Happy Birthday to my Little Brother

Who would have been 62 today.

Grief is a powerful emotion. It can be debilitating and overwhelming. It can consume people, preventing them from living their lives.

Although it sounds a fictional cliché, In some societies ‘professional’ mourners will attend funerals, intentionally provoking powerful outpourings of grief by almost theatrical displays of wailing and crying; perhaps ripping their clothing, throwing themselves to the ground, and thrashing around in distress. This helps to move the bereaved through the process of loss, by bringing feelings and emotions to the surface, rather than allowing them to linger unexpressed for months or years. It helps the mourners to move on – not to forget, but to allow life to continue.

I can understand this, having met people who have been unable to move through grief, seemingly trapped in an ‘I’m okay’ situation, refusing or unable to display their emotions but presumably storing their grief up inside, unexpressed. Refusing help. People who have appeared unable or unwilling to move on. I was fortunate, my grief striking me like a clenched fist and, for periods, I had no choice but to allow myself to weep and rail at fate. But this allowed me to eventually move on, my grief evolved into sadness.

And for anyone struggling with grief themselves, something that helped me at the time was to write a letter to my brother. In my case after remarking it had been a while since I had heard from him, I filled it with humour, using in-jokes we had shared, although other people might have found a different approach beneficial. And the letter sits on my computer still and every once in a while I read it, and it helps me to smile and remember and, of course it makes me feel sad.

But that’s good.

I shall read it again today, and remember.

I Made A Vow

Day four of the Poem-A-Day-For-A-Week-Or-So project and a bit of a rush, today, as I’ve been assembling a shed (as you do). Another one, therefore, which will benefit from a revision when I have more time.

In Tripoli I made a vow to travel light, my eyes wide open,

Travel all the time I could, to take my chances when they happened,

Planned to seek out strange new places, take some risks see new horizons,

One thing alone I wanted now, the promise of the unexplored.

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And I remember where I was, the time of day, the type of weather,

Early morning, early March, this was a time of change for me,

A time for taking big decisions, time to turn my life around,

Time to leave things in the past, the time to turn another page.

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At the time I made that vow, I yearned to go along the Silk Road,

Travelling any way I could, and though that sadly never happened,

Other projects came and went, journeys all filled with adventure,

Baking deserts, frozen mountains, close to home and far away.

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I knew the world would not be kind, it would not make my journeys easy,

Whatever it might offer me, I’d leave myself completely open,

Embrace the rain, embrace the wind, embrace the temple and the hillside.

This was my private pact with life and to this day I’ve not yet finished.

Winter – 2

Nature dies down in winter. Certainly, at those latitudes where the days become much shorter and the temperatures plummet. Both wind and rain seem to become more frequent. Snow. It is a period of rest and renewal after autumn has put on a final glorious display of colour. Animals adapt to this in one of three ways: some will eat and eat of the autumn bounty of, especially, fruit, putting on large fat reserves and surviving the winter in a state of hibernation, their heart-rates dropping to a scarcely believable one or two beats a minute, their bodies slowly using these fat reserves for the little energy required to maintain a flickering life through those months. Some migrate, seeking a warmer climate until spring returns. These animals are, due to the obvious logistics required to travel hundreds of miles to reach those more hospitable climes, the larger animals and many of the birds. Travel over those kinds of distances would be out of the question for the smaller ones. Others stay put and, in the case of the plant eaters, scratch out a meagre living on whatever leaves and grasses survive through the winter. The carnivores, of course, stay and try to catch them.

Our Neolithic ancestors’ life cycles would be attuned to this pattern too. Autumn must have been lived fast and furiously. In the same way our medieval ancestors worked long hours to bring in the harvests, Neolithic man and woman must have used all the dwindling daylight to bring in as much food and fuel and dry bedding as possible before the winter period. Then by the end of autumn gathering would have largely ceased and they would have moved into a winter rhythm of life.

But how did they get through winter? What of the food they had gathered? Presumably, they had no way of storing fruit – could any of it be dried? Was it fermented for drink? Or was it all eaten as soon as it was gathered, as though they were all so many dormice seeking to build up their reserves? And could this, in fact, have been a part of their strategy to get through those months? To eat and eat until the perishable foods were all gone, and then to stop all but the most essential activities. To expend as little energy as possible and stay as warm as they could. Spending as much time as possible asleep.

And yet, they would still need to eat, and so with dwindling food reserves they would slaughter any beasts kept for that purpose, possibly smoking the meat to enable it to keep for as long as possible. Hunting would continue and might, in some ways, become a little easier. With less vegetation around, there would be less cover for their prey, and in snow there would be clear tracks to follow. But presumably this prey would still need to be pursued, and this would use precious energy, unless they relied more upon pits and snares.

The Enduring Lie of A Golden Age

It seems that huge numbers of people have an impression that there was a ‘Golden Age’ at some previous point of their, or some other, society.

They may not define it in those words, or even acknowledge it as such, but it seems to be very common for people to yearn for another time. Sometimes, this is nostalgia – for the days of their youth – but frequently it is for some far-off time that they feel to be somehow better than the time they live in.

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Fantasy books frequently encourage this sort of thinking. Regardless of the actual storyline, the heroes and villains and cast of other odd characters tend to run around and fight and go on quests and sit around in quaint thatched inns quaffing head-splitting alcoholic drinks and everyone is jolly and no one ever dies of dysentery or bubonic plague in misery and agony and squalor.

The Lord of the Rings is a fine example of this. It is a favourite of mine, but it is very noticeable how no one dies of disease, but mostly lives to an exceedingly old age unless chopped into pieces by Orcs.

Hollywood, too, plays its part in this. To take a film at (almost) random, an old version of ‘Robin Hood’ (set in medieval England, remember) depicts a group of merry men dressed in very strange attire living in the depths of a forest and merrily ambushing the Bad King’s men, merrily dining at long tables out beneath the spreading branches of merry oak trees under starry skies and everyone looks clean and clean shaven and everyone is merry, and it never rains.

Pah!

This is meant to be medieval England. Life expectancy at the time was around 30 years. Huge numbers of people died of dysentery, mainly because there was no concept of hygiene. Occasional plagues carried off massive numbers of people, emptying entire towns and villages. There were no antibiotics or anaesthetics. Disease was sent by God and the only way to cure it was considered to be prayer. Or witchcraft. Women routinely died in childbirth, in great pain. The majority of children never reached their teens. Every peasant in every village was effectively a slave under the command of the local lord, who held the power of life and death over them, and might exercise this on a whim at any moment. The threat of famine was ever present.

Pain and misery was a given.

The majority of people lived, too, in a very real terror of the Devil and the threat of eternal damnation.

The list of horrors is almost endless. The phrase ‘life was nasty, brutish and short’ is an apt description of those times. Certainly, I would not wish to live under those conditions.

There are plenty of other ‘Golden Ages’, of course. Almost any time in history can exercise a fascination on us, if certain aspects of it appeal to us and there are things we dislike about the society we live in. And it is natural to yearn for something better; something more than we have.

And this is not to suggest that every age was a living hell for everyone in that society, but that life in most of these times was reasonably decent for the very few on top of the pile, and pretty miserable for the rest. In fact, the measure of how ‘Golden’ an age was, tends to be the conditions of the upper echelons of that society, and perhaps those of a middle class, if such existed.

There is much wrong with our world today. But the huge advances seen over the last hundred years or so, especially in medicine, have meant that our lives have been improved out of all recognition. No longer does surgery equate to filling the patient with a quart of whisky and then sawing off a leg or an arm. No longer do those patients routinely die of infections after surgery, thanks to antibiotics. High blood pressure is controlled, rather than routinely killing. Children usually survive all the diseases of childhood, rather than being most likely to die. Women rarely die in childbirth, and the pain can be somewhat controlled.

Women and children are no longer the legal chattels of men.

Work conditions are hugely improved. Children do not go down mines or work at dangerous looms 14 hours a day. Instead, most receive a proper education. Adults, too, work fewer hours and under far better conditions than previously. When they are too old or frail to work, the state provides a certain amount of dignified support. People do not as a rule die these days of starvation. We do not execute children for stealing sixpence, or poaching rabbits on the Lord’s estate.

In most cases, for most people, today is the Golden Age.

Wow, What a Book #3, #4, #whatever

Well, Saturday already. Seems only yesterday it was Friday *sigh* I suppose I’d better get on with it.

I don’t think I’ll do ten of these after all, because I rather run the risk of listing books just because I like them, rather than because they have had a real and measurable influence on me. So today I present the final three.

1. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson.

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I read this book when I was in my mid twenties, and it really did open my eyes to what we as a species were doing to the planet. Up until that point, I had not really understood the impact that we were having on the environment. Shocked, I became interested in learning more, and then even more shocked as I learned what food and drink manufacturers put in their products for us to consume. At that time, one of them was the nasty compound dropped by the Americans on Vietnam during the Vietnamese War; a defoliant that was known to be carcinogenic.

It was used as orange food colouring.

I got hold of a list of all the ‘E’ numbers that were permitted additives, and which the industry certainly didn’t want us to know about. Certain ones were very nasty indeed. It was at this point that I became very keen on reading the labels on food and drink packaging.

I became involved with various pressure groups, such as Greenpeace.

That book changed my life.

2. The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham.

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In some ways, this could lay claim to be the book that has had the greatest influence on my adult life, but in a different way to Silent Spring.

I’d always tried to be a reasonably decent human being, but reading this made me rethink the way that I wanted my life to be. It is the story of a man who returns from the first world war and begins to question his place in society. He finds the trappings of modern western life, and its values, empty and meaningless – its focus on making money, selfishness and greed. He then searches for something meaningful in his own life, through education, religion and travel, and explores his relationships to others.

The message in this book immediately resonated with me; that there is much more to life than the pursuit of money, essential though some of it it might be to my survival. Other people mattered. Helping others was important. What is called the spiritual life, whether or not you believe in a god or not, was an important part of us all.

5. The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.

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Are you serious? you ask. How could this book be an influence on your life? One of the first science fiction books, and admirable for that, but an influence?

Well, it is easily told, and the answer will probably surprise you. This book provided the initial impetus for me to become a vegetarian.

Yes, a vegetarian. There is a passage in the book where the narrator recoils with disgust as the Martians take the blood from still-living humans for their nutrition, but then comments that it was probably the same reaction as an intelligent rabbit would feel observing our own eating habits. That made me consider whether it was necessary for me to eat meat, and I came to the conclusion that no, it was not.

Time to dust down the parchment and take up my quill, again.

Oh, that was nice.

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I just had to get some time away – from the computer, from people, from work and noise and just about everything else that makes up my complicated twenty first century life.

I promised myself a few days away to work on my book, uninterrupted by anything else, and that then turned into a short holiday for the two of us, in a small quiet town in Shropshire, close to the Welsh Borders, in a small self-catering apartment. It was perfect. We went for a few walks together, and at other times I wrote and thought over parts of the book, whilst my wife went off and walked and mooched on her own.

From a writing point of view, it was a most successful trip; I developed a few of the main characters in a satisfactory way, I developed my primary and secondary plot lines, and I wrote a goodly amount of pieces to work together at various points in the book. The ideal, naturally, would have been a trip to the Indian Himalaya, since that is the location of the story, but failing that, then a hilly location with a lot of wooded parts and old houses and a feel of times past, is certainly the next best thing.

And it was a great break for us both. Just to have a break from day to day life, of course, is priceless, but in a quiet, peaceful small town is even better.

Naturally, back to normal life means dealing with stuff that wasn’t dealt with over the last week, amongst other things. So, online to sort out a bill payment, and…I notice by looking in my diary that I have passwords for forty seven separate sites. Is this unusual? Probably not. But, conventional wisdom says you should never write down passwords. So, who could possibly remember forty seven of the wretched things? And even I know that using the same password for different sites is foolishness beyond forgiveness.

More ruddy hassle. All of this is meant to make life easier, isn’t it? Yet my idea of making life easier is to make it simpler and less complicated. This just doesn’t seem to happen, though.

Ah, this is a bit of a diversion that I hadn’t planned for this post to take. It reminds me, though, that I must write a post on anxiety, at some time.

What I was intending to write, was that I now have plenty of material for the book, and so, as time permits, it’s Full Steam Ahead!

Now, then, back to these tasks…

Religion or Philosophy?

Now, here’s a thing.

It is rather a fashion nowadays to declare that religions are all wrong and should be banned, because science and reason have somehow proved that there is no god (they haven’t).

But I would like to consider every religion in the world as a school of philosophy, and consider what I might take from each that would be useful to my life and my development.

Whether there might actually be a god or not then becomes unimportant.

Most Buddhists, for example, would seem a little unsure of whether there is a god or not, but if asked, the majority of them would reply that it does not matter. The argument being that it is impossible to prove either way, and therefore it is impossible to know either way. So why not just live your life as well as you can?

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Traditionally, religions have provided society with a set of moral rules. It may be that these rules were the first imperatives that human beings treat other with decency. Since none of us were around in the long years when our race was evolving speech and higher thought, and learning how to co-operate with fellow members of the tribe and – who knows – perhaps their neighbours, this must of necessity be pure speculation. Yet I find it highly likely these moral codes were the first suggestions that human beings might treat an enemy, for example, with mercy, rather than simply killing them, which might otherwise be the obvious course of action. Morality over expediency, if you like.

Some examples:

Islam forbids charging interest on loans. How many who have fallen victim to the money-grubbing lowlife that run these ‘payday’ loan companies charging astronomical rates of interest might have sympathy with this view? It teaches also that it is a moral duty to give alms; to help those in need.

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Christianity is big on love and mercy; at least in the New Testament. It teaches tolerance and forgiveness.

Buddhism teaches that to want things is to become enslaved to those desires that can never be satisfied. How much better to live simply and to be content with what we have? It teaches also compassion for all living beings.

Hinduism teaches that all life is sacred, and that we should all refrain from injuring others.

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These are only the main four faiths in the world today, but every other religion that I have read about also teaches a code of moral imperatives.

And in a world run by huge multi-national companies with no moral compass whatsoever and politicians who only look after their own, where we are continually and aggressively informed that we must worship money and consume more and more pointless trash, and that it does not matter if we destroy the environment just as long as companies make bigger profits, anything that can make us pause to consider what is actually important in life should be encouraged rather than denigrated.

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It would therefore be ridiculous to simply dismiss out of hand entire canons of work, solely on the grounds that the writers of these philosophies believed in a god whom the reader might not (or does not want to) believe in. Everybody has a spiritual side, whether or not they believe in some sort of god. The spiritual side of a person champions beauty over money, generosity over selfishness, kindness over cruelty. These are values that most of us still claim to value today.