The online ticket to Berlin was not just a flight reference code. The horrid Hewlett-Packard printer spat out a further seven sheets of terms, conditions, warnings and pre-emptive reprimands, plus illustrations of guns, aerosols, knives, toenail clippers, nasal hair extirpators, bombs, bottles, bags, bug repellants, and even certain sorts of clothes – nudity might yet become the inflight norm. That apart, a potentially complex transaction was rendered simple and almost effortless, and for a moment I had difficulty keeping pace with my decision to travel and the speed of its execution. The sudden change felt unreal. Some days nothing seems real. Following an odd sort of dream about Berlin, I had simply awakened to the thought of being there, and, later that day, I was. It took a moment, but eventually I embraced the sensation of letting go. ‘Get a grip on reality’ is a strange expression, or perhaps admonition; if anything, it feels far better to loosen it.
Change is healthy. It renders the familiar unfamiliar and invites us to think differently about life, to reflect on the strangeness of things, and to consider what was, what is, and what might yet be. Revolution ought really to be a more appealing and exciting idea than slow and gradual reform – far less the prospect of strong and stable sameness. So why are we so blind to change and so stuck in our ways – is it the need to feel some level of control or security that drives us along well worn routes? In novel situations, whether work, home or relationships, we speak of ‘settling in’ periods, of the need to normalise and regularise; once routines are established, conscious thinking time is reduced, and life then simply speeds by. The well-learned routes are stacked and stored, accessed like muscle memory without conscious awareness: we wonder how we got from home to work in the morning, whether we just ate our daily vitamin pill, whether we just did what we did as we always do, and so it is that we wonder where our life went. At the other end of the scale, the thought of revolutionary social change is met with a sense of incredulity and, if we are entirely honest, fear. To welcome revolution on the societal or global scale, it seems, is to invite madness. But could it be we have it the wrong way round: might not sameness be madness? Our relative stability and growth, after all, is at the expense of millions in misery, and could cost the Earth.
“Change is healthy. It renders the familiar unfamiliar and invites us to think differently about life, to reflect on the strangeness of things, and to consider what was, what is, and what might yet be. Revolution ought really to be a more appealing and exciting idea than slow and gradual reform – far less the prospect of strong and stable sameness. So why are we so blind to change and so stuck in our ways – is it the need to feel some level of control or security that drives us along well worn routes?”
Perhaps the message that change conveys is death: the end of old ways and, ultimately, of ourselves – something no one can control. The fear of change might therefore be a fear of nonexistence, the point where all things vanish. If this is true, we should recognise that change, by altering our focus on reality, extends life: revolutionary thinking renders everything open to question, and learning lengthens the time and quality of existence. Instead of actively seeking to reduce our thinking time, we might ask why, given both the current and the potential level of our technology, more things are not free – including time.
There are moments when it seems saner to doubt reality. It bears the hallmark of malevolent minds operating a cruel experiment that aims to see how much we can take in the course of their bid to become obscenely rich. Some philosophers have suggested we might just be software, with no more substance to our lives than the curious blend that no one can entirely agree on of thought or mind or consciousness – is that, perhaps, where reality resides? Who would blame anyone for questioning the authenticity of life? Consider existence: it lasts at best for around a hundred years in an unimaginably vast district that has a start on us of almost fourteen billion. That seems real. The weirdness of our world – isn’t it rather like a dream? Consider Scotland: there is no part further than fifty miles from the sea, possibly a good day’s walk, and a mere fifty miles up will take you to the beginning of space. Fifty miles horizontally takes us to the edge of a dimension that could have been concocted by Hieronymous Bosch: luminous life forms endlessly pulsing by like pure thought, giant boulders that suddenly awaken and scurry into clouds of dust across the ocean floor, schools of sparkling telepathic triangles, playful plants, mysterious capes stylishly cruising along the sea bed, truly madly wriggly electric snakes, lovely lobsters holding hands in long marching lines like schoolchildren, kissing gouramies. Fifty miles vertically, on the other hand, there is nothing, or nothing we can hope to understand. Consider that.
The ability to take giant leaps of faith is perhaps the greatest gift of our species, but it is meaningless without doubt. Were it not for doubt we would be stuck in some past pessimistic paradigm governed by ideas of good and evil, of superstition and magicalism, of serfdom or slavery and the divine right of royalty. We have moved along, but only to a world governed by greed in different ways: by the principles of profit and loss, by rational accounting procedures and audit trails – trails that, for the vast majority, lead largely to unfulfilled lives. As depression levels, suicide rates and eating disorders – it’s not just sugar and fat – enter epidemic levels in the West and westernising world, we continue to be informed of the preferred reality of the capitalist system of exploitation and the legitimacy of private wealth accumulation, of the necessity for material incentives to motivate people to produce, and of the certainty that there are no viable alternatives. As history has shown with regard to the imperatives of capitalism, however, there is nothing that is absolute or necessary or causal or certain. Without doubt we can be certain of nothing.
Working within a psychiatric context years ago, I met many who harboured doubts about a shared reality, and some who seemed to opt for a more attractive alternative. Alistair, who spent the greater part of his life in the Highland Light Infantry, was destined to live out the remainder of his years in a ward that was poor in the extreme. He was mercifully unaware of this fact since crossing over to a realm that he alone could access – a place where he would enjoy long days in conversation with imaginary others. A tall, strong jawed, square-shouldered Glasgow man with snowy white hair and kind eyes, Alistair was now confined to a PVC coated chair, was unable to converse with staff, and was completely reliant on them for every aspect of his care. He had no visitors or family history, and although nothing was known about his alternate reality – despite numerous attempts to shock him back in every way imaginable, and unimaginable – there was little doubt his reality was far preferable to the one on offer. No one could be certain if Alistair was reliving jumbled up parts of his former life, or one of many possible trajectories, but it was clear one person was central to his otherworldly existence: always before turning to sleep each night, Alastair, in a soft crumbling voice, spoke the tender words, “Good night, Lily”.
Whilst it would now be thought mad to consider it, at one time Alistair might have been the subject of demonic possession – how else could he straddle across two disparate dimensions? But even yet madness and reality can be difficult areas for psychiatric diagnosis or scientific scrutiny – a fact I learned long before I met Alistair. From a very young age, and throughout her entire life, my mother experienced vivid, and frequently disturbing, precognition dreams. I witnessed their outcome often, and there were some I just couldn’t explain. Her light precognition dreams began when she was a child growing up in Connemara. The first that brought notice from her parents was when she was little more than an infant. It concerned a man who came to the cottage door asking for directions to the Shannon Scheme. Not knowing what the words meant, she explained the dream to her father, and during the retelling a man came to the door asking for directions to that very same place.
Light dreams were common in the years that followed: predicting births, or the uncanny arrival of a letter from her sister in New York – this always took the form of an envelope tumbling slowly over and over as it crossed the Atlantic. And then there were the ridiculous dreams, such as the time she dreamt the name of a horse that ran in the Irish Grand National. She knew nothing about the race, but remembered the horse, she said, because it had such an unusual name. It came in last – a fact that foretold much about the fortunes of our family.
Dark dreams began when she was a teenager, and the first time was the worst. She dreamt she was standing beside her only brother, some years older than her, who was lying on a bed covered by a white sheet. On the sheet was a bloodless, disembodied hand. The dream terrified her, and she told no one. A few weeks after the dream, her brother contracted pneumonia and died. The postman on his bicycle had been diverted off the road into the river, and her brother dived in to save him. It was the first of several dreams throughout her life that predicted death in this way. A year later she had the same dream about her uncle in New York, who also died unexpectedly a few weeks later.
When my brother was in the Glasgow fire service my mother would worry about warning him of her dreams in case they precipitated an accident. In any case, she was never sure what things might go wrong, or when. More than once she confided in me, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say she used me as a sounding board, and made me swear to silence. She would go over the dream: “I know something awful happens, an accident…but then I see him again later in the dream and I know however bad it is, he’s fine in the end”. There were in fact several episodes where accidents at work may have saved my brother’s life: once he stood on a nail, another time he scalded his ankle under gushing steam, and on yet another occasion he broke his leg. Each time he was forced off work, and each time he avoided a disaster involving loss of life.
There were also dreams deeply stained by sadness that left my mother in temporary states that doctors might nowadays diagnose as depression – episodes she described as ‘forsaken days’.
We were sitting on high stools at the bar of a dimly-lit Russian pub in Leith. My brother was drinking vodka straight from the freezer – light and vapour flooded the bar every time it was opened, as one might expect in a sci-fi film. I asked if he remembered the time I hitched all the way from Glasgow to join the London Fire Brigade, only to get knocked back because my hair was too long. The interview panel actually burst into laughter when they saw me. I doubt if I would have had the strength to pull down ceilings and carry bods out of windows and down ladders in any case, but my brother said he wasn’t sure if even that was enough to get through all of the things you might come up against. The day after the Kilbirnie Street fire in Glasgow, where seven firefighters lost their lives, my brother was transferred as a replacement. He was given the locker of one of the dead men – his name was still on it. Breathing apparatus was lying on the floor by way of issue, ready to be claimed; no one said whether it belonged to the firefighter named on the locker, and he didn’t ask.
Not long afterwards, wearing that same breathing apparatus, he inched his way along the floor in a burning tenement, flat on his belly. “From the floor up, there was just an inch or two of visibility”, he said. “The place was filled with acrid smoke, and as I crawled along I could hear my breathing – loud, though it didn’t seem as though it was coming from me. Being there, alone in this mad place, seemed so unreal. Some days nothing seems real. I kept moving forward, and then this thing happened: I turned my head to the left and saw a small doll with a half-melted face. It was macabre, and I suppose I started to panic, but there was no quick way out.” He drained his glass and brought it down on the bar with just enough force to alert the bartender to reach into the fridge and pour him another. “I brushed the melted doll away with my bulky gloved hand, and saw then that it wasn’t a doll but a baby. One life I couldn’t save that day.”
My brother did not know, and I did not tell him, that I had heard this story long before it happened, on one of those forsaken days.