Physics with Christ

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I was gratified by the volume of feedback received after the recent post titled ‘Plate‘. I had not realised that my account of the serendipitous purchase of a green towel in as-new condition would strike a chord with so many readers of ‘Strength Weekly’, an online entity. It is true that towels are comforting and also of great use. Were they sentient, they would know us intimately and be repositories of our secrets.

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I was sitting in a café reading A Certain Tendency in Hollywood Cinema 1930-80 by Robert Ray and from time to time I would glance up to think. It was a sunny afternoon and the café was open to the street. Immediately in front of me sat two women and a little boy. The women were talking to the boy and he would say things to them. I realised after a while that the boy was deaf and that the women were mouthing their speech to him without speaking out loud. I continued reading.

When Ray said that most American films followed themes first established in westerns I looked up to think again. A man at a table next to the women and child had been greeted by another man. The man standing in the street talked animatedly to his seated friend. Despite being perhaps six feet away from them I realised I could not hear what they were saying. Clearly these two were also deaf. I wondered what it was about the café that attracted members of the deaf community.

Ray said that the classic objective of the western, and many western-like films, was to demonstrate how the individual could preserve his individualism at the same time as acting for the good of the community. But as I raised my head again I was seized by the irrational thought that I had myself become deaf and I swung my head round to scan the clientele inside the café. Their hubbub was exactly what would be expected moreover none of the patrons appeared to be deaf. I turned back to the deaf people ranged before me. Then I noticed a certain play of the light in the sky. It was an effect of the very clean plate glass window fitted between my table and the tables in the street. Very very clean.

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I asked the waiter Who cleans your windows? They are exceptional.
He said I don’t know – a guy comes once a week. I don’t know his name. We all like his work. We don’t do windows ourselves.

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At the party later the hosts had a beautiful swimming pool in their garden. As it was a warm evening they had pulled open the big glass doors of the sitting room, effectively removing one wall of the space. One could walk across the flagstones onto the patio, which was similarly paved. Carrying a glass of prosecco, I made my way to the buffet laid out beside the pool. As I pressed past some of the guests I became aware that my right foot was wet. Within a moment my left foot was wet. Now things were happening at great speed, particularly within my nervous system. I was standing in the pool and there was not a moment to be lost. And then, on the tail of that moment, I found myself on dry land, still clutching my prosecco. My shoes and socks were soaked but the darkness only reached an inch up my trouser legs. I didn’t really mind. The warmth of my feet would dry everything out. My host asked if I was all right. I reassured him. I realised I had contacted my inner Christ. This, for an atheist fundamentalist such as myself, is no small beer. I had walked on water. My body, loath to become sodden, had, if only for a trice, overcome conventional physics. In my mind, hopefully not in a patronising way, I complimented my body.

A few minutes later, by which time the poolside had become crowded with guests loading plates, a woman in high heels, carrying a plate of various salads, cried out. She was sinking quite fast into the pool. Lacking, I supposed, my own fortunate if unlikely inner supernatural resources and not helped by her heels, she was already calf deep. A man leaned over and extended his arm. As she leaned over and extended her arm, they made contact, the effect of which was to tip the woman onto her side, after which she sank, if only momentarily, completely beneath the surface. The man at the poolside somehow had her salad but he also had her arm. My hostess took the woman, whose mood was gamely upbeat, upstairs where they discovered that they had sizes in common, including shoes, both pairs of which, the doused and the dry, it happily transpired, were in the style called nude. The woman towelled herself down and returned to the patio looking perfectly smart.

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In a documentary film the other night about the war time codebreakers of Bletchley a woman takes a strip of paper and licks it in order to stick it in a logbook of some sort. I was surprised to note that I was shocked by this image. In my time I have licked a quantity of envelopes, many stamps and, in the years before adhesive tape, length after length of brown gummed paper, known to we children of Austerity 1.0 as brown sticky paper. The white heat of subsequent adhesives technology has, of course, taken us all beyond the need to use our tongues to facilitate the adhesion of, say, paper and package. So common was such licking in my youth that I would often consider and sometimes practise the licking of unsuitable materials. I licked metals and woods, the latter sometimes still attached to trees or shrubbery. Often the tastes would make me smile in a way that was quite unconnected to pleasure, rather it was what my face muscles did in reaction to the chemical assault.

I had a cousin, cousin Gareth, from the Welsh side. He wasn’t actually my cousin but some relation or other. Gareth told me not to eat soap. He was staying with us for a day or two and came into the bathroom as I was conducting a curious experiment. This involved licking a bar of soap in order to see whether I could bear the taste, which I could not bear. I had been carrying out tests for a number of days: just one lick followed by noisy gagging. Gareth’s words were “David, you know you shouldn’t do that.” I can’t remember if I thought he thought I was mad. Is it possible for someone to be that imperturbable? Perhaps Gareth had licked soap in his youth and knew that it was just a phase.

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At the time I couldn’t not lick the soap. I wanted to not lick it and I also wanted to not feel that I must lick it. If I didn’t know what licking it would be like – which is an unlikelihood – then after the first lick I very much knew. But I went on licking. I think I may have been testing the limits of my manhood. This suggests that my idea of a man was one who can regularly survive the introduction to his body of vileness. Given the manhood models available even back then, my gagging was entirely inappropriate. Kirk Douglas, for example, would slide the bar into his mouth and routinely bite the end off. He would then munch the chunk and swallow the slippery surfactant without the trace of a grimace, let alone a convulsion. A few years later, Clint Eastwood would do much the same – Clint would not be copying Kirk, he would simply punish personal feeblenesses as they arose on the trail by passing his tongue across a red bar crudely hewn from a larger slab kept in a cool place in the shadows of the ranch house. So thorough was his application of the unbalm that weakness would flicker only briefly at the periphery of his consciousness before guttering then expiring.

But when the woman from Bletchley licked the paper strip I thought not of manhood but infection. And not even in a sensible way, where because you don’t know where it’s been the paper gives you germs. Everything gives you germs, of course, but they are usually harmless. I thought ‘She will give germs to the paper.’ This is clearly nuts. But I understand it. In my mind, for which I take only partial responsibility, we have all become infectious because we do not lick enough inappropriate surfaces. This starts to sound less nuts when one considers the importance of reinforcing the immune system – in our infancy, at least – by exposing ourselves – usually inadvertently – to a wide range of pathogens.

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I must confess, however, that in a part of my mind that is, let’s face it, primitive, we have all become toxic. To a point where paper should give us a wide berth. It would be odd to suggest that we should get back to more catholic licking styles but it wouldn’t hurt, I think, if they showed, for example, more stamp licking on television. The under 20s would have to have the practice explained to them but it would serve to compensate for the only partially conscious realisation that in an unrelentingly consumerist society our mouths have become obsolete insofar as the goods now consume us. We should cultivate passivity in order that we do not contaminate those goods.

In another Oxfam I was poking about when it occurred to me that if I was ever to obtain a non-Swedish language edition of Stephen King’s ‘11.22.63’ (see ‘Plate‘) it would help to be confident of the category under which it might be shelved. My snobbisme told me that it wouldn’t be under ‘Fiction’ because that means Not Genre. (Many critics feel that Non-Genre Fiction cannot be held to be a genre. How could it be? they say.) As for Genre, it could not be Horror, the writer’s most widely employed category, nor was it Fantasy because that usually denotes a casual attitude to the laws of physics. As a time travel and alternative universe story it would count as Science Fiction, the only other genre category besides Thrillers to earn shelf space in this particular Oxfam. As I mused on these rather uninvigorating matters I spotted some fat books lying on their sides. ‘I wonder…” I wondered. Yes. There it was. These things only happen when you’re ready for them. Rubbish.

The jovial man with glasses who runs the till was pulling a big box on a trolley towards the back. I said ‘Nice box.’ He said ‘I bet you say that to everyone’. Yes, I know. But he did say it.

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On a stool a woman gazed out of the window in the café further down the road. They had opened the window because it was warm. You could hear the traffic outside. She was just gazing and I was just looking.

She leaned forward and took the leaf of the pot plant between her finger and thumb and rubbed it. Then she grasped the stem and brusquely bent it towards her. When she released it it sprang away from her. It was too good to be true or not true enough to be any good. That this was clear to her was clear, even across a crowded room.

Next door was the shop which, it seems, will often be there and in it the box in which was the lovely blue towel that I seized and purchased. Now I had two, not including the ones I already had anyway, from other occasions.

I took it home and felt that I should raise it to my face in order to report on it for Strength Weekly, an enduring journal and platform. As if having washed I lifted it to my face and pressed it so that the light dimmed. In that darkness my eyes were closed anyway but did not, I suppose, have to be. I waited for sensations to do with the loop, softness and absorbency but instead there came pieces of thought and flashes of pictures, racing feelings as if glimpsed from a train window, voices some of which sounded like me others not

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02.10.2014

Natty Dread

Market day in Dreadlock City. Down from the hills and out of the tipis they are coming in twos and threes. The ones who have come far have backpacks. Some have guitars. A tiny lady in her sixties in a black dress, upper arms tattooed, gold pierces, bare foot, leads a little black dog. A big red-haired guy in a long kilt and heavy boots strides across the bridge. I’m parking the Berlingo. Earlier on I had seen, from the car, a group of five in baggy Indian pants, wrapped around with yellow cloth, some with mohicans, some shaven heads, others with long black locks or skanky dreads. Now the group is over the bridge and moving past the gas station. The local people stare, not over-critically – they’re used to it.

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One man is really striking – he has a thin, dark brown cotton blanket over his head and shoulders and strongly resembles Jesus Christ as played by the Spanish student Enrique Irazoqui in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s remarkable 1964 B&W bibler ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’.

Pasolini, a Marxist atheist, dressed the characters in his period movies in costumes that combined elements of the street with the wardrobes deployed by 15th century painters such as Piero della Francesca. In the case of Irazoqui he had cast a haunted, pale youth who glowed with pained earnestness and dressed him so that he seemed interchangeable with the beat kids and travellers who were beginning to thumb their way around Europe at that time.


It’s doubtful whether Pasolini’s politics would have led him to endorse the apolitics of the wandering youth, but their evident disaffection might have struck him as amenable to some sharpening and adjustment. His Christ is an enflamed revolutionary whose long speeches drawn directly from the Gospels and addressed straight to camera have such a mesmerising effect that even a fundamentalist atheist, such as Strength Weekly’s currently foreign correspondent, might be persuaded to reconsider whether it was entirely right not to have helped that old lady across the road.

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It is probable that Christ did not thumb rides, but he was not above borrowing other people’s transport on special occasions. On Palm Sunday, according to several of the Gospels, he got two of his disciples to take a colt or donkey from a nearby field in order that he could ride it into Jerusalem.


Some years later, in 1957, thanks to Jack Kerouac, hitch-hiking was repurposed as spiritual practice. The causality is evident. I clearly remember, despite having been counselled never to ‘take a short ride’, my own ecstatic reaction to being deposited, in 1962, on the outskirts of the village of Melbourne, some seven miles out from my home town, after my very first attempt to hitch-hike to London. I had been blessed.


Kerouac admired his friend and travelling companion Neal Cassady, whom he considered to be a complete, radiant and thoroughly present being. The writer himself felt like a pale shadow of the permanently wired hipster yet was widely regarded as the very incarnation of the man liberated from context.

Kerouac mentions the looks he got when he descended into towns wild-haired from the road. He was entirely aware of his eccentricity and probably died as a result of resisting the notion, thrust on him by fans and critics alike, that, as a saint, he should be blissfully unaware of his own radiant awareness. By all accounts, he endured throughout his celebrity a nagging awareness of his limited awareness and an exaggerated sense of his unsuitedness for high spiritual office. He didn’t feel like the real thing.
In the olden days, of course, there were big people who were the real thing all day long and didn’t even know it! These were the people admired by lesser people who not only imitated their bigness but affected a lack of awareness that they – the imitators – were perceived as incandescent . They were not incandescent, of course, but they understood that the effect would be compromised by their appearing to know about it.

The original big (I refer to magnitude of being, not stature) people lived over a million years ago and were authentically themselves. Their radiance has been emulated everafter.


The ‘angel-headedness’ of the hipster was his (there were no girl hipsters) emblem of ignorance. He was oblivious. In extreme circumstances this had led to Dennis leaning on the live electric hob and not noticing until the elbow of his leather jacket had burned through. This would, generally, be unusual, for a degree of poise was required to maintain the balance between innocence and experience.


Setting aside the toothsome debate about Jesus’s own levels of self-consciousness (I think he knew he was weird, right?), I return to the Berlingo and its satisfying rear double doors that open to reveal chest-high shelving, so handy for stacking boogie boards. Walking away from the hired vehicle I look over my shoulder in response to a call behind me.

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The young man with the blanket on his head walks towards me, his hand extended, as if in greeting. He is holding something that he wants me to have. On closer inspection I identify my Armani wraparound shades.

(Well, it says Armani on them and at €5 a pop that guy on the stall obviously doesn’t know he’s sitting on a goldmine!) I must have dropped them as I fastened the car doors.


The young Jesus smiles amiably and I realise that he has no particular axe to grind about the crass stylishness of my fashion items. In Christ’s own day, I imagine, and this is just me imagining, they wore a piece of wood with slits in.

For a moment I rather liked the idea that this striking crusty loved me unconditionally and could, if he felt like it, produce any number of designer leisure accessories and pass them among the people that they need not squint as the rays fell upon them. Then I reverted morosely to the view that we are all copies now.

10.08.2008