Selling Sanctuary

I’m in a small cold place
perched on the edge, the solo late

night representative of Shell.
I’m researching the after

-life, heaven or hell, really can’t tell.
Muffled shadows shift beyond bullet

-proof glass, reveal inner
shit. Look away, look away.

Unleaded or diesel, Red Bull or Rizla,
Twix or a bit of smut, reformed

cheese sarnies, sausage rolls, Golden
Wonder or a pint full cream.

I don’t give a damn, all pie in the sky.
Make sure you buy before you die.

Dive in from the black
well into my bright, where pumped up

demons and angels self
-service, sniff hydro-carbon light.

It is the hour of the wolf,
and we are all overdue.

 

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Photo created by the author

 

 

Removing the Blindfold

“Everything looks more beautiful in retrospect”.  So says Michelle Monaghan’s character in the 2011 science fiction thriller Source Code.  The film, directed by Duncan Jones, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a US army captain who is repeatedly sent back into a virtual parallel universe in an effort to prevent an explosion on a Chicago commuter train. He tries to change history and many of us would love to do that when looking back on our own lives.

Alas, time travel and parallel universes are still the stuff of fantasy.  The relationship between the present and the past is complex.  Looking back can feel like being lost in a mist where the edges of reality become blurred.  Memory is unreliable.  Research has shown that after a while we do not remember the actual past event but more a previous memory of it.   Our perception of the past changes over time, shape-shifting and misleading.  The Czech-born French writer Milan Kundera described it thus; ” We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded.  We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing.  Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.”

The process of writing can help our recollection and understanding of our personal histories.  Time unravels like a piece of knitting.  But there are still blind spots.  I’ve realized that memories of some painful events from my past have been erased or diluted.  Perhaps this is a defense mechanism.  I have to work really hard at remembering them, removing the blindfold.  As I grow older I’m periodically overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia.  Its tempting to believe that life was more real, more authentic, more fun in the past.  Perhaps the younger we are, the more intensely we experience events but the fact is life was never perfect.  Each day we are confronted with problems and difficulties.  Satisfaction and happiness are derived from how well we rise to the challenges of life.

I took this photograph at Wick harbour.  Wick is a small fishing town about thirty miles from my home in northern Scotland.  In the 1800s it was one of the busiest and most prosperous herring ports in Europe.  The bay was filled with hundreds of boats, the quayside lined with thousands of barrels of herring.  The shouts of fish wives mingled with the cries of sea gulls and the howling wind.  Today it holds the silence of abandonment.  But decay can be beautiful.  The old paint, fading colors and streaks of rust in the photograph are evocative of some strange interior landscape, peeling back the layers of time.

 

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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

 

 

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.

******************

“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.