Songs Are a Thesis on Life, So Live It.

advneture, death, free will, future, Life, Lifestyle, lyrics, philosophy

Sometimes a song can offer a thesis. It’s usually on life, love and the meaning of it all. Sometimes a song can revisit you after a long hiatus. I have no idea why it barges centre stage into the crowded theatre of the mind, yet barge in it most certainly does. You know when it chooses to stick around, because that damn ditty plays on you. Wherever you go, melodic thoughts intrude, and before soon you’re chanting the song silently word for word with such metronomic repetition that not even the eulogy you’ve memorised for your best friend’s funeral is enough to dislodge it.

We often talk about this human syndrome of having a song stuck in our heads. Lodged with a stubbornness the equal of a goat, that’s how songs seep into the psyche. We even share a laugh when that song turns out to be about the worst piece of shit bubblegum pop the hit parade ever produced. Indoctrination by music is rarely predicated on the quality of the tune in question.

But other times, the song that sticks contains the germ of a idea: a thesis, I suppose you’d call it if you were using it as the intellectual centrepiece of a Masters’ dissertation. It then spends three verses, a middle eight and repeat chorus to test its thesis out on you, the listener. Or maybe, more accurately, what its unstated intention is is to invite you, the listener, to test its thesis for it by living according to the principles extolled in its message. Yes, that’s what it’s doing. That might explain why every great lyrical song is more than an enigma, it’s an insight into the mystery of life.

An old song came back to me this morning as i was busy making other plans. Its name is Live Your Life, by the American Otis Taylor. Aimed at the bullseye between our eyes, the lyrics are really quite straightforward. He sings:

Live your life before you die. Only might be for a little while.

By a little while, he means life can be curtailed at any time without any due notice. Implicit in there somewhere is this notion that as westernised humans, we’ve come to expect longevity, and if your three-score and tenth birthday party never transpires, there’s something frightfully tragic about it. Actually, when you put your social historian/demographer hat on, you’ll see that expectations of a long and biologically untroubled life is very much a late twentieth century indulgence. For much of history death prevailed in infancy as much as in adulthood. It percolated up as much as down. And when it did, the suddenness of finality was not lost on those bygone generations. If they didn’t see death coming, they certainly saw it everywhere.

Anyway, back to Otis Taylor. And the band plays on…

Death won’t touch you, on your heart. It’ll just come around. It’s gonna walk on in and knock you down.

Here his thesis is starting to develop. Causation, the central tenet of most theories, comes walkin’ on in on this little number to knock us down from our exalted position of delusion. The causation rooted in these lyrics says if you live your life before you die then death cannot harm you. It can only snatch you away before you know it. Ergo, if you choose to live life then death cannot enter your heart in some dismal prelude to a mortal end characterised by regrets and the endless act of dying while very much alive.

But what is the magic formula here for a death no more painful than drawing a line in the sands of time? How are we expected to – in Taylor’s words – live your life before you die? Again, the songwriter offers an almost irresistible position in building his case for a life script that conquers death. He sings:

Take time to laugh. Or maybe time to cry. Climb a mountain. Swim the sea.

And what quality do all of these lyrical prescriptions share? They all invoke a vitality – eros – which is the counterforce to the spirit of death – thanatos. They ask you to feel and to do. When inviting you to feel, they steal tears from the sorrow of dying only to fetter those tears on what is more deserved of them, that being life itself. Laugh in the face of death? No. Laugh along with life, fostering the conditions for that laughter to play out. Don’t embolden death with the power of your laughter, nor pleasure it with your tears. Climb above your lowly mortality to reach the highest peaks. Suspend yourself again as you did pre-life in mama’s womb but this time in mother nature’s own amniotic fluid, the ocean. A funeral should be a occasion to celebrate a life well lived, but how often do we feel like heading out to a party when following the hearse to the crematorium?

The conclusions of this treatise with its simple thesis of live the middle ground now if you don’t want the end to live for you stand up to scrutiny. If the premises hold that if a life well-lived is no less than a life with the marrow sucked dry, therefore death has no carrion to feed on when inevitably it comes, then the conclusions are clear: take risks. Don’t fear uncertainty nor shy away from the unknown. Let the light of life dazzle death, consigning it to the shadows until that fateful day when finality doesn’t revel in making a show of taking you away. Sure, we could die a terminal death through a cruel, clinging illness. But by stacking up enough of the life affirmative stuff in our armoury of getting older, even a protracted death can feel more like a soldier’s death: sudden and honourable. If that theory sounds optimistic as it does untested, then that’s a fair kop. But I’m going on that proviso until you prise it from my cold, dead hands.

I, for one, don’t intend to give the scythe-toting hooded one the pleasure. More so in a bizarre era typified by mass quarantining for fear of death (we say our current Covid self-sacrifices are all utilitarian-backed and done for the common good, but the truth is the organism is us fears for itself more than others). Hey, whoever said backing words with deeds wasn’t a challenge? But if we turn the page on this world in existential fear NOW then perhaps something transformative can come of it.

Like Kazantzakis said, leave nothing for death but a burned-out castle. And thanks, Otis, for the invocation to live your life before you die. Wise words. I’m not sure about swimming the sea (never truly got over watching Jaws as a 6 year-old boy). As for the mountains, I’m already packing for this winter. And when I reach the top, I’m planning on having a good weep. But not for death. Hello Life.

In Praise of Persia

Arabia, Bedouin, Caliphate, civilisation, desert, Empire, history, Iran, Islam, Middle East, Muslim, Persia, philosophy, Political Culture, Religion, thoughts, Travel, Tribes

I watched a riveting BBC4 documentary last night called ‘The Art of Persia’. Contained within that visual treasure trove were cultural jewels of incalculable worth. The West might look on with a mixture of bemusement and disdain at the black chadors, the mass weepings, the ceremonial burnings of Imperialist flags of red, white and blue, and the tales of woe spun by Persia’s disgruntled diaspora everywhere from Tehr-Angeles to London, but that’s not the half of it. The country known since 1935 as Iran is arguably as great a continuous civilisation as there has even been, anywhere. But what makes Iran so interesting is how its personality traits reveal a duality deep in its cultural psyche.

To the Persians, who live either in wealthy North Tehran or else abroad, the name Iran is anathema to them because of its proximity to all that is humiliating to a once insuperable civilisation. To them Iran equals the puppet Shah. Iran equals fanaticism. Iran equals paranoid pride. Iran equals vice and virtue and blasphemy and stoning and vicious assaults on the freedom to think out loud. Iran equals secret shindigs with homemade grog. Iran equals ousted premiers. Iran equals the Ayatollahs. Iran equals political prisoners. Iran equals implacable hostility to nearly everyone except fellow villains, Russia and Syria. The name Persia, on the other hand, conjures nothing but antiquarian admirers. The Iran we know today, in stark contrast, has nothing but perceived enemies. On top of this litany of woes, for Persians the name Iran strikes fear into the heart because it equals Islam in its most austere form of submission and at its most fervent. To those Persians who see themselves as secular patriots – defenders of 4,000 years of unique culture, rather than defenders of a faith imported from impoverished desert lands – Iran in its present state will eventually be consumed by the larger meaning of Persia. For everyone, including Orientalists like me, Persia denotes the literary romance of Sheherezade in the 1001 Persian Nights and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. Persia is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; of intoxicating poetry recited in a garden of red roses, crocuses and pomegranate trees; of revelling in the NOW instead of waiting on God, as is the wont of modern Islam. Persia is the Sufi mysticism of Rumi as opposed to the stripped-down demystification of latter-day political Shi’ism.

To the Iranians, who live everywhere else in Iran’s hinterland, Persia is something to be taken, if not lightly, then with a degree of scepticism. Persia equals complicity with the predatory West. Persia equals lingering resentment of being conquered by an inferior culture who brought a book – the Qur’an – which changed everything. Persia equals ambivalence, at best, toward the idea of Islamic piety. Persia equals antiquity, an age that’s gone forever. Persia equals wine and hedonism from the quills of drunken poets who saw things very differently from the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs. Persia equals Zoroastrianism and the fire temples of old. Contrarily, Iran equals Shi’a, a tough, oppressed, self-flagellating branch of Islam. Persia equals all that is effete: of brocades and silken rugs; of grand viziers in courtly costume; of silver filigree and lapiz lazuli glaze on priceless urns; and, of artistic depictions too close to iconoclastic for comfort. In short, for Iranians, nostalgia for old Persia is the antithesis of political Islam. It is a weak underbelly that allows outsiders to enter the forbidden gates on the pretext of weakening the present land by exalting its past.

The BBC documentary highlighted this duality as such. Uncovering the many layers of Persian culture we learn that when it comes to a civilisation that stretches back to the Elamites at Susa 4,500 years ago, an empire that during the reign of the Achaemenids under Cyrus stretched from Greece to Afghanistan, a simple either/or will not do. When something is that old and that far-reaching, dichotomies are rarely that simple. The BBC4 series taught us that even the political Islam of the 21st century Republic can not wash away that feeling of distinction held by so many Iranians. Their exceptionalism chimes with similar exceptionalism experienced by Brexit Britain and the Trumpite United States. It is this analogue with great Western powers that plunges modern Iran into a state of competitive hostility with them. It is the similarities therefore, and not the differences, that explain the fraught relations between the anglo-American West and the new Persia.

Eternally unknowable and all-mighty for being so is what makes Iran so much like the God of Islam it has worshipped for nearly 1,400 years. A bruised civilisation in such a battle for true identity on the shifting game board of power politics is what makes Iran the Persia it truly is to this day, and likewise what makes Persia the true Iran it has become. Its place at the head of the table of nation states has become problematic, none more so than within Iran itself. This was the first civilisation to claim the one true god, Ahura Mazda. Its official state religion of Zoroastrianism was as long-established as Persia itself. But all changed so suddenly. Zoroaster’s fires were extinguished by the Arab Conquest of 637AD. In many respects, an inferior culture usurped one whose deeds it could never match. A tribe tamed a civilisation, and I don’t think Iran has ever come to grips with that. Alexander sacked Persepolis in 330BC, but he razed it to the ground supposedly in the name of Hellenic Civilisation. The Arabs who swept into Sassanid Persia on the command of the Caliph Umar just four years after the death of the prophet Muhammed were a tribe of tribes with all the ostentatiousness of a Glastonbury festival-goer. They came unadorned and, other than tax and sovereignty, demanded little else. These bedouin Arabs were no Islamic State. Their relative tolerance was their enduring power. As the documentary states, Islam was adopted in Persia at a rate that Arabisation never ever was. The Persians took the commandments of Muhammed readily enough, though it was the language and cultural traits of the invaders from the Arabian Peninsula that had little staying power in the eyes of a people who believed, rightly of wrongly, that they had nothing to learn (other than the revelations in the Qur’an) from these usurpers in their raggedy clothing.

I taught a bunch of Iranians about ten years ago, all of whom had come to the West not so much for a taste of cultivated learning, which of course they could have delved into at home. They came, rather, to throw off their chadors and to relive the secular freedoms their parents had enjoyed under the Pahlavi dynasty. They came to change Iran not from within, which was too dangerous, but from without. Away from the Iran of the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard they could embrace the Persian in themselves, throwing off the shackles of the Iranian who boarded the aircraft in Tehran. In our ignorance, some locals asked if, being Muslim and existing in the heart of the Middle East, they were Arabs. The Iranian reaction was prompt and dismissive to say the least. You could actually see them wince at the mere suggestion. In my classroom there they sat together, far from the ethnic Arabs who were seated at the other end of the room. They looked and spoke different. They carried themselves differently, for unlike the Arabs in the room, the Persians had a dual identity: the one Iran foisted upon them at birth, and the Ferdowsi-reading Persian residing permanently in their heart. 

 

Flying Over Planet Lockdown on a Magic Carpet Ride

adventure, agriculture, Cities, climate, conservation, Coronavirus, counter-culture, developing world, environment, ethics, EU, future, futurology, Imagination, Life, Lifestyle, natural philosophy, natural world, philosophy, Reflections, revolution, Society, Socioeconomics, thoughts, Travel

It’s 2030. Imagine you could select anything from home to power your low-level flight around the planet. It wouldn’t be the stressed planet we have come to know. It would still be a human planet, but one rather unashamedly changed from the one you knew and despaired of back in 2020.

The overhyped pandemic of 2020, the one that had the world all in a panic to the point where it effectively closed human activity down, produced unexpected outcomes. No one quite knew it at the time, but the quarantining of humanity inadvertently gave breathing space to all terrestrial life that had been trampled in the poisoned dirt since the mid-20th century. Gone were the crisscross scars of vapour trails from planes all across the sky. Gone too were the ‘conjunctivitis domes’ that enclosed all but a few cities and towns in hazy, acrid pollution. More than anything, gone was the constant background noise of society consuming itself into an early grave. At first, even the most misanthropic kept tight-lipped about how the lockdown was having anything but a deleterious effect on them. They wanted to tell everyone about how delirious with happiness they were, that they were reconnecting with the world around, how the spring had never seemed so polarised with deep colours, and how the silence of everywhere had led to a great sonic peace across the entire sky. While patients with Coronavirus were gasping for their last breath, the guilty enjoyment of the majority who bore no symptoms seemed unutterable. But as the lockdown went on, more and more started to admit there was an upside to the downside of putting industrial society on ice for a while. While they cited different reasons for secretly enjoying the mass meditation retreat that the world had become, a common theme began to emerge. The average Joe and Joanne hadn’t been happy for a long time, but it was only through the Covid lockdown that it struck them exactly why.

I would select my cherished silk-on-silk rug from Kashmir as my means of transport, the one I bought for a princely sum from Kashmiris in a bazaar in old Kathmandu. The colour is light green with pink woven into the borders. When you brush your hand across it, the sweep turns it darker or lighter, not unlike suede. The pattern is distinctive: 32 geometric panels depicting the Islamic Garden of Paradise, including pomegranate trees, arbours, plant pots and rambling rose. Tradition tells that this is a design from the revered Iranian town of Qom, from where the finest silk rugs and carpets on Earth are spun by weavers with magic fingers. Hence, magic carpets. If not that precious (and surprisingly tough) silk rug, I have another I’d consider riding on over a changed world in 2021. This one is an Islamic prayer rug (although I do not profess to be a man of any faith, other than faith in myself). I bought it from a reliable dealer in the Emirates, but the thing itself was woven in Northern Afghanistan and is exceptionally beautiful. Not of silk, this short-pile rug is of the finest wool dyed with the madder root into a colour resembling the dark dried blood of many an Afghan who has spilled their veins throughout the long war. Yes, my choice of long-haul air transport would be either the Kashmir silk rug or the Afghan prayer rug. Then again, for spaciousness there’s also that large tribal kilim from Tabriz in my collection. I could spread out on that during my transcontinental flyover. I’ll need a flying jacket and goggles, as it might get chilly, breezy and bumpy riding up there on the thermals. Oh, and my Leica monocular, too, so I can peer into the lives of others, and to see how the wildlife is coming along.

The roots of popular unhappiness, more and more started to realise, were becoming evident in the pleasant results the lockdown had produced on the wider world. Where the pace of life had been pulling us at 5Gs in a centrifuge, instead of being forced outwards the lockdown had now turned the force inward, to where we were all falling forward together into an attractive centre, which I call a natural equilibrium. Where previously few had any time for anyone else, they now found themselves devoting newfound time to the human relations they once held at the fulcrum of their world. Where many were being sucked into deadly debt traps, they now saw another possibility for an economic model that extolled the simple, organic life. Where many couldn’t sleep for the din of a society that had turned into a screaming lunatic asylum, quiet lockdown nights brought quiescence to tortured minds. It also revealed what had always been there but droned out: birdsong, and other naturally-occurring sounds. Where tens of thousand of species teetered on the brink of extinction due to human unwillingness to share, humanity finally agreed that the wild places were too few and the tamed ones too many. Monoculture changed in the agri business. Farmers were now harvesting goodies from the broad-leafed forests they had let grow in the vacuum of brown fields whose soil was depleted to the point of exhaustion. Animals that had resisted extirpation by laying low during the worst of our planetary abuses, and generally driven to the edge by our selfish species, followed suit. Population policy aimed at natural reduction, allowing crops to be grown vertically in great agri-towers that ran on sunlight. Where our industrial-age fear of the dark had produced so much halogen light to power society through night after night, so the lights went off and the stars returned to twinkle over what were sulphurous megacities. Something else unexpected returned: the sun. The industrial age had whipped up a dynasty of stormy weather by seeding every cloud with effluents and contaminants into raining. Gone was the chromatic aberration caused by poor air quality. Now the portrait of the planet looked pin sharp and didn’t we know it.

A revolution in the mind happened soon after the lifting of the 2020 lockdown. People wanted it back. They may not have professed to wanting thousands dead of a pathogen, but what they did want was to mitigate the disastrous effects of the human project by blocking off one month in every year where systems ground practically to a halt; where only essential distribution services, such as food and medicine and so forth remained a mainstay priority. Of course, they were compensated financially, but this would decrease over time as we moved away from heavy borrowing and high expenditure market economics to an ecological model of sustainable productivity. So, there you are on the magic carpet, skirting over the planet.

Ten years have past since the lockdown revolution/revelation of 2020. The annual month of fallow is now enshrined in UN law. Every nation is a signatory. Even the U.S., that resisted for so long because it was a concept engineered through the myth of the American Dream to exist only by maximising capital gains in every overworked American, even they got on board. China remains the dark horse: tense on the issue because the Chinese are caught between their philosophical tradition of Taoism and their love of making money by ramping up industry to ridiculous levels. Europe, being the old man, was at the forefront of the new paradigm for living. The Continentals approved wholeheartedly of this nouvelle approach to tempering things down.

Mechanisms were put in place to ensure that the other eleven months are not abused by the rush to over-productivity, as this habit came to be scoffed at for its backward greed motive. As a burned-out race we started mellowing. Our eyes were evermore open to the great clockwork of nature and how we – contrary to the proud fools that modernity and progress had made us – had broadly accepted our fixed role as a cog in that natural machinery, and not – contrary to the arrogance of our predecessors – as its clockmaker. Delegates even took to doling out liberal sprinklings of Gandhi’s wisdom that we live simply so that we may simply live.

What do you see, future me, when you look down from way up high on that Afghan rug in the new blue sky?

The Resurrection Will Not Be Televised

Britain, British Isles, Coronavirus, Covid-19, earth, free will, future, kindness, Landscape Photography, Life, Lifestyle, natural history, natural philosophy, natural world, nature, pandemic, People, philosophy, Planet Earth, Politics, Reflections, Socioeconomics, thoughts, urban decay, Virus, Wildlife

If I’ve said it once i’ll say it again: nature is back with a stealthy, healthy whimper. While Rome burns, Gaia fiddles a melodic tune. For literary effect, to assert that nature is back with a bang! as opposed to a mere whimper might hit harder, but it would defeat the point, for it is humanity that creates big noise. Nature is as nature does, and what it does while a quarter of the planet is housebound, while international trade experiences historic levels of supply chain disruption and slumped productivity, is to go about restoring a dynamic balance with quiet purpose. As house elves set about sprucing up the house during the dead of night when all slumber, watching spring assert itself while trade, commerce, and human bustle sleeps is a spectacle worthy of praise. Question remains: when we all wake up, how soon before the house is reduced to another ransacking?

Of course, I’m not the first to notice this wondrous upturn in our fortunes. People stop by the boat and remark how they’re beginning to notice things they hadn’t before on their daily stroll through the countryside. That obsolete word wildlife is even making a comeback. They notice the sky turning from wispy blue-white on a good day a deeper shade of aqua in the absence of belching fumes. They notice the stars return to cityscapes after a lengthy absence. They stop and notice birds do their courtship thing where before they just zoomed past. In short, more and more people are diverting their attentions away from servicing the machine of unenlightened human progress and toward natural events so revered by their forebears. What’s more, they like what they see.

The turning of the seasons becomes all the more apparent when the hatches are battened down. Human sensory organs realign themselves, from toning down the din of normal working life to tuning in to the rhythms of the living planet. Now i know that stuck in a megalopolis of high rises as far as the eye can see poses a challenge to the notion that pandemic lockdown has an unexpected upside that might even outrank the pandemic itself in vitality and importance. Half the world, nevertheless, still lives within range of what could be nominally called ‘the countryside’. Those multitudes are getting out (well they certainly ain’t wasting the opportunity where i am, which I take to be fairly typical) and some are pleasantly stunned into silence by the very act of silence. Have you heard the countryside now the internal combustion engine has been locked in the garage? Nature dislikes a vacuum, as ecologists like to emphasise, so in place of the universal background drone of cars from roads never further away that a mile (in the U.K., anyway), nature has come up with this novel scheme. It’s called keep producing the sounds of spring that never completely vanished, but rather were drowned out for generations by the vandalism of urban noise. So long, Range Rover Discovery, hello skylark or coal tit.

Few are disingenuous enough to really think that all supply chain distribution has stopped, that the tens of thousands of articulated lorries that deliver the length and breadth of the land have simply given up the game in the face of Covid-19. Most are painfully aware that the lorries are still doing the business so that fools like me can continue to enjoy Sicilian wine and Chilean avocados. Having said that, those delivery runs are sure as hell quiet at the moment. Never in all my years, have I heard the sound of total silence as i have blanketing the hills of West Wiltshire these recent weeks. It’s a thing to marvel at. To know that the world would go on without us. That the world doesn’t really need us, if only to process its complex interconnected workings in our complex interconnected human minds. I’m not even convinced that if we disappeared completely, or at the very least had our numbers severely curtailed, something else wouldn’t evolve soon enough with the ability to record and document phenomena in this world.

Lockdown will come to a close. Names of thousands of mainly elderly folks, ages with my beloved parents, by then will have filled death certificates. But in spite of the appearance of a population impatient to return to exactly how things were pre-pandemic, I think you’ll find that when the doors open again many (well, those in more favourable social and geographical positions) will privately bemoan the end of a peculiar phase in history when, instead of forging ahead on this unsustainable resource-greedy path we’re doomed on, we stopped a while and listened in to the heartbeat of the Earth. It was a very agreeable heartbeat and not one plagued with our hypertensions. More than anything, the resurrection of nature didn’t feel the need to announce its homecoming with much pomp or fanfare. It thrived all serene and dignified. While all this flourishing of life was happening behind the media wall of panic, some of us were alerted by a little voice in our primitive mind that said, ‘i feel good because the world seems to be repairing itself much quicker than anyone ever imagined.’

Of course, industry will once again crank up then overheat. Humans will continue to work against natural ecology – and ultimately their own long-term survival, proving even more of an aberration than any other species. Population in the cruelly-titled Developing World will explode like the algal blooms that human industrial pollution creates. Oceanic dead zones will reappear like necrosis on human skin. But all that planetary destruction will be okay because at least scientists cracked Coronavirus. Next year at this time, dissenting voices might whisper to other dissenting voices, ‘why can’t we have a pandemic every year?’

Declaring a pandemic month each year (without the concomitant death involved) could present hitherto unthought of opportunities. This could be our very own month of Ramadan, when so much comes to a halt during the day so that one may reflect on God (or nature, given that they are one in the same).

The resurrection will not be televised.

Surviving a Wilderness of Weirdness with Philosophy as the Weapon of Choice

ethics, fate, free will, future, greek philosophy, human mind, Life, marcus aurelius, meditations, natural philosophy, natural world, philosophy, Spiritualism, stoicism, thoughts

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The media report much fear and trepidation in the wider world, although judging by the look of contentment on the face of passersby, you’d be hard pressed to think so.

(and I swear even the dogs grin, or is that the outward appearance of having a stick lodged in one’s mouth?)

There’s also the unintended consequence of having a lot of people who find themselves with oodles of time on their hands while Covid-19 does the rounds. So how do they while away the hours until the spectre of death subsides, and we can get back to servicing the toothed machine of human progress? Some trek to Everest Basecamp in the confines of their home by scaling the staircase until the carpet goes bald and they follow suit. Others turn their hand to a spot of home teaching the kids until, realising that the transmission of knowledge through didactic discipline is harder than it looks, they dismiss their tiny class early. Others, like me, write obscure blogs that few dare to read, worse still understand. Still others take up new housebound hobbies with aplomb: such as taking 360˚ virtual trips to the Great Namib Desert courtesy of their much-abused smart phones, or else the wise few keep reciting ‘No wild animals in my delicious hotpot, please’ in Mandarin until the phrase sticks.

With this golden opportunity not to go nuts inside a tiny flat in Basingstoke, how many out there have given over their enquiring mind to the acquisition of a philosophy? Ancients, who weren’t busy warring in a sackcloth and sandals, were rather adept at offering sound advice based on the principle that once a man had found a philosophy to suit his ontological needs, he had succeeded in finding the map that would guide a clear path through this impenetrable life. The bold and the beautiful in the Greco-Roman universe swore by this dictum, going so far as to stitch their new ethos into their imperator tunics while on campaign against troublesome Germanic tribes.

The last of the five ‘good emperors’, Marcus Aurelius, was a man revered for being an enlightened and compassionate allrounder with a mind given over to self-examination in ways inconceivable to other emperors, for whom pleasures of the flesh all too often outweighed the pain of asking what does it all mean and what is my true place in the grand scheme? Given the unenviable task of leading the decades-long charge against tribes terrifying the fragile borderlands of the Roman Empire, the good emperor still managed to fit in a famous philosophical treatise before he died. Known as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, it was in essence a late second century A.D. reinterpretation of an ethical code dating back to a school of philosophy which had flourished ever since Zeno inscribed it in the minds of 4th century B.C.E. Athenians fed up with Cynicism.

Known as Stoicism, this branch of philosophy sought to strip away the bark of long-established wisdom to reveal the true sap oozing out of life: that is to say something vaguely along the lines of a cosmos working in cycles that start and end in fire. All matter that makes up the physical and, by extension, metaphysical questions that Man struggles to intepret works on a rational and logical basis (or ought to). Hence we humans do best when we are exercising reason over hot-headed emotion; hence we attain more understanding of how things are when explaining that phenomena using language built upon the rational rules of grammar instead of, say, an abstract picture or an incoherent grunt.

Sandwiched between the grand cosmological cycles is something we know as nature. Hence. stoicism is arguably the most influential of natural philosophies in its insistence that you and me are very small and limited in the grand scheme of things. By accepting each our minor yet vital role, the pressure is off and therefore happiness through simplicity becomes viable. Nature has a grand design, and if you let it into your heart you’ll soon realise both you are very insignificant and that, in spite of our own individual position far from centre, the universe nevertheless has your best interests at stake. All things occur for a reason. Fate doesn’t have to explain why it behaves in seemingly random ways. If it did, we’d know there’s nothing random about it. Even if an event seems uniquely cruel or inexplicable, natural forces will use the injustice to take corrective measures later on that symmetrically redress the balance, leading to the ‘Ah!’ epiphany that ‘it all makes sense now’. The interconnectivity of events is so blindingly intricate, not even a genius could spot it (shit! Did I just spot it where better people failed?)

Zeno, the father of stoicism himself, is reputed to have said that fate is an endless chain of causation whereby things are: the reason or formula by which the world goes on. In spite of this complex pattern, nature’s inner workings are, obversely, not mystical and esoteric at all; they are beautiful because true beauty lies in simplicity. That nature is beneficent – an unstoppable force that looks out for each of us if only we’d realise it – is contingent on you, the stoic, playing life as a game involving a basic blueprint of virtues to carry through life’s interactions into every little thing. Seek the four cardinal virtues – 1) justice/fairness/decency 2) wisdom/prudence/deliberation 3) courage/fortitude/endurance, and 4) temperance/self-discipline/modesty – and ye shall find yourself on course for a good death. That’s the idea, as I see it. The moment of death is all that your life ultimately amounts to, so life had better be conducted virtuously if death is to be faced head on, without anguish. There is such an aspiration as a good death, but it must be preluded by a life of self-discipline, fairness, examination, and strength of heart and mind. By the way, a good stoic would urge you not to be virtuous only to for the reward of a least hideous death. Be good, in and of itself, not for what it may give you back. Life is not a financial investment. Do the right thing because that is the natural order of things and to speak the language of life eloquently, we must first understand its grammar and morphology.
For stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, life exists to be lived, literally like there is no tomorrow. William Faulkener wrote, The past is never dead. It’s not even past. How I do admire that wordplay. That said, Faulkener was no devotee of Seneca the Stoic. To stoics like Seneca, the past is a foreign country. Events that created the mosaic of that life have moved away forever, never to be relived with the veracity of how they were first meted out. Memories are not to be trusted, nor to be dwelt on. And death is not a loss of a whole life but rather just a loss of a moment at the close of that life. The ideal life, according to Seneca, was to be lived in the now, without dwelling on what’s gone, nor the irrelevance of what’s to come. It was to find contentedness in the simple here and now, and to want for nothing. How else to understand what golden threads of alchemy the cosmic fabric is made of other than to look closely at what is all around you NOW?

What the world needs now is love, sweet love, so goes the song. The world also needs Stoicism, meant not as the character-building prototype of the rugged Victorian imperialist (sword in one hand, dove in the other, pen between the toes, and pipe contemplatively in the mouth). Rather, the stoicism that emanated from ancient Athens and Rome was one that understood its demoted place in the natural order. We face a twenty-first century reckoning because we took stoicism to mean putting up with any old shit that life throws at us. Overwhelmingly, that shit was of our own making because we got way, way ahead of ourselves, thinking that two thousand years of Christianity and Islam had transformed each of us into little gods and sinners to be forgiven through atonement and religious devotion. So it was okay to break the ancient covenant with the natural order and go forth and multiply exponentially while scorching the Earth to conquer all before us because it was sanctioned first by the scriptures, and secondly by the arrogance bestowed on us by virtue of having reached a state of civilisation that was deemed far removed from lowly animals (this civilisation, it should be post-scripted, built its sandcastle empire not always on virtue alone).

In an age of uncertainty, rocked by the unvoiced realisation that there are too many of us vying for limited resources in a world wrecked in the search for these valuables, what needs resurrecting from the ashes of a self-deceptive human race is the idea that there are greater forces out there writing the book of life. That we are not gods but men and women who are fallible may seem self-evident, but any visitor from Andromeda would think we had promoted ourselves to that elevated rank. Every one of us might be just a mote of dust in the wind, but life affords us one chance to show our mettle: that if each of us face our remaining days in the pursuit of justice and courage and wisdom and self-restraint we shall once again feel humbled by the enormity of all that surrounds us. While no one gets out here alive, use this present lockdown to fashion your own system of practical ethics. As well as dying with a smile on your face, you might just make a small difference to your own and to the innumerable small lives that together construct the rich tapestry of everything we see and, more importantly, everything we don’t.

Everybody has an answer, but few a philosophy. Everyone wants a life, but not everyone holds the ethical guidebook to embark upon one worth living. Millions likes posting big pictures on Instagram, but how many consider the bigger picture and their own role as but one pixel within it? Why go in search of happiness as if it be a commodity to be acquired when, with the right tools at your disposal, you may reach inside and find it there? Thousands are dying out there (of malaria more than of Covid-19). So why stay at home wondering how you’re going to avoid it when you can stay at home and work out a formula for how to pursue a good life befitting of an equally good death.

Springtime Of Our Lockdown

Britain, climate, conservation, Coronavirus, counter-culture, Covid-19, crisis, death, earth, environment, fate, free will, future, Hinduism, human mind, Liberalism, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, natural world, nature, neglect, pandemic, People, philosophy, Planet Earth, Political Culture, Politics, Reflections, thoughts

While we wither indoors, out there something profound is happening. Nature is back with a bloom. Can anyone remember it being so resplendent? So full of seasonal promise?

I’m asking myself how an annual event can seem to take on another dimension. Yet spring is springing with a wicked spring in its tail. Animals have returned to wander down paths long blocked to them. Goats window shopping in abandoned Welsh seaside towns; boars doing the passeggiata down silent streets in Bergamo; dolphins nosing around now crystal-clear canals in Venice in the absence of gondoliers sticking their bloody oars in everywhere. Hell! Even the tender shoots of first budding look that bit more sharp-suited, greener than usual. The sky, not so anaemic. The signs, far from being ominous to any life form other than us, are encouraging. If this is what the world’s end looks like, I’m signing up to it. The whole thing is beginning to feel like a massive teleological event: a reckoning that pits us against each other, and ourselves. What did Churchill once say? “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Can it be that Humanity pulls off a civilisational coup, foreclosing on the disastrous Age of Kali (see William Dalrymple’s 1998 travelogue for explanation, or else anyone of eight hundred million Hindus) for a gentler, more enlightened epoch? Could the pandemic be the hidden catalyst for it? Probably not, but the thought is a fitting one given the wonder show that nature puts on while we succumb to fear of personal extinction in our homes under the curfew of self-isolation. While a wholesale regeneration of purity in nature at the expense of human resource rape-&-pillage might be a bit much to hope for, certainly the lockdown can generate a paradigm shift in how people work, and in how we spend our few precious days on this Earth.

Yesterday I stopped by a glade of glistening wild garlic by the roadside. Ordinarily, cars would be humming past with such regularity that no one in their right mind would have pulled over on their bicycles to pick a bunch of nature’s own – a little crop of green goodness that went into the making of wild garlic pesto. In the absence of pandemic, would i have so much as done this? No. Am I better for having done so? Categorically, yes.

This reckoning, by which one refers to a near cessation of frenzied (and highly destructive) activity, which has come to characterise the Human Project over the past forty years, enables a beleaguered and frankly overwhelmed world a chance to hit reset. That great ferris wheel of civilisation that turns ever faster, drawing in and spitting out hapless human victims all the time, has ground to a halt for (shall we say) a spot of maintenance. While it lays motionless, finally we get the chance to stop being mesmerised by its whirring circulation, and start taking in the 360 degree view that was perilously neglected all the while.

Now is the springtime of our being (unless you live in the southern hemisphere in which case you’re on for a revolutionary autumn). Those who are in the gutter looking up at stars over cities that are not only shining but coruscating for the first time in the modern age, will they necessarily want a straight return to an orange-sodium sky above their heads, planes roaring overhead? Those realising that the job they are doing from home unexpectedly through lockdown can be done from home post-lockdown, will they desire an immediate return to crammed commuter lines full of sleepy, barely-approachable worker drones? All of us who may take our one hour of daily exercise (which in reality morphs into about four as the conditions are so favourable, and as time has taken on a more elastic property), we who can stroll down lanes untrammelled by the impatient thud of footsteps, do we want necessarily to cash in the quietude for a ride on the capitalist wheel of fortune again?

The spectre of death clears the field. If there were ever a moment to stop and smell the roses, it is now. If there were ever a moment to ask ourselves: what do each of us want from this fleeting life, and what are we prepared to leave behind when the fire goes out? Now is the time. A gift has been offered to us in the form of mass global quarantining. From this renewal nature may stand a fighting chance while for our part we may gain absolution from mass collective sin. Now I don’t quite know what kind of force is behind these weird developments, but whatever orchestrated them is giving Humanity an open window for opportunity to refashion ourselves into a life force that goes with the seasons, instead of one that signifies such damage and ecological destruction that the seasons themselves cease to be what they were. That window will all but certainly blow shut with the first shunt of summer wind against the pane. While we’re all locked down, let’s make room for the other tenants that call Earth their home, too. When the time comes to fling open our doors again, let goodness flow out and everywhere.

Get Covid Done!

Britain, British Isles, climate, Coronavirus, Covid-19, crisis, developing world, England, europe, free will, history, Liberalism, Libertarian, Libertarianism, natural world, pandemic, People, philosophy, Political Culture, Politics, Reflections, Society, Socioeconomics, third world, thoughts, United States, Virus

He didn’t see this one coming. To be fair, no one did, but other nations saw it before it was too late and were able to act. Now that roughly 20% of humanity is officially in lockdown, there are few things either The Boris or The Donald want more than for Covid-19 to disappear up its own spiky protein. But not necessarily for compassionate reasons. Rather, British and American decision makers, laden down by their unique political histories involving liberty and personal freedom, plus economic histories involving conquest and greed, are desperate to get back to the business of business as usual. Discomfort shows in their every contradictory pronouncement. For Trump, Covid-19 threatens to undermine his masterplan to Make America Great Again. Extrapolations on the data are already making for disturbing reading in the Oval Office. Be gone! Or we’ll find a way to switch back on the Christmas lights, with or without you – that’s the underlying message. By forcing Covid-19 into a hasty exit from the world stage, the Twenty-First Century’s first pandemic becomes an artefact of the past, an irritant, allowing the engine of Industrial Capitalism to crank up again.

I’ve heard it said that this mass quarantining, with all the supply-chain grogginess accompanying it, will contain a hidden bounce. We’ll learn through it to curtail our insatiability for goods, we’ll slow down, start taking in our immediate surrounds, take stock of what it’s all about. Nature, hating vacuums, will step in again, guiding us onto the right track.

But the cynic in me thinks the opposite will happen. The bounce we’ll see will represent another existential threat to life on earth because the global capitalist system will go into overdrive to compensate for lost productivity we see right now. As happened in the decade following the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu, the world made strides of unimaginable distance (even to the point of pioneering the very cure that nailed infection: antibiotics). In 1929, the world economy overheated and Wall St. imploded, just to underline the Capitalist frenzy that was the 1920s, which was supposed to have been an era stopped in its pre-1914 tracks. I thought the whole point of the industrial and microbial mass killing of the 1910s was that in the 20s the world would to be cowed by the horror of what they had experienced: sent homewards to think again. Logic determines that the high-rev 1920’s that did eventuate should never have been. We should have been slowed into digesting the shock of living through an aftermath of 100 million dead by Influenza, on top of the 20 million killed in the Great War. Instead the opposite happened. Where the late 1910s whimpered, the 1920s roared. That was the lesson humanity learned: not to eat humble pie, but to throw it back in the world’s face.

The 1918-19 influenza preyed on mainly the young (unlike this one): killing upwards of 100 million of them when world population was about one quarter of what it is today. On an interesting note, to match Spanish Flu’s global death rate, this one would have to claim upwards of 400 million lives. Irrespective of however many lives this virus will ultimately take relative to 1918-1919, one thing’s for sure: players of influence in world affairs will ensure the 2020s will roar like the 1920s. The same industries that devise global networks of fantastic intricacy and infectious energy are ready and primed for action. As soon as it can, the global supply chain will. Though flummoxed by this global pandemonium, industry is spring-loaded, and when this virus runs its course, production will go into interstellar overdrive.

In short, we’ll be picking off natural resources at a rate that’ll equate to where we’d be had this so-called ‘Chinese Virus’ never broken out in the first place, in that sinister live market in Wuhan. The Government here in the UK tarried more than most, not wanting to disrupt civic and, more importantly, commercial life. Laying down curfews while turning off the mercantile-financial tap, is not how affairs are conducted on these stubborn and defiant isles. Britain, above all other nations, is historically bound to the idea of a liberty that each person supposedly wears under their soul. Liberal democracy rests upon consent between ruler and ruled. Lack of consent is taken to be authoritarianism, a next step to despotism with the bloody curfews and martial law that denotes. This notion of multi-party consent runs strongly along an historical arc that reaches back even further than the Magna Carta and into the mists of our Celtic and Anglo-Saxon past. Telling people unconditionally that they must remain indoors is even more anathema to the governing class than it is to a broad swathe of the population who don’t much appreciate being told what to do.

Boris Johnson is a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian. He is an arch advocate of liberty in conduct, providing that conduct does not impinge negatively on others. And therein lies the rub. His dilemma is knowing that liberty of conduct very obviously involves impinging negatively on others by the mere act of standing within six feet of them. Johnson must have delivered his emergency measures with heavy heart. And his moral conflict reveals itself in the mixed reaction of the people he governs who are right now getting out and enjoying the sunshine of early spring. They’ll take their chances, thank you very much. Even if that means a brush with Coronavirus.

On the first day of national lockdown – possibly the first mass quarantine in modern history – I personally witnessed a populace so unmoved by the spectre of mass infection, so determined to get out to feel washed by the warmth of a sun that seemed to abandon us last September, as to render the whole seriousness a joke. From my home on the water by the canal towpath leading out of Bath, England, hundreds came my way. A near unbroken stream of cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, lovers, couples, and nature lovers went past all contented to be engaged in the very thing they most wanted to do. And as the day progressed the crowds grew in number until quite breezily potential hosts eclipsed one another going in opposite directions. You’d have thought it was a bank holiday.

We”re now on day two, and the crowds have yet to abate while the sun clings on.

Those who pass by in their multitudes are a stolid and resilient people, although not daft enough to risk compromising their health, well not knowingly. Except they’ve seen the gathering storm, so why do they risk making a mockery out of the famous tea towel mantra of Carry On and Keep Calm? Selfishness is undoubtedly an aspect of this because who is out there reminding the Great British Public that it’s not themselves they risk harming by turning their one daily allowance of exercise into a three-hour stroll with picnic on the side? But there lurks something beneath the brittle mantle of selfish inconsideration. It’s the liberty, stupid!

The tradition of English and American liberalism in so imbued in our respective political cultures that suffocating the virus by the act of imposing belated curfews, and even drafting in the army to enforce a national lockdown, will be a tough sell to a begrudging population (in American election year) who are all for stamping out sickness for a return to normal but without compromising their right to free will and consumer choice too much. When governments in London and Washington start doing the modern equivalent of posting decrees on town halls and church doors across the land, a liberty-spoilt people will want to see that their personal sacrifices were worth the effort of not going outdoors on sunny days. You can’t always see that with disease, pestilence and plague. Furthermore, if life-threatening illness has never factored into your life, why give up a good, long stroll along the canal on a fine spring day when the songbirds are trilling happily for the sake of a vulnerable stranger whose contraction of Covid-19 cannot be scientifically traced back to you, you who might carry it without symptoms?

Trump and Johnson, perhaps more than other world leaders, desire a speedy and tidy end to this drawn-out mess. They see the collapse of the global free-trade mercantilist system as the worst kind of pandemic. Investors are losing money; distribution centres lie stocked and undelivered. The wheels are coming off the bus one by one. It doesn’t matter that the passengers aboard the bus are catching something nasty, for the point is that it’s the bus that counts, and not the passengers it carries. Where there’s money to be made, unnamed figures of policy influence don’t fancy Covid-19 to turn into another Brexit paralysis, even if that means the cities like London and New York feel the sting in the tail of the Covid-19 scorpion: a disproportionate outbreak due to deep ambivalence about making NYC into the city that sleeps all the time. Libertarianism will take a hit. A beautiful idea rendered pointless by the need to be ordered where to go and when. Johnson and Trump are deeply wedded to the principles of libertarianism and will be loathe to rule without it.

When all is said and done, Johnson and Trump just want to get Covid done!

Hey Bulldog!

Beatles, Buddhism, death, fate, free will, future, Life, meditations, Musings, natural world, nature, Oddities, philosophy, predator, Reflections, Solipsism, thoughts

These are the days of our lives. Whether we like it or not, the clock is ticking. The long hour upon the stage will, of a fashion, one day be heard no more. So, let the tale told, ideally, not be by an idiot espousing sound and fury. Let it be told well, full of twists and turns, laughs and loves, random acts of kindness, adventures and heart-fluttering moments that lend themselves to the proud declaration: I was there.

I was recently watching colour footage of the Beatles in the studio, circa 1968, recording Hey Bulldog!. A song destined for obscurity, for me it was a much underrated number. According to Lennon, Hey Bulldog! was a nice tune that meant nothing. However, it wasn’t the melodies that stood out, nor McCartney’s catchy bass line. Rather, it was how the four lads from Liverpool – how the Beatles as a living organism – had undergone a profound physical and mental transformation in such a short space of time since they burst onto the scene in ’63. In the annals of rock music, who else aged and evolved so rapidly in relatively few years? To watch the Beatles do their seven years together was to observe a lifespan in time-lapse photography. Not only did the hair grow and the faces harden, the voices deepened and the subject matter took on ever more gravity. Theirs was an accelerated existence full of very little wasted time, a sort of Haiku poetry in motion.

Some creatures, like giant tortoises, slow down their metabolism to reach the age of Methuselah. He crawls, unchanged, through the centuries. Others, like dormice, speed up their heartbeats to live a James Dean life: short and intense. Mayflies explode onto the scene only to drop dead in the Danube before their first Earth day is out. In the human realm, things are similar. Picasso painted for over seventy years, ten times longer than the Beatles jammed. No slouch, over decades he painted thousands of canvases, admittedly. Some brush work he performed with a swish of urgency, but overall Picasso’s life mirrored the tortoise. He went for longevity, enjoying his life’s true calling all along the way. Physically, Picasso didn’t really alter appearance over time. He started small, tanned, dark-haired and Spanish-eyed, and he ended small, even more tanned, no-haired and Spanish-eyed. The Beatles, contrastingly, seemed to physically and creatively morph so fast, you could almost watch them grow up and apart. Lennon was the epitome of this. From young scallywag to long-haired gnostic, Lennon’s ageing was catalysed by a public domain obsessed with him. Like Mr Benn (for those of you old enough to remember the children’s TV show of the early 1970s) he changed his appearance in no time. As Lennon set about to change the world, the world changed him. And everyone could see him carrying carrying the weight of the world, plain as day (citation: boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, from Abbey Road.)

I employed the Beatles as an analogy to underscore the importance of using the time each of us have to reinvent ourselves: to morph; to never sit on our laurels. Your average human life is more four score and seven years than the squeeze of seven years the Beatles had to shake the world. That said, because we have no idea how long we have to live, these numbers melt away. The Beatles had seven years, but what they did in that time was the musical equivalent of the seventy years afforded Picasso. From I Want to Hold Your Hand to Eleanor Rigby in a mere three years? The difference in maturity might as well amount to forty.

I speak to so many people convinced that because life is long they can afford to sit out the game for long spells. In absentia, years vanish and little substantive gets done. A fearfulness sets in, front doors slam shut, possessions mount up, families fuse together before they sometimes shatter, leaving our clever model of market economics to dig its hooks in until ‘financial commitments’ make it all but impossible to break the chains that bind you to an immovable object that remains out of sight. Folks get stuck in a rut they can’t physically see, and their only consolation is that, ‘oh well, at least I’ve got years ahead of me to change things’.

If only we knew that the game was up much earlier than we originally thought might we take affirmative action to be the change we saw in ourselves. Maybe the Beatles knew deep down they didn’t have long (compared with their musical contemporaries) and that was the catalyst for them to live like no tomorrow (for Tomorrow Never Knows) : to pupate, to reinvent, to transmogrify, to create then recreate, and then some more. You don’t have to have penned Strawberry Fields Forever to view life as a series of peaks and troughs: of pinnacles that only the ingenious few can reach and rifts that the rest of us wallow in. If I had the power to tell another they had one more year instead of forty to thrive, what then? If others had the divine prophecy to forewarn me that my innings was a lot shorter than I otherwise thought, what then would I do to affect change? How would i fill the empty pages in this blank book of life?

(Footnote: I was moved to write this as I pondered the meaning of why the female mallard I’ve been feeding from the boat for the past three months was inexplicably taken from us (and from her drake boyfriend, in a meaningful sense) by an ambush predator, a giant pike probably. She was seen being dragged under not three weeks before she would have presented hatchlings to the Spring. What is this that the life of an animal can end so abruptly, her genetic destiny to reproduce be so cruelly thwarted, by a big nasty bottom-feeding fish, off all things? How arbitrary! How absurd! How sad! Her boyfriend was quacking like a mad thing in distress. And five days on, I still give her a thought.)

Whatever Happened to the Sunshine after the Rain?

Britain, British Isles, climate, conservation, developing world, earth, environment, extreme weather events, natural history, natural world, nature, Ocean, Oddities, People, philosophy, Planet Earth, thoughts, weather, Wildlife

Life, so they say, can be stranger than fiction. This fact, or rather this fiction, can be evident in everything from the unexpected to the plainly weird. We see it when we view the world as a stage full of actors, props, scripts, and backdrops. You only have to cast an eye back to Macbeth (life…the poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage) to know that even the Bard agreed with me on this score. Life as theatre; landscape as backdrop; weather as atmosphere. It’s hard sometimes to frame even the most staid human life without the injection of a little dramatic licence. The actor’s role may be minor, his input stuttering at best, but life being theatre the director can always throw in a little squall of wind and rain from the rafters to enliven the backdrop, as well as to defy Shakespeare by making life signify something instead of nothing.

The unnamed stage director – the identity of who or what is behind all this is a question for the ages – has seen fit to sprinkle onto his now dreary play that pixie dust that might help pick up the pace. With the play in a lull, and with not a great deal to stir the protagonist into something approaching life, attention turns to props that fill the backdrop so as to crank up the drama. In a near-perfect mirror image of one man’s life and its fictional mise-en-scène, the backdrop outside my window more than compensates for a dearth in action on stage. Outside an ill wind throttles trees, horizons are blighted by the murk of an uncertain present time, and what falls as rain falls always. In the theatre of fiction, even there they’d struggle to keep up with the scene out there.

The same rain that hath come, goes not. Like a burrowed cancer it refuses to yield. I thought the apocalypse was the sole bringer of incessant rain. In the Blade Runner an ecocide caused by meddling Man has bruised the sky such it bleeds rain unceasingly. In Apocalypse Now, Marlow’s painted face is washed unclean by a tropical downpour as he creeps upon Colonel Kurtz to deliver the bloody coup-de-grace. In the Old Testament, God sends the almighty heavens to wash away the sins of Man, but not before Noah can construct an Ark of salvation for the innocents. How wrong can a man be? This is no apocalypse now. This is an island but not unto itself. Rather, it sits on the edge of a vast, churning ocean of grey. That ocean has a big old surface area and on that surface the water temperature is creeping up such that the water cycle is heating up. More prone to evaporation in the warmer winter months, more driven by a stronger Jet Stream, the quantities of rain are becoming prodigious. The frequency of this natural event has gone from what is sublime – a thing of beauty when rain comes only when rain needs to fall for plants to regenerate and for rivers to replenish themselves – to what is absolutely ridiculous.

Here in this region of England’s SouthWest, it has rained practically every day since the end of September. I thought these meteorological conditions were the preserve of film noir, graphic novels, and dark, sinister fictions. But no. Life, as we know it here, has emerged stranger than fiction. And like the strangers no longer welcome to Brexit Britain 2.0, the strangeness of seeing rain every day for months on end, well, let’s just say the wet has outstayed its welcome, too.

How has it come to this? Speaking personally, not eighteen months ago and I was positioned at the edge of a vast empty quarter where life was also stranger than fiction. There, the rain fell so infrequently we assumed it had been engineered to make its annual appearance on National Day. Some said the Air Force existed purely to seed constipated clouds that refused to precipitate. When it fell, it took more airborne dust than water with it. Touching earth, the drops fizzled before withered roots had the chance to prosper, though now and again flash flooding would send cascades down parched valleys, turning the deadened mountainsides green with a Lazarus resuscitation. Fast forward eighteen months, the inverse has become the new norm. Different place, same old shit. An Age of Extremes is where we are at. Over here, we’ll soon need the Red Arrows to disperse the clouds just to reassure a benighted people that there is a sun somewhere in the sky.

These are funny times indeed. How rare that you can travel the world in search of extremes only to come back ‘home’ and find conditions you’d struggle to find even in India during the monsoon. All of October, all of November, December, January, and now well into the third week of February. When will it end? Can the clouds deliver so much without respite that the land can take no more? Once rivers have burst their banks and storm drains froth and bubble like the blood-soaked mouth of an Ebola victim, where can all this water go? It seeps underground into vast subterranean chambers and hidden river systems until all the caverns are drowned and the soil beneath our feet starts spouting little springs in the oddest of places. And still the developers buy up the last remaining acres of cheap land on floodplains where they lay their flimsy foundations to sell onward those dream homes that would be better-suited built with a hull, a prow and a stern ready for the inevitable. And still we refuse to advocate the slow and humane replacement of burgeoning human populations with tree saplings that nature anoints into magnificent sponges whose roots drink their fill and much more. Life is indeed stranger than fiction.

There was a time before us when Gaia (the living, breathing skin of the Earth) posed the greatest challenges to life on Earth while providing the greatest answers to them all. It threw everything at itself and then brushed it off. Every action had a reaction, which was beautifully synergised. Mother Nature led a three billion-year dynasty of dynamic equilibrium. I don’t know if we are capable of such balancing acts. We stand on the high wire but only to teeter on the brink. This weird weather would indicate she is growing ever impatient. Sensing our human shortcomings, will natural forces wrest back control? Will she return to lavish the sunlight on these dark, soddened corners? When again will fiction take back its claim to be stranger than life? I’ll tell you when. Only when Man goes back to what he does best, writing strange fiction, will nature go back to what she does best, writing the beautiful story of life.

Life Signs Vital

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From the wandering star followed to Bethlehem by the Magi, to Constantine and his Latin cross in the night skies over Rome’s Milvian Bridge, for as long as any historic text can remember, humans have acted not (as they might like to imagine) independently in matters of life choice, but as a response to phenomena out there in the world. Whether these phenomena involve snapped branches pointing in a particular direction out of the tangled forest, serendipitous meetings with mysterious strangers, or even constellations that speak directly to the individual in us by spelling out our mission in dot writing, natural events have proved unshakeably reliable as SIGNS ripe for following. Other animals follow their hunger and their paternal instinct toward the rains, or the seasons, or the ocean currents. But not us. Oh no, not humanity. We follow abstract signage in the most unlikely of quarters because something in the form and motion of a sign tells us that nature exists to furnish us with little messages put there FYI only.

But in an age of scientific materialism, should we listen to superstitious signs, or let mediums self-appointed with the power to interpret that symbolic value for us. The Gypsy lady? She who lets the tea leaves/coffee granules to settle into a discernible form spelling out (in her own inexplicable way) what’s in store for each of us? She with the singular ability to divine the past, present and future, and thus able to cut a path through our impenetrable present? Hooped earrings and colourful headscarves aside, should we even listen to ourselves when something out of the blue tells us which corner to turn in life? What is it in the nature of choice, the one true act of free will we convince ourselves is ours and ours to fuck up? Are we slaves to signs, subconsciously letting them lead us on into what we think will end either in good life choices or, horror of horrors, outcomes less than desirable? Do other members of our rapidly-proliferating species see signs with quite the obsessive sensing that I seem to? Questions, questions, questions, and only vague signs there to answer them.

I wrote a woefully-neglected book back in 2007 called Signs of Capricorn. Essentially, it was a free-thinking, free-spirited, faintly philosophical travelogue based on a long-awaited return to Australia. I had left the land Down Under in 2003, instantly regretting a choice which i deemed purely my own, without any other agency. At the time, I must have figured if i return to Britain things will be different. I’ll finally, after thirty years of trying and failing, fall in love with the island of my birth, and especially those two peculiarly British contributions to the world: a stubborn class system and a maritime climate that makes the headlines most days for all the wrong reasons. Yes, my family were instrumental in my going back. Unlike the weather, they weren’t changeable and horrid. But, like the English class system, they could be stubborn.

So, in the wake on my grand homecoming in 2003, I realised I had made a major life error, and instantly vowed to overturn this disastrous decision by going back to Sydney the following year. However, as the venerable Lennon said, life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t until 2006 that my pledge was finally realised. I departed a rainy Manchester, arriving after a brief stopover in Dubai, in to a hot Sydney. The city had changed in the intervening three years. That much i could detect within moments. It didn’t feel the same. Well, of course. Why would it? And here is where the book comes into play. I threw my hat up into the air and let the winds of fate carry it aloft. And so it was that I chose to spend a month driving as far and wide as I could in search of signs.

A critical factor in all this unfolding story is that I was misinformed that my Australian Permanent Residency visa would be duly reauthorised merely by going back there on holiday. Cruelly, this was not how how the immigration system worked. Nor was this how things were meant to be. On hearing that I had not amassed sufficient residential time in Australia within a 5-year period (i was a month short), I was faced with a binary choice: by all means, stay indefinitely (thus leaving my rental home, family and beloved dog back in Yorkshire where my family call home) in the Commonwealth of Australia; or fly out of Kingsford-Smith Airport and back to Heathrow, but do so knowing the consequences. That being an annulment of my right to remain in Australia. Visa cancelled. The term Burn Bridges springs to mind (another historical instance of how signs influences the course of a lifespan, in this case of Caesar’s Roman Empire). Mainly because of my dog, I knew I was going back, like it or not. With a month’s adventure ahead, I drove north through Queensland’s Sandstone Belt and out to the Barrier Reef. Along the way, I followed roadsigns down highways where life signs clung on like the spinifex grasses that give the Outback its patchy head of hair.

On returning to Britain, I nursed a quiet devastation. My first encounter – the first of many troubling signs, you might conclude – was with my neighbour, an awful human specimen who spent his disempowered life fulminating in one garden-wall dispute after another. In Old England, where most people are packed like sardines in a tin can because the entitled few own and jealously guard huge swathes of the land, such disputes and tensions are not uncommon. Knowing that I had made not one but two cardinal misjudgements in leaving Australia (an island-continent I had reimagined as being above such petty squabbles between neighbours) not once but twice. I knew the recurrence of this poor choice must signify something. It must be life’s ineluctable way of telling me I had, in fact, made the right choice leaving Sydney. Struggling to understand why, I wrote the book as a therapy, as a means of retracing my steps in order to discover the origins of these signs, and what they could possibly mean for my life, one that seemed to be in disarray.

You can generate the data to fit the theory, but that is not true science. Or you can map the data (as it appeared along the road to the Barrier Reef on that epic trip of self-discovery), building a picture through which a workable theory emerges. First data, then theory, then test of theory. Burning rubber on blacktop, I probed the island-continent to probe the answer to why life had turned out this way. For such a dry landmass, the results were improbably fertile. Hadn’t one of the great Greeks said something to the tune of….’life is played out on an ocean of timespace, whose currents carry us of their choosing unless we find it within ourselves to take the tiller and steer a course, even though the current will still take us, ultimately, where it chooses. In short, we can infer signs in life and so effect small but significant changes in our lives, even if the grander designs, such as fate, love, accident and death are not within our remit to shape as we would see fit to?

(n.b. of course, most of us would choose to be rich, healthy and loved, and never to die).

At journey’s end, I flew back. The immigration officer at Sydney’s airport peered at the visa page of my passport and asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. You realise that if you leave you cannot come back? Helpless, unsure if I had even found a green light on those outback roads, I timidly acknowledged the gravity of what she was saying. Somewhat bemused, she stamped the exit visa and that was that. Another chapter closed. Except it wasn’t. Once back in England, I threw myself into the writing. Stapling together every little back-dated detail on what had been a diverse but disconnected life of travelling, of living in disparate regions of the world following love over career, the unpredictable over the predictable, I tried but could not discern signs that would lead me out of this mess of my own making.

I looked around. I looked inside. I could not make sense of life’s highway code. At the end of the book, life appeared to recover. Things were looking up. England didn’t seem quite so dismal, nor quite so synonymous with personal failure and utter alienation. And then the possibility dawned on me that therapising the experience of making life-changing choices had had the inadvertent upshot of detoxifying – for want of a better word – Australia from my bloodstream of consciousness. The book flopped but thanks to reclusive and intensely introspective nature of remaking memories in narrative form (a year locked away in a room), I steered a course through cold turkey. What emerged was acceptance that i had taken a wrong turn. Moreover, that ages hence I might actually find that leaving Australia when i did was not a misreading of signs at all. Rather, it was a correct reading of the sign to leave when I did and to return three years later to make peace with the war that was raging inside for all that time. It was not unlike the signs of Outback roads themselves – the ones that appear only once, at the beginning of the backroad, and where no signposts will appear again for many, many kilometres. Following a sign laid down years before gave to no signs whatsoever until the next one appeared. The next one would appear near the end of that stretch of bitumen. It stood as proof positive that the next junction led somewhere good, somewhere new.

Signs are everywhere to be followed, and yet nowhere to be seen. We convince ourselves we take decisions independent of influence, particularly from abstractions such as physical objects (stars), chance encounters (accidents that change our lives irrevocably), epiphanies birthed from freak occurrences (a spiritual awakening on the road to Kathmandu), and the likes. But our rational minds are steeped in the mythology of the inexplicable. Knowing that every weighty little decision rests solely on our steepled shoulders, or that each one is not interrelated, represents an unbearable burden on our lives. Decisions are ours to make? Oh yeah? That I followed invisible signs to where I am now (which is no bad place) suggests some things are meant to be. That all things might, just maybe, be more bound together than our Western social constructs would have us believe.