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
And then, letting go of my hand,
Walk away alone into the unknown.

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

Pictures retrieved from:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...