Day 550 :: The Beginning of a Great Adventure (Part Three)

Saturday December 1st

I received a comment on a blog post recently. It was left by someone calling himself ‘P****d off man’. Here it is here… 

I am not meaning to be rude to you, but perhaps you need to replace words and phrases like “bail me out”, “dreams” and “closed doors” with something such as “commitment”, “reality” and “contribution”. Life is hard for everyone these days, not everyone has a talent, so perhaps you could channel yours in a more positive and giving way that may mean conforming a little more, but hey ho, we all have to do that to succeed at some point in our lives … and no, it isn’t always pleasant, but sometimes necessary.
Perhaps you could try volunteering overseas?
Contentment isn’t about surrounding ourselves with sycophants, but knowing where we are going, being happy in our own skin and leaving this world in the knowledge that we have perhaps been a little selfless at some point along the way.
Good luck for your future. It’s in your hands.

 To which I replied… 

No, no, quite right. Do I sound whiny and negative? Awful, isn’t it. You just want to slap me. I am pretty happy in my own skin though, and I know I’ve been a little selfless along the way. I’m just not sure where I’m going. Don’t be p****d off. Good luck to you too.

 To which he responded…

No, I don’t want to slap you, I think it’s a shame that you aren’t able to contribute your undeniable talent in some way that will make you feel more fulfilled.
There are so many places in the world and so many people that could really benefit from your kind nature.
I hope you find that place.

 

I felt slightly defensive about his remarks, as was perhaps clear from my response, but I could see that there was truth in them. I am a self-centred so-and-so and no mistake. I always have been. But it’s never too late to change. At least to a certain extent.

So for a couple of days after reading that comment, I found it floating around in my head, annoying me. Volunteering overseas, I scoffed. As it happens, I have an ex-girlfriend who did VSO and I spent three months with her in the Gambia. VSO is a great thing, for sure, but it’s far too much of a commitment for me. As with any other job that becomes routine, I fear I’d get bored and grow resentful. Then I remembered something called WWOOFing that someone – I don’t remember who – told me about many years ago. WWOOFing – in a nutshell – is working, on a voluntary basis, on organic farms.That’s all I knew, but when I was next online, I did a bit of reading. And there it was. The beginning of a great adventure.

I’m prone to whimsy I won’t deny it. And I go off half-cocked a lot of the time. Sometimes completely uncocked. But reading about WWOOFing and realising exactly what it is and how it works was like a moment of great revelation for me. Eyes opening, pennies dropping, thunder clapping all over the place. I just thought, ‘Oh, so that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.’ 

Since then, I’ve done a lot of reading and I’m currently making my way through a 104-page document that lists the hundreds of habitations in Italy that are willing to put me up and feed me while I help them do what needs to be done and learn everything they’ve got to teach me.

At times I’ve found reading about their lives quite breathtaking. It’s not just the nature – the beehives, the pomegranates, the olive presses and the hay-baling – it’s the people. People who say things like, ‘We are curious to share precious moments with you.’ Me too! That’s what I’m curious for! Precious moments.

It’s also the fact that discovering WWOOFing gives the past two years a shape and a sense that until now, I didn’t know they had.

Which is to say, I feel like I’m going in the right direction, or at least that I have a direction. It feels like the things that have happened in the past two years have happened in order to bring me to this. The festivals fiasco led me to France, and a taste of rural living in France has led me directly to WWOOFing. The more I read about it, the more surprised I am that it isn’t more well-known and that more people I know don’t do it. But this is no bad thing. On the contrary, it means I can help spread the word, which of course I fully intend to do.

So there we are. The future is bright, and it has dirt under its fingernails. Lovely, clean dirt.

 

Day 538 :: Ghosts

Monday November 19th. 17:13

The electrician is looking for good earth, and for good earth he has to dig. I help him. My back hurts. It feels like I’ve been digging for days. In actual fact I have been digging for days. On Saturday and Sunday I helped Cyrus dig a trench for a retaining wall along the bottom of a garden. Today I am digging up the vegetable bed looking for good earth. Earth that was good enough for my vegetables is apparently not good enough for the electrician’s earthometer, on which it registered an epic 2,000 OMGs. I don’t really know what’s going on, but it’s like trench warfare out there.

 

It’s also kind of poignant that since my brother was buried just over a week ago, I’ve spent a substantial amount of time climbing in and out of what are essentially fresh-cut graves. Except it isn’t really that poignant at all because my brother was cremated. It might have been more poignant if I’d taken a job in a bakery.

 

Apparently my brother once placed an apple on his head and persuaded the then World Darts Champion Phil Taylor to throw a dart into it.

 

He was a one, my brother. Salt of the earth apparently. 

 

Speaking of which, tomorrow, unless I have misunderstood, in an effort to give the earth the right amount of resistance, the electrician will add salt to it. This is science. Or witchcraft. Or both.

 

In other news, the cats have also gone. Not to another world like my brother, but to a new home, and a new life. I still see them, however, sashaying around my peripheries. Not them, I guess. Their ghosts. I miss them.

 

It’s dark now. And getting cold.

 

This Is Paris

I am sitting on a porcelain toilet that’s been dumped on a busy Parisian street. I am smoking a cigarette and posing for a photograph. It seems like exactly the right thing to do. My host is amused by my gaucheness, which I exaggerate instinctively. I am like some country simpleton on his first visit to the city, all wide-eyed and full of ooh and cry, greeting cold strangers like Crocodile Dundee.  

On the first evening we eat in a very busy Montmartre restaurant. People are seated almost painfully close to one another. The restaurant is like a microcosm of the city, of every city, people forced practically to live in one another’s laps. Some of them accept proximity with alacrity, others wince at every unordered connection. Happily, and for various reasons, I am, for the moment, in the former camp. I am blithe, full of steak, bright lights, brickwork and wine.

I have approximately 48 hours in Paris. Aside from steak, wine and general city-stalking, I figure I have time for the Père Lachaise cemetery, the Museum of Fascinating Natural Phenomena, if such a thing exists, and if I’m really lucky, a chance encounter with Amelie Poulin that will lead eventually to a lifetime of frenzied activity and passionate contentment. For the two of us. Together. I don’t mind that she’s fictional. I don’t mind that at all.

But despite my openness to all kinds of magical meta-realities, it doesn’t happen.

What happens instead is that I am taken to the Café des Deux Moulins, the Montmartre bar in the film where Amelie, who is fictional, works. It is a real bar.

But it feels unreal. I am drunk. I am in a big city for the first time in quite a while and I am in a bar from a film that I love. I am in excellent company. The music is good. The drinks are expensive. There seems to be a 20% Amelie tax in operation but who can blame them for that? Only the toilets are a disappointment. No hypochondria was ever vanquished by sweet, impromptu love in that rancid vestibule. But no matter. I am out in the world of people, making connections with life.

The cemetery map is damp and coming apart at the folds in the rain, which is insistent, and annoying at times, but probably a good thing in the long run. You should always see a great cemetery in the rain.

There are some amusing epitaphs at the Père Lachaise. None as amusing as Spike Milligan’s suggestion, ‘I told you I was ill’, as my host is right to point out, but amusing nonetheless…

I can think of no greater achievement in death than having people laugh or smile every time they visit your final resting place.

My favourite tomb houses the remains of one Victor Noir, accidental symbol of plebeian rebellion and concomitant sex god. The sculpture atop the tomb depicts Noir as he was sketched on the day he was shot dead in 1870 by the great nephew of the midget emperor Napoleon. Lying supine, with his shirt open to the waist, the first button of his trousers undone and his hat on its side by his feet, Noir looks less like a murdered man and more like a man passed out in a brothel.

The story of why he was shot and how he became a fertility symbol is beautiful, but must wait. 

Later that afternoon we’re making our way to the Apple Store in Rue Something-or-Other when we hear a man crying out in the street. It is the end of a dull, darkling day, intermittently wet and his cries are more like a choked moan of pain. My host, who is a translator and a very good person, retraces her steps and bends down to this man, who is lying on his front on the ledge of a giant department store window.

She asks if there is anything she can do to help him. She asks if he is in any pain. He struggles into a sitting position and begins to talk to her. I can’t understand much of their conversation, because my French is bad, but soon the man is sobbing and my friend sits down next to him on the low ledge.

After a few minutes of conversation, my friend reaches for her purse and makes to give the man some money. I watch as she fishes out two notes, pauses for a moment, then reaches into another compartment and takes out a third. She closes her purse and pushes the sixty euros into the man’s swollen hand, which is gloved with grime. They talk for another ten minutes or so, the man occasionally unable to stop himself from sobbing. I am standing close by, understanding what I can where I can and watching the conversation with a growing sense of privilege.

People pass by, watching and wondering.

The man turns to me at one point and apologises for holding me up. I won’t hear of it, naturally. Then he tells me his name – Fidel – and I tell him mine – Karl – and he explains that he just wants to be loved, or he just wants someone to love, I wasn’t sure which. Then he takes off his shoes and shows me his feet, and his toes all grown out of shape like melted cheese. Then he tells me that his dog is dead.

I find out later from my friend that he’s 28 years old and has been on the streets for eleven years. His dog was sliced open and killed in some random act of violence just a couple of weeks ago and that proved the final straw. He hadn’t been begging in the street when we heard him. Just, having reached a certain point, he’d broken down.

When he decides the time has come to say goodbye, we shake hands and then hug.

I had been planning to go to the Apple Store to see whether I could afford to buy a new iPod, but that no longer seems appropriate or desirable in any way. Instead, I suggest we make for a place to have a coffee and talk about what’s just happened. Then my friend bursts into tears.

Her take on the whole thing, which she makes clear over coffee, is that what just happened is symptomatic of the whole horrific shebang of modern city life. There are millions of people out there just like this guy, she argues. Desperate, dying people who all need help that no one is giving them because nobody gives a shit.

But some people do give a shit, I point out. Some people care.

But what difference does one act of caring make? She gave one homeless man sixty euros, but she couldn’t give every homeless man sixty euros! And was that even the right thing to do? Fidel had said he wanted to rent a room in a cheap hostel, but what if the money just got siphoned off into the black hole of some addiction or other? How was that helping him?

But my take is completely different. I saw something that made me feel honoured to count myself a human being and inspired to make a better job of it. I saw someone rescued from abject desperation. How long it will last and how much it will ultimately mean is anyone’s guess, but at that moment of connection, when a stranger took the time to care, Fidel’s life was changed. And with his faith in the possibility of human goodness restored, Fidel was saved.

It was a beautiful thing.

My friend was still bound by buts and despair but I was convinced, once again, that there is hope for humankind.

Yes, there is.

Shush.

On Flying Ryanair (My Brain Thinks Bomb-like)

Monday 12th November, 2012. 12:55
I should be somewhere over France now, preparing to descend. Instead I’m heading back into London in an almighty fug.

Missing my flight back to Limoges was nobody’s fault but my own. I recognise that completely. Forgetting how busy London can be on a Monday morning, I simply didn’t leave enough time.

I could bitch and moan of course about the fact that the gate had only just closed and the plane was sitting there on the tarmac with a full ten minutes before take-off was scheduled, so really I didn’t miss the flight at all. But I won’t. I should have been there earlier. It was my fault.

What really upset me though, was the attitude of the woman I dealt with, the member of the Ryanair groundstaff who, when I arrived out of breath and all a’fluster, was still closing up the gate. She was the one who informed me, icily, that I was too late.

While I accept that she couldn’t let me on the plane (which, obviously, she actually totally could), what I found painful was her complete lack of humanity in turning me away.

Not a single emotion, not a flicker of empathy passed over the stagnant bog of her face. There was no eye contact, no face crumpled in sympathy, not even a casual, faux sincere ‘sorry’. Rather, she made it abundantly clear that she was not sorry at all. Not even remotely.

I tried a couple of pleas, pointing out politely that the plane was still there, still sitting there a matter of 30 seconds from where I stood, but the woman was made of marble. She was the kind of woman who could watch a kitten skinned alive, maybe even a child, and not bat an eyelid.  

I considered explaining that I was on my way home from a funeral, or even telling a little white lie and saying that I was on my way to a funeral and that if she didn’t let me through, I would miss it. But I knew there was no point. It would be like trying to coax sweet music from a tumour.

In fact, this was not the first time I had tried and failed to reach out to a Ryanair employee. I also tried it in Valencia a couple of years ago.

On that occasion, when things started to wrong, I remember attempting to do something cute with my face at check-in – the kind of thing Matthew Broderick managed so effortlessly in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – but it didn’t come together at all. Instead of melting helplessly, the cool green eyes of the check-in lady regarded me with nothing but contempt, her pencil-stroke eyebrows flickering distastefully. I tried another face. I tried the little lost boy in the big bad world face. My eyes said, ‘What chance did I have? My parents didn’t want me. They didn’t want me! Have mercy!’ But this face too fell on dead ears and eyes. It was time, I realised, to stop making faces. Or else there was going to be a situation.

On that occasion, I was in good time for my plane, but news of brand new check-in regulations had come as an unpleasant surprise. A bombshell, you might say. On previous Ryanair flights, it had been sufficient to merely present a flight reference number, carefully copied in ink from confirmation email to notebook. On more than one occasion a mere flash of the passport had sufficed. Now, quite suddenly, there was a stand-off.

The check-in lady coldly explained that new regulations clearly stated that passengers presenting themselves at check-in without a printout of the confirmation email would be subject to a €40 penalty charge.

‘Why?’ I said, slightly brusquely.

‘These are the new regulations,’ she repeated blandly.

‘Yeah, but it doesn’t make any sense. I’ve paid for my seat. My name is on your list – the list in front of you. My passport number is on your list and my passport is in my hand. It’s not … it’s not even a question of security. I mean, what you’re asking is completely arbitrary. You might as well just try and charge me €40 for not having a moustache.’ I did have a moustache at the time, and a full beard, so it was a poor example, and it cut no ice.

Instead I was informed with sub-zero civility that if I did not pay the €40 penalty charge, I would not be able to fly. I pulled the breaths of six men into my lungs. In my imagination, to stop myself spitting in her eye, I burrowed my tongue into her ear, making her squirm and cry out in curious pleasure.

Then I had one of my good ideas. ‘So if I had a printout, I wouldn’t have to pay the €40?’ I asked. She confirmed that this was indeed the case. I nodded, pleased.

I was sure I’d seen a bank of computers in the airport, a small space with a company selling internet access and, doubtless, printing facilities. I was about two hours early for the flight, as I usually am, so I informed the check-in lady of my intention to return with a printout. She stopped me with a shake of her hair and a horrible glare from her eyes that could freeze a piece of meat and then cook it to a crisp in seconds, and she informed me that the printout must be printed out a minimum of four hours before the flight.

I smiled indulgently for a second, almost daring to believe that the check-in lady was finally displaying a sliver of humanity, jokingly inventing a ludicrous lucre-spinning loophole. But there was no such sliver. Also, she was growing impatient with my shilly-shallying. She informed me that I would either have to pay the penalty charge or step out of the queue. Other people – other people with clean and crisply folded paper printouts, as per the new regulations – were waiting to be checked in.

‘But what difference would it make if my email was printed ten minutes ago or last week?’ I pleaded.

She repeated something about regulations. She called me ‘sir’. Every time she called me ‘sir’, it was like another door slamming shut.

‘What happens if I refuse to pay?’ I said.

‘You won’t be allowed to fly,’ she replied.

‘What happens if I can’t pay?’ I asked. ‘If I don’t have the money because I don’t have any money because I knew I wouldn’t need any money so I spent my last few pennies on soup and cigarettes?’ She continued to glare, silently. We both knew the answer but I wanted her to say it. ‘What happens if I can’t pay?’ I repeated sadly.

‘You won’t be allowed to fly,’ she said.

I couldn’t pay. I had run out of money. And this time there was no one on hand to bail me out. I’ve been bailed out many times in my life, by many different people. This makes me feel foul and repugnant, like a human-sized grub, living on the dead wood of other people’s efforts, sucking up the oxygen of their kindness, giving nothing in return.

I was in Valencia, trying to get back to the UK. I had made a valiant but extremely stupid effort to travel around the world with £400. Naturally I had failed. Then some kind-hearted people who either believed in me, or merely wanted to encourage me, had bailed me out with donations. But now that too had gone and at that moment in time in Valencia airport I knew that there was not enough money in my account to cover this ludicrous, obscene penalty charge.

‘I didn’t even know,’ I said, my voice cracking, ‘that the rules had changed.’

‘You received an email,’ she told me.

‘What if I didn’t?’ I said, clutching desperately at what may have been the final straw. ‘What if I didn’t receive it? Email goes wrong all the time. Spam filters. Firewalls. Viruses. All kinds of things.’ I had worked in the internet for a couple of years so I knew my stuff.

‘The information regarding the new regulations was in the same email as the flight reference,’ she told me.

We both looked at the flight reference, scribbled onto a page in my notebook, in my hand.

The check-in lady had blonde hair that fell over her brow like a broken wing fanning neatly off of a duck’s back. She had a wide New Yorker’s mouth that sat astride her small, soft Irish face like a one-armed wrestler, struggling to get out of that stagnant bog. She was actually Spanish, and appeared to be wearing someone else’s face entirely. Or more probably this was what her face looked like once her soul had been removed. Michael O’Leary would probably deny that all Ryanair staff members’ have their souls removed when they sign their employment contracts. Doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

I smiled. She did not return my smile. I looked at her name badge. ‘Yolanda,’ I said. This was the final straw, surely. ‘What if I were to leave the queue now, yeah? And return a little bit later on – in half an hour maybe? – with my confirmation printout? And then we could just, you know … take it from there.’ I nodded encouragingly, conspiratorially, decisively. I may even have winked.

But we had no connection. No connection at all. I wondered if it was me, if it was personal, or if she’d been trained to turn off any connection at the first sign of a squabble. This time when she informed me that I would have to pay the penalty charge or just go away, she did so with an impatient gesture to the queue that was steadily building behind me.            

Please,’ I said. Aha. This was the final straw. Begging. ‘Please, Yolanda. Look at me, I’m a person just like you, and I’ve got to get home. I paid for my ticket. I didn’t know. Please let me fly.’ Were those tears? They may well have been. Or maybe just sweat caused by the effort to force some out. ‘Yolanda, I’ve ….’

Sir.’ She cut me dead and hectored me with a jerk of her chin. It was a final warning. She made a move towards the telephone on her desk. I took my card from my wallet and handed it to her. This was worse than being mugged – much worse – because apparently it was all above board. 

‘Not here,’ she snapped, like a drug dealer transacting with a simpleton.

I dragged my rucksack across to the Humiliation Kiosk on the other side of the thoroughfare and to my considerable surprise and relief, my card went through and the payment was accepted. Somehow I was still afloat.

I took the receipt from my mugging to the front of the check-in queue where Yolanda checked me in without betraying even the slightest sign that she had ever seen me before. I suddenly felt consumed with anger at her lack of empathy, her lack of curiosity or care for my story. I could after all have been anyone, and anything could have been happening to me. I wanted to tell her that I was travelling home following the sudden death of both of my parents and my children. I wanted to tell her that I was her long lost brother. I wanted to grab both of her hands, look deep into her eyes and say, ‘You. Me. Same.’ But I didn’t. I just mumbled under my breath and chewed self-pitifully on my wind-chapped, unkissed lips. I wanted to get it over with. I wanted to get home. I wanted to eradicate the evil in Michael O’Leary’s soul. I wanted to win his confidence, casually confirm his moral turpitude and then set off with him on a series of bizarre adventures with undertones of magic realism before finally, O’Leary comes to understand that placing financial gain before basic human decency is not actually in his own best interests.

‘My father has died,’ I mumbled suddenly. The check-in lady paused for a second before deciding to pretend that she hadn’t actually heard me. I was grateful. Surprised and embarrassed by my words, I averted my gaze and began to focus on the checking-in process with a weird, taut intensity.

The words had come out of my mouth because a sudden charge of almost uncontrollable rage had coursed through me and had had to be derailed. The initial urge had been to just shout something provocative about bombs and terrorism and death, and my father had merely slipped out through the hole in security created by the act of suppression. Like a greased kidney.

I quite enjoy airports on the whole, when everything goes well, or as well as can be expected. Unfortunately, when things go wrong, my perspective shifts and airports become Gestapo containment camps, where every move is monitored, every right to privacy and decency infringed, every last shred of humanity destroyed and every slippery thought threatened. In this environment I become slave to the holy trinity of inappropriate airport emotions: paranoia, rage and High Security Tourette’s Syndrome.

‘I regret to inform you, Sir, that there will be a €40 pen– ’

‘AL QAEDA!’

Stunned silence.

‘Sir, did you just ….’

‘Death to the Infidel! A thousand Lockerbies upon you!’

Under the circumstances, an involuntary half-baked attempt to suggest that my father had died significantly more recently than 22 years ago, and that maybe this faux fact should exempt me from the thug-tax, didn’t seem too bad.

I bit my cheeks and ticked, bomb-like. Blood came into my mouth, tears to my eyes.

Checked-in, I took my boarding card and receipts and thanked the Ryanair check-in lady cordially because there must always be room for good manners.

I decided that before the unpleasantness of taking off my belt and opening my laptop and maybe also removing my shoes, I would go outside and smoke a cigarette, which would disgust me.

So I sat smoking on a low wall overlooking the cold, sullen roads that sped away from the airport towards Valencia, and I thought about the chimp’s tea party that my life had become.

I was fast approaching the end of my 42nd year. Forty-two was supposed to be the year when everything happened, and I’d gone out of my way to make it so. I really had tried. I had committed myself and awaited Providence. I had started to believe in that which I could not even dream. I went looking for the magic that came with the effort and the self-belief, but I came back empty-handed.

The shuffle function on my ailing iPod offered me William Shatner talking about a wet cake, and when a small pool of tears convened in my lower lids, I’m ashamed to say I clenched them deliberately onto my cheeks and sniffed loudly, thinking that someone might notice, some fellow smoker in the grey stench of the airport ashtray might notice, and care. They might come over to me, I thought. They might make a connection.

No one did.

The dream was over.

As I say, all that happened just under two years ago. Not long before France bailed me out. And now France too, is coming to an end. When I finally make it back there, I’ll start making the final arrangements to move on. And I’ll start wrestling some new dreams to the ground.

At the moment, however, on a wet motorway heading back into London, the future stretches out in front of me like a dark corridor peppered with closed doors.

I need to make some changes.

I need to sort my shit out.

 

Day 504 :: Progress

Monday 16th October, 2012

The first stage of the Operation Power was completed sometime in the past few days. I wasn’t here. I was elsewhere, on a roof. The advance payment on the second stage has been made. Things are moving forward. What I’m really hoping now is that someone pops up from nowhere and offers me a ridiculously large amount of money for the novel I’ve written so that I can buy a flat somewhere in Sicily and not have to lose my cats. For they are precious. Look at them… 

 

I know that’s more or less impossible, however, so I’ve had to make other arrangements. The cats are going to live with someone else. A very nice man with a young son that stays with him from time to time and I’m sure he’ll take good care of them. I’ll miss them. It makes me sad to think that I have to part with them. I think it would make them sad too if they had any idea. But of course they’ll adapt. They’re cats. But they’re my cats. It isn’t easy. But life goes on.

Not for my brother, however, who as of today is apparently definitely dying. All I know is he’d better time it right, because if my sister misses her Star Trek convention this weekend, there’ll be hell to pay.

Make it so, Big Les. Make it so.

In other news, two of my very finest friends are having a baby tomorrow.

One in, one out.

Hello, goodbye.

C’est la vie. (Et la mort.)

In yet more news, I’ve been watching a lot of films lately. Some of them very good, some of them not so good. In one of them, there is a medium shot of a helicopter flying over Hollywood, passing the famous sign. This is preceded by a long shot, but in the long shot, something is wrong. 

Maybe it’s deliberate and it’s some kind of ‘joke’. Silly old Ohllywodo.

Ten points if you guess the film. Sod it. Twenty. You can have twenty points.

In another film, Christian Bale plays a journalist from the north of England writing a where-are-they-now story about Brian Slade, a David Bowie-alike played by Jonathan Rhys Meyer. As part of his research, he looks up old newspaper articles about Slade. I guess I must be super-anal but whenever there’s footage of a newspaper article in a film, if at all possible I always pause it to see what’s been written. It interests me to know how much effort they’ve made, what kind of attention to detail they have. If the film is really good, it’ll be done well. If the film’s not very good, it’ll be done badly.

In Velvet Goldmine, it was done very, very badly indeed. This first one isn’t too bad. It may look like it’s been cut and pasted into a child’s scrapbook, but at least the filmmakers had someone write a fake story that actually related to the fake headline…

This next one they didn’t bother. They just found an old copy of The Guardian and pasted in a new headline and left the story as it was… 

 

Same with this one… 

This last one, however, is as bad as Ewen McGregor’s Michigan accent…

$9m they spent on that film and yet they couldn’t be arsed to take the time to do something that would take a couple of hours to get right.

Most people probably think it doesn’t matter. I think it matters. And before you tell me to get a life, believe me, I’m working on it. In the meantime, death and birth be buggered, I’m going to Paris in three days’ time.

Oh la la.  

Day 495 :: Limbo (D♭m)

Sunday 7th October, 2012. 11:18

I woke up this morning – da naa na na – not feeling tired. This is unusual. I can’t actually remember the last time I woke up not feeling tired. I even felt like doing things, which is also unusual. I’m sure it’s unrelated but last night I dreamt that Stephen Fry had murdered someone and, as I was the only one who knew about it, I was next. At one stage Fry came at me with a scalpel. I remember thinking that if it ever got out – the murder thing – it was going to make the ‘women don’t like sex’ debacle look like small potatoes. Then I got up and saw two deer by the old Japanese greeting (the harrow) and felt that all was right with the world. Then, a short while later, I heard gunshots. It’s hunting season. Best not think about it. Best get on.

Through mosquito netting and dirty window, one of two deer.


It’s particularly pleasing to feel so positive because recently I’ve been feeling rather negative. This negativity is due to the fact that I feel like I’m in limbo. I’m waiting for two things to happen, one of which definitely will – but when is anyone’s guess – the other of which definitely might not. The first is the installation of electricity. The second is the acceptance of my book, by a new agent, publisher, anyone really. So I’m waiting. And it’s raining. A couple of weeks ago I was feeling so negative that I wrote this: 

Saturday 22nd September. 19:49

For the last couple of days I have been acting like a depressed person. I don’t think I am one, but we all have a our moments and it’s definitely something that concerns me. I have spent lots of time sitting in a chair in complete silence, staring at nothing in particular and considering very seriously going back to bed in the middle of the day. This has been generally accompanied by an overall disdain for everything that I’ve done with my life thus far, plus what I guess are best labelled desperate aural hallucinations that someone is coming up the drive.

Tonight, however, I bought some orange juice to accompany the half bottle of vodka that’s been hanging around since June. I feel better. I know that getting drunk is not the best solution to feeling in a fug, but I reckon as long as I don’t make a massive habit of it, I’ll be alright. And so I find myself outside in the gloaming, with my guitar, wearing only my pants and feeling good. I still feel like a cat with four broken legs trying to catch a cricket, but for the moment, it doesn’t matter.

Since then I’ve been doing lots of work with other people, tearing down an old barn roof and putting up a new one, which has been great fun. And today I’m feeling positive. Who knows? Maybe something amazing is about to happen.

I continue to wait.

It continues to rain.

Twenty-One Reasons There Should Be … No More Page Three

There is currently a campaign afoot to persuade Dominic Mohan, editor of The Sun, to stop featuring photographs of naked young women in the newspaper. There have been campaigns in the past of course, and they have failed, but this one seems to be picking up a lot of momentum. Probably because the time is right. Actually it’s long overdue, but never mind. Now will do. This is my contribution to the campaign. Twenty-one reasons why Page Three should really be brought to a close. Turns out there are actually only really two or three reasons, but they’re apparently not so blindingly obvious as I thought they were, so they need to be repeated over and over and over, using different swearwords. Anyway, here we go…

 

…because it’s a newspaper, for Christ’s sake. The fact that it’s the worst kind of newspaper on the planet – fit only for defacing and burning – is neither here nor there. It’s still a newspaper. And a young woman’s breasts and buttocks – as adorable as they may be in many a different context – have absolutely no place in the pages of a newspaper. Page Three is every single bit as inappropriate as mourning the anniversary of the death of Lady Diana by skinning cats and juggling plaster of Paris landmines. Stop it now.

 

…because it leads little boys to ask their mummies why the lady in the paper has no clothes on, and causes their mummies to reply, ‘The lady in the paper has no clothes on because despite living in 2012, it’s still perfectly acceptable in certain foetid backwaters of popular culture to pander to men’s most base and unchecked urges and portray women primarily as orgasm-facilitating flesh-dolls in whom or onto whom these base and unchecked men desire nothing more than to void themselves at the scrotum. Dip your soldiers in your egg, dear. There’s a good boy.’

 

…because the universe is one giant singular organism and everything is connected, and the bad bits, if they remain unchecked, infect the whole. Save the universe. No more Page Three.

 

…because it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to fancy women and enjoy having sex with them. On the contrary. Neither does it follow that those who want to see the back of Page Three are in any way uptight, puritanical or humourless. On the contrary.

 

…because we have to evolve. We’ve figured out so many astounding, gob-smacking things so far: we can prance around on different planets; we can create new species of living organism; we can even turn ourselves from one gender to another, or somewhere in between, and then back again! Yet steadfastly we fail to accord one another enough basic respect to ensure that roughly half of our entire species isn’t widely regarded and widely treated as in some way inferior to the other half. We do this because we let the little things slide. Page Three is one of the little things. Stop it now. It’s tired. And dangerous.

 

…because it’s totally crass, man. You might expect that kind of thing from certain of our European nation cousins, but surely, surely to God, we’re better than that. We’re better than quiz show dolly birds and a nice bit of crumpet for the fellas.  We’re better – in 2012 – than ogling the smashing assets of some sexy stunna and not getting many of them to the pound. Aren’t we? Christ, there are baboons who show one another more respect.

 

…because we really fucking dohave to evolve. We’re making headway, which is encouraging, although it’s almost exclusively in technology and science. With technology and science, we’re really spoiling ourselves. Very impressive. Our moral development, on the other hand, is seriously retarded. It’s like we’re still living in the Dark Ages. We still live in a world where a woman who is raped by a stranger can be killed by her own father for bringing dishonour on the family and some people think that’s OK. Why we haven’t overthrown capitalism and religion and just started working together yet is beyond me. We manage to do so much to improve our lot – as a species – but we won’t stop acting like children and just learn to collaborate. Imagine what we could achieve together if we started looking out for one another. With time spent squabbling eradicated, we would gain millennia. We might even find time to save the planet.

So. As with any step in our evolution, it starts with the little things. Floss. Recycle. Smile when you make eye contact with a stranger. Sign this petition to get rid of Page Three and ask your friends to do the same.


…because for most people, Page Three is already an embarrassing throwback to a less enlightened time – like hanging and rickets and children up chimneys – and the sooner we phase it out, the less embarrassed our children will be. And our children’s children. And so on.

 

…because it sends out the wrong message of where we are as a species and what we can be when we put our minds to it. It’s the same reason we don’t tolerate Jim Davidson on TV anymore, because he represents a myopic worldview that damages our collective psyche and implies our tolerance and tacit approval of the dehumanisation and disempowerment of the different. That and the fact he’s a cunt. It’s all so obvious though, isn’t it? Have a bit of respect, for Christ’s sake.

 

10 …because it makes repugnant old men congeal over booze and betting slips, skulking in the pre-lunch shadows of decrepit concrete lungs, casually lusting and drooling over girls their granddaughters’ age, whilst simultaneously, albeit subconsciously, having their belief that women exist primarily as fodder for their fuck fantasies confirmed on a daily basis. On an hourly basis, let’s face it. Constantly. Jesus. Actually only one of them has grandkids, and he doesn’t see them anymore. The rest of the family agreed that no good could come of it. He was such a creepy old bastard at the best of times, and he got worse as he got older. He was so set in his ways by then. He couldn’t see things from anyone else’s point of view. He had no empathy. I think he might have been a sociopath. Oh God, he’s pissed himself.

 

11 …because we have to dissolve disparity and eradicate unfairness, insensitivity and unchecked barbarity wherever we see it. Or at least try. We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to try, and to push for change.

 

12 …because it’s like featuring a photograph of a member of an ancient tribe in some far-flung, as yet unspoiled island paradise and publishing that photograph in a family newspaper with the express purpose of arousing in an unevolved readership the urge to rise from the breakfast table, take the most expeditious route to the exact whereabouts of said tribesperson and slaughter him/her and all of his/her friends and relatives till they’re all dead and the island is ready for ruling and development. It appeals to the same bestial, brain-free instinct. It appeals to rolling eyes and lolling tongues and the thoughtless, careless response to the primeval calls of ‘Kill!’ ‘Fuck!’ ‘Conquer!’ ‘Fuck!’ ‘Subdue!’ ‘Fuck!’ ‘Silence!’ ‘Fuck!’ ‘Destroy!’

But we don’t do that. We don’t have kill-and-conquer-porn in our favourite tabloid (at least not in picture form). And one of the reasons we don’t – quite aside from the fact that killing has for the most part become centralised – is because we’re better than that. Now. At last. And for the most part, invading, suppressing and killing have finally been replaced with making agreements and trying to get along. (Although we’re still not particularly brilliant at that either, to be fair. Terrible really, considering how much time we’ve had, how much we have in common, and how much we would benefit if we just grew up.)

So we don’t have kill-and-conquer porn, but Page Three still provides an outlet for primitive man. Thanks to The Sun, primitive man may still curl his lip and nod his head appreciatively, stare down at the comely body of this woman who could be his daughter and could have been his mother but isn’t in fact anyone, is just a piece of sexy meat he’d like to fuck, and grunt to his mates in the greasy spoon with a snigger, ‘She’d get it.’

Fuck primitive man. We’re better than that.

 

13…because black people are not good at running and dancing and little else; because Irish people are not necessarily stupid; because Chinese people do not all work in takeaways. And so on.

 

14…because there’s nothing with wrong with pornography. Except for the fact that the vast majority of it is unimaginative, exploitative, bleak, boring shit with all of the erotic appeal of a whacking great tumour in the very bumcrack of our collective soul. All that and it’s just a couple of clicks away! (One for the expert user.)

But be respectful and considerate of others when you pleasure yourself with pornography. Refrain from indulging at breakfast table, for example. (See also most other communal eating areas, any kind of public bar or the reception desk at a large, shiny, financial building in the heart of the banking district. Tempting though it sometimes may be.) When the time and the place are right, however, go for it! Use your pornography! Pleasure yourself while ye may! It’s never been easier. But why bleat about a poorly printed still in a newspaper when you could be online watching real film of genuine people actually touching one another? (Real people in real life also sometimes available.) In short, a newspaper is no place for ritual objectification and Page Three is a whacking great tumour in the very bumcrack of our collective soul. Let’s cut it out.

 

15 …because collectivity and collaboration quicken evolution. As a species whose main distinction is one of gender, we’re not doing a very good job at connecting with one another. As men, we have and should feel a huge responsibility to join in the fight for equality, to step up wherever we can and declare that yes, of course men and women are equal and must always absolutely be treated as such. We must do our best to make change, working together with our lady-halves, opening  ourselves up to them as true equals, learning from them, growing with them. And if nothing else motivates you, imagine the sex! The sex will be amazing. It won’t be furtive, or concealed behind crass and puerile child-sniggering hands. It won’t be clouded with shame and preconception. It will be wild and free and wholly transformative. And you’ll deserve it. Come on now. You know it makes sense.  

 

16 …because the reasons to hang on to Page Three – because it’s a bit of fun, because it doesn’t hurt anyone, because it’s better than working down a pit – are all utterly irrelevant bullshit, and there is no good argument for it not to be decommissioned immediately. The desire to hang on to such an antiquated and boringly obsolete journalistic saw goes much deeper than having a giggle and sticking it to the frigid birds and the fairy chimneys. It taps directly into a rich seam of fear that snakes through the very bone marrow of the fervid supporter of soft pornography in newspapers. Fear of change, fear of emasculation, fear of censorship, fear of a world where women are actually, genuinely equal to men. There are lots of different fears at work, and they’re all a complete waste of time. Stop it.

 

17 …because we need to make the system of society function better, and the easiest way to do that is tackle one idiotic, backward-looking insult at a time.

 

18 …because someone’s going to do it sooner or later, and it may as well be Dominic Mohan. He should think himself lucky he doesn’t have to be trampled to death by a horse to make a difference. All he has to do is get off his fat arse and evolve. Let’s persuade him. Let’s persuade him to do it now and not when it happens to coincide with some arbitrary milestone in Page Three history (‘45 Fabulous Years of Top Totty!’), or else tied up with some high profile paedophile investigation in some horribly misguided and inevitably abortive attempt at self-glorification. Don’t be afraid, Dominic. Do it now. Embrace the future.

 

19 …because it’s like you take your boyfriend home to meet your parents and midway through a dessert of fresh strawberries and chocolate ice cream, your boyfriend starts talking about how very much he enjoys placing his nose in your vulva, his tongue in your rectum and just going at it like some airborne feral wood-sprite or a wild, sightless child with no arms or legs drowning face first in a knickerbocker glory. If he said that, for all sorts of reasons and rightly so, you wouldn’t know where to look. But that – exactly that – that’s one of the many daily unpleasantnesses caused – to a greater or lesser degree – by the existence Page Three. Rarely greater, I’ll grant you. But sometimes. No doubt. Come on now. We’re better than that. Let’s move on.

 

20 …because Page Three is an unpleasant tattoo we had in a moment of bestial oblivion. We need to have it removed.

 

21 …because knee-jerk sexualisation of women makes men look like dinosaurs. Are we really so terrified of women that we have to transform them from human beings into sex vats? Page Three is textbook dehumanisation. It comes with its own mantra: dehumanise and neutralise, conquer and fuck.

Page Three exists in the first place to keep women in their place. Rather than have to take women on on their own terms, men have used the mass media and gradually turned them into walking compendia of sex organs and erogenous zones. This dehumanisation is a long-term, concerted effort to convince the whole world that all women are good for is sex and that they are under no circumstances to be taken seriously – unless they dress like men maybe, but even then, you can train an octopus to hold a microphone, but you can’t make it sing.

A dehumanised woman is not a threat. She’s a joke. All that matters is whether or not she’s worth fucking. This is the philosophy inherent in the existence of Page Three. You know it. Stop being such a misogynistic twerp now. Let’s get this over with.

 

Make it so.

 

If you’re still unconvinced, well, I for one think you’re a fucking idiot. Go and read this maybe, or if you can’t be bothered, which you probably can’t, because you’re an idiot, watch this…

 

 

Day 474 :: All Those People, All Those Lives

Sunday 16 September

I’m sitting on one end of a stretch of cemetery wall, writing in a notebook. Horses huddle under nearby trees for shade and snort, sick as pigs as flies cloud their eyes like tiny demons. There is a recycling point opposite the cemetery gates. Which is convenient. A car pulls up, then slowly reverses out of sight. Eventually I hear the sound of raised voices. Not thunderous, but brittle and shrill. I hear a couple of metal flaps swinging as rubbish is dropped into one of a selection of reincarnation pods. Eventually two figures come into view through the holes in the cemetery gate, and a elderly couple make their way in amongst the dead. 

A sunflower field in slow decline is a haunting sight. One casual glance and they anthropomorphise before your very eyes. All of them downcast, some bent double, barely a shred of joy in their bold giant eyes. One thinks of human atrocities, on this beautiful bright blue day in rural France. Of death camps and killing fields and a dry, dumb shuffling towards death. I glance back to the local graves at my left and off to my right a church bell tolls, for the summer, which is dying spectacularly.

It really is a brilliant day. I feel like slapping its arse. 

The couple make their way into the cemetery. I don’t know if they’ve noticed me or not. They stop behind a very functional monument that looks more like a cheap gazebo and again I hear raised voices. I can’t understand them. I feel like I am intruding on their grief – or more probably some mundane row. I wish they would stop. Or else speak much more slowly and clearly.

Then they pipe down and reach the line of graves nearest to where I’m sitting. They stand at the grave opposite a tragically dismembered Christ and speak quietly.

I am using a pencil because I couldn’t find a pen today and I’m worried that the sound of my pencil scratching across my notebook will alert to them to my presence, which is beginning to feel increasingly like an intrusion. I write more slowly, and softly.

After refreshing a spray of plastic flowers and tidying up the display, the lady turns away from the grave and walks in my direction looking for stones. I wait for her to catch my eye, my smile of non-sinister greeting prepared. But she doesn’t look up and my smile turns false on my face. Also possibly sinister. She picks up another stone and is now about three metres from where I’m sitting in the shade. I want to clear my throat but I’m afraid that any sudden sound or movement will result in her screaming and panicking. Maybe even attacking me with her stones. And what if – worst case scenario – I happen to look just like the deceased, her son, or grandson even – let’s say grandson – or maybe he used to sit around in cemeteries writing about sunflowers and death too. I imagine her breaking down and sobbing at my feet, a hoop of spittle hanging off the end of my trainer, when finally, she looks in my direction and gives a little gasp.

Everything is drying up, creaking, popping or dropping off of branches. There is a cool promise in the wind. I can feel it. Things are going to change, it says. You might like the changes, you might not. Doesn’t matter. Just be ready.

‘Oh, pardon me, Monsieur,’ she says. ‘I’m picking up stones.

‘No, no, pardon me, Madame,’ I reply, then I wish her husband good day and return to my scribbling before things kick off.

They are quiet for the rest of their visit, which is not long. Then they shuffle out of the cemetery like autumn sunflowers, their heads bowed. Then I hear them arguing again as they get into their car. I watch them winding back to the main road from my wall, their chores done and a silence settling between them as they make their way home to enjoy the rest of their day’s bickering.

I make my way to the internet hut, to which I have the key, and spend the rest of the day uploading photographs to Facebook and making a list of people to sell myself to.

Sundays, eh?

 

Day 468 :: Denouement

Monday 10 September. 20:40

I’m just back from a weekend full of friends and frolics and lakes and larks and I’m sitting next to a broken mirror watching the last of the bald mice flap about above me. It’s almost dark already. There was a jolly-looking man in the sky just now, with mackerel skin, but then he crept off, crumbling into the shadows. I feel an ache. I’ve had an amazing time out here and I’ve hopefully achieved some things. But I need to see people again, and I need to see life. People-shaped life. So the time has definitely come to start winding it up.

I’m looking to leave towards the end of October. It’ll still take a few weeks to get electricity into the place but hopefully no more than that. In the meantime, there’s maybe a week of interior design (painting), a week of outside stuff (wood-cutting and piling, brambling, yodelling) and if the power is in place soon enough, a week or two of cladding and digging and building verandas and what-have-you. Ideally all of this will happen in a miraculously short period of time, then there’ll be an unseasonable heatwave and I can end my time in France just lying in the sun like a lizard in a k-hole.

The plan then is to head to Italy, back to Bologna for a couple of months. A friend has offered me the opportunity to live in her cantina and eat out of her fridge in return for a couple of hours of English lessons every day, for her and her very adorable, wholly unspoilable children. Which will be great. Non vedo l’ora.

Then there’s the book. I’ve written a novel and I’m ready to try and get it published. It’ll be tough, as these things always are, but I have hopes. The campaign began today. And if I haven’t got a publishing deal by January 31 2013, then that’s it. I’ll self-publish and be damned. Then get a proper job.

Hopefully it won’t come to that.

Saturday 15th, 22:09

The first of the leaves have fallen. It’s a clear, starmuttering night and change is writing itself in the muck on the living room windows.  Last night I watched the Limousin’s own Flying Virgin practise a full set with a stand-in drummer in Droux. I wish I could tell you how good it was.

Now I wait for men to come with magic cables and I write passionate emails to indifferent strangers. More power to me.

It's the Olympics!

I am not interested in the Olympics. Not one bit. But these Olympic stick men amuse me. They are in Nantiat. Up the road. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vive la France!