Big Issue Columns: On The Edge
Save The Fish!
There's a line where righteous behaviour can spill over into self-righteousness. It's a very fine line. Everyone knows it: the point where a matter of principle can become a matter of absurdity. Take what happened to my friend John. He was on a weekend camping trip in mid-Wales with his five year old daughter. This was the first time John had seen Rhiannon for weeks. And he's crouching by a little silvery stream with a child's fishing net, chasing the trout around, the girl hanging onto his leg and chattering, both of them more intent upon their conversation than with catching a fish, when they're approached by a couple.
"What do you think you're doing?" the woman says. The man just stands in the background with his arms folded, looking displeased. She has long hair and a woolly jumper, and he has sandals and a beard. John looks at them bemused. "You're not allowed to catch fish in here, you know," she adds, indignantly.
John stands up. "Catch fish?" he says. "With this?" And he holds up the flimsy stick with its little plastic net.
"Well, you look Green," the woman says.
It took a second or two for that one to sink in. John thought she was referring to his fishing abilities. And then it struck him. She was referring to his politics. She considered herself a conservationist. She was trying to Save The Fish.
It's a common problem on the Righteous Left. People become so caught up in what they like to think is the Big Picture, that they stop noticing the details. The mind is so set in a righteous groove that it can longer distinguish a threat from a plaything. Of course the real threats to the future of the Planet - the international corporations, the military-industrial complex - are so unassailable and, at the same time, so ubiquitous, that it is beyond the scope of the average person to challenge them in any but the most peripheral of ways.
So what's a good Eco-activist to do? He has to do something. This is the point, maybe, where the sense of a personal mission can fall into pomposity - where righteous purpose becomes self-righteous posturing - and can end in the absurd spectacle of a couple of middle-class hippies defending these swift, muscular trout from a child's plastic toy.
Rhiannon said: "I think that Woman's mad!"
One of Those Days
It was one of those days. First of all a kid threw his bicycle onto the railway line. He was mucking about, spinning the bike in the air to show off to his mates when, all of a sudden, he lost his grip. It went sailing across the track in awful slow motion, and then landed directly on the live rail. There was a puff of smoke, a flash of blue light, and a loud crack. It was like one of those pantomime special effects. You expected a genie to appear.
So that was it! I had a date at seven o'clock, and I certainly wasn't going to get there now. They would have to close the line down until the bicycle was removed. Everyone on the station was milling about looking startled or amused. It was like a scene from the war: people brought together by a common misfortune.
I overheard a couple speaking. "I'll have to take you to London Bridge," the man said. "You wouldn't mind taking me too, would you?" I asked. They agreed, and we set off in the man's car. That was just the beginning. After that we got stuck behind a bicycle that was riding in the middle of the road. There was a bike track, but the cyclist preferred not to use it. He was gesticulating at the lines of traffic forming behind him, as if to say, "I don't care what you think." I began to develop an instinctive hatred of bicycles and their owners. After that there was an accident, two cars which met with a loud retort and a crunch of metal. The drivers got out of their cars and started shouting at each other. "What the hell is going on here?" I thought. It was like a collective madness had taken over the world.
There's a name for it: "Synchronicity". It implies a secret order behind the chaos of the Universe, as if some higher intelligence were leading you to a mysterious truth. Either that, or people just go completely loopy once in a while...
Have I told you about my dog? She's an Alsatian, dumb but good natured. And she's always hungry. All dogs are always hungry, it's one of their traits. She stands at the bar of the Labour Club, waiting with patient anticipation, like a customer, for someone to hand her a bag of crisps. She's grown so used to people feeding her that the merest rattle of a bag is enough to send her reeling towards it.
One afternoon Paddy was in there. He's Irish, drinks Guinness, is most often loud and drunk, but rarely aggressive. And he'd got his tea with him: a black pudding and a few rashers of bacon, in a Co-op bag. The bag rustled, and the dog was there instantly, pointing her nose at him and drooling. Well Paddy was in a playful mood. He wanted to tease the dog. So he got out his black pudding and waved it in front of her nose. "No, you can't have it," he was saying loudly, looking towards the other customers, "that's my tea." He'd only looked away for a second and - chomp! - it was gone: he turned back to see his lovely black pudding slithering into the yawning chasm that is every dog's stomach.
"My black pudding!" he cried indignantly. "The dog just ate my bloody black pudding!"
Well after that he was storming around in a paroxysm of rage. The words "dog" and "black pudding" were alternating, flying from his mouth like spittle. Now every time he sees her it brings back the humiliation of the moment. A man's tea is sacred, after all. He tried to put a complaint in against me. "That dog should be on a lead," he said. "Rules is rules. Dogs don't spend money." Unfortunately, his display of rage was so comic that no one can take him at all seriously.
So what's the moral of this story? Don't wave black puddings in front of Alsatians. Most of all: keep your dignity. You can always buy another black pudding, but dignity is not to be found in any shop.
The VAT Inspector
I was in the East Kent Monday lunch time. I'd gone there to pay Max back the twenty quid I owed him. As I came through the front door there was a woman sitting in the snug, surrounded by mounds of paper work. It was the VAT Inspector. Max was nowhere to be seen.
Well I had to stop, didn't I? Just for the one. I mean: you can't go into the East Kent looking for Max, and not have just one drink.
Sitting at the bar was Max's accountant. I say "accountant" and you immediately have a picture of him, don't you? Suit and tie. Shiny black shoes. Well this accountant is Pat the Hat. Black donkey jacket, black tee shirt, bearded, with that black beret wedded permanently to his head. Never takes that beret off, not even to have sex. "Where's Max?" I asked.
"Where's Max indeed?" said Pat the Hat. "He's avoiding the VAT Inspector."
Max had done the classic thing. He'd said, "look after the shop for me while I go to the bank." And then he'd started looking for his fags. "What do you need your fags for?" asked Pat suspiciously. "I'll be back in ten minutes," said Max. That was about two hours ago.
At the end of the bar, sipping white wine, there was a man trying to look like Winston Churchill. He had on a bulldog expression. "I hate parrots," he was saying. "Do you know they can't walk forwards? They shuffle sideways, like a crab. My friend had a parrot. It was useless. The only thing it could mimic was the sound of a vacuum cleaner being switched off."
Apparently the parrot had belonged to an American Special Forces agent who'd been kicked out for extreme brutality. "That's like chucking someone out of the circus for being a clown," somebody observed. They'd found him up a tree during the Vietnam war, taking photographs. Nothing wrong with that. Except he was taking photographs of all the mutilated bodies of his victims laid out on the ground to spell his name. "He was a very strange man," said the man with the bulldog expression.
I bought another drink.
After that we started talking about the Meaning of Life. Like you do. In a pub. And after we'd resolved the enigma of the Universe in three easy stages, and sorted out Man's purpose within it, the man who was trying to look like Winston Churchill shook my hand. "I've always hated you," he said. "But you've never spoken to me before," I observed. "I know," he said, "and I'm really sorry."
It was another one of those enigmas. People who take an instant dislike to you without even knowing who you are. Well, I had to stay a bit longer, didn't I? Just while I resolved the enigma over another drink. The man with the bulldog expression told me it was my dog's fault. "She's a nuisance," he said. "I know," I said.
We never did sort out that enigma. But we drank several more rounds while we puzzled our way around it.
By this time the barmaid had arrived. She was looking for Max too. So she rang round all the pubs trying to find him. In the end she got through to one where he'd been. "Apparently he's gone to Sandwich," she told us.
"Is that the Sandwich Isles?" asked Pat. "The lengths some people will go to to avoid the VAT Inspector..."
A Question of Words
The problem with writing as a medium is that it is very difficult to portray the inflections in words. One word can be said in many different ways. In this case the word is "no". It can be said as "no-o", with a broken inflection. Or as "no!", flatly. Or just as "no", blandly. Or in any one of perhaps a hundred different ways.
This story involves a trip to Southend. Ted and his mate got off the coach and - of course - they wanted a pint. So they went into the nearest boozer. Ted drinks cider, and his friend drinks lager, but they both have one thing in common, that they prefer to drink out of a jug rather than a glass. Ted went to the bar. "I'll have a pint of cider in a jug, and a pint of lager in a jug, please," he said.
The barman didn't move. "No!" he said: like that, flatly.
"Oh," Ted stuttered: "does this mean that you won't serve us?"
"No-o," the barman said, brokenly.
"Oh," said Ted again, bemused, "so you don't mind serving us?"
"But you won't serve our drinks in jugs?"
"But you wouldn't mind serving us a pint of cider and a pint of lager in glasses though?"
"All right then," Ted said, much relieved, "I'll have a pint of cider in a glass, and a pint of lager in a glass. Okay?"
"Yes." And the barman served them their pints, and Ted was about to pick them up when something occurred to him. "Incidentally," he added, "why don't you serve drinks in jugs?"
"Because people tend to use them as weapons," the barman said, miming the action of bringing a jug down on someone's head.
"Good point," Ted said as he carried the glasses over to his friend. And they drank up quickly, and left without another word.
Holiday Camp Project
My friend Ornella is the Chair of a Holiday Camp project in St Pauls in Bristol. The project was set up in the wake of the St Pauls riots a few years ago. It provides the youth of the area with camping holidays, day trips and workshops, and 2 regular weekly youth clubs. Currently the project is under threat of closure due to cuts in its budget by the City Council. The City Council aren't even aware of the work that the project does. To them its just a name on a piece of paper.
Ornella is an ex-punk feminist turned hippie. She likes to wear huge colourful head scarves and she believes in Peace and Love. What's wrong with that? Cynics might like to pour scorn on the ideals of peace-loving people, but what's the alternative? Hate and War?
She found out that there was the possibility of money being made available to turn a piece of wasteland into a playground. The kids got very excited at the prospect. They wrote a petition to the council. This is what it said:
"We the kids of St Pauls want a playground in Argyle Court. Please don't build a house there please. We want a safe place away from the mad drivers."
Members of the Holiday Camp Project met with the kids to discuss what sort of playground they wanted. The issue of security came up. They decided that they needed to put up gates to keep out the junkies and the alkies. But there had to be a space for some adults. One little kid said: " yes, but no hippies."
Ornella put on her most conciliatory voice. She wanted the children to get the idea that prejudice in any form is wrong. She said: "but I'm a hippie."
Ornella is very popular. It was obvious that they couldn't exclude her. The child thought about it for a moment, visibly puzzling out the issues. Then she brightened up: "oh all right then," she said, having reached her conclusions, "but only one hippie."
"Oh well," Ornella thought, "it's a start."
"What's the most expensive food you've ever eaten?" says Pete.
There are a number of them sitting at the bar, sipping on the various drinks ranged in front of them. The barman is polishing a glass nonchalantly. They all look at each other, mildly bemused.
"Dunno," one of them volunteers. "Lobster, maybe. That's expensive."
"I had Caviar once," another one says, "only it wasn't worth it. Tasted like salty axle grease to me."
"Me and the Missus went to an upmarket Indian Restaurant in London, and they put gold leaf on the food. I don't know if it was expensive or not, but it was certainly tasteless, in more ways than one."
Pete is, by his own admission, mad. He's pumped full of all those drugs they give to psychotic patients, which makes his eyes watery, and his walk stiff and awkward, like a puppet from a Gerry Anderson TV serial. He holds his arms clumsily at his sides, curling the fingers, as he wanders from pub to pub looking for company. He's also the victim of an unhappy divorce, and these days he's been looking even worse. His clothes seem more battered and stained, he always seems to have tears in his eyes, and sometimes he looks as if he's about to fall over. I asked him if he was all right.
"It's these new drugs," he told me, "they make me depressed."
"Don't you resent being made a specimen in a psychiatrist's drug-experiment?" I asked.
"I'd rather take the drugs than not," he said. "Not taking the drugs is much worse."
So anyway: back at the pub. Eventually they'd all run out of expensive foods to discuss. They'd been through all of the obvious examples, and anyway, it was beginning to seem like a pointless question. It wasn't as if he was asking them what meals they had enjoyed, which would have got a much better response. One of them turns to Pete.
"So what's the most expensive food you've ever eaten then Pete?"
It was what he'd been waiting for.
"Wedding Cake," he said, and walked out.
© 2009 Christopher James Stone