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Dear Jamee

12 Mar

Dear Jamee,

For a while I have been thinking of writing to you, or should I say “you”, since the you I am writing to is an imaginary locus formed part from a distant memory of Jamee, part from myself. And I still remember two words I first heard from you – “mordant” and “trenchant”. There was a third latinate word there, too, that I have forgotten. Now, this was definitely you, diplomat son from Karachi. How far from the subway drivers of my childhood´s Oslo, immigrants from the villages of illiteracy, ostensibly from the same country as you. Pakistan – carved out of the empire, with regions with crazy names like “North West frontier area”  and “Tribal territories”. But these are things I realized much later, along with the clannish structure of your native lands – there was an article lately about how these structures structure marriages in Oslo today. Of course that makes sense. Social structures are part of who we are – where we travel, they travel.

Mordant, then, from “mordre” in French, and Trenchant, from “trancher”, French again. Norse conquest of Normandy followed by Norman conquest of England followed by English conquest of India, the words like ribbons through time and space. And before all  that, the Roman conquest of Gallia, linking the north of France to Rome. Ah, Rome. Visualizing the Pantheon sends a chill down my spine. Why this connection?

Lying next to me on the train seat as we roll through the flat countryside north of Oslo is Le Monde Diplomatique. As if I had recently bought it at the newsagents in Ecully, or maybe at the Gare du Nord. Le Monde Diplo, symbol of cultural capital and the right liberal – tier monde attitudes. That´s me, then.

The Charlie Hébdo attacks almost made me nauseous when the news broke, and I know that this was due to my connection with France and with that completely irreverent streak in French culture. Like Italy, I suppose. The cultural pressure to kow-tow and brown-nose is strong in the schools, in the work-place, in the family – so when the floodgates open, they open big-time. At Centrale de Lyon, they once wrote “Barre-toi” on the wall (“get lost”) on the eve of a visit by a top politician called “Raymond Barre”. This made such an impression on me that I remember it to this day. I tried to read Le Canard Enchainé back then, and I remember also the attitudes of fellow students when it came to authority. You pretend to respect.  But never more.

It´s the same in Italy.

We were (wild) and young and free.

And while Frank diligently filled his little notebook with neatly scribbled Russian vocab, I never had that diligence. I suspect I still do not have it. But one thing I have learned while working as a consultant is that you have to make sure you meet expectations, so you gotta stay tuned to what they are. And thank goodness working life in Norway has human dimensions. Some years ago I talked to an American working in a factory near Chigaco. I think he got up at four to start his long commute by car, I can´t remember the length of his working day, but it was late by the time he was back. I am living in a bubble of privilege with my fellow countrymen. While the Poles and Lithuanians fill in the blanks.

I´ve learned a lot about myself (or have I??) – yes, I have. But I know you would recognize me. The humour, outgoing style and intelligence.  The curiosity. The ability to be annoying. They are still there. Even some of the restlessness. A sort of impatience with the world, too. In one sense I am more cynical, in the sense that I have lowered expectations. My fellow men and women on this planet … what to say? I think we struggle to summon sufficient empathy. We remain locked in patterns of thinking. In short, we are highly developed, but not highly developed enough. Prejudice and short-sightedness have fertile conditions in our minds.

I mean, evidently peace and good living conditions are but an extended hand away for the entire planet, but greed and distrust get in the way. And religion! And indifference. And a number of other vices.

I vividly remember a tall guy of Algerian descent at Centrale de Lyon. He told me of this troubles renting a room. You did not need to talk to him for long, or even look at him for long, to see that he was an upright fellow of good background. Yet, prospective landlords saw only his olive skin, black hair and vaguely Algerian features. I keep this in mind when I read about the riots in the banlieues. And returning to Le Monde Diplo, long article there about Japan and the demographic shortfall which shall have to be filled by immigrants – but the country is deeply xenophobic and has a “blood” approach to citizenry. Like Germany and Israel. Unlike the US and France. Though you could argue that the Republican ideals are only skin deep … below lurks the old chauvinism. In both countries. And in “mine”, but I must say Norway is pretty open. The deputy of Labour is now a woman in her early thirties, daughter of immigrants from Pakistan. For some reason her surname is Tadjik, which does not sound terribly Pakistani. She´s married to an infidel, though, so not your typical Qu´ran-waving person.

So the question  then is really about progress, and I hesitate to conclude. We can safely say that since back then, the Soviet union is no more and China looms a lot larger, the Arab world is like a chrysalis bursting open in fits, letting out not just butterflies but much else besides, before shutting itself again. Islam is waiting for its Enlightenment, its Illumination, washing over it, replacing the Medieval with the Ambivalent, to leave only pockets of madness, like the Hasidic Jews in New York that I recently read about, or the millions of fundamentalist Christians in the US. The US needs its own Enlightenment. Admit of it. God never existed outside our imaginations.

We can say one thing though – capitalism has prevailed. The only pockets for resistance are best forgotten – North Korea, Cuba. In Nicaragua the Chinese are building a new canal, a sort of Panama 2.0, though I imagine they will give it a different name.  25 years ago this would have been conclusive proof of a Communist takeover in the region (“Middle America”, we call it). These days, not so much, just proof that the Chinese are loaded and are building their own empire.

It´s time to stop building empires.

On that note – see you soon, I hope.

J

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Letter to David

19 May

Dear David,

Thanks for the cushions! That was really good of you to sort it out. They are surrounding me as I write this, feet on a cushion, while a movie is being streamed to us by Netflix. Not uncommon of me, doing two things at once.

I am typing this on one of the world´s most expensive laptops, a Macbook Pro with a solid state drive and Retina display. It is really superb, and wildly expensive, and if my employer hadn´t paid it, I would never have got it. But now that I do …. I hope I never have to go back to a PC again. Part of the appeal is the hardware – nice to hold, light, rounded, instant-on, long battery life. Really long. And blindingly fast for my use. And the touchpad, it actually works, and the keyboard, which is good to type on….

I thought of you as I tidied the garden just now, and placed my three bikes back in the shed. They are now all in working order. Just as autumn was closing in, two of them packed up in quick succession. On the road racer, the front derailleur stopped working; on the cyclocross, the front shifter stopped working. Only now that spring is here did I fix them. On the road bike the wire had worked itself loose, so that was five minutes with a hex tool. On the cyclocross, the Tiagra shifter had broken, and this set me back – wait for it – 140 quid + the work. Ah well, what can you do? Should have got it on the Internet, I guess.

Anyway, spring is here with a loud bang, and it is sooo lovely as always. We´ve been hit with a heat-wave which will last for a few days. It started on the National day, May 17th, and is dragging on until tomorrow. So tonight it´s more than twenty degrees, it´s bright light outside at 9:30 PM, and .. just lovely. All plant life has taken time out for the last month, and now break´s over and everything is happening – at once.. Take the lawn – hasn´t been happening at all really, with frost-patches where the grass has turned yellow. In the end we gave up and bought some loads of earth and some seeds and I covered up the worst part and now I have planted seeds, and Peter helped me water… he´s been playing in a small inflatable pool in the garden, and was so worn out he fell asleep on the sofa in the end, and I carried him up to his bed all sweaty. That´s when it hits me that I have a four-year old in the house. Four years. Practically just out of the womb. This is what happens when you keep breeding. But I have followed your example and cut the connections … So the family he is born into is so very different from the one we started 16 years ago. Sometimes I almost worry about the fact that it will be another 14 years until he´s of legal age. Really, we have some years head of us ..

What else can I say?

I guess I think a lot about the world, as always, and I read the Guardian ev´ry day, and so I am fairly up to date on the impending melt-down of the Tory party, and the hot breath of Ukip down Cameron´s neck, and Thatcher´s state funeral, and all that. I formulated the hypotheses to myself that the animosity of the Tories against the EU may have to do with the Imperial past to which they feel attached. I read about the number of Etonians in Cameron´s circle, and the young black guy that was taken on as a special advisor for a while and then got bumped off on a 60 grand salary in a cupboard.

Then I read about the birthrates in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, and the child brides and all that stuff, and I think about the progress we seem to be making as a race, and the 400ppm and melting glaciers and 30 quid a month textile workers crushed in Bangladesh.

And here I sit, mending my lawn, trying to sell my excess car (Yaris hybrid, excellent!), counting the money towards the private school, and trying to keep the promises I make at work and to my wife.

Sounds like life, really.

The hybrid is amazing, actually. See, that´s the thing. Focus on gadgets, on bikes, on whether to get new cycling shoes. Poor little rich boy.

My brother got a baby girl about two months ago, and he´s totally over the moon. He and his girlfriend just finished their PhDs, so they are all set for adult life. I do believe they shall cope.

Dad´s finally retiring come summer. I think he´s a wee bit tired, he travels a lot. But he has achieved a lot of what he set out to do, and he´s met a lot of powerful people. I believe he is content. He turned 70 just before xmas, you know.

Better sign off,

Jon