Dream-making, yes – that’s one part of what’s needed in this crazy, on-the-brink world. But there’s something rather more than that which was nagging at me as I was writing yesterday’s post, and it came to me last night, in the middle of a rather strange but mostly enjoyable young adult book which I’ve found myself reading for reasons I can’t quite remember. Except perhaps that it includes a sort of alternative world in which storytellers are the most powerful characters – which probably appeals to my sense of what might be appropriate in a good, honest utopia of the kind that I’d like to live in. Anyway: the passages I’ve copied below grabbed my attention because they relate to something else I’ve been pondering – and by no means for the first time – in these dark days of midwinter. And that’s how to live well, when the world is crumbling around you, and when most of things that most of your fellow humans seem to care about while that crumbling is happening seem to you to be signs of mass insanity, verging undoubtedly on an increasingly virulent species-wide psychopathy. We don’t need to wait for the zombie apocalypse; we’re living in it right now.

How to live well, in such conditions? I’ve tried out a good few possible answers to that. Simple living and self-sufficiency on a remote Hebridean island as far away from what passes for ‘civilisation’ as possible. Traditional environmental activism. Despair. Publishing EarthLines, our onetime magazine which explored issues of nature, place and the environment. More despair. I’ve wondered why I imagine that anything I can do might make a difference – but I’m just not the kind of person who can sit and think about living a ‘good life’ just for me, if I have gifts that might help other people grow and change. The trick, of course, is to find your calling – and I’ve written about that elsewhere on that blog, so I’m not going to do it again here. But my calling, I believe, has a lot to do with preserving knowledge, stories, ways of being in the world which might one day be useful if the zombies up the ante, and the apocalypse comes sooner than we all think.

So here are the passages I’m talking about, from Iain Pears’ novel Arcadia. They come not out of the utopian ‘alternative world’ I mentioned earlier, but a dystopian future. In them, a young rebel woman who lives in a community called a ‘retreat’ is trying to explain, to someone who has been part of the machinery of that dystopia, why she does what she does:

‘But what’s the point of freedom? Do you think that you can change anything?’

‘Of course not. We are waiting.’

‘For what?’

‘Until the world changes on its own. That is the one truth of history. Everything ends. Civilisations, empires, however powerful and strong. They all end, sooner or later. When it does we will be there, with all the old ideas and thoughts, preserved and ready to blossom. We’re not subversives. We do nothing to bring it about, although some are more impatient. Unfortunately the authorities do not bother to make the distinction. For someone like Oldmanter, merely believing society will collapse is a crime in itself.’

‘It will be a long wait.’

‘Yes. Many generations. Unless someone finds a short cut.’ She stopped for a moment before continuing. ‘Sooner or later the machines will stop, your ideas will fail, and men will have to start again. Meanwhile we are content to survive and remember.’

‘Remember what?’

‘Everything. We all remember things. Each person has a task, of memorising some important, vital, vulnerable field of knowledge. To keep them alive and safe. Each generation passes it on to the next. Ideas of music and poetry, of freedom and happiness. History, philosophy, even stories. Everything that has been written about and thought about. They will have their chance again, one day. We keep it safe, as we are sure that one day the depositories and libraries will be destroyed. Many have been already. Only what is in the minds of men will survive, passed on by word of mouth.’

‘How does your interest in history fit into that?’

‘Anything which is forbidden is important, and the study of the past has been banned for a century, except under licence. They do not want anyone to think there might be an alternative to the way things are.’

‘Quite right. Why study the follies of the past?’

‘It teaches you to recognise weakness. Would a truly confident, strong society worry about such things? Would it persecute people who were so obviously wrong? All these institutions and governments overlapping in their authority will fight each other for supremacy sooner or later. It is always the case and it will be again. The great edifice of authority is convinced it cannot err. It will destroy itself as a result. That is what history teaches us. Thanks to my mother, it may be that the past will become important again.’

She sat down in the shade of a high wall, mixed of crumbling stone and brick like a patchwork, and gestured for him to join her. He didn’t know how to reply, so said nothing. She was deluded, of course, but he found her certainty impressive nonetheless. It was so strange to have someone patiently waiting for something which, if it ever happened, would only take place long after they were dead.

‘What if you are wrong?’

‘Then we would have tried.’ *

I like all of that, very much. A community of memory-keepers, knowledge-preservers, story-tellers. Each of us, holding tight to something that is worth preserving. Keeping it safe. Showing others why it matters. Passing it along – especially to future generations. And if it doesn’t work out – then at least we would have tried.

Carrying the stories, carrying the fire. I think that would be living well.

Things to consider

What memories will you hold in your keeping; what knowledge can you preserve? How can you pass it on?


by Rima Staines

* Iain Pears, Arcadia (pp. 444-445). Faber & Faber.

Header art by Jeanie Tomanek