Hello, in these here parts we like
to do things differently from time to time, to keep you on
your toes, so to speak, so this time I'm starting with a short
story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
The Art of Planet
Art Hackensaw had been a brilliant child. Everyone had said
he was brilliant. He was now a brilliant 43 year old in early
middle age but today people did not think of him as brilliant.
They thought of him as slightly odd, as someone who had not
realised his potential or not likely to realise his potential.
He himself was happy enough though he had a couple of regrets,
the break up of his relationship with his wife, Su, and the
fact that they had not had any children; the marriage had
lasted eight years which was about seven years longer than
Su's parents thought it would last. He moved out of the family
home when the relationship finally disintegrated beyond repair
but stayed in the same town, Middlesizeville, USA.
It was hard to put a finger on Art and
what he was like. Some people saw him as distracted, some
as obsessive, some as driven, others as just plain odd. He
responded to whatever was his latest project with every fibre
of his being and every ounce of brain energy (they still had
ounces in the USA), so that could be understood as driven,
and it certainly drove others up the wall and a nail in the
coffin of his marriage. But if he wasn't involved up to his
neck in some project or other then he could be sociable, friendly,
rational and helpful, a fairly regular guy. Unfortunately
the 'regular' Art seemed to appear less and less as time went
by. 'Art's projects' were his undoing in a way but to him
were what added meaning and direction to his life.
At this stage he fixed computers for a
living, doing the minimum that would earn him enough to survive
and pass something on to Su, though he hoped to stop that
now she was in another relationship. His 'projects' began
as hobbies when a teenager and became more than that. At times
they were straight science or chemistry, seeing what would
happen when X was added to Y and heated, or sometimes mathematics
combined with geology, as in working out the total weight
of a particular kind of rock in the county, or where on the
globe a piece of rock was fifty million years ago.
He had got into science faction slowly.
He had enjoyed science fiction when he was young, he still
did, but tried to explore, in his own way, some of the science
fiction ideas which might become reality. Parallel universes
became something he increasingly dwelt on, and as this required
more thinking than doing, he was often lost, almost literally,
in another world. If he could only just slide across reality
one little tiny bit he would be remembered for ever. It's
not that he wanted to be remembered for ever, but to be the
first person to do something like that he would be proven
to have arrived, his life would be seen and valued, he would
have proved himself to himself and the world. Plus it was
an amazing challenge, and he certainly thrived on challenge.
Going about it was another matter. Was
it a question of mind over matter, or was there a physical
formula? He wrestled endlessly with different options and
even the customers for his computer repair business groaned
when they arrived to see him sitting there, lost to the world,
and their computer still untouched. But he did go about it
in a scientific way; he would analyse an idea, experiment
with it if needed, make notes as to whether there were possibilities
there, before moving on to the next. And the next. And the
next. And when he was getting near the end of what seemed
most important to him to analyse, he then had to consider
the combinations and permutations of ideas. It was mind-bogglingly
complicated. His friends, those who still bothered with him
and cared for him, despaired and wondered whether he would
disappear into his own mind one day.
But you could say one thing about Art Hackensaw.
He had perseverance. He was a tryer. He refused to let go
of an idea, grappling with it in a way and often with an imagination
that few can have realised. He was rigorous. He was exhaustive,
and exhausting whenever he told anyone just a little bit of
what he was exploring. This little bit made some people think
he was mad or just a step from it. But he knew that greatness
and great discoveries came from being right on the edge. That
was where he was, on the edge.
After some years of this he was not sure
whether he had got anywhere or not, but he wanted to see it
through to the End. Success or failure. Fame and possibly
fortune or, as even he realised might be possible, a one way
trip to the funny farm or just living with failure - which
might be considerably worse.
As he tried his combinations of ideas to
reach parallel universes or another reality, he was not optimistic
but rather resolute. He had come so far. He would see it through.
And then suddenly, one morning, he felt different. The world
felt different. Had he made a leap across or was he just fooling
himself? He knew what he would do if this eventuality ever
happened. He would take a walk. He knew Middlesizeville like
the back of his hand, and he was extremely observant in his
own way, so he would realise if things really were Different.
Going out of his run-down house everything
looked normal. The dogs that he would have expected were sniffing
around a few doors up. It was already after 9.30 a.m. and
it must be a school day, he told himself, there are no children
around apart from one or two very young ones being brought
by car to wherever they were going. And then he passed the
only church in the immediate neighbourhood. "Love your
neighbour as yourself" it said, which was the kind of
thing you would expect a church notice board to say, but it
went on, and he tremored as he read, "but don't give
a damn about those people further away". His mind raced.
Was this a prank? Was he hallucinating? Was he at home asleep,
dreaming? None of these, he worked out, it did really say
that. He began to think that maybe, maybe, he had arrived.
Where that somewhere might be, he wondered. But he needed
to see more, one notice board doesn't make a parallel universe
he told himself, and this time he walked more urgently, as
fast as he could, almost.
He passed someone he knew and they nodded
a greeting. Well, that was normal, he thought, even though
he himself was still shaking slightly with trepidation and
expectation. Art made straight for the nearest convenience
shop to buy a paper. Things looked normal there, and he picked
up a copy of his usual paper, glancing at some of the other
headlines. Traffic accidents, a brief mention of wars at the
bottom of the page, a bigger mention of a local soldier home
from the wars, what was not labelled as but amounted to a
beauty pageant as part of a local festival, nothing seemed
strange. The date was the correct date or as near as he remembered
it to be, the day was Tuesday. He paid for his paper. "Have
a grotesque day" was what he heard the shop assistant
say. He wasn't quite sure if he had heard right but to ask
again what she had said would be pointless. The moment lingered
in his mind as he kept on walking. Uncertainty plagued him.
Quirks don't make quarks, he used to say, and maybe the two
quirks this morning were just that.
He was getting downtown now. The town was
as busy as expected, which is to say not that busy, the industrial
belt of the area packed up a couple of decades before and
that had had a knock on effect on the town. It certainly wasn't
thriving, more like surviving. There were a few stores vacant
but most kept ticking over, hoping for a boom that would likely
never come. Then Art saw a band playing, a platform and a
speaker near the main Motel close to the town centre. As he
got closer he realised it was a political gathering and there
was flags of different sizes, posters, the works. What did
the posters say? "Vote for..." and "Keep America
great". Was there any small print like on the church
poster? Why yes there was - "by kicking the asses of
anyone who gets in our way". He wasn't sure whether this
was this just patriotism in the normal world or he had Moved.
He was sure that he still wasn't sure.
He went over to listen to the star-spangled
speaker. "Terrorists fear us because we are bigger terrorists.
Nothing can get in our way. The rest of the world has to agree
with us because otherwise they will be pushed aside. Human
rights don't count, what counts is our gas-guzzling SUVs and
our right to pollute the planet. Our oil companies are determined
to go down with the planet as the homes of hundreds of millions
get inundated with the sea due to global warming. But we don't
give a damn. And we will never give a damn, even about our
own people condemned to poverty because our money goes on
expensive military hardware and foreign wars. We will never
give a damn because we see ourselves as the greatest people
ever to walk God's earth. We are saved so we can do whatever
the hell we like."
It was then that it hit him. This was not
a parallel universe that he had arrived at, even some version
of hell on earth. He had not learnt how to slide into an alternative
reality but he had learnt how to do something entirely different;
How To Read Between The Lines.
What is a city? Such thoughts are occasioned by the fact than
humankind is/has/is about to reach(ed) a point of no return.
It may have happened or it may be about to happen in just
a few years. That is, the point where over half of humanity
will live in cities or urban areas. It has already happened
in 'the west' and industrialised countries, except now it
is happening on a global scale with megapolises burgeoning
at the seams, some in the poor world with a truly dreadful
lack of infrastructure and shack housing at best, and appalling
problems of poverty and the resultant dirt and disease.
So what is a city? It is clear there is
no one definition. In Christendom (what a term it is, redolent
of the past) if you had a cathedral then you might be a city,
or certainly you had to have a cathedral to be a city. But
somehow I don't think that even the most hardened Anglican
would make out that Killaloe with a Church of Ireland cathedral
merits the title of 'city'. But then neither does Lisburn
which was freshly created by Her Britannic Majesty a year
ago, along with Newry. I have referred to to Lisburn becoming
a city before. You can be travelling along a main road south
of Belfast, in the countryside, and be greeted "Welcome
to the City of Lisburn". And you can leave said 'city'
without leaving the countryside! Lisburn has a proud tradition
as a market town and now more a dormitory area for Belfast
but to call it a city is to call a spade a JCB. Lisburn being
a busy 'town' is good; being a 'city' is ridiculous.
What is a city then? "An urban conurbation
of very considerable size in relation to the country concerned
and one which is an economic and cultural centre for the region"
would be my off the cuff definition (would that be Cuffe Street
in Dublin city? - Ed). You need to be an economic centre.
You may be a political centre but then politics tends to predominate
in the capital city. You could also be a cultural centre with
e.g. theatre and other art forms available for those who wish
to indulge actively or passively. If you bring the latter
criterion into it then Sligo deserves the term 'city' more
than Lisburn (well, the latter does have a multiplex cinema......)
But there is the risk in adding a particular cultural criterion
(e.g. theatre) that you exclude those for whom cultural expression
is less formalised and erecting a cultural 'bar' which many
poorer 'cities' could not meet. 'Cities' in different places
may have different characteristics beyond having a lot of
Cives, civitas, the Latin terms still echo
in various mottoes of various cities. But beyond the basic
details in the paragraph above, perhaps 'city' is also an
attitude of mind. That attitude can be positive but it can
also be patronising, to those in smaller cities or the country.
But in the rich world the urban/rural divide
is not what it was. Television, transport, and the mechanisation
of most agricultural labour in 'the West' have meant that
the quality of life of country people (and also their expectations)
has increased exponentially in a generation or two. And even
in the 'countryside' most people no longer rely on agriculture
for their livelihood. The country has been largely suburbanised.
Greening the city is a challenge, however.
There is no inherent reason why the city should be more polluting
and wasteful of resources than the country, and the proximity
of services means that people need to travel less than in
the countryside.....if things are rationally delineated and
you do not have to travel right across a conurbation to get
to work or pleasure.
But the rich world has the money to deal
with its problems (not that it always does so - it is primarily
the rich world's carbon dioxide which is starting to cause
massive problems for, say, Bangladeshis). But it hurts your
head to think of those trapped in the massive shanty cities
growing in the poor world for whom the city may mean survival
but at one very high price. That price is living in a pretty
appalling environment with no escape and no respite and being
a tiny cog in some infernal dark machine which you cannot
control. Which is pretty mindbogglingly oppressive.
Becoming a media
Do I really hate the media? No. Some of it I love and more
I love to hate, but much of it does nothing for me. But this
is starting off on somewhat the wrong tack. What I meant to
start off with is 'Becoming a mediator'. Yes, folks, for part
of my living I have decided to stand in the middle of the
road and get run over, or be a bridge and go over to the other
side (in those disparaging Norn Iron metaphors). It's something
I have been arriving at for a long time. This particular aspect
of my life might be said to begin in 1987 when I was on a
Northern Ireland Conflict and Mediation Association (NICMA
- now Mediation Northern Ireland) evening course which has
entered popular folklore (well almost, I do exaggerate slightly
sometimes) [you do mean considerably always - Ed]; this was
the one where of 11 participants on the first evening, 5 had
come for meditation....
Anyhow, this year I have become an actual
practising mediator if an apprentice one at this stage. I'm
trusted to deal with boundary problems like trees growing
too high, and fences that neighbours don't like. You've got
to walk before you can run (and trip over somebody's carefully
dug ditch). Well, I am doing some other longer term work as
well. But it's an interesting occupation, just seeing how
two sets of rational human beings can have such divergent
views of the one fence/set of trees or whatever. 'Neighbours...everybody
needs good neighbours.......' but becoming good friends is
usually too much to hope or work for.
And it is clear that sometimes a mediator
has to be a radiator - exuding warmth and positive vibes to
keep people on board, not distorting anything but still reassuring
and sometimes cajoling people along and yet leaving them with
space to make their own decisions and to think for themselves.
But with my experience of group work (which has included people
shouting at me and giving out publicly about my facilitation
at times) [I wonder why - Ed] I am not anticipating it will
be too traumatic - demanding yes, traumatic no. And often
'the other party' just doesn't want to know; it takes two
to tango, and two (or more) sides for a mediation to take
place. Much education needs to take place about mediation
before it can be a fully accepted part of what is available
in civil society - and that, I believe, should start in schools.
Which is partly where we miss the late, lamented, Jerry Tyrrell
in Norn Iron (I miss his hearty laugh as well).
The 'media hater' bit? Well, frequently
there are different interests at play outside of the parties
involved and if there is any issue of 'public concern' where
there is mediation or negotiation, then publicity can frequently
help blow any possible deal out of the water. We have seen
it with parades issues in Northern Ireland. We have seen it
with other disputes. Keeping a process sufficiently confidential
is an important part of success, because if everyone starts
commenting then frequently the ante is upped and a deal becomes
impossible. Deciding to keep a process confidential has its
own difficulties because it can then be labelled as 'secret
negotiations' which may make people even more suspicious It
is a difficult one to win and get right where there is widespread
public (and media) interest in a case. Not that anyone except
those immediately affected cares about most mediations and
negotiations which happen in private and are not public affairs.
But in any case, 'balanced partiality',
to quote a term from Sue and Steve Williams on one aspect
of what mediation is about, is a difficult act. Being a madiator
(sic) reminds me of the old Irish/English pun about an oscillator
being someone who ates horses. Maybe in due course I'll have
more reflections to share with you [are you not afraid of
your own reflections, like a vampire - Ed]. Until then I'll
stay stuck in the middle of nowhere, piggy in the middle,
in mid-air, but hopefully not up the creek without a paddle.
Wheels within wheels
I'm sad at the demise of an old friend. Once they were young,
sturdy, beautifully cut, fast, but, alas and alack, ochone,
now decrepit, slow and old. It is my friend and companion
of ten years, my bicycle. The best bike I ever had (a Dawes,
now an extinct breed) and the longest lasting I have had (some
were stolen before they reached decrepitude). The frame is
fine still but an obsolete brake system which needed replaced
in order to stop the brake pads rubbing has meant it was not
worth fixing; mudguards, chain, chainset, gear cables, handlebar
webbing, pedals....all need replaced, the list goes on. So,
a one way trip to recycling for my friend with whom I have
travelled over 20,000 miles, exactly how far I don't know,
almost every day I went to my paid employment, sometimes to
long, boring meetings, sometimes to short, exciting ones,
almost every day to get the shopping, and sometimes just over
the hills and away.
But, in this short hymn to the bicycle
I wanted to pick out the top Irish cultural references to
the bicycle, and this isn't even mentioning racing cycling
with its Stephen Roches and Sean Kellys, which is another
ball game altogether, or should I say another wheely different
game [Is this not another of your Liszts! - Ed] [Maybe he
was a cyclist too, I don't know - Billy] Anyway, here we go:
Best stage production; Spokesong by Stewart
Best literary reference: The Third Policeman
by Flann O'Brien
Best song: I'm going back on the bicycle
by Tommy Sands
Best (only?) popular publication not about
cycling using a cycling theme or name: The short-lived free
magazine 'Pushbike' in Dublin in the 1970s.
Best time for bicycle security in Ireland:
Best/only Irish made bikes in recent times;
Phoenix bikes in Dublin (extinct) ca. early 1980s though
there were others made in the North.
Stewart Parker's extravaganza Spokesong,
his first stage play (1975), is itself partly a hymn of praise
to the velocipede. I only saw it once, in Belfast, but would
like to see it again. Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman
has the theory expounded of human molecules entering the bicycle
you ride and bicycle molecules entering the rider, so that
you end up with a bike that is half human and a human that
is half bicycle. I will feel like that as I accompany my gentle
friend for the last time. Tommy Sands' song "I'm going
back on the bicycle" has as the next line "I just
can't pay the bills" (for a car) but equally could have
the addition "for the carbon tax". An early free
magazine in Dublin, Pushbike in the early 1970s, was so called
because the US-born editor associated pushbikes so much with
And the best time for bicycle security?
The 1950s when there was a 'dedicated' bicycle theft squad
in Dublin in the Gardai. If a guard in the squad came across
a stolen bicycle they had to stay watching it until someone
came to get it and then nab them. They don't do that for cars
now, in any case if a car is stolen and abandoned the thieves
are unlikely to come back to it, but these days bicycles do
not feature on police radar, North or South, or indeed east
or west. Sad. I did have a Phoenix bike back in the 'eighties
but unfortunately Phoenix couldn't compete with the price
of imports and went out of business.
Anyway, just as a crank is a small object
that causes revolutions, the revolution (green and human)
will only come riding on a bicycle (and I can't remember who
I'm quoting in saying the last phrase there) but I believe
it to be true.
Well, that's it for another month, the article about Art took
up much of the space this time [are you trying to become our
Art correspondent? - Ed] and I hope you enjoyed it. The winter
is coming in, so stay warm, stay happy at juggling the balls
in the air. See you same time, same place, next month.
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).