Sainsbury's. Tweve minutes past doom. Waiting in line for damnation, waiting for the moment to be free, watching the heels in front. Watching them shuffle ever-so-slowly forwards. Seeing the hope of redemption as the money is taken out. Anticipating imminent deliverence as bags are produced. The till-operator smiling a toothy obsequience. Tutting, awkward avoidance of eye-contact. Sighs from the rear and heavy hearts. Dimming light, dimming hope. A missed bus sailing away as time spirals out of mind.....
Sound familiar? I sincerely hope so, otherwise it might just be me who has to temper rage at moments like these. Oh, I know we are at fault. I recognise the behavioral defect at play. All those wasted lessons drilled into us as children by our parents. Maybe Philip Larkin was right, though . Maybe your parents do fill you with the faults they had. But, the message still resonates, even if the procedure for accommodation eludes us at even a moment's notice, usually in the most trivial situations. The thing is, it's easy to adopt casual subversiveness, usually without any thought process. A bit like casual racism, but without the social stigma. Because...... well, because we all fall victim. And are ourselves victims. It's just that we won't admit it to each other. It's a contraction. A contraction of the self. Besides, open admissions of this kind of frailty lead to conflict - and who wants that in a public convenience facility? I say 'convenience' with my fists clenched. Usually this happens as I count the items in the trolley of the person in front of me as I sneer at their choices, look at my own and gloat. Them : bositang, casu marzu, muktuk, century eggs and maggot cheese. Me : khash, tuna eyeballs, hakarl, stinkheads and wasp crackers. Oh, what competitive fun there is to be had on the grocery aisle. If you look, there is even religious experience, if that's your thing. Not mine, but each to their own, after all. And as some who would claim divine presence everywhere would say, 'What a friend we have in cheeses.' For which I apologise. There is no justifiable excuse for punning about food. Food is serious stuff, to some. Or so I am led to believe. Something almost beyond pleasure, like an elixir.
So, patience. Forbearance. Stoicism, with maybe a dash of pragmatism. Or even a pinch of puritanism. Control, above all. Perspective. A realisation that the dithering twerp in front who can't find his or her switch-card and who then spends ten minutes rummaging in a bottomless pit of a bag isn't, after all, the devil. They may act like Satan, despite the humble disguise, but no. Probably they are cringing as they delve. Perhaps they might even vocalise their regret. Sorry for holding everyone up, they will intone, smiling weakly. Sorry, everyone. Sorry for ruining your up-to-this-point-of-departure exhilarating shopping experience. Sorry, sorry. Awfully sorry. Maybe Beelzebub does go shopping, too.
None of which makes any of us likely to commit murder. But the thought does flicker tantalisingly across the cerebral cortex. Not long enough to spur us to disastrous and possibly criminal action, but oh.... just for a split-second, what a warm feeling it gives us as we languish in the desire to kill. Personally, I want to strangle, which is why I would make a terrible axe-murderer. Too messy. Too much blood. Too much mopping up to do afterwards for the poor traumatised checkout operator. It might also be my vegetarian inclinations manifesting, although, as someone once said, if God had meant us all to to be herbivores, how come lions don't eat grass? Perhaps it's a truism at work. Our intellect has overpowered our instinct and now, we have too many choices and not enough discernment. Maybe that's the fate of the world, right there, or it's fixed nature at work.
It's society's fault, of course. The society we have made for ourselves. We made all this rage happen. All this impatience and inconsideration is our doing, our fault, our burden. The thing is, we can't shake it off. We tell ourselves in those brief calm moments we steal as the hubbub rumbles all around us. We tell ourselves that John Paul Sartre's existentialism was and is wrong. Hell isn't other people. It's us. We're stuck in the supermarket queue, looking for either the axe or the exit sign. So, steal yourself for your next encounter with your inexplicable rage. Try counting, if it helps. Do what you need to do to ground yourself in the reality of now, whatever that might mean. Smile, if you can. Resist the urge to cause a scene. Or commit murder. And above all, keep a look-out for persons bearing sharp tree-felling implements on the gluten-free aisle. One of them might just be me.
A nervous disposition is the style to adopt if survival is your thing. Really. It's the counter-intuitive course. Even the jangling of keys in the pocket can contribute to the status quo, to enable the equilibrium to settle. Self-help books, which do not exist, other than as a proof of universal gullibility, say otherwise. They line the pockets of their earnest authors, who jump at the chance to appear on any breakfast tv show that will have them. There they sit, these brothers and sisters of mercy, clutching their books. Miracle cures, all. Telling us to seek the silence, wherever we can in our lives. Explaining the need for calmness, reflection, deep-breathing, repose. Emphasis on careful meditations, time scheduled for moments of serenity. Checking out of the race, turning off the blasted, cursed phone, unplugging the mind, taking out the worry-beads. Chilling, that's it, they will insist. Even for a few minutes each day. Look at us, obviously. Look at what we have become by following THE PROGRAMME. Imagine what you too could achieve by one or two micro-adjustments. Look at our shiny faces and clear complexions and drool. Imagine the possibilities.
So that's that. That's the alternative wonderful world out there. Shangri La awaits anyone prepared to dip in a toe. Simple life-transformation at the turn of a page. The shackles of Jacob Marley, cast off as easily as that. As easily as that, you say?
A nervous disposition, though. That's the reality of life, as I claimed. And I should know. Lots of keys jangle in my pocket, reminding me of the need for sound. It is in fact almost de rigueur. A badge of courage, a suit of armour worn by the willing martyr. A heavy burden carried around in the teeth of the storm. It can't be gotten rid of, for all the do-it-yourself tomes in the world. And here is a digressive thought while you ponder. Call it cynicism, scepticism, natural reservation, or mockery, but...... what the deuce? Do-it-yourself? Perhaps I miss a beat, but doesn't that mean someone else doing 'it' for you, us, them, all? Selling a product, mainly. Wrapping their magnanimity between the covers, sitting back and watching the queue form at the book-signing. Oh, isn't it a wonderful world where so many blind men are led by the hand over the edge of the abyss, by blind men. Roll up, roll up. See the amazing bearded-lady and her Siamese-twin partner. See them perform the astounding Indian Rope trick. See them turn dust into gold. See them disappear into thin air, a bags-full of your belief in their grimy fists. But that is the real trick, you see. Distraction tactics. You and I were so intrigued by the lady's beard, so fascinated (and yet horrified) by the conjoined freakishness, we missed the ruse. We missed the sleight-of-hand. Overlooked the con. Damn it all - we went along with it. Still do, in our sorry legions of misplaced hope. Desperation seeks it's soul-mate, possibly with romance in mind.
Romance. It's all romance. Thinking there is a way to swerve around nervousness, noise, clamour. Imagining that one day, if guided by some guru, the keys in our pockets will fall silent. Thinking that a lack of focus will somehow dissipate one day and lead to our collective passivity. And don't misunderstand. I enjoy a bit of romance as much as the next frazzled man. The problem is, most of it is romantic fiction. Adieu.....
This is pause-for-thought-time. Time for a breather. A moment to stop and think about becoming an unbeliever. And no, this isn't poetry. It is a plea for breath. Mark Rothko, that successful suicide of 1970 described this moment as a chance to stand in the light, take in the lungs-full of air, stretch out one's arms as in the manner of a crucifix and inhale. To stop, basically. To get off the climbing-frame and feel the firmness of the earth underfoot. And for those who have never heard of Mark Rothko, do not be ashamed, or feel deprived. But anyhow, he was a famous Russian/American import, abstract-expressionist by profession, mystic-man by temperament. Became wildly successful with his panoramic skeins of painted canvas in the late 1940s and 50s. Everyone wanted a part of him while he was in his prime. Everyone clamoured for a signature work to hang on their Manhattan wall. Everyone wanted to boast and brag about their slice of the Mark Rothko pie. Especially the greedy and unscrupulous dealers. They were the worst. They were the ones to keep an eye on. Sadly, though, old and battered alcoholic that he became as his star waned, Mr. Mark Rothko didn't have his eye on the artistic ball any longer. Maybe it was a lack of interest or an absence of trust. Whatever. In the end it was a sorry tale and a bloody denouement. An old tale, too. In an outsize studio at dawn, a keen razor across the inside of the elbow. Another tired man - an artist too weary of the world and himself - gone. Gone into the ether of future memory, like a distant shadow. But I remember him.
But forgive me my Mark Rothko moment. Forgive the maudlin theme. But I had to mention old Mark in order to raise an issue, or a concern. And it is this : it is the worry that the mystery has gone, or rather, faded out. The need for mystery has been replaced by the need, the demand, the outraged scream for truth. The Googling kind. The snap-your-fingers-and-it-is-there kind. The shout-and-all-will-be-revealed Alexa kind. Let's all beat the drum for authentic truth, then. Get involved in the quest for unmodulated explanation. Switch off, plug in, download. Engage with the zeitgeist of today. Question, delve, dissect, demand, enrol, sign-up, hold your breath. And above all, go with it without intellectual reservation, because the important thing to remember is that the question is all. The question is God. And woe-betide anyone who dares to question the need for the quest in the first place. No, no, no, no, no and NO. That will never do. What dream is that of freedom? Sounds more than a bit like heresy to me. Sounds, in fact, like terminal denial. Not the sort of thing to be encouraged, not now. Now is enlightenment, ably facilitated for the confused by the miracle of technology. Ah.... technology. Even the sound of the word is a salve for the troubled soul, isn't it? A comfort in a world full of troubles, troubles, troubles. A sticking-plaster for the heart and mind. And what of it that no-one wants the old heroes any longer? Why be concerned that Churchill is being openly dissected like some diseased and infectious cadaver, his corpse dumped into the trash-bin of unwanted history, or that nobody under the age of thirty five knows who J M W Turner was and what he meant, or means? No matter, my friends. Sleep the sleep of the soothed. All will be well in this world of outsourced explanation. The fingertip rules the world and you are invited to the party. Bring your own bottle.
The thing is, I don't want to go. To the party, that is. Not that I am against merriment of the 21st century variety. I can click a mouse with the best of them. Many a happy hour have I spent with my good companion Wikipedia, browsing, disseminating obscure facts, seeking out arcane explanation, searching for.... what? Worth? A place in the world without mystery? An ultimatum I can embrace? A moment when I can sit down and fire off the party-poppers? Share a drink or two with my fellow web-designers, settle into life, accept and let out that big, ultimate last sigh, safe in the knowledge that everything is ok? Because that's what we all want, right? Undiluted truth, Undiluted drinks. Undiluted, haze-free lives. What a wonderful party. No gatecrashers in sight to the far horizon. Full speed ahead and plain sailing. And no need for a hangover cure in the morning. Maybe just a hair-of-the-dog mid-afternoon. More of the same, please and don't overdo the ice. That's the way. That's what we want. That's the ticket to Utopia we've been told about.
So, what do you see when you see the cloud? Moving, drifting, expanding, contracting? It's all there. But do you see it? If the answer is yes, try to quantify your response. Do you really see it? Is it something that resonates in the mind and makes the heart flutter, or miss it's beat? Will you remember it tomorrow as you hunker down over your desk and wait for the next algorithm? Will it haunt your quiet moments, as it should? As you drain the dregs of your next Starbucks, safe in the knowledge that there will always be another Starbucks and possibly even another one after that (are we not truly blessed?), Will you wonder about stillness, or what it means? Perhaps you will. Perhaps you can, and if so, hold the thought. If you aren't able to stop what you are doing occasionally and just listen, don't beat yourself up too much. You are in good company. The machine rolls on, cloud or no cloud. And who needs mystery anyway when we already have all the answers?
Random thoughts are a constant companion of mine. It is undeniable. I sort of confess in a faintly guilty manner to the fact of it. Guilt might be the honest response to such thoughts as they idly swim in and out of the mind like clouds, because most of them, the random thoughts, are distracting as I go about the business of daily life. Then again, it might be that these seemingly innocuous flights of the mind are snippets of truth trying to get through into the conscious mind from the subconscious. Could it be that what we perceive as the rational sense of ourselves is the real distraction? The conscious world. The real lie. It very well may be. Perhaps I, you, all of us should try to welcome the disorganised thought a bit more. Follow that dream of truth. Take it by the hand and see where the path of meander takes us. Discover another kind of 'truth'. Treat randomness not as an imposition, but a friend. Skip along without a care down the path of least resistance and just let go of ourselves. It could lead to bliss or madness or deliverance. Who knows what we might discover at the end of the road? I know it will never happen for most of us, of course. We could never totally surrender our will for long enough to explore. Most of us, myself included haven't the wherewithal. Or the time. Or the courage?
Anyhow, I think my own distractedness might be down to a lack of iron and too much tea. But still they come, these rambling thoughts, tumbling over and over, like drunken acrobats. They taunt and they tease as I walk and talk and eat and sleep, tugging at my sleeve like a nagging child in need of attention. Sometimes, for all the world like assassins, they appear out of the dark, suddenly. But they only brandish toy knives, not real ones. I suppose they just want to play. Maybe all thoughts are like that - desperate for company. A rumination is a profundity-in-waiting. Who said that? Someone. It might have been me, right there, right now. Do you see what I mean? Random thoughts, everywhere. On the bus, in the office, floating in the air, lurking in the dark wardrobe of the mind. Hiding under the bed as you turn off the light and try to go to sleep. And in that sleep of death..... etcetera, etcetera, what dreams may come. Just a mindless thought, you understand. Food for further discussion.
It would be a dangerous game to play, though. Abject randomness. Try to imagine it. I do, sometimes and then draw back, unable to compute the possible implications. An exhilaration and a fear, all wrapped up in the same parcel. A dance with the devil, possibly. An abandonment of the self, or an embracing of a kind of freedom none of us is able or willing to allow ourselves. Because we're pragmatic. Because we have too many real things to do. Because there is no time to swim in some long-forgotten primordial soup. The soup no longer exists for us and if any of we time-consumed drones attempted a prolonged back-stroke in the choppy waters of now - well, we would soon be out of our depth. We'd be floundering. Someone would have to wade in to try to save us. And the onlookers would all jeer, wouldn't they? At our stupidity, at our recklessness. At our blind faith in positive outcomes. Just look at that fool, they would crow, egging each other on. So much for him and his pie-in-the-sky dreams of betterment. So much for another drowned soul, dragged up onto the beach of reality, his lungs full of water. Sorry to say, but it serves him and his kind right. Let's ignore him and get on with the real stuff.
I blame like everyone else, against my better judgement, if there is such a thing. Who decides? All of us, despite our protests, despite our avowed claims of tolerance - which in itself is a rightly maligned concept in practice. We shouldn't tolerate, should we? Tolerance is the buzz-word we should try to disassociate ourselves from. Not really a noble addition to the lexicon of what we think is a new, liberal approach to language and its application. Toleration might be said to intrinsically imply tacit acceptance without the necessary sincerity of feeling or honesty. It ends up being acquiescence, which is never good. But I disastrously digress. I'm sorry for that, but not for you. For me. Because there I drift again, meandering away to the horizon of another abstraction. Another diversion. Another ramble without the appropriate footwear. Stones underfoot and lots of pitfalls. But, that's the human brain for you. Too much consciousness, too many stray molecules, too little control of unselected connections.
But back to blame. I hold up my disdain for the blame-game as I would a crucifix to a blood-sucking vampire. I hope that every time I refuse to apportion responsibility to someone else and instead climb aboard the car of my own culpability, I am doing the right thing. The moral thing. The worthy thing. The thing all of us are told we should strive for, despite all the vicissitudes everyday life hurls in our direction. I want to see the pile of ashes at my feet where a moment ago stood Dracula. I want to see the phantom of selfish self-regard and lack of personal responsibility wither in the daylight before my eyes, I really do. Hopefully, we all want the same. To be honest, to accept our shortcomings, to recognise what it is that makes each individual one of us what we are. But it's hard to do or think the correct way all of the time, isn't it? Isn't it the way? Even some of the time is a struggle. Distractions, again. We become scuppered by our own sense of our personal validity. We are hoisted on the petard of time, or imagined lack of it.
What about my own current nemesis? The one causing my own preoccupations. All part of a graduating confrontation with a book, sadly. Not something I willingly admit to. I usually succeed in a lazy way in avoiding the affect-syndrome response to fiction. A novel is a novel is a novel. I might have a long-lasting seed of thought planted somewhere in my brain that I can continually draw on in response to a funny or profound work. And maybe profound and funny are just opposite sides of the same coin in literary terms. But I try to reject being taught anything. I may be moved to tears of compassion, or rage, or mirth, or pathos. Sometimes all at once if the writer is skilled enough. Mostly, though, I am at pains to distance myself from the shudder. There are curios, of course. See my recent review if Beast by Paul Kingsnorth for an example of a book that resonated more strongly than I expected. What a dark journey that was and still is. A riveting and deeply unsettling focus upon the mind's frailty and how destructive obsession can be. But no, for this thought provocation, this temporary waylaying of my reasoning faculties, I blame Luke Rhinehart and his damn dice. Or, specifically The Dice Man, may he rot somewhere not very pleasant. And it could happen, sooner or later. Time will tell for the anti-hero of this 1971 'cult' classic. Well, at least that is the common consensus. I emphasise the word cult only because I dislike the term. I am pejorative for the same reason I dismiss 'must-see', 'not-to-be-missed' and 'essential viewing'. Who the hell decides these things? The makers, the viewers, or the back-room series promoters? Please, I abstain from slavish acceptance of your's or anyone else's critique until I have read or seen the damn thing for myself. Just go away and take your half-baked recommendations with you. Thanks awfully.
The Dice Man. So far, so insane. It proceeds at a headlong pace. A New York psychiatrist. Successful, esteemed, affluent, married with two young children. Bored. Bored to the point of an abnormal desperation. A man trapped by the expectation weighing him down. The expectations he imposes on himself, the demands and suppositions of others. Standards of behaviour crowding in. Suffocation, despite the fancy car, the big house in the leafy suburbs, the sunny wife and even sunnier children, the bulging client list and two hundred dollars an hour fees. Life is seen through a fog of indifference by our ham-sized handed protagonist. He doesn't sleep well. He doesn't eat well. He seldom makes love to his wife. He is indifferent to his clients. They bore him. So do his children. So does his house and the overly cheerful neighbours. He looks at them and their beaming smiles each morning, afternoon and evening and realises that he wants to kill them. Them or himself. Or his wife and children and then himself. He is psychologically conflicted to a dangerous degree. Not a good position for an eminent top-flight shrink to be in. But what to do? Where to turn? How to break free from the shackles of drudgery?
Which is where the dice enter Luke Rhinehart's story. Or, rather, The Dice. The Dice of destiny, you might say. The Dice of forgiveness, the Dice of acceptance and forgiveness. The Dice of freedom from society and its constraints. And a list. A list of six courses of possible action. A random guide to The Way. A vow to abide by the outcome of the roll of the dice. A promise Luke Rhinehart makes to himself to roll, see and do, no matter what the consequences. No matter what pleasure or sacrifice he has to make. The Dice becomes his controller, his god. Already he has cheated on his wife, this being one of the negative choices he makes as he compiles his list. He takes drugs at inappropriate times, during sessions with patients, in his car, during concerts. He becomes a slave to the randomness, imagining he has found freedom. Well, we - and he, will see. I have a distinct feeling things will not end well. Our hero grows more decadent by the day. Questions are being asked by colleagues, by his wife, by his children. Where, oh where? Where will all this focused but blind randomness lead him, and me? Perhaps I might make my own list of projected outcomes. Six should do it. All I need then is one of those six-sided, numbered cubes and I'll be in the game. What does your Dice think I should do?
We shame ourselves with useless information and pub-quiz trivia. Usually, the shame occurs when in polite company. It's an easy trap to fall into when conversation wanes and the air grows still. Call it that 'did you know' empty moment, just aching to be filled, usually with some fascinating and soon-to-be-forgotten nugget. It trips from the tongue of the person who has nothing interesting to say. But they say it, anyway. At least Mark Twain thought so, in one of his most famous witticisms. Or perhaps it wasn't meant as a witticism. He may have been deadly serious, given that he was a global traveler and speaker. They say travel is a great means to enlightenment, which is possibly true, but I suppose the more you wander, the more chance there is you will encounter boring situations, and boring people. It's the human condition at work. Everyone seems to want to be listened to, no matter what. Everyone wants your attention, your time. Everyone needs you for something and there is no getting away. I think Oscar Wilde summed it up best of all. A bore, he said, is someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company. How right he was.
Not thinking about boring people or situations. Is it possible? Without getting bored with the question, that is? Finding things to stave off boredom, that's the thing. Everyone has their own diversions, their escapes. Opportunities for distraction are everywhere, begging to be enjoyed. Or should that be tolerated? I suppose it depends on taste. One man's meat is another man's reason to find a wall to bang his head against, The point is, outlets for relief from tedium are readily at hand whatever your preference. Some of them are even legal. Some of them are positively encouraged, advertised, promoted. Bored? Downhearted? Need something new? Try this - the latest anti-apathy pill. Wake up to a world of opportunity. Regain your mojo. Drag yourself out of the doldrums. One a day, to be taken with a moderate amount of food. Delirious enthusiasm for life, guaranteed.
No panacea exists to cure apathy, of course. Entertainments are plentiful, but the effects, the benefits, the feelgood factors are transitory, ephemeral. Like smoke. The illusion is powerful, though. Powerful enough to ensure that we all keep going back for more, of the same. I'm not sure what the answer might be. My solution almost certainly won't be yours, so I'll not bore you with the details.
What would you say your favourite word is? Do you ever lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering about multitudinous syllables? You don't? Perhaps it's just me. Maybe I think about this kind of stuff too much, or maybe not. It might be everyone else who doesn't pay enough attention, and not just to words. I believe in words and their power. Not only their descriptive force, their objective function, though language and civilisation as we know it would have not developed without them. No. Something else draws me, away from the sterility of the mad wordless rush of now. It is the words themselves, their touch on the tongue, their peculiar song, the way they resonate.
I try to use words with discretion and economy, but there are moments when I can't help but let rip. Times like these positively require verbosity. There is no substitute for a helping of gratuitous loquaciousness. The kind to make Charles Dickens weep, would be my advice. I don't apologise, or feel the need to. Some words are ripe for re-discovery and exposure back into the light. Old words, used in lengthy missives are owed a revival, battered as they have been by contemporary invaders and ne'er-do-wells. We need them more than ever in order to rescue the English tongue and ear from the all-pervading hell of text. So, more serendipity, if you please. More exposure to onomatopoeia. Let's invite the discombobulated round for tea and scones. Pull up a chair for disenfranchised poltroons. Let's try to all be a little more xenodochial to strangers. We will all feel better for it. All these little efforts at engagement with the language and diction of yesteryear might sound like too much of an effort. If so, I'm sorry to harp on, but I feel bitter and disaffected. Maybe it's my age. Maybe I am looking down the slippery-slope. Maybe I just like rambling.
But, please. A plea. Even if you attempt just one new word a day, do it for the sake of yours and my sanity. Either that, or carry on with your bromances as you chillax with your grrrl. Carry on wearing your jeggings to the local Tesco Express, If that is right for you, then fine. It's your choice, obvs. Me, I think I'll withdraw into my shadow with my book of choice, away from the vaccuous screenagers, with their furious sexting, textspeak and cyber-friends. I know none of these opinions chime with the current zeitgeist. Frankly, I care not. The old traditions will always be just beyond mass appreciation. Call it the natural progression of things, or a perfectly natural phenomenon. Call it what you like. I'm not sure what I would dare to call it if I was a devotee of social networking. I would probably keep my opinions to myself, unless I wanted to suffer the shame of being ostracised from the rest of humanity for daring to hold an alternate opinion. And I wouldn't want that, would I? To be 'unfriended' would be, well, just boring. And who wants to be boring?
A place of endless wonder without dragons. The home of the dodgy dialectic. A sanctuary for the frustrated and the terminally curious. Where debate meets damnation and humour lurks to surprise the unwary. From critical acclaim to diatribe. Don't be scared - come along for the ride.