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Evolution and the Strandbeest

August 16, 2017

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Photo by Axel Hindemith via Wikipedia, September 2007

Theo Jansen, whose work I was lucky enough to see taking a stroll on The Hague’s south beach this afternoon, has an interesting theory about the evolution of his Strandbeesten. The sight of Jansen striding up the beach, dragging his whirling plastic contraption and a swarm of curious onlookers with him, put me in mind of a Victorian showman advertising his circus. Jansen has made the wind-propelled creatures, constructed from PVC tubes and joints, his life’s work, but doesn’t intend to stop there. His ultimate ambition, he told an audience on the sands, is to distil his designs into a single creature that is wholly self-reliant and can live on after his death.

At what point can we deem a man-made creature to be alive, or even independent? Jansen’s creations are beautiful and graceful, but a long way short of intelligent. They can only move with the explicit intrusion of their creator, who points them in the right direction, loosens their sails and decides when they should stop. More sophisticated versions use compressed air or store wind in plastic bottles so they can walk in the absence of wind. And, of course, they cannot think, feed, or reproduce. But the last point brings us to Jansen’s theory.

He drew his audience’s attention to a symmetrical pair of Strandbeesten he called ‘the proboscis’. Instead of walking, the creatures have pointed noses that dance and sway in harmony, like interlocking waves. It is a hypnotic sight, but Jansen struggled at first to understand what purpose this movement could have. Perhaps, he mused, they were trying to seduce each other, but that would be useless, since Strandbeesten cannot physically multiply. But then he realised that the Strandbeesten were seducing not themselves, but other creatures. Specifically students, who followed the instructions on Jansen’s website to bring their own Strandbeesten into being.

An unexpected implication of Jansen’s discovery is that the Strandbeest is a parasitic organism. It lodges itself in the imagination of its human hosts and inspires them to create its offspring. We could call it an intellectual parasite. This also gives the Strandbeesten a good chance of evolving further, since no two people will build the creatures in exactly the same way, and multiple creators will have more opportunities to improve the design. As so often, what appears at first to be a frivolous embellishment turns out to be vital to the survival of the species. The danger, Jansen warned his audience, is that we humans will become so infatuated with the Strandbeesten that they take over our lives. This we must resist.

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Announcement

July 26, 2017
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Photo (c) Traci White

I’m delighted to announce that my memoir, All The Time We Thought We Had, will be published by Birlinn, provisionally in the spring of 2018. What’s it about? In the first place it’s the story of how Magteld died of breast cancer in 2014, within two years of first being diagnosed. It’s about how our family emigrated while caring for a dying woman. It’s about how my two autistic children adjusted to living in a new country in the absence of their mother, and how we tackled all these challenges as a family lashed together in grief. Most of all it’s about love and loss, fate and hope, fragility and strength, new beginnings and unexpected journeys, and how our memories shape our future.

I also have a Facebook page which you’re warmly invited to follow. I’ll try to post interesting stuff in amongst the flagrant self-promotion, but no promises.

Obligatory pensive author shot by the excellent Traci White (Groningen, not Montana) – please contact her if you want to use it for any reason.

After 2016, whither democracy?

December 29, 2016

our_dreams_cannot_fit_in_their_ballot_boxes_croppedAt the end of a year dominated by the politics of fear and division, a few bold individuals resolved to speak up for the values of solidarity and compassion. Here are the words of one of them: “Even with the inspiration of others, it’s understandable that we sometimes think the world’s problems are so big that we can do little to help. On our own, we cannot end wars or wipe out injustice, but the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine.”

In her Christmas Day message, Queen Elizabeth gave the gentlest of warnings about letting a sense of helplessness set in and calcify the social fabric. The sentiment was expressed more pointedly on the same day by a member of the same exclusive club, the Dutch king Willem-Alexander:“The extreme seems to have become the new normal. In their search for security, groups become entrenched in their own convictions. Open conversations often become impossible. Many of us have the sense that we live in a country where nobody listens.”

Historically democracy evolved to protect society from despotic monarchs wielding their power excessively. This year may well be remembered as the moment when that process turned on its head. While democracy delivered us Brexit and President Trump, unelected monarchs became the last hope for the values which elected leaders have been trampling all over. In September King Harold of Norway proclaimed his nation’s diversity in a short but fiery speech that resonated around the world: “Norwegians are enthusiastic young people – and wise old people. Norwegians are single, divorced, families with children, and old married couples. Norwegians are girls who love girls, boys who love boys, and girls and boys who love each other. Norwegians believe in God, Allah, the Universe and nothing … My greatest hope for Norway is that we will be able to take care of one another.” Contrast this with the splenetic outbursts of Trump, who has vowed to build walls with one country, denounced climate change as subterfuge on the part of another, proposed banning millions of Muslims from his borders and plans to weaken the authority of Nato. From Victor Orban in Hungary to Putin, Erdogan and Trump, the threat to democracy in modern times comes not from foreign despots, but from demagogues dismantling the system from within.

‘Democratic deconsolidation’

In their research on ‘democratic deconsolidation’, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa identify an alarming contrast between generations: among Americans born in the 1930s, 75% believe it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy, but for those born in the 1980s, the figure is closer to 25%. Trust is eroding, not just in elected politicians, but in democracy itself. As society fragments, people’s confidence in the political order to secure their freedom, health and prosperity diminishes. They resent the system they are asked to participate in and make decisions that highlight its weakness. Trump won by dragging down expectations so low, and destroying any pretence of standing up for democratic values, that he became an impermeable, scandal-proof candidate, immune from the constraint of being held to account for his words.

Since the Renaissance it has been an article of faith that democratic decisions are better decisions. In 2016 we learned that this is a fragile illusion. The value of democracy is contingent on the goodwill of the electorate. Brexit was a democratic decision foisted on a government that had (and still has) little idea of how to carry it out, by a people who had little regard for the consequences. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, has spent most of the year dealing with the fall-out from a referendum in which voters demanded that he withdraw his signature from an accession treaty between the EU and Ukraine, without the faintest interest in the treaty’s aims or the effect of withdrawing on the Netherlands’ foreign relations. They simply wanted him to voice their disaffection with the world order.

In 2008 Barack Obama was elected president with a message of hope. He was by no means the first. But voters who have seen increasingly little material improvement in their lives have lost patience with politicians who have spent the last 40 years stripping themselves of power and endorsing the tyranny of the free market. America in 2016 is a land of lost hope, where the hopeless have taken revenge by electing the most hopeless leader imaginable. The hope is now invested, perversely, in popes and potentates. Queen Elizabeth’s call for “thousands of small acts of goodness” is a reminder that such acts are still possible and necessary in a fragmented society. And Willem-Alexander’s Christmas address included an appeal to people to resist the destructive forces of populist nostalgia: ‘This is how we want to live here, as free and equal people … As the world around us offers us less stability, we need to hold on to what we share and protect the things that unite us.’ When hereditary rulers have to defend the foundations of democracy against elected leaders, it a sign that democracy is in very serious trouble indeed.

Loneliness: the secret circle of hell

October 4, 2016
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Picture: The lonely runner, by Nick Kenrick on Flickr

“We cannot cope alone,” wrote George Monbiot in his essay on the age of loneliness, published in The Guardian two years ago. Human beings are social animals: we crave the support, approval and love of like-minded individuals. But society in the last 50 years has become steadily more atomised, with a relentless focus on individual success. The Olympics have been reduced to the singularity of winning – silver medallists cry tears of rage and act as if a close relative has died, just because one person out of thousands performed slightly better than them at an arbitrary task. We commiserate with losers rather than celebrate their contribution to the spectacle. There is no solidarity with, or appreciation for, a worthy adversary. And so it is in society: performance is paramount, failure is shameful and social status depends on meeting somebody else’s measure of success, rather than the intrinsic worth of your endeavours.

The greatest failure, the biggest shame of all, is to be lonely. Stress, depression, anxiety, burnout: all these are recognised conditions nowadays and good therapeutic treatments have emerged to help people cope with them. But loneliness? Get a grip. What do you want, a prescription to take down to Aldi so you can stock up on white wine and multipacks? Lonely people are losers, sad sacks, easy prey for spurious dating websites and cowboy builders, and they only have themselves to blame. Who can fail to have a social life in a world where we are constantly being nagged to connect? We can strike up friendships with strangers on the other side of the world, have Twitter chats with our favourite celebrities and find partners online (we can even vet their social media profiles before the first date). We follow our friends on their holidays, cheer their achievements on Facebook and read their blogs. And yet many of us are lonely – profoundly lonely. We don’t want to admit it, because we are under pressure to project idealised versions of ourselves. Social media amplifies this: we are on permanent display. We must be sharp, witty, insightful, passionate and provocative, keep pace with the latest news, surf the waves of outrage and wish everybody a happy birthday.

Often we don’t see loneliness because it is camouflaged in the jungle of self-promotion that is social media. Recently a young woman called Louise Delage exploded onto Instagram as she toured Europe’s party capitals, seemingly having the time of her life, leaving a trail of selfies emblazoned with happy hashtags in her wake. After two months, during which she had accumulated 16,000 followers, came the sting: ‘Louise’ had been created by an advertising agency for an addiction awareness campaign. Few of those who had been sucked into her lifestyle noticed that she had a drink in her hand in every shot, a tell-tale sign of alcoholism. But even when the secret was out, hardly anybody remarked on the other common thread running through the pictures: in the vast majority of them, as she cradles her half-empty glass, Louise is alone.

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Since being widowed two years ago I have struggled to get out of the house. I am occupied with my two children from 7am until 10pm, I can’t commit to any kind of regular social activity, like joining a sports club, and dating is off-limits for both emotional and logistical reasons. If I massage my schedule I can squeeze in a Skype call with an old friend (being a recent immigrant makes it extra challenging). The theatre, the cinema, the concert hall, festivals, restaurants, even the shops (apart from the local supermarket) exist in a parallel dimension. There is occasional respite when the children’s grandparents come and look after them every few months. But it is hard to nourish and sustain friendships on such meagre rations of time, and impossible to strike up new ones, in a new country where I have a permanent deficit in terms of language, culture and social networks.

The depth of my social ostracism only hit home the other week when I went for lunch with a friend – not even a close friend, but somebody who’d been very generous with their time over the last two years, offered a listening ear and given some friendly advice. When I got home I was afflicted by a horrible sense of emptiness, a bitter mixture of anxiety, loss and regret. In the next few days I twice went out shopping without my wallet, locked myself out of the house and neglected to pack the mid-morning snack in one of my children’s school bags. Any of these incidents on its own I would have dismissed as a minor lapse of concentration, but taken together they were evidence of a looming crisis. I spent the week moping, exhausted and irritable. On looking back it dawned on me that that lunch date in mid-September was only the second time this year that I’d sat down to eat with another adult who wasn’t related to my children.

‘I have binged on solitude like a seasoned drinker who discovers in his mid-fifties that he has type 2 diabetes’

It was a shock to realise how hard I found it to be alone, because growing up as an only child taught me to appreciate my own company. My mother complimented me on my ability to entertain myself, which may not have been entirely altruistic. But there is difference between solitude and loneliness. Being alone once in a while, in the context of a stimulating social life, can be refreshing and vital, an opportunity to step off the treadmill and let your mind breathe. A day spent alone at the end of a busy week is as relaxing as a glass of wine, and combining the two is possibly the best relief of all. But prolonged periods of isolation corrode the soul. I thought, having spent regular spells by myself, that I was immune to the disease of loneliness. But I have binged on solitude for too long, like the seasoned drinker who champions his ability to turn up to work the morning after a heavy session, year after year, only to be shocked in his mid-fifties by the discovery that he has developed type 2 diabetes.

Loneliness is a dim fetid corridor that deafens you with the echo of your own footsteps. Profound loneliness feels like walking around inside a plastic bubble. The difficult times aren’t when you are away from people, but when you are among them and it feels as if life is going on around you but separate from you. Sometimes people come up close to the bubble; sometimes they even press their faces right into it and see you, but there is no real connection beyond than the formal interactions of shop assistants requesting and receiving money, or neighbours stopping for a 30-second chat before heading off to a proper social engagement. Their fingers prod the bubble but they cannot step inside it and you see, but do not feel, their prodding attempts at contact. And another potential connection fizzles and dies.

I know what you’re thinking: there are worse diseases out there than feeling a bit isolated. But loneliness is physically as well as mentally inhibiting. In a study that followed 2000 people aged over 50 conducted over six years, those who reported being lonely had a 14% higher risk of dying. That was twice the risk for obesity. The Lonely Society, a report by the Mental Health Foundation published in 2010, said the “individualistic society” was responsible both for increased loneliness and an increase in common mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety over the last 50 years. John Carpioccio, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, has gathered scientific evidence of the physiological impact of loneliness: stress hormones, a weakened immune system and lower cardiovascular function, equivalent to the damage done by smoking.

The perniciousness of loneliness is a downward spiral. You don’t bother your friends with it because you don’t want to be bad company. You feel everybody else is doing OK, they’ve got their own worries to deal with and you just need to get over yourself. If you do raise the subject, most people prefer to give superficial advice, such as taking up a new hobby, rather than getting into a situation that can be confusing, tiring and energy-sapping. And if you do find that rare person who can understands, you are terrified of leaning on them too hard and alienating them. In the end you are left with nowhere to go but inwards, into the secret circle of hell, the cold cell in the hive, that is your own diminished company.

Whether loneliness is an epidemic is a matter for the experts. Certainly it is a pervasive condition. The permanent fog of anger on Twitter, notably, gives voice to a widely-felt sense of disappointment and disaffectation. It is tied with low empathy – angry Tweeters scramble to judge anyone who makes a mistake or shows a personal weakness, and compete to see who can ascribe the most malicious motives to a simple misjudgment. They wallow in paranoia, feel quickly threatened and revel in the misfortunes of others. These are all characteristics of lonely people. But how do you fix people who are so entrenched in their unhappiness that they shun all efforts to help them?

There seems to be a tipping point with loneliness where it becomes a one-way plunge into the abyss. I have seen elderly relatives, weakened by grief, gradually withdraw from society in a ghastly pas-de-deux, as their social skills fade and those who were once close to them feel their compassion ebb and drift away. Somehow I have to keep on, for the sake of my children, and try not to think about what happens when they leave home. I don’t fear death so much as the emptiness in between. So I don’t want to succumb to loneliness or stay silent about it. I want to fight it the way other people fight cancer. I want my part in the drama of life to be acknowledged. I’ve always got by with a small social circle and thought I would be strong enough to manage on my own, but the past two years have forced me to accept that George Monbiot is right: we cannot cope alone. Without connections we wither.

Chippings from the quarry #4: Stood up

July 5, 2016

Stood up

It seems ridiculous now, but there was a time when every date you went on carried the risk of the other person not showing up. In other words, you’d be stood up. Nowadays when your date doesn’t appear you summon your pocket djinn, dispatch a message demanding to know where the hell they are, and it flies to their phone like a cupid’s arrow dipped in poison. Either they have a good excuse, like they’ve just pulled over by the side of the road to administer the kiss of life to an accident victim, or they have to lie nimbly, or admit to being an inadequate person. Either way, you don’t leave before you’ve had an explanation, and in many ways this feels like progress.

A tangled ivy of etiquette grew up around the unsavoury business of being stood up. The main scruple was how long you should wait before you abandoned hope and shuffled off. You would fidget, push the empty glassware round the table as if re-enacting a battle scene, check your watch too often and try to dodge the barman’s doom-laden gaze. Your second concern was to salvage your dignity as you left, alone, humiliated and betrayed by someone who had fallen so fast in your affections that they left scorch marks on your soul. They didn’t even have the basic decency to be there to absorb your wrath.

Sometimes you stayed in the bar and took a drink to console yourself, and while you were drowning your despair someone else came and sat with you, and you were so grateful for their company and their laughter and the way they swept away your disappointment that you ended up going home with them instead, and by the close of the weekend you had fallen helplessly in love like a leaf tumbling from a tree.

And then on the Monday morning your first date called your office (these being the days when speaking to people was conditional on knowing where they were, in contrast to today when our voices float in the ether) with an effusive apology and an account of whatever act of minor heroism had kept them from you, but you felt awkward and rang off the call, because while they were out saving lives the world had turned and they had fallen out of it. But they persisted, and eventually you agreed to meet for a drink on Friday after work, as friends, so you could explain how your love life had gone ex-directory. But when you saw the vulnerability in their eyes you remembered why you found them so darned attractive in the first place, and you felt your resolve washing away like sand in the morning rain.

And so you began an affair with the person you’d ditched, behind the back of the one fate had thrust on you in his place, and for a few years you faithfully tended this faithless arrangement, soaking up your friends’ compliments about your successfully manicured life of marital bliss, even as you dipped out of sight to engage in hot urgent sex with your paramour. Until one day your lover died in a car accident, and you gnashed your teeth in silent mourning, and in your secret anguish you accepted your surviving partner’s marriage proposal, believing it would absolve you from your grievous shame. And you lived the rest of your life in a balm of muted happiness tinged with the bitter flavour of regret, as all good marriages are.

Nowadays technological advancement has deprived us of these opportunities. If our dates don’t appear we send them a snarky text message, slip out of the bar, go home and cry in the dark.

Above and beyond

May 26, 2016

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Have two years really gone by, my love? When I think of us together it seems like five minutes ago and another time zone at once, as if I’m watching a live television broadcast from the medieval era.

I look through a telescope in search of you, but all I see is flickering lights. Are they anomalies of bitter heat in the cold, or is the night sky a cloak for the terrible brightness? Is it love distorting the view, or madness? Is there any discernible difference?

There is a school of thought that says that once you’ve taken your last breath and your consciousness fizzles out, it’s as if you never existed.

I have an infinitesimal problem with that.

Read more…

Birthdays

March 5, 2016
Magteld and Adam with a birthday cake.

Magteld with the cake for Adam’s sixth birthday.

In one of my first letters from Magteld, a couple of months after we met, she asked when my birthday was. The missive arrived on August 31st, the morning after my 19th birthday, so I was recovering from a late night in a campsite bar swilling cheap Italian lager by the bottle. She told me hers was March 5th, and I realised that we were separated by almost exactly six months. Every horoscope I ever glanced at on the train warned me that our two star signs were cosmically mismatched, but I relished the strict rhythm our dates bestowed on the yearly cycle, like an army marching in step.

In those early years birthdays were among the few occasions when we permitted ourselves a phone call, in that not so distant time when talking across borders was prohibitively expensive. Mostly we made do with handwritten letters, so her voice on the phone took on a decadent and exotic timbre. For her 20th she visited me in Edinburgh, where we were already making plans to live together the following year. It was inconceivable then, but she was already into the second half of her life. Her 21st was an impromptu night out at the Filling Station, rustled up by her friends the day before after she let slip that her birthday was looming. Magteld was not the ceremonial type: as a child she had a reputation for drifting away from her own birthday parties. For her thirtieth I told her we were spending a quiet weekend in a B&B in Edinburgh. I drove along the M8 motorway, strained with nerves, fighting through roadworks to meet the agreed rendezvous time of two o’clock. When we got to the house asked her to knock on the door while I got the children out of the car. For a moment I feared she would refuse, but eventually she consented, with a bewildered shake of the head, and a moment later I heard a squeal as her father opened the door from the inside. It had taken months of scheming, enforced silence and under-the-radar emails to fly her whole family over for the surprise weekend. Weeks of tension evaporated in the blast of joy as she stepped into the hallway.

Early March is a capricious time, especially in Scotland, and that weekend in Edinburgh saw a late flurry of snow. We flung snowballs in the Meadows and watched Euan, less than three years old, totter excitedly across the crispy white grass. The year before we had gone to Ardaneiseig, a stubbornly hard to reach but beautiful spot by a Highland lake, and drove between snowbound peaks on a freakishly still day, when the sky was so piercingly blue it looked as if it might shatter. We had left Euan behind with his grandmother; when I came home and took the bins outside he followed me in a frenzy, terrifed I was about to vanish from his life again. It was one of the last times we went away with the two of us, but in fact we weren’t alone, because Adam arrived around seven months later. As Magteld stepped out on that bright morning and breathed in the sharp air, did she felt the first twinge of life inside her?

Two years ago we were back in Edinburgh for what we knew by then would be, in the absence of miracles, her last birthday. We booked a night in a five-star hotel, wandered down to the Grassmarket and had lunch in The Last Drop, a staple of our student days, and basked in the serenity of the National Galleries. We were living ghosts passing through all the places we were about to quit, indulging ourselves in a farewell tour of the city where our lives had fused. When we returned to Glasgow our nephew had been born, exactly thirty-eight years later than Magteld. Thirty-eight years, an entire life. She got to hold him once, in her prematurely frail arms, in the hospice, and in the photograph I have they both look so vibrant and alert that it’s almost obscene to think that each of them was just over a month removed from non-existence.

She should have been forty today. It’s meant to be the halfway point of your life, when the sun is still high in the sky but the shadows are starting to lengthen, when you look back and reflect on how you got here, and feel the hot breath of time on your neck. There is still enough light for a few more dances and adventures, but your step is heavier and it’s becoming harder to get up again when you fall.

There are still a handful of people alive who marked their fortieth birthday in wartime; plenty more who saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in their forties and are boldly prevailing in their eighties or nineties. Magteld left behind not just two children, but two grandmothers, in a violation of the laws of time. You’re as old as you feel, they say, but my sense of age has gone numb; it feels as if I’ve skipped my forties and am in a kind of limbo, waiting for the clocks to restart somewhere in my mid-fifties when the children have released me back into whatever remains of civilisation. There are days when I feel like an intruder in everyday life, snatching what provisions I need before retreating to the desert of widowhood, that cold dark comforting place where no-one can follow you.

Forty is a curious age. It’s an age people dread when they’re young, but often look back on fondly as the high point of their capacity: the energy of youth combined with the wisdom of knowing how to use it. Look closely at a forty-year-old’s face and you can still see traces of their twenty-year-old self, but also the first hints of what they might look like at sixty.

A strange time to be alive. But the alternative is absurd.