Not Grief


Grief belongs to the families of girls carted off in trucks by hooting, khat-crazed lunatics.

Grief belongs to the parents of the child at the end of the rope.

Grief belongs to the desolate relict of the 60 year marriage.

Grief is that which bends every good soul softly to the afflicted,

In tears.

I can not claim grief. Not that.

We shared a meal, just last night. We are – friends.

But where is my word? What is its name?

To know that in all my nights to come

I will never feel your breath on the back of my neck,

Never reach out in my sleep to touch you,

Never wake to your puppy snore

And turn to stroke the slow curve of your hip,

Under the faint fabric of a beloved cotton nightshirt

Washed to silk.

Never drink your beauty in the cellphone’s glow,

And never again, as long as I will live, draw you to me in love?

This is not grief.

It just

Feels like it.

In Switzerland (for Shawn)

Komm mit mir und mit mir schlafen,

Im ein alt hotel im Ludwigshafen,

We’ll drink stolen wine out of stolen glasses

And laugh out loud at the burghers’ arses.

I will bring you traffic signs,

We’ll rip up tickets, won’t pay fines.

We’ll sit in church in our dirty jeans

Reading pornographic magazines.

And then we’ll walk for miles and miles

Past military tulips, synthetic smiles.

I Dream of Capitalism

Capitalism. An incredibly simple, powerful and good force in the world.

If only we had it.

Adam Smith made it so simple (though it took him three volumes of his Wealth of Nations to say it). He understood that that inexorable tendency of capital was for the powerful to eliminate the weak until, ultimately, only one super-supplier of everything dominates every transaction, sucking every skerrick of surplus back to its owners and effectively enslaving everyone else.

The only force capable of and charged with stopping this: a government elected by the people to defend the people, breaking up emerging monopolies, constantly resetting, levelling, the market. Imposing regulation to ensure fair play. A beautiful concept, a workable system. America became great because it understood this better than anyone else. The breakup of Bell Telephone. Ditto Hollywood’s control of cinemas.

When Hollywood studios ruled the exhibitor business by a complex web of sweetheart deals, threats, exclusions and other practices, they were crunched.

News to you? Read this elegant summary of the issues by the 1948 Supreme Court:

‘The gist of the Court’s unanimous Paramount decision can be summarized in four points: first, the mere existence of monopoly power, whether lawfully or unlawfully gained, is basis enough for an antitrust judgment; second, it is not necessary to find specific intent to restrain trade, simply that such restraint results from the defendants’ business conduct; third, the Sherman Act can be violated by prevention of competition as much as by destruction of competition; and finally, any theater under any ownership is subject to an antitrust judgment if the theater was acquired or maintained as a result of unreasonable restraint of trade.’

What sweet music that would have been to Adam Smith’s ears.

Now ask yourself: could such a ruling conceivably come down today? I think not. Never happen. Courts, politicians, civil administrators, the media – they are all in bed together and the consumer is pinned face down, taking it where it hurts most.

I don’t know this. I can’t prove it. I am convinced solely because it happens, just as the 1948 Supreme Court  concluded that the mere existence of the circumstances satisfied the criteria for the break-up under the Sherman Act.

Doubt it? Just listen to BBC’s scandalous consumer non-protection farces “You & Yours” and “Money & You” as the affable, supine presenters (Peter White and Paul Ellis, respectively) obediently read out press releases from companies from whom ‘no-one was available to appear on the programme’.

But hang on. Don’t these companies pay PR flacks fortunes to get them onto programmes they want to be on?

And hang on again. Under media rules requiring balance, the broadcaster’s only obligation is to give the company the opportunity to put its point of view. Should it decline to front up the programme is free to air only the views of its critics. If they started doing that, the companies would start showing up for interviews quick smart, as they do in my own country. And taking the hammering they so often deserve from genuine journalists.

How is it the job of a presenter of a consumer rights programme to read out companies’ press releases? Answer: it isn’t. It’s b**lsh*t. Phony crony capitalism, funded by your licence fees.


What happens when the companies or their industry reps do appear on the programmes? They get a velvet cushion shoved under their arses.


Money & You, today, June 22, 2014. Some poor bugger got caught in China when martial law was declared. He didn’t know. Reasonable, since he was on holiday and didn’t speak Chinese. He runs into trouble. His travel insurance fails him.

He describes how, right through the crisis, he kept getting marketing emails from the company, but no warnings or advice, in spite of the fact that the Foreign Office had advised travellers to get out.

Paul Ellis: (I paraphrase) “How was that? Could you not have warned him?”

Answer: “Well, every company has websites that send out marketing messages to their customers. But we are not able to send out specific Foreign Office advisories to our travelling customers.”

Ellis’ charming, affable response: move on to the next question.

Correct response: “Excuse me? You get the advisories, surely. Why not use a simple web-script to sort them by country and automatically bounce them on to travelling customers on your database? You can’t be telling me this is too hard?”

“Well … I’m not a computer expert …”

“It sounds to me as if you’re too busy marketing to your customers to attend to their safety. Surely the travelling public has the right to expect better than this from an industry known to use some of the most powerful and sophisticated computer systems on the planet?”

Aahh, we dream.

Until this issue is addressed, the disenchanted will espouse broken, failed and fatally flawed systems or non-systems such as communism and anarchy. But capitalism is far more efficient at delivering safe, affordable and useable goods and services to the people, in accordance with the will of the people, including their desire for simplicity, environmental care, fair play and quality first.

If only we had it …

The bollix argument in favour of our government serving their interests is … well, read this.

World Hails New Metaphysical Poet

For some reason I heard the third quote in a week on BBC 3 from someone referred to as a ‘metaphysical poet.’

Hell, I thought, if business is so brisk in the MP business, maybe there’s an opening for me?
I sat down and dashed this off – I think I may have found my metier!
Before I have business cards printed, I would value your opinion.
What mortal skull can span, O Lord,
This mighty hull, this heaving world?
Shaped by Thine immortal hand
And cast upon Thine ocean grand.
Measured by star, bounded not,
The sweep of space, nor chart, nor plot,
Nor even science the ‘Why’ can tell us,
Ionospheric sails propel us.
A hint, a glimpse of Thy great scheme –
The Milky Way, that clouded stream
That nightly wraps Thy sleeping world
As on we sail, on axis swirled.
And on and on, etcetera, plus;
I could write forever thus.


Grand Unifying Theory of Sex

Announcement: I have finally arrived at what I could call the Grand Unifying Theory of Sex, with apologies to Stephen Hawkings and co.

Humans, like, I suspect, many mammalian species, have sex lives which are for the most part unfulfilling. And the strange fact is that this is so because it is a good thing, in that it improves our chances of successful propagation of our genes.


Yes. What men want, what gets men off, doesn’t do it for women, and vice versa. Our bits are in the wrong place and our instinctive techniques are at odds. Men feel driven to violent thrusting, women like strong, gentle rhythm, and the physical areas which produce the orgasm through friction and heat, the penis and the clitoris, don’t even normally come into contact due to where they’re placed. Weird. What’s worse, men let it all rip in one great bang and that’s it. A few drags on the post-coital fag and off to sleep with a beaming smile on our faces. But the women can come again, and again, and again, and love it.

How could nature get it so wrong?

My theory is that old trickster Momma Nature did it deliberately. That’s right. In this all-important part of keeping the species going she made sure that we guys get what we want and our female partners don’t.

Think about it. It all stems from the unchangeable fact that for the hugest part of our time as this species we didn’t have language anything like useful enough to have a discussion about who did what with whom and when. And it wouldn’t have done any good if we had, because we probably didn’t understand the connection between copulation and fertility anyway. Result: the females were alone in knowing for sure that the babe in their arms was theirs. Studies of comparable species show that the odds of a monogamous male wasting his time in feeding, protecting and training offspring who are not biologically his own are very high. Even today among knowledgeable, suspicious humans, anonymous surveys suggest that as many as 25% of kids are brought up by men who unknowingly are not their fathers.

Such an eventuality is evolution’s ultimate catastrophe for the individual bent on propagating his genes, which is the only thing we, as instinctual organisms, care about. The male of many species, lions for example, avoid this disaster by killing any existing offspring of a female they hook up with. Humans, being highly communal and co-operative, don’t. So what the male does is take every chance he gets to swing his leg over someone else’s woman. If he spends his efforts raising someone else’s kid, but gets the mates of two other women to raise two of his, he’s a winner.

So, since our cultural evolution has far outstripped the rate of the physical, and biologically we’re essentially cave-men and -women in suits and skirts, we guys are still wired up to pop our rocks and leave. Get to sleep as soon as possible, because that’s important for the success of the next day’s hunting. Of course, we come back the next day for more of the same with the same partner. Because ‘guarding behaviour’, the polite sociological name for murderous jealousy, makes it most likely that the female we coupled with last night and for the preceding period of time really will be carrying our child. So the main strategy is always going to be to hang around and provide the groceries.

But if the male gets a chance to leap the odd back fence while some other guy is off doing …whatever, both he and the neighbour’s missus have a certain investment in laying off their bets with another partner.

That’s right – both of them. Because the female is stuck with an uncertainty neatly corresponding to the male’s: if she has no children and has only ever mated with Loverboy No. 1, she can’t know if he is actually fertile. When life is brutish, nasty and short, every year of fertility counts more than we can imagine today. Not only does she have to be free of disease or debility, she has to be carrying enough body fat to ovulate, menstruate and produce milk. And have enough healthy years left in her to see the kids through to university at age, say, twelve. Not an everyday guarantee in 150,000 BC. A couple of years wasted with a husky hunter shooting blanks is another catastrophe.

So, if we observe how The Act, in its default setting, works, we can see exactly why it is the way it is today. The male piles in, gets his rocks off and rolls over for his beauty sleep as soon as she’ll let him go. She is attracted, turned on, stimulated, but during the act the chance that there will be enough of the right sort of clitoral contact to produce that satisfying orgasm is very low. So she clings, holds him in her, wanting more and unknowingly providing those little spermies the optimum environment to complete their long paddle to light up an egg.

And, just as nature designed it, when Big Hunter has rolled off and is stacking up Z’s in the corner – she still wants! So maybe she’s aware of some youthful eyes glittering in a far corner of the cave, has observed an unattached stud with his mitts in his loincloth while they’ve been at it. Mmmm. Insurance time.

Sadly, of course, it’s no more likely that lover number two is going to hit the G-spot either, or even be interested in doing so. But maybe. You never know.

Don’t believe me? Female chimpanzees will routinely copulate with every male in the family group.

Of course, although for the interests of readability I describe all this as though the protagonists are doing all this in full knowledge of the whys and wherefores, or as if some notional designer worked it all out that way, that’s not how evolution produces behaviour or physiology. Just as no-one up there, be it God, or Evolution as Architect, has any interest in making us behave in a manner which makes us happy. All that happens is that men and women who by inclination are sufficiently promiscuous to cover their bets but not so promiscuous that they incite jealous rage and an early death will out-reproduce those at either end of the promiscuity spectrum, viz., the nuns and the slappers. That ideal point is to be faithful, do whatever you can to keep your husband on song and providing, or your wife faithful, but when opportunity arrives, cover off the risk with someone else. Especially because in early times we lived and moved in smallish groups, with correspondingly small and interconnected gene pools, so the chance of the odd infidelity being exposed by a child of incongruously variant appearance was small.

Thinking about this for about three seconds, you will realise that this is why women are still powerfully driven to control their husbands. Women with children can’t hunt. And because the children tie them to the home, they are very vulnerable to the aforementioned guarding behaviour – physically weak and unable to shift any further or faster than their children can travel. But they still feel that urge to cover their bets. Result: they’re much better than we are at cheating, because throughout all of pre-history the best they could hope for, if caught, was abandonment.The penalty still meted out to adulterous women in barbarous cultures remains to this day very strong evidence for this. So I’m willing to bet that three times as many cheating husbands get caught as cheating wives. In one of my long relationships, in my earlier years, I strayed and my partner knew immediately and hit the roof. This happened twice in three years. If she had not told me at the end of our relationship I would never have known that during those three years she maintained a sexual relationship with one of our friends. I never suspected. 

To return to The Act, yes, it’s true. Without thought and intervention women who rely on coitus to achieve sexual repletion will remain perpetually unsatisfied. Because that lack of satisfaction produces higher rates of successful reproduction, it’s a good strategy.

Enter, the articulate, uninhibited and informed Modern Man and Woman. How do we deal with it?

The answer is, for a long time, very badly. When we eventually got around to even mentioning it we tried to brand the female orgasm a myth. In Victorian times male doctors called it ‘hysteria’ (from the Greek word for the uterus), i.e. a kind of madness, and alternately invented a machine to discharge the dangerous ‘hysterical paroxysm’ or carved off women’s clitori to settle them down. I had a second cousin who had her uterus removed in the early 1950s as an attempt to treat her schizophrenia; even that late in history the belief persisted in some dark corners of the asylum that there was some connection between a woman’s reproductive instincts and insanity.

In the 70s, the feminists came up with an answer which really sucked, and was drivel into the bargain. Women are unsatisfied because men are pigs who don’t care. A miserable time was had by all, because could there be anything more stupid, more filled with self-hatred, than the belief that Nature got it all wrong, that the universe doesn’t work?

All along, women have combated Nature’s heartless design using two principal methods that I know of. Masturbation, obviously, and in a couple of lovers in my life, aggressive and (to me) painful grinding, probably the origin of the notion of the vagina dentata. Ouch!

We’re almost there, but let me chuck in another consideration. Conservative Christians, Muslims and probably Jews like to say that the only purpose of the sexual act is reproduction. As a Catholic, I find that a damn shame. I am proud that the Catholic Church was the first major religious group to recognise the truth of evolution. Many eminent scientists are Catholic and the Vatican even has a Jesuit-run observatory which works at the forefront of astronomy and astro-physics. But when it comes to biology, sociology and palaeobiology as it informs our knowledge of sexual behaviour, they remain firmly cemented in the Stone Age. The idea that human sexuality is exclusively about reproduction is utterly anti-scientific and in defiance of the evidence.

Homo sapiens is one of many species that use sex for far more than reproduction. Just look at all those homosexual giraffes. Stops the victorious bull male from constant challenge by the unsuccessful losers, I suppose.

But even by that standard we’re out on a limb as one of the few in which the female will willingly engage in, even seek sex when she is not ovulating, and the male will oblige at any time in the menstrual cycle. We have evolved to use sex as a means of communication. Not only that, but I am convinced that for us this is an important and highly effective compensation for the confusing complexity of our verbal and non-verbal communication. In sex we communicate body-to-body, heart-to-heart at a depth and with a simplicity which transcends the verbal.

Especially when both the man and women have orgasms, and very especially when they occur either together or in close sequence, in blatant defiance of Nature’s plan.

So let’s hear it for the lucky couples in which the woman gives herself orgasms during sex. Any male who has been lucky enough to experience this has enjoyed the incomparable pleasure of being brought to stupendous orgasm by the sudden rise in intra-uterine temperature and a flood of natural lubricant.

What can I say? Tell your friends. Put it on Facebook. Tell everyone.

Believe me, it’s the best.


That Wondrous Camino

Two months ago I returned from a trip to India in the worst emotional condition I had experienced since my teens.  I had made the mistake of going back to Darjeeling, where in my 20s I had spent several of the happiest months of my life. I was hoping to meet my Tibetan landlady (and lover) and her son, seven years old at the time I left. Darjeeling, 7,500 feet up in the Himalayas, was truly a jewel of the Raj, an exquisite town of Victorian houses and shops surrounded by tea plantations, facing the biggest massif in the Himalayan range. Not only was Dawa dead, so was her son in tragic circumstances. Forty-five years of rampant, random, cheapest-possible-option development has destroyed the jewel. Only traces remain. Other influences bearing down on me – isolation, the failure of my book to find a publisher, and more – were crushing the life, and faith, out of me. I found myself wishing for death, utterly heart-sick.


With desperation comes inspiration. I remembered that some people from my parish in Auckland had done a pilgrimage in Spain a couple of years ago. Yes! Within days I was in Burgos on the Camino Francés, chosen as a starting point to land me on Maundy Thursday in Santiago de Compostela where the relics of St James are believed to be held.


So God was looking after me after all. What a wondrous, magical thing is the Camino. Especially to do it in the way I and many others did it – alone on the walk, talking in the evening with kindred spirits. Or the opposite – both have their gifts when you’re in a watching and learning state of mind. 500 km, walking every day. With a 10 kilo pack on my back and my guitar slung over my shoulder I resembled a badly assembled dromedary. I crossed two mountain ranges, right up to the high spring snow line. Twice I walked almost 20 kilometres scarcely seeing another person. The old Roman road to Transalpine Gaul, the Via Aquitana, leading into the little village of Calzadilla des Hermanillos, leaves the vehicle roads completely and runs as a harsh, pebbly track straight across the high plains for a four-hour walk through nothing. No houses, no anything but scrub, broken forest and occasional wheat fields. And then, once or twice, the white bullet train appeared and rocketed by. I waved my stick around and leapt in the air like a madman, shouting “Praise God!” at the top of my lungs.  Pure impulse; it felt wonderful! Surely, liberation is simply the freedom to respond to impulse.

What an extraordinarily simple and beautiful thing it is to just walk every day. No wonder posties are always happy. Just drop into your rhythm, which in my case was precisely 120 steps per minute, 5 km/hr, and encounter whatever turns up, which is often nothing. Lovely, yummy, rich, meaningful nothing. Walking, thinking, praying, meditating, dictating poetry and ideas onto my phone, always walking, walking. Day after day after day. 

Distance comes to mean nothing – it’s all about time. In fact, the distance markers can be wildly unreliable. Shortly after the ´409km to Santiago´ sign I was photographed next to there was one saying 453 km! So you just walk. Unlike most, I didn’t have a guide book, just a print-out from a website which gave me a reasonable idea when I would find the next spot and whether there would be an albergué municipal, as they call the public pilgrims’ dormitories.

Of course there is so much beauty. So many remarkable sights. Like the Cruz de Ferro at the highest point of the Francés in the Léon Mountains. The +/- 9 metre pole surmounted by a simple iron cross dates back at least 1,000 years. The pile of stones at the base is maybe twenty metres long, six wide and four high, the product of a millennium, a pebble at a time. Tradition encourages pilgrims to leave a stone for some person or intention at the Cruz. I stuck a sharp little stone in a split in the pole to thank my mother for getting me there/here. (Too complicated and odd to explain.)

Going up to Cruz de Ferro was a hard climb. (But not the worst; that was to O Cebreiro in the Cordillera.) A remarkable thing: I approached the Cruz through cold mist and snow drifts, and literally as I walked away the clouds parted, the sun came out and ten minutes later I was descending through fields and the odd ruin basking in spring sunshine, the apple blossom thick on the trees and the air full of bird-song. It was exactly like the scene out of Shangri La where the travellers descended from a freezing, treacherous high pass in Tibet and found themselves in the land of perpetual spring. I came around a corner and wham! there in the distance was the full stretch of the snow-covered Cordillera. Just like that, completely unexpected. Beautiful. And then I slipped on an invisibly wet rock and smashed my guitar! The descent was wicked and falls are common. 

Up till then travelling with the guitar had been special. Almost no-one passes the first 100km of their walk with unnecessary weight, in fact there is a special postage rate to Santiago from anywhere on the Camino to accommodate the shedders. So the pilgrims really appreciated an evening with music. 

The Camino took my guitar but, typically, it returned it too, not only fixed but improved. I wrote to Camps, the manufacturers in Catalonia, with photos showing that only the table was broken and asking the cost of repair. Shocked by a two sentence reply saying it was uneconomic. For a €750 guitar! I didn’t believe them but had no idea who would affordably fix it. At English craftsman’s rates, assuming they would even be able to fix a flamenco guitar properly, it was a no go for me. But the albergué in Sarria, just over 100km out from Santiago, has walls and shelves full of woodcarvings made by the owners. Craftspeople. As I was leaving in the morning it occurred to me to ask them. Yes, there was a celebrated instrument maker just two blocks away! I checked it out as I went past. Closed. I knocked. No answer. Oh well. The urge to walk was irresistible, so off I went. Then I arrive at the albergué in Portomarin, my next stop, go to produce my credencial, the pilgrim’s passport which is stamped along the way. Not there! The one thing you do not want to lose, after your real passport, is your credencial. I call Luis and Beatriz at the Sarria albergué. Yes, they have it. Onto a bus back. The walk from the bus station takes me past the instrument maker’s workshop. Open! And yes, he will fix it, for $150, more or less. And he did. Incredibly well, and modified the bridge for more accurate tuning and a lower action into the bargain. I took a bus back to Sarria after Santiago, collected my beautiful new guitar and was treated to a performance on the xanfon, the traditional Galician hurdy-gurdy. Lust flared in my heart for the beautiful thing, made by Xerman’s own hands. Three thousand euros. Oh well…

Honestly, I could tell half a dozen such stories, as could most serious pilgrims. The only experience to which I can compare it is my time taking teachings from Lama Kalu Rinpoche. Like others on the same path, I found that things happened around me, unlikely stuff, to illustrate a point I was working on or to give me the sense that I was being looked after. Spooky? Believe it!

Finishing is hard. For most people there’s no apotheosis. You just stop at the Cathedral, and it’s over. The next day you feel wrong – you should be walking. For me it was a huge moment, engulfed with gratitude for the continuing existence of this ancient, holy, mysterious method of healing. I charged into the cathedral, tears streaming down my face, threw myself to my knees at the first pew and sobbed my heart out. No-one seemed to take any notice. I guess it’s common. 

The crying thing. Strange. I had this thing going on which I can only describe as splacxnomai, the Greek word in the New Testament usually translated as compassion, or sympathy when referring to Christ’s reaction to, for instance, the misery of the leper. But what it really means is a shaking of the bowels (the ‘noble’ bowels – heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.) I was very far from sad but cried at the drop of a hat. If the hat was hurt, so to speak.

They showed a clip of the Boston bombing on a TV in a bar, followed by a row of crosses memorialising the dead. Whoops! Here we go… Crying at television!! Crikey! It was a bit embarrassing, as you can imagine. But what goes with it is wonderful. Wonderful. I met another pilgrim, a devout Christian woman, in the cathedral at Santiago who was experiencing the same thing.

Sadly I feel my shell slowly growing back. Inevitable and probably necessary.

Now I’m back in Bristol, I’m well, and mainly I’m clear. Physically clear, like water from which everything has settled out. Of course, bump the jug enough and it goes muddy again, but the knowledge that the Camino is just a 24-hour bus and boat trip away means I will never get that desperate again. 

What a gift it is.  In Léon someone mentioned that of the 160 Holy Grails in Spain, two historians had just published a book establishing that in all likelihood the one at the Basilica of San Isidoro in Léon is the actual, real cup Jesus used at the last supper. I immediately jumped on the net and yes, it does seem very likely. So off I trotted to the Basilica, on the Camino so I had my full kit – backpack, guitar and baston, the pilgrim’s staff (endlessly useful, as it turns out). Said a little prayer, after which I was approached by the the delightful, elderly Fr Timeo. A musician? Yes. And a poet? Sometimes, yes. Aah, and a pilgrim. He launched into a paean to the saintliness of the pilgrim. I didn’t demur; it was making him happy. As far as I could tell, he was saying that we pilgrims benefited not only ourselves but all the faithful and we must be supported in every way. The basilica, he said, had a prayer group, a ‘spiritual army’ of twenty-four men and twenty-four women whose sole task was to pray for the well-being and safety of the Camino’s pilgrims. Words are cheap, you may think, but he followed through by insisting on buying me breakfast! I don’t usually eat breakfast, so I just ordered a coffee. No. I had to eat.  A croissant, then. He took nothing, having already eaten. I was deeply touched, although relieved when he left, my brain aching from the constant flow of Spanish.

And the grail? Unfortunately a) it was in the adjacent museum, not the church and b) big disappointment: since the book was published they have hidden the real one and have a copy on display. I asked at the desk and the attendant confirmed that it was actually in the building. It felt very strange and mystical, to be standing close to Christ’s cup. I returned to the basilica and prayed for my faith to be returned to me in its fullness.

And it was. Thanks be to God. And now I’m starting to cry. Oh well, that’s life these days. Joy.

Faith yes, but not religion. See:

And now for the pictures atA first cut of pictures from my Camino