Today I had a hug. But not just any hug. I got a hug from the most promiscuous hugger in the world, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, otherwise (thankfully) known as Amma. Amma has hugged (at last estimate) 30 million people. If Planet Earth was a village of two hundred people, one of them would have been hugged by the divine mother.
This is a moderately long article (2000 words). If you’re short on time, you can get straight to the point by going to the summary at the bottom of the page.
The Disaster Paradox
The human cons itself into feeling good about things. This should make us happy – our minds are on our side! They are constantly trying to turn negatives into positives. This is the work of what Daniel Gilbert calls the psychological immune system. The comparison with the physical immune system is a good one: our psychological immune system steps in when something really bad happens and corrects it without us having to do anything consciously.
Sometimes, though, when we’re infected with a minor virus, the immune system doesn’t kick in and we get a cold. Equally, sometimes something minor goes wrong in our life, the psychological immune system doesn’t kick in and we get really annoyed by it. This happens all the time. You might get made redundant: a complete disaster, but you start to rationalise it. It’s an opportunity to develop yourself and you never really liked the company anyway. But if you miss the bus on the way home you get into a stinking fury and it ruins your whole day.
This leads to an interesting paradox. Because mildly bad experiences don’t threaten our psychological health it is sometimes hard to see them positively compared to really awful experiences.
An experiment was done with volunteers who were told that they were joining an exclusive, elite club, but that they had to undergo an initiation which would be an electric shock. There were two sets of volunteers, one set who had a small electric shock and one set who had a massive shock before joining. Interestingly, the people who received the bigger shock preferred the club compared to the people who only had to suffer a small shock. Their psychological immune systems had kicked in at the higher level and had turned it into a positive.
That’s why it’s the small things that really get to us – you can forgive a cheating partner, but not the fact they always leave dirty dishes lying around.
This fact means that bystanders to an insult are often more hurt by it than the actual victims. The bystanders get mildly miffed and don’t trigger the psychological defences, whereas the victim gets badly hurt and looks on the positive side. However, we are not aware of this paradox: we believe that if we were insulted we would feel terrible and that the bystander wouldn’t be too bothered.
Our Defence: Rationalisation
The premise of the good psychological immune system is that it changes the facts to suit your mental state. This is the process of rationalisation. Before you got fired you thought you wanted that job – you did want that job: your brain had rationalised all the bad aspects of the job, leaving you with a feeling of satisfaction. The job was earning you good money and wasn’t too much of a pain in the ass. But as soon as you got fired you realised how awful it was; your brain rationalised in the opposite direction to match your new circumstances and to keep you happy.
How can this be? Simply that, when the psychological immune system is faced with hard evidence opposing the required mental state, it demands more rigorous standards and we criticise that evidence furiously. Forty percent of recently laid-off workers don’t find work again for at least six months, but that figure doesn’t apply to you because you’ve got excellent experience and great references. And when faced with favourable evidence we accept it with very little consideration. Four percent of recently laid-off workers find work that pays better than their old job; you’re easily in that four percent. Our brain agrees to believe what our eyes show us and in return the eyes look for what our brain wants to find. We tackle the bad event with rationalisation, re-framing it in our favour.
But beware: research shows that deliberate attempts delude ourselves will fail. We must feel as if we have come upon the positive feeling honestly, even if subconsciously we are still deluding ourselves. Asking a friend, ‘That job never suited me, did it?’ is an example of a loaded question wrapped up as an honest inquiry. It won’t work unless you’re really gullible.
These rationalisations or explanations are the psychological immune system’s filing mechanism. Explanation closes the file and we cease to respond emotionally to an event that has had closure. Think about the great thrillers in film or literature: there are always plenty of cliff-hangers. You are desperate for the mystery to be solved and, when it is, you get a great dose of pleasure and forget about it, you move onto the next chapter. But if the mystery is never resolved, you keep on thinking about it long after the book’s finished. With explanation we can file the event away. Even fake explanations enable us to move on (as long as we believe in them).
Conversely, the unexplained dominates our mind. If you find out that you have a secret admirer, but you don’t know who, it keeps you buzzing for days – weeks, even! The unexplained is rare and unusual, it captures our attention and we keep thinking about it. This is great if the unexplained is a happy event, like your secret admirer; not so great if the event is a disaster, like your redundancy. If you can explain an event, you can move on from it. However, even in happy circumstances, most people will choose to avoid uncertainty; we are a cautious people and think we’ll prefer guaranteed outcomes.
What Makes Us Feel Regret?
We feel more regret when:
- we suffer because of bad luck rather than through human error;
- we are rejected unanimously by a broad range of people, rather than one judge;
- we learn of alternatives to our choice than when we don’t;
- when our bad choices are unusual rather than conventional;
- when we fail by a narrow margin than a wide margin;
- when we accept bad advice, rather than reject good advice;
- when we don’t act, than when we do (even wrongly).
We feel more regret in these situations because the psychological immune system is less able to rationalise away these occurrences. Bad luck is a poor excuse; we prefer to have someone to blame. But then again, we can’t blame everyone. If you have a choice of a hundred spaghetti sauces and the one you choose is not good then you only have yourself to blame because you could have gone for a different one. If you are doing something that no one else is doing and you fail, you only have yourself to blame. If you come within a millisecond of breaking the county 100m sprint record, then you’ll obsess over all the little things you could have done to get that last fraction of a second. If you accept bad advice then you can only blame yourself for being so stupid to have taken it. Rejecting good advice is much easier to rationalise: maybe it wouldn’t have worked out so well for you, it was still the right decision in the circumstances and so on.
The interesting thing about the last point, however, is that we expect to regret incorrect decisions that we act on more than incorrect decisions where we didn’t act – even though the opposite is true. Daniel Gilbert gives an example with stock shares.
You have shares in Company A and consider moving them to Company B, but don’t. Company A’s shares then lose £1,000 in comparison to B’s. At the same time you have shares in Company C and decide to switch them to Company D, whereupon they instantly lose £1,000 in value compared to Company C.
Which scenario do you instantly feel worse about? The one where you make the switch, right? The one where you took action. But we know that inaction, in the long run, will make you feel more regret than action.
We find it harder to generate a positive view of inaction because we can’t think of all the lessons we learnt from the experience, whereas with action you can always say: ‘Well at least now I know!’ Although our psychological immune system can rationalise an excess of courage better than an excess of cowardice, we will always err on the side of inaction for fear of looking like an idiot.
We are also more likely to look for the positive in things that we’re stuck with. Tests on people on election day show that they prefer their chosen candidate on the way out of the polling booth, compared to on the way in. Siblings, employees and spouses should provide numerous other examples from your own life. You demand higher standards from someone on a first date compared to someone you’ve already said ‘I do’ to. We feel happier when we get a test result saying that we have a potentially deadly genetic defect OR if it says that we don’t – but we feel terrible if the tests are inconclusive. We can’t feel happy until the fate is irrevocably ours.
Our psychological immune system will kick in at a certain level and particularly when we:
- take action;
- are in pain;
- are trapped and have no choice.
Conversely, the psychological immune system is not good at seeing the good side of:
- mildly negative events;
- avoidable events.
But, when given a choice, we do not choose action, serious pain and irreversible commitment over inaction, mildly painful things and freedom. So we are actively choosing the things that will leave us less satisfied in the long run.
However, knowledge is power, so I have a few of suggestions of how to avoid regret. Do not be surprised if you find them hard because they run counter to every instinct you have.
- Don’t think too much, just act – even if you think inaction is wiser.
- Consequences from actions, bad or good, can and will be justified.
- But equally, keep most people on your side – your psychological immune system can’t ignore overwhelming evidence!
- If in doubt, follow conventions – they are more easily justified.
- Don’t be afraid of failing spectacularly – you won’t feel that bad.
- When you fail by a hair’s breadth use it as motivation, try not to think what might have been.
- Don’t fear the catastrophe.
- Don’t fear pain – in fact, seek out real hardship.
- Don’t give yourself a choice, commit.
- Start shopping in smaller shops (or write a specific shopping list before hand).
- Become a determinist (‘There was nothing I could do…’).
- Look for the good (or the diabolically disastrous) in the small things that go wrong.
- Writing about bad events can make you feel better about them. However, logically enough, writing about good events makes you feel worse about them!
I’m sure you can already spot problems with this list (slavery was a convention once and presumably Hitler could have done without some of the consequences of his actions) so remember to do things that you can justify to yourself and, if in doubt, write down this justification in plain, logical language so that later, when you are kicking yourself for investing in paper pickaxes, you can remember what on earth possessed you. At the very least this justification will make it look more like you had no choice anyway so you can just sigh and get on with no regrets.
This article draws heavily on the work of Daniel Gilbert, specifically his book Stumbling On Happiness.
This was originally published on the website, How to be Human. I hope it finds a new audience here.
Why nine? Simply because these nine are the only ones that make all three lists.
Without further messing about, I present the nine best books ever written in the English language, in alphabetical order, by author:
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby (1925)
- Forster, EM: A Passage to India (1924)
- Golding, William: Lord of the Flies (1954)
- Heller, Joseph: Catch-22 (1961)
- Kerouac, Jack: On the Road (1957)
- Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita (1955)
- Orwell, George: 1984 (1949)
- Salinger, J.D.: Catcher in the Rye (1951)
- Spark, Murial: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
I’ve only read seven of these. The ones I’ve missed are A Passage to India and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I shall be catching up as soon as I’ve got through Midnight’s Children, which only made two lists (Time and Random House).
There are plenty of debates and arguments to be had over this list, but the indisputable truth is that these are nine pretty good books.
Here instead are my one-sentence reviews of the seven I have read:
Gatsby: Vacuous morality in the roaring twenties.
Flies: Politics = Let’s pick on piggy.
Catch-22: O what a hilarious war!
Road: Wild unripping hail of road-storm America.
Lolita: The aesthetic mind of the forbidden erotic.
1984: Big brother is still watching us.
Catcher: We were all teenagers once.
Now get reading.
2018 UPDATE: I still haven’t read A Passage to India or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – presumably because I never finished Midnight’s Children.
The only way of dealing with a bull in a china shop is to take him by the horns. I wouldn’t recommend hitting the bull’s eye, though. That’ll just make him angry.
Did the wolf in sheep’s clothing look sheepish? I suppose he looked pretty woolly-headed as well.
I was just editing my latest book (The Soles of My Shoes, out in time for Christmas, I hope), when I noticed something very peculiar. I use the word “just” an awful lot. And I mean an awful lot. Anyway, I spotted this and started editing them away, using instead “simply” or “only” or just deleting them altogether. I thought I’d done a pretty good job getting rid of them and was quite pleased that my eagle editing eye had noticed this oddity. Then I decided to run a word frequency count, just for a laugh – and the full horror of the problem was revealed.
After my purge I was still using 201 instances of the word “just”. In a book of 48,000 words, this comes out at about one “just” per paragraph or about two per page. I then compared it with my previous draft. In that I’d used 213 “justs”. My bloody purge had got rid of just 12.
So I went back and declared a just war. Now I’m down to only 108, about the same number as “around”, “people” and “yeah” (oh yes, this is a book of great eloquence).
This is a valuable lesson for all writers: do you know what words you’re addicted to? I use a word analysis extension for OpenOffice called Linguist to check my writing. YWriter, my favourite writing tool, also has word analysis built in. Use these weapons in your battle against mono-vocabulary and cliché. You might find you’re missing something, like I just was.
Update: “Just” is very common. Apparently there are 3,400 instances per million in British English conversation, second most frequent, after the adverb of place ‘there’ at 3,800. So, in fact, my usage was average. Maybe I should just go through and put them all back in then!
A taste of your own medicine is always a bitter pill to swallow.
There is a lot going on in our lives and our poor little brains are just not big enough to remember every detail of all the things that we experience. So they engage in a bit of reductionism. We remember our birthday party last year as being ‘fun’ or ‘debauched’, we remember the botanical garden at Kew as being ‘lovely’ or ‘green’ and we remember banoffee pie as being ‘yummy’ or ‘sickly’. We might go a bit deeper than this for vivid memories, we might remember (or imagine we remember) particular scenes or words, but most people do not have a photographic memory.
So you might imagine that we are more or less at the mercy of the experience itself as to whether it is a happy memory or a sad memory; an exciting memory or a disappointing memory. If the film was an excruciatingly tedious series of over-blown monologues then you are inevitably going to have a memory filled with disappointment. But you would be wrong.
An experiment was done in 1990 by cognitive psychologists concerning memory and the effect of ‘verbal overshadowing’. A group of volunteers were shown a particular shade of yellow for five seconds. Half the volunteers were then asked to describe the colour they saw verbally for a further thirty seconds; the other half just sat and waited for thirty seconds. Everyone was then asked to pick out the particular colour from a line-up of yellows. 73 percent of the non-describers successfully picked out the correct shade of yellow they had studied just thirty seconds earlier from this line-up. That is quite shocking in itself, but incredibly only 33 percent of the people who had described the shade of yellow successfully picked it out. Their description had interfered with their memory, overwriting what they had experienced and replacing it with something else.
This has fascinating implications for happiness and memory. Imagine if, by a simple process of reprogramming, we could remember that monotonous film as a great occasion, one that made us ecstatically happy, rather than bitterly disappointed. All it would take would be a chat over a glass of wine afterwards with a friend, describing all the good bits, all the bits you enjoyed – even if it was just the fact that you had a good nap during the tedious monologues.
But there is also another implication contained in my first sentence: there is a lot going on in our lives and our brains are not suited to remembering fine details of our experiences. They want to reduce things down to simple ‘good/bad’ adjectives. But if we take time over our experiences, being careful to process them in a ‘happy’ way rather than just experiencing them and automatically assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ then we will be more able to generate happy memories. This explains why some people just seem to be happy all the time and others just seem to be permanently annoyed by everything: these people might just have got into the habit of assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ more often.
So perhaps the solution is to try and do less and concentrate more on the things that we do experience. Slow down and think about your experience for happiness. Instead of going to Kew Gardens and rushing around trying to see everything, go to just one of the greenhouses and spend all day studying a particular species of plant. By doing things slowly you will remember more and be able to draw more happiness out of each experience. You would have a surfeit of adjectives for that plant, not just ‘pretty’ or ‘withered’ and thus you would be more involved in your own experience.
This need not be the Zen advice that it appears to be. I recently took a long distance bicycle ride to Bordeaux and find that the memories of it are still incredibly vivid and a constant well-spring of happiness. It’s not as though I was picking a blade of grass and contemplating it for hours on end, but just by progressing through France at a leisurely 10 mph I was more deeply involved in my own experience.
How to make happy memories:
1) Self-modify your experiences by discussing them and framing them in a positive light.
2) Broaden your memory’s record of an event by spending longer over it, relishing the moment.
Give it a try today, after all: what price happiness?
This was originally published in 2009 on the (now defunct) How to be Human site. I hope it finds a new audience here.
You’ve got time on your hands so take it. Serve it. Play for it. Pass it. Bide it if you must – it’s on your side, after all. Have the time of your life.
But beware. Keep a close eye on the time because, before you know it, time is out of mind, it’s running out – it flies, even! Suddenly you’ll have to march just to keep up with the times. If you possibly can, stay ahead of time because, if you lose it, first you’ll be living on borrowed time – and then you’ll be dead on time.
Did the man who cracked a nut with a sledgehammer also blame his tools?
Crippling taxes are a lame excuse.
Please be warned: this is a lengthy post (3000 words), but it contains all the fears and joys of my experience of the ten-day Vipassana meditation course at Dhamma Dipa. I hope you find it valuable.
How I felt at Dhamma Dipa: A Summary.
Ten days of renunciation, renunciation of all the things I listed here, some I was glad to be rid of, some I was uncomfortable without. The purpose of the renunciation was to clear space for meditation, for the serious hard work of meditation, living the life of a monk for ten days. All my basic needs were comfortably covered, but I found that I was still not content. Food, water and shelter were not sufficient for me. What could I possibly still need after my basic needs were covered? I craved stimulation. I found I craved three big stimulations: mental, physical (including sexual) and social. I suppose there are other stimulations, such as psychotic and spiritual, but I do not covet these stimulations in the ‘outside world’ so I did not miss them at Dhamma Dipa.
Social and physical stimulation are expressly forbidden on the ten-day course and punished with expulsion (after warnings) so I could only indulge in mental stimulation. This is the last thing that another person can control. Physical and social activity can be observed, monitored and punished. But no one can observe my mind without pinning me down and sticking electrodes onto my skull. So I found solace from the boredom in my own mind. The evening discourses at Dhamma Dipa were the only brain-food that my poor mind found in the outside world so I turned inwards, naturally enough, and found that my internal world was a vast, unexplored territory. I spent hours and hours when I should have been meditating just going over small areas of this territory, discovering, rediscovering. The course was well worth attending just for this precious opportunity for self-exploration, even if I found the meditation hard going.
So why did I find the meditation at Dhamma Dipa hard going?
1) The physical pain was unexpectedly hard.
2) I’m not used to doing one thing repetitively for up to twelve hours a day.
3) I don’t like being told what to do and particularly when I’ve got to do it.
4) I was not ready for the hard work and mental focus that meditation demands. My mind was much more eager to explore itself.
5) I found certain aspects of the Vipassana meditation technique contradictory, confusing and frightening.
Now, numbers 1) – 4) are all about me. It would be unfair to judge Vipassana for these personal limitations. However, number 5) is more serious; an ideological barrier is more significant than a physical or even a mental barrier.
So what did I find objectionable about the technique at Dhamma Dipa?
1) False scientific claims.
2) Rites, rituals and holy men.
4) Fear of brain-washing.
1) The technique was repeatedly described as ‘scientific, rational and logical.‘ It was not. There were elements that had their own internal logic, correct, but the premises they were founded on were neither scientific nor rational. For example, the idea that the pains or sensations of pleasure that you feel in the body are ‘Sankharas bubbling up to the surface,‘ and that by simply observing them and not reacting they would ‘pass away,‘ and not trouble you again is absurd. Equally the idea that these Sankharas are the fuel that is required for mind and matter to ‘push the life force into the next life‘ is absurd. I need not explain why this is not scientific or even rational. It is prima facie absurd.
Unfortunately for logic, reason and science, there was a text-book religious escape clause built into the Vipassana technique: if you don’t agree with any of the theory, that doesn’t matter – ignore it, forget it, pay no attention. If the meditation works for you, that’s fine, and you might find that after meditating for longer you realise that these elements of the theory are in fact the truth also. I suppose anyone who puts a serious amount of time into something is going to believe more and more. I would suggest that the more ‘Christian’ you become, the more rational the raising of Lazarus becomes.
2) The method was also held up as free from all dogma, rite and ritual and yet, at the end of every meditation sitting, there would be the repetition of the phrase ‘Bhavatu sabba mangalam,‘ to which the response was ‘Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu,‘ and then a little bow (if you wanted). The teacher assured us that these were merely kind words of encouragement and that the response was simply thanking the teacher for his teaching. Fine. But why in this language, the dead language of Gautama the Buddha? Why not in my language? It reminded me of the Catholic church, with mass called in Latin. The sittings also start and frequently end with some chanting, also in Pali, this language I don’t understand. If this isn’t ritual, I don’t know what is. Metta meditation, which takes place at the end of a sitting of Vipassana and involves filling the mind and body with thoughts and feelings of goodwill for all beings, struck me simply as prayer: ‘May all beings share in my happiness.‘ Furthermore, at the end of the discourses, the teacher raises his hand and speaks some words of what I can only call blessing. It looks like he’s Jesus or something. I was not impressed; in fact I was scared.
3) Some aspects of the egocentricity in the technique were positive, like the belief that you should focus on changing your perception of the outside world rather than trying to force other people to change. But the egocentricity went further. We were urged to spread our experience of dhamma, the law of nature, to other people. This was essentially a call to proselytise on behalf of the Vipassana technique, which is the only true course to knowledge of dhamma and real enlightenment. We were urged to use our knowledge of dhamma for the good of the world. I found this frightening. Perhaps I am a moral relativist, but I find it hard to guarantee my good judgement in all cases, even if I were an enlightened being. The technique seemed to breed the sort of arrogance you see in religions: I know I’m right, let me help you to better yourself by teaching you my wonderful technique.
A development of this egocentricity was the idea of intentionality. According to Gautama the Buddha, intention of action is everything. If the mind is pure (ensured by following the sila, five moral precepts) then the action will be pure, even if it turns out to be a wrong or harmful action. Only from an impure mind can impure actions follow. In other words, honest mistakes happen, but it doesn’t matter too much, you can make up for them. Flip this around and you could say that unintentionally good actions from an impure mind are also mistakes and shouldn’t be counted as good.
Unfortunately, I disagree entirely. I happen to believe that hypocrisy is fine. We are all hypocrites (except perhaps Gautama the Buddha) – there’s no getting away from that, so why not fake it until we make it? I would argue that, as long as the action is good, the intention scarcely makes a difference. If the action is bad then a good intention only ameliorates things for the victim, doesn’t it? It’s mitigation in your defence and doesn’t necessarily lead to forgiveness and restitution.
For all we know, the intentions of Hitler may have been good. Surely every human on the planet believes in their own right action, we all feel sure our intentions are good. But the actions of Hitler were, by general consensus, bad. His (hypothetical) good intentions do not make the suffering of the victims any more bearable. Similarly, no one actually cares if the intentions are bad, as long as the actions are good. I could do something solely for my own personal gain and only inadvertently do endless good to others. I don’t believe that makes my action bad.
But perhaps Gautama the Buddha would say that your good action with bad intent would make you feel bad, that it would make you miserable. In other words, that, while intention might not matter from the perspective of the victim of the action, it does from the perspective of the perpetrator. But I would argue that good intentions only ameliorate the situation for the perpetrator also. If you are the one who pulls the lever that kills six people when you thought that it would save them, you are still overwhelmed with remorse, you go over and over the action again and again trying to work out if you could have done anything. Everyone may well say that there is nothing you could have done, that it wasn’t your fault – but still you killed six people. If you have bad intentions behind good actions then you might feel like a fraud, but good intentions behind bad actions might make you feel like an idiot, a blunderer.
4) We were asked, not only to renounce physical comforts, mental props and all kinds of things, but it seemed we were also asked to leave our brains at the door. We were told that ‘In order to give the technique a fair trial,’ we should give ourselves entirely to the method, to work hard and to focus for ten days solid. After the ten days we would be free again, we could throw it all in the garbage can if we wanted. But to give up your mind for even ten days is a huge commitment. I’m pretty sure I could make anyone believe in the power of writing if they gave themselves to me for ten days and worked on nothing but writing for twelve hours a day. It’s nothing to do with the wonder of writing (or plumbing or painting or accountancy, all of which would benefit from 120 hours hard practice), it’s to do with the sheer time commitment by the student.
This ten-day commitment at Dhamma Dipa was then coupled with a further commitment to continue to practise at home for two hours a day for a year. Again, if you do anything two hours a day for a year, you’ll sure as hell believe in it! You’d get good. The more you invest in something, the more your clever brain will squeeze out of it and, crucially, the more the brain will ascribe value to the activity. Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I’m not saying it is a good thing. It is just a fact. Vipassana doesn’t seem to do anything particularly harmful to its students or to the people around the student. It’s hard to disagree with the ethics of Vipassana (although I’ll try, later) and equanimity seems a pretty harmless life-goal (if a little dull). But why should I help spread this particular meme?
Unfortunately the Vipassana meme can also be addictive, ironic as it is supposedly about freeing the mind and the body from craving. My room-mate at Dhamma Dipa was addicted to meditation. I know this because he told me. He was upset on the last night that it was all over, another person in the hall was in tears. A co-meditator warned me about meditation becoming an ego trip, as it had become for him some years previously. Several people commented that either people go once and then never again or they get really into it. A young guy told me that you need a girlfriend who is into it otherwise they don’t understand when you don’t react to their love or their anger – they think you don’t love them.
Isn’t this the meme multiplying itself very successfully? But does this addiction matter if it makes people happy? There is an element of truth in the idea that happiness comes from simply committing to a life philosophy or a life goal. We see it all the time in people who have found Jesus (sorry to pick on Christianity, I use it only because it is the predominant background religion in the UK and my use is illustrative).
Perhaps it’s just that I don’t want to commit to a life philosophy; I enjoy learning as I go, trying new things, building my own system. That is the game of life for me. I don’t believe in any after-life, therefore I have no need for any system of getting there (or not getting there). All I need is something that will make me happy here and now and that will make other people happy (which seems to be what makes me happy). I am perfectly willing to concede that this purpose could well be served by Vipassana, but I prefer the liberality of my own vision. There are plenty of people in the world who share my ideas, including students of Vipassana. The main advantage (some could see it as a disadvantage – it involves thinking) is that I’m open to change, Vipassana isn’t.
5) I don’t like the inflexibility of Vipassana. The first precept, for example, is: ‘To abstain from killing any being.‘ This translates (in real terms: no human likes killing things) into vegetarianism (and not squishing bugs). But really, science has moved on. Plants are no longer the dumb biomass that people thought 2,500 years ago. They are sentient beings just like you and I. The moral justification for vegetarianism on these grounds is shot to flames. So too, therefore, is this precept, but they aren’t about to change it, are they? Of course not: the five precepts are fundamental and immutable.
I’m not saying that you can’t justify vegetarianism on moral or ethical grounds, just not on these moral grounds. You could, for example, argue that vegetarianism is the least disruptive diet to the ecology of the planet, given our current farming methods and our current population. Fine (but note that these conditions on the ethical rectitude of vegetarianism are subject to change), but you cannot justify it on the grounds of the immorality of killing any beings. It is this inflexibility that leads to dogma and unthinking. That is what scares me. And of course, once you’ve opened up this precept to examination, then all kinds of questions raise themselves, real questions that people have been facing up to for millennia, such as: when is killing acceptable?
So what did I like about the method at Dhamma Dipa?
You may have got the impression that, from a theoretical point of view, this ten-day course was a complete waste of my time. Fine: I may have learnt a lot about my own mind, but I could have done that without the Vipassana education on top, couldn’t I? Yes, but I must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There were a plenty of theoretical points that I did appreciate in Vipassana and several very important lessons that I learnt, more ammunition in my arsenal against the demons, devils and dragons that we face in life.
1) Everything is changing. One can witness this by observing sensations on the body, by observing the feelings of pain or pleasure that arise and then pass away after some time. But the idea goes much much deeper than sensations on the body. Every situation we face, every being on the planet, every molecule is in a state of constant flux. This concept helps to develop equanimity, which can help you combat stress, help you make better decisions or simply make you happier. For example, if you have money problems, then understand that this is just a situation and that it will change over time. Sometimes you will have money, sometimes you won’t. You can then use this equanimity to develop a calm and logical plan for saving money or for earning more – or for deciding that money isn’t important to you.
2) It is the sensations that we feel on the body that provoke disgust or pleasure and that lead to our reactions of aversion or clinging. Understand that it is not the object out there in the world that causes your reaction, but the patterns of the mind that interpret how your body feels. With this in mind, it is much easier to resist the temptation to buy that videophone that you know will only cause you pain when it breaks or when it is stolen, that you know will only cause you to spend hours on Facebook when you should be working, that you know will only take you further away from real social interactions with the people you love. Equally it makes the thought of cleaning the toilet a much happier prospect: that disgusting stain on the bowl is simply that. It need not provoke aversion; perhaps it is something to be enjoyed instead. Enjoy it for what it is: just another object in the world, like a deer in the snow or that scene in There’s Something About Mary or a kiss from a lover – nothing to feel aversion towards or craving for.
3) Hard, hard work is the secret to success. The teacher had a mantra that is a great foundation for everything we do in life: ‘Work diligently, patiently and persistently, and continuously. You are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.’ It is not about sitting around and waiting for enlightenment (or whatever); it is about getting off (or on) your arse and doing some hard bloody work. We all think we’re perfect so the first step is to realise that isn’t true and to work hard at being better.
The heart of all disappointment is expectation. The same is true of travel. It is particularly acute with travel, however, because we are all the time harried into building expectations of a destination. Guide-books and travel articles in newspapers urge us to make itineraries of places to go, places to see, things to do, things to eat, all of which add up to make ‘the experience.’ Very often we already know what these things look like from photographs or videos; very rarely will we be surprised and delighted by some reality of the object that was hidden in the description in the guide-book or the photograph in the magazine. I remember being a bit underwhelmed by the Pyramids of Giza when I first visited them. I remember thinking that they were like the photographs, but less beautiful, more uncomfortable and a lot of effort under the blazing sun.
But we cannot avoid expectations. That would be ridiculous. No one would bother travelling at all if it weren’t for the expectation of something. So how to travel with expectation, but without disappointment? I suppose one way would be to have low expectations, but it is very hard for us humans to manage our expectations, especially excitable optimists like myself. So what can I do?
1) Avoid itineraries.
Remember that whatever is on an itinerary will usually be the default tourist option and thus the most boring thing you can do at that particular destination. You will share the space with hundred or thousands of other tourists and, unless your particular interest is the ethnography of tourists, then that is pretty boring. Don’t just tick off a selection of sights that represent, say, ‘London’ to a collection of guidebooks. What is ‘London’? I’d say that it is an amorphous, phatasmorgorical amalgamation of random events. It certainly isn’t an itinerary.
2) Travel more realistically.
What do I mean by ‘realistically’? I mean that travel in the olden days used to be for a clearly defined purpose. People would travel to market or on a pilgrimage or in a gold rush. Nowadays people seem to travel just to see ‘London’, which as we have seen, doesn’t exist. A more realistic example of travel would be, not to try to see a ‘London’, but to go to see a real and concrete object. For example, the paintings of Rothko in the Tate Modern or The Phantom of the Opera at the theatre or the Rosetta stone in the British Museum. These purpose-driven excursions may well disappoint, but the disappointment will be real and directed at the object, rather than the destination of the imagination. Also don’t try to travel in time. You cannot go to London to try to see Dickens’ London or London in the time of Boudicea. It doesn’t exist. Which leads me on to:
3) Treat the destination with respect, as a living, breathing place.
Do not treat it as a museum or a gallery, but as a town or a country; a place of the world that will continue to be a place of the world until such a time as the world disintegrates. It has a past and a future. Do not expect the past and the future to be as you see it today. Do not expect to see Oliver Cromwell at the Tower or Oliver Twist running down the back streets round London Bridge. The people you do meet have nothing in common with the past and are all working towards their own future, different again. As a frequent traveller to Egypt, I have seen this mistake happen again and again with travellers (and with myself over the years). The past is not a country.
4) Travel to learn.
Don’t travel to see ‘London’ and don’t expect anything of ‘London’. That would be to travel with a closed mind. Travel instead with an open mind, with a mind willing to learn. Travel instead for what London can teach you. Be less selfish with your travel: you sure as hell won’t leave any impact on London, but what impact will London leave on you? Listen, look and let it work.
I bet the Trojans wish they’d looked a gift horse in the mouth.
Was it putting the horse before the cart that upset that applecart?
What should I do if the apple of my eye is the bad apple that spoiled the barrel?
- Lived in silence.
- Lived in an all-male community where the loudest sound were the birds (until the Harrier Jets passed over).
- Saw rabbits before dawn.
- Saw not just every sunset and sunrise, but every moonset and moonrise.
- Watched a nest of spiders entrap their prey around a light. With our vow of no killing, there was no sweeping away of cobwebs.
- Lots of walking, slow and fast. I used the field as a clock sometimes, 6 minutes to make a circuit.
- Lots of sleeping (when I shouldn’t have been).
- Lots of sitting crosslegged, something I hadn’t done since primary school.
- Lots of pain.
- Lots of thinking. I spent a lot of time going over my memories and felt a deep appreciation for all the people I’ve met and ridden with.
- Lost any reasonable idea of social graces and personal appearance. Scoffed food, nails long and grubby, beard shabby and dandruff all over the place.
- Watched a bee pick pollen from a blue flowered plant.
- Ate gorgeous vegetarian food and spectacular breakfasts.
- Meditated (a bit).
- I learnt a bit about myself, about how frustrated I get with petty annoyances, how bored I get without mental stimulation.
- Sat in a hall with 120 other people and listened to the sounds of coughing, sneezing, sniffing, shifting, scratching, swallowing, farting, breathing, crying.
- Laughed hard at the teacher’s hilarious discourses in the evenings (the only intellectual stimulation allowed).
- Heard an owl hooting in the night.
- Heard foxes screeching.
- Woke up and got up at 4am everyday – or before.
- Had crazy cool dreams.
- Created an aversion to the sound of a gong.
- Got paranoid that my co-meditators hated me. The slightest body-language snub was a cause for boiling paranoia.
- Listened to the most appalling chanting noises, sounding like the final death rattle of our teacher, and still kept my equanimity (almost).
- Spent a lot of time looking at my clock, counting down the minutes and the days.
- Felt a surge of joy every morning to be out in the cold and sometimes the misting rain and to be looking out over the valley and the woods, out into the silence.
I just got back from a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation at Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire. I thought it might be interesting for people to get an idea about the sort of things that we got up to down there, but first, here’s a list of the things that I didn’t get up to.
- I did not see god, get converted or become enlightened.
- No meat-eating.
- No women, no children.
- No speaking (hardly) – in fact no communication at all, not even body language or a smile was allowed.
- No intoxicants.
- No caffeine.
- No reading (except for a few instructions posted on the boards).
- No writing.
- No clothes washing – or any other normal household chores.
- No exercise except walking.
- No email or internet.
- No telephone.
- No music.
- No games or other entertainment.
- No travel.
- No spectacles (except to watch the evening discourses).
- No refined sugar (perhaps a little in the desserts, but not much).
- No proper meals after about 11.30am.
- Only a five or six hours sleep a night.
- No news or information, no radio, newpapers etc..
- No solitude (really, not much).
- No freedom – the timetable was rigid.
- No days off.
- No difficulties at all – meals provided, bed provided, nothing to worry about, nothing could go wrong.
- No money.
- Nothing in my pockets except a few tissues and a clock.
- No stealing.
- No killing.
- No lying (I don’t think I lied – perhaps I did, not sure).
- No physical contact with anyone else.
- No contact with advertising! That was a good one.
Does the cat that got the cream also have nine lives? Or are his cholesterol levels too high?
Is it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle if its back has already been broken by the straw? And is this the same needle that was found in a haystack? Is this also where all that back-breaking straw came from?
After twelve hours of watching films about bicycles, what is the feeling I’m left with?
Well, apart from a blinking aversion to light and cramp in my legs, I feel like I’m beginning to understand the truth about bicycles and that truth can be summed up in one word:
|A Swarovski Crystal Low-Rider. Yeah, that’s freedom.|
Sorry it’s not more profound than that, but do let me expound a little.
Freedom isn’t just feeling the wind in your hair, although there was plenty of that on show today and throughout the festival. Freedom is the power to be self-reliant, to unbend the yoke that ties us to cars and lorries. There was a short film about the Pedal Co-Op in Philadelphia in the US. They use long trailers attached to their bikes to make green deliveries around the city. For every forty trips they make with these trailers, that’s one truck off the road. It gave me the feeling that anything is possible with pedal power. Why shouldn’t we trade trucks for trailers for use in the local economy?
There was a great little piece about freedom from stereotyping and night buses (I may be reading too much into this one) called Heels on Wheels, in which a bunch of girls go out for the night on bicycles. Why not? I don’t approve of them drinking heavily before setting off, but otherwise, this is a great advert for people using bikes under any circumstance. You don’t have to turn up sweaty, take your time, cycle slow and safe. And so our girls get to the club with all make-up perfectly applied and not a hair out of place. But then the film goes and ruins it all by having one of the bikes stolen. What is it about stealing bikes on today’s program? The only message that comes out of this is: don’t bother, mate, it’ll only get stolen anyway. A bit annoying.
But I love the freedom of Project N. A bunch of kids break into an abandoned gymnasium, set up a bunch of obstacles, drink some beer, roll some spliffs and have some damn good fun. It looks pretty cool to me; but then the police come and shut it down. A bit annoying as well. You can get a taste of it here: http://vimeo.com/10033943.
There was more emphasis on fictional stories in today’s program. The highlight of which was Bicycle Thieves, a classic Italian film from 1948. It’s a film about freedom and poverty. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but the protagonist needs his bike to do his work and when it gets stolen he is driven to further and further extremes of desperation. Sample quote:
There’s a cure for everything – except death!
Don’t worry, be happy (or miserable, like the end of this film).
Jitensha was a Japanese story which reminded me of a Murakami plotline. A loner quits his job because he got punched in the face by a colleague. He cycles around a bit, looking miserable. Then he gets his bike seat nicked. Over the course of the next few days more parts get stolen until our hero just sticks a piece of paper onto the remains of the bike saying, ‘Dear Thief, please take the whole thing.’ The next day, he is surprised to find a reply fixed to the bike, which says, ‘Thank you for your kind offer, but I am not a thief. Sincerely, God.’ When there is nothing left but the bicycle bell, God leaves a package with details of where all the parts are hidden with the message: ‘This is the world in which you live.’ And so our hero rediscovers his sense of purpose and on the way connects with all sorts of people, from a young family to a gang of youths and a street hawker. Eventually he finds the last part, the saddle, with the help of an old man who is using a metal detector on the beach. When the detector goes off, our hero runs over and starts madly digging and then uncovers it, shouting:
‘I found it, I found it!’
‘What did you find?’ the old man asks, meaningfully.
‘My bicycle seat.’
The old man looks at the saddle and says, ‘Sometimes you have to rely on others to find what you are looking for.’
I don’t know why this is profound, but I’m sure it is.
The evening program had some pretty cool features in it, but if I have to watch one more old man welding, I think I’m going to go insane. Seven – I’ve just counted them – that is the number of films which featured old men welding.
Note to film-makers: there is nothing dramatic about welding unless it is with laser beams and they are travelling very slowly between James Bond’s legs towards his groin.
I’m sure it looks great on film and I appreciate that there isn’t very much dramatic at all about building bikes, but please: no more welding! I kept myself mildly entertained by noting the difference in safety precautions between the US (visor, goggles and gloves), The Netherlands (welding box, like it was radioactive or something) and Japan (bare hands and dark glasses). Having said that, the film about Dario Pegoretti was pretty good actually, once I had finished cursing about the welding. It was pretty good because it was about a real human being who spent most of his time swearing and talking about girls. I learnt that luomar meant a heap of shit in Italian, for example. In fairness, the last of the welding stories was also bearable, but only because of these quotes:
The bicycle is two wheels, a chain and a brake; the bicycle is not the machine. Man is the machine.
and, in allusion to bicycles:
Sometimes ugly girls are beautiful – and all the beautiful ones are beautiful, right?
Can you tell he was Italian too?
But the high point of the day, really, was the sheer exuberant joy of On Time, a blaxploitation flick from 1985, the first big hit for director Ari Taub. Our hero is a bike messenger who has to deliver a package to an address in New York for a 2pm sharp deadline. It’s pretty dramatic, and he ends up with his bike in bits and getting chased by some brothers who think he’s a thief. But when he finally delivers the package, right on time, it explodes. But the real hero of the film was the theme tune, which played pretty much throughout the whole thing:
The wheel’s are turning
And your body’s burning
Meet the deadline everyday
Nothing’s gonna get in our way!
You can check out a preview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sWZBb0xwpc – but it ends, tantalisingly, just before the song kicks in.
You know what, I’m going to miss these films, but at least I didn’t miss them. I can only say: you’d better go next year.
Phew, tough day in the life of a bike film reviewer. Not as tough as for Abdul Aziz, an Afghani asylum seeker who found out today that he is going to be deported on the 10.00am flight from London on Tuesday. Thanks to the new government, there’s a bit of a clear-out of left-over Afghanis going on at the moment. We don’t want them anymore, apparently, so we’re freighting them out at the rate of one flight every week, Tuesdays at 10.00am.
‘What’s that got to do with bikes?’ You may very well ask. Well, Abdul Aziz has been one of the beneficiaries of a wicked little scheme in Bristol called The Bristol Bike Project (all the creative genius has gone into the project, not the name), which takes bikes no one wants anymore and pairs them with people no one wants anymore. After a spot of repair, these bikes are given to the asylum seekers, who struggle to survive on the £35 of Tesco vouchers they’re given every week. I mean, can you imagine doing ALL your shopping at Tesco? Complete nightmare. I can give you an example from my own life only today: shopping around for some patisseries, I discovered that Tesco Express do Pain au Raisin for 84p whereas Sainsbury’s do 2 for £1! That’s the sort of value you need when you’re on £35 a week, trust me.
I should also mention that these vulnerable men, women and kids (remember, they left their countries because they were going to be killed, dude) are not allowed to work by the government here. What? And we call them scroungers? Why not let them do something useful and earn a bit of money then? Because doing something useful is a primary human need; without feeling useful a little part of us dies and we do stupid stuff. So a lot of these asylum seekers get involved with voluntary groups, just to feel useful, you know? But there’s a problem, of course: Tesco don’t do buses (yet). How the fuck are these people supposed to get around? How the fuck are they supposed to get to English classes or to their asylum interviews or to their voluntary work – or just to fucking Tesco’s for that matter?
More than the practicality of riding a bike, though, is the spiritual element of unshackling the feet from walking for the asylum seekers:
I feel free on my bike. Just me and the road and my bike.
I feel like an eagle, like a bird…I feel freedom and peace…and no problem for me like I had before.
So hats off to the Bristol Bike Project.
That was actually the last film of Program 4; don’t worry, I won’t go on like this for all of them. There was Ben Hurt, bike chariot combat in Portland, Oregon; there was a 25 metre chain reaction like those car adverts, but this time with bike parts in Japan; there was papergirl delivering art to unsuspecting strangers in Berlin; there was a day in the life of a paperboy in Italy; there was a bike kitchen doing repairs using the alternative economy in Vienna; there was some nutty German woman doing handstands on her bike in Beijing and there was a 62 year old biologist who recently started to commute to work in Budapest (he takes secateurs with him to tend the cycle paths – ahhh, what a nice old man).
So that was all pretty heart warming (apart from the bit about Abdul Aziz getting deported, Tuesday, 10.00am, but I won’t go on about it). Program 5, in contrast, was pretty vacuous. It was all either arty or enthusiasty. I overheard some friends leaving the show, one saying to another, ‘…and Katie forced us to watch some bike geek-fest…’ and Katie replied, hurt, ‘ – it wasn’t geeky!’ Oh yes it was, Katie, oh yes it was.
But we were back on form for the evening show, imaginatively titled Program 7. It was a sell-out for starters and we all got into the swing of things with a little call and response:
RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROOM: Bikes!
LEFT SIDE OF THE ROOM: Rock!
ALL TOGETHER: Biriokekess…
Unfortunately, the ‘show-piece’ of the evening was a film about the wankers I mentioned yesterday – you remember the guys who cycle like idiots around New York? Well, it turns out they’re assholes as well as wankers. I don’t understand, I really don’t. They race around cities: fine. They don’t care if they kill themselves: fine. The problem I have is that if / when they kill themselves, they’ll almost certainly be using someone else to do it. Just smacking the road isn’t likely to be their demise, no. It’ll be some poor sod they’ve dashed in front of and he’ll have their blood all over his windscreen. Nothing he could have done about it, but there it is.
It seems particularly perverse to have this film showing at the BFF considering that it was started after the founder got hit by a bus! If that seems perverse, then my mind does half-pipes when I see that this film was sponsored by the BFF itself. I don’t get it. Perhaps, if the BFF is all about publicising cycling and raising awareness of cycling to motorists, then getting smashed up is about the best form of deterrent there is. For sure it gets headlines, for sure it scares the crap out of motorists and for sure they’ll look twice next time (if they’re not in therapy, that is). That’s the only logic I can see. If that isn’t the logic, then it really is just self-indulgent bullshit, suicidal wankdom. A quote from the guy who films these ‘Alleycats’:
People think we’re crazy or reckless or lucky –
No, mate, we think you’re wankers. Arrogant wankers. I sort of feel like I should be checking this guy’s Wikipedia page on a regular basis, just so that when he dies I can write on the bottom: ‘Dude had it coming.’
This bike was my father’s. He raced on it in a qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics. He passed away three years ago, but before he died we raced together, him and I. He was old but still he beat me! So now every time I ride my bike I feel like I am chasing him. I am still chasing my father.
Maybe we should all jump on our bikes and chase after that plane that’s taking Abdul Aziz away, Tuesday at 10.00am.
I have the pleasure of covering the Bicycle Film Festival at The Barbican for the London Student. Yes, I am still a student (technically). This means I get to watch films I would never have even considered paying money for. In fact, I thought I’d spend most of the evening looking around at a half-empty auditorium wondering what kind of person paid to watch pedals turning on a big screen. I suspected that I would be sitting with various members of the lower strata of the London press and that the sounds of our biros clicking in and out would be the most interesting thing happening in the room.
Nothing is impossible; you’ve just got to keep coming back to it.
If I die with a body that isn’t completely wrecked I’ll feel like I’ve wasted it.
- Most of your time will be spent going uphill (without bending the laws of physics – work it out.)
- There’s a limit to how wet you can get.
- If you just keep going, wheel by wheel, you’ll get there in the end.
Not long ago I went to a meeting of Palestine activists, held in a community hall in West London.
A young man reads out a statement from Leila Khaled, who could not be with us today because the Israeli government wouldn’t let her travel. I’ve been to a few of these activist meetings and she can never make it. She’s a member of the Palestinian National Council, but Israel know her power as a hero of the Palestinian resistance movement after her involvement in the 1969 hijackings. What the Israeli government don’t realise is that her continued suppression only increases the fervour of our sense of injustice. The young man’s hands shake holding the paper, his voice shakes with her words also.
Then we settle down and watch a film documentary about the Raytheon 9, anti-war activists from Derry who occupied and wrecked the Raytheon arms factory in Derry. Raytheon supplied missiles to the Israeli army during their invasion of Lebanon in 2006. The film had pub-interviews with the activists in jocular reminiscence of their hour of heroism, pints of stout in hand. I don’t know if they’re idiots or heroes. They fought against the injustice, but what good did they do? The documentary mentioned the difficulty of attracting business investment in the Derry area after the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland. There was a concern that Raytheon would leave, damaging the economy of Northern Ireland and risking future investment. However, Raytheon are still there and Israel still get their missiles.
The Raytheon 9 were expecting to get thrown out of the building by the police, but they weren’t. The police thought they were armed and so called in a specialist unit. When this police squad – with guns and gas masks – burst in to where the activists had blockaded themselves, the Raytheon 9 were sitting around playing cards. They were arrested and taking to court, of course, but the judge ruled in the activists favour. It is not a crime to use illegal means to attempt to prevent a greater crime. Tony Benn came on, saying that this ruling shows that there is no moral obligation to obey a law contrary to your conscience. Mark Steele came on, saying that this was a glorious victory and that the worst thing for an activist is to feel alone, to feel that you are banging your head against a wall and not getting through to anyone.
There is raucous laughter and cheers and applause at the film’s end. It’s like watching a bloodsport; we’re tourists at a bullfight, with front row seats.
Next, there’s a panel of activists and they all have their speeches to make. But I’m losing interest with their fine words and raised voices. One of the activists is a captivating young woman. I stare despite myself: spectacular hair, rings of blonde, somehow brown, syrup, honey, gold, framing a white blushed face, perched on a chair, chin lifted, showing the delicate sinews of her neck. If she catches me staring I would have violated her image. My stares are not lascivious, but aesthetic; she is Rembrandtian. Fine arched eyebrows, a curl of gold from her ear, lashes in synchronisation. What makes a person like that join a movement like this? So young, so beautiful? What makes anyone stand up and fight?
I am not convinced by these speakers. Why? They talk of injustice, I do not doubt that there is injustice, but I struggle to whip up any enthusiasm. Is it simply my growing boredom as the evening wears on? Is it because I am unconvinced by the efficacy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement? Is it because I still see things from the point of view of the government, am I too conservative? Should I have more courage to stand up and fight the wrongs of others? Or am I reticent because I don’t trust these speakers?
I suspect some of the panellists to be fantasists. One of them tells a story about being asked questions in English by Israeli guards and answering in Arabic. The Israeli guards then spoke to each other in English, saying, ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s just an Arab.’ Why would they speak together in English? I know the power of activism. I’ve seen people charged with their own sudden self-importance, overwhelmed by the feeling of power, of rebellion. I’ve felt it, I was an important person, I was a hero. But what do our actions mean, actually? Nothing at all. The feeling of power is a delusion, a luxury we feel as privileged British passport holders. Another panellist refers to the ‘millions’ of people killed by Zionism. This is a heinous falsehood. A high estimate would have 80,000 casualties in war since 1948 and perhaps another 15,000 during al-Nakba. That is a long way less than millions, even if you were to add on the number of people killed in custody by the Israeli police force. I’m sorry, but fantasy makes your argument significantly less convincing.
There is time at the end of the panel for questions. It degenerates into squabbles between the organisers of the event and the Stop the War campaign, who resent the chair’s anecdotal story that he had to wait forty-five minutes on a march to get help after he was detained by the police force. This forty-five minute claim dominates the questions and the discussions for the rest of the evening, despite some people desperately calling for unity and to focus on the injustice of the Israelis and the sufferings of the Palestinians. It reminds me of another forty-five minute claim that twisted headlines.
At the end of the meeting, a young woman stands up and declares that she is from Gaza herself. Suddenly the hall erupts into cheers and applause, people lean over to hug her and to shake her hand, to pat her on the back. The air is of that surrounding a celebrity: at last, a real victim!
Ezekiel is not an idiot. He is very well qualified and holds a position of responsibility at one of the more respectable IT services corporations. He has a company car. Ezekiel is not an idiot.
But he’s troubled. It should just be lunch, but something has disrupted his meal. Ezekiel is eating a bag of mixed nuts – or rather – he was eating a bag of mixed nuts. Instead, he is looking down at his palm, trying to identify his food. He knows from the list of ingredients that this bag of mixed nuts includes peanuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecan nuts and almonds. Using a process of elimination he thought he had identified them successfully, that’s a peanut, that’s a pecan, that’s a hazelnut and that’s surely an almond.
But what’s this? Ezekiel isn’t sure what this nut is. It’s a lot smaller than his almond, but there’s something very almondy about it. Perhaps this one is the almond, not that other one. But then which ones are the Brazils? And are these really hazelnuts? Ezekiel is troubled. If he can’t identify his own food, what else is he missing?
Ezekiel is not an idiot; he’s got a company car.
I’m not going to write about slaves. I’m going to write about hirelings, people who depend on a wage for their livelihood, people who could not be alive without that wage. Wage slaves.
The abolition of the slave trade made the buying and selling of slaves illegal – and rightly so. But consider this: after buying his slave, a slave-owner would have to continue paying to keep the slave – to care for him, to feed him, to house him, to prevent him from getting hurt, to cure him of illnesses – because the slave was a capital asset. It was in the master’s interest to keep the slave at an operable level of health.
In today’s society, we need only rent the slave. We can pay a small amount of money directly to the slave and it is his responsibility to manage his livelihood. If the slave fails to maintain an operable level of health, if the slave breaks down, then others are ready to fill his place – at no capital cost to the slaver.
Incredibly, this modern state of affairs, post-abolition, is a much better arrangement for the slaver and no better for the slave, offering only the inducement -the illusion – of freedom. If the slave is lucky enough to break out beyond the earning power of a wage slave, then it is true: he may buy his manumission. More likely, however, he will earn only enough to keep slaving away for his master until he breaks down. Then he is done for, he must throw himself on the mercy of his family, his community or the welfare state, a shaming embarrassment.
But, hang on, isn’t that all of us? Aren’t we all slaves for hire?
This probably sounds a little extreme, but two hundred years ago it was a natural response to the introduction of wage labour, the decline of self-employment in artisan trades and the rapid increase in industrialisation. Nowadays, large businesses, corporations and governments represent the most likely source of employment. We sell our freedom hour by hour, day by day, in exchange for money; if we are lucky, enough to subsist.
I am not, of course, making an argument for the return of slavery; there are much better models out there to learn from.
Firstly, there is self-employment in a trade that is of permanent use to society. This is still a good way to guarantee sufficient employment to cover living expenses and the opportunity to save money in addition to this subsistence earning to pay for our dotage.
Secondly, there are worker cooperatives, where the workers participate in the democratic operation of the business and profits are divided among the share-holders: one share for each worker.
Thirdly, there are self-sustaining communities, like Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. Braziers Park is a working farm, an adult education college and a venue for hire. The income generated from these activities support a permanent community of approximately fifteen people all year round. These people do not pay rent to Braziers Park, but rather donate their labour on the farm and in the house. They run the business and are rewarded handsomely with organic locally-grown food, shelter and a vibrant living community.
It could be worth your while calculating whether you are being paid a slave wage or not. If you are paid only the minimum you need to subsist – or less (and this includes the means to support your family) – then you are being paid a slave wage and you would be better off seeking out alternative means of living, such as the examples above. If you are being paid more than the minimum you need to subsist, then that is great – as long as you enjoy the work that you are doing. If you do not, then remember that you are also giving away your freedom and your autonomy, two things that contribute greatly to our happiness as humans. Perhaps consider if you would be better off exchanging a wage-profit for greater autonomy.
I’m comfortable with wage slavery; it is a fact of modern life. But I’m also lucky enough to know it when I see it. I know what I am getting into when I exchange my freedom for money.
It’s a verb of motion, that’s what it is *. But why choose that verb over a hundred others? When are we travelling rather than simply going?
Here’s my answer.
Travelling, like writing, is about asking questions.
I’m going to Egypt, puts the emphasis on the destination, as if the goer and the transport mean nothing, contribute nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Going is almost passive; we all know that it’s the aeroplane that will be travelling and the goer is simply being transported. I’m going to Egpyt doesn’t beg any questions. You would never suspect that the goer is doing anything other than transporting himself to Egypt by conventional means for a holiday. I’d never ask the goer How are you going to Egypt? I just wouldn’t expect an interesting answer. By using the word going the goer is already pushing his journey into the mundane.
I’m travelling to Egypt, on the other hand, asks more questions than it answers. It puts the emphasis on the traveller and on the journey. Travelling seems to be more active, more conscious and more deliberate than going. I might very well ask the traveller, How? and I would expect an interesting answer.
Most importantly, though, travelling also begs questions of the traveller. It is hard to say, in all seriousness, I’m travelling to Camden, without thinking of what that means to you as the traveller and what implications the decision to travel has on your journey. You would ask yourself, How? and already the act is more active, more conscious and more deliberate.
I did this, in fact. Last Friday, I wanted to go to Camden to visit my friend Ben. Fine. I live in South London and I could have quite easily gone to Camden by public transport. But the idea of going bored me so I made the decision to travel. So my question to myself then was How? and suddenly I was part of the journey, not just passive cargo for a train or a bus. Cycling was out of the question because it was pissing it down with rain. Then it struck me that I didn’t know what it meant to travel 7.5 miles across London in the pouring rain.
We are in the situation today that we can transport ourselves vast distances without thinking about it. We can go 7.5 miles. A few hundred years ago going 7.5 miles would have been unthinkable. Travelling was the only option. So I wanted to reconnect with that time, I wanted to understand what 7.5 miles in the rain meant.
So I ran 4.2 miles (in the rain) and then walked the rest (in the rain). It was as simple as that. Now I understand (only a little bit: I caught the train home). If I had gone by public transport then I wouldn’t have been travelling. I would have forgotten what I was doing and I would simply have been going. I would, instead of travelling, have been reading or people-watching or something else, filling time, enduring the transport. But by deliberately changing my mode of transport and by asking myself questions, suddenly I was not going, but travelling.
And that’s the nub of the matter: travel always involves a question or a series of questions. If you don’t ask the questions then you are just going. That doesn’t mean that travelling must only be done at leisure; a commuter can easily travel just by asking questions, by becoming conscious of his activity. Instead of taking the same train at the same time he could walk or run or take an earlier train or a later train or a bus. But it’s not even just about the mode of transport. The commuter could transform his journey by talking to his neighbour on the train or by taking photographs of the journey or by writing a story about the journey – anything to become a conscious part of the locomotion. The traveller is constantly aware of his travel, for him the journey is as relevant as the destination.
This, I believe, is why travel writing is always interesting, because it seeks to ask and perhaps answer questions about the world or about the traveller. There is conflict in those travel stories: will the journey be a success? Will the questions be answered? All stories are questions. All journeys are questions.
And once you stop asking questions, once you stop thinking, you stop travelling and you are simply going or commuting or – worst of all – enduring.
So I always try to ask myself:
How can I travel today? How can I turn my transport into a journey?
* All right, all right – it’s a verbal noun, but who’s splitting hairs?
26 September 2010
Distance: 55 miles (one way)
Lesson: The Right Reasons
I got a train out to Gunnersbury to hitch from the side of the road onto the M4. It didn’t work. I stood near a bus-stop with my sign, people looked at me and accelerated up the slip-road. So I took a bus from that bus-stop to Hounslow West and walked to Heston Services. Unfortunately the M4 was half closed and going at a crawl past a traffic accident (I believe). But still, I got a lift no problems, from a travelling solar panel salesman. It took us an hour to get past the accident site, by which time there was nothing left and all lanes were open. But it was a great conversation, he told me all about his dad who was the first military pilot for Abu Dhabi and his brother who was a commercial diver up in Aberdeen. He dropped me in Reading and I walked across town to the railway station. I could have hitched from there to my destination, but time was short and the bus was only £2.90. So I caught a bus.
The next day, I caught a cold. No one would want to pick me up like that and I didn’t fancy standing on the road side in the sharp Autumn. So I caught a train from Reading back to London. It cost me £13, about what it would have cost if I’d bought a return ticket from London to Goring the previous day. My hitch had saved me nothing. So was it a waste of time? No chance. I’d know a lot less about solar panel sales, underwater oil rig repairs and the Abu Dhabi air force if I’d just caught the train.
Don’t hitch for financial reasons, hitch for the right reasons.
This is the story of The Little Red Fiat. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you, in the Tate Modern? It was painted by my little boy – not so little now, but he was back then. Probably about twelve I think, when he painted that one. But he started painting them when he was only three.
We’d bought him a painting set, nothing fancy, for his third birthday. We needed something to keep him occupied after his little sister was born. He hadn’t taken too well to the new member of the family and we couldn’t deal with a demanding toddler and a new baby. So we sent Joseph off with his painting set. It seemed to absorb him and he did a painting of our little red Fiat – we used to have one back then. This painting wasn’t quite like the one you’ve seen in the Tate, just blobs of red in a box shape. It took a bit of working out what it was, but we said well done and stuck the picture to the fridge, like all good parents do. We encouraged him to paint some more and over the next few weeks he painted and painted and painted. But all he’d paint were little red Fiats.
At first we were just grateful we’d found something to keep him occupied. But then, after his little sister had grown up a bit, we started to worry. We tried to encourage him to paint other things: a tree, the house – other cars, at least. But no, all he wanted to paint was our little red Fiat. He painted all day sometimes and the paintings did improve, he put in more details, made it look more realistic, but it was always the little red Fiat. When he was about six, the painting (for their was only ever one painting really) had crystallised in its final form: the little red Fiat with the the doors thrown open and a boy in pyjamas standing with his back to the painter, looking at the car with his hands folded behind his back – you would recognise it, I’m sure. And so, for six years, that’s exactly what he carried on painting, doing three or four a week. We didn’t think much of the paintings themselves, except as a cause for worry over our son’s mental state, but then we weren’t an artistic family.
But then, one day, something extraordinary happened. Joseph was twelve by then and had just finished one of his paintings and, as usual, it was of the little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and the little boy in pyjamas facing it with his back to the painter and his hands behind his back. This one didn’t seem much different to us from the very first one he’d painted, certainly not in the subject matter. He’d got better with the brush, of course, but you can imagine our frustration as parents. But that evening we had a couple of friends over for dinner and they saw the picture on the fridge (Joseph put them there now, a new one every couple of days) and they remarked how good it was. This must have been almost the first time we’d had friends over for dinner, Joseph now old enough to look after himself and Sarah upstairs while the adults ate. Of course, we just thought they were being polite and we thanked them and carried on serving chicken in white wine. But the husband couldn’t keep his eyes off the painting and it started to irritate us, we wanted to enjoy the evening, but he was obviously totally distracted by the painting. Then, in the middle of dessert, he stood up, quite rudely I thought, went straight to the fridge and stared intently at the painting for a couple of minutes. “You must take this to a gallery!” he declared and his wife nodded, equally hypnotised. We could not believe it and just said, “Oh, don’t be silly,” annoyed more than anything.
Even so, we were rather taken aback by their reaction to the painting and we wondered what to do. Perhaps we should take Joseph to a psychologist, find out what was wrong with him. Over the next few days, though, something even more remarkable happened. Our friends started showing up at our door unannounced, obviously a little embarrassed, asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Baffled, we opened the door of course, took them to the kitchen and showed them the fridge. Some of them we had to forcibly eject from the premises, they stood staring for so long. It was nice to have friends, and we were oddly proud that our son was attracting their admiration, but the disruption was a little annoying and we were scared that one of them might tell social services that our son was mentally unstable. But then, after the friends, came the strangers. Complete strangers, not even acquaintances, coming up to our door asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Some even offered to buy it for extravagant sums of money, some people left money on the kitchen table in entrance fees, everybody said how brave we were to keep it in the house and not secure in a gallery. We were on the local news, then national, then the BBC came to our door asking if we would be happy to take part in a documentary about our artistic prodigy son. Of course not, we said, we’re not an artistic family.
Well, we knew it was getting out of hand when an elderly woman fainted – she could have knocked her head and done some serious damage. As it was, she got away with a cracked hip and breathless said, “It was all worth it!” And then of course we had all the doctors around, gawping at the painting – a child’s painting!
So we decided to get rid of it. We asked some auctioneers to come over and value the painting. It sold, quickly, for 1.2 million pounds. That just about knocked our socks off. It was immediately donated to the Tate Modern, a ‘national treasure’. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you? A little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and a little boy with his back to the painter and his hands folded behind his back.
Our son doesn’t paint any more. He’s grown out of it, I suppose. After we sold the Fiat painting, we also sold the real-life Fiat and bought a Bentley. A few weeks later he came home from school saying he’d finished with painting. He never painted anything else, just our little red Fiat. Just one of those things, isn’t it? We still make a living selling the hundreds of other paintings he did during those nine extraordinary years. We’re glad he’s normal again, though, imagine how he would have been bullied at school, doing those funny paintings.
Everyone always asks why I didn’t paint anything else, why I don’t paint any more at all, why it was always the Fiat. I only understood when I got to secondary school, I didn’t have a clue why I was painting at the time. Mum says I was three when I started painting the car. I just remember being so confused by it. The colours were insane. I was scared of what I’d seen. I knew it wasn’t right and I sensed at the time that I couldn’t ask mum and dad about it. And then, when my sister was born, I was even more afraid. It scared me, that scene, the red Fiat with the doors thrown open, like it was abandoned, dad jerking away on top of mum.
19 – 20 September 2010
Distance: 190 miles (including detours)
My first solo hitch in the UK.
Lesson: The Right Question
I picked up my first ride from the side of the road. A man drove past me, stuck in traffic, went to the end of the road, turned around at the roundabout and came back, pulled up and waved at me from the other side of the road. I assumed he must always pick up hitchers, but, no, he’d never done it before. I would have just driven past. My second lift was from Fleet Services. I asked my usual demographic, an older, single male: able to look after himself, unlikely to want to rape me and likely to drive safely. He accepted me, but then revealed he had a wife and a five year-old daughter in the car as well. It was a joy. I just played around in the back with the daughter, watching a DVD with her, admiring her spelling homework, laughing. They dropped me in Winchester. It couldn’t have been a simpler journey. It took me an hour and a half from London to Winchester, 70 miles. There was no need to ask any questions: I stuck my thumb out, I asked people nicely and they all said yes.
But then there was the journey home. I was dropped off at Chieveley Services by my friend. No problem, it was just off the M4, perfect for heading East to London. Or not. I asked and asked and asked for two hours or more. No one was heading East from Chieveley Services. I was bashing my head against a brick wall. I was asking the wrong question. No one stops at Chieveley and then goes East, it is actually just off the A34, which goes North-South and is on the South-side of the M4, convenient for people heading West, not East. After three hours, I changed my approach. I would head West, go with the flow and then try to hitch back from the next Service Station along. The first man I asked took me. The service station was full of people only too glad to help me, but I was asking them the wrong question. I asked the right question and was back in London within three hours.
Ask the right question. Always think of the people you are asking, where are they going?
Ephraim is holding a big orange balloon in front of his face. He knows that very soon it will all be over and the girls who are dancing around the dining room floor will stop. He knows this because he can hear the mothers’ talk getting louder and their footsteps approaching the door.
The girls are swinging each other by the arms on the wooden floor, their bare feet skipping past Ephraim as he tries to hide. At least they’ve stopped calling him to them. They’re of a certain age, these girls, too old to think anything of him, too young to think anything of him. But they don’t realise that Ephraim is old enough, just about.
So he holds the big orange balloon in front of his face and he prays for the mothers to end this embarrassment. How can he bear it?
‘I’m sorry, Ephraim the Younger, I can tell you that it only gets worse,’ says Ephraim the Elder, as he sits on a leather-effect bench in a discotheque. Those same girls – and others – are jerking their bodies on the dancefloor in front of him to beats that Ephraim’s head can’t stand. He lifts his bottle of beer in front of his face and drinks in the view. ‘It only gets worse, buddy.’
‘You have no idea, you young ones. Much is left to be decided.’ Ephraim the Eldest was a disembodied vase on a shelf in a motel room in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His china gaze fell on the bed, where two bodies were writhing on top of the stitched bed cover. The sun came in through the window. ‘Have patience.’
Ephraim the Youngest swam on ahead, into the waiting world. Leaving his brothers behind. Bold, love has its own way, new life.
25 – 29 August 2010
Distance: 1125 miles (approximately)
My first hitching journey in the UK.
This was a spectacular introduction to what is possible with hitchhiking. It took us a day to get up from London to Edinburgh, only an hour longer than the National Express bus and a whole lot cheaper. We had no idea where we were going to end up when we started – we even discussed what we would do if we failed to get out of London (try again tomorrow) – but the elation of that first lift, and then the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, pushing ever further North, was indescribable. Meeting the friendly and helpful people of this island was joyous and an education in itself. Walking from the Tube station back to my house, I felt the barriers to limitless travel falling away. Impossible situations ‘worked out’. Stuck in the outskirts of Edinburgh for a couple of hours, tired, failing, something turns up and three hours later we were in Lancaster. Optimism.
Another young girl, teenaged, makes funny faces by pulling an elastic band between her nose and her lips. She grimaces and the band snaps back. She rubs her lip with a frown pucking her brow. I think she looks French. Is that how they get their feminine pout?
There’s a fountain, maybe six jets rising from a cobbled paving. A tourist family stops to let the son take a photograph with his new manual camera. The young man, a youth, turns the lens seriously, focusing. He steadies the camera carefully, framing. The other members, five or six of them, gather around behind their serious son, waiting for the artist to finish his work. Suddenly the father, paunch, mid-aged, runs, head down for the fountain. He jumps through the six jets of water, all youth regained. Damp laughter.
It looks computer generated. Straight lines, an exercise in perspective perhaps. A long flat roof opposite – of a sports retailer. The roof is supported by two storey poles and the shop abuts the water’s edge. Stacked behind this in our perspective game, at an angle receding into the distance is another, taller flat roof. Even the cladding of the building looks computer-pixilated. The Home of Quality Newspapers. A number of other structures poke above this warehouse. One in green, tall towers with sloping roofs.
I notice, now, why the vista looks so odd: none of these buildings have windows, just bare flat greys and greens. It is like the first stages of a computer simulation, before details have been added for realism.
Behind all these foreground buildings, far away, I know, on the other side of the river, is the tower of Canary Wharf. Its light for aircraft flickers on / off sharply. A pyramid in the centre of London. 9.55 am.
A gull stands guilty over the decapitated body of a pigeon. Its breast has been ripped open and its heart and entrails torn out. It lies on its back, wings spread out to the sky. The gull flies away over the water. Other pigeons peck the dirt a short distance away. Life goes on. 9.46 am.
Someone’s painted a box on the ground beneath a cash machine. For demarcation against intrusion. For the protection of the PIN. For the exclusion of undesirables. The slot for the card has a green light flashing on/off, begging for custom. A man and a woman approach. I can hear the click of the slot opening. The woman is pressing the buttons, the man stands in the box as well. They leave. The light starts flashing again. The screen too is busy. It advertises Halifax financial services and exhorts users to protect against fraud or theft. In the corner of the box, dropped by a left hand as the right worked the machine is the torn, curled peel of a satsuma. 9.43 am.
It’s hard to count them, hard to measure them, hard to evaluate them. All of them on their way, all of them the centre of the Universe. It’s easy to hate them. It’s not so easy to love them, but I’m going to try.
People with instruments over their shoulders – I’ve seen several. Violins, guitars common. People with their faces fixed in an outsider grimace. People with their headphones in their ears. People with bags over their shoulders, people walking with a slow strut, figuring things out.
People flicking nervously with Railcards.
Fat people with their bellies overflapping their tight jeans and their breasts lumping hopelessly over their tight bellies. People who would look more comfortable naked, stripped clean of the grime of their city clothes. People sneezing and wiping their hands on their combat trousers while they talk on their mobile phones. Fat men reaching into their suit pockets for their tickets and then struggling with the machines. A lady pulling her wallet out of her pocket and at the same time a receipt pulling clear and dropping to the ground. She dials a number on her touchscreen mobile phone.
A running man with a guitar. It could be a bass. A man walking slowly, talking on the phone, with bags poking out of his bags. A woman on crutches, bent over, in a pink cardigan, slowly making for the ticket gates. A pause to get her ticket and then through as quickly as she can before they close on her hobbled legs.
Two young girls in electric blue dress and long leather coat strut past, both earphones in and faces on. A man in a button-down shirt, pink with checks, and sunglasses on his coiffured head walks past with his telephone in his hand, looking very sure, but at the same time trying to organise his head around the station concourse. His shoes are tan brown and he walks with a clip. A man walks past in fresh jeans and a polo shirt, a jumper neatly folded on his shoulder.
A family of pink child and empty pushchair.
A fat woman dragging a red bag along the floor. Two old fat women, struggling to walk but with their feet in sports shoes. A young girl, fat, with a bright yellow Selfridge’s bag. A man delicately holding a blue coffee cup – to take away, to throw away – picking his way through this unsuited mass to his train.
Woman running, another trying to, her breasts bouncing with the effort in high heels. Another trying to walk the floor into submission, determined. A woman runs past. And again. One end to the other. A lady with curly red hair pulls her suitcase past, smooth. Two young girls flop their sandals into the floor, their bellies thrust out, forcing their path with their sexual organs. Teenagers.
An old woman reaches into her bag, a pink and white check shirt thrown over her body, sizeable but in a friendly old woman kind of way. She walks with a limp and asks the platform attendant of the correct train. A man with an umbrella furled follows her and asks the same question. A man with a pencil moustache and a matching blue bag and two-tone blue jacket strolls past with his family.
A woman in violent green shirt.
All of these people breathing and thinking and calculating. Sweating, their skin and their flesh folding around their clothes. Nothing could be further from the truth, could it? Exhausted people, with hairspray and glasses, with their chins shaved that morning, their shirts ironed at some point recently. Their shoes polished – or not.
Their hair managed. A turn, a wave, a turn. Make up. A scratch, a bite of a fingernail. Belt tightly wrapped around corpulence. Phone pressed to ear. Wrist wrapped with watch. Shoes tied, jeans pulled up and fastened. Wallet with ticket, bank card, else. Shopping bag with items. Tears. A scarf. Hair tied back, pushed forward. A newspaper. Eyebrows managed – or not.
Healthy afternoon snack. Unhealthy life. Earphones. Mouths moving, feet walking. Breast and bellies. Attraction – or not.
Walk with a bounce, with a stutter. Feet damaged, groaning under a weight. Tears. A suitcase with a telephone number on.
A girl with tears in her eyes – or is that just the way she looks? I don’t know, but here she is again, walking slowly around the concession kiosk at my back. Tears. Can I count those tears? Can I measure those tears? Can I evaluate those tears?
Sitting facing the north bank, facing the city. Hays Galleria is behind and to my left. But in front of me, with her guns aiming at the men and women responsible for the financial market crash, is HMS Belfast. She is painted in two shades of grey. I wonder who designs the camouflage pattern? Does it change with each season? Of course there is building work going on even on the destroyer. Scaffolding swaddles two structures that I can’t make out. A man walks to the bow and presses a button on the bare flagpole. I can’t see what it is. CCTV? There is a red light shining at me. Two, in fact. They give the mild impression of a very small party boat. A rope of lights are strung over that bow section, above where the anchor is run. There is the sound of a hack saw working and the lapping of water around an motorised dingy.
A man poses for a photograph in front of the HMS Belfast, next to my bicycle. The man swaps places with his friend and the taker gets taken. He wears a circular patterned pink shirt. They speak foreign, words tumbling out of their mouths. Hindi, I think. Their camera is, of course, a telephone.
The city opposite, from where the rumble of cars drifts, is a hotchpotch of buildings, vying with each other in architectural folly. The Gherkin looms over a mock gothic / modernist building. A church pokes its spire up amongst them. Spread out on the riverbank is a regency mansion, but obscured by trees, the Belfast and daunted by the stature of the buildings behind it. Two British flags peer over the Belfast. A jogger, female, pants past behind me. Red buses cross London Bridge. I can see the heads of commuters in a steady stream crossing, mostly south to north. From London Bridge train station to offices on the north bank. The gulls have no such respect and fly west to east, towards the strengthening sun. 7.00 am.
Facing the cathedral, from the opposite bank, with the Tate Modern at my back. I can hear a constant hissing of water sprinklers for the small area of grass behind me. The wind in the birch trees shakes early falling leaves to the concrete, where they tumble about, scratching. Now the patpat of a jogger. Occasionally the squeak of a small bird. Underneath it all, the steady muffled traffic from the opposite bank, like the roar of waves onto the shoreline, wipes sound away, white noise over an orchestra. Another jogger, a boat engine, a gull, a jogger, a man walking to work with sunglasses on and earphones in. A leaf. 6.37 am.
The river divides London. The sun shines in my face. Ripples of the river look confused, striving one direction, pushed another. Birds, gulls, dip into the water, crawing. The bridge is quiet. Two men fall off the horizon towards the Tate Modern. Straight ahead is Tower Bridge, a landmark. Its perfect H is broken by some construction work in the background, there’s always some construction work. The wind is blowing her way, cold, pushing my jumper into my back, bringing up goose pimples.
Just to my left are the steps of St Paul’s. To my right is Shakespeare’s Globe and Bankside. The Tate Modern, a converted power station, looking like nothing more than a converted power station. Or possibly a piece of monumental Mesopotamian architecture, the blocks of structure riven by grooves that tear glass windows through the building. A jogger walks past me. A cyclist cycles the other way. It is forbidden to cycle on this bridge and the plates of the metal floor ripple like the water below as his weight rolls past. In the distance there is the syncopated rhythm of an alarm. It comes and goes with the wind, sometimes clear, othertimes indistinguishable from the background noise. Two police sirens, one from the city, one from Parliament converge. A boat powers through the water below the bridge. A private vessal, manned by white haired old men, pointing the way ahead.
I turn and face upstream, the wind in my face now. Five cranes on trucks are evenly poised on the next bridge west. Another three, static, crouch on the banks north and south. Building work. A structure is covered with scaffolding, a train station, I believe. Floating on the surface of the river to my right is a rubbish collector. A flotilla of gulls take in the sun near the bank to my left. A man in a suit carrying a green plastic bag walks towards the city, his hair, fine and grey, caught in the cross wind. 6.29 am.
A short walk from the steps of St Paul’s is Paternoster Square. The once tall monument stands, topped with golden thistle. Once tall, now surrounded by the same brushed limestone buildings that abut the cathedral, if in a more modernist style. At the foot of the monument are two table tennis tables, some summer event for the people. The square is faced by a chain supermarket, not yet open, two chain coffee shops and several restaurants. There is the sound of a barista pulling chairs and tables out onto the flagstones, a sound more suited to France or Italy, but transplanted here to London for the last of summer. I imagine they shall be pulling those chairs out, in hope more than expectation, well into winter. A place of refuge for smokers to huddle with their espressos and their cigarettes. A few people cross the square, heading for work in suits with no tie. Tie in pocket. A couple sit, as I do, on the stone benches that surround that extraordinary monument. A man near me drives sheep across the square, in bronze or cast iron. 6.09 am.
For the naval of the Anglicans, St Paul’s cathedral is a soulless place. There’s a cramped plaza in front, a road curving around it. It’s a simple road, one lane in either direction, lined with chain restaurants. In the pedestrian plaza, covered in swept stone, there is a chain supermarket, a chain bank and a chain coffee shop. The buildings are brushed limestone, uniform, grandiose. The statue in front of the cathedral, a king perhaps with divine advisers at his feet – is that Britannia? – is dwarfed by the buildings now, camouflaged stone. Pigeons scatter about the steps beneath me, working in uniform lines, like scenes of crime officers, scouring the steps for food or cigarettes. They make their way, walking steadily along the step and then up one, hopping. They don’t fly, careful, their heads bent to the ground. Occasionally they’ll peck at some unseen morsel. The clock strikes six am.
And I’ll stalk you.
My ears are bleeding. They’ve been bleeding for about three days now. I’m not going to go to the doctor. There’s no point. I’ve diagnosed myself: it’s my girlfriend. We had an argument three days ago and I haven’t apologised. I know it’s her because they started bleeding as soon as I said, ‘You can take the damned rubbish out!’ I’m pretty confident it’s voodoo or a curse or something. I’d never noticed her interest in black magic before, but it just goes to show: you never really know people do you?
I am leaving, you shall be glad to hear, on the 9 a. m. train. You shan’t see me again, I can assure you. But there are one or two “home truths” I feel compelled to deliver before I depart. One: I have never appreciated your dress. You should know that opulence will never conceal a poverty of spirit. It reminds me, in fact, of eighteenth century whoredom.
Number two, a related point: I should hate to acquaint myself too closely with your kind for fear of contracting some terrible “social disease”. I cannot believe that our ancestors shared common genetic material, but it is not unknown for a stubborn virus to cross from a degenerate species to a more successful genotype, like a rat fleeing a sinking ship.
Thirdly, I love you; I shall bring you dysentery from the Amazon and cholera from the Indus.
Birkbeck University is holding an evening of poetry, readings and performances.
24th June 7-9pm
Main Birkbeck building
Free entry (incredible, but true)
Cat Westwood will present a dance performance in collaboration with David Charles (that’s me).
An improvised performance melding Butoh (a Japanese improvised dance movement) and European dance styles with readings from Charles’ haiku creating a quirky, eclectic and intriguing visual experience.
Introduction to deliberate sacrifice
The word ‘sacrifice’ has very negative connotations. It is my aim in this essay (2000 words) to break those negative connotations and turn the word into a powerful tool to get you motivated and achieving the things you want in your life.
Everybody in their life makes sacrifices. Every time you choose one thing over another, you are making a sacrifice. Most of the time we don’t even think about it, certainly not in terms of sacrifice. My decision to have a beer is very rarely taken in the light that the next morning I will sacrifice some mental acuity.
But if you start making deliberate sacrifices then you will create a coherent life, where everything you do is targeted towards your goals. Drinking heavily is not coherent with my chosen goal of writing – so I will sacrifice drinking.
The basic idea is that most people need to make sacrifices in order to achieve their goals. Most people have to earn a living to look after themselves, their families, their homes. This means that if they want to achieve something over and above these basic demands on their time and resources, then they must make sacrifices, deliberate decisions to forego things that damage their chances of success. But this need not be negative. I argue that deliberate sacrifice is a great thing, giving you purpose, motivation, drive and achievement.
5 Reasons why deliberate sacrifice works
1. Deliberate sacrifice commits you to your goal
If I decide to wake up every day at dawn, then every morning I’m going to think: ‘What the **** am I doing up this early? I could be in bed!’ But if the decision was a deliberate sacrifice, then I will have a convincing answer to this question. I am up at this absurd hour because I want to write. I want to be a published writer. I want to entertain readers. Without this sacrifice I realise that I won’t make it. So I had better make good use of the time, or it will be a wasted sacrifice and I really might as well have spent the time in bed. The more you sacrifice, the more you had better succeed.
2. The act of sacrifice gives you a strong motivation for your goal
From the commitment, comes motivation, almost without asking for it. Doing something a lot forces you to ascribe value to it. This increases your motivation for doing this valued task.
3. The act of deliberate sacrifice gives you purpose and drive
Because you have chosen the sacrifice to direct yourself towards your goal, your life becomes a conduit for that goal. It makes you appear driven and feel driven, which becomes a virtuous circle. The more you do it, the better you feel about it and the better you become.
4. Deliberate sacrifice makes your life choices easier
You now have a convincing answer – convincing both to yourself and to others – to queries and temptations. What are you doing to achieve your goal? Do you want to come out and get smashed tonight?
5. Sacrifice is noble and will give you respect and self-respect
Saints make sacrifices. People will respect you for making the sacrifice. It shows that you are serious about achieving your goal. Of course, a lot of writers have found success from writing 10 minutes a day for 25 years, but making large sacrifices to find 2 hours a day will vastly increase your chances of success. Sacrifice is a noble pursuit, it gives structure to your life where before there was just a hotchpotch of unstructured haphazard ideas. I had the goal of becoming a writer for about ten years, but until I started making big sacrifices, it never felt like a realistic prospect. It was always just a loose collection of dreamy ideas: some day I would make it. I would write one day and not again for a week. I would jot down a bunch of story ideas. I would read a couple of books about writing. But after making significant, deliberate, sacrifices, people can see that I take myself seriously. I have their respect (until they read my book – ha!) and I have my own self-respect.
Sacrifice and Priorities
Sacrifice is not the same as prioritising.
Sacrifice is the action that backs up your priorities. A priority (or a goal) is meaningless if it doesn’t require a sacrifice to achieve it. It would have no value. It would be farcical to ‘prioritise’ eating lunch. It does mean something to prioritise writing a novel. This is a huge commitment and demands huge sacrifices.
Prioritising is the decision to do something, sacrifice is the doing.
For example, I have prioritised writing. But what does that mean? The only thing that means is that I need to find time to write. It is the sacrifice that tells me what I should do. It tells me that I should get up early, which means that I must sacrifice my evenings, which means that I must sacrifice a large part of my social life and that I should sacrifice drinking alcohol. OK, now we have some actions.
Because the sacrifice is deliberate (directed towards my goal) I now know why I am getting up early, why I am not going out late, why I am not drinking.
How to sacrifice deliberately
Know your goal
Make it one goal. There is enough going on in your life already. Focussing on one goal at a time will greatly increase your chances of success. If you have many goals (like me), just start with one.
Work out what it is you need to achieve the goal
Usually just time. Sometimes space, sometimes resources.
Work out the sacrifices
Work out if you think the goal is worth each sacrifice. Usually, any sacrifice is worth it if you want your goal enough. If you don’t want the goal enough to make the sacrifice, then you probably want to find another goal – or you are happy with your life as it is!
Work out the secondary sacrifices
These are sacrifices that flow from your initial sacrifices. My initial sacrifice was simply to get up early. But that means no evenings, no social life, no drinking. Make sure you are OK with these secondary sacrifices, otherwise your primary sacrifice will collapse and your goal will fail.
Choose the sacrifices
Now choose to make the sacrifices. Think about your justifications for the sacrifice, be ready for your own doubts and the doubts of others. Get that glint in your eye, the determination for your sacrifice and for your goal.
A Sacrifice Audit
There are four varieties of sacrifice. Examine the sacrifices you are making in your own life and decide what type they are and (ideally) make sure that they are voluntary and worthwhile.
1. Voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you have decided to make
You know why you are making them and you are happy with them. It is important that these sacrifices are also worthwhile. If they are not actually helping you towards your goal, then you are just playing a martyr for no good reason – relax and stop making things harder for yourself. Also keep reviewing your sacrifices. I might find in a few months that I become more disciplined and that I am able to write 2 hours a day without making the evening sacrifice. Who knows.
2. Sacrifice by extension: Sacrifices that flow from other sacrifices
These are the secondary sacrifices that flow from your primary, voluntary sacrifices. Make sure you are aware of these AND are happy with them. If you are not, then your primary sacrifices won’t last either. For example, for the sake of my writing, I have sacrificed my late evenings for early mornings. That is fine. But it also means that I am sacrificing a large part of my social life. I really need to be in bed by 10.00 or 10.30 at the latest. Any later than that and I suffer the next day. You can see the conflict with this sacrifice and my social life. Especially living a good 30 minute cycle from most of my friends.
3. Non-voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices that you have not consciously decided to make, but that you are making anyway
Make sure you realise what these are and that you are happy with them. If you are happy, then they are after-the-fact voluntary sacrifices. If you are not then they are after-the-fact involuntary sacrifices. Turn these non-voluntary sacrifices into deliberate sacrifices. If you can pin these phantom sacrifices down, then you will become much more self-aware and even more focussed. For example, because I’m not going out in the evenings a lot, I’m not socialising a lot and because I’m using my time for writing, I’m not putting time and effort into my romantic life. So I am single. I have only recently become aware of this sacrifice, yet it is a sacrifice that I am inadvertently making anyway. Am I happy with it? It is impossible to say. Sometimes I am, sometimes I am not. But I know one thing: it gives me more time for writing!
4. Involuntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you are making that you really don’t want to have to make
You have deliberately decided not to sacrifice this, but you are anyway, against your will. The more of these that you have in your life, the unhappier you will be. Don’t expect to eliminate all of them, but try to come to terms with them. You may find that some of them are sacrifices by extension without which you will blow your goals. I regret having to spend less time with friends, but have come to terms with it, transforming it (sometimes) into a voluntary sacrifice. If these sacrifices become overwhelming, take a sacrifice holiday. Break your involuntary sacrifices for a day and come back tomorrow, refreshed and more focussed. I have toyed with the idea of taking Sundays off, but I haven’t yet because I have been enjoying the focus and determination that comes with the sacrifices. Just make sure that you are sacrificing the right day – for example, if you want to take Sunday off, make sure you drink on Saturday night – not Sunday!
A road map of sacrifice (thanks to Dan)
- Our time on earth is scarce.
- We can’t do everything.
- We must make a choice.
- To enable this choice we must make a trade-off with other potential choices: a sacrifice.
- By consciously sacrificing the things we haven’t chosen, we give value to our choice.
- The more it hurts to make the sacrifice, the more we value our choice and the more determined we are to achieve our goals.
- Sacrifice gives value to our goals. It gives meaning, drive, motivation and, perhaps, happiness.
Where this idea came from
This theory of sacrifice grew out of my own experience and my readings of how other people have achieved the things that they have wanted to achieve in life. Because of my interest in writing, my examples come from writers. Murakami wrote in ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ of the sacrifices that he made in his life when he decided to work on his writing full-time. He wrote of the decimation of his social life. He wasn’t upset by this sacrifice, but it really brought it home to me: for this to work, you must make sacrifices. Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000 hours theory of success. Whilst I realise this isn’t a hard and fast rule, I am nowhere near that figure. This isn’t going to work without hard, hard work: so where am I going to fit those 10,000 hours in? Sacrifices must be made.
You don’t have to look far for writers who made sacrifices – and they are generally not the clichéd ‘starving artists’: Jack Kerouac lived with his mum, Vladimir Nabokov lived in hotels most of his writing life, Henry David Thoreau built himself a house in the woods and lived there for more than two years. By simplifying theirs lives and making those sacrifices, they carved out the time and resources they needed for their writing. Sometimes the sacrifice isn’t voluntary and this inadvertently becomes the making of the writer. Oscar Wilde famously spent two years in gaol, Anne Frank’s horrific sacrifice was the writing world’s gain, likewise Primo Levi. Erwin James was just a brutal murderer until he was imprisoned and became a famous diarist.
I am lucky enough to be in a situation where my sacrifices can be deliberate choices and that I have the opportunity that sacrifice brings to make my life the life I wished for.
I shall be giving a 5 minute lecture on:
‘A Fantastical History of Thee Bicycle’
At the Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences album launch, ‘Apologies to the Enlightenment’. Look ee here for more interestingness on that fine band: http://www.silenceisawkward.com/
This shall take place at The Windmill, Brixton, London on Saturday, April 17th from 6pm. See here for knowledge about the venue: http://www.windmillbrixton.co.uk/
The show, besides me and Thee Awkward Silences, also features more lecturers (A Radical History of Britain among others), more bands (David Cronenberg’s Wife, Tim Ten Yen, Extradition Order, Steven Evens, Superman Revenge Squad), DJs and a barbecue.
I loved her from the minute I first saw her. You didn’t think that could happen, but it does. She didn’t show much interest in me. She didn’t even seem to see me, to be honest with you. And she was talking on the phone to her boyfriend. So there was no point trying to talk to her, was there?
A year later we got talking, me and her. I found out that she didn’t have a boyfriend any more. To my surprise we really got on. For a month or so we spent every minute we could together. But I was scared, not like I was with you. I couldn’t deal with it. A couple of times I stayed over at her house, but nothing happened. A couple of times she stayed over at my place, but nothing happened.
Then she got another boyfriend. And I met you.
That’s the facts on the ground.