A New Deal on Data.

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Articulating the contract between science and people

By Anna Middleton1, Vivienne Parry2, Julian Borra3

ARE YOU WITH US?

For most of us it is hard to unpick the various declarations, assurances and guarantees made regarding the sanctity of our data. Even the General Data Protection Regulation still feels quite far removed from the everyday lives of ordinary people and is seemingly absent of any consultation with them. People need to both see and hear proof that they’ve been listened to. And they will act against anyone who seems to wilfully dismiss or disregard them – with every right to do so. With Facebook recently under the spotlight, there is tangible alarm about the use of our personal information by others. A breach of confidence or inappropriate access to data becomes really sensitive when we consider our most precious and personal information. In a health sense, what is more personal than our DNA? It’s what makes us ‘us’.

We broadly know that scientists, clinicians and academic institutions collect, store, research and share DNA and medical information as part of the global endeavours to understand human health and treat human suffering. As part of this endeavour DNA information bounces around the Internet on an unbelievably massive scale, in ways unknown to the person who donated the data.

We probably expect ‘science’ is gathering, storing, analysing and sharing our data with respect, transparency and integrity. Whilst we hope that there is choice in this and we hope that we have actively consented, have we ever really discussed this as a collective society? Is this even possible?

Is it widely known that particularly for genetic research it is only possible to interpret what a glitch in DNA means if there are hundreds of thousands of DNA glitches from other people to compare it to. So, Big Data and DNA go hand in hand and are necessary for genomic medicine to deliver on its promises.

But, if science is truly going to serve humankind in the best way possible we need to be clear on the terms of the interaction and transaction with people, on their terms. And to do that we need a simple and clear conversation; to be certain that we can fulfil their demands or at least understand their desires and concerns.

The need for a PEOPLE POWERED conversation

THE WHY?

A. The world of data is leaky.

B. Society’ hasn’t yet been part of a clear conversation.

When thinking about A. we have to be honest. Nothing is perfect. No data is 100% secure. No system is flawless. No regulation is absolute. No cache of information is 100% bullet proof – and if anyone promises that, they’re over promising.

This is a given that we have got to accept.

The type of data we are talking about here is the purest most precious kind, fundamental to our identity and existence. DNA and linked medical data – the foundational stuff that makes us who we are. Whilst our data might be ‘de-identified’, i.e. our name and address has been uncoupled from it, ‘anonymity’ cannot be absolutely guaranteed, because health information can always be linked to other personal information that is also on the web, and in our increasingly data-connected world, it is entirely feasible that we could, in theory, be identified from our DNA alone.

Which brings us to the B.

There are a lot of companies and regulatory bodies that broadcast commitments and assurances about data use. But as there has been no collective societal ‘sign up’ – so the pronouncements and commitments could be seen as one-sided. Aside from (relatively small scale) targeted engagement initiatives, there hasn’t yet been a global two-way conversation. No complete consultation. No reciprocity. No serious voice given to the most important people and the principal recipients of the good works undertaken with their data.

This is especially problematic when it comes to trying to get more people to share their precious DNA – their genome – to advance medical research and progress healthcare. Which is why the scientists need to ‘go first’ with starting this conversation.

THE CRUNCH

To move forwards we need:

  • the medical, clinical and academic institutions and the policy makers to clearly articulate the assumptions behind ‘people’s best interests’ and make this available for debate.
  • society to accept the tiny risk inherent in sharing their data with individuals, organisations.

We need the people on both sides to be in this together – mutually accepting and supporting the power of precious data sharing to make life better.

GOING FORWARDS

Drawing up the New Deal

Simplicity is key. Two clear parties. Two clear beneficiaries. And equally mutual rewards.

Consultation

This is a reciprocal people-powered deal that brings both sides together for better. And the people’s voice must be consulted, heard and written into it.

This will require a comprehensive consultation process involving ordinary people from all walks of society.

This should involve Qualitative and Quantitative explorations and interrogations of the topic and the terms of the deal. It should involve experts in large-scale, population engagement techniques.

How do we start the conversation?

We need a starting point for that conversation – an ‘in’; and starting with the genome isn’t it. We know from our own research that the vast majority of the broader public have not yet encountered the term. However, more than 90% of the public are online and feeding their data into the grid. Thus ‘data’ is the conversation starter that can take us to DNA.

The binary algorithms that once sat invisibly inside tech tools that serve humanity –- have now become visible – data has become a ‘thing’. Something we can point at, hold up, scrutinise and hold accountable. Data and its big brother, Big Data, are now discussed, interrogated and judged everywhere from the Senate Commission to Mumsnet.

So, Data; our relationship with it; and with those who harvest, explore and administer it ‘on our behalf’ gives us a rich area from which to begin.

The conversation needs to focus on how science and humanity collaborate and win, together.

Communication

Language and Tone are everything. Pub and school gate rules apply (i.e. it can be discussed anywhere and everyone can participate). This is a People Powered Deal. Not a Protocol.This is a simple deal that respects and honours every human’s right to control their own data destiny. And confidently go into an agreement where they believe that the terms will be upheld to the best of everyone’s ability. Which means it must be couched in clear simple terms.

Distribution

We need the New Deal to be visible to all at every level. This will require a robust channel strategy – so we would also need to test best channels for spreading the word. And answer some pretty simple questions: Is it an event based news worthy event? Is it a web based platform for commitment with visible partners? Is it a socially driven call for better – a clarion call where we give the New Deal to the people and get them to use it as a lever to agitate for better – a movement.

 

We feel it is time for science and policy to scrutinise their direction of travel – with less rhetoric about the benefits of research and delivery of science (i.e. going in one direction from them to us) and more about serving humankind, recognising that we are all in this together. We, collectively are a partnership and we need the people of society to feel they sit with the scientists so that the journey into human discovery is one made together.

 

1Head of Society and Ethics Research, Wellcome Genome Campus, Cambridge

2Head of Engagement, Genomics England, London

3Citizen, Founder of Thin Air Factory, London

 

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Birds, language & the Singing Ape

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I’ve been considering a collision of sorts in regards to language and what gave voice to the human species.

And listening to The Queen Of The Night from Mozart’s Magic Flute bought it all to a point.

The three pieces that collided in my mind are Mimicry, Trees and Birds.

In regards to mimicry, I was listening to a Radio 4 piece recently where a scientist was discussing her study of Apes and their gestural vocabulary – and exploring whether the linking of multiple gestures could be viewed as proof of how language developed in us as seen through the window of Apes – a clue perhaps to our ancient passage from gestures emphasised and accented by vocal noises to language as a formal technology. The issue seemed to lie for her in the absence of syntax – the absence of a grammar that unified the gestures into threads, or sentences if you will. She was hopeful that continued and rigorous research would eventually answer this question one way or the other.

If the gestures could be linked cohesively and logically elevated by some form of grammatical logic or structure, emphasised by aural accompaniment, it could be possible to extrapolate that human language might have developed in a not dissimilar way.

Where mimicry comes into this for me is in the simple truth that humans learn language through mimicry. As babies we home in on and focus on the ‘voices’ of our parents – initially as a simple identifier – imprinting them as a source code. Then as we listen we begin to learn the sounds and the range of possible inflections, tones and emotional cadences of language long before we know the ‘meaning’ of those words or the structural engineering that brings them all together.

We’ve all heard a small child burbling away and, to all intents and purposes, having a good old chat with themselves, with all the cadences and inflections of sentence structure and frameworks, and with an understanding of the emotions carried within those sounds but without the faintest idea of any formal understanding or definition.

We share a common ancestry with chimpanzees, apes and orangutans – that of the Hominidae – and we are related most closely to chimps in regards to our DNA. When we explore the relationship between our intellect and that of the Chimpanzee we use mimicry as a tool to do this. A kind of Show and Tell and Learn system.

So if mimicry is a trait; an evolutionary ability developed in advanced apes descended from Hominidae, of which we are the most preeminent, then I sense that in mimicry lies an answer to the question of syntax and structural rhythm.

But who were we mimicking? Where? And Why?

The Birdman of Brighton with his small curiosity bird whistles and warblers set my mind in motion. Remembering the wonderment on my daughter’s face at the ability of the small fired-clay bird whistle to light up the air with its sing-song warble gave me the root human desire I was looking for. Its simply wonderful for a human, child or adult, to be able to sing like a bird. Magical. Like a trap door into a mystical place of ‘otherness.’

And this fascination is not only anecdotal and childlike.

In a more rigorous and scientific realm, Toshitaka Suzuki and his colleagues at The Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Japan have revealed that bird song and birdcalls contain complex syntactical structures – ‘sentences’ if you will.

Though the infectious nature and idea of the syntax of birdsong seems enchanting, linguists see the birds as being very limited syntactically. Studied in isolation, I’m sure they must seem limited.

But the curiosity and conundrum for me is this: an ancient creature such as bird has syntax, whereas our Ape cousins, however smart or developed, currently do not. And humans have the most complex and sophisticated language of all earth’s creatures.

Is it our sophistication and evolutionary abilities that drive this reality? Or a simpler and more ‘creature-like’ trait in us?

For my mind, we have to consider the possibility that if we cannot find the direct linguistic link between our Ape cousins and their gestural noises and our own complex, syntactical language , we must look wider and indirectly – and consider some collisions perhaps.

For example; Humans have a very ancient relationship with trees. We have a simple, symbiotic relationship with them at a primal level: we breathe in what they breathe out – and they breathe out what we breathe in. But the root of us and the roots of them are intertwined over millennia. We have evolved around and within them, developing under the cover of their canopy, drawing from the soil beneath them, hollowing them out as hallowed spaces. Taking refuge in their boughs. Living amongst their branches. Feeding on their fruits. Using their seasonal shifts like metronome for our own existence. Trees are imprinted on us. Which means we could accept one thing as broadly likely: our ancestors would have lived beak by jowl with every shade shape, nature and hue of bird for hundreds of thousands of generations.

We mimic most things when given half a chance. We certainly mimic birdsong – using calls and whistles to provoke reaction from or engagement with the creatures around us.

Why could we not consider the idea that there was an tree dwelling-ancestor in our distant past whose speciality was birdsong mimicry – to attract and to interact with them – either to catch and eat them perhaps, or in the use of them as compasses, weather vanes, soothsayers, or doom-bringers. And consider that those ancestors played a pivotal role in our adoption of the syntactical nature of birdsong. Perhaps they were hugely influential at a pivotal point in our evolution.

This makes complete sense to me. People who spend a lot of time around each other begin to align in all manner of ways. They start to adopt aspects of each other- why not each others communication? Mimicry as part of evolutionary survival over generations must imprint itself – descend beneath the surface of us. There is little reason to believe that the improved nature of our communication between each other would not be adopted by our evolving brain as something useful and therefore code for it. If the nature and syntax of birdsong became second nature to us: if our Ape like ancestors began to ‘pass on’ this ability until it became innate, then I would be able to clearly understand how the ‘Singing Ape’ would develop syntax and start to form the more complex format of communication that we have come to understand as language.

Our ancestors would simply have sharpened this ‘tool’ or technology in much the same way they sharpened stones and sticks.

There is also an ancient cautionary tale in this scenario for me. Something old even in the imagining of it.

Imagine at a point some few hundreds of thousands of years ago, on the great plain, under the cover of some acacia trees, we find a murder of exceptionally clever corvids – crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs and nutcrackers – and a scrum of our grunty, crass, Hominidae ancestors. They are at the crossroads of time: and they are playing dice.

And here’s for why. The terribly clever corvids have sensed that the Hominidae have something they want. A Prefrontal cortex. The power source of super evolution. So they have tempted our clumsy ancestors into gambling it all for the chance of gaining the sweet ‘voice’ of the corvids, and, ultimately, their ability to fly.

The greater prize? Whomsoever wins the toss of the die, will get all that’s best of the other and ascend to great heights, reshaping the world in their image. And the loser will be damned to be trapped as they are for all time.

The rest, of course, would be evolutionary history (probably).

Lene Lovich anyone?

 

 

Vulgarity, having-it & the scratch-card of humanity.

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While pondering ways of getting people to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle I choose to look through some research and segmentation reports on lifestyles and consumption.

(For the uninitiated, customer or consumer segmentations are sometime impenetrable studies in the socio-economic and behavioural nature of any given group of society. They are leapt on by communications planners and strategists in the absence of going and actually talking to a human being. The research pieces are the masters of wrapping and trapping swathes of humanity in convenient and malleable lumps. The objective is that all said lumps present themselves in such a way as that all manner of consumables might be thrown at them. The ‘grown up’ ones use scientific profiling, data and charts to bludgeon the humanity and empathy out of the viewer. The groovy ones use catchy pen portraits – much like this piece – to thinly explain something much more complex.)

The thing that struck me was that something was missing. Or should I say someone.  There was little or no reference to the ascendant and highly popular vulgarity gene at work in society. Was a time when to be labelled vulgar was a social death knell. Which given the conspicuous lifestyles of the old rich seemed a little, well, rich to everyone else who wasn’t them. (Something that the writer, Wyndham Lewis, pointed directly at in his book The Vulgar Streak.)

Was a time when if you bought, or even worse, constructed your own furniture,  and bathed in Take-Aways, you were vulgar. And the greatest sin? Talking about money. And being aware of it. Cuh! Dreadful.

So, I got to thinking about the journey to our current position. And thought about some of the milestones along the way. To see if they might shed some light on how best to include our new Vulgarity into a sustainable lifestyle conversation.

It was the piece on the Lidl Effect that got me to thinking. For the uninitiated, the Lidl Effect is a reference to Fashionable Frugality. Frugality that both prince and pauper can ascribe to. The Lidl Effects releases us from the tyranny of quality and status – the tension that comes from being seen to buy Finest versus buying Essential. With the Lidl effect, the focus is on what the smart money does. Streamlined choice is the way forwards. Why pay four quid for Parmesan when I can pay 97 pence? Duh.

Suddenly, with the Lidl Effect, talking scrimping money is a classless pursuit. (Until then, frugality was some post-war throwback to Food Coupons and boiling carcasses.) Vouchers, coupons and savings are de rigeur. Frugality is Now. And some knob who previously featured on the my f%*king red trousers blog will now be found happily discussing shades of economies on a prosecco purchase with the local builder. Majestic had already opened that door. Was a time when your average punter didn’t buy wine by the case – until Majestic. Majestic sold Big House wine purchasing to Small House people. Purchasing that would previously have been done through merchants for the Cellars of the Upper was now being embraced by squires of the Middle – and an in floor cellar wasn’t far behind.

In the past this would have been unheard of apart from in rare circles

Was a time when talking money was vulgar. Only people who didn’t have money spoke about it.

With the new vulgarity, the old unspoken stealth wealth ways of – I know that you know that I know where your shirt comes fromand the region and vineyard of this wine – have become public, with little shame or sensitivity.

Stealth Wealth – the invisible application of your wealth in the world as status – was allowed  only because price was hidden inside provenance: codified. The region or the postcode giving lie to the fact that whatever it was, it was expensive and only known about by ‘people who know’. And it didn’t matter how old the Hilditch & Key shirt was. It was still from Hilditch & Key. In fact stealth wealth celebrated the slightly worn and threadbare as a mark of tenure.

But now, the Ashley & Cheryl approach is to splash it and cash it and the rumbling thunder of the Thunderball and Euro-squillions win is everywhere – and we’re all acting and spending like we’ve already won.

Shiny wins. Shiny car. Shiny home. Shiny children. Shiny holidays. Shiny wardrobe. We are now resplendent as if burnished in the gold leaf of success – but the beautiful disappointment that lies beneath its crisp edged foil is only ever a nail or penny scratch away.

This social scratch-card of humanity has been a long time in the making, beginning some say, with the march of the Georgian and Victorian Industrialists and their ‘damn your eyes w’scots’. And the vulgar excesses of the royal courts and society that rode their coat tails.

Its a swift step from there to the burgeoning Civil Service class of Imperial Britain. As the middle classes expanded, the upper classes contracted, along with their purses and their estates. But the system was evolving, with Public Schools providing the perfect Imperial shapeshifter sausage machine. In aping the sent-away squiredoms of l’anciene regime, all manner of different grades and qualities and bloodlines of child could enter one end only to exit the other as Imperial Mince (in more ways than one).

The creep of vulgarity built slowly and surely at the edges of the Empire where Governors and their households, minor civil servants, local Consuls and the Military middle – think Blackadder – had been thrown together with little other than each other for company. A repeating theme in Somerset Maugham’s short stories is the clash of the elegant old with the vulgar new. Bar the Great War – the last hurrah of the old world – vulgarity was on the up.

(It’s worth noting that mourning the young men of the Great War is a classist affair. Because on those battle fields the last echoes of feudalism and the sons of Imperial entitlement died, chasing epic poems and honour amongst the massed dead from their factories and farms. The greatest crime was the inevitable disintegration of the empire that fired their hearts and minds, and the grandeur it promised to uphold on their behalf. They wuz robbed, guvnor.)

The rise of vulgarity has been predicated on the fall of Class. At every moment, where class got its come-downance, there was vulgarity, in the wings, waiting.

Class got a kicking after the Great War but via the emancipation movement. Working women stepped up and roared. And the world quaked. It then got another kicking in the great depression as the landed and the monied bled entitlement and loose change. Come the second world war there was everything to play for. And the common man stepped up.

In the RAF mess huts, the creeping democratisation and multi culturalism of a new age was struck in the hallowed halls of the Public School boy flyer-hero. The Battle of Britain was as much shaped by the presence of Poles, Canadians, South Africans and West Indians as it was by old Harrovians and Etonians.

In the late 50s, the rise of the Angry Young Man and the highly visible ordinary teenager with their preening and self-publicity struck a further blow.

This rise of youth culture, where rawness and vulgarity were part of the fabric, created a foundation stone for belief in absolute equalities in the Summer of Love, and its populist dissent with all things unequal and belligerent. A belief that The Man (those in power and with much) sent people to their deaths in far off places to protect that power and that wealth and opportunity from the common and the vulgar.

The kitchen sink dramas of Friday Night Saturday Morning and Taste of Honey presented the working class hero in a new, raw splendour. They became aspirational. And the Mods carried the torch for conspicuous consumption and sartorial excellence once reserved for Jermyn Street and the Gentry.

Come the 70s, class hadn’t only ‘dropped out’. Bowie and Glam stole gender bender affectations that were once the sole pleasure of dissolute toffs cross dressing and sliding between the assorted sheets of straight and gay. And once the feather cut and eyeliner had had their way, class got punked. And at that moment, while the old was wheezing on its knees, bloodied and bowed. Pow. The 1980s arrived.

Thatcher’s children and the Yuppy Ascendency got money out there and up there. City brokers and builders chanting Loadsamoney in City Bars was a regular occurrence. A Right of Passage almost. Minor Public School, Independent and Grammar School boys merged into one loafer-wearing scrum playing up to their Major peers –  a Will Carling Hydra, swallowing vowels and Bloody Mary’s in vulgar cars and even more vulgar shoes.

In the 80s, the space between the output of Secondary Moderns and Fee Paying Schools opened up like a wound. But if you had cash, you were gold.

Being Vulgar was part of the new regime. Everyone could trumpet their cash and success. What used to be seen as a Colonial vulgarity (Very American) was now de rigeur. Scrabbling up the status tree was positively encouraged. And the working and middle classes leapt into the fray – closely followed by the credit card companies.

Being tasteless and crass in regards to money was apparently fine. Unrefined was part of the new refinement. And Vulgarity came of age. It was our new normal.

The baseness of our past primitive selves happily spilled into our civilised present. Rudeness and indecency and the slippery rough edges of sexuality were openly displayed and became purposeful and confident – and, if questioned, simply presented themselves as a democratisation of what the toffs had been doing for years. Who were they to call us vulgar. Screw them – we’re vulgar and proud of it. And bar the odd swerve and hiccup, the 90s and the Noughties continued the charge.

The zenith point of our vulgarity? Kim Kardashian worshipping a gold loo, surely – the leitmotif of the human scratch card if ever there was one.

The Vulgarian tribe is pretty much everyone now (unless you live in a recycled house, running on renewables, growing what you eat, home schooling your children and cycling everywhere), and Vulgarians are defined by everything. Every notch on the social slide-rule. Money.  Education. Blood. Fashion. New furniture. Regionalism. Art. Everything is in there in a great big soup of social simmering. Even doilies and avocado bathroom suites have ‘status’ in our post-modern, post-ironic, vulgar, designer world. Everything goes. And we’ve got it all. And if we haven’t, we want it. And there’s always another credit card company willing to finance it at 16% APR. As long as its attached to ‘look what I’ve got and who I am’, we’re sorted.

So the next time I see a research document and a socio- demographic, I’ll be looking for the Vulgarian indexing in there.

If we’re going to have any hope of creating more sustainable lifestyles, we’re going to need to find a way to identify, understand and more importantly, appeal to our outer Vulgarian. And know what a meaningful alternative looks like to it.

And, just saying, it had better be shiny. Just sustainably so.

Of Gods, Software & Human Disappointment

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There is an air of disappointment curling around the head of our new god.

Our all-consuming belief in Technology and the algorithmic inevitability of its ascent into one-ness with us renders it a form of deity to many. In its wake we see theological and philosophical texts bursting forth from every quarter, trying to both project its arc through our existence and predict its inevitable impact upon it.

But there is an increasingly vociferous movement rising up alongside it. One that sees fundamental flaws in its omnipotent possibilities and bumpy times ahead rooted in our blind allegiance to it.

Some of these voices come from mildly surprising places. Stephen Hawking, once a believer in a universal singularity – a theory of everything – has shifted the axis of his belief of what we will ultimately know:

“Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory, that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind”

And in turn, he sees bad times ahead for a world where A.I. exists unfettered and beyond regulation. In the great Singularity lies something against nature for humankind that troubles him.

Even Daniel C Dennet in his book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, is also positing signs of cracks and flaws in the godhead:

‘There are some unsettling signs that we are becoming over-civilised. And are entering the age of post intelligent design. Using our brains to understand our brains.’

He goes on to venture that our willingness to subsume and subjugate ourselves to technology and the escalating potency of Artificial Intelligences in advance of their ability to actual fulfil on our wildest expectations and aspirations is a misguided one.

In the untrammelled and exponentially-increasing expectations of technological revolution and artificial, algorithmically-induced intelligence lies the possibility of ever-increasing disappointment.

There is an inevitability about this that is unsurprising and yet quietly reassuring.

For a god awe is critical. As is adulation. And fear. But no god is complete without disappointment. So the whiff of it at the edges of the newly-accelerating godhead of Artificial Intelligence and a creeping hybrid humanity is actually appropriate. For some perhaps it will be proof of its god-like status.

As with all of the gods we’ve conjured or revealed to ourselves, A.I. and its role in the Singularity is perhaps simply a reflection of our nature, need and desire.

Perhaps we design them that way. For a reason.  We need to be disappointed by gods.

Creating them in our image requires disappointment as the proof of our need for fallibility or flaw in any creature, organism or being regardless of whether they are of an abstract celestial, actual mortal or organic technological kind. There’s no such thing as perfection.

Disappointment seems not only to fulfil a functional role in regards to the nature of the entity. It also creates a signpost to the divine obsolescence in the model – the milestone of inevitable descent, dilapidation, degradation and decline that will lead to the next in the cycle.

Disappointment teaches us that we can fiercely believe, up to a point – but that we must prepare for the downside. It compels us have scenario-planned for the possibility that the deity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

But that is also part of the package. The scale of reverence, adulation and awe creates a blinding spotlight to throw on the smallest flaw.

Technology is a powerful and omnipotent thing. It has created a new skin of human consciousness – an algorithmic shellac around our previous model of consciousness. Everything is elevated. Everything is illuminated. Everything is accelerated. But in becoming more through it, we become more vulnerable, more fragile because of it.

In knowing more and experiencing more, in reaching further, we expose ourselves. And our flaws are amplified. (Surely the model applied to Zeus – for all of his divine greatness and powers, the formicating, fractious, scheming, self-interested, betraying, vain, capricious, petulant Zeus was simply an extrapolation of our flawed humanity to divine proportion.)

For the Greeks, in their gods much like their theatre, we find a learning module for humanity – where theatre taught us empathy and the potential of feeling – gods taught us humility and the danger of hubris.

Great lessons in life and the universe can be better observed and learned when set apart from our everyday realities. A masterplan. It only falls apart when we confuse ourselves with the gods we create – and choose to ordain ourselves as such.

Pick a culture any culture: Persians, Romans, Egyptians, Franks, Stuarts – we can never quite allow the gods we create to exist wholly apart from us. And those that seized the divine mantle could never  help but eventually reign down on those beneath them in some delusional purge of divinity and dreadful ire – a self-fulfilling  prophecy repeated countless times throughout human history.

Nonetheless, for all of this – for all their flaws and our flawed misuse and mimicry of them, gods have taught us to reach beyond the normal: beyond what is. They have raised us up towards them.

Simply to envisage them we had to ‘place’ them – and that required a feat of imagination. They are an exercise in imagination as much as they are an exercise in reverence and humility. You have to ‘place’ a god in a world apart from the one in which we exist – a different plane or celestial firmament. You also need to design some form of context and divine order for them. So our imagination, one of the most powerful things at work in us versus any other species on the planet, went to work. And its productivity in that order was staggering. Simply put, seeking divine revelation has powered our multiple ages of renaissance and enlightenment.

Through gaining a greater vantage and framing of the gods we shape, we can seek to understand them and perhaps become a little closer to them – to being in their image – like them.

And the most powerful part of all of that reaching? We evolve. Transgressing the given, the immediate and the fixed is how we evolve. And in doing so we explore the flaws in ourselves at a distance.

One of the most powerful things about reaching beyond ourselves, to a place so exposed, so raw, is that by transgressing where we are in the known universe, we step into the unknown. And the unknown is dangerous; it involves risk. And in a state of risk or threat we evolve.

Gods are an evolutionary mechanism in us – forcing us to exercise our intellect, imagination, intuition and connectivity in search of their existence and their seeming capabilities and gifts. And subsequently, in managing their presence and mitigating their excesses in relation to us, we expand our consciousness of our own existence, and the methods by which to improve it.

Through this mechanism we manage the tension between what we do and don’t know.

In writing a manuscript for a book recently I alluded to us being at a tipping point: where the new-future believers see us merging with machines in some orgy of singularity. We will become dispossessed of our mortal bindings – free to skip the light fantastic. We will have become the ultimate software. Ultimately we will be able to upload ourselves into any and every compatible device, receptacle or host. We can copy ourselves quadrillions of times over.

Surely this is a step into the divine? In becoming a wholly transferable entity capable of occupying millions of receptacles or hosts simultaneously, we become no different to the God of the Abrahamic faiths or the multiple gods of Grecian Olympus or the pantheon of the Mahabarata of Indian myth. We can become the thing that acts within everything if we so choose.

In the draft I also point to the possibility of a more balanced relationship between the science and spirituality of us as being the source of our greatest trajectory – a state of being I refer to as the Human Hammock. The Human Hammock provides us with the ability to sling ourselves between the boughs of science and spirituality – to offer a more immediate ability to exist profitably between both the known and the unknown at one and the same time: mentally, materially, physically and metaphysically.

In the draft I point to the possibility that we need to keep both aspects firmly engaged in us, calibrating the degree to which they feature according to need and desire.

I believe there is a benefit to us of keeping a clear hand and cold eye on the Unknown, as it is those things beyond our comprehension, and our hunger to understand and know them better that compels our evolution as a species.

To be clear when I say unknown I do not mean it within the ladder of human consciousness. I am referring to what exists beyond human comprehension, not beyond current scientific knowledge (which exists solely inside human comprehension and consciousness)..

We can ensure that we fix the Human Hammock theory clearly and as absolutely as possible by priming the forthcoming Singularity to abide by biological evolutionary rules.

Though Singularity might lead us towards a more divine state of elevated and liberated consciousness and ubiquity, we should ensure that it remains rooted in the ladder of our pre-existing evolutionary logic until such a time as a new logic supercedes it.

Eventually, in multiplying ourselves to that degree and with that expansiveness, we would indeed become gods in our own image of them.

The circle will have been squared, shifting us through the millennia from Man shaped in the image of gods to gods shaped in the image of Man.

When talking of gods, it’s worth being clear on what we mean by that and the slide ruler of how they represent and improve us and their relationship to us.

Gods or deities are supernatural beings that exist in a place above or outside of that of a normal being. They are divine – revered as sacred – and invocation is an inextricable part of our relationship with them. We invoke them – call upon, summon up, reference, or seek them out as part of the reciprocal contract of their and our existence.

They are supposed to raise our consciousness above the banal and that which exists in our everyday being – to improve us. We can invoke them outside of any chronological or spatial context in the pursuit of something.

There are different bridges that exist between us and them – prayer is the easiest example. But also extreme physical duress or testing is a much-used way to elevate us into a higher consciousness and bring us closer to our gods and one-ness wth the universe. (Shamanism is a great exponent of this.) Extreme physicality is powerful in god world. Add some purpose or cause to that physicality and you are getting even closer.

There is a direct line to the gods through heroic action, where humans show superhuman willing, guile, leadership, courage, spirit or strength in pursuit of a good or ‘heroic’ cause. As the old saying goes, when someone is ‘touched by the gods’ it means the reflections or shadows of the greater faculties of the gods reside within them.

In referencing the relationship between us and them in this way we bring them closer to us. Greater proximity to gods is part of the self-defence mechanism innate in the god model and its culture.

Some classical and ancient texts imbued their god tales with Demi-gods – half human half god – whose heroic undertakings created a picture of greatness that was more accessible to the everyday human being.

This is the default zone between us and the distant realm of gods as we’ve created them. Demi-gods are very very important to keep people engaged and evolving.

Why? Because human nature predicts that if something is wholly out of reach – fully blown bells and whistles gods for instance – we don’t rise to the occasion. In the case of lofty, dislocated gods we just sublimate ourselves to them. We don’t desire to be more like them – we just cower, and we give up and go do something else. Because it is beyond us. Out of sight is out of mind unless they might choose to come down and walk amongst us.

But Demi-gods, now they are far closer to home. If the gods are Gaultier; Demi-gods are Junior Gaultier: the access point for us mere mortals.

The universal love for Wonder Woman (a Demi Demi, given that she is the daughter of the Demi-god queen, Hippolyta, daughter of Ares, the Greek god of War) is proof of our need for our god-like creations to walk amongst us sometimes. It makes their greatness accessible and mimicry of it possible.

I can’t be Zeus but I might take a run at being Perseus or even Wonder Woman – ish.

So gods do not need to always be the pure, super-duper theological or mythological gods of classicism or faith far beyond our ken.  We have the Demi-god to help us move things along. There is little question that we have believed for a long time that there is indeed a ladder to god-like greatness for us.

What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world,

Shakespeare’s Hamlet

So when I speak of gods I refer to anyone perceived as god-like and heroic to us. Someone revered beyond simple explanation, and someone whose words or deeds are invoked by us as succour and guidance.

In that framework, gods with a small ‘g’ come in many shapes and forms.

Starting with our parents.

Our most adored friends can also achieve god-like status for a while.

Then the broader adulations of our youth: Sports people. Celebrities. Music stars. Movie stars. Writers. Artists. Scientists.

We even have the passing phase of god-like stature in the first flushes of human love. The phase in which we are fiercely revered, adored and invoked.

Each of these gods, as with every other, are destined to go on a journey through Awe. Adulation. Reverence. Fear. But each is also destined to disappoint in some way eventually.

As disappointment is an inextricable part of the human journey so it has also become an innate aspect of the gods we shape . In some ways being disappointed by gods perhaps prepares us for disappointment with ourselves. If the gods can be disappointing; flawed, capricious, found wanting, then so can we be – and that is alright.

Disappointment in our gods lessens or softens the disappointment in ourselves.

In that way, gods that disappoint are an evolutionary mechanism that stop us giving up and turning away – defeated by what we aren’t or cannot do. We learn that though disappointment may strike, that’s alright. It was always thus. You can’t get it right all the time and no one is perfect – not even our gods. So keep carrying on.

As for Artificial Intelligence, well, perhaps it has to have a Zeus moment. It has to go and sleep with someone inappropriate, sire a child, create a technological Demi-god (and in the absence of any others I would like to venture R2D2 as that Demi-god) who will eventually challenge the god that helped sire it and lay it low.

Then we can all relax. Go back to ogling i-phone Xs and googling driverless cars, with a quiet knowledge that when they come of the rails, everything is alright. It’s not the end of the world.

Well, not this one anyway.

 

Disappointed By Gods FOOTNOTE: This topic will one day become a book – of what length I do not know. But somehow somewhere it will. So if anyone’s got any ideas on a publisher – shout!

 

Pontius, POTUS & the inconvenient truth of ‘Rag Head’ Christianity

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So there I am, perched on a slightly undersized plastic chair in a primary school hall in a  in East Sussex.

It’s the Christmas Carol service

The stage and floor are populated with a shifting mass of variously aged primary school children including my own sweet daughter at the upper end in Year 6.

The reception age children at the front fidget and paw at their own slightly chewed sleeves and faces and selves as if in the throes of climbing out of their baby skins with every word line and note they sing and squawk.

The Carol that captures my attention is one that refers to the cold manger and Mary and Joseph wrapped up against the chilly Bethlehem night. The animals and human’s shivering against the creeping desert cold.

And this is why it struck me.

I wonder whether he of the golden bird’s nest head, notionally in charge of one of the most powerful economies and militaries in the world, ever really considers the long thread that connects his uber-Christian, god-fearing heartland to the descendants of the characters in the nativity play?

I wonder whether, as he sets a geopolitical bomb under the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, it strikes him as absurd that the child of that Virgin Birth, if he turned up now, would probably find himself stripped and shipped to Guantanamo Bay sharpish.

Setting aside the claim and counter claim regarding POTUS’s purported IQ of 156 (rendering him a genius apparently) let’s just say that even placing  Trump’s intellect at a ‘respectable’ level, there are quite a few pointers to more than just an absence of emotional intelligence and cultural sensitivity at work here. (No Shit).

To say there is an incoherent, plastic and highly malleable politic and principle at play here is to understate a little.

But the bit I’m really interested in is this: which Christian myth is he playing in his head when he makes these gestures. That of the russet-haired Jesus of the Renaissance – pale skinned, wan, plying his flock with loaves and fishes? Or that of the reactionary, disruptive and contrarian sage – inviting both Jews and gentiles to convert to his way? Or is his the Christianity of Dan Brown, a lofty, East Coast Coffee Shop version cauterized from any whiff of the rocky, dusty, impoverished and unleavened truth of Palestine and its peoples in 33AD; Jew or otherwise?

I like the Renaissance version just for its aesthetic but the would require me to be able to picture Golden Spun Hair Man swooning over a Titian, which I can’t (though if, like St Augustine of Hippo, Jesus was perhaps of Berber stock, the russet-haired, blue-eyed Jesus could be a possibility) so I’m erring towards the Dan Brown model. I’ll go for Action Christian (I’m sure there is a play figure in this somewhere) with the odd scattering of a conspiracy cooked up by those in power (secret societies and the Papal Prelate) against the masses (God-Fearing Christians just trying to be Jimmy Stewart) for good measure.

Any other version requires him to observe that the source of spirituality in his heartland resides in the rocky hills of Bethlehem and its surrounds. Which means…yup, rag heads.

Disregarding the highly contentious, theologically and racially charged topic of the colour of Jesus’s skin (most likely black or of a distinctly dark tint: not a high point of conversation I sense in an all-white Alabama chapel) the one simple fact is that by all accounts Jesus was what might be called both a Jew and (to quote Action Movie Christian Guy) potentially a ‘rag head.’ And let’s not forget he was also an insurgent acting in some ways against the prevailing religion of Judaism and the prevailing rule of Roman Law to which Herod and his Religious leaders submitted themselves.

So as I sit transfixed by the soaring feats of one tousle-haired 6 year-old girl who is managing to chew her lip, twiddle with her hair, talk to herself AND mouth the words to Away In the Manger all at once, I wonder what it would require of Donald and his heartland to be truly Christian.

(And when I say Christian, I mean the ascetic 34-38AD out-of-Palestine version of Christian Past, freshest in the mind and closest to its turbulent chilly, dusty, poverty-racked beginnings.    I certainly do not mean the bloated, bearded ugliness of Christian Present, slumped in a piss-stained, vomit-flecked corner of the year between early October and New Year’s Day, the tyre tracks of the ‘holidays are coming’ lorry scarring up its arms, cheeks wet with Egg Nog and Aldi Spumante, new i-phone X clutched tight in its cold, dead hand, rictus thumb hovering over the Samaritan’s Festive Phone Number; an expanding pool of disappointment staining the floor beneath it.)

If the Christian Holy Scriptures are to be believed, to follow Jesus in his purest, imitative (meme-like) sense is to flout the prevailing Judaic hierarchy and its over lords. Put another way, to be Christian one must flout the prevailing ruling Judaic principal in Palestine – Herod & The Pharisees (Israel) and also that of its Master, Rome (The United States of America) with its iron-grip on Jerusalem. Confused? You will be.

So, if that is true, is that god-fearing U.S. Christian heartland supposed to be for Trump and his proclamation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or against it?  Discuss.

And in the light of the destitute, marginalised, travelling tribes of Syria Palaestria, what’s that god-fearing heartland Christian meant to really think of that Immigration Ban?

A lot of those countries are within or teetering on the edge of The Cradle of both broader Civilisation and particularly the Abrahamic Faiths – and many are ‘one in faith’ with them. To dismiss them or close them out is to act against faith.

And anyway, regardless of whom those countries on the Banned List might sneak around US Homeland Security, aren’t we already dancing with the devil of fundamentalism? – buddied up with a close friend and ‘ally’ whom could fund and place more bombers and lorry crashers in the UK and US than everyone on the Immigration Ban combined?

Let’s set aside the slightly uncomfortable long-term alliance between the U.S of A. and the ever-charming House Of Saud (and its penchant for propagating its theological alliance with the teachings of Al Wahab – Wahhabism – and the violent conversion of those beliefs) and just bring it down to a ‘news’ and views level for the moment. What do we see? What informs our myths and beliefs. And let’s think about those in the light of a manger on the outskirts of Bethlehem populated with three people and a some livestock.

Let’s consider all those pictures we see on the news feeds, of ‘dodgy’ armed insurgents or ‘rag heads’ creeping around the likes of Mosul. (I am sure that I read somewhere that David Ben Gurion was branded a terrorist before he was lauded as a state builder but maybe I’m reading the wrong books.)

When we look at them what do we see?  They certainly look the part for their role in our darkest cautionary tales and propaganda.

Most particularly let’s start with the signature of the insurgent, peaceful or otherwise – lets start with that ‘Rag Head’ – the colloquial derogatory phrase for someone from the Middle East wearing local dress including the keffiyeh.

Now Mary and Joseph would have sported some form of head dress, especially in the long, hard trek to Bethlehem atop a donkey.

Anyone who has experienced the cold of a middle-eastern night will know that wrapping up is a must. And a ‘rag’ for wrapping the head is essential wear.

The Jewish Couple and their child that we worship, living in the Roman Province of Syria Paleastia, would have been, to the unseasoned eye, a couple of rag heads with a baby. Their look. Their baby. Theirs would be no different to the faces we see looking up and out of those boats that bump up on the sandy fringes the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

Good job they don’t have to come begging for accommodation in Thurrock on a cold winter’s night. They’d probably get a good kicking and shoved in a skip for good measure.

Well mate, they all look the same don’t they! Come round here looking for a hand out!? So we gave them one. Oi!

(As Terry Jones pointed out in his series on the Crusades, our ‘they all look the same to me’ principle has been generously applied to our middle-eastern cousins since records of our ‘relationship’ with them began, leading in the First Crusade to the stalwart Christian Knights and their horde massacring the men, women and children of the largest Christian city in the Holy Land, mistaking them for Muslims. Whoops.)

And given the likely nature of Jesus’s dress and demeanour, if he turned up on a subway train or bus, many ‘god-fearing’ Christian people would be checking the look of his back-pack, suspiciously eyeing the old Nokia N72 in his hand, held together with 10 year old Christmas Reindeer tape – and wondering whether the straps in his sandals contained some form of explosive.

So, as we sing these carols, and these children chew their sleeves, scuff their feet and sing their hearts out, for whom are we singing in the global sense of Universal Human Suffrage? Everyone? Christians? White Western Christians? Jesus? Jesus’s Mum? Palestinians (Jewish & Arabic)? Rag heads? Western Jews? Eastern Jews? Repentant Romans? The Poor? Impoverished society? The disenfranchised? The subjugated? The lost children? The Insurgents? The Lovers? The Dreamers? (OK, I’m slipping into Kermit’s Rainbow Connection but you get my meaning hopefully.)

The madness – the cat’s cradle of power-play Geopolitics, militia funding, Homeland building, oil trading, border bartering, religious polemics, spurious ethnicities, brutal fundamentalism – should defy the simplistic Monopoly Board machinations of Trump. But no. The staggering, ill-informed, over simplification of highly complex issues followed by global ignominy are his forte. Not that he cares. That’s exactly why he applies it. With one proclamation, he dumbs the whole debacle into a Bumper Sticker. He patently feels he’s got a handle on this Middle Eastern stuff. So screw ‘em.

So I return to my wondering. About that myth.  I wonder who he thinks of when he sings lines like Lord. Prince of Peace. Redeemer. Who does he picture? The socio-psychopath in him might be thinking ‘Me’. But the Jerusalem proclaimer? Who does he see in his mind’s eye?

When he sings Little Donkey, does he see bodies scattered along the road to Damascus?The ragged in the refugee camps? Children un-swaddled against the Syrian winter? The people at the outer edge of the middle-eastern census?

Or does he see the muscular Christianity of the bearded, Brad-Pitt-like Jesus embodied in a ‘ripped;’ and luminescent white marble statue in the building of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints opposite the Science Museum in London.

When he makes a proclamation like that, which gallery is he playing to?

The uber-Christians who still believe that ‘Jews are satan ’cos the nailed up the Lawd!’

Or the white picket Christian ideals of It’s a wonderful Life?

Neither I sense.

Iran is the real recipient of this proclamation. POTUS throwing a sandal at the Ayatollahs.  Masterstroke.

Even more impressive that he can do that AND piss off the Pope, the EU, Saudi Arabia, The UN and the Russians and the Chinese all at once. This man may have small hands but he has big REACH.

At which point, as I hum ‘We saw three ships come sailing in’ I realise that in my head I just see a naval blockade. Christ.

Where’s Jimmy Stuart when you need him!

LAX, Moonage Daydreams & the shape of things.

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My eyes water quietly in an airport lounge.

Weeping would be cheating.

Sounds of human hub bub and brou ha ha surround  me:

Splicing chats, rat a tat tat

And flicks and spats

and preening screenagers

Celebrating their worldly traverse

In rhyme, lyric and verse

And perverse youtube addictions;

And leisure wear;

like I care that you could trip the light fantastic

In that much man-made elastic.

Life on Mars fills my ears and the years strip away from me

That I should find myself here

Bleary eyed from a Kauai flight

short-stop coffee docked

And two sheets west of an East Venice Superba sandwich

with my dear William

riffing splits and bits

of ideas on VR and the Doors

That take flight to Mars

And so it closes.

The music overthrows me; overwhelms me now

And a hollow space

Scooped by the small spoon

of Moonage daydreams from my heart.

Between eviscerated and exhilarated

Kooks redeem me

Thumbs in collars clutched

Mary Poppins Glam Rock

Is the truth of me.

Glitter eye. Glitter mouth.

Glitter soul goes south

Into an LA sunset.

Living a bucket list life but fuck it,

With a bit of luck it

might just be a Life worth living

To the sing song dance of my Principessa

and the quiet eloquence of my Prince.

I need to be home now

Because I’m bleeding emotion

And mosquito bites

And being here just doesn’t feel

Right.

Andy Warhol looks a scream

A howling dream.

And there but by the grace of whomsoever’s god go I.

The Sea, submergence & losing the Edges

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The silver leather-back sea washes up to meet me.

I knew she was close;

The breezing air about my ears had told me so

As I climbed the sand hump-back

To see her,

And stumbled to her foaming hem.

 

The cawing and whooping of my children

as they rush to meet her, and skip at her edges:

Firecracker Girl and Loping-Limb Boy.

 

He turns away from her

to throw his hoodie

Up into the air,

Randomly; repeatedly;

Watching the wind take it

To then gazelle forwards and upwards

To catch it or not;

Then fall to the floor

And beetle-scrabble

In the sand around and about him.

And plant his face into it

And stop still

And motionless, for a moment.

 

A study in the physical fluid

Of rushing air.

And the incomprehensible sensation

Of being 13.

 

The light from her glinting skin:

The silver foil of her, un-scrunched

And smoothed flat before me

Turns my head back to her.

The light rises up

To wrap around my face

Pull at my cheeks

And draw a smile

From deep beneath

the place where I normally dwell.

 

I can’t quite define

What she does to me;

But she can do it blindly,

even when out of sight of me.

 

My lungs and heart fold into each other,

like twisting dough in a Baker’s hands.

 

I am distracted by Loping-Limb boy

And his sand churning

Till she reminds me she’s there.

 

She laps at me.

Her eyes sparkle everywhere.

Sharp spikes of light fire in every direction.

The sun does her bidding and sinks to her edges

As I wade into her shallows.

 

A whoop and a screech;

and Firecracker Girl erupts into my sight line

legs pumping, arms flailing;

splinters of salt-water glass

smashing up around firework eyes wide open;

sun silhouetted and all fierce trajectory

into the silver leather-backed water.

 

The sheer velocity of being 10 and alive

Launching into the spray,

The day one endless

Expanse of salt-stained forever.

 

I fall forwards and low

Into her shallow rolls

As she rises to meet me.

 

Then all is grey blue swirl

Arm reaches over arm

Body twisting and turning

And salt-sting eyes.

Then up,

Puffing and whooping,

To stand on the Bantham sandbank

And open my arms to everything.

 

Year after year drips off my skin

In rivulets running,

Falling away:

54, 47, 32, 25, 18, 9, 5, 2…

And suddenly they’re gone;

Sucked into her froth.

 

And I’m ageless and timeless

And fizzing with it all.

 

Fuck, I love this place;

Where time and age break their fetters

And skip off

Like children

To play elsewhere;

For a moment at least.

 

One deep breath.

And I turn away from her,

Until next time:

 

Ice cream calls.

 

 

Bantham Beach. 18th, August 2017.

Walking slowly, Old People & the art of human deceleration.

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Speed of life is a funny thing.

(Funny obtuse that is, as opposed to funny Ha Ha)

From what I can tell, it seems that the faster we go, the less we seem to actually do: relatively.

Or to be more precise, the more our doing becomes about the speed at which we do it, the less it becomes about the thing we’re doing.

It seems that in pursuit of speeding up the process of doing something we transform it. The relentless acceleration of the task pushes it to a tipping point where ultimately, thereafter, that task becomes secondary to the process or system by which we accelerate it and the accelerant we use to do so.

We stop doing something faster.

Going faster becomes what we do.

“What are you doing?”

“No idea! But Christ I’m doing it super hyper fast. AND I’m connected to a squillion people so not only am I doing it faster – I am sharing it faster. I am not only a speeding bullet but also a skin-searing wildfire. I’m going like awesome shit-off-a-tech-shovel, me.”

I’d always hoped that there was a simple equal and opposite (satanic Newtonian shyster that I am) to the hyper accelerating self.

For some time I’d put my money on the ‘car-crash slo-mo’ of our primal sensory faculty, which, when engaged by danger or crisis, helps us maintain some semblance of equilibrium and control in that moment by slowing everything down to enable us to comprehend and avoid the particular parts of it that may well, well, be the death of us.

But my monkey/pigeon/lizard brain’s ability to shutter down the speed of any one hyper-fast occurrence, thereby allowing me to scrutinise every infinitesimal piece of detail and information and subsequently better navigate and ride its turbulence doesn’t lead me to avoiding the worst of its consequences. It simply leads me to developing a greater ability to absorb utterly meaningless stuff at speed through the porous edges of the moment.

So that’s not helping me.

The other thing that might have been well-placed to put some brakes on the worst vestiges of my hyper accelerated self would have been Mindfulness.

But Nope. Not doing it for me either. I mean, I get it. To learn and properly understand what it means to live in the Now. To remove the distractions of past and future, to truly concentrate on the moment you are in, appreciate it, bathe in it, turn it over in one’s palm like a polished stone: a remarkable ability.

My only concern is that the Now, devoid of past or future – experience and potential, memory or dream, and all of the information both emotional and rational that comes with them – seems incomplete to me.

Mindfulness seems to do the very opposite for me of what it should do. I kick out any traces to allow me to super-focus on the moment – a form of hyper-vigilance of the Now – but I end up with a load of random other stuff pouring into the spaces left behind – spaces I’d rather fill with the past and future brackets that should encase each experience.

So, what else?

A shift in context and environment perhaps? Well, again, yes, to an certain extent.

Having moved from London to Lewes has compelled me to exist at a pleasantly slower pace of life some of the time.

(At which juncture I’d like to thank Southern Rail profusely for their concerted and sustained efforts in disavowing me of the idea that I live on a highly efficient arterial rail line into and out of the breath-taking speed of the metropolis.)

But like mindfulness, for all of one’s best endeavours, the slower Now of Lewes is forever bracketed by what has gone before (chasing the dollar in London) and what follows (chasing the said same dollar). So solely relying on context and environment alone are not the answer.

And in our relentlessly connected world one can never really escape the accelerant of prosperity.

Even in sleepier Lewes, the long shadow of thriving, or what constitutes the current shiny, slebby ‘got stuff’ model of it, seeps into everything.

Lewes has a great mixture of types: it’s not all DownFromLondons like me.

You have the My F@*%ng Red Trousers of the hollowed-out East Sussex Hooray and their crisply Lavender-ironed wife – the ex-Brighton burn-out, sporting a dog on a string and blue dip-dyed hair shaved on one side clutching a gig flyer – the blue-cloud green-horizon landscape of artsy-craftsy Sussex potter/painter/candlestick and scatter cushion maker – the vintage Linen Interior of the LifeStyle shop owner– the white Sussex Van Man & Scaffolder Bloke, bastion of BREXIT, with a vocal dislike of anything or anyone foreign or exotic; apart from the ‘Chinky’ Chinese and that ‘Itie’ Pizza Place of course.

(Their cultural myopia seems to simply melt away like a wood fired Quattro Formaggi amidst the scrolling menu of Just Eat and Deliverooo.  Note to Self: Deliveroo as the Open University of Multi-Culturalism –  a distribution platform for culturally enlightening and Pro Remain data and facts to Little England).

And there’s plenty of the Hunt Supporter tractor-chic squad here to fill the spaces between the stripped oak floorboards of Lewes society.

And then of course we have that herd of shining individuals, floating above the ground, thrusting towards Waitrose in their hovercrafts of enrichment.

The gleaming lines of Range Rovers and Landrovers (and every other over specified, under-utilised 4X4 you care to mention) with their wholly unused Hi Lo gear ratios (the cockyx of the car world – a left-over from the cars once utlitarian past – not dissimilar to the vestige of a tail that we carry behind us) whooshing up and down the high street – are busy as they are in the furious industry of Doing Well.

(Hands up who leases their 4×4? I rest my case.)

There is no absence of the merry middle class dance here. All manner and strata of people parking up outside elaborately ordained pubs on weekends for overpriced Sunday Roasts and a scrum of collective thriving, cawing loudly of new this and expensively experienced that; of particular schools and exotic holidays – puffing up the brightly-coloured wings of their success, clutching menus like divining rods to the well of contentment hidden somewhere in front of them, just out of sight and reach.

They’re certainly not going to help me decompress from the consuming rush of 21st century existence.

So; the standard socio-economic ladder meets tribal segmentation of life offers little to ease the accelerating self.

In fact, with one’s ears too wide open and a thinner skin on, quite the opposite might happen here. Devoid as charming market towns are of the anonymity of the blurring vari-speed white waters of a city – everyone gets drawn even further into the accelerated need to succeed under the hot spotlight of local visibility.

BUT there is one group – a higher tribe – rendered by life experience and tenure rather than by culture creed profession or class – to whom homage pays dividends.

And they are the source of my new self-penned Sioux-like name – Walks Slowly With Old Folks.

For someone who walks far too quickly at the best of times (as to whether I am walking away from myself or towards someone or something more interesting I’ve not yet fathomed), slowing down to the walking speed of old people is a remarkable fillip to an accelerated or accelerating life.

Various things happen:

Sight – old people spend less time furiously concentrating on the aspect and angle of their trajectory though life – which means they have more time to be aware of what is immediately about them. They don’t suffer what I like to call Thrive Blindness (the loss of the ability to see what’s immediately in front and around us that comes from rushing towards the next ratchet of prosperity.) That’s a good thing.

Connection – old people are far more capable of engaging with those around them because they are not moving so fast that they ‘can’t stop’. Watching various professionally busy White Rabbits (always so terribly late for some important date) in grave danger of tripping over their own feet if they were for one moment expected to stop, turn and actually engage with another human other than those whom might improve their situation makes for little easing in the speed of life dept.

Smell – old people exist in an old world model of associated scent. Simply put, when you slow down your speed of passage through the world you actually smell the environment you are in or are travelling through. Sight and sound and smell and the emotions they generate are more likely to remain in tact, inextricably connected to each other as they should be. A rushed life leads to misappropriation of smells, constantly slung as they are to a newer or abstracted reference point, as opposed to the one just that actually created them.

Mortality – old people exist in far greater proximity to their own demise. They do not need the trending self help manual du jour to tell them that every moment is precious, especially those spent in pursuit of the things that make us truly happy. Relentlessly reminded as they are by the passing of their friends and peers and the shrinking of time in which that passing occurs, they don’t need help making the most of the Now. Its all they have left. The clarity that comes from being able to count the springs summers autumns and Christmases they have left in which to enjoy these things is a tainted gift.

The other observation is that there seems to be a better balance of sensibilities when Old people are present. They are an off-set strategy – renewables of humanity amidst the dirty coal of the industrious being of youth. Trees to the CO2 of an accelerating tech-fuelled life.

So it is my intention at every opportunity to Walk Slowly With Old Folks. Because even at their grumpiest, they prove that all of us eventually will shrug off this distemper of the projected, accelerated and visibly successful self, and replace it with something far more meaningful.

Three cheers (and a walking frame) for that.

 

 

 

 

Tragedy, humanity & the power of together.

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One could wonder sometimes where the nobility and civilisation went – given half an eye on our glorious species (though many question whether it was ever there).

Far from the heroic ideal of small people saving the world – of Tolkien’s Hobbiton and Frodo’s sacrifice – we’re all a little disappointing down the small people end of the telescope.

We’re all lascivious, low and feral and we’re all off to whichever hell is trending currently.

Left to our own devices all we do is sprawl, brawl, rut, piss, shit, heave and fuck like the beasties we are, on the streets, station concourses, on buses, on planes, alleys: in doorways and up against walls, wrapped up in cheap-as-chips slave wear bought in multipacks of 5. Nascent young Motherhood lies collapsed like a sack of charity shop clothing on a pavement, steeped in their own sick. Nascent young fatherhood stamps on heads till they pop on an empty shopping precinct floor, sweating industrial lager and cheap cocaine.

We use £500 state of the art smart phones to film everything from our genitals and instagrammed inanities to humiliations, threats, gang rapes, beatings and murder.

We use state of the art, government-toppling social networks to circulate a ‘shag on a plane’ film to anyone bored enough to care or the next cat film to those who don’t.

We live lives way beyond our means. We inhabit houses and drive cars we can’t afford. We bullshit ourselves into believing that the debt we carry is a right of entitlement – part of the glory of being human, here and alive.

We convince ourselves that communities don’t really need our help, there is no society other than our own; that ‘doing a Kardashian’ is desirable, that knife crime and landfill will miraculously resolve themselves, that climate is an inconvenience, and of course, the real biggie, that we need 5 holidays per annum. Which is why we need 5 credit cards.

Bu But BUT

Look at us when the sky comes down and the thunder rolls. Look at us as we respond to the percussive blows and crises that envelop us.

Look at how we have responded. In Manchester. In London. And now to the Grenfell tower disaster. And not just to our own. Paris. Another coming together. Another standing side by side. Across generations, cultures, tribes, classes, regions, borders.

Suddenly, it is as if we see each other again. Beyond gender, race, religion or persuasion.

See each other and remember – we are just people amongst people like us. We remember who we are, what we are capable of. What our co-existence demands of us all. And rise to it.

And we remember that deserving is not about cars and phones and watches and holidays. It’s about people deserving a sense of belonging, to not be left behind or marginalised: a decent quality of life, affordable and accessible care, social support. And that as people we deserve politicians and the public and private sector to be responsible to us not the spreadsheet or the Poll – responsible for our social well being, not our financial success.

We remember that life is OK. And could be far, far worse.

And that there by whichever god, mantra, metric or quantum equation go us.

We realise that the precious things are the living breathing things connected to us by genes, community, friendship, accident or serendipity. And everything else is just tat and jewellery. And party small talk.

We realise that the most precious things are the living things like us. And that we should wish for them what we wish for ourselves. A safe, secure and supported life, everyone looking out for each other. A sense of belonging the right of every human being.

Suddenly we see that people are looking to each other. Helping others. Keeping an eye out.

Perhaps, for just a moment, we prove yet again that when push comes to shove we can rise up out of the self-obsessed pit we all live in.

For a moment we remember that, in the middle of all of this uncertainty, the only thing we can be certain of is ourselves – our actions, our beliefs and our values. What we give a shit about and what we’ll do and what we’ll put on the line to hold up those values and beliefs. When collective humanity and humility transcend individual identity and hubris.

Perhaps it does take the madness for us to remember what we seemed once far more  certain of – our best selves both individually and collectively – and when to apply them in the world we live in.

Here’s to that.

Movie houses, memories & the illumination of negative city spaces.

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There’s something quite remarkable about street level living.

And when I say street level living, I don’t mean the standard fare we trot out when we talk street life – about street food, pavement culture, busked music, tagging, midnight city walks, clubbing and vibrant multiculturalism. The stirred, slash cut, jagged, muscular, rippling, colourful, odorous, fusty, littered – the fierce and the free.

Nor do I refer to its profoundly saddening counter-culture cousin of the bleak stained streets, the shadows of humanity; the homeless and the abused propped in its doorways. The runaways, drop outs, drug addicts, alcoholics, despondent, broken, fragile – the lonely and the lost

When I say street living I’m talking about the act of living in a city at street level – the relentless act of passing through the urban space – connected to its ordinary everyday – neither floating above it nor tunnelling beneath it.

I am talking about pavement and tarmac bashing – traversing a city using feet and buses, as opposed to dropping into the dusty air-blown human vat of the Underground, its elevated un-tunnelled cousin the Overground, or any of the arterial rail lines coming in and out of the city for that matter, shifting people like emotional clusters of fleshy data from one side to the other.

Trammelling the streets is a goldmine of experience because the rewards are plenty – gifts, revelations, illuminations and surprises at every turn.

If only we remember to look up and look around more often, ‘there’s gold in them thar hills’. 

One surfaced in my journey on Monday morning.

And it smacked of an art school exercise long forgotten and suddenly remembered.

As the 73 bus scarped the edges of Marble Arch the most striking thing was not what had appeared – like the arrival of the inverted horse’s head or the jelly bean people sculptures.

Beautiful and enriching though their appearance was, this morning’s revelation was inspired by quite the opposite – by what had in fact disappeared.

The old Odeon, perched on the edge of Marble Arch and Edgware Road for as long as I can remember, was gone. In its place a large space revealing the buildings behind it and to the side of it. A 90 degree, dog-legged breather amongst the claustrophobic clutter of city buildings.

The building that was, was not only enshrined in my material view of the city I traverse – its geo-located bulk a firm, fixed point in my universe.  It was also located on both my emotional and temporal maps of the city.

The Odeon Marble Arch played high stakes in my youthful rummaging around London – the western edge of the West End. The corn-franked, pop-furtered fust of its dark interior home to many happy and boisterous outings. Heady times indeed.

So, to me, its absence was truly remarkable. An experience that was both a mournful missing and an urban eye bath in one. Truly bitter-sweet.

And it struck me that our enjoyment and the relentless revelations of the cities we inhabit are as much driven by the things time takes away – and the negative spaces that their departure leaves behind – as they are by the staggering multiplicity of new developments,  redevelopments, re-generations and resurgences of neighbourhoods, communities, boroughs, villages, estates, high streets and thoroughfares.

And it was the relationship between what is, what was and what might be that intrigued me. The tension between them.

So to the art project.

When doing basic foundation art, in still life and spatial studies, one of the first things you are taught is not only to draw the things you see in front of you in your still life – the positive – but also to render the spaces between those objects – the negatives. You are given the task of turning the negative space into a ‘thing’. To make the unseen seen. And to explore the relationship between the negative and positive. To make them both an equal part of the structural symmetry. And understand the role of both in creating Tension in the composition of things.

Simply put, this is about looking through, looking beyond – about truly ‘seeing’ – beyond the obvious

So its worth remembering that our seeing is only complete when we’ve engaged our ability to see what isn’t in the cities we live in, as well as what is.

And that we are as invigorated by the absence or removal of things as we are by the presence or addition.

The value of this level of seeing and awareness?

Hopefully it raises questions in us: questions of What if…? What was….? When did I…? Why there…? We question the way we and the spaces we exist in connect, how we attach to each other – materially, spiritually, emotionally.

Looking in this way, seeing the dynamic multi-dimensional relationship and nature of how things co-exist, not just as physical things but across time and cultures and generations reasserts our connection to the world and each other.

This kind of seeing brings the quanta level vibration of life writ large in our world. Each disappearance and appearance a vibration in the world.

Watched through the lens of time lapse – through a fluid eye – the cities would start to resemble a graphic equaliser of our existence and the utility and function of the buildings within it.

And I sense it would be beautiful.

So, to see or not to see. That is the question. And in the No. 73, for me that morning, lay an answer.

‘ got to love a bus.