Thursday, September 30, 2004


I need to care.

It is the thing I need most. When I do the things I do not -- or cannot -- care about, I feel a desolation of the soul that fuels an enormous anger in me. Why do I keep doing them then?

Dude, if I could answer that, I would have the key to my life and I would not be wasting it writing a fucking blog.

I need to care even though I know there is nothing to care about, that this which is passes. I need to care despite knowing that more thoroughly than I know anything.


Sometimes people ask what you want to be. They only ask you that when you are not what you want to be, of course. I do know people who are what they want to be. Mrs Zen is, for instance. It's not her she wants to see change.

I've never known. Sometimes I want to dissolve. Others I want to be important. I can never resolve the two feelings. Is one a symptom of mania, the other of depression? I don't want to know. A couple of years ago, I felt exhausted. I couldn't get through the day. I saw a doctor and she said, it looks like you have mild depression. Are you fucking kidding, I said. This is one of those times when I feel great about things. If the good times look like depression to the world, fuck the world's view of these things. I didn't want to know any more. I got out of there.


I have not given a massage for some time. Months. I don't know why. I know I won't have lost the touch. I only need to do one and the gates will open.

I used to smoke. I stopped when Zenella was born. I took off the last patch the day before she was born (and had to slap a new one on when I got the phone call). Sometimes I wonder if I should start it up again. It used to be a good way to create space, to find focus and detach myself. (If you don't ever feel you need to do it, you can't know what that is, but if you need it, you know how much you need it.)

I can escape the same way in a massage. I feel my self transported, transmuted. I feel the service I am doing makes me bigger and better. I feel calm.

And yet...


I stopped caring about my writing a long time ago. I let the feeling that I could never succeed, not in the world's terms and not in my own, overwhelm me.

What a stupid fucking thing to feel! I can think that but the problem is, you cannot unfeel just by thinking your way through it. You can tell yourself, you need to be wanted but you do not try to be wanted, but you cannot help the feeling that you are unwantable.

I do wonder what made me. They say, don't they, that you are moulded, that you are a block of whatever (hey, let's say marble, do yourself a favour), and life chips at you until you are the statue that everyone sees. I believe it. I sometimes believe it. It feels undoable. It feels like if I get my own hammer out and remake it, I don't know whether what I leave will be unrecognisable.


Another post I should probably keep to myself. But honesty is my whip. Who knows whether some day the audience at which this is aimed will pay it attention?

Head lines

This very thoughtful article points out a truth that is often lost in the furore of comment over Iraq: there is a popular uprising against the occupiers with broad support. (Which it turns out, Bush was warned about, but of course, as we know, he ignores anything that does not accord with his preconceptions on any given subject.)

It's forgotten because a handful of foreign terrorists are able to manipulate the agenda, both of the news and of politics in the west. They do it by the ferocity of their actions.

I've said it before: bomb a bus and you're just another suicide bomber, forgotten the next day; bomb a school and you're news for months.

What is unfortunate is that this reading of how things work, although effective, is not sophisticated enough. As Ramadani points out, the occupiers use the terrorists as an excuse for brutally suppressing a popular rebellion. They say "Well they chop off heads, they deserve it" and of course, that is eaten up by the public.

The school crisis in Beslan was such a gift to the Russians that you almost wonder that they didn't fund it themselves. They are able to use it to muddy the waters of their colonial war in Chechnya. They are able to claim they are fighting savage terrorists, rather than suppressing a people's desire for autonomy.


Why care about Iraq? I know, I often show indifference to events that happen elsewhere. But the killing there is done in my name, by troops that represent me, by young guys from towns like the one I grew up in, that I still think of as home, by guys like this, sent there by liars to die for fuck all and break his mother's heart.

His mother said: "If my children had the same regard for honesty as the prime minister, I would be ashamed."

I am ashamed. I want my people to be better. I want to be able to say I am English and for it not to be something to apologise for. Not because I'm patriotic, not because I have lost sight of the arbitrariness of the borders that make my home country a place separate from others, but because that place exists and it is part of me, willy nilly, and I want what I am part of to be a force for good, however pathetic that sounds to the realpolitikers who find it easy to hate and hard to love.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Allawi are saying is give peace a chance

It's unpatriotic to question even your nation's stooges now? Instafuckwit seems to think so.

You know, I think I would like a world that is not led by people who wrap themselves in their flag. I'd like leaders who realise that we're in it together. I definitely don't want "my country right or wrong" to be the governing sentiment in our world. It's distressing to see an election that has come down to which side can get the flag to fit most snugly.

Of course Allawi is a puppet. It's not "unpatriotic" to say so. Questioning the policy of your current leadership is not to smear the (well, frankly not very) good name of your nation.

Give these people four more years and dissent will start to be a thing of a past. Once they've overturned Roe vs Wade, constituted their nation on bigotry by defining marriage in their foundation document (! can you imagine the UK doing that? We've got a history of bigotry none can match but that would be too much even for us) and made as much gov't funding as possible dependent on your adherence to Christianity of a particular hue, freedom of speech will be next.

How long before a stacked Supreme Court finds that laws against "treasonous or seditious" speech are not illegal? Or before the constitution finds itself amended again?

Give these fuckers rope and they'll hang us all.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

How am I going to get home tonight

I can hear the scratch of the tyres on gravel, but by the time I reach the window the car has disappeared and through the bars I can see only trees.

What did I hope to do? Take his number? Perks is too clever for that. He will have removed the number. For him it is an elementary precaution, like wearing a mask and gloves.

I sit back on the bed. I feel too weak to stand and it does no good. The door will be locked. I don’t even need to try it to know I can’t force it. I cannot remember whether I ever have tried it. I must have done. I have that feeling of recognition – the knowledge that something is. But I don’t know how it came to be. I could try again. I could push the door.

I could but I don’t. If I challenge that recognition, I will need to challenge others. I don’t know where that will lead. It could be a short walk in a tended garden of possibilities or it could be the Darien Gap. I do not want to wander.

There is a camera somewhere in the wall. At lunchtime there will be a lunch. The door will open. I will be napping. He sees on the camera that I am napping. The lunch is placed on the floor.

It is always something that I like to eat.

No one has ever asked me what I like to eat for lunch. No one has ever wondered whether I’m a meat man, a tuna and mayo man or a cheese man. No one has asked whether I’m a vegetarian.

If I had ever gone on a plane, someone would have asked, but I have never gone on a plane.

There is a camera in the wall through which Perks has watched me eat. There must have been a time when he did not know what I would like and he experimented but I can’t remember it now. I don’t recall ever having anything for lunch that I didn’t like to eat.

But I’m not particularly fussy about food. I eat whatever is put in front of me.

I lie back down. I am thinking that it is strange that Perks risked my seeing him leave. Perhaps he thought I was still asleep.

But the camera...?

Maybe the camera is on the fritz. How would I know? Only someone who monitors the camera could know. When you are being watched you must assume you are always watched, because you cannot know when you are and when you are not.

Or should you assume you are never watched? I am confused which is the right answer. I only know you cannot dance in and out of the being watched; you cannot hope to escape the watching by doing what you want to do when you are not being watched and doing what the watcher wants you to do when you are. You cannot do that because you do not know.

If I could see the camera. If it had a red light that blinked on when it was working.

But what is the use of speculating? I cannot see the camera. I cannot see a red light. And I don’t have anything I want to do when I’m not being watched.

But it is interesting that Perks may have thought I was still asleep when I am awake. I was sitting on the bed when I heard the car leave. It’s not as though I looked like I was sleeping.

I am feeling tired. I feel like I am going to have my nap.


The day has almost passed. It is gloomy enough that I can scarcely even pick out the trees.

There was no lunch. Or there was lunch but because I didn’t awake and eat it, the lunch was taken away. Either is possible. Either is reasonable. There has always been lunch but I know that there does not have to be lunch.

But it is strange.

I am wondering whether Perks came back. Would the noise of the car’s creeping across the gravel have woken me? I was only napping, although I have napped a lot longer than I would have expected. Maybe Perks comes and goes without my knowing, usually when I am napping.

I am frightened.

It is growing darker.

I have started wanting to hear footsteps. I have never heard footsteps outside this room but now I have started wanting to. I am thinking I will not nap again. I will lie down and give the impression that I am, and when he opens the door, I will rush him.

But how many people are here? I do not know that there is anyone besides Perks. I cannot know. How can I know?

And if there is only Perks? And I rush him?

Would I steal his car? I do not know how to drive. I had never thought about it before I thought about rushing Perks. I do not know how to get from here to anywhere else.

I push up from the bed and cross the room. The door is not locked. I pull it open and I can see that there is no one and nothing in the corridor outside.

I cannot hear footsteps. No one has noticed. I am free to go. It is almost dark. I am beginning to feel I should be ready for change. I don’t mind loving him this way but how am I going to get home tonight?

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Friends divided

When it was still fresh, I signed up to Friends Reunited. I did it on impulse, as I do many things, and never gave it any thought. (Yes, that does mean that anyone who is particularly determined can find out where I went to school. Why you'd want to, I don't know, but I do know that there are some people who are obsessive about making a nym a real person. What they don't understand is that I'm realler than the "real" me will ever be -- that is the lot of a writer, I think, well, mine anyway, because if I could do life like I write it...)

Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, to catch up with people who I've lost touch with?

But when they wrote, I was absolutely horrified. I realised that there was good reason I no longer knew these people. I was frightened. They could confront me with the possibilities I had spurned, the lives I hadn't led. More importantly, they could ruin the past.

I have my own ideas about how my life has gone. What I don't need is a commentary from anyone else. And what I doubly don't need is for the figures, the faces, the lovers and losers of my past to have a forward-story. I'm ashamed to say that a couple of the people who contacted me I didn't even reply to, and the others it was an uncomfortable mail or two and then no more. I just didn't need to know that the woman who fired me up beyond bearing when I was nineteen is now a mother of three who teaches nineteen-year-olds!

I am curious enough to read the profiles -- astonished to learn that J is married to a golf pro and lives in Florida, surprised that L didn't find his way into the nick, hurt that A didn't pine for me forever, the bitch, but married and is happy.

Some of those I'm curious about didn't fill in their profiles (just as I didn't) but are perhaps not curious enough about me to write (just as I'm not).

Is it a terrible thing not to care about people who have been part of your life? A big part in some cases.

I do wish I was a nicer (if nicer is the word -- I don't mean not calling people a cunt, I mean the other side of it) person. I mean, I wish I was able to be. Stop reading now if you don't want to see a grown man wallow in self-pity.

Some of those people must have liked me. But I have always feared... well, I don't know what, truth to be told, hurt, rejection, something that doesn't have a name... just enough to let them go before they could. Or am I really hating them just to stop myself from dissolving?

Here's a thing. I can think of ten people I should email tonight and my life would improve for it. But I won't. I can't. It's the road to loneliness, I know, but I can no more do it than I can fly.

Above all there is Sharon. I should email Sharon but I can't. I know she doesn't read this blog and yet there is no one I would rather read it. Of all the people I ever met in unreal life (well, what else would you call it if the meat thing is real life?) she touched me more deeply than anyone. Actually, in any life, she'd be up there. She is a truly beautiful soul, a mirror to mine, if only I could let it breathe, which I never have been able to.

I actually cannot write any more about it.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Cold Harbour -- an excerpt (2002)

The cottages on the front street open directly onto the roadway. None has a garden out front. Nothing much would grow anyway, battered by wind and spray. Sometimes, even, a high wave will surmount the sea wall and crash on the front street. What plant could survive that? The cottages threw their evening shadows onto the front street. My father was carrying me in his arms, my teeth chattering, my wet clothes freezing onto my body. I could feel his chuckling, his chest heaving, he was trying not to break out laughing.
‘Thought you would go for a swim, did you?’ he said, and he thought he was being funny. Another time I might have seen the joke, but I was tired and scared.
He stopped for a moment and looked me full in the eye. He had a strange look, maybe he was beginning to feel guilty. He had taken his eye off me, only for a couple of minutes, long enough for me to fall from the sea wall, where we had been walking. He was a brave man though, and patient, and had stripped to his undershorts before following me in. He had pulled me behind him with one arm as he stroked calmly with the other, until he had reached the steps and could drag me back up onto the sea wall. He had pulled his clothes back on, smiling at me as I coughed and spat onto the heavy granite of the sea wall. Although the water was icy, it was not a particularly cold evening, and he knew I would not come to any real harm, despite my shivering. Nothing a hot bath and a kip in front of the fire couldn’t put right.
‘Put me down, Dad,’ I said.
He looked very serious and I could see clearly the silver strands in his hair. He seemed old to me, so old, though he was not yet thirty — I did not know that. ‘I will never let you go,’ he said, his voice not quite steady. ‘Never.’
I squirmed in his arms and he did put me down. Embarrassed, I would not look at him. He insisted on taking my hand and holding it as we trudged up the hill, up the narrow lane that led from the sea to our house, the big house that overlooked the harbour. The house was isolated and quiet, cool and dry in the summer, but exposed, wet and cold — when the fire was not lit — in the winter. It was built of unclad stone and was not suitable to the climate. But it was home.


The sea slid and cracked, shiny ice all across the harbour. The snow fell relentlessly and, as they walked in the street, people’s breath steamed. The fishermen were all at home, chained to the village by the bitter weather, and the village was lively with talk, wine and music. No one would mind too much that the work had had to stop. Winter had been mild before this week and the fish had been good enough. There was a smell of spices hanging over the village.
I looked out from the window of my room and saw the village squatting in the shadow of the hill. It was the wrong side of the hill for shelter, all the wind came from the sea. The cottages fell down the hill, tumbled down to the sea, most of stone, some of clad brick painted white with grey slate roofs. Some had bunkers at the back, for wood or even coal, if there was the money to buy it. The back yards of the houses were connected by alleys broad enough only for one at a time; the villagers would happily step aside if someone was coming the other way, but they had to watch their feet — many of the gardens were unfenced and the women of the village loved flowers above all other things, bar their families, and would defend them with the same severity as they would one of their kin. The streets at the front were not much broader than the alleys at the back and only the front street, one other across the hill and the one leading from the harbour to our house on top of the hill were tarmacked; the rest were cobbled or gravelled dirt. But the roads served their purpose; few had cars to drive on them, but then few wanted to go anywhere outside the village. If they did wish to travel, say to the summer tea that the small church halfway up the hill organised, which was held on the beach at St Andrew’s, a few miles away, there was the pre-war bus that served as ambulance, school bus and coach service to the market towns inland. I had, as a proud member of the Sunday school, attended one of the teas — a whirl of cooing old ladies, saffron buns, sand and jam, just reward for the long Sunday mornings learning the incredible stories of Jesus, whom we had loved because he was a friend to fishermen and could do magic, like the Reverend Havers, the minister, only more convincingly. The reverend’s son, Jacko, was my closest friend, the first friend I had made at the village school, although he was thought to be a little slow, and I knew my alphabet and could read a little before I even started at school. This was thanks to the efforts of my mother, who nurtured always the dream that through education I would escape Cold Harbour and the fisherman’s life — I did not share her enthusiasm for either learning or escape, but I was pleased with the results: my knowledge was enough to make me shine against the background of the stumbling efforts of my schoolmates.
Sometimes I would look the other way, out over the rolling land at the back of the village, the wooded plateau, but there was nothing much to see, green forever. It was the sea that captured my imagination, a beast though muted by the lack of wind, the fear it inspired in the village people chilled down to a whisper. I knew the fear of the sea — I had seen the tears when one had not come back, I had seen the women of the village all in black, heard the priest’s calming words, a eulogy for an honest man done in by an unforgiving enemy, heard the sailor’s hymn plaintive but defiant rising from the cottages to the heavens above. I knew the merciless hatred of the sea for men, the greed with which it clings to its treasure — but I vowed I would one day conquer it. I was too young to go out on a boat, but one day I would sail out with my father, from this very harbour, out into the unknown. I would find the end of the sea, if it had an end, I would be its master.
I heard my mother’s voice, calling me out of my room, to come and join her and my father. She sounded a little drunk. They had been mulling wine. I shuddered a little with the embarrassment that I knew was to come. They would be kissing and they would kiss me too. Drinking always meant kissing in Cold Harbour and I did not like it. Soon it would be Christmas and whichever of the ladies of the town could catch me would plant a kiss on my cheek. Still, they gave me sweets — it wasn’t all bad. My mother called again and I came reluctantly away from the window.
Sure enough, when I came into the big room they were in each other’s arms, kissing, to my disgust. My mother broke away. ‘So the swimmer has come to join us?’ she said with her big, hearty laugh. It had been a month but she had not let me forget. I did not mind though. The spicy warmth of the room and the twinkling in my father’s eyes as he smiled at me chased away any annoyance. I even let her kiss me without complaint. I could hear the sea, far away. I was glad we had each other.


Jacko and I ran along the sea wall. It was a fine, clear day, not a cloud, the sky washed-out lazy blue, but no fishing — it was Christmas Day. Trailing behind me was a kite, there was just enough breeze to keep it up, the ribbons in its tail fluttering limply. It was the best present I had ever had. My father had made it.
One night I had crept out from my room and had caught my father in the front room, sewing the pink, red and blue ribbons to the broad streamer of the kite’s tail. He had not seen me, he was intent on his task and I had only stayed for a few moments. But I could see that his fingers were nimble, for all that they were red and callused; he handled the needle with tender ease. I could barely see the needle in the gloom; there was no fire and the chill made my father’s breath steam, pale in the light of a hurricane lantern — the only time in my father’s life that he had sat under an electric light was when he had consulted the doctor with a wrist broken hauling in a net. That had been a hard time, I could not remember it but he had told me. He couldn’t work for three weeks and even then his wrist was not properly healed for some time after and he had to take it easy. It was lucky, he said, that there was family who cared for him. I knew well enough that our existence was precarious and a broken man in our village was a man who needed charity, although bad catches meant no more to me than homemade rather than shop-bought jam on my bread.
We stopped at the end of the wall, where it led in steps to a grassy bank, the edge of the natural harbour that gave our village its name. The breeze was picking up and the kite jerked around in my hand. Jacko smiled at me, he was missing some teeth, and that and a piggy nose ruined his looks. His black, long hair and pale blue eyes would certainly make him the favourite of the village girls in years to come but he needed to grow into his face.
‘Do you want a go?’ I asked him.
He nodded and I passed him the string, although I did not really want him to have it. I could hardly not let him fly the kite, but I didn’t really trust him. What if he let it slip? I looked out to sea. Where would it land if it were to fly free? I couldn’t guess, and the thought was soon gone as we ran back along the sea wall, laughing.
An old man, sitting out in front of his cottage, nodded his head and said, ‘You boys, you boys.’ His hair was white all over, and his face had caved in with age. He had no teeth left and his voice was a hoarse, lisping whisper, no more.
We stopped, smiling at the old man, whom we knew well. ‘You never had a kite like this, Mr Tremhall,’ I said. ‘My dad made it.’
‘Your dad’s a fine man,’ said Mr Tremhall, his head shaking on his parched, scrawny neck as if he couldn’t quite control it. ‘A fine man.’
‘Well, merry Christmas, Mr Tremhall,’ Jacko said.
‘Yes,’ the old man said. ‘Good luck boys.’
We ran on until we reached the place where the steps went down onto the street.
‘I have to go,’ said Jacko. ‘You know Daddy likes me to be home Christmas, and... thanks for letting me fly the kite.’
He handed it back to me. I watched his walking off for a while, then I turned for my own home. The kite streamed behind me, the now brisk wind tugging it hard against my hand. I had the string wrapped several times around my wrist, and I would not lose it. But it was time to go home. It would be no fun to fly it on my own. I had to get my father to come with me to the hills out back. Then it would really fly.


My mother and father were sat at the kitchen table having a drink. They looked happy and festive. The front room had streamers and a small pine tree covered in tinsels and baubles, which had been hidden in the loft for the past year. My favourite was the drummer boy, in a red uniform piped with white, which I insisted on placing on one of the lower branches myself. I did not put it on top of the tree. That was for the angel. She was the angel that looked out for sailors, my father said. You had to honour her.
There was the wonderful smell of roasting chicken (my father would not eat turkey), mingled with baking fish. And there would be pudding. My aunts and uncles would soon arrive (no cousins yet — my father would rib them about that with words I wasn’t sure I understood, although the older boys at my school used similar). I wondered whether there was time for us to go and fly my kite. Later my father and his brothers would be drunk, too drunk for children’s pursuits but not too drunk for cards. I wished we could have a Christmas with just us three some time, none of the others — but I had to remember sure enough that they were the family who cared for us. Even the aunts who wanted to smother me with kisses because they didn’t yet have their own children to kiss, even they cared for me. It was only at Christmas that they all got together really, always at our house because my father was oldest and his mother and father were gone to Jesus, as Jacko’s dad would say. My mother’s parents, my Nanna and Granddad, we would visit the next day. They did not come for Christmas, Granddad did not like the hill. He had been old already when my mother was born and now his hip was bad.
Maybe an uncle would come with me to fly my present in the wind that was still building outside. My father, I could see, did not have his boots on, and he was laughing and smiling, and I did not have the heart, now I saw him in the warmth of the kitchen, looking into my mother’s eyes with a look that even I could tell wasn’t all Christmas, to drag him out into the bluster.


I could hear them singing into the night, and my mother’s big bell of a laugh threaded in and out of the men’s roars. They had given up the cards and set to drinking and yarning, singing shanties and fibbing. I had crept into bed, tired and ready to sleep, an hour before, but the sounds of all the people in the world who cared for me, except perhaps for Nanna and Granddad, Jacko and Jesus, lifted me up so that I floated far above sleep. The house was beautifully warm and I was full of food and the chocolates that my Aunty Clare had brought for me. I was drifting on the sound of the songs that wound forever round the melody of the shifting sea.
Late in the night I woke in the quiet, the only sounds the hard wind and rain battering my window, and the snoring of my father, asleep on my bed, his arms tightly around me.

Thursday, September 23, 2004


Someone shot a bullet at my head this morning.

I wasn’t as frightened by it as I would have thought I would be before it happened. I wasn’t frightened by it at all. Whoever fired the shot used one of those silencers, they must have done, because I didn’t hear firing, just the whistle of the bullet past my ear and the smack of it into the embankment behind me.

I was, though, frightened that there might be another following after it. I wasn’t sure whether to run. I didn’t run but I did walk a little more quickly. It seemed more suitable, somehow, than to run screaming, although I did feel like running and screaming.

It was a cool morning, the air damp but not heavy, and I had heard the bullet’s whistle, almost crackle, and a dull thud of it against earth. I allowed the thought to enter my head that if it had hit my head, that thud would be the last thing I heard.


I put my cappa and croissant on my desk. I turned to the guy in the next cube.

“Someone shot a bullet at my head just now,” I said.
“Really?” he said.
He didn’t sound very interested.
“Who was it?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t see.”
“Well, you’re okay.”
“Yes. It missed.”
“They weren’t a very good shot,” he said.
“Maybe they were just trying to scare me.”

I didn’t know.

If I rang the police, they would ask me who my enemies were. So far as I knew, I didn’t have an enemy. How could I? I had never done anything to make any.

Of course, when I thought about it, there were people who I didn’t quite rub along with. There was Alister Perks, with whom I had a couple of times had strong words – perhaps not strong, perhaps no more than a little heated. I posed him as assassin but the picture lacked something. There was too little of the coldblooded killer in him. Accountancy, I supposed, does that to a man. Bleeds out the ruthless exterminator in all of us, given time. Could he have hired someone? That was a more likely scenario, I thought, and yet, would a man really go to the trouble of having someone killed because of a dispute over too many sugars in his coffee or an inadequate order of paper? Could such things have festered, grown out of proportion? I simply couldn’t imagine it. Perks didn’t even seem to hold a grudge.

“Do you think Perks doesn’t like me?” I asked the guy in the cubicle.
“I don’t think he owns a gun,” the guy said.
I wasn’t sure this was an answer.

“He might have hired someone, don’t you think?”
“He doesn’t seem the type.”
“What is the type?”
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, Perks doesn’t seem it.”

I decided I should ring the police. It was no use my trying to puzzle out the mystery for myself. That was their job. But they – in the person of the sergeant who answered the telephone – did not seem greatly moved by the crime in question.

“Is there anyone you know of who might want to shoot you?”
“Not really,” I said. I wondered whether I should throw Perks’ name into the pot, but I wasn’t sure that there was not some sort of offence involved in falsely accusing a workmate of a grudge that had festered.
“Perhaps it was an accident.”
“Someone accidentally shot at me?”
“Perhaps they were cleaning their gun, or perhaps there was no gun at all. Perhaps you heard a car backfire.”

There was something in the policeman’s tone I didn’t like. I resolved to go out at lunchtime and find the bullet.

However, the weather turned during that morning, and by lunchtime it was raining heavily. I braved it but, to my dismay, the earthen embankment that had received the bullet had become very muddy and had largely slid into the street and been washed away into the gutter. There was no hope of retrieving a bullet.

That afternoon resentment grew in me. I did not know who I most resented – the policeman who had mocked my being shot at, the man who had shot at the bullet, or Alister Perks, who I had become convinced must have hired the assassin. Without a bullet, I had no hope of interesting the police, nor could I confront Perks. In any case, he did not seem to be in the office, but there was nothing unusual in that – he was often gallivanting around, auditing.

I gritted my teeth, swallowed back the taste in my mouth and knuckled down to work until five had come and I was released.

I ran through the rain to the subway, forcing myself to believe that it was the lack of an umbrella, and not fear that would paralyse me if I stopped to think about it, that made me hurry.

“Someone shot a bullet at my head this morning on Humboldt Street,” I said to my wife.
“Which one’s Humboldt Street?” she said.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “What matters is that someone shot at me.”
“That’s not very nice,” she said.
I felt she did not have quite the tone of condemnation I was looking for. She seemed distracted.
“Your coat is dripping on the floor,” she said.
“It’s raining.”
“It is? Gosh. I’ve been inside all day and I wouldn’t have known.”

I went to hang up my coat. As I did so, I noticed something peculiar and out of place in the hallway. A pair of my wife’s shoes, muddied but only slightly, so that a less keen observer than I am would not have noticed, were sitting by the door, and not in the rack, their home.

I couldn’t think how to ask her why she had lied.

Over dinner, she was quiet. I would have said she was thoughtful, if I didn’t know that she disliked thinking about anything that was not practical. She forked food into her mouth with calm determination – pick, jab, pick, jab, munch – so that I almost didn’t have the heart to disturb her. But there was something I needed to ask her.

I coughed in that way one does to attract attention. She looked up to see why.

“Dear,” I said. “I don’t suppose you know Alister Perks.”

She looked back down at her food. I was not certain that her eye twitched, I would not swear so in court, but it may well have done. Perhaps she had only blinked in just the way you would if you had been looking at someone intently and now no longer wished to.

“I met him at a function,” she said. She continued eating in exactly the same manner as before.

Of course. I took my wife to functions when she wanted to come, which she sometimes did. And Perks would be there. I tried to recall, did he have a wife? But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t picture her. Something about him, when you thought very deeply about it, made it hard to imagine his having a wife at all.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Story of the moral

If I do not believe in God or absolute truth or even the spirit, how can I believe in right and wrong?

I believe we came here together and we cannot go on alone. I do not believe we made a covenant with God but I do believe we made one with each other. There was a point in our evolution, if you like, when we decided to swim together or sink together.

I have never doubted it. It's the fundament of my beliefs about human society. Breaching the covenant we have with each other is at the heart of the wrongs we do each other and honouring it is never a bad thing.

We built cities for each other, laid roads, made monuments to what we had together. You cannot put all that down to self-interest, even if it did play a part.

The way I see it, conservatives are the party of denying the covenant. Despite the evidence that we reached the present day through cooperating, they believe we need not cooperate. (BTW, if you do not believe this, you are not actually a conservative and might consider joining the guys in white hats over here.) I could no more become a conservative than I could become a bat. I do not have it in me to hate my fellow man enough.

More's the pity, I sometimes think. I'd be a rich man if I were tougher, if I could stop letting things matter. I'm smart enough and I think I could have found the gumption if it were needed. Of course, it's not much needed where I am.

It's not much cloth to build your morals out of and I find it leaves me happily mostly free of cant. Of course all of us are prey to the confusion that can be taken for hypocrisy if viewed without generosity (but is more often simply the outcome of having individual answers that each are good but do not make a coherent picture).


Thinking further about the idea that Adam never awoke, it seems to me that the world is far too dreary to be a dream. It is astonishingly coherent, despite its underlying incoherence.

Do we ever spy, out of the corner of our eyes, parts that do not fit? Sometimes I believe we do until I can call in the rational cavalry to stamp on that nonsense.

But much of the incoherence we feel the world has lies in the differences in how we see it, not in how it looks. Not understanding that these are different things is the basis of a great deal of the pain we cause each other. Hang on, are they different? Well, as discussed, maybe they are not, but in that case, what I meant to say is that not acting as if they were different is the basis of the pain, and it is still the case that the incoherence lies in our vision.

Friday, September 17, 2004

That's the spirit

I followed this link from the comments on someone's blog (I'm not saying whose for fear of being labelled her shill) because I'm interested in the idea that consciousness directs reality. This is a possible reading of the quantum theory, one that, once I've written the book about the Asperger's guy, is going to power another novel ("Wow, Zen, with all these fucking good ideas, isn't it amazing how you never write a word these days?" "Well, yes, but... erm... *kof*"). That novel is also going to include a weird story I read one time about a guy who video'd his wife sleeping and used the vids as jerking matter (I am not kidding -- well, it was something like that; I think she found out and killed him).

Two things struck me. gives you a "badge" if you use your "real name". That old chestnut! What I'd like to know is how they know. If I wrote reviews under the name "Jacob Pegg", they'd doubtless hand me the badge. But because I'm Dr Zen, no way. And yet, Dr Zen is more my "real" name than any number of "real-sounding" yet completely bogus names.

And why does it matter? Is the lead of "Rob Anderson"'s views on books transmuted into pure critical gold because he doesn't use a nym? I've always been of the belief that it's what you say that matters: you're right, wrong or somewhere inbetween regardless who you are.

The other is that "spirituality", which you might take to be a sense of what transcends humanity, so often boils down to nothing more than anthropocentrism writ large. The gods we worship are like us: petty, jealous, judgemental and vindictive. The universe in this guy's conception is "conscious" but this is conceived of as being self-aware in the same way we are.

Consciousness is an emergent property of the workings of our neurons, and probably nothing more than that. Of course the same property could emerge from the spinning, whizzing, crashing particles of the universe. After all, it's made of the same materials we are, more or less (well, mostly a lot less). But this is hardly "spiritual". It's simply seeing us as being it.

Maybe we are. Maybe consciousness is prime and creates the universe. It's an interesting metaphysical question to chew on (although even the greats never raised it much above a glorified version of "if a tree falls in the middle of a forest...") But because we do not know how it works, it would mean nothing and matter not at all. That is the exact province of the spiritual. It makes no material difference whether there is a God, whether the universe was created or just happens to be. These are just diversions, passing fancies, idle speculations that we can use to fill our time as we live our lives, which happen to us regardless which answers it occurs to us are true.

Zenny was a punk rocker...

Hey ho, let's go!

It's one of the burdens of aging that those you love must die. Love, as we all know, can be a small or a big thing. Sometimes you can love a person just because they make you smile.

Dying of cancer seems such a mundane, stupid thing to happen to a man. A small part of your body goes wrong and one thing and another follow and then you're no more.

The creative endeavours of others (and for some of us, our own) release us from the mundane. They remove us from the world in which we must die, the woes that assail us and all the shit, and allow us to be... somewhere else.

What better legacy for a man than to have created great pop songs? I'd be envious if I didn't love him for it. So long as there is someone with a love for pop and a means to enjoy it, Johnny Ramone will be 21 and dumb, his leather jacket on, ripping out his three chords -- what better way to be in this world!

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

A spin thing

An article in Slate about live albums that don't suck got me thinking (so, thanks to Jen Rasmussen for finding it, but no thanks to her for her ludicrous claim that U2's Under a blood red sky did not suck. I repeat my comment here:

"You're joking?
U2 suck more than a Dyson factory.
They suck more than Mr Wong's We Suck'Em Fuck'Em Whooerhouse for The Guy Who Reeeeaaallly Likes to Get Sucked.
The only thing that sucks more than U2 is Sting.
I read the article. The Pixies definedly did not suck. They rawked. They rawked it double plus live. You didn't see them? Well, you suck. I did. They double plus rawked the house and then some. I'd have paid double on the way out if they'd asked. I'd have sucked. They rawked that much."

Yes, the Pixies. They excited me. I try really hard, but nothing much excites me the same way these days. I've never heard the live album the Slate writer mentions precisely because I wouldn't want to ruin the memory of watching them (I think it was at the Top Rank in Brighton). It was one of the best gigs I ever went to (the time I dropped brown acid at the Brixton Academy when I went with my friend D to watch, erm, fucked if I can remember, but they did that Three kings song, for a birthday treat must be the best -- it was fantastic, at one point I was hearing a fifteen-minute bass solo and then a deconstructed drum (it wasn't until the next day that I realised there had been no solos of any kind when the people I went with denied all knowledge). Underworld at the same place also ranks pretty high (the *entire* crowd did an E, so did the singing guy -- he gave up halfway through the gig and just danced for the rest of the playlist). New Order's comeback at the Reading Festival (the first few songs were from Republic, uninspired, the crowd muted and I thought, yet another gig where they fuck it, but then wham! they did Temptation and the crowd went off like nothing I've been part of before or since. Happy Mondays at the Hummingbird in Birmingham (one of those bands who could just occasionally hit a groove that no one could match -- I saw them four or five times but they never were again the mad fucking brilliant stew of nonsense that they were that night). Stone Roses at Spike Island (if you were there, you know. If you weren't you don't. You definitely wouldn't want to hear a record of it but if you could bottle it...).

The Spin Doctors. I looked it up. I bet the record didn't sound the same!

Monday, September 13, 2004

To Die in Italbar

A lot of the bile spewed the way of genre writing is the misdirected product of snobbery. While it's true that anyone who thinks Stephen King is worthy of awards and prizes other than for sales has probably been out in the sun too long, there are books recognisably within genres that are better than most "literary" scribblings. LA confidential is one, Smiley's people another: books that go beyond the bounds of the formula to astonish and delight. (In talking about genre, I feel one should restrict oneself to books that do admit of a formula, so that, for instance, most of Graham Greene's books, although "thrillers", cannot properly be considered genre books. This is not a fixed opinion though. Of course, most literary books can be considered genre works in their own right. Many are comedies of manners -- the dullest form known to man in my opinion; others nothing more than overwritten soap operas or family sagas.) Science fiction, though, usually is poorly written rubbish, and To die in Italbar is no exception. Enjoyable rubbish, yes. You might devour it with relish. But whatever hunger you brought to it will not be sated.

Why do I say it is poor? Contrary to the impression I might give -- which is a consequence of being an editor by profession -- I don't judge books solely on their mechanical success (unless we are understanding that more broadly to include plot, character and scope). If I did, I would not think it a bad book. It is well enough written technically. Zelazny -- or his editor -- is a good judge of technical English, and his style is very readable. He doesn't fall foul of the common mistake of overwriting that makes much science fiction and just about all fantasy entirely unreadable. He is not an elegant writer -- no Philip K Dick (Lord of the high castle is a book I would without hesitation recommend to anyone, it is such a beautiful work, which, if it were packaged as lit fic under a pseudonym, would be recognised for what it is, a truly great work in English).

But Zelazny does fall foul of simply not bothering to have credible characters. They are cyphers. Actually, I'm being far too generous. They are not well-drawn enough even to be considered cyphers. They are blocks that he moves around a (rather dull) plot. I simply didn't care about them, and because the plot was too workaday, I didn't care what happened. Neither were his premises very exciting. The soldier who is still fighting the war was just unbelievable; the child orphaned by the war just left me unmoved; the healing/destroying man was poorly described, nothing like as mysterious as Zelazny hoped, and the explanation was far too limp to make for a satisfying denouement. The scientist frozen ten seconds from death was a tremendous idea, sadly wasted by being used simply as a piece of plot mechanics rather than a character of substance. The book should have been about him. As it was, with the perfect means to carry on doing what he loved, he pursued an end that would destroy that means (don't be mistaken into thinking that Zelazny made a thrilling torment out of this potential crisis -- he did not, he allowed it to pass with barely any notice).

No surprise though. I couldn't understand what was motivating anyone in this book. Well, that's not wholly true. Mr H and Sandow were having their strings pulled by ancient deities (yawn), so they were not in the being motivated business.

But I did read it all the way through. Why? Well, it was short and easy to read. There's a lesson there for most aspiring writers, I reckon. Learn to write. Learn to write sentences that do not turn the reader off. Don't make mechanical mistakes and keep the plot moving. You can get away with a lot if you do.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Nuts and Bolts

Shrill voices power all sides of the "war on terror". A particularly shrill Islamophobe is the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt, who claims the Beslan massacre was the work of Islamists.
His strongest proof of this point is that the captured terrorist swore by Allah that he did not shoot anyone. Two questions arise from this for me: does Bolt not know that most Chechens are Moslem and most Moslems swear by Allah? Does swearing by Allah by a man an "Islamist"?
A further question his piece raises is this (no, not does he have to be tied down when he finishes his column): why is it notable that some of the terrorists were not Chechens? Has Bolt forgotten that the American aggression in Iraq was carried out in company with Brits, Aussies, Poles, Spaniards etc? We'd explain this by suggesting that they had common cause. Well, hello. The Chechens are a Moslem people who are being fiercely repressed by an imperial, largely Christian power. I don't think it's all that strange that other Moslems see common cause with them. Doubtless some of these fellow travellers are Islamists -- those are the guys with the stomach, the backing and the desire for it.

The kidnap and killing of children in Beslan reminded me powerfully of Kurtz's monologue on horror in Apocalypse now. (If you do not remember, Kurtz tells Willard the following story: he and his men had been into a village to inoculate the children there against some disease -- I can't remember which. Later, they returned to the village and found the Viet Cong had returned and cut off the arms of all the children.) These people understand horror, Kurtz says. He used the word "horror" because that is the word he uses in Heart of darkness -- but today we would more readily say they understood terror.

The revulsion of the Bolts of this world is nothing to them. They are not looking to be loved by him. They do not care what he thinks of them, so long as he fears them. Their acts say, whatever you believe is the limit, we care about our cause more. We will go further than you. (In the case of the Chechens, the Russians' own terror tactics have gone very far. They've made Chechnya a wasteland, killing thousands of mostly innocent people; they are reported to have used rape as a weapon of war (and is it not already beyond what we consider acceptable to involve women as combatants?); they have imprisoned many without charge, tortured and beaten them, executed them.) They crave revulsion, because they want notice, the limelight, hatred.

We can argue over whether their holy book permits what they do, whether their religion is itself pernicious (as some extremist Christians have begun to do, ignoring that Allah says in the Quran that he will judge Christians fairly at doomsday); whether we should allow them to present their cause (and Putin argues that they should not be permitted to and I believe some in Israel think the same about Palestinians -- that the cause itself is tainted by those that support it, which is not an attitude I suppose they would wish taken about their own causes). But I believe in a sense we have made our own bed. This is why.

When we bombed German cities in the Second World War, we made civilians a target. When we bombed Hiroshima, we left no doubt that we were prepared to show no discrimination whatsoever to achieve our ends. There have always been men who believed that this was acceptable -- Timur the Lame slaughtered whole cities, the Romans massacred those who stood against them and of course the man whom we were fighting in that war believed that terror, used judiciously but without discrimination, was a valid tool in his war. We don't have to listen to those men though. We don't have to empower them. We are no longer the helpless tools of ruling classes. We are able to take to the streets and say no.

We didn't then though. We stood behind the men who said it was all right, were your cause sufficient, to murder hundreds of thousands with one weapon. We drew the line there and said you can go this far.

If you can go that far...

We worship death. We worship war. In the USA, the two contenders to lead our world -- and there can't be any doubt that the president of the USA leads the industrialised West in a real sense, leads the whole world even -- are bickering over who would wage war more effectively and, farcically, over whether the hero was heroic enough and the coward cowardly enough for them to rule (as though their chief qualification was warlikeness and not the ability to direct a nation strategically).

It is up to us to say no. Up to us to say our first response must not be to strike back but to find ways of healing. We have to find a way to stand up to those men who believe that no end is low enough if your cause means enough to you, whether they are Osama, Churchill, Truman or Sharon; whether their tools are AK47s or B52s. If we don't want to see more dead kids on our TV screens, it's down to us: the swords won't make themselves into ploughshares.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Winners and losers

It's astonishing, I feel, that when a politician tells the truth, his opponents leap on it as if it were a mistake (and, rather predictably, rush to tell the lie that he did not).

The "war on terror" cannot be "won". The Republigoons have lied over and over saying it could. It's not a thing that can be won or lost in any real sense, and even if you could view it that way, it would prove intractable.

Saying that it's a reasonable aim to lessen acceptance for terrorists in some parts of the world is the first sign of responsibility, or adherence to the truth, that the Bushistas have indulged in. It doesn't do Kerry any credit to say "Absolutely", the "war" can be won. How utterly dishonest of him. He confirms with each passing day the impression the outsider has of him: a political animal, a say-anything crawler, a toad. He doesn't stand for anything, it seems. He doesn't have convictions. He's just whatever Bush is that people like and whatever he isn't that they like too.

Of course, Bush's people are saying he didn't really mean we wouldn't win it. He'll make it "crystal clear" that we will win it, blah, blah. His excursion into the truth did not last long.

Oh for a man who would stand up and say "We will work to make you feel safe. We can't promise it, because to promise would be to lie -- there is no way absolutely to stop those determined to hurt you from hurting you, but we can promise to do all we can."

Oh for a man who would stand up and say that in address to the whole world, not just those parts of it that have a large lobby in the US. He'd be worth our American friends' vote, and ours too.