Sometimes it is imperative to take stock of where you are and where you are heading.
I was sitting in my room working on my new computer in what was possibly one of the last school holidays I would have in my career, surrounded by three thousand vinyl records, collected and treasured over the years, eight thousand CDs that encapsulate all the many types of music I had relished, music that was coloured with memories of the bands and singers I had been moved by. I was a collector but it was a little more than that; I could visualise the concerts, relive them in my head. Those memories were part of my collection and I was always looking to add to them. I treasured the experiences, friendships and excitement.
‘I have a backdrop of philosophy that forms the playlist to my life,’ I acknowledged to myself with a feeble smile as I looked around at it all. ‘There’s a song for every emotion, event and circumstance. It’s all around me. My computer is stocked with four terabytes of song so that all of this can be digitally summoned up in seconds on request, or at whim. I have shelves of books, my science fiction, my rock biographies, and my literature. Then there are the thirty six books I have written. All those long hours writing through the night when the children were babies, hunting down the bohemian dream of purpose and adventure.’
I often thought about it; the wealth of music I had accumulated and was just a little bemused as to what it all added up to. What was this all about? It was fluff. We fill our lives with this stuff.
I turned away to get on with my work.
I had a speech to write for our Ruby wedding celebration. That seemed absurd, but it was true. The ruminations could wait.
We had just returned from a week in the Ribble Valley, climbing the three peaks, photographing waterfalls, trees, rocks, and old buildings, as well as recording Liz and myself for posterity. I had a huge folder of photos on this computer. They spanned Africa, Asia, North America, South America and Europe. I was undoubtedly a much travelled man, but what was that all about?
‘I live in a beautiful house in a safe and almost sane society. We have security of a kind’ I thought to myself. Yet it seemed empty. It was fluff. Everything in life was fluff.
There is much to be admired in a life well spent. Though looking back it all looks a bit stereotypically hippie. Yet I found it hard to think of myself as stereotypical. ‘I am. Ho hum.’ I thought. ‘We all are. Everywhere you looked, everyone you looked at. It was all cliché. There was no real individuality, just cliché. Clones. We are all clones.
It felt like I was going through some sort of crisis. Nothing was making sense.
Looking further down the road that I was on I could see that I had much baggage that was going to be left for my children to dispose of. I did not like to think of that. It brought it all home. My treasures will be their liabilities. Liz was already pressuring me to jettison it all. I was resisting. Somehow I had invested a lot into all this junk. I wasn’t ready to give it up.
‘You cannot take it with you,’ she pointed out. No you take nothing with you; not your memories, your personality or any vestiges of this incredible universe; you were another old hippie rotting back to dust.
‘I joked that they should just cremate me in the back yard. Pile up a huge pyre of my books, CDs and vinyl, place me on top and set fire to it with the pages of all the many tomes I have written. I quite like the idea of being consumed with my own words,’ I could picture the scene with great amusement as billowing toxic fumes of acrid smoke rose into the air with a hint of burning flesh smelling like singed bacon.
‘Liz had pointed out,’ with her logical hat on, miserably failing to see the humour of it – ‘That the huge amount of plastic would create such a poisonous dioxin drenched cloud that it would pollute the whole of the local environment.’ Ho hum. Possibly.
So much for that idea then.
‘I am looking out of two peepholes into this universe,’ I thought, unable to concentrate on the task of writing the damn speech. ‘I am peering out into this wondrous cosmos. My beams of consciousness do not feel any older than they used to. I find it hard to think that they are now sixty years old and that they might cease to peep at any moment, certainly looking further downstream it is obvious that the seconds ticking away are not as infinite as the universe created by that big bang. I will die. I will cease to exist. The peep-holes will close and it will be as if it had never happened. Except, for those left behind, the universe will continue as if nothing much had happened. All those wet peep-holes will close and at some distant point in the very distant future there probably won’t be any peep-holes to see anything.’
I sat at my computer in a pall of morbid depression.
‘Perhaps I have left it all too late? I should have gone earlier while I had the energy and will to do things. I was getting old, cynical and losing the appetite. Had I left it too late?’ It was a depressing thought.
‘I suppose that brings us to the contemplation of the old Buddhist aphorism of the tree that falls in the forest,’ I mused. ‘If there is no-one there to see it, does it indeed fall?’
‘When there are no sentient beings left in the universe can the universe still exist if there is no-one there to experience it?’
Why was I feeling like this? Was it because I was at a crossroads? I looked around me at the accumulated wealth of a lifetime and tried to imagine the universe running down. I tried to imagine that endless darkness.
‘Still that will not solve the problem of my wife and kids having to get rid of all my hoarded treasures,’ I chuckled to myself, feeling a little brighter. The purpose of life was to live it to the full, to experience everything. What else was there? I was doing that, but being surrounded with the accumulated detritus of a lifetime, things I had bought; things that had given me pleasure; were they as satisfying now? It seemed a little pointless but they meant a lot to me. ‘Still, they will see it more as junk,’ I grinned. ‘What the hell.’
‘So,’ I announced to the ceiling, to the whole universe beyond. ‘Can you picture me? I am a human being. I am on a tiny planet somewhere on the edge of a spiral arm of a fairly insignificant galaxy we have called the Milky Way, named after some mythical Greek God who was supposed to have created it out of a squirt of breast milk. People in ancient times actually believed that was the gospel truth, you know – all we are is a spurt of breast milk. That was amusing.’
‘I am standing here, questioning. I am assessing. I am trying to re-evaluate. I am sentient.’
‘I no longer believe in magic.’
‘I am looking at the remainder of my limited time in this limited universe and wondering how it should be best spent.’
‘Perhaps I should have a clear-out?’
‘Perhaps I should have a life-style change?’
‘Perhaps I should move?’
‘The over-riding imperative to want to improve things is extremely questionable. Why should I care if the gorillas are all butchered or the thugs are raping and pillaging for fun? Why should I care? Ultimately it counts for nothing. There is no reason.’
‘Yet I care. That is how I am,’ It was enough to give things purpose, wasn’t it? I was definitely suffering some kind of crisis. With a deep sigh I blotted all those thoughts out and started on that speech. Time was running out.
‘So Oph, me old mate. Why have you got this hatred against religion?’ Nick asked as we sat eating a meal before the concert. I’d been spouting off as usual, wanting Nick to share my disgust.
Nick was the best guitarist of my generation, a singer songwriter of great note and one of the world’s truly nice guys. He was also a long term friend. I wanted him to understand what I was feeling and why.
Nick, I believed, shared my philosophy on most things, including religion. That’s one reason why we got on so well. That’s what most friends had in common; they reflected aspects of ourselves back at us. It was reassuring. You could relax with friends.
Liz listened in; relishing the sea bass we had cooked.
‘It’s not hatred, Nick. It’s despair,’ I explained.
‘Well you keep banging on about it,’ he noted.
‘I just find it so incredibly frustrating. We are supposedly intelligent yet we refuse to direct our energies into doing anything constructive. We build cities up, we burn ‘em down. We don’t address the big issues. We are quite content to go on living our own selfish little acquisitive existences without regard to overpopulation, social injustice, global pollution, species extinction. I could go on and on. We are oblivious. We just consume and consume as if it will never end. It will end.’
I turned my attention back to the food and waited for the response to my little passionate speech. The bass was extremely well cooked.
‘But we’re all doing it,’ Nick observed wryly. ‘There’s no getting away from that. And you are particularly vitriolic. It’s as if it’s really eating you up.’
‘Yep, I’m worse at it than most,’ I admitted. ‘I consume at a higher rate. I have four kids. I earn a good salary. I am in a privileged position.’
‘Yeah, but there’s no need to get miserable about it. Just remember – the virus will come and put it right.’ Nick grinned.
‘Too late for a few million species,’ I observed seriously. ‘If we put as much energy into solving problems, like making the anti-virals, solving the third world poverty gap, reducing population to sustainable levels, dealing with pollution, as we do with building ever more complex weapons of mass destruction we might stand a chance.’
‘So what’s that got to do with religion?’ Nick enquired.
Liz raised her eyebrows. She’d had the benefit of my views for a good many years. It was all a big turn-off for her.
‘All this superstition and religious fervour seems to me to be fuelling the whole senseless stupidity of civilisation. That why I despair,’ I explained. ‘It is all so pointless and futile. Besides it’s all about power – white-back males fighting for respect.’
‘It’s not going to change,’ Nick observed. ‘Why bother. I focus on the love songs. It gets too depressing.’
‘But Nick, I know you don’t believe that. If nobody bothers then there’s no hope. If we live in this world run by billionaires and multimillionaires all nudging things along, rigging the markets and destabilising regions for their own gain without giving a fuck for anyone or the future and nobody says anything or does anything then it can’t possibly change.’
‘But it’s like hitting your head on a brick wall,’ Nick replied more gloomily. ‘Nobody wants to hear it’
‘But it’s real, Nick. Surely you have to sing from the heart? I was listening to the radio yesterday. There was this fourteen year old suicide bomber talking. He’d gone into this Shia shrine or Sunni shrine, whatever, and tried to blow himself up with fifty or so worshippers, women and children.’
‘His vest didn’t go off properly. It blew his arm off and severely injured his abdomen but he survived. At least for a while. He didn’t kill anyone else and now he was saying he was sorry. He hoped everyone could forgive him.’
‘A rapid conversion. Very fortunate.’ Nick observed cynically. ‘I trust he meant it.’
I nodded and smiled over at Nick. ‘He said the Taliban used to meet him from school and talk to him,’ I continued as Liz concentrated on her food and listened in with increasing frustration. She’d heard it a thousand times. ‘They persuaded him to become a suicide bomber. He listened to them and respected them because they were learned; they read the Koran. They were always reading and quoting from the holy book. He believed they were wise. They told him that it was my duty as a Muslim to kill infidels. They promised him that if he martyred himself and killed many infidels he would go straight to heaven. He agreed to do it.’
Nick joined Liz in eating his meal and listened critically.
‘They gave him the suicide belt and told him they would take him to Afghanistan where he would kill many infidels.’ I continued.
‘He went to do my prayers and was joyous at the thought of what he was about to do. He purified himself and was happy and excited. He was going to do god’s work.’
‘They took him to this shrine and he could see it wasn’t Afghanistan. They were still in Pakistan. And the worshippers were Muslim. But the Taliban told him that they were perverse. These heretics twisted the words of the Koran and that made them worse than infidels. He believed them. They were holy. All he could think of was to detonate his bomb and kill as many of the blasphemers as he could. He went into the crowd and tried to detonate his bomb but it didn’t go off properly. When he tried to get a grenade out of his pocket they shot him in the arm before he could activate it.’
I felt their eyes on me. They were listening. They did share my utter incredulity.
‘They captured him and took him to the hospital to recover before they interrogated him and probably had him tortured and killed.’
‘He said that he had been told that he would blink and open my eyes in heaven. He said that he thought there might be a moment of pain and then he would be in heaven.’
‘Now, of course, he realises he was wrong and begged everyone to forgive him. ‘
‘Very convenient,’ Nick commented. ‘I suppose my change of heart had nothing to do him being captured.’
‘Yes. Very convenient,’ I agreed. ‘Except it won’t do him any good. He said no-one from my family had been to see him in hospital. Even though he might yet die. That’s how much they cared. They got their recompense from the shady guys running the operation, blood money for giving up their son to be a suicide bomber. When it went wrong they did not even go in to the hospital.’
‘Probably scared stiff for their own lives,’ Liz observed.
‘Probably. But that’s why I despise religion. They’re all as bad as each other. So much indoctrination and hatred. They were their own fucking people they were blowing up – Muslims. They believe in pretty much the same thing as the others side, yet they hate each other. Just because there is some slightly different perspective they are fair game for that sort of death. I tell you, these religious fundamentalists are all just as mad as each other. I don’t give a shit if it’s Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindu’s or Thor worshippers. Who can bear to live in a world run by such ignorance and fear?’ I raised my hands in resignation.
‘So between the bankers and believers it is a hard place,’ Nick agreed, aligning with the sentiment.
‘It’s probably too late,’ I said with a note of despair. ‘The world is probably too micromanaged to make a jot of difference. They’ve probably even factored the rebellion in as a necessary safety valve on the merry ride to oblivion but you cannot just sit back and let it happen. I love my children and my grandchildren and I can’t bear the thought of them having to survive in a world where they are manipulated consumer fodder or castrated reciters of religious garbage. And that’s without the tigers and apes getting butchered on the way. There has to be a future worth fighting for.’
They both nodded as they chewed.
‘I agree. Don’t get me wrong,’ Nick said. ‘You know I’ve done a number of songs about it.’
It was my turn to nod.
‘It just gets you down,’ he explained. ‘I don’t know if it’s worth it. You need to move things a little more upwards.’
‘That’s probably what they all count on though,’ I said morosely, not really agreeing with him. Some things were worth fighting for. ‘Keep everyone quiet and busy. Out there getting drunk and having fun. Up the smack. Up the booze. It all stops them thinking and getting uppity.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ Nick said glumly, reflecting on the sad state of the world.
‘Someone has to start to do something about it,’ I persisted, though realizing the futility of the gesture.
‘Perhaps it’s gone too far already,’ Nick said.
It was time to eat up and for Nick to get himself on stage. We left it there.