Land of the Badasses


“I am Temujin. Barbarian. I fight! I love! I conquer… like a Barbarian” – John Wayne


Mongolia in autumn is witch’s tit cold. At 9am one October morn, our party of seven* piled into a Soviet era P.O.S. van and hit the badly paved road. Our tour guide was a female Mongolian hipster with a taste for beer and punk rock attire. We were also accompanied by a seemingly nameless (and seemingly clueless) driver dressed like Albert Steptoe.

UlaanBatar shrank into the distance as we began our drive to the east. Soon enough, badly paved became unpaved, and urban became a distant memory. I felt like Martin Sheen in the oft-referenced (by me) Apocalypse Now, travelling further and further back in time with each step of the journey. This was a landscape that bled history: home to an angry nomad so aggressive and rapey that he slaughtered about 22% of the world’s population and sired a bloodline that may well reach to about one in every 200 living men.

Knowing a photo opp when we saw one, we asked the driver to pull over at a Buddhist shrine near a gnarled, Tolkienesque tree between two peaks. Eventually our seven hour hemorrhoid-risking journey led us to Blue Lake. Conflicting legends have it either that the lake is where young Temujin was bestowed his fearsome new moniker of Genghis Khan, or that it is where he and thirty horsemen, smarting from defeat at the battle of Dalan Balzhut, settled for a decade or so and started making their plans for world domination.

We didn’t stay quite as long, just a single night in the ‘ger’ (aka yurt) of a nomadic family. By the look of it, our accommodation had been until very recently some bloke’s garage. Our host family kept themselves to themselves, mostly staying in their own yurt watching international TV shows dubbed into Mongolian.

We took a short hike into the hills to watch the sun go down. The mid-autumn moon was so bright that it cast our shadows on the frozen ground. The following morning some of us rose before the dawn to watch the sun rise once again over a dramatic landscape that brought back childhood memories of the Rockies and hallucinogenic daydreams of the ole rape and pillage.

Our wonderful guide (who had traded hipster hoodies and black leather for traditional pink pyjamas) cooked everyone a rice pudding-style dish for breakfast before we set out over more rough terrain. Our second night of yurt-ery was spent at a tourist camp in Terelj National Park. The family we stayed with seemed a little more open (one of them acquiesced to be interviewed for an article that a friend was writing for Leeds University), but the camp itself felt a little like Mongolian Butlins. We managed to keep our distance from other tourists, wandering through the woods amidst animal carcasses stripped bare by wolves, before retiring for the night.

No Mongolian trip would be complete without trotting about on a horse. We rode up to a monastery in the mountains surrounding the park. I hadn’t ridden since I was a kid, but these were well trained beasts who knew where they were going. Upon returning from the monastery we packed up the battered old van and drove to the Chinggis Khaan** statue, which presumably beat little competition from Guinness for the prize of World’s Largest Equestrian Statue. It is impressive, and almost impossibly huge. So huge that the World’s Largest Mongolian Boot (fashioned from 445 cow hides and four km of rope) occupies only a tiny fraction of its foyer. Beneath the statue’s hooves lies a wonderfully edifying museum on the history of the Mongol Empire.

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The contrast between the city and the countryside could not be stronger. Modern Mongolia is home to more than 3 million people, 1.3 million of whom live in UlaanBatar (and, bizarrely, all seem to drive a Toyota Prius). After dirt tracks on which we encountered not a soul, the city took a shocking hour-and-a-half to cross through gridlocked traffic. We had a short time in the centre before departing for Chinggis Khaan International, which may tie with Astana for World’s Least Overly Impressive International Airport (in fairness, they did have some nice hats and English language history books).

Our flight, lagging behind on its way from Seoul, left the airport late; and so by the time we began our two-hour flight to Beijing the sun had already set on another adventure.


*(we had lost the American chap. His flight home was the day before ours and he’d opted for a shorter, cheaper tour)

(**preferred Mongolian spelling of the founding father, complete with Shatner-esque pronunciation of “Khaan!”)

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250 Lines of Definition


“The future is now! Soon every American home will integrate their television, phone and computer. You’ll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel and watch female mud wrestling on another. You can do your shopping at home, or play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam.” – The Cable Guy, 1996


A colleague and I were recently waxing nostalgic about the 1990s. We agreed that today’s knowledge-at-yer-fingertips world is marginally preferable, but we are both happy to have grown up in a slightly simpler time when a 3 and 1/2 inch floppy was nothing to be ashamed of, and when Netflix binges involved changing the cassette every two episodes.

Ours was a weird time: 7-11 wasn’t just a name, it was opening hours; TMNT cereal turned everyone’s shit green; we suffered weird, violent 16 bit hallucinations at the robotic hands of Earthworm Jim; and – for one night only – Paul McGann was our generation’s single Doctor Who.

The early nineties was a time of flipping POGs, blowing the dust off Nintendo cartridges, and taping shows on bootleg VHS (I’m old enough to remember my mum reminding me not to ‘get the little one’ from the video store, a warning against the dangers of Betamax).

The latter part of the decade was, in that pre-9/11 world, a time of looking forward: fiber-optic broadband in every home, Nu Metal in every nightclub, digital cinematography in every film. People weren’t worried that their neighbour might be an extremist plotting holy war, they were worried about the millennium bug and Bill Clinton’s dong.

I spent most of the nineties not staying in the same place, being U Haul-ed to various small towns in Alberta before seeing in the new epoch in one of England’s least interesting villages.

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Before video games started outselling Hollywood blockbusters, before The Sopranos and Breaking Bad finally turned television into a legit art form, movies were the dominant pop culture medium. 1999 is often cited as one of the great years for cinema: While James Bond hung from a thread above the millennium dome and George Lucas dropped the ball on Star Wars, young music video directors were breaking through with future cult classics like Fight Club and Being John Malkovich.*

Meanwhile, two film students used videotape and guerrilla marketing to show that an improvised folk horror about three kids and a fictional witch can make the sort of money that most of Hollywood only dreams about. A couple of brothers (at the time) from Chicago proved that it’s possible to make a science fiction kung fu action thriller that has a philosophical core (at least until it collapsed under the weight of its own cross-platform, multi-sequel bullshit). These were films that summed up ‘our’ decade and, more importantly, said and meant something.

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We Generation X-ers felt no highs or lows. There were rumours of those who did, but they were just put on Ritalin by their douchebag parents. Our spokespersons were the sort of people who dressed up as a bat instead of confronting their problems or who moved into derelict houses with their imaginary friends to plot Year Zero revolution. We didn’t even spot the irony in a monologue about how we’d never be famous or have rock hard abs being delivered by Brad Pitt.

Here in the present, there is a wave of eighties nostalgia. Touted soon-to-be sequels include Bill and Ted, The Goonies, and The Dark Crystal. Christian Slater’s agent has woken up after a long winter’s snooze where the speed dial was set on straight-to-DVD. I guess we have to wait a decade or so for Fight Club Too or Being John Malkovich Again, or yet another X Files movie.

Even if we do have to put up with a Matrix reboot.


*(a film that I swear I at least occasionally shut up about).

Driffield’s Bookcase (an Epilogue to The Anatomy of Melancholy)

“Never confuse where you are with where you are going.”

-Emir Manheim


In the past, when I’ve felt blue/down/angry, people’s always-helpful-and-never-knowingly-unappreciated advice has often extended to phrases like “try not to think about it” or “hmm, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here”, or even “I’d keep those sort of opinions to yourself if I were you!”

More often than not, the people who actually cheer me up are people I’ve never met, sometimes people who’ve been dead for years: poets, writers, philosophers, artists.

My recent quest to detox from most of the human race through other people’s multimedia art proved fruitful. The world may still be the planetary equivalent of a reasonably amusing hobo who approaches you and mumbles some crazy shit that makes you chuckle, only to pull out a rusty hunting knife and go straight for the gonads, but maybe it’s always been that way.

A long time ago, the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates found himself standing in the sunny garden of his friend Democritus, the ‘laughing philosopher’. Something like the following scene unfolded:

FADE IN.

EXT. THRACIAN SUBURBS, 3RD CENTURY BCE – DAY

Hippocrates (tall, bearded, father-of-modern-medicine type) stands in a sunny Greek garden. His face suddenly turns sour as he sniffs the air suspiciously.

HIPPOCRATES (with distaste)
Hmm. Smells like entrails around here!

Following the intestinal scent, Hippocrates finds his friend sitting beneath a huge tree. Democritus (fat, pre-Socratic, father-of-atomic theory looking), has an open book in his nude lap and a big dopey Joker grin on his face. Strewn about him on the ground are the corpses of at least a dozen household animals.

HIPPOCRATES
Wtf, Democritus! Why do you sit naked under a shady bower, surrounded by the carcasses of many and several beasts? Do you hold these creatures in contempt or something, fam?

DEMOCRITUS
Nah, bro. I is doing science, innit. This book upon my knee is my own work. I am writing on madness and anatomy and that. I have anatomized these animals, all of which are dear to me, in order that my writings and researches may lead other men to avoid sitting upon the throne of atra bilis, known in English as melancholy.

HIPPOCRATES
I know what atra bilis is mate, for I am Greek also. But what is to be done about the smell, broheim?

FADE TO WHITE.

Flash forward a couple of epochs. Two score centuries, give or take.

1631. An English scholar by the name of Robert Burton, writing under the questionable (and possibly not-so-serious) pseudonym ‘Democritus Junior’ incorporates his own version of Hippocrates’s anecdote into what would become his only published work, a dense medical text on melancholy. Burton was an obsessive re-writer of his own work, and no less than five revisions of the book were published in his lifetime alone.

The text is described in the beginning (by a possibly unreliable source) as “A book once the favourite of the learned and the witty”, “the delight of the learned, the solace of the indolent, and the refuge of the uninformed”, which sounds like something quite a lot of people here in the 21st century should be reading.

Samuel Johnson supposedly once said that Burton’s work “was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.”*

By all accounts, Burton was quite the pleasant chap. A voracious reader. A devoted student of the world with a dark sense of humour. “Very merry, facete, and juvenile”, “the pleasantest, the most learned, and the most full of sterling sense.”

Anyone who has the word ‘learned’ attached to him that many times must be worth a read, surely?

FADE TO WHITE.

Let’s crash through another few centuries:

EXT. WEST PENDER STREET, VANCOUVER, CANADA – DAY

Benjamin (scrucify, clumsy, introverted but undeniably sexually attractive kind of guy) walks through the rain clutching an umbrella. He is at a point exactly equidistant from a secondhand bookshop and a little café run by a woman from Shanghai who makes excellent eggs Benedict.

BENJAMIN (inner monologue)
I swear, after going book shopping in Vancouver, that I will never complain about the price of paperbacks in Beijing ever again! Perhaps I’ll go to the library and see if they have anything by Alan Moore or Iain Sinclair.

CUT TO:

I walk in to pick up a hold in the Vancouver Public Library.** The book is London: City of Disappearances, a sprawling multi-author fusion of fact and fiction about England’s swinging capital.

One of the book’s ‘characters’ is the enigmatic bookseller Driffield, who spends his time sipping jet black coffees, loafing about in salmon pink jumpers and gathering research for his self-published guides to All The Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain; he tries to make money by renting himself out to writers as a character in their fictional stories. On one of Driff’s many bookcases sits a 17th Century medical textbook, which is where I first become aware of Robert Burton’s 2000 page tome The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is; With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. I clearly file it away somewhere in my brain in case the world becomes so depressing that I’ll want to steal any part of the catchy title for a blog project.

Ironically, for a book that he wrote mostly to relieve his own melancholy, the textbook apparently increased Burton’s malady to such a degree that he never recovered.

A similar fate may well have befallen the by-now-at-least-semi-fictional Driffield. Nobody is even sure of his current whereabouts, although rumours of his death may have been started by the mysterious book dealer himself.

FADE TO WHITE.

Onwards, further into the future:

INT. ANLILU SUBWAY STATION, BEIJING, CHINA – DAY

I hop onto Line 15 one chilly December evening, chatting to an interesting fella who was with the circus for ten years, and is now – after a decade of juggling and death defying stunts – ready to run away to Medical School. He’s now clowning around as a drama teacher, waiting for his scholarship to come through, studying Chinese medicine in his spare time. This guy is already a veritable fount of knowledge after pretty much teaching himself anatomy and physiology. I’m telling him about the time I myself wanted to run away from the circus of my life and join BBC medical dramas. As he talks about nerve endings and skin cells, and I talk about that red-headed surgeon from Holby City, something in the back of my mind reminds me that I still haven’t read any Robert Burton.

CUT TO:

Several months later. After visiting a couple of art galleries, having distilled the story of my day into a 3000 word mess on art and Batman, I forget to put a paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into my rucksack. Dashing towards the subway as usual, I can’t bear the thought of a commute without a piece of literature, so I open my iBooks app and load up the Project Gutenberg version of The Anatomy of Melancholy.

By the time I have reached my destination, I’ve read nearly 50 pages. A few days later, as I write this, I have read nearly 200.

I’m only on chapter 2.

FADE OUT.


*Although he also stated that it was “perhaps, overloaded with quotation”, which I can now confirm is very much the fucking case! And so much Latin. Remember that anecdote about Walt Disney rejecting Aldous Huxley’s screenplay for Alice in Wonderland because he only understood every fourth word? Here uncle Walt would be clueless.

**In Canadian libraries, a book reservation is called a ‘hold’, presumably because the word ‘reservation’ was already in use for the awful stuff that the early settlers were doing to native Americans.

It May Be Easter Outside, But in My Heart it’s Spring

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“God bless those pagans.” – Homer Simpson


Smarter people than I have questioned the relevance of eating chocolate eggs to celebrate the fact that, as Douglas Adams puts it, “one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change”. Rumours abound that the eggs represent the tomb that the almighty was buried in for four days and that breaking them open represents him kicking down the door with his punctured feet.

Truth is, of course, that Easter (like all good Christian festivals) was just nicked from the pagans. Jakob Grimm (of those Grimms), once pointed out that the German word ‘ostar‘ (or, roughly, “moving towards the sun”) has a similar meaning to the Norse word ‘austr‘ and the Anglo-Saxon ‘eastor‘. The mother-goddess Ēostre was named after the Saxon word for springtime. Other gods and godesses from heathen societies, such as Ishtar (Assyrian goddess of fertility), Osiris (a.k.a. Ausar, Egyptian god of death and resurrection), and Ostara (Norse goddess of exactly the same thing as Ēostre) not only had suspiciously similar-sounding names but were also worshiped during springtime festivals. Sometimes Ēostre is written as ‘Eastre‘, so if you were a big fat genius you could almost crack this fiendishly difficult anagram and put together a theory about the ‘true’ meaning of Easter.

Somehow, this complex mess of cult and occult worship has lead to me hopping around a Chinese classroom like a bunny so that I can pay my rent.

Call me crazy, but is it almost as if all these Easter-inspiring gods were doing the same thing? Is it almost as if invading religions just bulldoze over the stuff that’s already there in the hope that eventually everyone will just forget where it came from?* Is it almost as if you don’t have to be the son of god to understand that ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ is cyclical and that being afraid to die makes no more sense than being afraid of never having been born in the first place?

Maybe there’s a reason that the author of Death is Not the End recently won the Nobel Prize.

As the sublime writer Joseph Campbell** told us, “Those who know, not only that the Everlasting lives in them but that what they, and all things, really are is the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish-fullfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen to the unheard music of eternal concord. These are the immortals.” That’s the sort of religious experience I could get behind.

The great character actor Harry Dean Stanton said that part of the reason he has worked with David Lynch more than any other director is because they have a similar outlook on so many things. “Except meditation,” he added. When asked if he believed in mediation at all, Stanton said “of course, but this is meditation. Everything is a meditation.” I’m with Harry Dean on this one. If you can’t take a moment to see the universe in the pavement cracks then you need to slow the fuck down. One of my rituals that I have when commuting (apart from trying to read a decent book with some dude’s rucksack wedged in my ribcage) is to sip a cup of takeaway coffee, quiet my thoughts and see what little ripples turn up in the pond.

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An American chap who studied anthropology once showed me an interesting phenomenon. He asked me which way time moved. I thought about it for a second and then drew a straight line in the air. Delighted, he then called my girlfriend over and asked her the same question. She drew a circle in the air. We repeated this experiment with other Westerners and other Chinese people, and exactly the same thing happened each time.

Scientific studies on the influence of ‘culture’ have shown similar results. In one experiment, children were shown a photograph of a tiger in the jungle. Researchers found not only that Eastern and Western people think differently, but that their eye movements indicate that they even focus on different aspects of the same picture: Westerners focusing on the tiger (or ‘content’), East Asians on the jungle (or ‘context’). Interestingly, researchers found that ‘bicultural’ people, raised in two different social systems, can be primed to respond in different ways, indicating that this sort of thinking and behavior is flexible.

My girlfriend says that one reason she doesn’t like a lot of American films (apart from the bleeding obvious) is that they often focus too much on a single character (mostly because Hollywood is great at misunderstanding Joseph Campbell!) In contrast, the four ‘great novels’ of Chinese literature are all named after places.***

Is the difference between ‘a tiger’ and ‘a tiger in the jungle’ so abstract that there’s no right or wrong way of describing it, or should we indeed be nailing people to things because they think time moves differently or because their silly god has a slightly different name and a hat that looks like a massive clitoris?

Yes I am looking at you, Osiris.

I don’t have the answer, but I know that a wise dead guy once told us we should look for the truth, and that the truth shall set us free.


*Perhaps there is even truth in the old superstition that gods and wizards and other Tolkienesque characters simply evaporate if no one is left to believe in them.

**(who once dropkicked a nun in the face by admitting that he believed Jesus was the son of god, but ‘only if we all are’)

***Journey to the West, The Water Margin, Dream of the Red Chamber, The Three Kingdoms. As opposed to, say, Batman, The Graduate, The Hobbit (etc.)

Chungking Express

 

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“Junk boats and English boys
Crashing out in super marts”
– The Gorillaz


As the landing gear came down, the theme tune to Enter The Dragon was in my head. The flight was turbulent, the meal was rubbery and – at the very point when I was expecting to descend – the pilot swung out across the ocean and begged the question “so are we off to Thailand then?” before he eventually did everyone the courtesy of actually landing the plane.

The bags arrived 40 minutes after the plane did, but I still made the very last metro all the way to the hotel (which is not the place to stay if you ever want to swing a cat).

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But, hey. Who am I to complain?

The Cantonese translates as ‘Fragrant Harbour’. The Mandarin, slightly more prosaically, as ‘Smells Good Bay’. To us Westerners, it’s Hong Kong. Beijing was never somewhere I dreamed of visiting (much less living), but this always was (second only to New York on the list of places that I only believe in because I have actually seen them). Like that other fairytale city, HK is my kind of place.

Tacky, scruffy, eccentric, formerly British. If the Kong were a person, it would probably be me. There are shades of the Imperial past here, but it also feels like the model for Beijing in the future: somehow multicultural/globalized/capitalist and yet still Chinese as fuck. Maybe the sun never set on the Empire after all. Indian food, African music, American toilets, British manners; they’re all here. You can’t cross the street without being offered a watch, a three piece suit or hashish. People even queue here. A Beijinger in a queue is like a hen with testicles.

I woke myself up this morning with a strong glass of coffee and a quick scan of Facebook and Twitter (which have become novelties these days). I breakfasted, like the middle class wanker I aspire to be, at a Starbucks overlooking my first port of call: Chungking Mansions, star of arguably the greatest of HK movies.* The ‘mansion’ is a horseshoe-shaped hellhole of pawn shops, guest houses, eateries and other rip-off merchants. I loved it!

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I then did what I always do, set off on a walk with absolutely no plan whatsoever. I wandered some of the other arcades and visited the Garden of Stars, where I discovered I have the dainty hands of Brigitte Lin.

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I took a single poorly framed photograph of the Peninsula hotel, headquarters of the invading Japanese army in 1941.

I strolled along the seafront of West Kowloon, watching women do yoga on the beach and men fishing in the harbour (my eyes lingered on the yoga a little more than the fishing, let’s be honest). Then along Temple street, home of cheap DVDs and blatant prostitution.

All this before lunchtime. I had lamb tikka masala and then sampled something that I hope will reach Beijing sooner rather than later: buy-one-get-one-free Japanese lager.

A long weekend is not enough time to get to know this place, but the first impression is that it mixes most of the things I like about China and Britain and has filtered out a lot of the stuff that I don’t. It’s cleaner than Beijing. More cosmopolitan. More comfortable.

But, at this point, I wouldnt go so far as to say that it’s more interesting.


*If you have never seen Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, I urge you to do yourself a favour.

Bombed into the Stone Age (a.k.a. ‘Another Apocalypse Now Reference’)

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“In the world I see, you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Centre. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty carpool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”

-Tyler Durden, Fight Club


In a weird little subterranean corridor of Beijing, tucked between a subway station and a shopping mall, is the Wangfujing Paleolithic Museum. It’s the sort of place that an estate agent would describe as ‘cosy’ or ‘intimate,’* but interesting and professional enough to justify the ¥10 entry fee.

When I was a kid I wanted to be an archaeologist. This ambition lasted until a living, breathing archaeologist came to visit our school and told us that she spent 80% of her time studying. Fuck that noise, I thought.

A friend of mine actually studied archaeology at university, and told me that the first thing her sleep-inducing professor had said to everyone was “if you think this course will turn you into Indiana Jones, there’s the door!” Had I been there, I would have instantly leapt through it, returning at the last possible second to grab my fedora.

I may not have the patience to be an archaeologist or paleontologist or even one of those rogue Egyptologists who turns up on the History Channel talking about pineal glands and alien helicopters, but I’ve always had a passing interest in human history. How and where we live (and have lived) is something that fascinates the hell out of me.

I even sat through the film version of Assassin’s Creed recently just to watch Fassbender get medieval on everybody’s ass. Alas, half the film was in Spanish, and what little of the language I’ve picked up from Breed 77 albums stretched about as far as sangre, fuego, and listening to the gf’s whispered translation of the Chinese subtitles:
“He is to be, how you say, washed in the…”
“Fire! Purified by fuego!”
“Maybe.”

When I returned to England from Canada as a kid, I started studying British history at school for the first time. With a rich tapestry that included Viking invasion, Roman occupation, the battle of Agincourt, the battle of Rourkes Drift, and probably a few events that didn’t involve violence and bloodshed, I was so disappointed to end up learning about what is literally the most boring historical period imaginable: the 17th and 18th century agricultural revolution. I’m barely exaggerating when I say I’d rather go water boarding in Guantanamo Bay with my balls wired to electrodes than hear about selective breeding, four course crop rotation or Jethro Tull and that fucking seed drill of his.**

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China is something of a Mecca not only for those who want cheap trainers, but for archaeologists and paleontologists too. When the New Oriental Plaza mall was being constructed in 1996, the workers hit historical pay dirt by discovering nearly 2,000 bone fragments and primitive tools. The resultant underground museum has done a sterling job of preserving the find and telling the story of early humankind, including some stunning CGI visuals that put you right in the heart of the Stone Age.

I would argue, and have argued, that there are two historical events where the human race really (and I mean really, seriously, heinously) fucked up. If you are thinking it’s Brexit and Trump then sit down, son, you have not been paying attention.

One of them was the Industrial Revolution, which I will inevitably bitch about in a future entry that I’ll loosely link to life in Beijing. Long before that, though… way way back in the early chapters of pre-history, there was this faulty O ring that blew our species up on the launchpad something like 12, 500 years ago. The Neolithic Revolution (or the original agricultural revolution; the more interesting one) was when most humans shifted from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence to a more sedentary, agricultural-based society.

If you ever watch anthropology documentaries about some middle class, military brat type in chinos who goes to stay with headhunters or other tribal peoples for a week, they usually spend a lot of time sitting around a campfire eating meat and laughing with the locals. Telling jokes and stories is an important part of your day when you haven’t got much to do (trust me on this). The morning is for hunting, the afternoon is for eating, the evening for telling campfire stories, and the night for worrying about your children being snatched by a leopard.

The Neolithic Revolution fucked all this up for most people. Staying in one place meant a denser population*** as well as a surplus of food, but the menu shrank considerably. A side effect of putting a stake in the ground and penning yourself in with your plants and pets and livestock is that your available sources of food instantly narrow. If you become a sheep farmer then your staple food is lamb or mutton, if you become a turnip farmer, then your staple food is turnips. The combination of restricted food and sudden backbreaking labour led to a downturn in nutrition. Archaeological evidence indicates that people’s teeth very quickly began rotting and their growth became stunted (it supposedly took until the 20th century for the human race to return to a pre-Neolithic Revolution average height. That’s a long time spent as shortarses!) Another side effect was absolutely rampant disease. Poor nutrition leads to a poor immune system, and poor sanitation leads to an awful lot of people rooting around in each other’s effluent.

It wasn’t all bad. This period gave rise to some pretty cool things like architecture, mathematics and, I imagine, that cliché about not shitting where you eat. But it also gave rise to human hierarchy and, therefore, wealth inequality for probably the first time.

Whenever I get homesick for England (which is less often than last time, especially because I’ve been back there since) it is for a chat about pumpkins with a pipe-smoking Bilbo Baggins or a bawdry chat down the pub with Friar Tuck. It is, in other words for a place and time that doesn’t actually exist (and, if it ever did, would almost certainly have smelled of rancid feces).

The perception that I’m some kind of cantankerous armchair anarchist who thinks the wheels of industry should screech to a halt while I start pulling back my bowstring and taking aim is understandable, but the distant past or the post-industrial future are not where I actually want to spend my time. Living in the past is for people who listen to Jethro Tull. The present is exactly where I belong. And there is nothing wrong with staying in one place (even if it does make one’s feet itchy) a long as it’s the right place for you.


*(or what those who aren’t selling anything and don’t have a thesaurus would call ‘very small’)

**(To this very day, whenever I see anyone wearing a Jethro Tull t-shirt I want to leap forward and punch them in the flabby jowls, and not just because they have a shite taste in music).

***(kids of different ages can be raised at the same time when you don’t have to carry them around hunting, right?)

The Hitchhikers Guide to Reality

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“Curiouser and curiouser”


I was sitting in a café here in ‘the Stan’, chatting to my arty friend about the circumstances that have led us to Brexit, the Trump presidency and other instances of weird and stupid shit that doesn’t seem to be making the world a better place.

It’s nice, having recently written about games and people’s distraction with them, to see world events like the women’s marches and other instances of people standing up and being counted, as if they suddenly are more interested in the world around them than the ones they’ve been building in Second Life or The Sims.

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Before leaving China I was, with some trepidation, having a chat about the country’s lack of protests (the very famous exception from the late 80s not exactly being a popular topic of conversation there). One young Chinese woman was telling me about her visit to Spain where she was talking to an activist who asked her to spread the word in her home country. “Of course,” she said, only to be handed a pile of anti-Chinese-government flyers which she immediately chucked in the bin.

In the café I discussed the seemingly mad but somehow believable conspiracy theory that the Large Hadron Collider has tripped us into some hellish alternative Alice in Wonderland dimension that was foretold in an episode of the Simpsons!* We talked about quantum field theory, non-violent resistance and six more impossible things before breakfast, chatting so much ‘pub physics’ that we probably looked like a Monty Python sketch.

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As Winston Churchill says, “Men ** occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” To me, the thought of a young Chinese person fearfully tossing the truth in the bin is sad, but understandable given the cultural context. But the thought of a young American person doing the same, at a time when facts have become meaningless in the face of half-witted debate, where American journalists are arrested and detained just for doing their job, is nothing short of a tragedy.

I could personally give some credence to the theory that we’ve shifted into some bonkers new dimension; that our reality is just another virtual reality; even that our universe is housed in the equivalent of some kind of really powerful PlayStation. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t treat our games very seriously indeed.


*I haven’t seen the episode in question but it sounds like that show, like 70s Doctor Who, got really good at predicting weird crap.

**[and women, natch]