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..