An Englishman’s home is his Koti.

I don’t know how to write this piece without causing offence. My hope is that it will it be read by no-one that lives anywhere near me, because this writing business is quite a clandestine affair as it is. My mum probably thinks I’m on the laptop so often because I have some indecent habit, and I don’t know what my dad thinks, except that he disapproves with disapproving looks. My brother thinks I am the embodiment of evil because I monopolise use of his laptop. And most people who know me, in my neighbourhood, think that I am just another of the countless ubiquitous polytechnic graduates, whose delusions have finally subsided to bitter reality (which is partly accurate, but misses the point anyway). So, the blessed cloak of anonymity must never be lifted. Let me drift serenely in the shadows.

The spotlight is petrifying and I don’t want to be in it. Especially because I have something controversial to say about our urban landscape, and it is this: I’m absolutely convinced that one of the reasons so many people around here suffer from depression is because of the housing. Row upon row of terraced houses, squashed into and suffocating each other. Grey, sickly, meek houses; with what could only very generously be described as gardens- carpeted with concrete slabs where thorny weeds jostle to grow. In this environment, it is unsurprising that people want to build extensions, or buy the property next-door and knock small sad-looking edifices into one big one. So now we have bigger houses, which only makes for a more pitiable sight.

I should emphasise that I have no gripe with any particular form of house. Houses, like people, come in an array of shapes and sizes, and neither is better or worse than another, in an absolute sense. To be precise, then, there are two problems:

1) abnormally narrow houses and;

2) The sort of treatment people inflict on houses- abnormally narrow or not.

This morning I was delivering some newspapers in the local area, which allowed me to take an extensive survey of the sort of abominations I want to moan about. Whether terrorist, detached or semi-detached, people are very fond of improving their houses. Least noticeably, this is manifested in the phenomenon of porch-building. Everyone, it seems, is building a porch- my area is the closest thing to a living homage to PVC on earth. There has been for some years a mad rush to build silly, elaborate porches; which would not be complete without incinerating the front garden to make way for concrete slabs and tarmac. What has been lost is only apparent when you walk around and see, tucked away in this aesthetic malaise, humble little houses from the England of bygone years. And not many remain, so you have to really look.

What was so great about these houses? Nothing, that’s why they were so great. The ones that remain bear witness to the splendour of simplicity. They are delicate and elegant, infused with the charisma of the men and women who bought them to life- dainty and introverted things. They each, individually, had a character.  And yet they did not vie to stand apart, but complemented one another, coexisting in harmony. They were built in human proportions, and also in proportion. There was always a garden, with a lawn, adorned with plants native to these shores- peonies and roses, bluebells and buttercups. (For a more eloquent characterization, I would recommend Roger Scruton’s, England: an elegy). Those houses that remain are so much more charming then, for being the last survivors among a species almost extinct.

They say that an Englishman’s home is his castle, but this can easily be misunderstood to mean that an Englishman should reside in some offensively ostentatious dwelling. Unfortunately, I think this is what most people who have embarked on some home-improvement have understood it to mean. It seems as though people improve their houses not so much to make them better to live in, but better to be admired. To begin with, porches only desecrate the faces of houses. They improve the look of a house in the same way plastic surgery has improved Jocelyn Wildenstein’s face. It is a regressive measure. Some porches I have seen are completely absurd: with colonnades, and plinths upon which marble-carved lions sit. Not to mention the spindly, towering electronic gates with pointy elaborations. As a feature of a detached or semi-detached house, this is garish; as a feature of a terraced house it’s simply a callous blow to the aesthetic sense.

More conspicuous are the mini-mansions that people are building. They are Ziggurats built for ego-worship- like little gods we build temples, and offer them as a votive to ourselves. These absurd buildings invade all space and consume greedily the visual field. It’s all an empty, bricked-up space- just piles of bricks in various bizarre arrangements.  And there is always a cavalcade of high-powered automobiles sprawled luridly about, all made to look miraculously indistinct: jet-black bodywork, spoilers, tinted windows, that kind of thing. They have gobbled away the enchantment of England.

Why do people build such things, which trace their lineage to nothing, and belong nowhere? You could take them and transplant them in any place in the world, and they would find their home nowhere- except perhaps some soulless place like Dubai, where such things are glorified. We have rejected continuity from the past that would allow our buildings to grow organically into the present. Rather, most of us in this place do not even know the past, or what it was about it that made this country habitable and harmonious, what it was that made it enchanted. Instead, what we have now is the unadulterated, uneducated whims of the self, building for itself grotesque structures that have no roots in any thinking or tradition. And that is why- amongst other reasons- we live in houses, not homes. That is why the koti’s are rising and our communities dying.

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Mirrors, and what they Reflect.

Did you look in the mirror today? Just once? With longing or loathing? Was it a glance or a gaze? Were you surprised? Mirror mirror on the wall, who is most narcissistic of them all? I believe the answer is everyone, to a lesser or greater extent.

The ubiquity of mirrors is something I find not only nauseating but baffling. I don’t have any quarrel with the concept of a mirror on a purely existential level. No- mirrors are undoubtedly useful objects for the very basic reason that they are equipped to inform you if you look ridiculous: if you have toothpaste on your chin, or if your hair is revoltingly misshapen, or if you failed to notice your trouser leg surreptitiously tuck itself into your sock. If mirrors are a necessity then they are necessary only towards preserving your dignity.

But why the surfeit of mirrors? They’re everywhere, even when they’re not. You walk past a glass-fronted building and your peripheral vision is alerted to an opportunity to gaze-glance, riveted by the irresistible striding seraphim whose movements are synchronised with your own. You walk past a car, and that beatific being comes to life again, and gazes with deep admiration into your eyes- but not for too long, because someone might be sitting in the car. You are watching the television and when you switch it off, it sits gracefully before you, in the matt-black mystique of the TV screen.

How many mirrors are there in your house? If there are more than two, then this must be accounted for. We have small mirrors and large mirrors, zoom-in mirrors and zoom-out mirrors; all manner of mirrors unrelentingly mirroring our miserable selves. Have you ever observed another human being look into a mirror? It is quite an unnerving, almost physically intimate experience. Two illustrations from my experience come immediately to mind. I have two friends whose mirror-gazing mannerisms I find particularly fascinating. Let me set the stage for them.

I shared a house with these guys some time ago, and we would frequently congregate in the kitchen, purporting to be cooking or doing some other chore, but in fact taking it as an opportunity to have all-night socials. The kitchen ran parallel with the bathroom, and if you opened the door of the bathroom there was a large mirror directly in front of you. So we would be standing in the kitchen, gossiping, when one of us would position himself deftly in view of the mirror. This strategic alignment would surely have gone unnoticed had it not been for what followed: my friend would take his hand, stroke his barrelled chest in circular motions, and proceed to explore every bump and crevice of that titanic torso. And as he did so, he would tilt his neck one way, then another, in Zen-like movements. He would be in a state of the utmost absorption, in a timeless realm where only his bulging pecks lived.

I have also spied a second friend in his mirroring routine. I recall that this friend would squint- very resolutely, with some great sense of purpose, at his mirror. It was a surreal experience to be talking to him one moment and then to witness him for a few moments  with lips puckered, eyes almost sealed, neck gyrating this way and that. I think I will ask him what he hoped to achieve by it. (I think that if he reads this he will ask me what the hell I think I’m doing before I have the chance).

This post would not be quite complete without alluding to a Greek myth that relates to mirrors, or more precisely, looking at our reflections. In the Myth of Narcissus, the character at the heart of the story is renowned for his beauty, and himself aware of it. One day he is attracted to a pool and as he lowers his face to it, becomes struck by the beauty of his own reflection. He falls fatally in love with this image of himself, and unable to leave it, dies. This is the myth from which the word ‘narcissist’ and its cognates are derived. Hence, we label a person narcissistic when we consider him self-absorbed or self-admiring. 

Possessing many mirrors and looking into them a great deal may be harmless in most cases (albeit baffling), but there are, it seems, quite serious implications to our mirror-gazing. Yesterday, I was watching a program on BB3 about young people who are increasingly resorting to some form of surgical enhancement to ‘improve’ their appearance. It was alarming to see young people who looked perfectly ordinary, resort to mutilating their bodies because they felt that some physical deficiency curtailed their ‘confidence’ and that a bit of plastic would provide a suitable remedy. There was a young man who had to have a strip of scalp cut off from the back of his head to harvest some hair follicles so that he could have a hair transplant. There was the guy who had to inject himself with some poison so that he could look more ‘brown’ on holiday in Ibiza. And there was the utterly tragic case of the young woman whose buttock-implants killed her.

The Myth of Narcissus is more than a myth then. We quite clearly inhabit an image-conscious society where we are staring at ourselves unceasingly; at these surface bumps and bits. We loathe ourselves and adorn ourselves so that we might love the image of ourselves. Like Narcissus, many people are killing themselves, both spiritually and physically, by their obsessive behaviour. Our reflections are shattered into a glistening shower of glasslets and we are left to gaze into the blank hollowness of our inner selves.

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Some More Pictures

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Palestine 2012

The last few days in the Middle East have testified to the terrible atrocities man can commit against man. By contrast to the ugliness, I thought I would share some beautiful images I captured during my time there. Beauty and truth endure.

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Longing, Returning, Belonging.

In most cases, a tea advert should illicit nothing more than a desire to drink tea.  Tea is a plain, uncomplicated, quotidian pleasure. It stands as an immovable bulwark against class and cultural divides. After water, it is the most egalitarian beverage known to man. But most tea adverts, in essence, are about how much more soothing or tasty one brand of tea is in relation to all others. This ruins the very intrinsic meaning of tea, because then we can say things like ‘my tea is more expensive than yours, therefore it is better.’ Unlike most tea adverts, the Twinings tea advert isn’t really an advert about Twining’s tea. The Twinings tea advert is, however, an enchanting piece of animation which speaks of loftier things; of human origins, of love, of a journey, and of a return to ourselves. For those of you who haven’t already seen it, here is a link.

The advert got me thinking about creation stories, which give us a narrative of where we come from. To my mind, the Twinings tea advert is almost the artistic culmination of ideas expressed by Plato and then the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. How did we come to be?

In Plato’s ‘Symposium’ Aristophanes relates to his audience his theory of the genesis of humankind. His theory is that in the beginning two people shared one body, with faces and limbs turned away from one another. These people had the audacity to challenge the gods, at which point Zeus ordered that they should be split in half. Thereafter, these half-beings set upon a quest to be reunited with a lost part of themselves. This, according to Aristophanes, is an explanation of why people fall in love. Humans crave to be whole again- they have a primal longing to be reunited. Aristophanes then goes on to theorise about some other -rather bizarre -ideas, which don’t need to be discussed here.

What is interesting is how similar the Platonic perspective is to Judeo-Christian and Islamic ideas. In the Book of Genesis we are told how God created Adam, and from his rib fashioned Eve.(Just before this God had made Lilith, but Lilith ran away). I have read an opinion that, according to Jewish oral tradition, the first human beings were created androgynous. This view is based on a grammatical ambiguity in Genesis 1:27-1:28 which refers to the creation of ‘them’ before Eve’s creation is mentioned.

God created the man in His image; in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. And God blessed them. (Genesis 1:27-28)

Accordingly, the idea is that in the beginning there was a manwoman being. But then came the separation as Adam and Eve were created as distinct individuals. The Jewish explanation for this separation is that the androgynous beings were separated in order to shatter the illusion of independence and self-sufficiency. It was a means of ensuring that human beings appreciated their dependence on other than themselves- and ultimately upon God- for fulfilment. 

Similarly, in the Islamic tradition, we are told how God created Adam from the earth, and from his rib he bought into existence Eve.

There is an irresistible elegance in these stories which is perfectly captured in the Twinnings tea advert. It shows a young woman voyaging alone in furious waters, being tossed this way and that. She is alone, struggling, searching. The tides carry her and in her forlorn eyes you can see that longing for a return to home. And finally the waters calm and she drifts towards a shore, where she encounters a being identical- but distinct- from herself.  In their embrace there is a cosmic triumph, as they become one.

We commonly hear people speaking about finding ‘the one’, or how their partner makes them ‘whole’. In this, I think, there is a grain of universal truth. We all harbour a longing for a return to something we instinctively feel preceded our conscious selves. This is the journey that the Twinnings advert illustrates, and it does so beautifully.

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Bruv, is Dis Topia?

I cannot recall the last time the sun’s rays stroked this place with tenderness. Bitter cold has long gripped this broken, decayed city. Apart from the few hours of murky light, impenetrable darkness settles over us. The trees are gnarled, naked and pale. All the colour has vanished and a deathly silence permeates the Rock. Cars travel almost solemnly, as though each is part of an endless funeral procession. This is a place of the living dead. Did I mention the cold? It slices through the flesh and gnaws at your mind, burrowing deeper and deeper into your thoughts, unyielding. And the putrid breath of evil diffuses through the heart of this community. Everywhere there lurks the hand of evil, crushing the last quivering breaths of humanity. The sun, it seems, has abandoned us because we chose to be confederates of evil.

But I should stop speaking in metaphors and furnish you with some facts. Today, I left my grandparents’ house in the morning and saw, across the street, a police cordon at the end of a row of terraced houses. I assumed that there had been a burglary, and felt fortunate that my grandparents had not been the victims. About fifteen minutes later I learnt that the body of a young man had been found. The charred body of a young man. Opposite the house I was sleeping in that night. That night the flesh of a human being had been set alight. In the stinging cold, in the dead of night, someone’s son, brother, friend, was killed and burned (it hardly matters in which order). He was found slumped, discarded in an alleyway. This could be a scene from some imaginary dystopia . But it is real, and it is the world we already inhabit. A man was killed by other human beings and his body was desecrated. Why? I am not looking for a reasonable explanation for what is evidently barbaric; but instead I would like to know what possible course of events could have resulted in this outcome.

It is clear to me, by now, that where I live savagery manifests itself in relation to two main causes:

1) Drugs   

2) Sex and honour

Drugs pump through this community’s veins as though they are its lifeblood. The streets reek of cannabis just as much as curry. People here like being drugged- whether legally or illegally. They want to forget their sorrows with pills and powders, they want to magic themselves into some positive state of mind. Where drugs of the illegal kind are concerned, disputes naturally arise- over money, over territory, over prestige. It is a zero-sum game, some must win and others must lose. In some cases, only your life will repay a debt. Business is business.

I would like to believe that the man who lost his life was wholely innocent, but perhaps it is more likely that he was involved in some drugs-related affair, where the stakes got too high and he was made to pay the ultimate price.

Another possible reason for the young man’s death could be his involvement with a girl. There is astounding hypocrisy in this area, where sex and gender relations are concerned. Many people are bound together in loveless marriages where it is natural for the man to treat his woman as chattels. Because, it is perceived, she owes him for the fact that he has to endure her as a life-partner. But the men remain highly repressed, and no doubt seek gratification elsewhere, whilst maintaining the veneer of outward respectability. (It is a wonder that the national scandals involving men of Asian origins grooming young girls have not spread here.)

The women are compelled to wrap themselves up in layers and layers of cloth. Some seem almost mummified, whereas others dress like Muslim Barbie dolls. What is common to them all is that their actions and their conduct affect, profoundly, the honour of their men. These men do not recognize any inconsistency between shouting sexual obscenities at any woman walking by herself on the street; and deeming such abuse aimed at their own sisters or mothers as unacceptable.

Still lingering in our collective memory is the ‘Pak supermarket sex scandal’. A man had taken his phone to be repaired at a phone shop, when, apart from repairing the phone, the the phone-fixers also found an explicit video of sexual acts between two identifiable individuals. The video spread like wildfire, because most people here have an appetite for the tawdry and debased. The rumours that circulated in the aftermath were to the effect that the girl had been taken to Pakistan and shot dead.

In the context of the popular conception of honour and respect, then, it would not be a surprise if the man who died had been involved illicitly with a girl. Someone’s honour had been comprised, you see, and so no response could have been as adequate as murder.

It becomes more and more difficult to find any goodness in this increasingly god-forsaken place. It is ironic, indeed, that I should describe it as ‘god-forsaken’ because mosques abound, the men sport magnificent beards and the women cloak themselves in veils. Outwardly, God is here; but inwardly he does not occupy our thoughts. How else can we account for the moral decay, the lack of culture, the culture of abuse? Only a few days ago I found a Bangladeshi woman wailing over the phone in a shop because her husband had publicly beaten her. Only a few weeks ago a young woman was left in tears after thugs had swatted her aside and stolen her car. Only a few weeks earlier a self-styled sheikh with a history of gang-related brutality was between to a pulp, stabbed, and left collapsed on a pavement.

It is no surprise, then, that many people yearn to escape this place. The lashing black tides are wearing away our humanity, and some of us recognize that collapse is imminent; that our souls will come crashing down to oblivion if we do not rage against its force.

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Death and Art, Duel.

There was an article recently on the BBC website, reporting on research that had established that writers are more prone towards suffering from depression and other psychological maladies.  What the BBC deserves credit for is highlighting the need not to romanticize people who suffer from it as reclusive geniuses, whose suffering is a vital but harmless component of literary output. I don’t claim to possess even a semblance of literary prowess, but I can’t deny that by nature I am a writer; and like many I have to endure periods of crippling depression from which there are two escape routes: writing or suicide.

Here’s the catch-22: I enjoy writing, but I don’t enjoy being depressed. And yet a necessary precondition for writing is for me to be depressed. Life would be relatively simple if I could summon at will, some prose, every time I sensed the weight of existence squeeze me till my body became rinsed of its spirit- but its not that simple. Writing isn’t a magic switch that you can turn on or off. When I can write, those are rare, treasured moments. Moments when, as if by divine inspiration, I conceive in flashes, forms of expression that lift the weight of darkness from my soul.

Although those moments are rare in proportion to periods of depression, there is a possibility that the path of despair opens up to me, leading to some form of insanity. That, I believe, is the ultimate destination  for those whose lives have become too monumental a burden- so monumental, that they suffer total psychological disintegration. In the community where I live, I have seen real-life manifestations of this. Some examples come immediately to mind: Most recently there has emerged a white man who dresses in shalwar kameez and walks up and down the same stretch of road the entire day, picking up random pieces of debris which he collects in a box. The very first time I saw him, I saw him picking a piece of litter up off the street- and then another, and another. And I thought, what a wonderful man this convert is, putting into practice the prophetic injunction to care for one’s environment. But then I encountered him at close quarters. Two things make this encounter memorable:

1) He reeked of urine.

2) He kept asking how Ahmed was.

On all subsequent occasions I have encountered him, he has been just as eager to speak to me about Ahmed and just as capable of filling space within a 10 meter radius with the aroma of Eu(rine) de toilette. 

Long before him there were other bone fide mentally ill citizens in our community. There was, for example, the man who thought he was a car- and at any moment he saw one, would run along with it, making beeping noises as he did so. Or the lady with a hunched back who, like the white convert man, would collect random objects from the roads. Her case was a particularly tragic one as she was (and probably still is) the victim of taunting by schoolchildren. You would shout ‘tin-lady’ and it was as though she had been literally pre-programmed to react by screaming ‘fuck of, i’m not a fucking tin lady!’. Every child in the vicinity would realise this, and the taunts would grow exponentially, until practically everyone in the neighbourhood  knew who the tin-lady was. This culminated in moments when hundreds of wretched little voices shouting ‘tin lady’ would assail her. And the more those voices grew, the angrier she would get- which would only make those voices grow louder, and the more vehement her denials about being a tin lady would become.

At this time I also knew two perfectly normal gentlemen. They were just ordinary people, not quite family friends, but there was a level of familiarity between us that we would always stop to talk, laugh; and in general take an interest in one another. However, if you see these men today, you will seem them walking with arms frozen stiff by sides, wide-eyed, gaze fixed ahead, as though on something wondrous that the rest of humanity hadn’t seen. The look on their faces is a mixture of trauma, horror and deep resignation. They haven’t so much as acknowledged me in years. It is as though their souls had never been caressed by the warmth of humanity.

There are others too: among them, the schizophrenic; the man who stares at me intently and asks me frequently if I want to fight him; and the man who keeps asking the same questions, only to offer his own answers. And there are many more: too many I can’t recall; and many others I can, but whose actions and habits it isn’t easy to describe. I know too many people who- perhaps not yet mentally ill- are on the brink of that precipice; and it is rare to encounter someone who is not treading that terrible path.

This, then, is the alluvium in which I have grown. And it is a struggle not to decay into the soil that has nourished me, not to lose that fragile sense of self in a storm of dark thoughts. The mentally ill have already reached that formless, haunted destination, but there are many, many more, following in their path, whose spirits glow as dying embers turning to ash.

It is probably safe to say that my community does not have a disproportionately high number of literary geniuses, suffering for their art. No, their illnesses probably have external causes- they are products of the very peculiar environment in which they find themselves. But for me, it has long been a fear that these external influences (to which I am not immune) and the internal troubles I have to confront (by virtue of being an artist) will co-opt to form a force I cannot hope to resist; reeling me away to the unknown depths of mental disarray. I think it is no exaggeration to say that writing is the most potent weapon I have against the specter that looms over me. It is, however, an unreliable and often faulty defence; and so, like others, I know I must endure with courage and live with hope.

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