There was a madcap drive through country lanes, haunted by pale meadowsweet in the dusk light, trying to find the farm above Lewes indicated on the Brighton Festival map. And then we found it with a few minutes spare, parked the car in a field and stepped out into the warm May night.

Through a little wood into a clearing, there was a fire where 20 people including the affable Sam Lee were passing round millionaire shortbread and enamel cups of sweet tea. It was peaceful and just-so, sitting in circle round the sweet-smelling fire, as Sam and his ornithologist friend, Tom, held forth on the merits and wonders of the bird we’d all come to hear.

The event, Sam Lee’s Nightingale Walk, – one of six, very select evenings of 20 people a night – was a thread in Brighton Festival’s bird related theme. Sam is an experimental folk singer with a deep appreciation of both Sussex folk song (the famous Copper family come from a few miles from my home) and nature. He told us how he began working in ‘wilderness’ projects before coming to music and how this evening was convergence of his two great loves: being in nature and working with the voice.

Tom, the bird man, spoke about the migration habits of nightingales, drab little brown birds that fly down south to winter in Uganda before coming back to Europe to breed. Sussex and Kent are at the northern edge of their zone, and May is the end of their breeding season. So we were lucky to be in this spot with access to one particularly throaty singer. I was surprised to hear that Berlin has an unusually large population of nightingales. “Common as pigeons”, apparently. And it occurred to me that perhaps I had heard them before, in the middle of the night in Görlitzer park in Kreuzberg…

It’s the males who sing; marking out their territory, attracting mates with their vocal presence. Apparently these song birds have two voice boxes at the top of their windpipes so can produce virtuosic music. And it did occur to me to sound out the idea (expressed by David Byrne in his book) that birds don’t just sing for partners and territory. They must also sing for pleasure. I thought that Tom, the ornithologist, might frown at such anthropomorphism, but as a gay man, I can’t really subscribe to the idea that all natural exuberance is about reproduction. When i sit and listen to the tits and blackbirds in my garden, the joy is evident. It seems unnecessarily deadening to see it as just mechanical alarms or vocal pheromones.

As we had been speaking, the robins that had been very loud in the glade when we arrived fell silent and the darkness outside the fire-circle became deep and still. Sam sang a song with his own very arresting voicebox. Having talked about the microtones and slides of bird song (the nightingale has 200+ musical elements that they improvise with), it was shivery to hear this delightful man’s voice by the fireside, singing about country lovers and open-air love making.

He theorised that the reason that the nightingale is always associated with lovers is because of the location of their singing. The birds are very territorial and come back to the same spot every night – and that spot is usually in the middle of the wood or in a remote corner. This would be a very good meeting point, – in the dark – for lovers to grope their ways toward. “Meet me in the wood where the nightingale sings”. And so the song becomes enmeshed in the visceral memories of electric kisses and heady sex in the dark-green night.

And as we set off walking single file in the dark, entering a ¾ mile pilgrimage of smell, sound and very little vision, I could immediately feel how exciting it would be to pad through the forest paths in a moonless night, listening out for the only birdsong, getting closer and closer to a lover, waiting in the dark.

Sam had pointed out how night walking is improved by looking slightly up above the tree line and trusting in the acuity of your peripheral vision. The rods and cones of the central zone don’t function in the dark and we become more animal-like in relying in the very sharp movement sense of the fringes. Since I couldn’t see the ground it made no sense to look down. Instead my feet came alive. Padding, toe-to-heel, sensing out the land with my soles. It struck me as strange how we walk on two feet where almost every other animal out in the darkness walks on four.

The smell map was also massively heightened. Sam had drawn our attention to the slightly rotting smell of the wild-garlic, and the dusky waves of hawthorn blossom. There were other smells that I couldn’t identify. Damp earth smells. The occasional flash of elderflower. Some mint when we came to a stop.

We had walked through a wood, along the edge of a field and up along an old railway line, and even from a half-mile away we could hear our nightingale singing, across the field. Walking closer and closer in the dark was really exhilarating till finally we were all standing under a bank where he was sitting, unseen in a tree.

Apparently, this male is particularly vocal. An expert from the nightingale-rich Berlin had pronounced him the finest he’d heard. And it was odd and wonderful to have walked through the still night, across dark fields, to stand and listen to him crack open the silence with his song.

It wasn’t what I expected. It is loud and angular. Almost mechanical with soft insistent single notes followed immediately with brutally angular leaps and burbles. It definitely doesn’t have the torrential songfulness of a blackbird at night, or the seamlessness of a skylark, but there was something so insistent and loud about it in the dead of the night.

We stood for a while listening, taking it in, and then Sam started to sing and our bird sang even harder. It made me shiver. There was something so incongruent about a human voice and a bird voice together. Even though we were all there to honour the songbird, there was also an inseparable gulf between his strange, vivid world and ours. The species gap yawned wider. And yet there was also some here-and-now alchemy. This solitary, plucky, resilient, tiny male bird who sang for about six hours straight every night – all on his own – in the hope that he’d be heard by a female, or perhaps just because he could. And then here we were, come to hear him, to create something from the moment.

We sang together and listened some more. And then Sam bid the bird adieu with a lovely comment: “I hope you find love”.

Ironically, despite having such musical lungs, it might be that this male, still singing right at the end of the mating season, was a romantic failure. Perhaps there was a note of desperation in his continued singing when the other males had found their mates. Again, it’s all human projection into something so ultimately alien, but it was inexplicably touching.

After out walk home and a drive back to Brighton, i was still dazy with the experience. Partly from being so intensely in my body and senses but also of having had such an odd contact with another world, in the dark. It was, of course, rather dreamlike, but also very vivid.

This morning listening to Reggie Ray, he mentioned how we all suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. And the reason this has come to pass is because we have allowed the world around us to become so boring. Why would we pay attention to a dead, drab world with no life? Because the world has lost its enchantment we disengage and lose ourselves in the high-dopamine, flashy stimulation of our phones and computer screens.

Sam mentioned this also. Talking about night vision and how it opens up the periphery and disempowers the central visual zone, he made the point that modern life monopolises and colonises that central zone. The centre focus is constantly being attacked and seduced. “Look at this! Look here! Buy this!”. The straight-ahead, broad-daylight focus of our eyes is all papered-over by advertising and distraction. Cutting that off and opening up the edges allows the magic to flow back in under the neon.

A nightingale walk through the moonless Sussex woodland, created exactly the darkness necessary to see things again. To see what Reggie calls the “vajra world”, the inconceivably energetic reality that exist beyond the limits of our everyday sight, smell, touch and thinking. And – most fittingly – beyond our conventional hearing. Standing in the mint-scented darkness tuned into the song of a small drab bird was not just listening to music, there was something else going on that I can’t quite bring to words. And that remains, quite rightly, unexpressed.

Went on a whim last night to the excellent Chris Green (from Duckie) and his new show Prurience which was part of the Sick! Festival in Brighton.

It wasn’t purely chance since the blurb in the festival brochure talked about a immersive evening exploring the nature of porn addiction which is a subject I’m interested in both personally and professionally.

As a gay man growing up in a pre-Internet age, my exposure to porn was probably typical in being a few feverishly hoarded pictures and then, later, when I was more ballsy, a carefully curated collection of gay magazines, stories and cartoon books. In a period of UK history when being gay was demonised these images and stories probably carved a space for some semblance of erotic life to grow. I didn’t see a pornographic film until some fumbled moments in a cabin on the Rue St. Denis in Paris when I was 22 – it took a lot of one franc coins as I remember.

The advent of internet chatrooms in the 90s (dialling up Compuserve after peak hours, anyone?) led to the beginnings of a more ‘interactive’ titillation. But this was pure innocence compared to the supernova of porn that has erupted all over the Web in the last five years. Highspeed internet access is the fuel. I got burned by that for while but managed to escape the worst ravages of this epidemic, but I have clients who have fared less well.

After the show last night, which was a clever meta-piece set in a porn-addicts self-help group where we, as audience, were never sure who was actor and who was genuine, Dr. Clarissa Smith spoke in her capacity of Professor of Sexual Culture about the nature of porn.

I have to admit I found her rather dewy eyed about it, as if the realities of the porn-epidemic had passed her by. She spoke admirably about the freedom to experiment and try things out in the world of fantasy but that is – I believe, – quite different to what is happening on the internet in the last few years. This is not the playful erotica of yesteryear but porn on an industrial scale aimed perfectly at the slavish synapses of modern consumers.

The combination of sex, almost infinite novelty and privacy, makes modern porn consumption a lethal cocktail for brain chemistry. The brain’s SEEKING system (as described by Panksepp) is wired entirely to enjoy and explore novelty and chase. It is the system that is fired up by cocaine and it is regulated by dopamine. It’s pleasurable and it supersedes other more bigger-picture views while it’s fired up. Most significantly, it is a quite different system from the SATISFACTION system which is largely ruled by opioids.

Consumer capitalism thrives on a constant stimulation of the SEEKING system and a minimisation of the SATISFACTION system. Business and commerce are not interested in our being satisfied, they want us to be constantly seeking, and so any product that ruthlessly stimulates the dopamine system is like a gold mine. Pornography is the silver bullet. It stimulates the sex seeking system; sites like PornTube allow access to almost infinite short clips, so the novelty button is also pushed; issues of shame and embarrassment meant that the satisfaction of orgasm is rarely pleasurable and preferably delayed which leads to marathon sessions of ‘edging’.

Industrial internet porn leaves people (often men) uniquely vulnerable to the predatory incursions of consumer capitalism. With the long-term prospects of unemployment, educational debt and impoverishment on the horizon for lots of young males in the affluent West, getting lost in a sticky haze of porn might seems like a good hole to hide in.

You may well bridle at the idea that we should feel sorry for these people who are locked into hours and hours of increasingly hard-core and brain-corroding porn consumption but I think this is a really large and as-yet undiscussed issue.

I was amazed that Professor Smith seemed to dismiss the connection between this industrial-scale consumption of porn and erectile dysfunction. She didn’t give any evidence why she doubted this but there is masses of circumstantial evidence and native testimony that describes a very precise link between the constant viewing of hardcore porn and a massive decrease in the ability of users to respond to real people – girlfriends or boyfriends – in sexual situations. They can reach orgasm with porn, but suffer erectile dysfunction with real lovers.

I am aware that as a Buddhist meditator, I have a particular axe to grind here. It’s not a moral thing but rather an existential one. You could style the project of meditation as a recalibration of life from concept to reality, so naturally I am very much on the side of real, messy challenging skin-on-skin sex rather than the safe and self-circuited nature of porn but I am conscious that other people might have a different view on it. My tendency is – admittedly – to radical realism but I can imagine that some people have a more nuanced understanding of the power of image and word.

In either case, Christopher’s piece is a great experience – teetering on the edge of too much meta-theatricality but outlining a really interesting area that I agree needs much more discussion if we’re not going to end up with a psycho-sexual time-bomb, ticking under our noses.

Just finished ‘Ulysses’ for the second time.

That probably puts me into a small subset of humanity but I have to write about how wonderful that book is.

I just read that thundering last paragraph about 5 minutes ago and the whole flow and flood of Molly’s dawn monologue is still pulsing in me like blood.

and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought as well him as another then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes

It feels wrong to quote it out of context because it’s the final strophe of a 20,000 word monologue which is mostly breathtakingly earthy – covering the girth and stamina of her afternoon lover, starting her period on the chamber pot under the bed, ruthlessly criticising her husband and most men, fantasising about giving a 20-yr-old lodger a stiffy by showing him her underwear, pondering semen stains on the sheets – and refrains from almost any flights of fancy except this last one.

And it’s the example of Joycean excess. It doesn’t use fancy words or complex ideas. It simple lists in a long flowing monologue all the thoughts and memories that pass through this woman’s head as she’s dozing in bed on a summer’s morning in Dublin, 1904.

I feel rather bereft having finished the book – which I started almost 7 weeks ago – and particularly bereft to have lost that husband and wife from my life. Molly and Leopold Bloom are the most subcutaneously loveable characters in any book I’ve read. Actually, Molly and Stephen Dedalus (the other main character) are both quite hard to really like – but they act as foils for Bloom who is the most vivid creation in literature.

Molly only has this one last chapter (she only grunts, half-asleep, otherwise in chapter four). Stephen has the first three chapters and appears in several of the central ones – but the book is really Bloom’s.

Why Joyce chose this flubby, scientifically-minded Jewish advertising salesman as his hero I don’t know but in the hundreds of pages he devotes to Bloom’s moment-by-moment observation and reaction to the Dublin around him, I come to love him dearly. The other men in the book (and Molly is really the only woman who comes to voice) are silly, vain, bigoted, or only half-way decent. Bloom is kind and curious. Unusually in Dublin, he doesn’t really drink, he looks after his wife, he’s liberal and reasonable. He also masturbates over under-aged girls, visits brothels and revels in masochistic fantasies. He’s tormented by the fact that he’s avoiding going home because Molly is having sex with her lover. He is anything but heroic. But he is human and that is wonderful.

During the flabbergasting ‘Circe’ chapter which is written like a long phantasmagoric expressionist play with surreal stage directions and bizarre set pieces, Bloom describes himself:

I stand, so to speak, with an unposted letter bearing the extra regulation fee before the too late box of the general postoffice of human life

But, again misquoting distorts. This is a moment in the lurid fantasies Bloom has of self-abasement (followed shortly before by unbelievable self-inflation). In fact, Bloom is pretty happy with himself. He doesn’t often criticise himself or think too roughly about himself. (Molly doesn’t either but she’s pretty rough on others. Stephen thinks all together too much – mostly about himself and Tomas Aquinas – and is haunted by terrible paralysing guilt over his mother’s recent death.)

Bloom is not exceptional but the way Joyce writes the book around him makes him mythical. The fourth character in the book is the book itself. Joyce displays almost superhuman huzhpah in writing Ulysses. There doesn’t seem to be any precedent for it in literature. It starts off fairly conventionally – like one of his Dubliners short stories but then about halfway through the style starts to become a character of its own.

There’s the chapter that mimics human gestation by morphing prose styles from pre-history to futuristic slang via every great prose writer in English literature. The chapter where words are arranged by purely musical methodology. The chapter which is a massive catechism, asking and answering questions about early morning events in pedantic but sometimes ecstatic detail.

Alone, what did Bloom feel?
The cold of interstellar space, thousands of degrees below freezing point or the absolute zero of Fahrenheit, Centigrade or Reaumur: the incipient intimations of proximate dawn.

Of what did bellchime and handtouch and footstep and lonechill remind him?
Of companions now in various manners in different places defunct: Percy Apjohn (killed in action, Modder River), Philip Gilligan (phthisis, Jervis Street Hospital), Matthew F. Kane (accidental drawing, Dublin Bay). Philip Moisel (pyemia, Heytesbury street), Michael Hart (phthisis, Mater Misericordiae Hospital), Patrick Dignam (apoplexy, Sandymount)

What prospect of what phenomena inclined him to remain?
The disparition of three final stars, the diffusion of daybreak, the apparition of the new solar disk.

What’s strange about the book is that all this cleverness and word play and excess of creativity should really get in the way of feeling things for the characters but actually it weirdly does not. Or, at least, it doesn’t for me.

For the first time, while reading a book, I had a panic because I knew that Bloom was about to disappear. I had the distinct feeling that I was going to miss him when he finally curls up to sleep, kisses his wife’s buttocks and disappears from the text. He’d been in my head for 5 weeks and now he was just going to fade out?

Now I’ve finished Molly’s final soliloquy I realise that it’s Joyce’s voice I’m going to miss. His omnivorous attention to the world of flesh and blood, light and form, word and meaning. He makes it feel good to be human.

I’m going to quote (and again it’s sort of misleading to extract from the context because this comes from the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter where every paragraph is a parody of a historical prose style) and I’m choosing a quote that is Joyce’s voice distanced by pastiche but still moving. He’s alluding to nurses in hospitals but in a very illuminated way:

The aged sisters draw us into life: we wail, batten, sport, clip, clasp, sunder, dwindle, die: over us dead they bend. First, saved from waters of old Nile, among bullrushes, a bed of fasciated wattles: at last the cavity of a mountain, an occulted sepulchre amid the conclamation of the hillcat and the ossifrage.

Isn’t that beautiful? I could quote endless bits I’ve highlighted or mention the dozens of words I had to click and look up on my Kindle (crubeen, occiput, sennet, mulcted, Lycopodium, rebus, luteofulvous, munches and lacustrine) but I guess I would be better to come back and re-read it again.

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And the, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

Seamus Heaney, Squarings

Yesterday, the UK Coalition Government introduced the ‘Bedroom Tax’ which affects 670,000 people (most cruelly those with disabilities) and will mean they end up paying on average £728 more a year. This will save the Exchequer £490m.

Next week, the UK Coalition Government introduces a cut in the highest rate of income tax. The UK’s 13,000 millionaires will each benefit on average £100,769 a year. This will cost the Exchequer £3 billion.

“Austerity” is a lie.

Next Page »