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Nonviolence News


Billy King

Issue 123: October 2004

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.

[Return to related issue of Nonviolent News]

The Art of Planet Amerigo
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.

City slickers
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 people.

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 hater
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. Ommmmmm.

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:

  1. Best stage production; Spokesong by Stewart Parker.
  2. Best literary reference: The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien
  3. Best song: I'm going back on the bicycle by Tommy Sands
  4. Best (only?) popular publication not about cycling using a cycling theme or name: The short-lived free magazine 'Pushbike' in Dublin in the 1970s.
  5. Best time for bicycle security in Ireland: The 1950s.
  6. 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 Dublin's identity.

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.

Yours, Billy.

Who 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).

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