Unspeakable

The wife-to-be is quite fond of faggots. Me, I’m not so sure. I mean, some things just bring up long-embedded reactions. Thoughts of toffs bullying young fags in Tom Brown’s School Days, or bundles of twigs piled under heretics who will not recant before the flames consume them.

Small boy has a much older boy as his fag

I know words have several meanings but I can’t quite get my head around the idea that my fiancé finds comfort in little rissoles made of offal and offcuts named after, well…

It turns out they’re a speciality of her homeland, the English Midlands, traditionally eaten with gravy, mash and peas. Like bound twigs, they are bundles of otherwise worthless bits. Pig’s liver, heart and shoulder with herbs and breadcrumbs. A gutless English haggis, if you will.

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The name makes sense. The first printed use was in 1843 when a local paper noted some fat bugger had eaten 20 of them. Clearly some feat.

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The word comes from Latin fascis ‘bundle of wood’ and is related to the Roman symbol of authority and punishment, the fasces; an axe bound in a bundle of rods. The rods for whipping, axe for beheading. The Italian fascists took their name from it believing it showed how the bound cause of the many confers unbreakable strength (which sounds much like an argument of their communist foe.)

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Unlike that other great fascist symbol, the swastika, the fasces did not fall from favour, and is still proudly displayed by the US government.

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Of course, the humble faggot can have other meanings. Facebook has banned English users from talking about their meaty treat because of this. Ads that play on the name have also been supressed.

Words can be tricky. Some people can say them, sometimes. Others cannot. It depends on where you live, who you are. Borders and rules are shifty.

This struck me last month while listening to podcasts about the celebrated Dam Busters raid. It is 75 years since that audacious attack on the heart of Nazi Germany when the leader, Guy Gibson, chose the name of his beloved dog as the code-word for success. It was a common, affectionate name in 1940s England. My English father had a cocker spaniel with the same name at the same time. But the BBC did not dare mention the dog’s name. They simply referred to “Gibson’s dog” or “the dog’s name”.

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The word has an ugly history. Abuse. Reclamation. Suppression. Cultural imperialism and bias. Its use, or absence, is fraught with problems. The great wordsmith Stephen Fry is writing a script for the Peter Jackson remake of the 1955 film. All people can talk about is whether the dog should be named or renamed.

There is no easy answer. History happened, and should not be ignored. Brave young men gave their lives on the raid and thousands of innocents, woman and children and enslaved labourers, died in their beds. Whose story is it?

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The American history of slavery has not ended. The debate in the US over the unspeakable word bleeds into the rest of the world. No one’s hands are clean. I learned this when the UK treasury tweeted that anyone who paid taxes in the UK up to 2015 had helped end slavery!, based on the fact that repayments on reparations paid out in 1835 had just been completed, 180 years later.

It was an appalling twisting of words. The £20 million (£200 billion or US$405 billion today) was paid not to the former slaves, but to their owners. Half went to just 6% of the claimants, a despicable roll-call of Britain’s future elite. To make it worse, the money was clawed back through taxes on everyday goods, making the many pay for the sins of the few.

The fact that every time I had a pint or a pub lunch in the UK before 2015 played into this sick abuse is hard to swallow. It makes me feel angry and ill.

The persistent call in the US for reparations for the victims of slavery is usually met with derision. It cannot be afforded, is undeserved. That is nonsense.

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I have heard the iniquitous use of the unspeakable word, in songs and movies, justified by black musicians as their right in lieu of reparations. I can sing it, say it, but you can’t, is said seriously, and with a smile. I respect that greatly.

But American history is not world history. The imperial reach of their media should not swamp the nuance of different cultures and taste.

Black US forces fought the Nazis in Europe and famously experienced a freedom that did not exist at home, the so-called ‘land of the free’. The British refused to bow to American racism.

The only time they ever did was in the war of 1812 when captured white American sailors demanded they were segregated from their fellow combatants while imprisoned in Britain. It was a foreign concept on British soil. The black prisoners amused themselves while waiting for freedom by staging a production of Romeo and Juliet. There’s a book about it, a film to follow.

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Some things are hard to swallow but Shakespeare, that great Midlands lover of words and nuance, was adept at throwing bits of this and that together to turn the unpalatable and mundane into an experience that transcends the simple definition of words. It is part of his undying genius.

To the Bard, the world was never black and white. And he probably also liked faggots.

 

And hark ye, sirs; because she is a maid,
Spare for no faggots, let there be enough.

                                     -Henry VI Part 1

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Museum Piece

Swayed into… town.

It was windy. Dark. Not a night to be out. I leaned into the gusts to make headway through the blasts screaming around the waterfront.

Not your usual Friday night, I was meeting an old bandmate to go to a museum. At the counter of the gift-shop I pulled out my phone, ready to swipe/show/swipe the Q-Code emailed to me when I booked the tickets, but the flummoxed person in the black Wellington Museums polo shirt just asked my name, crossing it off the list with ruler and pen. Just like the old days, name on the door, 21st century technology not required.

The Bond Store building is one of New Zealand’s most architecturally significant buildings, according to the website, full of Wellington Harbour history and artefacts. I had been there once, many years ago, before I picked up sticks and shifted here.

Swayed into town
Feet can glide along
Don’t know my way round
Sideways, forwards, backwards, uphill, all the way down
Standing… still

Me and my old gat-man mate had each paid $15 to see some relics of NZ’s post-punk history playing the old songs, once more, for old folk. We walked past the bottles, jars and ropes hidden behind glass, down towards the music.

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Peter Jefferies was playing piano, singing, engaging the audience with his easy humour, getting everyone to clap along. It felt like we were in a bunker where the past never passed. Solid beams of giant native timber felled in the 1800s still stood, the valuable imported goods they protected long gone.

This is like being in the Cavern, my mate said. Yip, I agreed, but with green lasers drawing patterns on the backs and faces of the dark, intense figures.

And this could be anywhere
And this could be anyone else

It was jammed. The floor covered in people sitting, immobile. The edges crammed with those standing, trying to find a spot to see the music. No one could dance. Still, some bobbed their heads, others dared to sway.

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We found a place at the back by a display case of old guitars and pedals from the 1960s. An exhibition of Kiwi music had been pushed aside to accommodate the punters. Weta guitars. 1964 Burns Marvin, played on stage by the Avengers. Mustang Fuzz Box. Gunn Octivider. Plug in and go!

No more getting in the way now
Not returnable incomplete

There were songs I knew, Caroline’s Dream, Chris Matthews growling and slashing, a treat to hear live. Immigration Song, with one of the best openings in a rock song ever. The noise and demand matching anything from 1950s Sun Studios or 60s proto-punk for sheer surprise and energy.

Swayed into town…

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We heard about the gig from NZ’s top spy boss (name withheld). He had got the Intel on the gig the old way. Saw a poster in the street. Let us know by email. He shook my hand and said me and my mate should play some songs from our old noisy band. We were, after-all, 2/3s present.

Yes, the bits of This Kind of Punishment, Children’s Hour and Nocturnal Projections on stage were proportionally lesser fractions, but they added up to way more. Why else would a couple of hundred old codgers go into town on a Friday night to stick cigarette filters in their ears and guzzle from white cans marked ‘Beer’?

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By 10pm they had finished. A Blues band prepared to take the stage. I had no interest. I could no longer stand around inside in my head, sifting through the past. My legs hurt. I wanted to go home, to sleep.

Left outside their houses while sitting inside of themselves
Harmony’s disorder
Ritual’s in sleep
Making endless promises you somehow believe you will keep
Any day now…
Sometime next week

Immigration Song – This Kind of Punishment

Standing Up

I was alone in the house, thinking about something I wanted to write, composing words of little consequence in my head, when something funny happened. I had just stepped outside to check on the washing, riffing away at gags and observations, when I heard a noise behind me that I didn’t recognise. A soft, woody, clicking.

It was the feathers of a fantail, flitting gently around the room. Long tail hanging down below.

Oh, I said. Oh, aloud, following its flight.

I have come to be nervous of birds in the house. They panic, throw themselves against the windows. Shit on the curtains. But the piwakawaka did exactly what fantails do. It calmly flew three circles of the space, aware that windows are not exits, and then it bobbled past me, out into the afternoon sun.

I quickly shut the door.

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It is 17 years since I last saw that. I was starting a writing course in Timaru. A fantail flew into the kitchen, circled the light three times, and headed straight out into the garden. My flatmate, another writer, was uncertain. She thought it meant death. Something to do with their role in the death of Maui when he sought immortality. I swiftly made the point, rightly or not, that such events are also seen as a portent of rebirth, the start of something new. We were to write. Add words to the world.

As I recalled that moment, our recently returned long-lost cat appeared at the door, shouting to get in. Too much. Meke tu meke.

 

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I had wanted to write about the poet I saw last night. The two poets I saw last night. How it was 2/3 performance, 1/3 poetry. How funny they were. John Cooper Clarke and Andrew Fagan. I liked it so much I even bought the Ramones-inspired tour t-shirt and started to write garbled poems in my head, humorous and wry. Words the world is not waiting for, does not need, but I have to express.

 

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I had recently been thinking about giving stand-up a crack. It’s something I haven’t done. Not bucket-list but a bit of a lacuna. I’ve written a set and am trying to pluck up the courage to give it a bash. The thought terrifies me. I’ve often had the urge, having worked on so many live stand-up shows, but felt I was too much of an actor and/or writer, needing control of words.

Last month, when I saw a wonderful young actor do a solo show that was as much stand-up as theatre, I resolved to try my hand. I am nearly 51, how bad can it be?

I have read my ropey poems live, shaking in my boots. It really does happen. The anxiety was worse than theatre or playing in a band. You are totally naked. A performer and writer with no loud music, drama or drums, make-up or guitars to hide behind. Just you and your words. And a mic.

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Maybe that is why both poets last night, 70s punk and 80s pop star, both employed costumes, patter and props, jokes and gags. It wasn’t stand-up, it was funnier than that. I smiled and laughed the whole time as they entertained the beautiful, packed historic church and offended the young.

I don’t know if I have the guts to act like a stand-up comedian. But I can be a funny poet. Maybe I could blend the parts into something new, born of me. A brash bird no longer bashing against windows it cannot see.

I want to flit about new spaces, unafraid of any threat, confident that the door remains exactly where it was when I came in.

 

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Beyond Doubt

It’s hard to accept absence as loss. There is no way to mark the grief of the inexplicable. You seek multiple explanations and none satisfies, or offers true relief.

You can bury a squashed cat or one that doesn’t come back from the vet. You can cry and move on.

But a cat that just disappears, leaving no hint or trace, stays curled up like a knot.

Thomas disappeared five and half weeks ago. The girls have wandered the neighbourhood and left notices in letter boxes. The have lit candles in the window each night to guide him home. We have all been a bit scratchy, unable to grieve.

At first, I told the girls that he may have found a nice old lady, who would give him too much food whenever he squawked. They liked that.

Once he was gone a month, the tears started. Hope was gone. We decided that we needed a wee ceremony, to bid him farewell. But when?

This weekend, we stayed with good friends out of town. They have dogs and a cat, pigs, sheep and chooks. I had intended to bring our huge bag of cat food that sat in the cupboard, waiting for Thomas to return.

I remembered it when Polly, their fluffy cat, rubbed against me. That led to talk of Thomas. Theories of what happened. Bad dogs. Bad kids. A fast car slept in to far-far away.

I repeated my theory that he hadn’t been well for weeks. The exceptionally hot summer had hit him hard, he constantly complained, unable to settle; had begun to look like a crooked old cat.

From the start, I believed that he had crawled under a bush and gone to sleep, searching for peace from whatever ailment was going on inside.

This morning, five and a half weeks after he vanished, the unimaginable happened. Thomas emerged from a bush, unable to shut-up, squawking and loud, ready to take command of the house once more. I filled his bowl with the biscuits I forgot to re-gift and he gobbled them between screaming meows.

It is unbelievable. I am so glad we didn’t say good-bye.

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Doubting Thomas

Last night I did something I never do. I posted a photo of our cat on social media. He was curled up in the way-too-small box he’s been trying to sit in all week. He has attempted resting his chin on the flimsy flaps but his head tips over when he falls asleep. He has twisted and folded trying to tuck in his head, but his tail or a shoulder always popped out.

It’s been very entertaining. What did cats do before boxes? Which came first, the cat or the box? The philosophical enquiry has been endless.

Thomas loves boxes. But each affair has only ever lasted a few days before the claws came out and rough-love was applied, shredding the cardboard; un-boxing the box.

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I’ve always loved cats. They seem to love me. Sometimes a bit too much. Cats want to chat with me, jump on my back, or sit on my lap. It’s been a point of repeated jealousy from friends and lovers. I always say it’s because I’m part cat. Or some sort of very cat-like dog. Maybe I was a can of sardines in a past life.

When I posted the picture of Thomas, stubbornly content in his box, my partner said, “You will get lots of likes for that”. I did. In bed I showed her the pictures two friends had posted of their cats who had recently moved on. They were great final portraits.

20180302_085132Cats are funny things. Two weeks ago, on the last full moon, the witchy-poos I live with put all their crystals outside on a bed of salt in order to soak up the moon’s energy. Thomas spent the whole day sleeping below them on a hard wooden bench he had never favoured.

 

Over the week me and my sisters sat with our dying father, we repeatedly tried to get the facility’s so-called ‘Death Cat’ to come into the room to help Dad find peace. After five nights it finally did; to sit on my lap.

This morning, after my fiancé left for work, she sent a text saying Thomas had not come in for his breakfast. That is unusual. He is always at our bedroom door by 5am, demanding a fussing, or in the kitchen screaming at her feet for food.

It made me worried. He has never wandered. He only went missing when he got hit by a car, using up eight lives. His head was so misshapen he couldn’t eat for a long time, and we thought his handsome good looks were gone and he would never be right.

But Thomas is Thomas, a cat like no other. After escaping, and losing, three ‘cones of shame’ he was once more boss of the house, seeing off every other wandering cat in the neighbourhood so that he could stalk birds, mice, lizards and rats in peace.

As soon as the girls got up this morning I asked Alice, Thomas’s proud ‘wife’, to press the button to open the garage door below us, not saying why. I knew that if he had been trapped downstairs we all would have heard about it but, nevertheless, I still hoped to hear him barrel through the cat-flap straight after the button was pressed.

I said nothing about his absence as the three girls ate their porridge. But as Alice was washing her bowl she said, “There’s Thomas!”

I looked out the window and said, “Where?” masking the panic and relief in my voice. I couldn’t see him. “Where, Alice?”

“The birds. What are they?” She pointed at a sudden cloud of sparrows. I had shown her how the cleverer birds warn the flock of his lurking presence. Sparrows flap up and cheep. Starlings swoop and squawk. Seagulls fuss.

“They’re sparrows, Al. Did you see him, did you actually see Thomas?”

“No. But the birds mean he’s there. In the bushes.”

I turned away and began to dry the dishes.

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After the girls headed off to school, happily unaware, I began to feel superstitious. His obsession with the box was a foreshadowing. I had empowered it by sharing a photo of him and his box, accompanying it with too-cute words in his voice. And by showing my fiancé the two final portraits I had seen. Two.

All writers are superstitious. Even atheists. Especially spiritual atheists.

Like my favourite author, John Irving, I often put my greatest fears on the page in order to rob them of actualization. Saying things out loud can defuse the trapped, amplified rattle of the head.

Before I sat to write, I replied to my fiancé’s worried text with a cheery ‘Will do!’ (Smiley face). She called back straight away, asking if it was time to call the vets. “Why, what can they do?” I asked.

“In case any cats have been brought in. He wasn’t on the road as I left…” That had been my worry. That the girls would find him as they walked down the hill.

“He’s only been missing for a few hours. That’s not enough even for a human.” She laughed, reassured.

I started to write.

 

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Reading Minds

I used to work in a job where people read books. Some read them on their devices, but most brought along actual books. Books they loved.

This wasn’t the distant past. People also chatted, messed around on phones or flicked through magazines. Some preferred to close their eyes and escape the day. But most chose to read books.

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As a writer, I always asked what they were reading, and why. It was a good way to relax them, to take their mind off the 16-gauge needle I was about to slide into their arm. It also helped me understand readers better. Were they reading for distraction or passion, to acquire knowledge and understanding, or to simply affirm their beliefs?

Once, a woman proudly said she only read non-fiction, because she didn’t want to waste her time on things that weren’t true. She was reading a book by a famous TV medium. The irony lingered briefly in her eyes before disappearing into enthusiasm.

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One of the truisms of reading is that women read more fiction than men, and that men read less fiction as they get older. And even though I was always a big reader (and writer) of fiction, this has happened to me, accelerating with the age of demanding devices and constant distraction. Now, I have to make myself read, to regain the lost joy of reading.

I’m reading a novel about astronauts practicing to go to Mars, and another told by Shakespeare’s little brother. They’re cracking reads, full of exciting science and history, insight and humour, beauty and pain, but my phone constantly lures me away with its tantalising chimera of connection.

This morning, I avoided reading a novel by scanning an article about Quorn. It is set to become the first multi-billion dollar alt-food. It is not meat. It is not even a plant. It is an ultra-processed mould, which is not how it is marketed. I like having an alternative to meat, but anything ultra-processed is not food.

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I then read an article about how the human brain has shrunk by 20% in the last 30,000 years, mirroring the process of domestication. Domestic animals don’t need to think, we do it for them, defining their needs. Settling down into civilisation has done the same to us. We don’t need to know how to hunt and gather, so our hungry brains (which take the lion’s share of our blood and energy) have withered.

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And it’s not just food that we have outsourced. We all used to sing, tell stories, entertain and attract potential mates. We now leave that to our betters.

Algorithms can predict what we will like before we have had a chance to form an opinion. They know what will engage and enrage us.

Neanderthals had much bigger brains than modern humans. They needed it to thrive in a pretty tough environment, so they were probably cleverer than us. Which goes against our naturally self-aggrandising assumptions, since we see no Neanderthals walking in the street, or on Twitter.

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But current estimates reckon about 40% of Neanderthal DNA lives on in us, in different little bits, spread throughout the population. You and I have about 2%, but no one knows exactly what it is doing. Hopefully we possess part of their cleverness. Maybe their love of art or dress sense. Early human cave paintings in Iberia have recently been attributed to them, not us. Maybe they gave us storytelling, music; a sense of the divine. It seemed to suddenly appear in humans 50,000 years ago, when we came face-to-face with our big-brained cousins.

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Reading novels increases human empathy. This is a measurable fact. Maybe that is why women read more novels then men. That is my speculation. But I know for a fact that the people I stuck needles into for 7 years read more novels than any other type of media. They gave of their time, body and blood, for people they didn’t know. Because they cared.

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I’ve started reading novels again. Because you are what you eat, and fiction matters. Because we live in a world where a semi-literate clown can be elected to great power while spurning truth and novels.

Fiction, like a good meal, makes me feel better about myself and the world. That is something that rarely happens when I stare at a device.

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Being a Pain

People love pain. They seek it as entertainment, strive to share their hurt with the world while simultaneously blocking out the agony of those they do not care for. I’m not referring to the action movies and S&M ‘romances’ that dominate the entertainment industry, I’m thinking about the emotional turmoil that fills every story clamouring to hold an audience. Betrayals, failures, conflict and loss all plod along this troubled path to redemption.

Writers are told there is no drama without conflict, even in a humorous romantic comedy.

Beyond the entertainment industry heartfelt blogs create windows into personal pain, grief, the search for love, oncoming death, physical and mental struggle. Everywhere you look people share their pain or the pain of others. Otherwise caring people seem to have no qualms about calling down retribution on those they believe deserve it, clamouring to cast the first stone, share the petition, add volume to the tweet.

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I recently read an article about a prize for thrillers free of the torment of women. It seems a great idea. The Staunch Prize will be awarded to any thriller where no woman is beaten, stalked, raped or murdered.

I generally steer clear of thrillers. As a reader, I have always been repulsed by the infliction of violence. Yes, the device makes the tormentor more evil, ripe for retribution, but I also find the baddie getting their just desserts just as sickening. To me, there is an equivalence that cannot be ignored, and the need for it as entertainment is just as repulsive.

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Many people believe that the depiction of violence towards women in movies and books, games and TV, are the first step towards actual abuse. Study after study has found some linkage, but not for the over-whelming majority. However, for me, it doesn’t matter if little correlation is found between the consumption of violent entertainment and acting it out, the telling point is the deep-seated human need to ‘enjoy’ the fantasy of pain.

One of the quirks of this conundrum is that the victims of violence are the greatest consumers of violent fiction. Women read far more books than men, thrillers included. One explanation is that women like this fiction because it rehearses the real threat they face in society. By reading such thrillers their fear is rehearsed, guarded against, assuaged. That may be true. Maybe there is an untapped market for thrillers where no one is tormented. Or just children, animals and men. Or the environment.

But when you ally emotional pain with physical pain, it is hard not to see the need deeply embedded in all our desires for communication and entertainment.

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Gossip, tweets and status updates. The names of dead loved-ones tattooed on arms and backs, written on cars. Loss is not just consigned to a tombstone or the Day of the Dead, but must be displayed to the world at every moment, anniversary or birthday.

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If you feel pain at the actions or words of others, does sharing that pain increase, or decrease it? It depends.

Catharsis and revenge provide equal amounts of relief and turmoil.

Is watching a movie where a stranger struggles with an emotionally difficult choice any different from watching one where a woman is pursued? Are we any different from those gathering to witness a criminal or heathen torn apart in the Colosseum, or on YouTube?

Yes. And no.

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