Tuesday, December 30, 2008


The last Great Debate of 2008 was about whether the best version of Hallelujah was by Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley or Alexandra Burke.

Personally I favour Handel’s. We sat slumped through a fine London Symphony Orchestra rendition of The Messiah on BBC 4 after Wallace and Gromit on Christmas Day evening (from the sublimely ridiculous to the ridiculously sublime, you might say if you were the kind of person who liked to say that kind of thing.)

The Messiah is perhaps the best argument for religion ever made. ‘Argument’ isn’t the word, of course. The correct response to a combative reading by Richard Dawkins from the Book of The God Delusion, if you were ever on the receiving end of such, would be simply to play the author a recording of I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. After he’d finished weeping at its terrible, transcendent beauty, Dawkins would of course go on to explain about manufactured but nonetheless valuable feelings of immanence and the biological evolution of the brain in all its wonder. The correct response to that would be to put your fingers in your ears and go ‘Lalalala I can’t hear you’. Then tell him to go and spoil some magic tricks or dance about architecture or something.

We need whatever spiritual nourishment the likes of Handel can give us during the Christmas holidays because they are over so quickly and then we have to go back to work. Work is a difficult thing in the aspirational society of today. It pains me to read such fine, fascinating minds as this and this facing the prospect of professional pen-pushing and form-filling with such dread and existential despair, for I know just what they mean. As do we all, no doubt.

Elberry, channelling Wittgenstein, says that true contentment lies in having the luxury or luck to work for a living at the thing that you are good at (eg. Wittgenstein was good at philosophy, which was his career). The problem with this view is that it gives you an excuse to be bloody miserable at work, because while most of us would like to be great philosophers, painters or poets, and indeed may secretly fancy ourselves as such, very few can be. Perhaps the wisest approach to Elberry’s Law then, would be to strive to become good at the thing you happen to do for a living anyway.

Besides, ‘being good at’ something is a dodgy concept. The importance of muddle and chance in any successful life or enterprise cannot be underestimated. Another programme I caught on Christmas Day was Blackadder Rides Again, celebrating the history of that remarkable comedy, which started feebly but then took a quantum leap forward in quality with each of the subsequent three series, ending finally with perhaps the most moving and perfect moment in any comedy yet broadcast, as the characters are mown down in slow-mo on the Somme and their fallen bodies morph into a field of poppies, with twittering birdsong in place of the theme tune. This sequence of rare genius was, it turns out, contrived only by an extraordinary, Casablanca-like set of flukes, accidents and cock-ups. So much for genius.

Always a bit sad, these retrospective shows. The actors look fat or old or both now, and even though they’re mostly all very successful, it’s a reminder of how quickly things pass in this brief crack of light between eternities of darkness. Carpe diem or if you can’t carpe it, at least enjoy the diem you're lumbered with, that’s the moral of the story. Stephen Stills put it best I suppose.

The other moral to be taken from Blackadder Goes Forth is how fortunate we are to be here now, credit crunch be damned. We are, from a historical or global perspective, absurdly and obscenely lucky if we are able to work for a decent wage in a comfy warm office with free tea on tap, snugly cocooned by health and safety laws, offered the opportunity to climb the ladder but knowing that the safety net of welfare is strung beneath, and free to go home at five to beaver away on our blogs. The problem is that instead of comparing ourselves to 99.99% of humanity in all of its sorry, bewildering and meaningless history, we prefer to measure our contentment against the imaginary lives of a handful of heroes whom we envy and worship and, not being like them, we count ourselves cursed.

Pen-pushing and form-filling might suck somewhat, but they ain’t the trenches of the Somme. It’s amazing how difficult it is to gain comfort and consolation from this fact, though it is patently true.

Well, we must all pull together and we’ll make it through 2009 and then on, on into another decade. There’s a door to heaven, if we can just reach the Handel. Here endeth the lesson. Happy New Year. Hallelujah, Amen.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Tales of Eccentricity and Aberration: Christmas

Seeing as it’s Christmas I suppose the nicest poem I’ve written ought to be plugged. I’m still quite happy with it, especially the first and last couple of lines, which are after all always the most important.

Moving on, a colleague (the same colleague who provided the Halloween tale as re-recounted during my stint on Bryan’s blog) furnishes me with another excellent seasonal story, this time concerning her mother and Christmas.

It seems that the admirable woman took a very strict egalitarian line on matters of wealth distribution in general, and on the matter of Christmas presents for her three children in particular. First, she would set a budget – eg. £30 per child. She would then would buy appropriate presents, wrap them and put them under the tree. So far, so ordinary. But where this household deviated from the norm was in that each child would also receive, along with his or her gifts, a cheque for the precise outstanding balance of their Christmas allowance. So if their mother spent £24.50 on presents, they would receive a cheque for £5.50. There was no lower limit to the amount of this payment; my colleague says that it was quite normal to receive a cheque for, say, 43 pence.

Remarkably, or possibly not, the old lady continues the fair but unromantic habit to this day, both with her grandchildren and their parents.

On the theme of eccentric parents, I am suddenly and unaccountably reminded of an old university chum, who described how his father would precede the consumption of his Sunday lunch by taking a moist piece of crackling between index finger and thumb, throwing back his head, opening his mouth wide and sliding the fatty titbit up and down his gullet. “Just greasin’ ma throat”, he would announce by way of justification for this ceremony.

At Christmas I usually like to read a bit of Dickens to get me in the festive mood. Dickens is criticised for many things, such as sentimentality (rightly) and excessive prolixity (also rightly but more forgivably). But the argument that he exaggerates the eccentricity of his characters, creating grotesque caricatures rather than real humans, is, I think, misplaced. People really are that odd, especially when you get to know them.

Anyway, Merry Christmas and God bless us, every one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On being seven minutes late for work

I am more or less always seven minutes late for work. It’s quite uncanny. The strange thing is that it doesn’t much matter what time I leave the house, get out of bed or how I vary my morning routine; I will always be seven minutes late for work.

In term-time I try to leave in plenty of time because there are two schools obstacling my commute. If I leave early enough to avoid the Mum’s Rush at the first school, I hit the worst of the traffic at the second. This makes me seven minutes late for work. On the other hand, if I’m late enough to get caught by the first school, I make up time because the rush at the second has died down – allowing me to be only seven minutes late for work.

Sometimes, if I feel I really ought not to be seven minutes late for work, I attempt to trim some seconds off my morning preparations by shaving the night before (not recommended: nightshaving is a terrible habit and against nature). Or I might get my gym kit ready in the evening or some such. But when I do this I find myself slowed down in other ways – I take an extra snooze (the standard is three), dither over what to have for breakfast, or get bogged down in what the daft journalist is saying about Wayne Rooney on Sky Sports News. It’s as if my subconscious is aware of the extra time I’ve allowed, is having none of it and is adamant that I be exactly seven minutes late for work.

The worst one is a paralysis over what CD to play in the car – similar to Great Wakering but even more mood-dependant. (There’s always a default selection of CDs shoved into the doors and glove compartment – Blood on the Tracks, In Rainbows and Darkness on the Edge of Town are ever-presents, Kings of Leon are current favourites – but now and again I get an urge to listen to something I’ve neglected for a while. Last week it was Bowie’s Low and Weller’s Wildwood. The former is a curiously frustrating album, it seems to me now – the vocal songs on the A-side are too short and the electronic instrumentals on the B-side are too long. Sound & Vision is genius – you want it to go on for an hour but it’s cut off before its prime. Wildwood amazed me this time around – such a strong, confident record, perhaps Weller’s best sustained work in any of his incarnations. But I digress.) This CD dithering alone can consume my seven minutes.

I have three theories about the seven minute rule. One is based on Einstein’s insight that space and time are not separate things but are in fact a single entity, spacetime. This means that whenever I try to go quicker in order to save time, my speedy motion through space actually uses up my allotted time allowance, and given the Einsteinian deterministic notion that my path through spacetime (I picture a gloopy translucent tube like that thing in Donnie Darko) is already set at exactly seven minutes lateness per day, I can do nothing about it.

My second theory is based on the post-Einstein idea that the universe consists of a sort of weave made up of tiny quantum ‘grains’ of spacetime, and every day I somehow manage to fritter away seven minutes’ worth of these grains on the commute – either through the inefficiency of my car or via that hole in my jacket I’ve never got round to asking my wife to fix.

The third theory is that I’m a lazy sod who can’t get out of his nice warm bed, especially since we invested in the memory-foam mattress. In fact as the alarm went off this morning a little verse popped into my head:

You tore me rudely from my tomb
As the midwife tore me from the womb,
You gave me life, and a million cares,
But it was still and dark
and safe in there.

The libretto for the musical version of The Tragedy of Lazarus is writing itself.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On dictionaries and stupidity

Via Random Distractions and Muddy Island I find this Telegraph story:

Oxford University Press has removed words like "aisle", "bishop", "chapel", "empire" and "monarch" from its Junior Dictionary and replaced them with words like "blog", "broadband" and "celebrity".

The publisher claims the changes have been made to reflect the fact that Britain is a modern, multicultural, multifaith society.

The general blogger reaction to this odd news is one of sadness and dismay. My initial reaction was to wonder why children need their own special junior dictionaries anyway. Isn't this just perpetuating stupidity?

And actually, what are dictionaries for? We mostly use dictionaries when we're not sure what a word means or how you spell it. Therefore wouldn't it make more sense to include words that children use infrequently - on the grounds that when they do come across 'aisle' they'll need to look it up - rather than things like 'blog', which they'll all know anyway?

But dictionaries also include words like “and” or “big” – which surely nobody ever looks up, since if you didn’t understand the word in the first place you’d never understand the definition. So are dictionaries supposed to provide a snapshot of the language as it is used and record the zeitgeist, in which case these amendments are justifiable?

This story is I suppose saddening not because the dictionary has changed but because the world has. I wouldn't worry too much about the effect the dictionary will have on kids' ignorance: they'll all use Wikipedia and Google anyway and as far as that goes they have access to more knowledge than any generation in history.

Which is a dangerous thing, of course. We don’t want our children growing up too clever. As I said on Thought Experiments, clever people gave us esperanto, Marxism, concrete tower blocks, the atom bomb, the terrible causes of global warming, the terrible solutions to global warming and The Future.

I vote stupid, I vote junior dictionaries.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Tragedy of Lazarus

Often when reading or considering Bible stories I find myself wishing they were true. I use the word ‘wishing’ advisedly. Not believing they are true, nor even ‘hoping’ – it’s sadder than that. We have gained so much, but we have lost so much, haven’t we, eh? We could blame all sorts of people, from Galileo to the Boomers, but it’s not really anybody’s fault.

The story of the resurrection of Lazarus appears in John but in none of the other Gospels, which perhaps bodes ill for its veracity but adds to its intrigue. As does the frustratingly fleeting nature of Lazarus’s appearance in the text. We are told that:

1) Lazarus was terminally ill
2) His sisters Mary and Martha sent for Jesus in a bid to save him, but Jesus left it too late and Lazarus was cold in his tomb before he got there.
3) Jesus wept. But then said not to worry, that he was the resurrection, and that if they rolled back the stone Lazarus would walk out in his grave-cloths.
4) Which he duly did.

After that we learn only two more things about Lazarus. The first is that he went to a banquet hosted by Simon the Leper (unenviable moniker, that).

The second is that because his resurrection persuaded so many Jews to believe in Jesus, the Chief Priests ‘decided’ to put Lazarus to death (again). Now that really does have the ring of truth, since no Law is greater than Sod’s. However, the Gospel does not indicate whether the Priests carried out the execution, nor anything else about what Lazarus did with his unexpected second stab at life. Nor indeed, what he thought about being a pioneering transhuman.

It strikes me that this leaves a significant gap in the market for a ‘what Lazarus did next’ story. I envisage a play in three Acts. A tragedy of course, ideally written by Shakespeare but I hear he’s dead, so as the next best option I’ll have to give it a go myself.

Act I will recount the last days of Lazarus’s first life. In the early scenes he will fight a losing battle against an increasingly debilitating pox or plague (exact nature of illness still to be decided), but then he will begin the process of preparing himself for death, saying his final goodbyes, reconciling himself to the inevitable and finding consolation in the prospect of eternal rest. He will pass peacefully away, and the first Act will close with Jesus arriving breathless and late, weeping and praying outside his tomb.

So far, so familiar, but in Act II we will wander into more uncharted territory. In Scene 1 Lazarus emerges, blinking and baffled, from the tomb. Is he in the Afterlife? Was it all a dream? A long, slightly irritating and laborious scene will see his sisters and all the rejoicing onlookers trying to persuade the confused Lazarus that he has indeed been resurrected. Eventually he will grasp the truth, and will fall at the feet of the benevolently smiling Jesus.

However, doubts will begin to creep in during Act II Scene 2: the banquet of Simon the Leper. During a series of speeches by guests in praise of Jesus’s miracle, Lazarus will begin to feel like a sideshow attraction: the charmer’s snake, or the conjuror’s rabbit pulled from the hat. He will feel used by Jesus. At first he will quash these feelings, and berate himself as a damned ingrate. But later, in quieter moments, perhaps alone with Martha in the garden, he will voice further doubts. Having already prepared himself for death, how to cope with this new life? The goodbyes he said were final and heartfelt – now he must say hello again. And can he really carry on in the same way, or is he obliged to use this supernatural second chance to perform superhuman deeds? The weight of the resurrection suddenly seems a heavy burden to bear. The Act ends in alarums, as a messenger enters to warn that the Chief Priests have sent guards to capture Lazarus and put him to death. He and Martha flee the stage. Exeunt.

The real dramatic meat will be served up in Act III, as Lazarus hides out from the Priests’ thugs in a remote vineyard. In a sequence of searing soliloquies he will endure a universe of agonies. He will curse Jesus for cheating him out of his proper death and plunging him back into the world of terror and violence, where his second life must, by the very rarity of its existence, be more precious but more precarious than the first. Guilt will drive him to the verge of insanity as friends and family, convinced of the necessity of keeping Lazarus alive, sacrifice themselves to protect him from the soldiers. Martha is captured and cruelly tortured for information of Lazarus’s whereabouts. Lazarus threatens suicide but aborts at the last second and in a terrible twist on Jesus’s own sufferings, cries “Why hast thou forsaken me?” to the Heavens.

Tragedy and redemption will come in the final scene. Lazarus, reconciled at last to a second death, sees that he must give up his life again to save Martha and his allies, so he surrenders himself to the Priests. As he is crucified he soliloquises on the seemingly pointless circularity of his fate. Had Jesus not resurrected him, Lazarus would be dead but his loved ones would have been unharmed. Those supporters of Jesus converted by his miracle are scattered or persecuted. The mystery cannot be resolved, it must only be accepted. As the lights dim on his lifeless form, a spotlight on the painted backdrop picks out the silhouette of three more crosses on a distant hillside. The curtain falls.

Come to think of it, The Tragedy of Lazarus might also work well as a West End musical. There are some absolute show-stoppers in there, potentially. Perhaps it could be pitched as a collaboration between Tim Rice and Nick Cave.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Practical jokes

Simiain’s queasy fantasies about making pillows stuffed with his own hair got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be a wheeze to put the pillows in the guest bedroom, and then, after your visitors have spent the night sleeping on them, casually mention their true hairy nature over breakfast?

This is similar to a jape conceived by my father and me as we hiked across Dartmoor a long, long while ago. Spotting some mushrooms growing disgustingly in what certain waggish schoolteachers used to call ‘bovine residue’, we thought we’d take a photo of the cowpat fungi and keep it in a drawer. Then, when we had people round for dinner, we’d serve up fried mushrooms. At the end of the meal we’d ask, all nonchalant-like, “Did you eat your mushrooms?”
“Oh yes thank you,” they’d say.
“And did you like your mushrooms?” we’d ask.
“Very tasty, thank you, yes.”
At this we’d whip out the photo of the shiteshrooms and cry: “Well just look where we got them!”

A splendid practical joke, I’m sure you’d agree. We never did it, of course, but the idea made us laugh immoderately as we slogged over the cold, boggy moors.

Not that practical jokes are really my thing. Self-appointed ‘pranksters’ in sports teams or workplaces are on the whole intolerable. I’m not big on schadenfreude and tend to empathise with, rather than laugh at, humiliation. The idea of the mushroom joke was funny not so much because it would appal the victim, but rather because the idea of going to such elaborate effort for so trivial a pay-off was funny.

Pain isn’t really funny. The world is not, I believe, going to hell in a handcart, but it would certainly look that way if you watched too much Dirty Sanchez – a wilfully cheap and nasty TV show in which a bunch of Welsh idiots cause each other intense pain and then laugh hysterically. It makes Jackass – its direct ancestor – look classy by comparison. The idiots call themselves ‘stuntmen’. Well sorry but my idea of a stuntman is someone who flies a motorcycle through a fiery hoop, or jumps off a building dressed as Indiana Jones, not someone who simply stands there and gets kicked in the testicles. Anyone could do that. Dirty Sanchez is practical joking at its most base and animal level. Actually it is humanity at its most base and animal level. And the worst thing about it is the way they all howl with glee at each burn, wallop or crush suffered by a co-idiot. It is dead-eyed, witless desperate laughter, the cruel cackling of jackals. Presumably they leave so much of this laughter in the final edit of the show because it is meant to be infectious. Well, as with other supposedly infectious things such as the film Mamma Mia or the audience applause in Question Time, I’m immune. On the other hand, that these idiots (a) exist and (b) have managed to wangle themselves a television show, is itself pretty funny. It’s just the practical jokes that aren’t.

Possibly my distaste for these most primitive forms of humour goes back to an incident at school (amazing how these things stay with you, isn’t it?). One of my least gifted but most frightening contemporaries – a huge, prodigiously muscle-bound psychopath who I will call, for the sake of argument, Lloyd – hit upon the idea (brilliant in its simplicity, I now admit) of locking one of a pair of swinging doors in a busy corridor. This door was never locked, so a continuous stream of hapless marks walked confidently and swiftly at it, only to bump back with a yelp or gormless look of astonishment. At each bump the loitering Lloyd uttered a loud, dumb bark of laughter.

Hanging around in my little gang at the other end of the corridor, I wearied of the performance of this prank at around about the 800 mark, and at the 801st I unwisely bellowed out my own loud, dumb bark of laughter in unison with Lloyd but with the obvious intention of ‘taking the piss’. I don’t need to describe how the whole corridor fell into a stunned silence – you’ve seen the type of situation in countless movies, when somebody insults the uninsultable. As Lloyd, who never had any trouble summoning an instant rage, advanced down the corridor demanding to know who effing done that, my only hope was to hide in the anonymity of the crowd. This hope was swiftly dashed as a ghastly little pipsqueak who inexplicably hung around at the edge of our gang and who I will call, because it is his name, David Perry, squealed on me. Before I could make a getaway, I was literally picked up by the throat and pinned against the lockers as Lloyd let loose from point blank range whatever incivilities and threats he could dredge up from his limited vocabulary.

Of course, as soon as this ordeal was over and Lloyd had stalked off (at least I put an end to the door prank), I did exactly the same thing to David Perry, except that my vocabulary was considerably wider and fruitier. Presumably Perry then went off to take it out on someone even more pipsqueaky than himself. And that, I'm afraid, is how male society functions.

I could here go on to describe a far more elaborate and disturbing prank that was played on me, but that’s quite enough trauma for one post.

Monday, December 01, 2008

A haircut

Haircut on Saturday, what a chore. Better than the dentist or the MOT obviously, but much worse than say, sorting the recycling. I got an attack of the nausea this time too, which I will explain in a very long-winded way.

I take a roundhead rather than a cavalier approach to the hair issue. Safe, functional, low-maintenance, short as you can get it without being too thuggish (not that looking thuggish bothers me in the least, but it does my wife). Short enough to put off the necessity of the next visit to the barbers for as long as possible. I wouldn’t want to glorify the particular arrangement of my barnet with the word ‘hairstyle’: for well over a decade now I’ve simply been going in and demanding a “number four at the back and sides and quite short on top”. Indeed, I wouldn’t have a clue how to ask for anything else. Unlike cartoon Brit my mop grows fast and wavy, which is a pest. Coming from a long male line of premature baldies I ought not to complain about this ‘affliction’, but that’s not human nature, is it?

The three Worst Things about getting your hair cut are: the waiting; the fifteen minutes of self-consciousness; and the chit-chat (here we recall the old joke about the barber asking Socrates “How would you like your hair cut, sir?” To which Socrates replies: “In silence.”) Over the years I have managed to reduce these horrors to manageable levels, but on Saturday they became serious again.

The waiting never used to be a problem because my office overlooked Tony’s Barbershop (barbers are usually called Tony) and I could time my sortie to coincide with afternoon lulls in the queue. But since we relocated a few years ago I have to take my chances on a Saturday with everyone else and hope I don’t need to spend too long sitting in the window, flicking through the tabloid sports pages or those depressing collages of juvenilia that pass for ‘men’s magazines.’

I still go to Tony’s though – wouldn’t dare risk a new barbershop, not after ten years of loyalty. Good grief, I must have spent hundreds in there – it’s almost a tenner a pop these days. When I was a kid it was only £1.50 (£2 for adults). But then that was in a small Devonshire village, and the barber (also called Tony) was a proper old-fashioned type, with a filthy, cigarette-choked shop and a dusty display of ‘somethings for the weekend’ on a high shelf. Devon Tony had a strict rule: no matter what the state of your hair, if you paid your two quid you got your full fifteen minutes-worth of barbering. The majority of his customers in that pensioner paradise were virtually bald, but Tony would work away manfully at the two or three persistent white wisps and give their owner the complete chit-chat experience (this was 80% “how’s the car going?” and 20% “been anywhere nice for your holidays?”). Admirable, infuriatingly admirable. Thankfully, being a minor, I was spared any obligation to converse and could maintain a sullen, Socratic silence.

Between Devon Tony and my current Tony’s were the studenty wilderness years, during which the hair was allowed to grow wild and free in a sort of lamely rebellious shot at a Jim Morrisson or Che Guevara, but which was actually more of a Sideshow Bob. When the girlfriend and job came that all went of course, so it was down to a Tony for the first of many number-4-quite-short-on-tops. In that respect, Tony’s represents The Man.

Or possibly, The Woman. Barbershops are thoroughly masculine havens, either in a snooty Reform Club way, or in a much grubbier football dressing-room way – probably because barbers have an over-compensatory Hemingway/Hughes Syndrome. But now it seems that Tony’s has taken on two female barbers (barbarellas?), and this, I can tell you, changes the whole dynamic of the place.

Prior to this oestrogenic invasion, the traditional Tony’s line-up – the Dream Team, if you like – consisted of a couple of vaguely Italian-looking brothers (laddish lotharios who passed the time by passing lecherous comments at passing ladies); a scrawny, bespectacled gambling addict, forever popping into the bookies next door to blow his haircutting tips on horseracing tips; and an older, balder Sweeney Todd-type with an exceptionally broad Bristolian brogue. Each had his own set chair in front of the room-wide mirror.

(In a flash, I see a speeded-up film of my Tony’s life: my figure flicks randomly between the four barbers, each one reducing my unruly mop to precisely the same number-four neatness with deft and rapid use of scissors and shaver before flashing up the mini-mirror to 'show the back' (here my head nods approval once, twice), twirling me round in the seat, thrusting a paper towel forcefully into my hand, taking my tenner, and then I'm back, hairy and wild again in another chair and the routine whirls round again.)

Over the years I have learned everything worth knowing about this Barbershop Quartet (except for a few minor details such as their names). The chit-chat problem is therefore not a problem – whichever one of the four I happen to land, the conversational routine is established and familiar. With Brother 1 the topic is boxing/ultimate cage fighting/violence in general; and with Brother 2 it is the missuses and how irrational and incomprehensible they are, God bless 'em. Football is a safe bet with the Scrawny Gambler, while Sweeney Todd is more than happy to ramble on indefinitely about his family misadventures in Cornish caravan parks.

Easy peasy. Imagine my distress on Saturday, then, to find two females occupying the proper places of the Gambler and Brother 1. Naturally when my turn came it was one of the gals, and my heart sank. I had no fears about their haircutting ability of course, if anything they would surely be overqualified for the mundane demands of men's hair (and let's face it, a trained monkey could do an acceptable number-four-short-on-top). Nor was this a case of simple chauvinism – I am quite at home chattering away with women in normal situations. But the haircut is not a normal situation, it is one of unusual vulnerability and self-awareness. Already denied the queue-dodging advantage that used to eliminate the problem of waiting, the other two Worst Things about getting your hair cut - chit-chat and self-consciousness - were suddenly back with a vengeance.

So as I sat being femininely snipped at, searching vainly for morsels of conversation, I found my thoughts turning to the process of haircutting itself, and I was overcome by a particularly nasty attack of the nausea. As the chopped hair fell from my head to the floor, there to be swept up by the work experience oik, I had a sudden vision of my discarded fur being clumped and mingled with the hair from every other customer, stuffed into bags, and these bags being piled up onto bags from other barbershops and then emptied into a huge, grotesque European Hair Mountain. Perhaps supplemented by rattling mounds of dental extractions and the rotting residue of the nation’s liposuctioners and by all the other vomitous flotsam of Mankind’s base and bodily wastefulness, which flows mercifully just below the range of our normal comprehension.

I staggered queasily from the shop scratching my new-cropped crown and wrestling with the inescapable fact that old hair, along with everything else in life, must go somewhere. It is too much. The mind boggles; the stomach churns.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Crimes against nature

Apropos of poets laureate, I was the other day listening to a recording of Ted Hughes reading February 17, which describes in horror-porn detail the botched stillbirth of a lamb.

I pulled against the corpse that would not come
Till it came
And after it, the long, sudden, yolk-yellow parcel of life in a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups
And the body lay born, beside the hacked-off head.

An impossibly tough (in all senses of the word) act for Andrew Motion to follow, Hughes. I admire him, though you couldn’t describe his poetry as enjoyable. A brilliant wordsmith but with more than a hint of what you might call The Hemingway Syndrome, ie. an over-eagerness to proclaim his rugged masculinity, presumably as compensation for his unmanly vocation.

But I do like Hughes’s brutal, unromantic take on nature. I have mentioned before the idea for a TV programme cooked up by me and my old man called Isn't Nature Disgusting?, in which the anti-Attenborough host would encounter various of God’s excreting, stinking, parasitic, disease-bearing creatures, and would greet each one not with wonder but with undisguised repulsion. Come to think of it, that nature-nausea is what Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist is about.

You could argue though, that Hughes’s mangled lamb kebab is not about ‘nature’ at all. Farmed sheep are no more natural than hedge sculptures, if you define ‘natural’ as being ‘all that in the world which is not man or created by man.’ Of course, this definition may not leave us with very much that is natural, at least on Planet Earth. ‘Rural’ would be a better word for the Hughes world, and rural is terrible enough for city-slickers.

One of the countless ways you can divide up religions and worldviews is between those that Buddhistically see man as fundamentally part of nature; and those that draw a critical line between man (above nature, and with a soul) and animals (all soulless, even dolphins). Interestingly, whichever line you take, the ever-increasing scientific revelations about the natural world present problems. For unless you’re someone who happens to find excreting-stinking-parasitic-disease-bearingness wondrous in itself, it is a lot easier to feel one with nature from a distance.

Which brings us inevitably to the ichneumon wasp, that astonishing creature which goes around laying parasitic eggs and robbing people of their Faith. The ichneumon, as all good Darwinists know, kills its caterpillar prey in such a uniquely repulsive and indifferent way that Charles himself finally gave up on God, saying “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”.

The ichneumadon wasp sure is a cold, nihilistic bastard, but he’s undoubtedly Natural. Darwin couldn’t reconcile that with a Nature-creating God, even if man is separate from nature. And who wouldn’t want to be separate from nature, if nature is that meaninglessly cruel wasp? Screw Buddhism, we’re better than that. But of course Darwinist science itself has humbled man by putting him firmly back into nature, which means we’re fundamentally made of the same stuff as the ichneumadon. But we must be different, mustn’t we? And if we are different, then what are we? And if we’re not, whence comes our disgust?

Alas, all we can do is weep at the wasp, as the Sea of Faith drifts out of touch,
Well yes, says the caterpillar,
but that doesn’t help
me much.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Philosophical pondlife

No sooner have I left the big house than it is invaded by crazed philosophers. I know a thing or two about crazed philosophers. There were plenty in the University of Bristol Philosophy Department (mid 1990s).

The majority of the undergraduates were as all majorities are: passable, unobtrusively eccentric, sitting shtum in seminars, hanging on for the holidays. But in that little intellectual pond swam three Big Fish, warily circling one another while pretending not to compete.

Each was very different in character. The showiest of the Big Fish - the puffer fish, if you like - was a huge, garrulous, likeable Jewish lad who I will call, for the sake of argument, Max. Max dominated every seminar, frequently overshadowing the actual professors (a mostly shy bunch, wholly unsuited to public performance) by filling the air with long, formless streams of verbiage, punctuated not with any clear full stops or commas, but with his catchphrase "so to speak" (pronounced sotespeek). Max was a constructor, an architect of grand, elusive theories that encompassed all areas of political, religious and metaphysical endeavour; dazzling intellectual mirages that vanished as soon as you tried to grasp them.

Max was the housewives' favourite, but the smart money was on the second Big Fish. Raj was the antithesis of Max; a diminutive Asian boy-man with a permanent grin. Raj spoke only when necessary, and when he did he was deadly. A no-nonsense and viciously sharp mathematician, Raj was born with Occam’s Razor buried in his frontal lobe. He was the pike of the pond.

The third Fish was me (well why else would I be telling this trueish story?). Lacking both Max’s improvisational genius and the concise brilliance of Raj, I was able to compete by being a generalist (degrees are very general), but more importantly because very early on I was fortunate enough to glimpse how philosophy, as it is taught in universities, works.

Though this is never explicitly stated, Western Philosophy is taught as a history of ever more ingenious failure. After the initial nods to Plato and Aristotle (easy, those), we jump hugely forward to the meaty epistemological stuff which begins with Descartes. From here on, all you need to know is that everyone showed that the last guy was wrong.

Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, every new theory is pregnant with its own refutation and the next thinker in the chain acts as midwife, until finally you end up with Wittgenstein and philosophy turns into hopeless poetry. The key is simply to apply this insight to every area of philosophy as it branches off – political philosophy, philosophy of mind or language or science or physics – mankind’s greatest minds only find ever more complex and narrowing ways of being wrong.

Do not become attached to any theory, each is but the warm thick slobber of frogspawn that grows like clotted water in the philosophical pond, waiting to be eaten or transformed.

Poor Max, he never saw this. Wasting his time on constructing what he thought were Theories of Everything, he mistook philosophical history for progress, when all philosophy is heading towards is an infinitely detailed Theory of Nothing. Which will be wrong. For the degree, the only things you need to construct are original versions of old refutations. You can't out-construct Spinoza, you can only demolish him. Raj and I saw that the Profs were looking for destruction; so Raj used a razor and I a clumsy sledgehammer, and we two alone ended up with Firsts. I had to share the prize with Raj, damn him, but at least Max only got a 2:1.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Enderby writes

Over on Thought Experiments I was challenged by a passer-by to write some verse about the broke bankers. I intended to do something in the sort of ‘torrent of doggerel’ style of The Art Snobs or Gymnasium, but instead this gewgaw emerged. Never mind. Since I appear to have been blocked for about a year, I’ll take what’s given to me.

Song of the Hedge Fund Manager

I reject the imputation
That we built a babeltower of credit
on no foundation
of reality. Well, I mean,
How green. What is real anyway? Time isn't.
Nor is information, nor photographs.
Money never has been.

Every clock and wristwatch hazards at
its own approximation of the time:
None are right, none can be. There's only the gaps
And the hedging, inbetween.

Some disapprobation for over-selling
I accept. But get real:
This was coming since the first Lydian
Stamped his face on foil.
Even Croesus was crunched in the end. Money wasn't.
Those towers built of glass and steel,
Herons and Gherkins, those are real,
And will remain so, and will fill again,
While between them the clocktowers, obsolete in brown,
Dwarfish, and embarrassing as old uncles,
Count themselves down.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Slight return

It's been so long since I posted I've almost forgotten how.

Anyway, I'm making a slight return to blogging, in case anybody still cares.

Bryan Appleyard has very kindly asked me to babysit Thought Experiments for him, so I'll be there for a few weeks.