Opinion Reviews

The Grand Design

The first new work for a decade by the physicist Stephen Hawking, after “A Brief History of Time”, starts in characteristically robust style. “Philosophy is dead” he proclaims on the first page, ending the book by stating that, if M-theory is confirmed by observation, “We will have found the grand design.”. It is statements like these which made it a slow but unstoppable read.

M-theory turns out to say that we actually live in a ten-dimensional universe (plus time), but we don’t notice the extra seven dimensions of space because they are curled up into an infinitesimally small size. They precise way they are curled up defines the laws of nature, or at least the laws the govern sub-atomic particles out of which everything else is constructed. There are, it seems, 10 to the power of 500 ways that this could have happened – in other words, a nearly infinite number of possible universes with different laws of nature to ours.

There are two ways you can react to this. The common, but broadly illogical view is to declare it as open and shut evidence of God. The other is the Multiverse – the idea that in some absolute sense all these possible universes exist.
However the authors point out that the laws of nature seem to be tuned incredibly precisely to allow life to exist. Tweak them every so slightly, and there might not even be suns and planets, let alone living things. So the vast majority of those different universes would be uninhabitable.

I’ve always been interested in Quantum theory for it suggests that what we think of as reality is the result of observation. Without observation, all possibilities exist equally. By being here, by observing, we selected one of the very few universes that could have given rise to us.

I find books about cosmology and quantum theory are never easy to read, but Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow do a creditable job with this lucidly written book, nicely illustrated with some witty cartoons and sprinkled with impish humour.

The Grand Design – Stephen Hawkings and Leonard Mlodinow (Bantam Press 2010)


Musings On Music

Last night, in a small gathering of open microphones vocal + guitar + nerve performers. I was witness to richly talented and often comical song writing. Yet I can’t help wonder why so few of us go out on a limb to “perform”?

Performance, however great the performance, have more to do with how it is perceived by it’s receivers than with how it is performed? It could legitimately be claimed that anyone who is self aware of body language / demeanour/ attitude, while in dealings with other beings is performing almost all of the time (excluding autonomic reactions, to pain for example).

As I sat there in my sing-a-long mood I began to wonder if everyday technological Ipod wearing folk in the street are more musically sophisticated than Johann Sebastian Bach? Could it be that your average 21st century citizen has a deeper appreciation and understanding than Mozart?

I suspect that karaoke nights in Kyoto host tone deaf, rhythm deficient wannabees who cannot sing or write a note but have, by osmosis, gained a deeper, nurture rather than nature, gut level understanding of music than either Bach or Mozart.

Every day we ride that musical magic-carpet through time and place, from Baroque to Boogie to the Beatles, Raga to rap and back through Bossa-nova, world music and the dulcet joys of ethnic panpipes / Celtic tin-whistles.

Even though who insist they don’t like Jazz or Classical music or modern classical music with all that atonality and sheer noise, have heard and been moved by all of these, and more, through the subtle education of musicology.

And not only of music, but of the world, the universe and everything; that is everything that is connected to everything.
After all, most of us can hear songs of their childhood with immense comfort, and millions positively listen to and appreciate these moments of escapism.


Blackberry Verses The Flint

It’s said that information is power. But are we more advanced than our forebears?

In a way, our method of becoming more advanced has made us more primitive. It seems we have become collectively advanced and more individually primitive because most citizens are “advanced” merely by proxy. My physical world / life / standard of existence, relies on people who know how to invent, make, maintain and repair the tools with which I participate in this society.
If the Blackberry I’m using to write this breaks down, I haven’t the faintest idea of how to repair it
(I can just about manage to put the battery in the right way and that’s about it).

Furthermore I’ve been driving a car for twenty five years and have very limited knowledge of what goes on under the bonnet / hood. Compare this example of techno-civilisation (me) to the primitive Indians of the Brazilian rain forest or the primitive Bushmen of the Kalahari. They have the technology they need to survive conditions that would kill me in a matter of days. They know how to find water to drink. They know how to track and kill for food. They make the weapons to kill game. They know which plants are edible and which are poisonous and how to prepare poisonous plants to make them fit for eating. They know how the technology they need works; how to make, maintain, repair and replace it. They live with the system that sustains them (nature) rather than destroying it as we seem hell-bent on doing.

Clearly, these primitive people, our contemporaries, are far more advanced and sophisticated than we are. Why? One possible answer is that they received inspiration from their ‘tacit knowledge’ of the world. I believe to a large extend we, with our technological understanding, have lost ‘tacit knowledge’: def. knowledge that enters into the production of behaviours and/or the constitution of mental states but is not ordinarily accessible to

Science does not make us necessarily more enlightened than them, superior to them, better than them as it is depending on how we use that information and the power it bestows us. But like a foreign correspondent in a war zone I’m both horrified and entranced by the brutality of what’s real and how the sharpness of things becomes strange, blunted almost, by mere circumstance.

After all, history displays the terrifying and wonderful truth that the human race eventually achieves anything it can imagine; certainly anything concrete, though world peace and the eradication of bigotry seemingly forever beyond our grasp, possibly because that’s beyond the realm of a Blackberry mobile phone*.

Perhaps our civilisation could do with a greater ‘tacit knowledge’ of compassion, which I suspect is the spark of enlightenment to a better world in which to live. But is there an App for that?

*Legal disclaimer: having owned the aforementioned mobile device for less than 12 months, I cannot and do not speak with any lasting authority of Blackberry’s capabilities the radically change the human race. For all I know I might be holding the solution to world peace etc, in the palm of my hand.

If this be the case then I offer my sincerest apologies to Research In Motion in the hope that these luddite ramblings haven’t in any way dented their projected sales figures. In any case I eagerly await a due spanking in the company’s boardroom.


On The Rails

I am British and I wait. Today the 13.22 Sprinter from London Paddington is a metaphor for Britain. It’s late. Which is just as well, as the clerical staff is losing her battle with technology. She struggles, muttering invocations in a frantic ritual; stabbing buttons, seemingly random combinations in the hope that chance will intercede with entropy, to make a miracle. She is a desperate woman.

I am a pan of milk on the boil as time breaks wind and laughs in my face. The struggle continues to not produce a ticket for the rain coated stoic in front of me. How can he be so calm!? Does that slender grey conceal the soul of an obelisk? Enraged, I conjure stun grenades from the air and plug one each into his lobe-less ears. I pull the pins. “Meditate on that, you bastard!”

I attempt calm, but fidget, knowing that this will not help. Expecting the train at any moment, my agitation, displayed, will only aggravate her flusterings. Still, I really want her to notice. So, I shrug off my rucksack, drop it to the floor and, I overacting shamefully, fold my arms with a pronounced pissed off. Two tickets spew l from the devil’s device. They are the wrong tickets. She throws them into the waste-bin.

I am embarrassed with admiration for the otherwise unimposing man’s self-control till she confirms his order …”two returns to Liverpool, Lime Street”, for the following day. He can afford dignity. Though the involuntary muscle of my emotional bladder contracts valiantly.

I am flesh, and I project urgency; sighing, drumming my fingers on my thigh and moving my weight from left to right foot and back and forth ’till, with an effort worthy of an incredibly worthy, patient person, I regain my composure and wait.

To pass the time, I consider the pros and cons of shape shifting to either, a Buddhist monk or, to a sinuously bad tempered, lethally venomous snake. My soul slithers. At last, with a, whispering whirr and the hint of a click, the tickets are delivered to her gratitude. She passes them to the grey ghost, and with a Boris Karloff “thank you”, the now headless and bloody spectre strolls out of my life.

I manage, mouth dry “Has the 13.22 been cancelled?”, communicating through a complex glass baffle (bullet proof if the railway mandarins have any concern for the well—being of their staff). “I’ll check, information will know”, she says, with a touching bravado and proceeds to joust with another intransigent, Cyclops. Nothing. Eyes blazing she turns, raises the telephone receiver! and dials… What for?!? the Samaritans? the Seventh Cavalry?

Her shoulders go back, her chin lifts, her breasts advance. Her body says, “We’ll settle this once and for all!”. She fails to get through; perhaps receiving a recorded message about being in a queue, a polite request to be patient (regardless of the cost of a long distance call) followed by a calming rendition of fucking “Greensleeves” or some other tuneful tranquilliser, filtered free from bass frequencies.

I fume silently about lack of investment, inadequate staff training, the abandonment of a nation’s infrastructure and the decline of civilisation as we blow it, while the service-supplier to end-user interface flaps, ragged, in a gale of confusion and plummeting self esteem.

But now, after all, there appears evidence to suggest that perhaps God is not the warped, egocentric, snuff movie freak of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, because the computer at last delivers. The accused in the glass cage sounds surprised relaying the information. “It’s running thirteen minutes late”, she says, and offers inadequate compensation; “It’s usually on time”.

An announcement comes over the station tannoy “We apologise sincerely for any inconvenience caused by the delays from Paddington this afternoon… this is due to a body on the track”. My soul it cringes.

Recently I read that in order to fulfil the punctuality pledge in their performance charter, the powers that will always be have hit upon the clever scheme of doctoring the time tables by adding ten minutes or more to declared journey times. This jolly jape makes it easier for them to claim improved efficiency. Your journey may take more time than is necessary. Nevertheless, you arrive within our designated parameters. . .gotcha!

I feel foolish, caught up in this silly game… conned, again. I hear the sound of distant metal wheels on endless rails. The man behind me urges, “Here it comes” and in desperation the perpetrator, and at the same time, the victim of her own and her companies crimes of incompetence, returns to the no ticket producing fiend. She attacks buttons wildly gives up in despair. Now it’s her turn to sigh, “Huuuhh. . .you’d better get it on the train love”.

I run, and board the almost empty carriage with a minute to spare. Feeling the breath in my lungs telling me that I’m alive and should give up smoking. I drop to a vacant table for four, lean back in my seat and sigh.

The present day conductor looks tough, and is no nonsense efficient but courteous… and cuddly: Close cropped hair, fairly solid, thirty four-ish, with a blob of a nose on a big and a lived in face. A thin scar snakes from the corner of his mouth to the semicircle chin. Broad shoulders challenge the uniform jacket. A deep chest and a comfortable tummy promise warming on a winter’s night for someone I suppose; as he turns to me.

I duly welcome the all-in-one ticket inspector and seller, advancing with his biscuit box, credit card accepting, digital machine and, like a seven years old, with a threepenny piece poised in my hand, the conductor takes my pink pastel ticket to his little wooden toy-town rack and clips it. He hands it back to without a word and moves on.

Feeling cramped with rear facing seats to myself. I bivouac, pull down both foldaway trays, arrange a living space, my laptop, a newspaper and now the refreshments trolley arrives. I stock the larder with a cheese and tomato sandwich, a cup of plastic coffee, a chocolate wafer bar and a can of beer. Secure in my new home it’s time to log on; as this part of the world becomes that part of the world becoming this part, and on and on. I boot the window, sit back and smile through the bloodless wound of my dream.

It’s not long before we are packed in like birds in a cage, folding down our wings, we don’t want to ruffle feathers. I watch and wait for signs of life. Blue Tits are titivating their beautiful chests and Herons are dreaming of wide open spaces. To the right of the carriage an old man is smiling; his face seems familiar, whilst I was thinking of Tolstoy and his patriarchal beard that belongs in a museum.

Over the tannoy come a passenger announcement “Ladies and Gentlemen, we will soon be entering a tunnel; hold on to your hats and please refrain from kissing the person in front of you”.
The woman facing me, is unable to conceal a bruised and battered face. Her occasional eye to eye contact reveals an unseen hurt; a life hidden from public. Her mind consumed in daily dread, in the knowing his cowardly fists will be waiting for her at the end of the line. I ask her battered spirit “Does your outrage ever grow, enough to ever leave him?”

I look out the window and see an omen, a dog in a field eyeing up a ragged ewe and what stares back is history, slavering in the cold air; it haunts old men’s beards and the stitching of their cloth, its tongue glistens like blood-flecks in the eye’s albumen and no-one speaks or notices the passing-places along the line that have many feelings attached to them.

My thoughts continue to drift to another world outside. Memories muster: the lilt of rails rallying an oddball music representing, quite literally, nothing, though it does have the virtue of a smell: the peppered snows of the wastelands; a wistful viola; trees weeping unseen from mansard roofs as we travel through the countryside. The farm houses overlook magnificent crops of barley straightened ripe in the fields.

In the centre of a ploughed and frozen field, a scarecrow, tall, apocalyptic, stands, an image of time and dickensian death; a sleek monk’s habit flowing alive to the ground; a cavernous hood concealing the creature’s undoubtedly hideous head. His / her / its robe is made of dirty white plastic fertiliser bags, sown, perhaps stapled, together. Arms outstretched, all embracing; It is The Master. I surprise myself by shivering, and repel this emotional ambush by morphing more comfort into the scene:
some fluffy rabbits.

I note in this rural depiction of agricultural eccentricities that there are no Blackbirds in sight. Maybe death is an efficient deterrent. Or perhaps the birds are biding their time, hiding in the trees bordering the naked field. “Brothers and sisters, the time of liberation approaches when we, the feathered brethren, will rise on wings of fire and smite the tyrant death with our talons of unforgiveness!”

Encouraged by fermented stimuli, gravity, filtration and autonomics, it’s toilet time. I tightrope my way towards the smallest room on rails and on the way I am accosted by an over-muscled sign in full combat gear: Caution, Attention, Achtung, followed by the same, I assume, in Japanese. Beneath this, the command, “Do not attempt to leave the train when the doors are closing” (this, the most important part, displayed in English only). I Pity French, German or Japanese travellers, already weakened… by food expertly drained of flavour, cavalier timekeeping and trains that could never be coupled with the word bullet. What are they to make of this abrupt, trilingual abandonment? Were the sign designers stupid enough not to have realised the bankruptcy of their work?

Is this just another example of us Brits taking revenge for nature’s inclusion of foreigners in its design? “Hey fellas! This’ll make ’em paranoid. . .” as they worry over this unexplained caution. After all, if the doors crush you, or some other door closing accident befalls, it’s apparently all right. .. so long as you’re not British. On the other hand, perhaps those responsible believe that only we British, with our no longer primeval but still ludicrous licensing laws, food with hair on it (pork scratchings) and subservience to an unelected second chamber, could be stupid enough not to realise the danger.

The mind drifts off but the woman opposite notices that I’ve been staring at her for some time and says, “Do you mind?” She whispers as if from the bottom of a well, her voice came rising up.
“I don’t” I say, I shift my line of sight uneasily anyway and look out of the window again.

I see “Still Life” by British Rail: Three giant locomotives, sleeping the sleep of the rust. They have rousing names, Holbrooke and Thor, but as these diesel monsters are uniformly dull (bring back steam). Lacking remote controls, we’re stuck with one channel. Happily, it informs me that the train approaches the station with three minutes to spare. Inevitably, we sloth for the last half mile and stop three times in sight of the promised land, so as to arrive exactly on time.

The tannoy interrupts again: “The guard and his staff would like to thank you all for traveling this far. And remember, the world is a strange and often beautiful place”. For a passing moment I ponder whether life is just full of randomness. The theory of randomness being the unofficial British Rail policy on most journeys (after all one punctual arrival doth not make an integrated transport policy). But another part of me wants to believe that life is one of endless punctualities in a universe of infinite destinations. Heaven help me then.

We shuffle out one by one and a few of us gather like asylum; seekers, anxious in front of the departures / arrivals monitor. Awaiting the next connecting train…

I am British and I wait.


After The Fire

I’m not easily moved as far as films go, but Deepa Mehta’s film Fire (1996) did move me. The story of a taboo lesbian love affair reveals shocking truth within Indian culture.

Mehta’s uneasy underlying message was: more women, young girls and female children are sexually abused and/or murdered each year in India by heterosexual men, than people are killed by terrorists.

(This statement, I believe to be undoubtedly true for The United Kingdom and the USA, and probably for every nation not driven by civil war in which each side refers to the other as “terrorists”.)

Fire was banned in India when it was first released because of the contention and uproar it caused.
In light of this plague of predatory heterosexual men, should the promotion of heterosexuality be banned? Should young girls be warned of the potential dangers involved in associating with heterosexual men? We’re waging a war against terrorists; should we, more importantly, be waging a war against heterosexual men?

It is nonsense to claim that nowadays homophobia is rare amongst heterosexuals in the UK and USA, and that homosexuals have little to fear or campaign for now that a handful of politicians and pop stars have come out, seemingly with little or no detrimental effect, so far, to their careers.

Arguably, the hottest political chestnuts are still, in the USA, abortion and homosexuality, and in the UK, the Single European Currency and Homosexuality. Legislation, and poll after poll concerning homosexuals and teaching, adoption, equal pension rights, and many other issues relevant to equality before the law, reveals virulent homophobia.

In India, a society more overtly repressive than the one I was born into, homosexuals are coerced (by fear of imprisonment, torture, perhaps execution) into hiding their homosexuality, perhaps to the extent of marrying. They may, perhaps, have managed to fantasise well enough and long enough to impregnate their deceived wife. This would not make them heterosexual. It would merely make them a dishonest homosexual, less at ease with themselves and, I believe, less able to make a useful contribution to society.

I also believe Section 28 is a dishonest and cowardly piece of state legislation, and definition is at the heart of that dishonesty and cowardice. It is dishonest because “The Promotion of Homosexuality” is a meaningless term: It is not possible to promote a sexuality, though it is possible, and common practice, to promote prejudice and bigotry, as Section 28 most clearly demonstrates. Section 28 is cowardly because it denies the facts: A long term or lifetime homosexual relationship is not a “pretended family relationship”, it is a real family relationship involving commitment and caring.
Such common sense, focused measures may seem absurd, but are they any more absurd than the UK’s Section 28 which bans the “promotion” of homosexuality. Are they any more absurd than society’s ill-informed, heterosexist attitudes?

It is as natural, appropriate and morally right, for a homosexual, as a long term or lifetime heterosexual relationship would be for a heterosexual. Is a childless heterosexual couple “a pretended family relationship”? I would insist that the gender of those in a sexual relationship is irrelevant — as long as it is a mutually caring sexual relationship.

The heterosexist lobby insist that everyone should be heterosexual. In effect, those who insist that homosexuals “choose” their sexuality, are inferring that all people are heterosexual, and that homosexuals are, in fact, heterosexuals who are just trying to be difficult (prejudice and bigotry depend on the rejection of reason).

I challenge heterosexuals to ask themselves this question “when did you choose to be heterosexual?” Heterosexuals do not choose their sexuality. Why then do so many insist that anyone who does not share their sexuality has wilfully chosen not to.

I’d hope that even those on the politically extreme religious right would agree that a loving homosexual relationship is worthier and more valid than an abusive heterosexual relationship. I also realise that this is a vain hope.

If you wish to promote homosexual acts amongst heterosexual people, the established and proven method is simply to incarcerate heterosexuals in prisons and deny them conjugal visits. However and, crucially, differently, if you wish to promote homosexuality amongst heterosexuals, you will be as successful as a man attempting to promote walking as an alternative lifestyle or preference for fish. Indeed, the concept of promoting a particular sexuality to schools of children is as rational as that of promoting participation in the London Marathon to schools of herring.

At the age of four I knew I was heterosexual; by which I mean that I was aware of who I was seriously attracted to, in a special emotional and physical way; who I wanted to be close to, held by (though I knew nothing of sex).

Crucially, love is a word seldom, if ever, used by heterosexuals when discussing homosexuals or homosexuality. It is implicit in the language of heterosexual discussion of this issue that heterosexuals are searching for wholesome love, but homosexuals are merely looking for sex. I believe this to be untrue, as do my gay friends, most of whom are in long term, loving relationships, while the rest are hoping to find one.

Incidentally and contrary to heterosexist mythology, being gay does not mean that you are sexually and emotionally attracted to all other members of your sex, in the same way that heterosexuals are not sexually attracted to all members of the opposite sex. The gay men I know are not sexually attracted to young people, nor to slim people. The likes of Tom Cruise, Leonardo Di Cappriano, Brad Pit or Michaelangelo’s David hold no physical attractions for them.

To return, briefly, to the ocean: Several species of fish (spotted hand fish, stonefish…) are capable of “walking” and some (mudskippers, some species of catfish and eels) are able to survive prolonged periods on land. However, the ability to move on land “like fish out of water” does not validate the opinion that living in water is an environmental preference, or lifestyle, for fish. An accurate, honest, informed assessment would be that for fish, living in water is an obligatory, natural, necessary and appropriate requirement for the fulfilment of a healthy and environmentally useful life.

Likewise, for human beings, intimate, mutually caring, relationships are not a matter of preference or lifestyle. This writer would affirm that, with few exceptions, at least one intimate, mutually caring relationship is a vital imperative for a human being, and the absence of such a relationship is unhealthy, damaging to the individual, and ultimately damaging to society.

There is almost universal agreement that this is the case for heterosexuals. Sanity would expect an equal agreement that the equivalent, loving, homosexual relationship, is an equally vital imperative. Incredibly, large numbers of supposedly rational people insist that homosexuals should abandon the search for love and should instead, like fish out of water, struggle in pain as pretended heterosexuals or suffer a frustrating celibacy.

People who commit to an intimate emotional and sexual relationship, have accepted, even embraced, responsibility for someone else’s happiness and well being. Love is love, and such people, regardless of their sexuality, regardless of the gender constituents of that relationship, are the bedrock of an emotionally stable and responsible society and should be supported, nurtured and encouraged for the benefit of all.

Addendum: Definitions

Because the language of the sexuality debate is at best confused, I include the following explanatory statements (clearly misunderstood by many) so as to establish an agreement of definition in a world where assumed agreement of definition is the basis for so much human conflict. Heterosexuals are sexually attracted only to members of the opposite sex. Homosexuals are sexually attracted only to members of the same sex. Bisexuals are sexually attracted to women and also to men. “I tried it a couple of times but it wasn’t for me” does not move someone from one category to another.

Heterosexism: A term analogous to sexism and racism, describing an ideological system that denies, denigrates, and sti gmatises any non-heterosexual form of behaviour, identity, relationship, or community. Heterosexism highlights the parallels between antigay sentiment and other forms of prejudice, such as racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism. Homophobia has typically been employed to describe individual antigay attitudes and behaviours whereas Heterosexism has referred to societal-level ideologies and patterns of institutionalised oppression of non-heterosexual people.


Thanks to Devika for patiently explaining to me the gender, cultural and familial practices still common in some parts of Indian society today.  




Confessions Of The Still Life

For as long as I can remember I’ve worked in stilled pictures, inside the boundaries of an imagination, counting mathematical intervals of space that once gave me meaning to these unfinished thoughts.

With a widening horizon of possibilities comes the ever expanding room for doubt that builds on the accommodation I have with failure. It is that sense of failure which draws me back towards the still life.

Its a circle thing I suppose.



In remembrance of Christopher Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011)

If it were proved, conclusively that

a) God doesn’t exist

b) There is no afterlife

How would you change, and why?


If God doesn’t exist, is your life meaningless? Could it be that your life has only the meaning you have the courage to give it?


Could it be that the Holy Books were written by men inspired only by the idea of a God?


If you don’t examine the philosophical basis of your beliefs, how can you argue that my life, or anyone else’s is less without those beliefs.


It matters little whether you believe something is true or not, until you are told you must live a certain way, because you believe something is true or not.


If you have faith, then (by definition) you don’t know. That would seem to be the whole point of faith: that you don’t know (though Theologians debate this point).


Now that we know more of the part played in human behaviour by genetics, chemical imbalance, hormones, religious / political indoctrination, peer and parental pressure is free will as simple and straightforward an issue as before?


An Unveiling

Yesterday evening a memorial stone was unveiled in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey for my favourite English Poet, the late Ted Hughes. Hughes, whose work towered over most of his generation joined the other well known poets of yesteryear: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley and Blake. I think it obsessive of me, but I pay tribute to Hughes every year by visiting his last home in North Tawton, Devon and his resting stone in Dartmoor National Park. I draw from his reflections (Birthday Letters) he wrote months before he died and I deeply miss hearing his voice occasionally on BBC Radio.

At exactly the same time and in Westminster, I had pleasure of meeting another Shelley, a young fledgling poet whose work I’ve only just come to know and admire. It’s refreshing to find a writer who can show us the world, the hurt / joy / wonder within and our place in it. Isn’t that exactly what a poet should do? I see Shelley’s work as the distillation of human emotion that most fail to notice or care to write about and through her poetry and paintings, she unveils a radiant mind. Of course I know that these things are subjective, but I’ve marked this date in my blue diary as a happy coincidence.


The Secret Life of a Cucumber

When you go into the supermarket and buy a cucumber wrinkle free wrapped in a tight transparent skin. When you pick the cucumber up trying to scrub your mind of everything by thinking of nothing. It’s futile, you know? ‘Cause there’s something inescapably sexual about this vegetable and you want the tumescence disguised in a plain brown wrapper. But in this enlightened era, consumer favour show and tell so you shuffle to the check out with all those other saps who’ve got their own cucumbers, or cucumbi, and you all know (no matter the “yeah yeah” of all this) there’s something more, much more, going on here than just Salad.

And the checkout girl says “How ya doing” and she sorts through the produce and everything’s run o’ the day ’till she picks up the cucumber and the whole store shivers and enters denial. But the terminal rejects everybody’s code so you religiously avoid eye contact ’cause you know and you know she knows and everyone in line knows that she knows everyone else knows. You and everyone else sighs with relief when she’s registered that great green ribbed sausage in it’s added smooth ‘though unlubed protection

And thank God she’s passed on to the cereal and the soup packets and you pays your money and you get the hell out and get back home and unpack and put the things you bought away in their allotted places freezer, fridge, low shelf, high self drawer, cupboard, under the sink.  Then weeks later you open the crisper and there it is… the cucumber you’d forgotten all about.

And trying not to pick it up you pick it up in you gagging hand and the cucumber says “Well… friend…it may be the beer, it may be the belly, it may be the time, it may be fear, debt, the job, heartache or doubt about the last time you had sex. It might be the medication, familiarity or the lack of clout. It may be sadness, expectation, boredom, a lack of imagination or it may just be that you run out of fantasy head movies. It may be that you need a better class of pornography. It may be all or none of the above but I, the cucumber, do not lie!”

And the cucumber says in a voice of fire to your cringing soul bathed in chilled spotlight “Face it fella, you just can’t get it up anymore”.

And you close the fridge door, walk across the kitchen floor and throw yourself into the bin.


A Sign From Above

The morning was damp, grey and, after a lot of caged animal pacing, I took our garden lawnmower out under a threatening sky and attempted to mow the bumpy, wet and stony quarter acre lawn at the back of our hillside home. Feeling more than a little tired, helpless, useless, empty, ridiculous, impossible, stupid, I pushed onwards and upwards. But the little mower kept getting clogged by wet grass gathering inside the machine.  I had to keep stopping and switching it off and turning it on its side and pulling great clumps of wet grass from jamming the blade. Of course it will, you damn fool. But I wouldn’t give up.

Eventually, I managed to level a path two meters wide, sixty meters long to a point good for sitting and looking out over the garden fence. It started to rain. I started back towards the house and stopped. I was not going to give in. Why should I be held hostage by inclement weather. Why should I have to go indoors just because I have no coat. So I stood my ground. I let the rain get me in my T Shirt, jogging pants and wellies. I wanted to get soaked. I registered the metaphorical cleansing – the washing away of human folly. I registered that I rarely feel anything without noting it.

And I noted that this mowing challenge, this standing in a light shower was the extent of my defiance and I laughed at myself seeing myself as Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams and I knew I was ridiculous but I did it anyway. It was pathetic. But it was something.

Before I grew overwhelmingly embarrassed by all this, the rain stopped. I stood on the edge of the garden and looked out over the row upon row of Victorian houses to those other houses miles away over the river, a mirror of our own. And the sky had cleared. And the sun shone down. And I know it seems like a plot device in a tenth rate novel but at that moment a Robin appeared. And it sailed down out of the sky, spiralling on a thought directly towards and over me. And it disappeared behind the giant oak tree at the back of next doors garden.

And I knew. I knew that, out of my sight, it would circle around to face the bow—wave of breath lifting off the face of the hedgerow. So I waited and watched. And sure enough this mistress of flight reappeared. Flew back over the oak and settled on a branch, perfectly still, suspended in solid air to her as the soil and rock beneath my feet. Ten seconds or more she held that place before tilting and gliding to vanish below me.

I freed the blade from another grass plug, took one more look out over the distant houses, and rolled the mower and myself back home towards the house, well aware of the fact that the interpretation of signs, created by ourselves to comfort our desires, was the capricious human foible that had driven me out in the first place.

Then it hit me. I knew a breakthrough was needed, though a second later I would had missed this happenstance; or a confirmation of chance. Maybe all this is just a by-product of an over fertile imagination? Either way, as I looked up I could find no sign of red breasted creature who had left an everlasting impression on me. I have been annointed with many a blessing in the past, but this time it was different, this time I was saved. Saved by bird poop.

And I registered the lie and accepted it anyway – the lie that all I’d experienced that morning in our quarter acre garden was a sign. A sign that there was a valid reason to carry on. It wasn’t a given sign. I knew that. I knew it was a sign that I had made through my interpretation of these events, driven by my desire for some comfort. And it worked. I felt a bit better. I felt that though I have little to offer it is still worth offering.

Opinion Poetry 'n Prose

Scott of the Antarctic

Last night I was thinking about Robert Falcon Scott, or “Scott of the Antarctic” while he froze hungering on the edge of the Antarctic. A hero in many books for he died (some say knowingly) on his return mission from the axis of the world and, greatest discovery, human kindness. I have also searched for a particular expression of that, but I am left hungering. It goes like this: I try, then fall…I get up and fall again…it’s harder to get up each time I fall…I start to see that it’s over and it didn’t work…start again of course…but i’m tired… and that shouldn’t make a difference… but it does…so try harder… but my strength is less…ok here’s the fact of the situation…get up and get on with it or lie down and die. You see like Scott I am prepared to die for this pursuit; though I doubt I’d have the balls to do what Scott did. Instead my experience is as the earth turns, the years pass, I die a little here and there from conceit leavened with grief.


Minding the Gap

With my usual obdurate refusal to chill, I’m considering the challenge of becoming a full time feminist. Can I join? As a fellow feminists, (and men, I know you’re out there too), I should be doing more to be minding the gap. Where to start? Equal pay methinks.

Apparently women managers will have to wait 187 years to achieve equal pay with men at current rates of progress towards closing the earnings gap, the Chartered Management Institute said. Its 2008 annual salary survey showed the average woman in British management earned £32,614 in the 12 months to March, compared with £46,269 for their male counterparts.

The survey of more than 40,000 managers at all grades from trainee to director found women’s pay increased by 6.8% over the year, compared with 6.6% for the men. The institute said: “At the current level of annual pay increases, this means it will not be until 2195 before female pay outstrips men.” It would take even longer for women to achieve equal pay in the IT sector and, on current trends, female managers at board level in Scotland would not gain parity until 2366. The highest paid managers were men in London, who averaged £67,256. The lowest paid were women in Wales, who averaged £27,115.

Jo Causon, the institute’s marketing director, said: “At least with a glass ceiling it is possible to see through to the next level. However, when it comes to equal pay, it seems that the glass is now opaque. To have to wait several generations is inexcusable and it is time that the lip service of the three decades since sex discrimination was first outlawed is transformed into action.”


A British Media Triumph

In the latter days of the dying News of the World certain sections of the British media industry predicted a financial killing. They told us that we were going to go crazy over the last Sunday edition. They told us that we should buy early or be left out. They told us that they (the alliance of right winged publishers) would go down in red-top history and that we (the gullible public) should buy now instead of facing hugely inflated prices (Ebay and the like), because their last edition would be so much in demand.

Then, something wonderful happened: Millions of British people considered what was going down and decided to leave News of the World in the shops, newsagents, paper stands and garages. Millions of ordinary British people didn’t book a seat on the final ripoff-service-industry—jackpot-express. And the price of non-accountable News International shares pooped. And the price of our national soul rose upwards.

The British people said: “We may be stupid enough (like most people) to vote for anybody who says they’ll give us more and charge us less…We may be so stupid that we are more interested in what our currency is called, rather than in how much it will buy… We may be stupid enough to teach our children that some people are worthy of more respect than others, merely because of an accident of birth…

BUT, BUT, BUT   When you expect us to play Lambs to the Slaughter after you tell us that you intend to cash in off the misery of others (in a spectacularly, extravagant, illegal and immoral manner) and that in addition, you are doing us a favour…well… All we can tell you, oh spawn of La Thatcher, is……… no……… ”

People of Britain, at the dawn of a new age, I salute you.


Trouble with Lear

I admire greatly any actor who accepts the challenge of that Everest of theatrical roles, “King Lear”. Written by Anne Hathaway’s husband, a writer who has influenced your English speaking life even if you’ve never seen or read any of his plays or heard or read any of his love sonnets. King Lear is considered by many to be William Shakespeare’s greatest outpouring. But I don’t think so. No for reasons I hope to present, I can find no merit in this bogus tragedy.

I saw King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford—upon-Avon during the late 90’s (I don’t remember exactly anyway it was approaching the millennium and it is easy to be pretentious, affected and overly cultured). But all things come with age and since this time, with a foot firmly in mouth passion, I have managed to reveal in myself the dissatisfaction I have with this particular Shakespearean offspring.

The essence of tragedy, from the audience’s point of view, is that you must feel sympathy for the tragic figure. Trouble is, I don’t feel a micro—jot of sympathy for Lear. Abandoning his responsibilities, he arrogantly expects to be treated as though he was still shouldering those responsibilities. He expects his children to honour and love him merely because he provided the sperm. His loyal and good friend, the Earl of Gloucester, tries to help him and has his eyes plucked out for his trouble. And Cordelia, the only daughter out of three who does love him (and loves him enough not to dishonour him by being a sycophantic, hypocritical, self—serving toady) is executed for trying to help him.

King Lear is a true member of the British Conservative party: He knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; and those around him have to suffer (horribly and/or fatally) the consequence of his education. He is a selfish, self-centred, arrogant, “head in the sand” man. The tragedy is not his: it is the tragedy of those around him. And having known and observed so many of his ilk and the global suffering they cause, I find his saga irritating, annoying and frustrating rather than instructive or moving.

There. Glad I got that off my chest. Well, Shakespeare certainly has me boiling doesn’t he? I wonder if that’s the point. Perhaps the ability King Lear has to anger me… makes it a very good play indeed. Anything, but indifference eh?


Fiesta Brava

I’ve never attended a bullfight, a Fiesta Brava, though I have made myself watch film footage of the bloodiest moments, and also that moment fatal to the bull. The audiences applauded the matadors with joyous admiration (I find in my Spanish dictionary that corrida is slang for orgasm). The matadors paraded themselves in the “I’m the man” attitude.

Familiar as I am with my obdurate refusal to chill, my gut reaction to the Fiesta Brava footage was no surprise to me: I considered the matador a cheat. I thought the audience and he were collectively dishonest. It seems to me that if the matador wants to prove his bravery and honestly represent our human superiority over the rest of creation (our dominion over the beasts of the earth) then he should enter the ring naked, as does El Toro, and attempt to vanquish the bull without the aid of picadors (with their sharp lances) and banderilleros (with their barbed sticks).

At the same time, I wonder whether the respective genetic and intellectual histories of human and bull—kind should be taken into account. After all, we claim it is our ability to reason which elevates us above other life~forms. So, an accurate contest between bovine and   homo sapiens, should be between intellect on the human side and brute force on the steak side. Perhaps a “fair” fight between representatives of our respective species should include all that bulls (as a species) have learned, pitted against all that humans (as a species) have learned.

This would mean that the bull would pit it’s horns and muscle against a man or woman, positioned many miles away, armed with nuclear missiles (that most physically destructive expression of our powers of reason). Admittedly, the encounter would be brief and ecologically damaging but hey… don’t get me wrong… I’m aware of, and have been tempted by, the buzz to be had from violence and buckets of blood… but the decision to fight in the traditional sword/picador/banderillas way seems to me to be an arbitrary and false definition of fair; one which, as in other blood “sports”, demeans us.

Of men who have faced horror, felt the breath of death on their skin, some of these have said that for them, war was the best of times: the time when they felt truly alive. I suspect it’s the same for those men and women who climb mountains or skyscrapers, with only chalk and the strength of their fingers and toes between them and an insect death on the planet’s windscreen.


Unblemished Character (Re-edited)

In 1998 Murdoch was awarded a papal knighthood.  A Papal knighthood is not a courtesy title. The Pope was saying that Rupert Murdoch is the man your children should follow. After all, if you wish to please God … who better to emulate than a man with an “unblemished character”? An “unblemished character” suggests a sin free soul. This is a serious, heaven or hell assessment with crucial implications as to how human beings should behave in the eyes of God.

Perhaps Murdoch’s $10 million contribution toward the construction of a Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles suggests to Pope John Paul II that Murdoch has lead a blameless life – or perhaps it is that Murdoch, as Chairman and Chief Executive of News Corporation and owner of Zondervan Publishing House, is the publisher of the New International Version of the Bible (NIV). Although the NIV copyright is held by the International Bible Society, Zondervan has exclusive publishing rights.

But we now know Rupert Murdoch made his fortune by encouraging and preying upon base human instincts, through his ownership of newspapers such as the UK publications The Sun and (now defrocked) The News of The World. But Murdoch continues to promote racism, contempt for women (something Rebecca Brooks, nee Wade, appeared to have missed), homophobia and, in general, the hatred of those who are different from him by encouraging the base instincts of the mob.

Pope John Paul II is promoted as a man of morals, a moral arbiter whose opinions on ethics we are all encouraged to respect. In addition, a billion Catholics consider him to be God’s representative on earth. In light of John Paul II’s assessment of what constitutes an unblemished character, I suggest his admirers should re-examine some of his other pronouncements on moral issues such as condoms and HIV/AIDS, celibate priests,women priests, the family and sexuality in general.

Take sexuality for example. For human beings, intimate, mutually caring, relationships are not a matter of preference or lifestyle. I would affirm that, with few exceptions, at least one intimate, mutually caring relationship is a vital imperative for a human being, and the absence of such a relationship is unhealthy, damaging to the individual, and ultimately damaging to society, a society that Murdoch’s feeds his readership with. We should expect more than that from a much promoted moral leader with the political power of a billion followers.

Incredibly, a large numbers of people (who read Murdoch’s press) insist that homosexuals should abandon the search for love and should instead, like fish out of water*, struggle in pain as pretended heterosexuals or suffer a frustrating celibacy. I suggest that the equivalent, loving, heterosexual relationship is an equally vital imperative for homosexuals. People who commit to an intimate emotional and sexual relationship, have accepted, even embraced, responsibility for someone else’s happiness and wellbeing. Love is love, and such people, regardless of their sexuality, regardless of the gender constituents of that relationship, are the bedrock of an emotionally stable and responsible society and should be supported, nurtured and encouraged for the benefit of all.

See Three Seconds is Up: Part One.


* Several species of fish (spotted hand fish, stonefish…) are capable of “walking” and some (mudskippers, some species of catfish and eels) are able to survive prolonged periods on land. However, the ability to move on land “like fish out of water” does not validate the opinion that living in water is an environmental preference, or lifestyle, for fish. An accurate, honest, informed assessment would be that for fish, living in water is an obligatory, natural, necessary and appropriate requirement for the fulfilment of a healthy and environmentally useful life.