Thursday, 27 February 2014


One from out of the old notebooks.


"Rationality is limited by time, space and status, which intervene between the individual and the truth. Emotion can liberate it."
                                                Howard Zinn

Eliminate the cliches, the cliques and untruths, unreal visions of futures never to be given illumination. We who stand at the edge of this unworldly promise of the Utopian ideal become the fools who lead a distant pilgrimage to a grandiose land whispered of only in dawn, before the waking hour.

Nothing is sacred, nothing is real. All that we represent is a rare speck in a universe of infinite darkness, never to be mourned by the heavyweight life providers who stand guard over our oblivion. Why bleed, why chase a life-long ambition that precludes the chance of a life to be lived and instead perpetuates, protects an overseer's watermarked, blood stained, drought inducing signature of naively embraced fate?

If you are to wake, you must see this political line exists in a third dimension.

Get it done.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Best Things Ever #18 Bill Hicks: Rant in E-Minor

Today we mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks. 

Best Things Ever #18

Bill Hicks: Rant in E-Minor

“Bill Hicks, blowtorch, excavator, truthsayer and brain specialist, like a reverend waving a gun around. Pay attention to Rant in E Minor, it is a major work, as important as Lenny Bruce's. He will correct your vision. His life was cut short by cancer, though he did leave his tools here. Others will drive on the road he built. Long may his records rant even though he can't.”
          Tom Waits

Twenty years ago this month, the comedian Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer at the tragically young age of 32. Three years later in 1997, two posthumous album were released by Rykodisc: Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor. In this article I am going to concentrate on Rant in E Minor, which I consider to be both the greatest comedy album and the greatest spoken word album of all time.

The material for Rant in E Minor was recorded at the Laff Stop Comedy Club in Austin, Texas in March and October 1993 and at Coobs, San Francisco in July of the same year. Unlike the albums Dangerous and Relentless that were released during Bill’s lifetime, Rant in E Minor, as well as Arizona Bay, presents the material in the form of chapter points rather than as a traditional live comedy album. It’s more like a concept album, the live material interspersed with musical interludes performed by Bill and his producer and childhood friend, Kevin Booth.

I’ve always found the music on Arizona Bay to be somewhat intrusive, though it’s still a good album (it’s a Bill Hicks album). With Rant in E Minor though, the music is pitched perfectly and serves to divide the seventy five minute album into a series of movements or acts.

The other thing to say about Rant in E Minor is that most of the material included is unique to this one album. There have been a number of subsequent albums released, as well as countless bootlegs of other Bill Hicks’s gigs, which all have significant overlap between them. Yet aside from the bootleg of his final gig at Igby’s, which does include some of the material featured on Rant in E Minor, it’s a pretty unique set list. Even the Igby’s set contains many well-worn routines that you won’t find on Rant in E Minor.

Rant in E Minor is Bill Hicks at his bravest, his angriest, his most free and his most engaging. The material from the later recordings at the Laff Stop was recorded when he knew he was ill and any pretence that Bill was holding back at all is gone. To hear him screaming at his audience, “You fucking morons, you fucking morons.” is cathartic. As Hicks himself says:

“That’s what this is all about, man. It’s supposed to be a fucking catharsis, man, you know. It’s supposed to be a release from the fucking daily grind.”

In that catharsis, Hicks takes aim at the anti-abortion lobby, Christianity, Billy Ray Cyrus, the perpetrators of the raid on the Waco complex, including Bill Clinton and Janet Reno, homophobia in the military, women who defend abusive partners and Rush Limbaugh. One of the reasons that the comedy of Bill Hicks stands the test the time is both because of the universality of it content matter, but also, depressingly, because of how little seems to have changed and how much has come full circle in twenty years. If Bill was alive today, instead of riffing about hosting a TV show called, ‘Let’s Hunt and Kill Bill Ray Cyrus’ it would be have to be called, ‘Let’s Hunt and Kill Miley Cyrus (with special guest, Robin Thicke)’. Rush Limbaugh is still allowed a platform from which to spout his moronic opinions. The show Cops has been replaced by a thousand and one equally fascistic “reality TV” programs and rather than senselessly slaughtering women and children in Waco, Texas, it is instead in Pakistan and the Yemen that women and children are gunned down with drones by executioners who never leave the comfort of their armchair in some military base in the desert wilds of the United States, or have the decency to look their victims once in the eye.

I think Bill Hicks would be appalled at the level to which soldiers have been elevated to the level of heroes, protectors of freedom, even as they are used as instruments of brute terror and blunt force to destroy freedom in favour of corporate profit. He was never one to shy away from criticism of the military, questioning why a suicide bomber was a coward but firing Cruise missiles from a ship hundreds of miles away in the Gulf was a heroic act. In dealing with the issue of gay people serving in the armed forces, Hicks says:

“Anyone dumb enough to want to be in the military should be allowed in... I don’t care how many sit ups you can do, put on a helmet, go wait in that fox-hole, we’ll tell you when we need you to kill somebody.”

Now, I’m sure that Bill didn’t really mean a lot of the things he said but, like Jonathan Swift, used extreme views to present certain arguments as reducio ad absurdium, as well as a way to get laughs. My parents met in the Royal Navy and I exist because of the armed forces, so I tend to give serving personal the benefit of the doubt that they are merely following orders and they simply trust that those orders are given in good faith. Yet I don’t think there is anything particularly heroic about following orders, especially when the Nuremberg Trials established that “I was only following orders” is not a valid defence (although Nuremberg also established the invasion of another sovereign state to be the supreme international crime under law, but that doesn’t seem to stop us).

For all the supposed threat from Al Qaida in the last decade or so, the simple fact of the matter is that the most successful terrorist organisation in the last hundred years is the CIA. More coups against democratic regimes and more loss of innocent life than Al Qaida could ever even dream of taking. They kill thousands, we kill hundreds of thousands in retaliation. In America the repeated mantra is, “Support the troops, they protect your freedom. “ If you need protecting, you are not free. And all that all this killing really achieves is to intensify the level of retaliation that will be visited upon your children after the empire falls. You would think that the richest country in the world would have at least grasped the basic fact that all debts get called in eventually. That’s karma, man. It’s also the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Bill’s routine on gays in the military manages to correct one of the niggles I have with his early routines, especially on Dangerous and Sane Man, where his material is somewhat homophobic (although he did out George Michael several years before George’s own actions did it for him). Again, this could simply be a matter of taking things to extremes for deliberate comic effect. I like when graphic images of gay sex are used as a weapon against homophobes and other fatheads, so Hicks’s observation that Rush Limbaugh reminds him of “one of those gay guys who likes to lay in a tub while other men pee on him.” is especially brilliant. Although it gets too graphic for me when he comes to the part about Barbara Bush unrolling her flaccid labia, then shitting in Limbaugh’s mouth. Then I have to skip forward.

I’ve described Rant in E Minor as my favourite spoken word album, as well as my favourite comedy album, because as funny as Rant in E Minor is, it also represents Bill Hicks at his most philosophical. The power of comedy is in its repeatability and yet with Rant in E Minor there are so many lines that are as much like stanzas from Dylan’s It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) as anything else and worth listening to whenever you are feeling down or need a call to action. As well as his comments on catharsis, one further example will suffice here:

“The argument doesn’t work with me Flapjack. Go back to your fucking crackerjack lifestyle and I’ll meet you at the evolution bell curve. I’ll be sitting there awhile, it’s kind of a tortoise and the hare story.”

Many comedians and sitcoms can make me laugh till I cry, even after I know every word, but there is only Rant in E Minor that can make me actually cry. To hear Bill talk about thinking about taking his own life, but not having the balls to do it, and to realise that in that instant he is facing up to his mortality and the fact that he is going to die is heart breaking to hear. He’d struggled to build an audience in his home country, but was a star across the Atlantic. He was about to have his own TV show for real in Britain and died right on the cusp of major success. On that day, the world lost a true comedy genius.

In many ways, Bill Hick was a visionary and a man ahead of his time. Some of his material, like his alter-ego, Pan the Randy Goat-Boy, was considered extreme at the time. His honest discussions of his use of pornography were not applauded by all and yet to listen to many comedians these days, his comedy seems somewhat mild by comparison. The ubiquity of the internet, it seems, has made us more voyeuristic and more cruel.

If you read Agent of Evolution, the Bill Hicks biography consisting of interviews with the people who knew him, you see that there were elements of his life about which he didn’t talk openly (like visiting brothels and experimenting with just about every drug yet invented, not just the fashionable ones). He could go too far sometimes, but there was also as much that he held back. Compare that with, say, the average Doug Stanhope routine, where very little is censored or held back. I love Doug Stanhope, by the way.

There has been a lot written about Hicks in the media in this twentieth anniversary week, especially by other comedians. He has been lauded as a fine comedian, but some question his elevation to the level of Messiah. I don’t think Hicks was the Messiah, but I do think that some art and artists transcend the medium in which they exist. Was Shakespeare just another playwright? Is the Mona Lisa just another portrait? When Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit to hushed audiences, was that just another artist singing another jazz standard?

There’s nothing wrong with being a comedian, making people laugh is a fine way to make a living, but it doesn’t mean that some comedians can’t transcend comedy. Bill Hicks wasn’t/isn’t the Messiah but with the greatest respect to many other comedians that I listen to and love, neither was Bill Hicks just another comedian. He was somewhere halfway between comedian and Messiah and his genius in no way devalues the comedy of others, only drags it up by its bootstraps. If you want to realise the potential of stand-up comedy, listen to Rant in E Minor.

It’s hard to say what Bill Hicks would be doing if he were alive today, 52 and grumpier than ever, but I like to imagine him having his own weekly podcast. Anyone who listens to Greg Proops’s podcast, The Smartest Man in the World, can get a sense of what that might have sounded like. Proops has his own style, his own rhythms and way of doing things, but he also channels the spirit of Bill Hicks, frequently citing Hicks as the bravest comedian he ever saw. The Smartest Man in the World is one of the highlights of my week and I can highly recommend it.

It’s useless to dwell on what might have been, only what is. Bill Hicks died too young, but his comedy lives on through his recorded material. Rant in E Minor is his crowning achievement and remains a call to action against hopelessness. If he could be this funny and thought provoking as he was dying, imagine what we can achieve even as we live.

Get it done.

See also (click link)

Don’t Panic

What’s for tea tonight mother? Betrayals and lies?

Don’t Panic

In many of the more relaxed civilisations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitch Hiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.

First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on the cover.
Douglas Adams

There was a time, about fifteen years ago, when I started to get panic attacks. I blame this, at least in part, on my best friend. I remember him having a major panic attack while we were in Blackpool and ending up getting a police escort to Blackpool Royal Infirmary, ‘cause he thought he was having a heart attack. We always did things together and if something happened to the one, you could guarantee it would happen to the other one not long after. He had a pregnancy scare with a girlfriend, I had one with mine the following  month. One of my relatives died, one of his died the very next week. So not long after that night in Blackpool, I was visited by my first panic attack. It was not fun.

My first attack came about because I had toothache. Not a prodigious start, but then panic attacks are all in the head. Something physical may trigger the first one, but after you’ve had one panic attack they can be brought on simply by the fear of having an attack. It’s all about the feedback loop. The anxiety of an encroaching attack causes you to physiologically alter your breathing rhythm and this causes the tightening in the chest which ultimately leads to the panic.

It got so bad that for only time in my life I went to see the doctor with a psychological problem. I was lucky to be seen by a doctor who had experienced panic attacks and he talked me through what was happening and gave me some simple meditative techniques to bring them under control, as well as a prescription for Propanol for if I had a bad attack (I think that was the name). Taking Propanol was an interesting experience, because I would still have the attack just the same, I was just less concerned by it, almost like watching myself have a panic attack from outside my body.

One of the worst experiences I had was while stoned, sleeping alone in the back seat of a car on a campsite in Cornwall, the night before the solar eclipse in 1999. I’m a very private person, I may write candidly, but I don’t generally discuss my issues out loud. I don’t want people to know what’s going on in my head most of the time. I was cold and shivering, while the rest of the group was sleeping in the tent, and lack of warmth is one of the quickest ways to accelerate a panic attack. I wanted to cry and scream, but somehow my overriding sense of privacy managed to keep it together, probably thanks to listening to something funny on a Walkman (yes, it was that long ago).

In the end, the eclipse was worth it. I took an extra pill to calm my nerves, which was probably for the best, because there’s something about a solar eclipse which prods at a primal bit of the brain. It’s not natural for it to go dark that quickly and in blocks of increasing blackness. All the sea birds went deathly quiet. We all ran around, shouting, “Black! Black!Black as the night.”

Drugs though, prescription or otherwise, are at best palliative. They don’t make the panic attacks go away, you have to do that for yourself. As someone who eventually mastered them after suffering for a number of years, the best advice I can offer anyone that has regular panic attacks is this: Confront them. Seriously. When you feel an attack coming then in your head or out loud challenge the attack to do its worst. The worst it can do is kill you, so tell it to get on with it or go away. The regularity of panic attacks increase as the feedback loop of worry intensifies, but the feedback works both ways. Every successful challenge is like a dampening force, killing the monster by taking away its power. You won’t beat it right away, but a weary sigh and a bit of bravery whenever you feel the symptoms coming on does work over time. Like much in life, the key to defeating panic attacks is confidence.

I don’t get panic attacks anymore. Panic attacks are a young man’s game. When you get to my age there is so much that might actually kill you that your subconscious stops inventing threats and starts obsessing on which of the real problems it is that will actually kill you. Which isn’t much better. In fact it’s a hell of a lot worse. Ah well, hopefully someone will have cured death before I need worry about it. Death eventually catches up with us all. No point getting in a panic about it.

Get it done.

See also (click links)

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Review: Jazz – Toni Morrison

Another day, another book review:

Review: Jazz – Toni Morrison

Scout around the various posts on this blog and you’ll easily notice that I love both the music of jazz and literature that alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was therefore inevitable that I would turn my attention to Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel, Jazz, sooner or later.

Jazz is the middle book in a trilogy of Morrison novels, Jazz equating to Dante’s Purgatory. I have yet to read Beloved or Paradise, which mirror Dante’s Inferno and Paradise respectively, but like a jazz soloist, I will circle back to the theme at some point in the future.

The novel largely takes place in Harlem in the 1920s. It tells the story of the murder of eighteen year old Dorcas Manfred by her married lover Joe Trace. The entire book plays out like an improvised jazz performance, with each of the main characters telling their version of events like musicians playing solos against the beat of the whole band. The book’s narrator, either Morrison herself or some unnamed inhabitant of Harlem, serves as band leader, queuing in each performer to take their turn.

Thus do we hear the story told from the perspective of Dorcas’s Aunt Alice, Joe’s wife Violet and Malvonne, the woman from whom Joe rents a room where he can bring his young lover. Joe also tells his story, as well as Dorcas’s friend, Felice. Even Dorcas herself. Jazz takes place in the roaring 20s, youthful adolescence for the music from which it takes its name, yet its style anticipates the growing maturity of jazz in the 1940s, the narrative spinning backwards to the nineteenth century ancestors of its main characters like a Charlie Parker solo veering wildly away from the main melody of a well-trodden jazz standard.

As Harlem is Purgatory here, so it’s characters are stuck there. Stuck in the lives that they had before the incident around which the novel rotates. Joe shoots Dorcas dead, but doesn’t go to jail. The novel opens with Violet gate crashing the dead girl’s funeral to stab at her corpse in its casket, thrown out on to the snow filled streets (an allusion to the final frozen circle of the Inferno) and releasing all of her caged birds back into the wild in grief, anger and despair. She remains with Joe, the man she had fled with from the southern states of America. The north at first seems to offer them fresh hope, as it did for so many of the descendants of former slaves at that time. Yet in the final analysis, the north is just one more level up the island of Purgatory, away from deficient love and towards the excessive love that ends in Dorcas’s murder. Violet brings new birds into the apartment to make the Dantean circle complete. The couple grow old together in stagnation.

As I say, I haven’t read the books which precede and follow Jazz, but the themes of Purgatory, Limbo even, are clearly visible. My favourite passage from the book appears near the end, spoken by Morrison’s anonymous narrator:

I started out believing that life was made just so the world would have some way to think about itself, but that it had gone awry with humans because flesh, pinioned by misery, hangs on to it with pleasure. Hangs on to wells and a boy’s golden hair; would just as soon inhale sweet fire caused by a burning girl as hold a maybe-yes maybe-no hand. I don’t believe that anymore. Something is missing there. Something rogue. Something else you have to figure in before you can figure it out.

Indecision and uncertainty are as much purgatory as anything else and it is probably appropriate to start in the middle of the trilogy. Is that ‘something rogue’ found in Paradise? Is the initial belief in life being created as a way for the world to think about itself begun with Beloved? Do you in reading this already know the answers to these questions? I want to read Jazz again. I need to read Jazz again, but only when bookended by the books which surround it. Like the music, it’s simple and yet complicated, flowing from simple lines that twist and wrap themselves around each other. It is at times repetitious in the story it tells, yet each soloist interprets the melody in a slightly different way, emphasising and dampening notes from their own perspective. Riffing around some, avoiding others altogether.

The year after Jazz was released, Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I tend to place very little stock in awards ceremonies. Awards are all about opinion, perspective and, certainly with the Nobel prizes, politics. Yet if anyone has to win a Nobel Prize, I’m glad it was Toni Morrison. I love reading and it always nice to veer away from the same old authors and reach out to discover somebody new or unfamiliar. As with jazz, melody is fine but it’s good to improvise once in a while.

I read far too many books written by white men, who sadly still dominate just about every genre, fiction and non-fiction combined, as they have done since the age of Greek tragedy. The first step is admitting you have a problem and I’m slowly starting to correct for this myopia. Running around the same old circles is stagnation and stagnation is purgatory. Diversity though, now that really would be paradise.

Get it done.

See Also (click Links)

Monday, 24 February 2014

Making Mistakes

Shorter post today. Enjoy.

Making Mistakes

"A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery."
          James Joyce, Ulysses

George Orwell states in Nineteen Eighty-Four that “the best way to keep a secret is to hide it from oneself.” Which is bollocks, right? The best way to hide a secret, as we all know, is to write that secret down, leave it on the mantelpiece or coffee table, go for a piss and then come back and try and find it.

It can’t be done, because the mind is as mischievous as it is treacherous and so replaces the memory of the thing searched for with some unpleasant image, like a large tax bill or a picture of Boris Johnson in just his pants and socks, and so we skip over the form of the desired object time and time again, even when it is starting us in the face.

This works well for drug dealers or spies. Keep a list of your contacts in a little black book in plain view on the sideboard. Saves you having to remember anything incriminating. Then when the police or intelligence services break the door down demanding names, all you have to is get them to help you look for the book. Bingo! They are quickly co-opted into a shared sense of blindness for the thing searched for and desired.

I’m being factious of course (it’s a skill), but it’s a source a continual fascination to me the way the mind works or doesn’t work. We all make mistakes, it is after all the way that evolution works, through errors in the duplication process copying strands of genetic material. Some errors are beneficial to progress, others disastrous. One of the greatest errors in the public’s perception of science is in misunderstanding the phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’. It doesn’t mean the fittest in the sense of the most well-toned, or even the sexiest (there’s that factiousness again), but in the sense of the most well suited to survive in an ever changing environment. Today you may be top of the food chain, the savviest with current technology, the richest economy, but who knows what next week will bring. Adaption is as much about serendipity and making mistakes as it is about forward planning. Without mistakes, we’d all still be a pool of slime under a rock somewhere.

One of my greatest weaknesses is my ability to proofread my own work. I still find typos in posts on this blog that I wrote five years ago or more. It’s one of the reasons why I didn’t survive long in banking (aside from the danger to my mortal soul). Banks externalise all mistakes to their own staff, the public, the public purse, anyone but themselves. The kind of errors that in the public sector or less carcinogenic elements of the private sector would simply be regarded as part of human nature, in banking are instead treated like the worst crimes imaginable. It’s the principle of judging others by your own standards. Put the date in the wrong format, miss out the county on an address, call someone Ms instead of Miss and you’ll be treated like you were the one who mis-sold the PPI policy in the first place. By laying the blame for mistakes squarely at the feet of their own staff, banks leave much to chance and it’s no surprise they are still screwing people over and engaging in toxic practices, even to this day.

I jumped before I was pushed, but I’m glad I jumped when I did. As a writer, it was a useful experience and I gained some valuable insights, but only in the same way as I would if I’d spent a year with the Taliban. Yet I factiously comfort myself with the knowledge that my ability to make simple mistakes does at least single me out as a powerhouse of evolution. Get things spot on 100% of the time and you may have a glittering career in banking ahead of you, but it’s also probably best if you don’t breed at any point. You’d only be diluting the gene pool.

People will sometimes offer up a prayer to St Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, when looking for something they’ve misplaced. As an atheist it is all too easy to deride this type of behaviour, because no matter what we atheists might like to think, atheism is a cult, filled with its own unique set of prejudices just like any other religion. Scientifically speaking, the appeal to an external power definitely does work, not because St Anthony or God necessarily exist, but simply because the process removes ownership of the problem from the domain of the mischievous mind to some unseen third person. Like with banking, externalise the problem and it ceases to be your concern and you’ll soon find you find your watch/wallet/car keys/phone.

It’s the same as when people say, “Look for something else, you’ll soon find it.” Drug dealers and spies, be aware that you should under no circumstances offer your unwelcome guests tea or coffee, or ask them for any assistance in the kitchen. One quick fumble through kitchen cupboards looking for the sugar is enough to dissolve the cloak of invisibility surrounding that little black book on the sideboard quicker than you can say one lump or two.

I don’t really have an ending for this piece, so instead I will close by saying that the writer has made eight deliberate mistakes. Can you spot them all?

Get it done.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

We Are Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

“Supper, sir, and tonight's movie. I'm sorry, sir, it is another Doug McClure.” By which I mean to say, more today on Finnegans Wake. Only in the middle eight though. Little bit at the end. Read it, you’ll enjoy it and you’ll learn something. Read on, MacDuff

We Are Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

We are such stuff as dreams are made on: our little life is rounded with a sleep
                                                                                              The Tempest act 4, scene 1

I love sleep. One of the many reasons why I never really took drugs (certainly not ‘uppers’) is because I can’t imagine anything I’d less like to be doing than taking drugs and stay out all night clubbing. Yawn! All things considered, I’d rather be reading. That and getting an early night.

I say an early night, but my sleep patterns are so notoriously off when not engaged is regular servitude (I mean employment, sorry, sorry, my bad – attitude) that I can be getting up at anything from 4am to midday to midnight. I can easily sleep for anything up to fourteen hours at a time, often staying awake for a day or more just to try and reset my body clock. It usually works, at least for a couple of weeks.

To sleep, perchance to dream1. As I sleep, I dream. I have friends who claim to never dream or to not remember their dreams. I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like. I have four, five dreams a night and usually remember all of them. They have regular plots, themes and moods, like episodes of TV series.

There are the post-apocalyptic zombie dreams, the escaping from government agents or criminal mastermind dreams (same difference, am I right?), the dreams where real life locations miles apart are connected by shortcuts through the woods or under the M61. Whenever I leave a job, a house, a town or a relationship, I have dreams of being back there for months afterwards. My father died of cancer eighteen years ago and yet every other month I still dream that he turns up alive and no one but me seems suspicious at him not being dead, even though we had him cremated.

I have dreams where I’m running, but move more like a marionette, feet never quite connecting with the ground because the mind can’t accurately reproduce the sensation of running (or, more likely, because I rarely felt the need to run and so have no stored experience of what that’s like). I have dreams I am on bike, struggling to get up one of the monstrous hills that surround this village. I dream of being on boats all the time, steam boats on Russian lakes and speed boats on canals and some version of my fictional sailing ship, the Anna Livia Plurabelle, zipping around the oceans of the world. And if I’m not actually on water, then I’m walking along the bridal way of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. Except, it’s a dream, so it both is and isn’t the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.

I have dreams that I am in the United States and, most bizarrely of all, I have infrequent dreams about being in Vienna or Saltsburg, though I haven’t been to Austria or have any great desire to travel there.

Whenever I have spent all day reading or writing then the story continues as I sleep and my dreams are filled with nothing but a typed page that I read, except the narrative proceeds in the kind of fucked up way for which dreams are notorious. If that sounds strange, a friend of mine once had a dream that consisted entirely of a can of baked beans on a table. Static image, no panning or tracking shot or anything. Just a can of beans on a table. In the land of dreams it is the ordinary that is fucked up.

I also have a lot of anxiety dreams. I have dreams where I have run away from work or friends and am hiding, but regularly emerging from my hiding place to taunt them and run away and hide again. I used to have frequent dreams where I’m in an elevator that starts to get smaller as it ascends. Or works like an elevator in Star Trek, moving sideways and between buildings like a monorail system. I also have dreams that I’m in Star Trek, Deep Space 9, Red Dwarf, Community or The Office, depending which show I’ve recently been watching in marathon sessions.

In fact, the one dream that I can’t seem to remember is the one that I’d most like to able to recall. It is a recurring dream and a recurring nightmare from when I was very young. I can only remember it in snatches. It’s a disjointed dream. There are some grave diggers, which I know for certain come from seeing The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid. Something involving the army moving into position or something, but as so often with dreams, it’s the sense of unease and terror that the dream used to instil in me. It was the sense of time slowing down to a crawl. Where the sound of speech is in slow-mo and lowered pitch. I would get these sensations in waking moments too, of the world running at half speed. It used to freak me out, but now I’d kill to be able to recapture that sensation. I’m 41. I could do with some extra hours in the day. I had the dream once in a flu fever when I was fourteen, but other than that, I’ve not had in since I was five.

Oh! là! là! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvés!2 Given such a broad range of dreams, it is perhaps not unsurprising that I would become obsessed with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a novel which takes place during the course of a dream. When Joyce was writing, it was the theories of Sigmund Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams that held sway. Both men died long before the discovery of Rapid Eye Movement (REM), first described in 1953, and it was at the time assumed that dreams progressed in something like real time during the course of sleep. Today we know that dreams happen in bursts of activity during the night, identified by REM. What can appear in the dream world to last for hours actually happens in fast forward and often only takes minutes of real time. Perhaps this accounts for my feelings of temporal dislocation as a child.

Freud’s theories seem to us naive, even idiotic at times, but no theory is ever entirely wide of the mark and some of what he has to say is still valid. His theory that some dreams are nothing but wish fulfilment holds true. A child sees a toy in the shops that they wish to own and that night they dream that they are playing with the toy in question. I’d be willing to bet that in these days of consumerism, self-entitlement, arrested development and the cult of celebrity that more people have wish fulfilment dreams than ever before.

For Freud, all phallic or quasi phallic objects represented the penis and all womb or quasi uterine objects represent the vagina. Sex, sex, sex, that’s all that Freud ever thinks about. Joyce employs some of the same imagery in the Wake. It seems to me that in studying Finnegans Wake, which contains allusions to a great many works of fiction, non-fiction and mythology, some fall into the trap of assuming that just because Joyce references something, it must mean he thinks of it as being worthy.

The Wake makes great use and reference to Giambattista Vico’s The New Science, which contains Vico’s theory of history moving through repeating cycles. Yet anyone who’s ever read The New Science should know that while it might have some interesting theories about history and the etymology of certain words, it is for the most part a poorly conceived piece of fundamentalist, misogynist tripe, which tries to prove the literal truth of the Biblical stories, especially the bit where Noah’s three sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth travel out after the Great Flood to the three known continents and singlehandedly repopulate each continent by impregnating the race of giant women who survived the rising waters.

Perhaps I give James Joyce too much credit, but most of what I have read that was written by him or by the people who knew him leads me to believe that he ultimately came to see Vico’s theories as being as misogynistic as I do, especially once he’d read James George Frazer’s counter theories in The Golden Bough. The phrase, ‘a commodious vicus of recirculation’ contained in the opening sentence of Finnegans Wake seems to me to be Joyce calling out Vico’s theory as a vicious recycling of the same old misogynistic shit. Similar denunciations occur throughout the Wake.

The same is true with Freud and with psychoanalysis in general. Joyce’s own daughter, Lucia, muse to Finnegans Wake, suffered from what today would be probably diagnosed as manic depression and simply treated, but then, in the dark ages for feminism and psychiatry, was ministered to extremes and left languishing in mental institutions for forty years after her father’s death. Only Joyce kept faith in Lucia that she was not disturbed, but took her to see the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. The consultation was not successful, especially after Jung tried to get Joyce himself to undergo psychoanalysis. The conversation and Joyce’s witty retort is replayed in the Wake:

I can psoakoonaloose myself any time I want (the fog follow you all!) without your interferences or any other pigeonstealer.

At one point in the Wake he refers to ‘Jungfraud’ to describe just what he thought of psychiatry. He believed that Vico had anticipated the work of Jung, Freud and others, but often the language of all three men in the Wake seems to be used as a weapon to strike back at them. The fall of man at the Garden of Eden and all the subsequent falls and returns, deaths and rebirths that play out through the Wake use Freud’s phallic dream symbology to symbolise sexual excitement and release. Death in the Wake is really la petit mort, the little death which is said to occur after ejaculation. Once the giant HCE has shot his load into his wife, ALP, he will sleep and she will be left unmolested until he is priapically reborn to rule over her once again.

Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?3 Today there are two competing theories on the purpose of dreams. One is vastly more woolly headed than the other, but neither quite catches the essence of the landscape of dreams. The prevailing cognitive scientific view is that dreams don’t really mean anything. Dreams are simply what happens when the governing conscious mind is suspended through sleep and neurons in the brain fire to trigger random memories that have no higher-self to give them direction. Freud said that every image in a dream is based on something that the senses have recorded in the real world, whether we consciously remember it or not.

The other theory on dreams come from the New Age community (New Age is such a fine example of Orwellian language: nothing even slightly new about any of it). Here, the theory holds that every symbol and image in dreams has some very definite meaning, as if all dreams are a Renaissance painting or a Modernist novel. Here’s a few of random examples from a fairly typical online resource:

To dream that someone is hacking into your computer or files symbolizes your vulnerabilities and weaknesses. The dream may be a way of telling you that you need to work on building up your self esteem.

To dream that you are eating macaroni symbolizes comfort and ease. The dream may be trying to bring you back to a time where things were much simpler.

To dream that you have rotting or decaying teeth implies that you may have said something that you shouldn't have. You may have uttered some false or foul words and those words are coming back to haunt you.

Sometimes satire writes itself. I’m sure that there must have been some evolutionary advantage to dreams, probably developed when our ancestors still lived in the trees. I don’t imagine our ancestors dreamt about their computers being hacked very often. The middle quote is so inane as to require no further comment. I often dream about my teeth falling out but that’s because I have rotten teeth. As Freud never actually said, sometimes a pipe is just a pipe. New age dream analysis, from the school of thought that brought you astrology.

That said, I can’t quite bring myself to fully endorse the scientific view either, because it fails to take account of the human dimension. Whether or not dream imagery is just random neurons firing in the brains neglects how we as humans interpret the world. It’s like looking at the slide show on someone’s computer screen saver. To the objective observer, the images may seem random, but every single image will be of significance to the person that put the slide show together. The same is true of dreams. We as human beings find meaning in random patterns, as you see from every tortilla chip or toasted cheese sandwich that is said to bear the image of Jesus Christ (funny that he always looks like a white European, never Middle Eastern or Jewish).

The scientific view of dreams has as much wrong with it as the New Age view, because both fail to take account of a personal interpretation. Look at night terrors, where people wake up during sleep, but are still also dreaming. Sleep paralysis, which stop us acting out our dreams during sleep is still in effect, rendering people helpless and they start to hallucinate figures in the room. What form those shapes take is entirely predicated on their personal belief system. Some people see alien abductors, other see the devil. An ex-girlfriend used to say that vampires were sucking her energy, because she reads Anne Rice novels and watches too much True Blood. My mum see angels, because she’s a New Age type and her house is covered in angel trinkets. We see in dreams what is personal to us.

Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?4 Dreams take any significance we chose to place on them. They can be mere entertainments or the revealers of great personal truths. Some nights I go to bed with as much excited anticipation as sitting down to watch a new episode of Community. Other nights I don’t want to sleep at all. Clearly dreams are more than just memories randomly doing as they please while the conscious mind sleeps. The conscious mind never completely relinquishes its control, as evidenced by wish fulfilment and anxiety dreams.

I have yet to experience lucid or directed dreaming, the Holy Grail of the dream world, where you are conscious as you dream and able to affect your surroundings. However, I have had semi-conscious dreams, semi-night terrors, where I dream that I am alone in a room but aware of some other presence being there. I take the view that what I am aware of is my own conscious mind removed to a distance from self and I believe that this is where our idea of a higher power comes from. God is really just ourselves. It’s like when any politician or schizophrenic (same difference, am I right?) tells them that God speaks to them, I think, no, that’s just your inner voice, we all have that, because it was evolutionary beneficial to have some part of you to shout, “Hey! Lion!” than go through the process of conscious recognition and evasive action taking. It just takes a different form when we sleep. Same with night terrors. They’re probably just unconscious substitutes taking up occupancy in the bit of the brain usually inhabited by the conscious mind.

As with dreams, so with Finnegans Wake. I have a personal interpretation of the Wake, probably as shaped by my own views on the nature of the world as anything else. Yet what Joyce intended to say in writing the Wake is to a certain extent irrelevant. Given that it describes an event that is to a greater or lesser degree subconscious, it is reasonable to assume that a good deal of the Wake was written by Joyce’s unconscious mind. Any writer will tell you that there are times when they are compelled to write something in a particular way and only later, when reviewing their work, does the significance of what they have written become apparent.

As Joyce was writing the Wake his eyesight was failing. He wrote in gigantic letters to be able to see what he was doing and had a series of secretaries (including a young Samuel Becket) to help him transcribe the streams of word in his head. Much of the Wake he never saw written down, only spoken, and so even he may have missed much of the significance of his own masterpiece. Yet by virtue of that fact that it hovers somewhere between the Freudian/New Age and the scientific version of dreams, the Wake succeeds in sketching out an accurate version of the dreaming world. It may not get it right all time, but hey, see impressionism, pointillism, cubism or futurism and tell me they are less valid artistically for their inaccurate interpretations of the world. Go on, I dare you (<my dreaming self seeping through).

I would close by wishing for all of your dreams to come true, but I wouldn’t want my zombie dreams to come true, nor that recurring dream where I’m wondering around town in my pants, wrapped in a quilt, trying to masturbate in public without anyone noticing, so I will merely end by wishing that you dream interesting dreams. Dreams rock. I’d take my own dreams over 95% of the shit that’s on TV any day. Listen to what they are trying to tell you, but don’t take them too seriously either. There’s no hard and fast method for working out what dreams mean. Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe. Sometimes a dream is just a dream.

[wakes: Whoa! Hey Babe, I dreamt I wrote this amazing article on dreams. Ah shit, how did it start again?]

1Hamlet, act 3, scene 1
2Ma Boheme (fantaisie) - Arthur Rimbaud (‘Oh, of what splendid loves have I dreamt’)
3A Dream Within A Dream – Edgar Allen Poe
4The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci Volume 1

Get it done.

Friday, 21 February 2014


 For some reason, this hasn't been published before. Well it has now. Enjoy.


He froze. There was an instant, a fleeting moment of recognition that seemed to unravel; expand across the centuries, as the face slowly turned and two eyes transfixed. Captured in their glaze.

He ran. Bounded across the beach. Tiny eruptions kicking. Sand bombs with each stride he took. Soles stamping. Imprinting. The other was on his heels. After him. Shit!  Fear lent fresh haste. Escape seemed futile. Impossible. Unless!  He wheeled right. Made for the strait.

His pace slowed as one leg sank to the thigh. He struggled to lift his knees, but already was waist deep. Salt water gluing denim to skin. A splash to herald the rival’s entry into the arena. Panic overwhelmed. He could almost feel the others breath at the nape of his neck. He flailed wildly. A wounded animal in its death throes. A single vein thumped at the temple.

Abruptly, the channel shallowed. Yes!  He emerged. One foot hit the bank. Squelched. He could see the horizon. Escape. He’d survived to the other side.

A hand seized his shoulder, unseen. He span and toppled, as the other’s bulk came crashing down. Fell on top of him.


The seconds passed like years. 

Still, he lay there. 

Supine and sodden. 

Heart pounding. 


Wheezing from the exertion. 

The other raised himself to his knees. Fixed him with a wicked grin. 

"You're it."  And they burst into fits.

Get it done.