The square root of love

The universe is expanding but are we getting any wiser?

The universe is expanding…but are we getting any wiser?

In class this week we looked at some big, existential questions: What happens when I die? Is there a God and if so, what is she/he/it like? Einstein said that if there is a God, he must be a mathematician. I suppose God would have to be quite a lot of things, besides being good at maths, in order to comprehend fully what goes on down here on planet earth. When I was a child I imagined God as a big bloke in a boiler suit, but I suppose that was just a childish fantasy. Now my imagination goes a bit further.

I Sing the Body Electric! Poetic prophet Walt Whitman

I Sing the Body Electric! Poetic prophet Walt Whitman

I still think God must be pretty massive whatever it is. I don’t think he’s overweight because I doubt he actually eats anything. I suppose he isn’t male or female, though he might be both at the same time. One day I would really like to thank him/her/it for inventing all kinds of stuff, not just maths. The sky and the ocean, for a start. Stereo and vinyl, of course. But also real ale and romantic love and avocados and poetry and jazz. I suppose if he is even slightly human he must love children and Bradford City FC and battered haddock and papaya. I expect he adores Walt Whitman and Jeanette Winterson, Thelonius Monk and Sandy Denny. His favourite subjects are probably music, philosophy and nature studies, though I’m not sure about PE.

Of course, thinking about it, there must be quite a few things that get on his nerves. I expect he hates bullies and money and drivers who push in the queue. Anybody who gets above themselves in general, really – the vain and conceited and corrupt. I expect he invented the phrase, ‘You can’t take it with you when you go!’ Exactly, I say. He is brilliant at languages, obviously, as he understands everybody who tries to send him a message. He’s probably mates with Father Christmas, too, though I guess he doesn’t like hospitals because they make him sad.

Dinner to die for - stout and battered haddock

Dinner to die for – stout and battered haddock

I sometimes wonder if he’s Swedish or Alaskan, English or Brazilian. I suppose it’s possible that he comes from Yorkshire originally, though I doubt he’s been back there for a while. In fact, he must be way too big to have any nationality; that would explain why he hates our petty earth squabbles. When I think about it, he must be sad most of the time: sad about needless violence and killing, the way so many people die tragically, though death may be beautiful after the fact, for all we know.

If I’m honest, I see God as a huge, powerful force. If you imagine the expanding universe and infinity and eternity all powered by LOVE, you may get the sense of what I mean. Neither intolerant nor judgemental, God is kindness personified – a giant, transcendental loving hug.

Mars bars and Frank Zappa? Somebody's idea of heaven...

Mars bars and Frank Zappa? Somebody’s idea of heaven…

A colleague of mine once told me about a mate of his who had found a kind of heaven here on earth. This guy’s paradise could be reached by sitting on his comfy sofa listening to a Frank Zappa LP played loud, with a novel on his lap, a cup of strong tea at hand and a Mars bar to dunk into it. I instantly identified with this image, though it wouldn’t quite work for me.

Give us a kiss! Whoever invented Romantic Love was a genius

Give us a kiss! Whoever invented Romantic Love was a genius

No, heaven for me would involve some time travel. I would wake up in my flat in Bradford in 1977 looking exactly like I did then (well, maybe a bit taller and with a few more muscles). The big difference is that I would have my 2015 brain inside my head: I would be wiser. Then everything would happen just as it used to, except that I would be kinder, more patient, more appreciative of everything around me, more alive. All those dumb decisions and stupid mistakes would be avoided. Most importantly, I suppose, I would try so much harder to give a little bit of love to those around me…in the way that I suppose God must do in his wisdom.

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I think, therefore I am not good enough?

It's 2015: may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb...

It’s 2015: may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb…

I can’t get started this year. It’s 2015, the year of the sheep, and I feel like a toad. I want to be good this year. But I’m confused. You see, the other night I dreamt I was in a giant maze made of Yorkshire pudding.

...and there was Yorkshire pudding everywhere, everywhere!

…and there was Yorkshire pudding everywhere, everywhere!

It was scary. As I tried to find my way out I kept bumping into famous dead philosophers. Every time I saw one I asked the same question: “How can I be a better person in 2015?” Here’s a summary of what they told me:

Socrates: The first of three Greek blokes with beards, this one asked me why I wanted to be good. I said I wanted to do good things, you know, help others and not be selfish. He asked me why I believed in “good” and “not good”. Then I was stumped. He told me to forget dwelling on right and wrong and try to grow as an individual. Evidently I need to love the universe and my own life within it, but always to question what people tell me. Then, just before he vanished, he stroked his beard and said: “Remember, to be is to do.” I was still confused.

Please, Mr Plato,can I keep my poetry books?

Please, Mr Plato, can I keep my poetry books?

Plato: This old stick was a bit severe. When he found out I loved poetry he turned nasty and told me to throw my poetry books in the river Styx. Poetry is bad for me, evidently, because it’s not “true”, it’s only fiction. He told me everything on earth is imperfect, so I can’t be ‘good’ because ‘goodness’ is an illusion. And all my relationships have to be ‘Platonic’ from now on. Plato’s world sounded a bit strict for me. Luckily I had the Yorkshire pudding to console me.

Aristotle: I had to define ‘goodness’ for this real scientific guy. What is essential about being good, he asked me, what must be always present in an act of goodness, something that cannot be removed from the equation? I said ‘love’. He smiled, and for a second I thought he must like me, at least more than moody old Plato. “So, go forth and multiply”, he said, “with your earthly love”. Great.

"It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living." Right on, Jean Jacques

“It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living”, said Mr Rousseau

Descartes: This French guy had a really strong accent. What I think he asked me was how did I know that my ‘life’ was not just one big dream. Good question. “You think, therefore you think you are”, he said. I suddenly realised my dream was happening inside a much bigger one. Hmm. So, the shrew I found in 1967 in Heaton Woods that accidentally died on the way home was just an illusion, like everything else. What a relief!

Rousseau: Another French bloke, Jean Jacques told me to ditch all my possessions pronto and get back to nature. Get naked and live organically. Mankind, in his (or her) natural state is not avaricious and envious, but kind and considerate. So, it would be easy to be good, he told me, when human beings had dispensed with their silly commodity society. Being naturally human again, living in the woods on berries and nuts, would be noble, not savage. Voila!

Friedrich 'Superman' Nietzsche with his walrus 'tache

Friedrich ‘Superman’ Nietzsche and his walrus impression

Nietzsche: Friedrich’s moustache was awesome and made him look like a walrus! He was ranting in German but then toned it down a bit when I approached. He told me to imagine a place beyond good and evil and asked me what I would find there. I said ‘love’ again, and he said “Ja, Heureka!”  Then he told me not to trust language because it was only used to boss people around; I have to will myself to escape from language and ‘morality’ to a distant, metaphysical place where I can be a ‘Superman’. Sounds a bit mad to me. When I left, Friedrich was hugging a horse.

I want to be an existentialist just like you Jean Paul

I want to be an existentialist just like you, Jean Paul

Sartre: Another French guy, this one with inch-thick glasses, a funny eye and a fat cigarette in his mouth. He asked me what exactly I based my decisions on. I said the circumstances. He said those circumstances are always beyond my control, so choosing one way instead of another is absurd. I kind of agreed with him. Then he asked if I had a spare cigarette, preferably Gauloises. He looked really sad when I said no. Before I left, he said “Remember, jeune homme, to do is to be.”

How do you mean do be do be do?

Stranger in the Night: Frankie

All of a sudden I found the exit to the maze, which was lucky because I was stuffed with pudding. But I was still confused and feeling sad that I didn’t have a definitive answer to my question about being good. Then, out of the distance came a shadowy figure who seemed to be singing to himself as he walked towards me. It was Frank Sinatra! “Hey, kid, what’s up?” he said. So I told him about the philosophers and my dilemma. He asked me what had been the best advice so far. I said Socrates told me “To be is to do” and Sartre told me “To do is to be”. Frank agreed that was really confusing. Then suddenly he smiled and said, “Wait a minute, kid, I got your answer!” “Tell me, please!”, I said. “Do be do be do!”, he said. Then I woke up singing Strangers in the Night, which I realised was a great title for my dream.

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The truth about love

Romantic love makes your knees turn to jelly

Romantic love makes your knees turn to jelly

Hey – this is supposed to be an adventure journal, a ripping travelogue from steamy South America! So where do I keep disappearing to? You have every right to ask. I should be writing this with trembling, blood-stained hands. I should be telling you about my hair-raising adventure in the Andes where I contracted double-malaria after being attacked by a herd of tsetse flies. Or I might be dictating this to an amanuensis because I am attached to an oxygen machine after my swash-buckling travails through the Amazon jungle, wrestling crocodiles and with only a tub of Marmite sandwiches to keep me going. But no, folks. The sad truth is that I have been hiding out in my little pad in Porto Alegre, watching Brazilian soaps, reading George Gissing, frying fish and depressing over Bradford City losing twice in the space of a week. Life is a crock of cockroaches at the moment. But I don’t feel sorry for myself – oh no! In fact, by busily doing nothing, I have had time to reflect on something we all cherish, crave and care about.

L-O-V-E. A mystery we never seem to solve. Can we learn more about it, or is it something you can only feel? Who knows most about it? Poets and songwriters? Jilted lovers? If you learn more about it as your life goes on, then I should know quite a bit by now, seeing as I am entering my dotage. One of my very favourite poets, W.H. Auden, spent his whole life trying to understand what those four little letters really mean. He begins one poem wittily:

W.H. Auden spent a lifetime writing about love

Wystan Auden spent a lifetime writing about love

Some say love’s a little boy, 
And some say it’s a bird, 
Some say it makes the world go around,
Some say that’s absurd, 
And when I asked the man next-door, 
Who looked as if he knew, 
His wife got very cross indeed, 
And said it wouldn’t do.

And he ends by asking how he will know love when it comes: 

Will it come like a change in the weather? 
Will its greeting be courteous or rough? 
Will it alter my life altogether? 
O tell me the truth about love.

Of course, I cannot hope to ever match Auden’s insight and wit. I’m from Bradford, remember. But over the years I have had a few ideas about love myself. Romeo I am not; Casanova neither. But having had a few broken hearts and plenty of time to mull over the whole business of romantic love, I would like to share a few of my thoughts and maybe shatter a few myths. So here goes:

LOVE LASTS FOREVER: Who said that? How do they know? Sorry to disappoint you, but love is not a solid, static thing that sits permanently on your shoulder. Love is the most fluid thing; it won’t just stick around. Love comes and goes and sometimes there is nothing you can do to stop it flying off like a bored budgerigar. The point is not to feel guilty about it. No-one is to blame when love steals away. The surest things can change. But fear not: love will come back another day and make you glow all over once again.

Jealousy is self-love tinged with hate

Jealousy is self-love tinged with hate

LOVE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WORK: Yes and no. If you spend all your time cultivating loving relationships you might end up as a bus driver. Love is here today and gone tomorrow and there isn’t much you can do about it. But there is a lot you can do to improve your work options. And someone who loves their work is much more attractive than a shabby sentimentalist who can’t even buy you dinner. I say: work hard at finding something you love doing for a living, and let love come and find you. Unless, of course, you love buses.

LOVE AND SEX ARE DIFFERENT: Whoever said that deserves a chocolate cookie! The trick is never to confuse the two. But for that trick you need to be a master magician, unfortunately. How many people get married because the sex is good only to find themselves waking up every day next to a wazzock. You see, passion cools, and it’s better to assess the respect you have for your lover when the flames have died down. Because respect is the key to a long, loving relationship. You need to find someone you deeply admire, but still fancy. Tricky, huh?

LOVE IS FEELING JEALOUS: Isn’t it natural to feel a twinge of jealousy when your lover is swooning in someone else’s company? Maybe. But being possessive can be catastrophic and says more about your insecurity. If you genuinely love someone you will want them to enjoy their freedom, too. Besides, if your partner is really enjoying someone else’s company that much, you had better let them go. Just make sure you have a hobby to turn to when you get dumped. I collect plastic submarines.

LOVE IS SAD: I have learnt this the hard way. Love might be quick to depart, but there is always a little bit left over that stays in your system. As you get older, it builds up and can easily turn to nostalgia. Better to allow the old loves to mature inside you, like good wine. Without the sadness that love leaves behind, we would never experience the joy of finding and treasuring love in the first place. Joy and sadness: these are the essence of love.

LOVE, AND BEING “IN LOVE”: “I love my partner, but I’m not in love with him anymore.” I’ve heard this a few times, but what does it mean? It means you don’t really love your partner, or rather, you love him like a brother. But you can live without your brother, so you really need to move on. Love means staying “in love”, and I don’t mean sizzling in the flames of passion, I mean the delight you feel just watching your partner experiencing moments of happiness. Falling “in love” is so wonderful that sometimes we fantasize about having a fling on the side. But if you are prepared to risk all on an illicit affair, better dust off those suitcases in the garage.

Poet Wendy Cope doesn't know what to say on Valentine's Day

Poet Wendy Cope doesn’t know what to say on Valentine’s Day

Love is not “staying together through thick and thin”. It is not a test of commitment. Love is freeing your spirit, not trapping it in a dingy flat in Shepherd’s Bush. Love doesn’t calculate; it liberates. It doesn’t build up resentment; it forgives and renews itself. Love is like a butterfly that doesn’t die. Oh dear – now I’m trying to sound poetic. So I’d better finish with a proper poem, or part of one. Wendy Cope wonders what to say to the man she’s been with for donkey’s years when another Valentine’s Day arrives: 

Today’s the day we have to be romantic.
Our love is old and sure, not new and frantic.
You know I’m yours and I know you are mine.
And saying that has made me feel romantic,
My dearest love, my darling valentine.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. But that’s enough romance. Next week I will post some pictures of me grappling with a big brown bear in a supermarket car park. I thought the bear loved me…I was wrong. 

I found this alligator in my swimming pool, so I've been a bit busy

I found this alligator in my swimming pool, so I’ve been a bit busy…honest!



Categories: Books and Writers, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Hair today, gone tomorrow…

"Hope I die before I get old"...balding, grey hair is no fun

“Hope I die before I get old”…going grey and thin on top is no fun

What’s the funniest thing in the world? The Pope doing the ice-bucket challenge? A dog skateboarding in the middle of the freeway? England’s latest football performance? Nope – it’s none of those. It is, of course, a man wearing a wig and thinking nobody has noticed. When we see him walking along with his false hair-piece, we all hope a big gust of wind will come and blow it up in the air. Wigs on women are sad, but wigs on men are hilarious. So why do I want one? To cover my bald spot, of course. Getting old is a drag.

I asked my Brazilian barber the other day for advice about having my hair dyed to cover up all the grey areas. He asked me if I wanted to look ridiculous. I sheepishly said no. He told me EVERYBODY knows when a man colours his hair, so he instantly becomes a figure of fun. And yet 99% of women colour their hair but that’s not funny at all. In fact, it’s like the world’s best kept secret. Men – around 50% of the world’s population – are not supposed to notice, and many don’t. Well done girls! I used to think most of my female colleagues were blonde until one day my boss pointed out that every one of them had been bleached. I have never truly recovered from the shock.

Even a prince is powerless against the ageing process: William needs a crown topper

Even a prince is powerless against the ageing process: William needs a crown topper

You see, hair is important. Often it is the only thing you can change to try and make yourself more attractive to the opposite sex. For men in particular, who don’t normally wear make-up, having a “rug rethink” or getting a “new barnet” is the only make-over option. Maybe I should try a pink-rinse and perm one of these days to see if I get a reaction. It couldn’t be any worse than having a “bad hair day” that goes on for years. But there is something else about hair that has been obsessing me just lately. I speak of the unspeakable – bodily hair.

Darling, look into my eyes not my armpits...

Darling, look into my eyes not my armpits...

Here we have another gender split. Most men wouldn’t dream of having any bodily hair removed, whereas EVERY woman seems to remove hers. Women have become like marble statues made of skin, with hardly a hair in sight. Imagine a supermodel posing for photographers on the catwalk, then suddenly lifting her arm skyward to reveal a hairy armpit! My goodness gracious! It would be front-page news across the globe; the whole world would be talking about it. Daft but true. So, we have to ask ourselves, why does armpit hair make a man sexy but turn a woman into a scary monster?

Then, of course, there is the far more delicate issue of (dare I say it?) pubic hair. Now I cannot claim to be an expert, but I gather from superior intelligence that most women these days take pains to remove most, if not all of it. In fact, as I understand it, Brazil – my adopted country – has played a crucial role in this cultural phenomenon. I am told by the most reliable sources that “getting a Brazilian” means to have the area of one’s modesty deliberately “waxed”. According to my urban dictionary, a ‘Brazilian’ is defined as: a depilatory technique derived in Brazil whereby pubic hair is removed, aside from a small inverted triangle superior to the genital area. 

Hey - are you for real! Beauty or the beast?

Yikes! Are you for real?!

Golly gosh, how it makes a man blush to even write those words! Whatever would my great-aunt Dolly say? I expect the shock would kill her. Thankfully she was laid to rest in 1957. Certainly there seems to have been a sea-change since the hairy, hippy let-it-all-hang-out 1960s. We appear to have entered a new era when young women in particular make themselves into dolls, stripped of any anthropological evidence that human beings are derived from our ape cousins.

But maybe, just maybe, we have gone too far with this. Our precious bodies have been caught up in this homogenized, over-hygienic, anodyne commodity culture. Bodies must be smooth, perfumed, and non-natural: empty spaces where fantasies begin and nature ends. Hair on a woman’s body is a grotesque reminder that she is an upright mammal, not very different from a man.

It is much better for everybody in big business to keep women in their new role of denaturalised, sexualised objects. Not only would the beauty industry lose billions if women suddenly decided to go “natural”: 

Sanitise that body! All the gloop women use...

Sanitise that body! All the gloop women use…

men, the poor things, would have to face the fact that women are hairy animals with bodily functions, and not sweet-smelling manikins fabricated solely for their sexual predilections. Commodities. That’s the word. Women are prettified, nicely-packaged products to be exchanged on the open-market.

True, hairy women would take a bit of getting used to again, I admit. But at least we wouldn’t be fooling ourselves. We are homo-sapiens who, relatively speaking, have only just come down from the trees. Let’s celebrate our naturalness, not hide it! With one exception, of course – hairy legs. Women with hairy legs, unfortunately, look like footballers, communists or camp commandants who order you to remove your clothes before performing a gruesome experiment. Come to think of it, women with moustaches are rather comical, too. Hmm…perhaps I haven’t quite thought this through…

Categories: Brazil, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’m alright Jack – keep your hands off my stack!

"Don't give me that do goody good bullshit"

“Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit”

Never trust anyone who keeps banging on about the evils of “capitalism”. Just nod and pretend you agree, but remember: such people are secret members of the dark and dangerous “loony left”. Their arguments may sometimes appear cogent and convincing, but leering beneath the rhetoric is a nutter who secretly dreams of overthrowing the state. These crypto-Marxists are living in cloud cuckoo land. Have they forgotten how Ronald Reagan buried all that socialist nonsense the day he proudly announced to Margaret Thatcher and the House of Commons that “freedom and democracy will leave Marxist-Leninism on the ash heap of history”? Well said, Ron, my man!

"The reds are everywhere, Maggie. I checked under my bed last night but only found Bonzo the chimp"

“The reds are everywhere, Maggie. I checked under my bed last night but only found Bonzo the chimp”

Capitalism – if I must use the word – is a natural thing, like the trees and the birds. It’s just plain common sense. Think of all the wonderful things it has provided for each and every one of us. TV sets in every room. Isn’t it great to watch TV in bed? Not to mention computers all over the house just waiting for us to surf the web and window shop on a global scale! Then there are those magical shopping malls we all love, full of glittering new products to pile into our giant trolleys. Don’t forget – it’s shopping that keeps us together. Where would we be without gadgets and stuff? And services have improved so much these days. Here in Brazil if we want a pizza, even at midnight when it’s pouring with rain, we just get on the blower and 15 minutes later it’s delivered to the door by a funny little guy on a moped. And nowadays we have maids to clean the house, cook the meals and look after the kids. Yes, folks, we have come a long way since those dark days of slavery.

Have I mentioned freedom yet? I don’t think I have. Do you know what gives us freedom today? Well, it’s private property, of course! Buying a place of your own gives you the glorious freedom of not having a rip-off landlord sucking away all your hard-earned cash every month. Freedom from those lazy, messy flatmates – the ones who didn’t clean the bath properly and kept stealing your yoghurt from the fridge. It’s so nice to feel the safety of my private space, secure in the knowledge that I won’t be bothered by nasty neighbours and that the police are out there catching those good-for-nothing criminals who seem to multiply like rabbits for some reason. In fact, I’m thinking of investing in security equipment to keep the scum off my property.

"Stop begging and try selling some firewood, woman!"

“Stop begging and try selling some firewood, woman!”

Freedom to make as much money as I want and keep it all for my family for generations to come. That’s what’s great about money. You can invest it and it grows and grows! It’s called profit, the best invention since the internal combustion engine. Profit for me means disposable income which I can spend on all those little luxuries. Like private schools and hospitals for my kids. My kids deserve it because they’re special. Making money gives me a thrill because life is competitive and I want to be with the front-runners in this world. It’s a jungle out there, we all know that. Dog eat dog. If I make a stack of money it’s up to me what I do with it. If I want to buy my kids an apartment each and a new motor, that’s my decision. There’s no law against it. It’s all about looking after number one. As Pink Floyd once sang:

Money, get back.
I’m all right Jack keep your hands off of my stack.
Money, it’s a hit.
Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit.
I’m in the high-fidelity first class travelling set
And I think I need a Lear jet.

OK, to be fair, not everybody can be filthy rich. We still need a few people to do the dirty work, be they Vietnamese, Polish, African or whatever. And to be honest some people have a knack of making piles of money for doing very little. Take bankers, for example – they make millions. But remember: it’s not their fault. They were just lucky enough to go to the right schools and meet the right kind of people to help them launch their careers and make a killing on the stock market. You wouldn’t say no to a Swiss bank account, would you?

Something tells me we are still in the tadpole stage...

Something tells me we are still in the tadpole stage…

And if the richest 85 people on earth own as much wealth as half the world’s population put together, so what? Believe me – those people must have worked really hard for every bean. Good, honest, hard work. They deserve to be billionaires and have lots of servants and security guards. And if they want to use their money to buy politicians, it’s up to them. That’s the freedom wealth gives you. It’s up to each and every one of us how we live our lives. Some of us seem quite content to have a crummy job with no prospects. I even see poor people laughing sometimes, so they can’t be that unhappy. People need to stop complaining and do some hard work for a change.

There are just not enough sticks in the world to go around...

It’s a dog eat dog world out there…with just not enough sticks to go around

Here’s a start-up idea I’ve just thought of for a really poor person, but in fact anybody can do it. Scrape together a couple of dollars to buy a bundle of firewood – that’s $2, right? Now here comes the stroke of genius: you sell that same bundle of firewood to some sucker for $4 and make 100% profit! Isn’t that amazing? And so simple – that’s the beauty of capitalism. There’s only one more thing to remember: just make sure it isn’t you that’s being conned.03 Karl_Marx

Categories: Global Crisis, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Backing into the future…

The past meets the present and the future in a big flash of light...then you wake up!

The past meets the present and the future in a big flash of light…then you wake up!

The Greeks had enormous respect for the past. It was from the past that they learned how to live. They didn’t “look to the future” (to quote Slade in their perennial classic song Merry Christmas Everybody). I’m not sure I could “look to the future” even if I wanted to, unless I had some LSD and a very large crystal ball. No, history was the oracle for the Greeks – their guiding light. It was as if they stood staring into the past with their backs to the future. Not a bad position to be in.

Come to think of it, there is no future to look into. Neither is there any present moment, as that keeps slipping away – like trying to catch a butterfly in an imaginary net. We live on shifting sands; the ground beneath us is forever collapsing just at the moment when another floor replaces it, or tries to. Of course, the most scary thing is that the past is also nebulous. It isn’t solid or knowable. History only “exists” in the millions of versions we have of it. Stories of the past.

John Gray, former professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics, takes things a step further. He claims that “progress” is a myth. The idea that the world and our lives within it are always getting better is just not tenable. For a start, capitalism isn’t a philanthropic system; it’s designed to make a profit. No progress, no future, no past: what are we left with? Surely we can at least look forward to living like an angel in heaven (if you have behaved yourself, of course)? Sorry, but no – heaven and hell are also mythical places.

OK, so if life has no meaning and we are not going anywhere what is the point? What are we supposed to do? Well, we always have our families to fall back on, don’t we? Surely a loving family counts for something? Erm, actually, the thing is, the nuclear family is a very conservative and inward-looking institution. “My family” is always more important than “your family” and my kids are always more valuable than yours. It’s another version of dog eat dog. We have lost any sense of community. We don’t get the chance to love and cherish our neighbour’s children; we can only focus on our own.

Life is meaningless, so you might as well flip your wig!

Life is meaningless, so you might as well flip your wig!

So what am I getting at? If everything is meaningless I might as well do what the hell I feel like, n’ est ce pas? Just have fun, throw my wig up in the air and kiss a nun! No, that won’t work because not everybody else has realised that life is absurd. People still think there is a point to life: retirement, perhaps, or the joy of telling stories to your grandchildren, tending the garden, and drinking chardonnay at lunchtime on a weekday. Actually I have some ideas of my own on how to conduct your life in a meaningless universe.

1) For crying out loud, go and tell the wife of your best friend that you have always fancied the pants off her and would give your hind teeth to have a little snog with her under the mistletoe! What have you got to lose?

2) Go and tell your boss to stick his job where the sun doesn’t shine! You have always wanted to just chuck a bag on your back and scoot off around the world, picking fruit, sleeping under the stars, living on cheese and wine and writing poems. You know you owe yourself a big adventure.

3) Become an alcoholic. Hang on a minute: the alcoholic I am advocating doesn’t drink. Yes, you heard me right. My kind of alky only behaves like someone who’s had a couple to freshen up. Always has a big smile, full of fun, gregarious, up for it. Natural effervescence.

My idea of backing into the future is surreal but incredibly life-enhancing. It goes like this: imagine you are repeating exactly the life you have already lived. You are playing the lead role in a movie of your life. You know all the moves, you’ve done them already. You made mistakes last time, so you won’t make them again. You didn’t do a lot of stuff last time because you were scared, embarrassed, cowardly. Now you don’t give a damn what people think. You have nothing to lose – nothing at all.

The inimicable Slade: "Look to the future now, it's only just begun..."

The inimitable Slade: “Look to the future now, it’s only just begun…”

So, act like a rock star, think like a poet and love like a god. Or, to put it another way, when in Rome, do as the Greeks!

Categories: Books and Writers, Great Minds, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tattoo to you too!

Imagine Mick Jagger tattooed like this - any improvement?

Imagine Mick Jagger tattooed like this – any improvement?

Body art. The latest craze. Tattoos have become like blogs and warts – everybody’s got one. Take footballers, for instance. Every arm is covered with some swirling snake reaching up and spitting at the fans, then slithering round the neck and spilling over the shoulders like a shoddy blue coat of arms. But what do these defiantly urban works of art really mean? In my day tattoos were strictly for the hard men, the roughies and toughies. Sailors had them hidden under their shirts, blokes that dug the road sported them as symbols of virility. Prisoners had LOVE and HATE written across the knuckles of each hand. These were men to be fearful of. The tattoos said: “Mess with me, sunshine, and you’ll get a fat lip!”.

Worth getting a yellow card to show off your body art...

Worth getting a yellow card to show off your body art…

But tattoos on a woman? That’s a whole different kettle of prawns. Delicate little butterflies peeking out from bikini tops or hovering just above the buttocks. What could they possibly mean? Because don’t kid yourselves, they do carry meaning: they are signs within a culture that relies on interpretation. I have a theory about the significance of tattoos on women. If I was forced to reduce the meaning to three words only, it would be these: I LIKE SEX.

Beautiful, darling, but whatever does it mean?

Beautiful, darling, but whatever does it mean?

How ridiculous, you might say, how banal. For a start, everybody likes sex, don’t they? OK, fair enough. So let’s start to build up some layers of meaning to do a better job of this interpreting. We can make a kind of list:

1) I am comfortable about my body. OK, fair enough, no offence taken. Live and let live.

2) I want you to notice my body. Oh, do you? Are you sure you want ME to notice or did you have someone else in mind, because that’s important, isn’t it?

3) I want you to look more closely at my body. Now this is getting a bit rich…I think you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m a happily married dullard with nose hair and dog breath.

4) Don’t you see that my body is worth decorating? Yes I do, I honestly do, you’ve made your point loud and clear. Now I’m getting a bit nervous so I’ll stop looking if it’s OK with you.

The point I’m trying to make is that bodies are not just lumps of fat and flesh that protect the bones, they are very much sexual things. And adorning them with natty, cheeky little symbols is bound to provoke sexual interest. It is making your body into a public space, asking to be noticed. If a woman wears bright red lipstick, she wants people to notice her beautiful lips, doesn’t she? Stands to reason. If she wears a short skirt she wants people (men, presumably) to notice her remarkable legs. Lips and legs are like starters before the main course; they are tantalising entry points to the inner body, the full monty.

The inimitable Roland Barthes: "Culture is a desire machine".

The inimitable Roland Barthes: we are all seduced by culture

The late great French master of semiotics, Roland Barthes, once described culture as “a machine for showing desire”. You only need to think about advertising to realise he’s right, of course. Provocative images are being thrown at us 24 hours a day. Desire is very good for business. Desire is what keeps people spending. Men in particular are reduced to rabbits on heat: prepared to splash the cash to stave off  some mysterious and humiliating craving for fulfilment. The unattainable sexual fantasy is a powerful driver of our culture. Tattoos, for my money, only add to the mystique.

The proliferation of tattoos has now reached the point that, well, if you don’t have one you must be a prude, a square (“careta” as they say in Brazil). If your skin is clean it means you are hiding yourself away. You are making another kind of statement: “I’m a private person. I’m not advertising my body.” The downside of this is that you are not part of the club, the happy body club, the ‘let-it-all-hang-out’ club. You are a bit precious, old-fashioned, a fuddy duddy. You are one of those people who turns the light off before locking horns.

Hello you! I hope this is a play fight...

Hello you! I hope this is a play fight…

But I’m getting a bit serious, so let’s lighten up. Here’s an exercise you can try at home. Imagine a lady, a real lady. Go on, close your eyes for a few seconds and visualize, in your imagination, a lady. Now open your eyes and ask yourself this question: could your lady have a tattoo and still be a lady? Sadly, of course, the truth is that ladies and gentlemen are a rapidly dying breed. And old dogs like me are desperately losing the plot.

Categories: Brazil, Football, Musings, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

What’s it all about?

I need to remember the meaning of life before I kick the bucket...

I need to remember the meaning of life before I kick the bucket…

If I get knocked down tomorrow by a number 27 bus there may be a moment when my whole life flashes before me and I think, “What was all that about?”. I might just have the strength to reflect upon what exactly I have learnt from my 50 odd years at the crease. Not much, of course, apart from the obvious: that beer is the reason we carry on, that we do everything to impress our mothers, that women are gods, that vinyl is better than CDs and that Bradford City is the greatest football team the world has ever seen. But seriously, folks, what lessons have I really learnt from life? Well here are a few to be going on with:

Love is essential, but it’s not enough. That’s because, love it or hate it, we also have to work. The happiest people I have met are those who love what they do, those who would do it for nothing. Love is a feeling; it comes and goes and there’s not a lot we can do to make it stay. But work happens every day and if you don’t get excited by it, life is going to be a long, frustrating haul.

Kindness is a virtue. I once invented a character called Brian Bottomley. He was ugly, overweight, had bad skin, dressed terribly, and smelt like an old cabbage. “How can we possibly like him?”, I asked my friends. The answer came back: “Well, if he’s a kind person, we can forgive him all the rest.” After all, it is doing good things and helping others that makes us happy.

Stamp-collecting is for saddos...LPs are 12 inches of pure pleasure

Stamp-collecting is for saddos…LPs are 12 inches of pure pleasure

Don’t compromise in relationships. It’s easy to kid yourself, in the heat of passion, that your new squeeze is Adonis or Helen of Troy. But unless you develop deep respect for your paramour, the pillow talk will soon turn sour and the sight of unwashed underwear make you gip. Love is finding someone who is endlessly fascinating. And that can take years. Settling for less won’t bring you joy.

What’s your hobby? I’ve heard it said that English men are famous around the world for three things: having bad teeth, having hobbies and being gay. It’s all those camp actors, lousy dentists and stamp collectors that did it. Nevertheless, without a hobby, without something that engrosses me and makes me feel like a demi-god sometimes, my life would be a poor show. Work and the family are just not enough. We need to lose ourselves in something.

Don't forget to do that thing that broadens your horizons

Don’t forget to do that thing that broadens your horizons

Travel is golden. There is a lot to be said for staying in one place, putting down roots, having a wide choice of friends. But it’s the adventurous spirit that finds the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. “See the world, lad, before you settle down”, my grandad said. England can be an inspiring place, but it’s just one little, funny country. Travel can turn the Brian Bottomleys of this world into the George Clooneys. Well, you know what I mean.

Material wealth won’t make you happy. In his book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton explains how people today are less happy than before, despite being much better off financially. That’s because they can’t bear the shame of not having as much as the next guy. They bust a gut to keep up with the Jones’s. Everybody could get by with a lot less if they realised that being rich is a state of mind.

Ignorance is not bliss. Tony Benn, my all-time favourite politician, once made a joke about his time as a government minister saying that he wanted to raise the school-leaving age from 15 to 65. Learning enriches your life all the way. One day even I will understand the link between interest rates and inflation, or the opening speech of Measure for Measure.

Music is divine. Words are all very well, but they often get in the way. They dominate, assert themselves, trick you, bully you. Most of all they interrupt the silence. Music is purer. Through music we listen to our inner selves.

The inimitable Monty Python team...I want everybody to laugh at my funeral

The inimitable Monty Python…I want everybody to laugh at my funeral

Death is something to look forward to. Imagine being 539 years old. You would be tetchy, bored witless, seen-it-all-before cynical. You’d also probably be pretty disgusting to look at. If coming into the world is a great adventure, why can’t going out be a greater one? Friends and family are wonderful, but to be on your own again for that rollercoaster ride into the great unknown must be the ultimate thrill. “To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream,” as Hamlet says. By the way, I want the Monty Python theme tune (The Liberty Bell) played at my funeral, alright? And if I don’t hear it I’ll haunt the lot of you!

Categories: Music, Musings, Travel, Vinyl | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Made in Brazil? Must be rubbish!

Great soaps are made in Brazil, and soap stars too

Great soaps are made in Brazil, and soap stars too

Back in the day, there were three words guaranteed to make me salivate: Made in Japan. When my mates and I were building our hi-fi systems back in the 70s, we would swoon when we saw the neat little badge on the front or back of an amplifier bearing those words. Holding that amplifier was like holding the holy grail. Made in Japan meant the very latest hi-tech, top of the range, made to last, made in heaven. It was certainly not to be confused with downmarket, mass-produced products that would bear the ugly message Made in Taiwan, or Made in Hong Kong. When we saw those labels we would shudder with horror.

A few years later I proudly told a Japanese businessman how we used those little Made in Japan labels as a litmus test for quality. He looked at me quizzically for a few seconds and said: “That’s rubbish”. I couldn’t believe it. He went on to explain that Made in Japan is no guarantee of quality or anything else and that in fact, in Japan, those in the know are looking for other badges – Made in England, for instance. He also exploded the biggest myth, that Made in China is the mark of an inferior product. In fact, English people simply cannot afford to be snobby about things that are made in China because in England everything is made in China. Like it or lump it.

In Brazil, the words that make all jaws drop in unison are: Imported. Imported products are fabulously fetishised and spoken of in hushed tones of worship. That’s because anything imported is at least double the price and so must be treated with reverence as a status symbol. The more imported goods in your possession, the more successful you must be. Made in Brazil? Forget it – “must be rubbish”, or so the thinking goes. In Brazil, Made in England symbolizes the old world, one of the superior cultures of Europe, a product which is a classic of its kind, a token of history.

Another way of giving your product an extra cachet of snob-value in Brazil is to give it an English name. So you have shopping centres called Central Park, boutiques trading as Glamour Model, beauty products such as Moon Drops, cleaning products like Mr. Magic and lots of T-shirts bearing incomprehensible gobbledygook in English, like My Love is Big and Open You Romance Flower (OK, I just made that up, but you get the idea). Brazilians love Brazil in a way English people find squeamish, but they also feel a certain shame about their new-world cultural shortcomings. So the quick fix is to spray on the gilded English language and give your product an aura, an aroma of chic.

It's no laughing matter having a name like that...

It’s no laughing matter having a name like that…

Your product or your child, for Brazilians also give their kids exotic English names. A friend of mine who was working in the maternity ward at a public hospital found the names of two babies that she thought were typos. One was Sevenboy. Evidently the mother had named her son after a leading brand of bread called Sevenboys. The other odd name was for a girl, Madeinusa, a bit like Madeleine, I suppose. But no. If you put a couple of spaces in it you get Made in USA, of course. Lucky kids, eh?

Now that I live in Brazil, I don’t want things with English names or expensive imported stuff. I want to sample local products; I want to buy things that are Made in Brazil. The question is, what great stuff is made here? Let me see now, erm…flip flops – very important in the scorching summer; combine harvesters – if I was a Wurzel I might; black beans – great for making feijoada; soap operas – I’m addicted, sad but true; natural gas – well, if I get really fed up I can end it all…

My beloved PHK record cleaning machine - worth coming to Brazil just for that!

My beloved PHK record cleaning machine – worth coming to Brazil just for that!

Hang on, I’ve just thought of something brilliant that is made in Brazil, a product that has truly changed my life: my record cleaning machine, of course, bought from a bloke in São Paulo who makes them himself and something I just couldn’t live without. Hooray for Paulo Henrique – you rock, brother! 

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Hi-Fi, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

September is the cruellest month…

You made a first class fool out of me...

You made a first class fool out of me…

It’s late September and I really should be back in school. I know I keep you amused, by I feel I’m being used…all together now: “Oh Maggie, I wish I’d never seen your face!”. I have just realised I know all the words to Maggie May, but then we used to sing it en masse in the middle of the dance floor at Bradford University students’ union bar in 1973. In the song, Rod Stewart is a young man in love with an older woman. The summer has run its sweet course and he needs to get back to his studies. He needs to break free; the days of romance have lost their shine and reality has hit him like a bag of cement.

September is a sad month – unless you like misty mornings and burning leaves at the bottom of the garden. Or unless you live in Brazil, where it’s the beginning of spring. Come to think of it, how can it be spring and autumn at the same time, with some people getting out the blankets and others gearing up for bikini parties? How can the world be in two places at the same time, creating two completely different moods? How can I be in Bradford and Brazil? Well, I am, sometimes…

The street near the park where I had my first flat in Bradford

The street near the park – my first Bradford flat

It’s September 1976 and I’m in Manningham, by the park, near the famous Lister’s Mill chimney. I have fallen in love with Judith, an older woman (she’s 23!) and we are about to have a romantic holiday in the Scottish Highlands. The summer has been spent cuddling and giggling in my Victorian conversion flat. I have been pretending I know how to cook and driving without a licence, but then I am young and foolish. It feels divine.

In the Highlands we curl up inside a little orange tent, I try and cook breakfast like a man, we drink whisky in cosy pubs; then we move to a caravan and lie flat on the solid bed, listening to the rain pattering on the roof, feeling warm inside like glow worms. I stare at Loch Ness for hours, captivated by the deep silence, and we take pictures of ourselves pulling faces, revelling in the fizz and froth of youth. We are so in love that we listen to Barry Manilow cassettes and think it’s normal.

"I want to be clever like T.S. Eliot" - me and my books in 1982

“I want to be clever like T.S. Eliot” – me and my books in 1982

September is always a turning point, a time for reminiscing. T.S. Eliot wrote a riddle about time, suggesting that “time future” was “contained in time past”. I think he means to go forward we need to revisit and make sense of the past. My grandma used to long to be 21 again, but only if she could go back with her older, mature mind. I would also love to travel back “knowing what I know now”, but I would be 26. Yes, I would sail back to 1982, the year I tried to reinvent myself as a scholar. Gone were the purple loon pants, patchouli oil and unkempt hair, and in came the second-hand suits, kipper ties and cardboard briefcase. I looked like a down-at-heel insurance man but fancied myself as Rupert Brooke.

Doomed youth - English poet Rupert Brooke

Doomed youth – English poet Rupert Brooke

Being Rupert, my favourite haunts are reading rooms in the grand old libraries of Yorkshire where I sit for hours with a pile of books – John Ruskin, Jonathan Swift, Ernest Dowson – pretending I am at Oxford or Cambridge. When the library closes I drift over to the pub with a Penguin classic in my pocket, sip ale and recite passages from Ulysses. The locals call me ‘Gandalf’, the daft idiot in the corner who talks to himself. But I care not. I want to be educated, a gentleman. The life of a flat-capped, pigeon-fancying, whippet-keeping northern working man is not for me.

As the year comes to a close, a disc-jockey mate of mine invites me to join him at a Christmas disco. Why not? So I boldly waltz into the place with a grin as wide as a flat cake, acting and speaking like Bradford’s answer to Oscar Wilde. And there in front of me is my old flame Judith. She is now married with kids, but we beam at each other and both realise instantly that the thrill hasn’t gone. She is tiddly and asks me if I still have a hairy chest. I say it’s hairier and she moves closer. We end up clutching, hiding in the middle of the dance floor. Suddenly there is a loud shouting voice and her husband appears. He grabs her arm and yanks her away.

Gandalf marches away from the flat caps and whippets of Bradford...

Gandalf marches away from the flat caps and whippets of Bradford…

So ends another chapter of my life. Judith – my Maggie May – symbolizes my old Bradford youth. I loved her when I was a simpleton. But Gandalf had other ambitions; he wanted to learn the Latin tongue and experience the exotic charms of Spain and South America. Nevertheless, love is a powerful force, and every September I think of that orange tent in the middle of a damp and misty field somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland. Only I don’t hear Rod Stewart singing, I hear Barry Manilow inviting me to join him “at the Copa, Copacabana”. You see, Gandalf had to come to Brazil and find his Lola.

We love you, Barry, only don't tell anyone!

We love you, Barry, only don’t tell anyone!

Categories: Blighty, Musings, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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