Archive | January, 2013

The Circle Game.

20 Jan

Another one of my friends has very sadly died. Brian was 67 and I sang with him in Whitby Community Choir. He was a fellow bass and a lovely person to know.

 As they carried his flower-decked coffin into the packed chapel, they played Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” It’s a song that I know and love, but up to that moment I never fully appreciated what the lyrics meant. I had vaguely thought of it as being about the passage of time, with the seasons constantly turning round. However, I didn’t quite grasp, or didn’t wish to grasp, that it’s also about the inexorable process of ageing with its inevitable conclusion in death. The most chilling lines, I think, are:

       ” We’re captive on the carousel of time,

          We can’t return, we can only look behind

          from where we came….. ”

 It is the fatalism expressed here that is so dispiriting, I feel. It’s depressing to realize that we are trapped in an unalterable process. When I first heard these words, in my early twenties, I didn’t think about them too deeply, as I was armed with the arrogance of youth. I had my whole adult life still before me and didn’t want to get depressed by thinking of the inevitability of my demise. Death is something we largely avoid thinking about in our Western culture, unless we are suddenly confronted by the passing away of someone close to us or we fall victim of a life-threatening illness. Then we shed tears, and get sad, upset and depressed, even though we have known all along that death is one of the few certain aspects of life. What disturbs me is the fact that we have no control over this process. It’s just nature taking its course. As Joni says: we are “captives” of time. Our personal clocks are constantly ticking.

  At Brian’s funeral there were rousing hymns, prayers and eulogies. Even though people were crying and had sad, sombre faces, the service was billed as a “celebration” of his eventful life. Anecdotes, quotes, stories and songs, all brought Brian back to life again as we remembvered our times with him, and appreciated all the lives he had touched. Even though he wasn’t physically amongst us, he was still a powerful emotional presence. We were connecting to him once again through our warm memories. This served to lift the mood of sadness and fatalism that had accompanied me at the start of the service.

 The concept of a circle is very appropriate in thinking of our lives and deaths. First of all, there is the natural cycle of us returning to the earth from which we came via the burying of our bodies or scattering of our ashes. In this way, by enriching the soil, a death can lead to new life.

  Another circle, believed by Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, is the cycle of the soul — in other words the process of reincarnation. Here death is not the end, but merely a prelude to a new beginning. The circle turns again as the soul leaves one spent body and enters another one in order to live a new life. This constant rotation will only end, it is believed, when a person can finally shed his/her ego and unite once again with “God.” Believers in past-lives also subscribe to this notion of birth-death- and rebirth. This idea sees life as cyclical rather than linear.

  Yet another idea is that of the ” social circle.” Most of us reside in the centre of a constant, swirling circle of social interactions. These encounters can be both direct and indirect. They can take the form of : one to one meetings, telephone conversations, letters, texts and emails. On a wider, less personal scale, we also interact with people who we have never met. Thus we may read a book that someone else has written, listen to a recording of someone else’s song or even cook a meal devised by a chef we have necer met. TV programmes, films and plays also contribute to our wider circle of interactions with others. Our lives consist of constant encounters with others that spread from the centre. It is only when this whirl of interactions stops that we can say that life has finally ceased. However, as we experienced at Brian’s funeral/ celebration, not even the apparant finality of death can prevent this circle of connections from rotating, because it continues to turn in the memories of those left behind. Whenever I listen to a String Quartet by Beethovan or read a novel by Jane Austin they live again even though technically they passed away a long time ago. Similarly when I look at a photo of my Grandma Alice or recall visits to her house when I was a child, she returns to life in my mind.

  So, although in a purely physical sense we are all “captives on a carousel of time”, in another sense, through the recollections of all those we interact with, directly or indirectly, we can defy the clock and live on indefinitely. This is especially true if one is a particularly social animal. Brian met many people through his teaching, singing, choir leading, play writing, acting, cycling and charity working. So he lives on in the minds of all those he taught, entertained and helped as well as in the hearts and minds of his family. Brian’s personal participation in the circle game has now sadly ended, but the circles still surround him like  ripples in a pool — circulating memories activated by the many memory-joggers that he left behind. I made the same point about the importance of memory when I wrote about the death of another friend, Clive, a couple of years ago. That made me realize why ancestor-worship, was/is so prevalent in Ancient China and South-East Asia. By keeping pictures and mementoes in family shrines, a family can keep the memory of their departed relative alive.

  This is perhaps why a funeral is traditionally followed by a “wake” in our culture. I’ve never thought about that word before — “wake.” Now it seems obvious. The friends and family of the recently departed, resurrect or wake-up him/her through their shared stories and memories. Perhaps death is not just one big full- stop afterall. The circle game swirls on and on and on. From being depressed about the inevitability and finality of it all, I now find it all quite comforting and reassuring.

WHO ARE WE?

5 Jan

  I am reading a rather erudite Turkish novel — “The Black Book” by Orhan Pamuk — which centres on the issue of identity. It not only concentrates on the identity of the main character, who hides his real self by taking on another individual’s persona, but is also concerned with the identity of the author’s country. He argues that as post 1st World War Turkey modernises, it takes on more and more characteristics of the West, such that the Turks are in danger of losing their own identity. Even uniquely Turkish mannerisms and body language, passed down from generation to generation, are now being lost because Turks are imitating the gestures and expressions of Hollywood film stars.

  I can empathise with this view, living in a country which seems intent on becoming the 51st State of the USA. Has our former colony now colonised us so that we are in danger of losing our Britishness? We are dominated by fast food chains, out of town shopping malls, car- culture and endless repeats of “Friends.” Thanks to Google and Windows ( both American), “colour” is now spelt “color” and “center” has morphed into “center.” We drink Lattes and Americanos at Starbucks ( whatever happened to the humble coffee?) and shop online with Amazon.com . It’s worrying.

  However, “The Black Book” is mainly concerned with individual identity. Who are we? When I look into a mirror, what is the answer to the question: Who am I? These questions are not as simple to answer as one might at first think. I remember studying a play, “The Balcony”, by the French writer Jean Genet, in which the characters are trapped in a maze of mirrors. Each one is bent or distorted in a different way, so each gives up a different reflection. The varying reflections represent the many aspects of the character’s personalities or their roles in society. It’s like the mirror room in the House of Fun at the fairground. It’s very good for a laugh but not much use in unfolding the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The mirrors both reveal and conceal. What is real and what is merely illusion?

  Getting to the core of ourselves, the essence of who we really are, is surprisingly complicated. It’s like peeling the proverbial onion. Each layer removed merely uncovers another layer of disguise. We are like performers in an Ancient Greek play. We love to don a variety of masks to hide our real selves from the onlooking outside world — our audience. One reason for this constant kaleidoscope of identities is the large number of roles each of plays in our lives. Just within the family, I perform the roles of : husband, father, son, brother, grandfather, cousin, uncle and so on. I constantly change depending on who I am with. In the wider world I become: a friend, a neighbour, a customer, a chorister, a patient and a motorist to name but a few of my roles. The list is endless. But the question remains the same no matter how many times I transform myself : “Who am I?” The trouble is that most of us seem to spend the greater part of our lives playing out the roles that are expected of us by others. In one sense, we are running away from our real selves. The role constantly changes according to the company and/or the situation we find ourselves in. Maybe one of the essential elements of being a successful human being is to be able to frequently and rapidly adapt, which is the very type of behaviour that a chameleon is famous for.

  The ability to constantly change seems to be an important social skill in modern society. In recent times the skill of disguising ourselves and presenting many different faces to the world has also been seen to be very desirable. It’s interesting that some of the most famous and wealthiest people in the world are film stars who specialise in pretending to be someone else. But in everyday life too, there has been an increasing trend towards faking it, as opposed to presenting our “real” selves to the world. In the not too distant past, ” fake” usually represented something that was undesirable or somebody who was untrustworthy. Afterall, who would want to own a forged Grand Master painting rather than the original? Similarly, who would want to spend time with someone who did not tell the truth or was always trying to give a false impression? However, in the last twenty years or so, “fake” seems to have become much more socially acceptable, and even desirable. Plastic surgery for instance, is now big business with more and more people wanting to follow in the footsteps of the “stars” by reinventing themselves. It’s now not only Ringo who has had a “nose-job” or Joan Collins who has had a face-lift in order to try to defy the ageing process. False breasts have helped launch numerous lucrative careers and the waiting lists for implants remain very large despite recent , well- publicised disasters. Bo-toxing and lip jobs are popular procedures for those , particularly the wealthy, who wish to enhance their sexuality or retain their youthful looks. Less people seem to be content with the looks they were born with.

  False nails and false eye-lashes are now the norm for many and cosmetic dentistry is increasingly sought after by those that can afford it. At one time I thought it was only older people who had false teeth which they popped into a glass by their bed at night. Now they are popular and much admired, thanks to TV programmes such as “Ten years Younger” which popularise such “teeth jobs.”  Why do you think all those ageing rock stars all seem to have perfect sets of gleaming gnashers? There seems to be no end to the fakery. Films and glossy magazines employ filters on their cameras in order to present their actors and models as having perfect, unlined and unblemished skin. Instead of being something to be ashamed of, it’s now “cool” to be a fake.

  Increasingly numbers of people now want to disguise themselves and present what is essentially a false image to the outside world. David Bowie and Lady Ga Ga have forged succesful pop careers on their abilty to constantly reinvent themselves and present different guises to their adoring fans. Bowie, Mark Almond ( Soft Cell) and others have even sought to present a deliberately ambiguous sexual identity to the world to perhaps increase their air of mystery. It may sound bewildering and disorientating, but was ( and is) part of their attraction and allure. It seems that in the pursuit of fame and social success, the truth is one of the first things to be jettisoned. Does anybody actually want to understand who Bowie or Ga Ga really are, or are most of us just mesmerised by their chameleon qualities?

  Another enemy of the truth is propaganda and censorship, usually employed by those who wield influence or power. Hitler and Stalin and many other dictators have actually re-written history and tried to indoctrinate their peoples into believing it. Opponants are constantly damned and their own heroic qualities enhanced. Image again reigns supreme. Who would have thought that Joseph Stalin, a ruthless despot who was responsible for the deaths and persecution of millions of people, was affectionally known as Uncle Jo and was loved as the kindly father of the Russian nation. Our own Royal family have also played this image game, although not in such callous or murderous circumstances. People in power always try to manipulate the facts in order to present a favourable picture to the world, irrespective of the truth. I have recently enjoyed watching an excellent TV documentary about Queen Victoria and her children. ( all 9 of them.) Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert were determined to present themselves and their offspring to the British public as a happy, loving family. They hoped to avoid the fate of their French counterparts by trying to be as ordinary and normal as possible so that people could more easily identify with them. In fact, the hidden truth was that they were far from the image that they tried to present. The children were beaten or whipped for any slight misdemeanour, while Victoria and Albert themselves had such vicious rows that their closest advisers sometimes feared for their health ( particularly Albert’s) or sanity( particularly Victoria’s.) One commentator summed up the situation neatly by saying that in public Victoria was revered, but within her own family she was feared.

  So image often wins out in the battle with truth. Wealthy and influential people often employ advisers and publicists to present the right image to the public and protect it from harm. The Beckhams are masters of this marketing game such that they have most of the world eating out of their hands, helped by their friends in the mass media.

   What does all this matter? Well, do we really want to live in a society based on falsehoods, wrong impressions and lies? Trust in politicians is now at a very low ebb. I for one suspect them of lying to us most of the time. One blatant example was the non-existant weapons of mass destruction that were invented by Bush and Blair to justify their illegal and disastrous invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Are we really happy for such pretence and dishonesty to perculate through society as a whole? What I find most disturbing is that this confusing myriad of disguises, often employed in our society, not only hide one person from another but can also allow one to hide from oneself. In other words, one is in danger of believing one’s own press-cuttings.

  Maybe the true person is only eventually revealed when one dies and all the role-playing, propaganda and pretending finally comes to an end. Surely then, in the memories of those closest to one, the true individual will emerge, unembellished, un-airbrushed and unadorned. He was a great leader. She was a wonderful musician. He was caring and generous. She was a deep-thinking intellectual. Yet even here, the whole truth is seldom revealed. Eulogies and orbituaries are not noted for highlighting a person’s faults or weaknesses. Unless the deceased was particularly evil such as a serial killer, he or she will usually be remembered for his/her good points. It would be thought of as disrespectful to emphasise their bad side. To take a famous example, Sir Winston Churchill is generally regarded as one of the very greatest of Great Britons. His strength, skill, vision and determination helped save our country in its hour of need, when it stood virtually alone against the might of Nazi Germany in 1940 ( apart from Greece and the whole of the British Empire that is — but we won’t mention that!) Not so widely advertised are: Churchill sending armed troops and police to tackle striking Welsh miners in 1910, the disastrous Dardenelles campaign which was Churchill’s bright idea to break the deadlock in the First World War or his willingness to use poisonous gas on rebellious Kurds when Britian was ruling Iraq in the 1920’s. So maybe he was not such a saint or a hero afterall? Rumours also abound that Churchill was in favour of hanging Gandhi if he went on a prolonged hunger strike.

  Thus it seems that both with individuals and with countries, the deeper one investigates into who or what we are, the more muddied and confusing the picture becomes. The truth is very difficult to pin down. This is not a problem if a person is primarily a poseur, intent on impressing ( ie deceiving) others. However, if one is interested in trying to discover oneself, to seek out the very essence of one’s being, then the nature of our society makes this an extremely difficult if not impossible task. As I grow older I reflect more and more about the meaning of life and try to make sense of my own. I have written memoirs and dug into my family history in order to try to get a clearer picture of myself. I have tried to isolate what morals, ethics, beliefs and attitudes have formed the foundation of my life and shaped its course. It’s not as easy a task as it sounds especially as I live in a society that seems intent on disguising itself and running away from the truth. Will I be able to strip away all the masks in time to find out the real me? It’s an important personal mission. I would hate to die without even knowing who I really am. Unfortunately this voyage of self-discovery is much more difficult than looking into the mirror and hoping for a simple answer! With posing, disguising and pretending being such an all pervasive feature of everyday life, it’s really difficult to extricate myself and get at the truth.