Balls, The Womb and Mexico City 1 |
“Esto es un lugar muy peligroso,” says our driver,self appointed minister for tourism, as he pulls his cab away from the Terminal del Norte bus station, making a left toward Mexico City, or irrevocable change as I like to call it, the flat city, the largest land mass of people of any one city in the world city. “This is a very dangerous place,” he adds redundantly.
It is nighttime. Black and white time, with hues of grey. The three hour bus journey from Veracruz had been plagued by homosexuals contemplating the ring tones of their mobile phones, and a strange, disjointed conversation between the three of us concerning female anatomy and whether one should focus on the camel toe in public.
CALEB: “It’s a wonderful invention.”
ME: “What’s that? The television?”
CALEB: “No, the laughing Danny.”
BEN: “He had a machine in the back of his house that would rattle loudly in the middle of the night.”
ME: “Is it camel toe or camel foot?”
BEN: “It’s a dehumidifier.”
And so on, to the accompaniment of polyphonic bursts of the Village People performing YMCA.
Our introduction to Mexico City is a commentary from the taxi driver on life having no value, as well as good advice on all the “places to go for a murder and a mugging.” Life has no value, life has no value, he repeats in the mannered way a lunatic will attempt to qualify his sanity. Life has no value life has no value but our purpose is to reach the Hotel del Angel in the busy social area of the city known as Zona Rosa, the “pink zone,” pink representing gayness of the safe kind and the colour of many of its buildings. This is our destination, but our driver instead takes us ten blocks north of the Zocalo to a dead land known as Tepito.
If La Santa Muerte had a holy land, Tepito would be its bruised and bloody shame. Ben, who has visited seventy two countries, has never seen anything like it. Not even in Rio de Janeiro, he says.
This puts Ben in mind of Rio de Janeiro and the curiously agitated cop who stopped him there two years earlier for a routine search, a strange affair that comprised nothing more than Ben having to take off his shoes and socks and place his feet in the lap of the noble officer for a ten minute shakedown of the toes.
“He was clearly getting his jollies,” Ben recalls of the cop with a big 10-4.
But Tepito is not jolly, it is a wasteland exhibiting the kipple of a burned out planet with bleak streets that converge for an 8PM curfew on the vecinclades, the temporary shelters that spilled over and became permanent homes with rent fixed at one cent a month. The economy of Tepito has grown and collapsed with black market trade, a seismic shift that has had a more devastating impact on the cultural landscape than the earthquake that tore through it two decades ago.
Economy now of course is drugs and some of the vecinclades are replaced with apartment blocks whose rotten cramped dwellings with paper thin walls breed psychotic neighbours with howling dogs. The authority in Mexico City conveniently ignores Tepito, as it ignores the trash that is piled knee high beneath the extinguished street lamps. The only illumination is the timorous beam of our dipped headlamps as they bore a lonesome path.
Ten murders a day in Tepito and a police force not willing to respond to a single one of them, not since the riots in November 2000 when the police where forced out of the neighbourhood by a mob refusing to let them haul away the stolen electrical goods and handguns that had been confiscated that morning.
And then — el conductor del taxi está loco — the driver stops the car.
He cab driver sweeps his hands as if to signal that we have arrived and have to get out. This isn’t what we expected of Zona Rosa, the safe, predominantly gay inner sanctum of Mexico City where our hotel is located. We don’t believe that this is Zona Rosa at all. In fact we know it isn’t but get out anyway when the driver produces a gun, surveying the scene with its black barrel.
My only desire is to see lucha libre, a Mexican wrestling match, you cunt. How do you say “you cunt?”
There is no protest song, no choice but to give it up, to leave the horses and continue the climb on foot. Making no sudden moves the three of us are out of the old Chrysler Le Baron and out on the streets of dread, where not a true soul can be seen but maleficent threat hangs in the air, a fetid fog. In 1945 this barrio was marked as one of the worst places to live in Mexico, and if there has been any improvement since we are going to have to get on our knees and claw beneath the shit with our fingers to find it.
“Have a good life, my friend,” says Cal as the cab pulls away with our 700 pesos tip. Quick-draw McGraw is travelling so slowly through the rubbish it would be easy to wade through it and reach the vehicle and question him about Tepito and whether it has seen change for the better over the years. Perhaps even indulge in a little chaos and violence, if we were foolish and so inclined.
The first rule of travel is to travel with purpose in one’s stride. Striding with purpose is how we had travelled through the Terminal del Norte bus station, a bleak place but not as bleak as Tepito, arriving purposefully at the glass front of the desk that dealt with the sitios taxis, the legitimate taxis.
The desk was empty and remained empty, causing a queue of people requiring transportation to form that signalled to the wolves on the periphery that fresh tourist meat was about. We wanted not to be around when any strays from the pack got gobbled up and so sought an alternative route.
Andres at the Bartola in Veracruz had warned us to be careful in Mexico City and the Internet said always take the right kind of cab. The tail lights disappearing into the night ahead of us this minute belong to one of the wrong cabs, a Chrysler Le Baron with beat up paint work that we skipped the queue at Terminal del Norte to find outside on the street.
I am wishing I had a leather-coated mind when considering safety in numbers is merely an illusion. This isn’t happening. Where the night breathes the precise sound one would expect of a Third World sprawl that spans one hundred and twenty blocks, up and down the streets only debris. Above us a terrible sky this isn’t happening.
“Well, I’m safe,” I suddenly decide of our predicament. “I have the heart of Santa Muerte on my chest.”
Sure enough that heart is now also bleeding, having been cut into my flesh only this morning. Itching and bitching, too, Luis and Andersson. Itching like a bitch.
We begin to walk with purpose towards the first exit we can find, luggage on our shoulders, the Tepito death rattle vibrating in our souls. Only true delinquents accept a life here, everyone has a gun and anyone who doesn’t have a gun performs their hold ups with a rabid pit bull on a short leash. Cal is a betting man: he wagers that we don’t make it out alive, but he is proven wrong and we do make it and Cal loses the wager, what comes next in Tepito is the strangest sight we will ever see.
Through streets that police and even whores will not tread, in and out of shadow a young woman sweeps lightly towards us holding a baby to her chest. She has been transposed through this time from another, of this we are certain. She moves in a flowered blouse unaware that she has faded from her beautiful place and arrived in this one.
Our paths touch fleetingly.
“¿Está bien usted, el fallo?” asks Ben. “Are you okay, Miss?”
“Un pequeño animal que encoge sus hombros muy muy lejos un más grande uno uno uno,” she says without stopping, not smiling and not sad and not making sense, simply moving toward the dangerous epicentre of the dangerous city from whence we came.
“A small animal shrinking its shoulders very far away a larger one one one.”
From nowhere to nothing, alone with the infant she clutches tightly she is gone in a moment, into the maze of tragic housing, her words trailing behind her. In search of meaning, in search of space, in search of place, who knows? If we could stop her and tell her to go back we would. Not unlike Elvis down at the end of Lonely Street however, it is too late for that. Not that way, Miss. That way is only heartbreak and misery, keep away from it. Come with us.
And when we make it to the other side of Tepito we are alive, find the exit and beyond that is Zona Rosa and the Hotel del Angel.
Nothing can hurt us now. Nothing can hurt us anymore.
And so begins our ascension.
At 4:54AM Cal paints a picture of the events surrounding his balls, but first the staff in the hotels of hate and lucha libre.
A passport is not a requirement when checking into a hotel in Mexico, so if one ever commits a murder, Mexico is the logical place to run to and hide. We contemplate friends that may benefit from brutality back home and then dismiss the idea on the realisation that nobody running the hotels in Mexico likes us very much, and would gladly give us up to the police. In Mexico City the people running the hotels detest us with a passion. Here in the flat city, we aren’t able to leave our room without the electronic key code being changed to prevent our re-entry, which more often than not results in harsh words and gestures. It happens so often during our two days at Hotel del Angel that we are forced to arraign the receptionist at every available opportunity. It really isn’t worth our time to take the elevator to the second floor to check the state of the door to our room because the door to our room will be locked. The night watch receptionist, so stoned he literally doesn’t know what day it is and cannot remember how to find out, suffers the worse of our indignation when we return from the VIP gentleman’s club early one Saturday morning.
“By Cal’s crushed balls, you’ve changed the lock again!” we yell at him the instant he buzzes us through the entrance.
We flip the plastic credit card size key onto the desk with a flourish that suggests we come from Tepito but we do not belong there. A bounce takes the key into the air and as it descends so collapses the rapport we have been systematically destroying with the Hotel del Angel. The receptionist goes insane and curses blind that we should have died in that taxi and furthermore our mothers enjoy sexual pleasures from rabbi dogs, a hostility symptomatic of the hostility we encounter from Mexican hoteliers in general, hating us not because of who we are but who we are not. We are not you, we appear to be saying to them, we gringos are the opposite of your hard working selves with the money to prove it and you would like to be us.
We are gringos, if a little less gringo than the American gringos, who belong to a genus as removed from us as it is from Mexicans, but we are gringos all the same.
We decide to celebrate this new understanding with cigars from Cuba.
Down a road that takes us in the vague direction of Arena Coliseo where lucha libre — the wrestling — can be found on any given Sunday we come across a man with Cuban cigars. In a bright yellow “athletica” t-shirt but looking like the one least likely to succeed he pulls back his lips for a grin of big gums when Cal shows an interest in his wares. Ben wades in immediately, able to smell blood, and starts to haggle over the established price of five cigars for US$30. Ben will haggle over the wind and the rain and anything because he hates to feel as though he is being ripped off, which he claims is what everyone is about when it comes to money, his or ours. He can’t help himself, something to do with three years in law school and a voracious appetite for fat sex. Snatching pennies from the smashed souls of paupers is a disposition of the inhuman, we tell him. But still it gives us pleasure to watch Ben at work, so effortlessly does he do the snatching.
The haggling has been going on for fifteen minutes.
CIGAR SALESMAN: “Hangover. Hangover. My head hurt.”
BEN: “Really? That’s why it’d be better if we gave you twelve dollars; that way you could go home and buy a cure for your hangover.”
CIGAR SALESMAN: “I tol’ you. I no want to rip you.”
BEN: “You do! That’s your main aim!”
MR CALEB: “We’re Puma fans as well. We’re Puma fans.”
CIGAR SALESMAN: “I tol’ you, I tol’ you—“
BEN: “If you sell us this for twelve dollars the Pumas will win on Saturday.”
CIGAR SALESMAN: “Let’s make a deal: twenty three.”
BEN: “Twenty three? Twenty three! Is that how you treat all your friends?”
And so it goes until the cigar man with gums wants no more a part of it and gives to
Cal a box of five Cuban cigars in exchange for a quart of tequila and a ten dollar bill.
Six girls we later meet in a club called Cortesia tell us they cannot understand why we should want to go to see lucha libre. To them lucha libre is something of an embarrassment and they cannot understand. Big men in face masks throwing one another around is a thing of a generation past, it is old Mexico from which they are distanced, being modern people with internet access. Lucha libre has yet to reach a state where it stops being what it is and becomes what it is to understand irony.
Inside the Arena Coliseo it is a capacity crowd and the excitement is mounting. We have good seats, we have good seats four rows from the front in the stalls, next to a young mother with a three month old infant on the one side of us and on the other side a girl of eighteen, but probably twelve, about whom I should say no more advises Ben.
Given the cheers, rattles and air horns all around, it is a relief that the delicate ears of the infant are protected by delicate infant ear plugs, which we would have noticed sooner had we not been held up by police.
The police found us easily in the market square, three gringos bothering fish selling tradesmen for directions to the Arena Coliseo, and they made a great pantomime of checking our papers, as if to show to the world that everything in Mexico City was under control now that they were checking our papers.
“Nobody laugh. Or run,” Ben whispered as the police signalled stop with a leisurely left hand and beckoned us over.
He meant it. These cops were young and moved effortlessly through people that feared and hated them, their mirror shades representative of the worse kind of hate filled eyes.
They carried enough weaponry to immobilise a tank in a military coup and it did not bring us joy to have our passports looked upon as if guilt was waiting to be found therein.
Your papers are in order, the cops said with a simple nod of the head. Now go.
Balls, The Womb and Mexico City 2 |
The centre of town in Mexico City doesn’t serve the visitor much beyond a litany of woes around the next corner. There is no Louvre, no Pantheon, no changing of the guard, the landmarks of famous cities around the world, only fish stalls with a police force marching through them primed ready to split a skull or two.
And around the next corner is the Calle de Peru, where stands the Arena Coliseo. It is not a proud street, it was probably once a functional street but nowadays it isn’t even that, and the only traffic through it is the traffic of a wrestling day.
We find a place to eat on Calle de Peru, a cantina built around a big iron simmering pot containing mole (pronounced moh-lay; a type of sauce not the cuddly myopic), with an entrance that is a crude hole knocked into the wall that faces the street. Overhead the hole is a crucifix that has undergone many repairs, with Polyfilla enough to kill a man should the crucifix fall.
Inside the cantina are eight tables, and at the far end a kitchen where three generations of woman prepare rice and beans. The women look up when we enter but the diners do not. The diners are wary of us and even stop talking amongst themselves so that they may concentrate better on their food and ignore us altogether. The only acknowledgement of our presence comes from a young man with a vicious swollen eye, who draws his woman closer to him, as if to say “she’s mine” and thus prevent her flight in the company of strangers. He wears dirty white clothes to the woman’s black, which serve to accentuate his manhood once his legs part for our benefit and the slouch into machismo gets underway. A dirty manhood is not what we want when we eat but because there are no other places to eat on the Calle de Peru, we have little choice but suffer the indignity and fear of prolonged periods in Mexican toilets.
There is no menu to speak of. The man tending the “tables” brings to us three helpings of mole, followed by rice and beans. We don’t have any choice. The water in a colourful plastic pitcher we avoid.
“No somos gringos Americanos,” we feel obligated to tell the man waiting “tables.” “We are not American gringos.”
Through the hole in the wall beyond the crucifix a community is building on the street in anticipation of the wrestling. Families make their way to the Coliseo box office, bypassing the scalpers that claim to have bought up all the tickets, to a window covered by a steel grille. Here, cash and tickets are exchanged through a slot not big enough for anything larger to pass.
The seats in the Arena Coliseo are hard pressed plastic, but not as hard as the Mexico City cops that won’t go to Tepito. Unlike us. And our hard asses.
CONSEJO MUNDIAL CMLL DE LUCHA LIBRE, reads the sign over the arena.
Stored in buckets of ice and brought to one’s seat by fellows wearing white lab coats, cerveza poured from a bottle into a paper cup costs 2 pesos. Water costs 1.50 a cup, which would explain why nobody at the wrestling is drinking the water except for Caleb, who is beginning to feel a little weird after three solid days of alcohol without sleep and a jet lag that he says is “catching up.” He denies the Valium is anything to do with it. Vehemently.
“Don’t fall asleep here,” I tell Cal, whose jetlag he hopes is hidden behind his sunglasses. “You’ll get us lynched.”
The canvas ring holds court even when empty and a packed house bay, yell and stamp their feet in its direction. The house is here to witness Ultimo Guerrero, Black Warrior, Hombre Sin Nombre, Alex Koslov, Sangre Azteca and all the other mighty warriors pound a head or two in the afternoon. But most of all they are here to witness Místico. Up in the cheaper seats a wire mesh protects heads below from the detritus hurled at it, mainly body parts and spicy potato wedges from the street vendors, who smell heavily of sweat and carbolic soap, as corrupting on the nostrils as sulphur.
The Sunday match starts early at the Coliseo, a more intimate and informal arena than the Mexico arena, which is across town near to the Balderas metro. We buy mascara — masks — and other wrestling paraphernalia in anticipation of the afternoon’s entertainment.
The woman’s name is Karen Gonzalez Cruz and the man hanging onto her with a vicious swollen eye is American Mike.
American Mike cannot speak much Spanish and so the two of them communicate through impassioned glances that are as sickening a display as Mike’s manhood. Thus we exit the cantina for a street suddenly much more inviting than when we left it, leaving with Mike an offer that the lovers should come and party in our hotel room.
American Mike says by way of a reply: “You’ve got to deal with all the problems.”
“I’ll think about what that means in the next life,” Cal fires back.
It’s a bad sound going down but we have got American Mike all wrong, and what we perceive as balls is actually a cry for help, as we shall find out soon enough.
This is a particularly good day for the fans and families who suspend all disbelief and worship each Sunday at temple lucha libre. The formidable Místico is headlining, the people’s champion.
Místico was born and raised in Tepito, like Luis “Kid Azteca” Villanueva, José “Huitlacoche” Medel and a generation of tough fighters before him. He started his career at age fifteen, wrestling under the name of Astro Boy and winning. From underdog to the largest drawing wrestler in the world and the biggest star of all of Mexico, Astro Boy turned to religion and changed his name to Místico and wrestles this very day in Arena Coliseo with a new jewel to his crown: Best Flying Wrestler of 2006.
When they say “flying” they do mean flying and not jumping. Místico’s aerial based offence is something to behold, a lesson in what happens to a man weighing 167lbs when he leaves the force of gravity under a silver face mask.
A Top-Rope Rocker Dropper.
Bout after bout, down the aisle come the tag teams to the sing-song announcer whose shoulders are arched beneath a garish tweed jacket, and who says formidable at every opportunity. Everything is “formidable” in lucha libre.
The fighters bounce down the aisle in order to throw themselves majestically into the ring. These leaps into the ring are almost as spectacular as the flips out again when Místico or Heavy Metal or La Mascara take the upper hand with a plancha move, a flying cross body press, and send one of their opponents clear out across the ropes. These fuckers are fucking big and spectators scatter ring side when projectiles the size of a small village hurtle their way and smash apart seats upon impact.
Occasionally the grappling continues outside the ring, which is technically illegal and gets the audience even more fired up than they already are. Little wonder that sometimes the fighters sustain genuine injury, and some of them, covered in blood and shame, are left no option but to quit and hobble unceremoniously out of the stadium. When a wrestler leaves this way there is no cheer or applause, no show of appreciation from the crowd. It is as if the wrestler was never really there in the first place, because injuries are for mortals. These fuckers are balletic pugilistic pantomime artists, far greater and more colourful than life beyond the Coliseo, and they are duty bound to carry on their big hulking shoulders the ideation of a thousand people or more. When they fail we mortals must die a little.
The female tag team don’t have anywhere near the same hulk to their shoulders, and as a consequence command less respect than the male wrestlers. When the female wrestlers arrive it is to a chorus of “putan!” from the women in the audience. “Prostitute!”
Dark Angel is the favourite putan. She fights alongside Lady Apache and Princesa Blanca, locking necks between powerful legs and making Princesa Sujei or Hiroka or Rosa Negra slam a hand into the canvas in defeat.
For the “formidable” final bout, which stars Místico — everyone’s favourite — a dwarf wrestler dressed in a monkey suit and a blue afro wig beneath gladiatorial armour joins in purely to be gently hurled around the ring and generate lots of laughs. It’s an unbelievable sight, not dissimilar a sight to that of Maximo, who generated uproarious laughter in an earlier bout when he minced about the ring in a very short tunic in a farcical caricature of camp. When I nudge Cal awake and he sees the monkey he knows he’s dreaming.
Whenever Místico raises a fist or lands a pile driving blow, some of the women in the audience cannot contain themselves. The woman in the front row blocks the view of men suddenly timorous in the company of other people’s glances when she jumps out of her seat with great excitement and hollers, “MÍSTICO!” Which goes on up until the moment Místico loses and everybody in the arena turns to one of the several exits and leaves: The grown ups with their children, the children with their friends and their photographs signed by Dark Angel and the other wrestlers for a few cents. Místico loses. There is no discussion of events, no match analysis, no sound at all but the mental echo of what is, I suppose, a cold hard slap to the face of this week’s dreams.
The beer vendor that owes me 10 pesos from an hour ago dutifully returns my change and then it’s out through the turnstile, where a battered bus takes away everyone not leaving the Calle de Peru on foot.
Balls, The Womb and Mexico City 3 |
We decide to crush the anguish of Místico’s defeat with Cal’s new cigars and alcohol. Because of a fruitless stroll through Zona Rosa, however, a predominantly gay area of Mexico City that offers no bars we want to visit, packed only with people we do not want to meet, despondency falls like a rain to make us feel even worse. To accompany our despondency is a tout on every corner peddling the promise of “the best club in Mexico.” “El major club en Mejico.” I tell one tout to dejame en paz! and push him to a wall when he grabs my arm and attempts to draw me to a red door. He slides quickly away, troubled by my reaction. As indeed I am myself.
Nothing can hurt us now. Rise.
We haven’t gone far down the road when a man who I shall call Knuckles starts to cough and follows us around like a lost puppy dog until there is nothing left for it but the VIP gentleman’s club he tirelessly recommends. The nature of the club involves the presence of beautiful ladies, but that’s about the only constant in a description he shapes like putty to better take our fancy. If we don’t like it, he says, we can leave. Which, of course, is rubbish.
Naturally, the VIP gentleman’s club isn’t at all as he described but exactly what we expected. That is, a place of men of good standing beaming like juveniles in the company of young ladies. It has all the sex appeal of an executive luncheon, where the thrill of flesh for top price drinks is the trade, and people wearing nail polish and neckties have replaced the grease stained plebs of the factory floor.
Our eyes are still adjusting to the gloom of blue strip lighting in the stairway by the time Knuckles has whisked us upstairs into the club. Here the guides of the inner circle take over and lead us to the tables. To the tables. What we see as we approach the tables, when our eyes catch up and the room unfolds, are a pole dancer whose enthusiasm has yet to arrive and white feathers and bare midriffs. We are almost ensconced at the tables, the tables that breed idiot men with gold charge cards in female company, when we come to our senses and snap free of the silk cogs of well oiled motion to take our leave. This isn’t for us. What we want are Místico and Dark Angel victorious.
The ranks of the inner circle are alerted to our premature departure in an instant and tighten around us like a noose to thwart our passage down the blue strip stairway. Men in suits and ladies without many clothes are an obstacle to our exit, and fire at us telekinetic mind bolts warning that money in the VIP can but travel one way, and that way is not out. Not out, not now. Get yourselves back to the tables, they are saying, or the beautiful woman shall become the bad woman, mala mujer, and you shall feel her wrath.
But the circle doesn’t anticipate such resistance, such brute determination and sheer velocity, and the ranks crumble beneath our unwavering flight out.
“Get out of our way, man,” our battle cry. “We really mean it!”
Our exit from the club is unceremonious: We tumble from it onto the pink streets of the Zona Rosa in a heap. But some kind of dignity remains intact and with that we are happy.
“Beautiful,” says one guy in English. “Hermoso,” he translates for the Spanish fluff on his arm. I don’t know what exactly might be beautiful, whether it’s me or the streets or the state in which we arrive on the streets but I thank him all the same, and he smiles jubilantly before pointing us in the direction of Cortesia, a place we can go for a drink and where the missing things start for Caleb.
From the deep void beyond our galaxy down the road we travel, past La Cantina de los Remedios, where no waiter cracks a smile and a sign on the wall advises parents not to let their children play with their guns. Wherever music is played people will dance in Mexico, and music plays and people dance at La Cantina de los Remedios, next to their table as they wait between courses. Further on we encounter for the first time Professor Soledad, an elderly black dude in a flat cap dressed for a Dalston winter trying to get himself arrested by a dozen armed police officers. The cops are perplexed by his English demand, “Arrest me now! Arrest me now!” But when they move in I am compelled to try and help him out. So I take hold of Professor Soledad’s arm and tell him our bus is coming, which is an anagram for stop digging for yourself a hole because you got moved on for pissing in the street. The cops brush me away with the flip of a back hand, the way one might throw a fly from a sugar bowl. That’s all the warning I need from mean cops and I walk away, knowing instinctively that our path will cross again the Professor.
From the deep void beyond our galaxy down the road is a house that has been converted into a club called Cortesia, where upstairs a DJ plays drum and bass, and downstairs another DJ plays the most unrelenting techno imaginable, as far removed from drum and bass as can be. Drum and bass is music that appeals to mathematicians and computer programmers, who admire the engineering of low frequency bass response that doesn’t distort the sound around it, whilst analysing it in binary. I have a broken conversation about this with hairdressers, who go on to regard my name with interest and recount to me the story of a musical group also named Kerekes that had a hit with a song they sang in Polish.
“Any funny stories about Selah?” Caleb Selah asks the hairdressers before hitting the dance floor with a slurred stagger.
Because I don’t much like the music they play in the Cortesia I spend the evening up and down the stairs with a succession of large whiskeys, until I find my spot in a corner. It’s a short lived reverie, shattered when Caleb crashes into the room clutching his balls and searching for space.
He ploughs through a group of people seated on the floor and howls: “Jesus Christ! I need to lie down! I need to lie down!”
Cal’s howling is ineffective against the pounding music, and so — a curious sight — he flails his arms in a tight circle that drives everyone back several paces and falls to the floor in the space this provides.
“Some bird just crushed my nuts!”
“Why’d she do that?” I ask.
“I’ve got no fucking idea!”
As Cal paints a picture of the events surrounding the cruel and harsh treatment of his balls, I recall the curiously tall hairdresser he speaks of, the one with the long fingers and a predilection for gay guys on the dance floor. Maybe therein lies the explanation, I say to Cal, who will have none of it. Maybe it was a gay thing, or a straight thing, or maybe twisting a stranger’s balls till his eyes bleed is a form of courtship in these parts. The very thought of those long fingers makes me uncomfortable. They may find us yet, even here in the corner.
Later Cal discovers that his phone is missing, so maybe his balls were nothing but a distraction for hairdressing pickpockets. Two sore balls and no phone.
The following day, American Mike turns up at the Hotel del Angel in clean clothes and black eye. But he is alone, and not much of a party comes out of it.
American Mike is one of a group of young architects from around the world visiting Mexico City, and not American at all but Polish. Now he is jittery because he is in love and hoping to arrange a romantic candlelit evening with Karen Gonzalez Cruz, the girl who is beautiful, perfect, and sends him crazy with desire, whom he fears may fly away. He needs our help because American Mike is in love and knows only one inappropriate Spanish phrase and so cannot produce a sentence to arrange much of anything at all.
“Did this woman crush your balls by any chance?” I ask. But Mike looks more deflated than amused by my very humorous comment.
We agree to help him out. Mike dictates the conversation he would like to have with Karen and Ben translates it for him, writing down the Spanish words phonetically on Hotel del Angel headed notepaper. As long as Karen on the end of the phone line doesn’t stray from the projected script and answers simply “yes” to each of his questions and nothing more, then paradise for Mike should arrive tomorrow evening in a meal and a thong.
The script reads as follows:
O-LA / hello
SOI MIKE / its mike
K TAL? / how r u
KOMO TU SEE-ENTES OI? / how ru today?
MAY GUS-TA-REE-A MUCHO ENCONTRAR TAY I-AIR? / i really enjoyed meeting you yesterday
E-REZ MOI SIMPA-TI-KO? / u are very nice
KERO VER TE! / i want to see u
KONYOCES EL RESTAURANTAY ‘LA CASA DE LA-SI-REN-SES’? / do you know the xx restaurant?
ES EN EL CENTRO HISTORICO / its in the historical centre
KERES VENIR AL RESTAURANTE CONMIGO ESTA NOCHE? / do u want to come to the restaurant with me tonight?
YO VOY YEVAR MI DICIONARIO! / i’ll bring my dictionary!
VAI SER MUY DIVERTIDO / it’ll be a lot of fun
YO KERO MUCHO VERTE OTRA VEZ / i really want to see you again
It takes most of the afternoon to sort it all out and when it’s sorted, with script in hand a shy and reserved Mike locks himself behind the door of the bathroom in our second floor room to make the call. He makes the call and she doesn’t pick up. But he keeps trying and finally he gets through and when he does Karen Gonzalez Cruz doesn’t understand one single syllable of any one word he utters. It’s a mess of a conversation and in no time Mike is hopelessly lost in a language he cannot understand. Set adrift on the terrible sea of lustful loins with not a port in sight, he says the word “goodbye” softly and hangs up.
A disillusioned architect is a terrible thing to behold, much worse than a sad plumber, and with the script torn to shreds at our feet I see new buildings all over Mexico falling down in years to come as a consequence of the visiting international architects and their one Latino loss.
The raging flame of personal tragedy, they say, sometimes forges men into something more than human. American Mike becomes simply a vegetable. The name of the girl is Karen Gonzalez Cruz, he blubbers like a baby. Her name is —
something is wrong and I don’t know what it is
A dog is protesting on the street. I believe the dog is rabid. Not guilty, barks the dog.
A man with yellow hair.
A man with a ball of yellow hair.
A man whose head is a ball of yellow hair hails the taxi. Kicks the dog.
It comes and he goes.
Ben likes to barter first thing in the morning, it helps invigorate him and sets up the day well for him, and taxi drivers are his favourite. So it is the very next day when we check out of the Hotel des Angel — hotel incommunicado — and into a full blown war over one peso between Ben on the one side and on the other José Manuel Guzman, cab driver, in possession of the most luxurious cab in the whole of Mexico. We like José Manuel Guzman and confound Ben, whose battle isn’t over, when we hire him to take us to the central bus station in Mexico City and the bus that will take us to Zona Arqueológica de Teotihuacan. José doesn’t much like to be referred to as a cab driver. “Servicios de Transportación Turistica y Ejecutiva” is what he provides, he tells us gravely.
He is very careful about his doors.
Had we met José sooner, our perception of Mexico City might have been very different. The levels of poverty and crime, according to José, are a gross exaggeration. Mexico City is a beautiful and safe city, he says, except for an area so small as to be almost insignificant. We wonder where this small insignificant area might be, given the poverty we see all around us, on streets that even the local people avoid like a putrid hole in the ground.
“The bad districts I can count on one hand,” he says when pressed on the point, a little embarrassed by his own admission. “Four years ago it was very different. Now you are safe to walk anywhere.”
We ride over an overpass and I wonder of the buildings below, the shacks made of wood beneath the squalid houses made of weak concrete, how many of them will contain people having a fist pushed into their face. José adds quickly that in Mexico City “there are nice ladies from all over the world.” In this I arrive at the answer to the flat city: A building with a nice lady is better than a building with a broken face or no building at all.
Time on this trip ebbs and flows in the heat. Above the space that occupies the sky is starting its transmission. It is God. And smog.
Exhaust fumes and the terrific heat have cooked up smog, something else for which Mexico City is famous, and it settles on the traffic like a thick broth. When the car stops at a set of lights, a miscreant whose eyes hold the ground wanders over and taps on José’s window. He wants to know whether José would like to make some money taking his fare a different route. That’s all we hear but I don’t suspect the different route would do us many favours.
José is rightly proud of his city, but prouder still of his fine car, whose doors and windows he keeps locked tighter than a virgin’s ass until it is absolutely necessary for them to be open.
A good man, José Manuel Guzman does us no ill and dismisses the guy whose eyes are on the ground. At the very least he has saved us the embarrassment of being robbed a second time in as many days.
We tip José well, giving him twice the money Ben had saved us with his haggling over the fare, as is now Caleb custom, and check our bags into left luggage. In the few minutes before boarding the bus that goes to Zona Arqueológica in Teotihuacán, I buy a pin that has the flag of Mexico made out of enamel and fasten it to a belt loop on my trousers, upon which I determine that my trousers are obscenely loose and liable to fall down. This eventuality I am pondering when Caleb and Ben call for me to get a move on, because we have a bus to catch for the City of the Gods.
Teotihuacán is in a valley some fifty kilometres northeast of Mexico City. Its archaeological zone holds what remains of Mexico’s biggest ancient city, dating back to the time of Christ, and perhaps the first great civilisation in central Mexico. Here can be found the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world, and the residuum of Aztec gods, including Quetzalcóatl, which was the inspiration for Larry Cohen’s movie Q: The Winged Serpent.
Despite Larry Cohen and ancient greatness, the bus we take to Teotihuacán is stopped and searched by the police. Not that this is clear to us when the two cops climb on board and walk down the aisle to us at the seats at the back. The Federal Preventive Police in their blue uniform wait for something from us, saying not a word. We respond in kind, looking into the face of bewilderment and unease for two long minutes.
Outside my window a sign painted on a wall reads SUPER TORTAS HAMBURGUESAS, the relevance of which I ask myself. Maybe we dozed off a mile back because we seem to be missing a piece integral to the puzzle, the one with a clue about cops on the bus.
Ben says eventually, “Hola. ¿Cóma está?” which may be a greeting or Ben inviting them to suck my motherfucking dick. “Hello. How are you?”
The cops look at one another, summarising their relief with a shrug of the shoulders on discovering that our obstinacy is actually only ignorance and we are not from these parts. With this they turn to the rest of the bus and systematically begin to search the other male passengers. They don’t search any of the women on board and they don’t search us, just the other male passengers, who stand in turn without question with their arms outstretched.
The officers pat down all the men and finding nothing get off the bus.
Balls, The Womb and Mexico City 4 |
We pay the Zona Arqueológica entrance money of 45 pesos each and I tie my shirt around my waist to conceal the fact my trousers are falling down. I contemplate a belt from one of the callejones, but the belts all have big buckles with the word “Teotihuacán” engraved upon them and I don’t want that. I join the others in buying a sombrero, however. We hand over a bundle of notes and some loose change. When Ben thwarts an attempt to short change us, the assistant says under her breath “el carbon no sabe contar,” which translates as “The fucker can count.”
Zona Arqueológica has hundreds of hawkers, badgering visitors with trinkets and souvenirs, but only one hawker has a big black onyx cock for sale.
“A souvenir for your mother-in-law,” he says as we pass him by. We physically restrain Ben from haggling.
In the heart of the ancient city, at the starting point on the roads that define the godly places, stands the magnificent Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world. It is located on the Avenue of the Dead, between the Pyramid of the Moon and the Ciudadela, the house of the supreme ruler, and is built on top of a cave located six metres beneath the earth that was considered by the Aztecans to be the birthplace of man. Some people argue that the cave is actually a tomb. It is not possible for visitors to go inside the cave or go inside the pyramid itself, but somewhere inside are the bones and remains of innumerable children, appropriate behaviour to the ancient ones when buried strategically.
Climbing the steep 248 steps of the Pyramid of the Sun, clutching my falling trousers and with a shirt around my waist, we stop regularly to take in the view, and for me to adjust myself and for Caleb to perform deep breathing exercises. He swears he will get fit again back in Britain. I swear that I should have bought that belt.
There is a better class of hawker at the pyramid, and the sound of panpipes rising from the base of the ruins is less atonal than the pipes at the entrance to the site, where the pipes are blown by hawkers not as comfortable with wind instruments as they are their pendants and black fake cocks.
A biting wind greets us when we reach the top, and against the wind are the sightseers who circle the summit and survey Teotihuacán for clues to a meaning. Here at the top are gringos and New Age hippies from the continent talking about Iraq and better tasting latte at Starbucks.
“They are on it, you bet,” says one American with great authority.
The city that once spanned 20km, with its great and noble founders forgotten to time, is observed now by a tribe of lost idiots. There is nothing else for it and so Caleb draws the mask that he bought at the wrestling from his red shoulder bag of drugs and places it over his head. An eerie calm falls over everyone when he throws his hands up into the air and yells at the top of his voice, “MÍSTICO!” For evidence, I snap a picture of him framed against the Pyramid of the Moon at the north end of the Avenue of the Dead.
On the top of the Pyramid of the Sun once stood a temple with an altar where human sacrifice took place. The temple was painted red for blood, red for the setting sun. Destroyed long ago by man and by nature, now in place of the altar is a silver key embedded in the stone, a physical point of reference over which I place my fingertip, and also a spatial point, because here is the vertex for the celestial sphere.
I place the finger of one hand upon the silver key and hold my other hand high, in the manner shown to me by a man from Colombia, who is on holiday. “You can feel energy,” he tells us. Here is my hand in the sky, my body a conductor down to ancient times, and a labyrinth of power and dead children. Here is space and here is place. The Pyramid of the Sun has existed since 100AD, which brings to it almost two thousand years of joy and bloodshed, wisdom and ignorance; men have lived and died by and beneath this stone, beneath its three million tons, packed into shape before the invention of the wheel. And beneath it all, some six metres below ground, is a tunnel that leads to the cave that birthed all the inhabitants of the earth.
Archaeologists found the cave in 1971. The ancient ones believed it to be the womb of the world, the origins of life. It had writing on its walls.
“What can you feel?” Ben asks from a distance, refusing to partake because he doesn’t believe in it.
“Nothing,” I say, my finger on the key, my hand in the air, disappointed that no stars explode, no sky turns black, no Jack Kirby crackle bursts out from the frame.
No Quetzalcóatl, the winged serpent. No Super Tortas Hamburguesas.
The focus of all energy brings to me nothing but the woeful song played by a woman on the slow bus back to Mexico City. One might assume that a woman in a white blouse would have the voice of an angel, especially in Mexico, where the mariachi was invented. Let me tell you this is not necessarily the case. It was horrible to endure.
Cal says to the man from Colombia as we start the mission back down the 248 steps: “Have a good life, my friend.”
“May he order His angels to protect you wherever you go,” the man says by way of a reply, the biting wind silencing the words so they sound like nothing at all on earth.
And that’s when it hits me.
Fear & Trembling #1 |
"We don't yet know if there's a God - and you want to eat!"
An episodic examination of the modern soul by THOMAS McGRATH who spent two months in 2009 looking for it.
I'VE CRIBBED the above quotation from Henry Miller, though I believe he in turn lifted it from the lips of some long dead Russian, a Russian that no doubt lived in the midst of that nation's 'Religious Renaissance' of the nineteenth century. Dostoevsky described this period in his diaries and novels, how everybody continuously participated in an ongoing debate about the Big Questions, in markets, street corners and bars, trying to guess at the existence of God and the mystery of suffering. But hasn't the debate been settled, here in the secular Western Europe of the 21st Century? Apparently not - even my bus has joined the debate. The other week it was swaggering around like a teenager boasting that there "probably isn't a God", yet only a few days ago it had experienced an abrupt change of heart and declared conversely that there "definitely is a God". What insecurities must have bristled in that 'probably' - I didn't even know that the number 67 ran all the way to Damascus…
And what about the common reading matter observed on public transport over the last few years? What books have the passengers been scrutinising? One of only two titles, according to my count (excluding that Pope bothering kid's book): The God Delusion and The Da Vinci Code. Bless it, the British public isn't the best read bunch, but these two titles arguably indicate a burgeoning preconception with metaphysical matters.
Were it not for the Romance novels, Bond pastiches, and the ubiquitous Jeremy Clarkson triptych (our national philosophe), in many cases The Da Vinci Code would stand alone on the book shelf of its millions of owners. Numerous friends and acquaintances, not usually disposed to discuss fiction or theology (yet knowing my predilection for both), have approached me with pregnant intent to comment on the thriller's esoteric subtext.
My girlfriend's mother, knowing that my family are Catholic (and assuming that my very haemoglobin sported little papist caps), interrupted my reading one afternoon during a visit to her Tenerife holiday home.
"I've read The Da Vinci Code," she declared, with a Lutheran twinkle visible beneath her blue-tinted contacts.
"Good show Linda. Well done," I responded over the brim of Anna Karenina, wondering why one of her eyebrows seemed to be violently twitching…
"… I believe it!" she finally declared.
"How do you mean mother-in-law - you don't think it's a work of fiction?"
Linda seemed momentarily inconvenienced by my unexpected though innocent enough retort.
"No. I mean what it says about the Church," she continued, shaking off my Jesuitical casuistry, "I believe it."
This is indicative of the general gist of its readers' responses. The book offers them new ways to believe, and reasons for the conspicuous absence of religion in their inner lives. A pity it's gash!
Then there is that other bona fide publishing phenomena of recent times (again excluding children's books): The God Delusion. In a nation that has for many decades treated churches as little more than picturesque and whimsical venues for weddings, the success of Dawkins' polemic (the best-selling work of non-fiction since the Bible, or something), is arguably a bit of a mystery. Atheists wouldn't flock to Waterstones in order to scoop a hardback copy of The Toothfairy Delusion, and as far as I can see the only explanation for the enormous success of Dawkins' tract is that it serves as a palliative to its reader's latent fear and trembling, the atavistic nervousness over the fate of the immortal soul, a trepidation that possibly announced itself only upon a confrontation with the book's bold title. Yet it would seem that the book has done more to irritate those buried nerves than soothe them - according to Amazon, The God Delusion is the cause of a 50% growth in sales on religious and spiritual books, and a 120% increase in sales on the Bible! Atheism never had a more vocal and fervent following than in Holy Russia itself, and so long as it is not silently assumptive, atheism constitutes a vital ingredient in any spiritually introspective culture. For these very reasons I adore Richard Dawkins. He is Nietzsche's fool in the marketplace imploring the peasants that God is Dead. This is a man that believes that humanity can be reinvigorated morally, politically and even artistically if we can return to the apparently abandoned Enlightenment agenda - Halleluiah!
Between our suicide bombers, conspiracy theorists, Rastafarians, Scientologists, militant atheists et al, it can be argued that the contemporary UK is a much richer religious ferment that Dostoevsky's Russia, and far more riven with spiritual conflict than in its own hectic period of Reformation. And I, comfortably savage, terrified by the sky, believing in everything, wish here to comment upon, document, and encourage our English Religious Renaissance.
Fear & Trembling #2 |
"We don't yet know if there's a God - and you want to eat!"
An episodic examination of the modern soul by THOMAS McGRATH who spent two months in 2009 looking for it.
FURTHER NECESSARY features in any religious revival are a steady succession of self-appointed messiahs, suspected Anti-Christs and apparent charlatans. Happily enough, I have recently discovered that within my own London town there resides a person or being that furiously divides increasing numbers of people as to which of the three categories he should properly be consigned. For those of you that don’t know (and how out of the loop can you possibly be) I am speaking of the Maitreya.
Maitreya and Brick Lane today
The full, public emergence of this Maitreya has been anticipated by his followers for a few decades now. Anyone that has already heard of him has probably done so through his spokesperson Benjamin Creme, a wealthy Scottish painter that travels the world imparting messages psychically communicated by the Maitreya himself. These tend on the side of Michael Jackson morality, an ethical key that runs through Creme’s Maitreya-fervid organisation Share International. One apparently mad but wealthy Scottish modernist may not impress anyone, but the funny thing is that this supposed Christ-cum-Buddha-cum-Mohammed etc (Creme claims that his boy is the second coming anticipated by all the major religions) apparently actually exists, which is to say that there is an actual person (or whatnot) making actual appearances as the Maitreya. You can go on the Share International website to observe photos from one broadly publicised performance at a large Kenyan evangelical congregation, the accounts of which wondrously depict crutch-twirling cripples miraculously healed on sight, mass recognition of this white-clad, Arabic looking fellow as Jesus incarnate, and other messianic hallmarks.
Once one investigates this bizarre and I think quite unique phenomenon, even the most rational conclusions look distinctly original. We could suppose, for instance, that this Creme figure is participating in some unprecedented global hoax. Of course religious demagogues are hardly unusual, but Creme doesn’t appear to be wielding his for the usual reason of immediate wealth and power. According to his numerous talks and appearances this has been and is still all in anticipation of the Maitreya’s ‘Day of Declaration’: on this day, explains Creme, “The Christ will come on the world's television channels, linked together by satellite. All those with access to television will see... [His face]. He will establish a telepathic rapport with all humanity simultaneously." This would definitely top the end of year television highlights! Creme talks of the new era of harmony and spiritual wisdom that this Maitreya will inaugurate, by the way, so on the surface this promised spectacular heralds good news for one and all. However, a growing number of evangelical Christians are increasingly convinced that this Maitreya is none other than the anti-Christ himself, and cite alleged connections between Share International and the UN (with whom Creme does indeed appear to have a ready audience) as evidence of a global Luciferean plot. We may assume that Richard Dawkins thinks absolutely everyone involved is off their rocker.
Now I had been aware of this information for some time, but I was unaware that the Maitreya was currently apparently residing in a suburb of Brick Lane. This shows an appalling disregard for fashionable mores, and if there are any pilgrimages going on in North London it is the warm river of fashionistas travelling away from the Shoreditch Axis towards Dalston, which has officially inherited the crown of cool so long held by its Eastern neighbour. Hipsters will no doubt be concerned that no number of miracles could lead them to worship at an alter presided over by a messiah so intransigently passé.
An odd recollection. A few months ago an English friend of Pakistani descent spotted former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf at a Brick Lane curry house. Please drop me a line if any other odd figures have been spotted sampling the delights of that area’s free bottles of house white wine and poppadoms…
Well, I can hardly hope to write about the English Religious Renaissance and not visit its arguable Galilee can I? Perhaps I’ll bump into the Pope having a coffee with Tony Blair, waiting for an audience with the anti-Christ.
But Christ or Anti-Christ, I assume the Maitreya is tucked away somewhere pretty inconspicuous. My initial idea was of offering waiters generous tips for information (I don’t know, 25%). But one Indian meal usually leaves me horribly stuffed, and a succession would also leave me damn short of pocket. There is another rather prosaic reason for my reluctance to embark on this journalistic pilgrimage: good old fashioned English timidity, the ready blush that makes us such poor zealots.
“Excuse me mate,” I can see myself asking a local, with the usual cringe-worthy roughening of my middle-England vowels, “don’t suppose you know where I could find the, eh…” and here my voice will drop to a conspiratorial whisper, “….Maitreya do ya?”
“What’s that mate, a restaurant?” a second generation cockney voice will respond.
“No, eh, the Messiah…”
Or perhaps, in the style of a spy film…
“I’m looking for the Maitreya… Hey come back! Please.”
Or maybe another response still…
“No mate, and you’re the fifth person that’s asked me that today. Just ’cos I’m wearing a turban…”
Fear & Trembling #3 |
"We don't yet know if there's a God - and you want to eat!"
An episodic examination of the modern soul by THOMAS McGRATH who spent two months in 2009 looking for it.
SO WHAT type of rough beast might we expect to have been born in Brick Lane? Under the impression that the Emperor's New Postcode (momentarily disregarding Dalston's recent usurpation) was in fact only a fatuous cloak for some apocalyptic prelude, I travelled down there last Wednesday evening. I was looking for a fissure in its diabolical disguise - some pentagram, caduceus or purposeful goat - but beside the bursting pink and white blossom that decorated the surrounding suburbs, the area (at least beneath its modern patina of 'fashionability') was in fact uniquely bereft of spiritual or magical vitality. I could only dimly speculate that evil festers and thrives in the dead zones where the modern heart beats weakest. Bewildered, I staggered about for the best part of an hour without any indication that it was anything but the most consummate of disguises - or perhaps an elaborate, meaningful joke. As I neared the area I did begin to come across a graffiti motif, a thoughtful looking fellow with long hair, stencilled in spotted silver paint and accompanied with pseudo-spiritual slogans such as GODLOVE. These thickened around Brick Lane itself - could they be the handiwork of a subterranean hipster Maitreya cult? I feared that I was clutching at straws. My expedition was looking hopeless.
Russell Brand & Pascal (could have been such great friends)
Eventually I stopped for a coffee. As I sipped it outside a café on a grim patch of E1 pavement, a bus serendipitously passed by; although there was no Maitreya visible on the top deck, bent in thoughtful perusal of that day's London Lite, the bus itself boasted the latest theist retort to the Atheist Society's humanist propaganda campaign (discussed in my first post). This one came courtesy of the Russian Orthodox Church: "There is God", it declared, "Don't worry. Enjoy life". The unfortunate resemblance of this message to the preceding Christian response (the peppy little "There definitely is a God - so enjoy your life and join the Christian party") certainly ranks as one of the smaller historical consequences of the Great Schism, but the potential benefits of greater communication were easy to discern. Unless the quintessentially Russian omission of the definite article was intentional - perhaps as an obscure allusion to the Ontological Argument - it would appear that the Eastern Church has fallen into the common trap of putting excessive faith in the appropriately named Babelfish (last year I came upon a Tenerife menu offering English-speaking patrons the delicious delicacy: 'Turkey gizzard and fun spaghetti' - at least I presume this was lost in translation, though perhaps they were just trying to lighten up the turkey gizzard).
Grateful as I am to the Orthodox Church for pitching in - especially as it gives my blog the dizzying flavour of mediocre prophecy - what is it with all this "don't worry" business? What kinds of tipples are served at the seemingly oxymoronic "Christian party"? One need not be Pascal to find the blithe tone somewhat incongruous. In the Twelfth Century an infinitely sterner theological tradition begat a frightening little volume called entitled Hortus Deliciarum, a book that ranks the supposedly benign joys of gardening as a danger to soul only marginally milder than classics like fornication (incidentally, I am currently trying to rehabilitate this underused word, as it could potentially give things a novel ring, 'Fornication and the City', for instance, sounds wonderful). The Atheist Society might like to consider an amusing and unanswerable retaliation to its two opponents by plastering some more buses with the ironical slogan: "There is a hell - now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
The English Religious Renaissance requires a tautening of the soul's bow; not further reckless relaxation. I think that in this age of enduring (if precarious) wealth, only a dose of mediaeval severity is capable of curing the English of their endemic fatuousness, and the concomitant self-disgust that suffocates its possibility of noble or poetic existence. Will my generation really offer history no more than its current dismal little platter of indie bands and graphic designers? If so, then - irregardless of its slight though tantalising possibility of veracity - the purported residence of a demonic avatar in an area currently renowned for its 'creative' hairdressers is a powerful and apt symbol. "It is a monstrous thing to see," writes Pascal, "in the same heart and at the same time, this concern for the most trivial of matters and this lack of concern for the greatest. It is an incomprehensible form of bewitchment and a supernatural torpor which is a proof of an all-powerful force that causes it."
I walked home with my empty hands disconsolately wedged in my pockets, and again passed one of those stencils. I scrutinised it again. Could it be the Maitreya? I tilted my head. It certainly resembled somebody, though perhaps not the man whose photograph accompanied my last post. I looked hard into the thoughtful expression, the piercing eyes, the guru-long hair… Russell Brand. It looked a lot like Russell Brand. Could he in fact be the "rough beast", an anti-Christ propagating peace, vegetarianism and free love? Or the alleged reincarnation of Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna - residing in fashionable East London? It all makes ominous sense…
Fear & Trembling #4 |
"We don't yet know if there's a God - and you want to eat!"
An episodic examination of the modern soul by THOMAS McGRATH who spent two months in 2009 looking for it.
[This interview took place in 2009]
ON TUESDAY I interviewed Iain Sinclair, Hackney's resident White Wizard. I was, to say the least, somewhat nervous about it. After all, this is a writer whose London Orbital is adorned with a quotation from the late JG Ballard, in which the seer of Shepperton asserts that Sinclair's book (a fabulous document of his counterclockwise hike around the M25), will "still be read in fifty years time"! That's fifty years of Ballard time - a pretty rough passage, you feel, for the internet, let alone English prose. London Orbital thoroughly deserved the voluminous praise heaped upon it, a work in which Sinclair shook reality so hard that it alchemically transformed itself into fantastical fiction, revealing a territory both proximate and alien, and delivered in exhilarating prose that frequently attains the preternatural shimmer of truly great writing. This Saturday, at London festival Occulture, Sinclair will be introducing the accompanying film with which he documented that inspired expedition, and I seized the opportunity to meet him.
My introductory email would be my first notable obstacle to achieving that end, however. Almost every word (including some of the commonest little monosyllables) found itself cut, pasted and plunged into an online dictionary; distinguishing between there, their and they're unveiled itself as a Derridean riddle: my English had become a panic tongue, a fourth language hastily acquired by the tourist-victim of a Mexican miscarriage of justice. Eventually, the bland little missive was ready, and I dispatched it with a tentative tap (or spasm) of the mouse. Within seconds a response was embedded in my own inbox - Sinclair breezily accepting my agonised invitation to lunch. Beneath his reply was the initial invite, which I fruitlessly checked over one last time. It began: "Dear Ian" (sic). I clamped a knuckle between my teeth and prepared for the worst…
I met Iain at a Turkish café in his adopted Hackney, the London borough in which he has lived for over four decades but only recently colonised in prose with the latest contribution to his weighty oeuvre, the surprisingly voluptuous Hackney, that Rose Red Empire. His imminent appearance at Occulture gave me the wonderful excuse to ask him all about his association with esotericism and the occult; along with authors like Yeats and Burroughs, Sinclair is part of a tradition of celebrated modern writers for whom the supernatural is a fact (albeit a complicated one). It was interesting to learn that, as with both Yeats and Burroughs, Sinclair also identifies childhood experiences as responsible for demarcating a reality broader than the narrow box most inherit.
In person, Sinclair, like his prose, exudes benevolent mischief, little resembling the languid intellectual captured in footage and photograph. He spoke about topics ranging from the occult to the Olympics, and even addressed (with pleasing spontaneity) some of issues touched upon in this very blog.
(ME) JG Ballard appears in the film and book of London Orbital. He was a very vocal exponent of your work, and I was wondering what he made of the esoteric motifs that run through it…
(SINCLAIR): I imagine he ignored them. His take on the world was his take on the world and other people's worlds were interesting in as much as they were kind of refractions of things he was interested in himself. He certainly responded to the whole notion of the landscape of the edge lands of London as revealed in the film because that was exactly his whole territory - although this was coming from a very different angle. And the madness of my walking through it, which is something he would never have contemplated, interested him because one of his great themes was the obsessive and satanic nature of Moby Dick. Moby Dick was one of his great markers. That book, and this sort of Ahab- like tramping around this orbital landscape, was really appealing to him, so it was sort of like a combination of Moby Dick and Ballard.
How do you think he interpreted obsession, from a Freudian perspective?
Yes I think largely he did. His whole work in a sense was about psychosis. It was about early fractures in his own life, the breakdown he saw of the English version of colonialism that he'd grown up in, and then the England he arrived back in, which he always said was like coming from a colour movie and into a black and white newsreel, and feeling estranged from it and having to come up with devices that could energise a world of boredom and greyness. And the subversive strategies he adopted were obviously incredibly effective
Do you think he would have interpreted your esoteric motifs as examples of 'subversive strategies'?
I think he read me with a sense of difference, along with a sense of its parallel, sympathetic nature to what he was doing himself. He didn't want to engage with the inner city at all. He didn't like the inner city, didn't like the old buildings, he didn't want to be part of that. So someone doing that was interesting as a sort of alien species. And the way I wrote was so different to the way he wrote, that stripped forensic style, that again he was interested in it for its difference. But then when we got to know each other best I would sort of move into his territory and discuss things within his sphere of interest.
Did you ever try to discuss things from your own territory?
No. I mean I found him strangely like a version of Sir Les Patterson; very, very genial, very civilised, very friendly and generous in all his dealings. In a sense you felt he was like a being from another time or another world. I was just very happy to listen to him and gather up little fragments from his memory banks.
I was curious, because another writer he was very interested in was William Burroughs, with whom he must also have been confronted by many beliefs he would have had to completely 'ignore'.
I think Michael Moorcock introduced him to Burroughs very early on. He saw Burroughs very much as a kind of version of what he did himself. But they couldn't really get on in personal terms because they were both so strange. His writing was much closer to the way Burroughs writes than to the way I write. When I first knew his work I felt him very much to be a sort of English Burroughs, in that he was dealing with a kind of deep-in-the-bone satire and misogyny and darkness, but then as time went on I think he moved away from that and they became quite separate. But they both had that stoic humour; they both trained as doctors and gave up on it. Ballard by the end was sort of making his own mental prognosis of a culture - and Burroughs had become this Zen outlaw figure, stepped away from the word and into image, dream and ritual practise.
You met Burroughs, did you find him as taciturn as he was purported to be?
Well I had dealings with him from very early on, and corresponded with him when I was a teenager, then published him in Ireland, and was going to do a film with him, so I knew him a bit in that period. But then he went into Scientology and I lost touch with him. I didn't meet him again until he was pretty old and living in Kansas, and by that time he was totally detached, we didn't have a conversation where I felt he was present at all. It was fascinating to see him, to be with him, but he wasn't there. But Ballard was there and was somebody you could have a friendly relationship with in a way you never could with Burroughs. If you fell within his circle of disciples you could have a kind of relationship of power with Burroughs, but otherwise not. Whereas a lot of people had good friendly relations with Ballard as long as it was on his terms.
You mentioned Burroughs going over to Scientology. What did you make of that?
I though it was an interesting process for him, and provoked metaphor for lots of stuff in his writing. For me it was completely deranged and extreme, but I could see why he'd want to do it, and I had a lot of sympathy with him going there, even though it was completely inconvenient because we were trying to start a film at that point and he just completely lost interest.
Scientology's very interesting. This pseudo-scientific mask covering an esoteric system…
Yes with L Ron Hubbard as this sort of science fiction writer, super-galactic conman character with the boat and the slaves and this notion of the occult. The cult aspect of the occult.
Do you see the connection between demagoguery and magic as intrinsic?
I think it is, from my experience of the nature of the practitioners. Apart from, say, someone like Alan Moore, who is not at all a demagogue, but is a pretty full-blown magical practitioner, and that's one of the most important elements of his work. I just got yesterday morning The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, this comic he's doing, in which a fictional character, an alter-ego of mine called Norton, appears, drawn to look like me - or sort of a mad Nazi dentist or something - spouting this occult loaded madness in a comic strip! Like a parody of aspects of my writing. But Alan's engagement with magic doesn't seem to be in any way about personal power. In a sense it's more to do with some deep engagement with Northampton.
That's the distinction between white and black magic, the former you don't practise for the sake of personal gain…
Well Alan Moore sounds quite dark, to do with summoning particular demons and entities, but it can also seem really quite white in its nature, to do with natural forces and place and the nature of place; it's not to do with making magical entities work for him in other worlds.
Did you become interested in the occult through the Beats?
Well, occult is such a blanket term, it has aspects I was interested in through my family in Wales: my mother's side of the family were very interested in things that sound almost shamanic or magical you know, in terms of superstitions and the sense of the dead being ever-present and all those things, and rituals to do with horses' heads being dug up. All of that stuff was very familiar, all of that theatrical canopy was part of my childhood, so it seemed a natural thing rather than anything else. But this is to do with white magic, earth magic, and the druidic aspect, all of that stuff. And then looking into London and what was the nature and cultural make-up of London and its mythology you inevitably move into those areas, in terms of the nineteenth century of the Golden Dawn, Crowley… (recording indecipherable)
Then in the 60s and 70s, around that era, combined with a lot of the stuff that came out of the counterculture, earth magic and Carlos Castaneda, you know a lot of that was floating about. And then the whole thing cycles round to come back in a very different form in the aspect of politics. I began to see Thatcherite politics as a kind of black magic. But this is a metaphor as much as anything. I don't mean she actually sat around looking at a skull, although metaphorically she did, and then I think it became a battle in that sense, a battle for the city, for the soul of the city.
Do you see politics broadly as an esoteric realm?
No I see it as a profound unreality and one that's falling apart in front of our eyes. A projection that had no basis in reality, it was a mind game that involved a lot of symbols and mind control in terms of advertising and brain washing; all kinds of techniques that were essentially occult were used. But it fell apart - it wasn't real, it wasn't genuine, it wasn't about anything, there was no content. And it's quite interesting how it just dissolved and disintegrated in front of our eyes. The other thing is that a lot of the magical practises we're talking about are covert, esoteric, secret. You don't necessarily have to know these aspects in Yeats or something, but there it is, he's doing it and it only emerges later that it's the source of his poetry. Whereas in the political world it has to be totally visible, in theory, so there's a real schizophrenic bite there. They are calculating ways to hypnotise the masses, and at the same time they have to appear to not be doing any of the things that they are doing.
What do you make of the recent popularity of books regarding atheism and this whole debate?
Yeah, the adverts on the busses about God and all that; I thought, 'why are you fighting this campaign in this particular forum'. It's like a version of reality TV, it seems an argument in the wrong place. And then the other aspect are these enormously successful things like Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, and all of this which are a Xerox of the real material, so far down the line from their sources that they become massively successful. That's the process in the world where you copy something, and copy it again, and copy it again and it loses its bite, but achieves a kind of formulaic, simple-minded version which appeals massively. People are interested in the underlying things, but they're getting them through the pre-chewed, pre-masticated form. And it works gigantically, you look at any of these massively successful things and then you go back always four steps to get to something where it's originally from.
But the success of all these books - The God Delusion, The Da Vinci Code - reflects people's underlying interest in these topics….
Yeah. It's clearly a deep thirst for an advance into new territory. But it comes from study and practise and a lot of other things which are done by yourself. You can't sort of dip into some easy guide and have it all done for you.
Did the composition of your last book entwine you more with Hackney or did you finally extricate yourself from the area?
In the short term it entwined me much more, because I got very much drawn into taking part in all the stuff that's going on here. Four nights a week, solidly, from February to now, I've just been doing stuff locally. Dozens and dozens of people have come with the projects they're doing and wanted me to see them or contribute to them. So in a sense it ultimately involved me more in the area. But in other senses I feel I would now like to disappear into the landscape and keep well clear of it.
But you can't now…
I mean, we're not going to win. Whatever it is I'm writing about will be comprehensively wiped out by what's happening. The whole of Dalston Lane is going to disappear into this kind of Barratt monolith, and around Morning Lane around Ridley Road. So I think people will become much more fragmented, and the lines of energy which I talk a lot about will be broken up. I think the whole psychology of Dalston is going to become much more neurotic, nervous and dangerous.
I live there…
Good! Good! That makes it interesting.
Do you think the Olympic Committee is it a malevolent force?
I think so. Big time. I think they were so mendacious that a level of malignancy has been embedded into the system. In the same way that now the whole kind of nonsense with the MPs and their swine-like behaviour that's supposedly minor- 'it's all within the body of the law' blah blah blah - but unveils a system of double standards, greed, madness …and with the Olympics it's is the same thing but on a vast, vast scale. And at a time of financial meltdown it's economic insanity for a kind of folly of a project that involves huge expulsion of so much which is of value, and the destruction of the whole kind of environment, to present something that is totally unreal and only for a very short space of time. And all that's left behind is what? A sort of monstrous shopping mall, like Westfield in Shepherd's Bush.
Have you taken much interest in the aftermath of the Beijing Olympics?
Yeah I have. I haven't been there but I've talked to a few Chinese people. It's moderately grim and in places like Athens it's very grim, a total disaster. They've got these huge stadiums totally unused and just rotting, rotting away. They can't afford to keep them up and there's no use for them. They're going to be paying them off for the next fifty years, and the break up in Greek society, with young people taking to the streets and feeling really, really disaffected, is all very much to do with what happened with the Olympics, and all the debts that have been incurred to push through with this grand project that only revealed this moral bankruptcy and left this catalogue of ruins. The only way it works is if you incorporate the games into structures that are already there, which can be done and to some extent if they had gone to France that would have happened.
Where does the motivation come from?
That's interesting. It's in part the hubristic sense that you still have it, you're the equal of China, you're still a player in the majors, when in fact you're not - you're a kind of offshore airstrip for the Americans. Politicians love these ceremonies, if you go back to Berlin in 1936 - that's really what it's about, the occult business of carrying the Olympic torch. You want something occult that's it, that's a kind of major public occult ceremony.
I liked your description of Thatcher's immediate deterioration upon leaving office as indicating that she had been sort of unhooked from some black magical power source…
We created her as much as she was psychically tapping on our bad will. All the bad will around was focussed on her, a sort of Metropolis robot creation, the ugliest thoughts and aspirations of the whole country, which gave her that dynamic and insane energy. And as you say, when she's unhooked she kind of crumbles away like an old mummy.
What do you make of Blair's recent bouncing good health, he seems very well?
He looks like a vampire; he was always a freakish, cartoon creation that was always grinning and bouncing, but again with zero content. Then he buys into the Catholic Church, he's like a Dan Brown character.
And what would be his esoteric archetype?
I'm not sure which one, but he definitely is from that territory. Much less powerful than Thatcher, but maybe he was just in the spirit of his own times. He's a chip, a kind of virtual fragment; he doesn't really exist at all, there's so little there. And he also had the sense to get off screen before it all really hit the fan, leaving this sort of lumbering, material creature - Brown - to pick up the flack for him.
It looks now a bit as if Blair was some sort of protective shield around the government, and in his sudden absence they're completely exposed.
Well he does confirm this idea that politics is a totally occult practise. You jumble all the elements together, create this shining, sort of hermaphroditic figure who just carries it all and then you remove him and everything's wiped out and you start again. All these other figures like Cameron and Clegg are just clones of Blair, they're the same thing, but it doesn't quite work yet because they've got almost too much content. But [Blair] began to look quite ill towards the end...
I thought that Iain might be interested in the Maitreya saga I discussed in my second and third posts. After the interview was over I switched off the recorder and (with a flick of the nose and my best off the record voice) began to tell him about Share International, Benjamin Crème and the Brick Lane messiah. By the time I was finished the mild curiosity in his eyes was completely extinguished; it was as if I'd just 'broken the news' that Princess Dianna was dead.
"Yes, I've written about that story," he explained.
"I think it was in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings."
"Ah. I haven't read that one. And you know that he supposedly lives in Brick Lane?"
"Yes of course - the entire book's about the area."
Naturally! So I recommend readers interested in further information and analysis of the Maitreya phenomenon look to the aforementioned title.
Sinclair disappeared with the same speed with which he arrived, departing with such haste that I forgot to ask him to scribble in some of the titles I had crammed into my rucksack, which then may as well have been full of bricks so far as my walk home was concerned - my stroll back to the 'neurotic, nervous and dangerous' (if impeccably fashionable) Dalston.