A Rural Idyll in Steady Decline

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The people of that plainly built farming town led simple lives and were proud of the hardship and forfeiture rural existence assumed of them. They knew their place in that world and – as is customary in such isolated surroundings – they conducted themselves with the same sheltered constancy as so many of their forebears had done for generations before. In summer, they worked on the bog, cutting and footing the turf as the midges ate at their faces and the sun reddened their necks. In autumn, they collected the dried turf in sacks and stacked the load on rented wagons for bringing home. They burned the dried sod for fuel during the winter and prayed to the mother, the father, the Holy Spirit and all saints in heaven that it would be a short cold this year and that spring would not be long in arriving. As soon as they were able, the women mothered children until their exhausted bodies could no longer endure the drudgery of incubation. They cared for their young and when it was needed they helped the men on the land. Most of the husbands earned their living as laborers on the farms, some were employed as tradesmen and others did spot work around the town when it was on offer and they were able for it. A few of them brewed poitín in makeshift pot stills built behind locked shed doors and sold the cheap spirit to their trusted neighbours who understood that such a transaction was to be of no concern to the law. They were big men and not given to preoccupying themselves with things they had no need to understand. Their children wore clothes that were ten years too old and five sizes too big for them. In school they did their sums and read about the heroes of the ancient world. When their parents thought them old enough, they finished with school and learned about hay bailing and how to handle the livestock.

On Sundays, they packed the churches and twice passed around the collection plate for the unfortunate. They understood austerity as an instinct and for what they lacked they did without. With no knowledge of an alternative, they trudged quietly through obscure lives uninterrupted and without question. Nobody, least of all the people of that town, could possibly have foreseen the changes that have taken place in this country over the last half century. With expectation replacing contentment, the young no longer anchor their interests to the sturdy honesty of rural life. Low on the patient regard for life that their parents had embraced so ungrudgingly, they move away as soon as they’re able, leaving the old and the unambitious to take care of themselves.

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I cannot properly recall what possessed me to settle there, but it was a cheap to rent and I needed to save money before I was to run away to London. I was working as a cook and living alone in a modestly furnished flat above a musical instrument store on a narrow terrace just a short walk from the town square. It was a conservative neighbourhood, housed mostly by the retired and the widowed, but not without its own sedentary charm. Nothing was a matter of urgency in that town and brevity was an article in short supply; the rain fell at a pace of its own accord and the sun shone when it felt up to the task. I remember my washing machine breakingdown and having to wait over a month before my landlord found someone to come around and look at the thing. For weeks I had to scrub the guts and gravy stains from my work whites in the kitchen sink. I could have used the launderette on main street, but the lady who ran the place had the habit of opening late afternoon and closing early evening – and besides I was at work during these times.

I was living two doors down from a cantankerous and semi-retired coal merchant who doubled his living room as his office. As straight backed as his stoutly posture afforded, he faced the world with the reticence and certainty of an old praetorian sentry. Cigarette in hand and stood on his front porch step, he would spend hours watching the business of everyday life unfolding on the street like a superintendent of the quotidian. He knew everyone and would about the goings on in town with the kind of interest only enjoyed by county sorts. If there was nobody around to humor him, he would talk to the dogs, the birds, sky, the moon, anything , and I can’t be sure if he was crazy, drunk or the most straightforward person I have ever met. In the hotter months, I would catch him under the cool shade of his front doorway. Being from the old stock, he was not one short of words so we never struggled to find conversation.

“What do you think about that then?” He started, offering no indication as to what we were to be discussing.

“Not much, now, not much.” Was the fit response.

He was not an easy man to impress and generally paid little service to what I had to say. He had seen all there was to see and knew all that was needed to be known. Like so many with such a belief, it was incredibly difficult to excite any interest within him. To a man who believes he has seen everything the world has to offer, no one can persuade him differently. He has his own silent idea of what matters in life, but not the time to share his findings with anyone else. Nevertheless, I liked him and always felt I had achieved something by talking with him.

“You’re young and fit.” He would laugh as he sauntered from his post in search of a cup of tea and a sit down “You don’t want to be stuck here. Here is for the old and the unambitious”

When I wasn’t working, I was drinking. Everyone in that town was a drinker because there was not much else to do of a weekend. It would be a real task to find a young man in that town that didn’t empty most of what he earned into the bar. The guy in the flat directly beside my place drank himself stupid every night, and a more shambolic and sour a drunk you would never find yourself in want to meet. I only ever talked with him once, but I could hear him arguing and crashing around in there until all hours. He never worked. He was a plasterer by trade but hadn’t had a contract in years, One time, things went a little too far in there and in a rage he hit his woman. The police took him away in handcuffs, but he was back the next evening and so was she.

838ab60914bd4a0b3d7908b79b45a29dI remember a couple of elderly brothers who lived together in an house across the street. They had both spent a fair amount of time in England but were called home to look after their mother in her final years. Neither man had married. Both of them had physical disabilities as well as a whole stack of mental problems. The older lad, I know, was working on the building sites in London for years. Tall and thin, he was a strong young horse, but an accident on a site had smacked his corned beef to bits. Some concrete fell on him or he fell on some concrete and it had left the poor lad deaf, half blind and a quarter witted. I don’t know the whole story about the younger one, just that he was even more damaged upstairs than his brother. I may have been told me it was dementia, but I can’t be sure. The younger brother never left the house, but I would often see the older lad shuffling down the street most evenings. He never wandered too far away from the house and I remember he had this odd habit of bunching up the lap his trousers with his fists and kinda pulling them up as he walked. Even with his rattled nerves, it was up to the older one to take care of the both of them. But they weren’t completely alone. The health service sent a care-worker to check in on them every few days. She brought them food and made sure they were doing alright in there. You could ask anybody in the town and they would tell you that they were no harm to anybody.  Some people believed that they had been touched by the hand of God. They were trusting men and well known around the town. They rarely locked their door.

Except for the brothers and the drunk next door, all the residents on my street lived alone. They had lived beside one another for a lifetime and there was no need for airs and graces between them. Every miscarriage and infidelity, every divorce and baptism, every death, ailment and indiscretion was out in the open and well known. They did what they could to help one another no matter the nature of the request. They trusted one another. I was never treated as an outsider and I think they were happy to have me in the neighbourhood. The old women would bring me the leftovers from Sunday dinner and the widowers would spot me for a pint whenever they saw me in the pub. In return I helped them with painting, sweeping, cleaning and whatever else they needed whenever I was able. Over tea they told me about their children who had taken the first opportunity they could to get out of that town and gone to work in places like Canada and The United States. Sons and daughters who had fallen in love with the locals over there and would never be coming back. Who started families in foreign suburbias with green cards, happy hour, cable television, and backyard swimming pools. Who endeared themselves to their adoptive communities and joked that they were from the very far end of the middle of nowhere when asked about the strange and interesting and cute way their accents sounded to their neighbours. They worked comfortable jobs and could afford to dress their children well. Every few years, they visited home and were welcomed with open arms and thankful weeping, but they had outgrown the cradle of the small town existence and had no interest in ever going back to such a place.

I lived in that town for little over a year. I made my money and was soon on the way to London. When I left, the old women lit candles in church and told me to travel safe. I shook hands with the merchant and he told that I was right to be going and anyway this town was only for the old and the unambitious now.

I was in London a month when I read about the brothers. Some drunk maniac had let himself into their house in the middle of the night and battered the two of them to death with a slab of timber. The bodies were found by the care-worker the next morning. One was in a downstairs bedroom and the other in the backyard. It was a brutal scene. Nothing was stolen. The victims never knew the man who killed them and no motive for the attack was ever found. When he was caught, they said he had a history of psychiatric difficulty and placed him on self-harm and suicide watch. The two of us are the same age. In the courtroom the accused said he was sorry for what he had done and his mother wept as the judge read out the charges. Half the county attended the funeral; the priest said that the town had been overshadowed by a darkness and the head of the state called it an act of savagery. They were buried next to their mother.

It looks like it’s getting worse there every day. Last year someone was shot and killed while filling his car at a petrol station on the outskirts of town. A few months later, there was a guy chased down the high street by a gang of a dozen lads. When they caught him, they beat him to the ground and kicked him senseless. He crawled into a local shop for safety, but they followed him in and stabbed him in the stomach while staff and customers looked on in shock. It was the middle of the afternoon. The security guard was too terrified to do anything but watch. They had to close the shop for the day because there was such an amount of blood on the floor.

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When I’m home, I sometimes pass through that town to see what’s changed. The people are much the same, but now mind to lock their doors at night. There are fewer jobs and a lot of the bars have closed, but there are still places to find a drink if you’re after one. I always drink too much when I go back there and we always find ourselves talking about those brothers and those violent crimes. And it’s hard to get people to acknowledge that something has gone wrong here. Or even that anything is different to how it used to be. It’s like looking at an oil painting of a perfect rural landscape; green rolling hills; a weaving stream of transparent water; a flock of birds outlined against a clear blue sky; all of that. But when you take a closer look, you find that something has been scratching away at the outer edges of the image. And every time you return to the painting, another small section has been scraped or damaged – but barely enough to notice much change. And soon you get used to the new scratches. Over time it gets even more damaged until eventually it’s impossible to remember what the picture looked like in the first place. But the decline has been so gradual that you’re not even sure what’s changed. I’m not able to name the feeling I have for it now. It’s like a sadness at something come undone. And when it’s late and I’m tired and drunk and too sentimental, I imagine that everything was better years ago, but I’m sure I must be wrong.

A brief lesson in cool

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Just once I’d like to enter a party like this:

The clip is from the movie Cinderfella (1960) starring the incomparable Jerry Lewis. The story goes that this sequence was shot in a single take and at the end of the scene, when the Cinderfella character runs back up that very same staircase, Lewis actually suffered a heart attack and was rushed from the set and taken to hospital.

Clips like this takes me back to my childhood, watching old movies at my grandmother’s house on Saturday afternoons. She would charge up my brothers and I with sweets, chocolate and Coca-Cola (we were rather spoiled) before handing these hyperactive and sugar stuffed kids back to my parents at the end of the day. We were like a pack of rabid teddy bears. What old films take you back to your childhood?

As If I Wasn’t Busy Enough, Now I Have Multiple Sclerosis

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“Only fools and rakes fall ill, my boy. You know me: I am busy from morning till night and abstemious, so of course I am well.” Nicholas Bolkonski in Tolstoy’s War and Peace

With the appointment confirmation letter neatly folded into the breast pocket of my winter coat, I arrive ten minutes early at the National Neurology Hospital in Central London on a fresh Wednesday afternoon to meet with a highly regarded medical researcher and practitioner who informs me in a softly-cultivated Anglo/Indian accent that the inflammation they detected in my brain five months back was neither an isolated nor an inexplicable happening, but is instead attributable to my having developed Multiple Sclerosis.

02dw_0_This was not the news I had hoped for and it really kicked the chair as regards a pleasant transition into the second half of the week. I was told much of what I already know, i.e. that the spectrum of MS is a very broad and that there is a chance that symptoms of the disorder may never make themselves known again. I’m told to increase my vitamin D intake (although initial studies have so far failed to indicate any association between  increased vitamin D levels and a reduction in the severity of MS) and to ensure that I get my flu jab every winter so as to lower my body’s exposure to opportunistic infections. We chat about music, work, and my headaches. He tells me that any other information I may require will be provided by a nurse back in the waiting room. I’m then escorted to the hospital’s phlebotomy department to have a blood sample taken before once again being strapped into an MRI machine and asked if I would like to listen to a particular radio station (I asked for BBC Radio 4 – which is perhaps the most British thing conceivable, second only to lapsarian guilt and an innate inability to complain about poor service in restaurants) while they stream magnetic energy through my organic bowling ball. Back in the waiting room, I’m given a few pamphlets and a phone number should I have any further questions. They make an appointment for a check-up in 6 months and, with a professionally honed but clearly insincere smile, I’m told that I’m free to go and wished well. The middle aged lady with whom I share the elevator to the ground floor tells me she has had MS for almost 20 years, she’s in a wheelchair and has some difficulty getting the words out of her mouth on account of her poorly functioning facial muscles. I don’t smoke, but cadge a ciggie from a guy standing outside the hospital entrance and go for an expensive breakfast at a cafe round the corner. I’m annoyed that I took the whole day off from work for this bullshit.

It’s two weeks later and I have before me a copy of the letter sent from the consultant neurologist to my GP. According to Doctor Kapoor:

The findings of lesions in the brain scan confers a reasonably high probability that further clinical attacks may occur over the years,

A prospect – I’m sure I don’t need to tell you – that fills me with nothing but excitement and expectation for marvelous times ahead. It’s difficult to explain just how unusual an impression this kind of news leaves on the mind. Some of my immediate thoughts were just too fast, scattered and voluminous to even begin attempting to articulate through words. As soon as I go about trying to structure what I’m thinking into any sort of coherent expression, I am already presenting a thoroughly lacking and vastly misleading account of what’s actually going on inside my head. The truth is that I’m not thinking about this in an organized or pragmatic manner at all, while I was in that consultation room, sensible or detached thinking was almost impossible. And it’s not like I am even dedicating the entirety of my attention to the matter because life goes on and the world does not stop for bad news; bills need to be paid, friends entertained, meals to be cooked, bins to be emptied. I’m devastated, of course, but also morbidly fascinated as to how this disease will show itself next. I’m not the first person to get ill, and I won’t be the last. Terminal illness may be an intriguing topic for reading, however, chronic illness is not and I have no immediate plans as regards dying.

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For now, my most immediate course of action is to carry on living as usual, and what is to happen will be addressed as it so chooses to happen. I am just as angry, spiteful, vindictive, childish and lustful about life as before. If it is true that “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” then there is much more that I have to learn, and would be very grateful of the time in which to do so.

Something I hope you’ll enjoy

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It’s weird, as long as I’ve had this blog up and running (for over a year now), I’ve never posted anything music related. I thought I’d mix it up a bit, and so, I present To Kill a King with Choices. I know that I tend to avoid around 99% of the music videos that people post on blogs and Facebook, but this video really is something quite special and, with that in mind, I really hope you take aside a few minutes and treat yourself. I’ve seen this group live 3 times in London so far, and will probably go and see them again before the year is through. A guy I used to work with knows some of the members and they sound like a very decent bunch of people. Anyway, enough from me, enjoy.

The Perfect Gift

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Motivated by what could quite realistically be classified as a near pathological generosity, the junior pharmaceutical events facilitator, as if driven by some weird mix of obsessive compulsion and a kind of atavistic and entirely irrational superstition (though of course in certain academic circles and by way of numerous and refreshingly innovative yet largely overlooked interdisciplinary works, the behavioural habits associated with these two phenomena are now believed to arise less as the result of mutually exclusive cognitive processes as had been previously reckoned, but are – in point of fact – better understood as being negligibly differing manifestations of a common psychological irregularity, i.e. as equitable and almost entirely resembling extensions of the same underlying anxiety related condition; An area that many noted and respected scholars working in the field of Anthropology lament may be a significantly under investigated field of research – though it is perhaps worth mentioning that a great many professionals in the Psychological community do not seem to share such enthusiasm for this kind of speculative work, while those working within the more rigidly defined parameters of what is commony referred to as the hard sciences couldn’t care less either way, and are becoming increasingly vocal as to being very over just this kind of exercise in ourobosian semantics), firmly believed it to be not worth returning home from her recent and wholly successful gig coordinating a major Big-Pharma marketing event in Paris if she didn’t bring back some kind of meaningful memento from her trip for the man with whom, for up to 4 nights a week, she has been sharing the queen sized bed of her Zone 3 semi-detached house.

640px-Northfields_tube_station-londonAn instinctually selfless character that also just so happens to somehow satisfy 4 of the 6 criteria required for the proper diagnosis of a personality disorder, as outlined in the DSM-V, in its sense of obligation, she chose not to hit up the Parisian souvenir shops which, in the name of universally sanctioned ubiquity, stock products including but in no way limited to: miniature Eiffel Tower fridge magnets, I ♡ Paris meshed trucker caps, drapeau tricolore cuffed socks and ludicrously priced novelty postcards together with a wide and impressive selection of anatopically displayed articles such as authentic Chinese produced Bavarian beer steins, screen printed t-shirts featuring the work of notably British “street” artists and novelty polyester Rasta caps (which, by the manufacturer opting to produce their caps from this particular synthetic material, as opposed to the more customary woven wool variety, makes them guilty of not only committing a gross disservice to the crafts workers of the Caribbean who know crochet as a profession, but also of a certain insensitivity to the culture they are trying to commodify. That is, of course, only one way of looking at it. From another angle, it could be argued that the polyethylene cap is an ironically knowing and self-consciously substandard appropriation of Afro-Caribbean culture and that its actual raison d’etre is therefore as some sort of satire statement on Europe’s patronizing attitude toward the peoples of the Caribbean basin. Which would make the appearance of such an item in France, the birthplace of post-structural theory of all places, appear not only entirely appropriate but almost expected. And which could go in some ways to explaining exactly why the people who buy and choose to wear these hats receive looks of utter revulsion and derision from everybody in the immediate vicinity of the wearer with the sense not to be wearing one. However, perhaps this would be radically overthinking the matter. It’s probably much more likely that the whole thing can be explained by the lower production costs incurred by using low-quality polyester as compared to more expensive wool) but instead to detour several kilometres with a notion to find that most antagonistic of food products: foul smelling French cheese.

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This, unfortunately, is the point at which the disparity between her good nature and what the resourcing departments of major corporations currently describe on the “desired skills” sections of job advertisements as a detail orientated approach interrupts what was otherwise the perfect gift idea. You see, while the guy, with whom the junior pharmaceutical events facilitator has been sharing the majority of her free-time for the last 7 months, may have confessed to a real jones for super strong tasting cheese, he cannot recall ever mentioning anything about the stinky smelling stuff. A small piece of cheese 101: Strong does necessarily imply that a cheese will be stinky, and vice versa.

800px-Cheese_shop_P1010071A pleasure it would be to wax lyrical about her being led into a private back room in which, behind lock and key and in its own hermetically sealed vessel, sat a truly repugnant-to-the-point-of-mania smelling gear, but that would be far too much of a narrative cliché and the kind of lazy storytelling device that you’d expect to read in a novel from the 1890’s – or see in any mainstream Hollywood adventure movie, except for those features that film historians have settled in agreement in defining as the New Hollywood (or post-classical cinema [or American New Wave]) period. And besides, it didn’t actually happen. Instead, the sales clerk in the small but ornately decorated fromagerie passively ushered our friend along the store’s glass top counter to the appropriately stinking assortment of cheeses and advised that the preferred choice amongst her regular cliental is the Munster; a real doozy of a number, fashioned from unpasteurized cow’s milk in the remoter and far westerly parts of the country.

She sat on that train from La Gare du Nord to London’s St. Pancras Station with a wheel of what is widely considered to be one of the world’s foulest smelling dairy products honking away beneath her seat for over two hours. Her trek to the station must have been an upwind affair because at first, as she sat there, reading her glossy women’s magazine and drinking a glass of white wine from the gifted bottle that the event’s venue management staff had given as a sincere thank-you for being so accommodating and pleasant to work alongside, she attributed the ever growing farty stink that was creeping right out through the lining and plastic hard-shell of her carry-on sized Scorpius brand roller-cast luggage on the gastrointestinal manoeuvres of the geriatric guy she sat beside.

stink-bug-facts-640She, as one has come to expect of any individual who spends excessive amounts of their time neurotically obsessing to make sure that, in any awkward situation, the other party is never put in the position of feeling embarrassed or self-conscious about something that they – especially one in his advanced years – have little to no control over, and who would certainly never let the offending party know that she knows that they have accidentally let one off, at first didn’t even consider that the blame for the stink was resting under her rear, as it were. However, by the time the train jolted to rest at St. Pancras International in London, although the stench had just short of contaminated the entirety of her carriage with a sort of dank stench that online reviewers have described as akin to a tramp’s fart or an old sock filled with dog-shit, still she hadn’t identified the root cause for what had been a hugely unpleasant journey for two dozen or so other passengers. It was, in fact, only after noticing that the stench had followed her all the way home did she realize that the god-awful reek was in the express ownership of her own self.

Of course, it didn’t take long before she realized that keeping the stuff at her place was a bad call. It ruined the air of any room in which it was placed, and storing it in the refrigerator, under the hypothesis that cooling the cheese would lessen the smell, instead only resulted in all her food– and indeed the plastic interior of the fridge itself – absorbing that dreadful smell. In the end, and taking cues from the bear deterrent techniques advised to all campers practicing in regions habituated by grizzlies, browns, and even the polar variety, she wrapped the Munster in a plastic grocery bag and hung it out of her second story bathroom window.

The material exchanged hands the next afternoon together with warnings that this stuff was something to be taken serious. The guy with whom, for more than half the week, the junior pharmaceutical events facilitator has been shacking up with and getting up to all sorts of unspeakable carnal acts, had the Munster in his possession for all of 20 minutes before deciding that there was absolutely no way that this wedge of stink was going anywhere near his own home. In truth, he wasn’t particularly excited about eating the stuff, but knowing that finding out that she had made an error of judgement in her choice of gift would prove actually physically painful for her and that he would then have to spend the next half hour explaining how much he appreciates the thought and effort she had put into the gift, and that if they were ever to have a future together, he would probably never hear the end of this, he accepted the gift in earnest.

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Because his own obsessive personality quirk is an aversion to ever throwing away perfectly good food, for the last week, the cheese has been sitting in a cupboard in one of his office’s staff kitchens, its gross stench slowly swallowing any clean air with which it comes into contact. As a matter of his own comfort, however, the particular kitchen in which he placed the Munster is actually on the other side of the building from where his own department sits. Ordinarily the guy would feel bad for inflicting this sort of horror on a group of otherwise unassuming co-workers, however, in this particular instance, that kitchen serves the Legal Department and he feels entirely vindicated by this fact.

A quick one before the weekend

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It’s been another busy couple weeks on my side and I’m away again this weekend so I haven’t had a great amount of time to work on anything even resembling a coherent piece of writing. The best I can offer is another doodle that I threw together in Illustrator. I hope you enjoy, and I’ll have some better written work on here soon.

The NES was one of the first gaming systems that I ever played and I’ll never forget the hundreds of hours I spent sitting in front of the TV with this thing in my paws, trying time and again to beat Super Mario Bros. 2. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure if I ever did complete that game. I remember gripping the controller so tightly during those particularly difficult later stages that I’d force an impression of its cornered edges into the sweaty palms of my little hands. Sometimes I would apply such pressure that I’d actually bruise. I also head-butted the screen of my Gameboy while playing Wario once, but that’s an altogether different and much darker story.

Blessed are the forgetful

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“There is no teaching, but only recollection”  – Socrates

Last year I saw a stand-up comedian who, after riffing for 10 minutes on his recent travels across the United States, concluded his set (which was admittedly quite low on laughs) by idiomatically declaring to the half-cut Friday night audience that “when you experience different cultures, it enriches the soul.” How odd a thing it is that you can have the most horizon broadening of experiences while travelling, but sometimes, for whatever reason, it’s actually the most trivial and kinda goofy details that linger in your memory long after you return home. Perhaps I should explain.

TownHall I’m not that long home from a trip to Brussel, a city founded on the River Senne by the descendants of Charlemagne, during the 1st Christian Millennium, a time many medievalists refer to as the darkest of the Dark Ages in pre-renaissance Europe. Brussels is the host city to the headquarters of NATO and the de facto capital of the European Union, embodying the spirit of both international cooperation and European solidarity. This is kind of a weird idea to get your head around because Brussels was once the centre of Belgium’s far reaching and ruthless colonial empire. Marlow, the protagonist in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, refers to 19th century Brussels as a “whited sepulchre.” This easy-to-overlook remark originally appears in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (23:29) and characterizes anything that appears outwardly beautiful, but is “full of dead men’s bones” within. The expression was used by Conrad to give a literary two finger salute to the vastly misleading rhetoric used by Belgium when onanistically congratulating their so-called civilizing missions in Africa. The campaign of Belgian imperialism, as it turns out, was not so much concerned with bringing enlightenment to the African locals but aimed at seizing power and wealth from them in as brutal a fashion as possible. Like with pretty much every European capital I’ve ever visited, the history of Brussels is a dark and violent affair, defined by war, murder, revolution and colonial atrocity. All that was a long time ago, and the country is different now, but it’s just that kind of haunted and conflict driven history that keeps those of us who are easily seduced by the sinister romance of all that kind of jazz, and who never tire of hearing more about it, absolutely enthralled. I went on the guided tours, I asked questions, I learned a lot. And yet, the most prominent of all my memories from the trip, the first thing that always comes to mind when I think about Brussels, and indeed anything even remotely related to Belgium, has nothing to do with any of that cool historical and cultural stuff. My most immediate recollection is the strength of the water pressure in the hotel shower. That’s the first thought that appears in my head when I think about this entire geographic region; the force of the water sprayed out from a nozzle fixed to the hotel bathroom wall.

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Similarly, I travelled to New York a few years ago and was privileged to spend time in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. New York is an intoxicating place and I am complete agreement with Christopher Hitchens when he wrote that “time spent asleep in New York was somehow wasted.” I saw live jazz at the Lincoln center, indulged my greatest flaneuristic predilections with an elongated stroll from the Upper East Side via Central Park to the Lower West Side of Manhattan, hung out with some Williamsburg hipsters (on account of whose generosity, and most gratefully, I experienced my first taste of authentic American cornbread and collard greens), ate in the famous Spotted Pig restaurant and drank a beer in the oldest Irish tavern in NYC (McSorley’s Old Ale House – a bar with former patrons including Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt).

McsorleysDespite all these interesting experiences, the first thing I remember when I think of New York is seeing an Arab hat salesman vomiting into a public bin on Bleecker Street (the man was Arab, not the hats). I’m not entirely sure why, but every time I think about that guy throwing up, it makes me laugh, but I’m just surprised that such an odd and unforeseen little incident would go on to become the cognitive thumbnail my brain uses as a shorthand representation of that trip.

As soon as you actually leave a city or a country, that place is no longer a concrete geographical location; it becomes more of an abstract and disjointed collection of ideas and impressions. And it’s not like these weird memories are something that can be managed or controlled, or even that they are happening on a conscious level. I have forgotten warehouses of knowledge that I used to hold dear, and yet, vast swathes of the trivial and inconsequential remain with me still.

In an interview filmed for BBC television in 1962, Vladimir Nabokov remarked that “the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes,” and though the eloquence of both Nabokov’s speech and his prose are not to be contested, I would argue that a memory by no means needs to be loved to become strange. All memories become warped and twisted by the shifting light of time. We forget and misremember, constantly. My own mother, as an example, no matter how many times I tell her that I loathe the stuff, will absolutely always make a lasagne for when I visit and defiantly argue that I had always said I loved the dish. She is, of course, quite wrong.

Lasagna

Memory, much like character, is by its very nature an incredibly flawed system, and we are probably all the better for it. The alternative puts me in mind of Ireneo Funes, the eponymous character in Jorge Borges’ fantasy short story Funes the Memorious. After he has the unfortunate luck of being thrown from a horse, Funes is blessed – or perhaps condemned – to spend the rest of his life remembering absolutely everything that he experiences to the minutest detail, including “every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him.” However, as Borges – the story’s narrator – notes, Funes, despite his incredible powers of recollection, was “not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions.” Memory is not everything, then, and the Borges makes it his business to point out that “in the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.” Borges is touching on an argument that has been quietly ticking over in philosophical thought for millennia. Socrates had plenty to say on the nature of memory, as did Descartes and Hegel. More recently, the notable French philosopher, Henri Bergson, for example, suggested that in some way everything that has happened to us is remembered, but as a rule only what is useful comes into consciousness. Failures in memory, Bergson contends, are not so much failures of the mental part of memory, but of the more physiological mechanisms used in bringing memory to action. Such philosophical waxing lyrical is all well and good, but does little to explain why I keep thinking about Belgian water pressure.

Memory doesn’t come in the same sequential linear form as first hand experience, it’s more like a collection of fragments, puzzle pieces with fuzzy edges that only sort of connect, and as I’m getting older trying to remember the particular narrative sequence of certain events is kind of like trying to construct a story after only reading every second page of a novel.

I’m yet to meet the person whose memPhrenologie1_(87k_edited)ory is without fault and would be highly distrustful of the individual who claimed such an endowment. It seems that we have no other immediate alternative than to make-do with the mess of a filing cabinet we keep in our heads. The battle, therefore, is not necessarily to try and remember everything that we experience but to endeavor to articulate what we can recall in an interesting way. In my own case, I believe that is a foundational requirement that an adult human be able to recite at least one full poem off by heart, one absolutely filthy limerick, one song, one joke and one entirely-humiliating story. It’s not much, but if all else I have to fall back on in a social situation is a story about a man vomiting into a trash-can then I could be doing a lot worse.