Sunday, January 28, 2007


"For we are born at all adventure: and we shall be hereafter as though we had never been: for the breath in our nostrils is as smoke, and a little spark in the moving of our heart". Wisdom of Solomon 2:2

Some of my readers may know that aside from this blog I also write regularly for Prediction magazine. Indeed, some of you may be Prediction readers checking out the blog after getting the address from the magazine. In which case: welcome. I hope you enjoy yourself here.

Last week the Prediction editor, Marion, asked me for my “spiritual credentials” so that she could put them by my by-line.

Um, pardon?

I didn’t quite know what she meant by that. What are spiritual credentials, exactly? I mean: is there a spiritual university out there somewhere, with a spiritual qualification on offer? Sort of BA (Hons) in Divination and Tarot Reading or a Higher National Diploma in Meditation Practice and Standing On One Leg? Is God marking my prayers? Three out of ten for effort. Must Try Harder. Are there letters I can put after my name? CJ Stone, Dip Ast Proj (Diploma in Astral Projection)?

Personally I would be very wary of anyone attempting to make claims about their spirituality; it would almost certainly turn out to be a fraud.

In the end I sent her the following mail.

“I'm a Brother Knight, a Quest Knight and a Shield Knight of the Loyal Arthurian Warband, a Druid order: the only person, as far as I know, to have gone through all three stages.

”I’m an observer and commentator on all things New Age; a dreamer and psychic explorer of many years standing.

”I practice Taoist standing meditation and Chi Kung daily.

”I'm a follower of Dharma, which means, ‘correct behaviour’, ‘the right way of living’, and also ‘the Way’; of the Tao, which also means ‘the Way’; and a student and devotee of early Christianity, one of whose names for themselves was ‘the Way’.

”The early Christians also called themselves ‘the Poor’, which was a spiritual identification with the nationhood of the poor, the largest country in the world.

”I think the most spiritual thing any of us can do is to get born.

”My spiritual gurus are William Blake and Robert Anton Wilson.”

I have yet to find out if she used any of this information, and what, exactly my spiritual credentials will be when they appear next to my by-line on my column.

Actually, I must admit, I’m not even sure what the word “spiritual” means.

My Collins English Dictionary defines it as: Spiritual (adj.) 1. relating to the spirit or soul and not to physical nature or matter; intangible. 2. of, relating to, or characteristic of sacred things, the Church, religion, etc. 3. standing in a relationship based on communication between the souls of the persons involved: i.e. a spiritual father. 4. having a mind or emotions of a high and delicately refined quality. 5. (often plural) the sphere of religious, spiritual, or ecclesiastical matters, or such matters themselves. 6. the realm of spirits.

On that basis, I have to say that I have no spiritual credentials whatsoever. I prefer tangible things to intangible ones. I am not religious. I am nobody’s spiritual relation, whether father or mother or cousin or any other thing. My mind and my emotions are not in the slightest bit refined. I am not interested in ecclesiastical matters, and I have no experience of the realm of the spirits.

The word “spirit” however, is closer to something I can understand and sympathise with.

Here is the definition.

Spirit. n. 1. the force or principle of life that animates the body of living things. 2. temperament or disposition. 3. liveliness, mettle: they set to it with spirit. 4. the fundamental, emotional and activating principle of a person; will: the experience broke his spirit. 5. a sense of loyalty and dedication: team spirit. 6. the prevailing element; feeling: a spirit of joy pervaded the atmosphere. 7. a state of mind or mood; attitude: he did it in the wrong spirit. 8. (pl) an emotional state, esp. with regard to exaltation or dejection: in high spirits. 9. a person characterised by some activity, quality of disposition: a leading spirit of the movement. 10. the deeper more significant meaning as opposed to a pedantic interpretation: the spirit of the law. 11. that which constitutes a person’s intangible being as contrasted with his physical presence: I shall be with you in spirit. 12. a. an incorporeal being, esp. the soul of a dead person. b. (as modifier): spirit world. 13. (usually followed by away or off) to carry off mysteriously or secretly. 14. (often followed by up) to impart animation or determination to. [C13: from old French esperit, from Latin spiritus breath; related to spirare to breathe.]

This is the sense in which I always use the word spiritual (wrongly it seems) not to mean religiousity, but as a form of energy, like Chi, perhaps, in Chinese philosophy; as the animating principle of life, and the essence, as it were, of a human being. When I say “spiritual” I usually mean energetic. I am referring to a sparkle in the eye, a tickle in the belly, a turn of the lips, a sense of humour, a feeling of optimism and purpose: a reason for being.
The people I consider most spiritual are usually also the most down-to-earth.

I think the sense of the word I've been using has more in common with "spirited" than "spiritual". It's just a pity spiritual people can't be a little more spirited in their dealings with life, a little less refined and ecclesiastical.

I was particularly interested in reading it’s derivation, from the Latin spiritus meaning breath, since I had a dream recently which has got me thinking very deeply about the meaning of existence.

In the dream there's a down hill slope and snow and a sledge and children playing and as I sweep past them laughing I say, something like, "it's all right, I'm not going to enslave you like they did in Rome." There's a whole heap of stuff in that statement, to do with the future economy and the next image comes up as a sort of explanation of it. In my mind I'm talking about the economic system. “There are slave economies, like Rome, which is essentially our economic system,” (I say) “but in the past there were other kinds of economies too.” Then there's a picture of a market with people exchanging things and a voice says, "in the past when an exchange took place they saw it as an exchange of breath, which was also known as Tao or Dharma." I saw that the exchange was one of equals.

It is this dream which inspired me to take up Taoist standing meditation and Chi Kung.

The downhill slope with the snow had to do with the spirit of playfulness. I was sledging down a slope full of joy and exhilaration. The reference to Rome and to the slave state is a reference to early Christianity, which was the religion of the slaves during the early days of the Roman Empire. The children were in the dream as a reference to Jesus’ statement: “suffer little children to come unto me.” The fact that I have identified three separate spiritual traditions which all use the notion of “the Way” as a form of identification is surely not coincidental. But it is the reference to an exchange of breath as the basis for an economic system which is the most puzzling and interesting.

What can it mean, I wonder?

My first thought had to do with barter. In an exchange of goods you need to negotiate. Maybe this is the exchange of breath: the negotiation between equals, the agreement of value. I also thought of the process of bargaining at an oriental bazaar. There, there is no set price. Instead the buyer and the seller go through a protracted process of bargaining. Again, it represents an exchange of breath: a negotiation. "Barter" and "banter". I wonder if there is a connection?

The reference to Rome and to societies based on slavery (in our case: wage slavery) reminded me of something I read in Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy.

It begins with a discussion of the roots of the word “privilege”. From the Latin, privi, private, and lege, meaning law. Private law.

Privilege implies exclusion from privilege, just as advantage implies disadvantage.... In the same mathematically reciprocal way, profit implies loss. If you and I exchange equal goods, that is trade: neither of us profits and neither of us loses. But if we exchange unequal goods, one of us profits and the other loses. Mathematically. Certainly. Now such mathematically unequal exchanges will always occur because some traders will be shrewder than others. But in total freedom – in anarchy – such unequal exchanges will be sporadic and irregular. A phenomenon of predictable periodicity, mathematically speaking. Now look about you – raise your nose from your great books and survey the actual world as it is – and you will not observe such unpredictable functions. You will observe, instead, a mathematically smooth function, a steady profit accruing to one group and an equally steady loss accumulating for all others. Why is this? Because the system is not free or random, any mathematician would tell you a priori. Well, then, what is the determining function, the factor that controls the other variables? You have named it yourself, or Mr Adler has: the Great Tradition. Privilege, I prefer to call it. When A meets B in the market place they do not bargain as equals. A bargains from a position of privilege; hence he always profits and B always loses. There is no more free market here than on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The privileges, or private law – the rules of the game as promulgated by the Politburo and the General Congress of the Communist Party on that side and the US government and the Federal Reserve Board on this side – are slightly different; that’s all.....”

The morning after I had the dream I ran excitedly to my computer to look up some definitions.

Here are some of my discoveries:

Dharma (Sanskrit), Dhamma (Pali) refers to the underlying order in nature, and human behaviour considered to be in accord with that order. Ethically, it means “right way of living” or “proper conduct,” especially in a religious sense.

The Chinese character for qi (Chi) is usually translated into English as "vital energy" or "life force," although its literal meaning is "breath."

Chi exists in the human body without form, colour or substance. The ancient Chinese likened it to fire, and early Chinese pictographic characters depicted it as "sun" and "fire." Within Taoist literature Chi was seen as a form of vital heat akin to sunlight, without which life could not exist. Today, the most widely used character for Chi (above) depicts steam rising from cooking rice.

So there you have it again. Breath, right behaviour, and an exchange of vital energy or life-force as the basis for a future economic system.

That was some dream!


One of my favourite films is the Matrix. Not Matrix Reloaded, or Matrix Revolutions - which are just glorified cowboy movies with special effects and philosophy - but the original Matrix.

What I like is the theme of the movie, that the world is a computer-generated illusion.

At one point the character Morpheus speaks to Keanu Reeves‘ Neo, after he has been released from the controlling power of the machines. He shows him the battered landscape of a post-apocalyptic world, beneath a boiling sky. “Welcome to the desert of the real,” he says.

It’s a great line, spoken with relish by Laurence Fishburne, who plays Morpheus.

When I saw the movie for the first time it struck me that it was an allegory of the state we live in.

How do we know what it real and what is not?

Contemporary neuroscience tells us that what we perceive as real is only a three-dimensional hologram happening in the brain. It is a perception of reality, not reality itself.

This is made more complicated by the fact that this secondary perception - this perception of perception - is filtered through ever more evolved and remote processes: such as language, such as culture, such as art, through the beliefs we share and the conceptual baggage we accumulate to interpret it all.

“Conceptual baggage.” That’s a good phrase. It brings to mind a perpetual tourist on a never-ending journey to a nonexistent package holiday, getting to yet another transit point during yet another change of transportation, dragging along a trolley full of the accumulated baggage of his compulsively acquired souvenir-collection. Which is how I sometimes feel about myself. Always on a journey, never arriving anywhere.

Meanwhile there’s ever increasing volumes of pointlessness to contend with. Like TV for instance.

Most of us in the modern world have been brought up with TV. We spend large amounts of our day sitting in front of the box watching those flickering two-dimensional images of people pretending to be someone else. And that applies to newsreaders and politicians as much as it does to actors.

It is TV that explains our world to us. It is TV that reflects our sense of being. We live our lives as stars of our own on-going reality TV soap-opera, providing our own story-lines and our own themes while striking up endless dramatic poses for the omnipresent camera of the mind. Laughing at our own jokes. Nodding sagely at our own observations.

Big Brother is watching us, even as we‘re watching Big Brother. But who is Big Brother really? We all are.

Even the news is just a branch of the entertainment industry these days, and our politicians spend more time spinning reality to make it look like something else than they do getting on with the job.

Just one more layer to add to the shifting, interweaving web of misperception and misrepresentation that makes up our sense of being.

Strip it all away, and what is there left? Maybe none of it exists. Maybe it’s all an illusion.

This is basically the Buddhist position. The world is Maya - illusion. Attachment brings suffering. The aim of life is to disengage from the cycle of birth and rebirth, to attain enlightenment. Even the soul does not really exist. At the heart of the Buddhist universe lies emptiness, the void.

But, you wonder, why emptiness? Why not fullness?

And while the world may not be exactly as we perceive it, isn’t it just as crazy to say that it doesn’t exist at all?

I went for a walk in the woods this evening, just to clear my head before finishing off this piece.

There was a fat, yellow moon low on the horizon, like a pat of butter on the infinite blue plate of the sky. Birds singing their evening prayers. Trees rustling in the breeze. A few rabbits bobbing through the undergrowth.

An illusion, maybe. But a very nice illusion.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

I Have Seen The Fnords

Robert Anton Wilson
"Let your spirit dance!"

I was having this dream. It was one of those deeply irritating, frustrating dreams in which everything is wrong somehow.

There was a baby in a bag on the floor, crying. I wanted to find the “owner” of the baby: the person who was responsible for it. I picked up the baby and the baby started pissing. He was pissing all over the floor. I located the responsible person and confronted him. He was this fat loser, unshaved and dishevelled-looking, standing limply in a corner. I was trying to hand the baby over, but the fat loser refused to accept responsibility. Then he loomed up very close to my face and was grinning like an idiot.

Meanwhile I was leaning on the banister of the stairs, but I could feel the floor beneath me giving way. Afterwards I was trying to clean up. The place was a horrible mess. There were piles of filth everywhere. Filthy rags soaked in grease. I was washing up, but people were getting in my way, trying to make dinner. They were making this “healthy” meal amidst all the piles of grease and slime. Eventually I confronted one of them.. I was shouting at him. I was very angry. He is a person I know. I used to be friends with him but we have fallen out. There is a long history between us.

He used to live in this town but has since moved away. When he comes here I always hear from a third person that he is here. “Guess who is sitting in the Labour Club with a pint?” she says.

In the dream that’s what I was shouting about. I went up very close to his face and shouted: “you never tell me you are here. I always have to hear it from someone else. Why don’t you let me know you are here?”

After that I woke up. I was seething with an unaccountable anger. It made no sense. I mean: I was angry at a person I was no longer friends with for not telling me he was in town.

Why should I be angry? Why should I even care? It's not like he was a friend of mine. But it was obvious from the dream that I did care. From the dream it was obvious that if he told me he was in town once in a while, maybe we would still be friends.

My first thought was, “That was a fnord. I have seen the fnords.”

What are “the fnords” you ask?

They are nothing. “Fnord” is a nonsense word. It means nothing at all.

Wikipedia defines it as “the typographic representation of disinformation or irrelevant information intending to misdirect, with the implication of a conspiracy”.

The word was first used in a book called the Principia Discordia by Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill, also known as Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst and Malaclypse the Younger. Later it was picked up by the writers Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in the cult Sci-Fi novel, The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

In The Illuminatus! Trilogy the word is used as part of a conspiracy to create unease in the population. From an early age we are taught not to see the fnords. We are conditioned by subtle electronic means not to see the word. And then, when the secret rulers of the world – the so-called “Illuminati” - want us to feel uneasy, or to undermine a particular point of view, they add the word to the text of the newspaper or magazine article. So we see the word but don’t see it. We don’t allow ourselves to see it. It doesn’t exist.

My anger in the dream was a form of this. It was an anger I wouldn’t allow myself to feel: the anger of my sense of betrayal by someone who used to be a friend. Instead of feeling it I pretended indifference. But the dream revealed it. In the dream I was truly angry. The reason I idendified it as a fnord is that it was a hidden anger, and symtomatic of all the anger I feel about everything that pisses me off in the world. All that garbage. All that fractious irritation. All those piles of slime and filth.

This was clarified for me by an I-Ching reading I did later that day.

I got hexagram 57, Sun, The Gentle, Penetrating.

Nine in the second place means:
Penetration under the bed.

Priests and magicians are used in great number.
Good fortune. No blame.

At times one has to deal with hidden enemies, intangible influences that slink into dark corners and from this hiding affect people by suggestion. In instances like this, it is necessary to trace these things back to the most secret recesses, in order to determine the nature of the influences to be dealt with. This is the task of the priests; removing the influences is the task of the magicians. The very anonymity of such plotting requires an especially vigorous and indefatigable effort, but this is well worth while. For when such elusive influences are brought into the light and branded, they lose their power over people.

That is the best description of the fnords I have ever read. "Penetration under the bed".

A friend of mine who lives abroad told me that she was on a tube train during a recent visit to the UK. She said an Asian man with a rucksack got on, and the tension in the carriage visibly mounted. Everyone was looking at him. Everyone was suspicious of him.

“It is this damn war on terror,” she said. "You can't get away from it." She said she felt the tension too, despite the fact that she knew that the man was most likely innocent. She said she felt afraid of him too.

The war on terror is a fnord. "Disinformation... intending to misdirect." The word "terror" is applied in the news with dreary regularity, until we forget what it means, until it is absorbed unconsciously, and becomes part of the backdrop of our daily lives.

This is how the fnords are described in The Illuminatus! Trilogy:

Then I saw the fnords.

The feature story involved another of the endless squabbles between Russia and the U.S. in the UN General Assembly, and after each direct quote from the Russian delegate I read a quite distinct "Fnord!'' The second lead was about a debate in congress on getting the troops out of Costa Rica; every argument presented by Senator Bacon was followed by another "Fnord!'' At the bottom of the page was a Times depth-type study of the growing pollution problem and the increasing use of gas masks among New Yorkers; the most distressing chemical facts were interpolated with more "Fnords.''

Suddenly I saw Hagbard's eyes burning into me and heard his voice: "Your heart will remain calm. Your adrenalin gland will remain calm. Calm, all-over calm. You will not panic. you will look at the fnord and see it. You will not evade it or black it out. you will stay calm and face it.'' And further back, way back: my first-grade teacher writing FNORD on the blackboard, while a wheel with a spiral design turned and turned on his desk, turned and turned, and his voice droned on, IF YOU DON'T SEE THE FNORD IT CAN'T EAT YOU, DON'T SEE THE FNORD, DON'T SEE THE FNORD . . .

I looked back at the paper and still saw the fnords. This was one step beyond Pavlov, I realized. The first conditioned reflex was to experience the panic reaction (the activation syndrome, it's technically called) whenever encountering the word "fnord.'' The second conditioned reflex was to black out what happened, including the word itself, and just to feel a general low-grade emergency without knowing why. And the third step, of course, was to attribute this anxiety to the news stories, which were bad enough in themselves anyway. Of course, the essence of control is fear. The fnords produced a whole population walking around in chronic low-grade emergency, tormented by ulcers, dizzy spells, nightmares, heart palpitations and all the other symptoms of too much adrenalin. All my left-wing arrogance and contempt for my countrymen melted, and I felt a genuine pity. No wonder the poor bastards believe anything they're told, walk through pollution and overcrowding without complaining, watch their son hauled off to endless wars and butchered, never protest, never fight back, never show much happiness or eroticism or curiosity or normal human emotion, live with perpetual tunnel vision, walk past a slum without seeing either the human misery it contains or the potential threat it poses to their security . . .

Then I got a hunch, and turned quickly to the advertisements. it was as I expected: no fnords. That was part of the gimmick, too: only in consumption, endless consumption, could they escape the amorphous threat of the invisible fnords. I kept thinking about it on my way to the office. If I pointed out a fnord to somebody who hadn't been deconditioned, as Hagbard deconditioned me, what would he or she say? They'd probably read the word before or after it. "No this word,'' I'd say. And they would again read an adjacent word. But would their panic level rise as the threat came closer to consciousness? I preferred not to try the experiment; it might have ended with a psychotic fugue in the subject. The conditioning, after all, went back to grade school. No wonder we all hate those teachers so much: we have a dim, masked memory of what they've done to us in converting us into good and faithful servants for the Illuminati.

In the book the fnords are nonsense words inserted into the text of newspapers and magazines which we are taught not to see but which create a sense of unease. More broadly, they are unconscious, hidden or invisible forces, directing us (or misdirecting us) in certain ways.

Examples of fnords might be: God, bigotry, patriotism, wealth, greed or hatred.

I must admit to not liking the book. I personally wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a huge, sprawling, hardly comprehensible work, with a constantly changing narrative - sometimes written in the first person, sometimes in the third - shifting from one point-of-view to the next in the space of a paragraph or halfway through a sentence. Rolling Stone magazine described it as “the longest shaggy dog joke in literary history”.

It was first published in 1975, written by two Playboy editors at the time, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. The basic premise of the book is that every conspiracy theory is literally true. It soon became a sort of bible for the New Age Traveler movement of the late seventies and early eighties. There were five requirements for a New Age Traveler: unlaced paratrooper boots, a dog on a string, dreadlocks, dirt and a copy of the Illuminatus! trilogy. Only the last was mandatory.

Later Robert Anton Wilson went on to write a number of mischievous, funny, irreverent works of non-fiction, including Cosmic Trigger, Prometheus Rising and Quantum Psychology.

These books are definitely worth reading. They explore the interface between politics, spirituality, science, art and psychology. Is there such an interface? Of course not, which is why it is worth exploring. They are deliberately anarchic, wildly funny, darkly conspiratorial and amongst the best books to have been written in the 20th century. It’s only odd that the name “Robert Anton Wilson” isn’t more widely known.

I predict that one day it will be.

Every rebellious teenager should be told not to read him, thus ensuring that they do.

In a 2003 interview with High Times magazine, he called himself a "Model Agnostic”. This, he says, "consists of never regarding any model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial.... I put things in probabilities, not absolutes... My only originality lies in applying this zetetic attitude outside the hardest of the hard sciences, physics, to softer sciences and then to non-sciences like politics, ideology, jury verdicts and, of course, conspiracy theory." More simply, he claims "not to believe anything," since "belief is the death of intelligence." He described this approach as "Maybe Logic."

Maybe Logic is also the name of a film made about him.

Here are some lines from the film: "Dogs see grass differently," he says. "You need the human brain and the grass hitched together to make the yoga which we call The Greenness of the Grass. Everybody thinks it's very hard to be a mystic. Gotta go through a hell of a lot of effort to realise your union with everything. Actually you are experiencing your union with everything all the time, otherwise you wouldn't be experiencing anything."

He said that the greatest conspiracy in the world was the conspiracy of the stupid.

In an entry in his blog about three years ago he wrote:

I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions. I strongly suspect that a world "external to," or at least independent of, my senses exists in some sense. I also suspect that this world shows signs of intelligent design, and I suspect that such intelligence acts via feedback from all parts to all parts and without centralized sovereignty, like the Internet; and that it does not function hierarchically, in the style an Oriental despotism, an American corporation or Christian theology. I somewhat suspect that Theism and Atheism both fail to account for such decentralized intelligence, rich in circular-causal feedback. I more-than-half suspect that all "good" writing, or all prose and poetry that one wants to read more than once, proceeds from a kind of "alteration in consciousness," i.e. a kind of controlled schizophrenia. [Don't become alarmed -- I think good acting comes from the same place.] I sometimes suspect that what Blake called Poetic Imagination expresses this exact thought in the language of his age, and that visits by "angels" and "gods" states it an even more archaic argot. These suspicions have grown over 72 years, but as a rather slow and stupid fellow I do not have the chutzpah to proclaim any of them as certitudes. Give me another 72 years and maybe I'll arrive at firmer conclusions.

He never managed another 72 years. In fact he managed barely three.

Robert Anton Wilson died on the 11th January this year, just a few days shy of his seventy fifth year on this planet.

He was a great writer.

In an imaginary phone call to the Marquis de Sade* he asked: "Jesus told me that he and you agree on at least one thing and it explains freedom. What is that one thing?"

"Quite simple," replied the Marquis, "don't be afraid of the Cross. The fear of death is the beginning of slavery."

His last written words were these, on the 6th of January, five days before his death: "Various medical authorities swarm in and out of here predicting I have between two days and two months to live. I think they are guessing. I remain cheerful and unimpressed. I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don't see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd."

In The Illuminatus! he reflected on death in the following words:

If there were no death, there would be no sex. If there were no sex, there would be no death. And without sex, there would be no evolution towards intelligence, no human race. Therefore death is necessary. Death is the price of orgasm.”

As for whether we think the price is worth paying or not, I suspect that Robert Anton Wilson at least would have replied in the affirmative.

Is it worth it? Is death a price worth paying for the joy of a few good mutual orgasms?

Of course it is.

Maybe death is the final fnord.


Robert Anton Wilson essays:


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Saddam Execution

Tony Blair has condemned the manner in which Saddam Hussein was executed saying “it was completely wrong”.

In other words there is something worse than having a rope tied around your neck and then being dropped through a trap door so that your neck breaks and your tongue lolls out. It is all of this and then being insulted at the same time. As if death wasn’t enough, death with insults: as if death without insults would have been so much more humane.

Did you notice that they put a silk scarf round his neck too, so that he wouldn’t get rope-burn? A broken neck is fine but rope-burn is unacceptable.

Some of you will say he deserved it. Maybe you are right. I have my own views on capital punishment. I think it would have been far better to have made him live with his crimes than to have let him off so lightly.

On the other hand I can’t argue with the Iraqi people’s right to do as they liked with the man, having suffered under his foul and capricious regime for so many years.

But it seems to me there was an unseemly haste about the process. He was found guilty of the murder of 148 Shi’ites in southern Iraq, and yet there were hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of deaths attributable to him.

Surely justice demands that he should have been held accountable for all of his crimes, not just those selected by the United States.

The Iranians wanted him tried in an international court. Not only did he invade their country, killing up to a million people in an orgy of mass violence, but he also used mustard gas, nerve gas and other illegal weapons. Surely the Iranians too deserved their day in court?

So why wasn’t he held accountable by an international criminal court for his crimes against humanity?

I think you already know the answer to this one.

Because we in the west were directly implicated in those crimes.

We’ve all seen the pictures of Saddam Hussein shaking hands with George Galloway. There are also pictures of him shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld, who was in Baghdad at the time the UN released a report showing that the Iraqi army had used mustard gas in Iran. You have to ask why those pictures haven’t been blazoned across our front pages too?

There’s that old joke. How come we were so certain that he had weapons of mass destruction?

Because we kept the receipts.

But there’s something else which disturbs me about this whole episode.

It was virtually a public hanging.

The whole world saw the lead-up to the hanging. The whole world saw his body afterwards. We watched it all on TV.

If you are really sick you can catch the whole ghoulish event on the internet.

So this is what this so-called war on terrorism has brought us to. It has revived public hanging for our edification and entertainment.

It has turned us into barbarians.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Largest Country In The World

It was approaching Christmas, twelve years ago.

The usual time: sending cards, buying presents, planning, getting all worked up about nothing. Who’s who on your Christmas list? Should you send a card to so-and-so? Will she remember you? What if you send a card to her and she doesn’t send you one?... Well you know the sort of thing. It all seemed so important at the time.

And then something happened that changed K’s life.

It was like being marooned in a foreign country, unable to find her way home. One day she was well. In good spirits or bad spirits, it made no difference. She was well. And then - suddenly, unexpectedly - she wasn’t well any more.

It started with a cough, growing increasingly persistent, a general discomfort and fatigue. She was sent home from work one day and never went back. It ending up with her in a wheelchair, stranded, alone.

There’s some dispute within the medical community as to whether M.E. is real or not. Some would say that it is mainly psychological. It’s an academic argument of course, played out by professionals with their own sets of agendas. It makes little difference. If there are psychological elements to the illness – who can say? - it still keeps the sufferer bound. House bound. Wheelchair bound. Unable to move around.

In a foreign country, all the rules are different. Things you thought you understood no longer make sense. Steps are barriers. Stairs are mountains. Doors block your entrance. People loom over you or hover at a distance. People look at you strangely. People are embarrassed, or too kind, or condescending, or too careful, or too wary. They avoid eye contact, they avoid talking. Sometimes they see you and, rather than meet with you, turn around and walk the other way.

In the end, of course, you grow accustomed to your new land. Twelve years: it’s a long time. You learn the language. You learn to fight to survive. You meet other foreigners like yourself, people with disabilities. You draw comfort from them. Maybe you even get complaisant. You bitch a little between yourselves, scorning the natives. And then, suddenly, you begin to see that there are more foreigners stranded here than you could ever have imagined.

That’s what happened the other day. K was shopping, wasting money again, on people who already had as much as they needed.

There was a woman on the street, begging.

She invited the woman for a cup of tea. The woman accepted. She said, ‘I’m going to get a flat on Monday.’

‘That’s good. How have you managed that?’

‘I just have,’ the woman said, suddenly defensive. ‘It’s best not to say.’

‘I understand,’ K said. But she didn’t understand because she hadn’t lost her home.

But the woman was nervous. She didn’t want to stay for the tea and instead asked for a takeaway. She fumbled with the teabag in the plastic cup, not knowing where to put it, apologising profusely. It was as if she was apologising for her life. There was a look in her eye, like shock, like abandonment, as if the world had deserted her and all her kind. She stumbled back on to the street where she felt more at home.

That was when it all became clear. Being homeless is being disabled too. And then K understood the nature of the country she’d been so mysteriously taken from all those years ago, and the nature of the country she now found herself in.

Her new country is the country of dispossessed and disabled humanity, the largest country in the world, shared by millions. The country she came from - and which she no longer misses - is the country of easy certainty and quiet complaisance, where nothing matters as long as it’s mine.

“And if you ask me now, who is the disabled person, I will tell you,” says K. “The truly disabled are the one’s who’ve forgotten that they are also human beings.”


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Death and Taxes

It was Benjamin Franklin who said that nothing in life was certain but death and taxes. Personally I wouldn’t argue with that, except for the fact that income tax was only administered first during the Napoleonic Wars, whereas death - by my reckoning - has been around for a good while longer. And while death might be difficult to reconcile with your life at times, at least it makes some sort of sense.

Mind you, there may be other ways in which the two things are similar. Both of them ask you to make an account of your life. In the case of death, it forces you to think of all the things you have done, whether for good or for evil, in this world. In the case of taxes, it asks you to account for all those grubby invoices and crumpled receipts that have been gathering dust in a cardboard shoebox for the past year, none of which make any sense whatsoever.

Not that I am contemplating death at this particular moment. I am, however, considering my tax returns.

God, I hate this time of the year. Christmas is over, the New Year has come and gone. You’ve spent too much money on pointless frivolities and unwanted presents, have overindulged in every kind liquid substance you can funnel into your mouth and have bloated out like a beached whale with all the excess of food. You’ve made your resolutions, and probably already failed to keep most of them. There’s several months of winter ahead, of sweeping winds and scudding clouds and relentless rain and darkness, and nothing on the TV but makeover programmes and repeats. And then the bills start flopping through your letter box and you have your tax returns to complete.

I mean, what mean-minded petty bureaucrat decided that this was the time to make you have to deal with all of this? As if the bills weren’t enough, now you have to answer for every half-remembered expenditure, every dodgy financial decision and every untraceable cheque from whatever source that has inadvertently found its way into your bank account for the last year or so.

Money is only money after all. It’s either there, or it’s not. And when it’s not there you have little choice but to find ways of making it again.

It’s a bit like oxygen, really. It pumps around in the body of your life keeping you going. You breath in, you breath out. You have money, you spend it. Imagine if some clever bureaucrat had devised ways of making you account for all the oxygen in your blood: if you had to keep written records of all the times you had breathed and for what purpose, as if every expenditure of energy on this or that activity had to be accounted for and cross-referenced and noted down in your yearly oxygen-returns, twenty to twenty five percent of which had then to be paid to the government. I mean: you’d stop bothering to breath, wouldn’t you?

Well I wouldn’t mind so much if I thought the government was using my money wisely: for improvements in our public services, say, for education, or for a decent transport system. Instead of which we have foreign military adventures, private finance initiatives, back-handers to Third-World Dictators and mounting debts for our young people in the name of a third-class education.

What’s a private finance initiative, you ask? It’s your tax money given to private companies so they can run-down our public services, while making a profit at the same time.

What‘s the point, that‘s what I‘d like to know? At least death serves a purpose. It’s there to keep the queues down at the Post Office on pension day.

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year Message

There is a mistaken belief, going back to the 60s and 70s, that us human beings can destroy the planet on which we live. Back then we thought it would be nuclear war. These days we think it will be global warming.

This is pure vanity, of course - not to say, hubris - to imagine we are powerful enough to destroy life on this planet. We are nothing more than ants crawling on its surface. We cannot destroy the planet, or the stupendous, rich, complex sources of life it sustains: what we can do is make it uninhabitable for us human beings.

I’ve heard that scorpions and cockroaches can survive a nuclear attack. I suspect they would like the conditions created by global warming too. So maybe that’s the question: it’s not whether the earth will survive, it’s whether we want a world full of scorpions and cockroaches, or one fit for humans to live in.

According to some estimates, at the current rate of species depreciation, the earth will reach tipping point by 2012. That is, unless we change our ways drastically within the next FIVE years the earth with begin to become unsustainable for human life. That doesn’t mean human life will end, just that we will have gone passed the point of no return, in which life can only get progressively worse.

Other estimates are less pessimistic: they allow us till 2050 to get our act together.

Either way, within the lifetimes of our children, we have some very profound choices to make.

Meanwhile we are still destroying habitat, razing down the rain forests to make way for cash-crops, and continuing to pollute the planet at an unsustainable rate.

In other news: in 2006 Tony Blair stated that immigrants to this country should learn our values or stay away.

This is another one of Tony Blair’s rib-tickling jokes, of course.

So what values, Mr Blair, should immigrants have to learn in order to be allowed entry into this country?

Obviously the values of invading a poor, defenceless, third-world nation in order to steal its oil, of lying in order to provide a pretext, and then, when that fails, of making some pretence about bringing democracy and getting rid of dictators while, at the same time, covering up one’s own responsibility for keeping that dictator in power.

Saddam was tried and executed in 2006, but his accomplices in the White House got away with it.

Meanwhile we are still keeping dictators in power.

One of the most ludicrous things last year was when Tony Blair described President Musharraf of Pakistan as a “moderate”.

Musharraf: a dictator who overthrew a democratically elected government in a military coup, who routinely uses torture and “disappearances” and who supported the Taliban through all of their worst atrocities.

These days we have to support dictators who support terrorism in order to maintain democracy and defeat terrorism, it seems.

This is obviously another one of Tony Blair’s hilarious jokes.

Boom boom! He’s so funny.

A happy New Year to you all!