Trying To Stand On Giants

Things build on other things, we know about that. It was a facet of science books that used to irritate me greatly as a kid. I want to know all the cool new stuff about Pluto now now now, my impatient little nerd brain would shriek, but no, they’d have to take me through the entire history of the thing first: through Ptolemy and the ancient Greeks, Galileo and his lens grinding, Newton locking himself in darkened rooms.

As some astronomer once said on one of those manipulative ads for some telecom concern: “if I can see further than you, it’s because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.” I don’t know what the above has to do with giving all your money to Vodafone, but it is certainly true of literature.

Any prose writer over the last eighty years who has fancied themselves as having something serious and artistic to say cannot possibly operate in blissful ignorance of the likes of Joyce, Nabokov or Beckett. You might quite legitimately hate them, but acting as though they’re not there isn’t likely to get you far.

In the case of Joyce, many writers spend frustrating years trying to separate the good from the shit in a way that conforms with the diktats of whoever happens to pass for the literary establishment at the time.

This can be tough: there’s no doubt that the man who wrote ‘The Dead’ was an awe-inspiring talent, in such total and frightening command of his craft that nearly eighty years later, when John Huston chose to make the movie which would be the glorious swan song to his career, he used Joyce’s precise text, word for heartrending word.

But later: there are parts of Ulysses so powerful and accomplished that it’s almost obligatory to go for a long walk and a stiff drink, maybe stare out at the shapeless sea and wonder if you wouldn’t be better off going into I.T. or something, something that pays (by the way, if I.T. had been around in Joyce’s day, he would certainly asked himself the same question more than once. He might actually have been good at it.)

And yet there are the other parts, the bits where this bible of modernism makes about as much sense as the parts in the other bible concerning the best way to skin someone who’s stolen your goat.

One Irish critic controversially – and very bravely – suggested that a really good Editor might have bent Joyce over his or her lap and cut Ulysses by about 50%.

Maybe. But I don’t know which bits she’d have left in. Neither does anyone else. Therein lies the problem. And as for Finnegan’s Wake …

Well, I have met a couple of people who claimed to understand it thoroughly. They would smile at me in a kind of blowsy mysticism, as if they’d taken secret knowledge down from a mountain only they knew about. They’d mutter something about music and then smile vaguely again as the nice men came back to return them to the secure facility in which they had been housed, for their own good and that of everyone else.

I want to write a science fiction story in which people, for reasons only obscurely explained, choose to enter a virtual reality simulation known as ‘Beckettworld,’ in which you get to hang around grey landscapes in long shabby coats, ruminate upon the meaninglessness of existence and wonder if the figure coming towards you might be in possession of a sandwich.

Here’s the thing: I think such a simulation might actually be a surprise hit. The older you get – and maybe it’s not actually to do with getting older – the more there’s actually something terribly comforting about a lot of Beckett. Maybe it’s partly the familiarity of the land, those dreamscapes in which nothing ever happens. After all, as David Byrne has said, isn’t Heaven really a place where nothing ever happens?

There is also a paradoxical comfort to be had in the grimness of Beckett’s subject matter. After all: if we’re totally screwed, then there’s no point in worrying about anything, is there? Why fret about the outcome of a game whose rules were bent long before you entered?

Just sit back and have another weird, elliptical conversation. Maybe even have a little nap: try out Beckettworld.

Every so often, someone tries to pass water on the Nabokov thing by pointing out, entirely reasonably, that ‘Lolita’ is an attempt to humanise paedos.

Fair enough, and I’m not exactly mad about Vlad either. I find the stylistic flurries, the literary preenings and poutings, a little too much, a little precious. But the cognoscenti have spoken. And when it comes to stuff like this, literature is even more reverential than science, than religion.

You’ve got to give every appearance of dancing most gratefully on that giant’s shoulders, even if you secretly think they’re not that much of a giant.


Our New Mirror Gazing Leaders

Until very recently, in countries which essayed some stab at democracy, it was normal for seekers after high office to at least pretend some form of common cause with the ordinary citizen.

The practice has actually been common since ancient times. More than 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome, your average everyday sewer dweller could stand and watch as rich politicians like Julius Caesar, bred to centuries of aristocracy, passionately feigned a genuine interest in questions such as why the toilets of the poor smelled so bad, or why they always had to drink wine out of pots that were cracked at the bottom, or had leeches in them.

It’s part of what has been called democracy, and which has been decried over centuries by many different commentators at many different times. The likes of Nietzsche considered democracy an abomination, because why should strong men have to pander towards weak ones?

Real or imagined, the covenant between strong men and weak ones has driven much of what we like to think of as our history, and in many cases, some of the most important changes to society have been made by deeply conservative aristocrats who had been awakened to the need for change by political turmoil.

Thus, the first examples of what we now call organised social protection were initiated in Germany by Otto von Bismarck, a chap who was anything but a pinko do-gooder.

The ‘New Deal’ in America, conceived to respond to the wreckage of millions of lives by the Great Depression – itself, like the Irish Famine, the product of untrammelled, unfettered and carnivorous capitalism – was steered through by Franklin D Roosevelt, a man who, whatever his personal beliefs, was anything but a humble son of the soil.

It was part of what used to be known as the ‘post war consensus’ that every politician seeking high office had to have something in his bag of goodies for poor people. Even when Margaret Thatcher was attempting to rewrite that consensus in the 1980’s – with consequences that have gone on to almost destroy western society – she felt it necessary to dress the f**k the poor message in populist soundbytes.

Instead of belonging to horrible unions, she promised, ordinary people would all become stockholders, literally the owners of their own economy, just as important as the Banks and Hedge Funds and Satan knows what else.

It was all bollocks, of course, but only through such rank dishonesty could people be persuaded to part with so many fundamental rights.

One side-effect (and there have been many) of Thatcherite politics is that a key pillar of democratic politics has been changed, or done away with altogether. We now have – more so than ever before – entrenched elites in politics, business and media. Their sole aim is to perpetuate their own existence and privilege, if necessary in brutal defiance of popular hatred (look at the banking riots, for example).

In the political sphere, this change manifests itself in politicians like Hillary Clinton – and her enormously powerful amen corner, including luminaries like Harvey Weinstein – who seek high office on the basis of entitlement, on the belief that, like some wronged medieval queen, it is hers by right.

But this didn’t start with poor old Hill, still wandering the planet in bemused despair at how those deplorables took away her crown. The CNN brigade love to tell us that George W Bush is no longer the worst President in US history. As far as these fearless truth seekers are concerned, all bets are off until that horrible man Trump is out of the White House.

But Trump has yet to launch an illegal war, egged on by a Vice President – Dick Cheney – far too scary ever to win election to anything in his own right.

Cheney’s career itself was a dramatic indicator that democracy is on life support.

He turned the entire world upside down. He ruined or ended the lives of millions of people, and he never had to put any of it to a single vote. Even Hitler had to go in front of a ballot box now and again.

Like Thatcher, Cheney’s career has had all sorts of unfortunate knock ons. The much vaunted tide of populist anger has not prevented the growth of a strange class of politicians, of no conspicuous ability or ideological commitment, who claim a right of infinite self-perpetuation simply because they tick a designated series of liberal elite boxes.

These are leaders like Justin Trudeau in Canada, whose main claim to fame seems to be that he’s inordinately good looking and went to school with a lot of famous people (at least one of whom, Matthew Perry, claims to have beaten him up, and to think I never really cared for ‘Friends’). Justin smiles a lot and is seen at a lot of ‘right on’ stuff like Pride Marches.

He’s to be seen everywhere, fixing that wide beam smile and indulging in the box ticking ritual denunciation of whatever that awful man Trump has done or said this week.

As to whether Justin is any good or gives a single wet shite about the life of any ordinary person, well, I know that tar sands advocates in Alberta have decided he’s basically just as bad as the other crowd, but you won’t be hearing much about that on CNN.

This seems to be the main difference between Justin and people like Trump, and it is entirely cosmetic. Prior to the last US election, the left wing Slovenian philosopher Slavov Zisek was asked who he was rooting for. He no doubt shocked his interviewer by saying ‘Trump. Because Trump does not wear a mask.’

Ireland’s ruling party recently installed as Prime Minister a politician who ticks a ludicrous set of liberal elite boxes. Leo Varadkar is openly gay, financially well off, the son of an Indian immigrant and utterly beloved by the tiny media elites of the nation’s capital, none of whom think darling Leo should be held to blame in any way for the numbers of people sleeping rough and dying on the streets of that same capital.

Until Leo, every single Irish leader has found it necessary to at least pretend that they are in some way interested in the things that bother normal people. Leo is the first I can remember to more or less explicitly state that he’s only interested in people above a certain income threshold, members of a certain moneyed class, and so long as he continues to tick all those lovely liberal boxes, no one in the Dublin media even comments on what is actually a major sea change to what is left of our democracy.

It all makes you wonder whether old Adolf might have fared better in 21st Century politics. After all, he sort of ticked a number of liberal boxes. He had a lot of gay supporters (until he shot them all), claimed to be vegetarian (though this has been challenged) and his ‘Kraft durch Freude’ youth programmes were basically bonkfests for German youth, so long as they produced plenty of healthy Aryan children.

If he’d attended pride marches in that fabulously camp uniform, maybe even delighted the crowd with his silly walk, then who knows?

Goodbye To All That

There were moments last Monday when it almost felt like Ireland was a real country again, as if twenty plus years of recent history had been suddenly blown aside by Hurricane Ophelia. This is not meant to disrespect or detract in any way from the grief of those three families who lost loved ones to the storm. This is more about the rest of us.

For one storm tossed day we became as little children again, listening to the nursery rhyme of nationhood. We crowded around RTE radio and television, because suddenly its mission of speaking whatever the Government wants us to hear seemed important, like it actually meant something. Stay inside if you want to stay safe.

We huddled around our radio sets, made cups of tea and briefly became a people again. Even Varadkar took time off from gazing in the mirror to sound like a bluff Fine Gael Taoiseach of old, like the very recently departed Liam Cosgrave, ‘stay indoors or else.’ A good old traditional Fine Gael message delivered in traditional ‘we know what’s good for you’ style.

If there ever was such a thing as modern Ireland, its story is essentially one of television and radio, of the chief organ of the state – and biggest family business in the country – imparting its always heavily mediated message to the peasants. And for once the message was actually of some genuine use to actual, real people.

Yes, the prudent thing was to stay indoors, stay hanging on every gobbet to fall from the lips of Bryan Dobson or Sean O’ Rourke – not to mention the increasingly exhausted and incoherent sounding Met Eireann lady – while sandwiched in the middle was Joe Duffy, pretending to empathise with everything, offering state validated emotional colour to the nationwide tapestry of falling trees, ruined clothes lines, dodgily stitched together roofs and homicidal tides.

Oh stay inside yeh poor craythurs. You mind that wind now. I’ve heard what it can do to yah.

What matter that it’s all kind of been done before, and previous storm overkills from the national broadcaster led to some people quite logically figuring that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a big deal this time either.

Even Ray Darcy sounded engaged, concerned, instead of, well, somebody who’s being paid a fortune not to give a shite. Oh for a day we were fantastic again, not in the shrill, tongue in stranger hysteria of Italia ’90, but in a sober, more concerned old Irish way, a sort of ‘are you sure you’re ok there now?’ A kind of ‘how about a cup of tea’ sensibility, and don’t forget to check on all those old people and animals, but only, you know, once the wind has died down.

And it was all so terribly, terribly comforting, like a bedtime story or a jug of hot milk. In a way, I’ll almost miss it, and experiencing it reminded me of all the things I’d forgotten I missed about the place I used to think I lived in.

There hasn’t been any Irish state worth talking about since the early 1990’s – if indeed, such an entity can actually be said to have existed back then – when the senior Irish Civil Service realized that all the big action and money was in Europe and that their focus now was on being the best little boys and girls in the Euro class, the better to secure those lucrative sinecures in Brussels once their careers in Dublin had run their natural course.

Since then, any important Irish Government decision – such as the one to rape the citizenry in order to pay off the debts of bankers – has actually been taken in Brussels, or more precisely, Berlin. RTE, like all the rest of the Irish Government, is engaged in persuading its dwindling band of listeners that the stuff it talks about actually has some sort of meaning in the real world, wherever that may be.

But Fine Gael told us to stay indoors and not go to work. And as the denizens of Leo’s ‘Republic of Opportunity’ made their way back to work over the cracks and runnels left behind by the country sized scam that was Irish Water, it still felt kind of comforting, as if they in some way cared about us.

For those of us who had to go back, next day, to the reality of living inside a fiction, the memory – false as its precept was – still felt kind of nice.

We’re Just Machines Inside A Machine: Stanley Kubrick

There is very little that can compare with two hours plus inside the imagination of Stanley Kubrick. His films are unlike any other. Their astonishing visual clarity make them feel like a peculiarly vivid hallucination, a dream viewed through the lens of a madman cursed with the inability to blink.

The best of them make you think in ways you perhaps wished you never would. They call strongly for a brisk walks and stiff drinks.

As in dreams, the normal emotional focus which holds a waking day together for most of us – which supplies what we think of as our context – is missing from Kubrick’s films, and this makes them all the more unsettling.

We should probably hate Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ after all, he’s a nasty nihilistic thug. Instead, we are mostly indifferent to him, seeing him perhaps as a singularly unappealing child. In this and other instances, Kubrick’s much vaunted lack of empathy actually contributes to the dizzying intensity of the work.

The movies are an often fantastical vision of a situation that is essentially hopeless. Kubrick’s view of his fellow humans and what they could reasonably look forward to could best be described as a kind of medieval mechanistic determinism. We can’t act outside our programming: it’s as simple as that. Our prospects are fixed, just like in a medieval cosmology, but without the all purpose balm of God.

The ultimate seed of Barry Lyndon’s undoing is his failure to even think of reaching some kind of understanding with his stepson, Lord Bullingdon. Already the target of Bullingdon’s resentment for being a parvenu who married his mother, Barry proceeds to mistreat Bullingdon while spoiling his own son, and even savagely beats the teenager in front of a large gathering at their home. Inevitably, when Bullingdon reaches majority and inherits his late father’s titles and wealth, that’s the end of Barry.

Had Barry been capable of thinking outside his programming and acting in his own longer term interests, he would have attempted some sort of approach along the lines of: ‘listen kid, I’m not too happy about this situation either, but can we just try to get along, huh? How about a lollipop?” Instead, he’s utterly a creature of the Universe that created him – you don’t make deals with children, you either beat or spoil them – and like the astronauts in 2001, he has to face an unprecedented situation within the excruciating limits of his own training. It is a vision of humanity which is bleak, to say the least.

The paradox of Kubrick lies in the fantastical clarity of his often staggeringly beautiful images – they are supra-real, better than real – coupled with a philosophical vision that even Beckett might have found a bit depressing. This isn’t entirely a throwaway remark, either. Bleak and all as he believed our condition to be, I suspect Beckett might have found Kubrick’s lack of compassion a bit repellent.

In a retrospective documentary about Kubrick released not long after his death, Jack Nicholson tells a revealing story from during the filming of ‘The Shining.’ During a rare break between those endless takes that gave poor old Shelly Duvall a breakdown, Kubrick tells his lead actor that ‘The Shining’ is actually a feelgood story.

Jack does a subdued version of his famous disbelieving leer and says ‘How’s that Stanley?’ Kubrick replies “the notion that there’s anything out there after death. That’s good. That’s optimistic.”

In spite of our technological accomplishments (and I suppose ‘we’ speak of ‘our’ technological accomplishments as if ‘we’ somehow made them. I can’t design a PC or build an aeroplane. Real change, as Kubrick would probably have pointed out, is actually generated by very small groups of humans), Kubrick’s view of our experience and capabilities is cruelly limited.

Jack Torrance can’t do anything other than go mad. It’s his training. It’s his trajectory. Like in a medieval tale of caution, Tom Cruise’s character in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is transported out of his rightful caste and level by sheer chance. Such an interruption to the fixed laws of the Universe leads to all sorts of Hell breaking loose, he teeters on the precipice of madness and death.

But he gets very lucky. He’s able to resume his former existence, sort of, albeit with all sorts of stuff he wishes he didn’t know about his wife (is Kubrick the real reason Tom and Nicole Kidman split up? You know, I have my suspicions.)

Medieval it is in many ways, but it actually chimes oddly with much of today’s intellectual orthodoxy in the West. This orthodoxy preaches, for example, that you should never look outside the alleged wisdom of received opinion. At its most self-loathing, it regards human consciousness itself as some sort of nasty STD.

The idea of the Universe as some sort of inanimate – and possibly fake – machine is something which has been gaining a lot of traction lately, and it’s pure Kubrick.

In Kubrick, no human being can act outside their programming in a way that is transformative. The humanitarianism of Colonel Dax in ‘Paths of Glory’ is as admirable as it is pointless, because the French High Command is going to execute its innocent soldiers anyway. The astronauts in 2001 are presumably among the best trained people on the planet, but Kubrick explicitly identifies them with the ape-man who’s just learned how to kill with a bone, and they are powerless to do anything once the machines stop working.

In such a world, the notion of any progress at all seems improbable. In 2001, Kubrick has to resort to the deus ex machina of invisible yet all powerful aliens to explain how apes leaned how to fly spaceships, but aren’t they just the medieval God by any other non-name?

‘The Shining ‘ is the only one of Kubrick’s movies to make any reference to the possibility of the supernatural, contributing perhaps to the one clunky plot flaw in his entire oeuvre, i.e. when the ‘ghosts’ open the locked door for Jack. Even here, any influence from beyond is entirely malign and only hastens Jack Torrance towards his predetermined, mechanistic end.

Kubrick’s film are high definition visual trips unlike any other. They are unrivalled in terms of visual clarity and unforgettable moments, but don’t go looking to them for reasons to feel good about yourself and the future.

Why Luck Is So Much Better Than Talent

Of all things, perhaps, the very worst station in life is probably to be a person of talent – or, at least, the belief you have talent – who is forced to live without luck.

It’s like being poor old Alfred Russell Wallace instead of Charles Darwin. Wallace had famously worked out most of the principles of Evolution years before Darwin, but never got around to publishing them in the right journal, and so six whole generations of humanity have lived under the shadow of Darwinism, rather than Wallaceism.

Perhaps Alfred’s bad luck was the good fortune of his namesakes, since people named ‘Wallace’ in the Deep South of America might have had to move, or change their names.

It’s a sad fact that you can’t get very far in life without luck. Think of the luckiest people you know, JK Rowling for instance. Was Harry Potter really the most outstanding fantasy written anywhere in the world for young people in the last twenty years? Really? Come on.

And I’ve never really believed all that rags to riches stuff about being a young single mother breastfeeding and writing in coffee shops. I mean, it’s a good story, but really? Trying to write while being in sole charge of a young child is unbelievably difficult, I know; I’ve tried it.

Also, it’s pretty much impossible to get the ear of any publisher these days without some sort of an ‘in,’ without the space in your life to do some ‘schmoozing.’ Try as I might, I can’t imagine anyone balancing the demands of truly single parenting with ‘schmoozing.’ Maybe some people have managed it, but I can’t see how.

The enigmatic ineffability of luck is sort of reflected in the fiction too. While George RR Martin’s characters are products of an intricately imagined world who endure all manner of horror and humiliation on their way to ultimately bloody fates, Rowling’s characters just sort of, like, have stuff happen to them.

Harry wakes up one morning to discover that he’s the most famous person in the wizard world, that his life has been mapped out and made fantastic by incredible things which happened before he was born. Because that’s the way it is for everyone, right?

Winston Churchill was a depressive who drank his own weight in brandy daily and long bemoaned what he reckoned was his execrable luck, most notably when he was left outside the mainstream of British politics for 15 years before 1940.

In reality, he was one of the luckiest gits imaginable: membership of a high born British family allowed him to get away with a lifetime of outrageous behaviour (rather like a certain Mr Johnson today), and it meant his career survived disasters which would have instantly obliterated the legacy of many a lesser born man.

You’d never have heard of the brains behind the Gallipoli offensive in World War I if it hadn’t been Winston Churchill. Likewise, it is a little noted irony of British history that the same man who commanded British soldiers to fire on their own citizens during the general strike of the mid-1920s became its greatest wartime Prime Minister less than a generation later. Would Roosevelt have survived such a calamity?

The most successful politician in the ancient Roman Republic was a man called Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Indeed, so successful was Sulla that his career pretty much led to the death of the Republic, though this would not be officially pronounced until Caesar a generation later.

Though of great ability, Sulla seemed to be able to come back from disaster again and again. He openly boasted of the reason for this. It wasn’t that he was the smartest, bravest or the best looking (have you seen his picture?), it was simply that he was the luckiest. He proclaimed again and again that the Goddess Fortuna was in love with him, and so bestowed most special favours.

Sulla knew more than a thing or two about life. He is possibly the only dictatorial leader in recorded history to have voluntarily and successfully given up power, i.e. managing to survive and enjoy a healthy retirement.

One of his political descendants, Julius Caesar, used to boast of exactly the same kind of luck, and he seemed to be dead right until that unfortunate business on the Ides of March.

It’s become something of a cliché to mourn the way ancient wisdom about the way life really works has been thrown away in the so called Age of Reason. Luck is important. Luck changes lives in ways Science can only dream about, but luck seems to have no logic, no discernible pattern; therefore we mistrust it, do our best to ignore it, in public at least.

There is one fascinating reference to the power of luck in a 1970’s science fiction novel called ‘The Ringworld Engineers,’ by Larry Niven. In one important sub-plot, an alien race known as Pierson’s Puppeteers turn out to have selectively bred human beings for luck. They end up with an individual who is the descendant of seven generations of lottery winners.

But you would probably need to be an alien to think so outlandishly, so far outside the box. For all our supposedly incredible achievements these days, people rarely move outside tightly prescribed circles of thought.

Or am I wrong? Is there some covert University study under way as I speak? I bet Google are working on it right now, or possibly the Illuminati (assuming, of course, that they’re not the same thing).

A Message From Our Sponsors

Hello! We’re just taking the chance here to touch base with you about a few things. Here in the corporate world, we like to use phrases like ‘touch base.’ It sort of connects us with the sporting world, which we also make a lot of money from, and some of us also really like to hang out with, or at least near to, sporting types, so long as they’re really rich and successful of course.

‘Touching base’ also marks us out as go-getter types. It means we’re kinetic, we’re goal driven, we like to be pro-active about our targets in an ever changing world.

I have no idea what any of these phrases mean, but I do know that ‘touching base’ is better than ‘checking.’

‘Checking’ implies that we’re worried about something, that we might be the sort of people who inspect the contents of the loo just before we flush, and we’re really not interested in being the type of person who looks back.

And no. Here in the advertising world, we’re definitely not worried about anything. We’re in great form, fine fettle. Why wouldn’t we be? Our profits just went up another 300%. Of course, the huge rise in profits and the challenges of a world that manages to be both wired up and wireless going forward meant that we just had to let a lot of people go (again). That was tough on us, but at least I still have a job, not to mention a salary increase.

I want to touch base with you about a couple of really exciting products we’re rolling down the pipeline at you in the next few months, or once our legal people have touched base that we absolutely can’t be sued, whichever comes first.

As you know, there’s pretty much no area of your life that, thanks to our insatiable desire to touch base and keep you in the loop about all kinds fabulous suites of products, we don’t touch – be it with a base or something else.

We think of all your time and space – every minute you spend from cradle to grave as a semi-conscious component of our sacred marketplace – as being essentially made up of cells of marketing opportunity. We are constantly at work to find exactly the right marketing opportunity to fit each cell of your space, time and consciousness.

We literally think of existence as one enormous Excel spreadsheet. Now, some cells are obviously more fertile than others. The more time you spend lying on our couch, staring at the TV, emitting those lovely alpha waves, the more time you spend downloading pornography on your computer, the more time you spend reading the vacuous non-thoughts of your friends on Facebook, the better it is for us, and for you obviously, because how else are you going to hear about all those lovely products we want to delight you with?

Making sure that your work space is enhanced with all kinds of lovely marketing can be tricky. Obviously, it’s important to us that you go to work in order to keep imagining you can afford the lovely things we want to sell. It’s important that this work is as hard, or at least as time consuming, as possible. Research (we love to do loads and loads of research) has shown that being exhausted and basically unable to think for yourself, but filled with a sense of being vaguely pissed off about something, renders you, our wonderful potential new customer, in the ideal state to hear our very good news about stuff.

Unfortunately, some of the companies who buy your time for ever decreasing amounts of money apparently think that said purchase of time entitles them to control what you see and hear as well. They can be a little hostile to our attempts to augment your cells of work time with exciting product news.

We are still working on this, but it has occurred to us that there are other cells, inside and outside the work experience, that offer ideal opportunities to share the wonderful gift of targeted marketing.

For example, the average person (we just love research about ‘average people’) spends between 20 and 40 minutes of every single day in the bathroom. These times, be they about Number 1s, Number 2s or some other form of ablution, represent cells of absolutely golden marketing opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to hear about some fantastic new toilet brush at the very moment you have committed some new atrocity in there?

We will shortly be rolling out a suite of new waterproof screens for installation in toilet cubicles all over the world. But we’re not stopping there, oh no! What if your bath bubbles could actually talk to you about new all in broadband bundles or hair removers? Wouldn’t that be the nearest thing to Paradise?

Some really clever sciencey type person somewhere is also investigating the possibility of a new intelligent toilet gel which informs you about exciting new products at the very moment you’re sitting above it. Even the action of vigorous defecation will not affect the ability of the gel to keep you fully up to date on everything from plasma screen TVs to boned and rolled ham.

But we’re not stopping there. Indeed, in many ways, we’ve only just begun. Some of our research people recently found that most people spend up to one third of their entire lives asleep. Imagine!

It’s like looking at an Excel sheet where fully one third of the cells can’t have anything added into them. That is one entire third of your life when you are out of contact with the rest of the economy, when you can’t hear about exciting new products or make purchasing decisions for the future.

But never fear: we’re hard at work on this as well. Like a lot of our best ideas, it comes from Hollywood, and we then make Hollywood make other movies about our best ideas. Ever seen Inception?

Imagine you’re having a dream about a field that you (or someone you saw on TV) used to play in as a child. You see the distant hills, the footballs, your newly reanimated childhood dog, who all of a sudden gets up on his hind legs and says ‘try Zagfart cola, for that authentic taste of your (or someone else’s) childhood.’

Excited? We know we are. We’re working on making this service wireless, so you won’t even have to stick a couple of electrodes on your head before entering the sleep cells of your economic activity. We’re on the point of offering our corporate customers a whole suite of product placement opportunities, delivered right there and then to your dream. We will enable our clients to achieve ideal marketing synergy with your sleeping selves.

Our clinical trials of this fantastic new product have been very encouraging: one guy woke right up and bought forty quarter pounders, and only a few people went insane.

We believe there’s no reason why every cell of your time, working or sleeping, can’t be opened up to the fabulous and fabulously profitable benefits of direct marketing. The ability to be connected with the economy at all times, waking or sleeping, is a fundamental human right. We want to keep working with you to keep identifying products to keep making your life even better.

We’ll see you when you close your eyes…

What Is Going On With Toilets?

Further to our recent effulgence on the perfidy of engineers, an even more sinister development has come to my notice: what the hell is going on with toilets?

Again, some satanic little cadre of engineers someplace has decreed that, no matter what, you’re going to come face to face with all that stuff going on inside that you used to be perfectly happy never thinking about.

Time was when you could just sit, pull the relevant things down, let her rip and forget all about it. You didn’t even need to look at it if you didn’t want to. In fact, I seem to remember some line from ‘Basic Instinct’ to the effect that looking down at your own poo was a sure sign of some serious psychotic disturbance.

Not so any more. Every new toilet now seems to feature a sort of little platform where your poo rests, as if presenting itself for inspection before going off to swim with the little fishies. On occasion, it can even be a bit reluctant to leave said platform, leading to all manner of quiet grunting and brushing and cursing.

It may not be entirely coincidental that I first encountered the ‘inspect your own poo’ phenomenon in Germany. Ah yes, I reasoned, here it seems is design that accords with some Teutonic notion of functionality.

‘Ja, time to check mein faeces vur today. Ja, zis all looks in order. Ja, das ist der Bratwurst from yesterday. Ach, ich muss start eating some more fibre, Ja.

But I don’t come from Germany. I grew up, pretty much, in a disgruntled offshoot of the Anglo-Saxon world which, healthily or not, held that there were things about yourself and your funny little processes that you just did not need to know in order to get through the day.

No doubt it’s all a vestige of some Victorian miasma: cover up those chair legs in case Weird Uncle Magnus starts getting ideas about them, flush away that nasty poo, but I’m comfortable with it. It’s just too late to change. I can’t start developing some sort of emotional relationship with my own waste. I wouldn’t know where to start.

Maybe it’s the flipside of EU standardisation, aka Germanisation, but I’ve noticed a most disturbing increase in the number of toilets with poo inspection platforms.

Is this the true movement that lies underneath things like Brexit? Is this what gives it propulsion? The ability to ignore your own poo until it’s too late should be a fundamental human right. You can’t force us to talk to it, make friends with it, find out how it’s feeling: you can’t, you can’t, you can’t.

One African Night

It must have started on a night like this, under an African sky some time after the very first dawn.

A man went out walking by a lake still as a dream. He saw the moon breaking into a million pieces on the surface of the water.

He looked up and lost his mind a time inside the jewelled tapestry of the sky.

And someone by his side, a child or young woman perhaps, said

“What are the stars? Tell me about the stars?”

He looked down at her face: the wide eyes lit by the moon, all that trust and fear, and he knew he had to tell her something.

So he pointed to a triangle just risen in the west, said it was all that remained of a mighty hunter who stole fire from the high mountains and was punished by the Gods for freeing his people.

He said how some of the lights were home to the good Gods, watching over their children.

Some were heroes so mighty and devout that they were chosen to live forever in the sky.

He told how that big star in the south was the soul of a beautiful princess who had been killed by a wicked giant; how the Gods had taken pity and lifted her to the forever place.

He said how the stars were placed there to guide the way of lonely travellers by night.

He said a great hero had died in battle, and the Queen of the Gods had wept so much that her tears made a milky belt to fasten the sky in place.

Long hours the man spoke up at the dark. And his words made a sweet blanket. And the child or young woman fell at last asleep.

The man looked back up at the sky, knowing that everything he had said was a lie, but that he had needed to say something, and he marvelled at how his words had seemed to grow wings of truth on their journey from his mouth to her eyes.

He began that night the work of tying thread to bind darkness to light, to join one day to another. And what was important, perhaps, was not that he made mistakes, but that he tried.

Our world of lies began that night, spawned from the loveliest intention, to calm the heart of a fearful child, and it began under an African sky.

The Restless Perfidy Of Engineers


The weekend hotel break has become a drug of necessity for stressed out people everywhere. Thanks to our glorious new economic dispensation, everybody – unless they’re Bill Gates – is working ever longer hours for far less money. Long gone are the days when many of us could pack off for two weeks and completely switch off.

While work expands to fill all the time you don’t actually spend asleep, many have found it necessary to compress ‘downtime’ into just a couple of days.

I suppose it won’t be too long before it gets compressed further into just a couple of hours, or even minutes, and indeed the Japanese – ahead of the curve as ever – apparently have these tiny rooms in Tokyo (basically cabinets whose entire floor is a bed) where you can lock yourself away and experience sensory deprivation and all manner of earthly pleasure until your two hours run out.

In the meantime, the rest of us hold fast to things like city breaks, where you pack a bag, get a cheap flight with one of those airlines currently investigating the possibility of charging its passengers for all that oxygen, decamp and undergo a series of rapid fire experiences designed to suck the marrow out of Prague or Budapest or Barcelona or wherever, then flop, utterly exhausted and drained of life’s vital fluid, back to work just a couple of days later.

The more sedentary, or less insane among us opt for one of the bizarre profusion of hotels still left behind from the last economic crash. These are curious edifices, their ownership – following multiple bankruptcies – often the source of bemused conjecture.

Their size and location – giant mausoleums often standing literally in the middle of nowhere – put one unnervingly in mind of the hotel in The Shining, but the less said about that the better.

Focus instead on the fact that they usually boast all the facilities – steam room, other steam room, gourmet restaurant, wifi etc. – and just try and ignore the fact that by night it seems to dwell in an ocean of darkness more profound than the inside of a Russian oligarch’s soul.

Don’t pay any attention to the fact that construction seems to have come to an abrupt halt somewhere between the swimming pool and that whole west wing thing they mentioned in the brochure. Some sort of new property boom is bound to happen any day now, and they’ll be able to get everything finished.

But the compression of time involved in these mini-breaks often means that something which used not to be that big a deal now eats up loads of precious, de-stressing minutes. A goodly percentage of my two day break ends up being frittered away on trying to figure out how the shower works, or wondering if the kettle the mysterious owners have helpfully supplied is actually some sort of kitschy, post – industrial ornament.

Showers are a particular headwreck. It says something about human ingenuity that we’ve apparently never managed to design two that work exactly the same way. ‘Oh wait, I think this nozzle is … Oh sweet Jesus. The pain. No. Maybe it’s this one here.’

Not Gerry’s Duck

Each individual hotel room should come with a manual explaining how all the fittings work, how you need to tweak the light switch just so in order to make the floor lamp glow that sensuous shade of purple. Hotels could even save you some time by allowing you to download these manuals direct to your computer, so you’re all briefed up and fully ready to chill.

Only an engineer could possibly imagine that any human being enjoys spending half his holiday trying to figure out how to flush the toilet. The only people who get a kick out of this kind of thing are other engineers. But it seems that, just like bankers, lawyers and other card carrying criminals, engineers enjoy far too much sway over this wonderful world of ours.

And it isn’t just hotels and plumbing. When tetra-pak was invented back in the 1950’s, there was one type of milk carton, pyramidal in shape, and you snipped off the top to get at the goodies within. But now? The other day, I discovered that my favourite supermarket had once again changed the packaging on their tomato sauce, rendering all my previous hard won knowledge about how to open it entirely useless.

It took me half an hour to disassemble the new carton, by which time the kitchen resembled the aftermath of one of those parties in The Sopranos where Tony invites his buddies around for a heart to heart.

We’re supposed to live in an age of standardisation, where everybody gives out because everything is exactly like anything else. But why hasn’t anyone told engineers about this? Don’t even get me started on the designers of Windows 10, whose hyperactive avarice almost ensured this blog didn’t get written.

Stop adding stupid pointless fiddly features to everything or I’ll sue you for all those precious minutes you’ve taken off my life.

A Seed Of Heavenly Doubt

You passed my darkest night a comet

Writing cold fire above my wasted Earth

In the dead of my most evil hour

I looked up and saw you

And marvelled at your bright ghost plumage

Your raiment of mud and ice.

My Hale-Bopp, my Shoemaker-Levy,

My glad and distant tiding

My month of giddy news from worlds undreamt.

You made me rethink distance

And the things that stitch up time

Why the faraway seems so near

And the neartime crowds itself

With things impossible to touch.

Your course by time takes you far

From my numbed sky

Which dances still a little.

Where once you raptured my naked eye

Now you live in a telescope of memory

Which like flesh will fade

Leaving aught but a shadow

On a retina of doubt.

But memory has a skin

And fathoms underneath.

Somewhere in those measureless reaches

Lies a shadow on a rock

A fossil stressed under layers of time,

The memory of all you were to me

While your corona danced hymns to your glory

‘Gainst the dark of my adoring sky.