Northern Advocate Column

Lockdown is a victory for humanity

It might not seem like it right now, but this is a victory for humanity. 

“How can this be?” you ask. How can this be, when I’m scared and worried about the future? How can this be, when I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills? But that’s what it is, absolutely. It’s a victory for all that’s decent in us; for an altruistic spirit that exists alongside our more selfish instincts. 

Think about what we’re doing in New Zealand. Think about what people of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities are doing all over the world. We’re stopping everything at a high cost to the global economy, so lives may be saved. Mostly elderly lives, those we might be tempted, in a worse world, to say are expendable. 

An economic rationalist could interject right now and say that the cost-benefit analysis of the situation means that we should do nothing.  Let coronavirus run its course. The economy is more important. 

But our government, to its credit, has said no. We have a chance to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of New Zealanders loved by their friends and families. 

This decision will come at a cost. It will have political and economic ramifications for years to come. Still, we do this because it’s the right thing to do. Because there’s something in us that says to do otherwise would be abhorrent, would be inhuman. 

This is a victory of human decency. It’s a victory of human society over economic society. No matter how we got there, something good has kicked in that has allowed us to arrive at decisions that will prevent untimely, early deaths. This is incredible when you think about it. We’re participating in something decent, honourable even. 

My personal freedom is being restricted, yet somehow I’m liberated. I can see clearly how what’s good in us can enable our often clumsy and flawed institutions to make a noble decision. 

In the days, weeks, months ahead, we can remind ourselves that this is what it feels like to make a sacrifice for the greater good. Can a monetary value be put on that feeling? 

Unfortunately, there will still be deaths from coronavirus in New Zealand over the next four week period and beyond that. But we can expect the number to be less than what might have occurred if the lockdown was not put in place. This is our achievement. 

In recognising the enormity of what we’re embarking on, doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to debate, new decisions that need to be made which flow from the ones already made. 

There will be wrong decisions. There will be contention, differences of opinion, great and small. Politics can never be suspended. Politics is about different ideas for the way forward. Politics is about different interest groups applying pressure to the decision-making processes of society. 

There will be political battles fought in the months and years to follow. If I have the opportunity, I will certainly push to expose and argue against the control of economic society by an elite few. The interests of the global class of capitalists and bankers are still behind many of the decisions made by Finance Minister Grant Robertson and the Reserve Bank. 

The forces that control economic society are, however, on the back foot, which will help the side of human society. Those struggles are ahead of us. Kia kaha. 

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Northern Advocate Column

Proverbs in times of crisis

I like a good proverb. I enjoy scouring the wisdom of the past for some insight that speaks to me. So I was intrigued by an exhibition at the Geoff Wilson Gallery in Whangārei that paired artist’s creations with proverbs from different cultures.

The artworks were interesting, but being a wordy-type, it was the proverbs (or whakataukī) that held my attention. I couldn’t help but read them in light of coronavirus. It’s in trying times that proverbs—essentially short meaningful sayings—can offer some comfort or perspective on the situation. They might also impart a warning.

I’ve selected five proverbs here and give my interpretations in the context of the life-changing and era-defining events unfolding.  

“There’s no iron so hard that rust won’t fret it, and there’s no cloth so fine that moths won’t eat it.” – Scottish Proverb

The global economy, mind-blowing in scale and complexity, can be devastated by a microorganism. We should never forget nature’s ability to bring down what we build-up, and that time can bring the end to all things. So maybe we shouldn’t be too confident to believe that what we achieve or construct will last. Like many proverbs this one is a warning against hubris. 

“The gem cannot be polished without friction nor man perfected without trials.” – Chinese Proverb 

The threats to health and income will test many people over the coming months. This Chinese proverb offers the hope that from adversity we might grow and improve. Individuals will rise to the challenge, within families, in the health system, within government. Our institutions, particularly those meant to ensure the well-being of all, maybe strengthened and improved. A positive for when we face future crises. 

“Corners of a house can be seen, but corners of the heart cannot be seen. He kokonga whare, e kitea, he kokonga ngakau, e kore e kitea.” Hauraki Proverb

We can never know exactly what’s going on inside another person. This proverb should remind us to cut people some slack if they’re moody or offend us in some way. There might be something worrying them that we don’t know about. Good advice always, but pertinent now. It can also be read as a warning. People’s motivations aren’t always clear. They could have selfish motives behind appearances, or a hidden agenda. In response to Covid-19 and the economic fallout, there will be a rising pitch of voices. That’s to be expected. There will be agendas—honest and upfront ones—but also ones that are concealed. Is that politician, social media influencer, investment advisor, or business leader really motivated by a wider concern, or is there self-interest involved? 

“Because my house has become soiled, let the smoking ashes be cleansed by the four winds of heaven. Waiho mā ngā hau e whā hei whakaatea ai te poa i taku whare.”Hauraki Proverb

This one punches heavy, influenced perhaps by that book of heavy punches, the Bible. Something has become so soiled, rotten-through, that the best action is to reduce it to ashes. Those four winds of heaven, however, offer the possibility of cleansing. The past can be blown away, and we can start over. There’s maybe a nod to the four horsemen of the apocalypse here. Or I’d like to think, the winds that come from four directions, North, South, East, and West. The world will not be the same after coronavirus. The unpredictable winds of change are going to buffet governments, corporations, banks, and the economic orthodoxies that have prevailed in recent years. Some good may come of it. 

“On looking back, the land was covered white with ghosts. I te huringa kō muri, e haramā te whenua i te kēhua.” – Maori Proverb

As we move forward, doing what we have to do, we should pause at times to reflect on the loss of wisdom and experience being felt by communities and families around the world. 

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Northern Advocate Column

Embracing the ban

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There’s been a lot of banning and restricting lately. A ban on fires is in place across Tai Tokerau. In the Far North, people are having to cope with severe water restrictions. Due to coronavirus, there are restrictions on international travel. Telling people who’ve had contact with the virus to stay at home is a ban of sorts.

At another level, Ngātiwai has a temporary rāhui in place to stop people visiting the Mermaid Pools at Matapōuri Bay. At Ahipara and the Karikari Peninsula, local iwi have banned motorcycling in the sand dunes because of the damage caused.

Last year—without the world ending—disposable plastic bags were banned by the Government. And of course, in the wake of the mass shooting in Christchurch, semi-automatic guns have been outlawed.

By and large, all those bans and restrictions have had general acceptance. Not complete acceptance, perhaps, but you get the feeling they’re supported by most of us. We recognise that for public health reasons, environmental reasons, safety reasons, individual freedoms must be curtailed for the greater good. Even if motorsport enthusiasts would like to ride on the dunes, they’re too small a minority to sway everyone else who agrees that protecting dunes is important.

The key to a good ban is broad public support. It might be imposed by iwi leaders, a civic authority, or the state, but it’s willed in a sense by the majority of the population. Leaders with the power to decide on a ban or introduce restrictions will have calculated that most people are going to back us on this.

A good ban works because it’s equitable. Water restrictions in the Far North apply to all households. Rich or poor, everyone’s equally affected. Imagine the outcry if authorities decided to deal with the water shortage by imposing a high price on each litre of water piped from public dams and bores. Anyone with lots of money would be fine. The poorest in the community would have a greater barrier to accessing the water they need. You might expect widespread anger and even violence as a result.

Having made a case for bans and restrictions, and our grudging acceptance of them, I’d like to make a comparison with the dominant policy response, so far, to the threat of catastrophic climate change. It’s to put a price on carbon emissions. This is done through emissions trading schemes or via direct taxes, which add, for instance, to the price of petrol.

Almost all the policy initiatives and recommendations put forward by our mainstream political parties will affect low and middle-income people the most, and the rich hardly a jot. There are multi-millionaires concerned about global warming, no doubt. Still, there’s not one policy initiative that’s going to have any discernible impact on their lifestyles. That’s why banning something or restricting its use is fairer. A good ban, remember, is equitable, affecting rich and poor alike. It’s certainly got more chance of being widely supported.

If we are serious about doing something real to reduce carbon emissions, in a way that’s fair to all citizens, then we have to embrace the ban. Ask yourself: are you ready for restricting the number of times anyone can travel by plane in a year? Or restrictions on the use of concrete (one of the worst materials for emissions)? What about limiting the number of cows per farm?

How do you feel about allowing only one car per family? All families would be put in the same situation, regardless of purchasing power. Both would be inconvenienced, both could embrace the opportunity to get healthier through more walking and cycling. Or feel good about themselves and their contribution to saving the planet while sitting on a bus.

We’re not going to combat global warming or adjust to resource scarcity, and maintain any sort of societal stability, without bans and restrictions. It’s up to us.

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Northern Advocate Column

Covid-19 and the contagion of cheap credit infecting the global economy

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Reading stories about the spread of Covid-19, it’s the contagion that might infect the economy that’s worrying many.

The virus is bad from a world health perspective, but the actions to be taken are relatively straight forward. What governments should or can do about the economic impact is less certain.

Donald Trump, attempting to give leadership, told us there’s no problem and even suggested buying stock in the share market. The Dow Jones promptly fell.

Such misguided optimism obviously doesn’t square with reality. Clearly there’s an economic impact when multitudes of Chinese factories are shut down, supply lines disrupted, and planes grounded. New Zealand’s Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, has said there will be a “serious impact on the New Zealand economy in the short term.”

What New Zealand’s government will be doing, like others around the world, will be considering what action they can take to keep the economy growing. Government stimulus spending is being talked about. Tax cuts will be considered.

But no government wants to act too heavy-handed, because that could exasperate nervousness. People might conclude that things must be dire if the government’s dropping this amount of stimulus. Therefore I should pull back spending, cancel my weekend away, put off hiring another staff member.

Economic uncertainty and contraction is not unlike a virus, it can spread from household to business, from farm to tractor importer, from tourism to the retail sector. All this is well known, which is why business owners, global investors, and politicians who want to be re-elected will be quietly worried.

If the economy goes south for a sustained period, we’re in recession territory. Officially that’s when GDP, the measure of all economic activity, decreases for two quarters or six months.

If a recession on a global scale were to occur, some might attribute it to Covid-19. But that would be a narrow and misleading view to take. It would be like saying the spark from a farmer’s chainsaw was the cause of a devastating wildfire. Might not the fire be better explained by acknowledging the severe drought and amount of dry flammable material about?

In the case of the economy, the bigger problem, and likely cause of any recession, will be the record amount of global debt. At last count, a cool $257 trillion in US dollars. Three times the size of the world’s total economic output in 2019. New Zealand’s private debt is also at record levels, approaching 500 billion dollars. 156% of GDP. A Mount Cook sized debt compared to China’s Everest of debt: 40 trillion US dollars and 300% of GDP.

Since the 2008 Financial Crisis, banks and governments worldwide have conspired to keep interest rates low and encourage consumers and businesses to borrow. Cheap credit might look good in the short-term, but you’re still taking a punt with your ability to pay it back in the future. Bound by the agreement you’ve entered into with a bank, servicing debt becomes the first thing you must do with any money you have. That leaves less to spend on consumer items, from i-phones to coffees, if income becomes constrained. For a business, if you haven’t got enough cash coming in to service debt, then you’re going to struggle to stay in business.

The global debt mountain now looks like a massive problem. The credit which has been used to stimulate growth is now the thing that could constrain growth. A situation that smart economists have been warning about for years. The global economy is a parched landscape strung out on debt. Making the recession risk “high.”

There’s another question to ask though: why, with all the cheap credit, has the real economy (minus the boom in house prices and other asset stocks) been so sluggish over the last decade? My bet is that the global economy is coming up against the limits of what this finite planet called Earth can sustain. Record debt is a symptom of something much bigger unfolding.

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Northern Advocate Column

Holding the politicians in sceptical regard

TIM200302_Jacinda“Don’t follow leaders, watch your parkin’ meters.” So sang Bob Dylan in 1965 as the counterculture was just getting warmed up in America.

It’s a line from Subterranean Homesick Blues, a Chuck Berry-inspired, Rimbaud-infused, Beatle-driven rock song.

If the song is about anything, it would be the freedom of the mind. Keep your intellectual guard up, don’t be sucked into believing society’s prevailing myths or its leaders.

That one line, with its outrageous rhyming of “leaders” with “parkin’ meters,” has the ring of profundity, but is also gleefully absurd. It often pops into my head. Sometimes when I’ve cause to be sceptical of leaders who want so much to be followed.

Don’t get me wrong, we need people to step up and give direction to political ideas or achieve tasks that a community or society sets for itself. Effective leaders unite people, usually factions or groups of us, never all of us, that’s definitely a myth.

At the same time, being status sensitive creatures, we’re not always keen on people thinking that they up there on stage, in Parliament or on TV, are better than us. And so we can be scathing in our criticism and rebellious in our attitudes if leaders claim a status that’s unwarranted or not useful to us in some way. This is why powerful people all through history have put so much effort into projecting an image that might be favourably perceived by other elites as well as the common masses.

Which leads me to the picture of the New Zealand’s Prime Minister on the cover of TIME magazine. She wears a stark white shirt, a look of grave, thoughtful concern on her face. It’s as manufactured as any statue of a king or queen.

It would be interesting to know what the process for deciding the cover was. Who chose to wear the white top? Ardern herself, or was it the outcome of a negotiation between TIME magazine and Ardern’s PR people? These aren’t innocent decisions. This is Prime Minister as Mother Mary, make no mistake.

If you’re a keen supporter of Ardern, this image creation probably doesn’t even register, it’s just what’s needed to win at the political game. All successful politicians do it.

To her credit, we are asked by Ardern in the TIME magazine article to judge her government by its deeds. And so we must.

We, as lay voters, a long way from the mechanisms of power, should maintain a sceptical attitude, even to the leaders we like and broadly support. Believing too much and we risk being deceived, and ultimately disappointed. Believing not at all, however, presents the other danger of falling into an ineffectual cynicism. Best avoided, trust me.

The political process may be distasteful in many ways. The deception, the manipulation of facts, the manufacturing of an image, can all be a big turn off. Yet turning off or tuning out, as some in the 1960s counterculture advocated, isn’t really an option. You can’t completely shut out the politicians and the effects of their decisions on our lives.

That’s part of the reason I’ve come back to writing a weekly column after a break of 12 months. I want to participate again in the conversations about the future direction of Northland and New Zealand. Perhaps I can bring something to those political debates and have some influence on public opinion and the leaders amongst us. 

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Northern Advocate Column

The toilet, can we move on from him and hers?

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I’m writing this next to a toilet. Well, it’s on the other side of the wall to the booth seat I usually take up in my favourite café. The wall is solid, and there’s enough conversation hum and kitchen clunking to drown out any embarrassing noises. I don’t even hear the toilet flush.

It’s a single toilet. There’s no separate mens and womens. There’s no area to wait around in, you exit the café through the mandatory two doors and you’re in the bathroom. People come and go, without any fuss. It’s the most normal of things.

Toilets, however, have gotten political in New Zealand of late, thanks to proposed amendments to the rather dull sounding Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act. The changes being considered by Parliament would see adults over 18 able to “self identify” their gender, such that a transgender woman would be a woman before the law and have legal entitlement to spaces regarded as women only. These include Women’s Refuge, pool changing rooms, prisons, and of course toilets.

One of the issues for transgender people is the situation arising when there’s only mens and womens toilets available, which should they use? Both choices can lead to difficult, embarrassing or confrontational situations. Transgender people would like legal recognition that it is their right to use the toilet of the gender they identify as. Understandable.

There has, though, been opposition to “self-identification” on social media and in opinion columns, most notably Rachel Stewart in the NZ Herald (28 Nov 2018). They’ve been criticised by transgender people and other supporters of the law change. The debate has got ugly on social media in particular. 

Opponents of the bill, have expressed concern that spaces currently restricted to biological women could be compromised by a still biological man who identifies as a woman. They cite Women’s Refuge as an example of space that should remain the preserve of biological women only.

Women’s changing rooms at a pool or a gym have also been much discussed as spaces which should not be available to transgender woman who are still biologically male (not having had a sex change operation).

How widespread these concerns are is hard to judge. Many people probably aren’t aware of the debate. But if “self-identification” is accepted by Parliament — which on balance I support — then there’s going to be situations arising that will need to be talked through and negotiated publicly, with understanding required from both sides.

As for toilets, might it be time to continue a quiet revolution in public toileting and make them all unisex anyway? Unisex toilets have become much more common in public spaces, as well as in many cafes, restaurants and bars. Changes to local bylaws have made this possible. This means no urinals (which nobody misses) and visible waiting areas outside cubicles or simply a direct through-door access to the toilet. Designed well, no one is made to feel unsafe in a concealed space. 

Whatever your thoughts on gender self-identification, let’s at least agree that toilets should be a human-centric public facility, used by women, men, children, nappy changing mothers and fathers, gay, straight, transgender and non-gendered. The toilet in my favourite café caters for everyone, and there’s not a problem.

Perhaps, for toilets at least, we can forget the labelling and all go about our business quietly reflecting on the universalism of our most basic bodily functions.

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Northern Advocate Column

Trending this century…

mini-iron-bucket-500x500In the wake of what’s hip and hot for 2019, it might be worth taking a somewhat longer view. How about the next 81 years? Here are some predictions for what will be trending this century: 

The bucket. Not the flimsy plastic ones, but those big galvanised steel ones that used to be essential on the farm. You can use one to transport garden debris to the compost bin, and compost to the garden; collect water from a downpipe or leaking guttering; transport food scraps to chickens or pigs. You can even pee in one (dilute with water for a nutrient boost for the garden). Buy one of these family heirlooms now before they’re selling for hundreds of dollars. 

Our own two feet. With petrol prices destined to rise, it’ll become common sense to swap the hours we work each week paying for a car and petrol for walking instead. We might be surprised how far we can go and how fit we’ll get. And as walking trends, so will roadside accommodation make its comeback. Medieval Christians used to go on pilgrimages on foot across Europe to see holy relics, like Christ’s foreskin or Saint Anthony’s tongue. They needed places to stay at the end of a day’s walking. This was big business. In New Zealand, we’ll probably want to walk to the beach, the closest thing to a pilgrimage for most of us. Forget freedom camping, then, freedom walking will be trending this century. 

Fruit and nut trees. Perennial agriculture that grows food for a local population is probably the best thing we can do to mitigate the effects of climate change and achieve a sustainable food growing culture in the twilight of the fossil fuel era. If done right, food-producing trees can be planted quite densely. Their foliage, root system and decaying leaf matter retains water in the land. With all the tree crops, ladders will also be trending well. 

Second-hand. You’ll know that second-hand is already trending if you frequent charity shops, got to garage sales or buy on Trade Me. Getting over the need to buy things new saves money. Many of us are already sold on this low-spend strategy for the good life, but as it gets more expensive to bring quality stuff into the country what’s here already will need to go around further. Second-hand markets in every town and suburb will likely appear and thrive. 

A spiritual text. It’s said that every home used to have a Bible, and then a lot of empty bookshelf space. The Bible was the go-to reading material, you dipped back into it again and again. In these days of information overload, with an infinite variety of things you could read, this century will see more people wanting special books they return to for comfort and wisdom. The Bible, the Koran, the complete works of J. K. Rowling, might suffice for some, but a mash-up of ecological science, practical food growing tips and accumulated philosophical wisdom is what a 21st-century secularist like myself needs. It would need to have as much poetry and story-telling power as the Bible to satisfy a spiritual thirst. Someone just needs to write it. 

Doing nothing. As one of my spiritual mentors, John Lennon, once put it: “I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round, I really love to watch them roll.” He was referring to the merry-go-round in Central Park, New York, that he loved to sit and watch. Call it meditating, call it taking time out, call it mindfulness, but doing very little while taking in with all our senses the world around us is sometimes all we need. And if we stop and look we might see that there’s beauty and wonder in a well-made bucket sitting under an apple tree. 

 

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Northern Advocate Column

Jacinda Ardern and Theresa May chat at No.10

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When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met British Prime Minister Theresa May at No.10. Here’s what they might have said…

Theresa May: Welcome. Good to see you. How’s the baby? Loved that thing you did at the United Nations. Brilliant.

Jacinda Ardern: Thank you. Neve’s great. She’s at home this trip.

May: Lovely. So what brings you to London?

Ardern: Ah… well… to see you…  And then to Davos for the World Economic Forum. I’m speaking about climate change.

May: That’s right, you’re big on climate change. Good for you. Is that why you wanted to see me?

Ardern: Um… no… it’s because we’d like to negotiate a free trade agreement.

May: Who would?

Ardern: New Zealand.

May: Oh… you know things are very hectic at the moment with this Brexit mess.

Ardern: A free trade deal with us would be something positive.

May: Might be easier to negotiate I suppose. What’s the size of your economy?

Ardern: Around $270 billion NZ dollars. 

May: Did you know the size of the German economy is $5 trillion? And that’s in US dollars. Curses to Cameron and his referendum. Bloody democracy! What a disaster… 

Ardern: What we’d like is to secure better market access for our dairy, lamb, wine and…

May: Oh, yes, I love your sauvignon blancs. Been hitting them hard lately actually. But what’s in it for us?

Ardern: We could make exceptions to our ban on foreigners buying land and houses. And holidays, we love hosting British tourists. We could make it easier for you to come to New Zealand. No airport taxes…

May: Mmm… it’s a long way to New Zealand… aren’t we going to be burning up lots of jet fuel, I thought you wanted to reduce carbon emissions?

Ardern: Well, yes.

May: Come to think of it, we have our own farmers and the French make some pretty good wine. They’re a lot closer to us.

Ardern: I know, I know… but it’s what I have to say… Everywhere I go, it’s will you take our dairy products, our meat, our trees, come and visit our beautiful country… I feel like a fraud sometimes.

May: There, there, it’s tough being the leader of a country. I didn’t vote for Brexit, yet here I am. I’m sure you’re doing good work. Tell us more about your trip to Davos.

Ardern: It’s a bit of coup, really. I’m on the climate change panel with Al Gore. And David Attenborough, we love him in New Zealand!   

May: Sounds delightful. I can’t go, unfortunately, this damn Brexit thing again.

Anyway, would chat more, but I’ve got a meeting with the Russian ambassador next. We might need a trade deal with them, they’ve got lots of oil and gas you know. 

Hey, we should do our next meeting by video hook-up. Then you could stay in New Zealand and not use all that jet fuel. Wouldn’t that be great?

Ardern: Ah… yeah… but face-to-face is so much better don’t you think?

May: Just a thought, it’s so confusing sometimes, this climate change thing, I never know what we should be doing. Do you follow Trump on Twitter? God, he’s a laugh. Wish I could get away with some of the stuff he says.

Ardern: No, I don’t follow him. My deputy prime minister usually keeps me updated though.

Thanks for your time Prime Minister. 

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Northern Advocate Column

The philosophy of walking

Philosophy_of_Walking_cover_1.png250x342.881944444Alas, we can’t all run as fast as Beauden Barrett (or Owen Franks either probably). Many of us have declined the option to run at all, not since the dark-remembered days of cross country at school.

Rather than the huff and bluster of running, most of us prefer the elegant art of walking, with perhaps a little polite panting if we walk up a hill. There’s a philosophy to it, too, according to Frédéric Gros, whose book, A Philosophy of Walking (2014), was a bestseller in France.

Taking a cue from the ideas developed fully in his book, here, in truncated form, are some possibilities for thinking philosophically about walking. They might inspire you to walk more or think more about walking.

Walking is not a sport. No rules, no competition, no training or extraordinary ability, just one step after another; anyone can do it.

Freedom. Walking is freedom from all the transactions of life. The longer you walk, the longer you escape. Directionless, or with a specific goal, you are free until you arrive or return to where you started. Walking to work is not work.

Nothing to it. A beach traversed from point to point is pointless, for walking’s sake only. Nothing is made or earned from walking.

Simple joys. Walking is the joy of breathing and a gentle breeze on your face. The greatest pleasure, a clear winter sky, or tiny flowers observed in a crack of concrete.

Silence. Walking silences the chatter. You can’t read the newspaper when you’re walking, or even your phone, really. You must pause to send a text or scroll your newsfeed. Walking can be used to edit your life; reducing the noise.

Inspiration. A problem pondered indoors is a problem solved after a good walk; our unconscious minds doing the work while we walk.

Slowness. The sages of history have all taught it: slow down. Walking is slow, you don’t get anywhere fast. No spending of time, or saving it, but being in time, savouring it. A day walking is a long day, you’ll live longer walking.

Together. Walking with another person is social. Your speed must adjust, you feel compelled to talk, to listen. Walking, however, makes the silences comfortable.

Alone. Walking alone you find your own rhythm, your hidden self that no one else knows. Walking alone you possess the world, with other people you share it. Both are necessary.

Repetition. You can repeat your route, walk the same path over and over. It’s always changing though; you notice the different light, the changing seasons. Walking the same path balances our desire for novelty, for the new; there’s serenity in the familiar.

Peace. Walking takes away the need to justify yourself to yourself; the physical rhythm of your limbs moving overrides the anxious monologue in your head. Walking empties the trash.

Monotonous. Waking is monotonous, but it’s not boring. “Boredom,” says Gros “is immobility of the body confronted with emptiness of mind.” The activity of walking pulls the mind out of its lethargy. If you’re bored, walk somewhere. You can’t be bored walking, like you can be bored in a car—have you noticed this?

Prison. Being stationary, cooped-up, can make us tetchy, our minds roaming in our heads; too conscious. When we imprison people for crimes, we take away their ability to walk freely. Perhaps if we want to rehabilitate we should make them take long walks, back to society.

Afterwards. Walking long and far, through town, on a track through the bush, along a sandy coast, eventually tires. Your walk comes to an end. What follows is contentment, a pleasant weariness, a satisfaction that comes from having moved.

Gravity. You never escape gravity when you walk, one foot is always on the ground. You are of the earth when you walk. Running or jumping tries to defy gravity; it can be done for a brief moment only. For all its drama, its observable wonder, like a bird flying, it’s not our place to run and jump for long. As we age walking is all we do, until we don’t walk anymore.

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Northern Advocate Column

Anthony Bourdain: artistry, doubt and dead octopus

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Stone dead, half-frozen octopus dropped from a small fishing boat into the waters off the coast of Sicily. Plummeting to their second deaths, with all the metaphorical weight of a dead albatross. All for one man, who’s snorkelling below, filmed by an attendant camera crew. 

In the wetsuit, Anthony Bourdain, writer, ex-cook and maker of original, funny, dozen-thoughts-per-minute television. He’s in Sicily for season two of Parts Unknown (2013). He’s meant to be catching this ocean delicacy for real, not being fed them from above like an aquarium-caged sea mammal. The local restaurant owner orchestrating the sham obvious didn’t get the memo that for Anthony Bourdain authenticity is everything.

Underwater, with a snorkel in his mouth, Bourdain, the charismatic, natural communicator is unable to say a word. The anger he’s feeling cannot be expressed in a series of trademark expletives. Just the silence of the pathetic deceit reigning down on him. He’s powerless to stop the bullshit.

It’s through the narration added afterwards in the editing studio that Bourdain gets to speak the horror of what he experienced. “I’m no marine biologist,” he deadpans, “but I know dead octopus when I see one… Strangely, everyone else pretends to believe the hideous sham unfolding before our eyes, doing their best to ignore the blindingly obvious.”

As octopi thud lifelessly onto the seafloor, he continues the despairing monologue: “I’ve never had a nervous breakdown before, but I tell you from the bottom of my heart, something fell apart down there, and it took a long, long time after the end of this damn episode to recover.”

This wasn’t just a tragic-comic scene, a good story for his television show, it was an existential crisis of monsters-from-the-deep proportions. The look on his face back on shore said it all.

Faith in humanity was at stake. Faith in himself. It’s like those falling dead octopus are Bourdain’s own burdens, mistakes and regrets, piling on top of humanity’s greater follies, from gluttonous overfishing to run-of-the-mill everyday media fakery. And here he was complicit in it all. That’s one hell of a guilt load. So Bourdain gets blindly and sourly drunk on gin cocktails. It’s his birthday.

This story, both painfully real and artfully presented for fist-punching dramatic effect, is what Bourdain could crystalise in a few minutes of TV. There are countless scenes from No Reservations and Parts Unknown that make you laugh out loud and want to cry at the same time. Have you doubting our very worth as a species one minute, then making you believe eating grilled sardines at a bistro with good company is the greatest joy possible. 

As a cook, Bourdain might not have been an artiste, but as a maker of hour-long television, he was in my mind an artist. The flawed, witty, passionate man that he presented to us on screen was like a fresh oyster off the rocks compared to the bland fast-food celebrities we’re so often forced to consume. I was a fan.

From this distance his suicide is unfathomable, an act lacking any easy explanation. We’re left with a big tidal pool of doubt. 

Which is the feeling you often got watching his shows filmed in places like Beirut, Jerusalem, Libya, Detroit, Moscow or the Congo. In his later shows, when he was more serious about what he was doing, Bourdain never gave easy answers to the world’s problems and conflicts. He didn’t have them, and he didn’t pretend to have them. Like all good sceptics, he put the onus on us to figure it all out. 

In a recent interview, he said: “I don’t like comfortable conclusions. Life’s not like that. I’d rather leave people hanging even with a lingering doubt or a feeling of being unsettled.” And yet his brutal honesty, natural empathy for ordinary people, and unwavering internationalism was itself a kind of answer. It must be part of the reason so many people around the world have voiced their sadness at his passing.

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