The future is beige?

I am writing this on lined A4 paper with a black ballpoint pen. I’m listening to the Henry Cow album, Unrest. Later I’ll type up what I’ve written onto a laptop and upload it to the internet. It will be where you are reading it now.

Back around the time Henry Cow were recording that album, I remember reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It was the thinnest of the crop of dystopian books the twentieth century was famous for. It envisaged a world in which the job of a fireman (and the firefighters in the book are men) was to burn books, not put out fires. Having no books, and no real sense of history, characters in the novel believe this had always been the way. A few brave, dissident souls took it upon themselves to commit works of literature to memory.

Life could be in the process of imitating fiction. This might seem an odd thing to say: since the advent of the internet there have been numerous projects aimed at converting literature into digital form. It is a simple matter, too, to print out books: books which were once rare can be created on demand. Much the same applies to music: the range of music available to anyone who wants to listen to it is more eclectic than ever.

So what’s the problem? It is this: solid artifacts are exactly that. Books and recorded music that are uploaded to the internet are merely information. I often hear people comment on how this change affects photography. Photos these days tend to be computer files rather than solid objects. People take and share more photos than ever but they remain ephemeral, unprinted. Where are the photos of today’s older children taken when they were small? It may be that, in a digital world, as in the world of Ray Bradbury’s novel, people live in the present, with only a vague grasp of the past. History, where it is preserved, becomes an unreliable mash of data. As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, the internet would have been a gift to the pigs in Animal Farm. No need to creep out in the night to change the principles of animalism. Simply edit the farm website. Living in the present, for an individual, is often good for one’s wellbeing. For a society, it spells disaster.

Like it or not, the world has handed over much of its literature, images and music to the internet or, more specifically, to the corporations that run it. There is a wonderful aspect to this: the knowledge and creativity of the world is easily accessible via a communal, global exocortex or“brain extension”. It may be that we are living through a period of burgeoning free expression not unlike the 1960s. It may not be obvious, as a life lived online is a quiet life. It may only be obvious in retrospect, when it’s over. Then, when those who remember look back, they might do so with the same cynicism people apply to the 1960s: yes it appeared to be a time of freedom but it was always about commercialism. The 1960s was as much about entrepreneurs as it was about free spirits.

 

To return to Ray Bradbury. There are no book-burning firemen today (or are there?) but there doesn’t need to be. Whole folders of digitised books can be deleted by the twitch of a finger on a mousepad. For now, I can still listen to Henry Cow’s excellent album. I can access a whole diversity of literature, ideas and music simply by searching the internet for it.

A time might come -and it may not be far off- when the corporations which host this rich diversity simply decide to stop doing so. It’s the way things are going. Everything but the most commercially viable internet content could simply cease to exist or, more likely (they need our participation to harvest our data, after all) be consigned to a digital slow lane that consigns it to obscurity. In the meantime, the mainstream of the internet will be reduced to the bland, beige uniformity of commercial FM radio.

At least I don’t have to commit books to memory. All I need to do is not throw them away. And I think I better keep listening to Henry Cow while I still can…

 

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Coughs and Sneezes…

I’ve picked up a cold, as I often do at this time of year. It’s inevitable. Since my job involves a lot of talking, my throat gets the brunt of it: I have to treat the infection with kid gloves. The mind over matter, just get on with it approach doesn’t work.  I’ve tried it: I end end with no voice for a couple of weeks. I’ve tried various exotic concoctions involving camomile tea, honey, whiskey, etc. Nothing seems to work except taking paracetamol and drinking a lot of water.

Taking it easy helps, too. No trudging round the shops in the cold, no off-road bike rides. This can be quite pleasant if properly managed. Vanilla custard pastries, real coffee. I’ve books to read: I’m currently making my way through Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman.It’s also been a good time for listening to music. Come to think of it, I ought to get a cold more often.

I’m still listening to a lot of Milhaud. His five piano concertos make a pretty striking cycle of pieces. The third has to be one of my favourite pieces of his.

 

Tales of the Unexpected

Imagine you’re on a train. You set out from the centre of a city somewhere in the North of England and now you’ve reached the urban hinterland. There’s a sewage farm, a yard stacked with rusty containers and old, boarded-up commercial buildings. Beyond them you glimpse a garage and, beyond that, a busy road. Between them are rough, disused green spaces with, here and there, rusty wire fences. No-one is left to remember what they were intended to keep in or keep out. You cross a bridge over a canal. There are fewer buildings now.  You find yourself looking down into a succession of small fields. There’s a horse and a field containing a few ramshackle jumps… There’s a Mexican folk band…

You are surprised. You blink, raise your eyebrows, look around you. Did you really see that? The train has moved on. The fields are empty now…

It strikes me that as well as such obvious encounters with the unexpected, we sometimes encounter people whose stories are equally surprising and who as time passes, can quickly vanish from the worlds we move around in. Unlike the Mexican band, they may not stand out in a hypothetical photograph or startle anyone by their mere presence. The element of surprise lies in the story they carry with them. When, later, you recall them you wonder, did they really tell you the story they told you, the way you remember it? Were the stories others told you about them true?

I bought my first double bass from an old Belgian man, Mr G——. He lived not far from us. He had played the bass for years, first in an army band (he carried my bass on his back through the trenches) and later in cinemas during the silent film era. As well as buying his old bass, I mowed his lawn in return for help with my schoolboy French. One afternoon, during my tea break, he confessed to me how he’d killed the xylophonist, Teddy Brown.

 

 

As you can imagine,  I was all ears. He told me how he’d been performing with Brown at the theatre in Wolverhampton. They’d had a disagreement about programme. Mr G—— had usually had a solo spot during the show and was unhappy that Brown, a visiting star performer, wanted to play during his solo spot instead. The disagreement became heated and ended, the old man told me, with both men obstinately performing their solo routine at the same time. Teddy Brown was beside himself with anger and dropped dead.

I took the story with a pinch of salt. Clearly, it had not lost anything over the years in the telling. The years passed, the internet came along and one day it occurred to me to do a bit of research. I was mildly surprised to discover what I did. Of course, there was no mention of an argument, but the facts, though less dramatic, were not far removed from Mr G——‘s story. My guess now, with the benefit of hindsight, is that the two men did argue and, human nature being what it is, Mr G——  had had to live with the fact that the man he argued with was so ill the slightest thing that day might have caused his health to deteriorate. What I didn’t realise as a teenager was, despite the fact that he laughed it off, what a burden the story might have been to the old man over the years.

*

None of us in our form at boarding school had ever had a teacher quite like Tristram Yelin. He was larger-than-life, fierce, charismatic,  and determined that we would all learn to speak French like a native. My mother told me how the first day he taught us I came home (I was a dayboy by then) and threw myself on my bed in floods of tears, terrified at the thought of returning to school. By the third week of term, almost all of us idolized him. Once, when looking out the classroom window he saw a police car draw up in the street outside. He immediately jumped under his desk, shouting ‘They’ve come for me! They’ve come for me! Don’t tell them I’m here!’

Yelin was exacting and expected us all to give our best but he was also a past master at acting in loco parentis. He was thoroughly decent, clearly remembered what it felt like to be a schoolboy and talked to you as if you (and the things that mattered to you) mattered.  When, in the afternoon, we all had to walk the quarter mile down to the school sports ground, everyone wanted to walk and talk with “T.Y.”

Recently, I found this account of a (the?) Tristram Yelin in an account of life at Clayesmore School in the 1930s by Gavin Maclean:

The head boy was Tristram Yelin. He overwhelmed me. He was a perfect (sic). He was not
only academically gifted, he was musically talented and captained all the Clayesmore
sports teams. He was rumoured to be the son of an Indian/Russian marriage, the wife
being a princess. When I spoke to him on the telephone just before he died in the early
eighties, I asked him if this was so and he said ‘No’, but offered no other alternative.
He was a Marxist and read me long tracts, I don’t know why – maybe it was apparent
that I was going to have an interest in Politics. I heard nothing of him after that first
term (when he left), until he stood as an Independent candidate in the General
Election of 1979 for Scarborough. It was then that I managed to find him but it lead to
only one letter and a phone call.

I like to think they were one and the same.

 

 

More Milhaud

I included a piece by Darius Milhaud with in previous post. Here’s another!

When I “got into” classical music in my teens the era that drew me in was the twentieth century. The music of that century is often difficult and dark. I like a lot of that, too, but I’ve always been fond of the music of Les Six. Although it can be dark and difficult, it can be many other things, too.

Milhaud wrote hundreds of pieces. They should be played more often. This isn’t his easiest: I share it because it’s one I find myself coming back to…

 

 

An Ordinary Day

 

I wake early. My headphones are still in my ears: I’d fallen asleep the night before  listening quietly to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the internet, a programme on feathered dinosaurs. It feels like Sunday morning but it isn’t. In fact, I have to get going earlier than usual. I have a lot to do but as I feel I’ve got the measure of it there’s no need to rush.

This morning, like most mornings, my route takes me from the high ground where we live along the ridge of of a hill that drops slowly down into the Vale of York.  You can see for miles, details fading into the haze without which I’m sure you would be able to catch a glimpse the sea. You get a great view of the sky from here. Sometimes the clouds jostle with each other, forming chaotic shapes and I find myself thinking how exotic a planet the earth is. Occasionally, the sky is clear and the Vale below blanketed in a sea of mist that laps against the hillside, washing round the trees. More often, the sky is merely an unbroken grey, the landscape muted, shadowless. This morning, an eerie silvery white light falls on the top of an otherwise grey bank of cloud that fills the sky to the South.

The view over the fields makes me wonder when we don’t all have small, personal airships: we could fly as the crow flies, over the walls and hedges, choosing our own ways.  Perhaps a balloon just big enough to allow you to almost take off but not quite? If you had something like a gardener’s leaf-blower pointing down at an angle behind you it might lift you off the ground and propel you forward. You could go for miles. I see few people: three or four, perhaps, in cars that pass me at irregular intervals on the nine mile journey. Sometimes when I get to the crossroads at the bottom of the hill, ten or more cars can come out of nowhere, disappearing into nowhere seconds later. Randomness clumps, as they say.

To put on the radio or not to put on the radio? The world is silent, or seems so: the mind shuts out the constant drone of the car.

Later, when I go back to the car park where I left my car, a team of gardeners are at work under the trees with leaf blowers.

This afternoon, we dropped into the Sip coffee bar in Richmond, as usual. I drove back through Swaledale. Interesting how a place can trigger the same thoughts: there’s a point on this road where I always find myself thinking how lucky we are. I think it’s the view, although the double shot of espresso coffee might have something to do with it, too. Work never takes me along this stretch of road. People come on holiday here and, if one can maintain one’s equilibrium, day-to-day life here can feel like a holiday  a lot of the time, even when there’s a lot to be done.

Astronomy Begins at Home

However you look at it, the recent discovery that insect life on earth seems to have declined by eighty percent  over the last thirty years is bad news. It fits in with all the other things we read about the mass extinction that seems to be quietly underway on planet earth. (It’s not long since I read that seabird populations have plummeted by seventy percent over the last sixty years).

I don’t need to be convinced that we are contributing in a big way to the catastrophe we’re facing. There are things we should be doing but either we’re not doing them or we’re not doing them enough. We also -and this perhaps applies more to some cultural traditions than others- are not well equipped to see the nature of the crisis we’re facing for what it is. Many traditions have taught people to see humans as set apart from and superior to other species and to think of the earth as being specially created for their benefit. Although these views hold less sway than they once did, the attitudes they fostered can still be ingrained in our outlooks, even if we decide to reject them. We tend to treat the rest of life on this planet as a resource, a source of food, clothing and raw materials. We sentimentalise animals – just as we tend to sentimentalise all that we subjugate. One minute we’re stroking them and taking them for walks, the next we’re eating them or turning them into coats or -literally, here in the UK- into five pound notes.

As our concern for the future of life on earth has grown, so has our desire to find extraterrestrial life and planets orbiting other stars. We need to know we’re not alone and we’re intrigued to discover if there are other planets in the universe humanity might inhabit.  Steven Hawking is currently working on a scheme to send a probe to observe an exoplanet and has said that humanity should seriously consider emigrating from earth.

Although I tend to be in favour of our efforts to get into space and explore exoplanets, I have one or two misgivings about us attempting to emigrate. If conscious, intelligent life is to be found throughout the universe, why should we? What are we seeking to preserve? There is no conscious continuity from one generation to another. It may be, as someone famously said, that death is the one thing in life we don’t experience: when I die, for all I know, the rest of life on earth might have died with me. On the other hand, Blake might have been right when he wrote

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense  world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

What we prize as individual consciousness might prove to be perennial.

Either way, it could be that we underestimate our connectedness to the earth. We like to think we might survive wherever our ingenuity makes it possible for us to survive but if our descendants were to populate another planet would they be truly human? If this sounds an odd question, consider the idea that the first humans on earth might themselves have been immigrants from another planet. The idea seems crazy to us. However, we’re free to imagine and we might reflect on the hubris of their alien ancestors if they thought that by sending frozen embryos, perhaps, to the early earth they were preserving the species that inhabited Planet X. Planet X? We are Earthlings!

Also, if consciousness is perennial and evolution of complex intelligent life more-or-less-as-we-know-it relatively common, why do we need to emigrate at all? It strikes me that to do so in such circumstances is to  be thinking not unlike the historical Europeans who thought they’d “discovered” America. We talked for centuries about “discovering” America before it was commonly realised that the people who already lived there had “discovered” it at least thousands of years before. If someone light years from here is sat writing a post on his, her or its blog (for example), I might as well sit here and accept the fate of my species with equanimity, safe in the knowledge that what I am is just a part of the rich complexity of everything.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do whatever we can to maintain the earth as a habitable place; we certainly, obviously, should – and for all the life that lives on it. It is no bad thing, too, to explore and search for extra-terrestrial life. Knowledge of it would bring a reassurance with it. We would know that if life were to end on earth one day, it might be the end of the world but it wouldn’t be the end of the universe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Picture

When we reach the end
there’ll be no credits rolling
as the music of the spheres
plays out: no-one to perform
the autopsy. Without
a body, so they say,
there can be no murder.

It will be as if
we never were. Time passes:
cause and effect set
the record straight, conceal
the evidence. Probes
from deep space find
nothing definite,
ascribe a name or number
and move on.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2017