A COUPLE of weeks back, I found myself at the health centre, undergoing new tests for a mysterious condition that, as of now, has still to be diagnosed.
It is, as the doctor says, probably nothing to worry about, and as I sat watching my surprisingly attractive blood fill yet another syringe, 98% of me was quietly unconcerned. The medical profession has been warning me for some time about my health, pointing out that hypertension, a weight problem, chronic insomnia and the occasional foray into binge drinking are not conducive to wellbeing -- yet I’m still here.
That one specialist who went so far as to ask, in all seriousness, if I wanted to see my children grow up, was just trying to scare me, and my family history (mother dead at 47, father at 62, after years of heart problems) is exactly that: history. My father drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney and my mother -- well, as one of my New-Agey friends observed at the time, the poor woman died of disappointment more than anything else.
Of course, I didn’t believe that people could actually die of disappointment, or dismay, or an overwhelming sense of injustice -- not at the time. My mother died of ovarian cancer, which might have been avoided had she enjoyed better healthcare; that was a matter of fact. Yet driving home, that dogged 2% unconvinced at the back of my mind kicked in, and I began to wonder why my blood pressure was off the meter, why I ate and drank so much, why I couldn’t sleep at night, but kept dropping off unexpectedly in the middle of the day. Why, in other words, I was like so many of the people I know and work with: vaguely dissatisfied, routinely dismayed, disgusted by the cynicism of Government and big business, worried about my children’s future and so estranged from any sense of community that what I would call “good” exists in its own private space, separate from the rest of the world, like the furniture of a secret chapel, or a lost tomb.
So it was that, driving home that day, I finally recognised that I’d been feeling ill-at-ease for a long time -- and the sensation I had, reading a newspaper, watching the news, or hearing about the self-serving shenanigans of local “community” leaders, was a familiar one, even if I couldn’t quite place it.
It was something I knew from somewhere, though -- I was sure of that, and when the people who ran the world economy into the ground responded to our bail-outs by handing themselves yet another round of multi-million-pound bonuses, or when it became clear that every energy consumer in the country would have to pay around 25% more on their bills just to guarantee the profits of fat-cat landowners and faux-green corporations, I came a little closer to pinning it down.
When the Government announced unprecedented cuts in education and research, so that “we” could claw back just a little of what those fat-cats had swiped from the till, I came closer still and, when it became clear that nobody, not even the most seriously disabled or heartlessly abused, would be exempted from “the cuts”, I finally remembered when I’d last
experienced this same feeling of anonymous betrayal and dismay.
It was early on a summer’s morning, not long past dawn, in fact, on the day I moved back to Scotland after almost 30 years away (most recently in Bristol). My wife and I had spent several hours packing our few belongings (a computer, an old stereo system, a few baubles and knick-knacks) before settling down for an early night, in preparation for the journey. The following morning, excited to be “going home”, I had woken around 5am. Sensing immediately that something was wrong, I ran downstairs to find the front door wide open to the cool morning air and our dozen or so carefully-packed boxes gone, taken by thieves while we slept. Later that day, after a delay of several hours spent filling out a series of pointless forms, we drove north in an eerily hollow-sounding van, stripped of the few valuables we owned and ready for a somewhat fresher fresh start than we had originally planned.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been burgled, of course, but you never get used to the feeling of violation that comes when you discover that someone has been in your house and, worse still, when you realise that they are, at that very moment, picking through your worldly possessions, deciding what to sell on and what to discard as worthless. Naturally, the goods they keep are the least of your concerns; it’s the discarded things that are irreplaceable, the letters and photographs, the half-exposed film torn from the camera, the wrist-watch your mother scrimped and saved for months to give you for your 21st birthday. You never get used to the helplessness, the lack of redress; but the dismay isn’t about worldly goods, it’s about values. It’s about what you think of as home.
Over the last few years, this same sense of dismay and helplessness has extended into society as a whole until today, the ordinary mass of people resembles nothing so much as those Mexican dirt-farmers in The Magnificent Seven, standing by while Eli Wallach and his bandits rampage through the village, helping themselves to whatever they can use, and trashing everything else.
Over the last few years, we have watched bankers rip us off with a brazen, almost experimental cynicism, while one government after another pissed away our moral standing on unlawful and morally indefensible wars, holding back just enough to pay out massive “agricultural” and “development” subsidies to the richest of their friends and donors -- and we have taken it on the chin like good peons. We don’t even go out looking for Yul Brynner any more, since the last few Yul Brynners we invited home turned out to be just as bad as the bandits, if not worse.
This is old news, of course -- but then, maybe that’s part of the problem. We have become so accustomed to social failure that we try not to think about it any more -- and the powers-that-be are keen to offer us plenty of distractions, from more work for the same or less money, to nights in front of the demon box, watching American Idol while Rome burns. This malaise has its roots in Thatcherism/Reaganomics, when the spirit of “deregulation” forcibly removed our sense of communal fair play and the notion that government was supposed to represent the actual citizenry, so that, by now, we are so used to the corruption at the heart of the system we barely notice it. Yes, we make a minor fuss about MPs’ expenses, or the occasional sex sandal, but we ignore the larger crimes of our supposed representatives -- the sell-outs to big business, the carte blanche afforded to the banks, the willingness to stand by and watch while an American property tycoon not only slices up an area of exquisite natural beauty but also sets his legal dogs on the heels of any misguided soul who stands up for his or her rights.
We are so used to all this that we have not only become accustomed to it, we have internalised it, becoming not just cynical but also -- necessarily -- intellectually and emotionally inert. Suffering, as we do, from an overwhelming sense of helplessness (too busy and befuddled by misinformation to stay up to date with what’s happening, too frightened to do anything against a machine that, historically, has proven itself to be utterly ruthless), we distract ourselves with second-rate fictions and self-help books, while the burglars wander through the house, pocketing whatever’s left of the silver.
Meanwhile, all ironic smiles on the outside, we grow increasingly unwell in our hearts and guts: hypertensive, anxious, depressed, dissociated, dismayed. We go about our business, hoping to pass, if not for happy, then at least for not that bothered.
Now, however, the thieving classes have come up with a possible way out of this dead-end (quite inadvertently, of course). For now, as the Government and its patrons seek to balance the books, they want us to tighten our belts and make do with less, so the usual business of expensive wars, inexplicable subsidies and obscene bonuses can continue -- and, all of a sudden, as I become reconciled to my own regime of reduced consumption, I begin to suspect that, while a good many of these economy measures are unacceptable and must be fiercely opposed (the cuts), there is real logic and power in opting for austerity and simplicity.
It’s by no means a full answer, but it might be a good beginning if those of us who have the disposable income were to say: all right, let’s run with this austerity thing, but for our own reasons. Let’s reject the patterns of consumption that keep the least honourable in charge, taking our motto from that old Tory reformer and champion of workers’ rights, Joseph Hume: “Now, what produces a want of demand? A refusal to take from [others] the commodities which they produce.”
Why not? Let’s reduce the demand side of the consumerist equation by not buying the latest model of this, or the new version of that. Let’s drive less; let’s really switch off the lights and the machines whenever possible. Every time the energy companies hike up the prices to protect their profits, let’s use a little less gas and electricity; when we take the kids out for the day, let’s go for a walk in the woods, instead of hanging round a theme park eating candy floss and hot dogs. Let’s buy good food from local suppliers, in season. Let’s really learn about food, and stop buying supermarket-sponsored celebrity cookbooks. Let’s walk everywhere, and demand that everywhere be fit to walk in.
Let’s turn off the TV more often and, with the time we save, get to know what the thieving classes are up to -- and learn how to work against them. And let’s do what the doctor ordered and live to see our children grow -- but really live, in the firm conviction that our energy and our time and our senses belong to us, and that, in the words of Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living.
To underpin all this, let’s remember that old Japanese idea of wabi sabi, where the beauty and authenticity of the simple and the everyday takes precedence over the mere shininess of the latest product and the commercialised “experience”. Much of this we already know. We just need to put it into practice, just as I knew I was ill for some time, but chose to do nothing about it.
A few days ago, after my latest health warning, I was having coffee with a friend, who said, in passing, that “sometimes we have to get worse before we decide to get better”. As a society, it seems to me that we’ve been getting worse for a long time -- since the 1980s, in fact -- and we have to decide, now, on a real, and imaginative form of recovery. Not the recovery the thieves-in-power want (which is to say, the same old same old) but a recovery of civic values, of real, rather than “big” society (where everyone has a voice, not just a few self-appointed “worthies”) and, most of all, of a sense of justice.
We have been persuaded for too long that wellbeing depends on economic, rather than imaginative, growth; we have allowed ourselves to become accustomed to corruption in high places, cynicism in our supposed representatives and cronyism in everything from local government to the arts; we have even transformed the daily vision of bandits rampaging through the village into a grim, yet perversely entertaining, spectacle.
It’s time to change. Time to get well. Time, most of all, to remember Joseph Hume’s principle of refusal and take only what we want, or need, rather than swallowing down every piece of crap the powers-that-be rely on us to consume.
John Burnside is a multi-award-winning poet, novelist and memoirist. He has just been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Poetry for his forthcoming collection, Black Cat Bone (published next month by Jonathan Cape, £10). His latest novel, The Summer Of Drowning, is out now (Jonathan Cape, £16.99).
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