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.
Today started dreadfully. It was cold, but sunny, as I started my rounds to feed and water the animals. When I opened the door to the first henhouse I was stunned with what I saw. A brown hen was in the middle of the floor dead, her head bitten off and near her body. The partial corpses of three small chicks were scattered around the base of the hut more or less eaten completely. The turkeys were cowering in the corner as were some chickens and one solitary chick. Something had got in during the night and taken four of our birds in one attack.
I took this badly as I was very fond of the old brown hen. In human terms she was clearly geriatric and would have been drawing her pension. But she battled on and this year, well after spring had ended, took it upon herself to go broody and hatch out two late chickens. She was an excellent mother to these two, she never left their side and she shepherded them through the day to make sure the turkeys didn’t bully them out of their share of the food. Her surviving chick has looked lonely and scared today as she hangs around the edge of the, now paltry, flock.
This type of attack is usually the result of a weasel and we were troubled by these last winter. Sometimes a fox will do the same pattern of removing the heads but there was no way for a fox to get access into the henhouse. I scoured round the area to find out how this had happened and found, once I moved some chicken droppings, that the wall of the henhouse had bowed. This had created a gap, just big enough to poke my little finger through, but big enough for weasels to gain access.
I spent today fixing this gap and checking all the other henhouses for similar problems. As I worked away I remembered the old phrase of locking stable doors after horses had bolted and felt bad that I had missed this and let it happen. We usually loose a proportion of our stock to predation by hawks, foxes and the like. I take it as a fact of life, they need to live also. Though I must say that I find the ways hawks eat their prey alive very cruel, and the way foxes and weasels will slaughter all in a hutch, but eat only a few, very wasteful. But what was making me feel bad about this was that I had missed the gap developing. I should have seen it and fixed it before the weasels found it, I am meant to be the more intelligent animal.
This evening I have merged this small flock with another. We had one very pretty cockerel I didn’t feel we could send to the pot and he had hardly any wives. He would occasionally make unsuccessful forays into the other cockerels’ areas to try and lure hens away. Here, at least, was a solution to his problem. This evening he is tucked up with the turkeys and some new wives. Over the next few days they will have to spend their day in the hen-run associated with this house (rather than roam free) until we know that they see themselves as a family; as members of a small new flock.
This old hen has also done something very useful. She reminded me of a valuable lesson. Halloween is meant to be the time that we think of death and the departed but this has largely gone to be replaced by a another secular fun day for adults and children alike. A month after Halloween this old hen reminded me, because I felt ashamed, to think about death. To think that once people have died it is too late to go back and fix things. We should look around and recognise that now is the time to do things, not later on or tomorrow. If I am not careful the regrets I could have in the future could make todays’ sadness seem very minor. There are lots of gaps that need fixing and things which need checking and I shouldn’t wait until a calamity makes me realise this. For this reminder I thank her.
I am feeling rather ashamed today. I heard that Asia Bibi was released from prison, after her conviction for blasphemy was overturned, and was relieved with this news. However, after a decade unjustly imprisoned, and much of that time spent in solitary confinement, she is at considerable risk in Pakistan. There have been mass demonstrations and riots demanding that she be executed. This is no idle concern, as previously high-ranking officials who took up her case were indeed assassinated. She has wisely asked for asylum and thankfully there have been some offers and it is likely she will go to the Netherlands.
The reason I feel rather ashamed is that one of the countries from which she requested asylum was the United Kingdom. Given the long association between Pakistan and the United Kingdom this would seem to be a natural choice. Given the obvious need for asylum, and the reasons behind her plight, one would have anticipated that an offer of asylum would have been quickly forthcoming. However , it seems that this has been specifically rejected. Wilson Chowdhry, of the British Pakistani Christian Association, reports that British authorities have said :-
‘I’ve been lead to believe that the UK government had concerns that her moving to the UK would cause security concerns and unrest among certain sections of the community and would also be a security threat to British embassies abroad which might be targeted by Islamist terrorists,’
Religious freedom and a refusal to be intimidated are core facets of what we consider “British Values”. We should be proud to offer asylum to those fleeing persecution and should do this even if there are risks in doing so. We can not be seen to only help when there is no cost to ourselves. It is shameful to reject asylum because of fears of what those doing the oppression might do. If there are those in our community who object to us giving asylum then it is they that are behaving badly, and against the principles of our country. Indeed, if there are any who think that she should be executed we should ensure she comes here, and is kept safely, to clearly echo the point that we think freedom of thought and freedom of religion and vital, and uncontestable, parts of British society. It is those who think othewise who should consider whether they are living in the right place.
Asylum is something that should not be weighed up against trade deals, nor weighed up against possible difficulties to ourselves, it is something we should offer to prove our humanity and moral standing. I feel a little ashamed that today it seems Britain has said moral duties can be trumped by comfort or safety. It was said that during World War 2 we spent all our energy and lost thousands of lives in order to protect a few moral principles while now we will loose our moral principles in order to save a few lives.
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 !
The Learning Disability Mortality Review was published this week and it has largely gone unnoticed in the press and news. While we flaunt the successes of our health service, and describe it as the “the envy of the world“, we have ignored the fact that there is a serious problem with how the NHS treats one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. The report looked at those with learning Disability dying in NHS care and found that in about one in eight of those deaths neglect, abuse or incompetence had “adversely affected” the care that the individual had received.
The report makes harrowing and upsetting reading. It is clear that this group of people are being sold short by our health service, that they are often felt to have lives not worth saving. There are reports of staff failing to recognise the worth of the individual and thus they are discriminated against. This utilitarian view of life is very dangerous and particularly dangerous, in a system such as the NHS, where the client is not the patient but the state itself. The state will have the tendency to value some lives are more productive than others, more valuable than others, and thus worthy of more attention. This group of people find themselves at the bottom of the pile when priorities are being drawn up. When the calculus of how much someone is worth is reckoned their values – the pleasure they bring to their families, the love they express, the friendships they make – don’t weight well in the scales and they loose out.
Staff recognise this and start to behave accordingly; they care less for the patients and come to view them as obstacles in the path to giving better care to more deserving patients, and, in extreme cases, unworthy of using the resources which could be better used by someone more valuable. All of this has echoes of the film “Dasein Ohne Leben ” (“Existence without Life”), the 1942 Nazi propaganda film which was intended to soften the public’s opposition to the euthanasia, or murder, of the physically and mentally handicapped.
Although this group of people almost certainly suffer the most from this neglect they are unfortunately not alone. When I was working I was repeatedly shocked by the contempt that medical and nursing staff could express for patients with dementia seeing them as nothing more than “bed blockers” who were misusing scarce resources. Recent scandals about breast screening errors again show that ageism is still prevalent. Older women have higher risks of breast cancer but screening is avoided because it is “not worth it” in this group. Were the NHS an insurance system, as it was initially intended, then people who had been in the scheme longer, and contributed more, would expect better dividends not a scheme which rewards their involvement by reducing their entitlements.
But advanced age is not necessary to be a victim of this type of calculation. The high profile cases of severely disabled children being removed from their parent’s control causes further concern. In these awful cases, the parents asked for nothing extra from the NHS other than to get out of the way and to let them try what they could for their babies. Their hopes for their offspring were almost certainly futile but it may have helped the parents to know that they had done all that was humanly possible for their sons. But the system felt is was important, having assessed the importance of these infants lives, to stop the parents and other systems doing what the might lest they squandered resources.
When systems become too large they often become inhumane. When the patient and their family is not the focus then the system operates on economic principles of value for money. It stops being an insurance scheme to protect us form the high costs of health care, by aggregating risks, and becomes a system to ration care. In a rationing system the vulnerable groups of the disabled and elderly always loose out particularly in times of scarcity. As the NHS becomes increasingly unable to meet the demands put upon it it will start to ration ever more strictly. Then it matters not a fig, whether you paid your taxes diligently, or worked productively, or are a valued member of your family and community, if you are deemed too expensive and too unproductive then your services are going to be poor. You will get the minimum that can be offered if a callous system allow even that to happen.
Our sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters, with learning disabilities are not lesser people than us. They have every right to care and we should feel ashamed that a system what we hoped would provide universal healthcare is failing to do so for the weakest and most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.