Putting the Face On

The waitress at the restaurant yesterday said to me ‘how are you today?’ and I said, ‘I literally don’t have any problems.’ She blinked, surprised. ‘How are you?’ I said. ‘Yeah! Good thanks!’ she said, automatically. ‘That bad?’ I said, and she laughed. ‘Well, you know, put the face on,’ she said.

I’m living in Reading now, which is, apart from its large immigrant population, one of the most average towns in England. I walked back through the slick shopping centre, down the pedestrian shopping precinct and along down-at-heel Oxford Road, to where I’m staying. Pretty much everyone had the face on. Not the fake ‘How can I help you sir!’ face — these people were ‘at fun’ not ‘at work’ — rather the dead sludge that accrues around the staring face, the blankly acquisitive face, the autopilot excitement face.

It reminded me of the old Indian chief who spoke with Carl Jung when he visited a reservation in the US:

‘See,’ Ochwiay Biano said, ‘how cruel the whites look. Their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are mad.’

Not just the whites anymore Ochwiay: the blacks too, the Asians, the Arabs. A few cheery bright-spots here and there, a few strangers I recognise, but for the most part, the face.

The face is first put on around about the age of seven. Before that children can still be possessed with cunning and misery, but it’s unmediated, direct. As self-awareness — separation from the self — develops, children realise that they can get things with a fake face and hide things with a dead face. It takes a long time, but slowly the face takes over consciousness, until that’s all there is. Maskman — the stuff of nightmares.

I’ll have more to say on the mask a bit later, and I’ll present Barry Long’s famous parable. For now I would like to direct your attention to your face. Watch it in action, see it gurn and grimace and laugh, or set like cooling lava into a flat detuned, vaguely staring, switched off slab. How is it now?

By attending to the face you become ‘the being behind the mask’, lighter around the eyes and the corner of the lips; easier, more conscious. The grip (in the neck, the chest) slackens a little and you feel better.

Talking of which…


I did have a bit of a problem a few months back, heavy concern, and a friend is having ‘a bit of a darkie’ now. What I noticed then was that the clench, the ‘craunch’ as I call it in The Apocalypedia — the awful emotion in the chest and neck — doesn’t actually need to be fed by a full thought, a full ‘worry-on’. You don’t need to be sitting there going over and over it in your head. Just the tiniest inner movement towards the anxiety feeds it, keeps it alive. It seemed to me the same as when you try to move your hand (for example) as slowly as possible. In the end actual movement becomes… what is it? It’s not quite imagined movement because it blends seemlessly into actuality. It’s a kind of ‘real-imagination’. That is what is worrying, that hyper-subtle ‘real-imagined’ movement towards fear. If you want to be free of worry you have to catch this movement, act if need be, but hold it with your presence; don’t let it connect itself into the lump in the chest.

For many people this lump is permanent companion, an invisible engine driving their entire lives. But how small it starts, like no-face in Spirited Away, a little grain of anxiety asking your consciousness to move its silent fingers towards it, plugging it in to your power source and expanding it into a monster. What makes it so difficult to stop this is that that in the ‘good times’, when there is no manifest calamity on the horizon, you still feed it. Then you don’t call it ‘a problem’. You call it the future. Nothing arising, all well in the senses, having a nice little stroll and a tiny little voice in your belly whispers, ‘Hey! think about me! Think about that thing you want to get.’ Or you might call it the past. ‘Psst! Remember that great thing you did? Go on! Remember it!’ Eventually the real-imagined feeding movement becomes a habit. Then when a dark shadow looms on the horizon you just cannot stop pumping it up. No advice, no self-help, no meditation, nothing you can tell yourself, nothing works. You are compelled to plug yourself into suffering.

If you want to stop worrying in the bad times you have to stop past-futuring in the good times.


I like reading of people’s school stories, for almost exactly the same reason I enjoy reading stories about death camps. Even mediocre writers have good stuff to say about their early days in the prison. So here are a few of my stories…

My worst experience in primary school (6-10 years old) was on a school holiday to Torquay when everyone made up a song about me ‘loving Sharon Foad’. Sharon was a frumpy, overweight ‘nobody’ — ‘Foad the toad’ we called her. It was dreadful, an agony. I can still remember the exultant, devilish joy in everyone’s faces as they sung ‘Darren loves Sharon! Darren loves Sharon!’ Yes, dreadful… for me. Sorry? Sharon? Her? Oh no, she never entered my head. Can you imagine? What was she feeling as I cried out in the dorms ‘No! I don’t love Sharon Foad! I don’t!’

Any child that displayed the tiniest deviance from acceptable norms was punished with brutal, merciless spite. Standard primary school behaviour. One of the main targets in our class was Paul Croft, who had sticky out teeth and a big nose, and was once asked a question by Mr Hawkins and Paul said ‘yes’ and Mr Hawkins said ‘yes what?’ — expecting Paul to say ‘yes, sir’ — but Paul replied, with tremulous anxiety, ‘yes… please?’

‘What goes “ha ha ha bonk”? ‘A man laughing his head off.’ My best friend Dominic Green (best friend until he kicked me in the head a year later) told me this joke while we were in the television room. I think I was seven. I couldn’t stop laughing. It was the funniest thing I had ever heard. I think this must have been the moment when I first grasped the absurd, which is of course the first time I discovered the power of the mask and the reality of death… all the same thing.

I read in an astronomy book — I was obsessed at this time with the planets — that the sun would explode in five hundred million years time. I was terrified. I told my granddad and he laughed. Then he saw I was really worried and he said ‘don’t worry Darren. Five hundred million years is a long time.’

A friend of mine at this time heard that for each person needs ten trees are needed for enough oxygen to breathe and he became terrified that there weren’t enough trees. Obsessively counting them — ‘There are more people than trees!’ he said. Turns out his fear was more well-founded than mine.

David Daley was a tall strangely creepy kid, even at eight years old. He showed Zoe Cruttingdon and Cheryl Epps his penis behind the swimming pool, and they showed him their vaginas. Everyone found out and for a bit David was a bit of a hero, but not for long because he always wore the same badly fitting nylon trousers and he had a funny smell.

We had a teacher called Mr Povey who once asked us to tell him a word that we thought was disgusting. I put my hand up and said ‘flesh’ and he made a sympathetic grimace with brought up all the tendons in his neck which I thought were more disgusting than the word ‘flesh’.

At this age I, like many kids my age, walked to primary school. I’ve just checked on Google maps — a twenty minute walk, about a mile each way. I was six or seven and roaming all over Whitstable with my friends. At weekends we probably covered about ten miles — streets and roads back-alleys and wrecks and car-parks and scrub — all of which I still remember with super-vivid clarity. We played elaborate hunting games that ranged across the entire town. A favourite was to try and get from Harwich Street to the beach without being seen by anyone, hiding behind hedges, crawling under low-walls. All that ended when I got a Commodore 64.

Craig Crockford introduced the school to the concept of ‘pubes’. ‘Do you know what pubes are?’ was the big question. The answer slowly leaked out, those who knew were the chosen ones, the ‘pube elite’, those who didn’t know were pube outcasts, begging to know. I found out in the end.

I had a fight with Mark Bryant, who had bulgy eyes. He was sort of a not-important person, so I thought I could hit him. He grabbed me and pushed me to the ground and held my face in the grass — much, much stronger than me. My principle emotion was astonishment. Mark Bryant is beating me up!

Some of the songs that we used to sing in our school assembly: Puff the Magic Dragon, Lilly the Pink, Morning Has Broken, Three Wheels on my Wagon, Nellie the Elephant, and All Together Now. Check some of those links — great stuff no? No? Oh well, your loss.

At the end of assembly we said the Lord’s prayer. It became a custom to try and push out a fart just before the final ‘amen’. Gary Chadwell once shit himself trying to do this.

I ran away from school once. I walked in and smelt the place and felt my whole being sink in horror at the entire dreadful experience, so I turned and ran all the way home. My mum was quite surprised to see me turn up. My family thought for a long time that I was being bullied. The same thing happened at secondary school a few years later. I just refused to go in for two weeks. There was ‘no reason’. I was reasonably popular, a good student. I just intensely hated the place.

And I still do, only now I know why.

Next month, secondary school.