Posts Tagged ‘Death’

The dreadful ease with which a fire starts,

that match-head flick and short, sharp scratch

that brings the sparks like shrapnel shards

and sets the world ablaze.

  .

We choke on smoke, the London sky a failing lung

consumptive with the greed and deeds

of men who run, and men with guns,

and humankind who, hungry, hunt,

and wanting, wreak

 .

but do not speak

a language easy on the tongue.

 .

When rhyme and reason mount the curb

and see their foes, and will not swerve,

and better men who stood to save the things they loved

are knocked instead to early graves

we ask ourselves where parents were ‚Äď

what bridles checked might otherwise

have reined the rage and spared their lives ‚Äď

 .

when everything is going up in flames.

 .

Elsewhere, a po-faced banker knots his tie

and strangles like a Tyburn son

in auto-erotic ecstasy; but then he kicks the chair away

and jerks and spasms in the throes

of sex and death and ‚Äď look, who fucking knows?

But that’s the joy of double-dipping, chaps:

the money breaks, and and then its spenders snap.

 .

And everyone is asking why,

as though some word or magic curse

could tell them how to steer away from worse.

But in the rubble, born and grown by greed

that burns both ways, and fear, and hurt, and need

Dame Trickledown is turning deadly tricks

for stolen gold

 .

and newly-bloodied bricks.

Provoked by this news article.

Warning: spoilers! 

There’s several things I’ve been wanting to blog about these past few days, but in light of just having watched the first two episodes of Season 6 of Doctor Who, I’m going to put them on hold in favour of performing a narrative vivisection. It’s been a while now since Season 5: long enough that many of the small, crucial details hinting at Steven Moffat’s arc for Matt Smith’s Doctor have doubtless slipped my mind. What I do recall, however, is that the final episodes didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time. Or, wait: let me rephrase. I don’t watch Doctor Who because it makes sense, and I’m fairly sure that’s the case for most viewers. I mean, when your basic premise is a species of open-door, case by case worldbuilding with full retconning options and an ad-hoc magic system masquerading as science, continuity and inherent logic are always going to be, to paraphrase one Shepherd Book, a mite fuzzy.

I say that with love, of course. After all, if you want to watch a witty Brit poncing about the multiverse in a police box, Doctor Who is pretty much your only option. But there’s a difference between nonsensical plots and plots which literally make no sense, and while I appreciate that Moffat is very much a creature of the long game, Day of the Moon comes perilously close to falling into the latter category.

But first: The Impossible Astronaut. Good premise, nice creepifying vibes, though I could’ve done without the prolonged image of Amy sobbing over the Doctor’s body. Also – and yes, I do realise that it represents a significant portion of the setup for Season 6 – I wasn’t keen on using his eventual death as a plot device. For one thing, it’s an annoying way to start an episode: the Doctor was always going to reappear again via some miraculous means, and in the interim, we waste time watching the characters grieve for a loss we already know isn’t final. For another, and more importantly, it’s a problematic means of garnering emotional investment in the series. If the death we’ve seen is truly an irreversible event, then Matt Smith must be the last Doctor – which, yes, is possible, but given the show’s popularity and the sheer length of its reign, I just can’t see that fact being flagged with such canonical finality so early in his tenure. Which means it’s probably going to be reversed at some point, or prolonged, or altered, or changed, or whathaveyou, and while I’m certainly interested in seeing how that happens (probable answer: Timelord magic!), I can’t feel any uncertainty about the fact that it will happen. Which makes it something of an empty threat, particularly as it’s been left to hang over the whole season.

Unless the death does stand and the show really is slated to end with Matt Smith. In which case: well played, Mr Moffat! Well played.

Monster-wise, the Silence were genuinely freaky, and a very well-seeded threat from Season 5, though as has been pointed out elsewhere, Day of the Moon was rather rough and ready when it came to how their powers worked. It’s a fridge logic problem, the sort of thing that only niggles in retrospect without really altering the fabric of the narrative: an omission of some facts and a blurring of others, rather than an outright contradiction. What I’m less forgiving about is the idea that an alien species, capable of space travel, who have demonstrably menaced multiple worlds and who, by River Song’s reckoning, have access to at least eight different types of alien technology while on Earth, had to engineer the moon landing because they needed someone to invent the space suit. Because, seriously? No. Even if they’re incapable of creating things on their own, they still have access to alien technology. I’m pretty sure there are alien space suits, you guys!

And while we’re on the subject of continuity being carried over from Season 5: haven’t we already established that there are colonies of lizard people living under the Earth? You know – another technologically advanced race that’s been sharing the planet with humankind since the dawn of history? Possibly I’m just being picky, but seeing as how the Silence also live in a network of tunnels running beneath the surface of the entire planet, it feels kind of odd to think that the two have never encountered one another. Oh, and if the Silence really are responsible for all those strange jitters people feel in empty places, the sensation of being watched – all that stuff – then can we assume that they’ve been working in tandem with the Vashta Nerada? All right, maybe that last one’s a stretch, but the point is, for a race of villains whose coming has been foreshadowed for some time now, the Silence feel underdeveloped to me. Yes, they’re frightening, but how do they fit into the wider Whoniverse as a species? (And why do they look curiously like knock-off copies of Joss Whedon’s Gentlemen?)

The other problem is Amy’s pregnancy-that-isn’t, though maybe that’s only a problem for me, given my stated position on Magical Pregnancies of any kind. Right now, it looks like Amy’s eventual daughter will kill the Doctor (somehow), steal his regenerative powers (somehow) and be reared in an abandoned orphanage in 1969 (somehow) by a creepy caretaker under alien control. With a photo of Amy on her dresser (somehow). Though when she does see Amy face to face, she doesn’t recognise her (somehow). Also, she’s not quite human (the TARDIS effect?) and super strong – strong enough to rip her way out of the space suit (somehow). Except, if she could do that, then why didn’t she do it ages ago? And how, if she is Amy’s daughter, was she stolen away? I’m struggling with all these things. I know it’s the long game, or rather, I really, really hope that it’s the long game, and the only reason it doesn’t make sense is because there’s more to come. But so far, it doesn’t feel like it.

That being said, I love River Song, I love theorising about the possible arcs and reveals of awesome TV shows (theory: River is Amy and Rory’s daughter!) and because I embrace the senselessness, I love Doctor Who even when it appears to make no sense, if only because Matt Smith is so¬†magnificently¬†daft. So despite my doubts and wonderings: bring it on!

This past weekend, British author Brian Jacques, creator of the Redwall series, died of a heart attack. He was 71.

My grandmother gave me a copy of the original Redwall novel for my ninth birthday. She didn’t know it was the first book of a series, or that it was first published the same year I was born; she’d simply seen it and thought of me. Being a stubborn, contrary child, my usual reaction to being told I’d like something was to try and dislike it as swiftly as possible, just to prove how unpredictable I was,¬†but grandma didn’t go down that road. She just gave me the book, and waited. The front cover showed a rearing horse hitched to a rat-filled wagon. The sky and surrounding air were tinged with purple, and in the background was a red stone abbey situated in a lush forest. It drew me in. And so, because it was a birthday present, because nobody had tried to preempt my tastes by telling me I’d like it, because the cover intrigued me, I started reading.

And was instantly hooked.

I can’t remember how I found out about the rest of the books in the series. What I do know is that I bought every single one, read them in order, then waited and waited and waited what felt like an interminable length of time for the next book, The Pearls of Lutra, to be released, a pattern which went on to dominate my childhood. Just as Jacques wrote slightly more than a book a year for twenty years, so did I reread his work on what averaged out as an annual basis, only slowing down as the gap between my own age and that of the intended audience grew too large to ignore. Even so, I kept up with Redwall until 2004, the year I started at university; the last five books are the only ones I’ve never read. That’s a long time to be under an author’s wing, but when the author is somebody like Brian Jacques, it’s definitely a good thing.

In the world of Redwall, protagonists were as often female as male; the same was true of villains. Though there were plenty of warrior characters, there were also healers, historians, builders, recluses and spiritual leaders: strength and courage had many different definitions throughout the series, and were never the sole prerogative of sword-carriers. Slavery, greed and warmongering were always the goals of various enemies; Redwallers and their allies fought for egalitarianism, charity and peace. Crucially for a young storyteller, Jacques never shied away from killing his characters, even when they were children, elderly or in love: I must have cried a hundred times reading his books, furious at the deaths of Rose and Methuselah, Piknim and Finnbarr, and yet I always came back for more. Even though it wasn’t safe, I cared about the world; and even though I feared losing them, I loved the characters. Just reading through plot summaries of his novels has brought tears to my eyes, so that suddenly, I’m nine years old again. And who knows? Maybe that means I’m not too old for Redwall, after all. Maybe I never was.

Farewell, Brian Jacques. You’ll be missed.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

So wrote Dylan Thomas, thereby immotalising the death of his father. There is a longstanding association between the personal melancholia of artists and their creative fascination with death, whether seen through the lens of longing, fear, ambivalence, courage, despair, relief or some more complex commingling, with poetry acting as a powerful meidum for such thoughts. Frequently, however it is death in the form of suicide which prevails: Anne Sexton, like her friend and contemporary, Sylvia Plath, was prolific on the subject of suicide (which, eventually, they both committed). Eloquent and sharp, her poem Wanting to Die makes this observation:

 

But suicides have a special language.

Like carpenters they want to know which tools.

They never ask why build.

 

By this logic, the need for death is obvious, predetermined: it goes without saying. But human beings are fragile, pain-filled creatures. There are few pleasant ways for us to die, and fewer still by our own hand. In the days of ancient Rome, suicide was a socially accepted practice, particularly when, as was often the case, staying alive would only provoke one mad emperor or another to kill you in a far more unpleasantly creative¬†manner than¬†slitting your wrists¬†in a warm bath. Classic literature even romanticises the concept – Romeo and Juliet is the obvious example, but particularly in feudal Japan, love-suidice pacts were a tragic staple of Yoshiwara¬†society. More recently, George Orwell’s 1984 created a whole new horror from the concept: a violent, inescapably¬†totalitarian world in which even the freedom to die has been effectively withdrawn, forcing the populace to endure a life of brutality and fear.¬†

 

Historically, the human reaction to suicide has been mixed. Judeo-Christian believers tend to respond in the negative, on the grounds that the act falls squarely within the definition of murder, which is a sin. Others view it as a human right or individual freedom, drawing a moral distinction between how we treat ourselves and how we should treat others. Either way, the concept of a situation in which anyone would want to die tends, rightly, to make us uncomfortable. 

 

Which leads us to the problem of euthenasia, and what it means. Despite longstanding anecdotal evidence and social speculation, keeping a positive attitude makes no medical difference in fighting cancer,¬†which, though true, undercuts an extremely powerful (and useful) instinct for suvival. Because human beings, though mortal, do not like to¬†confront their own mortality.¬†Implausible hope has a place in our universal pantheon: if nothing else, it keeps us sane, gives us strength and can, on occasion, help us hang on long enough for the cavalry to arrive. But it’s not a panacea, and at times, the easier, braver, more honest path is to accept the inevitable, the better to meet it gracefully. This latter point is held by euthenasia advocates, because once¬†you have acknowledged that a painful death can’t be averted, unless you believe in the innate sinfulness of removing yourself from the world, there is a certain logic to ending matters peacefully, on your own terms.

 

Consider, then, the heart-wrenching case of Angelique Flowers, who died – violently, vomiting fecal matter – at the age of 31. Having suffered Crohne’s Disease for half¬†her life, she was¬†then diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer. She didn’t fear dying, but only the pain it would, inevitably, cause her. Before she died, Angelique devoted much of her time to exploring the possibility of euthenasia, which isn’t legal in Australia, and¬†although she¬†fultimately obtained a drug which would’ve allowed her to die peacefully, she chose not to use it: either through fear of repercussions for her family or a final change of heart, we’ll never know. But for me, the¬†point of legalising euthenasia is choice: one which allows a greater scope for both dignity and courage. We do not jail those who attempt suicide¬†and fail; neither should we punish the dying by demanding that they¬†expire in a prolonged, painful fashion.

 

Because mercy is not always the same as a happy ending. Sometimes, it just means a lessened measure of grief.

 

I found out today that one of my favourite teachers from highschool, Narelle Ward, has died. I’m not sure of the particulars, but I’m sorry that she’s gone. She taught me English in years 11 and 12, a time during which I almost universally lost faith in the idea that NSW schools were capable of teaching English at all, let alone well. Mrs Ward was unique in¬†standing apart from¬†my cynicism: she suffered no fools, had a wicked sharp sense of humour and knew how to use it. While¬†other teachers tried to pussyfoot around¬†the incomprehensible jargon thrown at us by the Board of Studies, she stated¬†frankly that of course it made no sense –¬†but I didn’t write it, don’t blame me –¬†the system had weathered worse before and even if¬†the wording¬†was a load of rubbish, we were still bright enough to dig around and discern what was actually meant. Which, with her help, we were.

When I egotistically complained that a short story I’d entered in a competition probably hadn’t won¬†on the grounds of being fantasy, it was Mrs Ward who tactfully removed the chip from my shoulder, citing chapter and verse on other student sci-fi stories which had¬†won in similar circumstances. ‘It’s not about genre – it just has to be good,’ she said, not as criticism of my writing, but as a reminder that no matter how well I wrote, it was perfectly possible that others could write even better.

Like all the best teachers, she told us stories that had nothing to do with class: about her life, about her family. The first word her twin boys learned from her, she joked, was ‘share!’¬†. Once, she¬†taught with a young, passionate, red-headed woman, who,¬†in protest at the expected dress code for female teachers,¬†stormed into the headmaster’s office wearing only red high heels, the bottom half of a bikini and a white men’s business shirt – and this was in the seventies.¬†Mrs Ward¬†was one of those rare teachers who not only knew how to discipline the rowdier elements in her classroom, but still be liked. She was fair, fiercely intelligent and believed in her job; because ultimately, she believed in her students.

It’s always hard to tell in retrospect, but I believe she liked me. It’s rare for student and teacher to share any conversation outside class or the hearing of classmates, but from time to time, we did, whether it was walking between buildings or in odd corners of the day. When my short, unassuming, tweed-jacketed Latin teacher was fined for speeding outside the school, I ended up being, via the circuitous route of a strange morning, the first one to tell¬†Mrs Ward¬†the news, having just walked through the tutor’s study and straight into the¬†laughter-filled aftermath of Mr Tate’s confession.¬†The astonished, scandalised and delighted look on her face, coupled with¬†her low-voiced, disbelieving, ‘No-o!’¬† remains one of my favourite high school memories.

For all of that, I can’t claim to have known Narelle Ward well. But she had an impact on my life, and perhaps – as students somtimes do – I impacted on her, too. I’m sorry that she’s gone, and that I won’t get to see her again at our five year reunion. I’d been looking forward to hearing her jokes and observations, and seeing how she was. Now I won’t. But I can think of her, instead.

Thanks, Mrs Ward. You’ll be missed.