Have you noticed the strange feature of the English language that most of our words that mean ‘really good’ imply disbelief or some other concept that we may not wish to imply?
List of words for ‘really good’ that imply disbelief:
- unbelievable, incredible, fabulous, fantastic.
For the first two we can easily see the disbelief. For the next two we need to dig a little into etymology. Fabulous relates to fables – things that did not happen. Fantastic relates to fantasy – things that we only imagine.
So let’s not say that somebody has done a fabulous job, since that may imply we don’t believe they really have done a good job. Perhaps it’s not as good as it seems, or maybe they are taking credit for somebody else’s work.
Better to just say they have done a really good job.
Other alternatives imply surprise:
- marvellous, wonderful, amazing, astonishing, stunning, gobsmacking
Surprise suggests less scepticism than does disbelief, but the scepticism is hinted nonetheless. Even if not scepticism, it could be taken to imply that the person usually does a less good job. Ewan, you got it right for once! Marvellous! You usually make such a hash of things.
Again, I’d stick to ‘Good job, Ewan!’
Other praise words serve as superlatives or comparisons:
- excellent, outstanding, exceptional, superb, superlative, remarkable, unparalleled, unsurpassed, first-class, first-rate
Even if these don’t imply that Ewan usually fails, they could imply that most of his friends do, ie Ewan has excelled relative to his classmates, if not relative to his usual low performance level. Comparisons between people seem unkind to me. To describe Ewan or his work as ‘outstanding’ hints to his sister Eithne that hers is not.
When one does excellently, one must, by definition, have excelled others, from which it follows that those others have achieved less than best practice. Let us call such unfortunates the excellees, contrasting them with Ewan who in this case we can call the exceller.
If we don’t identify, implicitly or explicitly, specific excellees (Hah! Losers!) we identify the human race in general as a bunch of excellees. With so many beople being excelled (surpassed, outperformed, beaten), perhaps they needn’t feel bad about it. But doesn’t it generate a pessimistic feeling about people and about life? The same concern applies to the disbelieving words. If I describe a donation somebody made to a humanitarian charity as ‘incredible’, am I taking a bleak view of human nature – saying that most humans are mean? Some might say that’s just being realistic, and we should not kid ourselves. Perhaps.
Some praise words just mean big:
- colossal, huge (colloquial)
No harm I suppose. But they only work for a small class of types of work. I wouldn’t say that somebody’s really good, intricate needlepoint work was colossal.
‘Terrific’ sounds nice. Until we look up the etymology and see that it comes from the latin word for terror and means ‘frightful’.
No. None of the above say what’s needed. That’s why, next time Ewan does a great job, I’m going to say ‘Ewan, that’s really splendid!’
‘Splendid’, and its posher fellow travellers ‘splendorous’ and ‘resplendent’, means ‘looks really nice’. The website etymonline.com says:
Splendid: 1620s, “marked by grandeur,” probably a shortening of earlier splendidious (early 15c.), from Latin splendidus “bright, shining, glittering; sumptuous, gorgeous, grand; illustrious, distinguished, noble; showy, fine, specious,” from splendere “be bright, shine, gleam, glisten,” from PIE *splnd- “to be manifest” (source also of Lithuanian splendžiu “I shine,” Middle Irish lainn “bright”). An earlier form was splendent (late 15c.). From 1640s as “brilliant, dazzling;” 1640s as “conspicuous, illustrious; very fine, excellent.” Ironic use (as in splendid isolation, 1843) is attested from 17c.
Other good ones that have a similar feel to ‘splendid’:
- exquisite, admirable, exemplary, sterling, magnificent, sublime, gorgeous, brilliant, inspirational, elegant
I still wonder slightly about ‘exemplary’. Sounds a tad comparative. ‘This is what you SHOULD be doing, instead of the dunder-headed, pointless way you’re going about things at present.’ But let’s leave it there for now, if only to provide variety.
Splendid has such a nice sound. It brings to mind a jolly hockey teacher at an English boarding school, with an unshakably positive mindset that she is doing her best to communicate her students.
So let’s not use ‘incredible’ or ‘unbelievable’ to describe acts of great kindness or courage, and especially not simple demonstrations of competence. Let’s not imply that humans, or specific individuals, are innately callous, cowardly or incompetent. Let’s acknowledge splendour wherever we see it. That would be splendid.
Bondi Junction, November 2019
I hope the woman whose photo I used at the top of this does not mind – it was just sitting there on the open internet. I just felt the photo captured so well the concept of pleasure at a job well done. Congratulations to that woman on the splendid work that led to her degree!
What is grace? I think of it as a sort of beauty associated with movement. A dance can be graceful, but a symphony or a painting cannot. They have a different sort of beauty.
It can also refer to human interactions. When done tactfully and considerately, leaving nobody feeling awkward, or worse than they need to feel, they are graceful. Somebody that deals with others in a way that is unnecessarily rough and hurtful ‘lacks grace’.
I think there may be a connection between these two. I’ll think about that later. But for now let’s think about the grace of movement.
I am a huge fan of graceful movement. It doesn’t just have to be dance, which is often designed to be graceful. It can be found in the most unexpected places.
Since my third year of high school I have enjoyed physical activity and being fit. In my youth that included going in cycling and running races. In later high school I trained hard on my bicycle, and the fitness gained from this equipped me to win our annual school cross country race. That then put me into the team for the inter-school races for our region – the Southern Districts of New South Wales. I was at a Catholic school and I think we competed against the other catholic and non-government schools in that region.
I nearly always came third in these inter-school competitions. There was a boy from another Canberra school that came second. I think his name was David Rowe, but I am not sure. What I am completely sure of is that the winner was always Andrew Reardon, from Saint Patrick’s boarding school in Goulburn.
I didn’t see much of Andrew in those cross country races. Just a pair of heels disappearing into the distance as soon as the starting gun went off. If we were running on trails in the pine forest, as we often were, my only goal was to keep him in sight so I could follow his route and thereby avoid taking a wrong turn.
In summer we would have inter-school athletics. I was chosen to represent my school at the middle distance events, of which I usually chose the 1500m and 3000m races. Again I usually came third, but this time I got to see Andrew Reardon in action from closer quarters, and not just from behind. We often raced on lovely, smooth grass 300m tracks that belonged to the richer private schools. A 3000m race was ten laps, which was enough time for Andrew to get to being on the exact opposite side of the track from me – 150m ahead – so I could see him running from the side. And what a gorgeous sight it was! He seemed to just float over the ground in an effortless manner with a grace that words cannot describe. It felt like watching a gazelle or a cheetah in a David Attenborough film, except that cheetahs are sprinters and would probably keel over if asked to run further than 400m.
Any feelings of envy or competitive resentment just leached out of me, as I just felt so privileged to watch this graceful performance. One would say it was poetry in motion if it hadn’t been said a million times before. But the loss of my competitive urge didn’t make me slow down. Rather I increased my pace so that the distance between us didn’t get to more than half a lap and thereby degrade my view of this majestic performance. I imagine Andrew was just cruising at what was a comfortable pace for him, while I was gasping and spluttering. I expect he could easily have accelerated and lapped me quite soon had he a mind to do so. If so, it was a demonstration of the other sort of grace to not subject me to that humiliation. Noblesse oblige.
What was it about his running style that touched me so? I want to say rhythm and symmetry, but that has a connotation of mechanistic, and it was anything but mechanistic. Relaxation was another key aspect, and machines are not relaxed. Andrew looked like he was playing, or floating. It was like a Brandenburg Concerto in vision. You had to be there.
Thereafter I worked on making my own running style as relaxed, symmetric and rhythmic as I could. This wasn’t just vanity. I also believed that running that way would use less energy and allow me to run faster. Perhaps it worked a bit. I did get much faster over the next few years, and some people were even kind enough to say that I had a ‘nice running style’.
The last I saw of Andrew Reardon was in late 1980, when I saw him on telly, which was showing a NSW schools championship athletic meet at Hensley Field in Sydney, which was then a lovely, smooth grass track (now it’s synthetic). It was a 1500m event, which he won reasonably easily, I think in about 3:52. Watching it on telly, without being distracted by my own attempts to run, I could revel in the joy of this exhibition of perfect movement. It was great.
I sometimes wonder what became of Andrew Reardon. Did he become a farmer, as many of the boys at that rural college might have done, or did he move to the city and become a businessman? Did he grow a middle-age paunch as most men do (Oh no!), or did he keep himself trim? Does he still run?
Shortly thereafter I was struck by the running of another Andrew – this time the Australian representative Andrew Lloyd. I saw him on telly, I think running some national championship meet, at perhaps 5k or 10k. He too had a beautiful, relaxed style, seeming to glide along as if his feet weren’t even touching the ground. I remember he was wearing a cap, which runners would generally avoid as an encumbrance, and making it hard to dissipate heat. But it didn’t seem to trouble him. He looked so cool!
In my university days I trained sometimes with athletes at the Australian Institute of Sport, since that was in Canberra and so was I. So I got to see Andrew Lloyd up close while training, and to admire his easy style.
He was involved in a horrible road accident in the early 1980s in which his wife was killed and his elbow was smashed. When he recovered, his elbow was, if not fused, swollen and difficult to move, so his style became lopsided and a bit awkward. But he was still very fast. I think he won the City to Surf a few years after that.
Grace is not a pre-requisite for being a fast runner. Contemporary with Lloyd was Laurie Whitty, a runner with a famously ungainly style, but who won national championships and represented Australia. One of the most famous ever distance runners was the Czech Emil Zatopek, who apparently had a very ungainly style. There is not much film of him running because his heyday was in the fifties. Australia’s most prestigious 10k race is named after him because he won in the 1956 Melbourne olympics and apparently really liked Australia.
Have you noticed that the lululemon logo looks very similar to a capital Omega: Ω? It also looks a bit like the emblem on the Torres Strait islander flag.
In the early eighties I was heavily influenced by a book by Percy Cerutty, who coached a number of brilliant Australian distance runners, including Herb Elliott, who held the world 1500m and mile records and won the 1500m at the 1960 olympics in Rome. He advocated a very nature-based training regime, involving only natural foods – mostly raw – and running on sand hills, beaches and in forests rather than on athletic tracks. But the most memorable – to me – aspect of his philosophy was his claim that through too much soft living, adult humans had forgotten how to move naturally. So to learn how to run properly, and fast, we should watch how other animals do it.
Cerutty disdained symmetry. I don’t know what he would have thought of Andrew Reardon. Percy thought human running should have different modes like a horse – trot, canter and gallop, in order of increasing speed. While trotting is symmetric and may be suitable for marathons, cantering and galloping are not, and he thought they should be used for distances of 10k and shorter. I remember running on the beach when on summer holidays trying to imagine myself as a two-legged horse and transition from trot to canter and then to gallop as I sped up. It seemed to work but maybe it was all psychological. If you imagine yourself galloping then you feel fast and, to some extent, that makes you go faster.
I remember seeing some visiting African athletes jogging about in tracksuits on the training track in Canberra, while preparing for a race on the main track that was next door. They just looked so flexible and bouncy, as if every movement was joyful play. That was another manifestation of grace.
Enough about athletics. That is just one example of where grace can crop up unexpectedly. It is there in hurdling and high jump and pole vault as well as in running. Maybe we could even see it in shot put, but we might have to look a little harder.
Grace seems important in Zen, although it doesn’t seem to be identified or named as such. In the Japanese tea ceremony, great importance is placed on the way one moves in preparing the tea, in serving it, and in how one drinks it. I love the way the cup is offered with both hands and a bow, and is received in the same way. This translates to the way that business cards are presented, and even how purchases are handed across in a shop. I try my best to remember to participate in such small but special rituals. When in doubt, use two hands and make a slight bow!
I have never mindfully raked pebbles as Zen monks sometimes do, but I imagine grace plays a role in that as well – watching the intricate patterns made by the pebbles as they are disturbed by the rake tines and then resettle in their wake.
I think if we look hard enough we can find grace in many things that move around us – humans, other animals, trees and bushes in the wind, even inanimate objects. I try to find this when I feel disheartened. It helps a bit.
I think again about the role of grace in human interaction. The grace is in the speech acts, in the words said, the tone in which they are said, and in accompanying gestures and facial expressions. I suppose all of these are movements. On a simple level, they are movements because speech comes from movement of body parts – lips, tongue, larynx, lungs – and of the intervening air that carries the sound waves. On a more abstract level, they are movements because they are expressed over time, and movement is defined in terms of time. They cannot be captured by a still picture – although a skilful snapshot can hint at it. Even more abstractly, they are movements of emotion – a communication of feeling from one being to another.
I would like to cite an example of a well-known graceful interaction, but my memory fails me (I imagine there are lots from Barack Obama. He is a very graceful person). Nevertheless, we all know what they are and have witnessed and valued them. They catch our attention particularly in difficult circumstances – when somebody turns aside aggression or insult, or rejects a crude suggestion, without aggression and without making anybody feel bad. When somebody finds a way to include somebody that is excluded by their difference, without making a big deal of it. When somebody finds a way to show solidarity and support for somebody that is grieving, without patronising them or putting them in a position where they are obliged to respond.
Then there is grace shown by somebody under extreme pressure – be it their own tragedy, anger, fear or anxiety. When they surprise us by expressing and taking care for things beyond themselves and their worries, despite all.
I don’t know whether it’s the same sort of grace. Classifications rarely matter anyway. But it seemed worth mentioning.
I resolve to try to be more graceful in my relations to other living beings, rather than just in how I run.
Bondi Junction, August 2019
PS I just remembered cricket. I couldn’t send this off without mentioning the joy of watching a truly graceful batter. How they can deal with a heavy red projectile fired at them at up to 160 kph by a small, subtle flick of the wrists that sends the ball to the boundary for four runs. Watching really good batting is like watching a brilliant dance. It’s not for nothing that cricket enthusiasts, more than in any other sport I know, keep photos of their heros in action – in the execution or the aftermath of one of the wide variety of elegant shots available to them.
I am on a coach that has just left Sydney, travelling towards the town where my parents live. I might say where my father lives, because I am travelling there to attend the funeral of my mother.
My mother died of a combination of advanced dementia and dehydration, as she had reached a point where she would not or could not take anything orally any more, be it medicine, food or water. Whether it was would or could, we did not know, because her brain had deteriorated to a state in which she was mostly unable to communicate. Dementia is a cruel illness. We know that, if she could have formed and expressed coherent wishes in her last months, she would have asked for assistance to end her life peacefully, because her advanced care directive states that in very clear terms. But our government, like many, is cruel – with heartless rules that forbid any such mercy, kept in place by theocratic politicians wishing to force their own dogmatic religious rules on others, and medical lobbyists who have been trained to, and train others to, see every patient death as a black mark on their career scoresheet, regardless of how much it might be wished, or how great the harm that is done to the person by prolonging their life, or the fullness of the life they have behind them.
But let us speak no more of policy at this time. My mother is now at rest, beyond the possibility of further harm from patriarchal, preaching politicians or scorekeeping medical lobbyists. For that I am thankful. Her last few days were peaceful, a contrast to her torment and confusion of the last few years. She finally came to a calm, dignified stop in silence, with no struggle. Keats’ wonderful phrase ‘to cease upon a midnight with no pain’ seems so apt, except that it was shortly after lunchtime. I was not there at the end, having had to leave her bedside to return to Sydney two days before her death. But three of Mum’s immediate family were there and were able to tell the rest of us how it went.
What moved me to start writing this note was looking out of the bus window, at the deep blue sky, an overpass soaring majestically over our road (yes, overpasses can soar, it is not compulsory to view them as ugly!), the bright-coloured lorries and cars, and the restful forests ahead. The thought presented itself to me that, though I am going to the funeral of my much-loved mother, life goes on and is full of beauty and sometimes even flashes of joy. She would be glad that I am appreciating the beauty of the day, feeling comfortable and content, at least at this moment, if not always.
Almost instantly I felt transported to the consciousness of somebody, a son or daughter, or a friend, travelling to my funeral, at some time in the future, and experiencing similar feelings. Yes, life will go on after I die and, there will be beauty, purpose and occasional joys for those that survive me.
And so it will continue, to the end of this world. But even then, it will not matter that this world has ended, because there will no doubt be other worlds orbiting other suns, some maybe even in other universes.
These expressions are inept, of course. I am so often too long-winded. I would do better to just say that I felt, in some inexpressible way, that this, this moment, this experience, is fitting, and that there will be similar fitting moments in relation to and after my death and for most other deaths.
Death is nothing to us. Then again it is everything, because without death there can be no life. It is a cliché to say so but nevertheless I will swallow my pride and admit that it is only the finitude of our lives, of our consciousness, that makes life meaningful.
My mother was a very good woman. But stay – I disdain the habit of classifying people as good and bad, so let us instead say that she was a woman who did much good. In so many ways she enriched the lives of those around her. It is a great blessing that she has lived. So it must also be a blessing that she has died, because without dying she could never have lived. That’s looking at time backwards, but why should we not do that? Time is, after all, just a dimension, and the popular metaphor of the “arrow of time” that compels forward motion is much too militaristic for a peacenik like me
I will always remember her. In fact, since she died I have been flooded with memories, some that I didn’t know I still had. Perhaps in the later stages of her dementia my mind protected itself by blocking earlier memories of her, because the comparison between the person she had been and the state to which she was now reduced was too painful. But now those comparisons are gone and the gates have been opened. Mum is free at last. And now my memory has been freed and most of the memories are warm, strong and ….. just good.
It is fitting.
Bondi Junction, August 2018
Post Script: If my memory serves me correctly, this is the first essay I have written about death. I expect it will not be my last. Death is a subject that interests me greatly, and which I often think about (but not usually in a bad way).
Post Post Script: The featured image for this essay is of the character Death from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The image is copyright but I doubt Mr Pratchett (RIP) would have minded, as he had progressive views about death. I very much like the character Death in Discworld, because he is portrayed as being compassionate, which is how I think about death.
I love Peanuts.
There’s a double entendre.
It could mean that I love ground nuts. I do, very much indeed. I can’t imagine living a life without nuts, especially without peanuts. They are the food of the gods.
Or it could mean that I love Charles M Schulz’s comic strip featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy the beagle, Lucy the bossyboots and others. That is true too. I have some old books of Peanuts comic strips that I have had since I bought them at second-hand markets decades ago, and which I still really treasure.
One sequence of strips I was thinking of recently is when one of the characters – Linus, I think – was telling the others about haphephobia, which he explained in his overly earnest, nerdy way, was a fear of being touched. In one of those strips somebody accidentally almost touches Snoopy, who instantly leaps up metres into the air as an instinctive over-reaction.
I recalled this as I have been thinking recently about touch as a means of non-verbal communication, and how some people tend to touch others when they talk to them, while others assiduously avoid it. I’ll call the former ‘touchy’, pausing only to note that this has nothing in common with the occasional use of that word to mean short-tempered.
When I think about the people I know that are touchy, It seems that most of them are women. The most usual touch is on the forearm, or sometimes the elbow. I know one person who rubs the side of your arm around the elbow when you talk to her – a gesture that I find unusual, but heart-warming.
What do these touches mean? They seem to communicate reassurance, goodwill, perhaps an indication that, right at this point in time, you have their full attention. Whether that is the intended meaning I don’t know. Quite possibly there is no intended meaning. Touchy people seem to be more instinctive than others. Their words and actions stem from their un-self-conscious connection to the great cosmic flow – what Daoists call Wu Wei – rather than from premeditation.
In Anglo-Celtic culture, not many men touch, but some do. In my experience those that do tend to be matey about it, and are more likely to pat on the shoulder or the back than touch the forearm or hand. And they generally only pat other men.
I have habitually been a non-toucher. I don’t quite have haphephobia, but I have been known to flinch slightly when somebody unexpectedly touches me, or even comes close. I don’t know where it comes from. Freud would have us look to our childhood and, like almost every child growing up in the sixties and early seventies, I received plenty of corporal punishment when I was judged to have been naughty. My punishment was considerably lighter than that which many of my school friends told me about, and my parents never struck me on the head or anywhere that would cause any damage other than redness that lasted an hour or so. But nevertheless I can remember cringing before the blows that a parent was – with all the best intentions and believing that they were morally obliged to do this no matter how much they disliked doing it – about to deliver. Perhaps I cringed because I had a nervous disposition, or maybe my disposition became more nervous because of the punishment. I can’t tell. I do know that many of my contemporaries seemed to be less physically nervous than I, so I Imagine my genetic predisposition played at least some part in it.
Whatever the reason, I have not been good at being touched and have certainly not been a toucher. But recently this has been changing. Perhaps I have been listening to too many philosophy podcasts about ‘authenticity’ and about how relationships with others are the only real thing in the world. Whether with conscious effort or just because one tends to relax more as one matures, I have become more capable of tolerating unexpected touch without flinching.
But wait, there’s more!
I have, to my immense surprise, started to become, every now and then, a toucher. At first I surprised myself by, on occasion, gently tapping a forearm or a shoulder. Never on skin of course! We Anglo-Celtics need the reassurance of a shirt or jumper beneath our hand in order to feel that one is not being improper. Maybe some of the later taps were deliberate. It’s hard to tell. But even though some taps may have been pre-considered, the overall trend is not. There is no plan.
The forearms and shoulders that I find myself tapping or patting are exclusively those of men. I think that is partly deliberate and partly instinctive. I have had it so soundly drummed into me that any uninvited touch of a woman other than one’s life partner is not acceptable, that I have big unconscious barriers against ever doing that. In any case, in the current climate it seems wise to proscribe such actions to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation. It seems a pity, but that’s just one of many ways that the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have made things so much worse for others. I wonder what other people think about that, and whether it will change with time. At least many women feel no constraint against touching men to whom they are talking, as well as, of course, other women.
I have been surprised too, about how non-frightening and positive it can be to do a simple tap or pat. It is such an efficient way to communicate goodwill and support and, unlike supportive words, it doesn’t seem to run the risk of being interpreted as sarcastic. There’s so much sarcasm in the world. We don’t need people inferring it when it’s not there.
This gradual opening to the possibility of touch seems a good development. But there’s one Anglo-Celtic reservation I have that I don’t think will ever change. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tolerate a massage. It just creeps me out to much, people poking around in my neck muscles and such like. There are too many fragile parts in there that I feel are on the verge of getting damaged. And it’s too close to being tickled, which I never was keen on. I don’t know whether the childhood cringing from imminent punishment plays a part in it as well. Massages are supposed to make you relax but, for me, they do the opposite. Still, plenty of people like massages, so me not having any just means there are more for the rest of you.
A cynic might say ‘What’s the big deal? People touch skin to skin all the time in the business world, when they shake hands at the start of a meeting!’ That is true and, being in the business world, I do that as well, with nary a thought. But it doesn’t count, and you know it doesn’t count, you cynics! Shaking hands is a meaningless stylised ritual that has long passed its usefulness. They say it was originally invented in order to show somebody you met that you weren’t holding a weapon (an urban myth?). Except when visiting or living in the USA, I think that these days we can take as read the weaponlessness of those we meet. Plus it spreads germs. I sometimes wonder ‘What if I’m about to break out in a cold? I’d hate to give it to somebody else.’. We all know that the most infectious period with a cold is just before you realise you have one – or is that another urban myth? I admire the Japanese, who bow when meeting people for business, and then present business cards in a pleasingly formal way.
The point is that it’s the voluntariness of the unbidden touch that can make it so scary to do, or to receive. There’s nothing scary in what is mandated, as handshakes before business meetings are. Or, for that matter, the compulsory ballroom dancing lessons we had in senior high school, where we boys had to hold girls’ hands as we marched to and fro, then twirled them about, or twirled about them, whichever it was (I wasn’t terribly good at ballroom dancing). We were mostly too terrified even to talk to the girls at school, let alone touch them (we outnumbered them five to one so it seemed presumptuous to assume any of these rare and special humans would wish to hear anything we had to say), but when the dancing mistress fixes you with her beady eye and snaps ‘Take positions! Join hands! Go!’, you just obey.
This essay at one point had the word ‘sashayed’ in it (can you guess where?). But now it doesn’t. I think that’s an improvement.
Bondi Junction, August 2018
I am fed up, completely fed up.
Too many times have I listened patiently while people with strongly-held but not-critically-examined opinions explain that the trouble with politicians these days is that most of them have never held a ‘real job’ (see list of examples of media whinges at the end of this article).
I am generally too polite to make the obvious retort: ‘Oh, I didn’t know that some jobs were real and some were pretend. Which ones are the real ones then?’
A favourite here in Australia is to hold up the example of Ben Chifley, who worked for the railways for a few years. Ironically, those for whom he is a poster child eulogise him for ‘having worked as a train driver’, little knowing that train driver was – at the time Chifley did it around 1912 – a very prestigious position – the pinnacle of the railway industry. Hardly the sweat-of-the-brow, in-touch-with-the-common-man position that people dream it was. Chifley did work at lowly, manual jobs in the railway trade, including shovelling coal, but that was in order to work his way up to the lofty (some might say ‘ivory tower’) position of train driver.
When the criticism is made, it usually includes union organiser among the ranks of ‘pretend jobs’. I find that criticism astonishing. A good union organiser is a combination of human rights barrister, public relations consultant, aid worker, counsellor, logistics engineer and CEO. The job sounds so hard to me that I can’t imagine any amount of money being enough to induce me to take it on. They have to persuade people to join unions, negotiate with powerful business interests, chair union meetings to try to get workable decisions from groups of employees that may have quite disparate aims, organise strike funds, conduct legal battles against laws aimed at removing any remaining negotiating power of employees against their big business employers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Given the skill set needed to be a successful union organiser, I imagine any business looking for a new head of HR, finance or operations would be happy to take them on – as long as they promise not to organise any strikes.
Yet, somehow, all that activity is not regarded as being a ‘real job’. I have nothing against real estate agents, pathologists, car vendors, fast-food checkout operators or NHS statistics processors, but I cannot see what life experience or exposure to the ‘real world’ those jobs provide that being a union organiser does not.
Another apparently ‘pretend job’ is being a political aide. I don’t know much about political aides but, from the outside, it seems such a job would be a combination of super-PA and media advisor. They have to make sure the MP or candidate they advise gets to all their engagements in time and is briefed on the issues they need to know about, as well as being properly dressed, fed, rested and toileted. Hardly a walk in the park. And hardly a low-skill profession.
But is it something else rather than a lack of skill that is being insinuated about political and union jobs? If so, what exactly is it? Does the job have to be strenuously manual and involve almost no brain work in order to be ‘real’? Then a brickies’ labourer has a real job but someone gutting fish in a cannery does not? That makes no sense to me. And why does there have to be no brain work? Is that just the current anti-intellectual fashion playing out? Are people with clever minds required not to use them in order not to stand out from the crowd and seem elitist? Could it not just be possible that if somebody has a clever mind it would be better employed trying to find ways to raise the wages of the working class or make sure that our politicians are actually well-informed on the issues they are deciding, than in digging a ditch? The good book itself tells us (No, not the HitchHikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. The other one), in the Parable of the Talents, that it is a sin not to use the talents you’ve been given.
Often the accusation of politicians ‘never having held a real job’ is equivocated with the accusation of ‘never having experienced real life’. This is as nonsensical as the other lines of attack. The challenges of real life are things like trying to find a home to rent, save up money and maybe eventually borrow to buy a home. They are going through the joys and pangs of love found and lost and maybe searching for a life partner. They are trying to carve out a sense of purpose in a world that is a babble of noise, shallowness and competing interests. They are trying to find communities to which one can belong, to gain acceptance in them and then work to benefit the community and to help it achieve its goals.
I think most of these are experienced by everybody, and all of them are experienced by most people, regardless of their chosen occupation. The occupations that are least exposed to these challenges are those that are tremendously well-paid – investment banker, business tycoon or senior barrister. Yet somehow those are regarded as ‘real jobs’ while being a lowly-paid political aide or union organiser is not.
The phrase ‘out of touch with real people’ is another popular one to throw around. Again one wonders what one needs to do to be a ‘real person’. How can I tell if I am one? Wouldn’t it be terrible if, after years of thinking you were a real person, you suddenly discovered you were a fake? Could you demand a refund? From whom, I wonder?
I think what they mean is just ‘has regular contact with people that don’t work in unions or politics’. Well that criticism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. Most of a politician’s day seems to be spent meeting people, and only part of that is with other politicians. As an MP they have to meet whatever constituents ask for a meeting, within reason, and my understanding is that they do plenty of that. If you have a grievance, make an appointment to go talk to your local MP about it, rather than sitting at home whinging!
Now senior ministers don’t do much meeting with constituents, because the other demands on their time are so great. But the only people that get to be a senior minister without serving their time as a backbencher – with all the time ‘meeting real people’ that that entails – are those that come straight into parliament at a senior level, typically from a career in either business or law, two professions that are mystifyingly regarded as ‘real jobs’ even though the average big businessman or senior lawyer meets far fewer working class people per week than just about any politician. Those that have to work their way up as a backbencher before becoming a minister will have had plenty of exposure to ‘real people’. Are we then going to complain that, once they are Treasurer or PM, they should set aside a large proportion of their precious time for yarning with locals at the pub, rather than spending that time studying and reflecting on the pros and cons of an important decision that will affect the lives of millions of citizens? If we want to make that criticism, why do we not also make it of the senior people of any organisation, be it a business, a church, a charity or a sport federation? Why should politics be the only profession in which one is expected not to devote one’s efforts to making the best decisions possible, and achieving the best possible outcomes.
Now I’m not suggesting that all politicians do spend all their time studying and agonising over policy. If they did, the policy would never be enacted. In business, selling a product is as important as designing and manufacturing it. A business that devotes all its efforts to the latter and none to the former will soon be a dead business, and the same applies in politics. If politicians have a policy they believe is worth selling, they need to put their utmost into selling it and, because of the adversarial nature of our political system, that will always be a difficult job. Selling it means speeches, private negotiations, cajoling, counting numbers, nurturing votes from fence-sitters, and so on. It’s a really hard task, and not one I’d have the stomach for. But it has to be done. Otherwise somebody else with less benevolent motives – a Putin or Trump – is likely to get up and sell their alternative, and we’ll all be worse off.
A good policy needs effort to sell it, and that effort is worthwhile. Where I get cross at politicians is when they cook up useless or even harmful policies solely in order to sell themselves, ie to increase their popularity and thereby the likelihood that they will retain power. They may be selling themselves to the public, as is the case with politicians that flirt with the xenophobia that can always be found in any population under a moderate amount of stress. Or they may be selling themselves to a king-making power group within their party or to powerful financial backers. The current Australian PM seems to have sold off so much of himself to those groups that he is now indistinguishable from his reactionary, climate-change-denying, Muslim-hating, would-be-theocratic predecessor, with the sole exception that the predecessor at least had the virtue of being true to his own values.
Politics, including being a political aide or a union organiser, is a tough job. You have to work really hard, for pay that is much lower than you would get if you were working that hard, and with that level of skill, in private industry. You have to endure public hatred, mockery, accusation and vilification. You are always at work – none of your time is your own. You are regularly confronted by failure and heartbreak, when you lose an election or maybe just fail to get approval of the policies you believe in. You are always on the move, often living out of hotel rooms rather than in the comfort of your own home.
The way I see it, a job in politics is as tough and as real as it gets and, as long as they are not using their position to corruptly enrich themselves (which, mercifully, is fairly rare in my country, and in most other OECD countries) politicians deserve our respect for that, even if we vehemently disagree with their policy proposals. Someone who has always worked in politics has always had a tough job, more so than somebody that spent their first ten years after uni at Wernham Hogg, playing office pranks like putting their co-worker’s stapler in jelly (not that I have anything against office workers. I’m sure they can be good citizens and lovely sons or daughters-in-law too).
So let’s all stop whinging about our politicians’ backgrounds and start engaging with them about their policies.
It’s all just so silly. If we were to apply the same standard to other professions as we do to politics we’d have job interviews containing lines like:
‘The university is very impressed by this thing you’ve invented called Gravity, Mr Newton, but what we really need to know before we consider employing you as a research fellow, is whether you have had any experience as a blacksmith’.
Bondi Junction, March 2018
In searching the internet for examples of this opinion I have been railing against, I came across a couple of reasonable-sounding defences of the view. While they do give pause for thought, I am not persuaded by them. Here they are.
Argument 1 – Requiring a previous career screens out the young
This argument says that, if a starting-out politician has already had a career in another profession, they are likely to be at least middle-aged, with the wisdom and life experience that people generally expect to come with age. It is undeniable that life experience accrues with age, and most people would agree that wisdom generally increases with age for most people, at least until dementia sets in. But very few people would argue that we should therefore only allow people aged over forty to enter politics. That would be a very different, and highly controversial argument, and while it may have some points in its favour, I would not be inclined to back it. Furthermore, it would be an argument about age, not prior profession, and would exclude people who had worked in bakeries, hair salons, at building sites and at law firms as much as it would those who had worked in unions or political offices. So I don’t see this argument as providing any support to the ‘must have worked at a proper job’ case.
Argument 2 – Having a fall-back career allows greater integrity
This argument says that, if somebody has worked successfully in another occupation, they have the option of returning to that occupation if their political career doesn’t work out. Hence, the argument goes, they can tell the party’s Chief Whip to get stuffed when she demands that the new MP vote along party lines for a bill with which the MP does not agree. Somebody who does not have a fall-back career may follow the Whip’s orders because they fear that if they do not, they will lose party pre-selection and hence lose their job at the next election.
I don’t find this convincing either. Somebody that has worked as a unionist or a political staffer will have developed skills and experience that enable them to return to working in that capacity just as easily as one can return to working in an office or a hospital.
Secondly, if we pursue the logic of this argument, we should favour politicians that are rich, because they don’t need the salary and hence will presumably have greater integrity. Experience shows again and again that that is not the case. It is the lure of power, not money, that makes many rich people still desperate to retain their political appointments. Australia’s current PM is enormously wealthy, wealth gained from working so-called ‘real jobs’ (ie lawyer and investment banker), and yet has comprehensively sold his integrity to the reactionary right of his party – an influential group that opposes every value that the PM used to stand for – just so that he can hang on to his position as party leader, and hence PM.
Thirdly, it is not a tautology that a system in which MPs vote according to their individual views, without any sanction for departing from the party line, leads to better, more democratic, outcomes. Sure it sounds good, the idea that our representatives follow their conscience. But in practice in can generate some very unsavoury results. Party discipline may be oppressive but it also provides a defence against manipulation by powerful lobby groups. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US Congress, where the NRA targets individual MPs in non-safe seats, threatening them with a targeted hostile campaign at the next election unless they vote against gun control bills, even if their own party is promoting those bills. The reason the NRA can do that is because party discipline is so weak that it easily outbalanced by the NRA’s threats. If party discipline were such that voting against the party line would mean losing pre-selection, and hence losing the seat anyway, the threats of groups like the NRA would be futile. It is certainly arguable that one reason US politics is so much hostage to certain sectional interests is the ability of those interests to target individual MPs, something that cannot happen in countries with tighter party discipline like the UK or Australia.
I am still not entirely sure whether the benefits of party discipline outweigh its disadvantages (although given the recent terrible gun tragedies in the US, it’s hard not to lean that way), but regardless of one’s view, it is certainly far from self-evident that making it easy for MPs to vote against their party’s policy would be a good thing.
One day the sun will grow so large that it will first dessicate, then bake, then engulf and vaporise, the Earth and everything on it. No life will survive that. Perhaps some people will have escaped to habitable places in other solar systems, but it’s hard to imagine it would be many, given the enormous energy that is likely to be involved in any interstellar travel. I expect ordinary people will be unable to escape.
Even escapees will be wiped out eventually, as the universe, many billions of years from now, slides inexorably into heat death. No life will survive that.
So there it is: the end of the world is a matter of when, not if. We are powerless to prevent it.
That background makes it a bit confusing to work out what moral obligation we have to take actions that prevent a near-term end of the world, and to avoid actions that would hasten it.
If we are talking about preventing the end of the world in our lifetime, it can be easier to resolve, because that would affect people that are alive now, and most people recognise that they have at least some obligation of care to other people that cohabit the world with them.
But that obligation is less widely accepted when it comes to future generations, and the farther away those generations are, the fewer people tend to feel an obligation towards them. Politicians sometimes talk about intergenerational equity and caring for the future of our children, maybe even our grandchildren. But it’s a rare politician that argues for a policy on the basis of its effect on our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-children.
At some stage, life on Earth will come to an end, and it seems likely that that end, unless it occurs in the blink of an eye – which it is hard to imagine happening – will be accompanied by tremendous suffering. If that is inevitable then how can we work out whether it matters whether it occurs sooner or later?
We cannot solve this by reason alone. As David Hume so acutely observed “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Of course he wasn’t saying he did prefer the destruction of the world. He was saying that one must look to one’s emotions to find an answer.
Looking to my own emotions, I confess that I am more alarmed at the prospect of the world ending in a catastrophe in 100 years than in 100 million years, despite the fact that I will not be here to see either..
I use the word ‘catastrophe’ rather than ‘cataclysm’ because I think the end would be lingering and painful. We should be so lucky as to be extinguished in the blink of an eye. Philosophers who have nothing better to do with their time make up thought experiments involving a button you could press to instantaneously end the world, and ask under what circumstances you would press it. But there are no such buttons, nor ever likely to be, so we need to contend with the end being a drawn-out, painful process. I suspect widespread famine would be a major part of it. That would lead to outbreaks of uncontrolled violence as people compete for the dwindling resources of food and water. Disease would spread to accompany the famine – perhaps providing a more merciful end for some. We see this sort of catastrophe already in some parts of the Earth, and we will see them more often as climate change becomes more severe.
Is a ‘soft landing’ possible? What if, realising that the world will become uninhabitable within 200 years, we were to decide that we were morally obliged to not have children, in order not to inflict on those new people the pain of experiencing the world’s slow death? What would a world with no new children be like? Most of us, including me, feel that it would be very sad. I know of two novels that explore this: ‘The Children of Men‘ by PD James, and ‘I who have not known men‘ by Jacqueline Harpmann. In the first, for some unknown reason, humans cease to be able to conceive. The novel is set about twenty-six years after the last baby was born. In the second novel, a group of female prisoners escape from their underground dungeon to find the Earth deserted. They wander for many years in vain search of other survivors and after a while start to die of old age, with no replacement.
Both novels are confronting, bleak and sad. The James also has a thriller element to it (which I won’t spoil for you), but the basic premise is still bleak.
It would be very hard for us now to decide ‘No more babies’. Imagine us all gradually dying one by one, deprived of that feeling of continuity – the circle of life – that one gets from seeing younger generations. But what if society had the time to work up to that over several generations? What if, realising that all life would cease within ten generations, society worked to change its culture in order to equip people to feel more positive about non-procreation and less reliant on younger generations. It would be a very difficult psychological shift to accomplish. It would have to counteract the powerful impulse embedded in our psyche by evolution – to perpetuate the species. But who knows what techniques of psychological manipulation humans may have managed to invent in a thousand or more years’ time? Maybe they could condition future humans to find fulfilment in bringing their species in for a soft landing – for instance in working as a childless carer for old people until one becomes too old to work. Things could be set up so that the last remaining people have all the food, water, clothes, medicine, shelter, power and entertainment they need to survive solo (we would also need to train people to be comfortable with isolation, which we current humans are definitely not). They might also be provided with pills to provide a painless end to life once they near the point where they will no longer be able to feed themselves. That is not how it happens in ‘The Children of Men‘. But that book is set in 2021, not 3021, and with no notice for society to prepare for the landing (for some reason fertility just suddenly ceases in 1994).
If a soft landing were possible then, while an end of the world may be inevitable, its accompaniment by great suffering would not be. It would then become easy to argue for doing what we can to delay the end of the world. It is simply to prevent a great suffering.
What if it’s not possible, so that the great suffering is simply a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’? What if the amount of suffering accompanying the end of the world will be roughly the same regardless of whether it occurs in 200 years or 200 million years? Are we morally obliged to do what we can to defer it beyond 200 years? I pick 200 years by the way because that should be long enough to be fairly certain that nobody currently alive will be around to experience a world’s end in 200 years.
It seems to me that the main difference between the two end dates is all the currently-unconceived humans that would experience life in the intervening 199,999,800 years. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that such lives should come to pass? There is very little moral guidance on this. Even religions have little to say about this, with only a very few religions (albeit big powerful ones) forbidding contraception.
A group that has a decisive opinion that is the direct opposite of the anti-contraceptionists is the anti-natalists, led by the prominent South African philosopher David Benatar. Benatar argues that, since all life contains some suffering, it is immoral to create any new life. He does not accept that suffering may be offset by pleasure at other times in a life. Even a few moments of mild pain in an otherwise long, happy life makes the creation of that life a moral mistake, in Benatar’s book. Less extreme anti-natalists argue that procreating is OK if we think the new life will have more pleasure than suffering but that, since we can’t be sure, we are obliged to not procreate. A more folksy version of this is the comment uttered at many a late-night D&M discussion, that ‘this is no world to bring an innocent child into‘.
Not many people are anti-natalists. Most people, despite the exaggerated doom and gloom on the news – terrorist this and serial-killer that – (of course no mention of the real dangers like climate change, malaria, poverty, road carnage and plutocratic hijack of our democracies) see life as a generally pleasant experience and look positively on conferring it on new humans. But that tends to be a very personal feeling, in which the moral dimension cannot be disentangled from the powerful personal urge to procreate.
For those of us who are neither anti-natalists nor anti-contraceptionists, the question of those lives in the intervening 199,000,800 years remains a mystery to be explored. Is it important that they come to pass? Is it good that they do so?
Lest you decide I sound like a homicidal maniac and ring Homeland Security to have me ‘dealt with’, let me state here that I feel that it is better to do what we can to delay the end of the world. That’s a major factor in why I think action on climate change is the most important issue facing humanity today. But I won’t go into the reasons why in this essay, because this topic will be discussed at my upcoming philosophy club meeting and I want to avoid spoilers. In any case, I’m more interested in what other people think about this.
The dilemma posed by this essay was first raised by Oliver Kirk.
Bondi Junction, April 2017
- What, if any, obligations do we have to unborn generations? Do they include an obligation to ensure their existence?
- Does the nature or strength of the obligation change with the remoteness of the future generation?
- If we accept that the end of humanity will occur, and will be accompanied by great suffering, are we obliged to do what we can to delay it for as many centuries or millennia as possible (taking as agreed that we are obliged to delay it beyond the lifespan of anybody currently alive)?
- If we do feel obliged to delay, does that imply an obligation to maximise the population of the Earth, subject to being able to maintain adequate living standards?
- How do I feel about the fact that a time will come when there is no more life? Does it strip life of meaning? Or does it enhance meaning? Or neither?
- How would I feel about a world in which human reproduction became impossible?
- Do I feel differently about the world ending in 200 years from how I feel about it ending in 200 million years?
- What implications do our opinions on the above have on our feelings of what stance we should take on current future-oriented issues like climate change, balancing government budgets, infrastructure building, asteroid mapping, solar flare prediction?
PD James: ‘The Children of Men’
Jacqueline Harpmann: ‘I Who Have Never Known Men’ (‘Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes’)
Peter Singer: “Practical Ethics’. Discussion of obligations to future generations on p108-118 of Third Edition (2011, Cambridge University Press).
When I was little I wished I could have an adventure. I put it down to reading too much Enid Blyton. The children in her stories were always having adventures. In the Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree they visited magical lands in the clouds, got chased and imprisoned by goblins, wizards and stern school-teachers (Dame Slap and Mr Grim), flew on various improbable objects and had regular feasts. In the Famous Five and the Secret Seven they snuck across dark moors at night, following shadowy men in overalls who turned out to be either burglars or smugglers, frequently nearly getting caught, but finally managing to trick the wrong-doers and manoeuvre them into a sticky situation in which the grateful police were able to arrest them.
‘Oh, why can’t I have adventures like that?’ I wondered. ‘Why is my life so dull? If only I could have just one adventure, I’d be so happy!’
In primary school I loved playing soldiers with my friends in the bush around my home. Sometimes it was just me and my imagination. There were lots of great places: creeks with banks you could peer over to take a shot at the enemy, tall grass you could creep through, mounds of stones and sticks to hide behind and wriggle over. ‘If only’ I thought ‘this was a real war and I was a real soldier, with a tin helmet, a combat back-pack and a Lee-Enfield rifle’. I never thought about what shooting someone, or getting shot, would mean for me or them. One generally doesn’t, as a seven year old boy. When you’re shot you just fall over. You don’t bleed or scream.
When I was older, I graduated from Blyton and Boys’ Own Adventure Annual to CS Lewis and from there to JRR Tolkien. ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ – now there’s an adventure’: travelling enormous distances over magical landscapes of enchanted forests, brooding mountains and miasmic swamps. Pursued by hideous spectres on terrifying black stallions. Dreading the power of the Dark Lord that I know is out there searching for me, growing stronger every day. I wasn’t that keen on the battle scenes – they were too chaotic and repetitive for me – but the struggle against the elements, trying to traverse the Misty Mountains in a blizzard, getting lost in the Mines of Moria, evading the tentacled monster in the black pool, that was the stuff of life! I longed to peek into Mordor, or even just to visit the Misty Mountains.
In later high school I often rode my bicycle out into the countryside. One of the rides was an 80 kilometre circuit past Tidbinbilla, to the West of Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory. There were steep hills and, further to the West, the Brindabella mountains. They were pretty good, and would occasionally get snow in mid-winter, but they were no Misty Mountains. Partly it was the lack of craggy peaks, partly the usual lack of snow, and partly the fact that the surrounding countryside was mostly brown, nothing like the lush green of Tolkien’s Shire.
One winter it rained more than usual, and the foot-hills turned green. I remember looking at them as I rode by and thinking: ‘Now if only they didn’t have those wire fences, and they had snowy peaks in the background, then this would be like the Lord of the Rings!’ There could even be dwarves and barrow-wights in tunnels under the ground.
Perhaps today’s teenagers would instead imagine that it was the countryside near Hogwarts, with dragons and hippogriffs flying overhead.
Later in high school I became more interested in girls and less interested in Tolkien. CS Lewis would have been disappointed in me.
I don’t recall thinking about adventures at all between my mid-teenage years and a few months ago, when I suddenly remembered riding through the Tidbinbilla hills and wishing I could see orcs peeping up above the granite boulders that litter the ground there.
What seems odd to me now is that it never occurred to me that riding my bike on an 80km loop in mostly deserted countryside, with no mobile phone, nobody knowing where I was, and with inexpertly driven cars occasionally whizzing past me at 100kph, was an adventure of its own. Not to mention the occasional attacks of dogs from below and magpies from above.
Nor did it occur to me that there was plenty of danger in the snakes that undoubtedly hid in various parts of the long grass through which I imaginatively snuck in my primary school war games, or the stones that my friends and I would occasionally hurl in one another’s direction, pretending they were grenades (‘oh to have a real live grenade!’).
In those days we had freedom that kids these days can only dream of. We could go wherever we liked, and do what we wanted as long as it wasn’t something likely to raise the ire of our parents or the police, or if it was, then as long as they didn’t find out about it. But we lamented the lack of smugglers and orcs in our lives. Oh, dreary existence that has no such pantomime baddies to liven it up!
Not that there weren’t real baddies. I remember Barry the Bully at primary school (not his real name), a lumbering, brutish lad whose only means of expressing himself seemed to be to thump the daylights out of some unfortunate child of lesser stature who had the misfortune to wander nearby. I vaguely remember him pummelling me one day, surrounded by the usual ring of excited nine-year olds looking on. I suppose I could have considered that an adventure, but somehow I didn’t. Like most of my schoolmates I feared Barry then. Looking back now, I can only feel compassion. I wonder what sort of life he has now, and if he is still alive. I fear he may not be flourishing, but I may be wrong. Barry wasn’t really bad. He was just an inexorable product of his genes and his environment, and I suspect he suffered from his inability to interact with people except through violence, as much as others did.
There were lesser villains too, like the minor antagonists in a pantomime melodrama. The boys from the government school sometimes stole my school bag and tossed it from one to the other, to tease and punish me for being a Roman Catholic and going to the RC school. Then there were the boys at my school who mocked me for having so many patches on my hand-me-down shorts. I remember my mother once tearing down to our school in a rage and excoriating them for their teasing. I can’t remember what led up to that but I remember vividly the verbal tirade she unleashed on them and their quivering, shame-faced silence as they stood there being denounced. I don’t think they teased me any more. I suppose in that episode my mother was as much a hero of the adventure as Galahad or Lancelot, Jupiter Jones or Janet (Secret Seven) ever were.
Then there was the dreaded Mr F at junior high school. He was as violent as Wackford Squeers – another adventure villain that loomed with lurid clarity in my over-excited imagination. The main difference was that, unlike Squeers, Mr F would smile in a broad, friendly manner as he twisted your arm behind your back or lifted you out of your chair by the ears, with his stubby, nicotine-stained fingers. I think he saw this violence as some sort of game, expressing good-natured affection to the students. It was not malicious. Generally I bore him no resentment, and even quite liked him. There was only one occasion when I mentioned to my mother that I thought my arm might be broken because, after a particularly savage twisting, I couldn’t use it properly. It got better. Yet despite the Squeers-like violence (would Severus Snape be a modern-day equivalent?) it never occurred to me that these elements of colour in my life were as good as any Blytonian or Dickensian adventure. I still thought my life was bland.
When I was five we lived in Aberystwyth, Wales and my parents announced that we were going to move to Australia. This set off two fantastic trains of thought in my impressionable young mind.
Firstly, I imagined that Australia was a land covered with thick, dark jungle, and that we would live in a hut in a small clearing. The jungle would be full of snakes and whenever we went outdoors we would have to tread carefully to avoid being bitten.
Secondly, I remember resolving, standing next to the stove while dinner was being prepared, that our arrival in Australia would mark the beginning of a new life for me, and would be an opportunity for me to put my sins behind me and become the good boy that I wanted to be. Inculcation of Catholic Guilt began early in the RC church in those days, at least it did in Wales (those Welsh nuns were well fierce!). I can’t remember whether I ever recalled this resolution once we arrived in Australia. Regardless, the resolution did not seem to be fulfilled. A couple of years later I was as guilt-ridden as every RC boy is expected to be.
One would think that moving to a jungle-filled, snake-infested, primitive land where one seeks to purify one’s soul from its many misdeeds contains many of the elements of a classic adventure. But again I didn’t see it that way then. Snakes and pious aspirations are all very well, but where were the smugglers?
Later teenage years and university have different sources of excitement from boyhood: discovering girls, discovering sex, discovering algebraic topology.
I travelled a lot after leaving school, in a gap year, in university holidays and after leaving uni. I travelled through many lands: Europe, Morocco, India, South-East Asia, Iran, Pakistan. I was mostly on my own and always on a shoe-string budget, sleeping and eating in some very run-down places and encountering many dicey situations – recklessly driven buses careering on two wheels around U-bends on precipitous mountain passes, enduring dysentery and fever in a lonely concrete hotel room, sinister strangers in railway carriages trying to show me pornographic pictures and suggesting mutual exploration of what they depict, crossing the Iranian border with US bank notes hidden in my shoe to avoid the extortionate exchange rate required by the Iranian border controls (and wondering what they’d do to me if they found them). I would have described such things as an experience, but the word adventure never occurred to me. Adventures happen to other people, and usually only in books. Not to me.
When one grows up – whenever that is, some time between the age of 25 and 40 for me – one has other challenging, frightening and exciting experiences. Accompanying one’s partner through the experience of childbirth. Raising a child. Buying a house. Moving across the world to live and work in another country. Most people know what these experiences are like. As a five year old, I would have found the contemplation of such experiences terrifying, yet there I was wishing I could chase smugglers in Cornish caves, or dodge German machine-gun fire as I leaped from foxhole to another.
When we middle-aged people look back over our life to date, there will in most cases be plenty of exciting, surprising, dangerous events, in between the humdrum and routine. Yet in my case at least, I often saw the danger or the challenge in a negative light at the time, wishing it were not there. I have only recently realised how contrary this is to my childhood wish for adventures, a wish that surely some other children must share. The only things I can think of that are missing from real-life experiences, compared to the Secret Seven or Harry Potter, are the presence of magic, and of people trying to kill, or at least imprison you. Yet modern science is far more wonderful, surprising and weird than any tale of magic or myth ever was, and even if people aren’t trying to kill us, we nevertheless live in the constant danger of being accidentally killed by a motor car or attacked by a virus or cancerous cell.
Perhaps if we could re-frame our perception of the vicissitudes of life as an adventure, rather than an imposition or a chore, we would appreciate it more. When we trip while jogging and seriously bark our elbows on concrete, as I did the other day, we can view that as another interesting experience, rather than reacting as ‘woe is me’. Maybe, if one day I have to undergo chemotherapy, or a lingering terminal illness, I will be able to even frame those as new experiences. We shall see. Perhaps even death, as that great philosopher Albus Dumbledore said, is “the next great adventure”.
Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 July 2013