Books and Writers

‘How much is that brainbox in the window?’

Come on now...who doesn't love shopping?

Come on now…who doesn’t love shopping?

I shall scream at the next person who says Christmas has become too commercialized! The other platitude we hear at this time of year is that we have all become “mindless consumers”, drawn to the glittering shopping malls like moths to the light from a plastic torch. Surely it is shopping that keeps us together, gives us power, justifies our existence? Isn’t life a struggle to reach a point where we no longer have to worry about where our next plate of beans on toast is coming from? And if we try hard enough we can all get there, can’t we?

Who's the guy with the fake beard?

Who’s the guy with the fake beard?

Brazil’s ex-president Lula said recently that the aim of his Workers’ Party is not to make the poor richer by making the rich poorer. No way, José! Lula wants to make everybody richer. Pure genius, you have to admit. By “richer” I presume he means giving people more spending power. In other words, more money. And the big shop of the year is Christmas, of course. Which means driving lessons for Dwayne, a fortnight in the Algarve for Courtney and a big new telly for granny.

Paradoxically, perhaps, this end-of-the-year spending spree has made me reflect on 2014 as a year of myth shattering – a time when the money-God has not fared well. In fact, the authors of 2 of my 3 books of the year would be put up against a wall and shot by members of the Capitalist Billionaires’ Club if they had their way. Dare I say that over the past 12 months there has been a bit of a revolution in the way some of us think about life, the universe and property ladders. So, without further ado, here are my fab reading choices of 2014, in no particular order:

"So you're telling me that inequality is part of the deal?"

“So you’re telling me that inequality is part of the deal?”

1) Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century This is the French economist who tossed an ideological bomb into the swish corridors of big business and somehow got away with it. It takes guts to make such devastating claims about how our economic systems are rigged. Myths like this: there is no mechanism in capitalism for creating equality, as many of us naively believed. The profit motive is not philanthropic – how could it be? The notion that wealth trickles down from the creamy, luxurious top to the grey, muddy bottom is cobblers. The only solution, according to our Thomas? Start taking huge amounts of cash from the very wealthy (money they will never be able to spend) and invest it in education, health and job-creation schemes. I mean, what is this guy on? I hope he uses a police escort.

What Piketty is arguing, based on a mass of historical and economic evidence, is that wealth accumulates and becomes concentrated in the hands of – yes, you guessed – the wealthy. It is inevitable, therefore, that inequality does not diminish, but grows. And grows. Even Scrooge would have to admit that in the last 30 years the incomes of the wealthiest have shot up into the stratosphere, whereas the incomes of you, me and Bob Cratchit have stagnated. Or worse.

"Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? You're poor enough."

“Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.” Scrooge chides poor Bob Cratchit

Recently a Brazilian oil magnate involved in the country’s biggest ever corruption scandal admitted illegally salting away $20 million in a Swiss bank account, money that was “skimmed” from inflated contracts. The miscreant has now agreed to pay back a total of $100 million. My question is: just what exactly did he intend to do with all that money? Nothing, is my guess, because having it hidden away was the thrill: a secret stash of filthy lucre. And this in a country like Brazil, where 40% of the population live on less than $300 a month. Shameless.

Maybe I’ve been deluding myself. Maybe I was a fool to think that “equality” was something to be worked towards. Nevertheless, the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” will only stop widening when enough people stand up and shout. People like Piketty.

spend spend spend...that's what it's all about

spend spend spend…that’s what it’s all about

2) Paul Verhaeghe: What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society What is wrong with us? Why do we feel lonely, guilty, inadequate, unlovable? I used to feel the same…until I let this Belgian professor of psychoanalysis soothe my worried mind. Now I understand the current “happiness crisis”. It stems from the way we judge ourselves: if we are not financially “successful”, we are losers. Over the past 30 years the pressure has intensified for us to “perform” economically as individuals. We have all become “consultants”, trying to sell ourselves on the open market we are born into. We have an identity crisis because we cannot remove the mask, the “marketing” face we put on every day to win approval. All our institutions – schools, hospitals, libraries – are now “businesses”, and making money has become sacred. We are mere pawns on the Monopoly board of life.

And, according to Verhaeghe, these anxieties have led to a worrying increase in psychological problems: self-harm, depression, low self-esteem and social phobias. When we allow market forces to judge our “performance” in life, we are bound to become anxious, even paranoid. In the neoliberal circus we are trapped in, there is little room for spirituality – a space that allows for self-awareness on very different terms. This has led to the blossoming of movements such as ‘Mindfulness’, a meditation-based philosophy which tries to bring our damaged souls back to life so that we can appreciate the small miracles that happen to us every day. But as usual, of course, the culprit for this psychological mess is rampant, free-market profiteering: the only game in town, the only reality we have in front of us. Adam Smith – I hope you are listening, you nincompoop!

It's time to stop consuming and be mindful...

It’s time to stop consuming and be mindful…

And finally…

3) John Gray, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths How about this – life is utterly meaningless! An absurdist farce, a sick joke! Surely not…surely there is order in this chaos, surely human beings are still evolving, there is a master plan and the name is “progress”. Erm, well – not according to Mr Gray, English philosopher and retired professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. You see, our ancestors believed in religion – the purpose of life was to be “saved”, to get into heaven. Then came Darwin. After that we put our faith in Science: advances in technology would keep making the world a better place to live in. So, the question is, are we – you and me – better examples of the human species today, after all this “progress”? I can’t see it, myself.

John Gray: progress is a myth

John Gray: progress is a myth

The problem is, we have swapped our faith in God for faith in the “progress” of civilization, as if “improvement for all” was somehow built into the future – a place we will surely reach someday. Gray exposes this kind of mythology as connected to the naive hopes of modern-day “humanists”. According to Gray, “humanists believe that humanity improves along with the growth of knowledge, but the belief that the increase of knowledge goes with advances in civilization is an act of faith”. So we are back to a kind of religious belief that things can only get better.

And all this because, as humans, we kid ourselves that we are morally superior to animals, whereas in fact, “human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion”. So, if there is no heaven and hell, no progress, no pride in being human, what the devil is the point of it all? Why are we here? Well, one thing we are here for is to learn from John Gray’s book and stop deluding ourselves.

We humans are just animals after all

We are just animals after all

Only when we face up to the meaninglessness of life will we be able to get together communally and make the best of it, not live as atomised individuals forever struggling to get ahead in the rat race.

Phew! What a lot of food for thought! I hope you enjoyed the ride. Actually, I have my own philosophy of life. It’s simply this: never stop asking big questions, try to become better informed, and learn to love your fellow-humans as you learn to love yourself. Oh, and don’t forget to get your mum a lovely present at the shopping mall…a very small one, of course. How about a book token?

Categories: Books and Writers, Brazil, Global Crisis | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The truth about love

Romantic love makes your knees turn to jelly

Romantic love makes your knees turn to jelly

Hey – this is supposed to be an adventure journal, a ripping travelogue from steamy South America! So where do I keep disappearing to? You have every right to ask. I should be writing this with trembling, blood-stained hands. I should be telling you about my hair-raising adventure in the Andes where I contracted double-malaria after being attacked by a herd of tsetse flies. Or I might be dictating this to an amanuensis because I am attached to an oxygen machine after my swash-buckling travails through the Amazon jungle, wrestling crocodiles and with only a tub of Marmite sandwiches to keep me going. But no, folks. The sad truth is that I have been hiding out in my little pad in Porto Alegre, watching Brazilian soaps, reading George Gissing, frying fish and depressing over Bradford City losing twice in the space of a week. Life is a crock of cockroaches at the moment. But I don’t feel sorry for myself – oh no! In fact, by busily doing nothing, I have had time to reflect on something we all cherish, crave and care about.

L-O-V-E. A mystery we never seem to solve. Can we learn more about it, or is it something you can only feel? Who knows most about it? Poets and songwriters? Jilted lovers? If you learn more about it as your life goes on, then I should know quite a bit by now, seeing as I am entering my dotage. One of my very favourite poets, W.H. Auden, spent his whole life trying to understand what those four little letters really mean. He begins one poem wittily:

W.H. Auden spent a lifetime writing about love

Wystan Auden spent a lifetime writing about love

Some say love’s a little boy, 
And some say it’s a bird, 
Some say it makes the world go around,
Some say that’s absurd, 
And when I asked the man next-door, 
Who looked as if he knew, 
His wife got very cross indeed, 
And said it wouldn’t do.

And he ends by asking how he will know love when it comes: 

Will it come like a change in the weather? 
Will its greeting be courteous or rough? 
Will it alter my life altogether? 
O tell me the truth about love.

Of course, I cannot hope to ever match Auden’s insight and wit. I’m from Bradford, remember. But over the years I have had a few ideas about love myself. Romeo I am not; Casanova neither. But having had a few broken hearts and plenty of time to mull over the whole business of romantic love, I would like to share a few of my thoughts and maybe shatter a few myths. So here goes:

LOVE LASTS FOREVER: Who said that? How do they know? Sorry to disappoint you, but love is not a solid, static thing that sits permanently on your shoulder. Love is the most fluid thing; it won’t just stick around. Love comes and goes and sometimes there is nothing you can do to stop it flying off like a bored budgerigar. The point is not to feel guilty about it. No-one is to blame when love steals away. The surest things can change. But fear not: love will come back another day and make you glow all over once again.

Jealousy is self-love tinged with hate

Jealousy is self-love tinged with hate

LOVE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WORK: Yes and no. If you spend all your time cultivating loving relationships you might end up as a bus driver. Love is here today and gone tomorrow and there isn’t much you can do about it. But there is a lot you can do to improve your work options. And someone who loves their work is much more attractive than a shabby sentimentalist who can’t even buy you dinner. I say: work hard at finding something you love doing for a living, and let love come and find you. Unless, of course, you love buses.

LOVE AND SEX ARE DIFFERENT: Whoever said that deserves a chocolate cookie! The trick is never to confuse the two. But for that trick you need to be a master magician, unfortunately. How many people get married because the sex is good only to find themselves waking up every day next to a wazzock. You see, passion cools, and it’s better to assess the respect you have for your lover when the flames have died down. Because respect is the key to a long, loving relationship. You need to find someone you deeply admire, but still fancy. Tricky, huh?

LOVE IS FEELING JEALOUS: Isn’t it natural to feel a twinge of jealousy when your lover is swooning in someone else’s company? Maybe. But being possessive can be catastrophic and says more about your insecurity. If you genuinely love someone you will want them to enjoy their freedom, too. Besides, if your partner is really enjoying someone else’s company that much, you had better let them go. Just make sure you have a hobby to turn to when you get dumped. I collect plastic submarines.

LOVE IS SAD: I have learnt this the hard way. Love might be quick to depart, but there is always a little bit left over that stays in your system. As you get older, it builds up and can easily turn to nostalgia. Better to allow the old loves to mature inside you, like good wine. Without the sadness that love leaves behind, we would never experience the joy of finding and treasuring love in the first place. Joy and sadness: these are the essence of love.

LOVE, AND BEING “IN LOVE”: “I love my partner, but I’m not in love with him anymore.” I’ve heard this a few times, but what does it mean? It means you don’t really love your partner, or rather, you love him like a brother. But you can live without your brother, so you really need to move on. Love means staying “in love”, and I don’t mean sizzling in the flames of passion, I mean the delight you feel just watching your partner experiencing moments of happiness. Falling “in love” is so wonderful that sometimes we fantasize about having a fling on the side. But if you are prepared to risk all on an illicit affair, better dust off those suitcases in the garage.

Poet Wendy Cope doesn't know what to say on Valentine's Day

Poet Wendy Cope doesn’t know what to say on Valentine’s Day

Love is not “staying together through thick and thin”. It is not a test of commitment. Love is freeing your spirit, not trapping it in a dingy flat in Shepherd’s Bush. Love doesn’t calculate; it liberates. It doesn’t build up resentment; it forgives and renews itself. Love is like a butterfly that doesn’t die. Oh dear – now I’m trying to sound poetic. So I’d better finish with a proper poem, or part of one. Wendy Cope wonders what to say to the man she’s been with for donkey’s years when another Valentine’s Day arrives: 

Today’s the day we have to be romantic.
Our love is old and sure, not new and frantic.
You know I’m yours and I know you are mine.
And saying that has made me feel romantic,
My dearest love, my darling valentine.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. But that’s enough romance. Next week I will post some pictures of me grappling with a big brown bear in a supermarket car park. I thought the bear loved me…I was wrong. 

I found this alligator in my swimming pool, so I've been a bit busy

I found this alligator in my swimming pool, so I’ve been a bit busy…honest!



Categories: Books and Writers, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Backing into the future…

The past meets the present and the future in a big flash of light...then you wake up!

The past meets the present and the future in a big flash of light…then you wake up!

The Greeks had enormous respect for the past. It was from the past that they learned how to live. They didn’t “look to the future” (to quote Slade in their perennial classic song Merry Christmas Everybody). I’m not sure I could “look to the future” even if I wanted to, unless I had some LSD and a very large crystal ball. No, history was the oracle for the Greeks – their guiding light. It was as if they stood staring into the past with their backs to the future. Not a bad position to be in.

Come to think of it, there is no future to look into. Neither is there any present moment, as that keeps slipping away – like trying to catch a butterfly in an imaginary net. We live on shifting sands; the ground beneath us is forever collapsing just at the moment when another floor replaces it, or tries to. Of course, the most scary thing is that the past is also nebulous. It isn’t solid or knowable. History only “exists” in the millions of versions we have of it. Stories of the past.

John Gray, former professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics, takes things a step further. He claims that “progress” is a myth. The idea that the world and our lives within it are always getting better is just not tenable. For a start, capitalism isn’t a philanthropic system; it’s designed to make a profit. No progress, no future, no past: what are we left with? Surely we can at least look forward to living like an angel in heaven (if you have behaved yourself, of course)? Sorry, but no – heaven and hell are also mythical places.

OK, so if life has no meaning and we are not going anywhere what is the point? What are we supposed to do? Well, we always have our families to fall back on, don’t we? Surely a loving family counts for something? Erm, actually, the thing is, the nuclear family is a very conservative and inward-looking institution. “My family” is always more important than “your family” and my kids are always more valuable than yours. It’s another version of dog eat dog. We have lost any sense of community. We don’t get the chance to love and cherish our neighbour’s children; we can only focus on our own.

Life is meaningless, so you might as well flip your wig!

Life is meaningless, so you might as well flip your wig!

So what am I getting at? If everything is meaningless I might as well do what the hell I feel like, n’ est ce pas? Just have fun, throw my wig up in the air and kiss a nun! No, that won’t work because not everybody else has realised that life is absurd. People still think there is a point to life: retirement, perhaps, or the joy of telling stories to your grandchildren, tending the garden, and drinking chardonnay at lunchtime on a weekday. Actually I have some ideas of my own on how to conduct your life in a meaningless universe.

1) For crying out loud, go and tell the wife of your best friend that you have always fancied the pants off her and would give your hind teeth to have a little snog with her under the mistletoe! What have you got to lose?

2) Go and tell your boss to stick his job where the sun doesn’t shine! You have always wanted to just chuck a bag on your back and scoot off around the world, picking fruit, sleeping under the stars, living on cheese and wine and writing poems. You know you owe yourself a big adventure.

3) Become an alcoholic. Hang on a minute: the alcoholic I am advocating doesn’t drink. Yes, you heard me right. My kind of alky only behaves like someone who’s had a couple to freshen up. Always has a big smile, full of fun, gregarious, up for it. Natural effervescence.

My idea of backing into the future is surreal but incredibly life-enhancing. It goes like this: imagine you are repeating exactly the life you have already lived. You are playing the lead role in a movie of your life. You know all the moves, you’ve done them already. You made mistakes last time, so you won’t make them again. You didn’t do a lot of stuff last time because you were scared, embarrassed, cowardly. Now you don’t give a damn what people think. You have nothing to lose – nothing at all.

The inimicable Slade: "Look to the future now, it's only just begun..."

The inimitable Slade: “Look to the future now, it’s only just begun…”

So, act like a rock star, think like a poet and love like a god. Or, to put it another way, when in Rome, do as the Greeks!

Categories: Books and Writers, Great Minds, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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