Sunday, 26 January 2020

My Father and the Pathfinders

Neither belief nor disbelief are to be preferred. They are both delusions.

My father is very British. My grandmother disowned me as a teenager due to my waywardness, my grandfather was very loyal to me but was not my biological grandfather. My grandmother was a stern and hard woman, well regarded in the community, a magistrate.

My Father was sent to boys boarding school from a fairly young age, Stowe. That makes him a Stoic by tradition. He enjoyed it, despite breaking his back whilst he was there. He was disowned by his family for marrying a poor Jewish girl, daughter of an academic and well below his station. They were reconciled.

My real Grandfather died when my father was young. He was called Mr Curry and my Father knew very little about him until after his mother died and he found some old family papers through which he tracked down many cousins and other relatives he'd never known.

His father was a fighter pilot in the second world war, in the pathfinder squadron. In the early parts of the war the average British bomb was something like seven miles off target. This was partly due to bombers having to unload early due to heavy anti-aircraft fire but also due to how hard it was to bomb targets from the air.

The pathfinders, whose average lifespan was measurable in days I believe, were formed to help solve this problem. They flew ahead of the bombing raids, flying low and dropping flares on targets. After this the average distance of a bomb from the target went down to only a couple of miles I think. It was said they could land a flare on a target the size of a barn door.

My Grandmother spent the whole war certain he wasn't going to come back. He did come back, but then two years after the war he died as the copilot of a plane that crashed in a memorial parade.

Grandmother was then the single mother of two young children in post war Britain. My father still remembers rationing. She met John Foord and married him, he raised my father and his sister Jill as his own and had two more children with my Grandmother. He was a difficult man, hard to love, but he was good to me. My name is Michael John Foord.

That gentle flush of happiness
Rising effortlessly
Ending in a smile
And I smile back

Friday, 24 January 2020

Tales From the Past: Pungent Effulgent, The Serbian and Nightmare on Watling Street

Pungent Effulgent

We've just passed the thirty year anniversary of the release of Pungent Effulgent by Ozric Tentacles. It's epic.

I've seen Ozric Tentacles live twice, several years apart and both times on their "last ever" tour. Once in Cambridge and once in Northampton.

On the Northampton occasion I sneaked out of the commune, against strict orders and with no money to go and see them. My "shepherd", the one to whom I was accountable, demanded I didn't go with a command "as if from the Lord". I told him I didn't see it like that and cadged a lift with one of the brightly coloured minibuses taking volunteers from the farm to the various town commune houses.

A lovely woman who liked me bought me the ticket. After the show I told her I wouldn't go out with her (I had already told her that!) and had to find a different lift back home to the commune.

The first occasion, Cambridge about 1994, was at the Corn Exchange, when I was at university and prior to going mad. There was no ecstasy around at the time so I swallowed an eighth of hard slate hash in order to get high. I'm pretty sure it went straight through me. I didn't get high but Ozric Tentacles were good.

The Serbian

We're en-route to Croatia. Still a hundred miles to Turin where we're stopping for the night.

I don't think I've ever met a Croatian, not a memorable one anyway. I worked for several years for a charity, which mainly helped the homeless and disadvantaged, run by the cult I lived with for ten years. There I met people from many Eastern European countries, but not Croatia.

I've met a Serbian. She was very attractive, a sharp kind of beauty that I admire but am not particularly drawn to. I was high on LSD at the time, this was some years ago and at the Niagara Falls. Night may not be the best time to see the falls, all lit up like cotton candy, but you can feel the power of the place and it makes for a great trip. I was with a couple of friends, this was the expedition of the Delaware biting flies. One of my friends was coming to terms with a hard thing, which is not best done on LSD, so we drank whisky too. In large enough quantities alcohol will eventually overpower acid. I had no money, nor access to money as I'd left my wallet on a train on the way to the flight, so I drank on other peoples' dime.

In the bar we met an old friend of one of my companions. She lived and worked in the falls and took us to a dive bar where the few locals drank. There we watched two transexuals fight in the street and get barred from the pub. I made friends with the father/mother of one of the transsexuals.

Many of the locals, friends of the friend of a friend who brought us there, were Eastern Europeans traveling and working in America for as long as their visas would permit. I played pattacake with a pretty Hungarian, at furious pace, and then we settled round a table to play "I have never" and drink vodka shots. I sat next to the Serbian beauty and managed to spit most of a vodka shot straight in her face.

So I know I've definitely met a Serbian. I'm not sure if I've met a Croatian person though. I guess I will soon.

Nightmare on Watling Street

This road, the A5, has haunted me for most of my life. Well, not this road, this is the A5 in France.

In the UK (how much longer will there be such a thing?) the A5, also known in parts at least as Watling Street, is a Roman Road which goes from London to Wales. Along the way it goes through Towcester (Lactodurum) and St Albans (Verulamium) both of which I've lived near.

As a youth I lived in Harpenden and went to school in St Albans. Veralum School for boys. Or the torture house as I called it. Every day I would walk along part of the A5 to get to school.

Doing GCSE English Literature we read a book called Nightmare on Watling Street. A short and distressing (much like my stay at Veralum) story of a truck driver in the days before speed traps, when the word of a cop was enough for a speeding conviction. This driver is one conviction off losing his livelihood and is plagued by a mean cop the truckers despise. The trucker deals with the cop in a tragic and ingenious way. Anyway, it takes place on Watling Street is my point. The grey and gruesome tone of the book matched my experience of life at the time and it stuck with me.

Fast forward a bunch of years and I'm living on goddam Watling Street, just past Towcester in a cult commune called "River Farm". Two nightmares on Watling Street in one lifetime.

And now I'm on a different A5, in a different country, homeward bound and reminiscing.

The Senior Apostolic Leader of the Cult

Save the planet, bump off a billionaire. I'm with the Joker.
I'm a cult survivor. I joined the Jesus Army in 1996 when homeless. I lived in the "all things in common" communes until 2006. There are more stories and information on the Jesus Army Survivors blog.

I remember what in retrospect is an even odder occasion than what already seemed like an odd thing at the time.

I no longer lived with the cult but had retained my association with them, and some sincerely held faith, whilst being a programmer on the side.

Whilst living with them, seven years single and three years as a married man, I had reached the lowest echelons of male leadership as a Leading Serving Brother. An LSB. Mr Stanton was fond of acronyms. And he was in charge of everything.

This story is from some time after Mr Stanton was dead. Someone else was in charge. We had, what later turned out to be the very last of the "leaders meetings", an all male affair and a tradition of the cult stretching back beyond my two decades of association with them.

I had my leadership officially stripped away when we moved out of communal living with the cult. I was allowed in to this meeting as a kind of honourary leader. A gesture towards my more honourable past, perhaps. There were murmurings amongst the progressives of which I was one and possibly not even the most disreputable.

I think it was in this meeting we finally cracked and agreed that women should be permitted to drive minibuses. I left the communal part of the cult in 2006. So this was well past then.

After much discussion and explication of both sides and their scriptural arguments we had a question and answer time with the leader of the cult. The most senior of the apostolic five. The senior apostolic leader of the cult.

I asked him if, given the talk of permitting women a role in leadership which had actually started to happen, we would drop the testicle requirement for attending this meeting.

The senior apostolic leader of the cult replied, without hesitation, that we were feeling our way forward.

The place was uproar for some short while. Lads and aspiring lads to a man.

They did not have a leader's meeting of that kind ever again, and I was not invited to any of the meetings of the new power structures that emerged.

"If you dance with the demons they're angels.
If you flee they're demons.
That's how they tell your nature:
resist the devil and he will flee from you.
And flee we do, devils that we are.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Crimes of the Cult

Content warnings: mentions of child abuse

I'm a cult survivor. I joined the Jesus Army in 1996 when homeless. I lived in the "all things in common" communes until 2006. There are more stories and information on the Jesus Army Survivors blog.

There was a man in the cult who it later turned out was a paedophile who abused some of the children brought up in the cult. We watched his personality crumble until he became a kind of shambling tramp. And then he was arrested for the abuse, which kind of explained the change.

I knew him from my early days in the cult. When I first arrived, homeless and broken, I was set to work in the chicken huts collecting eggs from the thousands of free range chickens at the farm. All the "guests" were put to labour on the farm or the cult businesses. I went on to work for nearly ten years at a Builder's Merchant owned by the cult. I learned a great deal in that time and made many friends, both colleagues and customers of a rural builder's merchant.

Collecting eggs from the chicken sheds was the second worst job on the farm. Not quite the very worst, the very worst job was collecting "floor eggs" (and dead chickens - pecked to death by their comrades as humans are also wont to do on the internet). But the chicken sheds stank and the eggs were frequently covered in blood or shit or both. What made up for it was the woman who ran the egg cleaning and packing shed. She was a saint, beaming only compassion, and had been in the cult for many years even when I arrived. Working in the cleaning and packing shed was balm to any soul.

On the third day or so I found a saviour. Not in the form of Jesus Christ, I sort of knew where to find him if I wanted and hadn't yet decided if I wanted although I couldn't actually see any other viable option, but in the form of one of the orchard workers. One of the few paid employees on the farm he was slightly strange but also slightly angelic. Just being in his presence caused me constant cognitive dissonance. He rescued me out of the darkness of the chicken huts and into the light of the orchards.

And I spent a summer partly sleeping in fields and partly picking fruit. Sometimes among the blackcurrant rows was a short, slightly portly and smartly dressed gentleman from Preston. Visitors from cult houses all across the country would come and provide volunteer labour at the farm.

I don't recall much about him until years later he moved back down Northampton way. A changing man. Preston was a weird scene anyway and he was a weird person. You didn't survive long in the cult without establishing a fairly firm "avoid the weirdos" policy. Lots of harmless nutters, some lovable some not so, and some you just didn't want to talk to. The dangerous nutters you hoped moved on quickly, they usually did.

Anyway. This particular horror did awful things. Some of which he confessed to, eventually, and some of which he denied and was found not guilty. He's now in prison and I shudder at the memory of him. There are others who will do more than shudder, alas.

He wasn't the only person from the cult that I knew who went on to abuse people and go to prison for it. There was only one other that I know of. I knew a murderer, but he was a really nice guy.

Codicil: I knew two people who went on to abuse children in the cult and go to prison for it. I knew a leader who sexually assaulted a young woman and went to prison and then returned to live in the cult. My best friend for years was the son of a paedophile (not in the cult) and another best friend for a few years was sexually assaulted by a leader in the cult. He only went "public" with that, and the ex-leader is now in prison I believe, a few years ago. I know a woman who was sexually assaulted at the farm, was blamed for it and made to move to another household. I only found out a few years ago, many years after the incident. I shared a room with a member who raped someone from a local village. He went to prison and came out again. A friend who returned to the cult from years earlier, now traumatised from working as a mercenary in Afghanistan, eventually revealed that the start of his trauma was being abused as a young man in the cult. Plus lots of strange and disturbing stories I heard. All still jumbled and jangling in my mind.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Dealing with it

No hell but what they make
The only time that I've been involved in drug dealing it was with the Director of Communications for the Church of Scotland. Let's call him John to protect the guilty. We were both at Corpus Christi college, Cambridge university. I was doing a law degree and going mad, he was doing a sociology degree (widely considered to be a drinking degree) and getting laid a lot. We both smoked a lot of weed. He was into out of body experiences and history. I was fairly convinced that whatever career path he wandered down "diabolical genius" was the job title he would end up with. I wasn't too far wrong as it turned out.

One of his acquaintances had come into "quite a lot of weed" and we were both aspiring entrepreneurs and fed up of paying retail price for weed.

The standard unit for buying "not small" quantities of weed was still a nine-bar, nine ounces imperial units. This was about 1994 or thereabouts. A nine-bar usually referred to a nine ounce slab of hash. The hash in Cambridge in those days was glorious, sticky black, morrocan, gold seal, lebanese. All Indica and brought with it the heavy blanket of night, starless and void. Hash cost £15 for an eighth of an ounce. I smoked it with rolling tobacco or neat in a pipe. When I smoked cigarettes it was Marlboro with their distinctive red and white packet, now gone in the UK, and their harsh but distinctive taste. It was rumoured that Marlboro was partly owned by the Ku Klux Klan, the white triangles in red on the top of the packet conceivably making a KKK. Smoking was clearly evil and if you were going to do something evil why not go all out.

It was harder to roll joints with cigarette tobacco, but I was proficient with both.

Weed was rarer, usually Sativa and prized and £25 for an eighth of an ounce. You could usually score an ounce for £120, a great deal of weed. We could get a nine-bar for £700 and knock out seven ounces at £100 each, below retail, and score a free ounce bag each. Knocking out seven ounces of weed at a discount in the hallowed halls of Cambridge was pretty easy.

We went to collect the grass. It was a large flat in the Cambridge suburbs, term time home to several fairly well off students it seemed. The multi-windowed living room on the first floor was laid out with blue tarp and about six foot by six foot by six inches of compressed weed still left on the tarp.

The dealer, a pleasant guy clearly in it purely for the money, the drugs and the lifestyle, made small talk whilst he carved out nine ounce bags of weed for us.

Having made the collection we retired to John's third year college room at Botolph court in the early afternoon. The logical thing to do was skin up a joint and John had a cold so I did the honours and as we had two ounces of weed between us I rolled pure grass joints. Normal in the US, extravagant in the UK. We talked the normal crap we talked whilst getting stoned and I rolled another joint.

By the third joint it was nearly time to go down to the college bar, centre of our social lives and source of cheap and free alcohol until the fired the hippy barman who made favourites of his hippy customers. John started to roll another joint, and then we realised. We were hammered already and the evening was only just beginning.

Love is a Superpower

For most people, adults and children alike, something extraordinary happens when we feel very loved. The defences drop, the eyes go clear and bright, a light turns on. And beauty shines.

That's the best sight in the world. The most remarkable feat of nature. Natural goodness.

Do you know how to tell how to love people? You listen to them. Do you know when most people will feel loved? When you listen to them.

Listening to people to work out what makes them feel loved, and proving you've listened and seeing if you're right, and watching people open up and grow. That's the most fulfilling thing I know to do. Given the choice that's how I'd spend my days.

For myself, and others I know like most cats, my love language is respect. I observe in myself that when I'm treated with respect I feel loved and that makes me grateful. So I try to do the same for others

My favourite reason that love is a superpower. When you love people it's hard for them not to open themselves up to you. If you genuinely love you learn really quickly. Fascination is an aspect of love.

So people show you who they are and you're able to learn from that. And if you catch it just right, that dance is the most fun thing in the world.

So we grow and change together.


A Travel Tip for Visiting New Cities

Here's one of my travel tips for visiting new cities. Mostly an excuse to tell a story really. Part of my ongoing auto-hagiography.

When I was twenty I was homeless for about a year. I slept in squats, cars, hostels, night shelters, shop doorways, car parks and a whole bunch of other places. The concrete multi-storey car park, woken up at 6am by a security guard every morning and with cardboard for a mattress if we were lucky, was the worst. The cold of the concrete seeped right into my bones and I swear some still resides there in a numb part of my leg.

I was involved with a charity working with the homeless for about eight or nine years, six of them employed part time doing service development and community liaison. The cult I was part of had a particular "ministry" of serving the homeless and vulnerable. During the ten years I'd lived in the cult commune at "The Farm" we'd had homeless people, ex homeless people, and about to be homeless people with us all the time. Not always on the run from the police or doing cold turkey from heroin, but frequently. Only one person died of a heroin overdose on the premises whilst I was there, in his car overnight. He was my friend. I didn't see the body or got to his funeral. Anyway, all fodder for other stories perhaps. I've known a lot of homeless people.

I often travel to new cities where I'll stay for a few days or a week. For fun, for conferences, giving training or other work. I do the same in cities I visit regularly. Which means London, that's the only city I visit regularly (ooh plus maybe Birmingham and Brighton these days). I always give some money to homeless people. I consider it paying my local taxes.

Not money to all of them, not a lot but not nothing, something worth having if I can or just my change. And not money every time, although maybe a few times to someone on a regular route. Because I do it regularly I don't ever feel like I owe anyone anything, I do it because I can and because I like to.

I always smile at homeless people and say hello. I have a conversation with them if I have time, I don't always give money with the conversation. I often talk of when I was homeless in Cambridge. I was pretty well looked after really and begging was easy, lots of rich people around. And they'll tell me their story, or some of it.

This is very good karma. Particularly in a city I'm new to. I don't need to be afraid of the streets. As I walk around in an unfamiliar city I have people to smile to and people happy to see me again. And if I'm ever in any trouble there's a good chance I have a friend nearby and possibly another one watching my back down the road.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

The Occult

When I was mad in Cambridge, all those years ago, I visited a synagogue. I'd never been in a synagogue before. I have a strange relationship with my Jewish heritage, somewhat distant, having grown up as a Christian. My mother's parents weren't religious, the holocaust having killed any semblance of faith, but her father still regarded it as something of a betrayal as he felt that Hitler had done what he'd done to the Jews in the name of Christianity.

Anyway, that's a part of the story I didn't really mean to tell. It had fascinated me, all part of my descent into madness, that the mystical foundation of much of what was called "the occult", at least by the occultists I admired, came out of Jewish mysticism.

The tree of life, numerology and the Hebrew alphabet hold, in these systems of thinking, some of the most powerful expressions of the deepest secrets of the nature of reality. These elements come from the Kabbalah, not something I know much about, but it's essentially medieval Jewish mystical thinking. So Christianity and the Jewish religion both have their foundation in the same mystical roots, as it turns out does the modern occult movement. And I'd never even been in a synagogue.

So I arrived towards the end of a service, people were milling around. I was very obviously homeless, but also apparently harmless, and they were really nice to me. I ended up wondering how I could learn anything here, and I found some children's books on the Hebrew alphabet and sat on the floor and read those.

Paradise Mill

I remember not long having started secondary school, Tytherington High School, but before we moved from Macclesfield to Harpenden for my Dad's new job when I was 14.

I was probably about ten or eleven. We lived on Tytherington Park Road, a leafy suburb of the northern industrial town Macclesfield. Once the termination of the international silk trade. Silk caravans ended in Macclesfield. Last I knew there was still one working silk mill in Macclesfield; Paradise Mill.

Nearby were saltmines, once worked by the Romans about a couple of millenia ago. Lion Salt Works still operated then, with huge evaporation pans for the rock salt dug up there.

I knew a girl. A lovely young lady, she was as shy as I but very pretty and went to the same church as we did. I think we may have played together on occasion. Her mother died and her father remarried, almost "suspiciously quickly" was the general consensus. I don't think I saw her very much after that.

She inspired strange feelings in me that I didn't recognise. I wanted to rescue her from a helicopter. Those imaginings amused me so I allowed them to linger.

Accidental Millionaire

An acquaintance of mine once won a million pounds on the lottery. He was sitting on the toilet doing the scratchcard when he discovered. It was January. He was a nice chap, I'd met him in the cult. Him and his mrs and kid. He spent quite a lot on trainers and watches, and a great deal more than that on mdma and cocaine. He was paying full whack, retail, on the mandy and charlie too. By the end of the year the money was gone but he still owned his house, and he'd had a great year.

He hired a limo for us all to go to a rave in Manchester or Liverpool or somewhere. He had infinite mandy. I'd done more than a gram by the end of the night and wasn't really functioning. His brother and his girlfriend both kissed other people and had a furious fight on the way back. She said her love bite was from a girl so it didn't count. Turned out it wasn't from a girl anyway. Scott and I went on one of those catapult ball things which was reckless and astonishing. I saw strange magic in circles of people dancing. Every now and then a really nice black woman would come and clasp my hands and jump with me and then go away. I mostly danced alone. Everywhere I went they called me Jesus.

Someone from the cult came that night, sneaked along whilst living in the commune. None of us knew him very well and he didn't stay around long after that. On the way back we were kept up by two rather odd young folk, who also no-one knew very well, yabbering all the way home. I met the two of them months later in a train back from London. We recognised each other but didn't say anything.

We started one night, maybe that one, in the bar in his basement he'd had built. He actually bought the basement conversion company that did it as the builder was retiring. As far as I know the company never did a stroke of work from that day. Later on he had the bar ripped out as it was bad for his health. I nearly got in trouble for letting on how much his watch cost when not everyone there knew he was loaded. Luckily I was wearing a £5 Casio watch at the time - so any watch was expensive compared to that one. I still have the Casio watch.

I met a woman who is now a dear friend at a gig he'd put on as promoter at the Picturedrome because he wanted the Dub Pistols to come to Northampton. Then we went to some classic rave, Fantazia, at the Roadmender, with a tag-along drug dealer mate of ours (apparently) complaining about £25 to get into a rave. And I lost my mandy. And I didn't give her a lift home. She got water for all of us and I mostly ended up dancing alone. We went back to the flat separately. Richard, of course, had disappeared and Scott was ill and went home.

I remember standing on the stairs in the Picturedrome watching her sort of dance and wondering who she were. She was clearly someone. Richard kept offering me some of his mandy and not giving it to me. Then I think he actually had lost it. Metaphorically and literally.

The accidental millionaire was in his element. I think he had a hat. His mrs had this habit of gently touching my arm with her boob when she talked to me. It was so lovely. I liked her. For a minute maybe I thought my new friend hated me and everything I stood for. And maybe she'd stolen my mandy. Richard told me she probably didn't and I worked out that she probably hadn't. We talked about religion and she told me she had been known to stand in a stone circle or two. That told me everything I needed to know about her.

Sheol: A Little Poem on the Christian Concept of Hell

No hell but what they make
A little poem on the Christian concept of hell. There is no word "hell" in New Testament Greek. The words translated as hell in the New Testament are either Hades (the Greek underworld) or Gehenna. Gehenna is The Valley of the Son of Hinnom, where the Kings of Judah are said to have sacrificed children to the god Moloch and which the prophet Jeremiah cursed.

No hell, it's just a place.
A place where bad things happened a long time ago.
Gehenna, that's what he said.
All those years ago.
Not hell.
No hell but what they make. 
And we are the unmakers, the cocreators, the divinely mad.
Holy Fools.

So when Jesus warns their bodes will be thrown in Gehenna and the worms will eat them, he wasn't necessarily talking about hell. He could have been prophesying the revolution that happened after his death, in 70AD, where the bodies of many of those he was speaking to may have been cast into the burning rubbish pits of Sheol.

If any of it happened at all.