Sunday, December 27, 2009

Happy Christmas.

I hope you have a very warm and festive time with your loved ones; that the Christmas tree glimmers and gleams enchantingly, that only the best carols are sung and that the Queen’s speech, which I will no doubt miss, touches the right spot in the wake of the Turkey; well, if you're British. All the best as well for the next decade.

Oddly, I’ve found it easy to forget that it’s not just a year that is passing. According to ‘Time’, the decade now ending was a ‘decade from hell’. This magazine speaks publically, as it must. Whether your own decade was hellish or not, I hope the next falls upon you sweetly as manna from Heaven, or if that’s not your thing, as ambrosia from Elysium.

Most likely, life will pretty much ‘go on as always’, of course, but what kind of a wish would that be?

This year has seen me continuing to live in Ningbo, China. This ‘small’ Chinese city of 2.2 million people has a far longer, more distinguished history than the much more famous Shanghai three hours to the north. I say ‘more famous’, but I wonder, is Ningbo famous at all? I have yet to find anyone outside China who has heard of it. Maybe this is because they take ‘The Rough Guide to China’ as their source of information, a book that doesn’t even mention it in its index!Whether I think Ningbo deserves its reputation for obscurity can depend on my mood. As expats frequently frustratedly sigh: there is ‘not much to do in Ningbo’. What exactly one is expected ‘to do’ in a Chinese city is rarely spelt out. When it is, it usually amounts to doing the kinds of thing you might routinely do back home (or in Shanghai, alternatively); such as going to international restaurants, clubs, and live music events. To that extent, Ningbo is certainly not all that it could be; for excitement and fun I too appreciate Shanghai and the nearby Suzhou far more. As regards its performance according to cultural and historical criteria, there’s more to discover and find in Ningbo than might immediately be thought. Nevertheless, the ever spreading office blocks and skyscrapers have worked wonders in demolishing Ningbo’s ancient architectural history. Such a philistinism began under Mao's Marxism in the 1960s, when on ideological grounds traditional culture was considered bourgeois, unacceptably reactionary. Now, the destruction proceeds under 'capitalism', with no need to be justified on grounds other than that traditional buildings get in the way of more efficient ways of making money.

What do I 'do' here? I continue to teach English for Academic Purposes at this Chinese outpost of Nottingham University. I can’t help thinking: might it have helped if my students had first learnt to write grammatically decent clauses, let alone sentences, before embarking on the seas we must steer them through; seas of structuring paragraphs and the relationships between paragraphs according to the model of Western style essays. Teaching them the combative joys of ‘critical thinking’, the cut and thrust of dialectic, might also be easier if a general spirit of docility and conformity to received patterns of reflection had not taken such a hold. This unwillingness to think critically is part cultural, the legacy of a communitarian culture rooted in a Confucian regard for ones ‘place in the world’; part political, the product of a Communist party’s zeal to perpetuate its tenure in power.

This is by no means to imply, however, that the Chinese are lacking in charm. By no means. Ironically, it is perhaps the very repression of the individual that prevents those forces in the west that have disintegrated our sense of a common culture, and promoted our atomized society – fragmented now into a myriad of dissociated factions - from gaining a similar foothold. The family remains strong, as do roots. Chinese people belong, and not just to their friends and family. Selfishness and disregard for the common good do not seem cancerous. To me the people smile, seem happy and are kind, helpful to the stranger. No man is an island, but the Chinese man is less of an Island than the European or the American. But everything at a price, and it is indeed sad the Chinese do not more openly think for themselves, and celebrate diversity. Who knows, this might even help their economy (and that they do care about!); defend it from a potential shock, if foreign exports dry up, foreign direct investment is exhausted and China must rely more on domestic consumption and home grown entrepreneurship. Such seem to be Will Hutton's musings in any case (in his 'The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st century).

This year I’ve seen some other countries too. The tender charms of Thailand visited me in January, the more robust, Hispanic ones of the Philippines in May. Each land boasts impressive coastlines, natural beauty and sunshine, but strangely, the Philippines, unlike Thailand , isn’t a prime destination for tourists. I presume this is because the Government in Manila hasn’t developed the infrastructure for tourism as much. Perhaps the memory of Marcos and the widespread corruption also don't help. Culturally, it's a curious cluster of islands. Right bang in the heart of East Asia, but with a Latinate feel that makes you feel you're in South America. Hundreds of years of Spanish colonisation have had their effect. And if you like to speak English to locals on your travels, The Phillipines is definitely your place. Thank Uncle Sam for that, for colonising it for 50 years.

As it happens I'm back in The Phillipines right now, where I'm visiting a friend I met in Kuwait who recently married a Filipino. I might see Mount Mayon explode, though that is in the hands of Gaia.

The summer, after a brief stop over in Kuwait, saw me back in blighty, a country that shines in blessedness when the snows are absent and when you're a tourist with a car. I drove around the South, from the tip of Cornwall, to Bristol, to Portsmouth, to Eastern Kent, to my home village of Kettlebaston (it's on Wikipedia!), to King's Lynn and as far north as Derby. At last I learnt to appreciate The National Trust, but wondered: Stately Homes turned into museums are ghostly mausoleums. Can't an alternative prize for the National Lottery be to swan around a mansion for a month, waited upon by butlers and servants, living the life of Sebastian.

At least it would bring the houses back to life. And then to Slovakia, where the roots still clutch, where many friends were visited and memories stirred. Croatia saw me licked by the sun on an obscure island north of Dubrovnik, and in Bavaria I finally got to see Luwig II's castle, the template for Walt Disney's and the home of the King of Vulgaria (think 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'), as well as the Fuhrer's favourite retreat, in Berchtesgarten, now a wreck, bommed in the 50s to deter Neo-Nazis.

Oh, and I went to South Korea. I saw a solitary North Korean guard, rather slight and slim of stature gazing at me from across the border at Panmunjon. We were under strict instructions to neither point, wave nor smile at him; apparently, lest his regime use such gestures as propaganda tools; evidence, I presume, of the provocativeness or just general weirdness of foreigners. I suppose the North Koreans might also think that to point is to wield a gun. But I thought only Children think that.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

An old thought on a topical isssue

Our objections to the existence of God are not founded on an instinctive aversion to the notion of deity-in-itself, but on our offence taken at the nature of the relationship we suppose he wishes to have with us (1991).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Nowadays in China not only Blogger but You Tube is banned. In the past, Wikipedia was forbidden although at present it's being allowed through the wall (I think?). For how long it will be, who can know? Pornography sites are inaccessible, which is odd in a country that lacks our neo-platonic reservations about the means of reproduction; a country, moreover, awash (albeit hiddenly) with brothels and prostitutes. And now, so I hear, Facebook, the friendly, innocent whore of corporate connectivity, has been slain. Clearly, the Chinese Government is frightened of something. But clearly not frightened of actually being frightened - and of how that makes them seem.

The block on Blogger has of course made it difficult to post. Now, however, I'm in Germany, so have lost that excuse. I guess I'm just going through a 'dry' phase, which will last as long as it lasts. Actually, I've been posting a lot to Facebook in the form of the status update, which I find rather amusing, though people tend not to maximise its potential as they might. Though I know many an intellectual snob wince and squirm at the vulgar monster, Facebook has become an integral and very efficient component of my social life. I will be highly annoyed if the block on it is not removed by the time I return to the Red Dragon in September.

Since leaving China and its whole universe behind, I've been on a whistlestop tour through my past, taking advantage of my generous ten week holiday. I haven't done much in the way of actually resting, apart from in the past few days on a remote beach in Croatia. Instead, nostalgia has taken me back to Kuwait, to a school reunion in Cambridge and to Slovakia, where I've been reconnecting with my old world.

Today I'm in Munich and will go on a 'Third Reich Tour'. There seem to be many such trips on offer, and I wonder what percentage of the takers are fellow Brits, whose fascination for the Nazis is legendary (it seems we need an 'other' against which to define ourselves as much as the next nation). Then to Ludwig II's castle, I think, Berchtesgarden at the weekend, and on Monday six hours in Heidelburg before travelling to the absurdly located Frankfurt Hahn airport and on to Bristol, via Stansted, to spend some time with my very good friend Lee, a month before he gets married.

My summer gradually comes into shape as the possibilities for what I can do with it recede as its length ahead of me shrinks. Still, it's very nice to have had, and to still have, such a lot of time in which to do 'nothing' (whatever that means).

Friday, June 12, 2009

If Love Could Save The World

Romantic love’s central limitation is its exclusiveness. By it not more than one person can be loved. Therefore, its nature is essentially centripetal and restrictive. It does not open itself to the stars, to the beyond and, more particularly, to other people. Not by romantic love, to be sure, is the world to be saved. And not in terms of romantic love did Jesus enjoin the virtues of love upon us. One cannot, perhaps, be so sure about John Lennon. When he said: ‘all you need is love’, he stood triumphantly beside Yoko.

That said, if in loving one's lover one recognizes that they are not merely one's lover but another human being like any other (who can deny this?), one can recognize that when one loves ones lover, ultimately, one is not loving them but through them humanity itself, in its entirety, expansively.

In this way they become a gate, a portal, though which the love of others can be realized.

In so far as romantic love is not such a love, I am wondering, how can it be considered the highest type of love?

Another drawback of romantic love is that it is often a love of one person’s ego for another's, not the love of one true self for another. Hence romntic love's conditionality and frailty. Too often we love one another in defiance of Kant’s imperative: as means not as ends, as organic commodities to serve our purposes, only for as long as we do.

Still, you don’t have to remind me that without romantic love, love can be a somewhat disembodied, bloodless affair.

A question: What kind of an understanding of love would there have to be if love were to become an item in political discourse? Not sure, but I suspect love would first have to lose its highly privatized, embarrassing nature (when grafted into the public sphere that is).

This reltes to how talk of a generalized, extra-romantic love in the context of a divine framework had always worked, at least when it did. Here, we love through the medium of a third entity, which removes the pressure, and supplies a shared point of reference and trans-individual framework. In loving one another we are loving more than one another; and this both allays our disappointments with one another and allows us to look beyond.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Memento Mori

Thinking about my death rubs me up against the limits of language. I cannot stretch beyond these limits in thinking about my death. While it is true, if reincarnation be factual, that ‘I’ may have died before, if I did I did not do so as the creature that I am now but only as a different creature.

Nothing is more certain than that I will die. I may not die, of course, just as the sun may not rise tomorrow. Yet, my immortality in this flesh and the sun not rising tomorrow will only happen if unprecedented alterations in the nature of reality occur. These cannot with any confidence be expected. For this reason, sanity dictates – in so far as certainty can mean anything – that I will die and that the sun will rise tomorrow.

In dying I will return to the state of non-existence I occupied before I was conceived, or at least before I was born. Non-existence, therefore, is not unfamiliar to me. But there is a difference, surely, between non-existence preceding and non-existence succeeding my existence as this creature that I am. That difference, however, is only of significance to me and to those who have known me. To the universe as a whole, both these states of non-existence are identical. In both these circumstances, my interactions with the universe – my taking from it, in oxygen, in food, in impressions, my giving to it, in exhalations, in excreta, in activities - do not occur. From its perspective, in both scenarios, my non-existence before and after my life, I constitute an absence. I constituted such an absence before I was born (or conceived) and such an absence I will again constitute after I die.

The universe does not depend upon me. It has its own agenda, its own business to attend to. I became a part of that business in the early 70s and one day, be it tomorrow, next year or decades from now, I will stop being its business, except insofar as I may leave behind trace afterglows in the memories of those who have known me or, perhaps (ha!) in something objective and enduring that I might create (for example, a child, or else some other feat of noteworthy creativity – I make no promises).

It is uncanny to think about my own death. Uncanny because all I have ever known is life. Moreover, it has always been as someone who is alive that I have known anything at all. Therefore with regard both to the object and the subject of knowledge my knowledge on all sides has been enveloped by life. While it is true that I am aware of death, having seen dead animals and indeed lost to death people I have known and loved, this death that I have known has nevertheless been a feature of life, my life; this death has represented the boundary of life, its limit, or rather this death has constituted a doorway to death, behind which death is unknowably located, to which it merely refers. Death, the death of others that is known in life, is not death, but death’s signature written in life. The only way, even potentially, to know death is to oneself die. And yet, if it be true that there is no awareness after death, no existence of any kind, this death even then will not be known since I will not be anyone to know it.

If, on the other hand, there is something for me on the other side of death I will indeed have come to know death, but only as a portal to a new life. Even then I will not know death as we envisage knowing it, as an end, but only as a beginning. And then it remains to ask: What kind of life will this be? It will not be life in any sense that I have known it. I will be very different, if for no other reason than that I will no longer wear this body, which witnesses will see buried in the Earth or more likely turned into ash; this body which I have always worn; no, more than that, which I have always been. And beyond this, I will no longer be the being-in-this-world that I have always been – embedded in multifarious relations with other embodied beings, human and animal, traversed around by innumerable, very uniquely specific and unrepeatable spatio-temporal associations and interactive contacts with the Earth.

The inescapable strangeness and otherness of death is the central fact about death. We deny this strangeness when we say ‘death is a part of life’. Yet, of course, at the same time to say this about death is true, since, as far as we know, every being that has ever lived has died, and every being now alive will die. But that commonplace typicality, that universality, of death makes death not less strange but more strange. For normally, what is strange is also rare; but death is not rare, not at all but is as common as life. Death, then, represents the intimate, necessary marriage of life with the strange, the uncanny. For about death, as an experience, we can know nothing; yet that ineffability is the destiny of us all. Encircled by the strange as life’s limit, heading towards the strange ourselves, we are indeed strange.

Is this why we fear death? Because we fear the strange?

I’ll let you know about death when I die, if I can. But I make no promises

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ten Ways For Women To Keep Their Gentleman Happy

This is the kind of headline one would never find on my Yahoo homepage. Although, if one reverses the genders, it is precisely what I found this evening. And that kind of thing is not rare at all: advice men must receive about how they should improve themselves for women. Sexist? Not at all. Why would it be that? How can women criticizing men ever be sexist?

Anyway, it’s an interesting question. And for the sake of equality – whatever that means- one might as well ask it. How then can women keep us men happy? After all, it’s hardly a sexist question, is it?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What We Are

That which we are most fundamentally within ourselves is not our ego. Yet that which we are most fundamentally within ourselves is not the ‘they’ either.

To my understanding, Heidegger, in rallying people to be authentic by shunning the impersonal ‘they’ of an unchosen, prescribed social conformity, was not, alas, asking us to get in touch with what we are most fundamentally within ourselves. Instead, he was asking us to identify closely and loyally with our ego, that is, with the ‘idea we can choose to have of ourselves’. For this reason, his existentialism created a new problem as it solved another. It solved the problem of inauthentic conformity to ‘essential’ forms of social existence. Yet, in the wake of that solution it ossified our being into a new, rigid straightjacket – identification with the self-chosen ego.

That which we are most fundamentally within ourselves is neither the inauthentic they, nor the authentic ego, but embodied spirit. Or to put it more simply: God found present within and, as it might seem, trapped inside our being. It is not only society, with all its conventions, that is our gaoler. We are our own gaolers too. To be truly free is to have freed God from within ourselves. To do this we must not only free ourselves from inauthentic conformity to externally imposed social roles; we must free ourselves from ourselves, that is, from the very idea, however authentically chosen it may be, that we have about ourselves – about who we think we are.

Such a freedom is a kind of death; such a freedom a kind of resurrection.

And with that I wish you a very Happy Easter.

p.s. there is no Easter in China.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Beautiful Dream - to me

My family are staying at my paternal grandfather’s house. He is still alive, though he died in 1977. My Dad is still alive, though he died in 2006. My mother, brother, sisters and I, and other cousins, are there for someone else’s funeral, though I don’t know who. I think perhaps my paternal grandmother, who died in 1992. Grandad talks to me for a short while – tall, thin and in a suit. This is weird only because I don't think I ever talked to him at all, so I wonder how my brain pieced together a personality, and how accurate it is. Later, we all go to bed. Dad doesn’t want to talk to his father, but my mother asks him to, ‘this time’. As grandad comes towards us, we clear the way to make this possible. He embraces my dad, who begins weeping as he stares up into his eyes, while my grandad smiles down at him reassuringly. This meeting happens on the stairs, and I am directly beneath them. I can’t see this encounter clearly, though my sister can, who is closer. I move round the stairs to try and get a better view, but wake up. I tell myself this dream would not be forgotten but I got up and wrote this anyway.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Saturday Morning

I don't really have anything to say. But here I am back at my desk, late, very late on a saturday morning. And so it remains. The whole idea that one should have 'something to say' itself says a lot about the kind of world we live in - how cerebrally demanding it is.

I am under 100kg for the first time since 2006. I plan to get down to 90. I have not embodied such a stature since my early twenties. Obviously, I am supposing this may make me more attractive to the Daughters of Eve (or even Lilith?); but believe me, such vain fantasies are not the only consolation. With the same muscle bulk, carrying about 10kg less weight - which I've lost in the past two months - means something. Try it. Pick up a 10 kg bag, strap it to your shoudlders. Tell me laying it aside it means nothing.

And behold....suddenly I discover: once again I possess a jawline. And when I wake up in the morning, I have a rib cage, not just blubber upon my midriff.

The secret? I don't eat rice, noodles, potatoes or bread unless I have to. Dr Atkins etc. My exercise regime has not noticeably advanced at all, despite my tribal dance adventures in Thailand, nor do I drink any less beer than ever. I make no promises for the future but this circumstance feels nice. Should I post a photo if I reach 90kg?

People lose weight and they put it on again, blah blah. God, how the world is filled with blah blahs.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What is Love?

Love is a fairly hopeless word. It has such a wide array of meanings, perhaps we should drop it.

Love of parents, love of dogs, love of friends, love of frogs; love of sport, love of God, love of art, love of tarts (of whatever kind). The list goes on. In each love very different emotional syzygies occur between lover and the beloved; while in their wake, different behaviours and expectations ensue.

The elasticity and capaciousness of love's meaning is clear. Yet, despite this, even though we know this, if you say that you have 'found love', people will not infer that you have activated a greater esteem for your parents or discovered that you adore dogs. If you say you are 'looking for love', similarly, they won't suppose you really wished you could find football as engaging as your friends do, or that you seek to pierce the veils of maya and behold the irradiance of the uncreated one.

Rather, they will think that you have found, or are looking for, a romantic partner, or, as it might be said, a 'lover'.

This is all well and good. But what annoys me is the downgraded, second place status then accorded to the other types of love.

And given that romantic love is shot through with conditionality and frailty, that its tenure is never guaranteed, that its machinations, if negative and implosive, can rip out your heart and turn you into a vegetable, it is perhaps to be wondered whether this form of love deserves its exalted status.

I know what will be said – that without the sour you can not appreciate the sweet*, that the singular sweetness of romantic love means that this love surpasses all others.

Fair enough, the second of these points feels like it could be true (though try saying that to a mystic!). But I wonder: is this the case only because of the context romantic love occupies in the world? The public world of typical social interaction, after all, is evidently not an environment of love. From it we can get little, if any, love. This means that most, if not all, of our needs for love, for self-exposure, undefended vulnerability and mergence with the 'other', are placed upon the shoulders of romantic love. This gives it a tremendous significance as an oasis in a desert, a haven in the hailstorm of the world. So when it graces us, it feels like we have been enfolded by the arms, and into the breast, of God.

I am not, I hope, stupid enough not to recognise that I might only display this sceptical and cynical attitude towards romantic love because I haven't had an entirely happy time with it myself. I can admit that. But whether this, for that reason alone, invalidates my reflections about it, I'm not sure.

In any case, it seems to me that romantic love is the religion of the modern world; and the questioning of its overwhelming dominance in the world of 'love' a rare heresy indeed.

NB I should add - in case anyone's interested (though I can only presume they aren't) - that the above does not mean that I am not interested in the successful pursuit of romantic love; even less, that I am now 'celibate' in my stance. I say what I say, not more than it.

* Taken from 'Vanilla Sky' in the context of Brian's (Jason Lee's) assurance to David (Tom Cruise) that he would never experience the true value and sweetness of love unless he were first to suffer from it. Presumably, because, otherwise, in the absence of duality, he wouldn't know how to appreciate it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thailand - Bangkok

Alas my gorgeous and enthralling holiday in South East Asia has come to a close.

The 26 day journey broke down into four parts, corresponding to the four areas I visited: Bangkok, Jomtien, North Western Thailand, and Luang Prabang in Laos.

My first destination in Bangkok was the Khao San road, near to which I stayed with my friend from China for a few days. This is the main backpacker area of Bangkok. Made even more famous and commercial by the 1997 film ‘The Beach’, a film that itself complained about how famous and commercial it had become (!), my first impressions were pretty negative. Too many westerners, too much vanity, too much neon-lit, noisy superficiality masking emptiness within. No, things did not start well.

But then very quickly I calmed down. As I let my ego’s neurotic preoccupations with Ningbo wash away, helped in this transmutation by Tolle’s masterful words, I came to appreciate the vibrancy and youthful energy, the beautiful, approachable women, the abundance of bars, nightclubs and intriguing shops, the constant invitations to be massaged (though I never was), the general congregation of souls eager to have fun and escape beneath the endless, not (yet) too fierce sun.

Many of the young backpackers are just passing through, coming from the beaches to the south or the hills to the north. Or perhaps they’re on their way to Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam, or have arrived from there, if they haven’t just flown in from the West, or come to the end of their journey and returning home.

As for the Western men who seem to be less temporarily established, many, be they young or middle aged, are accompanied by Thai women. If you suspect some of these couples had met here, after a less than extensive, relatively undemanding courtship process, you might not be entirely mistaken. As you may know, it seems there is an elaborate industry in Thailand, of varying degrees of organization and explicitness, devoted to the pairing up of western men (farangs) and Thai ladies, ladies eager to make money, often much more than they could doing anything else, often with the intention of sending much of it home to their parents in the countryside (more of this perhaps later, in a separate post).

As I wrote earlier, my early days were principally spent dancing, a time during which, because of these exertions, and despite the amount of beer I drank, I quickly began to lose weight. In this thinning out process, however, (I am now 5kg lighter than I was when I left China) I was further helped by the tendency of Thai restaurants to serve fairly small portions, a practice, alas, not pursued by Chinese restauranteurs, who presumably want to fully exploit my greedy and ravenous appetite.

Four late nights of dancing in a row, combined with inadequate sleep, conspired, alas, to make my trip to Bangkok less the tour of its cultural richnesses than it might have been. Since I had such a good time, however, I didn’t let my guilt get the better of me. That said, my decadence had its limits. I managed to get to see Luang Pho, the gold plated 32 metre high standing Buddha, and to meditate awhile, lusciously, in the adjacent temple of Wat Intharawihan.

Later I took the ferry boat down the Mae Nam Cho Phraya river to Taksim, strolled around Thammasat University and relaxed and read a book, as instructed by my friend that I should, in Lumphini park. I also avoided the crime of all crimes against Thai culture – not to visit the Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace complex. The King used to live here before he moved north to Dusit Palace. Interestingly, as I discovered, the innermost recesses of this Palace, inaccessible to tourists, are now occupied by a finishing school for high class Thai women.

Regarding the King, you may have heard about the recent release from prison of the Australian writer, Harry Nicolaides, who, before the intervention of his Government, had been sentenced to prison for three years for insulting the King and the Crown Prince in his 2005 book Versimilitude.

Insulting the King is not a good idea. Only in Syria have I seen pictures of a country’s ruler more prevalently on display. Yet, wheareas there, I could never tell how authentic the regard was in which he was held by the people, in Thailand reverence and affection for their Head of State runs deep. Being as he is semi-divine, it is not unusual to see beggars bowing in supplication before his image. More generally, Thai money, all of which carries the King’s image, is handled with deference.

That said, like Britain’s, Thailand’s monarchy is constitutional, having become so in 1932, and the polity itself democratic. Whether or not the King’s exclusion from matters of political decision making (or relative exclusion should we say) helps or is irrelevant to the esteem in which he is held by the people, is an interesting question. I don’t know the answer, but would suspect that, just as in Britain, the Monarch standing above the political fray works to his advantage, it not requiring him to be associated with the crossfire of profane ideological dispute. Perhaps it’s the case that monarchies can’t have it both ways. They can either be political, in which case they must curtail democracy, or else they can sanction democratic political expression, in which case they must exclude themselves from politics. To have a King or Queen who is both a political player in a democratic context and the recipient of sufficient esteem such as to be more than a mere president, seems unlikely, if not oxymoronic. Perhaps it could only work in a polity resembling the court of Arthurian romance; in which all decision makers are united in bonds of shared allegiance and devotion under the Monarch to some enchanted, overarching principle or ideal, yet free to think and dissent as they see fit in practical matters; the Monarch acting as final source and focus for synthesis, not the supplier but the final focus for the crystallisation and articulation of acceptable compromise.

Ask Johnny Rotten, but there's no doubt our attitude to the acceptability of insulting our Queen is not Thai. Speaking as a monarchist, do I mind? Actually no, I don’t. Indeed I’m glad we have the freedom to criticise such an innocuous and evidently laudable character if we are so eccentrically persuaded; someone who, at the very least, can hardly be imagined to be doing what a de-politicised Head of State is expected to do any worse than a secular president might; and probably a whole lot better, and with a far more genuine smile, besides. But anyway, Mr Lydon has always been something of an exception. Most British republicans attack the monarchy, not the Queen herself. Only in 1997 in the surreal wake of Diana’s death did the tacit universality of British respect, if not love, for Elizabeth II meet a genuine, if ephemeral, challenge. But overall, as it’s a cliché to say, the monarchy’s not going anywhere until she dies. And the fact that we are free to demean her, yet to such a great extent do not, speaks volumes. It will be interesting indeed to take a measure of our feelings for this mysterious individual, who cleverly never gives interviews and keeps her opinions to herself, on the sad day when she passes away.

But returning in my thoughts to Bangkok, I left with a definite sense that I had not plumbed the depths of this ‘City of Angels’. There’s no doubt I’ll need to come back one day. But time was short, and the beaches, or rather a beach, was calling me, as were the hills to the north.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Younger Man

I have been looking over my young writings again and uploaded an entry for the year 1989.

I make no claims for their value. That is not a judgement I can make. Whether or not I say this only because of the delight and comfort I gain from gazing into mirror images of my youth, I’m not sure, but anyway. To be certain I feel attached to them, almost protective, perhaps because they meant so much to me at the time. Back then, what was most real and honest about myself was funnelled into them in a way it never could be anywhere or to anyone else.

If it weren’t for the fact that internet space is free and endless (apparently?), that it will cost you nothing to read them except time - which may or may not be precious to you - I wouldn’t presume to burden you with them.

As I read them now, it’s clear they are the writings of a much younger man. The buoyant and restless, unselfconscious and ‘adolescent’ flavour of this 18 year old makes me, a 37 year old, laugh. I wouldn’t write such things now, even if I were to experience similar emotions or think similar thoughts. I can remember being this young man of course, but I couldn’t, despite that, be him again, if you see what I mean.

I think one of the points about 'growing up' is you become more sophisticated; you pay more attention to how your words will inevitably fit into the world of readers and other minds - even if you're only intending to write for yourself. You become therefore in a sense more self-conscious, as you become more sensitive to how your words will be received. There’s less of that sense of standing alone on a mountaintop, declaring and declaiming to the void in passionate, epic authenticity (or presumed authenticity, should we say). Or it could just be that as we age life becomes less fresh, as what happens to us becomes less new, but tends instead to repeat itself and so become less vivid; such that when we write this change is reflected in the greater serenity, or is it distance, of our style.

Anyway, I have no desire to patronise my younger self. He wouldn’t have liked it at the time so why do it now? Besides, the years 18-21 are the efflorescence of the rose of youth. They are our most idealistic years, and for that precious. For that they can be permitted their tones of extremity, if not indeed celebrated for them. I suppose?

Personally, I feel my best early writings (or at least those which I'm most fond of) were written not in 1989 but from 1990 to 1992. I hope to work on entries for those years too and on later ones as well, though I wrote very little between 1998 and 2005. Most of the writing is prose though some might be called 'prose/poetry' (the actual distinguishing characteristics of poetry remain, as it happens, rather unclear to me).

It may very well be wondered why I bother to do this. I cannot expect anyone will like them or appreciate them, but who knows? I ultimately do this for myself, or rather, to be more accurate, for the sake of the writings, since to such a great extent I'm no longer the person who wrote them. At the time of their composition it felt like they were the most important thing in my life, more real and important to me, indeed, than I was to myself. I showed them to nobody except Lee. I accept this was partially becasue I didnt want them to be criticised, given their role in my life. I was also, no doubt, driven by simple shyness, as well as by a lack of confidence about their worth. That said, I always sensed there was something in them that wanted to see the light of day. So now I'm glad I give them that opportunity.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Eckhart Tolle’s core teaching, as I understand it, is that we are trapped in our minds. As such we live predominantly in memories of the past and in projections of the future. By doing so, we live in exile from ourselves, since it is only in the present, in the Now as he calls it, that we can connect with and find that richness and peace which is our true nature.

I believe that Tolle’s particular perspective and approach is significantly novel and that it is particularly well suited to the Western mindset. Neverthess, in general, of course, his overall message is not unique. As I have been told here in Thailand by those with whom I have discussed his ideas, to a great extent his message echoes the teachings of Buddhism and other Eastern perspectives which in their own ways also seek to liberate us from the grasping, desire-fuelled tendencies of our ‘egos’ or lower selves, as it were. These Buddhist teachings hope to lead us to an Enlightened state in which we can rest, in full awareness and mindfulness, freed from suffering, no longer the victims of our internal, automatic reactions to external events and our own emotional states.

Central to this similarity is a shared emphasis that both Tolle and the Buddhists place upon the importance of the inner or esoteric life of the individual, as opposed to his purely external actions and behaviours.

And what I find myself particularly interested in is how this focus on the interior life of the individual contrasts with the very different priority given to man’s external life by the three major, monotheistic religions that might be called ‘Abrahamic’. I speak, of course, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Leaving aside the fact that esoteric, inwardly directed teachings can be found in each of these religions, for example in Kabbalism, in various forms of Christian heresy and in Sufism, it seems fair to say that each of these religions, in their mainstream expressions, are either suspicious of or explicitly hostile towards that kind of an emphasis on the interior, spiritual life of the individual that is the hallmark both of ‘New Ageist’ spirituality, to which Eckhart Tolle gives a contemporary expression and the various spiritualities of the Orient.

Why should this have been? Why are these three monotheistic creeds so predominantly externally focused, so centrally concerned not with the individual’s inner life and his quest for authenticity therein, but rather with what might be called humanity’s macrocosmic quest for meaning, truth and redemption at the level of community? In each of these religions what is most important is obedience to externally originated codes of morality or belief allied to a strong imperative to sacrifice the ‘self’. Far from a journey within, what is counselled is that we be somewhat skeptical and suspicious towards the virtue and value of our inner, personal realities.

I realise that I am simplifying the picture a great deal, that I may be laying myself open to be reminded of exceptions to these generalisations in both spheres – in the Western or Abrahamic and in The Eastern (including the New Age).

Nevertheless, in general terms the distinction seems real enough. Why for example in the West is prayer advocated far more than meditation. Moreover, why in the West is such a premium placed on the need to find ‘forgiveness’? Both these elements belong to an orientation that is externally directed. We are praying to a God who is outside ourselves, not inside, and our need for forgiveness implies that the most important centre of value in our lives, that which we find ourselves so easily offending, is external – be it other people or God.

At this point I feel that I am expected to make a decision and a choice….either for the Eastern or for the Western path. Without doubt liberal fashion and the spirit of the 21st century zeitgeist conspire to make me feel that I should join the chorus of denunciations of all things Abrahamic. That I should plump for the luxuries of the non-judgemental, individually anchored, Eastern glow. For sure, I must grant, I am very sympathetic to its appeal. And yet, and yet I hesitate. In the way I have always found myself hesitating when I have immersed myself in Buddhism and the New Age. The question, put simply, when I consider the East is this: What has happened to God? And after that, another question: What has happened to History?

More of that perhaps later, but sufficient now to recall some of the purported words of Yehoshua Bar Joseph (aka Jesus Christ) from the heretical, but for that far from uninteresting ‘Gospel of Thomas’:

“If those who guide your being say to you:
“Behold the Kingdom is in the heaven,”
then the birds of the sky will precede you;
if they say to you: “ It is in the sea”,
then the fish will precede you.
But the Kingdom is in your center
and is about you.(my italics)

While his overall drift might seem to be uncomplicatedly New Age, the last line gives us cause for thought. It reminds us, or me at least, of balance. That the external matters as well as the internal, the outside of the cup in addition to the inside (despite the reverse, corrective emphasis Jesus makes elsewhere with the Pharisees), and that for all that might be sung in praises to the richnesses of our individual, internal universes, we remain not islands but inescapably bound up in community in an external world that endures despite us; a world that should remind us that inwardness can only go so far before it topples over embarrassingly, if not dangerously, into narcissism and solipsism, twin aliments and afflictions of our times.

NB, I should add here, in the light of a comment on this piece that I am not implying that narcissism and solipsism are inevitable, necessary consequences of the eastern, inwardly directed, meditative path. Indeed, I accept that correctly practised, these disciplines do lead us to take the external world seriously (albeit not in the way understood in the Abrahamic paradigm). My point, rather, is that our Western culture is already narcissistic and solipsistic to varying degrees, sometimes extremely, and that what we require for that is an external corrective; something which I do not see coming from the East. Moreover, I suspect that many are attracted to a version of Eastern teaching that they have watered down and altered through an interpretive filter that allows them to continue to sit a shade too smugly, perhaps, in their self-revolving orientations. That's all. Surely it is not only me, for example, who has looked on, more than a little sceptically, at the ease with which some New Age teachings so often work to soothe, if not entirely eradicate, the societal consciences of rich people who might perhaps want to think a little more critically and imaginatively about their attitude to wealth?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Does Money Exist?

"If money actually existed", the old man said, "I might be persuaded to take it more seriously."

Actually, it wasn't an old man who said this, it was me.

Unless 37 counts as old, which I suppose it does.

Obviously, the non-existence of a thing doesn't prevent it from possessing great significance and importance in people's lives. After all, many (Hitchens and Dawkins, for example) will accept that God continues to be a highly relevant factor in society, despite, apparently, no longer existing.
But my question is: Will they also accept this about money, which also lacks either an organic or an inorganic base, and is just a thought we share. I suspect they will find this more difficult, the non-existence of money being harder to swallow, given its obvious and seemingly inescapable role in our lives (yawn).

We are indeed prisoners of thought, formerly of a caricature image of a tedious guy in the sky, presently of money, which has even less personality.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Smiling Land

On occasions I've felt, during my current visit to Thailand, that I should have been posting blogs. The urge to compose in the early days (I've now been here for 15 ) saw me saving messages in the archive section of my phone, with a vague view to writing them up here. These were primarily written while drunk in various nightclubs off the Koa San Road, where I also rediscovered my enthusiasm for tribal dance music and the associated effects it can have on my body in the form of dance.

Believe it or not, on more than two occasions I have received compliments from strangers regarding my choreographic choices. One guy seemed to think I was a 'dancer', by which I suppose he meant some kind of professional; though I liked it even more when he said that 'the women liked' my 'act'. I cannot deny it, such external validation is much appreciated, though it is not (thank God) the reason I like dancing. After all, I am not used to receiving it.

Pretentious is how I'll seem, I suspect, if I start attempting to address why I like dancing and what it means to me, so perhaps silence is wise.

Besides very late nights, a lot of energetic dancing, little sleep, constant tiredness, and multitudinous thoughts and feelings about women, my early Thai days featured the enlightening discovery of the great book by Eckhart Tolle, "The Power of Now". It says timelessly true things which, when read, seemed familiar and irrefutable. And yet, before they were read, before I had bought the book, these insights had been forgotten; in their absence I had indeed sunk beneath and been obscured by the weight and dross of my everyday Ningbo life. It was nice, it is nice, as always, to be liberated from the prison of thought and of mind by the rememberance that, despite pressures conspiring to persuade otherwise, we are not thought, no more than we are mind. I think I knew this with a greater, easier certainty as a four year old.

For sure, if we do not control and dominate our minds (correctly), and keep them in their place, we will be controlled and dominated by them, and lose ourselves by becoming their slaves.

Unfortunately, I will presumably have to return to an ordinary life of ordinary a little more than a week. If this is not a crime against humanity, what is it?

Thursday, January 1, 2009


When I think about the character of China I struggle. This surely is not only because I do not know the language. I sense that it is a different world, not just a different part of the world. Despite the obvious, profound differences between Islam and the West; despite, moreover, the increased personal freedoms here in China - with respect to personal matters such as alcohol and relationships – I do feel that China is more exotic and strange to me than was Kuwait.

Beyond Opposition

The situation in the Fertile Crescent polarizes opinion. People are pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. Being pro-both seems unconvincing.

Who was it who said that the test of a position is that it convince? Someone did, I’m sure. Was he right?


The ability to control one’s own mind is peace.

I hope your new years are happy.