Posted in essay

Why Do We Write?

When I was a child, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I don’t remember when or why, exactly, but given that I was a prodigious reader, it is not hard to guess that it was when reading one of my many books. I graduated from kids’ books to adults’ ones early on and the first efforts at writing that I can recall were action-packed detective stories filled with adventure and car-crashes.

Two weeks ago, I was invited to an international school here in Phuket to talk about being a writer. I was reluctant to do it because I have little to say on the matter. In fact, I have never liked talking about writing. As a child, I hid my writing and hid the very fact that I wanted to be a writer. It seemed, somehow, shameful. As a teenager and then as a university student I did the same, telling no one that I secretly wrote novels, short stories, poems, essays, and screenplays.

I agreed to the classroom visit only because my friend convinced me that her students would be really interested, and I knew that my childhood self would also have been delighted to meet with a real live writer. I prepared a few things to say, but from the moment I walked into the room I was bombarded with questions from eager twelve-year-olds. They really were curious, as my friend had said. They wanted to know everything, and for an hour and a half I answered their questions as best I could.

One girl said she was about halfway through writing a book on orcas and another boy had written a novel of some kind. I was impressed, but what interested me most was that they really wanted to know was how a writer could get enough words on paper to make a book publishable. “My book is only 73 pages,” the young novelist told me.

That made me smile and took me quickly back to my own early efforts. I remember trying to write a novel about a secret agent who lived in a refurbished plane in the Scottish highlands. I wrote and wrote and wrote… but when the story was about halfway done, it was only 10 pages long. The same issue plagued every other serious literary venture I embarked upon for most of my youth. It seemed a mystery to me how anyone could pad a story out to fill a 300-page paperback book.

My latest book, World Citizen.

Nowadays I find it harder to cut my writing down… and anyway, I don’t write much fiction. My last book was about Allen Ginsberg’s travels and before that I wrote about William S. Burroughs’ interest in Scientology. I’ve written a few other books, too, but when it comes to making up stories, I just don’t have the same imagination I did when I was young. If I do come up with a story, I can’t picture it in my head like I used to, and so I can’t put it down on paper in a way that a reader would be able to interpret. I wish I hadn’t lost all that, but maybe it will come back one day when I least expect it. For the time being, I’m happy writing literary histories and the occasional guide to English grammar.

One small girl at the front of the classroom, whom I think was younger than the others by at least a year or two, asked me an interesting question. She said, “Do you love what you do?”

From what I said at the beginning of this essay, I suppose it would seem that writing is a lifelong passion of mine. However, it is not a passion, really. It was, once upon a time, something that triggered a certain romantic feeling inside me. It was my calling in life, and maybe it would be my way of leaving my mark upon the world… Through university, I read all the great writers and learned about their often tragic lives, and it seemed that was what I was going to do. After graduation, I set out into the world pretty much in that fashion, determined to succeed as a writer.

In my early twenties, I read voluminously and wrote almost every day. I read everything I could get my hands on and tried writing in every style. My own personal writing style morphed with the influence of the writers whose work gripped me — the sparse Hemingway prose jarring me out of my long Kerouacian sentences before the vitriolic Gonzo diatribes got to me. I wrote novels and articles and did my best to get everything published. I kept nothing to myself.

Years later, when my wife left me very suddenly and my whole life fell apart, I tried to write myself out of the depression that ensued. I wrote day and night, and when I wasn’t writing, I was editing the work of other writers. Over the previous few years, I had gained some success with my first major book and a host of well-received articles and essays, and now I fired off article after article after article. From eight in the morning until five in the afternoon, I sat at a desk and just wrote. The words were not a joyous outpouring nor were they particularly healing. They were just a distraction.

At some point in the middle of this, I began writing crap articles that companies would pay me for. It was easy work but the going rate was abysmal. Fortunately, my cost of living was very low, so I was able to cover all my expenses through my various written works. For the first time in my life, I could call myself a professional writer… and for the first time in my life, I hated writing. I was competing for jobs that meant nothing alongside people who didn’t know where to place a comma, and the job more or less went to whoever would accept the lowest compensation for the most work. My writing skills, honed over two decades of practice, meant nothing because the people employing writers didn’t know what good writing was, nor did the readers or the Google algorithm which we were essentially trying to impress.

Soon after that, I stopped writing.

When that little girl asked me if I love what I do, I had to pause for a moment. I had promised myself before going into the classroom that I would not be negative about writing. I would not stand up in front of this group of eager young faces and say, “Do anything except write! Save yourself and find something that has a future! This world doesn’t respect writers!” It was not the right thing to say, even if it was reasonable advice in this climate.

Nowadays, writers are just not valued by our society unless they are writing shallow, derivative novels or sensationalist, sarcastic tripe that feeds into our outrage culture. There are so many books on sale nowadays that no one will read that novel you wrote unless you somehow get it reviewed in a major publication, and even if you get an article published somewhere, it will be forgotten in forty-eight hours, a victim of our goldfish-like, net-addled memories. Most websites don’t make enough to pay their writers now, and those that do don’t want writing; they want content. Content means a set number of words in an order that will please Google enough to bring visitors who will stay for enough seconds to ensure a higher ranking on the results page, which in turn leads to the clickbait adverts that provide the $2 per 100 words that you got paid to write that piece of shit…

So when she asked me if I love what I do, I said, “Yes… actually, I do.” The words caught me by surprised. I continued: “I don’t like writing for other people, but when I write what I want, whether it’s a page in a journal or for a book I’m working on, I really enjoy it.”

And it’s true. I do. It took me five years to write my last book, and yet I look back fondly upon the days spent in my office, my back aching as I hunched over my books and notes, researching every detail of a dead poet’s life for a book that will never be reviewed in a major publication, and which will earn royalties that, averaged out over five years of work, will never add up to more than a fraction of a percent of minimum wage. Yet I can honestly say that, for whatever perverse reason, I really and truly do get an immense kick out of writing. It is something I am driven to do, despite everything, and I am delighted to know that there are children out there who care enough to pursue it as well.

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Don’t Forget – or Ignore – What Happened in Tiananmen Square

Thirty years ago, protesters in China nearly brought about a change in their country’s communist government. They sought democracy, while the government looked to maintain the brutal dictatorship that had ruled the country since Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

As most of the world knows, the student uprising was brutally crushed by government forces. In Tiananmen Square, where the protesters had made a last stand against government aggression, the army massacred thousands of students. The world watched in horror, and was captivated by one of the most powerful images ever taken:

tiananmen square full photo tank man

Sadly, unlike many celebrated protests and revolutions, this one was unsuccessful. The brutality of the communist government was such that the protesters were swept away, or crushed under the rolling tracks of the Red Army tanks. Those who died were never accounted for or acknowledged, and to this day their families are not allowed to mourn for them. Those who speak out are silenced.

The government mostly denies that the event took place, although it occasionally acknowledges it, justifying the action that was taken, and downplaying the death toll. However, discussion is absolutely forbidden in the world’s most brutal police state. Any mention of the event is immediately wiped from social media, and people are afraid to speak of it even in private.

If you post any images of Tiananmen Square from 1989, it will disappear without a trace. This is terrifying. In China, few people know the famous photo of Tank Man, and few know the true story about one of the most important events in their country’s history. It is hard for people to understand just what it is like in China… the absolute censorship and brainwashing that has contributed to a state of 1.4 billion people who simply don’t know.

Some people remember, of course. They have had their memories altered through government propaganda campaigns. Last year, I spoke about Tiananmen Square with my ex-girlfriend’s father. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that the protesters deserved to be killed “because they shut down the buses.”

In Hong Kong, there are annual events to commemorate the massacre, but one wonders how long these will continue. As Hong Kong is swallowed up by its Orwellian neighbour, how long will their right to free speech (or free thought) remain? China is stamping its insidious influence on much of Asia, attempting to push its ideas of historical revisionism into the mainstream.

Today, almost a billion and a half Chinese will go about their lives with absolutely no knowledge of what happened thirty years ago in their own capital city. Thousands of students died trying to bring them democracy and free speech… yet few know and even fewer care. The slaughter was for nought. Their government has won through violence, intimidation, lies, and censorship. It has created the most successful police state in the world, where everyone is under constant surveillance and no one has the right to speak out on issues that the government decides are forbidden. From their earliest days at school, children are subjected to a terrifying indoctrination: “It’s us against the world, and anything you hear spoken against your government is foreign propaganda.”

China has a leader with unrestricted lifelong powers, a government with the ability to control the minds of its people, a total disregard for human rights, concentration camps for its ethnic minorities, a history of genocide, aggressive territorial expansion, and a terrifying neo-colonial policy that has seen it swallow up great chunks of the world through financial manipulation. It is spreading its own nightmarish vision of the future, and no one seems to have the will or the power to stop it.

Don’t forget the people who died trying to stop this, and don’t stop calling China out on its evil ways. Don’t forget Tank Man, Tiananmen Square, or Tibet, and don’t abandoned Taiwan to its vicious oppressor.

Posted in essay

Six Months Free

It is the beginning of June, and for me this marks an important anniversary. It is now more than six months since I escaped from China. The time has flown by so quickly that I can hardly believe it… It seems only weeks ago that I was trudging to and from work, dodging piles of human excrement and being stared at by every one of the thousands of people whom I passed by on that miserable twenty minute walk.

Despite the difficulties of living in China, I was worried before leaving that I would come to regret it. In fact, going back to 2015 I had actually given serious thought to quitting and moving elsewhere. The problem was that I had a good job and a nice house and my life, though I was undoubtedly in an awful place, was overall pretty comfortable. I complained… but I was also aware that it could have been worse.

Six months ago, however, I snapped. I had been signing a new contract each year, extending my stay in that hellish place, over and over and over… I had lost respect for myself for not having the balls to leave. I was constantly stressed, and getting sick from the pollution and the filth of urban China. All the things that once seemed so curiously bizarre were now just aggravating. The government restrictions were becoming tighter, the country becoming suspiciously like Nazi Germany just before World War II.

I couldn’t bear to be there another week, never mind another year.

I bought a ticket home, handed in my resignation, tossed away all my things, and got the fuck out.

jesse escape

For the first two weeks, I honestly didn’t think about China. I got home and just forgot about it. I put every single ghastly detail of that place out of my mind. When a China-related thought came floating my way, I pushed it calmly away. I deleted every Chinese app and ignored every bit of Sinocentric news that appeared. When people asked me about my time there, I politely declined to comment.

Over time, I let myself slip back into those thoughts to deal with it better. I reconnected with a few friends from China, allowed myself to read the occasional news story, and generally stopped trying to block out that whole area of my life. As time has gone by, it’s come back more and more, particularly as I now live in Thailand, which is destination #1 for many Chinese people.lisa

I don’t look back and regret leaving, though. Sometimes I look back and wish I hadn’t stayed as long as I did, but that doesn’t really matter. I got out with my life and sanity – although the latter was a close call. I learned a lot in China, particularly about teaching, and so it was not a total loss. I sure as hell wouldn’t dream of going back, but I don’t regret leaving at all.

The funny thing about China is that it really is the very worst place imaginable. You sometimes forget when you are there that people can be decent or that things can be beautiful. It is a land of pure ugliness, sneakiness, cruelty, and idiocy. When you get out – regardless of where you go – you land some place with decent people and interesting surroundings. Soon enough, you come to take for granted the little things like people not blowing up fireworks outside your window at 4am or not honking their horn 200 times a minute for no fucking reason. Everything in China is dumb and terrible and evil.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate a little bit.

Nevertheless, it’s been six months and I feel better for it. I live in Thailand now, where the people are good and the land is beautiful. Going to the supermarket is not an agonizing process, I can surf the internet freely, and nobody stares dumbly at me or screams LAOWAI every two fucking seconds. (Although there are plenty of Chinese tourists at particular spots around the island, and I could go be stared at and revel in their stupidity if I ever felt the need.)

I am glad to be gone from China, and I have no plans to return. This six month anniversary is a reminder of an important lesson in life – that you need to do what’s right instead of sticking with what’s easiest. Sometimes you need to make that big change in order to move on to something better.

Posted in essay

Is this decade worse than the ’80s?

A few nights ago, I watched The Dirt on Netflix. It’s a silly film about the rock band, Mötley Crüe. All silliness aside, the opening line is brilliant:

The 1980s… the worst fucking decade in human history.

The Dirt Movie PosterI laughed when I heard that because it seemed so true. The 1980s was, in many ways, a cultural dead zone. It was a period when even the best artists temporarily turned shit. Even Dylan and Springsteen were awful during the eighties. Synth took over music, cocaine blinded the formerly creative people, and movies… well, ok, movies were fine, but think how good they would’ve been in another decade. Scarface, for example, is one of the greatest films ever, but how much better would it have been without the wanky guitar licks? The same goes for almost every other movie of the decade.

I laughed and laughed and then stopped laughing. Actually, the 1980s wasn’t all that bad, was it? I mean, it lacked all the best of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘90s, but it could’ve been worse. Yeah, it’s hard to think of a worse decade than the ‘80s, but then… what about this one? What about this decade we’re living in right now? I don’t even know what you’d call this current decade, but I suppose it doesn’t matter much. It’s almost over, and no one is going to look back and say, “Gosh, weren’t the _____ great?” No, it’s unlikely anyone will ever say that.

What is there to remember from the 2010s? If the ‘80s were shit, at least they had amazing movies like The Goonies, Die Hard, and Stand By Me, to name but a few. Nowadays we just remake movies, and if we’re feeling particularly edgy, we make the new cast all-female. And if it’s not a shitty remake, it’s another bloody comic book movie. I’m not entirely opposed to these, as they certainly have their place, but they seem to have become the cinema staple in the last decade, each pretty much the same as the one before it. It shows an utter lack of imagination, a disrespect for the movie-going public.

(That said, the movie-going public apparently likes it just fine. They clamour for more. But then again, these are the same people who’ve made reality TV popular and then placed one of its stars as president of the United States, so maybe we shouldn’t be giving the people exactly what they want.)

80s fashion
What were they thinking?

It seems to me that the ‘80s were such a cultural wasteland primarily because of the rise of cocaine. In previous decades, drugs had lit up the imaginations of creative people, causing an immense output of artistic creation. Cocaine… not so much. It deadened the imagination, or at least gave people confidence in their shitty ideas. It told them that synthesizers made music better and dumb guitar licks played over panoramic nighttime cityscapes could turn any terrible film into a great one. It told them that tracksuits, perms, and shoulder-pads were cool.

This present generation is not blighted by cocaine, but something far more addictive and destructive: technology. The internet has connected the world, and it has brought us little of real worth. People all over the globe are becoming more similar as our cultures are washed away by this unification of people. Facebook and Instagram are making us all emulate each other, while at the same time causing stark rifts between groups of people. The so-called culture wars taking place between left and right wing factions in the west is a prime example of something that has been exacerbated to an unimaginable degree by the advent of mobile devices that can connect us at all times to the internet. We now shop for news like we used to shop for music. “Metal is the best… fuck everything else!” used to sound so pathetic, and yet now look at us. We choose a political position and believe anything churned out by the fake news-generating meme factories. Orwell couldn’t have made this shit up.

Politics aside, it is disgusting the extent which everyone – myself included – is addicted to their phone. We panic without it. We cannot function without GPS, Google, Wikipedia, and Whatsapp. It has castrated us and lobotomized us. Our powers of concentration, of reasoning, of being able to amuse ourselves or sustain a conversation – all these things are fading quickly. This new technology has developed faster than anything in human history, and its impact is spectacularly far-reaching. I hate to sound like an old fart prophesying doom because of a new invention, but it does not look good.

I am glad that I grew up in the era before the internet, before social media, and before smartphones. Although I am as utterly reliant upon these inventions as most folks, I remember what it was like to live without them, and I think we were better off. Technology is not inherently bad, of course. Smartphones are not innately problematic, and the internet is actually a wonderful invention. But they are like opiates – designed for a noble purpose, but utterly abused.

phone and spine health
Source

In the 1980s, we did not have an epidemic of people taking selfies. We did not have tens of millions of people flying around the world, annihilating cultures and ecosystems just to get photos for their social media accounts, and people did not have an easy platform from which to spread ignorant views to an audience of potentially billions. Nowadays, you are “creative” if you remake a meme you saw on Reddit, “philosophical” if you copy someone else’s Twitter post on your Facebook account without attribution, and we all worship “influencers” who became famous overnight because their clickbait is better than the other ten thousand people who do exactly the same as them.

Bring on the 2020s. I genuinely hope that it brings about an awareness of the damage we have done to ourselves. I hope that Facebook and Twitter fade away, and that people begin to reject the technologies that have come to rule their lives. I hope that it these devices and platforms are used more responsibly while they still exist, but that they pitter away and people find that it’s not normal for us to be living such public lives, connected to so many thousands of people, and bombarded constantly with so much information. Yes, we are living in a decade that makes the ‘80s look pretty damn good, but while ‘80s bullshit was shattered by the likes of Nirvana at the beginning of the ‘90s, let’s hope we transition quickly into a better decade very soon. I cannot imagine people putting down their phones, getting offline, and returning to a state of mental awareness, but I really, really hope that it happens.

Posted in essay

Thoughts on the Arrest of Julian Assange

In the original incarnation of this blog, there was a post about Julian Assange. I didn’t delete it because of what happened later on, but it was deleted nonetheless when I decided to get rid of everything and start afresh. I can’t remember why I did that, exactly. I think I was looking for a new direction in my writing. Or maybe I wanted to cut ties with parts of the past. In any case, I remember blogging about him and, like many progressive people at that time, I was very much on his side.

I still have the original Word document of that post in an ancient file on my laptop, and I just looked it out. It makes for awkward reading, which was pretty much what my memory had told me it would be.

I’m glad I’m not famous because it’s the sort of thing that really comes back to haunt you. We’re not allowed to have mistakes in our past anymore. Almost anything from our digital lives could be dredged by hack journalists for salacious gossip in an attempt to discredit us among the increasingly vicious “progressive” media: “Oh, he made a joke five years ago that sounds bad now that we’ve completely changed our morality? Well, we’d better throw him under the bus to make ourselves look righteous.”

Fuck that. I can’t stand that attitude. It makes me think of China’s Cultural Revolution. A few days ago, Barack Obama called it the left’s “circular firing squad,” and he was spot on.

But that’s not what I’m talking about today. Not really.

I’m talking about Julian Assange, a man who was a hero to many of us just a few years ago, and who now makes us squirm. I certainly feel a tinge of embarrassment to look back. But I’m not ashamed, exactly. In fact, to go back a few paragraphs, I said that I found my original writing on the topic, and I’m going to share the very worst lines:

What the organization [WikiLeaks] does is invaluable. It is a true wonder of this era and gives me hope for the future of journalism, the internet and mankind.

Oh, that’s uncomfortable reading. (And not just for the lack of Oxford comma.) It’s a prime example of something that did not age well.

But that’s what life is. We say things, we change our minds for some reason, and we say something else. It’s the ones who don’t admit what they said in the first place that you can’t trust.

I did indeed look at Assange and WikiLeaks as heroic for what they did, and looking back, I can see why. In my original blog post, I called them out for being careless in certain regards, but ultimately I applauded them for bringing transparency and shining a light on the evils of the US government. The US was a tyrant, stomping around the world cloaked in secrecy, hiding evil deeds… Along came Assange and WikiLeaks and suddenly everyone knew, and it wasn’t all conspiracy theories but real hard facts. Like him or not, he helped hold people to account, and probably made it a little harder to get away with war crimes.

I still feel that way, but like most people I’ve come to watch Assange’s hysterics and the organisation’s decline. They have veered towards a darker path, it seems. For many, they are at least partly responsible for the election of Donald Trump and the cancer he has brought upon the United States. Assange’s rage at Hillary Clinton caused him to participate in the skewing of the American political dialogue, pushing opinion in the direction of a man who is easily the worst president in American history. What he did – something that affects the whole world to a great extent – was utterly unforgivable.

I suppose you could argue that he just did what he was always doing – bringing transparency and taking down powerful people. You might say that of course someone on the left of the political spectrum would be angry… that I’m just pissed now that he helped the right wing. However, I think that it changed fundamentally while Assange was trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, becoming increasingly unstable and bitter. I think that his interference in the election was a matter of spite, whereas his original actions were about transforming the world for the better.

It was uncomfortable for me – and, I presume, for countless others – watching Assange being hauled from the place he’d hidden for so long. I remember him taking refuge in the embassy, and thinking, “Thank god there’s at least one country willing to stand up and do the right thing.” It seemed the whole world was against him and he deserved protection.

Although I now view the man as a twat, and resent his organisation’s role in one of the saddest events in recent years, I hope that he isn’t extradited to the US, and that he doesn’t receive punishment for the WikiLeaks hack. Ultimately, what happened back then was something that needed to happen. As for helping elect Trump, there were a million and one factors at play. No one should be punished for that. We just need to learn from it, and ensure it never happens again.

Democracy has been weaponised. Russia and China and other non-democratic players, whose governments don’t even pretend to value free speech, have figured out how to undermine the things that used to make us – the western world – strong. Organisations like WikiLeaks and people like Assange were, I thought, necessary for an open society. Maybe they still are, but we have seen how they can switch sides and become selective in how they choose to use the information they uncover. Their methods have been subverted, and they have caused chaos, tearing our societies apart.

It’s hard to see any positives coming from this. Not many will sympathise with Assange now, and there are plenty who will castigate him for a wide array of perceived offences. He has helped usher in a dark era in global politics, but perhaps it says more about us than him that that was allowed to happen. I guess he will go off to prison for the rest of his life – a fate probably no worse than spending it in an embassy – and we will all just forget about him. But I can’t help but feel we are living in a world partly of his creation, and one that was very much unforeseen.

Posted in essay

Thoughts on Brexit

I have never written about Brexit before because 1) I hate even thinking about it, and 2) I’m not a legal expert, and even they seem to struggle to fully comprehend it. But here goes…

Like most reasonable people, I am not just opposed to Brexit, but utterly aghast that it is happening. Yet, on some level, I do understand the events and sentiments that led us here. I get why people felt that it might be a good thing: Britain has been in decline for a long time, the EU does have some obvious problems, and immigration (you don’t have to be a racist to agree) comes with some pretty notable problems. Many people were frustrated at the state of our country and they wanted action taken. Like with the election of Donald Trump over the pond, enough people were angry and confused to make something really awful happen.

While those are fair and reasonable issues to complain about, I’m still appalled that they led us down such an unthinkable path. Brexit is nothing short of a national embarrassment, so hideous an event that it seems indeed to be the final chapter in that improbable epic, The History of Great Britain. Brexit simply should never have put to referendum, and in the next few paragraphs I shall explain why.

Firstly, even the dastardly Conservative icon Margaret Thatcher believed it was a bad idea to put such a topic to a public vote. I never thought I’d utter these vile words, but… I agree with Thatcher. *shudders* Yes, that’s right; the Iron Lady was spot on in this one instance. She rightly pointed out that the public may be asked for their vote on comparatively simple issues like the death penalty. This involves a simple moral question: Is it right or wrong to take someone’s life as punishment for their having taken another. However, to ask the public whether the UK should or shouldn’t leave the EU is absurd, as the question is simply too complex.

To put it another way, leaving the EU was never the simple question that Leave proponents put forth, but they were very clever in making it seem that way. They took a wide range of issues and put them under one convenient slogan, and then targeted people who were unhappy with any of these issues. Brexiting is something so wildly vast and complicated that even legal experts struggle to comprehend it, and yet the average man and woman were being asked to weigh in. It is beyond belief that this vote went ahead.

Which leads nicely into my next point. This may sound mean, or even politically incorrect, but go to your local Poundland or Wetherspoons and pick a few people at random. Ask them some questions about EU policies and see what they have to say. Go on; I’ll wait.

The average British citizen nowadays barely has the intellectual capacity to vote for a candidate on <insert trendy reality TV show>, never mind figure out the complexities of a legal separation of two political entities. Yes, they are entitled to their opinion, but no their opinion doesn’t fucking matter.

Does that sound harsh? Well, that’s a shame. Life is tough, but pandering to idiots is a waste of time. If these morons hadn’t voted for Brexit in such vast numbers, most of them would’ve forgotten it by now and would be more concerned about the latest Instagram post by <insert trendy “influencer”>.

Now let’s put aside the fact that asking millions of mentally incompetent people to vote on something that should never have been voted on is a bad idea, and look at what they voted for. To do this, let’s consider the following scenario:

You wish to purchase a banana, so you go to the local fruit market. You have a choice between two bananas. One is a bit bruised and blackened, but the vendor at this stall tells you it is still good inside. The other is perfectly yellow, and that vendor tells you this is the best banana in the world, and that the slightly bruised one is poisonous. Which do you choose? You take the bright yellow banana because it looks so good. Of course, when you go to peel it, you find out that the vendor has taken a shit and painted it yellow. You have been fooled, and now you are holding a yellow turd.

This is essentially what happened with Brexit. Immediately after the vote, admissions were made that the promises given to Leave voters were utterly false – not just small lies, but outright fabricated nonsense. Voters had been played like the idiots they in fact are. Many of them, regrettably, still believe the lies and cradle that little yellow poo, hoping it somehow proves to be a banana, while others realize that they were swindled, and wish for the chance to return to the fruit market.

Of course, the politicians who are in power helped sell those shiny yellow jobbies, and they tell us: “Pipe down; the people have spoken. To start handing out real bananas now would be undemocratic.”

Ah, democracy. We hold it up to be the absolute paragon of reason in this tempestuous modern world of ours. But is it really so great? Look around and ask yourself how the fuck we are stuck with Brexit and Trump and a host of other idiotic populist yellow turds. In the era of social media, something has begun to stink, and it isn’t just those shitty bananas.

Democracy was never the perfect form of government, but it was less terrible than others. Asking the same people who watch Geordie Shore to puzzle through the intricacies of international law is a bit like asking a brain-damaged rabbit to build its own new hutch by following instructions that have been fed through an Enigma machine. That we assign everyone an equal vote in the future of our country, despite the fact that the most popular newspapers are The Sun and The Daily Mail, is proof that we need a new system.

But I digress… sort of.

The Brexit referendum ended up 52-48 in favor of leaving the EU, and to me it is quite frankly stupid to have such a small difference allow for a change of such tremendous impact. Surely for something of the enormity of leaving the EU – effectively stranding the UK alone and thrusting us into a world of uncertainty – we should have required the support of 75% of the population at minimum. Right? Is it just me that thinks a slim majority should be able to decide to damn our country? Surely altering the status quo in any significant way should require near total agreement. This isn’t like transitioning from one incompetent government to another – it’s more like asking voters to decide whether or not to implement a Purge day.

I say “our country”, but of course this issue is more complicated even than that. I am Scottish, not British, and yet my country – Scotland – is being forcibly removed from the EU due to the political idiocy and right-wing fervor of our mentally inferior cousins to the south. We are part of a union with the countries with whom we share an island, and the will of the biggest has dragged along the others. Then there’s the Ireland issue and the promises made regarding the open border…

There are so many complexities to this. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, and as is probably abundantly clear by now, I am no legal expert. But it seems undeniable: There never should have been a Brexit referendum, and there should be no Brexit. Surely no right-minded person could argue that the future looks good for Britain. We were given an out by Europe in December when it was decided that we could unilaterally revoke Article 50, and as we draw closer to a no-deal Brexit, it is time we ready ourselves for a few years of being teased by the France and Germans and do the right thing. Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster so far, and the real effects haven’t yet been felt. No good can possibly come from it.* The embarrassment of this situation can be forgotten if we put it aside and go back to figuring things out sensibly, but if we leave Europe and cast ourselves adrift, our decline as a nation will hasten and in this rapidly change world, we will flounder and sink.

 

 

* I suspect that a significant amount of the incomprehensible wishful thinking that comes from the pro-Brexiters even now stems from the old notion of Britain as powerhouse of the world. Alas, those days have come and gone. We may once have ruled the seas and a full quarter of the landmass of this planet, but we are now just a cold, rainy collection of islands whose importance comes largely from history. As part of a bigger whole, we can thrive, but alone we will fail.

Posted in essay

Thoughts on China

In December, 2018, I quit my job and left China. I had been living and working in the Middle Kingdom on-and-off for more than eight years, and I was deeply unhappy. Of course, it hadn’t been all bad for all that time, but as the years went by, certain things bugged me more and more.

In China, it is socially acceptable to push and shove other people, to scream at the top of your lungs in a crowded place, to watch movies on the train at full volume with no headphones on, to spit on the ground just about anywhere, to point and stare and shout at people who look different, to urinate or defecate in public, to torture animals, to throw trash anywhere without a thought to the consequences, to drive like a maniac and blare your horn in residential areas in the middle of the night or light fireworks outside someone’s window at 5am… In short, it sometimes feels like no one in China ever even considers the feelings of people around them.

Chinese kid pooping at airport
Public pooping?! It’s fine in China.

When I first arrived in China, this was all exciting and fascinating. It is sort of liberating to live in a place where anything goes, and where almost everything people do and think and say is the polar opposite of what I – as a western person – was accustomed to. In this totalitarian regime, there were of course a million and one laws, but essentially the only real rule was: “Whatever you can get away with is right; whatever you get caught doing is wrong.” It was like the Wild West, except it was about as Far East as you could get.

I left China in 2013 to move to Cambodia and I missed it. Until then China had still been exciting, not to mention a veritable gold mine. Working there, I could make a small fortune doing stupidly easy jobs. Sometimes I taught at private schools, where really very little teaching was ever done because in the Chinese education system all you need to do is memorize long lists of data and learn how to praise the government. No one ever learns to think. I sometimes did “white monkey jobs” like officiating weddings, pretending to be a famous Russian pianist, or act in ridiculous TV commercials. It was fun, it was weird, and it made me some good money.

When I returned in late 2014, I moved to a city that was the laughing stock of the most backwards province in the country. It was a place where several mayors had gone to prison for corruption, where one of the biggest theme parks in Asia lay empty because it had never actually been opened, where a whole second city had been built to the south of the first one, but stayed empty because the buildings all collapsed before anyone could move in. It was a city where despite annual floods, the government never bothers to install drains, where a big sign at the entrance to the city said “NO PUBLIC DEFECATION!” but no one paid any attention because that is their proud heritage, and where homemade tractors plied the streets, spewing vast clouds of black dirt into the sky. It is famous for massive car pile ups, mine collapses, organized crime, and some of the worst air pollution on earth.

No pooping sign in China
“No public pooping,” say the government. “But it’s our god-given right!” say the people.

At first, I loved it. It was even more fucked up than the rest of China, which is in itself the most fucked up country on earth. I explored the city and its surrounding countryside (although Chinese countryside is more densely populated than British cities, so don’t go imagining any rolling green fields) extensively during those first months. People stared and pointed and shouted, “LAOWAI!!!” (meaning, “foreigner”) as loudly as they could because that’s just what Chinese people do when they see a foreigner.

I loved it.

My job was also wonderful. I had total freedom to design a curriculum for my one hundred eager students on a pleasant university campus at the edge of the city. My apartment was small but comfortable and my salary kept going up every few months because I was getting such great feedback from anyone who came to watch my class. I found a little gym nearby and got healthy, eventually training up to run a marathon in the next big city to the south, Hefei. In my holidays, which were substantial, I spent months exploring the globe from Africa to India and even North Korea. It was bliss, in most respects.

As time went by, my feelings towards China soured. What was once charmingly bizarre soon became irritating; what used to make me laugh now brought me half to tears. I grew sick of the poisonous air, the poisonous water, and the poisonous people. Going to the supermarket meant having my whole life picked over by each and every person in the building. I could not go anywhere without being pointed at, stared at, and rudely talked about, and when once that had just been an odd quirk of the locals, now it boiled my blood. My daily walk to school became a test of my tolerance for abuse, as I heard again and again the old refrain, “LAOWAI!!!” Without exaggerating, it was unlikely that I would go a few seconds without hearing someone loudly expectorate or some idiot beep his car horn for no reason. I grew to resent the ignorance and cruelty of the people around me. Every day I would see something sickening or enraging: an old lady balancing a baby on the front of her ebike as she rode through traffic on the wrong side of the road; dog carcasses hanging in the streets; human excrement everywhere; old ladies handling raw meat in the supermarkets and then chucking it back…

Laowai

And then there was the government.

The Chinese government is among the most insidious of all organizations. I’m sure to any educated, non-Chinese readers, it is hardly worth even mentioning the obvious atrocities: the genocide and cultural destruction of Tibet and Xinjiang, the innumerable human rights violations, the total suppression of free speech, the Tiananmen Square massacre, organ harvesting, and so on. Yet in China the government is revered by almost everyone and their power is utterly unchecked. Their propaganda and censorship are so astonishingly effective that a billion and a half braindead zombies just wait to be told what to think, and will not tolerate any criticism of their dear leader, Xi Jinping.

I loathed being unable to say certain obvious and undeniable truths, to be able to use the internet freely, to have books sent to me from abroad. I hated being monitored on cameras all day, and having my communications watched by Big Brother. It was unimaginably oppressive. But then, if you are an intelligent person who is not Chinese, there is hardly any point in saying this. This is known to all the world except for the blissfully ignorant citizens of the PRC.

Needless to say, all of that ground me down and the country which I once loved and in which I felt at home soon became a prison. I was desperate to leave, and so, in December, 2018, I did.

*

On my various excursions outside of China in the past few years, I have had to witness the tragic Chinafication (or is that Sinofication?) of the world. Back in 2008, when I first visited China, the various powerful nations of the world could openly criticize China’s government for its human rights abuses, but now China is the second wealthiest country on the earth and no one is willing to say a damn thing, lest they feel China’s wrath. Once upon a time, the strong could stand up to China’s bullying of its neighbors or complain about its monstrous actions at home, but now Europe is falling apart, Britain is sliding into mediocrity, and the American President can pretty much be bought off with a few business concessions to his family.

China’s influence has spread, despite having no culture of its own anymore. While the likes of Japan and South Korea have their own domestic cultural creations to send out into the world, China has nothing. Under absolute censorship, where only government propaganda is allowed, there can be no culture. Yet China doesn’t need its version of K-pop or manga, or for that matter its own Hollywood or Bollywood. China has a rich, unscrupulous government with a billion and a half zombies to do its bidding. It has been rapidly eating up the globe, and no one can do a damn thing about it.

Across Africa and Asia, China has freely given away money and then seized land and even ports as compensation for debts unpaid. It sends hordes of its own brainwashed people into these places to Chinafy the local area. The Chinese build vast hotels and casinos – not with local workers, of course – through coercion of local officials, and wipe out local businesses by driving up prices. In Sihanoukville, Cambodia, the Chinese have taken over, pushing out all other foreign business people first, and then making the locals homeless. They bring absolutely nothing to a country except destruction and poverty. Soon half the world will be modeled on China’s ugly, grey urban landscape, where nature has been vanquished and every street and building looks identical.

This is probably starting to sound a lot like colonialism, right? The Chinese are like the Spanish in the fifteen and sixteen centuries, and the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth. It’s reminiscent, too, of US globalization in the twentieth century, where McDonalds and blue jeans were foisted upon every nation of the world, eroding many of the charming distinctions that existed between different cultures. Except this is much, much worse. The Chinese have more power and more people. They have fewer morals are intent on annihilating the environment wherever they go, decimating wildlife, ruining coral reefs, and ensuring that nothing natural remains. They have done a spectacular job of making China into one vast grey nightmare over the past few decades, and now they have their eyes on the world.

China’s neighbours must be quaking in their boots as the CCP look around and lay claim to every bit of land and sea within a thousand miles (or more) of their own rightful shores. They took Tibet and Xinjiang, and they will bully their way into ownership of every last speck of land in the South China Sea. They’ve eroded Hong Kong’s independence, and it won’t be long before missiles fly over the Straits and tanks land on the shores of Taiwan. And who will stop them? Who will stand up for Taiwan?

There is no one.

The world is changing, and not for the better. As Spengler foretold, the West is falling, and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, it will be replaced in a position of power by a truly evil entity. There will be not checks or balances, no national discussion, not even the semblance of democratic process… The forces of good in this world will be powerless, and the worst actors in each corner of the globe will be emboldened by China’s rise. We may even see the West fall not just in terms of power, but into Chinese-style systems of oppression, as they attempt to return to the top of the pile.

We have entered the Chinese Century, and it looks bleak.

Posted in essay

The Absurdity of “Cultural Appropriation”

Yesterday I watched a series of presentations by young Chinese businesspeople. Their task was to find a product or service from China, then choose a target market abroad, and figure out how to break into that market. It was an exercise in culture, as much as anything. Their assigned reading included various essays on the failures of businesses attempting to enter the Chinese market and vice versa. My job was to pick apart their presentations and find flaws in their plans, and then challenge them to defend or change their presentation.

Most of the groups picked various Chinese foods that have not yet penetrated international markets, but two of them looked at Chinese clothing. In particular, they decided to pick the qipao, and market it to consumers in the United Kingdom. One of the groups intended to hybridize the qipao with Victorian-style clothing, which I think is just a horrible idea that profoundly misunderstands modern British tastes, whereas the other thought they could simply sell the qipao as it is to British women.

Qipao_woman
A woman wearing a Qipao (Source: Wikipedia)

My question to them went a little like this:

“I think that most people in the UK and other Western countries would agree that the qipao is a beautiful and elegant item of clothing, and maybe fifty or a hundred years ago they would love to wear it. But these days people would be afraid of receiving criticism for cultural appropriation. How do you intend to get past this obstacle?”

The students were unfamiliar with the concept of cultural appropriation. In fact, if you try to explain this issue to just about anyone here in China – or, for that matter, much of Asia – they look at you as if you were insane. And I would tend to agree. To me, the whole concept is indeed insane.

The Chinese, like the Japanese and Koreans, mostly wear Western-style clothes. Their idols are American pop stars, movie stars, and basketball players, and, each year, their diets are comprised of more and more Western-style food. Their cultures are utterly permeated with American and European influences. It is hardly surprising, then, that people from this part of the world dream of the day that Westerners walk about in Asian clothing, listen to Asian music, watch Asian movies, and eat Asian foods. The idea that this could somehow be offensive to them is absurd.

The issue of cultural appropriation was widely discussed a few weeks ago after an American girl wore a qipao to her prom, and incurred the wrath of America’s liberal trolls, who said she was offending the Chinese. Meanwhile, in China, people agreed that she had done nothing wrong.

qipao
Keziah Daum in a qipao

My girlfriend has asked me about this before. Last year, she was looking for a dress to bring to Scotland, and she suggested I buy something Chinese for myself. She thought it would be nice if we both wore Chinese-style clothes when we visited. I tried to explain that British people would think I was stealing from her culture and being offensive to Chinese people.

“But it’s my idea! I’m Chinese and I want you to wear Chinese clothes!”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what you want. There are a bunch of people who think they know best, and they decide what’s right and wrong, and they’ve decided that this is offensive to you.”

We “argue” about it sometimes, although I’m entirely on her side. I am merely trying to explain what cultural appropriation is. I have no interest in defending it. I can certainly understand why it’s wrong for kids to wear offensive Halloween costumes, and that there’s a difference between respecting someone’s culture and mocking someone’s culture, but it seems that too many PC folks cannot understand these nuances.

When pressed, these critics will argue that cultural appropriation is a matter of power. The argument goes that Western countries have pushed their culture on the rest of the world for so long that it is impossible for them to steal from us. However, when Westerners take an element of another culture and incorporate it into their own, it is a form of theft. This is reasonable, except that is usually a form of respect to see something worthwhile in another culture, not to mention a natural part of intercultural exchange throughout human history. Surely it would be far worse to dismiss that other culture entirely, saying, “I’d never wear Chinese clothes! I have more class than they do!” As for the power dynamic, as my girlfriend pointed out, surely by now China has far more power and wealth than, say, Scotland, and yet no one would complain about a Chinese man playing the bagpipes.

In Asia, despite the sudden influx of Western fashion, people remain fiercely proud of their traditions, even when they don’t engage with them much themselves. A Chinese person who has never done kung-fu or played the er-hu will nonetheless tell you of the subtle sophistication of these cultural artifacts and, whenever a picture of a white person engaging with either makes it onto social media, they are not offended. On the contrary, people are filled with pride that something from their part of the world has made an impact on someone from another part of the world.

If you ask them about it, they’ll say, “Well, we have x from your country; why shouldn’t you have y from ours?” And that is exactly the point. It is precisely why cultural appropriation is a deeply ignorant concept, even if it is, in some cases, well-meaning.

To be honest, I have no interest in wearing Chinese clothes when I go back to Scotland. It’s just not my style. However, I have been in Asia for more than ten years now, and in that time I have travelled through dozens of countries. I attempt to see and experience the culture in each place I visit, and it always makes me sick to look at the limited perspectives of the people who get riled up on social media about cultural sensitivity. These folks are mostly from the US, and their entire worldview is shaped by American society and politics. They attempt to apply their morality on the globe, whilst at the same time decrying ethno- or geocentrism. The things that they say make no real sense from a global perspective. Their hearts are, mostly, in the right place, but their heads are firmly lodged inside their own rectums. They make me embarrassed to call myself liberal.

Posted in essay

Requiem for a Kitten

Two days ago I was just leaving the gym with my girlfriend when we heard a small noise. We looked over to a cluster of bins and saw a small cat sitting among them. White with black markings, the little kitten looked at us and meowed again.

I walked slowly over, trying to seem non-threatening. I know cats well, and know almost all the street cats in China would run a mile when approached by a human, so I was very surprised when she stayed put. She seemed scared, but held her ground.

When I put out my hand and petted her on the head, she purred and came closer to me. She rubbed up against my leg and rolled on the ground as I tickled her. I noticed that she was very skinny. In fact, when I put my hand around her, I saw she was the skinniest cat I’d ever seen. She was dangerously thin; just a spine wrapped in fur.

I didn’t know what to do. I contemplated running off to get some food from a nearby shop, but she looked like a single meal wouldn’t help her. She needed much more than that. After a short discussion, Vera and I decided to take her home. We said we wouldn’t keep her, but we’d help her get back to full health.

*

The little cat had no qualms with me picking her up and wrapping her in my sweatshirt, although she was quite scared as I held her to my chest and drove back home through traffic. She was remarkably well-behaved, though, and we were soon back at the house. I plonked her down in the living room and gave her some chunks of cooked beef, and then shot out to find a petshop where I could pick up supplies – several varieties of kitten food, kitty litter, shampoo, etc.

She had dived straight into the beef chunks but it didn’t occur to me until much later – after I’d gotten home from work – that she may not actually have eaten much, if anything. She didn’t touch her kibble or her tuna, and she seemed to sit next to the water bowl for a long time without drinking. In the evening I began to grow worried. Maybe something was wrong with her mouth or stomach?

She was very affectionate and well-behaved, meowing a little but never getting into trouble. When I left the house she would wait by the door until I came back, then flop at my feet and purr when I got in again. At night she sat quietly in her little bed, not howling like some felines do. She was the perfect cat.

*

The next morning I went to work but decided that at lunchtime we would go find the nearest vet and get Pearl – as she was now called – checked out. However, when I got home at lunchtime she ran over to me to say hello, but moments later started vomiting. Then she collapsed and just lay in her bed unable to move. I scooped her up and carried her in my arms to the vet, who said she was the skinniest cat he’d ever seen, too. He checked her out, giving her a few shots and some medicine we had to feed her later. He said she’d probably eaten something bad on the street and gotten so sick she was never able to eat again from the damage she’d done herself. He recommended us to use a syringe to get water down her throat. If she survived the night, he said he could put her on an IV drip the next day.

We took her home and did as the vet suggested but within ten minutes she’d thrown it all up again. We tried again and again, with the same results. She deteriorated quickly, unable to keep anything down. By ten o’clock at night it was clear she wouldn’t see the morning. The cat who was so cheerful just twelve hours earlier was now barely able to breathe. Whenever she tried to stand or even move herself about on her bed, she fell back down. She couldn’t even lift the weight of her own head.

Before going upstairs to bed, I sat down next to Pearl to say goodbye. I knew she wouldn’t be there to greet me in the morning this time. I put my hand on her tiny body as her ribs rose and fell ever so slightly. She had long since stopped purring when her petted her. I felt horrible for having not been able to save her. It killed me to watch her suffer and die. I wondered what would have happened if there had been a decent vet anywhere in the city, instead of the tiny backstreet one I’d had to visit that lunchtime. Could a real, qualified vet have saved her life?

Just as I was about to get up, she dragged herself off the little red bed and across the floor to my feet, somehow raised her head, and rested it on my lap. She lay there, unmoving, for ten minutes. Reluctantly, I picked her up and returned her to her bed, then went upstairs to my own, knowing she would be dead in the morning.

*

When I woke up and went downstairs, I found her lying with her eyes and mouth open. She was cold and stiff, and her face was filled with fear and suffering. She had not just slipped peacefully away in the night. She had died alone from starvation and dehydration – a horrible fate that nothing in this world deserves, not least a baby cat. I tried telling myself that nothing could have saved her, and that I had given her a day of happiness she otherwise would never have experienced. For that first day, she had seemed so delighted to receive attention and to be warm. She purred constantly and was in her element sitting on either of our laps. Yet her short life had been filled with a suffering I thankfully have never known, and I had tried and failed to save her from the awful fate that awaited her.

It should seem inevitable that this was her fate. The life of a cat in a place like China is almost invariably one of prolonged suffering. The cruelty of nature is doubled in such an unfriendly environment. But something tricked me into putting aside my cynicism and having hope for Pearl. A week earlier, I had begun reading a book called The Travelling Cat Chronicles. In it, the protagonist, who is a cat, is badly hurt and seeks out a human to help him. Neither man nor cat expects their relationship to go beyond a trip to the vet and a few weeks of recuperation, but they became the closest of friends.

When Pearl appeared in my life, I immediately felt she had sought out help. As silly as that seems, it is just so abnormal for a cat her in China to allow a person to approach her and pet her. They learn very early that people equal death or worse. But Pearl came to us and came into our life, and immediately she made herself the perfect pet. Both Vera and I, within an hour of Pearl staying in our house, felt that she would be with us for years – even though neither of us had wanted a pet. It just seemed so perfect, like it was all meant to be.

It is odd how much an animal can affect a human’s life. Or perhaps it is not odd at all… Many animals have affected my life, but normally it takes much more than a day to do so. Pearl was a tiny but powerful force that turned my life upside down very quickly and then left, leaving it a whole lot emptier. Her death has caused me more sadness than I could have imagined, and yet I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’m still glad she had at least some happiness and comfort in her life before she passed away. The majority of cats, or any other animal, for that matter, endure their pain without respite.

Posted in essay

#SharkAwarenessDay

So apparently today is Shark Awareness Day. Or #SharkAwarenessDay. I don’t know. Perhaps one day all festivals will come with hashtags. How else would we know about them? #thanksinternet

Although admittedly I didn’t know today was Shark Awareness Day (I’ll drop the hastags now), or indeed that there even was such a thing, I thought I’d make a short post here because there may be a few people who read this blog that didn’t see the news on Twitter or Facebook or wherever else they go to be informed about what’s going on in the world.

I love sharks. They are, without question, my favourite animals. I even have one tattooed on my right arm:

IMG_0934
Photo taken last year in South Africa

I don’t know why I love sharks so much. Maybe it’s because they’re absolutely perfect – giant atavistic animals unchanged in tens of millions of years. Maybe it’s because they’re profoundly misunderstood beings. Maybe it’s because they’re just unbelievably cool in every way. Or maybe it’s because – as I rediscovered when I got back home to my parents’ house this summer – I had a ton of books about sharks when I was a kid.

In any case, I think sharks are amazing. I’ve spent my adult life travelling around in search of sharks, and have been lucky to have swum with them on a few different occasions. Unfortunately, I’ve never actually gotten a very good photo of a shark, but this one wasn’t too bad:

Blacktip reef shark
Photo taken in Malaysia last summer.

In early 2016 I made it to Cape Town and finally saw a large Great White Shark. Again, getting a decent photo was a challenge and this was the best I could do:

IMG_0907

Every year, people kill tens of millions of sharks. Sometimes it’s for food, sometimes for sport, and sometimes just as a byproduct of other kinds of fishing. The image of sharks conjured up in popular culture is that of a mindless killing-machine and their plight elicits no sympathy. It is more important than ever that we learn to respect sharks and acknowledge their importance in the ocean ecosystem, as sharks are a sign of a healthy ocean.

Many people are afraid of sharks and that is understandable. However, only five people a year are killed by sharks. Statistically you are far more likely to be killed by bees or horses. Whenever I’ve swum with sharks, the sharks have been more afraid of me than I of they. We really ought to educate people better and remove this irrational fear before it is too late to save these amazing animals.