The C19 pandemic is affecting many areas of our lives and yet we will probably not know the full extent of its long tumbling domino reach for many years.
One clear effect however, is that nature, and this was noticed during the very early weeks of C19, was the first ‘system’ to react positively to a reduction in human activity. Animals ventured into now quiet town centres, the canals of Venice (plus most natural waterways) became limpid and urban skies without airplanes’ vapour trails turned a bluer blue.
As if we needed reminding, planet Earth seems to be seriously better off without human intervention. And yet, this new found appreciation of what benefits the natural world leads to a paradox:
As the planet reclaims its’ inherent qualities of freshness and rawness, this very beauty attracts and pulls human beings towards it. We edge or way out of lockdown, begin our hitherto normal activities and our de facto abuse of the planet starts again. The return to normality is epitomised by ugly sounds and visions of freight clattering its hot smoky routes across the world and people yearning to press carbonic footprints in pursuit of leisure. The re-found polluting circle closes with a vengeance and the gears of self-destruct shift up towards maximum.
This is obviously disappointing and causes me to wonder ‘Why on earth does humanity fit in so badly with everything else on earth?
After all, our planet is a hermetically sealed unit. Bar the odd asteroid, meteor and sundry items of returning space junk, the only thing that enters our atmosphere is sunlight. The human species has evolved alongside other primates via stages of being fish, flying things and more recently small furry mammals. The point being, that all organic creatures with the help of the sun and that ol’ H2O shapeshifter (water/ice) have thrived in tandem with planet Earth. Human arrival it seems, has bucked the trend and appears, from an objective outer space viewing bridge, to be troublesome.
The notion that we are incompatible with the planet has triggered much debate. In the 1970’s, the Super Swiss Erich Von Daeniken wrote about Ancient Astronauts and professed, along with some nice pictures (but not evidence) that we were put here by extra-terrestrials. Despite him having done no viable academic research or due diligence regarding his sources, he tapped into a concept that sold many books and got the mass market wondering about us not being fully ‘of’ the earth.
Elon Musk has recently rekindled another old idea; that we are actually part of a fictional game developed by other life forms. Some of us will recognise this as a version of The Sims, others will look back to the late ’70’s and remember us as an experiment devised by mice.
Religious people will likely baulk at these claims and retort with a selection of theologies in important books about humans inheriting the earth, being masters/mistresses of all creatures and that the invisible force, no matter how many natural disasters occur, still loves us and will see us through, come what may (insert rolling eyes emoji, Ed).
As a sceptic however, I suspect that the main underlying energy is that of chaos. I’m not venturing into Chaos Theory because the idea of applying a scientific structure to concepts beyond structure feels like a road to nowhere (but a nice PhD if you can get the grant).
Instead, let’s buy into Chaos in the manner of the Stoics and hope for the good bits of the mess to rise to the surface and if they don’t, well, we tried our best anyway.
Remember the cream rises to the top unless you turn the plate downside up.
A feature of having a December birthday is that if you are minded to review the year gone by you can run a parallel between your own and the calendar one. If however you are on the cusp of closing off a decade it is less easy to draw seasonal parallels because the task that daunts is to review several tens of years in one go. I am choosing to not do that.
This blog has in the past discussed rock stars that have influenced me (in particular Bolan, Bowie & Mercury) but one musician I have not so far discussed is Renato Zero.
I came across Renato Zero when I was living in Venice in the summer of ’74. The TV guide described him as the Italian Bowie, yet his look, which not only channelled but also out-camped British Glam Rock was very Freddie. His music was more challenging to get into because it was, and in 2017, still is, not really rock. It generally consists of power ballads played by swirling acoustic orchestras, over which his deep gritty voice (all Italian singers sound like Rod Stewart) rasps in tones of great drama, deep injustice or extrovert melancholia. Subject matter tends to range from dark vice ridden alleys to the bright vice ridden circus and back to the dark alleys again. The Italian public long ago accepted Zero as a national treasure and he still tours and records today. The look has changed, after all 40+ years of success have taken a toll and let’s face it, if you live in Rome and are an economic success there is little point in remaining pale wan and thin when you are surrounded by the best food and wine the planet can offer. Nowadays he wears all-covering black cloaks and ‘professor’ glasses in the style of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka.
There are two reasons why I feel it appropriate to mention Renato Zero in this, the last blog of my 50’s:
He has been with me since I was 16. The same time as my Holy Holy Rock Trinity began, except he is still alive and somehow manages to cast occasional tunes of tragedy and nostalgia over my ageing ear drums.
When in 2010, Renato reached the big ‘Six Oh’ he produced a music album and a book called ‘Sei Zero’ (Sei is the Italian for 6 and for ‘you are’) and so archly translates as ‘YOU ARE NOTHING’. This was supported by a written reflection based on him being told when he was a child that ZILCH was all he would amount to. When therefore he selected a stage persona, he went for ZERO with a sense of irony and an erect middle finger. All good stuff.
Perhaps it’s quite easy to look back at your detractors and laugh at them if you are sixty and still famous. You have eager record company executives, publishers and a loyal fan base. The inner artistic demons might still be present but if you can create products, the platforms are there. Renato Zero used a mini essay to rebuke his early critics but turned most of his 60th celebration into a positive dedication to the city of Rome and people he lives among.
Over these last 60 years I have learned that if you are not widely known there is little point in digging up ghosts from the past because the humiliation you might wish to inflict will fall on a wasteland and will just make you look foolish. So although there are people who I’d have liked to sneer at (mainly maths teachers and the odd work-place boss) I neither have the platform nor the need and will instead look, like Mr Zero at the good in the places and people around me.
This is a positive position and one that remains staunchly stoic. On the plus side, things are more or less under control and are not so bad but I have to say too that on the disappointing side nothing has really amazed or stunned me. I’ve seen my children born and grow, I’ve seen my football teams win championships and The World Cup and I have been present at death. I have even contemplated various metaphorical navels and earlier this year I embarked on a project whereby I pursued the joys and detailed thinking afforded by SILENCE. (See blog from February 2017) yet like Blue Tack, nothing really stuck for long. I once looked off a mountain top in The Rockies, said ‘wow’ aloud and tried so hard to be awestruck but somehow my inner me checked it off a minor bucket list and gently, without risk, I skied down to safety.
My eldest daughter recently told me she was disappointed in my current mindset because I only seem to engage in comedic entertainments (film, TV, theatre, books) and my desire for documentary and serious deep drama has waned. She is right. I find myself attracted to television programmes from which I can walk away and even if I’m at the 85% mark, I feel no regret when I do so. I avoid so-called Box Sets because I don’t need any more commitment in my life and will still only read a book if it has a maximum of 330 pages. My years are getting longer and my attention span is getting shorter. This is not a fear of my dying before reaching the end but is to do with the fact that I have experienced every kind of denouement and nothing can pleasantly surprise me anymore.
Story tellers and philosophers tell us that the joy is in the journey and not the destination and as I get on, this is ever clearer but I must also add that avoiding pain along the way has become a priority.
As I walked to work this morning I passed the spot, as I do every day, where I had a motorbike accident in 1975 (ok, it was a 50cc moped).
I was young, drunk and considering I flew headlong into the glass window of what is today a bank, lucky to be alive. I learned this the following morning when a nurse strapped up my shoulder and berated me. That moment, when I was 17, was the last big risk I took. It re-shaped me and even if I was a potential risk-taker before the collision, I never was afterwards.
This is not a note of regret, just an observation and it is with this approach that I shall carry on. It’s not as if nothing really matters, because it does but if I have succeeded in one thing it’s to have established a benevolent split persona. My inside remains the frustrated 20th Century Boy with dreams and artistic pretentions, yet the success I seek is no longer that elusive publishing deal (I achieved that one) but simple approval (and payment) from 3rd parties that hire me to mark exam papers and to give the odd lecture on my own philosophies (I quit acting in the 1980’s because I was bored with reciting other peoples’ words and the same applies to delivering seminars and training sessions). My outside is a much better and fortunate place. I am surrounded by a group of females I had never expected. Women were a deep mystery to me as I grew up. I either avoided them or over-killed (myself) with them. Now my wife and three daughters give me a before–the-fall King Lear strength I had never envisaged. As a family we are like an office chair with 5 wheeled feet (4 wheels were deemed unsafe some 20+ years ago). The chair gets shoved around the office yet stays upright. It bangs into desks and chips the paint, but never falls over. Even if any one of the wheels gets sticky or becomes loose the chair remains stable albeit a touch wobbly.
And so, returning to the message of the Stoic, I hereby count my blessings because tomorrow, or tomorrow’s tomorrow something will attack them and by committing the good things to paper, or indeed a blog, their confirmation in the here and now exists forever.
How do you know that you’re right? If you’re not nervous anymore It’s not so bad, it’s not so bad
I feel my vision slipping in and out of focus But I’m pushing on for that horizon I’m pushing on Now I’ve got that blowing wind against my face
A warm 4pm sun slanted towards me as it prepared to set. The 27 degrees were made bearable by a speedy breeze. I stepped up onto the repaired jetty and began a casual stroll seawards towards its lamp bearing point. This is one of two parallel structures that sit about 200 meters apart astride the estuary of Porto Santa Margherita, Caorle near Venice.
I love this place.
I love the peace of knowing that to my right sat my hereditary home town of Venice, to my left, the Gulf of Trieste and in front, beyond this pier, the relative safety of a calm Adriatic. I’m no seafarer, but if you want to wax and wane about green\blue salt waters, this is a good comfort-zone location to do it.
I was on a mission of silence. Part of a project to unearth a level of inner peace – something that has always eluded me. It should have been easy to let the wind and lapping waters transport me someplace ‘else’ but to be frank, I’ve never been able to relax or to contemplate but a self-awareness crept up on me as I watched other people I could begin to take aim.
As I begun the stroll I was immediately struck by how many other people were passing their time on this same strip of concrete. A random cross-selection of Italy, about fifty people, was shuffling, marching, walking, swaggering and flouncing.
There was the noise of the seaside; birds, swans, wind, voices and the further I walked out, the softer they became. The shuffling sandals always belonged to people and of the people, this group of disconnects, I found four types of person, each embracing their own peace;
Western Guru, Fishermen, The Seaweed Community, The Observer’s Shadow.
When it comes to a calm the mind there’s no hierarchy and no space for judgement. Each has their own place along the jetty and whether that person is on a holiday break, a pause between bouts of depression, a child losing her inhibitions in the warm sun and a million other permutations. They are all valid.
What works for you
Could work for them
Or it may not.
If this silence is actually loud
There’s another version that will work
Your task is to find it and own it
And this is one thing you don’t have to share.
The first person was the Western Guru.
A European man sat facing the sea. Legs crossed lotus. His slim flexible frame sent a shudder of envy down my un-flat stomach. With his yoga mat and straight back it could even be that he wanted to be seen ‘doing it right’. I couldn’t decide if he was performing and wishing to be seen or truly building from inside. To offer the benefit of my doubt, I’d say that from his point of view the passing sample of public was an incidental thing. He could create an internal calm not despite, but because of the external sounds. Slapping waves, gull cries and even fighter jets on their way to and from an air display along the coast.
The more (confusion) outside: the more (controlled calm) inside.
It made me think that to assume a place of inner silence when already surrounded by silence, can for a town dweller, be rather daunting. But to be silent when surrounded by the familiarity of sounds and voices can enhance the peace.
And on I went along the path. I remember a brassy hook embedded in the sunken concrete that blinked up at me emblazoned TEMA FAENZA.
And so to the fishermen.
Mainly alone yet some in pairs, these men and boys enthuse about tackle and bait yet once they’ve cast the line, cloak themselves in stillness. Somehow the muted hubbub doesn’t affect the fish and a little like the Western Guru their actions are minimal and habitual. They do what they do and that is enough.
Fishermen seem to know themselves. They appear self-aware.
Is their end game really to capture the flailing floppy fish or is the act of fishing the end in itself? I shifted focus to a tanned man with a simple rod and the ancientness of this activity came to me. Was this the beginning of humans discovering patience? When they accepted that the road to the goal of food required strategy and stillness and that this waiting time brought about the bonus of introspection and chill?
As I moved along the pier I noted that if a fish was caught it was the watching kids and adults that reacted in excitement at the capture. The fishermen remained stoic and controlled, as if the hook and haul was part of the process, not the end of it. Somehow even though hobby fishermen could undertake the activity without trying for a catch, the potential bite remains key. Even if the catch is in truth a secondary goal to the main one of carving out some ‘me-time’, to achieve moments of peace, the ‘wake-up’ jump-to-it moment of getting a bite is sewn into the process.
The Seaweed Community.
And on further towards the sea I went. To my right, on the large bank of sloping crane-planted rocks sat three young people and a dog. Here they shared a long, clumsily rolled joint. My first thoughts turn to the quadruped, barking his passive smoking way to dog-space. And as his bark subsided I confessed to myself that I never got this hippy thing. Personally I’m happier with the odd-un-shared Tramadol.
‘Off my head inside my head. Alone.’
Yet this group chill is shared by many and as I watch the humans giggle and move in slow motion I accept that this kind of shared space doesn’t have to be a bad space. Whatever these people are feeling, or think they are feeling, I can see that as the sun sets and the sea breeze blows, the reality of the situation really doesn’t matter. If you can slip into a moment and then let it slip away, what the hell? After all, it’s a viable rehearsal for the great unknown. The giggles and whispers between the youths and the dog are certainly not silence, at least not in its literal format but the state of a different reality is possibly just as valid. I suppose the issue with drugs, apart from dangers, costs and social alienation is that they might take you further away from inner peace rather than nearer to it.
But I’m not the one to judge because my own peace is largely derived from being the passive observer. I’d like to be the invisible man. In fact not even that man himself, but his shadow. Reality not once, but twice removed.
The Observer’s Shadow.
Consider some facts;
I have tried yoga and meditation. I’ve even had an Ayurveda massage and disliked them all. I find that an enforced introspection can dig up those not-so-deep lying demons of failure, conspiracy of the system against me and lost opportunities. The shark-toothed bite of nostalgia can infect me with quaint smells and deep regrets. My past is one of cautious times cautious squared. The ghost of the mediocre scares me when my own silence is loud.
I tried fishing too and despite the thrill, the idea of waiting Godot-like for a fishy end with a wormy hand and hook-punctured finger has no appeal. I’d be sitting on the edge wishing I’d brought my hand sanitiser. C’est la guerre.
I do find a peace in being the watcher. The one based on the periphery with licence to step in and step out in a heartbeat.
My silent place is derived from watching two or three people or ideas come together and curating the outcome.
I’m aware that this is very much an artist’s position. Watching, interpreting and creating. My own silent place kicks-in before the creation. It’s the joy of seeing connections, those already manifested and those yet to occur. The world recreates miniature works of art every moment and even if I’m no Da Vinci, I can still sense the silent rumble of things about to unfurl.
As my father’s Super8 cine camera panned upwards from the family to my newly airborne plane they waved at me soaring skywards from Heathrow, bound for Venice to visit my grandparents. My father, a typical 1960’s dad, filmed every moment of take-off, nothing would be omitted. What he had missed however was the not insignificant issue that I wasn’t on the plane. They were blowing kisses at the wrong aircraft!
I, meanwhile was lost and tearful in BEA’s departure zone in Terminal 2. My flight had been delayed for two hours but as a VIP Junior Flyer I was ushered into an office. To an 8-year-old this was impressive and I actually thought we were in the control tower. Through the picture window I saw planes and baggage handlers moving in strange jagged dances across the elephant grey tarmac. I remember thinking that if I wasn’t so sad, I’d enjoy this scene. My view became overwhelmed by a massive PAN AM tail fin cruising past. It was so close I could see the paint break in the celeste globe where the rear aileron was hinged. It looked clean and dirty at the same time.
The control tower/office door opened and a pretty girl breezed in. Confident, tanned and switching from Italian to English effortlessly, she smiled at me. She introduced herself as Maria-Grazia. I remember her wearing white lace gloves. She was ten. For the first time in my life I felt a heat blush that bore no relation to the warm weather. Could I, at 8 years and 8 months be falling in love? The hostess announced that we’d be travelling together as VIP Juniors. My face cracked as a whimper escaped my mouth; what about my family? My grandparents are waiting at Marco Polo. MG looked at me with the gaze of a grounded angel ‘We’ll all be alright’.
Gloop gloop went my melting heart.
And we flew. I relaxed into flight, MG’s kindness and two-years-more-on-earth maturity gave me confidence. The emotions stirred were the pure ones children can feel that usually only happen in books and movies featuring parks and sunlight.
Her deep brown eyes switched from mine to the round cornered porthole ‘look’ she said ‘La Laguna’. Windows on both Port and Starboard displayed the deep oil green sea on which it felt like we were definitely going to land. There was no sign of ground anywhere. This scene, MG to my immediate right and sea filled windows all around has been a regular dream ever since. A serenity only broken by the bump and upward judder of the unexpected Venetian runway.
At the journey’s end I won’t pretend we held hands, nor that I had the foresight to get her address (in the 60’s you swapped addresses and wrote to each other). As we stepped down the grey hot metal stairs towards our expectant high volume relatives we exchanged smiles and flighty heavy hearts of a love found, then lost forever.