Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Embrace (book review): recollections of childhood

EmbraceEmbrace by Mark Behr

A book about a 13-year-old boy in Standard 6 (Grade 8) in the Drakensberg Boys Choir School.

It’s a long book (over 700 pages) and written partly in “stream of consciousness” style. It follows Karl De Man though his school year, but it also jumps back to his memories of earlier events in his life, from his earliest childhood.

The novel is semi-autobiographical, as the protagonist, like Behr himself, was born in Tanganyika (before it united with Zanzibar to become the United Republic of Tanzania). When he was 2 years old the family moved to South Africa where his father became a game ranger for the Natal Parks Board, and he then attended the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School from the age of 11. The main period covered by the book is his third year at the school, when he develops a crush on one of the teachers and also on a fellow pupil, as well as a girlfriend whom he sees in the holidays, who is two years older than him.

Another teacher recognises his ability in art and writing, but his macho father wants him to ignore his talents and prepare for a more lucrative career, even if it is in fields that don’t really interest him. So a lot of the book deals with teenage angst, and probably quite authentically, since it is based on the author’s personal experience.

The chronology is at times confusing, as the “present” moves through his year at school, but there are conversations in which he refers to previous events in his life, which he later recalls in stream of consciousness fashion. He also tries to sort out what are genuine memories, and what he has been told by others, and he becomes quite lyrical in his descriptions of the Mfolozi, Hluhluwe and Mkuzi game reserves where he lived until the age of about 7.

I found that in some parts the book, like Frankie and Stankie, was evocative of my own childhood and life. Both books mentioned not only childhood experiences that were similar to mine, but also people whom I had met in real life, though not as a child — Alan Paton in Embrace, and Ken and Jean Hill, and John and Andy Argyle in Frankie and Stankie.

At one point he writes of shooting mousebirds with an air rifle, and I remember doing that, standing in our paddock, and shooting at mousebirds in the almond trees. I was with someone else, I forget who, and my mother stormed out, very angry, and said she would confiscate my air rifle if she ever caught me shooting birds again. Eventually the air rifle was given to a younger cousin, but I sometimes wish, in my more xenophobic moments, that I still had it to take pot shots at Indian mynahs, exotic birds that tend to drive indigenous birds away.

Another similar childhood experience was when he was riding a horse behind another, which kicked him, and he had to have stitches in his knee. I recalled being kicked by pony Tom, on the sole of my foot, in similar circumstances. I could recall the cold and the wet and my bare feet in the stirrups, my wet jeans, my wet shirt clinging to me, and down below the Jukskei River, flowing through Lyndhurst. I thought he had kicked me on the knee too, but perhaps that was another occasion, and I remember my knee being bruised and swollen, though not so that I needed stitches.

But memory is funny. What I wrote in my original diary I don’t know. I still have the blue 1953 one from McDonald Adams that my father gave me, but the 1954 one, with a maroon cover, is lost. But what I wrote in it at the time was simply an aide memoire, to remind me when it had happened. My pony Tom had run away, and I chased him on our other horse Brassie. Five years later I wrote it down more fully, and ten years later I rewrote it, adding to it from what I remembered of the day — how Tom had run away from home, and I jumped on to our other horse Brassie, not even stopping to put shoes on, and caught up with him at Lyndhurst. At the time I was 12 yeas old, a little younger than the protagonist of Embrace. I could not get Tom to come home, and eventually put him in someone’s garage for the night, and returned for him the next day when I had dry clothes and shoes on.

With my pony Tom, March 1953

But now all I have as a memory is a snapshot, a single image of me sitting on Brassie, the feel of cold and wetness, and the cold slipperiness of the wet metal stirrup, and Tom flicking his hooves up and kicking the sole of my foot, and the anger I felt at him. The rest of what I wrote is like a story told by someone else. I know I chased him down to Lyndhurst, but I cannot recall the route I took, or even the garage where I wrote that he stayed overnight, or how I got him back home. There is just the single image of the cold, the rain, the wind and the kick. And Behr writes about memories like that. He recalls his father teaching him to shoot with a revolver at the age of five, but his father does not recall, or denies that he does. Memories of events seem to become compressed into snapshots, single images and one cannot recall what led up to them or what followed. So it is a book about memory and recall, and the narratives that shape our lives.

There were also considerable differences, however. Mark Behr describes the racist and white supremacist views of many of the pupils and teachers at the Drakensberg Boys Choir School in the 1970s. It was a private fee-paying school, and therefore under no obligations to give the National Party indoctrination that went on in government schools, but apparently it did. When I was the protagonist’s age I attended St Stithians College in the 1950s, and I don’t recall such racist attitudes among the teachers at all, and relatively rarely among the pupils.

The headmaster at St Stithians, Wally Mears, used to provide magazines for the common room, and when I went to fetch them one day he explained the selection — The Motor and Autocar for those interested in cars, Flight for boys interested in aircraft, Amateur Photography for those interested in photography, and Contact “because it’s best on the position of the natives,” as Mears put it.  Contact was the journal of the Liberal Party, which was then the only legal non-racial political party in South Africa, and was forced to disband about 10 years later when multiracial political parties were banned by the National Party regime.

Another thing that struck me, which has nothing to do with the content, was that the publishers (Abacus) had obviously paid no heed to the adage “Putt knot yore trussed in spell chequers.” The book really could have made use of a human editor, but was apparently produced by an el-cheapo publisher who tried to save money by dispensing with their services and relying on a semi-literate typist using a spelling checker. Among the numerous errors were “in cohort with” where “in cahoots with” was obviously intended, and “pallet” instead of “palate”.

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Twitter vs Facebook and blog stats

This blog got the biggest number of hits over the last 30 days on 21 February, when I re-announced an old post on Home Schooling and Bigotry on both Facebook and Twitter.

I just checked the blog stats for that day, and the home schooling post was the most popular. It was interesting, though, that 45 visitors were referred from Facebook, and only 2 from Twitter.

I’m not a great one for stats, and don’t often look at them, though I have noticed that since I moved this blog from Blogger to WordPress the number of visitors dropped drastically and still hasn’t recovered. I moved it because the Blogger editor became more difficult to use.

But another blog I read, A Pilgrim in Narnia, had an article on blogging stats, and so I thought I’d take a closer look at them. And it seems that that blog, too, gets far more hits from Facebook than from Twitter.

Perhaps as a result of this, Twitter has started trying to imitate the Facebook way of doing things, and I suspect that that will cause them to lose a lot more ground a lot more quickly. Instead of doing what Twitter did well, the people at Twitter are trying to do what Facebook does, and doing it badly.

To start with, Twitter was a quick and concise way of sharing information, if necessary with links to where one could get more detail (so great for announcing blog posts). The 140 character limit ensured that. But then they added pictures, which made nonsense of the 140-character limit. Now, like Facebook, they are deciding what to show people, which means that big organisations get more exposure than individuals, and eventually the individuals will leave Twitter to the big organisations to tweet to each other.

There were other tools that enabled one to fine related material on blogs, but they’ve all killed themselves off, perhaps by trying, like Twitter, to emulate the Facebook model instead of doing something useful and unique. There were Technorati and BlogCatalog, which killed themselves off in that way.

So statistically, at any rate, Facebook seems to be one of the best ways of announcing blog posts at the moment

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge Meme

For those who like memes (of the internet variety), here’s one that may bring more interesting reading in 2017 (Hat-tip to Jennifer Neyhart).

That should provide some interesting reading.

The ones I have so far are:

  • a book you’ve already read — Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
  • a book in a genre you usually avoid — Veil of Darkness by Gillian White

I’m going to have to think about it a bit more before I complete my list, but I have another challenge to my friends, if any (more shameless self-promotion).

In which of the above categories would you put my book Of wheels and witches?

Follow the link to see how you can get a free copy (offer closes  on 11 March 2917 — it’s part of the Smashwords Read an E-book Week promotion).

Technology addiction?

This morning at TGIF Dr Marlena Kruger spoke on the impact of our technology addiction.

I think she made some useful points, for example that young children learn more from playing with hands-on toys that from playing with simulations of them on a computer screen.

Shape sorting toy

Shape sorting toy

When our kids were small, they had one of these shape sorting toys. It would be possible to design a computer app to match the same shapes to spaces on the screen, but kids learn a lot more by handling the shapes, coordinating their sense of sight with the sense of touch by feeling it, and yes, putting it in their mouths.

So playing with computer apps is no substitute for playing with actual things in the real world.

But the problem with this kind of talk about “technology” is that people seem to get locked into a narrow two-dimensional world like a computer screen. What do we mean by words like “technology”?

Consider, for example, this article, which seems to be making a similar point to that made by Dr Kruger — 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12 | The Huffington Post:

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics state infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010). Children and youth use 4-5 times the recommended amount of technology, with serious and often life threatening consequences (Kaiser Foundation 2010, Active Healthy Kids Canada 2012).

Think about it for a while, especially the heading, because it is an example of tunnel vision — like limiting yourself to the number of pixels on a computer screen, and seeing nothing outside that.

What is a “handheld device”? A pen, a pencil, a crayon, a pair of scissors — all these are handheld devices. All these are technology. Specialists in early childhood education have been saying that children should learn to handle such things long before they start school.

Ah, you say, but those are mechanical devices, and we are talking about electronic devices.

But experts in early childhood education say that listening to music is important for the development of young children. Does that mean you are going to take your toddlers to symphony concerts? No recordings, because playing recordings nowadays usually requires electronic devices — when last did you hear a wind-up gramophone played? No discos, because there they use electronic devices to amplify the music.

I’m not simply being pedantic here. Before making huge generalisations about “technology” and “hand-held devices” we need to see the three-dimensio0nal world beyond the computer screen. When you dig in a garden you are using a hand-held device and a spade is technology. Technology is part of what makes us human. Saying that children under 2 should have no exposure to technology is insane. No cooked food, because cooking uses technology.

huntgathEven hunter-gatherer societies use technology, at least for the “hunter” part. Without technology we would just be gatherers.

So when we talk about being “addicted” to technology, we need to think about the wider meaning of technology, and the extent to which technology has made us human.

And when we speak of a remedy for addiction to technology, we need to think about whether the addiction is to technology, or to something else that the technology is used for.

When television was invented, people learnt how to send images to a cathode-ray screen (later LCD) in a remote location. At first, in television, the image was controlled by the sender. The receivers were passive. They could perhaps choose between images sent by different senders, but they had no control over the content of the images received.

Technophobes lamented the bad influence on children — “the flickering blue parent” was one phrase bandied about.

But it was not the TV that was generating the images. They were being sent by people who decided on what was sent, to serve their own purposes. It was one-way communication, yes, but it was one-communication from one group of people to another. The technology facilitated the communication, and to some extent determined it (yes, I’m old enough to have been influenced by Marshall McLuhan, and maybe I’ll say more about him some other time) but it was still communication from people to people.

For me it was a huge liberation when personal computers came along.

Yes, there I was looking at images on a cathode ray tube (CRT), but they were images that I put there. They were things I could control. For a while the rest of the family thought I was opting out of family life. I was “playing with the computer” instead of being sociable and watching TV with the family. That was tantamount to being accused of being addicted to technology. But it wasn’t. If I wrote a letter on the computer, I was no more addicted to the computer as technology than I was addicted to the typewriter before I had a computer, or addicted to a fountain pen before I had a typewriter.

In every case I was “using technology” to communicate with other people, and what I was doing was not “playing with the computer” any more than a handwritten letter is “playing with a pen”. Yes, I do sometimes play with a pen. I twiddle it, I idly click a ballpoint pen so the tip comes in and out.  But using it for a task is not “playing with it”. Is doodling “playing with” a pen? Idly and absentmindedly drawing little pictures? Is sketching fellow participants at a meeting playing with a pen? Perhaps great art exists because some people were addicted to playing with the technology of paint and paintbrushes.

One of the things Marlena Kruger said was coming home and putting your cell phone down and not touching it. Abstain from using the cellphone, because people are more important than the device.

But on Wednesday night we went to church in Brixton, Johannesburg. On the way home at 9:30 pm, on a badly lit road, with cars with bright lights coming the other way, we hit a pothole which dented the wheel rim so the tyre went flat. It was the first time in 11 years and 250000 km that we had had a flat tyre. Where is the jack? We’ve never had to use it before.

So I phone my son, who is a Toyota mechanic and knows these things. And ask where is the jack (it’s dark, you see). It’s under a plastic cover under the front passenger seat. You’d never find it by feeling for it. And how do you remove the cover, and how do you get it out?

But if he switches off his phone, because he’s not going to be addicted to it, it’s not a mere device. There is a person at the other end of the device. So by switching off the phone, you are switching off the person.

So speaking of “technology addiction” can be a bit simplistic. Your addiction can be to the device, like a cell phone, but more often it is addiction to what you do with the device. A cell phone is mainly used to communicate with other people. And you have the stereotype of a group of people all sitting together, all using their cell phones. Are they addicted to their phones? Not necessarily. What it means is that they prefer to communicate with people elsewhere than communicate with the people they are close to at that moment. The problem is not so much with the device used to communicate, but with human relations, that you would rather communicate with someone other than the people you happen to be with.

I said personal computers were a liberation, and its true. I can store information on my computer and find it much more quickly than if I had written it down on bits of paper. I’m writing an essay or an academic paper or even a blog post, and I need to verify the date of a historical event. Google leads me to that information much more quickly than trying to see if I have a reference book that has it.

E-mail was a liberation too.

I used to hate phoning people, and still do. I don’t know if I will be interrupting them when they are doing something important. If I send them e-mail, then they can read it and reply to it at their convenience.

But the people who liked the one-way, one-to-many model of broadcasting did not like this liberation. They wanted their captive audience. And Microsoft developed Windows 98 which was the first version of Windows to be integrated with the Internet, and the developed “push” technology for it. It was an attempt to re-enslave people that personal computers had liberated — by networking those computers and then pushing stuff at them.

And now cell phones use “push” technology too. My smartphone had “push” notifications for Facebook and Twitter, which drove me mad until I found how to switch them off (they don’t give you a manual, so it’s not easy to find out how to do that). So yes, cell phones are useful, but they can drive you mad. And there’s even a cell phone advertising itself with the slogan “Never miss a moment” — you’ll be so busy not missing moments that you’ll never have a moment to do anything.

But even though this is labelled “push technology”, it is not the technology that is doing the pushing. It is people doing the pushing. Yesterday I downloaded 90 emails and 85 of them were spam, sent to my “junk and suspicious mail” folder and deleted in bulk. They may have been sent by bots, but it was people who programmed the bots to send them.

Then back to TGIF, where technology, even electronic technology, was not absent.

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

I’m not against using educational technology. At one time I used some quite complicated gadgets to improve students’ reading skills, or at least show them how they could improve their won reading skills. But there is also this: Universities should ban PowerPoint — It makes students stupid and professors boring – Business Insider:

Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes and do homework is unreasonable.

Courses designed around slides therefore propagate the myth that students can become skilled and knowledgeable without working through dozens of books, hundreds of articles and thousands of problems.

I’m not sure I agree with that article either. A lot depends on the content of what is being taught. Some topics can be enhanced by the use of slides, and others not. I must say that in this morning’s presentation I paid very little attention to the slides, and can remember little of what was on them

Steinbeck & Coetzee as chroniclers of their times

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do you think of your fellow passengers on a bus, or a plane, or a suburban train?

Usually they are anonymous.

You might sometimes idly wonder about their lives outside the conveyance that briefly brings you into the same moving space, but rarely does it go beyond that.

But in this book it does go beyond that. A group of people, with their own lives and thoughts and histories are drawn together as passengers (and a driver) on a bus, and by the end of the book they have all interacted with each other, and their lives have all been changed in some way.

Some knew each other before they got on the bus: there is a family travelling on vacation, and two of the passengers were employees of the driver, but none knew all the others before they gathered for the bus trip, and before the journey ended they knew things about the others, and about themselves, that they had not known before.

There is little action, and no real plot. The book is a study of character and human interaction between people whose paths briefly, and apparently randomly crossed.

One of the other reviewers, Kim, writes (Goodreads | The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck — Reviews, Discussion):

The narrative is in the third person, with shifting points of view and an uncomplicated linear progression. The point of the work is not so much the plot – because not a lot happens – but more the characters’ internal conflicts and Steinbeck’s critique of post WWII American society. Steinbeck sets the work in a fictionalised Salinas valley and starts it with a quote from Everyman, the 15th century English morality play. This is a clue to the fact that the characters represent more than themselves and are to an extent allegorical figures.

And that invites a comparison with another book I have just read, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, because Coetzee seems to be trying to do for South Africa what Steinbeck was doing for America. Disgrace could be said to be about the characters’ internal conflicts and Coetzee’s critique of post-apartheid South African society The difference is that Coetzee writes from the viewpoint of one character, and all the other characters are seen through his eyes.

I disagree about the extent to which the characters are allegorical figures, though. They are stereotypical rather than allegorical. They don’t really represent abstract qualities or concrete historical personages, as those in allegories do. But they do represent types of people — the war profiteering businessman, the manipulative wife, the celebrity-obsessed shop assistant, the lecherous mechanic, the ex-serviceman salesman. And in Disgrace the disgraced professor, the hippie-going-on-earth mother daughter, the uptight puritanical school teacher, and the peasant, who calls to mind Roy Campbell’s poem The serf

I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones and towers.

And there is a similar abstracted “feel” to Steinbeck’s Of mice and men and Coetzee’s The life and times of Michael K. This quality is hard to put a finger on, but I find it in both Steinbeck’s and Coetzee’s writing. It’s more noticeable in Coetzee, because I have been to the places he describes his characters as visiting, and they feel like the same places in an alternative universe, where there are points of resemblance, but history has taken a slightly different turn. But in both the buildings feel like stage sets, and not places where real people live and work.

I compare The Waward Bus with Kerouac’s almost contemporary On the road. It’s not my favourite Kerouac book, but that characters are alive and the places real. And I had a similar feeling when reading Coetzee’s Youth. It feels as though a lot of important in-between bits were left out.

Disgrace

DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book won the Booker Prize, so someone must think that it’s great literature. I’m not so sure. I nearly stopped reading after the second chapter. I just didn’t connect with any of the characters.

It’s about a university professor who seduces a student. Her father complains and he is asked to resign and does. He goes to stay with his daughter in the Eastern Cape, and doesn’t really connect with her.

I didn’t connect with any of the characters, and their motivations seemed strange to me. Or perhaps their actions seemed to be unmotivated. I found the ending very sad.

That was about all I could say in my review on Good Reads, but I read it at a time when I was seeing a lot of posts about “farm attacks” and “farm murders” in social media. One of the scenes in the book is a “farm attack”, which which seems to link with what I was reading elsewhere, but that goes beyond what the book says, so I’ll say more about that aspect of it here.

One of the stories was this: Zuma should face the International Criminal court charges over murder of farmers: former Miss World Anneline Kriel:

Former Miss World Anneline Kriel has suggested President Jacob Zuma face charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court for failing to protect farmers in South Africa.

Her call‚ which includes the deployment of the military to protect vulnerable farmers‚ comes after a string of farm murders and the release of quarterly crime statistics‚ which revealed that there had been 116 more murders than the same period last year.

And I think, how stupid can she get. Zuma has many faults, but he did not give orders to criminals to murder farmers, as George Bush did to his air force to bomb Iraq, or Tony Blair and Bill Clinton gave orders for their air forces to bomb Yugoslavia. If they weren’t charged in the ICC why should Zuma be?

The increasing bombardment of racist propaganda about “farm attacks” as “white genocide”, seems calculated, by its very irrationality and its racist assumptions, to make one lose sympathy for the victims of farm attacks. The propaganda tends to create the impression that the victims of farm attacks were themselves as racist as the propagandists and that that they therefore somehow deserved what they got.

I wonder, why this singling out of one occupational group, and I want to say “all lives matter”, not just farmers’ lives, but then we are also bombarded with constant propaganda from a different quarter that it is wrong, evil and wicked to think that all lives matter.

But then I think about my own personal experience. As far as I can recall, I knew four people who were murdered. They weren’t close friends, but they were people I had known and talked to. And three of the four were murdered in farm attacks. The fourth was murdered in a town attack. Those are the ones I can recall now. Neil Alcock, Theo Vosloo and Jan van Beima were murdered in farm attacks; Fritz Bophela was murdered in a town attack (a drive-by shooting). So among the people I have known who have been murdered, farm attacks outnumber others by 3:1. But all of them were pre-Zuma, and that is just my experience. Other people may also know people who were murdered, but possibly in different circumstances.

And that brings me back to the book.

It did not make racist propaganda about the farm attacks, such as one sees on social media. But nevertheless there was a racist subtext. The only black people in the story are described in a racist way, not directly; it is a subtext, not the main text, but it does tend to leave the reader with the impression that all black people are like this.

It is also from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the protagonist’s viewpoint is not necessarily the author’s view. It is sometimes too easy to think that it is — I’ve seen people attributing views to Dostoevsky through quotes from his novels, but they were quotes from his characters, not from Dostoevsky himself. So it is dangerous to attribute the views of a fictional character to the author. Part of the skill of a novelist is to create believable characters with their own views.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book, the reader, or at least this reader, is left with the impression of black people that “give them an inch and they’ll take a yard”. That’s a common white racist stereotype. Yes, it’s the view of one character, but it’s also the impression created by the book as a whole.

Perhaps it did not strike the people who awarded the Booker prize like that, but that is how it struck me.

 

 

 

 

Kim revisited: imperialism, Russophobia & asceticism

KimKim by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The other day I came across an article about St Nicholas of Japan’s approach to Buddhism, and I blogged about it here Christianity and Buddhism | Khanya. St Nicholas acquired his knowledge of Buddhism at first hand, from Buddhist sources. He lived among Buddhists, talked to them and read and translated their scriptures.

My knowledge was much more remote. We learned something about it in history classes at school, and then, in our English classes, we were given Kim to read.

Kim is fiction. It’s about a 13-year-old boy in Lahore in what is now Pakistan who attaches himself to a Tibetan lama who is searching for a river of healing. Kim is a street kid. He is worldly wise, an expert beggar, and he is impressed that the lama, unlike most holy men of his acquaintance, is not in it for the money. As he sets off with the lama in search of the river, however, he is given a message and a packet by an Afghan horse trader of his acquaintance to deliver to a British colonel. At that time the British ruled India, and the message was an intelligence report. So Kim becomes a teenage spy.

After reading St Nicholas’s account of Buddhism, I looked at Kim again, intending to glance quickly at it to see where some of my earliest knowledge of Buddhism had come from. But I read it all the way through, for the fifth time, though the previous time was nearly 30 years ago.

Why read a book five times? I’ve read only a few books through five times, and it is because I found something new in them each time I read them, and this time was no exception.

One thing that struck me this time was that the last time I had read it, in 1988, the Cold War, which we had thought would last for ever, was about to end. And this time the Cold War is starting up again, and so a lot of things that passed me by in previous readings suddenly stand out.

trumprusOne of the themes of Kim is the clash between British and Russian imperialism. So in a sense it is very up-to-date. The Russophobia in the book reflects the Russophobia we see in the news and in social media every day. One merely has to mention the name of a Western politician as having a less than hostile attitude to Russia for that politician to be discredited, at least in the minds of some people. There is no need to say what the politician has done wrong, or what the Russians have done wrong. He talks to Russians, he’s a bad guy. It’s as simple as that. And so in the book, the bad guys are all those who make friendly overtures to the Russians, and the aim of the British spy network is to detect and neutralise them.

As the story goes on Kim himself is more deeply drawn into the spy network, and is educated and trained for the task, though his education is paid for by the old lama. During the school holidays, however, Kim goes back to the lama and joins him in his wanderings, much to the disapproval of the school authorities, who regard the lama as a street beggar.

On my first few readings the parts I liked best were Kim’s wanderings with the lama, and the accounts of the different religions, castes and cultures of India, the human variety, and the vivid descriptions of the different characters.

But always the lama stood out. from the rest as a centre of tranquility. It looks as though, in writing it, Kipling was himself torn between the worldly concerns, including the concerns of British imperialism, and the thought of the lama, that all this was illusion, and a hindrance to enlightenment.

I’ve never been to India, so I’ve no idea how accurate Kipling’s characterisations are, but they are certainly vivid and lifelike. He describes Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jains, and really just one Buddhist, the lama who is central to the story.

One difference between this and my previous readings of the book is that in the previous readings I had very little idea of Orthodox Christian asceticism, Since then I have learnt a bit more about it, and, as I noted in my article on Christianity and Buddhism, there are several external similarities. On rereading Kim the resemblances between the lama and an Orthodox spiritual elder (geron, starets) become even more marked. Both strive for dispassion (apatheia), and the lama repents when his passions get the better of him, as when one of the villains (Russian, of course) tears a drawing he has made of the Wheel of Life, and he reacts with anger. So, perhaps, an Orthodox monk might react if someone desecrated an ikon he had painted, and so might he repent afterwards. Only on the penultimate page of the book do the differences really stand out, and the impersonalism of Buddhism becomes really apparent.

Even the first time I read it, at the age of 14, I enjoyed fir first 100 pages, when Kim was wandering with the lama on his spiritual quest, more than the rest of the book, where the spy story seemed to take over. This time, however, it seemed different. The theme of the spy story is present from the beginning, only I had not noticed it so much before. And even in the last 100 pages, where it become central to the action and motivation of the characters (except for the lama) it seems that there is a contrast between the two ways — the violence of the world’s way, with the calm of dispassion, as the lama explains to Kim:

The blow was but a shadow upon a shadow. Evil in itself, it met evil in me — anger, rage, and a lust to return evil. These wrought in my blood, woke tumult in my stomach, and dazzled my ears. Had I been passionless, the evil blow would have done only bodily evil — a scar, or a bruise, which is illusion. But my mind was not abstracted, for rushed in straightaway a lust to let the Spiti men kill. In fighting that lust, my soul was torn and wrenched beyond a thousand blows.

Apart from the notion that a bodily injury is illusion, I see little there that might not have been said by a Christian spiritual elder.

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New traffic laws?

I saw a link to this article on Facebook, which seems to me to have some ominous implications Read: From 11 May SA will have new speed-limits and other driving regulations:

From 11 May SA will have new speed-limits and other driving regulations: Every festive season we hear about numerous deaths from road accidents, sadly the end of last year was no different. The minister of transport Dipuo Peters, has been actively working on new regulations and plans that can get the accident rate down. Not just over the festive period but for the entirety of the year.

This seems to hark back to the days of John Vorster, who used to try to solve all problems by legislation to make things illegal that were already illegal, and so enhance his public image of kragdadigheid — if there is a problem, pass a new law so you can be seen to be “doing something”.

Donald Trump seems to be doing the same thing in the USA — giving executive orders with little thought given to the practical implementation or their effects.

So are these changes necessary, and what are the likely effects?

  • When renewing your license [sic] drivers will now have to undergo a practical re-evaluation.
  • K53 is going to be completely reviewed and revamped (finally)
  • A variety of speed limit changes: Speed limits to be reduced from 60km/h to 40km/h in urban areas, from 100km/h to 80km/h in rural areas, and from 120km/h to 100km/h on freeways running through a residential area
  • Large goods vehicles above 9000kg GVM to be banned from public roads during peak hour traveling [sic] times.

I think this might be just as much subject to the law of unforeseen consequences as the travel ban on children without full birth certificates.

Take the first one — a practical re-evaluation for drivers.

Who will do it? Do they have qualified staff who are competent to re-evaluate drivers when they have difficulty in coping with applicants for new licences? And will they be any less susceptible to demanding bribes than the existing staff?

Part of the problem is the number of unlicensed drivers on the roads, because many have got their licences through bribery. The way to deal with that is surely to implement the existing laws properly. I foresee a huge increase in the number of unlicensed drivers on the roads, because the process for renewing licences will have become so cumbersome as to be unworkable. It will not weed out the incompetent, but will penalise the competent.

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It would be far better to improve the enforcement of existing laws, many of which seem to be increasingly disregarded. It used to be quite rare to see vehicles driving through red robots, but now I see it once a week or more frequently (and I don’t go out much). I’m not referring to occasions when the light has just changed and the driver did not have time to stop, but when it has been red for ten seconds or longer, and someone has just sailed through. There are also practices like going straight from turning lanes that are dangerous as well.

Passing legislation is relatively easy. But the difficult part is the implementation. And trying to apply the changes described here will probably lead to more mess and muddle, and not reduce the road accident rate at all.

 

SABC: Sport and Faith

A few months ago there was an intense public debate about the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and its former head, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. I don’t know if the SABC has a new head yet, or if it is still drifting along flapping its wings like a headless chicken, but yesterday we were made acutely aware of two things that the new head, who ever that many be, should look into.

Sport

Yesterday there was a cricket match where the South African national team was playing against New Zealand. But only the rich could watch it on TV, and it wasn’t broadcast on steam radio at all.

Now this might not matter if you think that sport is a luxury, especially for spectators. No one actually needs to watch other people playing, and there’s nothing to stop them getting out and playing themselves — they could probably do with the exercise.

But the government also keeps banging on about “transformation” in sport, by which they mean that the demographic groups represented in national sports teams should reflect the demographic make-up of the country. But if only the rich can watch those sports on TV or radio, then only the rich will tend to play those sports. Those who can afford to pay to watch those sports on TV will also be the ones who can afford to send their children to the fee-paying schools where those sports are played and effectively coached. If you want to level the playing fields (pun intended) then you must make it possible for the widest range of people see our national teams play. And the government, which controls the SABC, needs to make sure that the SABC encourages this transformation by broadcasting matches where the national teams are playing, both home and away.

Faith

For the last few months, on Sundays when we go to church in Atteridgeville, we’ve caught the second part of a radio programme on SAfm called Facts of Faith. The first few times we heard it, it sounded like a paid denominational broadcast. There was a group of people drawn from various religious traditions who were asked to challenge the views of a very fundamentalist speaker, who then demolished their objections to his point of view in a rather condescending manner.

For a while we wondered which denomination was sponsoring the show. Was it Seventh-Day Adventists? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or some new fundamentalist sect from the USA trying to gain a foothold in South Africa?

We listened to the end of the programme, but they never said which denomination was sponsoring it. It was followed, at 11:00 am by the Sunday morning church service, where one was told which church the service was in, so at least one knew what one was getting.

Eventually we looked up Facts of Faith on the web, and found that it apparently was not intended to be a paid denominational broadcast, however much it sounded like it. Instead it was

Facts of Faith is a platform for religious and faith communities to have a say in social, political, cultural, sexual and general issues. Facts of Faith affords the country and the general SAfm audience’s the benefit of hearing what faith communities have to say about the issues of the day.

Now that sounded as though it could be interesting, except that one wonders why they would broadcast it at a time when most Christians in the country would be in church, and so would not be able to hear it. That too seems a very sectarian thing to do. Nevertheless we continued to listen to the second half on the way home just because we found the main speaker so overbearing and annoying.

But yesterday’s one took the cake.

They were talking about women’s leadership in church, and there was a Muslim, and a bishop of something or other, and someone from the ACDP. We didn’t catch the names because we only started hearing it halfway through.

solascripAt one point they took phone callers from outside, and one caller said he could offer an interesting instance of something in African history that could illustrate women’s leadership from the point of view of Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion. He was quickly ruled out of order by the boss of the show (he was the boss, not a chairman or moderator or anything impartial like that). The name of the show, he said, was Facts of Faith, and that meant that they did not accept anything from history, or culture or tradition. It had to be from Scripture and Scripture only. Well that certainly confirmed the fundamentalist bias of the programme, and I was sad, because I would like to hear what the caller had to say.

And I wonder which “scriptures” are used by African traditional religions.

 

 

Invertebrates in the Gulf of California

The Log from the Sea of CortezThe Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I began reading this book I was reminded of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. It’s the same genre — travel with a lot of philosophical musing thrown in.

Most of the book is a description of a voyage to the Gulf of California. John Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts was a marine biologist, and they chartered a fishing boat to collect specimens of marine invertebrates. There is an appendix, Steinbeck’s memoir of his friend Ed Rickett’s.

I found it interesting because it’s a part of the world I knew nothing about, and after reading the book I know a little more, at least about what it was like 70-odd years ago. And in the process I learnt something about marine biology; most of what I knew about that was from bed-time stories my father read me when I was 3 or 4 years old from his biology text books. Who needs extra-terrestrial monsters when you can have a sea urchin? That caused me problems in my later reading when I came across descriptions of children as urchins — were they all spiny?

As for the philosophy, I’m not sure if I understood it all. I think Steinbeck was coming from a completely different place, with different assumptions. He seemed to be anti-teleology, and to think that there is too much teleology in the world, but he seemed to see it in a quite different context. Here’s a sample, for anyone interested:

It is amazing how the strictures of the old teleologies affect our observation, causal thinking warped by hope. It was said earlier that hope is a diagnostic human trait, and this simple cortex symptom seems to be a prime factor in our inspection of our universe. For hope implies a change from a present bad condition to a future better one. The slave hopes for freedom, the weary man for rest, the hungry for food. And the feeders of hope, economic and religious, have from these simple strivings of dissatisfaction managed to create a world picture which is very hard to escape. Man grown toward perfection, animals grow toward man, bad grows toward good, and down toward up, until our little mechanism, hope, achieved in ourselves probably to cushion the shock of thought, manages to warp our whole world. Probably when our species developed the trick of memory, and with it the counterbalancing projection called “the future,” this shock-absorber, hope, had to be included in the series, else the species would have destroyed itself in despair. For if ever any man were deeply and unconsciously sure that his future would be no better than his past, he might deeply wish to cease to life. And out of this therapeutic poultice we build out iron teleologies and twist the tide pools and the stars into the pattern. To most men the most hateful statement possible is, “A thing is because it is:” Even those who have managed to drop the leading strings of a Sunday school deity are still led by the unconscious teleology of their developed trick. And in saying that hope cushions the shock of experience, that one trait balances the directionalism of another, a teleology is implied, unless one know or fell or think that we are here, and that without this balance, hope, our species in its blind mutation might have joined many, many others in extinction.
Source: Steinbeck 2000:72f

What puzzles me is that I don’t find “It is because it is” hateful at all, but I find Steinbeck’s aversion to teleology in this context (biological evolution) puzzling, because elsewhere he appears to cite with approval his friend Ed Ricketts’s theory that rattlesnakes and kangaroo rats are symbiotic. Though rattlesnakes eat kangaroo rats, they are actually doing them a favour by removing the weaker elements of the population, thus increasing the chances of the species as a whole to survive. But if it is because it is, why should it matter, and why should we see such ecological connections.

So some of his comments were interesting, but others seemed to make little sense, to to be contradicted by something else he wrote a few pages later.

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