2017-03-05 Searching for reasons to be hopeful

Searching for reasons to be hopeful

A very small, more or less invisible, footnote to the huge events of 20 January was my 72nd birthday. That day, on the other side of the Pacific, the world, as we have known it, continued the seemingly trans-continental process of falling apart, as a new and terrifying president took office in America. He joined that increasingly high profile and expanding group of frighteningly authoritarian, maybe insane, leaders – Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Syria, Egypt (and more) – and gave further momentum to the forces of violence, hatred, discrimination and injustice. And now that president and his opposite number in the People’s Republic are massively increasing their defence spending. Do we really have to cash to spare? Insane. Incomprehensible.

Disorder and demolition in the UK as well: what is happening to a once-familiar, if deeply imperfect, world? Mrs Thatcher taught me how fragile was the delicate fabric of a compassionate democracy; how easily and quickly the strenuous achievements of decades could be swept away – as radically as the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan were eradicated by ISIS. The process has been accelerating ever since – democracy and ancient monuments crumbling by the week. And the wealth of the earth being squandered when there are millions homeless and starving; when the planet is being systematically poisoned and degraded.

One of my best books (Expecting the Worst) is about anticipating, preventing and managing crises. A central aspect of effective crisis prevention, emphasized throughout the book, is constantly watching for early warning-signs of trouble – and dealing with them as they arise, before they can cause damage to reputation, income, people or the environment. What an irony that there can be a whole specialist field of business studies hoping to reduce the risks on the minute scale of organizational crisis, while the world’s leaders continue to ignore multiple early warning signs of disaster and global civilization plunges towards extinction on a planet that was once so perfectly suited to human existence. I’ll need to do more than write a book to have any impact on that trajectory. Ramping up defence spending is such a rational and mature response to planetary cataclysm that I should not, perhaps, worry too much.

Life on the little scale

After my long, pleasing stay in Oxford over Christmas and New Year, I made my way to Sweden for a couple of weeks with Marie and Rafe, including a few days’ work in Uppsala. The heavy snow that had fallen before I arrived slowly dispersed; the lakes remained largely iced over, though not enough for skating. It was chilly, but my cottage was warm and comfortable, and the big house was as welcoming and cosy as ever.

The great, simple pleasures of cooking and eating together, shopping, expeditions to flea markets and charity shops, long and intense conversations over coffee or cocktails, occupied the bulk of our time. Rafe and Marie introduced me to the Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes series (of which they are serious fans), and we watched several episodes. I could do nothing but admit that they were splendid and almost instantly became an enthusiast. They lent me series 2 which I took home and watched within days of arriving in Chiang Rai.

Along with going to cinemas with Nana Yaw in Oxford and Chiang Rai, this exposure seems to have consolidated a new phase in my life – where I become a devotee of the cinema and DVDs. My Dutch friend, Cornelis, lent me about thirty hours of A Touch of Frost which I raced through in about a week, going to bed one night at 2.30am, after watching three whole episodes in succession (nearly five hours). Nana Yaw and I watched Moonlight on some dubious website, before the Oscars; we thought it was magnificent.

Cornelis has also lent me series one of Downton Abbey: is this a new addiction waiting in the wings for me? Sherlock and Frost demonstrate beyond doubt, if I needed any convincing, that good stories, good writing, good acting and good production all make for great entertainment. But why do I still feel that it’s somehow inferior to the printed word? I have great resistance to watching TV at all – except for the news and very carefully selected, mostly factual or documentary type programmes; I think it’s to do with discomfort with passivity – though is watching a screen really that much more passive than reading (I think it probably is) – and does it matter anyway? I will comfortably sit reading in the shade outside my house during these lovely cool season days, but I almost never switch on the TV or play a DVD during daylight hours. I wonder what’s driving that habit of feeling and behavior?

It has something to do with a feeling that TV is somehow giving up, or a last resort, or – maybe – a horror at boosting the alarming figures for daily TV consumption across the world. Yes, I believe I associate watching TV with idleness, lack of purpose, having nothing better to do; with the uncritical consumption of trash. I wonder where that came from? I suppose, in part, that assessment is true and that excessive passivity in front of a TV screen is not, by my standards, especially healthy or invigorating (the same might be said for excessive attention to smart phone screens). But I am certainly kidding myself if I imagine all TV, all social media, all largely passively enjoyed entertainment is of dubious value.

I’ve mentioned to some friends that I do find difficulty being simply a passive consumer; I do not imagine that I could write a decent Sherlock or Frost episode, but participating in the sparkling world of brilliant writing and entertainment does make me long to create, not consume; it reminds me of one aspect of the shortcomings of my life and work: I never focused enough on one enterprise to become a true master, to achieve recognizable brilliance. I have been very good at lots of things, but never a master. And time is running out now.

Domestic life

Nana Yaw and I have had some good, albeit brief, times together since I got back. He has a very full university schedule, now with revision and mid-term exams, though we have managed to snatch a couple of weekends together at home in town. He arranged to swop his pink room for a light-green room, mobilizing his core group of about a dozen friends to help him shift all his stuff from the first to the ground floor in no time at all. They are a very close-knit group, often cooking and eating together and warmly supporting and taking care of each other. It’s a wonderful example of international, cross-cultural friendship and goodwill.

In the middle of March, about 150 of them are going off for industrial visits in the South, half to Pattaya, half to Hua Hin. They’ll travel by bus (twelve and more hours each way) and be at work for five or six days. Their assignments will represent a significant part of their year’s assessable coursework. To the outrage of Nana Yaw and many of the students, the organising lecturer has said that misbehavior on the trip by any individual or group, will lead to loss of marks on the academic assessment for all students in both locations (hundreds of miles apart, as they are). Quite rightly, they are planning to protest about this preposterous and unjust provision which treats them like school children – though such measures are no less obnoxious when applied in schools. There really are very strong infantilizing processes at work in universities in Thailand (obligatory uniforms for all, amongst many others).

Months ahead

Nest month, April, sees Song Kran (the great annual, water festival), when the country goes mad and prudent citizens keep to their houses if they do not wish to be soaked to the skin every time they go onto the streets. Within weeks of that (sometimes during the festival), the rainy season is likely to get going and the world will start to look green and fresh again (it’s dry and dusty now throughout the largely rainless cool and hot seasons). In May, I shall be going to Sweden for the UMC’s annual training course then on to Oxford for a conference and some holiday. Nana Yaw’s end-of-year exams finish in May and we’re hoping we can manage to get him to the UK before the expiry of his multi-entry visa in June. The UK border guard who screened us last time suggested that we should present ourselves together again when we returned, but I shall already be in Europe and, just now, it’s difficult to see how I can turn up at the border at the same time as Nana Yaw, without returning to Thailand and coming back with him. We’re working on it!

After the accident, the truck has come back from repairs looking like new and performing perfectly, as far as I can see. The manager at the Ford Motor Company in Chiang Rai (where I bought both of my trucks) has seen to it that everything was done to perfection and, I am happy to say, insurance paid for the lot. That’ll be the end of my claim-free bonus, low premium, I expect. Never mind: that’s what insurance is for.

Ui is 21 this year and he’s reached the stage where he can no longer postpone the conscription lottery: when young men register, they pick a card from a barrel – black and you’re a free man; red and you’re a soldier for two years (about 50/50, I’m told). The other option, which he has chosen, is to sign on voluntarily; this means a definite one-year of soldiering. His hotel manager has said they will have a farewell party for him and will hold a job for him when he comes back. He’ll be away and incommunicado for three months, then out for a few days before returning to camp. He’s hoping that he’ll be assigned to a base in Chiang Rai province, maybe even in town. He is resigned, even sanguine about the prospect, though I don’t think he relishes it in any sense at all. I shall miss him, though I’ll be able to cross quite a lot of things off my shopping list while he’s away (seaweed snacks, pot-noodles, sausages, Pepsi-Cola, amongst other things). And what we both whimsically refer to as his mobile ATM (me) will be able to have a quiet period for once.

It’s a quiet, sunny Sunday here in Koggalae village. I shall upload this posting, do a bit of serious reading and research at my desk, then go out into the garden with my detective novel. I shall play the piano in the afternoon, pour a gin and tonic in the early evening, cook a meal, then settle down to the last of the Frost DVDs that I’ve borrowed.