Saturday, March 29, 2008

Do we face the Decline and Fall of the Western Empire?

For the past week, I have been contemplating some words of Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his Easter Sermon, he said:

“…we as a culture can’t imagine that this civilisation, like all others, will collapse and that what we take for granted about our comforts and luxuries simply can’t be sustained indefinitely.

To all this, the Church says, sombrely, don’t be deceived: night must fall."

Dr Williams is frequently berated in the common press for speaking in an obscure style. However, for once, his message is loud and clear. Life, as we in the Western world know it, cannot continue forever.

There are comparisons and lessons to be learned from both the Roman Empire and the French Revolution.

The Roman Empire was once the most powerful Empire the world has known. Not only was it powerful; for at least the ruling elite, life was luxurious. With villas built in the Classical style and surrounded by art, sculpture, music, good food and wines, those fortunate to be amongst the wealthier citizens of Rome must have felt that life had never been so good. For approximately 1000 years, Rome was paramount. Then, as history now shows, night fell for the Romans; the Roman Empire started to shrink and the Barbarians overran Rome.

In the years before 1789, France was essentially a feudal society. The nobles were wealthy, possessed large estates, and had a life of luxury compared to the peasant workers who toiled in their fields and who provided for the needs of their ruling class. Whether one believes the Marxist view that it was inevitable that the growing class of bourgeoisie would overthrow the aristocracy (and Monarchy), and that in time the working class would overthrow the bourgeoisie, or whether one takes a more post-modernist view of history, what is clear is that the time of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ could not continue forever. At some stage, a degree of re-balancing of wealth had to take place. The French Revolution may have been the mechanism, or it may have just been a speeding up of events that had been happening in small ways for some time and would have reached a climax at some later, albeit inevitable, stage.

Today, those of us who have the privilege of living in the western world can all too readily be blinded to the reality of life in other parts of the world. Even with images of poverty, starvation, war, and human suffering transmitted to our televisions, we are in danger of allowing the television to sanitise the real effect on us. It is as though such things are not really happening; our lives go on as normal, we have plenty of food, clothes and warmth, our oil supplies are plentiful, we are healthy (or at least well-cared for when we are not) and nobody is waging a direct war against us. Many of us can find enough spare money to go on holiday; sometimes more than once per year. Life has never been so good.

Yet, are we not at risk of the same complacency that once beset the Roman and French aristocracies? Is it not simply a matter of scale? Instead of Rome or France, read ‘Western World’. Instead of ‘aristocracy’, read ‘westerner’. For, I would argue, there is a comparison to be drawn between the attitudes of the Roman and French aristocracies to the subjects of their respective empire or feudal estates, and those of us ‘westerners’ in our attitude to the nations poorer than us, but whose inhabitants toil for meagre return in an effort to sustain our insatiable demand for luxury. For example, where would we be without the cheap workforces of China, who produce so much of our every day commodities? Or, for that matter, the agricultural labourers who supply our tea and coffee for less than subsistence wages?

I recently read an article in Source (the Church and Community Magazine for the Parishioners of Upper Nidderdale, North Yorkshire) which gave the following statistics:

‘If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world. If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.

If you have never experienced the fear of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 700 million people in the world.

If you can attend a church without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death you are envied by, and more blessed than, three billion people in the world.

If you can read this message, you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world who cannot read at all. If you own a computer, you are part of the 1% in the world who has that opportunity.’

I can add to those statistics by something I read in a nature reserve exhibition. That, to bring the world’s population to the same standard of living enjoyed by the average person now living in North Lincolnshire, we would need the natural resources of another four or five Earths.

Insisting on supermarkets operating ‘Fair Trade’ policies is a start. Insisting that wholesalers do not import clothes from factories known to use child labour is commendable. However, such action is not going to solve the ultimate problem. We need to face up to the fact that our lifestyles in the western world are unsustainable. How long will it be before the population of China, for example, demands the same standards as those we enjoy? How will the world’s resources then meet the demand? Indeed, how can our own demands then continue to be met?

We must not be blind to the precarious nature of our western civilisation’s existence. As a country looking out at the world (rather than in respect to our internal politics), we (in the United Kingdom) are largely right wing, conservative and reactionary. A vast proportion of the world is, or has the potential to become, quite the opposite: left wing, radical, reformative, and revolutionary. We cannot rely on these factions being contained forever – but who can blame them when the time comes for them to demand an equality of existence?

Western civilisation is the modern-day aristocrat facing a growing unease amongst the countries of the poorer classes. It is time that we awoke to the reality before us. The 18th century philosopher, Rousseau, expounded the notions of the ‘Social Contract’ and the ‘General Will’; ideas that featured heavily within the minds of the French Revolutionaries. Perhaps we need our world’s leaders to start negotiating the same concepts, but on a worldwide basis – now, before the matter is beyond us?

It is a ‘fact of history’ that all empires fall. When, then, the decline and fall of the Western Empire? Just as Classical Greece saw its Dark Age, Western Europe has also lived through its own Dark Ages. However, the Archbishop of Canterbury was quite correct when he said:

“…don’t be deceived: night must fall."

Without a 21st century Enlightenment in respect to the world’s resources, and a reality check on the disparity between living standards, the western world may yet have its most significant Dark Age to come.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I'm Dreaming of a White Easter

I am sure that it has happened before, but I cannot off-hand remember when. However, Easter morning has dawned with a blue sky and two inches of snow here in the Yorkshire Dales.

A beautiful sight which offers a freshness which is very fitting for the day of the Resurrection of our Lord.

Happy Easter!

A Lexicographic Curiosity

On the 25th March 2006, I posted to this blog an article named 'Word of the Week - Megalotic'. Little did I think that this one word was going to become a major source of interest to our friends in Japan.

Like many blogs, I have a site-meter attached. This enables me to monitor how many hits the blog receives, how long people stay on and how many pages are read. An additional feature, which I find particularly fascinating, is that it tells me which part of the world the reader is in and, finally, how they got to my blog in the first place; for example, did they stumble across it by accident when searching for something in Google, or did they specifically enter the site name.

Over the past two years, it has become increasingly obvious that readers in Japan search on the word 'megalotic' and thus come to this site. Some even enter 'Dr Tusitala - Megalotic' as their search words.

The mystery to me is why this should be. The word megalotic is not an everyday English word and certainly took me a while to figure out what it might actually mean. (See the original posting for my answers to that). So why are the Japanese so interested in the word?

If anyone has an insight to my little conundrum, please do post a comment.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Maundy Thursday Tale of Hope

Arriving at our cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, late in the afternoon, we discover a note from the housekeeper informing us that the vacuum cleaner has stopped working. A slight understatement, as none of the electrical sockets work, meaning everything (with a plug attached) has stopped working. A quick assessment of the fuse box confirms a tripped RCD. Further analysis reveals that it re-trips whenever anything is switched on anywhere.

Now, what is the likelihood of finding an available electrician at 5 pm on Maundy Thursday in a village where I hold no bargaining power as a doctor; or, for that matter, an electrician who can affect a repair before the end of the long Easter weekend? About the same as finding a GP surgery open on a Saturday morning, I would say. The immediate future was looking bleak.

Undaunted, I ring a number on an advert in the local Parish magazine. Amazingly, a man answers. I explain the situation and make the tentative request that he might be able to help me.

‘I’ll be straight round,’ he says, and hangs up.

Somewhat amazed, I tell my wife that the cavalry is on its way. True to his word, he arrives within five minutes and proceeds to spend the next three hours finding the fault, isolating it, and giving us back a power supply.

The young man is a saint disguised as an electrician. My faith in human nature is restored, but somehow, after he has left with my profuse gratitude, I cannot help feeling guilty for not opening my surgery on Saturday mornings any more…

Monday, March 17, 2008

Thought for the Day

The following is often quoted as an extract from Nelson Mandela's inaugural speech in South Africa in 1994 (see footnote). In it, he reflects on the nature of our understanding of ourselves. It is so powerful that it requires no further introduction:

'Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light and not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous. Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were all meant to shine as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.'

Whilst the above is widely quoted as having been used in a speech by Mandela, it would appear that this may be a misrepresentation. The original author seems to have been Marianne Williamson. The passage is a paragraph in her book Return to Love, published in 1992.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Thought for the Day

The Journey of Life

'Let us be contented with what has happened to us and thankful for all we have been spared. Let us accept the natural order in which we move. Let us reconcile ourselves to the mysterious rhythm of our destinies, such as they must be in this world of space and time. Let us treasure our joys but not bewail our sorrows. The glory of light cannot exist without its shadows. Life is a whole, and good and ill must be accepted together. The journey has been enjoyable and well worth making - once.'

From Sir Winston Churchill’s Thoughts and Adventures.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Earthquakes, Snakes and Talking Birds – Welcome to Lincolnshire

As if the floods of June 2007 were not enough, the early hours of Wednesday 27th February 2008 brought further evidence to the actuaries ensconced in the ivory towers of insurance land that Lincolnshire is not a safe place to do business.

It was a little before 1 a.m. when our four-poster bed started to violently shake, accompanied by a loud, deep, roaring-rumbling noise. The effect lasted a mere ten seconds. However, it was sufficient to fully waken both my wife and I. To her startled exclamation of ‘what is happening’, I instantly replied ‘earthquake’. Not that I am an expert in such matters. I suppose it could have been a gas explosion, or an aeroplane crashing, or the oil refinery exploding (shades of Flixborough). Nonetheless, once you have experienced one earthquake, you tend to be tuned-in for life.

Peru was the background for my initiation into the delights of nocturnal earth-movings; six floors up in an hotel in Arequipa to be precise. The year was 2006 and my wife and I were touring Peru for a few weeks.

The vast cracks and undulating pavements should have been the clues to the fact that we were in an earthquake zone. However, stepping off a coach in the darkness of evening meant that such observations were going to wait until morning. Neither did we realise the significance of the little red signs advertising ‘Safe Zone’, liberally posted at intervals along the corridors. In retrospect one can smile at our naivety.

A deep rumbling, which grew progressively louder until it became a roaring noise, preceded the shaking of the bedroom floor and walls. My first reaction was to think ‘oh no, they have put us in a room next to the railway line’. (You can probably detect that I have stayed in a few suspect areas of London in my past life.) However, as the pictures started to swing at crazy angles, the fleeting thoughts of complaining to the management and seeking an alternative room evaporated into the more focused opinion that we were six floors up and so a railway outside the bedroom window was unlikely. This was an earthquake!

Meanwhile, my wife was in a bath with its own in-built tidal waves. Now, we do have a Jacuzzi at home but can never achieve such vigorous aquatic effects. Not surprisingly, she also twigged that all was not exactly as it should be and, needless to say, the bath was quickly vacated; as was the hotel.

That is to say, we vacated the hotel. Outside, life appeared to be going on as normal; as did the activities in the hotel restaurant; which was pretty much the response in our home town in Lincolnshire last Wednesday. One or two lights went on and a couple of neighbours wandered outside in their nightclothes, before all going back to bed. No sirens, no panic – just stiff-upper lip, British matter-of-factness. Even the conversations the following day were more about the weather than the largest earthquake to hit England in the past quarter-century. Neither did the news that the epicentre was in Market Rasen, a mere steeplechase away from us, do anything to raise the British pulse.

Nonetheless, pulses were raised last night. Earthquakes followed by snakes sounds quite biblical in character. However, this sighting was one to be relished. The encounter took place in Gainsborough, not far from Market Rasen (though that is where the connection with the earthquakes finishes). Snake Davis, the internationally famous, multi-talented saxophonist, slithered once again into that jazz-club of excellence, The Sands Venue, and, along with his band, delighted his audience with two hours of aural, spine-tingling, foot-tapping, eye-closing, mesmeric delight.

Recently returned from Japan, Snake’s latest album is titled Talking Bird (the title coming from a dream wherein a bird spoke to him). With forty-six minutes of soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, flutes and the hauntingly beautiful melodies played on the Shakuhachi (made of bamboo and similar in timbre to the Peruvian queena), disciples of this two-legged serpentine musician will only be disappointed by the fact that it will probably be at least a year before the next album appears.

This album was predominantly recorded in Japan; a country well-versed with the subject of earthquakes. Talking Bird, however, has no such turmoil. On the contrary, the tranquillity of traditional Japanese culture shines through. On the album cover, Snake says

‘...we all really hope that this music will make you close your eyes and drift off somewhere away from the crazy hectic lives we lead...’

All I can say is that, listening as I write, I am already in that ‘somewhere’. Welcome back, Snake. Bring on those earthquakes – I’m cool.

Watching with John Henry Newman

I have recently been reading  Newman: The Heart of Holiness  (2019), a book by Roderick Strange about the priest-poet, John Henry Newman. In...