Friday, 7 November 2014


Oddly enough, I feel the urge to write about an interesting phenomenon, something I haven't quite figured out yet. Perhaps this wee blog (if you'll excuse the pun) will be more suited to my male readers, for the simple reason that I am not the kind of man who hangs around inside women's toilets. I don't mean it to sound like I hang around in male ones, either; what I mean is, I can't speak much to the etiquette required in the ladies' restrooms, though I understand it has a lot to do with 'retouching', and the magical property that gives women the inability to enter one unless they have a companion. Perhaps it's like when you were five and the teacher had to send a buddy with you. I'm still not sure, to this day, for the reasoning behind this (perhaps a teacher could enlighten me), because, even when I was five I was able to navigate to, and use, a toilet unaided. And, despite the state of the place sometimes, there certainly wasn't anything scary enough there that I needed my hand held. Maybe it's just that the teacher gets sick of a child from time to time, and needs a little break. This explanation seems plausible. But I digress.

The point is, what the hell is the etiquette in the men's room? There are some situations where the accepted behaviour would seem clear, and yet I have still found people who do not follow the rules. I feel examples might help.

1. No talking while you're on the pot. Simple, right? Nobody's trying to start up a conversation with you while you're busy. Despite the assumed universality behind this rule, I have met people who are more than eager to engage in a little chit chat across the boards, as it were. Not for me, thanks.

2. Similarly, and much more prevalently, cell phone usage. Now, fair enough, I have often been known to send a tweet while otherwise engaged, but taking business calls? We get it, Mr Man, you're busy and important. But aint nobody trying to discuss marketing strategy to the sound of your excretion hitting the porcelain. Just delay the call for a minute, huh?

3. General chit chat at the urinal. More common than you might think. I'm not a fan of small talk, and I can happily stand in an elevator and stare at the wall, rather than discuss the weather with someone who I may never meet again. So it makes sense that I care even less for it when I'm draining the snake. I know this doesn't hold for others, but I don't need to sum up how my day is going, generalise about work, or whatever the hell else it is that can't seem to wait. Feel completely free to be silent, don't say a god damn thing.

4. Eye contact. The next natural question, where am I supposed to look? It is just me? Or do any other guys out there find the idea of looking another man in the face while you're holding your manhood in both hands (that's right, ladies ;)) rather unsettling? And you certainly can't look anywhere in the downward area, no sir. I hear you say it's either at yourself, so to speak, or straight forward. Fine by me, and please don't think I'm being rude.

5. Hand contact. Let's keep this one short and sweet. No handshakes, no high fives, no fist bumps, no touching of any kind. And while we're at it, don't pat me on the back, either. I'm talking to you, drunken All Blacks fans expressing camaraderie. I happy we won and all, but hands to yourself.

6. What the fuck do you say when someone doesn't wash their hands? Being half-English, I usually settle for a sideways glance, maybe a tsk below my breath. This is followed by a mental note not to shake hands with the person if it ever comes up. But how do you get around that in a polite office setting?
Here's how it might go:
Colleague: 'Richard, meet [toilet guy with piss hands]'.
Me: 'Nice to meet you. I'd love to shake, but [clever excuse about having a cold].'
Here's how it would actually go:
Colleague: 'Richard, meet [toilet guy with piss hands]'.
Me: 'Nice to meet you.' <shakes hand, followed by internal memo to self about making an excuse to leave and buy hand sanitiser>
And don't even get me started if they've come out of the stall and headed straight for the door. I sure hope you were doing drugs in there, because otherwise you're a filthy bastard.

Perhaps I'm over thinking it. I brushed my teeth in the airport bathroom the other day, so I've come a long way. But still, generally my thoughts are: don't talk to me when the beast is unleashed, and wash your god-damn hands, you animal. Is there a handbook for this sort of thing?

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Life, in extremis

I am for foxes because they are survival in the face of expansion, success in the face of concrete. They are life where life once roamed freely, they are taking back what was theirs. They are daring and resourceful, taking your rubbish and making it valuable. Thriving despite our hunts and our hatred, taking their towns by the scruff of the neck. I am for foxes because they are alive.

I am for pigeons because they refuse to be beaten, because they adapt to the city, because they take your kicks and keep on living. Pigeons will not lay down and they will not simply leave. They will fly away and back when you are not looking, swooping down to their latest meal, unfussed and unpicky. I am for pigeons because they represent life.
I am for rats because they will outlast us, because they are us, because they are happy to live in the shadows. Because it does not occur to them to be otherwise. Rats are life without pretension, without ego, without complication. They multiply like humans, but their world is cleaner in its way than ours will ever be. I am for rats because of their honesty.

I am for roaches because they will never die. They are perfect in their ugliness, they must look pretty good to each other. They are the ultimate biological machine, defiant of our world and our buildings and our culture. They live and insist upon it, and are content to let us do the same. I am for roaches because they will never go away.
I am for life because we do not own the planet, we only rent it for a while, building concrete towards the sky.

Thursday, 21 August 2014


Knowing the sensitive nature of the current conflict in Gaza, I considered avoiding the topic altogether, but I feel as if to do so would be dishonest in some way. If I have something to say, then my usual practice is to say it, and let the reader decide whether it was a good idea.  That being stated, I should point out that I am eager to provoke thought and conversation, rather than anger and argument. So here goes.

The root of the current problem is the creation of the modern state of Israel, which was preceded by Zionism and supported by the UN General Assembly. I do not go so far as to claim that this creation was a bad idea in its entirely, but it certainly seemed to favour the claims of the Israelis over those of the Palestinians in the region, particularly the people who were destined to be displaced. The region has been fraught with violence ever since, and with the benefit of hindsight I can say that errors were made, but even without the benefit of hindsight it seems logical to assume that displacing one set of people in favour of another, on the basis of an ancient claim to the land is going to crate trouble, and furthermore it ignored the rights of the people currently settled in the region, who also have a valid historical claim to the land.
Adding to this is the polarising and deadly attitude brought about by the opposing ideologies of the two sets of peoples, both recently settled and recently moved: a division drawn along religious lines, in which both sides believe equally an unwaveringly in the truth and righteousness of their cause, and in which both sides believe they have the support of god. This attitude, as well as engendering mistrust and hatred of anyone outside the specific faith group, also allows people to believe that dying and killing for the sake of the cause are morally acceptable and desirable.

Now, I don’t think the blame game is likely to produce the desired end result (i.e. peace), and I don’t think there is much value in delving into the various wrongs committed by both sides. This is a long and bloody situation stretching back for years, and neither side’s hands are clean. If Hamas were in possession of the bigger arsenal, I have no doubt they would be using similar techniques to the ones currently employed by Israel. Hamas itself is a nebulous organisation in many ways, with members who have stated that the total destruction of Israel is their goal (see the Hamas Charter), which others have stated that a peaceful coexistence is possible. Israel, for their part, have shown much less restraint than may be desired, but their use of weaponry is understandable (if not acceptable) given the circumstances. They are surrounded by an enemy they believe wants to wipe them from the face of the Earth. This is simply a case of who has the bigger guns.
Now, I have been thinking about a possible solution to this problem for some time, and although my ‘nuclear obliteration of the entire area’ proposal would be the most efficient, it is also the most tongue-in-cheek. There is one option which I feel could work: take the area of conflict, and divide it into two equal parts, one called Israel, and one called Palestine. Take the holy areas of both faiths, and declare these neutral territory. Ideally the territories will be arranged for access to the sites by either side, with a buffer of land between them to help prevent any other contact. The holy sites will be policed by the UN; anyone will be free to visit these sites, subject to a weapons check on entry, and they will belong to no one.
I am not so naïve as to believe this option will be one which either side will accept. The ideologies which I have mentioned previously also make any such concessions or trades of land repugnant, particularly the holy sites. We have witnessed over the years that, to many, war and death are preferable to giving up some buildings and patches of dirt. Could the world’s nations step in and enforce the plan anyway? Yes. But this would create more problems, because if the antagonists in this struggle do not accept a solution, the struggle will go on, in various forms and guises. There is also the moral implication of solving violence and displacement with more violence and displacement, as well as the question of whether the nations of the West (for it will be the Western nations who try to solve this problem – and perhaps rightly, since they had the biggest hand in creating it) have the desire to see more of their sons killed in other people’s arguments over, among other things, holy sites, patches of earth, a long list of reciprocal grievances and dead relatives, and who has the better imaginary friend.
In any case I am sceptical about whether the world will support any agreement which threatens to lead to lasting peace. Peace is bad for business. Both sides are being armed and supplied from somewhere, and you can be sure that even if the weapons are free, there is a cost involved. If the will existed, there could be peace tomorrow, but the pain and anger created by decades of killing have exacerbated the differences between two peoples who already believe the other is morally inferior due to an accident of birth or education. Add to this the partisan support for either side shown by both Western and Middle Eastern nations, and you have the recipe for a conflict which will burn for years to come.
Normally, I like to end these little rants of mine on a high note, or at least a note suggesting some kind of progress or achievement. However, in this case I feel a distinct lack of optimism for any peaceful outcome. Perhaps this attitude adds to the problem, perhaps it makes no difference what I do or how I think, since I am not part of the equation and my voice is small. I would like to think that with a value for human life and human rights, a sensible and lasting peace could be obtained, but there has been little or no sign of anything like such a solution being reached as long as I have been alive. While the hatred persists, the war will rage on.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Normalisation of War

When I was a boy, I loved to play soldiers. G.I. Joe was my favourite toy, and I could spend hours in mock battles, at the end of which the participants and their weapons and vehicles were rounded up and packed away, ready to fight again tomorrow. I also had He Man, Transformers, and others. Violence was the norm in my play. When outside, I would be an army man, or Robin Hood, or any of many similar idols. Even the Batman, who refuses to kill, uses violence and intimidation as a means to an end.

Similarly, many of the books, movies, and TV shows I enjoy are openly violent. Some of the best scenes in films are full of bullets, or excellently choreographed combat. Even in those shows where the lead characters aim to prevent violence to others, they often become caught up in it themselves. Is this art reflecting the world, or vice versa? In truth, it is both.

Why is it that is so many action films, the villain is killed, either out of necessity (he pulls a gun on the hero, forcing the hero to shoot), or simply by a character, often a policeman, who ignores the usual rules of arrest and trial, and kills him outright? I am told that in French films this doesn’t occur, that the villain is captured. I can’t help wonder what this difference says about Anglophones?

I am not a big believer in the argument that video games create violent people, but I feel obliged to acknowledge the fact that they probably don’t help solve the problem. Fact is, violence sells. Many of the biggest selling games are first person shooters, many of the actions you can now take go above and beyond anything you would have considered possible in the real world. Now, I like games, and they’re not going anywhere. I don’t seek to condemn them, but (like books and films) they are at best a symptom of our culture, and at worst, much more.

It is impossible to watch the news for any length of time, without hearing a story of war. It is omnipresent. It is part of our nature, a part we seem to be unable to suppress. It happens so much that even the most bloody acts no longer elicit much surprise, or much disapprobation. The Joker said that when soldiers are killed or gangsters are shot, no one really bats an eyelid, and he was right. He said it is because it’s all ‘part of the plan’, and I believe this is a fair assessment. From a young age, we are trained to accept certain kinds of violence as normal; from a young age we play war and watch cartoon battles and hear in the background about conflicts we barely understand. We study battles and generals. We accept war as part of our culture.

We also have the cult of celebrity, as it applies to outlaws, criminals, serial killers. We have men on death row idolised by lonely women, we have a fascination with jail and organised crime, with Bonnie and Clyde, with the misunderstood and maladjusted. Ned Kelly, Dick Turpin, Al Capone, the Cray brothers. Murder mysteries and police procedurals. CSI and Miss Marple.

Now, of course we have the chicken and egg question, and there is no doubt that war came before modern media. But stories of violence? Of great battles and brave hunts? When did the myth come to outshine the truth?

It would be naïve and foolish of me to claim that by banishing violence from our art and from our play, that we will banish it from the world. Hell, I like violent films and games. And there is also a case to be made that art is truth, and it must be honest about whatever it sees. Is the answer then to accept it, to embrace our nature and be satisfied with a world where horrors exist, if only far away? This option, too, is unappealing. What, then?

I am tempted to despair, but this is the least helpful of emotions. The real goal is to change our cultural norms, to refuse to accept violence as regular, and rather to push the idea that it should, and can, be removed by social progress. The only way I can see of eliminating war, of reducing conflict to the level of the sports field and the boxing ring, is to enhance the living conditions of every human on the planet, to a level where the struggle for resources disappears, and life is no longer an us vs them equation. If we can use technology to ensure that everyone is provided for and lives a life comparable with that of people in countries where violence is low, we may be able to push war out of our society for good.

I certainly believe it is becoming possible. We already see nations with the kind of living I suggest, so the key is spreading that lifestyle across the globe. My only fear is that our nature will not allow us so settled a lifestyle, that our inner beast will out. Perhaps we are doomed to be slaves to our anger, our bloodlust, our fear, but I choose to believe that we can be more. You may say I’m a dreamer.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

What I learned from the World Cup

Following on from my revelations of London 2012, I’d like to share with you some thoughts and feelings gleaned from Brazil 2014. So here they are, in no particular order:
1. Patriotism trumps logic
This has been true in any number of situations, and it is certainly true in football. For football is a sport unmatched for atmosphere and sheer, bloody-minded loyalty to your team and its colours. For the English, this represents a healthy cynicism which is rarely disappointed. If things have the value we invest in them, then football is much more than a sport, and its triumphs and calamities are writ large on the faces of supporters, or at least, those not too fickle to emerge from outright despair and jump around like lunatics at the sight of themselves on a big screen. Patriotism makes us hope despite evidence to the contrary, makes us angry at things which are immaterial, makes us yell and curse at players for minor infractions, makes us scream with delight when hope turns into something more solid. For all this emotion, what has really changed? Is Germany much better off now than had they lost the final? Is Argentina much worse off than had they won? Not really, but pride goes a very long way.
2. Exuberance trumps reputation (sometimes)
Many of the bigger teams at the competition suffered, or came close to suffering, defeat at the hands of so-called lesser opposition. Those teams who, delighted to have made it to the World Cup at all, played with desire, energy, and a lack of fear. This is national pride at its best, and makes for the kind of football I love to watch. That said, the big names won through in the end, and the tournament may have been the worse for it.
3. Despite circumstance, past behaviour can never be discounted
You know who I’m talking about. Psychologists will tell you that the one reliable indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, and if you think you don’t believe it, then go ahead and lend that £100 to the mate who still owes you from last time. Our Uruguayan friend can never really be expected to clean up his act, but as long as he keeps scoring goals, don’t expect Uruguay (or Barcelona) to care. By the way, the excuse he gave afterwards was one the lamest I can recall hearing in my life.
4. I really like the South American style of play

The South American style was the thing I enjoyed most seeing, and perhaps it went hand in hand with the exuberance I mentioned above. I’m not talking about the laboured games of Brazil and Argentina, dominated as they are by European players. No, the teams I enjoyed most were the three Cs: Colombia, Costa Rica, and Chile, all of whom were unfortunate not to progress further than they did, and all of whom have had players linked with transfers following the tournament. Their style, energy, and flair were refreshing to witness, and Rodriquez’s goal was the goal of the tournament.

5. The vanishing spray
The spray can for free kicks, has been used in South America for some time now. FIFA accepted its use, and it has been amazing to see exactly how much distance the walls used to steal. Now, when it comes to advancement and innovation, both FIFA and the European FAs seem about as forward-thinking as the Westboro Baptists, but I would love to see it used here, along with anything else which makes the game fairer.
6. The opposite of support
One image sums up the vicious nature of football support, the flip side of the enthusiasm supporters pour out for their team, and that it the one of Argentinian supporters holding up spines after hearing of Neymar’s injury. Now, I think Neymar has skill, and like many footballers on his level, he’s overpaid and arrogant, but no more would I wish paralysis on the man than I would on myself (ok, maybe a little more). The fans holding the aforementioned prop were more than happy to take a man’s injury, and wave it in the faces of their rivals with a kind of sadistic glee. This seems a bit more than support ever intended, and it is part of the dark side of football.
7. No one gives a shit about the third and fourth place playoff
Um. I didn’t even watch it.

8. World Cup B
It occurs to me that it would be nice to run a kind of World Cup B, alongside the current one. Of course the timings would be difficult. You couldn’t run it at the same time, because who would watch that? And you couldn’t run it too soon before or after, to avoid clashing with domestic league seasons. But I’m sure the seasons would manage somehow, the way they do with the African Cup of Nations. The reason behind this proposal is simply that the second tier teams, those who didn’t qualify, would be eligible for another tournament, so that some of the lesser teams could get experience, and still play some of the better teams in world football. Sure, it wouldn’t be as prestigious as the World Cup, but it would provide valuable opportunities for players and teams who might not otherwise get them.

9. Germany are so fucking consistent
Sure, they hadn’t won a trophy since 1996, but boo fucking hoo. Subtract thirty years from that, German fans, and then you’ll come closer to understanding the pain of the English people. Despite the lack of recent trophies, you always feel, going in to a tournament, that Germany are capable of winning it. They often reach quarters and semi-finals, and they never really look too terrible. Add to that becoming the first European team to win on South American soil, and the absolutely unprecedented demolition of Brazil, and you have a team which is to be feared, and feared even on their bad days.

10. Missed opportunities
I think the saddest thing about the World Cup is not the tears of the Brazil fans after that fifth goal went in. It’s more the possibility the country had to use the World Cup, to create jobs and economic stimulus, to give something back to the people who truly needed it. Instead, they got large bills, stadia they don’t need, and yes, of course, ignominy. Even had they won, it probably wouldn’t have been worth it, not in real terms. Now that they have lost in such style, insult is added to the already large injuries plaguing the nation. The World Cup was supposed to bring joy and hope, and for many it brought just the opposite.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

A revelation in three small steps

I stepped out into the cool air and pulled the door closed behind me, checking, as I usually do, to make sure it was closed. I was struck by the air immediately; it was so crisp, so fresh. I enjoyed its uncompromising hint of winter harshness on my face, and I realised that the weather is brilliant because it’s one of the few things in a city like this which makes you face your connection with nature, your own nature, where you came from and the animal you are. It’s all connected. I put my face in my book and stepped towards the main road, but once there the air was simply car exhaust like so many other places.
I walked up and through the park, with its soft carpet of leaves, multi-coloured. Stopping and looking are sometimes wonderful things, trying to focus on picking out one colour amongst the fallen leaves brought everything to life. I inhaled the pre-winter coolness and wondered why I felt good today. It seemed arbitrary: on another day the air would seem irritating, the leaves dirty cast offs. It seems lately as if there’s less reason behind my moods, my elevations and my depressions, than there used to be. Towards the end of the park I put my face in my book again because there was nothing more to appreciate in the vicinity of the bus stop.

I got to Liverpool Street Station early, but not as early as I had anticipated, which happens easily in London. 28 minute off-peak journey time my ass. I had finished the book so wandered around aimlessly and ended up settling looking at the maps of the surrounding area near the tube entrance. As soon as I saw her I couldn't help but grin broadly. There she was: a spectre from another time in my life, a ghost, but a ghost which smiled back.
I had expected it maybe to be weird, but I have been getting better at these sorts of things, and despite the odd moment it was actually a lot of fun. The old jokes, the memories, the usual things old friends cover, it all came spiralling back and it was easy, and the words flowed and I was glad I had agreed to meet her. I think perhaps the shortness of the time contributed to this sense, because had it been longer I think deeper things would have been discussed, and this was not the day for that. I saw her off at the tube and walked to the bus stop, calculating the route home and how many songs I would be able to listen to on the way.

I got off the bus and walked towards the park, John Lennon pumping through my ears. A thick beautiful fog had descended some time after I left Liverpool Street. I walked into its calm swirl, trees emerging and passing, solid amidst the ether. I stepped off the path and walked across the grass, slipping slightly and trying to keep my shoes clean. Well, clean-ish. For a time the fog closed in and I could only see a few metres in any direction. I felt like I was as the limitless ends of the world, in limbo, and that the cold air chasing around my neck was the only thing which could affect me in this endless place. Then the tall trees ahead of me struck their outlines through the fog and I was real again.
I switched off the music because I wanted to hear the sounds of the world, the squeals of children from the playground and the insect-like chatter of the crows. I turned around and took a few photos, and later a few more as I resumed walking home. Later they will be uploaded to my computer, but I won’t feel bad if I don’t look at them straight away. Photos are for when I am old, for dragging up memories. I took a photo for a couple who were also capturing moments; I had almost missed them asking me, stuck in the reveries of my own head. I saw the lights of the 29 bus near the park gate and headed towards them, to the main road, and home to make dinner.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Two contentions


It seems to me that the kind of affection one finds in friendship can be considered to be superior to the kind of obligatory affection for family we see as part of everyday life; not in every single way, but in one specific way it could certainly be described as more genuine, perhaps.

What I mean is this. You will sometimes hear people say ‘oh, I have to love him, because he’s my brother, but really he’s a dick a lot of the time,’ or words to that effect. Whereas, with friends, there is a limit to the amount of crap you will put up with, with family that limit does not exist. Because there is nothing my family members can do which will mean they are no longer family, there is therefore nothing they can do which will destroy the resultant familial affection. Or perhaps there is, but it would be particularly horrendous behaviour indeed. On the other hand, there is no way my friend could get away with anything nearly as horrendous, and still be considered a friend of mine.

So, what I am saying is that your friends are your friends because of certain standards of behaviour which you, consciously or not, expect them to uphold. There is certainly forgiveness for wrongs, and tolerance for bad behaviour tends to increase given the length of the friendship, but it is also true that friendships can (and do) end, even after years, because of errors committed by one or both parties.

Now, I am not saying there are not occasions when families stop speaking, stop behaving as friends do, as it were, nor am I saying we do not judge our family members by standards of behaviour; what I am saying is that our family are much more likely to get a free pass, to get away with things our friends wouldn’t. And this is not through merit of behaviour, but rather simply by being born. By contrast, friendship is earned and maintained.

Consider how much more likely people are to encourage you to reconcile a long-standing feud with your brother than with a former friend. Consider the right of a king to rule, versus the right of a president. One is born, the other chosen based on merit (or perceived merit). Certainly there are good kings and bad presidents; certainly we judge kings now by similar standards to those we judge presidents by (something which, in the past, was unthinkable); but do many of us really question a king’s right to be king. The right to things through birth is ingrained in our thinking, and it can work both well and badly.

I make no judgement on whether this attitude to our family is right or wrong. Certainly it can be defended on account of the fact that family will always support you, will back you when others will not, will help you out of tight spots. This upholding of standards goes both ways, but it also goes beyond behaviour and into, again, something you were born into.

The point is that your friends can be the best people you know, but can they ever really earn the same leniency and forgiveness as your relatives. Their position may, in many ways, have more merit, since it is based on nothing more than personality and action, and this is why I think good friends should be prized as highly as good family.


My second contention is mostly unrelated to the first, but since it occurs to me now I feel like putting it down on paper (see: MS Word).

I was raised to believe in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, a man laying down his life to cure the world of ills. I recall a particular hymn which had a line: ‘a man can have no greater love than to give his life for his friends’. Now, I want to argue against this line within the framework of the Catholic ideology in which it was uttered, rather than from my usual outside perspective.

There are two main problems I see with this line. I’ll start with the easier of the two, and that is friends. Surely the level of the sacrifice is increased if the man is giving up his life not for friends, but for strangers. You might say, why would someone love strangers more than friends? But this is what Christians are encouraged to do. Therefore, the sacrifice must be extended to cover everyone Jesus had never (and, since this dying thing covered future people too), and would never meet. And it did. Kudos to JC, he died for everyone, not just his mates, so he has that aspect covered.

The second thing is that he didn’t really give his life, did he? I mean, it’s kind of a cheat. He was part-god, and he knew that, despite all the pain, he was going to get a free respawn. If you let your brother play your last life during a game of Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s more meaningful than if you let him play a life with ten lives still in the bag. So all he really did was suffer a whole bunch, sleep it off, and come back later.

Now, admittedly that must have hurt a whole bunch, but it’s still not the same as doing it, knowing there is no coming back. You could argue that any martyr, with their belief in another life, is really, despite the agonising pain of their demise, just kind of cheating their way through. In fact, if you martyr yourself for the promise of a big reward after you’ve done so, then perhaps you’re not really the big altruist you thought you were.

Following on from this is the idea that, if the priests are right, then there can be a greater love than to give up your life (even for strangers). And that would be to give you’re your soul. If the soul lives forever, and can be sent for eternal torment, then surely the man with the greatest love is the man who sacrifices not only his life, but his soul, for the sake of others. Progressing even further with the logic, the true hero of Christianity is the man who ensures that others are going to heaven, even at the cost of his own self being sent to the Other Place.

Remember, when reading this next part, that I am still working within the framework of the religion in which I was raised, and that the conclusions, while logical in a certain sense, are not something I myself believe. They are more of an extrapolation from data, based on information provided to me by the church, through teachings, sermons, and the like.

I am forced to conclude that our heroic man, the man with the greatest love of all (or woman, if you like, let’s not be sexist here), is the one who gets others to heaven while committing himself to hell. How to ensure others get to heaven? Easy. Baptism, and then murder. If you baptise a child (and to qualify for this criteria, all the experience you need is to have been baptised yourself), it is cleansed of all sin. If you kill it immediately afterward, by Catholic teaching, it will go to heaven. And you, for having committed such an act, will be condemned to the fiery pit. Therefore, the true hero of Catholicism is the person who baptises as many babies as possible, and then murders them.

Now, you might say: what the fucking hell? It’s just a poorly-worded line in an old hymn, why would you go that far? My answer would be, the hymn is just the starting place, just one example of the strange logic which pervades the religion of my upbringing (and many others), a religion with beliefs like ‘god loves you unconditionally, but if you don’t obey these conditions, you suffer for all eternity’. I have taken some of the key teachings, and followed them to a conclusion which is unavoidable based on the internal logic of the system of belief under consideration. And yet this is a system which many people claim to believe in. You do the math.

Monday, 12 May 2014

The N word

So Jeremy Clarkson becomes the latest in a long line of white guys in the public eye, to utter the unutterable. Or should I say, to mumble it. To the sin of racism is added the sin of a lack of conviction. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.

People have since come out in defence of Clarkson, saying he might be prone to using shock value, or that he might simply be a bit of an idiot, but he’s not a racist. And he probably isn’t, at least no more than the average person. Certainly saying a word is not on the same level as a so-called hate crime, or even, say, discrimination when hiring a job applicant. One question in all of this is: how bad is it really to make racial slurs? I understand that Clarkson, being in the public eye, has a certain standard of behaviour to uphold, and that the BBC had a responsibility to promote fairness and denounce racism where it can. Therefore it’s understandable that they took some sort of action over this, and we can expect Clarkson to tread carefully with his ‘final warning’ status. Should he have been sacked? If he was the presenter of a less-popular show, would he have been sacked? Perhaps clearer policy needs to be written.

From my point of view, I am still not sure which approach is best when it comes to the N word, and I have given it some thought. As a private individual, I can certainly be more free and easy in my approach to the dreaded word.

Now, one approach to the word is that it cannot be used at all. This is an understandable line to take for those in the public eye and representing companies like the BBC, but let’s be honest, a blanket ban on any word is never going to be effective in the private sphere. With language, as with anything, simple prohibition is ineffective. In fact, it often has the opposite effect than intended.

What about the ‘rule’ which says that if you are not black, you can’t say the word. This I find curious, as it seems to me to be inherently racist to decree that one set of people can say a word based on the colour of their skin, and another group cannot. Nonetheless, I can see why white people would choose to follow this rule, given the nature of the word and the sensitivity surrounding it. But who owns words? In this case, perhaps the rule is often followed more out of respect or professional good sense than the position of the speaker in question.

Part of the ‘problem’, if you can call it that, is the lack of an equivalent word for whites, and the relatively recent mature of the events which the word calls to mind. Slavery and racism have existed throughout history, and I’d wager that every ‘race’ has been on both the giving and receiving end of these actions as some point or other. However, there has been no recent white slave trade, no word which carries anything like the emotional intensity which the N word calls to mind. If there were, it would also be a no-no for BBC presenters, of this I am certain.

Another approach is to allow the word free reign, to rob it of its power by repeating it so often that it becomes meaningless, or until the meaning transmutes into something else entirely. There is precedent for the meaning of a word to change, and in fact this might be desirable. Not that this would remove any of the history or obscure the suffering which occurred, but rather it might help us to move forward without the distractions of controversy, so that where issues of racism occur, they are dealt with rationally and quickly.

The ‘reclaiming’ of the word has been occurring for some years now, primarily by black musicians and comedians. But, despite the ubiquity of the word in various forms of entertainment, the edge remains. As a white man, the fact is that I cannot truly appreciate the word, cannot understand the feelings it evokes. But then, you might say that of anyone, no matter what colour, who lives in modern Britain and has never been enslaved. I think that the power of the word is that it underlines more than the history is suggests; it speaks to attitudes and divisions still present in many countries today. As a white man, it might be hard for me to understand and appreciate these attitudes. And I may have to accept that the word is just one I cannot justifiably utter. But it would be sad to see the emotion around the word prevent any true debate about the underlying issues, as it is only by exposing the issues that the people of Britain, regardless of colour, can hope to address and overcome them.

Friday, 25 April 2014

The Wedding at Cana

And so Jesus said unto them, ‘behold, the water is now wine.’ And Peter drank of the wine, and he spake in amazement, saying ‘verily, it is the best wine I have ever had,’ and he took another slug. And Jesus said unto him ‘easy on that stuff, man. It’ll sit you on your ass.’ But Peter heeded him not, having already wandered off to see what Mary Magdalene was up to.
And the hosts of the party were amazed, for the guests were stumbling up to them, saying with sweet breath, ‘this wine is flippin’ excellent. Why were you holding out on us before?’ So they thanked Jesus thus: ‘thanks Jesus. That was pretty sweet.’ And Jesus was all ‘that’s cool. Can I crash here tonight?’ And they spake unto him ‘oh fo sho.’

Then did Judas arrive at the party, and he said to Jesus ‘how come you didn’t invite me to this man? I had to hear about it from Mark?’ And Jesus said ‘it’s not really my place to invite you to someone else’s wedding’, to which Judas replied ‘right. You can turn water into wine, but you can’t wrangle a simple invitation. Didn’t your Dad make Pharaoh disobey him with that Jedi mind trick shit? You never hook a brother up,’ and he stalked off with malice in his eyes. And Jesus said aside to John ‘I’m going to have to keep an eye on that guy. He’s becoming kind of a dick.’ To which John spake: ‘no doubt.’
And then John, being merry from the wine, and possibly some of that strong desert hash, asked unto Jesus ‘what is a Jedi mind trick doe?’ And Jesus said unto John, ‘who knows? Judas always be saying crazy shit when he’s mad.’ But in his heart he knew that Judas had obtained knowledge of the force, whereby his miracles were performed, and he knew he must try to steer him away from the Dark Side, lest it consume him.

And then John said, ‘where’s all the bitches up in hurr?’ but it was late, and the party winding down, and all the good-looking women had been snatched up by the rich man and Pharisees, who were currently trying to get their camels through the eyes of needles, if thou catchest my drift. So John spotted a couple of the end-of-the-night kind of girls over by the Coke machine, and he wandered over to them to chat.
But presently he returned, saying unto Jesus, ‘they aint feeling it. I told them I was with the wine guy, but I guess you’re not famous enough yet.’ So Jesus waved his hand, and the girls’ attitude changed from sour to inviting. And Jesus winked at John and said ‘go get ’em.’ And John rushed away. And Jesus smiled unto himself and said ‘now that’s some Jedi shit.’

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

St George’s Day

St George’s Day is a good opportunity to think about the concept of ‘Englishness’, and of nationhood in general. Being the child of two countries myself, it is an idea which I have often come back to in my life. I was born and raised in New Zealand, and will always consider myself a Kiwi through and through, but from a young age my father was keen to stress to me that I had another heritage, one which was hard for me to understand or experience given the distance between our respective islands.

That being said, New Zealand is a Commonwealth country, and you do not have to look far to see the influence the Empire brought and left behind. Culturally, New Zealand is young, and still espouses many of the values of the motherland. It was not so long ago that New Zealanders saw it as their duty to send soldiers to fight alongside others from the Commonwealth in both world wars; but times are changing, and should a similar event occur today, I am not sure where the public sentiment would lie. While no one would doubt the moral aspects of protecting the world from the Third Reich, this was not necessarily the principal reason for New Zealand’s involvement. A call to arms for our people today would (and has) involve a serious questioning of the rectitude of the actions and stated aims, as evinced by our limited involvement in Iraq.

The national day of New Zealand, Waitangi Day, is (unlike St George’s) a national holiday. The national holiday really. And yet it is the most divisive day the country sees. It has become little more, in political circles, than a stage for airing grievances of the native people against the Crown. These grievances, and the issues arising from them, I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that I feel a day which could be a celebration of New Zealand and New Zealanders as a whole, has become a day in which the split between Maori and non-Maori New Zealanders is the focal point. Seek out Waitangi Day in London, and you find the opposite: a day of celebration, of our drinking culture and some of the less dignified aspects therein, of our young country’s myths and icons, from Shortland Street to taniwhas, beached whales to inflatable sheep.

Times are changing in New Zealand, and immigration and distance from the motherland cause shifts; very soon the Union Flag may be gone from ours altogether. Things are moving in Britain too. The Scottish independence movement has gained force, to the point that a referendum is to be held. Much debate has been waged, and unfortunately substance has been lacking from a lot of the rhetoric. I have yet to hear cogent arguments from either Yes or No campaigners, and so I undecided about my position on this. Now, it is not really important what my thoughts are either way, since I will not have a vote, but I would like to think that the implications of staying or leaving are clearly and fully understood by those who will. There is no doubt that the Scottish people have a right to self-determination, and there is no doubt that, if properly informed, they will use their votes wisely. It is the information which worries me.

Perhaps I have not been looking in the right places. Those who want independence talk about freedom from a parliament which makes decisions with the best interest of others in mind. Those who want to retain the union talk about the shared traditions and the strength of a kingdom united. Both these arguments have merit, but what I want to see are details. If I were Scottish, I would be even more concerned with the details, but being English is not to say that I am without an interest in the proceedings. Whatever happens, it’s important that the outcome is not clouded by bitterness or ill-feeling, and that the decision is respected. Together or apart, the nations of England and Scotland will always share the same island, and their interests will often coincide.

Compare the Scottish, or Irish, sense of national pride with a sorely subdued English one, where the national day is not celebrated with a holiday, where the George’s cross is flown rarely. Why is this? Is it, as I have read, because the Scottish and Irish are keen to promote their identity, subdued as it was for so long? That the English have no real ‘enemy’ to define themselves in opposition to? Is it because the Cross is viewed now as a symbol of racist nationalist movements? Does PC culture prevent a country from recognising and being proud of its identity?

If so, then more’s the pity. I see no difference between an Englishman celebrating St George’s Day and an Irishman celebrating St Patrick’s. Both are equally entitled to be proud of their heritage and to express that pride in a civic manner. Both are members of nations with achievements to boast of, and (let’s face it) other, less glorious moments.

Being English is not as much of a sin as Mel Gibson would have you believe. Modern sentiment seems to portray the historical English as arrogant, class-bound, conquerors, who subdued the world and forced their way of life upon many. And this is in many ways accurate. But if a modern, enlightened sentiment (correctly) refuses to hold modern Germany to account for its actions in the previous century, why does it seem to still be prejudiced against Englishmen and women whose ancestors may or may not have been involved in colonial horrors. And, why does it seem to ignore the same horrors perpetrated by other European powers. Is it the relative success of the British Empire (note, not the English Empire)? Perhaps if I were from a Spanish colony, the same attitude would prevail towards the modern Spanish, but this would be an equally incorrect attitude.

To be English is to have much to be proud of, despite what you may have been told. This is the nation which produced some of the finest minds the world has ever seen. Artists and writers like Milton, Shakespeare, Constable, Turner, Adams; pre-eminent scientists such as Darwin, Turing, Newton, and Hawking; philosophers Wollstonecraft, Mill, Locke and Spencer; a plethora of sportsmen and women; the list goes on. England has been responsible for numerous inventions (the refrigerator, binary code, the internet), and for many of the social and welfare advances we take for granted in a modern first-world country. While there is still work to be done, it is a bastion of progress, for the rights of women, for workers, in education and healthcare, in law and human rights. It is not for no reason that people from other nations seek at all costs to make a living here.

‘An imagined community’. This is part of the way people create a nation, a term coined by Benedict Anderson to describe the way people consider themselves as part of a whole, despite the fact that practicality dictates no everyday involvement between all the members of the community. If a nation is an imagined community, bound together by our sense of belonging and our common values, then a celebration of that nation is essential to its wellbeing. This is why I feel it is important to recognise and be proud of ‘Englishness’, and never to be ashamed of that identity and what it represents. This is easily done without any racist undertones or fascist agitation, as any good Celt will tell you.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Texas T

In many ways Texas was exactly what I needed. It was more than just a holiday, more than just a well-timed holiday. Here are some of the things which made it great for me.

Time away from work. This sounds obvious, and of course it is true in a basic semantic sense, but what I really was looking for at the time was a way to switch my mind off from the things I had been constantly considering, or stressing about, for the last few months. Details are unnecessary, but suffice to say that, through a series of coincidences, it turned out to be a very well-timed break. The problems have not disappeared upon my return, but just stepping back from them, and forgetting about them altogether for days at a time, was very refreshing. It also added much-needed perspective.

A chance to reconnect with old friends. This was the most important aspect of the trip. Firstly, there is the simple fun which comes from being with old mates, and reliving the old jokes which made those times so worthwhile, even when the jokes start to cross a line. Scott, Dave and I, through shared love of things nerdy, became close at University, and that will always be a great time in my life to think back on, representative of a burgeoning adulthood in many ways. It is a sign of great friends that when we meet again after so much time, it is like nothing has changed. It was also good to see Pam again and catch up with her about goings on in little old Aotearoa.

Secondly, through life, one will often have groups of friends who were important, and who, through memory, come to encapulate the (often rose-tinted) stages in ways which give rise to a certain nostalgia. This in itself is enlightening; but beyond this, it was great to be able to be there for a friend of mine as he embarked on the next stage of his life, and to be able to wish him well. Which brings me to my next point.

The Wedding. It was a lot of fun. For highlights, try the groom and groomsmen walking in to the Imperial March (cheers Lara), Dave's speech, which was hilarious, or my awesome freestyle rap battle with Scott. I can now say I am the winner of two rap battles, as well as a yo mama fight. And seriously, who doesn't like being at weddings? It's a lot of fun, a happy occasion, a chance to see your friends step up and make a commitment which will give them joy for the rest of their lives. I know marriage isn't all plain sailing, but just for one day it can be perfect.

New friends. One of the other good aspects of weddings is you often meet a whole new batch of people. The famed Southern hospitality did not leave us wanting. It was a lot of fun meeting Lara (the bride), and her family and friends. They were great to hang out with, and I even got to go shooting with Mike and the boys. Scott went so far as to say I was not as shit as he had expected, which almost sounds like a compliment to me.

Driving. Though I did have my share of stress and complaining, once the tricks of driving on the opposite side of the road were mastered, the experience was quite enjoyable. Even being able to successfully navigate ice-strewn roads was an achievement it is own way. For me, being able to drive around reminded me of the freedom which comes from having a car, something which I haven't really experience since I lived in New Zealand. And having conquered my nerves and succeeded in driving in the US, despite satnav errors and ice and six-lane highways, gives me a feeling of accomplishment I wasn't expecting.

Exploration. Another advantage of having what the Texans consider a 'mid-sized' car (six seater minivan), was the ability to get out and explore. Because of the snow and ice, I didn't make it to Louisiana, but I did get down to Austin and San Antonio, and I am glad I was able to do so. Not quite the Great American Road Trip I had in mind, but maybe next time for that. (Scott, let's do a road trip. By the time I have saved up to come back, you'll be able to drive there too.)

Food. If you are on my facebook, you will have seen (some of) the food pictures I took. I can't move to the US, because I would probably have a heart attack within a year. For some reason the decadence and ridiculous nature of the food appeals to me, as well as the genuinely gourmet meals you can find. I almost got shot for eating ribs with a knife and fork, and I had a chocolate peanut butter fudge ripple cheesecake which kicked my ass. Who leaves half a cheesecake? And pancakes. They have the best pancakes. Now I must wait for the ihop to become genuinely international, rather than just 'World Series' international, and bring an outlet to London.

Texas was not exactly what I expected, what with 27 degree weather one day followed by snow and ice the next. But the people were so polite, and it's nice to be called sir every now and again. All-in-all it was a great time, refreshing and exciting for me, and a place I would definitely go back to. And not just for the pancakes.

Friday, 31 January 2014


The subject of what makes good music is as problematic as the same question posed of any art form. Inherently subjective, there are nonetheless a few qualities which we might point to as indications of why one musician or band is better than another.

Emotion: good music, in my opinion, evokes emotion. It does so by its nature. It makes you feel exhilarated, crestfallen, pensive, joyous. The addition of clever and profound lyrics serves to add poetry to an already potent mix. The right song can motivate you to dance even when your blisters have blisters; it can drag that last ounce of energy out of you and make you spend it all in one last whirl. There is nothing like the perfect song coming on the radio at the right time, making that road trip sing along ecstatic. The end of the night slow dance is beautiful and honest. Well, honest in its own way.

The connection to memory is also important. Songs evoke nostalgia, they bring us back to times and places we'd forgotten. They make us feel young, or old. This in and of itself may not be a key to whether the music is good, but being tied to a memory of a person or a time can make a song powerful, and that power can certainly be good.

Now, I don't like to think of myself as a music snob, and certainly I am not well-educated enough to put on airs of any sort. However, I think it is reasonable to assert that when a song is written for the primary purpose of making money, it loses something. The artist who wrote it, if indeed it was an artist and not a businessman in one sense, ceases to be focused on the creation of art for its own sake, and more on the marketability of the end product. Does this automatically produce bad music? No. But it tends more toward a product than a work of art.

Now, some might argue that the popularity of mass-marketed music proves it is just as good as music made for its own sake. I would argue against this using the following points. Firstly, popularity does not necessarily indicate good art. I know this seems contradictory, since it is possible to define 'good' art as that which is enjoyed by the greatest number of people; the only thing I can say is that I believe good art stands the test of time. If the popular music of today is remembered well in fifty years, and I'm talking beyond album sales and chart numbers here, then perhaps it can be judged an artistic success in one sense.

The second point is that the charts, and popular music, is self-created. People with money pay for their artists and the music they have invested in to be promoted. The songs get played on the radio, and so they are in the charts. To a large extent, money makes popular music, rather than the music itself.

That said, if it were completely terrible, would the music last? Perhaps not. My final point in this regard is that much popular music relies on an understanding of a human enjoyment of basic rhythms and formulae. Check out the Axis of Awesome's Four Chords video to see what I mean ( This may be 'catchy' music, but it is hardly original.

So, does originality matter? After all, Shakespeare took older stories and reworked them in majestic ways, and he is, in my opinion, the greatest artist of all time. Perhaps the genius is in making your own stamp, in how you add beauty and pieces of yourself to the work. Call it subjectivity, but I am just not sure that Maroon 5 fall into the category of musical geniuses. (That being said, I can listen to some of their music, so maybe I am a big hypocrite.)

The last thing which springs to mind is skill. Compare the skill of Jimi Hendrix with that of How does the mastery of the guitar on songs like Purple Haze and All Along the Watchtower (I know it's a cover - still brilliant) compare with the inane rhymes of My Humps or Let's Get it Started? I leave you to your own conclusions.

Because of subjectivity, we can never really say that one song is better than another, even if it is more skilful, more passionate, more original, more about the music than the selling or the image. But we can say that money often distorts art into something else, something worse. And we can still, in our own minds, love good music and hate Justin Bieber.