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Archive for the ‘The Odyssey of Life’ Category

For someone who, like so many people, is obsessed with and totally dependent on the internet, I have been strangely resistant to it at various points. The first I ever heard of the internet, though I’m not even sure it was called the internet yet, was at my friend Mike’s house in 1992. He and his housemate Laughlin used to log into “Bulletin Boards” on their 386s, much to my annoyance, as the occasional seventeen-hour download prohibited playing linked death-matches of Doom II – a favourite pastime whilst smoking bongs and eating Lebanese takeaway. The only thing that got my interest back then was the mention of the word “porn”, which at the age of nineteen still afforded rare titillation.

During the following years I came increasingly to hear talk of the “internet”, yet it remained something seemingly obscure and unnecessary. What, really, was the point of it? If I wanted to contact someone, why not just pick up the phone? What information could it provide that I couldn’t get in the university library? I still shudder to think of my reaction to seeing, c. 1997, a web address listed beneath a film title in a cinematic trailer. All I could think was – Why the hell would anyone want to go to the web-page of a film? It all seemed rather pointless.

By the end of 1997, however, my stance on the internet had softened considerably. I don’t know exactly what brought about the change, but one day, sitting with my friend Stephen in the Psychology department at the University of Sydney, I asked him if I could send an e-mail my friend Gus. I had become curious enough and self-aware enough to realise that actually my resistance was a kind of knee-jerk jealousy born of my technologically backward state – I was still writing on my dad’s massive old 128k Hitachi HiSoft word processor, which dated from 1982. It’s fair to say, considering how primitive that word processor was, that I actually lacked a computer.

My excitement at Gus’ receipt of my e-mail seems ludicrous in retrospect, but within months I had set up a hotmail account – the very same one I still have – and my interest in the internet was born. I still resisted getting it at home, but regularly began to use the net on the university computers, almost exclusively for e-mail. This use of e-mail became obsessive when my then girlfriend moved to Cambridge at the end of 1998. By early the following year, we had broken up and I started seeing someone else who, heaven forbid, actually had the internet at home. I still recall the garishly colourful pages of the many Geocities sites she used to visit – back in a time when ICQ was all the rage.

It was only in September 1998, when I myself moved to Cambridge to study, that I finally got an internet connection in my room for the first time. The whole of Cambridge was already wired up with broadband and I was fortunate in having a very fast cable connection to my house. The internet of those days still retained much of the clunkyness of its infancy, with less slick and dynamic web-pages, and it lacked many of its now dominant staples such as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, yet it had at least evolved into the great communication, ticket-booking, holiday-planning, information gathering tool that it remains today. It wasn’t long before I was utterly dependent on the internet and it became impossible to imagine living without it.

When I returned to Australia in 2003 I was shocked to discover that most people were on dial-up. I struggled for a while with my parents’ connection, but when I moved to a flat in Glebe – just a few doors down the road from where I now live – I eschewed getting the net. This was partly because most plans were both slow and expensive, but really it was because I was doing a Masters in Creative Writing and writing a lot and I was afraid that it would prove a major distraction. It was the right decision, and I don’t doubt that my huge output at that time, both in writing and photography, were in part due to not having my computer time interrupted by constantly checking the web. I had access all day at work and so could get most information I needed during those hours. Still, it was frustrating not having it at home, and I often regretted it.

What frustrated me most was the inability to have any question answered immediately when writing. If, for example, I wanted to set a scene in Kinshasa, as I was doing at the time for the novel I was then writing, I couldn’t simply Google images of the city, nor articles or blogs from which to get further insights. I could do this at work, but it was annoying having to wait to have a query answered and to get information as soon as the question entered my head. Again, however, there were advantages for productivity, as I was able to write for hours without distraction.

When I moved back to England in 2006, it became immediately apparent that living without the internet in a foreign country was simply untenable. Apart from wanting to stay in touch with people, the new novel I was writing seemed continually to throw up queries that wanted quick answers. Since reconnecting shortly after settling down again in Cambridge, I have never looked back and lived without the internet. This has, of course, been the mixed blessing I imagined it might be. The access to news, information and social media is of course, wonderful, but the amount of time consumed by surfing and the scale of distraction it can cause is breathtaking. When Facebook got my attention in early 2007, I was, for a while there, gone for all money.

I have since come to the rather spurious conclusion that I can’t in fact write without the internet, because I constantly like to check facts, details, definitions and the like. I know, however, that this is not quite true, and sometimes I still switch off the router when I need to have a very intense focus and work on something without interruption. It is worth mentioning that in 1997 and 1998 I read, on average, 120 novels a year. Now I average around ten. Shameful.

So all this brings me to the subject of smart phones. From the moment they appeared on the scene, I wanted one. I was terribly jealous of those people I saw sporting them and my friends who rushed out and got them, because of their ability to have their queries answered almost instantly. This capacity to Google anything at any time, reception permitting, was too exciting to dismiss – yet I dismissed it for some time.

I’m still not entirely sure why, though it was a combination of factors. There was my concern, having been a heavy MMO addict for some time, that a smartphone would just be another obsession. I spent enough time on the internet already – did I really need to be surfing whilst on the bus or train? And those journey times were, after all, my last bastion of dedicated reading time. I feared that if I had a fast internet browser in my pocket, I’d never read a book ever again.

Another reason was cost. I inflated this in my head as a barrier to acquisition, despite the fact that it would have only cost me five more dollars a week than what I was paying already on my pay-as-you-go dumb phone. It wasn’t so much the cost that I found prohibitive, but rather the idea of committing to a two-year plan and not being sure about where to start or what to commit to. If I was going to upgrade, after all, then I should want to do it properly, and yet I found the entire world of smart-phones to be dauntingly diverse. Where should I begin?

This leads quite naturally to the next issue I had – the fear of being a noob again. Nobody likes being a noob, let’s face it, although a truly exciting new pastime does allow for once-in-a-lifetime enthusiasm that cannot be sustained or recovered. I hated the thought of having a new phone and not knowing how to use it, almost more than I hated the idea of not having one and feeling materially and technologically backward and isolated.

This peculiar blend of not especially serious objections somehow teamed up to keep from getting a smart-phone for several years after their appearance on the market. Even when they had become utterly commonplace and were far cheaper and better than in their first flush – even then I resisted and opted out. And then, about a month ago, having witnessed for so long the convenience and utility of having access at all times amongst friends, I decided I couldn’t wait a moment longer and started looking.

It was worth the wait. After a few days spent researching the phones on the market, I had narrowed things down to a choice between the HTC Sensation, the iPhone 4S and a couple of Samsung Galaxy variants. During a lunchbreak at work one afternoon I began to ask around the various shops in town to see which networks had the best deals, when I discovered that the Samsung Galaxy S3 had been released that very day. There were a slew of good deals flogging this phone, with bonus data, plenty of credit and no upfront costs for the phone itself. I ran back to work to use the internet – an irony that wasn’t lost on me – and read as many reviews as were available of this new phone. I was astonished to discover just how well received it had been and, without further ado, signed up after work for a two-year contract.

Sure enough, I love my new phone. It is a beautiful piece of machinery, with a smooth, slim design and gorgeous screen. The quad-core 1.5 gig processor is almost laughable overkill – it’s so good it’s broken, and on wifi it absolutely rips. There’s little need to wax lyrical about the convenience and pleasure of having internet access at all times, suffice to say that it has already proven extremely useful. Sure enough, as predicted, I felt like a complete noob for several days, holding the thing very delicately and clumsily getting used to its features and inputs. I must shamefully admit that I have occasionally allowed my noobish enthusiasm to show in the company of others, but feel reassured that I haven’t become completely obsessed with my phone. I feared becoming hooked on using social apps such as Foursquare, that I’d be tweeting all the time and updating Facebook like I’ve not done since 2007, yet since getting it I’ve had little enthusiasm for such things. In fact, my use of the phone has been most satisfying for being informative – I’ve primarily been using it to read the Guardian and Al Jazeera on the way to work – which has, of course, cut into my reading time. And yet, I’m reading, aren’t I? Can I really complain?

And so, finally, the internet is in my pocket. It is a great leap forward, if a significantly delayed one. I cannot now imagine ever being cut off from the internet again, even during a bus-ride. Yes, I do need to know the name of that film I can’t remember – now, not later. Yes, I do need to have Google maps to guide me whenever I get lost. Why put up with a lack of information in a world where we can outsource both our memories and information gathering at a negligible cost?

The kids I teach after school, all aged between fourteen and sixteen, have never lived without the internet. They are often so immersed in it that they seem to have little contextual historical understanding of just how recent a phenomenon it is. A part of me shudders when they say – “But what did you do without the internet?” and it feels like an even bigger question that what did people do without the gramophone, cinema, radio, or television. I’m left wondering – “Holy shit. What on earth did we do?”

So much of my youth was spent agonising over not knowing the answers to things, wishing I could watch a video again, longing to learn about the world at large, wanting to hear a song or just know the name of something. The first port of call for general information was my father and mother, then the encyclopaedia. It was frustrating, especially as there was little control over the sources of information, without access to a world-class university library and hours of time at my disposal, and even that could not help with contemporary pop cultural information.

When I was eighteen, we used to talk about how great it would be if there was a place where we could get the answers to all our questions. My then girlfriend told us there were some guys on the radio you could phone called The know-it-alls.

“You just have to ring up and ask,” she said. “They can answer any question.”

“How?”

“Dunno. They just know a lot of stuff. Maybe they use encyclopaedias.”

If they even existed, and you got through, during their obscure radio timeslot, you might just have had your query answered. Mmmm, well, thank fuck for the internet, which will not be leaving my pocket any time soon.

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I put the shirt back on the rack and gave it a last look of farewell. It was a tad loose around the middle and, being very picky about the cut and fit of a shirt, it hadn’t quite made the grade. Still, it was a Diesel shirt with a nice collar and cuffs and an arrangement of blue and maroon stripes on white which I rather liked. I decided to let it go.

I looked at the other shirt I was still holding. It was a perfectly respectable, blue, white and black striped business shirt – ideal for day to day use when teaching – the sort of boring, unadventurous, yet reassuringly generic shirt that allowed me to remain both anonymous and blandly appealing.

For years I’ve been trying to blend back into the modern world, after a long Indian summer of youth in which I rejected everything mainstream and uniform.

When, now more than a decade ago, it dawned on me just how unindividual self-professed individuals were – who proved, more often than not, to be far more image conscious than the cattle they derided – I came to understand that anonymity was, in everyday life, a blessing.

I put the second shirt back on the rack. After all, it was practically identical to another one I had at home, if slightly less attractive in its colouring and thickness of stripe. It did fit me perfectly, however – so well that my girlfriend, V, who was busily prowling through Vinnies with me, had remarked at its figure-hugging qualities when I emerged from the change rooms. I had gone in there with five shirts, hoping no one would be officious about the three-items only rule. The other three shirts occupied the same end of the spectrum as the two I’d ultimately selected, then rejected, and consequently they were now all reunited on the colour-coded rack.

I lingered a moment, asking myself once more whether I wanted these two shirts. Second hand, the two were a mere thirty dollars, yet without any urgent need, the purchase seemed frivolous unless I was utterly sold on the style and cut.

Vinnies, it is worth mentioning, is a chain of charity stores who recently rebranded themselves from St Vincent De Paul. It is also one of the greatest places to shop in the known universe. There are stores everywhere in Sydney and around Australia and their range of offerings is quite formidable. Some of the larger places do furniture, household goods and kitchenware, though many only have room for clothing, books, CDs, records and the like. What makes Vinnies so attractive is the sheer amount of stuff they sell. Inevitably, anything cool and retro gets picked out pretty swiftly by hipsters, nostalgics and various other subaltern fashionistas, but there is still plenty to choose from and every so often one gets extremely lucky.

Vinnies is especially good for business shirts, trousers and suit jackets. There are quite simply so many thousands of business shirts worn and tossed aside in the world that the average Vinnies store will have upwards of three or four-hundred to choose from. Many are at the extremes of size, and many are so awfully tasteless as to garner no consideration whatsoever. Yet somewhere in that horde there is usually a very fine garment or two waiting to be snapped up. One of my favourite places to shop is the Paddington store on Oxford Street. Owing to the very wealthy and decadent nature of the locals, this outlet regularly has high quality items on its racks. I recently purchased a fine blue and white striped Van Heusen business shirt – now a teaching staple – for a mere twelve dollars. When I got it home I noticed that it had a recent dry-cleaning tag on it. Only in Paddington would someone have a shirt dry-cleaned before donating it to the local charity shop.

Another great thing about shopping at Vinnies is the complete lack of attention from staff. They are certainly helpful when approached, but otherwise they leave you alone. As there is no hope of asking “do you have this in a different size?” or “will you be getting any more of these in?” it makes for a wonderfully free and aloof shopping experience. Another great plus is that Vinnies only sells second-hand goods, which is marvellous for the environment in a world which produces far too much of everything, irrespective of demand. This knowledge, however, is tempered by the sorry fact that people actually wore some of the dreadful things on the racks in the first place.

So, having rejected both shirts, I walked back to the counter where V. was purchasing a woollen jumper.

“I decided not to get the shirts,” I said.

“Oh, why? They seemed fine.”

“Yeah, I dunno. Just not sure I really need them.”

“But they looked very good on you.”

“Did they? Oh, thanks.”

“Yes, you looked good in them. You know, handsome and respectable.”

“Oh. Yes, but – ”

I hovered a moment at the counter. Thirty dollars was hardly a big ask, and it would add flexibility to my relatively limited wardrobe. As a clothing minimalist, I usually maintain no more than about four or five outfits – combinations to which I regularly return for their comfort, style, casualness, formality or climatic-suitability. I suppose at the very least, more shirts would add a little lee-way to the wash cycle.

“Okay, fuck it. I think I’ll get them.”

Sure enough, I walked back to the rack and collected both of the shirts.

Later that day, back at home, I noticed a small stain on the arm of the Diesel shirt I had purchased. My current fad is to soak everything in Napisan for twenty-four hours to remove the inevitable yellowing around the collar and armpits. Napisan works wonders, it must be said, and my shirts have never looked cleaner. I filled up a bucket with hot water, stirred in a capful of Napisan as directed, then preceded to soak the two shirts.

The following day, having put the shirts through the wash, then ironed them and hung them up to dry, getting ready to go to work, I took the Diesel shirt off the hanger and attempted to put it on. That something had gone horribly wrong was immediately apparent, for I could barely get my arms through the sleeves at all. What had, in the shop, been a size too large for me – a little ballooning around the middle, which I thought would be countered by wearing my favourite vest over the top – was now about three sizes too small. I managed to get my arm through one sleeve; pulled it around and forced my other arm through, but the tightness across the shoulders and chest were such that I could not do up the buttons!

I tugged and stretched the fabric as best as possible, yet it was quite firmly stuck in its new size and didn’t seem inclined to expand at all. I flexed, I pulled, I wrestled with this straight-jacket, and finally, after much effort, managed to do up the buttons. I knew already that I could not wear the shirt out, but hoped that if I wore it and flexed and moved about a whole lot, it might, given time, regain some of its former size. After all, it would ultimately be advantageous if the shirt finished up a little tighter than when I had originally tried it on.

I wore a different shirt to work that evening, and when I returned home after work, put the tight shirt back on and wore it round the house. I flexed, I stretched, I pulled, I bent, but to no avail. Not only was it uncomfortable, but it looked bloody ridiculous. And, I’m afraid to say, it still does.

The buttons strain across the chest, the sleeves hug my arms like a leotard, and whenever I move it rides high, popping open at the chest and sending the collar skywards like the headdress of the flying nun. Still, having spent so long deliberating over this purchase, having invested in it in this manner and feeling a certain fatefulness about the decision, I am determined to get the damned thing back to a wearable state. And so, for the last week, I have adopted it as my home shirt, to be worn as often as possible in the hope of loosening things up a little. It’s slow going, though I’m hoping ultimately to make some progress.

Having mentioned the saga of this shirt on Facebook, I’ve had a few tips as to what I might try. One friend, Sarah, suggested I go running in it. On Saturday evening, I did this – looking very silly indeed as I pounded around the streets of Glebe, my chest ready to burst out and my arms swinging robotically in the tight sleeves. On returning home, I took a long, cold shower, despite the winter weather, and stretched and flexed the fabric as much as possible. Having since hung it up to dry and attempted to wear it again, I found my efforts have made little difference in making this shirt wearable in public. Still, I hold out hope, and will continue to wear the shirt around the house. We’ll see who cracks first.

And so, by way of conclusion, I say to you people out there, check the washing instructions before stupidly assuming, as I did, that any shirt can be happily soaked in boiling Napisan. That is all.

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When I was a child, my favourite animals were tortoises. I was completely obsessed with them and went crazy over anything faintly tortoise or turtle related. All my soft toys were tortoises or turtles. Indeed, I had an entire family of stuffed toy tortoises, all of different design, gathered during my years as a toddler. There was the gigantic patchwork Papa Tort, the smaller yet still bulky bright red Mama Tort whom I won in a school raffle (organised by my mother and about which I’ve always been deeply suspicious), the less attractive and rather tatty Uncle Tort, and two younger tortoises, one named ‘Tootaloo’ – according to his label – and then, finally, Baby Tort. Together these formed the core of what my brother and I called the “Favourites” – in other words, soft toys.

My brother, on the other hand, was utterly obsessed with bears. He began with two excellent teddy bears, for which my mother used to knit jumpers, and then moved on to actual bears. Soft toy bears, that is, as we had two dogs and a cat and thus not enough room for a pet bear into the bargain. I’ll never forget his terrible sense of loss when one day our dog Poppy ate the bear my mother had brought him from Bern in Switzerland. It was made with real fur and to this day I shudder to think that perhaps it was made from bear fur, but am sure it must have been some other unfortunate animal who lost his hide. My brother’s discovery of the torn, slobbery remains sent a spear through his heart, and I hope that he has, after thirty odd years, recovered at last.

My tortoise obsession was such that I would almost certainly cry if anyone, in anyway, maligned tortoises. I remember my mother once told me what seems, in retrospect, a rather bad joke, but it went something along the lines of a Tortoise being sent to prison for “sticking his neck out.” On hearing this, and being of an age where it was difficult to divorce metaphor and wordplay from reality, I was utterly devastated and asked for days afterwards if that tortoise would be alright. Despite my mother’s reassurances that in fact she’d made the whole thing up, I never quite believed her and thought she was telling me this to stop me worrying about that poor tortoise in prison.

My tortoise collection never extended to the real thing sadly, so I had to make do with every other available manifestation of tortoises. One such was a number of small ceramic tortoises made for fish tanks. One day, I dropped one of these on the road whilst waiting at the bus stop, just as the bus was pulling into the kerb. I was saved from certain death by my mother, who restrained me as I tried to save the poor little tortoise. Unfortunately, the bus’s aim was good and after a pathetic crunching sound, all that was left was a pile of green-tinted dust.

Another of these ceramic tortoises was given by me to my father to take overseas on assignments. As a foreign correspondent who was often in warzones, or doing something ridiculously heroic like sailing around Cape Horn, we had cause to worry for his wellbeing, and naturally I thought a tortoise good luck charm would help. The great thing is that it did help, and my father managed to come back in one piece every time. So, for that matter, did the tortoise, and my father still keeps him as a travelling good luck charm.

This obsession with tortoises has stood the test of time and I retain my fondness for these curious, long-lived and fantastically ancient creatures. Yet, in my adulthood, I have come to take on a greater variety of animal totems who have, in soft-toy form, proved wonderful travel companions. These include platypuses, bilbies, rabbits and, of course, elephants.

My love of elephants also began during childhood, when I first saw these magnificent beasts at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. For a kid who, like every other kid on the planet, was totally obsessed with dinosaurs, the elephant seemed to be the nearest approximation to the lumbering beasts that filled the pages of my many dinosaur books. Watching the shuddering flanks of the elephants as they, admittedly forlornly, drifted around the then unimpressive compound gave me my first sense of what a dinosaur must have been like. Yet elephants were no mere second-rate sop for a real sauropod – rather, they were, in themselves, magnificent and curious creatures, with possible the most exciting appendage in the animal world. I had not yet seen the star-nosed mole, which, considering the appallingly lurid nature of its snout, is likely for the best. I’ve included one here for shock value.

That first experience of elephants was sadly poignant. I couldn’t help noticing that one of the elephants was swinging its foreleg bag and forth, and when I asked my father why this was, he told me it was because the elephant was used to being chained – the foot-swinging was habitual on account of its frustration. It was enough to break a small child’s heart.

Around the age of seventeen, my mother bought me a brass elephant key-ring. It took about two years before I adopted it, but I haven’t looked back ever since. That elephant key-ring has been everywhere with me in the last twenty years and not only do I dearly love it as my very favourite accessory, but hope to continue using it for the rest of my life.

Over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate in being able to see elephants on a number of occasions. Firstly, when visiting Bali with my brother, during which trip we visited an elephant resort and I took a ride on one of the elephants. Being able to get so close to so many elephants was wonderful, though I did have many reservations about the way they were handled and kept. Not that I witnessed or suspected any mistreatment of the elephants, yet these are cultured, social and highly intelligent animals who live in sophisticated extended family groups, and the idea of them being exploited in this way, however pampered they might be, left me feeling like a bit of a hypocrite for supporting the elephant tourism industry.

I had similar reservations when I visited an “Elephant School” outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Here at least the elephants had more open, natural terrain around them, including a great river in which they were regularly allowed to wallow and wash. Yet, the elephant talent show, in which they performed tricks, played soccer, lifted logs, sat on their haunches, danced and painted, filled me with such an odd mix of pleasure, pathos and pity that I was conflicted for days afterwards. During the show a young Italian woman was overcome with emotion – seemingly the product of outrage and pity at the humiliating nature of the performance – and cried out in protest. Clutching her face in her hands and shaking her head, she hurriedly fled the scene. Her raw emotion lifted the veil of harmless fun and from thereon the spectacle was coloured with macabre thoughts of the sinister nature of archetypal circuses. Still, having said that, having come all this way, I retained sufficient excitement at being in such close proximity to so many elephants to busy myself photographing them for several hours.

It must be said that the situation of elephants the world over  is certainly a sorry one. The regular killing of elephants throughout Africa has not only reduced their numbers significantly, but also destroyed the social harmony of elephant communities. The consequences of this have been, among other things, the animal equivalent of delinquency among young males in particular, who are growing up without the support and structure of a full herd with all its subtleties and complexities. The same could be said of Asian elephants, who are even more on the back-foot than those in Africa. In India, despite much love and respect for elephants, alongside much exploitation of the creatures for work and tourism, those poor beasts remaining in the wild are often forced to compete with humans for habitat and resources, and sadly, humans invariably win these disputes.

Without wishing to say a great deal more on this subject, I believe it is time we came to respect the cultures of certain of our mammal cousins by recognising their right both to territory and to an unmolested existence therein. There has been a movement in recent years to extend an animal variant of human rights to marine mammals, to protect their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We try, where possible, to respect the still extant primitive human cultures on Earth, though we fail dismally on this front. Surely creatures so sophisticated as to be self aware, have basic language with clear vocabulary, sing songs, talk in their sleep, have local accents and dialects, play with dolls, use tools and pass on culture to their offspring should be regarded in a similar light – as cultures that ought to be respected and protected. Not only should such rights be extended to cetaceans, but also to any other creatures who show similar levels of cultural sophistication. This would of course include all elephant and primate species. I’m not exactly suggesting they should have a seat at the United Nations, though, come to think of it, a representative for the Animal Kingdom might not be such a bad thing after all.

And so, on that note, here are a bunch of elephant photographs I’ve taken in recent years.

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I began writing this a couple of weeks ago, nearly finished, then ran out of time and have been altogether too busy to finish it until now.

This evening I will begin a new job providing additional English tuition to high school students in years nine and ten. I’ve spent the last few days doing a lot of reading and thinking in preparation, and I feel as though I am now ready to enter the classroom and give a good lesson. This doesn’t mean, however, to put it colloquially, that I’m not absolutely shitting myself.

Teaching might seem a strange choice of occupation for an introvert, and I often wonder why on earth I would choose to put myself through something so utterly nerve-wracking. In most jobs there is someone on hand to assist or give advice or to take over in the initial stages if there is some uncertainty about a task or procedure. In an office I could turn to my colleague and ask a question. In a call-centre, I can put my customer on hold, or escalate the call to a manager. Behind a counter, I could say “just a minute” and get some assistance. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that in most jobs there is someone on hand to guide one where necessary until one is fully confident of doing the job correctly. Not so, however, with teaching.

My first real experience of teaching, not including training new staff on a bar or usurping university tutorials, was back in 2006 when my old friend Chris hired me as co-lecturer for his Cambridge summer school on South African literature. Having recently returned to Cambridge after two and a half years back in Australia, I was in dire need of gainful employment – working in a pub and struggling to find a proper job. Chris was in dire need of a reduction in his workload and the solution of him hiring me dawned on us one afternoon when having a beer in Kings College.

I had not taught South African literature before, but I’d read a lot of J. M. Coetzee and had spent years at Cambridge talking with Chris about his work in sub-Saharan African and post-colonial literature. I’d also studied a lot of literature and literary theory both in my undergraduate degree and Masters in creative writing, so I felt confident I’d be able to interpret and present the material, once I’d read it and familiarised myself with it. Herein, I learned early on one of the great lessons of teaching. So long as you are one step ahead of the students, everything will be fine, for you already know more than they do about the subject. Still, I was terrifically nervous and apprehensive, largely because these students were clever kids from California, and I was afraid that they might just possibly be one step ahead of me.

Ultimately, I did just fine, but I was awfully nervous in the classroom and spent the whole time sweating and fretting, fearful of the pauses in discussion and desperately thinking about where to go next. The first time I took the class by myself, I was so on edge that one of the students asked me “Are you always this nervous?” Despite highlighting my predicament, this comment actually helped me to relax, as I could thus get it off my chest that I have a terribly nervous disposition and tend to feel rattled when expected to perform in front of strangers. Once I get comfortable with them, however, I become very gregarious and switched into a far more extroverted, performative mode. I knew this to be the case with me socially, but at the time I didn’t know it to be so when teaching. I hoped then that things would pan out in this fashion, and was thus very pleased when they finally did. By the time the course was finished, I was far more relaxed and confident in my interactions with the students.

A couple of months after returning to Sydney in 2008, I got a job teaching English as a second language with a private college in the city. The school, where I am still teaching as one of three current jobs (!) uses the Callan Method, which, for better or for worse, is a method based almost entirely on speaking, as opposed to study and technical instruction. In a nutshell, the teachers ask students questions, then prompt them through the answers; the philosophy of the method being that the more students speak and make mistakes, they will not only be better at pronouncing words correctly, but will also lose their fear of speaking and making mistakes. That’s all very well, provided they don’t merely switch off and parrot the teacher, without actually thinking about the content of their answers.

Over the last four years, I’ve seen some students really benefit from this style, and others not at all. It’s difficult to pin down whether or not the method or the students’ application is to blame, but I suspect it’s a combination of both. The Callan Method is certainly dated in its approach and techniques, and the books are in desperate need of modernisation, but the rote nature of the speaking seems to suit many of our largely Japanese and Korean students, who want as much speaking practice as possible and who often prefer a more drill-based teaching style.

So it was that, after a week of training, I was sent into the classroom, unsupervised, to teach my first lesson. It’s difficult to describe the intensity of fear and nervousness that I felt upon entering, but the expression “my bowels turned to water”, probably best sums it up. Fortunately, there were no mishaps on that front, but I lost several kilos that week through anxiety, which suppressed my appetite and, quite literally, gave me diarrhoea. The anxiety was largely due to fear of not being able to answer a question authoritatively and explain things adequately. I was also worried that I would stumble and lack the flow that the experienced teachers had, who were more familiar with the material. When I feel compromised in front of a group of people, and am put on the spot, I tend to flush bright red and sweat a lot, and even the smallest error or uncertainty can bring this on.

It took a long time for me to adjust to teaching in this new job. I was nervous for weeks, indeed, months, largely because the job continually presented new challenges. Trying to explain what an auxiliary verb is to a person with next to no English is a difficult task. Try explaining the idea of a “cause worth dying for” to someone with a very limited vocabulary, and you might see what I mean. There were, quite literally, thousands of such brain-bending moments, and even after I’d mastered the art of explaining a particular concept, grammar rule or idiom, there would always be slow students who never actually got it at all. It took months to get used to exactly what words I could deploy in explaining things, according to their level of vocabulary, and some words are not easy to explain. Take “happen” for example. It seems innocuous enough, but its best synonym is either “to occur,” or the phrasal verb “to take place”, and really, it’s not worth going there at a beginner level. Of course, the best resort is demonstration, as is the case with most words and situations, but this then requires the correct performance, an act of theatre, and a responsive audience with a good faculty for interpreting such a performance.

It took me at least six months, possibly as long as a year, before I lost all fear of entering the classroom. Only then did I feel completely and utterly confident that I could explain, via language, dance, theatre, diagram, graph or sheer fluke, everything I needed to explain. For the last few years I’ve had no qualms whatsoever about teaching any of the material, with the exception of a few real mongrel words like “abstract”, “justice”, “even”, “despite” and the like. Thank the mother of invention for electronic dictionaries.

And so, just last week, I had a successful interview and got another teaching job. This was a great score in that they pay four times more than my other school and the material is far more interesting – poetry, narrative theory etc. I must say, I’m very impressed by the difficulty of the material with which these year nine and year ten students are presented. It’s so long ago since I was in high school, that I find it almost impossible to remember the nature of the curriculum at that age, but I don’t recall it being quite so academic in its language, nor pitched so high.

My nerves don’t come from fear of not being able to handle the material, though that is a small component, but more from a fear of the technicalities of classroom procedure: the timing of the delivery of the material in our textbooks, the use of the projectors and various databases of resources, and the method of teaching itself. Much of my anxiety also derives from the fact that I will be teaching teenagers, whereas I’m used to teaching young adults, mostly in their twenties. I suspect it will take some time to adapt to their level of vocabulary and contextual understanding of the world, history, and literature. Also, I am used to students who have chosen to be there, whereas most of my students will be there because they are struggling with English and their parents have sent them. Having said that, from my class observations so far, the students seem generally to be a good bunch of kids who respond well to kindness and attention.

Ultimately, however, my biggest fear is that I will look nervous and lack confidence in both my delivery and my handling of the students. I know from four years of teaching experience that I will be absolutely fine once I’ve done this a couple of times. I doubt I will suffer for as long as I did when I started teaching The Callan Method, and it is really the first lesson that I fear the most. Indeed, on Saturday night, I became so overwhelmed with fear of the moment when I first enter the classroom that I felt short of breath and got a raging headache from the cold that gripped my body as the blood drained away. I have, for the last few days, been fluctuating between this cold fear and hot flushes. The worst case scenario is to enter the room and either faint or completely seize up and not know what to say or do. It would be a terrible way to begin a new job and my relationship with the students, whom I will have all term, would suffer.

There are, of course, many ways I can try to reassure myself. I have a lot of teaching experience now, I’m an adult, and school children generally expect authority and professionalism from teachers. They will likely be more afraid of me! It’s also true that I have not only prepared extensively for these particular lessons, but I have, in effect, been preparing for them for almost twenty years. I know, and I say this not in a boastful way, that I generally do things well when I really apply myself to the task, so I ought to be confident that I will also nail this job. Yet, the thing about fear and anxiety is that it is not rational, and no amount of reassurance will stop the heart and mind from quivering with fear of failure. Were it any other job or situation where I could ask for assistance, then I might be less fearful, yet the thing with teaching is that one does it alone and is expected to have complete command of the situation.

Either way, whilst I’m sure it will all go well, I suspect I’ll be shedding a few more kilos on the job. I hope I can summon the confidence with which I now stride around the classroom in my other teaching role, where no one would suspect that I was nervous in the slightest. I do very much enjoy teaching, yet it is, perhaps, an odd choice of profession for someone whose worst fear is to stand in front of a group of strangers and perform.

By way of a post-script, I’m pleased to report that not only did I not faint, but my first two classes went off perfectly well, and sure enough, the confidence I have from my previous teaching experience, came flooding back as soon as I’d gotten through the first, slightly awkward five minutes. After my second week, I now have no fear of teaching these classes at all and am both enjoying the job and looking forward to presenting the material in the courses. Woot!

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Included below is a collection of photographs from my last visit to Rome, in February 2008. They were taken on my old Canon EOS 350D. If you prefer to scroll straight to these, I won’t be in any way insulted – indeed, I fully sympathise. There is a hell of a lot to read in this life!

There was a time when Rome – the city itself and its once vast empire – were the be all and end all. My childhood fascination with ancient history stemmed as much from sword and sandal epics as it did from the history I learned from school and my parents. There is a point in every child’s life when they first learn about Pompeii and are overwhelmed by this incredibly fortuitous insight into history. In many cases, they soon let it go, just as children will grow out of being fascinated with dinosaurs. I, however, never really let it go.

My love affair with the Roman Empire as an historical subject actually began rather late. As a child and a school student, Classical Greece always seemed more attractive and interesting. Perhaps it was the more archaic lure of Agamemnon’s death mask, the prominence of the Parthenon as a recognisable monument, or the incredible story of that paradigmatic marathon runner – whatever the case, it was Greece that grabbed my attention. As a child who played a lot of fantasy role-playing from the age of nine onwards, I was also strongly drawn to Greek mythology. The story of Homer’s Odyssey opened a door to a world where men and gods and mythical beasts still co-existed, and this fantastic, largely illusory past, this time of legends and heroes, was more appealing to my fantasy genre inclinations. The Roman Empire, by comparison, was so terribly modern; it was the developed world of ancient times, and, indeed, hardly that ancient. They were also, more often than not, portrayed as the bad guys in cinema, and it was difficult to sympathise with their perceived brutality and mercilessness.

Despite my keen interest in Greek history, I wasn’t especially interested in studying classical Greek. This was partly because my high school’s head classics teacher was a predatory paedophile, but mainly because I was already doing two modern languages, French and German.

In ancient history classes I tended to switch off a little with Rome. It was too vast and complicated, unlike the neat spectrum of the Aegean and the coast of Asia Minor. The Persian Wars were such an epic tale of victory against unbelievable odds, and so admirable for being a co-operative effort amongst people willing to forget their differences in the face of an overwhelming common enemy, that little else came close to tweaking my romantic fascination. That is, until I discovered Tacitus at the age of seventeen. It was the sheer brilliance of Tacitus’s writings, particularly in his Annals of Ancient Rome that properly got my attention and gave me a newer and deeper understanding of the Roman Empire. The complexity of his observations and characters, the subtlety of his descriptions, and his at times, scathing wit, opened a view on the Roman world that was too alluring to ignore.

It is worth making a brief digression to note just how much chance was involved in me or anyone encountering Tacitus’ Annals. Tacitus, who has been called by some the greatest writer of the ancient world, unsurpassed until Dante, barely made it through at all. The first six books of his Annals survived on just a single manuscript, written, in all likelihood, around AD 850 in Germany at the Benedictine monastery of Fulda, which was probably copied from a third or fourth century edition. The manuscript was transferred at some point to the monastery of Corvey in Saxony where it remained without further reproductions until it was stolen in 1508 and sold to Pope Leo X. It was re-published in its first printed edition in 1515.

Books 11 to 16 (books 7 to 10, covering the reigns of Caligula and Claudius have been lost forever) and Tactitus’ Historiae, were also preserved on a single manuscript, likely written in the second quarter of the eleventh century at the since destroyed monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy. This manuscript (M. II, or Second Medicean) had a rather interesting life. Some time in the late fourteenth century, it wound up in the hands of no less than Boccaccio, who donated it to the monastery of S. Spirito in Florence. By 1437, it was in the monastery of San Marco in Florence, and it was shortly after this that the first new editions began to appear. Had either of these manuscripts been lost or destroyed as so many other ancient manuscripts were, then there would be no Annals and our understanding of that most pivotal Julio-Claudian period in Roman history would be unimaginably poor by comparison. That anyone can read Tacitus at all these days is really down to some incredibly good luck – one shudders to think what other Latin masters have vanished altogether.

So it was that Tacitus opened the door, and for my Higher School Certificate, in which I focussed entirely on Ancient History, Modern History, English and Visual Art, I wrote about his Annals with a loving keenness. Once I began to study in earnest at the University of Sydney, I took units each semester in both Ancient and Modern History. Realising that my sympathies had shifted from classical Greece to Rome, I took only Roman subjects each semester, focussing on Roman religion and ceremony, Roman imperialism, Roman law, the early Republic and the transition from Republic to Principate under Augustus. I learned a great deal about Roman history from the foundation of the city in the eighth-century BC, to the end of the first century AD, but little beyond that, and, ultimately, it was the question of what happened next to which my attention shifted.

In my final year of high school, I had turned once to the end of our textbook and lit upon a map of the Roman Empire at the accession of Justinian (AD 527-565). All that remained on the map was the “Eastern Roman Empire”, with a line drawn down the middle of the Mediterranean marking its western boundary, and not including Italy, Gaul, Spain, Britain or Carthage and the other north African provinces west of Cyrene. What!? The Eastern Roman Empire? Justinian? And neither Rome nor Italy included in its ambit?! How could this be?

Of course, I might have answered these questions simply by reading the textbook, but considering that, at the time, I had only advanced as far as the reign of Nero in the first-century AD, the idea of catching up to this time, five hundred years later, was just too daunting. What on earth had happened in the meantime? I had never imagined the Roman Empire to have lasted quite so long, and yet, in what form had it lasted? When I flipped the pages showing a map from AD 565, after Justinian’s reconquest, I was even more baffled. Did they really mean to suggest that, in the second quarter of the sixth century, the East Roman Empire had reconquered Italy, Carthage and southern Spain? What had happened in the west? It all seemed too extraordinary and I realised that I knew nothing whatsoever of this time. To me “Byzantine” was merely an adjective meaning unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic.

Despite two years of studying Roman history at university, I still hadn’t satisfied this old curiosity.  Thus, when I looked at the available subjects for ancient history in my third undergraduate year and saw a course called “The World Turned Upside Down”, covering the period from roughly AD 200 to 800 and spanning the entire academic year, run by Drs Peter Brennan and Lynette Olson, I leapt at the chance. It was during this incredible lecture series that my true obsession with Roman history began. Inspired initially by Peter Brown’s primer The World of Late Antiquity, I could not get enough of this later period with all its incredible complexity and diversity. Not only was the history of the transformation of the Roman Empire, economically, culturally, militarily and religiously, fascinating, but in finally coming to understand the so-called Dark Ages which followed, I was at last able to join the dots historically in the West.

In 1995 I graduated from my undergraduate degree, took a year off, and travelled across Europe for five and a half months with my then girlfriend. It was during this trip that I first got to see Roman ruins and a far greater array of artefacts than the meagre offerings available in Australia. My trip had largely been planned around visiting a lot of prominent ancient sites, though there were also many more that I discovered along the way. When I finally reached Rome after a couple of months on the road, I felt an especially great sense of having achieved something I’d always wanted to achieve. For years I’d tried to imagine what this city was like, sifting through the abundant clichés, and finally, here I was. Initially I was not greatly taken with the place. It took a few days for my eyes to adjust to its shapes and colours. There seemed too few green spaces, not enough trees and an excessively red and ochre palette, but once I grew accustomed to its spectrum, I came to love the colours of the city and its buildings. Most of all, however, I was mesmerised by the sheer number of prominent ruins and standing monuments, which seemed to rear up from the past in the city’s many holes. We stayed for twelve days and, though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the beginning of a long and curious relationship with the city.

After Rome, we headed south to Naples to see Pompeii and Herculaneum, and by the time we left Italy on a stormy ferry ride to Greece, I knew that I could not walk away from studying history. Upon returning to Australia, it was fascinating to reflect that through every country we had visited, from Britain to Turkey, we never actually left the boundaries of the former Roman Empire. For the first time in my life, I got some sense of the true scale of the Roman achievement. The ubiquity of their structures and ruins, in or under nigh every single European city or town, was mindboggling.

In 1997, I began an honours year in Australian literature, but my heart wasn’t really in it. During that year, I also took the honours preparation course for history and became keenly obsessed with the twelfth-century renaissance. I found myself tossing up the possibilities of working in the Middle Ages or the late Roman Empire, but, in the end, I chose the Roman Empire.

My now burning obsession with finding out what happened in the late period found a focal point in a thesis on a barbarian generalissimo called Ricimer, who rather badly co-ordinated Roman military policy and raised and deposed emperors in the 450s and 460s, shortly before the deposition of the last western Emperor in AD 476 – the ironically named ten year old Romulus Augustulus. During that year, I became so possessed by the story of how, over seventy-odd years, the Western Roman Empire slowly delegated itself out of existence, that I didn’t want to put it aside once I was done. That year I fell in love with someone whose ambition was to do a PhD in medieval history and to do it at the University of Cambridge and, once this idea entered my head, I began working keenly towards the same goal. The idea of doing a PhD had never previously occurred to me, yet suddenly it became the only thing I could imagine myself doing, despite never having studied Latin.

To cut an already too long story short, sure enough I got a scholarship to study a PhD at Sydney University and then, later that year, was offered a scholarship to do my PhD at St John’s College, Cambridge. In September 1999, after a year spent swatting hard on German, Latin and French, I moved to Cambridge. I had originally planned to write a thesis on “Nostalgia, Pessimism and Optimism in the Late and Post-Roman West,” but after a few meetings with my excellent supervisor, Professor Rosamond McKitterick, she quite rightly pointed out how broad, difficult and unquantifiable these concepts were, and directed my attention to a little-studied history of Rome written in the eighth century by a chap called Paul the Deacon. I was to spend the next three years translating and researching the Historia Romana and its context.

Though many will tell you writing a PhD will send you crazy, this was the happiest time of my life – so far. Once I discovered Ryan Air’s ludicrously cheap flights around Europe, I began a period of unprecedented travel, flying to the continent frequently, in some cases, every month for up to two weeks at a time. I tried to make each trip have an historical or cultural focus – visiting ruins, archaeological sites, museums and galleries, but I also partied harder than I had in years and indulged in the many pleasures of modern Europe.

When I first returned to Rome in February 2000, I did so with two good friends – both scholars of Italian history – and some ecstasy, which we popped before visiting the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel. I know it’s not the sort of thing I ought to recommend, but can I just say that seeing the Sistine Chapel on ecstasy whilst listening to the choral movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony was a life-changing experience.

It was this trip that really made me fall in love with the city of Rome. Wandering the streets, fired up and talking nineteen to the dozen with two people who shared my obsessive enthusiasm about history and ideas, remains one of the greatest pleasures I have experienced. I learned a lot, not only about the city’s Roman past, but also about the medieval and Renaissance period. And it was here that I realised the true potential of my time at Cambridge. It was not merely an amazing place of learning, with its inspiring lecturers and brilliant graduate student community, but it was just forty minutes from Stanstead Airport, the home of Ryan Air in the UK. I liked to joke and call Britain “Airstrip One,” its rather utilitarian name in George Orwell’s 1984. It was that trip to Rome which kick-started my European travel-mania that was to bring so many more amazing experiences.

For the next three years, in between study and research and way too many parties, I toured many ancient sites around the Mediterranean and northern and southern Europe. I re-visited Greece and Turkey, spent a lot of time in France and Italy, and explored Eastern Europe for the first time. I visited Rome on another two occasions and gradually began to feel a familiarity with its various locales.

In the final year of my PhD, I slowed down considerably, needing to save money and to write the bulk of my doctoral thesis. Looking ahead, with very little real idea of what I wanted to do with my future, I applied for a post-doctoral fellowship at the British School at Rome and was pleasantly surprised when my application was successful, granting me a four-month stint there from January to May 2003. Once I knew I was leaving in January, I made it my goal to have the PhD written and submitted before the year was out.

With just four months to the finish line, I fell into a strange routine of working all night until 0700 AM, sleeping roughly four hours, getting up to eat breakfast in front of Bargain Hunt, then heading for the library. I would begin work slowly, finding, reading and photocopying texts, then heading home around five to go running and prepare dinner. At around eight or nine I would sit at my desk to write and always seemed to hit my full stride around midnight. I kept this up until the damned thing was finished, firing off a group e-mail to old friends entitled Printer at the Gates of Dawn, as the sun rose on the St John’s college library and my thesis spilled hotly from the laser printer. I include below not the e-mail, but perhaps the most amusing response from a Cambridge colleague:

Congratulations Ben. And it sounds like a performance worth of Enkidu, and possibly also Gilgamesh. Collect your magnum opus from the binders; take it to the Board of Graduate Studies, and then go out and get absolultely cunted. It’s what Paul the Deacon would have done – if there had been a house doubles night at the Eagle of a Saturday Evening.


It was a great relief to get it finished, and sure enough, I did go out and get absolutely cunted – so much so that I woke up drunk, four hours late for an appointment with the binders to hand in a revised text with some minor corrections, having slept through three alarms. I went out that night and begged some marijuana off some guys rolling up outside a pub, then went home and packed my life into boxes. The next morning, I flew to Rome.

When I finally did arrive at the British School at Rome, I was totally and utterly exhausted. I was shown to my room by the old porter, Reno, whose Italian was rather gruff and difficult to follow. It didn’t help that whilst I had managed to acquire a basic reading knowledge of Italian, my spoken efforts very wanting indeed. I felt a terrible sense of being lost and out of my depth, but once I entered my room for the first time and saw the bed, I lay down and went almost immediately to sleep. Over the next two days I slept almost fifteen hours a day, only emerging from my room to eat meals down in the dining hall. It was during these meals, however, that I became acquainted both with some of the school’s residents, and a group of seventeen Australian students, who happened to be staying there throughout January for a course in Renaissance and Baroque Rome.

Over the following four weeks I joined this group’s excursions and visited many amazing off-limits sites around the city. It was a wonderful way to learn about aspects of Rome I’d not been aware of previously and a privilege to have two good lecturers in Renaissance and Baroque art on hand to explain both the history, context and significance of much art and architecture in the city. I did my best where possible to pay my way with insights from earlier periods in the city’s history.

That four months in Rome was a very curious time. Once I’d recovered from the exhausting effort to finish my PhD, I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to do further research and made no effort to further the next project I had outlined – namely a translation and commentary on Jordanes’ sixth-century Historia Romana as part of a comparative study with Paul the Deacon’s later work of the same name. I found it almost impossible to get motivated on this front and far preferred the more active education of wandering the streets, visiting museums and galleries, familiarising myself with Roman life and culture and spending a hell of a lot of time thinking. I made good friends with three students from the Australian group, especially a bloke called Dominic, and we had some great times exploring the more Bohemian locales around Trastevere, meeting odd characters and puffing on the occasional joint. To wander through Rome at night a little toasty can, if done in the right spirit, be an epic experience. I often detoured past the Pantheon, or via other prominent monuments, just to see them and soak up their atmosphere.

In this way, I truly came to love Rome and developed a life-long attachment to the place. Almost every day I went running in the Villa Borghese gardens, across and down to the top of the Spanish Steps, before turning around to head back towards the plaza overlooking Piazza del Popolo. I often set out walking very early, wearing sandals in the chill morning air, taking photos with my first digital camera, which I bought en route to Venice after a return visit to Cambridge. Some days I just hung around watching people, drinking coffee and eating gelato. I regularly visited Della Palma, the gelato shop just up from the Pantheon, and tried forty-three of their different flavours – the honey and sesame being my favourite. I took every possible opportunity to walk into the Pantheon, especially when it was raining. On such occasions the open oculus in the centre of the vast, domed, second-century ceiling allows rain to fall far below on the marble floor. The acoustics in this great, circular stone and concrete chamber amplify not only the shuffling feet, but also the sound of splashing.

Most days I wandered down the Corso once the road had been closed to private vehicles after peak hour traffic. I was gratuitous in visiting some places repeatedly – the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona, the Roman Forum, the Campidoglio,  the Capitoline hill, the Palatine – just because I could. I’d been given a pass from the Italian cultural ministry that allowed me into any state-owned museum or gallery free of charge and I used it often.

In April another group of students arrived, this time from various universities in the UK, to take a course called “The City of Rome.” This focussed primarily on the Roman period, and being right up my alley, I again joined their excursions. Thanks to a significant number of previously arranged permessos, the group was able to visit many off-limits places – newly dug archaeological sites, locked basements at the old Roman street level, the ancient pavement of the Campus Martius with Augustus’ horologium in ankle-deep water, the inside of the Aqua Virginae – things deemed too precious, obscure or plain dangerous to be open to the public. The course was a deeply satisfying experience that taught me a great deal about life in Roman times. It only served to increase my wonder and fascination at the precocious modernity of Roman civilization.

When it came time to leave Rome, I felt a terrible sense of loss. It was not merely for having to leave the city, but was made more acute by an awareness that the long run of funded academic indulgence had come to an end. I was also suffering homesickness both for Cambridge and Australia, and confusion about where I was headed in my relationship with my girlfriend who was back in England at the time. I no longer knew where home really was, but knew that Rome would forever remain one of the places I called home. After a somewhat lacklustre four more months back in Cambridge, I returned to Australia in September, having abandoned all hope of finding a lectureship in my field.

To skip ahead somewhat, I last visited Rome in February of 2008. In 2006 I had moved back to England and this trip to Rome was actually the last hurrah of that two-year stay. When I walked up the stairs from the metro and stepped out into the street, I was immediately overcome with emotion. There before me was that characteristic Roman style and palette. There in my nostrils was that dry winter air, full of scooter exhaust and desiccated leaves. I stood on the pavement and tears filled my eyes. I had been away five years and the immediacy with which my memories came flooding back was shocking and left me unseated. I had to sit down a moment on a bench to regain my composure. As I sat there, I kept asking myself – how could I ever make this work? To be able to live in or regularly visit all the places to which I am attached? Or was I simply destined to spend the rest of my life feeling torn, with never a clear sense of belonging?

I spent five days in Rome on that trip and dedicated my time to indulging my nostalgia and taking countless photographs. It was an odd visit, coloured by the fact that I knew that within a week of returning, I would be flying back to Sydney and abandoning my mission of trying to make a new and permanent life in England. The photos I took on that occasion have since come to colour my memories of Rome, as some of the old detail falls away and the My Photos screensaver throws up these images. I’m not sure when I shall make it back to Rome, but feel almost wary of returning again as a tourist. I don’t know that I could achieve much more than wallowing in an active and exciting nostalgia, and feel more inclined to go out into the world and find new memories and experiences. Either way, I doubt I shall ever stop loving the city of Rome and its history.

Roma

Temple of Jupiter

Centurian assists Muslim tourists

Centurian silhouette

Glass baubles

Carabinieri, off Piazza del Popolo

Theatre of Marcellus

Roman Shop

Roman Forum

Bernini sculpture and advert hoarding, Piazza Navona

Vatican Museum

St Peters, traffic cop

Arch of Septimius Severus, dedicated AD 203

Roma

Capitoline seagull

Roma

Roma from Spanish Steps

The Pantheon portico at night

4th century Roman Sarcophagus

Pantheon interior

Mendicant, Spanish Steps

Ara Pacis

Vatican museum, apologies, forget the attribution, but suspect Raffaele

Arch of Constantine

Busy day, St Peters

Colosseum

Sunset view

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Memory can be a fickle thing, subject to all manner of flaws in storage and recollection. There seems to be little logic governing what we remember and what we forget, though to suggest that the process is entirely random would be rather an unscientific assumption. There are clear differences in people’s capacity to remember information, with some displaying quite prodigious talents in recollection. We talk of short and long-term memory, of absentmindedness, of photographic memories, of good and bad memories – so far as ability is concerned. Yet, despite our differences in capacity, all of us remember a great deal more than we give ourselves credit for.

When I was a very young child I had an overzealous desire to know everything I’d ever done and felt an innate distress at the idea of information slipping away from me. In particular, I wanted to know how many times I had done things in my short life thus far – how often I’d caught the bus, how many times I’d had a bath, how many times I’d kissed the dogs, and how many times I’d said “Mummy, I love you,” all too audibly, in the supermarket.

This feeling really began to take hold around the age of four, when I first developed a sense of having done certain things a number of times already. I had, then, an inkling of a routine stretching into the past, and some understanding of the narrative of my life to that point. It baffled me that there were things my parents mentioned or told me about, things I had apparently said or done, that I couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t I remember everything? It seemed almost as though it had never happened.

Being the owners of an effete, pedigree dachshund and a rescued stray bitsa, Jason and Lady respectively, my father used to walk the dogs every afternoon in Centennial Park with my older brother and I. On the way home from a good, long walk, we’d stop in at the Nelson Hotel in Bondi Junction, and there my father would drink a middy or two of Reschs, whilst my brother and I made do with sarsaparilla and lemonade. Often, sitting in the afternoon beer garden, I found myself thinking – how many times have we done this? It was a routine that had been established before I had sufficient language to form coherent, narrative memories, and so my recollections were hazy and impressionistic – but the park had always been there, as had the dogs. How often had I been there? How many sarsaparillas had I drunk in my short life so far?

My brother began to collect bus tickets around the age of six. Back then the driver tore a bible-paper thin ticket from a long, flat piano keyboard-like array of stubs, and the flimsy little things were excitingly colour-coded: Purple, yellow, red and green tickets, for which my father’s order was always “One and two halves,” when he took us down to the beach. How many times had I been to the beach? I’d seen photographs of myself there as a baby, something I could not independently remember. When my brother began to collect tickets, it seemed there might be some means by which to answer these questions. If one always kept one’s ticket, then there would be a ready reference point for such information. But how on earth would I record the other things? The number of times I’d eaten food? The number of times I’d worn a certain shirt, or ridden the tricycle, patted Jason and Lady? How could I possibly store and recall all this information?

Perhaps the obsession with small details derived from the relatively limited world in which I operated as a toddler. The local geography had enough detail in it to keep me preoccupied for years, but once I had the basic features down pat, I wanted to know about things more intimately. I made an ineffectual attempt at collecting bus tickets too, but soon abandoned this in the face of that all too common feeling of the younger sibling – that everything one does is, in its execution, a pale imitation of the actions of the older sibling. It never occurred to me to write anything down, but this is not surprising considering how late I came to reading and writing, initially resistant as I was to books and letters.

Despite my frustration at not being able to recall everything, as the years passed, I realised that the bigger picture was more important than the minutiae. I didn’t really need to know how many times I’d had my haircut, for it was not these things that gave life its narrative, beyond forming the flat, regular palette on which all else was presented. Rather, I wanted to recall the events that stood out as exceptional; our family trips to the Blue Mountains, my brother’s attempt to flush me down the toilet, the time the window slammed down on my mother’s fingers. It was, after all, these things around which any narrative in life seemed to gravitate, and which formed the basis of moral and ethical lessons in the household and world at large. These events all carried both a story and a moral of sorts.

Take, for example, the infamous day on which my mother angrily threw a pair of tongs out the kitchen window and hit my brother in the face, completely by accident. The “snappers” incident was often conjured up as a great milestone in our lives; it was an early, pivotal example of an error of judgement and a lesson in caution. There was the time my brother and I left our racing car towels at the bus stop. Certain that we had lost them forever, and dismissing my father’s reassurance that we would get them back, we were both amazed when my father asked in the local shop on our return home and the towels were produced from behind the counter. This story added strong impetus to life’s narrative, both chronologically, as a way point, and morally and ethically, as an example of consideration, thoughtfulness and selflessness. Perhaps more importantly, despite its less salubrious nature, there was the famous incident that occurred at the Pizza Hut restaurant in Bondi Junction, circa. 1977.

This last event stands out because it was the first example in my life of a written diary entry, of deliberately recorded information. My brother had been given a pocket appointments diary with a week to a double spread. After dining out at the Pizza Hut that night, we returned home to giggle uncontrollably for hours about what had taken place in the toilets. My brother summed this up very nicely when he sat down at his desk on our return.

“Boy fell in trough at Pizza Hut,” were the exact words he wrote in his diary that evening. And indeed, some poor lad, stretching well beyond his capacity to reach the chain, had overbalanced and fallen face-first, then down sideways, right into the pisser, with its frothy flow and yellow mints.

“Boy fell in trough at Pizza Hut,” is a line that has been quoted many times since by my brother and me, and, for a long while, it was my favourite memory. I wonder in retrospect whether this was in part because, for the first time in my life, I’d seen the clear relation between something I’d witnessed, and the written version of the events. Either way, it was an early example of how we can record and shape our memory of things with language that is both succinct and arresting. It presented a whole new range of possibilities so far as solving the problem of remembering was concerned. I still value my brother’s early chronicling of this event to be one of the key snippets of narrative non-fiction. Its total and utter insignificance historically is irrelevant and in no way detracts from its long occupation of one of the summits of the very spike and trough graph that constitutes my childhood recollections.

However much I might have been inspired by my brother’s efforts and, however keen I was to record information, I didn’t make any real attempt at keeping a diary until 1983. For Christmas the year previous, I was given a small appointments diary by my friend Marcus – he was from South Africa and the diary, appropriately, had a cheetah on the cover. It was some time before I got around to writing anything in it, and, indeed, the only time I really used it was to begin counting down the days til my birthday; a rather pointless task, it must be said. When my birthday did actually arrive, I made a note of the presents I had received, and after that, the diary fell into a drawer somewhere and was, so far as I remember, not used afterwards. It was thus not until 1986 that I truly began to keep a diary. This too was a small appointments diary with seven days to a spread, and very little room in which to write anything. All the same, inspired as I was by the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, I at least had a much clearer understanding of what a diary really could be – of the sort of information one might record, and in what style.

Still, to begin with, my diary was too small to contain any strong narratives. Invariably my efforts did not go beyond such brief entries as “Gus stayed over. Played Dungeons and Dragons. Had meatballs for dinner.” It was hardly a very exciting chronicle, yet it was a chronicle nonetheless, and once I’d begun to write the diary in earnest, every day, I didn’t look back. Indeed, from around April 1986 to the end of that year, I didn’t miss a single day and diligently filled in the admittedly small rectangle provided for each day. For Christmas that year, I received a new diary for  the coming year, which was significantly larger – an A5 book with a day to a page, though with Saturday and Sunday squashed together on a single page. I didn’t hesitate to make full use of the greater space that was available to me, and from January 1 1987, I diligently wrote a full entry for each day throughout that year.

It may surprise some to hear that I have never, ever missed a day since. Indeed, from April 1986 to the present, I have recorded every single day of my life in a diary, always following the same rule – that the page must be filled completely. In 1988, I continued with an A5 diary, but this time, had a full page for each day of the weekend. Using a diary of this size was standard practice until 1998. That year I began to use a full-sized, A4 diary, and have continued to do so to the present. I always fill the entire page, and I never allow a day to go unrecorded.

Now, of course, this may seem like some impossible task, given that one can hardly expect to be in a position to sit down and write a diary entry at the end of every night. Of course, there are all too many occasions when this is not possible. Consequently, I have written the entry at a later time, sometimes as much as a week later, always, however, maintaining the fiction that it was written on the day itself. When I travel I take the big, heavy thing with me wherever I go, which, considering I have, for the last twelve years, used a mere day-pack for every trip I’ve done, means that it constitutes quite a significant part of my otherwise minimalist baggage.

There have, too, been several incidents where the diary has caused problems. On four known occasions it has fallen into the hands of others, or been read illicitly, thus causing emotional crises and much embarrassment. Despite this, I have never considered not writing my diary. I suppose that if I behave honourably there should be no cause for suspicion and no need for my partner to dip into my diary. Generally, I trust that people will be honest and trustworthy, being good enough not to read my diary. Still, I have ultimately been forgiving of those who read my diary, as my behaviour certainly warranted it. Whatever the case, the show must go on.

And so the diaries continue to accumulate. Mostly I write the entry before I go to bed, but often I am too tired, lazy, or otherwise engaged, in which case I try to do it the following morning. Either way, the process takes me roughly ten minutes and is thus subject to the mood in which I approach the task. It is also subject to my ability to remember events. Even a few days later, it can be very difficult to find anything to write about a run-of-the-mill Wednesday. Sometimes this provides a great opportunity to sum up a recent emotional situation, to flesh out an idea, or to provide an update on current affairs – yet it often hardly says a great deal about the day itself.

In many ways, this is a good thing, for the biggest limitation of my diary writing is the day-to-day format. Limited to one page, it is difficult to go very far with any narrative at all and, often feeling the need to record basic information about the day, I lack sufficient space or time to discuss emotional and personal developments. I suspect that much of my diary is extremely bland, with some very engaging passages here and there, driven and inspired by emotional investment in the content. This usually happens at exciting turning points: – during the beginning or breakdown of a relationship, when travelling, when beginning a new course of study, or a new project. It can also stem from an uplifting and exciting experience – a great gig, an excellent party, or just a desire to wax lyrical about a beautiful morning at the beach. When I approach the task with enthusiasm, I always write a much more interesting entry. The writing process also helps me to take charge of narratives in life and put the present into context. I have found this a valuable aid in coming to terms with things.

I have often asked myself what is the purpose of all this record-keeping. It is, as much as anything else, a burdensome habit that I could not possibly break for fear of the scale of regret it might bring about. I’ve made it this far, with a record of every single day of the last twenty-six years of my life, and I’m not about to stop in a hurry. I used to dip into my diary a great deal more, either to satisfy nostalgic urges, or simply to find the date of a particular incident. When I wrote volume one of my autobiography Sex with a Sunburnt Penis in 1997, I relied heavily on diaries for inspiration and enhanced recollection.

On this latter score, the diary is an invaluable tool. I have always been considered to be a reliable source of historical information in the personal lives of my friends and acquaintances, due to my ability to recall dates, times and seasons of events. I can usually narrow something down sufficiently to pinpoint where to look in my diary, when finding the exact date of a particular event is the goal, provided, of course, I actually made a record of it. For me, personally, the best thing about the diary is that it allows me access to memories I might otherwise not have, even where the diary entry itself is brief and inadequate. I can open to a random date, in a random year, read the entry, and almost invariably picture the events once again. It is rare that I cannot do so, and yet, without such a jog, would I ever have remembered that otherwise unremarkable day again?

The diary also gives me an excellent ability to examine progress in my life. Perhaps my favourite use of it is to see what I was doing on the same date a year ago, or, perhaps, five years ago. It is a rare opportunity to put life more into context. The vividness with which I can recall events with the aid of the diary entry also allows me to be nostalgic in a very pinpointed manner.

One might ask, but isn’t it better to forget sometimes? Certainly it is, and one of my biggest problems is an inability to forget things, particularly where I need to move on. My memory, particularly my emotional memory, is simply too good, and I carry things around with me for a lot longer than I ought or need to. In part, I blame my diary-writing for this. After all, writing things down is said to be a strong aid to memory, even without reference to the written information. Yet, considered in the light of my early obsession with the recording of information, my subsequent years at university studying history, including a PhD on early Medieval Italian historiography, my habit of writing autobiographical memoir, short stories, novels and poetry, my presence on several online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus, my seemingly insatiable desire to photogaph everything and archive it, and, of course, this blog, it seems that perhaps I was cut out to be an historian after all, be it of my own life, or, for that matter, the lives of others.

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Except for a very small percentage of people, nobody wants to die. At least, not before having lived a full and satisfying life, and even then, when the end nears, many choose to hang on for as long as possible. It’s a strange thing to be aware of one’s mortality. So far as we understand it, no other creature on Earth is conscious of its life span, though for many survival and reproduction are the two principal biological imperatives. For some creatures reproduction is the only imperative, and once this has been achieved, survival becomes obsolete and their time here is done.

Humans, on the other hand, as with many social mammals, have found a means by which to make themselves useful beyond reproductive age. Our consciousness and sophisticated intelligence have also made reproduction itself a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity. However we choose to live our lives, we do so according to our own ideas of fulfilment, contentment and achievement. For some, it is work and sacrifice, for others, it is the pursuit of happiness, for some it is reproduction and providing for one’s children. And, of course, some humans find life too difficult, meaningless, complex or unpleasant and so choose to take their own lives irrespective of whether or not they have passed on their genes.

I value life a very great deal and, being an atheist, consider it to be all that I have. So far as I see it I am nothing but a bag of meat and a bunch of cells and my consciousness, the bafflingly complex software of billions of rapidly firing neurons. When I die, there will be nothing left beyond material remains and anything I may have produced that is worthy of preservation. So far as I see it, the only shot I have at immortality is to produce great art, and, I suppose, offspring. For the latter reason, I have long considered becoming a sperm donor. After all, if the real, underlying purpose off life is to pass on one’s genes, then surely the best way to distribute these most widely, without the unaffordable social and financial complications of fatherhood, is to impregnate as many women as possible. Ultimately, I decided against this course, though largely because I simply didn’t care enough to do so. The decision ultimately to have children will not be based on the desire to pass on my genes, but rather for the joys of parenthood and an unwillingness to miss out on this pivotal life experience.

As someone who has always been a keen history buff and who studied history at university for many years, including going to Cambridge to do a PhD in late Roman, early medieval Italian history, and as a weekly reader of New Scientist and someone fascinated by questions about the future, I would prefer to live for at least five hundred years, in order to see what happens and how many of my predictions come true. The future promises to be endlessly fascinating and the rapid geopolitical, technological and environmental developments are worthy of study in the longue durée. Five hundred years should just about satisfy my wish to see how current short and long-term trends unfold, and to witness how humans cope with the environmental consequences of their development. Considering I cannot quite manage five hundred years, without very sudden and dramatic discoveries in arresting the ageing process or, beyond that, some form of cryogenic freezing and rebooting in a rejuvenated body several centuries from now, I’d like at least to live for as long as is physically possible, whilst retaining my mental faculties.

In short, the last thing I want to do is die young. Many might suggest that is no longer possible at the age of thirty-nine! But after all, one is only as young as, well… we know how that one goes. It was, therefore, a great relief to me when I visited my most excellent doctor this morning to be informed that my chest and lung x-rays showed nothing of concern whatsoever. For the last three months I’ve suffered muscular pain and discomfort in my chest and shoulder area, and it has, at times, been difficult to pinpoint the source of this pain. To begin with, I thought it might be my all too vigorous copulation style; secondly, I blamed my keen and regular use of barbells to buff myself up. Ultimately, I began to fear that the source of the pain was deeper than these possible structural causes, and once the idea had gotten into my head that the source of discomfort might be my heart or lungs, the paranoia grew into a dreadful fear.

It is worth pointing out that I no longer smoke cigarettes and have not smoked a single one since April 2007. I have, however, smoked a good few joints in the intervening period and, anyway, lung cancer can strike many years after quitting smoking. So there was no reason to feel complacent on this front, and once the thought had entered my head, I began to fear that I was about to pay the ultimate price for the follies of youth.

I have often experienced such paranoia about possible catastrophic health problems in the past. In late 2010, I became convinced that I had something very seriously wrong inside my head, when for three to four months I suffered from constant headaches, sore, dry eyes and dizziness. I visited five doctors and was not at all impressed with their attempts to identify or diagnose the source of the problem. It was the fifth doctor, now my current regular, who had no hesitation in sending me for a CT scan (I still can’t believe it took this long!) which determined that it was, in fact, a cyst in my sinuses. When he read the report of the scan in the office, and, nodding and frowning said “Mmmm, there’s definitely a lot going on there,” I thought I was doomed and broke into a cold sweat. For, perhaps twenty seconds, all the fear and paranoia that had built up in preceding months reached a terrible peak and I genuinely believed I was about to be told I had a brain tumour. Once he had made sense of the jargon in the radiologist’s report, however, Dr Lam was very quick to reassure me that all was well. A most glorious sense of relief washed over me. I wasn’t, after all, going to fucking die! I was going to live!

For the last month I’ve been living with a similar gnawing feeling; that really something awful was going on inside my body and my time on this Earth was about to draw to a premature close. It was quite overwhelming at times, and indeed, I would have dizzy spells and moments of desperation as the feeling congealed inside and, naively convinced, I asked myself “What else could it be? It must be my lungs.” Well, that is yet to be determined, when I take the next step, in seeing a sports medicine specialist at the University of Sydney, but the good news is that it ain’t lung cancer and is most likely, as originally suspected, a structural, muscular problem.

You may wonder why I took so long to confirm this and have x-rays done. The reason, I suppose, was that a part of me needed to believe I was just being paranoid and I tried to reassure myself that it really was nothing serious. There was also a part of me that did not wish to face the truth if there was something serious amiss; this despite the fact that were something seriously wrong, the sooner it was identified and addressed the better. It was also, in part, because I knew that my worst fears about my health were often misplaced, as on the occasion when my fears of testicular cancer resolved instead into a diagnosis of epididymitis; not a pleasant condition, but certainly not fatal! As was the case with my nuts, and, indeed, the cyst in my sinuses, there have been several other occasions when I thought for certain I was dying. Before leaving for Europe in 1996, for example, when I’d been plagued by a mysterious pain in my side for months, and again in 2005, when I suffered long dizzy spells and bouts of blurred vision for several weeks. On both occasions these turned out to be posture-related, and I’m now beginning to wonder if this latest issue is not also posture related, though I have for a long while used an ergonomic chair and sat upright and straight-backed at my desk.

I hope that soon this problem will be solved, and I can get back to lifting weights (other important pleasures have not been curtailed). For now, however, I will simply revel in having seen off the worst-case scenario and return to looking forward to a long and fruitful life, ideally, several centuries long.

By way of conclusion, I would like to present a half-completed poem. It was written in 2005 during my tenure at “Cornieworld #1”, when the dizziness I was experiencing led me to believe that something was seriously wrong with me. When, after seeing a couple of doctors and ultimately consulting a physio, I realised that I wasn’t, in fact, dying, I sat down to write “For three weeks I thought I was dying.” I never completed it satisfactorily and am unlikely to do so, so I present it now in its unpolished form.

Live long and prosper!

 

For three weeks I thought I was dying…

 

For three weeks I thought I was dying.

The misunderstood stink of sleeplessness;

greasy sweats born of fear and imagined

tumours within this corrupt, greying vehicle

still desperately far from success.

 

The horizon became naught but wasted grafting

with the falling short suggested in my wrenching

abdomen, aching head and blood wisps

snaking from a stool. A pallor which even

hard running could evince, a dizziness growing

and solemn, I was convinced.

 

Til, on a day away from vulgar work I walked

afraid for projects long assured, en route

to seek the testing proof across the arching

concrete bridge. Humidity smeared my skin while spring

bustled in my chest and the looseness,

transported from the earthworms to my joints,

 

watered my swoon to encourage a distant lifting

from sharp displeasure at the nape, the protest

and the query of my body yet to answer

for betrayals. Taunted by the semblance

of a lifespan, I pressed on, assured I carried

some illness come from the burrows, come

 

from some lodger born of me. I tottered amongst

the students as though sunstruck and recalled

a film wherein a thirsting bumpkin

staggered on a rippling road; recalled a youth

I then thought was old – outside this very building!

The coming dim this doctor must soon name

 

– I don’t doubt I’ve mouthed it in some searching,

prussic forecast – has ensured this clarity

and the poignance of each nostalgic yearn.

Outwardly now, a sunset hacienda, bloody again

in my fearful cheeks and lips, roaming forward,

pursed against the ague, aghast at atoms in disjunction.

 

The lion’s share lies still ahead, my organs

take me there! That night, unfurrowed, though as yet in limbo

I walked down to the sinking docks. High across

the water stood a straddling bridge, wired and search-lit,

streaked and roaring, with two great striving concrete towers.

And about these, trailing their dusty orbits,

five hundred seagulls fed on a million moths.

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Nana

An updated, edited and polished excerpt from Volume 1 of my autobiography, Sex with a Sunburnt Penis.

 

My grandmother had a very strong influence on me as a child, largely because she was so utterly different from everyone else. To begin with she was by far the oldest person I knew, and on top of that she was French. Indeed, my grandmother was so French that she almost seemed a parody; like Edith’s bed-ridden grandmother in ‘Allo ‘Allo. Nana, as we called her, however, was far from bedridden. She was a dynamic elderly lady who busied herself in the house and garden and whose wizened frame held remarkable strength.

Of course, as a very small child, without any sense of context, I simply took Nana at face value. She was always kind and loving, though she could certainly be tetchy. My brother and I stretched her patience as all children will, and whilst she wasn’t quite overprotective, we at times found her rulings a little ridiculous. Like most children, I always wanted to run down the street when I got excited, but, knowing how uncoordinated I was, like most five year-olds, Nana would order me to stop.

“Oh, Benjamin, you will fall over!”

“No I won’t!” I would protest, before promptly tripping over my sandals and grazing my knee. Too ashamed and embarrassed to cry, I was also too stubborn to admit that her judgement was sound on this front. Restraint is, after all, never appealing in the eyes of a child. She did, however, let me pick my nose; watching with her cunning, smiling eyes and saying “are you hungry?” whenever my finger went searching.

The only thing I really remember holding against her was her gravy. She could cook the hell out of a peach pie and made a knockout custard, but her gravy was something else altogether. One hot evening when she was minding my brother and me, she marched into the dining room and placed a clear glass jug on the table. We could see the contents in cross-section, and on top of the gravy was an inch-deep slick of molten, light-grey fat. As a child, I loathed fat in all forms. While Nana returned to the kitchen to collect the peas, I turned to my brother, Matthew, to share my astonishment. He too seemed to feel a wave of indignant protest welling up inside, but so afraid were we of the gravy that neither of us could articulate our anguish beyond the words; “No way, it’s just not fair. That’s not gravy. It’s not fair.”

My lip trembled as the tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I wanted to cry out that I wouldn’t eat that pooing, snot-breath, bum-hole gravy even if you gave me five bucks, a Tonka truck and told me what condom meant. But such was the power of the gravy that my spirit was utterly crushed. I don’t even remember whether or not I ate it, and think that therefore I must have done so, and the trauma was such that the memory has been repressed all my life.

If at times I was blind to the good sense behind her admonishments, I generally paid a great deal of attention to what Nana told me. She had a certain prophetic quality about her, like an Oracle, full of superstitions, sayings and adages that rang with the undeniable truth of ancient wisdom in my young ears.

Nana told me that things would always go my way – something my mother often reminded me of. If I had a stroke of luck, my mother would say: “Nana always said you’d land on your feet. She said you were the lucky one.” I believed what Nana said with such conviction that it developed into a sense of entitlement. Things were supposed to work out for me naturally, and though opportunity doesn’t generally knock, she was firmly of the impression that I wouldn’t have to make my own luck. I always kept that thought at the back of my mind and somehow it helped me to screw a lot of things up later on in life.

Being old-school colonial French – having come from Noumea in 1922 aged 17 – Nana was a good, superstitious Catholic. She had a little shrine to Jesus and a ceramic bell with the Pope’s portrait on it. She drank once a year, never wore make up, never swore, venerated Joan of Arc and Saint Anthony and always cheered when the Pope came on television.

They must have really done a good job on educating them into the spirit of Empire over in New Caledonia. Nos ancestres les Galles and all they stood for were being threatened by the Bosch when Nana was in school, and they ensured that the spirit of Nationalism was planted deep. She worshipped Napoleon and swore blind he never really abandoned his men. She hated Italian art because as far as she was concerned it couldn’t possibly be as good as French art. She didn’t drink wine, but knew deep down that that Italian rubbish wasn’t a patch on the French product. She hated the Nazis with a passion and still resented Germans as though the war had happened yesterday, and to her personally.

Nana also had very old-school Catholic attitudes to various social phenomena. One day, as I sat playing euchre with her in my old bedroom that had since become hers, she turned to me after something flashed across the television screen and said: “What is a lesbian?” The thought of explaining that to an eighty-nine year-old woman who changed the channel when people started kissing was just too much to come to grips with.

“What is zis, Lesbian? Er… two women,” she said with a terrific sneer. “They should shoot zem!”

When I was a kid, it was easy to converse with Nana, but as I got older her conversation grew a little more unsettling. She liked to put the knife into whichever of my parents had misbehaved in some petty way or another. In this respect she was venal and vindictive, though I knew her to be loving and generous at heart. It was loneliness and a life of disappointment that had done it to her. It must be difficult to avoid being jealous of youth and the opportunity it still affords. She never got over losing her husband and her son, and ultimately she resented being a tenant of her daughter. I could hardly hold those things against her, when all she’d ever wanted was to own her own home and feel the security and permanence that comes with it. It was remarkable that she showed such pluck all the way through. She did so by narrowing her desires down to small, everyday pleasures, none of which could be considered luxuries.

Nana was almost eternally optimistic about something and had quite incredible stamina, despite having shrunk to about four foot ten. Being so small she’d get drunk on half a glass of sauterne or Tia Maria with lemonade, which she insisted on drinking at Christmas, and her little face would bubble up bright red with life and hardy vigour let briefly off the hook as she pulled on a christmas cracker.

Nana collected toy frogs, which was the only piss-take on the French she would condone. Her favourite past-time was to play card games and for years she had been going to the local French Club for poker nights. She and I would, at times, play hours and hours of patience, euchre, poker and rummy, and she never seemed to tire of it. We’d natter away during hands of cards, and whenever the conversation got a bit curly, I’d try to shift it over to a safe topic like sport or France, or, more particularly, French sport, which was safe so long as one heaped undiluted praise on even the most minor of French achievements.

Nana was a real fount of knowledge on French sport and will likely remain the only ninety year-old woman I’ll ever know to sit up until three in the morning and watch an entire grand prix race because there was a Frenchman in it. She watched the entire Tour de France. She watched tennis, soccer, yachting, skiing, anything, so long as there was a Frenchman. She supported the Eastern Suburbs Roosters in the rugby league because their colours were red, white and blue, and they had the same mascot as the French team. She even called them “les tricoleurs.” Heaven forbid, but Nana even watched golf if there was a Frenchman playing. I think she sincerely thought the French ran the entire world and if there was any evidence which might bring French superiority into question, either on or off the playing field, such as getting a thrashing in the rugby by Australia, she would always have a nimble excuse.

“Oh, zose Australians are terrible. Zey won’t let ze Frenchman run with ze ball. Every time ze Frenchman gets ze ball, zey stop him! Zey are brutes!”

There was no point in explaining the legitimacy of tackling the opposition in a rugby match, just as I couldn’t explain why Guy Forget and Yannick Noah weren’t both equal number in the world tennis rankings. After a while I simply got used to complying with her wishes and telling her that I found it equally baffling, and no doubt a network of saboteurs and agents provocateurs were at work undermining French hegemony over the entire universe. Either way, it beat the shit out of explaining what a lesbian was.

Nana was also a great fan of French industry. Whenever I visited her, I was duly informed of the arrival on the market of any form of manufactured good which had been produced in France.

“Did you know zat ze French have built ze largest sailboat in ze world?”

It seemed quite incredible to be told what a wonderful thing it was that Club Med was opening up a new resort somewhere previously unspoilt. If the French did it, it was almost certainly beyond reproach. And yet, Nana wasn’t entirely uncritical of the French. When they were blowing the Christ out of Mururoa Atoll with their nuclear tests, she became very deeply upset and looked rather sheepish for weeks. She, like most reasonable people, really didn’t see the point behind the further development of the world’s most destructive weapons – and testing them in the beautiful Pacific Ocean was patently insane. It hurt her to hear all the protests against French testing, particularly because so many protesters lashed out unnecessarily at French culture and French people without sensible discrimination of who was actually responsible. One night when I sat in her room and the news came on with the leading announcement that the French had exploded a nuclear device on Mururoa, a look of terrible shame came over her face. I felt immensely sorry for her to have to feel any loss of faith in France this late in her life. I was angry with France myself, but it was mostly for disappointing an increasingly frail ninety-year old woman, whose heart was unswervingly patriotic.

From her shame, however, she could lash back with some wonderful exclamations.

“Oh, zose terrible sings zay say about ze French. Those Australians, they steal all zair ideas from ze French! Zay always copy ze French.”

Sometimes she just loved to put the boot in.

Nana used to do all her own housework, and then sit in the sun and read the newspapers cover to cover. She was an avid reader and manic word-puzzle fanatic. Nothing gave her greater joy than the latest edition of Le Courier. She’d take it out into the sun, sit at the little table beneath the boughs of the mulberry tree with some quartered, de-crusted ham sandwiches and a weak, very milky cup of tea, and read it about sixteen times. Occasionally she’d offer me articles to read, and I’d struggle through, embarrassed by how much my French had gone down the toilet. Oh look, something about a bridge. Yes, somebody built something. Oh, hang on, they shot something. No, they ate it. Maybe it wasn’t a bridge after all…One way or another, Nana would make it seem about seventy-three times more important than it actually was. I mean, honestly, what was news like that doing on page 13 of Le Courier?

The terribly sad truth, however was that Nana couldn’t live forever, though it seemed for a while there that she might just pull it off. She only visited a doctor for the first time when she reached eighty-eight years of age, and wouldn’t have had to go at all if she hadn’t tripped over the bull-terrier and hurt her arm. Sadly it was Pug’s fault that she went to hospital again a couple of years later, as he came tearing out into the back yard to bark at passing small children and ploughed straight into my unsuspecting Nana.

The resulting broken hip landed her in hospital, where she came through the operation with flying colours. Yet, sadly, as she lay there in the hospital bed recovering, she seemed to lose interest in everything. She stopped eating and became withdrawn and subdued. I have no idea what came over her in that hospital bed, but despite being well set to recover, she seemed to give up trying. Initially she had been so proud of herself; so proud of her health and vitality – up walking a day after the operation, and at the age of ninety. Perhaps she at last realised that there was nothing left for her to live for, though she’d always seemed so happy with simple pleasures. It mystified me a great deal, and of course upset us all immeasurably.

I sat holding her hand for as many hours as possible either side of work. My mother never left her side, and my father, who was also a great admirer of Nana, was there night and day as well. Slowly, but surely, she shrank away into herself. Her features slowly sank, as though the muscles that supported her robust expressions had slackened for good, then vanished. As I stared at her face for hours on end, I noticed for the first time in my life all the physical similarities between her and my mother and brother; the shape of her nose, the set of her mouth, expressions I had seen on her blood relatives. Then, late one Saturday night, with me at home, in the middle of a relationship crisis of my own making, she passed away.

Nana’s funeral was perhaps the most moving experience of my life. As we took up her coffin, draped in red, white and blue flowers, and proceeded down the aisle of the church, the organist struck up La Marseillaise. Strangely, I had not expected it – too grief stricken to have any thought for the logistics and organisation of the funeral, about which I had asked no questions. The  first few notes struck me like a thunderbolt.

“Alons enfants de la patrie! La Jour de gloroire et arrive!”

I felt a heavy mix of pride and awe; a momentous weight became a glorious burden. Fatality, which can seem so mundane and nondescript in an inglorious church, became a heavenly power; grief, which can be so black and all-encompassing in its restrictive singularity, became the channel for a unique beauty and rare soaring of emotion. For the two days before I had been so upset that I felt like lead – but when I heard La Marseillaise, I knew that in the end Nana had been victorious; she had left the battlefield on her own terms and she had ascended in a way that I didn’t even believe in; such was her greatness, she could defy even the tenets of my atheism. Nana had risen and taken her place in heaven – a reward she deserved more richly than anyone else I’ve ever known.

The saddest irony about Nana was that she was never not French at any point in her life – after seventy-odd years in Australia her accent had hardly diminished – and yet when she died we discovered that her citizenship had lapsed after fifty years. It struck me that the French government needed to be notified about Nana. Her patriotism was so undying and overwhelming that she deserved to be awarded the Legion of Honour, or at least some ribbon commemorating her devotion to France. Even when at last she lay dying, she managed with her weak voice to sing the entirety of her true national anthem, and cried out “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!” I don’t think there is a single person in France who was as French as my grandmother. Though of course, her Frenchness was an anomaly; an anachronism from the golden age of European imperialism, and now, sadly, she has passed from this world, taking with her rare memories of a bygone era.

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This year really was remarkable, and it was remarkable on a number of levels: politically, economically, militarily, and, indeed, personally. So many exceptional things happened that, scanning back over the events of 2011, I see myself as a blur, flailing about between massive international stories and personal crises. 2011 was the year of the Arab Spring, and I don’t think even the economic crisis in Europe or the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan could trump that. Three absolutely colossal sequences of events, all of which, in themselves, contain individual events that would be considered huge stories in and of themselves; Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Greece, the Fukushima nuclear crisis… And this is not to mention the Occupy movement, the London riots and the ongoing decline of American industrial might.

Just as the massive earthquake in Japan shifted the planet Earth ever so slightly off its axis, so 2011 saw the planet shift geopolitically. The rise of the Arab street has transformed the Middle East forever. The change is not yet securely in place, but the mechanism of change certainly is. It is difficult to predict what sort of governments and societies might emerge from the popular uprisings in the Middle East, but now that the people have found their voice, there is a real hope that they will no longer allow themselves to be lorded over by tyrants. One can only hope they seek a new direction in liberal governance and not religious fundamentalism. In the case of Egypt, one can only hope that they actually do get their revolution in the end. For, the sad fact of the matter is that a successful revolution means the removal and replacement of the governing body with a new one installed by the revolutionaries, and this has not happened in Egypt yet. The army is still in command as it always has been and despite them allowing elections to proceed, just how much power and privilege they are willing to relinquish is anyone’s guess. A possible worst-case scenario might be a marriage between the military and a resurgently non-secular Muslim Brotherhood. Wait and see.

Of course, Syria is the story of the moment – a situation about which I feel totally incapable of making confident predictions. Will the uprising spread further through the armed forces? Will there be a bloody civil war? Will the presence of Arab League observers ensure a transition to a more peaceful political solution? Will the sanctions hurt the government and security forces sufficiently to disrupt their campaign of oppression, or merely drive the people further into deprivation, poverty and anger, causing them to rise up with greater fury? Will the Assad regime come unstuck, or will they, through deception and manipulation, mitigate change to accommodate their continued rule?

And what now of Europe? The collapse of the Greek economy and their ability to service debt has not so much spread across Europe as it has occurred concurrently with other poor models of economic management. Spain, Ireland and even possibly Italy have all borrowed and spent beyond their means and now face internal crises of spiralling debt, stagnation, stagflation, and mass unemployment. It was once thought that a great strength of the Euro was that should one country encounter difficulties, it oughtn’t be sufficient to effect an economy as large as the Eurozone. Few predicted such a widespread debt and financial crisis, and few also predicted that the response would be so tiresomely old-fashioned. Austerity measures are one way of saving money, but they significantly inhibit the ability to produce money by removing stimulus from the economy. It might be cheaper to support workers on unemployment benefits than to pay them their public sector salaries, but the newly unemployed have very limited purchasing power, this further reducing consumer spending and increasing economic contraction.

Europe it seems, has yet to hit rock bottom, and precisely how it can recover long term is anyone’s guess. No doubt it will, but how with much social compromise? The rising success of authoritarian capitalism in China might be anomalous in the long term, but it could also presage a new model wherein democracy is no longer the inevitable consequence of prosperity. In China, the economy has always been strong when the state has been strong. Democracy might prove too big a risk in so vast a region, too unwieldy and detrimental to the smooth flow of capital and the operation of business and industry. Perhaps this is a particularly Chinese situation, but will Europe, in the grip of its highly divisive social pressures, ultimately seek solace once more in right wing politics: old fascism, new fascism? With China buying up global debt and investing its vast reserves in infrastructure projects at home and abroad, is this the moment when the west fatally stumbles and loses its hegemony? It has, to a great degree, lost much of its legitimacy, and were it not for the Arab Spring, one might fear that democracy itself as a desirable goal globally has lost much of its legitimacy.

This is quite an intense period globally, with communism dead and buried, capitalism has largely reigned triumphant by default. Apart from the more alarming extremes of ideology such as totalitarianism or religious fundamentalism the only real alternative ideology in politics, and one which is by no means intrinsically at odds with neo-liberal capitalism, is environmentalism. As this is seen as a challenge to capitalism, rather than as a means by which to regulate the worst excesses of capitalism, it has been demonised as the new communism – attracting venomous attacks by right wing forces the world over as nanny-state socialism designed to destroy private enterprise and restrict social freedoms, especially in the realm of consumer choice. And, let’s face it, consumer choice is the new democracy, providing sufficient of a sense of freedom to satisfy the over-consuming needs of the largely apolitical middle classes the world over. Singapore is a perfect example of this marriage of authoritarian government and consumer freedom, which may, alarmingly, provide an ideal template for the capitalist management of future societies.

So 2011 was, in some ways a very hopeful year for democracy and the empowerment of people, in others, a testament to the failings of western democratic capitalism versus Asian authoritarian capitalism. It was also a year that saw the further delay of any legal, binding environmental treaty to replace Kyoto, an almost purely symbolic treaty in itself. With governments mostly limiting themselves to voluntary reductions in greenhouse gases, with half-baked promises of a legally binding treaty to be determined in 2015, and hopefully taking force by the end of the decade, we can pretty well write off the next ten years so far as meaningful reductions are concerned. Certainly, there will be further investment in alternative renewable energy sources and other efforts to reduce carbon through greater industrial efficiency, yet without a grand global strategy and any real oversight, governments will default on their promises whenever convenient or expedient, or continue to move the goalposts as they have done for years while increasing carbon output. In truth, they would likely do this with a treaty in place anyway, as has proven to be the case with Kyoto.

The world is only just beginning to grasp the nature of the playing field that has developed in the twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Asia is in the ascendant, well on its way to becoming the wealthiest region on the planet, as it was for most of human history until Europe got lucky and discovered and exploited the wealth of the Americas. Brazil has now overtaken the UK as the world’s sixth-largest economy and the United States will finally be eclipsed by China by roughly 2025, possibly even sooner. To understand global priorities looking ahead, one only has to compare actions and words – governments are really only concerned about their economic vitality and thus the success of the businesses and economic activity that drives those economies – everything else is a sideshow. The gulf between the energy, speed and money poured into attempting to solve the economic crisis and funding the military, and the money and energy applied to tackling global warming, disease, sanitation, the rising cost of food, growing social inequality etc is absolutely staggering. Money talks and bullshit walks. As Leonard Cohen sang, “I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder.”

On a more personal level, 2011 was an incredible year in which I finally returned to full productivity and regained my engagement with and interest in the world around me. After spending almost eighteen months in a virtual world, it took me some time, from the end of 2010 until roughly June of this year, to fully shake off the hangover and wake up.

To mix up some lyrics by The Church, “I embraced a machine, went through the routine, and hid from the people who were trying to find me.” Well, again, to quote The Church, 2011 was the year I came “back from software limbo.”

An ex-girlfriend once told me many years ago, when largely unenthused about life and engrossed in Baldur’s Gate 2, that it was as though I had lost the will to live. She was right, at the time, in a way, because there have been times when I’ve found, through hard work, drudgery, or indeed, overindulgence, that my interest in things around me has diminished to a shrug and forget “whatever.” Throughout 2009 and 2010, I found myself continually struggling against losing the will to live. Not in a serious sense – I’ve never been suicidal, but in the sense of putting a lot of energy into life and doing active and exciting things. There were moments where I really came back to life, such as the two months in India I had between March and May 2010, yet on the whole I was lacklustre, single and quite frankly, not at all bothered about where I was at in life.

Such a state of being was a luxury of sorts, but when I found things that mattered again, met new people and re-engaged, I was drawn back into reality and began to pay attention to it once more. Without wishing to go further into it, falling in love and getting dumped earlier in the year was the best thing that happened to me in ages. It shook off the last vestiges of the torpor that prevailed even in the post-gaming haze. Going to emotional hell and back, where I realised how much I hated myself and thus needed either to rebuild, reprogram or reinterpret myself, was precisely what I needed. It was only when deeply depressed and despairing that I could see the truth clearly and thus prioritise accordingly. Moving house, working harder, running harder and faster, seeing a psychologist, making new friends, finding new venues, applying myself fully to writing and photography, all proved beneficial. In effect, getting dumped kick-started a thoroughly enjoyable period of personal spring-cleaning that has filled me with hope and purpose. It also put me in a great place from which to meet someone amazing, the best possible finish to a very trying and exciting year. I certainly won’t be forgetting this year in a hurry.

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“Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular.” – Johnathan Franzen, How to be Alone.

When you’re sad, you see things as they are. It’s a blessing and a curse, because whilst there’s nothing as refreshing as the truth, when it’s ugly it only compounds the problem of feeling sad in the first place. Sadness not only takes the sheen off things, but it also takes the screen off things. It denies us the levity required to accept things that we have tolerated rather than enjoyed. When its cause is sudden, and its magnitude is great, it pulls away the carpet that hid how cold the floor was.

This effect has many repercussions, some of which, if coupled with sufficient will, are positive. In the short term, however, it magnifies the sorrow. If we are unhappy with our job, then the work becomes intolerable. If we are unhappy with our home, then the place seems unbearable. If we are unhappy with our life in general, then even the most everyday situations can become awfully difficult, especially when preoccupied with the source of our depression. These peripheral circumstances, which cease, in the thick of things, to seem peripheral, can, however, be addressed, even though it might not be possible to address the original source of lament. Depression provides us with an excellent opportunity to become pro-active and to make important and necessary changes that we have delayed for too long. The only problem is, of course, finding the strength, positivity and determination to take these necessary steps when feeling so deflated.

This ability to see the truth in things also applies to human relationships. In situations where a dispute or disagreement has jeopardised a relationship, where we have neglected someone or paid insufficient attention to their concerns, we can more easily see the significance of this. Without the security of things being ostensibly well, when depressed, our egos deflate and petty points of order upon which we might have stood become so glaringly trivial as to seem repulsive. The sources of displeasure, of frustration that were present previously, seem as nothing to the possibility of losing the relationship altogether. The onset of a deeper sadness can cause us to see just how foolish we have been in handling aspects of a relationship, and how much more easily certain situations might otherwise be or might otherwise have been negotiated. It must be seen as a chance to remember, so fiercely, the example, as to prevent its repetition in future.

Sadness can, of course, be as selfish as it is selfless, especially in situations where two people are involved. Sadness can cause us to fall into ourselves, from which point of view it is difficult to perceive things through the eyes of others. We can too easily monopolise grief and see our own troubles as paramount over those of our friends or partners. We can hurt those around us with the inherent egotism of sorrow, just as easily as we can sympathise with them. And sadness can be a great source for sympathy. Just as we see the truth of our own lives, so we can see the truth of others. We can find a great deal of empathy in sadness, for we detect it so much more readily in others. Even if they cannot see their truth, when we are depressed, and utterly disillusioned, in the most literal sense, we can see through others. The fraudulence of things becomes most readily apparent.

One of the principal troubles of a heavy depression is that it becomes nigh impossible to enjoy oneself. In the case of the loss of a partner, when grief for their absence is the source of depression, it is hard to enjoy anything because the only perceivable source of happiness is their presence. Everything acts as a reminder of the person’s absence; the inability to share the experience with them makes it cold; the heightened desire for them to be there makes their absence more urgent and hurtful. Every guilty pleasure becomes a crass mockery of the fulfilment we crave from their company.

Time, and its passing, presents a dreadful dilemma. When a crisis is fresh and the rawness is absolute, the spirit is completely abject. Time passes awfully slowly and each day can seem interminable, yet we long for time to pass so we might be on the other side of things. Day one, day two, day three after a tragedy, without sleep, unable to eat, feeling sick in both head and stomach, wanting nothing but to curl up and cry out in agony, unable to do anything to alleviate the cause of the sadness, full of self-loathing, loneliness, and finding everything in one’s life abhorrent, in such a state, time is not your friend. It must pass for the healing to take place, it must pass so that distance can accrue between the cause of suffering and the present one inhabits, yet it crawls more slowly than ever at such times.

It also takes a long time to resolve problems and make changes. It can take months, for example, to find a new job, to find a new house. It can take months to bring about changes in oneself, of habit, attitude and outlook. And whilst we wish time would simply pass, that we might find ourselves six months into the future, sufficiently buffered from the source of hurt, time also acquires an urgency, a preciousness that it lacked when we neglected it. Where once it seemed alright, even delightful, simply to do nothing, when in the thick of an urgent depression, where one feels a very great need to change things, to change oneself, all time becomes of the utmost importance.

Recently, battered by a devastating break-up, once through the first two weeks of hellish torment, I wanted more time each day to write job applications, I wanted more time to read, to write, to watch quality cinema, to listen to classical music, to read poetry, write poetry, take photographs, meet new people, meet with friends. Time became something that must be spent well, always, with purpose, with energy, because doing things to improve the depressed mood and unhappy situation was the only way forward, the only apparent possible way to lay the foundations of a future happiness.

Not only did it seem to me that time must be well spent, but I found it especially difficult to enjoy anything lacking in depth. Deeply depressed and distraught, I was unable to stomach what I would call “popcorn” entertainments. Television radiated an unbearable artifice; all sport seemed not merely futile, but appallingly populist and anti-intellectual; popular music that had once cheered or stirred me, now seemed glib and insignificant; computer games that had so appealingly rendered a genre, now seemed so awfully genre. Almost everything acquired an aspect of irrelevance. I could no longer stomach the theoretical physics articles in the New Scientist, which I read every week, so baselessly speculative are some of them. Where is Occam’s Razor in theoretical physics, I ask you?

Feeling no artifice in the self, it was nigh impossible to stomach artifice in anything else. It is a strong recommendation of psychologists that one should seek fun entertainments when depressed. This strategy is no doubt successful in many instances, for lifting the mood is paramount when depressed and comedy, or any other light-hearted distraction, is one of the best means of going about this. “Popcorn” works to shore up the spirit against heavy moods. Yet, when I tried to take pleasure in amusing trivialities, I found they were not powerful enough to distract me from my thoughts. Indeed, they seemed unpleasantly frivolous. It was far better either to exercise, read a good book, or immerse myself in a symphony.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So it was that as I dropped the popcorn in the aisle, the quality entertainments grew once again in stature: great literature, great art, live performance, art-house cinema, classical music, opera and intellectual radio programs. Not that I had neglected these things entirely by any means, but, when plunged into a gloomy mood, they acquired an almost intense relevance as carriers of truth in art and emotion. Such thought, philosophy and talent have gone into “the canon”, that it offers the comfort of sitting at the feet of wisdom. I needed to hear intelligent voices; to be moved again by powerful art and ideas, to remember how much there is beyond the self.

It was thus in the great work of others that I found satisfaction; beauty, honesty and integrity, such important fundamentals when trying to lay the foundations for self-rehabilitation. Great art can teach us not only how to improve ourselves, but also how to forgive ourselves. It broadens our perspective and sympathies by teaching us about others, directly and indirectly. The meditative quality of a lengthy piano concerto; the range of moods in a symphony; the intense engagement with the emotional circumstances of a character in a film or novel; the overwhelming satisfaction of beholding a beautiful painting; all these works speak directly to emotion and require no artifice. They move us before we have time to think, but then we think, for we are moved, and it is, more often than not, a philosophical, reflective train of thought.

There are, of course, other more scientific avenues for rehabilitation; medicinal and therapeutic. In my own case, reluctant to go down the medicinal route, I took the advice of trusted friends and began to see a psychologist. I had always doubted the usefulness of such consultations, as I seemed to spend most of my life ruminating on myself and identifying my issues. Yet, it occurred to me that whilst I knew what was wrong with me, I wasn’t entirely sure what the best solutions were. Perhaps a psychologist could lend some assistance on this front.

Speaking with a psychologist is certainly an interesting experience. On one level, it’s nice to seem so important as to be worthy of discussion : ) On another level, being assessed by someone trained to rationalise and contextualise emotion and character is pleasantly reassuring. However well we think we might know ourselves, it is hard to see the wood for the trees much of the time, and to hear an intelligent and informed assessment of the big picture is an opportunity to replace the image of the self in one’s own head. It is a little like working with an editor to improve a narrative.

To know that we are, as Neitzsche said, Human, all too human is something of an unwelcome relief. To learn that anything learned can be unlearned, that one can in fact, with discipline, change habits of thought and behaviour, however long established, is, however, genuinely reassuring. People who have always driven on the left-hand side of the road, can, within days, drive comfortably on the right. People whose response to frustration is to become angry, can learn to prevent the anger developing. People who have a fear of talking to strangers, can, through practise, approach people without the irrational fear that their approach is an unwelcome intrusion.

Yet, all this requires a lot of energy and effort and many will, through the weight of their depression, lack that energy. Perhaps, in their instance, some form of medication would be beneficial. Perhaps, also, in such cases, they would do well to seek levity in light-hearted entertainments. I can only speak of my own experience, where quality art and psychotherapy have been immensely beneficial – as indeed, has writing. The process of creation provides an outlet, a means of channelling emotion, though regaining the concentration required to practise any art is a hurdle in itself. Each person must tailor their response to themselves and to the source of their unhappiness; yet perhaps the best starting point is to see depression as an opportunity. Clearly, things must change, and the sooner we seek to make those changes, the sooner we might find some form of emotional equilibrium once more.

Again, I reiterate, I can only speak from my own experience, and enough has been said on that front already.

adieu.

*True Seeing (Divination) Reversible

Sphere: Divination

Range: Touch
Components: V, S, M
Duration: 1 rd./level
Casting Time: 8
Area of Effect: 1 creature
Saving Throw: None

When the priest employs this spell, he confers upon the recipient the ability to see all things as they actually are. The spell penetrates normal and magical darkness. Secret doors become plain. The exact location of displaced things is obvious. Invisible things become quite visible. Illusions and apparitions are seen through. Polymorphed, changed, or enchanted things are apparent. Even the aura projected by creatures becomes visible, so that alignment can be discerned. Further, the recipient can focus his vision to see into the Ethereal plane or the bordering areas of adjacent planes. The range of vision conferred is 120 feet. True seeing, however, does not penetrate solid objects; it in no way confers X-ray vision or its equivalent. In addition, the spell effects cannot be further enhanced with known magic. The spell requires an ointment for the eyes that is made from very rare mushroom powder, saffron, and fat and costs no less than 300 gp per use. The reverse, false seeing, causes the person to see things as they are not: rich is poor, rough is smooth, beautiful is ugly. The ointment for the reverse spell is concocted of oil, poppy dust, and pink orchid essence. For both spells, the ointment must be aged for 1d6 months.

From the Dungeons & Dragons – Players’ Handbook.

ps. “If you end up with a boring, miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.”

– Frank Zappa

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