The living dead
One of the differences between here and the States is illuminated very sharply by the case of Tom Hurndall, shot by the Israeli Defence Force while rescuing a child and now in PVS. As this article
tells us, his doctors have asked the courts for permission to switch off his life support. It is not thought he will recover.
There is no outcry here over this, even though his parents oppose the move. In the UK, the doctors decide, and this is right, I feel, because they do so for the right reasons. They say his quality of life is so low that it is not just to keep him alive.
This can be contrasted with the Terri Schiavo
case in Florida, where a woman in a similar state is being used as a political football. She is portrayed by the right as a disabled woman whose husband wants to starve her to death. Her family have distributed videos of her smiling, groaning and what they describe as laughing (although if your dog made the noise Ms Schiavo makes, you'd shoot it). All of these symptoms are common in PVS, but are not directed. They are no more signs of life than a belch is a sign of thought.
We do not have an honest relationship with death. We do not accept it as part of what is. We allow our fear to have us believe that life should be maintained no matter what it consists in.
In both these cases, the person is dead. The body, a useless shell, might live for decades (although usually a body in PVS dies within five years) but Terri Schiavo and Tom Hurndall will never come home. Our compassion for their parents – and we feel it, those of us who are parents ourselves because we can only imagine how painful it must be to see your child's face, alive, smiling even, and know that they are not there – should not overwhelm that which we have for them.
At a stroke
The moment of stillness is possible in massage.
The practitioner is calm. That goes without saying. Concentration passes into absorption, the practitioner loses his sense of serving another, and enters the stroke.
He is relaxed, his weight distributed to give him an easily shifted balance. His breathing is steady. He focuses on the tide of breath, pulling back with the inbreath, expressing the stroke on the outbreath.
The practitioner does not feel the moment of cessation; he has become the moment.
Was I ever happy? I feel as though I must have been but I can't recall the day.
I've been optimistic. I can distinctly remember bright optimism. I'm often positive, although far too many times in a pastures greener on the other side way.
I can do cheerful. Sometimes it's not even a pose.
Is it because I can never forget that I can die? Is it because I can never forget that even the smoothest running engine can be undone by its smallest component's wearing out or going awry? I don't think so. They are not forgettable but they do not nag. Is it because life is joyless from time to time? It cannot be, because I know that I can bring joy, and will be joyful in those times because it's always true - in my life anyway - that joy begets joy.
But I am not sad.
Leaders shit? Challenge
Reading the reporters' log
on the Tory leadership shenanigans, nothing struck me more than that the nerdish excitement of the reporters matched that of sports fans when something happens in, say, footie.
The poor souls! You'd think it was something actually important. You want to remind them that it doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter who the players are, the game remains the same. Besides, the real business of life, government, power, it all goes on elsewhere. Parliament, the whole of the thing we call politics, is a sideshow.
So long as we all don't forget that, it's a bit of fun.
But Dr Zen, I hear a small voice saying, surely it matters who runs the place and what policies they pursue?
No, I reply. For instance, we voted in Tony Blair and his crew to bring change, to renew the nation, to level the playing field just a little, to reflect for us how much we wished to ditch Thatcherite cynicism and how much we wanted to take the higher feeling that was embodied in our culture of dancing and euphoria and remake our world. We believed that our nation could stop funding despots, stop selling weapons to murderers, stop plundering the poor, stop favouring big business over the person in the street.
And we got a war we didn't want, our services in ruins, hatred defining the agenda on immigration, our liberties stolen one by one, another bankrupt regime.
Restaurant reviews are largely wasted on me. I don't eat meat, which is the main attraction at most, and I hate vegetarian restaurants with a consuming passion (why do they think we want to eat spinach? And goat's cheese - I would never eat anything that was dragged from an animal as disgusting as a goat). But I loved the anonymous 10/10/03 review of the Oxo tower
on London Eating.
The link came in the weekly mailing from Need to Know
, which is a geek's what's on.
Okay, I wouldn't pass as a geek (I shower every day and have sex with another person at least once a month) but I still love to pretend I know what's floating on the web.
Poor Moore whore
You know, I like women with large teeth
. It's a sign of rude good health that their body was willing to expend the minerals big gnashers demand.
I also like women with small teeth, perfectly formed in dainty rows. There isn't a (straight) man alive who doesn't see Meg Ryan smile and imagine those pearlies round his bellend. And if there is, dude, you want shooting.
And there's something quite appealing about women with inbetween teeth, which aren't straight. There's something lived in about them.
Today's Daily Mail runs a story about Demi Moore's knees. (Saggy, apparently, because she had the fat from her thighs sucked through them, and cutting off the loose skin would have left scars.) The Mail can scarcely hide its glee at this telltale sign of ageing. Like all the tabloid press, it despises women, believing they are witless demimen, who can safely be divided into (young) slutabouttowns, (older) baby machines and (much older) invisible.
Demi is 40, and of course, around that age or a little sooner, a woman ripens, her youthful sheen fading, turning to a deeper lustre. She was beautiful before the work. Now she looks like she's been caught in the headlights.
Being judgmental about others' looks
is of course part of human nature. It makes us feel good about our own imperfections. And part of the beauty myth is that we will be as loved as Demi if only we are as beautiful as her. Trinny and Susannah spend their working lives attempting to have women conform to the image most in the west have of beauty - a softened, dangerless, rather boring sweetness (which, it has been noted, seeks to have women look, and dress, like 14-year-old nice girls - can't find the study that found that men found faces with the same proportions as a 14yo attractive but it's out there).
But that love! It's not the tender sharing that we have - or wish to have - with our partners. Nothing is given or received. It is adulation, crowned with masturbation. Demi is making herself younger so that she is more fuckable
, rejecting anything else about her that might also be attractive. Poor cow.
Wai wouldn't you?
The image of the Japanese as tucked-up tight quasi-automatons couldn't be more wrong, if Mainichi's waiwai
section is to be believed. Their weeklies are packed full of stories about prossies, spunk and bondage.
Lovers of body sushi might be attracted by erotic sushi to go
Cool. A bonito and chips for Dr Zen, but don't tell mamasan, who believes the best place for bad boys' balls is a vice.
Room on fire
Does the world need another Strokes album
? Well yes, but probably not this one. For reasons unknown, the Strokes have become the Dandy Warhols, without the lyrics (tip for anyone else considering a lyric sheet - if your words are *this* pisspoor, retain the mystery).
The sound's the same but the thrill and punch of Can't explain or Last nite, which haven't died despite their having been flogged to death on the radio, have disappeared. They sound like nothing so much as another band doing the Strokes.
To me this is proof, if any were needed, of the second album thesis I read, I think, in the Observer. The first album is the one you dreamed of as a kid, the one you wrote the lyrics for in your biology classes, the one whose riffs you worked on in your bedroom. The second is the one you wrote when touring the first. Your connection to reality has gone, your material is limited because your world has shrunk to bus, dressing room, hotel, and because where once you were just whoever, now you're adulated.
Of course, it doesn't always work. There are great second albums. Morning glory springs to mind. Power, corruption and lies. Closer. Sometimes a band matures and begins to really find its feet.
But that hasn't happened with the Strokes.
2 rights make 1 wrong
The banjo break on this song (I'm not kidding) reminds me powerfully of Cheyenne's theme from Once upon a time in the west. And this, in turn, brings to mind Charles Bronson, recently deceased, but at that time a formidable icon of... well, I think you can only call them the masculine virtues (if, like me, you conceive of the masculine virtues as a rather austere, stoic's delight).
What a fantastic film! The debate raging over Kill Bill is put into perspective when you remind yourself how wonderful that film was. Even those who don't love westerns must admire that opening sequence, the steely viciousness of Henry Fonda, the cool laconicism of Bronson (better than whom there was none when it came to saying a lot in very few words), the trembling eroticism of la Cardinale. And Cheyenne! Loki with a gunbelt. The eternal trickster, the rascal, clearly the character Leone most identified with. I don't think I ever liked Jason Robards in anything else, but this was his film.
The greatest achievement in this film is that in a huge country, the most stunning landscapes are laid out on the faces of the actors. Leone uses the extreme close-up to drag us into the interior world of his characters. It's astonishing how the jerks and twitches speak in a way that reams of dialogue would not. (Of course, this serves to emphasise the steeliness of Bronson - his impassivity translates as self-control.)
Doing the write thing
You know, my problem as a writer is not that I can't write. Gawd no. I can write. It gushes out of me, whenever I sit near a keyboard. I can hardly help writing. I have words to spare, billions of them squirming, kicking, itching to be written. I have a fluent, writing style, a voice, you could say. I feel confident in that. I'm not one of these guys who feels they need to polish every word until they shine. A bit of rubbing, maybe, a quick flick of the chamois, but only the barest minimum. I think what comes from the tap is pretty good - maybe not Margaux, but wine all the same.
No, my problem is that when I have an idea, it engenders another idea. And that has another, until I have a bush of ramifications of half-thoughts, which I cannot order, I cannot make into a coherent story.
You know, I can't edit! What a turn-up. I'm paid to do it. Paid well, sometimes (and rightly so, I'm bloody good at it). But I cannot prune my own ideas. Or channel them. Or whatever metaphor works. I could do it for someone else. I could focus you just like that *snaps fingers*. I could pinpoint why your writing doesn't work - or why it does - without hardly thinking about it. But I can't stop myself overthinking it.
And, here's the rub, I will not be satisfied with vin de pays. I want it to be Margaux (and a good year at that). *sigh* I could so easily be, well, whoever (because frankly the names are interchangeable) but I strive for so much more.
Sometimes that feels foolish.
I know, I know, public votes don't mean anything. People with taste have too much taste to ring and vote. It's just for publicity - a way for the BBC to flog itself by the backdoor. But still something in you snaps when you read that the 21 greatest books ever
Five of them are children's books! None by Eliot. This means these people either never read Mill on the Floss or Daniel Deronda... or just really do think Harry Potter is superior to both. Gulp.
Most have been recently adapted to TV or featured on the book list for GCSEs. You realise that as you skim the list. These people have not read Pride and Prejudice, but they liked the guy's tight trousers.
People think that good books are difficult. They think that they are safer with the chewing gum, and if they try the critically acclaimed books they will struggle. But this simply isn't true. They think good books do not have stories. This isn't true either. They have the stories - and more, much more, ladled on.
Good books are not difficult. Well, okay, Dostoyevski is difficult. What works in Russian - is almost lyrical in Russian (apparently! I don't read Russian) - doesn't always come across well in English.
But come on. Vanity Fair. Easy reading practically. David Copperfield. John Irving a hundred years before. Midnight's Children. Simply one of the greatest books of the last twenty years. (If you have never read it, believe the hype on that one.) Marquez! Can you not manage Marquez? Peter Carey even? Coetzee? Not a scrap of Coetzee? Roth? Portnoy's Complaint is just about the funniest book written.
The Thin Red Line. The Grapes of Wrath. *whispers* Songlines? I'd settle even for On the Black Hill, you philistines.
Well, you could tear your hair out. It's our world. *sigh* These people will never love books. They will never love being transported to other places, other times, other worlds - they will accept pale imitations, cheap substitutes. They will believe, despite all reason, that Gone with the Wind and The Wind in the fucking Willows are superior books to Moby Dick and Madame Bovary... actually, why be tolerant? Get me my AK, I got some slaughtering to do!
Rights to living and dying
Is ceasing to keep someone alive the same as killing them?
If you didn't feed an infant, and it died, you would certainly be accused of murdering it. So, clearly, we have an idea that we ought to aid the helpless, if we are in some way responsible for them.
Mind you, we have the expectation that the infant will change and become able to help itself in time. I wonder how we would feel about infants if they did not. I should think we would reconsider.
The problem with cases where a person's life is maintained by machines is that it can be difficult to discern whether we are keeping alive someone who is alive, or actually keeping alive someone who would otherwise be dead.
Forget any particular case. It's far more instructive to think about this sort of issue in the abstract. But I do feel that part of the problem with the arguments for maintaining life is that they do not define what "life" is.
Say I were to have a heart attack and die (by which I am meaning that my brain dies), but Mrs Zen gets me hooked up to a batch of machines that keep my heart and my lungs pumping. I don't know too much biology, but I think I could then be kept "alive" with a feed tube.
Why does my "right to life" not oblige her to do that?
Isn't it arguable that refusing to use the machines, when you could do so, is equivalent to turning them off, when you have been doing so? How is Mrs Zen not "condemning to death" her hapless husband?
In the case of a foetus, the argument, as I understand it, is that the being must be maintained because it will develop into a human. This distinguishes it from a tumour, which can be cut out because it will not develop, and a cow, which, though it is alive, will not become a human. But is a person in PVS going to develop into a human? Surely they are just tissue, like a tumour?
I don't think there's an easy answer to the questions I'm posing. My own view is that we get too hung up on the distinction between human beings and other forms of life. This is largely a religious issue, and not being religious frees me to think about us as just being colonies of cells. Our sense of our own importance often leads us to losing compassion. In the case of foetuses, it seems clear to me that there is something living, but less clear whether it is distinct from any other part of the body it inhabits. At least until it can exist independently from the mother, I feel it probaby is not. I don't have any basis for my feeling, because, I think, there is not an answer to it - just your and my opinions. So, I think a woman has the right to do what she wishes with her own body. Since I cannot find a basis for distinguishing foetus from woman, you can see that I believe she has the right to terminate her pregnancy for any reason whatsoever, until the foetus can exist independently (a thorny question, I know, when that is, when I have already mentioned that infants cannot truly do so). I have far more compassion for the woman than I do for a bunch of cells inside her.
Are we condemning PVS victims to death if we pull the tubes? I think they're just tissue. Compassion for them demands that they should be extinguished. But that's my feeling, YMMV, but it's always going to be feeling talking on this issue.
The fractured, intricate music that I suppose you could label - if you insist on labels - new folk or ambient rock/electronica appeals to me in a deep way. I've never really analysed why.
By this label, I'm meaning on the rock side Mogwai, Sigur Ros, on the electronica side Boards of Canada, Manitoba, Four Tet, Aphex Twin even. If you know these bands, you're getting the picture.
They take a bit of listening to. There are jagged edges. There are "difficult" chords (I'm guessing, but they sound difficult to me).
Is it stretching to suggest that these are quiet revolts against the order of the day? I know second hand that Mogwai are political, anti-commercial, so I suppose for them this is true, but am I romanticising these bands by suggesting that making intricate, difficult music is the last stand of a culture that has died in a morass of boy bands and comped actresses who can't sing (or act, mostly).
Probably it is, but if I cannot find romance in this world, I will have to die.
Rock action saw Mogwai leave the shores of rock and enter a strange world of muted electronics, awkward motifs and dangerous undercurrents. Listening to it is sometimes like that moment in the sea when you've been swimming and have tired a little, put your feet down and realised that you are just
out of your depth.
Rules of the road
I am going to crosspost a post from a newsgroup, because I had a feast of self-love on writing it and I have, so to speak, orgasmed it into this blog. It's in reply to one of those fools who think that the "rules of grammar" and "dictionaries" are their enemies.
What are they [the formal rules of grammar]?
Here's a thing. People like you, Sue, and it's a great misfortune that there are a lot of you, work with the misconception that somewhere there's a committee that is imposing all these "rules" on us all, forcing us to comply with its idea of how English should be written. Well, there isn't. The "rules" of English are *how English works*. Dr Zen wearies of saying it, but it seems that the likes of you don't get it no matter how many times you read it. A noun is a noun because it's a noun, not because someone says it is. It's a noun because it's used as one in English sentences. "Cite" is not a noun not because there is a "formal rule" saying it isn't, but because it's not used as one. If it was, and if PJ keeps using it so, maybe it will come to be, then it would be one.
What you are ignorant of are two things. One, that the "rules" are not like the laws of a nation but more like the laws of nature. They describe how things work, not how they *must* work. No one is prescriptive about language in the fusty, old-fashioned way you insist they are. Two, that the rules must nevertheless be obeyed if you wish to communicate clearly. This is because you, I, Holly and PJ must abide by a shared set of rules so that we might understand one another.
Dictionaries express how words are used by the speakers of the language they are the dictionary of. They are not half as prescriptive as you think. They tell you what speakers of a particular language mean when they use a particular word. They work on a sort of principle of obeying the will of the majority, which you might think unfortunate. You might think that because you like to use "ragged" to mean "straight-edged", everyone ought to, and the dictionary is a vicious thug to wish to impose the opposite meaning on you, but indeed, it does not. You may use "ragged" in any way you please, and the rest of us will think you a little odd and sad, in much the same way we think of those guys who dye their hair pink and get a mohican, to look "different". We will continue to adhere to the meaning contained in the dictionary, because it expresses what *most of us* mean by it, which since most of us wish to be able to communicate with most of the rest of us, is good enough for us.
Look away if nerdish behaviour upsets you.
One of the things I love about travelling is looking at signs, subtitles on TV and in shop windows to see how the language works. I couldn't speak any Danish, and I certainly didn't understand it when people spoke it (it sounds like a dog chewing German, if German were a bone), except for the odd word. But I found I could read it fairly well. Like English, it didn't seem overburdened with grammatical intricacy, except that the word order is fairly fixed. Maybe, I was thinking, that's why Scandinavians find English easy to learn. What's interesting in looking at Germanic languages is not what's the same, but what's different. The local name for Copenhagen, Kobenhavn - you'll have to imagine that "o" has a stroke through it - means "merchant's harbour", or so the guidebook says. Certainly, the "kob-" root means "buy" ("kauf-" in Germany and similar words in the other Germanic languages). But it's gone from English as a verb. You don't "chap" things.
You do get them "cheap", however, though not in Copenhagen.
It was interesting (for me! okay, I know it's not interesting for you... thank fuck I don't have any readers, eh?) to spot the differences between Danish and Icelandic. They have the same root, of course, but where Icelanders have perversely done all within their power to keep their language brainbreakingly difficult, Danish has become much less opaque, and more user-friendly. It would probably be fun to learn, especially since you more or less get three in one (Norwegian pretty much is
Danish - or one of the Norwegians is... that's another story, and Swedish is so close that people from Malmo (I know, it has an umlaut but I'm buggered if I know how to do them - and attendant dweebs, I don't want to learn) can commute to work in Copenhagen without hitting the Linguaphone. But there'd be little point to learning it, since practically everybody in Scandinavia seems to have learned to speak English.
So, was it wonderful? Yes. I loved it. It was all very human. Loads of people on bikes, lots of kids in prams, everyone smiling and friendly. For a flaneur (add circumflexes to my list of ignorances) there is plenty to see, cobbled streets, little nooks, inexplicablenesses. Not that flaneurs need a lot to see.
Lies, damned lies and Bush is talking
"Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive"
Soon, what we laughably call our leaders are going to need a database to keep track of their lies
Still, it's nothing new
But they forget, I think, that we do have a database, full to overflowing with their lies
(nice to see the very wonderful George Lakoff, a personal favourite of mine, in action). It's the Internet – that untameable, unruly beast – a parade of talking heads pointing the finger
Okay, we all know it's no good. It's not like they're going to turn round and say "Shit, we're busted. From now on we'll do the right thing." Maybe they've lied so much, so often that the truth no longer has any meaning
for them. But that shouldn't stop us from believing... well, just believing.
The free and the dead
Free speech is fundamental to liberty. It is the platform on which all other freedoms are based. Because if we cannot speak of restraints on freedom, how can we ensure those freedoms continue?
During the war in Iraq, the USA bombed Al-Jazeera's Baghdad HQ. It knew it was there - Al-Jazeera had told them three months before the bombing exactly where it was. A journalist was killed.
His wife tell us in the Guardian today
about the pain she feels because those responsible are not brought to justice. They never will be, of course, they are the arbiters of justice themselves.
The Americans did not restrict themselves to bombing the station's HQ. They have continually harassed Al-Jazeera and have threatened to close it down. Most shocking to any who believe the press should be allowed to work unharassed, an Al-Jazeera journalist was arrested in Spain, and he is in jail there, with no bail, seemingly because he didn't show sufficient anti-Taliban bias (story here
Coming as it does from a part of the world that stamps out free expression, Al-Jazeera, whose slogan is "'The right to speak up'. This translates into allowing everyone to express their opinion freely, encouraging debates, viewpoints and counter viewpoints.", might be forgiven for believing that it would be welcomed by the West - who claim to be the defenders of certain values, including freedom of speech.
You have to ask why it's not.
was an insanely ambitious book. You couldn't help feeling Tim Winton was trying to leap up a rung on the lit ladder with it. The prose was finely wrought, the conceit huge, the result... well, it was rather muddled. The themes were pure Winton - lost soul in quest for redemption, the insufficiency of married life, man in and against nature - but with bells on. The grand style seemed to be overegging the pudding, though, and the lack of resolution didn't build mystery but annoyed this reader.
But Dirt music
is a tremendous return to form. Winton has returned to a more rough and ready colloquial Australian
English - the Aussie was largely missing from Riders - and the book drips with West Australia. The tourist board should buy a job lot - he really makes you want to go, so ravishing does he make the place sound. The arse-end fishing town of White Point is instantly recognisable to anyone who's visited rural Oz, but the north, which gradually fills the book, overtaking the story, drowning it, is somewhere you've never been.
The usual broken characters (with a handy grab-bag of secrets, misfortunes and psychological glitches) jerk together in what you could take to be a romance. Me, I think of it as a Romance
- the difference lying in the belief that the world overwhelms us, rather than the people in it.
No weapons. No weapons useable within 45 minutes
, 45 hours, or 45 days. No weapons at all.
It was a barefaced lie. We invaded a sovereign nation and murdered several thousand of its people on the basis of a lie. That is what we stand for. What we have taught third-world tyrants is that we will use any pretext to attack them if we don't like them. They might just as well be hanged for sheep as lambs, they will be thinking. They'd better nuke up straight away.
Meanwhile, terror stalks the streets of Baghdad and children still die in the dust of Gaza and Hebron.
Across the beach
Across the beach
the remains of a lost boat
scattered pieces of wood
Feet in the tar
a slow walk home
how will I scrape it
There are slates
in the road
by our house
and the sound of sea
the wind has dropped
a bird is walking
across the roof
Better off without
Mrs Zen has her cousin to stay, who has been suffering from a rubbish boyfriend. This is the kind of boyfriend who is stupid enough to leave his mobile lying around so that his woman can read texts from other women. (It's strange how some feel that electronic communications are somehow different from ones written and paper, so that people who would never read your mail think nothing of peeking at your email, or reading a text on your mobile*.
) Those texts, sorry to say, reveal a pattern of cheating and lying that does not show him in a good light. The cousin has turned a blind eye for a long time (although "I wnt to fck u 1 mr time" cannot really be explained away) but finally even she sees what a sordid creep the guy is.
Mrs Zen is comforting the cousin by saying how lucky she is, since other girls have boyfriends who beat them, murder them even. At this, Dr Zen looks up from his important work in fashioning golden metaphor from the lead of contemporary English, and points out that it doesn't actually improve
the cousin's boyfriend that there are others worse. He's still a horrible shit, even if he's not the most
It's a notable fallacy of our age that somehow our problems disappear when we notice that others have worse on their plate. The spread of the idea that the world's business is our business, propagated through a news media that picks over the world's sores and presents the very worst as entertainment, has brought us to believe that somehow others' lives affect ours, enrich or lessen them, depending on what they do or what has been done to them. But they don't. It should be obvious that our lives don't become any more dangerous because we read that there is a serial killer in Spain or a rapist in south London. Our children are not more threatened because a child is abducted. Indeed, we are not affected at all by these things, or ought not to be. Our world doesn't become any better or worse for our knowing more about it.
It's an offshoot, of course, of the growing belief that it's our concern what happens elsewhere in the world. Well, I think it is and it isn't. What's certain is that it isn't if that concern detracts from our caring about our own. How many of the handwringers who bitch on day and night about the plight of Iraqis, dams in China, BP's drilling off Colombia, other people's manners and the state of that woman's hair even know the names of their neighbours or what ails them?
In our rush to embrace the new, we sometimes believe that nothing of the old had value. But what a nugget of wisdom "charity begins at home" is. So, Mrs Zen's cousin is my concern du jour
, her heartache spilling all over my living room, and I'm content to play my small part in improving her life, which no amount of contemplating others' misfortune ever will.
Dr Zen does not have this problem on account of not owning a mobile. I'm quite possibly the only person in London who doesn't. "You must be mad," people say. "What if someone wants to ring you when you're walking down the street?" "Well," I say. "The last thing I want when I'm walking down the street is to be rung up." At which I get that peculiar look that says loud and clear "As if it matters what you want!"back