so the craft apocalypse then

Don Kant, stubbled balding emergent paunchy English dog trudging resentful in seething August noon heat along a railway track, sharpened selfie stick hanging accessibly from his belt. Why always railway tracks? Their plots arc nowhere and accomplish nothing.

Ever a peripheral eye to the dense trees, looking for approaching wankers either singly or herding.

It had started with that sweaty eight minute address delivered by Bojack Churchill from his wood bunker, ordering all to stay in their rooms like teenagers Emily Dickinson fashion and not come out, even for nachos with extra-cheesy jalapeno sauce. Very fast essential food can continue. Bojack Churchill succumbed thereafter and took to his bed, leaving Don in puppet string charge. Blank and bemused, his skills in leadership untested, Don tried daily to keep the people informed, to small avail, managing only to remind journalists vicariously that they were mute, and then remaining essentially mute himself. Bojack Churchill soon recovered, and returned to wakefulness, but shunned the public, venturing the occasional unkempt incoherence. This delivered tremors to Don’s sense of calm being, so he took steps to return to his former life as a teacher.

For a time he had sat in his empty classroom and admired the order. Time enough at last, Star Wars stocking feet on the permanently cleared desk, to reflect on then till now progression from when in those heeding former days he was offered his first responsibility as Second In Paperclips to here as Deputy Flightplan Head. Except there were no flights anymore. Only taped off distant perspex screened vacant desks, which had at first been occupied sporadically by children of less frightened parents. In the end all had stayed away. Scholarship and most eye contact went online, but the once spittle-dripped nightly sterilised screens served now merely to aid memory of a brief turbulent resurgence. The unread wall displays were in good order and every glue stick was accounted for.

The post-apocalypse August railtrack metal was rusted, all trains forever delayed, but as his grapefruit sour stained boots crunched onward through dried used toilet paper and discarded pasta, a single shining rivet somehow untarnished pushed a thin sharp sun needle into Don’s dry red left eye, forcing his gaze adrift of the track. A lone wanker was staggering towards him, emerging from the woods, a herd likely not far behind. The characteristic lack of grace and intense partially digested wild freshly chopped garlic breath were perceptible even at a distance of several metres. Don’s gut churned with apprehension as he saw that the wanker was spilling his can of intentionally hazy seven percent New England IPA all down his Berghaus Fellmaster jacket, optional fleece removed. Even though he knew there was no life in the true sense behind the wanker’s clouded eyes and decayed face, Don’s bowels slackened a little as the wanker’s arid Satanic incantation gained earshot. ‘In these unprecedenty locktimes when all our yesterdays are furlonged but death is still working full time, we need to kickstart our lives again. I refer you to this copy of the current guidelines which I have taped to the thigh of my Rohan trousers. If you want to sit on the sofa surrounded by fusilli, Andrex and wholemeal flour, good for you, but don’t tell me I can’t come to the woods on a sunny day and marvel at how basking sharks have nested here again for the first time in a hundred and fifty years.’

We needed to talk. Out of lipsync online simply wasn’t cutting it. Don’s arrangement of books displayed blurred on camera behind him never quite looked the right combination of erudite and bohemian well travelled. He had tried blank walls, piles of yellowing unread documents with broken electrical devices on top of them, even smearing the walls of the spare room with excrement in the style of a forgotten protest. Nothing worked. Nothing was as stately as those wood panels and flags featured so fervently in Bojack Churchill’s not quite live sweaty presidential address.

His enthusiasm for internal domestic space palled. Things were getting decidedly sub-optimal, so it was time to take to the road, or more precisely to the railway track. He hadn’t seen his son for a time not determined, and wondered had he succumbed to the multi-system pathogen?

Early in his odyssey Don learned the repurposing of the selfie stick. Bonhomie and social bonding initially the principal drive, he had attached a smartphone to it for the socially relevant aim of arm’s length distant photography. As the masts died, some of them responsibly immolated in an attempt to appease the pathogen, the smartphone was eventually consigned to a wet ditch where its battery faded, flashing and beeping a fifteen percent warning in the face of a passing vole and then along with everything and everyone else switching to monochrome battery saver mode before switching off. The stick however. One day feeling slightly heady having sipped off the last of a limited edition presentation case of eighteen percent liquorice and blueberry Imperial stout, Don was coasting through a rural two platform station where the announcements still played out to the carpark on a taped standby powered loop, when he noticed a group arguing with vitriol. The argument was to do with parking, all spaces in the carpark taken and all roadside spaces for fifty miles in either direction over the lovely rolling hills occupied too. Designated drivers leaned demurely on the carpark’s dry stone perimeter, sucking on the last of their Waitrose coriander and locust bean frozen yoghurts, but their passengers, drunk and entitled to their very core on the last ever Ocado delivery of their special reserve eucalyptus and fennel wild yeast oatmeal yellow porter, fought and shouted for all they might have been worth had events panned out differently. Instinctively, teacher mode of old kicking in, Don intervened, trying to appeal to their better selves. Ay there was the rub, for the pathogen had shut down all conscious systems leaving only autonomic speech and movement. A kind of walking coma. ‘What’s it got to do with you? We’re as entitled as you are to be out walking. Why should they have priority parking? What are you talking about? I only live four thousand miles away. The current guidelines say my dog needs its daily exercise and its bagged up shit in the open air. Not my fault if the dog bins are full. I’ll just leave it here. I’m not paid to sort it out.’ It was then that the now classic selfie stick through the eye socket move was born, spontaneously and out of need.

Popping back to the very narrative hot August railtrack current, the stick had since been sharpened and a little modified aerodynamically, and the efficacy of the move perfected, encounters with strangers always opening with the mettle-probing ‘How many wankers have you killed?’. The basking shark spotter had finished his autonomic whine and was reaching into his pocket for another can of Fear And Emotional Evisceration. Muscle memory twitched Don’s hand down towards the stick. But then cause for pause as the familiar shape of a small boy riding the sleepers toward him on a brightly coloured seventies Chopper bicycle breaking the horizon shimmer. Smelling the onset of indifference, the wanker lost interest and moved across the tracks. The small boy dismounted. ‘For fuck’s sake Dad. State of you. Get yourself home.’

so belief then

The human brain appears to have evolved a mechanism for developing belief from emotional need and nothing more than that. Belief can be based on evidence, but very often it is not. This explains belief in clairvoyance and  faith healing – activities that have been proven to be based on simple trickery so many times, that you would think the profession (if such it can be called) would have died out a very long time ago. But they bounce back time after time because people want to believe. Belief brings comfort when all other sources of hope appear to have dried up.

Belief also acts for many as a form of social cohesion. You spend money on your football team because you believe they are going to win. If your actions were only based on evidence there would be many Saturdays when you’d probably decide to save your money. Belief that runs counter to evidence in this way can also allow people to remain connected to those they have lost. Debbie Reynolds’ last words reportedly were that she just wanted to be with her daughter Carrie Fisher, even though humanity has seen no previous examples of such meetings taking place. Again it’s down to complexity. The feeling of a complex consciousness, with whom you have interacted in so many affirming ways, suddenly being excised from your life can feel too difficult to bear. Of course those coats and shoes have not been worn for the last time. That would be absurd: you’ll definitely see the person again some day. Before you know it this belief is shared and has collective rituals attached to it.

Paid work is in most cases a shared collective ritual. Belief in paid work is largely evidence based, in that if you don’t do it you can’t pay bills or treat yourself to that Ferrero Rocher baguette with chips and mayonnaise on a Friday night, washed down with a potato daiquiri of course. Aside from the hard evidence of money, this belief is helped along by the Protestant work ethic all the time telling you that any tasks you get through are self improving. So even a modest pension liberates you from all of that. The bonds are cut loose. But then inevitably you start wondering whether, if you’re not careful, you might lose contact with the forces that have kept you properly socialised until recently. This is where another form of belief comes in. You can go along to a local basket making club or volunteer in a charity shop, and your belief that these are self improving activities will sustain you. My problem, which I also had all the way through childhood, is that I’m very easily bored by organised predictable regularity. I belonged to a couple of sporting clubs when I was a child, but given that we were supposed to practise every week there were some weeks when I simply did not feel like going and got nothing out of it when I was there. This has in turn led me always to wonder why regular worship is considered a requirement of many religions. Belief, regardless of evidence, presumably tells you that the deity might in some way be displeased if you absented yourself. I’m more inclined to think she or he might be bored with seeing the same old faces every week.

So. How to avoid declining into that retired stereotype of a red faced old man with a comb-over, wearing a dressing gown with brown Jesus sandals and grey socks and laughing distractedly into his copy of the Daily Mail as he sips his pint of Jack Daniels at 10.30 each weekday morning in Wetherspoon’s? The likely answer is self-belief. Tricky, because a pre-requisite for self-belief is a degree of self-esteem, and I guess I will come out of the closet and admit that I have always had trouble with that too. But I now have some time to work on it, alone – which is probably a required state for beginning to deal with self-esteem. As I’ve said, being a teacher helped me a lot as a person, but I was never really wired for being enmeshed with the fates of so many people simultaneously with no real boundary to the process and no release from responsibility. I’ll now focus on tasks that can actually be completed.

so celebrity then

An old notion of celebrity promotes the assumption that of course anybody would put up with the restrictions on and intrusions into their private life in exchange for permanent financial security. Who would not want to banish forever rent payment angst, and who would not want unrestricted holidays? For some years now though we have been living with a bastardised twenty-first century notion of celebrity promoting the added assumption that in order to achieve celebrity you don’t need to be able to do anything except manage your image or allow others to manage it. Fictional worlds ironically originating from a form known as ‘reality TV’ hold out the hope that fame is something that can come from publicly playing out very short term achievements and is something that doesn’t have to be linked to extraordinary ability, long term success or determination. If you’re already known to the public in some capacity you have a head start which might enable you to boost your public profile by learning a few dance moves; or if you have no public profile you could bake some cakes and then earn some money from sponsorship deals; or you could publicly try and convince a dinosaur emotionally stunted business owner that you may be his next high powered executive, whatever that is. Or you could sing your heart out on national TV. (Well, don’t actually do that, given how under-resourced the health service is now.) Anyway it only takes a few weeks of your time, and you need none of the attributes of those old fashioned twentieth century celebrities. Who knows? Through nothing more than pushing your image you may even become the leader of the world’s most powerful country.

I was minded of all this while watching the recent BBC documentary on the last five years of David Bowie’s life, having previously not been aware of the extent to which he hated his celebrity status. There’s an obvious sense in which the media attention focused on him was self-inflicted. Why would he play out so publicly and ostentatiously such theatrical scenarios if he hadn’t wanted to draw attention to himself? He explains that he was a very shy person and when he performs in public he feels even more shy. Adopting a persona helps with that feeling. I can relate this to my teaching experience. While addressing the class or even while speaking to an individual student, I would sometimes switch without warning to an alternative voice, an alternative accent or both. When asked why I did it, my usual reply was that it just got me through the day alongside my unwillingness to take anything seriously for more than a few minutes. But I now realise that I may also have been covering performance anxiety. Fame can ultimately bring the possibility of choice though, so during the production of his final two albums Bowie took part in no publicity at all: no interviews, no locking himself in a fake house with other celebrities, no toughing it out in a jungle a couple of miles from a five star hotel, no cooking his signature dish on television while a professional chef pretended to be critical of him, no fake press leaks or pretentiously self-effacing Twitter posts. In fact, many of the musicians involved in his final creative endeavours had to sign NDA documents before they were taken on.

There’s that old cliché of making sure you don’t look back near death and wonder why you didn’t get around to doing some of the things on your bucket list.  Bowie had on his bucket list writing a musical and seeing it performed, reprising vicariously his character from The Man Who Fell To Earth. And the value of vicarious experience is not to be underrated if you ever get the chance to do any near-death reckoning of what you’ve accomplished in life. He returned to his his fave fictional character Major Tom more than once, commenting that he was his first so he held him in high regard. When asked why the preoccupation with space travel he said ‘It’s an interior dialogue that you manifest physically. It’s my little inner space, isn’t it, writ large? I wouldn’t dream of getting on a spaceship. It would scare the shit out of me.’ Often the interior version of the experience is enough. You don’t actually have to attach an elastic rope to your ankle and jump off.

Bowie also commented that the twenty-first century had so far been disappointing. Jury’s out, I guess, but he did live to see the availability of free personal micro-celebrity through social media. You can now repeatedly photograph yourself and share that image instantly with hundreds of people, in what must come close to an ultimate act of narcissism. Where previously it was the province of the traditional mass media to propagate images publicly, now pretty much anyone can do it. Your own face, your meals, your animals, what you are about to drink. Up to you really. It’s your Lazarus moment.