"The general remedy of those, who are uneasy without knowing the cause, is change of place; they are willing to imagine that their pain is the consequence of some local inconvenience, and endeavour to fly from it, as children from their shadows; always hoping for some more satisfactory delight from every new scene, and always returning home with disappointment and complaints" - Samuel Johnson. The Rambler, No. 5
A man will do great violence to himself in his quest for inner peace. A man will find himself folded like a place card in a Bikram Yoga studio, 105 degrees Fahrenheit, forty percent humidity, with the tip of his head pointed at the floor. Sweat trickles down from his crack and balls and pools in the cup of his nose.
He snorts away the sweat and sinks to the matt below, face down in a pool of himself. He cannot leave. That was the solemn promise he made to two; the one to whom he gave the money and the one to whom he gave his heart. Leaving is failing. Leaving is disrespecting yourself and those around you. It may take time to adjust, but if he JUST STICKS AT IT he will become addicted to the sense it peace it brings. Inner Peace.
The man rolls on his back while the class folds on. He regards the playful plaster mouldings on the ceiling. His head lolls from side to side as he traces the spirals, dimples and lines. The bumps begin to bustle and hum, baa and bark and he is transported to the white paddock, the flock, the blood and the pen. He is transported to a moment he’d forgotten: the day he first met peace.
Rewind ten years, fly across the North American continent, the bowl of the Pacific Ocean, and slide down the South Island, three quarters towards the base. This is Nowhere, Waikuaiti. He is a student of the arts, and has devoted his long summer break to better understanding his country. The real one. The one from second-hand books. For four brisk weeks he’s been painting a shearing quarters high in the hill country. Red for the roof and doors, the weatherboards in whipped butter yellow. It is a busy time in the local sense. People are here. It’s early summer and the shepherds need hands to separate the ewes and cradle the lambs so their tails can be cut and wethers can be made of young rams. It's hot and bloody work, and he is hot and bloody when he spots the gammy ewe. He shows her to the shepherds. Their judgement is swift, the prescription brief: She’s broken a leg and must die. She won’t go to waste. The dogs need tucker. He’s asked to lead her to the shearing shed while the shepherds fetch the gun. A single bulb hangs from the roof. It’s dim light soaks into the lanolin-waxed boards on the floor. He could leave now, but he stays. He wants to see. The ewe doesn’t begrudge the wait. The tall shepherd enters. The one who fought in Vietnam, whose only regret is he didn’t have time to finish the job properly. He slides the rifle from its pouch and fishes in his pocket for shells. Cares fly off him quicker than the butt he flicks from his fingers, concerns press softer than the barrel of the rifle he rests on the head of the ewe. She looks at her killer with all the concern of a pedestrian clocking a passing car. The gun pops, the ewe drops. She translates from feet to floor instantaneously, rotating stiff and fast as a tetris block as it clicks into its ideal shape and spot. There is no blood.
It’s then he sees her eyes. Open. Empty. Filled with inner peace.
Ascend the island, leap the ocean, fly the continent, rush from then to now. Drip like sweat from the ceiling onto the brow of the pronate, sweating man. He wipes his face and sits up straight. He came here for peace. For peace? What’s peace? Peace is a dead sheep’s eyes. The last thing he wants is peace, that morbid prize. He would now trade every easy breath for the swarming buzz of thoughts, the hum of petty concerns, anything at all that makes him blink. Class is over. He did not leave. HE JUST STUCK AT IT. He crawls to the door on limbs of wilted spinach. In the corridor the temperature drops, he finds his legs, water, stairs, the curb. He disgorges the contents of his stomach on the road. The instructor will not ask him to return, the girlfriend will not ask him to return. Never again. He feels the exhilaration of a joyful thought: as long as he lives he will never, ever be at peace.
“He who has so little knowledge of human nature, as to seek happiness by changing any thing but his own dispositions, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove.” - Dr. Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, No, 6
As I look in the mirror and gaze over the forest of my crown, I feel like a Bornean Orangutan surveying the aftermath of a fresh bout of illegal logging.
“When the jungle is gone, what will be left of me?”
Given its widespread and inevitable nature, male hair-loss should perhaps be considered another rite of passage, comparable to a second puberty. But it’s not, because of one crucial distinction. Despite its individual variegations, adolescence is a predictable chain reaction detonated among the the general public within a designated era. As such, it can be planned for, contained and endured.
Balding affects less than half of less than half of the population, so in this sense is more analogous to being a white man playing in the NBA. In these as with most issues pertaining to minorities, society is loath to countenance appeals for special treatment.
What pale-skinned b-ballers are not exposed to, however, is emotive and targeted advertising to convince them they could be darker. Lotions and potions abound, promising almost as much as they cost. Antipodean sports fans will be familiar with a company that supplies new hair to certain high-profile cricketers. The business is quick to mail out glossy brochures, but slow to divulge its methods, for the same reason that you don’t take children to an abattoir. It’s a jelly scalp, sewn with human hair (your own I think, from round the sides, categorically not the bum) that is stuck to the top of your lid and necessitates a monthly glueing down. All of these ‘treatments’ rely on the creation and maintenance of a sense that depilation is somehow undesirable, which seems particularly nonsensical when it is considered that hair removal is another lucrative industry that preys on members of the opposite sex.
I propose a radical change of disposition; one that will save money and worry, and also free us from the clutches of a vain and universal heresy. Balding is proof negative of a theory that has achieved supremacy in the philosophical parliament of the western collective unconscious: that we are the sole authors of our lives. This fallacy has emboldened us to behave uncharitably towards the poor and unhealthy (who brought it on themselves after all) and praise the rich and renowned (who got there all on their own).
So strong is our determination to claim authorship that for any inheritances for which we cannot take credit, we rush to take the blame. As our bellies slacken, we rue the extra beers. As our hips and knees become worn to a grind we curse our younger selves for not exercising more or less. We grudgingly accept the pity of others for the development of inherited health conditions, but only after finding ourselves not guilty of baiting the grizzly bear of genetic predisposition by smoking or eating KFC.
The glaborous dome encourages us to rejoice in the thought that we are genetic cycle-couriers, dashing on our fixies through the rush hour of life, carrying a package of physical instructions from our ancestors to deliver to our unwitting progeny, no signature required.
Hopefully this simple change of disposition will also address the latest great injustices of the world: that a full head of hair has become a prerequisite for high public office, and that Jason Statham’s acting talents have been confined to action films.
In the meantime it behooves the thinning, like myself to lead the charge. The Orangutan in me must treat it like an ant on a blade of grass, and suck it up. No more shaking fingers through my scalp to froth my curly hair.
“There are many ways of telling a secret, by which a man exempts himself from the reproaches of his conscience, and gratifies his pride, without suffering himself to believe that he impairs his virtue.” - Samuel Johnson, The Rambler No. 13
The most common question asked of an author is invariably the most discomforting. ‘Was that all true?’. The customary source is a satisfied viewer, floating like a balloon before its inflator and seeking the final filling puff. As a writer, it galls me to think that the only honest answer will deflate. The most accurate response is ‘no’.
I’ve been inspired to denounce myself in solidarity with Mike Daisey, one of America’s premiere storytellers, who is currently performing a lengthy public penance at a theatre in New York.
Daisey soared to attention on the back of a later discredited monologue in which he visits China and bears witness to the vile conditions under which Apple products are alleged to be manufactured. The key moments of the story, that is to say the ones that audiences find moving or morally compelling, are misleading to say the most.
In his new show, Daisey tells wild and fanciful tales at such a rapid clip (one a day for twenty-nine days) that he seems to be wilfully prohibiting himself from displaying the craft or verisimilitude that led to his popular acclaim. Then, towards the end of a strange parable, Daisey gently lobs a verbal grenade from the mouth of a moping giant: “people don’t really want to know the truth.”
It detonates to little effect among the assembled, who perhaps feel peppered in irony, but the way Daisey deploys it fills me with that sense of fear that is synonymous with respect. The law of decency states that once the cat is out of the bag it can no longer be drowned, and must be grudgingly fed and petted. Here, kitty kitty.
Every storyteller knows or quickly learns that audiences are never, ever interested in the truth. The truth is challenging, miserable and often just plain dull. Like regular exercise, it is more commonly praised than practiced. Stories are processed hunks of soul food, manufactured to be wolfed down with ease. The majority of people who believe they have experienced a truthful insight during the course of a story are as mistaken as those who believe their yoghurt-coated muesli bar is a nutritious healthy snack. A moment applauded as truthful by an audience is more likely to be a familiar prejudice, repackaged and wrapped in a colourful bow.
The injustice that Daisey (to his credit) barely mentions, is that he was castigated by journalists - the sneakiest storytellers of all - whose morally questionable craft is predicated on casting unwitting members of the public as heroes or monsters. The ‘truth’ so widely touted as the foundation of journalistic integrity is about as praiseworthy as the actions of a film-maker who manages to spell everyone’s name right in the credits.
Almost all of the criticism levelled at Daisey relates to details about his cast list - whether or not he really encountered underaged or crippled workers. The more damaging lie, the flesh of the show and the heart of its popularity, never appears on the charge sheet. The more damaging lie was dispensed in the form of a dangerous sugar-coated placebo, one that continues to be swallowed with glee any time it is made available to an English-speaking audience. It is never made explicit, to the point where it is fair to question whether the transmitter is as unwitting as the recipient. It’s broadcast at the frequency of a dog-whistle. I will endeavour to summarise it here:
“We’re so lucky to live in the West. Asia is a giant labour camp, where greedy foreign overseers can be bribed by us to entice their dispirited compatriots into serfdom. It’s win-win, because the low cost of labour means we get things cheap, and they’re incentivised to spend their time engaged in social suppression rather than the technological advancement needed to beat us at our own game, so we stay on top of the world. It’s a bit sad, but also a relief.”
To combat this lie, some brave sucker would have to force an audience to sit through a show about how continental Asia is a dynamic, forward-thinking, technologically adventurous and systematically competitive gigantosaur. The show would need to posit that not only can we not make iPhones, but we can’t actually afford them either. It would suggest that the only thing separating the majority of them from the majority of us is our superior access to credit. From them. This show would possibly draw an analogy comparing us to an articulate gaggle of Foie Gras geese who boast about feeling quite well fed. Rather than guess at the box-office potential of a show like this, I’ll simply retweet Daisey: #peopledon’tactuallywanttoknowthetruth.
Now, after pointing out the beams in everyone else’s eyes, it’s time to address the mote scratching away in my own. My play On the Upside Down of the World is openly ‘based’ (clue, and blessedly explicit caveat) on a brilliant diary that I discovered and crafted into a story about a wry, witty woman and her struggles to take root in a strange new land. The message is universal and timely, and it’s found so much favour with audiences that it’s led to both me and the show coming to play in New York (see right).
In all honesty, if you met the real Ann Martin, the one who wrote the book, and asked her what she was banging on about, she’d tell you she wanted to correct a popular nineteenth century misconception that the Maori didn’t take well to religious instruction.
Throughout ninety minutes of my play there is not one suggestion that Ann Martin is motivated in any way by religion. I didn’t think it was relevant. It wasn’t what I wanted to tell an audience, or what I thought they wanted to hear. And I still don’t. I also felt entitled to make some educated assumptions about things she hid from her readers - her severe disability, her inability to have children and her feelings about being sent to the other side of the world in the wake of a finger-snap wedding to a man she hardly knew. I flatter myself to believe that in the stories told by Ann and me, any false or misleading impressions are created to serve a noble cause.
In a last attempt to burrow back into the friable moral ground like the intellectual worm I am, I will say in all our defences that life without story is as unpleasant as life without clothes. Given that, we must either choose to knit our own underwear, or engage the services of a master tailor. If we do the latter, and discover that the finished garments flatter rather reveal our faults, the tailor should be paid in thanks not spanks.
In issue number 4: I wrestle with the bald facts about genetic predisposition.
 All the Faces of the Moon. http://tickets.publictheater.org/production/?prod=22237
 The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, by Mike Daisey (2010).
 Or something to that effect. https://soundcloud.com/mikedaisey/moon-13-that-hideous-strength
“that observation which is called knowledge of the world, will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good.” - Samuel Johnson The Rambler, Number 4.
The US take on English is salted with inexplicable quirks, but when choosing their autumnal noun the locals knew exactly what they were doing. The fall is a term that prosaically and poetically describes a season characterised by natural defoliation and original sin. For as sure as the desiccated leaves will drop, somewhere, often everywhere in America, electoral billboards will rise, political pamphlets will unfurl and white-toothed candidates will promote themselves for public office.
In New York they line subway egresses like professional beggars canvassing your vote. The locals are inured, but for an out-of-towner, the initial reaction is one of pity. You’ll wish you had the legal status to vote for them all. But if you take the time to talk with them and flick over their glossy handbills, you will be troubled to learn that most of these people have been in political office before - often repeatedly - and given the opportunity, all of them intend to remain there for the bulk of their natural lives. They are career politicians.
It’s a phenomenon that both characterises, and claws at the face of democracy. The founding fathers got together for the express purpose of constraining over exuberant authority. They dreamed of government of the people, not a people.
No one who helped invent or inculcate the democratic process ever championed the notion of the career politician. Unfortunately, just as no gardener tills and sews a pumpkin patch with the intention of growing weeds, it’s the inevitable result. Despite their genius, the founding fathers failed to constitutionalise a pesticide to combat the constant legislator. Perhaps they thought dire warnings would suffice. Just as the Lord warned Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge, Thomas Jefferson cautioned that “once a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.”
The modern embodiments of this rottenness, when confronted with their sin, tend to puff themselves up with lungfuls of pride and boast of the ‘benefits’ of their ‘political experience’. At least when confronted with their nakedness, Adam and Eve had the decency to blush with shame.
To attempt a proxy Alford plea, it has always been difficult to the point of impossibility to enter public office without really setting your mind to it. Creating the profile to garner the public tick necessitates the expenditure of so much time and money that it has become the sole preserve of those who can make campaigning and reigning into a full-time business. Once you’ve managed to mount that pony, there no incentive but to cling on.
In scouring recent history for examples of other means of attaining elected office, I have to resort to citing farce: Robbie Coltraine's unwitting ascent to the head of the Catholic church in The Pope Must Die; Eddie Murphy scamming his way into congress in The Distinguished Gentleman; and the continued political relevance of the New Zealand First Party.
The first two are the clearly fictional, the latter curiously not. Interestingly, what both the films have in common, besides low levels of critical approbation, is a plot that revolves around the central character being mistaken for a career politician (/ cardinal) with a similar name. Even in the realm of fantasy it seems that creative minds cannot envisage government as being of the people, but by the established.
In the real world, New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters has devised a clever way to exploit New Zealand’s electoral system to use his personal popularity as collateral for several extra seats in parliament. He fills these via a candidate selection policy that is rumoured to be analogous to tossing sticks of dynamite into a stagnant pond and scooping into office whatever floats up stunned. It’s not pretty, nor are his methods replicable in any standardised way.
While humanity generally takes pride in emulating and surpassing its every prior achievement, the most fashion-forward member of the pantheon of civic virtue remains Cincinnatus, in his ancient, dusty toga. . He was a private citizen, in the midst of ploughing his fields when his compatriots called on him to accept dictatorial powers in order to right the ship of state. After making short work of a pack of uppity neighbours, whom he put down like a sack of feral cats, he resigned his office, and returned to his farm to pick up where he left off. The end. Despite the admiration accorded to the story, it has yet to spawn a homage.
So much of the hypocrisy, ineffectuality, and intransigent injustice blamed on modern democracy is rooted in the requirement for career politicians, and those who aspire to become them, to press flesh, grease donor channels, and choke down what seems to me to be the mangiest rat of all: the need to join one of a limited number of political parties and somehow alloy your own concerns with its stubborn dictates.
More worryingly for democracy, the necessity to be reëlected obliges even the most admired official to devote a significant percentage of his time in office to raising funds for the next campaign, and sucking up to whomsoever may disburse them. An enlightening episode of This American Life puts a representative representative’s reëlection tab at ten to fifteen-thousand dollars for every day of his two-year term. With apologies to Johnson, the knowledge required to thrive in this political world will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good.
I can fix this bug through one significant upgrade aimed at the establishment of a true and better functioning democracy.
This is my modest proposal: Public office, steeped in the principles of public rule and civic duty, ought not to be earned by birth or achievement, but should be thrust upon citizens by way of ballot conscription.
It’s an idea with precedents in execution, if not in scale. Many countries press-gang citizens into jury duty, a few retain compulsory military service. This is a similar ‘call-up’ system that will result in a more perfect, more literal government of the people, by the people and for the people.
The electoral roll will record each citizen’s current age, sex, sexual orientation, religion, ethnic allegiance and physical address. Because we live in a glorious and unabashedly capitalist society, I suggest that we also record the occupation to which each citizen feels most passionately aligned. Before the start of each electoral term a computer programme randomly selects a proportional group of citizens over the age of eighteen to create a parliament truly representative of the wider whole.
Elections would be built up and televised with all the fanfare of a jackpot lottery. The new parliament is formed, and haggles briefly amongst itself to discover the members most suited to head the necessary ministries. They adhere to the system by which bills are to be proposed, considered, voted for and passed into law. I suggest a term of office of three years, in which case a citizen could be called up twice in her lifetime.
An upper house, a governor-general, president or other form of parliamentary oversight? No thanks. A strong fourth estate? One, please. Our new politicians will be well-paid, their actions publicly scrutinised and they will be as answerable to their families, friends, neighbours, personal vanity and the vox populi as ever before, perhaps more so, because they’ll be subsumed by thoughts of what they can achieve in their short allotted time, rather than consumed by compromises geared towards maintaining office. Of course they won’t know exactly what do do from the outset, who does? It’s an open secret that the first six months of every new job is spent masking your incompetence while you scramble to get the knack.
I refute that this would place any greater strain on the judiciary or civil service, most of whom already spend the greater part of their careers bemoaning the political monkeys to whom they have to fling cerebral peanuts.
It will be questioned whether a parliament thus composed could ever get anything done? Here I have to direct a barb at the question itself, as I think it arises from a subcutaneous anti-democratic layer of fat that has always been a part of the body politic. We love the idea of democracy, but like doting parents confronted with the reality of handing the car keys to our beloved teenager, we struggle to muster the faith to actually let her drive.
This will not be a victimless coup. The first against the wall will be the concept of career trajectory. People will be plucked from their normal lives at the worst possible time - soon after parenthood, just when a business is finally getting traction, or right at the point you intended to retire. Some will be summoned to the lesser glory of local council, others will never represent their fellows in any way at all. Too bad. Like those heroic volunteers who set aside their plans to fight the fascists in Europe, it’s a necessary sacrifice we’ll gladly make to live in the land of the free.
For those that would lament the demise of the political class, I commend your giant hearts. You lovely lugs. You want people to be useful and happy in their chosen careers for as long as they draw breath, but I ask: ‘do you weep for the coopers?’ The fashioning of barrels was once an impressive and time-honoured craft, often imparted through intergenerational lines. Unfortunately, it was simply usurped by time and technology, and its practitioners forced to learn another trade.
For those that will argue ‘we’re not ready’, I have a warning: Flip back a few pages in your missal. You’ll find you’re preaching from the same tatty and apocryphal book that says that Africans, Asians, Arabs and Antarcticans ‘aren’t ready’ for democracy, and that the women of days gone by were fit for little more than fucking and boiling tea. You’re wrong. But I know that changing your minds will be as arduous as animating lumps of clay into a charming feature film. Today I begin to craft my Chicken Run.
Like a medieval mason breaking ground on a magnificent cathedral, I don’t expect to live to see this idea sanctified, but I’m happy to put foot to spade regardless.
 Jefferson to T. Coxe, 1799.
 Well, kind of. He loved Rome, but loathed its people, which is extremely unhelpful in terms of the point I’m about to make, but in the interests of full disclosure, I feel obliged to bury the admission here.
"It may not be unfit for him who makes a new entrance into the lettered world... to believe that he possibly may deserve neglect." - Samuel Johnson, The Rambler No. 2.
To finesse the proverb: a journey of a thousand miles begins not with a single step, but with a general sense of direction. And so, to christen the launch of what I hope will be a mutually profitable and delightful ramble over the course of the next two years, I’d like to divulge the in and as-pirations of this endeavour so as to kindle your curiosity and douse my own smouldering suspicion that a blog is a blog is a blog.
I met my title in the writings of Dr Samuel Johnson, who in turn was introduced to it by Horace. The profit to which it alludes is not subject to tax. I don’t intend to brick myself behind a paywall, and you won’t receive a pecuniary bean. To miscontextualise Jay-Z feat. Jermaine Dupri: “to hell with the price/ cause the money ain’t a thang." The profit I’m rapping about is a more profound definition of ‘an advantageous gain or return,’ one that seeks to increase the value we extract from our lives and observations of the world, and inflate our delight in them too.
I make the bulk of my money as a writer. Overall, I’m happy in my work, and proud of what I do. But the nature of the job means “we contrive in minutes what we execute in years.” My latest play, for example, was delivered last month after a gestation of thirty-four. It’s a real cracker, the best I’ve ever done, but as I steered my slow and steady ship, I can’t say I wasn’t envious of other writers zipping around in smaller craft, sails filled with the popular breeze. Here you’ll find my pleasure boat, in which I get to hoon.
This blog owes more to the good Dr than the title alone. Between 1750 and 1752 he published an essay, twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, in the form of a twopenny sheet he called The Rambler. It was one of a multitude of such publications, eerily similar to blogs, that stampeded through the streets following technological advances that flattened many of the hurdles between thinking up an idea, and committing it to print.
Johnson embraced the form, but not the prevailing style of the writers of the time, who can be described crudely but not inaccurately as falling over each other to mimic the biases, concerns and vernacular of the general public in order to tickle its balls. Johnson intentionally wrote in elevated prose to pursue a higher-minded expression of higher-minded aims: he believed the task of an author is “either to teach what is not known, or to recommend known truths by his manner of adorning them; either to let new light in upon the mind, and open new scenes to the prospect, or to vary the dress and situation of common objects, so as to give them fresh grace and more powerful attractions.” I quote at length, because I couldn’t put it better myself. I’ve taken his sentiment to heart as both a truth and a dare.
So this is where you’ll find me exercising my resources in the hope of gaining strength; and wrestling common thoughts into higher expressions of sentiment and language. This is not about unrestrained verbosity or trying to show off. My intention is to achieve shades of insight and flavours of meaning that simply can’t be discovered by painting in primary colours, or heaping in the sugar, salt and fat.
My relationship with Johnson is that of mortgagor and mortgagee. Like most borrowers I’ve taken on my debt in hope and haste and with little judgement. Johnson was a genius whose furnished his public with quotes and allusions from the vast and well-stocked cellars of his mind. Although my intentions are as generous, my mental supplies are comparatively scant, and you will often catch me dashing to the metaphorical liquor store. For example, almost everything I’m telling you about Dr J I’ve culled from Wikipedia. I have little reading and less news, but I do have the internet, and a full tank of curiosity to get me from A to Ω.
So here it is, a gentle start I know, but as my wise teacher says “it is more pleasing to see smoke brightening into flame, than flame sinking into smoke.”
I’ll publish a new issue, every Tuesday and Saturday afternoon, my time, from wherever I am in the world. At the moment that’s New York. I’ll remind you via twitter, and Facebook, and if the demand is there I may even create an email list. The subjects under consideration will be many and various; any topic can feel confident of gaining admission so long as it demonstrates its willingness to profit and delight.
In Issue 2, Tuesday September 17, I will propose a novel solution to the career politician, democracy’s original sin.
 Z, Jay-, Vol 2. Hard Knock Life, Roc-A-Fella Records, 1998.
 Johnson, The Rambler, No. 8
 Johnson, The Rambler, No. 3
 Johnson, The Rambler, No. 1
PROFIT & DELIGHT
What I'm thinking about what I'm doing. This blog aspires to a more profound definition of 'profit' and the bog-standard sense of 'delight'.