Sunday, October 16, 2005

Names writ in water

Bird flu has reached Turkey, and suddenly the UK media seems to have woken up to the danger. It's no longer a two sentence story to put in the sidelines about how those strange asian folks are going around slaughtering all their chickens. The death rate from infection is about one in two: the Nazis (who were surprisingly green in their outlook) would probably be muttering about "survival of the fittest"; the evangelicals will no doubt be whinnying on about "God's will". Suddenly I'm interested in a new lottery - who gets the flu jab should the virus finally succeed in transforming itself into a human-transferrable disease. If people had sense, the bulk of the vaccines should go to children and students, not because they are our future, but rather because they're the most likely to spread it through the rest of the community. Playgrounds are dirty places.

I did some quick checking up when I heard the Turkey news - I'd visited a bird reserve while over there a week before and was a bit worried that it was the one mentioned in the news reports. Luckily not: Lake Bafa is a couple of hundred Km south of the infected farm. This is good news, as Bafa Lake is a magical place - enough off the beaten tourist track to be authentic Turkey, with a stunning lake, a village built amid the ruins of an ancient city, and a mountain with a mythological history. Walking around the place, I could understand why so many hermits and mystics chose to live here.

Endymion the shepherd lived on the mountain, and was visited when he slept by the moon goddess. Eventually he sired over 400 daughters without waking up once as the dirty deeds were committed. Then the head honcho god turns up and offers little E whatever he wants in the way of supernatural powers: "I'd like to sleep forever, so those wonderful dreams don't stop", says E, who gets his wish granted. As the Rough Guide to Turkey notes, this makes Endymion the demigod of wet dreams. Superb!

John Keats wrote a long poem (called Endymion) about this myth, published when he was 21. The book was savaged by the critics of the day, though it has one of those really famous opening lines:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darken'd ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.

John Keats died when he was 25, of consumption (tuberculosis - his lungs rotted while he still lived). He demanded that he be buried with nothing to mark his grave except the words: Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ In Water - though the man who buried him chose to modify his commission, which seemed too bitter. I feel there's truth in Keats's words, though. Once we are gone, nothing remains of us, except the memories of those who knew us. Unlike Keats, I do not view this as an altogether bad thing.

But let's hope the bird flu doesn't put this idea to the test this winter.


  1. I can see why we have to treat Bird Flu seriously. But I get the impression that the news media are trying to whip up hysteria in the way they are covering it - headlines like "Bird Flu Imminent" and "Over 50,000 Will Die!". I can't understand what they hope to achieve by this.

  2. Bad news sells, Rob. Nevertheless, flu pandemics are part of the cycle of nature. It will come, but hopefully on the scale of the 1960s epidemic rather than the 1918 one.