Chapter 36 Ideologies PART 3
It’s February 2022, the threat of Nuclear Armageddon hasn’t been this tangible since 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. This involved the Russians placing nuclear missiles on Cuba partly in response to the US’s deployment of atomic weapons in Italy and Turkey. This led the Americans to ‘quarantine’ Cuba from receiving further arms supplies until all the rockets were sent back to the Soviet Union. In return the US promised not to invade Cuba.
Echoing those times, Russia’s President Putin has recently attacked Ukraine, arguing its plans of joining NATO threatened Russia’s security. One of Russia’s ambassadors publically stated missiles and biological warfare labs were already positioned too close to the Russian border, and was unacceptable as far as Russia was concerned. NATO stated it had not done anything of the kind, nor had it any intention of doing such a provocative thing. While this may be the official narrative, when it comes to war the real reasons tend not to be those stated openly.
In the 1980’s, not only did we experience the reality of IRA bombs, but the possibility of nuclear Armageddon relentlessly hung in the air. There were public information films telling us what to do in the event of a nuclear attack and other programs told how ridiculous those films were. There was the animated film called ‘When the Wind Blows’ that illustrated a rural couple’s unsuccessful attempt to survive a nuclear attack. There were also countless dramas and films that portrayed the world after a nuclear war. From the 1970’s up to the early 90’s the threat of being annihilated was never far away. Even when I was 13, when a teacher in the Roehampton Hospital classroom asked us to tell a story I took delight in frightening the other kids with a brief description of people panicking as a nuclear bomb went off in London. When I say brief, it would have been longer had the teacher not pounced on me, her hand across my mouth, amidst cries from her to stop. I think a few of the other kids were crying too, much to my delight.
The belief that we were all going to be burnt alive or die from radiation permeated our lives so much so, the thought of having children seemed ridiculous, after all what would be the point of bringing them into such a horrific world. With the collapse of The Soviet Union in 1991, though, things changed. The threat of a nuclear war became far less likely and over the ensuing decades, non-proliferation arms treaties appeared to further reduce the risk. So, apart from the possibility of a terrorist state or organisation getting hold of nuclear weapons, the issue subsided. By the early 2000’s other types of Armageddon such as those posed by ecological disasters or meteor strikes became our go to end of days’ scenario.
Earlier in February 2022, Putin spoke of his desire to recreate the Soviet Union, this along with Russia’s annexing of Crimea and the attack on Ukraine suggests he believes the world wouldn’t dare oppose him in any militaristic form. This may well be true as many in the West think along the lines of it being better to let him occupy an ex-soviet country than destroy the rest of the world. Besides, they argue, in time, his grip will loosen and the Ukrainians will get their freedom back. In this case the Ukrainians will have to be the sacrificial lambs.
24th February 2022 – Ukraine Invasion
Someone I know from Wilson’s called Martin contacted me a few years ago after he’d come across some of the chapters I’d put online. Since then we write to each other occasionally and he gives me feedback as each chapter gets posted. After he read the chapters about Yuri B, he asked me if I was into conspiracy theories, (which I’m not), and suggested that the West’s decline into division was not due to the KGB, (which I mainly agree with). However, today, just after receiving his message, the Russian Army started to invade Ukraine. I couldn’t help but think if ever there was a time when the KGB’s plan, as Yuri B described it, had come to fruition. We have, as Yuri said, spent decades not focusing on important issues, and it’s left us weak in the face of a powerful adversary.
Although the West’s reaction to Russia’s invasion won’t stop Russia’s attacks for now, it might not be completely futile. In the long term Russia will be far weaker economically as a result of sanctions. One can’t help but see the West’s refusal to stand up to Russia’s might as a sign of weakness. It’s as if the West has woken from a Hollywood dream to find its muscles wasted away, skills forgotten and fighting spirit nowhere to be found. In a recent poll I took part in, 39% of UK participants said they wouldn’t be willing to die for their country and 18% said they weren’t sure. Ironically, when their ideologies are threatened they’re willing to become keyboard warriors, ready to type to the death, but as far as countries go, they’re just a social construct. Some stories end with an awakening from a nightmare, but some start being woken from a lovely dream.
* * *
Stage 3 Crisis – Yuri B – 1982
The lights fade up. The studio audience applaud.
The presenter looks to the camera.
‘Welcome back, we’re here with Yuri B speaking about the KGB’s plans to subvert the West. Let me pass you back to Yuri.’
He writes the word ‘CRISIS’ on the blackboard.
‘The KGB will not subvert the West. The West is quite capable of doing that all by themselves. They’ll just lend a helping hand, or should I say, hand out.’
He writes a large tick next to the word ‘crisis’ then turns to the audience.
‘The Crisis stage can occur very quickly, possibly within weeks, and when it does it’s overriding characteristic is society no longer functions properly.’
He shakes the piece of chalk in his cupped hands as if it were a dice.
‘This, of course, is a relative term. Does it mean the trains are no longer running, there’s no food in the shops, the government can’t work effectively anymore?
He opens his hands to the audience to show they are empty. The audience laugh.
‘It’s possible that it could occur seamlessly, where, for instance a transfer of power occurs in a bloodless coup, or maybe, a civil war breaks out.’
He stops speaking, scans the audience, and presents the chalk between his thumb and finger. He then throws it in the air and lets it fall to the floor. There’s a ripple of laughter.
‘Things can happen when you least expect them to. Nothing is set in stone, especially when there’s division in the land.’
He picks up the piece of chalk.
‘As I said, the Crisis stage is quick, including me talking about it. So, what do you think happens next?’
* * *
Trip to Exmoor 1982 Part 3
After the phone box and motorcyclist incident, I made my way back to the car where Stephen looked like he’d had lots of fun, mum and John however looked in need of a holiday. After an ice cream in light rain, the temperature dipped and even greyer clouds appeared overhead so we returned to the cottage.
The last few days were of our stay were very quiet. I tried doing some karate in the garden but kept slipping on the grass, so gave up. Faced with utter boredom I worked on my essay for a few hours. I looked out the window, the sun turned everything gold so I grabbed my camera and went for a walk. I didn’t have a plan so followed my nose along country lanes, taking photos that looked stunning through the viewfinder, but as I was to find out later were bland when printed out. On the way back, I passed the bus shelter, this time only the girl was there. I decided to pretend to wait for a bus just in case I could tempt her to drag me in to the bus shelter, desperate measures etc.
‘What you doing?’ she asked
I took on the demeanour of a character from ‘Waiting for Godot’
‘Waiting for a bus’
‘But you’re staying at that cottage, and anyway, there aren’t any buses till tomorrow now’
I thought quickly, lifted my camera slightly. ‘I just wanted to photograph the bus, I’ve got a friend who likes buses.’
She bobbed her head up slightly, her mouth turned down at the edges, opened the telephone box door and stepped inside. I waited for her hand to come out and beckon me in. Then I heard a coin dropping into the payphone and her muffled voice say. ‘You know that armless bloke staying at the cottage, I think he’s trying to chat me up.’
Half expecting her biker boyfriend to turn up I looked at her through the broken panes of glass, waved goodbye to her with my paw, then set off as quickly as I could without running.
Soon after getting back to the cottage we had our tea and watched a bit of TV. There wasn’t much else to do, we didn’t even argue. I started to understand the attraction of the bus stop and the pub, and appreciated that maybe life back in Wallington wasn’t so dull after all.
The next day was our last one. John hoovered the same bit of carpet for about half an hour. Maybe he could see something we couldn’t or this was his way of preparing for the arduous journey ahead.
As we set off I put my headphones on, detached from reality for a while and watched a window view slideshow of the world accompanied by Mark Knopfler telling me about his experiences of unrequited love. This time, instead of hearing his words from the other side of a confessional screen, they were in my head, he was me, and I was he.
We stopped at a petrol station for a short break, it was dark and the place was surrounded by mist. I bought a chocolate bar and chatted to the cashier. As far as I was concerned she looked bored so I thought I’d come to her rescue. I often feel that way about cashiers, even today. As far as I’m concerned, it’s my duty to brighten up their day, whether they want it or not. Maybe I was being my usual deluded self, but she seemed happy to chat. Facing a night shift at a filling station would probably leave most of us eager to connect. I could see it in her eyes, that was the way I felt most of the time, the afflicted always recognise each other.
After 20 minutes John came in, ‘Come on Simon, we’re waiting for you.’ He then added an embarrassed laugh as if he was apologising to the cashier for me being inappropriate. As I left, I asked her for her name. She smiled and called out ‘Wendy’.
The day after we got back I got up late due to ‘jet lag’ then met up with Ruth, and later Abbie. It was good to be home. That night I wrote a letter addressed to ‘Wendy, the girl who works at the petrol station between [such and such a] town and [whatever the other one was called]’. I wonder if the people at the post office were bored too, as they took the time to work out who I was writing to and a few weeks later I got a reply. I’m not sure how long we continued writing to each other but it lasted a while. Had I not written to her it would have felt like a lost connection which may have haunted me for the rest of my life, but this way it found its natural level, which wasn’t anything special, just a moment of connection.
* * *
Yuri – Stage 4 – Normalisation
‘After the crisis stage, comes the normalising one. If ever there was a way of illustrating irony, this stage, must be one of the best. If you’re American and find irony a difficult concept, you might want to pay attention to this.
You’d think this last stage would see the implementation of all that had been hoped for, but instead, those who’ve gained control will look to normalise things, to calm everyone down and dispel division.’
Yuri laughs to himself as if he just remembered a terrible thing.
‘The best way for them to do that is to get rid of anyone who continues to fight for their causes and this tends to require draconian measures. Big Brother Government, intense surveillance and intelligence operations, political imprisonment, executions, and, of course, control of the media, economy and individuals.
You might think all this drama would have the opposite effect, how will that normalise things you may ask. But you’d be surprised how much people want to get back to normal when hell is all around them.’
Yuri sits down.
The presenter wraps his hands around his knee and pulls it towards him.
‘Do you really think that could happen here?’ he asks.
Yuri tilts his head very slightly ‘It already did’
The presenter recoils ‘Really?’
Yuri nods. ‘Well wasn’t the McCarthy era a time when there was intense surveillance, control of the media and individuals? Don’t ever doubt it can happen, it can happen just like this.’
He clicks his fingers and the lights go off.
* * *
School – After the Summer Break
For the first day back at school I made an effort to be on time, as I stood at the bus stop a Mini Metro car pulled up. The door opened and one of the 3rd year kids jumped out.
‘Miss Coombes wants to know if you want a lift.’
I looked in the car and Miss Coombes, who was one of the young female teachers at Wilson’s, looked back at me. There was something Lady Diana-ish about her especially from this angle.
‘Thanks Miss’ I said as the other kid pulled the front seat back down then jumped in the back.
I got in, pulled the door shut and we set off.
‘Did you have a good summer Miss?’ I asked
‘Oh, you know, it was ok, it wasn’t really long enough. How about you?’
I was just about to answer when the kid in the back seat, who would have had a label if he was at school nowadays, interrupted with ‘I don’t like your highlights miss, they make you look much older and to me you’re no longer good looking’.
It was normally me who was inappropriate, so I was not only taken aback but I realised maybe I was maturing slightly. She and I looked at each other and shook our heads in disbelief. I could tell he wouldn’t be getting a lift next time. As far as I was concerned she was stunningly beautiful.
* * *
When we got to Wilson’s, I was told to report to the Senior prefects’ room where I was officially promoted with a badge and a blue gown. Wilsons School had a pupil hierarchy. At the top was the head boy, then the deputy head boy, then there were about 8 senior prefects, the standard prefects, 5th formers (who simply had a different striped tie) and then the rest of the boys. The advantages of being a senior prefect included having the use of this room and being recognised as having some kudos for being given the promotion in the first place. On the downside, it meant sitting on stage during assembly, which I particularly disliked because I was very conscious my lower legs looked so small hanging off the chair, so I’d push myself forward to compensate which was rather uncomfortable. Other responsibilities involved helping with break time patrols, after school detention sessions and extra curricula work such as showing prospective pupil’s parents around the school on open evenings.
As a prefect, we could give out detentions so if any kid decided to take the piss out of me that’s how I’d punish them. A few weeks later I found out one of the other senior prefects was letting some of those I’d punished off. To me, if they were being rude about my disability I had 5 options: Discuss the issue with them, ignore them, hit them, go to a member of staff, or give them a detention. Eventually, I got a bit tired of trying to persuade people that being cruel wasn’t on, so detentions did the trick and saved me a lot of energy. From what I gathered the other prefect felt I was misusing my power, but instead of approaching me directly he felt he had the right to supersede my authority. I couldn’t help but think he believed I had a chip on my shoulder, and therefore I shouldn’t be taken seriously.
When it came to my disability, I tended to forget I had one most of the time, but for the majority of people, it was the main thing they perceived about me. I didn’t so much have a disability, I was disability. So, to them, everything I did stemmed from my disability. The thing is, it sometimes I’d start to believe that too.
Wilson’s School – 29th September 1982
Although Wilson’s School was a modern building its traditions were old. As senior prefects, we were expected to wear our dark blue yet slightly purplish gowns over our uniforms for much of the time. One evening, all the senior prefects, including me, were asked to show a group of prospective pupil’s parents around the school. As I showed them around we paused for a minute in the main assembly hall where one of the dads touched my arm and said.
‘What’s the history behind these?’
I paused for a second, and said ‘What, my arms?’
There was a moment of extreme unease. A few of the prospective parents shuffled a little, then after what seemed like an eternity the man said ‘No, no! The gown!’
‘Oh’, I laughed ‘Sorry. I don’t know.’
After that, things went smoothly for the rest of the tour and it’s unlikely my disability put any of them off applying for their kids to go to Wilson’s. It may even have encouraged them.
* * *
The Falkland War (Part 3) – Aftermath
There is something of a betrayal that comes to those who fight in wars. Eventually they’ll notice those who benefit from their own and others’ losses, seem oblivious to the sacrifices made that allow them to live as they do. The same could be said of most good deeds, none go unpunished. Perhaps just knowing their sacrifices had a meaningful impact is thanks enough to many.
It’s possible to argue that the Falklands conflict could have been avoided. From 1965 there’d been negotiations between the British and the Argentinians over who should have sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. In 1980 the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Nicholas Ridley, went to the Falklands hoping to persuade the islanders that there were substantial benefits in leasing their islands back to the Argentinians. The islanders were far from impressed and back in the UK, Parliament couldn’t come to an agreement either, especially after the British suggested a 99-year transitionary period and the Argentinians demanded a 10-year one. Ridley made it clear ‘If we don’t do something, they will invade, and there’s nothing we could do’. As history came to prove, he was right on the first point but not on the second. Still, given the threat of an attack was clearly on the cards, a defence force placed near the islands would almost definitely have scuppered any such plans.
Despite further warnings by Royal Navy Captain Nicholas Barker, commander of the Endurance, and others, John Notts, Secretary for Defence, took the opposite route and created the 1981 Defence White Paper. This described plans to pull what limited forces were in the area out and sent a signal to the Argentinians that the British would both be unable and unwilling to defend its territories in the region. Even if there wasn’t some kind of master plan by the British to encourage a war, there was certainly a lack of joined up thinking.
The outcome of not being on the ball was over 900 people died, and around 2000 were injured. In the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher’s popularity increased. The success of the Falklands campaign was viewed as a major factor in the reversal of fortunes for her government, who’d been falling behind in the polls for months before the conflict began. After the Falklands were taken back, the Conservatives subsequently went on to win the following year’s general election by a landslide.
As for the islanders, they had full British citizenship restored in 1983, and investments made by the UK after the conflict meant their lifestyle improved. In 1985, a new constitution was ratified promoting self-government. This continued, with further devolved power to the islanders taking place over the ensuing decades.
In Argentina, the defeat in the Falklands meant a war brewing with Chile was avoided and in 1983, Argentina returned to democratic governance with the first free general election since 1973.
As for the British media, there were no inquiries in to the sharing of information that put UK forces at risk. The Sun became infamous for headlines such as ‘Stick It Up Your Junta!,’ which, along with other tabloids, led to accusations of xenophobia. The Sun was also criticised for its jingoistic ‘Gotcha’ headline following the sinking of the Argentinian battle ship, The General Belgrano, during which 323 Argentinians lost their life.
At school, we spent a couple of lessons looking at the reporting of the major newspapers at the time. Whilst the Sun and other tabloids were clearly biased, the broadsheets such as The Times claimed impartiality and balance whilst having agendas too, only they went about it more subtly. The realisation that none of the media outlets could be trusted stayed with me from then on, and even today I can’t help but doubt the information on which most of my own values, beliefs and ideologies are based.
* * *
The Truth is
There were two ‘Ann and Pauls’ in my life. There were the Ann ad Paul neighbour and Ann and Paul cousins. Paul was my mum’s cousin, and Ann was his wife, so I’m not sure what relation they were to me, but it kept things simple to simply refer to them as cousins. I’d often pop into see cousin Ann and Paul if I was passing and would always be offered a snack that’d turn out to be a full three course meal. On some days, I’d turn up and there’d be a load of nearly dead people, sorry, I mean her elderly neighbours, who’d she’d feed a few times a week to keep them going.
Often I’d turn up to their small semi-detached white house in a quiet back road in Carshalton Beeches only to find Ann up a ladder fixing the roof, plumbing or electrics. If there was a problem she’d always try to fix it herself. When I’d end up in a place of my own in my early 20’s not only did she decorate it for me but she helped me get into the mind-set of trying to fix things myself too, much to the consternation of anyone nearby watching a bloke with no hands doing such things as climbing scaffolding, drilling holes, pushing wardrobes up a ladder with his head, hammering in and counter sinking 1000 nails into floor boards over a weekend and so on. Nowadays it’s a bit easier. If something needs repairing one turns to YouTube and some 8-year-old tells you how to do it. Back in the 80’s aside from the Readers Digest Home Maintenance Book it was a case of take it apart and, well normally that’s as far as it got.
One day I called on Ann and Paul (cousins). I pushed my face to the obscured glass and looked through it for movement. Sure enough a figure bounced down the stairs, it was Ann. She pushed her lips up to mine on the glass and gave out a big laugh. The door opened and Ann threw her arms around me.
‘Come in darling, we’re just about to have some lunch, do you want some?’
‘Yes please, I was hoping you’d say that’ I laughed.
We walked through the lounge which was cluttered with paintings, dressmaking equipment and a big dining table, even through the glass doors the garden looked cluttered with foliage too. The kitchen was off the back of the lounge and it too had a feeling of being full, but it was a fullness of life. Everything had a purpose.
There was a window with a sink beneath it to the right of the entrance to the kitchen and beyond that a small wooden table. Paul and their son Aiden were already seated there.
‘Hello Simon’ Paul pulled one of the square wooden stools out, ‘Come sit here’.
The afternoon sun drenched the pea green walls in gold.
The Falklands War soon became the topic of conversation, but at one point Paul looked at me and said ‘Simon, how do you know what you’re told is real? How do you know that what you know is true?’
Ironically I knew what the answer was ‘I don’t’ I said.
‘Exactly’ said Paul ‘It’s mostly belief what we think we know, and most of that is only believed because we choose to trust certain sources over others.’
I nodded as I blew the heat off my food.
‘Just try to keep that in mind. Why is it that we choose to trust some but not others? Is it just because they are familiar to us?’
What I didn’t realise at the time was the possible influence of Post Modernism on Paul’s words. Whilst Post Modernism started in the 1940s (as had Paul), it became a central ideology during the 1950s and 60s. The main tenet being, there’s no such thing as objective reality or truth. This was years before the Internet so trying to check if what we were told was accurate was even harder back then. But Paul’s words stayed with me for the rest of my life.
* * *
Wilson’s School – 1982 – Playing by the rules
The main art teacher at Wilson’s was Mr James, in fact he was the only art teacher. The Art Department only existed as a lip service back then and was symbolically situated at the backend of the school.
Mr James could have easily been mistaken for a rock star such as Roger Walters, he had a lot of grey hair, and was often dressed very fashionably. I had a bit of a mixed relationship with him. He’d often tell me off for mucking about, which I usually deserved, but I think he saw something of himself in me too. On one occasion, he told me I needed to stop breaking the rules then a few minutes later swanned off to do something he wanted whilst leaving me to teach a class.
I kind of admired him, he was a free spirit. He was there, but in a different world at the same time, often literally. The art department was his domain and seemed to exist within a completely different universe to the rest of the school. By the time I hit 17 he didn’t teach me anymore, instead I went to SCOLA but would pop in to the art department to work by myself or have a chat. One day he told me that one of the problems I kept coming up against in school resulted from me not following the rules. ‘There are rules, and then there are other rules’ he said, ‘One of the things in life you have to develop is your ability to discern which are which. It’s the same with Art. You may learn one rule, then find you can break it. But there are some you must never break.’
I heard what he said but it would be years before I understood what he meant.
* * *
The Art of the Matter
As people got to know that I was beginning to become proficient at drawing I started to get requests to provide illustrations from not only the school magazine but also the British Kyokushin Karate ones too. Things didn’t always go well though. For instance, when I presented one of the dinner ladies with a painting of Elvis Presley she’d commissioned, she looked at it, looked back at me and said ‘I know you can do better than this’. I was going to say she left a bitter taste in my mouth, but when it came to school dinners I was very partial to them, so I kept quiet. For a change.
In time, I came to realise that there was an element of ‘Aren’t these amazing for someone without hands’ when people praised my work. This would become an issue for me a few years later as I realised it left me feeling undermined. For instance, in 1984 I had to get a taxi to a station for an art college interview and was carrying a large art portfolio with me. The taxi driver asked me where I was going. When I explained what I was up to he asked if I’d show him a piece of my work, so, I pulled out a photo of one of my paintings.
‘Wow!’ he said ‘That’s amazing’
‘Thank you’ I beamed.
‘I’ll tell you what son,’ he said ‘If you give me that photo I’ll let you off the fare’
‘Really?’ I said
‘Yeah, definitely’ he seemed genuinely enthralled. ‘I can’t wait to show my wife, it’s amazing!’
Of course, I was very happy to have saved some money, and on one hand I was touched by the compliment, but I was also aware he was impressed as much because of my disability as the artwork itself.
When I got in to my 30’s I became more concerned about this issue and tried as much as I could to disassociate my music and artworks from my disability, unless, of course I was specifically dealing with disability issues. As far as I was concerned my creations would have to stand or fall on their own merit and not be ‘good considering’.
For a lot of people, especially those who work in marketing, an artist should use whatever helps them increase their profile, but to me, there were some rules that couldn’t ever be broken as they went against everything I believed in.
And that, Mr Bank Manager, is why I’m so poor.
* * *
CB Radio – On the Side – Slide
When the Internet came along one of its many weaknesses and strengths was the way in which people could partially reveal or disguise themselves. Not being judged on appearances meant at times they could be more ‘themselves’. For instance, when it came to online gaming I’d often get chosen to join teams on account of my ability, whereas in real life my experience of being picked for teams had always been an awkward situation filled with rejection and pity.
Well before the Internet became publically available CB radio offered people a similar opportunity. They could relate to others without being judged on their looks. So, when someone offered to sell me a CB setup I went for it. For £25 I got a CB radio unit, a power supply, a SWR meter, an aerial and a biscuit tin which the aerial sat on. I bought some books on CB slang, then Sunil came around and helped me set it up.
Needless to say, John told me he wasn’t happy about it, and warned we’d be robbed as a result of having it in the house. Maybe he imagined me describing our house over the air waves. ‘Yes, we’ve got a HiFi downstairs and mum keeps her jewellery in the music box on the dresser… Oh, where do we live? Here’s the address.’
As usual, we argued, he stomped off, did a bit of hoovering, mum brought me a cup of coffee and told me to use it when he wasn’t around. Diplomatic as always, I ignored her and used it all the time for about a month.
For anyone who has used an Internet chatroom, that’s the closest experience I’ve had to using a CB. It’s not private, a few unknown people are going to hear what you say. Still, it’s nerve wracking to say anything at first, but after a short while it’s easy. What I didn’t figure on was I’d still have to present myself in the flesh if I was going to be truly accepted into the local fold. A meet-up had been arranged which I was invited to. At one point, I must have got in to a self-sabotage mode and told someone on air about my arms. The next day I was told the meet up had been cancelled, which I later found out, it hadn’t. I should have just turned up, then they could have dealt with the situation. Maybe they’d have liked me, maybe not. But by telling them about my disability beforehand, I partly created a difficult situation, as most likely their imaginations would have run riot and their desire to avoid difficult situations would have come into play. Back then, there were times when telling someone about one’s disability was appropriate and others when it wasn’t.
After that happened I didn’t want to use my CB rig anymore, I was tempted to pack it away or sell it, but then I heard there was a disco for local CB’ers so decided I’d go. When I got there people dealt with me just as they normally do, we chatted, I connected with some and not with others. From then on I’d occasionally join a chat, but the initial enthusiasm waned, then one day I packed it away, put it in a cupboard and waited for the Internet to arrive.
About 6 years later though I got it out the cupboard and fitted it in to my car, but that’s another story, for another time.
* * *
Having attended SCOLA and doing my homework at Sutton Library for a number of years, as well as getting to meet people in a few of the local pubs, I started to develop a bit of a social network. There were other people I’d regularly see too such as the Anna and Pauls. Then there were friends such as Becky who I’d met on the bus coming back from the infamous martial arts shop visit. She had laughed when we played around on the top deck, so we got chatting and ended up going to a café with her in Alders, a local department store in Sutton.
The café there had cubicles in which two red padded leather bench seats faced each other across a dark wooden table. The four of us had tea cakes, shared a pot of tea, and laughed together. As we came to part, Becky gave me her phone number. A week or so later I called her and she invited me around.
Becky had a boyfriend and just like most of my female friends, I was certain she didn’t see me as boyfriend material, but we enjoyed each other’s company. Becky had a mouth that naturally fell in to a smile, for someone like me, full of rubbish jokes this was perfect, I felt appreciated even when I wasn’t.
In terms of female friends who were more than just acquaintances, there was Jackie, Ruth, Abbie, and Becky and there’d be more I’d come to meet later that year, but it was as if something had switched gear in my life. Girls could be friends, not just girlfriends. I’d found being a teenager difficult but there was something in this transition that promised better times to come.
* * *
Evelyn and Bill
It was the middle of August. I’d been at the library and decided to go home. Evelyn, the friendly neighbour who I met when I was searching for our lost cat a few weeks previously, was at the bus stop. We chatted just as we had done before, and when we got close to going our separate ways she asked if I wanted to come in to meet her family.
As we entered her house she called out to her husband ‘Bill, I’ve got someone with me’. A short stocky man with curly dark hair and a beard walked into the hallway. He looked at Evelyn, then at me, and smiled.
Evelyn said to him. ‘This is Simon, he lives across the road.’
‘Hello Simon, I’m Bill, come in, come in. What’s your poison?’
I must have looked confused because he laughed.
‘Do you want something to drink son?’
‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t understand, sorry, I’d love a cup of tea please.’
We went through to the lounge where I met Evelyn and Bill’s two young daughters, Kate and Nikki. Kate was very young, maybe 5 or 6, she seemed to hide under her mop of sandy coloured hair. Nikki had long black hair, and she certainly didn’t use it to hide under. She was about 11 and I recognised her immediately. I’d seen her in the playground, the same one I’d met Anya in you couldn’t miss her, she’d been quite rowdy.
‘I know you’ she said ‘I’ve seen you in the park’
I smiled, ‘Yes I remember’
She looked at me as if to say you better not grass me up.
Bill then came in with a mug of tea. ‘Where do you want me to put it, do you need a straw?’
‘No, it’s ok, thanks. I’m ok, I can manage it if you put it on the table, thank you’
‘Sit down Simon, sit down son’
I immediately took to Evelyn and Bill. I didn’t know this at the time but Bill resembled my father, not just in looks but also in personality. It was only decades later that I’d see the connection. Both Bill and my father were short, dark, swarthy looking with a slightly foreboding feel to them and a penchant for quick tempered fighting. There was also something uncannily alike between Bill and Bob Hoskins (especially when he played Iago in the TV production of Othello). Again, I wouldn’t make the link until a few years later. But even without knowing he looked like my real father, I felt a strong connection with Bill, while at the same time being a bit scared of him too.
* * *
June 1983 – Carshalton Fun Fair – Carshalton Park – 10 months after meeting Evelyn
I saw Bill and Evelyn at the fair so thought I’d say hi. They were standing near one of those rides where you’re strapped in side by side then hurled in various directions.
‘I quite fancy going on this’ I said.
Evelyn shook her head, ‘There’s no way you’d ever get me on that.’
Bill nodded ‘I’ll go on it with you’
So, we paid and climbed on.
As we sat waiting for the ride to start. Bill went very quiet then looked at me and said ‘You know, my family means everything to me.’
I looked back at him and nodded.
‘So if anyone were to ever come between me and my wife, I would do anything, I mean anything to deal with the problem.’
I looked at Evelyn. She shook her head in anger at Bill. The cabin jolted and the ride began.
* * *
Aside from the friendships that were finding their natural levels, I started to recognise the value in acquaintances. These would most often occur at bus stops or in the library. Little connections and meetings that were of value in themselves, either as connections or in terms of helping me understand the world more.
There was a photographer called John. We’d often have a cup of tea and a chat in the library café about photography. Years later I was in a room in the limb-fitting department of Charing Cross Hospital (which is nowhere near Charring Cross), and a man was wheeled in who had no legs. I said hello, and when he answered I knew his voice straight away, it was John the photographer. As he no longer had a beard I hadn’t recognised him. He’d lost his legs due to diabetes. I too had changed somewhat by then, although my arms looked the same, so he had no excuse not to know who I was. But when he did, he told me he’d thought of me when he knew he was going to lose his legs. He said it gave him hope that life would go on and there was still a good life to be had beyond becoming disabled.
There was a whole community of people I got to know in the library. There was a guy called Chris who slowly spiralled down with drugs and drink, and another man called Jack who had a beautiful girlfriend, but one day I walked past a girl called Suzie’s place where he was talking to her in her doorway. He put his collar up to hide himself from me. ‘Alright Jack?’ I said, just to make it clear his plan hadn’t worked. A few weeks earlier I’d been speaking to Suzie in the pub, she came over as having some mild learning disability. Jack approached me afterwards and said ‘What are you speaking to her for, she’s mental’.
There were also a lot of foreign students at the library. I got friendly with some Nigerians and no they didn’t offer to share a £150 million inheritance with me, and then there was a Lebanese girl called Dollar who was shy and disliked Britain and the British, present company excluded. None of these acquaintances were heading towards becoming true friends but they all brought a better understanding of the world to me.
* * *
It’s a Rainy Night in Sutton
24 September 1982
Ruth and I had planned to meet up on Friday evening but she called to say she couldn’t make it. I was still finding empty spaces difficult to deal with but rather than call around to find someone else to visit I turned to another familiar pastime, retail therapy.
Dire Straits’ latest album, ‘Love Over Gold’ was due for release so I raced to HMV in Sutton where one copy remained in the rack. I grabbed it, paid, rushed home and immediately copied it on to cassette on the HiFi in the front room. I knew John would have a go at me if he came home while I was still doing it so I stood near the window looking out for him in case I had to hastily stop. Just as the last track started I saw mum pull into the drive way. Instead of stopping I made sure the volume on the stereo was on zero and put the TV on.
“Watching TV?” was John’s way of saying hello “Shouldn’t you be doing your homework Simon?”
I stood in front of the HiFi and said “I’ll do it tonight”
John scratched his head and said “Well, turn the TV off and come help bring the shopping in”
So, I switched off the TV and front room lights off. Just as I did I heard the arm of the record player click back into its holder. I pressed stop on the cassette recorder and turned the unit off. John or mum rarely ever used the stereo so I knew they wouldn’t notice a record on the turntable. I couldn’t help but feel a bit of pleasure in my James Bond mission in getting the album taped.
After bringing in the shopping we had tea together, I avoided getting in to an argument and as soon as we finished I went back to the living room and grabbed the cassette out the deck, took the LP off the turntable, slid it back into its cover and clamped it to my side as I went up the stairs to my room.
I put my tropical fish tank light on, pushed the cassette into my tape deck and pressed the play button. I stretched the headphones and slipped them over my ears. The first track, ‘Telegraph Road’, slowly faded in with its gradual build up and 14-minute epic musical journey. It blew me away, I knew this would be a song that’d accompany me for the rest of my life. Then the next song, ‘Private Investigations’ took me out of my dark room in suburban Sutton to a dark world I’d only ever known in films. Finally, the title track, ‘Love Over Gold’ beautifully, painfully, lead me to a place of doubt and heartbreak, where a part of myself connected with Mark Knopfler and his band. For that Friday night, I wasn’t alone.
* * *
A few days later, back at school, I went to my locker near the 6th form centre and started singing Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet. A new female teacher who had been sitting in the centre approached me and said ‘You’ve got a nice voice, but you’re distracting us. And by the way I like your taste in music’. I apologised but my ego was far more concerned about the compliment. As I walked into the 6th form centre one of the other students said ‘You can’t sing’. But it was too late, her words, trumped his.
When I next saw her, I asked if she liked Dire Straits. She told me she loved them and had seen them live a few times. Over the next few weeks we got chatting and once she found out I was heading to SCOLA after school a couple of nights a week, she offered to give me a lift as she was going that way too.
It tends to be safer to be smitten when you’re a boy and the teacher is a woman, there’s far less risk of anything untoward happening, although, of course, sometimes it does, but sadly, never to me. I knew she wouldn’t ever be interested in me, well not in a sexual or romantic way, even so, there was a bit of a connection. We both had a slightly maverick approach to things, were interested in psychology and birth signs, liked similar music and were a bit anti-authoritarian and incorrigible.
One day we had to stop off at her place en-route to Sutton. She had a room in a house on Roundshaw. As we entered, her landlord was splayed out on the couch smoking a joint. He offered me a drag. I said no, and on my behalf she said no too. We went up to her room where she ducked behind a screen, and told me to turn around while she got changed. Back then I was way too obedient for my own good.
For the next few months we’d chat but at the end of term she left to work at another school. On the last day, we didn’t get to say goodbye. A few days earlier though she’d scribbled an address I could write to her at, but I managed to lose it. I did, however, find it again about 30 years later.
Several years ago, I found her. She’d married, had kids and was still a teacher. When I emailed her, she was very polite, but I got the feeling she barely remembered me, and certainly didn’t want to encourage too much of a dialogue. Maybe she was concerned her dealings with me back then might be looked at badly, or she thought it best not to risk stirring up any feelings in a student who’d once had a crush on her. For me though, it was good to see she was alive and had had a good life, at least as far as I could see.
There was something about the connection with her, she would come to my mind occasionally for many years after. Some of the figures I’d come to paint even decades later looked a little like her, including the woman in the photo of the painting I gave to the taxi driver. I even fell in love and lived with a woman for 10 years who looked a bit like her. Was I haunted by her, or was I already haunted by the look that she coincidentally had too?
* * *
The ‘Love Over Gold’ album showed up the inadequacy of my improvised portable stereo. So, buying a Sony Walkman became my next mission. The only thing was, I couldn’t justify spending £100, especially as I didn’t have that much money in the first place. I went to Tandy’s in Croydon where the guy in the shop showed me a much cheaper alternative. Plus it could record via an inbuilt microphone, a function the Sony Walkman didn’t have. It also had a cassette shaped radio add on that could be inserted where the cassettes go to give it radio functionality. At £35, my aspirations for a Sony Walkman stepped aside and from then on music became a part of my everyday life.
* * *
The thing with buying cheap items is they tend not to last as long as more expensive ones. I was devastated, as only teenagers are, when a week later one of the springs in the battery compartment broke. I took it back to Tandy’s who said the fault wasn’t covered under the guarantee so they told me to try a shop called Ketts down the road who might be able to fix it.
When I got to Ketts I showed the woman at the counter the issue and asked how much it’d cost to fix it. She called one of the engineers out who were working in a back room. As he approached she said ‘Can you help this young man, he’s a bit disabled.’ I squirmed, but I wanted my new life support music system fixed so didn’t say anything. The engineer inspected it and said ‘Give me a few minutes, I’m pretty sure I can fix it’. A short while later he came back. ‘There you are mate, good as new’.
‘How much do I owe you?’ I asked.
‘Ah, don’t worry’ he smiled.
‘Are you sure? Thanks very much’
‘No problem, come back if you need anything else fixed’
And there I was again caught in the cross hairs of gaining from my disability while knowing, there was a catch.
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the genuine kindness behind this engineer’s actions. It was a more complicated issue I felt at the time but couldn’t put into words. The engineer probably realised that my disability meant I faced challenges, and this resulted in him feeling sorry for me. His help was partly an attempt to redress things and make life better for someone. His action was based on caring and empathy. But, within that dynamic I became a victim, while he was a saviour, and somehow that meant I became less of a person within the social order.
A few years later I’d become increasingly involved with disability issue based politics and came to realise that a disabled person’s position in social hierarchies should be based, where possible, on the same values everyone else had to be judged by. Any rebalancing or redressing that’s required should be part of society’s structure and not rely on kind hearted individuals. The reason for this is a lot of people are not kind hearted, and can’t be trusted to do what is best. If disabled people are required to be at the mercy of kind hearted individuals it makes their life even harder. This was the basis of the ‘Rights Not Charity’ campaign that preceded legislation that came about in the 1990’s to protect disabled people’s rights and position in society.
A few weeks after getting my personal stereo fixed I was sitting at the bus stop opposite Sutton Police Station listening to some music when one of my fellow 6th formers went past in a car and from his window shouted some abuse to me and bent his arm to look a bit like mine. The next day I went up to him and said ‘This is for last night’. I then did a karate technique on him. The only thing was, it wasn’t very effective, he was slightly winded, but nowhere near as badly as I’d hoped. I walked away making a mental note to never bother with that technique again.
* * *
A month or so earlier, one of my classmates Daryl and I had a long discussion about politics. He was very left wing, believing in anarchy, as in people not needing a superstructure to make them do what’s right. Maybe my own experience of seeing the less than nice side of people came into play in my dismissal of his political beliefs. To me, it’s the psychopaths and those who like being cruel to others, they’re the problem, as far as I was concerned relying on people’s good nature bore no resemblance to the world I knew.
* * *
The Ideology of Corruption
Just as societies are built on ideologies so too are anti-social ones. Organised crime, sub and anti-social cultures, scammers and gangs all live by certain codes that deliberately seek to undermine and attack other sections of society. As with any ideology though, these ones can become corrupted too, and when they do, it’s the more psychopathic members who will most likely come to the fore. Even within altruistically orientated societies, there are likely to be members who will weave corruption within it. There may be times when that might be a good thing, especially within repressive cultures, but either way, it’s worth keeping in mind that corruption and subversion are a part of nearly all ideologies once they play out in the real world. For any ideology to be successful it can’t afford to ignore the ability, importance and desire of humans to corrupt. Maybe that’s why Capitalism has been so successful, for it to work a certain amount of corruption has to exist.
The reasons why people want to undermine societies are going to vary considerably. Personal circumstances such as substance abuse or other addictions may lead them to no longer value what they’d previously held sacrosanct. Then there might be those who have nihilistic feelings towards others that make them want to destroy society. For some, the cause of such feelings might be a result of structural inadequacies within society, but what if some want to destroy their world no matter what society is like? It’s very easy to convince ourselves that such people will be weeded out in time, but history is filled with examples of psychopaths who got into positions of power, so it’s hard not to see them as a serious threat.
The Trouble with Psychopaths
On a train journey to see Vernon, I got talking to a man who told me he was in the army. He said he hated it but a judge had given him the choice to either go to prison as a punishment for his violent crimes or join the army. There is a place for psychopaths in society. People in the armed forces may dispute it’s amongst their ranks but for those involved in killing others, there can’t be any hesitation, and even afterwards, at least for a while, soldiers can’t afford for their brothers or sisters in arms to be emotionally unstable after killing. Sometimes, not feeling for others has its uses.
For all of us, there might be moments when we are driven to kill, especially in self defence situations. This doesn’t mean we are psychopaths, although temporarily while in a psychotic state of anger we may well be able to harm someone without remorse. The difference is, we will most likely be filled with complicated feelings about it later, whereas a psychopath may worry more about not worrying than having any feelings of guilt.
It could be argued that there are other forms of psychopathy that involve groups of people. In the next chapter, I’ll be looking at that in more detail, but I mention it here because it’s possible that Putin has surrounded himself with others who would also put their ideology ahead of the survival of humanity. In WW2 groups of people hated other groups so much so that they wouldn’t waver one bit if they could press a button to destroy them all. Given the right circumstances there’s a very thin line between psychopaths and the rest of us.
‘So, the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also.’
On Crime and Punishment – The Prophet – Kahlil Gibran
* * *
The Eye in the Sky
I once came across a theory that if we had a police officer next to us all the time, we’d always behave ourselves. No wonder the band The Police sang ‘Every move you make, I’ll be watching you’. This is, of course, a similar idea to God always watching us, and that supposedly making us behave better. As we all know though, it doesn’t. People still got up to all sorts of no good, no matter how much they believed God’s eye was upon them. The modern version of this is CCTV, Bodycams, Video streaming and other ‘eyes’ that continually watch us. Yet again, when it comes to moments of irrationality, we don’t care whether we’re being observed, or maybe we even want to be. We are destined to break the rules, because humans enjoy being naughty, and our minds are built to seek out ways to take advantage of the system. That is the way of the human mind and people will become dangerously frustrated if they have to behave well all the time.
If artificial intelligence was ever given the power to decide our destiny it would conclude within a few seconds that all ideologies are destroyed by corruption and humans can’t help but be corrupt. As far as AI would be concerned, humans must either be reprogrammed to be more like computers or taken out of the algorithm, unless of course, the algorithms incorporate human nature and corruption within their structures.
* * *
The problem with Empaths
If psychopaths are likely to undermine an ideology when put into practice, the same could be said of their opposites, those who identify and care about others too much, empaths? Most of us hover somewhere on the psychopathic, empathic scale. Those at the extremes will likely be viewed as troublemakers, although there’ll always be a few exceptions at both ends who will be flaunted as heroes. There’s a thin line between saints and sinners.
After WW1, the horrors of war played on the minds of those in power, so much so they did everything possible to avoid it with the result that Hitler went unhindered, and then after WW2 anti-war idealists directed the development of supra-governments such as the EU, the United Nations and NATO. Now, faced with a warmonger on their doorstep they have no way of containing the threat and what’s more, the aggressor knows it.
* * *
From Anarchy to Apathy, why should we care?
There are obvious answers to the question, ‘Why should we care for others?’ The primary ones are, we live our good lives because others have cared about us, and if we live in a world of not caring we may soon find ourselves on the wrong end of a non-caring stick.
It’s no accident that Buddha was in a position where he needed for nothing as a young man, and was not obliged to care for anyone in terms of keeping his lifestyle as it was. Many people live like this nowadays, oblivious to the needs of others, there is no compulsion for them to care for anyone but themselves. Faced with the question, ‘Why should I care’, they’d probably say they don’t and tell the questioner to piss off. While Buddha chose a different path, there will always be those who will never care for others and don’t care about the emotional consequences for themselves.
For Buddha, going out into the world and seeing all the suffering around him meant he was no longer able to live as he previously had done. He recognised that for some people, including himself, it’s an intrinsic part of our nature to care for others. Aside from our cultural programming there are parts of our brain that determine how we react to others’ suffering. For instance, the size of one part of our brain, the Amygdalae, plays a role in how much empathy we feel. Other sections and hormones such as oxytocin also play a role. Evidence suggests these areas vary so greatly between individuals that when it comes to caring for others our brain’s structures may well play a big part.
If humans evolved as a social species, then any human sub-species that didn’t have empathy was less likely to survive. Therefore, empathy is likely to be partly a hardwired attribute. Paradoxically, selfish genes also played a role in our survival too. Selfish people were more likely to get their way so may well have been more successful at reproducing than those who weren’t.
You may remember in the Love Chapter I mentioned that caring benefits the carer as much as those being cared for. When we care for others we can feel needed, enjoy the happiness of others, feel good because we’re following the rules, get more back in return, score points that’ll buy us a better after life, make us happy because the world will be a better place, make us more popular, make friends of our enemies, help us avoid guilt, keep our brains feeling good and connect more with others.
If a completely selfless act existed, it’s very likely no one would have ever been motivated to do it. After all, we’re only human.
* * *
Stories are an integral part of our lives. They not only entertain us but guide us too. It shouldn’t be a surprise that most ideologies use the story format for their own advantage. Whether its via fables or news stories, ideologies entwine universal truths with their own narratives to create a new ‘truth’ that’s almost impossible to resist. Even minor tweaks to universally held ideals can have a profound effect. There’s a world of difference between ‘Thou must not kill’ and ‘Thou must not murder’, but that difference of just one word changed history and the lives of millions of people. The true translation was ‘Thou must not murder’, but for those who believed it was a mortal sin to kill, their options became extremely limited when it came to self-defence, often resulting in their own destruction.
One of the themes of this chapter is the importance of storytelling when it comes to ideologies. In recent times the notions of human nature that had been passed down for millennia via myths and folk stories have been replaced with ideologically driven versions that lack any depth when it comes to portraying our nature. The result of this is a disconnect between our understanding of others and ourselves.
* * *
If you’ve never seen any of Gustav Dore’s illustrations, I’d suggest checking them out as some of them are beyond beautiful. In my late teens, I came across a book called ‘The Fables of La Fontaine’ which was full of his illustrations. I couldn’t resist buying it and would pour over it for hours. One of the stories in it was called ‘The Companions of Ulysses’. Ironically, the illustration that accompanied this tale was one of the few in the book I thought rather weak, but there was something in the story that stayed with me and came to mind when writing this chapter. To avoid any copyright issues here’s my slightly modernised version of it.
Ulysses, was an intrepid demi-god and adventurer of Greek Myth fame. One day, he found himself, along with his crew, on the shore of an island on which Apollo’s daughter, Circe (Sirsee), held her court. Upon receiving the travellers, she gave them a drink which transformed them all, except Ulysses, in to animals.
On seeing he was immune, or maybe it was his half naked torso, she became filled with desire. Obviously being a bit of a shallow deity type, she fell in lust with him there and then. Ulysses, not being one to waste an opportunity, was going to ask her to change his crew back in to humans, however, thinking it inopportune he decided to wait until after they’d got down to a bit of hanky-panky before popping the question. Slightly breathless still, and seeing she looked rather satiated he went for it. Without hesitation, she accepted his request. At first he was relieved then he couldn’t help but feel a little unnerved.
‘I do have one condition’ she said sleepily, ‘it’s a fair and simple one though’.
‘I fucking knew it!’ He thought, or maybe he said it under his breath, he wasn’t quite sure.
‘All you have to do is ask each of your crew if they want to accept their previous manly forms again. If they do, they’ll instantly be transitioned back’.
Ulysses scratched his cheek but thought this reasonable and slipped out of bed to let Circe sleep.
You’ve probably already worked out what happens next, but just in case, I’ll fill you in.
First, he approached the lion, who tried to roar, but not realising Circe had temporarily given back his power of speech, he did a slightly feeble one and looked a little embarrassed. Somewhat taken aback by his lack of roarability he did another little roar anyway.
When Ulysses asked him if he’d like to be a man again he didn’t hesitate. ‘I’m no fool’ he snapped, his tail swished from side to side. ‘Look, I’ve got teeth and claws now, see? In fact, I’m a king! A king you know. So, why would I ever want to go back to being a’ he paused while his face took on a look of disgust ‘a common soldier again? Thank you, but’, he shook his head and mane ‘no, no thank you.’
Ulysses, who was a little bit surprised to say the least, turned to the bear and asked ‘Hey, bro’, [He hadn’t quite got the hang of street talk, but anyway] ‘what happened to you, you used to be so handsome?’
The bear was not exactly enamoured by Ulysses’ tactless approach,
‘Well, fuck you, it’s gonna be like that, is it? What do you mean, what happened to you? Can’t you see, I’m a fuckin’ bear!’
This bear must have taken some lessons in cultural relativism at some point because he then asked. ‘BRO! Who made you the judge of one species over another? As it goes I prefer the way I look now, and so do quite few of the other ‘middle sized’ bears. So, I’m sorry if the sight of me displeases you, but frankly I don’t give a shit in, or out, the woods. Go on, jog on. I’m free and happy as I am, and just to be perfectly clear, I will not be changing back.’
Ulysses was stunned so decided to try a different tack with the wolf. By the way I do realise this sounds a bit like a joke but really, it isn’t, it’s a very serious Greek Myth. Anyway, Ulysses thought he’d try to appeal to the Wolf’s inner humanity, arguing that when the wolf had been a man he was well known for defending sweet young shepherdesses, especially those in need of protection, paradoxically from the likes of his new self. Ulysses pleaded with him to recount his previous honourable ways.
‘Back then you led an honest life didn’t you? So, come on, leave your lair and be an honest man again.’
I expect you’ve already guessed the wolf wasn’t going to take this laying down, well not without the promise of a tummy tickle first anyway.
The wolf sighed. ‘I don’t see your point. You come here treating me as if I was a dangerous carnivorous beast. Which clearly I am, but who are you to talk? After all, won’t you and your kind eat the sheep if we don’t? And, yes when it comes to slaughtering, do you think I wouldn’t have loved it any less if I’d remained a man? You humans can strangle each other over one wrong word, so, you’re no better than wolves, in fact, you’re worse! As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather be a wolf than a man. And therefore, I’ve decided to decline your kind offer, sorry but I’m out.’ He then scratched just behind his ear with his back leg and for a minute he was in ecstasy.
Ulysses couldn’t believe what he was hearing. After asking every one of his crew if they wanted to change back, not one of them said yes. To them, this new-found freedom, the ability to indulge in their appetites, and the excitement of living in the wild gave them far greater pleasure than they’d ever got from the glory attached to doing great deeds.
Fontaine ended the tale by writing ‘They thought that in following their passions they were enjoying freedom, not seeing that they were but slaves to themselves.’ For him they were misguided, or at least short sighted. As most of us are. The fact that all of them chose to remain as animals, and only Ulysses, the demi-god, who tries to persuade them to be otherwise, suggests that when humans do overcome their more basic desires, they are more akin to the divine than human.
In modern times, there are a couple of conflicting views about humans being so self-destructive. At one end of the spectrum there are those humans who think the world would be better off without humans, and to them either creating better human beings or annihilating us is the way to go, whereas on the other end there are those who see our human weaknesses as strengths. To them the greatest of people were often not particularly ‘good’, but their contribution to our world was immeasurable. To them, preventing Homo Sapiens Mark 2 taking over will be the greatest challenge man-unkind has ever faced.
* * *
What if our ideology will bring us to our own destruction, what should we do then?
When it comes to the mind sets of idealists and pragmatists never the twain shall meet. On one end of the scale the idealists would rather watch their society be destroyed than cross certain red lines, on the other, the pragmatists would happily sacrifice precious values to ‘get the job done’.
We may like to believe that we are on a constant upwards path towards perfection but history has shown we’ve often taken backward steps, especially after periods of tremendous progress. Every advancement soon reveals itself as a double-edged sword. Nuclear power, vs nuclear devastation, material development vs pollution, or the Internet spreading knowledge vs it stirring up division.
* * *
My hopes for the Internet vs Reality
When the Internet first became very popular in the mid 1990’s, I believed it would result in the greatest leap forward the world had ever seen. More people would have greater access to information than ever before and because of that they’d be able to solve many of the problems facing us. For centuries, information had been limited to a small realm of academic circles but now, I hoped, there’d be a liberalisation of thought and data.
How wrong I was. I completely neglected to factor in human nature, especially the selective perception of truth, the lack of accurate and verifiable information, and the disregard for anything beyond our own agendas. Here in 2022, the Internet is full of false ‘truth’, conspiracy theories, blinkered and ideologically driven media sharing, and most of all it’s filled to the brim with division.
* * *
In the not too distant past, people were clearly physically defined by their class, ideologies and religion than they are today. Back then these classifications were drawn in the design of their physical features and clothing.
Nowadays, people’s looks are generic. Instead of identifying with a class, ideology or religion their lives are directed by rules they are barely aware of. Their values don’t come from books they’ve read but are cultivated by psychology experts who’ve developed the apps they live by. For most of them, they don’t even realise they’re living by them, even though they follow them to the letter. There may be many a text that spells these ideologies out, but it is unlikely their followers will ever know these ideologies by name or refer to themselves by a label. ‘I’m a Marxist’, ‘I’m a Protestant’, ‘I’m working class’ are things you’d rarely hear today. But to the app developers, everyone has a label.
* * *
Therapy Session – Tram Lines
Therapist: When they pulled up the tram lines in London, it felt symbolic to me. The clear guidelines by which we travelled through life disappeared too. It was both frightening and freeing at the same time. It was as if we were entering an unknown world.
* * *
The Wild at Heart Post Modern Programmer
We live in a world of computers where we can program things to do what we want. However, if we look outside this world we find there are plenty of animals that can’t be domesticated, let alone programmed. Yet, when it comes to humans it’s another story.
We believe we can be programmed and just to prove it social media companies make us buy products while caring ideologies tell us our behaviour is not inherent bur learnt, so with a little re-education we can change. Meanwhile computers warn us that if we don’t reprogram ourselves, then, in due course, our operating systems will have to be upgraded.
Our virtual bodies are as smooth as the screens we view them on, but when we look in the mirror our bodies tell another story.
* * *
2021 News Stories
Currently, in the 2020’s, there’s a feeling in certain quarters that Western media has become predominantly a propaganda machine intent on bringing about social change. A lot of the time this is done by choosing what not to report. For instance, a few weeks ago, there was a large anti-lockdown demonstration in London. The main news broadcaster, the BBC, didn’t report on it at all. It took footage shot from a private helicopter and posted online by a political party leader to show the nation what was going on.
News outlets have always been biased, but in our digital age, where a phone can record an incident, the footage can be posted online and within hours it changes the world. So, when the mainstream media decides not to cover something, and people see this happening repeatedly, they can’t help but ask why.
The result of this is a large section of the population has turned to the Internet to get their news, where, of course, the material is just as biased and inaccurate. This is the consequences of journalists believing their primary duty is to disseminate ‘socially responsible’ information rather than search for the truth.
* * *
The word History derives from the Greek word ‘Historia’ which meant inquiry or the knowledge acquired from investigation. Later, it became more associated with the idea of ‘accounts of past incidents’, and later still a ‘story’. By the mid-15th Century, with the Renaissance, the older connotations were revived, so, once again it related to the study of historical events and right up to modern times, it can still mean that, as well as sometimes simply meaning ‘a story’.
I’ve heard people point out that the word ‘History’ seems apt as in it is ‘his-story’, in other words it’s a fictional tale made up by men. Why is it not ‘her story’ or ‘they’re story’ they’ll ask? This is often followed by, ‘and why is it just a white Euro-centric version of events’ that gets written in academic history books in the West? Is it just the history of the victors? In other words, what was once seen as factual is now believed to be a very biased fictional version of possible events.
In August 2004, the BBC issued a press release headed: ‘Alexander the Great won the Battle of Hastings… Gandalf defeated the Spanish Armada… the Battle of Britain was a turning point in the 100 Years War… the Romans never invaded Britain…’ It went on to explain that a survey it commissioned on landmark events in British history revealed ‘the older generation are far more clued up on their history then the supposedly sharper 16 to 44 age groups.’
History is a dangerous subject nowadays. It’s become so divisive that it’s best avoided. Consequently, history has moved down the curriculum.
In 2020, during the mid-pandemic riots of The Black Lives Matter movement, statues of figures who’d been involved in the slave trade were pulled down. These statues obviously upset some people, but in my opinion having statues of people with such a mixed past is the perfect example of what it means to be a human, even a successful one.
When people defaced Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, I thought the same. Why not use these statues to show future generations that even the greatest of people are full of light and dark and have mixed pasts? So, why not put plaques under their statues with detailed and well balanced histories. But to try to obliterate the past, to only allow perfect people to be celebrated seems a dangerous route to follow.
In 1940, a Polish soldier, Witold Pilecki, was caught by the SS and imprisoned in Auschwitz. Under the orders of The Secret Polish Army leaders, he’d allowed himself to be caught so he could infiltrate the camp. He remained there for several years, initially to arrange a revolt, but when the Nazis started shipping in Jewish people he remained to collect further information. In 1943 he made a daring escape and within months prepared a report which was shared with the Western Allies. They deemed the report to be exaggerated so ignored it.
After the war, when the Soviets controlled Poland he returned there to gather intel for The Polish Government in exile. Even after he was told that his cover had been blown, he remained. The Soviet’s caught him in 1947, tortured him, and despite pleas from both Poland’s Prime Minister and President, he was given a show trial and executed on the 25th May 1948.
Decades later, monuments and a cenotaph were erected in his honour. But maybe, one day they’ll be taken down because it will be found he slaughtered animals whilst working on his family’s estate, or perhaps it’ll be for another ‘future’ crime that he’ll be found guilty of.
Just like road names, statues offer insights into the past and present simultaneously, but ideologies tend to not care about statues or the truth unless it fits with their agendas. The call to revise history is not borne of a hunger for the truth, but instead the wish to replace one biased version of the world with another.
I have often thought that there should be a set of statues in the centre of London, maybe in all major cities, that celebrates the ordinary life, I don’t mean like some kind of Soviet celebration of ‘the people’ or a kitsch homage to the family. But for anyone who has lived a ‘normal life’, they will still know of inordinate hardships too and to have these struggles recognised by society, would, I’m sure help make life a little bit more bearable.
Milan Kundera in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being described the May Day Soviet celebration parades as ‘kitsch’. By this he meant they denied the existence of shit. In a time where statues of the imperfect are torn down it’s as if we have entered a world where shit is no longer acceptable.
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There’s a Time and Place for Truth
How would you feel if someone told you that most of what you think you know and nearly all of what you believe, isn’t true? I guess you’d feel a bit angry, but, if we’re going to be honest here, we may have to admit our beliefs tend to be formed because of where and when we live. Had we been born elsewhere or at another time, we’d probably believe in very different things and still be as indignant if someone were to dismiss them.
You would think we’d be more interested in getting to the truth of things but generally most people throughout the world would rather kill or be killed than question their beliefs. And that, of course, includes us too.
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Fairy tales and Reality
Folk stories and fairy tales are tools that society uses to help children and adults come to a better understanding of the world. But if many of the stories our kids get to hear will eventually be found to be untrue, one must ask why has this happened?
‘They lived happily ever after’ was very rarely ever the ending of old folk tales, so why did we come to end stories on such an unrealistic note. Would the truth about married life put children off getting marriage? Likewise, we hide abattoirs from view, and change the shape of meat products so we don’t associate them with animals. However, in many other cultures this doesn’t happen, and just a hundred years ago things were very different in our own cultures too. So, what’s caused such a shift in attitudes?
If you think this book focuses a bit too much on sex and violence, it doesn’t compare to old folk tales. While our modern version of Sleeping Beauty touches on some of the dangers posed by those close to us, for instance, the evil step mother. It still ends with the princess living happily ever after with Prince Kiss-a-Lot. However, in the original versions, going back hundreds of years, the kissing storyline is a minor part, and in some versions, it didn’t exist at all, what’s more the tale continued way beyond that point.
The original versions are almost unrecognisable and certainly involved far stronger female characters. As our culture changed so did the storylines. However, by the time the Disney version came out in 1939 the princess was portrayed as delicate, vapid, naïve and compliant. This was a sign of how women were portrayed in the media then. It wasn’t just a product of the post war years; it had been an ongoing process since at least the mid 1800’s. Before then, many folk tales were exceptionally intricate and dark, and involved far more complex female protagonists.
In the 1930’s sociologists and psychologists started to push the beliefs that we can program children, as if they were completely malleable. There was a predominant conviction that if we didn’t expose children to ‘darkness’ then it wouldn’t be instilled in them in the first place and it was with this belief in mind that folk and fairy stories got ‘updated.’
One doesn’t have to be a child psychologist to know that this ‘darkness’ is a part of our nature. We can be violent, murderous, dishonest and scheming without anyone ever teaching us to be so.
Recently, there has been some redress of weak female characters, with lots of strong ones taking central roles. Still, in terms of storylines, there isn’t much darkness anymore. In the fairy tales from my childhood, the greedy foxes got killed after being scolded by hot water. Some of the little pigs got eaten. Hansel and Gretel (victims of an abusive step-mother) almost got cooked alive, but Gretel showed she had some grit and pushed the witch into the oven. Nowadays, the witch would be viewed as a victim too, so killing her would not be a very caring or appropriate reaction, but I’d still tell Gretel to do it. By the way, this process of dilution isn’t just a recent phenomenon. The Brothers Grimm toned down their version of Snow White when they changed the story line from her biological mother abandoning her in the forest to her step mother getting a servant to do it.
None of these versions compare to the original Roman one. In that, the main character Chione (Snow) was described as the most beautiful woman in the land, so beautiful that both Apollo and Hermes fell in ‘love’ with her. Hermes put her to sleep with his staff, then raped her and later Apollo approached her, disguised as an old woman, and raped her too. Being raped by gods led to her openly boasting that she was more beautiful than the goddess Diana (Artemis), who, on hearing this, killed her by shooting her through the tongue with an arrow. When she said ‘I think I’ve made my point’ she wasn’t joking.
Before being divinely murdered Chione gave birth to twins, each individually fathered by the rapist gods. One of her children was named ‘Autolycus’, he grew up to be a notorious thief and Charlatan and maternal grandfather to Ulysses. Autolycus was also the name of a character in Shakespeare’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’, which I was studying at 17. Ovid’s Metamorphosis, from which the Legend of Chione comes, was Shakespeare’s most important source of information of Greek and Roman Myths and formed the backbone of many of his works.
Nowadays, in 2021, fairy tales, are sanitised propaganda pieces. Within the realms of storytelling there has been a corrupting influence. History has been revised, dramas often include very unsubtle political statements, female characters are frequently so absurdly heroic that in their own way they’ll leave most women feeling inadequate, this time not for their lack of unattainable beauty, but their inability to perform super human feats. I feel it must be stated, men have had to live with that pressure for decades. Maybe the media giants are having a joke by switching the male/female roles. Now it’s men’s turn to feel inadequate for not looking good and women’s for not being able to perform superhuman feats as well as keeping up appearances.
Much of the content put out by the major broadcasters nowadays is overt propaganda, this isn’t such a new thing, but as media has become so pervasive, its ability to spread ideological messages has gone from strength to strength. It’s so explicit nowadays that it’s openly joked about. Every couple on TV, either in dramas or on adverts is a mixed-race one, even though inter-ethnic married or cohabiting couples make up just slightly more than 10% of all couples in the UK. All mainstream TV programmes and film casts must have a proportion of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) actors, which is a considerably greater proportion than exists in the UK’s population. Whilst that isn’t particularly an issue, especially as many of these actors have become household favourites. What particularly draws negative attention are the unlikely roles that BAME actors are often placed in. Historically, the number of people from BAME backgrounds were very small in the UK, and often blocked from progression in many careers. So, to see people of colour in certain roles in period dramas comes over as not only unlikely but also blatantly manipulative propaganda, the result of which possibly causes more racism, not less.
There may also be another purpose to this propaganda. It could well be focused on changing the behaviour of members of the BAME communities themselves. The aim may be to make them feel that they have always been an integral part of British society. The intention being to increase integration by lessening anti-integration sentiment within these communities.
Whether these strategies are true, let alone beneficial, it is the feeling of having things rammed down our throats that causes resentment. Good propaganda, like good driving, goes unnoticed.
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The Disabled Drummer 1994
I was outside a rehearsal studio in Fulham, London, one summer night. A black guy came up to me and said ‘Hey, you’re that drummer, aren’t you?’
I said ‘No, I think you’re talking about Matt Fraser’
I knew Matt from the disability arts world, he had short arms too and was a very good drummer. He was tall, I was short, he had long hair, I had very short hair.
The guy said to me ‘Yeah, that’s the name. So, you ain’t him then?’
‘Nah’ I said ‘It’s an easy mistake to make, I know we all look alike’
The guy laughed put his arm on my back and said ‘Respect man’
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