HOWL IS COMING!
Having set the ‘word’ world alight in Siem Reap, the ‘pack’ are bringing there word jam magic to the capital. Come and join us for a very special night at Cloud, St. 9 (nr Bassac Lane), Saturday November 14th, from 7:00 PM. Open mic and readers, including:
– Kosal Khiev, Scott Bywater, Jose Antonio Pineda and more –
The event will also feature the launch of Face Masks and Hand Gels. A Year of Living Covid—an anthology of poetry and prose from Cambodia and beyond—featuring Jose Antonio Pineda, Luke Hunt, Jess Blackledge & and others. Copies available for a one night special price of $5.00 (all profits to support local writers).
Author: Jonathan C. Slaght
Reviewer: Greg McCann
A book about owls? Sure, owls are cute, they’re cool, they’re even interesting—but read a whole book about them?
Okay let me put your mind at rest: first, this is a book about the study and conservation of not just any old owl but the world’s largest: the Blakiston’s Fish Owl of the Russian Far East . This species is found only in the mountains and valleys along the Russian Sea of Japan coastline, in Hokkaido, Japan, and perhaps in a small corner of northeastern China. And equally as important, when a book is about nature conservation, it’s almost never exclusively about the natural history and ecology of that species alone. What you get in Owls of the Eastern Ice is so much more—colorful and often hilarious portraits of vodka-soaked village life in remote outposts, adventures involving gunning cars across raging rivers at just the right angle in the hope that the current can carry the vehicle downstream and land it on the other side where the washed-out road should be, and jungle dramas involving tigers, deer, and, of course, the topic at hand: the Blakiston’s Fish Owl.
The owl, in addition to being huge and having a dietary preference for feasting on the fresh masu salmon of remote Russian rivers, must be one of the worlds most beautiful birds. Its “electric yellow” eyes blaze from beneath of pair of pointy, tufted ears on a body of luxurious and billowy, creamy-brown feathers that seem like they could hide a person’s body.
At one point the author, Jonathan Slaght, climbs a tree to have a look in a nest, flushing the “glowering” female in the process. He conducts a quick check, photographing a newly hatched chick, and twenty minutes after he’s back on the ground and, he thinks, a safe distance away. Then, turning his binoculars back to the nest and its mother finds himself “meeting her direct stare at ten times magnification.”
Personally I relished Slaght’s portraits of the eccentric Russians living in this little-visited corner of the world. He meets hermits who sleep in wooden pyramids for the alleged “power” that can be (so they say) harnessed by dozing off in these Egyptian-like structures, while also encountering many scenes in which the effects of vodka have intoxicated the entire population of a village.
In one episode told by the author—who has dedicated his live to the study of the bird—his scientific team drive by a home in which a man is shouting from behind the glass of his living room window, gesticulating and jabbing desperately in the direction of the home’s front door. Slaght’s friend and fellow researcher Sergey reluctantly unlock the front door—from the outside—and: “The man exploded out like a long-caged beast. The jerky, frenzied motions of his dash past Sergey, through the yard, and into the street indicated a mind too hysterical for any coordination.” Sergey explains moments later: “His old lady locked him in so he wouldn’t go drinking.”
I attended Slaght’s 2017 talk on tigers, leopards, and the Blakiston’s Fish Owls in Minneapolis in 2017, and his passion and dedication helped to spur my interest in birds. Back in January this year, before Covid-19 disrupted international travel, I was in the mountainous jungles south of Lake Toba in Sumatra, where we encountered four massive, critically endangered Helmeted Hornbills, which we both heard and saw. It was a rare privilege and an exquisite pleasure to hear this species’ maniacal call-cackle overlaid onto the primal growls of Rhinoceros Hornbills gliding in to a perch, along with the frenzied chants of Siamang gibbons, somewhere in the distance. Indeed, these days when I’m in the field I find myself equally excited to spot birds as I am to discover what type of mammals that have appeared in front of our camera traps.
Owls of the Eastern Ice was recently “long-listed” for the 2020 National Book Award, and I feel that now, more than ever, when tens or hundreds of millions are shuttered up in lockdowns amid the pandemic, that this is the time to learn about the mysterious and little-known fellow creatures of our planet; to explore from home about far-flung regions where creatures such as the Blakiston’s Fish Owl live. It is also the time to learn about, cherish and reignite our love for local wildlife—something my son and I did as we bought binoculars and spent many a morning and afternoon birdwatching in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York state, earlier this spring. Maybe, just maybe, with books like Slaght’s to read, and with extra time to appreciate the natural world, we’ll all come out of this the better—both people and the planet.
With Covid and other life events taking their toll Rory Hunter, an Australian living in Hong Kong, chose a unique way to socially isolate and heal: a solo boat journey home. Along the way he recorded his experiences in a blog called Seeking Solitude, from which this entry is taken.
I’ve been able to have a restful day getting in a couple of naps to rebuild my strength from the previous few days. The islands of Yap, Palau and various atolls are all within sailing distance so pose somewhat of a navigational challenge. These islands mark the halfway point in this open ocean stage of the Pacific, so it’s a great milestone and one I’m very happy to achieve after the recent challenges. There’s a very long way to go though, and I’m still not at the halfway for the entire journey, which gives me a reality check and forces me to focus on the tasks ahead.
Its 2pm and off in the distance I see land for the first time in fourteen days. It’s Ulithi atoll and I’ve sailed further south than the rhumb-line just so I can take a look. I smile from ear-to-ear upon its sight and shout in joy. I’m surprised at how happy it makes me, the sight of land. I’ve dreamed of exploring atolls like this, having the place entirely to oneself and spending days under water on the untouched reefs—swimming, diving, fishing and surfing—enjoying the safety of the waters and the beautiful colours and marine life. I wonder if I should stop, just for a night?
I think I see another boat in the distance and wonder if the occupants would like some company over dinner? I’d certainly love some human contact. Maybe they even have cold beer! I bet they’d have some good stories to share and I’d love the conversation and interaction. I fanaticise about seeing some people, talking and laughing together for about an hour, but as we get closer I see that it’s a wreck and my dreams need to be put on hold. There’ll be plenty of time for that type of sailing in the future. For now, I need to focus on the task at hand, getting to Pioneer Channel and out of the northern latitudes.
Life is always greatest at the margins. I see lots of birds and sea life with fish jumping all around. I throw out my line and get a strike almost straight away. I didn’t hook it properly though, so it’s gone after a few minutes. I don’t have to wait long before the next strike. It’s a decent sized Dorado and after 20 minutes I get him close enough to the boat that I can see the bright yellows and greens of its skin. Just at the last moment the hook pops out and I see him swim away gracefully. I have plenty of food, so I thank him for the fight and try again. I get one more strike before nightfall but can’t seem to hook this one either, so I cook up various root vegetables and make a delicious hash while dreaming about the one (or three) that got away.
Moonrise is a blood orange tonight, as it slowly appears over the horizon, framed by dark clouds with even a palm tree silhouetted in the foreground, and it more than makes up for missing it the night before.
I think about all the change that has taken place in the world these past few months, much of which will impact an entire generation. Our great depression, the hundreds of millions of people who have lost jobs, the millions of businesses that have shutdown, many never to reopen. I count myself amongst the lucky ones. I wonder what’s happening back in the ‘world’. At least for a minute, then remind myself that ignorance is bliss and to enjoy this unique moment of solitary detachment.
In many ways today was just what I needed. I got some much-needed rest and a solid (and surprising) morale boost from seeing land for the first time in two weeks. I ended the day happy and in good spirits. Dumb luck wins again.
Luke Hunt, on the road to recover, questions those who query the rights of the elderly during these Covid times—in this, the second part—of his personal medical account.
“Covid, senicide and shades of Hitler in the ranks of the self-entitled.”
Near death experiences are not that uncommon but doubts over the veracity of such stories are understandable, particularly in a world riddled with self-righteous petty indignations and expressed all too loudly as the new coronavirus took hold.
But as I awoke there was a second doctor who was watching over me and with a reassuring smile he reminded me to thank Dr Kraipope for saving “you, you nearly succumbed twice”.
Asked whether I had contracted Covid-19 – at that point the diagnosis was incomplete – he laughed, saying: “Nooooo, you’re four, five, six times worse than that”. Hardly encouraging.
The following days, weeks and months were difficult. More blood tests, more needles. I actually ran out of veins. They were all broken. My weight dropped from near 90 kilograms to under 70.
I was locked down in hospital and then home for about two months amid a crazy mix of symptoms that were similar to Covid-19; respiratory issues, blood clots, pneumonia.
My only access to the outside word was a television fixed on CNN and the Internet where the plight of the human race was unfolding as the new coronavirus took hold and leaders like the US president Donald Trump crashed to an unprecedented level of incompetence.
Covid-19 was the common cause, lockdowns were enforced and the world as we knew it flipped from great freedoms to house detention and it continues to bring out the best, and the worst in too many people.
But what stunned me, were the horrible attitudes expressed about old people as if some kind of Darwinian experiment was being played out through the new corona virus. I never realized so many people simply didn’t care about their plight.
Scorned and blamed for quarantines, right wing twits were prepared to put business before health as one Texas governor suggested grandparents should be willing to die for the sake of the economy.
In the online world – where every expert, every idiot and everyone in between can express themselves badly – such attitudes are all too easily amped-up.
In Australia and the Covid hotspot of Melbourne, one on-liner points out that total Covid deaths announced for Victoria today were one female in her 80s, three females in their 90s and one female in her 100s, and this does not justify lockdowns.
That prompts responses like: “Mate, just because they were old, doesn’t mean their lives are worthless.” and then: “Why not ban death hazards altogether. No cars. No skateboarding, cycling, hijinks or hipsters. Then we can all die of nothing.”
The attitude is ‘people should ignore the science, do as they please and if the elderly die off a bit earlier than they otherwise might have then that’s an acceptable price to pay so that the rest of us can carry on as usual’.
There’s a mangled argument in there. A sizable minorityare saying the elderly are too prone, too inconvenient, too expensive, and too old to treat. Unworthy of care, besides they’re going to die soon, anyway. Expendable.
But why stop there? Why not just abandon all help and hope for the elderly in all circumstances, relieve society of their burden and everyone else can go to the football or do as they please.
That would remove awkward questions like who decides who dies and when.It’s actually called senicide, a disturbing, Hitleresque word which means the killing of elderly or their abandonment to death, which makes the issues that exploded out of lockdowns with the stir-crazy protestors of the Black Lives Movement look rather petty.
Humans don’t do Darwin, animals do. Humans – perhaps not all – have ethics and culture. That’s how we sort out the bullies and how people look after society as a whole. I never did get to the other side so I can’t vouch for it but at 57 I went close.
I’ll be forever grateful for the doctors, nurses and the caring people who helped me, whether I last another 10, 20 or 30 years. They were professional, ethical and served according to the needs of the patient. It’s the type of care all people should be entitled to, including the old.
There could be exemptions. Those advocating senicide come to mind.
ENDS PART TWO
A near-death experience raises a question for Luke Hunt—international correspondent and author—’should I stay or should I go?’
“… my life review – a euphemism for near death experience or NDE – really didn’t do it for me.”
As the new coronavirus took hold about 100 people were doing what they do best, sorting a barbecue, the last to be held in the garden of House Nine on Street 830 in Phnom Penh, my home for the last eight years.
Old friends and the odd luminary – famed correspondent Jim Pringle among them – indulged in a hedonistic mix of food, music and intoxicants of choice on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
It was on the eve of lockdowns. Government quarantines, social distancing, face masks and must have sanitizers were still over the horizon. Hugs, kissing and the odd dance were still allowed.
Two weeks later I collapsed with severe abdominal pain, fever and volcanic chills.
My doctor, Gavin Scott, listened to my gut with his stethoscope and said: “I can’t hear anything at all. Nothing.” Gratefully, I couldn’t feel anything either but the look on his face said too much.
My organs were shutting down as I was rushed into ER at Royal Phnom Penh Hospital then five hours later into an ICU with suspected salmonella or typhoid as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, up-ending and closing-out life as we knew it.
Dr Kraipope Jurapaiboon got it. As my internal organs were nearing retirement he did the charts. A stomach inflammation reading of one to three is considered normal, five is high.
I was clocking around 265.
The ICU resembled a NASA control room. Ten electrodes connected me to the EKG. Three intravenous needles delivered a milk substance and antibiotics. There was a catheter, assisted breathing and four or five staff on hand 24/7 as I drifted in and out of consciousness.
Needles and blood tests followed more needles, more blood tests and CT Scans.
Kraipope diagnosed salmonella leading to complications, which included pneumonia with pulmonary embolisms in both lungs, peritonitis, thrombosis on the liver, kidney stones and diverticulitis resulting in a perforated colon.
That infected my stomach and sent me into sceptic shock, twice.
Blood was turning into sludge and clots, of which I was blissfully unaware. The morphine – a must have at the next barbecue – was terrific.
But as the bells and whistles sounded from my ICU, I instinctively knew exactly what was happening and I was ready to go. I also had the best view. I could see Kraipope, another doctor and a team of nurses dart to my bedside. I was impressed.
I was looking at them from just above, then drifted towards the window as my life review, also known as a near death experience or NDE, began to rewind through a montage of black and white photos.
It was entertaining, I liked my life but like too many of the photographs I’d taken over the previous decades my NDE was in large parts dreadfully out of focus. There was a light that ran in a curve out through the window and up, and I was overwhelmed by a comfortable urge to follow. Just go.
I hesitated for a nano-second. My life review looked a bit clumsy. It lacked clarity. It was a bit like my old school report cards: “Could do better”.
Then I thought of friends and family. Mum had passed barely 12 months earlier leaving a tribe of grandchildren behind and I didn’t need to add to their anguish by buggering off so soon afterwards.
Last and least, I didn’t want that concrete skeleton – the Booyoung construction site next door – to be my last picture of a planet blighted by environmental destruction.
I shot upright. Literally; awake, throughly alive and totally aware.
ENDS PART ONE
Luke Hunt, writing for The Article, details the crisis facing the Mekong River system and its unprecedented implications for the region in 2020.
In his book, River of Time, Jon Swain evoked brilliantly the heady beauty of Indochina and the great Mekong Delta in the very south of Vietnam, where the river finally meets the South China Sea. He also captured the terrifying uncertainty as the Vietnam War came to an end and the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh.
The plot twists and turns against a backdrop of jungle and the fabled Mekong River, which in full flood covers an area larger than Belgium. As Swain wrote: “Some rivers are so still, so complacent, so dead that they leave one’s heart indifferent. The Mekong is not one of them. To see it in full spate as it thunders over the Koh Khong falls in a welter of foam in the rainy season, is to know its awesome power.”
But the stuff of legend is fading fast. Drought, climate change and the construction of vast dams are threatening a river system that traverses five countries and feeds 70 million people, many of whom live hand to mouth.
For a second year in a row, the Mekong River is at a record low, reduced to a trickle when it should be heading into a full flood. Water levels are down by two-thirds. Rainfall for the three months of the current wet season is down by about 70 per cent.
Where the river meets the sea, at least two of 12 tributaries have closed. Salinity is creeping further inland, threatening 850 already endangered fish species. Fishermen complain that their daily catch has been reduced to a kilogram or two, barely enough for the village cats.
It’s an unprecedented man-made problem, which the military-backed governments and one-party states of mainland Southeast Asia are choosing to ignore as Beijing and financial institutions pour billions of dollars into hydro-electricity, which brings profit for the powerful few. According to the Stimson Center, the US think tank, a cascade of dams in China and Laos is in the process of construction. By the time is has been completed, there will be 400 dams.
Fish ladders were introduced into the river, to help migrating fish to reach their upstream breeding grounds, but there is little evidence that these have worked. A report by Eyes on Earth has accused China of hoarding water. Beijing denies the charge.
Meanwhile, climate change has exacerbated the impact of the Indian Ocean Dipole, a phenomenon similar to the El Niño weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean and sometimes known as the Indian Niño. This has meant unusually cooler than average sea surface temperatures across the eastern half of the Indian Ocean and warmer water in the west cause floods in East Africa and drought in Southeast Asia. This phenomenon historically occurs once every 17.3 years — but scientists are forecasting its frequency will increase to once every 6.3 years over this century, due to carbon emissions and excess energy in the atmosphere.
Normally, at this time of year, the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia swells as flood waters rise, then reverses course flowing back into the Mekong River. It’s an annual event that ties Khmer superstitions with harvests and prosperity.
For the first time in living memory that hasn’t happened and the usually sanguine Mekong River Commission (MRC) has found its voice, forecasting that “extreme drought” is now expanding across northern Cambodia, southern Laos and into central Vietnam. It described the plight of Tonle Sap as “very critical” with water depths across the Lower Mekong Basin below the minimum levels recorded in 1960 and 2019.
“The current low flows could have severe impacts on Cambodia due to a loss of fisheries and irrigation potential,” said An Pich Hatda, chief executive of the MRC Secretariat in Vientiane. “It is time to walk the talk and to act in the common interest of the entire Mekong River Basin and the affected communities”.
That means a total rethink of how people live, what they eat and where they call home. The Dipole will reverse and floods are sure to follow, made all the worse by hoarding and too many upstream dams which would be forced to unleash torrents of water. Whether the generals and politicians like it or not, they have made a mess of the Mekong River.
Swain’s memoir is about to be made into a movie, and the author’s own favourite line is: “I have never been able to stand on its tall banks and look down at its great sweep of moving water without the urge to go round the next bend to explore the wonders that may be in store.”
If the producers want to shoot on location they might want to hurry up. Time is running out.
Would you like to be a published writer or poet? #HOWL is compiling an anthology of words centred on the events and stories of this year. If you would like to submit an original poem or a prose piece (English, 400 words max.), we would love to consider it for our book. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details and submissions. Note: As for ALL Howl projects, this is a not-for-profit initiative.
- Give yourself time to mature as a writer.
“Well, I’m 34 now. If I don’t make it by the time I’m 60, I’m just going to give myself 10 more years.”
2. Let your creativity find whatever outlet it needs.
“Now print my occasionals out by hand and point them up with drawings (like any other madman). Sometimes I just throw the stories away and hang the drawings up in the bathroom (sometimes on the roller).”
3. Treat the submission of your work like it’s a job.
“I remember when I used to write and send [Story Magazine] fifteen or twenty or more stories a month, and later, three or four or five—and mostly, at least, one a week. From New Orleans and Frisco and Miami and L.A. and Philly and St. Louis and Atlanta and Greenwich Village and Houston and everyplace else.”
4. Sometimes you have to write a lot of bad stuff to get to the good stuff.
“I’m not one to look back on wanton waste as complete loss—there’s music in everything, even defeat.”
5. It’s ok to rely on magic.
“Went back to night school there about a year ago and took some art courses, commercial and otherwise but then too, they moved too slow for me and wanted too much obeisance. I have no definite talent or trade, and how I stay alive is largely a matter of magic.”
6. Don’t worry about grammar.
“Thank you for lessening the blow on my weakness of grammar by mentioning that some of your college friends have trouble with sentence structure. I think some writers do suffer this fate mainly because at heart they are rebellious and the rules of grammar like many of the other rules of our world call for a herding in and a confirmation that the natural writer instinctively abhors.”
7. Don’t overwork your writing. Often, the first is best.
“I have not worked out my poems with a careful will, falling rather on haphazard and blind formulation of wordage, a more flowing concept, in a hope for a more new and lively path.”
8. Work all the jobs.
“Worked in slaughterhouse, dog biscuit factory, Di Pinna’s of Miami beach, copy boy on the New Orleans’ Item, blood bank in Frisco, hung posters in New York subways 40 feet below the sky drunk hopping beautiful golden third rails, cotton in Berdo, tomatoes; shipping clerk, truck driver, horseplayer ordinary, holder down of barstools throughout a dull alarmclock nation, supported by shackjob whores; foreman for American newsco., New York, Sears-Roebuck stock boy, gas station attendant, mailman…”
9. Don’t get an MFA.
“Your criticism correct: poem submitted was loose, sloppy, repetitive, but here’s the kernel: I cannot WORK at a poem. Too many poets work too consciously at their stuff and when you see their work in print, they seem to be saying… see here, old man, just look at this POEM. I might even say that a poem should not be a poem, but more a chunk of something that happens to come out right. I do not believe in technique or schools.”
10. Really, don’t get an MFA.
“Also got your new card today, must agree with you that one can talk poetry away and your life away, and I get more out of being around people—if I have to—who never heard of Dylan or Shakey or Proust or Bach or Picasso or Remb. or color wheels, or what. I know a couple of fighters (one with 8 win streak going), a horseplayer or two, a few whores, x-whores, and the alcoholics; but poets are bad on the digestion and sensibility, and I could make it stronger, but then they are probably better than I make them, and there is a lot of wrong in me.”
11. Writing is maybe like fucking.
“Writing is like most writers think fucking is: just when they start thinking they are doing it pretty good they stop doing it altogether.”
12. There are no bad ideas.
“Idea for literary journal: The Toilet Paper Review… which would be typewritten by me on toilet paper (our motto being, “We Give a Shit!”) would use some carbons in typing and then would glue toilet paper to regular paper and make original cover drawing for each mag sent out.”
13. Avoid excessive dialogue.
“ Two guys talking don’t do much for me.”
14. You can’t write poetry with a beard.
“His beard stands out and tends to save him but you can’t write poetry with a beard.”
15. Be honest with your fellow writers.
“Ah, shit, Carol, these are not very good. I am sitting here drunk + it is raining, has been for days, and these are not very good. […] “Edges” still the best of these. But your last line terrible. 19th-century French-literary Romanticism. What the fuck. You know this. I am going to put out a good magazine. And doing so sometimes means being cruel and being cruel sometimes means being right.”
16. Rejection is good for the soul.
“Of course, shit, hope you can find a poem or two in these; if not return those you cannot use, or the works. rejection is good for the soul. my soul is now a mule.”
A superb reflection on Orwell’s satirical masterpiece, 75-years on.
Time. Au: Tea Obreht
It’s been 75 years since the comrades of the once (and future) Manor Farm first took up the anthem “Beasts of England” and surprised themselves by routing out the tyrant farmer, Mr. Jones, from his holdings. Seventy-five years since the seemingly inalterable tenets of Animalism were scrawled in white paint on the side of the barn, and the enthusiastic dreamer Snowball strove for his short-lived utopia before running afoul of the Berkshire boar Napoleon’s autocratic ambitions.
In the decades since the publication of George Orwell’s seminal work of anti-Stalinist satire, we have seen the collapse of the regime that disturbed and inspired its author; the beginning and end of the Cold War, with all its attendant horrors; and the rise and fall of any number of would-be Napoleons, both at home and abroad. Animal Farm, once a work so controversial that it seemed unlikely to find a publisher, has served for so long, and in so many school curriculums, as the predominant introduction to the concept of totalitarianism that it is in danger of being perceived as trite.
With Animal Farm, Orwell—then a 42-year-old democratic socialist known primarily for essays and journalism exploring social injustice and class iniquities across Europe—hoped only to dissuade his countrymen from what he recognized as a dangerous infatuation with Joseph Stalin. It is indisputable that an author’s intentions for his or her work usually don’t survive publication, let alone the author’s death. Nothing of Animal Farm’s success during Orwell’s lifetime could really augur the varied purposes it would come to serve, or the global behemoth it would quickly become. Pushing back on a critique that Orwell was too light-handed in his reproach of totalitarianism, Julian Symons wrote, “In a hundred years’ time perhaps, Animal Farm may be simply a fairy story, today it is a political satire with a good deal of point.”
That was then, and this is now. Luckily, having spent the last seven and a half decades heeding its warnings and taking its lessons to heart, we have pulled ahead of the dangers Animal Farm hinted we might one day face. As a species, we have defied Orwell’s wildest expectations. Wouldn’t he be thrilled to know that we no longer have need of a text that so explicitly decries authoritarianism, fearmongering, tribalism, historical erasure, factual manipulation and war as an engine of national pride?
Reader, I jest. All evidence points to the fact that we’re in a great deal of very familiar trouble the whole world over. That we so dependably manage to be, despite the existence of prophetic works like Animal Farm, should worry us to the point of despair. But this is the way of our species: memory fades. We grow bored with the lessons of the past. We tell ourselves: things could never get as bad as they once were because, unlike those who came before us, we are good people who know better than to let it happen again.
How, then, are we to read Animal Farm circa 2020?
I was raised in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1980s, in a household and culture gripped by the distinction between “indoor” and “outdoor” talk. Understanding this was as essential to my early upbringing as table manners or the correct protocol for crossing the street. The gist was: certain conversations were appropriate for public consumption, while others belonged only within the confines of the house. You were expected to use your common sense to distinguish between the two as you grew older, but your starting point was to assume that anything overheard at the dinner table qualified as indoor talk and was not to be discussed with people outside the home; that is, outdoors. You think I’m talking about politics here, reader, but I’m not. Politics was so out of bounds that I can’t remember any adult ever declaring support for any candidate in my presence until we moved to America. I’m talking about simple details of daily existence: a new pencil case that might be misconstrued as a sign of increased wealth, or a sandwich that might give a nosy stranger on a train some false idea about the demographic composition of our family because one of its ingredients may or may not be a certain kind of ham.
People incapable of recognizing the distinction between indoor and outdoor talk—people who might volunteer, a little too eagerly, the outcome of some private development, or some holiday plan, or, the worst of all sins, the affairs of some mutual acquaintance—were to be regarded with disdain and suspicion. For if they didn’t value the sanctity of their own indoor talk, imagine the damage they could inflict if they somehow got ahold of yours!
I have been living in America for 23 years and still have a hair trigger where indoor talk is concerned. This will be with me forever, I suspect, probably hardwired in some remote twist of trauma-blitzed DNA inherent in people worn down by centuries of imperialism and political volatility. Perhaps that’s why, when I did eventually read Animal Farm—sometime in 1997, no doubt, in a suburb of Atlanta where my mother and I eventually wound up after spending most of the Yugoslav Wars in Cyprus and Egypt—the character with whom I felt the most kinship was Benjamin the Donkey. I was heartbroken by the heavily foreshadowed death of Boxer the horse, who seemed to stand for so much of what was good and true; but all I really cared about was whether his little donkey friend would successfully dodge a similar fate.
Benjamin is Boxer’s closest companion. A cynic of uncertain age, he is known for having outlived all his peers by keeping steadfastly silent. Animal Farmscholars have often cast him as the allegorical stand-in for Russia’s disillusioned older generation, as wary of the Revolution as they were of the tsarist society it dismantled. And indeed, in his keep-it-close-to-the-vest reticence, I recognized many of my grandparents’ tendencies: an obsession with common sense; a potent distrust of propaganda; a tendency to eye roll at naïveté; and above all, a really keen sense of the difference between indoor and outdoor talk.
Benjamin is a survivor. But his carefully maintained silence comes crashing down when his dear friend, Boxer, is carted off to Willingdon after succumbing to labor and age. Though Squealer persuades the other animals that Boxer is, of course, bound only for the animal hospital to receive care, Benjamin finally breaks with precedent to tell them the terrible truth he has always been literate enough to know: the van taking Boxer away bears the insignia of the dreaded knacker, and Boxer is going to his doom. With the death of what is arguably the book’s most beloved character, Orwell shows us the futility of Benjamin’s revelation. It is too late for fraternal duty to override self-preservation.
The notion that Western countries are clever and strong enough to both recognize and resist the grip of totalitarianism is a dangerous myth. A fairy story, if you will—one to which we are ironically susceptible, because being shaped by Animal Farm deludes us into thinking we are sufficiently armed. “We already know what we need to know,” we might say. “We all know that individuality is a form of resistance, and that anyone who hungrily pursues power is probably unworthy of attaining it.”
Here’s some formerly indoor talk: too many of us take our freedoms for granted. Even now, those of us who never grew up fearing the dangers of indoor talk are far too cozy in the belief that we are safe from the forces that could plunge us back into a world that demands it. Animal Farm asks us to work against that delusion. We are making great strides in this direction already. In opening up about the persistent, daily injustices that shape life—micro- and macroaggressions, racial profiling, police brutality, exploitation of body and mind, intolerance, erasure, assault, exclusion—even the most disenfranchised among us have found themselves wielding, if even for a moment, sudden and unprecedented power to enact change that once took a lifetime. At our best, we are able to stand with and for one another like never before. We celebrate one another’s rights to individuality, expression, faith and love.
We have a quarter century to test Julian Symons’ hopeful prediction, and usher Animal Farm into the niche of fairy stories. I am not sure even that is time enough. It’s entirely possible that we will never live in a world free of Napoleons and the Squealers who prop them up; that we will always find ourselves peering through windows, unable to tell the difference between the people who claim to be serving our interests and the enemies to whom they have betrayed us. But it’s also possible that we will never be isolated enough to keep signs of danger to ourselves as we once did; that we will openly decry every change to our commandments and insist on reiterating the history we know to be true, however terrible its contents. It is possible that we will recognize, without the blinders of Squealer’s “proper perspective,” that danger to one is danger to all; that we will read the knacker’s signage aloud, for all to hear, before it’s too late.
Matt Davie offers some post-lockdown reflections from a favoured bar, in Lyttelton, New Zealand
Before New Zealand went into nationwide lockdown. Without trivialising the terrible and widespread effects of Covid19 – the occasion was, for myself and few others, a pre-pandemic drink. Prime Minister Jacinda (known affectionately by her first name by all) had just announced that there was evidence of community based transmission of Covid19 in NZ. We were about to move to elimination level 4 and for the following 6 weeks all but essential workers would remain at home in their own ‘bubble’.
As myself and 5 others sat on the balcony of the Wunderbar, on that Thursday afternoon in March, we contemplated, among other things that we may not see each other for a while. Worst case scenario, a number of us may catch the the Covid 19 virus – at that stage a distinct possibility given how our curve in New Zealand was following a similar trajectory to countries like Spain and Italy. Then there was the issue of job security – I myself being fortunate (depending on your point of view) to be classed as an essential transport worker. Another companion was lucky to have just received a commission for a couple of paintings. And another supplied most of her sunglasses online anyhow. Even though we knew that hugging, as part of the new social distancing rules, was no longer allowed we embraced following a few anxious drinks and went our separate ways.
The Wunderbar is situated in the Canterbury port of Lyttelton and is well known for its retro chic’ness, bohemian style, lounge décor, ambience and clientele. I’ve been to it many times over the last 30 years – to music gigs, birthday parties, the millennium new years eve and post earthquake shows in the 2010s. These days I travel to the Wunderbar by ferry – it’s a 5 minute trip across the water, from my base in Diamond Harbour a small village opposite. From the balcony of my home I can see the twinkling lights of Lyttelton and on a clear night might spy the Wunderbar’s neon. For a couple of months the lights went out. And during the day there are no sail boats, kayaks, wakas or jetskis on the harbour – just the eerily, wind-less conditions of a dry April and May.
Now a mere 8 weeks later, I am back at the Wunderbar on a Saturday night – a first tentative outing since the lockdown restrictions have been eased. There’s just a small scattering of early evening drinkers, all quite subdued – I sense still shell shocked from what has occurred in the last few months. Myself and companion start chatting to a couple opposite, joking at been able to share a missing condiment. The Irish bar next door, usually full with a rowdy after work revellers is relatively sedate. We move on to a local Thai restaurant for our first dining out experience out for ages.
The talking to strangers, and/or neighbours is, I suppose, one of the positives to come out of the lockdown. Many people have commented about how much they have, enjoyed (some would say loved) the 6 weeks off from work. Other workers, such as those in government departments have been allowed to do there jobs from home. People have exercised a lot, walked and biked a lot. We talk to people, friends new and old, from opposite sides of the road.
At 10.30 on a Saturday night out as myself and companion board the ferry. As the ferry turns out of Lyttelton’s inner harbour I can see the smoky haze wafting above from 100s of log burners. As we continue to move further away we can also see the smog haze of Christchurch rise from behind the Port Hills. For 8 weeks, as traffic disappeared from our roads during lockdown, this haze vanished. But now the cars, traffic and people have returned.