Are there levels of doom? Do you think in terms of grades of ruin? I only ask because to exist in the modern world is to be forced to accept grey areas. I say forced with the same reluctance a blind man might feel as he is prodded towards the edge off a cliff, a sword in his back. No-one likes to be forced to accept anything against their will. It goes against our sense of ourselves as being in control. As humans, we have fashioned the world in our image, taking from it the things we feel are ours by right. Consequences are an irritant, easily dismissed. We'll sort it out tomorrow. It isn't as bad as the prophets of catastrophe believe. Things are always exaggerated. And anyway, we are the dominant species. Look at all the achievement. Yes, we make mistakes. But, after all, we're only human, aren't we?
We are only human. Before any further ado, while the faint idea of doom and ruin pop in and out of the mind like unsettling whispers that no modern soul can fully grasp, here is the news. You may want to look away now. If nothing else, the following may hopefully confirm that nothing in the world is really ill-defined, ambiguous, or grey. It's high time for some stark black and white and an acceptance of what's real.
Think about the paltry space of time that is forty years. Two score. Four decades. Not a long time at all. Barely the casual blink of an eye, you might agree. Half an average human life-span. The teenage years of the Galapagos tortoise. A grain of sand in the great egg-timer. So consider the following and shudder.
The history of the world is the history of worlds within worlds dying. A tongue-twisting concept, I know, but not as mind-bending or truly, truly awful as how easy it has become to accept and shrug. At anything. In the face of anything. Despite anything. We might sigh every now and then, wring our hands, even apologise. The conundrum, though, is working out what we are apologising for, or indeed who to. How does an apology gather weight?
A sobering thought is a solemn one, or at least should be. So here are some solemn statistics. And recall the span of forty years. The true horror of complicity is encapsulated in that brief moment. If you don't hold a torch to statistics, or feel that they are necessary as a means of understanding cause and effect, then fine. I won't argue the point. But sometimes they are the only way to understand the gravity of something, especially a tragedy. In a tragedy, statistics are usually the only thing left.
In forty years, homo sapiens has been responsible for the eradication of between a quarter and a third of the planet's wildlife. And please, let's not be coy about what this really means. None of this carnage has been inadvertent. Man may not in all scenarios have gathered his weapons with the deliberate attempt to deplete the world's wild things, but there has been an indifferent deliberation at play in viewing the destruction of the natural world as somehow unavoidable. Collateral damage. Sad, but a price somehow worth paying. Progress, you see. Sorry. Wish we could have done more.
In those same forty years - and I make no apology for repeating the mantra, 25 percent of land-based animals, 28 percent of marine and 29 percent of freshwater creatures have been unceremoniously wiped off the face of the earth. Not removed temporarily, not sequestered somewhere remote, not lost in a nameless and unknown wilderness, to be rediscovered in a hundred years time. Gone forever, never to show themselves to the children of the future, except between the pages of dusty and forgotten books.
It gets worse. 35 percent of the world's mangrove swamps, home to thousands of aquatic birds have been destroyed. 35 percent. Let that figure resonate for a moment, even if statistics normally leave you cold. This one should make you, us, everyone feel a chill. It should make the heart freeze and the blood boil. Coral - 25 percent gone. Arctic wildlife - 25 percent. 600,000 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest - no more. Extinction rates are soaring, the oceans are churning and seething because of all the industrial pollutants still being used to poison them. Birds are almost dying on the wing. Or, if they don't get airborne, they die soon after being hatched, all over the world, poisoned by pesticides. But none of it is directly our fault, of course. It's all a kind of reverse natural selection. Inevitable really, a natural phenomenon that none of the technocrats could have seen coming.
We are not computers. Our brains are not conditioned to grasp the infinite, whether it be infinite joy or despair. Most people do not think on this scale, which is probably why we have arrived at this point. We avoid contemplating doom-scenarios. Too many other more important things to fret over. Mobile phones. Cars. Streaming devices. Wondering why our bins haven't been collected instead of asking ourselves why they are full. We don't like statistics, not if the evidence behind them is scarily compelling. We like and nurture and invent stories - our stories. And most of these are the kind we hide behind. The only time we want to be frightened is when we're clutching our popcorn. The remainder of an average life is spent documenting our needs and pursuing some abstract idea of happiness. Wildlife and it's struggle to survive us, is not even a peripheral concept. An idea is all that the natural world is, something to be briefly sentimental about, like nostalgia. It makes us long for the things we have left behind, things we can never get back.
I'll wager that if asked what nature means, the average respondee wouldn't know how to answer. What do you mean, they would say. Nature, it's, well. you know, it just sort of is. Only, it isn't. Saying that nature 'just is' takes no account of responsibility. Our responsibility. I'll go further. Believing that nature 'just is' and having nothing else to contribute to any kind of understanding is making the crass assumption, the ignorant assumption, that the animals roaming the planet can look after themselves. Ideally, they should. If man still had the relationship with the wildness surrounding him that he once had, animals would exist in that imperfect but infinitely more preferable way that for thousands of years stood them, and us in good stead. It was a more measurable and measured co-existence, something more like the reciprocal relationship that threatened neither side.
Blame the cavemen, if you must. They began the transformation from the ground up. It took millennia, of course. Man's domination of the earth habitat and all that roamed across it didn't happen overnight, but when the momentum gathered pace and primitive man graduated in his survival strategy from spear-wielding opportunist to large-brained farmer, the rot began slowly to set in. Animals were no longer a random source of prey and sustenance, but a resource, to be exploited as readily as a root vegetable. It's a simplification of the history of man's subsequent domination of all the other species, but it serves to offer an example of the disastrous downside to so-called progress. And the simple and lamentable fact is this; if it couldn't outrun us, swim away from us, or escape into the skies, we would hunt it down, collectivise it, process the guts out of it and then eat it in vast quantities, until it disappeared.
All of which continues today, now, every single waking hour. Only now, we have vast machines to help hasten the process along. The machines have taken over, which some would say is better. More efficiency, a higher and cost-effective means of wholesale slaughter at the touch of a button. And best of all for those who work in the industry but are squeamish about getting blood on their own hands, the machines are dumb. They have no scruples, no conscious awareness of the rights or the wrongs. They are aloof, like gods. And they ask no questions.
The green ecologists are in disarray. and the activists among them no longer chain themselves to the abattoir gates or stand defiant in front of bulldozers. They are political creatures now. They have to be, because they maybe feel this is the only way they can be heard. The thing is, what kind of message are they projecting to the world and who in the world is listening? Perhaps a partial defeatism has made the environmental movement wise-up, somewhat. After all, activism is all well and good, but it has proved by-and-large to be a fool's errand. It hoped in the past to reverse the tide of environmental destruction by shaking it's fists, marching, protesting, lobbying MPs, collecting donations and demanding a reversal of policies to protect wildlife and re-establish the integrity of the planet's eco-systems. Harsh facts are often unpleasant. They are unpleasant because they are usually the ones none us want to face up to. The world is damaged, possibly irreparably. No amount of wishful-thinking can change that. Man soldiers inexorably on, with his machines and his schemes and his thirsts. Wild places and wild animals continue to be threatened. Sustainability is not ultimately or actually possible while it proposes methods that damage the things it is meant to protect. Wind farms, nuclear energy, wave turbines. How are any of them protecting wildlife? The only thing they are sustaining is us. The only thing they are really protecting is the status quo. More of the same, please, seems to be the cry.
Still, chin up. At least we can still jump into our gas-guzzling four-by-four, take a ride with our 2.3 brood of children into the country, stop by the roadside in the middle of a real wilderness, approximately twenty miles from where we live, play a bit of hare-spotting. Then, we can eat our sandwiches, slurp our sugar-saturated fizzy drinks - making sure to not leave any litter for someone else to pick up, thereby displaying our environmentalist credentials, take a few selfies and one or two landscape pics and go home. And surely we will feel that we have contributed something, especially since we will have posted everything on social media. Sort of provides that warm glow that we all need, doesn't it? Look at us and how concerned about the fate of the planet we are.
I do not think things will improve, not much. Certainly, a lot of the damage has already been done. There is no reverse gear in the machine. All the machine wants to do is grind on, forwards. Backwards is not programmed into it's unfeeling circuitry. The same circuitry as possessed by it's creators - us. We are the machine, really. We push the buttons and then stand back and watch, protesting when the machine wreaks it's havoc that none of it is our doing. We aren't to blame. We are not culpable. We are above all that. Just look at all the good things we provide for the consumer. The lucky, blessed consumer, with their mobiles, tablets. So much bric-a-brac. So many future curios. So much disregard for the things that really matter. Broken connections, everywhere.
Once, we were said to be sleep-walking towards the abyss. Now we are running. Faster and faster. Collectively, as a species, do we want this? Do we want to plunge headlong into the quicksand? I'm not sure we do, I'm not entirely sure we don't. Ever since the first man burned his hand in the first fire, we have possessed the talent, the skill to harm. And as I have hopefully demonstrated, we always hurt the ones we (say) we love. On and on and on it goes, like a hellish merry-go-round. So fast now that we have to wonder, surely. Is there any way to safely get off? And even if we could get off, would we want to?
Everything that happens in the world and to the world is a result of the influence of outside forces. Climate changes may be the the result of natural forces beyond our control. Our pollution of the atmosphere undoubtedly exacerbates the problem. It certainly doesn't contribute anything positive. We don't have all of the answers, certainly. Or should that be obviously? We may not even have some of the answers, or any. Things may have degraded too far already. Perhaps the jury will always be out. But while we all wait, some of us trying individually to live cleaner, purer, more honest and less complex lives, the world and everything it contains rumbles relentlessly by, without a second glance at the consequences, the depleting resources or the ultimate end-game, whatever that might ultimately be.
We cocoon ourselves, put our heads under the covers, switch off the light and dream. What do we dream of? Do we dream of a future technology that will rescue us from the damaging technology of today? If we do, perhaps we should stay asleep and not want to wake up. What a hellish future that would be. Machines on the march, marching over us. Or, do we dream of the animals and their plight? The painter Franz Marc died in the First World War. Not long before he perished on the battlefield he painted a heartbreaking image of a terrified deer, trapped in a half-destroyed forest. The painting is called the Fate of the Animals. With it's tortured imagery and chaos of destruction and threat, it would be easy to see the imagery as a premonition of war and the carnage to come. Perhaps Franz Marc foresaw his own death in the muddy trench. Or was he trying to exorcise death, somehow, in advance? Was the painting a futile talisman, a good-luck charm? If so, it didn't prevent the bullet that took Marc's life away. It saddens me to say so. I don't think a mankind that could conjure the murderous and mindless mayhem of the first fully mechanised mass-slaughter in history would have cared whether Franz Marc was killed or not. He was one more romantic, pleading in the dark. And what of the deer? What, in fact of the fate of the animals? Will they all have to pay the price of our indifference? Will our desire to at least redress some of the harm we have done and still do grow, as we all should hope it can? These are rhetorical questions, for sure. They perhaps have no answers. It may be true, as the poet Robinson Jeffers has observed, that we are a species in the process of breaking it's legs on it's own cleverness.
Is fighting better than quitting? That all depends on what is at stake and whether winning is possible. Stoicism and a measure of positive pessimism can help, they say. But neither change anything for the better. All we are left with is philosophical debate and a discussion with our own intellect. What we can definitely do is attempt, wherever and whenever we can to preserve and protect non-human life. As individual direct action goes, it will not necessarily prevent future calamities, future suffering, future exploitations, future extinction events. But it is something. Something we should all attempt, if we can. Anything we can do to contribute is a kind of small withdrawal from the big machine. It may not save the world, but it may just save a few of our fellow creatures - for that is how we should wish to see them, as a valuable and intrinsic part of the fabric of our lives. Fellow creatures. You and I may not have the power to save everything good, but idealism in action, even small scale, is it's own reward. Save just one creature. Then stand back and meditate on the action for a moment. You may not ever have the chance to save anything else that walks, swims, crawls or flies again. But do it the once and you may very well save your soul.
How do you feel about space exploration? Does it rouse the buried explorer in you? Does it make you shiver in longing for distant galaxies when you gaze into the night sky? Or do you recoil in horror and disgust at the mere mention of such a flagrant waste of money? I think we all know the arguments. Why spend billions trying to develop the technology to enable mankind to travel to Mars and beyond? Surely the cash and the resources could be spent far more wisely, here, on Earth. And who wants to go to Mars, anyway? I know he was paid millions of dollars, but just look at what almost happened to Matt Damon. Escaped only by the skin-of-his-teeth. And he had to use his own excrement to grow his potatoes, which is kind of disgusting.
Not that any of this has deterred a certain Elon Musk, CEO of Space X, Tesla magnate, an entrepreneur worth a cool twenty million dollars. Musk has supposedly developed, or is in the process of developing (nobody is precisely sure) a re-usable rocket and propulsion system that will eventually make space-tourism a reality. But there is always a catch. You may have guessed it. No, it isn't that only the astronomically (no pun intended) wealthy will be offered a seat on what the scientists say will be a one-way journey. Or that once there, most people will suddenly one morning realise that life on the red planet is probably not going to be the 'adventure' they were expecting, after all. How much barren landscape, one percent gravity and no Sunday roast could any of us withstand?
No, the catch is that at a recent presentation, attended by the willing and the rich, where much speculative data was unveiled to probably a drowning chorus of oohs and aahs, Musk admitted that, confident though he is that his vision is on track and that everything is in place, his plans are 'aspirational'. Right, the fellow millionaires around the conference-hall will have been thinking. I have shelled out $200,000 and he's telling me his plans are aspirational. Does that mean the same as 'in the pipeline?' Or is it worse? Are they still 'on the drawing-board?' This sucks. The guy's a jerk. I want my money back. An get me my lawyer.
Elon Musk has put on his Emperor's new clothes and it doesn't appear he'll be stopping to look in the mirror any time soon. Far from it. Space X will have a transport ship on the surface of Mars by 2022. Manned landings by 2024. Six years from now. With almost uncanny prescience for a non-scientist, Musk is making claims for a population of one million on his Mars colony in forty to one hundred years time. So much for my plans to fill out my own application, even if I did have the cash.
But don't blame Mr. Musk. He probably means well. His motives may be entirely altruistic. No doubt he has mankind's interest at the forefront of his thinking. But I ask you. Would you really entrust $200,000 of your hard-earned disposable income (even if it amounted to loose change) to a man who married a blonde actress with a surfeit of teeth called Tallulah Riley? You would? Well, good luck with that.
No, the real culprit is 1950's science-fiction movies. Mars, the moon and beyond. Possibly a jaunt to Alpha Centauri, stopping off at Proxima Centauri for hot-dogs and popcorn. These movies were the stuff of dreams, of nightmares, of true imagining. For obvious reasons, they couldn't have been made today. Yuri Gagarin's Vostok hadn't even become a concept. The moon landings were an abstract thought in the minds of eccentric navel-gazers. Or star-gazers. Space travel wasn't imaginable except up on the silver screen. Low-budget was the rule. Creaky sets, even creakier actors, who were often interchangeable between movies. Dodgy dialogue and source material sometimes stolen from Shakespeare in Forbidden Planet. Peaceful emissaries from distant worlds, visiting in order to plea with us to see the error of our ways, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still. And no, not the godawful remake with the plank of wood that is Keanu Reeves. Michael Rennie no less, in his prime as Klaatu, accompanied in his mission by the terrifying robot Gort. Gort could not be stopped. Gort was indestructible. Gort could only be stopped if the phrase 'Klaatu barada nikto' was uttered. Earth v The Flying Saucers was another. The Thing From Another World (later remade but in a good way. Mainly because Keanu Reeves wasn't in it). Then there was War of the Worlds. Made millions hide behind the sofa. Scary stuff. Not as Scary as another unfortunate reboot though, this time starring that grinning loon, Tom Cruise. Truly shocking.
The common thread that binds these classics together, good and not so good, is hubris. That and an assumption that interstellar travelers to our planet would in almost every instance want to destroy us. We blame the film-makers for this, but really it's what most audiences at the time probably wanted to see. I suppose the themes and the stories they told mirrored the times. McCarthyism. Paranoia. Reds under every bed. Persecution of anything fearful and alien. Good versus evil, in fact. And good would always prevail, especially in the United States. Losing was never an option for them. Still isn't. And not only that. America saw itself in the cold war years as under threat. It had to overcome in the name of ownership, and that most definitely included space. Space had always been something America coveted in its desire for an often ruthless expansion. Just ask the native indians still languishing in misery on the reservations what they think. The only difference as the space race began was the scaled-up distances involved and the cost. That and the questionable motive. An expansionist foray to the stars - more specifically the moon, had to succeed for the Americans. Faces had to be saved, whatever the cost. Those damned Russkies couldn't be allowed to get there first. And, if we had happened to encounter aliens on the way and they proved to be non-friendly or openly hostile, well.... we have to defend ourselves, right? Doesn't the American Constitution almost demand it?
So, aliens had bug eyes in the 1950s. They had tentacles. They arrived with only one intention and that was to conquer, to subjugate, to enslave, to destroy. They were ruthless, seemingly unbeatable and ugly. Downright ugly. They had to be in order for audiences to recognise early on that they couldn't and wouldn't win. And win they rarely did. They might have journeyed light years across the galaxies to reach us. Their technology was, as one scientist once said, as far in advance of our own as to be indistinguishable from magic. And that's how they were portrayed for the matinee audiences - devils come to destroy us and everything we stood for. Ray guns, white-hot beams of death that could instantly vaporize both man and tank, creatures without any concept of conscience, dredged up from the child's nightmare. But wait, everything would turn out right in the end, because not only was this celluloid fiction, it was fiction largely made in the good old US of A. As we faced up to the alien threat on screen, we could comfort ourselves in advance. We would send them packing, back to the distant rock they had crawled out from under.
Then, once we had conquered the moon, things changed a bit. Things blurred into an occasional soft-focus. We had conquered a planet, for God's sake (but mainly for our own). We were the owners. We didn't have anything to fear. Those damned Russians had been sent back to where they came from (just like the alien invaders), tails firmly between their legs. We had won. Time to move on now that had been achieved. Time to be a bit more magnanimous, to offer the hand of friendship. But again, only in the movies. The space race might have been won, but other matters now loomed large - and they didn't come much larger than Vietnam. America needed to drag itself out of the quicksand. By the time of the last manned lunar landing in December 1972, the conflict had dragged on as a proxy war for seventeen years. It had drained the nations involved in it on both sides of its young men. Men chopped up like so much offal. It had also depleted the US coffers to a disastrous degree. The quest for space could no longer be financially justified. Not only was it draining the country of precious funds and politicians of their credibility (and robbing them of potential future votes), but the whole space exploration enterprise had sort of, well... lost. its enterprise. There was no longer any impetus. People were bored by it. There were too many enticing alternatives, other excitements. Ironically, the Apollo 13 near-disaster had kind of been the last highlight, the last time the nation and the world sat on the edge of its seat. The 1972 moon landing of Apollo 17 barely registered as an event to be celebrated and passed away into history almost before it had happened. The world may have largely forgotten, but it is worth mentioning the name of the last man to walk on the surface of the moon, if only out of respect. He died in 2017 at the age of eighty-two and his name, in case you might want to know, was Gene Cernan.
This new sense of universe as fellowship, exemplified in a new mood of openness by movies such as Cocoon, E.T., Starman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Edward Scissorhands and others was probably conceived as a by-product of ecological concerns highlighted by an ever threatened world. This time, though, the threat was coming from ourselves. The danger wasn't some imaginary agency out in the distant cosmos. It was us.
The democratic promise of technology suddenly appeared tenuous, imaginary, even. Maybe it had never existed at all, like a mirage. It seemed that, for all our ingenuity, for all the scientific advances we praised ourselves for (many of which are well-deserved), an irreversible fault-line had been created, one that could not be repaired. One that no amount of future innovation could (or can) mend. Which briefly brings us back to hubris and the modern manifestation of its worst aspect. Something called the technology trap.
The technology trap could be alternatively called the delusion complex, although the concept isn't complex at all. Really, it's quite simple. It is the belief that we are so technologically advanced that no matter what we do to the planet, we will somehow be able to bring it back from the brink. We will be able to fix it. We're the top dog, after all. We can do anything. Nothing is beyond our ability. We put men on the moon and brought them back! What is a fix for a bit of environmental damage compared to that? Easy.
What will the next morality tale, up there on the big screen have to show us? Does the feel-good factor have any relevance any more? Maybe we have unleashed a monster that is now beyond our control. That could be the reason for Elon Musk's insistence that the future of mankind lies in the colonisation of other planets. And he may be correct. Look around at the mess we've made of this, our home planet and try to imagine what our future will actually be like. Do that and the outlandish and probably unfeasible predictions of Musk and his cohorts seem at least a little more appealing. The climate is changing at a frightening and possibly irrecoverable rate, mass extinction is well underway, the oceans are a soup of pollutants and human detritus and the techno-optimists have suddenly gone very quiet. In the 1950s, we dreamed of exploring. Maybe it is time to think not of exploration now, but escape. Where's my wallet?
Nobody likes to trip. Tripping is bad. Tripping is the last thing a person would want, in fact. An average person, asked if they would like a trip would likely screw up their face in that incredulous way all would recognise and say in a shrill voice, 'Trip? Why on earth would I want a trip?' Or something like that. Anyway, suffice it to say they wouldn't want one - not at the time of asking, not in the future, not ever.
Seychelles, anyone? Costa Rica (just think about all that not-yet-ravaged rain-forest)? Lillehammer, (ditto skiing), sun, sea and sangria? Or maybe a psychedelic excursion, chemical enhancement, an out-of-body trip to higher states of consciousness. There are trips for every taste, for every predilection. Spiritual, cosmic (if you can afford the fare), transcendental, guided, solitary, hermetic, sexual. The possibilities are infinite. Well, almost
Of course, a trip to some place of your heart's content, perhaps surrounded by magnificent vistas or dusky maidens, might be your thing. And if chemical tripping does it for you, who knows? Maybe in this world where nobody is to be denied anything and all desires must be fulfilled, it may already be possible to combine the two. An ideal solution for those scared of flying. In fact, there must be an airline marketing opportunity just waiting in the wings. Get High While You Fly? Hmmm. Possibly. Most things catch on.
But a person of a certain age isn't interested in any of this. A person for whom the world is an affront and a danger would recognise the worst kind of trip. The bad trip. Not the kind obtained by way of dodgy pharmaceuticals, though - although it can only be imagined how bad that trip would be. No. The absolute nadir of tripping has to be the one alluded to way back at the start of this cumbersome examination. The one we all fear. The one for which the phrase 'trip-hazard' was invented. The unexpected, sudden, without warning and often totally inexplicable and heart-pounding kind, when balance becomes imbalance. Upright one moment, strolling along, enjoying the sound of the birds, the sun, the cool breeze, arm-in-arm with a loved one. The next, the terrifying lurch forward towards, what? Oblivion, perhaps. Extinction. A trip of death, maybe. Who can anticipate or predict the outcome? Swallowed up by a black hole, into which the unwary or the infirm can and do plunge, never to return. A dance with the devil.
I dramatise. With sobs and sighs, possibly, as in Shakespeare. Only because, as with the bard and his often dark events, a trip can be a tragedy. Not only a fall from one's feet, to the unforgiving concrete, but a fall from the mortal coil of existence. Call it scaremongering, call it pessimism, or the mindless ramblings of a neurotic. Whatever suits your view or your criticism. I imagine the worst case scenario/apocalyptic/tragic/ approach to be a kind of comfort. Expect doom and anything even slightly better is a cause for celebration. Call it pessimistic fatalism, for want of something better.
Never fear. A trip is more likely to have no such deadly outcome. The commonality of the thing proves the point. Walk along any high street at any time of night or day and you will see them. The trippers. Admittedly, some will be day-trippers. But alright, let's not mangle the meanings any longer. Let's let the definition be set in stone, if needs must. Trippers, tripping. Some drunk, lurching out of doorways, weaving towards inevitable collapse. Some just plain unlucky, or not taking care where they place their feet. Slippers, staggerers, tottering, twirling, falling like stringless marionettes. And there is even fun to be had as an observer, although it shames the intellect to admit such guilty pleasure. Needless to say, it is only funny if it happens to someone else. Schadenfreude. No-one is immune to it's thrill. A snigger can get a person through their dull day.
So, trips. They are related to puddles in their mindless malevolence. They await their opportunity to catch us off-guard. They strike without warning. They don't care whether you deserve their malice. Discrimination is not their thing. Your next trip may be your first or your last. Let me ask you. When you trip, where do you want to go?
What kind of man am I? I wonder what I think about that now that I have spent a year here, watching the layers peel off, stripping myself back...
Welcome to Beast. This harrowing tale is the second installment in a trilogy of books by the author and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth. The first, The Wake, was written in an imaginary hybrid of Old English, a language called the shadow tongue, grounded quite literally in eleventh-century Lincolnshire. Beast is set in the here-and-now. On a bleak moor.
Although superficially less arcane and impenetrable than the tangled weave of text that confronts the reader in The Wake, Beast is by no means a comfortable or comforting read. A strong heart, head and (sometimes) stomach is required. And a keen eye and ear.
Meet Edward Buckmaster, up to his knees and no good (we already sense from the opening) in an icy bog. On a moor in an unidentified location. Testing his bodily endurance in order, he claims, to find out if he is still alive. He came to the place he finds himself with no shoes, no preconceived plan, no hope. All he can say for certain is that he wants to feel nothingness. He needs to experience fear. Confrontation with what the raw elements can do to his body is foremost. Or seems to be. He (and we) are never really sure. Is the story a thinly-veiled allegory, a fictionalised plea for our diminishing wilderness? Or is Edward Buckmaster the sacrificial offering on the altar of nature's savagery?
The book is a short one and there is a sense of breathlessness throughout. What upon first appearance could have been a tale of one man's struggle for survival - think Robinson Crusoe transported from a desert island to the empty moorland - soon begins to reveal its true nature. Or does it? As a reader, this one was never sure. The clues to the protagonist's origins are as insubstantial and shrouded as the ramshackle decrepit farmhouse Edward Buckmaster shelters in. Paul Kingsnorth's prose dances and weaves around the mind as the story progresses. An what prose it is. The words are concise, the sentences either abrupt or long and unpunctuated. A sense of urgency and paranoia (ours?) accumulate as the story of a lost and disintegrating man proceeds apace.
Edward Buckmaster: Where has he come from that is so terrible as to warrant missing commas? Why has he walked out on his solid job in the city, abandoned his wife and his infant son for a torment? None of the usual background is provided by Kingsnorth. No flashback explanation, no root cause. All we have is relentlessness and diminishing hope. Not a narrative to recommend to the world-weary, you might think. However, the words gathered here and the form they take and the construct Kingsnorth has managed to conjure all come together beautifully and hauntingly to create something impressively off-beat and somehow true. The momentum of Beast thrums along like some urgent drum-beat, speeding up as it gathers its terrible momentum. The story is measured, quiet and nuanced, but at the same tells the tale of one man's personal apocalypse - an apocalypse to which we, as readers bare witness. This is the strength of the book. It leads us relentlessly to a place we feel as though we don't really want to go, much like it's anti-hero, Edward Buckmaster. It places the reader in the shoes and mind of a man teetering on the brink and at the same time offers us a comfortable front-row seat in a theatre of guilt where we act as voyeurs. But voyeurism is the fixation of the onlooker and so, we look on.
Listening to the absolute silence. Sensing a presence somewhere out there. Something in the mind of a man convinced that a badness lurks beneath everything he thought was real. This was and is the power of Beast, a novel of unremitting bleakness and painful honesty. A book about a man, a moor, an imaginary or perhaps real threat, a hunt and an ultimate confrontation with the self. Highly recommended.
Samuel Beckett has a place in the heart of many a frustration. He speaks to us. He cajoles, he teases, he draws our weary bodies to the brink. Then drags us back, our heels scraping in the dirt. He gives us our dusty heroes, makes them breathe in front of us, encourages us to feel their anguish. The murk of pathos tugs at the heart of the listeners, competing with disgust. A shared carrot, a turnip eaten along the dusty road, a chance encounter with slave and master. The hanging tree without the necessary rope. An over-extended and exaggerated leash of willing subjugation. Sleeping while awake. A suitcase full of sand and a small picnic-basket.. The lonely child.
Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo, Lucky. And you, boy without the honour of a name.
Where are you now? Do you still wander the Wasteland of T S Eliot's imaginings? Do you feel cheated? Surely, wherever you are you do. Or do you snigger behind the protection of your creator? In truth, Mr. Beckett, were you using them too?
If you look towards the horizon, they may appear. There, behind the solitary rock. Waiting, still. If you hurry, you might catch up. They will move eventually.
V- You asked me about hope, I believe. I believe that was the thrust. The gist of i
E- Perhaps I have too curious a mind. Perhaps I hope against the grain of things.
V- You strive for enlightenment, as do we all.
V- I believe so. In my experience there is a usual consensus in that regard. Better that than hopelessness. We should strive at all times to dissuade ourselves from apathy.
E- Never that. Heaven and hell forbid. But I believe in enquiry. We are empiricists, are we not? Rationalists.
V- Alas, yes - but only in ambition. To expect more would be arrogant.
E- Pomposity in the making, I would call it. Biting off more than one could realistically be expected to chew. A fool's errand.
V- Pulling the wool over one's own eyes. Hoodwinking on a grand scale.
E- Quite, quite. Very well put, comrade. Nothing so objectionable in my book than blind or misplaced faith in providence. Therein lies ruin. Self-immolation.
V- Far more fruitful to seek knowledge beyond the tenuous world of the supernatural.
E- In science. In the comfort and reassurance of the tangible
V- Very possibly in science, yes. Science is the thing, certainly. No doubt about it.
E- Forgive me for saying, mon ami, but I detect a modicum of doubt.
V- Sorry. I was thinking of something else. A matter unrelated to neither science nor the supernatural.
V- My boots, damn them.
E- Your boots?
V- My boots. As I said.... can you not recognise my discomfort? My damnable boots. Has life on the road dulled your senses so completely that you can no longer empathise? Does my pain no longer elicit the appropriate sympathy? How quickly things change. Oh, well. I suppose it is the way of the world, after all. My aching feet no longer register in the cosmic scheme of things. My boots....
E- Your damn boots...
V- Yes, those. They and I are as two grains of dust.
E- You hyperbolise, as usual.
V- As usual?
E- As is your wont. You have a tendency towards melodrama. I think it is the latent actor in you, if you want my opinion. Perhaps you were a grand and well-renowned thespian in a previous life.
V- Or this one. I must admit to an inclination. Call it a longing, if you like. An unfulfilled opportunity.
E- An ache.
V- Very like an ache. Very like the actual, physical, undeniable ache of my poor feet. Not unlike at all. Old boots, old feet - that's me, comrade. That is my punishment for some past wrong or slight, I'm sure of it. Old boots, old feet, old ambition.
E- Shall we stop, then? Unburden ourselves of our discomfort?
V- Yes, yes. A capital suggestion and timely. Now, rummage through your multitudinous pockets and find us a cigarette to share, if you can. Let us try to find a little solace.
E- We'll talk for a while, if you'd like. Before the sun disappears. Before we turn in.
V- While we are waiting, yes. I need to think and not ponder. There is a distinct demarcation, do you not agree?
E- Certainly. Thinking is a sedative, I always find. Right-thinking, at any rate. That's the most important proviso. A bad thought is as disruptive as a bad word before bed-time. And an ill-timed ponder could keep you awake all night. But remind me...what are we waiting for?
V- We're waiting for...
Of course, this could go on forever. An eternal loop of indirection, doubt and blind uncertainty. The waiting is all...
Fats Domino. Ever heard of him? Ever heard him thump on the piano keys as he belted out one of his stomp-inducing classics? Blueberry Hill? No? Well, if you'll excuse the cheap and cheery pun, ain't that a shame. He was affectionately known as Fats, or perhaps less affectionately as The Fat Man. I don't suppose he would have minded. Nom de dieu, I hear our French compatriots cry, Poking fun at the expense of a mild-mannered and humble entertainer. Of personal torment, though, we find no evidence. And rightly or wrongly (please choose your preferred weapon), in 1955 it wouldn't have caused the general public at large any loss of even a single night's sleep to hear a fat man be referred to as fat. And anyhow, Fats exploited his nickname to its full potential. Ten top-ten hits in the charts from 1955 to 1960. He did once have to jump out of an upper floor window at one of his own concerts when an integrationist riot broke out. But, so what, he would have probably shrugged. I own fifty suits and one hundred pairs of shoes. And it's only 1957! Why, he might have sung, if he'd ever written a song about it, should I complain. Oh, and he travelled everywhere in a bright pink Cadillac. Awarded a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 1987. Even Hurricane Katrina couldn't do him in. His home was swamped by flood-water. Rumours of his death, as they say sometimes, were grossly exaggerated. in 2006 he released an album entitled Alive and Kicking. He died in 2017, aged eighty-nine. it could probably be said that he had a rough, tough, rollickingly eventful life, during several decades of sometimes life-threatening strife in the American deep south. But what a crazy and exhilarating rollercoaster ride it all must have been. Maybe he was determined to survive to the age that he did, dying in his own bed in Louisiana, just to spite everyone. Sort of nice to think so. Sometimes the nice guys don't die young. Sometimes they have the last laugh.
None of which has got anything remotely to do with cats, dogs, lions or antelope. Not to mention time-travel. So, I won't. Mention it, I mean. Only, I will. If only to explore the disturbing possibility that they are here among us, today, in the here and now. Or should that be the here and then? No matter, I suppose. Anomalous entities is what they are. Peculiarly evasive, you might say. Liable to vanish at the drop of a hat. There one second, enjoying an extra-hot latte, discussing the finer points of Occams's Razor or expounding on chaos theory. Then, whoooshhh! Gone into the forward or the back of beyond. Usually performed, one would imagine without as much as a by-your-leave or any of the normal social graces we expect of anyone in civilised society, time-travelers or not. The thing is, in such a circumstance, and faced with such rudeness, it would serve no purpose to remonstrate through a mouthful of tea-cake as the tangible suddenly became intangible. You could shout all you wanted. You might even swear a bit, tut tut for all you were worth. All for nothing, I fear. They'd already have dissolved away, leaving you sitting there with the nagging suspicion that your unbeknown time-traveling companion had suddenly found your company so tiresome, so excruciatingly painful that they somehow willed their molecules to depart en mass, before your disbelieving eyes.
There is hope, though. Clues to watch out for. It's a bit like spontaneous combustion, but a lot quicker. Signs to be cognizant of with the approach of a sudden disappearance? Well, let's draw on the evidence we can see all around us, everyday. The things that go unnoticed. Modes of behaviour. Unusual mannerisms. Oddness (although I wouldn't rely on this trait too heavily as a tool for identification. Take my neighbour, for example. Odd? I could tell you stories....) Blankness is the usual prelude. It's that person in the library you see at the end of the aisle, between Politics of the Twentieth century and Needlecraft for Beginners. They stand there, a strange quizzical expression etched on their face. The eyes are open, unblinking. They don't shuffle or twitch. Arms straight at their side. You could be fooled into believing that you are witnessing confusion and nothing more. A perfectly common and human trait. Entirely understandable in the enforced hush and sometimes worrying silence of the library. After all, who but the most masterly stoic of person has not experienced that unsettling calmness, both a joy and a terror?
So, there they are, almost inviting your approach, your intervention. Still the object of your intrigue doesn't move. The eyes have fully glazed over by this time. Somehow, they are still holding onto their book. Your gaze wanders in fascination from the visage to the tome. You turn your head sideways as you strain to read the title on the cover. You may feel that somehow this is important. That it matters. It might yield some bizarre clue. It will be by an obscure and long-forgotten Russian exile, in all probability. Igor Popolov, would be my guess. Or Dimitri Schukin. Some author you will never have heard of (and there are so many). Tractors of the World 1913-1972. You might wonder if it would be a good read. You consider yourself an amateur in most things, but an aspiring and serious bibliophile. Your interest is piqued, for no logical reason. Tractors. Why would the arcane history of mechanised farm vehicles be of any possible interest. You are unable to rationalise this erratic sensation as you stare at the man, his immobility and his fascinating book - the very last word on all-things tractor. But you know you have to read the book. Because this is how it happens. You gaze for long enough at the hypnotised man and you yourself fall under the same spell. You succumb to the eeriness of that which you are unable to explain. You become the man in his transfixed state. Why the tenacious grip on the book?
Then, you make the fatal mistake. Your eyes might begin to water. It feels like hours since you last blinked. Your vision blurs as tears well up. For a mere moment you look away and in that instant a fullness of consciousness returns. But you have looked away. Only the snap of a finger. And when you look back, when your heart flutters and there is a strange moment of panic and you absolutely have to look back, the man is gone.
Of course he has. And he has taken the book with him. Away to who-knows-where.
Another soul you will never meet and the definitive book of tractors gone forever. And a thought might occur to you then, as you tell your rational self that no, of course another human being hasn't time-traveled away to another reality. You turned away for longer than you thought you had, obviously. What you imagined was a second might have been thirty. The man left, of that there can be no doubt. But out through the door, the same way he came in. Time-travel? Do you really expect yourself to believe that? Would anyone? Would you?
Which sort of not very neatly introduces the cat, the dog, the lion and the antelope.
The very next time your docile and not entirely loyal cat regards you with the kind of contemptuous expression usually reserved for heartless criminals, or your supposedly faithful old dog refuses to be enticed into his nightly walk and instead looks both at you and straight through you, you might pause. You might pause and shiver and wonder. What if cats and dogs not only possess some mystical power beyond our understanding, but unseen and unprovoked, can on a whim put that power into practice. Makes you wonder where all those disappearing cats and dogs end up when they suddenly vanish for no apparent reason. And why are the lions and antelope so scarce? Is it boredom?
And I wonder what Fats would say. Would he write a song about it do you think, surrounded by all those old library visitors, cats, dogs, lions and antelope? Has he already?
I have to say to you all this one thing : It is good to be here, tapping away. You don't know me and even if you do, you may not know that you do. Even if you suspect you know me, the reality of being proven correct by my confession of my identity might prove too much, so I remain in the dark, muttering away. Some might already conclude that I do so to lesser and lesser effect as I grope around for meaning, or even a coherent theme. I may have already exhausted or dismayed. This whole thing may appear to be a tedious stream-of-consciousness attempt at something impossibly profound. Who the hell am I to say?
The thing is, I'm concerned. About all kinds of stuff and nonsense. Well, not all kinds, obviously. Who could be that preoccupied and walk and talk at the same time? But I'm not just a bit concerned, either. I wouldn't want anyone to think I veer towards circumspection.
Some philosopher somewhere once said that circumspection is for the birds. Or was it the bees? I can't remember, sorry. Anyway, suffice it to say that to be circumspect is to be damned. Almost as bad as standing at the lectern of thought and admitting indifference. If ever there was a hanging offence....
Let me cut to the quick and declare my not inconsiderable alarm at, as I've said, stuff and nonsense. Not my stuff and nonsense, I hope. Or maybe that's what you should hope, and not for my sake, but your own. As I keep saying, it's you I'm thinking of. That's where my concern originates. I'm nothing if not charitable. I always try to shed my ego and act the philanthropist, if I can. All I lack is the financial clout to enable me to put my money where my mouth is. Then again, aren't we all the same? Plagued by unrealistic good intentions, the lot of us. Cursed by our enforced enfeeblement in the face of the world's problems.
I know what most of you may be thinking. Get off the high horse. Spare us the pseudo-philosophical codswallop. And if I was in your shoes, whoever you are I would be in total agreement. I'd be frothing at the mouth by now. Thing is, I can't help myself. And suppose, just suppose, that neither can you. How awful would that be?
You might be right if you think that some stuff is nothing to be concerned about. Some stuff is great stuff. Some stuff is fantastic stuff. A lot of stuff we consider life-enhancing. You probably have a long list of your own. I know I do. Parachutes, kangaroos, unconventionally-shaped hot-air balloons, 1960's Ford Anglias, pocket-knives, whittling, roof prism binoculars, backward flying birds. Ok, I made that last one up. I have never seen a bird flying backwards. I've seen starlings in a strong gale appear to be on the brink of reverse flight. But anyway, you get the idea. Lots of great stuff. Please let me know what your list would comprise, if you're of a mind to. Or not. It's your choice. Include some of the nonsense as well, if you like. Some of that I probably already have on one of my own old lists. But that's the thing about stuff and nonsense. Stuff we like tends to vary, depending on taste. Nonsense, on the other hand consists of common complaints the world over. Some of which I will historically examine at a future date. And that, in case you were wondering, is where time-travel enters the fray. But that's for a later time .....
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