I shoved a guy the other day. It wasn’t a push. It was a good, old-fashioned, solid shove, a violent explosion, inner rage pouring out that I didn’t even know was there. It was like putting an empty coffee mug in a microwave and watching in shock as, somehow, water boils over.
He was just standing there. I was exiting the Tube, heading into London to meet some friends. I was carrying a novel in my left hand, and reaching for my mobile with the right. He was directly in front of me. Then, as he reached the last step on the exit out of the station, he just stopped. I don’t know what he was doing. Maybe he was a tourist, confused about where he was going. Maybe he realised he’d left his iron on. Maybe he just decided to pause and drink in a gorgeous day. But he stopped, right in front of me.
Now, people not from London don’t really understand this sometimes, but here, stopping in the middle of the pavement is like someone braking their car in the middle of the motorway. Here, our feet are our cars, and we apply the same rules of the road to the sidewalk. As frustrated as you get when someone cuts you off in traffic, that’s how we feel when someone pauses suddenly to answer a mobile, or makes a snap decision to head toward the Starbucks on the opposite side of the street, or so on. I guess I’d call it Walk Rage.
And this guy just stopped. And I lost it. I pulled my arm across my body to my right side, put my phone back in my pocket, and just waylaid him with my left arm. I had some force behind me too; he almost went barreling into the newsstand set up just beside the station exit. My motion was punctuated with a fierce, involuntary, “OH, FOR FUCK SAKE… WATCH IT!”
He was a smaller Asian man, I was now noticing, probably about 40, with greying hair and a pair of bright blue shorts.
He plunged forward with an audible “Oomph.” He looked back at the source of this strange velocity. His eyes met mine. He did not see a sensitive, island-boy-turned-Londoner, empathetic guy, someone who just tries to get along and go along, an amiable sort always trying to make everyone feel comfortable, the guy cracking jokes at just the right times, the guy who calls everyone “Ma’am” and “Sir” in a slightly joking but still sincere attempt at mock formality, the one who calls his parents three times a week, the one who just wants everything to be OK, just let it all turn out OK, please please.
He saw a snarl and a twisted mouth, spitting, “Idiot! Move!”
He yelled “Arsehole!” I muttered, now somewhat embarrassed, “Yeah, yeah… Fuck… whatever!” before storming on my way.
Moments later, I was feeling really bad about the whole thing. It just wasn’t me. The poor guy certainly didn’t do anything to me (although the stopping-suddenly thing IS quite annoying!) and this is no excuse at all, but… I’ve had a pretty hectic and stressful summer, trying to juggle several tough work projects. And the last couple of weeks have been particularly difficult.
Now… I’m typically a pretty easy person to get along with, yes, but mostly, I’m a licensed pro at avoiding conflict. If I can sense it coming, I’ll change the subject to something happy, something we can laugh about, smile about, think fondly of. I’m so good at it, typically, that you can’t even notice I’m doing it. Just as soon as they were brought up, unpleasant topics are paved over and smoothly shifted to the next topic, maybe football, or that one movie we saw, or remember that time, when we were in the park, that was great, wasn’t it?
I once went out with this American girl who I thought I might marry, before we split and she married someone else, and never spoke to me again. Even as she was leaving, I didn’t fight. I didn’t scream, or stomp off, or tell her she was a bad person. I tried to be mature, and compassionate, and understanding, and then next thing I knew, she had no real compelling reason to stay, because I’d steadfastly refused to give her one. That’s how far I’m willing to take it. I’ll suck it up if it means avoiding a yelling, nasty tussle. I can take it.
But sometimes the pressure does get to you. You end up feeling alone, vulnerable, and wiped out at times. That’s when you snap, and fights happen. We’ve all been through them, and I’m becoming worse at avoiding them as I grow older.
One fight with a colleague (I use that term quite loosely – we work in the same place but we certainly don’t work together) was about nothing, really; they usually are. But she was being unreasonable, as usual, and said something that made me feel unappreciated, isolated, awkward, empty… Once she’d left my office, I reacted by pounding my fist into the wall. Then my head. Then I grabbed some papers off my desk and threw them across the room. Then I went for a walk.
Sunday afternoon, I was supposed to write this column, and then meet a friend of mine for lunch, then get some more job work done, run some errands, and maybe even take a walk along the South Bank, one of my favourite ways to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon, which this was.
But I couldn’t get off the sofa. I was out of it, and emotionally spent, and had not an ounce of energy to do anything but just lie. There was some sport on. The US Open. Soapdish, on Comedy Central X, with all the swearing edited out. Some movie with Alec Baldwin and that guy from Gosford Park. I had Chinese delivered. I took a nap. Outside, kids were playing, and people were having brunch, and lying in the sun, and working, and writing, and living, and all the shit I came here to do. For the first time in a while, I simply stayed in, all day, and just watched TV and napped, alone.
I was just so tired. So, so tired.
I do not know what is happening to me. I don’t know if my job is making me hard, or angry, or bitter, or just too exhausted to think. But I do know I don’t feel like myself anymore. I don’t know what I am anymore. I’m maddeningly inconsistent. I don’t know what’s caused it. I don’t know when it happened. And I’m not sure what to do about it.
But I think I kind of miss me. The way I used to be, whenever and whatever that was. Now that I think about it, I might not have been that bad.
Recently, I’ve been asked by a few people what advice I would give someone who wants to be a writer. They assume because I have a blog and once, as a full-time journalist, I wrote for a living, that I ought to be able to tell others how to do it. It’s a fair assumption. But the truth is, I’m still and always learning!
Asking me how to write is like asking directions from a blind man with a guide dog; I don’t know how to tell you the way to get there. I just follow the dog.
That said, here are a few tricks the dog keeps trying to teach me.
First, write about what you know, the thing that’s right in front of you, the thing you’ve been given to write about, the thing you can’t seem to get off your mind. Read a lot and, in particular, read everything you can find by the writers you like best; if you like them, it’s probably because their voice speaks to the voice in you. Develop that voice. It’s yours.
Write like yourself, the way you talk. Read what you’ve written out loud. If it doesn’t sound like you, rewrite it until it does. Learn the rules of writing and stick to them a long time before you dare start messing around.
Write between the lines; say more with less. And be prepared to suffer, not because writing invites heartache, but because it always insists on examining it. Never pretend to be what you aren’t, or to know what you don’t know. That applies more to life than to writing, really, but the two are not so different. And as for inspiration, I don’t need it to write. I just need a deadline. It’s the surest cure I’ve ever found for writer’s block.
If you want to write, if you feel called to do so, you should. And you will. Maybe you won’t earn a living at it. Few writers ever do.
But you can write cards to encourage the downhearted; and notes of condolences to comfort those who suffer loss; and crisp, compelling business letters that clearly explain why the item you received was not the item you ordered, and what exactly you will do if you are not reimbursed. You can write job applications and memos to colleagues and letters to the editor, or to your MP, or to God, to shed light and right wrongs and make the world a better place, or at least, to get stuff off your chest.
You can write for posterity the stories your grandparents told you, stories that will be lost if you don’t write them before you die.
You can write love letters to your children or to anyone, really, to say all the things that you could never say with your mouth.
You can even write in a diary or journal, if you are so inclined (and a lot more disciplined than I am) to get to know yourself better.
That, of course, is the real reason we read and write — to know and to be known. It has been that way a very long time and I expect it always will. It works like this:
You take thoughts and feelings from your mind and your heart, and occasionally from your soul, and you fashion them into words.
That is called language.
You put the words on paper, or perhaps on a computer screen, using lines and circles, marks and symbols, until you trust them to carry your meaning.
That is called writing.
Then someone — who perhaps has never seen your face or heard your voice — sees your lines and circles and symbols and marks, and recognises them as words.
That is called reading.
Sometimes, unpredictably, the words hold the power to recreate the writer’s thoughts and feelings in the mind and the heart and even in the soul of the reader.
That is called communication.
Some do it for love. Some do it for money. And some of us, if we are lucky, get to do it for both.
And that’s where I will stop for now. The dog has gone to sleep.
Sadly, over the last few weeks, all my writing has been of the business type, with reports, proposals and budgets stealing away my precious creative writing time, even on weekends. I’ll be back soon, but just for you, my readers, here is one of the many poems written by my Dad:
THE DEATH OF A BUG
Did I kill him because he was a dot?
Trespassing my page
his way home?
I resented that he lived in my mattress.
Yes, that is what it was
so I punctuated
his (or her) life
It was easy to stop this roving period
his fingered sky falling
through his graphic dash
His life is now a closed chapter.
He seemed so busy then.
His running, like mine
must have been important.
I usually write this blog at home, sitting in the living room in front of the telly. This one is being written over several days in various outdoor places. As I write now, my internet connection has been down for 10 days, two hours and 17 minutes. (That’s why there was no blog last week. Sorry!) Since I’ve got out of bed this morning, I have not read an email, or visited a Web page, or downloaded a song, or sent an instant message. I am coming to you live.
It is just me. Just a guy with a disconnected laptop, lounging on a deck chair in Hyde Park, alone. No little windows will pop up with a friend wanting to chat. No emails telling me how to artificially extend my penis. No bad news about the economy and Syria and reality television. An argument could be made that this is as undisturbed an environment as I have seen in years.
And I hate it. I can’t breathe. I am lost. I am a man without identity.
Here under the trees near the Serpentine, I have set up my outdoor space to reflect my online world. I am speaking to no one. I have put on my music, as loud as is acceptable, and tuned out. There are other people around, but I will not speak with them unless absolutely necessary, even the really attractive ones in hotpants — say, if one of them is on fire or about to eat something poisonous. I made a deal a long time ago that my writing self would be different from my real self, and this deal has required me to make some sacrifices. Social skills were the first to go. Talking no longer happens. I spend a lot of time online for reference and research, so when I am writing this blog, or poetry, or a few pages of what I hope will someday be my debut novel, I am no longer David. I am simply my online identity.
When I am writing, I will only communicate online as well. And I write a lot. So there are these people… people with whom I have discussed particularly memorable past sexual experiences and debilitating hangovers and illicit substances, all on Facebook messenger, or via e-mail and text messages, or over MSN and BBM… these people, I’m not even sure I would recognise their voices.
Watch! Watch! Watch as my tentacles spread throughout the country and, lo, the world! Here I am in London — and now I am in Edinburgh! To New York! To Australia! To Mali! I am everywhere at once. Ding! A missive from Italy! Allow me to join you, weary traveller. I would stay longer, but I must go to Spain! There is sun there, but I have not the time. I am everywhere, but not too long, because there is more and more and more. And it all comes with a soundtrack of my own choosing. Do I want the Stones to accompany me on my journey? Vivaldi? Ella Fitzgerald? How about Bob Marley? Wait, I don’t have the new Jay-Z/Kanye album? Click-click-click-woosh… now I do! Where to next? Where to? And on and on! And on!
And it is now gone. The Internet is down. What the fuck is the problem anyway?
Who am I if I am not an MSN handle? If I am not intothenightlife, what is it I have become? My link to the world, where people create and envision and dream and hope, it no longer exists. It is a Microsoft Word file, empty, cursor blinking, taunting me, type, type, here, no one can here you scream, your life is a vacuum.
Back home… I am venturing to the bathroom. On foot. Shit, remember when I used to shower and dress nicely every weekend morning? I am wearing the only clean t-shirt I have left, and I have not shaved since Tuesday. My head has indents in it, in the shape of the headphones, and my face is pallid, empty … but yearning. I must get back. There is no time. I must get back to my laptop. Perhaps the Internet has returned! Perhaps we are back on the road! Perhaps I am me again!
We are not back. The Internet is still down.
BT has sent around an engineer, an IT gentleman. It is his job to fix this problem. He is from Ireland, has curly brown hair, wears an earring in the wrong ear, and stands about five-foot tall in heels. He looks like a particularly butch Premiership midfielder. He is a nice guy, jovial, upbeat, hopeful. I bet he talks to his parents weekly, at least. He likely has a dog who follows behind him, and licks his face in the mornings, and fetches his slippers. He pays his bills on time, loves TalkSport radio, and smiles and says, “’Ello mate!” to the newsagent when he buys his Sun newspaper every morning. He is telling me he cannot help me. Right now I would like to rip his fucking face off with a staple remover, slowly, meticulously snipping at the edges of the cheeks, under the chin, around the ears, fftt fftt fftt at the hairline, nice little clips all around, and then, yes, we’re ready now, YANK, splurt, splash, all that’s left is a skull with some wet flesh and that earring attached. (So sorry… I watched Red Dragon the other night!) I hope his eyes stay in their sockets. I want him to see what he has wrought.
Help me. I’m lost. I am a broken man, a ghost, a shell, a dead desiccated oyster buried under dry sand. A character in search of a play. A camel in search of a desert. A bone in search of a dog. I have been out there for so long, hiding from the rest of you so well, that the shakes are uncontrollable. Perhaps a drink of water. No, no, what if it comes back while I am gone?
I don’t know what to do. Maybe I could look through old screen shots. Yes, yes, my Microsoft Explorer, if I shift to offline mode, has saved some sites I visited a few days ago. Ah! It’s a Google search from Thursday! A preview of last night’s game! (Didn’t quite turn out as predicted.) Oh, look, it’s a story by a friend of mine — by friend, I mean an email address halfway across the world which belongs to a body I have not met — on a spunky little independent Web site. That story was funny. Remember that story? Remember when you read that last week, intothenightlife? Oh, those were the days. Such memories. Such great times.
Ah, but I am hungry, and I must find more sustenance. Regurgitation will not suffice. The big dog must eat. Connecting to server… connecting to server… connecting to server… sweet heavens, can’t I just connect? Help me connect. I need to connect. I am nothing here. I have no leg to stand on.
Help. Help. Yelp. Yellow. Yemer. Yemen. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. A rat in the house may eat the ice cream. Algebra. Trigonometry. The unbearable lightness of being sad I miss the comfort in being sad two’s comfort but THREE’S A CROWD! THREE’S A CROWD!
Wait, wait… wahey, check it out… what’s that… the Internet’s back! The world has opened again! OK… see you later suckers!
I can hit my head against solid surfaces and objects really, really hard.
That might be perceived as a flippant statement, maybe a little in-joke you don’t get, or a philosophical metaphor for the struggle of the human brain to fathom the weight of existence. It is neither. I’m simply telling you: I can bash my forehead into things, and it doesn’t really hurt.
I first noticed this ability in primary school, where such God-given talents are usually discovered. This might come as a shock to you but, in primary school, I attempted to make up for my inadequacies and insecurities about girls by brazenly attempting to attract attention to myself. My early, crude attempts involved armpit noises, blotches of ketchup smeared dribbled down my chin to simulate blood and, until puberty hit, impersonations of Mickey Mouse’s voice. None of these seemed to go over well.
Then, one day, when I was trying to make Suzie Johnson laugh on a bus ride home from school, I took my spelling book and bashed it against my face. Suzie had been telling me she was having trouble with spelling, how she just couldn’t get the letters in right order, how she just couldn’t make the words fit right in her head, no matter how hard she studied. I had a word-a-day calendar at home, and I’d recently learned osmosis. I told her she should just try to put the book to her head, or maybe sleep on top of it, and perhaps it would all just seep in. “Check it out,” I said. And then…WHAP!
The reaction was immediate. The eyes of the entire bus locked on me. Joy, the bus driver who had known me since kindergarten, mistakenly thought I’d hit Suzie with the book and made me do the walk of shame to the front of the bus, sitting directly behind her, like all the troublemakers. I told her I didn’t hit Suzie; it was my own head I’d hit. To prove it, I smacked myself with it again. “David!” she exclaimed. “Why on earth are you doing that?” Everyone on the bus was still staring at me. I had their rapt attention. It was exhilarating. Their looks answered Joy’s question, easily.
After that, I honed my talent into an art form. During lunch, I’d gather friends around and let them take shots at me with the cafeteria trays. It became rote to walk into doors face-first and then fall back dramatically, pretending I was in agony before breaking a smile to let them know that, no, I was fine. At parties, I would ask a girl to dance, and if she said no, I would ram my face into the wall. Sure, they were horrified at first, but after a while, they were simply repulsed. It never failed to get a laugh from my friends, and it got everyone talking about me, and, really, that’s all I wanted.
Eventually I even trained myself to take repeated shots, usually against some sort of table, a woodpecker-type motion: WHUP-WHUP-WHUP-WHUP-WHUPWHUPWHUP! My all-time high was 16 in a row. Even I started to get dizzy at about 14, though that was more because of the quick downward thrusts than anything else.
The years passed, but this skill never waned. As I got older, alcohol entered the equation, upping the ante. Oftentimes, toward the end of the night, everyone would gather around, making sure their glasses were off the table, and then watch Daring David’s display. Alcohol made me somewhat cocky, though, and a couple of times I would come up with rather large cuts in my forehead. It still never hurt, though.
It even comes in handy at work. When I’m having a particularly bad day, or just had another conversation with on of the resident idiots, I can quietly retreat to my office, close the door and use my head to perform a slow, rhythmic beat on the desk.
We all have a little talent like this. One friend can say words backwards as easily as he can forwards. (Palindromes make his nose bleed.) Another can rattle off the names of every ’80s rock band member, with instruments. One can bend his fingers the wrong direction so that they touch his wrist. I’m sure you have one too. Mine just happens to be a resilient forehead. My talent’s advantage is that it makes a loud noise, and sometimes leaves a rather frightening welt. Maybe it all started at the age of three, when I fell and busted my head against a stair, receiving a permanent scar on my forehead, but I feel like kind of a tough guy; sure, I can’t lift a pair of dumbbells without busting a blood vessel, but I can take as many head shots with a flat object that you can muster. There should be some sort of Strongman competition for this. Or maybe I should go on Britain’s Got Talent… or Jackass.
Of course, um, I’m in my late 30s now, which means I rarely perform anymore — or at least I try to limit my performances to the right moments. I usually don’t call people over anymore. I’ve found more subtle, quiet ways to make sure everyone around pays attention to me now. But when the right moment comes, almost always at a bar, I’ll pick my spot and just lay one down. The trick now relies more on the element of the unexpected; maybe we’ll be discussing politics or something, and someone will make a point I hadn’t thought of and have no instant response or comeback to. The debate has been lost. What better time? WHAP! WHAP! WHAP-WHAP-WHAP! After that, people tend to forget whatever it is we were talking about. I know I do.
Look! I can even do it against a keyboard! Fgo iftp uit eca etrffvm,frf4vrfvk gjuhhuyyhuddyt dytduy7y8t7t6t67.
All right. I’m done here. I think something just haemorrhaged.
In recognition of World Press Freedom Day 2012
How good is the media? Which branches of it can I trust? Where will I find balance and substance instead of trash and sensationalism? How believable are the anonymous sources on the Internet? How can we trust the media amid the rapid pace of technological change and the apparent erosion of journalistic ethics? How, in other words, do I find truth?
These are always important questions, especially since no industry has felt the impact of technological change more significantly than the communications industry.
In the early days of journalism, reporters used to write their stories on typewriters. A long, unwieldy editing and production process followed before the final product appeared — a printed newspaper. Today, reporters and photographers produce their work on laptops and transmit them electronically and instantly to their offices. There, it moves from computer to computer, undergoing the editing process, getting headlines and captions written, and flowing into pagination ready for printing with the touch of a computer button.
In TV news, too, technology has made for instant coverage of major events around the world, and even in space.
Because news is now transmitted instantly, the consequences of getting it wrong are more serious. The responsibility for getting it right is much greater. The war in Vietnam was said to have been the first conflict that brought the horrors of war into people’s living rooms. That was true, but back then several days still elapsed, during which there was time for reflection and editing, before the footage actually appeared on TV screens.
By the advent of the first Gulf War, technology had changed all this. Correspondents, using relatively portable transmitting equipment, were able to broadcast from the middle of the desert live, and appear instantly on television screens. Thus we saw a network correspondent reporting that Scud missiles, reportedly carrying chemical agents in their warheads, were incoming. The initial report was false. There were Scud missiles, but not with chemical warheads. By the time the erroneous information was corrected, millions of viewers may have missed it.
The roles of reporter and editor are even more critical today in the rush to publish or broadcast without forfeiting integrity. While the media can be a significant force for good, there are also lapses from professional journalistic standards that are disturbing.
Any journalism student should have heard of Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her moving story about a child crack dealer. It read beautifully. It seemed well documented. There was just one thing wrong with the story — the child crack dealer she wrote about didn’t exist.
You’d think such a scandal would put a serious crimp in journalistic invention but, sadly, such transgressions are still with us. Manipulation of the news is a problem, and an embarrassment to journalists of integrity.
Within hours of Osama bin Laden’s death being announced last year, some media organisations ran a picture showing his bloodied, lifeless face with a bullet-hole in the head. The picture was very quickly proven to be a hoax. Who was the source of the image? Was it checked or challenged? Or did media houses, in the rush to beat their competitors, simply accept at face value whatever was thrown at them. Worse yet, was it a news organisation that created the false image in the first place?
Take The Mirror’s 2004 account of British soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq, for example. The abuse apparently did take place but, to illustrate their story, The Mirror staged photos at a Territorial Army base in Lancashire and offered them to readers as the real thing. Rightfully, it cost then-editor Piers Morgan his job.
Too often we have tasteless intrusiveness: the cameramen up a tree, shooting through windows families who have pleaded for privacy; the TV reporter who holds a microphone in the face of an 11-year-old AIDS victim and asks how he feels knowing he’s going to die. And don’t even get me started on the scandal of phone-hacking!
When it comes to public figures, their private lives are not off-limits to reasonable scrutiny by the media. That’s the price that must be paid by those who seek our votes, demand our trust, and make significant decisions. However, this scrutiny by the media must be reasonable and purposeful, not merely prurient.
Around the world, thousands of journalists work honourably at their profession, striving to be fair and responsible, often under deadline stress. But the errors of others are used to impugn them all.
The Internet has also contributed to problems. Anybody can get on it, pretend to be a journalist, and publish a scurrilous rumour. There’s a 1993 New Yorker magazine cartoon I came across recently. It shows a dog tapping away at a computer keyboard and saying to the dog on the floor beside him: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It’s funny, but it makes a serious point. The Internet is often an anonymous medium. So while we embrace it and recognise the increasingly important role of the “citizen journalist” we still need to test the credibility of those who tell us things on it.
Even the best news organisations made mistakes and are often obliged to make retractions. But if we look for the real cause of media transgressions, we see that they were caused by inventing, manipulating, overstating, or misinterpreting the facts.
Why? In large part, it is because of the intense competition between media organisations. Hundreds of new cable channels are competing among themselves and challenging the traditional networks. TV news magazines are in fierce combat for audience supremacy. Print newspapers are competing for readers against supermarket tabloids, weeklies, and throwaway freebies. The Internet proliferates. Talk radio jousts with everybody.
All journalists should consider journalistic lapses and the effect they have on their credibility as a whole. Standards need to be constantly criticised and reassessed. News organisations need to ensure that mechanisms are in place to permit readers/viewers/listeners to air their complaints, or to rebut perceived misstatements and inaccurate reporting. The role of the Internet as a reliable news source needs to be questioned.
If all this adds up to a wake-up call for the media, and leads to better self-policing, that’s good. Journalism today could do with a little more attention to principle, a little more concern about ethics.
As a reader, you may be asking, “What can I do about all this?” You are on the receiving end of a torrent of information that will guide many of the decisions you make in life. Therefore, you must make intelligent judgments about what you read, listen to, and watch. You have a responsibility to determine the truth about what is going on around you in your local community, and the nation, and the world.
When some elements of the media offer up material you think is inaccurate, distorted, or distasteful, there is an opportunity to be heard. Editors listen. The good ones, at least. They get a daily flood of letters from the public on all kinds of subjects. They don’t always agree, but they pay attention to public reaction to what they published. And when mistakes are made, they generally correct them. So call or write your newspaper or TV/radio station when you think they’ve got it wrong.
The saving grace of the media is its incredible diversity — from the sleazy supermarket tabloids to The Times, from TV news magazines to Oprah. The media can often be very good, indeed. It sheds a spotlight on dark corners of our society. It topples public officials found unworthy of our trust. It is the voice and protector of those who would otherwise have no voice.
But when it is not so good, it needs individuals like you to help it be better, to hold it to higher standards.
Last weekend, with the trees not quite fully leafed out, the sun’s unabashed rays filled my back garden with Spring’s bright light. The place glowed with a certain timbre, like the soft glare off old early risers, the little plants that will mature and set seed before the canopy forms.
Until the garden grows and mulches the soil with its own shady cover, there’s an inordinate amount of weeding to do. The soil is moist and crumbly and the weeds came out easily. I grasp stem and leaves at ground level, rock the plant slightly to one side with a slight pull just barely beyond the point that the plant resists, and the root pops free. I shake it to free the soil still clinging to its roots. It’s good to have dirt under my fingernails again!
Weeds enjoy a success that’s astounding. Our efforts to eradicate them are a little comical — there is no way we’ll ever win. The weeding’s not unpleasant, though. It’s a chance to get a feel for things again, to check the soil’s tilth, and to get new green matter into the compost I’ve just started. I’m surprised at how much I think about that compost pile. The balance of nature’s uncontrived give and take creates a balance that our plots don’t usually enjoy.
What we ask of the garden is often more than we compensate it for, and then fertility declines. You can feel it: a thinness, even in heavy soil. The colour is wan. Composting is essential.
From what I remember from my 4H Club days, one-part to two-parts proportion between green materials and brown is a good rule: grass clippings, garden trimmings and weeds; brown leaves and hay. The addition of healthy garden soil and farm manure helps the composting process along. The vegetable peelings, coffee grounds and other miscellaneous kitchen waste I put in seem to amount to nearly nothing.
Adding them to the pile seems hardly worth the effort. Every couple of days, though, I add the odd kitchen scraps. It’s valuable for its minor nutrients and the microbial diversity it encourages. I push my garden fork into the pile once a week or so; When it seems to give, I turn it, move the dark, crumbly stuff into the garden and return the rest to the pile. Good compost can be slow in coming, and there’s little we can do but attend to it.
The work nurtures me, though, maybe as much as it nurtures the plants — this giving back to the good earth. Shepherding the utterly common along its way to fostering new life offers a glimpse of the wondrous side of living.
After watching a debate about religious fundamentalism on BBC1′s The Big Question this morning, just before heading out to enjoy the sights and sounds of London, I was reminded of this commentary I wrote just over a year ago…
Late at night in the A&E reception, my tired eyes kept tripping back to the three children playing.
One white and two black, all aged around five, they fooled around and squealed as if nobody was sick and the whole world was a playground. As one mother went to help the nurses move her husband, the other mother kept watch.
“You know, I think we can get beyond race,” a Jewish friend whispered to me while watching the children. “It’s religious differences people have a hard time getting over.”
Religious differences, he reasoned, lead to all kinds of wars; the military conflicts that are all over the globe at any given time as well as the “culture wars” that infuse domestic politics. Religious differences stir up anger, he said, because one person’s rejection of another’s beliefs is perceived as an insult.
When you don’t subscribe to someone else’s religion, they perceive that you’re declaring their beliefs to be wrong or stupid. Faith, by its very definition, involves things that can’t be proven. But people are always trying to prove their faith is the right one. They “prove” it, one might suppose, by shunning and, in some cases, eliminating those with different beliefs.
That might be true. I don’t know. The problems of race and religion both are complicated — complicated by class, economics and opportunity. Complicated by culture. Complicated by history. In sociological circles there’s a theory that race is a “social construct.” The idea, as I understand it, is that racial differences are based not on biological distinctions but cultural ones, differences of language and socialisation, experience and expectation.
Considering the migrations and interminglings that have made up human history, I can see the logic. Each of us learn what it means to be black or white, Vietnamese or Japanese, and we relate to the rest of the world accordingly. That’s why it’s possible for people with barely a trace of African ancestry to identify as “Black” and for the world to relate to them as such. It’s why, in places such as Africa, the Middle East and Bosnia, tribal and religious divisions transcend biological similarity.
In hospital waiting rooms, these differences tend to be suspended. There, love is vulnerable and raw. Worry settles like fog, and death lurks in the hallways. Families look across a room at one another and what do they see? They see themselves.
The only way we can live together is if we say the celebration of our differences requires us to say that our common humanity matters more. - Bill Clinton
Give me some spirit. Give me some fire. Give me some soul, brother! Give me something that works me, that makes me want to jump around, live, breathe, laugh, dance, fuck, snort, inhale, walk around on my hands, upside-down jumping jacks, a-one-and-a-two, work it work it, make me feel it, make me want it, make it worth all the shit and piss and bile. I can spew alone no longer. Make it worth it. I don’t want to fidget, sigh, fret, or sulk. I want to be! Can I be? Can somebody give me an amen?! AMEN!
I am waiting for something to inspire me. I want it to lurk behind the bushes and then leap out at me, injecting me with vigour and spice and mirth and fervour, jolt me out of my doldrums, hold me by my feet and shake me, get that loose change out, strip away all the bullshit and make me go go go go GO! Is it out there? How about you? Can you provide it?
I’m tired of work. I’m tired of struggle. I’m tired of waiting around. I’m tired of cordial hellos and Oyster cards and pension plans and proper work behaviour and that’s-a-nice-haircut and increasing Tube fares and matching outfits and rising interest rates and X Factor wannabes and quick download times and The Only Way Is Essex girls and shoe polish and corrupt bankers and hospital superbugs and killer fish that walk on land and the controversial Jeremy Kyle. I want no part of debates on feminist theory, or which pizza is best, or coalition governments. I do not care about Coke Zero; I don’t care how I, too, could be a winner; I do not care if I can hear you now.
I want you to take all that shit and rip it out of me, stomp on it, dissolve it, let your saliva disintegrate it, like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.
I want to run down the street naked covered in ice cream and chocolate sprinkles. I want to do a somersault into a newspaper stand. I want to stretch a rubber band to Groat’s End and douse it with Vaseline. I want to impersonate talcum powder. I want to go belly-flopping in the ocean with these people. I want to irrigate my ears with iodine. I want to take part in the BCFC. I want to surf cornfields. I want a tattoo of a bum on my bum.
I want to wrap my penis in pancake mix and have sex with Betty Crocker. I want to make birds explode with Uncle Ben. I want to get Joey Barton, Dereck Chisora, Kerry Katona and one of the Geordie Shore girls in a room and discuss intestinal gas. I want them to provide enemas at Starbucks.
I want to believe. I want to sit alone in my room and create something beautiful, something that makes your eyeballs roll back in your head, your testicles contract, your pubic hair fall out. I want you to renounce all your worldly possessions and follow me, in this new world, where plants grow goatees, where children are born with rainbow-coloured nipples, where we boil footballs for Christmas.
Let’s go clay shooting with protective cups. Play croquet wearing leather pants. Gargle with antifreeze. Teach octopi to play the piano. Start a professional supermarket trolley-racing league. Carbon freeze dwarves and make them into bobblehead dolls. Make pudding from the ozone layer. Wrap up in bubblewrap and mail ourselves to Mali. Start toenail-clipping collections. Win a million pounds and join 100 million record clubs for a penny. Make love to life-size cutouts of Ann Widdecombe. Marry an albino black man. Make prank calls to the ghost of Elvis. Dye our skin hot pink. Splice our souls. Party softly. Slumber loudly. Molest penguins. Burn rubber. Peel out.
Do you get it? Do you?
Dammit, I just want to do something! Don’t you? Before it’s too late?
My friend Sheldon is a lucky guy. He’s very tall, first off, a vastly underrated attribute; you can get away with a lot of physical deficiencies if you’re very tall. (You know there are women out there who will only date tall guys? No matter what kind of guy a short fella might be, they won’t even give anyone under, say, 6-foot-1 a chance. It’s terrible. Thankfully, men are never so shallow.) But Sheldon’s real talent, if you ask me, is his ability to stay the exactly same weight and shape as he was in college. It’s quite amazing, really; I’ve seen the boy down two Big Macs, two portions of fries plus ice cream like it was nothing, and he never looks any worse for wear. If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to fit back in the car.
It doesn’t matter if Sheldon injected a gallon of bacon fat into his neck every day for the next three years, the man would not gain a pound. He’s tall, scrawny and infinite; save for maybe a bald spot, potential spectacles and future forays into facial hair, he’ll look exactly the same in 20 years as he does right now.
Like the rest of the planet, I am not so fortunate.
I’m not rich, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m making enough money to not have to worry about bouncing cheques, late rent payments or having to skip meals. That’s all fine and good, of course, but this has led to a comfort level that is bordering on deterioration. Being a happy member of tax-paying society has its advantages — erm… Monday morning conversational stimulants… um… unlimited stapler access — but, at its core, it requires that I spend a lot of time sitting in meetings or sitting on my arse in front of computers. It leads to inactivity, complacency… and corpulence.
Let’s face it: I’ve gained some weight. It’s time to stop pretending I haven’t. I’ve tried to lie to myself about it. I’ve blamed family genes. I’ve blamed the mirrors in my flat for being at the wrong angle. I’ve even scolded the dry cleaners for shrinking my clothes. But it’s all bullshit. I’ve gained a little weight. I’m 39 years old, with expendable income, a desk job (sort of) and poor dietary habits. It was bound to happen.
I have a weird thing about weight. In the past, I’ve starved myself for weeks at a time, I’ve spent months eating only a couple pieces of wheat bread a day, I’ve even resorted to taking diet pills. These techniques were marginally effective at best, and they required more effort than they offered production. And, frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to do them anymore. They’re the last resorts of a crazy person, someone with serious huge strange weird weight issues, and though I might be that person, it’s just not feasible to live life that way. I’d either have another heart attack at 40 or pass out climbing the stairs to my office. Not going to happen. Besides, a certain measure of being an eight-hours-at-a-desk guy is complacency; if I’d decided I’d had enough, there are plenty of working-outside construction jobs waiting for you, matey. No? Then stop complaining.
Nope. There are two ways I could go with this new problem. First, I could just keep doing what I’m doing and try to talk my way out of it. This has been the plan for the last few months or so. I’ve employed a number of cute linguistic tricks in order to deceive what my friends’ and family’s eyes are clearly telling them, but I always fall back on one.
The trick? A case study in passive aggression. Whinge about how I’m a fat pig and disgusting and obese and repulsive and how I’m the most repulsive, overweight human I know and I have no idea how they can even talk to someone so sickening. Now, I’m not obese. I’m not even close to it. I’m just not in good shape. I know that, they know that, but they might not necessarily know that I know that. So I just go on and on like that for a while, and eventually, out of exhaustion and pity, they tell me, “David, you’re being silly, you’re clearly not fat.” I feel better in a completely vacuous way, and I got them to say it: David, you’re not obese. If they are thinking that I think I’m too fat, maybe they won’t notice that the obvious: That I’m carrying an extra 10 or so. (I’ve even done this, repeatedly, to a couple of girls I like, which I’m sure they find irresistibly hot.)
But this is a waste of time for all involved, and ultimately someone will notice the emperor has no clothes. So I’m taking the next step, the one everyone says they’ll take but never does: I’ve started going to the gym.
I’ve toyed with this notion in the past, but I don’t think anyone, myself included, ever really thought I’d go through with it. But the decay of the body is inevitable — I’m beginning to notice rather cavernous wrinkles around my eyes, and I recently had my first back spasm. I’m a grownup! — and you can only hide so long. It’s time to suck it up.
So I did. A few months back, as the guest of a friend, I visited a posh London fitness club where, as it turned out, lots of gay men go to lift and separate. A tall (tall!) gay man named Marvin showed me around, saying, “You’ll have some fun here. You’ll love it.” (I pity young gay men. You can’t get away with being flabby if you’re a youthful gay man. Straight guys can always find some poor sap woman who likes us because of our souls, or our hearts, or our bank accounts, someone willing to overlook the love handles and double chins. Young gay men, being young men, are intensely shallow and only care about looks. Got to be rough. I knew instantly that if I joined that gym, every day I would have been the worst-looking guy there.) But it was too far from work and home to seriously consider becoming a member. A hundred quid a month worth of a member, that is!
Instead, I’ve started using the free, quite-well-equipped sports centre at work. My goal is to just run on the treadmill at least four times a week and maybe lift a few light weights. Plus, as an added bonus, I’ll often have company (or distraction) in the lovely shapes of Kelly and Lara. Will it work? Do I have the willpower to do it? Can I pull it off? Well, it certainly beats arguing with my friends on the extent of my grotesqueness.
The worst part about this is that it’s not going to get any easier. The body doesn’t bounce back as well as it used to, and that’s not going to turn around. I have a feeling I’ve signed myself up for a life sentence; as the gym rat, constantly spinning on the wheel, trying to outrun time and death. I don’t like my odds.
Ben Naga (http://bennaga.wordpress.com) was kind enough to gift me this award.
RULES OF THE AWARD:
1. Thank the person who gave it to you.
Thank you Ben!
2. Share 7 unusual things about yourself.
- I once met Fidel Castro
- In 1997, I spent three nights as a “patient” at a mental institution while doing an undercover investigative story about patient abuse there.
- I am black, but I had a white paternal grandfather and mother’s mum was Indian. (I’m a bit like a Panda – black, white and Asian!)
- My ancestry has been traced back to a 12th century Norman knight and one of my ancestors was Secretary of State to King James I.
- There is a town named after my family in Canada. It was founded by my great-great uncle.
- I once hit the only six in a cricket match… at Lords.
- One of my friends was once a famous international porn actress (and, yes, we really are JUST good friends)
3. Share 7 of your posts. (Most Beautiful, Most Helpful, Most Popular, Most Controversial, Most Surprisingly Successful, Most Underrated, Most Prideworthy.)
El: A Love Story (Drives readers to tears, apparently)
The Beauty of Sadness (The one most shared by my readers)
Sex musings at midnight (Most read of all time… no surprise, with “sex” in the title)
Merry Christmas! (Not the most controversial title, I know)
Sound the alarm! There are no single men left in London! (From the hits I get, there appears to be a lot of people researching this theme on Google!)
Parents rule! (I’m proud of all my work… but I’m most proud of my parents!)
4. Nominate seven other bloggers and notify them.
Some of these blogs are new so there isn’t much there yet; one or two haven’t been updated for a while, but I hope to encourage the bloggers because I believe they really do have something to offer!
Over to you!
I was away on the weekend so didn’t get around to my usual blog posting. Some old friends invited me to the dedication of their baby daughter, the most gorgeous thing ever. (Alice, if you’re reading this when you’re much, much older — if you still have that smile of yours, well… mankind lies at your feet!)
The poem The Guest House by the Persian poet and mystic, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, was read by her dad at the church and it reminded me a little of “On Joy And Sorrow” by another Persian poet I like, Khalil Gibran. This got me thinking again on The Beauty Of Sadness, more so later that evening when I received sad news about the untimely death of an old schoolmate. Perhaps you too can find some meaning in their words…
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
ON JOY AND SORROW
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your
laughter rises was oftentime filled with your tears…
When you are joyous, look deep into
your heart and you shall find it is only
that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in
your heart, and you shall see that in truth
you are weeping for that which has been
- Khalil Gibran
I spent the night at a friend’s place the other night, and we left for work together the next morning. It’s been a while since I’ve had to do this kind of journey, having surrendered my 90-minute slog from Surrey, just over a year ago, for a two-mile stroll into work every morning. You might think I’m crazy, but riding the London Underground every morning used to provide me with quiet pleasure. Since work is pretty close to the end of Met Line, I usually always had a seat. I’d grab a copy of the Metro, or get out a book, plop down, stretch my legs and kick back. By the time I’d finished with the paper, I was at my stop. No waiting to change lanes, no dickheads blaring their horns, no stressful left turns at busy intersections. I just zoned out, caught up on the news and before I knew it, my ride was over. It was quite nice.
A lot of it depends on what line you’re on, though. A mate lives way out east in Becontree, Essex, and his trains on the District Line can be notoriously unreliable. Sometimes the trains will run smoothly, and he’ll be at work in 45 mins. More often, the underground traffic jam gnarls, and his overcrowded carriage will be filled with grouchy commuters, sardined shoulder-to-shoulder, sweaty and cramped, for almost an hour-and-a-half.
The middle-aged women are always the worst. If you’re between them and an open seat, they have no qualms with elbow and shoulder-tackling you to get that seat. They’re sometimes even swearing and belligerent, with a rather frightening don’t-fuck-with-me scowl. It makes me worry about all the future of my female friends. Middle age, I suspect, is not kind to women.
This particular morning, I was running late. My friend kept me company. We had a few things to discuss and I was glad she was there. Sometimes the Tube is too quiet; I’m not the only one who likes to zone out. We hopped on at Woodside Park and swooshed downward, through Finchley, past Highgate, next stop Camden Town. We had talked and argued and laughed the whole time. We were in a good mood.
Like anybody else on the train, the man hadn’t caught my attention. It takes a lot to get me to notice you on the Tube. Usually, you have to be making some unnatural noise, maybe shouting, fiddling with your mobile, snoring maybe. The man was doing none of those.
He made a step toward us, an unusual movement. The train was not crowded, and it was a some way until the next stop. It was a measured, purposeful move. My head instinctively turned away from my friend and looked in his direction. There was nothing remarkable about him. Mid-thirties, light brown hair, slightly balding, wearing a brown trenchcoat, a pressed white shirt and tan tie. He was holding an umbrella, which tapped along the carriage’s floor, like it was a cane. Not a walking stick cane, mind you; he held it like a prop in a silent movie, tap tap tap, as if he were about to toss it into the air and break into song. But he wasn’t smiling, and he certainly wasn’t about to start dancing.
He took another step toward me and made eye contact. You’re not supposed to make eye contact on the Tube. Just one of those things.
As he came close, I noticed he was taller than I thought he was. But, honestly, that was pretty much it. He looked like every other guy on the train, a nondescript nothing, just more background fuzz. He kept coming toward us, focusing on me. It appeared he needed something, likely directions. I’ve been riding the Tube for more than a decade and take a good deal of pride in my mastery of the elaborate calibration of the London Underground system, so I’m probably a good guy to ask.
He stopped over us, a little too close. His eyes narrowed, his lips pursed, and he spoke.
“I want to talk to you about the law. What you’re doing is criminal. You should be arrested. You should know that I will be contacting the proper authorities.” He then shifted slightly to his right and lurked backwards slowly, almost floating, his eyes locked on us, his disgust and fury palpable. He stopped about five feet away, but his glare did not waver.
For a moment that lasted longer than I would have liked it to, I did a little internal inventory. Had I engaged in any criminal activities recently? Was I engaging in any of them now? I looked at my friend, whose look of confusion — not shock, legitimate confusion — presumably mirrored my own. I could tell she was doing her own inventory. She realised about the same time I did that, no, as far as we knew, we were not doing anything illegal.
We were silent for about 10 seconds. Then she spoke, in a whisper: “He’s still looking at us.”
And his umbrella was tapping… slowly.
Not that I’d ever been faced with a situation like this before, but it seemed like the wise thing to do was to carry on as if nothing had happened. I found myself chuckling, as if she had just said something funny, or as if a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time had just played a silly joke on us, ha ha, gotcha. I didn’t dare look over at the man. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I could tell he was still staring.
We began to quietly try to make some sense of what had just happened. She pointed out, with a bit of alarm, that this well-dressed man didn’t appear to be joking at all. I tried to minimise the situation, make her feel more comfortable, let her know she was safe with me. “He’s clearly a nutjob, obviously,” I said. I’m not sure that helped. Either of us.
I was getting off at King’s Cross, but her stop was Camden Town, the next one. We needed to formulate a plan. She suggested we both get off at Camden, and I could catch the next train, but even in my shock, that wasn’t feasible for me. I was running late already. I told her to go ahead and get off like she always would, and if he made a movement to exit the train, I’d follow. As if in a vice, his head remained stationary, fixed on us.
Her stop arrived. I said goodbye, with an eye on the man. He did not budge. She escaped unharmed. I theatrically took out a book I’ve been reading and pretended to study it intently. Stand clear of the closing doors, please. Off to King’s Cross. The umbrella continued to tap.
I had a plan of my own. I was carrying the rucksack I take with me everywhere, full of random notebooks and work stuff, and I stealthily unzipped the pouch where I would ordinarily store the book. The scheme: Make it look like I was staying on the train, then, at the last possibly second, throw the book in there and bolt through the exit doors. I’m a London Underground veteran. I knew exactly how long those doors were open.
The train stopped. Commuters filed out. The man did not budge. 3… 2… 1… now. With a flash, I dashed through the doors, onto the escalators. Halfway up, I got stuck behind two chattering students. I twisted my neck just enough to glance behind me. There were four people looking annoyed by the delay up the moving stairs… and then him. He was looking downward now, but, as if sensing the movement, his head snapped up.
Quickly now. I passed the students on the wrong side and whisked up the rest of the stairs around the corner. There is a Costa on the international station concourse and it was a bit crowded. I ducked in and feigned an intense interest in the dairy section. I idled there for about 15 seconds and turned around.
The man was gone. I loitered a bit, then ordered a coffee and left. Looking a bit suspicious, hunched over, paranoid, I shuffled back to escalators to get on the Met Line. My mobile rang.
It was my friend. “Oh, God, you’re OK. What the hell was that all about?”
I had no idea, I have no idea, but I can assure you: the next time I have to commute to work, I’ll be leaving on time, from now on.
There was chaos at the small flat just off the corner of Brighton Road and Lansdowne Road in Surrey the other night, and the people causing the ruckus were lucky nobody called the police.
If you stood outside the door, or in the hall of the floor below, or even out on the street, you could hear them. At first it seemed like they were laughing and having fun, talking shit to each other, being jestingly competitive. But then it escalated. The couple’s voices started rising. Then they were screaming. You heard stuff being thrown across the room. You heard the dog howling for quiet. The floor shook as they jumped up and down.
It all ended with a loud, violent “MotherFUCKER!” and a piercing wail of “You know what? Fuck this stupid game! I’m sick of it!” Then another loud bang. There was no weeping, not yet anyway, but the pain was evident. This couple was ruthless, vile, twisted. Whatever mess they were in, they were in it deep.
Mercifully, the neighbour decided she couldn’t take this anymore, not when it was already after midnight, no way. She walked across the hall and rang the doorbell, nervous that she was about to become a witness to some gruesome bloodbath, but still undeniably (and understandably) irritated. Someone had to say something. People were trying to sleep, you know.
My mate Richard opened the door. “Oh, shit, ma’am, I’m so sorry,” he said in his best oh-so-polite voice. “We were just playing a game in here, and it was a really close game, and we got a little carried away. I’m sorry, sorry. Won’t happen again.” I was glad he answered the door (upon hearing the doorbell, I immediately hid under the bed); I was still too fired up to carry on a normal conversation, particularly one in which I needed to look remorseful.
He closed the door, I crawled out from under the bed and we met at the sofa. “Shit, we were kind of loud, eh?” I said.
“Maybe we should try to keep it down?”
“Might be a good idea.”
“Well, I don’t care how good he is, it’s just … there’s no way Messi should be getting four straight goals with Vidic right in his face. No fucking way!”
“What can I say? Leo’s the man!”
And then we sat back down, took the PlayStation off pause and proceeded to have Richard’s Barcelona team wipe the floor with my Manchester United Red Devils. Then we made a note of the score, and played again. Quieter this time.
Readers, you shall be the first to whom I admit it: I am a recovering video game addict, specifically a recovering EA Sports FIFA addict. I have successfully and steadfastly resisted buying a PlayStation, X-Box, Wii or anything like that and I’m quite proud of myself. I have even weaned myself off pretty much all the various video games on which I wasted so much of my youth. But when I visit any friend who has FIFA, it can still be a real problem. I try to drink, talk, read, write, ponder, mull, pontificate, masticate, abdicate, but I always end up in front of the TV with the damn game machine on.
It’s all Richard’s fault. We used to be neighbours when I lived in Surrey and we initially bonded over our support for Manchester United, in real life and on the PlayStation. Of course, back then we lived about 10 feet away from each other, as opposed to over 10 miles now. So it was out of control. We spent almost every waking moment when we were home at the same time, and there wasn’t a live game on that we could watch down at the pub, with the damn PlayStation on. We even spent many Saturday nights just sitting there, listening to music and playing until 3 a.m. We were lucky enough to never be interrupted by girls calling.
I’d always been inclined to this kind of addiction. My parents wanted their son to have a well-rounded growing-up experience, so they held off buying me a Nintendo. This just meant I would find kids in the neighbourhood, usually younger and more easily pushed around, who had one, and I’d commandeer it to play Pac Man, Frogger or Metroid… or Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Later on, I spent a lot of time after school, and a lot of my allowance, in video game arcades, playing all manner of shoot-’em-up, martial arts and car racing games. In the past, I have also have been taken in by trivia games, ranging from the high-tech (those bars that have those interactive games where you compete against fellow drunks) to the just plain nerdy (those insert-a-quarter contraptions you find next to the dart board at hole-in-the-wall dives).
In fact, it’s kind of funny how the games and my drinking went hand-in-hand. Last week, my mate Matt and I decided to grab a drink and get caught up on matters. We ended up at this sports bar, which, lo and behold, was running a World-Cup style PlayStation FIFA tournament where you could battle it out with fellow patrons over vodka and tonics. We sat there for about three hours, drinking and playing, before being eliminated in the second round. All the while, the sun shined vibrantly outside.
Rich and I, as you’ve probably gathered, can be intensely competitive in our showdowns. In fact, to be entirely honest, I’m quite likely to be heading off to Surrey next weekend to fire it up again. And the trash-talking shall ensue: “Oooh! Look at that shot, bitch! You like that? Do you? You want some more? Yeah, take that, I’ll give you some more! Who’s my little bitch now?”
I’m sure there’s no way anyone overhearing us in the hall would draw any wrong conclusions.
I was raised to the ideal of Christmas being a general sense of goodwill to all people. Christmas was meant to be merry, not a merry fuck you.
A season of generosity marked with presents and a general tolerance for the slightly drunken ramblings of family, and the rumblings of mountains of food getting demolished.
And it was good. Much like Diwali is good, or Tabish Svat is good, it was the sort of festival where you didn’t need to actually believe the foundational story to enjoy.
Then the cultural and religious/secular wars took off, and saying Merry Christmas is becoming a coded way of telling people to go fuck themselves. It seems that for many people, the phrase has come to represent an aggressive, mean-spirited version of Christian nationalism that asserts that it is defending a cultural value, while simultaneously raping it. I saw it first-hand yesterday, in a department store here in America where I’m spending the holidays, when a clerk wished a customer “Happy Holidays”. He responded with a belligerent “Merry Christmas” before launching into a tirade about people not wanting to acknowledge the birth of Christ.
It didn’t even occur to him that the clerk may not have been Christian or even religious, and that this was her compromise. Happy holidays, and various other formulae have been introduced as much for the sake of political correctness as for variety.
But I think more than one person would point out that the almost obligatory nature of Christmas is anything but – I mean, do we call someone a Grinch if they don’t particularly enjoy Eid? Do we have the three ghosts of past, present and future visiting grouchy old men who don’t like Passover in TV specials? Do we have major atheist comedians singing about how they really like Vesak, despite not buying into the Buddhist conception of enlightenment?
We massively favour Christmas, because at the heart of it all the meaning of it has morphed. For many, it is no longer so much about Christianity as it is a vision of a better humanity.
So say “Happy Holidays” if you will and I’ll happily accept it. But I can still say “Merry Christmas” with a smile, because for me there is no hidden agenda. I will not sully the greeting with the identity politics of politically incorrect copy pasting – which generally confuses xenophobic cowardice for courage.
Merry Christmas to all my friends and readers, with no obligation to repeat or agree with anything I say, because this is not the season for taking offence, but rather giving goodwill to all.
My birthday is next week. Sunday, December 4, to be exact. I wasn’t thinking of doing much, but I don’t want to end up like some of my friends who, unlike me, are reclusive sorts who emerge from their dank, squalid flats only to grab groceries, score weed and report for jury duty, and they aren’t really into their birthdays that much. You hang out with them one day, doing very little of consequence, and you find out a week later, by accident, that it was their birthday, and all you did to celebrate it was watch some shit on telly.
Honestly, I don’t understand these people. If you can’t celebrate your birthday, shit, what can you celebrate? On my birthday, I revel in my own self-indulgence. I organise and announce my own birthday party, preferably at a spacious bar with plenty of cheap drinks, invite any friend within a 100-mile radius and then kick back and enjoy a drunken evening with my closest associates. That’s what a birthday is supposed to be about – your most beloved cronies, gathered around a large table, talking shit and enjoying one another’s company.
This is a yearly ritual for me, inviting all my pals in my chosen area and begging them to come and chill out with me. Birthdays are our checkpoints, the times we can sit back and reflect on how much has changed in a year, discover whether we’ve moved forward, or backwards, or whether we were running on the spot for all those months.
It really only started with my 30th birthday, in Camden Town, London. It was a crazy time; my mate Ross organised it and we ended up in some bar or the other with Rowan, Sarah, Sergio, Joe and some others. Ross, bless him, even got me a birthday cake. I don’t remember much else of that evening, although from the photos, I must have had quite a time (there is one of me kissing a girl I don’t know who, I am told, was also celebrating her birthday that day). There were also text messages on my phone that I did not send… I think… including one to a girl I fancied at the time that went something like this:
Her (responding to a text from my phone): Are you drunk?
My phone: Yes! So come and take advantage!
Her: OK. Where are you?
And so it went from year to year, the only blip being a couple years ago when I was under strict doctor’s orders to take it easy. Still, I insisted on travelling some distance to attend an office Christmas dinner at which everyone surprised me with a drunken rendition of Happy Birthday and a cake.
Last year, it was surreal. I was in Covent Garden, with just a handful of buddies, when I was introduced to this almost preternaturally attractive girl who won my heart by buying me shots all evening. At the end of the night, she came over to me, gave me a hug, told me it was great to meet me, then took my right hand and put it on her left breast. I didn’t see her again until about a month ago, when I learned she was a nurse named Kate that I had quite a connection with, and we sat down over a couple drinks, and she denied the whole birthday thing, but I knew she was full of shit and I liked her anyway.
And that leads us to this one. Another year gone, and I will start this birthday, as always, uninspired, unmotivated, undisciplined, unworthy… But then I will find myself at a bar somewhere, having scrounged together the few real friends I have in London willing to come out on a Saturday night. And I will drink and smile and laugh, and all will be well. My birthday always reminds me how lucky I am to have people who care about me, a decent job that pays the bills, a roof over my head, and good health.
I will not allow myself to be one of those birthday people, the ones who get all freaked out about their age, ohmigod I’m almost 40, I’m not married, I haven’t achieved this or that, I’m wasting everyone’s time, boo fucking hoo. That will not be me. I will drink and I will smile and I will laugh, and all will be well, oh yes, it sure as shit better be. I will not wallow, become depressed, wonder how in the world I ended up here, ended up doing this, ended up acting this way, ended up thinking this.
True, I don’t always feel like I have it all together. Of course, maybe no one ever really does. But next week is my birthday and goddammit it, I’m going to celebrate, even if there really isn’t anything special to celebrate. I am not going to let anything get in the way of a drunken birthday. If I’m going to earn any kind of small victory, it will be that.
Happy birthday to me…
What’s heaven like? I know what I want heaven to be. I want heaven to be The Truman Show of my life. Somehow, some way, God had little invisible cameramen following every moment of my life, from birth, and he sat down with his little angel Martin Scorcese and edited the thing together into a real-time, neatly packaged narrative.
That’s what I want. I want to relive my life, except as an observer. I want to see it all like a movie: the great moments, the humiliating ones, the banal day-to-day drudgery. I want to laugh at how silly my friend John looked at 14, how scared my dog was at four weeks old, what exactly that first kiss was like. I want to relive it all. It would be like having a permanent mirror on my bedroom ceiling. (Though I think I may ask Morgan Freeman to edit out bits like the sleeping and masturbation. I think he’d do that for me. He is, after all, God, and he is wise and kind.)
It just all seems so important. I want to make certain I don’t forget any of it.
Oh, and the lessons I would learn! What did I learn from this point to the next one? Did this tragedy make me a wiser person? Did I really tell her I was going to call her that night, or was she right to be mad? Just who was that giving me bunny ears in that class photo anyway? Did my family do anything traumatic to me as a child that I’ve repressed? Just where in the world did I get that haircut? Did I ever improve after my initial, clumsy attempts at cunnilingus? And, at last, I can find out: Do these jeans make my arse look big?
Unfortunately, I have no idea if the afterlife is like this. As far as I know, it’s utter blackness, or, even worse, a television that only plays Channel Five. But my general principle stands: I want to remember it all. I want to see a snapshot of a friend of mine from, say, 10 years ago, remark on how they’ve changed, or how they’re the same clown they were when they peed their pants watching Friday the 13th when we were kids.
So I take pictures. Oh, do I take a lot of pictures. You know that guy who, when you’re out drinking some night, suddenly pops up out of nowhere and flashes a camera in your face? I’m that guy. Before I went digital, I used to go through film like cups of coffee. I was perpetually buying film, waiting for it to be developed, taking pictures, add add add, more more more. I want it all chronicled. I must remember.
I started putting together my first scrapbook/photo album the day after I graduated from college. Since then, I have filled nine huge, fat ones. It’s all there. This is as close to the Jehovah-directed video I’m waiting for as I’m going to get.
It is only special pictures that are included in my albums. They have to remind me of a moment, a night, an experience, something. I have to be able to legitimately describe the circumstances behind a photo in four-to-five sentences; otherwise, it’s in the discard pile.
Well, the other evening, I sat around, alone and forlorn (it was a Tuesday, after all). It was a total country-music day: mah girl left me, mah boss on mah case, mah dawg done died. I was at home, trying to find the right music to fit my mood, when I looked in the corner, and saw my stack of old photo albums. I started flipping through the first one, with the posed, “professionally”-taken shots of an ex-girlfriend and me. And the thought occurred to me… what if I counted every single photo of every single person in my albums – physical, digital, or those ubiquitous Facebook ones – and tallied them? Would I learn anything? Would I come to any kind of realisation about my life, how I got here, where I’m going… stuff like that?
And so I started making a list. Everyone who appears in my albums… they’re all there. This list is my life in outline form. It was an irresistible project.
Maniacally, I started putting it together over about half a bottle of Angostura 1824 rum and a Nirvana playlist. Did I learn anything? No. But I did get drunk, and it was endless fun. I highly suggest you try it.
I even set up some ground rules.
First and last names. A requirement. If I couldn’t remember both names of a person in a photo within a pre-determined 15-minute period, they weren’t included. I was not allowed to call a friend and ask. So my apologies in advance to Melanie Somethingorother, that one guy who lived down the hall in the Mona campus years, and that one chick, you know, the one with the big teeth, total horse face, dated Jeff, you remember her, right? Those guys are in the pictures, but not on the list.
Famous people. Totally included, as long as I was in the room with the celebrity when the pictures were taken or if I took the picture myself. It amuses me immensely that I have more pictures of David Beckham than the girl whom I took to my college graduation ball.
Maiden names: If I met the person before they were married, her maiden name is used, even if the majority of pictures are from after the name was changed. Essentially, I’m just using the name I know them as. (And for the record, ladies, keep your name. Guys suck. Your name is probably better anyway, unless it’s something ridiculous, like Pitzer or Fullalove.)
The fickle laws of chance and opportunity. This is hardly a ranking of how important people have been to me, in order. Circumstances dictate my photo output. In London, I took more photos than I did in New York. And remember, my first album didn’t begin until after college graduation. School and college friends get short-shrifted. On the other hand, if I went to your wedding, odds are good that your number is pumped up, even though I might not actually even like you all that much.
Prominence. You need not be the centre of a shot to have a photo counted. Even if you’re in the side of the frame, picking your nose, it’s a point for you. But we need to see your face; a foot that looks kind of like yours, except with less mould, doesn’t show up on the scorecard. Also, my list is not indicative of anything, and there won’t be descriptions of anyone on there. It’s just the names. Their relevance in my life is something I’ll keep to myself. To protect their privacy, you see.
Cleavage. Any shot with a woman showing cleavage was counted twice. OK, that’s not true… but how awesome is it that I have cleavage shots in my photo albums? I should make a special album just of those and keep it at my bedside.
This project works on two levels, if and when I finally complete it and publish the list on this blog. First, it allows me to see just how prominent some people have been in my album and let them know just how many photos of them are currently in my closet. Secondly, it will allow my friends to search their names on Google, realise I’ve included them, and then hunt me down and kill me.
Thank you for letting me do this.
Some of my teacher friends may disagree with me, but I’m a tad worried about some of the lessons being taught to young children these days.
That’s because in practising today’s cult of building “self-esteem,” almost everything that a child does is absolutely, fantastically, incredibly, unbelievably just soooo fucking wonderful. As in the mother at Gatwick airport a few weeks ago: “Oh, you’re doing that soooo well, Thomas. Fantastic!” (To a boy playing with a little car and making an awful sound that I think was supposed to be a police siren.) Or, to her young daughter throwing a ball up in the air and catching it: “Honey, you did that so well. I’m soooo proud of you!”
Shit, I thought. Wouldn’t a simple, “Good work, keep it up” be enough? I mean, what are these poor children going to do for an encore?
Really, I never knew the word “so” could have so many syllables or that when it comes to virtually every one of a child’s activities there are only varying degrees of “wonderful”. But it’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this. In run into it in shopping centres and supermarkets — all those places where young children often gather with their parents. It’s even happing in our schools too.
But there is something even worse than such excruciatingly effusive praise for every benign activity. There is, for example, the mother in a restaurant last week talking to a child who had finally stopped screaming demands and was now sitting still for a few minutes: “You’re doing very well now. Mummy is soooo proud of you.” Or, back at Gatwick, “Thomas, that was soooo nice to let Sarah play with your ball without getting upset. You’re just great!”
I am not a child psychology expert. Shit, I’m not even a parent. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that such worshipping at the shrine of self-esteem only builds a certain amount of self-centredness and a false sense of self — a real Tower of Babel — that can’t help but one day come crashing down around the child.
Case in point: a recent Reuters report noted that while today’s District of Columbia high school students rank at the bottom among students in the United States in mathematics skills, they are tops among the world’s students in how they feel about their mathematics skills. Well now, how the fuck is such a child going to feel when they can’t get a job after leaving school? I mean, it’s hard enough already even when you have a Masters degree!
It’s no surprise that some of today’s most popular child-rearing books instruct parents to criticise wrong behaviour but never the child who committed it. In other words, say to your child, “It’s not nice to say that to your sister.” But surely, separating actions from the child committing them teaches little ones that they are not responsible for their behaviour. And isn’t this the very thing, so widespread today, which cause great personal misery and societal dysfunction? Besides, how can a child not responsible for their actions then have an appropriate sense of satisfaction when behaving well? After all — when one extends the principle — if they shouldn’t be criticised when they behave badly, then neither should there be praise for a good performance! No wonder the children raised according to this cult of self-esteem seem so often to be the most tyrannical and unhappy of creatures.
Of course children can behave badly, or be unkind or selfish or rude, and it doesn’t help anyone, least of all the child, to pretend otherwise. Rather than teaching them to separate themselves from wrong behaviour, isn’t it better for a child to learn how to guard against such self-destructive tendencies? Only then can they move toward that which they can honestly feel good about.
Of course, praise for children is very important and should be given whenever appropriate. Children have great inherent worth because they are the future. And a sense of honest self-esteem and of being loved unconditionally is crucially important to a child. But we do them no favours when we portray for them an unrealistic picture that is often either too easy or too hard to live up to.
We all have our demons. Some of us have been so hurt by past relationships that we can’t open ourselves up to other people anymore. Some have been stricken by family tragedy and have trouble seeing a reason for anything. Some of us can’t handle heights, some of us are mortified by snakes, some of us are freaked out by clowns. Whichever. There’s always something.
My demon lay dormant for over two decades, but he returned last week, unrelenting as ever.
My parents, different, I suspect, than many today, never had a problem with their children watching too much television. We were always encouraged to go out and play, sports, hide-and-seek, hell, even doctor, anything to get us out of the house and away from the brain rot of popular entertainment. In the long run, this might have been beneficial for me, but at the time, it made me the lamest kid in the neighbourhood. Not only did I have no idea what was happening on any of the hot cartoons, but I was also so nerdy that (get this) I didn’t even have a Nintendo. That’s right; while the other kids were mastering Pac Man, Frogger, Excitebike and Metroid, I was plopped in the driveway with my siblings with a football, a book and an admonition to “stay outside and enjoy the fresh air.”
I’m not sure these restrictions had the desired effect. Rather than roll in the weeds and become one with nature, I instead found friends who had cooler parents, and I’d play their Nintendo. Poor bastards. I’d show up at their door, they’d sigh, let me in and hand me the controller. Occasionally, we’d find a two-player game like Contra or Tecmo Bowl, but usually, I had only one game in mind, a game that could only be played solo.
I had an obsession, recklessly unhealthy, with Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. It was all I wanted to play and all I wanted to think about. I’ll never forget the first time. I was visiting my cousin Sheldon, and he told me about this awesome new game. “At the end, you get to fight Mike Tyson. But I can’t get that far.” He handed me the controller and I battled Glass Joe, notoriously the worst video boxer since the advent of sound. In a three-round slobber-knocker, I defeated him with a TKO at 2:54, and I was hooked. I wanted Tyson, and I would do whatever it took to take him out. I am certain that there are friends’ parents, if I suddenly became a serial killer and they were interviewed as a “concerned neighbour,” would have little more to say than, “He was a quiet sort. All I remember is him playing Nintendo. That boxing game. Actually, it did seem like he was screaming a lot at the television. Had violent outbursts.”
Kids today must wonder about society’s fascination with Mike Tyson. He’s now (justifiably) considered bit of a caricature, and before that, a monster who bit people in the ring and threatened to eat other boxers’ children. He was feared in the same way we fear the wild-eyed, unshaven man screaming at nobody in the street. He was unpredictable, unhinged and pathetic, a circus sideshow, a car wreck we couldn’t take our eyes off. He was a disintegrated man.
But it’s important to remember, in the late ’80s, when Tyson was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, a 250-pound, tightly wound, ready-to-snap mound of endless muscle, no man was considered more indestructible than Kid Dynamite. Grown men who were paid millions of dollars to punch other men in the face, men nearly a foot taller and a decade older than Tyson, would cower at the mere mention of his name. Michael Spinks, considered one of the best boxers in the world at the time, faced Tyson in a match hyped as an impending classic. But when the bell rang, you could see Spinks’ legs quivering from outer space. Ninety seconds later, Spinks was flat on his back, spasming, humiliated, and Tyson was forever a chiseled god, the physical incarnation of the power of intimidation. He was 21 years old, and he was the baddest man who ever lived.
And he was mine. I worked myself up through the ranks, compiling the Minor, Major and World Titles with nary a second thought. My eyes never wavered. Tyson was toast. After easily dispatching the pectoral-gyrating Super Macho Man, I faced Tyson for the first time. Now, any of you familiar with the game (anyone?) will know that in the first 90 seconds of a match with Iron Mike, any punch he hits you with will knock you down. It took 30 seconds for me to be floored three times. But I practiced and practiced, even discovering the code you can plug in to skip all other fighter and battle Tyson directly. I eventually figured out how to avoid all those 90-second punches, and how to knock him down, and when to dodge, and when to sneak in a quick uppercut. But I couldn’t beat him. I would be far ahead on points, needing only to survive the third round. I would always choke. Somehow, someway, I would blow it, and he’d beat me, and he’d flex his deltoid and wink at me. I hated that fucker. Nothing I tried worked. All my friends, they could take him. Some could even knock him out. Not me. He haunted my dreams. I played so much I started to think my father looked a little like Piston Honda. But when it came to Tyson, I was always pushing that rock up the hill.
Then came February 10, 1990, in Tokyo, against Buster Douglas. My father and I were watching an English football game that night and would occasionally flip channels to make sure we didn’t miss the inevitable Tyson knockout. Every time we flipped back, however, we were amazed to find the fight was still going. In fact, Tyson appeared to be, what?, losing. No matter: He’ll find that one punch and he’ll drop this chump. And he did, almost. He flattened Douglas with a quick uppercut, but the big dude didn’t stay down. And then, in the 10th round, the unthinkable happened, and Tyson went down, and he didn’t get back up, and someone had solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, slaughtered Jabba the Hut’s underground pet, penetrated the impenetrable fortress.
That night, I stayed up late and fought Tyson. I beat him on points. But I played him again the next day, and he destroyed me as he always had before. As the mysteries of pubic hair began to reveal their true purpose, my enthusiasm for the game wavered, and eventually I gave away my Nintendo to a younger cousin and went to college, and grownup land, and all that fucked-up shit that never allows you to win on points. And I never beat Tyson again.
Then, the other night: a couple mates and I were helping a friend clear out his garage and lo and behold, there sitting on a shelf was that parental replacement, the Nintendo. And sitting next to it, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. I was helpless against its charms. Work had to stop. I grabbed the cartridge, blowing the dust off it started up against Glass Joe. It was amazing how quickly it all came back to me. I remembered how to beat each guy. I withstood Bald Bull’s charge, Glass Tiger’s weird magic circle thing, Mr. Sandman’s devastating super uppercut. I beat everyone, including Super Macho Man, setting up a rematch that was years in the making.
And I got scared. I told my friends the whole story, about how I always choked against Iron Mike, how much pain and misery and self-doubt this stupid game, and that stupid guy, had caused me. One of the guys, the one who owned the Nintendo, scoffed, saying that beating Tyson was second nature to him at this point. I begged him to take over for me. I can’t stand the disappointment. I can’t come this far, this many years removed, just to lose again. You can beat him. I want to see him beat. I can’t handle another loss.
Another mate spoke up: “For Christ’s sake, David… If you keep thinking you’re a loser, you’ll always be one. You’ve earned this match. You’re good at this. You can beat him. Don’t walk away now because you’re afraid to lose. You can’t live life trying not to lose. You have to play to win. Now go beat him.”
And I was fired up. My revenge against Tyson was delayed, it would not be denied. I grabbed the controller out of his hand, to the cheers of the crowd. I pressed start, and we were off. I avoided the first 90 seconds of punches and went on the attack. The first round ended with neither of us being knocked down. I had his power low, however, and I took him down early in the second. He got up and peppered me with some nasty jabs, and I was down. But Little Mac popped back up, and we were into the third round. Down he went again. I now had enough points (6,000, if memory serves me correctly) to win, if only I could survive. The room was silent. One minute to go. One poorly timed jab. Down I went. I did not get back up. With six seconds left, Iron Mike flexed his muscle and winked at me.
I looked at my friend who had delivered the rousing speech. I eyed him closely.
“I think I’ve proven my point.” I then flipped him the controller and went back to the garage, more certain than ever that playing not to lose in life is the safest, most self-preserving option I’ve come up with so far.
I used to have a poster that paraphrased a quote from the movie The Sixth Sense. It said: “I see stupid people. They’re everywhere. Walking around like regular people.”
It’s true. They really do seem to be everywhere these days — at work, on TV, in the cinema, in Parliament… They’re even at your local bookstore. And they are our newest cultural icons — idiots.
Everywhere you turn these days you find real live adults doing inexplicably stupid things. Take shows such as Fear Factor, for example — why on earth would people want to cover themselves in 200,000 bees, dive in a tank filled with 1,001 snakes, or jump off moving trucks? MTV enjoyed such success with its Jackass stunt fest that they followed up with three Jackass movies. Its tag line: “Same crew, same cast, same level of incompetence.”
Buffoonery has always been a staple of popular culture, but stupidity was usually an unintended consequence. We watched and asked, “Don’t these people know how stupid they are?” Today, idiocy is centre stage. It is the attraction, the point. We watch and say: “Look at these stupid people.”
Thus the popularity of Sky One’s An Idiot Abroad, or the runaway success of The Darwin Awards and The Darwin Awards II, which “commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.” These best-selling books — and the popular Web site that spawned them, www.darwinawards.com — offer a cavalcade of dearly departed nutjobs, such as the 18-year-old man vacationing in Hawaii. He ignored the signs warning “Hazardous Conditions — Do Not Go Beyond This Point” to get a better look at Halona Blowhole, “a rock formation that shoots seawater 20 feet into the air.” If you’re familiar with Wile E. Coyote, you know how this story ends.
A visit to the bookstore throws up titles like The 176 Stupidest Things Ever Done and Stupid Sex: The Most Idiotic and Embarrassing Intimate Encounters of All Time. And don’t forget Duh! The Stupid History of the Human Race or John O’Farrell’s An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain: or Sixty Years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes as Always. Even academic presses are also getting into the act: Yale University Press has published a series of essays edited by Robert J. Sternberg entitled Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, and the University of Illinois Press has weighed in with Stupidity, Avita Ronell’s cultural history.
So why the fascination with morons? I think the answers involve the convergence of intricate forces that have placed intelligence at the centre of our culture.
For most of our history, “can-do” and “common sense” were the chief virtues. People engaged in farming, manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs that relied on skills learned by watching their parents or on the job. Their abilities were identifiable, the quality of their work apparent. Silver-tongued personalities were admired but distrusted. Book learning was dismissed as impractical, and nerds were disparaged as denizens of the ivory tower.
We have done an about-face since the 1960s. Higher education has become the key to success in a global economy in which mastering a trade no longer guarantees steady employment. Workers must now be “retrained” so they can toil in service-oriented fields that require general smarts instead of specific skills. Intelligence has become the coin of the realm.
Problem is, as I wrote in a previous piece (Simple Smarts), intelligence — which involves not just intellect but emotion and personality — is hard to define and even harder to measure. The brilliant mathematician might not be able to write a coherent sentence; the soaring poet may be unemployable because he’s so, well, weird. It is easy to know if you can fix a car, plant a crop or sew a shirt; but what does smart really mean — especially when we all know how stupid we can be? And if we have reason to doubt our own brilliance, how can we trust the world to bank on it?
Anxiety and democracy go hand in hand — it’s tougher to know your place in a fluid, relatively classless society. But a democracy based on the subjective concept of intelligence is a recipe for extreme agitation.
So we seize on various mechanisms to give us some bearing. The cult of self-esteem, which holds that everyone is gifted and talented, that all opinions have equal weight, is a national religion. The worship of Mammon is an equally popular faith because pounds and pennies seem to provide an objective scorecard of success.
And the powerful trumpet the idea of “meritocracy” — the dubious notion that it offers a level playing field to all — because it justifies their exalted positions. They tell themselves, “I rose strictly through merit.”
In the new economy, merit is based on intelligence. When brain-power rules, those who disagree with us must be stupid. Thus, Michael Moore did not title his hugely popular diatribe against Republicans in America, “People With Whom I Have Honest Differences,” but Stupid White Men.
The age of the moron, then, is another coping mechanism for anxious souls in a culture of intelligence. In times when many people worry about their place in the new economy, Fear Factor, Jackass and The Darwin Awards allow us to tell the world who we are by who we are not.
We love idiots because they insulate us from our own fears. In short, stupid people make us feel smart.
In an idle moment I have sometimes played at imagining alternate identities for myself. Curiously, these musings almost never involve fantasies in the conventional sense, i.e., visions of scoring the winning goal for Manchester United in a Champions League Final, or becoming a real-life secret agent James Bond, or the man who breaks Jessica Alba’s heart.
Instead I wonder what it would have been like to be someone I actually could have become, with just a wrinkle or two in my genetic and environmental past. Along such lines, I have imagined myself a best-selling novelist, an actor or movie director, a perpetual graduate student or… one of those frustrated people who send angry e-mails to newspaper columnists, expressing their outrage that they don’t have a forum to broadcast their opinions, given that someone as inept as the columnist has been granted this privilege (um… hold on… I actually HAVE done that last one!)
Having been an avid Isaac Asimov reader in my younger years, a particularly plausible alternative destiny with which I have sometimes toyed is that of a fanatical science-fiction fan. I was reminded of this recently when, out of sheer curiosity, I dipped a trembling toe into the roiling waters of science-fiction geekdom by entering Forbidden Planet, a London store that sells sci-fi and fantasy memorabilia. There, I saw an astonishing assortment of merchandise that these films, books and programmes have produced. And if I were so inclined, I could have even got myself a costume to dress up as a Klingon or Imperial Storm Trooper.
It’s easy enough to mock the people who fanatically and religiously follow this stuff, and indeed many in the mass media surrender to the temptation to do so. Recently, there have been a few snide stories about obsessive ComicCon attendees or, a couple of years ago, about Avatar fans being depressed and having suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora. I also remember a few about the Star Wars fans who lined up days in advance to attend the last instalment in George Lucas’ frighteningly popular series.
But you don’t need the depressed Avatar fans or a doctorate in sociology to figure out that a large percentage of these people are eager to escape this world for a more satisfactory reality — one in which they would not suffer the indignities heaped on social misfits on our own often-cruel planet.
One of my own favourites, Star Trek, is set 300 years in the future, in a world where, at least among the inhabitants of Planet Earth, war, poverty, nationalism and ethnic and religious hatred have been eliminated. In other words it is a world that, for all its technological wonders, does not include recognisable human beings. As its legions of critics never tire of pointing out, the universe of the Star Wars films is even less plagued by anything resembling moral complexity. The good guys are really good, the bad guys are really bad, and the odds of good triumphing over evil are roughly equivalent to those of a Star Wars film turning a profit.
Nevertheless there is more to sci-fi and the like than escapism. Although I never became a science-fiction fanatic, I still remember a moment from the first time I saw the original Star Wars film. Early on, there is a panoramic shot of the landscape of an alien planet. It is sunset — and suddenly we see two suns lingering on the edge of the horizon. In the end, it is good sci-fi writers’ ability to touch the longing for the mythic, for whatever might lie beyond this world, that has Star Wars, Star Trek and Avatar fans and their brethren searching for more than just another means of amusing ourselves to death.
Ultimately, it is really a search for meaning; for something greater than ourselves. Some might even call it the search for a god.
This is one from the archives, written long before the advent of Journeys Into The Night. Enjoy!
Have you noticed that the word “like” is changing the very nature of the English language? This little word is being used so often to add an irrelevant pause in the middle of even the shortest sentence – as in, “She was, like, really nice” or “We had, like, rain all the time!” – that it has become part of some larger conversational drama.
The speaker may say, “She goes, ‘You can’t do that here,’ and I’m like (long, significant pause) ‘I don’t believe this!’”
Here, “like” signals high emotions, in this case astonishment, anger or outrage. The speaker is saying “I was shocked, I was in a total state,” and the listener is supposed to gasp.
However, the speaker isn’t really saying it, but acting it out.
Often, this kind of dramatic utterance is part of some larger story in which an important dialogue is reproduced. We have all heard it: “So she said, ‘You’re going?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I think so,’ and then she goes, ‘How come you didn’t say so?’ and I’m like (long pause, mock astonishment, mouth and eyes open in disbelief).”
We get the direct quote rather than the indirect comment on it. Dialogue is replayed rather than summarised. The story is not reported so much as it is rendered, with the storyteller sometimes mimicking the characters’ voices. Even speechlessness is mimed.
This kind of talk attempts to show rather than tell. Especially among the young, speech is turning toward performance. We’re asked not just to hear, but also to experience, the speaker’s astonishment. And if other people’s reactions are quoted, then we hear what they said and how they said it, in their own tone of voice.
In fact, the use of the word “goes” or “went” instead of “says” or “said” is also evidence of speech turning into drama. “Going” suggests activity, acting, both in the sense of doing something and of performing.
One theory I have about the origin of this sort of talk is that it started with a generation brought up on Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny – on cartoons, where everything was always spoken with great emphasis, and any conversation had to be acted out. The children liked the energy, picked it up, copied it – and a new style was born.
Cartoon talk needs the inflections, the gestures, the mimicking and clowning, to accompany it. You say, “You know, I mean, wow, I was like…”
You can only give those words meaning by creating a highly charged context. Eyes grow wide, mouths fall open, tongues hang out.
In such exchanges, body language replaces oral language. American movies and cartoons are spreading this new way of speaking all over the world. It’s the great American over-animation that never fails to impress (or distress) the rest of us.
What’s lost is a certain precision of language, a suppleness of vocabulary that comments on the action. What’s gained is that emotion that gets into the conversation as part of a performance.
For as much as everyone seems to complain about getting older, it’s amazing how often they seem so proud of themselves for it.
A friend called me the other day. He’s about my age, a little younger, successful, smart, hardly an ugly guy, but — and I speak as someone who’s been there — he’s absolutely helpless with women. In life, he’s a gifted schmoozer who knows all the right people and goes to all the right parties. But put him alone with a girl and he suddenly starts speaking in Klingon. He’s got this nasty habit of completely neutering himself within 30 seconds of meeting a woman he’s interested in. It’s an amusing, if sad, spectacle to observe. You can just watch women wipe him off their mental whiteboard before the ice in his drink has even started to melt.
That said, he’s a sweet guy, and if he ever figures out that, in the grownup world, women don’t think it’s cool that you own Depeche Mode CDs, he’ll make someone out there happy enough. Until then, though, it appears he’s going to get fucked over for a while.
There was this girl he was interested in, and mind you, I’m in no position to talk, but she is completely nuts. I won’t get into the sordid details, because it’s not my story, but let’s just say his courtship of her has been, um, rocky. In the span of one evening, she cancelled an evening with him — whom she considers, all together now, a friend — because (deep breath) she decided to have a brief flirtation with lesbianism at a famous London lady’s hotspot, then brought the girl with her to a party where she was supposed to meet him, made out with the girl in front of all his friends, told him she really wanted to be with him but needed to be with the girl tonight, left with the girl, called him from her mobile, said she was sorry, called him back 15 minutes later, said she put the girl in a cab and wanted to come by, met up with him, said he would do for the evening, then bolted early the next morning. (OK, maybe I did get into the sordid details.)
He hung in through all this chaos, presumably because sex is difficult to come by when you own Depeche Mode CDs, and, inexplicably, later asked her Where They Stood. (The boy will never learn.) Her response was classic: “Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I’m almost 35 years old. If only you were a few years older…” This is akin to Danny DeVito leaving Rhea Perlman because she’s too short.
We hate the aging process. Our waistlines are already beginning to expand, our breasts are starting to sag, our hairlines are making rapidly for the backs of our necks. Our lives aren’t so carefree anymore, and trying to pick up partners at a bar segues from cool to pathetic and sad. We panic when we see old friends getting married when we can’t even score a second date. Our careers are not where they thought they’d be, and we carefully store our dreams in the back of our underwear drawer while we worry about paying rent, checking every couple of months or so to make sure the rats haven’t ran off with them. We’re depressed that even though we’re growing more ancient each second, we don’t appear to be becoming much smarter. We can all agree that it sucks.
But we have a recourse. We have a way that makes it a little bit better, easier to deal with. There comes a point when we take advantage of getting older, which, after all, is one of the few things we improve at every day.
We look down on everyone else. Anyone fortunate enough to have been born after us is suddenly less world-wise, less intelligent, less… experienced.
We do it on every level. If you’ve just graduated from uni, undergrads don’t know shit. If you’re a few years removed, those recent grads, jeez, they have no idea how The Real World works. As we creep closer to 30 than 20, we mock those who are younger. Shit, you kids can’t even rent a car yet. You have no idea how the world works. A friend in his 20s was whining to another about how difficult his life was going recently. She told him to buck up. “I went through the same thing when I was your age.” She is exactly 21 months, 10 days older than he is. Whatever happened to her in that period must have been significant.
(Funny story. I was flipping through Reader’s Digest the other day — um, I, er, couldn’t find my copy of New Scientist, you see — and I came across one of those pithy little “This Life” sections. It told the story of a 24-year-old woman justifying her age to her grandfather. “I mean, I’m closer to 20 than I am to 30. I still have six years until I turn 30.” The grandfather presumably flashed the smug grin of the about-to-die and asked her, “And how many years is it, again, until you turn 20?” That’s right, people; this blog has resorted to quoting Reader’s Digest.)
Even though we miss all the fun stuff those younger than us are doing, we pretend we don’t. We devalue the whole experience. Don’t you get it, kids? We’ve been there. We were doing all that before it was cool to do it. Shit, we remember when Maggie Thatcher was prime minister and MTV actually played videos. We’ve seen things you’ll never comprehend.
These kids today, they don’t know how good they got it. If we were their age, we’d appreciate it. We wouldn’t piss away our time like they do. Somehow, to make ourselves feel better, we’ve become the geezers on the porch, threatening to grab our shotgun if those hooligans don’t get off our property.
It’s bollocks, of course. As my Uncle Richard put it in a recent e-mail to me, “you think your sister is a kid, your mom thinks you’re a kid, we think she’s a kid, your grandmother thinks your mom’s a kid, and on, and on, and on.” The fact is, we are just as stupid right now as we were when we were younger; we’ve just been stupid more often now. Maturity is maturity, and just because you had your graduation ball in the 80s doesn’t suddenly mean you have any better idea how life is lived than you ever did. But we say it anyway. ’Cos, shit, what else can we do?
Some time ago, I accompanied a friend to see a band fronted by the younger brother of one of her old college mates. The venue was a bar — easily recognisable as a students’ bar by its total lack of personality. Same game machines, dartboards, dirty bathrooms and free-spirited clientele. We did a few meet-and-greets, then headed to the bar. We scoffed, marvelled at the unsophisticated taste buds of the proletariat and ordered a double whiskey on the rocks and a Kopparberg.
The band came on. They were one of those knockoff types, with keyboards and extended “jams” and occasional covers. Not bad, nothing special. But the crowd… it was a hot crowd. While we sat in the corner, nursing our drinks and checking our watches, lest we stay out too late and sleep through Later with Jools Holland, the kids were rolling. It was joyous. Before we knew it, hordes of kids, so happy to be anywhere but home this summer, were doing incredible dances of rapture. They hopped and cavorted and smiled and beamed and were happy happy happy, finding something wonderful that the music couldn’t provide on its own, no way; they saw some kind of wonderful, something reckless, careless, without worry, just prancing around, bopping to the rhythm, not a moment of apprehension even daring to peek its head over the horizon. They damned near floated above the floor. Their heads lolled everywhere, eyes focusing on nothing and everything, dancing, dancing, dancing, dance dance dance motherfucker dance. You watched them let themselves go, forget who they were, and just be. It was something glorious to behold. We saw a couple kiss in the corner, then look at each other, smile, then hit the floor again.
We watched this while nursing our drinks. We took it all in. We enjoyed it. Then, 30 minutes passed, without a single change in the vibe the jig the dope the scene the feel, man, and we, capturing the pure joy of the moment, decided we were tired and needed to go home. We cast one last look at the kids, who wouldn’t have noticed us if we’d been dressed like Screaming Lord Sutch, and said our goodbyes.
On the journey home, I spoke: “Those kids… cute, eh?”
“Yes they are.”
“They have no idea how life’s going to kick them in the arse, do they?”
I’m right. I know I’m right. But I don’t have to like it. Because whatever it is I might have lost… I want it back.
Lately, it seems to have become almost reflexive for our society to frame any sensitive topic — from the London riots to international terrorism to the economy — by asking “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
To judge from early Mesopotamian wisdom literature, this conundrum is as old as civilisation. It hinges on a pair of interesting premises: “Bad things” occur and “good people” never cause them. “Badness”, it appears, resides somewhere on the fringes, outside of ourselves and beyond our control — more often than not, in somebody else.
The challenge lies in separating the bad from the good. For instance, can a “bad thing” produce a “good” result? What if my dream is your nightmare? And why does someone “evil” so rarely resemble the face that we see in the mirror?
Once, on the Tube, I overheard a mother caution her daughter to be careful near “all the bad people”. The little girl scrutinised the face of each passenger preparing to exit the train. Then, puzzled, she tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “Mum,” she said timidly. “How can you tell which are the bad ones?”
These were the thoughts that came to mind the other day when some friends in Surrey discovered, much to their chagrin, that someone had nicked their recycling bin. The bin, after all, had been marked all over with their address in permanent ink against such an event.
And now, in a gesture of sublime audacity, the anonymous neighbour who took the container had actually returned it near to the front of my friends’ house, full of newspapers, in time for the weekly pickup! Apparently, the vandal not only recycles — he or she is a reading, even thinking, individual!
What is one to make of a literate bandit who cares about the environment? Good apple or rotten to the core? Who can hope to understand another’s motivations?
The odds that we could guess why it happened are slim. Honest mistake? Lapse in judgement? Opening salvo in a secret campaign to eradicate the concept of private property? Somebody needing a visit to Specsavers?
In the ancient wisdom monologue Ludlul bēl nēmeqi, (“I will praise the Lord of Wisdom”), a pious man concludes that we could never disentangle the good from the bad, enjoying the former and avoiding the latter, because the will of the gods is too obscure to understand. That may be true on a cosmic scale. Seemingly inexplicable events will continue to beset us. But what remains within our hands is our reaction. We are free to respond with love or hate, anger or kindness… with creativity.
During his years of incarceration, Nelson Mandela fashioned a garden out of 16 oil drums sliced in half and filled with rich, moist dirt. His jail-yard farm of almost 900 plants included spinach and strawberries, lettuce and cauliflower, onions and broccoli, aubergine and more. Some of the bounty he gave to the kitchen to serve his fellow inmates. Much of the harvest he gave to his jailors. His heart remained unshackled in spite of his captivity. In the words of Langton Hughes, he was free within himself.
In time a puzzle hints at its own solution. The saga of my friends’ bin is evolving. After running through the usual gamut of emotions — from grumbling about un-neighbourliness to wondering how to catch the interloper red-handed — another idea emerged. What about… phoning the council to request another container? And having it ready — adorned with a bow — to present to the “stealth recycler”?
The phone call took less than 10 minutes — a fraction of the energy that would have been expended had my friends’ irritation gone unchecked. Now, the scenario had shifted from seeking confrontation to offering a gift in the hope of resolving a mutual problem. While the outcome is uncertain, the chances it will end on a friendly note have improved as a sense of equilibrium has been restored. Eventually, they might even laugh about it together.
Maybe life is just one big salvage operation. Recycling love — now there’s the ultimate haul!