Sunday, May 08, 2005
The art of FAKING it
Is the world rife with fakery? CJ Stone believes it is and that this has implications for your soul...
This a very stylish column this month. I’m wearing Armani jeans, a Nike top and Nike trainers. The top is white and fluffy with the Nike symbol on the breast; the trainers are a jazzy combination of black and silver with the logo in red; and the jeans are fashionably faded, with a silver Armani badge on the back pocket..
As it happens, they are all fake. Not unlike the writer, you might say. I got them as a job-lot from some friends of mine who have just returned from Romania. Romanians, like Italians, love their clothes, so I am told. But, unlike Italians, they are generally poor. Thus the need for fakery.
The shoes are passable, the top is warm, but the jeans – ah, the jeans! – are as good as anything that Armani could produce, with the added advantage that they were less than a quarter of the price. And in any case, were you to see me walking down the street in this gear, would you know the difference?
It’s the same with the writer. Slap a designer label on me, and how could you tell?
Some very great artists have been fakers, and some very great fakers have been artists. Picasso spent most of his life parodying other people’s styles. Now he has a car named after him. So what is the fake, and what is not? Picasso would certainly not have approved of the car, being, as he was a committed anti-capitalist all his life.
Arguably Picasso’s greatest work was also his greatest joke. He was, of course, the most well-known artist of his day, almost universally recognised, as prominent in world-consciousness as Einstein, say, or Muhammed Ali; so famous in fact, that any new Picasso production was immediately worth obscene and ridiculous amounts of money.
Unfortunately for the buyers of his later art, what they didn’t know was that he was also engaged in a frenzied process of over-production, creating so much art that he was almost single-handedly destroying the Picasso-market as he was creating it. When they opened up his Villa after his death it was literally filled, floor-to-ceiling, with Picasso etchings, making Picasso etchings almost valueless.
And that was the joke: Picasso faking Picassos in order to smash the Picasso brand.
Meanwhile there’s a copy of his great anti-war painting, Guernica, displayed in the hall of the United Nations. You may not know this, but Colin Powell, in his presentation to the General Assembly “proving” the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, had the painting conveniently covered.
Why, you wonder? Because it’s message would certainly have rung out in the hall, showing the Secretary of State’s case for war for what it was: a fake.
We all remember that, of course: the computer-generated images of low flying planes spurting chemical gases, and mobile chemical weapons factories, that later turned out to be helium trucks, and him holding out a little bottle saying that if it was filled with Anthrax it could wipe out several American cities. Not that it was filled with Anthrax, but we ought to be told in any case
The world is full of fakery. Fake dossiers. Fake intelligence. Fake news. Fake elections. Fake democracies. Fake allies. Fake wars against fake enemies in which, unfortunately, real people really die. And then fake photo-ops for fake presidents on aircraft carriers anchored only a few miles from the American shore.
Even the famous scene in Baghdad where they brought down the statue of Saddam Hussein was a fake. Oh the event was real enough. What was fake was the crowd. The square was nearly empty, the “crowd” consisting of about 150 followers of Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon’s chosen successor to Saddam at the time, the whole scene created by the Hollywood technique of close-crop editing, and revealing more about US intentions than it did about the Iraqi people’s feelings.
The news is so severely spun these days that no one knows any more what is real and what is not. Sometimes you have to wonder where all of this will end.
Now I don’t want to end up sounding too political. The editor has already warned me not to discuss politics or religion in this column, but, as I’ve said before, I take political events to have a spiritual meaning. Because, to me, everything is connected.
So I want to try an experiment with you now. I want to prove the existence of the soul. Take a look at the magazine you are holding in your hands. It’s made of glossy paper. The page has my picture on it, and my name. These are my words you are reading. So where am I? I am right here, of course, here in the writing, not as ink or paper, or words upon a page, but as meaning.
So where is this “meaning”? Can you touch it? Can you measure it or weigh it? Does it have colour or texture or form? Can you bang it upon a table to make a loud and satisfying noise?
No. It is invisible. It has no material existence whatsoever. It is thought. It can be understood through material things, it expresses itself through material things, but it is not itself material.
And that is what I take the soul to be: it is the meaning of your life. Which is why all the world’s fakery at this moment is such an affront. It is an affront to the soul, to our collective sense of meaning.
As for my new designer gear: well it’s only the labels that are fake. The clothes themselves are perfectly stylish. I only hope that the same can be said of my writing.
Does the name “Chav” have a Romany origin or is it just street slang? CJ Stone picks through the prejudices to come to a surprising conclusion...
In a previous blog I wrote a story about my ex next door neighbour, the young alcoholic. In it I used the phrase: “a constant stream of tearaways in baseball caps stomping up and down the stairs”. Well I’m going to give you an insight into the editorial process now. In my submitted version of the column the word I used was “chavvies” not “tearaways”. The word was changed because our esteemed editor, Tania, had never heard it before. Then again, nor had I until my son used it - to describe those self-same tearaways in baseball caps who were stomping up and down my stairs at the time.
Since then the word has come into more general usage. There have been a string of high-profile articles in the national newspapers about the phenomenon, not least a half-page spread in the Evening Standard. “Chavs” and “chavvies” have emerged into the public consciousness at last.
Just to get this clear, chavs are a new youth group. You will have seen them about. They wear baseball caps, hooded tops, cheap jewellery and branded sportswear with – for some reason – their tracksuit bottoms tucked into their socks. Don’t ask me why they do this. Maybe it’s because most of them are so young that the only vehicles they are likely to possess are their BMX bikes. Obviously bicycle clips are not considered cool.
Meanwhile my local paper refers to the same group of youths under another set of names: as “yobs” and “louts” and “thugs”, which is partially true, and partially not. What is true is that it is kids who are dressed like this who are often responsible for acts of random vandalism and intimidation on our streets. What is not true is that all young people are engaged in such anti-social behaviour.
Kids just like to gather, don’t they? And when they do, older people always find them intimidating.
The first question is: where does the name come from? What, exactly, does “chav” mean?
I’ve heard a few possible explanations. According to my landlord, it’s an old London word, meaning something like “mucker” or “mate”, as in “me old chavvie mate”. In other words, the chavs are describing themselves as friends. Another possible explanation is that it derives from the Medway town of Chatham, meaning that the chavs were originally Chatham natives. I’m not sure what this implies. Perhaps it means that Chatham deserves the same recognition as Haight-Ashbury or Notting Hill Gate, as a place where revolutionary youth cults are born.
Personally I think that every place deserves its recognition on the map. Why not Chatham too?
However, the most convincing explanation I’ve heard is that it is a Romany word meaning “child”. In other words, the word “kid”, which I used earlier to describe the youth, is an exact translation. Also, they may be addressing each other affectionately as “our kid”, in the way that Brummies and Scousers do.
I have several reasons for inclining to this derivation. Firstly, because Romany words are so popular these days. “Pukka” and “kushti” are examples of this. Secondly, one of the other words for chavs is “pikey”, which is a clear Gypsy reference. Thirdly, I have it on good authority from a Gypsy friend of mine that the very style is Gypsy in origin. Go to any Gypsy site and you’ll see the youth dressed in exactly this way. They’ve been dressing like this for years, she tells me, and, having visited her on a number of occasions, and seeing her constantly expanding brood, I see no reason to disagree with her.
It is this last possibility which intrigues me the most. Why, you wonder, are the youth identifying themselves with Gypsies, a group which Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality describes as “probably the single most discriminated-against group in this country"?
And they are discriminated against, let’s be clear on that, not because they are racially much different from the rest of us, but because they are culturally different: because they choose to live in a different way. You only have to read your local paper to understand the degree of hatred the settled community has for their Gypsy neighbours, and many people who would be very wary about using racial epithets against black people, say, or people of Asian origin, have no such scruples when it comes to talking about “gypos” or “dirty travellers”, ascribing stereotypes to the community that, in another context, would be considered decidedly racist.
What is going on? On the one hand you have a bunch of youths dressed up as Gypsies, saying “pukka” and “kushti” and calling each other “chav”; and on the other, a settled community reaching peaks of hysteria whenever Gypsies roll on to a piece of land nearby, while, at the same time, fearing their own youth.
Possibly it is a measure of the times. And what is certainly true is that while house prices spiral ever upwards, and rural life degenerates into a sort of super-suburbia - with townies buying up all the available real estate, while clogging up the roads with their off-road vehicles - it is the Gypsies and the youth who are losing out. Hence the identification maybe. Hence the fear.
I think it was Janice Joplin who sang “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Maybe we should all take a little time to reflect on that.
Personally I believe that there is such a thing as psychic justice and that, consciously or otherwise, it is often the young who are the channels for it.
In other words, beware of what you hold on to. Sometimes it is the surest way of losing it.
Bone the Mod’s tattoos told the tale of his life, but according to CJ Stone it was the light in his eyes that revealed so much more...
I am writing this column in honour of a friend of mine, Frank Plott, of Renfrew in Scotland, who died on the 23rd of September 2005.
I'd been travelling to and from Scotland at the time, as I was working on a project up there. I won't go into details here. Suffice it to say that it involved gang warfare, sectarianism, football and God (not necessarily in that order.)
Frank just happened to be in the house I was staying in. He was a little skinny guy, as slick as a whippet, with thick, jug-bottom glasses and a nervous leg-twitch, like the piston-shot of a sleek, fast automobile.
He suffered from bi-polar disorder: what used to be called manic depression. Every fortnight the nurse came to pick him up to take him to the hospital, where he was given an injection - or "jag" as he called it. He didn't know what was in the jag, though he suspected it might be Valium. Whatever it was, the consequence was that he spent most of his time asleep in his bed.
He was his mid-forties at the time of his death, and had had this illness since his late teens. He’d never worked in his life.
So far this might seem a dismal little tale. What has Frank Plott got to teach any of us?
Well a lot, actually.
Because inside of Frank Plott there lived another character, someone he called "Bone". And Bone was, by his own measure of things, The Greatest Mod In The World.
It’s all etched in ink in tattoos across his body: along his arms and his chest, and all over his hands. "Bone the Mod," says the tattooed script, "Dec. '82."
That's when he took up the faith, in December 1982. He was second-generation Mod, still keeping to the ancient path.
"St. Mirran," it says, "Mod party, 1983." St. Mirran were his Scottish football team. He also supported Everton. The Mod party was his 22nd birthday.
"Scooter," it says, "1983." That was his pride-and-joy, a Honda, an essential mark of status. Then, "Dorothy 1985," it says.
Dorothy was ten years older than him, a first-generation Mod from the sixties. It was a summer romance. In the end she killed herself, by throwing herself in front of a train.
Did he know why that was?
"I don't really know why that was," he answered, in his rich, melodic Scottish accent. "Depression. She was in hospital at the time, and they let her out for the day, and she walked to the train station and she flung herself in front of the train."
But those were always his girlfriends, the older women who'd seen the first wave go by. And Bone was always there, ten years later, to return them to the source.
"Mary," continues the tattoed script, "86." Another girlfriend, another original Mod. Then, "Brighton '87."
That was December 1987, just before Christmas. He lost all his money in the bookies. So he only had the prospect of a dismal New Year in front of him. No money. No food. Nothing but a half ounce of tobacco for comfort. And, being a Mod, he decided to go out check out the city that blazons like a beacon in the historical mythology. He hitch-hiked all the way there, in the depths of winter, and the journey took 19 frozen hours. He'd never even been out of Scotland before.
He ended up in hospital.
"I thought I was well, but I was nay well. The police picked me up and put me in an English hospital. That's where I met Janet Willers. She looked after me in hospital."
And sure enough, there it is on his hand, the record of an accidental meeting and a passing friendship in an English hospital all those years ago. "Janet Willers," it says. Just that, and no more.
After that he was flown back to Scotland, where he spent another two days in hospital, before he was finally discharged.
And so it goes, the story of a life told in cryptic notes in pin-pricked ink upon the pages of his skin, like the notes a novelist might make for himself, as a reminder of the plot. And that's exactly what it is. Frank Plott, weaving his own plot, as the story of his life, with a central character called Bone, who is The Greatest Mod In The World.
And, well, I'm talking to him in this council flat on a housing scheme in Scotland, listening to the story of his life - asking questions, noting down the details - as he rolls up his sleeves and lifts his shirt to show me his numerous tattoos. "Isabel Blaine," it says, "1990." She was Miss Paisley in 1965, and he was still with her, right until the time of his death. Then: "Freddie and the Dreamers 1992," and "The Merseybeats."
That's when I see it. It's like a light has come on inside of him. Talking about his life in this way has made him come alive. It beams from his face and from his eyes, like an angelic presence in his life: his own story, told to a new friend, as a narrative of pure meaning.
And I think, yes we all have this. However we name it, there is always a presence in our lives: another us, in a story of our own telling, as a light that lights the way. Despite the hardship and the loss and the occasional illness - the tragedy, the poverty, the grinding senselessness of a world that devalues our very existence - we all are creatures of light in the end.
How else do we learn but by listening? And how else do we know the value of ourselves but by valuing other people?
Frank Plott. RIP.
Do we choose the lives we lead? Do you need a good fate in order to believe things are fated. CJ Stone investigates...
CJ Stone meets a man in the pub who leads him to ponder the question of fate and the choices available to you...
I met him in a pub. I was drinking a pint, and generally keeping an eye on people, wondering what their stories were. There were four young people at the table next to me, enthralled by their own conversation, and, across the other side of the room, in a window seat, an old couple.
That's where he was, sitting with the old couple, reading the woman's palm. He had on a ripped, black tee-shirt, and black trousers tucked into motorcycle boots. His hair was long and tied back, and he had a bum-bag around his waist. He was drunk. I could tell by the way his eyes drooped, and his deliberate manner. It was as if he was trying desperately to hold things together. He was reading the woman's palm, stroking it lovingly. There were two pound coins on the table. This was obviously how he made his drinking money. When he'd finished, the woman added another pound from her purse. He shook hands with both of them, but held the woman back as she was about to follow her husband out of the pub. He gave her a conspiratorial kiss, and whispered in her ear. He was acting like a gigolo. I couldn't keep my eyes off the scene. He noticed me looking, and laughed. I guess there was amusement in my eyes too. He came over to talk to me.
We had a brief initial conversation about work and such things and then I asked him to read my palm. I mean: I'm fascinated by all that. I wanted him to read my palm so I could get an insight into his thoughts.
He said, "when you were young you were a loving son, but your Mom and Dad split up at an early age."
"No they didn't," I told him. "They're still together."
"Something happened. Maybe they didn't split up. Maybe they just talked about it. You were a baby, so you wouldn't know. Anyway, ever since then you've been losing heart. I mean, you've been getting depressed."
This is the stuff of palmistry, I realised: vagaries laced with approximations. There was a certain amount of truth in what he told me, and a certain amount of fishing for information. He told me that I'd had a failed affair, and hadn't got over it yet, which was true. He looked at the lines on my face and said, "you worry a lot." This is also true, though it doesn't take much to see it. I had a newspaper open in front of me. I wanted to say, "that's what worries me, that we live in such a dangerous and messed up world." All the time I was thinking, "come on, come on, tell me something real." I think he sensed my scepticism. He stopped suddenly and said, "I can't tell you any more."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Oh go on," I said, "tell me."
"Oh all right then. How can I put this diplomatically? I can see murder in your hands. You’re going to murder someone."
Well I laughed at that. What else could I do? It was like a line from some bad Gothic novel. It's a good job I'm fairly strong minded, fairly certain about myself and my role in life. I said, "that's not true."
"It is true," he said. "You've wanted to murder someone, or you're going to murder someone, or you've thought about it. You've dreamed about it, haven't you?"
He was still trying to make his descriptions fit the facts.
At this point a group of people came in and sat at a nearby table. "Oi you!" he called out, but they ignored him. He turned to me. "Those people were in the Dog and Duck last night.”
I think he was trying to distract me from his failed palm-reading attempt.
But all this had me reflecting. I was thinking about palmistry. The problem with it - aside from the fact that this guy couldn’t do it - is that it creates a concept of the world based on the individual self. It occupies the safe ground of the purely personal. It says that fate is written in the palm rather than in the world. It doesn't tell you how you can change your fate or how you can change the world. It offers you no choices. It says, this is your life, here in the palm of your hand. This is how long you will live. This is your health, and these are your motivations. It doesn’t tell you about the world and its motivations, nor how these might reflect upon you. It creates an image of the world as made up of isolated individuals.
Me: I prefer to think that my fate is in my heart, rather than in my hand, and that I am part of a process created by us all collectively as well as individually. I prefer to think that it’s what we do that matters, rather than what some crumpled lines tell us, that we all count for something in each other’s lives, and that we are not alone.
Afterwards he asked me: “what star-sign are you?
“Guess,” I said.
“Let me see,” he said. “Taurus?”
“Sagittarius? Cancer? I'll probably slap myself when I find out."
"I'm a writer, and I have a split personality," I told him, trying to put him out of his misery.
"I can't work it out. Go on, tell me."
"I'll leave you to it," I said, "I' m going to get a drink. By the way," I added, "you were right, I am a murderer. I could murder a pint right now..."
CJ Stone spent the month dealing with minor disaster, not least of which was having an alcoholic moving in upstairs.
It's been a strange month. First of all my toilet got blocked. Then my computer crashed. Then the Inland Revenue started chasing me up for money I didn't even know I owed.
In the case of the Inland Revenue, this all turned out to be a clerical error. Someone had made a mistake in transcribing my tax returns, placing one figure in a box where it wasn't supposed to be. In the case of my blocked toilet it was all down to a friend of mine with an unusual fetish for using inordinate amounts of toilet paper. In the case of my computer it was a little negative worm that had been lurking around on the internet, and which insinuated itself into my filing system and then began eating it away from the inside.
Do you believe that sometimes physical effects can have a psychic source? Sigmund Freud did. He called it parapraxis. He was the only psychoanalyst ever to have analysed himself, which, if you stop to think about it, must have been a very dodgy procedure. I mean, how can you ever be objective about yourself? In Sigmund Freud's case, it meant that the entire system of psychoanalysis he developed from it was riddled with his own neuroses, which probably explains why most of the time it doesn't work.
So I guess if I was Sigmund Freud I'd probably want to say that my blocked toilet represented some mental blockage, or that the money I appeared to owe had something to do with something I owed to myself. As for the negative worm, I already know where that came from.
It was from my upstairs neighbour, recently removed.
I'm being metaphorical here. I don't really think that my upstairs neighbour had anything to do with a rogue virus I picked up from the internet. But the notion of a negative worm eating away at your delicate software is so apt for him, that I just thought I'd blame him for it in any case.
He was - is - an alcoholic. Now, I'm a bit of an alcoholic myself. But, then, I'm fifty-one years old. I've been practicing for it for the better part of my adult life. This guy is only twenty-six, and that takes real commitment. And even after over thirty-five years of dedicated self-medication, I still don't wake up shaking, desperate for a drink. Nor would I go stealing bottles of wine from the Indian supermarket across the road. As I said to him at the time, shoplifting is reprehensible and immoral, not to say illegal. But shoplifting from the shop across the road where you also buy your milk and vegetables is just plain stupid. Needless to say he was banned and was forced into further and further forays into the unknown find the source of the White Lighting cider that was the only thing that would stop him shaking in the morning.
But Spam was such a nice young man. When he wasn't drinking, that is. He was polite and respectable, and, when he first moved into the flat, he had a job and a girlfriend and money in his pocket, and almost everything you could want, barring regular conversations with God.
I'm afraid it was me who started him on this latest rampage. He'd been dry for about six months, living with his girlfriend's parents. And he knocked on my door, asking if I'd got a spare cigarette, which I had. And, being the nice neighbour that I am, him being alone up there, without any furniture as yet, I invited him in and offered him a beer. It's not often that I drink beer in the day. It was just one of those days. And he drank his beer and thanked me for it, and - without me knowing anything that had gone on before - spent the next six weeks on a glorious bender; by which time he'd lost his job, lost his girlfriend and, eventually, lost his flat.
I can't say I miss him. I feel sorry for him. But there's only so much you can do with a person who has a negative worm on their insides eating up all of their delicate software. It was like living next door to a soap-opera. Every day something would happen. So there were visits from the police, fights, tears, vows of abstinence that would immediately be reversed, a constant stream of chavvies in baseball caps stomping up and down the stairs, visits from the bailiffs, worried phone-calls from the landlord, non-stop hysteria.
I said: "Spam, you're a walking disaster-area." I said, "I don't even watch the soaps on the telly, let alone having to live next door to one."
Where does this form of psychology come from? In the end, the landlord paid him to go away. He pocketed £260, walked off down the road, turned up on my doorstep two hours later with a mate of his, having spent £50 on a pair of trainers, £15 on a haircut, £50 on a mobile phone, £30 on a slap-up meal, and the rest on drink. I mean, who on earth, on finding himself homeless, thinks that the best thing you can do with your money is to cut your hair and buy a pair of trainers? Later that night there was a phone-call from a nurse. Could I tell Spam's mum that he was in hospital, but not to worry, he was all right.
He’d managed to get into a fight and get himself beaten up.
What else can I say? Spam’s mum said, "tell Spam I love him, but I don't like him anymore."
Me, I was just glad to have a quiet house again..
Sunday, March 06, 2005
Apologies, apologies, apologies.
CJ has blown a gasket.
He has lost his direction.
His big end has gone.
He no longer knows what this is for.
He has stopped smoking.
He stopped smoking on Monday 21st of February 2005, at around 3.30 pm. He stopped smoking, then went to a friend's funeral. Her name was Viv. She died of a smoking related illness. CJ sat amongst the mourners, having decided not to smoke, and watched evryone smoke. That's when he realised that the world was utterley insane.
This is the most addictive drug on the planet. It is the most harmful drug on the planet. It kills more people on the planet than any other drug. But if the Afghans, say, want to ban it, they aren't allowed, because this would be against Free Trade. If the Columbians, say, want to ban it, they are not allowed, because this would be against Free Trade.
When the Columbians want to sell us their Cocaine, however...
When the Afghans want to sell us their Heroin, however...
I think you get the point.
I will no longer be writing this blog.
I have been feeling too distracted.
Keep in contact, though.
You can contact me through my website via the "my complete profile" bit, and in a week or two, once the withdrawals have softened enough to allow me to think, I will revive this blog, under a new name.
It will be about the psychology of smoking.
The most powerfully addictive drug on the planet, bar none.
Allowed to sixteen year olds.
Saturday, February 12, 2005
Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode.
Robin Hood is not a man, though many men have called his name. He is the spirit of the wildwood in its budding time. Jolly Robin in the Green, the force that makes the green shoots grow, that hisses in the foliage like love's electricity, that sizzles and crackles with the laughter of life, with the joy of the blossoming of the Earth's goodly store.
Big Issue, March 17-23 2003
Kodan is dead. Who was he? He was a man who died before his time, of an overdose of heroin. He thought he could have one last blow-out before going into rehab. It was a blow-out all right. It blew out his life.
It’s an old story this. Anyone who has ever had dealings with junkies knows a version of this story. The junkie tries to go clean. Six months off, a year, but that old niggling urge is still there, like the voice of absolution whispering in his ear. And then one day there it is in front of him, for real, in the hands and eyes of another junkie, and he thinks, “well it can’t do any harm. Just one last time, for old time’s sake.” And the deed is done, the dose is too strong, the heart gives way and - bang! - he’s dead.
Life is cheap, they say. For a junkie it’s worth precisely ten pounds a wrap, with all the inevitable consequences: the degradation, the lies, the hurt, the betrayal of love, of friends and family, the manipulation, the theft, because to a junkie nothing really matters but junk.
It hurts to have to say this of my friend, but it’s true. In the end the person he betrayed the most was himself.
I first met him some time in the early nineties. He wasn’t really a junkie then. He was just practicing. It was late summer and the poppies were out, nodding on their stalks like little green sages with a secret message to convey. You’d be walking along with him and his neck would rise. “Pop, pop, pop,” he’d say: like that, turning his head left and right like a radar dish. “Pop, pop, pop.” And he’d leap a fence into someone’s garden and come back with all these poppy heads. And then later he would boil them up to make this awful, greeny-yellowy slop. I tried it myself once. I was sick for two days.
But I never saw any harm in Kodan’s obsession then. He was the most down-to-earth, yet the most cultured man I ever met.
We were good friends. We talked a lot, about anything and everything, about philosophy and art, about politics and religion, in the pub or at home, as we skedaddled here and there, from the far south of England, to Scotland, his home. We talked to save the world. And Kodan could listen too as well as talk. He could absorb your thoughts and play them back to you. He made you feel as if no one could understand you like he could. He was comfortable with intellectual intimacy.
So we had a bond, Kodan and I. It was only later that I discovered he had the much same bond with everyone else.
I said, “Kodan, there’s a fine line between being merely a charming person, and being a con-merchant, and sometimes you come quite close to that line.”
He said, “ah, but at least I know where the line is.”
It was also later that I discovered that that’s all the talk ever was to him: just talk.
Who knows what forces drive us this way or that: why Kodan chose to be a junkie, while I chose to be a writer? And he did choose. He worked at it, over a number of years. From poppy tea to codeine tabs, from cough linctus to “chasing the dragon”, from skin popping to, finally, the whole junkie works, the needle, the spoon and the tourniquet. To him this was all the height of romance, like dancing with the demons, like a love affair with death. It was his version of poetry.
There’s something else about junkiedom: the lure of the inevitable decline. Because all junkies follow a certain trajectory. Sooner or later, it happens to them all. They even have their own expressions for it. “I’m a scum-bag junkie.” “I’m a rob-yer-grannie junkie.” In the end the call of chemical absolution is too strong and the bonds of mere loyalty too weak. That’s the game every junkie is playing, sliding ever closer to the moment when he will betray every decent thought he ever had, every hope and every dream. Every chance of redemption.
One day Kodan was paying me a visit. I used the word “junkie”.
“We don’t use the ‘J’ word,” he said. “It’s like calling a black man a nigger or a gay man a queer. There’s as many types of heroin addict as there are people using it. We don’t all mug old ladies for their pension books you know.”
He was wrong about that.
I was also noticing something particular about his habit. It was pure self-indulgence. He didn’t score drugs to share them, like other drug users share spliffs or pints, or a line of this or that. He wasn’t concerned about how you were feeling. It was a ritual played out with himself alone. He was an S.S.S., a member of the Secret Society of Swallowers, engaged in an experiment with his own body-chemistry, in the laboratory of his blood.
I said, “there’ll come a time Kodan, when I’ll stop being your friend. You‘ll think it‘s about money or something, but it won‘t be.”
He said, “but you don‘t care about money, Chris. It‘s not important to you.”
I said, “that‘s where you‘re wrong, Kodan. Money isn‘t all that important, sure, except when it’s matter of trust. It‘s your word I care about.”
And I was right. I fell out with him in the end. He paid me a visit and he was lying to me again, from the second he walked through the door. Claiming he’d been mugged and he’d lost all his money; claiming he’d “accidentally” bumped into a friend on the way down, a dealer, and that was why he was late, and could he borrow some money, till next week? And I knew there was no accident involved and exactly where his money had gone. I asked him to leave, and I’ve never seen him since. That was last year.
When I heard he’d died I was angry with him. I was marching up and down in my living room shouting at him in my head. “You stupid big lunk,” I was saying, “you stupid bloody twat.” I was still angry at the funeral. I couldn’t believe that that was his body in there, in that coffin, lying like a 37 year old lump of meat in its box. Angry because he’d made me be there. Angry at the stupid bloody church music and the stupid bloody prayers.
It was the following day when I realised what I was really angry about. Someone showed me a picture of him from when I’d first known him, when he still had something to give. He was fresh-raced and alive. I burst into tears. I thought, “I’ve come to say goodbye to my friend.” And I knew that I was angry because I’d never see him again, because he’d died before I’d had the chance to forgive.
Because in the end I don’t care if he was a junkie. He was my friend and I loved him.
I'm sitting in my little office on this gorgeous afternoon, looking out the window at the next-door neighbour's washing as it bobs playfully in the breeze. A few towels, in various pastel shades; a Laura Ashley-style printed skirt; one or two brightly-coloured items of baby-wear. But maybe I shouldn't be telling you about my neighbour's washing. Maybe it isn't polite.
I can't help looking at it though. It's all I can see. My window looks out directly over my neighbour's yard, and the only other things I can see are the lines of rickety fencing bordering an alley, and then another row of gardens behind that, which I only get sneaking glimpses into when the wind blows the bushes aside. It's a picturesque enough scene, in a peculiarly urban way. But sometimes I long for the countryside again.
A few years back I was living in a van and, instead of fences and paving slabs and lines of washing, all I could see out my windows were trees. Apple trees, as it happens. It was an orchard. And, of course - this being late Summer - the apple trees were full of apples, most of them still clinging stubbornly to the branches, looking like the brightly coloured baubles, red, green and golden, in a field full of Christmas Trees.
That was in Somerset. It was where I lived while I was writing my second book. And in between writing I did the logical thing. I went round picking up the windfalls to give to local farmer to make cider with.
Well I wasn't exactly giving them away. We'd got a deal. I'd give him the apples, and he'd give me cider. I was hoping for lots of cider to make up for all the work I was doing, bending down and picking up apples by the bucketful, and then emptying the buckets into sacks, and then loading the sacks into a trailer to take down to the farm. It was back-breaking work, but worth it. In the end the farmer gave me two gallons of rough, strong cider, about 2lb of Farmhouse Cheddar and the same of creamy Stilton, and fifty pounds in cash. That was for over two months work, and worth every minute of it. There's nothing like a plate of creamy, electric Stilton or tangy, nose-curling Cheddar with a pint of rough, wild cider to end a day of apple-picking. It's not so much a job, as a privilege under those circumstances.
In case you don't know, cider apples are small and tough. You can't eat them. They taste like parchment soaked in dish-water. But they make lovely cider. Also, you pick up every apple, no matter what the condition is. Under-ripe apples. Bruised apples. Spotted apples. Grubby apples. Half-eaten apples. Rotten apples. Under-sized apples. Over-ripe apples. Insect-ridden apples. Mouldy, brown, sloppy apples, dripping with slime and smelling of yeast. Every apple you can see. It's the mould that makes the cider brew.
So I was musing about this, as I was absent-mindedly loading this unpromising harvest into buckets, in between bouts of my writing-work. My mind was wandering. I started to think that apple-picking was a bit like writing, really. "All this dry, tasteless, grubby fruit," I thought, "all this rotten, slimy, bruised and molested material, loaded into paragraphs, then tied up in chapters, to give to the publisher to make a book with. Such an unpromising harvest. Such a heady brew."
Also - as anyone who has ever picked apples will know - you become obsessed. You dream about apples. Every time you close your eyes, you see apples. Every time you're relaxed, it's apples you're thinking about. Apples, apples, apples, dancing about before your eyes, nestled in the bushes or peeping out at you from the long grass. It's your life. You can't see an apple without wanting to grab it. You'll put your hand anywhere, into briars, and nettles and cowpats. You can't stop yourself. Even when the briars catch your flesh and the nettles sting, you just can't stop. In the end you hardly notice the pain. It's apples you want. The sight of an unpicked apple is an affront to your eyes. It belongs in the bucket, and then in the sack. It belongs in the cider press and then in the vat. It belongs in the barrel and then in your glass. Finally it belongs in your mouth.
And while you're doing it, while you're picking up those apples, breathing in the strong, sweet scent, sweating and panting slightly, there's a sense of deep satisfaction, that this process has been going on since the beginning of Time. You know you are doing something ancient and true. Thousands of generations of human beings just like me, picking up the Summer's harvest, so that it can be preserved and enjoyed in the depths of Winter. Sharp, strong cider: like the Summer Sun glowing in your glass.
Steve Andrews, my old friend (known to many of my readers) likes cider too. He calls it "the Amber Nectar" or "Druid Fluid", and he drinks it with relish (and to excess) about four or five times a year. Good, strong, West Country Cider: you can't beat it, once in a while. But, watch out. It's dangerous stuff. At 6% proof, and under 60p a pint from the farmer, it's liable to rot your brains. All the West Country farm-workers have florid faces, like mashed strawberries, and they talk in a low, incomprehensible drawl, like the burble of water over a weir. They say they were weaned on cider. And it shows.
It was an apple tree that led to the Fall, remember. Adam and Eve were idling around beneath the Tree of Knowledge, looking at the windfalls on the ground. "What can we do with these?" they wondered. Then they ate of the fruit. It tasted like parchment soaked in dishwater. "I know," they said, "we'll make cider." And the human race was never the same again.
Friday, February 11, 2005
This is the sixth time I have written this sentence. I’ve been writing this sentence, in one form or another, on and off, for over an hour.
The first time I wrote it I had to go and lie down afterwards. The next time I wrote it, it caused me so much confusion, I had to go for a walk. The last time I wrote it, I was overcome with hot-and-cold flushes in the process, and needed a breath of air to take my mind off it.
Later, when I came back to it, the syntax was all upside-down and back-to-front, and the sentence no longer made any sense. Or maybe it was just my brain that was upside-down and back-to-front and no longer making any sense. It’s hard to tell the difference.
In fact, what’s a sentence? What’s a brain? Who am I and what am I doing here? Who are you? What am I writing about? I’ve forgotten.
In case you are wondering: I gave up smoking on Wednesday. I haven’t had a cigarette since 1.43 pm, Wednesday the ninth of February 2005.
I must admit that I am thinking about cigarettes right now. I’ve been thinking about cigarettes since 1.43 pm, Wednesday the ninth of February 2005.
I suspect I will still be thinking about cigarettes at 1.43 pm on the ninth of February 2035 - whatever day that turns out to be.
Now this is odd, because actually, despite thinking about cigarettes for the last two days, it hasn’t really worried me. It’s inevitable that I would be thinking about cigarettes. What else would I be thinking about? I’ve been thinking about them for the last thirty-odd years.
It’s only begun to be distressing since I started writing this. For some reason, since I started writing this, the thought of cigarettes has assumed a beneficent glow like all the saints in heaven were smiling down to me in the form of a little white stick full of dried leaves, that I can stick in my mouth and smoke.
Er, what was I talking about?
OK, I’ve just remembered again. That’s because, since writing that last sentence I have been over the road and bought myself a packet of Amber Leaf rolling tobacco, rolled myself a great big fat one, and smoked it. I’m smoking it now, even as I am writing.
Now this is truly absurd. I stuck a fag in my mouth, and immediately knew how to write again.
This is all very annoying and not at all pleasant to contemplate, knowing that I am an addict and likely to remain so for the rest of my life.
The worst of nicotine addiction is that it really doesn’t do anything for you. The most it does is to keep you enslaved to nicotine. Smoking is a distraction from the distraction of wanting to smoke. That‘s why I couldn‘t write. Not because smoking does anything for me particularly, but because, while I wasn‘t smoking, that‘s all I was thinking about: smoking.
Nicotine addiction is the state of being addicted to nicotine. No more, no less. It offers you no more in the way of mental and emotional enhancement than a slap in the face with the half-rotten tentacle of a giant deep-sea squid. Or rather, it’s a little like being slapped in the face with the half-rotten tentacle of a giant deep-sea squid, non-stop, all day, every day, permanently, with only the prospect of an occasional relief when you roll your next cigarette.
Well I’ve failed, yet again. I’ve just smoked another half-rotten tentacle thing. It did no more for me than the last half-rotten tentacle thing. But at least I’ve managed to finish writing this.
I’ll be giving it up again tomorrow.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
I took LSD, on and off, for a number of years after that. I learned how to cope with it. Sometimes it was an ecstatic experience, sometimes less so. I was always searching for something, some meaning in my life. I guess I thought acid might help me to find it. The earlier hippies had told us that acid was going to change the world. By the mid-seventies this had become holy writ. Acid was the sacrament that would bring on the New Age. It was a new evolutionary step. And - young and naive as we were - some of us believed it.
In the late sixties, of course, LSD was on everyone's mind. That was my era. I was in my teens at the time. I'd been interested in acid ever since I'd first seen Timothy Leary in a news item on TV, since seeing a picture of the Grateful Dead in the Sunday Mirror (they looked so cool, with their granny glasses and long hair), since hearing Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds from the Sergeant Pepper album down at Robert Russell's place. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was, I was reliably informed by Robert Russell - who was an expert on such things - an elliptical reference to the LSD experience.
I'm in the toilet, sitting on the closed lid. It's dark, though not completely. The orange glow of the streetlight outside is making a bubble-effect pattern through the frosted glass, and there's a splash of light under the door from the hall. And there's my own internal light too, of course, those geometric flashes of colour that tend to dance before your eyes whenever external light is dimmed or diminished.
Friday, February 04, 2005
Sunday, January 30, 2005
I was lying to you in my last blog, when I said that the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” originated in the Seventeenth Century. It is actually a Nineteenth Century word. I only said that so that I could talk about the Seventeenth Century sects, for whom I have great affection.
However, this debate, about the relationship between the church and the state did indeed begin in the Seventeenth Century, so although I was wrong in the fact, I was right in the spirit.
There are twenty-six thousand, nine hundred references to “antidisestablishmentarianism” on the web.
That’s a hell of a lot of interest in what is otherwise a fairly useless word.
Most of them are variations on the old joke “antidisestablishmentarianism is a very long word, can you spell it?”
It was one of the first jokes I heard as a child, except that when I heard it the word was “Constantinople” not “antidisestablishmentarianism”..
Also, I’m not the first person to have tried to use the word in a piece of writing. Duke Ellington managed it much more elegantly than I back in the forties, with a song called “You’re Just An Old Antidisestablishmentarianismist.”.
These are the words:
“You never want to be coddled, You never want to be kissed, You're just an old ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISMIST! When I come close when we're dancing, I get a slap on the wrist, Don't be an old ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISMIST! You've got no use for moonlight, You'd turn your back on a star! Your heart is bent and you're against The state of things as they are! When you're a hundred years older, maybe you'll want what you've missed, Don't be an old ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISMIST.”
You’ll notice that he has added three more letters, both for the sake of the rhyme, but also so it scans better.
That’s nine uses of “antidisestablishmentarianism” in only three hundred and fourteen words.
Is this a record?
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
I’ve always wanted to use the word “Antidisestablishmentarianism” in a text. Here it is.
It’s the longest word in the English Language. Or at least it was while I was growing up. It has twenty-five letters. They’ve probably invented a few more even longer words since then.
“Supercalerfragerlisticexpialidocious” doesn’t count because it doesn’t mean anything, whereas “Antidisestablishmentarianism” does.
Anyway, never trust anything that comes out of the Disney Corporation. It is bound to be tainted.
So far I have been cheating. Saying you want to use a word, and then spelling it out, is not actually using the word in context.
So let’s give it a try.
The word comes out of the English Civil War and the debate between the different sects: between those who believed that the Church should remain established as a part of the British State - the gentry and the followers of Cromwell - and some of the more radical sects, who believed in freedom of conscience, and the disestablishment of the Church from the State. The Quakers, the Ranters, the Levellers and the Diggers were all Disestablishmentarians, and their opponents on the other side were the Antidisestablishmentarians, whose philosophy could summed up as Antidisestablishmentarianism.
Is that good enough? It’s still a bit of a cheat, I must admit, since all it really amounts to is an explanation of the word.
It will have to do for the time being.
Actually, this isn’t as irrelevant as it sounds. Some of these debates still have resonance to this day.
We were talking about Jesus.
That description of him I gave you earlier, as the Son of Man, not the Son of God, who came to take away our sins, and who stood in opposition to the law and to the Ten Commandments, was actually developed during the English Civil War.
The Quakers and the Ranters and the Levellers and the Diggers were all antinomian dissenters, that is, they stood against the Established Church and the State.
“Antinomianism” means “against the law”.
They believed that Jesus had died to save us from our sins. Sometimes, therefore, according to some opinions, it was no longer possible to sin.
The Ranters took this line of reasoning so far that they felt free to drink and smoke and spend time with whores. They met in pubs, and, after a few pints and a few pipes they would, literally, be ranting.
Such was their reasoning, in fact, that after a while some of them even felt confident enough, finally, to dispense with the notion of God altogether.
Thus did atheism arise out of a form of Christian thinking.
The Quakers, who were also very radical, took a highly politicised view of things. They refused to bow or to call any man “Lord”. They refused to doff their caps. Men and women were all created in the image of God, they said. No man was superior to any other man. Sometimes they would enter the established churches during a sermon, and argue with the Priest. They wanted to abolish the Priesthood. They believed that men and women were created equal and that the words of a woman preacher had as much relevance as those of a man.
This was very far-out thinking indeed in the Sixteen-Forties.
In fact, I believe we can blame the Quakers for one of the seismic shifts in the English language.
At that time the “thee” and the “thou” were still in use.
“Thee” and “thou” were the familiar and singular; “you” was the polite and plural form.
You used “you” when addressing more than one person, when you didn’t know the person, or when the person was a social superior.
You used “thou” when addressing one person you were close to - like a member of your family, for instance - when speaking to animals or small children, or when the person was a social inferior.
It was conventional for a Lord to use the “thou” and for a peasant or a tradesman, or anyone of a lower status, to answer with the “you”.
The Quakers refused to accept the social implications of this and referred to everyone as “thou”: meaning that everyone was considered equal.
They called themselves “the Society of Friends”, and called everyone “friend”, much as, in later days, Communists and Socialists referred to each other as “comrade”.
This refusal to go along with the conventional forms of polite address caused much annoyance – not to say, outrage - amongst the gentry.
“Unless they are suppressed,” said one disgruntled supporter of antidisestablishmentarianism, “such as now introduce ‘thou’ and ‘thee’, will (if they can) expel ‘mine’ and ‘thine’, dissolving all property into confusion.”
Yes. That’s exactly what they meant.
Thus the words “thou”, “thee” and “thine” took on a radical, political, egalitarian edge, and the language was forced to shift to compensate. The people who used these words were seen as subversive and revolutionary. We stopped using them altogether.
Mighty, indeed, is the power of the word.
Unless, that is, it is twenty-five letters long, in which case it becomes almost impossible to use.
Saturday, January 22, 2005
"Do you love me?"
"Yes, I love you."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure."
"But how do I know that? How do I know you love me?"
There's not much you can say to that, is there?
Trailing off into silence like a string of dots.
"Because... I do."
"But how do I know it? I mean, really, you have to say you love me so that I know that you love me."
"Oh alright then. I don't know if I love you. I admit it, since you ask, I don't know if I love you or not. Does that satisfy you?"
"So you don't love me then."
"I didn't say that. I said I didn't know. Anyway, I do love you, I told you I love you."
"But how do I know that?"
And on and on and on, chipping away at the edifice until it really falls down, until love really crumbles.
Me, I've had a few relationships in my time. Sometimes it's me as the wheedling dependent - always insecure, always testing - sometimes it's her. Whichever way it was it's always ended the same way, in failure.
When I first met my son's Mother she was seventeen and I was twenty-five. I was the worldly wise older man. She was a lovely, thoughtful girl. I was fascinated by her from the first. We both broke up relationships to get to each other.
The first few months were bliss. I wanted nothing more from life than to be making love with her. I would've given anything up for her. I almost lost my friends because of her. I was utterly obsessed. I remember walking in the park one Summer's day and seeing all the tender young leaves on the trees, so fresh, so new, so alive. That's how I felt. "This is my time," I thought. Later, when the autumn set in, and then the winter, a sort of gloom descended. I seemed to suck in the seasons. The winter's gloom had settled in my heart.
She became pregnant. I think I made her pregnant on purpose. I wanted to trap her, to have her caged like a wild bird. I never wanted to lose her. I was so scared of losing her.
The following year, when she was already huge with the impending mystery, we went on a holiday to the Orkneys. It took us six days to hitch-hike up there, and then we couldn't afford the ferry. I bought a half bottle of Orkney Whiskey instead. We walked along the beach at Scrabster looking into the strange black waters and across to the Old Man of Mull. We talked to a lighthouse keeper, and I dreamed strange, lonely dreams. Then we set off for home. I had to be in work by the Monday. Six days journey for one day on the beach. We got a lift with a man in a fast car who managed to get us most of the way home in less than a day. He played Cliff Richards tracks all the way down. When we arrived at her Sister's house everyone was drunk, and they finished off my half bottle of Orkney whiskey in a few short minutes.
I had a dream. We were trying to get to Orkney, but we didn't have any money. A tall, bald man in a dinner suit with a ruffled shirtfront and cuffs gave us a gold coin. He was covered in slime like a new born child. He pointed and we looked up and saw a towering cliff of green and russet moss glistening in the sunlight. He said that it was Orkney. I was transported by the beauty of it.
The dependency of love is the worst dependency of all. Love means revealing your vulnerability. Every woman falls in love with a strong man and then sets out to find out what lies underneath. More often than not she's disappointed. Love is the test we're obliged to fail at least once.
After the child came we settled into a routine. We were always squabbling about time. "This is your time and this is mine." Whose turn is it to get him up, to change his nappies, or to try to get him off to sleep? The boy - much as I loved him - seemed to command most of her attention. Then she became paranoid about getting pregnant again. We never made love again as often or as happily as we had in that first blissful year. It became a furtive, infrequent longing. By trying too hard to hold on to her I had begun to lose her. The more I needed her the more dependent I became, and the more dependent I became, the more independent she insisted on being. It was as if she was feeding off me. In the end we were no longer sure if we were together for the sake of each other or for the sake of the child.
She grew away from me. She longed to have her young life back. Eventually she went to college and met someone else. We'd been going through a bad patch and hadn't spoken for months. Then she walked in one day and I suddenly realised how much I wanted this woman. I tried to take her hand and she pushed it away. I knew something was up, but she wouldn't say what it was. "Can't you guess," she kept saying. I finally got her to tell me the truth - six years to the day after we had first got together - and then I cried for days. I had been an uncompromising Atheist for years by then. But now I found I needed to pray. There is no sadder thing in the whole of Creation than an Atheist's prayer. To replace a dependency on a woman you have loved with a dependency on a God you can't believe in. How humiliating.
Friday, January 21, 2005
I have a left eye and a right eye, and between them I can see in 3D.
I have a left ear and a right ear, and between them I can hear in stereo.
I have a left hand and a right hand, and between them I can do all sorts of things. I can juggle. I can cook. I can play the guitar.
I have a left mind and a right mind, and between them I can think in contradictions.
Or, as William Blake put it: “All of life is but a fiction, and is made of contradiction.”
When I was talking to my friend upstairs the other night I told him that I believed in God. This was because he was telling me that he didn’t.
When I was talking to him again the other day, I told him that I didn’t believe in God. This is because he presumed that I did.
“Hang on there a minute,” he said, “you’ve just contradicted yourself. You told me you did believe in God.”
“That’s because I have on my bifocals,” I told him. “It’s so I can think in 3D.”
What I like most are sentences that contain apparent contradictions and still make sense.
Like this one, for instance:
“Sometimes the most positive word you can say is no.”
And here is another one:
“The only God is no God.”
The Buddhists, of course, have no God, but only a dynamic place of being they call Nirvana, which means, the Roaring Silence.
The Taoists have no God, but only a dynamic process of being, which they call the Tao, which means, the Way.
The Confucians have no God, but only a dynamic interplay of complimentary forces, which they call the I, which means the Changes.
“The only thing that never changes,” they say, “is Change itself.”
The Hindus have so many Gods as to render the term almost meaningless.
Everyone has a God. Everyone has several Gods.
Infinite numbers of Gods to represent the infinite aspects of being.
Christians and Muslims and Jews, however, have only one God, who lays down the law for us to obey. We call this God “the Lord”, or some such variation on the term, and understand that we are to serve him, and that he is to judge us and punish us, and in the name of this God we feel free to force people into service, and to judge and punish others as we see fit.
The Judeo-Christian God is the God of the vengeful ego. Why else would he punish us?
The Jews even claim to be the Chosen People.
Why would God choose?
The early Christians, however, did not believe in this God.
They said that God is Love, and love is not a being but a relationship.
They personified this relationship as like that of a Father to his son.
Some early Christians called God the Father-Mother.
Others: the Great Life.
Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God, but only the Son of Man.
Read the Gospels. It was Paul who called Jesus the Son of God, and he is distinguished in the story of Jesus by the fact that they never met.
In fact, Jesus made it clear that we are all Sons and Daughters of God.
He said, “Our Father who art in heaven.”
He did not say, “my Father.”
Jesus’ God was the God of forgiveness, not of punishment.
Jesus’ God was the God of freedom, not of the law.
He came to overthrow the Ten Commandments. He came to take away our sins.
God is not a noun, he is a verb.
"He" is not a he, nor a she, nor an it.
He is not an object in Space.
He cannot be measured, or weighed, or observed, or accounted for by the scientific method.
God is love, they say, but love is not something that can exist by itself.
Love is in the relationship between beings.
Love is something that we do. Love, too, is a verb, not a noun.
Nouns are convenient tools of language. They help us to describe the world. But they do not exist outside of language.
A tree is not a "tree", but a dynamic process of becoming, a life-force, an existence, a presence, a being in a relationship to beings.
A human being is not a body but the act of being human.
There are two fundamental forms of relationship in our world: the relationship of love, and the relationship of ownership.
The two are diametrically opposed.
You cannot own the sky, nor the air, nor the waters of the earth. You cannot own the earth, but only share it. We cannot own each other, even for a wage.
That is why the concept of private property has to be abolished before we can know God.
God is relationship, not ownership. He exists only where human beings make no claims to property. Therefore he exists most dynamically amongst the poor.
He does not punish. He does not serve.
He did not create the tsunami.
He was there with those victims of the tsunami as each individual relationship to love, as every act of unaccountable bravery, as every attempt to save a life, as every life saved, as every act of sacrifice for another human being. And he was there, again, as every grief, as every tear, as every lost mother's lost hope, as every act of mourning. And he is here, again, in every act of sympathy, in every act of generosity, in every act of concern. And he is here, again, in the work of the rescue forces, in the healing of the sick, in the provision of sustenance, in the clearing of debris, in the burial of the dead, in the building of homes, in the building of lives, in the rebuilding of hope.
You cannot pray to love, but only act upon it.
Who will embrace the living? Who will offer kindness to the dispossessed? Who will hold them close in our hearts as the unyielding grief sobs through their bodies as it sobs through their lives? The mothers without sons? The fathers without daughters? The husbands without wives? The wives without husbands? The orphans without a future? Who will help them to find their future?
Tell me: to whom will you cry when the great tsunami wave comes to wash away your life?
You will cry to your mother who gave you birth, who sacrificed her body that you may live.
Because God is relationship not ownership. Like the relationship of a mother to her child.
Thursday, January 20, 2005
I mentioned infinity.
Infinity is an imaginary number in common use by mathematicians and physicists. Don't ask me what they do with it once they have it, but I do know they use it.
In fact, infinity is an infinity of infinities.
Think about it.
There are an infinite number of prime numbers, and yet each prime number is the start of an infinite sequence of multiples. One is the start of all the multiples of one. Two is the start of all the multiples of two. Three is the start of all the multiples of three. Five is the start of all the multiples of five. Seven is the start of all the multiples of seven. Eleven is the start of all the multiples of eleven. And so on, and so on, ad infinitum, to infinity.
My prime number is one hundred and thirty-seven. One hundred and thirty-seven, too, is the start of an infinite sequence on multiples, on and on, ad infinitum, to infinity..
The reason my prime number is one hundred and thirty-seven is because I woke up one morning from a dream with the words "there are one hundred and thirty-seven ways of interpreting the oracle" resounding in my head.
Don't ask me why I should have dreamed this particular number, nor what the sentence means. I have no idea. Nevertheless I have adopted the number as my own. This is the one hundred and thirty-seventh time I have thought about it today.
I guessed straightaway that it was a prime number, and this was confirmed to me one day when I struck up a conversation with a teenager on a train.
He was one of those speccy, nerdy types, doing sums in his exercise book as a way of passing the time. He wasn't doing his homework. He was doing sums for fun.
I asked him what he was up to. He said, "I'm looking at prime numbers."
I said, "is one hundred and thirty-seven a prime number?"
And he paused briefly, while he worked it out in his head.
"Yes," he said, after only a moment of time, "it is."
After which he went back to doing his sums.
You may ask what this has to do with God?
Infinity is an imaginary number which is useful to mathematicians and physicists as a way of understanding the Universe. And God is an imaginary friend who is useful for secular priests and philosophical ramblers such as I, as a way of understanding our purpose.
The problem with the Judeo-Christian concept of God is this:
Why did he only make himself known only to one people, once, at one time in history?
Why only to Hebrews?
Doesn't he care about Chinese people, or African people, or North American Indian people, or Aboriginal Australian people, or Polynesian people, or Asian people?
I asked one of my Christian friends about this. I said, "so, are you telling me that God is a Christian, and that if a Muslim or a Hindu or a Sikh says a prayer to him in all sincerity, that he won't listen? You have to be a Christian before he'll be bothered to listen?"
And my friend said, "it's because they've got his name wrong. If I call out to you on the street, and I call you Paul, you won't respond will you?"
Which is tantamount to saying that God only speaks English (or Hebrew, at least). In other words, this Universal God, this juggler of time and space, who gave birth to the constellations, and to every animate and inanimate thing in the Universe, who roars in the furnace of the stars and who numbers every hair on your head, somehow never got round to learning Chinese.
So when a Chinese person, or a Polynesian, or an Australian, or an African, or a Native American person tells us about his God, we are free to ignore what they say.
They speak a different language.
Monday, January 17, 2005
We were talking about God.
John Lennon once sang: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain."
I'm not sure if that is true.
My version of it would be: "God is a concept by which we measure our purpose."
Some people would prefer to do without God in their calculations. I'm not one of them.
My friend who lives upstairs from me, and who happens to be gay - in much the same way that I happen to be white (or a muddy kind of greyish pink) - describes God, disparagingly, as "the Vicar's imaginary friend," which is a wonderfully comic turn of phrase. He says he can do without God. But I think that God is a useful concept. As useful, in fact, as those imaginary numbers you find in physics, like the square root of minus numbers, upon which the whole of electronics is based. They may not exist as an actual numbers, and yet they work.
You can say the same about infinity.
So, yes, maybe God is the imaginary friend who defines our purpose. Without a concept of God we have to do without the notion that we have a purpose in this life, beyond the silent calling of our selfish genes and the vast, eclectic configurations of the accidental cosmos.
Are we just empty flecks of matter tossed about in a blind, indifferent Universe, or is there meaning in our lives?
And isn't meaning too, just like God, an invisible presence which pervades our very existence, unaccountable by scientific method, immeasurable, with no length or breadth or height or weight or mass or acceleration or momentum or force, and yet definable by our understanding?
Where does the meaning of these words lie?
Is it in the electronic image on the screen before you now? In the silicone chip that generates this image? In the computer code that defines how the image will be seen? Is it made of plastic and glass and silicone and gold and copper wiring and all the other elements that go to make your computer? Is it even in the English language?
Or is it in an understanding between you and me?
How do we measure God?
We can't, of course. Any more than we can measure love, or happiness, or grief. But we can measure ourselves beside the notion of an infinite goodness, say, or of a divine purpose, by asking ourselves how well we live up to these things.
Personally, when I think about God, I have a taste for the more abstract, less representative ideas that have come out of history. Like the Taoist version, which is called The Way, and is conceived of as a dynamic interaction between the two complimentary forces of Yin and Yang. Or the Kabbalist version, which is called the Ain Soph, which means The Illimitable, and which can only be described by pairs of negative opposites. It is neither up not down. It is neither black nor white. It is neither male nor female, It is neither North nor South, etcetera, etcetera.
However, the notion of a personal, human-type God has its attractions too, even if it is a little too anthropomorphic.
It's not easy trying to talk to a concept.
When I talk to myself I like to imagine another human-being in front of me.
And anyway, anyone who has ever taken a dose of psychedelic mushrooms will know just how anthropomorphic the world can seem at times: all this rustling, shivering, shimmering life, apparently imbued with purpose and personality.
I once saw the face of the suffering Christ in a dead tree stump swathed in ivy, in the back of a prefabricated building, behind a dead industrial fence where no one ever went.
I was out of my box.
The face was like the face in the Turin Shroud, etched out white against the blackness of the wood, complete with a crown of thorns, and with a look of infinite suffering on his face.
He seemed to be the spirit of this forgotten place, the home of rats and nettles and rusting tin cans, caught between a dirty old fence and the wall of a prefabricated building.
I was probably the only person to have gone there since the building was first erected.
I kept blinking my eyes, turning my head this way and that, to see if this was real or not.
It was real. No matter how I looked, the image would not go away.
Later I went back without the benefit of the psychedelics, just to check it out.
The image was no longer there.
Was it a part of the world, or just my imagination?
Isn't my imagination a part of the world too? Doesn't my imagination inhabit the world, along with me?
The problem with the Judeo-Christian concept of God, however, is that it is inherently absurd.
I'll explain why in the next part.
Sunday, January 16, 2005
US defence spending in the year two thousand and two was three hundred and forty-three billion dollars. That is, three hundred and forty-three thousand, thousand, thousand. Three hundred and forty-three and nine noughts, or three hundred and forty-three times ten to the power of nine (I think).
Correct me if I'm wrong.
This is as much as the whole of the rest of the world put together. Every army of every country, from Russia, to China, to North Korea, to Vietnam, to Cuba, to Iran, to Syria. In fact, you name an "enemy", and we'll take a measure to find out where the real threat lies.
There are currently one point four million battle-ready, active American troops in this world. That's not to speak of the backup crew, or of the civillian administrators, nor of their extravagent equipment: fighter planes, tanks, cruise-missiles, daisy-cutters, battleships, aircraft carriers, personnel carriers, rocket-propelled grenades, machine-guns, night-sights, helmets with earphones, computer moniters, body-armour, helmet-mounted digital-cameras, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
To call this degree of battle-readiness "defence spending" is a euphemism, like describing the act of unleashing one's bowels as "spending a penny". How many pennies do you have to spend in order to let go of your waste by-products?
"Offence spending" would be a more appropriate term. It certainly offends me.
That three hundred and forty-three billion dollars, by the way, is also the average spending of the United States on strategic offence in all the years since nineteen forty-six.
Between nineteen forty-six and nineteen ninety-four, the United States spent a total of fourteen point five trillion dollars on offence.
At an average of three-hundred and forty-three billion dollars a year, that works out at eighteen trillion, two hundred and seventy-three billion dollars, total, until today.
Give or take a little here and there.
How else can I say it?
That's nine trillion, seven hundred and seventy-four billion, two hundred and sixty-four million, two hundred and forty-six thousand pounds sterling.
I just went over the road and asked the Sri Lankan manager of my local Premium Mini-Market to weigh ten pound coins for me.
They weigh ninety-five grams.
In other words, the entire United States offence budget between the year nineteen forty-six and the year two thousand and five, if weighed in pound coins, would amount to ninety-two trillion, eight hundred and fifty-five billion, five hundred and ten million, three hundred and thirty-seven thousand grams, or ninety-two billion, eight hundred and fifty-five million, five hundred and ten thousand, three hundred and thirty-seven kilos, or, to put it more graphically, forty-six billion, four hundred and twenty-seven million, seven hundred and fifty-five thousand, one hundred and sixty eight point five bags of sugar.
We'll let them off with the half bag of sugar. It will only spill all over our nice clean surfaces, making a horrible, sticky mess.
Or, to put it another way: to count up to this figure would take three hundred and nine thousand, nine hundred and forty years.
I still don't think we are getting anywhere near an understanding of the meaning of these numbers, however.
Big numbers like this just tend to run into each other till they stop making any sense whatsoever.
So try this.
How many days is it since the supposed birth of that eponymous culture hero after whom our current era is named?
Two thousand and five years is seven hundred and thirty-two thousand, three hundred and seventy-five days.
That's not such a long time, is it?
Thus the US offence budget between the years nineteen forty-six and two thousand and five can be reckoned at thirteen million, three hundred and forty-five thousand, nine hundred and eighty-three pounds sterling every day - every day - since the birth of Christ.
Say the number again to yourself, and then think about it.
How do we measure time?
We measure it in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. In decades, centuries, millennia.
One second is one sixtieth of one minute. One minute is one sixtieth of one hour. One hour is one twenty-fourth of one day. One day is one seventh of one week.
So far so good.
One year is one tenth of one decade. One decade is one tenth of one century. One century is one tenth of one millenium.
The odd one out is the month, which, as you know, can contain anything between twenty-eight and thirty-one days.
Which is even more odd, considering that the word "month" is derived from the word "moon", and that the phases of the moon are perfectly regular, and have been one of the measures of time since we first started gazing into the heavens in awe and wonder, all those hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The time that it takes for a full moon to return to being full again is called the "synodic cycle" and is twenty-nine point five days long. The time it takes for the moon to reach the same place in the sky is called the "sidereal cycle" and is twenty-seven point three days long. The average of these two cycles is exactly twenty-eight days, or four weeks long, which is also, interestingly enough, the average length of the female menstrual cycle. There are thirteen of these four-week months in any year, with one day left over. So one lunar month is one thirteenth of one year, with one day left over. The one day left over is our day out of time. Thus there is an exact, proportional measure of a month available to us, which resolves the lunar cycle with the solar cycle in a truly satisfying way, but which, for some reason, we don't use. Instead we divide the year into twelve irregular non-months of twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty and thirty-one days.
No wonder everyone is so confused.
No wonder no one knows where we are any more.
Imagine if we measured distance in the same way. Twelve inches is one foot. Three feet is one yard. One thousand, seven hundred and sixty yards is one mile.
Only it's not. Because some miles are longer than others. Some miles have one thousand, seven hundred and fifty-nine yards in them, while others have one thousand, seven hundred and sixty-one, sixty-two and sixty-three.
Well it makes as much sense as our present calendar system.
By the way, did you know that the word calendar derives from the Latin "kalends", which means account book? It was the Romans who were responsible for the original version of our current calendar system. The kalends was the first day of the month when interest on loans was due.
In other words, Time is Money.
And money is eminently accountable.
We can thank the Lord for that.
Saturday, January 15, 2005
It's Saturday the fifteenth of January two thousand and five. That is, it is twenty-four days since I started writing this, or twenty-five days since the Winter Solstice, the day of the longest night, in the two thousand and fifth year since a certain historical and mythological personage was deemed to have been born, in what is usually designated the first month of the New Year.
Who knows what day it is if we measure the count from the beginning of the Universe, say, or from the creation of life on this planet, or even from the birth of consciousness, which is generally identified with the evolution of the human race?
Personally I think that the human race is pretty fucked right now, and just about ready to wipe itself off the planet. If this is consciousness, I say, then it's about time we went back to sleep.
This morning I read an analysis of the Asian tsunami by the Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. This is what he said:
"People must ask themselves why this earthquake occurred in this area and not in others. Whoever examines these areas discovers that they are tourism areas... where forbidden acts are widespread, as well as alcohol consumption, drug use and acts of abomination."
In other words: these people deserved it.
Which still begs the question - if we insist on ascribing meaning to the disaster - why not all the other places on the planet where alcohol consumption, drug use and these so-called "forbidden" acts of "abomination" are also rife?
Pretty much the whole of the world, I would have thought.
Why did the tsunami not wipe us all out?
And what about those people in that part of the world who were not engaged in any of these acts, who were simply getting on with the business of being alive? Why did God wipe the poor fishermen of Sri Lanka, and the honest farmers of India, and the workers of Indonesia off the planet at the same time? Just ordinary men and women trying to feed their families. Or perhaps God doesn't care.
It is left up to our imagination to work out exactly what these forbidden and abominable acts might be. The mind boggles.
Who forbade them? To whom are they abominable?
Personally I can't imagine anything a few tourists get up to on holiday warranting such a term. Farting in public? Drinking and falling over? Standing on tables dancing to ambient techno handbag funk-rap disco-music, while waving one's tee-shirt over one's head? Swimming? Sunbathing? Slapping on the coconut oil as sun-tan lotion? Using crummy chat-up lines and then being surprised when they actually work? Visiting sites of historical and cultural interest? Dining out in cheap restaurants with a view of the sea? What? What? Tourism may be crass, it may be stupid, it may be tacky and thoughtless at times, but is it in any way an abomination?
Or perhaps he is referring that expression of love and excitement between two human beings of the same sex, who both happen to enjoy the mutual pleasure of each other's bodies.
Yes, that's what he means. Homosexuality.
It's not something I want to do It’s not to my taste. Then again, I don’t like mashed potato either, or custard. Maybe I should declare a fatwa on all those obviously immoral and degenerate people who like the things I don’t. Kill all custard-heads and mashed potato-eaters, that’s what I say. They don’t deserve to live.
I hate mashed potato, and therefore, by the Judeo-Christian measure of things, God must hate mashed potato too.
Here’s something I have noticed in my long years upon this planet: that attraction and repulsion are actually two sides of the same process. Like magnetism. You don’t blame a magnetic coil because it attracts some objects while repulsing others. Why blame human beings?
Sometimes, indeed, the being that is attractive to you can become repulsive overnight. This is another one of those laws of nature. It has to do with reversing polarities, something that seems to be happening in our world right now, as the polarities of North and South are in the process of shifting. Sometimes the most repulsive can become the most attractive. And who are we to ascribe moral reasoning to the fundamental processes of nature?
In fact it would be a glorious irony, wouldn't it, if that Muslim cleric, and all the other Judeo-Christian thinkers who proclaim knowledge about the mind of God, were to wake up some morning, and, as a consequence of the reversing of polarities, were to find that they had become homosexual overnight?
Wouldn't that be funny?
So some people travelling in some parts of Asia have a liking for the genitals of people of the same sex, and God wipes out one hundred and sixty thousand or more, mostly innocent people, as punishment.
If that is God, then I'd rather worship my own arse-hole. It makes a lot more sense.
There are abominations on this planet, of course: vile, vicious acts of torture, of murder, of cruelty on a grand scale, but most of these are not conceived by holiday makers on the beaches of South East Asia, but in the boardrooms of multinational companies, and by their stooges in governments across the world.
The war in Iraq is an abomination. Poverty and hunger are abominations. Factory farming is an abomination. Obscene wealth is an abomination. Torture is an abomination. Imprisonment without trial is an abomination. Child-labour is an abomination. Child-starvation is an abomination. Slavery is an abomination. Wage-slavery is an abomination. Racism is an abomination. Exploitation is an abomination. And the economic imperative that drives all of these things is the biggest abomination of all.
But love? Love can never be an abomination, not matter how or by whom it is expressed.
The argument is entirely spurious, of course. This Muslim cleric believes that he knows what God thinks, and that therefore he has a right to tell the rest of us what to do. He read it in a book. He even believes he has the right to legislate against us and our bodies in the pursuit of this claim.
He's not the only one. Such thinking is in general usage amongst people of religious persuasion across the world. I'm sure there will be fundamentalist Christians in the United States and other places saying very similar things, ascribing their own meaning to the blind processes of the Universe, as if the Universe had purpose and consciousness.
Well maybe the Universe does have purpose and consciousness. I don't know.
I just don't think that any one of us on this planet is qualified enough yet to say what that is.
Monday, January 10, 2005
My son came to see me today. He's seven thousand seven hundred and ninety-eight days old. Or thereabouts. Give or take a little here and there. Hopefully he will correct me if I'm wrong.
He's younger than me.
Only he is not.
Because he is also one generation down the evolutionary chain. Evolutionary speaking he is older than me.
I used to say that I am older than my father and younger than my son. That is, because I am one generation further down the evolutionary scale than my father, but one generation further back than my son.
The future lies with the children. Therefore we should learn from them. It is their future, not ours.
Shall I tell you what seems the most immoral thing to me? It is younger people dying at the behest of older people. It is young Americans, young Brits, young Australians, young Iraqis, young Palestinians, young Jews - young people - who have not yet lived their lives, dying because an older generation tells them to.
There is the only measure of death.
When they die they should be mourned and then they should be honoured.
Then they should be let go of.
Usually a child should see his parents off.
Sometimes (as in the case of the Asian Tsunami) the death is arbitrary, and there is no meaning in the event.
There is no answer to the question "why".
We live, we die, we move through the surge of history for no particular reason.
The only time this changes is when the death is man-made, when, that is, there is something we can do about it.
In the case of the Tsunami, we can help the living.
In the case of Iraq, we can stop the killing.
In the case of ourselves we can wake up to the real nature of our current world and realise that profit and death are conterminous and that individual wealth and individual privilidge are eating the soul from this world.
That is: rule by the few for the few, against the many, is the enemy of the human race.
Them against us.
The rich versus the poor.
In the end, who's side do you take?
Or do we forgive them all?