Category Archives: Writing
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…
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.
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.
Yes, it was about the potential problems of the shrinking population it predicts will happen before the end of the century.
I listened to it, and there was some pushback from a UN demographer saying that it wasn’t going to contract so quickly, and in fact a ballooning population would occur first.
But even if it does happen, if we don’t go to 11 billion – I can’t believe that we are even saying that when we have so many problems already with 7.
What’s the problem?
People talk about population reduction as if we are going to suddenly disappear from the face of the planet.
We won’t disappear
The world wasn’t empty when there were a billion humans. There were enough for a fucking world war or two. The worst flu epidemic in history killed tens of millions and the world kept going on, with hardly a blip on our population.
The world wasn’t empty in the nineteenth century and we were inventing cars and telephones and all that stuff.
Some of the drastic effects outlined here are about one country losing population while others don’t – a kind of population arms race fear in my opinion.
Our cultures will survive.
No country needs multiple millions of citizens to keep its culture alive. Look at Ireland. It lost half its population in a few decades and still we know what it is to be Irish. There are fewer Irish per square km of Ireland than there are of Spaniards to square Km of Spain, or any other country practically in Europe – 4 million compared to 16 in the same area of the Netherlands.
And within that relatively small population, let’s be honest, how many people do Irish dancing, play the bodhrán or uilleannpipes, or even speak the language very well? (Hint, I do none of these things.)
In our globalised (mostly Americanised) world, most of us watch Netflix, shop in Zara and dance to techno., not to mention eat pizza and curries.
But that’s okay.
It only takes a handful to keep a culture alive.
Many Native American’s have kept their language and customs going despite being nearly wiped out by European invaders.
The highlanders of Scotland kept their Gaelic, kilts and tartan going, despite the crackdown on them in the 1700s.
The Basques were prohibited from speaking, too, yet now my kids speak only Basque in school, and they learn the culture of many villages and towns in the region – carnival means making a different costume every year in my house!
People tend to think that the way the world was when they were young is the way it should be.
That’s why some of us don’t notice that the insects are vanishing, that the seas are empty, that sheep are not supposed to be eating every tree seedling that tries to sprout.
We are used to having billions of people, used to hearing that there are more than a billion people in both China and India.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A billion human beings is quite enough for Planet Earth..
If we want those folks to live in any way approaching the wonderful lives we are (could be if we tried) living in the western world, then we would be better off with even fewer.
A planet emptier of humans would be able to become one full with the other denizens of our ecosystems we have pushed out during our population explosion.
And, for those who only care about seeing the same species, perhaps this lower density will help us appreciate the other humans around us
For our fellow citizens have become mostly background noise to us: moving furniture and to our lives.
We sit on metros and busses surrounded by others without even catching their eye. We go to coffee shops and bars and exchange few words. The supermarket customer now hardly needs to acknowledge the existence of the cashier, if there is one. Our elevator journeys are a gauntlet of greetings, goodbyes and trying not to look at one another in between.
If we were less tightly packed, perhaps we could become more personable (note the word) and talk to one another, chat with our neighbours, smile on the street as we pass, like people did in the past when they lived in villages, like they still do in small communities.
Remember when we all laughed watching Crocodile Dundee deciding New York must be the friendliest place on Earth, with seven million people all wanting to live together?
I see only advantages in such reductions. The only problem is how to get there – and it’ll be most probably abruptly by climate devastation and the loss of biodiversity.
Malthus always gets a bad rap, but as Naomi Klein said, Climate Change changes everything.
In my last blog post I said that we need government to get us out of this crisis we are immersed in (it’s 20˚C in Pamplona today, the 26thof February, while the kids in my school are supposedly up in the Pyrenees skiing for the week).
The problem is that governments are only interested in keeping their economies going full steam ahead on the coal of capitalism.
Of course, some of them are so fucking shit that they’re doing the opposite of what their puppet masters would have them do. It’s possible that they might help the planet by fucking up our society… something pondered in this next poem.
What would another species say
About our world?
Watching these tiny actions,
While the worst barely awaits,
Each effort hardly abates.
Indeed, we are bathers
Intent upon our piece of sand,
While the wave rears up behind.
The idiocy of some, the ignorance
Of others, ill intent and greed of
Thirds all add up to cancel out
The efforts of all the rest
To avoid the coming destruction and
Yet, in cold chemical analysis, knowing
The decimation imminent for so many
Might an outsider smile at
Inflicted by despicable people if that
Also impedes the current trajectory:
Disruption of our good government,
The usual business of bustling populations
Slowing down the business as usual
Which we aren’t wont to stop
But must if we are to have
Any business being on the planet
In the usual way we’ve been since
First becoming people.
The course needs altering, if not
Halting. The actors less relevant
Than the actions: Evil instead of
Well-intentioned will still be better
Than acting not at all.
No points for guessing who is the main person I had in mind for this clusterfuck.
Everyone Needs a Little Governing
We all need a little governing, a solemn voice telling us what would be best,
And suggesting guidelines to follow, even if we’ve thought of them ourselves.
I can control my daughter’s diabetes much better than I can my own.
Though I know what must be done, it’s harder to deny my own temptations.
Who hasn’t benefitted from working out with a friend instead of attending a gym alone?
Going to Weight Watchers works much better than trying to diet unassisted. The secret’s
in the name. And it’s the same for being good citizens.
We can tax tobacco use, but only by frowning upon it can we really take it down.
The price of luxuries is only prohibitive if you’re not very rich, and that’s just
discrimination rather than good stewardship.
Thus I wish someone would stop selling me shrimp, which are too delicious to deny
myself, despite the detriment I know eating them does to the environment.
Baby eels need to be illegal instead of merely expensive; the same for Bluefin tuna.
I wouldn’t miss the latter fish much if they were off the menu in my rainbow roll
because of their imminent demise, or of the by-catch obliterating our oceans.
Likewise, I would find a way to get my groceries home from the mongers or
butchers without a plastic bag, were they finally, properly, prohibited.
I’ll express no melancholy if I could never again drive through Madrid,
as long as the millionaires are only allowed if in electric cars like everyone else.
It pains me to say it, for the plans I had can’t happen if this does, but the future
requires aeroplane fares to be rationed, rather than priced out of our range
as we run out of oil: a maximum distance per lifetime –
until they create a carbon-neutral fuel –
we can use on a few flights in Europe or one all-out Phlleas Fogg journey,
a true trip of a lifetime to Australia or Tahiti, and that’s it. Take the train
to Vienna if you must, but your Island is out of reach except by mail boat.
Some laws are more easily lived with than others, but all are abided by
if need be, and believe me, needs be, big-time in these times.
If we don’t make them, we will be making the biggest mistake made
By humanity in its entire history. These are the only ways to manage ourselves,
to get out of our individual and global dilemmas. They are hard decisions,
which require a strong conviction in what is right, taken by someone willing
to stand up for that, and fight, to lead the way if that be into the fray,
against the grain, which is why we vote in leaders when given ballot papers.
I support the calls for revolution, the rejection of our global system.
The strikes called by students to demand the emergency handbrake is pulled.
The rebellion explicit in the extinction rebellion name.
This is not anarchy.
Anarchy might be the best way to have human societies, but to run the planet, without running it into an ecological brick wall. We need government. It’s just that the governments we have at the moment are monumentally shit at doing what they are supposed to do
For those who don’t know, here are a few photos to illustrate the points
It’s the little things.
You know when you’re watching a movie and you say to yourself, “that’s bullshit?” Because you know too much about the particular topic, and the director didn’t do his homework, so you’ve a guy shooting way more bullets than are in the gun etc.
Well, I’ve had a couple of those recently that all came together and makes me want to point them out.
The first is from the book I’m reading – Dan Brown’s Origin
Yea, I know, Dan Brown isn’t writing for accuracy.
But he could at least try.
Let’s leave aside straight away the fact that he’s put lots of detail into all his descriptions of the architecture (before you start reading the novel he states that all the locations and art etc. are real) but invents a parallel universe Spanish royal family. It’s actually quite funny to read how the king of Spain is so devout, when the former king is a notorious philanderer.
It’s the little things that catch a reader. Like when at the start of the novel two Irish football fans harass a Spanish Admiral in a bar. The fans have been watching a soccer match between Ireland and Spain or Portugal (it’s unclear where this takes place) and are drunk (that’s fine) when they enter the bar, empty but for the barmaid and the admiral. Now, not only would two Irish fans not harass a local to drink with them, being happy enough to be with themselves, they’d not be just two of them alone after a match. There’d be hordes of them. And when we read that the name of the bar is fucking Molly Malone, it’ just taking the fucking piss! What a crock of shit.
Just laziness. Perhaps what Brown considers Irish is what he sees in Boston, but he’s never watched footage of Irish fans after an international game on foreign soil, that’s for fucking sure.
I’m obviously not the first person to point this out...
Research. It’s what writers do. Getting people right is more important than how long the LCD screens in the Guggenheim are.
The second examples come from a movie I’m half way through.
Hold the Dark.
As a biologist and woof enthusiast, I stuck it right on when I signed up to Netflix!
I knew there’d be bullshit about wolves. They’re always cast in a bullshit light.
But that wasn’t the problem on the believability end.
I was at first impressed to see the local woman put masking tape on the tip of the gun barrel, to keep out snow and dirt. We do that in the bog, in case you fall and get peat and dirt stuck up there. You can’t shoot a rifle that’s obstructed like that. Well, you can, but do it far away from me.
But then, they go and make a point of the naturalist, played by Jeffry Wright, struggling to get the masking tape off the barrel so he can defend himself against the approaching wolf pack!
No! No and fucking NO!
You don’t take the tape off! You just fucking shoot! The pressure blows a hole in the tape before the bullet could even touch it! Any hunter knows that, or should.
But what most pisses me off about some movies, and it’s perhaps not a problem of doing research, but just society, is how much the actions of some characters differ from what I consider sensible and, given the state of our world right now, basically unacceptably stupid.
Wasting stuff, especially energy.
They’re in Alaska.
Not Anchorage, but way up north.
The biologist inexplicably turns up without decent footwear, like he’s never tracked a wolf in his life. The local gives him some boots more appropriate to the weather. And a good caribou skin.
But yet, she lives in a house that looks way under insulated for the clime. I’ve more cladding on my house in Spain, and that has foot-thick brick walls to boot.
And she goes around in cardigan open to the wind, and stands with the fucking door open looking out at the snow.
I know she’s a bit crazy, but such habits are ingrained. She’s not rich – her husband is off in the war and she says she can’t pay the naturalist.
So why is she wasting the heat?
I dunno if it’s just because I was always told to turn off the immersion heater and turn off the lights to save money, but I’m sure poor people the world over are pretty frugal when it comes to this kind of thing.
Also, the naturalist sleeps on the couch with just his long johns and a flimsy blanket. The fire is roaring, of course. But he’s a naturalist! Where’s the sleeping bag and less of the wasting firewood?
Climate change, Jeffry! Your character would be very aware of that, even if your host is not big on energy efficiency.
As I said, perhaps it’s just the state of society.
But, as I also said it’s not acceptable.
And we should stop showing such irresponsibility.
As Hollywood knows, art imitates life and life imitates art.
It’s time to start modelling good behaviour.
Just like few characters smoke in movies now compared to the chain-smoking of the fifties and sixties, movie makers can stop having characters do stupid shit that worsens climate breakdown and pollutes our planet. Hopefully it will happen a bit quicker than the change from smoking to not – this is more urgent.
Then maybe readers and viewers won’t get be so let down by the stories we’re told.
On the other hand, if real people keep acting like these characters, then our children won’t have much time, money, or inclination, to “Netflix and chill.”
It’s my son’s birthday today. He’s three. I’m nearly 45. Not necessarily a problem, but my back is not as good as it could be when he’s climbing up on my shoulders…
Yesterday the downstairs neighbour phoned at 7.45am to ask if we could get the child to not run along the hall so loudly. Not the child’s fault. This nice 1860’s house we live in, though, tends to reverberate like a 13kilo kid is Harrison Bergeron stomping through the rooms.
It reminded me of a poem I wrote a while back, though. I’ve plenty of ex-students who, though fifteen years younger than I, started having their kids at the same age as I. They didn’t get the good sense from their former teacher, but they’re showing their intelligence all the same!
Regardless of your age, I hope you enjoy. Sorry I’ve no photos of actual kids – mine aren’t allowed on the internet.
Reasons to have kids in your 20s.
They’ll say you’re stupid; it’s too early,
But don’t listen to their insistence on
Being stable, for kids are earthquakes
Set to undermine any well-laid foundations
So have them while your world is still whirling.
Forget that financial comfort buffer,
Which could crack as easily as the flat-screen
You can finally afford. It’s easy to deny
When you don’t have to give. Best let their
Screams of injustice at the sound of no
Echo in an empty house you don’t even own
As you spend decades in a shithole renter
Which becomes somebody else’s problem
Once you leave the safety deposit behind
Along with crayon on the wall and peeled paint.
Better that than they destroy the decent
House you deserve by your forties, and tears
Are indecent in front of a toddler, no matter
How he gouges the hardwood floor, or
Scratches the CDs you kept all those years
Nor tears the copy of the Hobbit you took
To three continents before “settling down.”
Children’s laughter sounds sweeter living
In a house where there’s nothing much to break.
The sleep you’ll never get with young kids
You don’t even need yet.
You’re awake all night now, so why not
Stick a bottle in a baby’s mouth while
Watching midnight marathons of Netflix films?
In your forties, eight hours is no longer a luxury;
It’s a necessity. But they’ll be out at pyjama parties,
If you’re smart, in other people’s houses.
One thing you learn when you become a parent, is
You’re never ready, nor ever could be
No matter how long you wait
So have them early and
When everything steadies, you’ll be ready for
Relaxation while you’re still young enough
To be worth going on holiday with.
After all, all the energy you yet have
Once they’re grown up and gone,
They’ll have use of just as much as you;
When the grandkids come calling
And they’re crawling and climbing, finding
Fragile items for pawing, and falling.