(Almost) Three Years Happy

thorns

It’s a little early to be celebrating this anniversary. Really it falls in the autumn, the anniversary of the day that the dark clouds vanished and the game of ‘depression Snakes and Ladders’ was over. But I feel like now is the time to celebrate it because the ‘lockdown’ was as close as I’ve come since then to getting lost in the gloomy underworld again. I have clung on to my happiness by my fingernails, and with the support of my loved ones. ‘Lockdown’ started three years, almost to the day, from when I left my husband and the life I’d lived for 15 years in what felt at the time a last-ditch attempt to make a life that would satisfy me and make me happy, a life that was worth living. In those three years I’ve travelled, volunteered with amazing projects, seen myself reflected back to me by strangers, and worked hard every day to nurture and maintain the green shoots of that life, and to grow them into a fulfilling present and an exciting future, to be honest with myself and others, to be free of my past.

It seemed that 2020 was going to be the best year I’d had in a long, long time, and the future shone bright before me. ‘Lockdown’ squished that present and future, with the loss of a whole season of live events that I and a friend had spent many months planning, booking and organising. The whole performing arts sector now exists in this state of uncertainty, indefinitely. And it was the third time in three months that an opportunity to move on and move into my own home fell through, after three years of living in other peoples’ houses (or a tent!). It knocked me sideways. I floundered. I stepped on a Snake and slid downwards several levels in the game. It was very hard not to become ego-centred and hopeless at first, to avoid the feeling that ‘the Universe doesn’t want me to be happy and fulfilled’. Spoken word and poetry became too painful for me to watch, read, or even think about. I keep finding little sad, lonely and hopeless poems from that time that I don’t remember writing scribbled in odd pages of my notebooks.

There were times when I and my new boyfriend found ourselves living together in very close quarters, there were times when we had to social distance again and I had to cleanse all traces of him when he left after a visit sitting metres apart in the garden and I wept. Home was fraught with everyone’s anxieties. I worried about the safety and well-being of loved ones in care homes. It was sunny almost every day, so as a person with super-sensitivity to sunlight and warm temperatures, I had to stay indoors.1 Social distancing and even the emptiness and peace of the ‘lockdown’, although pleasant to my Asbergers’, did not really do my mental health any good.

I felt frozen and bereft and I fell into Twitter, often spending the whole day in there. I found stories from all over our world, stories that, for the most part, horrified or enraged me, and made me feel powerless against an ever-expanding soul-less and psychotic system that steals from the poor to give to the rich, that lies to our faces outrageously, that simply does not value life or believe in fairness. Like millions of us around the world, I wanted to be out on the streets holding these bastards to account. Instead we were all indoors, looking after ourselves and each other, as we always end up having to do since the ‘representatives’ we ‘elect’ to look after us actually want us gone. I began to feel that the contribution I had been making to my community was not enough, that nothing ever would be, that my own life and ambitions did not matter in the face of this crisis, and simultaneously, that I was powerless and incapable.

I watched every documentary that Adam Curtis has ever made. I understood the concept and progress of ‘hypernormalisation’ and it helped me get a handle on, and see through, the endlessly confusing, contradictory and downright false and ridiculous statements and actions of our government and others around the world. They are designed to create that feeling of fear, horror and powerlessness, so that we just give up trying to unravel the Gordian knot of bullshit and corruption and instead buy ourselves some sense of security and autonomy from Amazon or a mortgage advisor. So that we choose EastEnders over the real people that live in our real community and the hard work it takes to interact with them meaningfully and co-operatively.

My beloved and I did some small ‘actions’ that helped us feel less powerless, that we were raising our voices outside of social media. I began to write again, and managed to surmount my fear of being on video to share some of those poems with my creative community. I started playing the guitar very very badly again, and singing songs that helped me express some of my thoughts and feelings. But still, I felt paralysed and simultaneously responsible for changing everything bad happening to us: isolation, death and disease, untrustworthy governments and corporations extending their surveillance of us, billions funnelled into the accounts of the super rich and the corrupt while people starve and get evicted in the middle of a global pandemic, legislation that enacts draconian and ill-defined powers for states and their police forces, environmental disasters, indigenous peoples encroached upon, brutalised and murdered … I could go on and on and on. What on earth could I, a single, deeply flawed organism, possibly do to change all of this? And then my health, and my right knee (the one I took for George Floyd), gave way entirely.

I was right back to three years ago, in a bed, in a room feeling powerless and hopeless and alone. So I got out of that room. The four walls and the closed door, so precious to me; my privacy, my space and my control, which help me stay sane in good times, are also my nemesis. Just like three years ago, I had to get out of my room and the energy that I’d created and experienced in it. I moved in with my beloved, and it took three weeks of sleeping and eating as much as possible, of avoiding social media and calling people for conversations instead, of taking slow little walks in nature and foraging in the verges, for the knee to recover and my teeth and gums to stop hurting, to get some energy back and to move out of a place of fear and loneliness. During that time the hits kept on coming and my frustration was no less. For every square forwards I moved on the board, it seemed I paid with having to sit out a round or two. Snakes snapped around my heels and Ladders were snatched away. There came a crisis, triggered by a sad event.

I sat one night a few weeks ago, unable to sleep. My head, my heart, my belly were full, were churning. It was 1.30am. I got up and dressed and went to sit in my car, the only place I have all of my own. I knew a poem was brewing within me and I had to be alone to write it. I had to be near the sea to write it. Serendipity finally intervening, I found that my knee was recovered enough for me to drive, and that travel restrictions had been relaxed enough that I felt that I could drive somewhere. What happened is this poem. And that night it all began to change, to move again. I am wild, I am free, I am loved. I have choices. I’m lucky, privileged, blessed. It took another long drive a couple of days later and a long heart-to-heart with my beloved for me to relax and really feel all of that.

We understood that the world has changed. And that it’s not for a few months, but indefinitely. That you might make plans, but that the ‘lockdown’ might well come back, and scupper them again. That the social issues that upset us the most are not going away, but will in fact worsen. That the soul-less are inexorably devouring the world and everything living on it while we fight each other in the streets and the supermarkets and online and bombs keep dropping like a rain that no amount of sunshine can drive off.

And we understood that we have to create our freedom inside ourselves. That, horrified as we both are by this new world, we have to make spaces within it to love, to enjoy, to connect, to play, to laugh, and to tell the truth. That if we can’t, then the virus of hypernormalisation has infected our minds and the soul-less have power over us. That if we can, we might be able to share that freedom with others, and help them feel it too.

Because actually nothing has really changed at all in this new world. No matter how much security you think you have, it is all an illusion, which could be blown away in a hurricane or even with a sneeze. The future always is and always will be unpredictable. Change is inevitable. Shit happens.

Snakes and Ladders.

And in the face of this, the answer too remains the same. Get that egg boiling! Resilience is going to be the key to avoiding the Snakes in the post-COVID 19 universe. Resilience and critical thinking. And critical thinking has to start with ourselves. Before we can truly assess with an open mind the tide of information the modern world bombards us with, we have to aware of our own biases and habits of thinking and feeling. We have to work to free ourselves from them, to respond to things as they happen, as appropriately as possible, rather than to react to things out of habit, fear and ignorance. Learn how to shine the light upon yourself and then turn that light upon the world once it is bright enough, and you will see further and more clearly. It’s not easy and it’s not work that’s ever really over. It has to be done every day. All the time. Relax and accept that you are changeable, along with the flow of life itself. That you are enough, as you are, that your unique combination of genes and experiences and tastes and quirks and talents have never been seen before in this universe, and never will be again, so express them in a pure and unpolluted way. Build compassion towards yourself and then shine that, too, onto the rest of the world. We are all flawed. We are all perfect. No-one knows what’s ‘really going on’. No-one. And that’s how it’s always been.

Let’s fight the power. Love each other. Build free and truthful spaces and share them with as many people as we can. Become as self-sufficient as we can, spiritually, emotionally and practically. Let’s divest ourselves of the old tired divide-and-rule power games and see that only if we have a revolution of the heart can we bring down this soul-less Snake and stop it from dragging us down into the underworld that we create with our own minds. Let’s find those bloody Ladders, and help each other up them, into the sunshine and fresh air.

01/05/2020

workers_day_sharable2

 

May Day, May Day, May Day

This is a distress call

May Day, May Day, May Day

Can anybody hear me?

 

I am trapped indoors

With a man who beats me

I am out on the streets

Coz I can’t pay my rent

 

I am forced to work

In dangerous conditions

I am made to risk my life

To deliver Amazon parcels

 

May Day, May Day, May Day

This is a distress call

May Day, May Day, May Day

Can anybody hear me?

 

I have been told

To inject myself with bleach

I have been arrested

For being outside

 

My future’s being stolen

By liars and cheats

My government hates me

And wants me gone

 

I have to walk 200 miles

To reach my home

A fire is raging

Throughout the camp

 

I don’t have any water

To wash things safe

I am losing my mind

Alone in these four walls

 

May Day, May Day, May Day

This is a distress call

May Day, May Day, May Day

Can anybody hear me?

 

My planet is being attacked

By ravenous beasts

My brothers and sisters

Are struggling to breathe

 

My mother died alone

In a care home bed

I have been beaten up

For ‘looking Chinese’

 

My fear is being

Exploited for profit

I am being pursued

For a banker’s debt

 

I’m being mugged

For all of my data

I’m watching with horror

People dying around me

 

From out of this crisis

Hear me cry

May Day, May Day, May Day

Yes I hear you

My sisters and brothers

We cannot go back

To the old ‘normal’

Because it was broken

And this virus

Has magnified

All its flaws

 

May Day, May Day, May Day

Let it remind us

Of what we can do

What we have achieved

When we all strive together

For a better world

They may take our money

Our homes, our jobs

Our very lives

But don’t let them steal

Our love or our hope

 

May Day, May Day, May Day!

This is a battle cry

May Day, May Day, May Day!

Can everybody hear me?

Video here: https://youtu.be/aNbiAtEHqlg or Facebook/Taratronic

26/04/2020

This is a VERY rough piece, but the first thing I’ve been able to write in weeks. Hope I will be able to start writing again more (and better!) regularly now I’ve broken the dry spell! #DemandANewNormal people. Stay safe xxx

 

During this lockdown
I have been shut down
I have had to keep it all shoved down

I can not fit my rage
Onto a page
How can I express
My distress?

Lockdown inequality
Highlights every disparity
In wealth, class and ethnicity
With results that are clear to see

I see my human family
Treated so unequally
From nation to nation
No co-ordination

I cannot fit my pain
Into this refrain
My horror and disgust
Leave me nonplussed

These murderers are cowardly
They do eugenics silently
They prey upon us bodily
And charge us for it ruthlessly
The vultures smack their lips with glee
At this shambolic policy

And it’s more clear than ever to me
That we were never really free
That this is no democracy
And it’s not run for you and me
It’s about productivity
A brutal ideology

And I watch from the sidelines
Observing Government guidelines
Impotent and heartsick
As the excess death toll upticks

During this lockdown
I have been shut down
I’ve kept it all shoved down

But no more

 

Video at: https://youtu.be/DzMPq82j_5c or facebook/Taratronic

Shhh!

loudnoises

I wish that those men in my life would shut up
Keep on telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

Telling me how to keep my car clean
Telling me how to smoke my sweet green
Telling me how to paint a wall!
As if in my nearly fifty years
I’d closed my eyes and stopped my ears
And done and learned nothing at all

Oh, I wish that those men in my life would shut up
Keep on telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

Telling me how to do my job
Telling me how I should love
Telling me how geology works…
Perhaps they think that I’m impressed
But, no, it just makes me depressed
That the world is so full of jerks

Yes, I wish that those men in my life would shut up
Keep on telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

Telling me how to chop potatoes
Telling me what my mental state is*
Telling me how to write my novel
Why won’t they ask, or ever listen?
Coz probably I could give them tuition
On health or design or Greek myth or fossils

See, I know lots of things as well
That I don’t feel the constant need to tell
And when you bang on, and on, and on
Telling me things that are often wrong
Your superiority is what you’re proposing
Your insecurity is what you’re exposing

Yes, I wish that those men in my life would shut up
Keep on telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

Telling me I should try a Mooncup
Telling me that my hormones are fucked up
Telling me that I’m unfulfilled
Go on, assume that I’m incurious
Very few things get me more furious
They’re lucky they don’t get killed!

I love to exchange anecdotes and ideas
And I can keep talking for years and years
But I’m not out tonight to hear you lecture
Conspiracy theories and wild conjecture
The facts in your brain are a meaningless stew
Inspired and genius only to you

So I wish that those men in my life would shut up
Keep on telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

Telling me things that I already know
Telling me things I disproved years ago
Telling me all your urban legends
YouTube videos and pomposity…
No longer will I curb my ferocity
Mate, you’re coming across as a bell-end

Can we not have a conversation?
An exchange of information?
We might both learn something new
You from me, and me from you
Because, my dear, I think you’ll find
That’s the mark of a truly intelligent mind

Until then those men in my life can shut up
And stop telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

 

  • ‘state is’ and ‘potatoes’ actually do rhyme in my London accent, so there

The cost of dying

woodlandgrave

With the average cost of a funeral in the UK now £3,757, and the average debt taken on by families to pay for a funeral reaching £1,744, the funeral poverty crisis is worsening every year. Funeral costs have risen steeply (up to 30%), as simultaneously the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 and the government’s crushing ‘Austerity’ policy have tightened the screws on the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. It’s a bitter irony that up to 200,000 deaths may be linked to ‘Austerity’, with a combination of food and fuel poverty, cutbacks to health, social and mental health care services, and suicide all contributing to this estimate. So many of us are now too poor to live, and also too poor to die!

Today it was announced that the cost of a death certificate has risen from £4 to £11. It may seem a small amount, until you consider that up to ten death certificates may needed to release the body, arrange the funeral, and access the estate. It’s yet another pressure on grieving family members already struggling to provide a funeral that reflects their love and celebrates the deceased’s life.

While it’s possible to apply for a Funeral Expenses Payment from the DWP if you are claiming certain benefits, the payment will only cover an average of a third of the costs, can take weeks to arrive, and if another family member is in work, or considered next of kin and is ineligible (e.g. if the next of kin is a child), the claim will be rejected. Desperate people on zero-hours contracts, living hand-to-mouth with no savings and no spare money for life insurance or pre-paid funeral plans, will not be eligible. Up to half of all applications are rejected.

So what’s the alternative? There’s been a steep rise in crowdfunding for funerals; in the first nine months of 2016, 2007 crowdfunding pages for funerals were launched, raising an average of £1,300 each. In the same year it was calculated that 1.2 million people in the UK had borrowed £576 million from payday loan companies to pay funeral expenses, landing themselves in a serious cycle of debt. More people are choosing ‘garden burials’ – literally burying their deceased loved ones in their own back gardens, which eliminates the costs of buying a plot, conducting a funeral service and digging the grave. While this has always been an option chosen by those with large estates, or those who want to keep their dead family members close, it’s still not an option for the poorest – you will need to own your own home and the land you intend to use as a grave site and fulfill certain environmental health conditions.

So, as usual, already hard-pressed and underfunded local authorities are being relied upon to provide thousands of Public Health Funerals in the UK every year. There are sad echoes of the ‘Pauper’s Funeral’ of the Victorian era here: burials (costing an average of £700) can be in shared plots with no headstones, these may be re-opened to inter further corpses at a later date; after council cremations (costing an average of £1000), ashes are often scatted in the crematorium’s garden of remembrance, and it may or may not be possible for the family of the deceased to take possession of the ashes. It’s not the send-off that most of us would wish for for those we love, adding guilt and shame to grief. Although councils can attempt to recover some of the costs from the estate of the deceased, in 2015 some local authorities were paying up £250,000 for Public Health Funerals, and these costs can only have been rising since.

Finally, hospitals may be having to cope with storing bodies indefinitely, if the family is caught in the bind where the body cannot be released without a fee (£1000+), but the social fund will not pay out until the funeral is underway.

It’s an emotive issue that most people don’t want to think about. It’s hard enough dealing with bureaucracy and arranging a funeral while you are shocked and grieving, without adding a lifetime of financial pressure (and a reminder of bereavement with every loan repayment) and the guilt of only being able to provide a ‘Pauper’s Funeral’. Those who incur debt to pay for a funeral will likely be unable to pay for their own funeral, either, meaning that this crisis will worsen in the future. If you are facing this issue, there is help and advice available online, or at your Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

‘Austerity’ is not over, it was never about reducing the deficit. It will never be over because it’s an ideology, not a fiscal recovery policy. Reducing our dignity, our sense of social security, and performing a sneaky and despicable holocaust of the poor, sick and vulnerable is what it’s about. If we cannot perform as tax payers/consumers then we are expendable. The ‘Victorian Values’ that Thatcher asked us to return to have indeed returned and it’s horrifying.

http://fairfuneralscampaign.org.uk/content/funeral-poverty-alliance

https://quakersocialaction.org.uk/we-can-help/helping-funerals/down-earth/how-it-works

https://www.royallondon.com/media/press-releases/2018/september/buried-in-debt-mourners-borrow-1700-to-pay-for-loved-ones-funerals/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34943805

People power

freedom

The word ‘anarchy’ has long been misconstrued as meaning ‘chaos and violent disorder’.

anarchy
1. a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems.
synonyms: Lawlessness, nihilism, mobocracy, revolution, insurrection, riot, rebellion, mutiny, disorder, disorganization, misrule, chaos, tumult, turmoil, mayhem, pandemonium
2. absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal.
The word has, since the 1660s at least, always carried both of these meanings.

A direct translation from the original Greek αναρχία or anarkhos‘, would be ‘without (‘an‘) a leader/ruler (‘arkhos‘)’. And I think we can see the huge split in the two definitions thus: while an anarchist movement sees the second – the political ideal which elevates (and demands) every citizen’s participation and contribution and chooses an optimistic view of human nature and sociability, anyone describing anarchism from the position of the entrenched ruling elite will, of course, plump for the first – chaos, mutiny, insurrection.

It seems almost impossible for us in our large, centrally-controlled nation states* in the 21st-century world to imagine how an anarchist society might work. Indeed, I am new to anarchy myself (identifying as such only within the past 12 months) and still learning. But it unquestionably true that anarchism is the longest-running system of human organisation, the form of social organisation within which the human species evolved and grew up, and it continues to be the way in which mobile hunting-gathering-foraging peoples live. I guess that, if pushed, I would suggest a political system of local collectives which decide issues by consensus (predicated upon total freedom of movement and the choice to join together in whatever collective best suits your own inclinations), accompanied by a system of participatory representative democracy at a larger level, so that all citizens could/should take a turn in representing their communities.

An anarchist world would not be without problems and divisions, of course. So many, many people are unhappy, ignorant, lazy, mis-educated, and in order for us all to live and let live, we will need to address this. But community life breaks down a huge amount of barriers and heals a lot of wounds, as I know myself. Working hard together on projects that are larger than one’s own concerns is excellent at creating ties between people. Hunter-gather-forager communities do have to work to keep everyone equal. Typically this is accomplished with humour and love, gentle teasing, and practices such as ‘insulting the meat’ to prevent prolific or skilled hunters, for example, from getting too full of themselves. This is a lovely post about how this egalitarianism is sustained, and reproduced generation to generation.

Although we may think that such organisation is impossible in the huge nation states of today, if we stop to think about most of the movements and technologies that make major and positive changes to our lives, we can see that it’s always people/citizens that make the difference, make the change. A truly representative government should indeed always follow the people, but our governments, only having to worry about their remit every 4-5 years, often do so only when forced to by overwhelming public feeling. Universal suffrage, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, the dismemberment of empires, LGBTQ rights, environmentalism; all of them started at grass-roots level, all eventually gaining enough momentum to force policy change in governments. The fight goes on on all these fronts and new movements begin all the time.

But does this not inevitably lead to the question: so why do we need the governments? They almost cannot help becoming distanced from the people, because they are corralled and given special status. While the hunter-gatherers make sure no-one’s ego gets over-inflated, our leaders are driven around in fleets of limousines with police escorts and wined and dined in palaces. They almost cannot help getting mired in corruption and graft because it costs so very much to become a leader. Because half of our MPs were privately educated, networks which link them to business and the judiciary are inherent to the system. A sense of specialness and privilege imbued since primary school is hard to eradicate (just go and have a look at some of the private schools and prep schools and try to imagine what it might have felt like, walking into one of those places every day, seeing other children walking into crappy comprehensives. There’s no need for the difference to be articulated, it can be seen and experienced).

Westminsterschool-808x454
Westminster School
mcentee-tech-school-1.jpg
McEntee School (my school)

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, 75% of human ingenuity, creativity, intelligence, passion, ability, talent, is languishing. It’s stuck behind gender and colour bars, wasting away in refugee camps and prisons, working in bullshit jobs or sweatshop jobs or slave-labour jobs. It’s scrabbling to feed its children and pay for medicine and school and housing while we pour oil on the land, plastic into the sea, particulates into the air. We have all drunk the Kool-Aid about anarchism. We don’t feel capable of dealing with these huge issues, making these important decisions. But it will take every single one of us getting involved in our society to change our society. Not just by voting – our representative democracies are at best a compromise, at worst a sham – but by acting, organising, communicating, taking responsibility. There are different things that all of us can do, from the utterly radical to the small and everyday. Try something. Take back power, a little at a time. Join a demonstration, educate yourself about some issues, give your plastic packaging back to the supermarket, volunteer, change your bank or your energy supplier, support a grass-roots movement or campaign in your area or globally. It feels good. It feels like being an independent, free, human being with a brain and a heart. Like being an anarchist.

*Gonna do a post about the origin of nation states another day – it’s a fascinating subject

The Cosmic Egg

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Persian relief from the palace of Darius the Great

Many societies have had the idea that the universe or reality was hatched from some sort of ‘cosmic egg’. In a beautiful version of this story from Finland, the egg breaks in half, with the the top becoming the sky, the bottom the land, the yolk the sun and the white the moon. The ancient Greeks had the ‘Orphic Egg’ from which the god Phanes hatched, a deity of procreation and new life, a bringer of light to the cosmos, and a possible ancestor of Lucifer.

Our own society was hatched from those old Greek eggs, as well, although we often underestimate these days just how much of our understanding and view of the world is still essentially a Greco-Roman one. When Europe burst onto the world stage as a major player and not just a provincial backwater, in the centuries after the conquests of the Americas, elites looked back to the powerful civilisations of Europe that had gone before upon which to build and justify their claim to world domination. It was important to legitimise their lust for wealth and destruction of other peoples and cultures by insisting that European philosophy, art, technology and religion were the epitome of human products. In that way, we could pretend that we were ‘doing them a favour’ in annihilating these people and their societies.

But how much of this was anywhere near the truth? There is no doubt that Greco-Roman culture produced immensely beautiful and unique art and architecture, and also significant philosophy and ‘science’ (although that is a modern term). None of it appeared from out of a vacuum, though, and most was built upon firm foundations laid by ancient Asian and North African civilisations. But the Greeks in their writings of all kinds were trying to establish themselves in opposition to these great cultures to the east and the south, especially the Persians.

thumbnail_carthage_mask_mndc
Carthaginian mask of a female deity

The Romans built upon this legacy, admiring the Greeks and picking up much of their aesthetic and philosophical sense from them. In Republican Rome, the principal enemy was the huge maritime power of Carthage (based in modern-day Tunisia), and when Rome finally crushed and destroyed that civilisation, it demonised the Carthaginians as monstrous barbarians, while eradicating entirely any histories that the Carthaginians might have left themselves. Both Greek and Roman traditions insisted upon the corruption, ‘effeminacy’ and sycophancy of eastern and southern peoples, who were characterised as glutted and spoiled with wealth and who prostrated themselves before great kings. When European empire-builders came to write histories in the 19th century, they not only picked up these Greek and Roman biases, but in fact made the dividing lines between the ‘Classical World’ and the rest of the ancient civilisations even more definite.

As early as the Crusades, travellers to the eastern Mediterranean region encountered the written works of the ancients, preserved by Arabic-speaking scholars who had continued to pursue the philosophy, science and mathematics they found in them. In the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries in Europe), great works of sculpture from the Greek and Roman periods were unearthed as cities were expanded and rebuilt. Dazzlingly lifelike compared to Medieval artforms, these and the texts might indeed appear to be the work of superior beings. Moreover, they were European in origin. Although made by pagan hands, which horrified some Christians, the art, architecture, drama and thought of the Classical world became the basis of Western culture.

And so it makes perfect sense that the empires that we created would share the Classical values of slave ownership, misogyny and prejudice. If, indeed, our Classical forebears were so wise, talented, even perfect (except for their paganism), then it would be heretical not to build a civilisation on slavery and inequality, and to insist, just as the Romans had (about our Northern European ancestors, no less!), that theirs was a civilising mission, and one that could now also bring the light of Christianity as well as that of Phanes. We are killing them in their millions, but we are saving them for God! I’m sure all those Africans, Americans and Indians were grateful for that.

Right into the 20th century, if you wanted to make a building have gravitas and authority, you based its design on Classical forms of architecture, and probably placed a Latin inscription upon it. So many of our great public buildings in Classical style were also built with money derived from slavery. Philosophy and medicine were based on works by Aristotle and Hippocrates. Early on, modern medicine had to struggle hard against the theory of the humours. The value of works of art was judged by their resemblance to real-life objects and forms. It was not until the works of colonised peoples and distant cultures, like Benin or Japan, flooded into Europe, that modern art began to dismantle these judgments and strive for another kind of representation and another kind of reality.

These attitudes run so deep, and the version of history where the Greeks invented everything good and the Romans promoted it and stamped it out all over the ‘known world’ (a lie in itself, Rome knew perfectly well that India and China existed), is so exclusively presented as the truth, that it can be hard to even find out about the wonderful, colourful, wise, violent and dynamic cultures that have always existed as well. We are still using this myth to justify our quest for world domination long after the pink bits of the map have been painted other colours. We are still insisting that this model is morally superior and that therefore, so are ‘we’.

I liked David Olusaga’s episode of Civilisations: ‘First Contact’ for a taste of the multi-coloured world that has always existed, and this link is interesting and can lead you on to more information on this subject:

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/jul/11/ancient-greece-cultural-hybridisation-theory

The story so far?

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Avebury Portal Stone, Tara Evans, 2015 (mixed media on canvas)

I’m inspired to write today by some new work by my fave thinker of the moment, David Graeber and his colleague David Wengrow (‘How to Change the Course of Human History’, Eurozine). Do read the article if you have time and inclination, you can find it here. It’s a fascinating re-examination of human ‘history’ (scare quotes since most of our past is ‘prehistory’, and the authors call for more archaeological evidence and less theory to be brought into the narrative of the human past), much richer and more complex than the simplified narrative of the past that I was taught at Oxford. Of course, the constant expansion of our knowledge about the past is a factor – when I was studying in the 2000s, no-one had yet discovered that we interbred with Neanderthals or Denisovans, for example. Scientific advances and the expansion of archaeological investigations into previously unexplored regions mean that our story of the past is always changing. That’s one of the reasons it’s an exciting topic, but also a cautionary lesson in how to present knowledge in any subject. Every single documentary about anything should be constantly repeating ‘as far as we know right now’ after every assertion, until we are driven crazy by it.

It’s much easier to break down the information we gain from looking at the universe into discrete chunks, and this may in fact be the way our minds work. It may be useless and even fatal in survival situations to see a big, rich, complex picture. Imposing simpler structures and discontinuous thinking onto the astoundingly complex ‘real world’ is perhaps the only way to begin to exercise some control over it. In the story of our past, this translates into the ‘evolution of culture’.

That story goes: from the time before our species, Homo sapiens, evolved (about 200,000 years ago), people lived in small mobile bands composed of extended family groups, and hunted and gathered. Although our species and previous species (Homo erectus and Neanderthals) had spread over much of the face of the Earth, often crossing open ocean to do so, it is often proposed that these people did not have fully evolved minds or language (but see here). This has generally been assumed to be the case because of an ‘explosion of culture’ observable in the archaeological record of Europe in particular, around 40,000 years ago. Cave paintings, statuettes, a huge variety of new and specialised tools appear, including needles, which allow people to make tailored clothing and expand into colder regions.

Life goes on for another 30,000 years or so until the climate settles down and the pattern of seasons that we are familiar with today makes the invention of farming possible. Farming makes people stop moving around, in order to guard their farms, crops and the surpluses of food which are the whole point of farming. Property and the assertion of ownership become important, and for the first time inherited status and wealth appear. This paves the way from 6000 years or so ago for the invention of ‘states’ – societies which build cities and have extreme variations of wealth and status and clear division of labour. The surpluses generated by states allow them to sponsor full-time craftspeople, architects, priests and administrators. The latter invent writing systems in order to keep track of trade and payments, and then realise that writing can also be used for other purposes – art, religion, history.

Then history starts and according to received Western wisdom, we get various  civilisations in Central and Western Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean for a while until – phew! the Greeks come along and everything really gets going. From there, aside from a little dent in progress for a thousand years or so after the Romans, we have a clear line of development to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire. We know that there was something going on in China, something going on in the Americas – but these people were not the ‘winners’ in global history at this time and so they don’t deserve much space in the narrative.

It’s a nice simple story and it’s reassuring – we are making progress! Yay, go us! It conveniently bypasses all the complexity and inter-connectedness that make up real human life and real human ‘history’. It completely ignores the very real consequences of this ‘progress’ to people crushed and eradicated by it, to the environment and to the physical and mental health of even the ‘winners’ of history – those of us who live inside the modern states which lie at the end of the story. Graeber and Wengrow seek to put the complexity back in. Theirs is a political argument as much as an archaeological/anthropological one and in dissolving the categories in the ‘evolutionary’ version of our past they bring up some interesting examples such as some very rich burials from the Ice Age (Sunghir, for example) which speak of heirarchies of some kind long before farming proper, as well as the remarkable site of Göbekli Tepe, now becoming very well known.

Farming itself is not a sudden invention, and the authors assert that it often takes up to 3000 years to take firm hold in the regions into which it disseminates. Techniques of farming and settled life were not a new ‘invention’ – people did and still do come together and settle down for a season to exploit salmon runs, herd migrations or vegetable bounties such as acorns or grasses before separating again into more mobile bands for the rest of the year. As they travel, many mobile peoples modify their landscapes, opening up space for their preferred food plants to grow, spreading seeds along their paths, making clearings to attract game animals.

And those people who preferred not to become farmers, herders, city dwellers? They are not ‘primitive’ peoples, they have had just as much cultural evolution as the most ‘sophisticated’ tech-savvy, supermarket-dependent wage-slave in any city in the world. At the end of this programme on Radio 4 recently, it’s suggested that these peoples are the ones with the more robust ways of life, perhaps the peoples with the right idea about the good life – anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once called hunter-gatherers ‘the original affluent society’. But calling such people and their life ways ‘primitive’ allows us to exploit and destroy them and not feel too bad about it. Just like during that wonderful ‘civilising’ project, the British Empire, we are really doing them all a favour.

If we lose the richness and complexity of human life, we risk the dangers of any form of ‘monoculture’. We may all be swept away by the same disease, by the same financial crash, by the same war. We become weaker and paler, more domesticated and docile. We are no longer challenged by difference and we can self-justify whatever we want because no other evidence exists any longer. That, of course, is not the main reason why we should respect other people’s cultures and choices. No, we should do that because it the real hallmark of civility and progress away from barbarity.

Making freedom by hand

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Tension plate made by me

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I genuinely believed that humanity was never going to make it to the year 2000. It was so obvious that we were going to annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons, it hardly seemed to make any sense to dream of a life, have a family or make any plans if I was going to die before I was 30. Then the wall came down and everything changed; the future opened up before me. It’s been amazing to spend nearly three decades free of that fear, and to see young people growing up around me who have never felt oppressed by the scary future.

But in those years, something else has happened. In Western societies freed from the Cold War, and in increasingly globalised markets, absolutely everything has been seized on and exploited by capital. We can have everything new and shiny, and cheap – so cheap! No need to dally here for long – so much has already been written by better-informed people than me about the impact of these processes. But I think we can see that in the past decade, a fashion for handicrafts (both participating in crafts and buying handmade products) and even more for the ‘Industrial’ interior, which values old, battered objects that speak of work with the hands and import ‘authenticity’ and history into the home, have been part of the response to this bright and shiny world of the new and mass-produced.

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Felt badges made by me 

It extends into all areas of our culture – look at an old episode of Top of the Pops and the naivety and crudity of the production will seem laughable. The alpha-example for me was walking into Topshop a couple of years ago and seeing denim cut-offs for £25. Who in almighty hell buys such a thing? That’s hours of minimum-wage labour for a teenager, for something that should essentially be ‘free’ – a by-product of the jeans you’ve already had for years, that you just chop the legs off of. Quite apart from all the problems of over-production, labour rights in developing countries and pollution by the garment industry, it bespeaks quite another issue: dependency. If we are dependent upon shops and industry to supply our needs, they have an immense power over our lives.

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I bleached and added studs to my old denim jacket

Recently I heard Jay Brave talking about his veganism as a political issue, how if you could grow your own food you became instantly free of a whole industry. I found this very inspiring. I’m no longer convinced that there will be a post-apocalypse to deal with, or even that capitalism will crash and burn, although either of those may manifest in some form, but I do increasingly want to detach from a system that is rotten to the core. Not all of us can, or want, to live off-grid in an adobe house and weave all our own yoghurt. But we can all start to become more self-sufficient through handicrafts and gardening, by sharing large items like lawnmowers instead of buying them individually, and by re-using or donating old things. Simple acts like cutting up your own jeans, painting an old chest of drawers or growing some salad on the windowsill are small acts of revolution. If you can learn survival skills like camping, lighting a fire, making a stone tool or a basket, so much the better; you will feel even more free and less dependent on a system that only views you as a consumer, a cash cow.

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I reconditioned this sewing box that I bought for £2

I also get an enormous sense of satisfaction looking around and knowing that I made, or upcycled, or modified, or embellished the things that I use and wear. Making things is good for our physical and mental health, it’s calming, satisfying and fun. I hope this year to spend the summer living off-gird, eating mostly home-grown food, learning all sorts of new skills that will make me feel more secure in this uncertain world, more self-sufficient and more capable.

 

Your government hates you

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Bertolt Brecht, The Solution

Every day my timelines and feeds are full of rage-inducing stories. The Parkland teens are ‘crisis actors’, meanwhile the NRA has bought off state legislators. Not only do the Grenfell Tower survivors not have justice, homes, or compensation, but the government is sneakily looking at reducing fire safety standards after lobbying from the plastics industry. The UK won’t accept as refugees victims of conflicts that we initiated, but we will spend fortunes on building fences to keep them out. The humanitarian crisis is Yemen is one the of the worst ever seen by the UN, but we keep on selling more and more weapons to the Saudis. The NHS doesn’t deserve funding, but banks are ‘too big to fail’. MPs get huge pay rises above the rate of inflation, but teachers and nurses don’t. There has still been no start made to the investigation of institutional child abuse that undoubtedly involves (at least the collaboration of) extremely powerful figures. Rees-Mogg lies and pretends he disapproves of abortion whilst profiting from drug companies that make abortifacient drugs. It costs more to deny people their benefits than it does to pay them their benefits, and people under benefits sanctions are dying. Families have no homes and are forced to rely on food banks but ‘our’ queen (she is not my queen) can get millions for repairing her palace full of priceless treasure.

I dunno, it seems to me that our rulers have taken old Bertolt’s advice and decided that we can all just fuck right off. Perhaps they believe their own ‘we live in a meritocracy’ bullshit, and thus find justification for the state of the world. They believe we all deserve whatever situation we are in. It’s patently not true. How the hell can we know that there’s no Einsteins slaving away in a sweatshop making trainers? A Marie Curie in a refugee camp on Lesvos? We will never know, and they will never have the chance to show us. We are languishing in a backwards world, using polluting technologies and materials and concentrating far more resources on killing and maiming each other than we ever do on helping each other and the beautiful (and, as far as we know, unique), world that we live upon. If everyone who had something to contribute to this world had the opportunity to do so, I truly believe we could be living in paradise right now. Yep, paradise. If we stopped believing all the bullshit of difference: nationhood, borders, politics, colour, creed, gender, whatever, and started to think collectively and act individually, we could have free universal healthcare, free universal education, free universal access to justice, free clean energy for all, a global exchange of ideas and creativity, no starvation, no homelessness. I’m not saying there’d be no conflicts and no cruelty or stupidity – we’d still be humans! We need evolution to happen for that problem to go away.

People … just lie to children about the future … “I want you children to know you can be absolutely anything you wanna be.” I’m like, “Why are you lying to these children?” Maybe four of them could be anything they wanna be. But the other 2,000 better learn how to weld. I count at least 60 Uber drivers. They could be anything they wanna be. Shut the fuck up. Really? They could be anything they wanna be? Then how come you’re a vice principal? Was that the dream? Did you dress up like a vice principal when you was a kid? Put your little vice principal hat on? Tell the kids the truth. Tell the kids the fucking truth. Say, “Hey kids, check this out. Check this out. You can be anything you’re good at. As long as they’re hiring.” And even then it helps to know somebody. Chris Rock, Tambourine

So, yeah, I think our government hates us. The kind of psychos who want to rule are fucking furious with us for not just being good taxable product. Why can’t we just get back to good old feudalism? We knew our place then. Fodder for the ambitions of ruthless scumbags. Why can’t we all start believing in God again, who laid everything out just how it was ‘meant to be’, no point questioning the world order? Or better still, the Hindu caste system, now there’s effective social organisation for you. And the promise of better luck next time if you’re obedient. They breed fear into us, and they drum stupidity into us. They use the time-honoured ‘divide and rule’ method. They distract us with glitter and big shiny round arses and love it that we mostly want to watch funny cat videos on the amazing and (potentially) truly democratic tool that is the internets.

It seems unlikely that the genie of so-called democracy (the representative, first-past-the-post system that we employ in the UK is not really ‘rule by the people’) can ever be got back into the bottle, and in any case, it’s a pretty effective panacea: it sounds like they give a crap because ‘the voters have the power’ (with poor education, biased and corrupt media and with liars standing for office?), and it can be marketed around the world as the antithesis of dictatorship.

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?” Douglas Adams, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

It would be expensive, bloody and time-consuming to reimpose feudalism by force. BUT, if they starve us, let us die in fires or industrial accidents, refuse to treat us when we’re sick, let us stab each other, freeze to death in the streets, or commit suicide when our disability benefits are cut off, our accusations of abuse at the hands of adults who were supposed to be protecting us are ignored, or we default on the mortgages and credit cards they urged us were the only meaningful means to acquire identity and worth, they can get rid of a huge swathe of the population, at least all the ones who don’t pay taxes and buy stuff. Then as soon as Brexit goes through, they can admit that this island is the world’s biggest tax haven and just get some quality people in instead. People they can rely on, people the government can finally have confidence in!

Or:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.
Percy Bysshe Shelly, The Masque of Anarchy

PS I am aware I have used quotes from all-male authors here. I am going to have to look at that! And write another post with women’s takes on power.