Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The most dangerous dream.

This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfection.
- Saint Augustine.

A long time ago, on a continent far, far away, there was a man, and he had an idea. It was a fairly simple one, truth be told; of life, liberty, and happiness. The naïvety of it was staggering, and true to form, this idea turned out to be more complicated than it seemed, as most simple things eventually do.

Skip to the here and now, and my hasn't the world changed. There are telephones and t.v., cars and quantum physics, aeroplanes and atomic weapons. Technology has it's foot on the accelerator, and the needle's in the red. One would think that the planet today would be barely recognisable, but amid the mercurial swirlings of society one thing remains constant. Fashions come and go, crazes pass in the blink of an eye, but human nature will never change.

For we are creatures who dream. We hope, we plan, we aspire to greater things.

It doesn't sound too bad, does it? I've touched on the importance of hope in an earlier rambling, but I fear I may have neglected to mention one vital ingredient in this witches' brew. The capacity for reason, for tolerance and understanding. For there's nothing more frightening than a man who knows... not just believes but knows that he is in the right. No doubts will assail him, and nothing anyone can say will ever sway him from his course.

The dream of a better world can be a dangerous thing. It's for the greater good, after all; those who stand in your way deserve no sympathy. If they only saw what that well-meaning man sees, they would understand. The ends justify the means, surely, when the end is such a beautiful thing?

Beware the man who lives for a perfect world; to him life is valueless. All that exists now could be bettered - and it will be, if he could just... reach... that dream. Those ground beneath his feet, they understand, right?


Thursday, October 07, 2004

It'll be alright on the night...

Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.
- Aldous Huxley.

University is expensive, even for a stay-at-home type like me. A better socially-adjusted student than myself spends a small fortune every week on the essentials of life; beer and parties. Add on top of that such luxuries as accomodation costs, bills, tuition fees, books and food, and you've got the sort of sum to make you wish for the Midas touch, despite the niggling side-effects. No, these days we're expected to pay through the nose for our education, an expression that's likely to gain worrying accuracy as soon as they figure out a way to put a tax on air.

So why is it that a degree seems to count for so little these days? Employers are looking for something else, something more important than the hard-won eductation that leaves students empty of pocket and damaged of liver - they're looking for experience.

This begs the question: how does one become experienced if one can't get a job? A metaphysical conundrum that could leave your mind chasing its tail in bewildered circles, it nonetheless has a simple answer. Of course, if your mind thinks it has a tail to chase then frankly you're in enough trouble already, and I think the experience you're in need of is more of the psychiatric kind.

Employers don't want the world, although that'd be nice. Nor do they want blood, and I suggest you don't offer. They just want some sign that you're not one of the university pod-people, those strange and soul-less beings that flourish in the greenhouse of academia but wither when exposed to the real world. They want to see that you're a human being, not a Triffid; a well-rounded individual who can bring not just intellectual skills but a genuine presence and enthusiasm.

That's why I feel a great pity for those sheltered things that come to Uni and work without pause or respite, distaining the social side in favour of their books. There's a big bad world out there, and not only has it eaten your grandmother but it fancies a taste of you as well, as you skip merrily along in that nice red cloak of yours. You need to come out of University wielding a baseball bat, not waving a feather duster. That's not going to do any good when "what big teeth you have" is closing in fast.

Experience in the field is like gold dust... no, like great big lumps of the stuff, rare and something to be treasured. Employers don't expect it, though they can hope. No, they are the prospectors sitting by the edge of the stream, scooping pan-fulls of gravel from the river and searching for that tell-tale glimmer to an otherwise unremarkable rock. These days a degree is nothing special, nothing to make you stand out from the crowd. It takes a little experience in the real world to make you shine.

So what I've learned is this: make the most of your opportunities, and live life to the full. University is a practice run for reality, for as Shakespeare said, "...all the world's a stage" and this is a dress rehersal. When the curtain rises just hope you've got enough practice, and play the role like your life depended on it.

Because - in a way - it does.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Living next door to Hell.

Young people have an almost biological destiny to be hopeful.
- Marshall Ganz.

As I write this, it's either too late in the evening or too early in the morning for any sane person to be up and about. The rest of the house is quiet, not least because I live with cardboard cutouts who think ten-thirty is a reasonable time to go to bed. Fair enough, maybe it is, some day in the distant future when your back's giving you trouble and bifocals are your latest fashion statement, but not when you've just broken into your twenties and student life holds you firmly in its grip.

Just before someone else points it out, I'm aware that I've just argued both ends of the paragraph against one another. Oh well... what's life without a little inconsistency? Besides, I left a narrow window of normality between the hardcore party-poopers and the insomniacs, even if I do appear in that second category.

Back to the point. See, I'm learning from this already. Isn't the Internet great?

I sit here, Moody Blues playing softly in the background as I scan the room for inspiration, and from outside comes a blissful silence. It is late, after all, and most people are asleep. Except... The quiet of the night is shattered by an incoherent bellow from the open window. Ah, the neighbours. Everybody needs good neighbours, so TV would have us believe, in which case I can't but help think we've drawn the short straw.

Our student house is a decent one, as they go. No cockroaches, no fungus colony in the bathroom, and when the boiler leaks poisonous gasses we can generally rely on the landlord to come along and fix it before we all succumb. I'm yet to be mugged or offered particularly exotic drugs, and gunfire in the local area is at a minimum. All things considered, it's a pretty good place to live.

If you ignore the gateway to hell that sits beside it, that is.

That's got to be it, I'm beginning to think. Strange smells and clouds of noxious fumes constantly issue forth from its windows and other openings, while at the most unsocial hours soul-chilling sounds can often be heard from within at volumes to make the eardrums bleed. But all this pales into comparison next to the infernal creatures that dwell within.

Filthy, misshapen things that screech inarticulate profanity at one another, they squabble constantly among themselves. Seeming never to leave what passes for a living room in that foul domain except to fuel their vices, the beasts live on the edge of constant conflict, requiring only the smallest thing to tip them into the precipice of 300-decibel hatred. A misplaced lighter, a lack of drugs, someone refusing their perfectly reasonable request to be waited on hand and foot - these and others are the catalysts that begins the cacaphony of insults, accusations and death threats. At any time these fights might break out, for none of the building's twisted inhabitants seem to work. Sleep too seems to be alien to them, for many are the occasions that - woken by a call of nature, or perhaps some diabolical influence - I've risen to hear the same angry voices at four a.m. Specific types of demonic interference might be a welcome interruption to sleep, of course, but Succubi these certainly ain't.

It drove me to the edge of sanity at first; some would say beyond, though they're the sort of deluded idiots who'd tell you there are no Secret Lizard Overlords. These days, however I view my neighbours with a sense of pity. What hollow lives they must lead, empty of purpose and devoid of meaning. No friends ever visit - though the police seem to be on first name terms - and among the tenants of the house there seems to be at best an uneasy truce. Sad almost, to see them go through a parody of existence where nothing remains but anger. They tear at each other's souls through a desperate hunger to feed the void within, while their bodies and minds waste away in kind.

I watch them and I think, this is where one stands when all hope is spent, frittered away on idle fancies and grand plans. It is a currency you can't afford to waste, something that must be invested with care, metaphysical gold. I sit here with the assurance of youth and I know I'll never be like them. You see, I value my dreams.

A to B via Z.

A definite purpose, like blinders on a horse, inevitably narrows its possessor's point of view.
- Robert Frost.

Why is it so hard to get to the point? Maybe it's just me, although I never thought myself particularly flighty, but it seems as though remaining focused on the discussion in hand is like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey where the unfortunate equine keeps on moving.

Last night's rather somber tirade on the downfall of western civilisation, for example, was instead intended to develop into a jab at the education system and the way it forces children into choosing their life's path too young, juvenile cannon aimed too early and too far. What you choose at GCSE limits your choices at 'A'-level, and that hampers you when the Great University Decision rolls around. Your entire life revolves around a decision made at an age when the only thing that matters is the latest Boydrone gossip or worrying if Mum knows about the magazine under your mattress. Hardly the state of mind in which to plan your future, is it?

But I digress. The moment for educational bitterness has passed, and for once I'm going to try and stay on topic. Where's that donkey got to...?

Do all writers find it this hard, or am I alone? It's all too easy to become lost in the fog of the point in hand and forget the reason you wandered into the mist in the first place. There are gorrillas in there - Sigourney Weaver, too - and you may never reappear. Mapping out the work beforehand is one option, of course, but in doing so much of the spontaneity is lost. It's like the difference between a boxing match and a movie fight - throw the actor in the ring and he's lost without his choreographer.

Nope, it looks as though the only way to finally pin the tail on the donkey is to edit. To rein one's errant creations in and point them at the heart of the matter, no matter how hard it may be. To pile on yet another simile, writing isn't like herding sheep. You don't let your charges wander all over the mountainside, doing what they will. No, all donkey references aside, writing is like running a stable. Words are horses, not sheep; leave the gate open and they'll be gone, back to the wild. You've got to train them, watch them, lock them up at night. Only when they're broken can they be released. And to that I've only got one thing to add...

...Horse whispering is harder than it looks.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The price of having it all.

Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.
- Malcolm Forbes.

Education is a funny thing. There are millions out there in the backwaters of the Earth that lack any at all, people that would give anything for the chance to read and write. You can't eat books - not easily, anyway - but being able to read them is still the most important thing there is. Often it's not for themselves; you watch endless charity donation shows on TV and hear again and again how these subsistence-level people speak of giving their children the chance for a better life, the chance to become lawyers or doctors or engineers.

If I were cynical (far too young and innocent, naturally) I'd say that they're thinking of the money an educated person can earn and the food it can put in front of them, but what's wrong with that? Hey, maybe you can eat books after a fashion. For a life where the greatest concern is filling your belly it's difficult to see beyond such unrefined boundaries, but the joy is that they don't have to. Leave that up to the two-year-old gnawing on the cover of that biology textbook; given the chance they'll seize it, and it only gets easier from there. Each generation takes another step up the ladder, building on their parents' understanding and growing to appreciate education for education's sake, not just as a means to an end.

Of course the truly great thing is that it's a one-way process; once they take that first step along the road there's no going back. Why turn away from something that can see your family fed and housed and clothed? The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions but the path to a brighter future is hardback and leather-bound.

First-world children don't have that drive. They've never been hungry. Oh, they may have experienced the odd stomach-rumble or two, but they've never reached the point where roadkill looks appetising. They know what the future holds, they've seen it already in their past. A comfortable house; a boring job; loving spouse; kids; possibly a dog if the hair doesn't set off their allergies. Jump through the hoops the education systems holds up and the world to come won't be much different; the house might be worth a few thousand more, the ring on wifey's finger might have two diamonds rather than one. There's no risk, nothing to lose. For all but the most ambitious or forward-thinking it's just not worth the effort.

We've had everything handed to us on a platter and we assume that life will go on much as it does now. It's strange how us civilised folk seem to feel the world owes us something, whereas those who have nothing are prepared to struggle for even the smallest bite. We could learn something from them, we who have never had to fight for anything. We need to shrug off the malaise and remember what it was to feel angry, to be denied. You never know, it might do us some good. It might make us appreciate what we've got.

I doubt it, though.

Falling at the first hurdle...

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
- Thomas Mann

So... a weblog? Being the self-depreciating kind of fellow that I am, I would wonder what I could bring to the internet that a thousand million other monkeys with typewriters haven't already. Not the complete works of Shakespeare, that's for certain. I suspect - know, in fact - that there are enough badly-written accounts of life in mundania on the tangled web as it is without my adding another, so I'll come right out with it from the start.

This isn't the sort of 'blog that acts as an outlet for teenage angst, even though at twenty-one I've got a lot of it saved up, with interest. Nor is it going to be a hum-drum detailing of the minutae of my existence in a desperate attempt to find some meaning. Hopefully it'll also avoid becoming a catalogue of my woes, though Bagpuss* only knows I can be a self-pitying sod at times. No, simply put this is a place to write about whatever issues concern or interest me from day to day, and principally to keep me writing.

So, you have been warned; expect no consistency in topic or tone, and certainly no high standard of meaningful thought (I am only young after all, and everybody knows the youth of today are ill-educated hoodlums). This 'blog is a method of fending off the writer's block that hangs over my head like the Sword of Damoclese, nothing more. If it amuses or intrigues you, my apologies; 'twas but an accident, and I doubt it'll happen again.

* - For Americans and other strange creatures who aren't aware of Him, Bagpuss is the star of a short-lived TV series from my childhood. A cat made entirely of scrap cloth and curiosity, His busy social schedule involved sleeping, eating, yawning and examining the strange objects brought to Him by his mouse-cult followers. Clearly this is a life to be idolised, I thought; the media seems to hold similar beings in high regard, after all, and who am I to go against their wishes?

His adoption as some sort of personal deity wasn't far behind, and it seems to have worked so far - I'm not dead yet, after all. When I do kick the bucket, however, I'll try and let you all know what the afterlife's like - I've always felt being asked to choose a religion without this knowledge is rather like taking a job without considering the pension plan, and I'd hate to leave potential Bagpussians with their spiritual retirement fund lacking.