Category Archives: Uncategorized
I can’t Breath
I cannot respire
Fast enough to inhale
All the perfume
I desire hanging
On my short cycle
Under a stand of trees
Are we learning Newspeak as we speak?
George Orwell’s masterpiece novel is 70 years old this week.
I first read it thirty years ago, when 1984 was already a year in the past. But it was clearly then a warning to be vigilant, to watch Big Brother and ensure He/It/They didn’t take over our little part of Oceania (though Ireland doesn’t even get a mention as Airstrip Two, or something).
Yet, despite the fall of the Iron Curtain five years after its setting it’s become more relevant as time goes on.
Orwell had lived the experience of seeing the ideals of the common man being twisted, controlled and eventually stymied by a stronger power, which pretends to be helping, often with propaganda as one of the main weapons. Consider the attempts to halt climate change, pollution, corruption, environmental destruction over the years since the 1960s. They were as effective as the efforts to overthrow communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Hopefully the current demonstrations from #fridays4future and #extinctionrebellion will have better success, because we can’t afford wait till capitalism collapses under its own weight – predicted to happen soon enough but not before it causes ecological collapse.
The emission of a reality TV series called Big Brother brought the book to the consciousness of a mass of viewers who’d never read as voraciously as some of us do.
And yet, how frivolous a use of the term. How cosy we were in thinking we had control of how we were being observed, could opt in to 24/7 scrutiny for a few weeks in the hope of winning cash prizes and/or fame.
I’ve not read the book again since I was fifteen (I very rarely read a book twice), but recently I’ve been teaching students about dystopias and I’ve watched clips of the John Hurt movie version, which bring it back into focus like a slap to the face.
When I tell the kids where the reality TV show name comes from they’re surprised, but what’s more astounding is the ease with which we have allowed Big Brother (Big Business, Big Data) to take over our lives, to actually scrutinise us more than the TV cameras do on that show.
Though we don’t pause to consider it much, now They can look into our thoughts, from our daily choices and actions in a real setting, not on some TV set.
And I’ve started wondering if we aren’t already starting to use NewSpeak.
At first, we did it to ourselves, since people stopped writing letters to one another, as well as a decline in reading.
Then, when phone texting became a thing, we started shortening words and changing spelling to fit more words in, and speed up messaging. We also started choosing simpler words rather than more complex ones.
Now, though, Big Brother is doing it.
Just like Big Data has figured out that predicting our choices is easier when They are in fact guiding us – as seen in the Pokemon go game – so, I think, predictive text on our phones (and the suggested replies suddenly appearing on our emails nowadays) is designed to do the same to our thoughts: to direct them, shorten them, prune the word selection until we are saying the same thing again and again, using only the few words They tell us to. Eventually, the sentences They construct for us will be considered good enough. We will write what They suggest we write. And, as Orwell so vividly explained, we will think how They want us to think. Simply.
Is there any remedy against this trimming of our mental faculties?
Read the book.
Read the book again (I plan to this summer) and again, and read more books in general.
I was in the Basque speaking area of Navarra last weekend, up in the hills.
We went to visit a museum made by a very interesting guy called Iñaki Perurena, whose famous in the region for having Guinness World Records for lifting stones, among other things.
He has some amazing sculptures and lots of interesting paintings of characters from Basque Mythology on huge rocks dotted through the woods.
The Basques have a lot of strange characters that live in the woods. A much richer diversity than the simple fairy and leprechauns of Ireland, to be honest.
They have a type of Faun, mermaids, goblins, their own Santa Claus character, a cyclops, giants…
And…. another creature who you might bump into while walking the woods in such remote areas where houses are separated by large tracts of land, and visiting your neighbour involves a trek up a mountain.
Gizotso, is werewolf in Basque, and is said to be an extremely strong savage beast that lives in the woods and is made by sexual intercourse between humans and wild animals.
I’ve a long-held interest in werewolves, of course, and my kids speak Basque in school, but I’d not heard of this particular thread of the great tapestry of werewolf tales.
It’s fascinating how many different versions there are of this story. One of the things that unite all human societies are the similarities in our fireside tales of others who live just outside the light spread by our hearths. And the werewolf is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all, more than even the dragon.
At the same time, it’s disturbing how easily every society can alienate others and reduce them to the status of “savage animals.”
Perhaps it not so difficult to see how such stories of werewolves can spring forth in our imagination from simple ingredients such as deep woods, woodland dwellers, people we don’t like, and people we desire.
Of course, nowadays, nobody believes in werewolves.
My son is three and a big fan of animals. We read a lot of animal books… He’s seen lots of animals on the farm and in the zoo. But others, well, let’s say we haven’t bumped into them yet.
The Hedgehog and the Tiger
Flipping through children’s books, each
Bucolic page fairy-tale picturesque:
Rare as hen’s teeth to see a hen in
The same frame as a cow or pig;
More common to see the cage. A
Cow in a sunlit meadow would
Count its blessings if it could ken
Cattle mass confined in feeding pens.
Yet, becoming just as false are
Pictures of our wildlife: brilliant
Butterflies and ladybirds, snails
Spiralling, to lions and giraffes,
Explaining to our children, the
Tiger and elephant, zebra and gnu,
Knowing at least they’ll watch the
Lion King, and visit the zoo, where
These species might cling to existence
In spite of our infantile delight in
Destroying our environment. But
What of furry foxes, squirrels,
Badgers and newts, other cute
Denizens of our hedgerows and
Fields? How do we describe these?
Who’s seen a hedgehog in a decade,
Or ever encountered an otter
Of an evening? May as well have an
Irish mole on the page, a polecat, or
Mink, for all the meeting and greeting
Our kids will have with these as
They disappear from all around us,
Unseen and unobserved, unremarked
And impossible to explain when asked.
I wrote this poem a few weeks ago. I was reminded of it the other day when my wife read an headline about Barcelona Zoo, which is going to change after the city council decided it would have to end reproduction of animals not endangered nor capable of being released into the wild. The number of species will dwindle as individuals die or are moved out. Considering the above, perhaps some wild animals that we citizens never bump into any more would be useful for the folks of Barcelona to become familiar with. Perhaps soon enough those once familiar small mammals will be endangered themselves…
In light of the UN report on species extinction just unveiled, many people are talking about how worrying it is that we have so many species close to the brink of annihilation due to our activities.
And at the same time, it’s hard to move people towards doing very much in the way of helping reverse the trend.
Nature is seen as something outside our own environments, nowadays. It’s an abstract idea, or at best something we visit. We’ve become used to not having it especially present in our daily lives. Even a fly entering a classroom is viewed as an event.
And because we’ve gotten used to living without nature, we don’t value it very much, and often see it as an inconvenience.
Where we do allow it to exist in our city, it must be controlled and tidy.
Pamplona is a very green city, with plenty of parks and farmland around us, and mountains visible from almost every street, yet even here, wildlife must conform. The ducks in the park have few places to nest because any undergrowth is cleared, the scrub needed to house any other birds than pigeons, sparrows, magpies and a few blackbirds is practically non-existent outside building lots left abandoned until the apartments pop up in new neighbourhoods.
Take a simple city lawn. As soon as the dandelions bloom it’s time to mow. Citizens complain if the city is slow to mow, since the seed heads look untidy.
I passed a lawn full of dandelions, daisies and clover yesterday.
There wasn’t a bee to be seen. The horse chestnut trees are blooming right now, their scent amazing. But there are very few bees to be seen or heard pollenating them.
Coincidentally, upon arriving home, my neighbours warned me of a swarm which had just settled on the Persian blinds of a nearby (empty) flat, and were going to call the city council to come and remove them. It’s all right having some bees up high in a tree, but down here amongst the houses, they induce fear.
I don’t know where bees used to live in cities, but there were more of them, and they must have lived somewhere. Now, though most people appreciate the work of bees, a hive is only acceptable outside our daily surroundings.
The local newspaper has been busy talking about a bear recently released in France which has the temerity to enter Navarra and attack some sheep flocks. The bears have declined in the western part of the Pyrenees to such an extent that only two males, father and son survive. Two females from Slovenia are hoped to start saving the population, but bears are only tolerated if they stay well away from humans and their buildings.
There might be some basic understanding that bears should not go extinct in the Pyrenees, though they are close to that right now. Bears are still tolerated in the Picos de Europa, further west of Navarra, but here the local farmers’ union is opposed to this attempt and recovering/rewildling/conservation/call-it-what-you-like-putting-bears-ahead-of-sheep.
The first photo is today’s back page of the local paper. I will translate the last few lines… the farmers union call on the Navarra Government to ….. “demand the French authorities cease their actions of reintroducing a wild species in a humanized terrain. “We are not in Yellowstone,” they conclude.
What else can one say about that?
Nothing comes to mind that I could print in that paper.
Bears, you might say, are a pretty big nuisance when they want to be.
They kill sheep, which, whatever one’s personal opinions of them, are the basis of a type of farming that some still cling to. And I will grant that, despite my immediate question as to how they’re alive and thriving in Asturias and Slovenia – surely they’re an inconvenience there, but a tolerated one, by farmers who are used to doing a bit more work to look after their stock.
And yet, another iconic species is also slowly disappearing in Navarra, according to the same local paper.
Now, doesn’t love storks?
They bring us babies, they don’t attack sheep…
Because they are annoying, inconvenient.
Or at least, their nests are.
So nests are destroyed in the towns and cities where they’ve traditionally nested. Some have made nests in large trees, where these are still available – it’s common for mature trees to be heavily pruned in cities, and really old ones are felled as soon as they show signs of rot for fear of falling and causing damage or injury.
And a pair that can’t build a nest is a pair that has to go elsewhere, or doesn’t breed.
There are seven fewer pairs than last year, for a total of 939.
There are many reasons for our ecosystems collapsing. Wilful destruction, wilful ignorance, and wilful rejection of any inconvenience it might mean to our lives. The last is what most of us will be guilty of.
Thoughts on seeing a recently-cleaned water pond on Saint Patrick’s Day
On a Sunday, the seventeenth, I went for a walk in the countryside about the village.
I walked along the hedges, trimmed now in March before the birds came come along and put a fly in a farmer’s plans.
I paused over an old walled water pond, for the vegetable plot, to perhaps look upon a frog, or salamander.
It was scrubbed clean. The concrete pale below the clear water reflecting the crystal blue.
Not a boatman stroked across the surface, ne’er a leaf lay upon the bottom to hide a frog or newt.
For what would a farmer do with silt? A streamlined machine these fields, these springs,
And cleanliness is next to godliness, of course. The wild world was sterilised of sprits in favour of clean sheets.
The dragons were already gone before Saint Patrick stepped upon a snake.
A day will come when none of us will see one, no matter where we seek.
Of course, the day seems to be coming faster than we feared, with the new UN report about to come out today, Monday, declaring that a million species are about to go extinct if we don’t turn this shit, sorry ship, around toot sweet, as they say.
Which is terribly hard to tell your kids when they ask at the age of eight.
I wrote a blog post – a poem, really – about watching the planet from a distance. We sometimes think that what we have around us is of utmost importance, but it’s probably not, it’s just a jot in time.
Well, as I read the book, Against the Grain, and I see that civilisations fall almost as often as they spring up from the sweat of their subjects. I am feeling less attached to this one we are currently living in.
The history of our planet is basically people doing bad things to other people and species to keep themselves in the lap of luxury if at all possible.
The last century is an anomaly in giving any power (superficial though of course it is) to the common man (or woman, if she’s really lucky.)
If we see all the stuff written about past civilisations, all dug up from the ruins, often when those now living in those places have no idea about them, no memory, no stories, just some stones they might have found and used as foundations for their own houses, we see how fragile, how faint is the mark of these societies, really. They disappeared most of the time.
So what if we disappear too?
In the past, the people subjugated by these states didn’t all die – many or most escaped back to a former type of life, and were probably happier for it, definitely better off in terms of diet and health. So why lament the demise of the rulers?
I live in this world, of course. I am dependent upon it. If it were all to disappear tomorrow – as I said back on New Years Eve 1999, when we wondered if the Year 2000 bug would stop the world – then I’d be dead in a matter of months. I can’t just walk away from the status quo, go and grow beans and catch animals. I am attached to the technology for life, and though I teach my children about wildlife which might help them when the cities are destroyed, my daughter is equally diabetic and unless I learn how to distil insulin from dead deer and rabbits, we’ll be as dead as anyone else when the disaster hits.
But people will survive.
Some will walk away, south or north where the weather is better. Humanity will continue, just as it did after the collapse of other societies. Some people will remember how to live outside the shelter of our cities and society. Apart from the plastic everywhere, this small snapshot of history will become as forgotten as the rest.
Our descendants, if we have them, will build their cities on top of ours, like we have on others, so our buildings will be discovered accidentally some day like we find the remains of the Roman walls and medieval castles when we dig out subterranean car parks.
The beech trees will survive, shifting north and south, possibly all the way to Antarctica, where they once grew before during a time when the world had a similar atmospheric CO2level to today. Most of the other plants will probably struggle on, too, though much of the fauna will die out, to be replaced eventually in time by other species.
It’s a real fucking pity, a goddam waste, that we allow this to happen. It’s stupid, stupid, stupid, to quote some fuckwit from the annals of insurance fraud. The age of stupid, like the documentary.
We could keep the world looking the way we want it if we move our asses.
To allow it to change from how it suits us is like letting the house burn down because you’re too lazy to pick up a fire extinguisher.
I remember visiting Niagara Falls years ago, and being told that the quantity of water allowed to flow is much reduced not just to produce electricity, but to ensure that erosion doesn’t move the falls upstream – which would mean having to move the viewing platforms from where they are now. And that would be silly.
If that kind of sense was applied to our current problems, we would see a lot more action on the climate change front.
Our society might have a sea-change in our economic activities, but it will be unnoticeable on a grand scale, just like the difference between agriculture in England growing turnips in the 18thcentury is indistinguishable from growing grain in Egypt two thousand years ago.
But moving London, Alexandria, Miami and all those other seaside towns kilometres inland will be a major change that will be seen clearly in the archaeological record of our planet.
And because we won’t be around to explain it, they’ll be confused as fuck as to how stupid we were. Stupider than Easter Islanders.
It’s Time; for Parenting on a Grander Scale
“Money, it’s a gas,” said Pink Floyd a long time ago. They sang about Time, too, and Time is Money, so they say.
They’re all granddads, now, Pink Floyd, those of the band who are still alive.
I’ve been thinking of Time, Money and Grandparents recently.
This blog post is about all three, and directed at the latter.
My own parents are grandparents of course; my daughter recently had her eight birthday. My parents sent her money to buy LOL dolls – in my opinion the perfect example of our modern consumerism addiction; have a look at one being opened on YouTube to see how we are manipulated by marketing departments. Her grandparents who live here, with whom she spends every Wednesday afternoon, also gave her money to buy these dolls, of which she has a dozen already.
It’s this consumerism I am trying to avoid, for my kids, and for the kids of the world. And the key, kinda, is exactly in their grandparents.
My mother says she buys these toys nowadays because when my siblings and I were young she didn’t have the money to afford them for us.
But nowadays I can afford all these silly bits of plastic myself, if I chose to give them to my children.
And what can my parents (and in-laws) give my kids that I can’t so much, that parents of our generation with our two-salary mortgages have in short supply?
What my parents had, at least my mother, to give us when we were small was time.
And it’s the time we all remember.
I remember being picked up by one granddad, getting porridge when he took me to their house to wait for my mother. I remember watching him gardening, going into his aviary, and he died when I was about 8. I remember going shopping and having tea and biscuits (custard crèmes, of course) in my granny’s house all through to my teens. I had motorbike rides up and down the cul-de-sac with my other granddad while he was still allowed to have one. I do remember getting some pocket money from them, but I can’t recall a single thing I did with that money.
My grandparents were all old by the time I came along. Everyone was older back then.
Nowadays, grandparents have an ever more special place in their grandkids lives. Many are looking after them full-time while the parents work. They’re often basically second set’s of parents.
That might sound harsh for the working parents.
In fact, this is an amazing opportunity.
We all know that we had better childhoods than our kids do nowadays. We were outdoors from dawn to dusk, getting up to our ears in mud and all that.
Well, instead of having them stuck on the sofa all afternoon, grandparents can show the kids the things that we did when we were kicked out of the house – that they themselves, their parents and grandparents and all the generations before them did before kids suddenly stopped going outside in the last couple of decades.
Get dirty, climb trees, mess around in the muck.
You don’t have to wash the clothes!
What are your kids going to do? Get mad at you because they have to put on a washing machine? Who doesn’t wash their kids clothes after every use anyway?
Are they going to find another child-minder? Yeah. Exactly.
It might seem a challenge to take the screens away from some kids – that’s the parent’s job, and you don’t want to fight with your grandkids. You want them to be happy to see you. True. Talk to your kids. Make them leave the screens at home, or locked up while at work.
After a few weeks without being glued to their tablet or telephone, the children will thank you for the great fun they had in the park, at the beach, in the forests. Bring them to a golf course if they’re old enough. Anything to get them out of the house.
When it’s your grandchildren’s birthday, take them on a field trip, a weekend away, a boat ride, a train journey, an adventure park. Gift them money towards a plane ticket if you really want to – not to Disneyland, but to a campsite in the south of France, or the Alps, a hiking holiday in the Pyrenees, fishing in Connemara. Anywhere they’ll have an experience that will serve them in the future when they are adults, that will make them stronger, calmer, more patient, more thoughtful. Experiences they can look back on and draw on.
You know they shouldn’t be inside.
You know they would be better people, happier, more resilient, more understanding of suffering and its relative importance if they climbed a few trees, fell off a few walls.
And please, please, don’t say, “They’re not my children.”
They are. They’re everybody’s children. They’re our future.
They’ll remember the events, not the trinkets.
How is everyone managing after the change to “summer time?” I’m suffering from the early mornings myself, since it happened in Europe last weekend. Of course, I’m not against daylight savings time, as long as if and when it’s stopped we stick with the correct time we should have according to our longitude.
In fact, I’d go further, as I wrote in my poem on the subject, which I posted a few years back,
In the poem I hypothesise about a future where businessmen don’t have to wear suits in summer to cut down on air conditioning use – much worse than a few extra light bulbs if we didn’t have daylight savings time.
And that brings me to an article I read the other day about the end of the man’s suit.
Coincidentally, I wrote a blogpost a few years back about the man’s suit, how it’s not going to disappear anytime soon, given that it hasn’t changed in centuries.
But perhaps I was wrong.
The article says that “Goldman Sachs became the latest of many firms to issue new guidelines on work dress codes, allowing more flexibility – male employees can ditch the suit for chinos and loosen their ties.”
A welcome change.
Of course, I’d be happier if what replaces it is not some new fashion, but the same jeans most of the humans in the western world have been wearing for a century when they weren’t wearing suits.
I have a basic distaste for fashion, in its continually changing design and colour of clothes which many people conform to necessitating updating their wardrobe and consequently disposing of clothes that are perfectly serviceable and wasting resources and money on new clothes that will see the same fate.
I hate buying new clothes. I hate shopping, better said. I like buying new stuff, but I also love getting the most out of what I have. I patch, I darn (well, I do something akin to closing a hole in a sock) and I glue.
I’ve a current problem with jeans seemingly been made to wear out within six months. It’s like Calvin Klein has been taking a leaf out of Apple’s book and embedding ? programmed obsolescence in cloth. I have not bought a pair of jeans that haven’t ripped in the arse in five years. I never remember that problem before, and I’ve been riding bikes my whole life.
Do clothes designers really need my money so much that they make me buy what I’d disinclined to buy because I am immune to their adverts?
Thus is our world destroyed.
I am also reminded of the lines from that fashion movie, The Devil Wears Prada, where Miranda goes on a tirade about the blue jumper her minion is wearing, how it’s been made because she decided blue was in last season blah blah.
What the movies doesn’t go on to say is that the intern would not go and buy a new cheap jumper in TJ Max the next winter. She’d wear the same cheap jumper and she’d keep wearing it till it got so old that it had to be replaced by whatever the prima donnas of the fashion world had deemed was in three seasons before. And that would take a long time. I have jumpers I still wear that I am wearing in photos taken fifteen years ago, nearly twenty in some cases. I don’t say that because I am proud of wearing worn out old shit that makes me look like a vagabond, but because they still look the same as when I bought them, and if I looked okay in them then, then there’s no reason to think I don’t look good in them now if they’re still in good repair. Clothes either look good on you or they don’t. If they are only going to look good on you for a season, then perhaps we shouldn’t buy them. That’s why the suit has taken so long to disappear – it simply looks good all the time. Jeans look good all the time, tee-shirts and jumpers too. That’s why Doc Martens are back in. Everyone has a pair they never threw out. Some kept wearing them. Of course, an industry would die a little if we were all to stop treating clothes like plastic water bottles. But what does this industry do that’s so good? What does it do that’s quite terrible? The list for the latter question is longer.
Growing cotton is a destructive activity, for the soil, for the insects, for the atmosphere. We all want to reduce waste, to lower our carbon emissions. Eating less meat, using public transport, flying less. And buying fewer clothes.
Feel proud to walk out of a store without a shopping bag.
It’s a feeling you’ll grow to love.
Last Friday, as hundreds of thousands of kids stayed away from school to protest the inaction of the world’s politicians on tackling the imminent crisis of global climate breakdown, there were headlines that Greta Thunberg, the girl who inspired all those students, and a heap of adults into the bargain, was nominated to receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
I believe, however, that the Nobel committee should not award her the prize.
I am not saying she does not deserve a Nobel Prize
But she should not get it now.
And I think she’d agree. Because Greta Thunberg doesn’t want a Nobel Peace Prize.
I will say straight off that I’ve never spoken to Greta Thunberg. I have no inside knowledge of her thoughts, hopes dreams or opinions.
But I think that if she ever reads this she’ll agree, at least with most of what I’m about to say.
She doesn’t want the Nobel Prize.
She wants climate action.
She is not sitting in the cold and rain of Stockholm every Friday dreaming of an accolade.
She didn’t decide to make her life harder and studies more difficult by staying out of school on Fridays but keeping up with her work by knuckling down on Saturdays instead because she thought it might get her some international fame and everyone would hail her as the salvation of, if not mankind, and the rest of the extant species on this planet, then at least our civilisation, as far as it’s worth saving.
She is doing all this to ensure she has a future.
That we all have a future.
A million dollars might be a nice thing to have to in your back pocket. It could help her go to Harvard or some other stupidly expensive college in countries where there is no free education – though I suspect very college on the planet will he happy to have Greta enrol, free of charge.
But even were she to keep it in her back pocket – and I’ve serious doubts about that – a million bucks is fuck all use in a world that has been shat upon by climate breakdown.
It’s hard to imagine what million dollars might buy to ensure survival in a world devastated by climate breakdown because we don’t know how that’s going to turn out. Perhaps she could buy farms in her native country and grow grapes, if anyone could afford wine, or perhaps melt water from Greenland will block the Gulf stream and Scandinavia will be as bad as Labrador is now for viniculture.
Nobody knows what’s in store.
We only know it would be different to how things are now.
But I digress.
Greta, and everyone following her example is hoping we have the same world we have now, complete with school exams, universities, functioning farms and forests to visit on the weekend.
None of this is certain, however, for the simple reason that our politicians are too busy sucking up to those so rich that they’ve already bought farmland in several northern countries, have already secured a clean water supply for their children and grandkids, and are ready to reap more money from our collective destruction that they’ve not done what they signed up to do – work for our collective good.
And until it is certain, this future we dream of nowadays where we get to live just like our parents did, living to retirement age, enjoying a few years of sitting in the garden, watching the flowers grow and the bees visit them, then Greta isn’t going to be satisfied with any accolade you could award her.
When she has done what she has sent out to do: ensured that her government and other governments do what they need to do, have promised to do – secure our collective survival – then I’m sure she will gladly accept the Prize.
Until then, it’s just a distraction, and, to be honest, it feels like a ploy, a bribe, a pat on the head and a “go along with you now and play, Greta, but well done for the effort, and sure we’ll look after things from here.”
Or am I wrong?