The City & The City: a review

The further away I get from this book (I finished it a few weeks ago) the more I realize its gravity. I love this book. Love. It took me reading two more books, both tainted by their lack of being his, to recover my reading equilibrium; an equilibrium I’ll gladly sacrifice upon his next publication. I rehashed this review this last week, leaving in much self indulgence that I cut for size consideration – my original is on Unity Books’ website.

The City & The City by China Miéville

The geography of a city holds discrete realities for wildly diverse peoples. Many of these realities differ so dramatically it’s hard to reconcile their shared space – Do you see the same city as me? Which streets do you turn your gaze from? Which areas are fearfully skirted around or avoided altogether? There are entire sections of our urban topography that we not only ignore, but would deny knowledge of entirely: brothels, drug dens, parliament, high-class restaurants – pick the enclosure and align the bias. It’s an elision done easily, with a minimum of thought or reflection. But what if we applied our thinking strategically instead of tactically? What if we picked half a city and, with dedicated deliberation, unsaw them, edited them from our physical existence? There, but not. This is the realm China Miéville’s The City & The City explores to startling effect; it’s a novel drenched in originality and seething with powerful ideas.

Ostensibly a detective novel set in an imagined corner of Europe The City and The City plumbs the essence of physical and intellectual relationships. The eponymous dual city-state of Ul-Qoma and Besźel are intimately bound by history and territory, yet severed by law and the will of their respective inhabitants. It is an ethereal amputation difficult to describe; no walls or fences curtail the inhabitants, no watchtowers or searchlights guard against transgressions, yet incursions are swiftly and coldly punished by the inscrutable and all-powerful Breach, the nigh invisible agency that polices the divide. Contradictions abound in this byzantine setting as punitive force and civil complicity meet in a lovingly constructed artifice, one deeply laced with meaning.

On the Besźel side of this labyrinthine architecture Inspector Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad, investigates the murder of a woman, an assignment that appears routine but soon escalates in complexity. Borlú is drawn into a nexus of political, social and historical events that threaten not only the lives of those involved, but the cultural foundations that allow the coexistence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma. As the plot unfolds Miéville faithfully adheres to the genre rules of detective novels, not indulging easy cheats and always remaining loyal to the strictures and traditions that produce intriguing and compelling stories. And, regardless of concept, The City & The City would stand as a riveting and fully realised contribution to the crime oeuvre, but the beauty of this book is in the further steps taken: Miéville injects ideas into this novel that transform it into another beast altogether.

The core idea is the unique existence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma; cities whose citizens could, through tangled borders and shared streets, easily speak or touch. Their potential interactions are constrained by tradition and law. And Breach, the all-powerful agency that’s constrained by arcane points of law. But the twin populace doesn’t simply ignore the other, they unsee and unsense, editing their existence to enforce their belief. A lifetime of learned signifiers – in fashion, architecture, body language and myriad other cues – allows them to modify their social realities and impose segregation in an instant. They exclude all that isn’t right, comprehensively, removing persons and structures, cars and graffiti; unseeing through a remarkable perception.

It is a truly bizarre culture and place all the more powerful for the detail and reality Miéville imbues it with. A situation accepted like weather by those contained by it but baffling to those entering it – a difference the reader quickly comes to sympathise with. As the book unfolds it becomes clear that the central threat to Borlú and the Cities is, and always has been, existential; it lies in their un-knowledge and un-perception of each other. In order to solve the case Borlú must decipher the obscure boundaries of his cultural reality. Borlú must see not only Ul-Qoma, but also the liminal spaces that separate and define the Cities. He must see for the first time in his life and, with that sight, everything he knows will change.

The mindboggling actuality of the book is impossible to accept immediately, it takes complete submersion, one that is deceptively easy. Miéville creates a finely nuanced place that, as ridiculous as it should be, is real – the Cities breathe in the anomalous histories of Belfast, Jerusalem and Berlin and exhale a Siamese city that by comparison makes those places look whole. Melville understands how hard it is to comprehend the place and the concept and, wisely, doesn’t seek to remedy it with didactic asides or laboured exposition. Instead he allows the unfolding story to bring our perception and awareness of the Cities to a natural fruition – their dimensions wend into our brains unseen, until it’s as if they were always there.

The bipolar existence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma powers the plot, the beautifully crafted characters give it gravity, but the spirit of it lies in the interstices, the physical and metaphysical spaces between the cities. It is these gaps, the lacunae that define and challenge the accepted realities of the different locales, which baffle and intrigue the reader. Miéville challenges us to observe what we refuse to see, to draw out of our environs, both real and imagined, the discordant factors that vie for importance in our cities, countries and lives. This wonderful and enthralling novel does what so few others do: it makes us look upon our own places, spaces and interstices with fresh eyes, stripped of comfortable veils.

This book confirms Miéville as a seriously talented writer, one able at will to subvert genre and accepted wisdom with seemingly limitless gifts. In the dense jungle of literature, he is a predator, moving with power amongst established conventions, heedless of their place, before he usurps them, deconstructing them and making them serve his needs, purposes and vision. He produces, almost casually, what so few writers are capable of: originality.

Darwinism (or

I have a love/hate relationship with Darwinism. I love the idea, application and process of evolutionary theory – one can’t, and won’t, deny the beauty and mind bending revolution of Chuck’s vision (especially taking into account the arse clenching theology of the Victorian era). Yet I hate with profound passion the ubiquity of it as a metaphor (incorrectly, more often than not) and the misplaced faith in that metaphor as an ultimate endorsement. As a metaphor it’s usually employed to prop up lazy reasoning and convenient beliefs; Darwinism intoned in the hope that through its power it will lend an argument credence, a statement validity or, more commonly, imbue some cynical societal prescription, guaranteed to cure our indulgent ills, with the power of evolution’s place in the firmament of scientific and intellectual certitude.

Again, I’m not picking a fight with Darwinism, rather the casuist plodders who employ it as a wagon of expedience for their preferred convictions. That Mr. Darwin coined the term ‘Survival of the fittest’ to describe his theory makes me want to weep and rage in equal measure. Ironically On the Origin of the Species suffers from the same problem the Bible does in the hands of their respective fundamentalists; a problem anchored in the refusal to recognise how embedded in the assumptions of the times the writers were. Darwin was a product of Victorian England, at the height of an empire that sought to benevolently conquer the world for its own good, because, obviously, the English were the pinnacle of civilisation. It was their duty as the highest representative of the human race. The believed cultural supremacy of the times is perfectly captured in the penultimate sentence of Darwin’s most famous tome: “Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” The arrogance and assumption, not to mention the hideous anthropomorphism of nature in its entirety, contained in that one sentence is quite staggering. But, and this is quite important, in our relativist wisdom we are quite capable of contextualising that statement within the prevalent cultural standards of Darwin’s lifetime, taking from it that if you stick monkeys in one end of a habitat, given an opportune environment, you might get Andy Warhol out the other. Which is my point – it isn’t the survival of the fittest, it is the survival of those with the most opportune mutations in that environment.

The word fittest is highly dependent on context, deeply in need of qualification. The way we use it has far too much of the smell of triumphalism about it; that those that fall are unworthy, and those who remain are right. It is putting the cart before the horse on a quite impressive scale, leading to conclusions based on a syllogism; they didn’t make it, we did, thus we are superior. A beautiful example is capitalism vs. communism, as Norman Manea wisely said, “Yet on the other shore, a self congratulatory society took the collapse of the other side as a vindication.”

Our vesting ‘Survival of the Fittest’ with power beyond its context has given us some pretty fucked up ideas of what the survival of a thing actually means, not to mention the context it survives or dies in. We have to save the ecosphere due to our biological need of it, because we’re quite important, being a higher animal, but the lower animals that can’t hack it in our climate altered wake, urban environs, polluted waters, fenced rural landscapes and zoos kinda deserve to die, coz, like, it’s survival of the fittest, right? Except for rats, as no one really likes rats. And pigeons, of course, being, as has been demonstrated, just airborne rodents… though what do we do with the fucking flying foxes? Is an actual flying rodent somehow exempt from our wrath simply because it doesn’t, y’know, fuck so much? The specious logic applied to sustain this illusionary narrative leaves us chasing our own brains round the inside of our skulls, demanding of us the unsavoury necessity of a shorter syllogism: we’re atop the food chain, thus the fittest, so we can’t be wrong. So… pandas? Fuck ’em.

We are the pinnacle of evolution, we are the duly ordained of nature; accordingly it’s our duty to show the way to the rest of the ecosphere… Hang on, I’ve heard that reasoning somewhere before… wait, wait… if a table has four legs and that thing I’ve been sitting on has four legs, then the thing I’m sitting on must be a table.

Okay, I feel better.

It’s a bit weird attributing, in a fundamental way, such high importance to being able to do some neat things with our thumbs and neo-cortex. Maybe it’s because we’ve come to see evolution as a kind of race; if we’re at the front of the pack then we must be doing well – though it’s a bit much that we’re refereeing the race we’re running in. Quid Pro Quo, Clarice… no, shit, I mean Quod Erat Demonstrandum… No I don’t… Ah, fuck it, caveat emptor, assholes.

The sublimely ridiculous thing is that most of the stuff we do – economics, science, even much of our art – works against a fundamental tenet of sustainable evolutionary practice: they consume more than they produce – a fine case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. As Daniel Quinn observed of the folly of our cultural practices: natural selection doesn’t eliminate you immediately, it eliminates you eventually. Our problem is that we’ve got our timelines all mixed up, making us unable to see over the chronological horizon.

Survival of the fittest indeed.

So we use the shortcut of ‘survival of the fittest’ to bless arguments with the power of  Evolutionary Theory while, with deep irony, practising behaviour that only promises to make of us a case study for the next species that happens to grow thumbs. Evolutionary Theory still remains a beautiful and true description of what we see in the biological world around us, but ‘survival of the fittest’ as a metaphor sucks. It sucked then and sucks now. I quite like the idea of setting up a website dedicated to the failure of Darwinism as a metaphor:, for all the Darwinarcissists out there. Though, on consideration, I’m pretty sure the server would immediately crash from the sudden surge of Dawkinites and other, less articulate Fundamentalists.

Books and What They Know

There’s a place in a bookstore, a spot where you can stand and hear the books. It’s the focal point of a multitude of lenses, the single point in the store where the projection of all their secret bookish knowledge is in perfect convergence, allowing you to receive everything. It’s hard to find this spot during the day, because all the people in the store throw off the geometry of the information flow, creating eddies around their perspectives and beliefs, futzing the reception. With all those people the bookstore becomes a strangely quieter place.

I’ve worked at various bookshops, in various countries, for a while now and what I’ve learned is that there is rarely a more beautiful thing than finding that secret spot (it forever changes as books migrate in and out of the store, altering ratios and alchemy) and sitting there. Smoking. And you just listen – listen to all the quiet tumult of books calling across the spaces to each other (because they’re not speaking to you, not yet). You can’t make anything out because it’s like those voices in your head that all go on and on at once, a susurrus of pitch and meaning that is almost impossible to decipher for more than a snatch of a second.

Maybe libraries have it, too. I don’t know. But bookstores do, the good ones. If you can find that space, that nomadic area, it will fix your head, it will cleanse your acne and it will pop that slipped disc back into your spine, afterwards bringing you cake. It will make everything okay again.

I recommend it strongly.

People claim reading as a process, a whole process, they condemn books like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code as being unworthy of being printed, or being destructive as a thing to read. It’s laying claim to brain function rather than taste. Shoot the shitty, mediocre books down as examples of whatever stylistic aesthetic you’re devoted to, colonised by or trying to get laid with, but don’t condemn the books. They’re just words on pages, doing whatever it is that words do on pages when we’re not paying attention. And don’t condemn those that enjoy reading these lesser tomes – mock them, if it appeals, draw disparaging conclusions about their taste and cerebral proclivities as much as you like, whatever intellectual eugenics bandwagon you want to jump on, but don’t condemn them. Because the books will hear you and they’re not a forgiving bunch. Remember when you read that book? That one that your friends were reading? And you were all talking about it? And there was that bit they were all talking about, the bit that they loved above all the other bits? And you thought, Sheesh, I wasn’t all up in that, I thought it was just a bit, y’know, a space, a thing that wasn’t that great. I thought that other bit was the real deal, the crux of the whole  shebang. Well it was that great, the book was punishing you for that thing you said about Don Delillo being a literary fraud whose books should be taken out of Contemporary Fiction courses all around the world. And for calling Dan Brown a cunt. The books don’t like that. So it hid that bit from you, it warped its narrative around itself so you wouldn’t understand. Then it sniggered.

I’ve spent many nights, after finishing some overflow of work, alone, wandering around bookstores. A couple of years ago I was the buyer for a particular store, beautiful Unity. A job that means I was the filter for all the books that made it through the door from the publishing houses monthly migrations, and, after I had been doing it for a while, I had a night. This night I was staying late, catching up on a thing that was running ahead of me, and I went for a wander, looking for the spot. As I was edging around the biography table, past a display on the central support column of the store, listening intently, I had a thought.

It was all me.

Everything in that store, all the books and all their surreptitious whisperings, were me. Because I chose them.

I’m aware that you never really own a book, you can never possess it beyond it’s papery body, though you sometimes think it. In that spot in a bookstore, where you stand and hear them talking, often they’re laughing at you. Laughing, in good humour, without rancour, because you think you understand. You don’t. You’re just a reader. You’re usually not even a writer (though I think they, writers, poets most of all, sometimes know; they have some conduit, some covert correspondence with the books that they can’t ever fully describe, though the trying must be part of the point, but they can’t hold it in their heads, because it’s the night sky, all full up with stars and expanse).

But I chose them, you see, all these books. All that knowledge stacked and pressed into the shelves and cupboards and displays. I was fucking Moses. I led them to this milk and honey. This whole pantheon of scholarship and erudition was an expression of me. Fucking me. That made me one of them.

I shone, for a moment, like a sun. Head back and arms held up, hard and straight.

The books were quiet, like they were allowing me that moment of incandescence, possibly feeding me a little of their energy. They were quiet, maybe drawing breath inaudibly. Then they chuckled at me, shaking their pages. Because I thought I knew. I didn’t.

But they gave me that moment. So I love them. All of them.

Chicken Tractor

This is a Chicken Tractor (capitalisation required) and is just as cool as it sounds (a nice relative statement).

Chicken Tractor

I totally built it.

Which is a bit of a lie – significant help was given at different stages (big ups to Sara, Chris, Sven and, especially, Leen).

This is what the area looked like before any work started:

The pre-existing raised beds were pretty big and had been there for almost 10 years. Deconstructing them was really hard work (we saved as much of the wood as possible so we could re-use it in other parts of the garden). We had to move tons and tons (that is a very literal statement) of earth in order to clear the way. It was far harder and took far longer than I thought it would – this was the result:

The bed on the left was built using the reclaimed wood and is a long-term bed for such things as brassicas and potatoes and the like. We left a lot of the earth in place so we could essentially carve out the patterns of the chicken tractor beds, thus minimizing shovel work and so forth. It was a semi-successful idea.

The following photos show the rest of the construction:

Like the Marshall Plan, only cheaper.

Ugly but planting underway

(The huge pile of dirt in the distance is all the top soil from the previous beds. This would eventually go onto the new beds and other growing areas)

Not too pretty, but starting to take shape

There are many other in-process shots, but I’m sure you get the idea.

I built a second long-term bed further towards the garage, again using reclaimed wood:

These ancillary beds are planted with perennials like asparagus in the back two lots (companioned with tomatoes) with rotational crops in the front.

An interesting comparison is the building time. This bed took me a casual weekend, maybe 10 or 12 hours from scratch to finished. The chicken tractor gardens took roughly 4 months of part-time work, 3 days a week on average.
Now on to the money shots:
You can see the space between the two garden areas here, filled with composting and worm farm wonders.
The basic intent of the tractor is a rotational garden that is sustained by and sustains a population of chickens. The chicken run is lifted and transferred around the raised beds every 6 – 8 weeks, so the chooks can turn the soil, eat, shit and play (while shooting heaps of eggs out their fannies for we, their garden comrades) and replenish the soil. Basically it is designed to be a closed loop system – nothing needed from outside and no waste produced.
There’s heaps more. The amount of food this baby will yield will be staggering. Now that it’s complete and has been getting its act together it has become almost terrifying how fast everything is growing.
It was built on permaculture principles and is sustainable, organic and pretty bloody sensible.
The sunrise design of the beds is pretty cool, I think. The wooden sidings are untreated macrocarpa sleepers. Most other untreated timber would rot significantly within a few years but these sleepers will last for years and years and years. It’s worth mentioning that they are very heavy. Very, very heavy.
Each bed is 3.8 metres long and 1.2 metres wide. the length was dictated by the space available but the width is a good guide line for raised bed construction, basically enabling almost anyone, excluding the tragically short, to reach any point in the garden without having to step on it, thus compacting the soil.
Under each of the macrocarpa sleepers is a one foot deep trench filled with gravel; this is to retard rotting from the wood sitting in pools of water while also raising the water table under the beds themselves.
The spaces between the beds (wide enough for a wheelbarrow) are filled in with gravel, insuring it will drain well when it rains, feeding the trenches under the sleepers and supplying the gardens with plenty of rainwater. Also stops the place turning into a bog.
You can’t see my parents house  to the left of the gardens, but it’s very large with a huge roof area. I’m going to hook up a water collection tank from the roof which will ultimately feed the garden.
Also some grey water systems off the kitchen – but that’s another thing altogether.
There’s still a little more garden building to do – where the topsoil pile is is going to be a rock garden, I just have to move the remaining topsoil to another garden, on another property, I’m putting together. Plus a few fancy touches to make it ever so much prettier (I know, how can that be possible).
I can’t express how much time and work went into this, I have muscles and calluses that barely hint at it. It’s invisible now but in order to dig the trenches and make sure there was an adequate depth of soil under the beds I had to dig out 80-year-old compacted gravel from the old driveway. Apparently if gravel is left to its own devices it evolves into concrete.
It is quite a remarkable thing for me to look at and think, I did that. This was all done at my parents’ house (and was financed by them – at least the materials, I did the work for free) in an effort to put into practice some of the things I had learned while getting my Permaculure Design Certificate in February ’09. Permaculture is, and the course I took in it was, an amazing thing I’m deeply glad I got involved in, also something I recommend to anyone curious about it. I’ve been meaning to write something about it for ages but have been daunted by the scale of it in my head; I’m sure I’ll get there in the end though.
I’m quite proud of this whole thing.

A General Theory of Love: a review

Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D.   

“People rely on intelligence to solve problems, and they are naturally baffled when comprehension proves impotent to effect emotional change… Ideas bounce like so many peas off the sturdy incomprehension of the limbic and reptilian brains. The dogged implicitness of emotional knowledge, it’s relentless unreasoning force, prevents logic from granting salvation just as it precludes self-help books from helping.” (pg. 118)

The authors, psychiatrists all, dispel the ingrained binary perception of head or heart by beautifully describing the intricate bonds and balances in the different parts of our brains, and the vital dynamics of these parts when communication between people takes place. Coming from three successive generations of psychiatry Lewis, Amini and Lannon have witnessed a massive shift in the fundamental understanding of the human mind: from the pre-scientific Freudian models that permeate our culture, through early pharmacology to the advent of neuroscience, their knowledge of the mind’s labyrinthine structure and function has undergone the same seismic shifts as the profession. The result is a depth of understanding coupled with a profound humility when faced with the vast agencies at play in the brain. Their triune voice negotiates their understanding, and the reader’s growing comprehension, with grace and humour, creating a resonance with the imparted knowledge and wisdom that’s quite startling.

Yet this isn’t a self-help book, more a scientific essay on the brains relation to the heart, A General Theory of Love explores our drive for intimacy and greater connection; the very real formative physical effect love has on the brain’s development in children and the continuing function of those physical structures in our adult brains. Using contemporary research in cognitive science, evolutionary biology and sociology this book illuminates how vital the quixotic interaction of love and biology are in the emergence of our personalities and, further, the relationships we create with them. But the soul of the book lies in the recognised limitations of science and scientific language; the authorial understanding that in order to explore the mental and emotional connections within ourselves, and the connections we form with the hearts and minds of others, they must avail themselves of the vast resources of humanity’s obsession with this love and its mercurial exchanges. Poetry, literature and the physical arts from across the years (these endeavors of so many hearts and minds) are called on and employed alongside science in order to explore the extent and vitality of the mind-heart connection.

Citing the lives and ideas of such luminary figures as Shakespeare, Freud, Darwin and Frost, this book reveals how the compulsion, means and ways we reach out to others demonstrate how our nervous systems are not self-contained structures, how important and defining the interaction between people’s emotions are. “From birth to death, love is not just the focus of human experience but also the life force of the mind, determining our moods, stabilizing our bodily rhythms, and changing the structure of our brains. The body’s physiology ensures that relationships determine and fix our identities. Love makes us who we are, and who we can become.” (from the preface).

Initially we’re introduced to our brains basic structure: the triune brain; consisting of the Neocortex, Limbic and Reptile brains. The evolutionary process of the triune brain’s development is explored, starting with the reptile brain’s autonomic necessity (controlling all those things the rest of our brain can’t be trusted with) and moving onto the limbic brain, the seat of emotion and instinct: fleeing, fighting, feeding, and sexual urges (known as the 4 F’s) before finally delving into our evolutionary masterpiece, the neocortex, responsible for such marvels as reason, speech and taxes. So impressed have we become with the neocortex many now place it, unrivalled, at the top of the mental food-chain, the senior partner, demoting the remaining sections of our brain to mailroom roles. To counter such hierarchal ideas the authors are quick and convincing in illustrating the equitable interrelations of the three parts of our brain and the resultant beauteous dysfunction we’re left with, all sitting atop our necks in such an illusion of good order that it’s hard to see how we screw ourselves up so badly, so regularly.

After a fascinating introduction to these heady matters A General Theory of Love travels further and deeper, on the road of exposition, into how our limbic brains measurably connect with and shape the brains and lives of others, the pure learning forces at play in a child’s growth and development, how memory can store and shape love, and, ultimately, what recognition of love’s ephemeral and physical effects could allow us to accomplish.

We often attempt to live lives dictated by binary relationships: right or wrong, all or nothing, head or heart, but the dichotomization of factors that confound and affect our lives are a rhetorical convenience that belies the hodgepodge nature of the world and our minds. ‘Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.’ There is revelation contained within these pages, an opportunity to look with fresh eyes on the relationships we have built our lives from, how they have hurt us and saved us with their undeniable transformative effect on almost every element of our lives. Jung said that the relationships we build are the masterpieces of our lives; this book does the remarkable in showing us the brushstrokes of those masterpieces, revealing the grammar and syntax of our emotional existence.


I think about violence fairly regularly, a possible result of various childhood and early adult experiences, though more likely it’s just the general prevalence of it. But the lens through which I view violence was definitely formed at the private high school I had to go to – a colonial attempt to emulate the English elite model that somehow transformed into a rugby obsessed, educational black hole that endorsed bullying as essential to the construction of character. I was quite small as a boy, not really growing significantly until I was sixteen, so my experience of the worst of this violence was as a weak kid who learnt it was a bad idea to try and stand up to bullies (in this sitcom bullies don’t suddenly back down when confronted, revealing themselves as cowards, they knee you in the stomach and elbow you in the back of the head). It was pretty horrible to be surrounded by this violence but to also be embraced by a context that rewarded said violence socially, if not materially, was baffling. My public school years leading up to this private highschool did nothing to prepare me for the levels of violence that were commonplace there.

One of the worst aspects of this didn’t really come home to me until my final year, when we suddenly had at our disposal the physical and social tools to perpetrate this violence ourselves. This was abhorrent to me, I couldn’t stand the thought of it – it actually made me feel ill. Yet I watched those kids who had gone through the same, or worse, shit that I had perpetrate and embrace this violence, instead of reviling it. It was their turn, I was told when I asked a couple of my friends why they did it. It took me a long time to come to terms with that reality, to actually understand in real terms how violence just begets more violence – a comfortable cliche that doesn’t do itself justice.

Our very origins are based, I think, on conception and conceit. At a fundamental cultural level violence seems to make sense to us, so it follows that we would look for its part in the birth our species. We think of ourselves, in this culture we call civilization, as the pinnacle of the human race. This conceit, that our culture represents our whole species, is massively damaging to our view of cultural phenomena like violence.

Believing our species coalesced in violence makes it easier to perpetuate it, that much is obvious, but the depth of violent conflict in our thinking and behaviour is terrifying. It finds easy expression in our political and social agendas in ways we just don’t notice, let alone question. We make war on drugs, obesity, terrorism, poverty and disease. Business is conducted as warfare (The Art of War by Sun Tzu being a standard business text). There are relationship battles, the grander battle of the sexes; we fight for the hearts and minds of the people.

In ‘Origin of the Species’ (there’s that conceit again) Darwin conceived evolution as war: “Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” Ignoring the ‘higher animals’ thing, nature conceived as hierarchy rather than obviously interconnected systems, the belief that we were actually produced through violence, on an evolutionary level, makes it far easier to see the cultural evolution and acceptance of violence as ‘natural’.

Violence isn’t necessarily about hitting someone, of course. We learn to exact violence in the cleverest, most intimate ways. We only have to look at the intricate use of violence in an abusive relationship – the horror of the physical violence is the crescendo; it is what enforces the continual emotional and intellectual violence of the relationship. It’s all about control and dominion. We all understand this, even if we are inarticulate in the face of it, we all understand. We’ve been made to by our very surroundings, which has a knock on effect into our internal lives. We commit violence on ourselves; constructing an inner violence that warps and betrays our internal lives, condemning our ability to relate to each other and the world around us into a search for and a shameful or embarrassed purchase of the latest aphoristic self-help book.

We understand when violence breaks out in traffic jams, sporting events, chat shows.  We condone or damn it but we certainly comprehend its mechanisms. We celebrate it if it happened on a grand enough scale, in the form of public holidays, parades, statues. Even in sermons. Regardless of its expression, we all understand it. We identify, sympathize and empathize. We get it.

The whole idea of being a victim of violence is totally fucked up by the cultural significance we give to the act, let alone how we view the practitioners of it. When an event is resolved through violence it somehow becomes validated by it, like violence has lent it some of its greater meaning: the philosophy of violence. We debate back and forth the meaning and intent, implication and inference, practice and theory. I find this a terrifying confirmation of violence’s legitimacy in our culture; that we are capable of talking about violence in such shades and with such specificity.

Where do we think it comes from? So many people believe or accept by default that humanity is inherently violent. Not just capable of violence but fundamentally violent – unstoppably and biologically violent. Which might suggest, through a sense of evolutionary destiny, that our violence is forgivable? Because, come on people, it is plainly, as anyone can tell, unarguably (I mean, look at the evidence) just in our nature. Almost any biological creature is capable of violence, humanity being a good example of that, but we take that fact and contort it into a syllogism mighty enough to rationalise itself away.

Go to this link, or this one  and have a look. Do some math. When faced with this are we forced to believe that it is beyond our will? That violence is, what? Inexorable? Inescapable? Preordained? Divine? When considering these consequences do we have to come to the conclusion that our drive to violence is inherent? Biological? God given? If we don’t accept a premise approximating that, what would that mean? Would it mean responsibility? Could we survive if we had to think of a history and present drenched in our bloody choices? If not does it mean we are forced to conceive of a future just as bloody?

If we were to take away our capacity for violence, our toleration of it, our civilization would collapse. It is necessary for our continuity, political, social and material, that someone or thing suffers and dies – not maliciously or cruelly necessary, only by barren, practical necessity. We believe we have to accept it in our world, to tolerate it, if our world is going to continue. It is the oil on the cogs of the machine that brings to our table what we believe we require.

In ancient Rome, when gathering evidence in a court case, from a slave, it was inadmissible, that is to say illegal, if the information wasn’t gathered with the use of torture. There’s a modern argument that torture is, after opining the use of torture as a yardstick of barbarity, actually okay, if the information gathered is important enough. If this paragraph seems to not make much sense, seems to contain contradictions and paradoxes, it’s for very simple reasons.

The use of violence has simply gone on too long, become too complicated. Violence, enduring and horrendous, becomes the default because, y’know, what else are we gonna do? How would you fix it, buddy? Come on genius, solve the world’s problems.

Why is it so hard to just stop?

I’ve read that a culture can’t change its belief in its fundamental principles, because once it does it ceases to be that culture and becomes something else. To aspire to forget violence, to find another way to communicate our needs and desire on the world and ourselves, would mean a change of culture. We could become something else.

When I was in Barcelona recently, with my brother, we were staying in a Hostel. We were in the main bunkroom, a room that had maybe 25 or 30 beds. On the first night there myself, my brother and a number of other people were trying to get to sleep, a venture continually thwarted by a group of 20-something English travelers who were treating the bunkroom as a staging ground for their drunken adventures. They would leave and someone would get up and turn the light out. A short while later they would come back, turn the light on, drink more, talk loudly, and then leave again. Someone would get up and turn the light out. This repeated every twenty minutes or so.

I figured this was something you just accept as the price of a cheap bed. Until midnight – then it gets really fucking annoying. I had been getting angrier and angrier, quietly fuming away on my lower bunk, my brother trying to sleep above me. The pattern of drunken visitations continued, with the added bonus of a couple of disparaging remarks about one sleeper’s big white arse sticking out. Then, at 2am, one of them made a snide comment questioning the whole room’s desire to sleep when we should have been out drinking. The sort of loud mouth, fuckwit comment only protected by the comforting, arrogant presence of a large group of drunken friends. I snapped. The slow burn of my frustration and anger launched me out of my bed with a yell of, ‘Get the fuck out of here’ and had me, before I realized it, propelled halfway across the room, dressed only in my boxer shorts, wanting to hurt someone very badly.

When I got to them, the group of three nearest to the door, I didn’t stop. I transformed my momentum into violence very efficiently, shoving one hard in the chest, propelling him out and into the corridor wall, hard. I was still talking, though I have no idea what exactly I was saying. I turned immediately and grabbed one of them (the one making all the comments) by the throat and pinned him against the wall. The third one I reached for and I think I got hold of his shirt before he broke my grip by moving backwards very quickly. My brother had jumped off his bunk and followed me, backing me up while, very wisely, trying to calm the situation down. I was inarticulate in rage. I couldn’t express to the guy I had by the throat what I wanted to because I wasn’t thinking that clearly, I just wanted to put my fist straight into his face.

I wasn’t scared. The rest of the group had backed out onto the little balcony, giving me room and abandoning their friends. I definitely wasn’t scared. I wanted one of them to swing at me. The only cap on my actions was that I hadn’t damaged anyone and I wouldn’t start a fist fight unless one of them tried to hit me. I wanted someone to swing at me so I could start swinging back, I desperately wanted a reason, something I could look back on later and say that I not only had provocation for my anger but direct cause for my violence. I wanted to hurt someone so badly I could barely contain it.

I think of what I must have looked like: I’m not small any more. I’m an inch or so shy of six foot, broad shouldered with an athletic frame. I exercise frequently and am strong. I’m balding, so I keep the bald man’s traditional skinhead haircut. I was bigger than two of the guys I attacked and wider than the other. I also have a few tattoos on my torso. I would have been scary. Seeing someone in a rage is always scary. Seeing a half naked someone who looks capable of violence charge at you and grab you or your friend by the throat is, I imagine, sobering in the extreme.

The end result was that they backed down and got out. No one threw a punch. When they came back they were quiet enough that I didn’t wake up. The next two nights were the same, very quiet and considerate. In the intervening time they didn’t make eye contact with me, even when I sought it.

I’ve told a few friends about this now, and I don’t believe I’ve coloured it too much to benefit me. Every time I’ve not only been forgiven my actions, I’ve had them approved. I had cause. It was understandable. It was so out of character that it must have been justified. I’m sure most, if not all, of these responses have been out of care for me. But I… I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m aware that I haven’t told one particular person who would have been horrified had they been there and witnessed it.

The worst thing, and the most relevant to my thoughts on violence, is that the anger that I channeled wasn’t the anger those drunken English kids generated. I had been conflicted and confused about something for days; something I’d left behind before but had come back to prey on me, causing a very specific kind of doubt and conflict. There was real turmoil inside me, and those poor Brit bastards just brought it out.

I’m ashamed of myself. I hate violence. I hate the process and the results. Yet I perpetrated it. Worse, I let anger fuelled by personal confusion become violence against stupid but blameless targets. I manifested the lessons I had learned at school. Which makes me hate even more that there is part of me that is secretly proud of the violence I became, that I actually feel better about myself because I have had that capability confirmed.

This is the language of violence, the thing that our lives are steeped in. The distant acts of our past waiting inside us for an opportunity to present themselves – whether it is outwardly on others or what we inflict internally on ourselves. A perpetual cycle of violence and scars subsumed in the currents of our lives only to be heaved up by the tides on other shores.

I want to replace the violence, and the underlying hatred, in my life. I want to be able to feel love and exact the results of that on the world instead. But I can’t find the path. Or I can’t identify it. Yet it must be there because I’ve seen others walking it.

Hate is the process and violence the result. Replace the hate and change the result. Sounds easy enough.


“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Issue of the Tongue Scraper: A Conversation

I have been away for a while, often physically, mainly mentally. But I have decided to come back, at least interwebically.

My sister gave birth to her second sprout, a wee lass called Rosemary. She is not cute at all. She in fact looks much like the previous sprout (named Henry). The good news is that all my sibling’s kids have been complete uggos on entry to the world and then, magically, sometime later, they turn into these devastatingly cute urchins I quite like to show people pictures of (like it somehow reflects well on me).

Anyway, to commemorate this wonderful occasion I thought I’d relate a conversation I had with my sister, Cecil, a few years back in London. I wrote it down afterwards then forgot about it only to find it just the other day.

M: (upon returning from the bathroom) ‘What’s that triangle on a stick thing in your toothbrush jar?’

C: ‘A tongue-scraper.’

M: ‘When did you get a tongue-scraper?’

C: ‘I’ve always wanted a tongue-scraper. I went hardcore on my tongue with a toothbrush for years until I discovered how well a flannel worked so, understandably, the tongue-scraper was a complete revelation.’

M: ‘So now you just use the tongue-scraper?’

C: ‘Nah, all three. It works a treat.’

M: ‘Um, okay. Thorough. So, let me guess: the brush, followed by flannel, then the tongue-scraper.’

C: ‘Nope, after experimenting I’ve come to recognize the superiority of the scraper, flannel, brush regimen.’

M: ‘… I guess I can see the first two, but why finish with the brush? Kinda rough.’

C: ‘I see the brush, with toothpaste of course, as a kind of disinfectant or, yeah, a deodorizer. Fresh and minty. So it goes last. Logical, eh?’

M: ‘Right. Of course. And I imagine it gets the taste of flannel out of your mouth.’

C: ‘Actually, I’ve come to like the taste of flannel.’

I’m quite fond of that conversation; it captures something essential of my sister. Also, as an aside, I think ‘tasting flannel’ would be an excellent euphemism for lesbianism: ‘One might, if one were so inclined, taste flannel.’