Thursday, 29 March 2007

MIrror Image

In the same way that children imitate adults, our codes of behaviour are intimately linked to our surroundings. I know this is stating the obvious but it has serious implications for what we might term the integrity of the self. Nowhere is this paradox more striking than in the political environment.

Theoretically, at least, parliaments are a forum in which people of opposing, or certainly varied, lives and inclinations are brought together as representative samples of the population. Given that citizens of the modern industrial state cannot participate in democratic decision making at all times (unlike, say, the ideal of the Athenian demos), our elected representatives - in the true sense of the term, which suggests the mirroring of social pluralism - are delegated much of the responsibilty for exercising public reason.

One might expect, therefore, that the political environment would be one in which individualism, or certainly tribalism, triumphed over shared culture. Politics, after all, thrives off difference. Yet regardless of their outward rhetorical opposition Socialists, Greens, Liberals, Conservatives and the rest interact in a way determined by the institutional culture they share. Which leads me to the conclusion that either the political world moulds individuals in its own image or it simply attracts individuals with similar qualities, however incommensurable their ideologies may appear to be.

Further, staff learn from their 'masters'. The strategy, the double-dealing, the thrill of the chase, and the love of winning which characterise the modern political process (and led Alisdair MacIntyre to conclude that it is no more than civil war carried on by other means) are also present in relations between employees. Not only because the barrier between private and public life is blurred in the aquarium atmosphere of politics, or because when people spend so long in the office that they call it 'home', the outside world gradually fails to penetrate. The issue at hand is often one of mutual inteligibility - people speak in the language, and within the cultural practices, that they all understand.

However pragmatic it may be for people to relate according to these shared cultural norms, the result is often that other aspects of our personalities are massively under-emphasised (and in certain cases, I sometimes think, extinguished completely - particularly among workaholics). In time, the part can take on the appearance of a whole and the world shrinks accordingly.

That is why work-life balance is so important. And so is having a little time to reflect. Otherwise, the selves we inhabit prove no more than reflections - or projections . of the environment we inhabit. And what integrity is there in that?

Saturday, 24 March 2007

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

I've never thought much about reverse karma before but this incident has convinced me of it. This is one story that's so good you couldn't make it up. It concerns someone we'll call Stella. And no, Stella is not me.

Time: Christmas 2006
Place: Office Party

Stella's had an exhausting week. Big report, new job offer, relationship issues. Add in copious champagne abuse on account of the promotion and the Christmas party proves to be a let-your-hair-down affair of the highest order. In the haze of the late evening she trips, falls on the dance floor, picks herself up, dusts herself down, and carries on flailing merrily to some Euro-pop.

Cut to the new year when one particular colleague limps down the corridor towards her, encased in plaster. Never having exchanged more than a few pleasanteries with him before, she asks innocently, "what happened to your leg"? Of all the responses to this question the one least likely to be uttered is surely "YOU!". Blank. Clueless. Then - oh no. Images come tumbling into her mind of that slow-motion fall and curiously soft landing.

On discovering that her drunken actions led him to spend a night in a French hospital and cancel his skiing holiday, she is clearly embarrassed and partakes in a little grovelling. But this guy is one manipulative bast*rd. He acts injured at every possible opportunity over the next few days, works her emotions, then invites himself to lunch at her expense.

Who could refuse a chance of redemption? So she went along. They connect. And he starts dropping by her office, sometimes with flowers, sometimes with chocolate. Those pallid imitations of romance that are the preserve of the confirmedly non-creative. Then he tries to kiss her.

Only thing is, he's married. Just married in fact. Not only that but it turns out he has a wicked tongue and had let slip all kinds of bitchy things about her before his little infatutation started.

She found out. She blanked him. She broke his leg. And she broke his heart.

Just goes to show: what goes around comes around. Only sometimes it happens anti-clockwise.

Peace and Love

Politics is a world where backstabbing is pretty much institutionalised. So it should be no surprise that the European Institutions are alive with bitching, paranoia, conspiracy theories and egos of the worst kind.

Consider my first week back at work. At least four people told me not to trust anyone, two that the only ideology adhered to in my political group is 'chacun pour soi' (at least that is suitably individualistic, as befits liberals), and one particularly peeved soul that if I knew what was good for me I would keep all pretensions of friendship well away from the working environment.

So unnecessary. It makes me wonder if everyone just has too much time on their hands since last year's recruitment drive trebled our numbers, with the obverse effect on workload -100 people are now doing the work previously managed by 43. Or if they are living inside their own Matrix - a notable effect of prolonged lack of exposure to the real world.

So we have decided to launch a new initiative. Peace and Love takes its name from the appendix one particularly bitchy colleague used to terminate her emails. All smiles on the outside, yet sharpening her knives at every possible occasion. We want to take this hypocrisy and turn it round with positive energy. So that means killing these people with kindness...

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Blogger Bedankt

Glad to see that the transition to Belgium was as fraught as expected. Now blogger has decided to migrate all my settings into Flemish. Almost deleted the whole blog by accident while looking for the verb to publish, which seems to be veröffentlichten...let's see if this works.

Time Warp

What an odd 24 hours. It has felt like Ground Hog Day - that film where Bill Murray plays a reporter forced to repeat the same day until he discovers what the real purposes of life are: fun, love, loyalty, solidarity, faith.

In Brussels, chatting and laughing with my old flatmates from Chez Leyla's (a slum on the ring road, where we battled the landlady, mould in the bathroom and recalcitrant builders) it was like the past five months were simply an illusion. How could I have lived an entirely different existence? It doesn't seem plausible.

But yet, while everything is the same, I myself feel different. Stalking those familiar corridors, greeting old faces, even laughing with the woman I signed the familiar shorter-than-expected contract with about the wiles of bureaucracy - while a year and a half ago I had cried with fright at the whole experience.

I know it but I don't feel entirely part of it. I can predict responses, topics of conversation, what happens next. But people have hardened, concretised, behind their smiles. The benefits of distance which transforms old acquaintances into strangers? Or the fact that I now have my eyes open to the world?

Whichever it is, that naivety I was always getting warned about has gone. Perhaps I just don't need this to be the great European dream any more. Life itself will do, with no frills. That's growing up I guess.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Goodbye To All That

It's time to go. It's sad. I've learned alot, I've met some wonderful and inspiring people, I've failed to make a go of my degree. But maybe that's no bad thing. It'll come right in the end, yet I'll always remember York as a time where I came to learn a lot more about myself and what life is really for. Loved, lost, gained, sorrowed, lived. I wonder for how long this poem will speak so much to me...


"I don't have the courage to look;
even now when I pass that way
a pain in my heart slows my steps:
it says the gate is still open,
desire without hope is still sleeping in the courtyard
and in some corner, half-hidden, there is memory,
a heart-broken child with outstretched arms.

My heart implores:
"Let's go someplace far away
where no gate opens on futility,
no memory crouches, holding its beggar bowl,
where none of the walls knows the ecstasy
of longing for the beloved face,
and no shadows grieve for flowers that once were here.

I have done this many times,
dragged the burden of my body, estranged from me,
along roads of my own and foreign countries
where caravans of featureless faces, colorless lips,
figures with blurred contours,
are thrown on the screen of the retina,
a hail of stones on a shuttered window.

Each time this happens my heart warns me:
"Let's go back quickly
before this pain abandons us, before even this last sign
fails to tell us the gate is still open,
the courtyard lies waiting, spread out
with the hopelessness of desire".

If Brussels can be more than simply an escape route from a reality I don't want to face, bring it on. Otherwise, I'll know better than to run off one more time and accept my world, and my place in it, whatever it may bring me.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Ode to Alcohol

Surely it's no coincidence that they call whisky the water of life or uisce beatha. For those of us (un)lucky enough to have been brought up in the alcohol-imbued culture of Northern Europe it constitutes a major part of our schizophrenic existence. The part where you get to unwind and say all the things you once wished you'd said to someone else who required setting straight - though admittedly in another time and place where they may or may not be entirely appropriate.

There you have the British love affair with alcohol. I was having a drink with a Spanish friend this evening and he was trying to articulate his dissatisfaction with York. He could only come out with words like boring, uptight, constrained. But what he was alluding to was the strange homage to limitations which we bring to social relations. It's essentially about repression and denial. How different life would be if we could learn to express ourselves and not see emotional disfigurement as an ideal. Stiff upper lip my ars*.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

The True Subject

In Act V, scene III, of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida the protagonist complains that his beloved writes "Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart."

The truth is that in and of themselves, words mean nothing. They only have value once they have been transformed in our hearts and minds. We can stare at a page for hours and fail to understand. We can listen to a song and be unable to hear its real music.

Yet we all know that feeling when, every so often, something that we have seen or heard a thousand times comes alive to us and we feel its full symbolic power. For me, this is the definition of poetry - the illumination of the everyday into significance and beauty - and the true subject of art.

I only recently discovered Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whom many have compared to Pablo Neruda on account of the consciousness-changing effect of his poetry and a life spent campaigning for social justice and human dignity. This is how he desribes that experience:

"Someday perhaps, the poem
murdered but still bleeding on every page,
will be revealed to you.

Someday perhaps, the banner
of that song bowed low in waiting
will be raised to its great height by a tornado.

Someday perhaps, the stone
that is an abandoned heart on the verge,
will pierce you with its living vein."

I urge you all to read his work. The volume I have before me is called 'The True Subject'.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Waiting for a Connection

If life is like a journey then I am at the airport. Waiting for my connection I think. At that moment when what you've left behind is so close that you can see it everywhere. In those little objects which, robbed of their context, provide irrefutable proof of a life that was. That song. That smell. That book you started reading in another time and place which, sitting out of context on that plain chrome chair, is somehow both present and absent.

There, in the lounge of some unknown airport, which barely acknowledges the state or culture to which it owes its existence - they are all reassuringly the same - you have not yet arrived. You can sit and savour those memories one last time before they are replaced by the necessities of the life to come, in that almost tangible closeness of memory to mind which dims so swiftly upon arrival.

Better, the distance between you and that place which contained your existence only a few hours ago is infused with perspective.. There is nothing like the unutterable calm of knowing that whatever and whoever loomed over your daily existence will henceforth remain as a lesson to be stored away or a sweet reminder of the frail and transient beauty of that narrative we call our lives.

If we are going to learn from our experiences it is at times like these. Before long, past times take on the appearance of dreams, which, like dreams, we doubt. But when we lived those things, they were real to us. And we must take that reality, learn from it, and use it as we move on.

Without that knowledge, we are simply victims of circumstance, changing with the seasons. With it, by contrast, we come to synthesise those truths we stumble upon throughout this strange journey into the unknown.

Friday, 9 March 2007

I'm bisy, backson

I have discovered that I have a new genus. I am, as it turns out, a bisy backson, as defined by the 'Tao of Pooh' which I have been reading on my shifts on the till at the Oxfam bookshop (weekday customers, about 3 per hour).

Unfortunately, this turns out to be a malignant pedigree of person whose alumni includes the Pilgrim Fathers, city bankers and extreme sports enthusiasts - people who flog themselves to death with vauntless ambition, challenges and guilt without getting much for their efforts in return.

What unites this motley crew, according to the author, is an inability or incapacity (the two are quite different) to enjoy the world around them as it simply is. Instead of appreciating day to day life, we are 'desperately active', questing after some sort of Great Reward which is always around the next corner and requires us to work like lunatics to keep it in sight.

As a person whose code words must surely be 'I ought to', 'I must' and 'Shit, I've singularly failed to do what I should have' (that applies to my attempt at lenten alcohol abstinence, incidentally, which has taken a sorry turn for the worse) this made me sit up and listen. But the worrying thing about this analysis is that it reveals the extent to which modern society in general has taken on the characteristics of the Backson.

We live in a world where we are tricked into valuing productivity, efficiency, added value, or whatever, as ends in themselves. We rarely question whether working ever harder and ever longer in order to get the promotion to buy the objects that will help us recover from the trauma of living to work is a reasonable thing to do (as if a week long holiday in the Seychelles, or a new iPod could make up for a 16 hour working day as an office drone).

As the author perceptively points out, this can be extremely self-defeating as a philosophy of life, since it "makes it so difficult to be happy and good that only a few get to where they would naturally have been in the first place - Happy and Good - and the rest give up and fall by the side of the road, cursing the world, which is not to blame but which is there to help show the way".

Perhaps if we accept that our Backson society is just too hard on itself, too hard on others, and too hard on the world that heroically attempts to carry on in spite of what we are doing to it (to paraphrase) we might start to enjoy life and realise we don't need to live like that. Because the bottom line is, it's just not much fun to over-complicate things.

Which is why, instead of reading about the costs involved in freedom of expression as defined by the first amendment of the US constitution, I am dawdling over this (overlong) post and about to make a cup of fresh coffee. I'm not that busy, but I won't be back soon. I'm hanging up my Backson coat for once. I'm going to enjoy the day.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

The Power of Positive Thinking

Clearly my reputation as a miserable old sod has caught up with me since this arrived in my inbox this morning. However, after the initial 'glass-is-always-half-empty, who-are-these-new-agers-trying-to-kid' moment I had a good look at the list and thought how different the world would be if we all applied its principles. So I decided to share it on here in the hope it might counterbalance some of the negative karma floating around the internet...

May I present the Optimist's Charter, penned by Christian D. Larson in 1912 and adopted by Optimist International in 1922. And as they say in Kelly's Heroes - don't give me those negative waves....

Promise Yourself:

To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.

To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.

To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.

To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.

To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.To be just as
enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own

To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.

To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.

To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

Don't worry though, I'm sure by tomorrow I'll have found some suitably cynical way to undermine all this.

Monday, 5 March 2007

But is it Art?

I'm not sure that the technique of 'point and click' with my digital camera on automatic allows me to classify these as art in any sense of the word, but I like them and I hope you will too. Points to those who guess where they're taken...

The Measure of Civilisation

Gandhi famously remarked that the way we treat minorities is the measure of civilization in a society. One of the most tragic effects of the rise of global religious fundamentalism is its impact on minority groups, like the Copts and Baha'i in Egypt, the Assyriac Christians in Turkey, or indeed the Muslims in Europe who are collectively suffering a constant barrage of negative criticism.

Rarely, however, are such groups threatened with treatment as extreme and brutal as the Sabians - followers of one of the world's oldest religions - of whom fewer than 5000 now remain in Iraq thanks to violence committed against them from all sides in the conflict.

Interviewing one of the five remaining Mandaen bishops, a BBC journalist discovered that - in a country operating without law and in the grip of religious extremism - they may well soon be destroyed.

"We are small in numbers, we ask all the governments of the world to extend a hand of help," Kanzfra Sattar says. He says he wants the West to accept his people as refugees.
I ask him what will happen if they do not - he replies simply: "Our ethnic minority and our ancient religion will die off."

see the link for the whole story:

If we don't want to live in a brutalised world we should speak out against all such cases, in our own communities and beyond, and force our representatives to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.