Mine! Mine! All of it, Mine!

When you stop and consider it, don’t you think its rather ridiculous to suggest that a human being can own a piece of the earth? Or to be a bit more accurate, temporarily own a section of the earth’s crust?

I’ve added the word ‘temporary’ there as, of course, that’s just what it is. A better word is transient. We don’t live for ever. The earth isn’t a permanent feature of the universe. And perhaps the universe itself may, at some point, pack up and call it a day.

This line of talk, though, seems to make people uncomfortable. Most people don’t really like to dwell on the transient nature of their own existence. Or of the things that they have worked hard (usually) to obtain: houses, cars, savings, etc. But the truth is these things don’t really belong to us. The word ‘mortgage’ itself is quite useful at reminding us of this fact. Mort- comes from the French/Latin word for death; and -gage is an archaic word for pledge or stake. So quite simply, the house has been pledged to you until your death.

It’s seems like this vital (if bitter to swallow) area of our knowledge has been pushed so far to the back of our minds that it’s fallen in with denial – a somewhat deceitful ability that most people don’t even realise they are using. But it’s so very powerful! We, certainly in western societies, employ it every day in order to get on with our lives. When we hear about atrocities occurring in other parts of the world, denial quickly switches on. I remember sitting with someone at work a few months ago and we caught the end of a news bulletin on the radio, reporting how a school bus had run off the road into a deep gully, killing all 40+ children on board. We both stopped what we were doing until the report had finished, listening to hear where it had taken place. But what difference did geography make? Or, are some children’s lives worth more than others? When the reporter stated it had happened in Nigeria, my colleague audibly sighed with relief.


 

The only way we can own anything is in a transient state. Once we understand this, it isn’t nearly as scary as you might think. In fact, it’s very liberating! I recently had a car accident and broke a few bones. The paramedics sped me to hospital and I spent a night on ICU before being moved to an orthopaedic ward. Although I’m now fine, these kind of events get you thinking about how the situation could have been worse… And what that might have meant.

Your clothes are cut from you and discarded like the skin of some battered fruit. The car is a crumpled bit of tin, an old can abandoned by the side of the road. People you’ve never met before begin their routine practice of, not wanting to be too dramatic, saving your life. There’s nothing you can do to assist except remain compliant: “Take a deep breath… Wriggle your toes… Open your eyes… Lift your legs…” Since there is little to do, your thoughts naturally focus on what has happened to you and then to the people it’s going to affect: my kids and partner, parents and friends… I didn’t spend too long worrying about the car.

Something that forces us to face these sort of considerations has a useful component too. It strips away the husk and the pith surrounding us, stuff we had come to think of as part of what we are: possessions; money; debt; job. It leaves us bare, so that only the real and essential elements remain: life; family; friends… people.

Unfortunately, this feeling subsides as we recover and ‘normalise’. I would guess that the vast majority of post-trauma people return to an extremely close version of the person they were before the accident. But they will be different. The breadth of this difference will vary on the severity of the trauma and the person involved. I’d like to suggest that, assuming a full physical recovery, the more it changes you, the better.


Yes, it’s nice to have things (I’m not immune from this nor a whole host of other failings): Cars, stereos, coffee makers, microwaves, flat screen TVs (by the way, do you remember when you didn’t change your TV every five or so years? The telly I always remember from my parents house had a doily and ornaments on the top and was treated like a piece of the furniture), DVD players, iPads, wardrobes stuffed with never worn clothes (the list goes on and on). These things can offer you something practical which my help you minimally in life, but mainly these are things that symbolise our ‘success’. For example, a 20 year old car with dented and corroded body work but an excellent engine may only appeal to people who understand ‘green’ issues, or perhaps a collector of cars. It would offer the same practicality as a new car in many respects, but it wouldn’t display what we believe to be our status, so at some point the practical aspects are overtaken by the more superficial need to show off.

There’s little surprise that this is the case. I could talk to someone about this until I am blue in the face (and have!) but there is little chance that I can compete with the 24 hours a day omnipotent influences that exist in our society. These influences range from advertising and marketing, to the car parked on your neighbour’s drive. And what is more, these influences have been with us from the first day of our lives. It is an aspect of us I’d like to call inherited social knowledge. There are many more of these aspects that we take for granted or indeed assume have always been the same: democracy; the financial system; private property; money; fields full of sheep and cows (mainly sheep!); our lack of spirituality; political parties; war; famine; global poverty; oil; education; public health and many, many more. Systems we are born in to.

What something like an accident does is allow you to poke your head out above the canopy of your life. A better description might be to rent a tear in the thin veil that spreads itself out over society and breath in the truth.

I wouldn’t like everyone to have to go through the fear and pain that associates itself with a crash like mine, though. If you take any of this on board then hopefully you won’t need to. I’m asking you to look at your own life, hopefully from a platform of health, and ask yourself what is important to you? Is it people, community, solidarity, health, freedom, our children, education and knowing honestly what it is to be you, a human being? Or is it just the stuff we gather around us, so that we have to build higher fences to protect it?

Farmland is not The Countryside

I stopped the car quite suddenly and checked the mirror. The was no traffic coming in either direction; it was still pretty early. The farmland spread out all around me, gleaming brand new in the semi-frost. The top of Ffair Rhos, high at the start of the Cambrian Mountains, is a place where the usual order of mirror-signal-manoeuvre can be a little relaxed. I’d seen some sort of disturbance by the side of the road about 50 yards back. As I looked over my shoulder, I could see something moving about slowly near the fence. I reversed the car until I came up along side what it was.

A brown, leashed creature I initially took to be a dog, sat just in the field on the other side of the wire fence. It was sat in what looked like the crater of a small explosion. As it blinked mud from its eyes, I saw that its coat wasn’t brown; it was covered entirely in the mud it was sat in. It was one of those moments where you seem to swell with excitement and simultaneously sink with dread. As I watched, the badger suddenly rose onto its powerful hind legs and yanked back hard at the snare around its neck. The whole fence shook violently and the badger flipped on to her back.

More new soil was cascading down the bank and on to the road as I ran over. The badger pulled instinctively away as I drew closer, causing the fence to rattle and shake further and the wire around her neck to tighten. I felt the anger at my throat as I looked at the homemade snare deliberately fixed to the lowest section of wire fence. It was sickening. I began trying to undo the wire from the tiny tin locking plate. Each time I made any promising progress the badger would suddenly pull, tightening the lock plate again and twice slicing into my fingers. Once she moved towards my hands with her powerful front claws, snapping her jaws close to my fingers, so that I had to quickly withdraw them.

After 20 minutes or so I had eventually succeeded in releasing the locking plate. She sat for a moment. Then as she turned she realised she met no resistence from the wire. One second later, she was away.

I pushed my cold, sore hands deep into my pockets and watched the badger loping up the field. The snare still derailed from her neck. A flock of sheep glanced at her, then went back to their moronic, interminable grazing. It was incredible to see the badger beside the sheep. Despite her handicap, she looked fluid and natural; at once part of her surrondings. No longer showing any sign of panic, she used the shadow of the stone wall to disappear into a thicket of spring bramble. The sheep in contrast seemed extraordinaryily alien to the landscape, resourceless and seemingly without wit. I thought about the snare still around the badger’s neck.

“Fifty, fifty,” I muttered aloud, even though I knew her chances were slimmer than that.

I walked back to the car.

 

 

 

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A Search for Quality

“Farewell to the besoms of heather and bloom

Farewell to the creels and the basket

For the folks of today they would far sooner pay

For a thing that’s been made out of plastic”

Ewan McCall

 

 

There is a small 7mm ratchet spanner on the side of the desk in the department where I work. It was forgotten by an engineer that came to service some equipment a few months ago. I like to pick it up and hold it. It has a weight that gives you a pocket of confidence in your hand. It is stainless steel and shines. The switch that alternates the ratchet is a dark alloy; it reassures the thumb as it snaps left to right. The reason it feels so good to hold is because the design is ergonomic, mimicking the space around your hand. The weight balanced. The function clear. Its moving parts fluid and strong. It is a high quality tool that as you hold it, feels like a natural extension of your hand.

There is something else which makes this little ratchet special. In 2014, this kind of quality is rare.

 

I spoke to my friend Tom recently, a highly skilled joiner and craftsman. I’ve watched him carefully repair all our sash-box windows over the last 2 years. He showed me a tool box set aside in the back of his Transit. “These I’ve had since I started.” He opened the lid and disclosed a variety of old, but extremely well looked after hand tools. Twelve solid steel chisels with boxwood handles, their edges gleaming; hand drills with chucks still hungry and ready to bite; a claw hammer on a hickory shaft, its patina a testament to servitude. There were others buried beneath, but the back of the van was dark. “All the others,” he motioned to several other buckets filled with screwdrivers, Stanley knives, drill bits, saws, and other bits and pieces, “need replacing every couple of years.” He clunked shut the Transit’s wonky back door.

 

Samsung seem to have raised the bar on marketing strategy. Forgive me if there is a company that spends more on advertising, but at $14billion for 2013 I doubt anyone is even close. Samsung’s budget has increased 14 fold since 2003 taking spending in this arena to a new level. There are a cluster of other super-corporations all jostling around the $2.5 – $4billion mark. Now that someone has made a move, surely the others will follow.

Maybe 100-120 years ago, marketing and advertising behaved differently to what we see today. It saw itself more of an advising and describing role. This was mainly because as a consumer it was assumed you knew pretty much what you wanted to buy, and the advertising helped you out with the fine tuning, making sure the product came as close as possible to matching your original needs. This allowed the consumer accurate information before buying. This remains the philosophical backbone of advertising. Except these days, it doesn’t really work that way.

The nature of the economical market means that competition always gives rise to competing brands. Take for example shampoo. I have no idea how many different brands there are out there of ‘hair soap’, all probably purporting to be, usually through pseudo-science, different to their rivals. But really, although there will be some variety in quality, all shampoo does the same thing. It cleans your hair. What advertising is doing now, and spending billions to achieve it, is convincing us otherwise.

With this arrangement it would be difficult for quality to be anything other than a market novelty or so expensive as to make it an unlikely purchase for the average consumer. However, there is another, more underhand technique employed inherently into almost all the goods we buy. Its called planned obsolescence, and although economists advocates this ploy through the philosophy of Philip Kotler et al, to me it is quite obviously unethical. The basic idea is that whatever you purchase has a predetermined lifespan before becoming obsolete. Be it having to upgrade your computer’s operating software or a deliberately designed weakness in a mechanism; it all leads to the same thing: a perpetual cycle of purchasing semi-disposable or ‘faulty’ items. I don’t have to mention the Black and Decker Workmate, do I? If anyone compared the version from the 80s to the one of today, it would probably be inferior in every way.

 

So what’s my point? Ok, so they don’t make things like they used to. So what?

Well I think there is a point to be made here. When we hear western leaders (and by that I mean any country that has allowed itself to be governed by money) talk about ‘progress’, we have all naturally assumed that they had in mind somewhere we were progressing to. Somewhere better. I no longer think that is the case. Instead, we are tracking along on a conveyor belt of consumerism, struck senseless by a global barrage of $500billion worth of advertising. The longer we sit on this banal ride the further we move from quality and closer to a degrading of our way of life. To see human design fail us the way it currently is may have unknown effects on society as a whole. Our consumer driven, disposable culture has distanced us from quality, perhaps even lowering other baselines as it went? Surely it’s not difficult to imagine that inferior tools lead to an inferior job? Let me give you an example. The NHS in Britain has, for the last decade or so, been going through a constant process of planned obsolescence. By that I mean almost all safe and robust systems of practice have been replaced with flimsy, but cheaper, replicas. When these begin to break, they are simply replaced by an even inferior model that runs along for even less time before showing signs of strain. When these weak systems fail completely, it is staff that becomes the focus of the problem, not the blunt and broken tools they are left holding.

 

And what about the conveyor belt? Anyone interested in where it is carrying us? You could ask your politicians, but their answer would be the usual confused rhetoric. Instead, let me tell you: it goes nowhere, just around and around until it splutters and stops.

Here’s a better question to ask. What’s your definition of progress?