The sky is coloured by the open veins of the poet.
I don’t know where I first read the above line, whether it was in a poem, an article or novel. I immediately jotted it down in the first page of a notebook which was supposed to be the place where I would write my own poems. This was at a time near the start of my obsession with calligraphy, and so I wrote the line in a spidery script full of ascending and descending flourishes.
Many months went by and the notebook remained blank except for that first page. Because whenever I opened the stiff cover and read that line, I deeply and instinctively knew that I would never write anything as beautiful.
Most poets start young. They were once an eleven-year-old with notebooks (note the plural) of ballads, sonnets, odes and free verse, and the history of most poets relate early exposure to the craft. While I always had a love of reading and of trying to write stories, for me poetry was another world, as alien to me as a doll’s tea party.
The analogy is apt for therein lay the first problem. It was obvious that poetry was for girls. While you could write stories packed with enough guns and rugged detectives to withstand the scrutiny of even the most illiterate bully, if you were to write a poem about a rugged detective and his love of guns, well that was a certain path to enduring endless taunting at best, and frequent casual beatings at worst.
It was only during the final year of high school when I took a poetry elective, (based solely on the overwhelming proportion of girls taking the class, girls who at that age one was prepared to risk frequent beatings for) that I realized that perhaps poetry was not to be confined to the pink journals of high-strung girls but might actually be something that might reward further inquiry in its own right.
I even remember the moment. The teacher had passed around copies of some of J.K. Baxter’s poems, and while I assumed that this was only done because he was a New Zealand poet, I flicked through my sheaf, mentally noting that I would have to take out and re-staple the pages later as the angle was horrendously nowhere near a crisp 45 degrees, (I believe I have previously mentioned my charming obsessive ways) and stopped when I got to Ballad of Calvary Street.
The mix of colloquial New Zealand english and heavier themes was exactly what I most responded to in fiction – tackling the big issues in un-pretentious language. I read it again and this time the rhythm of the verses jumped out at me, they seemed almost to at once push and pull you along with it as you read, savouring the language. I read it once again and this time it was the narrative which enchanted, and just how each stanza builds up to that massive ending, struck me as being as good as a full-length book.
But it was when I turned over the page and read his poem A Family Photograph 1939 that I was confronted with undeniable lyrical seduction:
I, in my fuggy room at the top of the stairs,
A thirteen-year-old schizophrene,
Write poems, wish to die,
And watch the long neat mason-fly
Arrive with spiders dopier than my mind
And buid his clay dungeons inside the roller blind
Like many authors, I considered myself a tortured genius. While perhaps never descending to the depths of clinical depression, suicidal thoughts or schizophrenia, nonetheless the image of a thirteen-year-old spending hours writing and feeling out of step with the world was one that resonated with me strongly. And the language – ‘malignantly serene’ – it was the first of many poetic phrases that once absorbed, can never be extinguished, they henceforth reside as naked truth deep within your primal brain.
Other poems of his like Rocket Show had a delayed but profound effect on me, as I would one day stand on the same ash-grey Otago beaches and re-discover this poem all over again. Poetry was not some archaic text relating to distant myths but could be about the sand under your very feet.
I devoured as many Baxter poems as I could in that class, and turned in an essay on his poem Thoughts of a Remuera Housewife of such immense length and out-of-my-depth misguided bravado, that my kindly teacher ignored the fact that I seemed to have, after twenty pages, naively missed the point entirely about certain sexual themes, (which was ironic, seeing as exploring sexual themes was the only reason why I had taken the class in the first place) and took pity on me giving me an A for sheer enthusiasm, but more importantly also giving me a book to read over the holidays of the poems of one T.S. Eliot. In many ways I have not come back from that holiday.
But what about writing my own poetry? In the first flush of that year I turned out poems by the bucketload, and carried with me into university a bulging folder of what I thought would one day be regarded by my biographers who would come across them in a bottom drawer of my desk, as nascent signposts on the way to eventual published masterpieces, which it goes without saying, would be in the form of huge complex novels, not measly poems.
At university, I often skipped my science classes and would often attend English Lit. lectures for which I was not enrolled. Again, great teachers through their enthusiasm and patience opened up whole new worlds, but also, by showing us how the great poets achieved their mesmeric effects, cast merciful light on the fact that my own poetic works were, shall we say, not yet fully realized.
Another, more accurate way of describing them would be insufferable tripe. I quietly ditched the folder whose bulk now seemed a crime, into a bin and weighted it down with the empty glass remnants of my other university passion of alcohol, and stuck to overly long essays instead.
While these essays were usually over-ambitious and often failed the first ambition of being written in coherent sentences, I always felt on steady ground when I could hide in endless paragraphs. But when I ventured out into bare stanzas, the first thing that was exposed was the fact that I was completely lost when faced with the task of communicating a single thing in under 500 words.
This cycle would then repeat itself, I would amass a bunch of work, then in the cold harsh light of day, when the whisky had worn off, I would read them with fresh eyes and do my bit for the cause of the environment, recycling and sustainable forests. There are landfills in Dunedin, Wellington and Brisbane where the most overpowering stench comes from my biodegrading poetry.
Then came the Brisbane floods during our semester break while we were out of town, and the downstairs rooms of our flat got inundated. I remember almost having an anxiety attack thinking of all my books being soaked to a soggy pulp, but the guy who lived next door, for whom the legal considerations of breaking and entering was a secondary concern to that of being a good neighbour, rescued all of my books and all of my flatmate’s audio equipment.
Most of my poetry, consigned to the lowliest of manilla folders, were lost to the waters, but of that which remained, for some reason I could not bring myself to toss out, and I dried them out on our balcony, regarding them as survivors. Of those, a few I realized were not terminally and embarrassingly bad, and so I transferred them to the long forgotten notebook, and have been sporadically colouring the sky since.
Poetry is personal. Essays can be written in a sterile tone, and many benefit from doing so, but any lines of verse you write either speak volumes of the things you reveal or by their omission, of the things you hide. And a sterile poem is really an ode-in-disguise to insecurity and cowardice.
Seeing as this blog has been intentionally left open-ended under the title of ‘minutiae’ allowing me to put in anything I choose to, it has long been a consideration of mine to put up some poetry. The anonymity of the web allows for such publication without the fear of whatever the adult version of casual and frequent beatdowns are.
However, as usual, if time stops for no man, it certainly does not even slow down a little for me, even if I am in its headlights. The list of things which I have to stay on top of, easily and usually gets on top of me. And this from someone who only does what is absolutely and unambiguously necessary. So I am constantly envisioning new categories and ideas for this blog but never getting around to actually doing any of it.
But as anyone who has any done any writing knows, sometimes when you finally come up with something that you not only like, but even surprises you upon re-reading, then you don’t mind how long it took or how infrequently those happy pages stop by.
So my philosophy behind Viva Minutiae has always been to only put up stuff that I myself am, if not overjoyed by, at least happy with, however long the interval in-between posts that entails, rather than stacking up entry after entry of the first thing that pops into my already cluttered mind and relying on sheer statistical volume to ensure that something under all those words is worth reading.
I have recently been writing micropoetry on twitter, and find it difficult enough to achieve something worth some eyeball time in 140 characters. Those who wish to peruse my efforts can check out @sillionshine. There are so many great writers on there who produce amazing work (even doing so with characters to spare) and it’s great to dip into the twitter stream for some quick poetry, and discover it is actually an ocean, and that whatever constraints you put on human creativity, it will not only defy, but make a virtue of them.
As for my longer poems, where to start? Because so much of my poetry was never intended for public consumption but more as a short-form diary where I can experiment with language to serve as a novel way of documenting my life, a lot of is quite cryptic and/or ultra specific to me and it would take too long to offer explanatory notes to decipher the mess.
So I will restrict myself to the most accessible ones. This is further complicated by the fact that not a lot of them have titles. First up is one written a couple of years ago. If there are two things that have the biggest impact on my day to day life, it is i.) my herculean feats of procrastination which I have touched on elsewhere in the blog, and ii.) insomnia, which has been my constant companion since sleepless childhood nights.
As a child, there really was no option but to lie there until I heard my mother wake and count off her footsteps as they came to ‘wake’ me up. But as an adult (and I use the term loosely) with my own place, I am free to divert these ‘extra’ hours into other areas, and it is during these times, usually from midnight to 3.00 am that I do most of my writing, (including as it happens this entry) and almost all of my reading.
So I once wrote a poem during these hours to pay tribute to these creative moments of clarity in the dead of the night. Come to think of it, that could be a good title for it, The Dead Of The Night, which without further ado, I present to you:
carves out time
and the minutes go by
is for someone else
I am a stranger here.
Before I can set a guiding hand
on the early promise
It is noon
the sun of Damocles
highlights all my differences.
is always loss
chasing their shadows over
the edges of gold-dipped fields
The evening twilight
does not recognise me.
My loosened tongue
can find none to tell tales to
All want to unravel
Just as I begin to gather
into a shape that feels like me
The night comes on
and we stare at one another
wary of previous
and we must prove ourselves
But once the midnight hour
have been reconciled
the ticking clock
finally catches rhythm
In the small hours
which are really
larger than most can stand
I am at home.
is a language
that I know deep within
the words come easily
having waited all the livelong day
chains and fog
Without the attendant
of the daily human machinery
I am without doubts
I am not lost at sea
I am a better person
though there are none to witness
this shedding of the skin
music sounds like the plucking
of loyal strings
and any words I read
like a heartfelt talk
with the minds of those
who wrote them
These are my
most productive hours
though what I produce
will not fit
into any other
time of day
but as long as
the clock allows
a daily season
where I can
sow and reap
my meagre harvests
I will be grateful
whether I am indoors
a false light
or walking deserted streets
in the pale wash of the moon
In the second installment in the Visual Nutrition category, I would like to feature the work of Megan Brain. She composes extremely striking pieces using as her medium, humble paper. Most people contemplating paper used as an artistic device, will immediately think of origami. Just as that intricate artform forces us to re-evaluate our ideas of this utilitarian material, Megan’s work also brings out and celebrates some properties of what we may have previously dismissed as an office supply.
I remember when in pre-school, the thing I liked most was storytime. The teacher would read us fantastic tales, and we were free to lie down on the carpet, our heads lying on soft cushions and perhaps, if we were feeling decadent enough, under the cover of a reassuring blanket. Even now, I find it hard to imagine a better way to spend an idle idyll. If I were a king, emperor, maharajah or CEO of Apple, I would make storytime (and cushions and blankets) a daily event for my adoring subjects/employees, and one in which I would partake whole-heartedly.
The second-best thing I liked in pre-school was Arts. Even as a young child I was frugal by nature, wearing out socks to tatters, writing with ever-diminishing nubs of pencils, playing doggedly with chipped marbles and maintaining a martial loyalty to my plastic soldiers even though many of them were molten, exhumed, chewed up, post-traumatically shellshocked canine fodder.
So imagine my uneasy wonder when in pre-school I was confronted with the Crafts Corner, where the most bewildering array of colours vied for our attention – paints, brushes, sponges, crayons, fabrics, string, and of course paper. Whole stacks of paper and card in bright colours. And we could use as much of it as we wanted to, and it would all be magically replaced overnight. Bliss.
Perhaps if I was more diligent and appreciative of this opportunity, I would be an acclaimed artist today. But sadly, it seems that my favourite thing to do in Arts was to cut paper with a pair of scissors. That’s it. While my fellow future Gaugins and Picassos were busy getting messy with paint and stamps and crayons and markers which were supposedly magical, I liked nothing more than to cut stiff card with a pair of scissors. I loved the crisp sound and tactile response when a pair of sharp scissors cut into paper, and soon discovered the joys of turning the paper with one hand while cutting with the other to make intricate if unrecognisable shapes.
Unlike me however, Megan Brain found a way to transform this love of paper into something beautiful and slightly more productive. I have always been fascinated by how complexity evolves from simplicity. Whilst in theory we are all capable of cutting out shapes of coloured paper, arranging and then gluing them together, it takes a special sensibility to be able to do just that and end up with something like this:
Like much of her work, what immediately impresses is how simple, clean-cut lines and shapes come together so perfectly and elegantly. These striking effects are not happy accidents, but the result of much thought and composition. Looking at this piece, what is undeniable is how foxy it is. To be able to capture and convey such essences is an enviable talent.
And, I’m glad to learn, a talent that is the product of conscientious study and diligent practice and experimentation. I’ll admit a bias here and state that a lot of modern art baffles and underwhelms me. A painting where someone has squelched a load of thick paint on a canvas in a fit of emotion and presented it in a museum as a deep exploration of the soul, is one that I don’t find as absorbing as a well-drawn portrait in humble pencil.
For me, the difference is in the craftsmanship, which is proof of a mastery arrived at after sustained exploration of the elements that go into a work of art. Now don’t get me wrong, the work with the squelched-on paint is a perfectly valid piece of art, and I understand that its representation of emotion can be as deep as any of the work of the Old Masters, but the reason I wouldn’t want it hanging in my lounge, is because I don’t find it visually compelling. That type of work exists (for me) more in the theory than in the finished product.
So yes, I see why a lot of modern art is ‘significant’ but I don’t find some of it as captivating as more traditional disciplines and genres in art. I also willingly concede that artistic sensibility is subjective, and so for someone else, a work where the foil cap of a tub of yoghurt has been nailed to a wall may well be the demonstration of what is sublime in the human aesthetic experience.
Also, I hasten to add that ‘craftsmanship’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to exhibit a freakish display of talent like a painting which looks as real as a photograph, or a sculpture that is huge and intricately worked. I love a lot of old Japanese painting, and what I admire is the craftsmanship that goes into producing a work from the smallest number of very simple brushstrokes. This is a mastery that comes from many years of accumulating a fearless hand that is comfortable with using very basic forms to suggest so much more.
Again, while I’m sure that we are all capable of cutting out and assembling the component shapes that make up the above piece, I don’t think many of us could then use them to craft such an arresting image. The synthesis of colour and the placement of those shapes is where the craftsmanship comes in. This is literally simplicity raised to an artform. Even an arachnophobe would have to appreciate this.
As I mentioned before, this is not a fluke, but the end product of a lot of effort. Megan recounts: ‘My father is a veteran of the Animation industry and was very supportive of my artistic interests. When I was 13 he took me to my first figure drawing workshop which was headed up by his old friend Corny Cole. Drawing from a nude model made me feel so professional and mature. My drawings were pretty lame for the most part (two decent ones out of 100), but the most important thing I came away with was being exposed to Corny’s fluid drawing technique‘.
Any 13 year old with the patience to do a hundred practice drawings is well on the way to becoming a serious artist, and is a refreshing change from les enfants terrible that populate the art world today who rely on shock and controversy to persuade us how intense they are.
Her fascination with working with paper came from a design course she took, taught by the paper sculptor Leo Monahan. She explains: ‘My teacher Leo taught the German Bauhaus “Design and Color” course created by the Swiss artist Johannes Itten. The course is so great because it teaches artists how to control the tools of design (line, space, shape, color, texture, form,size, and value) and be thoughtful with these tools‘.
For me, paper has always understandably had literary connotations. I remember as a child staying with some family friends for the holidays, where my relieved parents offloaded my nightly bedtime story ordeal to an unsuspecting but enthusiastic elderly gentleman who for inexplicable reasons smelled like blueberry jam, even though constant vigilance on my part could never identify when precisely he was sneaking mouthfuls of it, or why he didn’t offer me any.
Not having the decided advantage of a book like my pre-school teacher, he tried to improvise a tale about a dog looking for a ball. Very soon into the narration of this insipid tale I began to despise the dog and not only hoped that he would find the ball as quickly as possible, but choke on it, so rendering any chance of a sequel being perpetrated upon me the next night gratifyingly unlikely. Sensing my mounting irritation, he offered me a choice of where the dog might next choose to look. My reply of “at the bottom of a lake” was meant as a vicious, stinging retort, but he took it in his stride and soon the blasted dog was making an excursion in a submarine to the dark depths of a lake. Well now, things were beginning to look up plotwise. He offered me further choices and soon I was sending the poor dog on ever more dangerous quests, at one point achieving the distinction of becoming the first dog on the moon.
Impressed with my imagination, the next day this kindly old man placed in my hands a ream of blank paper and suggested that I might like to write my very own story. My first instinct of course was to thrill at the possibility of spending the next few hours cutting the entire ream into tiny pieces with a well-weighted gleaming pair of scissors, but I realized that this might come across as a little ungrateful, so I should probably humour him with a short story first. Pretty soon I was lost in my own world, and can still remember my hand hurting from holding the pen so tightly over the course of an afternoon where I turned out a derivative, but nonetheless charming novella of a young cat on a search for a ball.
Ever since then, I have always been filled with a sort of reverence for the possibilities of the blank page, admiring it as a vehicle for ideas, rather than admiring paper as a physical object in itself with attributes such as acidity, caliper, finish, grain, weight, curl, formation and permanence.
For Megan Brain, her fondness has a more artistic basis. ‘I love the way paper art looks and I like discovering effects that can be created with it. Cut paper has a sharp deliberate look. I like creating textures, and layering pieces on top of each other to create depth‘.
You can see this depth in this stylish work. Plain paper, collage and cut tassles nicely create the layered look of the clothing, showing an appreciation for the right technique for the right effect. A great whole created out of the sum of paper, acrylic paint and glue. Her talents have seen her featured in various exhibitions, awarded projects with Disney and work on the animated films Coraline and Madagascar.
It would be easy to just view Megan’s work as creative static representations on paper, but I believe that one of the most engaging features of art is how it communicates things beyond the duplication of recognisable objects. Here we get into things like mood, atmosphere, subtext – the kind of intangible stuff that gets mulched through a lot of art criticism to the point where I understand why people feel so alienated from art and view it as something to be herded into the inner sanctum of a museum where snobs congregate to decode works according to some incomprehensible schema.
For example, a well-meaning fellow in intimidatingly square glasses and skinny tie might, before the double shot espresso wears off, with the best of intentions, write something like: “Brain’s ouvre moves beyond an admittedly capable handling of a merely mimetic function, and displays a studied ease with which the more involved demands of a subjective conversation with the viewer are admirably met and deconstructed, where tone and narrative are broader paradigms which constitute as integral a component to her success as an artist as does her technical accomplishments with composition, line and colour“.
I’ll give you a moment to rinse off and replace your suppurating eyeballs into their sockets. There are reasons why people write in this way about art but I find them too depressing to go into here. Let me try and give a version in plain English, taking as an example the following piece:
There is a strong jarring between the subject matter and the tone. It’s obvious something pretty gruesome has occurred. So you might expect the vibe to be all shock and horror, rage and bloodlust. But the feeling you get from it is very chilled – the vibe is cool, calm and collected. How has this been done? The colour palette for one. A lot of cooling blues and whites. The only bits which are red are representing red things – lips and blood. These colours of passion contrast with the rest of the picture, where the only colours apart from black and white are all shades of muted blue.
We can see this contradiction emerging as a theme. The way the murderer’s clothes hang, elegantly and formal. Again, great use of layered depth. The robes aren’t all helter skelter, they are meticulous. Her casual posture as she replaces her weapon so it can be disguised as a hair accessory. The weapon is the same geisha-white as her mask-like skin. She is two people – an exquisite beauty and a calculating assassin. All these technical factors reinforce the mood and the tone – this is one unruffled killer, completely in control.
This entire contradiction is sublimely summed up in a tiny portion of the work that your eyes are (purposefully) drawn to – not the spurting blood, but the bright red lips against that deathly pale skin. Freud would have a field day.
Also note the composition, and how your eye follows the line from her head, shoulders and side, into the way the robe at the bottom directs you into the second character, whose feet are cropped off in the foreground, leading you into and out of the picture. A lot of thought has gone into the different aspects that all contribute to the telling of a story, the creation of a mood. Not bad for some acrylic paint, glue and paper.
I hope my paltry efforts have managed to convey some of what I like about looking at and thinking about art, and hopefully proves my point that you don’t have to sound like some desiccated art expert to express this.
I’ll let you loose on a work that is at the other end of the spectrum. Even without an encyclopaedic knowledge of Hindu mythology and the adventures of Kali, I hope you take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into producing a vibrant, brash fanfare of an image like this:
You can see the full range of her talents at her site meganbrain.com
I think it is a false distinction to try to make between ‘art’ and ‘life’. I lot of creative people I know are not exclusively creative in their chosen artistic fields, it is an enquiring, experimental, disciplined, open mindset that they bring to all areas of their lives. They put things together in ways that would never occur to other people. They don’t view art as a hobby or a pastime, it is as much a strand in their personhood as a sense of humour or an accent.
So when it came to an event as important and significant in life as her marriage, it was only natural that Megan ensured her creativity got an invitation, sweet proof that if you are an artist, you can have your cake and eat it too…
The day began like any other. My first order of business is to conduct, every morning, a long and tortuous discussion weighing the advantages and pitfalls of flinging my alarm clock to the nether reaches of the universe, or failing that, just merely outside my window. But what if someone got injured? Surely they would understand? And wouldn’t it be a well-deserved rebuke to that hated jolly specimen – the early bird, a bump on their head to remind them that sleeping-in can also be good for your health?
Why can’t my alarm wake me with dusky ego-enhancing whisperings of sweet nothings in a French accent, murmurings which get de plus et plus èrotique, finally reaching an orgasmic crescendo? Surely that would be the most effective way of ensuring a young man is wide awake?
Maybe I could just smash my alarm clock to jagged pieces with my electric guitar? If I taped my destruction, I could send it in to a museum as a video installation, a High Definition musing on the nature of time, music, melody and the R.E.M. cycle.
Or what about this – pour lighter fluid on the alarm clock, set it on fire and go back to bed, buying myself a few more minutes of restless semi-sleep, and treat the inevitable fire alarm as a secondary snooze alert, ensuring that I actually get up, or failing which, I will slide deeper into luxurious sleep due to smoke inhalation, and be blissfully burnt to a restful crisp, rendering any need to wake up quite moot.
It is when I get to these fiendish extremes, that my blood pressure and general rage have risen to levels that make any further semblance of sleep impossible, and I have no option but to wake up, and the elapsed time since my murderous musings began means that I have no time to effect any form of alarm clock annihilation, leaving it free to torment me for another day and another, into an infinity of bleary-eyed mornings.
On this day, after my daily losing battle with the dreaded Sony Dream Machine ICF-C218, (the name rubbing more salt into the wound, though I suppose the Sony Incite You To The Point Of Violence ICF-C218, while refreshingly accurate, would nonetheless encounter several marketing obstacles) I went as usual to the bathroom and splashed cold water onto my face. This is the best thing I have found to quickly bring my mind into the world of daylight hours. I did not notice anything amiss.
Because I live in a very hot climate, but mostly because I am incredibly lazy, I always have a cold breakfast. Fully awake and fed, I put on my little bathroom radio and began my ablutions to the sounds of yesteryear, pretending I am a 50s gangster getting ready for another working day of bootlegging truckloads of vice to the speakeasies all over town, the ones populated by guys called Rocco and dames with hats slung low over their long lashes, their faces in shadow, occasionally lit up by their cigarillos held casually in place at the end of long ivory cigarette-holders, the kind of broad who says things like “Now honey, quit your foolishness…”
But I digress. The first innocent sign that I was on the cusp of the incredible came when I finished the toothpaste. Even with the flatten-out-from-the-bottom and roll-up-and-squeeze maneuver, it was obvious that I had extracted the last of the clinically-proven, gently-whitening paste, chosen specifically because it promises to “Protect against Sensitivity” which a cold-hearted cynic like me is always appreciative of.
I take good care of my mouth, and my winning smile is testament to this. However, merely cosmetic reasons do not motivate my exacting dental regime. Whilst I do place some stock in first impressions, these are secondary to the horrific health consequences of neglected dental care. Growing up in a medical family, I would spend many a fascinated hour engrossed in medical textbooks, and the range of hideous deformations and afflictions that could plague our poor species rivalled the The Lord Of The Rings in both epic scale and entertainment value.
Sadly to a 6 year old boy, poring over the freakish pictures of unfortunate medical patients is the type of sheer fun that Sunday School, ‘behaving yourself’, helping old ladies cross the street and doing homework was always getting in the way of.
So I knew from an early age that I did not want any of the types of oral diseases you could get, such as Xerostomia, which is thankfully much better than it sounds, to Medial rhomboid glossitis which impressively manages to be much worse than it sounds. Though I do remember being underwhelmed by some of the diseases, for example the bluntly named ‘Hairy Tongue’. Surely the medical fraternity could have come up with something better than that. I can imagine patients calling into question their medical practitioner’s qualifications, if the only diagnosis they could come up with was ‘hairy tongue’.
But back to that momentous day. Brushing over, next came flossing. For someone who has as many obsessive-compulsive tendencies as I do, flossing affords a great opportunity to indulge in these rituals under the guise of oral hygiene. I have a set order in which I floss, different number of strokes in between the molars, front teeth and the canines, particular number of times the floss is wrapped around my fingers which in turn differs if I am flossing the upper or lower teeth, etc. etc… the point is, I am very set in my ways and my ways are considerably pathological.
But it isn’t just the routine I find compelling, I think flossing is an intricately tactile experience – I love the feeling of the floss zipping between my teeth, the gentle tickle which can turn into a sharp rebuke if you get over-vigorous. A small daily reminder of our complicated relationship between pleasure and pain.
In the course of writing this entry, I noticed that the floss in question had the words “Made In Ireland” cheerfully stamped on the bottom. Used to seeing the ubiquitous “Made In China” label, I had never come across an Irish one. Is the Emerald Isle known as a traditional manufacturing powerhouse? Or is this one of the new-found areas of opportunity that have been opened up with the recent rise of the economy of the Celtic Tiger? And more importantly, since when have there been tigers stalking the Irish countryside, valleys and dales? And with the even more recent downturn in Irish fortunes, has the Celtic Tiger now been re-named the less ambitious Celtic Civet Cat?
So I did a little cyber-digging, and the mystery of the Irish floss has already enchanted many others and forms the basis of several other blog entries which muse: ‘I just noticed last night that our dental floss is made in Ireland. Huh. How much does it cost to import dental floss from Ireland? Seems kind like a waste of money. Don’t we make that here? And it doesn’t even taste like whiskey or leprechauns.‘
As the first of the above-mentioned blogs postulates, perhaps this Irish anomaly can be explained by the prowess the Irish have traditionally had in the manufacturing and weaving of ropes, and perhaps this has translated into a modern day equivalent, dental floss. I now have a newfound respect for the centuries of craftsmanship and knowledge that has gone into the production of my dental floss, and my daily flossing has taken on a charming Irish tincture, as I salute the master rope-weavers of yore.
[edit: further investigation on my part has revealed brands of floss in my supermarket made in New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Scotland. Why the production of dental floss seems to be a particular concern of the Commonwealth nations is a further mystery I have sadly not the time to solve, leaving it to my American readers to make their own jokes reinforcing unfortunate stereotypes about British teeth.]
Intriguingly enough, as Tina goes on to mention, if one were so inclined to continue one’s exploration into the dynamic world of dental floss, a good starting point may be the highly prized economic study entitled Dental Floss: Trends and Prospects in International Trade.
A little more cyber-sleuthing confirms that yes, you can indeed be the proud owner of the above study, and all it would cost you is a mere $1120. Still unconvinced? Allow me to tempt you further by providing you with the outline of the report, where ‘International trade operations in more than 125 countries are highlighted through 150 tables and diagrams‘ :
1. RESUME: THE WORLD TRADE OF DENTAL FLOSS (2002-2007)
1.1. Dental floss: uses and properties
1.2. Dental floss: international trade in 2002-2007
2. DENTAL FLOSS EXPORTS
2.1. Executive summary
Dental floss exports by country
2.2. Dental floss exports segmented by region and country (2007)
2.2.2. Asia and Middle East
2.2.3. North America
2.2.4. Latin America
3. DENTAL FLOSS IMPORTS
3.1. Executive summary
Dental floss imports by country
3.2. Dental floss imports data broken down by region and country (2007)
3.2.2. Asia and Middle East
3.2.3. North America
3.2.4. Latin America
Section 1.1 is of particular note, the ‘uses and properties of dental floss’. How many uses can dental floss have? Do they mean strictly dental-related uses, or does this exhaustive report contain a multitude of previously unknown uses for this humble product? If only this report had a wider following, perhaps the limitless uses of this wonder-floss would be better known.
For example if a copy of this report could have fallen into the idle hands of a hollywood writer, whose studio would not even have blinked at the $1120 price tag in the search for ratings, it could have resulted in some truly memorable television, such as a heart-racing episode of MacGuyver, who, trapped in the wilds of a Bolivian jungle, may have used the mint-flavoured floss to attract ants for high-protein nutrition, and as a fishing line for piranha, in turn using the floss and piranha teeth to sew up his wounds,then utilizing the remaining floss to garrote his fascist guards, before exploiting the high tensile strength of the omni-useful, expertly Irish-crafted dental floss to effect his escape, swinging across a canyon and to freedom?
Though on this particular day, none of these heady possibilities were on my mind as I wound out the floss and it went taut and stopped with a jerk. I had come to the end of the floss, and so snipped off the last section on the metal tooth with a satisfying click.
Still none the wiser as to the incredible events in my very near future, I headed seamlessly into the final phase of my morning dental routine, the mouthwash. My mouthwash is coloured a satisfyingly vibrant shade of purple – and I take solace in the fact that anything that chemical and antiseptic-looking, is surely going to destroy any pathetic remnant of stubborn plaque or sinister bacteria which may have somehow evaded my previously thorough brushing and flossing, dissolving them into oblivion.
I cocked my head back and swilled the purple poison around my mouth. I always gargle heartily and in a prolonged baritone. People who gargle silently are to be distrusted entirely. If they cannot manage a little joyful basso buffo in the privacy of their bathrooms, their opinions on more substantial matters can be dismissed forthwith, without the merest compunction. Whilst not experimentally proven in a scientific setting, it is nonetheless a fact that it is impossible to be filled with anything less than good cheer while gargling.
After gargling, I always take another swill of mouthwash and forcefully push the purple liquid around my mouth, my cheeks alternating between being puffed out and then deflating, so it looks like a very small game of tennis is going on in my mouth, or perhaps if put less generously, it resembles a bullfrog suffering from a nervous spasm. I enjoy the slowly building stinging that accompanies this swishing until it feels like the purple acid will bore through your jawbone. At this point I spit out the rocket fuel and enjoy the incomparable feeling of a clean, fresh, mouth, housing two rows of gleaming teeth.
This feeling of physical freshness somehow directly translates into moral purity, and I leave my bathroom genuinely feeling like a better person.
As I put back the empty mouthwash bottle on the bathroom sinktop with the gruff careless satisfaction of someone who has reached the bottom of a particularly thirst-quenching ale, I suddenly realized the amazing event which had just transpired in my bathroom. It stunned me for a full minute as I beheld before me proof of the event:
I had, on the same morning, finished my toothpaste, my floss, and my mouthwash. Would life ever be the same again?
I confess I spent the rest of day as a mere automaton, going through the motions, but all the while transfixed by this amazing quirk of chance. I could not stop thinking about it. Firstly, if I was still living with my family, this might have been less impressive. A constant cycling through of dental products by multiple people would eventually result in this perfect storm of depletion, but even given that, I couldn’t recall it happening once in my family.
How much more extraordinary then, that I was the sole consumer of all three products? Or, did this fact somehow increase the likelihood of such a freak occurrence? Did my obsessive routines, which probably resulted in almost exactly the same amounts of toothpaste, floss and mouthwash being used everyday, actually mean that there was some mathematically determined point where such an earth-shattering confluence must, with the certainty of a formula, occur?
Those with sloppy and less consistent habits, including (I shudder to even think of this) forgetting to brush entirely on certain days, mean that they always introduced into the schema some element of chaos which meant that this sort of anomaly could never occur? Never mind Dental Floss:Trends and Prospects in International Trade,where was the report into this vital phenomena? Well dear reader, you are reading it now.
Over the next week, I conducted a poll amongst friends and family, and no-one could recall this ever happening. And also not officially recorded in the poll, but coming through quite strongly in the results was the accompanying fact that not many people particularly cared, or else simply dismissed it as “pretty weird” in the same way as getting a parking spot right in front of the entrance, or saying the same thing as someone else at the exact same time is “pretty weird”.
But those things, I argued with mounting desperation, occur quite frequently. My (albeit small-scale) initial investigations have shown that this might possibly be the first instance of this ever happening, making it rarer than falling meteorites, winning the lottery, four-leaf clovers and even sightings of the elusive monster at Loch Ness.
Would my bathroom become a site of holy pilgrimage? Would grave and sombre attendants take small groups of tourists through my house, and open my bathroom to gasps, as they beheld, on three small pedestals, the three empty chalices, at which point some excitable woman would always faint?
Would I be shot to stardom, acclaim and fame, only to become increasingly embittered as I am forever only known as “the floss guy”? Would I come to hate being somehow chosen for this miracle as I spiral out of control in a spiral of drugs and starlets, my acting roles never taken seriously, eventually ending in utter humiliation as they cast someone else to play me in a movie about this startling event, Hollywood inevitably calling it something like A Brush With Destiny?
Calming myself down, I tried to recall other such events, maybe proving how stuff like this happens all the time. But it doesn’t. I have never, for example, run out of bread, jam, and butter on the same occasion. I have never run out of coffee, milk, and sugar while making the same cup of coffee. I have never run out of shaving cream and after-shave on the same day that my razor became too blunt to shave with. No, I must face facts – this is indeed minutiae of a historic significance, and I must deal with it as such, and not try to trivialize it.
For whatever reason and by whatever agency, I have been chosen to bear witness to an event of unimaginable rarity, and, in order to live up to this immense responsibility I have learned to take solace (or horror) in the notion that if you wait long enough, almost anything will transpire, given breath by a world that cherishes the fantastic, the rare, things beyond predictable belief or reason.
So now when the shrill, jarring bleeps of my Sony Dream Machine rip me from my dream world, I realize that the ‘real world’ is no less magical, and my thoughts of rage are supplanted by the calm acceptance that the forces of chaos will forever battle those of destiny, as I stretch, yawn, swing my legs out of bed and approach my bathroom with the reverence of those approaching sacred ground.
Ah yes, adventures adventures…
“It’s a small world.” I hate that saying. It never made any sense to me. The world is gigantic. At times it almost seems infinite. When you travel by plane, you get a sense of the vast expanses of the planet. An ocean as far as your gaze in all directions. Hours of it as you travel at 700km/hr. Then a white wisp of foam in the distance. Then a shoreline that extends as far over the horizon as you can see. Huge cliffs tower and loom, yet still dwarfed from your airborne vantage – they seem hastily put together by an impatient child. As you descend, the first marks of man become visible. Roads cut farmland into easy rectangles. Then the city, skyscrapers clustering together in the middle as their sails of suburbia billow outwards on gentle hills. Now the industrial wastelands, the machine-scape, then finally the airport. As you come into land, you see the ground crew, ants that finally represent the human cog in these shifting scales of geography.
Of course, once you get out and walk to the terminal in the shadow of the giant bird, then everything shrinks and you are once again the most important thing on this planet, and the fact that yours is not the first luggage on the carousel becomes a source of intense irritation and unseen persecution.
It’s a small world. Whatever. So imagine my surprise when I am sitting at an outdoor table in Thailand sipping a beer, which, annoyingly has been served with ice, a fact you soon don’t mind as the heat closes in around you, and a shadow falls across my table and doesn’t move on. I look up and see a friend from back in the day in New Zealand. He has been hesitatingly scrutinizing my face to make sure it’s me. We both exchange a simultaneous “Hey, bro!” He introduces me to a small mountain which turns out to be his not-so-little brother. I never would have recognized him. He wouldn’t look out of place in a black jersey with a silver fern on it. It’s weird to see his old childish ways still persist in this huge hulking frame.
I’m here with a friend who is back at the hotel looking up the best deals on transport for while we’re here. She’s organized. She’s got timetables. She knows our flight numbers back. Me, I’ve lost the keys to my room twice in three days. The staff at reception think I am a moron. She leaves her key at reception when she goes out. We had planned on a really cultural trip. (Well, to be truthful, she had actually done all the planning). But now, I could see my three remaining days being spent on a massive piss-up with my mate. This would take a highly disciplined effort on my part. Focus. You can get pissed anywhere. Visiting Thailand is a great opportunity many people aren’t lucky enough to get. So I make plans with my friend to dedicate one day (and one day only) to exploring the city with him (in the full knowledge that this will inevitably end in an alcohol-induced coma in the most inconvenient place to have an alcohol-induced coma in).
On my return I pay my travelling companion a visit and show her two small wooden elephants I bought as a present for a friend back in Aussie. One is an adult and the smaller one fits under between its legs and under its protective trunk. Awww…I place them on her dresser and she smiles politely. I can tell she is thinking “God, can you get any more touristy?”
In the hour and a half it has taken me to drink four beers and pick up a tacky gift she has organized a morning trip to a Buddhist monastery (note, this is a trip for me – the monastery doesn’t allow girls inside some of the buildings) and a morning trip for her to a local music school where they use traditional instruments, then a joint afternoon for the both of us at a technology exhibition featuring all the latest gizmos. As she lays out our schedule, I wonder how I can casually broach the subject of whether or not it would be possible for her to organise the rest of my life for me.
The next day is cool and drizzly. Much colder than Brisbane. So much for a steaming Asian getaway. Standing in the courtyard of the monastery, I try to get into a Zen frame of mind. Two things wrong with that. Firstly, this is not a Zen Buddhist monastery. Secondly, the constant chatter of other tourists doesn’t make for the most meditation-friendly atmosphere. That’s the thing about travelling – you love visiting different places but are disappointed when others have the same idea, and you have to wait in line with them. Go away you silly fat Americans, whiny Poms and those morose looking Eurotrash plagued with a mid-life crisis that has been brewing for half their lifetimes. Can’t you see I am trying to enrich my cultural horizons and be at one with the universe? The fact that fat Americans, whiny Poms and Eurosnobs are part of that universe is something that I don’t want to think about. I feel like a bit of a phony. Some of these monks spend their entire lives according to sacrifice and discipline whereas I will just take a few photos, enjoy the peaceful surrounds and then back to a hectic materialistic world. Surely there’s a way to achieve spiritual fulfillment and keep my iRiver?
The tech exhibit was heaven. Or more appropriately, nirvana. Having a not-so-secret fetish for headphones, I immediately made for the audio section where the clarity of a pair of prototype Koss phones nearly reduce me to tears. My favourite exhibit was a school bag which has an embedded chip in it which can be picked up by GPS satellites to let concerned (over-protective, paranoid?) parents know where their children are at any given time. Why the bag? Why not directly implant the chip into the kids’ brains, set up to deliver a paralysing electric shock if they ever have an independent thought? The rep (who seems to have been specially pressed and starched for the occasion) informs me that the purpose of the bags are not to control children but to safeguard them against kidnapping etc. But surely all you would have to do is leave the bag behind when you kidnap the kid? Or put it on a train as you speed off with the young tyke in the opposite direction? And aren’t kidnappings ludicrously rare? I’ve also heard (no-one must ever know that the source for this info was an Oprah show) that in the overwhelming majority of child abductions (when they do happen) it is usually someone close to the family, and so would probably know all about the bag anyway? The rep eyes me suspiciously – I know way too much about this sort of stuff. Damn, where the hell is my friend? Seriously, I like women, not little kiddies. See? I put my arm around the shoulders of my friend in a sexually well-adjusted sort of way and make my retreat.
Back at the hotel, I am crashed out on the bed. My friend comes in. A couple of Brits from the third floor she met in the lobby have invited us for drinks at the restaurant downstairs. Yes, I’m sure they’ll be real crushed if I don’t go. Ah, my doe-eyed friend – so innocent and naive. I suggest to her to casually mention her boyfriend in conversation and watch their faces drop three floors. She says I am too cynical. I am tempted to go down to witness the fun, but the day has taken a lot out of me and I have the feeling that I will need to be well rested for my day of mayhem tomorrow. But she doesn’t want to go down by herself, so I accompany her because I am a fantastic individual who is becoming more and more convinced that I was Gandhi in one of my previous lives.
One of the Brits has on a Man Utd. shirt so I dislike him intensely straight away. I admit my Chelsea allegiance from the outset and have to sit through a mind numbingly rambling diatribe about the negative effects of the newly cashed-up club. I bide my time and then inquire as to whether or not the Reds have by now accepted the american Malcom Glazer who took over their club. I never tire of how close to the bone this affects all the Mancs that I have met and at first I think he is about to burst out in tears, but he settles for a grimace of barely concealed distaste. Round one to me. The subject is quickly changed to alcohol and how they are going to drink me under the table.
Ha! Foolish little Poms – blissfully unaware that my first institute of higher learning was Otago University where drinking is offered as a three year Bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that these two didn’t go to university, primarily because they prefer to spend the entirety of their days drinking continuously without the pesky interruptions of lectures. After a couple of hours I am not travelling well at all. When I next feel like going to the bathroom, I plan several minutes ahead, mentally steeling myself to, in the correct order: get up, leave my chair, walk the nine or so metres without having to use the other tables/chairs/patrons as support, or more embarrassingly, just collapsing in a drunken heap. I put some weight onto my feet under the table as a test, and feel confident in pulling off the Great Bathroom Caper, which I do with aplomb.
Buoyed by this small victory, I am filled with confidence and entertain notions of pulling off an upset victory over these cocky Poms – surely by the law of averages, after winning the Ashes, no Englishman should expect to win anything for the next decade? The next day my friend informs me that during my absence one of the guys had asked if we were in a relationship. She had replied that no, and that she had a boyfriend back in Aussie, to which apparently they had had no reaction. O sweet cherub – but how could she, without a male mind, be able to pick up on the diabolical musings which take place there in its dark caverns? It would be like asking Little Red Riding Hood about the pack hunting strategies of wolves.
I wake up for my day of mayhem with a very, very bad hangover. My ability to avoid hangovers irrespective of the amounts of alcohol consumed the night before had always been a source of great personal pride to me, and the basis for my belief that I was genetically superior to those poor mortals the likes of whom would wander into breakfast at 1:00pm looking like dehydrated zombies. As I stumbled out of bed and took a few tentative steps, I was now having to deal with all sorts of new experiences. Like a mouthful of what felt like Ugboot lint and the disconcerting feeling that somehow one of my legs had been amputated at the knee (that being the only logical reason why the room was at such an unfamiliar angle). Alright Champ, get your game face on – it’s showtime. As I lurch toward the bathroom, I spy a decanter of water on the bedside table. Ah, It’s good to have a guardian angel looking out for you.I make a mental note to thank her, and forget it almost immediately. The water hits the spot and in half and hour I’m in the lobby waiting for my NZ friend.
Surprisingly he’s on time and is well up for it. First things first – food. On foot patrol, we head outside. The traffic is insane and people are everywhere. It’s definitely a shock to the system to be engulfed in such a human river. We lose each other a couple of times but are ambling along, I think much to the annoyance of the majority of people who actually have places to go. We find our way to the commercial district where the crowd now is made up of either locals in suits or tourists in singlets. We cruise down the seemingly endless food stalls/restaurants, spoilt for choice. One of the small food houses has a big rooftop board with a gigantic painted cowboy on it twirling a lasso, for no apparent reason. Bingo. Our kind of place. Inside is very busy and we set up camp in one of the corners. Ginger chilli beef and noodles starts us off and we are away. As we pack away the grub there is much catching up to do. It transpires that one of my schoolmates went to jail for drug possession. In jail, he met up with the real thing and once released, is now set up as a drug dealer. There’s rehabilitation for you.
Next up we look to shoot some pool to settle some old scores. We hail a taxi and the driver gets the gist of what we’re after. We agree on the price beforehand, but to be honest, as we have no clue where this place is, we have no idea if we’re getting ripped off. The traffic is ludicrously busy but not as death-defying as other countries I’ve been. We pull up beside some shops and the driver points to some guy standing on the pavement. Okay… The driver sees our confusion and yells something to the guy who smiles at us and waves us up. Now we see a recessed doorway. Thinking it’s a bar, we go through, to be confronted with a massive flight of stairs. We go up and up and up. At the top is another guy, much less friendly. He opens the door and we go in. My first impression is that the place is on fire. Then I realize that a heavy fog of cigarette smoke occupies the top third of this massive hall. It sounds like an auction house with all the voices. There are many tables with old guys playing cards. A waitress wearing not many clothes comes up to us and we carefully mime shooting pool which we hope won’t be taken the wrong way. She leads us to a little hallway, and we come into another big room, with the nicest king size pool tables we have ever seen.
Another girl wearing even less leads us to a table. As these are not coin operated tables we try to ask about payment but she smiles and waves us off. Okay. So we figure it’s a time played type deal and get down to bidnez.. It doesn’t take us many frames to figure out that all is not well in paradise. People seem to be playing pool only as a means of passing time before they disappear into, or come out of, a short hallway. Intriguing…
My friend, who I shall call D, suggests we should take a mosey on down into one of the other rooms. If anyone asks, we can say that we are looking for the bathroom. Unfortunately, I am a little girly-man, and the sight of the sinister man at the top of the stairs is burnt into my memory. This does not strike me as the sort of place you would want to create a disturbance, especially if you don’t speak the language. As D is trying to convince me to grow a pair, a man walks up to our table. In English he asks us if we are enjoying ourselves. This guy looks like the asian version of Bert Newton. D comments on the nice tables. “Yes, the top” he agrees. He introduces himself as the president of something-or-rather. He explains that this is a business man’s social club but hastily adds “but we always welcome guests”. He asks if we would like to meet some of our countrymen and asks where in England we are from. My friend D says we are from New Zealand. “New Zealand?! I won fifty thousand dollars in the Auckland casino!” He seems very pleased with us and invites us to meet some of the members.
We walk down a corridor and into a room which seems completely filled with smoke. This is like the first hall, but the tables are absolutely cluttered with glasses and food which the players squeeze their cards in between. He introduces to a table as he pulls two chairs from a neighboring table and squeezes two more places. Before we know it we are seated and there is much friendly nodding at us. As I’m acknowledging the others, our host says something to them and they all smile. One turns to us and says “we have a good holiday in New Zealand”. Evidently. Our lucky host asks us to enjoy ourselves and to “take our leisure” and he leaves.
Of the six other men at the table, two are English and carry on small talk with us while playing cards at a frenetic rate. One of these asks us to call him Tommy and motions at one of the waitresses while asking us what we want to drink. Beer is the answer. He tells us that beer is not very popular amongst the club and is of inferior quality. Do we like spirits? I love my whiskey and D is up for some rum and coke. When the lovely lady returns, it is with two glasses and three bottles, one of Johnny Walker (Black Label – I am in heaven) and one of an unfamiliar rum which D assures me with a smile is “the top”, and a bottle of cola, all of which she plonks down on the already fully crammed table. We start to explain that we don’t want the whole bottle, as we pull out our wallets but are again waved off. Tommy explains that the drinks are free. The club takes a percentage of the takings from each table and that in the other wing “there is a charge” for “the company of the ladies.” We see.
It is no wonder they can afford to put up free drinks. It’s strange because while the gentleman at the tables are not dressed very expensively, they are playing with serious money. There must be at least $15,000 in Australian dollar terms in play at our table, and some other tables have a lot more. And judging by the traffic through the pool room, I’m guessing the “ladies” are making a pretty packet as well. We settle back and watch the energy of the game. There seems to be a lot of trash talk which we wish we could understand. People scream out in mock rage at each other, and in real rage at themselves when they lose. There are some tables where there are no cards being played. People drift in and out and it seems everyone knows everyone else. At intervals the waitress brings the tables food in tin plates. Because we had just a meal, D and I weren’t hungry and so didn’t eat much. After a while though, we got peckish and had some of these shrimp cutlets which were quite hot but ridiculously tasty. Seeing us wolf them down, Tommy motions to the waitress. We protest, but only half-heartedly – and sure enough more of the cutlets are brought out. This is the life.
It may seem totally strange and awkward to sit at a table with a bunch of people you’ve never met while they gamble, but it was actually really natural. We got caught up in the dynamics of the game, and Tommy was a legend, translating the talk of the table and their crazy stories, many of which were classic.
One example: One of the men at our table had been in the Army. Stationed in the Philippines, he and his barracks were in the Supplies Warehouse, organizing and dispatching the various weekly deliveries which included everything from food rations and bedding to cleaning products and mulch for the gardens. The Supplies Warehouse, being situated right at the compound gates was also a favourite place to entertain the local prostitutes, who could be snuck in easily. Which is exactly what our intrepid soldier was doing, when over the growl of the delivery trucks he heard the whine of a jeep. This was not good. It could be any one of the many officers, but there was one in particular who struck fear into everyone on the base due to his harsh punishments which included mopping the communal bathrooms.
Not exactly the Spanish Inquisition you might say, except that he made you fill up the buckets one cup at a time from a nearby river. So you can understand the panic which set in. Our Romeo sprints to lock the outer rolling door to buy himself a precious few seconds after asking his lovely Juliet to take the clothes and hide in one of the refrigerated containers on the second level of the warehouse. At top speed and putting his military fitness to good use, he slides and locks the door before he turns on his heels and makes double-time upstairs. Footsteps can be heard and the dreaded C.O. opens the door with his key and starts hollering for someone in particular. Romeo sneaks into the container, to find to his horror that his companion has only brought back her clothes.
In the silence that follows he can see in his mind’s eye the C.O standing perplexed over the full uniform, boots included, sprawled all over the floor. When the original soldier that was requested arrives, he finds the officer purple with hysteria inquiring in that polite army way what the meaning of all of this is. The soldier wisely professes his bewilderment as well. One way or another, this mystery is going to be solved. The officer orders the entire crew of the barracks to line up. He asks the leader who the missing soldier is. Knowing the game is up and realizing sadly that this surely spells the end of all such future types of rendezvous, he has no option but to name our Romeo.
But where there is a will there is a way. One plucky soldier volunteers that he has seen Romeo outside, dispatching the gravel bags. He is sent outside to see if he can find him. Leaving the officer screaming all sorts of graphic threats he makes his way outside. He knows that Romeo must be on the second level, so he stacks four pellets of flour up against the side of the building and does a fair imitation of spiderman up to the landing. Once inside, he cautiously makes his way, whispering “Romeo, Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo?” He finds the pair, one very much colder than the other, and explains what a fine mess he is in. Romeo contemplates suicide. Our rescuer thinks there must be a better way.
Fear and pressure can bring outstanding things out of people, and the saviour suddenly smiles and genius strikes. The plan is hastily shared, and our plucky soldier strips and hands his clothes over to our shivering playboy. Newly kitted out, Romeo sneaks out to the landing and drops down on the pellets and heads on around to the opposite entrance, and ambles on in like he is on a Sunday stroll. He finds the officer still expounding on the various sadistic tortures he will bring down upon the whole group, each more sickeningly inventive than the last. Seeing Romeo, his fellow soldiers eye this apparition with great wonder. The officer eyes him suspiciously and asks him where he has been.
As innocent as a cherub, our man replies that he had been delivering the gravel bags when one must have burst open, spraying gravel on the road. On the return trip he sees this and realizing the grave safety concerns this loose gravel posed, he had been sweeping it all up. The officer, secretly disappointed at not putting into effect his headful of cruel and unusual punishment, demands to know which other barracks are on duty nearby and orders a list of those on recreational leave, and storms off eager to get his man, completely forgetting why he had come to the warehouse in the first place. Romeo breathes a sigh of relief and is heartily congratulated for his efforts. With the world conquering stride of the victor, he climbs the stairs and returns to his beloved, only to find her and Spiderman in, shall we say, carnal embrace.
Perhaps the story is a lot funnier after countless whiskies / rum-and-cokes, but we were nearly in tears, and we cracked everyone up because they heard the sting in the tale and roared with laughter, then we cracked up ten seconds later when our translator caught up. Hilarity I tells ya. Other notable memories of that table (fuzzy though they may be) included an elderly Japanese guy pulling some ludicrous stunts with a ludicrously sharp knife and us sampling some homemade house moonshine to much acclaim and the merriment of the others who enjoyed our brave efforts splutters and all. Oh, how I wish those Poms could have been here. For these were the most amazing drinkers I had ever met. Thin spindly old guys who could drink a table under the table.
Realizing our increasing lack of coherency, we thanked our gracious hosts from the bottom of our tachycardic hearts and lurched on back to the pool room, me with the whole bottle of Johnny in hand, taking swigs. Pure class all the way. All I needed was the brown paper bag and to pester passerby for cigarettes. With the evening truly underway by now, the traffic through the pool room was on the increase, and we noticed many foreigners, a few with the unmistakeable Aussie drawl. D and I exit the poolhall, leaving behind us those travellers to get their horizons expanded…
The time is almost upon us when we’d planned to go and see some hardcore Thai kickboxing, and now that we were all liquored up, a good dose of senseless violence was seeming a lot more attractive by the sip. We make our way shakily down the labyrinth of stairs and find ourselves outside. The guy on the street is a different guy. We ask where we can get a Taxi. He eyes our deplorable state and not wanting to cast shame on the veritable institution of the Something-Or-Rather Businessman’s Club, motions us to wait inside while he calls one. We can’t be arsed walking up all those stairs again, so once the door is closed, we just crash out, leaning with our backs on the wall under the side banisters. A pair of no good bums. The guy outside comes in to get us, and he almost hits us with the door.
Outside and breathing in the first non-cigarette-polluted air our lungs have had for the last four hours, the problem of communicating with the driver who speaks absolutely no English, becomes apparent. If we thought miming pool was fun, our efforts to stage an impromptu kickboxing match against each other brings forth a gale of laughter from both the guy on the door and the driver, who we feel is toying with us the way certain malicious sobre types will, at the expense of their more tipsy colleagues. And yet, success! We are on our way…
At the fight, all semblance of civilization leaves us and we realize that we are totally gone. Scientific words like ‘intoxicated’ sugest only a clinical dampening of our cognitive function. We were well and truly sozzled. May as well enjoy ourselves is the plan. I’m a fan of boxing, and don’t have much time for those who label it “brutal”. But even to a lover of the “Sweet Science” this looked to be some impressive savagery. The stinging ‘thwack’ sound that rung out each time a barefooted kick made contact with skin made your eyes water. We gave the boxers names like Gentleman Jack and Hombre ‘The Hurricane’ Hernandez and yelled out our carefully thought out advice. “Kick him in the head! Finish him! His style is inferior – let him taste the wrath of the Flying Phoenix Buddhist Palms!” and so forth… We feel like Roman Emperors, watching gladiators perform for us.
It seems gambling is the national sport in Thailand, because to one side are the bookies are doing a roaring trade. Confident in our newly acquired knowledge, we put some money on a lean looking fighter with heart. We have no idea about all the hand signals and other protocol, but bring our finely honed acting skills to the fore and make ourselves understood. Seven rounds of splendid pugilism later, our man wins, (was there ever any doubt?) with a rib shattering flurry of punches. We stagger back to the bookies but in the crowd of others making bets, can’t get anywhere near them. One of the guys motions us to wait and points to his watch. We wait, but he motions us back to our chairs.
Apparently this will take time. We start thinking that we have been had, but two fights later, the bookies turn from taking money to handing out the winnings. The guy now motions us to go over. I have no idea how the four bookies possibly could have memorized the bets of the thirty or so punters, but it seems they have. Everyone is in a loose semi-circle and they walk along, handing out your winnings. As we had no idea on the odds, we didn’t know if we got the right amount, but these guys looked like they knew what they were doing, as opposed to us, who looked like we had gone a couple of rounds with Hombre ‘The Hurricane’ Hernandez.
The small gym is almost unbearably hot and as we leave and are standing outside I notice D is sweating all over, with his hair plastered across his forehead. Not having the logical capacity to surmise that I probably look the same, I crack up. Man, we must look like a pair of junkies in withdrawal. No cabbie in Australia would go within a mile of us. Thankfully the first one we see stops for us and we pile in. He calls us “gentlemen” which is exceedingly generous of him. We head back to the tourist centre and hit the club, in our minds making an entrance like Will I Am in the ‘Weekend’ video. We are meeting D’s little (BIG) brother here. Back to familiar beer, we are distraught at actually having to pay for drinks. That’s just not cricket.
This club is just like any back in Brisbane. Ninety per cent of the people are tourists and about half of them are Aussie. There are no empty tables so we are at the bar carrying on our shenanigans. One of the barmen puts down a drink in between us, and we look at each other confused. A hand reaches across D and takes it. As D wipes a bit of the spillage from his forearm, he says to me, smiling “yeah, you’re excused”. The guy who the arm belongs to is less than impressed and says “well stop leaning all over the fucking bar”. He disappears before our foggy brains can feel insulted. D’s little brother picks this moment to join us and we tell him what happened, as we motion over to the guy, who must have been telling his mates the same story. They took a look at D’s brother and must have quickly advised their mate to drop it whilst his bones were in the universally much-preferred unbroken state. Leave those crazy kiwis alone mate, after all, haven’t you ever seen Once Were Warriors?
Now. Till this point we are certain of events. From here on in things are at best a hazy reconstruction. D’s little bro hooked up with a Canadian redhead who had an amazingly loud voice. There is a top secret conference and it is decided (I have no recollection of this) that D will sleep in my room to allow lil bro to further NZ-Canadian relations. We are now in a deplorable state, and utterly unable to maintain sitting equilibrium on a bar stool, so we search for some nice low comfy seats, which we find a few bars over. Finally, some great music. Latin beats from a live band ensures that almost everyone is on the floor. We get into conversation with some uber chic party people in all the right threads and the inevitable sunglasses indoors.
For some reason we get into a debate over whether or not MacGyver should be accorded All Time T.V. Legend status. Just your average good-natured playful drunk conversation, but apparently I took it all rather personally and delivered a lengthy address, elucidating how in many respects MacGyver’s lack of standing amongst the current youth was symptomatic of society’s descent into moral depravity and the loss of faith in Good over Evil, and that in generations to come MacGyver will be regarded as the last true champion of virtue, before Hollywood stars needed a substance-abuse problem and an endless supply of cynical one-liners to be heroes. I brought my closing arguments to an end by hurling ridicule at my well-dressed opponents centering on their reluctance to try spicy food, which in retrospect perhaps did not quite logically follow from the chain of arguments I had so meticulously constructed.
The small hours of the morning finds us sitting in the same chairs, in that excruciating state where you’re too tired to sleep. We both haven’t said a word for ages. The bar staff keep throwing us concerned looks, so we decide to call it a night. Like the undead, we lurch outside and for the first time we simply can’t find a taxi. It slowly dawns on us that maybe 10 metres before a set of lights at a major intersection might be a tad optimistic. We track back and find others also waiting for cabs. We insist on yelling heartfelt farewells to each of the parties in front of us as they leave.
Finally, we crawl into the back a cab and I am out like a light about ten seconds later. Now and then, I catch a glimpse of D staring out of the window before I drift in and out of sleep.Gradually a feeling of unease tries to make itself heard through the haze. The next time I’m awake it hits: this is taking too long. I mumble to D if he negotiated the price before we started. He doesn’t answer me. I give him a nudge and he turns from the window, looks at me, slouches down to my level, and very quietly whispers to me “Can you see the pattern?” My poor brain can’t handle this. My blank face prompts him to point out the window. I take a look to see the cityscape. What am I looking for?
He begins a long and rambling speech which, as it progresses, inspires in me no small amount of terror. It is somewhere near the middle of his tale of how the circulation of the traffic is intimately connected with the circulation of his bloodstream and that both are controlled by his heartbeat, that it dawns on me that D is chemically altered to Hollywood levels of narcotic psychedelisis.
My mind races (by which I mean it sluggishly turns over a few unrelated concepts in no particular order) as I try and figure out just when and how this happened. I’m getting no sense out of D. A post-event analysis conducted by our good selves have to date narrowed it down to that dodgy Style Patrol in the last bar we were at, and the leggy brunette who repaid D’s clumsy advances with the communal sharing of a tab of acid. Or was it a mint? He doesn’t remember and I believe further investigation to be of little value. With D otherwise occupied, I ask the driver if we are heading to my hotel. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. In broken English he apologetically informs me that D had told him to “go for a drive”. Thankfully the fare is not yet ludicrous so I ask him to take us back to D’s hotel.
It is only after we arrive there, that D tells me that he’s staying with me in my room. I have no idea what the hell he is talking about but he tells me about his brother so now we head out to the entrance of the hotel to look for our one thousandth taxi for the evening. We should be getting frequent driver points. We know the two hotels are very close together, so decide that the best course of action to take would be walk in the direction of those hotel-looking buildings over there, until we either find out whether it’s walkable, or can wave down a taxi. A flawless stratagem. For some reason the thought of Scott’s last expedition pops into my head like a sudden Arctic blast, then is gone into the ether.
There are three guys talking at the end of the street under a lamppost, lounging on their scooters. As we approach, one of them makes a motion of lighting a cigarette. Sorry mate, we don’t have a light. D then asks them in turn if they know where my hotel is. They (not surprisingly) don’t understand his spaced out sentences when I suddenly realize I have my hotel room key-card on me, covered in a sleeve which has the hotel’s name on it. I am too pleased with my brilliance to listen to their reply. Taking this in their stride, they resort to non-verbal communication, and make three sharp gestures with their hands. Looking back, it probably meant “Oh, that’s just over there. Take a left, a right and a left and you can’t miss it.”
But the hotel key inspiration has used up the last of my mental metabolism and I’m now running on empty. They look at the way we are swaying almost in time together and murmur amongst themselves. Probably something along the lines of “Damn druggie Aussies. Where do they think this is, Indonesia?” Well we’re Kiwis, dammit. Finally one of them points at us then at his scooter as he starts it up. It becomes apparent two of them (probably for our safety) are going to ride us over there. The two of us? On scooters? And the scooters will be moving? I begin to decline his offer politely when D grabs my arm (this is my favourite part of our whole adventure) and says (I swear to god I am not making this up) “Don’t worry. I knew this would happen.”
But, not surprisingly, I did worry. I was worrying a great deal, when D hopped behind one of the guys on his trusted steed, gave me a smile and they rode off into the distance. I had no choice but to follow. The hotel was ridiculously close. My guess was that it took just over two minutes. The next day D estimated our travel time at “around forty minutes.” Either way, with D controlling the traffic around us telepathically, we had no troubles reaching our destination.
Finally, I thought it would be a good idea to wake up my travel buddy because what sane person would choose to sleep when they could be regaled by chronicles of our heroic travels? So, because I am always thinking of others, we paid her a 4.00 am visit so she could say that she had played a small part in one of the greatest adventure epics in modern history. She was enthralled of course, but because she didn’t want to further embarrass us two modest exploring pioneers, for whom the journey is its own reward, she graciously managed to downplay her excitement to such a level that the next day D would say she looked “kinda pissed off”.
(beautiful photo by TheAliceGame)
Wow, looks like I missed a year.
Fear not, some catastrophe has not befallen yours truly, longtime readers will merely recognize this as yet more proof of my unparalleled prowess in the art of procrastinating. A year-long break between blog entries is not only nothing to get excited about, it’s to be expected. This blog requires persistence, dear reader. Are you willing to stand by me and my lack of motivation, through thick and thinly veiled delusions of grandeur? In my absence has your heart grown fonder? Or will you abandon me in favour of some easily available meaningless blog action? Will you be able to look yourself in the monitor the next morning?
A whole year may seem like a long time for some folk, but I can easily stretch a nap, taking out the trash, and running an anti-virus scan on my laptop out into a year, no problem at all.
So, for those interested in this intrepid hero, a quick re-cap on my ‘missing’ year:
Greatest achievement: Saving enough to go on holiday
Greatest disappointment: Not going on holiday because friends had to get married. Stupid love.
High point: Passing everything despite still occasionally needing directions to campus. (By now the skin of my teeth has become tough and leathery, like a crocodile.)
Low point: Watching smart people do dumb things and screw up their lives.
Estimated time lost in procrastination: 3 months
The Great Sideburn Project of 2012: Abandoned
Cultivating an iron gaze: Currently at ‘Corrugated Iron’ level
State of Christopher Walken impersonation: I no longer aim to merely impersonate him. I now interpret the force that is Christopher Walken.
Becoming a soulful legend on the harmonica: In progress (there are no young soulful harp legends)
Doing enough to qualify photography as a ‘hobby': Achieved
Becoming involved in charity: Combining ‘God helps those who help themselves’ and ‘Charity begins at home’, I spent most of the year at home treating myself with compassion, love and respect.
Remembered mother’s birthday: Yes
Writing: Some salvageable scribblings. A lot of irredeemable crapola. The ratio of one to the other is improving slightly, though.
Finding the love of a good woman: Failed, but enjoyed albeit infrequently settling for less.
Overall progress in Life: Minimal
Personal Growth: None
So, a mixed bag really. Like silver screen cretins are wont to say, “life is like a box of chocolates” – in theory full of sweetness, but in reality ending in guilt and self-loathing.
I have been too long gone, but long time readers know that following this blog is like watching a game of cricket. Nothing at all happens for a very long time, then all of a sudden when you least expect it, something very boring happens.
I kid of course, cricket is fantastic – any game where you play for five days and still often end in a draw is one that this avid procrastinator can’t get enough of. To fall asleep for hours in front of the cricket and awake to find not much has changed – well isn’t that life itself?
This is my longest entry so far, and reflects the high (pun intended) esteem in which I hold those to whom it is dedicated: those magnificent men and their floating machines. Because this latest entry in The Horatio Files would like to pay tribute to the daring men who inhabit the rarified air (okay I’ll stop the lame wordplay – okay maybe a couple more, you’ll have to wait for them…) of the thrilling world of the cluster-ballooner.
I’ll admit that ‘ballooner’ doesn’t sound very cool. Not like ‘ninja’ or ‘heavy metal monk’. Perhaps the term should be changed. ‘Ballooniere‘, to reflect its French origins? ‘Balloonario‘ also has a dashing quality. ‘Ballunatic‘? But I suppose I had better start by explaining what cluster-ballooning is.
We’re all familiar with hot-air balloons. You heat air, it expands in the canopy, lifting you. When the air cools, you begin to descend, so you have to heat more air to stay afloat. Well, how about getting a little balloon that is filled with something lighter than air like helium, so it already floats? Then get another one. Then get a whole bunch more. Tie them to something. Now hop on, and away you soar…
Of course the eagle-eyed among you will instantly recognize that you don’t have a great deal of control here. Unlike hot-air balloons which have vents to control altitude, in cluster ballooning you just keep going up until the air becomes very thin, matching the density of the helium and you level out, hanging there very high in the sky, completely at the mercy of wherever the wind wishes to take you.
That’s all very good, and I hear you say that while that does indeed sound thrilling, you would at some point like to come down. Well simply pop a couple of balloons. But not too many. Otherwise you plummet to your death. This is not for the faint-hearted. You’d have to be some kind of ballunatic to even attempt it.
Let me introduce Padre Adelir Antonio de Carli. You’ll come to appreciate that one of the requisites of being a ballooniere, is that you be in possession of a fantastic name, one worthy of your amazing feats. With a name like Adelir Antonio de Carli, you can be assured that whether or not you seek it, history will nonetheless take it upon itself to find you. This good Brazilian priest, tied an imposing colourful mass of helium balloons to a modified seat, said a silent prayer and left this sinful earth and rose into the heavens…
Let us leave the good padre for a moment, as he is lifted into the wide blue yonder, and go back to the very beginning, for the history of ballooning is well worth a visit.
Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (see what I mean about the names) was kicking back in Eighteenth century France, observing laundry dry in front of a fire. He observed the sheets would now and then form pockets and billow upwards. While many men would have paid scant heed to such things and gone back to dozing in front of a cozy fire, monsieur Montgolfier was entranced, and immediately set about building a lightweight wooden frame over which he stretched some taffeta cloth, and under which he lit a fire. The contraption rose to the ceiling.
He sent for his equally fantastically named brother Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier, writing “Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world“. Who could resist such a summons, and the Montgolfier brothers immediately did what any man would do after making a cool contraption, they re-made it, only much, much bigger.
A public demonstration of the floating of such a craft on June 4th 1783 was naturally a sensation, and news of their amazing endeavours spread to the very beating heart of the world, Paris. In order to officially lay claim to the invention that had finally tamed the skies, they decided it was necessary to take their flying machine there and repeat their feat. In realization of the importance of such a task, Joseph-Michel did not go but remained with his family, “given his unkempt appearance and shyness“. It was left to Jacques-Etienne, the “epitome of sobre values, modest in clothes and manner…” to go forth and stake their claim.
The demonstrations were successful, and in September, at the Royal Palace in Versailles, in front of the King and Queen, they attached a basket to the balloon, and the first living things given the honour of the test flight were a sheep, a duck and a rooster. Because they were technically balloonieres, the sheep was given the fantastic name Montauciel (‘climb-to-the-sky’). Sadly the names of the duck and the rooster do not survive, perhaps because they became so well known that nobody ever thought to write them down. They flew without a hitch, for eight minutes, to wild acclaim, attaining an altitude of 1,500 feet.
Though how impressed the duck was, being able to fly much better on his own without the need of such fancy contraptions, was another fact also left unrecorded. But one can’t help feel elated for the rooster, who finally got a taste of what all the other birds had been talking about. It is a shame that his race would forever be maligned as the butt of jokes containing the mere crossing of a road, when one of its members had already taken to the skies.
It was now time to construct a hot-air balloon capable of carrying humans. A search was conducted to find two individuals with suitably fantastic names to be accorded this superlative accolade, and the winners were unsurprisingly the Marquis Francois Laurent d’Arlendes and Jean-Francois Plaitre de Rozier.
In November, the pair undertook a genteel but historic 25minute flight, covering five and a half miles at an altitude of 3,000ft. It is hard to describe how strongly this feat captured the imaginations of the locals. They, along with the Montgolfier brothers became the first flyboys to set thousands of female hearts aflutter. They were the Top Guns of their day.
De Rozier now constructed his own balloon, and in conjunction with a Pierre Romain, attempted the first international flight by crossing the English Channel. Sadly they were beaten to the task by another catchily-named duo, Dr. John Jeffries and Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Undeterred, de Rozier forged ahead with his plan, but his balloon sadly caught fire and crashed, and therefore Pierre Romain (? – 1785) and Jean-Francois de Rozier (1754 – 1785) did attain a record, but it was the unfortunate one of being the very first people to have been killed in an air crash. (No doubt Icarus would dispute that).
De Rozier’s wife died eight days later, reputedly having killed herself. As we will see, being romantically involved with a balloonario is a very demanding role. As a testament to his short but pioneering role in ballooning, modern gas and hot-air balloons are known as Rozier balloons. The sadness of his passing aside, the allure of ballooning could not be contained, and the craze swept across the Atlantic, and the indefatigable Jean-Pierre Blanchard was the first to fly a hot-air balloon in America, an event watched by one George Washington, who no doubt couldn’t have helped wondering how much easier it would have been to cross the Delaware in one of those.
But the history of invention is never so clear-cut. One of the biggest controversies is the role played by a Portugese priest born in Brazil in 1685. Showing that the Portugese flying pioneers were also no slouch in the name department, Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao, was said to possess a “remarkable memory and a great command of languages“, and followed in the scientific footsteps of Francesco Lana de Terzi, who we can safely assume knew what he was on about.
His revelation came not from laundry but from watching a soap bubble float upward in the hot air surrounding the flame of a candle. This inspired him to conceive of a very, let’s say ambitious project, which he petitioned the King of Portugal to be allowed to pursue. It involved gigantic sails being stretched over a boat like frame, with bellows pumping air through tubes to the sails when there was no wind. Intriguingly, there was also a role of two magnets in separate hollow metal balls, which were somehow to aid in propulsion.
Understandably, the proposed date for the demonstration of June in 1709 came and went, and Bartolomeu decided to scale back operations a little, and settled on a more modest design, and by August was set for a demonstration of a small paper balloon, without sails, bellows, tubes or magnets. However even then, things did not go according to plan, as it caught on fire before lift-off.
Undaunted, Bart returned two days later after having ironed out the kinks in his project, and succesfully demonstrated a paper balloon which rose appropriately majestically in the presence of the King. It rose so well that servants, fearing that it would reach the ceiling and set it on fire, were forced to destroy it.
Three days after that, the cocky Gusmao showcased a new design of a wooden platform containing a clay bowl which contained the fire that lifted the paper balloon. Among the dignitaries was a cardinal Conti, who later became a pope, known as Pope Innocent XIII, perhaps being unaware that proclaiming yourself the Innocent instantly makes people wonder what you may indeed actually be guilty of.
Here the story gets a little murky. Bartolomeu seems to have experimented with ever larger balloons, and then is rumoured to have flown one of these contraptions himself, crashing it but not before achieving a kilometre of flight. This would make him the first person to have flown, predating the effort of Rozier and the good Marquis in a Montfolfier balloon, by several decades.
Did this actually happen? It is hard to say, there are conflicting reports. Records from the era itself are scarce. A sceptical newspaper article in The Times, written much later in 1786, states: ” By accounts from Lisboon we are assured, that in consequence of the experiments made there with the Montgolfier balloon, the literati of Portugal had been inclined to make numerous researches on the subject; in consequence of which they pretend that the honour of the invention is due to Portugal. They say that in 1720, a Brazilian Jusuit, named Bartholomew Gusmao, possessed of abilites, imagination and address, by permission of John V, fabricated a balloon… and one day, in presence of their Majesties, and an immense croud of spectators, raised himself, by means of a fire lighted in the machine,… but through the negligence and want of experience of those who held the cords, the machine took an oblique direction, and touching the cornice, burst and fell. ”
The article goes on to expand on Bart’s ultimate fate: ” The inventor proposed to make new experiments, but, chagrined at the raillery of the common people, who called him wizzard, and terrified by the Inquisition, he took the advice of his friends, burned his manuscripts, disguised himself, and fled to Spain, where he soon after died in an hospital… Several learned men, French and English, who had been at Lisbon to verify the fact, had made enquiries at the Carmelite monastery, where Gusmao had a brother, who had preserved some of his manuscripts on the manner of constructing aerostatic machines. Various living persons affirm that they were present at the Jesuit’s experiments, and that he received the surname of Voador, or ‘Flying-man’ ”
What are we to make of all of this? I have read from many sources that it is a misconception that he was persecuted for his flying machines. While poor Bart did in fact come to the attention of the Inquisition, it was not for his experiments, but on unrelated charges (though interestingly I can’t find anywhere where it states exactly what those other charges are. If anyone knows, please let me know).
He did go to Spain, where he died of a fever. It seems to be a recurring theme that these brave balloonistas tend to end in tragedy. His surviving works from the time include sermons and a work dated 1709, which when translated is titled: ‘A Short Manifesto For Those Who Are Unaware That It Is Possible To Sail Through The Element Air.’
So depending on who you believe, the inventor of the flying balloon were either two French brothers, one shy and unkempt, the other of sobre values and modest manner, or it was a Brazilian Jesuit, possessed of imagination abilities and address. Whoever it was, The Horatio Files salutes them all.
Well now, let us move on. The inventors are a rare breed, but often it is those that come afterwards who push the new advances to their limits, fully highlighting how amazing the initial discovery was.
One such individual is (man I love these names) Captain Joseph William Kittenger II. He spent his teenage years like many of us, racing speedboats. In 1949, he then joined the U.S. Air Force. When Colonel John Paul Stapp set the speed record of 632mph (1,017 kph) in his rocket car, who was flying the observation plane? That’s right – the Kitt. He flew missions in Vietnam where he was shot down and spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’. This is a guy who is no stranger to extreme situations.
In 1960 he was chosen as part of Project Excelsior (latin for ‘ever upward’) at the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories. This was research into the effects of high altitude bailouts, from a little gondola, which is lifted by balloons. The ascent could be controlled (those meddling scientists) so whilst not strictly cluster-ballooning, it is impressive nonetheless. The plan was simple. Float up to ridicuous heights, and jump out. The Kitt was born to do this. He made three extreme jumps.
Remembering that Roz and the Marquis attained a height of 3,000 ft, you can appreciate Kittenger’s feat, when his first jump was recorded from an altitude of 76,400 feet. It did not go well. An equipment malfunction sent him into a flat spin of 120rpm (twice per second) which resulted in him experiencing 22 g-forces (or 22 times the force of gravity) – a record. He blacked out, but luckily the automatic parachute system worked.
Less than a month later, he was back in business, this time jumping from a much more sensible altitude of 74,700 feet. A cake-walk. Or cake-fall as the case may be.
His third jump was extreme, even for The Kitt. They went straight for 102,800 feet, or 19 and a half miles straight up. He went to town on the records. It was the highest anyone had ever been in a balloon. It was the highest parachute jump ever. To stabilize him and stop him from spinning, he deployed a tiny parachute called a drogue when he exited. He set the record for the longest drogue-fall, falling for an amazing 4 minutes and 36 seconds before activating his main parachute. He also currently holds the record for fastest human being without the aid of a vehicle. While falling, he reached Mach 0.9, or 90% of the speed of sound. That means he was hurtling through the air at over 1,000 feet per second.That’s not bad without an engine. And all this was after his suit malfunctioned on the way up, losing pressure in his right glove, so that his hand swelled up to twice its normal size.
So from the Montgolfier hot-air balloons to the Kitt’s space age jumpsuit, we have two ends of the scale of ballooning. But what if you want the simple charm of the old-style balloons, but something which also has the danger factor of the extreme jumps have?
Welcome to cluster-ballooning. Simplicity itself. You, a seat and a whole lot of balloons. Danger? Well, you can’t really control where you go. Allow me to introduce Larry Walters.
Mark Barry has chronicled the entire story in great and compassionate detail, and I urge those who want to find out more about Larry to check out his site at markbarry.com
The fascination of ballooning had been with Larry from childhood. “Since I was 13 years old, I’ve dreamt of going up in the clear blue sky in a weather balloon.” (When I was 13 years old, my only ambitions involved being able to grow a beard). Larry tried taking a more conventional approach to getting airborne, but couldn’t join the Air Force due to poor eyesight, and ended up in the Army. But as with all great men, he didn’t let obstacles discourage him. It took 20 years of yearning, but Larry finally achieved his dream, but it wasn’t with a weather balloon, it was with 42 of them.
He had not planned on anything too audacious, certainly nothing in the Kitt territory of extreme ballooning. Larry’s plan was to get a bunch of weather balloons, fill them up with helium, attach them to his lawnchair, cut the tethers and float above his San Pedro backyard at a height of 30 feet or so for a couple of hours, snacking on sandwiches and sipping on some beers.
For someone like me who takes the art of leisure very seriously, I would be hard pressed to imagine a more satisfying way to spend a summer afternoon. So Larry, having little inkling of what awaited him, climbed into his lawnchair, which he had named Inspiration 1. Along with beers and sandwiches, he also carried along a BB gun, to shoot out a couple of balloons when he was ready to end his aerial adventure.
You may be wondering just where exactly one gets a bunch of weather balloons. Well, it’s quite easy. You do what Larry did, use a requisition form for a film studio, saying you wanted the balloons to shoot a commercial. With that settled, Larry and his girlfriend and a couple of buddies (or the ‘ground crew’) were all set to make a dream come true.
However, it seems that Larry, his girlfriend Carol and trusty ground crew had underestimated the lifting power of helium. With Larry comfortably settled in his lawn chair, all was set for the launch on July 2nd, 1982. They cut the first tether, and Inspiration 1 was immediately away, rising sharply, snapping the other tether.
Instead of a sedate glide up to 30 feet, Larry experienced a rapid ascent, hardly giving him time to let out a shout of surprise over his walkie-talkie. He was rising at close to 17 feet per second, and didn’t stop until he had reached an altitude of 16,000 feet. Because he was unlicensed and unsanctioned, this could not be recognised as an official cluster-ballooning record. The highest altitude attained by cluster-ballooning is 18,300 feet achieved by Americans Mike Howard and Steve Davies, accomplished in 2001, 19 years after Larry.
On Mark Barry’s website, you can hear audio from the actual flight itself. On YouTube, you can find a news item with footage of Larry drifting imperiously across the sky. An understandably worried Carol can be heard demanding that Larry come down “now! “Perhaps I am doing a disservice to Carol, but I can’t help but wonder whether she herself managed to set a record for the highest altitude nagging.
Imagine that you are Doug Dixon, a member of an amateur radio club. All of a sudden a crackly voice intrudes on your frequency with a mayday call saying that he is airborne in a lawnchair and getting numb. Or better still, imagine that you are a TWA pilot, engaged in idle chatter with your co-pilot, when you spy out of the corner of your eye a guy sitting in a lawnchair attached to balloons floating at 16,000 feet. This is precisely what the pilot reported back to the flight tower, who could actually pick Larry up on radar!
Realizing that help was unlikely to eventuate, Larry shot a balloon tentatively, and then a couple more. Perhaps because his hands were numb, he dropped the gun. Had he shot enough balloons? Worse, had he shot too many? It was time to play the waiting game… While many would panic or be paralyzed with terror, Larry maintained a zen-like calm, and enjoyed his spectacular ride. While he had taken along a camera, he later confessed that “I was so amazed by the view I didn’t even take one picture.”
Several hours after lift-off, Larry drifted eventually drifted down over a Long Beach neighbourhood, the landing as dramatic as the take-off, with Larry becoming entangled in power lines, blacking out a small area. Suspended five feet above the ground, he was freed from his lawnchair but arrested by the waiting police, but not before achieving his lifelong dream, and how many of us can say that?
Such life lessons were not uppermost in the mind of regional safety inspector Neil Savoy. But the case was so strange that he was at a loss. “We know he broke some part of the Federal aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed… If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that. But he doesn’t.”
The Federal Aviation Admnistration initially fined Larry $4,000 but this was reduced to $1,500 when one of the charges, operating a “civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an Airworthiness Certificate” was dropped, due to the difficulties in establishing exactly what class of aircraft a lawnchair could be defined as.
Larry was unimpressed by such unfeeling heavy-handedness. “If the F.A.A. was around when the Wright Brothers were testing their aircraft, they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk” was his response, and one can understand his frustation, even allowing for the incredible assault on logic, or alternatively the incredible foresightedness that would need to have taken place for the F.A.A. to have been around before the first flight at Kitty Hawk.
Larry Walters had taken off a San Pedro dreamer, and landed an American Hero. He was an instant celebrity, appearing on the Tonight Show and on The Late Show with David Letterman, as well as on the news and many print interviews. In one of these, he told The Times “It was something I had to do… I had this dream for 20 years, and if I hadn’t done it, I would have ended up in the funny farm.”
He captured the national imagination, and has been referenced many times over the years in popular culture. He inspired a musical called “Flight of the Lawnchair Man”, and a play called “Up”. References to his memorable exploit can be found in T.V. shows as diverse as The A Team, Malcom In The Middle, Urban Legends, King Of The Hill, Arrested Development, Mythbusters and SpongeBob SquarePants. A motion picture has even been released about his feat called “Danny Deckchair”, to mixed reviews.
Larry quit his job and was for a time in demand on the lecture circuit as a motivational speaker. But his fame waned, and in later years he shunned the limelight and did volunteer work for the U.S. Forest Service, saying “I love the peace and quiet. Nature and I get along real well.”
But as we are all too sadly aware, tragedy is never far from the ballooniere, and this story too ends in sorrow. Like Kittenger, Larry had served in Vietnam, and one can only imagine the horrors that he witnessed and had to drag back with him to “normal life”.
But such theories are merely speculation. Whatever the reason, on October 6th 1993, Larry hiked to a secluded region in Los Angeles National Forest and shot himself in the heart. He never married and had no children. The poet is tempted to believe that after the euphoria of sailing through the clouds, life on earth could no longer hold any sway. But the true reason will never be known, real life sometimes being too large to fit into poetry. Larry was 44. “By the grace of God, I fulfilled my dream. But I wouldn’t do this again for anything.”
Let us now return to where we started. We had left the good padre Adelir Antonio de Carli having uttered his silent prayer, and drifting up into the clouds.
While Gusmao and the Montfolfier brothers were taken with the spirit of invention, de Rozier with the pioneering of a new technology, Kittenger with expanding the knowledge of science, and Larry Walters with achieving his own personal dream, what was it that drew padre Adelir to the skies? The noblest reason of all – to help his fellow man.
Adelir, like Gusmao, was no ordinary Brazilian priest. He was dedicated and courageous in doing good works for others. In 2006 he stood up for the rights of beggars against violence, his tenacity leading to the arrest of several municipal guards. But he also devoted himself to less dramatic causes, including the one he was fundraising for with his cluster-balloon flight.
Concerned that Brazilian truck-drivers in Paranagua servicing Brazil’s largest port were often left for days waiting to unload their cargo, padre Adelir decided that what was needed was a spiritual rest-stop for them. ‘Spiritual’ is not a word which springs instantly to mind when one thinks of truckers’ rest-stops, but it is just this kind of revolutionary thinking that ensures the devoted following padre Adelir enjoys. Not only that, but this was something for which the good padre was willing to risk his life.
You might be surprised at a humble servant of God going to such extents, but as we have seen padre Adelir is no ordinary priest. In addition to his ecclesiastical duties, he is also a skydiver. And this was not his first cluster-balloon flight either, having already completed a four hour flight from Brazil to Argentina.
He had also undergone a jungle and mountain survival course. This was hardcore priesthood. So it come as no surprise that he wasn’t messing about with his balloons. For his flight of charity, he wanted to make as big a statement as possible, and so used, in a variety of colours, 1,000 helium balloons. A cool helium grand. His equipment included a ‘parachute, helmet, water-proof coveralls, GPS tracking, mobile phone, satellite phone, flotation device chair, aluminum thermal flight suit and at least five days of food and drinking water.‘
His plan was to fly from Paranagua ,inland to Dourados, a trip of a mere 465 miles. By now, you almost consider it fate for the grim breath of Tragedy to buffet yet another intrepid ballooniere, and with padre Adelir it was no different. Rough winds blew him in exactly the opposite direction of where he wanted to go, and out over the vast silent ocean.
While he had undergone survival training on land, surviving the stormy seas is another matter altogether. Sadly, while he could probably kill a giant python with a box of matches and use its body to pull himself out of a ravine, it appears that the good padre didn’t receive much instruction in the use of his GPS device.
In a phone interview with a Brazilian TV network, he said that he was “very cold, but fine.” Heartbreakingly, he says that if only someone could explain how to use his GPS, he could relate his position to rescuers. However he soon lost contact with authorities, his last words being that he had to land in the sea as he was “losing height“.
The next few days saw a frantic search for the missing Adelir. But he seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth. Given his occupation, I couldn’t help but think of the prophet Elijah, who had bypassed the bothersome business of death and ascended directly into heaven. The second book of Kings, chapter 2, verse 11 relates how Elijah was with Elisha when “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”
Could…surely not? Perhaps the good Lord had some urgent business which required padre Adelir’s unique set of skills in heaven? The discovery of some his balloons floating in the ocean, a sight both festive and incredibly sad, seemed only to add to the mystery.
After five and a half days, the search was finally called off, the planes, helicopter and two boats having scoured 1,900 square miles. Were this a movie, the story would have ended here, the precise whereabouts and fate of padre Adelir Antonio de Carli being forever unknown. But, as Adelir knew only too well, life can be cruel, gruesome and devoid of happy endings.
More than two months after losing contact, a support vessel for an offshore oil-rig discovered floating in the sea the lower half of a human body. The clothing seemed to suggest that it was indeed the good padre, and a subsequent DNA test confirmed that it was so.
It appears that Adelir not only goes into cluster-ballooning legend, he’ll go into the record books as well. While he didn’t survive, he did go higher than any other cluster-ballooner, reaching 19,685 feet. In this harsh discipline, there is often a high price for glory.
But what, says the cynic, did this simple Brazilian really achieve? And for what? Some kind of holy truckstop? Firstly, let’s not look down our noses at truck-drivers. Anyone, regardless of occupation is capable of doing amazing things. (And I happen to think driving massive trucks would be amongst the most legal fun you can have on the road. Who hasn’t seen a big rig on the highway and wanted desperately to be behind the wheel? You sidle up to them in your pathetic tin can apology for a vehicle, a process which in itself takes an age as you crawl past a huge array of lazily, confidently spinning wheels, and you pull leve, catch the driver’s eye and mime the pulling of the horn. And from their Olympian height they smile benevolently at you, before casually reaching up and pulling on that cord, loosing a strange sound both booming and shrill, the raspy, echoing voice of the spirit of the open road…) Larry Walters was a truck-driver.
One way of thinking would be to say that these ballooning men who attempt so foolish and dangerous an undertaking deserve what they get. The sky is no place for us, and if we must travel amongst those forbidden clouds, it should be in a giant metal plane, capable of going where we bid it, and even then we are periodically reminded of our hubris…
But another train of thought, and one which I hope you share with me, is that these extraordinary men are answering a call that the rest of us are not only deaf to, but are perhaps also unable to fulfil even if we did hear it.
The balloonieres show that everyone can make a definitive statement about how we choose to live our lives, irrespective of our circumstances. From flights in gilded palaces in front of the King and Queen, to ones over a suburban backyard, the will to be thrilled by life can find expression anywhere.
It is the call to extend the reach of humanity, not only physically by entering the skies, but also mentally (or ‘spiritually’ as Gusmao and Adelir will insist) by not losing ourselves in the mass of troubles that confront us down on earth, but by finding ourselves in the skies. Looking down on our confused efforts, allowing the wind to take us beyond our false limitations by realizing that even the highest reaches of the heavens cannot contain the capacity we mere mortals have for invention, exploration, inspiration and compassion.
These sentiments, like the history of ballooning itself, seems to be both melancholy and hopeful, tragic and (here’s the last lame pun) uplifting. But as humans, we seem to have an innate desire for stories with unequivocal happy endings.
So let me leave you with Ken Couch, (again wonderfully named, though I guess Ken Lawnchair would have been too perfect) a 47 year old gas-station owner from Bend, Oregon. Only 1 day after the body of padre Adelir was discovered, Mr. Couch set off on his latest attempt at an interstate cluster-balloon journey.
Like Larry Walters, his fascination had began at an early age: “When you’re laying in the grass on a summer day, and you see the clouds, you wish you could jump on them. This is as close as you can come to jumping on them. It’s just like that” He had left previously in 2007 from Oregon in a lawnchair attached to our friends those helium balloons, destination: Idaho.
I don’t know anything about Idaho or why you would want to go there. It’s probably a fantastic place. But if I did have to go there, what better way to arrive than by aerial lawnchair? Whatever reason Mr. Couch had, he was, like all his brother balloonieres, determined to succeed. He had come close in this second attempt.
An early 6.00am morning lift-off occured without incident, after having kissed his wife Susan and a quick pet of his chihuahua Isabella, who while perhaps not as instrumental as Montauciel, can nonetheless claim her small animal part in aviation history.
Travelling at a sedate pace of 25 miles per hour, he was followed by his ground crew in three cars. containing friends, family and of course Isabella, who must have thoroughly enjoyed the greatest game of fetch ever played. He was well-equipped, his lawnchair stocked with food, drinking water, water in containers which could be released acting as ballast, instrumentation to measure altitude and speed, a GPS (which he was thoroughly familiar with operating), and a video recorder.
After a mostly pleasant 9 hours, hampered only by “occasional turbulence“, Ken Couch decided to call it an admittedly long day, worried about the worsening terrain which was near the formidably named Hell’s Canyon, and having run low on water and ballast. He landed in a farmer’s field in Union, having just literally fallen short of Idaho by 30 miles, but having traversed a very commendable 193 miles.
In an eery similarity to Larry Walters, Ken Couch’s flight was also witnessed by a passing pilot, Brian Wilcox. I’m guessing that the Larry Walters event must surely have passed into pilot’s lore, and Brian must have been aware of it, but must never have thought that he would see anything like it himself in a million years.
The only moment of drama came just after the landing, when released of his bodyweight, the lawnchair was swept away, carrying the video camera along with it. It seems the sky wants some secrets for itself. [EDIT: A reader has informed me that the chair has been found! Over a year after it went missing, it was discovered by ranchers on their property, who hadn’t heard of Ken, but the Sherif they called certainly had. Ken has his own website at couchballoons.com and you can check out some amazing pics from his flights and the recovered footage will be up there when processed. -thanks to Brendon for the info.]
Was Ken disappointed after having come so close to his interstate goal? No – Ken knows that while records and ‘firsts’ are an important part of the history of ballooning, there is something deeper and more valuable that draws men up there. Ken’s verdict? “It was beautiful – beautiful.”
This appreciation is all the more remarkable given that when he made his first attempt, he popped some of the balloons, but popped one too many and went into a rapid descent. Mr. Courch took this in his stride, and jumped clear, having brought with him a trusty parachute.
This was only considered a minor setback, and it was clear to all that he would try again. His wife Susan, the latest member of that long-suffering group, the partner of the madcap ballooniere, after having recovered from the drama of the first attempt, said that after the second one she was thinking about saying no.
However, these women have a hard-earned understanding of the breed to which their husbands belong, and she conceded “I know he’d be thinking about it more and more, it would always be on his mind. This way, at least he’s fulfilled his dream.”
So with the blessing of Mrs. Couch, Larry began preparations for a third attempt. As mentioned, it took place the day after the recovery of padre Adelir’s body, an event which must surely have cast a sombre tint on proceedings. But as we have seen, this fraternity does not shy away from challenges, and we can firmly believe that the good padre would have approved.
This time, all went well. It was, you could say, plain sailing (Through The Element Of Air). Ken Couch, on July 5th 2008, after 9 hours and 12 minutes, in a cluster-balloon powered lawnchair, having travelled 240 miles, landed safely and triumphantly in western Idaho.
No deserted field this time, members of the public who had followed his progress were waiting for him, and he was greeted with an ice-cold beer. There were media present, and Ken went on late night T.V. but unlike Larry Walters did Leno instead of Letterman. So there you have it, one happy ending.
As I wrote, when I was reading through the accounts of the balloonieres and their colourful history, I noted that they all had fantastic names. All except Larry Walters. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with it, it’s just no ‘Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao Voador the Flying-Man’, that’s all. He is instead simply the everyman’s ballooniere, the People’s Balloonario. Larry Walters is me. Larry Walters is you.
When asked by a reporter why he did what he amazingly did, he simply replied: “A man can’t just sit around“. Excelsior!
There’s a guy near my train station who sits on a bench selling copies of The Big Issue. It’s a magazine which gives part of the total earned by its sellers, who are homeless or otherwise disadvantaged, back to the sellers themselves.
It is my considered opinion that he is not particularly good at what he does. Or at any rate he pales in comparison to the guy at the other end of my train journey into the city, who also sells the magazine.
This opinion may be seen as particularly heartless, so I may as well confess it now: I don’t have a heart. I may have had one once, but it has now ossified into a hard, fused, immovable lump of breathtaking apathy and self-interest.
So let’s analyze the performance of these two fellows. The first guy, who I shall call Bill, carries along with his copy of the Big Issue, a few extra pounds. Now highly intelligent people such as myself know that if you are homeless or in financial difficulties, a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fresh produce is going to prove very expensive.
It is more probable that you dine at the cheaper fast food restaurants, where the more affordable food comes at the cost of it being composed almost entirely out of either fat, or sugar which your body will then turn into fat. So to hold poor Bill’s weight against him isn’t exactly fair.
However, most people are not highly intelligent. They see Bill and immediately assume that he can’t be doing too badly, as he seems to have ready access to a steady stream of tasty calories. The next area where Bill is going wrong is his placement.
Sitting on a bench, it is almost when you’ve already walked past him that you realize he is selling The Big Issue, the copies of which he keeps on the ground, almost entirely out of view. The magnificent Brisbane weather also works against him.
Sequestered on a bench under a leafy tree in bright sunshine, Bill really does not look as though he has a care in the world. Then, there is his pitch. Homeless or not, Bill has yet to realize that he is in show business. Merely saying the name of the magazine in a hoarse, resigned voice just isn’t going to cut it.
Finally, the reason for the hoarse voice. Bill is a smoker, and is usually to be seen with a ciggy dangling from the corner of his mouth. Even though I am not a smoker, I know that cigarettes aren’t exactly cheap these days. Logically, I admit that if you are homeless and spend a great deal of time sitting on an outdoor bench, then smoking is the perfect pastime. It not only gives you something to do, but also mercifully shortens your already difficult life.
But the majority of the general public, not blessed as I am with such a pragmatic outlook, will instead feel that they shouldn’t give money to someone who can afford such an expensive habit.
Now let us take a look at the other end of the spectrum, the guy in the city, who I shall call Ted. He is the Michael Jordan of Big Issue vendors. His spot is just outside the station, on the busy corner at the traffic lights.
This really seems like a bad choice. People at the crosswalk have their minds on other things. They don’t know when they will get the green signal to cross, so taking the time to fish around for change doesn’t seem practical. The other type of foot traffic, those going into the station, have trains to catch. They can’t afford to delay themselves.
location location location (Ted not pictured)
It would seem that Ted is hopelessly out of his element. But there is a method to the madness. On a normal street, you can always avert your eyes and walk on by, pretending that you can’t stop right now, you have this really important meeting…
But at the lights, you are trapped. Ted knows you’re not going anywhere. There you are, dressed for a day at work, a whole day of doing nothing but making money, and there is Ted, an honest man without steady employment, with nothing except a bunch of magazines.
And the mags aren’t placed on the ground, he’s carrying them in a tattered satchel, which looks as though it could burst at any moment, compelling you to buy one and lighten Ted’s load. He also uses the weather to his advantage. Decked out in a large coat, you can almost feel the stifling heat that surrounds him. You think: It’s probably his only coat. He has nowhere to keep it during the day, and needs it at night. So he is doomed to forever bake under the pitiless sun. Oh the tragedy! Isn’t there anything you can do for him? Why yes, kind stranger, there is. -I’ll buy a copy, Ted, in fact let me take a couple.
And finally, the pitch. No weary mumblings here. Ted is all action. “Ladies and gentlemen, what a glorious day I’ve put on for you today! Enjoy it folks, I may not be here tomorrow and then it’s grey skies for all! But not today. What great weather for kicking back and reading a magazine. And all for loose change! Get rid of your loose change, get a magazine, enjoy the sunshine, how can you lose?”
With energy like that, how can Ted lose? I must admit that sometimes on my way home, after having bought a magazine from Ted, I get off at my station and then confronted with Bill, I feel so sorry for him I grab a mag off him as well. At home, I stare at the two copies of the Big Issue and wonder: “Are they working together?”
I suppose that it is a sad indictment on society that we expect entertainment even from those who are struggling to make ends meet, but we are being conditioned to learn that if even elderly dowdy Scottish ladies can become international superstars, then surely everyone has some talent with which to amuse us? And if you choose not to share it with us, then you get voted off, or we avert our eyes as we pass by, eager to catch the next sensation.
I also find myself putting my compassion up for tender when it comes to buskers. Some croaky old Bob Dylan number on a beat up guitar? That is so cliche, how can I patronise such hackery? But a soulful rendering of an unknown Joan Baez track by a girl who has also gone to the trouble of wearing the long floral dress? Then my only problem is how much can I give without seeming creepy.
Too many coins in the case? Then I don’t think you need any of mine. Too few? Well it seems the people have spoken. Why should I support someone who obviously has no talent? I’ll save my two bucks for an act who could theoretically make it big, and then I will have no guilt trips about downloading their albums for free, because I helped to put them where they are today.
It is not only as individuals that we are confused when it comes to giving from our hearts. A study has shown that in Britain, it is actually the poor who give a greater proportion of their income to charity than the rich. The poorest fifth gives away three per cent of its income to charity. The richest fifth give away one per cent. It is also remarked on that the Poms give more to animal charities than to human ones.
In 2006, the much maligned Yanks gave 1.7% of their country’s economy to charity, while Britain came in at less than half that at 0.73% of the national economy. Furthermore, in America there is not the stark class divide that there is in Britain, with respect to giving to charity, with all segments of society from the very rich to the poor giving the same proportion of their income to good causes.
It is interesting to speculate on why these differences might exist. Some have said that the U.S. is the land of the entrepreneur, where you pull yourself up by the bootstraps, make a fortune and then complete the fairytale by ‘giving back’ to your community.
Whereas in Britain, a lot of extreme wealth comes from the aristocracy where it is handed down (“Old Money”) rather than accumulated through the vulgarity of business. As such, perhaps continuing the family wealth lines could be seen to be more important than giving it all away to charity, to the types of people who probably don’t even have a family coat of arms.
But just as we might be inclined to cut the Americans some slack, it turns out that while individual American citizens give a lot to charity, the U.S. government are not so ready with the purse-strings. In 2002-03, when the War on Terror kicked off, the U.S. government gave an underwhelming 0.13% of its GDP toward overseas aid. Of the 23 richest countries on the planet, that would mean that Uncle Sam comes in dead last. And when you consider the billions (and billions) that has since been spent on that merry adventure, it really looks especially bad.
Not only that, but the overseas aid the government does give, includes politically strategic places like Egypt, Israel, Russia and Serbia, places which aren’t exactly in the grip of famine and pestilence, when you would think aid should be firstly and mostly given to those who need it the most urgently.
Here in Australia, when the recent bushfires tore through Victoria and razed so many houses to the ground, the nation came together as one and donated unprecedented amounts. However, at the very same time, floods ravaged parts of Queensland, but the funds didn’t trickle in as fast as the rivers did.
It appears that fires are just sexier. People can understand a house getting burnt to the ground. The pictures are amazing. Walls of flame bearing down on communities, firetrucks speeding into the maws of hell from where terrified people are rushing out from, cuddly koalas in peril, incredibly photogenic ruins – a bushfire has it all.
But a flood? Dirty brown water, silt and sludge and dead bloated cows? Not exactly jaw-dropping. Despite the extensive damages, there seems to be a public perception that once the waters recede, a good mopping up will set everything right.
Some charities are just cooler than others. Breast cancer? Cool. Bowel cancer? Uncool. Free Tibet? Incredibly cool. (The Dalai Lama is the Samuel L. Jackson of charitable causes). Millions dying in Darfur? Where’s Darfur again? Some manage to turn the tide of popular opinion. When it first began claiming lives, AIDS was not exactly a cause that could count on widespread support, whereas now celebrities fall over themselves in the rush toward a red ribbon.
Charities now regularly employ the services of public relations firms in order to increase their ‘visibility’ and woo the high end of town. Just like corporations, charities squabble over the right celebrity to be their ‘face’. Organizations like Greenpeace sometimes outsource to other agencies for people to do public collections and sign-ups on their behalf, and it is no coincidence that many of them are blonde and perky.
If it brings in more money, I guess that the ends justify the means, but I’m pretty sure the whole point of charity is that it can’t be rationalized and economically accounted for, it resides not in the world of global markets but global conscience.
Then there is the case of “compassion fatigue”. I think once your society even gets to a place where such a term becomes needed, it is a fairly clear indicator that you are heading in the wrong direction. Are there really people out there who say “enough with the Katrina footage already – isn’t there a ballgame on?”
Yes there are. Me for example. After handing over my gold coin donation, I was pretty much ‘over’ the whole tsunami thing, and couldn’t see why the endless “specials” on T.V. took priority over my regular programming. If you find a whole island of people who survived by making boats out of tied-together coconuts, then that’s a story. If not, let me get back to the footy.
And above all, be upfront if you are seeking the public dollar. Once as I was walking around in town, enjoying the sunshine and pumping some funky Motown flavours into my ears, a guy in an orange robe smiled serenely at me and waved me to stop. Not knowing whether his beliefs prevented him from enjoying funky Motown flavours, I took pity on him, took off my headphones and stopped.
He introduced himself with a very disappointing non-mystical name. (Think Bill, think Ted). -Did I practice yoga? -No, but I immensely enjoy yoghurt. Not a trace of a smile. He then lectured me about the various benefits of yoga and how it isn’t just stretching and lentils.
But that accent was so strange and out of character that I had to inquire. “Well, I am from Estonia originally”. What did that ‘originally’ mean? Is he now from somewhere else? And Estonia? How can you have an Estonian yogi? It’s like having a non-asian martial arts instructor. No matter how good he actually is, you always feel like you are missing out.
Anyway, eventually he came around to the hard sell. He asked whether I would be interested in reading a short book about the finer points of what he had been discussing. In a novel twist, he took off his cap and pointed apologetically to his shaved head. “Now as a monk, I’m not allowed to sell things for profit, but perhaps you would care to make a donation and enjoy the book as a gift?”
What kind of malarky was this? This seemed to be the type of creative accountancy usually reserved for more unholy spectres like Bernie Madoff. -How much is the usual ‘donation?’ I asked, making sure that he could hear the quotation marks. Perhaps not wanting to sully his soul with all this haggling, he said something to the effect of ‘People give what they are comfortable with’ which I thought was a brilliant way of saying ‘depends on how much of a cheapskate you are’.
“I’ll give you a dollar”. Little did he know he was dealing with someone who had a gold medal in cheapskating. A less than divine frown littered his brow. “Well, five dollars is usually what people give.” Here I was, in a Mexican stand off with an Estonian. -But like you said, that was a donation. Now that I look in my wallet, it doesn’t seem like I even have a dollar coin. Sorry, but I will just have to accept your generous ‘gift’ without a donation.
Gazing firmly into my eyes, he said without missing a beat, and as though inquiring about my health, “Do you have a five dollar note in your wallet?” This was hardball. Okay Stephen, let’s play. -Yes, yes it looks like I do. Do you have four dollars change in your little purse there?
He smiled a smile of one who is about to do something very unsmiling and a chill ran through me. Was he one of those kung-fu monks? Was I going to have my eyelids pulled over my kneecaps and then spun onto a bamboo spike?
He turned to someone else coming down the street and began his spiel again. They ignored him and kept walking on. He tried again, same result. So there we were. Him ignoring me, people ignoring him, and me enjoying the whole thing. -Looks like a dollar would be a lot more than what you seem to be getting.
He briefly glanced at me in a patronizing way, pitying my unclean spirit, then went back to his futile but noble quest. I stayed for a while, very uncharitably enjoying his lack of success, but then eventually compassion fatigue set in, especially in my calves, and I had to be on my way, my wallet as unenlightened as my soul.