Friday, 25 July 2014

Just Six People

For many years I was certain of it being the power of words which had forged the path by which I and my first ever girlfriend found each other. I initially knew her as the musically gifted and undeniably attractive girlfriend of Jeremy, my oldest friend on the grounds of our having been introduced on my first day at Ilmington C of E Junior and Infants School.

'This is Jeremy,' Mrs. Daglish told me, indicating a small wide-eyed boy with a brightly coloured jumper and tidy hair. 'You can sit next to him.'

A little over a decade later I would be writing long letters to his girlfriend, feeling terrible about the deception, but nevertheless at the mercy of both my own hormones and the fact that she was replying to my correspondence with missives of equal length and enthusiasm. Soon she became my girlfriend, and I spent the duration of the admittedly brief relationship telling myself that it was just one of those things, which I suppose it was. Regardless of the morality of the situation, I took from it the notion of my greatest strength being found in artistic expression, specifically in the written word. I reasoned that the greatest obstacle to my progress with members of the opposite sex was probably my own awkward physical presence, and that my best tactic would be to blind them with wit before they could recognise me for a buffoon and run away.

A few years earlier, some time during the late seventies, a teacher at my secondary school had arranged for an exchange of letters with the pupils of an educational establishment somewhere in Arkansas in the United States. I seem to recall that we had borrowed one of their teachers, a young guy resembling John Voigt with a sandy coloured moustache who smiled a lot. I already enjoyed writing, although my enthusiasm went further than my ability to string together a working sentence, and so I put everything I had into my letter. Given my age, everything I had would almost certainly have included supplementary drawings of men with bulbous noses from which might be suspended either pendulous drips of nasal mucus, cobwebs supporting grinning spiders, or both. Although modesty kept me from mentioning it myself, I was fairly confident of my being a pretty entertaining guy, and so I knew my letter would be a huge hit, a rare comedic treat for those poor, chortle-deprived American kids with their terrible cartoon shows and laughter-free sitcoms like Chico and the Man or Holmes & Yoyo.

A month or so passed, and the replies came back, and unfortunately my confidence had been entirely justified. Those of us who had written each received one reply from an American kid who had seen the makings of a potential transatlantic friendship in our letters, all except for me. I received seven replies. Possibly my audience had appreciated the drawings of men with large snotty noses, but whatever I had done, it had worked. I received letters from American kids telling me how much I'd made them laugh, letters describing things of which I had no understanding - braces worn upon teeth, the music of Kiss, and so on. Some of the letters were even from girls. The sudden flurry of attention was terrifying. I didn't know what to say to any of these kids as I'd already used my best material in the introductory letter, and the only one of the seven to whom I felt I would be able to give a worthwhile reply had described herself as the class clown, which I found off-putting. A true class clown would naturally be identified by the testimony of others, I reasoned. It was unseemly to introduce oneself as a class clown. It was like saying hello, I am hilarious.

I eventually found a pen-pal in the form of Steven Bosworth who had been a classmate up until March, 1978, at which point his family moved to Hong Kong. We wrote back and forth for a few years before his father, being something in the Royal Air Force, brought the family back to Warwickshire. Steven returned to school for the last year or so and, bizarrely, our friendship immediately evaporated, exposed as something recommended for ages eleven and under, having been artificially extended by reduction to pure text, with the occasional illustration of someone with a large nose from which a green felt-tip tsunami of bogies didst gush amusingly forth.

A year or so later I discovered Jeremy's girlfriend, punk rock, and DIY cassette culture - fanzines, and the like; and I began to record my own musique concrète, and to send tapes of it to people I'd never met, who in turn would send their tapes to me. The mailbox on the back of our garden gate was filled daily with letters and rattling jiffy bags full of industrial noise and ranting photocopied anarchism. It was the internet at least a decade before its time, a global network of cranky loners much like myself churning out page after page of random observations and opinions in bright green pen, all to be whisked off to someone in a faraway town, county, or even country with a few stamps slapped on the envelope. I maintained this enterprise for a couple of years, at least into the early nineties, my enthusiasm periodically waxing and waning according to whatever else was out there, who'd had enough and packed it all in upon finding a proper job, and how much I cared about who else would get to hear my tapes or read my self-produced comics.

In the end technology progressed beyond that to which I'd been long accustomed, and my tapes lost what little audience they had acquired as everyone replaced cassette players with desktop publishing and music software - DIY apparently having been redefined as an aesthetic rather than as production achieved in spite of financial limitations. This is why I find it difficult to set aside my cynicism regarding the current revival of the tape cassette as collectible artefact for those who spent most of the nineties sneering at such relics, but I suppose that's just the way the cultural cookie crumbles.

I resisted both computers and the internet for a long time. It wasn't so much that they had nothing to offer, but that I wasn't engaged in anything which either of them would have rendered significantly easier. I was recording music on tape, doing a lot of painting, and a lot of written research towards that painting. Friends pointed out that I might find all sorts of online resources which would aid my research, and although patently true, I barely had sufficient hours in the day to process all the notes taken from my reading as it was, even without bringing in more material. Then in 1997 I began writing music reviews for The Sound Projector magazine, edited and published by my friend Ed Pinsent whom I knew from the days of small press comics. I had somehow inherited a primitive Amstrad computer from Zoe, my then ex-girlfriend's sister, and so I wrote on that for a while, slotting large clunky discs into the drive at one side of the screen. Then when Ed bought a new computer, he very generously gave me his old one. I immediately found it more pleasurable to write and to edit my reviews with the Lotus word processing package that came with the machine. It was tidier than ring binders full of notes scrawled with biros nicked from work, and writing with the Amstrad had felt a little unnatural, those luminous green ASCII characters seeming too far removed from any creative process with which I was familiar.

In September 2005, I found myself involved with Dora the Explorer - or at least that's what I'm calling her for the moment given her being of similar, height and appearance. Dora the Explorer was impressed that I owned a computer, despite the fact that I was apparently the second last person in England to own one, but she was concerned that I had not bothered to hook it up to the internet. I needed to move into the twenty-first century, she informed me - apparently missing the point that of the two of us, I was the one with a computer. I needed to move into the twenty-first century because this would save her having to use the internets at the local library whilst searching for a job which would pay well without requiring that she be out of bed before midday or relinquish more than twenty-eight days of her free time each month.

'Okay,' I said, because it had been a decade since I broke up with the girlfriend whose sister had bequeathed me the Amstrad and my nuts were about to explode, and I could think of no good reason to say no.

Almost immediately I acquired a taste for internet bulletin boards, a form of interaction which initially reminded me of my formative years of cranky letters written in green biro to gentlemen running cassette based organisations with names like Dead Cop Produktions or Sheep Worrying Tapes; except now the interaction was reduced to just banter, no jiffy bags spilling cassettes, home-made badges, or bits of coloured paper onto the living room table.

I began with an archaeological forum, drawn in by the prospect of discussing Mesoamerica with fellow enthusiasts. It was pleasant enough for a while, but I soon tired of a climate of paranoia regarding the Club. The Club were a shadowy body who supposedly suppressed archaeological truths in order to avoid the mammoth costs incurred by a complete rewrite of human history. There was all sorts of stuff the Club didn't want us to know about, but none of it very plausible or particularly interesting, and it was difficult to get much sense out of those who had fallen for the idea. One member of the board had the user name Clubs Stink, which I guess he thought was really showing someone or other. Another accused me of being a Club stooge for suggesting that certain ancient Mexican artefacts had been carved by ancient Mexicans, rather than ancient Africans who had sailed across the Atlantic to produce stone carvings and then returned home leaving no evidence of ever having been there in the first place. He also told me that my viewpoint reminded him of those racists who were unable to ever find it in themselves to credit Africans with anything.

Drifting away, I ended up on a bulletin board maintained by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, initially drawn there by an interest in both science and Dawkins' writing. It turned out that the scientific discussion was often somewhat dry and hardly the sort of thing I was after, but more to my taste was an off-topic section frequented by persons who, like myself, preferred our discourse to feature men with large noses decked with strings of mucus drawn in the margin. Unfortunately it transpired that Richard Dawkins himself was less keen on men with large noses decked with strings of mucus drawn in the margin. Specifically he took exception to the saltier topics of discussion on the one occasion when he managed to get some time away from boffinesque scientific experiments with test tubes to look in on the forum bearing his name. Threads were deleted, expulsions occurred, and three-hundred or so members took their drawings of men with large noses decked with strings of mucus elsewhere, specifically to a bulletin board named Thinking Aloud, or TAF as it was abbreviated; and it was at this point that I began to notice a peculiar phenomenon, specifically how seriously some internet denizens took themselves.

Human rights had been violated, and Richard Dawkins was no better than Adolf Hitler. He had destroyed the precious threads of the forum, just like whoever it was who had destroyed the great library of Alexandria. This was an affront to all right-thinking people utilising side-splitting Douglas Adams quotes as signatures to their posts.

Still, it seemed like these people were generally in a minority, the price one paid for communication with the more entertaining representatives of the online community, and so I generally did my best to ignore them. I spent the next few years posting on a number of different fora, switching from one to another each time it became too exhausting dealing with people who needed so badly to be right about everything. My online presence was, in certain respects, the latest expression of the long letters I had written to the class clowns of Arkansas, Steven Bosworth, Jeremy's girlfriend, and the bloke from Smash the Cistern Tapes. I had been prone to overpowering loneliness before I met Dora the Explorer, and the overpowering loneliness continued during our relationship. I was fairly certain it wasn't supposed to work that way, but there didn't seem to be much I could do about it; and so I continued to savour time spent stood around some virtual water cooler with people I would never meet discussing the worst jobs we'd ever had, loudest air biscuit we'd ever produced, fave band, and the existence or otherwise of God.

For a while I took a mildly evangelical view of internet fora in a general sense, encouraging anyone who would listen to get involved. The bulletin board seemed to occupy roughly the same conceptual space as that in which I'd written all those letters, at least in relation to ordinary social interaction. I would liken TAF or the Hive or the Anorak Zone or wherever I was posting that month to a virtual pub one might enter with a guarantee of having something in common with almost everyone present, or at least more so than would occur in real life. Strolling into a bar, one might strike up conversations with strangers, but possibly not conversations about obscure English children's television shows of the 1960s, for example. Figuratively strolling into the Anorak Zone on the other hand, that was mostly what they talked about.

Unfortunately though, the pub analogy may be further extended to describe an establishment founded by an egomaniac nutcase who populates the lounge bar with his legion of admirers, or at least those he hopes will become his admirers, perhaps viewing him - it nearly always being him in my experience - as a benevolent God graciously presiding over this bounteous electronic playground of zany wit and common sense. This was one problem with the Anorak Zone, the virtual realm of a man who'd once written a book about the children's television show Sapphire & Steel, and who now ran the cult film and TV forum for black people, as the banner had it. This seemed fair enough at the time, although the occasionally proprietorial site owner's frequent arbitrary references to Brixton in south-east London never struck me as quite so amusing as everyone else seemed to find them being as I'd lived there, roughly speaking; and his displeasure with online behaviour which he denounced as lickle white bwoy shit struck a similarly odd chord, as did everyone calling each other mon. It later transpired that these people were largely white, middle-class, and engaged in some extended private joke, digging each other in the virtual ribs and smirking as they commented on each others posts in a phonetic approximation of Jamaican patois. By this point I'd already been banned, but the discovery seemed to explain a lot. It wasn't so much that there was any inherent racism in this peculiar masquerade, although I suppose some of it might well have been considered the forum equivalent of blackface, but I had essentially made my conversational bed amongst a cadre of giggling student tossers, people I would ordinarily have crossed the road to avoid in real life, and I hadn't noticed because I was too busy agreeing that the The Doctor's Wife had been shite.

Virtual communities are fine when one's own life is otherwise so miserable as to require either booze or endless middle-class knob gags to get you through the day without killing yourself, but the internet can be a tough environment which favours the survival and amplification of the most forthright and obnoxious, those who go the furthest in forging for themselves an online persona which they could never reveal to anyone in the real world, because if they did they would end up with broken legs. Realising this, I have reached an understanding of my own bulletin board as virtual pub analogy being completely wrong, because in real life half of the people one might encounter online may not even be capable of normal social interaction, and so you end up with a pub full of basement dwellers who believe in the enforced sterilisation of dunderheads or whatever.

Individuals in groups, particularly groups formed through some artificial agency, tend to vie for attention, for the highest quota of interaction, interaction being the entire point of posting on a message board. The individual who garners the most attention will therefore tend to be the one making the loudest, boldest, funniest, or even most provocative statements; which is fine, but tends to make for a toxic virtual environment for anyone failing to make the distinction between online existence and real life, for anyone with basic manners. This is why such places tend to last about six months before everything collapses under the passive-aggressive weight of bald old men being right about something or other.

There's the problem, specifically the need to be right smuggled in below the conversational radar as open debate or support of some cause, because some people are, so it seems, only able to elevate themselves by pushing down on somebody else. Therefore I've largely given up on bulletin boards - beyond the occasional requirements of flogging some book which no fucker is going to bother buying anyway - because the occasional pearl of wisdom, or even the occasional pearl of entertaining stupidity, really isn't worth all that sand. I'm now down to more or less just facebook, although even this, more easily customised to individual requirements as it is, is far from perfect, because I'm part of the equation, and I like to think the best of people, to give them the benefit of the doubt, and so I still find myself engaged with people whom I should probably ignore, people who communicate from the perspective of the angry, basement-dwelling loners I would never encounter in a physical pub.

When I first moved to San Antonio from England, one particular Anorak Zone bell end took it upon himself to challenge the wisdom of my decision. What the hell are you moving there for? It's in the middle of nowhere. You won't be able to just jump on the Eurostar and pop over to Paris, you know?!

As with all such questions, that one seems to have been born from the presumption that anyone who is not yourself will by definition require your opinion, which will be better-informed because it comes from you. In this case it falsely presumed that visits to Paris by Eurostar must be fairly high on my list of priorities. The online situation hasn't improved much since then, particularly as I've had the gall to live in Texas of all places, a state which for some serves as shorthand for everything that is wrong with the world because nyer nyer nyer Republicans blah blah blah...

People from the United Kingdom tend to do this quite a lot, for some reason assuming they alone have a deeper insight into the issues affecting the rest of the world, regardless of actual experience of those issues - not all people from the United Kingdom, but certainly more than seems to be the case with any other nationality so far as I've noticed. Britannia no longer has an empire, but some of its people still regard themselves as essentially the font of all culture, and of all that is reasonable and correct.

Well, this seems like a good idea to me, but we'd better find some English guy and see what he thinks before we sign anything...

I would say it's a tendency of the political left, except it's probably that I ignore the political right and only have a vague idea of what they're saying most of the time - it so often being something I've already dismissed as either annoying or deeply sinister - so it's most likely just people who need to be right about something, for whatever reason; and, in the immortal words of Toyah Willcox, it's a mystery to me. It's a mystery to me because ever since the days of the green biro, I've reached out to other parts of the world because I'm interested in how other people live their lives, because essentially I like people, even those with terrible taste in music. I've never really held with the essentially misanthropic conviction that everyone who isn't myself must be in some sense stupid and will therefore benefit from my advice regarding their situation. That I hold no such view does not seem to me either an unreasonable or arrogant proposition.

For example, I recently had a disagreement with someone I would otherwise consider a friend over an issue relating directly to the United States and the people who live here. Specifically, he disagreed with me and explained that my routine was getting old, this apparently being my routine of making statements regarding the country in which I have now lived for three years based on the experience of having lived here. He doesn't live here, and disagreed with what I had said, but more than disagreed, he knew that I was wrong and that he was right, so my experience has therefore been either delusional or anomalous in the wider context, as has been that of my wife and everyone we know. He later contacted me by email and explained that it was okay because he hadn't taken offence, fairly typically missing the point that actually I had taken offence.

It happens over and over. Always there will be someone who knows better than you do, because although they haven't been there and it doesn't directly affect them, they've read an article and it stands to reason innit, and because nyer nyer nyer you Americans with your guns, or nyer nyer nyer Texas, or just nyer nyer nyer for its own sake. The internet is a wonderful thing, and a medium through which I have formed some genuine friendships over the years, but life is just too short for the drivel of those for who lack basic manners, and really just need to be right about something, and to view themselves as a crusading force.

Keeping in mind here that my research comprises what I can recall of books read several years ago, what little I can be bothered to look up on Wikipedia, and a general feeling that I'm probably right on some level - humans were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers up until about twelve-thousand years ago when some bright spark decided that farming was a good idea. Actually it wasn't a good idea, given that agriculture demands of the individual a much greater expenditure of energy in exchange for a more impoverished diet in nutritional terms, but soon everyone was at it and probably for reasons which are adequately explained in Susan Blackmore's excellent The Meme Machine. My point is that the human race has spent 90% of our time on Earth mooching around the plains, eating nuts, berries, and probably the occasional rodent, communicating exclusively with a fairly limited group of family members, and probably not even encountering the concept of other persons in numbers beyond the lower reaches of double figures. We were never designed to have millions of friends strung out on some vast cat's cradle of increasingly tenuous social interactions. Few people really - it seems to me - are able to maintain more than two or three close friendships at a time, and honestly, there probably isn't any good reason for anyone to do so. The more people we know, or at least of whom we know, the greater the chance of our exposure to the sort of tossers who, without the crutch of online interaction, would rightly be friendless fuckfaced trolls sat growling to themselves in some poorly-lit basement far away from the gaze - or at least far away from the facebook likes - of the rest of us.

A world of just six people probably wouldn't be that bad.

That's my opinion.

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