What Makes Us Human?

Is it our vulnerability, kindness, unpredictability?  Or is it our creativity and invention? Or perhaps, looking back sadly on human history, it is our immense proclivity for destruction and deceit?

Artificial intelligence is no longer a concept confined to science fiction novels.  We have self-drive cars, phones that talk and robotic vacuum cleaners.  A.I. is real and among us in the here and now.  It is a challenge to our previous ideas about humanity.  Are we really so special and superior after all?  Is Artificial Intelligence something we should welcome or fear?  Will it make us more or less human by comparison?

Alex Garland’s stunning 2015 film Ex Machina explored these questions and inspired me to write this poem:-

 

ROBO-MOW

Alan dreams 256 shades of green, hibernating
in his glass docking pod at the bottom of the garden.
Self-starting at sunrise, his solar panels slowly energize.
Recharged and updated with new kinds of seed,
66 brands of feed and non-toxic weed killers
plus the latest on invasive alien species.

Alan zips up his latex happy face
(with questioning eyebrows and a real pipe)
and his T-shirt declares ‘I love life’ (in bold font) for the Master.
After the BBC weather forecast, he initiates maintenance checks,
self-lubricates his cylinder, sharpens blades, tops up levels.
His friend, the virtual robin observes from a perch by the electric fence.

Alan has the same old routine every day,
downloading music while he works
(Tom Jones, The Green Green Grass of Home on repeat).
Perfect, straight lines along the wire perimeter,
perfect stripes overlapping by a centimeter, working left to right,
raking, aerating, weeding, feeding as he goes,

forming perfect crisp edges around the lily pond.
Sometimes he hopes for showers so he can count
raindrops falling into the water, watch his reflection crumble,
ripple into concentric circles.  Chaotic patterns
stir the surface calm, bubbles rise from the carp beneath,
flickering gold in the shadows.

 

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Note 1:- another excellent recent film about Artificial Intelligence, personality, ageing and memory is Marjorie Prime, directed by Michael Almereyda.  Click below for The Guardian Review.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/aug/15/marjorie-prime-review-lois-smith-jon-hamm?CMP=share_btn_link

 

 

The Midnight Caller

I see you waiting on the crocodile lawn,
the perfect blonde, my Lauren Bacall.

Your camel trench coat belted against the cold,
teeth knocking at my locked door.

To have and have not, a Lucky Strike.
Holy Mother how you smile!

I see you at the end.
Your skin is splitting face,

your hair is slipping free, skeletal
leaves in winter and there’s nothing.

 

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Zombie Love

Season 8 of the cult TV show, The Walking Dead exploded across our screens recently so I’ve been pondering on why zombies remain so popular in our culture.  What does our fascination with these fictional monsters say about us as individuals and as a society?

George Romero invented the contemporary zombie in his 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead.  Previously, zombies were sorcerer’s slaves in Haitian Voodoo culture.  Romero gave them a make-over, the new undead had a strict set of rules and became a metaphor for many of our fears about modern life:- technology, conformity, contagion, consumerism, Communism, nuclear war, social breakdown, killer viruses and even ISIS.  Romero’s excellent 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead was shot in a shopping mall.  A small group of survivors hide out on the top floor while hordes of zombies flock below.  The film’s critique of mass consumerism is made explicit:-

[Fran and Stephen are observing from the roof of the mall]
Francine Parker: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

Here is a YouTube clip:-

Compared to other mythical creatures such as vampires and werewolves, zombies are not sexy or glamorous.  They are not powerful or mysterious.  No-one would ever choose to be a zombie.  I think most of our enjoyment of zombie films derives from their exploration of the theme of survival.  In all these films we see society crumble.  Violence and anarchy become the new norm.  The institutions that are supposed to protect us, such as the government, the police, can do nothing.  I believe at a unconscious level many fans of this genre derive a peculiar pleasure from seeing this happen on screen.  Many of us feel trapped in our lives, by families, by finances, by class, by ill-health, by social stigma.  We learn to live with frustration and lack of meaning.  So perhaps there is some secret satisfaction to be had from watching the stifling world of rules and routines disintegrate on screen.  Everyone becomes equal in this imaginary future.  In all post-apocalyptic films we identify with a small group of survivors who must learn to cope without the comforts of civilisation, discover their inner strengths, fighting off not only the cannibalistic zombies but other surviving humans.   Safely ensconced in our own homes this can be a cathartic experience for viewers.

The British author J. G. Ballard explored many of these issues in his novels such as High Rise and Crash.  He wrote:- “Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us.”

In Danny Boyle’s 2002 film ‘28 Days Later’ we see London reduced to a ghost town.  A group of survivors flee to the northern countryside only to find more mayhem.

 

In the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, we see family bonds destroyed in the aftermath of the zombie invasion.  Robert Carlyle plays the spineless father who abandons his wife and then betrays his children. The authorities try but ultimately fail to restore order to a broken country.  It’s a hopeless scenario and makes me wonder if our attraction to such films shows that as a society we too have given up hope for a better future.  Perhaps we feel the old building blocks such as the family, religion and the state have little to offer us any more.  At the end of the day we are alone.  Whether we sink or swim depends on our personal resilience.

The world has always been an uncertain place but since 1945 when the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, supposedly to end World War 2, mass destruction of the human race has become a real possibility.  Historically, warfare used to be a localised affair, armies fighting in trenches or on battle fields.  Civilian deaths were incidental and on a comparatively small scale.  Nuclear weapons have changed everything.  We now live with the constant threat of annihilation over which we have no control.  Perhaps watching zombie films allows us to play out these fears.  They are like nightmares, exorcising the terror we keep tightly zipped up in our waking minds.

Its ironic that for the first time in human history we live with the real risk of sudden death from nuclear war while at the same time we know nothing of the reality of the death experience.  Death is something that happens unseen in hospital wards, in war or famine zones viewed remotely on the TV news.  How many of us have actually seen someone die?  How many of us have touched a dead body?  Death is a taboo subject.  Our ancestors did not share this distaste.  Deceased family members were on display in front parlours where everyone would say their goodbyes.  People died in the street from epidemics and poverty, witnessed by all.  Public executions were a big day out with hot pies for sale and old ladies knitting on the front row while heads rolled.  Death was not such a sanitised affair as today.

So perhaps another reason zombies are so popular in modern culture is that they symbolise the death experience.  We see lots of gore in these films:- the dead re-animated, rotting corpses, limbs torn apart, guts unravelled, zombies chomping into brains, zombies decapitated by survivors.  Zombie movies are not for the squeamish and therein lies their attraction.  We are allowed to view death in close-up on the screen.  We are allowed to confront our secret fears knowing that it’s not real and when the film is over we will sleep warm and safe in our beds.

 

 

Dancing on Trains

I woke to grey skies and rain this morning, the typical Scottish October.  So here’s my favourite upbeat music video guaranteed to revitalise the parts cups of tea cannot reach. Enjoy!

 

“Chaiyya Chaiyya” which translates into English as ‘walk in shade’ is an Indian love song from the 1998 Hindi film Dil Se, directed by Mani Ratnam. The song was composed by A.R. Rahman, written by Gulzar, and sung by Sukhwinder Singh and Sapna Awasthi.  The amazing fact is it was actually filmed on a moving train without any backdrops, fakery or safety precautions over a period of four and a half days.  It’s a miracle none of the dancers fell off!  In the 2002 BBC poll to find the top ten international pop songs  it was voted in at number nine.

I first came across a remixed version of Chaiyya Chaiyya in the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s heist thriller ‘Inside Man’ – a brilliant movie starring Clive Owen and Jodie Foster.  This song is sure to make you forget your worries and start dancing around the kitchen!

Pills, Thrills and Cake

When I was nine years old the nurses put a strip of leather between my teeth to stop me screaming  from the pain of a spinal haemorrhage. That was the sixties solution to pain relief for children.

Since then I’ve tried many prescription painkillers doled out by doctors. Tramadol, Solpadol, Paracetamol, Co-proxamol, Codeine, Morphine, Gabopentin,…the list goes on.  Most of them did nothing for my pain levels but added to my health problems.  I would have more respect for doctors if they had the guts to be truthful about the side-effects of medication they prescribe.  But the majority of the medical profession exist in a state of self-glorification and denial of the reality of their patients’ experience.  Severe abdominal pain, nausea, dizziness, diarrhoea, slurring of speech, hallucinations, lack of coordination, mental confusion, tremors, blood clots, haemorrhaging, insomnia and various other delights await those who naively listen to doctors and swallow their little pills.

The only helpful painkiller I’ve ever had was Co-proxamol.  It enabled me to live an almost normal life.  There were no side-effects. I took it safely and without abusing the dose for twenty five years.  It was a miracle drug that helped thousands of pain sufferers in the UK, those with muscular skeletal problems in particular.

In June, 2016 the British Pain Society’s research revealed that chronic pain affects more than two fifths of the UK population, meaning that around 28 million adults are living with pain that lasts for three months or longer.  So it’s a scandal that the National Health Service, or more precisely the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) withdrew Co-proxamol from the market in 2005 even though it had been in common use for nearly one hundred years.  At first those who were unable to tolerate any other pain killer, like myself, were told they would be exempt from the ban.  They were placed on a Named Patient List which was supposed to ensure they would never be left without an essential drug.  In the following years all that has changed.  This list, if it ever existed in the first place, has been forgotten.  Since 2016 Co-proxamol has been taken away from everyone unless you have a doctor brave enough to risk his/her license by prescribing it.  (If something went wrong such a doctor could be sued).

The official reason for this ban is that Co-proxamol is linked to a high number of suicides.  But so are many other drugs that are still available.  And the irony is that doctors are now prescribing much more powerful and addictive alternatives such as morphine.  So rather than protecting patients with the ban they are leaving them to suffer without any pain relief or putting them at risk from dangerous drugs.  The overdose figures for Tramadol and anti-depressants have escalated since 2005.  The NHS saved over nine million pounds with the Co-proxamol ban.  It’s a cruel and heartless decision that should never happen in a civilized country.

I’ve found this post very difficult to write but I feel it’s important to publicize this issue.  The internet pain forums are full of heart-breaking stories by people who have had their lives ruined by the Co-proxamol ban.  They should not be forgotten.

My way of coping with pain levels is by concentrating on the positives in my life.  Art, poetry, Mindfulness Meditation, music, animals, spending time outside also help.  Some days are better than others.  This afternoon I felt so depressed due to writing this article I went back to bed.  The storm raging outside was also raging in my head.  I felt angry with the Establishment, the doctors, the Government, the ones who control how we live or whether we live at all.

In the film, ‘Cake’ Jennifer Aniston puts in a worthy performance as a woman dealing with chronic pain and grief.  It’s a tough film to watch.  At the turning point her attitude changes after the baking of a cake. And its true that little things really matter.  This afternoon when I finally stopped feeling sorry for myself I made blueberry pancakes.   I feel much better now!

Please sign a petition to the British Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt asking him to reverse the Co-Proxamol ban and restore hope to sufferers of chronic pain by clicking below:-

http://chn.ge/2ywrlmm

Thank you!

 

 

Wild Women

A spider has spun a web outside my kitchen window. Suspended by a silken thread she survives gales and heavy rain. I check for her every evening and breathe a sigh of relief that she’s still hanging on, waiting for her next meal and proving that small and delicate doesn’t mean weak.

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“Just because you think you can do something doesn’t mean you can actually do it.”  This was a comment I often heard from a nurse at a local hospital where I experienced disability discrimination.  That is so wrong.  Believing in yourself is eighty percent of the path to success.  Strength begins in the mind.  The subtle and not so subtle negative messages disabled people receive from society every day creates low self-esteem, weakens them so that many don’t even attempt to live full independent lives. And the same thing applies to women, even in this supposedly post-feminist age they are presumed to be the weaker sex.

Although there have been improvements in attitudes towards both disabled people and women in the last fifty years, both groups are still constrained by old stereotypes. Disabled people are supposed to be helpless, sad and stupid; women are supposed to be caring, domestic creatures mainly defined by their relationships.  Men are celebrated for their achievements, women for their appearance and how much they are loved.  Bold, successful women who take risks and defy the norms of marriage and motherhood are viewed as an aberration.  Their main role in life is still caregiver, not adventurer or pleasure-seeker. Their domain is the home and not the wilderness.

I’ve previously written about the image of the loner in film.  The old Westerns and wilderness survival movies such as Into the Wild, The Grey, All is Lost and The Revenant all have male protagonists.  I’ve struggled to find many female equivalents.  Loner women are not shown as mysterious heroines battling nature but as loveless misfits, bitter like Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, or victims of abuse like Carrie in Brian de Palma’s classic horror.  How much do these negative messages influence the aspirations of girls growing up today? Why can’t women run wild with the wind?

Its strange that even though we speak of ‘Mother Nature’ and ‘Mother Earth’ there are so few films exploring women, solitude and the natural world.  Here is my list so far.  Please leave a comment if you can think of any others.

‘Here Alone’ is a recent offbeat film about a young woman named Ann (Lucy Walters) who struggles to survive after a weird epidemic decimates society. She leads an isolated life and battles the threat of bloodthirsty survivors who were infected and lurk outside the forest.  Although her life is hard she is clever and successful at living off the land with limited resources.   She has experienced loss and trauma but still exists in harmony with the beautiful landscape.  Later in the story she meets up with other survivors but is ambivalent about joining them.  The shock ending shows the real threat is from an unexpected source.

‘Wild’ features Reese Witherspoon in a brilliant performance as Cheryl Strayed, a young woman driven to a crisis by the loss of her beloved mother (Laura Dern) and the break-up of her marriage. She decides to halt her self-destructive behaviour and put her life back together again. With no outdoors experience or training Cheryl sets out alone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a distance of over one thousand miles.  This film is a female equivalent of Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s moving film about Christopher McCandless.  It’s also based on a true story and has an episodic structure with flashbacks revealing the backstory.  However, Wild is an astounding film in its own right and has an upbeat ending.

 

‘Alien’, directed by Ridley Scott and ‘Aliens’, directed by James Cameron are sci-fi horror movies but could also be described as woman battling against a hostile environment.  Sigourney Weaver as Ripley is the ultimate female survivor, tough and intelligent.  Although she is at heart a loner she doesn’t avoid relationships and takes on a mothering role towards an abandoned child in Aliens. She also loves her cat Jonesie!

The 1994 film Nell is about a female hermit played by Jodie Foster who has lived her entire life in an isolated mountain cabin in North Carolina where she has developed her own language. She eventually becomes a curious object to be studied by psychologists who try to integrate her into society.

The Hunger Games film series consists of four science fiction dystopian adventure films based on the novels by the American author Suzanne Collins.  It stars Jennifer Lawrence as the reluctant but fearless survivor of a man-made hostile wilderness.  Contestants are forced to kill each other in a televised game designed to distract the masses from the injustices of real life.  (So a bit like the reality TV shows that clog up our screens today!  The Hunger Games films are popular with teenage girls who will, hopefully, grow up less afraid than earlier generations to embrace life and venture freely into the Wild.

 

High Plains Drifter

One of the few things I had in common with my mother was a love of film.  They say if a pregnant woman listens to Mozart it will encourage the unborn child to be musical and good at maths (the structure of classical music helps the brain to develop). In my case I was exposed to the stories of Hollywood while still in my mother’s womb.  Cinema tickets were cheap and the local Essoldo was a five minute walk from home so my mother went to the movies several times a week clutching a bag of oranges for which she had a craving during pregnancy.  Those were the days of glamorous stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor and strong silent heroes like John Wayne, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart.  My mother had plans to name me Victor after the Italian American actor Victor Mature if I turned out to be a boy.

When I reached adolescence we would stay up, just the two of us watching late night films on the black and white television set.  My father went to bed early as he was up at six for his foundry job but on Sunday afternoons he and I watched classic Westerns such as The Searchers, True Grit, High Noon, Stagecoach and The Magnificent Seven.  The image of the loner cowboy, a gun-toting misfit with a mysterious past riding into town out of the wilderness was common to most of these films.  In reality American cowboys worked in groups riding along with the herds.  Gunfights were rare events.

In his final book, Fractured Times Eric Hobsbawm examines the cowboy myth and its role in Western Culture. The idea of solitude, being set apart from society and  holding alternative, idealistic values is crucial to the fantasy appeal of the cowboy hero.  Hobsbawm writes:-

‘Individualist anarchism had two faces. For the rich and powerful it represents the superiority of profit over law and state. Not just because law and the state can be bought, but because even when they can’t, they have no moral legitimacy compared to selfishness and profit. For those who have neither wealth nor power, it represents independence, and the little man’s right to make himself respected and show what he can do. I don’t think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him. As Tom Mix put it: “I ride into a place owning my own horse, saddle and bridle. It isn’t my quarrel, but I get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it’s all ironed out, I never get any money reward.”

My favourite old Western as a child was Shane.  Alan Ladd’s portrayal of a charismatic yet sensitive loner who saves a family but then departs alone into the misty blue mountains seemed very romantic. The tear jerker ending got to me every time.

 

There’s something dreamlike and special about losing oneself in a film.  Sitting in the darkness of the cinema or alone on the sofa at home, reality and fantasy become indistinguishable.  Sometimes, when the film is over images replay in my mind for days and seem more real than my own routine life.  I think the stories we are told, like fairy tales in childhood have a powerful hold over us, influence our hopes and dreams, the way we think.

Parts of the Far North of Scotland remind me of the Wild West; the long, straight, empty roads, wide horizons with distant snow-capped mountains, the huge skies, the freedom from the restrictions of the city.  Like the old Frontiers this is a place where a person feels she can re-invent herself, a blank canvas to create a new identity.  It’s a land that attracts those who have problems fitting in with mainstream society for various reasons.  Those who want to start afresh. The locals call people like me, ‘White Settlers’ and it’s not meant kindly.  They narrate sinister stories of criminals on the run and ex-secret service agents hiding out incognito, just like the mythical bandits and outcasts of the Wild West.

And like the Wild West there was, strangely enough, a gold rush in Sutherland at the Strath of Kildonan in 1869.  Even today tourists are able to hire equipment and go panning for gold in the river but you’re much more likely to catch a chill then get rich quick!

My local village has a long, wide Main Street, wide enough for five lanes of traffic which seems incongruous in such a tiny place.  It always looks deserted but you know that you’re being watched.  Behind the twitching net curtains there is always a nosey-parker.  Just like the small communities of the Western prairies everything you do here is noticed and probably held against you at a later date.  It’s a place with traditional values frozen in a time warp back in the fifties.  Feminism and equal rights are alien concepts.  The wind blows cold from the East and you can almost see the tumbleweed rolling along.  You can imagine a big shoot-out, just like in High Noon with Gary Cooper swaggering out of the Post Office to fight off the bad guy about the sins of double parking or a misplaced wheelybin!

The pursuit of happiness…

In Sean Penn’s amazing film, Into The Wild, the free spirit Christopher McCandless realises just before his tragic death alone in the wilderness of Alaska that “Happiness is only real when shared”.  Do you agree? Discuss in 500 words or less.

Was McCandless an inspiring figure who pursued his dream to the bitter end gaining  precious moments of intensity and wisdom or was he a misguided, selfish young man who threw away his life and hurt his family in a self-destruct?    I’m inclined to the first point of view.  It is better to live a shorter life to the full rather than a long life trapped in a meaningless consumerist rat race. Quality not quantity is what counts. In modern life we seem to be obsessed with trying to live forever, avoiding risks, preferring the well-trodden path of safe conformity and a predictable end in a rancid nursing home where no-one gives a damn when you die in your own despairing piss. What makes life meaningful? Is it proving your own worth by collecting thousands of ‘likes’ and so-called ‘friends’ on Facebook?  Do we need love and acceptance to survive? Humans are programmed to live in groups. We are supposedly a social animal. But a city can be a far lonelier place than a cold mountainside.

Why am I writing this blog if not in an attempt to share my life and happiness?

Click on this link for a film review of Into the Wild:-