I have a confession to make. I am something of a news junkie and have been for all of my adult life. It started in my teens. My father gave me 1984 and Animal Farm, by George Orwell and I read them both and was hooked on dystopian political forecasts. I started a little at a time, reading more about the failures of political institutions in Canada and the US. Then I moved to Pakistan in my mid-teens and had a bona fide military dictatorship to watch up close (sort of—the military and I didn’t actually have much to do with one another). But I read the Pakistan Times every day. The ‘news’ in that government controlled daily paper was risible. The front page mostly consisted of some vacuous description of some innocuous, benevolent thing that President-General Zia ul Haq did. He laid wreaths at tombs. He visited other heads of state. He prayed dutifully and supported other Muslims to be more obedient to Islam. There were other sections of the paper that were more interesting, however. Every day, there was a list of convictions that had happened in the courts. I didn’t have the foresight to take notes on these or to save them (I think I’d worry about myself if I’d been dragging daily newspapers around the world for the past 40 years), but I recall some pretty gruesome sentences. People got sentenced to outrageous numbers of lashes, followed by years of hard labour and then, for the most heinous crimes, followed by death! There were regular reports about truck drivers ‘absconding’ from the scenes of accidents. I was shocked by this, but friends regularly confirmed that this was understandable because whoever was driving the larger vehicle was always going to get thrashed soundly by the people who came to help. And there’s no denying that large vehicles in Pakistan often drive exceedingly recklessly. So if you don’t know who’s genuinely at fault, why not take out some of your frustration on the person driving the kind of vehicle that has almost certainly annoyed you in the past (or at least, that’s the logic as it was explained to me by one odd friend).
My usual morning routine is to wake up at 6.00 and immediately turn on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I can’t say I enjoy it exactly, but my day doesn’t feel right if I don’t start off listening to the latest horrors in the UK and around the world. I systematically turn it off when it gets to the sports section because that’s just not newsworthy enough for me. Someone losing or winning a game hardly seems worth sharing with anyone else. I am, however, glued to the radio as I walk my dog and brush my teeth and have my breakfast. While I’m having breakfast listening to the radio, I typically pull up the Guardian or the NY Times web pages (I subscribe to both because journalism one can mostly trust isn’t free) and read the front pages while I listen to Nick Robinson or Mishal Husain press some obfuscating politician about something they’d rather not admit. When I start my normal work day, I then typically quickly skim the headlines of Dawn, an English language Pakistani daily newspaper. It gets me up to speed on the Pakistani news, though I admit that I often don’t know enough about many stories to properly appreciate the short news items they like to produce. I might have an hour to an hour and a half of intense news consumption and then I focus on my work and leave the news sites for a while.
Throughout the day, because I use Twitter and Facebook for work, I come across the social media bubbles pushing different news items at me. This is where I get most of my right wing news from sites like Fox, Breitbart or InfoWars or any of the even more insanely unpleasant and usually racist ‘news’ outlets that seem to be a real marker of our times. That is distressing not so much because there are hateful people out there who seem more than willing to say absolutely anything to stir up resentment and fear, but because it seems to be so effective at generating loyal audiences of people prepared to believe them.
These days, my news is decidedly less diverse than it’s ever been. There is the odd story about something unrelated to COVID-19, but it’s so swamped by the COVID-19 news that one could be forgiven for not even noticing it. Today spends most of its time on different aspects of COVID-19. The newspapers are very similar. For the past month, as I sit here in my glorious work-from-home isolation, I have had more or less a non-stop diet of COVID-19 news. In my spare time, I try to read some of the science news about the virus to learn more about zoonotic diseases, transmission mechanisms, what has to happen for an effective vaccine and so on. None of it, and I mean really none of it, is ‘fun’. I’m not getting my old dose of short term gratification from learning something I didn’t know. I’m not getting my usual news ‘fix’. I’m just getting more pessimistic about how badly so many world leaders seem to be handling everything.
A few weeks ago, I ordered a swinging bench (or a bench swing?). It took a while to come, but it finally arrived yesterday. In the evening, after work, I assembled it in the back yard. This morning, I woke up, turned on the radio and heard Nick Robinson talking to some odious person chuntering on about his ‘rights’ and how the over-reach of the US federal government had to be stopped. When he compared his ‘cause’ to that of Rosa Parks and started saying how much respect he had for her, I couldn’t stomach it anymore. I turned off the radio. I took the dog for a walk and came back to the house, made myself a cuppa and sat on my new bench swing, sipping tea and listening to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s album Bright Moments. I have been listening to this album for more than 40 years. I was introduced to it by my father—yes, the same man who gave me Orwell. In one hand, he gave me the horrific gift of opening my eyes to the oppression and cruelty of the world and in the other, he gave me the antidote.
Music doesn’t heal the pains of the world. It doesn’t make things better. It does something else. When I listen to powerful music, like Rahsaan’s, I hear the suffering and I feel the pain, but it packages in ways that help me cope with the hardships around me. It transforms pain into something that doesn’t overwhelm me. I still hear, feel and see the pain around me, but somehow it allows me to take it in without either shutting down my emotional responses or wanting to crawl under the covers and hide.
The specific music that works for people must differ. I don’t imagine that very much of what makes it on to the British pop charts will ever help me deal with the difficult conditions of life, but it must work for some people. For me, there are musicians whose performances give me the mental tools to re-visit the sadness from my own life without excruciating pain. I can use this to deal with the onslaught of self-centredness and cruelty that seem to be the stock in trade of too many national leaders and influencers in recent years. It would be an exaggeration to say that music is a life-saver, but it’s no exaggeration to say that music unquestionably and profoundly makes life more liveable.
So now it’s time to get back to my bench and dissolve into a nice cloud of Stevie Wonder in preparation for tomorrow’s Today programme.