Thursday, 28 May 2015

it's not too late

I open up the emails and the first one,
from a mobile phone company,
says it's not too late
to get to glastonbury.

and I look at decades of photos on the wall,
and at the mess of the thing I've been trying to do all these weeks.

and I think of when I started feeling older than everyone around,
more than 15 years ago now,
and I think
you people don't know me.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

DESTRUCTION OF A PROPERTY

ABOUT 18 MONTHS AGO I WAS DOING MY SECOND STINT WORKING AMONG THE WANKERS AND WALLS OF HOXTON/SHOREDITCH. DON'T LIKE THE PEOPLE MUCH. BUT YOU CAN TAKE NICE SELFCONSCIOUSLYMEANINGLESS PICTURES. USED TO GO FOR LONG, DARKMOODED LUNCHTIME STROLLS OR MOOCH AROUND A BIT ON/NEAR RAVEY STREET. IT WAS CHANGING THEN. CHANGECHANGECHANGE. HAS CHANGED MORE NOW. CUZ LONDON NEEDS MORE BOUTIQUEYCLIQUEY HOTELS, SHOPUNITS WITH CUNTYFADFOOD OUTLETS TOPPED BY STRATOSPHERICALLY PRICEY FLATS IN NEIGHBOURHOODS WHERE YOU NEVERTHELESS HAVE TO STEP IN VOMIT AND BROKEN GLASS ON THE WAY "HOME". LAST TIME I LOOKED IT LOOKED LIKE THIS:



Wednesday, 20 May 2015

BACK TO FICTION

Have you ever heard anyone airily dismiss the reading of fiction as "unproductive" or a "waste of time"? Like you're meant to be reading supposedly self-improving business books or whatnot, all with a view to learning how to kiss arse more effectively or rip people off more efficiently and thereby do your duty as a social climbing, aspirational and hardworking unit of production and consumption. 

I've never actually bought that line. I was always an avid reader of fiction, even before learning that there exists a rather utilitarian explanation of the value of spending time on people who never existed and things that never happened (sometimes in places that never existed). Schema theory contends that we build mental structures of preconceived ideas, each such framework representing an aspect of the world we live in. These schemata influence how we absorb new information and ideas, allowing people not to waste the brain's processing power puzzling over phenomena which conform to their pre-existing calculations about how stuff works. Most of us in developed countries have each been to lots of different restaurants on many, many occasions. So you have built a restaurant schema built from your observations about things like how a dining area is laid out, how table service works, appropriate ways of interacting with the waiting staff and when you're expected to pay for your meal. Every now and then you find yourself in a restaurant which offers challenges to that restaurant schema. Perhaps you're in Portugal, tucking into small savoury items and bread rolls brought to your table before you've even read a menu. At the end of the meal you're surprised to learn that you have been charged for them. Or perhaps you go to a sushi bar with dishes on a conveyor belt for the first time. Either way, your brain will work hardest to make sense of anything which is new. Anything familiar (e.g. credit cards are accepted and this is made clear by a prominent sticker you see upon entering) requires much less processing power. Each new eaterie you visit offers opportunities for you to refresh your restaurant schema. That said, schemata are highly resistant to change and will only be significantly revised in the face of a critical mass of information which challenges their key assumptions.

An example of a strong challenge to my own restaurant schema concerns dining in Poland. When I first visited that country in 1993, most traditional restaurants offering table service and a relatively formal atmosphere featured something I had never observed at home in the UK - an old lady sitting at the entrance to the WC and expecting to receive a small cash tip for, as far as I could see, doing absolutely nothing. So I quickly adjusted my restaurant schema to account for this. It therefore quickly became an automatic habit to ensure I had a small denomination banknote (there were no coins in circulation in Poland at that precise time) on my person each time I went for a meal. Over time, however, the practice of having the WC staffed in this way fell out of fashion and my (Polish) restaurant schema needed to be revised again.

Where does fiction fit into this? Well, I contend that each time we walk in the shoes of some narrator in some book, we get to challenge our schemata. You certainly can't literally become another person and you probably won't visit most of the places or experience many of the events you read about in novels - definitely not in the case of stories set before you were born or in the imagined future. Literature, then, allows you to try out new ideas and new ways of using language to describe concepts and phenomena. It enables you to stretch and refresh the assumptions built up through your own limited observations and experiences. It does all this, moreover, very efficiently.

I reflected on this when I recently realised that my life's practical preoccupations had prevented me from reading any fiction since DECEMBER LAST YEAR. Such a long break from enjoying novels or short stories is without precedent in my adult life. I won't allow it to happen again. So I put aside what turned out to be a very boring and somewhat depressing examination of how UK governments waste money and picked up a slim volume of Vonnegut short stories. It's put a spring into my step at a time when that's no bad thing.



Monday, 11 May 2015

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP

LONG OVERDUE UPDATE (LAST ONE WAS IN 2012) ON TWITTER ACCOUNTS THAT BLOCK this is my england.
  • Louise Mensch
  • Nadine Dorries
  • Guido Fawkes
  • Grace Dent
  • George Galloway
  • Nick Griffin
  • Douglas Carswell
  • Toby Young
  • James Delingpole
  • Melanie Phillips
  • Jay Bothroyd
  • Richard Keys
  • Joshua Bonehill-Paine (several incarnations thereof)
NOTE: HAVE NEVER TWEETED ABUSIVE/FOUL LANGUAGE, INSULTS ETC. TO ANY OF THESE.

Monday, 27 April 2015

ARE YOU A COCKROACH?

Up in Manchester, a very frail woman is approaching her one hundredth birthday. When I first met her more than ten years ago she was still a very alert and lucid conversationalist, albeit one who spoke slowly and quietly. Now, though, it's not clear that she always knows where she is and with whom she is speaking. Inevitable, of course. But still sad.

For my nine-year old son, the fading away of this elderly lady  - his great grandmother - means that he'll never have the chance to learn from a living relative who can remember his maternal family's most turbulent times.

She came to the the north of England from Berlin via Amsterdam in the late 1930s, her parents, aunts and uncles having had the foresight to cash in their assets and scatter their offspring around the world before it became impossible for German Jews to escape the impending slaughter.

I had this in mind when my son and I recently visited London's Imperial War Museum. He's an inquisitive kid, very keen not to be fobbed off with watered down explanations of complicated truths. He also knows something of his family history. So although the museum's Holocaust Exhibition is officially not recommended for children under the age of fourteen, he and I decided together that he should see it. Speaking with him as we travelled to the museum, I really laboured the point about how distressing this particular exhibition might be for him. But he wanted to see it. So he did.

The whole thing, of course, is horrifying. But what interested me most about my son's reactions was that he visibly felt anger as well as sadness and revulsion. One of the things that angered him most was to learn that his great grandma and her fellow German Jews had been referred to as a "disease" or a "contagion", first by the operatives of the state propaganda machine in their native country and, as the effects of that propaganda took hold, by a bigger and bigger percentage of ordinary German citizens.

At the age of nine, my son understood that it's possible for powerful, well-resourced organisations to dehumanise and demonise an entire group of people. He understood that constant and noisy repetition of these ideas can legitimise them in the minds of millions of people. He understood where this can lead.

Language creates reality. It's so much easier to ignore or even encourage the murder of human beings if they're thought of not as parents or neighbours but as vermin, bacteria or a virus. Dirty, dangerous and less than human. How horrible it was then, as recently as 1994, when Rwandan radio stations incited Hutu people to violence using these words: "You have to kill the Tutsis. They are cockroaches". Maybe you remember that. Maybe you remember feeling glad that you lived somewhere more civilised.

As I walked away from the museum discussing what we'd just seen with my son, I didn't know that one week later, here in 21st Century Britain, the country's best-selling newspaper would carry an article in which migrants from Africa and the Middle East would be described as "cockroaches" and likened to the norovirus. 

To the best of my knowledge, neither the proprietor nor the editor of that newspaper have expressed any regret at the columnist's choice of words. So I conclude that they see nothing disturbing in it. Maybe you see nothing disturbing in it. But I really hope you do. 

Thursday, 26 March 2015

those dogs

those dogs. you know those fucking dogs. bull terriers? staffordshire bull terriers? pitbulls? pitbull terriers? all those bloody things. low to the ground. thick with muscle. vise-like jaws. straining at the leash. gasping with impatience. muzzle the thing, dammit. don't let it run free. there are children around. those things. those things. the eyes look blankly malignant. sudden, inexplicable rage and spite. why does anyone want one? why?

why? well, look at this guy here. life hasn't been good to him. he isn't in charge of anybody. someone pushes him around every day wherever he works. the walls are closing in. not much cash. not much idea. he's disappointed. everyone's a prick, he's thinking. I'll fucking show them, he thinks. I'll buy one of those fucking dogs. I'll take it out. anyone looks nervously at the fucking thing and I'll stare the cunt out, he thinks.


SAYS: DON'T WORRY MATE. HE'S FRIENDLY. HE'S ONLY BEING FRIENDLY.


MEANS: YOU FUCKING WEAK LITTLE PRICK. SCARED, ARE YOU? BET YOU FUCKING ARE.

let's turn left here. let's keep out of the way of him and his fucking dog. he's looking for trouble. let someone else give it to him.


WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU, MATE? DON'T LIKE DOGS? FUUUUCK OFFFFF.