Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

Animals

We have been looking after sick animals for as long as I can remember. At one point in Weston - before we went to Portugal, so it must have been ‘83 or ‘84 - we found a seagull with a broken wing on the beach one evening as we were walking the dog. Jenny - the dog - was running around ‘chasing’ gulls, which really meant racing towards them at full tilt to make them scatter in a cloud of feathers and cawing. But this one gull didn’t move, and Jenny was clearly perplexed by the way it just sat there. We christened it Gertie and took it home, nursing it for several weeks. Gertie became like an exotic pet of sorts; we’d shut the dog inside the house and take it out into the garden, and let it potter around. As its wing healed, catching it to take it back indoors for the night became increasingly tricky. One evening it managed to hop over the wall onto the road, which was luckily quiet, and Les had to run after it trying to catch it before it got into trouble. Half way up the hill it managed to get airborne, and we were all sad but thrilled to see it go. I have a memory of the house opposite in the sunset, and a seagull stood on the chimney - my mother swore it was Gertie come to say good-bye.

After we came back from Portugal the was a dehydrated rook we looked after for a while, and lived in the outside toilet that we had. There was nothing else wrong with the fellow, but the summer had been unbearably hot, and the bird had clearly had a difficult time. To begin with it didn’t move around much when we went to in feed it, as it simply didn’t have the energy, but it soon built up strength and made it clear that it wanted its freedom.

And we acquired a kitten that was being tormented by some kids when my mother sent me out to take it off them, saying that it was ours. It turned out to be a real sweetie, and used to fall asleep in the hood of my dressing-gown. There’s a photo somewhere.

My mother acquired another cat when they saw a white thing motionless by the side of the road. On examination the found that the cat had got its head stuck in a tin can, which they pried off. Since then I’ve always crushed any empty tin cans…

But there's always a darker side.

Up in Cumbria, one of the cats went missing and I found her in the field next door, dead from rat poison, as far as we could tell.

And one evening I was out with a few friends - we were heading off to a pub to play pool or something - and the guys in the car in front hit a rabbit (or was it a hare?). I demanded we stop, and got out to look for the animal. Its back legs were broken, and a couple of us stood wondering what to do. The guys in the first car came back, joking about hitting a rabbit, until they saw how earnest I was becoming. Because by that point I was looking for the heaviest stone I could find…

I don’t know if that was the ‘right’ thing to do, just as I don’t know whether killing the nestling yesterday was the ‘right’ thing. I couldn’t leave either there to simply suffer and die slowly. I suppose I’m writing this now because of the doubt, although at the time I could see no other way out. But yesterday I knew that, if I did what I felt to be necessary, I would be haunted by that act for years to come, just as I can’t forget the evening of 15 years ago when I killed a rabbit with a stone. In the end, the best I can say is that even if I did the ‘wrong’ thing, I didn’t do it lightly.

Judgement

Was just walking home, and round the corner from where I live I came across a nestling in the middle of the pavement. A few metres ahead, a woman with a child in a pram had stopped to look at it too. She came back and we had a brief conversation about what to do with it. The fall seemed to have broken one of its legs, and it didn’t have the strength to stand, let alone fly. We agreed that it would have been better it hadn’t survived the fall. Eventually, the woman carefully picked it up in a paper tissue, and moved it to the side of the pavement where it wouldn’t get stood on accidentally. Then she left, saying that she hoped it wouldn’t take long. To die, she meant.

Me, I didn’t leave, but stood watching it struggle. Its mouth opened and closed soundlessly as it lay on its back stretching its wings. It tried to roll over, but only got as far as its side, one wing flattened underneath it.

I couldn’t just leave it there to gradually starve to death or be carried off by a cat. So I made my judgement, and did what I thought had to be done. I killed it.

Cynical Optimism

With my recent forays into the Tool debate, I have been able to define my outlook on life a little more precisely. Years ago I used to say that I was a ‘cynical optimist’, which I defined as someone who had little faith in people, but who thought that things were so bad that it could only get better. That’s a fairly naive view, and I pretty much stopped classifying myself as such. However, after thinking about my intellectual and emotional response to the Tool debate, I’ve had to conclude that I am indeed a ‘cynical optimist’, but I mean something else by it now.

I know, matter of fact, that the majority of the population of the planet are morons with their heads inserted up their own flabby posteriors. Little else can explain religious fundamentalism, George Bush and the European Common Agricultural Policy, to name a few of my pet peeves. Anyone who reads what I write on this site will know that I have a very low opinion of the ‘general public’ and tend to make proclamations about ‘the end of the Enlightenment’ and its basic ideal of using reason to further humanity. I’m about as cynical as they come in that respect.

But that’s the head talking. It isn’t what I believe, but what I know. And the whole Tool debate has made me think more clearly about what I actually believe about people. And in that respect I have come to the unfortunate realisation that I’m an optimist.

When I meet someone, be it in person or on a forum, I immediately assume that they are as reasonable as I consider myself to be. I assume that we will be able to have a decent rational discussion, that we will find common ground, that if we disagree and I state my position clearly they will be able to come round to it, or identify the flaw in my argumentation that makes me reconsider. Sure, I have high standards, but I begin by giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. Of course, I’m imposing those standards on to other people, but I guess it’s impossible not to do so. But I don’t start out from a position of superiority. I don’t look down on others, who have to prove themselves worthy of my respect. Rather, I start out from the perspective that we’re all basically the same, and then the given individual either lives up to my expectations or doesn’t.

There's obviously a contradiction between these two perspectives. Practically what it means is that I am always surprised when I meet a complete idiot, especially if they are not merely dumb but offensive to boot. The cynical part of me ‘knows’ that most people are morons, but the optimistic part of me is shocked whenever I encounter an embodiment of that stupidity. And as such, instead of responding to an idiot by simply thinking, ‘Ah ha, another person I won’t bother to grace with my time’, I get angry that someone could be so stupid and start ranting. Meeting an idiot doesn’t so much confirm my cynicism as contradict my optimism.

I’m inclined to think that the tension between these two sides of my personality explains a lot about my behaviour in general. It definitely explains why I felt the need to respond to the many dolts in the Tool debate who took the view that “You suck if you think the new Tool album is anything but crap, because I know best.” The cynical side knows that this kind of comment is not worth the time it takes to read, but the optimistic side just had to fight back.

Unemployment

Before coming to Germany, I was unemployed in Britain for a couple of years. Wasn’t much fun, but one event seems to encapsulate it fairly well…

I stayed around in Lampeter (where I went to uni) for a couple of years, applying for jobs in cheese factories, that sort of thing. I had no money, but had decided that I could buy one second-hand CD from Hag’s Records every two weeks; I didn’t smoke, hardly drank, and still that was all I could afford. But Hag had a deal where you could make a one-time payment up front, then rent a couple of CDs at a time for £1 each; if you then decided to buy them, the CDs would be £1 cheaper than the cover price. Very fair, and a godsend for a music nut like me in a time of unemployment.

(Great man, Hag, an ex-student, and stood for election as the local Labour candidate in the 1998 election when Tony Blair came to power and Labour put an end to 17 years of the Tories… He didn’t get elected, ‘cos Lampeter was in the Plaid Cymru heartland—that’s the Welsh national party—but came a good second.)

On the occasion I want to talk about, I borrowed Mark of the Mole by The Residents, a special edition of the CD which included Intermission—music played during the intermission of the tour they did at the time—and sleeve notes explaining how you should programme the CD if you wanted to listen to the two mixed together as they were meant to be. This was the first Residents album I’d heard, and I was perhaps more than a little influenced by the middle-aged assistant in Hag’s Records, whose view was that the Residents were, well, “Weird but not wonderful.”

He—I think his name was Bob—or Dave?—was a big Can fan. Another remark of his was that he only regretted selling the records he had of two artists—Can and Captain Beefheart. I now have everything Can ever recorded, although I’ve yet to catch up on the Captain. Another great comment of his was on Björk, something like, “Her name is like the sound I want to make when I hear her music.” Beautifully opinionated, which no doubt appealed to me, even if I didn’t always agree—soon after that Björk released Homogenic and I was hooked; and he hated Jethro Tull (“Why would I want to listen to a multi-millionaire who dresses like a beggar and jumps around on one leg?”), who are undoubtedly the band who have endured most throughout my constantly-changing record collection. On one occasion I think I got the better of him—Hag had just got in a special edition of Tabula Rasa by Einstürzende Neubauten, with two bonus eps and an interview disc. Being inclined to check out anything German at the time, I borrowed the CD, loved it, and went back to Hag’s to buy the thing. Hag reckoned it was probably just the price of a double-album, and gave it me for about £14. You could have picked the assistant’s jaw up off the floor. He thought it should have been three times that price as a limited special edition, and that I’d just got the deal of the year. I was chuffed. Anyway, back to the story.)

Weird the album was, but there were definitely some moments of wonder. At the time I thought most of the best moments were in the somewhat lighter Intermission part—it was my first Resident's album, you know?—I was on the cusp of my musical tastes turning a little odd (Can, Faust, Neubauten, Residents) but wasn’t quite there yet. And I listened to this album over and over, and it started to grow on me, but, somehow, not enough. I loved parts, but didn't ‘get’ others. And I decided that, on my one £7-CD a fortnight budget, this wasn't the one. I did what I now consider sacrilege, and made a taped copy, abusing of the fairness of Hag’s rental deal. And worse, I edited the almost 70-minute CD down to fit onto a 45-minute cassette, removing the parts I didn't ‘get'. Took the CD back, and borrowed something else, I don’t remember what. And this truncated corruption followed me to Germany when I got a job teaching English in the university of Jena.

In July 1999, The Residents performed in the Kulturarena in Jena, and I went to see the concert with Frank, an ex-student of mine. Though not a ‘fan’ at that point, I was amazed that in our city of 100,000 people in the old East Germany, we would get a band like that to perform, and there was never any question about seeing them live. They were touring Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, and it was quite simply the most incredible concert I had ever seen. It still is—the next time I saw anything in the same league was Trey Gunn's guitar playing at the KTU concert in 2005, again Kulturarena. It was more like performance art than rock concert. By the end there was nothing more that the initially bewildered audience could do than to stand up and applaud. Both Frank and I came away fans. And I went home and dug out that cassette of Mark of the Mole, and a hunt began.

The 'horror' of what I had done—copying the CD, truncating it, and onto cassette of all things—finally began to hit home. I scanned the sales catalogue of EuroRalph, The Resident’s record company in Europe, but couldn’t find the CD I had heard not more than two years before. It was a special edition, and Mark of the Mole was normally released without Intermission. Intermission itself—a 20-minute CD—was released separately, and for almost the same price as the main album. That was no good! I wanted both—in one place, and in the right playing order! I had no computer at the time, and what is common now—ripping the CD in iTunes and making your own playlists—was unknown to me then. I could have bought both CDs and copied them onto a cassette (!) in the right order, but no. I wanted the CD I had once had in my hands, but had slipped through them, through the limitations which being unemployed impose, and through the greed of being able to copy and return. And I searched and searched and searched but could not find.

Fast forward seven years. A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing on Amazon and came across a new special edition of Mark of the Mole, beautifully packaged, including lyrics, and accompanied by Intermission on a separated CD. Purchase was instantaneous. Two CDs are now no problem in this age of the iPod. True, it wasn’t the actual CD I had quested after, but I could finally listen to the album in all its glory. And glorious it is too; an epic metaphor on the woes and prejudices of immigration, cast in an industrial mould with hints of folk and jazz. One of the finest CDs I have, without a doubt.

The title of this post is ‘Unemployment’, and to me finally managing to find Mark of the Mole has made me think about what that aspect of my life meant to me. That quest was the only lasting result. Before I came to Germany I sold off almost all my music and anything superfluous in order to scrape together enough money to survive the first few months. Now I’m surrounded by books, CDs and DVDs, and I’ve had a job for eight years. I may be bouncing along the bottom of my overdraft, but at least I know that if I don’t indulge and buy too many X-Files DVDs (oops! too late!) I can actually improve my financial standing. But that Residents CD somehow represents everything I associate with being unemployed; the limitation, the frustration, the misplaced opportunities, the bad choices. Everything good that happened seemed to come from outside: moving to Germany, teaching in the university. Listening to the album nine years after I last heard it is somehow like putting a full stop on a period of my life.

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