Monday, 18 May 2015

The Naked Now

I’m about to ruin the next five minutes of your day. Here goes.

You are blinking. Constantly. With your eyes. There you are. Blinking. Eyelids battering away at your face. How do you even see properly?

Oh! And swallow. You have to swallow too.

How often do you swallow? Well – you’re going to find out. Because now you’re acutely aware of it. And so, as I type, am I. And now it’s taking an effort to do it. What’s that about? How was I doing that a second ago without realising, and now it’s like heaving a great lug of muscle about inside my head. Help!

It’s OK – it’ll be gone in a little while. Soon you’ll be distracted by a kitten or a sandwich or a terrorist atrocity and the whole blinky-swallowy festival of noise and effort will recede into the background, managed by your body like Norton antivirus doing a check for porn. Which is good, because (gulp) it’s a horrible (blink) effort, isn’t it? Gulp. Blink. Let my body deal with it.

But it’s also kind of more scary, I think, that we do forget about it. It’s a weird reminder that our bodies get on with loads of this stuff all the time and don’t even ask us. My heart beats while I sleep, chugging happily away like a fat little monster. Wounds heal. Food digests. Blood wanders up and down my arms and legs, asking if everything is OK and if anyone needs anything from the shops.

People talk about ‘knowing themselves’, especially as they get older. I’ve done it. “The great thing about being in your forties is that you really start to know yourself.” But, like so much I say, it’s absolute nonsense. Imagine the horrible reality of actually knowing yourself. Becoming suddenly aware of every blink, every swallow and every beat of your heart. Feeling the blood charging up and down your veins. Realising the constant fizz of neurons firing, the constant chatter of your brain micromanaging every tiny operation that keeps your nervous system from collapsing like lazy spaghetti. And no respite. No letting it fade into the background. An eternal hell of being aware of yourself.

You’d go mad. A great deal of what we do relies upon a cheerful ignorance of how any of our actions actually happen. How am I standing up? I mean, I know it’s theoretically about balance and positioning and stuff but that’s just what I’d write if I suddenly had to show my working in an exam. In reality, I just kind of… do it. I tell my body to stand, and somewhere a team of brain cells get it together to carry out what I can only assume is a terrifically complicated set of sums. And even that’s a lie. I don’t tell my body to stand at all. I just assume it will know what I want and let it get on with it.

I guess what I’m saying is, thank goodness for a certain level of ignorance. And I guess I’m saying it because recently I’ve had a number of really weird moments  - moments where I felt like I lost that ignorance. Moments where I became suddenly, horribly aware that I was existing in the present tense. And I’ll tell you what – it freaked the hell out of me.

Most of the time I’m not really in the present. I’m sort of vaguely aware of what’s happening, but it’s all perceived through this weird mist. At any one time I’m remembering some events, looking forward to others and imagining alternatives where things are different and I have a cowboy hat or a flat in Cardiff Bay. The present is buffered by expectations, memories and daydreams and rarely has the chance to impact meaningfully upon my psyche.

Then, occasionally, for whatever reason, the real, actual moment scrapes through. Dreams and memories melt away. I look around and I think, “This is happening now. These people are talking to me in real time. Shit! What do I do?”

I have little information on this aspect of life. It’s not some future event that I’m imagining happening, like my wedding day or what I’ll say if I ever meet Tom Baker – things I’ve considered in great detail. The first involves smashing through a window like Billy Idol, landing on a motorbike and riding up the aisle, playing electric guitar. The second features me crying like a child and saying thank you until he goes away.

And it’s not a thing that happened in the past, like that time I tried to explain widescreen aspect ratios to Andrew Brown and wanted to weep with frustration at his lack of comprehension. “Why are there black bars at the top and bottom of the TV?” he kept saying. “Why don’t they fill those bits in?” Because that’s the shape of a cinema screen you cretin! "But why don't they just make it the same shape?" How would they do that? Where would that extra visual information come from? Aaaaarrrrgg!

Idiot. Where was I?

Oh yes. It’s really weird looking at someone talking to you and becoming aware that the conversation is actually happening in the present. My subconscious is so used to my complete lack of interest in things that it usually takes care of it all for me. I just hear words tumbling out of my mouth and kind of casually observe the process as if I’m watching TV. “Hmm,” I think, “That was surprisingly sexist. Ooh, listen, I’m claiming to like jazz.”

On the rare occasions that I am slammed without warning into the unvarnished present, I have no idea what to do. I panic. For a start, I’m never 100% sure that I’m not just remembering this in super high definition detail. Then I feel utterly terrified at the responsibility of being present, in time. Who’s allowing this? I could do anything. What if I punch the person I’m talking to? What if they tell me something sad and I just laugh and say “I’m glad that happened to you - I hope it happens again.”? What if I stand up in church and shout “You’re all a bunch of bastards”?

I’m not even exaggerating. The power of realisation is blistering. If this is ‘now’, then nothing is set. I can disrupt all of this so easily. Without the comforting numbness of temporal dislocation I have no framework, no reference. There’s a reason why memory and fantasy combine to couch the present in cotton wool. I need to be kept confused and slightly out of synch.

And then there’s eternity.

Once in a while I will lie in bed and remember that I exist in time. And that either I will die and be dead forever or the afterlife exists and I will live forever. And that both are impossible to fit into my tiny mind. A terrifying chasm of existential fear opens up around me and I freak out completely. How can I not-exist forever? How can I not not-exist? How is anything meaningful unless it ends? And what happens after it ends?

And then, salvation. Sleep claims me. My thoughts drift and now I’m in a hotel and Tom Baker is eating cheese at the next table. Andrew Brown’s wife is stroking my face and I feel both guilty and delighted. I try to tell her about his inability to understand aspect ratios but my voice comes out like birdsong. And now I’m due on stage, and have to play saxophone… I can’t play saxophone…

I dream. Or some of me does. Elsewhere, the rest of me keeps it all running. Heart beating, blood moving, swallowing.

Goodnight. If you can.

Friday, 1 May 2015

How to Disappear Completely

It’s not easy having a face.

I know, I know. You think having a face is easy. You think it’s no big deal, and this is just another one of my paranoid rants, like that time I decided Christopher Walken was talking to me through the television. But that’s just another reason why I don’t truly understand you and never invite you to my sex parties.

Having a face is bonkers. My face is massive, and everyone looks at it, all the time, like it’s who I actually am. But your face isn’t who you are. It’s just some flesh arranged in a weird shape with holes in it that go inside you. Inside you!!!  How are you so fine with this? And your brain sends it signals, like “Look pleased that you’ve been given the biscuit,” and your face responds by contorting itself up and down for a bit, hoping that will do the trick. But just as often the person giving you the biscuit will look at you as if you have just signalled hatred, or lust, or total apathy. Although, of course, you’ve no idea if that’s what they’re really thinking. Because their face is probably making it up too.

And people say things like “You look tired,” or “What’s so funny?” or “Why are you so clearly aroused when I start talking about Avengers: Age of Ultron?” Or they say that someone ‘looks kind’ or has ‘cold, evil eyes, like a sex nonce’. All rubbish. You don’t know me. You have just been fooled by this shell, this fleshy ambassador to the world. And let me tell you – he’s an idiot. My face. An idiot. He tries to tell you what I’m thinking and feeling, but most of the time he just grimaces ineffectually, trying to communicate complex emotions and attitudes through a few stretched muscles and the odd raised eyebrow.

Every now and then I catch sight of myself in a reflection, like a shop window or the forehead of a particularly shiny butcher’s assistant. And I’ll tell you what, I look furious. Every time. I can be in the best of moods, my soul singing a little song as I rejoice in the many benefits of being me. And there’s my face, growling at the world as if to say “My mind is full of spiders and hatred! Fuck you all!” No wonder everyone refuses when I invite them to my sex parties.

I have, however, found a way to defeat my face. I have hidden him away from the world, where no-one can see him. Yes, I have grown a fine and mighty beard. This has proved a brilliant idea and I recommend it to everyone.

I started growing it last Summer and it has proved a pleasing and delightful experience. For a start, there is the great ease with which it happens. The beard literally grows itself while you are doing other things. You can spend all day filing your Doctor Who magazines into chronological order, breaking only occasionally for a cup of tea and a bit of a dance, and your beard will wander slowly across your face without you paying it the slightest heed.

There’s also the fact that people find beards inordinately fascinating. It’s now the first thing people mention upon meeting me. “Ooh,” they say, “You have a beard.” As if we were on Radio 4 and everything needed pointing out to the listeners. It is, in fact, a thing mentioned by people who I don’t even know. Perfect strangers observe and comment, as if it were a beard composed not of hair, but of miracles and adventure. It’s kind of fun, and does give me a sort of instant identity. This must be what it is like to be tall, or a well-known serial killer.

Then, of course, there are its face-obscuring qualities. People no longer judge you by what you are thinking, because they have, quite frankly, no idea. Where once you had a vulnerable, quivering mass of lips, cheekbones and jawline – open to interpretation by whomsoever gazed upon your naked face – now you have a tangled mess of terrifying hair. Inscrutable, beautiful and rampantly heroic.

“What am I thinking?” the beard asks. “That, my friend, is for you to find out. I am a mystery to you. No more assumptions based on the haphazard arrangement of my features. Now you have to talk to me, to get to know me properly.”

All well and good. Crisis averted through the medium of hair.


Except another, more existential crisis arose in its place.

I couldn’t help noticing that I was not the only person with a beard. In fact, they’re bloody everywhere. Men roam the streets, hirsute and    raggedy of jawline, beaming at me in fuzzy faced solidarity. People I’ve known for ages are suddenly experimenting with beards of their own. Every famous person on TV seems similarly decorated. It’s a world of hair.

 There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s nice, actually. There is a real sense of being part of something. But that’s kind of the problem.

I was having my beard trimmed when it occurred to me. That’s right, trimmed. I go to see a man, in a special shop, who applies all manner of lotions and oils to my follicular majesty. He trims and grooms and teases while I sip a beer and consider how I’d look with a monocle.

On this particular occasion I am gazing around at the tiny bottles of beard oil and tubs of wax that lined the walls of his excellent shop. I enquire as to how long he has been open. Less than a year, it transpires. Oh, I think. That’s handy, because that fits really well with when I decided to grow my beard.

And then I think – that is quite the coincidence. And then I think of all those others I know who also decided to abandon the razor in that same time period.

I’m forced to conclude that the decision to grow a beard might not have been, in any real sense, a choice that I actually made. The more beards I see, and the more I realise that they’ve all sprung forth in the last twelve months or so, the more I realise that I’m part of a trend. A cultural movement, invisible to me in its happening.

Me and all these other men with their fine, luxurious expanses of prickly faced joy. We didn’t just all, coincidentally decide, one day, to be done with shaving. Even though to all of us that’s probably exactly what we thought we were doing. We somehow, subtly, noticed that having a beard was a ‘thing’.  A host of cultural influences crept into our collective consciousness and worked away at our decision making process. Grow a beard. You’d look excellent with a beard.

So I start by worrying that my face doesn’t really communicate who I am, being open to the inference of other people. And I end up realising that even my choices are subject to the whims of others. My decisions creep up on me, preformed by the world. My sense of who I am exists somewhere else, conjured, maybe, in some boardroom where a well groomed dominatrix in horned rimmed glasses unveiled her latest scheme – “Fostering the Illusion of Personal Freedom through the Encouragement of Beards”. A swish presentation, featuring pictures of hipsters laughing in trendy bars and charts articulating a rise in sales of beard oil.

One day, when the zeitgeist demands it, I will be filled with the compulsion to shave away my beard. I won’t know why. I’ll just feel that I have decided. And as I scrape away the shaving foam, a terrible sight will meet me in the mirror. No flesh beneath. No cheekbones, lips or chin. For everything will have gone away. I will remain a blank space, unformed without anyone to tell me who I really am.

But I won’t mind. It will seem cool. And you won’t mind, because you’ll think so too.

This might be a parable.

Or it might be just that my beard itches.

I wonder what it would look like with just a moustache?