Tag Archives: thoughts

It’s Not The Years, Baby…

I’m getting old. 

It’s been 18 years since Kurt Cobain died. 18 years. I was a sixth former at the time and remember the outpouring of grief and anger. I was only vaguely aware of him, and music as a whole, at the time, but I soon got caught up with all the stories and conspiracy theories – was it a suicide? Was his murder covered up? It became an iconic moment of my generation’s pop culture landscape.

And it was 18 years ago.

That’s not as bad as hearing an interview on Kerrang Radio. The band Bowling For Soup were talking about their teenage years and the fashions of the time, when the host said something like “So, was that what it was like in the 80s?”

Frankly, that was terrifying. The 1980s were last week as far as I’m concerned, but as far as that radio presenter was concerned, he may as well have been talking about the Roaring Twenties – “So was that what it was like when the flappers were around? Do you think women should have the vote?”

I remember the Berlin Wall falling. There are grown adults around now who don’t. It may as well have been the Palaeolithic era. I feel like that mammoth they dug up in Siberia recently.

And they’re rereleasing all the films I saw the first time around – Back to the Future and Ghostbusters I can just about handle, but Titanic?! I remember when Titanic was 2D, thank you very much. Yes, I remember when films were only in two dimensions, all of five years ago.

Here’s something that will freak out younger readers – I remember what it was like before the internet. I remember what it was like before home computers. Music used to be stored on shiny discs, and before that, on magnetic tape. We used to tape songs off the radio when the Top Twenty was announced on Sunday afternoons.

I’m aware that all this is making me sound like I’m claiming a pension and telling kids to get off my lawn. But I’m 35. That’s nothing. I’m not getting old, history’s speeding up. It’s probably a quantum thing, but it’s not fun.

 

PS. I also remember when we only had three TV channels…

 

The Importance of Curiosity

Right now, I’m imagining a big red button. Next to that button is an important-looking sign: “DO NOT PRESS!”

What do you do?

I know what I’m doing. I’m looking at that button, desperate to press it. The only thing that’s holding me back is the unlikely possibility that I’ve telepathically linked to the US nuclear arsenal and that this could end badly. But I want to press that button. The button wants me to press the button. The button is, sooner or later, getting pressed.

So, to those people who’d press it, despite the sign saying otherwise, I have one question: Why?

My answer to that is simple – I want to see what that button does. It might open a door. It might change the TV channel. It might set off an alarm. It might launch those nuclear missiles I mentioned, I don’t know. But it’s better to know than not know, right? I don’t care if the word ‘curiosity’ is derived from the Latin for ‘careful’, just press that stupid button!!!

“Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, which is an idea I can get behind. Curiosity is one of the driving forces behind human discovery – what if Galileo had never bothered to look through his telescope? What if Moses had just ignored that burning bush? That drive, the passion that makes you look at something and then want to find out the story behind it, has changed the world thousands of times. In that sense, curiosity is one of our chief emotions.

In the US, the company Skillshare has launched a video manifesto entitled ‘The Future Belongs to the Curious’, asking us to see learning as a more natural, organic, communal thing than education sometimes makes it. After all, while qualifications are valuable, they can’t be the be all and end all of education, simply because learning is something intrinsic to our everyday lives. We learn to drive, learn to cook, learn to fix things, learn how to have relationships. The trick is to build on that, to not just develop skills that help us survive but which also help us grow as individuals. If you’re interested in learning how to play the riff from Sweet Child o’ Mine then go ahead and do it. If you want to learn flower arranging, then heck, I could probably put you in touch with someone who could help you out. Go for it. You’ll be happier as a result.

(And this is before we get onto the sneakier skills, like how to MacGyver day-to-day objects to do something they weren’t supposed to. Check out Lifehacker!)

I’ll admit I sometimes allow my curiosity to wither on the vine – I think it’s related to how I sometimes stop reading, despite loving books. But despite this annoying tendency I still wander what’s behind that door, what’s over that hill, what that strange building in the middle of nowhere is, what happens when you press that button. I think a lot of us are like that. Maybe we just need to embrace that more and see where it takes us. After all, it once took us to the stars.

(PS. I’ve just found out that Jedward tweeted in 140 characters what it took me a whole post to say: “BIG RED BUTTON! What the sign says: DO NOT PUSH. What we read! PUSH when people are not around.” I’m not sure how I feel about that…)

 

See How The Monsters Fall

I’m just old enough to remember the dying days of the Cold War, news reports full of Strategic Defence Initiatives and the tick-tock of the Doomsday Clock as it moved closer to midnight, inspiring nightmares and Watchmen as it went.

Then, in 1989, the whole house of cards collapsed, seemingly overnight but I guess the cracks were showing long before, at least to those with eyes to see. The Bogeyman had fallen and he didn’t even get chance to launch all those nuclear missiles. The monster had been felled.

I wonder if that’s how it felt to all those living at the end of the Second World War, hearing that the spectre who had cast his deathly shadow over the fields of Europe now lay dead in a bunker in Berlin?

Libya was once another such bogeyman, responsible for terrorism and the Lockerbie Bombing. Heck, Libyans are even a destructive presence in Back To The Future. But somewhere along the line, Gaddafi became the comedy uncle of global dictators, at least in the western world that didn’t have to live under his regime.

It was a different story in Libya, of course, and yesterday the revolution that started in February reached something of a climax with the death of Colonel Gaddafi. Another dictator down, another fallen regime.

I’ve said before, probably too many times, that this is turning out to be a very strange year, almost as if 2011 has served notice on the leaders and institutions that are corrupt, oppressive or simply anachronistic. Maybe we felt that they’d last forever, that their power would pass to the heirs and nothing would change. Suddenly that no longer seems to be the case, and it ‘s steange and disorientating and a little scary, but ultimately hopeful.

GK Chesterton said, in so many words, that fairy tales don’t teach children that monsters exist – they already know that – but fairy tales do teach them that monsters can be beaten. And maybe, in some less mythic way, the same is true of protest songs and Twitter. We’ve learned that monsters – Gaddafi, corporations, media corruption – aren’t invulnerable, aren’t immortal, aren’t omnipotent. That knowledge is liberating and empowering and intimidating, because it confers on those who’d succeed a monster the responsibility to do a better job.

And, as 2011 seems to be restructuring the world around us, that responsibility necessarily falls on us all. We are the 100%.

 

Banned Books Week 2011

20110926-071232.jpgOver in the States it’s Banned Books Week, run by the American Library Association to celebrate and promote freedom of speech. It’s worrying that such a celebration is actually needed, and as someone who’s always been a reader, I was curious to find out how many of the titles appearing on the ALA’s list of ‘Books Challenged or banned in 2010-11′ I’ve actually read (not many as it turns out, although bannings depend on context – here’s why Charlotte’s Web got banned in Kuwait).

Like most of us, I guess, the idea of banning books, especially in long-established democracies, feels wrong. It’s thin-end-of-the-wedge stuff; ban a book because of bad language or a sex scene and suddenly you’ve set a precedent for the next person who comes along wanting to ban something because it’s politically inconvenient or because it promotes manmade climate change. Librarians are on the frontline of this particular battle, but this has ramifications for a world where public funds to libraries are being cut at a rate of knots. Will privatised libraries have that same dedication to freedom of speech, or will the potential threat to profit margins be more influential? It’s a question worth asking.

But then, banning books is only part of the issue. Somewhere along the line the Internet got intelligent; now personalisation is its watchword and news, search results and retail recommendations get filtered based on our ‘preferences’. And sure, this can be convenient but it runs the risk of turning the internet, the great electronic frontier into a billion echo-chambers, one for each of us. Cyberia has become Cyburbia, and that’s when we become digital NIMBYs. Not purposefully, maybe not even knowingly, but sel-selection and software conspired to keep us disengaged from all those other voices out there. At least we can see when someone tries to ban us from reading a book.

(For example, look at the phrasing I used a couple of paragraphs ago. I’m not a fan of swearing at all, but calling it ‘bad language’ sets up a dichotomy that I’m not entirely comfortable with – what exactly would count as ‘good’ language?)

But this is my pessimistic streak coming out. As long as there are passionate, dedicated readers and librarians out there, literature and journalism will have their defenders. Saturday saw the Word on the Street festival hit Toronto; the Hay Festival does a similar job in the UK and around the world. Voices will be heard; words will be read. And no stories that get banned stay banned.

Because while information may or may not want to be free, stories always do.

International Day of Peace 2011

20110921-101700.jpg“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God;
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Part of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as recorded by St. Matthew, whose feast day falls on 21st September.

It’s the dream of humanitarians and beauty queens, but world peace somehow eludes us., doesn’t it? Oh, we want it, of course we do, but we want it on our terms and if we can’t get it, well, then we can pull out the sticks and the guns and the RPGs. Today is the UN’s International Day of Peace, and it’s right to gather around that banner, to hope and pray and speak out for a better future, but it’s hard to shake the idea, when watching footage of shootings in Yemen and riots on the streets of London, that some people don’t give a damn about peace – they want what they want, and woe betide anyone getting in the way. After all, if you’re in the way then you’re the enemy, the Other, the dehumanised figures who can be tortured or beaten or murdered if it serves some purpose that innocent victims probably won’t get the chance to understand.

“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

The surrender speech attributed to Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce after three months of conflict with the US army. He died on September 21st 1904.

And let’s not be naive, violence, the rejection of peace, isn’t just in the pulling of triggers or the raising of fists, it’s in our words and hearts – screaming “God hates fags” at a funeral is an act of violence in its own way, casting a vote for policies based on fear, hatred and ignorance is its own kind of atrocity. Heck, cutting benefits to the terminally ill and carrying out an inadvertant scorched earth policy against our economic future is both a recipe for violence and violence itself.

2588

Number of Jews killed by the Nazis in Dunaivtsi, Ukraine, September 21st 1942.

Christ called on his followers to turn the other cheek when confronted with violence, and an open hand is a recognised symbol for peace. These go deeper than the physical – to reject bloodshed we have to turn away from things that tempt us to lash out; to confound brutality we have to open our hands and drop the weapons and attitudes we use to assault the person and humanity of others. Sometimes we have to reject old family arguments or lines on maps to allow us to even believe in a future free of the tumult.

“They’re reading names out
Over the radio.
All the folks the rest of us
Won’t get to know.
Sean and Julia,
Gareth, Anne and Breeda;
Their lives are bigger than
Any big idea.

Lyrics from U2′s ‘Peace on Earth’, written in response to the Omagh bombing. It was performed at the America: A Tribute to Heroes 9-11 memorisl concert on September 21st 2001.

It’s a day of peace, and 24 hours can never really be enough, but we have to start somewhere. We cannot continue to drag ourselves down, fighting over land and resources and ideologies and differences. We cannot expect to wage war on our neighbour and expect to remain untouched by violence. We cannot nurture fear, ignorance and anger without reaping that same harvest.

A lot can happen in 24 hours; blood can be spilt, hands can be shook. And we – each one of us, wherever we stand – have a choice to make. And after that, a lifetime more.