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Offbeat – 02 May 2014

I have difficulty in assessing my optimistic constructs for the future in terms of what has been before. The problem with spilt milk is that the whole exercise becomes laden with ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’.

Clive Barker is one of my favourite storytellers. His world is peopled with characters who could be real. Fortunately the terrors aren’t. What makes Barker stand out are the truisms that occasionally jump out of the page. They aren’t as liberally dispensed as in something like ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’, but perhaps because they are unexpected, they stand out more.
I have been rereading ‘Everville’. It features a group of ghosts, amongst other interesting plot devices, observing the town in which they lived and died, watching a developing  apocalypse which will consume everything they ever loved. One of the ghosts comments that the ‘good old days’ have to be good because you can’t change them.

True, but perhaps if you can’t cry over spilt milk, there is an opportunity to laugh about it. Yet sometimes I differ.
My good old days had their good moments. I remember the comforts of family, of knowing that there was one, and the thrill of friends. I can still hear the sounds of their voices clearly when I look back, although the faces tend to blur and the colours are less vivid in my memory.
But I also remember a lot of the bad, and I realise that avoiding all the bad things; a) shaped me, and b) deprived me of a lot.
For instance, much of my childhood and youth was dominated by the threat of conscription. Most chose to get it over with. I did not. I spent a lot of time and effort avoiding it: simply because there was a moral imperative: that that sort of thinking is distorted at best and leads to violence, unhappiness and some form of dying off of the soul or idealism, call it what you will.  As a result I had to go to university, longer than I wanted to but less than was good for me. I retrieved some knowledge from amongst the wine-soaked student days, and also the sure understanding, thanks to a smart professor, that it was not the contents of the books and lectures that was important, so much as the ability to think in a way that leads to learning.  Most of the subject matter was not of importance to me at the time, and it was time wasted as far as my own selfish desires went, and still are.
Yet those days shaped my future, led me along the path that now includes my family. I would probably not have met my wife and our child would not have been born, had I gone a different route, for instance focussed on writing, pursued the offer of study to become an actuary or just hung around and become an unstressed librarian, all of which were options to some or other degree, but lost to the one imperative choice.
I am glad it didn’t turn out different, but the trade-offs were expensive.
I don’t like visiting my past too much. I talk a lot about ‘now’ and ‘in future’ in these columns.  I have difficulty in assessing my optimistic constructs for the future in terms of what has been before. The problem with spilt milk is that the whole exercise becomes laden with ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’.
LP Hartley opened his novel, ‘The Go-Between’ with the words, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I am not a great traveller.
There were other choices I made; choices that were a waste of time or just plain dumb and self-destructive, that led all the way to nowhere. I don’t find any profit from revisiting them, other than the desire to avoid them.
There is a fetish for the past that permeates society, a continuous reassessment, that never seems to yield any fruit. We talk about ‘learning from the lessons of history’, only to repeat the same mistakes again and again, as if we weren’t learning, just repeating the story, even though the endings are blindingly obvious: loss to our hubris and loss to our avaricious ambition.  The assessment goes round and round, like Ourobouros, the pagan serpent that swallowed its own tail. It’s not the spilt milk that is worth examining, more the question of how we will spill it again. The paradigm of ‘cause and effect’ needs reassessment. Dwelling on the past means being blind to the future.

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