Sunday, December 31, 2006
Summer Solstice 2006, Stonehenge.
We rolled into Amesbury about four o’clock in my beat up old VW Camper. It’s red and white and patchy, with new tan-coloured fibre glass filling in the wheel arch where the rust has finally eaten way at what remained of the original structure. A proper hippie vehicle. Less a vehicle, more a lesson in hand-painted, engineered autobiography.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
By the time you read this Christmas will be well and truly finished. You will have indulged and suffered the consequences, no doubt. You will have overdosed on TV movies and distant relations, on alcohol, on food, on party crackers and silly hats, on loud renditions of I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by Wizzard, or any of the other numerous ‘70s Christmas hits. They’re almost as traditional as We Wish You A Merry Christmas or Good King Wenceslas, these days.
Different people have different attitudes to Christmas, of course. Some people will go to extraordinary lengths to celebrate it, even getting themselves into severe difficulties in order to enjoy it. Indeed, I’ve known some who will still be paying off last year’s debts as the new season approaches. Other people are less bothered. I put myself into the latter category, since, aside from the TV movies they save up all year and then bombard you with in bewildering clashes all over the Christmas period, I’m not all that interested.
As usual I was meticulously prepared. I set out to do my final, and only, Christmas shopping, at 2.30 on Christmas Eve. I must be the only man in Whitstable - and therefore in the entire world - who walks from Tankerton Circus to Sainsbury’s to do his Christmas shopping an hour and a half before the shops shut. I do it for the bargains, of course, being broke. It’s about a half an hour walk.
The shop was fairly full. People getting in the last bit of shopping, picking up stuff they’d so far forgotten, or maybe, like me, looking for the last-minute bargains. I got a free range chicken for £2.41, a piece of salmon for 70p, a loaf of bread for 10p, and a pot of low fat Cole Slaw for 5p. Not that I usually eat low-fat food, but for 5p, who’s arguing?
A couple of the Sainsbury’s staff at the bargain counter where I picked up the Cole Slaw were singing Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe And Wine with happy gusto. So I paid for the Cole Slaw in other, more horrifying, ways. I paid for it by having Cliff Richard going round and round in my head for the rest of the time.
Christmas time, mistletoe and wine,
Children singing Christian rhymes...
Eventually it came round to getting the vegetables. One of the Managers - Bob, I think his name was - was bellowing out the bargains as they were being reduced. 10p for everything. “Who’d like a cauliflower? 10p. Bag of potatoes? 10p. Spinach. Fruit salad? Everything for 10p.” He was frantically shooting the prices down with his price gun. As soon as it was reduced, people were grabbing it from him. There was a scrum of people trying to get at him, elbowing each other out of the way, ramming each other with their trolleys. I was far too polite at first, but then realised I would end up with nothing, so I joined in too.
I was trying to find an image to describe the picture for you. Eventually I found it on the telly. It was like that scene out of Titanic, where they’re all scrabbling to get into the boats. Bob was like the poor Lifeboat man, trying to sort out the chaos. Except that Bob was also consciously trying to whip up the hysteria, and he didn’t use the price gun to shoot himself. He was having far too much fun to want to shoot himself. Anyway, he’d look fairly silly with price tags stuck all over his head.
In the end I got a fridge full of shopping - enough to last me three days - for £9.75. What a bargain!
Saturday, December 23, 2006
It’s that time of year again folks!
Yes, Christmas is upon us, in case you haven‘t noticed. The Christmas lights glisten on the rained soaked pavements up and down the High Street, there‘s fake snow and glittery baubles in every shop window, jingley-jangley Christmas tunes, complete with the obligatory bells, follow us around, everyone wants to sell us something, and Sir Cliff Richard has just come out of retirement again. Oh bliss!
‘Tis the season to be jolly. ’Tis the season to spend our lolly. Time to be thinking of gift ideas for all the family.
Read more here.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
I was in a pub in London with my old friend the mad biker King Arthur Pendragon, when a woman came up to us.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she said, looking vaguely flustered, “but I just had to say something. You both have beautiful hair.”
She said she’d been looking at us for a while and that couldn’t keep her eyes off our hair.
What can you say to that? “Um, thanks.” It’s not often you are approached by complete strangers in pubs with comments to make about your hair.
Arthur’s hair is shoulder-length and steely grey, by the way, while mine is silvery grey, and is usually more than a little unkempt.
The last time I had it cut was at Len’s in Whitstable. He asked how I wanted it. I never know what to say when I’m asked that question.
“Make me look like Brad Pitt,” I might suggest, but I doubt if it would work.
When I was growing up there was only one haircut available for a boy: the short-back-and-sides. There was no question of asking how you wanted it done. Whatever you wanted, all you ever got was the short-back-and-sides.
A quick zip with the razor up the back of your head and round your ears, a splosh of brylcreem and that was it.
It made the wearer look like he had just escaped from bedlam.
There was always one lock of hair left standing on the crown of my head. No matter how much I stuck it down with spit, that single lock would always stand to attention again, like a guardsman on duty outside Buckingham Palace.
Later the people of my generation rebelled against all this hair-cutting nonsense, and let our hair grow out wild and free. First of all we let it creep over our ears. Then we let it crawl over our collars. Finally we sent it tumbling over our shoulders and down our backs, letting it all hang out in a cascade of layered significance, stretching the point to monstrous lengths.
They even wrote a musical about it. Imagine that: a whole musical devoted to the subject of hair.
Other people took the opposite course, and shaved their heads. These were the skinheads, and they were the mortal enemies of us hippies. But at least they kept the barbers in business.
Hair had become a social issue. It was a class statement, a declaration of intent. The skinheads would lurk about malevolently and stare at you on the street. If you looked back they would say, "what are you looking at?" and clench their fists. You soon learned not to answer them.
Then there was a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song about hair. I think it may have been called “Almost Cut My Hair”. Dave Crosby lamenting his hair-do, telling us that he had almost considered cutting it for a while. Why did he decide against? Because, he tells us, in a moment of passionate intensity, it is a statement, an act of defiance, a visible reminder of his status as a revolutionary out to change the world.
Hair was a serious issue back then. Hair-revolutionaries marched the streets of our cities and towns, causing mayhem and disruption with their raised hair-consciousness, forming hair-alliances out to overthrow the short-back-and-sides consensus of the hair status quo.
After that punk came along, and hair got even stranger. It started to stick up in pointed shafts like sharpened spears. It turned purple and pink and blue. It got smothered in soap, doused in glue, and shaved into peculiar fronds like colourful sea anemones in tropical oceans.
I think that’s when I gave up on hair. I couldn’t be bothered with hair anymore. It involved far too much commitment. Being a punk meant taking as much trouble over your hair as the blue-rinse ladies did over their perms. Later again, of course, men did start getting perms.
Actually I always wondered how those punks managed to sleep at night. It must have been like going to bed with a deadly weapon. You were liable to wake up with an eye missing.
These days hair is even more elaborate, with spikes and squiggles and geometric shapes, and various parts cut to various lengths, with dyed bits and asymmetric lines and shaved elements and all sorts of novelties to keep the barber’s fingers in trim.
There are more hairdressers on the High St. than there are pubs.
Which is probably a good thing, given that Demos, the New Labour think-tank, have recently suggested that hairdressers should be given a part in the creation of local government policy.
“Our research has led us to conclude that hairdressers are the most authentic voice on the high street,“ says the Demos document, “and they should be given a formal role in urban policy making.”
Ha! Whatever next? Beauticians for housing policy? Masseurs for urban regeneration? Dress-makers for planning?
Come to think of it, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. They couldn’t possibly do any worse.
I was talking about all of this to my friendly hair dresser, as he snipped and clipped behind my ears, being all artistic as usual. I asked him what hair was made of? It’s made of keratin, he told me. And it is covered in scales. That was a very unappealing thought. Who wants some scaly substance creeping about all over your head? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
And then I asked him the Big Philosophical Question: “Yes, but what’s the point of it? I mean, what’s hair for?”
“It keeps me in work,” he answered, matter-of-factly.
So now you know. Hair exists to give hair-dressers something to do with their hands. It’s God’s consolation for people with an artistic frame of mind.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
I’ve been looking for a word. It is something like “sacred”. It is the idea of something being set-aside as special, or holy: separated from the everyday world by some particular quality or by mutual agreement. The word could be “sacrament”: the notion of ordinary things acquiring a spiritual significance. Or “sanctification”, the process of becoming holy. But it isn’t quite any of these. The problem with all of these words is their association with religion and with the particular religious quality of holiness, and the word I am looking for does not denote holiness as such. Sometimes, indeed, it can mean its exact opposite.
Read more here: http://cjstone.hubpages.com/hub/Fellow-Creatures
Those of you who know me or who have followed this blog will know that I am obsessed by the Ranters.
They were a sort of anarchist spiritual cult who flourished, briefly, in the period of the interregnum between the end of the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649, and the restoration of Charles II in 1660: sort of pantheist libertarians, ideological mad men. I keep saying “sort of” because, of course, none of these terms quite fit. They were Christians really, but they took a particularly radical form of Christianity known as antinomianism. “Antinomian” means “against the law”. It refers to the so-called doctrine of free grace, by which it is understood that Jesus came to overthrow the law, to forgive our sins - he died for our sins - and that therefore, we cannot sin any more.
Read more here: http://cjstone.hubpages.com/hub/Fellow-Creatures
Read more here: http://cjstone.hubpages.com/hub/Fellow-Creatures
Sunday, November 26, 2006
My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity. -Edgar Mitchell, USA.
How big is the Earth? How far away is the Moon? How hot is the Sun?
The answers are as follows:
The Earth is 12,756 kilometres in diameter, or 7,927 miles.
The Moon is 384,000 kilometres from the Earth, or 239,000 miles.
The Sun is 5,777 degrees centigrade at its surface, which is about ten and a half thousand degrees Fahrenheit. That’s quite a suntan. And that is cool compared to the fierce nuclear furnace at its core, which is measured in millions of degrees.
But what does this tell you?
That the Sun is hot, the Earth is big and the Moon is far away.
Does it tell you what it feels like to bask on a warm beach in the sunshine, with a cool drink and your lover there beside you?
Does it say anything about the fairy-tale light of the full Moon caught in the branches of a tree, or what it feels like to hold someone close in the Moon‘s glow when romance is in the air?
Does it tell you anything about love’s mystery or life‘s enchantment?
Does it speak of joy or loss? Does it tell you about grief for a loved-one gone away, or the exhilaration of seeing them again after a period of separation?
And that sparkle in their eye, is that just a reflection of the outer light of the Sun, or does it come from somewhere else: from somewhere deep inside?
Oscar Wilde once said that a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
These days we know the measure of everything, and the meaning of nothing.
The question is: is there such a thing as magic any more? Does magic exist?
Not in the measurable world it doesn’t. It has no weight. It has no volume. It has no height. It has no mass. It cannot be detected with scales or thermometers or measuring jars or rulers. You can’t pick it up in your hand and throw it. When it lands on your head it doesn’t leave a bump.
But, then again, neither does love.
If I write down the word “love” what do you see? A few squiggles upon a page. A line, a circle, an angle, a spiral. And in French it is spelt differently again. And in German and Italian and Serbo-Croat. In Chinese it isn’t even recognisable as a word as such. No letters, just a kind of abstract shape in brush-strokes. But we all know what it means.
Scientists might define it in terms of heart-rate and body-chemistry, but they cannot tell you what it feels like. They can attach monitors to your skull to measure your brain-wave patterns, but they cannot tell you what it means to you, nor why every bird in flight, every cloud and every breath of air seems filled with your lover’s presence.
When you are in love your lover is everywhere. The whole world seems to glow with their light. Even the leaves on the trees seem fresh and alive, their delicious rustling like the very message of love.
Because - and this is the truth - love is everywhere. Magic is everywhere. It is a gift from the Earth. It is all around, not as an object, but as a relationship. As a relationship with the Earth.
The Earth isn’t a thing, it is a being. Your relationship to it isn’t one of “I” and “That” - that object over there - it is “I and Thee”, a bonded relationship of mutual recognition and trust.
Without the Earth you would not exist. And without you the Earth would be lonely, I can assure you, for who would be there to recognise her, to see her, to love her and appreciate her, to care for her and to keep her safe from harm?
She’s your Mother, after all. Mother Earth. And the magic is all hers.
Friday, November 17, 2006
I’m not sure what to write about this week. I have two topics on my mind: David Cameron and the newly revitalised Conservative Party and Magners Irish Cider.
I must admit I’ve never tried Magners Irish Cider. I’ve seen a lot of people drinking it down the pub.
You need two hands to drink Magners, since you have to carry both the bottle and the glass at the same time. The glass is full of ice. You pour the cider from the bottle into the glass while trying to look cool. It’s very fashionable right now.
I’ve also seen a lot of well constructed adverts on the TV.
If you notice the emphasis is on naturalness and on the cycle of the seasons. So they bring out a new advert for every season. The current one starts with a flying shot over an orchard with people picking apples, followed by soft-focussed shots of trees and apples blending into soft-focussed shots of fire-places and flickering flames and jolly-looking people sipping cider from clinking glasses full of ice.
“The wonderful thing about this time of year,” says the voiceover, “is that you can always be sure of quite a gathering.”
As it happens I have no need to drink Magners Irish Cider to know what it tastes like. It’s cider. It tastes like cider.
In Ireland it’s not called Magners. It’s called Bulmers. They changed the name so we wouldn’t confuse the two. They share the same name because they are, in fact, pretty much the same.
They are both cider.
Cider is cider is cider.
It’s a traditional alcoholic beverage made from apples. It doesn’t matter what you call it, or what label you put upon it, whether it’s from Ireland or from the West Country or from anywhere else in the entire world. It doesn’t matter whether you pour it over ice or drink it straight from the bottle. It’s cider.
Here in Kent we make Biddenden cider. I’m always surprised that you can’t buy Biddenden's in more pubs since it is, in fact, a very good cider.
And if you like cider, then I would recommend the single varietal ciders they sell in Threshers. Katy is very distinctive and very strong and I’m sure it would taste lovely poured over ice.
The point about Magners is that by adding that all-important word “Irish”, by the addition of a gimmick and a powerful marketing campaign, they have managed to re-brand an old product into something that appears new.
Not unlike David Cameron and the Conservative Party then. Talk about old cider in new bottles.
Magners Irish Cider: time dedicated to you.
David Cameron and the Conservative Party: wealth dedicated to itself.
Some things never change.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
I’ve just come back from a holiday in Romania.
I won’t tell you about that here, as I’m saving it for a book.
However, I can tell you about the journey.
I flew from Gatwick to Budapest in Hungary, and caught a coach from there: to Timisoara in western Romania.
A couple of things happened on the journey which told me that I was in for an unusual time.
First was while standing in the check-in queue. You know how it is at airports. They are large and anonymous, full of bustle and noise. The mind becomes abstracted by it all. There are obstacles to be overcome. Hurdles. Queues and queues and queues. You go sort of blank. So you pick your queue, having found your flight number, and then you wait. And wait, and wait. You have to wait because that’s what queues are for. So you wait.
It was only after about fifteen minutes of this blank waiting - watching the people in the other queues either side shuffle forward slowly but surely (there was one bunch of girls off to see a concert, one of whom had on lighted bunny ears and a picture of her idol on her back, and they were all giggling with expectation) - that I suddenly realised that our queue hadn’t moved. Everyone either side had moved up four or five places since I’d joined the queue, while I was still stuck in exactly the same position. Also, the middle aged couple immediately in front of me suddenly seemed noticeably agitated.
I said, “am I imagining things, or is our queue moving more slowly than all the others? I can‘t remember when we last moved.”
“Especially when the check-in girl disappears for about ten minutes,” said the man, visibly stomping from one foot to the other.
“Pardon? Oh yes,” I said. And I looked, and sure enough, we seemed to be missing our check-in person. I couldn’t say whether it was supposed to be a boy or a girl because I hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t noticed because I hadn’t checked because I hadn’t been paying all that much attention. There was simply no one there.
After a while the middle -aged couple realised that their flight was being called, and rushed off in fearful agitation, while I moved up a step or two, and, after a while longer - in which I vaguely contemplated jumping queues - our check-in girl returned, and the queue resumed its steady, incremental, forward-shuffling motion, like beer bottles on a production line, stopping to be filled before rattling on again.
Until I got to the front of the queue that is.
I arrived at the desk, placed my bag on the conveyer belt, smiled as I placed my passport and reference number on top of the desk. It was just a smile, one of those non-committal, half-vacant smiles you give to strangers on whom you are temporarily dependant: like check out girls in supermarkets, or check-in girls in airports. The smile sort of says, “hi, I’m human, I won’t harm you, I’m a nice person, now can you deal with me so I can get on to the next thing?“ As hollow as the spaces in the cavernous hall above. And the check-in girl looked at my face, took in my smile, then promptly burst into tears and went running out the back.
I mean: you just couldn’t make this up.
What can you do? I laughed and looked around. People were looking at me. Everyone had noticed. I shrugged. “Boyfriend trouble?” I suggested, tentatively.
Now what? I was standing there, empty desk in front of me, twiddling my thumbs.
“Um, is she all right?” I said, addressing the girl on the counter next door, after another few minutes of waiting.
“No,” she said. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” she said, and then she, too, disappeared round the back.
At this point my friend in Romania rang to see if I’d checked in all right.
“No,” I said, laughing nervously, “the check in girl took one look at my face and ran away crying.”
“It’s the effect you have on all the girls,” he said.
Eventually the girl from the other counter came back, and got on with the job, typing in my details, asking me about my baggage, putting a sticker onto it before sending it off along the conveyor belt, and I was out of the check-in queue and into the bar for a beer.
Next thing was on the flight.
The air hostesses did all the usual miming stuff: you know, pointing out the escape doors, what to do in the case of an emergency, the life jackets, the oxygen masks and all the rest, while the camp male attendant read out the instructions. He had a very theatrical voice.
When this was over he said: “One person on the flight has a nut allergy. Can I ask everyone on the flight to please refrain from eating nuts.”
Pardon? Was this a joke? One person has a nut allergy, so no one else on the entire flight, even twenty seats away, can open a bag of nuts.
I laughed. Then I realised that no one else was laughing.
I mean: what on earth is happening in this world? Are nuts so dangerous now? Yes, maybe, if you have a nut allergy. Maybe then you shouldn’t eat nuts. But a person sitting fifty feet away: they can’t eat nuts either. Why? In case the person with a nut allergy develops a slight rash and sues the airline I guess.
On the other hand, if nuts are so dangerous it’s a surprise they haven’t banned them from flights altogether. Terrorists could use them. “Watch out, I have a bag of nuts and I’m not afraid to open them!”
Well it's no more ludicrous that hijacking a plane using plastic knives and forks, which is what they claimed about the 9/11 conspirators. Or with bottles of water.
I was almost inclined to take out the KP nuts I had in my bag and open them anyway, just to watch the reaction. Except when I looked there was a warning on the packet.
“Warning!” it said. “May contain nuts!”
Saturday, November 11, 2006
"If the Sun & Moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out."
Wm. Blake, Auguries of Innocence (1803).
I've been thinking about my lineage.
Not my genetic lineage, you understand. I'm from Birmingham. There's not many Brummies who can trace their ancestry back that far, having to do with the fact that most people living in Birmingham until the nineteenth century were actually from somewhere else.
No, it's my spiritual lineage I've been thinking about, my political lineage.
Note how those two words run consecutively in my mind. "Political". "Spiritual". To me they are two sides of the same coin.
So I'm on the main shopping street of the little North Kent town where I've made my home these last twenty years - me and a few friends - handing out leaflets calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq, and it's surprising the amount of good will we're receiving. Everyone wants to sign our petition. Everyone wants to talk. Everyone wants to find out what we're doing and why.
I'm engaging people in debate, talking, laughing, sharing jokes and jibes, calling out to people across the street, occasionally arguing, stating the case and the history as clearly as I can: listening, absorbing, paying attention, looking out for the contradictions as people repeat the formulaic mantras of their mutually shared and received world-view.
It's then that I feel it, on the glinting, grey pavement outside Barclay's Bank, one sunny Saturday morning on the High Street. It's like a thread from the past. Down, down it reaches, down. Down through the concrete into the earth below. Down through the centuries, through the ages, through the generations. It's like a life-line, like a conduit, like a deep-seeking tap-root nestling into the rich, dark soil of the English soul: the proud and non-deferential, great historical tradition of radical English dissent.
I say "English" as opposed to "British" or "World" dissent, not because I don't acknowledge the more commonly remembered traditions of Welsh or Scottish or Irish liberation - or African or Asian or Latin American - but just to remind us that the English do, in fact, share these traditions too, in our bearing and in our language.
And I can feel it now, even as I sit at my computer: through the anti-war movement, through the anti-capitalist movement, through Stop the City and Reclaim the Streets, through the poll-tax protests, through the Miner's strike; through Bertrand Russell and EP Thompson and Ban-the-Bomb; through Bruce Kent and Trevor Huddlestone and all the members of the clergy and the laity who have stood up for peace and justice in this world.
On the street, however, it's an older image that comes to mind. I begin to feel like one of those anti-fascist organisers back in the thirties, and I'm reminded of a story an old guy down the Labour Club told me once, of how Moseley and the Blackshirts had arrived in this town, and how the local Fire Brigade had turned out to greet them. Moseley took on his famous heroic stance, chin up, back straight and arm vaingloriously raised, preparing to make his speech. But it was not appreciation that washed over him then. His voice was not drowned out with any kind of applause. Was he a little wet-behind-the-ears? He certainly was. They turned the hoses on him, as he and his fascist henchmen ran dripping from the town!
I guess you can say that all of these illustrations are fundamentally political in nature. True. But who are we to deny the spirit that passes through all of them? And the further back we go, the more clear it becomes just how deeply spiritual it is. Through the Suffragettes, through the Chartists, the urge for democracy is like a cry for human freedom in a world of hide-bound privilege. Through Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, The Rights of Man and The Vindication of the Rights of Women: these are the radical democratic voices of English dissent as it blazoned into print in the late eighteenth century. Through William Blake (who knew them both) representing the fully evolved, spiritual-political force as it explodes in a blaze of energy and colour, like the rage of eternal humanity upon the ever turning page of history.
And further back again, about a century-and-a-half (as if we needed any more proof) to the roots of all this: to the English Revolution, to Gerrard Winstanley, William Walwyn, John Milton, John Bunyan, the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters, the Quakers, to the men and women of this time who were questioning everything, from the right of the clergy to hold control over the bible, to the right of the aristocracy to hold control over property, to the right of men to hold control over women. Or have we forgotten this history already?
And what is it that unites all of these voices, these movements, these peoples, and that makes them, ultimately, spiritual?
It is this: belief. Yes, belief. Because politics requires belief too. Not, maybe, belief in a supreme being, or in gods or goddesses or spirits or extra-terrestrials (these are all optional extras) - or in crystals or aromatherapy or in spiritual healing - but belief in humanity, certainly, and belief in the efficacy of action, and belief in a purpose and a cause in our lives, and, finally, belief in a meaning, because, if it all means nothing, why do anything at all?
And maybe this is the strangest thing of all: that I'm standing on these mundane early twenty-first century streets, with a member of the Socialist Worker's Party, an anarchist, a fundamentalist Christian, and someone who professes no particular philosophy, but who believes in peace and justice; and here we all are, we are all believers.
Belief. Without it nothing would ever change.
He who binds to himself joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise.
Wm. Blake 1793.
You'll have to excuse me this week. This is a very wordy piece. It's all about words. I've been puzzling about us human beings and our relationship to the planet.
It started a few nights back. I have a tendency to insomnia. So it was one of those nights, just sitting there, nothing on the TV, too tired to read, but too agitated in my mind to go to sleep.
I was thinking about our relationship to private property. It's one of the central issues in my philosophy. What do we mean when we say we "own" something? And how does this sense of personal property or belonging relate to our broader sense of being human and to the values we share?
It was that word "belonging" that stopped me short. Think about it. It's a classic Anglo-saxon combination: two words telescoped into one meaning. To "be" and to "long". To be-long.
The word, "long", of course, has several meanings. Principally it represents a measure of extent or duration. Long as opposed to short. A long time as opposed to a short time.
A be-longing is a "being" that "longs" over time, that endures over time. An object or being that "belongs" to us does so by the power of be-longing, of longing over time. Even if it is new, to say that it "belongs" to us is to state our intention to keep it, to hold on to it, to endure with it, to give it time.
But there is another sense of the word "belonging", as when we say that we belong to something or someone outside of ourselves - to a club, to a community, to love, to society at large - when we express our yearning to be a part of something greater than ourselves, not to belong to any particular organisation or thing, but to our shared sense of time and value. When we say we wish to belong.
Whereas the first sense of the word, as an object we own, is exclusive - "that which belongs to you, this which belongs to me" - the second is inclusive: "all which belong together." To belong, in this sense, is to want to share, while at the same time it also means to long for, to yearn for, to desire. To long is to yearn for a long time, longingly - lovingly - with all our hearts. To "be-long" is to endure in this sense of shared longing, with all the people we care about and love.
That dual sense of meaning inherent in one simple word - between the objects we hold exclusively, and the subjects we value inclusively - is what lies at the heart of our human dilemma.
Actually, when I say I started by thinking about property or ownership, that's not quite true. What I started with was the word "common".
It's a very important word in the English language and in English culture. Common as in our House of Commons, who once took the head off a king. Common, as in the Commonwealth, first spoken of during the English Civil War: meant literally, at the time, as the wealth we held in common. Common as in the common people, the commoners, the likes of you and I. Common, as in crude and slightly dirty - which is the sense my mother always uses it to describe people who are too obvious in their feelings. Common as in our common culture, as in the bawdy songs and dances that would accompany us at our festivals, in our feasts of common sharing. Common as in our common law, our common right, our common sense, our common customs and the common lands that once belonged to us all. Common as in community. Common as in communication. Common, dare I say it, as in comrade, the common greeting of friends; as in camaraderie, the pleasure of friends in their mutual company. To commune is to share, both in our worlds and in our needs.
And it is here that we draw a line between our public and our private sense of ourselves, between our public and our private property. We all need both of course. We need our public and our private selves. We need the sense of what belongs to us and our sense of self-belonging. The problem right now is that all the emphasis is on what belongs to us privately, and very little on what belongs to all of us publicly. In fact the very notion of common property is an anathema. We may have a few public services and public spaces left, but either they are already privately owned, or they soon will be. Meanwhile, for those who can afford it - a minority of the world's population - there is a wealth of diversion in the form of gadgetry and personal entertainment to enjoy behind the drawn-out curtains of our own home towns.
All of this - what the merchants of privacy offer to us to consume at our private tables in our private feasts - only serve to communicate our sense of longing in the broader sense of ourselves, our sense of ourselves as communal as well as private beings. In our sense of ourselves as a World Community.
This is the deeply spiritual question that lies at the heart of our hopes for common humanity. How we answer to it will determine the future of life on this planet. Or of human life at least.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Have you noticed how bonfire night has spread itself out over the last few years?
When I was a child bonfire night was just that: one night when we would gather in the back garden by a bonfire to watch a few spluttering fireworks before we went to bed. Occasionally we might be taken to an organised bonfire party in some large park somewhere, and watch a spectacular firework display from a roped off space, an agonising distance from the source of heat, while zealous fire-fighters roamed about looking efficient, making sure everything was safe. That was never very much fun, being far too safe (and cold) for any real pleasure.
But otherwise this was how it was. Rushing home from school full of excitement and expectation. Baked potatoes. Toffee apples. A box of fireworks that my Dad would ignite with manly glee. Hot chocolate for the kids. Beer for the adults. Sparklers that could write your name in the darkness. A flaming Guy. Sparks that danced like brief angels in the night air. The stinging smell of smoke. Warm woolies, cold noses, and an inability to sleep afterwards as other people's bonfire parties stretched on into the night. And we would watch and listen out of our bedroom window as the screaming surge of rocket-trails became gothic arches supporting the sky.
These days it all goes on for weeks. We have become gluttons for our own busy entertainment. It starts several days before Halloween, and ends usually some days after November the 5th.
Of course, bonfire night is a specifically English 17th century State-sponsored festival commemorating the victory of the Protestant Parliament against the Catholic opposition. In fact it is the commemoration of a failed act of terrorism, in celebration of which we burn an effigy of a Catholic. It would be like, in the aftermath of 9-11, holding a bonfire party in which we burnt an effigy of a Muslim. Which would be funny, if it wasn’t so plausible these days.
There are two major November the 5th parties in the UK: one in Lewes in East Sussex, celebrating the victory of parliament in which they have been known to burn an effigy of the Pope; the other, in Bridgewater in Somerset, which marks a day known as “Black Friday”, on the nearest Friday to November the 5th. The story goes that the supporters of the plot had set up beacons across the country which were to be lit if the act was successful. Unfortunately for the people of Bridgewater a nearby beacon was lit accidentally, so they went to bed on the Thursday believing that the plot was a success. It was on the Friday morning that they heard the bad news: hence the name “Black Friday”.
The Bridgewater party takes the form of a carnival, which processes though many of the West Country towns in the succeeding weeks.
The word "bonfire" may be a reference to "bone-fires", the burning of animal bones sacrificed to the gods in celebration of the turning seasons. Animal bones are full of fat and would sizzle and crack before they exploded. This would have been the Neolithic equivalent of a firework display, sending dangerous hot sparks high into the night air to mingle with the stars, and bone-shrapnel into the crowds.
Although in England we have moved the date to suit the anti-Catholic propaganda element, it is really an ancient festival recognising the coming of winter. It's historic date is October 31st, All-Hallows Eve, also known as Samhain. Traditionally it is the Celtic New Year, and was always celebrated with fire, with apples, and - possibly, in the dim and distant past – with some form of sacrificial offering. Hence the Guy.
It is the night that the dead roam.
In Scottish households an extra place would be laid at table to welcome the ancestors. And for all of you who think that Trick or Treat is an American invention: it is not. It's origins lie in the Celtic fringe. People would don disguises so that the visiting dead could mingle freely, and feel welcome in our midst. Who knows whose face it was behind the mask? Was it Uncle George just fooling around? Or Great Uncle Albert, long since deceased, longing to share the warmth of life with the living again?
Clearly this is a remnant of that most ancient religion: the cult of the dead, the worship of the ancestors, a religion which still has a huge, if mainly underground, following throughout the world.
In Romania, on All Hallows Day, the community gather in the graveyard with candles to celebrate the dead. Prior to that the graves will have been prepared, with fresh flowers and a makeover. On the night there is a hushed atmosphere of reverence, as people quietly commune with the departed, long-gone into the other world. Voices are subdued, candle-flames flicker over faces deep in contemplation, and the atmosphere is electric with expectation, as the quiet ghosts enter the world of the living for a night, and share secret whispers of grief with their loved-ones.
The blazing fire has it's roots in our most ancient form of science too, sympathetic magic: the theory that like creates like. The fire is lit in commemoration of the Sun, whose waning light at this time of year was felt grievously by our ancestors, and it's fierce light was meant to give encouragement to its return. As if the Sun had a personality, and could be appealed to in this way.
Well we can scoff now at such simple notions, while we enjoy the festivals as mere passing entertainment. But it is worth remembering that our ancestors were just as brainy as we are. And while they may not have understood completely the workings of our Universe (how many of us do either?) yet in many ways they had a greater understanding of our place within nature, and a greater respect for the planet on which we enact our petty dramas.
Maybe they have something to teach us yet. Who knows?
Following is a story I wrote for the Whitstable Times published on the 28th November 2002.
It wasn’t what I was intending. I hadn’t come to this obscure English village to attend a bonfire party. But after a day of panting for breath and sense in a stuffy upstairs room in the Eversley village church hall, listening to a lecture on electro-magnetic therapy and quantum physics, this was where we found ourselves at last: taking the night air, feeding from the crowds, drinking in the atmosphere.
Where’s Eversley you ask? It’s in Hampshire. As for the electro-magnetic therapy and the quantum physics: don’t ask. It makes my head hurt just thinking about those things, let alone sitting in a stuffy lecture theatre hearing about them.
Quantum physics is that branch of science that suggests that the universe is just a pulsating illusion, and that we, as observers, influence what it appears to be. It’s like Buddhism with spirit-levels and particle accelerators.
I said don’t ask.
But back to the bonfire party:
There was me, Stuart, and two of his daughters.
At the time Stuart was in the process of setting up a business to sell the electro-magnetic therapy. I can’t remember the daughters’ names because he has four of them and their names all begin with ‘T’. So it’s Tara, Tasmin, Tori and Teija. Or is that Titania, and Tripe and Toad and Tippex?
Just four fierce, bright girls like jewels, with similar name but with entirely different personalities; and I have two of them sitting at my feet right now, watching as the flames leap and shimmy into the night air, as the smoke swirls and eddies and the sparks rise like doomed fire-flies casting flickering night-time shadows across the expectant faces of the crowd.
There’s something primeval about a bonfire party. It seems to call on something deep and ancient in the human heart. Maybe it’s a racial stirring of some sort: a replay of old dreams from a time before our awakening, a calling of memory.
You think of the huge bone-fires of the ancients, on the nights when the dead walk, when the veil between the worlds is lifted, and the spirits come and join the party.
Or maybe it’s more recent than that: just the memories of childhood and our own modest bonfire parties in the back garden with the family.
Whatever. Bonfire night always seems to set a spark in my imagination.
After that the fireworks start. All those surges of light. The booms, the cracks. The sizzling intensity. The temporary architecture of light in the night sky, like gothic arches etches against the stars. People are oo-ing and ah-ing in the time-honoured tradition.
One of the girls – Tori, is it? Or Toad? – says, “why are people saying that?”
“It’s cos it’s what they’re supposed to do,” says Stuart, with a slightly mocking laugh.
But we all feel it, as our hearts ride up with those rockets, - high, high, higher, right up, right up – as our neck’s strain back, and the fierce light surges and then explodes in an iridescent crackle of intensity. Oo, we think. Ah! And then we laugh at ourselves in a slightly mocking way, knowing we are all the same.
The firework display is spectacular, and worth every penny of the entrance fee. It ends on a crescendo as fifteen rockets mount and then explode all at once in a hail of light like starburst, and then silence as night descends once more, and people begin to make their way home.
Stuart is disappointed. He says, “that should be the beginning, not the end.” And he imagines a place where the drummers are thudding, and where we all spend the night by the fire dancing on our bones and sending our thoughts like fireworks into the sky.
Within a couple of days of arriving in the town I went to the Glastonbury Carnival.
Actually it's not really Glastonbury Carnival at all. It starts in nearby Bridgewater around November the 5th, and then worms and snakes and shimmies its way through all the local towns over a succession of weekends. This weekend was Glastonbury's turn.
Jude was going to a party. She said, "when you get bored of all the mad drunks you can come up for a few drinks." I never did make it to the party.
I found myself a nice spot, just outside a pub where I knew the barmaid. There was a waste bin, on which I could balance my drink. And then I waited. There were thousands of people about. Many of them had selected their spots hours before. There were deckchairs lined up on the pavement up and down the High St. You could feel the excitement building up in the crowd. Some people were already line-dancing in the street.
I didn't know what to expect. I mean, I'd been given all the statistics. It's the largest illuminated parade in Europe, I was told. Each major float is 100ft long by 11ft wide by 17 and a 1/2ft high, with between 15,000 to 20,000 light bulbs, powered by megawatt generators. I wasn't sure if that was 15,000 to 20,000 light bulbs per float, or 15,000 to 20,000 light bulbs altogether. I tried counting them. I always got lost after about a hundred and fifty.
There were 130 entries this year, including 70 floats. The whole procession is three miles long.
It's all very well being told that sort of thing. But you have to see it to believe it.
I was starting to get nicely drunk by now, waiting for the Carnival to appear. I kept slipping back into the pub for another one. The bar staff were doing a magnificent job. I don't think they had a moment's rest in six or seven hours or more.
While I was waiting I had this monologue going through my head. These are the straights, I was thinking. These are the ones the hippies despise. But who are they? They're everyone. And there's some rogues here and some religious types, and some good people and some bad people and - yes - maybe even a saint or two. And there's clever people and dumb people, and ordinary people and weird people, and - yes - even a wise person or two. And there's sad people and happy people and lonely people and gregarious people. And kind people, and scheming people, and shucktsers and charlatans, and honest people and some who'd sell their own grandmother for a drink. Just like the hippies I'd met, only more of them. It's just the people, that's all, milling about here, there and everywhere, excited, demented, argumentative, rollicking drunk or stoned, getting on with their ordinary lives.
Some bloke slipped in by the waste bin next to me. He was using the waste bin to skin up. He offered me a dab of speed, which I took. Then I bought him a drink, and then he bought me a drink. He was from Essex.
The first figure to come up the road was a man dressed in a hooded cowl with a skull mask dragging a pair of coffins. That's when I knew that this whole thing was pagan. A festival of lights in the dark part of the year. Paganism simply refers to the beliefs and practices of the people. No need for Archdruids or High Priestesses. It's democratic. It has nothing whatsoever to do with religion.
After that it was a brass band, all dressed in Batman costumes. And that's when I started to laugh. It was a bunch of middle-aged men in Batman costumes, with their spectacles stuck on the outside of their masks, deliciously ridiculous. I never stopped laughing after that. And then the floats came. They were, as the statistics had told me, illuminated. But no amount of statistics can describe the effect.
It was like that feeling you had when you were a child and went to your first fair. All the moving lights, the bustle, the rides. The excitement is in the very air around you, like sizzling electricity. It was like the Carnival Floats had got hold of that special kind of spiritual electricity, and that's what they were running on.
They were pulled by giant tractors, with the megawatt generators trailing along behind.
The images were crass: kitsch nonsense. But that didn't matter. It was all the usual stuff: scenes from Star Wars and Disney. The Black-and-White Minstrels. The Telly-Tubbies. There were a couple of Egyptian style floats, with pyramids and hieroglyphs and dog-headed deities. One Chinese float with ideograms. One Japanese, with Samurai. One or two Red Indian scenes, one Christmas scene. I was listing them all as they went by to my friend from Essex. "Look. That's the third Shamanistic float. There's another Egyptian one." But the images didn't matter. The point was, they were fantasies made real.
The people on the floats were either dancing or standing perfectly still, in a frieze. The dancing people looked the happiest.
One float went by and there was an adolescent girl in a skimpy Red Indian costume jiggling about for all she was worth.
My Essex friend said, "look at the tits on that."
"She's not a that," I said. "She's a person."
"Oooo. PC," he said.
But I knew what he meant, nevertheless. My eyes were drawn to her too. And I realised that she loved it, that she was enjoying the attention, and that it was a sexual thing. Sexual but innocent. Sexy. I realised that it was liberating for her. And then I realised it was liberating for everyone else too. It wasn't just girls in skimpy costumes. There were middle aged men and women and adolescent boys, all feeling sexy too, all enjoying the attention, the make-up, the costumes, the lights, living out a fantasy-world before our eyes, gloriously expressive, radiating energy. "It's so human," I kept saying. "It's so liberating."
The Essex bloke had brought his partner over to talk to me. She said, "what path are you on?"
"I'm not sure. The footpath, I think. Why? What path are you on?"
"I'm a hedge witch and a pagan Priestess," she said.
The funniest bit came when I found myself dancing to "Ra Ra Rasputin" by Boney M. The float was a frieze of Russian Imperial life before the revolution. Rasputin was being brutally murdered before our very eyes. It was like a still from a bad B-Movie or a scene from a melodrama. I'd been dancing and laughing through the entire procession, jiggling away non-stop. But I was jiggling away even more now, with the sheer absurdity of the moment. No matter how crass the music, no matter how idiotic the floats, it was all so funny. There was a young woman dancing on the pavement in front of me. Everyone was dancing. I said, "you realise what we're dancing to, don't you?"
"Yeah," she said, "Boney M."
"Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia's greatest love-machine," I sang. "Great lyrics."
It was the greatest song in the world at that moment.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Does the world seem good to you?
Does the music get to you?
Does the wisdom of your heart
Show you how to play your part?
All my blond and twilight dreams,
All those strangled future schemes,
All those glasses drained of wine,
All this crazy gift of time...
Kevin Ayers, All This Crazy Gift Of Time, 1968.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time...
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, 1793.
Time is the trick. Time is the missing piece of the puzzle. Time is the bit none of us understands. We are time-bound beings caught in the nick of time.
Stuck in time like a train on its tracks, moving relentlessly on, relentlessly forward. No one knows what it is. No one knows what it is for. It is part of the woof and weave of the fabric of the universe, the fourth dimension of space, but there is absolutely no reason why time should travel forwards. In an alternative universe, perhaps, it travels backwards instead. Indeed, while in this universe space expands and time unravels as it travels forwards, if the universe ever collapsed back in on itself, overcome by the dead hand of gravity, then perhaps time would reel backwards then, like a yo-yo on its string, back to its source.
In fact there is no saying which way round time is supposed to go. How long is a piece of string? Which end is the beginning? Currently we appear to move in one direction, from the mystery before birth, through blissful growth to painful growth to slow decay and peaceful quietude, until we enter again the mystery after death. Who is to say, really, which is the beginning and which is the end? Either way we emerge from a womb and enter a womb.
Perhaps time is always reeling and unreeling, backwards and forwards, like the pulse of the heart valve opening and closing for all eternity.
Is there a life beyond this life? Is there another life?
It depends on your faith, of course.
Do you have a purpose? Is there reason behind your existence? If the answer to either of those questions is “yes” then - it seems logical to me - you must also believe in a life beyond this life.
If death is the end life can have no purpose and there can be no reason.
You can’t have it both ways. If life is an accident, there is no purpose and there is no reason, and there is no life beyond this life. But if life is not an accident, if it has purpose and it has reason, then at the very least someone somewhere must be taking note of it. At the very least, it must be being marked down in the records of eternity, like a video awaiting playback.
In the end, perhaps, we have to make a choice. Do we live our lives as if they have purpose, as if there is a reason? Or do we choose to live them as if they are the products of some meaningless accident, as if matter slipped up on itself somehow and accidently gave birth to consciousness?
As time-bound beings we cannot think of time in any other way but as something eternally disappearing into the eternal past, eternally lost.
But, freed of time, time is a dimension like any other. We can travel back and forth in it at will.
In the time beyond time maybe time is a country we can explore.
Which is where I take Fred to be right now: in a country beyond time.
So, now, back inside this time, on time’s tracks, somewhere in the South East corner of that venerable old country we call England (relatively ancient, but merely a staging-post in the vast sweep of time) having been through some adventures on the Western side of the country, and with two women, at least, under his belt (as it were) Fred is settling down to yet more drinking.
I’d never known just how much he drank until this trip.
Prior to that - yes! - we’d done a lot of drinking together. But, me, I can’t keep it up beyond a day or two. My body gives way, and I have to rest. What I never knew about Fred until this moment was that for him every day is a drinking session. Every day from morning till night. Every day bar none.
I came back from our trip burdened and unsure. All this stuff going on in my head. All these suspicions I was carrying around with me. Was he a paedophile? What had really happened between him and his kids? Why had his eldest daughter disowned him? And how did he make his money? Was he really a sparky? Or did he deal in child porn?
I thought that the answer to this last question was definitely no, since I thought I understood the source of his strange outburst in front of my friends in Glastonbury. It was what he considered a joke. But it takes a peculiarly deranged person to think of paedophilia as a suitable subject for a joke, and, even if it all turned out to be some kind of a misunderstanding - which still wasn’t clear - the fact remained that he had behaved appallingly, that he had insulted his hosts, my friends, who were merely offering him shelter and food for the night, and that he had not apologised to anyone for any of it, least of all me. Meanwhile he was two-timing one of my best friends.
All this time. All these moments. All these strands of history knotted together. It’s hard to disentangle it all.
What happened next?
There was a phone call. Fred and his Kentish girlfriend had gone on a holiday together with a number of our friends. This was a few weeks later. It was a weekend trip to Butlins Holiday Camp. Fred had his child by his second marriage with him, a little girl of about eight. Another of my friends also taken her child. She was about the same age.
I was at home, doing the washing up, when the phone rang. It was Fred.
“Hello,” he said, laughing, “guess where I am?”
“I dunno, Fred, where are you?”
“I’m in the shower.”
“OK, you‘re in the shower. So why are you ringing me up?”
“Yes, I’m in the shower with two little girls. Two little eight year old girls. We are all naked aren’t we girls? Having a shower. Ha-ha.”
The sounds of giggles in the background.
“Why are you telling me this Fred?” I asked.
“Because I thought you ought to know.”
“Fuck you Fred,” I said, and slammed down the phone.
When my friends got back from their holiday I felt I needed to unburden myself. I spoke to a woman who was on the holiday with him, an old friend, and a close friend of M---, the woman he was going out with in Kent. We were down the pub. I told it all. The weird behaviour. The strange hints. The phone call from the holiday camp. The woman in Glastonbury. The night I’d spent in his room, listening to him making love. The drinking. The lot.
And as I finished, right on cue, Fred walked in.
“So you’ve got a girlfriend in Glastonbury?” my friend blurted out. “You’re fucking someone else behind M---’s back?”
Which wasn’t exactly what I was intending. Fucking someone else behind M----’s back was the least of his crimes. At least M---- was an adult.
Fred turned on me.
“Why did you tell on me?” he said.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Cos you’re my friend. Cos you’re a man. Cos you’re supposed to be loyal.”
“I don’t remember promising any of that,” I said.
I really wasn’t sure I wanted anything to do with him any more.
But this story isn’t finished yet.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
I’ve called this story “Time Particles”. I don’t know what it means. I thought of it the other day, while I was lying in bed in a half-awake-dream state, musing about Fred and his story. The phrase “Time Particles” just popped into my head. What would the world be like, I thought, if time has substance and is made of particles?
In my semi-conscious state it kind of made sense. I could see all these time particles swirling about in the chaos of reality like alphabetti spaghetti in a tin of Heinz soup.
I’d seen the cover of the New Scientist magazine earlier in the week, and the caption read “You Are Made of Space-Time”. I liked that title. I like the idea that I’m made of Space-Time, whatever Space-Time turns out to be.
The substance of space is matter, I thought, and matter is made of particles. So if there is such a thing as Space-Time there might be time particles too.
In fact there are such things as time particles. They are called tachyons and they may or may not exist. They are purely theoretical. They only exist in some physicists’ brains. No one has yet managed to catch an actual time particle. They move much too fast. They’ve already slipped into the future before you’ve even begun to let go of the past.
The way this relates to Fred is as follows. Fred is dead. His body is in a box. Even now it is rotting underground, those precious particles of matter coming loose from the organising framework that had previously been his life: his purpose, his substance, those complex, intertwining strings of carbon, all turning to lumpy sludge, his body breaking down into its constituent parts, to slime and rot and organic filth, the flesh sliding from the bones like grease from a warm spoon.
As for Fred, where is he now?
If our bodies are made of particles of matter then maybe our souls are made of particles of time.
So maybe Fred has a new body now, made of time particles. Maybe he’s up and jigging like a ghost on a merry-go-round in his new soul-outfit.
Do you see what I’m doing at this point? I’m wishing Fred a new life.
Here's to your new life Fred, in a body made out of time. Let’s hope you make a better job of it than your last one.
But anyway, enough of his future life. We haven’t finished with his past life yet.
So, now, he’s just been arrested, for being drunk in charge of a motor vehicle: bailed to appear at the magistrate’s in a week’s time, and I’m to be his witness.
He got himself a hotel room and moved into Glastonbury.
Meanwhile, I’ve been charged with keeping my mouth shut about the previous evening’s events, and with finding out whether he really was a paedophile or not.
This was not as far-fetched as it might at first appear. On the one hand, I thought I knew what the explanation for his weird outburst was. On the other: there certainly was something oddly awry about Fred. He had left our little town all those years before, with his new wife and his new child, and his two lively, funny, intelligent daughters, and now, all these years later, I was finding out that some awful things had happened in between. Specifically, one of his daughters had disowned him.
I never did find out exactly how it happened.
He spoke of her in a way that I found very distressing. He used a word that we normally would not even use to refer to our enemies. He called her a c---.
Now I’m no prude. Words are words, and I’m the first to defend the integrity of the English language by allowing all words their right to exist. I love what are commonly known as swear words, knowing them to have a deeply rooted history. In the case of this word, it dates back to at least the eighth century, and was in common usage right up until the 18th century, not as a swear word, but as a proper word for the vagina. It's this association that turns it into a swear word, now considered the worst in the languge. Which tell us a lot about the culture in which we live.
So it’s not the word itself that is shocking, but the context. It’s not a word that you would properly use for a daughter.
An interesting sideline to this is that it was the word I used to describe Fred, when my son told me he had died. It's not a word I use generally either. But when my son told me he'd heard that Fred had died, and asked how I felt about it, I said, "I don't care. He was a c---."
It was obviously associative. It was the word I most associated with Fred. He used it all the time, not only about his estranged daughter, but in front of his other daughter too. And, again, it was hard to understand exactly what was going on here. Was he just being "rebellious", using a taboo word in this shocking way? Or did it indicate something else, some hidden motive?
I was shocked, and I'm generally liberal about these things.
Why had this become his chosen word?Anyway, back to his eldest daughter, the one who had disowned him.
It seems that she had gone to a prestigious university where she had earned great honours. She was her mother’s daughter. Jealous of her success (or perhaps hoping to emulate her) Fred had himself applied to university and got in. But Fred was not an academic, and he didn’t do too well. He said he thought the lecturers were pretentious twats and he contented himself with scoring with all the young women who were at college with him. Women the same age as his daughters. If this wasn’t child abuse, it was a close-run thing.
That’s something else I haven’t mentioned as yet. Fred took great pride in the fact that he could still score. Ever since he’d left his second wife (or she’d left him, which was more likely the case) he’d made a great show of his ability to pick up women. When you went into a pub with him, within a few minutes he was chatting someone up. The amusing thing for me - as an onlooker - was that he had a stock set of lines that he would trot out as required. After while I could predict his lines even as he was saying them. Each new woman would be subjected to the same set of lines, in almost the same order.
So there was I, usually within hearing distance, smiling wryly to myself, thinking, “you think this is a compliment? You know he says this to all the women don’t you dear?”
It didn’t do well for my view of women and their intelligence to watch them fall for the same set of cliches over and over again.
There was one while he was in Glastonbury: in a pub I took him to. Meanwhile there was another back in Kent, an old friend of mine. So I was caught between all these secrets and suspicions: between my friend in Kent, who Fred was even now betraying and this new woman he was chatting up with right in front of my eyes. Between Morgana and her belief that he was a paedophile, and my challenge, to find out if this was true or not. Between what I knew about Fred and what I didn’t know. Between his crazy, out-of-control behaviour and what remained of an old friendship. Between my thoughts about what might have been happening in his life, and the vague hints and admissions he was sprinkling in my direction. Between my memories of his daughters and their lively conversations and what he was telling me about them now.
One night he offered to put me up in his hotel room, so we could stay after-hours drinking in the hotel bar.
Then his new girlfriend turned up.
We went upstairs and I fell asleep in the spare bed, only to be woken up by the sound of them lovemaking.
I thought, “fuck you Fred. Why do you think I want to hear this?”
When we got up in the morning the room was a shambles.
Fred’s clothes were everywhere. All his stuff scattered about, his pockets emptied in a wide arc, like seeds scattered on the land: money in coins and notes, telephone numbers on scraps of paper, old till receipts, keys, wallet, watch, pens. The beds were a wreck of tangled sheets and blankets. His suitcases had been emptied in knots around the room, just cast around. And all the detritus of his daily life: several day's worth of newspapers, books he was half-reading, washing, towells, soap, all in loose piles. And he'd only been here a day or two.
I thought: “this is what you do to everything in your life. You destroy it all. You turn it all into a horrible mess.”
I think this may have been the moment when he lost my friendship. Somewhere in the night, waking up next to him in this broken down room while he was making love. I got the feeling he was doing it for my benefit. It was some kind of a statement.
But, now, my week in Glastonbury was up, and I was heading off home, back to Kent.
I hadn’t managed to do any work.
Fred decided he was on his way to Kent too, and offered me a lift.
Also he had to go to the magistrate’s to make his plea. Had he pleaded guilty it would have been dealt with there and then.
He was supposed to be going to Cornwall then on to Walsall, and now he was going to Kent instead.
None of it made any sense.
It was symbolic of the state of his life. Shambling around from one place to another with no particular direction, in a state of disorder.
We went to the magistrates where he made a not guilty plea.
His hair was all over the place, his eyes bloodshot, his hands behind his back shaking with alcohol withdrawal.
After that we drove home.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
We’ll call him Alfred, after King Alfred. Fred for short. Not because he was great (anything but) but because his second name meant Land of the High Kings. Something like that. Many years later - more in jest, to make some obscure point about something - he made that claim, that he was, in fact, a descendant of Alfred the Great, and for half a moment I almost half-believed him.
He could be a very believable man. Until you got to know him, that is. After that you soon learned not to believe a word he said.
Once upon a time he was a friend of mine.
Not in the end though. In the end he was not a friend.
He’s dead. He died a while back of so-called natural causes, lost somewhere on some obscure exotic Island in the Far East. The natural causes were probably liver failure. In other words the causes were anything but natural. He was poisoned. Poisoned by drink.
Can we say that he killed himself, or did the drink kill him? It’s hard to say. What is true is that towards the end he was so completely addled that he probably had no idea what he was doing. Drink can do that. It can wash away a man’s sense of self-respect. It can drive away his reason. It can burn out the heart of him to leave a husk of withered flesh.
I will not mourn for Fred now because I think that Fred was already dead, long before his body died. I mourned for him many years ago.
What is true, however, is that when he embarked upon the road that led to his eventual demise on that distant island, he was still fully alive. He also knew, I suspect, where he was heading, even then. He set out on that long road of isolation and derangement fully aware of where it led, fully aware of the fact that he was going to die.
Alcoholism is the slowest, ugliest, most depressing from of suicide known to man. Better the slash of a knife than to die in your own anguish and filth over years of slow decay.
I first met him over twenty years ago now, in a pub where I used to go with a few friends. There was a nice little late-night back room scene in there: darts and banter and cigarettes and pints of beer. Lots of laughter. Lots of jokes. Fred was the sporty type: very handsome, very bright, if occasionally obscure. He would make jokes but there wouldn’t be any recognisable punch line. Or there would be a sudden pun referencing something said ten minutes before. Sometimes it was hard to tell what he was talking about. He held his cards close to his chest.
I was a stay-at-home father looking after my four year old son. He was a stay-at-home father looking after his two daughters. They were about the same age as my son: one slightly older, one slightly younger. So there were days when I would visit the family, and my son would play with his daughters. Long hot summer days full of children’s laughter. The splash of water from the play pool. Screams of delight. Naked and innocent and free, the way children are meant to be.
This went on for a while. Not that long, but long enough for me to get to know him. At least I thought I knew him.
In those days I would definitely call Fred a friend. It’s true that he drank too much on occasion. But then, we all did. We were all still relatively young, with healthy, strong, resilient bodies able to recover from whatever excesses we heaped upon them.
Fred was a sportsman. He played football in the winter and cricket in the summer. He used to say that it lifted his mood playing sport. So he drank and played and he built a marvellous multi-tiered bedroom for his kids, with raised beds and walkways and hidden closets full of dressing up clothes and toys and a library of books. Not just a bedroom, an adventure playground. He was good like that.
And then something went wrong.
He was married but his wife developed a crush on someone else. One of those things. It happens. Maybe he felt neglected. It was a hard choice he’d made, to give up the certainty of being the breadwinner, to allow his wife to take over that role, and now here she was - he found out later - taking long, romantic walks in the woods with some other guy, holding his hand, gazing fondly into his eyes.
That’s as far as it ever went, a kind of fond, innocent, adolescent romance. Fred never let it go any further than that. He was much too quick off the mark.
Well it was more than the holding of hands. His wife was an intellectual, a teacher. She read and could talk about books. This other guy was a teacher too. It was more than just the romance: it was a slight to his sense of self-esteem. Was this guy better looking than Fred? Was he fitter? Was he a better love-maker? No he was not. But maybe - just maybe - she thought he was more interesting.
That’s when Fred acted. It was sudden and devastating. Within a week of the news of all of this breaking, he was dating someone else. A week or so later again and he had left his wife.
That was the shocking part. It was like he wasn’t giving anyone any time to sort this stuff out.
The woman he was suddenly going out with was the most stunningly beautiful woman I had ever seen.
Even at the time I was aware, that this was not what it appeared to be.
It was almost as if this other woman had always been there, and was waiting in the wings for just this to happen.
That’s not how Fred put it of course. He was full of how his wife had betrayed him, how he had had his chances too, but had always rejected them, how it was all her fault. But somehow all these arguments seemed just a little too pat and well-prepared. It was as if, by taking a wrong turn in their marriage, his wife had given him the excuse he had always wanted, as if he had been waiting for this opportunity for many, many years. It was all too convenient.
You got the feeling that the main point was to do with vanity more than love. It was to do with showing the world that he could still score, that he was still a good-looking man. The way to show it was to have this other woman - this statuesque beauty - on his arm, for all the world (but especially his wife) to see.
This is all in retrospect, of course. At the time, I must admit, I was a little envious. Just as he wanted me to be.
There were a few of us who got caught up in all the drama of the split. It’s how things happen. People just get sucked in, and you always end up taking sides, even when you don’t mean to.
In the case of Fred and Jane, I chose Fred’s side, not because I thought that he was in the right, but because I’m a man - I have sympathy for men - and I’d already made a decision, some years before, that I was a masculinist: meaning that in the war of the sexes I thought that women had had too much of an advantage in recent years, and that I was going to try to redress the balance.
I was bored of feminist rhetoric and was already developing a masculinist response.
- That’s not how I think any more, by the way. These days, in the battle of the sexes, I tend to think that men and women are equally culpable. -
But anyway: in our social scene there was a shake up, and one person disappeared and another stayed around. Jane disappeared and Fred stayed around. He also - by some miracle (and with the help of a good solicitor) - managed to secure custody of the kids.
It was a gory, messy business, like marriage break-ups tend to be. People lose sight of where they began. They lose sight of what brought them to this place. They are full of bitterness and mutual recrimination. It always gets down to petty things masking bigger things: like who owns what, rather than who each of you are. It’s like two plants that have grown into each other, that have merged at the roots. So when it comes to separating, both plants are ripped apart and bits shredded out of both of them. Both plants are wounded. Bits of you remain with that other person, bits of them remain with you. It takes a long while for anyone to heal.
The whole thing went on for months. Months of taking sides. Months of who did what to whom. Months of listening and arguing, and puzzling and feeling vicariously hurt for the hurt feelings of another; but after a while things settled down, and Fred became a regular visitor again for a while, only now with his new wife. And then she got pregnant, Jane moved, and Fred and his new wife and new baby followed so that she would still have access to the kids.
That’s all put in a rush of words, but, honestly, that’s how it feels.
Fred and Jane and the kids and the new wife and the new baby just sort of disappeared. They moved out of our lives. They moved on to somewhere else.
Well that might have been the end of the story. Just another messy divorce. Jane remarried, Fred and the new missus got on with their lives and, in a civilised world, that would have been the end of that. Everyone would have learned their lessons, and no one would have inflicted any pain ever again.
That’s not how it happened however.
I only found out the rest of the story later.
Fred would turn up in our small town occasionally and we’d clink a glass or two to old times. I still regarded him as a friend.
But something was happening.
One day I went round to a friend’s house after the pub, and there he was. This was a few years later. I never knew he knew this friend. He was just there, sitting on the floor, leaning with his back against the wall. It was such a surprise. I laughed and he laughed. He raised a glass and offered me a drink. He obviously expected to see me. Everyone was drinking. It was an after the pub party. But it was soon clear that there was something wrong with Fred. He was twitching in the most peculiar manner. Every so often his head would jerk, and then his arm would raise to his forehead, as if he was flicking his hair. It was one of those gestures we all make, but exaggerated, both in form and in timing. It was happening every ten seconds or so: as if he had a crying need to adjust his appearance every ten seconds. It wasn’t clear whether he was twitching and then attempting to cover up the twitch by flicking his hair, or if the flicking was part of the twitch, a kind of physiological tic of vanity, an unconscious act of self-regard: a handsome man wanting everyone to know he was handsome. Whatever it was, it was most peculiar.
It was obvious that Fred was in the middle of some kind of nervous breakdown.
He was also drinking much more heavily than I remembered: large vodkas now instead of pints, and lots and lots of them. He had a bag of clinking bottles with him.
And then he was gone again. I met him down the pub sometime later in the week. We got drunk together. We talked shit together. We said that we were brothers in arms and if he was in the trenches he wanted me to be by his side. We raised a few glasses to past times and good times and the good times that were to come. Then he went away and I forgot about him. Like you do. Friends but not friends. Pub friends.
So that’s how I found out that he’d left his second wife too; that whatever had been driving him all those years before, was still driving him now. We got roaringly drunk and he told me all about it.
He was most hurtful about his second wife. Called her a slag, a whore and all sorts of nasty things. Said she was stupid. Said that he’d never stopped loving his first wife. And that’s when I began to think that there was something seriously wrong with Fred. The whole thing just didn’t add up.
It’s hard to measure time. It’s hard to measure sanity.
On the one hand the years seem to click by like a ratchet on a cog and you grow old incrementally without even knowing it. The kids get older and then they’re not kids any more. The lines on the faces of your friends grow deeper. The days add up to weeks which add up to months which add up to years.
On the other hand, time’s particles whiz by playing tricks on the mind, and you are never any older really. You are never any wiser.
The soul is infinitely old and infinitely young at the same time, is forged and re-forged in the fiery breath of the heaven between the worlds, like a sword in the flames, beaten clean of the crud of weary time with every new life.
The babe in arms knows more than you have learned to forget.
Meanwhile the body forgets. The body grows old and weary. The body grows poisonous with the years. The body loses track. The mind gets lost in the wearisome repetitiveness of its life, in repeated patterns of forgetfulness, of loss and of pain. The body builds up defences. The face becomes a mask and the mask becomes forgotten, until you actually think it is your own face; and then one day you wake up to discover you have forgotten what lies behind the mask. You have forgotten who you are. Just a face floating through the crowd. A mask of stirring instincts, of needs, of questions-without-answers, of quotation marks without references, of habitual longings, of meaningless responses.
That’s what I think happened to Fred. Something like that. A slow, incremental descent into alcoholic madness. He had a face. He laughed a lot and bought drinks. He could talk to anyone. But behind that face something had changed. Something had got lost. It was all an act. None of it was real.
I never kept a proper track of him. But when he came back the last few times I think he was quite, quite mad.
He stopped twitching and began to appear almost normal again. But I think that this was a cover. He was learning how to blend in. He was learning how to pass muster on a scratch inspection, but inside, I think, he was lost in some narrative play of his own in which the rest of the world only had walk-on parts to play. We were all actors on the grand stage that was his own life.
So, now, we are nearing the time, the last time I saw him.
Fred turned up again, like a bad penny, as he always did.
I was in the middle of writing my book about King Arthur.
I was on my way to Glastonbury to meet with some people who said they could help me with the book.
Fred was on his way to the Midlands, he said. Or maybe to Cornwall, he wasn’t sure. Just passing through. He said if I wanted he could give me a lift.
“Are you sure Fred? Where are you going exactly? Are you sure it’s on your way?”
“Yeah, yeah, of course. I’m meeting with someone in Cornwall. I can go on to the Midlands afterwards.”
So that was it. We were on our way to Glastonbury together.
That’s when he told me that his surname meant Land of the High Kings - I looked it up afterwards and he was right about that - and that he was descended from King Alfred, or King Ethelred, or one of the Saxon Kings.
One thing I haven’t told you about Fred: he was an inverted snob, and he was very contrary. He read the Sun newspaper, partly, I’m sure, because it has the best sports coverage, and he was always interested in sports, but also because, amongst the people he hung around with - people like me - he knew that he could cause offence. It was an instinctual thing, like making sexist or racist remarks just to challenge political correctness. Being right wing because you were left wing. Being working class because you were middle class. It didn‘t matter who you were or what you thought, he was bound to take an opposite point of view. Once you understood him, you realised this was partly a case of him playing devil’s advocate. Had he been amongst Daily Mail readers he would have made a point of reading the Morning Star. Class-conscious and proud of it. But he was also considered himself very bright and wanted you to know he was bright, while at the same time, sometimes it was not clear what he meant. He could be very obscure. It was as if his brain was about ten degrees removed from his mouth. What came out of his mouth was not necessarily what was going on in his brain. What he meant was often something other than what he said and part being his friend meant that you were supposed to know what he meant even when he didn’t know what he meant himself. It was all very convoluted and obscure. Jokes within jokes within jokes. Or lies within lies, depending on how you looked at it.
That was the Alfred thing. It was meant as a challenge to me. He was a down-to-earth man - an electrician, a tradesman. He read a working class newspaper. I was writing a story about a man who thought he was King Arthur. So now Fred was claiming to be a descendent of King Alfred. Alfred was a Saxon King. The challenge was on several levels. That he was Saxon and not Celtic. That he, Fred, was as good as any man living or dead, King or commoner, pilgrim or priest. And that it was all a load of rubbish anyway and why should I be interested in some nutter going around calling himself King Arthur? Didn’t I know that he was a nutter?
It was as if he was taking personal offence at this other guy’s madness: as if madness could be measured by such a mundane thing as wearing a white nightie and going about making crazy-sounding claims about yourself.
So that was what we were talking about on the long journey from Kent to Somerset: about my new book, about King Arthur, about the crazy Druid types I was on my way to interview (one of whom thought she was Morgana) who lived lives conditioned by Arthurian romance - about re-incarnation and magic and Earth Mysteries and the Holy Grail and all the rest - and all the time Fred was scoffing at me for even being interested. And the irony of this is, of all the people I’ve ever met - people who think they are the re-incarnation of this or that historical figure, people with strange concepts of the universe and their place within it, people who think they are alien beings from another planet - it was Fred, Mr Down-to-Earth, Mr Sporty-Electrician-Working-Class, Mr Sun-Reader, Mr See-You-Down-The-Pub-Hiya-How-You-Doin‘-Mine‘s-A-Pint, who was the weirdest one of the lot.
So, then, we got to Glastonbury. We went for a pint. We drank several pints. Now he was too drunk to carry on driving. I told him he could stay at my friend’s house, I’m sure it would be OK. He bought a bottle of vodka, a bottle of brandy and several bottles of wine. We went round to my friend’s house - she who thought she was Morgana - who said, yes it would be fine for Fred to stay, and would he like something to eat? Which he declined, being too interested in his booze. So I ate, and then fell asleep with all the drink, and then later woke up to find everyone still up (it was about 2 in the morning by now) but no sign of Fred.
There was a sort of excited stirring in the room. The air was abuzz with mutterings.
“Oh, so you’re up,” said Morgana, giving me this arch, knowing, deliberate look as I came down the stairs. “Hmmm. Good job. You’d better check on your friend. He’s in his car. We’ve just thrown him out. He‘s a paedophile.”
There were a number of people in the room as I walked in: maybe five or six or more, sitting around on cushions on the floor, or on various chairs. Morgana kept open house for all the crazy mystical-magical types in Glastonbury. People were drinking and smoking spliffs. There was the smell of chillum smoke and incense in the air. Music buzzing quietly away in the background. Morgana on her high throne in the middle of the room (actually it was just a chair, but every chair that Morgana sits on becomes a throne for her). There’s a guy called Trip dressed like a Krishna monk, in the yellow robe, with the shaved head and the little pony-tail. Conversations were flying about all over the place, but Morgana was definitely holding court, like she does.
So, now she tells me what had happened. I’m sitting next to her on the floor, and she’s telling me what happened, in that incredibly detailed way of hers, aided by her close friend Wilhemena. Wilhemena the Witch.
Fred was over there, she says, on the settee. She’s here. Wilhemena is opposite. Phoebe (Morgana’s grand-daughter) is still up. She’s about four years old. There’s Tim on the cushions over there. Everyone else is where they are now. And then, for some reason, Trip hands Morgana a wand that Phoebe had been playing with, and simultaneously Fred gets up, moves up close, and touches Morgana on the shoulders.
Morgana: “So there’s the wand. And then Tim sat down. And yeah, that was right, what Fred said was, ‘well anyway, I don’t believe in you, you’re taking the piss of that Arthur ain’t you? You’re taking the piss out of that Lord Arthur ain’t you?’ I said, ‘what do you mean?’ I said, ‘what’s brought this up?’ ‘Well you're that half sister aren’t you, didn’t you have his... you’ve got his baby, is that his baby?’ Pointing at Phoebe. It was extraordinary. He said, ‘you’re maud.. maud.. er..’"
Wilhemena: “He couldn’t remember the name.”
Morgana: “Then, ‘anyway, I don’t believe in you,’ and he put his hand on my thigh. So I picked his hand up and gave it back to him, and I said, ‘if you don’t believe in me you have absolutely no right to caress my thigh.’ Then I’ve got up to ring the bell, cos it was at that point I needed to break the contact and get out the seat, so I rang the bell. And he went, ‘just like I’ve got no right to take photos of two three and four year old little girls.’ He said, ‘and a known friend of yours’.”
OK. Immediately I knew what he was going on about. I’ve known Fred for years. Even at this point I can guess the circumstances he’s describing. I know about his obscurity, and his tendency to wind people up, and his useless efforts at jokes that no one else can understand. I also know Morgana, and this crowd: they’re all smoking copious amounts of cannabis, so every little nuance in the conversation will be shimmering with multiple levels of meaning. There’s two different levels of reality going on at the same time.
I say: “This ‘Friend of yours’ is me.”
Morgana: “No! He dropped a clanger.”
Wihemena: “We didn’t take it like that.”
CJ: “There’s no other friend of yours. It‘s me he‘s talking about....”
Morgana: “There’s lots of stuff that has question marks over.”
Wihemena: “There’s lots of friends that we might have on the same circuit.”
CJ: “But what was he talking about?”
Morgana: “A mutual friend. Arthur.”
CJ: “He doesn’t know Arthur.”
Wihemena: “He invoked him. It could be anybody.”
Morgana: “It was an archetype thing.”
This is how they talk. It’s all archetypes and magic and invocation and spirit-communication and wey-hey and wonder and far too much dope.
Wilhemena: “It could be anybody.”
Morgana: “The pornographic stuff came out after, after he’s sat with some information you’ve given him, got into archetype script and gone, ‘half sister, baby, incestuous,’ the words are there, ‘oh I’m into pornography.’ He laid this at Morgana’s feet, thinking I’ll go, ‘oh that’s great, show me the pictures’.”
Wilhemena: “Yeah right. You see the Morgana energy is a black energy.”
Morgana: “But it was the extraordinary way it... it wasn’t discussed..."
Wilhemena: “Nothing.” (Going into “spiritual” mode, her eyes sort of half rolling back into her head, as if she is in communication with some dead-presence, putting on this ethereal-sounding voice.) “Given. In the moment. As all of these things are. We don’t ask for it! Do we girl?”
Morgana: “No. It was like that geezer who suddenly blurted out that he killed his baby, crushed the baby’s head, and then told me to keep it secret. And I kept it totally secret, and he was in my face and in my face and in my face and in my face in the pub, and in the end I just picked up a pint of cider and I threw it at him. ‘Fuck off! Fuck off an die! Bastard.’ Two days later his brother came in, to cut a long story short, told me that he’s, you know, he said, no he won’t come here anymore, he’s dead. He had fucked off, OD’d, wrote a suicide letter.... I’m so fucking careful CJ.”
OK, with this sort of rhetoric it’s no wonder Fred has gone off into wind-up mode. Morgana is here saying that she killed someone by saying, “fuck off and die” in a pub one night. Not that he committed suicide because he had crushed his own baby’s head, but that he had told her, and then gone on about it, and it was her words that had caused his death. Morgana can be very overblown in her sense of self-esteem. Sometimes I think she lives in some kind of a soap-opera fantasy world all of her own.
And, as I said, I already know exactly what Fred’s referring to. Those “photos of two three and four year old little girls” are the photos of his daughters and my son playing in the pool all those years ago. Hence the reference to me. As it happens, it was in the news that week too: someone who had taken photos of their naked children and who had then been reported in case it turned out to be paedophile activity. So I know how all these different things have become conflated in Fred’s addled, drink-fuelled brain. But what Fred doesn’t know - and the reason none of this is in the slightest bit funny - is that there are, in fact, several victims of child-abuse in the room with him, so his un-referenced joke about a current item of news sets this little shiver of identification going about the room, like alarm bells going off, and everyone is turning on him without him understanding why.
CJ: “But going back to my position, you understand don’t you why I must reserve my judgement on this. I’m not going to....”
Morgana: “I’m reserving my judgement, because I’m totally off about mankind and womankind. I already can’t believe the things I hear my brothers and sisters do. You know what I mean? And I can’t believe how anybody could conjure that up out of their mouth. But however, people do have dirty minds, and as long as they keep it in their fucking mind, that’s their business and they have to live with that. However, if, if, that isn’t in his mind and that’s reality because he didn’t want to tell me what he did, I said, ‘what do you do?’ and he went, ‘I’m retired,’ and I thought he was going to say, ‘I’m a drug dealer’ but he covered it up with, ‘I’m an electrician, I’m a sparks’.”
CJ: “He is a sparky, yeah.”
Morgana: “He told me that he’s retired. In other words, I’ve got loads of money. And than you pushed him to tell me what he did, and he went, ‘I’m an electrician, I’m a sparky’.”
CJ: “No. You see I know the explanation for this. He was earning loads of money, as a sparky, and he’s just packed up his job. So for about two weeks now he hasn’t been working. But he was earning, like, you know, fuck loads of money. So in that sense, he’s retired. He’s just being slightly obscure, this is the problem with Fred....”
Morgana: “But CJ, listen, drug dealers are slightly obscure. No no no, but he could be a pornography dealer. And in that case he’s not made loads of money doing electrical work. But here he is with someone he thinks is the Morgana, so he’s giving me little clues as to another life that he has. And it started with, “I’m retired.” But you poked him and said, ‘go on, tell her what you do do,’ and he slipped out of that and went into your mate, and went, ‘oh, I’m an electrician.’ So just do what... just do.”
Wilhemena: “Can I bring Arthur and the Morgana into this now? Everybody connected with the Arthurian sect will find that there are echoes of this in their own daily life happening. To a degree. Never everything exactly the same. But there are knock-on effects...”
CJ: “Echoes of what?”
Wihemena: “Whatever he is dealing with. Arthur is sworn to fight corruption wherever he finds it. Anybody on that same vibe will be.... affected to a degree, whether it is something within their own family or something that they will...”
Morgana: “Pick up on in the newspapers, an article that they wouldn’t normally find or...”
Wilhemena: “Something that they would come across...”
Morgana: “A symbol of this. Because it’s happened with me.”
CJ: “What is the ‘this’ that you’re talking about?"
Wihemena: “Well at the moment...”
CJ: “You’re talking about?”
Morgana: “Child abuse, yeah.”
CJ: “Child abuse.”
Morgana: “Yeah, child-abuse.”
The above verbal exchange is very detailed. This is because it is, in fact, exactly what was said. I know because I have it on tape. Well, not on tape any more: I have a transcription of a tape I once made. I don’t know why I kept it, since it was made for possible use in the Arthur book, but never, in fact, used. I had gone there to interview Morgana and Wilhemena about Arthur. I wasn’t really interested in Fred at the time, but I’d switched on the tape recorder in preparation for anything that might come up. Later I’d transcribed it all, not - again - because it had anything to do with Fred, but because I was having trouble finding a starting point for my book, and I was busying myself as a way of avoiding the main issue. It‘s what writer‘s do They prevaricate. Anything rather than having to think. Anyway, I like the way people talk. I like transcribing the spoken word. It adds a new dimension to the written word to know what the rhythms of the spoken word sound like. It’s something I like to reproduce in my writing.
Actually it wasn’t made on the night, either, but the day after. Otherwise, everything is pretty much as I’ve described it.
On the night we all just got drunk on what remained of Fred’s vodka, while I reserved my judgement about what had really happened.
Trip said one very memorable thing. He said, “Glastonbury is the world first experimental open-air insane asylum.” He said, “people come here all normal, dressed up in a suit and tie, and a week later they’re wrapped in a table cloth, wandering up and down the High Street saying ‘I am the Devil!’”
Trip was very funny and kept us all entertained all night. He was like Tommy Cooper in a yellow robe. Tommy Cooper on acid. But that stuff about Glastonbury being like an open air insane asylum sort of stuck in my head, and coloured all the rest of what was to happen next.
Finally it was dawn, and the birds were singing, and Trip got up and drew the curtains and suddenly exclaimed: “hey CJ, your friend. I think he just got himself arrested!”
OK, so I went out, and Fred was, indeed, being arrested. There were two coppers there, and a bemused-looking Fred, wrapped up in his coat, looking cold and hungover. One of the coppers was looking over the car and taking notes. There was a half-bottle of brandy on the front seat, the passenger-side door was open and the engine was running.
“Do you know this gentleman?” the other copper said to me.
“I do,” I said, in a resigned way, shrugging my shoulders.
This whole trip was turning into the plot from a movie I wouldn't even pay to see, and here I was, having to live it for real.