Choose Happy

A while since I’ve posted, so time to get back in the saddle.

Unfortunately, all my time outside of that portion of the day I should devote to my employers has been spent dealing with an emergency that blew up out of nowhere. To be honest, it also ate into work time, and until last Friday my lunch hour actually lacked the lunch.

Somewhere in all that I had a significant birthday, for which I had long ago booked a two day break (and which I had planned to spend home away from everyday stresses and strains). Well, that didn’t happen either due to the emergency.

But the compensation was that other – equally unexpected and far more pleasant – things happened. People who I didn’t know cared (or even noticed me) demonstrated great kindness. Much of the major stress I had to deal with has been reduced, or even removed entirely. And this was done by people who I had written off as anal careerists.

It may just be that my problems were a blockage to “business as usual” or their career plans that had to be dealt with, though there is plenty of evidence that it happened simply because they were worried about me. I really don’t know, but whyever it happened it made the difference, and I am grateful.

All of which means that these days I can wake up feeling full of love for my odd, unique but beautiful family – all of them. To steal the title of a surrealist classic I am reading, a mad love.

Love with no expectance of fair or equal response or reward – the only kind worth practicing. And I intend to do just that.

And to add to all that, a friend who, just before Christmas, had warned us that he didn’t expect to live beyond February now has a better diagnosis. One of those folk whose glass is permanently half-full, and who spreads nothing but good cheer, he met both his original death sentence and his new medical verdict with jokes. He seemed more worried that we would worry than he was of his own mortality.

Indeed, on the very day of his early diagnosis (which none of us then knew about) he sent me an e-mail congratulating me on some random bit of sweetness and light I had just attempted to throw around. It wouldn’t have helped him, but his only concern was to make sure I kept at it.

If I learn anything from all this, it’s that every time there is a choice (and there always is) we can choose to be happy, and choose to make someone else happy.

I don’t care if that isn’t rational. I’ve had enough of common sense and rationality for a while. This year, I take a sabbatical from all that.


Some new year nonsense

Well, new year starts today, so traditionally the time when you resolve to join a gym, drink less, give up smoking or something – only to weaken within a week.

Nothing like that for me, but I have had enough of accountancy-based lifestyles. Time to stop this relentless obsession with balancing the books. Why not give because you love, or do because you want to?

Capitalism doesn’t make sense, though, to be honest, neither do all the other political or moral creeds based, ultimately, on who owns what. In the end, it’s the obsession with things that ruins everything.

There’s enough to go round, so not being greedy would be a start. But don’t moralise either. Don’t preach.

There will always be childish, anal numpties. Sad, bean-counting intellectual pygmies without a shred of humour. Obsessives, but of a thoroughly dull type.

Ignore them: stop obsessing about them. Stop feeding over-privileged, self-obsessed halfwits with the publicity which allows them to think they’re important.

They’re not. They’re village idiots: just rich ones.

Talk about interesting people instead. If you don’t know many, maybe that’s a reflection on you. Start seeking some out. You might be surprised how many there are quite close to you.

The surrealists were right.

Stop counting. Stop making sense. Make war on it. Go beyond it.

Oh, and we could all learn to laugh more.

Accidental altruism

How do you practice charity without turning into a Rotarian?

No, strike that. Because the word “charity” may be the problem, in that it triggers so many kneejerk reactions to what we think it means.

So, try again. How do we manage to be spontaneously open and giving as a part of our everyday life without behaving like a TV personality you want to punch or some sanctimonious trustafarian from the development charity industry?

Now we’re getting closer to the roots of the problem.

I’m sure you and I both like to think of ourselves as nice, giving people. Yet we keep reading reports in the “serious” press that people are giving less to charity than they used to. Even when times were harder most people on average incomes gave more, while the Victorian practice of entrepreneurs making their fortune then devoting their time to endowments and “good works” like Andrew Carnegie (or Henry Noble if you want a Manx example) – well, what happened to that?

OK, as 90% of the “factual” matter in “serious” press reports comes from time-saving PR blurbs written by the shadiest charities (in order to shame us into further subsidising them) we can safely discount it. In truth, the public probably regards the staff of major charities as freeloading hypocrites who you’d trust about as far as some random drunk who taps you for a fiver.

Some of that belief may be wilful self-deception, but most of it is quite fair. The charity industry stinks as much as the banking and accounting industry with whom it trades most staff. It even uses the same PR spin merchants as the worst dictators.

At a more basic level, once you’ve seen some “pillar of the community” lying in a bath of baked beans “fur charidee” how do you ever take the concept seriously again? You know that the other 364 days of the year this shameless scrote pulls every scam going to fill his pockets and avoid shelling out to anyone.

So, what to do?

Until it inevitably developed Rotarianism, one hopeful idea was Danny Wallace’s “Random Acts of Kindness” phenomena. RAK devotees practiced “Good Fridays” and “Happy Mondays” on which they – yes – set out to be spontaneously and randomly kind to strangers.

The RAK ethos appeals to me hugely. The lack of “depth” or “logic”, the happy-go-lucky acceptance that we are – all of us – a little clueless and will probably fall flat on our faces but wouldn’t it at least be a good idea to spread a little sweetness and light around, reminds me of orphaned Woodstock era books I rescued in adolescent charity shop forays. For example, Richard Neville’s Play Power and Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution For The Hell Of It.

If this isn’t too oxymoronic, where RAK falls down is that it isn’t random enough, and to overcome that what you need is a tighter format. Setting aside particular times to be altruistic is a start. The bigger problem is how to bypass learned and generally unconscious concepts of the deserving subject.

In particular, the brief era when organised charity chose the subject through a process that involved objective study informed by political and economic analysis is over. We are rapidly reverting to an older era when charity was dispensed by the church to the “deserving poor”, and that is a massive problem.

I think surrealism and 1960’s concepts of aleatoric (chance) art might have an answer. The surrealists, more than any other movement in history, developed art games with absolutely binding rules in order to increase chance, bizarre and beautiful connections or put the artist into unexpected places. On similar lines, you could, for example, decide to be kind to the 10th person you met on a chosen day, or the one you pass in the street at exactly 11 AM. The times, numbers and other deciding factors have absolutely no significance, except to prevent you making a so-called rational choice which is almost inevitably based on an unconscious prejudice.

In following them, you should start to find yourself wondering (often) why you haven’t noticed a need or a type of person before. Hopefully, you should also fall into the habit of automatically being nice to more people more of the time, and not just selected people at authorised times – after which you go back to being asleep to the world.

But mostly you just enjoy yourself, and spread that around.

So, where the hell have I been?

Well….on holiday, actually, and (by choice) well way from the internet, English language TV and pretty much anything that might tie me to my usual existence.

The thing is, this has been the only two weeks of the year when I was not surrounded by idiots engaged in a project which is, finally, anti-human (or at the very least the opposite of what a humane endeavour should be). And I made the most of it. Lying about in a shady spot in a sunny place, eating, drinking, sleeping….. day-dreaming…. thinking… and other intensive stuff.

You know, it’s sad when you realise that for the sake of the planet and most of humanity it might be best if the Isle of Man did not exist. Which is a harsh truth.

Before I was forced into finance sector work I was not driven to “do good” outside of work. I just lacked the guilt most liberals get about deciding to “get on in life” while quietly knowing you are stepping on others to do it. Mostly because I chose to live simply when I could rather than step on those others. I might not be achieving much in terms of changing or improving the world, but I did no harm either.

But these days I have little choice, because others depend on me, and I feel very beat up about the effects of that. Yes, I provide for my family, and am no burden on civic society or public parasite, but at what greater expense?

So, for me or anyone else in my situation, rather than continue to beat yourself up about it, the question is: “What are you going to do about it?”

And in answering that I’m drawn back, yet again, to Mark Boyle, an astute artist back in the 1970’s who explained his quite unique work thus: “The greatest change you can make to your environment, short of destroying it, is to change your attitude to it.”

Actually, Mark spent the best part of half a century subtly altering everyday situations so that people were nudged into doing just that.

All of which gets me thinking, “What, then, can you do from the Isle of Man to add to the sum of human joy rather than be the cause of more human misery? How do you balance the scales to compensate for your continued, immediately economically vital but in wider terms destructive life?

Those I love most have practical ways of spreading joy outside of rubbish jobs – music, cooking, baking cakes, or just fixing broken objects.

Me? I’m a contemplative, or as some would say, bone idle. What can I do?

But at the very least, I decided the very worst thing I could do was to write more gloomy missives, confirming what many strongly suspect.

So what do I write instead?

Come back sometime and find out.

Red Nose? No thanks!

As the astute will have noticed, this is a work day, so if I am writing this I cannot be at work. There is a reason for this, and that reason is Red Nose Day.

It seems to be a law of the land that on Red Nose Day merchant bankers and other stains on humanity sit in baths full of baked beans (which they claim is hilarious) and female varieties of the species bake fairy cakes (which are inedible). It is not a law of the land that I have to watch, or sample the cakes, or throw money in a bucket to do either. Until it is, I simply take the day off and do something interesting instead.

But I am always prepared to negotiate with such buffoons. If, let’s say, they would act like at least halfway decent human beings on most of the other 364 days of the year (no, let’s be honest, humanity needs that to be all 365) I would stop wishing they could fall under a runaway bus on a steep hill. I still would not “donate” to their fake charities, because the poor have enough misery already without having TV celebrities inflicted on them.

Also, of course, when not at work I meet far fewer people of limited intelligence with a variety of speech defects indicating descent from car-thieves, Calvinist butt-heads or sheep molesters. Instead, I can (and did) spend the day reading a book written by someone whose humour is much blacker than my own, and whose tolerance for such freaks makes me look like a benign uncle on his second whiskey at Christmas.

Last night, by comparison, I was in far better company. To wit, joining the finest accordionist the island has ever known and his wife (i.e. my parents) at a once-in-a lifetime performance given in a small venue by the greatest Shetland fiddler and accordionist in world history. And they were all so witty, modest and friendly too.

It was …. how can I put it ….. like a winter night in a comfy old chair before a roaring peat fire in a cottage with solid walls and a sea view, sharing reminiscences and a bottle of single malt with old friends. Yes, that good.

Even coming home to watch a harrowing, very graphic TV documentary about Syrian prisoners – the day after yet another zealot carved up innocent bystanders to demonstrate his contempt for….well, who knows any more what excuse these nut-jobs plead – could not restore Business As Usual.

The importance of not being earnest

It’s been quite a weekend for anyone interested in the social circle around Jeff Bernard.

Firstly, yesterday morning there was the announcement of John Hurt’s death. It was of particular interest to me because, in addition to being a personal friend of Bernard’s (who nicknamed him “the Naked Elephant Man”), Hurt actually portrayed both Quentin Crisp and Jeff Bernard on screen and stage. His role as Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (and later An Englishman in New York) are key elements in the virtual canonisation of that unique individual. And, as I mentioned here, he took the lead role in a BBC radio production of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell just a year or so ago. So, great talent, one of the last of the real Soho boho scene, and will be sadly missed.

Then, last night, there were not one but two BBC productions about Francis Bacon. I missed the first, partly because I had other things to do, partly because if an “arts” programme about Bacon sought the opinion of Damien Hirst then that indicates abysmal research, and would never be worth wincing through in case of accidental delights. See Brian Sewell on both and you will soon understand why.

But the second – advertised as a bio-drama about the tragic relationship between Bacon and George Dyer (whose “introduction” to Bacon was falling through his studio ceiling while trying to rob it) – well, that was absolutely different. Even though it only started at 1 AM I was never going to miss it, especially as the director was John Maybury, who really does straddle a border between film and painting with his extraordinary visuals.

I was not disappointed, even though I’m still only waking up as I write. Now I really do understand why Bacon made that flip remark about the only way to get through life being to regard nearly everything and everyone as unimportant. Maybe Quentin Crisp’s ruling that the first rule of being a stylist has to be “Live alone” also applies.

Like both, I’m joking but seriously. It must be absolute hell for someone as driven as Bacon to portray the world in a way not yet accepted or understood yet also find love or just be close to another person.

Maybe this odd relationship between two totally different outsiders was purely symptomatic of the times in which it happened. Maybe now, with gay relationships gone mainstream, and most gays making it clear they just want to be as dull and suburban as everybody else, it would be totally different.

But somehow I don’t think so. For myself, I’ve accepted that I can’t pursue the only things that interest and drive me full time, and by so doing ignore or destroy the lives of people I have responsibilities to. I’ve accepted that I’m stuck in a job which means nothing in order to pay the bills in a venal, nonsensical world, and will have to find the discipline to do the good stuff elsewhere.

The main thing is that, like Bacon, I can regard nearly everyone and everything as totally unimportant. It’s just that the people and stuff that don’t matter are centred on my employment, or political, social and economic inconveniences of the era. I find ways to negotiate them, but will never, ever give them the satisfaction of taking them seriously or letting them get to me.

And the people that do matter are family and some close friends – the only people for whom I consider making time out from my “real work”, which isn’t strictly art, or journalism, and certainly not politics, which can’t be valued in any accounts ledger, and which doesn’t even bring me an income.

Odd and totally impractical as this all is, it is all I can do, and the ludicrous pursuit of it all that makes getting up in the morning worthwhile.

Back to work, then

Well, having been back from my “short break” for almost a week, I suppose I should start posting again.

My time away was time to reflect. Because, with the best will in the world, the painful truth is that ideas which I used to take for granted no longer stand up.

Maybe that’s the problem, most of us never do revisit these things, or take a step back and examine them objectively. I have, and now wonder how I could ever believe them.

One problem locally is that if you come into contact with people who agitate over one issue, they’ll be the same people who agitate over others. So they become an insular little group who assume that if you think A then you also think B, C …. and right through to X,Y and Z, without once examining any of the issues on their own merits.

A little clique, no different to the ones who control all decisions over certain political issues, and do it, not in recognisable civic groupings which anyone can join but in the golf club bar, or church, or masonic hall, or just drinks parties in someone’s home supposedly to celebrate something totally unrelated.

Networking would be the polite term. There are much ruder ones.

So, mooching around Edinburgh just before the Fringe got going was a pleasant change. A little under a week surrounded by people who were, in the main, quite sane, and none of whom appeared to be married to their cousins. Some proper art, some museums, shops, restaurants and bars staffed by people who wanted to help (rather than moody adolescents or smug “take it or leave it” merchants who knew you couldn’t go anywhere else). I think Edinburgh has the hang of this tourist thing, unlike the Isle of Man.

On the other hand, you know the UK economy is really screwed when even the begging is outsourced.

I kid you not. As I have family there, I’ve known Edinburgh all my life and was well used to the “jakies” who begged for coins from tourists. Not any more.

All the good pitches were taken by foreign beggars with exactly the same quasi-religious victim pitch I’ve seen East European gypsies make in Hungary and Romania. Even the bloke we bought a Big Issue from turned out to be Romanian. The local bums don’t have a look-in – totally outclassed by professionals who’ve really thought their act through ….. if only the fringe’s street performers and their sad, cliched acts could get such a kicking from similar new competition.

No, seriously though, a pleasant few days with time to think. Then it was back to the office last Thursday morning to pick up exactly where I left off, and count the minutes down to Friday night and a peaceful weekend catching up on my sleep and dreaming of Edinburgh…

…except that it wasn’t peaceful. In fact, the reason I didn’t post over the weekend is that it was such a blur of creative effort, from which I’m still recovering at work (where feigning labour while filtering out the inane is second nature to me).

Firstly, I came home from holiday to find that a book I’d promised to review had finally arrived – the morning after we left. Not just any book, mind you, but a philosophy professor’s first novel, which, for reasons to complicated to go into, the author only sent to one of my editors, who trusted me to review it. So, the thing had to be read by Friday night, then written about by Sunday. And to further complicate matters, my other editor e-mailed – also the day after we left – to say his publication was, as you might politely put it, “re-grouping” after a fall out amongst the publishers. An entirely new publication is to replace it, so from now on I have half the space for the column I’ve written for over a decade, but carte blanche to write on contemporary issues only elsewhere. Oh, and the deadline is next Friday.


But somewhere amongst all this I do intend following the sage (if drunken) advice Francis Bacon once gave to Jeff Bernard, that the only way to survive life is to regard very, very nearly everything as totally unimportant.

Enough for now. A single malt awaits.

If you did miss me, I’ll take that as a compliment. But if you want more rubbish, you’ll still have to wait for the weekend.