Outrage

‘Stupidity’, Sedartis thunders, ‘is the enemy. Stupidity is the outrage: the crime!’ Here is that word again. ‘Perpetrated not by the stupid, they may never have learnt – never have had a chance to learn – to be less so; no, it’s the chief crime of your society: as long as you allow stupidity not just to exist, but to flourish in your midst, as long as you cultivate, nurture, elevate and celebrate it, you deserve everything you get.’

I feel chastened, although I have no answer. Sedartis does not expect me to: ‘You talk about inequality. You talk about democracy and a fairer society. And yet you blind yourselves to the evil that trumps all: you lull your masses into stupidity and then keep them there. Because you’re selfish, egotistical, greedy and lazy, you “give the people what they want,” which you keep telling them is soft porn mush and their own supposed “reality.” You invite them to be abysmally stupid on your television shows and think you’re doing them a favour because they recognise themselves: you make stupidity the norm, and condemn aspiration to an intellect as a pretentious frivolity. You dismiss intellect itself as an irrelevance, knowing full well that without intellect you wouldn’t be here where you are, in your privileged position. You keep your people stupid because that’s how you keep yourselves aloft and rich; you fear them and you dread what they should do if they ever they latched on to how they were enslaved by you.’

I sense a pause. It doesn’t last. ‘You feed them what they already know and shore up their prejudices, you belittle intelligence as “too clever by half” and smirk at anyone who thinks in public. (How can you even hold on to an expression like that?) How can you have built a civilisation in which not only one percent own more than half of all material wealth, but another one percent at most are schooled in handling knowledge, when you know that knowledge is power.’

Is knowledge power, still? ‘Thinking,’ he thinks at me, ‘is an exertion, yes. That does not absolve us from it. So is walking, yet walk we must, otherwise we grow fat, stale and lethargic. Flossing is a pain, but we do it, even if reluctantly, to hold on to our gums. Life is not convenient, no matter how successful we are at making it so. So even if it hurts: use your brain. It will shrivel, shrink and stink if you don’t.’

I can tell how angry he is. ‘I am not angry, my friend,’ Sedartis hears me well before I speak, ‘I am outraged. I am outraged at the stupidity you allow on this planet. At the casual simplicity you cast over everything, and make do. At the quick quote, soundbite approach you have taken to politics. The commercial current that runs through your culture. The inoffensiveness of your art. The soft sell in your science. You constantly ask: what is the story, what is the narrative. Because you are too lazy to connect the dots for yourselves. You open your mouths, crying, “feed me!” You’ve regressed into infancy, and you wallow in your own incapacity. You suckle the nipple of light entertainment, and if you do wean yourselves off it, you go on to sugary bottled “fun,” and then you wonder why your teeth are all rotten, and you’re incapable even of crunching an apple: you’ve become toothless, grown-up-but-refused-to-grow-up, idiot babes. You have lost sophistication, elegance and wit. You shun the strain of inquiry, and you moan and moan and moan. Like the whiny brat in the stroller whom you’ve elevated to a tiny emperor and allow to terrorise your existence, you yourself throw your toys out of your pram and expect somebody else to bend down and pick them up for you and hand them back to you. Everything is somebody’s fault. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the neighbours’ fault. It’s the immigrant’s fault. It’s anybody else’s fault but yours. Have you listened to yourselves? You are a disgrace to your species, the way you behave, and you know it, but you will stone me for saying so to your face.’

I am stunned. I have never experienced Sedartis like this. I’m a little afraid. And in awe.   

He senses my discomfort, my fear. He calms down: ‘Species. That in itself is too simple, too categorical. I know you need simplicity, you need categories. But look at yourselves from a distance, or look at yourselves close up: you are so close to your nearest cousins that you can barely tell yourselves apart. Yet you think you are a majestic, exclusive achievement. You are nothing of the sort, you are simply first on your planet, and alone in your solar system. But there are so many solar systems in so many galaxies, you need not fear of finding yourselves alone: this universe, as well as any other, is teeming with life. Your problem is not your position, not your location, not your intelligence: your problem is your perspective. Your nearest cousins, the dolphins, the bonobos, they may be a few hundred thousand years, maybe a few million years behind you in their development. But that doesn’t make them categorically different. It just makes them slower at something you can not take credit for. What you can take credit for is this: your culture. That’s what you do with your advantage. And that is why your stupidity is unacceptable now. At one point, in the not so distant past, you were just like the great apes, scavenging for food, fighting each other for primacy over your females, thinking of nothing other than preserving, projecting, your genes. Slowly, gradually, you emerged from the dullness of your existence and you became conscious, intelligent beings. How dare you not use your intelligence? You will get there, of course; you will reach your next level, as every other life form reaches its own. You will merge with your inventions, you will make yourselves immortal. You will begin to populate other worlds, if nothing else as a hybrid of human and human-made machine. That is all very well. But choose how you get there. The pain that you’re causing yourselves and your fellow creatures on earth is excruciating. When you already have the means to not inflict it at all. All you have to do is use your intelligence and learn that you are not the thing that matters, you are part of the thing that matters, and that is enough.’

What is the thing that matters, I ask Sedartis. 

He remains silent. He remains silent for a long long time and we sit together watching the squirrels and the birds, and imagining the bonobos and the dolphins and the cows and the lions and the beautiful, but a little clumsy, giraffes.

I take his silence to mean ‘I don’t know either,’ and it saddens me that he doesn’t know either, but I know he doesn’t know either, and I wonder does anyone know, anyone in the multiverse of infinite universes at all, or are we all just a part of it unknowing but yearning to understand and failing but trying and playing our part.

‘It doesn’t matter, you see’, says Sedartis. And now I can really hear him. ‘It doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is that you make the most of it. Whatever it is that you can. That is all that actually matters because you have no control over anything else. You can’t control when you are born. To whom. Where. You can’t know why. You can’t dictate the terms of your existence, but you can take them and deal with them well. And by dealing with them well, you may alter them. Whatever is given, you don’t have to take it just as it is. What you do have to do is make the most of it. And you really have to make the most of it. You really have to not take no for an answer, you really have to probe deeper and go further and demand of yourself more. Because if you don’t, somebody will. And they may not understand what you understand. But you understand what I understand and that is how we are connected, how we are part of it all, how there is a greater scheme of things, and how our moment here is tiny, but we can, must, make it magnificent.’

∞² Revival

I resolve to dive in. Not the water – that’s way too cold for me, this time of year, early summer, just after the solstice and before the sea has been warmed by long days in the sun – but into the experience of it all. There, inside the experience, may lie a clue. If not a clue, then perhaps an insight, a truth. It could be random, it could be real. My research has yielded nothing. I have spoken to cafe owners and life guards; to beach goers and hut holders. To dog walkers (where they’re allowed, the dogs) and to joggers. Hoteliers, I spoke to, two of them. And two police officers, one a young woman, the other a young man, both attractive, both friendly, both clueless as to the origin of this tradition that is still, after all, fairly new; but a tradition nonetheless. Age has no bearing on the soul of a matter, be that a culture, a person, a people, a place: roots burrow deep, far deeper, we know, than the living thing that we see may suggest.

Everybody, of course, has a story to tell. Most of them charming, some of them harrowing, all of them sad, in a way. I’m surprised to find that is so. No matter who I talk to, and for how long, there is always, always a moment of sadness. How did I miss that, in my perception, and for so long? How sadness seeps through the seasons, irrespective of who you are. Here, many remember, with a scarred sense of fondness for how it all brought them together, the Solstice Spectacle several years ago now, when two youths had set fire to almost all of the beach huts along the seafront in the most brazen, most wanton, act of arson anyone could recall. Nobody refers to it now, as some ‘newspapers’ did at the time, as a ‘massacre’; and few people, though the sadness over the girls does prevail, the twins, who’d perished, aged five, having been put to bed in one of the larger huts, while the parents were sharing a rare moment of intimacy, just outside, in the twinkling night of summery stars, are weighed down now by sorrow.

So into each other, so absorbed by their bodies, the parents were at that time, that they didn’t notice the bangs, or the heat, or the flames from the beach in the distance at first, or the smoke: they took it for fireworks in the sky, for being at one with each other for the first time in ages; and the chain lit up so quickly, by the time the Calor gas bottle exploded and they’d rushed back to their hut, just a few yards, a few steps really, no more, it was way too late. The devastation still registers in the young mother’s eyes; the young father holding her hands, as they sit, outside their new hut, overlooking the sea. They are no longer young now, these two, but they do have a son and a daughter, aged twelve and fourteen. They are not happy, but they’re content. And they have no anger now in their hearts, and no hate. Then, they did, they tell me, they wanted them dead, the two youths who had done this to them, who had taken their daughters. Now? Now they feel a kind of resignation, and calm. Life is like that. ‘Life is like that,’ the young father, no longer young now (maybe a little young, still), but proud of his son whom he shows me a picture of, after he’s shown me one of the twins, and before he shows me one of his daughter too, ‘life goes on; has to, really.’ The young mother, who I know, although she doesn’t tell me, feels guilty for having left the girls in the hut while stealing, for the first time in weeks, maybe months, a bit of time just with her man, to enjoy, to inhale, to taste and to have him, in the freedom of the seaside air and after the long struggles for daily survival, in and out of the sun, smiles a wan smile of undying regret. She could have saved them, her eyes – though they be adorned by kind lines after all – tell me, pleading for my forgiveness. I have no need, nor do I have any gift of forgiveness for her, it has nothing whatever to do with me: I only feel love for these people, and thank them their honesty and their trust. ‘Thing is, we couldn’t have saved them,’ her husband, squeezing her hands, so in tune he senses her anguish without needing to ask any question, tells me: ‘it was just too quick. When this kind of catastrophe strikes you down you have to, if you can, just get up again. Kids die in accidents. In a car crash. If we’d been lying there with them, and had fallen asleep, we’d both be dead too?’ His voice inflexes a question. The doubt. The ‘catastrophe’. It sounds a little incongruent now, but true. Maybe he wants to be sure, more sure than he is. Who can blame them. I salute them, I wander on.

‘Boscombe & Bournemouth has had its fair share of tragedy,’ the old lady tells me, ‘maybe more than.’ She sits further down the beach, in front of her own hut, that is hidden a little, tucked away behind a bit of a bluff, and she nods at me sagely. I expect her to go on, but she doesn’t. There’s something in my memory that I can’t recall that makes me think that I know what she’s talking about, but the look that she gives me suggests that the time isn’t right. And so I don’t ask, and she doesn’t tell. Some things are best left unspoken. Yet for a while. 

And so I take the plunge. The Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll. I have never been naked in public. I’m innately shy. People don’t think so, they think I am confident, bold even. I’m not. It’s the last Sunday in June and I’m curious: will it happen. And how? The weather is glorious, hot: more than thirty degrees. I shower, smear sun cream all over my body, wear shorts and a shirt and flip-flops; the near compulsory hat, and the shades, and head out. It’s just gone lunch time and I expect to be disappointed. For a while it looks like I might be; and then, suddenly, unnoticeably almost at first, then more and more obviously and quite naturally, it happens. Here a naked person, another one there. A couple, a group, some talking, some smiling, without exception all sunning themselves and their bodies in the luxurious heat, they are strolling along the beach. As I get there, they are vastly outnumbered by clothed people, but the clothed people don’t bat an eyelid, with the exception perhaps of the odd tourist. I am on my own and I don’t know how to do this now, where should I stop to undress? I feel lost, I must look it, too. I need not fret, it turns out. A big burly man with a lot of hair on his chest and a belly protruding far over a very small penis beams at me baring the broadest of grins: ‘you look just like someone who’s come to stroll in the nude.’ For the duration of half a thought I want to say, ‘sorry? Who? Me? Oh no, don’t worry about me, I’m just looking for a place to buy ice cream.’ But his friend smiles at me too and I like her for that. She’s generous, kind. Their mutual friend, I assume, seems to be thinking about something, but he too gives me a nod of encouragement, and so I say: ‘Yes. I am.’

‘I hope you’re wearing sunscreen?’ the big man, who steadies my arm as I step out of my shorts asks me, and his friend cocks his head a little as if to comment, not strictly approving, but not dismissing either, my soft cotton trunks. I take them off too. And the shirt, and I put them all in a little backpack I’ve brought along for this purpose, and I step back into my flip-flops and put on my hat and say: ‘thank you. My name is Sebastian.’ We shake hands and they tell me their names and I put on my shades and we stroll.

8 JoJo

Today is unusual in that it passes slowly. This is unheard of, more or less. For the third time in a row I look at the clock or the watch or the phone and I think, ‘ah, it’s not gone eleven; oh, it’s only just coming up one; hn, it’s not even three.’ Normally it’s, ‘what? six pm already, I need to get in the shower otherwise I’ll be late for the theatre the cinema the drinks or the dinner or sometimes the gig. But today I’m running early and that’s unusual and I’m wholly unrushed and wholly unpressured and really quite happy; the sun is out, it’s as hot as summer though it’s only April, and the time is barely two thirty in the afternoon. Which is new.

The reason today passes more slowly than usual is probably because I’ve been up and functional since about ten and the reason I’ve been up and functional since about ten is that I went to bed about two, which for me is early, and the reason I went to bed about two is that in bed was JoJo and I wanted to be with him, and that’s unusual too. [I’m changing his name here as well, by the way. Not that not doing so would land him in trouble, or me, for that matter, I don’t think, but I don’t know whether he’d want to be named and I don’t want to ask him because that would seem like making a big deal of things, and I’m not of a disposition to make a big deal of things, generally.]

Everything’s a little different since JoJo’s arrived, three days ago. By coincidence, he arrived on the day Maxl departed and within hours everything changed. Gone is the stuff and the friendly but heavy presence of a man who doesn’t really want to be here but doesn’t not want to be here either, who seems to lack all sense of humour but still retains a modest charm, who has brilliance concealed by sluggish thinking and earthy inaction. Gone is the farmer who somehow found himself in a city, who almost by fluke made it to London and into my life where for a while I thought he ought to stay, but from where to know him departed I thank my angels, god, the universe and all that is in and around it, because after I previously had asked all of them for him, they have shown themselves wise and forgiving, by putting him there for me just long enough to see what that would be like and then, without fuss or damage, taking him away again, no questions asked. Thank you angels, thank you god; universe and all that is in and around you: thank you.

JoJo is more than a breath of fresh air, he’s a tonic, a breeze to keep you alive and awake; and he’s done what I couldn’t expect he would do but still knew he would, he’s come back, if only for a few days, and so while we’re not sleeping together as in ‘sleeping together’ now, we’re sleeping together as in sleeping together, and I like him next to me in my bed and sometimes it happens that I snuggle up to him and when he gets up at an unfeasible hour in the morning to go to work, I briefly stir, sensing him unclasp himself from my probably too firm embrace, and because the sun is already shining and I had a good dinner with him the night before, which he cooked, and because he’s the only person I’ve ever known to come and go like a cat, unperturbed, unencumbered, loyal but free, dictated by his external needs maybe more than by his internal wants but nonetheless appreciative of the shelter, attention and stroking of his warm body and reciprocal appreciation of his comforting presence I can offer, he wandered back into my existence, and I have no idea how long he’s going to be here for, but while he’s here I am happy and because I am happy I like to be near him, and so when he’s home I go to bed early so I can go to bed with him, and because I go to bed early I wake up calm and rested even though I don’t sleep anywhere near as soundly as I do on my own; and the day passes more slowly than it normally does, and I think maybe the day passes more slowly because without knowing it or being aware of it or consciously acknowledging it, I am waiting for him to come back, and part of me wonders if that has a meaning, and an even more reticent part of me wonders if, should it indeed have a meaning, that meaning is that I am slowly changing, at last, and if that is the case then what, exactly, in turn, does that mean?

589 The Sedartis Effect

Sedartis is full of little insights which are borderline annoying. They are annoying, because they are obvious and it’s possible only to be borderline annoyed with them, because they are obviously true. They are the kind of insights that make you wonder: why has nobody pointed this out to me, say, in year eleven. 

Since joining me, unbidden, uninvited, and taking up quasi-permanent residence by my side, he has been doing this at irregular intervals, which, through their irregularity, at last have the advantage of containing a mild element of surprise.

‘The reason time passes faster as you get older, relentlessly, is very simple,’ he tells me. I did not ask him about this, I was just looking out of the window of yet another moving train, this time to Dorset.

‘I imagine it is,’ I say, having for some time felt I had my own plausible theory about this. ‘At the age of one, one year is a hundred percent of your lifetime. That makes it really long. So long that you can’t fathom its duration.’

I’m not sure that I can fathom it now, but, for different reasons…

‘By the age of ten, that same year is now only a tenth of your lifetime. In absolute terms, it may be as long as any other year, but you don’t experience life in absolute terms: you experience life in relative terms, always: relative entirely to you. Your year is now just ten percent of your body of experience.

At the age of fifty, one year has shrunk to a fiftieth of your lifetime: if somebody offered you a fiftieth part of a pie you’d barely think it worth eating. But it’s still a year, and it’s still a slice of your life.

And aged a hundred, your year now hardly registers at all. You may well lose track and forget how old you are: was it a hundred and two or a hundred and three years ago now that you were born? Does it matter?’

‘This all makes perfect sense to me,’ I say to Sedartis, ‘and why are you telling me? Now?’

‘Because you’re obviously at that point in your life when your perception of time reaches a tipping point: your life expectancy nowadays isn’t quite but may soon be about a hundred, so around now, as you’re halfway through this, your feeling of losing your grip on time will accelerate and because you’re now no longer moving away from your birth but towards your death, you will find this more and more disconcerting.’

‘What, more disconcerting than I find it already?’

‘Of course. But think not for one moment that you’d be happier if you lived longer.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Because: if you were to get to the point, say, where you habitually had an active consciousness span of ten thousand years, it would not feel that much longer: as you’d get towards the last millennium, each year would only be between nine and one ten thousandth of our lifetime. That is about the same as three days are for you today. You will not experience a hundred times more than you do today, you will simply stretch your living out over a period a hundred times longer. And nor should that surprise you: when your life expectancy was thirty years or so, people did not generally think, our lives are so short; they simply did all their living inside those thirty years. No-one would argue that Alexander the Great, for example, or Mozart, didn’t really get enough living done in the thirty-odd years of their lives.’

‘No,’ I say, thinking a tad wistfully of Tom Lehrer, ‘that, I’m sure, no-one could argue.’

‘It’s, in a not entirely obvious way, not unlike the Doppler Effect: the sound waves coming towards you are compressed so they appear to your ears higher than once the source of the sound has passed: now the waves are getting stretched and so the pitch seems to drop. Of course, time is no wave and the comparison is clumsy at best and misleading at worst, but if nothing else it’s another example of how your reality is shaped entirely by your experience of it. You may, if you like, refer to the relative experience of time as the Sedartis Effect, I shan’t hold it against you if you will.’

3094 Lesson

What, I wonder to myself in a borderline self-indulgent manner which brings to mind Morrissey, complete with a hint of a whine, as I sit by another lake, this time the almost too picturesque, too pristine waterside of Windermere: if life suddenly became real? Would I recognise most of it, still?

I had not intended to involve Sedartis in this query, but since joining me on a train from a small town outside Zürich towards Chur, he has never entirely left my side and he has honed to an art the disconcerting skill of hearing my thoughts before I’ve had a chance to formulate them, and responding in kind: he never says a word, yet his pronouncements are crystal clear.

I’m not sure I like this about Sedartis. His clarity. His straightforwardness. His uncreconstructed linearity. Aren’t we supposed to have moved into The Age of Diffusion. Of vulnerabilities and fluidity, of connectedness, in all directions, of openness and of infinite potentialities? I probably don’t understand him, yet.

If I had a life, I would be that much happier sharing it, I surmise, almost as an afterthought, and Sedartis now latches onto me.

‘Liberate yourself,’ he urges, ‘from the Tyranny of Opinion. Yours and other people’s.’

The expression on my face betrays doubt continued.

‘Banish that.’

‘Really?’

‘Don’t banish doubt, of course,’ says Sedartis, as if that were a preposterous idea, though he himself comes over so doubtless: ‘and make allowance for their doubting too, but banish weariness and eagerness to please. You had it once, don’t you recall: the Freshness of Thought, the Arrogance of Youth, the Wonder of the New.’

There are a lot of capitalisations, all of a sudden. But I do remember, I remember it fondly and well, but was I not, I also wonder, also just blind to my own …Inadequacies?

(And now italics, as well…)

‘Of course you were! Therein lay your Power. Remember Goethe, remember Boldness, remember Genius.’

I do. I remember Goethe; he is, unsurprisingly, indelibly ingrained in me.

Sedartis, I realise, is nowhere near as mild-mannered as I believed I had reason to expect him to be. He reminds me of someone I know – not just a literary figure I have a sense I’m confusing him with, but someone I have actually met – but he’s too fast for me, I get no respite from him; not at this moment, yet he counsels patience:

‘Learn to distinguish between those who know what they’re talking about and those who just talk. Listen out for the quiet voices, the tender, the considered, thought-through ones. Those with nothing to say shout loudest. You live in a terrible, terrible din. Find the dial and tune out of the noise. Listen for the Gentle Song of Truth, it always, always plays, it never dies; not completely.’

I want to, I do.

‘Opinion is cheap. And instant opinion may well be worthless. If you, or the person you’re listening to, hasn’t had time to reflect, has not expended thought, has not at least slept on their ukase then you are ill advised: heed it not. Demand earnest discourse. Reject quick fixes as you scorn fast food. You would not stuff your face with salt-fat-sugar bombs from a garish-liveried American chain. Why do you allow your brain to be poisoned by rash judgments, soundbites and rushed ratings? Insight and wisdom are dear, they are earnt. They weigh with value. Everything else is just froth.’

I get the feeling I’m being lectured to by Sedartis and having never suffered being told what to do, my porcupine prickle stirs under my skin. His unvoiced tone changes. He is with me, he tells me, not against:

‘Experience everything new. You once knew how to, you still know now. Free yourself from the familiar and delve into the exhilarating fear of the unknown.’

‘It’s hard, that,’ I offer, all too feebly, ‘pulling yourself up, again and again, summoning the strength, expending the effort, over and over, from scratch…’

‘Of course it is,’ says Sedartis, laconic and suddenly severe: ‘if it were easy it too would be froth, but:’ I don’t want to hear any more, I’m a little sad now and somewhat dejected. Sedartis pays no attention to my discomfort: ‘the universe gives us each the challenges we need to grow.’