Sunday, August 27, 2006

Collective Insanity

I was on the train to London. There was a man sitting a couple of seats up, facing me. I’d noticed him when he’d first got on, glancing up from my book as he took off his overcoat and folded it into the luggage rack. He was an ordinary looking chap, with a suit and a briefcase. After that I’d not paid any more attention, carrying on with my book.

It was about five minutes later when I looked again. I could only see half of his face and his reflection in the window. It was the sound of his voice which had alerted me. He was looking at his reflection, smiling and talking to himself. He seemed to be enjoying his own company very much.

My whole view of him changed. Before I’d seen him as a sober business man on a trip to a meeting. Now he looked completely mad, staring at his own reflection, talking and laughing. I was embarrassed and looked away.

But I was fascinated too. I couldn’t help taking the occasional peep, to see how his ongoing relationship with his reflected image was progressing. Was he enjoying the joke he seemed to be telling himself?

It took a few more minutes before I realised what was happening. His voice suddenly quietened, his face went blank, and he stopped looking at his reflection. He looked sane again. That’s when I realised he must have been talking to his mobile phone. I couldn’t see the hand to his ear because of the seat in front.

It gives you pause for thought, doesn’t it? A few years ago the only people talking to themselves in public were mad people. The rest of us might let slip the occasional thought, but we’d stop when anyone heard us. These days everyone‘s doing it.

This has been made even more strange by the introduction of hand-free sets. These days you see people wandering around all over the place, standing in shop doorways, talking to themselves, without even a phone in their hand. Imagine if you arrived here from some past date and saw this: you’d think everyone in the 21st century was mad.

Maybe they are. Maybe all that radiation being funnelled directly into people’s brains has boiled them, turning their grey-matter to soup. Maybe people really are talking to themselves. In fact, how can you be sure that there’s really another person on the end of your phone, and it’s not just voices in your head?

Mobile phones are symptomatic of a collective insanity.

Here’s something else I’ve noticed. The tone of a mobile phone ring is so piercing and all-pervading that no one can tell where it’s coming from. Whenever one rings in a public place, everyone has to check whether it is theirs or not. This happens all the time. There’s a high-pitched, rhythmic squeal, like someone’s repeatedly sticking a pin into a pig’s bottom, and then half the people in the room stand up, fumbling for their phones, before putting them away again disappointedly. It’s one of the sorrows of modern life, having a phone which no one rings.

Personally I always found them very intrusive. You might be having an important conversation with someone. But then their phone rings, and it’s your conversation which gets interrupted. No one answers their phone and says, “I’m sorry, but can you ring back? I’m having a conversation with someone else right now.” They always break your conversation so they can talk to the other person, as if having a mobile phone, and the ability to press buttons in the right order, immediately makes you a far more interesting person.

Actually I managed to do without a mobile phone for many years. My attitude was, if the conversation is important then it can wait till I get home. All of this changed when my land-line went down due to a technical fault. I was off-line for over a month. So there was no phone when I got home either, which meant I may have been missing some very important conversations in the meantime. So I got a mobile phone. A very cheap mobile phone. It has a black and white screen, can’t take photographs, can’t take video clips or record sounds and has no games on it of any note.

Nevertheless, I must admit, I like my mobile phone. It’s a Nokia. It’s small and neat and it fits into my hand with a sort of ergonomically satisfying smoothness. It is exactly the right weight and size. Obviously it was designed that way. I use it as a clock, as an alarm clock and - occasionally - as a phone.

I am particularly enamoured of its texting facility. Learning to text was like learning a brand new skill. I use predictive text which means that occasionally I have to teach my mobile phone brand new words. Like the time I taught it how to spell “Hypostasis” and “Archons” (which I wrote about before) while sending someone a text about early Christian literature. I guess there won’t be too many times when I will have cause to use these words. Indeed, I only used them that once. But you never know, do you? One day maybe, people will be saying “Hypostasis of the Archons” all the time in which case - ha! - I’ll be ready.

I’ve just had a thought. Maybe I should add a new word to my mobile phone dictionary every day. I could send texts to various people to try out new words, to see if they are in my dictionary or not. And if they are not - well hey - I will just have to add them. So it won’t be just a mobile phone any more: it will be the most erudite mobile phone in existence.

I wonder if “erudite” is in my mobile phone dictionary?

Yes it is.

The one problem is that I keep forgetting to carry my mobile phone around with me. I stick it in my jacket pocket to go out, and then, when I return, I take my jacket off and hang it up and forget about my mobile phone, which can often mean that my mobile phone is down stairs in the hall while I am two floors up and unable to hear it. Thus I get a lot of answer-phone messages.

I had a message on my answer-phone the other day from a friend of mine. He said, “Chris, can I tell you how to use a mobile phone?” He said, “the point about a mobile phone is that it is mobile. That’s why it’s called a mobile phone. So the point is you are supposed to carry it around with you. That way, when people ring you up you can answer the phone and they wouldn’t have to keep leaving you messages.”

Maybe he has a point.


Bring back the groat

What do you do with your 1p change? I mean, when you buy something for 99p, and hand over a pound to pay for it, what do you do with the little diddy bit left over?

It's a dilemma. After all, strictly speaking, it is yours. You have a right to it. But it feels so cheap waiting while the shop assistant opens the till, throws your pound in with a rattle, and then, very purposefully, extracts the spare penny to hand it over.

You may have noticed, also, that if you do wait, the shop-assistant will make a point of announcing to all present just how little you have been waiting for. "That's ONE PEE change," they will say in a loud voice, emphasising it's insignificance, while holding the coin up to the assembled company, before disdainfully placing it in your quivering palm.

It's all too much to bear. Usually I avoid the humiliation by asking for the coin to be placed in a charity box. "Stick it in the Lifeboat," I might mutter casually, before turning on my heel and exiting, as if such charitable urges came entirely naturally; as if, in fact, I hadn't just been browbeaten by the shop-assistant into throwing away what is legally and morally mine.

And those pennies do add up. Twenty of them would buy me a box of matches. Two hundred and sixty of them would buy me a pint of lager in my local. Save them up for long enough and, theoretically, I could afford a holiday in Tenerife, or a night of dubious entertainment in some London club. I could buy a yacht. I could go on a safari trip to darkest Africa. With one thousand, four hundred million of them (give or take a million or two) I could go on a trip to the international space station and bob about like a pineapple for a week and eat processed food out of tubes. Wouldn't that be nice?

The UK Independence Party want to save the pound. What about the pennies, that's what I want to know? Or, as my Grandmother always used to say, "look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves. "

Mind you, I do agree with this policy, I just don't think it goes far enough. Once we have secured the pound, there's all sorts of thoroughly British coins which have been lost and which deserve to be revived. Take the groat, for instance. The loss of the groat as a coin of the realm was such a blow to British sovereignty that I feel certain it has been responsible for most of the ills of our modern society, including car theft, burglary, and forgetting to wash behind your ears.

The groat was worth four old pence - that's just less than two new pence - for those of you too young to remember. Which is all of you, since the groat went out of circulation some time during the Napoleonic Wars.

And there's other coins, too, which have disappeared. Like the florin, the guinea, the crown and the half crown, all of which had an intrinsic value beyond their face value, as symbols of British individuality and verve; not to speak of our historically renowned arithmetic skills. The total value of all of these coins (including the groat) added up to one pound, ten shillings and ten pence. I'll leave it up to you to work out what the face value of each of them was.

So let's stop this pussy-footing about. British pride and British independence demand the return of our ancient coinage forthwith. Dump the euro, I say. Bring back the groat!


Saturday, August 19, 2006

Astrology Warning

I must admit that I am in two minds about astrology. I’m in two minds about most things.

I remember a late night conversation a few years back, sitting round a bonfire at a party in someone’s back garden. Someone asked me what star sign I was. So I told her. “I’m a Sagittarian,” I said. Which led to an interesting analysis of my character as she proceeded to elaborate on my various qualities. It was uncanny. She had me down to a tee. It was only later that I revealed that I’d been lying.

It was a good game. After that she asked me again what my star sign was, and again I lied, and again she went through a detailed analysis of my personality based upon what I‘d told her, until again I revealed the truth, much to her consternation and to my pleasure.

The conversation went on for some time before I finally told her the real truth; except that by this time she no longer believed a word I was saying.

All of which illustrates the fact that while asking for someone’s star-sign might pass as a serviceable chat-up line at a party, refusing to give it can be even more helpful in maintaining the conversation over a much, much longer period of time.

When I say that I am in two minds, I mean that literally. I have what I call my eastern mind, and my western mind. My eastern mind (called that because I live and work on the East Kent coast) is generally practical and political, involved in campaigning and working around issues like asylum rights and the peace movement; while my western mind (usually most in evidence when I’m in the West Country) is generally poetical and speculative in nature, with a tendency to go off in flights of fancy about the nature of the universe and my place within it.

My western mind believes anything anybody tells me about everything. My eastern mind is sceptical and critical and reserves its judgement, preferring to let matters digest before it gets round to making utterances on the subject.

Having two minds is a very useful thing. It’s a bit like having two eyes, or two ears, or two legs or two hands. All the best things come in twos. Without two eyes you wouldn’t ever get a perspective on anything and you’d never see the into depths of things. You’d never be able to see the wood for the trees. Without two ears you’d hear everything in mono. Without two legs you’d have a tendency to fall over quite a lot while running, leaping or dancing. Without two hands you’d never be able to play the guitar or the violin or do any of the other interesting and valuable things that hands can get up to when working in tandem: like scratching your bum while picking your nose, for instance, or cutting up a nice, juicy steak using a knife and fork.

Having two minds is like being involved in a constantly evolving conversation with yourself, and it means you’ve always got someone to talk to, even when there’s no one else around. Having two minds means never being lonely. It means allowing all your enthusiasms while maintaining a degree of critical reserve. It means believing everything and disbelieving it at the same time. It means giving yourself more than one point of view. It’s like having bifocals on: you can see up close, and into the distance, though in this case not at the same time.

I think at this point all of you who are in the slightest bit au fait with the symbolism and interpretations of classical astrology might well be able to take a good guess at what star sign I actually am. I will neither confirm nor disagree. Further clues lie within the text, and if any astrologists are reading this I would be quite interested in hearing your opinions on the matter.

Anyway, what all of this amounts to is something of a prelude to the main point of my story. Here I am, writing a critical blog on the nature of astrology, while at the same time (having two minds) I can now reveal to you that I also have a personal astrologer, whose advice and predictions I take very seriously.

His name is B---, and, needless to say, I met him in Glastonbury in the West Country, when my enthusiastic and devil-may-care Western mind was in the ascendancy. Not that that stops me arguing with him, mind, or questioning the basis of the philosophy upon which he builds all of his elaborately detailed expositions of the heavens and their meaning. But it doesn’t stop me listening to him either.

Now B--- has a remarkable facility: that you can tell him the date, time and place of your birth, and he will know immediately what the heavens looked like on that occasion. Don’t ask me how he does it. He must have a million star-charts stored away in the filing cabinet of his brain. He doesn’t need a computer or a book or an astrological concordance to do this. It’s just there, like having a full-scale planetarium inside his skull, a working model of the sky.

I guess you can call him a sort of Cosmic Anorak really. He’s like a train-spotter of the stars. Only whereas most train spotters know the intricate details of the rail timetable off by heart, say, or who scored the winning goal in the 1956 cup-final, B---‘s genius is in knowing where the stars are at any time in history, and being able to give you detailed interpretations of their meaning and purpose.

Conversations with him tend go along the lines of: “Your MC is one and a half degrees of Gemini, but your ascendant is nine degrees of Virgo, so magically it is the twenty-second or twenty-third degree of the ninth house, which is Sagittarius, etc, etc.” Most of which I entirely fail to understand.

It’s like being in a foreign country. You need an interpreter to find your way around. B---’s brain is filled with all sorts of arcane and exotic phenomenon, such as nodes, trines and conjunctions; such as aspects, houses, ecliptics and ascendants. Even when it’s explained to you what they ARE, it’s still almost impossible to work out what they MEAN.

Of course, as everyone knows, astrology isn’t the same as astronomy. However dicoveries of the latter often inform the former. For instance, in classical astrology there were seven planets. Since then, due to technical and scientific innovation, more planets have been discovered which have become incorporated into the astrological framework. So Uranus was discovered by William Herschel in 1781, Neptune by Urbane le Verrier in 1846, and Pluto by Clyde W. Tombaugh in 1930. All of these planets have since acquired interpretations which have added to the original structures of astrological thought.

Now there’s a problem here. Planets are named by astronomers for entirely different purposes than those required by astrologers, and yet astrologers insist on providing interpretive models based upon the names given to them by the generally more sceptical astronomical community.

Meanwhile there are new objects being discovered all the time which means that our interpretation of the heavens is in a constantly unfinished state.

Here is an example: there was a Lunar Eclipse on the 9th of November 2003, an event which was described by members of the astrological fraternity at the time as an “Harmonic Concordance“.

So what is an "Harmonic Concordance" exactly? B--- took me along to a meeting to explain.

Well I was conned. I was under the impression that the meeting would be a pagan pub moot, and I was looking forward to a boozy night in some friendly hostelry with nicotine stained wood panelling in which astrological considerations were entirely secondary to the general atmosphere of merry dissipation. Instead of which I found myself in someone’s extensive white-painted conservatory, surrounded by chintzy white cushions and lacy white curtains, with crystal angels and floating candles, and fairy lights on the wall. No drink. Only cups of tea and plates of crisps.

I was in for a long night.

Anyway he described the phenomenon as a “Grand Sextile” and then proceeded with one of his vague and incomprehensible astrological explanations, which meant that I was no wiser after the event than I had been before..

Eventually I looked up the words in the dictionary. The word “harmonic” speaks for itself, of course, as something that has the quality of music, as in melody or song. “Concordance”, on the other hand, is one of two things. Either it is an agreement reached between two people, or it is a particular kind of literary tool: an alphabetical list of the most important words in an author’s work. So there is a Shakespeare concordance, say, or a Blake. There’s even a biblical concordance, containing most of the words in the Bible, which must be a very fat book indeed.

All of which brings to mind a strange picture: of two people who, having reached an agreement, suddenly launch into a song consisting entirely of lists of biblical words in alphabetical order.

Did anyone notice that at the time? Were there bursts of harmony from complete strangers in the supermarket check-out queue on the 9th of November 2003? Did anyone stop in the middle of the street and begin reciting long lists of biblical words in Gregorian Chant? Maybe not. But then, I am notoriously lacking in any kind of extrasensory perception, so it’s entirely possible that the whole world burst into song psychically on that day, and that I missed it completely.

I’m being facetious, of course. But there is a serious point here. All the way through B---’s address he kept referring to a planet called “Chiron”, which I’d never heard of.

Which brings me to my point. You may or may not know this, but Chiron, it seems, is an irregular lump of rock, about 150 to 200 km in diameter, which wobbles about uncertainly somewhere between the orbits of Jupiter and Uranus. In other words, to refer to this object as anything like a planet is like calling the Isle of Sheppey a continent, say, or Stow-in-the-Wold a conurbation. There’s a kind of categorical confusion at work here and, without its dubious presence in the chart, there would be no Grand Sextile, and no Harmonic Concordance either.

What was even more confusing was the interpretation being offered. The mythological Chiron was reputed as a wise teacher and a healer who, mortally wounded, wished himself dead. Unfortunately he was immortal. The symbolic implications are interesting. The wounded healer. Except that Chiron, the astronomical object, was only discovered in 1977, and was named by its discoverer, Charles Kowal, not for its psychological symbolism, but because he was uncertain whether it was an asteroid or a comet at first, the object sharing some of the qualities of both. The original Chiron was a centaur: half-man, half-horse. Duel-natured. Hence the choice of the name.

This is symbolism too, but for an entirely different purpose.

All of which is mildly puzzling. I mean, I don’t object to symbolism. It’s my mainstay as a writer. But whereas metaphor is a literary technique, ascribing the qualities of one thing to something else, in order to bring the object or the event to life, no writer ever makes the mistake of thinking that these qualities are actually inherent in the thing itself. Astrology, on the other hand, seems to imply that the object actually bears these qualities: that Chiron, the lump of rock, somehow imparts the quality of the “wounded healer” into the heavens, and therefore into someone’s life.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t dismiss astrology. I just think it suffers from a tendency to over egg itself. To me it is a language, not a science. It is dependent on the mind and the intuition of the astrologer. The chart is a metaphor, and the subject is the person who is having the reading. Hence it is an exchange between two people, using the constructs of astrology as a means of communication. It is subjective, not objective. It is “a hook to hang your thoughts on”, a pleasant way to spend an hour or two with a friend chatting about that most important of subjects - yourself. No more.

A couple of points. First, that the word “Chiron” is pronounced “sheer-ron” not “kai-ron” as B--- consistently kept saying it (it’s Greek). Secondly that in my research around the subject I found the following words, attributed to Chiron, from a page about the Greek myths on the internet, which are worth quoting: "Secret, O Apollo are the keys of wise Persuasion, that unlock the shrine of love; and both gods and men blush to take the pleasure of a bed for the first time openly.”

Yes. What a fantastic thought. So I will allow this to astrology, at least, that it encourages you to look into the wisdom contained within the ancient myths. And I’ll add another thing too, that it encourages you to consider the power and the presence of the heavenly bodies, both in the universe, and in our lives. Spending time with B--- late at night is to have the various astronomical objects pointed out to you, which is very educational and interesting.

Mind you, I have another friend who will also point out the planets on late night jaunts in the open air. He isn’t an astrologer, he is an amateur astronomer, which is an entirely different take on the same basic phenomenon, and just as interesting.

So far so good.

What follows next serves two distinct purposes.

You can see it as a kind of experiment, and you can interpret it as a kind of warning.

Get your bifocals on: I’m asking you to hold two thoughts in your head at the same time.

I got this e-mail from a friend of mine about a possibly devastating attack on the west on the anniversary of 9-11 week this year, specifically around September 9th, as predicted by B---.

"The North Node, which is a point of 'karma', turns direct at 25 Pisces. According to Carelli's 360 Degrees of the Zodiac, this is a point of warfare, violence and acrimony. The symbol is David and Goliath, the desperate small guy taking on the large oppressor, and winning. Carelli says it's a 'resort to any kind of assault'.

"Same with Mars and Mercury, both entering Libra. Libra is generally a sign of peacefulness, balance, tolerance, but the first degree is the exception to this. 'Hypersensitivity' and 'headlong rush into danger' were Carelli's words for 01 Libra. Combine that with an eclipse on the 7th at 15 Pisces, and a Saturn Neptune opposition on the 31st August, Pluto turning direct on the 4th, at 24 Sagittarius, and you have a potential for some very nasty international shit going down.

"Carelli's thoughts on 15 Pisces:

"SYMBOL: Among the storm clouds in the heavens, an archangel appears, his sword drawn.

"(I do not know if the archangel is Michael. He may also be the wayfarer's protector, Raphael (= God has healed), whose weapon kills and recovers.)

"Rational intelligence is far from clear if not downright blurred. But there is a great power of feeling, a bright, keen, piercing insight, whose edge is as sharp as a sword's. Here the Seer Charubel's words:

"'Whosoever thou art, thou hast a mission to accomplish and thou wilt be armed with the necessary power and authority to execute that mission. Thou art a child of the Sun.'

"24 Sagittarius.

"SYMBOL: Suicide

"A gloomy spirit obsessed by the idea of death. The symbolic image may come true literally or metaphorically, or both together. Anyway, life will be short and dreary, death sudden and perhaps violent; but the native himself is responsible for- if not the author of- his own mishaps

"The best advice I can give? Avoid suicide bombers.

"Get into the woods, and stay there. Stay away from populated areas, and unsafe situations. And don't fly. Don't come visiting the US then, or anywhere unsafe politically or a possible terrorist target. I hope I don't sound too panicky, but I really think this one has potential to be serious. It's just the more I look the worse it appears."

Put specifically, and in non-technical language, the whole week around September the 9th 2006 looks very dodgy indeed astrologically speaking. You can view this as the warning.

However, I have some serious questions to ask.

The problem with astrology is that it is so ludicrously vague. You can interpret the above passage in any one of a thousand different ways and it really isn't clear what any of it means.

I had a phone call from B--- in the week and he was interpreting the events as having already taken place, in the form of the recent terror alert at our major airports. If that’s the case, then we can all relax, since, actually, nothing happened.

Is intent in astrology an event then? Assuming the plotters were guilty, does their purpose in attempting to blow up those planes amount to a fulfilment of the prophecy? This is a bit like having your cake and eating it. If nothing else happens then you can always claim that the events were psychic rather than practical, in which case you can get away with almost anything.

It’s a variation of Cartesian logic. Not “I think therefore I am”, but “I thought it, therefore it happened”.

It also means that the dates are entirely wrong. When I quizzed B--- on this he said that astrological forces can manifest several weeks either side of the predicted date, which allows even more lee-way in interpretation.

Also it’s very clear that the prediction refers to an event in the west, which sort of implies that the planets are partisan in their message, offering due warning to the western states, but ignoring the plight of people in the middle east. More people die in Iraq every month than died in the attack upon the World Trade Centre, a point that is not often considered when we hear these kind of scare stories. What do the stars tell us about this I wonder?

Actually, that might be more to do with our biased interpretation of the symbols rather than with the symbols themselves. Personally I think the image of David and Goliath fits very well with what has just happened in Lebanon between Hizbollah and the Israeli state: “the desperate small guy taking on the large oppressor, and winning.” It could also apply to Tommy Sherridan taking on the News of the World. Maybe the images serve to describe several events all at the same time? Unfortunately, in both cases the dates are wrong.

So what are we to make of this?

As I say: what it amounts to is both an experiment and a warning. An experiment because we can understand it as a kind of test of astrological methods. Come September 9th (or thereabouts) we will know whether any of B---’s predictions have any validity. That's the test. The warning is just in case they do. Be a little bit cautious in that week, that's all.

As I always say, it's better to be a safe believer than a sorry sceptic.

Me: I'm in two minds. I'm a believer and a sceptic at the same time. After all, you never know.


Terror Alert

Chaos at Heathrow.

In a previous blog I wrote about the attack on Lebanon, and about the Israeli spin that makes it appear that every problem in the Middle East is the fault of the Iranians: as if it were Iranian aircraft screaming over the Lebanon these last few weeks and blowing up everything that moved.

It was only after I’d finished writing it and had posted it up that I heard about the terror plot and the arrests in Birmingham and London.

I must admit that my first thought was dismissive. Here we go again. Anything to keep Lebanon off the front pages.

What I had in mind was the well-known history of WMDs, of fake dossiers, of the sexing up of intelligence material, of tanks at Heathrow, of Jean Charles de Menezes and Forest Gate and of all the other times we have been lied to or misled in the last five years since this so-called War on Terror was declared.

So now they have replaced real bombs with hypothetical bombs, real threats with hypothetical threats, real death and destruction and attacks upon civilians with a useful scare story designed to keep our minds distracted and our hearts full of fear.

Disrupting our holidays. Testing baby-milk for high-explosives. Ha! It would be ludicrous if it wasn't so serious.

Notice how the terror alert only went critical once the alleged terrorists had been caught?

That’s how I thought.

Well I’ve decided since then to reserve my judgement. Maybe there was a plot, after all. We’ll leave it to the courts to decide.

We’re lucky we still have a functioning judicial system, despite government attempts to dismantle it.

If there was a plot, let the perpetrators be brought to trial and, if they are found guilty, let them be punished for their crimes.

That is the proper way to deal with terrorists, and it always was.

Of course, when anyone attempts to take a rational approach to the current cycle of violence - pointing out how British foreign policy is causing this country to be targeted, for instance - we are immediately accused of giving in to terrorism.

Accepting that there might be grievances is allowing government policy to be dictated by the terrorists, we are told.

Actually it is the other way around. Only by accepting the reality of the grievances – and of the huge errors in British foreign policy which have exacerbated the situation - can the terrorists be separated from the mass of ordinary Muslims who agree with their aims but disagree with their methods.

Tony Blair’s talk of an “arc of extremism” and of “Reactionary Islam”, uniting Hamas and Hizbollah with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, is a dangerous obfuscation which can only lead to more misunderstanding, more violence and more terror.

Occupation creates resistance, whether in Baghdad, Beirut or Birmingham Alabama. It’s as simple as that. It has nothing to do with religion.


Saturday, August 12, 2006


In case you haven't noticed, we seem to be on the verge of World War Three right now.

I heard an Israeli spokesman on the radio the other day. He said: “Iran are causing war and havoc throughout the Middle East.”


I guess those must be Iranian jets flying over the Lebanon at the moment, turning buildings to apple crumble, attacking red cross ambulances and UN peace keepers and killing all those mothers and children cowering in basements. Telling people to move out of south Lebanon and then targeting them in their vehicles. Invading a sovereign nation, pounding the hills with heavy gun fire and attacking densely populated civilian areas. I must have mistaken the flag.

Of course, as we are constantly reminded, Israel has the right to defend itself. True. But not only is the current action way beyond defensive, it begins to look fairly certain that it was premeditated.

It is common to say that Hizbollah started this war when it abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, but, if you wind back the tape a little, you begin to see another picture emerging.

Prior to that Israel were pounding the life out of Gaza, starting with its power plant, a form of collective punishment and a recognised war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

Prior to that Hamas had abducted one Israeli soldier.

Prior to that (though this was barely noticed) the Israelis had abducted a Palestinian doctor and his brother from their home. Abduction of civilians is also a war crime.

Prior to that the Israelis had fired on a Palestinian family sunning themselves on a beach in Gaza.

And prior to that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, had almost persuaded Hamas to accept a deal in which it effectively recognised the state of Israel‘s right to exist. Or, to put it another way, by murdering several members of a Palestinian family on a beach the Israelis had deliberately scuppered any chance of a peace agreement.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, was on record at the time urging the Palestinian people to reject the proposals which were to be put to them in the form of a referendum.

In other words, Israel have done al-Qaeda’s work for them.

As to who is behind this war, it may well be true that Iran are arming and supporting Hizbollah, but we all know who is arming and supporting Israel.

Condoleezza Rice says we are watching the birth-pangs of a new Middle East. Since when did you induce a birth by smearing the mother with blood and pounding her with heavy artillery?

What sort of a monstrous baby do the Americans have in mind exactly?


You Are What You Eat

According to a recent advert, you are what you eat. Which makes me somewhere between a pork chop and a pot noodle.

This afternoon I was a cheese sandwich. This evening I will be a stir-fry. Next week I will be egg, chips and a slice from Dave’s Cafe down the road. Last week I was a Chicken Jalfrezi at the local curry-house, with poppadoms, pickles, naan bread and Bombay potatoes all sluiced down with five pints of chilled lager and finished off with an after-dinner mint.

Actually the phrase goes back a lot further than that advert.

I first remember it as the title of a progressive rock compilation sometime in the late sixties. Back then it had all the radical edge of a right-on political slogan. It was associated with the burgeoning culture of the hippie movement - all wholefood co-ops and weaving your own yoghurt, squatting empty properties and not washing your feet - and attached to other lifestyle slogans of the time, such as “The Personal Is The Political” and “Pay No Rent”. Far-out guys in baggy flares and cheesecloth shirts were busy setting up wholefood kitchens at their local free-festival where they distributed garlic-flavoured lentil stew for free while raising their hands in the clenched fist salute.

“You Are What You Eat!” they would say - like that, all in capital letters - before slurping down a cup of hot ginseng tea and toking on a joint. “Yeah man, right on, far out, too much.”

Obviously there is a partial truth in this. The chemical constituency of what you take into your body must have some bearing on your physical make-up. If you eat healthily, chances are you will feel good in yourself. If you eat badly, chances are you will feel less happy.

Personally I swear by porridge. A bowl of porridge first-thing usually has me feeling tip-top until mid-morning. Not muesli, note. Muesli is made of uncooked oats and uncooked oats are bad for you, despite their popularity amongst the chunky sweater brigade. Was there ever a breakfast cereal so ridiculously misrepresented?

On the other hand, no matter what you eat, you remain generally a human being. The Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania spend months on end living off a mixture of milk and blood from their cattle, and seem perfectly healthy for all that.

All of which has only the most peripheral bearing on the subject of this week's blog.

The question is not: are you what you eat? It is: are you what you do?

It’s the perennial dinner party conversation isn’t it? You find yourself sitting next to a stranger, and after a cursory summary of the week’s news and what‘s happening to the weather, what else is there to talk about?

So one of you asks the question, “what do you do?” And that’s it: your conversation for the rest of the evening.

The trouble with this is that it is really a conversational ruse, and will tell you virtually nothing about the person you are sitting next to. So you’re a postman, an editor, a line-manager, a social-worker, an interior designer, a taxidermist, a political analyst, a dustman, a pot-noodle quality control inspector are you? All of which tells me how you make your living, not what you think or who you are.

Also, people tend to make judgements on the back of what they hear.

There’s an unconscious recognition of a hierarchy of trades that we all share. An editor is considered better than a postman. A line-manager is considered better than a dustman. Mental labour is considered better than physical labour.

For instance: you all know me as a writer. If I told you my main occupation was as a postman, would that make any difference to how you perceive me? I think it would.

And yet I have done many things in my time. I’ve been a dustman, a road sweeper, a machine operator, a barman, a cellar man, and many, many other things. This used to embarrass me whenever I was called on to write a CV. It made me look inconstant, not to say, inconsistent. It was the CV of a shirker not a worker, a grifter not a grafter, and was only passable as an aid to getting work by glossing over whole years in succession.

It wasn’t until I’d had my first piece of writing published that the CV looked respectable. It was precisely the CV of a writer.

The problem with the question “what do you do?” is that it is always understood only to refer to your method of paying the mortgage. And yet “doing” is what we “do” all the time. I was doing writing long before I ever earned any money from it. I am also “doing” thinking right now. Thinking is as important a part of the writing process as it is of everything else. You do thinking mostly when other people can‘t see you doing it.

Sometimes we do thinking while we’re doing other things. I can think while washing up. I can think while going to the shops. I can think while I‘m in the bath. I can even think while I‘m fast asleep. Sometimes my best thinking is done in this state. I go to bed with a problem, and by the morning it‘s all cleared up.

I have friends who do tarot and others who do magic. One of my friends does nature study while another does music. Are we what we do, or do we do what we are?

Let’s hear what the philosophers have to say on the subject.

Socrates: “To be is to do.”

Sartre: “To do is to be.”

Sinatra: “Do Be Do Be Do.”


Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Tao of Tumble-Driers

In case you don't know, the names of the days of the week are pagan and metaphysical in origin. They are named after celestial beings, mainly either Norse or Roman gods. So Wednesday is "Woden's day", Thursday is "Thor's day", Friday is "Frea's day" and Saturday is "Saturn's day". I don't know where Tuesday comes from. I can't think of any gods of any kind called "Tue". But by the same token, Sunday is the Sun's day and Monday is the Moon's day, both of which are celestial bodies which were once worshipped as deities.

So every day of the week has an underlying metaphysical meaning.

Monday is the worst day, being named after the moon. The light of the moon is simply reflected glory, of course, and moonlight tends to bleed the colour out of things. The moon is connected to lunacy, to moments of dread and confusion and to the urges of the unconscious. In the Tarot-deck a scorpion crawls from a dismal pool while two dogs howl and the moon cries bitter tears. Maybe that's why Mondays always seem so bad.

Traditionally Monday is washing day. Hence the expression "Blue Mondays". The blue comes both from the blue dye that was traditionally used to whiten whites, and from the fact that it makes you feel blue to spend your whole day scrubbing dirty washing with a wash-board and soap, and then wringing the stuff out with a wringer afterwards. Fortunately these days we have the advantage of automatic washing machines to help out with this onerous task. Well some of us do, anyway. I don't. I go to the launderette.

I did consider buying a washing machine. My friend Dodge said he could get me a second hand washing machine for fifty quid, his father-in-law supposedly being a second hand washing machine dealer. Only he forgot. I reminded him, but he forgot again. So I started to think it was probably one of those dodges he is nicknamed for, after his habit of always dodging the question. I started to think that, actually, he couldn't get me a washing machine after all, and he just didn't want to admit it. His constant "forgetting" was just a convenient way of not having to say no. After that I enquired about hiring a washing machine instead. I didn't want to buy a new one as I live in rented accommodation. I thought that a rented machine wouldn't be too expensive, and that it would save me the bother of having to move if I moved house. Have you ever tried to move a washing machine? They're loaded with concrete.

I was wrong. It costs about ten pounds a week to hire a washing machine. The launderette is far cheaper. But it gives you something to do on a Monday morning, doesn't it, sorting out the washing, and then taking it down the launderette. It's a way of reflecting on your week.

So that's where I was earlier this week: in the launderette, listening to the half-awake banter of the launderette attendant, as she made comments about the newspaper she was reading while smoking a cigarette. That's one advantage the launderette has over owning your own washing machine. At least it gets you out of the house.

The launderette attendant was talking about some Italian bloke who'd won £30.6 million on the Italian state lottery.

"How much?" one of the customers asked.

"Thir-ty-point-six million," the attendant repeated, emphasising each syllable with precise relish. "He even predicted the order the numbers would come out in."

The customer said, "how did he do that?"

"Dunno," she said. "I wouldn't be working here if I did."

Meanwhile I was watching my washing shuddering round in the old tumble drier. In the front there was a pink sheet and a green shirt. The two items of clothing completely filled the circular glass screen, twining round and round each other in a kind of pulsating embrace. I thought that the way the pink sheet and the green shirt wound round on opposite sides looked remarkably like the Yin and Yang sign: like two differently-coloured tadpoles in some strange spinning union. It was my makeshift metaphysical moment, there in the all-too physical launderette. And I remembered a time I was in another launderette, a few years ago, when I'd ended up in a metaphysical conversation with one of the other customers.

This was in Glastonbury in Somerset. You have metaphysical conversations all over the place in Glastonbury, even in launderettes. The guy was fiddling the tumble drier by putting a 20p coin into one of those extra-thin plastic bags corner shops and green grocers tend to supply you with. So he was stretching the bag very thinly over the coin, placing the coin in the slot and turning the handle several times before pulling the coin out again. I was watching him, though he was trying to hide it.

"How did you do that?" I asked.

"I shouldn't tell you. Some kids taught me how to do it," he said, looking guiltily over his shoulder. "Is it bad Karma to steal, do you think?"

"I dunno. Maybe. But maybe it's not such bad Karma when you're ripping off the rip-off merchants," I suggested. "Who knows?"

He seemed relieved I'd given him the excuse.

"You really think so?" he said. "I'm worried about my Karma. Only I can't afford to use the driers otherwise."

"I wouldn't worry about it if I were you," I said. "What's Karma anyway?"

"It's the cycle of cause-and-effect," he said. "A bit like this tumble-drier. Round and round and round."

Well I tried fiddling the tumble-driers too, earlier this metaphysical Monday morning, when the attendant wasn't watching. Only it didn't work for me. There must be a knack. Either that, or I already have bad Karma.