The dead and the living – Five books of essays – a review.

My latest selection of books from our local library. All essay collections.

I guess the main question to be asked is why choose to read 5 books of essays? The answer…my answer at any rate is….to learn. The way I write my blog, and how many other bloggers write, is in essay form. So, what is an essay?

Literary Devices.Net defines it as – Essay is derived from the French word essayer, which means “to attempt,” or “to try.” An essay is a short form of literary composition based on a single subject matter, and often gives the personal opinion of the author. A famous English essayist, Aldous Huxley defines essays as, “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.”

The all knowing Wikipedia says – An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story. Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. Formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” whereas the informal essay is characterized by “the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,” etc. Essays are commonly used as literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.

So there we have it. Looking at the writers of these 5 books, they are hailed as some of the best essayists around so hopefully I can learn from them, as well as enjoy reading them.

Just updating this post. Rather than make this one lengthy or over lengthy post I may possibly split it into two parts. The First part….this part….covering the 3 Essayists who are now deceased (the top line in the photo – of 3 books) and a second post about the two remaining live essayists will follow at a later date. OK, on with the post…..

First book out of the starting blocks, just because I liked the title, is Consider the Lobster…and other essays – by David Foster Wallace. He is obviously well respected as a writer if the blurb on the back of the book is to be believed. Comments such as the following praise him to the sky.

Long renowned as one of the smartest writers on the loose, in Consider the Lobster David Foster Wallace also reveals himself to be one of the funniest……Wallace delights and confirms that he is a ‘writer of virtuosic talents’ (New York Times)

‘…a superb comedian of culture….his exuberance and intellectual impishness are a delight’ James Woods, Guardian

‘He induces the kind of laughter which, when read in bed with a sleeping partner, wakes said sleeping partner up……He’s damn good’ Nicholas Lezard, Guardian

There are a collection of 10 rather lengthy essays in this book, and I know from the comments about the book that I should be swept away by Mr Wallace’s brilliance, but….(pause while I attempt to think of something tactful to say)….to paraphrase Obi wan Kenobi – ‘This is not the essayist you are looking for’. I have struggled to maintain consciousness through the first four essays and haven’t yet arrived at the start of the actual Consider the Lobster essay. The first essay titled Big Red Son – about the porn industry awards night – appeared to have been written by an adolescent schoolboy with a fetish for large breasts, who is obsessed by the size of the male porn stars er…package and makes constant comments about the amount and regularity of their ejaculations. I have to ask myself, do I want to invest more of my time in trying to understand why so many people rate Mr Wallace so highly? I find myself agreeing with the host of TV’s The Hotel Inspector, Alex Polizzi when offered instant coffee to drink instead of her usual espresso, her response of…’I’d rather drink my own urine’….mirrors my reluctance to read any more of Wallace’s drivel. Needless to say that I, for one, was not swept away by his impish delight…..more a case of being dragged away kicking and screaming!

In a bid to not judge Mr Wallace too harshly (oops…too late for that), as I hate to speak ill of the dead, I decided to sleep on it, give the Lobster due consideration and give it another try. I don’t suppose David Foster Wallace would lose any sleep over my less than flattering review anyway, and since he is dead, that is of course, neither here nor there. So, 24 hours or so later, I have read the feature article about the Maine Lobster Festival and it was actually quite good. It informed and educated me about lobsters in general and about the MLF. He didn’t however entertain me with his writing. I have yet to discover the humour in his writing that some critics bang on about, and the article tended to be repetitive in parts….he could have cut it by a couple of pages or more and actually improved it (IMHO). As you may or may not be aware Wallace took his own life at the age of 46 and had been consumed by depression for over 20 years. Having now read 5 of his essays I can see why. You may think that my last sentence was uncalled for. All I can say is please read some of Mr Wallace’s work and draw your own conclusions…but first hide all the kitchen knives. Best to keep temptation at arms length.

Of the remaining 4 books of essays two more are also by writers who have passed on to that great typewriter in the sky and thankfully the final two are still very much alive and kicking. I’ll carry on now with two times Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer’s book Mind of an Outlaw, and pray that it’s an improvement on Consider the Lobster.

Even before I open Mailer’s book I am hopeful. He was married 6 times, which would indicate that he had a sense of humour. However he stabbed one wife with a penknife almost killing her…so maybe a sick sense of humour should be expected. Woody Allen once quipped that when Mailer dies, his ego would be donated to Harvard Medical School for research.

Mailer died in 2007, aged 84, (I have no idea what happened to his Ego…) and this collection of essays was published posthumously in 2013, said to contain many of his best works, (scoring 5 out of 5 on Amazon and 4 out of 5 on Goodreads) I remain hopeful as I scan the list of essays.

Unlike Wallace’s essays that run on almost endlessly, page after page, mile after ponderous mile… and bored me silly, Mailer’s run for just a few pages each and so we have around 50 to cherry pick from six decades of writing. Having read the first seven essays, so far, I believe without a doubt that he is, as mentioned by Woody Allen, egotistical. He is one of those writers who is very good at his craft – and knows it – and likes to tell everyone exactly how good he is…..or rather how lucky the reader is that he’s allowing us into his world. This being said, he is (or I should say was) a gifted writer and I am enjoying his somewhat self indulgent essays.

In one essay written in the 1950’s and titled The Homosexual Villain, he writes about what it is to be a writer, how important it is to nurture and grow that inner writer, and why we must not let our uninformed prejudices stunt our growth. I think he absolutely nails it….A writer has his talent, and for all one knows, he is born with it, but whether his talent develops is to some degree responsive to his use of it. He can grow as a person or he can shrink, and by this I don’t intend any facile parallels between moral and artistic growth. The writer can become a bigger hoodlum if need be, but his alertness, his curiosity, his reaction to life must not diminish. The fatal thing is to shrink, to be interested in less, sympathetic to less, desiccating to the point where life itself loses its flavor, and one’s passion for human understanding changes to weariness and distaste.

My plan was to select a couple of essays from each decade to read, but I am enjoying them so much that I’m probably going to read the entire 50. This review could therefore take somewhat longer than I had anticipated.

His essay in 1956 endorsing Ernest Hemingway for political office, although written slightly tongue in cheek, makes a good argument for why the American public would choose Hemingway over Eisenhower. Of course since Hemingway had no political aspirations it becomes a moot point. An interesting piece all the same. Just as a matter of interest, Mailer wrote that in his opinion, the two writers to have had the most influence on the American public were Hemingway and Faulkner – which is quite an interesting choice when Mailer himself admits that he is not overall a fan of Hemingway’s writing. In fact in a later essay in the book he actually says that he got to the point early on in his writing career that he was sick and tired of hearing about both Hemingway and Faulkner.

Modern writers fare no better. Jonathan Franzen’s book – The Corrections was lauded by his contemporaries as an outstanding piece of literature and attracted high praise all around. Mailer’s opinion was that The Corrections is “the book of a generation that wants to wipe the slate clean and offer a new literary movement”, and that “todays writers are sick of Roth, Bellow, Updike and myself.” He then goes on to say that the book is “very good indeed, and yet most unpleasant now that it sits in memory, as if one has been wearing the same clothes for too many days.” He then goes on talking about Franzen’s intelligence. “He may have the highest IQ of any American novelist writing today, but unhappily, he rewards us with more work than exhilaration, since rare is any page in The Corrections that could not be five to ten lines shorter.” Mailer obviously hates to give any other writer any credit at all.

As far as his contemporaries are concerned, Mailer tells us in no uncertain terms that there are barely any of his fellow writers who he feels are as good as, if not better than himself. The one exception being James Jones, who won the 1952 National Book Award for his first published novel, From Here to Eternity. This of course was made into a movie and later into a TV series. Mailer says in his essay Quick Evaluations on the Talent in the Room that James Jones had more talent than he did, and waxes lyrical about him for the best part of a paragraph, before pulling him apart and accusing him of selling out over the years since the publication of his first book. He then goes on to run his sword through a number of other distinguished writers including William Styron, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac and Saul Bellow, dismissing them all as inferior to him.

I suspected that it was too good to be true that Mailer actually felt inferior to another writer. He has such a huge ego that he needed two houses to live in – one of standard size for his physical being and a hundred room mansion for his ego. I’m not sure if Mailer owned a car or not, but if he did, I have no doubt that his number plate/licence plate would be FIGJAM – as in Fuck I‘m Great Just Ask Me.

Although he was undoubtedly a huge narcissist, an egotistic megalomaniac, there is no escaping the fact that he was a brilliant writer and I can’t help but admire his work. He could look at both sides of an argument and make compelling points in support of one side, only to then give equal merit to the opposing side. I must admit to being totally flummoxed in trying to follow his take on existentialism though.

I’ll finish with a quote from the Amazon books website about the book…. Incendiary, erudite, and unrepentantly outrageous, Norman Mailer was a dominating force on the battlefield of ideas. Featuring an incisive Introduction by Jonathan Lethem, Mind of an Outlaw forms a fascinating portrait of Mailer’s intellectual development across the span of his career as well as the preoccupations of a nation in the last half of the American century.

And we move on to our 3rd deceased Essayist – Christopher Hitchens. Christopher Eric Hitchens was an English-American author, columnist, essayist, orator, journalist, and social critic. Hitchens was the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of over 30 books, including five collections of essays on culture, politics, and literature. Hitchens, who died of cancer aged 62, in 2011, was a huge critic of organized religion and I have seen videos of him, on many occasions, having a good old rant against the many religions including, and in particular, Christianity. He enjoyed a smoke and a fine malt whisky, and fully admits that this contributed to his cancer diagnosis. He could be caustic and sarcastic but also witty and humorous and always put forward a good, intelligent argument. A public intellectual and a controversial public figure – and I looked forward to reading his collection of essays titled …And Yet.

And yet….before I start his book I must, just quickly, bring to your attention one of Hitchens’ typical quotes that I wish I had said myself.

“My own view is that this planet is used as a penal colony, lunatic asylum and dumping ground by a superior civilisation, to get rid of the undesirable and unfit. I can’t prove it, but you can’t disprove it either.”

OK…that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the review.

And Yet….and other essays was published in 2015 – 4 years after Hitchens death, but is like a breath of fresh air – a last blast from this devout non-conformist – and lifelong atheist. Indeed he takes a swipe at the very idea of Christmas in his essay Bah Humbug which features an account of being physically barred from a ‘Bible Belt’ talk show, even though he’d been invited on it, for observing that “Christmas trees, Yule logs, and the rest were symbols of the winter solstice holidays before any birth had been registered in the greater Bethlehem area.” Therefore pagan rather than Christian iconic items. His host took exception to this.

Born and raised in Britain and later becoming an American citizen gave Hitchens two political systems to pull apart with equal ferocity. It’s a pity that he died before Donald Trump entered the political arena – I would have loved to have heard his opinion of The Don. In this series of essays he takes several swipes at Hillary Clinton. In one essay he characterises her as being “indifferent to truth, willing to use police state tactics and vulgar libels against inconvenient witnesses, hopeless on healthcare and flippant and fast and loose with national security.”

Her ex president husband Bill fares no better. In his essay titled The Case Against Hillary Clinton, Hitchens not only accuses both Hillary and him of being self serving liars…several times over, but also makes strong suggestions that Bill was also a rapist. Many women accused Bill of improper sexual behaviour including Gennifer Flowers, Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick…..and who can forget the infamous incident with Monica Lewinsky – I did not have sexual relations with that woman – yeah right! Indeed in an earlier book, No One Left To Lie To, Hitchens penned an essay by the title of Is there a Rapist in the Oval Office?

But it’s not only American politicians who come under fire. No politician anywhere in the world who lies or goes back on promises were safe from Hitchens’ barbed tongue. He even had a go, and quite rightly so, at the Dutch government – who have long enjoyed the reputation for peaceful and democratic consensus – on two counts. The first being in July 1995 when Dutch forces in Bosnia abandoned the population of the UN-protected “safe haven” at Srebrenica enabling the worst massacre of civilians on European soil since WW2. He says Dutch officers were photographed hoisting champagne glasses with the sadistic goons of Ratko Mladic’s militia before leaving the helpless Muslim population to a fate that anyone could have predicted.

The second issue was when the Dutch withdrew their protection of former member of the Dutch Parliament – Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a refugee from genital mutilation, forced marriage, and civil war in her native Somalia, who collaborated with Theo van Gogh on the film Submission that highlighted the maltreatment of Muslim immigrant women living in Holland. Van Gogh was murdered on an Amsterdam street in 2004 with a note pinned to his body promising that the next victim would be Hirsi Ali. Initially the Dutch vowed to give security protection to her, but after a while decided it was costing them too much so they announced in the press that after a certain date had been reached, Hirsi Ali would be unprotected, in effect tipping off the Islamist death squads responsible for the death of van Gogh earlier.

Hitchens was without doubt an exceptional writer with a strong sense of justice. Highly opinionated maybe, highly critical of those in positions of power (be it religious power or political power) – absolutely, but a damn good writer and generally well respected. His book AND YET… with its collection of almost 50 essays is an entertaining and interesting read. If you’ve never read anything by Hitchens, and you are not offended by his stance on religion, his writing offers some real gems.

On the back of the book – “Few writers can match his cerebral pyrotechnics. Fewer still can emulate his punch as an intellectual character assassin. It is hard not to admire the sheer virtuosity of his prose” – Edward Luce, Financial Times. AND “If Hitchens didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to invent him” – Ian McEwan.

I’ll leave you with a couple more quotes from Hitchens about himself, in closing.

I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information. AND
I don’t have any terrific self-esteem issues but I do sometimes realise I’ve been too lucky and that I’m over-praised. It makes me nervous. I have this sense of being overrated.

This brings a close to the first, of my two part, review of the five books of essays. Three deceased writers down, two live ones yet to come. Thank you as usual for reading. Your comments etc., are much appreciated.

Autism as a gift….the life of Temple Grandin.

Yet again I have to credit my wife in introducing me firstly to a documentary and secondly to a movie about a brilliant lady, Temple Grandin, who just happens to be autistic. She, my wife, had been reading a book called On Eating Meat – by Matthew Evans. It’s a book about the production of meat and the ethics involved in eating it. Sounds like a real page-turner doesn’t it (said sarcastically). Strangely enough it IS. It really is a book for everyone to read – meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans. It looks into all aspects of raising animals for meat and also looks into the ethics of veggie and vegan food production. You’d be amazed at how many animals get killed in the process of growing vegetables and fruit. So, like it or not, no food can be eaten totally guilt free. Evans is both a farmer and a chef, and is known as the Gourmet Farmer.

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In the book Evans refers to a BBC documentary about Temple Grandin titled The Woman Who Thinks Like A Cow. My wife, being my wife, did what she always does and looked up the documentary on line. Of course she insisted I watch it with her. What an eye opener into the world of Autism. AND what an amazing person Doctor Temple Grandin turns out to be. Look up the documentary on line.

This of course led my wife to one of several of Temple Grandin’s books – The Autistic Brain…..in which, Grandin, who is one of the most accomplished adults with autism in the world, reports from the forefront of Autism Science including remarkable discoveries about the brain and the latest genetic research.

See the source image

Her view is that we need to treat autism symptom by symptom rather than with an umbrella diagnosis. She also argues that raising autistic children needs to be less about focussing on their weaknesses and more about fostering their unique contributions, saying autism can be turned into a gift, not a disability.

And onward to a movie about her life, an HBO Original Film starring Claire Danes in the title role. We borrowed a copy of the DVD from our local library and watched it last night. It’s a most excellent and interesting movie – very much worth watching. Temple Grandin’s mother was told, when she was only a very young girl, that she should be placed in an institution and given electro-therapy. Thankfully her mother declined and looked into other methods of helping her daughter become what she wanted to be, including getting her a speech therapist, and sending her to specialist schools. It sheds a light on autism that I, for one, knew nothing about. The link to the official trailer is below. Claire Danes does an amazing job in portraying Dr Grandin in both her voice and her mannerisms. We follow her trials and tribulations, facing not only autism head on, but also the cruelty of others towards her, on her way to becoming a PhD and a legend in both the business and the welfare of cattle.

And if anyone would like to delve further into Temple Grandin’s life and works, her own websites are available on line. Links are below

https://www.grandin.com/

and https://templegrandin.com/

Enjoy…and prepared to be amazed.

What I’m reading/have been reading.

I’ve not had much spare cash recently….that’s nothing new….so I’ve been borrowing quite a lot more – from my local library – than usual.

Picture below shows the latest batch of library books that have been keeping me entertained.

The Way Home and The Moneyless Man – both by Irish writer and Freeconomist Mark Boyle, I have written about in my recent post titled “After we stop pretending”.

The two books about building the perfect BUG OUT Bag and BUG OUT Vehicle I have written about in an upcoming blog post, still to be published. The remainder I’ll give a brief outline about here. 

The Natural Disaster Survival Handbook is a simple to follow book with lots of pictures and text in straight forward English giving lots of helpful advice about what to do in various natural disaster scenarios – Earthquakes, storms, floods, volcanic eruption  etc.

Hazards In Hawke’s Bay is about the natural hazards of concern in my immediate locality and is more in the format of a magazine than a book. The town that I live on the outskirts of is only a few kilometres from the ocean, on the southern edge of Hawke’s Bay. Just off the coast we have the Hikurangi subduction zone – a fault line where two tectonic plates meet…one dips down under the other producing what is known as a “slow slip fault”. These faults move almost imperceptibly until they stick for a time and then move suddenly in a jarring motion producing a large and potentially devastating quake of between 8 and 9 on the Richter scale, similar to the one that produced the disaster in Fukushima, Japan in 2011. The book covers other hazards, but understandably concentrates on earthquakes since this area was hit by a devastating quake in 1931 flattening both cities of Hastings (where I live) and Napier.

Building Small is a nice little picture and plan book about building tiny houses. Some of these are smallish houses, others really are tiny – a little larger than a garden shed – all are cleverly designed to optimise both living  space and storage areas. It’s a nice book with some good designs for tiny houses. On a personal note, my wife and I are considering downsizing our home size, but increasing our land size….moving away from the town into the countryside and living as self sufficiently as possible on a small-holding (small farm), so this book was of particular interest.

The two remaining books My Year Without Matches and Londonistan I started but didn’t finish as they just didn’t do it for me. Didn’t hold my interest at all. My Year Without Matches is about living in the bush for a year without any sort of technology, making your own shelter and surviving in the wild. There were a few interesting aspects to the book, but nothing that made me want to get from cover to cover. Londonistan was too much of a divisive racist rant about how Muslims are taking over the UK. I understand how some Brits may feel – that their way of life, British customs and traditions are under threat from immigration and multicultural society….and to be honest, I do share those concerns to a certain extent. BUT I think that this book pushes the boundaries a little too much and it becomes more of a rant rather than a balanced look at immigration versus the traditional British way of life.

Although I have not had any extra cash available to buy books, last month it was Father’s Day and my youngest son sent me a card with a book voucher inside, so I happily toddled off to Unity Books in Wellington (the NZ Capital) and purchased Shaun Bythell’s second book Confessions of a Bookseller, in hardback. In an earlier post I covered meeting Shaun, who lives in Scotland’s Booktown, Wigtown – where he owns the largest second hand bookshop in Scotland – when he was in New Zealand promoting the release of his first book Diary of a Bookseller, which was frankly hilarious. The second book follows on where the first left off, telling us in diary form about Shaun’s life in the book trade and the ups and downs of owning the bookshop….the insanity of some of his customers, the sometimes bizarre behaviour of his staff….and the trials and tribulations of his own personal life. Shaun’s humour can be rather sarcastic and caustic at times, but having met the guy I can tell you that he is a very nice person, despite his quest to prove otherwise in his books. 

The second book, I bought with the remainder of my voucher, was a paperback by Wendell Berry titled The World-Ending Fire – and features a number of his essays dating from 1968 up until 2011. I happened upon Wendell Berry after reading about him in one of Mark Boyle’s books and from a reference in a video by former environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth…who just happens to be one of Boyle’s neighbours. It’s funny how one book leads to another and then another. Berry is an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. Wikipedia tells us – “He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal, and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.” It’s probably his absolute love of the natural world that attracted Boyle, Kingsnorth and now myself to his writings.The back of the book says – Wendell Berry lives and works in the old ways on his farm in rural Kentucky. He is also one of America’s most powerful radical voices. In the pieces collected here he writes about the peace of nature, the food we eat, and, above all, why we must care for the land we live on.

I look forward to reading Berry’s book after I finish Bythell’s. 

After we stop pretending….

If you look at this post’s title and wonder “after we stop pretending” about what? I’ll get to that shortly. It’s a prickly subject and it will make a lot of people very uncomfortable. Others won’t feel any discomfort or shame simply because they (a) don’t understand the problem or (b) just don’t give a shit. But please bear with me and I’ll do my best to explain.

Have you ever started on something and it leads to something else and that leads to somewhere else, or an idea, or pattern of thought that hadn’t occurred to you? That’s kind of how I got here….to the After We Stop Pretending thing…and it’s all my wife’s fault. Let me explain.

She, like me, has become very disenchanted by the direction that modern society is going in. Being connected to Wifi, the world wide web, to our phones, to technology, to over consumption of stuff….but completely disconnected from one another, from society, from community and most of all from nature. However, unlike me – I who am content to moan and bitch about how, as a species, we’ve lost our way and how terrible this disconnect with nature is – my wife tends to look deeper into the problem and to try to find out if it can be solved. It was her search to find ways of disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature that brought her to Mark Boyle – an Irishman, writer, environmentalist, free thinker and freeconomist – who was formerly as entrenched in the system as the rest of us, having trained as an economist.

Mark Boyle has written a book, (actually he’s written a few books…..but this one in particular was one my wife was drawn to), called “The Moneyless Man”. Which is about how he took a year off from the system – from modern day life – from the economy – from consumerism – and lived for 12 months without money. (This actually became his way of life for a 3 year period, not one). Both to see if it could be done at all and also as a bit of a social experiment. He didn’t completely disconnect from technology though. He lived in a caravan on someone’s farm – he was allowed to park the caravan there in exchange for several days labour in the fields each month. On the caravan he had a solar panel with which he would charge his cell phone – on which he could only accept incoming calls as he had no money to make outgoing calls – and his laptop on which to write his book and a number of newspaper and magazine articles about his one year of living without money. He used a bike for transport and his food came partly from what he grew, partly from what he could forage in the wild and partly from dumpster diving behind the supermarket in the nearby town. His life for the next 12 months proved that necessity is indeed the mother of invention AND that living without money is a possibility.

This first book brought my wife to Boyle’s latest book called “The Way Home” – in which, 9 years on from his moneyless experiment, he has now built his own cabin, has realised that money is in some cases necessary – so has used the money from his book sales to purchase some land of his own – but has opened it up for anyone to live there. He has totally kicked modern technology into touch, even his phone and laptop have now gone. He still writes, but on recycled paper, with pens he finds here and there abandoned or lost by other people. His philosophy is one of paying it forward – he does things for people without expecting anything in return. There is no quid pro quo with Boyle.

It is this recent book, The Way Home (2019), that provides us with the next link. In The Way Home, Boyle refers to another writer by the name of Paul Kingsnorth. Kingsnorth is a former journalist, former editor of the Ecologist and according to his book is “A Recovering Environmentalist”. He is co founder of The Dark Mountain Project – a haven for writers who have seen through the veil of misinformation and fabrication of todays society, have come to the conclusion that the environmental movement has been hijacked by big business and political clout, decided that as things stand our disconnect from nature and our belief in the ideals of consumerism and the growth economy will push us not just to the brink of extinction, but over the brink. After the collapse of the system, perhaps people views about the sanity of the status quo will change. Only After We Stop Pretending can we make the changes in the way we live, that we should have made 40 years ago and get down to the work of re-growing a living culture.

Paul Kingsnorth used to be an environmentalist who put his body on the line to protest abuses of the environment. This video is about his current take on environmentalism, the life we live and why it’s too late for us to save the earth. It’s 49 minutes long but very interesting and has many truths.

Much is made these days about buzz words like “sustainability”. It used to be about sustaining and about not abusing nature or “natural resources”. These days the green movement is more about sustaining our life style by replacing one thing with it’s perceived “eco” counterpart. Environmentalism has become about sustainable development – which let’s face it is an oxymoron. Big business and the consumer lifestyle must, it seems, be the things that we place the priority on sustaining.

We have had countless feel good rallies in parks, marches to parliament to present petitions about protecting the environment, to which a smiling politician speaks a few empty promises about looking into the problem….probably involving committees and sub committees and flights overseas to see how other governments are handling the “environment problem”. But nothing happens to slow down the wheels of industry, of commerce, of commercialism.

We’ve had countless years of presentations of scientific evidence, discussions, debates and resolutions at the United Nations – yet still nothing has been done to slow the commercial machine – CO2 emissions continue to rise, pollution of the air and seas continues unabated, the rain forests continue to be cleared at alarming rates, the icecaps and glaciers continue to melt, sea level continues to rise as do average temperatures. But it’s all okay, none of this will affect the value of your shares on the stock exchange. Despite all the international agreements and environmental protection agencies we are destroying and polluting at an ever increasing rate. Changing your lightbulbs to energy efficient ones or banning single use plastic bags in supermarkets – whilst a step in the right direction – are not going to solve the problems we face and are in fact a case of too little, much too late.

The problem is a result of the system we follow, blindly. It’s not just about our consumption of, and our reliance on, fossil fuels that is the problem – it’s about the need to change the system that drives this consumption. This is the truth that everyone skirts around because of fear of how the abandoning of the growth economy system will affect their lifestyle.

The more disconnected we are from the source of our food, the less we value it and the more wasteful we become. If I can explain….go back to hunter gatherer time…Back when we were hunter gatherers we would spend a couple of hours a day sourcing our food from the forests and streams in the locality of our home base. We’d work along side and within the natural world – take as much as we needed from nature, eat it that day, fresh and then start the whole process again the next day. Rinse and repeat.

Then some bright spark had the idea of gathering some seeds from the bushes and plants that they found in nature and farming the ground close to home base to grow the food we needed right on our doorstep. Because we now take care in tending our food supply it takes us a little longer, but we are still very connected to our food and to nature. We value it and take only what we need. Jumping forward several hundred years we have for the most part separated ourselves from nature. We now live in cities and work 8 hour days, or more, in order to earn these tokens called money. With this money, we can pay for other people, sometimes on the other side of the planet to grow our food for us, pay for the mining and refining of the fossil fuel to power the trucks, ships and planes to bring it thousands of kilometres to a supermarket near us, where we can jump into our cars, using more fossil fuel, to drive to the supermarket to collect the food, (now mostly wrapped in plastic packaging on Styrofoam trays), that we once used to grow fresh on our own doorstep. We have no idea about how much petro-chemical sprays or other toxic materials have been used in the production of our food – which is now grown for shape and colour and shelf life rather than for any nutritional value. And then we waste a third of all the food we buy. This we call progress….and….civilisation. Is it just me, or can anyone else see that this just makes no sense at all?

Photo from Gloria’s Bits and Pieces on BlogSpot.com

And don’t even think to get me started on all the other rubbish that we import from around the world that is built only to last for a limited span of time. We have embraced the throw away society whole heartedly. We have fast food, fast fashions and even fast furnishings. All of which are tasteless and unfortunately get us addicted for more of the same. Anything to keep us spending that money and keep growing the economy. We are blasted by advertisements to buy more, update this, bigger that, new and improved…buy buy buy! Celebrity endorsements on TV, in magazines, on billboards, on the internet. We have so much stuff these days that off site storage is now a multi billion dollar business. It’s craziness. We haven’t just lost our way, we’re completely off the map. A byproduct of this greed for more stuff is that we need more land and more resources, to make the stuff, so we destroy nature, we wipe out hundreds of species weekly….WEEKLY…without even pausing to consider the consequences. We need to have the courage to change, to be responsible for our own actions and to do it quickly. Governments support the status quo – they are NOT going to save us if we don’t force them to.

It’s been said many times, so I’ll say it once more in the forlorn hope that this time someone will read it and say – yes that’s absolutely right, and make the change that we all need for our survival – “You can not have infinite growth on a finite planet”. So, yes we need to Stop Pretending that everything is just fine and dandy. The science says that we may have already passed the tipping point or are within a year or two of it. It’s frightening, but we need to accept that, to look despair right in the face and change the way we live. Let’s not make things any worse than they are already going to be. Is it only when money, credit and “the economy” are seen to be nothing more than the Emperors New Clothes of fairly tales and the system comes crashing down around our ears that most of us will finally admit that it was doomed to fail all along, and try to change the system to one of living with nature. We must realise that we are part of the natural world, not above it.

If anyone is interested in finding out more about the Dark Mountain Project, the link to their website is https://dark-mountain.net/

Mark Boyle (the moneyless man) will be at Scotland’s Booktown – Wigtown – for their annual book festival, appearing on 4th October 2019. He’ll be talking about his latest book and his life without technology.

What does it mean to be human as boundaries between man and machine blur? Mark Boyle tried to find out, embracing life with no running water, car or electricity. The former business graduate, who once lived without money for three years, talks about his remarkable life on a Galway smallholding.

Quotes on Poetry

I’ve been frankly amazed and somewhat relieved at how well my few attempts at poetry have been received. Thank you so much for the likes and positive feedback. It’s not something I intend to do a lot of (writing poetry) but I will be inflicting the occasional poem on you from time to time, if the inspiration hits me.

Here are a few quotes about poetry from the famous.

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words – Robert Frost

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility – William Wordsworth

What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music – Soren Kierkegaard

and finally one that resonates with me…

I wrote some of the worst poetry west from the Mississippi River, but I wrote. And I finally sometimes got it right. – Maya Angelou

The Thing About Prague – Rachael Weiss – book review

A few months ago I was looking at the books in my book cases and had one of those “aha” moments. The majority of my books were by male authors, very few were by female writers. I hadn’t consciously been avoiding women writers, it was just one of those things. I found it really quite odd, and wondered why subconsciously I may have been avoiding them.

When I was in San Francisco earlier this year I’d read, not only a women writer, but also a feminist woman writer – Rebecca Solnit’s book ‘Call Them By Their True Names‘ (American Crises And Essays) – and thoroughly enjoyed it.

So, I am now consciously trying to read as many women writers as I do their male counterparts. With that in mind I recently picked up Rachael Weiss’s memoir about her time in Prague ‘The Thing About Prague’ – printed in 2014. Suddenly waking up to the fact that she was not only still single, but also ‘middle aged’ and having nothing better to do at the time, she decides to pack everything up and move to Prague.

The Thing About Prague

Prague is one of my favourite cities in the world, alongside Paris, so I hoped that in reading Ms Weiss’s book it would bring back some happy memories. It did, kind of, but Rachael was there long term as a resident and owner of an apartment, doing the things that residents do….like living their lives… where as I was simply there doing touristy things for a week.

Rachael’s relationship with Prague was more meaningful in that she became, or tried hard to become, part of the community there. She left her home and her pet cat back in Australia to head for the birthplace of her father, to carve out a new and more satisfying literary lifestyle. Her frustrations with the Czech language and with pedantic Czech bureaucracy comes to the boil, overflows even, numerous times as she battles officialdom – what was left over after 40 years of communist rule – trying to firstly obtain her resident visa and then to sort out the mess made by another bureaucrat who changed her job description….trying to be helpful, but in doing so created a mountain of problems for her.

It’s a nice easy read. The words and sentences flow well. She doesn’t feel the need to impress us by using complicated words that would require a quick dip into the thesaurus. It’s simply a straightforward look at the three year period of her life spent living in Prague….a city that whilst bohemian, historic and magical is anything but straightforward.

Her adventures, or should that be mis-adventures, find her doing jobs that she doesn’t like, for people she would rather avoid, but also inexplicably becomes romantically fixated on (like Leonard who foams at the mouth when excited, and spits when he talks – a real catch!)…saw her somehow leading services in a Jewish synagogue – which was more a case of ‘forgive me lord for I know not what I do’…..find her lost in the woods on a hike with a very unattractive Kyrgyzstani who has cannibalistic fantasies….and she spends lots of time in bars partaking in the traditional Czech pastime of drinking copious amounts of alcohol. All while trying to find the time, and to create the right atmosphere, for writing that all important novel.

But it’s her need for romance, to find Mr Right….or even to spend a night with Mr OK, who’ll do for now, that bring us both laughs and intense frustration. It appears, for Rachael, that the phrase ‘desperate times mean desperate measures’ defines her love life. It never ceases to amaze me how a woman who is obviously intelligent and talented could define her self-worth based on whether she has a man or not.

This is Rachael’s third book. Her second book Me, Myself and Prague (2008) was about her first attempt at living for a year in Prague….armed only with an old 1973 guide book. And her first book Are We There Yet? (2005) is another travelogue about a road trip taken with a girlfriend in a land dominated by couples having fun. I haven’t read either one yet, but intend to. Other than her books, she says that her only other claim to fame is coming fourth in the 1996 New South Wales Scrabble Tournament.

The people at Goodreads currently rate The Thing About Prague at 3.31 out of 5. I’d rate it up nearer 4 out of 5. But then I am a sucker for books about writers struggling to write THE novel. Looking on line, it would appear that since these 3 books are the only ones attributed to Rachael Weiss, she is still to write her novel. I sincerely hope that she hasn’t given up her dream.

Of poems, walls, family and a poet called Frost…

I guess it’s not simply by chance that I enjoy reading the poems of Robert Frost. Not only do we have the same family name (Frost) but also share a love of the outdoors, of nature. Many of Frost’s poems are set in the natural world – in woods and fields.

Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874, but after the death of his father – when Robert was just 11 years old – lived much of his life out east, first in Massachusetts and then, after attending Harvard university (where he dropped out after 2 years due to health issues), in New Hampshire. Here, surrounded by nature, his writing really took off although it was not well received by publishers and rejection letters became the common reply to his submissions.

In 1912 at the age of 38 Frost moved his family to England and within a few months had found a publisher for his works. All of a sudden his poems were popular and sought after by publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. During his time in England he met Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas who both gave positive reviews of his work, boosting Frost’s popularity. One of Frost’s most popular poems, The Road not Taken, was written as a kind of joke about Edward Thomas’s lack of ability to make choices and then second guessing himself, although at the time many readers (Thomas included) failed to get the joke and took the poem at face value.

His 2 years of living in England were extremely good for his writing, but in 1914 at the outbreak of The Great War (world war one) he was forced to return to the USA, settling again in New Hampshire. Here he met up with publisher Henry Holt who would be his publisher for the rest of Frost’s life. Many of the publications that had turned down his poems before he left for England were now begging to publish. He sent them the same poems that they had earlier rejected and this time they all found their way into print. I guess this is a message for all writers, not just poets, to never give up, never lose faith in your writing.

Getting back to the whole point of this post….what started me off on this post about Frost’s poetry was….I’d been reading his poem Mending Wall…..(excerpt below)

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there…….

It goes on about how he and his neighbour go about rebuilding the wall, stone by stone and how he needs to know what, or who, is being either kept in, or kept out, by the wall, where as his neighbour simply likes it as a boundary between his property and theirs. “Good fences make good neighbours” is the neighbour’s mantra.

All of this reminded me of my grandfather George Arthur Frost, who was a builder by trade – mainly of houses – but who also used to build dry stone walls around the farmers fields in our village. We lived in what was the west riding of Yorkshire but is now classified as South Yorkshire, where there are very few wooden or wire fences and most are dry stone walls. These walls are put together by careful selection of rocks and stones, cleared initially from the fields, and stacking them in a way that requires no cement or mortar of any kind. All the pieces are self supporting and lock together. It’s an art form really. And a way of life, a skill, that is slowly disappearing.

Usually because of the length of the walls being built and the need for speed, most walls around fields are built with rocks and stones found close by, which are used in their natural form….not chiseled into shape. BUT walls built as garden walls (as in the second picture above) are taken more care with. Some of the stone would be reclaimed from previously built houses, extra stones are shaped more or less rectangular by the builder as he goes along, taking his time, building a wall that will last for centuries.

I felt it only fitting to follow in another Frost’s footsteps and pen my own poem to dry stone walls and the men who build them. So, inspired by Robert Frost, this is for my grandfather George Frost, from me Malcolm Frost.

George built walls straight and true
From stones found here and there
A firm foundation slowly grew
He stacked layer upon layer.
He worked hard through rain and sun
Through stillness and wind blow
Stepping back to see what he’d begun
And how far he had to go.
The rough stone made his fingers bleed
But George didn’t seem to mind
Sweat on his brow began to bead
As he got the wall aligned.
His wall will last a hundred years
And then some way beyond
This poem’s for George and all his peers
And stone walls of which I’m fond.