Owen Sheers is one of the best writers working in Britain at the moment. As a poet, dramatist, playwright and novelist he is at the top of his form. There are few who can match him as a story teller. He is certainly the equal of Ian McEwan and in this book he shows some clear similarities in style. Perhaps, unusually he is the first person to become the writer in residence for the Welsh Rugby Union. Though this is not inappropriate for a man who played scrum half for Gwent County and, when a student, captained the Oxford University Modern Pentathlon team.
But why am I spending so much time talking about the author. The reason is simple. I think you should read his books especially either his first one “Resistance” or his most recent novel, this one, “I Saw A Man”. It is difficult to review this novel without giving too much away and spoiling the book for a future reader and hence I have padded this review with some autobiography and the hope that this and his clear credentials might tempt people to try the book.
This book has a number of interwoven tales where the protagonists deal with the issues of loss, grief, guilt, accidental tragedy and the hopes for redemption. The book can be read as a thriller with a mystery revealed in the first few pages which is then followed by a tense ride as the sequence of events is uncovered. The links between events become clear and there is great satisfaction in their denouement. I, like many other reviewers, read this book in one sitting it is so captivating. The links may not seem obvious, between a drone operative in Creech Air force base in Nevada and a young girl falling down stairs in her London home for example, but they are never contrived or stretched.
However, much more impressive than being an effective taut thriller it is also a wonderfully well written book about grief and guilt. He manages to write in a manner that brings the characters and their domestic circumstances to life. We can imagine them and empathize with them. Importantly we can see, and understand, the mistakes the characters make and perhaps this is where the novel is at its best; it lets us see and consider our own tendencies to self-deception.
A book by Olaf Olafson about Pétur Péturson might be thought likely to be Nordic or Scandi Noir, but while this story is partially set in Iceland and Denmark its theme is international. This is the story of a life lived badly, the story of man who was materially successful but whose soul was lost.
I can say only a little in a book review, as to reveal too much would mar the experience for a future reader. Suffice to say it starts at the end of Pétur Péturson’s life. He has died wealthy and alone and left a manuscript detailing how a “little crime” in his youth has followed and burdened him throughout his life.
This aspect of the book is gripping. It reads like a thriller as we try to work out the crime, the victim and the motive. As he gradually reveals the history of his life we start to know what crimes he has committed and these are not only those that he confesses; in his braggadocio he reveals crimes that he does not recognize as his responsibility. As a non-believer he reports that he seeks no absolution and sees no need for atonement but his desire and need for both become apparent to the reader as the story progresses.
As we try to understand the nature of Pétur and his crime we become aware of a very black-hearted individual riven with jealousy, lust and anger and this is where the power of the novel lies. Although it concerns a lying, cheating, greedy man who is almost the epitome of a bastard, it is written in such a way that we can understand these feelings and even see part of ourselves in them. We may dislike Pétur, but we don’t hate him and by the end understand him a little and hopefully also may have gained a little insight to where some of our own less gallant emotions arise. It is all very well to read about heroes and heroines, but we also need to know where our faults lie and what may be making us poorer people than we could be.
Those of you who are without sin, and have no baser aspects of character that need addressing, can still enjoy this novel as a gripping mystery. There is much that will hold your attention through to the end, where even the last pages may surprise you.
My relationship with one of my neighbours is broken and I am not sure how, or if, I can fix it. We have lived on adjacent properties for many years and had always had cordial relations until a few years ago when ‘Rammy’ died.
Rammy was our, not very imaginatively named, Welsh Mountain Ram. He was the first ram we had and over his life we had grown very attached to him. Each autumn he paid attention to the ladies in our flock and ensure the following spring we had new lambs. He was protective of his harem but he was never belligerent with us. He would see off any dogs or strangers who came into his realm and could be quite impressive as his 80kg ran at full pelt towards a foe. However, with us, all we had to do was to make a pretend gun, by pointing two straight fingers at him, and say “bang bang” and he’s stop running and keep his distance. During the annual tasks of shearing or dosing he would give-in gracefully, after only a token fight, and I was always certain that had he been determined to escape my clutches he could have done so. In short he was a gentle giant of whom we were very fond.
Unfortunately one autumn there was a minor accident. Our neighbour left the gate to our sheep field open and the ram and some sheep left the field to wander the lanes. The neighbour noticed what he had done and was able to herd the sheep, who had not ventured far, back through the gate and into the field. He left the ram in the lane. He did not think to tell us about this and we only discovered that Rammy had gone on a walk in the early evening when we did the routine head count and noted him absent. We frantically started searching and our neighbour told us, in a blasé fashion, what had occurred and that Rammy was last seen heading down the lane towards town.
We found him fairly quickly. He had gone into an adjacent farm’s field and was content having found himself surrounded by about 200 ewes ready for mating. He must have felt that he had discovered paradise, everywhere he looked there were nubile and receptive ewes admiring him. We tried to lure him home but the prospect of a bucket of nuts was no match for the sea of pheromones and plaintive calls of the seductive ewes that surrounded him. It was dusk and darkness was falling rapidly. We contacted the farmer who owned the flock that he was visiting and told him of our dilemma. We agreed that it was too late to separate him tonight, as darkness had fallen, but that we would meet at dawn the following day with his shepherd and both our sheepdogs to round up all the sheep and pull him out. The worry about our ram, and the embarrassment that we were causing a major task for our neighbour at a busy time of year, meant we had a fitful and sleepless night.
At dawn’s light we all met at the gate to the field. We could not see Rammy and we joked he might be sleeping off a night of unexpected passion. We entered the field with the dogs and started to prepare to gather everybody together. As we crested a hill, to gain a vantage point to plan our strategy, we saw in the distance a large white body. It was clear Rammy was lying dead. When we got closer there were marks on his face and bleeding which confirmed what had happened. He had entered a field where there were two large texel rams who were planned to service the ewes. When Rammy met these two he met his match and he had died in the fight with them.
This was all an unfortunate accident, there was no malice on anyone’s part. Leaving a gate open is an easy mistake. Failing to notify us that the ram was out is perhaps more annoying as, had we known earlier, then we may have been able to catch him before he entered the neighbouring field and the outcome may have been very different. But it is still a minor fault. So these issues are hardly grounds for the relationship with my neighbour to have broken down. I could have made the same mistakes, I recognise this.
The problem I have is that he has never apologised for this event nor recognised how much a loss this was. I am sure he saw the ram as just another item of stock, annoying to be lost but easily replaced. He probably does not realise, as he does not keep animals, how attached one becomes to them. I don’t want restitution. In all honesty he was not worth a great deal of money, he was no pedigree star. I know we can’t turn back the clock but the lack of an apology is always in my mind whenever we meet.
We never discuss what happened, it never comes up in conversation. There is now an awkward silence on the matter. Hence, an apology will never be forthcoming. I fear that without an apology then I can’t then forgive. Without this pair of ‘apologising and forgiving’ I fear that I can’t forget and it is this memory that has broken our relationship. But perhaps some things once broken can never truly be mended and there will always be some form of scar.
I sometimes fear that we will need to radically rewrite our dictionaries in the near future as so many of our words are dropping their old, negative definitions for new, positive and winsome meanings. It is not, for example, unusual to hear a phrase such as “go on, indulge yourself, you deserve it” on an advert on the television. The modern use of indulge is the components of luxury or tolerance. Any former ideas of postponement of a debt or deferment of a sin has largely been lost. Similarly words such as “pride“, which was previously something to be avoided, as one of the seven deadly sins, are now seen as positive attributes to one’s character.
Common words such as health can come to mean their opposite when allied with the word “mental”. It is not unusual to hear he suffered with “mental health” (instead of illness) and “we are all affected by mental health” (When unfortunately this is not the case and many of us suffer with mental illness). I fear the stigma associated with mental illness is so great that people are even fearful of saying the word and will try all forms of verbal gymnastics to avoid it.
It is to be expected that words change their meaning over time as fashions and social mores change. In an increasingly secular world it is not surprising that many words which previously had a religious connotation are now pressed into service for more profane uses. As our technology and lives change we need words to communicate our new circumstances and it makes sense to bring older antiquated words out of retirement and disuse, and dust them off, before pressing them into use in contemporary conversations. Although I am a bit of a pedant, and I do like the original meaning of words recalled, I am happy to see drifts and changes in the language allowing us to communicate freely. I would not wish to think that words should be preserved in aspic as this is a sure route to the demise of conversation and understanding.
However, there are some words which are so important in the meaning they bestow that they should only be misused with great care. In his excellent novel ‘1984’ George Orwell reminded us of the power of words, and in particular the power of words when misused to entrap and imprison us. Big Brother altered the meanings many words, through the development of Newspeak , as they were aware this was a source of political power. Nowadays, it seems that we are rapidly learning Newspeak and words such as sexcrime and crimethink seem very prescient.
Two such words are ‘Shame’ and the related word ‘Guilty’. Shame used to mean the painful emotion we felt when we were aware that we had not lived up to our standards, when we experienced feelings of guilt or disgrace because we had behaved badly and to a level below the standards to which we hold ourselves. Shame is increasing being used as a verb meaning to make someone feel ashamed and often tagged onto a preceding word – fat shaming, slut shaming, body shaming, and so on. However, it is often the case that it was not shame that was sought but rather advice which was offered. It is no great surprise that the commonest people responsible for fat shaming are family members and doctors, people who have a vested interest in aiding someone who is obese or overweight and are least likely to wish to insult or distress them. People are not trying to shame someone but rather to advise or counsel them. It is true that we wish to avoid or get rid of shame, but not by banning the attribution, but rather by living and behaving in such a way that we do not feel ashamed by our actions.
This current strategy seeks to put the distress on the person who notices the sub-standard behaviour rather then on the person who has fallen short of their own standards. If I am happy with my behaviour and feel it accords with my view of what is right and proper, it does not matter one iota how you criticise me, I will feel no shame. I can only feel shame when I fall below my expectations not yours. I can only feel shame when I agree I am in the wrong, if I disagree I feel wronged or misunderstood not ashamed. You cannot shame me unless I share your thought that I have done something wrong.
‘Guilty‘, however, is the word being treated in the most egregious manner. In our connected and on-line world it has almost come to be synonymous with ‘accused’ . Previously there was a chain of events – an accusation was made, an assessment of the facts undertaken, all parties explained their actions and finally, after consideration, someone was either found “Guilty” or remained Innocent. This is what would be loosely called “due process“. To be guilty of some wrong deed is to be found responsible and culpable and is a major step, a step all civilised societies have found should only be taken after due process.
The nightmare of living in states where an accusation is all that is required to make one guilty is well known and is the hallmark of the totalitarian and barbarian. Over the millennia we, as a species, have learnt that it is vital that people should have the presumption of innocence and we should only call people ‘Guilty’ after a rigorous and fair examination of the fact. Too often today, in cases of child abuse or sexual abuse, people are quick to name someone as Guilty before due process has been had. On social media and the internet many are happy to condemn people as guilty without an exploration of the facts. Campaigns are often mounted to shout the word “Guilty” to the world before any trial of the evidence has taken place. The campaigns accuse and the media condemns before any justice can be obtained.
This often occurs in the most heinous of accusations (child abuse, rape, etc) but it is because these are the most disgusting and dreadful acts that it is especially important to ensure due process. While we must do everything possible to find those that commit these acts, hold them culpable, and punish them, we must be careful that we do not punish the innocent. To label an innocent party guilty of acts such as these is a crime on a par of severity with the acts themselves. Although it may be difficult to swallow, especially at times when the desire for revenge is high, but Blackstone’s Formulation is a true foundation for a safe and civilised society :-
“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer“
When we interfere with this viewpoint we place everyone in danger. No-one would be able to sleep at night if all it took to become guilty was that someone accused you. What about the snubbed friend, the disgruntled employee, the querulous neighbour ? Our innocence is a precious thing and should not be able to be tarnished without very good cause.
That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.
When I made the jump and left the city for the rural life I was uncertain about how some aspects of my life might change. I was, however, quite sure that moving to a smaller community would be better. In his book, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind, Yuval Harari suggests that the largest group that we can live amongst comfortably, knowing our family and neighbours, is 150 of our fellows – above this number we need to call on cultural developments to substitute for our personal knowledge of people. In essence, up to 150 people – then first hand knowledge and gossip allow us to cope, above this we need extra strategies.
In the city I was aware that I was in a huge amorphous mass of people. Because we lived closely packed together our privacy became important. It was important to keep your life separate from your neighbours as we lived cheek by jowl with them. When the situation forces you to live close with your fellows and en masse it becomes important to keep your distance. Paradoxically, though I lived in a large group I knew relatively few people, I knew my immediate neighbours, but relatively few others in the street. I knew very little about people living 100 yards from my front door.
In place of my local community I had my professional community. I mixed with other NHS consultants, lawyers and teachers, in short I mixed with people like me. We would meet and bemoan why others did not see the world as we did and could not see how correct we were in our analyses. In the days before social media there were already echo chambers and I lived inside one. My already skewed viewpoint became increasingly bent by agreement and repetition.
When I moved, one of the first obvious differences I noted were the simple benefits of living in a small local community. Within a very short period I knew my neighbours; I knew the shop workers, the staff that worked in the local farmers market, the farm workers, the foresters, the mechanics, the people who worked the land adjacent to ours. I quickly discovered that I knew many more people, not just by sight but their name and history, than I ever had known when I lived in the large city.
It was, and is, a pleasant feeling to recognise your fellows when out and about. It gives a warm feeling of community and sense of security. During the recent storms it was our neighbours who sorted out the problems of fallen trees and blocked roads well before the local authority even thought about responding. When I have had problems with livestock it has been neighbours who have assisted and I have, in my turn, assisted them. When walking through the town centre I can recognise the faces of strangers and visitors to the area as I know who is local and who is just passing through.
In the main I like this but I have been aware that this is not a simple relationship but something that strikes at the core of living in a community. Because I know others, they know me, this means my reputation is much more important than it ever was before. When you are anonymous it doesn’t matter much about your reputation. If you committed some heinous crime life would be much harder in a small community. True, if there were exonerating circumstances these may be more likely to be recognised (and taken into account), but failing this if you become the outlaw then you might prefer the anonymity of the city rather than the gaze of your fellows.
However, even at a much smaller level this reliance on reputation and knowledge of our fellows is important and, I feel, has beneficial effects on our behaviour. Imagine you are driving through town and someone pulls out suddenly and cuts you up. In the city it is all too easy to jerk the finger and shout the expletives, you’ll never see them again. In this community you might look in the car window and see your elderly neighbour on the way home after a worrisome visit to the doctors, you really don’t want to be shouting and gesticulating. Indeed had you done so you would rightly feel ashamed about your uncouth behaviour.
In the town if you drive along and notice someone with a flat tyre it is quite easy to drive past and reassure yourself that they will have phoned for help. Here, in this community, you will know that you could be recognised, even if you do not recognise them, and it will be known that you did not help. Passing on the other side would be the wrong thing to do, your reputation would suffer, and you would tend to feel shame and guilt that you had not taken the opportunity to help a fellow in need. In smaller communities you will tend to work with the same people again and again rather than interacting with many people on single, or a few, occasions. This allows you to develop your reputation by repeatedly showing such characteristics as honesty, fairness, punctuality or diligence. In short, you are able to demonstrate your honour.
I had not anticipated that a move to a smaller community would put me in closer contact to feelings of shame and its opposite honour. I am glad that it has as it has reconnected me with my own core beliefs. I know what I think is important and I now have to try to live in accord with these principles. This rediscovery of shame is important and beneficial. It is through shame that we change our behaviour, without it we can plod on seemingly oblivious to our failings and mistakes. I fear in larger societies we have substituted a culture of dignity for a culture of honour. We have substituted the right to respect for the duty to earn it. While this may help maintain social cohesion by asking very little of individuals other then a modicum of good behaviour it means we lose some of the ability for self-improvement.
In a culture which has little role for shame, and tends to feel that we should accept everyone for who they are regardless, there are few prompts for people to improve themselves. As I have reported before, I wish people had cared enough about me, and dared, to comment on my gluttony and obesity so that shame may have driven me to diet – rather than, as was the case, fear of death from diabetic complications prompting me to do so. For many of the current problems by which we are beset, are often the consequences of excess, indulgence or of short term thinking – an early experience of shame might be much preferable to the later damage experienced.
Most religions, indeed most moral codes, stress the importance of self awareness and self scrutiny so that we may be aware of our failings and correct them. The story of Adam and Eve in the bible can be read as mankind’s discovery of shame and recognition of our failings is integral to Christianity (“Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” Ecclesiastes 7:20) . Likewise recognition of misdeeds and repentance are core constructs in the Jewish (Teshuva) and Islamic faiths (Tawba) and means whereby we instruct ourselves to become better people.
If we build an increasingly shameless society, one in which we are fearful of judging our own or others behaviour, we should not be surprised if it behaves in a shameless manner. If we take away one of our checks and balances we can expect to see increasing problems with excessive consumption, poor interpersonal relationships and failure to be good custodians of our environment. Let’s hear it for shame ! Even in large societal groups we still need shame, the exhortation that “If it feels good do it !” is fine as long as it is accompanied by the knowledge “If it is wrong don’t do it”, you need both halves of the equation to live well.
(*) In this case it is my grammar, and ending a sentence with a preposition, which causes my blushes – “There is always something of which we can be ashamed” – Sorry, I’ll try harder. This is something I won’t put up with !