This is my 100th post here on This Written River and I wanted it to be special. A celebration. Sadly, it cannot be. Everyday some new horror is visited on humankind by humankind and I’m finding it harder and harder to understand how we got here and, more importantly, why are things not getting better?
As usual the only way I can express this is in my writing. I have written a short story that was being published by SleepyHousePress.com today but I asked them to hold off for a week due to its closeness in subject matter to the recent tragedies across Europe and the middle east. In its stead here is a poem I wrote today.
In our pocket world it is easily seen
The total story from sublime to obscene
We suck and curl, one wave of grief,
Of outrage, of anger, of disbelief
We know the who, the what, the where, the why
But when asked ‘what the feel?’ we shy.
Like the horse held in place beside the passing train
We should not rear and stamp at other’s pain.
Do not lie, you do. We parrot kindness
Our sympathies, as it’s required of us
But do you kneel on the floor and grab,
Blindly smearing blood on the concrete slab?
Do you feel the pennies placed on your eyes?
Or cold metal shudder at those you despise?
Do you smell the cobalt air and feel the sting
Of tears of guilt and shame, that fear could not bring?
Do you put a head, fearful, to a chest
And listen if a heart still beats in that breast?
We see Paris, Lebanon, through the pane of glass
Flat in our palm and wipe a finger to scroll the past.
If that window cracked and our hand fell through
To touch the fear, would our minds attune?
Would we understand it’s all too few
That, though we’re all in touch, feel for you.
A lot of people are blaming religion at this point but a great tenet of Faith has always been ‘Do unto others’. So today: Love thy neighbour. Stay safe.
When I was a fresh faced 18 year old, having just moved into my first house with wages from my first full time job I was living with my friend Russ. My dear departed Dad would stay once a week when he was in town and I remember him spotting something that Russ was reading and picked it up to have look. It was a book by the author Paulo Coelho. Russ is a good 10 years older than me and I assumed, being 18, that anything he read was sensible and grown up. I knew little of what Coelho wrote but knew it was often described as “a bit new aged” and rather “spiritual”. My father being the ultimate tree-hugging hippy who does tai-chi in his slippers, I assumed would nod sagely at this choice of reading material. He didn’t. He flicked through the book and said “Oh dear that’s no good. These are just aphorisms” then followed that up with, “that’s dangerous.”
Now my father had many faults, he was by no means perfect but he was a very wise man. Maybe not “smart” but a very gifted and wise man. So for him to describe a book of aphorisms as “dangerous” puzzled me at the time but I did not ask him to elucidate. Having subsequently read some Paulo Coelho I now know that Dad was right in that it is some of the most wishy-washy ambiguous new-age bullshit I’ve read but ‘dangerous’? Dad never knew me as a poet as he died long before I converted so I don’t know what he would make of my now career as I don’t really know if he ever had any interest in poetry himself. I never saw any in his book collections. But he did like to quote in conversation, something I have adopted. I like being able to site reference to other instances when talking or writing and I have a good memory for those sorts of things. Though my quotes tend to be more pop culture and cinema… Anyway, point being he was a user of aphorisms himself so referring to a book of them as dangerous still seems odd. Especially from a man who re-read The Celestine Prophecy numerous times.
Aphorisms in the age of the meme are enjoying a resurgence unseen since the Victorian era when sound bite witticisms and wisdom-isms were all the rage thanks to the likes of Oscar Wilde (who has many a meme circling the toilet bowl part of the internet). These manifest as graphic design images that get posted on social media. You know exactly what I mean. The Instagram post that’s a picture of a sun bleached field of corn with a carefully chosen font exclaiming “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves”. Some are profound (as that Edmund Hilary quote truly is), some are genuinely funny, most are banal, asinine drivel with all the depth of a puddle. Love them or loathe them they are everywhere. Memes themselves are slightly different and I confess I detest the word Meme due to the fact it was invented by a man who is the reverse of spiritual who I also dislike greatly but this trend for creating “CONTENT” (whatever the fuck that word means now) involving little to no thought or creative development that simply involves finding a free image via google and slapping any old collection of words on top of it, is actually the death of aphorisms.
A true and poetic aphorism, in the briefest amount of syllables and fewest words, should cut to the bone of a topic. Encapsulate all arguments and respond to all queries. They are the beautiful jewels of language that speak to us with an immediacy that can be mulled over and thought on for hours even days later. Especially when timed and deployed correctly. If Wilde was King of these Shakespeare was God: “Our enemies are our outward consciences”, “How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes”, “All glory comes from daring to begin”, “Nothing can come of nothing”, “Have more than you show, speak less than you know”, “Light and lust are deadly enemies” and the most appropriate “Brevity is the soul of wit”. Those can be chewed on for a long time and deserve to be. Few of those have been subjected to the above treatment for memetic usage and those that have tend to be in serif font on an old parchment backdrop to signify ‘Ye Olde’. No, now we use quotes possibly made up by the typer or quotes that are truncated or poorly sourced and most of the time not attributed, just simply encased in quotation marks like the grammatical version of holy water.
Tumblr is where these go to garner the most ‘likes’ and views but equally where aphorisms go to die. Few ‘good’ aphorisms make it through the Meme generator as they require thought and effort to understand, this is not what the internet at large wants. It wants something quick and easy to digest but then it is not an aphorism. Then. Then it is a platitude. And platitudes ARE dangerous.
The various quotes that are the currency of tumblr can be deployed at the drop of a hat. There is even a meme that states “All females have 50 screenshotted quotes waiting in their album ready to post when shit goes down”. What this means is their currency is inherently valueless, they become an echo chamber, a feedback loop. There is a quote or aphorism for any given emotion, topic or experience and for every side of the issue. There are even old sayings that contradict one another: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” & “Out of sight, Out of mind” being the most obvious. The picture of a balloon with an instagram filter on it with the words “you let me go” etched in faux typewriter font is sat alongside “Society often forgives the criminal, it never forgives the dreamer” and both given equal worth because of their context. Your way of thinking can be bolstered by a meme quote even if you know you are wrong. When “shit goes down” it should be a time for contemplation, serious thought. If you have separated from the one you love being told that “Love is blind” by a friend can cause you to analyse both your own motives and the person you are separated from’s, as apposed to the tumblr equivalent of “There are plenty more fish in the sea”.
Tumblr’s platitudes promote inaction and uncritical thought, they are affirmations that you were doing it right all along and that you should carry on as you are. This is wholly wrong. Aphorisms, true aphorisms, stem from the poetic mode of compression and that in turn requires personal involvement on your part. It should be ambiguous, it should stir questions not set you at ease. The reason I was riled to be so vitriolic and sweary in this post is that the kind of childish ill-thought out platitudes I see all over social media have now worked their way into speech and interaction not simply the passive aggressive posting on facebook etc. People use these meaningless non-quotes in conversations as cappers on an argument or discussion like that quote ends it. No! A good aphorism or quote should further the debate, should deepen the turn of conversation not end it because whoever the quote is attributed to says so. My father knew this and I now realise why he declaimed the Coelho book as dangerous, as they were not aphorisms, they did not challenge, they did not deepen or contradict your current thinking, they affirmed it.
In the film ‘The Rock’ by Michael Bay, Ed Harris is talking to Sean Connery and quotes Thomas Jefferson saying “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” to which Connery’s character replies “Patriotism is a virtue of the vicious” which is, of course, Oscar Wilde. In the context of the scene, for such a silly action movie, this actually gives something of a profound weight to both characters and their motivations in the smallest amount of screen time and even just reading them together would give one pause to consider the necessity of patriotism. That is what great language can do.
So the next time you see one of those, oh so pretty, like-baiting quotes over a pretty dull image shoved through an IG filter stop before liking or reposting just because you thought “Yeah! It IS like that isn’t it? That thing. Yeah.” Because that’s what the meme is for but it doesn’t help you or anyone else, it just exists as a digital water wheel, cycling round and round taking what it already had right back where it took it from. Then respond to that post critically, reply with your OWN quote, a more ambiguous one. The great people who said these things were challenging you to see the world anew not telling you everything is fine the way it is.
“To speak with another’s tongue, is to be silent” – Leo Cookman, 2015
P.S. Checkout these tumblr parodies to see the absurdity of this pernicious trend. I laughed till I cried looking at them and the originals deserve our contempt.
Once upon a time there was a notion, seen as unforgivable, called “selling out”. This was the idea that your integrity in whatever field was up for sale and whatever it was you had to offer, once bought, could never be retrieved as it was now “sold out”. It is often used in reference to artists of various kinds. The most egregious cases of selling out were when it was to do with advertising. It is often used as a weapon by seething rivals to wave at their more successful peers to draw attention to their lack of integrity and that their talents are for sale to the highest bidder. Some would argue, however, that utilising the money and exposure offered by some form of larger cultural presence, such as a business etc, is a great thing as it allows the artist to develop without the constraints of poverty and allows a greater audience to see their work. In a capitalist society the latter is generally seen as the focus for any artist but never more so than now.
The notion of “selling out” is all but gone today. The young creative sector of society’s only goal today is to sell their creations or ‘content’ to the highest bidder at the earliest available opportunity. Youtuber’s (almost universally between the ages of 16 to 26) main aim is to gain a large enough following to tempt companies to advertise on their channel for an intermittent and wildly unrepresentative fee, singers and musicians believe their only route into success is to now use the various television “talent” contests developed purely to make money for the hosts and to be owned, wholesale, by the promotion company owned by oily, bleach toothed, hair dyed, billionaires. Fine artists and graphic designer’s greatest goal seems to be that their art is used in an advertising campaign.
Then there are the deluded artists (like me) who believe that integrity is all that matters when it comes to art, in whatever form. That believe art should not be censored or compromised for any reason, least of all money. That any creation is compromised the moment it requires substantial financial input, because that means that there a many more vested interests that believe they know how best to create the thing for the maximum return on investment. Whilst larger artistic works certainly require involvement from people other than the artist to create a piece, there tends to be a guiding hand. Which is where the idea of selling out came in. To make a film say, requires a lot of money up front to develop and produce and in western society that is an investment (and a high risk one at that) and the more input from outside sources the less control there is from the artist but for a book say it just requires the writer and their editor, right? Not any more. The publisher needs to cover costs too and the Big Six publishing houses need to turn over massive profits every year to maintain their lists so there will be executive input there too. What this amounts to is the fact that if you create anything of any kind your next step to being able to earn money from it is to literally sell it i.e. give away the thing you have created for a fee so it no longer belongs to you. Many business minded people would see not agreeing with this as precious but many artists (like me) see this sale as an unnecessary step it the creative process.
I think this death of the idea of selling out is largely due to the death of foundations, institutions and bodies that would assist artists or talents in their develop with the knowledge they would not make their money back, that their investment in culture was the return. In an age where universities now charge £9k per year – a figure set to rise in the coming few years – and where students are treated as consumers and then duly act like consumers, their education a commodity, the notion of social enterprise for no financial reward is an unthinkable concept. Therefore any creator’s drives must be largely financially minded today, you can no longer want to do something creative purely for the sake of creation, there must be recompense. As such, you must then sell. This sale is so much part of every industry today it isn’t even referred to so selling your product isn’t an unpleasant route that some artists or creations mistakenly take to be rich and famous, it is the goal in western (but let’s be honest, global too) society.
My utter utter despair at my fellow countrymen at the beginning of May for voting in such an unashamedly cowardly and self-centred way was also tempered with surprise at my own naivety that people would not vote for the outwardly cruel and despicable bunch of self serving cunts we now have in power by virtue of the slimmest majority possible. Scotland and Ireland voted (rightly) for themselves and so did England. The majority of voters in England sold out any notion of integrity for personal gain this last general election because they voted for their own pockets, to stay rich, middle class and take care of themselves and their own families knowing full well they were voting for five more years of food banks, public sector cuts, austerity, punishing the poorest and sickest in society and generally a government that any so-called ‘civilised’ country would be ashamed to have rule them. That to me, is the definition of “selling out” and the simple fact that but for one march in London little has been done or said to protest this fact means this mentality is the prevailing wind in this country I now bitterly call home.
I don’t deny I want to be a published author still as I would like to make a living from my writing but in light of our current regime and overall disgust with the attitude of the people in England I am more resolute in my desire than ever to not accept that to succeed is to be selfish. To truly succeed is to be selfless. Altruism outlives you and affects far more than your children or grandchildren. I have been long-term unemployed for the last 3 years (yet mercifully found a job just as the money obsessed Conservatives gained power) and was able to survive purely through the kindness of other people. My Dad was not wealthy and I did not inherit any great deal of money but I did inherit a support network of hundreds of people who have all in small or large ways kept me going over the last three years. I can tell you who hasn’t: British social institutions, our government and by extension our society as a whole. Every time I went to institutions for help they were either entirely unhelpful or incredibly bitter that they had to help me at all and when they did it was made as difficult for me as possible to garner any assistance at any turn. I was made to feel like a criminal and villain simply for the unforgivable crime of not earning money. This sanctified notion of “working families” that is all any political party cares about. The government sells its wares and expects returns despite being malfunctioning and piss-poor in its delivery and effects, my Father gave his away and his legacy is still present today. The same goes for most of the good people I know. If you sell yourself all you get in return is more money which many say is enough, I don’t. I’m greedy. I want to be happy and want other people to be happy and safe and fulfilled and creative. Money never has been able to and never will be able to purchase that.
Judas Iscariot was paid 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus’ trust and in so doing, causing Jesus’ death and then later his own suicide. All for 30 pieces of silver. Those coins are long since lost (if they ever existed) and would never be recognised amongst the currency of the day as it is. Judas sold out, it earned him little but cost him everything.
If you are looking for compassion here in England now, I’m sorry. We’re all sold out.
Given how disgusted and appalled I was with the result of the 2010 general election you can probably guess my utter despair at the result from the weekend. My contempt for the Conservatives and their media “supporters” (read as: sponsors, legislators and best chums) now borders on that of the worst far right parties of history. After the last election I self-published a small pamphlet of poetry that raged against the dying of the light but that just seems too puny to fight what is apparently the national public opinion that right wing politics and selfishness is the way forward. But frankly it’s about all I can do now.
Below is my first of no doubt many anti-Tory/austerity poems and would love it if you could share it, particularly to people you might know who are inclined to the right. Written in the Victorian style Gove loves so much and using the Conservative Party font, I hope the message isn’t too subtle to sink in. Please share the jpg or the text, I’m not fussed about credit, just get it out there. I’ll be tweeting it too if you’re so inclined.
Keep the faith, people with a soul and consideration for others tend win through in the end. It’s going to be a looooong 5 years.
This post will be a relatively short one as it revolves around a request and a task I’d like to give you. The next time you are out of the house and walking to the shops or walking down your local high street for whatever reason I want you to have a really close look at everything you see. All the stuff you see day in, day out, that you know like the back of your hand, stop and really look at every inch of it, especially the people you pass. I know this goes against the grain of the British temperament of staring at our feet and not making eye contact in case you get beaten up or whatever but just do it. And when I say ‘look at’ I mean observe.
Sherlock made the distinction to Watson that he “sees but you do not observe”. It’s actually very easy to do as we tend to glance at things we pass anyway, all observation is is absorbing what you see and analysing it as opposed to just letting it slide past for the thousandth time. So don’t just watch, watching implies waiting, observe and digest what you see. Look at the condition of the house or the shop, what do they sell? Is it new or old? What do they have in the windows? What day of the week and what time is it? Does the shop or home look welcoming? What are the people you pass wearing? Are they with anyone? Who are they with? What are they doing/wearing? Are they talking? Do they have an accent? What is the snatch of conversation you hear from them about? How fast are they moving? How are they standing? Are they engaged in a task? Just take a stroll down the street you know so well and look at it with fresh eyes.
The reason I ask is, yes, the Election. What I want you to do is look at your surroundings and really critically analyse what you see, then think about how that influences you. Then, MOST IMPORTANTLY, what you don’t see. Our day to day surroundings are the most influential thing to our political beliefs alongside our family.
I’ve been making an effort to do this as I complain I live in an area that is geometrically opposed to all my political and social values. I am left-leaning (but will never call myself a ‘lefty’) and live in a safe Tory seat. I complain because of all sorts of local bias and so on but I decided this is equally as prejudiced of me as the more conservative attitudes of the locals is. So I took a stroll down the high street with my eyes wide open at the weekend and saw people waving at one another in the street, saw a group of handicapped youngsters in wheelchairs being taken around town by carers, I saw lots and lots of prams with lots of well dressed Mums/Nannys/Grandparents pushing them, I saw a woman taking down a sign for free tea and coffee at the church, I saw form and structure, I saw a lot of elderly people (by which I mean 60+ as the state dictates this is pension age) going about daily errands and an awful lot of well kept cars. I didn’t see any non-white people except one of the people in the wheelchairs, I didn’t see any one not dressed smartly or at least ‘presentably’, I didn’t see any ‘cheap’ clothing, I didn’t see any ‘old’ shops unless they were presented or faked to look as such, certainly nothing that looked like it had been made in the 70s or 80s except some of the people, I didn’t see call signs of poverty (homelessness, poorly tended buildings, a mood of anger or unhappiness), I didn’t see anyone I knew, I didn’t see many smiles and I didn’t see any cars older than 10 years.
I’m not going to tell you what conclusions I drew from that and you are welcome to draw your own but the point was, I observed more than I usually did. You should do the same and think about what you see. We tend to let our surroundings slide by unnoticed due to familiarity and that which we do pay attention we tend to simply admire. There is a difference between admiration and appreciation. To admire is to see something with respect or approval, that tends not to extend to a critical evaluation of that thing. This is not necessarily bad but it doesn’t really benefit anyone. To appreciate means understand something fully, its faults and its favours. To do that you must truly observe it. To observe something means to take notice or literally perceive something. Start observing what is around you: What values do the people in your area have? What values do you have? Are they shared? I want you to keep all that in mind come the 7th.
The title of this post is from a quote by former American Poet Laureate Charles Simic: “Poetry is a translation of the silence.” Of all the many things I use to describe poetry (cribbed from other, better, writers) that feels like the ‘right’ one and it goes a long way to explaining the importance and necessity of silence.
The trouble we have is defining what silence is, because it sure as hell isn’t a total absence of sound. That’s just bizarre. There are sound proof rooms where no ambient noise exists but what people have found is when this occurs you start to hear the noise of your joints moving and your digestive tract squelching and when you are stood in the wilderness far from any habitation or car noise what you hear is quieter but certainly not ‘Silent’: You hear trees rustling, the breeze, birds, your own breathing, etc. In fact the only place where sound would be completely absent would be outer space and you could not survive in the vacuum long enough to perceive that phenomena. Deaf people may be the only people fully qualified to explain the idea of silence but even then it has been pointed out by people with this disability that even they feel vibrations that they interpret as sound but without the refined perception someone with hearing can sense. As such, no one has experienced ‘true’ silence, what we experience is simply the quiet as a juxtaposition of loudness.
Its amazing how loud everyday life is to that end; a constant barrage of sound that it takes a lifetime to filter out. People who were born deaf then given cochlea implants normally have to turn off the device regularly as the overwhelming sensory overload of constant sound can be painful. Equally people with tinitus who are burdened with a constant whine in their ear can find that unbearable. From this sort of anecdotal evidence we can tell that sound is a major factor of human experience, like any of our senses, but it seems to me it is the one we are least aware of. Or at least the one we pay less attention to day to day. Sight tends to be the one we focus on most (pun intended). Why is that?
Whilst it seems like an asinine and obvious observation that “hearing is, like, really important and stuff”, the reason I’ve been thinking about this was that I was house sitting recently for a friend who needed me to look after their dog while they were on holiday. While I was there I didn’t really do a lot except read and write and play a computer game. Now, day to day, I try to drown out the silence of my own life either with music, conversation, the idle prattling of a podcast or the radio etc and I rarely leave the house without my headphones in so my life tends to be ‘aurally dense’ to use a poncey term. But for this week of house sitting for one reason or another I spent the week in quiet. There was no stereo, I had no computer to use, I didn’t want to play around with their radio or anything so by and large just wrote and read in quiet then took the dog out for a walk twice a day. This amounted to almost a week of very little external sound which was actually a little disorientating. Far from being a distraction the sound is normally put there as audio wallpaper to help me focus on things and think, my own thoughts tend to wander and for some reason music in particular keeps me focussed. As such the proverbial Silence that ensued was pretty distracting to me when I was inside the house. On the flip side whilst taking the dog for a walk I had forgotten how nice listening to the sounds of the world was and how stimulating it can be. But it certainly wasn’t ‘silent’, just a lot quieter.
Something else I did whilst I was there was played through the game ‘The Last of Us’ (which I may review in full at a later date) and one of the things it did really really well was sound design. The most jarring difference to most AAA games was the almost total absence of score. With no music telling you when to be sad, scared, pumped, happy or safe you are forced to pay closer attention and in a game where a lot of it is sneaking around and a game mechanic based around ‘listening’ to the movement of enemies, that is an incredibly effective choice. I lost count of the times I was clenching my teeth and holding my own breath as a guard trudged, heavy footed past me. It also extended to quieter moments too, the sound of conversation from another room, the birds in the sky, distant gunfire, rain, wind, all given unique audio that really gives you a sense of space and place. The other game I thought achieved this most effectively was possibly my Favourite Game Ever, Half-Life 2. What this does most effectively is creates gaps, it isn’t just a constant wall of sound, never letting up at any moment but allows pauses for breath and therefore heightens the tension; sudden gunfire or a shout can really make you jump. I also went to the cinema to see a film called Ex Machina which also uses the loud/quiet dynamic very well. It all amounted to reminding me of an interview with one of the sound team from Pixar who described sound as being the part of a film that “enters through the back door”. You don’t notice it but you would if it was done badly or wasn’t there. One thing you learn when making films or videos is that an audience will tolerate a bad picture, they will not tolerate bad sound. Screw up the audio and you lose your audience immediately.
So being a Viner I decided to translate this to social media. My friend Mark Dudlik does a challenge on Vine where he does a 100 day project where he makes 100 posts over 100 days on a given topic/tag. I did a wussy version of this by doing a 60 day challenge which I dubbed 60DaysofSilence. It’s finished now and you can search them all on Vine, a few other people joined in as well. What it proved to me was that absolute silence cannot exist so I simply made the rule that I could not speak. I could only create ‘silence’ by not adding to the sound already existing in the world. This, in turn, scared me, because that is truly what silence is: not allowing someone a voice. So many people are made silent or feel they should be silent in the world today because it is so noisy already but equally we (who make all the noise) should really be listening because as the saying goes “90 percent of communication is non-verbal”. People crying for help or feeling lost or alone are telling us this every day in a variety of ways but because they don’t say it out loud we don’t listen. Ironically you don’t even need your ears for that.
Death is the Great Silencer. No one is more quiet that in death and whilst that is a bleak notion it relates to the previous paragraph because we’ve just seen several migrants (immigrants to many) drown in the sea without rescue. Their pleas for help were ignored and they fled, their voice was silent. Now many of them are dead and just as silent, just as ignored. Yet we can have chitinous, self-luminescent, 12 legged creatures of the deep spewing slugs, worms and bile from her vertical, razor toothed jaw like Katie Hopkins who has the loudest voice writ large in national print heard by thousands and it is this latter shoggoth that we listen to and are most upset and offended by. It would be easy for me to say that Hopkins should be ‘silenced’ but personally I think that thief has more than enough rope to hang herself with if she is allowed to keep her voice. What we should be doing is listening better and using OUR OWN voice, that small thing we have on a piece of paper that involves us in these affairs, to make these plights heard and help create a more attentive and compassionate civilisation. Even if, as most revolutionaries say, “we will not stay quiet any longer” people have to listen for change to happen.
Silence, like everything, is relative, it boils down to what YOU are hearing. If you want people to hear: Be louder (vote). And then, start listening.
The Other is a philosophical idea coined by Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the 18th century. It posits that the idea of one’s Self is defined by exterior forces, or an Other. The Other is not us but it shapes us. As babies we exist in a world of pure self, similar to dreaming, we can see and hear only indistinct shapes and sounds. When a baby moves its arm it does not understand why the rest of the world does not come with it, as the child grows it separates further from this world as it realises its own desires and pains are unique and distinct from it. Over the years we refine this into seeing into a broader sense of ‘Self’; the self of community, family, ideology and so on. This serves an evolutionary purpose as it is what helped early man hunt in packs, have a tribe that would look after children etc. This kind of “social reflex”, as Pavlov put it, can be seen in any church, a human need to metaphorically huddle together for warmth, to create a community. We see anything like us or with the same values as being like ourselves. A high and definable sense of self is healthy and natural.
But what of the Other?
The Other is all that we fear. It is all the things we are not. The Other stands against us, moulding us and shaping us. The Other is basically anything and everything we are not or we do not identify with and on a deep level we, for good reason, mistrust this. We have personified this hard-to-define Other as the ubiquitous ‘They’. “They don’t care”, “They are wrong”, “They think it is stupid” and so on. How often do we say “It’s raining”? Who is this ‘It’? The world? The It and They are the Other that we have created so we can stand as an individual in our lives. It is a ‘necessary evil’.
Far be it from me to question the father of modern philosophy but I don’t think Hegel’s idea of the Other is helpful anymore. Why am I saying this? Because we have an Election coming up here in the UK and that Other is being used really rather terrifyingly to remove our liberties and sway our decisions.
The Other is now so ingrained as a human model in the social sciences we never question it and it is part of our speech but this idea is now being used to manipulate people. You need only look at any advertising campaign to see how the Self is used to make you think you are missing out on the product or service they are selling: “Doctors recommend”, “here for you”, “real beauty campaign”. In short they say these people are you or are part of you culture/experience and they use this product and/or service so if you want to remain part of this social self then you had better buy into this. What troubles me the most is how insidiously the notion of the Other is being used. The rise of a Nu-Right in British politics is a prime example of this. UKIP stands on one policy: Immigration. The very notion of Immigration is a Hegelian legacy writ large – “THEY ARE NOT FROM HERE. THEY ARE NOT YOU. BE AFRAID.” UKIP uses this evolutionary fear of the outsider on which to base its policies. George W. Bush summed up this notion during the height of the “War on Terror” by stating simply: “Why do they hate us?” The Other is the language of politics, the ‘if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us’ mentality is now so loudly trumpeted it is deafening in the run up to the Election.
This needs to change.
I make no claim to being a great cultural theorist or critic but I am able to see problems where there are clearly problems. The notion of the Other was co-opted by Nazism, McCarthy-ism and eastern European communism in the 20th century to generate hate for people that were considered ‘Not Us’. For the Nazis it was non-Aryan people, for the Communists it was Capitalists and for the Capitalists it was the Communists. And we know how that all turned out. UKIP and the Conservatives, more so than any other parties, not only speak the language of the Other but actively propagate our hatred of them and drive a greater wedge between the Self and the Other. Yes, I am comparing UKIP and Tories to Nazis because it is the same ideology that drives them. A few friends of mine are academics and they have nothing but contempt for George Orwell’s novel 1984. This surprised me as I rather like that book and it has proved startlingly pertinent (ironically, since 1984). When I asked why he hated it, my friend pointed out “it has done more for the rhetoric of the Right than it has for the Left”. The more I thought about this the more I realised how easy it was for the Right to co-opt this vision of the future as the Other and use it to their advantage. You hold up the nightmare of big brother and parody it, make it a TV show, laugh at how wrong Orwell was, show how luxurious we all have it, create a new middle class that has everything with its iPhones and internet and loudly cry: “We’re not like that grey dystopia!” “Nobody wants an Orwellian regime” “This is why 1984 won’t be like 1984” all the while Edward Snowden points out exactly how we are having our liberties taken from us. A fascist culture of control is never going to be like 1984 because it can’t happen like that, we would see it coming. The true 21st Century oppressive society is one of extreme decadence, giving everyone what they want so we can continue to live happily with this sense of self, meanwhile ostracising, vilifying and ultimately destroying The Other. I would hope I am not perceived as ‘Other’ in that scenario…
This is not a new cultural theory and seems resoundingly hysterical to posit that we are heading for another controlling system of Government but every time I look at a news outlet or talk to my friends in any industry this is all I ever hear. That our culture and society is being shaped to fit a very small percentage of people with substantial penalties if you fail to comply. This CANNOT be allowed to go on. The world is changing and everything we consider the norm is going to be very different by the end of our children’s generation. We can no longer fear the outsider, we are literally running out of time. With the growth in communication and the distribution of knowledge the world is a tiny place and there is no excuse not to understand or communicate with one another. Borders are human inventions built to keep this ‘Other’ out, the cities and their industries came first and then the borders were built up around them to create a stronger sense of self. These borders are actively being felled both metaphorically and literally every day. To quote a recent blockbuster “We must not act as individuals but as a species”. Do not listen to the backwards thinking of the modern Right because it is so transparently and incredibly damaging we may not be able to recover.
The reason I am saying all this is because the Election looms here in the UK and we really badly need a change. I won’t tell you who to vote for but I can’t in good conscience say it is okay to vote for either UKIP or Conservative. What I will say is that EVERY VOTE counts, really and truly and deeply. I am writing another post to follow this about why you should vote but for now hopefully you will be given an inkling into why we should mistrust the established political model and the language they use but instead of simply removing the voting system as the Russell Brands of the world would have us do the best we can do is nail our colours to the mast so the mast is weighed down with sails and flags of every colour. If we do that it shows a faith in a DEMOCRATIC system that we all want to be involved in, a system we all consider part of our Self. If we can take that back maybe then we can start listening to that Other and maybe help shape it as well as it shape us.
I was about 11 or 12 when I first started secondary education at one of the worst schools in the country. We were set a task in Art class to find out about this fella Rembrandt. I came home and because this was the time before the internet was the source of all knowledge I asked my Dad who this person was. In his typical matter-of-fact way Dad told me Rembrandt van Rijn was a painter from something called the Dutch School and was a revolutionary and visionary artist that transformed light on canvas into dramatic and lifelike representations. I noted this down and nodded. That seemed like enough. A few minutes later, Dad being Dad had pulled down a large tome on painting, flicked through and showed me a portrait of Rembrandt by Rembrandt. (A self-portrait used a stick called a ‘brush’. Very different from the selfies and their sticks used today) At the time I was only dimly aware of my Father’s 4 years in art college, despite his job as a graphic designer and penchant for art on display all over the house. I looked at the picture awe struck. Rembrandt sat staring out at me from two dark marbles amongst a deeply shadowed face framed in a halo of yellow. Dad sat me down and we flicked through the book, explaining why Rembrandt changed so much in the art world. Because light, he said, was so spare in Rembrandt paintings it made everything look dramatic. Every face was coated with brilliant light and dark shadows, his landscapes featuring dabs of shimmering colour and the blackest nights, so solid and vibrant they looked more like models to touch. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, The Night Watch, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, these paintings sounded more like the short horror stories I was reading at the time and looked like they were too. Haunted faces, doom laden clouds, movement and action, mystery, suspense, all these were locked and frozen in the frames. Dad noted my awed silence and pointed out what is most important in all of these is that they are not realistic. Showing me some Dutch still life paintings he pointed out it is the light that makes them real but every thing else is much more interpretative. I agreed. He told me to keep a hold of the book for now.
A few days later I flicked through the book and found this painting of a boat being towed along the river. I must have stared at that stupid picture for an hour. I looked at more of this man’s paintings and fell in love. Some were wide, nearly empty vistas with detailed buildings, others were just golden plates that seemed to hum and swirl. ‘That’s Turner,’ Dad told me. ‘Got better as he got older.’ He was right, the later ones got more and more abstract and indistinct but more and more beautiful. They seemed like alien worlds to me, heavy with atmosphere and shimmering light. ‘You can tell he was influenced by Rembrandt, look,’ Dad took the page of Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and found a painting by Turner called ‘Dutch Boats in a Gale’. Whilst they both depict a boat on a rough sea over hung with black clouds, their styles differ, ‘But look at the light’ Dad said. He was right. The light caught on the sails and foam of both pictures had exactly the same tone, the shadows the same depth, they both captured the same drama and atmosphere. It was like magic. ‘You think that’s good?’ He flicked forward, ‘You haven’t seen Monet yet.’
I can’t quite explain the sensation of seeing you brain being pulled out and smeared across the pages of a book but that’s as best as I can describe seeing Monet’s water lilies for the first time. It was like someone had seen my dreams and put them on paper. I felt like I could run my fingers through the water. Dad explained this was called ‘Impressionism’ a technique of painting where the artists did not bother with exact detail merely gave the impression of the image, drawing inspiration from ‘Pointilism’, Van Gogh’s own Japanese inspired swirls but most importantly Turner’s magical, misty landscapes. There was a clear line, Dad said, between Rembrandt, Turner and Monet and it all relied on not being real. From that first viewing of Monet’s paintings, specifically the water lilies, I became obsessed. Rembrandt, Turner and Monet are widely acknowledged as three of the greatest artists of all time. That kind of plaudit and acknowledgement normally means that after centuries of analysis and scrutiny and cultural penetration they have nothing left to give and in many ways it is true. Their influence is seen everywhere and in almost every image. They are a visual short hand for so many things in the art world, even the most abstract art has a lineage with these three because they were the first to discover realism was not the objective in art, it was interpretation and the less distinct something is, the more a viewer will project their own details onto it.
Since then I have spent my life chasing these three artists around the globe, but none more so than Monet and his water lilies. My first experience with the water lilies was in London at 15. I was there to see a gig but the famous exhibition imaginatively titled ‘Monet’s Water Lilies’ that was touring the world was at the Tate so I went in early and got my first taste. One thing I was not prepared for was their size. Some, if not most, of the Water Lily studies are enormous. Stood at close proximity to them you could easily fill your vision with them until I get tapped on the shoulder and asked to move aside for other viewers. They are all endlessly inventive, no two alike they literally swim with a variety of colours, painted in different seasons with different strokes and styles. The water lilies are a master working at the height of his powers in the throes of true inspiration. I have now seen Monet in Paris, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Sydney and New York. Where there is a world famous gallery, there is typically a Monet, a Turner and a Rembrandt. I hunt these down at any available opportunity. On my 28th birthday I made the trip to the Tate in Liverpool to see an exhibition entitled ‘Turner, Monet, Twombly’. This was a fascinating exhibit placing the three directly influenced painters alongside one another and whilst I admit, Twombly is not for me, seeing Turner and Monet side by side was a treat for the eyes and a balm for the brain. The most jaw-dropping and akin to a spiritual experience of seeing a Monet came at the MOMA in New York. Not being a fan of most ‘Modern Art’ the only part of the MOMA I enjoyed was the top floor where the ‘Classic’ modern art hides: Cezannes, Picasso, Pollock and Monet. A three panel, room-sized water lilies painting dominates the main room there and almost literally brought me to my knees. I must have sat there for more than half an hour, dumb struck and wide eyed as I submerged into the purple swirls of silk that rippled around me. Apparently the Orangerie in Paris is where the finest examples reside and I am yet to see them but what a day that will be.
My love for the water lilies drove me to learn everything I could about them. Still whenever there is a documentary or book about them I will have a look to learn as much as I can about my three favourite painters but there was one specific documentary I watched that explained so much. I cannot for the life of me remember the title of it but it involved the presenter going to Monet’s Flower Garden in Giverny where the pictures were painted. Monet designed the garden himself, a keen horticulturalist, and even diverted the nearby river to create the placid waters he depicted. The garden itself is beautiful but oddly small and sterile in comparison to the paintings, but it was then I discovered what really made the water lilies so beautiful. Loss.
Monet’s life was struck with tragedy, repeatedly. He lost his wife and his son and saw his home country torn apart by the Great War after which he stated his intent to paint the water lilies as “A monument to peace”. This blight of tragedy upon a man so talented was no doubt his greatest pain but the world’s true gain. He poured himself into the garden and his painting, every dab of his brush a little blob of his soul on the canvas, the variety of each image a window not merely into the caprice of the French weather and its changing seasons but into Monet’s own tortured or placid mood. To look at the water lilies is to look at Melancholy. As Jacques in As You Like It puts words to the beauty and necessity of Melancholy, Monet gives it voice in his paintings. Yet it is the loss of one thing that made the water lilies what they are: His sight. He had cataracts that he had operations to remove but most certainly altered his vision. This loss of sight combined with his loss of his loved ones means the water lilies stand as some of the most potent exorcisms of grief ever created and are deeply affecting to witness.
I write this because I was in London at the weekend and decided to duck in to the National Gallery. Inside reside some of the best examples of most great painters but in particular Monet and Turner. You can see Dutch Boats in a Gale and my absolute favourite Turner ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ as well as some studies by Monet and some prime examples of the Water Lilies. As I stood in front of the giant wall sized pond I imagined the man himself stood, brush in hand, by the canvas. Rotund, half blind, his long black and grey beard trailing down his front, the light pouring into the garden or studio as he smeared the paint on the canvas. I wish I could have watched. I wish I could have stood next to him and seen him try to capture the peace he and the world so desperately wanted, needed at the time. I make no shame of the fact I began to tear up then as I thought about this, as I looked at a painting I had seen many times before. It takes a lot to move someone to tears, especially in this day and age, and even tougher to do it with a still image.
I will never be a painter but I thank my Dad for showing these great artists and incredible works of art to me. Typically it was my parent who taught me the most about a subject I love so much and not the education system. But more than that, Rembrandt, Turner and Monet have taught me more about the world and who I am than most. I will never get bored of Rembrandt’s black marbles, nor Turner’s glazed mist and I will always come back to wade amongst the water lilies.
(Post Script: My memory isn’t that great so I have filled in some blanks on my Dad and I’s story, for instance it may have been more than one book but the essentials are there and the above tells the same story. History, like Art, is all about interpretation.)
For the last two years I have written a poem for Christmas so here’s this year’s in what is becoming a bit of a tradition for me. As Christmas poems have a mixed history I’ve found, I did a bit of research this time and read a few of the notable ones, as well as Ms. Duffy’s latest addition to the ‘canon’. Milton, Tennyson, Betjeman, Dickinson, Eliot, McNiece, everybody has written Christmas poems it turns out and of wildly different styles and tones. Generally the earlier ones tend to be dour and severe calls to remember Jesus Christ and forsake the wanton revelry for sober reflections of our souls, whereas latterly they become misty eyed reveries for an almost entirely fictitious or at least nostalgic past.
My last two were very much half and half. One was a sad recollection on how I have grown up and how different Christmas is to me now, the other more of an abstract pondering on what christmas is and what it really means. So for this one I wanted to do something different, as Robin Williams said “we must constantly look at things in a different way”. My favourite Christmas poem is by one of my least favourite writers, Thomas Hardy, entitled ‘The Oxen‘. It falls into the former category of dour calls to worship but is done in a very oblique way. More than anything it is a vignette, at little snapshot, putting one tiny element of the nativity and the (then) present day under a microscope. As such, I nicked this idea and wrote this poem. I hope you like it.
There is none so dead, so still
As that Winter’s night. None awake
and snow let silt to the ground, a chill
White plain, a blank marshmallow lake
When your eyes break cover and draw
A shadow painting with that white
And bare feet press carpet floors,
A curtain hood unveils the night;
The cold desert with no manger,
The guiding star and her sisters
Shattered on the floor with no danger
of seeing that unspoken father
Arriving to fill stockings, empty
Before sherry, pies and carrots fed
A myth and gave plenty
with a weight at the end of your bed.
And as a special treat here is my improvised rendition of one of my favourite carols:
I miss the hiss of white noise drowning out the clatter and clang of a bakery next door. I miss the disappearing horizon through a mist of wind blown sand. I miss a hug from a new friend and different person everyday. I miss the flatness and clean arrangement of the towns. I miss rotten apples on a window sill in opaque light. I miss looking up from my feet more than twice a day. I miss walking till my hips twitched when I finally sat down. I miss the scale. I miss how big everything was. I miss how big everyone’s ideas were, how big their hearts were and how big their generosity was. I miss feeling involved in something. I miss being part of a group. I miss looking into a sink full of dirty dishes and being shooed away. I miss aisles and aisles of alien produce and packaging. I miss Canada Dry. I miss sitting back and watching people interact without being ignored. I miss feeling like I was wanted somewhere. I miss smiling so often. I miss being amazed at every corner and being in awe nearly ever minute of the day. I miss forcing myself to be articulate. I miss being kissed. I miss feeling like I was having an impact on someone. I miss Fijit nosing me in the dark. I miss having something to do everyday, even when it was nothing. I miss watching people be so happy. I miss sand being fucking EVERYWHERE. I miss being silly. I miss the steam coming through the drains. I miss the golden hour when the sky became a grade and the lights came on and everything came to life. I miss the expectancy that hung in the air. I miss walking down 5th avenue arm in arm with two beautiful women. I miss the views. I miss the trees. I miss those goddamn noisy crickets. I miss getting in the wrong side of the car. I miss the Avenues that went for miles straight ahead like giant troughs of a tail-light stream. I miss not caring what time it was. I miss staring at piles of food bigger than my head. I miss holding a hand. I miss resting a head. I miss the smell of the river. I miss that fucking view from the Brooklyn bridge. I miss singing stupid songs along to youtube. I miss holding my phone at the ready 24/7 because anything could be around the next corner. I miss being in someone else’s Vines. I miss just trying out ideas. I miss being listened to like what I said matters. I miss hearing people dissect their thoughts and feelings instead of brushing them aside for later, private inspection. I miss people being forthright. I miss the friendliness of strangers. I miss their openness. I miss being exotic and new. I miss not being mocked as a way of formal greeting or “endearment”. I miss the guffaw. I miss the 8 year old in grown up body. I miss the wildman in a shabby garret. I miss the bubbling bear and his Goldilocks. I miss the BFG. I miss the steel woman. I miss the grown up tinkerbell. I miss the famous girl. I miss all the damn dogs. I miss people out. I miss my friends.
I wish I’d said thank you more. I wish I’d had more money. I wish I could have treated people more. I wish I hadn’t got sick. I wish I wasn’t so grumpy. I wish I was more emotionally articulate. I wish I’d told everyone how grateful I was. I wish I could have repaid everyone. I wish people had realised how quick time was going to go. I wish I had spent longer with everyone. I wish I had finished that chocolate cake. I wish I had made a move. I wish I had held that hug just a second longer to let her know. I wish I had looked back. I wish I hadn’t got so grumpy when I couldn’t explain I wanted to spend more time with people or more time alone. I wish I was better in groups. I wish each party hadn’t taken so much out of me. I wish I could have explained how drained I was instead of walking out so I could go and cry on the beach. I wish I could have told them to stop being so fucking nice and understanding which was making me upset. I wish I could have told them how fragile I was without sounding like a prick. I wish I could have been stronger. I wish I could have endeared myself to more people. I wish I had been well enough to go on the ferris wheel. I wish smores had tasted better. I wish America had better chocolate. I wish I didn’t have to keep letting people pay for my whole damn trip. I wish I was a millionaire so I could do the same for everyone. I wish there was a way I could have bottled that night. I wish I could live by that river. I wish I had a bed like that one. I wish I could live those three days again. I wish I hadn’t freaked out and ran out of that cigar bar. I wish I had spent longer in the Farm House. I wish I had been there longer than a month. I wish I was more confident. I wish I could explain how much it all meant to me. I wish there had been a piano somewhere to play. I wish I’d stayed longer in the home without doors. I wish I didn’t have to write a stupid blog post in a list to tell them all how much I love them. I wish people could see what can be done if people give a shit. I wish people would stop decrying social media and start decrying humanity’s appalling attitude to its own species. I wish people would listen. I wish people took a broader look at the world. I wish we weren’t all so fucking stupid and self-centered. I wish we took care of one another like they all took care of me. I wish I was worth all of it. I wish I was still there. I wish.