Saturday, May 27, 2006

Positive Negative

Just say no

When is a negative not a negative? When it’s a positive negative. Read on to find out more.

Sometimes the most positive word you can say is no.

Knowing how to say no is important in the art of survival on this planet. Not trying to please everyone all the time. Being clear who you are and what you want. Knowing what your limits are. Not allowing yourself to be drawn into other people’s dramas and dilemmas. Refusal to accept other people’s traumas as your own.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be sympathetic. It just means you don’t have to get bamboozled by other people’s emotional complexes.

Learning how to say no is one of the essential lessons in the often painful process of growing up. Failure to learn this lesson is to invite neurosis into your life, to be sidelined into a world of infantile dependency and permanent insecurity. It is to be at everybody’s beck and call, to be a servant rather than an instigator, to be emotionally and creatively drained.

We all know this. How else are we to survive the contradictory demands of everyday life?

And yet, looked at closely, the statement is absurd. How can a negative be positive?

The fact that it can be, and that we understand the essential meaning nonetheless, is a testament to the subtlety of our thought processes.

Everyone knows how to laugh at a joke. Everyone understands irony. Irony is saying one thing and meaning something else. Without irony life would be very dull indeed.

And yet this is precisely the problem with a certain kind of positive-thinking New Age philosophy: that it doesn’t seem to understand irony.

For a while last year I was involved with one of these positive-thinking types. Every time things went wrong he would say, “think positive.” He was always quick to draw a positive lesson from any negative event.

Unfortunately there were far more negative events in his life than positive ones. He would repeat his “think positive” mantra maybe twenty times a day. That’s how often things were going wrong. There wasn’t a day that went by when things didn’t go spectacularly - I’m tempted to say “positively” - wrong. Personally I was inclined to put this down to the negative effect of his tiresome positivity.

It all came to head one day when he crashed his car. We were on our way to a football match. We were late. Somehow things had got delayed. From the minute I met up with him he was being aggressively positive about everything.

We got to a busy crossroads. It was twilight, the rush hour. Headlights were streaming by along the road in front of us like freckles of moonlight on a fast-flowing stream. My associate was rocking impatiently at the wheel, looking up and down the road, waiting for a gap in the traffic.

I said, “calm down. I’d rather we got there late than not at all.”

“Think positive!” he said, and launched the car across the road, in front of an oncoming vehicle.

There was a screech and a sickly crunch, followed by the sound of shattering glass.

After that, and all the drama of the heated exchange between drivers in the middle of a busy duel carriageway - the police cars, the fire brigade, the endless stream of witnesses - I was treated to a rundown of his positive thinking philosophy.

“We were obviously not meant to go to the football match,” he said. “Think positive!”

“No!” I said, losing my temper at last. “I don’t believe in positive thinking.”

“So what do you believe in then? Negative thinking?”

Which just goes to show the dumb crudity of the positive thinking movement. They see everything in black-and-white. If you don’t think positively, you must think negatively.

One friend of mine practices what she calls “creative pessimism”. By this she means that she imagines the worst so that she will be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t happen.

When I mentioned this to my positive-thinking acquaintance he raised his hand, palm outward, as if defending himself from an evil spell.

Actually the whole movement is a form of bullying. It is an attempt to force the universe (and everyone in it) into doing what you want. It is a form of sympathetic magic that says that by thinking relentlessly, remorselessly positive all the time you can bludgeon the universe into adapting to your will.

As it happens you can think both positively and negatively at the same time.

A few years ago I broke a rib by falling off my bike onto a tree stump. Then a few weeks ago I broke the same rib by putting too much pressure on it while attempting to change the battery on my old VW camper. On both occasions I learned that it can hurt to laugh, a fact which I suddenly found immensely - and painfully - funny. It still hurts now.



I can’t stop myself from laughing. In fact the more I laugh, the more it hurts and the more I find it funny.

It is a function of language to divide the world up into mutually exclusive pairs of opposites. Sweet and sour. Black and white. Up and down. North and south. Man and woman. Good and evil. Positive and negative. Etc.

Doing this makes the universe easy to grasp with the crude instruments of language, but it gets us nowhere near the actual truth of things.

While one function of language divides the world up into opposites, another accidental by-product means that some words have more than one meaning.

The universe does not consist of “either/or”. It is more like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. “Not Only But Also.”

A woman goes into a bar and asks for a double entendre.

So the barman gave her one.

Boom boom.


Friday, May 26, 2006

Walking While Delivering

Royal Mail

Guidance notes for Postal Workers:

Walking while delivering.

Sacred Feminine

I must admit I’ve always found the basic tenets of feminism somewhat puzzling.

I mean: what is Patriarchy? It implies a kind of universal rule of the fathers. But which fathers are they referring to? Is it your Dad, or my Dad, or somebody else’s Dad?

I think it is an abstraction that misplaces the blame onto men in general, and fathers in particular, when men are often as oppressed as women, and fathers are usually very loving people.

I speak as a father and as a man, of course.

So who is the most oppressed exactly: a western woman living in a nice home in Surrey, or a poor third-world labourer living in a shanty-town, struggling to earn enough to keep his family alive? And yet is often these middle-class women you hear complaining the most about “the patriarchal system.”

It could be said that feminism’s only real achievement is that now wealthy families have two incomes rather than one.

I once shared a house with an ardent feminist. We were good friends but we used to argue a lot. She would go to women’s groups. This was in the early eighties, and women’s groups were all the rage.

One day she said, “men don’t talk about their feelings.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“We discussed it in our women’s group,” she said.

“Were there any men there?”

“Of course not.”

“So how do you know that men don’t discuss their feelings?” I observed. “You didn‘t ask.”

Later, again, this purely political feminism became spiritualised, with the notion of the sacred feminine and the rebirth of goddess worship. I think a lot of this was to do with Greenham Common. All these women sitting around the fire under the stars with very little else to do. They started divining religious symbolism into everything.

This, of course, is a good thing. The notion of a father-god without a corresponding spiritual consort is patently absurd. After all, it takes two to tango, as it were, and why would we want to deprive God of the pleasure of company?

But lately there has been a kind of backlash, and men have started going to men’s groups. Women don’t go to women’s groups any more, but a lot of men go to men’s groups.

I went to a men’s group once. We talked about our feelings. We talked about our feelings a lot. Mostly we talked about how honoured and privileged we felt to be a part of this group, to have this opportunity to talk about our feelings. I couldn’t see it myself. To me we were a bunch of men sitting in a room talking. I kind of wished there were some women present.

Anyway it’s easy to find a group of men. Go to any pub after work and you’ll find them there. Better still, go to the pub during the World Cup. There will be a lot of men present.

Of course, they are not talking about their feelings. Generally they are shouting. In other words, they have feelings, and they are expressing them, its just that the feelings are loud and incoherent and are wholly bound up with the outcome of a football match.


"Am I bovvered?"

It’s been 356 days, 15 hours, 7 minutes and 37 seconds since my last cigarette.


OK, so I can’t tell you the exact number of hours, minutes or seconds, but I can tell you the days, since I have a note of it in my diary. “25th March 2005,” it says, “2.30am. My last cigarette.”

I remember it well. I was talking to it the whole time. It was the only cigarette I ever truly enjoyed. I enjoyed it precisely because I knew it would be my last.

When it was finished, I stubbed it out with a flourish and that was it. Over. I had said my goodbyes.

A few days later I was in the newsagent’s in the full throes of nicotine withdrawal, laughing at the absurdity of it. I wanted to announce it to the world. “Look at me, I’m withdrawing from nicotine!“

A teenage girl came into the shop and bought a packet of fags. I said, “you’ll be addicted to them for the rest of your life you know.”

The look on her face was a picture. It was a mixture of defiance and irritation: that some grown-up had even dared to talk to her. “Am I bovvered?” it said. But I thought, “one day you’ll think back on this moment and know that I was telling you the truth.”

What’s interesting about the process of smoking is how much of it is unconscious. You watch the next time someone lights up. There’s a brief, momentary look of satisfaction and then the eyes glaze over. After that they are hardly aware they are smoking at all.

Nicotine enters the body, stimulating it on an unconscious level. This lasts for a few seconds. Then it leaves the body. Almost immediately the body feels it is missing something and the craving begins. All of this takes place without the smoker even being aware of it.

That’s why will-power hardly ever works. It’s not a failure of will, it’s a conflict of will. One part of the mind is still nagging to smoke. Once your whole mind is fully engaged in the process of quitting, the cravings disappear.

This is easier said than done of course, and I won’t presume upon your intelligence by pretending I have all the answers. All I can tell you is how I did it.

I did it by talking to my cigarettes. Every last one, for a whole month.

Cigarettes, of course, have no mind. What you are really talking to is your own self, your own unconscious addiction.

What is interesting about this is that it throws into relief the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious mind. How do you know what the unconscious is saying? Because you find yourself talking to it. How do you know what the unconscious is asking? Because you find yourself answering it.

The answer implies the question. The question indicates the answer. This is how you learn to hear the silent voice inside of you.

What more can I say? Nicotine withdrawal lasts for about three weeks, but the worst of it is over in about three to five days. After that it is nothing but a pleasure. To be able to breathe again. To drink in that sweet morning air, like cool spring water.



Thursday, May 25, 2006

Author in a Wheelie Bin

"Clothes are not the issue here. Self-empowerment is."

The Trials of CJ.

You may have thought that writing was a genteel sort of trade, scholarly and sedate, involving little more effort than a few quiet hours with a book and a pen. Well, yes it is. Unless you happen to be writing a book with Arthur Pendragon that is. Being the co-author of a book about ‘90s protest culture with someone claiming to be the reincarnation of a dark ages battle chieftain has been anything but quiet.

I won’t give the story away. Suffice it to say that it’s the true story of a man calling himself King Arthur, most often seen dressed in a white nightie with a circlet round his head, and that it involves Stonehenge, various protest sites, Druid rituals, some court cases, an extended stay in Bullingdon Gaol and that, if it has any purpose at all, it is to encourage you to rebellion. As Arthur says, "if I can do it, anyone can." Not that he’s asking you to wear a white nightie to do it. Clothes are not the issue here. Self-empowerment is.

My original conception was that Arthur and I would spend time together taking part in various protests, and that, out of this, the story would emerge. I imagined various contemporary events with flashbacks telling the tale.

I hired a car and we travelled up to the anti-nuclear rally outside Faslane Trident Submarine base in Scotland. There was me, Arthur, and Mog Ur Kreb Dragonrider (who deserves a book to himself, if only to explain what his name is supposed to mean: that's him on the left in the photo.) We were going to meet a man claiming to be John the Baptist. It’s obviously a trait of mine, hanging around with people with strange names claiming to be someone else.

On the morning of the protest we went to pick John up. You have to imagine the scene. John the Baptist is, in fact, a football casual, a Celtic supporter - he’s so neat he even irons his underpants - whereas Arthur is basically a hairy biker. John is a teetotaller, whereas Arthur loves his cider. It was six o’clock in the morning. Arthur was groggy with a heavy-duty hangover, whereas John was all bright-eyed and sparky. John is a Christian whereas Arthur is a pagan. They hated each other on sight.

So there I am, at the wheel of the hire car, with the two biggest egos on the planet in the back: a man who thinks he’s King Arthur Pendragon, and another one who thinks he’s John the Baptist. It’s a wonder the car could pull the load, so overburdened was it with maniacal, self-proclaimed glory.

John has this habit, what he calls "booming" someone. He comes up very close and fixes you in the eye and then rants. He has very startling, electric blue eyes. Once we had parked the car I left Arthur and the Baptist on their own, waiting for the sparks to fly, which they duly did. John boomed, closing in on Arthur‘s drink-fogged face, blinding him with his expositions; Arthur got bored and then, to get away from the onslaught, promptly got himself arrested. He saw a number of policemen protecting a line, walked across the line, and was carried away to the waiting meat wagons and the local police-cells.

The word went round that Arthur had just been arrested.. He was dressed in his usual gear. I overheard someone talking about it. "What’s he been arrested for?" they asked. "Bad dress-sense?"

It was 24 hours before I saw him again.

After that, not wanting to be outdone, John was angling to get himself arrested too. He was trying to urge me to drive the hire car at the police lines and through the gates of the base. "Huh! Call yourself a revolutionary," he said when I refused.

So that was it. My first attempt to get material for the book. I’ve lost Arthur and I’m left with a ranting football-supporting, Old Testament prophet frustrated that he can’t ruin my future career on a revolutionary whim.

Needless to say that particular story never made it into the book. I mean, where could you take it? I only tell it now so you know what traumas I’ve been subjected to to get this story into print.

Here’s another one. This happened a few weeks later. I met Arthur in Amesbury, near Stonehenge, where there was a meeting with the Department of Transport about the proposed bye-pass around the monument. Arthur had been invited as an interested party, and I was invited as his prospective biographer. I’d still not managed to get a single word onto paper.

After the meeting Arthur and I went to the pub to discuss the book. We had a few drinks. I had return tickets, and was about to leave, when Arthur grabbed hold of the tickets and ripped them to pieces. "Trust me," he said, "I’ll get you home." We spent the evening in the pub drinking away the advance money before making our way to the Countess Services on the A303 to start hitching home.

Well that was all very well, wasn’t it? It was early in February, and freezing cold. Arthur - who’s famous for this sort of thing - promptly fell asleep. He sort of crumpled into a swaddled lump on the verge while I was left stamping my feet against the cold. After that it was a night of sheer hell, with a biting wind searing through my clothes and an unconscious Druid for company. I went looking for warmth. The only place I could find it was in an industrial-sized wheelie bin full of cardboard. I climbed into the bin layering the cardboard around me and tried to rest. Well it was better than standing by the road.

So Arthur now has a new story to tell. He’s the man who got the author, CJ Stone, to sleep in a wheelie bin. I won’t tell you what else he says about me. You’ll have to read the book to find out.

The Trials Of Arthur

The Life and Times of Modern Day King


Arthur Pendragon &

Christopher James Stone.

You can contact me via my website if you wish to buy a copy of the book.

Wheelie Wheelie Annoying

Our wheelie bin has gone missing. We put it out for collection on Sunday night, and by Monday morning it was gone.

The puzzle is: why would anybody want to steal a wheelie bin? I mean, what would you do with it? What possible purpose can a wheelie bin serve, except, maybe, as a wheelie bin?

You can’t cook in it. You can’t brew beer in it. You can’t make a duvet out of it. You can’t wear it like a hat.

Well you can wear it like a hat if you like. It’s just not very flattering, that’s all. It’s also a bit smelly.

We thought some kids had nicked it for a laugh, had pushed it down the road a bit in a fit of high-spirits, in which case you would have expected to find it somewhere not too far away, on its side perhaps, with all the rubbish tipped out. Annoying, yes, but at least explicable: at least still within the realms of reason.

We’ve looked for it everywhere: in back alleys, in gardens, at the roadside, on pavements, on streets here, there and everywhere. We’ve been moving in concentric circles, further and further from our house, searching for our wheelie bin. But no. It‘s gone. It has simply disappeared.

How far can they have taken it? Did whoever stole it have a getaway car? Maybe it’s being held hostage. Maybe we can expect an extortion letter later. “Give us your money or the wheelie bin gets it.”

Was it abducted by aliens? Have the little grey men got it? Did they suck it up using their anti-matter transporter- beam? Are they even now conducting strange alien experiments upon it, subjecting it to some weird autopsy in the sterile surroundings of a laboratory on a flying saucer circling the Earth, probing it with their probes, prodding it with their prods, implanting it with their implants, in a vain attempt to discover the meaning of life?

Maybe they mistook it for a human being. It’s an easy enough mistake to make. Maybe they think that the Earth is ruled by wheelie bins. There are enough of them about.

The thing is - what is really peculiar - is that of all the wheelie bins in all the world, from a plethora of wheelie bins lounging around by the roadside waiting to be collected, they only chose ours.

What is it about our wheelie bin then? Is our rubbish more valuable or something? Is there something about our potato peelings that are somehow more appealing than other people’s potato peelings?

Or maybe I’m the victim of a celebrity wheelie bin collector. CJ Stone’s wheelie bin. That’s got to be worth something some day.

All of which is strange, but nowhere near as strange as what happened next. We rang the council to report our wheelie bin missing - good citizens that we are - hoping to get a new bin to replace the old one in time for the next collection in a fortnight’s time, and guess what?

They won’t replace it. We have to buy a new wheelie bin. We can’t leave our rubbish out in black sacks as we used to, so now it’s going to cost £39 to have our rubbish taken away.

Did someone mention extortion?


By the way, I once slept in a wheelie bin, as the next story explains...

Einstein on Acid

Famously Sir Isaac Newton discovered his theory of gravity in an orchard on his farm in Lincolnshire. He saw an apple fall to earth and, in a startling leap of the imagination, came to the conclusion that the same invisible force working on the apple must also be the one holding the moon in its orbit around the Earth.

On the basis of this he worked out his laws of planetary motion and invented the calculus, an equation so extraordinary in its applicable that it was later used to take men to the moon and back.

Quite how the son of a Lincolnshire farmer way back in the 17th century - who only ever got as far as London in his actual physical person - could draw such universal and far-reaching conclusions on the back of such a pernickety observation is another matter. But then, as he himself said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Almost as famously, and several centuries later, his disciple Albert Einstein hopped a ride on a beam of light and saw time stand still. From this (and other related observations) he came to the conclusion that the energy contained in matter equals its mass times the speed of light squared, which paved the way for the invention of the atomic bomb.

Perhaps we would all be a lot happier had Einstein not taken that journey into space and time. Then again, we really can’t blame Einstein for observing the truth. It’s what you do with the truth that matters.

The point to note about both of these illustrations is that they involved one man, one observation, and an extraordinary associative leap. Neither of them were dependent on the ideological world-view of the vast majority of the population at the time, not even that of other scientists. Newton travelled to the Moon and back whereas Einstein stopped time.

The reason I am pointing these facts out to you is to show that the nature of reality - and of our relationship to it - is not mechanistic.

In fact Newton developed his Theory of Gravity in opposition to the idea that there had to be a physical connection between objects for them to work on each other.

The ancient Egyptians knew that the star Sirius was a binary system: a bright, visible star, with a dark dwarf star circling it. They personified this observation mythologically, through the story of the relationship between the bright goddess Isis, and her dark brother Osiris.

This fact was not rediscovered by modern science until 1862. The two stars orbit each other, with a separation of about twenty times the distance of the Sun to the Earth, every fifty years or so.

Quite how the ancient Egyptians came to know this is a matter of speculation.

Ancient peoples also knew that the Earth was round and that it went around the sun.

Detailed measurements of the proportions employed in the building of Stonehenge suggest that the builders knew the exact circumference of the Earth.

How did they know this?

By the same means that Newton and Einstein made their discoveries: by an extraordinary leap of the imagination perhaps, followed by detailed observation and careful measurement.

Once upon a time we were all scientists.