Saturday, May 08, 2010


I was sitting in the staff room – most people called it the smoking room – watching a game of pool. I wasn’t interested in the pool. I was just staring blankly ahead of me really, listening to a conversation across the room. There were two visiting machinists, contractors called in to fix or modify something in the warehouse, I don’t know. They were sat over there talking through the thick smoke at each other, arguing. One had a newspaper in his hand. He said ‘look, it says here: “Police traced him to Silvertown where he was, lost, found.” That’s what it says and I see no problem with it.’

The other man shook his head emphatically causing the smoke which hung in the air around him to swirl about lazily, like a dirty blanket in slow motion. ‘You don’t have a problem because you don’t know about proper usage,’ responded the head-shaker, ‘It’s not a grammatical error per se, it’s more a stylistic fault. Trust me. Listen: It should really say “Police traced him to Silvertown where he was found lost.” And that sloppy journalist should be fired.’

Later that day, after work, I was passing through the staff room and I found the newspaper discarded on a seat. Leafing through it, I found the article. It concerned the police’s dealings with what the journalist called a lunatic. Police had deemed him "possibly dangerous". Clutching a toy mobile phone with no tele-communicative power whatsoever, the deranged man was found in Silvertown, East London after supposedly following text messages directly from God.

His story, outlined in the paper, was for me a sad one. Neighbours and attentive locals in his home town of Putney, South West London, knew him as “the mobile phone man”. He was often to be seen darting frantically and unsystematically about the town centre, gazing intently at the screen of his mobile phone, always jealously clutched with both hands and held near his face. Initially no one had noticed that the mobile phone was fake – that it was a children’s toy. Many pointed out his startling ability to find his way without his eyes, as he dashed about without their help, never crashing into anything, ever gazing into the phone.

Now in Police custody, the deeply upset man insists that his phone regularly receives text messages from God, whom he calls His Mighty. ‘The texts’, he explained to Police, ‘range from simple demands or advice on how to act to cryptic messages, puzzles or kōans.’ But this man’s God is not quite Him of the traditional Judaeo-Christian tradition. Not quite omniscient, not quite omnipotent. According to the lunatic, who gave his name as Gavin Stegosaurus, God ‘is a Luddite... [and] not fond of sending text messages. But, reluctantly, He recognises that it is a supremely efficient way to get in touch. He doesn’t like texting because he can’t get the hang of the predictive function. He often makes mistakes.’ So despite being, according to Mr Stegosaurus, ‘almost perfect’, His Mighty is prone to typos. However, the article went on to explain, Mr Stegosaurus can never be sure if His Mighty has planted the typo on purpose to test him, or as a clue to something, or to illustrate the irrationality existence, or something else like that; or if it’s just a mistake.
Frantic and alarming as he is at first sight, the people of Putney’s familiarity with Mr Stegosaurus left him largely un-noticed by the authorities. It wasn’t until he was spotted darting around Silvertown in his customary way that the Police were alerted by many of Silvertown’s frightened locals, people un-used to his outlandish behaviour. He was then apprehended on the grounds of ‘frightening behaviour’ and brought back to the station. Explaining himself to Silvertown’s police he cited a text message he says he received yesterday stating simply ‘Run as east as you can’ (sic). Unsure whether it was a predictive-born typo (east being a predictive-synonymous of fast) or a clear and direct demand, Stegosaurus ran East for more than ten miles, ending up tired and flustered in Silvertown, East London. Having decided, he said, that Silvertown was “quite east enough thankyou”, he set about waiting for further instruction from His Mighty – and this is what scared the residents. His method of waiting for further instruction involves the aforementioned bizarre darting about.

I read this article standing in the smoking room after work. My stomach gave a little painful churn of empathy. I thought of the man, deluded and insane, with his frantic with his toy phone. I read this sentence again: “The texts range from simple demands or advice on how to act to cryptic messages, puzzles or kōans.” What struck me was the clear, concise, almost textbook-like clarity of his spoken words. I realised I was surprised because I was assuming that if he was really mad he’d have only wild and whirling words, flailing limbs, and stuff like that. But on the contrary, he appeared to be able to express himself perfectly well. I hoped he would be ok. I hoped the police would go easy on him.

I put the newspaper down and looked at my watch. It was twenty past five. I’d been standing there for twenty minutes reading and re-reading the article. It was time to get home. I got out my phone to check if I had any messages. There were none. But, staring into the glowing blue screen, I tried to imagine what God might text me if he were to text me. I’d want a kōan. An irrational story. I’d want something mysterious like that. If God was straight with me, if He said something like “You could do with a haircut,” or “Don’t take that tone with your mother, she’s been good to you...” I’d be a little annoyed. If God must be at all, for me, He must be mysterious.

I knew one kōan off by heart. I read it in a book years ago. But if I didn’t already know it, I thought, it would be a good message to receive from God, or from the ether, from nowhere:

A monk asked Zhao Zhou to teach him.
Zhao Zhou asked, "Have you eaten your meal?"
The monk replied, "Yes, I have."
"Then go wash your bowl," said Zhao Zhou.
At that moment, the monk was enlightened.

To get that in a text, or find it somewhere. Perhaps written in chalk on the pavement. I would like that. That is what I thought, still standing there in the smoking room. Maybe I should write it in chalk upon the pavement. Yeah: “Upon the pavement”. That makes it sound olden and dignified - almost biblical. Something like that.


I went home. I was hungry. But these thoughts didn’t leave me. Sitting on the train home I began to hope for a message. It would be good to receive a message. I understood Gavin Stegosaurus’s delusion. I almost envied it – its success. I supposed it was his intense desire to receive messages that gave him messages. This desire had escalated to the point of delusion.[1]

The more I considered it, the more I shared this desire. I wanted to share in the hallucination. I wanted to hear the message, any message really. It was the being-contacted I wanted, the message matters less. Whatever the message was I could make something special of it. If something appears as if by magic it doesn’t matter how boring the thing is – magic ditch water is still magic, still exciting. I didn’t mind if, like the lunatic, I was contacted in an unconventional manner, by an deity who couldn’t get the hang of texting.

I sat at home over my microwavable dinner, stuffing forkfuls of it into my mouth un-tastingly, musing over messages, deity contact, the possibly vocal ether, words found on pavements, the universe sending messages, and things like that. My mobile phone gave its customary text message receiving shudder in my pocket and my heart jumped. Throwing down my fork, still laden with a chivey new potato, I scrambled for my phone. It was a message from my network provider, advertising their roaming service. My heart slowed down. I stared at my phone reproachfully, disappointed and embarrassed. How childish, I thought.

Delete. That made me feel a little bit better. The catharsis of deleting the text, even though it had already got to me – got its teeth into me – since I’d read it. I enjoyed deleting it. My heart rate slowed back down.

I finished my dinner and began to scheme. If I can’t get a message then maybe I could give one. If the universe won’t deign to contact me with its mysterious words, if God won’t text me, maybe I could contact someone else in the guise of a deity. I didn’t want to mess with someone’s mind, send them running off the East London or make them cut their hair. I just wanted them to receive a message from nowhere.
The kōan. I could write it in chalk somewhere. Someone might find it and feel contacted, feel that thrill. It is a thrill I was only imagining. Everyone knows how exciting it is to receive a letter in the post, especially a long one, hand written pen-on-paper. It is a good feeling, like being cradled in the hands of a giant. And so to read the kōan on the pavement, I hoped, might be calming in this way. Beatific?
I stayed up late that night clutching an old piece of chalk. Don’t know why I ever even owned chalk but luckily, I had some. And I waited until the quietest hour of night. 3.30 I reckoned. After most people go to bed, before most people get up. I was going to be tired at work the next day but I had to do this. It had to be purged. The urge was so strong. I couldn’t hallucinate somehow. I knew it would be false. So I had to experience the reception of the message vicariously.

Like a vicar, vicariously. I was suddenly the priest of this new church. A tiny church of one. One kōan. One small story. A speck of chalky dust in the pantheon. The universe in a grain of sand. Well not quite: I went out with my chalk, warming in my sweating palm. I could hear cars far away. No human sounds. Only machines. Middle-distant engines.

[1] “The state of psychical rest was ...disturbed by the peremptory demands of internal needs. When this happened, whatever was ...wished for was simply presented in a hallucinatory manner...” (Freud, Two Principles of Mental Functioning, 1911).


Lil' Danes Picklescott said...

This tale managed to conjure in me that feeling, 'like being cradled in the hands of a giant'. This reminds me of William James' description of religion as a quest to feel at home in the universe. It's a pragmatic defense of 'religious' behaviour, I suppose, and it means religion is not necessarily sinister or rooted in the desire for power. This is a good idea and allows us to empathise with a wide range of people, including Mr. Stegosaurus. Peace.

Wall-O-Withnail said...

I love that you a) know what a koan is, and b) regularly infuse your writing with references to/from Hamlet.