Friday, December 03, 2004

The Lost World

I have recently re-read Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s adventure novel “The Lost World”, which I had last read when in my teens, and I think in a single sitting, so exciting had I found it. So when I settled down to read it again these forty-five or so years later, I wondered whether I would be similarly enthralled. I wasn’t quite, but it was close. And this is how it should have been, since I am an older boy than I was forty-five years ago.

“The Lost World” is prefaced by a short poem, which goes:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man
Or the man who’s half a boy.

So there it is. Yes, I’m a man still half a boy, and reading again “The Lost World” after all these years gave me more than the one hour of joy as intended in the poem. So Conan-Doyle did his job well.

The book is about four men who travel to the Amazon to find the plateau where dinosaurs and other antediluvian creatures are rumoured still to dwell. The plateau had been formed through the movement of tectonic plates beneath the earth over the aeons. Because the plateau had become so inaccessible from the land surrounding it, the sentient life forms it hosted were supposed not to have become extinct. A man called Professor Challenger, on a previous expedition there, had seen some birds flying in the air, which he claimed were pterodactyls, but no-one back in Edwardian England believed him.

To gather proof of their survival, another expedition is arranged. The three intrepid men who accept the challenge to validate Professor Challenger’s claims are a newspaperman, E.D. Malone, who is the narrator; Professor Summerlee, a bird-like bookworm; and Lord John Roxton, a gun-toting adventurer given to dropping his “g”s from the ends of words when he speaks. And, oh yes, to carry their stuff and do the cooking and the like, they take along with them a couple of Indians and a large faithful negro called Zambo.

During the journey to the Amazon Professor Challenger pops up along the way, since no-one was going to leave him out of this for anything. Professor Challenger is as his name suggests – challenging. He is short and squat, with a barrel-like chest. The world is his adversary, because he loves to argue and fight. When Malone had first called on him they got into an argument, which quickly turned into a wrestling match that only ended when the momentum of their flailing punches propelled them both into the street outside.

The four heroes find the fabled plateau – called Maple White Land, after its original discoverer – and have enough adventures there to last a lifetime, including nearly getting eaten by dinosaurs and just escaping being killed by ape-men. It is touch and go whether they will be able to escape back to civilization and tell their story. They do, thanks in large part to the faithful Zambo.

Back in England they are invited to present evidence of their findings at a meeting of the Zoological Institute in the Queen’s Hall, which is packed and boisterous, since some of the doubters can’t be silenced. Our heroes, anticipating disbelief, arrange for a large box to be brought in.

Professor Challenger opens it, and out comes a loathsome stinking creature with ten-foot long leathery wings. It escapes from Challenger’s grasp, knocking and bumping against the walls like a moth trying to escape, and it does indeed, and flies off into the London night. This is the proof the crowd needs. They rise to their feet, singing “God Save the King”, and hoist the four heroes aloft.

Where could they go from there? What, particularly, could our narrator, E.D. Malone do now? The main reason he’d gone on the expedition was to prove his worth to Gladys, the young lady he wanted to marry. Going on life threatening adventures was the sort of thing young ladies of that time expected their young men to do, because they had to be, above all, brave.

When Malone knocks on Gladys’s door after he returns from his journey, he finds out she is engaged to be married to someone else, an inoffensive solicitor’s clerk. Thus Malone must now change the name of the lake he’d discovered on the plateau, from Lake Gladys to the more prosaic Lake Central.

Being now at a loose end, Lord John Roxton decides to arrange another expedition to “……have another look at the dear old plateau”. Malone asks if he can also go along if Lord John will have him. “…….Lord Roxton said nothing, but a brown hand was stretched out to me across the table”. The end.

“The Lost World” was published in 1912. It exudes the English self-confidence and jingoism of those times when the white man, particularly the English white man, was lord of the world which contained an empire on which the sun never set. Little did he know that just two years later, in 1914, the curtain would drop, the guns would be booming on the Western Front, and one million young Englishmen - an entire generation - would die in the mud and barbed wire of the trenches.

The innocent world of Professor Challenger and Lord John Roxton would be gone forever, to become a lost world.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Darkness Visible

When I learned of the recent suicide of the author, Iris Chang, I was saddened because I had recently read her book, “The Rape of Nanking”.

Her death, and the manner of it, is made all the more sad since, being only in her early thirties, with a two-year old child, and being the author of three acclaimed books, with many more still to write, and regarded as one of America’s brightest young historians, she appeared to have everything going for her. Except for one important thing, which was that she was seriously ill with depression - a disease she found so unbearable that she felt compelled to end her life.

On learning of Iris Chang's death, I thought of a book I'd read some years ago, called “Darkness Visible”, by the novelist William Styron. It is his beautifully written account of his own devastating depression. I re-read it.

William says it is not known exactly what causes deep depressions. But it would appear that the loss of someone close is an important ingredient, and also heredity. In his case, his loss was that of his mother who had died when he was a child. And he remembers his father having been hospitalized for depression. William thinks he was able to keep his depression at bay until he was sixty, probably through alcohol which, one day, he found himself no longer able to drink. Shortly thereafter, his depression began in earnest.

He says:
…..the disease of depression remains a great mystery. It has yielded its secrets to science far more reluctantly than many of the major ills besetting us. The intense and sometimes comically strident factionalism that exists in present day psychiatry – the schism between the believers in psychotherapy and the adherents of pharmacology – resembles the medical quarrels of the eighteenth century (to bleed or not to bleed) and almost defines in itself the inexplicable nature of depression and the difficulty of its treatment………….
William emphasises that severe depressions are non-discriminatory as to whom they afflict. They can strike down anyone, and at any age. He writes:
It has been estimated that…….one in ten Americans will suffer from the illness. As assertively democratic as a Norman Rockwell poster, it strikes indiscriminately at all ages, races, creeds, and classes, although women are at considerably higher risk than men. The occupational list (dressmakers, barge captains, sushi chefs, cabinet members) of its patients is too long and tedious to give here; it is enough to say that very few people escape being a potential victim of the disease, at least in its milder form. Despite depression’s eclectic reach, it has been demonstrated with fair convincingness that artistic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder – which, in its graver, clinical manifestation takes upward of twenty percent of its victims by way of suicide……...
Then William goes on to list the many artists and other luminaries who have killed themselves because they were severely depressed. Among them were Vincent van Gogh, Primo Levi, Randall Jarrell, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway. His list is much longer than I have given here, but just these few names bespeak that the high and the mighty are as likely to be severely depressed as are the plebeians.

William says over and over that the torment of severe depression is of a magnitude which is almost indescribable. He likens it to:
…….a veritable howling tempest in the brain…...
And he says:
Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode….
The grey drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain…………….comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.......
William’s troubles began in the summer of 1985, in his 60th year, when he began to feel intimations that all might not be well with him when, while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, he recognised that he
……had begun to respond indifferently to the island’s pleasures. I felt a kind of numbness, an enervation, but more particularly an odd fragility – as if my body had actually become frail, hypersensitive and somehow disjointed and clumsy, lacking normal coordination. And soon I was in the throes of a pervasive hypochondria. Nothing felt quite right with my corporeal self; there were twitches and pains, sometimes intermittent, often seemingly constant, that seemed to presage all sorts of dire infirmities……….
In October of that year, he moved back to his farmhouse in Connecticut which, despite being his home for more than thirty years, took on
…….an almost palpable quality of ominousness………”, where “……….the fading evening light………had none of its familial autumnal lovliness, but ensnared me in a suffocating gloom……….
One day, while walking with his dog through the woods, William.......
………..heard a flock of Canada geese honking high above trees ablaze with foliage; ordinarily a sight and sound that would have exhilarated me, the flight of birds caused me to stop, riveted with fear, and I stood stranded there, helpless, shivering, aware for the first time that I had been stricken by no mere pangs of withdrawal but by a serious illness whose name and actuality I was finally able to acknowledge………...
Later that day he recalled a phrase by Baudelaire:
I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.
As that year went on his depression slowly deepened. He began to suffer from insomnia, which made his predicament worse because only through sleep could he obtain respite from his torment. And when he did get some sleep he no longer dreamed. Meanwhile his voice was changing into a hoarse whisper, so that it began to sound like that of a 90 year-old man.

William’s plight was not made easier in social gatherings, since he felt he should, despite his anguish:
…..present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.
One evening after dinner, while sitting in his living room, he
……experienced a curious inner convulsion that I can only describe as despair beyond despair. It came out of the cold night; I did not think such anguish possible.
It was at this point that William decided to do himself in. Accordingly he began to put his affairs in order – visiting his lawyer to update his will, disposing of his confidential diary, and writing a farewell note to his wife. Then he was saved at the last moment when, from out of a movie he was watching on TV, came the voice of someone singing Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody - a song which William associated with his mother who had died when he was a child. Something whispered in his brain that he should change his plans. Whereupon he got himself admitted to hospital.

Then, very slowly, he began to recover. But there were many pitfalls along the way, among them an insensitive psychiatrist who prescribed drugs, some of which worsened his condition, and others which took a long time to kick in. However William finally recovered completely, joining the majority of depression-sufferers who do escape the pain which they had been absolutely convinced would never end, a condition which causes sufferers in their turmoil to fantasise about the manifold ways of killing themselves, the hideous fantasies which, in William’s words
…..are to the deeply depressed mind what lascivious daydreams are to persons of robust sexuality.
Because most sufferers do, like William, recover with few lasting ill-effects, the message in his book is ultimately a hopeful one, despite the sufferer in depression’s throes experiencing it as
…..a simulacrum of all the evil of our world; of our everyday discord and chaos, our irrationality, warfare and crime, torture and violence, our impulse towards death and our flight from it held in the intolerable equipoise of history.
William goes on to say:
If our lives had no other configuration but this, we should want, and perhaps deserve, to perish; if depression had no termination, then suicide would, indeed, be the only remedy. But one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul’s annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease – and they are countless – bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.
Indeed, those who have clambered out of depression’s black depths have:
…….. almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.
Now we can understand something of the despair and pain Iris Chang must have been in, which caused her to end her life in the way she did. In her suicide note, she asked her family and friends to remember her as the person she was before she became ill. She must, then, have felt that the real Iris Chang had gone for ever, being, in effect, already dead. Thus putting paid to her outer shell, her physical body, would have been, in her tortured state, the only thing left to do.

So Iris Chang shouldn’t be condemned for what she did because, as William says:
……to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.
Perhaps the only glimmer of a silver lining in the dark cloud of Iris Chang's passing is that more people will now want to read her books, in particular “The Rape of Nanking”, about which she felt so passionately. Thus each new reader will add some meaning, however small, to her very sad death.

Friday, October 29, 2004

I'm Fixing a Hole Where the Rain Gets In

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go
I’m filling the cracks that ran through the door
And kept my mind from wandering
Where it will go
And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right
Where I belong I’m right
Where I belong
See the people standing there who disagree and never win
And wonder why they don’t get in my door………..

This Beatles song is a blast from a past which can never return except in the minds of those of us who were There At The Time, although it is doubtless still cascading through the Milky Way, destined to resonate in the course of its journey to Infinity with the eardrums of innocent babes and sucklings on some planet called Oz somewhere in the galaxy.

While the song has become immortal, those of us who were There At The Time in 1967 aren’t. As we lumber into our sixties our numbers will begin to dwindle as the fatty deposits in our arteries, the legacy of all those breakfasts of fried eggs and bacon in our youth, begin to accumulate and accumulate until one day………………….

Even though I was There At The Time I didn’t pay much attention to this song until quite recently when I purchased a CD of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. And it was quite fortuitous that I did, since I had simply been riffling aimlessly through the CDs one evening in a little record shop near where I live, when my attention was caught by the cover of arguably the most famous record album of the twentieth century.

Yes, there they are. John, Ringo, Paul, and George, bedecked in their psychedelic-coloured nineteenth-century British army outfits. In the extreme left of the picture stands Sonny Liston with boxing robe and menacing scowl. I also see Diana Dors and Marlene Dietrich and WC Fields and Fred Astaire and Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando and CG Jung and Teddy Roosevelt and Karl Marx and Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford and Gene Autry and Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman and TE Lawrence and……………………

* * *

It is a drizzly winter evening in London where he has stopped over in the course of a journey to visit his Native Land which lies in one of the nether regions of the old Empire far, far to the south. He stands in the doorway of a shop in Earls Court Road to keep out the rain. He can see across the road into a pub out of which waft the distinctive twangs of young Australians and the other Children Of Empire as they guzzle down their pints of Bitter.

They laugh and drink and talk and joke. Their faces are unlined and uncaring. They are on the cusp of their young lives and the world beckons. Confidence and braggadocio ooze through the pores of their skin. He remembers when he, too, had laughed and drank and talked and joked in this very same pub. But it was over thirty years ago, in the summer of 1967, the Summer of Love, when the strains of the Sgt Pepper album, as well as Penny Lane, and Strawberry Fields floated through the scented air of those long-ago evenings in Earls Court Road.

He realizes that the young revellers in the Pub across the road weren’t even born when he had revelled there those years ago. Huddled in the doorway of the shop he feels like a time traveller. The young revellers are unaware he is looking across at them. But even should any look over to where he stands, they would only see through him, for he has become an Invisible Man…………………..

* * *

Carrying my just purchased CD of Sgt Pepper, I run back home, for I cannot wait to play it and go back to that summer of 1967. The more I listen to it, the more I’m caught by the words of I’m Fixing a Hole, for although they seem so inconsequential, something tells me there is more to them than I think.

* * *

A Saturday somewhere anywhere. A deliciously warm October afternoon and the sky is blue, the sort of blue it can only be on a cloudless afternoon in the Fall. Outside, the autumnal leaves rustle on lawns and sidewalks whenever a breeze blows.

Inside a house on a quiet street a plain ordinary guy, wearing a T shirt, pads around in his basement doing routine repairs to his house to prepare for the first chill winds of winter. He notices a tiny hole in the base of one of the walls where water could trickle in from outside should it rain. There is also a small crack in the door leading to outside.

He’ll fix these, using the caulking compound he bought earlier this afternoon at the hardware store down the road. It won’t take long. When this is done he’ll go back upstairs to the kitchen and take out a beer from the fridge. The first game of the final of the World Series will have begun just a few minutes ago. He will go into the living room and turn on the TV. He’ll sit down in his favourite armchair to watch the game.

All will be perfect in his little Shangri-la…………………………………….

* * *

What, then, is “I’m Fixing a Hole Where the Rain Gets In” all about? At first I think it is about fixing a hole where the rain gets in to stop ourselves wondering where it, the rain, will eventually go; and also about filling cracks running through a door to stop ourselves wondering about how far the cracks might extend if they weren’t fixed. By doing something practical we fix our minds on the task at hand, on the present, so we don’t begin worrying about all the terrible things which might happen to us.

Then I think: Isn’t this the story of my life, and of the lives of most of us? We scurry about busy busy busy, to stop from worrying. Even when we are at a loose end, we turn on the radio or TV to provide background noise, to distract us from getting depressed thinking about where everything will go, or where we will go.

I idly read the words of the song from the booklet which accompanied the CD, when I notice that the song isn’t about stopping the mind from “wondering” where it will go, but is about stopping the mind from “wandering” where it will go. Because “wondering” and “wandering” sound so alike when sung, I had assumed - because “wondering” goes better with “where it will go” - that the word the Beatles sang was “wondering”.

But perhaps John and Paul had intended to write “wondering” but had written “wandering” by mistake. Hmm. Then I read the lyrics down to their last line where I see the word “wonder”, where people “wonder” why they don’t get in the door. Perhaps John and Paul had meant to write “wander”, but had written “wonder” by mistake, or as a joke.

But “wander” wouldn’t be appropriate here, since, while we can “wander” through a door, we can’t “wander” why we get in a door, or in this case, why we don’t get in a door. We can only “wonder” why we get in, or don’t get in a door. It appears, then, that John and Paul were right in using “wonder” in the last line.

After pondering the lyrics some more, I conclude that John and Paul had written the words as intended. It is we who “wonder”, but it is our minds which “wander”. Now the meaning of the song becomes clearer. But still not absolutely clear, since John and Paul’s use of the word “wandering” from lines 2 to 6 continues to give me trouble. But I will just have to accept that I haven’t developed the level of consciousness to fully understand why John and Paul used “wandering” the way they did.

So I must take it on faith that they knew what they wanted to say.

* * *

On playing “I’m Fixing a Hole” on my new CD when I returned home from the little record shop down the road, I almost felt I was hearing it for the first time, probably because I hadn’t heard it since the summer of 1967.

Then was when I should have paid attention to it, not thirty-five years later. Had I had done so then, my life might have turned out differently. I would have realized that in my scramble to reach the security of middle class life, I was stopping my mind from wandering where it would go. Instead, I closed my ears to what my mind was whispering to me.

So it came to pass that I became a Well Respected Man about town, doing the best things so conservative-ly.

I send you greetings from my little Shangri-la.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Creatures Who Walk Among Us

Whitley Strieber’s latest novel, “The Last Vampire”, narrates the continuing adventures of the beautiful she-vampire, Miriam Blaylock, last heard of in “The Hunger” more than twenty years ago. Miriam can appear lusciously beautiful, looking about twenty-five, despite having been around long enough to have known the likes of Kings Thutmose (Tut) and Louis the Fourteenth.

Men – modern New York men, modern Parisian men, modern men the world over – when they see Miriam are overcome with desire, and so lose all their critical and discerning faculties, making them easy meat. She lures them to her boudoir and, while they are savouring the delights of her exquisite body, she digs her teeth into the sides of their necks, draining them of their blood until they are mere dried out husks which Miriam can then neatly roll up and dispose of in the nearest incinerator.

Besides appearing beautiful, Miriam is also blessed with the physical strength to beat up any man; has a fleetness of foot to easily escape the most resourceful of law enforcement officers; and has recuperative powers sufficient to recover from bullet wounds and disfiguring burns. Having been around thousands of years, Miriam has had ample time to accumulate the funds to buy a huge but discreetly located nightclub in New York City, whose patrons – including supreme-court judges and members of the Bush clan – can revel in bacchanalian orgies of an intensity which might have made even Caligula blink. All this to a backdrop of pulsating heavy metal rock music, strobe lights, revolving screens, the jangle of chains, the cracking of whips, and much else.

You’d think that having a lifespan of many thousands of years and being in effect, Superwoman, and able to be an object of desire of any man she might want, Miriam would be supremely happy. But somehow she isn’t. For starters, being genetically different, she can’t enjoy the food ordinary people eat. In fact the only food she can ingest is blood, which she develops an absolute craving for every couple of weeks. So, like any predator, she must keep finding prey.

Miriam is riddled with anxiety because, being a vampire and having no soul, she is terribly afraid of dying, since her physical being constitutes all she is. She also knows that, being able to live so long, the statistical probability of her having a nasty accident is so much greater than for normal mortals. Even so, unless someone blows her to pieces, she will never completely die, for, when Whitley Strieber’s vampires do finally get too old, they go into a death-like state, their bodies becoming withered, which their fellow vampires put into coffins. But the withered bodies never completely die, and, too weak to move, will lie in their coffins for all eternity, but always fully conscious. They become the un-dead.

Having read this far, you may now be thinking that Miriam seems much like any garden-variety vampire you’ve read about. But now the script takes a turn, because the species to which Miriam and her fellow vampires belong – called the Keepers - once upon a time ruled the earth. They developed advanced technology and were able to manipulate the genes of the higher apes, by which means they created the human race.

Having created humans, the Keepers sat back and took it easy, but their human creations didn’t. The new human species increased their numbers and developed technology, then began to hunt down and kill the Keepers – their creators who, outnumbered and outgunned, had to hide.

This is the backdrop to “The Last Vampire”. The secret services of the countries throughout the world are continuing their search and destroy missions against the vampires, among whom Miriam Blaylock is a prime target who, because she is a mistress of disguise, is able to remain at large.

* * *

Whitley Strieber has written approximately twenty novels, almost all in the horror genre, and are about menacing alien forces that are hidden, and are the more dangerous for that. The insidiously possessive demons in “Holy Fire” and “The Night Church”, the prowling pack of wolves with cunning human-like intelligence in “The Wolfen”, the vampires in “The Hunger” and now in “The Last Vampire”, are all essentially the same – disquieting alien beings. Why did they all spring out from the psyche of Whitley Strieber?

It is because since he was a boy, Whitley has been an object of the attentions of what appear to be extra-terrestrial beings. But, as he tells us in his memoir, “Communion”, he only became aware of this relatively recently when stick-like humanoid beings with large heads invaded his home one night and transported him outside to a waiting flying saucer – the classic alien abduction experience which has happened too many times to too many normally credible people around the world to be simply dismissed as products of over-heated imaginations. Whitley’s experience triggered other memories which told him clearly that similar things had happened to him ever since he was a child.

When last I heard, Whitley was continuing to have unwelcome calls from the Visitors. And he also frequently spots them on the street, seeing through their attempts to look like everyone else. The implication is that they are everywhere. So the next time you see someone in the supermarket or on the bus, who is quite small, and is oddly wrapped in a shawl, or is wearing wrap-around sun glasses for no good reason, like on a dark overcast day, you could well be looking at a Visitor.

Whether Whitley’s experiences are real or delusional, they are absolutely real to him. Of that I have little doubt, having read his accounts and seeing him talk on television. And it is clear to me that his fictional writing gets its power because it springs from his own experiences. The vampires, alien but able to blend in on the street because they look human, now begin to make sense.

“The Last Vampire” postulates the Keepers as the creators of the human race. The notion of the human race having been created through genetic manipulations carried out by superior species of beings isn’t as far fetched as it sounds. Since the Darwinian Theory of Evolution fails to explain credibly how humans evolved, we must look at other explanations of our origins. Ancient writings carved on clay tablets dug out of the deserts of Iraq tell of gigantic reptile-like gods who ruled the earth and created humans. Are these clay tablets necessarily wrong?

Of the countless thousands of people who have reported being abducted by aliens, many have told of medical probes performed on them, of the sort which suggest the alien abductors are using them as vessels to produce human/alien hybrid beings. Perhaps the forefathers of these aliens were our creators, and their descendents continue to tinker with us until we come out exactly the way they want.

Another theme touched on in “The Last Vampire” is aging – the vampires living to be thirty thousand or forty thousand years old. Our Men-Of-Science are already saying that all of us, within a generation or two, will live to be at least one hundred and twenty five. But, like everything else our Men-Of-Science bring about, our longer live spans will present us with new problems.

For instance work. The realities of economics are that the longer we live, the longer we will have to work. This is fine if you are a concert pianist, rock musician, creator of abstract art, or even Man-Of-Science – someone doing well paid work which is creative and fulfilling, who belongs to what John Kenneth Galbraith has called the Contented Class.

But what about vast majority who, by cleaning the latrines, digging the roads, laying the linoleum, cooking the food, making the beds, serving the wine, fighting the wars, catching the crooks etc etc, do the laborious, ill-paying, unpleasant, and often dangerous work for the delectation of the Contented Class? If you work at something you don’t like, aren’t you comforted that you can stop at sixty or so and won’t starve? How would you like it if you had to continue your boring and soul destroying job until you are over one hundred?

In addition to becoming unutterably bored, living to one hundred and twenty five would make us as fear-ridden as Miriam because, like her, we would have so many more years of life to lose were we to become careless. And, because our Men-Of-Science have told us as a fact that we are no more than a collocation of atoms in a cold and meaningless universe, we increasingly believe them and so, like Miriam, we live with the added burden that death, being our ultimate extinction, is the most terrible thing imaginable.

Whether we will actually live to one hundred and twenty five is debatable, but we do now live somewhat longer on average than our parents and grandparents. However this is only in the “developed” world. But what about the ninety percent of humanity who live in the third world? What about Russia and sub-Saharan Africa where average life expectancies have fallen steeply over the past decade? I suspect that, on a worldwide basis, we die on average sooner than did our parents and grandparents.

Another sub-text of “The Last Vampire” is persecution. Because they are a minority, and different, it was inevitable that the vampires would become yet one more minority which has been hounded to death throughout history by a dominant majority who projected on to their victims all the unacknowledged unwanted unconscious stuff lurking in their psyches.

This may explain the chief CIA investigator's obsession with exterminating the vampires, for he may have suspected he wasn't the 100% human he thought he was..........

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Subjugation of the Feminine

On reading my composition of a few days ago, called “The Imminent End of Us All”, one of my acquaintances pointed out that many of our world’s have-not societies discount fifty percent of their resources – namely women. She referred to studies which have shown, time and again, that an educated economically viable woman can raise her whole family out of poverty. Societies ignoring this valuable resource therefore cut themselves short. My acquaintance forgot to add – so I’ll correct her omission – that educating women also leads to declining birth rates – a necessary condition if humanity is to have any chance to survive.

The subject of gender also reminds me that the exponentially growing global imbalance between the intellectual and emotional sides of our collective psyche can also be described as the imbalance between our feminine and masculine sides. When we look at today’s world we can see that our intellectual masculine side – represented by the marvellous but pernicious gadgetry we have invented, but which has taken on a life of its own – has far outstripped our emotional feminine side – represented by our intuitions and feelings, but which is evolving hardly at all.

I don’t see how this intellectual technological juggernaut can be stopped other than by it blowing up in our faces. Right now we have enough nuclear bombs and other explosives to split the earth in half. With more and more groups of the ill-intentioned acquiring the means to set these devices off, it is only a matter of time before the inevitable happens, unless we are in the meantime done in by something else – like by global warming through the fossil fuels we burn.

Perhaps only when we are huddled together on mountaintops or on rapidly diminishing small islands as we watch the rising waters - as anxiously as a timid woman standing on a kitchen chair watching a mouse - will we see the light. But it will be too late.

The current crisis of terrorism – caused in large part by the west's need to control the supply of oil in the middle-east – provides a wonderful incentive to develop an alternative to gasoline. In the manner of John F Kennedy pledging in 1961 that we would land on the moon before the decade was out, so George W Bush could pledge that by, say, 2010 we will no longer need gasoline to power our automobiles. But Big Oil would never allow this.

Thus our world will continue to get warmer, and geo-politics will germinate more terrorists who could explode hideable nuclear devices in our big cities, or release deadly amounts of smallpox germs or other viruses.

If you mix in the consequences of our growing numbers, you will see that our prognosis isn’t good at all. But its ultimate cause is that we have become dangerously unbalanced. In short, our collective masculine side has subjugated our feminine.

I find it of interest that much of science fiction – whose creators have more prescience than most of us – is set in worlds devastated by apocalyptic wars, or it depicts cold joyless societies whose inhabitants live fearfully and docilely, being spied on all around, and otherwise controlled by their rulers by means of the wonderful gadgets at their disposal. These are worlds where the masculine principle has triumphed – and may be why the favourite reading matter of men is usually science fiction.

No-where have I read that the denizens of these devastated and unhappy societies gained any real insight as to why they became this way. Neither will we, since, for the most part, we go through life as sleepwalkers.

Monday, October 04, 2004

A Meditation on Richard Nixon

Events like 9/11, and the War on Terror which it has spawned, have assumed such importance in our imaginations that we find it difficult to believe how we could ever have got so excited about the many other happenings which had consumed us over the previous years – like Watergate. And it is difficult to believe that thirty years has passed since Richard Nixon, as a result of Watergate, resigned in disgrace as president on August 9th 1974.

The Nixon resignation was an event - like the Kennedy assassination, or 9/11 - whose enormity was such, that we, all of us, above a Certain Age, remember where we were and what we were doing when, on that day, Tricky Dick - sweat pouring from upper lip, jowls heaving with suppressed sobs, with ashen-faced family hovering behind - bid a rambling farewell to his small band of noisily weeping staff and supporters gathered in the White House press room.

I had watched, transfixed, almost every minute of the senate Watergate hearings shown live on TV. The cast of characters - senators Howard Baker ("what did the President know, and when did he know it?") and courtly Sam Ervine; silver-tongued prosecuting attorney Arthur Leiman; burglars J Gordon Liddy and E Howard Hunt; Nixon cohorts John Dean ("there is a cancer on the presidency"), Jeb Stuart Magruder, Alexander Butterfield, John Mitchell et al, as well as faithful gate-keepers Haldemann and Ehrlichmann (or was it Ehrlichmann and Haldemann?) - had become as familiar to me as my own family. And over them all hovered the-man-who-wasn't-there, the Godfather, Richard Nixon himself.


Please, come now, back to that August day in 1974 – a day burnished irreparably in my soul – as I watch the TV newscasts of Dick, who, with Pat, is waving a final farewell before boarding the plane which will fly him to exile in California. I am so overcome by the magnitude of what has happened over the past few hours that I can no longer work this day. I have to be alone with my churning emotions.

I get in my car, to drive to a restaurant to eat enchiladas for supper. While I listen to my car’s tires humming on the tarmac, I squint at the slanting rays of the late-afternoon sun as it prepares to descend behind the mountains, setting off in shadows the arboreal terrain for as far as I can see. But I don't take it in. In the restaurant I eat my enchiladas. But I don't taste them, for I have gone elsewhere, down a time-tunnel to the Eisenhower 'fifties, when, as a boy, I saw at the movies one Saturday afternoon, a newsreel of Vice President Nixon crossing swords with the feared Nikita Khrushchev in the "Kitchen Debate".

At this juncture I’m unable to go further back down the tunnel because I’m at a place in it where I’m not old enough to remember what happened before this. So I must rely on the printed word and the recollections of others about the years 1946 to 1952, when, following war-time service in the Pacific, and then practising as a lawyer in small town California, Nixon went to Washington to become a commie-hunting congressman and spear-carrier for "Tail Gunner" Joe McCarthy. Then came Nixon’s ascent to the senate where he was brought to the notice of Ike, who, aspiring to be president, was persuaded that Nixon should be his running mate. So it came to pass that Senator Nixon became Vice President Nixon, but only after having convinced the nation in the "Checkers" speech that he wasn't the crook everyone thought he was.

Now, in the time-tunnel, I change direction, forward to 1960 where I watch Nixon, now candidate for president, matching wits with John F Kennedy in the first ever televised presidential debate, a debate which buried Nixon - his unshaven jowls and patent unease a poor contrast to the cool and poise of Classy Jack. Now forward again to 1962 when, at a news-conference, defeated California gubernatorial candidate Nixon declares to assembled reporters that they "........won't have Nixon to kick around any more, for, gentlemen, this is my last press conference".

On again along the tunnel, and on, and............nothing. But wait, yes, now I see. Nixon has exited the public stage, has gone back to being the lawyer he once was, only now he's working out of corporate offices in New York City. However it is merely an interlude, albeit a six year one, during which Dick continues to shake hands and schmooze with cigar-chomping Republican king-makers doing deals in smoke-filled rooms in all the gin-joints throughout the land.

I arrive at the dawn of 1968 when Nixon, the New Nixon - who has wrestled the demons from his youth and early adulthood, and sent them packing - is seeking once again to be president. This is his moment, for the America of Mother, Home, and Apple Pie, is no more, is in agony. Thousands of America's boys are returning from Vietnam in body-bags, those who live in the ghettos are burning them down, students on campuses are tearing up draft cards, tuning in, dropping out, and otherwise fanning the flames of nation-wide dissent. Nixon promises to "bring us together", and is elected.

I continue forward along the tunnel through Nixon's presidential years, seeing him triumphantly visiting Russia and China, signing epoch-shaping treaties with their leaders and, at home, finally abolishing the military draft. It appears that Nixon, the quondam Cold War warrior, is escaping his political past.

But Nixon can't ultimately escape himself, for the demons in his psyche, which he thought he'd banished for ever, show signs of having merely hidden. They creep out of their closets as the pressures of presidential office grow, to manifest themselves in paranoia, causing Nixon to see all his opponents as enemies, ready to plunge their knives in his back and twist them with relish. He compiles a list of enemies whose telephones are tapped, and their homes watched by black-hatted, shade-wearing spooks. His gets his men to burgle the offices of those he doesn't like. A guard catches the burglars one night in the Watergate Complex in downtown Washington DC. Nixon's carefully wrought world begins to collapse..............


Suddenly I'm back in the Now, August 9th 1974, in the restaurant. While in the time-tunnel I had, unbeknownst to me, finished my enchiladas, and the waiter had brought me coffee. Through the window beside my table I see the sun has finally set. I hear softly from somewhere in the restaurant - probably from its piped music system - Linda Ronstadt singing "Heart Like a Wheel". Otherwise all has become quiet, as if, everywhere, people are still too stunned to speak of what has happened this day.........................

Could the young man I was then, ever have imagined that Nixon, seemingly banished for ever in obloquy, would, a few years later, rise from the ashes to write acclaimed books, be listened to respectfully by a younger generation, be received reverently by world leaders, and, at his funeral, be eulogized by all the prominent former and present leaders of the land?


It is ten years now since Richard Nixon left for ever in April 1994. Since then, I have never ceased to feel that a part of me is missing. For a long time I couldn't figure out why. Then I understood. It is because for the first fifty years of my life, Richard Nixon was there, in public life in some way or other. He had become a part of me, and when he died, that part of me died too.

Richard Nixon lies buried in the grounds of his presidential library, next to the house where he was born, in Yorba Linda, California. He is indeed gone, but a part of him will always live on in the hearts and minds of those of us who were shaped by the times in which he held sway.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Imminent End of Us All

Each day when I switch on CNN or log in to the internet, I half expect to learn there has been another horrific terrorist attack on the order of 9/11 or worse. This isn’t simply my over-active imagination, because even the CIA has said that the next attack is not a question of if, but when. And there are those periodic terror alerts coded yellow orange or red, telling us to look out for suspicious activities and suspicious people. It is never specified exactly what suspicious activities or people we should look out for, or where they may carry out their grisly deed. George W Bush summed this up perfectly when he once said: “When I was coming up it was a dangerous world and we knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them and it was clear who them was. Today we’re not so sure who they are, but we know they’re there”.

We are beginning to live in a nightmare world like the one in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”, whose central character was made aware everywhere he went that he was under suspicion of having done something, but he could never find out what. It kept him permanently disoriented. Keeping us permanently disoriented seems also the intent of the Bush regime which enjoins us to lead our everyday lives normally, fly in aeroplanes, spend our money, hang out, stay loose, but then induces us to do the opposite by sending out those terrorist alerts. Is this to frighten us sufficiently, the better to manufacture our consent into giving the Bush regime more draconian powers than it already has?

Our new post September 11th Kafkaesque world is also becoming Orwellian. If you’ve ever read “1984” you’ll remember its milieu is a world parceled out between three large powers always at war with each other. The daily lives of the people are punctuated by announcements through loudspeakers telling of the latest military victory. How different is this world from ours in present day America where, in addition to the terror alerts, we learn daily from our TV news anchors of our latest military victory in Iraq, all part and parcel of the War on Terror which George W Bush has told us will go on for years and years, and which is discussed in the media 24 hours a day.

* * *

He reclines in his seat in a jetliner thirty thousand feet above the North African desert. He shuts his eyes while listening on his headset to a Bach Brandenburg concerto. On his tray is a pre-prandial glass of white wine – French Chardonnay – which he sips from time to time. What will they serve for lunch, steak or fish? And what for dessert?

Through his little side window he can see the brown expanse of desert below. Just sand, and it seems to go on for ever. Being so far above, he can only imagine how things might exactly be down there. But he has learned enough to know that the lives of most people down there won’t be much different from how they were two thousand years ago. Each day at the behest of sun, sand, and wind. Each day a struggle for the simple daily crust. Lives lived around heat, sand, camels, and tents. And perhaps a tribal or guerrilla war as well.

Suddenly he is overcome by schizophrenia. Here he is in a hermetically sealed bubble, sailing serenely through the heavens in womb-like air-conditioned comfort, taking it all for granted while all hell goes on far below.

* * *

He lies in his warm comfy bed at night listening to the rain thrumming on the tiled roof and spattering against the insulated windows. He wakes in the morning to the clock radio programmed to switch on at eight o' clock sharp. He turns up the thermostat on the wall because the room feels a trifle cold. He flicks a switch and light comes on. He puts a cold pork pie in the microwave and three minutes later it is hot. He turns on the shower in his antiseptically-white tiled bathroom and warm water gushes deliciously out. He picks up the phone and talks to someone at the other end of the earth as if to his next-door neighbour. He turns on his TV to watch a football game as if he is actually in the stadium. He switches on the computer in his study to send electronic messages to distant friends who will receive them seconds later. Despite all this he feels depressed, so he pops a pill and soon feels happy.

Being a glib child of twenty-first century enlightenment, he assumes most people throughout the world live like he does. He looks out of his bedroom window at the sky and thinks about what will come next. Human-like robots certainly, to do all the chores he doesn’t like to do. He’d like to get a ride on a spaceship some day to Mars where he would spend a holiday. There will be plenty of time for that since, thanks to the Men of Science, he will live to be at least 120 or more……………………………………………….

* * *

WE in North America, Fortress Europe, and Japan, who live like pigs at a trough while pressing the keys on our remote controls to close our security gates, are but 10% of the world’s peoples. WE are the goldfish in a bowl gazed upon covetously by THEM, the other 90% out there in the Third World, who have virtually nothing. But WE choose not to notice. WE, thanks to our Men of Science, live longer and longer and eat more and more. THEY, thanks to Aids and starvation, die earlier and earlier and eat less and less. The disparity between US and THEM grows daily more acute.

Our world is becoming dangerously out of balance and we are beginning to see the consequences like terrorism carried out by suicide bombers, a symptom that something is dreadfully wrong somewhere. By using jetliners to crash into skyscrapers, sending noxious germs through the mail, and threatening to explode nuclear bombs in the midst of our cities - thus exposing the myth of our invulnerability inside the goldfish bowl – the terrorists are throwing our technology - to which we genuflect as before a god - back in our faces.

* * *

Extinctions of sentient species have occurred regularly throughout the aeons since the first amoeba wiggled out of the ocean and on the shores. Species became extinct because they failed to adapt to changes in their environment, whether big climatic changes or the arrival of new predators. Extinctions, of sorts, have also been the lot of aboriginal human societies who couldn’t adapt to the gods, technology, and germs which invaders from over the seas brought with them.

We humans are still here because we have been able to live in harmony with our environment, or we were able to bend it to our will. However, about one hundred and fifty years ago with the start of the Industrial Revolution, our ways of living changed rapidly as we began inventing new gadgets like never before. With each new gadget spawning ideas for others, the rate of change became exponential, so that the world of the urban yuppie in today’s New York or Tokyo would seem like science fiction to a dweller in the Dickensian London of the mid nineteenth century.

But the heart and soul of today’s urban yuppie is the same as that of the nineteenth century Dickensian dweller, and of the hunter-gatherer in the savannah of five thousand years ago. The yuppie of today, lunching on pasta and white wine while talking into his cell phone between mouthfuls, has no more control over his jealousy, rage, greed, and predilection for mayhem than did his animal-hunting forebears on the plains.

The intellectual part of us - augmented by our inventions of computers, nuclear bombs and all the rest - has outstripped our emotional ability to use it wisely. So we are like children with dangerous toys, with no grownups to take them from us. Our environment has thus changed radically, but we haven’t, and we aren’t likely to because, the speed of evolution being glacial, our emotional selves won’t develop quickly enough to prevent the irreparable damage we will have done to ourselves and everything around us. So all the conditions are now in place for us to become extinct, as has happened to countless millions of species since time unrecorded.

How exactly we will be done in - whether by nuclear or biological warfare, overpopulation, disease, starvation, radiation, or environmental warming – is irrelevant, for we will be just as dead regardless of the means.

This isn’t to say that absolutely no-one will survive the coming apocalypse. A handful doubtless will, since there are so many of us. Any survivors will dig themselves from under the rubble and begin again. But they will have to live like our ape forbears did, because all gadgets and knowledge of how to make them will have been destroyed. Incidentally, if we care to look, we will see evidence that something similar has happened to us before, and many times.

Since we seem not able to adapt to the changes our over-developed intellects have brought about, it isn’t a question of if, but when our demise will happen.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Story of the Weeping Camel

I went to see “The Story of the Weeping Camel” recently since I had heard so many good things about it. I found it everything it was purported to be. While I hope you, dear reader, will like it too if you go see it, I'm realistic enough to know you may not if your tastes in film run to “Freddie Got Fingered” or films with Adam Sandler in them.

“The Story of the Weeping Camel” is a documentary film made in deepest Mongolia. It portrays the lives of a band of nomadic people living in tents, who eke out a living in the harshest of environments, flat and arid, with frequent howling windstorms which would blow away the tents if their occupants didn’t affix them very firmly to the ground. Central to the people being able to cope with everyday life, is having camels to transport them around and generally to act as beasts of burden. Mongolian camels are, incidentally, with their thick shaggy coats, a different species from their counterparts in the middle-east and elsewhere.

The film shows the camels giving birth and caring for their young (called colts). But there is one camel, a female, who had a particularly difficult time giving birth to its colt. So much so that she wants nothing further to do with it once it emerges into the world. The family responsible for the colt does get it to drink milk from a bottle, but this is an inadequate substitute for the real thing. So the family tries to get it to suck from the teat of its mother who always kicks it away. What to do?

They call in a man who has successfully dealt with situations such as this. He does it by playing a long stringed violin-like instrument which camels respond to. We see him playing it, accompanied by chants from the other tent-dwellers who also pat and caress the mother camel. For some time she looks nonplussed. Then tears begin to well up and fall from her eyes. The music is obviously making her sad, and she is weeping. Then we see the colt being led to its mother who now accepts it and allows it to suck from her teat.

So we see that animals, like camels, do have emotions, can feel sad and remorseful, and can cry – just like humans. The film is worth seeing for this alone.

It is assumed by most who see this film that the tears of the camel are simply a cinematic prestidigitation. But no, this is a documentary and the tears are real. Which makes me wonder why, if animals have feelings just like ours, we slaughter billions of them every year under the most frightful conditions just so we can enjoy those juicy half-pound hamburgers with all the works.

“The Story of the Weeping Camel” also brings to our attention that there are countless millions of people throughout the world, like the Mongolians in the film, who live in primitive conditions far, far removed from ours in the “developed” world with our electricity, indoor plumbing, laptop computers, credit cards, cushy jobs, social security, and the other privileges and comforts we take for granted. However, should terrorists cause our electricity to fail, and our banks, computers, and economies to crash, who will be better equipped to survive? We, or the Mongolian tent dwellers?

I also noted how appealing and happy the Mongolian children appeared to be, and how much they seemed to be loved by their multi-generational families – children far different from so many of their slack-jawed, foul-mouthed, ill-mannered, drug-addled, counterparts in all the suburbs and malls here in North America.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Ugly American

Marlon Brando’s recent release from his mortal coil has inspired me to look again at some of the films to which he lent his mesmerizing presence, one of which was “The Ugly American”, made in 1963, in which Marlon is a US ambassador to a fictional south east Asian country still in the “development” stage, which is building a huge American-financed highway – called Freedom Road – from which all blessings will flow to the people. But all too many of the people don’t see Freedom Road as beneficently, seeing it instead as uprooting and destroying communities, and paving (sic) the way for American control over their economy and country.

Nationalist and communist agitators organize guerrilla attacks and mass demonstrations. The government waivers, and considers stopping work on Freedom Road. But the American ambassador insists that the project continue. Not only that, but to teach the agitators a lesson, the highway should now be extended further, to cross the entire country. The prime minister, knowing on which side his bread is buttered, acquiesces to the ambassador’s demands. When the news spreads, all hell breaks out. There is a national insurrection, and thousands are killed. China and North Korea take advantage of the chaos, and send soldiers into the country to stake out territory for themselves.

The ambassador, realizing he got it all wrong, speaks contritely into the microphones of the world’s newshounds gathered inside the barricaded embassy. He concedes that Americans, if they wish to win the hearts and minds of the Third World’s masses, must emphasize to them what America is for, rather than what it is against. And the ambassador says: ”People only hate us when we stop trying to be what we set out to be two hundred years ago”.

So, how much has really changed in the forty years since the “Ugly American” was made? A recent poll in Jordan, America's closest Arab ally, revealed that 99% of Jordanians do not like Americans at all, or otherwise outright hate them. America no longer represents freedom to Jordanians, or indeed to the masses generally throughout the Arab middle-east, who see today’s Ugly Americans as meddling in their affairs simply because America wants their oil. The obsequiousness of their leaders towards the US reflects that the US has bought them off as successfully as the Ugly Americans of the film bought off the Asian prime minister.

Any changes since the times of the “Ugly American” have been little more than cosmetic. The “communists” of then are the “terrorists” of now – the inchoate, unseen, and malevolent forces seeking to drain Americans of their precious bodily fluids and all else they hold dear.

This isn’t to say there have been no changes in the zeitgeist. For instance, unlike in the today of George W Bush, mainstream American films (as opposed to low-budget independent films – like those of Michael Moore) showing America in a less than complimentary light – like “The Ugly American” or “Dr Strangelove” - could still be made.