One might be forgiven for thinking that we’re about to see four horsemen come riding over the horizon. Survival, at times, seems precarious at best on a planet that throws us new challenges daily. In the space of twelve tumultuous months, we’ve seen devastating fires, pestilence on a biblical scale, and great floods to wash away our hopes of a return to normality.
At times end of days looks a real possibility. Add to this the hostility and anger, the divisions that appear to be growing within our societies, the adversarial stances taken by once friendly neighbors, tensions between traditional adversary nations, and our future looks dim.
Catastrophes, both natural and man-made, are nothing new of course. The planet is a dynamic ball of smoldering molten rock; it’s still cooling down at its core 4.5 billion years after its birth. We cling to it for survival and have been doing since life first found a tenuous foothold amongst the bubbling pools of toxic chemicals and noxious clouds of gas. We think this world is ours, created for our exclusive use. But, in reality, we as humans have no right to the planet. We have to work for our keep, respecting and nurturing the delicate balance of our existence in a hostile world that only tolerates our tenancy; it has no respect for our grandiose views of self-importance.
The planet, for its part, has been fighting its own battles, tearing itself apart since time began, overheating, chilling down through periodic ice ages, cracking along fault lines then healing its wounds. Giant volcanoes erupt every year, demonstrations of power that prove that the earth is far from the finished product. It’s a world of constant change, death and re-birth. Despite the ongoing genesis we live at a time when the earth is at its most stable. We are lucky to live during a time of relative respite, when if we worked together to manage our footprints, we might ride out the storms that come to test us. Yet, we keep doing our best to abuse our good fortune. We plunder the earth’s resources polluting our own nests because of a lust to consume beyond our needs. When will enough be enough before the earth fails?
“Save the planet!” It’s a line we hear constantly, but save it from what, from us? The truth is, it’s us that needs saving. The earth will shrug us off like flees from a dog’s back when the time comes. It’s not the planet that’s in danger. We seem to think human life is sacred, that the planet exists solely for our benefit. But, the natural order of life is that it comes and goes. We live, we die, whether we’re ants or antelopes, flowers or frogs. The transient nature of life means that nothing has precedence. We’re all just fleeting tenants of a world in constant change fighting for our survival and that of our children. Extinction comes to all of us as individuals, it’s an inevitability we just can’t avoid. Is the extinction of an entire species any different? When we cry “save the earth” we’re really asking to save our own hides.
The earth can look after itself, thankyou very much. A million years from now – a blink in the earth’s evolution – there won’t be a sign of human occupation. The world we know now will crumble to dust and disappear beneath a new layer of life.
The truth is, it’s us that needs saving
Long after we’ve lost our battles to survive as a species, the earth will recover and new cycles of life will evolve and perish. Rainforests will thrive, new species will emerge and dominate, civilizations will rise and fall. Perhaps they will mirror our own human form, building great cities before making the same mistakes and perishing once more. But, through all this the earth, this dynamic living sphere we call home, will survive and flourish. Maybe we should be calling to save us instead of to save the planet, save us from ourselves.
Of all the gifts I inherited from my mum and dad, the love of gardens is perhaps the most rewarding. Both my parents were avid gardeners. During summer months we would find them still working in the garden even after dark. I look back on my childhood where gardens featured heavily in daily life and see how easily the seeds of my own passion were planted by their love for the earth and its riches. Each had their own areas of particular interest. Dad had his veggies and flowers, prize winning dahlias and chrysanthemums the size of dinner plates.
At one time, Dad had two allotments (rented plots of council land) in addition to the home garden. From spring to autumn, cut flowers would stand in buckets of water outside our house and sell for one shilling a bunch along with excess vegetables fresh from the garden. Most of the produce went to feed our own hungry mouths in a household of seven. In summer months our greenhouse would spill with tomatoes, the smell of which lingers in my memory along with that taste we no longer seem to find in modern varieties. They’re now grown for impact resistance rather than taste and smell.
While Dad was the provider, Mum was the creator. A skilled gardener, Mum combined her horticultural knowledge of plants with an artistic flair for landscape display. We used to say that you could give her a walking stick and she’d bring it back to life in a spectacular display of leaves and flowers. Mum was a horticultural artist and worked her magic until well into her nineties. Her gardens did get smaller in her later years but they never lost their brilliance. She achieved many awards over the years including Grand Champions and Mayor’s Cups. It was in this environment of earth, sun and flowers that I grew and found my own love for gardens.
Gardens are spiritual places. They provide escape from the modern world, sanctuary when we need it most. They are a microcosm of life at large, where the cycles and seasons encapsulate our hopes and expectations, where death and decay are followed by birth and renewal, hope follows despair. No matter how dark the winter, spring is a certainty. We sow, we reap, and so the cycle of life goes on. I’ve always found gardens to be places of contemplation, where one can find peace when troubled. They’re like churches and chapels, sanctuaries for those in need of some time to re-group before going again back to a world of ever-increasing pace. Gardens can leave you inspired and refreshed; they can restore the soul.
Gardens provide habitat, havens for wildlife. They’re magical places where nature takes a helping hand from man; the results can be truly wonderful. I’ve created several gardens from scratch and find nothing more rewarding than seeing the wildlife move in to share it. Birds and lizards, spiders and butterflies, squirrels and possums, they all find a home once the welcome mat is rolled out.
My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece
Not everyone can have a large garden but the smallest of patches can be just as wonderful. There’s patios and balconies, even a window box can provide a touch of nature. For those who can’t have either, there’s the fabulous parks and botanic gardens that give so much pleasure to communities around the world. They maintain a vital link with the diminishing habitats of our forests and plains, wetlands and savannas.
Sadly, gardens are reminders of what we risk losing if the natural world is left unprotected from our insatiable appetite for consumption. If habitat destruction continues at its current relentless rate, gardens may all be that’s left. Perhaps we need to take a seat on a garden bench and contemplate that thought before it’s too late.
When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden.
I thought retirement would mean more time to do nothing, that I’d sit and idle away the days drinking tea and watching the world go by. I’d seen other retirees drift peacefully into oblivion, not a care in the universe and not a thought in the brain except for fond memories of days gone by. It didn’t take long to realize that I had no intention of being idle and that I had a bucket list of things to accomplish. What I didn’t expect was that days in so-called retirement would be too short and that time would pass with astonishing speed as I tried hopelessly to hang on to every minute. I found that my stress levels had not changed and there just weren’t enough hours in the day to get things done. I was becoming increasingly aware that I was not really living a simpler life, the life I thought I would lead after leaving the rat-race world of business behind me.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to change my habits and lifestyle. My wife and I did make changes, deciding to downscale and move further away from the city. We built a new, smaller house in a little village with a big shed for retirement projects, something to keep me from being bored. I now had time, I thought, to work in the garden, grow veggies and keep a flock of chickens for some real country living. I would be at peace with myself and enjoy my senior years as life intended, with a cup of Earl Grey and an afternoon snooze each day. But, in reality, it wasn’t so easy. No commutes and no business trips turned out to be a great gift of time after years of travelling for work, yet, if I didn’t use that time fully and in a meaningful way, it just felt wasted. I couldn’t shake the habits of the past, the need to achieve something substantial. I found that if a day passed without goals and accomplishment, I would be left with a feeling of guilt. Years of pushing for achievement and growth had left me unable to relax and let things go. I wanted to live a simpler life, I just couldn’t.
I wanted to live a simpler life, I just couldn’t.
I looked to writing as a way to relax, only to find that writing is an immense struggle where goals are all important. It requires discipline and an enormous amount of graft to succeed. I found, in fact, that writing a novel is an all-consuming battle that must be fought until the end; it drains you. Two novels later I needed a rest and once again found myself looking for a simpler way of living, wondering when I’d be able to let go of the need to strive for something big.
Of course, simpler doesn’t necessarily mean easier. My family and I spent a number of years in Canada living in close proximity to a community of Mennonites. Like the Amish of America, Mennonites often live very simply, shunning modern technology and living off, and, with the land. It’s a hard life even if it is simple. Our local Canadian Mennonite neighbours worked without the aid of machinery and modern technology. They formed a highly religious farming community unfettered by the constant pressures of consumerism and growth, things that bring so much anxiety and mental anguish to modern lives. Many Mennonites live without the basics of electricity, television, computers, internet, smartphones and even cars.
But it’s a way of life that few in the western world would be willing to embrace. And while I like the idea of a life off the grid, I’m not sure I could cope with such simplicity. Still, there are lessons to be learned from communities like the Mennonites.
A simpler life could be the result for all of us if we, as a society, dropped the constant need for growth at all costs and considered enough was enough. It wouldn’t have to be an extremely spartan life, just a life within our means. We hear the term, ’sustainable living’, yet there’s little inclination from leadership to pursue the idea on a global scale, and our individual efforts are often just tokens.
Perhaps the key to a simple life lies in how cluttered the world has become. We surround ourselves with excess, both physical and mental. If we want to live a simpler life, we must de-clutter and get rid of the unnecessary, and that includes a spring clean of our cluttered minds. And there lies the crux of the matter for me; I can’t live a simpler life while my head is filled with projects, plans and ideas. I need to chill and find satisfaction without feeling the need to reach a conclusion or goal, without always looking to achieve something each and every day.
Perhaps the key to a simple life lies in how cluttered the world has become.
Over Christmas, our daughter-in-law introduced my wife and I to the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi. (No, not the green stuff you put on sushi.) This Japanese philosophy asks us to seek pleasure in life’s hidden blessings. Celebrating how things are as opposed to how they should be or how we think they should be. It asks us to appreciate and accept that nothing is ever perfect, nothing lasts forever, and nothing is ever finished. As I learned more, I realized that these three principles are at the heart of my problem; they are the core values of achievement. When we strive to achieve, we seek perfection, we want our work to be complete, and we hope to leave a lasting legacy. I realized that if I could accept the principles of Wabi Sabi, perhaps I could accept things the way they are, slow down and shift from doing to being, appreciating instead of striving.
There’s a lot more to Wabi Sabi than these three basic ideas, but they provide a clue to the life I now crave. I’m not about to give up writing – I have three novels under way – but I can change the way I approach it. I’ll try to take my time and write when the mood takes me rather than drive myself to the last chapter. I’ll take breaks from writing. Painting has always been an interest of mine and I’ve set myself up with a little painting studio in the garden where inspiration comes from nature and the ambience is conducive to relaxation. Unlike writing, I find painting to be a more tranquil pursuit, I can get lost in the moment and the world just drifts on by. The focus of painting promotes mindfulness and a sense of pleasure without pressure. There are other changes to make. My wife and I are going to go for regular walks again, ride our bikes and enjoy our wonderful Southern Highlands. I’ll do a little photography, get out in the garden more often, another pursuit that tends to free the mind. Above all, I’m going to try not to look at days without goals and achievement as wasted days and think of them as therapy for the mind and soul.
We are about to close one of the most traumatic years in our lives. It feels like a good time to regroup, re-think and rejuvenate. A simple life may not be as simple as I thought it would be, but I’ll simply have to try.
Wishing you peace of mind, health and happiness for the New Year and 2021 – Lee Richie
It’s approaching year-end and the subject of fireworks is back in the news. Should we? Shouldn’t we? With the pandemic still raging around the globe, we are asking the question if it’s appropriate to see in the New Year with a fireworks celebration. After all, what is there to celebrate except for the passing of a terrible year that has been marked by tragedy for so many?
Fireworks have long been used to celebrate important events. Invented by the Chinese, they’ve been lighting up the sky since the Song Dynasty in 960 AD. To celebrate festivals such as the Chinese New Year, ordinary folks could purchase paper tubes filled with gunpowder, stringing them together to form clusters of explosions. Official firework displays were held to mark events using rockets to explode like flowers in the night sky. Over a thousand years later and we’re still doing the same. Fireworks are used for all kinds of celebrations in every part of the world. My family and I experienced our first truly spectacular display on the shores of Georgian Bay after emigrating to Canada. We had never seen such fireworks as we celebrated our first Canada Day in our new country. Years late after moving to Australia, we were blown away by the Sydney Harbour extravaganza. A far cry from the backyard pops and sizzles that my father set out in the days of my youth and before we left old England’s shores.
Earlier this month, the United Kingdom celebrated Guy Fawkes Night, sometimes known as Bonfire Night or simply Fireworks Night. It’s an occasion I remember fondly from my childhood. November 5th commemorates the attempted assassination of King James the First in a gunpowder plot designed to blow up the Houses of Parliament. After being discovered beneath the House of Lords with a cache of explosives, Guy Fawkes was arrested and sentenced to be hanged for his treason. In celebration, bonfires were lit across the country and the date marked on the annual calendar. Children built effigies of Guy Fawkes and took them door to door begging for money before burning them on the bonfires each year.
As the years passed, fireworks were added to the celebrations and the money raised by children went to buy a range of bangers and rockets, available freely at local stores for pennies. I recall with great pride how we cleared out the Girl Guides hut each year with a volley of crackers, running from the scene of the crime with giggles of satisfaction as girls screamed wildly from within. A penny would buy two small bangers while three pence would buy an impressive little Atom Bomb or a Rip Rap with multiple explosions.
As a child, I was always looking for ways to push the boundaries. Bangers were great, but they were limited when it came to putting on a real show. I had always wanted a chemistry set but Mum, knowing what that could mean in the hands of a mischievous boy, was having nothing of it. It never stopped me from experimenting and I would purchase little tubes of chemicals from a shop in Liverpool where they had no qualms about selling to children. All in the name of education of course. I wanted an improved Guy Fawkes event, featuring a bang that would leave everyone singing my praises. How hard could it be to make a firework, right? I set to work using my vast scientific knowledge, gathering household ingredients along with my stock of regular chemicals, a bit of fertilizer here, some chlorine there. It’s amazing what you can find that could help with a big bang.
With firework night fast approaching, it was imperative to hold a dress rehearsal. After all, it would be so embarrassing to light the fuse with the whole neighbourhood watching only for it to fizz and fizzle in a puff of wimpy smoke. So, enlisting the help of my brother, Mike, we headed for the garden at nightfall. Mike held the torch while I carefully set my “Grand Boomer” on the ground and lit the fuse. Whoosh! In one incredible flash, I saw the light of my error, literally. Note to self: next time let Mike light the fuse. I staggered around the garden, hands outstretched before me, feeling the air like a zombie. It was a scene from the Return of the Living Dead. “Don’t tell Mum,” was all I could say as the skin peeled from my face. “What do you mean don’t tell Mum?” says Mike. “You have no eyebrows or hair and you’re blind. You don’t think she’ll notice?” Needless to say, she did notice. After some medical treatment and a short recovery, I was grounded, my chemical stores removed for safekeeping. Thankfully my sight slowly returned and so did my eyebrows. My venture into pyrotechnic production had ended in a flash. Pity there were no smartphones around to record what must have been a spectacular display. I certainly saw fireworks.
Next time let Mike light fuse
Back to the question of fireworks and the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Thankfully, (touch wood) we are in pretty good shape here in Australia and the virus is currently under control. People are free to get together for Christmas and New Year. Nevertheless, it just doesn’t seem right to be celebrating extravagantly while our friends and family around the world are in the thick of this awful battle. We had the same discussion last year when bushfires raged all around us, and there were arguments both for and against. They went ahead anyway and Sydney put on the usual magnificent display over the harbour, but for those of us who were impacted by the fires, it felt a little insensitive and only served to remind us that not everyone shared our pain.
Our Premier has decided that this year’s show will go ahead as usual, but this year it will be muted. There will be a short event at midnight, an official show of thanks to our front-line workers who have helped us through this traumatic year. I like to think that the fireworks will be an exhibition of hope and optimism, a turning point in our fortunes as the world looks to the future and light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. When we look to the skies, we’ll take a break for a few minutes from the emotional strain and see the prospect of a new day, a brighter New Year, and we’ll think of those less fortunate and wish them well.
Many thanks to all those who have bought Black Bones, Red Earth. It’s now available for those who haven’t from Amazon as well as bookstores worldwide. Give it as a gift this Christmas.
There’s something magical about mountains. They’ve inspired authors, poets and painters for centuries, been a place of pilgrimage for some, escape for others. It’s no wonder that in many cultures they are worshiped as living beings, such is their power to elicit emotional responses. It’s just a natural reflex when we say that the very sight of them takes our breath away.
My own love affair with high ranges began as a child, rooted in the passion shared by my parents. Mum and Dad had long been devoted mountaineers and fell walkers. They met during WWII in an army camp where they were both stationed in Northern Ireland. Such was their love for the mountains that they spent their honeymoon on leave climbing the mountains of the English Lake District and dreaming of a place amongst them to call home. Once they had a family, they took every opportunity to head north from our home in Liverpool to the mountains. The mountaineering genes soon took root in me, my sister and three brothers. Mum and Dad even named my older brother, Michael Mallory, after one of Dad’s mountaineering heroes, George Mallory, an English climber who died while trying to conquer Mount Everest.
Times were hard in those early years, but camping was an affordable option for a large family. Every summer we’d travel to Cumbria on the bus, each child carrying their own sleeping bag and camping paraphernalia. We would share a large canvas tent – it weighed about 70lbs – and Dad would lug it on his back along with his rucksack and cooking gear. We’d endure the English summer rains – Cumbria has the highest rainfall in the country – for a chance to don the hiking boots and head for the summits. Undeterred by weather, we trod a path through the high country, seven ducks in a row, and learned to enjoy the simple pleasures derived from overcoming the challenges these high mountains set before us.
In my youth the pull of mountains continued. I’d hitch-hike with friends to camp amongst the peaks, sometimes pitching our tent high in the mountains, waking in the early dawn to find our campsite shrouded in mist, washing our faces in the icy mountain streams. It’s a feeling of isolation and tranquility I’ll never forget. Of take-your-breath-away moments in the mountains, I have many memories. One such experience occurred while climbing with a friend on Glyda Fawr in Snowdonia, Wales. Conditions were treacherous with freezing rain and mist. A thick layer of shiny ice covered every rock and boulder; we really should have aborted the climb and retired to a warm pub in safety. Nevertheless, challenged by the harsh conditions, we pressed on to the summit, knowing full well that there would be no panoramic views of the Welsh countryside, only the satisfaction of reaching the top in difficult circumstances.
It was like stepping into Heaven from the cold abyss
Fifty feet from the apex we emerged from the mist. ‘Topping out’ they call it, a halleluiah moment of revelation. It was like stepping into Heaven from the cold abyss, popping our heads through a trapdoor to see a new world emerge in all its glory. Stretched before me, a carpet of fluffy white cloud spread to every horizon beneath a pure blue sky. Only the summit of Snowdon – Wales’ highest mountain – poked through the clouds like an island in some fantasy world of cotton wool seas. At the time I had yet to fly in an aircraft and it’s a view I’ve since observed in the comfort of an air-conditioned cabin many times, but on that day with the rocks of the earth firmly beneath my feet, it was a sight that left me speechless and has stuck with me as a vivid memory ever since.
My wife and I followed in Mum and Dad’s footsteps, spending our honeymoon hiking the fells of the Lake District. My own children were raised climbing those same mountains. We too spent our family vacations camping and hiking the high country. My wife shares that same love and we have had the good fortune to climb in the American Adirondacks, the Canadian Rockies, the Swiss and German Alps and volcanoes in the Pacific among others.
It’s easy to understand just why mountain analogies are used to describe life’s challenges. It’s all about conquering things much bigger than ourselves. We set ourselves a challenge and slog away until we beat it. Like some of the physical peaks I’ve climbed, there have been many daunting challenges in my life. There were times I thought of giving up on some before refocusing and forging on to the top. Sir Edmund Hillary – another of Dad’s heroes – once said: “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Testing ourselves is something unique to humans. It’s in our character to strive and overcome. When ever the going gets too hard, I look to others for inspiration. I see those who face daily battles of immense proportions fighting back from terrible injury or illness, hardship and loss; these are the true heroes and it always brings back perspective to my own life with its peaks and valleys.
It’s in the blood this passion I have for the ranges. Mum and Dad achieved their dream, their own private mountain conquered when they retired to a cottage in their beloved Lake District. Dad rests in a little church yard looking up to the fells. Mum was still climbing those high peaks well into her eighties and passed on aged 96. Her ashes are scattered on the mountains she loved so dearly.
I retain an old canvas haversack from my teenage years and we’ve carted it around the world for decades. My wife has tried to throw it out many times and each time I’ve rescued it from the dustbin. She says she will bury me in it and that’s ok with me. When the time comes, I’d like my ashes to be packed in the old bag (not talking about the wife here) and carried to the summit of my favorite mountain where it should be buried for eternity amongst the peaks that have inspired my life.
It’s been a while since my last blog. My computer crashed and had to go to computer hospital. Thankfully, my friend is a doctor and though my faithful Dell showed no evidence of a virus, the poor PC had to undergo radical reconstruction surgery. Like me, it’s getting on a bit and needs these regular updates to keep it going, but thanks to Doctor Whizz, my ageing Dell is now running like a spritely newborn and performing its duties with ease.
Speaking of viruses, I for one have had enough already. So far this year we’ve had devastating fires and pestilence; thankfully we live on a hill because it’s been raining nonstop for two days and floods are now imminent. I’m waiting for a plague of locusts to descend on the Southern Highlands and eat all our veggies from the garden plot. It’s a year of biblical events and I need to escape! If only we could just fly away to some paradise, far from the Covid crowd and just chill. “You’re a writer,” I hear you say. “Just use your imagination and you’re on an exotic isle somewhere.” True, but I’m after the real thing, a warm breeze tickling the hairs on my skin, the fragrance of frangipani wafting in the night air, the rhythmic crash of waves against the rocks as a full moon rises. I want to sip on a tequila sunrise and watch the stars twinkle above the ocean, a steel band playing Kokomo at the beach bar in the background. D’oh! You’ve got me doing it, haven’t you; that imagination thing?
Imagination is a powerful mode of transport. With travel options at a premium right now, I like to look back on times when we were able to venture far afield and to savour the precious memories I’ve accumulated. It’s a good time to take out the old photos and videos and relive the adventures of years gone by, and to dream of journeys to come when better times return. They will return.
For now, we have to make the most of what we’ve got and memories can serve up a vivid escape from the day-to-day reality of this awful pandemic. I’m looking through my thousands of photos, one and a half terabytes of priceless moments, thankful once again to Doctor Whizz for making sure I had backups before Dell went down.
A snap of local children takes me back to a village in Vanuatu, a stark moonscape image brings me to the rim of a volcano on Tanna. When I see the sky reflected in rice paddies, I’m transported back to Bali or the world heritage village of Shirakawago in remote Japan. A short video of a cigar maker takes me back to a steamy night in New Orleans, listening to live Jazz until dawn in the French Quarter. I can smell the cigar smoke in the humid night air as I enjoy it over again and pledge to return one day.
Red sands glow in the United Arab Emirates, while the sight of rolling hills in Tuscany brings back the smell of pecorino cheese in the village of Pienza, pizza and red wine at a trattoria in Florence. These captured moments can be as real now as they were at the time. It’s that imagination thing again.
There are other ways to escape confinement. Think local. There’s more than we imagine right on our doorstep. Unless you’re unfortunate enough to be confined to quarantine, in lock-down or isolation, a walk in the park can be just as therapeutic, a walk in the country even better. There’s something about nature that automatically provides an escape. It’s hard not to live in the moment when surrounded by such beauty. Even a garden can provide a myriad of distractions, there in every detail observed at close quarters. The veins on a leaf, the petals of a flower. The iridescence of an insect’s wing.
It’s deep into winter here in the highlands. I’m watching trees thrashing in the wind and raindrops hanging like tears from empty branches; not the best time to go for a walk. But, from the window of my cosy office, I can see the first daffodils are splashing their brilliance on a miserable grey day, a show of hope, a sign of brighter times to come. A Crimson Rosella is fighting the wind to cling on to a branch and a Kookaburra, fluffed up in a ball of feathers, is waiting for a worm or a lizard to stir in the leaf litter. Spring is a month away but there’s a promise of better times in the air, times when we can emerge from isolation and travel this wonderful earth once again. Until then, I’ll open up the album and use my imagination to escape to the country. Any country will do.
There’s something about great construction works that stir the blood. Magnificent cathedrals, bridges that span vast rivers, castles and skyscrapers, they all stand as monuments to human achievement. I remember watching the tragedy of the Notre Dame cathedral fire unfold and thinking how devastating the loss of such an iconic piece of history. Every time I see that great church I think of Charles Laughton swinging down from the bell tower to rescue his fair maiden, declaring sanctuary as the hunchback took refuge in the tower with his beautiful prize.
More recently, I watched Queen Elizabeth arriving at Windsor Castle for her own piece of sanctuary during the COVID-19 lockdown and marvelled at the resilient structure that has stood for 900 years and has protected kings and queens through the ages. Castles and palaces abound in Britain and having been born and raised in England, I still have a great sense of pride in these truly wonderful structures and the pageantry and history that surrounds them. I’m certain that most Brits feel the same way, just as the French must revere their cathedrals and chateaus, the Louvre and grand palaces like Versailles. Yet, as I got to thinking about this, I started to wonder how it is that such symbols of elite power could inspire pride in the hearts of the masses. Like most great monuments, they are built on the backs of the underprivileged and impoverished.
Throughout history, people of wealth and power have exploited society’s weakest and used them to build ever more wealth and power, symbolised by great edifices and grand architecture. Absolute monarchies and military dictatorships had long ruled the world before modern democracies evolved to give some measure of control to the people. I say “some measure of control” because we are still largely at the mercy of the rich and powerful, and in many countries, just as oppressed as those who struggled through the middle ages. It took a revolution in France to place their palaces in the hands of the masses. A civil war in Britain eventually ended in a compromise, handing power to an elected parliament while leaving wealth with the aristocrats and the crown.
It wasn’t just kings, queens and emperors that manipulated the vulnerable to build their riches, churches acquired vast amounts of wealth and power and took a leading role in controlling the population. While the poor underclass lived without basic needs, they were taxed and stripped of meagre assets to fund grand churches, monasteries and temples of every faith throughout the world. It’s a story repeated; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Even today, churches are some of the world’s wealthiest organisations while parts of their flocks suffer great hardship.
While the vast majority of the world’s population have at some time lived in poverty and ill health, the privileged classes have taken advantage, building extravagant constructions to immortalise themselves in time. Many of the most vulnerable paid the ultimate price. It has been estimated that the Great Wall of China was built at the expense of at least 500,000 lives, not to mention the cost in pain and misery. The great pyramids of Egypt would tell a similar story as would most of the world’s great wonders.
Great projects at the expense of lives are not confined to ancient history. Modern feats of extraordinary endeavour have continued to place a heavy toll on those tasked with their construction. Over 120,000 workers lost their lives building the Suez Canal. America’s Trans-Continental railway cost 1,200 lives, and while everyone knows of the death toll when the twin towers came down, building the World Trade Centre took 60 lives from the ranks of construction workers. Qatar’s 2022 world cup construction projects have so far claimed 34 lives, but independent estimates put the number at well over 1000 when cardiovascular deaths due to heat exhaustion are taken into account. Whichever way you want to put it, it’s too high a price for poor migrant workers to pay so the rich can play games.
So, why is it that we can look at a grand tomb or a palace built by a king and experience wonder and awe, pride in a heritage that surely left our ancestors begging on the streets and burying their dead? Surely we could be forgiven for tearing them down and leaving them in ruins.
Surely we could be forgiven for tearing them down and leaving them in ruins!
Perhaps we recognise the human cost and want to let them stand as reminders. Or, maybe it’s simply our admiration for what human beings can achieve in the very worst of conditions, recognition of the blood, sweat and tears, the sacrifices made by ordinary men and women that stirs our love for such monuments.
What those in power sought to have built were tributes to themselves, legacies to immortalise them as great men and women. But, what they got instead are lasting memorials to the ingenuity, graft and sacrifice of those whose names are not written in stone. They are the men women and children who suffered to achieve their immortality, and it’s to them we pay tribute when we look on with awe and admire these extraordinary national treasures.
The exploitation of the common man is far from ended; the rich and powerful still rule the world and those less fortunate continue to pay the price.
We are still building monuments, modern monoliths of glass and steel that soar skyward to the heavens. The exploitation of the common man is far from ended; the rich and powerful still rule the world and those less fortunate continue to pay the price. The world’s richest 1% owns 44% of the world’s wealth. In 2018, 26 people owned as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population. But, that’s a story for another time.
There’s an old one-liner in which a man says to his wife, “How can I miss you if you won’t leave?” But in these times of forced separation and isolation, missing people is an all too familiar effect of the current situation and it’s really no joke. It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone. I think we all know by now just what we’ve lost and can’t wait for things to return to normal. Along with the coronavirus itself, these feelings of separation anxiety are in pandemic proportions right now. There are not many of us who’ve escaped such personal trauma. Life has been turned on its head and it’s like we’ve all been consigned to the confines of our own little bubbles.
I watched the viral video clip of the Italian suitor who arrived at his girl’s house inside a large plastic bubble to ask her out on a date. It was all good fun and a bit of light-hearted entertainment during desperate times in Italy, yet it triggered a memory in me and brought a tinge of fear, causing my heart to beat faster and the hairs to stand on the back of my neck. The reason? When I was a small boy, I had a bad case of croup, a respiratory disease caused by a virus that causes swelling and narrowing of the airways. I well remember the terrifying struggle to breathe, the ambulance bells and the emergency dash to hospital where I spent days in a plastic oxygen tent in the intensive care unit. (Perhaps it was this experience that led to my extreme claustrophobia later in life.) As the days passed and I started to recover, it was the separation from my family that caused even more anxiety. Seeing the blurry faces of Mum and Dad outside my plastic bubble and not being able to touch them was not an easy thing for a sick child to deal with. Just as now, the hospital staff were brilliant and I was able to recover and leave in good health, but the trauma has stayed with me, and the thought of struggling to breathe while trapped inside a bubble is quite real.
For a hugger like myself, social distancing is a real bummer and separation from family is for me, like most of us, the worst of this pandemic.
Our kids practiced social distancing long before the term was coined. I recall the road trips for holidays across America, three boys in the back seat of our car who demanded their own personal space. “He’s touching me!” “Am not!” “Yes you are.” “Am not!” They would test each other to the limit by seeing how close they could place a hand while the other would cry foul. “He’s doing it on purpose!” “I’m not. He’s the one who’s touching me.” And so the battle would go for one weary mile after the other while we would threaten to turn right around and go home if they couldn’t just get along. Those were the good old days.
There have been times in my life when separation has been a consequence of the decisions I made. Like living away from home while training to build boats in Norfolk. Thankfully it was not too long before the family reunited and we moved to the Broads to be near the work. Then there was the big one, the move to Canada from England. In the words of Frank Sinatra: Regrets, I’ve had a few. Though I’ve never regretted our moves around the world, I do regret leaving family and friends behind, especially when we first moved from England. It’s one of those things that comes back to me when I watch our children live their lives and see our grandchildren grow, and I think of what it would be like if they left for the other side of the world. We were young and desperate for a better life for our children when we left England’s shores. I can’t imagine the terrible loss our parents must have felt when we left them behind. Of course, we too felt the loss of family.
There was a short time after arriving in Canada when we seriously thought about turning right around and heading back to those we loved. But we didn’t and the rest is history. Our separation anxiety was increased in those days by the lack of communication options. Unlike today, we had few ways to stay in touch and it was usually by letter. We couldn’t afford a phone for a long time, and when we did eventually get one installed, the cost of calls to England were then quite prohibitive and a phone call became a big event. Each time we called home, we had to go through the operator who told us that all lines to England were busy. Sometimes we would try for hours to get through, and then the call lasted only minutes. At least now during lockdown we can see our family on FaceTime, What’s App and programs like Zoom and House Party. How I wish my parents had had that when we went away all those years ago.
I know I’m not alone in thinking that this terrible pandemic has made me re-think how we go about our lives. It’s highlighted just how important our contact with family and friends is to us. Life can sometimes get so busy that we find ourselves drifting through the days in isolated bubbles of self-imposed exile. Then when that isolation is suddenly forced on us, we realise too late that we’ve been taking our freedom to be together for granted. When this awful thing is over, and it will be over, I’ll be doing some serious hugging and popping some bubbles. They won’t be plastic either.
I need a laugh. I mean, really, really need a laugh. Not just a laugh but a belly laugh, a big old tummy shaker. Why? Well, it’s not even two months since the world looked on with sympathy as the bushfires ravaged Australia, and in particular, our villages of the Southern Highlands. Exhausted, we came out of it feeling thankful that we came through it, and grateful for such moral support from around the planet. Now there’s a new calamity to challenge us, but this time, all the world shares the same boat. Actually, we shouldn’t mention boats because our wonderful authorities have just let 3000 cruise ship passengers go their own way untested after disembarking in Sydney. Now they are chasing them down across the country and have so far confirmed 133 cases of the disease. It would be funny if it wasn’t so catastrophic. Nothing to laugh about, right? So what about that laugh?
The current situation has got me to thinking about humour. There’s something about the worst of times that brings out the humour in us. Perhaps it’s a need to relieve the pressure and it’s released by having a good old laugh. Who could forget Monty Python singing, ‘Always look on the bright side of life’? Having a joke is something we need to do during a crisis, and the current one is no exception. There’s been loads of funny memes and one-liners about the virus, a great deal of which have focused on toilet paper, and that really gives me the shits. Sometimes it seems as if the jokes get funnier as the situation grows more serious. What would they have done during the great wars without a sense of humour? Sorry! Don’t mention the war. I think it’s probably essential for our sanity to find laughter in dark times.
There’s plenty to make us giggle these days, but am I the only one who wonders what happened to the belly laugh? We grew up roaring with laughter. As a child, I remember sitting down to watch the Sunday feature film, which was often a comedy. The whole family would settle down to the matinee after a big Sunday roast lunch, and once the dishes had been washed, Mum, Dad and the family would be able to relax and enjoy our favourite comedy stars in glorious black and white. Favourites like Gerry Lewis, Bob Hope and George Formby. Tears would roll, and so would a belly full of lunch. Sometimes we would laugh more at Mum and Dad laughing than we would be watching the movie, just like the virus, laughs are infectious. What a satisfying way it was to relax before the Monday morning blues and the return of the workweek. Wind the clock forward a few years and we had the likes of Peter Sellers and Lucile Ball, hilarious fools to make us weep with joy. In those days, comedy was full of visual content and slapstick seemed essential for a good laugh. We didn’t have to think about it to get the joke, it was there in all its silly simplicity.
As the years rolled by, new stars emerged who could still make us roar. Who could forget classic comedies like John Cleese’s Faulty Towers, or the Airplane movies with the late Leslie Nielson, both finding humour in disasters and chaos and both almost too much to bear they were so funny. I can’t recall how many times I’ve watched the re-runs, but it’s a lot, and still, they make me laugh. There are also segments of movies or television shows that stick in the memory as classic moments of comedy. The zipper scene in Something About Mary, the bear scene in the Great Outdoors, Clark Griswold’s sandwich scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation, all spring to mind.
Can’t help a chuckle when some poor male gets clobbered in the goolies
To be honest, some of yesterday’s humour would not go down well today. What was acceptable then and what is acceptable now are often worlds apart. In the past, comedy was very often generated by poking fun at someone’s expense or someone’s misfortunes. That’s ok when the clowns are mocking themselves but I’m not a huge fan of the numerous videos that show people coming a cropper and hurting themselves. Having said that, I think everyone would have to admit that they can’t help a chuckle when some poor male gets clobbered in the goolies. You feel the pain but just can’t help but smile. The German word is schadenfreude. Schaden-harm, freude-joy; it means taking pleasure from someone else’s distress. It’s in our nature apparently. Some scientists say it’s a throw-back to early man, that we, as prey, are happy to stand by and watch in safety when someone else gets caught and eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, just grateful that it wasn’t us. Go save him? Must be joking!
How about a fit of the giggles? Now that makes me laugh. I remember being invited to a neighbourhood pot-luck supper not long after migrating to Canada. The idea was that everyone would take a main dish and a dessert dish to the gathering. Being English, my dear wife thought it would be nice to make an English trifle for dessert. On arriving at the venue, we introduced ourselves, handed our dishes to a lovely lady at the door and took our seats at a long banquet table, new faces all round, so we were a bit shy and self-conscious. The call went out to help ourselves and everyone got up and formed an orderly line, taking a little of everything from the varied dishes spread out on the buffet. On returning to our seats, we looked down the table with horror, everyone had taken a scoop of trifle and dolloped it onto their roasts, cabbage rolls and potatoes. Being newcomers and a little wary, we didn’t speak up to say that our dessert had ended up on the wrong table, but watched in silent embarrassment as our new friends tucked into roast beef, gravy and custard with strawberries and cream. That’s when the giggles started. And, of course, the more we tried to stifle the chuckles, the more they increased, until we were crying, choking on our food and dribbling gravy through our nostrils while trying to suppress the laughter. Undoubtedly, our new neighbours thought we were idiots and we were never invited back again, but the story lives on and makes us smile all these years later. Sorry, lovely neighbours.
Comedy has changed since the days of my youth. It’s supposed to be more sophisticated, subtle and clever, but it never really gets my juices flowing to the point where I lose all self-composure. It makes me titter rather than break out in hysterics. Don’t get me wrong, I like modern humour, but as far as therapeutic release is concerned, there’s no substitute for the slapstick of old. Maybe our capacity to laugh hard has diminished as life has become more stressful. Too much on our minds to let go and have a good laugh, we run from here to there and don’t stop to have a good giggle. But it seems to me that it’s in times of stress that we need laughter most. Having a good laugh promotes hormones and triggers the release of endorphins. Similarly, tears will do the same. They release hormones that make us feel better. So it makes complete sense to laugh until we cry. Double the benefits, right? I’m going to do my best to find a belly laugh and share it. Let’s all take some time to find some, after all, time is something we’re going to have a lot of for a while. Pick out a funny video, a movie or television classic and give ourselves permission to let the belly roll and with it the tears. Play a game of nude Twister; get one of the kids to pull your finger and fart; there has to be a good chuckle somewhere. God knows we could do with a laugh. Just make sure to laugh into your elbow.
God knows we could do with a laugh
Great reviews for Black Bones, Red Earth
I’m delighted to see some great reviews for Black Bones, Red Earth from various sources. It’s always good to get some feedback from readers. I’m told there’s been a massive discrepency in delivery times. Some readers have the book within days of order, others it seems they had to wait weeks. I’m sorry for any delays. I assume it’s due to the current situation and working conditions for the printers and delivery couriers. Please be patient if you haven’t received your copy yet.
This has been a big month for me as my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth, finally goes live and is available through bookstores and online worldwide. The book comes in three formats: hardcover, paperback and e-book. Personally, I like to read from a printed copy and it’s nice to get the real thing in my hands after so long working on it; the hardcover looks particularly great. I’ve already received some fantastic advance reviews from NetGalley, Readers’ Favorite, and Goodreads. Hopefully they’ll spread the word and the momentum will grow. Don’t forget to give me some feedback if you get the chance to read it. Good, bad or indifferent, I’d like to hear from you.
With the buzz around the book launch, I’m already getting asked: what’s next? I had thought I would give it a bit of a rest; writing a novel is one of those activities that occupies your thoughts day and night until finished. I could do with a distraction that does not consume me 24/7. Having said that, I do have a couple of things started, like the sequel to Alexander Bottom and there’s a couple of thrillers already on the go. To be honest, the ideas come so thick and fast that I would have to live to a ripe old age to get them all down and develop them. I might try some short stories for a change but it’s hard to control just how far a story will take you once it’s started. They take on a life of their own and there’s no stopping it once it’s started. I’d probably end up with War and Peace anyway.
Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.
Another question often asked is: what makes you want to write? This is harder to explain. What makes anyone want to write? It’s a tough slog and for the most part a lone pursuit. I think maybe it’s the need to write rather than the want. Not even that. It’s a need to express yourself. It doesn’t have to be writing novels; it could be painting, sculpting, writing music or any creative activity that allows you to relate your feelings. We often describe certain people as creative types. We say it’s in the genes and runs in families. How often do you hear that someone “gets it from their father or mother”? There may be some truth in that. My mum loved to write and she did so beautifully. My brother is an incredibly talented musician and songwriter, as are my sons. My sister is a successful artist and paints wonderful miniatures from her little bedroom studio in the Lake District. And the same could be said for nieces, nephews and grandchildren, there’s plenty of creative talent within the family.
I do believe the world is filled with creative people. I know so many personally that I’m sure it’s just a basic human trait. While there may be an artist in everyone, sadly it’s often lost when childhood dreams are set aside for the real world. But for those who feel compelled to pursue their art throughout life, it’s just not possible to set it aside for long. Ask any of them why they do it and they’ll more than likely tell you it’s just something they feel the need to do.
I’ve written and painted and had the urge to be creative all my life. I once dreamed of a career as an artist but life took over and my career path went in a very different direction. As most of us know, when mouths are to be fed, we do what we have to and it’s not always possible to follow the path we intended to tread. Having said that, the creative mind doesn’t stop just because you can’t find the time to express yourself. It keeps churning out ideas and locking them away for a chance to get back to them when time is available. There’s an upside of course, life’s reality, hard lessons and dramas provide a treasure trove of ideas and experiences to share when we do get the time, that’s particularly for a writer.
I find that creative people tend to be more open to ideas and are always ready to explore possibilities. They look for details rather than broad views, see things from other peoples’ perspective and feel a lot of empathy when they listen to others speak. They see the world from all angles, which helps a writer, as it allows them to take different points of view, get into characters’ heads and imagine how they would react or feel in any given circumstances.
There’s something else that drives me personally to want to write or paint and it could be that other creatives feel the same. I believe it’s partially to do with wanting to reveal one’s self, wanting people to know and understand the real me and doing it through art and writing is the best way I know how. I want to tell of my struggles, my joys and my heartaches. I want to tell my story, even though it may be hidden within the words of a novel, the paint on a canvas or the notes of a melody. Perhaps we all have a basic need to share ourselves with the wider world, to express ourselves through any means available. For me it’s through writing.