Thursday, June 30, 2005

Comfort Unnoticed

Who wrote: "Comfort, unnoticed at the feast, enters smiling at the funeral" ?

Hermann Hesse, maybe? Please tell me, if you know.

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Desert Bone Dry

"Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow" - Chateaubriand. I printed these words on A4 paper and glued them onto large cardboard boxes, on the other side adding the modern legend that 50% of urban waste is paper and invaded Kings Cross train station one evening with twelve enlightened eco-guerrilla friends dressed up as parcels, and this BBC report about the Kalahari reminded me of those art performance days in Euston Road and the wonderful quote.

However messy you are in your own bedroom, it does seem a tad careless to be destroying the entire house. And, however philosophical I am about my own demise, I can't get out of my head that we really are accelerating to an almighty mass finish, laying bare the green earth upon which depend, poisoning the fertile seas, taking all of the higher life forms with us, with the USA, richest country in the world and the biggest polluter, remaining in massive, deliberate, sustained denial.

The sheepish USA public rants on about the Downing Street Memo (while us more cynical Europeans say, well, we knew at the time - didn't you?) and yet nobody picked up on the re-writing of a paper by the President's office, which watered down the US government scientists' own advice that global warming is a reality.

Central to the exposure of this cover-up was the discovery of an email sent to Phil Cooney, chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, by Myron Ebell, a director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The CEI is an ultra-conservative lobby group that has received more than $1 million in donations since 1998 from the oil giant Exxon.

This from the Guardian, Sept 21st 2003:

The email, dated 3 June 2002, reveals how White House officials wanted the CEI's help to play down the impact of a report last summer by the government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in which the US admitted for the first time that humans are contributing to global warming. 'Thanks for calling and asking for our help,' Ebell tells Cooney.

Some of the changes include deleting a summary that stated: 'Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment.' Sections on the ecological effects of global warming and its impact on human health were removed. So were several sentences calling for further research on climate change.

A temperature record covering 1,000 years was also deleted, prompting the EPA memo to note: 'Emphasis is given to a recent, limited analysis [which] supports the administration's favoured message.'

White House officials added numerous qualifying words such as 'potentially' and 'may', leading the EPA to complain: 'Uncertainty is inserted where there is essentially none.'

Honey, I'm home!

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Melita Norwood and John Walton

Imagine if they named spies after the place you grew up. The wonderful communist Melita Norwood was that woman.

She has just died aged 87. Here she is, explaining that Stalin wasn't so bad, in her "spartan" Bexleyheath, south London, home. Bexleyheath is where my Grandfather lived in care, and died. He was a radical lefty as well. Perhaps there is a huge iron commie magnet buried deep in the soil there, and Bexleyheath draws them in when they are ready to expire. Melita owned little, spied for ideology not profit, and went to her grave satisfied that she had done the right thing.

By contrast, 58 year-old John Walton, the $18bn heir to the Walmart empire just crashed his home-made plane into the sagebrush of Grand Teton National Park, south west of Bexleyheath, missing Asda by quite a long distance.

Goodnight, John-boy.

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Monday, June 27, 2005

Richard Whiteley, R.I.P.

Richard "Twice Nightly" Whiteley, OBE, died yesterday. He presented the long-running program that my Mum never misses. He had 500 ties. He was famously savaged by a ferret. He had TV stamina. He died from pneumonia aged 61.

Like Richard, I have a huge collection of ties (which I never wear) and I used to feed my brother's ferrets (which he never wore). Without Richard, the word "avuncular" will never be the same.

I'll have a consonant, two vowels, and a consonant, please Carol.

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Paul Winchell, R.I.P.

Inventor and ventriloquist Paul Winchell, the voice of Tigger, has died aged 82. The wonderful things about Paul were his artificial heart (1963), a disposable razor, a flameless cigarette lighter and an invisible garter belt.

Without Paul, the phrase "bouncy bouncy bouncy bouncy" would not be forever lodged in my memory.

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Saturday, June 25, 2005

You Only Live Twice

It is not the physical death of the body, nor mortal fear inspired by religious myth, nor the agony of physical failure that worries me. The death that I fear so much is that which we experience in disappointment, the death of hope.

I did experience hopelessness once or twice as a child, but not as a young adult. Throughout my 20s and halfway through my 30s I remained strong, shrugged off defeats, persisted, came back and enjoyed victories. When things went wrong, I turned up a collar of determined optimism. When the collar didn't work anymore, I changed it to dogged fatalism. My psyche rose intact several times from ashes, smacked into shape by the iron hammer of events, forged in heat, and remained recognisably, cheerfully, pugnaciously mine. Everything would work out, eventually. Until one day, I woke up and everything in my life was in pieces, and what wasn't broken had gone, and with it, my hope.

Despite extreme mental trauma and occasional psychosis, I retained sufficient sanity during this long period of clinical depression to recognise that, since I am not by nature suicidal, I would have to continue life, with or without hope, until my body expired. I had no feelings about this one way or the other. I presumed hope may return, but even this presumption was a message from a past now unavailable for further comment, an abstract, vague, unrelated memory from a version of me that was now dead. I had not yet got around to clearing away the body, there were parts of it rotting everywhere. I could recognise them by the fact that they resembled me as I had been.

Emotionally, I was flatlining, dragging myself from bed to kitchen to bathroom to bed. I kept the TV on, even as I slept, awakening to stare blankly at the screen again without changing channel. I didn't care what I watched, as long as it wasn't music, which disturbed me - it just had to take the final remnant of concentration. When my eyes hurt, then I employed a radio. Talk radio was best, or sport, or world news. I didn't leave the house. I was agoraphobic. I had enough food for a week, ten days, mostly canned, dried. Nothing fresh. I was thinking anxiously about that ten-minute trip to the shop to re-stock for five days, if I was thinking anything at all.

I had a prescription for a low-level SRI from my doctor, but I was scared to take it.

Two months before the crash. It was the Edinburgh Festival, cultural showcase for the world, and I was producing interactive content in a rock club, with art-music acts like The Divine Comedy, and suffering the indignities of a cocaine-addled promoter's bipolar behaviour.

It was a hot August, 1997. My girlfriend was appearing in a cool Edinburgh show, one half of a physical performance duo, which was doing well, eyecatching posters up all around town, decent to good reviews, newspaper coverage, and as I had spent as much time building her career as mine, I was pleased. There was no recognition of this, though, from her work partner, an uptight controlling character who resented my influence, and who created conflict. I felt I had to always avoid the "choose between" syndrome - between work and relationship, between work partner and love partner, between training and sex, between domestic life and touring. Anyhow, for once, we were able to attend the same festival on different gigs, and I had looked forward to it.

About a week into the month-long festival, one night the promoter asked me to go to the front of the stage and video; as soon as I did, I was grabbed left and right by two huge security men, lifted bodily, and carried through the amused crowd to front of house.

Apoplectic, I insisted that I was acting on request of the promoter, and demanded that they find him to verify. He was nowhere to be seen. Turns out he had wanted the material, but had a deal with the band management that nobody would video them, and he was sending me into the pit to see how true it was. The venue manager looked apologetically at me, seeing my disgust, and sensing the truth of my story, as he said in his gentle Scots accent, "Sorry mate I am going to have to ask you to leave." I left, thinking of of throwing bricks through windows, of torching cars, boiling and raging.

I walked home down Princes Street, to the nice flat at the other end of town where we were staying, cursing the puffed-up conceited pimp who had humiliated me on a whim. The kind journalist who was putting me up took me out and poured beer down my neck, consoled me, advised me to let it drop. The next day, I took legal advice. Yes I could sue them. No it probably wasn't worth it. My hope began to leave me, then, although I didn't know it until sometime later.

Having no further work to do, but with more than half a month's tenure remaining in a pleasant flat in a capital city full of beauty and culture, I determined to enjoy myself, but it was not easy. I was harbouring a morbid fear which had come from a dream at the beginning of the month, before we left and came north. I had woken up with a voice in my head, my own voice, but as if spoken to me, not by me. It said, "You haven't got very much longer to live."

I struggled fully awake, shocked at the experience. I had been dreaming, but the dream had disappeared. All I had was the final line, certain and indisputable. "You haven't got very much longer to live." Fuck. I remember jumping out of bed and trying to rationalise, but it was impossible. I had just been told that my number was up. It was a dream, it was only a dream, I told myself. As I waited for the morning kettle to boil, I shivered, as if a ghost had walked over my grave. Later I recounted the tale to several friends, and did my best to laugh it off, but I had never, and still to this day have never experienced anything like it. It was so direct a warning, and however irrationally, I knew that I was kidding myself that it was not meant for me, and I tried hard to suppress the memory.

After the video debacle, as the empty days moved on towards September, although I could not yet see my depression, I realised that physically I was in trouble. I had chronic fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, occasional palpitations. I had finished working for the company I had set up three years previously. I was in a waiting room. I was waiting to see what happened next. I had no idea what it would be. This was a new thing. I felt directionless. I may have drifted for periods in the past, but even that was conscious drifting. In this I had no option.

In Edinburgh, a kind female red-haired GP saw me and told me I had ME, that I needed to relax, stop working immediately, and go see my GP as soon as I got back to London. I looked at her blankly as she talked chirpily about relaxation tapes, sensing her worries about my mental health, thinking, you are very nice, and you are right, but you have no idea how to deal with me, no idea what I am experiencing, none at all. I knew I needed to relax, but it was deeper than that. I needed to let go of the years of holding it together, for myself and those around me.

I went back to the flat and thought about how isolated I was, and the lack of intimacy in my love relationship. Although we were both locked into our work and had been under strain, I thought everything would be fine. I thought our love was strong enough to last. I thought I would get the support I had given. I got nothing except a terse request not to rock the boat.

Thus I found myself alone in a foreign city with no work and no companionship, and I spent time walking around, just anywhere. I found myself up on the castle rock, looking across Edinburgh. I found myself watching an obscure play in a tiny, dirty theatre, surrounded by Spanish students. I found myself at the bus station, looking at destinations. I had some money at least, so I went shopping. I bought, over a period of three weeks, black shoes, black trousers, a white shirt and a black jacket. Funeral attire, I realised later.

The final week dragged to a close, and we were joined by old friends who somewhat distracted me with their family energy and good heartedness. I was feeling tired more than anything now, as my emotions closed up, shut down, and more and more the expectation grew in me that my dream was right. I was witnessing each day as if it was my last, I had abandoned all thoughts of anything future, baffling attempts to draw me into conversation so that I could just wait to see which second on that ticking clock would be my last. We survived the last night, the fireworks, the bonhomie, the drink.

It was Sunday, August 31st, 1997. A bright, sunny morning in Edinburgh. We packed the van, ready to leave. "Diana is dead!" announced S, just back from the shops. Cue general disbelief and mild consternation all round. My head started to spin. "How? When?" I marched to the shops and bought a copy of every newspaper - the first editions with partially-clothed paparazzi pictures of Diana and Dodi on the beach, full of claims that the relationship was destoying the royal family, the second editions, respectful R.I.P. headlines, with all scandal removed. I walked back to the van, slowly, thinking, "You haven't got very much longer to live." It wasn't me. I wasn't meant for me. It was Diana, it was about Diana's death. I felt a wave of euphoria, and I smiled for the first time in three weeks. "You know the best thing about this?" I asked a Scots passer-by, showing him the paper. "It's not me." I caught a bemused grimace back, and decided it was too complicated to explain.

It is amazing how long one can labour under particular illusions, the accuracy of one's perceptions and analysis being chief among them, illusions revealing their clever mechanisms at the moment of downfall, suddenly unmissable mountains appearing as the mists vanish.

As the great tide of grief swept the nation over the following week, it had a soothing effect on me. I felt that somehow I had caught an advance glimpse of this very public death, and interpreted it as my own, and so while all of Britain wept for this stolen icon, I experienced relief, and a resurgence of hope. But, I was still wrong. My lovely partner went to Venezuela, and although she sent me postcards and faxes proclaiming love and loyalty, she left me within a week of her return. And then, die I did, although not physically, or permanently. Just for a while.

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Friday, June 24, 2005

Don't Fear The Reaper

Changes: the end of the old and the birth of the new.

Death means parting, the great letting go, the end. It then also prepares the way for the new, for that which is to come. However, the card itself first presents us with the end. This can be positive when it relates to a long wished for, liberating ending, yet it is also natural that we have our most painful experiences with the theme of this card. In contrast to the 10 of Swords, which indicates the random and thereby premature ending, this card always stands for the natural end. This means that it is time to let go of something. The Death card is unjustly one of the most feared. The eternal embellishers, who do not understand it, read the card only to be the proclamation of something new and want to deny us the deep experience of parting and the related life-accepting experiences. "We have separated living from dying and the interval between them is fear" says Krishnamurti, and: "You cannot live without dying."

One of the reasons Death is feared is because we have lost and are still losing touch with our natural place in the order of things.

The Grim Reaper is an abiding image from a bygone age. Urban life with its myriad palliatives and distractions removes us from seeing Death as part of the great cycle of existence, an inevitability to be celebrated. The Hindu Goddess Kali, Goddess of fertility, death and regeneration, is also known as the Mother of All Compassion, yet we view Death not as bringing the kindness of release, the grand fulfillment of our final destiny, but as our sudden product unavailability, the body, having passed its sell-by date, removed from the supermarket shelves.

Yet, urbanisation is accelerating. As Bob told me the other night, in Africa, 67% of people currently live in rural areas and the rest in cities, but in 20 years the ratio will be reversed and 67% will live in cities. The mechanisation and rationalisation of society, and the promotion of the concept of the "global market" has brought such alienation from our origins, where we had a context for Death and could make the comparison with harvested corn. As we in the "developed world" start to despair at the conseqences of the industrial revolution, soon that concept of the world being a place run for profit will die, as all things do, and be replaced by the long lasting legacy of this brief, insane phase of short-sighted consumption, the "global desert".

My favourite Death has to be that wonderful comic character drawn by Terry Pratchett. I read little comedy fiction these days, restricting myself by necessity to the gatefold sleeves of 1970s LPs, but I have read several of these books on various jaunts and they have the rare gift of causing me to laugh aloud and grin stupidly on trains and aeroplanes, and then I imagine myself living in the fantasy world that Mr P. summons up so enduringly, speaking portentously, and holding conversations with inanimate objects.

Death isn't on line. If he was, there would be a sudden drop in the death rate. Although it'd be interesting to see if he'd post things like: DON'T YOU THINK I SOUND LIKE JAMES EARL JONES? - Terry Pratchett,

If you ever hear a tall hooded chap speaking in CAPITALS and carrying a scythe, don't panic. Death is not so bad, he's actually quite a fun guy. He has his own songs, and he likes cats.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sculpted Garden

Annual self-portrait, 2005 - memento mori.

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Midsummer Solace

Let me tell you now: this is not easy. It takes a lot of concentration and I have to keep regular hours, eat well, get lots of sleep, and have excellent sex all the time, just to keep it going.

This is not a plea for sympathy, but I decided in my moment of drizzled oil over tulips that I was being too smart for my heart and I should let the instinct out of my pants. By this I do not wish to imply a desire beyond the natural, but simply a burning need to be real.

Anyway, now that's off my chest, I want to welcome you to the second half of the year with a decision. When I know what that decision is, I shall certainly pass it on. And as for my apparent disassociated state, pay no attention. It is a ruse, for a reason. My ability to string apparently logical sentences together will see me through these truculent times. Life is boody.

Tell you what, London is damn hot. I celebrated the solstice for two days, then woke up this morning and wrote a song.


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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Holloway Road Cracked Sun

A stunning Midsummer's day so far in Londinium, warm, sunny and fresh, bringing a nice cool breeze. With the aid of this hubcap which granted me special powers of flying and samba dancing, I am now sailing across the London skyline taking in the morning rays before my breakfast boogie.

I found this neat symbol for the solstice at 8.45am - that's already four sunlit hours into the day - which looks to my celebrant gaze like a cracked, blazing sun. At the time of maximum light, the year's hinge is the night. Tomorrow, dawn will come one minute later.

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Sun King Dies

"So Midsummer (to me,at least) is a celebration of the sun god at his zenith, a crowned king on his throne. He is at the height of his strength and still 1/4 of a year away from his ritual death at the hands of his rival. The spear and the cauldron have often been used as symbols for this holiday and it should now be easy to see why. Sun gods are virtually always associated with spears (even Jesus is pierced by one), and the midsummer cauldron of Cancer is a symbol of the Goddess in her fullness. It is an especially beautiful time of the year for an outdoor celebration. May yours be magical!"

Happy solstice all. I am eating coconut and drinking Leffe.

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Monday, June 20, 2005

The Phoenix

When I was an adrenaline-and-sugar-fuelled teenager, "video games" were still being invented, and having games in your pocket would have meant having a portable power supply as big as a tank and pockets as big as a chest-freezer, so I never was much of a "gamer" like you get now, wedded to my PSP or my Nintendo and boasting about the things my XBOX could do, if only it wasn't gaming. But in Palmers Green, N19, I was King of the Phoenix.

In fact, to be truthful, I had three (brief) periods of "virtual" gaming. At age thirteen I played table top ping-pong in my school friend's parents' pub, and at age eighteen I played space invaders sometimes in Croydon College canteen - the original "thud-thud-thud-thud" stand-up black and white arcade version. Generally though, I was just too interested in having as much sex as possible, getting stoned, and listening to the Psychedelic Furs, Transformer and Here Come The Warm Jets.

Two years later, at art school in Proper London, I experienced my greatest and last phase of gaming, and the very last game I played was sited in my local Greek Cypriot chippie/kebab shop, where after an evening of TV-less entertainment with my fellow impoverished artists, I would head with several 50 pence pieces and enough left over for a bag of chips on the way home.

Phoenix was the only game I ever truly mastered. I felt I had to at least be King of one. I dedicated myself to learning all the tricks and this mainly included shooting the fuck out of the bottom of the ship to kill the evil space-alien Motherbird inside. As I did, purple mini space-eggs were decending and hatching into large beaked freaks which would shit alien bird crap all over me and force me to put more 50 pences into the machine. With a pumping heart, hitting the fire button like a demented jerking obsessive, my victory was nothing more than the replay screen, which inevitably, after a 15 minute death-spree, I would achieve. For months my nom-de-guerre was 100,000 points higher than the next highest high score.

I can't say I learned anything from this phase, except how easy it is to throw money away at the same time as developing RSI. If they taxed masturbation, it would be the same. My feeling of power lasted only a few days at best, and I would creep back into the chippie not to play... just to see... the screen... and whether... Yes! I was still King. It couldn't last, and I knew I should let go of this obsession before it broke me, so I quit at the top, never to take up a joystick again.

This game did little for good gender relations or ending xenophobia. The plot of the Phoenix game bore no relation to the mythic pagan Firebird, it had no intoxicating Stravinsky accompaniment, no narrative of spells, capture and release. Just a big, purple fuck-off alien who wanted to lay eggs all over you that you had to kill. However, its beauty was not lost on me, and it was in the very nature of the electronic beast. However many times you consigned the alien aviators to their fiery grave, win or lose, the machine reset itself to start anew. The Phoenix rose once more, unburned, to take its magical place next to the post-pub queue for doner kebabs with chilli sauce.

Although I still play games like cards and dice and pool and darts and pinball and expose the fascist and lick the badger, and I admit that I did tinker with various Sim worlds long, long ago, these days I only really love to play games like spend the budget, put the lyric on the tune, and extend the popular form. There is something still haunting me, though, from those days far in the past, something which smells like lamb on a spit, hash oil, and burning feathers, in which I feel the heady rush of fire-power, sense the knowledge of rebirth, and the inevitability of running out of cash.

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Friday, June 17, 2005

The Final Curtain

Since losing my morbid fears, I have not feared the actual process of dying. That may change as I grow older, but so far, the big scary imponderable is that death is, as far as we know, the end. Curtains. Finito. Kaput.

Much as I love the ideas and the poetry in Christian and Pagan mythology, I am aware that the ideas come from an age when rationality and scientific proof was not a requirement of truth; and much as I am aware that Science has its own fatal flaws I tend to react instinctively as a product of the 20th Century. I hate to think that my very survival beyond this monkey frame depends upon my conception of the world; then again, rather that than being told, it's Jesus/Mohammed/Buddha/YourNameHere, or you fry forever in a vat of your own disbelief.

So what ARE my beliefs? I completed a Home Office questionaire yesterday, and one of the questions was, religion? I answered, Pagan Agnostic. Which is about right. I like Paganism of the Western kind, I distrust all the imported eastern religions. Then again, on what basis can I make a choice? Is there a choice to be made?

It's at times like this I turn to the words of St Paul:

And now, the end is near;
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I’ll say it clear,
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.

I’ve lived a life that’s full.
I’ve traveled each and ev’ry highway;
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

Regrets, I’ve had a few;
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.

I planned each charted course;
Each careful step along the byway,
But more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall;
And did it my way.

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried.
I’ve had my fill; my share of losing.
And now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing.

To think I did all that;
And may I say - not in a shy way,
No, oh no not me,
I did it my way.

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels;
And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows -
And did it my way!

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The Committal

The Committal - from The Book of Common Prayer

The following anthem is sung or said
In the midst of life we are in death;
of whom may we seek for succour,
but of thee, O Lord,
who for our sins art justly displeased?

Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts;
shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer;
but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty,
O holy and merciful Saviour,
thou most worthy Judge eternal.
Suffer us not, at our last hour,
through any pains of death, to fall from thee.

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Bead Necklace

Before computers, people used a variety of means to record and recall words. Trees were pulped, and the mess of wood flattened and bleached to form paper. Ink words were printed upon paper pages, pages were sewn together and bound into books. Before that, parchments from papyrus reeds, and vellum from animal skin were formed into scrolls. Before that, cuneiform letters were impressed into clay tablets, and before that, standing stones carved, and marks made on cave walls as mnemonic illustrations for the words that preceded and underpins all of this, words passed down through generations, mouth to ear to mouth, carefully remembered stories, treasured family jewels, priceless cargos of survival in our enormous, unfathomable universe.

This is a story which was told to me fifteen years ago over such a campfire as humans have enjoyed ever since fire was theirs. I was led to believe it was Celtic, and it may have been, as it had musically unusual names in it that I have failed to remember. All I know for certain is that, as day came to a close, and the fire drew us in to ourselves, we roasted tubers and roots in red and white hot embers, passed mugs of steaming tea between us, and the air was rich with woodsmoke and the drift of rare woodland herbs. It was a chilly late summer night in Somerset, towards Devon, and a clear sky let the heat of the day vanish and then lit us with starlight, while a late moon hung low on the horizon for a while before dipping into the hills and leaving us with our boots and hats and fire-shining eyes to see out the night, with just ourselves and the creature-filled copses, fields and woods for company.

In our group was a man called Gwydeon McPagan, and Gwydeon, aside from being an expert in all-weather survival skills, knowing what to eat and where to sleep, how to navigate by sun or wind or star, was a fabulous repository of stories, the old earth stories, some of which he had heard in person from old country hands in England and Wales, who had in turn heard them as children from their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, being part of the long unbroken maternal chain of oral tradition, which survived despite the awful torture and killing of more than nine million men women and children, victims of Christian repression, over many centuries.

These occasions, thirteen or so people around a night fire, far from roads let alone building, no noise except a hunting owl, and the odd animal rustle, frequently engender a depth of exchange missing in Starbucks. As the night deepened, the gentle conversation around the fire turned to the subject of our ending, and the afterlife. Faith, a pleasant, attractive, mid-teenage girl, keeping warm in a blanket wrapped around herself and her dreadlocked, baby-faced lover, asked what the Pagans really thought about reincarnation, and those of us in the know turned expectantly to Gwydeon, who was quietly busy with some logs to ensure the fire was still with us at dawn.

"Gwydeon!" we commanded in jest, "Come and tell us about reincarnation!"

His age-lined, still young face, appeared in the circle of light, panting breath visible from his exertions.

"OK, OK," he agreed. "But can someone fill a kettle?"

Someone detached themselves from a seat, and the sound of water was heard as Gwydeon stuck two large logs across the fire. Placing the filled flat-bottomed vessel on the logs, he resumed his seat, as we looked expectantly towards him, waiting for him to begin. Lighting the end of a very small smoke, he puffed twice, leaned back, looked up, and watched the thin grey trail disappear upwards into the black. We watched and did the same. A masterful story-teller, he had our attention, and he began.

"Back in the days when fires like this would be lit not just for warmth, but for protection from wolves and bears, and perhaps evil spirits, when the whole of this land was covered in the Great Forest, around the time of the Celts, human life was considered precious, sacred, so that you should avoid always the killing of another, even in battle. If you took a man prisoner, he would become your most honoured guest until such a time as the ransom could be afforded."

Gwydeon looked sideways at Faith who was frowning with bemused concentration.

"If he were a great warrior, a hunter, or a Prince, his ransom may take several years to raise, being of gold, of silver, of horses, of cattle, of wheat, of barley, of swords, of armour, of timber, of hide..."

We all knew Gwydeon's lists which always had a point to them. You just had to wait. Now, he was baffling the questioner quite deliberately as a test of her determination to hear him out, and also as a tribute to her question. Also, it might be added, as an overture to the main symphony.

"... and even skilled people, entire families, might be exchanged for a noble warrior. This could take years, during which time the guest would be given a home, a wife, and he would play his part in the community; and even passing travellers, if they were strong and good, were accorded the opportunity of a night with a young woman of the tribe, for his contribution to the gene pool would be expected."

Gwydeon looked cheekily at Faith who seemed delighted at the prospect, her boyfriend less so. Everyone laughed.

"And so, the Celts were far more civilised in many ways than anyone who has come to these islands since then. Life was a rarity, death was ever present, and although they had medicines from plants which we have lost, a simple cut could fester, turn gangrenous, and kill, a simple cold could become pneumonia, and simply being born was a dangerous thing.

"There was once a great Celtic Prince, a young man, proud, noble and strong. He was gifted in the hunt, victorious in battle, and fortunate in love, for he indeed found his true love, and for him she was the soulmate which most of us only dream of finding. In her eyes he saw the truth, in her beating heart, his future, and in her arms, he became fully a man. The Prince and his lover were bonded, and the tribe did well, and all people respected and loved them. She became pregnant, and grew heavy with child. She looked all the more beautiful, blessed by nature.

But nine months on, the birth was not easy; it was long and painful and bloody, and her cries of pain shattered the peaceful settlement. After two days, in the moment of delivery, she died."

Gwydeon paused to let the moment sink in, and to acknowledge her passing, and the three thousand years since seemed empty.

"The Prince could not bring himself to even look upon the child that had taken the life of the woman he loved. He wept and cursed, as he could not know why she had been taken. He decided to find the Gods and demand from them an answer to the question that burned in his heart: Why, when we have love and joy and wonder and beauty in this life, why must we suffer and die?

'I shall go on a quest to the mountains in the West, where the Gods live, and I shall demand an answer, and I shall only return when I have the answer!' he bitterly declared. He made provision for his child. He appointed the greatest warrior in the tribe in his place to lead and protect in his absence, and taking his sword and shield, mounted his horse, instructed his servants not to follow him, and set off."

Tea was being passed around in steaming mugs, and Gwydeon took his and sipped it. The mood was strangely quiet, as we waited for the story to continue, the warmth from the tea revitalising our slightly chilly fingers, glasses steaming up on several faces around the fire.

"The Prince travelled for many years, suffered many dangers, false hopes, imprisonment, and tragedies, but he never gave up his quest for knowledge," said Gwydeon, sipping his tea.

"His task was great, and over the months and years that followed, he passed through great physical, moral and spiritual hardship. All the while his loss bore heavily upon him, stronger than any adversary, more heavy than any branch or rock or snowfall; and while his quest took him to many places of which his tribe knew nothing, his focus never diminished, and he continued, fueled by the pain he felt, his determination never leaving him.

"Eventually the Prince found himself in high desolate mountains, according to warlocks and witches and shamans, the home of the Gods. He stood at dusk before a great cave, high up above the snowline, but there was nobody there, nothing, just bare rock and ice. 'Hello?' he cried in his hoarse, travel-weary voice, but there was no reply, just the keening of the wind. 'I have come to ask you a question!' A single pebble clattered down the steep slope. No reply.

Then all at once, his heart was filled with grief, as new as the moment his soulmate had left him. In dread despair, recalling his wife, their once beautiful home, his kith and kin, now so far away, and missed so deeply, he shouted his question at the rocks:

'WHY? Why must we suffer and die?'

- and as the wind stole his voice from him, he fell to his knees, completely exhausted."

Gwydeon let his careful, quiet voice ring out to make the Prince's cry, and a bird startled in the wood. He looked up at us and smiled sadly. We knew he had lost his own wife, and this fact made the moment all the more sharply felt. Several eyes brimmed with tears, young and old alike.

"Then, in a moment, the Gods appeared, and spoke directly to him. He was rooted to the spot in astonishment. 'You are asking the question that all mortals must ask, and because of this, we have a gift for you,' they said, and they gave him a bead necklace. 'Each bead is a single lifetime. Because you have asked this question, because you have suffered and not given up on your quest, our gift to you is the gift of return, so that you may come back, and find, and be with your loved ones again.'

"And though many years had passed, many thousands of miles, the very next moment saw him back in the place he had left, the home he had not seen for so many long years, albeit wounded and weary and in pain, still mourning and his heart aching, but holding a bead necklace, the gift that the Gods gave to humanity, the gift of our return."

The fire was just embers now, the night as dark as ever it would be. His face in the warm red glow was somehow more alive with the evidence of his story, the poignant memory of his own bereavement, the profound indication of our fate. Gwydeon looked up and his eyes met everyone's, one by one, acknowledging each of us, and we waited for his ending.

He picked up his tea and lifted it.

"Lovely to see you all again!" he chimed happily, and we laughed long, and gently slapped him on the back, and hugged him, and all of us each other.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Midst Of Life

In the midst of life, I am in death. That's assuming I die at 86, which would be a good tally. The death I am in is an interesting one. It involves an old burial ground, two Norwegian artists, several musicians, a landscape architect, and a band of campanologists.

To explain sans mystification: my life and my study of death seem to be overlapping. I have now been awarded the singular responsibility and honour of producing a mixed-and-multi-media art event in my local park (ex-graveyard), to take place end of July. To that end I have been researching the place and its wonderful history and you, oh funky reader, shall be the heir to this information. Meanwhile, I have been working like buggery to get the thing off the ground and hence the lack of daily beats in the normal regular rhythm of this blog. Like a stuttering heart, it fights to stay alive, resuming its pulse and continuing to pump oxygen-rich blood to the brain.

The first death book I read - i.e. a book on the subject of death, rather than featuring it for literary purposes - was Lyall Watson's The Romeo Error (1974). A. Ishikawa (Tokyo, Japan) - writes this Amazon review: "A most fascinating, intriguing look at the biology of death. Not at all morbid! An excellent study of the nature of death from a biological view with interesting anecdotes of how society has dealt with the subject in the past as well as the present - there is still debate about the actual point of death! Highly recommended as are all of Lyall Watson's books.

Lyall will be lodged forever in the minds of the martial artists of Great Britain for having brought TV Sumo to these shores, via his excellent and knowledgeable coverage of that particularly broad thread of Japanese culture. His books were mostly pop science, but nicely written, accessible, and I can blame him for my lifelong interest in esoterica. The Romeo Error provided me with my first foray into the long drawn-out process of death, showing how blurred is the line across which we all pass, and may pass back. Since reading that book, I have been extremely interested in those stories which show just how little we know about this moment, this state, this change in our biological status. I suggest reading it if only for the description of what the body does in order to die, and afterwards, in repose, what astonishing processes occur in order to break us down into constituent parts of organic matter for reprocessing as worm-food.

Death is a big subject, central to our existence, but unlike love, we generally steer clear of it, at least, until it is staring us in the face. We fall upon ritual and belief systems and superstition to aid us during times of being near to it, or when loved ones are near to it; and it is rare for even the most secular among us not to find themselves conforming, and offering prayers privately if not in public, and this is no bad thing. Prayers do more than comfort the well and the living, in our marvellously complex inter-connected world, but even on that basis, they serve an important function. After all, death is not just the breaking down of some organic robot whose company you happen to enjoy, it is a fundamental signifier of our common humanity, one of the holy trinity: sex, death and music.

The subject of death, once very scary for me, is now a place in which I feel unusually liberated, and I have no problem looking forward to it, which is not to say I am anticipating it fearlessly. I have been enjoying my research. Two interesting pieces: on Romany customs and Haitian. Both obscurely Christian and rather concerned that the spirits of the departed don't return malevolently , in the case of Zombies, to tear and eat the flesh of the living.

Having read far too much gothic and horror literature in general, and Edgar Allan Poe's Premature Burial in particular, the idea of being encased in a coffin and stuck six feet under has never appealed. Cremation neither, as Lyall Watson's book is full of examples of people who have apparently been dead and then woken up. The idea of awaking to the smell of yourself roasting is not appealing, though I always quite liked Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) in which the main protagonist is eaten (oops! given that one away) whilst attending his own funeral feast (can you grok it? yes you can!)

For my own disposal, the Native American tradition of tree burial seems apt: "...a body was left, wrapped in a beautiful animal skin robe, in a tree or on a scaffold. Sacred items may be tied to the tree around the body. After decomposition the skeletal remains were often removed and buried, although the skull was kept by some peoples and placed on an ancestor shrine." Or maybe, Tibetan sky burial, where the body is cut up and fed to the birds and animals. Parts of the body may even be made into instruments, skull drums being a popular artifact. Hit me!

As to the enormous question of where we go (if we go) when we die (if it is death) - and the unavoidable human fact of suffering and loss - our mortality - we all be looking for answers, but we often find more questions. Tomorrow, in a bold effort to restore normality to my weekly scrivening, I will tell you a tale of such a quest. Meanwhile, here's Jeremy.

Say hello, now, he won't bite.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Newton 1806

What do you reckon?

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Friday, June 10, 2005

We Are Living Like Kings, These Days Will Last Forever

Personal honesty is like an onion - there are many layers to it and it makes you cry sometimes, but even bitter tears are not bad, if they are tears of sincere regret, of learning, letting go and moving on. I have over the years applied my simple philosophy as often as I can bear it, like cold water on the morning face, shocking at first, but good for the skin tone. Speaking of which, I have been incredibly lucky that my superb looks lasted me well into what they refer to as middle age although quite what is middle about it I have never understood. Time being relative, I always assumed middle age was a misnomer, and looking about me at the comfortable, rotund Buddha bellies of my peers, that life after 35 was in fact, midriff age.

At 43, I looked into the mirror, and realised that for the first time in my life, I look my age. The man staring back at me with that gorgeous, devil-may-care scowl is me. I finally seem to be the age that I have actually reached.

I have waited all my life for this. These marks of decay are signs of survival, badges of honour. I honestly never expected to be here. And frankly, I don't look too bad, on a good diet with enough sleep, but with the arrival of what I like to call my facial furniture, those fixtures and fittings which were once temporary minor creases, subtle discolourations and slightly stretched skin under the eyes are now large indestructible suitcase-sized Samsonite bags, lines on the forehead are there not just after a particularly debauched night, but now permanently etched, not deep but no hiding them. I also have the got-to-watch-that-pasta beginnings of a comfortable, sofa-sized double chin, grey emerging from the mid-brown remains of my hair, and after a week of avoiding the cuts, spots and scabs of shaving, a black, red, blond, brown and white beard. I just need a red bandana, ear-rings, a parrot, a cutlass, and a galleon. Haaaaarrrrr!

All good things must come to an end, as we say to each other to pacify our unquiet hearts, not believing a word of it.

I remember deciding not to lie one day when I had returned bored from an afternoon in the park when too little had happened. It was that phase after Nan's death where Mum was ill, and so I traipsed up to the bedroom and spun a lengthy yarn about big boys with knives. I was so convincing (another reason I changed tactic) that Mum wearily said, "Well you had better call the police." I drifted out of the darkened room, calculating the consequences. If I continued to lie, how would I keep track of all the lies so that I didn't contradict myself? Shit! I rather embarassedly returned five minutes later and confessed I had made some of it, well all of it, up, and I was very mildly chastised. I think Mum knew I was bored and lonely.

As a far from bored and rarely lonely young adult, I was often fiercely insistent on what was "the truth" and what were "lies" until I worked out that truth is always seen from one angle but must be understood from many. Gradually, some wisdom emerged, I became less of a pain in the butt, and I began to see that the real issue about honesty is the personal kind. Don't kid yourself, became my mantra.

I won't say I have maintained my current healthy regime over the last 12 years because if I did I would start to laugh out loud and fail to hit the keyboard with sufficient accuracy to continue this strange, recursive story of my physical ageing. Despite my deep dedication to three things - my work, my loves, and my pleasures - I remained exercise-free, with the exception of bicycling and the odd kick-around, until I was 25-26 years old. At that point I worked out that I could no longer party five nights a week, and three of those on the trot, without feeling a little bit tired. I knew I didn't want to burn out, so, action was required, if only for reasons of hedonism and vanity.

So, I got myself a half-brick, to build some arm muscle. Did pushups, sit ups. Started to swim regularly. Acted more sensibly more often when I partied. By the time I was 30 I was fit. Had muscles. Zero fat. 145 pounds of cavorting party animal. I was meditating twice a day, attending an Aikido dojo twice a week. Coffee free, rarely drank alchohol. Never smoked cannabis, not while training anyway. I was in balance. I was single.

I wanted immortality, as near as I could achieve it, so I started to study Taoist methods of living. This meant learning to maintain high degrees of sexual arousal without ejaculation, first on your own, then with a partner. I was doing some pretty serious meditation, socialising with hippies, and I sort of experimented on myself and without really expecting anything to come of it. But these techniques are ancient, esoteric, carried on for generations, not for defunct ritual purpose, but because they work. If you summon up huge amounts of self-control, you develop will-power. I already had quite a lot of that. I got more anyhow. I managed to cause some real problems before I understood how it worked.

If you follow Taoist teachings, they say, make sure you are balanced. You also have to develop the energy of your emotions, to grow self-love, acceptance and kindess to others. So, I calmed down and worked on being happier. In a Glastonbury courtyard, I took my painful little finger to a healer called Ash. He said, as he gently manipulated it, "You know, this finger is to do with communication. I think you need lots of loving sex." He said it matter of factly, inoffensively, while I ummed and ahhed and tried to ignore my cynicism. When I left, my finger which had been annoying me for months, was pain free, and to my great surprise, two weeks later, I met a woman, and fell in deeply love.

"We are living like kings, these days will last forever," said a man one Soho morning to Suggs. He was right, but his illusion was complete, his downfall imminent.

Our bodies do their best to contain our exhaustion and trauma, but eventually, it shows up in some physical form of one sort or another, in frown lines, fixed expressions, twisted ankles, cricked necks, eczema, bitten nails, black eyes. Likewise, the emotional body can take so much before rising levels and salinity and coastal drift make sea change inevitable. I guess I took quite a lot of changing, on the inner level. I was a steel sea-container, tough, strong, rebuilt twice over. I did the inner smile and iron shirt meditations, I circulated my energy, I stored my chi, I sang and danced, I partied and played, and my heart started to open. I mean, not in terms of it bursting out of my chest. I was totally unprepared for the death of my previous self, my priceless ego. I was shocked. My life was changed. All the love I had never expressed I released in an unstoppable torrent, and it took me with it.

Some people seem miraculously consistent, they are born, they become themselves, and like an apple on a branch, they develop smoothly to ripe fullness until they fall. These people are fated differently, they have a different trajectory. My apple had a worm in it, it blew down in a gale, I was turned into cider and sold in a gallon container, I coursed through the veins of a spinning drunk, he fell over his feet and hit his head on a log, where he lay pissing and bleeding, spilling out apple-alcohol onto the mud.

Even after the bliss, pain, tragedy, despair, confusion of this major relationship which spanned a decade, people would still guess my age 8 or 9 years younger than I was when it was over. I survived that one looking pretty good in fact. It was the five years that followed that did all the damage. Those adventures that my baby-faced, scowling features witnessed and provoked are tales I have yet to tell. When I see myself in the mirror now, I am viewing the price of success.

Still, I think I've worked something out. Even looking the age I am, and twice the age I feel, I am loved. It must be for some other reason.

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Thursday, June 09, 2005


My maternal grandmother died when I was 10, and that momentous event cut me adrift from the heaving sweaty bosom of my family more than anything else. More than my parents divorce, more than being given barbiturates at age 4, more than having a reading age of 16 at age 7.

Ethel was a lovely woman, and she left us too early. Nana I called her. She was married to Fred, 12 years her senior. A marriage of both convenience and love, Fred married Ethel after it transpired she was through no fault of her own, the second wife of a bigamist. Fred's first wife, Ethel's sister, had died, and thus Fred rescued Ethel from social opprobrium and the life of an outcast, found a mother for his two children, and began a deep love that would last until Ethel's untimely passing. Ethel died aged 65, suddenly, after a week, of meningitis, and Fred, so strong and passionate, started to fall to pieces. Without the centre of his world, Fred lost his mind within a few scant months, but his strong swimmer's body lasted another 8 years. My mother, the child of them both, was the youngest, and she bore the brunt of the tragedy.

After a week of parental night visits to Croydon General Hospital, strained, hushed voices, telephone calls at odd hours, remonstrations to keep order, I came down in the morning, and my sister was crying.

"If you want to know why I'm crying, it's because Nana is dead!" she declared rather melodramatically. I went through to the kitchen where my exhausted mother was silently leaking tears in a steady stream down her very tired face.

I was two years older than my sister, and I knew she didn't really understand. I hated her for crying. I suspected that she was crying to show off, or sympathetically, without substance. It took years for me to accept that of course she was grieving like all of us, that her emotions were as real as mine.

I scowled. I went to the toilet and locked myself in, and tried to feel something. I could not feel anything. Part of me had turned cold and was shut away, locked in a mortuary freezer. This was the loss of the most unqualified and unconditional love I had ever received. I watched as my brain continued to tick along, regardless. It was the end of the world, but somehow, I was still here. Nana had loved me and looked after me when my Mother's love life was at its most tumultuous, and the event of her sudden death confirmed a pattern of expectation in me, that people who love me always disappear, which I spent years discovering and undoing.

Over the following weeks, I came to understand that I didn't just lose a grandmother that day, I lost my mother as well, so great was her pain, so overwhelmed was she by her mother's death and the consequent strain of caring for Fred. Poor distraught unconsolable Fred, my main man, my hero, now enfeebled and in pain, parcelled up and shunted around the family, until his midnight rambling and advancing senility caused the family to find him a place in a home for the elderly. Mum struggled desperately with her own depression, locked into the battle of raising 5 children, of being in a relationship with her third husband, with this major increase in caring holding the entire family to ransom.

I read a lot. I thought about death every day. Like Yossarian, in all its glorious macabre detail. I developed morbid fixations. Bone cancer, I was going to die of bone cancer, like the Kennedy boy I had seen on TV. Cerebral aneurism. My brain was going to burst. Lung cancer, I would suffocate and drown in my own blood. Leukemia, a steady slipping away of life until a ghost replaced the real me. Accidents - a cut jugular, a severed arm.

And then, I did suffer an accident - returning a ball to the school playground, I climbed up on the street side wall, threw, slipped, and the iron railing spike stuck my left hand at the base of the middle fingers. I hung for a moment, nothing but the strength of my skin and sinew keeping me there, then pulled myself up with my other hand and pulled my left hand off the railing. I spread my fingers and looked at the hole. Before it filled with blood, I saw the other side of my skin.

A dinner lady had seen the accident, but totally underestimated the damage. "Come in love" she said, "and I'll put a plaster on it."

I didn't even reply, I knew this wound required hospital, so I lifted my left arm up high and slowly jogged back up the steep hill to home, where I was greeted with sympathy and went to get stitches.

During the weeks that followed, I was distracted, depressed, lacked concentration. My studies suffered, I had regular intense migraine. Mum took me to see Dr Casey, who told her I had a virus from the accident, and prescribed valium. We are talking, adult strength valium for a ten year old. So for the second time in my life, my normal, understandable grief at life's injustice was subsumed beneath chemical mind controls strong enough to nuke a horse.

I didn't like the flat zone of valium, because I couldn't read well on it. Before long, I palmed the valium, lied about taking it, and started on Edgar Allen Poe.

Over a decade later, I finally felt and expressed the pain of loss, and in the arms of a girl I had wronged, I shed the tears I should have wept that day Nana died. I remember the great sobs that shuddered out of me, as I was held by a kind and loving woman, us both realising that this was something much more than love drama, something buried unexpectedly deep shooting out like water, like magma, as I continued on and on, my face wet and dripping with snot, my voice cracking and howling, until finally I relaxed, and lay there, and let go, and started to mourn.

Even allowing for the unavoidable mistakes, the prescription drugs, and the many very wonderful and various fuck ups of my own, I think it would have done me a lot of good all those years ago if they had simply let me go to the funeral and say goodbye and express my grief with everyone else.

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The Dread Moment

I'm sure, dear sophisticated reader and internet genius, that you have come across the Death Clock by now. Haven't you. Of course you have.

Well, here's the date of my death. You have until Sunday, January 27, 2058 (or thereabouts) to buy me presents and praise me to the rafters. Actually if you click the link a few times, years add and remove themselves in a most variable way, which is strange. But then, that's life, I suppose.

I decided to put it on "optimistic" mode as it is not yet afternoon and my suggestible mind is a groggy wet flannel at this hour and I don't want to despair just yet.

I used to fret a lot about death. I was convinced that I would die young. I identified with Yossarian in Catch 22 who ran endless scenarios about death and dying through his mind, depressed and scared as he was, stuck in a war far from home. I loved Yossarian, he understood. I read Catch 22 14 times between the ages of 11 and 15. All the way through.
The Inevitability of Death
Yossarian’s one goal—to stay alive or die trying—is based on the assumption that he must ultimately fail. He believes that Snowden’s gory death revealed a secret: that man is, ultimately, garbage. The specter of death haunts Yossarian constantly, in forms ranging from the dead man in his tent to his memories of Snowden. Furthermore, Yossarian is always visualizing his own death and is absolutely flabbergasted by the total number of ways in which it is possible for a human being to die. But Yossarian’s awareness of the inevitability of death is not entirely negative: it gives him a sense of how precious life is, after all, and he vows to live for as long as possible. He also lives more fully than he would without his constant consciousness of life’s frailty. He falls in love constantly and passionately, and he laments every second that he cannot spend enjoying the good things in the world.

"History did not demand Yossarian's premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war." Chapter 8, pg. 75

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Andrew Jackson, Died 8th June 1845

In order to remain this side of maudlin, I have decided to dedicate today to Andrew Jackson: Born March 15th 1767, died 8th June 1845. Brits aged less than 50 know and care little for historic US Presidents with the exception of Georgie Boy Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Willy Clinton. Deep throat what? said the rest of the world, remembering Linda Lovelace. Most of us only know about Kennedy because of Marilyn Monroe, and we have entirely forgotten Reagan, just like he did before he died.

Still, just because Americans generally inhabit a world which stops at their borders doesn't mean we all have to follow suit. As an internationalist and a situationist, I have this morning made a brief study of Andrew "I'll Smash Them" Jackson, a fellow Pisces, and here is it, served up in a nice omelette with salad and fresh blood.

Jackson - "I know what I am fit for. I can command a body of men in a rough way; but I am not fit to be President" - was the 7th U.S President and the first to enter office from a background of abject poverty. He was the first governor of Florida after it had been purchased, a Democrat soldier who served two terms, and a contradictory and contraversial figure to this day. He famously killed 2000 Brits in the 1815 battle for New Orleans, and Charles Dickinson for besmirching his wife's honour. He is known historically for creating a strong executive branch.

Here's the trivia:

  • He survived the first assassination attempt on a president

  • He was the first sitting president to ride a train when he took the Baltimore and Ohio in Maryland from Elliott's Mills to Baltimore on June 6th 1833.

  • He was the first president to be born in a log cabin

  • He was the first president to be nominated by a political party

  • At age 13, while serving in the army, he was captured by the British. The British officer in charge ordered Jackson to clean his boots. Jackson refused; the officer struck him with his sword, leaving Jackson's face and hand permanently scarred.

  • After the death of his niece Emily in 1836, Sarah Jackson, wife of his adopted nephew, acted as First Lady.

By far the best website I found quotes Melville's Moby Dick:
Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne!

Another interesting read, once you've paid your respects to this remarkable historic figure, is this piece on Linda Lovelace, without whom Deep Throat would not have existed and Nixon would not have been impeached. Or something like that.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Dying Young

There was only one way to die, and that was in a game of Cowboys and Indians, or if not that, then War, which was much the same, except that it had Germans in it. Dying involved being caught in some sort of ambush, often by several other boys. Generally speaking, if you got killed, there would be a blizzard of shouted bangs, jabbing pointed fingers with the thumb up to make a gun shape, innocent aping of adult violence we watched daily.

Boys with money owned cap guns. Mostly the hammers click-click-clicked on empty barrels, but sometimes a stream of paper emerged with each tiny explosive charge, and the acrid smell of gunpowder would excite our nostrils and assist the fantasy. You might dispute a boy's aim if he shot you with his finger, but shot with a cap gun, well, you were DEFINITELY dead. Jumping around you in feverish glee with crazed eyes, the others would demand and expect your prompt and histrionic exit.

I didn't want to die, of course, but when my time came, I made the most of it. I worked out early on that a good death was a golden opportunity to convert the victim into a hero. Clutching my chest, I would let out a ghastly cry, stagger left and right, rolling my eyes, gasping in a creaking voice decades older than mine, "You... you... you... " I would attempt to walk, to raise my own gun, then having already circumspectly spied out my ideal final resting place, sink to my knees, looking incredulously down at my gaping wound, watching imaginary blood flow steadily out between my fingers. One last croak, a sudden twist of agony and I would collapse motionless, sometimes as a PIÈCE DE RÉSISTANCE adopting the vacant-eyed stare. This was difficult to maintain though, and for good effect required a mate who was in on the act, to solemnly close your eyes with two dirty fingers, confirming to the horrified onlookers with morbid satisfaction, "Yup, he's dead."

I cannot pretend I was delighted by these games or played them as endlessly as the other kids. At the age of 6 I already knew the Indians were far cooler. They had knife skills which I envied, lived close to the land, could track silently over many miles. They wore feathers and made wonderful ululating cries as they circled any white wagons badly parked on their street. So I started to choose to be Indian, although in everyone else's eyes this meant being automatically on the losing side, and I would annoy bloodthirsty cowboys by being an effective ambusher with a bow and poison-tipped arrows. This usually ended up with my being expelled from the game, because they couldn't conceive that a man wearing feathers armed with arrows could kill a man wearing a stetson carrying a Colt 45. On the nightly TV news, grainy black and white pictures from Vietnam showed the US military making that same mistake.

From then on my games were different. In War, I was no longer Tommy - I was a member of the resistance, behind enemy lines, sabotage my intent, revenge in my heart. I made snares and booby traps, I snuck down dank overgrown alleys, climbed up rusty fire escapes, silently entered the backs of buildings. In fact, this was far more dangerous, unsupervised, solitary play, my own fantasies taking me to places that might have put me in hospital or worse.

One night around this time, I was in bed, it was still light outside, and I started to think about thinking. "This is a thought" I thought. "That was a thought - this is a thought." I quickly worked out that as soon as I verbalised the thought, "This is a thought" that I was already thinking another thought, which was the thought about the thought. I tried to speed up the process so that I could think the thoughts about thinking without getting behind myself, and I realised it was impossible. My mind racing, I felt dread. I was stuck! I couldn't not think the thought about the thought. I forced myself to think about something else - anything else. I sat up in bed, breathing hard. I remember feeling as though I had jumped off a roundabout that has started to spin too fast. I got out of bed and went downstairs.

Mum was sitting in the living room, with some laundry on her lap, and she looked up and read my perturbed face.
"What is it?" she asked. I didn't know how to explain what had just happened.
"I can't stop thinking."
"What are you thinking about?"

She was tired, but she smiled at this. I went over to her for a hug, feeling tearful. She put one arm around me, carried on working with the other.
"I don't know. I was thinking that this thought is a thought and I can't think about thoughts without thinking."
"Oh dear," she said.

Then out of the blue, I asked her, "Mum, does everything stop?"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well... will I die one day?"
She paused and said carefully, "Yes, one day, but not now."
I weighed up this information. "And will you die one day as well?"
"Yes, everyone dies eventually."

She waited while I digested this momentous news. Mum was going to die! I was shocked, I felt blue. The fact that I would die was insignificant compared to Mum dying. Mum was the centre of the universe, but even she was doomed.

I remember being allowed to remain for 20 minutes or so in the living room while Mum and I made small talk, and she attempted to ensure that I would be able to sleep without nightmares. She came up with me to bed, which was unusual at that age, with a younger sister and brother taking most of her attention.

"Night night."
"Do you want me to leave the hall light on?" she asked.
"No, I'm fine," I said, but I felt foolish, disturbed.

I lay there, not daring to go back to thinking about thought, letting the knowledge of my own and my mother's mortality sink in. I recalled one by one my family, my friends, pets, animals, birds, trees that were all alive now, but which would one day be dead. I considered their greatness in my young life, alongside this awful truth that I had stumbled upon, negating their permanence, until death's inevitability slowly became part of every fibre of my being, and I finally fell asleep, never to wake the same.

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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Make No Bones About It

Let's begin at the end, and the gloriously gory Christian expectation that for saved souls, death is a kind of sleep. All the faithful believers, at the end of time, at the return of the Lord, will rise up again and be made flesh.

Wikipedia says:

"At the moment of Jesus' death tombs open and many who are dead waken. After Jesus' resurrection many of the dead saints come out of their tombs and enter Jerusalem, where they appear to many, according to the gospel of Matthew... Most Christian churches teach that there will be a general resurrection of the dead at "the end of time"."

One of the scary postulations about GW Bush is that he is a religious fundamentalist who actually believes that screwing up in the middle east and maybe having a nice nuclear war is helping to bring about Jesus' return, and some high up members of the military seem to concur. General Jerry Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, in charge of facilitating intelligence information for Donald Rumsfeld's "High Value Target Plan," aimed at hunting down Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Mullah Omar:

"George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States, he was appointed by God."

That's a worrying thought. Just when you thought it was safe to expire into nothingness, that you had your one-way ticket off this troubled planet, that you were finally free from all the crap these destructive ego-maniac crazies can throw at you, all you have to do is believe, and you (and they) will all be back at the dinner table. Damn. Can I be sure I have elimated that last shred of conditioning? I can feel a song coming on

Ezekiel connected dem dry bones
Ezekiel connected dem dry bones
Ezekiel connected dem dry bones
Now, hear the word of the Lord.

The toe bone connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone connected to the heel bone,
The heel bone connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the hip bone,
The hip bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the shoulder bone,
The back bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone,
Now, hear the word of the Lord!

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk aroun',
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'
Now, hear the word of the Lord!

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005


June, or as we call the month, Mrs Whitfield, is upon us, which means the coming of another theme for Blog of Funk. Having successfully unwound for the past 30-odd days almost to the point of unravelling, I am now ready to announce the next month's theme. These "months" as you may have gathered are arbitrary periods which pay no heed to lunar or calendar cycles, and can be anything from three to five weeks in duration. But then, what do you expect from a flaneur with little concept of standard time regulation?

Mrs Whitfield is a month during which the year ends. Pagans wait until the summer solstice, Mrs Whitfield the 21st, when the sun is at its glorious resplendent height, to sacrifice the Sun King. His life ends with the summer's peak. From then on, the Forces of Darkness slowly gather and eventually dominate until December, when he is reborn - much like Star Wars marketing, in fact, but with significantly less light sabres, and thankfully, no Ewan McGregor.

And so whilst lovers frolic naked in the grass, later removing bugs from places they really ought not to be, children fall headlong into rivers to be swept away by the current never to be seen again, and unguarded skin creeps inexorably into the leather sofa colour range, causing unsightly and sometimes mortal damage, this month I will be investigating what happens when we are no longer on this tiny spinning ball of dust and water and molten rock we call Earth.

This month, I will be facing up to the Big Scary One, or as we call it, Death.

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