Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Wednesday, 15 July 2015

30 things I’d be happy to live without if my experience of them never occurred again

While one hates to be prejudiced, one can tell an awful lot about someone from the things they buy into – what they value or don’t value, what causes and practices they feel are important or not important.

Because it’s strange and surprisingly varied the things people care about, or more to the point how much they care about them. You think you know someone and then one day, blam! They tell you they see Jeremy Kyle as a moral compass, or never really liked the Indiana Jones films. The more people you meet the more you realise everyone’s barometer of what’s normal and what matters is different, and completely relative to the circles they are moving in.

Over the years the opinions and habits of your close family and friends get drilled into you and set a benchmark; it can be bewildering and disturbing when one day you find yourself moving in slightly different circles and find people noticing an unthinking practice, interest or attitude of yours - that has never been called into question before – and flagging it up as unwise, unattractive, bizarre or in some way tut-worthy. It’s tempting to think “OMG, I am actually a freak after all and I just never realised it all these years” – but then you get to know yet another set of people and find they have yet another perspective; and you realise perhaps you should have explained to the first lot that their ideas of what is acceptable and standard perhaps really wasn’t so f***ing universal, as they thought. The weirdos.

On the other hand, something you have been ribbed for for years by your home crowd can be immediately accepted by outsiders and that is nice, isn’t it, now.

Basically everyone thinks their shit is the norm, or what should be the norm – but my gosh, we are so tied to the culture, conditions, place and time we were formed in, even if we rebel against it. As a townie, I recall just how utterly alien it was to visit my first country show, for example, as it slowly dawned on me that much of the stuff that filled the lives of these people were things I had thus far happily lived without even being aware of, let alone caring about. And exactly the same could be said of the first time I visited, say, London, with them and their “ways”.

The following is not simply a list of things I’m not interested in. There are plenty of "life encounters" I don’t hanker urgently to experience, but I understand that one day, in a different time and place, perhaps I might.

Neither is this a list of things I hate, necessarily, and neither is it exhaustive. I don’t, for example, say I could live without racism on this list, but please don’t take that to mean I love a bit of racism or, indeed, find it moreish.

These examples are not things I wish didn’t exist – I may even feel enriched for having dealt with them in the past – they are simply things I wouldn’t miss if I didn’t stumble upon them again - a mix of either that which elicits naught but the blank face and that which elicits the weary sigh. Yes, some of this may be a mark of age.

We get so involved with our little worlds, our specific set of circs, that sometimes we forget it is possible to live a perfectly happy and fulfilled life without so many of the obsessions and so much of the baggage we insist on clinging on to as supposedly so important and essential - both physically, but more importantly, mentally. The human race is nothing if not adaptable, and one man’s gold dust is another man’s sand. It may seem sad or scandalous to you, dear reader, but seriously, I’m done with this stuff. Go on, think about it – what 30 things could you choose?


1) TV soaps

2) Synthetic handclaps used as a snare drum in modern RnB songs

3) Flag-waving patriotism

4) Inspirational quotes from Marilyn Monroe

5) Unsolicited offers to tell me “what I need to do” to sort my life out

6) Queuing to get into nightclubs

7) Going into nightclubs

8) Horseradish

9) Knowledge of flower arranging

10) De-icing my car

11) Being cold in general (that’s a bold one, but I’ve thought about it some and I stand by it)

12) Street dance

13) The royal family (that’s a bold one, but I’ve thought about it some and I stand by it)

14) Autotune used for the vocal melody in modern RnB songs

15) People telling me "everything happens for a reason" (see 4)

16) "This one weird tip to getting ripped"

17) Jeremy Kyle

18) Knowledge of bread baking

19) Details of the personal life of Lauren Goodger

20) People thinking it’s a great and admirable thing to be running around trying to impress people like Alan Sugar while being generally vile, shallow, mercenary and critically lacking in self awareness

21) The phenomenon of "beard flowers"

22) The songs of the war years

23) Motivational speaking

24) Torture scenes in films (enough, already, *yawn*)

25) Films about vampires

26) Films about men who are the best at fighting and stuff

27) Austerity measures

28) Modern RnB songs

29) Football (now that’s a f***ing bold one)

30) Your shit.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The strange case of Kanye West

He took one of the biggest entourages the festival has ever seen with him to Glastonbury – and then performed virtually alone for almost two hours.

Apart from the sheer irony of that fact, Mr West’s Glastonbury performance was the man’s whole thing right there in microcosm – the sheer ego of insisting on holding a headlining slot at one of the world’s most high profile festivals on his own on an empty stage; the grand statement in artistic minimalism that only partially worked; the disjointed flow of someone insisting on doing their own thing without any concessions to the audience; the fact that he looked rather lonely and painfully like he was trying to prove something amid the grand scale of the set up... and yet - whether wholly successful or not, he undoubtedly did end up having done something really quite unique and distinctive in the history of Pyramid Stage bill-toppers.

Not Fiddy Pence

I admit that I am utterly fascinated with Kanye – equal parts appalled at the oh-so-LA materialism, arrogance and excess, amused by his repeated foot-in-mouth buffoonery and absurd pomposity but, in spite of all that, still grudgingly impressed and intrigued with his originality, balls and, let's face it, strangeness. Whilst his mass populist appeal may belie the fact, it's pretty clear by now that the guy is pretty weird.

Say what you will about Kanye, he does have an artistic vision – I suspect a lot of those who signed the 100,000-odd petition against him headlining Glasto saw him as no more than an arrogant rapper – you know, one of those hiphop types who steal other people’s records and talk over the top about cars and shooting people, whilst being frightfully disrespectful about women and overly impressed with flashy jewellery. Not like a nice "real" band who diligently learnt to play instruments quite well n that.

But oh, though. While there is plenty of hiphop trope-ery in his music (The late Lou Reed was spot on describing some of the more offensive lyrics on his Yeesus album as “it might be (funny) to a 14-year-old — but it has nothing to do with me”) Kanye is so not your typical “Fiddy Pence” hiphop cliché. The man reads up on minimalist architecture and wants to design high fashion in Paris for crying out loud. Pretty much right from the outset he distinguished himself as a bit odd and high-minded in hiphop circles, to the extent his middle-class producer ass really wasn’t taken that seriously as a rapper at first – nowhere near “street” or gansta enough. Until he started selling records. And yes, the Glastonbury debacle, whatever you made of it, pretty much showed that – whether you rated it or not, he’s going off somewhere on his own these days.

Imma mention "Imma let you finish"

I suppose one of the things that keeps me interested in Kanye, despite having written him off as “just a knob” countless times, is the tantalizing explanation for how a man can be so utterly, complacently, self-deludedly certain of his own unique greatness, way beyond even the massive egos of his contemporaries – and the answer is of course, that he clearly isn’t. I have never known anyone so desperate for the affirmation and approval of others, an unquenchable hunger that speaks of a deep, deep insecurity – that if the arbiters of art aren’t saying he’s THE BEST, it can never be true. Other artists rise above, and pooh-pooh the validity of, mere popularity, titles and awards - but it really, urgently matters to Kanye.

The key to understanding his attitude goes way back. He mentions in interviews his eighth grade basketball coach who, without explanation, didn’t put him on the team, making him realize if he doesn’t fight for recognition himself, he will not get it. And no matter how successful he is that seems to remain. Today this extends those he sees as "his people" as well – he has apparently offered to stage “Imma let you finish”-style protests on behalf of others aside from Beyonce (his mentor Jay-Z’s wife) whom he keeps white-knighting for at awards ceremonies.

He also keeps claiming those who don’t immediately bow down to his greatness and let him do whatever he wants must be prejudiced against him. While I’m sure he has a point that there are still race issues in the upper echelons of showbiz, and there is a sneeriness at a rock star trying to do fashion and so on, there is something a bit rich about one of the most rewarded and privileged men in music claiming he’s hard done by – when his success has opened up so many more opportunities than the vast majority of anyone could ever dream of - and to add to that, he happily tramples over and dismisses the efforts of others (Ms Swift, Beck?). He has a persecution complex on a par with a UKIP MP, which he doesn’t seem to realize is only made worse, not better, by his constant fronting.

Whatever, Kanye is an angry, troubled man, and it’s right there in the music. His confidence is hollow and vulnerable, which is never clearer than, say, in the contrast of the messiah-complex lyrics to “I am a God” with the panic-attack screaming and panting that inexplicably accompanies it. Again, in the words of Lou – who, by the way, was actually a fan – Kanye’s last album was full of “I’m great, I’m terrible, I’m great, I’m terrible - that’s all over this record”.

Neither Finn nor Freddie

And it was right there in the Glastonbury set too. The first and last parts were a greatest hits package that at least proved that Kanye is a bit like Crowded House (probably the first and last time he will be compared to the lovely, low-key, down-to-earth Finn brothers) – you know more than you think. There is quite a variety of sound and style there for those who will listen - but overall it was a glimpse into quite a cold, steely, serious world of one man’s angry head-space.

When I tuned into Glasto on the dear old BBC my initial reaction was “OMG, this is a bit of a mess”. Never mind Lee Nelson’s stage invasion (Jarvis Cocker would be proud), there were bits where the momentum just completely dropped: Partly as he insisted on an extended auto-tune ballad section in the middle that just made it plain he couldn’t sing; partly as there were drops and disjoins as it seemed he'd only decided on the set list in the dressing room 10 minutes before going on; and partly due to technical errors (he abandoned "I Can’t Hold My Liquor" after barking out a couple of lines and letting the guitar bit run). It simply wasn’t as slick as you might have expected, given that f***ing entourage.

And, as social media lampooned, it really didn't demonstrate that he was “the greatest living rock star on the planet” as he claimed – he just doesn't quite have the effortless showmanship of say, a Mick Jagger or James Brown or – yes – Freddie Mercury. In fairness, I don’t really think his intention was to sing a cover of Bohemian Rhapsody at all, he was just joining in karaoke-style as he span a bit of the record in the middle of his gig - ‘cos, why the hell not. But never mind his singing, his stage presence wasn't quite Freddie either, though there was something hypnotic about seeing what he would do next - earlier he had abruptly left the audience hanging, stage in darkness, for minutes before reappearing on top of a f***ing cherry picker. This was not Kiss – no pyrotechnics, no costume change, no zip wire. Just Kanye up a crane. But it was when I noticed he had left the stage lit but completely empty during this for two or three songs, that the contrary pervert in me giggled with glee at the audacity – while it might not have been “history in the making” as he meant it, I think he may have been right, in a way - that had probably (certainly) never happened before in a headlining Glastonbury slot.

Where was "Mike"?

More than a week on and the more I think about it, the more I think the whole thing might have been brilliant. People are still talking about it. The image of him in his bleached double-denim under those ludicrous banks of lights is burned on all our mental retinas. It was utterly simple, yet utterly unique. When Jay Z did Glasto, he turned up with a full band, turned on the charm and opened with a deliberately shambolic few verses of Wonderwall in a cheeky nod to his critics which won everyone round. Not Kanye. No, the massive ego took to the stage, barely acknowledging the audience, with only those huge f***-off whirring modern-art-installation lights, an Akai MPC sampler which he used for about three seconds, a fleeting side-stage visit from a man from Bon Iver, and the shady, hidden-away (imaginary?) “Mike” for company. It was bonkers, really, and it split Twitter in two like samurai sword.

He will never endear himself to people who like their rock stars nice and pleasant and down to earth, and I am sure he is quite a horrible human being to do any kind of business with. No, he can’t really sing, he can’t really play and he can’t really dance. He is a deluded cock.

But there is something of the classic, larger-than-life, maverick rock oddball about him - the combination of ego and art, the clash of the crass and the highbrow, striving to reach beyond the confines of his genre with one foot (or two) planted in a fantasy world of his own making, in the vein of a Prince, Bowie, Gaga, Bush or, um, Trent D'Arby. And while the music might not be to everyone’s tastes, I’d go as far as to say I think he is the real deal as an artist – he is genuinely a bit strange, driven to change, full of fire and a-buzz with unusual ideas and creativity - and he has the balls and passion to do his thing, whatever anyone else thinks.

I’m never sure if I’m laughing with him or at him, but I’m quite glad he exists – in world of increasingly styled, tried-and-tested, as-expected, by-the-numbers acts, he’s at least reliably different and interesting. All day, n****.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Rock is the new jazz ~or~ on the now-perceptible retreat and fossilisation of guitar music

Given its status nowadays as a decidedly niche musical preference (albeit with a large, passionate and dedicated following), it’s worth remembering that for decades it was the unrivalled popular music of choice. At the heart of western culture, it was the soundtrack to everything from dance floors to household chores, Sunday drives to happening dives, concert hall gigs to student digs, newsreel footage to dinner parties. No, that last one didn’t rhyme.

But as the century wore on, previously fringe and underground musical styles began to change and coalesce into something new, something burgeoning and breaking through, that all the kids were listening to... and one day it was just obvious: The tried and tested old stuff just wasn't the mainstream any more.

But enough about the decline of rock music.

Ha, ha, ha! Yes reader, and ha. You can see what I’ve done there, I’ve pretended I might be talking about jazz, but actually – imagine this! – I was talking about guitar rock! See?

Ok, everyone saw that coming (or were probably just confused) but my point stands – I actually, genuinely, think guitar rock is finally over as THE mainstream form of popular music. What slowly happened to jazz when rock came along - well, now it’s happening to rock.

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

I’m aware it’s an old eye-roller of a joke – people have been saying this kind of thing ever since that bloke from Decca Records didn’t sign the Beatles because “guitar groups are on the way out”. The end-is-nigh for guitar music has been announced fairly regularly throughout my entire life – notably with the breakthrough of synth-heavy music in the early 80s, and then Acid House in the early 90s. But in the past couple of years, the “death of guitars” call is less the combative, iconoclastic battle cry of those who want to wash away the old, and more the sad, keening air of those who have begun to notice the lack of it and miss it. Which I think means it might actually be happening.

I stopped having my finger on the pulse somewhere around the early 2000s when the height of exclusive hip-dom was still the glitchy IDM (intelligent dance music) of WARP records, and whatever the hell Radiohead were doing post-Ok Computer. But though my interest in modern guitar bands may have waned, I was dimly aware there were various children ten years younger than myself with wild hair, yelping into microphones, banging on drums and – yes – hammering the guitar strings. Good for them, the wanky little urchins, I’d think.

Their disappearance has been so slow it has been almost imperceptible. I assumed the reason I nowadays only ever heard Cowell-or-Brit-stage-school-style pop produce, or banging beats, or in-tha-club hip hop, or electro r'n'b, or twee hipster folk, or faux-50s dinner-party crooning, was that I simply don’t look around any more; so of course I only ever come into contact with the most mainstream of mainstream. Which is almost certainly true – but, importantly, guitar rock used to be part of that. Now I’m not sure it is - unless it's 40 years old, in which case it's ever more everywhere, as Black Sabbath plays in your local tea room and The Sex Pistols in your supermarket.

Teenage Kicks

I recently happened to take a look at the schedules of a popular generic young persons’ radio station and it was a bit like taking the car in for a service assuming nothing much was up - and finding all kinds of shocking developments under the bonnet. The range of music played was as expected, but the focus wildly changed. All the little genre-specific dance, hip hop and urban shows, those wannabe-cool nods to credibility these stations like to throw in - once lodged in late night slots on a Thursday or summat – they now make up the bulk of the schedule. Meanwhile general guitar-based pop and rock music (and not just the niche stuff) – well that’s now lodged in late night slots on a Thursday or summat.

Mentioning this to a teacher friend of mine, he confirmed that da teenage kidz he teaches have slowly stopped dreaming of buying guitars and forming bands as the years have gone by. In his current year only one child does this, but rather than being seen as a too-cool-for-school rebel, he is seen as a bit odd and geeky for it. The rest, if musically inclined, would much rather get mixing software for their tablets or a synth plug-in that can make those sick WOB-WOB-WOB sounds.

This is really what clinched it in my head. I remember being that age, when there were various options for what genres of music to get into to assert your individuality – and then there would be that kid who was into jazz. Now, jazz would be so far off the teenage cool map that it didn’t even register. It wasn’t even something your classmates would have much of an opinion on – it wasn’t trendy, counter-trendy, hip or sad; it was just odd and unknown. Jazz was the kind of thing your mate’s more cultured dad, with his expensive hi-fi system and massive record collection, would sit with a glass of port and listen to. You knew it was once hellish cool, but a world away from the current teenage experience, in another time and place. Ok, so maybe we’re not there yet, but give it 20 years, maybe 25 – and that’s exactly what guitar rock will be.

It’s All Over Now

I'm NOT saying there won't always be people making guitar music and a wide audience for it - after all jazz is still alive and well - just that it is steadily losing its undisputed place at the centre of pop culture in more sustained way than we have previously seen.

No, guitar music is clearly not dead, not by a long shot – but what is happening is it is becoming ever more niche, and ever more like museum-piece music. It is fossilising. As with jazz, which underwent massive changes from the traditional swing of the inter-war years through hard-edged bebop and high-art free jazz to the funky Latin and fusion stuff of the 1970s, at some point hence the whole scene has just begun to shrink and retreat from the public imagination – and in the process has crystalised into primarily historical music.

As with jazz, rock no longer sounds NOW. It is past-times music, to be emulated as best as possible, y'know, like back in the days of the greats whose like we will never see again. Today it virtually always sounds like it’s heavily referencing something from at least 25 years ago – which means its glory days have very clearly long gone.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

This backwards referencing has been gaining ground for some time. Sure, every generation has its novelty throwbacks, but beyond that the rock music journalist’s default for cool has been stuck on post-punk English mod and/or New York rocker style since about 1979. Oh how they adored it when Blur started wearing tufty haircuts and parkas like they might be from Quadraphenia or summat. And oh, how they jazzed their pants over the "subway tan" of NY punk revivalists The Strokes. In the UK, Britpop was a new high for nostalgia in rock music – everyone at that time was constantly banging on about The Faces, The Kinks, The Who, and... um... Paul Weller (including Paul Weller), while others were posturing around in glittery brown and orange 70s attire and yelping like glam-period Bowie.

Ever since such retro-fetishism has become the norm, but it wasn't always thus - directly before that was the massive break-through in alternative rock music where all manner of previously undergrounds forms – thick sludgy grunge, psychedelic noise rock, wistful indie jangle, industrial synth goth, livid rap-metal hybridisation, strum and bass et al – began to get serious air play, and suddenly anything seemed possible and acceptable. Of course I’m biased because this happened to coincide with my teenage years, but that now seems like the last golden age of guitar rock. Genres still seemed to be rapidly developing, with fresh ideas, on a mass scale; as opposed nowadays, where you seem to get to the odd isolated individual experimenter beavering away somewhere while everyone else does genre-precise recreations or light-entertainment-showbiz takes on classic rock.

Ashes To Ashes

Why guitar rock appears to have finally fossilised is not just about age, but also about technology. One element is how cheaply, easily and authentically one can emulate the sounds of the past now – as digital modelling technology has made this accessible to all, so all have made retro-sounding records. Also, with all music, from the dawn of recording onwards, streamable and downloadable along with everything ever written about every artist, the whole history of guitar rock is now at everyone’s fingertips – and a crushing, paralysing history it is for anyone with pretensions of doing anything remotely original in the field, or trying not to be too influenced by the sheer weight of it.

Rock has gone through repeated phases of establishing a tradition, then modernising and breaking away from that, only to return later in a post-modern fashion. In fact the whole of the 2000s was pretty much one long post-modern period for guitar music as it regurgitated its own history in multifarious forms. But, as with all post-modernism, where do you go from there?

Thanks to communications today, everything is at once so interlinked that it threatens to become homogenous and so fragmented that it threatens to become too dispersed (which sounds like a contradiction, but really isn’t) and music is no different – I suspect the days are simply gone when unique, self-contained “scenes” could spring up in a city in isolation before breaking through into the wider world 18 months later. A muso kid in Seattle is as likely to be trading beats with someone in Paris as hanging out down their local live music bar.

But all the same, as a music fan and consumer it’s a massively exciting time to be alive – because you can get your hands on an artist’s entire career output in one swoop, and delve into any strand of musical history you like. It’s immersive. Which ironically explains why I’m not that bothered there’s not much in the way of new, vibrant, interesting guitar music coming through – as there is still plenty of old golden age stuff to discover which is still new to me - but then I’ll soon be of the expensive-hi-fi-massive-record-collection-and-glass-of-port-dad age, so I suppose that’s only right.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

My Valentine's Day Massacre ~or~ romantic notions I just don't find romantic (sorry)

So here are a few words on romantic BS for Valentine’s Day. Well ok, a day after Valetine’s Day, because yesterday I decided I’d rather write about Heidegger instead.

The One #1

First of all I’m not even going to give the idea that there is only one destined soulmate in the entirety of existence – who, of course, just happened to live in the same town and go the same gym as you – the time of fucking day. That’s clearly moronic. So let’s move on swiftly...

But – there is a less extreme version of “The One” theory which is much more common to find in otherwise perfectly sensible and intelligent people: The idea that in order for you to be really happy in a relationship you must find someone who is a perfect fit.

The One #2

A lady friend once asked me: “Don’t you think that’s a beautiful idea?”

And I said: “No. No I don’t. I think it’s one of the most destructive ideas in the sphere of relationships.”

Which may not have earned me any romantic brownie points but, y’know, it was honest. Which is what the ladies love. Um.

Anyway, I meant it – if you insist on a perfect fit you will never find it. You are dooming yourself to always find fault with whomever you are with, to be constantly convinced there’s someone better, more fitting, with greener grass, somewhere out there.

It’s akin (and closely related) to the insanity of a bride who insists every tiny detail MUST BE PERFECT on their wedding day – in which case, ironically, the thing that is most in danger of ruining their day is their own hyper-sensitive stress-out over the fact that every tiny detail MUST BE PERFECT. I’m sure – in fact I know – that many a promising relationship has been scuppered by the obsessive-compulsive questioning "OMG but are they The One?!" In fact, in truth, when I hear a potential partner say they believe in “The One”, in my head I substitute it with “An ideal to which I will never live up and to which I will be constantly reminded of how I fall short.” It saves any misunderstanding in the long run.

There is simply no way – no way at all – that you can spend an intensive amount of time every single day with anyone, even a “soulmate”, and not occasionally – or even often – get bored of each other, annoyed with each other, rub each other up the wrong way and need some time out from each other... in other words, notice the fractures and dis-joins between you. Relationships are never “perfect fit”, no matter how similar or compatible you are. The strongest and happiest couples I know have had to work at it, find a balance, compromise and adjust to each other, at least a little bit – the difference is, is that when you love each other, you want to do that. To some extent you make someone “The One” by your commitment to each other and your ongoing shared history.

The One #3

Which is not to deny that some people are more natural, suitable and compatible with each other. Absolutely there are couples who work and couples who just don’t, people who are automatically good together and people who just aren’t. But this is like friends – I have lots of close friends whom I would say are soulmates in one way or another, in that there is something in both of us that just clicks. But, interestingly, it tends to be a different part of my personality that each brings out – all are equally “soulmates” but all are different. It’d be a nonsense to imagine there could be a “perfect friend” that would cover all bases.

In the same way each relationship you have is different, because by the mingling of your personalities you create something unique, and that’s the joy of it. I’m afraid, when it comes to soulmates, I am very much a pluralist – I believe there are lots of people out there you could be compatible with, who have the potential to be your, ahem, “One”, and each would give rise to a different flavour of relationship. It is part of life’s rich tapestry, variety, diversity. To imagine there could be only one “right” person who fulfils every possible desire you could possibly have, seems to me just... pathological.

The One #4

Finally, to sound horribly un-romantic and pragmatic for a moment, the reasons people couple up and stay coupled up are really not just all about eternal rom-com-style perma-bliss, emotional fireworks and silly adolescent ideals – love is also about simple snug contentment, comfort and support. Being on your own is both emotionally and practically tough at times – not just lonesome, but logistically challenging when you have no one to share your burdens with, whether financial demands, personal problems or just house-hold chores. If you find someone whom, after years of living together, you still find reasonably cute, sexy, cool and interesting, whom you feel safe and comfortable with, who still makes you laugh and doesn’t do your head in (much) – well, then you have done pretty darn well.


Enough about "The One". Here are some other bullshit romantic notions:

Rules of relationships

The women’s magazine and self-help-book-style “a man should act like this and a woman should act like this otherwise your relationship is doomed” lists of rules that some over-analytical type has come up with, having read about one or two flawed psychology studies and talked about it with their awful friends.

No. Just no. Unless it’s based on thorough and extensively replicated science across cultures and generations, no. There is not any one-size-fits-all way a relationship must be. People can be very different with very different temperaments and needs, and relate to each other... differently. You must be tolerant, you must allow for this, it's the 1990s for Chrissakes. Relationships are alchemical and irrational, and you can’t force them into a single, predictable mold, no matter how much you want to nail them down and control them.

Also, call me strange, but I actually find it deeply unromantic and actually kinda disrespectful for someone to be only in love with their partner inasmuch as they can jump through a set of hoops and fit a pre-conceived template. And, as above, endlessly stressing over whether these rules are being adhered to will create problems where there were none. Cut loose.

It was/wasn’t meant to be

This makes my blood boil, probably because I’ve been told more than once by a girl that we weren’t meant to be” or that it was “fate” or “destiny” that she be with someone else.

Oh, great. That makes me feel a whole lot better, I’d think. So let me understand this right: It’s not just that you have decided you don’t want to be with me any more... no, THE FUCKING STARS HAVE ALIGNED to make sure I get dumped. Destiny has decreed that we must not be together. God Himself has cupped his hand and whispered in your ear “Yeah, bin out that loser, go off with that other guy, he’s much more dishy.”

I mean to say. Fucking rich, what?

Banging on about stuff being fated, destined, or happening “for the best” or “for a reason” is just kind of an insult to all the countless people who are shitted on, fucked over or ignored when they really didn’t deserve to be, I always think. If everything happens for a reason and everyone has a destiny, why the hell doesn’t everyone die happy and fulfilled? If life is indeed all pre-determined then, given all the pain and suffering and injustice in the world – that regularly goes un-rectified – then that’s just awful. The Greeks understood fate properly – if there is such a thing, it is not fluffy and nice, and it is not your friend – it is a terrible, terrifying thing, and responsible for endless tragedy.

Grand gestures

Finally the rom-com staple. Of course, it’s delightful when your significant other goes out of their way to do something wonderful and thoughtful and amazing for you. Of course it is.

But grand gestures are the cherry on the cake, not the be-all-and-end-all of romance. 100 slick grand gestures don’t mean someone is your soulmate, it just means they are slick and practised at this grand gestures crap, which can just as easily be hollow and manipulative as genuine and loving.

Again, call me crazy if you will, but I’m convinced real romance is not really about flashy fantasy shit like that. It’s not in the forced, showy, hoop-jumping gestures on Valentine’s Day – it is in the little, spontaneous, everyday things:

The warmth of each other’s embrace at the end of a long, tough day; the sense of fun and adventure you still get together on a night-time walk home through the park; the knowledge that even when you’re miles away, you’re still both there for each other, no matter what; the knowing looks thrown back and forth at a social gathering, when you both know what each other is thinking but don’t have to say it; all the little things you do thinking of each other, almost without thinking... You know what, screw grand gestures. True romance is not demanding or aspirational, it’s warm, open, honest, nurturing and supportive, it’s happiness and it's home. It’s your favourite old T-shirt, not your best suit.

Love is something that sparks between two flawed beings, who for some reason or another are drawn to, and chime with, each other, whether for a while or for the long term. It’s the feeling of belonging together, the sense that the other person may be a fuck up, but they’re your fuck up – that you value each other and what you’ve developed together, enough to not want to lose it or mess it up; it's the feeling that you want to face the world standing shoulder to shoulder, respecting each other as equal partners in crime, both as individuals and as an item... that’s what real love and romance mean to me.

The rest is all bullshit.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Heidegger question ~or~ what happens when an academic icon turns out to be a Nazi nut?

What happens when one of the most interesting and original thinkers of the 20th century turns out to have been a full blown Nazi?

A scandal and crisis is currently running rampant trough German philosophy departments, and to some extent the wider philosophical world, as the publication of Martin Heidegger’s notebooks from 1931 to 1948 has revealed him to be significantly more on board with the Fuhrer’s kinda thang than anyone previously realized.

The Velvet Underground of continental philosophy

Who is this Heidegger and why does it matter, you may ask – well, while he may not be a household name, his position in 20th century philosophy is unassailable. His influence on French and German thought in particular is HUGE. Well known, but never quite getting mainstream popularity, he is the Velvet Underground of continental philosophy: His legacy is in the mark he made on the big names that followed him – from Jean-Paul Sarte and his existentialism (a running philosophy joke is that Sartre’s whole career is based on a chapter of Heidegger's Being and Time) to Jacques Derrida and his deconstruction (good band name).

He was one the leading lights of the phenomenology movement, which may sound like gibberish to you, but I can assure you his ideas are still having an impact today, perhaps behind the scenes of modern life in academia, but still there none-the-less.

And besides, his philosophy is just so damn intriguing, packed with original, surprising and profound insights. He said western philosophy since the Greeks had been so concerned with knowledge and ethics and so on, it had ignored the question of beingwhat IS being, what is it to BE? He wanted nothing less than a complete overhaul of philosophical thinking – to destroy traditional metaphysics and build up a new account of existence by going back to raw experience itself. And, if you can get past his awful, over-complicated, jargon-heavy writing style, it’s far-out, revelatory stuff, with surprising parallels to eastern philosophy such as Zen Buddhism and Chinese Toaism (see here) and all that good stuff.

So, it’s doubly upsetting for me, someone who studied him intensively for over a year and found wisdom and solace in his musings, to learn that his appropriately named “black notebooks” are full of frankly nutty endorsements of the work of the National Socialist German Workers' Party.

Didn't we already know he was a Nazi?

In fairness, it should be said that none of this is out of the blue – it was known that Heidegger was a paid-up supporter of the Nazi Party from 1933 until the end of the war, and vocally endorsed Hitler and his cronies. But you kind of hoped his prolonged flirtation with fascism was kind of an embarrassing mistake, that he was caught up in the zeitgeist and swept along with the propaganda.

He was, after all, an iconoclast, wanting to sweep away the tired old order and start with a clean slate – so it’s easy to see how leaders promising the same in politics and society might have chimed with him. He is also very critical modernism in his work - modern life, modern ideas, particularly technology - and has a romantic notion of a more authentic, primordial, simpler way of being in the past. He very much sees the individual in modern society as having “fallen” from authentic being in some way, having become lost and dehumanised – so it is possible to understand why Hitler’s back-to-the-land, harking-back-to-a-forgotten-golden-age rhetoric might have appealed to the idealistic academic.

On the plus side it is known Heidegger prevented students from holding a book burning, and from displaying anti-Semitic posters, at the entrance to the University of Freiburg while he was rector, despite his ongoing support for the Nazis at the time. You hoped his silence on the matter after the war was because he was just too proud and ashamed to talk about his stupidity in backing the Third Reich. You hoped he felt a crushing sense of betrayal when it became clear the politicians he naively trumpeted turned out to be more monstrous than even their enemies imagined with the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

You also hoped whatever Heidegger’s personal politics, they did not impact on his work – his philosophy is not overtly political, it is about being in general – asking what it is for a self-aware consciousness to exist in the world, what it is to be “a being for whom its own being is an issue” – fundamentally, what are we and what is the world?

But no.

Oh dear

The black notebooks (as yet unpublished in English) apparently make it more than clear that Heidegger himself had a deep seated anti-Semitism that was deeply integrated into his philosophy. He talks of “world Judaism” as one of the main drivers of western modernity – ie everything he loathes as dehumanising us and taking us away from authentic being. Why and how exactly "the Jews" are responsible is not clear, except that Jewish communities in Europe tended to be necessarily rootless, itinerant people “divorced from the soil” (a bad thing for Heidegger) and tended to be happy to grasp the new possibilities offered by modern society. There was also a view prevalent at the time that "world Judaism" was really behind the Russian revelation, and that most threatening of modern ideas, communism.

Never mind that blaming a relatively small and peripheral ethnic minority for all the ills of the modern era is fucking ridiculous. Of all the possible roots of modernity, with all its mechanisation, exploitation, tranquilisation and alienation from authentic existence, “The Jews” is really not an obvious go-to-source. The European Enlightenment or “Age of Reason”, yes. The Industrial Revolution, yes. Free-market capitalism, the afore-mentioned communism and – FFS – fascism, absolutely. Jews? Um. No.

In “fairness” to Heidgger he does also point the finger at English, American and Soviet culture, but still – it shows he buys into the then-all-too-common paranoid and idiotic conspiracy theories about “world Judaism” of the kind espoused by Hitler in Mein Kampf, even if he pooh-poohs the Nazis’ racial angle in favour of a cultural one.


But the worst blow comes with the publication of the notebooks from after the end of the war, in which Heidegger talks about the Holocaust. In one jaw-dropping passage he appears to think it is more of a tragedy that Germany’s mission to transform the modern world – which had the potential to “save” the west – was stopped by the Allies before it could come to fruition. He sees this as a crime against history that is even greater than the genocide of six million people.

Surely, you might think, the Holocaust was the ultimate outplaying of the kind of dehumanising effect of modernity and technology Heidegger was so against - the production-line industrialisation of murder itself. But who do you think he blames for it - the Nazis he so stupidly supported? No, of course not. He blames "the Jews". Yes that’s right, they brought it on themselves – because they supported and drove the technological modern era, they are responsible for their own deaths by it. Not the Nazis who actually did it – they were simply trying to wipe out this Jewish culture of hateful modernity (that by Heidegger's own criteria they themselves took to an extreme in order to do that, but let’s not think about that). Yes, it really is bit like saying we can wipe out racism by the genocide of a racist race. Bloody racist races.


It’s not just that his views are vile – the history of philosophy is liberally sprinkled with horrible people who nevertheless had something interesting to say – it’s that they are just fucking nonsense. The fact that they are full of paranoia, hypocrisy, leaps of logic, and vast blind spots missing the obvious, casts serious doubt on his critical thinking faculties and the water-tightness of the rest of his work, which will now have to be re-evaluated in the light of this.

I mean to say, some of the translated passages of the black notebooks that have come my way read like a genteel and wordy version of the foaming-mouthed spoutings of a disgraced UKIP parliamentary candidate – if I read someone spouting this today I’d write that person off instantly as a nut, not worth wasting my time listening to. For that to be coming from someone I happen to think is among the most original and profound thinkers of the 20th century presents me with a hell of an inconsistency. How does one square this? Do I try to shrug off his more unpleasant views (surely an exercise in dishonest cherry picking)? Do I write off all of Heidegger’s thought (surely a bit baby/bathwater)? Have I woefully misjudged bonkers disgraced UKIP parliamentary candidates, who are in fact all philosophical geniuses?

All I can say is at least Heidegger wasn’t anyone’s posterboy. He never achieved the kind of hero status of the likes of Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, partly because his writing style is so impenetrable, pedantic and dull – no teenage philosophy students are scrawling Heidegger quotes such as “The projection of Dasein’s ownmost-potentiality-for-Being has been delivered over to the Fact of its thrownness into the ‘there’,” on Twitter.

Ban or study?

It will be interesting to see how the academic world deals with this. Günter Figal, chair of the Martin Heidegger Society, has already resigned, stating his shock at the content of the notebooks, and that he is no longer willing to act as a representative for such a man. Those of us who always preferred Nieztsche – whose work was appropriated by Hitler and therefore is also tainted with such associations – can sit back and gloat, as our man, who died long before the Nazis and was vocally down on both anti-Semitism and nationalism in general, now looks like John bloody Lennon.

One thing I hope doesn't happen is that Heidegger will be treated like Jimmy Saville and excised from history. If nothing else that would be dishonest, since whole schools of thought with far-reaching consequences in the modern world owe a debt to him, whatever kind of beast he was - and our understanding of the history of philosophy would be poorer for skimming over him.

A ban on Heidegger would serve no one, and that is not the way philosophers do things anyway. What is brilliant about philosophy is that it doesn’t shy away from tough topics and questions for reasons of taste and decency – it delves right in. Burying and censoring things is the very opposite of the philosophical nature – rather it seeks to drag the truth out into the light, in all its ugliness and complexity, and then proceeds to dissect and debate it for eternity, to try and find out how it works, what might be going on and what the meaning and implications might be.

I suspect this is what will happen with Heidegger. If they are not already, people will soon be doing PhDs in the impact of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism on his phenomenology, or the implications of his Nazism for the work of his followers such as Satre (who, by the way, supported Stalin even after it became clear he was a mass murdering Gawd-help-us). And really, that’s the way it should be. Heidegger should not become untouchable – we simply have to handle him in a new and enlightened way.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Ripping the p*** ~ or ~ in defence of humour and scepticism in the face of righteous rage

***I wrote this snappily-titled post about a year ago, in fact exactly one year to the day before the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I never posted it as it was a bit 'serious-serious' and I'd only just done a post on bigotry. But given the events of this week, seems timely and relevant - particularly the final sweary line, given who was killed and why. For my feelings on the Paris events, this article by Harry Kunzru had me nodding in recognition, and was what reminded me I had written the following.***

Former British POW Col John Lawrence to Japanese POW, about to be executed, Sgt Gengo Hara: “You are the victim of men who think they are right... Just as one day you and captain Yunoi believed absolutely that you were right. And the truth is of course that nobody is right.”
– Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, 1983

THOSE of us who habitually approach things in an uncertain, cautious or sceptical way often get stick for it – for sitting on the fence, for not throwing ourselves into a cause, for being cynical, downbeat or negative when harassed by go-getting motivational pressure. But, while as a modern human being I accept that I am a mess of flaws, failings and dysfunctions, I do not count this tendency as one of them. It is clearly linked to some of my less appealing qualities – it doesn’t exactly spur me on to grasp opportunities to the full and make my voice heard above all others – but I will defend it.

Steel shutters

When I was a kid in the 1980s, there was often anger and strife in the media and in the world around me, just as there is today. The troubles in Northern Ireland, the cold war, Thatcherism, strikes, general moral outrage from the likes of Mary Whitehouse. Always a little off in my own quiet world (what’s changed?) I was baffled and distressed by it all – of course I was, I was a child, with no hope of understanding then what it was all about, nor any hope of having any input into whatever shitstorm I was witnessing – but I at least had a vague grasp that there was something heavy, something wrong, that had caused the disagreement.

But there were some cases where anger and strife turned into something else – something terrifying and utterly alien to me. That moment where you realise the person working themselves into a lather is not simply getting emotional or showing assertive resolve – no, they have completely switched into another mode. A mode where communication is only one way, where they are so utterly, utterly convinced that they are right – and righteous – that nothing anyone says will get past the steel shutters they have pulled down around themselves, and they may as well not be in a dialogue at all. Inside those steel shutters is more steel – brutal, rigid, utterly black and white, serious as hell and all-consuming. Outside almost everything is THE ENEMY, contemptible and not worth engaging with, except in open warfare.

I was probably about 12 when I decided that that mindset – no matter what the cause or argument – was nothing less than a vision of evil. When those kind of people start throwing their weight around, ugliness, tragedy and horror is likely to follow.

Of course I was naive – as I grew up and realised the intractable complexity of the world and its politics, I thought perhaps it was me being a little rigid and extreme in that view – I didn’t then understand the very real grievances that make people act like that, and that those “kind of people” surely don’t think and act like that all the time. Maybe that behaviour is all just down to the heat of the moment after all. But I still think I was onto something – perhaps it’s not about a “kind of” person, but rather a state of being that people can get into. Whatever, seeing someone in that state is something I still recoil from in extreme distress, suspicion and horror, still no matter what the cause.

Righteous rage

In my student years it would even turn me off causes I had a natural affinity with to see them hijacked by people working themselves into a shrill, shouty, righteous rage about them – whether in print, in music or at demonstrations. Good grief, I’d think, we’re supposed to be the good guys, we’re supposed to be better than this. Why are we putting our fists in the air in salute and chanting jingoistic slogans like brainless drones? I guess, I thought dejectedly, because subtle, reasoned debate doesn’t get heard. What a shit for humanity.

The most salient and obvious examples of this kind of behaviour are the terrifying proponents of extreme ideologies – in which category I’d put totalitarian dictators, patriotic warmongers, violent terrorists and agitators, race-hate thugs, fire-and-brimstone religious extremists or anyone, really, calling for intolerance and death on a perceived demographic. They are essentially putting an ideal of “their people” and how they want the world to be above actual people and how the world actually is.

But aside from those noisy and threatening examples, you come into contact with smaller scale versions every day, from soap-box Nimbyism to puffed-up in-group jingoism, to them-and-us thinking and po-faced bluster in general. To me it undermines someone’s credibility immediately to see them acting in such a hysterical, inflexible way – I don’t give two shits about their “passion” and their “strength”, it’s not something to be admired.

Because this sort of outlook is at once too narrow – everything is judged and distorted by an obsession with one issue, there is no appreciation of the wider context, or an honest approach to dealing with the complexity of the arguments; but on the other hand it is too general – it pays no attention to the subtleties of the situation or variety of opinion, instead preferring to caricature, vilify and over-simplify, which makes things much easier if you want to appear unambiguously right and call people to arms.

Humour and humanity

And a key indicator is the lack of humour - a healthy irreverence, sense of irony and the absurd is, for me, a sign of intelligence and humanity. It’s all too often mistaken for simple sneering or piss-taking, but there is a difference between cynicism for the sake of it – bitter, bullying and condescending – and the more gentle but persistent pricking of grand pomposity and po-faced pretension, the humanising reality check. The latter acts as a buffer against getting caught up in such ever-so-earnest, unquestioning idealism, and means you never stop seeing people as just people.

A sense of humour about serious issues is not a sign you’re not taking them seriously – it’s a sign you recognise no one is infallible, life is never perfect, and there is always some shoddiness and absurdity inherent in everything and everybody – including yourself. Forget that and we are left in a world where everything is serious and angry and what follows is intolerance and brutality.

But it’s important to criticise the attitude, the behaviour, not simply the people displaying it. I say that not for touchy-feely namby-pamby reasons, but because it’s crucial to my argument – the whole problem as I see it lies in not treating others as rounded human beings. The hallmark of this kind of behaviour is removing yourself from genuine, everyday one-on-one human interaction and instead treating those you disagree with as either a faceless “them” or exaggerated monsters in the case of individuals. And it’s precisely in the gap between the complex reality of everyone’s various lives, troubles, wants and needs and the single-issue “just crusade” that any hope of understanding and empathy is lost.

A wonderful case where the opposite happened is at the York mosque in 2013, where angry EDL demonstrators were served tea and biscuits and invited inside for a game of football by the faithful. It was an instant diffuser, short-circuiting the puffed-up self-righteous urge of the protesters – if they had met them instead with a similarly self-righteous, angry response it would have done nothing but escalate the situation and no one would have gone home happier or wiser. Nothing would have been resolved. Of course, a game of football is not going to make the underlying issues or dispute go away, but at least it opens a channel for calm communication and a foot in the door for reason and understanding.

Rip the piss

We need people of conviction, yes. If all of us were cautious, sceptical, irreverent, fence-sitters nothing would ever get done, no one would ever show leadership, no fight would ever be won. But we need the cautious and irreverent also, to keep those convinced they are right in check, to add intelligence and nuance to the gung-ho drive, to ground them in reality, cool them down and make them see beyond their single-minded obsessions – to humanise them.

People who are convinced they are right – who will not laugh at themselves, will not meet you half way, will not recognise any other opinion or way than their own, on their terms... don’t tolerate them. Respond with the pinch of salt, the open ear and the calm cup of tea. And if they still don’t lighten the f*** up, rip the piss out of those po-faced f***ers mercilessly.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Manners maketh the man

Salty cabbage

“Yeah she’s not for me though,” said my friend, “she’s very sweet, but there are just these little things you notice, like – when you’re in a restaurant she puts salt on her food before she’s tasted it.”

There was a silence from me.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“She puts salt on her food before she’s tasted it.”

“Ok. And?”

More silence.

“It’s extremely rude,” he said.

Another pause from me.

“Is it? WHY?!

“It is. It’s the height of rudeness.”

“To the chef maybe," I spluttered, aghast, "Why the hell are you offended? How’s it hurting you? What do you mean?!

At this point, I have to admit I was rather taken aback at my own outrage. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was feeling it, but it certainly had something to do with flashbacks to being a timid, bewildered small child, ever terrified about making some terrible social faux-pas or another that I'd been told by some pedantic tight-ass was critically important to not being a despised figure of ridicule and shame; that I later came to realise, much to my annoyance, was absolute f***ing bullshit.

“I mean to say," I said, "this is one of the bizarrest deal-breakers I’ve ever heard. Why do you give a shit? Why is having the general rule ‘I like my food salty, I’ll put salt on everything’ any ruder than tasting it first and going ‘urgh, no, not enough salt’?!”

It’s got to be said I’d be hard pressed to come up with something that mattered less in my choice of mate than whether she tasted her food before she decided to add salt. In fact I had simply not considered the matter would ever arise in a dating scenario. I felt dreadfully naive all of a sudden.

My friend said, indignantly, “Well, maybe I’m just a very well mannered man. It’s not a deal-breaker, it just makes me think ‘oh no, she's one of those people’."

I’m one of those people,” I said.

“Oh.” he said.

I’m not quite one of those people. I often don’t bother with table salt at all and know better than to load something carefully prepared in a fancy restaurant with the stuff. But certainly I have done it automatically, especially when younger, especially at home and especially with certain foods I know I like a bit of salt on (chips, steak, cabbage. Yes, I like salty cabbage).

Camp tantrum

I tried to explain to him that for many people this was just pure habit, from growing up in families where that’s just what you do when tea rocks up at the table – throw a dash of salt, maybe pepper, maybe vinegar on the meal before tucking in.

It may be a little old fashioned, a little pre-“food revolution” (ugh); it may be a little unthinking, unrefined and not exactly the sign of a distinguishing foodie palette; but what it isn’t, is a slur on the competence of the cook. One could imagine a highly-strung Michelin-starred chef throwing a camp tantrum over the unwashed punters ruining his/her meticulously balanced creation by smothering it in unnecessary sodium, but he/she'd be an arse. Let people eat the food they’ve paid for how they want, for crying out loud – or do as some restaurants do and just don’t put salt on the table. I get it, y'know, you can lead a horse to water etc, but you shouldn't take it personally.

Ok, my friend admitted, so it wasn’t the most offensive thing in the world, just a sign of basic uncouthness. But it got me thinking about manners in general and the million little silly bits of etiquette that I – all right, perhaps mistakenly – tend to think just don’t matter.

I will defend myself. I am the first to admit that I am probably regularly thoughtless, selfish, dismissive, abrupt, half-arsed, immature, irritable or just hard work, though I am virtually never deliberately rude. Most of my transgressions come from either being too wrapped up in myself, too tired, stressed, rushed or pressured, or simply socially unsure and awkward on any given occasion. On the other hand I know that when I’m on form I can be much more patient, reasonable, affable, empathetic, helpful and just damn nice than a hell of a lot of people I know. The bolshy, mercenary bastards.

But I do have a deep-seated disdain for po-faced rule-keeping and ritual, for judgemental airs and graces and unquestioning tradition-following of all kinds.

The most compelling wisdom I ever heard about dinner etiquette, from the mouth of veteran butler no less, is that it should not fundamentally be about endless unfathomable customs and rules at all – etiquette is first and foremost about putting your guests at their ease. If your rules are causing your guests to feel uncomfortable, intimidated or alienated, that is rude of you.

The power of correct and proper protocol

I tend to think if something is rude it is because of the effect - if it puts others out, causes discomfort, distress or upset. If breaking some “rule” doesn’t do any of those things, that rule is clearly serving no purpose – and can be disregarded as some bullshit dreamt up by some fussy anal-retentive to wield the power of “correct and proper protocol” over the uninitiated.

Frankly we would all breathe a sigh of relief to see the back of such nonsense. Such customs are the manners version of the split infinitive in language, a so-called grammar “rule” which some sticklers continue to bafflingly adhere to because it is supposedly “correct” (it isn’t) - despite the fact it often makes sentences more confusing and clunky, not less.

Futhermore: It’s got to be said that while, yes, some rude behaviour is clearly just mean, vile, nasty, selfish and even abusive, to some extent it does take two to take offence – by which I mean we are always involved and complicit in the amount to which we let things affect us. In the case of the small stuff particularly, one person’s indignant outrage is another’s shoulder shrug. We don’t have to obsess about these things, and could all be a little more forgiving and cut each other a bit more slack, man.

Anyway, I’ll shut up now, I don’t want to over-salt the broth.

(Ok, that pun needed a little salt.)

(Ok, so did that one. Don’t rub salt in the wound.)