Sunday, January 18, 2009

DIARY 92 - Staying in Credit

As the flat move nears, we are beginning to realise the full cost in us doing so. It's stipulated in our lease that we must have the carpet cleaned (£50-75),the curtains (£57.90)and windows (£10). The estate agents final inspection fee (£50) is taken off our deposit,and should we want to dispute their assessment and another inspection has to be done, another £50 will be deducted. A pretty effective deterent I'd say. Take what money they offer and run, they'll skin you alive otherwise.

We also had some dissapointing news on the electricity bill, which we'd been informed had a credit balance of £330, which seemed a bit high to us at the time. Our last quarterly bill came through this week, and, by the time we leave, we will end up owing them around £250. Between a 40% jump in energy prices, and us not checking their dubious Direct Debit estimates, we've been stung. So we're now looking at coming out of our move with little or nothing left in our joint account. But, then that's not a catastrophy, we aren't in debt, and we are moving to a much much better place, It would really we churlish for us to bemoan our lot at this point, with such good fortune.

Personally, I'll be much better off financially once I've moved to Abbey House. I checked out with my bank, what a likely figure would be for clearing my loan off. It's less than I expected. So depending on how things go with the flat deposit, I could either be looking at clearing it completely, or paying a lump sum and the remainder in increased monthly payments. With any luck I'll be free of it sometime this year - Hurrah!! The bank of course wont really appreciate losing all that lovely loan interest, but they've had a sizeable chunk of it off me.

I stopped using my credit card in March 2008, and have been successfully living off my actual monthly income since then, With my credit card renewel due in March this year, I've had an arm twister of a letter from them, informing me that if I didn't use my credit card, I'd lose it. A credit card, for me, is only a safe guard incase I'm ever anywhere where I need dosh quickly, and my current account is temporarily depleted of funds. A credit card is a service, whether I use it or not, is really up to me. So, I think I might make a few small purchases in the next few months just to make them believe I'm responding to there injunction, and then stop using it again. Once I've been issued with a new one, I suspect I'll have a few years grace before we go through the same rigmarole again. The letter concluded with the sentence -
'If you want to continue enjoying the generous benefits that come with your credit card, simply shake the dust of your card and start using it today!'

This seems somewhat disingenuous, having begun the letter with a barely concealed threat. But then that's banks for you. They like you being in debt, just so long as your debt doesn't come back home to roost with the banks themselves. We live in strange times.

Friday, January 16, 2009

FEATURE 20 - Diamanda Galas

In 1982 an album entitled 'The Litanies of Satan' was released, largely unnoticed by a public in awe of popular music programmed like a dishwasher. It was not entirely unexpected then, that she would be ignored. The singer, Diamanda Galas, was a complete unknown, and the contents were, shall we say, perverse and sonically challenging. It was not so much cutting edge music, as simply lascerating. The lyrics were based very loosely on a poem by Baudelaire. These she sang heavily miked and distorted in a garbled guttural French. On the second side (this was in the days of vinyl) there was a half hour aural onslaught called 'Wild Woman with Steak Knives',described as a 'homicidal love song for solo scream.' This sounded like a seriously insane woman had been placed before a microphone, whilst she ritually flayed and dismembered a cat. Galas's singing is full throttle operatic, her vocal projection pins you back against a wall of meat cleavers.

Galas was part of a certain operatic/rock hybrid trend around at the time, that included Klaus Nomi and Nina Hagan. Though nowhere near as execrable as some cross over fusions of popular and classical styles, these were nevertheless a mixed bag. Sometimes the luridly coloured coloratura is adventurous musical territory to traverse, and at other times its simply way over the top, and frankly ludicrous. Galas' voice, however, is always an uncomfortable beast to listen to, and an angry demon it is too. More a performance artist than rock opera, her music attempts to capture using only her heavily amplified voice, a psyche that's mentally fracturing.

For myself, who at the time loved anything that was boldly different or extremely difficult to like, she fit the bill exactly. In fact, I often used this record as a deterrence. Whenever my neighbours played music too late at night, I'd respond by giving them a blast of Galas, and things soon quietened down, I can tell you. I came to respect her for other reasons, more closer to home. As the panic over AIDS/HIV began to hit the world in 1984. Good people began to die without much hope of a cure. Previously good people started talking as if the emergence of such a disease must be all someones fault. That God was punishing gays for their perversion and immorality. The liberal and more tolerant permissive world was caught seriously off guard.

Gala' response to this was to produce a trilogy of albums, that explored the religious mythological imagery and prejudices surrounding plagues and death. She put her voice at the service of the contemporay zeitgeist. These albums became known as 'The Mask of the Red Death Trilogy,' consisting of 'The Divine Punishment,''The Saint in the Pit'and 'You must be certain of the Devil.' These doom laden works, were very much for and of there time, and can seem now a distinctly OTT response to the re-emergence of the word 'plague' into common parlance. They use the imagery, myths and stereotypes as a means to debunk, a cathartic release of the irrational fears surrounding disease epidemics. Its as if a festering boil is being lanced. They speak loudly, and I do mean loud! that we are all doomed, to a life of pain and suffering.

Diamanda Galas thus became very strongly associated with the cultural fight back against the prejudices associated with AIDS/HIV. As the public outcry faded, and the media focus shifted, as it does, onto other matters, so Gala's star likewise faded from prominent view. She's still around, still wailing like a banshee, and it all seems rather sad. Particularly because she's been adopted by The Goths, because of her obvious affinity for occult and satanic imagery. At her height she was never about such empty posturing that flirted safely on the fringes of transgression - there was a definite moral purpose behind what she was doing, and it was artistically brave.

Her music is very literary in its sources, drawing heavily on the late Victorian Gothic novel, she was never about a bland version of reality. She was livid, possessed menace,and was a classically trained singer to boot, so everything was grotesquely heightened to the level of 'operatic horror.' Yes, I admit, she was also dressed in black, plastered her face in white pan make-up, often had back combed hair,and was back lit by flames - so her image at the time was not Boy George, OK! . Yet this was all part of a hugely fake melodrama, a visceral performance style, that unfortunately has now become a bit too Las Vegas, if you get my drift. She is now stuck in a caricature, that in the eighties this was deadly serious, but now without an ounce of humour, or self-deprecation, it indicates a lack of perspective. For her to still be screaming and screeching twenty odd years later, about the infested darker side of human existence, seems a little unbalanced, an unhealthy preoccupaton. It's like someone continues to masturbate without discovering there's such a thing as intercourse with another person. What does this woman do for light relief?

She reminds me of Betty Davis in her later horror movies, with a bit of the high camp Gothic of the Roger Corman / Vincent Price films, based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, thrown in for good measure. If you want to try a taste of her, I recommend 'You must be certain of the Devil' which is the nearest she comes to being accessible or mainstream, which isn't that close actually. It has all her usual vocal hallmarks, with a cracked Southern Gospel veneer. There are some superb moments of arche derision on such songs as 'Lets Not Chat About Despair' and a particularly disturbing version of 'The Lord is my Shepherd'- obsessive, mad and pacing around incarcerated in a dungeon of derangement - not easy listening then!

Friday, January 09, 2009

DIARY 91 - Hurled with great force

Whilst cruising the net for five rhythms dance clubs, a work colleague discovered one of the teachers was a member of the PADO. This turns out to be the name of the Professional Association of De-clutterers & Organisers. Whether or not this turns out to be a real or a pseudo organisation, is by the by, but it says much about our contemporary values. That we have the spare money (even in these hard times) to employ someone to 'be Mother' and tidy up after us. I shake my head in disbelief that people need to seek professional advice on how to clear out cupboards, rearrange their drawers and colour coordinate their bookshelves. It seems sad that they don't feel confident to do it for themselves, or heavens, find their own style and way of organising a room. The predominant style is for clean lines and unobstructed colour planes of walls and floors. All our homes have to look like photos from Elle Deco, where every sign of habitation has been expunged, As if human life has either been 'species cleansed' or decimated in some apocalyptic plague. Perhaps bodies would just make you realise how inhumane these modernist pig pens are to live in. Why do we should spend inordinate amounts of time conforming our aesthetic sensibilities to a prescribed design and colour scheme? This seems a complete waste of money and creativity, if your front room ends up looking like everyone else's, completely devoid of life and character. Homes should say something about the personalities of those that inhabit them. Individual interests, preferences, tastes, habits and eccentricities should be celebrated, not designed out of existence. Does this mean that peoples personalities, like their homes have also been neutered?

All this comes more vividly to mind as David and I continue to prepare for our move. Two weeks and counting. We've sort of gone through the preliminary purge phase, which is easy, as the more obvious dodos are spotted, then ditched or recycled. I think, at least for myself, there is another de-cluttering phase when a deeper questioning goes on. It sounds more like a conscience, asking 'Why does this have to stay ? What purpose does this serve? Is it need, ego or sentiment that's making me keep this?' There is a sense when I chuck things out at this stage,of not only being liberated from the weight of my possessions, but from how they designate the boundaries of my identity. I want to be free from them telling me who I am, whilst at the same time needing them to define a specific sense of myself. Even the chucking out can perform this function, I am the sort of person who throws away things I'm fond of on principle! I can well understand why monastics from a broad range of traditions, reject, to varying degrees, personal possessions. Firstly, because it does simplify life considerable, and second, the removal of material possessions means we stop this acquisitive compulsion to define who we are from what we buy or own. It also enables us to begin sensing 'who we are' from 'how we are' with our fellow beings. Possessions keep us Self focused, removing them keeps us Other focused. It could still be argued that even this Other focus, remains another form of externalised self-definition. But it would appear, at least, to hold the seeds of self-transcendence. Other people can't be owned and possessed in quite the same way, they talk back, wont be controlled, are contrary, are not like us, and simply wont play the game. In our relationships with others we have to go beyond our selfish needs to some extent, or die a frustrated ,isolated and angrily embittered person.

A Swiss archetypal psychologist at a seminar I attended many years ago, once said that the disease a society most fears, reflects the predominant ethos or problem of that society. The disease of choice might change from one era or decade to another. In one era it might be Cholera, another Tuberculosis, Cancer, Aids. If this is the case then today, though its not a disease as such, more a predicament, it might be obesity. This is over consumption taken to its furthest extreme, becoming an addictive compulsion, beyond all possible limits or control. Eating as obssession. Obesity affects not only the quality of the life lived, but also threatens its quantity. Its declared repeatedly in the news - control obesity or it will be the death of you. Pretty much the same message as that of climate change.

Another official body I came across recently was the ESA, which stands for the European Snack Alliance. Basically, this is just junk food producers that make Pringles, Walkers and Pot Noodle, getting together to fight health legislation, by upping the nutritional emphasis on their snacks. Ignore the high levels of fat, sugar, salt or additives folks, just look at the extensive list of trace vitamins. This could indicate that, similar to climate change, in the face of commercial pressures, there really is no hope. David joked recently that the governments motto should really be LET THEM GET FAT, because as folk become more obese the less able they are to have effective sexual intercourse. This might solve both the population problem, the burdensome cost to the health service, and over consumption, all within the space of a 'Dough Baby' Generation. Hmm, its a tempting idea!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

FEATURE 19 - Outnumbered

It could so easily have become too sentimental and sugary. but as its co-scripted with Andy Hamilton there is a fair bit of his caustic wit and cynicism there to spice up the grown ups dialogue. Hugh Dennis and Clare Skinner take the adult gongs, but it is the kids who are the stars of this comedy. Their dialogue is only partly scripted and most of the time the kids are just improvising. The young girl is a diminutive comic genius, and frequently has all the best lines in each episide. There was a scene about the family needing to watch the pennies, so she pipes up 'I know how we can save money, we can stop eating broccoli.' David and I are somewhat addicted, and are rapidly catching up with this little gem of a series.

Sorry, I got carried away.

BOOK REVIEW - Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian

It's a rare occasion when I gave up on reading a book, the last one that I remember was 'Gravitys Rainbow' by Thomas Pynchon. These elite few have now been joined by 'Blood Meridian' by Cormac Mc Carthy. I had early premonitions, all would not be well. This is a fearsomely eloquent book, visionary and written to within an inch of superlative, with every sentence cured and honed. But that is where it becomes more than a little wearisome. Its effect on me was comparable to that of reading E. Annie Proux for the first time. You are immediately struck by the writing style and distinct authorial voice, which does stand out as unusual. This ended up being my main problem with McCarthy, the author stands out far too much on the page, getting in the way of my fully absorbing the narrative and character. As the pages turned I found myself becoming more and more exasperated. The people inhabiting 'Blood Meridian are indistinct or nameless, the central character through whom we view the story is only ever referred to as 'the kid'. The storyline, if one could say it possessed such a thing, is a sort of odyssey across the US/Mexican frontier in the 19th century Wild West. But this is a West that is really wild, is truly lawless and out of control. No chapter remains unmarked by yet more vengeful violence spilling out in richly coloured prose. As heads are decapitated, McCarthy describes them to an almost comic level of detail e.g.

"Two thick ropes of dark blood and two slender rose like snakes from the stump of his neck and arched hissing into the fire. The head rolled to the left and came to rest at the ex priests feet where it lay aghast...The fire steamed and blackened and a gray cloud of smoke rose and the columnar arches of blood slowly subsided until the neck bubbled gently like a stew and then that too was stilled. He was sat as before save headless, drenched in blood, the cigarillo still between his fingers, leaning toward the dark and soaking grotto in the flames where his life had gone."

By any standards that is a superb piece of descriptive writing, however gruesome the subject matter. But that doesn't make up for a lack in the novel of any sense of progression. By the umpteenth grotesque death incident, I was a little tired of these macabre peaks in the storyline that appeared to be its only form of dramatic incident. I wasn't the least bit interested in persevering with it any further than the 122 pages of its 337 pages.

I guess this says as much about me, and my expectations of a novel, as it does about Cormac McCarthy. Previously I've not found myself unable to surrender to a books mood ,to be swept along by the invention and thrust of its prose. Though I have to say, I do have less tolerance for fiction in general these days. This is especially so if novelists are too knowingly clever by half, or who tease and test my patience. I'm increasingly less impressed by innovative, boundary breaking narratives that take you nowhere, and literary stylists, well they'll be the death of me. What is so gripping about pages of incorrectly punctuated prose and dialogue all muddled up? What does a novel gain from this charade? James Joyce has a lot to answer for. The fact that I've abandoned 'Blood Meridian' for CJ Samson's new Shardlake novel 'Revelation' speaks volumes. Give me a richly detailed historical murder mystery/detective novel any day, than something that's been critically lauded. Perhaps its symptomatic of my age that I value more the tried and trusted verities of fiction- vividly written, believable characters, with an interesting absorbing storyline brilliantly executed. Pulitzer Prize winner he may be, but Cormac McCarthy left me out in a rather 'bloody' cold.

Friday, January 02, 2009

FEATURE 18 - Karl Lagerfeld

I have found a new hero - Karl Lagerfeld. David and I heard him being interviewed on the Today programme on Radio Four. We were both very impressed. Looking at pictures of him you'd think him the arch poser, the most prize preening poofter in the entire fashion universe. Look at all those black close fitting clothes, the pure white hair, the pigtail. How old is this guy anyway? (76) And then there's the numerous rings, "Today I counted 19. Sometimes I go up to 23. I have only 10 fingers like everybody else, hm?" What impressed me about the interview was actually how unpretentious, grounded and simply 'sorted' he was. There was no flim-flam, self-flattery or facile self-justifications of the purpose of fashion, as art. He knows that fashion has its place in the world, but it is a small one, so he makes no unrealistic claims for either. How he dresses, reflects how he is, as someone acutely self-confident and clear about his place in it. His wealth doesn't appear to make him look down on anyone who is poorer, he wants everyone to be able to look up, to aspire. For him everyone, rich or poor, has the right to experience or know something of beauty exists - "It's great to see things you may not buy - because you don't have the money - but it is very ugly to think they shouldn't exist because you can not buy them." Whilst owning something might be an impossible dream for most of us, it was a necessary dream for people to have -"I can be interested in a $20m diamond I will never buy, without desiring the diamond. If you want only things you can afford, it's boring too" - "What is the real world? If you have no dreams, or if you don't try to improve the real life of everybody, people would ask why they get up in the morning...People want to see something they may not be, but they should or could become." Simply to be envious or resentful is uninspiring - to be a kill joy is to squeeze the energy and blood out of life.

He was asked about the credit crunch "I see it like a cleaning up - it was too rotten anyway - so it had to be cleaned up...I see it like a healthy thing - horrible but healthy, like some miracle treatment of the world." But surely this would this affect the profitability of Chanel? Well, they'd done extraordinary well in the last three years, and if their turnover dropped by 25% in 2009 - "they would not be poor." This should in no way be read as aloof indifference but a humble statement that acknowledges that a declining profit shouldn't be equated with making no profit at all. Bear that in mind when companies announce their profits in the New Year, unless they specifically say they've made a loss, they're still making a profit, however reduced it may be.

As for the importance of fashion in relation to architecture for instance - "Clothes if they are not well cut, you can kill nobody. A building poorly built can kill people. It's a much more difficult work. I would not compare myself with that."Asked about the continuing furore about fur in the fashion trade "As long as you wear leather and eat meat, don't discuss that.....In a meat-eating world, wearing leather for shoes and even clothes and handbags, the discussion of fur is childish." Be realistic and don't assume a moral position you don't exemplify - otherwise its just sentimentality. If you haven't retreated to the certainty of the pure high minded mountains - the unrepentant carnivore on one peak - the morally righteous vegan on the other - then you're somewhere along the ridges spanning between them. This place is by its very nature a hypocritical place, riddled with inconsistencies and conflicts of feeling and ethical principle. This is where most of us are, its our working ground, so we need to be careful and be considerate in what we say and do. But then that's what ethical practice is.

He no doubt has his detractors and has less flattering flaws (narcissism could well be one of them) but I'd still say this guy is a seriously cool dude.

DIARY 90 - Serious Samatha Required

Its been quiet, too damned quiet. Call it what you like, the Post Christmas lull, or seasonally induced angst, the result, for me, has been 'the gremlins of the dismal shadows' casting their spectre over my psychic well being. Well, lets be frank here, I slipped into one of my occasional (but too familiar all the same) boughts of a profound sense of everything being meaningless, it has all the dark magnitude of nihilistic despair. There had been no particular triggering event, other than being bored at work for a prolonged period of time. I do, however, know that this mood has been hanging around like a malevolent hoodie, awaiting its moment to grab the centre spotlight, for about a month or more. I've been holding it at bay somehow, but even this resistance takes its toll eventually, and even this becomes futile. It's not that I suddenly become this unpleasant ogre, that needs to be avoided when 'he's in one of those moods'. Most folk of casual acquaintence would hardly see or notice a thing. Its all buried away inside like an incubus. I just withdraw further into myself, and my interactions with the outside world, for me at least, become more of a strain.

After worsening sleep, waking up not wanting to get out of bed, to work, meditate, write or do anything I'm remotely fond of doing, I knew this state I was in was going nowhere. So I sought the counsel of my good friend Saddharaja, who has the knack of restoring a degree of positivity and optimism to my bleakened perspective, for which I am always truly grateful. But as he says, I really should be learning how to do this for myself. He also pointed out a Dharmic way to perceive these episodes of meaninglessness. In Buddhist terms seeing into the fundamental nature and meaninglessness of human life and endeavours, can be a forum for Insight. If, however, there is not a sufficient amount of samatha (a cultivated ability to abide calmly with ones experience) this self-same experience, instead of causing the liberating arising of unbounded wisdom and compassion, can instead propel you to spiral down into a pit of depression. The weight of such an experience, if it remains unleavened, could eventually crush a persons mental stability completely. I have never experienced the latter, and hopefully never will. But, nevertheless, this explanation does resonate and makes some sort of sense to me. It gives me a different way of interpretting why this thing happens, the way that it happens, and also a known method of working to change what happens through samatha meditations. Yes, I realise, I do have a lifetimes work cut out for me here.

All was transformed! It was as if heavy grey clouds of doom had finally lifted to let the glory of the sun shine through, after interminable amounts of dull shrouded days. I have a tendency to become over intoxicated with this sense of release, I can sing wholeheartedly and loudly the song - 'Oh what a wonderful feeling, every things going my way" It's all too easy for me to leap from extreme despondency to extreme elation in one inelegant bound. I need to reflect more on how I am at such moments - what my thoughts are like -am I being realistic or unrealistic - how much do I bear in mind the impermanence of all my states of mind and emotional moods? On this ocassion there was, however, a sense of something having shifted emotionally, like an obstructive boulder being rolled away. To be immediately followed by some physical shifting of the fabric of the universe - well office furniture actually. A little later than I'd originally planned, after being delayed by staff illness and days off, we finally got round to reviewing, and rearranging our desk layout in Customer Services. I'd been doing quite a bit of preparation for this last week. I knew what our main objectives were, understood the benefits and draw backs to some layouts. Though I had a suggested layout to propose, I wasn't over attached to it as a desired outcome. The one we decided on, was, I think, a better solution in the end. It met most of our needs, as a team, supported our daily tasks, and our personal requirements of our working environment. There may be some teething problems as things settle in, and unexpected downsides to the new layout emerge. But we'll meet those should they arise. This is the first stage of the Customer Services Review for 2009. We move onto reviewing our Tasks next week. It's to be hoped those go as smoothly. Onwards and (ever so cautiously) upwards.