Sunday, 19 October 2014

That's me in the corner.

I've never been a superstitious man. Not in the least little bit, and, touch wood, it's never done me any harm.

I can remember a time I believed in God, and I can remember the time I began to doubt. I was about seven years old and my routine, after school, was to play out, eat, play out some more and then come in when the streetlamps came on. If I'd been good I was allowed out until they were fully on, if I'd transgressed I'd only be allowed to continue playing "kerby" until they changed from red to orange and if I'd been a "little bastard" (My mother had the loveliest pet names for me) then as soon as they began to turn red I had to be in. It was the perfect system, in those days the only Apple or Blackberry we seven year old street urchins had were pulled off the trees or bushes meaning, once outside, we were off the grid and uncontactable. I can recall charging headlong through the streets as the glow of the lamps cycled through like a countdown, crashing through our back door in the nick of time.

The streetlamps had a sensor on them telling them when darkness was approaching, which meant that curfew time varied greatly throughout the year. For one period of my eighth year on this planet this meant I would be in just before the evening news came on the television. I'd sit on the floor using my Action Men to act out some heroic battle, thwarting the Nazi onslaught or slaying a giant (from their perspective) clockwork robot as I made "pew-pew" noses.

One evening a story caught my eye as my Action Man lay dying on the battlefield.

The photograph on the screen showed a smiling, cheeky, seven year old boy with dark, wavy hair and wearing a tee-shirt just like the one my mother had bought me the week before. Action Man's injuries forgotten (He later died but was restored, miraculously, to life by a magical orb that looked suspiciously like a marble,) I watched the proper news for the first time. Grown-up news rather than the very excellent "John Craven's Newsround".

The little boy's name escapes me now, but he was missing. There was a massive search taking place in the area he was last seen, a wooded area with streams and ponds and bushes to build dens in. A similar place to the woods in which I spent a lot of that year, splashing in the streams and swimming in the ponds and building dens in the bushes. I loved it there.

To my childish mind the little boy was outwitting those that were looking for him, hiding in increasingly ingenious places and stifling his giggles as the boots of the searchers fell inches from his cheeky, dirty face.

And it was going dark, how much more exciting would the woods be at nighttime? He was a lucky boy.

I followed the story, every night, for almost a fortnight. I was becoming more and more impressed with his achievement, outsmarting dozens of police men and many more volunteers.

Then a man was arrested. Had he been helping the boy? Was he a kindly grown-up that had been taking him food to assist in his adventure? The police had him now though, would this lead to the boy slipping up and being captured, driven home by the Rozzers to the arm's of his ecstatic parents who I'd seen on the television begging him to come home and telling him he wasn't in any trouble?

"Ha", I'd thought, "he won't see that, you can't watch telly in a treehouse."

The night after the arrest the adventure was over, the little boy had been found. Dead.

Not the kind of dead that could be cured by a marble-like orb either, but actual, proper dead. Dead and buried in a shallow grave on waste ground. He'd been dead since before I'd first seen his photograph. The man that had been, in my childish imagination, providing him with packets of Wagon Wheels and bottles of pop was charged with killing him. I continued following the story, even coming home whilst the streetlamps were still red as the winter nights drew in.

Eventually, the whole truth was out. I struggled to make sense of it all. A grown up had killed a little boy, but why? Didn't that man know about God? Even if he'd gotten away with it, God would know, and you don't fuck about with a Deity.

This man knew he would go to Hell. He was a grown up, he must have known, and Hell was awful. Terrifying. Why would someone kill someone in the sure and certain knowledge that this would bring eternal damnation? Tortured, for ever and ever. Why would he do that? Did he know something I didn't know? Was there a technicality that enabled murderers to avoid eternal damnation in fiery pits? I needed the sage like wisdom of my father.

"Because it's all bollocks, son."

"FRANK." Shouted my mum, for that was his name. "It is not all bollocks."

I asked why, if it was all bollocks, we'd had to go to church last week. After a bollocking for my use of the word "bollocks" my father went on to explain...

"Because your sister wants to go to Brownies." I don't know if it's the same nowadays, but back then church attendance was a requirement of membership.

My Granddad's response was slightly more ambiguous. "I hope not son," He'd said from within his cloud of Condor, "or I'm in deep shit." He smiled.

"JACK." Shouted Gran Kath, for that was his name. "Stop bleeding swearing."

Having had worse than useless advice from both the major role models in my life, and with Google several decades away, I had no choice but to think for myself. 

The literature available in the school library was a little one-sided, Richard Dawkins was yet to be published, so I joined the local library, the most grown up thing I'd done up until that point. I now had a proper, official looking card to go in the plastic wallet I'd got from the cover of a comic, alongside my Dennis The Menace Fan Club membership card.

The space race was still very recent history, the Americans having landed on the moon the year I was born and the world already having tired of this miracle, and in it's wake it had left a large section of the library's floor space dedicated to the subject. I quickly forgot about my research into God and began reading about Gagarin, Shepherd and Armstrong instead. About rockets and satellites and other planets. About beautiful stars and complex galaxies that twinkled and of the mysterious, velvety darkness that stretched on into infinity in the skies. I saw colour photographs of the Earth taken from the Heavens above.

Once I'd had my fill of the heavens I turned my attention to monsters. Dinosaurs. I looked at colourful pictures of long dead creatures, creatures that no man had ever seen. I wondered how the artist knew the great lizards were green or brown if no one had ever seen them and discovered artistic license.

The bones of the beasts had been found beneath ground trapped in rocks. I read about rocks, about volcanoes and molten cores filling the space below our feet, grinding and drifting and bubbling and boiling away. Hell below us.

Over the years, as I learnt more, I became less and less confident in an afterlife until I reached a point where I was able to make up my own mind. I decided I was an Atheist. I'm not here to preach to anyone about my beliefs, if whatever you believe makes your journey more pleasant for you then I'm very happy you have it, enjoy it. For what it's worth, I think it'd be nice if you were right, but I also think my way's nice. Oblivion, blessed oblivion. The sleep that even my big dog's wet nose couldn't disturb.

The little boy's murder had started me on a path of questioning everything. Why? What if? Where does that go? What does that do? I was hungry for knowledge. Not on any one subject, on every subject. I'd take apart toys and electrical devices just to see how they worked, I watched television shows intended for those far beyond my years. I read books and newspapers and, once my parents had moved us from my childhood home and into a pub, I got the chance to meet people that I'd never normally have met and learn first hand from those that knew. I sit here with a head filled with some of the most useless information you can possible imagine, though occasionally even the most trivial snippet can come in handy.

I never deny my faith in the impending oblivion, but I tend to keep my mouth shut unless asked. I may "tut" when DickFingers greets a magpie with a salute, sometimes I'll do things that I know people regard as unlucky to prove a, very satisfying, point to myself. Those that believe are just like me, they believe in something. It may not be the same something that I believe in, but it makes absolutely no difference.

A good friend of mine was a believer in just about everything. From copper bracelets for rheumatism to fairies, she was as nutty as a fruitcake and absolutely lovely.

She had managed to befriend a local celebrity in the form of a professional psychic medium. He would go from pub to pub charging people fifteen pounds each to sit in a room with him while he channeled the spirits of the dead to answer the questions of the living.

I don't know if I could be described as a sceptic, since I have no reservations, I was sure he wasn't really talking to the dead. I've been a big fan of Derren Brown for quite some time. Mr Brown, who is at pains to point out he is not psychic, is far better at pretending to be psychic than this particular, "bona fide" psychic,

I've no intention of naming this particular chap. In these litigious days I'd be a fool to, although I own one pair of shoes with no bloody sole in the right one so the chances of him getting a penny from me would be slim. Still, I need these shoes, so I'll keep my mouth shut, just in case.

My friend became something of a groupie, as indeed did several of the other regular visitors to his show. Some of them, my friend included, would put his posters in their windows, sell tickets in the pub and get there early to help him set up. My friend was disabled and, on the evening of one of these shows, needed someone to push her to the venue as her boyfriend was working overtime. I pushed her, the smoke from the cigarettes she chain-smoked trailing behind us like a steam train, through the ginnels and back entries of Salford.

She was busily texting as we rolled along. Texting her friends, the ones that would be going to the show. If I have one vice, it's nosiness. I just couldn't help myself, I read them all.

"RU comng to [psychic's name] shw 2nite? xxx" was sent to a number of names in her contact list. The responses came thick and fast.

Many responded, some didn't. Those that did reply said a number of things. The exact words escape me, but each answer was along the lines of;

"Ye luv, me n sis hoping [insert relation here] comes thru again xx"

"CU there chick, been dreaming about [dead husband/child/grandfather's name] all week x

"Might be l8, [living husband's name] cant drive me, his foots bad agen, get me a g&t in xxx"

And after each message had been read, it was forwarded. Guess who to?

I didn't tell her what I'd seen. I didn't really care, It was none of my business. Those in the audience must be aware it's a trick, I thought. No one really believes in this stuff. Harmless fun.

Except it wasn't. These people were almost evangelical about it. There were a couple of non-believers in the audience, more vocal than I, but these were shushed and tutted at by the faithful, their pointing out of the errors in his performance falling on deaf ears. There's none so deaf as those that won't listen.

I watched the crowd from my seat in the corner. Some laughed, some cried, some promised to go to the doctors or to find that policy they'd lost. And some of the words he spoke to them I recognised from the texts my friend had received.

Until this point I'd sort of imagined that he must be a really skilled psychologist using his skills to manipulate the audience and appear to be channeling the dead. I thought there might even be a chance he was doing this unconsciously and actually believed he was "magic". Now it was obvious that he was just cheating. He wasn't magic and knew it, he wasn't even any good at pretending to be magic. He just suffered from the same vice as I, nosiness, but he'd made a rather lucrative career from it.

Still, the old and the bereaved had enjoyed themselves and at the end of the evening, many of them having nursed one drink all night since the fifteen quid entrance fee had cleaned out the last of their pensions or bingo winnings, they shook his hand and kissed his cheek then filed out into the cold night air. My friend had sat by the door collecting the money and handing out little prayer cards to be filled in and put in the box used during the floorshow. Just under fifty people had paid to come in. There were a few more there that, like my friend, hadn't paid and had greeted the star of the show with a kiss. They tended not to have any messages intended for them come through, but they oohed and ahhed when others received messages from their own loved ones. They were the last to leave, having had a drink with their idol after the hoi polloi had departed, and giggled like school girls as they massaged his ego. It was like a scene from Peter Kay's "Phoenix Nights".

Of course, my own sure and certain knowledge that this particular medium is a shyster in no way proves any of the others are. I believe they're all shysters, to a man/woman, but I can't prove it and why should I have to? My disbelief in other's beliefs doesn't spoil their enjoyment, nor does their disbelief in my disbelief cause me any distress. If anything, I find the "trolling" I'm subjected to from the fans of such shysters amusing, especially the death threats.

A death threat from someone that believes in an afterlife, like the threat of a damn good thrashing from a masochist, seems ironic.

These death threats appear to me as little boxes of text that I can, and generally do, choose to ignore, to giggle at or show DickFingers before clicking the little "x" and forgetting all about it. I've no doubt that some of those people who feel so passionately about their belief in a movement that sprang from a practical joke that got out of hand would indeed, if they could get their hands on me, slap me, punch me, rape my grandmother (That particular threat came from the host of a little watched television show, a professional ghost-hunter) or pull my pigtails, but they can't, and their impotence gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

The husband of a television medium was recently caught on camera abusing a chap in the street. A chap that was handing out leaflets to people visiting his wife's show. The leaflets urged people to think about what they would be experiencing, to question if the lady on the stage was actually speaking with the spirits of lost loved ones and providing a valuable service, or if they were witnessing a slick stage show designed to entertain. The husband threatened physical violence, called the man a "poof", inquired as to whether or not his pallid complexion was as a result of one of his boyfriends penetrating his anus recently, then informed the chap that they knew "all about" his life and had done a full check on his background.

Something I'm sure he's never done to any of the people that have bought tickets to his wife's shows, having provided him with their own names, email addresses (and therefore Facebook profiles) and billing addresses during the booking process. That would be cheating. 

This oaf really did believe that using the man's sexuality as an insult would upset him. He also seemed convinced he was some sort of gangster, at one point threatening the leaflet distributor would be "lifted" and disappear. I've met gangsters. I've never heard a gangster threaten anyone. Those that talk instead of fighting, my father always said, were "shitbags, son". His advice, which came from a simpler age, was that if someone was telling you what they were going to do to you then, at some point before they finished giving you a run down of their intentions, you should "slap them in the fucking throat, son. Bullies always talk when they could be fighting."

The husband's defence of his wife's art was self preservation. His wife's social media presence was, until recently, huge. Photographs of her family, her pets, her home and her lifestyle gave her fans an insight into her happy and successful life. A life paid for by her fans and a life she and her husband enjoy greatly. A life he is determined to protect. A serious deficit in the social-skills and anger-management departments, his approach has proven to be potentially career-destroying and almost universally unacceptable.

But only almost.

The video is there for the world to see, the abuse and the threats are undeniable and haven't been denied. There was a pathetic attempt to sully the reputation of the man with the leaflets and a list of extenuating, and spurious, circumstances that led to an otherwise pleasant, level headed chap turning into a cross between Bernard Manning and Joe Pesci, but the lack of any apology just leapt from the page. And still people defend him.

It's a form of Stockholm Syndrome. The fans of the wife have invested money and time in her, have been fooled by her and, deep down, know it, but no one wants to look a fool. Do you remember when your friend told you there was no Father Christmas? Did you swear blind they were wrong? Or that they were lying? Did you tell them that you knew for certain there was a Father Christmas and you'd seen his footprints? And not only his footprints but you'd seen him really, really, standing there and he smiled at you and anyway your granddad has met him when he was in the war and who else would've eaten that carrot if not a reindeer?

Yes, okay, your friends controversial theory seemed plausible. Your mum and dad really might have been hiding your Action Man or Big Trak in the wardrobe for weeks before putting them out on Christmas Eve, but which is more likely? That people you admire are lying to you, or that an immortal, fat man keeps mythical creatures as slaves and forces them to build toys, unnecessarily since the shops sell those self same toys, then once a year performs a miracle, bending the laws of space and time and delivering a gift to any child that has managed to go a whole year without being a little bastard.

Actually, now I come to think of it, I reckon he could manage that last feat. There can't be a single kid on Earth that doesn't engage in a smidgen of little-bastardness from time to time.

We all exaggerate, every one of us. When describing a card trick that has amazed us we want our peers to be equally amazed, so we'll swear blind we never took our eyes of the card, and that he never moved his hands, even though we did, and so did he. We know we've been tricked but we've enjoyed being tricked and we want to share it. It's harmless enough.

When someone says "oh, yes, I've seen that. He palms a card/forces a card/has a trick deck" we say no, they're wrong, it's cleverer than that, but it's not. It's just a trick. And we enjoy it even though the delightful Ms Debbie McGee hasn't put a horses head in our beds.

Ms McGee isn't given to idle threats anyway, she goes from naught to psycho "just like that".

All the man with the leaflets wants is for people to think. People enjoying an entertaining sideshow is fine. A perfectly ordinary woman pretending to speak with your dead loved ones is a little bit creepy but, with the suspension of disbelief, as harmless as a scary movie.

Most of the fans they've already accrued would've probably paid little or no attention to the leaflets, but even if they had all the man being shouted at outside the venue was asking was that they should just think, then decide. They might even remain convinced, or choose to continue enjoying the show...

...and all without him having to murder a schoolboy.


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