Liberties After Being Robbed of Our Own

 Posted by at 9:27 pm  Exodus, OVER and BEYOND  Comments Off
Jul 282014

Outlaws crop up when you least expect them to. Here are positive signs for continuing with this ficto-documentary writing, and the reader can choose for themselves what to believe or disbelieve. Over this last weekend I keep missing a series of phone calls, probably about seven in all, from a man who I have never met before, but for whom I have received a message that he wishes to talk to me. I shall call him Wallace. This is not his real name, and the truth is that he wishes me to conceal it for reasons that will become clear as this story unfolds. I keep missing the calls from Wallace because it happens that between last Friday and Sunday evening  since I am travelling from England to Scotland and then back again. I also call back Wallace on his number on occasions but there is always no answer. However, messages are left by both of us, and we finally get to talk on Monday morning.

Wallace speaks in a cheery and direct northern accent and I immediately warm to his voice. After brief introductions between us and to explain the main reason for our talking, I say to him, “Life is precious”.

“Occupy Death”, I say to Wallace near the end of our conversation. He laughs and says that he likes the idea. But I am troubled in my heart of course in case we don’t get to speak again.

Jul 282014

These few weeks in Florence are coming towards an end. Tomorrow we head south: one of the high speed trains for a couple of days staying with friends in Salerno (and visiting Napoli) and then a bus across to the Adriatic side to stay in Puglia for a further couple of days, staying with family(!) before flying back to London from Bari. There has been no rapid advance with my Italian language skills – slow and steady – despite being in plenty of Italian speaking environments these last few weeks. So visiting family – should I simply say, Mamma? – where little English is spoken, has a certain challenge about it plus the cultural power that is contained in this word, Mamma, which in my mind still contains some primary power that is rooted in pre-history, pre-verbal in a way that has not been rationalised out of existence by reformation and what is often referred to as the enlightenment, our rational, ‘scientific’ dominant mode of thinking. No wonder you need a plethora of death groups! – with or without a soapbox.

There would appear to be a connection that my mind has discovered or intuited between this Mamma and our old friend Kali. What I mean by this is that I have no way of knowing whether I will be fed or hacked to death. Friends here in Florence express concern at the Pugliese family nexus and dynamics that I will be subjected to. And often it is around food. In this case it could be death by over feeding. How many litres if olive oil will I have to consume in two days? After all, that is why I limited this first visit to such a short time. A sort of flying visit. Not much more than popping in for tea with the family. Except of course they don’t do tea. I suppose, if I attempt to be sort of rational about it, that it’s not so much a question of surviving or not surviving, but rather, what will it do to me, what will be the impact on my inner world. Will I be able to absorb not just the food and wine but the mental/emotional challenges and, how shall I put it, come out on top, firing on all cylinders, emblamatically a bigger person than when I stepped into the ring.

Do you know, I am looking forward to writing my first post for this blog once I am back in Devon. Will I still be shaking?

I Assist the Soapbox to Leak Away

 Posted by at 10:39 pm  Hitting the Potholes, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Jul 182014
july pix 043

It is very hot on the pavements outside Parliament today, and getting hotter by the minute. I am with a crowd of Dignity in Dying folk, and wearing a “The more we diealog the more we live” T-shirt too. I am also holding a large plum coloured banner in my hand which is working quite well as a shade against the burning midday sun. The wording on the banner puts me on the side of The Bill (the Assisted Dying Bill).

Inside the House of Lords the peers are debating The Bill. One hundred and twenty eight peers have asked to speak, which is some kind of record . I am told this by a woman who has been in the public gallery listening to the debate since it began this morning, but has now come outside for some fresh air. She says that it is hard to hear what most of the peers are saying since they all tend to speak very quietly.

Because there are so many wishing to speak inside, each peer is only being allowed four minutes. This is democracy at work and what is more it all has to be over with and voted on by dinner time this evening, at which time there is a chance that The Bill will have been given its second reading. But it will still be a long way off from becoming law.

Inside earlier this morning the Archbishop of York used his allocated four minutes to put the official position of the Anglican church against The Bill. I wonder if he enjoyed doing that, or whether he would actually rather have showed solidarity with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and spoken for it. The moral compass is not easy. But then it shouldn’t it be.

Even though as Big Ben strikes noon everything is beginning to shimmer and my vision is beginning to bleach, I would still rather be outside on the pavement. Hot, but I don’t know what all the fuss is about really… except of course I do. I cast around looking for a soapbox to stand on, but there isn’t one so far as I can see. Lord Soper would not have missed an opportunity like this of course – indeed I expect he would have probably brought his own soapbox to stand on – and he would have known exactly what he wanted to say in his four minutes.

Whereas I…? Stepping up I say that we are all good enough experts when it comes to knowing the time when our life is over (in the last 6 months of a certain terminal illness and with appropriate safeguards as The Bill describes), and for a very small number this time of knowing is not the same time as our last biological breath.

“I want to die. Help me”, we say asking for compassion in extremis (‘You wouldn’t keep a dog alive’), and respect for individual autonomy (‘choice’ – subject only to the well known harm principle of not hurting others by our death).

Except the heat is getting to me and there isn’t a real soapbox for me to step up on, and I reflect it is probably better that way as I observe my viewpoint melting away in the midday sun.

Jul 162014

There was mist on the mountain this morning, the air hardly moving, a slow drift of indistinctness through the pines. Nonetheless we were able to find the road and so continue the climb, discussing War and Peace and war and peace. News from down below was scarce but a text message was received which told us of the man on the soapbox. Somebody laughed, somebody shuddered. But then a figure emerged from the memory banks: Lord Soper. Like an icon I had grown up with and then lost sight of. A man of the 20th century, born 1903, died 1998 in his favourite armchair, according to the obituary in the Guardian. A Methodist, a man of principle: pacifist, socialist, Christian, CND, anti-blood sports campaigner, teetotaller, an almost endless list of principles. And also, of course, always on his soapbox, literally and figuratively, at Tower Hill and Speaker’s Corner, rain and shine, combative, ready for argument. His mind formed, or forged might be a better word, in the heat of Methodism.

Dante’s Commedia famously gets going in a dark forest, the dark forest of a mid-life crisis as we might call it nowadays. Life gone wrong and he’s thirty five which means that he cannot even join his local chapter of Men Beyond 50. So, as I am currently reading Prue Shaw’s Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, and translated chunks of the Commedia, it seemed to me that there was some sort of parallel to be drawn between Dante and Soper involving this notion of being men of principle. They lived out those principles with whatever sacrifice that entailed. It sounds to me that Soper had a rich cultural and spiritual life and I hope that Dante had that too. The journey of the Commedia initially with Virgil and later with Beatrice whilst a work of literature must also be a version of his own life from the dark forest onwards. My only hesitation is the harsh, and is it bitter?, expression on his face as it is portrayed. Was it the painful personal cost of his exile? Whilst Soper was banned from speaking on the BBC during WWII that can’t be exactly compared to exile from Florence with the promise that his return would mean being burned alive though later this was changed to decapitation.

To what degree, I ask myself, have I lived out the principles, that I confess to? Have I stood up on some metaphorical soapbox and argued for what I believe in? Not really. But could it be said that I did in fact commit to the possibilities of radical transformation via the work of psychotherapy, starting from the question of what is it to be human. To be sure a quieter form of work . . . and would I mount the barricades of my beliefs when (or if) the time comes. We shall see.

Jul 112014
You and I Soapbox142

Make full dis-closure, and reach the end of (the) matter. Drop the defences, and step over into everlasting life. What’s not to like – La-La? Besides, endings are such a pain as everyone in the death groups knows only too well.

Better stop kicking up the dust shilly-shallying around this good death/bad death thing! It is a fake idea anyway. For good advice there’s the writer Angela Carter talking about ‘how to’ end stories. There’s no such thing as good or bad endings, she said or something along those lines. Actually there’s no such thing as a story ever ending, at best there is just a “pause” . Yes, I remember she definitely used that word.


A day or so ago I get to stand on a soapbox in what now closely resembles a dream sequence. It begins with me standing up and saying, “I’d like to take the soapbox” and walking into the middle of a room.

I knew this room from before. It was circular, sober classical design and decoration, white walls and very high domed ceiling, and a diffuse daylight coming in from somewhere high above. It might have been the side chapel to a great church, except there were secular pictures on the wall which didn’t have anything to do with God or religion. They were early twentieth century paintings, and some sculptures on plinths from the same period too.

A sign was pinned to one of the walls which said “Soapbox”. There was also a circle of about thirty stools in the room which were all filled with people, and I was sitting on one of the stools too. We were nearly all older people from that (so-called) ‘new generation’ of older people between sixty and ninety, who are living so much longer than people in previous times. There were of course more women than men, but I didn’t know any of them, apart from one friend I had come with.

I remember that we were all talking about our idea of a hero and that we had been asked to do so from earlier. I thought it was a strange proposition, especially in the particular situation of this room that looked like a chapel and made me think of Christ or Buddha, and yet was filled with secular objects of western modern art that conflicted with any idea of a spiritual hero.

It was made even more strange and dreamlike because there was a loud rushing noise in the room which made it difficult to hear what anybody was saying. Conversations slipped in and out of my hearing, I am not here I was thinking and nor are most of the others here if they are having as much trouble as I am staying present. I am outside – male outlaw. Make my escape soon.

Then it happens. I raise my hand from where I am sitting on one of the stools and I say, “I’d like to take the soapbox”, stand up and walk into the middle of the circular room. The central space is empty. There isn’t a soapbox to stand on, but there is a big metal grill under my feet. I wonder fearfully what is in the darkness underneath.

All eyes are on me. In this circular room filled with rushing sound I sense that there is a hidden authority which is forcing the breath, and that I have become the gladitorial show in a coliseum. I begin to perceive that there are untold chambers of wild beasts and an endless number of warrior fighters under the metal grill beneath my feet, all waiting to enter the arena and tear me limb from limb or spear me with their deadly weapons. You and I Soapbox141

I know because one has already emerged, an armoured man who is facing me directly across the circle. He is black or at least the colour of his metal head and body is black: he is an incomplete body mix of machine and flesh, he is a man without heart and a man without sex precisely cut off at the middle, he is a man with an iron lung through which the hidden authority in the room is forcing air, and he is a man who has been here for more than 100 years, but the powerful muscled strength of his shoulders tells me he is forever young. He is hero.

Hero – while I am simply an anxious and afraid old man. How did I get to be here I think? ‘Older Men and Expression’*, it said on the ticket!

Male outlaw, and I know that since this armoured man is hero, then I am already judged and done for. Nothing can diminish his power over history or the fast progress of the world, and he has been precisely drilled in what to do. I am turned to stone. In the terror of the gap between us I ask, Are you the man who I am supposed to be?

The feeble words that actually come out of my mouth resemble a protest but nothing can stand up to the familiar violence of the armoured man. It is all quickly over. “I am off the soap box now”, I say as I return to my chair a few moments later, head cast down head and not wishing to catch anybody’s eye. Not actual death you see; like the wise woman says, it never ends.


…And I am not done with my story. “Tenderness runs through men like colour stripes in soft rock. Drill down to find their sweetness”, it begins…

The London Capital Age Festival is on for the first 2 weeks of July supporting numerous events on the theme of ‘Older Men and Expression’, including the “Soapbox” event for July 9th at Tate Britain (“Soapbox” is a free monthly event : ‘a forum to discuss life and art – for people near or beyond the age of sixty’), in which we were asked to look at the sculpture Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein.

Jul 082014

The end of matter – the end of the/that matter. Back in the death groove I guess. There are possibilities: bites, soccer, politics, old men, eroticism. But what matter is being referred to?

At least let’s hear it for Jose Mujica! Though the professional political class would think him way too human.

I wish I knew what matter is being referred to. Please get me up to date before I get caught by the guillotine.

The Disclosure Gesture

 Posted by at 6:00 pm  Echo Effects, Holy Fool/Hero, IN Conversation  Comments Off
Jul 042014
Jose Disclosure Gesture141

So Uruguay are out and Luis Suarez has got a four month ban from FIFA which is the harshest punishment ever handed out in World Cup history. Uruguay President (79) Jose Mujica has called it a fascist ban by “a bunch of old sons of bitches”.

The president was at a reception for the Uruguay team shortly after the players had come home. He made the remark live on state TV, and it is really worth watching (the picture is blurred but I didn’t say anything about transparancy).

Watch especially for the gesture Jose makes straight after his “a bunch of old sons of bitches” remark. The great old man, former guerrilla fighter, hero of the people immediately covers his mouth as if to say – Pardon me, I wish I hadn’t said that.

The disclosure gesture is quickly followed by rat-a-tat-tat exchange: the journalists surrounding the president ask, Do you want to change your remarks? Jose weaves in and out of camera.

It is as if he is pretending for a moment making – I wish I hadn’t been caught saying that joke. Turn off the cameras? Pull the shutters down? No chance! Don’t spoil the joke.

“Publicada so!” he says in the gentle high pitched voice of a kindly old man.

Publish it!  then there is his smiling Agnes on hand to add a few loving words about “eternal shame”. What fun they seem to be having! Make no exceptions, and, as I’ve said before, I wish Jose Mujica was OUR Head of State.

I think that is the end of the matter for now.

Jul 022014

Well, I suppose one might cast around yet again and rebuild the sense of what life might be about, what it might be to be human, say, as against a rat. Human-ness, rat-ness. We’re in this together or you’re on your own. Competition or co-operation. Which end of the room do we shuffle off to? Where in the political spectrum do we place our cross. 

Deliriously overcome in the death group, Agnes shimmers before you, drawing you into her embrace. She is all beckoning promise. Behind the closed shutters she promises . . . what was that you said, full disclosure? Transparency? 

I’m concerned, I shall have to start worrying about you.

And there is what Tom McCarthy has written about recently (LRB 19.6.2014): what writing is possible after Ulysses? Not much it seems, bits and pieces of nonsense. Full disclosure – don’t make me laugh or at least show me what it looks like.

Meanwhile the sun is hot, I’ll shut the shutters and retire into another dream and you can read the writing on the wall.