Friday, 24 June 2016

Well Done, England - Enjoy Your Labour Camps

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

The country in which I was born, lived, and worked for the first forty-five years of my life has voted to withdraw from the European Union. Specifically, 72.2% of the electorate turned out to vote, and 51.9% of them voted to leave, according to the Daily Telegraph. The leave vote was therefore cast by considerably less than half of the electorate, unless you feel like counting each abstention as a leave vote. Whether or not this result strikes you as valid probably depends upon your faith in the supposedly democratic system of the United Kingdom - democracy in this instance referring to something which answers to people rather than to the market.

From what I can see, the leave campaign has been heavily reliant upon a fear of immigration stoked up by the mainstream media, particularly newspapers such as The Sun, and a stroll through the darker regions of facebook and related social media will yield a wealth of memes along the lines of, perhaps not quite send them all back, but certainly Britain is full up, which is really just a nicer way of saying exactly the same thing so as to avoid seeming racist. Probably the most unpleasant and stupid one I've seen depicted women of obviously Islamic heritage poorly photoshopped so as to show them greedily lusting after a quaint village high street of half-timbered buildings and Cotswold stone tea shoppes. Not on my watch, the slogan promises, or something along those lines, because who wants to see a thousand years of Great British culture turned to shit by an incursion of darkies? Some may claim not to have encountered rabble rousing xenophobia of this sort, in which case they're either lying, or they mistook it for a well-reasoned argument accounting for all the relevant factors. Some have claimed that rabble rousing xenophobia had no influence on their decision to vote leave, which is hopefully true given that the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union has no bearing on the matter of immigration, so far as I understand it. Nevertheless, the leave campaign seems to have dabbled with that one as a sort of sympathetic magic, invoking the demon of interference or incursion by outsiders so as to achieve the desired result, and I'm pretty sure I haven't simply been imagining that the leave campaign has been significantly reliant upon arguments against immigration.

Those defending the leave campaign in my small corner of the internet have emphasised their distrust of EU bureaucracy exerting a malign and authoritarian influence over what happens in the United Kingdom, but I'll come to that later. Of those to whom I've spoken in person during the course of my infrequent transatlantic phone calls, two out of three specific individuals have spent the time banging on about foreigners ruining the country, which I wouldn't mind but for the fact that I tend to phone friends and family so as to keep in touch rather than just to have them read out Daily Mail headlines; and I have a faint suspicion that these persons probably voted leave. The third individual is the other half of a friendship which became difficult to sustain when he stood for election on behalf of UKIP - the right-wing independence party, a person of my own generation still living in the house in which he grew up and with limited experience of anything much that you could really describe as the world beyond. He expressed frustration at the frequent characterisation of UKIP as a racist party, and didn't even seem to understand why that might be. He even suggested that UKIP's racist credentials were to be blamed entirely on fake websites set up by those who hate UKIP in order to discredit the party, although from where I stood it never really seemed like they needed help on that score. His views on Islam - as stated in an ancient facebook comment I can't be bothered to hunt down - were, for example, something like some of the Muslim community have made me feel very unwelcome but others were quite friendly, suggesting a world view operating at about the same level as a boy scout meeting in which only certain kids will let you have some of their sweets. I'm pretty sure he will also have voted leave, drawing upon his great wealth of worldly experience so as to reach an informed decision.

I've read up on the immigration statistics and what they mean to a limited extent, and my understanding is that it's all bollocks and fear-mongering perpetrated in the name of securing either votes, newspaper sales, or viewing figures. It's the school bully pointing at funny-looking strangers and warning you that they're after your sweets so as to distract from the fact of his own mighty fist rooting around inside your school blazer. I don't really get how this isn't obvious, given that most of the testimony in support of funny-looking strangers after your sweets seems to amount to someone overheard speaking a language other than English on the bus. Maybe I'm wrong, but if you care enough to get angry about it, then maybe it's up to you to do the research, and by research I mean checking out sources other than those with a cock-obvious vested interest in having you shit yourself every time you hear a reference to Romania on the national news. There's a possibility that what you've been told by The Sun, the Daily Mail or whoever might just not be all of the story, don't you think?

My own experience of immigrants in the United Kingdom, or at least the ones referred to in hysterical newspaper headlines, comes from delivering mail to a London based center providing temporary accommodation for those seeking asylum, and from the testimony of my own mother working many years at an advice center specialising in claims made and legal issues affecting those arriving here from other countries and barely able to speak the language. It's not like I became buddies with anyone, but I can see that those people are not having an easy time of it. They don't have flat screen tellies given to them by the British government and paid for by money that would have gone to pensioners. They are trying to stay alive, and their continued use as a vote-grabbing, paper-selling scapegoat is not only fucking disgusting, but is exactly the sort of thing over which Britain fought a war between 1939 and 1945. Anyone who regards immigration as an easy option really needs to try it some time. I speak from experience.

But apparently it was never about that. It was about the bureaucracy and shopkeepers being forbidden to sell bananas of a certain curvature; and yet no-one has been able to give me a single example of this terrible EU bureaucracy imposed on the United Kingdom by unelected representatives from afar, instead focusing on the allegedly unelected status of these mysterious Eurolluminati. I've tried to understand this aspect but I can't, so either I haven't found the right source or I'm just a bit fucking thick. I wouldn't like to rule out the latter possibility, although at the same time it has struck me as significant that the leave argument looks a lot like it's suggesting that the Eurolluminati have become a major obstacle to the democratic process in the United Kingdom, which itself presupposes that there is a democratic process in the United Kingdom as opposed to fat cats doing what the fuck they want in the name of the almighty market, setting up tax breaks for their rich pals whilst using the media to encourage voters in the other direction so that we somehow end up believing it was our idea all along.

Some years ago, Royal Mail had a strike. I was working for them at the time and had voted against the strike believing there to be a much more effective means of encouraging management to see our point. I went on strike nevertheless, because you have to support your union, and the industrial action resulted in an inevitably massive backlog of undelivered mail. It was piled up everywhere in the sorting office causing such obstruction to normal operation that we were unable to cope with it under ordinary working conditions, and the amount of fresh mail coming in each day was more than we were able to deliver on a daily basis. Because Royal Mail management resented having to pay out overtime as a result of industrial action, ordinarily they wouldn't have bothered, and so we would simply be expected to process an excessive quantity of mail in the course of a normal eight-hour day. This generally meant people coming into work before their time and working through their breaks, which is illegal, but the management seemed happy to turn a blind eye. However, following this particular strike, even this practice was inadequate, and so overtime was grudgingly granted. Overtime is of course optional. You cannot legally be forced to take overtime, but because the workload was threatening to turn into a sort of junk mail volcano, we were told we were taking the overtime or else we would be disciplined for delaying the mail. The union didn't seem to have much to say about this, their view being that we should at least be glad the fuckers were paying out at last - because apparently everyone loves overtime. So I worked a ten-hour day from Monday to Thursday, slogging on through my break because forty minutes respite would have set me back even further. I was starting work at six in the morning, although sometimes getting in earlier, then working non-stop carrying heavy bags of mail until four in the afternoon because I didn't want to be disciplined for delaying the mail. It came to Friday and I found to my delight that there was no more unofficial mandatory overtime because I could not be obliged to work more than eight additional hours a week against my will. I still don't quite get how I'd been forced to work until four in the afternoon in the first place, but the eight-hour limit had been set by European Union employment laws; so that example has sort of stayed with me. That week was hell, and I suppose the term EU bureaucracy might also refer to just this sort of thing, amongst other stuff.

So I gather British business will no longer have to worry quite so much about workers' rights of this kind, and will be better able to get their money's worth out of their disposable work units; and even if I'm wrong, do you see why I might think that?

So what are we looking at here?

Workers' rights will be protected out of either the warmth and generosity of their bosses' overpaid hearts, or because the British people are now free to rise up as one and democratically make those vast multinational corporations behave themselves. As of at least five years ago, business practice seemed increasingly to be moving towards the use of non-unionised temporary workers who can be hired and fired as the market demands, and paid as little as anyone can get away with paying them.

Immigration will continue, because those people can't afford to be so fussy about their rights. Maybe we can stick them all in camps of some sort - you know, somewhere to live and sleep when they're not sweeping a road or twisting a spigot on an assembly line. They're used to living ten to a room as well, so they probably won't mind that, leaving more storage space for their fellow worker ants. I suppose such facilities will inevitably suffer the occasional firebomb, what with the extreme-right presently having experienced such a major boost to its self-esteem; but no-one's going to shed a tear over a few sand monkeys, and prison labour details can take up the slack so as to maintain productivity - plus you don't even have to pay them. Thinking about it, we can probably stick all the dole scroungers and related useless carbon blobs in there too, get them working again, get those unemployment figures down. The public should respond well to that, even if it means there won't be a new series of Benefits Street.

Doubtless there will still be a few lefties and weirdos and faggots rocking the boat as they do, and it will of course be their democratic choice as to whether or not they get with the programme.

I really hope I'm wrong about all of this, but I find it difficult to ignore the pattern. They're going after our people, and they've been going after us for a while - both the lone nutcases and the tentacular forces of the Society of the Spectacle, united in having the same enemy within their crosshairs. They don't like anything which is different, or which thinks itself too fancy, because variance devalues the pattern, and your value is relative to your economic potential as either a generator of product or a consumer of the same - product being anything, physical or otherwise, which fortifies the system.

Still, like I say, I might be wrong.

Fingers crossed.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Atheist Heaven

Atheist Heaven was what I should have renamed the internet bulletin board for which I served as administrator a few years ago. It was Carl's suggestion. We were speaking on the telephone and I could hear him struggling to breath as he rocked with silent laughter at the notion of Atheist Heaven. I liked it because it was funny and I knew it would annoy the more humourless members of the board. In the end they went for Thinking Universe, adopting a banner which showed an image of a spiral galaxy embellished with a thought bubble like you might see in a Popeye cartoon. It wasn't the worst name they could have come up with, but I thought the banner revealed a certain lack of imagination. Look, the universe is having a think!, which caused me to have a think about 1970s pub rock bands releasing albums with hopelessly literal artwork - the cover of Rockin' in the Jungle inevitably depicting band members going at their instruments in safari suits or else dressed as gorillas against a backdrop of plastic palm trees.

I'd resisted the internet for many years, but took the plunge around the beginning of 2006 after protracted nagging from my girlfriend. She didn't have internet access but wanted a relationship with someone who did - she explained testily - so as to save her the trouble of using the computers up at the library. She promised that my proposed internet access would give her a reason to visit me, which was of course very flattering.

At the time my principle interests were Mesoamerica and, to a lesser extent, science, so that's what I looked for when I first got myself plumbed into the world wide web. I discovered bulletin boards and found they served in part as a reasonable substitute for the social life I didn't quite have. There was Archaeologica, which touched upon several of my areas of interest. It was okay, but began to feel a little slow and dry after a while, and I found myself increasingly irritated by the received wisdom of mainstream archaeology as a secretive club which strives to keep the truth from the rest of us so as to save money on having to get all those archaeology textbooks rewritten and reprinted.

The Richard Dawkins board wasn't actually much better, but it was busier and they had an off-topic section where the more scatologically inclined users could discuss whatever they felt like discussing. Usually this was inconsequential shite of a puerile nature - what you had for breakfast, how much you hate Noel Edmonds, worse job you ever had, biggest poo you ever done did and so on. As with most inconsequential shite of a puerile nature, you probably had to be there. Richard Dawkins himself tended not to be there very much, apparently having assumed that most of those signed up to his bulletin board would spend their time politely discussing protons or how God is just like Father Christmas. Unfortunately, the one day upon which Richard Dawkins had some time off from splicing genomes, the one day when he happened to be there, was also the day when someone started a thread entitled Ass to Mouth or similar for discussion of a sexual act which seems more tailored to the composition of appalling jokes than to actual intimate pleasure as I would recognise it.

Richard Dawkins read Ass to Mouth, wisps of smoke trailing furiously from his ears, then deleted a whole load of similarly scatological threads and banned those responsible, not wanting his name in any way associated with the discussion of bums in a supposedly recreational capacity. I can't say this ever struck me as either surprising or even particularly unreasonable, but others using the bulletin board had much stronger feelings, having put a lot of work into Ass to Mouth and now suspecting that this virtual pogrom represented a violation of their freedom of speech, possibly even their basic human rights. About three-hundred members of the Richard Dawkins board therefore took their custom elsewhere, specifically to the Thinking Aloud forum as set up by Sid's Snake. The three-hundred included those who had been banned from Richard Dawkins' board; those who had left as a show of solidarity with those banned and who now didst go forth unto the wilderness seeking a bulletin board which wasn't quite so much like NAZI GERMANY; and persons such as myself who went along following the trail of chuckles, and who had never really been so fascinated by protons that we felt the need to argue about them with complete strangers.

Sid's Snake turned out to be some hairy metal guy from northern California, a couple of years younger than myself and who took photographs of the rock group Kiss for a living - or something like that. He was, in addition, a proclaimed atheist with an interest in science and all that good stuff, and he'd set up Thinking Aloud in anticipation of Richard Dawkins losing his rag and suddenly expelling a whole load of potty-mouthed angels from his virtual creation. In case it isn't obvious, I've substituted the names of those involved with those of characters from Whizzer & Chips comic because it's amusing to me, and I don't really feel like identifying any of the fuckers, having no desire to resume communications with them; so let us, for the sake of argument, work with the notion that Thinking Aloud was set up by Sid's Snake.

Thinking Aloud was fun for a while, if possibly somewhat impenetrable to outsiders due to the rise of small cliques of users with their own inscrutable sets of in-jokes, which seemed to be reflected in favouritism on the part of the moderators - those granted administrative powers to police the forum so as to prevent anyone engaging in cunty behaviour. Inevitably, as with any environment in which a certain percentage of the population take themselves far too seriously, after about six months there was a schism. Odd Ball had been banned for being a bit of an argumentative tosspot. Protests were made suggesting that with the expulsion of Odd Ball, the forum had become too much like NAZI GERMANY and Sid's Snake was actually a lot like Adolf Hitler when you thought about it, so Sid's Snake banned those involved. This was apparently exactly what Hitler would have done. Luckily Sweet Tooth had anticipated Sid's Snake losing the plot and had spent the previous months setting up yet another forum called Rationalia, so everyone went there instead.

I posted on Rationalia for a little while, but never really took to the place. The repeated schisms seemed to have generated a more concentrated strain of self-important atheist - unless they had always been that way and I'd simply never noticed. The atmosphere of the forum was jovial but often with a suggestion of the passive-aggressive, a nastily Darwinian undercurrent, like hanging out with a hyaena-pack of public schoolboys all waiting for you to say something stupid or to reveal some hitherto unsuspected weakness, but for now biding their time with knob gags or by quoting Monty Python and Douglas fucking Adams zingers at one another. Minnie's Mixer quipped that Rationalia was like a cross between 4Chan and the Richard Dawkins forum, which was I suppose her version of you don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!, missing the point that 4Chan - a famously unmoderated image board - was at least occasionally funny, and Rationalia was mostly droning middle-class liberals with a pathological need to be right about something or other sat around agreeing what fine sport it was to scoff at Christians, to engage them in debate and make them cry. This was the point at which I no longer had any desire to call myself an atheist, specifically when it was asked how more chew toys might be drawn to the forum, chew toys being religious persons who might be induced to sign up and then bullied into either renouncing their faith or giving up and slinking off to general cries of victory, gloating, and congratulating ourselves on our magnificent rationality.

Additionally, possibly because God is dead with morality and even personal responsibility an illusion, the forum developed an unpleasantly sexualised undercurrent, allegedly expressed in an inner sanctum apparently modelled on back issues of Reader's Wives, driving at least some of the membership away. It was all very 1960s. Newly signed up and hypothetically female users - so far as it was possible to tell on the internet - were invited to post photos of their tits on at least a couple of occasions; but apparently that was just high spirits and anyway the hypothetical women hadn't minded so it was all okay. If anything, they had probably enjoyed the lively jocularity of the exchange. The suggestion that the forum had turned into a virtual knocking shop was deftly countered with arguments amounting to if you think the board has developed an overtly sexual tone then you're very wrong because the board hasn't developed an overtly sexual tone.


I drifted back to Thinking Aloud which by this point was down to a regular membership of around three, excepting Rationalians nipping back to save HTML copies of ye olde precious threads which had been crafted by their own fair hands, the virtual artifacts which must be saved that future generations might benefit from the wisdom of Sexy or Salad Dodger? and its like. I had initially mistaken casual speculation about how one day someone might make a film about our little corner of the internet for sarcasm, but no, some of these people genuinely seemed to believe we were kind of important in the great scheme of things, if not the three-hundred, then we Atheists; or we friendly rabid atheists, as the Rationalia strapline had it.

Ha ha.

You don't have to be mad to work here... but it helps!

Back at Thinking Aloud, Sid's Snake had recruited a couple of his real life stoner buddies to make the place look busy, but you could tell they didn't really give a shit about atheism, science, the internet, or saying anything funny. Still, Sid's Snake had an idea. He was going to buy an existing atheist bulletin board and merge it with Thinking Aloud. I suppose having put some amount of work into the forum, he just couldn't let it go. He seemed to have a vision where the place was concerned. It sounded like a reasonable idea at the time. For all of its faults, I'd still enjoyed Thinking Aloud significantly more than any other internet forum of which I'd been a member, and I hadn't yet quite seen the appeal of facebook, so that was my virtual social life, or as good as. We had a look at a few other thematically-similar boards, mostly populated with humourless bores and thus entirely unsuitable for assimilation. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own, we suggested helpfully. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile, but they weren't having it, so the search continued, at least until we discovered Atheist Nation.

Atheist Nation had been set up by some guy called Robert a few years before, but Robert had become a born again Christian and had understandably lost interest in the board, which would therefore cease to exist when his last payment to the host or the server or however it worked ran out. Sid's Snake made him an offer, and Robert said yes.

Where the three-hundred seemed predominantly English Grauniad reading middle-class with just a soup├žon of debate conducted by means of hilarious references to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - as an admittedly broad generalisation - Atheist Nation was comprised of generally younger members, mostly American and working class or at least blue collar, many of whom significantly regarded Richard Dawkins as a bit of a dick. If the Rationalia branch of atheism was a chance for a jolly interesting debate with the pleasure of getting to be right about something, over and over, for Atheist Nation it seemed more like a means of staying sane, particularly for those poor fuckers representing the lone voice not asking Jesus for a new car, job, or pair of tits in some terrifying Baptist backwater. Additionally, Atheist Nation had a few severely ornery types - as we say in Texas - as part of the equation, persons virtually incapable of turning on the computer without upsetting somebody, but it made for a less predictable and slightly more dynamic virtual environment than Rationalia's evolving festival of self-congratulation and cosily, familiar jokes.

The merging of one temporarily vacant bulletin board with the populace of another was a success in some respects, although not everyone was happy about it, this being the internet. Fuss Pot, possibly one of the most boring women ever to set people straight on social media, had been a moderator at Atheist Nation when it first started and had since found herself amongst the three-hundred. Now she returned to Thinking Aloud to protest the violation of basic human rights of Atheist Nation members. Wait until Robert hears about this, she raged righteously, unaware of Robert having found Jesus due to the fact of her not having given two shits about Atheist Nation for the previous five years. Sid's Snake was exactly like Adolf Hitler, she bravely protested in the spirit of Che Guevara, John Lennon, and one of those monks who sets himself on fire.

I could really do without this, I suggested to her, pointing out that Atheist Nation had been a sinking ship at the time of its assimilation, and that she was talking bollocks as usual.

If you don't like the drama, you should have thought about that before you became an admin, she typed righteously, ignoring my actual point, possibly simultaneously shouting at the computer screen; so that was me told.

The new improved Thinking Aloud began to settle. Those for whom the merge had been a step in the wrong direction drifted away, and a core group of regular posters established itself, remaining  stable for a year or two in so much as any form of social media ever remains stable. We had about five or six moderators, and the key to the board's success, if any of it can be termed successful, seems to have been that Sid's Snake had apparently learned his lesson and had taken a back seat in terms of running the place. He posted from time to time and he made suggestions, but he spent most of his day concentrating on some other related project, something he wasn't telling us about.

Months passed and it dawned on me that I'd never really wanted to serve as admin on an atheist bulletin board, having originally stepped in on the understanding of it being a temporary thing; and part of the problem was that I don't like atheists, or at least I tend to dislike people with a strong need to identify as atheist.

It comes down to basic manners. I myself have never had any strongly religious belief and could therefore most likely be considered atheist by some definition, but I don't see an absence of belief in something as a defining, interesting, or even useful characteristic any more than I would my promote my lifelong hatred of kedgeree as indicative of culinary credentials. That which drew me to atheist bulletin boards in the first place was mostly science and knob gags rather than a desire to discuss my not believing in something; and this has been particularly so since Atheism has become a cause in its own right and, in terms of social media, a stick with which to beat others over the head.

I understand why, as a rallying cry to those disaffected, declared atheism might seem a necessary means of combating the rise of extremist and fundamentalist religions, but is it really? When was the last time hitting anyone over the head with an essay and calling them a fucking idiot made any difference other than cementing them more firmly to whatever screwy convictions you were hoping to dissolve? So if it's all just pissing into the wind, what are we left with if not net-dwelling antisocials who are only able to elevate themselves by pushing down on someone else? It's not so much that atheists are inherently dull as that there's not much joy to be had from anyone who is able to discuss only one thing, particularly when that one thing is how they don't believe in something with such vigour that they're prepared to regard even the slightest variance of opinion as essentially cunty. Additionally, as Lewis Black has pointed out, you can usually tell a fanatic by their lack of a sense of humour, a definition I would expand to encompass the same old show us your tits jokes and Python quotes year after year after year on the grounds that simple repetition should never be confused with actual wit.

So specifically Atheist opinion expressed on social media has, in my experience, tended to fall into one of a fairly limited number of categories. Whilst whistles blown upon religious idiocy such as - for one example - Charles Darwin nudged out of the biology textbooks by educational systems which feel somehow bound to respect the views of drooling morons, are certainly to be commended, I've never felt it useful to start screaming about irrationality when dealing with inherently irrational people; and the problem is surely not so much their idiocy as the existence of a system in which their idiocy is granted currency. So most campaigning against religiously-inspired tomfoolery tends to take the form of don't you think this is terrible?! and serves mainly to consolidate a consensus view of yes, this is terrible without making the slightest difference to anyone but those nodding their heads and patting each other on the back over how much more enlightened they are than hilarious yokels from rural Arkansas or wherever. Nothing progressive is achieved, least of all communication, and most likely because it can be quite difficult to communicate with a person once you've likened them to a drooling thirteenth-century serf whilst channelling Terry Thomas.

Come to think of it, most specifically Atheist opinion that I've seen expressed on social media has amounted to don't you think this is terrible?! The aforementioned Fuss Pot had very little else to say, whether it was her suspiciously anti-Semitic campaign to have some hundred year-old carved image of a menora removed from a public building - because yeah, that one was a real violation of human rights - or her bravely facebooking of statistics demonstrating that gun ownership is most prevalent in areas of the United States with a high incidence of religious fundamentalism, because wow - who would have fucking thunk it, eh?

A survey conducted by somebody or other inspired a thread on Thinking Aloud seriously suggesting that Atheists are now the most persecuted minority in the United States. Whether true or not, the survey struck me as more to do with the adopted victim mentality of persons such as Fuss Pot who, like all good vessels of middle class guilt, tend to need to distract from their own privilege by expressing either solidarity with, or suffering parallel to that of those actually getting their front doors kicked in at two in the morning by angry retards. I tried to point this out on the forum, but the response was something along the lines of oh - so you think it's a good thing that children as young as six months are being raped by priests? You think that's a good thing, do you? You think that's fine?

This is about as much sense as I've ever had from persons who feel the need to introduce themselves as Atheist, those for whom not doing something is a defining quality. Of course, I can understand it up to a point, and I agree with a fair amount of what is written in Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, and I'm keen on the separation of church and state guaranteed by the constitution of my recently adopted homeland; but I don't believe anything reduced to black and white arguments of good and evil is ever helpful; and I don't believe that calling people delusional is ever conducive to meaningful dialogue, no matter how crazy they may be; because, in case no-one noticed, that's what the other lot have been doing all along and that's why we don't really like them. There are plenty of problems in the world without inventing new ones such as Atheists as a persecuted minority, and none of those problems will be addressed by don't you think this is terrible?!, or by further disenfranchising the opposition with divisions bearing a suspicious resemblance to lines once defined by class; and on a more personal note - or at least one more directly pertinent to my own private obsessions - there's probably not much point taking any kind of interest in human history, art, or even science if you're driven by some pathological need to divide everything up into rational and irrational whilst presuming the latter to comprise essentially useless information. If, for example, your understanding of mythology can be reduced to it's all superstitious innit, then what you have isn't really an understanding.

Thinking Aloud seemed to work better in its Atheist Nation phase, at least from where I was stood, and specifically because there was no unifying cause behind which we were all expected to rally, and no-one who gave a shit about Douglas fucking Adams. Occasionally a new member would sign up and make the increasingly familiar introductory post about Jesus being non-rational nonsense that is not rational and has no reason and is nonsense and is logically irrational, apparently expecting a virtual round of applause; or a patently crazy individual identified as Dennis Markuze would post bizarre and lengthy attacks promising all you little atheists are gonna get your heads cut off which we immediately deleted; but mostly the board ambled along and looked after itself.

Unfortunately this wasn't quite enough for Sid's Snake. He had a vision of something bigger, and he was never entirely happy about the way things were, the posting habits of the forum membership or our general lack of manners - which admittedly also pissed me off from time to time. Sid's Snake had vowed to maintain a strictly advisory role, suggesting rather than intervening because he'd learned his lesson and you guys are doing an amazing job without me. This didn't quite work as promised because every time he advisoried something which the rest of us failed to implement on the grounds of it being a terrible idea, he just went ahead and did it anyway.

He seemed to be getting more and more involved, despite promises to the contrary, because it turned out he had been working on a much larger project, a social media site called Evolving Hub, or at least that was one of a number of fairly uninspiring names. The most ludicrous was probably Symbiant Minds, whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. It was going to be bigger than facebook, and Thinking Aloud would be just one small part of it; and I presume this must have been back before the advent of some new piece of shit social media crap which will be bigger than facebook was a more or less daily occurrence. Evolving Hub would be for like-minded people who don't like Jesus, and possibly even for some who don't mind him that much. We could blog on Evolving Hub, post pictures, have a network of friends, and keep all of our different bulletin boards open in different windows, and there would be something called the Pink Pages if we wanted to organise orgies of like-minded consenting rationalists, and Thinking Aloud would be somewhere in there too but Jesus, you guys really need to get the place under control. The problem was that Sid's Snake saw himself as some kind of benevolent social media Buddha smiling benignly down upon his grateful minions as we sat around politely discussing rational shit or arguing over which Judas Priest album was the most awesome, but it was never going to happen because Sid's Snake didn't actually seem to like people, and he never understood when they failed to behave according to his vision.

Becoming increasingly frustrated with us, and with threads which failed to resemble transcripts of discussion at the Oxford University Debating Society, Sid's Snake started up a new forum and began to invite us over to take a look around. There were a lot more rules and it mostly seemed to comprise sections he'd proposed for Thinking Aloud which we'd either rejected as too lame or had tried and then rejected when no-one took the slightest bit of interest. It began to feel as though we were dealing with a stoner version of Captain Mainwaring.

I spoke to him on the phone a couple of times, transatlantic calls made at his request so we could discuss the future of the place. There was a lot of hey in there, also man and dude and the rest, and I suspect there were a couple of times when he was actually calling from inside a bong; but he never really made much sense, and I could never tell what the point of the call had been.

He paid me a few hundred dollars to revise and rewrite the text of facebook's terms of use so as to avoid copyright problems when he added it to the Evolving Hub small print, this sort of shite:

Like most websites, we maintain an access log which includes IP address information. This is done for our security and yours. These logs are deleted from the server periodically, but we make no specific guarantees about their longevity. We reserve the right to log IPs at any time. To prevent your IP address from being logged you must access the site through a proxy server. The site's functionality may be impaired when using a proxy.

I came close to slipping into a coma on a couple of occasions whilst undertaking this task. There seemed to be pages and pages of it, and he was paying me because hey, you're the writer guy - you have the way with words and shit. Evolving Hub was going to make all of us rich, so what the hell, I thought, why not? That said, I had a hunch that Evolving Hub probably wasn't going to make all of us rich, and probably wasn't even going to happen given Sid's Snake's track record of periodically pissing off everyone around him, but it wasn't like I had anything better to do.

The sadly inevitable end came when Tiny Tycoon was banned. One evening he'd been there, posting away on Thinking Aloud as usual and the next morning he was gone, and Sid's Snake had filled up my private messages inbox with requests stating that I needed to get in touch and to back him up on this one. We had to present a united front.

First it was claimed that Tiny Tycoon had been redecorating our precious forum with the kind of pornography which Gary Glitter had on his computer. Then he'd actually just been providing links to a popular kiddy-fiddling site on our precious forum. Then he'd been providing links to 4Chan on our precious forum, which Sid's Snake insisted was a popular kiddy-fiddling site. When after half a morning of this I finally got to the truth, and it turned out that Tiny Tycoon had simply mentioned 4Chan in some thread or other, and had mentioned it because he'd recently looked at the place, decided it was horrible, and was telling the rest of us to avoid it like the plague. He hadn't provided a link and it wasn't the sort of site Sid's Snake had claimed it to be through a haze of weed smoke.

I gave Sid's Snake a call. He was raving. He sounded as though he was channelling William Shatner's acting. I explained that I had lifted the ban on Tiny Tycoon because the guy hadn't done anything wrong, and he certainly hadn't been attempting to promote  pornography of any description, and we probably owed him an apology. Sid's Snake went into a rant predicated on the understanding that I'd never heard of 4Chan, had no idea what it was, and hadn't actually said any of the things I had just said to him.

I set him straight. 'Yes, I've seen 4Chan, thank you. It's an image board without much in the way of moderation, and I'm not a big fan of the place either. Sometimes that sort of thing gets posted there and it might be up for ten minutes or so before somebody removes it and the person responsible is blocked, so what you're worried about is down to members rather than the site itself. It's no more pornographic than Thinking Aloud or any other forum. Somebody could post that stuff at our place, and we'd remove it and ban them. That doesn't make us Gary Glitter. Do you see what I'm saying here?'

He didn't. 'I've seen a picture on 4Chan where a fifty year-old dude has his [description of something you don't really need to think about], so do you think that's okay? Is that the sort of thing you think we should be linking on Thinking Aloud? Do you think that's cool? Would you like to see that on our forum? Would you? Would you? Would you like to see that? That stuff is okay by you, is it?'

I pointed out that no-one had provided links to anything of the sort, but I was wasting my time. I listened to another ten minutes of the same shit over and over and then put the phone down on him. Never trust a hippie, I reminded myself. I should never have let myself forget that one.

Sid's Snake engaged us in the staff room - a private area of the forum visible only to moderators - us being myself and the seven or eight other members of Thinking Aloud staff at the time. He stuck to his story regardless of the suspicious deletion of the supposedly offending material, the terrible thread in which Tiny Tycoon had posted the kind of pornography which Gary Glitter had on his computer, or provided a link to a source of the same, or not actually done any of these things. No agreement was reached, no admission of error or possible misinterpretation on the part of Sid's Snake, not even an acknowledgment of how many times he'd changed his story;  and at last I understood why most of the three-hundred had ended up hating the cunt.

He vanished from the forum and from our lives. Thinking Aloud continued with a few murmurs about buying the place from our drug-addled mentor, but it never came to anything and then without a word he pulled the plugs. A few of the others got to work on what became known as Thinking Universe, yet another breakaway bulletin board, and the Evolving Hub empire never happened; and I came to realise that on reflection I don't really like bulletin boards, or the sort of people who habitually hang around on them, or people who need to be right, or who need to belong to an exclusive club or a cult of any kind. It turned out that I already had friends, at least as many as I could possibly need, people who had been there all along even if it wasn't always obvious. Some of them even have views on religious or other matters which differ quite significantly from my own, because that's how the world works, despite the opinions of anyone who might wish it were otherwise.

Friday, 10 June 2016


On Sunday the 8th of May, 2016, Simon Morris of the Ceramic Hobs left the following inspirational post on facebook:

Blackpool was worryingly quiet last Monday for bank holiday and a good table at Harry Ramsden's was too easy to get at teatime. But this weekend things have perked up - the most badly behaved conference attendees ever, the Young Farmers are in town. In my youth before cheap foreign travel became a reality the rampages of 'Scots Fortnight' were a thing feared by locals. Going back almost a century, the Wakes Weeks had whole mill towns like Wigan visiting en masse and hospitalising, infecting and impregnating each other under the piers. Not quite the sanitised version as portrayed by dear old Gracie Fields, there are remarkable stories in local history books surrounding the 1930s Blackpool Carnivals and why they were abandoned - too much carnival.

My first sight of the farmers tonight was a man urinating in broad daylight in full public view by North Pier. Magnificent. The bars, drug dealers, brothels, police cells and A&E cubicles will be doing a roaring trade tonight and glad of the farmers' custom. These people are very dangerous and absolute scumbags, the men and women both. I walk through it all unscathed always, I dress in a nondescript style and don't catch anyone's eyes and don't feel fear. I love bad behaviour from humans very much. The hell with laws and sense. The hell with morals and art and politics. Drink, Fight and Fuck!

As a sensitive child, I would have found such sentiments appalling, but at the age of fifty, the words just made me think of Ripper, a person with whom I never really had anything in common beyond a job, and whom I probably haven't even set eyes on this century, but who nevertheless made a huge impression; and he made a huge impression because he was terrifying, and could quite easily have been that magnificent man urinating in broad daylight in full public view by North Pier.

Ripper wasn't actually his name, but that's what everyone called him. I never found out why. I always assumed it to be because he was, as I said, terrifying, just as Peter Sutcliffe was terrifying. Having a nickname which attempts to make jovial association with dismembered prostitutes will strike many as extreme and possibly disgusting, but I'm setting the story down from memory rather than making it up, and that's just how it was.

Ripper was a couple of years older than me as I was in my twenties when I started work as a postman at Catford delivery office. He was tall, a little skinny, and with a ratty sort of face - which isn't supposed to be an insult. He wore his hair tied back in a ponytail, but otherwise bore a strong resemblance to the Nick Cotton character from EastEnders, in terms of both personality and appearance; or at least his face always seemed to be twisted into the devious leer of Nick Cotton cheerily asking cup o' tea, ma?, having just raided his long-suffering mother's savings account and spent the lot on nose candy. Maybe it's just me, but Nick Cotton was the only reason I ever watched EastEnders. He was great.

I started work at Catford delivery office in August 1990 and immediately understood Ripper to be my natural enemy. I was trying to grow a moustache and beard at the time, but my efforts were straggling and pitiful, and Ripper gave me the nickname Catweazle based on my resemblance to a similarly unkempt character from a children's television show of that name. The problem wasn't just that he only ever referred to me as Catweazle, or that it annoyed me; it was the raw delight he took from my displeasure, and his peculiarly creative use of the nickname. He was a van driver, whilst I was a postman, and our duties were such that we had no real reason to interact; so to circumnavigate this obstacle he'd stand behind me and just repeat it in a peculiarly squeaky voice.

Catweazle. Catweazle.

This meant that the nickname never lay fallow or neglected, and he applied the same delivery system to other victims, Ralph being one. Ralph had picked up Big Bag as a nickname owing to how much mail he'd managed to stuff into a single delivery sack on one particular morning.

Big Bag, Big Bag, Big Bag, in that weird squeaky voice like an obsessive-compulsive chaffinch or someone operating the Pop-O-Matic dice bubble from a seventies board game; and then somebody else would usually chip in with the inevitable variation on Burt Bacharach and Hal David's song, what's it all about... Ralphie?

Ralph always looked ready to kill someone.

Being a bit of a knob, I attempted to engage with Ripper, to decommission his campaign against me with both logic and an appeal to his better nature, but he wasn't interested in the first and didn't possess the second; although my efforts weren't entirely wasted in that they clearly brought him further satisfaction, sometimes inspiring him to elaborate on the theme by asking me questions, whether I had a toad called Touchwood, or when I called in sick if I did so by means of a telling bone.

My role was as a source of amusement by which he might tolerate the indignity of being at work. In fact that's how he saw most of us. He didn't really do communication in any conventional sense.

Being a van driver, it was his role to deliver packets which were too big for the postmen to carry; so if anything too humongous erroneously found its way into your packet bag, you just took it over to your driver - Joe or Robby or whoever it was that week.

Unfortunately Carl's driver was Ripper. He shuffled over, politely setting forth the proposal in his nasal John Major voice. 'Here - are you doing Boundfield Road this week because—'

'Fuck off,' Ripper suggested, kicking the parcel out of Carl's hand so that it sailed upwards in an arc to the far side of the sorting office. He had a bit of a hangover that morning, and was in no mood for idiocy, or people asking him to do things.

I worked at Catford for two or three years, eventually getting to know everyone fairly well, as well as you can know anyone at work, eventually fitting in as much as any of us ever fit in. Ripper would still take time out of his busy schedule to taunt me by meaninglessly repeating my nickname in a high voice, but was no longer quite the enemy, if he had ever been. I was invited to the fairly regular piss-ups down the pub, and outside of work I got to see a different side of Ripper, although it was actually more or less identical to the first side. I was still Catweazle, but the difference was that we were now buying each other drinks; and only drinks. I took Zammo's advice and just said no when it came to the nose candy. It wasn't just me who said no.

'Have it your way,' Ripper growled bitterly at the other one who had declined the offer, 'but don't come crying to me at two in the morning when I'm sat there with a big red hooter!'

When I announced that I had put in for a transfer to another sorting office, I was surprised at Ripper's response. It actually seemed like he was going to miss me, as though we were friends by some definition.

'What you want to go there for?' he asked philosophically. 'That's a fucking rent boy's office, that place.'

Nevertheless I transferred, and the last I'd heard of Ripper was that he'd got married, and the presiding vicar had supposedly asked are you really sure about this? during the ceremony.

I've no idea where Ripper is now. He might be dead or in prison for all I know; and this isn't really a story with any sort of moral or point, just an assemblage of stupid annoying shit which passed the time, and which had nothing to do with art, or a better world, or people being nice to each other. The point of this - if we're going to pretend that there is one for the sake of closure - is that sometimes it's healthy to find oneself surrounded by dangerous arseholes, or failing that, people who aren't necessarily going to agree with everything you say, or even care whether you say anything. The contrast is good for the development of a healthy sense of perspective. Like Simon Morris, I too love bad behaviour from humans very much - which on closer inspection probably isn't strictly true; which therefore conversely proves it to be a wonderful thing specifically because it makes my inner Lord Longford squirm with horror.

Ripper was a monster, but just like that man urinating in broad daylight in full public view by North Pier, he was also magnificent - maybe still is, for all I know - and not least because he was right about me. That beard I tried to grow really was ridiculous.

I suspect this is one of the things we, as a society, often dislike about bullies, or a certain kind of bully: sometimes they're right.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Wah! Wah! It's So Unfair!

I was an awkward teenager, or at least I felt awkward. Whether my awkwardness was apparent to those around me was something I never discovered, and I lacked the apparatus to deduce what anyone thought of me at any given time; so mostly I assumed they regarded me as idiotic just to be on the safe side. I was occasionally clumsy, both physically and mentally. I often found myself lacking the words with which to express myself, which was probably for the best. Had I greater intellectual agility, I probably would have realised that I didn't actually have anything much worth expressing.

Myself and a few others formed a band when we were at school. We had a couple of instruments which we couldn't play very well, and we used cardboard boxes for drums. Every weekend we'd convene around a tape recorder to improvise scatological interpretations of children's television theme songs. I still have all of the tapes. Unsurprisingly they're not quite so funny as we thought them at the time, although some are funny for reasons other than those intended. Here's myself telling a joke at the end of one of these tapes, specifically Nine Inch Turd in the Cassette, my debut solo album recorded as the Post-War Busconductors;

There's this pig and er - hold on. Oh yeah. There's this pig- this farmer buys this pig and erm... at market one day, and he takes it home, and he's very proud of this pig and erm... gives it a bit of food and er... he's okay and then one day he catches this sort of disease and he's walking along eating this apple, and he walks past the pig sty, this farmer... and he's just finished it and he's got the core and he thinks ah the pig can have the core, I mean they eat anything don't they? So he throws it in and erm... you know the pig up until then, it hasn't had anything to eat because it hasn't been his feeding time yet and so erm... anyway he gives it this apple core and er... you know - later on he feeds it, and er... That night he goes to sleep. He has this funny dream. Then when he wakes up in the morning he thinks hey, that's funny - my alarm clock can't be right. It's still dark. And so he er... well, you know looks around, opens the window. Well he just manages to... press it open, and this smell of shit comes in. Oh God - it's horrible; and er... and he realises that all this is shit because incidentally this farm is in a valley - a really bad place for a farm, all the same and erm... so er... luckily the telephone is upstairs because you know the shit just comes up to the top of the stairs; and he phones up all these people and eventually they dig him out, and after a few months he slowly works out where all this shit is coming from. It's the pig, you see. It's caught this disease, and even if you give it a tiny little something - you know like erm... give it an orange slice or something. it does a massive great pile of shit - an average of one inch of food - one square inch of food to about ten square yards of shit, so you can imagine it's pretty bad...

To cut to the chase, the agriculturalist stops up the pig's anus with a cork and sells him to three African gentleman of differing heights - the traditional big one, normal-sized one, and little one of so many children's racist jokes - crucially neglecting to mention the creature's digestive issues. The three African gentlemen return to the jungle with their newly acquired pig, and to a sadly inevitable encounter with a representative of a species of Cork Pulling Monkey. The punchline, for what it may be worth, is you should have seen the monkey trying to put the cork back in.

It takes me over six minutes to tell the joke, and it just isn't that funny. The most depressing aspect of this is that, without access to either my diaries or the cassette tapes recorded by me and my friends, I would date this to when I was twelve or maybe thirteen, because that feels about right. The material transcribed above was recorded on Thursday the 1st of January, 1981, so I was fifteen, two thirds of a year short of turning sixteen. I'm not sure if it's simply that I was a late developer, or that I now have a disproportionate quantity of friends who had already read Plato's Republic by that age, but the fact stands that at the age of fifteen, I probably didn't have much going for me beyond some rudimentary aptitude for drawing pictures.

More recently, roughly half way through the nineties, I couldn't help but notice that as I approached thirty, I still suffered from a certain social ineptitude. I felt awkward around people almost regardless of whether they were friends or complete strangers. I was prone to stupid, melodramatic utterances, things which I thought might impress my peers yet which I would later recognise as idiotic; and I was hardly what you would describe as a hit with the chicks. I lacked confidence in some respects, and I suspect this was because on some level I was at least sufficiently intelligent as to have recognised my own limitations.

I experimented with blaming my parents, as I expect most people do at one point or another. They hadn't loved me, or had never said so out loud. Neither of them had ever hugged me, I reminded myself whilst ignoring the obvious point that we simply hadn't been that kind of family and we found such ostentatious demonstrations of affection awkward. They had separated and divorced when I was seventeen, leaving me traumatised, which was proven by my being unable to remember anything much of that year. It had been so horrible that I had forgotten all about it, just like all those guys who fought in 'Nam.

I told myself this stuff because it was as good an explanation as any, and it seemed in tune with the zeitgeist, Kurt Cobain and others issuing forth with primal screams lamenting that day the school bully had taken his milk and called him a gaylord. The problem was that it didn't ring true. I knew I'd had an average but generally decent childhood, perhaps not one speckled with gold stars of well done, Lawrence, but no-one had ever beaten me, and I never went hungry, and the old pee and em hadn't driven me over to Banbury and left me with Gary Glitter when they fancied a night out; and I knew that in the unlikely event of my ever becoming a father, my parenting would probably be of about the same standard as their's had been.

I have seen a psychotherapist, or at least a person with psychiatric training of some description, on three separate occasions. Each time the spectre of the dramatically bifurcating family life of my teenage years has been brought back as a possible source of delayed trauma. On one of these occasions I was invited to hug a massive Teddy whilst crying in order to let it all out, or something. I complied, miming the release of repressed emotions because I'd realised it would be easier than explaining that I really didn't feel anything about it, and all of this delving around in the supposed depths of my allegedly tortured subconscious was getting boring, even annoying.

Here's what I remember.

My parents were married. Occasionally they would have rows, but nothing overly dramatic or involving broken crockery. My mother didn't seem particularly happy, but there were things that made her happy. My father was the same, although I don't remember a whole lot of traditional father-son stuff because I don't think we really knew what to say to each other. I suspect he regarded me as being a bit weird, which is probably fair. I vaguely recall one incident of my going out to the garden to fetch something or other, slipping my feet into my mother's platform heeled sandals just for the sake of having something on my feet. I was wearing brass curtain rings on the fingers of one hand, four in all - one for each Beatle.

'Do you think he's all right?' I heard my father ask a few minutes later, clearly bewildered and probably envisioning my future life of casual homosexual encounters in an assortment of opium dens; and I remember this when I find myself inspired to ask similar questions of my stepson, who is presently twelve.

My mother took a degree in English literature, and then a job. I have the impression that something of an extra-marital nature may have occurred between herself and someone at her workplace during this time, an impression formed mainly from the contents of rows which began to flare up with unusual frequency as I was turning sixteen. One row seemed to refer directly to me, and I heard my mother lamenting that he just goes on and on and on all day and he won't shut up, which I found upsetting because I had assumed that she found our apparently-not-so-little talks fascinating. It upset me so much that my cries of anguish were heard from downstairs, and so my father came up to console me.

He talked about your mother and I, and I knew then that there was something seriously wrong because he was addressing me as though I were an adult, and that whatever was wrong wasn't just about me.

Then they separated, or specifically my mother vanished, and a couple of weeks later it turned out that she was renting a flat in Stratford-upon-Avon. She'd been unhappy for some time, and it was just one of those things. I lived alone in the house with my father for six months, and then moved away to live in a student house in Kent as I took a degree. He had seemed like a broken man, going to work, coming home, not saying much but just trying to get through to whatever came next.

More recently I discovered the diaries I kept at the time, but details referring to my parents' imploding marital situation are limited to occasional references to them rowing yet again, then the faintly acidic acknowledgment of occasions of my mother deigning to grace us with her presence in the immediate wake of the separation. Considering the reams of shitty portentous poetry I was inspired to write at that age, you might imagine some of it would refer to betrayal, generational disillusionment and so on, but no - it's mostly the torment of some girl at school failing to notice me, which was usually because I was still working up the courage to speak to her.

Contrary to my later yearning for something to blame, my parents' separation left little impression because it had occurred just as my small world was already experiencing upheaval, and because most of it had occurred off camera, expressing in details discovered after the fact. It left me with little reason to apportion blame because it really was just one of those things, a situation which became shitty simply because we aren't living in a perfect world, and a situation which resolved itself in a particular way because it had no other option; with the bottom line being that I probably would have done the same in any of the available roles.

We're all still alive, and all still talking to each other, and with no-one under any illusion regarding what actually happened, what hadn't been working right and so on; and so I suppose this means that for all of my incoherently idiotic qualities, for all of my development seemingly having been scheduled about five years short of my physical age, I was at least sharp in some respects, specifically in being unable to endure so much of my own bullshit as to rewrite circumstances and misfortune as unrequited trauma. If I was kind of slow, at least I understood some things, and knew uncomfortable truths to be preferable to appealing lies, if that doesn't sound too pompous.

So here, against all expectations and contrary to anything I could have predicted, here I am married and living in Texas with a stepson who is probably more or less as I was at the same age, give or take some small change. The more I dig into my own childhood, the better I seem to understand him, and the more I'm inclined to let it go when he talks rubbish or appears to behave in a selfish way.

I'm just making this stuff up as I go along, but it turns out that this is all any of us are doing, or have ever done. It's the best we can do, and usually it's enough.