Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo

First and foremost, must be condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of those who lost their lives.

We now have another horrible incident to add to the ever-growing list of murders and plots caused by, as the media dubs them, religious extremists. Men and women have been gunned down, for nothing more than the publication of cartoons depicting religious figures (principally, in this case, the prophet Mohammed, though I understand the magazine satirised other religions also). Amateur footage from yesterday's incident shows men screaming 'god is great', in between bursts of gunfire. And yet, somehow, we continue to hear claims that the people carrying out these acts do not represent the Islamic religion.

I want to examine the idea that these men cannot be considered to be representative of Islam in general. This may well be true, given that the vast majority of Muslims in the West go about their daily lives peacefully, and would not dream of taking up a gun or a bomb and using it to prove a point. The same comparison applies if we consider that those hard-line Christians blowing up abortion clinics are not representative of the members of the religion as a whole.

However, my claim is not that extremists represent the behaviour of all members of that religion. Such a claim is demonstrably false, or we would all be living in a war zone daily. My claim is that the system of thought which the (principally Abrahamic) religion uses on a daily basis is one which leads to atrocities such as the one we have seen. Not for all adherents of the religion, not even for most, but for a large enough portion that we need to ask the question: what is it about this way of thinking which allows a man to walk into an office and gun down unarmed men and women, or fly an aeroplane into the side of a building, and believe it is the right thing to do?

Were this an isolated incident, we could perhaps write it off as an aberration, mental instability, or something of the kind. However, this incident is of a kind we witness all too regularly. Religious extremism is now commonplace in our news broadcasts. Why?

First of all, it's very hard to define what a religion condones, when its holy texts are filled with exhortations to violence, and its followers themselves cannot agree on major points of doctrine (see the Sunni/Shia split, the various Christian factions). In the eyes of the people perpetrating these acts, they are the true adherents of the faith, and this view is one which may be supported by an interpretation of the texts.

The religious mindset does three things well: it teaches people to accept dogma without considering it rationally, it creates a sense of division from (and superiority to) those who practice other religions, and it allows, in extreme cases, the commission of atrocities to be considered as the morally correct thing to do. Make no mistake, these people behave as if they genuinely believe their actions are morally correct and justified by their beliefs. The evidence for this is, unfortunately, plentiful.

Therefore, we must consider what actions may be appropriate in light of recent atrocities. Each person must have the right to his or her beliefs, and to the peaceful practice of them, and while it is my opinion that the world would be a safer place without religion in it, it is not my contention that any efforts should be made to ban or restrict (peaceful) religious practice. In any case, such measures are never successful.

What I would argue is that a greater push is needed, both from governments and religious leaders, to reaffirm the importance of peaceful behaviour to their congregations, as it were. Only a radical culture change will have any real effect in removing the attitudes which lead to extremism in the first place.

In time, it is likely that Islam will follow the same course as Judaism and Christianity before it, (generally speaking) turning from the path of violence towards a more settled acceptance of other world views. The problem is that many more people are likely to be killed in its name before this happens. If we fail to see that extremist views can be justified by a certain interpretation of the religion, we fail to understand the problem. And how can you solve a problem you don't understand?

Monday, 5 January 2015

Fragment (consider revising)

I have thought about her a lot recently. It is tempting to rationalise too far, to say that I loved her because I wanted to save her, because she was vulnerable and alone, and my urge to protect her, to hold her while she cried and tell her everything would be all right transformed into something more. I could even believe that I wanted to control her, to mitigate that ever-present fear of having someone you care about leave you, because if she needed me so, she would never leave. But even through the selfishness of retrospect, I suspect that to give in to these reasons would be to do her a disservice. It would be to deny the things that made her who she was, rather than simply what she was. She was more than her problems, and she was stronger, more intelligent, and more beautiful than she gave herself credit for. Perhaps it was her vulnerability which drew me in at first, but it was her joy, her smile, her intelligence, the way she laughed and the way she looked, the way when I looked into those beautiful eyes my heart skipped a beat; these were the things which made me love her. These were the things which broke my heart when I knew she would never love me back.

If there is one thing in my life I both love and wish to avoid, it is paradox. This seems to be the theme of various periods of my life, as well as of my loves. If it is not inherent in my personality it is at least pervasive and very hard to alter. The idea that somehow life and love must always be bittersweet. This is not necessarily the nature of the universe, or of relationships. I know because I have seen these things for others, and it is different.

I think way too much. I have no idea how to stop this. Perhaps that is one of the reasons behind this expose. There are probably other reasons I have yet to realise, but I think one of the driving forces is the desire to put everything down and away for a while. To know I have dealt with it in some sense, and to know that I can leave it gathering dust for a while, until I am ready again to deal with it. Like an album you’ve heard a few too many times. Like a tune banging around in your head and needed to be shifted. Perhaps this will be a version of all those letters I wrote and never sent.

Another perhaps is that no one will ever read this. I think I love attention too much, I love the fact of having people know me too much to ever hope this to be the case. It is intended for publication. But it is also intended to help me organise and control my thoughts, to form them into something beautiful, to provide as best I can a sense and a feeling of that period of my life in which I thought the thoughts I could never control, because it, and the people who were there, have meant so much to me, and they deserve some kind of remembrance.

It would be hard for me to claim that this period of my life is any more or less important than any other, in determining who I am and who I wanted to be. I cannot say that about any particular period. What I can say is that it is by far the most extreme, in terms of the highs and lows I felt; or again maybe it just felt like that at the time. For better or worse, I have found a strange kind of definition in it; I will always be a product of, I will always be connected to that time, that place, those people.


There’s nothing remains but to show you. If you are still here at the end, you may be closer to knowing the people they were, the person I am or have been. Whether that is a good thing or not will be up to you to decide.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Toiletiquette

Oddly enough, I feel the urge to write about an interesting phenomenon, something I haven't quite figured out yet. Perhaps this wee blog (if you'll excuse the pun) will be more suited to my male readers, for the simple reason that I am not the kind of man who hangs around inside women's toilets. I don't mean it to sound like I hang around in male ones, either; what I mean is, I can't speak much to the etiquette required in the ladies' restrooms, though I understand it has a lot to do with 'retouching', and the magical property that gives women the inability to enter one unless they have a companion. Perhaps it's like when you were five and the teacher had to send a buddy with you. I'm still not sure, to this day, for the reasoning behind this (perhaps a teacher could enlighten me), because, even when I was five I was able to navigate to, and use, a toilet unaided. And, despite the state of the place sometimes, there certainly wasn't anything scary enough there that I needed my hand held. Maybe it's just that the teacher gets sick of a child from time to time, and needs a little break. This explanation seems plausible. But I digress.

The point is, what the hell is the etiquette in the men's room? There are some situations where the accepted behaviour would seem clear, and yet I have still found people who do not follow the rules. I feel examples might help.

1. No talking while you're on the pot. Simple, right? Nobody's trying to start up a conversation with you while you're busy. Despite the assumed universality behind this rule, I have met people who are more than eager to engage in a little chit chat across the boards, as it were. Not for me, thanks.

2. Similarly, and much more prevalently, cell phone usage. Now, fair enough, I have often been known to send a tweet while otherwise engaged, but taking business calls? We get it, Mr Man, you're busy and important. But aint nobody trying to discuss marketing strategy to the sound of your excretion hitting the porcelain. Just delay the call for a minute, huh?

3. General chit chat at the urinal. More common than you might think. I'm not a fan of small talk, and I can happily stand in an elevator and stare at the wall, rather than discuss the weather with someone who I may never meet again. So it makes sense that I care even less for it when I'm draining the snake. I know this doesn't hold for others, but I don't need to sum up how my day is going, generalise about work, or whatever the hell else it is that can't seem to wait. Feel completely free to be silent, don't say a god damn thing.

4. Eye contact. The next natural question, where am I supposed to look? It is just me? Or do any other guys out there find the idea of looking another man in the face while you're holding your manhood in both hands (that's right, ladies ;)) rather unsettling? And you certainly can't look anywhere in the downward area, no sir. I hear you say it's either at yourself, so to speak, or straight forward. Fine by me, and please don't think I'm being rude.

5. Hand contact. Let's keep this one short and sweet. No handshakes, no high fives, no fist bumps, no touching of any kind. And while we're at it, don't pat me on the back, either. I'm talking to you, drunken All Blacks fans expressing camaraderie. I happy we won and all, but hands to yourself.

6. What the fuck do you say when someone doesn't wash their hands? Being half-English, I usually settle for a sideways glance, maybe a tsk below my breath. This is followed by a mental note not to shake hands with the person if it ever comes up. But how do you get around that in a polite office setting?
Here's how it might go:
Colleague: 'Richard, meet [toilet guy with piss hands]'.
Me: 'Nice to meet you. I'd love to shake, but [clever excuse about having a cold].'
Here's how it would actually go:
Colleague: 'Richard, meet [toilet guy with piss hands]'.
Me: 'Nice to meet you.' <shakes hand, followed by internal memo to self about making an excuse to leave and buy hand sanitiser>
And don't even get me started if they've come out of the stall and headed straight for the door. I sure hope you were doing drugs in there, because otherwise you're a filthy bastard.

Perhaps I'm over thinking it. I brushed my teeth in the airport bathroom the other day, so I've come a long way. But still, generally my thoughts are: don't talk to me when the beast is unleashed, and wash your god-damn hands, you animal. Is there a handbook for this sort of thing?

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Life, in extremis

I am for foxes because they are survival in the face of expansion, success in the face of concrete. They are life where life once roamed freely, they are taking back what was theirs. They are daring and resourceful, taking your rubbish and making it valuable. Thriving despite our hunts and our hatred, taking their towns by the scruff of the neck. I am for foxes because they are alive.

I am for pigeons because they refuse to be beaten, because they adapt to the city, because they take your kicks and keep on living. Pigeons will not lay down and they will not simply leave. They will fly away and back when you are not looking, swooping down to their latest meal, unfussed and unpicky. I am for pigeons because they represent life.
I am for rats because they will outlast us, because they are us, because they are happy to live in the shadows. Because it does not occur to them to be otherwise. Rats are life without pretension, without ego, without complication. They multiply like humans, but their world is cleaner in its way than ours will ever be. I am for rats because of their honesty.

I am for roaches because they will never die. They are perfect in their ugliness, they must look pretty good to each other. They are the ultimate biological machine, defiant of our world and our buildings and our culture. They live and insist upon it, and are content to let us do the same. I am for roaches because they will never go away.
I am for life because we do not own the planet, we only rent it for a while, building concrete towards the sky.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Gaza

Knowing the sensitive nature of the current conflict in Gaza, I considered avoiding the topic altogether, but I feel as if to do so would be dishonest in some way. If I have something to say, then my usual practice is to say it, and let the reader decide whether it was a good idea.  That being stated, I should point out that I am eager to provoke thought and conversation, rather than anger and argument. So here goes.

The root of the current problem is the creation of the modern state of Israel, which was preceded by Zionism and supported by the UN General Assembly. I do not go so far as to claim that this creation was a bad idea in its entirely, but it certainly seemed to favour the claims of the Israelis over those of the Palestinians in the region, particularly the people who were destined to be displaced. The region has been fraught with violence ever since, and with the benefit of hindsight I can say that errors were made, but even without the benefit of hindsight it seems logical to assume that displacing one set of people in favour of another, on the basis of an ancient claim to the land is going to crate trouble, and furthermore it ignored the rights of the people currently settled in the region, who also have a valid historical claim to the land.
Adding to this is the polarising and deadly attitude brought about by the opposing ideologies of the two sets of peoples, both recently settled and recently moved: a division drawn along religious lines, in which both sides believe equally an unwaveringly in the truth and righteousness of their cause, and in which both sides believe they have the support of god. This attitude, as well as engendering mistrust and hatred of anyone outside the specific faith group, also allows people to believe that dying and killing for the sake of the cause are morally acceptable and desirable.

Now, I don’t think the blame game is likely to produce the desired end result (i.e. peace), and I don’t think there is much value in delving into the various wrongs committed by both sides. This is a long and bloody situation stretching back for years, and neither side’s hands are clean. If Hamas were in possession of the bigger arsenal, I have no doubt they would be using similar techniques to the ones currently employed by Israel. Hamas itself is a nebulous organisation in many ways, with members who have stated that the total destruction of Israel is their goal (see the Hamas Charter), which others have stated that a peaceful coexistence is possible. Israel, for their part, have shown much less restraint than may be desired, but their use of weaponry is understandable (if not acceptable) given the circumstances. They are surrounded by an enemy they believe wants to wipe them from the face of the Earth. This is simply a case of who has the bigger guns.
Now, I have been thinking about a possible solution to this problem for some time, and although my ‘nuclear obliteration of the entire area’ proposal would be the most efficient, it is also the most tongue-in-cheek. There is one option which I feel could work: take the area of conflict, and divide it into two equal parts, one called Israel, and one called Palestine. Take the holy areas of both faiths, and declare these neutral territory. Ideally the territories will be arranged for access to the sites by either side, with a buffer of land between them to help prevent any other contact. The holy sites will be policed by the UN; anyone will be free to visit these sites, subject to a weapons check on entry, and they will belong to no one.
I am not so naïve as to believe this option will be one which either side will accept. The ideologies which I have mentioned previously also make any such concessions or trades of land repugnant, particularly the holy sites. We have witnessed over the years that, to many, war and death are preferable to giving up some buildings and patches of dirt. Could the world’s nations step in and enforce the plan anyway? Yes. But this would create more problems, because if the antagonists in this struggle do not accept a solution, the struggle will go on, in various forms and guises. There is also the moral implication of solving violence and displacement with more violence and displacement, as well as the question of whether the nations of the West (for it will be the Western nations who try to solve this problem – and perhaps rightly, since they had the biggest hand in creating it) have the desire to see more of their sons killed in other people’s arguments over, among other things, holy sites, patches of earth, a long list of reciprocal grievances and dead relatives, and who has the better imaginary friend.
In any case I am sceptical about whether the world will support any agreement which threatens to lead to lasting peace. Peace is bad for business. Both sides are being armed and supplied from somewhere, and you can be sure that even if the weapons are free, there is a cost involved. If the will existed, there could be peace tomorrow, but the pain and anger created by decades of killing have exacerbated the differences between two peoples who already believe the other is morally inferior due to an accident of birth or education. Add to this the partisan support for either side shown by both Western and Middle Eastern nations, and you have the recipe for a conflict which will burn for years to come.
Normally, I like to end these little rants of mine on a high note, or at least a note suggesting some kind of progress or achievement. However, in this case I feel a distinct lack of optimism for any peaceful outcome. Perhaps this attitude adds to the problem, perhaps it makes no difference what I do or how I think, since I am not part of the equation and my voice is small. I would like to think that with a value for human life and human rights, a sensible and lasting peace could be obtained, but there has been little or no sign of anything like such a solution being reached as long as I have been alive. While the hatred persists, the war will rage on.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Normalisation of War

When I was a boy, I loved to play soldiers. G.I. Joe was my favourite toy, and I could spend hours in mock battles, at the end of which the participants and their weapons and vehicles were rounded up and packed away, ready to fight again tomorrow. I also had He Man, Transformers, and others. Violence was the norm in my play. When outside, I would be an army man, or Robin Hood, or any of many similar idols. Even the Batman, who refuses to kill, uses violence and intimidation as a means to an end.

Similarly, many of the books, movies, and TV shows I enjoy are openly violent. Some of the best scenes in films are full of bullets, or excellently choreographed combat. Even in those shows where the lead characters aim to prevent violence to others, they often become caught up in it themselves. Is this art reflecting the world, or vice versa? In truth, it is both.

Why is it that is so many action films, the villain is killed, either out of necessity (he pulls a gun on the hero, forcing the hero to shoot), or simply by a character, often a policeman, who ignores the usual rules of arrest and trial, and kills him outright? I am told that in French films this doesn’t occur, that the villain is captured. I can’t help wonder what this difference says about Anglophones?

I am not a big believer in the argument that video games create violent people, but I feel obliged to acknowledge the fact that they probably don’t help solve the problem. Fact is, violence sells. Many of the biggest selling games are first person shooters, many of the actions you can now take go above and beyond anything you would have considered possible in the real world. Now, I like games, and they’re not going anywhere. I don’t seek to condemn them, but (like books and films) they are at best a symptom of our culture, and at worst, much more.

It is impossible to watch the news for any length of time, without hearing a story of war. It is omnipresent. It is part of our nature, a part we seem to be unable to suppress. It happens so much that even the most bloody acts no longer elicit much surprise, or much disapprobation. The Joker said that when soldiers are killed or gangsters are shot, no one really bats an eyelid, and he was right. He said it is because it’s all ‘part of the plan’, and I believe this is a fair assessment. From a young age, we are trained to accept certain kinds of violence as normal; from a young age we play war and watch cartoon battles and hear in the background about conflicts we barely understand. We study battles and generals. We accept war as part of our culture.

We also have the cult of celebrity, as it applies to outlaws, criminals, serial killers. We have men on death row idolised by lonely women, we have a fascination with jail and organised crime, with Bonnie and Clyde, with the misunderstood and maladjusted. Ned Kelly, Dick Turpin, Al Capone, the Cray brothers. Murder mysteries and police procedurals. CSI and Miss Marple.

Now, of course we have the chicken and egg question, and there is no doubt that war came before modern media. But stories of violence? Of great battles and brave hunts? When did the myth come to outshine the truth?

It would be naïve and foolish of me to claim that by banishing violence from our art and from our play, that we will banish it from the world. Hell, I like violent films and games. And there is also a case to be made that art is truth, and it must be honest about whatever it sees. Is the answer then to accept it, to embrace our nature and be satisfied with a world where horrors exist, if only far away? This option, too, is unappealing. What, then?

I am tempted to despair, but this is the least helpful of emotions. The real goal is to change our cultural norms, to refuse to accept violence as regular, and rather to push the idea that it should, and can, be removed by social progress. The only way I can see of eliminating war, of reducing conflict to the level of the sports field and the boxing ring, is to enhance the living conditions of every human on the planet, to a level where the struggle for resources disappears, and life is no longer an us vs them equation. If we can use technology to ensure that everyone is provided for and lives a life comparable with that of people in countries where violence is low, we may be able to push war out of our society for good.


I certainly believe it is becoming possible. We already see nations with the kind of living I suggest, so the key is spreading that lifestyle across the globe. My only fear is that our nature will not allow us so settled a lifestyle, that our inner beast will out. Perhaps we are doomed to be slaves to our anger, our bloodlust, our fear, but I choose to believe that we can be more. You may say I’m a dreamer.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

What I learned from the World Cup

Following on from my revelations of London 2012, I’d like to share with you some thoughts and feelings gleaned from Brazil 2014. So here they are, in no particular order:
 
1. Patriotism trumps logic
 
This has been true in any number of situations, and it is certainly true in football. For football is a sport unmatched for atmosphere and sheer, bloody-minded loyalty to your team and its colours. For the English, this represents a healthy cynicism which is rarely disappointed. If things have the value we invest in them, then football is much more than a sport, and its triumphs and calamities are writ large on the faces of supporters, or at least, those not too fickle to emerge from outright despair and jump around like lunatics at the sight of themselves on a big screen. Patriotism makes us hope despite evidence to the contrary, makes us angry at things which are immaterial, makes us yell and curse at players for minor infractions, makes us scream with delight when hope turns into something more solid. For all this emotion, what has really changed? Is Germany much better off now than had they lost the final? Is Argentina much worse off than had they won? Not really, but pride goes a very long way.
 
2. Exuberance trumps reputation (sometimes)
 
Many of the bigger teams at the competition suffered, or came close to suffering, defeat at the hands of so-called lesser opposition. Those teams who, delighted to have made it to the World Cup at all, played with desire, energy, and a lack of fear. This is national pride at its best, and makes for the kind of football I love to watch. That said, the big names won through in the end, and the tournament may have been the worse for it.
 
3. Despite circumstance, past behaviour can never be discounted
 
You know who I’m talking about. Psychologists will tell you that the one reliable indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, and if you think you don’t believe it, then go ahead and lend that £100 to the mate who still owes you from last time. Our Uruguayan friend can never really be expected to clean up his act, but as long as he keeps scoring goals, don’t expect Uruguay (or Barcelona) to care. By the way, the excuse he gave afterwards was one the lamest I can recall hearing in my life.
 
4. I really like the South American style of play

The South American style was the thing I enjoyed most seeing, and perhaps it went hand in hand with the exuberance I mentioned above. I’m not talking about the laboured games of Brazil and Argentina, dominated as they are by European players. No, the teams I enjoyed most were the three Cs: Colombia, Costa Rica, and Chile, all of whom were unfortunate not to progress further than they did, and all of whom have had players linked with transfers following the tournament. Their style, energy, and flair were refreshing to witness, and Rodriquez’s goal was the goal of the tournament.

5. The vanishing spray
 
The spray can for free kicks, has been used in South America for some time now. FIFA accepted its use, and it has been amazing to see exactly how much distance the walls used to steal. Now, when it comes to advancement and innovation, both FIFA and the European FAs seem about as forward-thinking as the Westboro Baptists, but I would love to see it used here, along with anything else which makes the game fairer.
 
6. The opposite of support
 
One image sums up the vicious nature of football support, the flip side of the enthusiasm supporters pour out for their team, and that it the one of Argentinian supporters holding up spines after hearing of Neymar’s injury. Now, I think Neymar has skill, and like many footballers on his level, he’s overpaid and arrogant, but no more would I wish paralysis on the man than I would on myself (ok, maybe a little more). The fans holding the aforementioned prop were more than happy to take a man’s injury, and wave it in the faces of their rivals with a kind of sadistic glee. This seems a bit more than support ever intended, and it is part of the dark side of football.
7. No one gives a shit about the third and fourth place playoff
 
Um. I didn’t even watch it.

8. World Cup B
 
It occurs to me that it would be nice to run a kind of World Cup B, alongside the current one. Of course the timings would be difficult. You couldn’t run it at the same time, because who would watch that? And you couldn’t run it too soon before or after, to avoid clashing with domestic league seasons. But I’m sure the seasons would manage somehow, the way they do with the African Cup of Nations. The reason behind this proposal is simply that the second tier teams, those who didn’t qualify, would be eligible for another tournament, so that some of the lesser teams could get experience, and still play some of the better teams in world football. Sure, it wouldn’t be as prestigious as the World Cup, but it would provide valuable opportunities for players and teams who might not otherwise get them.

9. Germany are so fucking consistent
 
Sure, they hadn’t won a trophy since 1996, but boo fucking hoo. Subtract thirty years from that, German fans, and then you’ll come closer to understanding the pain of the English people. Despite the lack of recent trophies, you always feel, going in to a tournament, that Germany are capable of winning it. They often reach quarters and semi-finals, and they never really look too terrible. Add to that becoming the first European team to win on South American soil, and the absolutely unprecedented demolition of Brazil, and you have a team which is to be feared, and feared even on their bad days.

10. Missed opportunities
 
I think the saddest thing about the World Cup is not the tears of the Brazil fans after that fifth goal went in. It’s more the possibility the country had to use the World Cup, to create jobs and economic stimulus, to give something back to the people who truly needed it. Instead, they got large bills, stadia they don’t need, and yes, of course, ignominy. Even had they won, it probably wouldn’t have been worth it, not in real terms. Now that they have lost in such style, insult is added to the already large injuries plaguing the nation. The World Cup was supposed to bring joy and hope, and for many it brought just the opposite.