Review – Derren Brown – Miracle (needed)

They say, “Never meet your heroes”. Nothing to do with halitosis apparently. It’s something about your expectations exceeding the reality and tempting disappointment.

Since he first started reading minds on TV over a decade ago, Derren Brown has been an absolute hero to me, almost a god. He inspired my second novel and motivated me to practice prestidigitation and mentalism right up and into the Magic Circle (available for weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, etc.).

I even met him once and though, sadly, nothing magical passed between us, we also didn’t have the opportunity to disappoint each other. And we both were far too polite to mention the halitosis.

What they don’t say is, “Never see your heroes live and working at what they’re supposed to be best at”. Which is why I allowed myself some expectations when I sat down to witness his latest West End show Miracle. A title filled with irony and yet unable to hide the fact the show really needs one.

It’s not that Brown’s effects were transparent, though a couple were surprisingly so. And it’s not that he has lost any of his charisma, though in the second half he does try to ape charismatic faith healers in a theatrical expose that falls short. It’s just that, unlike the preachers he attempts to shame, his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. Presumably the greed that drives American faith healers, spurs them into passionate reveries, a misapprehended dedication which inspires their followers. Brown attempts to copy these evangelical tirades but then, almost immediately, is betrayed by his own disgust for the characters he’s impersonating as well as a lack of, dare I say it, faith… in his own cause.

Oh darn it. Now I’ve revealed something that was in the show. And he had asked us all so nicely at the beginning, not to tell anyone what we were going to witness.

And honestly, if Brown had produced something truly unique or original or just looked like it took some effort or care, I would be respecting his wishes and be offering you so much exultant, content free, wind. But I got the feeling that his desire for secrecy may have had more to do with a lack of confidence in the production than a desire to surprise and delight further audiences; that if potential ticket buyers knew more, they just might stop coming.

So what’s gone wrong?

Simply, it seems that Brown and fellow genius/mentalist/actor/other hero director Andy Nyman have failed to dress the effects with the care that they used to. What made Brown such a class-leading, unique performer was his ability to build stories around his effects with beautiful logic that created almost entirely credible explanations. Brown’s fans mould themselves in his image, they see themselves as intelligent, thoughtful, and sceptical if not downright cynical – but then they swear by his declared techniques. So if, for example, you put enough subliminal suggestions around an ad writer’s journey to work you will be able to influence him to come up with a precise idea you’ve already predicted. Obvs! If you find a truly compliant person, whittled from a large group through a bunch of psychological games, you can safely play Russian Roulette with them. For sure! If you crowd-source your lottery numbers, the group will come up with the winning combination. Well. The first two anyway. But Miracle just feels cobbled together; like they could no longer be bothered to put the work in.

Even the audience seemed less enrapt by the great man.

“Was there a reason you thought of that particular number?” Brown quizzed a gentleman who had earlier been selected to dream one up.

“Because that’s the one you told me before the show,” the man replied. Brown cringed and repeated several times that that was not the case, sounding rather like the lady who protesteth too much and not the old Brown who might have confidently joined in the fun with a, “how am I going to get away with the ‘no stooge’ thing now?…” or whatever.

In Absolute Magic, Brown’s bible for magicians on the art of magical performance, he insists that, “You must entertain and enthral, and not drift into risible pretension or alienate with an insensitively handled agenda.” Unfortunately, with Miracle, Brown does just that.

In the first half, he clumsily tries to inject an agenda, about the deadening aspects of the mid-life crisis and the reviving qualities of risk, into a number of unoriginal effects. Effects which have either been seen so often the risk appears minimal – such as the game of Russian Roulette involving a spike hidden in one of a number of identical paper bags (an effect so well-trodden Brown preceded it with a montage of YouTube videos of worse magicians getting the trick wrong) – or simply lacking the dramatic build up to mean much or give credibility. When he got an audience member to dine on a broken lightbulb with him, he offered a half-hearted suggestion that taking a risk like this would help her be braver about finding her own way in life. A large part of this was whilst she was off-stage and most of it was said only after the effect was over. I’m sure the Derren Brown who was my hero would have used his miracle making, mesmerising authority to build up the spectator until she really believed she could do this impossible thing, and only then would she cautiously be allowed to put the glass in her mouth. But he barely tried, and she simply, trustingly, put the glass in her mouth, chewed and swallowed it.

Afterwards, as she was ushered to her seat, Brown instructed the audience “Obviously don’t try this at home, you need someone like me to talk you through it.” But that’s it. No theatre, no attempt to create an impossible story around it and would my hero, the old Brown, even suggest that there was anyone like him?

It was in the second half that Brown tried to take on the persona of a faith healer. One girl started crying on stage because she thought she’d been cured from crippling anxiety only to get up on stage and be faced with the full force of it. Brown seemed lost for words. He was at once affecting change for those who would believe and yet trying to peddle an anti-belief message; you are the agent of your own change etc. It’s a familiar tightrope for him and yet, in Miracle, it proved an impossible one.

And there we have it. The conviction that Brown put into his TV work seems to have, hopefully briefly, departed him in Miracle. With that unshakable self-belief gone, he fails to inspire, the experience seems a little empty and one wonders whether this is Brown’s own mid-life crisis enacted on stage.

It’s not easy to watch gods become mortal. Yet, in showing his feet of clay, Brown unconsciously points to the footprints he has left behind. Miracle will remind you that we shouldn’t take for granted the wonders he has created, what astonishments he has wrought and how, over the years, he has taught us all to be a little more sceptical and question what we see. In Miracle we see more vulnerable Derren Brown, we see that he is a human after all, but that, as he reminds us at the beginning of the show, is quite a miracle in itself.

 

First published in

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For what we are about to receive…

She hands me an exquisitely wrapped box and smiles. “Happy Christmas”.

I open it, racking my brains for the appropriate response.

“It’s lovely.” “Thank you.” “That’s so thoughtful.” “How did you know?” “What an amazing idea.” “Oh that’s perfect…”

I’m impossible at Christmas (and birthdays). My phrasebook of gratitude is painfully thin. What’s more, I’m convinced that any of my utterances from it are totally transparent. I’m only trying to fill the void between my embarrassment at receiving a gift and my desperation not to hurt the feelings of the person who gave it. Because however lovely the gift, something tells me it’s not what I’m really grateful for and I’m in terror that I’ll be called out on my blatant insincerity:

“Oh, you’re just saying that.”

“No, no I was thinking just the other day I could really do with a… a um… nutcracker. And the fact it resembles a gilded scrotum makes it simply hilarious. And such a talking point. Thank you so much.”

My upper-lip-stiffening upbringing instilled in me an inflated sense of self-worthlessness; so spend over a tenner on me and I squirm with embarrassment. Then again, go for something under that price point and really, there is nothing I need, or want, that I haven’t bought for myself already. It’s Gift 22.

I realise that might seem bonkers but don’t give me a psychology book about it or, come December 28th, I’m off down Waterstones explaining how the book’s Jung, gifted and back.

“Actually it’s a sculpture Holly made of her baby brother.”

“Oh yes! Absolutely.”

“She made it in Play-Doh and we thought it was so brilliant we took a mould and a clever Chinese company on the internet made some lovely gold plated models.”

“Isn’t it wonderful? There’s an eye … and the nose poking out below it.” I fondle and tweak the little baby nose.

“That’s not an eye, that’s the belly button,” she says, archly.

In the artificial setting of the Christmas celebration, giving is easy, it’s gratitude that’s hard. Genuine thanks seems a sliver of an emotion, something that can just be glimpsed between the fear of indebtedness and the pride of entitlement. In America they try to get the whole thing out of the way early by having their ‘Thanksgiving’ a month earlier. But then, if Thanks is a gift in itself, you’re caught in an infinite paradigm: thanking people for giving thanks which they will need to thank you for ad nauseam.

My kids are no better. We love them and we’ve done our best to protect them from suffering any deprivation. We do our best to give them everything they need when they need it (or the day after thanks to Amazon Prime). So the presents under the Christmas tree are guaranteed to only ever be excess. We have wrapped the kids up as carefully as their gifts and protected them from tragedy. But in doing so we’ve deprived them of the opportunity to experience real gratitude. Even so, I’ve tried to teach them to say “Thank You” and ape the responses one might imagine being truly grateful entails. We’ve done all that and that’s all the thanks we get!

Not knowing how to be grateful is a true “first-world problem”. Genuine gratitude, in all the privilege and safety that being western and middle class bestows, is rarer than McTruffles because it depends on tragedy or misfortune to precede it; things we’re superb at avoiding. But a place to hide in the Holocaust, a solid Greek beach for a refugee, or a hand pulling you up from the window ledge of the Bataclan; when those who have been plucked from disaster try to describe their gratefulness it is as an emotional euphoria.

Cicero called gratitude “not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others”. Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments wrote, “All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.” According to studies by scientists gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, provides higher levels of positive emotions, more joy, optimism, and happiness and inspires altruism. It’s the ultimate thing that money just can’t buy. In this age and society of abundance, the one gift we could all do with eludes us.

But in that moment, holding my tiny golden scrotum, I look at my present giver and even I, with my pre-prepared stock phrases of appreciation, catch a tantalising vestigial sensation of gratitude: that my friends, and my family, still regard me as a part of them, still tolerate me, that they’ve pretty much forgiven my many many mistakes and, above all, can be counted on to be there with a bucket when I come down with a dose of schmaltz.

Happy Christmas (and thanks).

 

First published in

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Grave New World

“Alright Sweetheart, I think it’s time to put your phone away.”

“Sweetheart please. Just turn it off.”

“Sweetheart, please. Phone away.”

“Sweetheart phone.”

“SWEET HEART! PUT THE PHONE DOWN!”

“Dad. Why are you shouting?”

Before I can even open my mouth to state the obvious, my daughter loses all interest in the answer and returns to her screen. She knows exactly how the world works: if a question doesn’t get answered instantly, move on, there’s always something new to look at, another post, another distraction.

“I raised my voice,” I say to the side of her face, as calmly as my gritted teeth will allow “because I’m annoyed. I’m annoyed because we’re sitting in Paris, in the Louvre in front of one of the most beautiful, mysterious, and iconic paintings in the world and…”

“Yeah,” she interrupts, “OK, I’ve seen it.”

“And I thought you might like to, for just a moment, put your phone down and spend a little time in awe.”

She swipes at her screen. “Or what?”

I try to empathise, I try to remember being sixteen. I try to convince myself that this is just a different time and I am simply experiencing the same frustration that my parents felt watching me go out with my hair dyed like a badger.

Memes, videos, photos, updates, jokes, messages, all demand her attention and FOMO won’t let her look up. The remarkable thing is that she’s convinced she’s having fun but the odd smirk or rare LOL doesn’t seem to hide the fact that it all looks remarkably like work. She’s data processing, trying to suck the entire world, or how it’s presented online, into her head. But she’s got a lot of information to get through. Google calculates, in one of those statistics that leave you reeling with “Wait! How the fuck can they even calculate that?”, that we have created more information in the past five years than all the rest of human history. So much so, they seem to have had to make up a new word to enumerate our stored data. Three hundred exabytes of information, that’s 300,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes and counting. Written on 3×5 index cards, just your personal share of it would wrap around the earth twice.

But is Social Media just the Rock’n’Roll of my daughter’s generation? A harmless obsession that frustrates the previous one and seems anachronistic to the next. Or is something more sinister really going on?

A survey of 78,000 English school children last month seemed to think so. Kids who spend hours on social media, it discovered, are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, smoke, drink, and have unhealthy eating habits. Half of the ten to fifteen year olds who admitted to being online for more than three hours a day said that they felt pretty shitty about themselves, in comparison to just a third of children who spent less than an hour popping memes.

In the Times Education Supplement, David Regis, from the Schools and Students Health Education Unit who conducted the survey, said, “Youngsters are under pressure to perform and be visible online. So it may be that social media is making them feel bad.

“But it may be that, when you’re feeling bad, you go online and talk to your friends and try to feel better about yourself.”

Considering almost all social media is either judgement or encouraging judgement, it’s unsurprising that the survey also revealed this “always online” generation has an inflated fear of bullying. More than 30 percent of girls, and 23 percent of boys, in Year 6 and Year 8 said their fear of being bullied has meant they had, at times, been afraid to turn up to school.

However, one of the main worries for all fourteen and fifteen year olds was their appearance.

Justifying why independent schools are increasing “the funding for professionals, counsellors, and listeners to come into the schools”, Chris King, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) says, “The typical individual who is presenting himself at the moment is a child who is anxious that they appear interesting and popular in social media.”

So are our kids really on the cusp of a mental health crisis?

Of course it could be that we are, now, simply more sensitive to mental health issues. But if I don’t swipe the damn phone out of my daughter’s hand am I standing by and allowing her to be damaged? If I pay for her phone bill am I as good as funding her mental health decay? Could social media be child abuse?

I stare at the painting. It’s a voice from a dirtier, poorer, simpler time, a totally different world to mine, but still just audible if you take the time.

And that’s it. Look around the gallery: for as long as there have been paintings on walls, we’ve been ‘swiping’ right, or left, stopping occasionally, enjoying, moving on. Tinder, just slower.

So what if what we’re actually witnessing is evolution in action? Our children’s brains rewiring. As they grow they’ll evaluate information differently, faster. Maybe, right now, they’re building a brave new world, one that gets rid of bullies and encourages self-esteem (which, let’s face it, is probably the same thing).

So when I look at my daughter, hunched over her phone, I’m not sad because of her limited horizons and, quite frankly, awful posture, I’m uncomfortable because I’m staring at the end of my world. And it’s been such a wonderful world, in all its sensation and sheer physicality: trees swaying in the breeze with leaves fizzing in the the wind; the grain of the oar as it rolls and pulls at the hand; the sweet salty smell of the sea or the un-noise-cancelled birds and traffic orchestrating this unique city soundscape. All gone in the digital world.

I wish I could let her in on this vanishing world. I wish I had a happy ending for this story. I wish there was something I said that made her put down the phone and discover that unique, ancient, analogue image in front of us. But apart from a few audible sighs from me, and a number of eyerolls from her, we sat in our separate worlds, building one, mourning another.

Source: Grave New World | Kensington, Chelsea & Westminster Today

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Sex and fear: What can I do you for? 

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“What big eyes you’ve got Grandma.”

All the better to ogle you with my dear.”

“So this red cape, thigh boots and cleavage thing is working for you is it Grandma?”

Grandma drools and howls at the moon.

If you’ve popped into a costume shop looking for a little something for Halloween it’s almost guaranteed it will be a little something indeed.

In the last decade shop-bought Halloween costumes have become markedly less about the vampire and all about the vamp. This trend to sexualise our dressing up and put the whore into horror has been dubbed “Slutoween”; a meme that is currently exercising feminist debate especially for our puritan dissident descendants in America.

Fancy dress has always had a frisson of ‘what you fancy’, a chance to fantasise for a moment and unbutton from our daily uniforms. But in the last decade costume shop stock, especially for women, has been increasingly more revealing.

So, if you are a female habitué of Halloween attire, you can forget the seasonal “beach-ready body” pressure, the sand and sunshine will bleach out the bumps anyway, you’ll need all your will power to get fit for October 31st to strike a pose in your Sponge Boob No Pants, Princess Lay-Her or Fairy Queen Titty-ania outfit. With costume choices increasingly about how bare you dare it’s not long until we see gyms advertising programmes that promise to have you ‘fit to frighten’ for Halloween.

Complaints about the sexing up of Halloween have a particularly American twang and a whiff of the Scarlet Letter. In Britain where, it seems, many of us would rather express through dress than talk it out American style, dressing up is an integral part of life. All our youth movements had dress codes, an Oxbridge degree does not come on a certificate but confers the right to wear a particular gown and where else could transvestism in the shape of the pantomime dame become an institution? There was a time in the 80s when you not only assumed that everyparty was fancy dress, the influence of the New Romantics made sure that every photo we own from that period is excruciating.

In America fancy dress is more for special occasions and their special occasion par excellence is Halloween. But ‘moms’ are getting distressed because their teen and tween daughters are going straight from Pumpkin Pies to Treacle Tarts.

In the 2004 high school melodrama Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan says, “Halloween is the one night of the year when you can dress like a slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” Unfortunately, in the real world, Lohan needed every day to be Halloween because, until her publicity machine eventually buried her, just about every day was filled with people calling her on her slut status.
‘Slut-shaming’ is still an all-girl sport in America. Feminist websites are fighting Slutoween’s sexy dressing up pressure, ridiculing the costume choices, advising girls on outfits they can make themselves and enlisting the girl band EmotiStyle who have produced a song called Things You Can Be On Halloween Besides Naked.

In this country where, on any Saturday night out in any provincial city the dress code is pure skin and stilettos, have we simply become inured to the likes of the Sinderella or Captain Hooker costumes? Or is prudish, party pooping, puritan founded America actually expressing its horror of sex itself? Halloween is all about what we fear. Sex is one of the most confusing isn’t it/is it taboo areas for teens and tweens and they’re the ones buying the Sexy Firefighter/Nurse/Cat/Dinner Lady costumes.

In an article in The New York Times called Good Girls Go Bad For a Day, one of America’s biggest Halloween costume retailers, which sells outfits with names like Little Bo Peep Show and Miss Foul Play, reported that, “Probably over 90 to 95 percent of our female costumes have a flirty edge to them,” adding that sexy costumes are so popular the company had to break its “sexy” category into three subdivisions.

So has America, the world’s largest consumer market, led the global costume industry to capitalise on one of its greatest fears, sex itself? And has that then turned the tap off on all the under selling frumpy costume alternatives?

Of course if Britain led the world consumer market then we’d all be dressing up as embarrassment on Halloween.

The marketing genius who came up with “Sex sells” forgot to add “but fear sells faster.” If Slutoween is fear and sex bundled together its appeal is unstoppable. I’m just waiting for the marketing geniuses in ISIS to catch on to this one. Watch out for Sexy Jihad.

Have a frightful Halloween (if you’re not having a filthy one).

 

Photo By: © Paramount Pictures

Source: Sex and fear: What can I do for you?

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A word in your shell-like my son…

As advice for the ages goes, “Neither a lender nor borrower be,” didn’t quite make it into the modern pantheon of proverbs to follow; what with usury (and speculation thereon) being the very backbone of modern capitalism – the bread and butter for a good many Londoners. Certainly king of the pyramids, nay Pharaoh, Bernie Madoff epically failed to get that particular memo.

The phrase itself is from Hamlet. One of a number of maxims that, King’s Counsel, Polonius confers on his son Laertes. Advice for a young man about to set out into the world. “Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar,” “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice,” that sort of thing. Not as useful as perhaps “Wash”, or “Try to get up before midday,“ but it’s a template for Kipling’s If; as if the transition to adulthood can be boiled down to a shopping list of virtues.

Indeed, Polonius reels off qualities as if he might forget the ham slices, baked beans and toilet roll. And Laertes patiently waits for this wise Source-of-tuition-fees to finish, even though he’s desperate to hare it from the castle to his ship which is about to sail off to uni.

Standing next to the Bristol Megabus in Victoria Coach Station at six in the morning and shouting over the engine noise lacks some of the gravitas, but Polonius proves that being a father and suddenly realising that there`s still so much you`ve somehow forgotten to say, or haven’t quite said enough times, in the 18 years that lead to this parting is a perennial September life meme.

For parents who have, every year, longed for this month and the respite it brings from constant childcare, it comes as a shock that September should also be so bittersweet with goodbyes and feeling, like Polonius, that your masterwork is not quite ready for the world. You have this nagging sense that, despite getting the A-Level grades and accepted into University, your child is still a child, half-witted, half-baked and going off half-cocked. You know the lights are on but you can’t help feeling that someone’s been playing with the dimmer switch.

I look at my son about to embark on this next phase of his life and I’m not wondering if he’ll sink or swim but: did he pack his scuba gear? I’m dying to bestow great life-long advice. “Remember, my son, the road to failure is the path of least persistence. A good friend will help you move, a great friend will help you move a body. If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not your sport and never forget that old proverb which says pretty much anything you want it to say.”

But if there’s anything that the last half a decade has taught me: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with teenagers that reasoning won’t aggravate. As my son readies himself I try to hold my tongue and hide the fear. I know that whatever advice I give it will sound like a lecture and his automatic Candy Crush brain-idle will kick in until he hears my voice stop.

Perhaps what I should really be concerned about is that I have reached an age when my personal associations are with the play’s geriatrics rather than Hamlet with all his, let’s face it, teen angst. It’s an irony that Benedict Cumberbatch is currently proving at the RSC: by the time you’re established enough to ‘play the Dane’, you’re far too old to be a convincing coming-of-ager struggling between the rocks of youthful idealism and the realisation that it’s a dirty world. When you’re older, “To be or not to be?” becomes a question only if you’re considering how soft you want your pencil lead to be. And at my age, the lead in the pencil is soft indeed.

Young Hamlet calls Polonius a “tedious old fool,” and his advice, however good, certainly seems to go in one of Laertes’ ears and straight out of the other. Yet, and this gives me hope, just maybe some of those character strengthening tidbits eventually found their mark. It is Laertes, after all, who finds his mettle (specifically some three feet of sharpened steel) and returns to avenge his sister and father, the only one to have the courage to stand up to the solipsist ego-mania of the teenage Danish prince.

So maybe, just maybe, a smidgen of the advice that I have tried to impart to my own son will find its way through the morass of self-absorption that besieges the teen mind.

“Above all – to thine own self be true,” Polonius tells his son. Which sounds easy, until you realise what a shaky understanding we have of both the subject and object of that sentence. So maybe it was just as well Laertes’s young brain filtered it out; otherwise Denmark, under Hamlet, could have really had its bacon.

I prepare myself for some last essential word of wisdom but, “Good luck,” is all I manage; despite having zero tolerance for fortune, fate, karma or coincidence. Watching the massive head of the cartoon bus driver on the back of the Megabus turn out of the station, I start to wonder if Pret’s open for breakfast yet.

First appeared in

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Life’s a beach and then…

If you close your eyes you can almost instantly imagine it. It’s the distant laughter of children, the rhythmic breaking of the waves and the soft hiss of the sea as it retreats across the sand; it’s the gentle rustle of the wind flicking the pages of your novel, it’s that energy sapping, cocooning, pervasive heat that allows you to let go of everything and simply float in its embrace. It’s knowing that when you open your eyes all you will see is an endless blue sky; until the first bullet rips through your carotid artery. The beach has become an icon for the protestant work ethic, it’s our secular temple, our sanctuary. It’s where the hypnotist asks you to go to deeply relax. A place of innocence, of childhood, of safety, a time when a family might lighten up enough to connect and enjoy each other’s company, its memories that will last a lifetime. It’s where we put down our armour for a few days and allow the world to pass on by. But is the Sousse Massacre the beginning of the end for the beach holiday? Has the age of the Kevlar bikini arrived? Is it all sun, sand and submachine guns? Is it slap on the Factor 15, slurp your ’99 and get slaughtered with an AK-47?

Sousse has been a particularly painful twist of the knife in the soft underbelly of the ‘Western’ psyche. Like the attack on the Methodist Church in Charleston just a few days before, it gains piquancy from striking us at our most exposed; even if it wasn’t wholly unexpected. The murder of African Americans has seen an exponential growth in the US recently and Tunisia is as vulnerable as any other Arab Spring nation to the rise of jihad. Less than two years ago, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a botched attack on a Sousse beach while security forces foiled another planned attack nearby.

Of course one way of staying safe is not to holiday in a war zone, but then since the terror, and consequent infamy, of ‘lone wolf ’ attacks has become de rigueur, where in the world isn’t one?

A map published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) put almost every European country in possession of a beach, except Belgium and Holland, on somewhere between a ‘high’ to ‘underlying’ threat status. Conveniently for the English Tourist Board they forgot to note that the UK, is also on ‘high’. Even landlocked Switzerland had a threat level, albeit ‘low’, and who would want to attack them? Bitter chocolate addicts and Cuckoophobes? Maybe the shifty ‘associates’ of the notorious FIFA ‘Family’?

Nowadays our holiday choices have become as much about risk assessment as wanderlust.

Go to South America or the Far East and there’s a chance of becoming an unwitting drugs mule. South Africa is renowned for its violence, even when legless. West Africa is scarred by Ebola while East and North are on the fault line of the struggle for a caliphate. The East Coast of the US comprises a number of policemen with over sensitive triggers as well as some very hungry sharks and the West Coast is just waiting for a seismic shift, literally, before disappearing into the sea. Practically the only beaches where you might be safe enough to come armed with less than a semi-automatic, are in Australia. Just don’t get mistaken for an asylum seeker. It turns out that they send them off to a remote jungle ‘processing’ prison island where chances of survival are minimal.

Now where did they get that idea from? I know it all seems like the world is becoming a more dangerous place, but it’s worth bearing in mind that fear is the gift we receive for getting older. Maybe if I was still young enough to think a Jägerbomb was ‘sick’ rather than sickening, I could be looking at all this and thinking it all feels pretty exciting; after all, holidays are either a decadent one percenter indulgence or a brief downtime refresh for the working drone feeding the machines of the capitalist establishment; and those people who are fighting for their ideologies are, well, heroic.

As ISIL’s endless videos of atrocities plug straight into the Daily Mail’s drip feed of terror their need for recognition and attention, and ultimately recruitment, seems manifest. Our shrinking buzzfed world is a growing canvas for those who desperately want to make their voices heard, be taken seriously and get their point across. I know Bill Gates is a great philanthropist but sometimes I wonder if there’s a little guilt that drives him. I mean, if Microsoft Word taught the world anything, it’s that if you want to get a point across, you’ve got to use bullets.

As the population grows the point making and shouting will only get louder but does it spell the end of the beach holiday?

As Mossad realised when a whole party of their agents signed up for the Dubai Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh assassination; even the deadliest people in the world still want a little pampering at the seaside.

Happy holidays.

First appeared in Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster Today (August 2015)

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Empathy

I hate conformists, and there are millions who think just like me. [Drum roll, cymbal crash] I’m considering becoming a mind reader. What do you think?

The ability to connect with and think like someone else appears to be a dying art. Maybe it’s down to the disconnect from the physical world demanded by our digital identities and social media which, lest we forget, was invented by geeks keen to answer the needs of their introverted, some might say slightly autistic, outlook on the world. Or possibly it is due to the increasingly infantilised kidult lifestyles of the economically successful, possibly decadent, developed nations – let’s face it, there’s barely a field in England which isn’t hosting a balloons and jelly style ‘Festival’ of some sort this summer. And I’m not decrying having fun in life but nowadays, to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ is more likely to be the result of a successful mugging than a profound understanding of how others feel and think.

For many scientists, the complex and deep insights that empathy can bring, or in the language of Facebook: “sharing ‘Likes’”, might just be one of the most important things that makes us human.

Autism expert Simon Baron Cohen found his work with those who struggled to empathise leading to the question of evil. In his The Science of Evil he argues that ‘evil’ is ‘empathy erosion’ and that, as empathy diminishes, we become monsters. His case in point being the emotional disconnect that happened in 1930s Germany. “When our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the ‘I’ mode.” He writes, “In such a state we relate only to things or to people as if they were just things.”

However, lacking empathy may also be a key to success. The Nazis, in Germany and Austria, were highly successful; feared and respected. It was only when they tried to take over other countries physically rather than politically or ideologically that they ran into trouble. Nice to see that they’re not making that mistake again.

In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell outlines the characteristics of outstandingly successful people including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Robert Oppenheimer, completely ignoring one key unifying factor, they were all utterly ruthless and lacked empathy in varying degrees.

So maybe empathy holds us back from success. Unlike the ‘outliers’, our in-built feeling for other people might be what makes us the drones in life rather than the queens.

But for most of us, the ability to understand who we’re talking to, to feel as they do, to reach out and take part, is what makes us human and, if it ‘erodes’, we feel less connected, less a part of the world, possibly more bitter and willing to strike out at it.

As a writer I try to think like my characters and, more importantly, my readers. What’s interesting, what’s funny, how does this feel? Big businesses, which have grown away from their customers, pour money into focus groups trying to understand them while their digital marketers ape chummy chat in their Twitter feeds. “Have you tried to reset the router ting fam, so mans can use the wifi and dat?” tweeted O2 in an attempt to be ‘down with the gang’ in a trend now known as ‘Wackaging’. It fools precisely no one.

Now a drug called Tolcapone, has been developed at the University of California which, apparently, creates compassion. Changing the chemical balance in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, it releases the pleasure chemical dopamine when you act compassionately. Tests on subjects asked to share money showed that those on Tolcapone were more likely to share out equally.

Scientist argue that prisoners could be given this in a Clockwork Orange style chemical reform. But what if empathy, this uniquely human aspect, is actually holding us back? Maybe our brave new world is one where the betas work together empathetically while the empathy free alphas control. It’s a terrible irony that, free from empathy, the monsters, dictators and caliphs, have shown to be able to be so very effective in human social groupings.

Is empathy good? Or the real opiate for the masses? I don’t think you know.

Next week I explore why www.bipolar.com has gone down. Oh hang on, it’s up again.

 

First published in

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Call me a Taxi(dermist)

“Just keep working your finger round inside until you’ve separated its skin from its backbone.” Meesh demonstrates. She deftly screws her finger in between the mouse’s ‘body-sack’ and its skin until the blue of her gloved finger pokes out again, she sports the little mouse cadaver skewered on her finger like the ring at a Goth wedding.

I look at the corpse of my own poor little mouse and wonder if I should have chosen the ‘Ukulele Ensemble Playing’ course instead.

Taxidermy is just one of the numerous and, ever so slightly, eccentric courses, offered by The Idler: a bookshop, magazine, coffee house, ‘Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment’, Notting Hill institution, way of life and the brainchild of writer Tom Hodgkinson.Hodgkinson’s Idler magazine rails against the “Protestant work ethic.” A lament on the increasing speed, time-short parenting, and commensurate stresses of our always-connected 21st century life. He offers a manifesto for those who might want to downsize and step off the machine. “The Western world,” he writes, “has allowed freedom, merriment and responsibility to be taken from it, from ourselves, and substituted with greed, competition, lonely striving, greyness, debts, McDonalds and GlaxoSmithKline.”

In essence he asks: do we really have to keep waking up and smelling the coffee? Or could lying back and smelling the flowers be a more credible, if less well paid, way of life? Or, as the poet W.H. Davies wrote, “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare.” A vision which chimes with an increasing number in the burning-out, high-flying, constant-on, executive classes.

Ironically, Hodgkinson himself has proved to be no slacker, writing numerous books and, five years ago, along with Victoria Hull, starting The Idler Academy, “with the aim of providing lifelong education in useful, enjoyable but neglected subjects.”

So I’m in the basement of the Idler’s Victorian terraced bookshop on Westbourne Park Road learning a somewhat neglected subject which, if only I ever found the leisure time, I might turn my hand to. Having grown up around the corner from the Natural History Museum, a refuge for rainy days in a childhood plagued by stormy weather, to me the animal kingdom was something behind glass and completely stuffed.Now I’m attending expert Taxidermist Meesh Bryant’s course to finally get beneath the skin of my static childhood friends, literally. Nine other eager students, including a teacher, a poet and a retro furniture salesman, who was bought the course as a fortieth birthday present, sit ready round the table with scalpels gleaming and thawed out “ethically sourced” mouse cadavers before them.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not for the faint hearted. You work in tiny detail from the first cut, which is by no means the deepest, to severing the forearms and legs so they remain a part of the pelt. Particularly gruesome is removing the eyeballs after pulling the entire skin away to the nose. Feeling like an ISIL executioner, I resent the disconnect I have to make to just get through this.

“Many taxidermists are vegetarians,” says Meesh, “you learn to have real respect for animals and how they are made.”Having removed all the insides, we wash our mice, bathe them in alcohol, coat the insides with a tanning solution and then borax, to preserve them. We each wrap cotton wool around a wire to simulate a spine and add four more wires for the hind and forelegs. Gently, we insert this armature into the coats and push the wires into the four limbs before starting to sew up, carefully stuffing more cotton wool into the thighs, arms and stomach.

At last there stands, well, a mouse again. Although in form only. Little black beads are popped in the eye holes. In part to make the rodent look a little more jolly, I give her an anthropomorphic magician’s hat and four playing cards, celebrating the magic of change as, though she’ll never quite be a mouse again, I’ll never quite be the same again either.

Meesh Bryant’s next Taxidermy Class at The Idler is on Sunday 27th September 12 – 4pmFind out about the eclectic courses at The Idler Academy, 81 Westbourne park road London W2 5QH, 0207 221 5908, idler.co.uk

Source: Call me a Taxi(dermist) | Kensington, Chelsea & Westminster Today

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TMI

TMI (Too Much Information) is one of the few ATIs (Acronymic Text/Tweet Initials) that have made their way into oral English; unlike the mouthful ROTFL, or the unhelpful WTF which took longer to say than the phrase it abbreviated.

Now, as many are dying out in the wake of the all-conquering Emoji, the ATIs with the best chances for survival seem to be the ones that have made the leap from blips to lips, text into spoken word, like FYI, LOL and the ATI which comes with its own American accentuation: OMG.

The ATI is no recent phenomenon. Our fondness for overused phrases, that are so clichéd they can be happily acronymised and still understood, have underpinned the history of long distance communications. SWALK, OTT and TTFN hail from the age of letters. TWTWTW is an abbreviation only understood by people over 60 and, now lost from the early days of email, TFIF was such a popular prelude to the weekend, a restaurant chain extolled the less secular version with TGI Friday’s.

New ATIs are still bubbling up. My teenage children are chronic FOMO sufferers which keeps them glued to half a dozen social networks and cutting edge hangover sufferers message workmates about being NSFW. Neither, I imagine, will make it into long term parlance.

“TMI”, however, is in a class of its own. It’s a phrase, a punchline and put-down all in three letters. For many it’s the de facto response for anybody caught “oversharing”; which, in this era of social media, is an ever present danger:

“Sorry love, I was just upstairs giving your mother a bit.”

“Oh gross! TMI Dad.”

“A ‘bit’ for the drill. She’s fixing the shelves up there. OMG!”

But “TMI” is so much more than a teen putdown, it sums up the central malaise of this Information Age, it is the stress factor in all our lives that feeds anxiety, distress and depression; it underlies all our modern fears: we know too much; all of us have TMI.

Every pleasure, every adventure, every moment of our lives is not just informed, it’s overinformed, data deluged, we’re informationed-out.

I can’t eat a thing without being aware of the calories, the dangers of sugar, the presence of E Numbers and the findings of half a dozen conflicting reports about the perils or benefits of every ingredient.

Can’t go for a walk without considering the potential effects of pollution, the benefits of Vitamin D, the dangers of ultraviolet and the possibilities of melanomas. Can’t enjoy a warm day without wondering about, global warming, ozone depletion or solar radiation. Can’t get on a bicycle and not think of how many have died under truck wheels in London this year, or get in a car and ignore the depletion of fossil fuels. On the bus I’m calculating the number of people with colds who have wiped their hands on the holding bars and, who gets on a plane without a mind-full stat-fest of relative dangers?

Can’t sip a drink without wondering about rohypnol, liver function or the destruction of brain cells, can’t use a computer without contemplating RSI or carpel tunnel syndrome, watch the TV without ruminating on melatonin levels or use a mobile phone without deliberating on the radiation threat.

My kids don’t play in the streets because, however small the paedophile population might be, I KNOW that they are out there and, whilst we’re playing the numbers game, if everyone else is locking up their kids, there are less kids available for the bogeymen. So if my own kids were off the chain they’d be statistically more likely to fall prey. I crunch the numbers and live in a data hellhole. Everything is a constantly informed risk assessment.

And even when it’s not about risks, I can’t go anywhere without Google getting there first, I can’t watch a sunset without having a million other instagrammed sunsets to compare it with, I can’t even cough without having a billion possible causes just a few clicks away.

Einstein said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.” At the dawning of the Internet in the early nineties, when phrases like “Information Super Highway” could still be said without irony, we believed information was power and power was liberating. We saw the informed future as a golden social opportunity.

Turns out that the web model for life in the 21st century isn’t Wikipedia, where experts and impassioned enthusiasts become the guardians and disseminators of knowledge in their fields, there for all to consult. No. It’s Tripadvisor. A febrile, constantly contradictory, web of the wise, the lies and total surmise, where genuinely helpful information is lost in a morass of petty judgements and terrible terrible opinions with no real way to discern between what might be useful and what, as it turns out, is just TFS.

 

Glossary of ATIs (Acronymic Text Initials)

ROTFL – Roll On The Floor Laughing

WTF – What The F***!

FYI – For Your Information

LOL – Laugh Out Loud

OMG – Oh My God

SWALK – Sealed With A Loving Kiss

OTT – Over The Top

TTFN – Ta Ta For Now

TWTWTW – That Was The Week That Was

TFIF – Thank F*** It’s Friday

TGI – Thank God It’s

FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out

NSFW – Not Safe For Work

TFS – Total F***ing Sh**

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Code Calling

I changed my relationship status on Facebook to, ‘It’s complicated.’

It took me three hours.

But my relationship with Social Media is complicated.  My ‘relationship status’ is not the first thing I think of telling someone when I meet them. For a start I’d need to feel I have some status in my relationship.

Facebook and Twitter are coded by people who think in a certain way; coders steeped in object-orientated programming languages and Boolean logic. To fit into the world that they’re forging, they ask us to think in the way they think; much in the same way that as writing and reading evolved it demanded that we construct our thoughts in particular ways. A verb essential in a sentence. To boldly keep infinitives unsplit. There was a right way and a wrong way to communicate and think. Especially in writing

This morning I bought two litres of Tip-ex. Big mistake.

Much like the act of walking, we accept that this translating of little bits of ink, of symbols, into cogent ideas and thoughts is a perfectly natural, if learnt, behaviour. Yet literacy used to be the preserve of an elite and almost died out over a thousand years ago.

Despite a bun fiasco, which would have seen him kicked out of The Great British Bake-off, King Alfred left a lasting legacy to literacy. In 890AD, he realised that there were fewer and fewer clergymen, the educators of the day, “who understand the English of their service or can translate a letter from Latin.”  Like many a taxi driver, he singled out one particular area for scorn. “There were so few [literate people] that I cannot remember one south of Thames,” he wrote.

He realised that education in literacy was paramount and to that end, between bashing Vikings, he began translating prayer books into English himself. He enthused the clergy to start teaching again and Britain lurched forward.

Now though, it seems, a new literacy chasm is opening up. Those who understand coding, the fundamentals that underlie our communication with apps and computers, and those of us who are left looking at our iphones and saying of coders, as Alfred predicted, “’Here may we still see their footprints, but we cannot follow them up and therefore have we lost both wealth and wisdom, since we would not incline our hearts to their example.’”

It is not that we all need to be coders. In the same way that, to be readers, we don’t all need to be novelists. We just need to understand coding and the way coders think.

Today there are super-coders commanding massive salaries, just as we readers have our J.K. Rowlings. There are even successful bad coders producing viruses, just as we have Jeffrey Archer. It’s not that we should all be able to code apps to keep up, just learn enough to understand how they work.

The purpose of, “<script> function myFunction() { document.getElementById(“demo”).innerHTML = Math.max(0, 150, 30, 20, -8); } </script>” may still elude you but the grammar doesn’t need to. In this digital age, we need to know, and our children need to know, how this works; because today’s haves and have-nots are tomorrows code and code-nots.

 

First published in

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