Archive for March, 2021

George R Stewart: Earth Abides

March 31, 2021

I suppose this counts as another ‘plague’ novel, though the virus – a kind of super-measles – which largely wipes out humanity (at least in the US, where the novel is set) is largely a device to permit a post-apocalypse story. And although I first read it forty-five years ago, I was surprised to notice that it was written seventy years ago now, and so falls clearly into that category of post-Second World War speculative fiction which explored the end of our species, a notion obviously triggered by those cataclysmic years.

Our hero is isolated and immobilised by a rattlesnake bite during the crucial period where humanity is wiped out. He is moved to survive, explores the empty vastnesses of the continent, and eventually meets up with a few other survivors who form a small tribe in the San Francisco Bay area and survive largely by scavenging on the remains of the old world. The story follows him from his twenties to the end of his life, and thus covers the development of the tribe and their struggles for survival. The focus is on what is of value, of worth, really useful, and encourages some reflection on our current world.

The exploration of an empty, half-familiar world is well done; we get a clear sense of the hero’s character and attitudes emerging, perhaps echoing the author’s own sentiments about our species and our world. He eventually meets a woman and they settle in together and fortunately are very compatible; I had a moment of deep shock as I realised that, although this was the fourth time I’d read the book, the fact that she was not of pure white descent was so deeply concealed in the text that I’d not clocked it before (I think). And yet, Stewart – writing in 1950s America – wanted at least some of his readers to know this, and thus its implications for the future…

The growth of the tribe leads the hero to reflect on what knowledge from the past is actually useful to the new future, and what can realistically be preserved. Answer, not very much. He painfully learns that the old ways cannot be re-established: ‘civilisation’ was much too complex for a small group of survivors to replicate, and those who never knew the past are the future and have different ways of thinking and doing: the fracture between then and now is much greater than one suspects.

The most thoughtful – and shocking – episode is possibly when some of the younger members of the tribe return from an expedition with an outsider, who is immoral, apparently riddled with STDs and clearly posits a major threat to the community. They take the decision to kill him, and do so. But he has brought a strain of typhoid with him, which has devastating effects. And yet, the tribe needs new blood to escape the dangers of inbreeding.

Although it has dated rather, in some of its attitudes to race and sexuality in particular, it remains a very good and very powerful novel, sometimes surprisingly so, because Stewart is not content to remain with mere story; his character, the last American as he comes to see himself, is a thoughtful and reflective man rather than a man of action, and we follow his ruminations on where the human race will go, as we see it descending into semi-stone age scavenging. His initial concerns about keeping ‘civilisation’ alive are reduced to basic practicalities, and his legacy to the future is not preserving the university library, but teaching the next generations to dig a well, make a bow and arrow, and make fire using a bow, rather than matches…

The power of the writing can occasionally surprise, for example when the hero must say farewell to the son who is most like him and who dies in the typhoid outbreak, and equally when he makes his final visit to the university library and realises that all that accumulated wisdom of the ages is for nothing in the future.

More thoughts on social media

March 23, 2021

I’ve been doing some more thinking about the problems with social media, given the attention it gets nowadays. First of all, I think we need to be aware of several distinctions:

There’s using social media for personal/friend/family contact: WhatsApp messaging, Facebook and the like; we are communicating with people we know (pretty) well. This is different from reacting to posts from strangers/ casual acquaintances/ friends of friends that also pop up in such things as our Facebook feeds: how well do we know that person and their attitudes? Does this/ should this matter? And think about how the platform shapes your communication: Twitter limits what how much can say, Facebook algorithms choose which of your ‘friends’ will see a post, Instagram heightens the competitive in you…

What about the audience: is it private (WhatsApp and the like) or more generally public (Facebook, Twitter &c)? Does this make a difference?

What device are we using? Because we all know about fat fingers, it being harder perhaps to type accurately on the tiny keyboard on a phone, and so we may tend to write shorter, curter, less subtle messages or responses. I know I may be showing my age here! But it’s different writing something with the relative comfort of a table with a laptop and fully-sized keyboard, imho… So, an e-mail or a blog post like this one is an open-ended communication, not limited by the platform or the device, only by my reader’s attention-span (tl;dr?)…very different, as I can try to explain and nuance my ideas and opinions when I’m allowing myself five or six hundred words.

And this ought to be linked to things like the limit on the number of characters on a platform like Twitter: how subtle can you be? This should matter.

There are broader issues, such as the fact that mobile phones are not often used for talking: they’re mini pocket computers, offering all sorts of comms possibilities. But think about the difference between a conversation and a text exchange: you don’t hear your correspondent’s voice, its tone, the pauses, the noises they make as part of their reaction to what you’ve said; you don’t pick up cues from them. The entire interaction is shaped and developed differently. And don’t imagine that emoticons help: it’s like letting someone else make all those non-verbal communications for you.

There’s also one’s attitude to responding: psychologically the ‘ping’ announcing the arrival of a message primes us to make an instant – unconsidered? – response. Why does this have to be the case? I’ve lost count of the number of times some one has told me of a message and said, ‘I don’t know what to say!’ and I’ve found myself replying, ‘There’s no law that says you have to reply instantly!’ An instant response with no thinking time may be too angry, too emotional, too simplistic a response, and damage is done instantly; it will necessarily be brief because you’re typing on a phone… When someone’s there with you, or you’re talking to them on the phone, if you put your foot in it you can often verbally backtrack and correct things: in a text exchange, someone can go off in a huff and ignore your messages…

And, of course, phones have always replaced physical social interaction, where you can actually see the other person and pick up all sorts of visual cues and messages from body language.

At some level, none of the above is rocket science, if you think a little about it; the problem is that the media do not allow that sort of reflectiveness easily, and it seems to me that this is how misunderstandings from throwaway comments, whether to total strangers or someone we know well, arise and do damage. And no, I don’t have any wise advice to offer, other than ‘Switch brain on!’

There’s also the question of fake news, false information, propaganda or whatever you want to call it; messages sent out en masse by organisations. Perhaps this was not anticipated in the early days of social media, but once it became apparent that enormous amounts of money could be generated from all kinds of advertising, it was surely inevitable. The structure of social media encourages brief, simplistic messages, whether advertising or political propaganda, and because these messages are jumbled in with more personal stuff, our critical faculties are disarmed or at least less attentive, in that we are more likely to view and judge them with the less critical eye that we use with more friendly messages. And anyway, how are we able to check or to verify? How do we know – how can we find out – who is behind that unexpected post or message that appears among more innocent material? And the more we try to lockdown our privacy or shut out unsolicited material, the more it impacts on the communications we actually want to have.

Final, broader and perhaps more cynical question/ reflection: did the builders of all these social media platforms know the full implications of what they let loose? Did they care? Or was/is it all about money?

One thing is for sure: we need to think seriously about how social media is changing us, our opinions, and how we relate to the rest of the world…

John Christopher: The World in Winter

March 23, 2021

     I thought that Rolfe’s novel was the worst I’d ever read, but this one gives it a run for its money. To be kind, it’s horribly dated – casual racism and even use of the n-word acceptable in 1962 – and I can’t see for the life of me why, having read it over forty years ago, I bothered to keep it…

It’s marketed as SF, so that’s probably the reason: a new ice age moves in, and Britain (for that’s the sole concern of the writer, really) is uninhabitable. But this is merely a backdrop for a silly tale of domestic affairs and infidelity between barely credible cardboard characters, along with the casual assumption that Brits can just emigrate to warmer climes, the ex-colonies, to escape the worst of the global cooling. Chaos and anarchy in the UK are described briefly in this very sub-JG Ballard catastrophe tale, and the only slightly entertaining aspect is the Brits who decamp to West Africa finding that the boot is very much on the other foot in terms of relationships between the races… However, all the tired old tropes about the inefficiency, disorganisation and corruption of those countries are peddled ad nauseam. Of course, a clever white man can soon sort them out, although the power dynamics are somewhat different.

It really is that bad. I don’t usually get cross with a book, but I wanted real SF: the initial premise is interesting enough, even if barely credible nowadays. Instead there was maudlin tosh involving unconvincing characters. It reminded me of the Alistair MacLean and Hammond Innes adventure fiction I devoured in my early teenage years – only they devised better plots and wrote better yarns.

So Britain is abandoned by its government and eventually a Nigerian expedition sets out to establish a claim to the territory, in an expedition in hovercraft, helped by our token white hero who makes the Nigerians’ incompetence clear, as well as their barely-disguised savagery. The ending is utterly predictable.

I won’t go on. You get the idea. One to avoid.

C H H Parry: Johann Sebastian Bach

March 22, 2021

This book was written over a century ago; I’ve had my copy over 30 years before giving it any serious attention, and a fair amount of it I skimmed because I don’t have the musical knowledge to access it. Apologies in advance, therefore, to any serious musician who may stumble across this piece hoping for something useful.

I’ve read a lot about J S Bach, and visited many places in Germany connected with his life and work; his music has fascinated me for years in the same way Shakespeare’s plays and poems have entranced me, the difference being that I can make some claim to understanding the latter…

And yet, I learned some interesting things from Parry’s book. He details how Bach studied carefully the works of many other composers, visiting some of them. I learned of the importance of court patronage for musicians and how this worked; the importance of the church and religion in Bach’s time I had obviously been aware of, but there was interesting reading on the differences between Catholic and Protestant church music and the respective churches’ attitudes to it. For Protestants, it was personal, and a link between the individual and the divine (which I realised may well explain my attraction to it). Parry took this further with detailed exploration of the genesis of the B Minor Mass, in which the Catholic service receives its most magnificent and astonishing treatment from a profoundly pious Lutheran…

But the most astonishing thing I learned was that it was only around Bach’s time that composers were experimenting with musicians using their thumbs in keyboard playing: previously they had not, partly because of the different way the hand was held while playing… and endless new possibilities were opened up, with Bach being at the forefront in the development of keyboard music.

Parry deals with the church cantatas thoroughly, some briefly, some at great length but I think they are all covered; I found it difficult because he was writing in the days before Schmieder’s great catalogue attributed BWV numbers to all Bach’s works and made it easier to refer to them. Overall – and remember I’m a non-musician – I felt there was often a rather broad-brush approach compared with that of more recent writers; what I was aware of throughout was of someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the composer and his music, as well as a sensitivity and understanding and a deep love and appreciation of the unparalleled musician and composer. And the book is probably nowadays a historical curiosity.

One year later

March 21, 2021

One year into the pandemic. One year ago, we decide to isolate ourselves: not officially lockdown yet, but then our PM never has managed to act in a timely fashion… Then, I re-read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and thought to myself, I’ll write a contemporary journal. It wasn’t long before I gave up: there was nothing to write about, with so much of my ‘normal’ life disappearing: no U3A language groups, no weekly yoga classes, no Quaker Meeting for Worship, no holidays, no seeing family. And there was no point in recording the tergiversations of useless, lying, corrupt and venal politicians because there’s public record of that wherever you look. I was full of intentions of reading other plague-related literature such as CamusLa Peste – which I still haven’t gone back to – and I did manage Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague recently. There’s still Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and George Stewart’s Earth Abides to reread.

Of course, some of those lost activities soon resumed on that tiring platform which is Zoom. Our French conversation group still meets fortnightly to talk about anything and everything, although with life as curtailed as it is, there’s actually far less for us to talk about. And I know I’m not the only one to notice how group conversations on Zoom and other platforms are different: much harder to pick up visual and body language cues with such small pictures, and one is inevitable distracted by one’s own picture in the corner of the screen. Our German group opted not to continue on Zoom, and I don’t know whether it will recommence; our Spanish teacher finally decided to retire from teaching. Quite a gap in my routines and my learning.

Our elders at local Quaker Meeting have done sterling work in enabling Zoom meetings every Sunday, for which I am very grateful, and again Friends agree that it just isn’t the same as being gathered together in the same room. Modern technology has meant it’s been easy to be in touch with friends and family, and at various points it was even possible to meet up under carefully defined circumstances. I have sorely missed my weekly yoga classes: our teacher carefully followed guidance and we managed to have some smaller, fortnightly classes but these inevitably fell at the first hurdle when things had to be tightened up again…

Travel – which has been one of my major retirement activities, with usually a couple of serious road trips to Europe each year – disappeared almost completely, although I did manage a week’s walking in Scotland late summer.

I thought I’d get loads of reading done, but this was not to be; I couldn’t settle on what to read, and frittered time away. Much gardening, and much tidying and decluttering happened. Things are different now, in that I’ve lately got a reading fit on and am revisiting lots of books I haven’t opened for many years, which has been very satisfying.

In and among all this, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting: what have I learnt over the past year?

I have learnt a good deal about people, and can see that we have not yet reached peak stupidity. People swallow the lies of politicians, and the lies spread on social media. People do not listen to advice, especially that of the experts in the field who advise us carefully. Too many joggers thud selfishly past, not putting distance between themselves and others, too fixed in their own little achievement bubbles; a lot of cyclists are the same; dog-walkers can be worse. People don’t wear masks properly, or pretend that they can’t. They clap for the heroes of our NHS and then vote for the politicians who have starved it of resources for years and pretend there’s no money for wage increases for nurses: people don’t want to pay taxes.

I have learnt how corrupt the UK actually is. We have a mental picture of endemic bribery and corruption which we associate with the Third World, when actually the same things are happening right here at home, and with our tax-payers’ money. Our NHS has done astonishing work tackling COVID and planning and carrying out a massive and apparently successful vaccination programme that’s the envy of many other countries: our shameless government is basking in the credit for this, and people are lapping it up. I’ve learnt how undemocratic the US really is, despite all those lectures to the rest of the world about its being a light shining on a hill, an example to the rest of the world.

In and among all this negative stuff, I’ve learnt how caring and thoughtful neighbours can be, with a word or a chat, a note through the letterbox or a message on social media. I’ve realised how important social contact is, especially now I’m retired. Retirement has made staying safe easier, although my greater age brings greater risks along with it. I’ve renewed contact with many friends and acquaintances with whom I’d lost contact for years. I’ve learnt the importance of sustaining regular exercise – the same boring circuit every day – and even made new friends, chatting briefly at a distance with total strangers whilst out for my daily walk. And I’ve learnt that being financially comfortable makes all these things much easier. We’ve wrestled with click and collect at supermarkets, and learned how much we don’t need to go shopping.

I’m a different person; tidier, more organised, somewhat more wary. I’m nervous about what happens when we’re ‘allowed’ to do things again: will I have lost my nerve? Self-confidence is one of those things that does wane as one ages… I am fervently hoping that I will still have the nerve to get behind the wheel of my under-used car and drive off to the forests of Luxembourg again when that is allowed once more.

James Blish: The Seedling Stars

March 21, 2021

     Found this one that I bought in 1977 and apparently hadn’t read. It’s a set of four loosely linked tales about adapted humans, with the basic premise that finding habitable earth-like planets is pretty unlikely, terraforming planets is very long-term and costly, and therefore the way to go is to manipulate humans so that they can live in radically different conditions. And yet Blish’s adapted humans think and emote just like us ordinary humans in hard SF… I found this just a little unconvincing, really. The novel dated from the mid-1950s, and yet already there is the notion that humans are outgrowing, and wearing out, their own planet.

As I read this moderately interesting novel of ideas – for that’s basically what it is, nothing plot-wise to sustain a reader’s attention here – I was struck by the progression from Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, where humans modify themselves in order to colonise planets, in the sweep of a story of humanity across several billion years, to Blish in this novel, exploring a similar idea, but focusing on smaller groups of individuals in a more limited time-frame, with the similar idea of humanity ‘seeding’ other worlds with intelligent life. And then I realised what Ursula Le Guin had done, picking up the same idea in a much more sophisticated manner in her Hainish novels and stories. In those, the Hainish, in the distant past, seeded many worlds across the universe with variations on the human form; these eventually re-discover each other and form a loose association called the Ekumen, and homo sapiens here on planet Earth is merely one of the results of the Hainish seeding. And then, with her background in anthropology, she can put homo sapiens under the microscope.

It’s good to see how writers play with each other’s ideas, develop and vary them, and provide us with more food for thought in different ways. I can acknowledge Blish’s part in this sequence, and I liked the final twist at the end where the racism that had always blighted humanity’s time on Earth, re-appeared as the different human types re-connected with each other, and the ‘original’ Terrans demonstrated their innate sense of superiority once again… But ultimately Blish is too much hard science, and unconvincing would-be humans for me.

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

March 16, 2021

     I’ve wrestled a couple of times with this ancient Chinese wisdom text and felt I’d not really got anywhere: I know it’s partly a cultural thing, in the sense of how my mind has been trained/ trained itself to think over many years, and not finding it easy to tune into the elusive, enigmatic and contradictory ways that eastern sages present their ideas. So, when I discovered that Ursula Le Guin had done a version, I thought perhaps she might succeed where other translators had failed, as far as I’m concerned.

I found her version – and she’s careful to make clear it’s a version, not a translation – more readable, less archaic and arcane in language, and therefore somewhat more accessible, and she provides helpful glosses and explanatory notes on the page as you read, as well as more detailed information at the end.

And yet, as I read through, I still found myself with questions: how, exactly, am I meant to be reading this text? Through from start to finish? Much more slowly? Chapter by chapter? This isn’t by way of a complaint, more of a realisation that I don’t (yet) have a frame of reference from which to access the book.

Some chapters are much more accessible – I think – than others. I have the impression of an ideal being put forward, which is not attainable though to be striven for, but then at other points I’m reading common-sense, practical hints on how to face life. So what, exactly, is the purpose of the book? At the moment, it seems, the intention is to have the reader slow down, and reflect on their life, how they live it and what they get from it, as well as what they offer others.

Having found Le Guin’s approach more accessible, I shall continue with the Tao, alongside other ancient works of wisdom that have in different ways supported my reflections on life: Socrates many years ago made the point I’ve always cherished, that the unexamined life is not worth living. And the one thing I took away from this reading was something of a revelation about my life and career as a teacher, à propos of Lao Tzu’s point about not hoarding: teaching for me was always about giving and sharing the amazing stuff I’d learnt…

Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead

March 14, 2021

   I’ve re-read this one for our book group, and decided to focus on what might be the qualities in Tokarczuk’s writing which make her a Nobel Laureate – not that that particular accolade is a guarantee of anything. You can read my first take on the book here.

The heroine and narrator lives in a remote village in the mountains close to the Polish/Czech border. She immediately comes across as rather strange, for her world-view is deeply dependent on astrological interpretations of events and people, and she has a strong sense of animals having rights in the same way as humans do; as the novel progresses, Tokarczuk succeeds in having us empathise with and eventually respect and like her, as well as see the logic and the sense in such a response to the world.

This world picture is fully developed in the sense that the narrator takes it and us along with her wherever she goes, and she is always philosophising and reflecting on the world and trying to make sense of it in her own terms. Her rage at hunters and killers of animals knows no bounds, and a series of deaths – are they murders? – of locals connected with hunting form the core of the events and the mystery at the heart of the book: our suspicions grow as we wonder if the narrator is connected with them, and we look for gaps in her awareness and her narrative…

I shan’t give any more away. The book is eminently readable, though not gripping in the usual sense. In the end, the qualities I especially admired were the subtle sense of place she creates, the astonishingly conceived plot, the carefully developed characterisation, and the artistry in the writing, which of course I can only appreciate through the work of her excellent translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones’ work must have been extraordinarily difficult, as a side strand of the story concerns the narrator and a friend of hers attempting to translate some of William Blake’s verse into English, and comparing versions; that would work in a Polish text, obviously, and here the translator makes it work for English readers too!

It’s well-known that right-wing and religious circles in her country do not like Olga Tokarczuk, and when we read the episode where she heckles the local priest during his sermon on St Hubert’s feast day (patron saint of hunters) it’s easy to see why: her reflections on the sacrament are highly provocative. In the end, taken along with other of her work, including the equally astonishing Flights, I can see why Tokarczuk received the ultimate accolade.

On subjection

March 13, 2021

Warning: politics ahead

Currently enjoying the fun as media and royalty fight it out, but I do often mentally have to pinch myself and remember this is the twenty-first century we are living in. As I’m half-Polish, I’ve never felt any real sense of loyalty to the monarchy or the institution: there used to be a monarchy in Poland, and as someone with a name that used to be in the index of the nobility, I’d probably have been entitled to take part in the election of the king (yes, you read that correctly!)… but the country disappeared from the map for over a century and when it came back, it didn’t bring back the monarchy that had been part of the problem in the first place, and it abolished the nobility. No bloodshed involved.

The French disposed of their monarchy a couple of centuries ago; true, there were some attempts to reinstate it, but in the end the people derived a sense of their own rights and confidence in their nation without royalty. The Russians murdered the lot, and while there are some in that country who would like to have a tsar, when you’ve always had a strong and powerful autocrat at the helm, what does it matter whether he’s tsar, first secretary or president? A number of European nations have smaller, slimmed-down monarchies that are tolerated by their people. But the English… or is it the British?

Somehow we are permanently cowed by the monarchy, the aristocracy and such people’s self-proclaimed entitlement to power and worship. True, we beheaded a king in 1649 and had a republic for eleven whole years, but quickly welcomed the monarchy back. Similarly, we had a General Strike (just the one) in 1926, and backed off from that before anything was achieved; general strikes sometimes seem to be one of the French national pastimes…is there just something inherently conservative in us island folk? Is the island the problem?

If you ask the average Brit what advantage the monarchy has, chances are they will talk about tradition, pageantry, bringing in tourists: all pretty pathetic justifications for the current state of affairs. I will acknowledge the current monarch’s strong sense of service to the nation and people, before I note that she has been incredibly well rewarded for it all.

What has been brought home to me by the current media circus is just how damaged in various ways the different members of that family are and have been. Rub it with a fifty-pound note is my immediate response; what do you expect is another? It’s clear that privilege has its price: much unhappiness, and a dysfunctional family, many of whom haven’t a clue about their purpose or what to do with themselves and their lives, and certainly know nothing about the lives of most of their ‘subjects’.

But there is a wider price for the country, in its forelock-tugging subservience as subjects, not citizens, of ‘her Britannic majesty’ as our new bluish passports say. In so many ways we are living in the past, trying to live off what we imagine are our past glories (pretty dubious and dodgy when looked at closely), constitutionally – I use that word deliberately – incapable of looking forward and addressing the problems and issues of the century we are actually living in. I’d like to live in a republic, with an elected head of state, two elected chambers of Parliament, a written constitution, and a sensible electoral system. Too much to ask, in the twenty-first century. Funny how the Brits and the US managed to set this up in post-war West Germany…

Robie Macauley: A Secret History of Time to Come

March 10, 2021

     Another post-apocalypse novel here, a depressing though very good one. It’s set in the USA, initially in the late 1980s, when a race war erupts which ends in both the genocide of black Americans and the total collapse of civilisation in that country; after a brief account of the war and mayhem, we are then projected an unspecified number of years into the future, in which various small bands and settlements attempt, with varying degrees of success, to sustain themselves.

What works effectively is the total disconnect the writer creates: we are as disoriented as his characters as they engage with the remains of the world, and the leftover traces of the past ‘civilisation’; the survivors are all white, and there are only myths and legends about a vanished race, and a war. Everything has been forgotten.

The real power of the book – and it is surprisingly powerful – comes from its structure. The hero Kincaid is on a quest, moving westwards towards what seems to be the city of Chicago, and the Great Lakes, aided by the remains of a tattered roadmap of what he calls the country of Esso. Something drives him, perhaps a voice from the past of our times. And he encounters various people and places as he goes. Nowhere will he stay and put down roots, though he is asked. And there are stories of others, vaguely connected, as he travels; sometimes they interlock, and after a fashion the various strands come together in an extremely vague and open ending.

The narrative reflects the disconnected times: we are familiar with the present USA, and project our knowledge onto a story which strives to make this as difficult as possible; there is an alienation which is forced and almost Brechtian. And the vastness of an almost empty continent, filled with the incomprehensible ruins and detritus of our times is scary, as is the brutishness and the brutality of the survivors in their different ways. One particularly shocking episode only gradually reveals itself as a raid to capture slaves who are then auctioned in a public market: the writer says nothing about the slaves’ race or colour; we have to deduce his point for ourselves.

There is no hope at all that anything better will come after the calamity; this seems to have been a trope of such post-apocalyptic novels in the post-war era generally, and I was reminded of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, perhaps the archetype of the genre, in which history comes to repeat itself, and George Stewart’s Earth Abides, which does offer a sliver of optimism by the end. Such novels are a serious warning: to my mind, this is one of the strengths of science fiction. Progress – what ever we mean by that word – and civilisation (likewise) are fragile and hard-won concepts and may not be recoverable once we have let them slip through our fingers; in our times, that is a thought worth holding.

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