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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Farewell 2011


What is there to say about 2011? For a number of reasons, mostly personal, I tend to think, Good riddance, goodbye and thanks for all the fish! Moreover, rather like Scrooge’s attitude to Christmas, I cheerfully admit to a tendency to regard the whole New Year brouhaha as generalised humbug, a completely arbitrary choice of a particular day, ten days after the winter solstice, to mark the end of one revolution around the sun and the beginning of the next.

Of course I am perfectly aware of our human propensity and necessity to organise and structure the continuous flow of our experience, both individually and collectively. Indeed (as a long time existentialist) I go even further and would argue that this organising and structuring is an essential part of the continual creation of meaning we carry out in order to infuse our existence with purpose. We are inveterate storytellers, constantly creating and developing the narratives which are our lives; individual narratives, family histories, tribal traditions, religious myths, national identities. Time is one of the basic categories we use to order and structure our life and – because our subjective, unstructured, immediate experience of time is so fluid and changeable – the one on which we first create a common consensus out of shared experience and memory. (When did that happen? In the year the great storm knocked down the old oak or – already on a much more sophisticated level – When Quirinius was governor in Syria.)

Any good complex story will have its subdivisions, its chapters. In an ordinary novel, chapters will have some kind of thematic form, but the narratives of our individual and communal lives are so complex that the wider shape of chapters only become evident much later – and even then are the subject of heated discussion. Thus, an initial form of standard agreed organisation becomes indispensable, and so we use years as units to give ourselves provisional, arbitrary beginnings and endings.

Endings … and new beginnings. One of the great psychological advantages this kind of dividing of time gives us is the opportunity to achieve some sort of closure (to use a modern buzz-word) for all sorts of deeds and experiences we have accumulated. A chance to put things behind us, to consign them to the past tense of a finished story so that we can, unburdened, proceed to create new stories. Of course, this can be a mixed kind of blessing in many respects (repression of all sorts of things not worked through enough which can often return to bite us nastily in the ass in all sorts of ways, convenient communal forgetting, etc.), but beyond this caveat we do seem to need this kind of mechanism to free up our energy, our enthusiasm and our creativity. Hope was what was left to humanity after Pandora opened the fateful box, thus releasing all the ills to which we are heir, and the idea of closing a chapter of the past in order to begin a new page, a new year which will be better is fundamentally an expression of hope. Unsubstantiated perhaps, illusory maybe, but none the less real for all that.

So now, the world is gearing up to put 2011 behind it and begin the new chapter of 2012. I suppose, if everything could be weighed up and cosmically balanced, some omniscient statistician might claim that it was just one more year like any other. But somehow it doesn’t feel like that – at least to me. I am of course aware that my own perception is grounded in my personal subjective experience and that this inevitably colours the way I see the wider world – and my personal view of the year gone by is dominated at the end of it by a number of negative events, culminating in the death of my brother less than a month ago. There were other deaths too in my own personal world, as well as some other difficult things which took place, so that I have a strong personal tendency to echo the judgement of Queen Elisabeth II on 1992 and refer to an annus horribilis. So it may very well be the case that this predisposes me to see the glass of 2011 as being very definitely half empty rather than half full.

There was certainly horror enough this year – though this can be said of any year; catastrophes, killings, sufferings and murders. The earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan in March were bad enough for the thousands who died, but it can be argued that the world once more just managed to dodge the bullet of massive radioactive contamination in the wake of the destruction of the Fukushima plant (though, like many other events in 2011, the long term consequences still are not clear). Global warming continued, according to the experts, even if the Durban Conference managed to keep the international Kyoto process, concerning carbon emissions, just about alive. Largely ignored by the rest of the world, hundreds of thousands in the Horn of Africa continued to starve; I’m afraid this one is going to get worse in 2012, proving – if proof was ever needed – that the response to the famine in Ethiopia in 1984/85 (and to others since) was nothing more than a Band Aid on a wound requiring major surgery.

It was a year in which the leaders in the developed world, particularly the USA and Europe, again failed to deal with the ongoing financial crisis and finally face down the international money managers, who seem to be able to continue to hold the rest of the world (in particular the taxpayers) to ransom. While the USA paralysed itself in a struggle between an increasingly irrational Republican-dominated Congress and a President who showed his Chicago Democrat (any deal is better than no deal, as long as you keep your chances of re-election alive) roots ever more clearly, Europe – dominated by Merkozy – continued to eschew courage, vision and real leadership in favour of short-term, self-seeking, selfish narrow national advantage, thus keeping the Euro in a precarious state, destabilising most of the weaker countries and forcing them to bear the brunt of huge economic mistakes – self-made to some extent, but facilitated by the large financial concerns in Frankfurt, Paris and Wall Stret – and leaving the markets to go on calling the shots. David Cameron effectively started to take the UK out of Europe, confirming that real power in Britain belongs to the latter-day robber-baron bankers in the City of London.

If there were any grounds for hope in 2011, they can perhaps be seen in the fact that more and more ordinary people finally started to see through the various con-jobs perpetrated on them and began to protest. The various “Occupy” movements were a signal that you can’t fool all the people (or even 99% of them) all the time. A wave of courageous protest throughout the Arab world swept away corrupt regimes and dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – though the ultimate results are still not clear. At the end of the year, popular protest in Russia over the machinations of Vladimir Putin seemed to be increasing.

But other brutes continued to hold on to power, increasingly apparently indifferent to criticisms of their ruthlessness, from Assad in Syria to Lukashenko in Belarus. Kim Jong-Il died but the dynasty continues in power in North Korea – it looks like the world will continue to be unpleasantly surprised by the paranoid megalomania of the Kim clan.

Basta! (And by the way, the use of an Italian word reminds me of another positive event in 2011: Berlusconi resigned as Prime Minister of Italy.) I will cry no tears for 2011. Others may feel differently, those who fell in love this year, those who saw healthy children born, those who, in thousands of quiet, personal ways, found happiness. Indeed, on reflection, I too experienced many positive moments as well. Perhaps I need to let them shine through some more in my own personal recollection, my own story of 2011. Good stories always have sadness as well as joy, shadows as well as light. I, and my daughters and grandson, are all alive, active and basically healthy as we approach the New Year; our lives are progressing gently and positively, there are friends and family, more than enough love to go round, a modicum of security and lots to live and hope for. That should be more than enough to be going on with, going on into 2012.

My wish for you, gentle reader, for me, for all of us, is that 2012 may be better for us than 2011. And I will pay no heed to the various loonies who, on the basis of Mayan calendars or other abstruse so-called prophesies, see the world ending this year – I hope and believe that I will be writing some sort of similar post in a year’s time, looking back on 2012 and forward to 2013.

Happy New Year
Frohes Neues Jahr

One of the greatest blues rock guitarists in the world, Belfast born Gary Moore, died in 2011. Man, he could make that guitar cry ...



Pictures retrieved from:

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Family (Thoughts at Christmas)


In the end, the most important things in life are always personal, intimate, immediate. Though rulers may make fateful decisions involving the fates of millions, though corporation chiefs and bank bosses may play with the hard-earned pennies of us all, gambling the loss of our futures against their short-term selfish gains, the results of all this remain generally matters for news headlines – until we concretely, in our own lives, experience their consequences. While it may be wonderfully noble and represent an elevated level of moral development to engage ourselves for general principles and the rights and causes of those far away from us, usually our energy, attention and motivation are most readily and frequently activated by issues and events which impinge on us personally.

It has become an almost unquestioned mantra that modern developments in society have accelerated the breaking down of long-established, traditional forms of living; that one of the prices our swarming, highly technological, complex contemporary society demands of us is our abandonment of “natural” structures in favour of constantly changing “artificial” modes of existence. Traditional ways of living, based on the family and small communities, it is argued, are being undermined at all sorts of levels; from globalisation, urbanisation, reliance on technology, the internet and – of course (at least according to the conservative, frequently religious, right) – a concerted attack by the ideology of godless, secular, liberal thinking on the holiest of all holies; “family values.”

While (as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know) I would certainly regard myself as someone who is very critical of many of the trends – including the fundamental ones – which determine the shape of our contemporary societies and the direction they are taking, and while I see numerous sources of (to use an old sixties buzz-word) deep alienation in the way many of us choose or are forced to live our lives, I still wonder, at a more fundamental level, whether the basic structures in which we live are not much more resilient than many of the critics of modern life would have us believe.

Historical anthropology tells us that, for the greatest part of its history, humanity lived at the hunter-gatherer level, in so-called band societies, small kin groups of no more than thirty to fifty individuals. Only with the discovery of the first agricultural techniques (the Neolithic Revolution) around 10,000 years ago, was it possible for humans to gather into larger groups (frequently, though not always, settled). With these larger groups, other, larger, societal organisations appeared; villages, tribes, towns and nations. But all of these other groups were based on the original unit, the closely related kinship band – in its simplest form, the (extended) family group.

Today we tend to see the family in its very stripped-down, minimal nuclear form; father, mother and children, living together as a discrete unit. But, although this form has been common since the first larger groups of humans settled in one place, for most of human history the larger extended family was more the norm. In the end, I believe, it doesn’t really matter; the shapes families (groups of humans with close genetic relationships between their members) take are fluid and adaptable. Their basic coeval purpose is to deal with a problem evolution presented to big-brained, intelligent, versatile humans – their children take longer to learn, mature and become independent than any other animal, so an environment has to exist within which this can successfully take place. While in extreme circumstances this task can be managed by one adult, it is much easier and more successful when the job of rearing is shared by a coherent group.

Families, then, are fundamentally there for children – and this is what makes them so important for all of us, no matter how much society has changed or is changing. Family – in whatever form – is the place where we have all spent our most formative years, where we learned language, mobility, basic social competences, how to relate to others and our very identity.

Families evolve and change over the course of their existence. Originating from other families in a kind of organic development, they grow and take shape, becoming bigger, then smaller, their centres of gravity changing as new generations grow into adulthood and form budding new units, which become families in their own right, in new identities with other families and groups. They are wonderfully flexible things, continuingly changing, adapting, morphing – dynamic connections of people; constantly being shaped and amended by their own members according to the complex relationships of those within them and their reactions to all sorts of events and influences, both from within and without.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy’s famous opening sentence from Anna Karenina expresses a truth, but it is too simple. For nearly every normal family is both a place of happiness and unhappiness simultaneously – how could it be otherwise, since they are the setting in which most of us live most of our lives? Certainly, as the fundamental units of our existence, and the places, above all, in which children grow up, seriously dysfunctional families are places of horror and nightmare – and many of those forced to spend their childhood in such environments are among the most wounded (and often violent) people in our societies. But – at a more normal level – tension, conflict and unhappiness are unavoidable parts of life and it is utopian to believe that families can be somehow magically excluded from this reality.

Consider, for example, the process of growing up and maturing. From our teenage years into early adulthood, a large part of our development has to do with our personal growth into independence, with testing and defining ourselves in contrast to others close to us, above all, those who were largely unquestioned role models and authorities during our childhood. This very necessary part of becoming an adult is inevitably accompanied by conflict and stress and, even if you have never had teenage children, all you need to do to realise the truth of this is to remember your own teenage years. In fact, one of the major function of families for those approaching adulthood is to betimes become tight, constraining, frustrating; in this way young people can develop their own personalities and obtain extra motivation to leave the familiar safeness of the family structure, explore their independence and, ultimately (most of them), enter into new relationships and unions which will form the kernels of new families. And the beauty of all this is that families are not exclusive; you can form a new one, enter into a familial relationship with the family of a partner without ever having to really leave your own original one.

I had reason to think about all this recently, when my original family came together from three different countries to be together during my brother’s last illness, to be there for him and for each other, before, during and after his death. Though we children are all middle-aged now and have new families and networks of loving relationships of our own, it was a time for us to come together, to find comfort and strength in each other, to throw ourselves onto the firm support of our shared relationships, experiences, history. One other positive aspect of this difficult experience was the solidarity and companionship we experienced from other, related families – cousins and their families in turn, all stemming from the original families of my parents. It was a wonderful realisation for me – that, when push comes to shove, family is there and it works, on that most important, personal, immediate, intimate level of living I referred to at the beginning of this essay.

And, with Christmas almost here, I find myself thinking about the unit at the core of that story; a father (even if the fatherhood is somewhat unclear in the account) and mother together, the mother giving birth, the beginning of a new family, the beginning of a story. Families are places of shared experiences, giving rise to shared stories, narratives which are an essential part of our identity. In the recent coming together of my family, our finding ourselves all together (even with the aching wound caused by the occasion for it all, the death of my brother) for the first extended period in years, we spent a lot of time remembering and retelling the stories of all those years we spent together. Many of the stories we told had to do with my brother, and in the telling we discovered some relief from the grief we were all suffering – even finding ourselves laughing at some of the memories, the common narratives of our own family history. At the same time, this sharing of memories and stories was a reaffirmation of our own identity, both individually and collectively; comfort gained from grounding ourselves once more in that original, secure, familiar familial reality.

I do not see family values as being under threat; they are too strong, deep and fundamental for that and such slogans and fears are no more than chimeras of the religious, so-called Christian right. There is no prescribed form for families, they can be nuclear, extended, single-parent, gay, patchwork, any form really, as long as they can be places of security for people and generations to be together to cherish, accept, annoy and love each other – to live together and out of that living create their own stories and traditions. Like Christmas – that time of families coming together in the midst of winter – so often called the family feast.

So, gentle reader, enjoy this Christmas – and celebrate your family, whatever form it may take.

 Some traditional Christmas music, in a somewhat different form


Pictures retrieved from

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

For my Brother


November 24

Repeatedly, it all seems so unreal,
Something I’m experiencing at a distance,
Dulled, blunted, cotton-wool wrapped.

Then the reality cuts through;
The harsh searchlight airport night-glare
Making everything monochrome bright,
Shadows edged like knives,
The truth cutting and cruel.

My brother is dying.

And I am sitting on a plane,
Flying back home to Ireland
To take part in a death watch,
My awareness ricocheting between shocked numbness
And unbelieving horror.

This cannot be happening.

My brother is dying.

December 6

Once more sitting on a plane,
Once more flying back to Ireland.
No more death watch now;
The news came in the middle of the night,
Digital text flashing in the dark.

Paddy died in his sleep.

Two roller-coaster weeks
Of horror and worry,
Hope and suffering,
Waiting, speculating …
Finally resigning
To the inevitable.

The last agony the old Catholic prayer calls it.
And, yes, there was agony enough
And confusion and distress too.
Oh dear, my dearest little brother,
You fought beyond hope, beyond understanding,
Your stubborn herculean will
Driving your body to heroic feats of recovery
 – astounding the experts –
Before finally succumbing to the reality
Of multiple organ failure.


And then the last, ghastly necessary decisions:
Disconnecting machines,
Discontinuing treatment,
Morphine and sedation,
Sleep … slipping away … death.
Others (we) making the unavoidable choices
You could no longer make for yourself
(And how you would have hated that,
You who were always so insistent
On your own proud, independent autonomy!)

And forever there will be a hole in my life
Where stood my constant childhood closest companion,
A central component in the architecture of my existence,
Unquestioned, often unthought
(Because so obvious, inevitable),
A sharing so close that,
As adults,
It drove us in very different directions
To explore diverse aspects of life’s challenges, joys and dangers.

Some dangers turn out to be fatal.

For me, there will remain the memory
Of two little boys;
A binary system
(One larger, one smaller),
Revolving around each other
In mutual, unquestioning, rivalrous, self-sufficient dependency.

And an image of you as you (aged two, perhaps) look up at me
Trustingly,
And then, letting go of my hand,
Walk away alone into the unknown.
Forever.

Paddy Hunt, October 28, 1961 - December 6, 2011



Pictures retrieved from:

Friday, 18 November 2011

Occupy the World


As the protests grow worldwide, with financial districts of major cities being occupied everywhere, with the member countries of the Euro group trying to stabilise the currency and find some way of dealing with the debts of Greece and (potentially) other countries, under constant attacks from that strange entity known as “the markets,” there seems to be some hope growing that the pain in the developed world is finally reaching the level where the demand for fundamental change is finally emerging from the small niches in which it has huddled (largely unheard) since the collapse of the iron curtain to encompass more and more of the mainstream and make it increasingly undeniable.

It is a truism that things generally have to get worse before they get better and that a combination of ordinary inertia, fear, conservatism and resignation with our own personal situation means that it usually takes quite a bit to happen before a sufficient number of people finally decide that enough is enough and start, first, to seriously listen to those preaching radical alternatives and, secondly, to take to the streets to demand that something is done. Yet when it comes, it can come quickly – a tipping point is reached, the prevailing balance is lost and we enter uncharted territories as old paradigms dissolve and the search for new ones begins.

For forty five years after the Second World War, a stable paradigm prevailed; a world order dominated by the competition between two mutually exclusive ideologies. At the end of the ninth decade of the last century, one of those ideologies imploded and (with a few small exceptions like North Korea and Cuba) rapidly disappeared. What called itself “market capitalism” reigned supreme and many of its proponents seemed to be on the verge of proclaiming a Hegelian end of history, a brave new world in which unregulated global markets would lead to an explosion of prosperity, a rising tide lifting billions of boats, a “creation” of wealth which would continue in secula seculorum, world without end, amen.

In the event, it took less than two decades for the new paradigm to start to show serious cracks and fissures, the consequences of which are still working their way through the immensely complex, interdependent systems and structures of which our human polity is made up. The collapse of the US property bubble and the convulsions in the world of international financial markets showed that much of the “wealth” which had been “created” had, in fact, never really existed at all. As is now becoming increasing clear to more and more people, what had happened was that a very small, immensely powerful group of corporations and individuals had taken the real wealth of ordinary people and societies; used this to leverage (what an amazing word!) a massive amount of fantasy wealth; exchanged much of this fantasy wealth for the real wealth of ordinary people and societies; worked themselves into a position where the entire world was dependent on the complex mixture of real and unreal they had created and were controlling; and, when the whole thing came down around our ears, demanded ever more of the real wealth we possessed as ordinary people and societies (or which our children and grandchildren would earn in the future) in order to keep the crazy system on which the world was now dependent running.

Moreover, they’re still doing it, and the amazing thing is that those (in the western world) who are elected by the people to run things continue to jump to their dictates. The ongoing Euro-crisis is a very good example of this. Leaving aside Greece – which is a country with underlying serious problems as a result of decade-long overspending on current accounts, fuelled by a culture of tax-evasion by everyone, but particularly the rich – none of the other European countries currently seen as dangerously weak have such massive problems that they need be regarded as necessarily being on the verge of collapse. Ireland was the victim of a classical financial bubble (driven by property speculation) bursting and is in its current state of difficulty because of an unconditional guarantee given to the financial institutions (on the insistence of the European Central Bank) who had played a major part in creating and sustaining the bubble. Portugal, Spain and Italy (with Belgium on the verge of joining them) certainly have difficulties, but their debt situations are all much healthier than that of the USA. What has caused, and continues to cause the present difficulties is the behaviour of many major players on the international financial markets, who – in time-honoured fashion – have been behaving like classical predators with a large group of prey; stampeding the herd into panic and then cutting out the weaker members one by one, harrying them into exhaustion before closing in for the kill.

Of course, this is not the official language used to describe the process; here the bon mot is market confidence. That this increasingly has little to do with basic economic realities and far more to do with artificially induced expectations, bets on future developments of every kind (and bets on the bets and betting on losses), all with the goal of maximising profits for the major players in the complex global financial game no matter what happens, is becoming clearer to everyone. It’s a roulette game where every number on the wheel has the colour green and the number 0. The bank always wins – rarely does anyone else.

The course of events in the past few years has led to a growing realisation of the parasitic nature of the corporate financial world structures and the failure – or seeming inability – of political leaders to exercise any kind of effective control over them. And, as a result, the level of public indignation and protest is growing. In many quarters, the realisation seems to be dawning that things can’t go on this way, that something has to give. Describing his perceptions of the US scene following the clearing of some of the Occupy protestors, Chris Hedges writes:

“[The corporate bosses] … think it is back to the business of harvesting what is left of America to swell their personal and corporate fortunes. But they no longer have any concept of what is happening around them. They are as mystified and clueless about these uprisings as the courtiers at Versailles or in the Forbidden City who never understood until the very end that their world was collapsing.”

According the Hedges, “this is what revolution looks like.” He may well be right. He goes on to list the various preconditions set out by the historian Crane Brinton for a successful revolution and sees them all as being present in the current situation. And this is the point at which my worries begin. Brinton’s classical analysis, The Anatomy of Revolutions, concerns itself with the English (1640s), American, French, and Russian Revolutions. And three of these four were accompanied by vast suffering and bloodshed and, particularly in the case of the last two, finished up devouring myriads of their children before culminating in the dictatorships of Bonaparte and Stalin.

Brinton’s book was first published in 1938 and the world has moved on quite a bit since. In contrast to his generally cautionary view concerning the progress of revolutions, the counter-example of the events around the collapse of communism in 1989/90 can be given, or even the example of the “Arab Spring” of this year. But before we all start flocking to the barricades, a few considerations are in order.

The events of 1989/90 were momentous; particularly their speed, restraint and generally peaceful courses. But there were a number of factors at work which suggest that they were – and will remain – unique. In the first place, there was a clear vision of an alternative model of society, that which was seen as functioning in the west. Secondly, there was general support and encouragement for the dramatic changes taking place from the rest of the world, particularly those in power there. Thirdly, there was the clearly perceived unwillingness of the imperial power under its new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, which had upheld and guaranteed the status quo ante, to use force to impede the move for change. Regarding the “Arab Spring,” this is a process which is still unfolding; it is as yet too early to make any conclusive judgements concerning its results.

“Revolutions, like Saturn, devour their own children.”
The saying dates back to the French Revolution and was, most famously, uttered by Danton during his trial. It is this observation which gives me cause for concern in the present situation. My initial inclination is not to shed any tears should the current corrupt exploitative system, in which the world is ultimately controlled by a small oligarchy of the immensely rich, whose are prepared to go on raping the whole planet and everything on it to protect and expand their own privileges and power, be brought down. More, it is not hard to imagine scenarios in which I myself would find myself on the streets, howling with the mob to put the mothafuckas up against the wall. But then I start to ask myself what we want to replace them with?

There is no shortage of visions of alternative world orders, suggestions of how to do things differently, but there is little consensus on what they should be. Our globalised world has developed into a very complex interconnected networked system where nearly everything is dependent on nearly everything else and there is a great danger that if key blocks in that system are destroyed, the whole thing will come collapsing around our ears – particularly if it is not clear with what they should be replaced. I see little sense in a process which will lead to a situation analogous to that in France in 1794 or Russia in 1919. Historically, such processes have lead to untold suffering, the deaths of millions, and the ultimate rise to control of iterations of the original system of oppression and corruption which called forth the revolution in the first place.

The consensus seems to be growing that the present world order is intolerable. I sense that what we now need most is a wide public dialogue on a global level leading to concrete suggestions concerning alternatives and agreement about their implementation. I have little faith that the official forums (like, for example, the UN) are at all inclined to further such processes. I have some hope that the groundswell of alternative methods of dialogue and interaction offered by the digital revolution may lead to the evolution of new structures which will bear concrete fruits in the real world. But the dangers that the unbearable contradictions in the current systems, where the pressure for their destruction is increasing, may lead to general turmoil and systemic collapse should not be underestimated. If we are not clear about concrete alternatives, we might find ourselves (that remnant still alive) cowering shivering, hungry, fearful and traumatised in the ruins of a world we have managed to wreck.



Pictures retrieved from

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Seven Billion Baby


A few days ago, I found myself driving through the Duchy of Berg, on my way to a wedding in a neighbouring town. It was a beautiful late autumn morning; the sun, though growing inexorably weaker as the days become shorter, had gained enough strength to burn away the early morning fog and shone unobstructed from a bird-egg blue sky on the last glories of colour which the fading vitality of nature was able to provide. Red and green had largely disappeared – with the exception of the dark grey-green of the conifers and the brighter green of many of the fields – for the first autumn storms had already stripped many leaves from the trees and most of those remaining had very little chlorophyll left, so that the boughs and branches were already beginning to show signs of their winter starkness. November is just around the corner.

It was an idyllic scene, an overwhelmingly rural scene, rolling hills, fields and woodlands; one which could almost be pictured as Frodo’s Shire, if you just imagined the occasional house, power pylon and metalled road away. And then it struck me that the region I was travelling through was, in fact, part of the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area, the second largest polycentric urban area in Europe (after London), with over 12 million people and a population density of 1,422/sq.km It is, in economic terms, the largest economic area of Germany, accounting for around 15% of national GDP, one in which one city boundary frequently borders on the next – and yet, it is a region which is still predominantly green.

Of course, Germany is one of the richest countries in the world; a developed land, moving in many areas into a new technological, almost post-industrial phase, which has had the time and the wealth to deal with many of the worst excesses of heavy industrialisation, providing the vast majority of its population with a standard of living which would be longed for by billions of people throughout the world.

A world which, if we are to believe the experts, will welcome its seven billionth citizen sometime this weekend. The baby may be born in the Rhine-Ruhr area, or in Tokyo, in Beverly Hills or London; following statistical probabilities, however, it is more likely to take its first breath in the slums of Cairo or Mexico City, in the Gaza enclave or one of the camps in Northern Kenya, where the refugees from the hunger and chaos in Somalia are gathered in teeming hundreds of thousands. Though it may live its life in prosperity and privilege, it is more likely to grow up in poverty and existential uncertainty. If it lives a long life, that child will see a new century, having lived through one in which, in all likelihood, the human family will have taken the decisions which will decide whether the future will be bleak and increasingly uncertain on an increasingly wrecked planet, dominated by violence, poverty, a desperate struggle for mere survival by the vast majority of people, and death; or one in which humanity has faced up to the challenges it has created for itself and developed solutions which guarantee a life in dignity and relative security for its members.

The Parable of the Yeast
As a young man in Ireland, I spent a couple of years with some friends making wine as a hobby. We would never have described ourselves as oenologists; our primary aim was to produce significant quantities of a pleasant, drinkable, alcoholic product at an affordable price. While we experimented (sometimes successfully J) with different local fruits, the easiest way was to work with grape juice and kits, which could be bought relatively cheaply.

Apart from grape juice and the correct ambient temperature, the most important ingredient was the yeast. Basically, a small amount of dried yeast is added to the raw must and, in around two weeks, it converts nearly all of the sugar present into alcohol and carbon dioxide – the process known as fermentation.

It’s well worth looking at this process a little more closely. If the conditions are right, that small amount of yeast feels itself in yeast heaven and commences to behave accordingly. It starts to eat sugar, pissing alcohol and farting carbon dioxide for all it’s worth to get rid of the waste products. It also begins to reproduce like hell, being fruitful and multiplying at an incredible rate, creating a lot more yeast, which also starts to eat sugar, piss alcohol and fart carbon dioxide. A side effect of this is the generation of a large amount of heat, something the wine-maker has to keep a close eye on; the yeast does like it warm, but not too warm, a potential problem with all the reproduction and metabolising which is going on.

Towards the end of the process, the conditions change. The sugar starts to grow scarce and the amount of alcohol now present is proving increasingly poisonous for the yeast. As resources diminish and toxicity increases the yeast starts to die off, first slowly, then with increasing rapidity, until, in the end, all the yeast has died and fallen to the bottom of the fermentation vessel as a sediment known as the lees and the wine is basically ready (though to make it drinkable a slower secondary process, known as malolactic fermentation in which bacteria convert malic to lactic acid, must still take place).

In times when I am feeling pessimistic and negative – many would say realistic – I wonder whether there is any real difference between humanity and yeast. Looking at the past couple of hundred years, in particular, this view could well be seen as justified. As a process it is nothing special in nature, it happens all the time; species finding an environment which particularly suits them, over-reproducing and exhausting that environment as a result before dying back in massive numbers to make way for others and allowing new processes to begin. And we too are a species of life, just as yeast – or lemmings. The problem is that our environment has become the entire planet and the exhaustion of resources and the changes we effect on that environment are likely to become so dramatic that, when the tilt-moment comes and the die-back begins, we will have left an incredible mess behind us. If that die-back is not accompanied by widespread nuclear war (still a distinct possibility, particularly in times of increasing chaos, uncertainty and desperate battles for survival), the planet, and life, will survive us, but recovery from us will take quite a while.

Yet there is one aspect which makes us different from the yeast and the lemmings; we have the capacity to think, to plan, to imagine and envision the possible future and voluntarily tailor our actions in order to choose the direction in which that future will grow and thus influence its concrete reality. Up to around a hundred years ago, it can be argued, there were few enough of us, and the earth was big and bountiful enough, for such considerations to be unnecessary. That is no longer the case. We are becoming increasingly aware of our global interconnectedness in all sorts of ways – also of the consequences of our unthinking consumption of everything the planet has to offer and of our crazy merciless competition for increasingly scarce resources. Many major changes have already taken place and, just like the yeast, our “metabolising,” reproduction and ever-increasing production of carbon dioxide as a waste product is already showing signs of raising the temperature in our planetary fermentation vat to a level which is becoming uncomfortable for us. We have not yet learned to piss alcohol, but the other waste products we produce are quite poisonous and damaging enough.

The (symbolic) birth of Seven Billion Baby can perhaps be an event which helps us focus on what is at stake – the future of that child and his or her siblings; the future of all our children and grandchildren. It can be that beautiful world of the Duchy of Berg I drove through a few mornings ago, but it can also be the world of the Somali refugee camps in Kenya – or worse. But a world in which both can coexist and in which, above all, the residents of Berg can go about their lives largely unconcerned and untouched by the fates of those in the camps will not be able to continue to exist for much longer, for the strains and pressures we are creating planet-wide on all sorts of levels will become increasingly difficult to ignore. If we do not start to act much more decisively than we have done up to now, I very much fear that that tilt-point will come and the die-back will begin. And that is something which will profit none of us (except, perhaps, some fraction of that one percent who have so much power and money that they can barricade themselves away in enclaves to carry on some kind of sterile continued existence).

The signs are increasing that time is running out for us – that it is coming up to a minute before twelve. What gives me some hope is our capability, despite everything, for creativity, imagination and empathy. And our ingenuity and energy when it comes around to getting things done at the last minute.

Happy birthday, Seven Billion Baby. I wish you lots of luck – you’re going to need it. But maybe you’ll have it too; after all, seven is supposed to be a lucky number!



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Friday, 21 October 2011

An 18th Century Gentleman


Join me, if you will, on a little harmless flight of fantasy. Imagine you had the choice of whenever and wherever in history and geography you could live, and that you were free, moreover, to choose your status in life there and then too. Where and when and who would you like to be?

Westport House in Mayo, Ireland
On reflection, I think I would like to have been an Irish gentleman of comfortable means in the second half of the eighteenth century. As such, I would have been a member of a small, privileged elite, the group known as the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, which, following the defeat of the old Irish great lords like the O’Neills and O’Donnells at the end of the sixteenth century and the Cromwellian defeat and dispossession of the great majority of the remaining native or Norman Catholic gentry in the middle of the seventeenth, had attained secure control over both land and power in Ireland. Many were descendants of Cromwellian officers or settlers, installed by the English in that period, along with some few older settlers or even native Irish gentry who had accepted English rule and the English protestant religion.

They grew to form a peculiar class. The hardening of religious positions in the seventeenth century led to a situation where, for the vast majority of the native Irish, Catholicism became more than a religion, advancing to part of a cultural identity which made the religious difference just one part of a definition of Irishness, coalescing in self-understood difference from (and generally sullen opposition to) what was increasingly seen as an unwanted foreign occupation. This development was, of course, mirrored – and often exacerbated – by the growth of the Anglo-Irish self-image and the policies of the controlling English crown, which equated popery with treason and imposed all sorts of legal sanctions against Catholics (known in Ireland ever since as the Penal Laws), including disenfranchisement, inheritance disadvantages, judicial preference of Protestants, prohibition of worship, etc.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Ascendancy was firmly in control, sure of their supremacy – both in the superiority of their nature above that of the native Irish and its guarantee by England. That society was ordered was a divinely ordained fact of life and their position at the top of the heap was clearly a reflection of the divine will.

Yet this was also the era of the enlightenment, an age of reason and even – within certain boundaries – tolerance. Certainly the atmosphere of the time was one which respected rationality and moderation and abhorred what was often described as “enthusiasm.” It is perhaps ironic that it was the general stability of society, coupled with limited tolerance for ‘free thinkers’ and a distaste for the religious enthusiasm which had nearly torn Europe apart in the 17th Century, which created the environment in which those ideas would develop which would lead to the destruction of many of the foundations of that society; ideas propagated by thinkers such as Hume and Voltaire, Paine and Rousseau.

This then, is the background to the Irish gentleman whose life I would like to live. I imagine my wealth and income as fundamentally based on land, good land; an estate preferably in County Meath, or Kildare, somewhere, at any rate, not too far from Dublin, where I would also maintain a town house.

Dublin in the second half of the eighteenth century is one of the most pleasant European cities in which to have a residence. Large enough to be a centre of culture, it is still small enough to be familiar, developing that special identity it retains to this day as a huge village where everyone, through two or three connections, knows everyone else worth knowing and where gregariousness is a fundamental fact of life. It is a city undergoing splendid renewal in what came to be called the Georgian style, with the building of fine houses, magnificent civic buildings and beautiful parks, including the largest public park in Europe, the Phoenix Park.

Georgian Doors in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin
My Dublin residence I imagine in one of these fine new Georgian streets, at best fronting one of the tasteful squares built around a green park, such as Mountjoy or Merrion Square, perhaps even on the central St. Stephens Green. From there I would be able to easily participate in the busy cultural life of the city; going to musical performances in Mr. Neal’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street (where Handel’s Messiah was premiered), attending (if my wealth were great and my contacts influential enough) civic occasions and balls at Dublin Castle – the seat of government of the English Lord Lieutenant, the top aristocrat who represented the crown – perhaps frequenting Sunday services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to hear its great dean, the glorious man of letters, satirist and addict of controversy, Jonathan Swift, preach.

For my religion, naturally, would be that of the established church, the Church of Ireland, the Hibernian version of Anglicanism; an obviously supremely reasonable kind of Protestantism, retaining much of the better older traditions which had been initially part of the universal church until Roman popish superstition had perverted them. Though, if I am to be truthful, my personal religious convictions are not particularly deep – in fact, if pressed, I would probably describe myself as a deist, though this is not a position I would loudly profess publicly. Among educated friends of my own class, my position is widely shared but we still see the value of religion as a necessary part of societal order and guardian of public (and, to an extent, private) morality. Moreover, the church provides a means of living for many younger sons of gentle birth and has, in Ireland, thrown up such prodigies as the aforementioned Mr. Swift, or the great philosopher, Bishop Berkeley.

It is conceivable that I might have a seat in parliament. Indeed, at the end of the eighteenth century, for 18 glorious years, the Irish parliament in Dublin succeeded in throwing off practically all the controls the British parliament in Westminster had accrued over the previous centuries and exercised wide-ranging autonomy in the administration of the country until fear of French invasion and native Irish rebellion – the Irish rising of 1798, while unsuccessful, was alarmingly inspired by French revolutionary ideas – led to the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 and the abolition of the Irish legislature.

I regard myself as a man of progress, a man of reason. As a young man, following a few years at Trinity College, I have made the Grand Tour of Europe, experiencing something of life and culture in continental Europe; an experience which has reinforced my conviction of the superiority of the British way of doing things. Nevertheless, combined with a certain studious inclination, the experience has helped me to improve my knowledge of French, which has basically replaced Latin as the lingua franca of civilised men and the mastery of which enables me to maintain a correspondence with other men of ideas throughout Europe.

As a gentleman I would be married, though – given the perils associated with childbirth in a society in which medical knowledge and, in particular, the knowledge of hygiene were still fairly rudimentary – I may well be a widower. The path for my sons is clear; the eldest will be my heir, the second would go into the army (in which case, I will have had to purchase a commission for him), the third would possibly try to make a career in the church or train in one of the professions, like law. For my daughters I would have to provide a dowry before finding suitable husbands for them.

The basis of my prosperity is my land. Most of this is farmed by tenants, and their rents make up a considerable portion of my disposable wealth. It is a good time to be renting land. The spread of the potato has meant that tenant families are able to feed themselves on relatively small farms, so their numbers are growing and the possible subdivision of the lands they rent increases my income.

Not that I regard myself as an exploiter. I see myself as a fair, concerned landlord and squire, interested in modern ideas of farming, trying to improve the lots of my tenants (insofar as they are prepared to listen to me), reading and applying the ideas of modern agricultural thinkers such as Jethro Tull to the model farm areas of my estate which I administer myself. I see myself as being fair to my tenants, being approachable and even prepared to postpone rents or find other solutions, for those going through difficulties. While I deplore their papist superstition, I am tolerant enough to allow them to follow their superstitious ways of worship and even have an amiable relationship with their (technically illegal) priest – quite an educated fellow as a result of a number of years spent studying abroad in Salamanca and Rome.

Life on my estate is, in many ways, fairly self-contained. The army of servants necessary to keep my manor (known to the native Irish as “the Big House”) comes from the estate and we form a little community of our own. My children all had Irish wet-nurses – as, indeed, I did too – and, before they were old enough to be educated and learn the necessary awareness of their status, their playmates were ordinary peasant children. A large amount of what we consume is produced on the estate, though such necessities as sherry, claret and port have, of course, to be imported.

But, in contrast to the rich cultural life in Dublin, the intellectual stimulus on the estate is rather poor. Many of the neighbouring squires are rather ignorant, more interested in hunting, gambling and duelling than in serious use of the mind. Though my position demands that I hunt occasionally, I have no interest in gambling, and have seen far too many men ruined by ill-considered bets, generally fuelled by drink. The number of educated men around in the vicinity of my estate are not many; the schoolteacher, the vicar (unfortunately a pompous bore, who drones on interminably about the dangers of the teachings of Mr. Charles Wesley) and the doctor and lawyer from the nearby town. They join me regularly for dinner where we discuss everything from politics to the works of Mr. David Hume and the Prussian thinker, Emmanuel Kant.

Oliver Goldsmith by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Having passed fifty, I am starting to feel my age, having begun to suffer from that curse of men of my class, gout. My friend, the local doctor, speculates that a diet high in red meat, port and claret may exacerbate the condition, though I find it hard to accept that my after-dinner port can be a contributory factor to the pain in my big toe. He might as well claim that it is a result of my wig being too tight!

I recently had a visit from one of my university compatriots at Trinity, Mr. Oliver Goldsmith. A most agreeable fellow, and one of some literary pretensions. He read to me from his latest work, The Deserted Village. It is a fancy of mine that his observations concerning the heedless doings of the richest of men, uncaring of the general common weal, may retain a significance beyond my own time, still retaining relevance, perhaps, in centuries still to come:

“Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen who survey
The rich man's joys increase, the poor's decay,
'Tis yours to judge how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and an happy land.
Proud swells the tide with loads of freighted ore,
And shouting Folly hails them from her shore;
Hoards, even beyond the miser's wish, abound,
And rich men flock from all the world around.
Yet count our gains.  This wealth is but a name
That leaves with useful products still the same.
Not so the loss.  The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park's extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds;
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth
Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth;
His seat, where solitary sports are seen,
Indignant spurns the cottage from the green;
Around the world each needful product flies,
For all the luxuries the world supplies:
While thus the land, adorned for pleasure all,
In barren splendour feebly waits the fall.”



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Sunday, 25 September 2011

Burnout II: Getting Back on the Horse

Over a month ago I published a pretty personal post here about the unpleasant experience of going through burnout and the practical measures I was undertaking to deal with it. As a number of things have happened since, I thought it was time to write an update.

After six and a half weeks on sick leave, I went back to work last Monday. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. The enforced pause certainly helped me to clear my head – to an extent, at least – but the renewal of energy, a “recharging of the batteries” which I had hoped for, didn’t seem to be happening. I spent much of the time sitting at home, reading a lot and the normal, unthinking energy which was available to me for so many years for doing all the myriad things from housework, to visiting friends, to managing all the basic affairs of everyday life, to writing didn’t really kick in. Oh, I did manage to do the most necessary things and even a number of other things which weren’t strictly necessary but everything was still shaded with a heavy patina of effort; the old lightness which I had realised I had lost and the loss of which had so shocked and pained me didn’t appreciably return.

Very well, I thought to myself, taking time out hasn’t been the panacea I had hoped it would be. Panaceas rarely are all they are cracked up to be anyway; cure-all nostrums are usually the province of snake-oil salesmen and the treatment of suffering in something as complex as the human psyche is also likely to be complex – a process involving various elements in dynamic relationship with each other and needing time and space to develop. I had started taking medication, I’d begun a process of therapy which will (if all goes well and my health insurance can be given the proper signals to get them to finance it) grow into a longer phase of classical psychoanalysis, I had discussed my situation with professionals, family and friends and had productive talks with my employers concerning certain negative aspects of my concrete work situation. Now the time had come to take the next step, to climb back on the horse from which I had fallen.

And so – not without a large dose of trepidation – I went back to work. One of the changes I had negotiated with my employers was that I will, for the foreseeable future, be exclusively assigned to work in the new project we are developing; a middle-term residential group for the care of very sick children (sometimes accompanied by their mothers), who are in need of continual, often high-tech medical support in order to continue their healing process, or just to go on living. At the moment, the group is composed of four children (aged between six months and eleven years) and two adults (who are only there temporarily, these places to be ultimately available to children as well) in temporary, provisional accommodation. Permanent, custom-built quarters are presently being completed and we will be moving in there before the end of the year.

Six patients all in need of extensive, complex, permanent, time-consuming intensive care, with two nurses always on duty; there is plenty to do. The first twelve-hour shift saw me exhausted at the end but it was a good kind of exhaustion – that kind of tiredness which comes from having worked hard doing tasks which offer a sense of immediate value and worth. In the course of the week I found myself quickly adjusting to the physical demands of the job. And I realised that the enforced pause had, in fact, done more for me than I had thought. I found myself better able to cope with the various time-consuming idiocies enforced on anyone working in any of the over-developed, over-regulated, under-staffed, under-paid, misfinanced lunatic complexities which are a characteristic of health-systems all over the world. The senseless bureaucratic and administrative hurdles which independently uncontrollably burgeon in any system beyond a particular level of complexity, which would have had me seething with frustration a few months ago (this itself a symptom of the fact that I had gone way beyond my own tolerance levels), I could now accept with a lot more serenity as part of the inevitable Catch 22 reality in which all of us in our mad modern society are more or less caught.

I am not cured – this will be a long journey, and relative health and sickness are always just a snapshot of an instant in the constant complex dynamic interactive process which is life anyway. But I find myself seeing things more positively and see grounds for hope that my basic levels of essential energy will increase in the doings of things rather than waiting for them to grow so that I can do things.

I decided to be basically open with my colleagues (without going too much into details) about the reason for my absence. I received unexpected support for this during the week. The manager/trainer of one of the most prestigious Bundesliga soccer teams, Schalke 04, Ralf Rangnick, resigned his position last Thursday with immediate effect. The reason he gave was the spectacular, honest admission that he was suffering from an exhaustion and burnout syndrome. While, as with most news items in our high-speed, media-driven world, it will be a seven-day wonder, such public announcements do help the process of bringing various manifestations of mental suffering and illness into the realm of more serious open discussion and further the process of dismantling taboos, clich├ęs, speechlessness and misunderstandings about such issues which are widespread in our societies.

Returning to work, I discovered that others had very different difficulties to deal with. I have written about Jenny a number of times here before. To recapitulate: Jenny is a three-year old girl, who is deaf and dumb, suffers from a partial facial paralysis, a dangerous weakness of her respiratory musculature, an inability to swallow and some balance and coordination disturbances. As a result, she has a tracheotomy tube in her throat and spends long periods daily on a respirator. She is also very intelligent and extremely lively.

Complicated gene tests have confirmed a couple of weeks ago that Jenny suffers from something called Brown-Vialetto-Van Laere syndrome. This, of course, means nothing to her, but it tells us that her prognosis is very bad as the general course of the illness is progressive.

Jenny was dealing with two much more urgent problems. A month ago, my colleague Jan, who was the member of our team who had the deepest relationship of us all with her (in a very real sense, a replacement father-figure), suddenly and completely unexpectedly died in his sleep. He was two years older than me. At exactly the same time, Jenny contracted a very serious case of pneumonia, which necessitated a stay in the Intensive Care Unit in our local hospital. Given the fact that she is living with a hole in her windpipe where nature never intended that a hole should be, this is the kind of thing which can happen; it almost certainly won’t be the last time. When she returned, it had to be explained to her that Jan would never be coming back.

She has understood that and – we think – she has accepted, according to her own categories, that he has not abandoned her. But she misses him and suffers from his absence.

She greeted me like a long lost friend (which, I suppose, I was to her) and seems to have transferred some of her fixation with Jan to me. She stuck to me like a burr all week long, appointing herself my assistant nurse and accompanying me when I went to the other children to take care of them. This has been made somewhat more complicated by the fact that she needs extra oxygen all the time at the moment, so that I spent a lot of time lugging her oxygen tank with me.

For the events of the past weeks have weakened her. After a maximum of four hours, the effort of breathing independently has so exhausted her that she has to be put on the respirator for a couple of hours. Her continence – which she had achieved shortly before the illness commenced nearly a year ago, lost then and won back again in the past six months – has taken a hit. This annoys and embarrasses her, but she’s got enough determination to get it back once more. And she retains the capability to put all of her intelligence and creativity into continually working on marvellously extensive and sophisticated communication, despite her deafness and lack of speech.

Given her confirmed diagnosis, we are haunted by the dark suspicion that she may have already seen her physical zenith. Perhaps. But we shouldn’t write our prognoses without figuring in Jenny’s determination and stubbornness. They are part of a complex, fascinating personality which makes her occasionally amazingly frustrating but more often supremely rewarding to care for – sometimes simultaneously!

Engaging with Jenny has, at any rate, done me good. It is an intense, positively strenuous relationship which, in the way which children determine, takes place primarily on the emotional level of the ever emerging now. A condition which leaves very little room for depression. And for all that I am deeply thankful to my young friend. Having climbed back up on that horse, I sense that I am not alone; Jenny is there too, sitting in front of me.

Though the song seemed appropriate to me anyway, the fact that David Coverdale celebrated his sixtieth birthday this week makes it even more so.



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