Not the Greatest Country in the World

It’s Australia Day. 26 January. And I am very proud of my nation.

But let’s get one thing straight – Australia is not the greatest country in the world. We like to pretend it is, because if we didn’t we’d be accused of being un-Australian.

I don’t know what ‘the greatest country in the world ‘ even means. Greatest at what? Every nation on Earth has something they can be good at, I guess. But greatest at everything? I doubt it. Greatest at inventing things that need inventing? Greatest at making war? Charitable enterprises? Football? Give me some parameters here so I can make some comparisons.

We pride ourselves on our ‘mateship’. Do we really? Who are our mates? Our real friends? The guy down the road who makes too much noise with his car on the weekends? Every other Australian? The myth of mateship supposedly engendered at Gallipoli in World War One is a farce today. We don’t stand up for all other Australians. And we never did. Just look at the Stolen Generation for an answer to that. Sure, maybe the conscripted soldiers who served in Vietnam looked out for each other, but the treatment they received from other Australians when they returned home was nothing short of repulsive. We didn’t treat those vets like our mates.

We are, as Donald Horne put it, a lucky country. But lucky is the wrong word. We are fortunate. We have wealth, freedom, resources, natural environment and determination. We have powerful friends (whose interest in us mainly stems from our geographical location). Australia is, in a very real sense, an Asian country. But it’s people aren’t.

We’ve made mistakes. The White Australia Policy was not something we should look back on with any pride, although it did serve its purpose at the time. We’ve done some things right, other things well, even contributed to the welfare of other nations. We have great inventors, scientists, artists, actors, writers, builders, engineers, doctors and so on. Just like every other country on Earth.

That doesn’t make us the greatest nation at all.

Australians on Australia day rightly celebrate our nation’s place in the world. But we have a problem: we are in love with an image. And we know image is so important these days – just look at all those selfies out there. That’s image.

The image that we worship is that of the Aussie larrikin, the ‘little Aussie bleeder’, the yobbo who acts like a moron because he is one, the fighter who keeps getting back up because he’s too dim to realise when he’s been beaten. And we do get beaten. We are in love the idea of our ‘convict past’. Although only a fraction of people in Australia today could actually link their family tree back to a convict past, we seem to have taken that on board as who we are. Criminals.

This idolisation of an image means that we have to live up to it. Which isn’t always a good thing.

Australia has an inferiority complex. We want to be as good as everyone else, and we don’t have faith in ourselves because we’re a bunch of yobbo convicts who don’t let anyone tell them what to do. And that’s holding us back.

There is no greatest nation on Earth, and there shouldn’t be. Every nation has a valid contribution to make, and should be encouraged to do so. Tall poppy syndrome here in Australia means as soon as someone achieves something, rises above the herd, we pull them down. We don’t like people getting above everyone else in our classless society. So we stifle those that set out to achieve greatness. Good on us.

We have to get over ourselves. So do a lot of other countries. Being proud of your nation is good – nationalism, in the sense that one nation is better than all the others, is bad. That started World War One. And World War Two for that matter.

Have a great Australia Day. Kill a fly for me (it wouldn’t be Australia Day without killing a few flies) and drink to your pride in our country’s achievements.

But don’t act like a prick. You’re better than that.

 

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

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Being Dead

Recently, I’ve thought about  being dead. Not that anyone I know has died lately, and I don’t have a terminal illness and I’m not thinking of shuffling off my mortal coil anytime soon. But it’s an interesting thing to think about nevertheless. After all, it’s something that we all have to do eventually, like it or not, so we may as well accept the inevitability of it. Because people are different, they have different attitudes to death, and most of these are determined by what they think will happen afterwards. Religions favour the idea that a good life will be rewarded and a bad one punished – although the concept of eternal punishment for a temporary sin is a weird one when you think about it, and more than a little unfair. But is it a given that anything at all will happen?

I mean, I know things will happen after my death. The world will keep turning, seasons will change, events will continue in their inexorable way. It’s just that I’m not going to be around to see them. So yes, there definitely is life after death. It’s just not a life I’ll be participating in. The universe seemed to function moderately well before I was born and I have the feeling it will continue to do so after I’m gone.

But of course, that’s not what most people worry about. They are more concerned about what happens to them. Which is understandable. But is an afterlife all it’s cracked up to be? Is it actually a ‘consummation devoutly to be wished’ as Shakespeare put it when Hamlet was considering not bearing any fardels (He actually uses the word fardels  – check it out at Hamlet III, i).

There are many considered possibilities about what happens when we die, and  I’ll address some of them. They aren’t all of the possibilities I’m sure, but they are the major ones people tend to consider as possible outcomes of this brief mortal span of ours. And bear in mind, this is just my opinion. People are free to believe other things if they wish.

All right, so let’s assume I’m dead. There are a myriad of possible causes of that. Extreme old age is about as attractive as I guess it gets, so let’s pretend I’ve just popped off after a good sojourn on this turgid little planet. So, what happens to me now?

1) I’ll go to heaven, or achieve some state of life after death where I am rewarded by  an applicable deity.

I won’t suggest any particular version of heaven or specify any actual deity, as  there are a lot of religions around. Some scholars put the number of different creeds at about 4,200. I don’t know which might be the “right one”. If we were honest, we’d have to admit no one does.  Nor is there being a right one required for this topic. Seriously, most people are the same religion as their parents. Coincidence? Of course not. Children are indoctrinated into a particular religion depending on what faith their parents have. Some change later in life, of course, but mostly it’s a safe bet that a person was raised in the same church as the rest of their family. So it’s just an accident of birth that anyone is the religion they are.

Now, whatever the version of heaven being considered here, it’s probably not going to appeal to me. Think about it. No one is actually sure what’s going to happen even if you do go to heaven. Look at just one viewpoint, which asserts that Lazarus spent four days dead. This would be a great opportunity, one might think, to bring back some details about the place. But he didn’t. No one knows. Even those “psychics” who reckon they can channel the dead never ask what’s it like? All we get are vague things about forgiving those left behind and “I feel fine”. Details, please! And if the glory of heaven is too great for mere mortals to explain to other mere mortals, then it’s beyond our comprehension and therefore meaningless. Check out my novel Plato’s Cave for more information about that viewpoint.

Recently, a boy who wrote a book (with the aid of his father) about dying and going to heaven admitted he’d made it up. It was a bestseller because it satisfied people’s preconceived notions about heaven; it told them what they wanted to believe. But no one actually knows.

My point is, I don’t know if I’d like it. Imagine if everyone in heaven is so holy all they do is talk about God for eternity. If God arranged it that way, he’s been a bit selfish. If he is an eternal deity, he doesn’t need constant praise. That just makes him human.

Others say you get to be with your loved ones. Fair enough, I love my family, and it would be great to see my Dad again, but I don’t want to spend forever with them. Get together occasionally and have some fun, sure, but not forever. Let’s face it, that’s a long time.

If we believe some commentators, we’ll be “one with God”. What does that mean? Are we actually a part of him, like another limb or something? Are we spiritual part? If so, what does that mean? God has given me no peace in life, so I doubt I’ll be terribly comforted by being a part of him after death. If I’m to learn the love and truth of God only by dying and becoming a part of him after I’m dead, it’s a bit late.

Many religions, if not all, focus on the afterlife because life itself actually sucks for a great many people and it’s a comfort to them to think they have immortal and eternal souls beyond the ability of mere physical laws to detect or explain. It gives purpose to their lives, maybe. That’s good. But making the most of our time while alive is important too.

Whether we are talking Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or any of the others, details of what happens in heaven are actually rather vague. They shouldn’t be.

So I think I’ll pass. I don’t want to spend eternity somewhere if I haven’t read the brochure.

 

2) I’ll go to hell.

Another tricky religion-dependent concept. Hell, of course, is an invention, because churches needed to frighten people into believing, because having faith is really hard and so a threat of eternal punishment would give them incentive. Even Pope Francis has stated that there is no Hell.

So, no. I’m not going to a place that doesn’t exist. Besides, it’s not fair to have an eternal punishment for a temporary sin. I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family and I get punished FOREVER? That’s not justice.

 

3) I’ll become a ghost or spirit or something paranormal.

This means people who fancy themselves as TV hosts will come along with torches and delicate recording equipment and attempt to find me or exorcise me or something. I don’t fancy hanging about the same place, presumably the place where I died, for eternity. I wouldn’t do it. If I had the ability to walk through walls and be invisible I’d put those abilities to some good use, not hang about twiddling my ethereal thumbs waiting for some idiot with a camera to spend their time looking for me.

Have you ever noticed on those TV shows where they look for ghosts or Bigfoot or the Sasquatch or whatever spooky critter has taken their fancy that they never actually find one? Ever? I wonder why. Are the hunters that unlucky, that incompetent, or is it that the things they are looking for don’t actually exist? Maybe a combination of all three.

Of course, believing in ghosts is easy, because you can’t be disproved. If I say ‘Ghosts aren’t real’, it’s easy to prove me wrong – just find a ghost. But if I declare ‘Ghosts are real’ it’s impossible to prove me wrong. When asked for evidence, all I have to say is ‘We haven’t found one yet.’ Science is falsifiable. Faith is not.

 

4) I’ll reincarnate.

If I’m supposed to improve as a person, at least let me remember what I did wrong the last time so I have some kind of chance. If I’m going to come back as an ant or a toad or something because of mistakes I’ve made (see my above thoughts on unfair punishment) then some idea of precisely what it was I did wrong might help.  You take your chances.

Sure, religion give us an idea of how we should behave in real life, but that pesky Karma idea means I’ll be sent back again and again to have another go, like a kid who keeps failing his exams and is held back until the other kids laugh at him. Maybe I should study for my exams a bit harder, but this just makes it my fault, which doesn’t tie in with forgiveness and divine mercy. It’s just petty. I’m being told how to behave, and even if I do achieve relief from reincarnation the whole problem of what happens then is still there. The doubts and uncertainties and the fact that no one actually knows remain unresolved. It solves nothing in the end.

 

5) Nothing will happen.

You see, the problem with possibilities 1 to 3 above is that they depend on the idea that I will have some sort of consciousness after I’m dead. But there’s no evidence I will. Possibility 4, reincarnation, means I don’t have any conscious memory of my previous lives, and that’s unfair.

The most attractive possibility, therefore, is this one. Number 5. Nothing will happen. I won’t be sitting there going ‘Hmm, I’m not supposed to do what I did last time but I don’t know what that actually was.’ I won’t be praising some deity that made me flawed in the first place and gave me the choice whether to have a good time or not and I choose having a good time and then he gets mad because he didn’t want me to. I won’t be going to Hell, because it doesn’t exist. And being a ghost would be really, really boring and if I did have ‘other business’ I’d make sure I did it and got the next bus out of there.

So I’m looking forward to number 5. I will have moved on. It won’t bother me. I don’t have to be concerned about anything at all. The universe will go on without me very well.

If the history of the universe is a line from the Big Bang up to the moment you are reading this, like so:

____________________________________________

and I was to pick a random point on that line that stretches for more than 13 billion years, the overwhelming possibility is that I wouldn’t exist. I am now 57 years old. So the chances of picking a year on that line that falls within my lifetime is 57 out of 13,000,000,000. Or, as Douglas Adams would have put it, ‘as near to nothing as makes no odds’. So really, I’m not very important at all. None of us are, in the cosmic scheme of things.

This is an idea that a lot of religious people have an issue with. They want to be important. They want to matter. That’s fair enough. Be important. Write a book. Save children from starving. Rescue animals. Do something that makes you important NOW, while you’re alive, not after you’re dead. It’s too late then.

So believe what you want. This is a personal reflection about me. Just make the here and now as useful as you can, because it’s your one shot at it.

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

The Horror of Children’s Stories

Picture this: a little girl has just thrown a bucket water over a Witch. What happens next is quite disturbing.

 
“With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again.”

 
Now let’s get this straight… a little girl calmly melts an old woman, sweeps the gooey slime she has become out of the door like so much swill, and then calmly cleans her shoe like this sort of thing happened every day.

 
You might thing the extract is taken from the latest gore-filled treat from Permuted Press, but it’s actually from L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. A children’s book. Of course, if you are only familiar with the 1939 Judy Garland film, you may remember the witch-melting scene was a little more wholesome. Certainly in the movie Dorothy didn’t have to clean up the disgusting sewage of what used to be a human being like she was doing a simple household chore. And in the movie version Dorothy felt pretty upset about the whole thing as well, even though the witch was evil and had tried to kill her.

 
Take another story: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Now there are no violent scenes in that timeless classic, surely? Admittedly the Queen of Hearts threatens everyone with having their heads chopped off, but no one is unfortunate to actually have it done. But most of the violence of the Alice books is more subtle. According to Hugh Haughton in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Carroll’s books (1998), there is an underlying theme of eating and being eaten in the book. The characters are in more danger of being consumed by other characters than anything the Queen of Hearts might threaten. Alice eats and drinks various substances and changes size; the baby oysters are consumed by the Walrus and the Carpenter; the Hatter is obsessed by tea and bread and butter. There is also, of course, more overt violence: the Duchess physically abuses her baby son, the March Hare and the Hatter try to drown the Dormouse in tea, and the terrifying Giant Crow threatens Alice in the forest.

 
It doesn’t end with those books. In Peter Pan by J.M Barrie, the fairy Tinker Bell is a right bitch. Her first act on seeing Wendy is to get Tootles to shoot her with an arrow in an attempt to kill her. He almost succeeds. Tootles is so distraught he asks Peter to kill him.

 
Now, the point is that these are probably not events most people recall when remembering these tales. But they are there in the original books.

 
There have, of course, been many criticisms of traditional fairy tales as being too violent. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and so forth contain considerable murder and mayhem. The difference between them and the more modern stories I’ve referred to is that these stories are folk tales, handed down over many years and added to, extended and changed over generations before being recorded by people like the Brothers Grimm. They were not written specifically for children. The adventures of Alice, Dorothy and Peter Pan were.

 
So what do we make if this? Are these stories in their original forms just too violent? I say “in their original forms” because each of those I mentioned has been “toned down” when made into films. Disney and Warner Brothers made a point of changing things so the stories were more wholesome for tender readers (or, in their case, viewers). Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch, but feels bad about it at least. Admittedly, modern versions of Alice (I refer specifically to the recent Tim Burton CGI extravaganza) may take liberties with the plot in which they do present a more dangerous version of Wonderland than the Disney version. But this is a modern trend, I submit, and I’ll mention it again later.
My point is (and I’ve taken a while making it) is that there is a wealth of trauma available to writers in children’s tales. Quite often where you wouldn’t expect it. In The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad not only steals a motor vehicle, he is actually in involved in numerous car accidents and is thrown in prison as a result. And I’m sure most of us remember the Narnia series by C. S Lewis, which tells of children not only fighting in wars but killing their adversaries with barely a nod at any feelings of guilt afterwards.

 
Writers might well find ideas in these tales. And that’s a good thing. While I’m not condoning the exposure of children to violence, death and horror, it certainly can entertain the adult reader and inspire the adult writer.

 
Back when these stories were written, I submit the world was a more violent place. There was no such thing as being an adolescent. One went from the caterpillar stage of childhood to the butterfly stage of adulthood without any inconvenient chrysalis stage of adolescence in between. People grew up earlier. Children’s books were violent because life was violent. It still is these days, but we don’t like to admit it and try to protect our children from its excesses. An example of this is the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the Duchess throws her baby boy to Alice (who only just manages to catch him) after singing a song about how beating a child was a justifiable punishment for it sneezing. This would hardly have raised an eyebrow back in 1865. Children were beaten. The world was perhaps no better or worse than it is today, but violence was condoned more and seen as an acceptable solution to social and domestic problems. Carroll was using violence as nonsense, and perhaps as a comment on the philosophy of child-rearing at the time: the air in the Duchess’s house was full of pepper, the baby sneezed as a result, and so the Duchess beat him. Problem solved.

 
We would not condone such a practice today, even as nonsense, which is why this incident has not, my knowledge, been incorporated into any film adaptations of Alice so far ( I don’t include the Burton film there, as it is so far removed from the original story as to be a separate entity).

 
Burton’s film does, however, seek to make an adult vision of Wonderland (with a bit of Looking-Glass Land added into it). And that is how the horror of children’s stories can be used to good effect. Tales like Frank Beddor’s The Looking-Glass Wars is a classic use of a classic to create something new and insightful.

 
So horror is there in children’s stories. If you sit and read the originals and wonder why they all seem so different to what you thought they were about, or what you remembered when you read them as a kid, then I hope you can take a whole new delight in these children’s stories for grown-ups. And, as a writer, that they inspire you in your own tales of horror and fantasy.

TheRedKing_EbookCover

I have written my own version of Alice and Dorothy in my forthcoming series The Jabberwocky Book. The first volume The Red King, is due for release in March 2015 by Permuted Press.

 

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com