Never go swimming with a bow legged woman (2)
By Nils Visser
Previously: I mentioned a lot, though not a great deal of it was meaningful, and managed to introduce nothing. So this could go nowhere, anywhere at all, or all over the place.
Back to The Prisoner, mentioned in part 1. I loved this tv-show, tried to understand it, didn’t always manage and was resigned to the fact that this was probably due to the numeracy issues which were so carefully recorded by my contemporaries seeking the universal truth, which may well have been concealed in those 17 episodes. I mean, it has to be hidden somewhere, right? And the mathematically inclined will probably be the ones to find it when it does reveal itself, as for me, I couldn’t even make head or tale from the following opening sequence dialogue:
Prisoner: Who are you?
Two: The new Number Two.
Prisoner: Who is number One?
Two: You are Number Six.
Algebra, humbug. However, I did have an innate understanding of the prisoner’s response to that last line:
Prisoner: I am not a number; I am a free man!
Two: [Sinister laughing]
(Soundtrack: Copy and paste the link onto a new page: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFs1RgmqLBo)
My whole soul rejoiced, and rejoices still at that line. I am not a number; I am a free man! It strikes a chord, it resonates through my subconscious and energizes latent powers of individuality. It instills me with rebellious pride, whatever life chooses to throw at me, I am not a number; I am a free man! There have been times when I have quit jobs, as a matter of principle, I went home to say that I handed in my notice, and no, I didn’t have an alternative source of income yet, but yay, my soul was intact, I was not a number; I was a free man!
Left like that, the prisoner’s response would have formed one of life’s mottos, sensible and quaintly honourable to adhere to at times, leading to some foolish but well intended decisions at others. But noooooo, the writers had something else to add to this line, namely the statement delivered by Number Six when he handed in his resignation:
Prisoner: I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.
Now add these together….
I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. I am not a number! I am a free man!
....and I dare any modern cosmopolitan or suburban factory drudge or office drone banging away; beavering his tail off; humping his workload; hustling a deadline; slogging through a backlog; toiling; plodding; straining; struggling; and in general endeavouring to make somebody else and the taxman richer, to not feel just the slightest fluttering of some brain activity upon hearing those words. A brief moment in time in which the haunting echoes of youthful dreams and plans resurface for just an instance, the final convulsions of a deserted soul.
However, for a brief moment it was there, because that combination of words is very recognizable, they hold the promise of the shattering of the chains that bind us to work, tax obligations, and the rules of civility. More than the motto formed by one or the other, the combination could well be the basis of a whole new belief system, one I’d probably adopt if I didn’t already fill in Jedi whenever a form insists that I enter in my religious affiliation.
Add the content of the series, a desperate man trying to escape a village where he is only known as a number, and will only know peace and comfort if he accepts existence as a number and conforms to the norm, surrendering privacy, individualism and mind control in the process, and the Orwellian image becomes even more familiar. One reason the series still makes an impact is that it hasn’t lost its relevance.
Take a random modern Cloggy. Let’s assume he has had some education and a job. Naturally he is married and has a couple of kids and a house in the suburbs. He wakes up in the morning. During breakfast, his bairns whine about a new mobile-touch-pad-clever-e-phone or something or other, they’re the butt of jokes at school because their mobiles are more than half-a-year old already. He suggests that they find a job doing child labour in a coal mine to raise the required funds, but they look blank, and his wife shoots him a warning glance. He dutifully kisses her goodbye and is off to work.
He catches the bus, using his new electronic public transportation pass, something he’s not too keen on as the credit on it automatically has a fine deducted from it if he forgets to swipe the card upon exiting the bus. The pass was forced down his throat, for when people didn’t convert to it voluntarily, ”they” abolished all other ticket forms, no doubt earning hefty bonuses for having such clever thoughts. In his dislike of the phone he misses the most important thing. The pass, linked to his identity, leaves an electronic trail. Should someone so desire, they can follow his process from the bus, to the train, to the tram in the city which will take him to the office.
Try: Lord of the Wyrde Woods by Nils Visser
Once at his office, a gargantuan maze of epic proportions that stifles every possible notion of individuality, he switches on the computers on his desk. His job is to monitor something or other on a number of computer screens, one of which he uses for a bit of surfing, after all, in a nameless faceless work environment, people start to assume that their environment has truly bequeathed unto them a magic mantle of anonymity and therefore a license to surf at will. Moreover, it’s the only thing that keeps him awake all day long. Occasionally he writes and submits a report, he has no idea who, if anyone, reads it, he’s never had feedback. He laughs dutifully at the jokes cracked by the two colleagues whom he shares the office with, even though he’s heard the same jokes again and again: Five times a week as a matter of fact, and he hates the pair of them from the depths of his soul, hates their annoying habits, their mundane chatter, their lousy jokes, and the sushi lunch one of them brings to work, convinced that it sets him apart and lends him élan.
He himself lunches in the canteen, where he has to pay with his ChipKnip, a little device on his debit card that does exactly the same as the debit card itself, i.e. enable you to pay for things. The difference is that you have to upload funds from your account to the ChipKnip storage chip on your card. If your card is lost or damaged you lose all credit on the ChipKnip chip forever without any chance of a refund. According to the banks, this is really handy and useful. When consumers ignored the ChipKnip en masse, deals were struck at places like office canteens and parking garages where ChipKnip became the only way to pay your way. No cash, no credit cards, no debit cards just ChipKnip. If the consumer doesn’t want your handy little bonus earning device, force their mouth open and shove it down their ungrateful throat. Oh, and tough titty for tourists and other visitors to our country who have never heard of the thing , and mistakenly assume that cash, for example, is a legitimate currency. Naturally your purchases are registered, should you happen to buy a pregnancy test at a chemists, you’ll suddenly receive lots of junk mail for baby stuff over the next few months, even though everyone assures us our private information is kept really very truly utterly safely miraculously confidential.
Our Cloggy fantasizes a lot about murdering his colleagues and the makers of the ChipKnip in very gruesome and macabre ways. Doesn´t even feel guilty about those fantasies anymore. Someone should really lock him up.
However, no one does, and he goes home, monitored by Big Brother, who also notes down the title of the movie he hires on his digital tv after supper. The ingredients for supper have been monitored as well: Registered, numbered and categorized by consumer behavioural software , the information volunteered freely by us when we whipped out our consumer loyalty card in exchange for a 23 cent discount on a box of something or other.
Added to this type of life that has become nothing less than a cliché, is the Cloggy tendency to celebrate the mediocre. “Try to act normal” a very common admonishment and the need to do so ingrained deeply into Dutch culture. Unfortunately, `normal´ is an average, and therefore of average if not mediocre quality.
One of the notable aspects of the Netherlands is the open curtain culture. Walk through an English suburb in the evening, and you don’t get all that much wiser with regard to what the inhabitants are up to. Take a stroll through a Dutch neighbourhood, and you do, as most have their curtains open so that they can prove their adherence to normality, a throwback to the times when sex was a ‘bad’ thing, meant for mandatory procreation and not pleasure. The open curtains assured your neighbours you weren’t up to anything kinky, like making love with your spouse or some such sick perversity.
Neighbourhoods which, by the way, are designed according to the Cloggy notion that it would somehow be really nice if every home in a new suburb was an exact replica of the other 4,999 homes found there. I have a reasonable sense of direction, an inbuilt Tom-Tom, but I get lost in Dutch suburbs on a very regular basis. The worst are the ones they started building in the late eighties and early nineties, when they figured the monotone of 5,000 identical houses would be broken if streets were no longer in a straightforward grid pattern, but followed irregular loops, twirls, cul-de-sacs and other features usually associated with a maze.
Anyhow, want to blend in in Cloggy Land? Keep your curtains open, embrace transparency, and in the meantime learn how to hide the irregularities out in the open.
Don’t fall behind, if you do, we’ll try to cover for you at school and work, provided that you work on this cover as well. There’s stories of people, who fell behind financially and who had their kitchen cupboards filled with empty packaging. Should there be a visitor, then all will appear “normal” if the visitor glances in a kitchen cupboard. Kids talking in class about make-belief holidays as they already perceive, at a very young age, that normality includes at least two if not three holidays a year, and they dread their teacher’s well-intentioned but socially ignorant instruction “So, let’s all tell each other where we went on our holidays.”
Similarly, if you excel at something, hide it. There’s a proverb about not sticking your head above the mowing zone of a wheat field. The implication being, that if you get noticed because your head rises above everyone else, someone will take a scythe to it and reduce you to a “normal” height by taking your head off. Cloggies will seriously do this. I remember entering a faculty room once and being complimented by a colleague on very positive remarks she’d heard from students about my lessons. The proper response would be to diminish yourself, ensure the colleague that it was kind of the students to be mistaken but surely there are lots of mitigating factors why people might perceive possible above average qualities, which I most assuredly don’t have, please don’t burn me at a stake for being different, I’m normal.
If Number Six had been Dutch, he would have shouted: “I’m not the odd one out, I’m Normal! I’m not Unique. I’m just like everybody else!”
Instead, having been raised within Anglo-Saxon school systems in both British and American hues, I answered, “Of course they’re happy with me, I happen to be an excellent teacher.”
The ensuing hush in the faculty room was easily discernable, everyone became quiet, some looked shocked. It was like being in a movie, walking into the saloon on Main Street in some dusty Arizonan town and having all chatter and banter cease as you walk in because everyone knows the bad guy has it in for you, or because you are the bad guy. I had clearly raised my head above that mowing zone and the colleagues enthusiastically spent the next couple of weeks pointing out my every mistake, weakness and tendency to operate outside of the box (in their eyes a “bad” thing) in order to ensure I’d occupy a more humble position.
A problem posed by the collective urge to be normal is, of course, the definition of normality. Who decides what this Holy Grail of being is? Where do we find it? As far as I can make out it’s currently a crucible of several factors. There is the old Calvinistic approach to life, which is rooted deep in our national consciousness. No whistles and bells required, live frugally, work hard. Naturally, the no-frills applies to emotions as well, we don’t give in to Latin urges to react to our surroundings and events around them on a primary basis. In that manner we understand the British stiff upper lip, but we added to that our notion that ‘frills’ include social niceties. Cloggies don’t really think much of social niceties, and are convinced the whole world can’t wait to hear their opinion, so arrival at any Cloggy gathering is not accompanied by redundant friendly greetings (“Hi”, “nice to see you”, “good of you to come”), but immediate critical comments, preferably those which suggest that you’ve fallen out of the norm. Try coming late to one of these gatherings, you won’t hear the end of smug comments that they were on time, you were not, therefore they are normal, you are an abnormality. In other words, a verbal witch hunt with a figurative witch burning as a goal. Cloggies interpret such fun and games as an expression of their individual uniqueness, however most other nationalities think Cloggies are downright crude and rude, and not in a refreshing manner either.
Another factor, and this is one all of you will recognize, is the image of normalcy that the media force feeds us. We´re surrounded by images and messages, many subliminal, that enforce a socially acceptable norm, albeit a material one. We all know what a happy family around the breakfast table looks like, thanks to commercials that sell us butter brands, we all know what a successful career man eats, drinks and drives and we all know what the `innate´ qualities of a woman are etc. etc. I´m deliberately not describing examples of the above, your programming assures me that I´ve just opened a floodgate of images, free advertising for a dozen brands at least.
Translating this all back into our profile of the modern Cloggy, we see all this influence and subconscious training transform the Calvinistic notion of `simple´. We still like to be ´simple´, but not on a material level. Owning certain goodies is part of being ´normal´ and keeping up with the Joneses has become a national sport. However, that isn´t intrinsically Dutch, we´ve given our own twist to it, but as mentioned, this is recognizable all over the world, just think of those recent riots in London.
What were those rioters in London trying to grab and loot? Right, the items you need to own to ´belong´. Ironically enough their inexcusable behaviour was an attempt to express the desire to fit in with the rest of us. The scenes in London were disturbing, because it´s easy to just condemn, but on some level one realizes there might be more to it than just that. Looters and rioters don´t just jump through warp gates like Medieval demons occasionally released from the pits of hell to torment humanity. They´ve been simmering in a pot for a while. They are a reminder of the price society pays for the pursuit of our personal happiness. In other words, our primary desire appears to be to live life just like the people in a butter commercial do, and in order to feed that desire we, as a society, have been willing to make a few sacrifices. We seem to be willing to accept the dark side of the coin, which is the existence of an underclass, although we would really like that underclass to stay where they are and not remind us of their existence. As such, it´s difficult and disturbing to accept that we have to see London as a sign of our collective social success. People will contemplate murder and destruction in order to keep up with the Joneses. Risk jail sentences in order to own a pair of sneakers that tell the world that they too are successful, that they belong, that they count, that they too are normal. Number Six would be flabbergasted for sure.
Many Cloggies reading this will sigh happily, thinking that it is fortunate that these sort of things happen in countries that are far away. Do, my dear Cloggy, pay some attention to what is happening in Amsterdam. Kids from the Bijlmer have discovered a new game, to chill in the Vondel Park, and this is creating a very awkward situation. One might ask: why? The Vondel Park is synonymous with chilling, chilling in the Vondel Park is one of the fundamental rights of a Dutch citizen. The problem is, these kids are mostly black, and secretly we would like them so stay in the ´black´ suburb of the Bijlmer, not come hang around in one of the touristic showcases of Amsterdam. The kids caught on to this (I was honoured to teach them for two years, they aren’t stupid, in actual fact, most are quite astute) and now particularly enjoy exercising their right to chill in the Vondel Park, in fact, they do little else, to the discomfort of the cultural white middle-class elite who think the Amsterdam city centre is their exclusive domain. They´ll tolerate tourists, and the whole drug and prostitution thing adds a certain flavour to their city center, but black kids? Nope, the police are at hand in the Vondel Park these days, and from what I hear, ready to release vans full of riot squaddies at the least sign of trouble. Let me make this prediction, sooner or later the Moroccan lads whom we are apt to demonize because they travel around in gangs –probably because they’re quite frightened by the public hostility towards them- are going to figure out that our discomfort will become most acute if they too, start chilling in the Vondel Park. Since discrimination and racism isn´t exclusively a white trademark, there will be trouble as the Bijlmer crowd seeks to assert the right of the first-comer over the Bos-en-Lommer crowd, after which the squaddies will try to deal out corrective taps with their truncheons, and then the shit will hit the fan my friends, and we´ll find that London has come to us after all.
Even then, most Cloggies will start viewing Amsterdam as a very distant and foreign place (a lot of them do so already in any case). Because riots in London, let alone riots in the Vondel Park, will be especially uncomfortable for Cloggies as they hail, and this is the third factor in our crucible of normalcy, from a feminine culture. In a masculine culture, like the American one, competition is key: In essence, the urge to be better, to outperform a rival, to beat the competition, to earn more, to own bigger things, to run faster, to pull more birds, to climax louder and to make sure everyone hears of your success. Faced with something like the London riots, someone from a masculine culture will shrug and claim that the little buggers should find work and succeed in life, after which they´ll prove who is best by using the law to suppress the underclass some more. Might is right. Cloggies, on the other hand, would prefer to avoid competition altogether (unless football is involved) because it´s too confrontational. We don´t necessarily like to compete, we don´t like those who excel, will even punish them for it if we can, because that will make the rest of the brood feel more comfortable and less insecure, and collective wellbeing is an essential component of Cloggy culture. Hence the celebration of the mediocre, better that we´re all pretty lousy at something, than admit that some are downright bad in comparison to those who shine.
So, to start circling the wagons in a kraal once again, our hypothetical Cloggy not only lives a mundane life devoid of stimuli that might feed his soul, he also does so in a culture that actively encourages him to be as inconspicuous as possible.
His heart must start beating a little faster, surely, upon hearing Number Six proclaim that he isn´t, in actual fact, a number to be processed by bureaucratic numbskulls, but a person, an individual, a human being. Surely he must at times feel the urge to rip off overall or suit and tie in order to don a gaudy and dirty waistcoat, tricorne hat, belt with cutlass and eye patch. Avast, me beauty, that’s some treasure chest ye have there, ye best duck whilst I fire me broadside, savvy? Arrrr. Let´s rip a bodice or two, capture and carry a calf-eyed cleavage-possessing wench across the Seven Oceans looking for treasure and adversaries to feed to the sharks.
In actual fact, it´s this escapism that I´ve been working towards. This whole rant evolved out of a need to analyze swimming with a bow legged woman, as well that which makes an archer tick. In my mind, an archer of old is synonymous to a creature of rugged individualism. What I wanted to know, does this apply to modern archers too? What drives them? Are there collectively shared characteristics? Do they shout: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. I am not a number! I am an archer!”?
To be continued.
P.s. Do I sound cynical? I hope so. I admit I am trying to walk in the footsteps of a favourite contemporary author. Some call it theft, or intrinsical laziness. I call it a sincere albeit amateuristic attempt at homage, that suits my myth a great deal better. In actual fact, for future literary scholars stumbling upon this confession, call it a school, the early twenty-first century school of Cynically Observant Casual Kibitzers (COCKs) Make students look for meanings that aren't there and be sure to set difficult essay questions. That'll teach the intrinsically lazy a lesson they won't forget in a hurry. Moreover, as us Kibitzers will be long gone, our heriditary enemy, faceless greedy cooperations, will probably be the ones who make money from the set booklists. By which time the Kibitzers won't care, we'll just be pleased that us cocks have gained immortality. Irony, as ever, is best when served steaming hot.