Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I have, over a period of nearly half a century, read this book three times. Interestingly it has made a very different impression on me on each occasion.

I first read the book in my late teens. This book was one of the important texts of the day and every young man and woman had read it. One would have risked being seen as uncultured if one hadn’t read this book. I knew that it was an acclaimed dystopian vision of the future and an important warning of the dangers of totalitarianism by one of the century’s greatest thinkers. However, I have to be honest and say that much of this was lost upon me. At the time I was in the revolutionary socialist phase of my development and thus found the warnings about the dangers from an over powerful state rather fanciful. Though I did see the risks associated with increasing consumerism I couldn’t really see the risks of increasing technological advancement. As a child of the 60s the Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech was still ringing in my ears. But essentially the major problem was that I was an adolescent male. The idea that a future could be full of easy sex and free recreational drugs didn’t really scare me. At some level I think I might have thought it a utopia rather than a dystopia.

A few decades passed until I read the book again. Now I was a middle-aged man with a mortgage, children and many responsibilities. I re-read this book and discovered what all the fuss was about. This was a book that really frightened me. As a parent of children, I could see the dangers that he foresaw. The risks of the loss of liberty, the debasement of relationships and art, the dangers in shallow and glib answers to deep and difficult problems were all things I now knew first hand. He was warning us of an exploitative, consumerist society where little matters other than consumption and the fulfilment of appetites. As a ‘baby boomer’ I had witnessed these changes first hand and worried, if the changes continued unabated, what the future my children might inherit.

Recently, again after an internal of some decades, I read the book again (It had been chosen by my book club).If my first reading had led to disbelief, and the second to anxiety, the third reading led to depression. Now with enough years under my belt I was able to see that the book was not just a dystopian novel but Huxley has been shown to be eerily prescient and the book is, with hindsight, rather prophetic. The decoupling of sex from reproduction and relationships now seems almost complete in our days of contraception and tinder. The predicted use of psychotropics to cure us of our angst and unhappiness is now well established. His warning that there would an assault on the idea of the family (as it suits neither capitalism nor communism) seems to be starting in earnest. Many aspects of family life (the education of children, the care of the elderly, for example) and now the responsibility of the state and when the family is discussed it is often seen as a problem – the place where unspeakable evils happen to children or where parents fill their childrens’ heads with antiquated cultural views. Huxley feared that we would not be able to play without the use of gadgets we have to buy and anyone who has watched the changes to play in children and adults can see that this is a growing problem. He feared art would become debased, and films (or rather the “feelies”) would descend to simple tales of excitement, ” .. plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about, and you feel the people kissing’; anyone who has seen Die Hard 5 or The Fast and The Furious 9 know that this has already happened. Some of his wildest predictions have some echoes to recent changes:-

‘Why do the smoke-stacks have those things like balconies round them?’ enquired Lenina. ‘Phosphorus recovery,’ exclaimed Henry telegraphically. ‘On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.’ Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. ‘Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.‘ Brave New World (p. 31). Random House. Kindle Edition.

We now presume consent for organ donation, our dead bodies are not a gift to others but presumed property of the state – just as the motto of the Brave New World proclaims – “Everybody belongs to everyone else“.

If there is a problem with the novel it is that it tries to cover too much ground and there are many, many themes. There are trenchant discussions on the role of suffering in life, the place of religion in society and whether truth and happiness can ever be compatible. It does rather lead the penultimate chapter to be less part of the novel and more a philosophical essay. However, these are minor flaws in what is an excellent novel. If you have not read it you really should. If you have already read it then it may be worthwhile reading it again if, like me, you were a callow youth first time around.

Doing Planks

Since I stopped working as a doctor there has been one aspect of my changed life which has kept me going; the ability to learn new skills and knowledge. Obviously, when I was working as a medic I was constantly in training and re-training, as is everybody in every line of work, but this training led to me being more and more specialised. It lead to me knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller area of knowledge. At the same time progressing in a large organization leads one into a deeper and deeper rut  where one’s room for development becomes increasingly restricted. In your twenties you can consider and change your career plan. After a mortgage and children, in your thirties, you can dream of changing but probably won’t do it. By your fifties you can think about your career but wouldn’t usually dream of changing it.

As I followed my deepening rut, personal circumstances, which I never anticipated, forced me to consider what I thought was important. They forced me to risk a change which looking back I don’t regret. True I have lost a lot of things, mainly status and wealth, but I think I have gained more in return. My change in life has necessitated that I learn how to meet new challenges and I have discovered that it is this learning that is the most enjoyable facet of my new circumstances.

This week we decided we needed planks for a minor construction project. Now we have woodland but I had not put the obvious two and two together to make four. Our woodlands are a source of fuel for us and forage for our animals but as my neighbour pointed out they are the obvious source of our needed planks. He informed me that we could borrow a mobile sawmill and create planks on our back door. So how do we make planks ? It is surprisingly straightforward..

Firstly collect your trees. We used someimg_20190327_1222326051720164084962884.jpg American Cedar as it is lovely wood with a wonderful colour and smell. It is important to try to cut these to the lengths of plank you want to create. We cut at 8ft and 12ft lengths and removed any branches with an axe or saw. Then arranged these at the edge of clearing where we were going to set up the mobile mill.

People are often worried about the safety of using chainsaws and sawmills and this is very correct. Forestry is one of the most dangerous occupations and you are more likely to die or be injured in this job than you would be were you to work as a soldier. However, the most dangerous thing is not the machines. These at least were designed with human safety in mind. The most dangerous thing is the timer. The trees have no concerns about human safety and the logs you see above each weigh about 2 tons. If these roll, or fall, on you the damage can be immense. For an idea of scale imagine a fly and an rolled up newspaper- this should prompt you to wear your safety helmet and boots. Don’t take any shortcuts and always think and plan every movement of timber deliberately. The cutting is going to be the easy bit; collecting the wood and getting it to the saw is the most difficult bit.

img_20190327_1231302217926684723653391.jpgHaving cut you log place it on the bed of the mill. You need now to check the entire surface of the log. You are looking for stones and rocks which may have been pushed into the surface when the tree was felled. If any of these small stones remain and hit the saw blade, as it works at speed, then sparks may fly. Sparks, however,  will be the least worrisome things. It is possible these smallstones can cause the band saw to break and the last thing you want is a fast moving, unpredictable band of highly sharpened steel flailing around you. So don’t skimp on this checking process.

The next step is to create a rectangular pieceimg_20190327_1225213822195427243105853.jpg of timber ready to be cut into planks. This means cutting off a face, quarter rotating the log, cutting a further face and repeating. This will not only create the shape you require it will also remove the sapwood. This is the lighter outer ring of soft new wood which we do not want for our planks.

This step is one which require planning and patience. Your logs will not be regular and it is important to try and see a way to create a rectangular block without much wastage. If may be necessary to jack up one end of the log if one can visualise a rectangular block running the length of the piece of timber.  The face of wood removed are not in themselves waste as these crude planks are useful for rough and ready work like stockades and shelters.

img_20190327_1243253319814703555371052.jpgOnce you have your rectangular piece of timber it is plain sailing to run the saw repeatedly through its length to create planks. Here we are making cuts at 1 inch depths for fairly robust planking. This final piece of work might, on average, constitute about ten percent of the work;  all the foregoing is more important.But once you have done this part you will start to see your collection of nice new, wonderfully smelling, planks mount up. You will also find that doing this type of plank will be a lot better for your health than any number of planks in the gym. You will sleep a lot more soundly because of the exercise but also because of knowing you have created something new and the materials you are now going to use have had a much lower carbon footprint than might otherwise have been the case. It is also likely that you will treat these planks with a bit more respect and be less wasteful of them. It is, as they say, a win-win situation.

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A sheep in wolves’ clothing.

We have had a bit of a problem over the last few days. One of the ewes who had healthy twins (a boy and a girl) was causing concern. She would not let the boy feed and would head butt him away quite vigorously whenever he came close. Sometimes she would toss him up into the air and over a meter away from her. It was quite distressing to see.

We were worried she might have mastitis and that pain, when the lamb suckled, contributed to the problem. Therefore we needed to get her to the vet for review and possible antibiotics. Now this is sometimes easier said than done. It is fairly easy to catch the ewes now that they are bucket trained, but it is a different matter to get 40kg of reluctant and annoyed ewe into the back of a pickup or into the vet’s surgery. Though goats may get all the praise for being nimble and quick I can assure you that a sheep that wants to escape to somewhere else is no slouch. They will wriggle, jump and run; it can be quite a task at times.

I wasn’t looking forward to this when my wife had an idea. We had recently invested in a macho harness for our German Shepherd – perhaps we could press this into use for the ewe. After a minor skirmish it was on and all of a sudden we had a ewe we could move at will without hurdles or a sheep dog – it was a sheep with a handle on it and it made life so much easier. It may look odd (see the picture below) but I can commend this strategy to any other smallholder with wily ewes and large fashion-conscious dogs.

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After the vet had reviewed her it seems unlikely that mastitis is at the root of our problems. Sometimes ewes will just take against a specific lamb, it seems that there is just something about the look of their face to which they take objection. We are assured that often this can be overcome by just ensuring the lamb does get to feed regularly whether the ewe wants to or not. So we have a period ahead when we have to immobilise the ewe every two hours while we let her son feed. Our other cunning plan is to smear some poo from the bum of the lamb she has accepted onto the bum of the lamb she rejects- apparently this sometimes fools the ewe back into acceptance.

Hopefully these strategies will work and will avoid us the need to start bottle feeding as I think I am too old to go back to night bottle feeds.

 

Parabolic

Parabolic

I sometimes feel that I, and the rest of our society, are sitting atop a giant inverted parabola. For millennia we have tried to elevate ourselves individually and as a culture with the exhortation and hope that we are not simply animals. We felt we were something set apart and duty bound to try and live lives that were better than the lowly animals. We may never have hoped to be gods but we always hoped to be closer to our God.

After eons of aspiring upwards away from our animal base we now seem to look downwards. We see ourselves as simply a smarter animal driven by the base animal desires we share with our less evolved kin. We no longer look upwards to the skies with soaring urges to exalt our difference, we look down into the depths and express our animal passions as freely and vigorously as we can.

It has never been proven that the path of humankind will always be one that is onwards and upwards, extinct species before us testify to that, our parabola may have both an apex and a nadir. It is a little like sitting atop a giant rollercoaster peering down filled with fear and dread but without having the certainty that this will all work out allright. Our present day large societies may feel that that they can ditch religion and operate on simply secular lines but, as revealed in a recent article in Nature,  religion played an important point in our development. If we ditch our religions and faith we shouldn’t be surprised if some of the effects we see are equally major and potentially damaging.

 

 

The perversity of ewes.

It seems only a short time ago that we had warm sunny days, dry days, pleasant days, in fact, ideal days for lambs to start their lives. However, our ewes eschewed starting lambing during this period ; “too easy” they said. They have waited until just after the hail and sleet of yesterday and the start of Storm Gareth  today and decided that this is the perfect time to start lambing. The pervesity of ewes knows no bounds.

We have our fingers firmly crossed and  our lambing box at the ready and I’ve made this short post just to explain that there will be little activity on this site for the next few weeks.

 

The 3 ‘R’s

The important triad that we need to consider, if we are to have any hope of tackling the problem we face with climate change and degradation of our environment, is the triad of:-

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

Unfortunately, it is the most important of these that we tend to forget and ignore. The most important is “reduce“; indeed, the instruction to reuse and recycle are just other methods to avoid using new things and thus simple practical ways to reduce our consumption. If we recycle something, or use if for a different purpose, it saves us from buying or creating something new, it reduces our consumption. The key part of the triad remains reduce and it is the aspect which, unfortunately, the one to which we pay less attention. I can understand this, as it can quite easy to enjoy the other two instructions. There is indeed pleasure to be had from finding a new use for something you thought past its days. Recycling and reuse can save us money and certainly help us have a feeling of smugness, that we have done our bit, without any real cost to ourselves. In contrast “reducing” consumption has little fun associated with it, and any smugness is probably obliterated by a feeling of missing out on what other are having.

We are, in fact, exhorted to do the exact opposite of reducing our consumption. Although we all know that, if we want to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment, we must start to consume less and more wisely. But every day adverts tell us our lives are not complete without this, or that, product or service. Every day we are informed we will be happier if we just have something else; a new car, a foreign holiday, this year’s fashion in clothing or music. Increasingly advertisers try to urge us to become better people buy buying their products, suggesting that people who buy car X are obviously those who go against the herd, thinking individuals who understand the social and environmental threats we must tackle. The “greenwashing” that we see in the luxury market is particularly galling when we are urged to buy something new, because it is more efficient or green, while the much better option would be to not buy something and make our car, or washing machine, or fridge, or whatever, last that bit longer. The calculations to work out the better environmental option in these situations can be quite difficult to work out but it is generally safe to presume that not consuming something is the greenest option open to you.

At the social level this situation gets even worse. The mantra enthrals that all politicians is that “growth is good”. We are told that economic growth is the best marker for the health of our societies. It is suggested that if growth slackens then our future is grim, only ever increasing production and consumption can save us. While it is true that the spectacular growth we have seen has lifted most of the world’s population out of poverty but the problem is no longer inadequacy of wealth (there is more than enough for all) the problems are waste and faulty distribution. The wealth we have is not fairly spread and the creating of this wealth is at the expense of our future safety. It might be much better to be aiming, in the developed world, for what Adam Smith described as “stationarity” or the “steady-state economy” described by the ecological economist Herman Daly. Those of us living in the post-scarcity economies of the developed world need to try and find ways to alter our living and let us reflect on our problems.

This problem was brought home to me this week, on Tuesday to be precise. This week included Shrove Tuesday but most of our press and media were keen to remind me it was Pancake Day. It is clear that this is another ritual or celebration which is going through a metamorphosis to become more useful for our current times. Shrove Tuesday is so called because of the word shrive which means to absolve. This day marked the end of the period before lent. A day to use up, and so not waste, the foodstuff that would no be eaten during the fast to come. (Mardi Gras has the same origin, its meaning being Fat Tuesday). It was time to start reflecting on our failures and begin the period of Lent during which we would be expected to give up some of the pleasures of life and, instead, pay attention to our failings.

This aspect of the celebration does not fit with a modern consumer culture. A ritual that encourages reduced consumption and thoughtful introspection really doesn’t fit with our current world view. The last thing a consumer society wishes is for consumers to doubt or reduce their consumption. So as Breugel (See Picture) anticipated we have converted it into another excuse to consume, to carouse, to eat and drink to excess. Just as Easter has become the celebration of eating chocolate, Christmas the celebration of general excess, the remnants of Lent have become the celebration of eating sweet carbohydrate treats. They all join the new celebrations of consumption such as Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day.

At a time when the last thing in the world we need is encouragement to consume more it is sad to see a tradition promoting moderation and self-reflection dying. If anything we need to try and revive Lent and to encourage people that we need to think about our consumption and behaviour. We may think that we no longer need to think on our sins nor repent as we are modern and above such primitive things. However, greed, gluttony, lust and envy are factors that drive our overconsumption and promote the unequal distribution of our wealth and we need to think about these. If we do not, and we continue as we are, then the inequalities we see will worsen and we will fail to stop the global warming which we clearly know is starting to threaten our future as a species. At a time when our behaviour is such that it threatens our very survival it might be a wise time to salvage a period of reflection and repentance, and the exhortation from Ash Wednesday would seem a very good place to start :-

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return

Betting in your smalls.

Betting in your smalls.

I find the increasing numbers of television adverts for on-line gambling depressing. It seems that, during the day at least, there are more adverts for this than any other product. Presumable they are targeting those at home, the unemployed, the retired, the housewife or househusband, who they see as their biggest market. I know that now this is a huge market and I should hardly be surprised to see their marketing presence is large. It is estimated that about half of all betting is now undertaken online and in the UK it is thought £1.85 billion is spent on on-line gambling yearly and, of this, people spend £164,800,000 on on-line bingo. This is a lot of money for a frisson of excitement and the chance to see some flashing lights and it is no shock that they advertise heavily to capture this market.

I have ambivalent feelings towards gambling. I can understand the excitement that it engenders and I have no wish to unnecessarily restrict people’s choices but I have known those to whom it has become an obsession and have lost everything, their homes, their families, and their lives, to it. I’d wish that any advertising would be honest in portraying the pleasures it offers. It would probably be too much to expect them to portray the risks other than minimally.

I find the on-line bingo particularly upsetting. Bingo was once a massive pastime in the UK and every medium sized town would have its Bingo Hall, In addition bingo would be played in clubs and associations, indeed everywhere where a large enough group of people gathered bingo was played – old peoples homes, working men’s clubs, village halls, and so on.  At this time Bingo was, in addition to gambling, a social event. One went out to be in a group of people to play Bingo and have a drink and a chat. It was, at one point, the most popular pastime for working class women. I can recall vividly my mother, and my grandmother, going out with groups of friends for a “night at the Bingo”, and it was “a night”; you bought your books and played a number of games, with intermission for snacks and drinks, and chatted with your friends. The possibility of winning made it more fun but the prizes were much more modest. I can remember the joy when ‘my Bingo-players’ came home with a set of bath-towels. Their success was the talk of the street.

This is the unfortunate change with the move to Bingo online. No longer is it a social event it is simply playing a game of chance. The organisers know this and therefore try to suggest, in their adverts, that this is not the case. This is why I dislike their adverts so much, they are fundamentally and deliberately dishonest. In all the on-line bingo adverts they stress the “community” and “togetherness” when it is precisely this which has been lost. They show people in groups chatting and sharing jokes. There are people dancing and playing games, or making music, together. Every advert has people eating and drinking together and enjoying the company.

This is what bingo did, in the past, offer. But that was then before on-line bingo. That was before 2005 and the Bingo halls started to close.  I remember the Friday night smell of hair-spray as the women of my family bundled their hair high on their heads, and got into their best outfits, before heading to the bingo hall. What they got, in addition to a chance of bath towels, was a night of communal fun at a modest price. On-line bingo has none of this. It is a solitary affair, a way to give money to an anonymous corporation for a short lived, isolated shiver of anticipation. There is no need to get dressed up, no need to leave your home, no need to talk to anyone. Other than through the very unlikely event of winning it adds very little to your life and the adverts need to conceal this.

If they were more honest their adverts might be more valuable. If instead of showing happy, healthy, men and women gathered together for social interaction they showed the real deal people might think twice. An advert of a lonely man, sitting in his untidy flat, in his underwear, prodding his tablet in the vain hope of winning some cash, or a short ad of a women sitting in the cubicle of a W.C. hopefully thinking that this game on her phone will reward her enough to deal with her debt, might be more honest and more useful. Just as buying a particular car will not make us a rebel, nor wearing certain clothes make us an intellectual, neither will solitary gambling make us part of a community. We need people to put their pants back on, to go outside, and meet their friends and neighbours again.