Friday, November 16, 2012

Smash The Radio, Smash The Watch

Mornin' Mateys.
Well, another week done and nearer to death . . that's what me old cook Stumpy Jones used to say before the accident.
And what a week again - Sheephouse has been reminiscing remminis remmemberi thinking about days of yore.
Days when the sun shone and his Dad took him to the library.
Days when he would escape to the furthest corner of his imagination.
He was lucky. A loving parent is a great thing.
Me and Mog totted up our formative years and realised there wasn't a lot of it about.
I never knew my Ma, but I was raised proper, and in the correct fashion: below decks, swabbing. A cuddle would have been nice sometimes though, but all we's had, us deck hands, were our blankets and maybe a lucky charm and the knowledge that there'd always be someone standing up for you.
Mog too, never knew no one.
He said the first he knew of it, was the sack filling with water and a mad scramble of claws and yowls and all of him and the other kits escaping and scattering.
Must have been tough times.
Winter.
Wet.
But he made it.
And I knows that I could never deny him a warm place in the sun and some freshly boiled chicken.
He's like a son to me is that cat.


***


Regular readers of FB (are there any apart from the ones I know about?) might not know that I have a secret passion.
Well it isn't really secret, but it is a passion, although these days one which needs much decision before indulging in.
There, I've made that sound intriguing haven't I.
It isn't really as strange as all that though, but I do indulge myself on a regular basis if only on a 'just in case' basis.
And what is this thing which has got you all intrigued?
Quite simple really. And innocent.
Secondhand BOOKS.
I really love them.
But I think, apart from the actual process of finding something I've been looking for for years at a reasonable price and carrying it home, what I enjoy most is the actual emporium.
The secondhand bookshop (or SHB from now on) is a treasure trove of all things. It carries the trite, the populist, the specialist, the arcane, the downright bizarre; treasures from lost childhoods, rare and loved editions, hardbacks, paperbacks, treatise, pamphlets, magazines, you name it and if it can be read, some little SHB somewhere will have it out on display, or even, if you ask them nicely, in a stock room.
Everywhere I have ever been there have been SHBs, and I can guarantee that I have nearly always visited at least one of them.
But, sad to say, the SHB is dying, rapidly and in large numbers.
How can they compete with Charity shops, and Amazon Associate sellers, who sell books for a penny?
Even in Wigtown (Scotland's book town) the signs are apparent, and that is a town dedicated to the secondhand book!
This makes me sad.
I can remember a time in the early 1990's when the town of St. Andrews actually had about 6 SHBs . . . and now? In a town dedicated to learning??
One.
That is 1 SHB.
But there's a Waterstones too, and a dedicated Shelter Book Shop, but that doesn't count. Charity shops are definitely not the emporiums SHBs are and were.
If you have a proper SHB near you, go and buy something from them, in fact, keep going back and buying more. They really need your help.
Anyway, back on with the road tyres and let me take you back further to a very formative time for me. A time well before I even knew that such things as SHBs ever existed.
When I was small (very small) my Father felt very certain that I should be a bit like he was, and end up loving to read.
Dad was a prodigous reader (I once saw him devour James Michener's 'Hawaii' in a number of days during a working week!)
Man he could read quickly, but I think that he too was either unaware of SHBs or, more likely, intent on preserving our families meagre income for really important stuff like food and rent. So, his voracious appetite could only be fed in one way - regular visits to Northolt Library (our local public library).



Northolt Library


And there it is.
I just uploaded this picture from some website, and apparently it has been refurbished now, but this is sort of how it used to look. As far as I can tell, it is little changed from the 1960's, a decade when people actually relied on libraries to improve their brains.
I haven't been there in nearly 40 years, but oh boy I can describe it's layout to you in intimate detail, and could probably get around it in a blindfold test.
The bit you need to concentrate on is that far corner directly ahead of you, for it was there that I discovered two books which were to change my life.
The first is this:



Ged set out into the world on his boat Lookfar in 1968 and I happened to cross his path around 1970.
Rarer than the proverbial Rocking Horse Droppings, this rather nicely conditioned 2nd Edition (1973) Hardback
  was bought from a long closed and much missed SHB, namely Gordon Owen Books





And the second is this:




A Stone Cold Classic - pure unadulterated excitement for the young mind.
I first read it in 1973 and I could have included the covers of any of Mr.Moorcock's
Eternal Champion books, but this is my favourite.



These two books are the keystones in a love of reading which I still have. Because of them I devoured fiction.
And you know what? Certainly in the case of Earthsea, I re-read them every few years.
Mr.Moorcock's book I have re-read a few times as it is always enjoyable, but Ursula's book, though written ostensibly for a 'junior' market, is something far beyond that - it is a book rich with meaning and subtlety. It has repaid me in spades for the effort I put into reading it in the first place.
Decades before Harry Potter, we have, in 'A Wizard Of Earthsea' (1968), a school for wizards, but not only that, in Ged the Wizard we have a character far beyond the current bespectacled wunderkind. Ged is powerful and weak, quietly dominant and at times cowed. He made me realise that people are complex and taught me about death and life, and the fact that the world is a wondrous and complex place. Ged taught about danger, and hope, and companionship, and to question the world whenever possible.
He was everything I (at that tender age of 10 when I first read it) wanted to be. And, due to the little wonder that was Northolt Library, he was mine, for as long as I could renew the book and take it out again . . which I did . . regularly.
I wonder if Ursula's intention when she wrote the book was similar to the subtlety and deep meaning she was magically weaving into her adult Science Fiction like 'City Of Illusions' (1967) and 'The Left Hand Of Darkness' (1969)?
Knowing her writing I would say so.
If you have never delved into her marvellous writing I can wholeheartedly recommend it. *
Mix 'A Wizard Of Earthsea' with an intensely formative period for a young mind and you have influential dynamite!
And that was just one book!
Mr.Moorcock's Corum books had a similar effect. I came at them from having read some of his other Eternal Champion books (could well have been the Hawkmoon books thinking about it), but Corum struck a bell with me. They were startlingly easy to read - half a day was my record - and they fit the mood of the time perfectly.
I will add that before Earthsea I had graduated from Janes' War Manuals (!) to Sax Rhomer's Fu Manchu books (deeply unfashionable even then) and various collections of horror stories resulting in my discovery of Poe and Lovecraft, and all quietly contained within a modest public library that Dad and I visited every couple of weeks.
It was like having a lion on a leash, so, thanks Dad, and thanks also to all the authors I read, because if it hadn't been for them, I wouldn't be the sort of person I am, and also were it not for having had to push myself a little bit to get the most out of their books, I would never have revisited a book I had been given on the occasion of me losing my tonsils:



Much loved and well read - my own copy. I can't read it these days in case it falls apart.
The price on the cover is 8 shillings and 6 pence - 42.5 pence in 2012 money. I can't even buy a tin of beans for that.
The Inscription inside reads: "To Philip, from Ray & Mags. Who needs tonsils anyway"

 
My sister and her husband gave me my copy of 'The Hobbit' to make up for the loss of those strange bits of flesh, and I dipped into it whilst convalescing, but found it a bit, I don't know, strange. The language was peculiar and the story meandered with this very weird party starting it . . . to be truthful I didn't get on with it.
But hey-ho, a couple of years and some application makes all the difference and at the age of eleven I dipped in, read and then did a full-blown dive!
God, it was like nectar for the soul.
It intrigued and excited and amused and carved deep deep roots with its sheer breadth of history.
It had soul and craft and had a timeline laid deep in the earth of European myth and lore.
It was, in all ways, wonderful.
I read it and re-read it, andre-read it again.
And then I got my hands on Lord Of The Rings (as a Christmas present from my Uncle Joe and Aunty Enid, in 1973, asking for it when they asked was there anything I wanted and being embarassed and asking if it was alright, as the price was a gut-wrenching £2.10!) and things were never the same again.



Thanks to Uncle Joe and Aunty Enid, my 1973 copy of LOTR.
Nearly 40 years of reading for £2.10.
Now that is what I call a bargain


To a young soul, let me say one thing, Lord Of The Rings (if you are so inclined) is such a powerful read that it can really change the way you see things.
In much the same way that Earthsea had made me understand that the world was a far wider place than that cosy world of home life and parents and school, LOTR helped me understand the power of fantasy and good fantastic fiction.
I would comfortably take my place at the back of the 114 bus, from South Ruislip to Harrow and bury my head in wonder, pausing only every now and again to see who got on the bus, and then it was back on with immersion again.
I'd arrive in Harrow transported and dazed, wishing I could be experiencing some of its wonderful adventures myself.
LOTR is a funny book though - it is a Marmite book. There are no unclear grounds, for you either love it or hate it.
As you can see from the state of the above copy, I rather loved mine.
It only bit the dust when I lent it to two friends at college, the terrible Irish twosome, Henry and Robin (Catholic and Protestant respectively, Dublin and Derry respectively . . . inseperable) and even now I can hear Robin saying, 'Ar shut it, yer fecker' and Henry rolling his eyes.
Robin is the only person I have ever know who did not recognise the smell of his own vomit.
Brief aside: in our flat we had a communal kitchen; there were 8 of us lads away from home, and it was rather Young Ones-ish if you know what I mean.
Robin and Henry had headed out for an evening's recreation, rolled back at about 2AM on a Sunday morning and Henry had slumped off to bed, whilst Robin, gone beyond belief, vomited all over the kitchen table.
I, being my usual early riser, had come through, made a pot of tea and wondered what the hell the smell was, and obviously discovered the mess. I'd exited the room very quickly.
Des, had come in later and had a similar reaction, however he covered the vomit up with a newspaper.
The kitchen was like a dust bowl for the rest of the morning - no one went in there, until Robin got up in the early afternoon, strolled through, made himself some tea and sat at the table reading said newspaper.
In his own words:
'I just thought someone had spilled a feckin' pan.'
Oh yes the delights . .
Anyway, digression aside, back to LOTR **. I have read said book about 30 times in my life, and I have to admit to enjoying it every single time. This being said, The Hobbit has been read a similar number of times, and Earthsea I would say certainly in the 20's, and strangely now, speaking at my advanced age I can honestly say that although LOTR has enough forage for a young mind to enrich itself and lead it on to the wonders of reading (and they are wonders)  I actually view the Earthsea books as, I was going to say superior, but I don't mean that.
I think Ursula's books are of the ilk of Walk Softly And Carry A Big Stick, if that makes sense.
They are, like all her books, quietly powerful.
It is quite an achievement to make a Ten year-old boy's eyes wide with wonder, desperate to carry on reading, and make a grown man weep with the same book. But she has done it.
I could rave on about her knowledge of Chinese philosophy, but she'd probably just tell me to go and stroke Mog and have a cup of tea.
I could tell you about her vast abilities as a crafter of words, but she'd just tell me I have my sentence construction all wrong.
She is a hell of a writer though. As was John Ronald Ruel. As is Mr.Moorcock.


***


So where is all this raving about influential books leading me?
Well in typical FB fashion, I didn't really know until this morning.
Savvy music readers might well recognise the title of this FB as being from 'The Rhythm Of The Heat' by Peter Gabriel - a curious song, but it just sort of fit the mood I was feeling.
I would like to maybe change those words to Smash The Console, Smash The Phone.
Oh no, here he goes again . . . Another wee/big rant about how the world is turning out, but as I have said before, in the land of FB I am the Grand Vizier, and my word is the LAW.
Mwha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
So . . . . you know what?
No one, and I mean no one, has ever asked the manufacturers of games consoles and their games to be socially accountable for the destruction and damage made to the formative thought processes of a number of generations.
There I've said it. The elephant is in the room.
What am I saying?
Look at the world around you, and I mean really look. What do you see? When was the last time you saw a young person with their head buried in a book? When did you ever hear someone say 'I really like reading'?
It's gone, almost overnight.
Stimulation seems to be the buzzword, from the cradle. 
Children aren't eased into the world gently and with peace and an understanding of the importance of quiet reflection and silence. Almost as soon as they arrive they are assaulted by flashing, beeping, ringing, loud, blaring stimulative toys. And, like Pavlov's Dogs, this seems to my eyes to have produced a conditioning of the autonomic response system of children.
Chimps and children are really good at pushing buttons.
Buttons produce results.
Simple.
Push button.
Get banana. Get stimulus.
A banana? A noise? A flashing light? For just pushing a button?
If I were a chimp or a child, I'd be having plenty of that.
Button pushing becomes the norm. And it doesn't require such a huge leap of the imagination to see why sitting staring at a screen for hours and days is seen not be anything other than 'OK'.
But where does this button pushing get us? A chimp cannot read a line of prose and get excitement (because the line is caught up in a complex tale of adventure); cannot get subterfuge (because the line is a part of a complex plot, that might or might not be what it seems); cannot be moved to understanding something of their own life (because the line is so beautifully crafted that it actually transcends the page and becomes something both deeply moving and insightful), and cannot expand their mind, by using reading to connect disparate parts of their psyche. Similarly if all a child knows is button pushing why would they be expected to pick up a book and try?
In other words, because gaming is probably the number one pastime in the whole world, there is chimpdom in legion; lost generations who think that you really do get something for nothing (or very little).
It's a short circuit to fullfillment.
Push buttons.
Get visual banana, and plot, and instant gratification.
Push another.
Flick through things with your index finger tip.
Get instant stimulation, like a lab rat hard-wired to the electrics.
A banana is a banana, whether it be a 'Call Of Duty' banana or an 'Angry Birds' banana, it's still a banana and mankind is not a chimp, and cannot live on bananas alone.
We need sustenance.
Gaming, especially in the young and forming mind, is a form of mono-sustenance.
It does something to stimulate the senses, but it stunts the imagination because everything is on a plate. There is very little in the way of what-ifs, because it has all been pre-decided down to the nano-level.
Humans are creatures of light and stone and desire and passion. We are the mud-men, cave-dwellers who looked at the stars and dreamt. Our minds are incredible, but we need food for the soul.
A book is soul food my friends.
Reading and learning to understand the human condition is soul food too.
Even the worst fiction might give you some sustenance, but with the greatest fiction your soul is flying.
In some of the poorest parts of the world this is understood, because up until recently there hasn't been the erosion of basic humanistic formative foundations.
Give a child a stick or a piece of wood, or a lump of clay and they can be happy, because that is our way and has been for six hundred thousand-odd years.
You explore the world through play, but that play should be with basic toys that don't produce a Pavlovian response.
In poorer parts of the world there is a hunger for learning and for enriching and improving oneself, simply because they haven't been short-circuited into responding to button pushing; it is understood that the way one improves oneself is with reading.
Reading is as intrinsically a human activity as daubing a wall with your finger dipped in ochre
It was a natural human development of human aspiration - the communication of ideas, of emotion, of love, and truth and lies, of ideas and worlds and inspiration.
Reading is as much us, as we are it, and it gives and gives and gives.
In the case of a book I have loved for forty years, it still gives, like a parent, an unconditional love.
And all it requires of you is a small amount of effort.
But it is effort.
It isn't button pushing.
It is brain work and commitment, and in the young, this can be difficult, because everyone wants an easy life and leans towards laziness, but the sustenance needed to be a rounded human cannot be achieved through the lazy stimulus of simple console game playing - you have to work at it.
Manufacturers and programmers will always say that games require thought and effort, but not really. That is propoganda by another name: 'educational marketing'.
A game cannot educate you properly.
It can hint at things, for instance Alec Turnips has an encyclopeadic knowledge of the layout of Venice thanks to 'Assassins Creed', but it only occupies a set space within his brain.
I would love to see how he would manage down on the ground.
To the sellers of these things though, there is 'educational value' (apparently), however if you've ever watched a child learn how to play a console game you'll know that there is quite a bit of trial and error involved, along with a huge amount of button pushing, and frustration, and brain-numbing repetitiveness.
It isn't learning other than the process of learning how to play the game, and even that is utterly different from learning the likes of say chess.
Enough.


***


You know, all this writing here is pure Sheephousian hypothesis.
I would dearly love some academic to look at this and say "By George, I think he has something . . ", but it won't happen.
Anyway, I think I may well have bored you all enough.
I've often said that the world these days is like the difference between getting to your destination on a fast and boring motorway, or going via a circuitous but more interesting route.
I know which I prefer.
Take care, God bless and thanks for reading . . and if you do live near a SHB, go in and say Sheephouse sent you . . and buy something.

* You can buy the first four books in one compendium. The fourth book 'Tehanu' although written some 30 years after the initial printing of the first book, is, in my humble opinion, the greatest fantasy book ever written.

**Sorry Mr.Jackson, but whilst the films were sort of alright, I am not a fan and I am dreading what you are going to do to The Hobbit. With truly great fiction you are always going to come up against a curmudgeonly old git like me who says, that is NOTHING like I have in my head. I think fantastic fiction is the most victimised of all literature when it comes to film adaptations. How can you know what someone else has imagined, and then how can you homogenise that imagination into something that is acceptable for everyone? You can't do it. Or maybe you can, if you are super careful, but it is truly rare to find such a thing. I can think of a few examples, but you could count them on one hand.

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