Good & Evil

Remember that I’m not writing this for you. It’s for me. I’m not trying to help you – there’s plenty of others that can do that if they’ve got the time when they should be writing – or doing something else that might get them somewhere. We all need to help ourselves, and that’s what I’m doing: I’m doing this to help myself because at the moment things don’t seem to be rolling all that well. 

I need some oil on the crankshaft and a bit of a squirt in the pistons. It’s seizing up and I hate that. 

I was thinking about good and evil, those two stalwart and go-to labels that we use as an explanation for all the things we don’t understand.  

Good, ok. We want this one. We can be friends here because we could all do with a little more of this in the world. But don’t be fooled. This is over-used and an excuse. In my family of fools the term good is used all the time to justify stupid mistakes and general obtuseness; you know like the sort of mistake that could easily be avoided with a little bit of reflection or, god forbid, a bit of advice. 

They don’t do advice all that well in my family. It’s a weakness, see. So when they get shafted by the nice man at the door who looks like he’s so nice and so good but actually all he’s doing is making them think that he likes them. And that’s all they really want in this over-baked and shit-smelling world, is for someone to tell them that they’re liked.  

Oh he was a lovely man. He had good in his eyes. 

I tell them; I tell them time and time and time again that they shouldn’t be suckered into by people who want you to think that they like you because they’re preying. The trouble is that, because I don’t make as much effort to make them that think that I like them, (generally because I don’t), they take more notice of the smiling stranger at the door. It’s an opinion and where I come from there’s an awful lot of weight put into those. Often it’s all people have that they have some sort of a control on. Even more often, it’s a fixed thing. Immovable because to change an opinion is like taking advice: it’s weak.  

When he scams them they get defensive first of all and they shout me down because I knew all along and why didn’t I do something to stop him. And then this good man is suddenly evil. An evil man. 

Now I hate this idea more than I hate the idea of the good man. I hate the use of the term evil because what it does is passes on the responsibility to somewhere else. It puts the situation into a box that doesn’t need any sort of analysis of explanation because to call something evil is enough. It alludes to all the things that are evil. It puts them in that box so that when we say 

Oh he was an evil man. I see it now in his eyes. 

It takes away the responsibility and removes the idiot to the status merely of victim. Poor victim. Has the man changed? Nope. 

I hate that. I hate it because it fails to face up to the reality and it means that people never get to move on. The religious connotations remove the responsibility of actually facing the truth that this man was and is a human being and that he, as a human being, has done something bad to me, as a human being. It would be so much easier to dehumanise this challenge and deal with it as a separate entity that has no place here on this world and that I am simply unlucky. 

But that is simply not good enough. It’s the sort of shit that the Bible still spouts after all this time and the sort of shit that people who lack the intelligence or courage to face up to the truth come up with. Remove the unfortunate event from the daily level of things – it has no place there – and make it a beast. An anomaly that can be put safely in its box and forgotten about. Until next time. 

The thing spirals and it works on the macro as well as the micro. Hitler. We call him evil and nobody argues with that (we’re not allowed to argue with that sort of thing); people look at ancient cultures that killed off the elderly when they get old or ate dogs and horses; the vegans call the rest of us evil and there are few politicians or businessmen or pop stars who haven’t been called evil at some stage or another.  

Truth is, it comes down to opinion. Hitler thought he was doing the world a favour. I’d like to have thought that someone could have taken him aside and explained to him that 

Mate, what you’re doing, it’s fucking terrible. It’s misguided and most of the world thinks you’re wrong. The people who follow you, they’re doing it because they’re scared and they need their jobs. Adolf, you might like it but the world’s diverse. It’s full of people of all sorts of colours and beliefs and each of them, just like you, has a view. An opinion of the way things should be. What you’re doing: it ain’t going to work. It just ain’t. And also – get over yourself.  

Instead they called him evil and that missed out the whole dialogue and meant that no one was actually questioning how a human being was capable of doing what he was doing. It dehumanised him, made him a monster and therefore gave him justification to carry on. 

Look at the current president. Many people don’t like him or the things that he does. Often they call him evil even though they know that he’s actually a person with different views to their own. If enough people band together and say that his opinions are different to their own then it becomes accepted that he is wrong and they are write. 

It’s just opinion. There’s over 7 billion of the fucking things on the planet. Deal with it and make yours count. Don’t make monsters of people because that’s easier than challenging the human being.   

Beauty

How do we write about beauty? How do we describe what beauty is? 

I am nervous about the next chapter because it involves meeting the girl that has been on my mind since I knew her twenty years ago. She was very beautiful then but over time and the scourging effect that comes with time, she is now polished to beyond perfect. It is ironic that I now have to rough her up a bit to make her more human; more convincing. 

A conundrum is the concern about what I see as beauty and where or not this connects with the reader. I suppose the biggest fault would be to read what everyone else has done from Shakespeare to Laurence and Nabakov to Atwood and whoever else seems to make a success of it. 

But that is a fault and it’s not the way to go. If it goes that way then it becomes the beauty through someone else’s eyes and I lose my character. Beauty is not the same thing for different eyes or minds. It is a sandcastle made of a million pieces for a million reasons. 

My Lolly does not dress beautifully and there is no make-up. She is a young girl at the very threshold of womanly beauty at an age where these things tend to matter. But they don’t matter to her. She wears no fancy jewels on her ears or heels beneath her feet and her hair, darker than the mountain night, is often tied in a rough plait or ponytail so that it doesn’t get in the way as she does the things she needs to do about the house and in the garden. She wears a plain silver chain from which hangs a strange serpentine symbol and on her wrist is a simple copper band. 

She smells of soap. Of clean. And her skin, maybe thanks to the fresh and caressing air up there, is smooth and the colour of autumn straw. Darker than the pale faces of the other inhabitants of this wild place and hinting at some ancestral mystery somewhere down the line. Hey eyebrows are dark as her hair and shadow eyes that are wide and alert and hazel with the slightest hint of emerald, though the interested observer would not that this has the tendency to change with her mood. The nose is small and delicate and the lips carry their own cherry hue that requires no artificial enhancement.  

She is more accustomed to scowling than smiling but when she does smile her teeth show white and sharp and the countenance is surprised at the strange emotion evoked, so it barely lasts long. The beholder of Lolly’s smile is lucky indeed.  

Making Hay

The heavy, debilitating cold that I thought was going to strike me down for the next week has departed as quickly as it surfaced and I am glad. Not so much that I feel better and can breathe properly, but more that the rhythm and momentum that I’ve built up hasn’t come grinding to a halt. I hate that. Everything stops, all the good stuff goes out the window and then the slow process has to start all up again when I’m better. And it’s never the same as what it was maybe going to be before. 

I’m making progress with the latest project and this is a breakthrough. I have berated myself for years at how unproductive I am during term-time. It’s like my job is one massive procrastination and I can justify my existence simply through working my arse off in my classroom.  

Has been that I wait in anticipation for the end of term to come and then spend the little slice of time where my girls are still at school to write furiously throughout the days that I steal back. It is wildly productive and virtually all of my writing to date has come from those brief snatches of time. What I’ve always known, though, is that these periods are not enough.  

My waking life is full of the desire to shape the old ideas that float about in my mind and the new ones that are thrown at me by the world. Until recently it was enough to journal it all out of my system for some unseen descendant to pick up and maybe bother to appreciate. It takes the edge off but it’s nowhere near enough. 

So I steal time now – I journal when I can between lessons and I sketch out ideas for the latest post. I let my days happen and I enjoy my work. I know the most wonderful young people and I’m fortunate to have them listen to me. When the day ends I pick up my own wonderful girls and we do the things that need to be done in the evenings through the week: clubs and duties and visits and whatever: the bits and pieces that life is made of.  

We eat and laugh and read and play together and when they’re gone to bed and the house breathes its tired and contented sigh I sit at my desk in the room off to the left of the hallway; the room that looks out over the front and away to the church tower, and I settle into my writing. I post my blog if there’s one to go and then I get serious with whatever project I’m on. At the moment it’s Lolly.  

I write until 11 every night and in compensation I allow myself a little lie-in until 6.10, rather than the 5.40 that i had been used to. 

I sleep like a baby and my dreams are fed by the ideas that I have stirred up. I wake with purpose knowing that my day has a rhythm and that I am writing during term time. 

Breathe

All I did today was breathe and remember to breathe again after. I did that and it worked. I got through the day and now it’s night and I don’t feel too bad. 

The head is still muzzy and there’s some new blockage behind my nose, but I think I’ll pull through. If could think straight I would write straight. But maybe this is the chance to catch up on a couple of ideas that I never got down over the past few days. One of the points of this blog was that I’d tell my truth as it sauntered along, but also that I would capture the world a little bit as it is as I write. 

Brxt. I hate the real world so I say it vowellessly through gritted teeth and everyone knows what I mean. In decades it will be talked about the way that we still talk about the wars and the Titanic. We will explain it when we’re old with wonder that the youngsters can’t grasp what it was like, just as I switch off when the old folks talk about Kennedy or the ‘66 world cup. 

I voted for it. I did. And I’m glad that it’s happened, even though the process was the biggest fuckaroo that I have ever know and made my country a bit of a laughing stock. But I’ll explain if you’ll let me because I’m not one of those obtuse and ill-informed voices that bleat about too many Bulgarians or the influx of immigrants. I’d like to control the borders a bit more, sure, but human migration and the changing demography of the planet is a part of the natural process of the world. We won’t change it. Spain is full of Brits and ask India what it was like there during the Raj. I respect people who want to work for their pay. Who want to earn respect and build a life. I don’t care where they’re from or what colour their skin is. I tell my girls that they should judge people on their actions and not the things that they have no control over. 

At the same time, though, I am tired of the floppy liberal/left approach to the latest global events and the seeping assumption that a popular social-media voice is the voice of the people. I’m no great fan of Trump, but I hate the assumption that the right thing to do is to hate him. I abhor the assumption that everyone who voted for Brxt is a racist homophobe. I hate that assumption and I hate that assumptions like this are even allowed the time of day. I guess people need the comfort of following something.  

In my profession it’s not easy to step outside of the majority socialist voice. The newspapers they spread around the staffroom; the vitriol that is preached to the kids in assembly. I’m not always in disagreement with the principle of a lot of it but it’s the assumption of my support and comradeship that I can’t stand. But hear their sharp intakes of breath when I mention it… 

I speak a couple of languages. I have straight forward under-educated untravelled white parents, now divorced. I was taken on holiday to Spain twice and France twice as a child. My granddads fought in the war and worked in factories. At least one of them was a staunch labour supporter and my parents never had anything useful to say about politics. 

I paid my way through college and am still, fifteen years later, paying for my university education. Some of it I spent in France to add to the two years that I lived in that beautiful country and served in a city-centre bar. I was a citizen there; I paid my taxes there; I ate the food, drank the wine and loved the women. I know La Marseillaise off by heart and I sing it whenever I hear it. 

La France est en moi. La France sera toujours en moi. 

I am married to an Italian woman. I each in an international school; this summer I taught in Africa and I am smitten by the foreign literature of Russia and India. I love these places because of their difference; because of the uniqueness of the culture as it has evolved in ways different to mine; the ways that the people think, pour their beer, make love. It is the differences that unite us because we must make efforts to understand rather than replicate and compete. 

For me the European project was the assimilation of nations that are each and all so rich in their own ancient cultures; the brutal dilution of traditions that have taken aeons to evolve. For me the European project is like collecting together the most beautiful clocks. Grandfather clocks and Napoleon clocks and carriage clocks and cuckoo clocks – all the sorts of beautifully crafted clocks that you can imagine, all hand-made and hand wound and ticking their own near-perfect time and then deciding, declaring, that these clocks are all too different from one another. Declaring that the old machinery must be pulled out and electric clocks installed and synchronised instead. 

It would keep a better universal time and the maintenance would be easier. People would be kept to the same perfect rhythm and I see why that might appeal to some people. But it’s not for me. I embrace difference and I think that maybe it borders of racist to suggest that nations must ditch their currency; must adopt rules that contravene their own standards and must bow to a new flag. 

Nah. Sorry.    

These are the times

These are the times. It feels like someone large and immobile is sitting on my chest; like fat hands are restricting by breathing and that wads of cotton have been stuffed behind my nose. It feels like my eyes are weighted and there’s a constant battle to keep them open. When they’re closed they sting. I can’t think straight; I could sleep right now until Wednesday; the suggestion of work tomorrow, the nine o’clock sixteen year-olds on Romantic poetry seem so absurd that I want to laugh out loud. Like as if that’s going to happen..! 

But it will because this is the real bits of life that gets squeezed into the cracks as we look busy about other things. These are the times that the truth comes out and the times where I really need to write. Writing can’t just be when the energy levels say it’s ok; when there’s the perfectly proportioned slot of time; when the mind has space. Writing, if it’s anything at all, does its best to capture life from all angles. It has to if it wants to be believed and trusted. Writing, they say, is not something that you do – it is something that you live and if you are afflicted with it then it must happen, whatever. 

I could be in front of the fire now; it is Sunday evening and there’s plenty of crap on the television I could be watching. There’s a comfy sofa across the hall and a selection of blankets that I could be curled up into. But I’m here in the study at the desk and only the faint murmur of the television drifts in. From time to time the lights of a car float past the window. The girls are asleep in bed. 

The clock ticks and that is my rhythm. I have no time to waste curled up on the sofa. I would not be happy with myself tomorrow if I did that. 

I have work to do. I am trying to get a grip on Lolly, though I know that such is she that I’m not really meant to. I don’t want her summed up and that ambiguity is not easy to capture. It is a paradox. I want the words that I write to capture this feisty, naughty, sensuous little minx but the picture that I want I want to paint of her is a character that can’t be captured or pinned down. 

The picture that I bought from the Mallorca market this summer survived the trip and has been on top of one of the bookshelves ever since. I pulled it down and put it in a frame yesterday and now it’s on the desk in front of me. It is Lolly. It is my muse. In the crowded marked at Sa Coma in the heat of the night and dizzy with food and wine she caught my eye. The girls were having Henna tattoos and I wandered alone. It is a favourite pass time of mine to wander aimless and alone. I think you can’t get lost when you’re on your own. (I actually don’t think that, but rather you can find your way out of it without anyone knowing when you’re on your own. Or you can stay lost and pretend to the world that you know where you’re going just by holding up your head)  

Lolly was there on a stand selling prints. The most rudimentary of stalls: steel bars pinned with cardboard; prints gripped with clothes pegs. The smell of leather from the handbag stall next-door. Lolly looking down the floor as she pinned back her hair; a lock falling above her eyes and her shirt open enough to see the suggestion of a woman. She is dark; I know that the eyes would be dark if she looked up at me and if that shirt would move just a little more I would be satisfied. But she is frozen and as yet has not looked me in the eye. 

It is February and I have to keep the momentum going. I feel like shit after all that’s been going on and generally not feeling well…I’m not telling you this for sympathy but to make a point …that these are the times to get up and writing. Who knows what the fuck might come out. 

January was productive. I’m a couple of chapters in and I posted 25 times. It is small beer but still a good start. Maybe one day someone will get in touch.

Africa Reflections 2

It hadn’t rained for two years when we arrived in Zambia. From the aeroplane we got a sense of the bigness; the flatness; the unending wildness of the country and on the runway as we waited for another plane a mini tornado kicked up red dust and moved it somewhere else. The dust, we were soon to discover, found its way in to every crevice and cranny and most of us are still finding traces of it half a year later. It is a red dust and unmistakably African; it turns up in the most unlikely of places: a pencil case or a pair of socks; in the folds of clothes that we haven’t worn since the summer. And with each grain of dust comes a tiny memory of the adventure that we had. 

I could stand here and talk about the Africa that you might already know about; that some of you might even have even experienced, because we saw all of that. We were driven through wild bushland while impala grazed and warthogs nuzzled at the ground; we sat in nervous silence while a family of lions yawned and pawed at each other and we ate breakfast as monkeys swung in the branches above us and giraffes contorted their improbable frames to drink on the far side of the river. While we slept in our tents we were serenaded by the belching of hippos and felt the ground tremble as elephants sauntered by. I could tell about the sunsets we saw over the Zambezi or how we felt the mist of Victoria Falls on our faces while the locals sold us ironwood figures and made us their friends. 

But all of that, wonderful as it was, you could buy. You could go and see it tomorrow, if you wanted to. 

What I want to tell you about is the things that we hadn’t expected; the things that no money could buy and the things that changed us all a little bit. I’m talking about the people and the indomitable spirit of each individual that we met. Even in George Compound, an immense sprawl of shanty dwellings on the outskirts of Zambia’s capital city Lusaka which is home to fifty thousand people: all of whom live well below the bread line. At one point we paused to watch a game of football. It was about fifty-a-side, though no one seemed to worry about that, just as not a single one of them was wearing shoes. They played with a ball made of tightly packed plastic bags that would unravel from time, pausing the game.  

On the other side of the country after a day’s bus ride along unmaintained roads we walked through a village that consisted of houses made from the earth on which they stood and were roofed with the grasses that grew nearby. There was no running water or mains electricity here but the whole place was positively opulent compared to George Compound. Within minutes we were joined by children who wanted simply to talk to us; to hold our hands; to show us their dances. One of them pushed a toy train made from empty water bottles while another moulded bricks from a muddy puddle and baked them in the sun. He was seventeen and worked for five hours each afternoon so that he could pay his school fees.  

A little way down the road was Moyo Lunga community school: a first school that welcomed the local children as the sun rose each day. It was cold in the mornings and the children turned up in scarves and jackets that were gradually shed as the day warmed up. They were learning about the natural environment; learning to spell, to read, to line up and to be responsible citizens. They sang us songs and welcomed us like old friends. When an aeroplane flew high above the yard surrounding the little school house they ran and pointed deliriously shouting “Faluy”, “Faluy”. Not one of them had ever been closer than this to an aeroplane, nor ever would.  

Those that had brought some ate lunch from plastic boxes with faded Disney characters and shared the contents with those that hadn’t any. From time to time a parent would drop by with a gift of bread for the children or would wait for the recess so that they could sweep the floor or refill the water bucket that stood in the corner of the room; it was their contribution to the upkeep of the school and the only contribution that they could make. Many of the children didn’t have parents; they were orphans supported by the charity that we stayed with. 

The children wrote studiously with nubs of pencils; they coloured and recoloured the pictures in books sent from overseas and when it was time for a test they shared test papers until there was enough money to take a trip into town to photocopy more. The teacher himself was an orphan – his parents victims of the AIDS epidemic of the eighties and nineties. Peter, his name was: a success story after a ravaged childhood. 

In the school yard stood the shell of a building that I took to be the old school room but was in fact in the process of being built in the hope that these children would have somewhere to graduate to come the next school year. From time to time a volunteer would come and scrape more soil into the brick moulds or bring scraps of wood to be turned into desks and chairs. There were no windows and no roof yet: these were things that could not be pulled out of the ground and would need outside help. And money. 

I asked how much it was going to cost to finish off the new building and realised that the phone I was carrying in my pocket had cost more.  

Blog

I’m just tapping away. Every day I get a bit of free time I squeeze out a few words, string together an sentence or two and then when there’s enough paragraphs to make up a 500 word piece, I put it on here.

It’s not for you, you know.

But I do like the thought that you’re there. You – yes. Don’t look away or keep on scrolling. I’m talking to you because you’ve taken the time to read this far.

It’s not for you but I’m really glad that you’re reading because it means that you’re curious and you’re still looking and the day we stop looking and trying and caring is the day that we may as well throw up our hands and chuck it all in.

We’re pushing back; that’s what we’re doing. Well it’s what I’m trying to do, at least. I have my views and I’m sure you do too. We’re all full of views. We’re drip-fed a constant stream of someone else’s views on an endless cycle these so that we forget they’re just views and settle into the idea that they’re the mainstream thought that we’re an outsider not to think.

I won’t waste my time fighting that. I look constantly to step outside of the circle. I teach my kids that, too: both my own kids and the ones that I teach. I encourage them to look outside of the here and now and the wall to opinions, ready-made for us, and to find the fringes of the circle: the bits that don’t tesselate. They’re very close.

Chances are that you can look outside your window right now and you’ll see a bit of it in the poking fingers of a tree or the tiniest glimpse of a distant hill or field.

So I’m taking the time out to write this to you because I think it’s simple and think you’re benefit from it. If you’ve come this far then I owe you that much at least.

Maybe drop me a line, tell me how you got on: what you saw. If you like.