Myxamatoid cummulo nimbus: a spiral of labyrinthian distractions.

23 03 2010

Literature students lounge in the grass, counting the clouds, staring hard enough to spot faces. Winston Churchill, or Homer Simpson. (The particularly erudite will be able to pick out the Homer Simpson from Nathanael West’s ‘The Day of the Locust’ rather than the more familiar yellowman). Or we could go the other way, the Hemingway: perpetual travel for perpetual strife.

What you’re more likely to see in the clouds are replicas people clutching their Blackberrys like Bibles, or feeding their caffeine addictions. The long, dark winter is starting to lift. Daisies have been spotted in Scotland. Some literature students might even get around to reading a book one day, if they recognise what one looks like. Maybe they’ll seen one in the shape of a cloud.

(NB: This is the first post in a while, for which – the obligatory apologies).



30 10 2009

With this blog becoming more monthly than daily, I am forced to draw the conclusion that there may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of on the internet. We all knew this anyway, so the fact’s unlikely to move any mountains. Or we ought to this already.

My new neighborhood doesn’t have any children, which means there will be no trick-or-treating. This is Halloween as I remember it. I never went trick-or-treating. In fact, I don’t remember dressing up particularly. It’s a measure of how quickly the world is turning into America that this is now taken as the norm. Moreover, it is assumed that this has always been the case, even when we know how recent the phenomenon is. Halloween may have a carnivalesque function, but this hardly distinguishes it from any other weekend in the calendar. We laugh in order to forget.

Much like the Americanisation of the world itself, the specifics of Halloween are unlikely to change anytime soon. The best that might be hoped for is that other cultures take it over and make it their own. Either way, it makes little sense to avoid the ‘celebrations’ – though exact matter of what they’re celebrating is open for debate.

The healthier way around things would be to follow the Mexican example. But the Day of the Dead is a separate festival, distinct from Halloween – and even in Mexico I’m sure it’s taken as another excuse to get hammered.

Not literally.

What’s more remarkable is the extent to which Halloween has resisted the marketing that has so completely captured Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day and the like. The only big business is fancy dress; there are no cards, no essential foodstuffs, not even a Halloween record. Is this because Halloween has remained specifically a pagan festival rather than a Christian one? Or are the people at the Blank Corporation just fat, indolent, morally reprehensible buffoons?

Who am I to say?

Go out, dress as a Vampire, piss in a graveyard.

Spare a thought, though, for the medical staff who’ll be treating the annual wealth of Halloween-related injuries: eggs in the eye, sugar overloads, men with pumpkins stuck on their heads.

Larry is Happy: He is a Dolphin

29 09 2009

In St Andrews there is a particular seafood restaurant I have been assured is expensive. Bizarrely, it is located more or less next to the town’s aquarium, begging the question of where they source their products. Anyone who has read Julio Cortazar’s short story ‘Axolotl’ will already be wary of ordering the octopus. But I do wonder how many visitors have combined their visits to these places on the same day, and seen, perhaps, the very species they ate for lunch, swimming around, happy as Larry. (As an aside, no-one ever tells you why Larry is so happy. It seems unlikely it would be due to his name).

The reverse experience is true, of course. Consciously or subconsciously, a meeting with a remarkable fish might influence your choice of meal. I am fairly sure, however, that this experience is unique to the aquarium. For one thing, there are few commonly-eaten animals that inspire people to go and look at them through sheets of reinforced perspex. Why this should be is strange. After all, the majority of people live in cities or towns. As such, a calf or lamb may be as alien a creature as a tuna or a crab. Indeed, for those who live in apartment buildings, fish may be the only creature they have the space to keep as a pet – albeit, not usually edible species.

If more people chose to undertake such visits, the likelyhood is that there would be more vegetarians. Perhaps this is why there is comparatively little opportunity to linger amongst the lambs, pigs and cows that graze in the fields we pass on our way to out-of-town supermarkets. The powers that be have no interest in changing this state of affairs. Less meat, less cash. And, ultimately, fewer jobs.

Yet it is striking that so many people remain ignorant of the methods that go into meat production. In previous generations, slaughter day would be a time of celebration, where the entire community would gather, celebrate, give thanks, and tell tales. Today, people are horrified at the thought that the chop they so fancifully fry was once a living creature, with a heart and lungs, and a brain. They do not like to be reminded of this, and so shut it out, treating the meat as just another consumer product, like wallpaper. The result of this has been that the animals from which the meat comes have come to be treated as less than living beings. There has been no shortage of television programmes in recent years showing, graphically, how this is so.

Most vegetarians I have known choose simply to opt out of the equation. In a sense, this is simply the logical extension of the horror described above. As long as they are not personally contributing to the slaughter, that is good enough for them. Never mind that it is still going on. There are exceptions to this generalisation, naturally, as there are exeptions to all generalisations. But there is also the other extreme – those who see the animals we slaughter as more important than other human beings. Or most human beings. Another exception.

For some reason, however, this squeamishness does not apply to marine creatures. There are many vegetarians who would happily eat fish and seafood, until the cows came home (or not, as the case may be). I would argue that a salmon probably has at least as much intelligence as a chicken, but who has argued that salmon be slaughtered with dignity? The reasons for this are likely to lie in the fact that undersea dwelling, evolutionarily speaking, seems to inspire forms of the living that already look dead, and which move at the mercy of the water currents, as fallen leaves do. We will happily make exceptions for dolphins and whales. In the case of the former, I suspect it is because they look happy enough to be called Larry. In the case of the latter, it may have as much to do with the infamously flabby and unpalatable meat, and the obvious impracticalities of large-scale farming.

Perhaps squeamishness goes hand-in-hand with evolutionary similarity. Cats, dogs and horses are our equals. So are dolphins. Cows and pigs get the most respect, followed by poultry and game, then fish, with seafood and crustaceans so beneath respect that we will happily boil them alive. Perhaps it is a case of all mammals together.

The simple truth, whether you are vegetarian or not, is that most of us are eating too much meat. We could survive just as well on the grain that we feed to cattle, if we chose to. Over-production of cattle has already contributed to the build-up of greenhouse gases (I’ll let you guess how). Nobody knew this when our ancestors started farming cattle in the modern style. But it should have been obvious that the food we gave them were easily consumable by ourselves. We have chosen to eat meat, and as Western comforts have developed, it has made us fat. Now it may even have destroyed us by destroying our planet.

It should be clear that we should be considering serious changes to our lifestyle if we want the species to continue. This is necessary. But there’s still something I’m pondering:

Had evolution taken a different course, would the dolphins have done any differently?

Chow Mein and Chips, Babe, Chow Mein and Chips

24 09 2009

As a permanently-inhibited somebody, I am always slightly fearful of the prospect of meeting strangers – particularly when they come, to hi-jerk Shakespeare, not single spies but in battalions. The origins of this are, I suspect, rooted in the fact that I was born an only child. I have not had to compete, to work, for parental favour. Therefore, although my conscious mind knows this to be a ridiculous fallacy, murkier parts of me see no reason why the rest of the world should not lavish its attention on me, unbidden, as well.

Because it deviates from the norm, it is arguable that this is a form of mental illness. But then, in Britain it is ‘the norm’  (or to be more precise, the average) to have 2.4 children – a biological impossibility. And what passes for the norm in Britain would be considered strange elsewhere. I do wonder, for example, how China’s one child policy has affected the psychological development of the generations to grow up with no siblings, no uncles, no aunts. In my more masochistically egocentric moments, I picture a country the size of a continent, populated by clones of myself. It is at these moments that I run for cover, in the company of shiny happy people.

But then China has more serious problems than the possibility that its people are growing up painfully shy. One can almost imagine that this was in fact the plan of the Chinese Communist authorities all along: breed a race of the socially inept and no-one will ever have the guts to stand up to you. At least not in any great number. It is easier to flee.

One result of the Chinese government’s callous disregard for human life has been a slight, but noticeable, erosion in the cultural differences between Scotland and its spouse-beating partner. Having been brought up in South-East England, and now resident in South-East Scotland, it came as something of a surprise to discover Chinese restaurants were as populous here as ‘down there’ (not to be confused with ‘down under’, where the frequency of Chinese eating establishments is something I am unable to comment on).

The waves of migrants to the UK remain a poorly-understood sector of society. In many cases, we are talking about people who do not want to be here, who are not needed by the indigenous community, and whose presence is used as a scapegoat for just about every social problem imaginable. It is always convenient, when looking for someone to blame, to pick on those who can’t argue back. And in marginalising these groups, pushing them to the economic limits, it is always possible you will create the very subversive elements whose presence has previously caused you to froth at the mouth.

The unique business area for an immigrant to the west – particularly those immigrants from what is smugly and self-congratulatorily referred to as the third world, allowing us to believe that it is lesser beings who are starving to death – is, ironically, food. Across the UK, there are restaurants and take-aways serving Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Taiwanese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Nigerian, Senegalese, Somalian, Eritrean, Egyptian, Lebanese, Moroccan, South African, Samoan, Argentinian, Brazilian, Chilean, and many others. The idiosyncracies of each will probably be lost on those consuming in a foreign language.

But then of course, many of these places are primarily there to service the requirements of migrant communities, rather than spice up the lives of the locals. Nevertheless, you can rely upon most towns in the British isles having an Indian, a Chinese and an Italian. Restaurants, that is. To quote Ricky Gervais, one false move now and I’m Jim Davison.
So where an outsider may once have been bamboozled by neeps and tatties, he is reassured by chow mein, by lamb bhuna. If anything, there are probably more such places in Scotland than in England, giving you the sense, however illusory, that Scotland is England writ large. England exaggerated.

Scotland has a staggeringly high incidence of heart disease, heroin dependency and teenage pregnancy. Little of which is evident in St Andrews, home to golf fanatics and university students, and the hangers-on of both parties. Like every student town there is an abundance of cheap food, yet of a higher quality than is usually found. There is little evidence of pregnancy, teenage or otherwise. It is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. Unless the muggers have gone canny.

This is Scotland, nor am I out of it.

Aye, I’ve Lost the Concept (and the rest)

22 09 2009

I’ll be straight with you. I have lost my copy of ‘Bandwagonesque’ by Teenage Fanclub. Having recently moved to Scotland, this could be a dangerous admission to make. After all, that album is Scotland’s riposte to ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Loveless’. Although the rivalry is a little strange – none of these albums is similar, musically. As far as I can tell. But then, I am a stranger in these parts.

But not a stranger in the way you might think. For in this particular town – St Andrews – it is North American, not Caledonian accents that you are more likely to overhear. A short walk will reveal the extent to which the locals have embraced the perma-tourists. Tours of this, authentic that. St Andrews is not the only place in the world to capitalise on its history, but it feels one of the most peculiar. You have the feeling, walking around, that the entire show is a re-enactment of an already-vanished culture. Where is the Scotland of today, or at least of the modern day? The one evoked in the melodic pop of Banwagaonesque and it’s soundalikes.

Perhaps we must face up to the fact that this, too, is an illusion, constructed by more Caledonian-centric wings of the music press. There is an irrepressible urge to catalogue things – people, cultural products, evens – as part of some wider movement, which might be OK judging them from a distance of a century or more, but quite unneccessary and self-delusional when done ‘in the moment’.

As an aside, this is arguably the root cause of everything that is wrong with religion. But I digress . . .

Today’s growth religion is that of the self, in which our ancestors acquire some sort of primordial grandeur. They are the Titans, and the relics of their age are those of another world. In our haste to explore this world, we will happily pay as much as is asked to preserve these sites in their advanced states of decay. And who is more willing to pay for this than North Americans – whose culture is so recent that nothing Europeans built there has had time to decay. Certainly not so spectacularly.

Something like this operates in music too. There is a particular kudos to using antiquated recording equipment, antiquated instruments, with all their imprecisions and crackles. Having exhausted the myths of the ancients, we are now creating our own.

Everyone is likely to have their own ideas on what constitutes good music, what it is for. But it does sometimes seem as though modern musicians have spent too long reading The History of Rock rather than just getting on with things, like the people they idolise. But then, what do I know? Teenage Fanclub were notable for the clarity of their recordings, and who’s talked about them recently?

Scottish Culture, in reality, has always been a varied and imprecise concept. That is the nature of cultures. And an objective study is impossible, since the observer would themselves need to be removed from all cultural awareness and societal mores. So perhaps it is not so bad that the contemporary form seems lacking here; after all, if it were here, how would we recognise it? No Platonic idea of it exists – in the way that it can for solid objects, chairs, desks, potatoes.

Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten to live our own lives.

Oh yes . . . Mr Bones & The Dreamers are very good. Check the old iTunes!

Sporadic Bouts of Murderous Thoughts

19 09 2009

Greetings, fellow travellers.

A lot has taken place since last we met. If any of you are still bothered about these missives from the wi-fi wilderness. Well, Starbucks.

I have spent several months in Central America, working as a journalist for a weekly English-language periodical. Never before have I lived through a military coup, but all I can say is  . . . the violent transfer of power is a lot more prosaic than the glory days of military insanity. Striking though, was the international media coverage, which would have had you believe that a civil war had broken out. The worst culprits were those bastions of American conservatism, CNN and Fox News, for whom that whole Central American area is something of an embarrassment. After all, it’s the American corporations that hold the real power down there. “Fighting over who governs the nation?” you can hear them cry, mumbling into their stetsuns. “What imbeciles.” I am paraphrasing, of course.

The people of Central America are certainly unfortunate, caught between the oil-smeared fingers of the USA and the tub-thumping beligerency of Empire Chavez. Whose fingers are equally inky. The net impact of this is that most visitors are not really aware of the region having any culture of its own. So many of those I met actually seemed confused why I would be visiting . . . having mistaken me for an American, they thought I was fleeing a promised land. When I told people I was British, they actually seemed disappointed. What were they imagining? That a passing American would smuggle them home in return for a free bottle of Barena lager? (Barena is shite, by the way).

Now I am far removed from that, and, indeed, from the city that was the major fixture of this weblog – back in them, like, days. For that matter, I am far removed from pretty much everything I have ever known, the Family having moved out of Sussex, as is their want. Usually, new things are to be seized upon, a cause for celebration. Now I’m not so sure. Even the sheep seem eager to head city-wards. But then, they all follow each other like a herd of . . . oh.

I suppose their is an innate capacity, in me at least, to find the familiar drab. I suppose I shall soon be moving on. Trouble is, if one devotes oneself to travelling (for it’s own sake), it rather prohibits the everyday comforts without which we are all rather lost. For better or worse. I like having a lot of books, but is clearly impractical to carry them all around with me. I like having a bed, too. A proper bed, with a mattress and everything.

On the other hand, ‘travellin’ light’ may have it’s advantages. I have noticed the peculiar state of mind that being in unfamiliar surroundings engenders. It is near-impossible to be unhappy in this mindset. And I should know – I can be unhappy pretty much anywhere. Is this because of being stripped of all but the necessities? I recall seeing a scene in Chekhov’s Three Sisters in which one of the minor characters bursts on stage, overjoyed because all his worldly possessions have perished in a fire. Or is it due to focussing your energies on orientation, path-finding and the like? Hm. It’s something to chew over, I suppose, in the comfort of a central-heated home, in a break between television and radio shows, hot meals, showers, bedtime and trips into town.

Next time: why Mr Bones & The Dreamers are the best new band around, and my thoughts on the art of ladder-building. Oh yes.

No alt.end

14 01 2009

I’ve spent the last couple of days away from work with a throat infection. Mild, mind. But it has left my voice edging towards the Barry White end of the spectrum. It’s not often you can have a telephone conversation and not recognise either of the voices taking part. I suppose the least you can say is that I’m still alive, which is more than can be said for Mr. White. (Insert minute’s silence here).

In any case, I’ve got my appetite back, which is encouraging. And for additional ego points, I managed to do so without any medicines, ointments or panaceas whatsoever. The nearest I’ve come to a remedy is rest, regular meals and a healthy dose of good music. (Credit where it’s due to the Motown record label, celebrating it’s fiftieth birthday this month). I can’t help but wonder what mileage there is in a quantified system for matching music to disease. It all depends, I suppose, on what extent mental attitude affects the body. Let me say now that I am woefully ill-equipped to comment on the science of such matters. That said, I will be continuing to rabbit on with my own ideas, as if they were fact.

The two days spent at home, although containing a lot of coughing and nausea, have been the most relaxing I’ve had for a long time. I feel a small amount of guilt about this. I also feel guilty for the growing certainty in me that we human beings were not meant to live the way that we do. I don’t have a solution to this, nor can I reconcile my feelings of guilt to those of responsibility. I wish I could rid myself of my ties of a system I disdain.

Part of my guilt has nothing to do with this. It has more to do with the fact that I have done nothing exceptionally productive. I have: written part of a short story, gone out to post a cheque to the water company, watched Hell in the Pacific (trivia – a film that features only two actors, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune), slept, played a couple of games of chess against the computer. But all that is by the by.

Short of going away to live in a cave there appears to be no ultimate way out. Apart from death, of course, but I no longer hate myself enough to consider that as a genuine possibility. Not quite, anyway. I can narrow down four key pleasures that relieve the burden. These are: food, love (in all its forms), drugs (in all their forms), Culture. Nothing new in any of that. Incidentally, I exclude religion because it doesn’t fit with my own blinkered view of the world. And, naturally, because anything good that has ever come out of religion has been a result of at least one of the above. I leave which one to your imaginations.