbalanced, he tips forward, thrusting out his arms to protect himself. The left arm takes most of the impact, and there is a sound like that of a young tree branch snapping. He manages to rise to his feet, pushing with his right arm, and looks with surprise at his other arm, which bends strangely a short way above the wrist. Then he turns very pale.

His sister comes to his side. To her credit, she does not say, “Are you alright?” Clearly, he is not.

“Cripes! Can you walk? Shall I get help?” She appears torn between leaving him and quickly getting help, or staying with him and walking slowly back to the cottage. The problem solves itself when he slumps to the ground and starts sobbing and groaning. “I’ll be right back.” She sprints away, calling for their mother and father.

For the remainder of the holiday he wears his cast with pride, and decides not to hate his sister quite as much for a while.

*

My new novel, one that is actually finished, is Angel’s Harp, and will be available soon. Watch this space.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Coming Soon: Angel’s Harp


My new novel will be released on Amazon and Createspace sometime over the next week or so. I am still tinkering with a few small issues. It will be available on Smashwords at a later date, as I will be enrolling it initially in Amazon’s Kindle Direct Program for a while, so that I can offer some free promotions.

It is called Angel’s Harp, and the blurb is as follows:

"The bonds in molecules vibrate too, making endless symphonies. Each molecule is a little angel's harp." Thus writes the young Alan to Beth. Beth whom he has never met, but who lived in the house next door fifteen years earlier. Alan and Melanie growing up in an Australian suburb in the 1960s/70s; Beth growing up in the same suburb in the 1940s/50s. What strange orchestration weaves their lives together? And how will the final chord be resolved?

Exploring themes from spirituality, to sexual awakening, to psychosis, the story gently leads the reader from the circumscribed world of the child, through the anguished teenage years, to the world of the adult, when everything should begin to make sense. Shouldn’t it? Follow Alan Carter as he struggles to discern the meaning and patterns of his life, while the forces that compose the music of the universe roll on relentlessly.


And here is the opening page or so:

*

It was an indulgence, perhaps. A scattering to the wind of money he might well have dispensed more wisely. But it had evolved into far more than a holiday. It had become a kind of pilgrimage, a journey into healing. Or so he hoped. He might almost be able to believe in something again. In what wasn’t yet clear. In humanity? In God? In himself?

He had seen all that he had hoped to see, and more. Stonehenge at dawn on the summer solstice, listening to Sonnenaufgang from Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Starry Night in Amsterdam, in the Van Gogh Museum, when by sheer chance it happened to be on loan from New York for a few months. Holbein’s dead, so very dead, Christ at the Kunstmuseum in Basel. The magnificent Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica. This and much, much more. And so it was that he arrived at last in Florence, the final leg of his trip before returning to Rome and flying from Fiumicino back to Australia. Already, that morning, he had stood in awe before Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Uffizi. Now, the Accademia.

He had not expected it, turning the corner. Of course he had expected to see the statue, the magnificent David, but he had not expected this. Even from this distance, before it loomed above him, before he saw the echoes of light on the smooth marble curves. Before he became aware of the oddly small penis and the too-large head. Even from back here, seeing it framed by the narrowing perspective of the gallery walls, he felt the tug, the gut-wrenching tug. An enormous hand, perhaps the statue’s own overlarge hand, had seized his sinews and begun to pluck, to pluck a melody in which beauty and pain were one. It terrified him. Each vibration killed him, brought him to life, and killed him again. Life and death were just two halves of the same oscillation.

When Alan Carter finally boarded the flight back to Australia, he was hopeful – not certain, but hopeful – that he was again in the lifeward phase of the oscillation. Except that it was no longer quite so easy to tell them apart, life and death.

*
  
The story has a sting in the tail, and I’m sure you will enjoy it.

And here is a sneak peek at the cover:

Be sure to keep an eye on this blog for more information about when it is ready to go, and when you will be able to get your free copy.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Bombing


I don’t like writing a blog on days like this, following a tragedy like the bombings in Boston yesterday. Everything I write, everything I do feels somehow trivial. But my deepest sympathy goes out to all those who were in Boston yesterday, to those who were killed or injured in the blasts, and to their families and friends. In addition to the individuals injured, there is also the injury to what an event like the Boston marathon represents. It is a symbol of the human spirit, ever determined to meet challenges. There are also the many charitable and community events associated with it.

What happens next is so very important. I wish those with the responsibility of identifying the perpetrators every success. It is vital that they do their job thoroughly. Above all I urge them and all of us to avoid pointing the finger at nebulous organisations as the perpetrators. This can be used so easily to justify any kind of retaliatory action, anytime, anywhere. We all know that this has happened in the past. Specific people, with specific names organised and carried out this attack. If the bombers died, no doubt many of the organisers still live. It is important that these precise people be identified and brought to justice. Only then can justice, real justice, be done, and be seen to be done.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Literary Conceit


I received the report back yesterday about the new novel I hope to publish soon. I had sent it away to be assessed, much as I assess manuscripts for others (at lower rates, by the way). It was a thoughtful if fairly brief report. I will indulge myself by quoting this brief section of the report here:

            Logic, Character, Dialogue, Voice/POV, Title
All the usual categories need no address, only to say they are consummately handled. We already know you are a writer of unusually subtle skills, Philip, from your previous work.

Of course, he made some useful and challenging observations about this particular novel that I now need to address. Mostly these concern ways in which to make it more marketable. It is written in a particular style and with a particular form that I think works, I hope works, but which might be difficult to sell to readers. Of course, I cannot discuss this in detail here. But it was another comment that really caught my attention. He wrote that “the contemporary market ... allows little latitude for literary conceits and has almost no interest in form.” Here is where I come unstuck.

I love form, and I love “literary conceits” which, translated into my own language, means art and creativity. Perhaps it is old-fashioned, and perhaps it is difficult to market, but I maintain the belief that writing is, or at least can be, an art form. Consider another form of writing: poetry. This is very unfashionable, and extremely difficult to market, but, hopefully, there will always be poets among us. Prose, too, is or can be an art form. I love using words to create, as well as to tell a story. Words are, for me, what musical notes are for the composer, and brush strokes for the painter. I may not be very good at this, but that is another question. It will always be my intention when writing, not only to tell a story, but to create a work of art, which often requires “form” and “literary conceit”. Is this indeed a conceit? Probably. Should I be giving readers what they want to read, rather than writing what I want to write? Perhaps. Almost certainly yes, if I want to make money from this. 

I know this will sound pretentious, but I don’t usually read to be entertained. Sometimes I do, but most often I do not. I don’t read to be entertained, any more than I look at a painting by Leonardo da Vinci or Botticelli, or listen to music by Mozart, or read a book by James Joyce, to be entertained. At least not in a superficial sense. Similarly, it is not my intention to entertain or distract people with my writing. This is not about how good I may or may not be as a writer. Others will have to judge that. But they need to be judging by the correct criteria. If I am going to fail as a writer, it is going to be while striving to be a James Joyce, or a Patrick White, or a John Steinbeck, not while striving to be a J.K. Rowling , or a Dan Brown, or a Frederick Forsyth. There is nothing at all wrong with what these writers do. They provide entertainment for millions of readers. I simply have no desire to write as they write. When I do read to be entertained it is to fantasy and science fiction that I turn, and I don’t expect to find form and literary conceit there. But when I do, from time to time, it is an added bonus. When it comes to mysteries and other genre, I would rather watch the movie. But would I rather watch a movie version of East of Eden? Most definitely not. It is the words I want: the form and the literary conceit.

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Future of History


I wonder, sometimes, how people are going to be able to write histories and biographies in the future. The age of the electronic media is going to make that more difficult, I think. Or is it?

In days gone by, if I wanted to write a biography about someone, I would consult, among other things, their letters, and possibly their journal. People would keep the letters that they received from someone, and these would later feed the biographer’s hunger. Are you keeping all the emails that a (soon-to-be-famous) person has sent to you? Are you storing away their tweets, their SMS messages? Are you keeping all of your own, across several changes of computer and telephone? Will I, as a biographer, be required to trawl through someone’s Facebook page to extract relevant information? Will there be some kind of lasting blog record of their life? What about photographs? I think we are deluding ourselves if we think that the digital age has facilitated the preservation of a photographic record of someone’s life. How many photographs that you have taken will survive for a year, ten years, a hundred years? I know I have lost many digital photographs over the years. I have no negative from which to make another print. Will future generations even be able to read whatever device our photographs are stored on? I apologise for this avalanche of rhetorical questions.

Information on electronic media, as abundant, valuable and useful as it is, is ephemeral and vulnerable in a way that information stored on paper, film or other physical media is not. It is difficult to accidentally delete or record over a film, a photograph or a letter. Of course such things can be lost; but so can electronic media. Where did I leave that memory stick? I am reminded that the problem of confidentiality is also much more acute in the electronic media. A document in my desk drawer is in no danger of being stolen by someone half way around the world.

The job of the biographer or the historian of the future may or may not be made more difficult by the dominance of the electronic media during this age. It will certainly be different.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

SUV: "Screw U Vehicle"


When did they first start calling suburban tanks SUVs? I remember hearing the term for the first time (but can’t recall precisely when) and wondering what it stood for. Stupid Unnecessary Vehicle? Screw U Vehicle? I thought I had misunderstood, at first, when I heard someone say that it stood for “sport utility vehicle”. Then I realised that the marketing people had pulled off an amazing coup by completely redefining two perfectly good English words. Because neither the word “sport” nor the word “utility” could in any meaningful way be applied to these suburban tanks.

There is another term for these vehicles in Australia: Toorak Tractor. For those who don’t know, Toorak is one of the wealthier suburbs of Melbourne. The Toorak Tractor is the “off road” vehicle for people who are never likely to see mud or dust. The closest it will get to being “off road” is when they park it on the lawn to wash it – or, at least, when “the help” washes it.

I drive a little Ford Fiesta. I’m no Ford fan, or a fan of any other brand, for that matter. But it’s a useful little car that gets me from A to B without much trouble. The word “utility” comes to mind. It’s useful, without being flashy. The problem is being able to find it in the shopping centre car park, surrounded, as it almost always is, by a wall of Toorak Tractors. And I probably don’t need to tell you about the problem of backing out from between them. Edge backwards a little. Hope and pray. Edge back a little further. Hope that whoever might be driving down the lane way towards me will have the grace to let me out. Hoping that it is not another SUV, which might drive over me, mistaking me for a speed bump.

I am thinking of carrying a bucket of mud in the car with me, to throw over some of those massive shiny tractors.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Musical Awakening


How many of you remember, I wonder, those seven-inch diameter, black plastic disks, with a hole in the centre and wiggly grooves cut into the surface, that we used to lay on a device to make them spin? We would place a needle - with a diamond at the tip if we were in the money, a sapphire if times were tough – into the grooves, and, as if by magic, with some accompanying crackles and clicks, music would emerge! Later, when I had a little more money, I would graduate to larger, twelve inch disks. For a while, though, I had only enough money for the smaller variety.

And the first black plastic disk I bought? Well, I can’t actually remember which came first, but among them was Riders on the Storm, the last single released by The Doors before Jim Morrison’s death. Another very early purchase was Sweet Hitch-Hiker by Creedence Clearwater Revival, also one of their later recordings. I had just missed out on these bands at their peak. I would have to revisit their work later. Signs, a little known song by the little known Canadian band Five Man Electrical Band, was an example of that soon-to-be-extinct species, the protest song. I awoke into musical awareness at the end of an era: I had missed my true time. The Beatles had broken up. Jefferson Airplane were on their last legs. Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin (not to mention Jim Morrison) were dead. Dylan’s best days were behind him. Clapton was lost in a heroin haze. Woodstock was fading into history. Crocodile Rock, by Elton John, gave a fair indication of the direction music would take in the seventies.

If I had been born five years earlier, I might have been able to enjoy the latter half of the sixties. Of course, I would be five years older now, so I am not too disappointed. When was your musical awakening?



For the price of a Big Mac: Maybe they'll remember me

Thursday, April 11, 2013

"He started it!"


“He started it!”
“It’s not fair!”
“It’s not my fault!”

I’m sure we all remember using phrases like these in the schoolyard, or among our siblings – or having them used against us! They signal a growing awareness of moral issues in the young mind, although at this stage, that young mind is very self-centred. Fair is what the world and other people should be towards me, not what I should be towards the world and other people. Sharing is what other people should do with their goodies, not what I should do with mine. We have some rudimentary sense of justice – he started it, so he deserves this back. We also have some rudimentary sense of responsibility – although it is always someone else’s fault, not ours.

These statements represent beginnings in the growth towards moral maturity, at war with our innate selfishness. But they are only beginnings. Later in life we learn that “who started it?” is an almost impossible question to answer. The chain of cause and effect goes back a long way. No one – and everyone – started it. As we grow, we learn that even fairness does not always seem fair. Is “affirmative action” fair? Probably not, when viewed by the schoolboy in the schoolyard; but perhaps from a broader temporal and cultural perspective it will be seen to be fair. Fairness, after all, is not simply about the equality of numbers. The concept of fault becomes very messy when we start looking at mitigating circumstances, at the effects of a person’s history, or the influence of society, on an individual’s actions. It is even messier when we consider the actions of collective entities such as nations.

Suddenly, when we mature, ethics and morality become so much more complicated. Perhaps we also succeed in disentangling them from the innate self-centredness of the child. It becomes possible to conceive of such things as “self-sacrifice”, “the greater good”, “reciprocal altruism” and even “delayed gratification”.

On the other hand, perhaps it is easier to remain stuck in the schoolyard.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

To hate, or not to hate

Sometimes people do things to us that make us angry or hurt us. In fact, people do this very often. Always the pain and anger are very real, and are not to be denied. Sometimes our pain and anger is appropriate, and in proportion to the perceived insult and injury; sometimes they are disproportionate, perhaps because we have already been injured in some other way. Either way, the pain and anger cannot be ignored, or simply brushed aside.

It can take a long time to recover from some injuries; sometimes we never fully recover. Some responses are more helpful and constructive than others. Lashing out in retaliation, although the impulse is difficult to resist, and acting on it may make us feel good in the short term, is rarely of any benefit in the long term. More often than not it simply leads to an escalating cascade of violence and recrimination. It adds to our own injury; it can harm us more deeply than the original injury.

It is understandable that we sometimes feel hatred for someone who has caused us serious harm. But this hatred itself can seriously harm us as we try to live our lives. It holds us back, and prevents painful injuries from healing. It becomes a festering cancer within us. Some people construct their entire lives around such a knot of hatred. Most importantly, it allows the person who injured us, often long dead by now, to continue to maintain a strong hold over our lives. They continue to control us, to set the pattern for our lives, even long after they have completely forgotten the incident themselves; even from beyond the grave.

There is no need to forgive someone for a hurt they have done to you, if by forgiveness we imply in any way that their action can be excused, or that they should not be held accountable for their deeds. We should not forgive, if this belittles the magnitude of their offence. What we do need to do, however, is sever their emotional hold over us. As long as we feel an emotion as strong as hatred for someone who has harmed us, we are permitting them to continue to harm us. By all means bring people to justice, to answer for their crimes. By all means, work to see them pay for their crimes. By all means keep the memory of their crimes alive. But let go of the hatred. They do not deserve such power over you.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thatcher’s death “celebrated”

I was just reading on a news website about the death of Margaret Thatcher, at the age of 87. She was ever a woman to create divisions of opinion; but whichever side of the divide you happen to fall on, it can hardly be denied that she had an enormous impact on the last two decades of the twentieth century (and beyond). Her influence has extended well beyond Britain, with, even today, both sides of Australian politics continuing something of the Thatcherite legacy.

What caused my jaw to drop, when reading the article on the ABC (Australia) website, was the following:

the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher has been welcomed by her critics, who say she damaged parts of the country;

and, further down the page, this:

About 200 Brixton residents celebrated the news of her death by drinking and dancing to hip-hop and reggae songs blaring from sound systems.

Now few people could find themselves more ideologically opposed to Margaret Thatcher than myself, but this sentiment is both sick and stupid. It would be different if she were a living dictator, whose death led to the liberation of an oppressed people. I might still think that such celebrations were misguided, but I could at least understand the sense of relief and joy, the desire to celebrate a new freedom (potential freedom, at least). But the woman hasn’t been in power for about 23 years! Get over it, people!

I don’t know enough about the specifics of Thatcher’s time of rule to be able to comment intelligently on any of her specific measures. However, I have no doubt that, as much as people prefer to see things in black and white (this spares them the need to think too much), her legacy includes both good and bad elements. It’s far too simple (and simplistic) to thoroughly demonise her.

No matter what harm Thatcher might have inflicted on some people by some of her policies, her death does not deserve to be celebrated in this way. There is no excuse for it. She was still a human being; she still has family and friends who no doubt cared for her deeply. This kind of celebration says much more about the sickness in the hearts of those who celebrate than it does about Margaret Thatcher.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Some Sense at Last


I was very pleased to hear, yesterday, that the US had decided to postpone a missile test scheduled for tomorrow. Whether or not this proposed test had anything to do with the current head banging with North Korea (which it probably didn’t, directly) this kind of prudence is very welcome. While North Korea is like a schoolyard bully whose behavior is spiralling out of control, it is important that someone keeps a cool head. Regardless of the intent behind a US missile launch, the North Korean government would certainly have viewed it as a further provocation, or, at least, sold it to its people in that way. If the North Korean leadership now jumps up and down waving its spears and trumpeting to its people that, see, they have been able to force the US to back down, so be it. Let them do their little victory dance. Ignore it.

More than once, I have been alone in a small office with someone whose behavior was spiralling out of control. The best thing is always to remain calm and speak reasonably – easier said than done, I know. But if you don’t, if you respond in an angry or even frightened way, the other person seems to feed off this energy, with potentially explosive consequences. Staying calm and reasonable may not always work, but it is better than the alternative. If you don’t feed the person, it becomes, for them, rather like punching a marshmallow. They have to feed their own energy, and that is more difficult. You become a circuit breaker, a wave dampener.

So, well done to those who made the decision not to test that missile

Sunday, April 7, 2013

"It's life, Jim, but not as we know it."


Ever since I was a young boy I have enjoyed science fiction, and speculating about the kind of life that we might encounter in the wider universe. That there would be life on other planets has never really been in question for me. Matter has an inbuilt capacity to generate patterns and complexity. Some of these patterns fall into configurations that result in self-duplication, and the passing on of information. Our definition of life is inevitably based on the process of information exchange and self-duplication that has evolved on this planet. There may be a vast number of other ways in which this can be achieved; so life may take forms that we would not even recognize as such.

I grew up with Doctor Who and Star Trek on the TV; then 2001: A Space Odyssey at the cinema. I devoured Asimov, Clark and Heinlein. Not surprisingly, even my musical tastes were affected by this: I fell in love with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

I have always been more interested in what I suppose would be called “speculative” science fiction, than that which I would describe as “cowboys and Indians” science fiction. In other words, I like my science fiction to have a philosophical/ethical edge, rather than being about battles and adventures. Some of the latter is fine, as long as it is within a more speculative framework. I suppose I share with Gene Rodenberry this insatiable desire to envision the future. If I had a time machine, it would be to the future that I was bound, not to the past. Not the near future, however, and certainly not my own future. My dreams are of the most remote times and places, the more removed from the here and now the better.

Speculation about alien intelligence and alien civilizations seems to oscillate between extremes. On the one hand, these civilizations are seen as a threat to our own. The aliens are irredeemably hostile and, well, alien. This extends our current human fear of the different, the alien, even on our own planet. These kinds of science fiction stories usually end up as “good guys/bad guys” stories, and are just extensions of this genre into other times and places. Generally, human beings are the “good guys”. At the other extreme of the pole, alien beings and civilisations assume an almost godlike stature: they are vastly more advanced and morally superior to us. This seems to satisfy the religious craving within human nature, trying to hide itself under the guise of super technology or super evolution.

One thing is certain: if human beings ever do encounter other beings and civilizations out there (and I would love for that to happen in my life time), whatever they might be like, we will still be ourselves. That should give all of us (and you out there, if you are listening) pause.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

It's raining, it's pouring...

I live in the wet tropics, in far north Queensland, so it’s just as well that I like rain. I love the sound of rain on the tin roof. Sometimes, when I am sitting in my study, I can hear the rain approaching. At first a distant sound that could be traffic on the road or wind in the trees. Then, the unmistakable sound of rain on the sea of tin roofs that surround me, growing louder. And finally the rain on my own roof: a rising crescendo as first the edge of the shower passes by, and then the main body hits with full force. Sometimes the rain reaches such torrential proportions that before long even the deep gutters in the road cannot contain the flow. The water rises to the edge of the small step at the front door. Fortunately it spills over at another point before it can enter the house. Occasionally a small creek runs through the patio area, when the swimming pool breaches its confines.

The roof gutters cannot deal with the heaviest of downpours. The rain overflows, creating a curtain of water surrounding the house on several sides. The patio is enclosed by a fine mesh insect screen, and on one side, the water cascades down the mesh – we could not have designed such a feature.

Those of you used to a cold wet winter, knowing how unpleasant it is to walk in the rain, will find it difficult to appreciate the joy of walking through the rain on a day of 30°C+, wearing only a T-shirt and shorts. Then the sun comes out and sucks the moisture back into the air.

The dry season in Cairns is beautiful: sunny, 25°C+, no rain in sight. But it is the Big Wet that I really love, watching and hearing nature toss itself into the fray with complete abandon.

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For the price of a Big Mac: Maybe they'll remember me

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Cutting Remark


I don’t like having my haircut.

First of all, it seems like a terribly intimate thing for a complete stranger to be doing to me: removing bits of my body. Ok, dead bits, but still! Well, not strictly dead: non-living. It never was living. But still! They are touching my head, moving me this way and that.

And they are talking to me. This too is a terribly intimate thing for a complete stranger to be doing to me! And I maintain that they are complete strangers, because I have my hair cut as rarely as possible. Even if it is the same person again, they will not remember me. Usually it is not the same person, because I go to one of those really cheap, quick hairdressers, and the staff turnover is pretty high. So they ask me questions, and I try to answer, but pretty soon the conversation withers. So now I am imprisoned in an uncomfortable silence with a complete stranger. They will think I am unfriendly and dull. The fact that I am unfriendly and dull is beside the point. It hurts that (yet another) complete stranger thinks so.

Before even the touching and (non-)talking begins, there is the terrifying question: How would you like it cut? “Well,” my usual response is, in an attempt at the same pathetic joke that I always try, and which, no doubt they have heard from thousands of people before, “shorter.” What else am I supposed to say? It’s what I want. I am really boring when it comes to hair. I just want it shorter because, at the moment, it is too long. It gets untidy when it is too long. It grows frizzy bits. It’s quicker and easier to wash when it’s short. It doesn’t get untidy in the wind. I know that untidy seems to be popular at the moment, and that achieving just the right appearance of untidiness requires a great deal of skill and costs a great deal of money. But untidiness is not for me, at least as far as my hair is concerned. And my untidiness would almost certainly be precisely the wrong kind of untidiness. No. Simple and low maintenance is for me.

So eventually they show me the final product, back and front, and I make suitable grunting noises and smiley shapes with my mouth. Then I pay, relieved to have that over with, and at not having to go through it all again for several months.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

When you're smiling...

And now for something completely different. My last few posts have been a little on the dark side. Indeed, that was the title of one of them, and “dark” was also in the title of another. So what can I talk about today that is a little lighter and brighter?

Smiling. That’s what I will talk about. It’s funny how in human beings, the upturning of the corners of the mouth, and perhaps even opening the mouth and showing the teeth, is seen as a sign of friendship and happiness. In chimps it seems to be more a sign of fear or anxiety. But then, we, too, have a nervous or embarrassed smile. Smiles, even in humans, serve more than one purpose. We smile when we are relaxed and happy. Perhaps we smile when we are nervous or anxious to create a state of relaxation and happiness. This would be a kind of bio-feedback, in which our outward action has an impact on our emotional state, rather than simply expressing it. I have tried that, sometimes, when I have been feeling a bit low: make the facial expression of a smile, which my body associates with happiness, joy and pleasure, and perhaps my emotions will respond. And it works… kind of… a little bit… sometimes. It doesn’t hurt, anyway. It’s good to keep the smile muscles exercised. I have seen people who seem to have lost the capacity to smile. I’m sure, with lack of exercise, those muscles become as weak as any other.

Smiles are also astonishingly contagious. It is difficult not to smile, when someone smiles at you. Perhaps this is just politeness, but I like to think not. I think the other person’s smile triggers, in a small way in us, the feelings that smiling usually expresses. In this case another person’s facial expression is influencing my emotional state. Perhaps this also tells us something about the evolution of the smile in human beings. If, in chimpanzees, it expresses anxiety, perhaps it is not a huge step from there for it to express appeasement in the presence of a potential threat, i.e., the other person. The other person responds in kind, and so each realises that the other is also anxious; perhaps an important step towards détente.

Perhaps this is also why we often avoid another person’s gaze as we are walking down the street. Eye contact can be threatening, in itself. But seeing another person’s smile would disarm us in a way that we would rather avoid. Heaven forbid that we should see our bitter enemy smile at us! How could we shoot them if they did?

Are there some cultures in which smiling is more prevalent than in others? There are almost certainly cultural differences. And it is even possible to misunderstand a smile within our own culture. We might, for example, mistake an embarrassed smile for a smile expressing pleasure or happiness. In some cultures, smiling may be linked more closely to embarrassment than to happiness. We might involuntarily smile or laugh in the presence of someone else’s misfortune, and they might think that we are smiling or laughing at their misfortune. But really we are only expressing our own discomfort.

Yet there are few things more likely to make me smile (and I smile even thinking about it) than a broad, open smile on the face of another, expressing joy, happiness and pleasure.

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