I now live in Reading, an extremely normal large town in the middle of England. It is ugly and ordinary, bordering on horrific, but very multicultural, which makes it psychically safe-ish and not too scummy, so physically quite safe too. Minimal hipster element — nothing here to gentrify — which is nice too. Overall the feeling is ‘yeah, okay’. I wouldn’t choose to live here — would anyone? — but there’s plenty to entertain a student of pre-apocalyptic human-nature.
Wake up at six am to some fella outside shouting ‘YOO WOT?’ over and over again. I look out the window; a man, overweight, red-face, probably has five or six union jacks at home, shouting into his phone. ‘YOO WOT?’
Bus to work. Best bit is Gail, the woman who gets on outside the Mosque. Must be a Gail, or perhaps a Joanne. She’s almost but not quite a chav. Sturdy, cute face but kind of hard and empty too, but oh the outfits! Every day something strikingly different, almost tacky; almost! Yesterday we had a kind of muted raspberry red dress over black t-shirt and black stockings with thick biker’s boots, hair loose and bright red lipstick. Today it’s a tight mustard-yellow short-sleeved army shirt with orange epaulettes, a denim skirt, orange bobby socks and dark blue kitten heel suede boots, hair all piled up, hooped earings. Somehow it hangs together.
Lunchbreak. Ask directions from a sad-looking street-cleaner. Large, sweaty, pouty lips, shambolic. He gives me a very detailed explanation, then keeps calling me back to make sure I’ve got it. I feel very much he hasn’t spoken to anyone for a month or so.
Itsu for lunch. Yeah nice. Nothing seems to taste of anything though. I isolate a pea and focus all my attention on it. Nothing, no flavour at all. Pealess. I wonder how many people in the UK have no idea what a pea should taste like? I’m going to have a stab at 35 million.
Skinny white girl with blonde hair sitting opposite me, about 17, dressed very carefully in a white lacy top, tight shorts, turquoise beads, etc. Long face, small features, beady-eyes, cutting nasal voice, ‘I was like I don’t need this, I didn’t want to go on this stupid holiday, it was your idea, and now you’re putting all this shit on me, seriously they take out their problems on me, so I just stayed in my room, but that made them more annoyed… (few minutes later)… I’ve only been obsessed with him for three years! Oh my God, and she just asks me if I know him!… (few minutes later)… no it dries my hair out. Why, what do you use?’ As usual I enjoy the pain of everyone around her and we share up-glances of solidarity.
Into a boutique coffee shop. The fella serving me, a beefy, bearded hipster chap (one of two I’ve seen here), asks me how my day’s going. Good thanks. Bit of an awkward pause. The music of the place enters my consciousness — a colourless beat-heavy ‘mellow-jazz’ thing and I say ‘I imagine this band said to themselves, “we really want our next album to sound good in a coffee shop.”’ The extremely unenthusiastic ‘yeah’ from the barista tells me that it’s his playlist. I pay and we part in silence.
Back out on Broad Street a very unhappy-looking girl is handing out flyers for a gym. I take one and say ‘miserable fucking task.’ She says ‘thank you’ in a tone of genuine sorrowful gratitude.
Stopped by another girl with a clipboard. Pretty, Asian-descent, fidgety. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Darren!’ ‘Oh my God cool! I love your… what is it?’ ‘A Ghutra’ ‘So amazing. Where did you get it?’ ‘On the internet.’ Cool, what do you do Darren?’ ‘Write. Teach for money.’ ‘That’s so brilliant! High five!’ I leave her hanging. ‘Look’, I say, ‘I don’t want to give you any money.’ ‘Bye then!’ she says and immediately walks away. Seems like the most superficial interaction I’ve ever had. I feel soiled.
Further up the road a carefully groomed modern man, bleached comb-over, ludicrously tight jeans and wife-beater, neat little features with slightly chipmunky teeth, is singing x-factor ballads. He says ‘okay, what shall I do as my final numbers?’ and someone shouts ‘Hallelujah’. ‘Ooh, good!’ he says and puts on his backing track. As he starts singing somewhere on Mount Olympus Leonard Cohen launches an asteroid towards earth. It will strike Reading at 2pm tomorrow.
Hometime. A homeless fella is sitting opposite the church, asking for money. He looks completely normal, unhomeless. I give him some money and ask him what he’s doing on the streets. He says he came home one day to find his girlfriend having sex with his best friend. ‘It was her house, so I just walked out.’ ‘What and you haven’t been back?’ ‘Nah, that was two months ago. I’m waiting for me crane-license.’
At the bus stop a very old Indian woman starts scraping around on the floor for chips, which she rips up and throws on the floor for pigeons, then digs around for some more. There are soon lots of pigeons, gulls too. The general public are not impressed. The guy next to me, a scary-looking townie, is looking at her with disgust bordering on horror. I laugh. He gives me a ‘can you fucking believe it?’ look. More solidarity. I suppose she just wants to take care of the animals, but it somehow reminds me of my insane grandmother who would just stuff sugar into the mouths of any creature who would take it. Somehow it was all about her.
I’d just missed the number 15, so I had to catch the 17 and then walk up Dee Road. It’s very hot on the bus, so I stand downstairs where I can get my head next to the window and cool down. The lower deck is full but not packed. A miniscule bow-legged asian woman who looks about 120 is eating some kind of bun and bits of masticated white flour are dribbling down her tunic. Behind her is a vast black man with immense cans wrapped round his head. Opposite me a pale moon-faced young girl with her young daughter. Another girl gets on, dark hair, quite pretty, wearing a green cardigan and sits next to moon-face, but she’s followed by a third woman with a pram who asks green-cardie to move, so she goes to the back of the bus. This third woman also has a little girl slung over her back. The little girl keeps rolling back and looking at me, her little upside-down face peering madly up at mine. Every time she does it I burst into laughter, and so does she. I look back over to green-cardie and see that she’s… crying. She’s listening to something on her phone. Music? Someone talking? She looked very, very sad. Broken, wiping tears from her face. My stop’s coming up, so I take out my notepad, write ‘It’s all going to be okay.’ rip out the page, fold it up, go over, give it to her, then just make it through the bus doors as they close. God knows what she thought of that.
Get lost on the way home, walking round these weird out of the way suburbs of Reading, all new and nice little homes bundled together round green verges and birch trees; and yet so sad, exhausted. Spiritually exhausted. Rubbish everywhere. Kind of poor, kind of comfortable, nice Indian families and ruined teenagers, too boring to be dangerous and Londis has padlocks on the ready-meals freezer.
What passes for culture is not culture — the wild — but cultivation — domestication; the covering of the unnatural inner life of men and women with superficially stimulating effects, dead knowledge divested of its living core and the economically and socially profitable pretense of art:
To be cultivated means: to hide from oneself how wretched and base one is, how rapacious in going for what one wants, how insatiable in heaping it up, how shameless and selfish in enjoying it.
Culture is dead, for the same reasons that nature is. Everything that can be said about the death of nature, everything we know about why it is happening — the insensitivity, cowardice and greed that lead to its destruction — along with everything we know about the effects of an unnatural life on human beings — the confusion, misery and corruption that result from being estranged from the wild; all this applies to culture also. Culture is supposed, like nature, to produce true human beings. That is its purpose — or can be said to be. Really nature and culture have no purpose, they are ends to themselves; there is no ‘why’ to them, yet this is the inevitable result of their ‘what’ — the genius of mankind which, because nature and culture are dead, is dead also.
Look around you now at the stunted men and women in your town — good people sometimes, even brimming with potential, but so drastically reduced; limited, cut-off from life, half-dead and, in many cases, quite insane. Look at how many geniuses surround you — real human geniuses I mean, not the fantastic automatons that can win fifty games of chess simultaneously or play the piano with their feet; I mean miraculously beautiful and utterly unique people, able to ‘hit the mark that no-one can see’. Not too many of those. They are as easy to find as eagles and tigers, and for much the same reason. There is no habitat for them, no sustenance, no society that recognises them, no ecosystem for them to fit into. The entire point of education, work, law, politics and the propaganda of the world is to destroy — or at best ignore — them. When they do appear, they seem like eagles and tigers — terrifying, out of place or a cause for titillating excitement. Freaks.
Culture may be dependent on nature, which is to say, on an expiring wasteland, it may be forced into unnatural channels, like this machine you are reading these words on, and it may be at its last gasp. But — it only takes two of us to nourish it. Two people can keep the flame lit. I don’t mean passing on book recommendations and sending copper disks into time-capsules, I mean passing on the spirit of mankind, the instinct that seeks above all its own uniqueness, or genius. It only takes two people to love that, to recognise its reflection in great art and wild nature and to be courageous enough to make sacrifices for it — to suffer for it — for culture to live. And those two people are me, and thee.