We have this tendency to think of countries as sort of naturally-occurring phenomena. Border changes in funny parts of the world notwithstanding, we talk about Germany and Italy and Brazil and Russia and so on as if their outlines were already marked in dotted chalk on the ground as soon as the first humans arrived there. Yet these territories and languages and races are all figments of our collective imagination. Useful as administrative units, but elevated into super-tribal factions that divide people unnecessarily. It’s the hypocrisy I can’t stand.
Of course there are sound geographical reasons for some borders. In the case of Britain, there’s the fairly insuperable one we know as the sea. Still, we’ve been officially a part of the same country as France and various bits of Germany, and the internal borders between the home nations have been fought over just as those on mainland Europe have. And the natural boundary of the sea didn’t stop Britain from invading Ireland. It’s the hypocrisy I can’t stand.
I’ve been reading a lot about language recently, and, like lot of people, wondering about what qualifies something as a language rather than a dialect. Jamaican patois and Geordie, for instance, are only dialects of English, while Scandinavian languages that are at least as mutually intelligible count as separate. When I was a kid, Yugoslavs spoke Serbo-Croat. With the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, two new languages suddenly came into existence: Serbian and Croatian. Two people who used to converse happily in regional variations of the same language now officially need a translator to talk to each other. A phrase I’ve encountered more than once in these books is: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. It’s the hypocrisy I can’t stand.
If you are a country and you officially send people to kill people somewhere else, they’re called soldiers. If you’re not a country, they’re called terrorists. Terrorists are bad because they’re not proper soldiers and because they kill innocent people, by which we mean people who aren’t soldiers. Soldiers are brave because they risk their lives trying to kill other people. Terrorists are cowards, though, because it’s only brave if you’re doing it for a specific country. When proper soldiers bravely kill people who aren’t soldiers in retribution for the cowardly killing of innocent people, it’s an unfortunate necessity. To get retribution for the cowardly acts of terrorism that weren’t sponsored by any actual country, we went and bravely bombed a couple of militarily inferior actual countries and deposed their elected leaders who didn’t have anything to do with the terrorism. The people we killed who weren’t soldiers weren’t innocent because the terrorists weren’t soldiers either, and didn’t wear a special uniform or anything, so when we went to bomb them we couldn’t tell who was a terrorist and who wasn’t. And since they were harbouring terrorists who aren’t proper soldiers, they were all basically terrorists themselves. Not that that means it’s fair for people to blame British civilians for the actions of the military they pay for (and celebrate in the media) in wars started by the governments they voted for. That’s totally different. Harbouring a terrorist makes you a terrorist, but harbouring a soldier doesn’t make you a soldier.
There’s a phrase I want to use; something about something I can’t stand….
A lot of people hate cats. They poo in gardens and eat birds and make unearthly noises when they fuck. a good dog will come rushing up joyfully to meet you when you get home from work; it will sense when you’re upset and come and lay its head gently on your lap. a standard cat will refuse to sit on your lap all evening no matter how much you encourage it, preferring to wait until you’re (a) trying to read a book, (b) desperate for the toilet or (c) about to get up and go out.
Yet I love cats; prefer them to dogs by far. I love the arrogance and the lack of loyalty and the perversity. Any animal that will refuse to do something simply because you want it to is an animal after my own heart. A cat values its self-determination. I have had three cats, but I didn’t really feel like I owned them. There was none of that showing-them-who’s boss nonsense. No tying them up to things. It felt more like a mutually acceptable arrangement. The cat has its preferences; I have mine. Luckily our interests tend to coincide around the issue of sitting comfortably in warm places and stroking, which I like doing and which the cat likes me doing. And feeding the thing is basically a bribe. It only does what it does because it suits it to do so. Dogs have to be trained. Cats just learn.
They are not without empathy. They can adjust to your mood just as subtly as dogs; it’s just that they do so to their own ends. Where a dog will sympathise and join you in whatever emotional state you’re in, a cat will find some way of reminding you that its interests are still foremost in its mind that’s somehow not quite annoying enough to stop you actually feeding it. A dog would risk its life defending your house from an intruder. A cat would run away or, if particularly brave, go up to the intruder and see if they had any food. But that’s also fine. I might love my cat and it, in its way, love me, but it’s not a relationship of dependence. Cats can, and do, “cheat” on their owners. If my cat comes back to me, that means I’m treating it well. Whipped dogs cower and do as they’re told. Whipped cats run away.
See, I don’t really like being in charge of an animal. I prefer to serve it and receive its blessing in return for my devotion.
Plus it can take itself for walks and bury its own shit. That’s a big selling point.
I used to be annoyed by the calendar. It could have been designed so much better, you see. It’s all over the place. A year of 365 days is divided into twelve, which doesn’t go into 365. We also have smaller units called weeks, of seven days each. Seven doesn’t go into 365 either, nor does it go into the number of days in a month. Apart from the second month, which is two days shorter than any other, three out of every four years. Why did we not organise things in such a way as to make it easier to work out what day if the week a given date would be, apart from to give a small proportion of autistic people something to think about?
Obviously there should be five days in a week, and 73 weeks in a year. You get twelve regular 30-day months of six weeks each and a special single week at the end of the year that’s conveniently around the same time as Christmas. In a leap year you can extend this festive week by a day. Simple.
I was about to build a giant weapon with which to hold the planet to ransom so as to force everyone to accept my calendar when I realised something terrible: with my calendar, everyone’s birthday would fall on the same day every year. Some people would always have a weekend birthday, while others would be stuck with a permanent Wednesday.
That was when I realised that the problem wasn’t with the irregularity of our systems but the irregularity of reality. I mean, why isn’t a year exactly 360 days long, and why isn’t everyone born at the weekend? Why isn’t a year even an exact number of days? What kind of idiot designed this system anyway?
And that’s how I came to terms with the calendar. By seeing it as a reminder that we weren’t given a perfect universe by an all-knowing benevolent designer. What actually happened is that we found ourselves one day in the middle of a load of stuff that we had to deal with without ever getting a chance to step back and have a think about it all. Our calendar is like everything else. It’s evolved. It’s a bodge job. It’s made of whatever was lying around that worked at the time. If you want any more evidence of its imperfection, consider the fact that its ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth months are named after the numbers seven, eight, nine and ten respectively. You know how cleft palates are the result of the fact that our upper jaws are evolved from a set of sideways insect-style mandibles that a distant ancestor of ours possessed? Well, that. Evolution. That’s why the calendar is OK even though it’s shit.
Why do so many of my favourite artists begin with B? A list of my favourite music of all time would quite genuinely include Bach, Beethoven (but not Mozart), the Beatles, David Bowie, David Byrne and Björk. Add some lower-level luminaries such as Blur, The Beat, the Beastie Boys, Blondie and so on, and you have a phenomenon. No other letter comes close. I really like Radiohead and Underworld and Bob(!) Marley and Yello (main writer: Boris Blank) and Led Zeppelin and Jack White and Elbow and Wire too, but when I try to think of other things starting with any of those letters I run out pretty quickly. And, I mean, you know. Beethoven; Beatles; Bowie; Bach: Blimey.
Not all B artists are great. There are always stains on the copy book such as Gary Barlow, James Blunt and Justin Bieber. But, you know, they’re not enough to outweigh the genius on the other side of the scales.
So, is it coincidence, nominative determinism or bias? I mean, the law of averages suggests some letters will be overrepresented. On the other hand, that explosive bilabial “b” sound is very sonorous and attention-grabbing…
C gets some good edgier artists: Johns Cage and Cale; Nick Cave; Leonard Cohen. Still nothing on B.
Ah well. If I had any sense I’d make sure all my musical projects have names that start with B. But I haven’t got any sense.
Beans are awful. Heinz baked beans. Well, any baked beans. They’re overcooked, or undercooked, depending on how you like them. The texture is somehow simultaneously powdery, mushy and lumpy. There’s no resistance; no pleasing vegetable firmness when you bite in, indeed biting isn’t necessary at all, yet this lack of substance has no melting quality as you eat; the beans don’t lose their constitution in a pleasing way as you gum them into incorporeality.
It’s the sauce I really hate, though. “Bean juice” is a dribbly fart of oversweetened underflavoured sub-ketchup that hasn’t seen a real tomato since the old king died.
The bean is everything that’s worst about British food: nutrition-free over-processed veg in tasteless sugary sputum. Yuck
Axolotls: brilliant things. Not only are they constantly smiling, they are baby salamanders that have miraculously avoided having to turn into adults. No wonder they’re constantly smiling.
Neoteny is an interesting phenomenon in nature. It’s when an animal remains to a greater or lesser extent in its juvenile phase rather than maturing fully. It’s a notable characteristic of domestic animals when compared with their wild counterparts. If your cat likes chasing and sometimes killing things but doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with them once they’re dead – if, in short, it is more kittenish than catlike – that’s neoteny. The ability of some humans to drink milk into adulthood is neotenous. Arguably our lack of fur is too, as is our large head size and phenomenal brain plasticity. We remain in “learning” mode for far longer than most animals our size. If you think people who sit at home pretending to shoot people in the face are juvenile, you are of course right, but surely it’s preferable to having them do it in real life. I look forward to an era in which just mucking about and having fun and learning new things is seen as the noblest possible state for humanity. Neoteny rules. When I spend my time playing music and games and relaxing with friends, I am often seen to be constantly smiling.
Adele. What a massive example of flattering to deceive her songwriting is. It sounds sort of superficially technical, but actually it’s piss-easy. It’s no wonder her songs have shot straight to the top of the list of things for kids to play on piano to make them sound better than they are at it. She’s the piano ballad equivalent of Metallica. She does everything possible to impress you short of actually being good at anything. And her songs do the same sort of thing to her emotions: they give them a grand setting of cod-classical arpeggios and an orchestral arrangement in order to disguise the total inconsequentiality of the subject matter, which is usually that she’s sad at having split up with someone. Adele, I assert, has no actual imagination whatsoever.