‘On the Beach’ Predicting the Future

Sometimes I read novels and often think that they hit the spot a bit too close to home.  This was the case recently as I came to the concluding pages of On the Beach, which was written by the novelist Nevil Shute Norway in the decades following World War Two.  The scene includes two of the main characters discussing the context for the apocalyptic situation that they face and openly lament the global use of nuclear weapons during an escalation of an international war:

“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?”

“I don’t know… Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop”, he said. “I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much that you or I can do about it.  The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”

“But how could you have done that, Peter?  I mean, they’d all left school.”

“Newspapers”, he said.  “You could have done something with newspapers.  We didn’t do it.  No nation did, because we were all too silly.  We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way.  But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”

Quoted from the novel One the Beach (1957), by Nevil Shute Norway.

It is a wonderful novel and a book that I highly recommend.  For me one of the most moving aspects of the characters portrayed throughout the text was their attitude and civility in the manner in which they led their lives, and how this civility influenced their actions throughout the novel despite the fact that they knew what was to come.

Next up on my reading list is a newly published novel that I have started reading earlier today entitled Here I Am, by the American author Jonathan Safran Foer.  Foer has previously released a clutch of interesting and diverse novels over the past decade and a half that have really captured my attention, especially his first novel Everything is Illuminated, which was published in 2002. Perhaps unwittingly I noticed that the Here I Am novel continues the theme of international and national destruction set in On the Beach.  Perhaps it is somewhat fitting considering the way 2016 has so far developed…

Clock In, Clock Out

The office I worked in dealt with applications from students and our daily targets were monitored and recorded for prosperity, and to check against what was and what wasn’t correctly documented in our individual tally sheets.  Of course these sheets were digital spreadsheets that were specially formatted for each different piece of work that was allocated to the worker.  The spreadsheets highlighted how much allotted time was given dependent on the category that the piece of work fell into, whether we’d have five minutes to complete it or ten minutes.  Simple pieces of work could be given only a few minutes whilst more complicated pieces, such as responding to emails with extensive trails or queries, were given a timing of a quarter of an hour or more.  We felt that luck was on our side when one such piece of work fell out of the electronic basket and into our caseload, we had time to breath, to relax, to look into the faces of the person sat beside ourselves and to realize that we each went through the same, day in and day out.

Many kept to this electronic tally, toting it up at the end of the night by memory or by scrolling through the master sheet.  I, unlike many of my work colleagues, kept a ink tally in Roman numerals of each type of piece of work that I had completed that day.  Towards the end of the evening, when we each heaved a sigh of relief and gladness that the working day was over, I looked down with fondness upon my scrap of paper to find an ever changing squiggle of lines, crossed and solitary, segmented by type and time.

It was the last action of the working shift that so pleased me, that I could scrupple up the piece of paper with my jottings on, tear it in two if needs be and thrice more into smaller pieces so that no readable piece remained, and declare that I was the master of myself once again.  No greater feeling of satisfaction came with the job then that final action of labour destruction, or rather rapprochement that my work towards the whole could be so simply and so justifiably torn up.  That my value as a worker was counted as so little that I needed to be constantly monitored for each and every movement within the workplace, each piece of work accounted for and judged against the character of my soul.  The residual of feeling of loyalty, that thinning pool of employee liquid that had somehow lingered through the various turbulent governmental changes and process improvements, now felt at a very low ebb indeed.  It could evaporate at any moment.

My action was, in its way, a minor everyday rebellion at the absurdity of employment itself.  That each man and woman shall spend a third of their life strapped to the face of labour so that the other third can be slept through and the final third can be lived in a state of fretful suspense.  It is perhaps not fair to categorize in this way what so many want, what so many need, but for me it is not enough nor is it a rightful use of the labour market.  To rebel, in whatever fashion is feasible or at least in which way is not detrimental to your standards, is to acknowledge that you recognize that this is so.  Such is life.

Mercurial Selves

I’m sitting at the table and I have an itch on my head, just above my right ear.  I go to scratch it, gently pressing my fingers in against the hair and the skin.  The fingers just keep digging in, drawing blood first and then they gently parse aside the fibres of the temporalis muscle.

Deeper still they go, through the border of the parietal and temporal bone, reaching into the bag that keeps the brain whole until finally the fingers penetrate the soft folds of the brain itself.

I look around and my family have not noticed anything different.  My breakfast sits before me, untouched and uneaten.

I am slightly sickened by this point so I retract my fingers, hold them steady in front of my face and twist the right hand around, noticing as I do the soft droplets of blood hitting the bowl in front of me.  They are red tears dropping onto my cereal biscuits, mixing with the milk to make it a pinkish dye.

I want to scream, to say that this is not normal.

But then I realize, slowly, that each of my family members also have one of their own hands extended deep into their own heads, exploring their own personality and their own individual ticks.

This is normal.  This is what we do.  We examine our own conscious, our feelings, for hints and tips on how to react to external stimuli as appropriate.  We look deep into ourselves and, finally, we also look to each other for social clues, for the nous that we think is missing from the familiar.

This is a routine that we practice each and every morning, the examining of our physical selves to better re-enforce our emotional batteries.  We are what we are, we are both flesh and blood; we are but thoughts and emotions also.

The milk tastes okay with the droplets of blood, there is the hint of the mercurial and the taste of the metallic as I crunch down on my breakfast feed.

It is the same every morning, it is the same every week.  For better or for worse.

Surburbia Kills

I was the first born.  Before the the mountains had rose from the sea, before the clouds hung in the sky, I came first.  My brother was the tree, who provided me with its fruit.  Animal was my brother too, feared and respected, watched and observed.

The second born saw what I, the first born, had and craved it for himself.  The mountain rose with his anger, as did the clouds.  The water started to foam and has not stopped since.

No longer do we treat my first born brothers with the respect that we once gave one another.  Now we herd them, both for their meat and for their fruit, until we have destroyed utterly the life that we had always lived.

I used to hold the sacred mud in my hand, and I could feel the fertility in its wet embrace.  Now I weep as the mud has become sodden with black earth blood, leeching the ground and contaminating the green grasses and wild animals.

We herd the land now too, parceling it off into smaller divisions that breed anger and jealously, war and hate.  No longer do we eat facing each other, we eat alone.

Our music, once shared, has now become a singular pursuit in the contours of our identity.

I weep for myself.  I weep for suburbia.

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Photography by the author, if reproduced please credit as appropriate.