Archive for August, 2013

green goddessWisdom sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. I had a neighbour – a man of little education, and long retired when I met him, a man of simple tastes, fond of his garden, not well off, but perfectly content in the bosom of his family. I forget how our conversation got on to the topic of consumerism, but he said his motto was that if you needed something, and you’d the money, then you should get it, but if you merely wanted a thing, then you shouldn’t get it, even if you’d the money.

Like it or loathe it, consumerism has changed the face of the western world, and it’s changed us. Prior to 1900, it was believed people were motivated by logical responses to available data: give them the relevant information and they’d make a rational choice based upon personal need. But the work of psychoanalysts like Freud,  showed how we in fact respond to things in ways that are far from logical, that we are also driven by unconscious desires of a purely emotional and entirely irrational nature.

The advertising of goods used to focus on practical issues like how reliable the goods were, or what they did that was bigger/better/faster than all the other similar stuff out there. But it was found you could sell more goods if you could also sell the myth that a thing would make a person feel better about themselves in ways beyond the mere function of the thing itself. From then on manufactured goods were no longer practical necessities, they became lifestyle choices. We bought things because we desired them, because we wanted a piece of the mythical lifestyle that came with owning that product. It also meant that if our desires could be sated in this way, we were less likely to satisfy them in other ways, ways that might be socially or politically undesirable – things like taking to the streets in protest for example?

All of this sounds bizarre now, but a look back at the history of psychoanalysis and its links with advertising shows how our unconscious urges have been analysed, categorised and manipulated in order to maximise the sale of goods. Psychoanalysis has many critics, but we are all the living proof of how its theories have been put to devastatingly practical use, including, some might say, the control of large populations – you simply feed us a diet of “stuff”, and weave around it a fantasy of desire, and we become docile, endlessly chasing the myth of the ideal reality, instead of focussing on reality itself.

The history of the western world up to the middle of the twentieth century is one of upheaval and public revolt. But if we look at those same democracies in the early part of the twenty first century, democracies now steeped in a tradition of consumerism, our history is one of apathy. The mob no longer cares what’s going on in halls of power, so long as the postman turns up on time with our stuff from Amazon. Short of a postal strike, I can’t imagine us getting really upset about anything.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to see another pan-European war, but neither am I happy with the thought of a population so lost to the myth of stuff they’ve  no longer the will to change society if they feel it needs changing, nor even the vision to see what needs changing in the first place.

So next time you’re in town, and you see some “thing” and you think to yourself if only I had that thing I’d feel a lot better about myself, remind yourself it won’t make more than five minutes difference to the way you feel at all. Feeling better about yourself comes from somewhere else, and there, I’m afraid, we’re on our own. So try to cut back a little more to the centre of yourself, try to clear the line between necessity and desire, and ask yourself: apart from all this stuff that I apparently want, who the hell am I, and what do I really, really need most in my life right now?

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The Paps of JuraThe Prime Minister, David Cameron, and I have something in common – we’ve both taken holidays on the Isle of Jura – him this year, me in the summer of 1985. Jura is a big island with a small population – just 200 people – tucked away in the inner Hebrides. It’s one of the remotest, most unspoiled places in the UK. The walking there is wild and tough, mainly trackless, consisting of mountain, bog and heath in equal measure. The only industries are whiskey and deer-stalking. The only road is an alarmingly narrow, single track affair that skirts the eastern coast, linking a string of blinkingly small communities and lone crofts.

The west is entirely uninhabited.

On the downside, I remember the island was infested with sheep ticks, several of which I brought home still attached to my elbows and the backs of my knees. Tiny things, like baby spiders, once attached, they suck your blood and swell to the size of pea. I also remember dead rabbits in the hedgerows – myxomatosis was rife. And I saw deer with their heads sawn off. Life was clearly different there. Simpler. I wouldn’t have lasted a winter, but the emptiness, and the sheer silence of the place impressed me deeply.

The PM was the guest of the Astors, to whom he’s related by marriage. The Astors feature large in the history of British movers and shakers. They own estates there, and several hideaways, including the impressively remote shooting lodge of Glenbatrick, approachable only by sea, or on foot via a six mile hike through tick, bog and cleg infested hills. I remember the clegs in particular – a breed of aggressive, carnivorous horsefly, capable, I’m sure, of penetrating even the hide of an Angus bull. There are clouds of midges too, most of them the biting variety, but after the sheep ticks and the clegs I stopped bothering about the midges. I’m painting a bleak picture aren’t I? Well, Jura can indeed be impressively bleak, but also breathtakingly beautiful.

George Orwell was another friend of the Astors, and one time resident of Jura. Recently widowed, he moved there in 1946, to Barnhill a remote farmhouse where he hunkered down to a kind of monastic self sufficiency while rattling out the manuscript for 1984. Some sources suggest he’d calculated that if the Russians dropped their Atom bombs, Jura was remote enough for Armageddon not to disturb his work.

For such a quiet place, a lot happened to me that week, but my memories are mostly dominated by the characters I met, all of them friendly, and interested in knowing you. There was a Welshman singing classical opera in the hills – a fine tenor, stags braying in accompaniment. He was looking for otters, like me. Perhaps, like a fakir, he meant to enchant them into stillness for our cameras. We saw none. Then there were three more Welshmen in a boat. They’d sailed from Anglesey, and shared with us their racy tales late into the night, accompanied by a bottle of the local whiskey. And there was the ghillie with a missing front tooth who rowed me over the glassy waters of Loch Tarbert early one morning. When I timidly suggested to him I thought his boat was leaking, he calmly agreed and passed me an empty paint tin so I could bail. Then there was the old and delightfully eccentric Glasgow doctor with the trilby hat, the button down Mackintosh, and WW1 binoculars and an old world charm that still makes me smile.

There were standing stones, and curious geology – raised beaches and volcanic rills, and always, always that breathtaking silence. There was brown bathwater from the peaty hills, brown peaty water on the dinner table, yet seawater of the clearest crystal.

What I saw and felt that summer impressed me deeply. In particular my story “The Singing Loch” borrows much of its scenery and atmosphere from Jura. I’ve promised myself I’ll return one day, but it’s not the sort of place to impress the current Lady Graeme, who prefers not to stray too far from modern convenience. I’ll probably have to wait until the next life, remembering of course to bring with me a fresh pair of legs and a large bottle of “Bug-off”.

The UK is a place of dramatic contrasts. If our bustling cities represent the rational, the material, the ego, then Jura, and its little Hebridean neighbours represent the stillness of our deepest soul. It’s a queer sort of idyll, but an idyll indeed for those with an eye for the simpler things. If you’re the PM needing an escape from the Punch and Judy of politics, I can think of nowhere better. But even if you’re just an ordinary bod with a pair of well-worn boots, and taste for the lonely,…

It’s going to be your sort of place as well.

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While I was away on holiday last week a man died. He was out on his motorcycle, enjoying the air of a warm sunny morning, riding along quiet country lanes. He rounded a bend and struck a deer. There was nothing he could do. It was a million to one chance, shocking and upsetting for those who witnessed it and a terrible loss for the man’s family. But motorbikes are dangerous. When we ride them, we accept the risk in exchange for the sheer exhilaration of the experience. They’re such damned good fun, and the bigger the bike the better. This is not to lessen the tragedy of that incident of course.

Then, on my return home, I picked up the news of two deaths as a direct result of the use of “social media” which seems to be increasingly lethal – as lethal as motorcycling these days. The victims were young adults who took their own lives. In one instance the perpetrators were other young adults writing vile comments and hiding behind what they believed to be the anonymity of the internet, in the other it was criminals blackmailing a youth they’d lured into an online video indiscretion. This isn’t the first time it’s happened and it won’t be the last. Indeed the online world seems to engender at times a kind of “Lord of the Flies” savagery amongst our progeny. As a father of young adults I found the news particularly upsetting; two youngsters with the world ahead of them and a lifetime of potential for love, laughter and the sheer exuberance of life, persuaded that life was unbearable, persuaded that the on-line world by which they judged their own self worth, judged them to be of no worth at all.

I look up from my computer screen and I see a green lawn, flowers in a late-season riot of colour and above, a deep blue sky streaked with white cirrus. Leaves are in motion on distant trees, stirred by a summer breeze. A wind chime tinkles. It’s beautiful, gives me great joy – more joy than a million likes on my blog will ever do. I have no difficulty identifying it as the real world, as real life, no difficulty recognising that what goes on out there is where I really am, and that what goes on in here – while allowing me to give vent to the voices in my head – is not much of anything at all really, and certainly not worth pinning the whole of my self worth on. And if I have to die, then better by far a quiet country lane and a motorbike at full throttle than a spiteful troll lying in wait among my comments with a thoughtlessly sharp tongue and a twisted belief in his own grotesquely egotistical wit.

Social media is not real life. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Even clichéd, but I think adults are seriously underestimating the degree to which social media is becoming real life for our youngsters, and I don’t know where that’s taking us or what safety measures we need to implement to safeguard those who can be so deeply wounded by the vindictive, criminal or just plain thoughtless tongues of others that they will think of taking their own lives. I feel desperately sorry for the loss of ones so young and vulnerable, also ashamed to be a part of a media that seems incapable of policing the occasionally lethal savagery it also spawns.

So, join with me. Close down your machines. Do it now. Switch off your ‘phone. Put it in a drawer. Take a walk without it – seriously. Spend an hour in the real world – no dammit, take the whole day. Reconnect and be present in it.

There, remember what it feels like?

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DSCF3061In a recent article for the BBC, the playwright Mark Ravenhill lamented the steep decline in funding for the Arts. He warned that under the current paradigm of austerity economics, funding could disappear altogether over the present decade and that it didn’t matter who won the next general election here in the UK, that all parties were equally committed to the “ideology, and plain wrong mathematics, of austerity”. He then went on to argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for “Art”.

If an artist wants to make a living by their art, they rely on someone paying them for their work – obviously – a publisher, a gallery, a wealthy patron, or an art’s council grant. The danger in this is that the artist will stop being truthful to themselves and their vision, and instead begin to produce work they know they can simply sell. They start writing for “the market” and are less likely to produce work they know is going to suffer an endless round of rejection, or worse actually offend the people holding the purse strings.

It might be said then that only the artist with nothing to lose can be trusted to tell the truth about the world as he sees it. As funding becomes more difficult to obtain, so artists will have less difficulty in being critical of “the system”. Austerity = integrity, and that’s a good thing.

As an independent, unfunded author who gives his fiction away on Feedbooks, it’s easy to see why this struck a chord with me. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary or anarchic about my own work – it’s far too other-worldly for that – but the fact I can self-publish, for nothing is actually a very powerful thing, and if it were in me to be a political or a social agitator, I wouldn’t need to worry about biting the hand that feeds me. It’s the same with blogging – so long as what we bloggers say is within the law we can say what we like. That’s why blogs are powerful – perhaps not in terms of the “celebritification” of the individual blogger, but more importantly, and collectively, as waves of comment and discourse that surge on the blogsphere and which inform general opinion.

The counter argument to this of course is that the artist giving his work away is simply the one who couldn’t find a buyer for it, which is hardly a glowing recommendation for the intellectual and artistic quality of the work. In other words it’s probably rubbish. But art doesn’t have to tell the truth or be “good”, or “clever” to be successful. The most successful art is that produced by an artist who is merely honest to themselves and sincere in what they do. It doesn’t matter then if their vision is debatable, dubious, or just plain wrong, because so long as the art is sufficiently engaging it produces a reaction in the beholder, good or bad, attractive or repulsive, it has served its purpose in inspiring the beholder, even if it’s in completely the opposite direction to the one the artist intended.

So because something is available for free online, we mustn’t assume it has no merit – it can be very open and honest and untainted by “patronage”. Conversely if the art is riding upon an ocean of dollars, like for example the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie, it should make us pause and ask the question: who provides those dollars? We also need to understand that what we’re seeing is something the dollar holder likes. We may like it too, but there may be other art we would like more, but we’ll never see it if the guardians of taste, critical acclaim, political correctness and above all funding, are the ones dictating what we see in the first place.

I don’t like austerity economics either. I think it’s laid a noxious and depressing vapour over the land these past five years. It puts me more in a mind for hunkering down and counting the pennies I’ve got than for striking out, investing those pennies and making a difference in the world. That’s not good, it’s socially destructive, and I fear it will end badly, possibly in political chaos, even in those countries that seem rich enough to avoid the devil-take-the-hindmost collapse of their poorer neighbours.

But the silver lining in this is that we all have a voice now, and nothing to lose by using it. It’s not much, I know, but it’s better than nothing.

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