Fractional Distillation

One week earlier, over dinner in his garden, I had told Jimmy I found August a difficult month. My friend set me straight: ‘You find the month you are in difficult’. It’s true enough, I find all months difficult but I find every month difficult in its own way.

    fractional distillation
    Pinch, punch the first of the month.

    I pivot into September but even before its customary blow I am reeling from August. Every year it’s the same: I am always reeling from August.

    One week earlier, over dinner in his garden, I had told Jimmy I found August a difficult month. My friend set me straight: ‘You find the month you are in difficult’. It’s true enough, I find all months difficult but I find every month difficult in its own way. February is cold and dark (unless I land in India), April jeers at me (it holds my birthday), September returns me to work, always with a trade show and (every year I miss its feint) an uppercut that sets my teeth singing. But August, holder of the high holidays, promises one thing and delivers another, coming or going it slips me something between the ribs. Five years ago it delivered me into intensive care and every year since it reminds me of how we die. August is the treacherous month.

    Plague is rising in Asia but America lies under water. The image is so arresting that I actually buy a newspaper. I shave to Today, catch the nightly news (for the visuals) but newspapers are no longer delivered and only purchased when the mood is on me. This was not always the case because I was educated to value General Knowledge. I practiced the principles but found systematic information hard to retain and the politics of my own country never appealed much. My head, too easily turned by hedonism, could muster neither concern nor ambition. From time to time and in the manner of the hypocrite I chide my children for their apparent lack of interest but really it’s just another way for me to be grumpy.

    Maybe I am tiring (I am tiring) because I find the currents in our affairs too strong. I no longer want to stay abreast, in fact I have a job to stay afloat. I am jealous of my time and my concentration and in particular my powers of assimilation because I need these elsewhere, for what I simply have to do. I have to make sense of my life as I live it and please before I leave it.

    I had bought my last newspaper two days earlier in another language, weekending in France, Le Sud-Ouest, enjoying an English wedding in Le Tarn (Kensingtarn my hosts coyly jest). The next day I sat stunned in the cathedral at Albi. Its fortress footprint an emphatic squashing of the Cathar heresy, its giddy interior a delerious declaration of Catholic saints and values. From the newspaper I decipher news of rugby, local planning, and the many sources of pride and indignation in this particular part of the planet. I read of the concerns of the descendents of those warring parties and at this hour on this Sunday morning I am interested in what interests them.

    Back in Brighton I will likely loose all interest. And anyway little can eclipse what I read in the Phnom Penh Post. I have had an on-line subscription since I visited in February and I occasionally peer in through the phosphor window. I read tales from the preposterous court of King Father Sihanouk and his crooked ministers, I read Borges-like fables from this poor, sad, dazed land. I read this newspaper like any other when the mood is on me. I read this news when I want to cry softly.

    America lies under water, the biblical has come to downtown, the streets bob with floaters and gaters. I sip my coffee and then read of the greatest consternation. Ryanair will cuts flights to Newquay if a £5 charge is levied by Cornwall council. Next up it’s one year after Beslan and there are men carrying shocked kids but the piece is stuggling to hold my attention on the bottom half of the page. We like our atrocity fresh. Young Family Killed In Train Leap. A mother and two children are smeared under the wheels of the Heathrow Express. That registers because a week later, waiting on platform in Stockport, I will buy another paper and will stare at the last fuzzy sighting at Southall station, of a mother in sleelveless blue shirt, kid in red dress, infant strapped in push-chair, plastic shoppoing bag over handle, and their desperate, urgent, forward movement. This time I have the strength to put the paper in a bin because I have what I need and I know it. I make use of where I am and recall my worst despair to retread the steps this mother took to stand the other side of the yellow line. I stand there too. I hear the high speed train closing, it’s the Euston express glinting on the railis but for Navjeet, Aman and Simran it was the Night Train. I unpack the banal headline: Train Leap Dad Speaks of Pain. I wonder about such pain and that he can speak at all. The late afternoon tiredness lifts and my life is suddenly vivid.

    I spend my day at the Cafe Royal gladhanding members of my industry and handing out my new business cards with a gusto born of nervousness. On this day the Playstation Portable is launched to divert us all a little further. I play Ridge Racer and in the palm of my hand, on a jewel bright screen, cars scream and twist. My car makes the stagepoint, violent yellow type flashes up my reward: Time Extended. I can have more but I have had enough – I was rinsed with adrenaline before I began. Instead I join the delegates and gaze at the gold and tourquoise, egg and dart, ceiling of the Pompadour Suite. Inside this fantasy I am invited to ponder the engine of our acceleration. I learn about the ”Cell” chip and that Sony will manufacture 100 million of these for Playstation 3. Cell? It’s not yet living but silicon, green-eyed, steals when it can from organic forms. Carbon has had 4.5 billion years, silicon only 45 but already it has carbon’s tail lights in full view.

    I learn something about the architecture of the electron flow. The processor is dual-issue, dual-threaded, fully pipelined, well cached. This language and the male love it inspires evoke images of deadly weaponary. Acronyms fly at us like bullets. I learn vector processes envelop scalar operations. The speaker’s voice squeaks then drops in awe: the SPUs are low level beasts. Some value the intellectual edifice of theory but I thrill to this grungy technologist’s blend of metaphor and mathematics. I flop into the world of Large Numbers, of Mega and Giga and the aptly named Tera . The processor performs 51.2 billion operations per second ( we can not only design we can count the cycles). The Cell chip has eight of these processors and I can hold it in a tight pinch between forefinger and thumb. This is brilliant magic.

    Meanwhile outside on Regent Street, the mother that gave rise to this scampering progeny, the petroleum age, is in full gush. One trillion barrels consumed to date, the second trillion in the next 25 years, or likely less. (We don’t know if there is a third trillion). Crude prices are jumping because the raw black stuff is useless until it has been separated into its consituent polymer chains. There are 735 refineries in the world and today we suddenly see this for what it is: a small number. These sites (count them – the hurricanes and terrorists do) are the umbilicals of the lifstyle every person everywhere enjoys or hungers for. Our essential activities depend utterly on the different distillates. We are hopelessly addicted to oil.

    I am getting jittery and it’s time to disengage from the conference. But at Piccadily Circus at the turn of the stone stair underground I am arrested. I am locked into a data stream, overloading, unable to decouple. The headline, black on white, spells out 648 killed in a stampede. There is an image of a local policeman, unable to place his foot on the bridge without stepping on the shoes of the departed. A hoax bomb has cleared the bridge of life and killed more than any explosion. It’s Baghad, and I know this news is ephemeral, it will be gone tomorrow, and I will never know the names of any on the bridge. But at that moment I want to, and try as I might to prevent it, this news is mattering to me. Our nasty tribal instincts, our teeth sharpened by technology, distress me: Christian and Muslim, Catholic and Cathar, Sunni and Shia. We reserve our most murderous intent for those who live alongside us.

    Around me the music from the tranny, perched on last season’s strips of London football clubs, parts the street noise: Chris Martin, plaintive and pleading, I will try to fix you. Some sounds mass and climb, others cleave this spongy pilllow and call to one clear. In the garden of my children’s home off the Uxbridge Road the traffic noise is oddly muted and each afternoon one can hear a blackbird’s territorial calls. My mostly blind mum will recognise the same birdsong in our patch of urban Brighton, and then she smiles, lifts her head, and exclaims in a way that breaks my heart. A commercial and musical entity, Coldplay, reaches the height of its powers of expression and reaches the part that music reaches in me. Sadness fills me and does what it does: it connects me. I am jacked in, my associative centres are hot wired. We are cruel but we can care too. I find hope in a picture of hopelessness. I start to sneer at this Band Aid moment but I can’t prevent it: to the shock of myself and passers by, I cry. Then I do something really foolish – to cover my shame I buy a newspaper.

    In the tube I rock back and forth behind the paper. I look from the policeman to the sandals to the ramparts above the Tigris. Then appalled I do what I have to do, what I am impelled by this medium to do, I turn the page. I see I never had a choice: pages are for turning, that’s what they are for. Jerry Hall’s new show is too rude for the tube and we are treated to the poster. My brain is wiped, I am ripe for entertainment.

    Our planet crackles with our communications. I realise this plurality of news is an index of democracy and that my forebears fought for this privilege. I have the space to feel like I do because I have received this privilege in full. I am the most free of any generation who has ever lived. I am really really grateful but it’s getting too much. News is everywhere, news begets news, it proliferates, in full moving colour, the pushiest, baddest news to the fore. The rattling of reporters, the chatter of commentators is continuous. News of our antics travels at light speed and a rising tide of six billion hominids ensures there is plenty of incoming. There is literally no end to it so it’s a personal choice where to call a limit and I am moving the slider down. I am a man who has woken up in the middle of his life but the more I open up, the more quickly I am overrun. For me it’s not a matter of morality but of madness. I absolutely have to draw a line where my concern and compassion end. The media makes my world a bigger place but it has to be small enough to matter. I have a light head and can only take a fraction of what’s on offer. I sip at the lighter distillates, wary lest I slip and loose myself in the heavy hydrocarbons.

    August reminds me of how we die but it suggests how I may live. It’s a small conceit – those damn months, they have it in for me - and as hideously wrong as astrology but it’s preposterous enough to amuse me and I have found that when I laugh or cry I can transition into helpful forms of imaginative possession. Sometimes I stall, sometimes I am stupefied, sometimes my imagination is not up to the task. But sometimes it is. And when I invest my imagination in things that happen around, about and alongside me my relationship to them is changed – and always for the better.

    In my keep there are trusted servants and in turn I am a trusted servant in the castle of others. My school, at which I rebelled, quietly suggested I put its expensive education at the service of other people. I didn’t listen. ‘We hope that those who leave us will benefit the community in which they live. Over the ages that is what we have sought most to achieve’. Christ….over the ages, over nine hundred bloody years. I am well past the middle of my age but I am only just getting it. I am a father to children, a son to a mother, a husband to a woman, a friend to other men, a colleague to colleagues. I have my community. I am an intensely selfish man who has become mindful of others. I see my task as I did not before. It is to be helpful – be helpful to those I meet on the way and I will feel better. It is a very tiring thought.

    I catch sight of myself in the darkened train window but I no longer think wanker! as I once did. I feel kindly toward this reflection but I wish it was younger. My hair is thinning, my set is thickening, my musical taste is softening. I would like to roll these back but that’s not top of my list. I want more of what I once had in plenty: I want more months.

    I want to open my newspaper to read my time has been extended.