A few days ago Jean and I listened to an episode from the BBC Radio 4 series The Art of Living. Or as the home page of the programme’s website explains, The Art of Living is a …
Documentary series revealing how engagement with art has transformed people’s lives.
Anyway, the episode that we listened to was a delightful 30-minute discussion between Marie-Louise Muir and the Belfast-born poet Frank Ormsby. The reason we selected this episode to listen to in particular is revealed by republishing how the BBC introduced the programme. (For Jean was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in December, 2015.)
Frank Ormsby’s Parkinson’s
The Art of Living
When the poet Frank Ormsby was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, his response was unexpected. He embarked on a newly fertile creative period, documenting his experiences and finding a voice in his poetry that he was beginning to lose in his daily communications.
His first act was to search Google – for jokes. “Which would you rather have, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Obviously Parkinson’s! I’d rather spill half my pint than forget where I left it.”
As he discusses with Marie-Louise Muir, the illness has changed him. It’s mellowed him. After a career as a school teacher, his daily life is now quieter and more solitary. There’s a poetry, almost, in his pauses and silences.
Frank belongs to the generation of Northern Irish writers that has followed in the footsteps of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. His medication, he believes, has aided his creativity. But it has also induced hallucinations. He finds himself sitting on his own in his study but surrounded by people, by the ghosts of his mother-in-law and unidentified visitors. And he’s also haunted by a fear that the earth will open up and swallow him.
But if you ask how he’s doing, he writes, “I’ll tell you the one about ‘parking zones disease’.
I’ll assure you that the pills seem to be working”.
Photo credit: Malachi O’Doherty, With readings by Frank himself and Ciaran McMenamin from The Darkness of Snow. Produced by Alan Hall. A Falling Tree production for BBC Radio 4.
That wonderful joke offered by Frank, this one: “Which would you rather have, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Obviously Parkinson’s! I’d rather spill half my pint than forget where I left it.” comes a little after the 5-minute point in the interview. I strongly encourage you to listen to the full interview. Here’s the link to the radio programme.
Jean and I were sitting up in bed a couple of mornings ago reflecting on how recent it has been since we ‘got it’ in terms of what becoming old really means. For me and Jean, for different reasons, it is only in the last twelve months that ageing, the process of becoming older, the decline in one’s faculties, and more and more, has been truly understood. Yes, before then of course one understood that we were getting old. But it was an intellectual understanding not the living it on a daily basis understanding we now experience.
Back to Frank Ormsby. Or rather to a feature in the Belfast Telegraph published in 2015.
Frank Ormsby: Life at Inst was very different from my upbringing
Leading Belfast poet and former Inst. Head of English Frank Ormsby on his tough Fermanagh upbringing, losing his father when he was 12 and how humour has helped him cope with a Parkinson’s diagnosis.
March 23, 2015
As Frank Ormsby sits in the study of his beautifully-appointed 1930s home in north Belfast there is no hint of his much more austere upbringing. As befits the workspace of a poet and long-time English teacher at one of Belfast’s leading schools, the bookcases that line the walls are crammed with a wide range of literature.
It could not be a more different environment from the rural home where he grew up just after the Second World War.
When Frank was born in 1947, his father Patrick was already in his 60s. “I remember him as an old, grey-haired man”.
It was Patrick’s second marriage. His first had produced 10-12 children. “I was never totally sure of the exact number”, Frank recalls.
“I never met them as they had dispersed to Scotland and other places by the time my father, by then a widower, had married my mother. As far as I know the last one of them died last year.”
Frank’s home was about a mile and half outside Irvinestown. His mother Anne had worked on a relative’s farm – “she could build hay or cut turf as well as any man” – and his father as a farm labourer who occasionally sought work in the factories in Scotland.
“The conditions in which we lived were lacking in luxury. We had no running water. We had to carry it in buckets from a well half a mile away. There was no electricity and it was a long time before we even had a radio, or wireless as it was called then,” Frank says.
Here’s one of Frank’s poems that was published by The New Yorker in March, 2013.
By Frank Ormsby
They have the look
of being born old.
Thinning elders among the heather,
trembling in every wind.
My father turns eighty
the spring before my thirteenth birthday.
When I feed him porridge he takes his cap off. His hair,
as it has been all my life, is white, pure white.
Maybe that’s how it is. Having the look of being born old!
But there’s one thing that I treasure beyond gold itself. Having the fortune to be living out my final days, however many there are, in the company of my beautiful Jeannie and all the loving dogs around me.
My title and sub-title comes from commercial aviation. It’s one aspect of the safety culture that safely the millions of passengers who embark on a commercial flight each year. (IATA estimate that it will be 3.6 billion in 2016.) In other words, if the flight crew have even an inkling of an issue with the aircraft while in flight they will make an immediate decision to land.
Why I chose this title will become clearer as you read on.
The end of the Second World War so far as Europe was concerned came on May 8th, 1945. In other words: VE Day. London was not a pretty sight in 1945.
What’s the relevance of May 8th, 1945 to me? Well exactly six months, to the day, before VE Day yours truly was born in Acton which was just six miles West of Marble Arch in the centre of London.
It has been a family legend that when VE Day was announced my mother looked at her six-month-old baby son and announced that he was going to live! For those first six months of my life in London were very dangerous. From that same website page where that photograph above came from one can read (my emphasis):
Nazi Germany continued to bomb London up until 1945 using a variety of delivery methods including V-1 and V-2 rockets. In total 1,115 V-2s were fired at the United Kingdom. The vast majority of them were aimed at London, though about 40 targeted (and missed) Norwich. They killed an estimated 2,754 people in London with another 6,523 injured.
I have very clear mental images of playing in and around bomb sites near our home right up to 1953 when there was a real push to clear the sites away ahead of the Queen’s Coronation on June 2nd, 1953.
So what’s this all about and why do I see it as relevant to today’s world? Stay with me for a little longer.
With all due respect, and abundant apologies for the daring image, we can’t write exclusively about dogs, lest we want to finish as dog food. As Paul is suggesting. Indeed I view seriousness in global inquiry as a basic moral duty.
Imagine Jews worrying just about dogs, while Auschwitz was being built; it’s arguably what happened, said Hannah Arendt (I’m paraphrasing; she was hated for it, though…) Some will scoff, but Kim in Korea is building one new H bomb every 5 weeks… One single H bomb, in the ‘right’ place, can kill more than Auschwitz.
In the Real World, Foundations Saved Civilization Before:
The combination of imperial collapse followed by re-birth from Foundations within happened several times already, for real.
Civilizations collapsing into Dark Ages from the actions of dozens of millions of people occurred more than once. And then very small groups arose, often within the collapsing empire, and imposed new ways of thinking which enabled civilization to restart.
After I read his post I left a question as a comment: “Are you saying that our present civilization is on the point of collapse?”
I then went across to that article carried by The New Yorker. It was an article written by Eric Schlosser, author of the book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety and a producer of the documentary Command and Control from 2016.
On June 3, 1980, at about two-thirty in the morning, computers at the National Military Command Center, beneath the Pentagon, at the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), deep within Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and at Site R, the Pentagon’s alternate command post center hidden inside Raven Rock Mountain, Pennsylvania, issued an urgent warning: the Soviet Union had just launched a nuclear attack on the United States. The Soviets had recently invaded Afghanistan, and the animosity between the two superpowers was greater than at any other time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
U.S. Air Force ballistic-missile crews removed their launch keys from the safes, bomber crews ran to their planes, fighter planes took off to search the skies, and the Federal Aviation Administration prepared to order every airborne commercial airliner to land.
President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asleep in Washington, D.C., when the phone rang. His military aide, General William Odom, was calling to inform him that two hundred and twenty missiles launched from Soviet submarines were heading toward the United States. Brzezinski told Odom to get confirmation of the attack. A retaliatory strike would have to be ordered quickly; Washington might be destroyed within minutes. Odom called back and offered a correction: twenty-two hundred Soviet missiles had been launched.
Brzezinski decided not to wake up his wife, preferring that she die in her sleep. As he prepared to call Carter and recommend an American counterattack, the phone rang for a third time. Odom apologized—it was a false alarm. An investigation later found that a defective computer chip in a communications device at NORAD headquarters had generated the erroneous warning. The chip cost forty-six cents.
[Two paragraphs later]
My book “Command and Control” explores how the systems devised to govern the use of nuclear weapons, like all complex technological systems, are inherently flawed. They are designed, built, installed, maintained, and operated by human beings. But the failure of a nuclear command-and-control system can have consequences far more serious than the crash of an online dating site from too much traffic or flight delays caused by a software glitch. Millions of people, perhaps hundreds of millions, could be annihilated inadvertently. “Command and Control” focusses on near-catastrophic errors and accidents in the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union that ended in 1991. The danger never went away. Today, the odds of a nuclear war being started by mistake are low—and yet the risk is growing, as the United States and Russia drift toward a new cold war. The other day, Senator John McCain called Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation, “a thug, a bully, and a murderer,” adding that anyone who “describes him as anything else is lying.” Other members of Congress have attacked Putin for trying to influence the Presidential election. On Thursday, Putin warned that Russia would “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces,” and President-elect Donald Trump has responded with a vow to expand America’s nuclear arsenal. “Let it be an arms race,” Trump told one of the co-hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
The harsh rhetoric on both sides increases the danger of miscalculations and mistakes, as do other factors. Close encounters between the military aircraft of the United States and Russia have become routine, creating the potential for an unintended conflict. Many of the nuclear-weapon systems on both sides are aging and obsolete. The personnel who operate those systems often suffer from poor morale and poor training. None of their senior officers has firsthand experience making decisions during an actual nuclear crisis. And today’s command-and-control systems must contend with threats that barely existed during the Cold War: malware, spyware, worms, bugs, viruses, corrupted firmware, logic bombs, Trojan horses, and all the other modern tools of cyber warfare. The greatest danger is posed not by any technological innovation but by a dilemma that has haunted nuclear strategy since the first detonation of an atomic bomb: How do you prevent a nuclear attack while preserving the ability to launch one?
[Going to the closing paragraph]
Every technology embodies the values of the age in which it was created. When the atomic bomb was being developed in the mid-nineteen-forties, the destruction of cities and the deliberate targeting of civilians was just another military tactic. It was championed as a means to victory. The Geneva Conventions later classified those practices as war crimes—and yet nuclear weapons have no other real use. They threaten and endanger noncombatants for the sake of deterrence. Conventional weapons can now be employed to destroy every kind of military target, and twenty-first-century warfare puts an emphasis on precision strikes, cyberweapons, and minimizing civilian casualties. As a technology, nuclear weapons have become obsolete. What worries me most isn’t the possibility of a cyberattack, a technical glitch, or a misunderstanding starting a nuclear war sometime next week. My greatest concern is the lack of public awareness about this existential threat, the absence of a vigorous public debate about the nuclear-war plans of Russia and the United States, the silent consent to the roughly fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. These machines have been carefully and ingeniously designed to kill us. Complacency increases the odds that, some day, they will. The “Titanic Effect” is a term used by software designers to explain how things can quietly go wrong in a complex technological system: the safer you assume the system to be, the more dangerous it is becoming.
My greatest concern is the lack of public awareness about this existential threat, the absence of a vigorous public debate about the nuclear-war plans of Russia and the United States, the silent consent to the roughly fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world.
Is there a dog angle to all of this? You bet! For dogs as well as people are all innocents caught up in the madness of war.
Now do you see why I entitled today’s post If there’s any doubt. there’s no doubt.
For if we were the flightcrew of the good ship Earth we would be urgently looking for a diversion airfield upon which to land; and land now!
Wherever you are in the world, whatever you are doing, if you share the concern expressed so clearly by Patrice don’t do nothing. Even if all you do is to send a message on one of the social media apps that’s far better than doing nothing. All that evil requires to succeed is for good people to do nothing!
For I haven’t a clue as to when and how my life will come to an end but, as sure as hell, I would prefer that it isn’t six months to the day after the start of World War III.