Virtus Maximus

That Fidel and his comrades overthrew Batista was a beautiful thing. Who would not think so? I’m not talking about the ‘regime’ which came after. Fidel might have been Cuban by birth, but he was Roman by nature.

Castro had himself a tyranny. It is justified, certainly, to say that, although it’s probably a good thing for all of us not to gaze into the abyss for too long. On tyranny, one thinks of a passage from ‘An Open Letter to Fidel Castro’ by Norman Mailer:

“We live in a country very different from Cuba. We have had a tyranny here, but it did not have the features of Batista; it was a tyranny one breathed but could not define; it was felt as no more than a slow deadening of the best of our possibilities, a tension we could not name which was the sum of our frustrations. [..] By law we had a free press; almost no one spoke his thoughts. By custom we had a free ballot; was there ever a choice? [..] In silence we gave you our support. You were aiding us, you were giving us psychic ammunition, you were aiding us in that desperate silent struggle we have been fighting with sick dead hearts against the cold insidious cancer of the power that governs us, you were giving us new blood to fight our mass communications, our police, our secret police, our corporations, our empty politicians, our clergymen, our editors, our cold frightened bewildered bullies who govern a machine made out of people they no longer understand, you were giving us hope they would not always win. That is why America persecuted you.”

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You’re My Next Victim – Stephen King’s It

Late one night Stephen King woke me up. I was perhaps nine or ten. At first I had no idea I was lying awake, then – when I realised I was staring into darkness – I realised I had no idea why I was awake. I heard soft chuckling – just a gentle laughter in the darkness – that I couldn’t place in space. It could have been coming from under my bed. I lay still for several moments, a little nervous, wondering if I had heard what I thought I’d heard.

Then I heard it again.

I got out of bed and put an ear to my door, hearing nothing. I opened it and walked out onto the dark landing. I saw my parents’ bedroom light was on so went in to ask if either of them had heard the chuckling. My mother wasn’t there, but my dad was sat up reading It, and it was his laughing which had woke me up. He said he was laughing because the scene he was reading had some kids who were squatted down lighting each other’s farts. I told him his chuckling had woke me up and that it was a little creepy hearing giggling in the darkness, but it was alright now I knew what was going on. I went back to bed and slept without trouble. That was the first time Stephen King disturbed my sleep.

I didn’t know then that the scene in which those bullies light their farts – and it certainly is funny – is followed by a wonderful scene in which a twelve year old boy, Patrick Hockstetter, is half murdered by a swarm of flying leeches. One leech pierces his eyelid and sucks the eyeball until it collapses, and another lands on his tongue, sucks blood until it’s bloated, and then explodes in his mouth. Young Mr Hockstetter passes out as he’s dragged into the sewers by the entity called It, and he awakens only when, in the dark somewhere under the city, the creature begins to eat him. That might be gross, but here’s the thing: Patrick Hockstetter had it coming.

Stephen King’s It was published in September 1986. Thirty years later many fan-polls and blogs still cite the book as either his best or the fans’ favourite. Sometimes fans confuse a writer’s best work with their favourite work from that writer. Defining a writer’s “best” work is trickier than it sounds. It is probably not King’s best work, but it’s one which has its popularity secured by a collection of characters the reader easily sympathises with. The depth to which King thinks his characters into existence is remarkable.

Consider this for instance. Claudette Sanders – the first character mentioned in King’s Under the Dome – is taking a flying lesson, paid for by her wealthy husband, Andy. We are told of her that, although not exactly spoiled, she “had undeniably expensive tastes which, lucky man, Andy seemed to have no trouble satisfying.” At the end of the next page (page two) the control panel of the plane dies, and eight lines of prose later, Claudette’s body parts are falling on Chester’s Mill. Here’s a character created to be killed to open the novel, but King still gives her a whiff of backstory when he mentions her “expensive tastes”. Such a small detail begins to show the character’s character. Yet by the end of page three she’s dead. This is mildly extraordinary. We are forced to ask ourselves, if King thinks this much about a character who doesn’t last even two full-pages of prose, to what extent did King think about his Loser’s Club of kids?

Each of the seven children he creates to battle the entity are losers for different reasons. Bill stutters; Richie can’t keep his mouth shut, and has what might now be called “hyperactivity disorder” – or some other similar nonsense. Ben is fat and a loner; Eddie is the wimpy kid; Stan is Jewish; Beverly is poor and Mike is black. All these circumstances make the kids unpopular in 1958, not part of the “in” crowd at school. This is something which most of us can relate to, either by not having been one of the cool-kids, or remembering some unfortunate kid whose mum sent him in wearing Hi-tech trainers. (When I was a young teenager wearing Hi-techs was more or less a death sentence. Some parents are criminally fucking stupid. And here’s a darker thought: perhaps some parents secretly hate their children?) Thus we recognise something of our past selves in the kids King creates to face the creature. The Loser’s Club has something for everyone’s memory.

Many of us enjoy the regressing to childhood. We look at pictures and video from when we were kids and indulge our sadomasochistic side by going to the “school reunion”. Childhood is idealised in our memory and children, especially babies, are cooed at and fawned over.  This might be why so many of us are wet and feeble weaklings when we grow up. The Romans, not fond of children, thinking them rather gross and needy creatures, used childhood as the time to train and prepare for adulthood, without the cooing and fawning. Who would argue Roman men weren’t made of “sterner stuff” than us males are today?

Although we have a tale in which children are murdered and eaten, the book is pitched at the place where most adults are vulnerable: in our desire for nostalgia and our moist-eyed attitude to childhood. We can be pulled into the novel, let’s say, by Ben falling in love with Beverley Marsh because he sees her ankle bracelet, but we don’t need to understand what he feels precisely; to understand the ache in his belly  we need only to have some memory of our own for comparison.

It’s too easy to decide that King – or part of him at any rate – is to be found in the character of Bill Denbrough. King would have been the same age as the Losers in 1958, and Denbrough is the character who becomes a horror writer, his books inspired by his childhood experiences. Perhaps the Denbrough / King thing is too obvious on purpose? If King – allowing the nostalgia power to work on him as well as through him – puts himself in the book, perhaps he’s split between Bill and Richie. Bill stutters – so can’t express himself properly, while Richie expresses himself too well, yet hides behind characters who find expression through the voices Richie uses throughout.

Bill and Richie, working together, go to the House on Neibolt Street to kill It with Bill’s father’s gun. While in the basement, the creature comes down the stairs to get them in the form of the werewolf from the 1957 movie I was a Teenage Werewolf. Richie has recently seen this movie and it made an impression on him. It made an impression on King, too. Writing in Danse Macabre, King talks of the film and mentions the change from boy to monster. ‘For a high school or junior high school kid watching the transformation for the first time,’ King says, ‘this was baaad shit.’ He then points out the basics of the matter: the unfortunate teenage boy

grows hair all over his face, produces long fangs, and begins to drool a substance that looks suspiciously like Burma-Shave. He peeks at a girl doing exercises on the balance beam all by herself in the gymnasium, and one imagines him smelling like a randy polecat who just rolled in a nice fresh pile of coyote shit.

(For completeness, that teenage girl in the gymnasium was a twenty-two year old woman called Dawn Richard – a Playboy centrefold.)

Richie and Ben might be confronted by a werewolf because that represents what they’re most scared of at that time, yet the werewolf – the one from the movie, and the one in the novel, because the one in the novel is the one from the movie – symbolises something else: a fear of puberty and the sexual awakening which turns pleasant little boys into ravenous monsters. (Beverly – the only girl in the gang – recounts how It appeared to her as spurts of blood from the plughole in the bathroom. This is what she’s most afraid of, perhaps, for similar reasons to Bill and Richie; or because once her father knows she’s bleeding, he might want to take their relationship to the next level.) These fears are wrapped into a colourful package of classic American popular culture – the monsters from the movies – and might be dismissed for that reason as nostalgia for King, or for Americans generally of a certain age, but those hooks are universal, they lurk under the surface and will pierce the psyche somewhere of anyone old enough to read the book. (The cover of Detective Comics 671 has Batman protecting a screaming woman while surrounded by Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Werewolf – all monsters used by It – and that issue, from February 1994, was not aimed at people who were kids in 1955. Perhaps it’s fair to assume that teenage boys, from different eras, have the same preoccupations?)

The novel is pitched directly at the child you once were. In that way, it’s a shameless pitch, and too much of the book force-feeds us on the topic of “the magic of childhood”. This isn’t a vague term, interchangeable with “the best days of your life”, or something similar. King’s childhood magic is exactly that: a force which is somehow aware of the kids and uses them (and helps them) to battle the ancient entity under the city.

For example, Beverly – hiding from the boys lighting their farts, yet watching them closely – is attacked by one of the leeches which punches holes in Patrick Hockstetter. Beverly is the crack-shot of the gang; she’s armed with a Bulleye – a catapult which fires ball bearings. She loads it, aims at the leech she’s just pulled off her arm, and as soon as the metal ball leaves the pouch, she knows she’s missed her target.

But then she saw the ball-bearing curve. It happened in a split second, but the impression was very clear: it had curved. It struck the flying thing and splattered it to mush. There was a shower of yellowish droplets which pattered on the path.

The power the creature has is worth wondering about. It seems to have omnipotence and omniscience when it needs it, but these powers fail It when it suits King. Does the creature have powers or not? Two scenes with the Bullseye allow the reader to wonder.

Patrick Hockstetter is a child-psychopath, easily the most demented character in the book. His dementia means he isn’t scared of anything and this lack of fear makes things tricky when It comes out of hiding after sending the flying leeches. Hockstetter sees the creature come out from behind a junked car. He notices that

its face was running like wax. Sometimes it began to harden and look like something – or someone – and then it would start to run again, as if it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be.

It says only ‘hello and goodbye’ to Patrick in a “bubbling voice”, yet Beverley hears her father say ‘hello and goodbye’. On the surface we understand this. Al Marsh is the person (thing) she is most afraid of (and had Beverly seen what had happened, not just heard it, she would have seen her father drag him off.) But this small scene actually poses problems for the novel’s logic. The creature can’t settle on what image to appear as to Hockstetter because it’s getting nothing from Hockstetter. It seems to be trying to “get a reading” but Patrick’s mind is blank of fears. Now on the novel’s logic, had Mike Hanlon been hiding with Beverly he would have heard It squawk ‘hello and goodbye’ like the giant bird; Richie would have heard the words in the sound of a werewolf’s snarl. So either It can broadcast on all frequencies or it relies on its victims to interpret one signal. Yet if it relies on its victims to interpret one signal, why is It bothering to shape-shift ‘as if it couldn’t make up its mind’? It implies the creature’s shapeshifting runs on some sort of evolved instinct – like an animal changing its colouring to suit the surroundings. This poses questions about the creature’s will, and therefore its abilities. What seems a way of demonstrating just how deranged Hockstetter is, actually dilutes the horror a little because it suggests the creature is simply feeding, rather than being actively wicked. We can get all gooey when the lion tears the baby antelope apart, but we don’t think the lion is doing anything bad. Yet we’re told It uses the tactic of appearing as whatever its victim is scared of deliberately. The fear is what ‘salts the meat’ for the entity. King seems to want things all ways, here.

Another curious scene with the Bullseye occurs back in the house on Neibolt street. The kids are there, armed with the silver-slugs they have made, to confront and kill It. Beverley almost wastes one silver-slug on a rat before Bill roars at her not to fire.

‘It wanted me to shoot at it,’ Beverly said in a faint voice. ‘Use up half our ammunition on it.’

    ‘Yes,’ Bill said. ‘It’s l-l-like the FBI training r-range at Quh-Quh-Quantico, in a w-w-way. They seh-send y-you down this f-f-hake street and pop up tuh-targets. If you shuh-shoot any honest citizens ih-instead of just cruh-crooks, you l-lose puh hoints.’

 This makes surface sense. But this scene, like the one in the junkyard with the leeches, poses questions about the will of the creature. The children believe the silver will kill the monster because that’s what the movies and comics say, and it seems the creature is damaged by what the children believe. Once It knows it’s the werewolf which scares them, it takes on the appearance of the werewolf, but also the monster’s weaknesses. Doing this strongly implies a lack of choice on the part of the creature. This scene is like a portal into the novel’s subtext. The novel’s creature is forced to have weaknesses because the novel’s subtext is that the fears the children have are of their own making, and are strong enough to manifest into reality: fear of bigger kids, of bullies; fear of illness and of monsters from the movies; fear of coming sexuality and the perils of puberty.

This is best shown when Beverly pulls back the Bullseye to fire, knowing very well she’s out of ammo. The creature believes they have another slug because the Losers act as if they do, yet a few pages before the creature was trying to get them to waste ammo on a rat, seemingly knowing what they were armed with.

Here the subtext actually breaches the surface into the action. (Another example is when It chases Mike Hanlon at the derelict ironworks: why doesn’t it morph into a smaller bird, or anything else small enough to get into the smoke-stack Mike hides in? One can only assume it doesn’t because it can’t. This is partially explained on page 990, when, from It’s point of view, we’re told that ‘all living things must abide by the laws of the shape they inhabit. For the first time It realised that perhaps Its ability to change Its shapes might work against It as well as for It.’)

One has to ask if the creature has the ability to change shapes when it chooses to do so or not? If yes, why doesn’t it do so? If no, then this really is where a portal into the subtext could actually be a rip in the dimension between the fiction and its subtext. One must remember that the characters do not know they are characters in a novel.

Most kids are scared of spiders and many adults remain scared of them. So when the empowered kids get under the city and discover the thing’s form – the closest approximation to its real form the human mind can see – is a giant spider, there isn’t much shock in that. Indeed, the spider’s appearance was foreshadowed. On page 404, there’s this exchange between Beverly and her mother, discussing the spider she pretended she saw when the blood spurted from her bathroom sink. She asks her mother if she had seen the spider, and her mother replies

‘I didn’t see any spider. I wish we could afford a little new linoleum for that bathroom floor.’ She glanced at the sky, which was blue and cloudless. ‘They say if you kill a spider it brings rain. You didn’t kill it, did you?’

    ‘No,’ Beverly said. ‘I didn’t kill it.’

It’s a nice touch that King has the mother note the sky is blue and cloudless before she worries about rain. The exchange clearly foreshadows hundreds of pages (and thirty years in time) later when the grownups think they kill the spider and downtown Derry is destroyed in a downpour, flooding the place and destroying the standpipe. The spider is again foreshadowed just prior to Mike Hanlon meeting the Losers for the first time during the scene in which Henry Bowers (possessed by It, as are the adults such as Beverly’s dad and Eddie’s mother) chases him. This drives Hanlon to the Losers, where he becomes their final member and they attack the Bowers gang in The Apocalyptic Rockfight. While chasing Mike, Henry throws a cherry-bomb (an extraordinarily dangerous firework banned in 1966) and in panic, Hanlon scales a fence and Henry follows; he stops on the way up to order his cronies to keep going, and was ‘hung there like a bloated poisonous spider in human shape.’ It’s a safe bet that if you’re not actually scared of spiders, you probably won’t be picking them up and stroking them like you would a puppy. Spiders are a scare catch-all. Spiders lay eggs, and King’s spider lays plenty.

Ben saw something new: a trail of eggs. Each was black and rough-shelled, perhaps as big as an ostrich-egg. A waxy light shone from within them. Ben realised they were semi-transparent; he could see black shapes moving inside.

He has Ben stamp on them and kill the spidery things inside as they squeal while trying to escape. In 1986, this image should have been familiar to horror fans. One month before King published It, James Cameron released Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979. In one early scene from Aliens, Ripley is talking to a collection of suits who have been trying to get her to justify detonating her ship. She tells them ‘Kane who went into that ship said he saw thousands of eggs there. Thousands.’ Nobody who has seen Alien will forget those eggs, and the spidery, face-hugger things which come out of them. The imagery in Aliens – the humans strung-up, ready to be hosts for the face-huggers; the semi-transparent eggs with something inside; the deadly female creature which lays them – are all repeated in It when the Losers chase the spider, and who would argue the Queen in Aliens isn’t a little spider-like? Even Bill’s wife, Audra, is strung-up in the spider’s web, a morsel to be eaten later, just like the colonists found by the Marines in Aliens. This isn’t a coincidence.

Like the alien Queen in Aliens, King makes his monster female, and there’s something nauseating about that image: a female spider laying eggs. Alien and Aliens tap into this directly with the idea of a human being a host for another living thing; though in King’s novel the spider doesn’t use humans as hosts – and only eats its victims because its victims expect it to – there’s a connection the films share with the novel, and the similar imagery is striking. Entire papers could be written on our fear of spiders and the identical images which the novel shares with the two horror films.

The story is a “coming-of-age” tale and nostalgia trip buried under popular horror wrapped in classic American pop-culture and movie history. The journey, from child to adolescent and then to “grownup” is a hard and depressing one: full of fear which sits in a belly which aches for different reasons. The battle the children have under the city, in the tunnels, is an important one, and those dark, scary tunnels are important, but the most important tunnel in the story is on the surface: the tunnel between the children’s library and the adult library. This tunnel is mentioned several times, and after the destruction of Derry, explodes for a reason which is not explained, leaving both libraries as separate buildings. It is suggested that the trip from child to adult is always going to be a hard one, with no shortcuts:

if you wanted to get from the Children’s Library to the adult library, you had to walk outside to do it. And if it was cold, or raining, or snowing, you had to put on your coat.

There’s no escape for any child; there’s no easy path from kid to grownup, and the truth is that while we happily skip about as a kid, telling everyone we’re doing fine and hoping they believe it, there’s terror going under the surface.

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A Ragged Review and an American Beauty

In the late 1980s Thames television made a documentary about a young chef whose restaurant – ‘Harvey’s’ –  in Wandsworth, London – was considered one of the best in the country. The head chef, Marco Pierre White, was only in his twenties but considered a genius. The man’s philosophy was simple: less really is more; let your ingredients speak for themselves and don’t clutter up your plate trying to be clever. One dish demonstrated this philosophy perfectly. His ‘panache of foie gras with pan fried sea scallops and carrots’ was exactly what it claimed to be – just three ingredients.

Restraint requires confidence.

If The Rag were served to me on a plate then I could believe that the chef really knew what he was doing, for The Rag has but three ingredients: prose, poetry and art.

Issue 5 – Winter/Spring 2013 comes with a cover featuring a bloodied rendition of Carlos the Jackal: the blood around the mouth suggestive of his taste for it – though there’s more going on inside his head if you look closely. In another picture there is a human figure, cuddling a rabbit, though the figure is sporting a wolf’s head; another human figure, this time with a cheetah’s head, is doing the same.

The notion that a human has, perhaps, his savagery restrained by societal expectations, while just under the respectable surface there is lust, blood-lust and a truly carnivorous sexual desire, is one which could well be suggested here; though perhaps such an interpretation is too close to the surface meaning of those mentioned images to have much worth.

There is no fuss to this magazine – no unnecessary garnish. After Carlos’s cover, there’s a contents and credits page, then we are into the work – the main ingredients.

The first bite offered is a story, Momemto Mori, written by Stefanie Demas, and if the first bite seduces the taste buds, then one knows the dish is right. So what can one say about Memento Mori?

It is a remarkable piece of work. The narrator is a complicated creation. Innocent, charming – and therefore probably friendly; intelligent, intuitive and utterly, hopelessly – yet beautifully – deranged.

Our narrator is driving to a funeral home to steal a body and spirit it away to secluded spot for sex. However, grim and ghoulish this is not. And it is that which makes the story so wonderful. It must be no easy task to have a narrator describe sexual feelings towards corpses and have that narrator sound quite so reasonable.

‘I was five years old when I remember seeing death for the first time,’ we’re told. ‘I knew even then I was interested.’

We’re given a scene in which the young narrator watches a bird hop about before being set upon and quickly killed by a cat, and this sight captivates her and there begins a healthy interest in death.

The narrator seems to have rare access to those considerations of beauty reserved for the high-brow and the aesthete, but with reservations:

‘I will not say that it was beautiful. Beautiful wouldn’t be the wrong word, necessarily, but it would give you the wrong idea about me.’

Could that wrong idea be the notion that our narrator’s interest is purely aesthetic? That could be the case because her interest is definitely physical. Here we have a synthesis, a merger between the low and the high, the closed-eye humming to classical music while the fingers get sticky.

Death, to this narrator, however, is more than an aphrodisiac.

When considering a corpse one might see the sinking of the cheeks or the new prominence of the bones as the signs of a person transforming into a cadaver – the new physical status: the first stage on a journey which sees a person’s atoms return to the universe.

‘I could see that his shoulder blades had begun to form themselves into wings.’

In that we have the aesthetic, the optimistic and the deranged – all brought together in a simple, beautiful line.

I don’t much care if this is an example of Demas showing her own art through her character, or – as a student of Stanislavsky could appreciate – a form of method-writing, either way it is beautiful. Death: the invisible chrysalis.

Of course, ultimately, there is no hope for this narrator. No reader could sympathise with one who harbours such exotic tastes, so removed as they are from regular experience. Such people are disturbed. Or are they?

Consider the following:

‘What about the widow who kisses her husband’s waxy face, clenches his frigid hands, as he lies in his cushioned box? How do we define that kiss, those touches? As love. As nothing unusual. And never, never would we call it by that name. How can we name-call and persecute when the distinctions are so shaky?’

This is clever because it sounds exactly like a person who has thought about their tastes and wondered what they might say under questioning. What we have here is the tip of a philosophical iceberg, a logical argument. And who can argue with the logic? Step by logical step we can unravel the argument for ourselves. Doing this leaves us unsettled because we are forced to answer a new formulation of ‘the paradox of the heap’ – and who can answer that?

It is some feat of creativity to have a narrator who is a rarefied aesthete; gentle; logical; and also one we can sympathise with. Yes, this is a caring narrator. The evidence is in the prose.

While driving to her final destination, her cargo stowed in the back of a stolen hearse, our narrator is passed by trucks on the highway:

‘The trucks sounded like whales as we passed them in the night. With the radio off, we could hear that their deep rumbles were accompanied by low, mournful cries – a searching call through the dark ocean expanse. My heart wanted to break for those trucks, my eyes wanted to cry for them. Whom had they lost? Whom did they need to find?’

What skill, yet again, it takes to synthesise the sympathetic with the gently deranged. One wants to kiss the narrator on the cheek, to stroke her hair. How could anyone have anything but affection for such a kindly soul?

Before reading this story I was reading Mailer’s Fire on The Moon; today I have just started Philip Knightley’s biography of Kim Philby, and after that I have the collected works of Nathanael West. But now my reading is disturbed. Now I want more from Stafanie Demas. I want more from this American Beauty.

And what skill it takes the editors of this magazine to select ingredients such as these and to let those ingredients speak for themselves.

I’ve given The Rag five stars.

Michelin would have given them three.

Sexcrime

I have made two attempts to read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, succeeding on the second attempt. I gave up the first time (about a third of the way in) because there was ‘something’ wrong with the book, though I could not identify it. About half way through, on the second attempt, I realised what the problem was and identifying it brought a thought about what is wrong with Orwell’s 1984. The problems with these books are different, though caused by the same thing and I will explain what that is.

The Communist Manifesto calls for the abolition of the family. The communists want this because the family fashions bonds which are stronger than patriotism; and traditional, life-long heterosexual marriage is the sealing bond which keeps the family together. A communist state cannot have its subjects living like this because their first loyalty will not be to it, but to each other. This will never do. But a stroke of a bureaucratic-pen cannot abolish the family, as the manifesto demands. No matter how great the state apparatus is, abolishing the family can only happen in slow-motion, and it takes decades.

The first way to start the slow-motion change is to introduce sex ‘education’. Sex education was the idea of a man called George Lukacs. He was an education commissar during the Hungarian revolution. The point was to debauch the minds of children who were religiously brought up. That is why sex education exists. Do not swallow the pathetic and weak excuse about preventing unwanted pregnancy; the truth of sex education is the other way about.

Huxley made sex one of the key ways in which persons are conditioned in Brave New World. Babies and small children are encouraged to indulge in ‘erotic play’ and learn that sexual promiscuity is natural and normal. The exact opposite is true of 1984, in which females are coerced into the ‘anti-sex league’ and chant enthusiastically for the abolition of the orgasm.

Huxley understands that sex leads to children and that means continuing the existence of the family. He sorts this by having humans not born, but decanted, and this further allows the state controllers to tinker with the growing humans to determine their intelligence and class and so on.

Orwell’s proletariat simply live under tyranny and ludicrous intrusion into their lives by the big-brother bureaucracy; and, remember, the thought-police kick the doors in when Winston and Julia are together. No illicit love-making permitted in Airstrip One.

The methods of the two tyrannies are exact opposites of each other, in other words. The thought-police will torture and batter you with clubs, but the authorities of Huxley’s book play soothing sounds from loud-speakers and spray the rioting crowds with soma to deal with mass disorder.

I don’t think Orwell missed the connection between totalitarianism and the destruction of the family by encouraging sexual-freedom, but he was pushing the bureaucratic tyranny to it utmost, and that meant that sexual conduct had to be monitored and controlled, along with everything else.

I am unsure which regime is worse. Orwell’s slaves do not resist because they dare not – the power of the state is total; but Huxley’s slaves do not realise they are slaves to begin with. Both societies are horrid in different ways but for the same reasons, arrived at by different methods. And both writers make a mistake (in terms of story telling) which makes their societies less awful than they might have been.

Orwell’s mistake is to make his society a circle, not a pyramid. There is nobody at the top, living in luxury while the lower orders suffer. It is such a vast state-machine that it seems to function for its own sake; but there needs to be a hierarchy, a pecking order, because it is that which keeps those closest to the top loyal. They are waiting for their turn in the chair, and each person, on each rung, is doing the same, waiting to move up one place. That is how a hierarchy works. Orwell is honest enough to follow his logic and take things right to the edge, but in pushing it so far he reduces the horror slightly. The world of Winston Smith would have been worse if there had been man at the top, keeping power and devising ever more twisted ways of keeping it.

Huxley does the same thing, follows his start-point to its logical conclusion and reduces the purity of the soft-horror he envisioned. Some call Huxley’s book a utopia, or a negative utopia. You can call it whatever you like but it may not be called a dystopia; and it may not be called a dystopia for the very reasons Huxley tried to make it one: The abolition of the family.

Without love and loss, without heartbreak there can be no human tragedy. If everyone belongs to everyone, and can take whoever they like as a sexual partner whenever they fancy it, then no-one is special, no one is loved, and without those things, when persons have no family or emotional ties, there is no horror because there is no loss. Without horror there can be no dystopia.

Huxley, like Orwell, honestly followed his thinking to its conclusion and the book is certainly worth it for that reason, but the Alphas in Brave New World don’t have much to complain about it seems to me. The book is neither a dystopia or utopia, it is a work of social and science fiction theory.

Both could have been more horrific than they are; that they are not shows the authors were dealing first in testing ideas (and remorselessly driving those ideas forward until they ran out of road) and were writing fiction second, not for its own sake but as the medium of delivery for their thought experiments.

Oh My God It’s SO Unfair!

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round

  • Philip Larkin ‘Aubade’

 

I’m unsure Larkin was right about what we fear. On the surface of things he seems to get to root of the matter. The idea of not existing is a troubling one. But are there ways of thinking about not existing which might make the idea bearable?

One of the (so-called) ‘new’ atheists, Sam Harris, said – and was quite amusing when he said it – that if a person really can’t imagine the world without them in it, then it must be just from want of trying. There were a few laughs from the audience. In the example I’m thinking of Harris suggested the crowd think about the city of Paris, and how Paris was getting along just fine without anyone from the crowd in it. He certainly had a point. Another way of putting it is to ask people to think about the world before they were born. The person’s town or village was getting along happily, and so were the cities and other people in it. It seems correct to think about matters in this way, because the world was getting along nicely before you were born, but thinking this way doesn’t quite dissolve the problem.

The idea of not existing could mean several things to a person. That you can even have the idea means you exist. So it appears – after thinking about Paris and the years before you were born – that the problem isn’t quite a world in which you don’t exist, the problem is more a world in which you don’t exist after having existed. That seems to be closer to the point, and it’s that idea which needs examining.

Larkin was an atheist, and the last four lines are odd ones for an atheist to have written. The last line – especially the word ‘anesthetic’ – carries a thought which could have been pushed further. An atheist might fear what Larkin describes, but an atheist also knows he won’t actually experience being dead, which means there is no reason to have this fear: if you have fear you know you don’t need to have, then you are choosing to have it because you prefer having it. I mean to say, why fear something you know you will never experience? This ‘fear’ of something you won’t and can’t experience, then, might not be ‘our’ problem. It’s more likely that the real point is as I described it, or as the late Christopher Hitchens put it ‘You get tapped on the shoulder and told, “the party’s going on without you, and you have to leave.”’

(He then amusingly offered the religious version for comparison: ‘The party’s going on forever, and you can’t leave.’) But why do we care if we won’t know we’ve left? It doesn’t make sense to ‘fear’ not being at the party because we know we won’t know we’re not there: we won’t know we’re missing anything. Is what Larkin calls ‘fear’ really a form of cheap resentment, a type of childish foot-stamping? Is the ‘fear’ an expression from a part of the mind which hasn’t grown up? One can easily imagine an irritated child having a little tantrum ‘Oh my God it’s so unfair! when told that playtime’s over.

To ask a person ’Do you believe in God’ could get you any number of responses, though a common one is the one which says ‘Well, I don’t believe in God but I do believe in something. I don’t think this (motions to surroundings) is the end.’ It’s a barely disguised way of saying ‘I don’t like the idea of death, so have told myself we don’t die.’ Larkin’s fourth line is true of all religions. I don’t know any religion which says the universe was created by a loving god who answers prayers and what not, yet has designed things so that – although he loves you while you are here – death is the end. Such a religion wouldn’t catch on.

All religions are predicated on the survival of death. Licensing that idea, allowing it to be reinforced through groupthink (or ‘worship’ if you really must), is what you get in return for your critical faculties, money and obedience. Yet if Larkin’s ‘fear’ is a form of intellectualised, disguised tantrum, then it’s certainly true that atheism is not an automatically superior worldview to the religious one. One could say of the atheist that he isn’t confusing what he believes is true with what he hopes is true, but doing that, and on its own, might not make you the full grown up.

Is there a difference between knowing you are going to die and accepting it?

Stop Bloody Whining

There I was standing in front of a vine
I took some grapes and I crushed them to wine
I gave some to Pharaoh who drank from my cup
I tried to interpret but I had to give up

 – Joseph and the Amazing Techicolour Dreamcoat

 

I am an admirer of Sam Harris. I am now and admirer of Maajid Nawaz. One of Harris’s regular complaints is that his critics misrepresent his views on many topics, and misrepresent him on the Islam question very often. It was actually pleasant to have Naawaz – someone who can be called an ‘expert’ on the topic of Islam and Islamism – actually explaining certain Koranic doctrines.

Harris for instance argues that the Koran actually tells people to do certain things, and some of those things are not ambiguous. He gives an excellent example to Hasan when he says that, nobody reading the Koran is going to close the book and believe they can now eat bacon and drink alcohol. Some things are directives.

Nawaz responds on alcohol:

[..] everyone assumes that all alcohol is absolutely prohibited for all Muslims. In Arabic the word assumed to mean alcohol is khamr. There’s a long-standing historical discussion about what khamr means and whether or not it’s prohibited. An extremely early tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur’an was by Imam Abu Bakr al-Jasas, who hailed from the Hanafi school of jurisprudence within the Sunni denomination of Islam. The Hanafi school is known to be the first school of interpretation and therefore the closest in proximity to the time of the Prophet. In his interpretation of the Qur’an, al-Jasas discusses the linguistic meaning of khamr at length and elaborates on why for Hanafis a literal interpretation of the word covers only a prohibition on wine from grapes. This means that for the jurists of this first school, it was permitted—and still is for those who follow the early Hanafis—to consume any form of alcohol other than wine.

Suddenly, a reading of the Koran can allow alcohol so long as it’s not wine from grapes. This was an eyebrow-raiser for me.

Nawaz’s basic position is that Islam is not a religious of peace, nor is it a religion of war. It’s just a religion which can be ‘interpreted’ to mean this or that.

‘Interpretation’ is an interesting word in respect to textual analysis.

Persons misuse language all the time. Persons will use one word to disguise another because the one they use suggests they are smarter, or kinder, or something else. For example many parents and teachers will demand ‘respect’ from the younger person, and might shout this. They don’t realise that ‘respect’ cannot be demanded because it’s is a matter of how the other person feels about you. When the parent or teacher demands respect they are probably demanding obedience. This is a different thing, and it makes sense why the parent or teacher would perform a sort of doublethink on themselves by masking the word. Such a person might genuinely believe they are asking for respect.

It’s a similar thing with ‘interpretation.’ When a person declares that they ‘interpreted it to mean..’ they probably mean that they ‘imagined it to mean..’

(Imagination in this context is connected to desire.)

Using ‘interpret’ sounds more technical, it sounds like you’ve being doing some hard mental work; ‘interpret’ is only a step away from ‘decoded’ which really would require some hard work. So it’s obviously better to claim this than to claim you’ve ‘imagined’ the meaning of the words, because ‘imagined’ just means you’ve ‘made it up’ – so who would need to take you seriously?

I wonder if those in the head-removal community find Koranic warrant for their bloody fun by choosing to ‘interpret’ the text to mean what they want it to mean.

Oh, poor you!

That’s an expression which makes me shiver when I hear it. On the surface it sounds like mild sarcasm, a bit of fake sympathy offered to somebody who might be thought of as complaining too much. It’s actually more than that.

A person needs to have a little interest in language and psychology and literature to see (or hear) what else could be going on with that expression, but if ‘art imitates life’ as the cliché goes, then it seems there is more to that expression than mild sarcasm aimed at a moaner.

One possible interpretation is the usage from HBO’s The Sopranos. It’s not an expression used often, but it’s the characters which use it and the context which makes it interesting and gives it the power.

The Sopranos, if it is the best show made – and many argue it is – must be the best show for the writing because so many other shows are superbly filmed and acted and so on. It’s the writing, specifically the way a character’s character is exposed using language, that gives the show its standing, and some of the exposes are subtle.

Here’s a for instance. Consider Tony Soprano telling his mother and anyone else who brought it up, that Green Grove – the expensive facility he sends her to in the first series – is not a nursing home, ‘It’s a retirement community!’. There are several instances like this throughout the six seasons.

The character had to correct his mother and everyone else about the kind of facility he sent her to because he was trying to convince himself his decision to move her was a kinder decision than his conscience felt it was. That might sound simple, but it’s more complicated.

Tony Soprano’s entire character – everything he does and the way he does it, his success in the ‘business’ – is predicated on the denial of the fact his mother didn’t love him. He knows she didn’t, but won’t accept it, and the conflicts, the panic attacks, the ‘displaced rage’ all stem from this refusal accept what he knows is true.

It takes the character almost the entire six series to accept this: his constant correction of people who talk about about what kind of place he sends his mother to is a linguistic clue to a deeper psychological problem which hasn’t been solved or resolved. He can’t make his mother love him, but he can accept she didn’t, and this acceptance does eventually happen. The linguistic clues then change to show that, under the psychological surface, there’s a been a huge change.

What happens is simple. When a colleague mentions the wonderful retirement community Tony had his mother in, he shouts back ‘It’s a nursing home!’

So what of the expression, ‘oh, poor you’?

The writers use the expression in a similar way as mentioned in that it’s used as the linguistic clue to a deeper problem. ‘Oh, poor you’ isn’t mild sarcasm thrown at a person who’s moaning too much, it’s the mask dropping and the monster revealing its real face and real nature, but only for a moment.

And that real nature could be described as unpleasant.

It’s an expression which means ‘I don’t care how you feel!’ And this isn’t because the person cares only for themselves, but because the person can’t care about others and their feelings. It’s the three words which reveal the speaker is really bereft of positivity and all their smiling and laughing is faked.

It reveals something to us, the audience, while the speaker and the person to whom it is addressed do not recognise it for what it is, thus making it a narrow, yet extraordinarily deep example of dramatic irony.

Down With the Sickness

I’ve wondered why zombie movies and shows are so popular. They certainly are popular so there has to be a reason.

I wondered before what is the subtext to these movies and shows – or to zombies themselves? Why do we like them?

I thought that, perhaps, the popularity was in the childhood game of cops and robbers: basically (but with zombies) we get to ride about killing bad guys: we get to act like heroes, saviours and soldiers all in one go. It’s an ego trip, in other words.

I now think the truth might be much darker than that.

I watched the final scene of episode five of Fear the Walking Dead, where Ruben Blades is looking at the chained double-doors, and immediately the image of John Hurt, lying on the table in Alien (1979) came to mind.

It was the way the doors were bulging and looked like they were stretching which made me think of that famous scene.

Then my thoughts were of how a woman’s belly can look when a baby is stretching.

It was pretty obvious that behind those doors, something was trying to get out, and I’m sure that during the season finale, all those walkers will escape (be born) into the action of the episode – and that’s what we’re all now waiting for.

Back in the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted his famous experiments into obedience to authority and discovered something depressing about the nature of the human: we will easily harm, torture or even kill another person if instructed to do so by ‘authority’ figures. These findings were unwelcome by many; for instance because Milgram showed the ‘Nuremberg Defence’ might actually be a defence – or a solid reason, at any rate – for the facilitating of mass murder by who in many cases were civil servants, not ideological Nazis.

It’s easier (and more agreeable) to conclude the ‘I was only following orders’ defence is a weak excuse used by evil people than it is to accept that humans might have something savage in their natures, or, more bluntly, that a tendency to cruelty and sadism is the default position. It doesn’t suit our geocentric idea of ourselves as the ultra-evolved master-species to be told how fucking base we actually are.

What we desire, on unconscious levels of awareness, can manifest itself in our dreams and sometimes our waking fantasies; so it makes sense that we might be attracted to some external stimulant – be it a song, movie or television show – which reminds us of those instinctive desires in some way. As Huxley states in Heaven and Hell:

Most dreams are concerned with the dreamer’s private wishes and instinctive urges, and with the conflicts which arise when these wishes and urges are thwarted by a disapproving conscience or a fear of public opinion.

Could it be that zombies are not so different from what the human is once you take away the controlling elements of language and society? And shows such as The Walking Dead are popular because they allow a psychic vibration to flow back to our savage selves?

More bluntly:

Zombies are popular because an unconscious recognition happens between what we see and our animalistic true natures.

More bluntly still:

Zombies remind us of ourselves: of the part of our evolved natures that’s waiting to break out from behind our civilised masks just as soon as society falls.

Got a problem with that?

Read your Stanley Milgram.

Winging It

1

My name is Nathaniel and I don’t suppose any of this will make much sense to you, but this is what happened. I was quite happily minding my own business, driving home while munching on the cheeseburgers I’d just got from a drive-through, when I saw the flashing blue light in my mirror. It would be a cliché to say ‘my heart sank’ but it would be true. It did and I knew why.

I’m not usually so stupid and there’re one or two things I could say in my defence. First, I wasn’t ‘drunk’ – I would never have got in my car if I had been – but I wasn’t sober, either. I suppose everyone says ‘I wasn’t drunk’ and some of them might be telling the truth, but, as you might come to realise, I don’t care if you think I was out of my mind on drink. I’m not an alcoholic: that actually is true. I’ve never had that kind of problem.

I had the usual upbringing, the father was in banking management and the mother was a housewife. There was a little spare money going around and we had the odd nice holiday. School wasn’t a fee-paying one but it was a decent enough state-school. Luckily or not for me my school was mixed and I got on well considering I was distracted most of the time. The experience of school failed to stimulate my mind, or anything else, but I did enough to get through without bringing unwanted attention on myself. In a way I learned a lot at school.

After I left I went to university so I wouldn’t have to work in the father’s office, or any other office, and I studied the Philosophy of Religion. There’s nothing quite like studying religion to make a person a non-believer; but not believing in eternal justice has some logical consequences.

The father was an alright sort; he was hardly ever around and the mother might have been happier with a man who was present a little more. I think the poor dear was stuck in a sort of unhappy marriage but happy-enough lifestyle. She liked the house and the spare money and the clothes and the nights out and the men friends and the cars and the attention and the visitors when the father was away and all the rest of things women dislike because they only want to be loved. I know women, trust me.

I’m divorced. I got divorced exactly three years to the day that I married the wife. Believe it or not it was me who started the proceedings – for adultery. I caught the wife in flagrant delicto as they say. I was pretty calm at the time. I remember just looking at them both and shaking my head while feeling a sort of disgust at the sight of them both. It was how she looked with her hair stuck to her sweaty forehead, her round belly and the whole neediness of the situation; the whole ’emotional requirement’ of it. I actually wanted to be sick when I saw them. I told my parents what had happened. The mother decided the wife was a non-person and was the lowest kind of pond-life imaginable. I thought it all amusing. It is funny watching people scrap and fight with each other for a little warmth. A bit like throwing a few crumbs for the seagulls and watching them peck each other and squawk about the place. There are rules these days about feeding them because seagulls are practically vermin.

I never re-married but I’ve had plenty of relationships with women; some went on for a while and some of them were short lived. Some very short lived, actually. Men tend not to frown on one night stands for some reason. I don’t mind that side of it, it’s all the other stuff I can’t be doing with. The domestic couple, that’s the real beast with two backs.

Anyway, the blue light is flashing and I pull over at the first safe place and just wait. I’m sat there with the engine running, thinking about flooring it and getting away but what’s the point? Once they’ve got your licence plate number it’s all over, just a question of when.

The police officer was a female: young – I’d bet in her twenties – with blonde hair all bound up tight behind her head. I could see the silhouette of the other one in my mirror: just sat there, watching.

Most of the time spent in the station was taken up with mundane procedures. There was the photograph I had to pose for, for which I couldn’t show my best side; the DNA swab was taken by the blonde who became the woman who got closest to my teeth without me giving her a love-bite, and another female officer came in to push my fingertips and palms onto a scanner to take my finger prints. I wondered how long it took their computer to find matches of prints and DNA. Not that it really mattered to me. I gave my details to the desk sergeant, a different woman again. I remember blowing into a big machine to get an accurate reading of the alcohol in my breath.

‘If it reads between forty-one and fifty-one we need to get a doctor,’ the officer said.

‘And why is that? I asked.

‘Up to fifty-one is inconclusive,’ she said, ‘so we’d need a sample of blood.’

‘I’ve got plenty of those to spare.’ She didn’t get the joke.

She fiddled with the machine and in a moment or two a long receipt-type thing spewed out: A paper tongue. The female officer snatched at it, ripped it clean off, read it then showed it to me. The reading came out at fifty-seven.

‘So you’re over,’ she said. ‘Not by much, but enough. We won’t need to take your blood. Do you want us to call the duty-solicitor?’

I could see she expected me to say no. What’s the point of a solicitor for a drink-driving charge? The whole thing is, as the cliché goes, an open and shut case. There’s nothing for a solicitor to do.

‘Yes, I think you’d better call the solicitor. That seems to be appropriate. How long will he be?’

‘She. All the duty solicitors are women.’

2

I’d been sat in the cell for about half an hour when the arresting officer came in carrying a blanket.

‘You might need this. It can get pretty cold.’ She dumped the blanket onto the plastic mattress. ‘Is the bed comfy?’

On paper that looks like a weird question for her to ask. Why should she care if the bed was comfy? In any case it wasn’t a proper bed. The question was asked naturally enough but I saw it on her face: a brief twitch of the nose, the flicker on the top lip; she tried her best but couldn’t hide the disgust she felt. The question was her attempt at sarcastic humour.

‘How long for the solicitor?’ I asked.

‘Don’t know. She’ll get here when she gets here.’

I needed confirmation, just for my own peace of mind, so I asked her:

‘What if I change my mind about the solicitor? Can’t we just get on with it without one?’

‘You want to proceed without a solicitor? Why would you want to do that?’ She was smiling and I knew it then for sure. It starts now, I thought.

Somebody told me that excessive drinking is a form of self-harming and a symptom of depression; though I don’t drink to excess I realised at some point I might be drinking heavily: more than is normal for a person in my position. The person who told me this was a woman called Natalie and we were quite close at times. She told me she used to self-harm and the inside of her thighs were covered in slash marks. I saw them eventually. She made plenty of slits. There are coping skills a person can learn to help them. We got into it quite deeply at one point but I don’t think my nihilistic outlook helped her much but I can’t do anything about it now. Self-harming is not the same expression of despair as suicide. How could I have guessed she’d do it?

We were about four-months into the relationship and she’d promoted me to key-holder so I could come and go as I pleased. She understood that some men need to be able to come and go. I walked into the living room and she was lying on the sofa under a duvet: all still and quiet, quite peaceful and ice-cold. It was strange because she was cold everywhere. She’d left no note, no letter, no explanation of any kind and nobody could make any sense of it. It was a total mystery.

I explained everything to her mother, told her everything I knew: how she’d been, her moods, whether we’d argued recently. I tried to make the woman understand that I’d tried to tell her daughter that life was always worth living, that life was a privilege. But for all I tried it was no use; she couldn’t shake the black moods and she was overwhelmed in the end. The woman thanked me for my kindness and said she was glad her daughter had known me. I was touched by that. Her words helped me cope with the situation and I made a point of visiting that woman several times to help her with the grieving process. We had many long chats and I went into more detail about Natalie’s mood before she killed herself. Her mother needed a shoulder to cry on but she suddenly asked me to stop coming round and I don’t know why that was. I thought she lacked gratitude.

They kept me in the cell for almost the maximum amount of time allowed before charging me. I think it was six AM when the female officer came in and said they wanted to breathalyse me again. When the alcohol in my breath had dropped enough that I could pass a breath test then they could let me go. What a laugh. The female desk sergeant processed the drink-driving and printed the paperwork with the date of my court appearance. That was usually the point at which people are let go. Then a detective appeared, lord knows where she came from, and told me they wanted a chat about other matters so I was re-arrested on the spot. Like I said, I knew it was coming.

I told them everything they wanted to know; didn’t quibble or try to hide anything. I think the whole interview took nine hours. I had all the details ready to go and didn’t see any point in messing about.

My mother decided I’d lost my mind in confessing, that I’d been tortured or something while in custody. It was almost funny that my position of complete disclosure had brought on the largest episode of denial her mind could manufacture.

I walked into my new home a famous man; it seemed everyone had heard of me. My psychiatrist was a woman. Dr Julia I called her. We got along superbly well; had never a crossed word. I was case-study to her, not much else I could be, really. My mother visited occasionally. At least I think she did.

3

She asked me what my earliest memory was; that was one of the first things she asked. I told her it was of my parents arguing. Then it was something to do with pain – a searing pain and being in total darkness with muffled shouting and the sound of glass smashing somewhere. I told her I heard the sound of a wet thud – like a sand-bag hitting concrete from a height, followed by quiet for what seemed like hours then forever.

All this sort of talk was progress, she said. I asked her: ‘Progress toward what?’

‘Toward acceptance. There’s anger, denial and acceptance. Anger was what you did out there; denial is where you still are. But we’re making progress.’

‘And what comes with this acceptance you’re talking about? A great wave of relief washes over me? What?’

She always seemed to know what I was getting at without me having to say it.

‘I know you know what happened; just at an intellectual level; I know you have a memory, but acceptance is a different thing entirely. It goes beyond knowing into something else.’

She knew what I was getting at but the things she said to me took a day or so to process, like my unconscious had to decode the meaning before letting me realise what she was going on about: apparently if the insight comes under its own steam, at its own pace, then it carries more weight. I think that’s what she said.

This is part of my beautiful journey to acceptance, I’m told – notes for my autobiography. Start with some extended memories, little snippets of essays or stories, and make sure you tell the truth. It can be fleshed out later. I told her I know how to flesh things out. I told Julia of course I’d tell the truth.

I saw the lovely Nicola today, with her friend, the one I don’t really like. Nicola works in the kitchen and collects plates and serves food. Sometimes she helps with the more difficult residents, those who are medicated. She’s a nice woman. I was leaving Julia’s office and they walked past and I just managed to hear Nicola tell the other one she’d lost four pounds that week. They’re told not to discuss personal details or relationships and so on around us. I have no idea why but that’s the rule. Where’s the harm?

Later on she’s clearing plates and comes over, smiling as usual, to take my finished bowl and cutlery.

‘All done, here?’

‘Beautiful as always,’ I said, ‘and the food wasn’t bad, either.’

She gave me that withering look some of them do; that “yeah, yeah – whatever” type look. But she was trying to hide a smirk.

‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘have you lost weight? Looks like you’ve lost a few pounds.’

She liked that one, I could see it. Liked it so much the smirk disappeared and she looked really serious: she buried that pride deeper than I’ve ever buried anything. That was the beginning of our friendship. A little later I asked her if she could bring me a pen; just a simple little Biro – nothing amazing. She knew it was against the rules but did it anyway and from there it was easy. Always start with the small stuff because it works every time. We kept things a secret from Julia because she would have had Nicola moved to another wing. We aren’t seen talking for long. I’ve got Nicola under my wing.

Image result for wings poster

No Loss of Mass

Luke Godfrey changed his mind about his bacon sandwich. He put the red plastic ketchup bottle back down on the table and picked up the blue one, took the top slice of bread off his sandwich and gave it a squirt of mayo. The man sitting opposite Luke Godfrey – Shane Allahan – watched him.

‘Since when do you put mayo on bacon?’ Shane asked. ‘I’ve never seen you do that.’

‘I don’t, normally – I’m just sick of ketchup,’ said Luke.

‘Brown sauce, okay; ketchup, definitely – but mayo on a bacon sarnie? Mayo is for the chicken salad sandwich, mate, not the bacon.’

‘Those times, they are a-changin,’ said Luke. ‘Maybe in more ways than one.’

Luke and Shane were good friends and worked in the same office. They were cut from the same cloth. They would meet up a couple of times a week at their local greasy-spoon for breakfast before wandering into town to their office. Occasionally one of their flock would be in the café as well, pouring only ketchup on his breakfast.

‘Meaning what exactly?’ said Shane, as he popped a perfectly round onion ring onto his tongue.

‘Meaning I’m done with United, mate,’ he said.

‘Which means what? How do you mean, “done” with United?’ asked Shane. ‘You mean you’re not renewing your season-ticket? I know you were moaning a while back about that, but – ‘

‘No, I’m mean I’m done. They are not my team anymore.’

Shane was confused and stopped eating a sausage to consider what Luke was saying. ‘Let me get this straight. You’re saying you’re no longer a United supporter? No more games, no more pub with the boys?’

Luke looked cagey. ‘Well, not quite.’ He took a breath and then said it. ‘I’m going over to City.’

A lump of semi-chewed sausage fell from Shane’s mouth. ‘Say that again, I didn’t hear you right. For a second I thought you said you were going over to City.’

‘That’s what I said. I’ve emailed the chairman of their supporters’ club. I’m seeing him in a couple of days. They’re gonna take me through it; you know, the process and what they expect and all that and then they’ll see if I’m okay for them and then I’ll be…well, I’ll be one of them.’

Shane just looked at Luke, opened mouthed, for several seconds. Their breakfast was forgotten.

‘Okay,’ said Shane, ‘I’ve got a few questions.’

‘Thought you might, but before you ask them let me just say I’ve really struggled with my conscience on this – it’s not a decision I’ve taken lightly.’

‘Why were you United in the first place?’

‘Because my dad was, that’s how I was brought up,’ said Luke.

‘Exactly,’ said Shane. ‘You can’t just switch your loyalty. You have to think about this a minute – no, just wait a second – your loyalty grows out of time, out of going to the games and worshiping the team; it grows out of all the great nights and the crack down the pub. You didn’t do any of that with City.’

‘Shane, this is why I said I struggled with my conscience, this is not a simple thing, like flicking a switch. It’s a conversion.’

‘What? Mate, nobody – and I mean nobody – has ever converted from one team to another; it’s unheard of and it’s also ridiculous. It can’t be done. You must be delusional. There’s no such thing as a genuine conversion. It just means you didn’t believe what you said you believed to begin with.’

Luke suppressed a snarl, he felt anger tightening his gut. ‘I’m offended! How dare you upset me! I’m telling you about my deepest feelings and beliefs, and how I’ve struggled with my conscience, and you think I’m just mad! I haven’t just got some “new” loyalty, I’ve converted my feelings for United into feelings for City.’

‘You haven’t listened to me. Loyalty stands on the past and you have no past with City.’

‘And you haven’t listened to me. It’s the same loyalty that you’re talking about – just converted.’

‘Jesus! And what does that actually mean? I mean, really. It’s changed colour? Changed shape?’

‘Shane, come on, mate. Take it seriously,’ said Luke

Shane stood up and the table legs scraped as he shoved his way past. He slammed the door behind him.

Greasy Graham, the café’s owner, looked over at Luke. ‘What’s ‘is problem?’

Luke didn’t look up.

2

Luke strode into the shop and asked the sales assistant for the new City shirt, and yes, he wanted the home shirt, not the away strip.

It took the assistant a couple of minutes to fetch one from the back room and Luke held it up in front of him, admiring the badge before kissing it: the symbol of who and what he was to become. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and tears of joy tried to escape from his overactive tear ducts. He nodded at the assistant and went to a changing room to try it on.

He rubbed the shirt smooth across his cider-belly and gazed at himself in the mirror. He felt complete, like he’d come home to where he belonged, and that was part of it for Luke – belonging, feeling like you were not alone. He still had his friends. They’d come round.

Shane Allahan was furious, however. He’d spent an hour texting everyone he and Luke new to tell them about Luke’s Judas-move. All the history, all the beer they’d drunk, all the toilets they’d vomited in together, all this was for nothing? It could just be thrown away? It made no sense. Shane checked back through the texts he’d received from his two best mates, Mark and John both suggested they all never speak to Luke again. Another friend of Shane’s, Luke’s cousin, Paul, went even further and suggested something which Shane thought was crazy, but the idea was growing on him. They wanted to petition their landlord, Big Steve The Stoner, and get Luke officially barred from the premises. Luke had to go, they suggested, it was a matter of honour. Friendship and family was one thing, but football was something else.

Luke was due back in the office later than usual, by arrangement, and so Shane was at his desk, clicking away at his computer when Luke sat down opposite. Shane didn’t look up; he shifted in his seat and coughed.

‘Come on, mate, we don’t need all this,’ said Luke. He tapped into his computer and gave the mouse a few clicks, setting things ready for the rest of the afternoon.

‘They taken you in?’ said Shane without looking up. He was staring intently at the screen; whatever was on it was too important to risk looking away.

‘Yeah, they have,’ said Luke. ‘I’ve got the shirt. Look, it’s just the lack of buying and the excuses all the time. And the manager, well, Christ, don’t get me started on him.’

‘So you’ve got your new robes,’ said Shane. ‘Very nice, I’m sure. I’m sure you’ll look quite the picture of devotion.’

That was the last they spoke all afternoon.

3

The Baptist Bar, the local watering hole for United devotees – and Shane and Luke’s local – was so named because it used to be a Baptist Church years ago and was converted into a drinking den when demand for the supernatural started to wane. On any given night, most of the customers would be in red – the scum in Blue had their own place of worship across town.

Nobody expected Luke to show up that night no matter what he was wearing, but to walk through the door dressed in blue – every head turned but not one spoke for seconds as they comprehended the sight before them.

‘Alright, boys,’ said Luke, back to the door. ‘I’m still the same guy – what’s the big deal?’

‘You’re in the wrong pub,’ said Big Baz. The over-hang of his gut wobbled with rage. Luke could see his skin was almost as red as his shirt.

‘Look,’ said Luke, trying not to show his fear, ‘I’m just looking for a pint and we can sort this all out. Okay? Who wants a pint? On me.’

Shane couldn’t look at Luke; he turned away and tears dripped onto the pool-table as he shook his head.

Nobody made a move, but then the landlord, Big Steve The Stoner, produced from under the bar a hastily fashioned effigy, wearing a City shirt, held up by a broom handle stuck in its backside.

‘This is you, Judas. You’re just paper, straw and cardboard in this place now.’ Men in red shirts all nodded, grunting their agreement.

A passerby would later tell the fire-brigade that the door flew open and a guy in a blue football shirt shot out at top speed. The burning effigy hit the door as it slammed shut behind him, burning down the pub.