The Mile High Club
I’ve joined the Mile High Club. OK, that’s not true, but it got your attention. What I mean is that I began this blog post at 39,000 feet, which, I’ll admit, is not quite the same thing as claiming membership of that most exclusive of clubs. Nevertheless, it is an achievement of sorts. I couldn’t boast the privilege of wi-fi connectivity on the budget airline which I patronised; it would have been great to have actually published a post somewhere over northern Europe. As it is I’m posting after the fact. Which reminds me, I should apologise for not posting last week. I have been on holiday to Lake Garda in Italy, and I thought it wise not to disclose this online, which would be tantamount to broadcasting a message: “please burgle my house”. In the event my location did leak onto the various social networking sites that I use, but my house was still secure when I returned home. Anyway, I hope you can forgive my subterfuge.
I am a creature of habit, and I like routine. We, Mrs B and I, have holidayed in Lake Garda six times now. We are often wracked by guilt for not seeking more diversity in our travel, but the fact is that we have been inordinately lucky in being able to afford more than one holiday a year for the past few years. What we aim for is one city break, to visit new places and soak up art and culture, and one holiday of total relaxation. Lake Garda fulfils the latter objective, and so our guilt is mitigated.
A certain kind of person, a person like me, will be interested to know that I bought a brand new Moleskine specifically for making blogging notes while I was away (and for future note-taking, of course). I know that cynics view Moleskines as just a little precious and pretentious, but I love them. There was an article in the periodical The Idler several years back extolling the charms and utility of the Moleskine, with which I fully agree. (There is also, of late, a whole precious and pretentious obsession with the Moleskine simply as a fetish object, with which I wholeheartedly disagree!)
Three Days Later …
Well, this section of my travelogue post has been written three days after arriving at our holiday destination, Bardolino, at the southern end of Lake Garda. This is because what always happens when I go away has happened again. I am usually full of good intentions to keep copious notes of my experiences, and to write-up a full account of my travels. After about forty-eight hours I generally give up. I like to tell myself that this is because the holiday is having its intended effect, that I am relaxing, just enjoying the time away from work and other daily cares.
Anyway, whatever the case, I’m sure that you are relieved to find that I am not about to bore you with a blow-by-blow account of my vacation. Along with proud parents showing you baby, interminable tours of the newly decorated homes of the house-proud and cat-lovers expecting you to love their smarmy pets as much as they do, other people’s accounts of their wonderful holidays – oh my dear you absolutely must go, you’d love it – must rank as one of the most nauseating of human social interactions.
Instead, I’d like to make an observation about the allure of the foreign. It was while chatting to a shop-keeper about England that I realised his views mirrored my own about Italy. The English, he asserted, have a wonderful sense of style, and they have respect for others. A wonderful sense of style! An Italian man, and one the most stylish I’ve come across, saying this to me, an Englishman. Surely we English are not ranked among the most stylish in the world. We’re on level-pegging with the Germans for frumpiest nation on earth! This Italian man’s perspective, I concluded, must be particular rather than general. He must know some very stylish English people.
This led to another observation. I have always believed that national stereotyping – indeed any stereotyping – is wrong. It is lazy and uncultured to think that received ideas of national identity are correct. It is incumbent upon the observer to treat every individual they encounter as just that, an individual. That is not to say that people of particular nations don’t share certain social and cultural traits and behaviours. As a little experiment I’ve tried to work out the nationality of people in Bardolino from their body language and general demeanour. My observations have run thus:
- Italian: these are the ‘beautiful people’, and they know it – even the ones who aren’t are possessed of a personal confidence in their appearance and general good looks.
- German: proud and confident. Germans hold themselves very erect, shoulders back. They are aloof and superior, which could be mistaken for arrogance.
- British: Hunched and apologetic, with an air of the rabbit-in-the-headlights about them.
These observations tended to serve me well. I made them before I heard the individual speak, and I was often (although not always) correct. However, and this is the important bit, when speaking to an individual, be they Italian, German, English or any other nationality, it quickly became apparent that people are people no matter what their nationality or ethnicity. We, all of us, have hopes and fears, doubts and strongly held convictions, preferences and dislikes. We are all, without exception, human beings. In this world of division, greed and inequality this is the best and most important hope for humanity: that we are all of one species. There is, of course, a plethora of thought, writing and philosophy on this subject, but I just wanted to make my point. Instead of hiding behind the barred doors of our minds and homes – which I’m all to willing to do – we should get out there and be among people to learn, sympathise, empathise and generally get along with one another. We must learn to drop the pre-programming of stereotypes and be human to one another. Rant over.
Oryx and Crake
Perhaps my strong opinions on the failures of humanity have been shaped by my love of the dystopian future novel. I’m a sucker for them. Novels of this kind which I’ve read include George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Derek Raymond’s A State of Denmark and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. As a guide to where we’re going wrong as a species they’re invaluable. While away I read another of Atwood’s books, Oryx and Crake. Set in a far, but unspecified, future time, humanity is gone, wiped out by its own scientific and medical ingenuity. All that remains of Homo sapiens sapiens is, apparently, Snowman. Snowman lives in a tree and wears a filthy bed-sheet. He is charged with the care of the Children of Crake, a strangely altered people; a laboratory created new species of hominid who resemble an ideal. For me this ideal seems analogous to Adam and Eve, and the devastated post-global-warming world is their ideal environment; their Eden. Many times while reading the book I was struck by its Biblical allegories. Snowman, for instance, is a fascinating character. Before the fall, as I like to think of it, he was Jimmy, a regular kind of guy, if privileged. Throughout the course of the story he seems to inhabit the role of several Biblical prophets. By leading the Children of Crake out of the devastation of humanity he is Moses. In his role of Snowman – the half-naked, dirty wilderness dweller who delivers strange instruction and interprets the word of Crake – he is John the Baptist. In his previous life as Jimmy he was once best friend and confidante of Crake. In the after-world created by Crake’s activities he has joined the Children of Crake and he suffers for them: he is Jesus Christ.
This is a story about the dangers of humanity playing God. It is about a permissive society where no-one is free; everyone is monitored and dissent is not allowed. State sanctioned sex and violence are available twenty-four-seven on the web as a pacifier and a threat. There is sharp and entrenched economic and social inequality. The corporates have everything tied up, and education, food, housing, all things are provided by them. Medicine is the biggest business of all, and people are experimented upon without their knowledge. Pathogens are created, and then cures are provided – at a cost, of course. Does any of this sound familiar?
Atwood’s real talent is to convey all of this, with its consequences, both intended and unintended, with such fluidity and ease that the complexities which she conveys only become apparent upon reflection. In spite of its depth and intricacy Oryx and Crake is an easy read; a page-turner, and is one of the most fulfilling books I’ve read in a while. I can’t wait to start the second instalment in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood. I’ll keep you updated on my progress.
And so that’s what I did on my holidays, the usual stuff like reading, socialising, eating, sleeping. But most importantly I linked everything together to learn more about the human condition. Even when relaxing our advanced human minds are doing so much. Isn’t it wonderful? Let’s just hope that our minds are advancing enough to avoid the dystopian worlds of fiction. If we all reflect upon our social worlds and interactions with a modicum of tolerance and understanding then there is hope.