I woke up this morning thinking about Plato's cave-dwellers. Somehow it seemed appropriate. But I'm no philosopher. When I first encountered Plato's Republic
, in my first year at university, it was so laden with allegorical and other interpretations I wasn't sure I fully got the point of it. On the surface, it seems straightforward enough. Ordinary humanity is like a group of individuals chained to a wall in a dark cave. All they can see are shadows flung on a blank wall opposite them, cast by a fire behind them. They cannot see the actual objects being shadowed. Living in ignorance of the wider world, what can they know of anything? One man escapes and seeks enlightenment. When he returns, ready to tell what he has discovered, he is mocked and ridiculed.
I haven't been out much in recent months, aside from essential excursions. Covid restrictions and continuing inclement weather have kept me at home in the warm dark cave of our flat. I have my computer, my books and the television. I don't listen to the radio much these days. My reality has shrunk to daily routines and observations, emails and phone calls to friends, zoom meetings for a writers' club and book group I belong to.
My husband, who cannot bear to be cooped up at home, ventures out daily and returns in the evening, like the dove to Noah, to report on the state of the city. 'You cannot believe how Princes Street is packed up with people,' he tells me since restrictions eased. My contact with the wider world is confined to news bulletins and television documentaries. But how do I know if what I am being told and seeing there is the truth of the world as it is? I could make my way to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood to verify its existence, but Downing Street and Westminster might be film sets for all I can tell.
I'm talking nonsense I know, but sometimes one wonders. What if none of it were true after all? All of it a dream of ignorance, fed by propaganda?
If it is all true, there has been much to disturb. I think of Canada as a benign, congenial country, and yet the discovery of 215 bodies of indigenous children forced to attend a Catholic boarding school in Kamloops, British Columbia was a shock. The deaths and burials had been unrecorded. The discovery recalled scandals attached to some of the old Magdalen Laundry institutions in Ireland.
I watched the Channel 4 documentary The Anti-Vax Conspiracy
and, in addition to the eccentricity of Piers Corbyn, brother of Jeremy, was appalled to discover Andrew Wakefield, struck off as a medical practitioner in the UK for his flawed assertion of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, now living in the US as a revered celebrity for those who do not believe in the efficacy of vaccinations. He has sponsorship from wealthy billionaires, including the late Robert Kennedy's son, and movie A-listers. With filmstar looks and persuasive charm, he peddles his theories to those willing to be seduced and is dating a Hollywood filmstar in the process. One of the expert medical commentators reflecting on all the benefits vaccination has brought over the past century asked, pointedly: 'Do we really want to lose all that?'
Another documentary, on Al Jazeera this time, The Dark Side of Green Energy
, took us to some remote and forlorn wastelands of the globe: Chile, Mongolia and central Australia in particular. It seems that, in order to power our electric cars and wind turbines, we need to establish mines to extract rare minerals and metals. These sites are not only not enhancing the environment, but are actively creating pollution and further environmental damage. That would seem to need further investigation, but with Glasgow beefing up its electric buses and charging stations, and Scotland expanding its wind farms, this 'green' process is unlikely to be critically appraised anytime soon.
I have always been fascinated by New Zealand. Partly because, had decisions been made differently in my family a century ago, I might have grown up there, in some other form clearly, but still whoever I might have been would have had roots there. But also because it seems a kind of mirror land upside down on the other side of the world that so many Scots have been happy to settle in. Similar population size, but a young country, one ripe for pioneers and entrepreneurs.
Eleanor Catton set her somewhat baffling Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries,
during the late 19th-century Gold Rush years there. Unlike Scotland, its mountains and cold winters are in the south, towards the Antarctic. In Auckland, its summers are sub-tropical, not unlike the UK Scilly Isles. And then its summer takes place in our winter. Imagine Christmas in July. I watched a couple of documentaries of train journeys through the country. The first started in Auckland in North Island and took us all the way down through South Island, ending up in the spectacular Milford Sound on the west coast. A second, much shorter one, followed a line through and around Dunedin in South Island, voiced over by Bill Nighy.
Afterwards, I picked up a biography of the New Zealand writer, Janet Frame, which I must have bought towards the end of the last century when the film of her autobiographical trilogy, Angel at my Table
, was on release and her literary fame was at its peak. At over 500 pages it goes into some detail, ironically for a subject who was frequently so private, reclusive and publicity shy.
The first book in her trilogy, To the Is-land
, is the place to start. It covers her childhood to the end of her years in high school, her family's relentless poverty during the Depression, despite her father's regular job as a railway engine driver, and the troubles and tragedies that beset them: her brother's epilepsy, the death by drowning of two sisters and her steely determination to do well at school and become a poet. It's a deeply evocative book, immersing you in New Zealand's rural south of the period, with its indigenous wildlife in which she took such comfort. The place names are a wonderful ethnic mix, too, with the likes of Wanganui, Waitaki, Oamaru, Kaitangati mingling with St Kilda, Mossgiel, Hampden and Hamilton.
They were a clever family, the Frames. Their mother, amid the toil of such housework as she could manage, published poems in the local paper and the children did likewise, though only Janet made it to fame and fortune, the latter belatedly in her life. Garlanded with literary honours, only a Damehood and the Nobel eluded her by the time she died in 2004.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh