Thursday, 10 January 2013

Walking the Dead

I seem to have reached the age where friends and colleagues have started to die without the words "tragically young" routinely being attached to the event.  I've written before about the Forever Young illusion in relation to one's teachers, but it is even more of an awakener when one's first work colleagues start dropping off the perch, aged 80 plus, after a "full and active retirement".  What?  How did that happen?

A friend was asking what I thought the expression "walking the dead" means in David Bowie's surprise (and surprisingly moving) new release, "Where Are We Now?", which seems -- on one level, at least -- to be a song about aging, loss, and the spectre of dementia.  I think if you know what it feels like to be "a man lost in time near KaDeWe" *, then you have probably begun walking the dead, yourself.  You've been rehearsing all those memories and remembered scenarios that keep missing friends, family, colleagues, comrades and acquaintances alive in your head.  It's a routine activity, like walking the dog, that re-invests the familiar world with your ghosts.  And "waking the dead" seems to require less raucous noise than it used to; the party wall between life and death somehow gets thinner every year.  It's easy to get lost with such ghosts for company.  Where are we now?

Recently, I learned of the death of someone I was at college with, a comrade and occasional antagonist, who went off to the States to have an interesting career in the world of academic anthropology.  His specialist area was, broadly speaking, shamanism and the human uses of violence, and he became known for his work on kanaima, or "assault shamanism", as practised in South America.  How far his early death was a result of his field-work is an interesting question.

Neil is one of my ghosts, if only because he and I once had a noisy set-to over the volume of a stereo, resulting in a bloody nose (mine), but rather more mutual cursing and shouting than actual exchanged blows.  Violence as ritual exchange, you might say.  I remember, back in the days when I was squatting in Hackney, East London, that I had a revelatory encounter with a German fugitive from the military draft.  "I ran away," he said, "Because I had decided that war was an out-dated form of communication".  I had never thought of it that way, but Neil clearly had.

A lot of people had an interest in shamanism back then: that blend of alternative realities, naturally-sourced hallucinogens, tribal ways, and animistic secrets was a fashionable brew, and any number of amateur "spirit journeys" were taking place in college rooms and remote cottages at that time.  Some people never came back; some returned, changed; most of us moved on, having discovered (as Gertrude Stein said of her childhood home, Oakland) that "there is no there there".  I imagine the sales graph of the Castaneda books maps the trend pretty well.

Not so many were also interested in aggression, violence, weapons and warfare, not to mention cannibalism.  But to those who combined spiritual curiosity with a radical political persuasion (Neil, for example, was a member of the IMG and active in the Troops Out movement), society's polite silence over the delegation of violence to paid professionals in the police and the armed forces was a taboo (that is, a socially-constructed, consensual spell) that had spiritual as well as political consequences.  But to combine such interests and to challenge such taboos leads down dark paths.  Whether there's any there there, either, I couldn't say.

But Berlin -- once an islanded outpost of the Western Way, a byword for division, and a living illustration of how our realities can be constructed as easily as a wall -- has come to be all about hope.  Those 20,000 people crossing the Bösebrücke in Bowie's song were those first 20,000 East Germans to cross the first checkpoint which opened from East to West in 1989.

Things change.  Suddenly, irreversibly; sometimes for the good, sometimes not.  You won't know how, or when, or why, but you'll know it when it happens, and you will have to change, too, or be left behind with your ghosts.  Do ghosts ever change, I wonder?

"The moment you know, you know you know"...

Scary monsters

* KaDeWe (i.e. the initials KDW said in the German style) is the big department store in Berlin, Kaufhaus des Westens.


eeyorn said...

'Dave Swarbrick died in hospital in Coventry'

Headlne from a few years back

'Yeah....and its not the first time I've died in Coventry'

- Swarb's retort, convalscesing after his lung transplant op.

I was mightily surprised to have been presumed dead for some years when I hooked back up with some old Stevenage schoolmates via Friends Reunited a few years ago.I had lost contact with most of my old Stevenage friends pretty much as soon as we all went our seperate ways to University.

Martin said...

I read a review of this song, in which the writer confessed to having wept as he listened. My scepticism is always reluctant to loosen its grip, but then I listened too...

Mike C. said...


"Now be thankful"...

Sounds like one of those border ballad "kidnapped by fair folk" scenarios (which I suspect were invented by scallies as a cover for all sorts of misdoing). Are you sure you weren't off like Tam Lin somewhere?


Mike C. said...


It's his face that got me -- suddenly so old, so sad (though the doll projection does enhance the impression).

Not sure why he wants to make us think of him joined at the hip to Bjork, but that worked, too.


eeyorn said...

A Tam-Lin like adventure? It could easily have been so, Mike. 4 years of living in the USA followed immediately by 3 years living in 'The Forgotten County' in deepest rural Ireland certainly seems like different worlds, looking back.

And yes, there is still some magic to be savoured in Ireland. Stunning rainbows, wild and wonderful countryside, and I swear I saw faeries dancing in the road in the mist many times.

Dave Leeke said...

"Do ghosts ever change, I wonder?"

I guess they never age. However, perhaps the particular ghosts that haunt us may.

Quentin S. Crisp said...

Nice blog entry.

Just one question:

Where is there there there?

Mike C. said...

Quentin S. Crisp,

Wherever you are, right now, there should be plenty of there. It may not be entirely to your liking, but it's all the "there" there is.

"It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet."

Franz Kafka, Aphorism 109


Quentin S. Crisp said...

Thank you.

Catford is currently writhing in ecstasy at my feet.

Seriously though, I might actually try this now. Especially as I have a headache.

I could do with some writhing ecstasy.

It's a nice aphorism.

Mike C. said...

Quentin S. Crisp,

Well, Kafka is better know for inducing than curing headaches.

Here is a headache cure -- ask yourself (and answer) these two questions alternately:

What colour is my headache?
What shape is my headache?

Normally gone within 4 or 5 iterations. Magic!


Quentin S. Crisp said...

I'll have to try that, too.

Unfortunately, I switched off my computer before reading your headache cure, so, eventually I actually used Anadin.

I know a cure for hiccoughs that is similar. If someone is hiccoughing, you bet them a couple of quid that they can't hiccough again. Reverse psychology, see?

I've lost a fortune trying to cure people.

By the way, don't know if this is of interest to you:

Coals to Newcastle?

Mike C. said...

Thanks for that link -- very interesting, and nicely done. Always good to know what the pros think (I've been a Kafka amateur since 1972).