tag: Memories

Jun 2008

You're welcome Michael

Upon hearing the news of the “No” vote, Michael Greenwell has graciously said “Thank you Ireland“. As I think has become clear, though, I’m rather ambivalent about the whole thing. Rejecting the treaty was emphatically the right thing to do, don’t get me wrong. My ‘X’ went in the correct box. But the question of what happens next is a pretty durn perplexing one.

See, here’s my thing… I’m a European.

I don’t mean that in a mundane geographical sense. It’s something I actually feel, and quite deeply too. I’m aware that this makes me somewhat unusual, but it’s just a direct consequence of my personal experience. During my life I’ve lived throughout Europe and called three other continents home at different times, as well as working for a spell on a fifth. If Europe and Europeans have something that genuinely unites them, then I would humbly suggest that I’m probably one of the people in a position to have spotted it.

And they do.

Obviously when you move around a lot, this is something you get to thinking about. As far as my experience of Europe goes, in my life I’ve lived in Greece, Ireland, Spain, England and Germany (for a 5 month project, but it involved dealing quite closely with German businessmen, local government and workers so I got fairly immersed during my short stay). Now, just for a moment I want you to consider how different those cultures all are. London to Athens. Cork to Berlin. Madrid to Dublin. And from personal experience… they are indeed very different. But despite this, they all share something intangible that you only notice is missing when you live in Cairo or — perhaps most intriguingly — Chicago, or when your local supermarket and dry-cleaners have a Sao Paolo address.

I can’t tell you what that “something” is. It doesn’t have a name. It is whatever property is possessed by a place that prevents the onset of culture shock. It runs far deeper than mere “familiarity”. For me… call it European-ness.

Culture shock, in case you’ve never felt it, is defined as “that sudden sense of vertigo experienced when you think ‘shit! that’s different over here’ more than seven times on each of two consecutive days”. It is quickly followed by a total loss in your own confidence to complete even the most simple and apparently mundane of tasks, and becomes chronic culture shock the moment the terrified rhetorical question “is this my home now?” crosses your mind. Chronic culture shock can involve severe agoraphobia and a worrying urge to watch BBC costume dramas on video.

Don’t get me wrong though, it’s completely temporary and is usually overcome when you discover something apparently trivial but nonetheless extremely pleasing about the place that makes you think “that is utterly fantastic… why don’t we do it that way back home?” After which point it lessens and eventually becomes a vague ambient exoticness that lingers in the strange voices on the radio and the way people move their hands when they greet one another.

I mean, without a doubt, some of the very best memories of my life are of the time I spent in Egypt; probably the place I felt most alien when I first arrived, but which I eventually fell in love with. And I am deeply smitten with Brazillian culture… the music, the people, the sound of the language, the landscape, the mango… oh god, the mango… South America is just fantastic. On the other hand, North America didn’t agree with me at all, which I found quite bewildering given how much American culture we’re all exposed to (New York is one of my favourite places in the world for a short visit, but living in Texas and later spending a year in Chicago damn near drove me insane).

None of which — by the way — and I think I’ve been pretty explicit that this is merely personal experience and observation, is meant to be taken as some kind of weird European “We’re Number One!” chant. Or a kind of eurocentric xenophobia. Far from it. Europe is screwed up in more ways than I care to mention. Maybe even more so than other places (and here I think specifically of South America, which has it’s own set of different problems of course, but there’s a certain attitude to the people which suggests that, in the long term, they may do better at dealing with theirs than we’ll do with ours). Certainly while experiencing the immediate effects of culture shock, a person is — in the most literal sense — xenophobic; scared witless by the alien-ness of the place they find themself. But that’s just an emotional / psychological reaction to a moment of extreme stress.

Have you ever left a party… a bit worse for wear… and decided that you can’t be arsed to wait for the night bus because your place is just about within walking distance. You’ve got your buzz on, and a couple of cans of beer to keep you company and you start hiking. At some point, vaguely frazzled by what seems like hours of walking (including that one estate that seemed dodgy and freaked you out a bit) you turn a corner and you see a familiar landmark… the shop you walk to when you run out of bread, and a momentary sensation steals over you. That’s the very same sensation I felt when I returned from Chicago to London… from Egypt to Greece.

Because of all this. Because I experience a very specific sense of dislocation in North Africa et al, but not anywhere in Europe; because of this, I’d go so far as to say that I feel more European than I feel Irish. Certainly I can’t say I feel any more “at home” in Dublin than I did in London (or even in Athens, despite the myriad massive and obvious differences).

What am I trying to say here? I guess I’m just saying that it saddens me that I had to vote against the Lisbon Treaty and I don’t feel any sense of jubilation whatsoever that “we won”. As comically surreal as the referendum was, I’m in no mood to celebrate. See, I wish it had been a document I could have supported. I really do. Elsewhere I’ve read the argument that the major failure of the Lisbon Treaty was it didn’t recognise the vast differences between the nations of Europe and instead proposes a one size fits all solution to the problem of how we organise our collective affairs.

There may well be something to that, and as I pointed out earlier, Europe is indeed a collection of very different cultures. I’m most definitely not suggesting that contrary to clear evidence we possess a single pan-European culture. Not at all; just that all these different cultures share common aspects and attitudes (as well as a geographical proximity) that make close cooperation possible and potentially very fruitful. So when nosemonkey writes:

Europe is not made up of one united people; we are many peoples with much shared history and culture, but with plenty that also divides us in terms of hopes, dreams and aspirations

while I can’t disagree with the strict wording of the statement, I feel compelled to disagree with its spirit. It’s been my experience that 90% of what divides Europeans is history. If anything it’s our “hopes, dreams and aspirations” that unite us.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2008

Something for the weekend…

A big thankyou to Michael Greenwell for pointing me towards this wonderfully laid-back live performance of Bob Marley’s Stir It Up. As I think I’ve mentioned before, The Wailers were the very first band I saw live. It was the mid-80s and Bob had sadly moved on by then, but it was a thoroughly amazing evening and live music has been a huge passion of mine ever since (I can only imagine how different my life would be if I’d skipped that gig and gone to see a football match or something else instead!) Not long after the gig had begun, a massive rastafarian in the audience (and there weren’t many of those in Athens at the time) handed a joint to a friend of mine who in turn passed it to me. It wasn’t my first toke, but it was an influential one………

Anyways, let’s Stir it Up why don’t we.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

Dec 2007

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Having failed to give the excellent Dreamflesh Volume One the glowing review it so richly deserved here on The Quiet Road, Gyrus threatened to “burn down your home, and the homes of everyone you’ve ever met!” unless I at least mentioned his latest tome.

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Well, he’s a man of his word. So I shall do more than just mention it. I shall post a big shiny graphic showing the rather striking cover (designed by Andy Hemmingway) and urge y’all to get hold of this fantastic anthology.

Entitled Archaeologies of Consciousness: Essays In Experimental Prehistory, it’s billed as a collection of writing on “ancient monuments, prehistoric rock art, folklore, mythology, and altered states of consciousness”. But don’t let what may sound like a specialist book on a selection of niche subjects put you off. The essays in this book are explorations of consciousness, of what it means to be human, and of the environment and landscapes that shaped our development. It’s a book that drags these “niche subjects” out of the cosy, dusty libraries in which they’ve locked themselves and takes them for a much needed hike across a windswept moor to get their blood flowing again.

But what’s it actually about?

[…] in Freudian language [we say] that the operations of the unconscious are structured in terms of primary process, while the thoughts of consciousness (especially verbalized thoughts) are expressed in secondary process.

Nobody, to my knowledge, knows anything about secondary process. But it is ordinarily assumed that everybody knows all about it, so I shall not attempt to describe secondary process in any detail, assuming that you know as much about it as I.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

In the space of these five extended essays and a few shorter bits and pieces, Gyrus boldly strides where Bateson fears to tread.

To be honest, that last line is hyberbolic to the point of sheer inaccuracy, but it’s a good pull-quote. In actual fact, the writing of Bateson and Gyrus complement one another in interesting ways. Both are examining the unsettling, blurred region where a number of disparate disciplines intersect; archaeology, anthropology, mythology, psychology (along with psychoanalytic theory) and biology. Both are aware that, for a whole bunch of reasons, traditional academia finds it difficult to comfortably accommodate research in this area, but are equally aware that for their work to be influential within these disparate disciplines (as it damn well should be), it must be accessible to them.

But where they differ is the fact that Bateson is writing from within the establishment; emerging from it as it were; while Gyrus is approaching it from outside. Both approaches have their strengths and both have certain limitations. Thankfully there’s nothing stopping us from reading both and allowing them to, as I say, complement one another.

One thing that strikes me though, is that Gyrus generally overcomes the limitations imposed by his position as a “freelance” / “amateur” researcher (a tendency towards flights of fancy, tangents and a perceived lack on intellectual rigour) better than Bateson overcomes the limitations imposed by his own (conservatism, unimaginativeness and a tendency to obscure meaning with over-complex prose and jargon).

Now Bateson can’t be accused either of conservatism or a lack of imagination, but his writing does occasionally become rather dense and opaque. In Archaeologies of Consciousness however, Gyrus presents his readers with clear, flowing prose that is at turns poetic, at turns scientific, but always comprehensible. And it’s not the patronising comprehensibility of “popular science” books that spoonfeed complex ideas to a mass market by simplifying them to the point of meaninglessness. This is the real deal… exactly as complicated as it needs to be, but no less accessible for it.

The collection opens with The Devil & The Goddess which I recall reading when it was first published over a decade ago. It was around that time that I first met Gyrus, and during the intervening years — in private discussions and through reading subsequent articles — I’ve seen how his ideas and research have evolved. So it’s interesting to revisit The Devil & The Goddess; not the start, but certainly an important early milestone, on a unique intellectual journey; and to find it’s still vital, still relevant and is filled with the questions and themes that would dominate his work for the next ten years.

Culture and civilization are inseparable from material technologies, and things are no less confused in the technophile / Luddite debate. The real dichotomy to be tackled here is that of harmonious / unharmonious technology. Do our tools help us achieve our desires, or do they become our desires?


This spiritual poverty, this rigid division of life into the sacred and profane (in their modern senses), has only been the norm of human experience for several hundred years, if that. And in their historical accounts, modern scientists have been projecting this division back in time for far too long. A re-vision of anthropology and archaeology is overdue, necessary and, I feel, imminent.

And concluding with…

For ourselves, living in a culture where the dominant spiritual institutions have insisted not only on separating themselves from everyday life, but directing their spiritual aspirations outside this world, it’s evident that a new vision of spirituality more directly concerned with life, the Earth, our bodies and survival is needed. We cannot live on bread alone, but I don’t want to try to live without it. It’s no coincidence that it took an affluent society like our own, where day-to-day existence is taken for granted, to produce a device capable of utterly destroying the biosphere.

… via a route that takes in Shamanism, Satanism, the Kundalini experience, anal eroticism, the origins of blood sacrifice, the Knights Templar and the landscape of Avebury…

It’s the least focussed of the essays in the collection, certainly, but it provides a perfect opener to the book by setting up many of the themes that are expanded upon in the later pieces.

My personal favourites (if one can be said to have favourites among essays on abstract and esoteric subjects) are probably the final two of the long pieces; Form & Meaning in Altered States & Rock Art and Aeons Past & Present. The former contains my favourite line of the book, where the author is examining some neolithic rock art while under the influence of 2CB (a synthetic phenethylamine which is known to produce, among other things, visual distortions not unlike the geometrical patterns found in much primitive art) and has the multi-layered revelation that “There’s no ‘blank canvas’ in rock art!” While the latter draws together theories about time and evolution from a remarkably wide range of sources and makes all manner of intriguing and insightful connections between them, eventually concluding with a call to action in the face of the seemingly paralysing desires manufactured by modern culture.

From the upbeat and characteristically enthusiastic preface by Julian Cope, to the meticulous indices, Archaeologies of Consciousness succeeds in being a well-researched, informative; indeed illuminating; collection of essays which is also a pleasure to read. This makes it a very rare item indeed; so I recommend you grab a copy.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews

Nov 2007

Insights that stood the test of time

There’s a big old cardboard box that’s lived in the darkness of a dozen wardrobes. (How’s that for an intro rich in potent psychoanalytic symbolism?) It originally housed a Commodore-64 personal computer, which means I’ve been moving this box from house to house, wardrobe to wardrobe, since Athens in 1985. It’s a long long time since it contained a C-64 though. Over the years it has become the repository for my old dream-diaries, letters I’ve received (and a few I never sent), personal journals filled with strange scribblings, cards, photos and assorted frozen memories. So, despite outward appearances, this is not an innocuous cardboard box. Far from it. This is something to be approached with extreme caution.

This time round I only lost half a Saturday. It helps if you open the cache with a specific target… in this case something that had survived the great journal purge of the mid-90s by virtue of being written in an old school jotter… a painfully earnest essay written after reading The Communist Manifesto for the first time. I was sixteen and just becoming aware of politics. Someone (MM) had thrust a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book into my hand around then, and I’d also somehow picked up the entirely erroneous view that being a Marxist was inherently edgy and sexy. Apparently it entailed sitting in Parisian cafés with women who looked like Audrey Hepburn.

I had it confused with existentialism.

So I’d been calling myself a communist and a marxist (and sometimes a Maoist) for a few months when it occurred to me that it’d be a good idea to read something on the subject. Besides, the expected deluge of Audrey Hepburns had never materialised, so I had plenty of free time. I read The Communist Manifesto having found the Little Red Book completely mystifying. And overnight I became a libertarian capitalist and remained that way for several years. Without a doubt The Communist Manifesto is the worst advertisement for social justice ever written.

The essay I wrote in response is called “The Big Problem with The Communist Manifesto”. As a stylistic conceit, each paragraph opens with “The Big Problem with The Communist Manifesto is…” It gets tired and tiresome very quickly indeed and makes me cringe a little, though in my defence I was sixteen! I’ve seen the same approach used by professional journalists; what’s their excuse?

The Big Problem with The Communist Manifesto is it envisions a world with a smokestack on every horizon, but there’s only so much coal.

That was the line I was looking for. It’s the first thing I ever wrote on the subject of sustainability. Admittedly, it was another twelve years before I returned to the subject. Still, it’s as valid a sentiment now as it was then.

Impossible to ignore however, on the jotter page immediately prior to The Big Problem with The Communist Manifesto I had written a single phrase. The three words fill the page and are written in carefully constructed letters with intricate cross-hatching. They state, bluntly, “Bowie is God”.

And yes, that too is still as valid a sentiment now as it was then. So in honour of the purity of my 16-year old self’s insight, here’s an artist-specific version of that old “First Line” quiz. Identify the following Bowie songs from their first line…

  1. I’ve come on a few years from my Hollywood highs
  2. (Hello love) (Goodbye love) / Didn’t know what time it was, the lights were low… oh… oh
  3. I’m stomping along on this big Philip Johnson
  4. Tragic youth was looking young and sexy
  5. When all the world was very young, and mountain magic heavy hung
  6. As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party
  7. Oh. Ooooooooooh yeah. Ahhhhhhh!
  8. Let me put my arms around your head…
  9. Aaaaahoh. Aaaaaaaaahohhhh. Do do do do do. Do do do do dooooooooo…
  10. Nothing remains. We could run when the rain slows.
  11. Stinky weather / fat shaky hand / Dopey morning doc / Grumpy gnomes
  12. And so the story goes they wore the clothes, they said the things to make it seem improbable
  13. Day after day, they send my friends away
  14. Cold fire, you’ve got everything but cold fire
  15. Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooo oh! Weaving down a by-road, singing the song

11 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jul 2007

Er… Nietzsche?

Crappity crap crap fuckity fuck!

Well, I’m back from my interview at Trinity. Many thanks for the good luck wishes (in the comments to the last post) Zoe and Lucas… plus the others who emailed or texted. In the end, however, I fear I may have squandered all those positive vibes. Of course, it’s very easy to exaggerate one’s screw-ups in retrospect. And just because things didn’t go 100% perfectly doesn’t mean they were a disaster. All the same…

Q. So which philosophers are you currently interested in?
A. Er… [jim draws a complete blank… can’t even think of a single philosopher’s name, let alone one he’s currently interested in]… er… [the seconds tick by. For feck’s sake, there’s a copy of Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method in my bag not three feet from where I’m sitting! Yet can I think of a single name? No, I can’t.]… er… Nietzsche?

Or how about…
Q. So describe the basics of Freud’s theory of dreams…
A. Wellll… [once again jim draws a total blank. The words “symbolism” and “displacement” refuse to come to mind, as does the phrase “wish-fulfillment”. So instead there’s two minutes of incoherent nonsense as I try to describe Freud’s theories without recourse to those three terms].

Of course, the moment I stepped out of the interview, my brain kicked in… and as I walked down the flights of stairs and out of the building, I was muttering… Freud saw dreams as being of central importance to psychoanalysis. Initially he viewed dreams as a process of wish-fulfillment undertaken by the unconscious mind. However, because dreams often don’t appear that way, he hypothesized that dreams had both a manifest and a latent content. The manifest content — how the dream is recalled by the dreamer — is often a heavily-disguised or censored version of what the dream is really about. And what the dream is really about is the fulfillment of unsatisfied childhood desires. These desires — often shocking to the conscious mind — are rendered safe by two separate but connected processes; displacement (the association of disturbing emotions with apparently innocuous images) and symbolisation (almost always sexual in nature). Later in his life, however, after working with World War One veterans who had suffered from shellshock (what we’d now term Post-Traumatic Stress), Freud was forced to modify his theory of dreams. His ideas that dreams — almost invariably — referred back to childhood was incompatible with the clinical data he was gathering from the war veterans (whose recurrent nightmares of the trenches were clearly neither wish-fulfillment nor related to childhood events). This eventually led Freud to hypothesize the existence of ‘The Death Instinct’ or Thanatos.

Now, why the hell couldn’t I have said that in the interview? Why did I end up muttering it to startled passers-by instead? Goddamn it!

And what makes it all worse is the fact that the interview wasn’t exactly intimidating in any sense. The professor (Dr. RS) is very amiable, easy company. Formality was kept to a minimum and the whole experience was more like a chat than a classic interview. Albeit, a chat where one of the participants has inexplicably forgotten half his vocabularly and about 90% of what he’s read in the past 6 months.

Still, all I can do now is wait and hope that I’m recalling things as worse than they were. I’ll find out “within a month”. Fingers crossed and all.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Mar 2007

Thogger and Way Back

No, not a new buddy-cop movie starring Jim Belushi and Chevy Chase. Instead it’s two blog memes. Well, not quite. Well, kind of. They both arrive from Justin over at Chicken Yoghurt who — despite his protestations — appears to enjoy blog memes as much as any 14-year-old Livejournalist. The fact that I’m running with these memes does not, of course, make any similar comment about me.

Thogger badge
First up, nice chap that he is, Justin has bestowed a ‘thogger‘ upon me. This means — apparently — that I write a “thought-provoking” blog. Which is about as much as any blogger can ask for. I don’t make any such claims about myself (at least not in public), but Justin’s is a consistently excellent political blog that has certainly got me thinking on plenty of occasions. So, given the source, I shall gracefully accept the award. Apparently it now falls upon me to pass on the award, and nominate five blogs that I consider thought-provoking in some way. Chicken Yoghurt’s already got one, so I’ll omit him from my official list.

If you can’t find something to provoke thought via each of those links, then I humbly suggest that you may well be incapable of it in the first place. Perhaps you’d be better off watching TV.

It was four years ago today…

Justin follows up that list with another (originally kicked off over at Bloggerheads). It is — almost unbelievably — the fourth anniversary of the US/UK invasion of Iraq. Actually it’s the fourth anniversary of the eve of war (Jeff Wayne, where are you now?) and Justin was wondering: “what did you post on 20 March, 2003? (Or on as near to the day as possible)… Doesn’t have to be a blog entry; it could easily be in usenet or in a forum.”

Using the Way Back Machine, I discovered that the first entry on my old blog wasn’t until early May 2003, and I can’t seem to get the site to drag up the blog from norlonto.net, where I posted prior to that. But I did discover — on the U-Know! web foruma post discussing the run up to the Iraq war and why I felt that the Peace Movement in the west was wrong-headed in its approach, though right in its aims.

And I still feel the same. My essential point was that rather than expending time and energy protesting against the war, it would be far more effective to focus that same effort on eliminating the demand for those resources over which wars are fought. I know there are many who believe that the Iraq war was about WMD or humanitarian intervention to bring about regime-change. I believe it was about oil. And it seems clear to me that reducing our demand for oil would consequently reduce the likelihood of us invading oil-rich nations. This would have a greater practical effect than demanding our politicians stop supplying us with the oil we also demand.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s a vivid image and worth repeating… I recall attending the big anti-war demonstration in London during the run up to the invasion. From hundreds of coaches at Hyde Park, I saw many thousands of protesters disembark carrying “No Blood For Oil” banners. As the samba band struggled to be heard over the idling of so many diesel engines I realised that there was a very serious disconnect at work. People clearly believed — as did I — that the war was about oil. Yet they didn’t seem to grasp the fact that Tony Blair and Dubya Bush weren’t going to personally burn all that oil themselves… that our representatives were responding very directly to the demands of their oil-consuming constituents.

Around the same time, myself and Merrick co-wrote an article to express this.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2007

A visit from the dead

Did I say a head-cold? I’ve had nothing of the sort, dear reader. I didn’t have the physical strength to make it to the doctor, so never managed to get diagnosed. Nonetheless, I’m pretty certain I had an as-yet undiscovered variant of Ebola that lasts about a week. Either that or a temporary case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or Double-Malaria. Something really nasty anyways.

Well, perhaps not Ebola. All the same, it was no ordinary cold. In all honesty, the last time I can recall being so physically debilitated was when I was struck down with a fever in Brazil and was unable to make the short crawl to the bathroom without passing out at least twice (and that’s not an exaggeration). At least this week I’ve been able to make that journey without losing consciousness. Though it was a close-run thing on a couple of occasions. The weird thing is that it only lasted a few days… on Thursday I figured “well, this is obviously the difference between a cold and a flu”. But influenza lasts a good deal longer than four days. And a head-cold doesn’t send your temperature into the low hundreds, leaving you with full-on delerium and a tendency to pass out without warning. Also, at the risk of grossing you out, dear sensitive reader, I somehow managed to expel my entire body weight in snot and sweat. Which calls a couple of fundamental laws of physics into question.

Sleep Paralysis

And let’s not forget the sleep paralysis. When I was living in Brazil I took an anti-malaria drug called Lariam (for a giggle, check out the ‘side-effects’ section on its Wikipedia entry). I didn’t contract malaria I’m happy to say. Of course, nor did any of my companions, and they weren’t taking the stuff (presumably because they’d read the side-effects). So I can’t really credit the Lariam for protecting me from illness, though I can credit it for several months of seriously messed up nightmares. The most powerful of which was a terrifying instance of sleep paralysis.

I awoke in the middle of the night because — I felt — someone was shaking me… urging me to wake up. I was lying on my back, eyes open, staring into the darkness. But except for my eyes I couldn’t move any part of my body. It was difficult to breathe, and I became more and more terrified as I struggled vainly to move or to cry out. This was no ordinary fear… it came from a place dark and oceanic… a place of madness… and it was utterly overwhelming. Then, as my eyes slowly adjusted to the near pitch black, I became aware of another presence in the room. A small child — a girl of about seven or eight years old — was standing at the foot of my bed. She radiated an indescribable malevolence.

Time seemed to pass very slowly. And I wasn’t quite ‘right’ for several days.

I’d had a similar experience a couple of years earlier in Mexico. But I’d been consuming a lot of visionary plants during the preceeding few days and had — I believe — shifted my consciousness enough to allow me to better take it in my stride. When I explained it to my guide the following morning, he informed me that I’d had subida del muerto… a visit from the dead… an experience not uncommon to those who’d taken a lot of mescaline in a short period of time.

And then a couple of nights ago, it happened again.

This time I can point the finger of blame at neither mescaline nor lariam. This time it was fever-induced, but was no more pleasant for it. I awoke in the early hours of Saturday morning, again with the feeling that someone had shaken me awake. A faint grey twilight filtered through the curtains, indicating it was sometime around dawn. I was staring straight up at the ceiling, still in the grip of delerium, and that dark ocean of terror began to rise up within me just as it had in Brazil. It felt as though someone was pressing down on my chest but thanks to my position and the way the duvet had bunched up around my neck, my field of vision was restricted to a narrow strip of the ceiling. I was convinced that someone (or something) was there, standing next to my bed, leaning on my chest with their full weight. I urged my body to struggle against this pressure, to convulse in some way, but to no avail. A scene from the film The Serpent And The Rainbow, where a character has been ‘zombified’ and is unable to move during his “post-mortem” examination, leapt to my mind and I tried to scream… now overwhelmed with terror. But still I lay there completely immobile.

Once again, time seemed to pass slowly. Though in truth it may have been only a minute or two before I started to cough (thank heavens I’d been too ill to make it to the pharmacy for some cough medicine) which seemed to confer life to my body. I leapt from the bed, forgetting just how feverish and debilitated I was and promptly passed out. I regained consciousness a split second later as I crashed onto my bedside locker knocking over the almost full, but open, two litre bottle of water.

After a few moments of lying on the floor, I managed to pull myself back onto the bed and open the curtains. And there I sat, soaked and freaked out, staring at the gradually brightening sky while my terror subsided.

I hope, dear gentle reader, that you had a more pleasant St. Patrick’s Day.

I received a few emails regarding my last post, wishing me a happy birthday and responding to my ‘cheeky request’. Although my fever has broken, I’m still far from fully recovered. So while right now I’m off to lie on my bed and moan weakly about how I’m dying of ebola; let me first thankyou for your emails, apologise for the delay in getting back to you, and assure you that I shall reply tomorrow once I’ve regained a little more energy. I’m very grateful.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2007

Looking for a book

Not just any book. A specific one.

See, about fifteen years ago I read a novel. I can’t remember the title or the author and I haven’t got an entirely clear memory of the plot. But I do recall thinking it was very good, and I’d like to track it down again. Any chance, dear reader, that you know which book I’m talking about? Here’s what I do remember.

It is set, partly, in North London (in and around Finsbury Park) where the protagonist spends some of the novel living in one of those hotels that face onto the park. The main character is a man who is the victim of an (apparently) random assault in a supermarket carpark. He is shot in the head by his assailant but miraculously survives only to discover that he has been blinded by the attack. For much of the novel he is troubled by an image he cannot resolve, that of something shiny and red rolling through darkness. It is only later that he realises it was just a tomato, tumbling out of the grocery bag he dropped when shot… the last image he saw, burnt into his memory, before he is blinded. The cover of the edition I read was a blurred image of this.

The plot becomes strange, however, as the protagonist becomes convinced that he is seeing things, despite his blindness and this is further complicated by the fact that he may not actually be completely blind at all.

Any ideas anyone?

2 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Feb 2007

Dream haiku

Empty offices
I’m surrounded by signposts
And yet I am lost

3 comments  |  Posted in: Poetry

Feb 2007

The methadone metronome

I don’t watch much television these days. There have been periods of my life when my weekly viewing probably matched the average American (i.e. waaaaay too much). And there’s been times when I watched none at all for long stretches. Growing up, I saw very little TV. There was one in the house but it was used sparingly and was heavily censored. My grandfather’s shrill denunciations of “that terrible box” reverberated throughout the many branches of my family tree. That terrible box was responsible for ripping the heart, and the church, out of Irish society he insisted. It sold selfishness and glossy foreign ways. I can vividly remember the furore when Dallas was first beamed into Irish televisions. It represented the death of Irish civilisation, and by extension – at least to grandad – the death of civilisation itself. It was brainwashing us into abandoning tradition and seeking lives of empty self-gratification.

Not that I want to paint the daft bugger as some kind of wise old patrician. His views about television may well have been perceptive, but his views on just about everything else were mad as a badger.

Just before I hit my teens (when my parents attempts at censorship would have ceased to be successful), we moved overseas and I spent the next seven years or so in countries where I didn’t speak the language. So I watched some CNN now and then, but basically the tellybox was where films on video appeared. By the time I hit my late teens I had unconsciously dismissed television as being trash. The world of soap-operas and sit-coms and light-entertainment and cop shows and cartoons was just one big gaping pit of cultural excrement. You could have pointed me towards David Attenborough‘s wonderful documentaries, or perhaps Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But my distaste for the medium blinded me to the idea that it had anything at all to offer.

The Truth Is Out There

Then, however, came The X-Files. For me, that was the beginning of television. In retrospect The X-Files was actually foreshadowed by Twin Peaks, but I came to that one late – many years after it had first been broadcast. I only stuck with The X-Files for the first few seasons, but it made me realise that the medium had finally matured to the point where something truly interesting could be done with it. This was sharp, smart, well-written stuff with production values that rivalled cinema. It was well-acted, had genuinely likeable characters and fit perfectly with the mood of the times.

But it wasn’t just like a half-length movie every week. The X-Files wasn’t cinema reinvented for the MTV generation. It was it’s own unique thing. You can do things over 12 or 20 episodes that you just can’t do in a film. In many ways, a good television series is far closer to a good novel than even the best cinema. The time exists to fully flesh out characters, to linger over intriguing sub-plots and to provide detail and atmosphere that would simply be sensory overload were you to compress it into 90 or 120 minutes. I think of good television as a form of literature.

Since The X-Files there have been a small handful of TV programmes that manage to reach or exceed the bar it set. Probably far fewer than there should be. But at the same time… it’s a wonder any get made at all, given the culture of anti-intellectualism that clearly exists within the television industry. For those interested; here is that list in its entirety…

  • Twin Peaks. David Lynch‘s gloriously warped masterpiece. The one that began it all. An FBI agent shows up at the isolated mountain town of Twin Peaks to look into the murder of young and beautiful Laura Palmer. He goes about investigating the crime as though the murderer was one of the locals, yet all the while connecting Laura’s death to a series of others that happened miles away. Twin Peaks is filled with some of Lynch’s most memorable characters and a rich, dark, claustrophobic atmosphere that infects your dreams. Special Agent Dale Cooper – played to perfection by Kyle MacLachlan – would feature high on a list of Great Literary Characters. A latter day Sherlock Holmes (who switched the cocaine and opium for something a little more psychedelic), Cooper attacks problems with a singlemindedness that usually appears anything but, and a method that is often – quite literally – madness itself. You still can’t get Season 2 of this on DVD, which is nothing short of criminal.
  • Millennium. This series was created by Chris Carter (the man behind The X-Files) and is – in many ways – superior to his more famous work. At least, the first two (of three) seasons are. If you assume the show ends at the final episode of season 2 then you have a near-perfect piece of television. It follows the experiences of Frank Black; another truly fine character, played this time by Lance Henriksen (Bishop from Aliens); an ex-FBI profiler recently recovered from a serious emotional breakdown. Frank gets visions. Of evil. And as the series progresses those visions become increasingly apocalyptic driving him closer to madness. The shadowy Millennium Group is trying to recruit Frank to their ranks, and as he battles to hold his family together in the face of internal and external pressures, the whole world starts to come apart at the seams. Dark as a dark, dark thing. And then some.
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer (including spin-off series, Angel). The best of them all. Potentially never to be bettered. Joss Whedon created one of the great works of literature of the late 20th / early 21st century, yet lots of people still think it’s “just Beverly Hills 90210 with monsters”. Certainly that’s the phrase I used when my friend Justin recommended it. I seem to recall he described it as “the best thing ever”. He was right. The premise is deceptively simple… vampires, zombies, werewolves, demons, ghosts… “everything you’ve ever dreaded was under your bed, but told yourself couldn’t be by the light of day. They’re all real!” But luckily for the human race, there’s one girl in every generation gifted with special powers to fight the hordes of darkness… the slayer. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the lead role, but Buffy is very much an ensemble piece. That’s the beauty of the show; it’s actually about human relationships. Not monsters. From the beginning of Season 1 to the final moments of Season 7, the central theme of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the human condition. Just like almost every truly great work of literature. The supernatural setting merely provides the writers with a wonderfully colourful backdrop against which to explore that condition. So in one episode they can magically remove everyone’s ability to speak… almost an entire episode with no dialogue. In another, Buffy gets the ability to hear everyone else’s thoughts… rapidly driving her insane. In yet another she becomes convinced that her entire world of vampires and demons is a psychosis she’s experiencing while confined to a lunatic asylum. In another, everyone gets their memory wiped by a spell gone wrong. Over and over these fantastical premises are used not (merely) as rollicking good eye-candy, but to highlight the strengths – and the frailties – of the human heart.
  • Firefly. Like Chris Carter before him, Joss Whedon decided not to follow the massive success of Buffy by retreading the same ground. And like Chris Carter before him, this clearly displeased the moneymen. Firefly was never going to sell calendars and mousemats and pencilcases the way Buffy did. It just wasn’t that kind of show. Mind you, at its deepest level, Firefly had exactly the same premise as Buffy… a bunch of outsiders and misfits unite against a hostile universe, and through their love and friendship forge a life worth living. The Ur-Plot. I guess most people will be more familiar with the later film, Serenity, than with the original source material. Which is a tragedy of sorts despite the movie being excellent in its own right. Firefly was cancelled after half a season, and the film serves as a stop-gap “end” to a rich story that had been slowly unfolding. For those unfamiliar with either the film or the TV series, Firefly follows the travels of a starship, ‘Serenity’ (a ‘firefly’-class freighter), as the crew scrape a living on the galactic frontier, all the while evading the law… hot on their heels (in the form of shadowy, sinister covert agents as well as big starships filled with uniformed troops). It’s the life you imagine Han Solo was leading right up until that fateful day in Mos Isley. That said, there’s no aliens in Firefly. Space turned out to be empty when mankind started to explore it. Instead the setting is a very human one. It’s a dirty, dusty future that fuses China with the Wild West. And gone are Buffy’s highschool misfits to be replaced by a bitter war-veteran (from the losing side) and his best friend. Then there’s the best-friend’s Hawaiian-shirted pilot husband; the good-hearted and lovely ship’s engineer; an elderly disillusioned priest; a high-class prostitute; a once-wealthy and influential doctor and his young sister (the character around whom the primary plot arc revolves). The writing was of a quality you rarely encounter in any medium… somehow the characters that Joss Whedon creates have a life and a reality to them that makes him the envy, certainly of this writer, and I suspect many others too.
  • Veronica Mars. Yet more Californian highschool shenanigans. This time though, we dispense with the supernatural and the science fictional. Veronica Mars does to the Whodunnit? genre what Buffy did to horror. The show starts a year after the murder of Veronica’s best friend. A year in which her life has been turned completely upside down. I wouldn’t be doing justice to the gloriously convoluted plot were I to try and summarise it here. Rob Thomas has clearly drawn a lot of inspiration from Raymond Chandler‘s novel The Big Sleep as well as the film based on it, and the whole genre it typified. At the same time, Veronica Mars feels fresh and very relevant… one of the central themes of the first two seasons is the economic inequalities that blight American (and by extension, Western) society… as rigid a class system as has ever existed despite the superficial “anyone-can-make-it” classless nature of America. When Veronica describes her school she points out, “if you go here your parents are either millionaires, or your parents work for millionaires.” Veronica is an exception, and is in the unique position of knowing what it’s like on both sides of the fence. Her father used to be the town Sheriff. Top law man. And power is as good as money. But when her Dad accuses the richest of all the rich men in town of the murder of his own daughter; Veronica’s best friend; he finds himself hounded out of office and becomes a Private Detective to pay the mortgage (and, it turns out, to continue his investigation into what really happened the night of the murder). Philip Marlowe meets Buffy without the monsters. But in a very very good way.
  • Battlestar Galactica. I’m the first to admit that this programme shouldn’t be half as good as it is. I mean, a remake of a dodgy 1970s space opera famed as much for the preening ponces on the flight deck and their godawful cheesey dialogue as for the ludicrous Greek-mythology allusions. But the creators of the show (and it does seem to be the creation of a team, rather than the vision of one person implemented by a team) have clearly taken a leaf or three out of Joss Whedon’s book. The look and feel of the show is straight out of Whedon’s Firefly… a fact that’s very much to its credit. And just as with Buffy, the fantastical setting is used simply as the backdrop against which the writers can explore human relationships and moral problems. And it is when examining ethical and moral issues that Battlestar Galactica is at its best. The first two seasons are excellent television and alone warrant inclusion in this list. However the third season opens with — to my mind — perhaps the six finest episodes of television ever broadcast. Using the science-fiction setting to create the necessary ‘distance’, the programme examines — amongst other things — the potential justifications for terrorist attacks against an occupying force, up to and including suicide bombings. It does so in a shockingly direct and — dare I say it — compassionate way. More than once while watching I was reminded of Talking Heads’ Listening Wind. Can there be higher praise?

If I’ve omitted something obvious, then let me know. But that short list pretty much covers — for me — the literature of television. My stance with regards to that terrible box has mellowed a little over time, and there’s plenty of other things that are occasionally “worth watching” (The Simpsons, The Mighty Boosh, Futurama, etc) but by and large, when you consider the sheer number of hours of programming broadcast in the English language over the decades, it’s a disturbingly short list.

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