I don’t know if you ever do this. I suspect most people do at some time or another, but I find myself doing it more and more lately and it’s extremely annoying. It’s a very bad habit but I can’t seem to get out of it, and of course like most bad habits the more I fight it the stronger it gets. I am referring to the tendency to argue with yourself.
Talking to yourself is fine; it’s something I do all the time and sometimes out loud. This is easier nowadays because one in every two people has a hands-free mobile set on which they conduct conversations with the air, so unless passers-by check my ears thoroughly and see that there are no earphones in them, they will not know that I am practising my poems or discussing politics rather than having some inane phone conversation about what to have for dinner tonight. (It’s salad, by the way – which does not give me joy. It’s too bloody cold for salad.)
But what really annoys me is when I argue with myself – not in a productive way but in a way that undermines something fine or beautiful that I’m thinking. For example, this evening I was finding my way back to Loughborough on a crowded and delayed train (signal failure near Loughborough: the phrase reminded me of Reggie Perrin) and I happened to be snuggled up to the door, from where I could see the most magical sunset. I started to describe it in my mind, having half an idea to write about it on here – the eerie blue of the sky, the orange underbelly of the clouds, making it look like sunset on Venus – when a cold and nasty thought came into my mind. There’s no such thing as magic, the voice said, and immediately all the wonder went from my mind like a burst bubble. Why do I do things like that? I don’t want to.
I don’t know.
It’s been a tiring day today, what with having to leave the house before eight to get to the doctors and get my repeat prescription for thyroxine. I then worked in Leicester library before going to Sound Cafe and thence to the station for a looooooooong wait and a look at some cancelled trains.
Being as how I’m now back in what we are pleased to call ‘civilisation’ (cue Gandhi on being asked what he thought of Western civilisation saying ‘It would be a good idea’ which is pretty much what I thought of Soviet communism) I have been to the cinema. In Loughborough there is an impossibly cheap picture-house which goes by the name of Curzon and seems to employ only ghost workers, since you get your tickets from a machine and occasionally someone checks them at the door, though on this occasion they didn’t. It reminded me of returning from my first visit to Spain in the early hours of the morning, sweeping through a deserted customs, reclaiming our baggage from a silently swirling baggage carousel and getting into a very quiet taxi to go to our bed and breakfast. On arrival I smiled broadly at the man on the desk and said at a volume suitable for the Costa del Sol, ‘Hello, we’ve booked a room in the name of -‘ He cut me off with an appalled look. ‘Sh!’ he said. It struck me as amusing that the first word anyone spoke to me on landing in Britain was ‘Sh!’
But I digress. At this spectacularly cheap cinema we were privileged to view ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.’ It was great; much lighter than the Harry Potter films (though it had one or two dark moments) and centred on the wizarding community in New York in the 1920’s where the Muggle (or ‘NoMag’) communities seem to be channelling the Puritans of the 17th century. Enter Newt Scamander who, for those paying close attention, is mentioned at least two or three times in the Potter books as the author of the eponymous ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ and his suitcase. The suitcase, like one of Hagrid’s bags concealing some nefarious animal, appears to contain a life-form of some description. Fortunately the case also has a Muggle-worthy button and so gets through customs but his luck doesn’t hold as the beasts get out and cause havoc in New York. I won’t spoil it by saying any more, but it’s a highly entertaining film and Eddie Redmayne is excellent as the Doctor Doolittle of the wizarding world.
I can’t claim to be much affected by the Welsh language in this borderland village, since practically everyone I’ve met is (or sounds) English. Actually that’s not entirely true: the pub boasts a landlady from New Zealand and a Latvian cook, but apart from them you only hear English accents. Of course Welsh is written everywhere, whether it’s necessary or not; most public notices are posted in both languages and the street signs are also in English and Welsh, so that if you care to, you can pick up quite a few words. I happen to know that dref means town and canol means centre; I am equally intrigued by the spelling of Eglwys (church) and the variations on Cymru arising from the confusing tendency of Welsh to change the beginnings rather than the endings of words.
I quite like Welsh. It looks like a bundle of unpronounceable consonants, but once you understand that w and y are actually vowels (cue Zerothly telling everyone that y is a vowel in English too) and get to grips with how to say them, it’s quite straightforward. Well, except that f is pronounced v and ff is f and oh, a dozen other rules I can’t quite remember and about which zerothly will no doubt inform us, it is. Once you get into it. Of course it helps to hear it spoken which you don’t, hereabouts.
On the other hand, you can’t help wondering how necessary it is to have everything in two languages, especially when, as in one case, the place is called ‘Pandy’ in English and ‘Andy’ in Welsh. Both signs are placed solemnly side by side as you come into the village: it makes me smile.
But if I’m not careful I’ll miss out the whole point of this post, which is the progress of my novel. It’s going quite blindingly well; I have rushed at it like several bulls at a succession of gates and have last week passed the 50,000 word mark. It’s in three sections and I’m currently feeling my way through the third; I shan’t finish before I go home at the weekend but the raw material is there for an excellent novel.
It seems to me entirely understandable that to some primitive people, God lives at the top of a mountain. Even nowadays many people still regard mountains as sacred, and when I hear about the amount of debris climbers are leaving on Everest and K2, I feel saddened and sickened. As it happens, I’ve just finished reading a novel about that, but first I want to tell you about my walk. I didn’t have a camera with me and in any case no camera would be capable of doing it justice – so you’ll just have to be content with my words.
First you climb out of the back gate and up the lane. I could see easily the path that yesterday’s flood-waters had taken, pushing leaves and debris aside and cutting a clear-edged swathe like a serpent through grass. I was thankful the house was out of its path, though it occurred to me that if the floods got much worse you’d need sandbags to stop the water cascading down the steps and in through the front door.
So, once up to the top you can turn right, down the hill and through the valley, or you can go left. Today I went left, up past the castle and then down to the tiny village of Kentchurch where you will cross the border into Hereford. This is a great walk for views: you can do it across the fields but with small dogs there are too many stiles for comfort, so I stuck to the road. (This is normally quiet but for some reason today there were more cars than I’ve ever seen on it.) Anyway, you go down the hill and round the bend and there you stop and look over the gate, for here is the most spectacular view in the neighbourhood. Wherever you go around here, there are stunning views of hills and mountains with banks of trees running to gold and russet and brown. But this is special, because you have all that, and then in the distance you have the Black Mountains. These are usually dark and brooding (hence the name) but today they had snow on them; snow running down the gulleys like rivulets of lava; snow sharpening the edges of stone; snow reflecting the sun on the top. It was cloudy everywhere else except on the mountaintop – and with the sun shining on the flat white summit it looked like another world altogether. I thought of Narnia and Aslan’s country. I thought of other worlds: I thought of what it must be like to be up there. Here’s a picture from much closer:
But if Nicci French’s book ‘Killing Me Softly’ is to be believed, far too many people are climbing mountains; and when it comes to the big peaks they are mostly ego-driven guys with more money than sense. These commercial climbers do not treat the mountain with respect, and thus endanger both their guides and the environment. But this is incidental to the main story, which centres on a bizarre and obsessive relationship. It’s a great read, dark and disturbing but also – refreshingly -showing a heroine with independence and guts who, although she gets into a ridiculously controlling and secretive relationship with a mountaineer, also manages to find out the truth about her husband and have him arrested. I won’t say any more but here it is if you want to read it:
I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to the question do I believe in God? is probably ‘no.’ Or at least, let’s put it another way: it’s not about ‘belief’. It’s not about a series of credos which are ‘out there’ or ‘up there’ and which I support in some way: it’s not about a set of tenets which I’ve signed up to. What it is, is like this:
Supposing you were to ask me if I believe in love. Go on, ask me:
‘Do you believe in love?’
I would answer yes. And you might then ask why. Go on!
‘Because I’ve experienced it. I’ve known it and felt it and lived it – and because what I experience seems to be similar to what other people mean when they talk about love – so I call it love.’
Now ask me about God.
‘What about God?’
‘Same answer. I believe in God because I’ve known and lived and felt and experienced something which seems to be the same as what other people mean when they talk about God – and so I call it God.’
Of course you might then object, as many people do, that terrible acts are committed in the name of God. This is undeniably true. But terrible acts are also committed in the name of love. People kill or abuse or stalk or threaten each other and call it love, but just as I do not recognise that as love, so I do not recognise the other as God.
It boils down to what George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, said: (I’m paraphrasing a little) ‘The Bible says this and men say that and the preacher says so-and-so – but what can’st thou say?’ In other words, what matters is your experience; the experience of the individual not standing alone, but within the group.
Want to gain eternal life? Want to live for billions of years and conquer the universe? Want to understand the key to eternal verities? Forget churches who just let you turn up and worship for free; forget the Bible and the Gita and all those other texts you can just read on the internet; forget meditation. What you need to do is spend hundreds of thousands of pounds being ‘trained’, pummelled, bullied and harassed by a secretive organisation which will completely f*** your mind. And then you’ll be so powerful, you can look in the camera with that intense and creepy expression Tom Cruise has, and everyone will just do whatever you want.
Yes, I have finally caught up with the latest Louis Theroux offering, ‘My Scientology Movie.’ Scientology is a ‘religion’ set up by sci-fi writer L Ron Hubbard and taken over, on his death, by David Miscavige. Louis spent ten years trying to get Scientologists to talk to him and met a brick wall; so he turned to the only available source of information – lapsed, or perhaps we should rather say ‘escaped’, Scientologists. And rather than just interviewing them, he came up with an ingenious method of trying to approximate what goes on on the organisation: he reconstructed it. With the aid of Marty Rathbun, formerly one of David Miscavige’s top henchmen, he reconstructs a ‘training’ session where aspirants interview each other one-to-one and try to elicit an emotional response. This response is measured by a lie-detector and the methods are brutal: the person interviewing Louis told him he was a rubbish film-maker whose wife didn’t love him and was probably having sex right now with someone else, maybe someone he thought was a friend. Unsurprisingly this got an emotional response, leading to the increased heart-rate which is measured on the lie-detector.
In a horrible way you can almost see this working, like throwing someone in at the deep end might teach them to swim. Then again, they might drown or suffer terrible trauma, especially as this ‘training’ continues until you no longer show a response, after which you go onto the next level (and pay more money).
The ideas of paying for enlightenment is, or ought to be, a red flag: anyone who makes a profit out of showing others ‘the way’ is not to be trusted. Most yoga organisations charge for asana classes but not for meditation, and no church I’ve ever heard of would dream of charging people to attend (yes, I know a lot of them make a point of passing round the plate, but you can still walk out that door and give them nothing: salvation does not depend on donation.)
This was a dangerous film for Theroux to make: plenty of people warned him not to go there and while filming he was continually followed, harassed, filmed and at one point barred from driving down a public road which the Scientologists had illegally closed. He also got a number of letters from their lawyers warning him to stop spreading ‘false information’ and his main witness, Marty Rathbun, backed out in the end after veiled threats to his foster-child. Clearly these people will stop at very little to protect themselves; they are clever, rich and powerful; and unlike your typical gangster, they are subtle and intelligent.
It reminded me a little of something that happened to me way back in the ’80’s. I was 24, recovering from a breakdown and quite vulnerable when I met a man called Barney. He seemed pleasant enough, and besides was a member of CND so I had no reason to distrust him. But we got chatting and he tried to get me to come to a meeting of something called EST where people were locked into a room and not allowed to go to the toilet, in order that they would overcome their inhibitions by urinating in front of other people. This wikipedia article gives a fairly positive account of it but I didn’t want to know: however this guy would not give up. I told him I couldn’t afford the training (I was on the dole and I think the sessions were about £50, a lot of money in the early ’80’s) thinking that would be a clinching argument. Not a bit of it: he told me to borrow the money. It’d be worth it, he said. He kept on and on at me until in the end I got my parents to talk to him as I just couldn’t cope.
So I’m asking myself the same question I did after Brexit: who are these people that voted for it? It’s too easy to say they’re all racists and homophobes – I’m sure they aren’t – but in their minds or guts or hearts or whatever there was some kind of override switch. No matter what appalling things Mr T said, it didn’t matter. He doesn’t mean it, they told themselves. He wants to build a wall! Aw, bless! Like he’s some little toddler organising teddies in a playpen. Nobody I’ve read about is very coherent on why they voted for him. Sure there were some folks cheering and whooping about Mexicans and ‘the wall’ and ‘illegal rapists’ (like there’s a legal kind)* and some who probably would quite like to bring back slavery; but they can’t all be like that, can they?
I’m sure they aren’t. I’m sure they’re decent folks. But as the old saying goes, for evil to prosper it suffices for good men and women to ignore what Trump says. OK I’m paraphrasing but that’s the gist of it here. I won’t say the man is evil but his policies sure are and his actions have been and I could go on and on about how he has the self-control of a two-year-old (it’s tempting to wonder whether dictators want power over others because they have none over themselves; Caligula comes to mind) but that has already been said by others, over and over. Oh, and because he’s not a career politician and nobody trusts politicians any more. I can get on board with that – but for god’s sake, why trust a businessman? In the end it just seems that folk had a common-sense bypass and nothing could prevail against the mantra ‘Make America great again’. Just as over here nothing prevailed over the mantra ‘take back control’.
When do I get to take back control?
*Mr T himself, we assume. But it’s OK because he’s white and he’ll pass on his white genes and not those nasty brown ones.
Congratulations America – you just elected your first Hitler. No, seriously: I don’t think comparisons with Hitler are exaggerated. OK so Mr T doesn’t have the paramilitary chic that Adolf and his pals had – in fact he has no chic at all – but he doesn’t need it. Because it’s not surprising, given our current reverence for money, that the next fascist dictator should be some kind of uber-businessman.
OK so he’s not a dictator – yet: but then, neither was Hitler when he was elected. Just like Mr T, Hitler promised to make the country great again; just like Mr T he blamed blacks and gays and Jews (for Jews read Muslims) for the country’s ills. Fascism doesn’t come with a gas chamber; it comes as your friend, promising jobs and money and pride and ‘greatness’ (whatever that means.) In Britain it came as Brexit, guaranteeing to ‘take back control’ (whatever that means) and more money for ‘us’ instead of ‘them’. I suspect that in many people’s minds what ‘control’ meant was ‘control of our borders’ and what that meant was immigration. We don’t want them here. It’s as simple as that.
No, fascism comes as your friend, separating you from ‘the other’, the one who wants to do you down, the foreigner, the immigrant. We’re going to build a wall between us and them (and in this respect totalitarian communism is exactly the same as fascism) to keep them out: we’re going to round them up and tag them and keep tabs on them and if they step out of line we’re going to throw them in jail or deport them.
This is no different from what Hitler did – or Stalin, come to that. First you separate ‘us’, the good guys, from ‘them’. On our side are the white males, their females who fall into line, all of whom are obviously straight. On the other side are Muslims (public enemy no. 1 and this century’s Jews) gays and all the rest of the quiltbag rag-tag; black people (obviously) and white women who step out of line.
Sure, Mr T doesn’t have the power to do what Hitler did – yet. But neither did Hitler when he was elected.
Of course it’s easy to be smug, to look at the Americans and say, here’s a bunch of people who went over there and took the place from the indigenous population – and now they hate immigrants? What a short memory they have!
But our memories are even shorter. Why do we have so many refugees from Syria? Could it be something to do with the fact that we are bombing the hell out of their country? But god help anyone who shows these people compassion. Maybe if we want a picture of the future, rather than a boot stamping on a human face as Orwell so cheerily prophesied, we should picture a man stabbing Jo Cox and shouting ‘Britain First!’ Because it’s Us that matter – and They are taking over – and anyone who helps Them deserves to die.
I’m ashamed of my country. I’m ashamed of Brexit and I’m ashamed of the so-called special relationship. I don’t want to live here any more.
I think we’re done with the Cohen tributes for now, though if you haven’t read them please scroll down and take a look. So we’re onto something I’ve been avoiding for the last week or so and it is what I’m calling Trexit. It’s Brexit Plus: Brexit with that secret added ingredient which makes it twenty times more repellent. I don’t need to tell you what it is, but Trexit has seemingly brought all the closet racists, homophobes, misogynists and Islamophobes out of the woodwork and into the limelight where they can crawl around proudly in front of the cameras.
I have decided I want to emigrate now. I used to say no to going to Scotland or Scandinavia, the two places Thing was keen on, because they were too cold. Now I don’t care. What with global warming they’ll be just a nice temperature by the time we get there and we might even have something approaching a winter. Because we sure as hell haven’t got one here. Yes, I know I hate winter but I hate climate change even more – and for a hoax phenomenon it sure is putting on a hell of a show. So let’s go North, somewhere they have a proper political system and don’t stick their noses up Mr T’s arse.
Of course the irony is that since Brexit it’s going to be harder to go and live anywhere else – and we can’t go yet because my father-in-law needs looking after.
What can I say about the legacy Cohen left me? How can I attempt to describe what his songs meant then and then and now; the feelings they engendered, the images they brought before me? It is impossible but still I have to try.
I guess part of it was the religious imagery. Here was a man who knew the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New; who wrestled with God like Jacob; who followed that path like a pilgrim, who like me found solace in an Eastern way (for him it was Zen, for me, yoga) and who, above all, wasn’t afraid to open in song the very darkest corners of the heart. Cohen confronted himself daily, opening the maps of his depression and the charts of his love:
please understand I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter.
Cohen was a stranger in this world; a pilgrim, a mystic; a lover. He was a priest without a temple, a soldier without a war, a guru without a religion:
and I sing this for the captain
whose ship has not been built
for the mother in confusion
her cradle still unfilled…
for the prima ballerina
who cannot dance to anything.
(‘The Heart with No Companion’)
Cohen is full of paradox and contradiction; he is baffled and bewildered, confused and crossed as Jesus on a bad day, yet still he sings:
and even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
What I love the most about Cohen is that he defies logic. I know people who say, ‘I can’t understand what ‘Suzanne’ means. What is it all about?’ I could tell them that it was about a woman he once knew; how the Jesus motif is about a statue of Christ in Montreal who looks down on sailors or how there’s a statue of Mary called ‘our Lady of the Harbour – but all this is irrelevant. What those images brought to me when I first heard them transcends the geography of Montreal. They spoke of drowning men able to see Jesus; they spoke of an eccentric woman dressed in Salvation Army flowers; they spoke of love and longing and being most lost when you are most found. To ask what the songs are about is to ask the wrong question, as it might be to ask someone who meditates what they are thinking about. Meditation is not thought; and song is not logic. The song is about your experience of the song, and it’s about the connection Leonard makes with your heart. The songs are transfusions.
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