I am not the way, the truth or the light

I was going to write something about the depressing aftermath of the Tory budget and my anger at smug, lying millionaires telling single mothers et al that we’re all in this together, but my anger is very real, increases with every second I spend thinking about the confidence tricksters who lead us and it gets in the way to such an extent that the results are barely coherent. So instead, a small hymn to spiritual values.

A couple of years back, I speculated about a possible career change and thought it might be interesting to become a guru. I was quite open about it, logged it all in a blog, did a sort of cost-benefit analysis of its viability and even sketched out the specific type of guru genome I had in mind. Non-religious, but tolerant of all faiths, except those requiring human sacrifices; rural rather than urban (depending on the wi-fi coverage); tolerant of chanting and singing, as long as it didn’t happen when there was football on TV – all very commonsensical, reasonable modes of being.

I didn’t fool myself into thinking I could just sit around and be worshipped, or watch my followers worshipping something or somebody else. Worship was only an optional extra. No, I knew I’d have to give a little as well as take as much as I could. So I’d respect the archetype and give my followers access to some inner truth. But, as the archetype demands, it would be a completely arbitrary, relative truth, as meaningless as all the others. Thus I hit on the not-quite-mantra of ‘The sweetness of the butterfly drowns daily in the morning’s echoes’. And, if any of the followers were still troubled, I’d offer them the additional nostrum ‘Feel the swan in your blood’.

I decided too that, if they really expected me to say stuff, I’d do it in parables. So we’d sit around outside (or, from September to May, since this is Aberdeen, inside) the hut, and I’d say something like:

A pregnant woman walked into a baker’s shop and asked if he had a bun in his oven. The baker, who was a kind man, looked at her and said, ‘I have many buns in my oven, along with numerous varieties of cake and countless loaves of bread’.

‘And do you deliver this bounty?’ asked the woman.

‘Indeed,’ replied the baker. ‘I have a white van and travel to towns and villages and back again, unloading its goodness into people’s homes and lives.’

‘And does it taste as good as it smells?’ asked the woman.

‘Alas,’ replied the baker, ‘that I cannot say, for I am wheat intolerant.’

The woman smiled and laid on the counter a small white hanky, edged with Nottingham lace.

The baker unwrapped it to find, inside, the tail feathers of a wren.

‘Bless you,’ he said to the woman.

But she was gone.

That sort of thing was easy but other aspects of the calling might be less so. For example, I spent quite a while trying to devise sentences in which I could include the plural of the word ‘sect’ in such a way that it might be misunderstood or misheard by the followers and consequently lead to more mundane satisfactions to counteract the potentially oppressive excesses of spirituality.

Sadly, though, the anticipated allegiance of gullible humans whose lives were empty enough to seek the comforts of the void I was offering didn’t materialise. I did try articulating the not-quite-mantra at one or two dinner parties but it was met with either ribald merriment or the discreet handing over of business cards by psychiatrists or more successful gurus. I can only think that my gurudom was yet another victim of the credit squeeze and the oppressions of Mammon. (See? We’re back to that.) Never mind, even though our British masters are only intent on accumulating wealth, on the other side of the Atlantic the various millionaires aspiring to lead the Western world place their respective spiritual – and overwhelmingly Christian – values above material ones. It’s a reassuring picture..


In case you don’t know, MMORPGs are Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. And I think they’re fun. They call for the same sort of commitment readers make when they get involved in a story and suspend disbelief, feeling the fictional characters to be at least as real as they are themselves. My novella, Alternative Dimension, is about the attractions and the dangers of playing games and entering a virtual reality. For me, being part of a fantastical online community was a source of humour, a chance to indulge in some gentle satire, as well as a place where I met and got to know people I’d never have come across otherwise.

People are surprisingly unguarded there, revealing intimate secrets to others, even though they’re only interacting with an avatar and they have no idea of who the person behind it is. The risks in that are obvious, and the whole business of grooming and manipulation is very sinister and very real. And, of course, as someone unloads their childhood traumas onto you, you’ve no idea whether they’re true, whether the person’s male, female, Aryan supremacist or Jehovah’s Witness. (It could even be your partner on a laptop in another room – which is an even scarier thought.)

But games are making legitimate claims to be a separate art form in their own right. They’re like movies, they’re like books, but they have dimensions of interactivity which go beyond the traditional. The immersive atmosphere they create, the power of their music, which now has mainstream respectability (the London Philharmonic has recorded several of the best-known themes), the fact that you, as a player, actually inhabit the story and the settings – all of this makes different demands on the creative input of designers but also of players.

So the BBC radio programme I heard about the whole subject made for fascinating listening. One interviewee talked interestingly about how increases in computing power and the refinements in the disciplines involved in creating all aspects of a game meant that today’s ‘best’ experiences were constantly being superseded. Whereas Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare and the rest continue to be read and performed, old computer games seem limp and passé.

As I said, all of this was very informative and interesting. But, as she continued to enthuse about the excitement and value of getting immersed in games, she made one throwaway remark which I found very chilling and which made me rethink the values she was ascribing to them. To make her point about how games do have an afterlife in the memories of those who’ve played them, she described a night she’d spent escaping from some captors, gathering weapons, fighting her way along and eventually dragging her boy friend’s body from where he’d been held captive. There was a smile in her voice as she described it all, and the residual excitement was obvious. But then, after all these ordeals, she said ‘God, I felt like I’d gone through Vietnam’.

And there, it seems to me, you have a hidden danger. Not just treating war as a game but diminishing reality itself. It’s a paradox. This isn’t a criticism of her and I don’t mean to imply thoughtlessness or insensitivity on her part. She was interesting, enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. The experience for her was real, draining, even traumatic, but its ‘reality’ was immediately put into perspective by the inappropriate parallel she implied with true stress and horror. OK, it wasn’t a considered remark but, in a way, that makes it worse. As I said, I’m not condemning her, I’m asking whether our priorities and sensivities are shifting..

The stripped down version and others

I’ll keep this short. It’s just to provide my revised version of the exercise in the last posting. First, though, an apology for not making the ‘rules’ entirely clear (unforgivable in a piece about clarity in writing). It was purely a cutting exercise, not improving or paraphrasing or doing anything else to make it much more acceptable than the ugly thing it was. In other words, the idea was simply to get rid of any words or expressions that added nothing to the meaning without losing ANY of the information of the original.

So, with the deletions in bold …

The general consensus of opinion is that the complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions is absolutely essential to the continued survival of our species. Martyn Gillespie, who is the chief protagonist of the carbon trading lobby, has proposed a temporary reprieve by adopting a policy which may possibly suggest that compromise is a(n) viable option. His group is small in size but, at this moment in time, it is gaining in credibility. His opponents would do well to recognize its potential for growth and adapt their future plans in order to give advance warning of the complete monopoly Gillespie is beginning to construct. Nothing short of total unanimity will do. Researchers who care about the environment around them must spell out in detail the disastrous consequences that could arise if Gillespie were to prevail.

In her comment, Sara offered a passage from Thomas Hardy to ‘have a go at’.  Not surprisingly, it’s hard. In fact, I think almost any deletions would spoil its rhythms and detract from the force of the argument. The best I could do would be to cut one adjective. Try it.

“He did sometimes think he had been ill-used by fortune, so far as to say that to be born is a palpable dilemma, and that instead of men aiming to advance in life with glory they should calculate how to retreat out of it without shame. But that he and his had been sarcastically and pitilessly handled in having such irons thrust into their souls he did not maintain long. It is usually so, except with the sternest of men. Human beings, in their generous endeavour to construct a hypothesis that shall not degrade a First Cause, have always hesitated to conceive a dominant power of lower moral quality than their own; and, even while they sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon, invent excuses for the oppression which prompts their tears.” (The Return of the Native)

It’s the difference between literature and … well, less careful writing. But literature doesn’t have to be poncy. Here’s another bit of Hardy, from Jude the Obscure, one that stresses Jude’s feelings of unworthiness, and it’s very simply written.

“In the dusk of that evening Jude walked away from his old aunt’s as if to go home. But as soon as he reached the open down he struck out upon it till he came to a large round pond. The frost continued, though it was not particularly sharp, and the larger stars overhead came out slow and flickering. Jude put one foot on the edge of the ice, and then the other: it cracked under his weight; but this did not deter him. He ploughed his way inward to the centre, the ice making sharp noises as he went. When just about the middle he looked around him and gave a jump. The cracking repeated itself; but he did not go down. He jumped again, but the cracking had ceased. Jude went back to the edge and stepped upon the ground.

It was curious, he thought. What was he reserved for? He supposed he was not a sufficiently dignified person for suicide.”

I have to confess I think it’s funny that poor old Jude doesn’t even think he’s important enough to commit suicide..