Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Book Review

I write this review in the absolute knowledge that I cannot do the book justice. Just can’t. I do not have the words. What I can impart are some of the feelings it left me with, powerful and shifting, along with this sense that I have just emerged from a deep and profound encounter with the human condition. Leave all that you know or think you know at the door, because Richard Flanagan is going to drag you by the collar through pretty much the entire gamut of human experience as you accompany him on this tour de force. The premise is straightforward enough, an account of the life of a fictional character called Dorrigo Evans, an aspiring medic whom falls in love with his uncle’s young wife before being torn away to war and eventually experiencing and surviving the horrors of the Burma railway. Thing is, whilst the book is about him, it is just as much about us. About humanity at its best, its worst, its most passionate, most cruel, most desperate, and most noble. My God how we seem so capable of reaching the heights and plumbing the depths. Our ability to rationalise the obscene, justify the un-justifiable, to cease to treat our fellows as anything recognisably human. In contrast, we see bravery and resilience and a refusal to yield to our base nature when we share the experiences of the many astonishing characters whom are also forced to endure those terrible months and years building those doomed railways. And the Japanese guards and Korean soldiers were as much prisoners themselves. Prisoners of the Emperors insane insistence that it was possible to build such a railway through the jungle without any of the tools normally required for such a vision. They saw those captured POW’s as dishonourable men, shameful creatures by virtue of their refusal to do what was perceived as the honourable thing, which to the Japanese was to commit suicide rather than be captured. In the eyes of their captors this at once rendered the prisoners as less, as perhaps sub human. And their consequent treatment appears to flesh this out. Starved and worked quite literally to death, thousands diminish to hundreds, and eventually to fewer still, death the norm rather than the exception. And as the railway slipped behind schedule the burdens upon survivors increased, forced to work longer, to survive on less. One truly harrowing episode see’s Evans seeking to perform an operation on the gangrenous leg of one poor soul whom had already suffered two previous operations. Only by this time there is really no leg left, and there is a true sense of desperation when Evans tries repeatedly, desperately to seal up the femoral artery as the patient bleeds out amidst the filth and the mud. And what becomes of the men that do survive these horrors? They are of course forever changed, and the book shifts focus perfectly as it explores how some cope, and how some do not. And what of the Japanese that evaded capture and execution? It emerges that some evolve into what we might term kind and benevolent creatures, able to justify their actions and continue living in the absence of other options. What was once evil appears to become, if not quite contrite, somehow less evil? The question mark is deliberate because I do not know whether I could ever see such men as good. Suffice to say they moved on, they become something else, ascribing the war as a unique time, and the demands upon them unique demands. Many felt proud to have served their Emperor, able to achieve the inner moral justification that the treatment of those prisoners was a necessary requirement of unique times. And then there is the love story that underpins the first 3rd of the book, the young Dorrigo Evans bewitched by his Uncle’s wife Amy, herself trapped in a marriage of convenience to a kindly man. Adulterous yes. Immoral perhaps. Yet both Amy and Dorrigo are drawn to each other with an intensity that neither is able to resist, and their relationship proves to be the defining intimacy of their lives. There is no grand re-union. No happy ending. For the world rarely grants us such convenience. And this strikes at the root of The Narrow Road To The Deep North. It is not just a book about lives. It somehow manages to distill life itself, exposing the raw nature of our humanity as the clumsy, cruel, and sometimes beautiful thing that it is. And finally a word on the writing style of Flanagan himself. Compact, taut, nothing wasted, no dreary self indulgence. The lad can write and then some. I said at the outset that I cannot do this book justice, and I know as I read this that I haven’t. But I just had to write about it. I had to say something. It moved me. It screamed at me and it made me think. For this alone I am grateful, and I commend it to you without reservation.

It Was Never Really Meant To Make Sense

To be human seems to me to be to be doomed to live as a contradiction. How many of us can truly say that our actions reflect our thoughts, or that we are completely genuine one hundred percent of the time? I know I can’t. It’s just beyond me. I’d love to be consistent in thought and deed, but if my history tells me anything it is that at various points along the way I’m going to be swept along amidst forces that, If I am lucky, I might understand in hindsight. To be human, or at least truly human, is to accept that fallibility is a coat we must all wear. We’re so temporal, so fleeting, so small. Is it any wonder? My desire to be a better man ebbs and flows, as does my desire to rage at all the bullshit and the inanity that we, as a species, seem to so hungrily devour. Sometimes I just try to keep it simple, to avoid the battles and the stupidity, but there’s this kernel of mischief inside of me that doesn’t seem to want to go away. And I probably do not want it to. I expect I like the mischief, the ability to rabble rouse, and to stoke up the occasional bonfire or two. This comes from my desire to have personal meaning in the face of the fact that my life is ultimately of no meaning at all. I’m going to die someday. I’m going to end. And the world will go on and I will become a diminishing ancestral thought seeping down through the family line. These days I just try to accept life for what it is; an often comedic series of episodes, peaks and troughs, the good and the ill. And the only constant for me is the desire to be non constant, which is to say open to new experience and ways of thinking and being that make this whole journey engaging. My atheism is deeply helpful in this regard, and I consider my abandonment of fairy tales to have been an important landmark. I’ve been “out” for 8 years now. Perfectly happy to treat the whole idea of the eternal as the sham that it surely is. I do not seek perfection, instead settling simply for betterment. I’d like to be a little wiser tomorrow than I was today, I’d like to retain an open mind and the ability to change it without feeling that I owe anybody an apology in the process. And since when was changing your mind such a bad thing? Surely it’s essential? Surely it is the epitome of a mind that is comfortable with re-calibration, re-appraisal, and other terms the start with “re”. If you await some cosmic point to this blog then prepare for disappointment. I’ve no wisdom to impart. I probably never did. Suffice to say that if you think you have things sussed then you probably haven’t, and that intellectual inertia is going to kill you if you’re not too careful.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Those Inner Voices

I wonder how many of you reading this are subconsciously, or perhaps even consciously driven by fear? Fear of how you are perceived, received, assessed? I wonder how many of you have allowed yourself to be imprisoned by fear of what the world would think should it truly discover what's going through your mind? Well I can't help you with that, it's your issue and not mine. I can however convey a few nuggets of my personal experience regarding what it feels like to smash through that particular glass ceiling. Put simply it feels good. Refreshing. Invigorating. Illuminating. It feels like freedom. Being able to walk into a room and have no concern for what others think is liberating in a way that's hard to describe. No interest in being liked or disliked, respected or despised. It matters not. The whole idea is white sound to me. I do not care about what you think of my views on religion, or my sexuality, or my insistence that freedom of expression is the primary challenge of our age. I'm fully aware of my capacity to irritate, and I know I'm a calculated button pusher under certain conditions. And I know that when I say most people bore me that's not a popular thing. On the bright side, if you do bore me I'm not going to be spending time around you so it strikes me as a win win. Anyway, I've digressed horribly. The whole point of this post is to suggest that if you labour too long under the expectation of others, or from some need to be approved of or accepted then what you will succeed at is making a prisoner of yourself. You'll be ruled by fear, by anxiety, and you'll probably never really discover what it actually takes to be the most authentic version of you. And worse, you risk wasting precious time on this amazing planet. And you are going to die, and there is no God and no heaven and no eternity in some asinine celestial theme park. Now is the hour and today is the day, so for goodness sake seize it. Explore who you are, and if people disapprove then is that really such a big deal? Every morning you wake up as the primary person capable of making a difference to your own existence. Why not appreciate the scale of that opportunity? Why not actively seek to exploit this? At journey's end you're only going to have yourself to blame if you've spent your days as a prisoner, as a serf, as some petrified emotional cripple. So get out there in the world and get it done. Whatever "that" is. And get better at ignoring those inner voices that tell you that this isn't OK. OK?

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Stacking The Deck

As a parent, I want to see my children flourish. I want them to grow up in the knowledge they are loved, valued, and to have a healthy outlook and a degree of hope. Yet when I see how difficult it is for young people these days I wonder whether society is giving them a fair chance? I look at the price of housing, and from the get go I just cannot for the life of me see how a young person can get on the ladder. Minimum deposit of 25% required in some cases, and borrowing up to 3.4x their salary. And to this add student fees, and all the other costs of living. That looks like a challenge for a couple, let alone a single person just starting out. Talking of couples, it now seems to be the case that both have to work full time to cover the basic costs of living, so where does this leave time for relationship building, for child care, for building a strong and healthy family dynamic? It just looks to me as if we're stacking the odds against them, as if we're intent on trying to throw as many stumbling blocks in the way as we can. Even the best and most committed parents are going to struggle to give their kids a decent foundation when they are so busy trying to keep the wolves from the door. Joy and I bought our house 18 years ago, put down a big deposit, and as such have had a tiny mortgage for the entire duration of our marriage. This allowed us to survive on a single income, enabling Joy to be a stay at home mother and invest in our girls. How many of today's young people are ever going to have this option? How can you raise a family when there is so much external pressure just to keep the debts down? Heck, for that matter, how is it even possible to be a partner in a relationship that has so many challenges from the outset? I wish I had an answer, but I cannot create affordable housing or reduce student loans. If I could I would. This blog for me is borne of deep sadness, of frustration that we continue to stack the deck against the younger generation. It's almost as if we are setting them up to fail. And as we do this the real cost is to society itself, which continues to fragment and morph into something so far removed from traditional family as to render it unrecognisable. And I'm a big supporter of the traditional family because this gives us the best chance of giving our kids what I'd describe as roots and wings. Roots being a deep sense of inner security, wings being the confidence to fly the nest when the time is right. And at the end of the day I just want to see my kids have a realistic chance of having a rewarding and full life. The life I've been fortunate enough to enjoy. I just wish I could do more to make this possible, but it all seems so out of our hands.

Monday, 3 August 2015

RIP To The Culture Of Expectation. You Won't Be Missed.

"Please sir, can I have some more?"
You might automatically link this plaintive cry to Oliver Twist. However it makes me think of modern British society, so many of us with our begging bowl outstretched waiting for government you fill it with all that we perceive we are entitled to. Now clearly the new government has other ideas. It's creating a meaner, leaner, less empathic society in which we are expected to forage for ourselves. Will this leave many with less than they had before? Yes. Do I think this is a good idea over the long term? Yes. You see, I think the short to medium term pain is worth it for long term gain, and I really do think that we are so desperately in need of a culture change further to years of handouts, benefits, and coddling. If you want to dismiss me as a true blue tory then I suppose you could, but truth be told I've been banging the drum for culture change for years. So to avoid misunderstanding here's how I see the world, and my role in it. I expect to support my family; I expect to have no more children than those I can afford to support. I expect and want to pay tax in order that society might flourish; I expect to have to save for my pension and not expect the younger generation to subsidise me. I want to play my part in this by working hard, by doing the right thing, and by showing kindness and compassion to those whom I am in a position to help. Concerning the welfare state I believe passionately that the vulnerable need to be protected, and given help and support to find stability and hope and the chance of a better future. What I don't want is to fund the lifestyle choices of the lazy, the indolent; those who have the expectation that society somehow owes them happiness and wealth and comfort and freedom to abstain from the things the majority of us do every day. These people frustrate me, and their way of thinking appalls me. I want to be a part of a nation that is forward thinking and self responsible, a society that takes personal responsibility and has an intrinsic understanding that we have to earn the good things in life. Now let's be under no illusion that some people will suffer, and we have to do our best to ensure that the genuinely vulnerable do have a support structure and means of ascending out of disadvantage. My target demographic are those that can do but won't do; those who think society owes them something. It doesn't. We don't. And these people need to change or suffer the fruits of their stupor.