Dabbling with vegetables

I don’t know why it feels like a radical step, plenty of people do it. I’ve abstained from meat for the past two months – with one exception: a steak pie cooked by my dad. A while ago I decided it was better not to eat processed meat and to only buy meat that was raised to some kind of ethical standard. It mattered more how the animals lived than how they died, I thought, and you have to be in the market to change the way meat is produced.

My feelings moved on when my son was born. I was uncomfortable at the thought of generations of animals being bred for slaughter. It seems to me that certain animals have emotional bonds with their offspring. Is it right that we systematically destroy them for commercial profit?

One of the last justifications to fall was the idea that our bodies evolved to eat meat. No one wants to act in opposition to the perceived needs of their body. And it may well have been adaptive for us to eat some meat in an environment of scarcity. Hunting was undoubtedly a formative, possibly thrilling practice that helped us to develop social cohesion. I’d love to track an animal in the wild (though I feel it would defeat the point to then shoot that animal).

We no longer live in that environment of scarcity. In fact, our environment is highly artificial and I sometimes distrust the prevailing system not to serve us people burgers if it could create a market for them. I don’t think that eating meat is necessarily wrong but there’s a difference between picking off a stray wildebeest and subsidising your diet with it, and a mechanised industry in which animals are treated as inanimate products.

I’m enjoying the new diet. Whether meat creeps back in remains to be seen. I haven’t felt that it’s desirable for some time and now it doesn’t seem necessary either.

Minimal minimalism

I’m clearing out my house in preparation for the big move. As it happens, I’ve also been reading about minimalism. Surprisingly for someone who hoards books and hankers after new gear, I’ve found minimalism appealing. It’s a good counterbalance to consumerism as it invites us to question what we really value and what we can live without.

I can live without a redundant laptop and an old PC I built to study (and play games) on; a huge second hand bass cabinet; a broken bass guitar; a budget mountain bike with dodgy gears;  a fine collection of cables and phone chargers; a year and a half’s worth of New Scientist magazine; a few too big shirts and pairs of jeans that I never wear; a handful of books; a stack of notes on poems. Hmm, not that much as it turns out. There weren’t many difficult choices here. Maybe I’ll be braver on the second pass.

Where I think the minimalist mindset will come into its own is in forcing me to doubt future purchases. Yes, I couldn’t throw away my years old Nintendo GameCube and the games I played with friends until the wee small hours. I’m a bad minimalist… but while I’m still attached to that old machine, why would I need the latest PlayStation?

I have a box full of guitar pedals and analogue gear. Most of these haven’t been used since I was in a smoky rehearsal room or playing gigs in Birmingham. No doubt I could emulate these sounds digitally and save myself some space. Somehow, fiddling with ASIO drivers isn’t quite as cathartic as a stompbox. My attachment to this gear offers some artistic limitations. I could upgrade to the latest tech but what would I really gain and would that still be my own aesthetic?

A lot of this stuff was bought at a time when I thought all income was disposable income. Especially the books. A couple of nights ago I was browsing gratuitous pictures of bookshelves, thinking about ideas for a new home when we find one (books are counted as one category of things and this category is allowed to be unreasonably large). I realised that I was lucky enough to neither want much more than I have, nor want much less. There wasn’t a new ideal to strive for, be it consumerist or minimalist. The junk on the shelves was my junk and that meant it was purely up to me what stayed or went.

The Grand Budapest Hotel as allegory [spoilers]

I’d recommend watching Wes Anderson’s new film before reading on.

I’ve only seen it once but I think The Grand Budapest Hotel is an allegory for the first half of the 20th Century and the fall of the British Empire.

A hotel makes a good a metaphor for the world: people are checking in and out all the time. Its owner is mysteriously absent. He sends a representative, Kovacs, but we learn that the hotel is effectively run by the concierge, M. Gustave, who in this theory represents the British Empire. Zero Moustafa, the orphaned lobby boy, stands for the USA. The first time the train stops in the barley field represents WWI; the second time, WWII, after which the inheritance of global hegemony passes decisively to Zero, i.e. the USA.

There are a few clues that support my interpretation:

  1. Agatha, who has a ‘birthmark shaped like Mexico’ on her cheek, suggests that people can stand for nations in the logic of the film. The young Zero is connected to her.
  2. The scene towards the end when everyone comes out of their hotel room to start shooting at each other.
  3. M. Gustave is described as an anachronism whose time had already passed. Fiennes’ character associates with old Europe, reads romantic poetry and is perhaps quintessentially ‘British’ to an American audience.

That’s my theory, anyway.

Candles

Wax colours the grate and floorboards
as the candles stream away. Two matches
burn in a caldera. Their heads are charcoal.
Their bodies, black along their length,
anchor the flame to a melting derelict.

Gone out, they are broken columns
where temples stood, cluttered with burials,
votives and valedictions to gods who’d
raise used kindling from ashes
coercing it to wick the light again.

 

 

 

Kant, and Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

I’ve started Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics MOOC on Coursera. I’m probably most sympathetic to Kant’s thought, particularly his idea that we should…

Always recognise that human individuals* are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.
- Immanuel Kant

Singer gave two objections to this which he framed as being fairly mild problems for Kant, and a third, put forward by Derek Parfit, which is more serious.

The first objection gives the example of a postman employed to send your letter to a friend. Singer said that the postman was clearly a means to your end, yet this did not seem wrong. He was able to justify Kant here by saying that postman had elected to be a means, was being compensated for his work and so this was fine. I’m tempted to say that by electing to be a postman, the postman is fulfilling some kind of limited professional end for himself rather than passively and exclusively fulfilling other people’s ends.

The second objection went as follows: if on a cold and windy night you were to walk behind a crowd of people, placing them between yourself and the wind, you would be using them as a means without their consent and yet this seems harmless. I feel that this is a broad interpretation of the word ‘use’. There’s no harm or disadvantage to the crowd they would not experience otherwise. You are in fact using your own body to position yourself more than you are using their bodies to block the cold wind. In addition, the consequences are so small that there may barely be an ethical issue here. If we treat this as a life or death case it becomes more clear cut that Kant could be right. Think of penguins huddled together against winter storms: if those experiencing the warmth of the middle don’t take a turn on the outside periodically, many in the colony will die.

The third objection, put forward by Derek Parfit, is more troubling. I would say that it does not invalidate Kant’s idea, but possibly marks a point at which we need to shift our approach to a balancing act in order to do the least harm and, hopefully, the most good. Parfit imagines that you are inside a crumbling house with your child and an unconscious stranger named Black. The only way to save your child from the falling rubble is to use Black’s body as a means to block the rubble. You know that this will save your child and you know that it will also crush one of Black’s toes. Because of the balance between the potential good and the potential harm, it is fairly clear that most of us would sacrifice one of poor old Black’s toes. Singer pointed out that we can play around with the balance of harm and good until the right course of action becomes unclear. Not many of us could cheerfully break both of Black’s legs knowing that John Stuart Mill had given us the thumbs up. (Perhaps this is where the importance of intention comes in).

But imagine that Black regains consciousness. He is in agony with a crushed toe. He speaks enough of your language to make you aware that he has a child in another building who also needs to be saved. Unfortunately, you can’t fathom where the building is and Black is now unable to walk himself. Not only are things looking bad for this child but you’ve also crushed poor Black’s toe. Objectively, the net harm is now greater because you violated Kant’s principle.

From Black’s perspective, you have wronged him in the worst way. That probably wouldn’t change your actions, but we are left in the domain of consequentialism: your action will be right or wrong depending on just how bad the outcome is for Black.

To conclude, if you find yourself justifying using a person as a means to an end it seems to me that you’re already in a very extreme situation, and possibly a purely hypothetical one. Seek to do the best you hypothetically can.

 

*The discussion about how far we can use animals as a means to an end promises to be thought-provoking and very challenging.

Poets’ Corner

I dream of London’s buried waterways,
how the Tyburn crashes through Westminster
trammelled by culverts, a ghost of a ghost.
Bury me somewhere nameless. Let the days
settle underneath leaves. Open the ground,
bury me deeper this time. Let me fall
down where the rivers meet so I can feel
the current without knowing. There’s no sound,

no marble echoes to remember me,
no evidence of parting nor that place
where we are told the waters surface.
I’ll be there when the stream becomes a sea
composed of driftwood, pauses and intent:
beyond the shore, where the waves are silent.

 
 
 
 

‘Poets’ Corner’ was shortlisted in the 2013 Live Canon International Poetry competition.

Getting published – talk by Alysoun Owen, editor of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook

Alysoun’s talk focused on the changing landscape of publishing, self-publishing strategies and what publishers have to offer. I was particularly interested in ‘how to hook an agent’. What she had to say was pragmatic and at times sobering. Suffice to say a lot of people write but not many make much money at it. Fine if you’re writing because you have something to say or a particular way to say it.

Some highlights:

  1. there are more opportunities than ever to have your work read
  2. you can help your chances by knowing how it all works and being canny
  3. have a clear conception of your work, the genre and who will read it
  4. social media and blogs give you the opportunity to build an audience
  5. be patient AND ambitious.

Alysoun mentioned the vibrancy of the poetry scene when asked, and the many readings and events happening across the country.