Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Fences of Freedom

Towards the end of this week we have been cocooned in drizzle-like fog. It permeates any clothing, rising damp is reaching my knees, the ground seems wetter and muddier than after heavy rain. Trees, last week dancing in strong winds, are poised without reaction, silent, bare, dark and still against the heavy grey sky.

The 17th November is a public holiday here, it marks the day in 1989 when police violence to break up a student march sparked public protests which brought the end to 40 years of Communist totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia. It tends to get overlooked that it also marks the Nazi clampdown on student activities that day in 1939, when all institutes of higher education not instructing in German were closed and student leaders executed or sent to concentration camps. In fact it was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of these events that the student march in 1989 was organised in the first place.

Conversations at this time naturally turn to comparing life here before and after 1989. I am not qualified to fully contribute to these discussions having arrived here in 1993, but a recent such conversation turned to whether there is more freedom today and whether that is a good thing. As the damp soaked into me I pondered on what freedom is to me.

No freedom is limitless, the fences that limit our freedoms may be way over on the horizon or close up to us but we should know that they are there, look after them and shift them as necessary if we can, sometimes dramatically, but we can't just destroy them. We want "freedom from" when we define where we don't want to be: freedom from fear, responsibilty, problems of any sort. Respite from these might be desirable but fencing these out of lives completely excludes other things that constitute a worthwhile life. We want "freedom to" or "freedom of" to define where we want to be: freedom to travel, freedom of speech. How many people use the freedom to travel, really want to travel, put up their own unnecessary boundaries to this freedom? The limits to my freedom of speech should be way over on the horizon, but I should accept that it is wise to consider what I say where, when and to who.

Freedoms should be limited but the fences must be well-maintained.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Operetta for Commuters

Friday morning, the journey today consists of three bus rides. In town I join the group waiting for the bus under the early morning steely blue sky. Turning my back to the penetrating cold damp wind I notice the car lights bouncing off the shimmer of the night's rain on the road.
Our bus arrives and we shuffle on; I slump into one of the vacant places halfway down and as we pull away I feel a reaction in my throat to the overwarm, overdry atmosphere in here. We leave town and the bus accelerates to a resonating rattle then slows and rolls its way over a railway crossing. We increase speed again and cut frightenly close to thin spiny trees that form the edge of the forest here.
In the next village the doors hiss open to imbibe a group of school-bound teenagers. A nervous disproportioned youth sits next to me; tall and thin his enormous feet accentuated in narrow white trainers. His pale face is punctuated with a large red nose. With a mumbled "Ahoj" he starts a converstaion with a bespectacled youth in the seat in front. Nearly full our bus labours up a hill to the last village on our route. Here a mass of small forms swarm onto the bus; each one half child, half school bag. Bright eyed, they chatter excitiedly playing dodgems as they thread their way down the aisle of the bus. We bumble the last mile or two into the town of our destination, soprano and tenor librettos of conversation around me accompanied by bass and baritone coughs from somewhere at the rear of the bus.
At the final stop the bus finally splits open and we spill out. First the highly-charged impatient juniors, followed by the senior pupils, their reluctance the result of experience, and then the adults to take the final bows to the unattentive world.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Mrs Honey

Old Tramp is off again, as soon as we get out on a walk. Doesn't he know that there are smells to smell, scents to follow, holes to dig? What's he on about now? Clouds stacked on the sky like dumplings on a dinner plate? Now the far-away look in the eyes and here comes that vacant grin, that can only be bad news.
"I'm thinking."
There what did I say? What is it you humans have with thinking?
"Well, when I say 'thinking' you have to bear in mind that there are lots of different thinkings. Today I'm remembering."
Remembering? Why the distant smile?
"Mrs Honey"
Mrs Honey?
"The old lady who lived opposite when I was young. When she came to visit my mother, she brought with her the smell of cough sweets and lavender. They would sit at the kitchen table and chat over tea and biscuits. Something took my mind back to that day I gazed over the table top and caught snatches of the adult conversation. My mother had told Mrs H how impressed she was with the plastic table cloth she had recently bought, how practical it was. On Mum's recommendation our elderly neighbour had also bought one and was now relating her experiences with it. 'Call me old-fashioned if you like but I'll stick to a traditional table cloth from now on, thank you very much. Yes it did wipe down OK, but you should have seen the mess when I ironed it; and the smell ...' I remember the contortions on Mum's face, hidden behind her tea cup, as she struggled with a mouthful of tea."
And Mrs Honey?
"She continue with a monologue on her attempts to clean pieces of plastic tablecloth from the bottom of an iron."
So there you have it, that's what humans think about when there are smells, scents and holes to deal with.