Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I Ain't Superstitious*. (* - restrictions apply)

I am not superstitious; I’d like to make that clear. I will happily walk on the cracks in the pavement. I would be fine living on the 13th floor. I have no problem walking under a ladder – unless, of course, someone is up there painting, in which case you’d be an idiot to walk under a ladder.

I’ve always thought of myself to be far too intelligent or worldly or whatever you want to call it for superstitions. This is what I thought.

The moment I realised I wasn’t too intelligent or worldly or whatever you want to call it happened on a long flight to Singapore. I was writing, which is what I liked to do on planes back then. This was during that time shortly before planes gave everyone their own video screens – or, if you were lucky enough to get on a plane where everyone had their own video screen, more often than not the system stopped working 2 minutes into the flight. So to pass the time, I’d write, or read or stare jealously at all those people who were able to sleep.

So in the middle of this flight, I’m writing – about flying as it happens: inspiration for me is always very close at hand. Very close. So I was writing about flying and possible things that can happen to a flight and I came to a point in the sentence where I had to write the word “crash.” And I found I couldn’t write it. I simply couldn’t. It felt wrong. It felt like writing it would somehow jinx the flight and make it more likely it to... that word. It’s clearly ridiculous and is exactly the sort of woolly-headed thinking that I would mock regularly. But here I was, an intelligent or worldly or whatever you want to call it guy, doing exactly that very thing that I’d been mocking. It was weird to realise I could be like that.

I spent the rest of the flight writing about superstition – such are the mysteries of inspiration – and only once the flight had landed, taxied and come to a complete stop could I go back a few pages and fill in the small blank with the word “crash.”

From that point on, I was on the look out for any other superstitions I might have. I observed myself closely for signs of other similar behaviour. But this seemed to be my only one. If I spilled salt, I didn’t throw it over my shoulder, if I did anything I would brush it on the floor. Black cats could walk in front of me if they liked, I didn’t care. If they get too close, I might kick them, but that’s not for luck, that’s just how I feel about cats.

I was really pleased to find out I only had this one superstition. This one tiny bit of craziness or naivety or whatever you want to call it.

And even that has now gone. I found myself on a plane recently reading Macbeth, that most superstitious of plays. And I realised if I can read this play in a flying plane, why can’t I write the word “crash”, so I got out my pen and on the top corner of the page I wrote the word “crash.” And for the next 20 seconds, I sat there in utter dread. Because if that plane had started falling out of the sky right then, I would have been screaming – not because I was going to die, but because everything I had ever believed about the way the universe worked would have been utterly wrong.

As you can guess, nothing happened. I mean, a baby cried, four people sneezed and someone called for the stewardess instead of turning on the light, but nothing unusual for a flight. I was cured. I went back to reading Macbeth. I even said the name out loud. “Macbeth.” Wrote the word “crash” a few more times. Nothing.

I was cured of my one single superstition. I should have been happy, because now I was 100% sane or worldly or whatever you want to call it

But I wasn’t. It was like I’d taken a step away from being human; like I was slightly less interesting.

And then, I thought, “surely ‘believing that being illogical is what makes you interesting’ is a form of superstition.” And I told myself, “Yes it is.” And I was imperfect and interesting again; and always will be. Touch wood.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Viva Foreboder: How the end of the world continually fails to spoil Christmas

I, like many of you, was bitterly disappointed that the world didn’t end on 21st December 2012 as the Mayans would have had us believe. I was mostly disappointed because it meant now I still have to go through Christmas. I’m not a big Christmas person. Three things I hate very much in this world are shopping; songs that are relentlessly happy; and anything that twinkles. Christmas is clearly not for me.

Mayan Calendar
Mayan calendar taken with an Aztec camera

But we’re not out of the woods yet, in terms of world destruction. Because not only did the Mayan calendar run out this week, but my Spice Girls calendar runs out on 31st December 2012. One of these has to be correct. They can’t both be wrong. So if it is not the mighty wisdom of the Mayans that prevails here, it must fall to the collective acumen of the Spice Girls to predict the end of the world. After all, does not the Bible refer to the great prophecy of the “five girls of spice?” (Quick check. No, it doesn’t seem to. Maybe it was the King James edition.)

I love that whenever it’s the end of the world, people always stock up on two things: Food and ammunition. Neither of which is going to be any use. It’s the end of the world! You’re not going to be saved from the total destruction of everything just because you have 20 extra tins of oxtail soup in the cupboard.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The Four Horsemen as prophesised in The Brick Bible
And you can’t shoot the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They’re powerful, skeletal and mythological. Believe me, if there is a quartet you don’t want to piss off, it’s the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They are called Famine, War, Death and Pestilence. They ain’t going to take being shot at too lightly. Famine, War, Death and Pestilence. Four powerful, spectral figures whose sole purpose is to lay waste the land astride their mighty steeds, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen. (I might be mixing my myths a little here.)

As for me and Christmas, with the help of e-commerce, an ipod and special polarised glasses that reduce twinkles to a slow pulsating, I am ready to face it. And once that’s done, I can prepare myself for the next end of the world. So for all of you out there, have a bearable Christmas and, if the Spice Girls turn out to be as reliable as the Mayans, Nostradamus, Harold Camping, Jehovah's Witnesses, Sun Myung Moon, Pat Robertson, Pope Sylvester II, William Miller, Sabbatai Zevi, Yearolopolies 2K and all the others who have disappointed me, I wish you a wonderful 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

That’s the Spirit: My Search for Spirituality in the Holy Land

Some time ago, I spent a few months working in Israel. For a software company, as it happens, not on a kibbutz. Although fellow employees assured me the canteen food was pretty much the same as Kibbutz food. In fact, it gave me the worst food poisoning I’ve ever had. And I’ve had some corkers. But, this story isn’t about my stomach. It’s about my soul.

Before I went, my mum said to me, “It must be so great to be amongst all that spirituality.” The great thing about Israel, and part of the problem with Israel, is that it is the holy land to a lot of religions. Mormons and Scientologists are two modern religions who have solved this by placing their promised lands elsewhere. Respectively, Utah and the planet Sklurpink.

As an Atheist, I miss a lot of spirituality in my life. I miss that calm and deep contentment of knowing something beyond my comprehension cares about me; and will always care about me. It’s a really pleasant thought. I wish I could believe it.

So I made it a point of that trip to see if my mum’s Church of England view that Israel was “full of spirituality” was true.

I immediately realised on arrival that Israel is not my promised land. It’s too hot. Whoever made my skin didn’t make it for sunny climes. It made it for rain and caves.

But I still felt that whilst not being my promised land, it should have some spare spirituality to offer. I explored: I went on tours; I wandered around holy sites; I visited diamond factories. I left no holy rock unturned. Obviously, I didn’t turn over the holy rock - that would have upset people. But metaphorically, that’s what I did.

I visited a church in which was a smaller church which was carved out of the cave Jesus was supposed to have been buried in. I got caught in the throng at chucking-out time at one of the holiest of mosques. I saw segregated wailing against the remnants of an ancient temple. I peered into a small hole at an excavation that quite possibly could have been of the stable where Jesus was born. I walked along one of the suggested routes that Jesus might have taken to be crucified. A route made unlikely given that the city itself had been destroyed and rebuilt 3 times since he died. I saw a nun who was so beautiful, I couldn’t believe she was a nun and that she had to be an actress playing a nun. Or a very high class stripogram.

I saw the mount from which the dead will rise come the end of days, and I reeled at how much it costs to be buried there.

I walked all over various cities. I saw the most northerly gun emplacement and the much desired heights of Golan. I floated in the saltiest of salty seas. I saw walls; I saw protesters. I saw teenagers out on the town but still on national service duty so that they had with them a gun as big as they were.

I ate falafel; I stood in queues for nightclubs and saw lots and lots of writing that for a good while I was convinced was simply English written upside-down and backwards in an odd font. It’s not.

Hebrew alphabet
Hebrew alphabet
I experienced all this. And although I saw much to fascinate me anthropologically, I hadn’t had anything like a spiritual experience. I’d seen others have them, but not me. Until one day, just before the end of this trip.

I was wandering around Tel Aviv which isn’t a very spiritual town in itself, unless that’s how you feel about golden sands and girls in bikinis.

After a good long walk about the city, I rounded a corner and there was something that nearly made me drop to my knees. It was a sight that made me so overjoyed and also made me realise what it is I value in life. It was a big, well-stocked branch of Tower records.

It made me realise that the places that I went into religiously were record shops. And to find a branch of one of my favourites there was a real “aaaAAAaaa” moment.

I realised that music to me is the one thing that is like a religion in my life. It is mysterious and I feel passionate about it. I would go on pilgrimages to find obscure records. (Or at least I did before the internet made the obscure commonplace.)

I don’t remember what I bought there, but I know I did buy something. Back then, I never went into a record shop without buying something. They’re like my Ghurkha knives. (Once unsheathed, you have to draw blood.) I’m sure I would have bought something by a local band, possibly covering classic songs with a local flavour, but now it’s got lost in all the many, many other CDs from many, many other shops.

But what hasn’t been lost is that realisation that music, done right, has a more uplifting effect on me than pretty much anything. Comedy comes close, but comedy isn’t mysterious and unknown to me like music is. Comedy is more like my politics. Music is my religion.

And that was the spiritual message I brought back from Israel. That and the mental image of the hottest nun you’ve ever seen.