Her apartment’s doorbell rang. She walked over to it and pushed the “answer call” button.
There was a moment’s pause, then a commanding Bavarian voice: “I haff your delicious vings. Please open ze door so I can deliver zem to you.”
“Hi — you can just leave them in the hallway, I’ll come down and get them.”
“I’m sorry but we must now deliver zem to ze door. New policy.”
She stopped for a second. She hadn’t heard about this change, but with so many food services jostling for customers, it didn’t seem unreasonable. And it was difficult to challenge such confidence.
“Okay, it’s the second floor, apartment twelve.”
She walked to the door to make sure the safety latch was on. The wings should easily fit through the gap anyway.
The delivery driver knocked on the door — donk donk donk donk. Four solid hits. She cautiously twisted the lock, opened the door, and let out a gasp.
Standing in front of her was a tiny man with a massive head. He couldn’t have been any taller than five feet, but his head was a thick block of meat and bone that looked like it had been stolen from a heavyweight boxer. Atop his colossal bonce was a black baseball cap that said “Bratwurst For Life,” with two piercing blue eyes underneath, a wide-bridged nose equipped with cavernous nostrils, and bulbous lips that glistened in the hallway’s lights. He definitely wasn’t a dwarf, but he also wouldn’t look out of place at a dwarf convention. He wore a shiny UberEats jacket that was too big, and the hand that clutched her food was a bitty pink claw that was starting to turn white. He seemed confused.
“Hi, thanks for bringing it up,” she said, composing herself. She stuck her hand through the door’s gap as the man’s eyes followed it.
“Ze gap is too small,” he said, the bass of his voice rumbling through the apartment below. It seemed safe to open the door. She was pretty sure she could overpower what amounted to a loud child if she needed to. She removed the latch and swung it open.
“Sank you,” the man said. “Now, before ve exchange ze vings, I vant you to know I vaited for over thirty-five minutes for zem. It took a long time.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about that.”
“Sank you.” He raised a claw to the crown of his cap and readjusted it. “Given ze troubles, I thought you might repay me vith a drink. I haff finished work for ze night and vud enjoy talking vith you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry but I have a boyfriend.”
He sucked his fat lips into his mouth and bit down on them.
“But I vaited for thirty-five minutes.”
“I’m sorry about that, but it isn’t my fault. You seem… nice. But I can’t invite strange men inside my apartment for drinks.”
“You sink I am strange.”
“Not strange — I just don’t know you.”
“You sink I am small.”
She stifled a snigger. “Well no… you just can’t come in.”
“I am big where it counts.”
She burst out laughing, and an unfortunate fleck of spit landed on his shiny jacket. He looked at it sadly.
“But I haff provided for you,” he said.
“I paid for this food.”
“I gathered zis chicken with my own hans.”
“You collected this food from a restaurant.”
“I vill always provide for you. Look at ze vings I haff brought tonight. I can bring many more vings.”
“Will I have to pay for those too?”
“I’m sorry please give me my food.”
He looked down at the bag, sighed, and handed it to her.
“It is because I am small.”
He stared at her for a moment longer, heaved his oversized backpack onto his shoulders, and walked towards the elevator. She could just about see his legs underneath the backpack, diddling along like a centipede’s.
“I’m sorry,” she called.
He turned, his head emerging from behind the backpack like a slab of swinging beef.
At some point during my 3rd year of secondary school, our class tutor Mr Roles came into the room with a suspicious glint in his eye and announced that we would be getting a new student. Mr Roles had round hobbit-like features, mousy-coloured hair, and a voice that you couldn’t call quite high-pitched, but sounded like somebody had left an elastic band wrapped around his larynx. He was a decent bloke who rarely unleashed his fury unless circumstances required it.
Mr Roles declared that our new student would fit right into our class; that he was tall and skinny and at about the same academic level as the rest of us. He opened the door to the teacher’s office where the student was supposedly waiting, and produced a plank of wood.
“This is Plank,” Mr Roles said, “and I want everyone to make him feel welcome.”
I laughed out loud, and was the only one that did. Mr Roles seemed happy enough.
The school in question was Eaglesfield in southeast London’s borough of Woolwich—a large five-building secondary school for boys that seemed gargantuan at the time. There was the original two-story classic redbrick building that sat in the middle of the grounds, with pleasant white paint-chipped windows, one of which was smashed during a lesson by a student who decided that his wrist would be the best thing to open it with. This was the most handsome building of the five. It contained classrooms for languages, maths, and art, and the headmaster’s office—Mr McCarthy, a broad and sturdy man who was imposing as his position dictates. He addressed us on our first day like a general addresses his soldiers, and if I were ever called to his office for punishment, I imagined he’d just look at me for five minutes while I withered like candy floss in a stream. I was acutely aware of the location of his office for this reason, and amazed some years later when a fellow student claimed to have remotely hacked into his computer, laughing at the potential wrath of such a commanding fellow. Bullshit in hindsight.
This building is where I had French lessons, run by the most pitiful teacher in the school—Mrs Paterson, or “Edna” to the students after they discovered her first name was Edwina. Choosing teaching as a career was surely the worst decision of her life. She didn’t seem to have a single attribute that makes a good teacher—being engaging, enthusiastic, patient, able to command respect, and most importantly, having the grit to handle 30 little bastards who wanted to make her life hell. When she turned her back to write something on the chalkboard, someone yelled “EDNA!” at the top of their lungs, or made a random noise like “BARP” or “MNEEH” or some other vocal abomination that made her whip around like a furious owl, eyes scanning the room for the culprit she could never find. Or if the boys felt like mixing it up a bit, they’ll scrunch up paper and throw it at her. The poor woman must have been miserable—I hear she cried on more than one occasion. Hopefully it got to the point where she pursued a different career or found a nicer school. Or maybe deep down she really did have the qualities and determination to be a good teacher, and that her reputation at Eaglesfield was like a curse that doomed her every step.
The other large building in the school was perched on a hill about 50 metres away, and was a four-story mass of concrete and glass that towered over the grounds, some nightmare of modernity that threatened to engulf all that was classical and beautiful. This is where I was taught English, Geography, History (three of my favourite subjects), Religious Education, and some other subjects I can’t recall. It’s also where lunch was served, and was home to Mr Roles and Plank, in a top-floor corner classroom with excellent views across the borough of Greenwich. This same classroom is where I was taught geography by Mr Walton, a scrawny and cheerful Yorkshireman who for some reason always had a cut down the middle of his upper lip that looked horribly sore. At the start of every class he’d say “bums on seats fellas, bums on seats,” like a hypnotising incantation that somehow compelled us to sit down. He was a great teacher—friendly, charismatic, and one of the few I remember fondly. In fact, the Geography department seemed to be made up of some of the best Eaglesfield School teachers—a group of three or four men (Mr Roles included) who taught us about countries and cities and volcanoes and earned the respect of every one of us. They congregated in the office where Plank lived—a sacred place that you had to knock to gain entry to. On the same level a few doors down was the office of Mr O’Sullivan, a history teacher and head of our year, who after sending a certain Indian boy there for detention, was unfortunate enough to return and find him masturbating furiously in his chair, as though detention was a real thrill. I suppose porn was a lot harder to come by in those days.
At the other end of this building was an outside staircase and balcony that went up to the first floor, and when it snowed, this was the place where boys went to battle. It was pandemonium. Two battalions of students formed—one who took position on the balcony, and one that took position on the grass opposite. They pelted each other as though their lives depended on it, and it was during such a time that I was hit squarely in the testicles with a gloriously-aimed snowball, which sent me crashing to the ground like a demolished building, with flurries of snowballs continuing to batter me. I haven’t experienced pain like it since—top marks to the boy who threw it. This rear end of the school was also home to the main playground, which being on a hill (like most of the school), sloped steeply upwards, prompting the school’s designers to install 45 degree concrete slopes topped with grabbing bars, which in today’s world, would require a helmet and the signing of a release form to take on. Maybe those designers foresaw the molly-coddling culture that would infect parenting and teaching, and decided to fight against it by showing kids that a broken collarbone isn’t the worst thing in the world. We darted up and down those slopes like Sisyphus himself, bruised and battered, but never defeated.
This building is also where English was taught, another subject for which I have fond memories. One of my teachers was the beguiling Miss Woods—a gorgeous blonde who I assume every straight boy and male teacher daydreamed about. Sometimes, when she had a skirt on, she sat on the cabinets at the front of the class and put her feet on a nearby desk, and every boy put a knuckle in his mouth. I irritated her once because I pointed out a spelling mistake on the chalkboard, an ungodly taboo when dealing with an English teacher, especially when coming from a teenage wretch trying to be a smartarse. I fear our romantic destiny was derailed at that point. This building also contained the formidable Mr Keith—a wiry mathematics teacher with a grey crew-cut who looked like he’d walked straight off a military base. He believed that severity was the best way to command a pupil’s respect, and if it had been ten years earlier, I’ve no doubt he would have taken pleasure in caning us. Though he never taught me, there were stories of him pelting students with chalkboard rubbers if they were caught daydreaming, an action long out of practice in the teaching world, but still considered fair game by this nightmare of a man. His eyes bulged so much that he could probably glare through walls, and if there’s one teacher that people will remember from that school, it’s him. Terror has a knack of staying with you.
The PE (Physical Education) building was connected to this second building and looked different still—a redbrick of a different tone, but with far fewer windows and none of them pleasant. It housed a swimming pool (a rarity for schools in the borough), a basketball court, and the necessary washrooms and classrooms where the men could be separated from the boys. One of the boys in my year had a monumental mishap during a swimming lesson, the front of his pants bulging in a way that didn’t go down well with a class full of semi-naked boys—perhaps the poor lad was daydreaming about Miss Woods? His solution was to jump headfirst into the deep end where his passion could be extinguished.
Adjacent to the PE building were four or five tennis courts, and next to them a mammoth grass field that made up the bottom area of the school’s grounds. This is where hundreds of boys descended for lunch, booting footballs past makeshift goals made of school bags, and launching two-footed tackles at each other without worrying about a referee or VAR.
The PE teachers were three guys who were less like teachers and more like fun uncles. There was Mr Smyrk who I never once saw smirking, Mr Fischer who looked like a Charlton Athletic player called John Robinson, and Mr Haines who wore glasses and looked like a 30-year old Harry Potter. They were blokes in the classic sense of the word—constantly pissing about, digging each other’s ribs, and lovingly shoving you onto a football field covered with winter ice. They were our chaperones when we went to France for a skiing trip in the winter of 1999, and because the legal age of drinking was 16 in that wonderful country, they turned a blind eye to the inevitable boozing that went on. On the final night of our trip, they assembled a mock court where each of us were charged with a crime, and given a punishment for the evening like ten push ups whenever we swore, or not being allowed to talk to girls without our tongues being out. Through our 16-year old eyes, they couldn’t have been any cooler.
The fourth building was nestled between the PE block and the original building, with a footbridge connecting their upper floors. It was dedicated to science. I can’t for the life of me remember what it looked like, but it was probably ugly. We had our GCSE exams in this building, and during the biology exam, our teacher shiftily whispered the correct answer to me *diaphragm*, which I assume was a desperate attempt to save a failing school that closed a few years later. Over in the chemistry lab, a fiendish little shit called Philip decided to douse a chemical in water to see what would happen, and the lab started to fill up with a noxious purple smoke that definitely didn’t belong in the lungs of teenage boys. I’m not sure why, but the substitute teacher kept us trapped inside for five minutes before some of the bigger students got bored and heaved her out of the way.
The science building had two levels, with an open staircase in the middle of the building that had a balcony to drop things onto people’s heads—empty coke bottles, Opal Fruits, chewed Bubbaloos, pencils, backpacks, or whatever else was at hand. Somebody decided to do this with a full bottle of water, and instead of getting an unsuspecting boy, they instead walloped our Scottish chemistry teacher with it, who came into the class ten minutes later, wrote “I am not a victim” on the board, then burst into tears and fled. I felt dreadful despite being a bystander.
I also studied physics in the science building, run by Mr Porter—a stout male teacher with brown hair, a commanding voice, and a knack for explaining his horribly complicated subject. One day, when teaching us about Newton’s forces using a pellet gun and target, my still-good friend Scott looked down the barrel as he was about to shoot, and the look on Mr Porter’s face said “what have I done to deserve this.” When we had our final Physics exam that year, one of the teachers wrote “Fizz-icks (very hard science)” on the whiteboard, which showed the mandatory sense of humour for being a successful teacher at Eaglesfield.
The fifth and final building was the smallest—a one-story cube of concrete that was home to design and technology (DT—formerly known as woodwork). It was here that we fumbled about with wood and metal and glue and tried not to chop our fingers off with high-powered mechanical equipment. On this topic, one of my classmates got distracted while chiselling a piece of wood with a fixed circular saw, put the tip of his finger into the saw’s side, then screamed like a banshee and flicked his hand about which temporarily turned the room into a Tarantino film set. I can still see the blood splattered across the faces of my classmates, and the look of horror on the teacher’s face as he beheld the flattened tip of the boy’s newly-squared digit. Being a teacher at that school must have felt like trying to educate a flock of insolent sheep who are anxious to run off the nearest cliff. When we weren’t busy maiming ourselves, we’d twist open every available Pritt Stick and launch them into the ceiling. And when there were no more Pritt Sticks, we’d stick our chewing gum onto the end of our pencils and do the same. The room ended up looking like one of Indiana Jones’ temples.
So those were the five buildings of Eaglesfield Secondary School in London (there may have been some other buildings I’ve forgotten), and just a few of the antics that I personally remember. The school was a force to be reckoned with. The borough in which it lived—Woolwich—certainly wasn’t the most dangerous in London, but it was up there. Many of the kids who went to Eaglesfield were from poor homes, where life was tougher than it should have been. I was fortunate enough to come from a stable, comfortable home (thanks mum and dad) which unfortunately doesn’t prepare you for a lion’s den in which a large portion of the kids prowled about with teeth and claws that they’d happily sink into you. So I’d try to make myself as small as possible to avoid being mauled, and while the strategy worked, it also forged bitter resentment towards my bigger, stronger, and more violent peers, especially when they used their dominance to jump the lunch queue and leave me with the saddest jacket potato in England. I guess this is only fair given how well-fed I was at home.
Once, a group of the biggest and roughest scallywags in our year planned a coordinated attack on the local shop. It wasn’t a complicated plan—they just used their collective strength to storm the shop, grabbed as many sweets and drinks as they could, and then left. I went along to watch, and after the last boy came running out the door with a carton of Pepsis, the Indian shop owner appeared in the doorway looking utterly wretched, helpless to stem the attack on his precious supplies. This shameful event was brought up by our year’s head teacher at the next assembly, but I have no idea if anyone got into trouble for it, or whether punishment would have done anything at all to prevent future crime.
So Eaglesfield brimmed with rough and ready bastards, but I had my group of friends to help me through. There were five of us, and the leader was John—a stocky blonde kid who always had too much gel in his hair and kicked a football the way a mule would kick his greatest enemy. I once asked him how he walloped the leather so mightily, and he said “I been playing football since I was three innit.” As the naturally bigger kid, John was the one that everyone in our group wanted to please, as though his bulk could offer us some protection against the torrent of potential violence that surrounded us. He was like a small albino bull that was cute but somehow threatening.
My best friend in the group was Steve. His dad was in the military, so he lived on a military housing estate in the depths of Woolwich, a place that I visited once and never wanted to visit again. He had a broad face and a smile that seemed to wrap around the entire bottom half of his head, and he could jump onto the tall science tables in a single leap, something I assume his dad taught him in some kind of military bonding exercise. When the school arranged a paintball trip for our class, Steve was the one who captured the flag by crawling through the mud undetected, like a WW2 soldier squelching through a boggy French field. I stayed in the safety of a tower and shot anyone who approached him. Steve was a legend—one of the few kids at school who I could really talk to, and I hope that he felt the same way about me. He messaged me a few years after school wanting to catch up, but for some reason we never got around to organising it, and I assume there’s now 15,000 kilometres between us.
Then there was Ricky, a painfully skinny blonde lad who had translucent skin and looked like the ghost of Mr Burns. Ricky and I were never that close, maybe because early in our friendship we agreed to a no-holds barred insult match in which we wrote horrible things about each other and then read them. I remember him welling up at my contribution, and I felt terrible about it but for some reason didn’t apologise. This probably bolstered his conviction when this same group of friends bullied me for about six months straight and suddenly stopped, which felt like a torturer who yells “surprise,” points out the candid cameras, and then gives you a warm hug; a nightmarish alternative universe where Jeremy Beadle is a nasty little bastard with two tiny hands. Those months remain the most miserable of my life, and I wonder what kind of person I’d be today if they’d gone on for longer. But I don’t resent them for it. We were all just stupid kids who didn’t know any better.
Deano was the final friend in our group—a gangly black kid whose teeth looked like they’d been slung into his gums by a medieval catapult. Not a single one of his gnashers had agreed to go in the same direction, and Dean was clearly abashed by these circumstances, sporting braces for years before they finally resigned themselves to two coherent rows. Dean made up for his unfortunate choppers by being an all-round nice guy. He spoke in a soft, polite way that endeared me to him, and when he laughed it was the most tremendous cackle I’ve ever heard that didn’t come from a witch. And fuck me, he could run. Playing It with him was like trying to catch a firework—the boy could change direction in a way that defied physics, leaving you in a cloud of dust that echoed with mocking laughter. He might have made a fine rugby player, and in fact our school had a famous rugby past that had all-but died by the time I arrived there, succumbing to the popularity of football. Dean is the only person in this group that I’m friends with on Facebook, and if by chance he ever stumbles on this, I hope he doesn’t take offence at what I’ve written because he remains a lovely bloke.
Between the five of us, we managed to get through the formidable Eaglesfield School in Woolwich, and on reflection, I have some good memories of the place. Many of the kids who went there give it a bad rap, but it wasn’t that awful a place to get an education. Three-quarters of the teachers seemed to be good at their jobs, and genuinely tried to educate us well, they just happened to be teaching a lot of kids from poor backgrounds, many of them worn down by unfortunate circumstances and rebelling in the only way they knew how. Put those teachers in a school with rich kids, and they’d have been working with putty instead of steel, but they grafted and toiled and kept their sense of humour despite the immensity of the challenge, and for that I salute them.
I made new friends in my final sixth form year at Eaglesfield, and am still close with most of them. The school closed a couple of years after I left, but quickly re-opened its doors as Shooters Hill Sixth Form College—a place that seems to be having more success than its predecessor. It would have been a shame to close a school with such great facilities, and I’m glad that the spirit of Eaglesfield lives on in its classrooms and halls, like a menace waiting for a chance to trip you up in the hallway, bustle you to the back of the lunch queue, or launch a snowball directly at your testicles.
In the aftermath of the Capitol Building being stormed by fanatical, violent Trump supporters—an act not seen since the British breach over 200 years ago—empathising with them seems impossible. How can a sane, ethical person put themselves in the shoes of someone so batty and immoral; so dangerously flammable; so maddeningly illogical? And should we even bother?
America has never been so divided. Before the internet, extreme political views were spread through pamphlets, newspapers, radio and television shows, and the occasional book. Today, we can access them wherever we go. They’re the subtle lie in a humorous meme, shared by your racist cousin on Facebook; the insidious idea whispered into a podcast microphone by a radical influencer; the two-minute video that uses a simple data trick to convince people that global warming is a natural phenomenon. Before the internet, someone with these ideas needed to invest time and money to make themselves heard. Today, they can create a YouTube account in 30 seconds and step up to the tallest soapbox in history. The result is fanatical partisanship, political polarisation, and the election of someone clearly unfit for the job.
The formidable canyon between left and right must be narrowed, and it cannot be achieved with hostility, no matter how good it may feel. While we may never agree with a Trump fanatic, we can at least recognise the reasons why they’ve formed their political views, most of which are outside their control. This simple act of empathy can help to soften our animosity towards them, make conversation easier, and help to dilute the toxic polarisation that is poisoning the country.
It’s impossible to map the entire evolution of a Trump fanatic’s political views, but we can identify the strongest influences. The main determiners of personality, character, and behaviour are our genes, and the environment that we grow up in, i.e. our nature and nurture.
First, let’s talk about nature. Every single person receives 50% of their genes from each parent, which defines their susceptibility to disease, their physical characteristics, and most of their personality.1 We may inherit genes that bless us with a svelte outline, a sharp brain, and an inclination to hug everyone that we meet, or we may inherit genes that curse us with a turkey neck, a gullible mind, and an appetite for throwing molotovs at our political adversaries. Either way, we don’t get to choose, which means we can’t be held entirely accountable for our personality. Some people are just made from a blueprint with “Arsehole” stamped across the top.
Next, there’s nurture. As babies and children, we’re the most helpless species on the planet, counting on our parents to protect us, shelter us, feed us, and educate us. Some parents do wonderful jobs that help to create happy, confident children. Some do the best they can, creating children a little more cautious and anxious. Others are unfit to be parents, botching the job so badly that their kids turn into frightened, confused, and hopelessly angry adults. Again, a child doesn’t get to choose its parents, so can’t be held accountable for the quality of its upbringing. Some children are just raised by arseholes.
We also encounter thousands of people in our childhood, each one with the power to improve or subvert our character. There’s the uncle who shoots pool like a god; the smooth schoolyard friend who teaches us how to talk to girls, and the teacher whose explanation of black holes inspires us to become physicists. There’s also the brother who got a little too handsy; the hungover dentist who bungled a tooth extraction, and the local gang who hardened us with collective strength. Every experience helps to shape our personality in one way or another, and we cannot dictate how they’ll go.
Then there’s the cultural aspect of nurture—a powerful force that forges our most potent beliefs, including momentous forces such as religion, media, local customs, and the ideas of the community. Pluck a baby from Florida’s Big Bend and place it in the care of Californian parents, and it probably won’t end up as a Trump fanatic. It’s unlikely to give two figs about guns, same-sex marriage, or the rights of foetuses. Such beliefs are absorbed from our local culture, and when that culture changes, so do we. Again, something that we have no say over. Combine a horrible environment with genes that favour neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low openness, and you have the perfect storm for a Trump fanatic.
Everyone chooses their actions. The violent Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol Building are fully accountable for what they did, but not for the powerful causes that shoved them in that direction—their nature and nurture.
With their genes, upbringing, and environment, you may have draped yourself in the colours of the confederacy, placed a MAGA hat atop your head, and stormed the country’s most sacred democratic building. With their genes, upbringing, and environment, you may have turned out the same.
With the Black Lives Matter movement expanding across the world, its opponents have found a convincing and clever-sounding way to discredit them, by drawing our attention to the real reason for their activism: virtue signalling.
Virtue signalling is the suggestion that someone is doing or saying something to elevate themselves, ascending to a delightful moral pedestal, where they’re better than the foul creatures below. But when opponents of political movements tarnish their targets with the “virtue signalling” brush, it can be cynical and misguided, because as social animals, the perceptions of others will always influence human behaviour.
While the phrase is new, there is nothing new about virtue signalling itself. It may have been amplified in the age of social media, but it’s an ancient instinct, born from evolution. In the early 70s, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers created the idea of reciprocal altruism,1 which states that selfless behaviour can improve the evolutionary success of an animal, if the animal who benefits from the behaviour returns the favour. In game theory, the idea is known as “tit-for-tat,” and is an optimal strategy until one of the parties refuses to reciprocate. But where would the trust come from in the first place, if not from virtue signalling? Why would we cooperate with somebody who doesn’t reliably signal their virtues, and risk being cheated?
This is not to say that people should pedantically tally up the good and bad deeds of everyone they meet, and ostracise any poor sod who puts a foot wrong. Instead, it’s keeping a rough mental idea of what every person is like, to better understand whether they can be trusted. When people signal their virtues to others, they’re saying “I’m a good person who won’t swindle you.” What’s wrong with that? Reciprocity has been a fundamental motivation for animal behaviour, and it’s even helped to develop our sense of morality. It can be found in courtship, where people advertise traits such as agreeableness, fidelity, and commitment to potential mates,2 through to friendship, where people exhibit kindness and trustworthiness to win friends.
Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre proposed that certain virtues are social in nature. Imagine you’re the only survivor of an apocalypse, hunkering in a soggy bunker all by yourself. How can you be a kind person? Is it possible to be a kind person with no-one else around? Sartre doesn’t think so, because kindness is a virtue that is other-directed. Fellow French philosophers Albert Camus and François de La Rochefoucauld had similar musings about the social motivation behind our behaviour. Society is a voyeur to our action; even when we do something in secret, we may unconsciously feel shame because we compare our actions with society’s morals. The woman of the 1960s who strives for a career at the expense of her “duties” in the home may feel shame even though she’s acting in her own interests. She feels shame because she judges her acts to the standard of her society, whether right or wrong. Virtue-signalling is a natural behaviour born from our species sociability.
A modern Aristotle, sporting flare jeans and a man bun, would agree. One of his virtues includes “righteous indignation in the face of injury,”3 which matches some of the sentiment we’ve seen during the Black Lives Matter protests. His model of ethical behaviour (virtue ethics) also includes the idea of phronesis, which is using practical wisdom and prudence to act well. Phronesis is built on experience—a person can understand virtues intimately, but without having experienced situations that require their use, won’t know the appropriate time to use them. This was demonstrated by some supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, who in a show of solidarity on social media, added the hashtag #blacklivesmatter or #BLM to their Blackout Tuesday squares, not realising that the hashtags were created to provide vital information about missing people, helplines, donation sites, and protest movements. The good intention was there, but they ended up muddying the purpose of the hashtags, and weakening their value. They wanted to support the movement, but were missing the experience needed for phronesis.
What about when good intention is absent? Aristotle would deride virtue-signalling if it lacked the intention to back up the virtue. The problem isn’t virtue signalling, it’s acting like a virtuous person merely for the sake of appearances—being high and mighty and then vanishing when real work needs to be done. These are the people who posted their black squares on social media, and then refused to hire someone because of their ethnicity. These are the women who publicly support sexual assault victims, and then privately slut shame them for their choice of clothing. These virtue signallers are moral charlatans, and they damage the reputation of admirable people who say they’re virtuous and then back it up.
Virtue signalling is an important prosocial adaptation—a tool that we use to gauge each other’s trust, friendship, and love. But we must be cautious of airing our morality if we don’t intend to follow through, and if we don’t have the experience to make a difference. Such a moral pedestal has shaky foundations, and when somebody gives it an inevitable bump, everything will come crashing down.
Lolita is old enough and infamous enough to be known as a story of unhinged peadophilia. But it’s also a beautiful and depressing love story, with a tortured antagonist who despite his crimes, and due to the skill of the book’s author Vladimir Nabokov, we can eventually empathise with.
The plot focuses on peadophile Humbert Humbert—a handsome, French-born intellectual on the one hand, and unapologetic sexual predator on the other. His double name reflects his double life. He lies so much that you can’t tell front from back, allowing him to disguise his perversion behind a robust facade that few people penetrate. His sociopathic behaviour might be traced back to a sexual experience when he was 13, when he meets his “first love” Annabel—a 12-year old girl who is travelling with her parents. They lust for each other fervently, never quite managing to have sex, but groping and clawing at each other with an intensity that leaves a permanent impression on Humbert. He describes his passion with a cannibalistic “frenzy of mutual possession [that] might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh.” Their failure to complete the dirty deed leaves an indelible, unresolved tension in Humbert—an impoverished thirst for early-pubescent girls that carries through to adulthood, which he is forced to lie about.
Humbert loves and hates his lust for early-pubescent “nymphets.” He feels like a round peg trying to squeeze into a square hole, and to douse his hebephilic lust, gets married to a woman who he physically abuses to get his own way. He constantly admits himself to sanatoriums, but finds the doctors ridiculous and uses his intelligence to mislead them. He swings from “ashamed and frightened” to “recklessly optimistic,” craving hedonistic sex with 11 to 14 year-old girls, but living in the wrong country and century. He tries to justify his urges by recounting accepted peadophilia throughout history, but even his vindications are half-hearted and remorseless—he’s a grown man who wants to have sex with children, and there’s nothing to be done about it. He’s an “artist and a madman, with a bubble of hot poison in his loins.” His anguish is illustrated beautifully by Russian-born Nabokov, whose mastery of English is mindblowing. The animalistic language that he uses is both shocking and enthralling, and some sentences are appalling in their vividness. Humbert describes his fantasies as “just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup.” When his lolita Dolores Haze sits next to him on the sofa, he describes it as “squeezing herself in,” and later in the story “gorges on her spicy blood.” Of his failed effort to slay his peadophilic lust by marrying a woman he doesn’t love, Humbert writes:
“But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its melanic root; the down turned to prickles on a shaved skin; the mobile moist mouth, no matter how I stuffed it with love, disclosed ignominiously its resemblance to the corresponding part in a treasured portrait of her toadlike dead mama; and presently, instead of a pale little gutter girl, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba.”
Humbert understands the precariousness of his attachment to Dolores. She’s a hostage who he appeases with countless and expensive bribes, spawning a crippling jealousy that his nymphet will run away with someone else, especially because of her flirtatious nature. She’s a girl who exhibits a “special languorous glow,” and “wags her tiny tail, her whole behind in fact as little bitches do.” The juvenile sensuality of Dolores Haze makes a peadophile and a green-eyed monster of Humbert, who becomes more and more paranoid as the story unfolds. After suspecting her of cheating on him, he traps her in a hotel room, finding nothing but his own lunacy:
“Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I travelled upon was so slight as to be practically undistinguishable from a madman’s fancy.”
As I relived Humbert’s most dangerous and prohibited moments, I found myself gripped with a disgusted intrigue, which produced a feeling of tension similar to Humbert’s own. As a tormented sociopath, Humbert is a thrilling character to follow, despite the gruesome nature of his actions. I couldn’t wait to find out how the grotesque corruption unfolded, while also feeling a little ashamed about it, which is testament to Nabokov’s skill as a storyteller. He’s taken one of humanity’s most abhorrent crimes and turned it into a tragic love story, written with an expertise that at times, felt enslaving.
Make no mistake, Humbert loves his lolita to the point of obsession, using every available trick to hunt and possess her—violence, manipulation, blackmail, fear, gaslighting, and everything inbetween. He’s bedeviled by the spirit of Dyonisus, living in a frenzy of impulsive hedonism, disregarding all laws of humanity to occupy his pubescent obsession. But the stark reality remains—Dolores is a 12-year old girl whose initial sexual interest in Humbert dissipates after they first have sex, leaving her disinterested in a relationship with a 30-something male, no matter how suave and handsome. She wants “hamburgers, not humbergers,” but Humbert is a man void of principle, and like the “pale spider” that sits in the middle of its “luminous web,” waiting to trap its victim, he ensnares and dominates her.
Despite Humbert’s evil, the fallout from the relationship is heartbreaking. Our empathy for the odious rogue is Nabokov’s greatest achievement in the novel. We both detest and symphathise with him, leaving us feeling confused and perhaps a little guilty—how can we feel pity for someone who rapes a 12-year old? What does that say about me? Humbert’s vile actions and fantasies, in which dreams of painting a mural of “a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sign, a wincing child,” is offset by the regret of his “foul lust,” of memories that snarl at him as “limbless monsters of pain,” and the hopelessness of falling in love with a girl who could never love him back. In Humbert, Nabokov illustrates the complexity of humanity—the motley facets in all of us, even those who have sex with children. Like Humbert’s love for Dolores, Lolita felt like a forbidden fruit, breaking the sturdiest of taboos to illuminate the mind of an infatuated, sociopathic peadophile, which is a mind we rarely get to see.
The writing is gorgeous, the subject hideous, and by the time I closed the book, I knew I’d just finished one of the greatest tragedies ever written.
Our bodies are a marvel. They’re organic powerhouses with trillions of cells undergoing trillions of processes to keep us upright, all without our knowing, and much of the time, without our appreciation. And yet, when something goes awry and fails to work as we intended, we feel a sting of incompetence, as though we’re tyrannical, unfaltering masters over our bodies. We forget about the trillions of unconscious processes that work perfectly, aggrieved at the one thing that didn’t work the way it should have.
Michel de Montaigne was a philosopher unlike any other in history. Born into a wealthy family in the Aquitaine region of south-western France in 1533, he lived his first three years with a peasant family, with the intention of bringing him “closer to the people.” Once back home, his father set out a non-traditional educational plan that would see his son developing Latin as a first language, and learning by games, conversation, and exercises of meditation, which would create a spirit of “liberty and light,” and set him on a path of philosophy originality.
Montagine loved to learn, but hated the stiff and arrogant pedantry found in academia, which was obsessed with traditional philosophy and blinded to all else. For him, philosophy was as much about our everyday lives as it was about “serious” issues of morality, ethics, and virtue. Montaigne was one of the first philosophers to deeply consider topics such as humour, marriage, clothing, cannibals, and shitting. He breaches so many deeply personal and human topics that some people consider him to be the first psychologist. In one of his essays, he even takes on the role of sexual psychologist, when addressing a grave concern that many men experience at least once in their lives: impotence.
For a man, impotence is a bitter failure of control over his body. I can testify to the stinging shame of feeling my erection wilt away like a pathetic pricked balloon, followed by the kind but hated question “are you ok?” No, I’m not ok, I just failed to do one of the main things that defines me as a man. I’m a dysfunctional flop; a flaccid turkey that’s lost its gobble. I’m supposed to be capable of this, without question.
A friend of Montaigne’s felt the same, and wrote to him about it. He told Montaigne that he’d heard of a man who had the dreaded performance problem, and being highly suggestible, was so worried about falling under the same curse that he became impotent himself. He wanted to have sex with his lover, but having been dislodged of the idea that a man’s erection is an infallible fortress, became so agitated that his penis threw itself down and refused to ascend. Montaigne, being fascinated with the everyday issues that make us human, explained that the problem wasn’t a physical weakness or deficit of masculinity, but the misguided and oppressive notion that we have complete control over our bodies. We believe our minds to be all-powerful masters which our enslaved bodies must obey, never questioning our supreme authority, so when our body fails to do what we intend—drop a satsuma into a shopping bag; throw a tennis ball successfully over a fence; maintain an erection—we’re hot with embarrassment, as though the failure is entirely our fault.
For Montaigne, the cure lied in correcting our idea of normality—to remind ourselves that sometimes our bodies will do what the hell they want, despite our intentions. Rather than viewing the sexual mishap as a rare abomination born from a pitiful lack of control, we should recognise it as nothing but a common, unavoidable gaffe, neither serious or calamitous. With this perspective in mind, instead of descending into an oppressive and powerless gloom, Montaigne’s impotent friend spoke openly to his lover about the problem, which as honest talking often does, shrank it into insignificance and never cursed him again.
Another friend of Montaigne’s was about to be married and experience the first night with his new wife, and having been formerly blighted by impotence, was terrified of it happening again on such an important night. Aware that suggestibility was partly responsible for the man’s impotence, Montaigne decided to use it to his advantage, and advised him to do the following:
“As soon as we had left the room he was to withdraw to pass water: he was then to say certain prayers three times and make certain gestures: each time he was to tie round himself the ribbon I had put in his hand and carefully lay the attached medallion over his kidneys, with the figure in the specified position. Having done so, he should draw the ribbon tight so that it could not come undone: then he was to go back and confidently get on with the job, not forgetting to throw my nightshirt over the bed in such a way as to cover them both.”
Michel De Montaigne, The Complete Essays
This fixed the man’s problem, with Montaigne noting that it is “such monkeyings-about that mainly produce results.”
Some Frenchmen weren’t fortunate enough to have Montaigne as a friend. He knew another man who lost his erection with a woman, and believing that the sexual mishap was entirely his fault, scampered home, cut off his penis and sent it to the woman to “atone for his offence.” I assume the consolation was more satisfactory than the sex.
If pride is the severer of penises, humility is what’ll sew them back on. We can be confident captains of our fleshy vessels until a howling wind picks up and blows us off course. Tyrannical mastery over our bodies is a pitiful fantasy born from insecurity; flimsy protection against the frightening reality that you have little control over what happens to you, including what happens with your body. Accepting this fact is courageous, and tempers our frustration when things don’t go as planned, whether it’s missing the first step up to the stage while collecting your university degree, the widening bald patch atop your dome, or watching in horror as your penis shrivels like a sad prune. Such mishaps are neither rare or avoidable among our species, and after listening to our self-pitying woes, Montaigne might have sat back, adjusted his pearly-white ruff, and said “so what? Do you think you’re a god?”
The Banana Bread Walk is a one-way Brisbane River jaunt that starts in Teneriffe and ends at our home in West End, passing some of the city’s most beautiful spots. It begins with a ride on board the City Glider, which as its name suggests, sails through the inner city suburbs of Brisbane, collecting and depositing humans along the way. As we climb onto the sapphire blue bus in West End, the driver usually offers an enthusiastic hello, and I can’t help but compare this to the bus drivers where I grew up in south-east London, who’ll barely make eye contact from fear of being stabbed.
If I’m first on the bus, I sit in the maroon-coloured priority seats near the front, which are reserved for the older residents of the city, and always empty at this time of morning. My fiance and long-term walking partner dislikes this, as she envisages hoards of geriatrics boarding at once, who’ll curse our young limbs and batter us with their hardwood walking sticks until we move to our proper place. I secretly hope it’ll happen one day.
The blue and white stripes of the bus flash past the Davies Park farmer’s markets, which at 7am, is already being descended upon by hundreds of West End residents on their Saturday morning ritual for fruits and eggs and vegetables and meats, pouring with sweat as they jostle about, dodging dogs and prams and granny-trolleys amidst yells of 2-dollar deals. The one-lane maelstrom is strewn with escape routes to a grassy nirvana, where the people and pooches no longer pay any mind to the position of their paws, but extend them fully in spacious rapture.
Davies Park disappears from view, replaced by the countless apartment blocks on Montague Road, where people nestle in their thousands and curse at the din of the Saturday morning traffic. Within moments we’re converging on what might be considered the centre of West End—the corner of Boundary and Melbourne street, enclosed in part by a large bug-like art installation, painted dull-white, creating shade for the indigenous folk who settle on benches and look as though they’re trying to forget themselves.
Soon the bus reaches Victoria Bridge, arching over the Brisbane River, and overlooking Brisbane’s luscious South Bank with its sprawling pines and cycads and luminescent purple bougainvillea canopies, its expansive lagoon and barbeques where tourists swim and sizzle while admiring the glassy swelling of the city across the river, showers of sparkles glittering in every window.
With the bridge behind us, we merge into the shadows of the central business district, where the weekend shopworkers rise from their seats, reluctant for another day of materialist madness, and unaware of the delights of the Banana Bread Walk, which they would surely quit their jobs and embark on immediately if they had an inkling. A few minutes later we exit the city into Fortitude Valley, a place replete with watering holes for the young, host to alcohol-fuelled weekend bedlam where the boys and girls drift from bar to bar and stick their chests out for different reasons. All is quiet in the Valley at this hour, its recent occupants dispersed to their homes, their shrivelled brains crying out for water as they sleep.
We reach our stop at the low end of the Valley, outside the Maserati showroom, where a brazen friend of mine took a $200,000 car for a test drive after dressing himself in a 3-piece suit and speaking la-di-da to the salesman. We make our way south-east through the towering office and residential blocks, past Bin Chicken Alley, where gangs of ibises will immediately stop scavenging to stare you down, as though you want a piece of their delicious trash. After a few minutes we arrive at the official starting point of the Banana Bread Walk: a cafe called Bellissimo that serves squishy sweet banana bread and some of the best coffee you’ll ever drink, evidenced by the queue that spills onto the street. There’s at least two cute dogs outside, one of which is a French Bulldog belonging to a girl clad in overpriced Lorna Jane activewear who doesn’t understand the word “cliché” and doesn’t carethank-you-very-much.
Once we’re fuelled with banana and caffeine, our 13km walk begins with a north-eastern beeline for the river at Teneriffe, passing rows of redbrick wool factories that have been converted into stylish properties, with a great deal more character than the cut-and-paste apartment blocks found elsewhere in the city. As we emerge on the riverside, the landscape opens up before us, swathes of early-morning sparkles scattered across the river’s surface, and enthusiastic rowers with bulging lats sweeping through them.
We walk south towards the river’s source, along a riverside path guarded by polished chromium railings, and placards that reveal Teneriffe’s industrial past. When the Brisbane River was dredged in 1862, wharves were constructed along the riverbank for trade, spawning ten woolstores in Teneriffe by the 1950’s¹, eventually being requisitioned for an American World War II submarine base where you could see up to eight vessels and hundreds of fresh-faced submariners⁶. Today, Teneriffe is one of the most desirable places to live in Brisbane, and as we saunter past triple-story red brick buildings, their huge facades filled with white-framed windows underneath looping arches, amidst lushious verdant gardens filled with prodigious Moreton Bay fig trees, it’s easy to see why.
A motley of humans roam the pathway—young families with wandering toddlers and little dogs with protruding teeth; glistening mums and dads jogging with prams; gym junkies with swollen limbs, squeezed into too-little fabric—coveting lungfuls of crisp winter air, the soft swishing of overhead leaves, and the post-dusk warbles of tropical birds. The Teneriffe riverside is a popular sleeping spot for pigeons, who tuck their feet into their bodies, nestle their heads into their chests, and pay no mind to the snuffles of passing dogs.
Soon we reach the suburb of New Farm, the battered facade of the Powerhouse rising in the distance. The Powerhouse is a decommissioned electricity station that provided power for Brisbane’s obsolete tram network, and at the turn of the millennium, was transformed into an arts and music centre for exhibitions, comedy, concerts, and more. The main entrance faces away from the river—a 10-metre tall glass box, striped with chrome, incongruous against its wall of crumbling bricks and blocks of white paint, as though the refurbers decided to leave this side unfinished for effect. Before reaching the momentous building, we feast our eyes on the bedlam of the New Farm dog park, with its schnauzers, collies, pugs, poodles, retrievers, labs, shepherds, snags, and every other dog you can think of, all mixed together in a frenzy of tails and paws, lolloping about and shouting at each other.
In a few moments we’re stepping onto the green of New Farm Park—an open stretch of grass scattered with trees and rose bushes that sits on the edge of the New Farm peninsula. The park is one of the few outdoor places in Brisbane where you can drink alcohol without punishment, so it’s common to see people picnicking and sipping beers under the shade of its trees. It’s also weirdly common to see cats on leads, who seem confused about the constraining ropes around their necks, and anxious to get out of them as quickly as possible.
The riverside path temporarily stops at the end of New Farm Park and Brunswick Street, forcing a little street walking. We pass a house that usually has two chocolate labradors resting against its gated entrance, and when we stop to say hello, they wiggle their butts and stick their pink noses through the bars. I’m disappointed if they’re not there.
We rejoin the riverside path at the edge of Merthyr Park, a belt of green edged by apartment blocks, and a quieter alternative for New Farmers to wile away the hours. At the eastern edge of the park stand six tall sentinels of dark timber, positioned a few metres away from each other, and containing little abstract paintings framed in silver. The path ends at a deserted ferry stop, requiring another few minutes of street walking before descending back to the riverside.
The Banana Bread Walk is as much about the delights of Brisbane as the delights of walking. The amount of physical and mental effort needed for walking is a perfect balance of focus and effort, raising our energy enough to release endorphins, and making us more alert, perceptive, agreeable, and open to the world. My inhibition tends to melt away, leaving a confidence to broach all manner of topics; to explore ideas that broaden our minds; to natter about anything and everything that fascinates us. We oscillate between being lost in our own little world and being enveloped by the sun-soaked sky. The doors of the world are thrown open, my anger at the current state of the world forgotten, the helplessness all but vanished; hypnotised by the never-ending delights of the city, and the company of my wonderful fiance, whose love seems more assured. My enslaving phone is forgotten during the Banana Bread Walk, no need to check messages, social media, the news, or weather radar. At that moment, the world is wider and more real and more fascinating than anything that could be offered by the measley LED display of my mobile. My partner and I are at our most open and accepting; loose-lipped and crinkle-eyed as the Banana Bread Walk leads us on yet another magnificent adventure.
The return to the river is the most spectacular part of the Banana Bread Walk. As we turn the corner of Merthyr Road and rejoin the path, where the river loops around to the city, the shimmering skyscrapers of the Brisbane CBD engulf the horizon, nestled behind the criss-cross steel of the Story Bridge. The entirety of the city is in full scope, to be appreciated all at once, set against the tree-lined bank of Kangaroo point, and the swirling brown of the Brisbane river. Being aware of the magnificence of this perspective, the city’s engineers created a floating boardwalk that hugged the western edge of New Farm (called New Farm Walkway), only to be swept away by the torrents of the 2011 flood, large chunks of which were rescued by tugboat captain Peter Denton, and repurposed as a pontoon outside of Brisbane². The boardwalk was replaced in 2014 by a solid, 840-metre structure of asphalt and steel, grounded in the bedrock of the river. It’s wide enough to accommodate cyclists and walkers, and dotted with shaded areas and drinking fountains, offering respite from the ferocious Queensland sun.
As we amble along the twisting walkway, on our right, the expensive riverside houses and apartment blocks gradually rise with the ascending New Farm cliffs, their ever-extending pontoons reaching out to connect with the boardwalk, until finally, the gradient of the weather-stained cliff defeats them. The Story Bridge—originally built in 1940 to reduce traffic congestion in the CBD, and the longest cantilever bridge in Australia—looms larger with every step, its two supporting structures rising into the sky, and dotted with tourists undertaking the “Story Bridge Climb.” 4 people died during the construction of the bridge, and many more have thrown themselves from its girders into the brown snake of Brisbane, resulting in the erection of curved fences along its perimeter, and telephones linked to suicide hotlines. At night, the Story Bridge is speckled with fluorescent colour which alternates to celebrate Australian events⁵, like maroon during State of Origin, pink during Brisbane Festival, and red and green during Christmas, which makes it look like a gigantic toppled Christmas tree. The Story Bridge marks the halfway mark of the Banana Bread Walk—roughly 6.5km.
As we align with the Story Bridge’s southern point, the boardwalk veers right and rejoins solid ground, an important area of land called Howard Smith Wharves that provided additional shipping resources for early 20th-century Brisbane, but fell into disuse a few decades later. The area underwent major redevelopment last year, and is now one of Brisbane’s most popular merrymaking spots, with a large brewery, a handful of bars and restaurants, a 5-star hotel, a selection of hireable venue halls for events such as weddings, and what seems like a million people eating, drinking, laughing and gesticulating their lives away in a frenzy of food and booze. Many of the buildings use timber from the original wharves, lending great character to the architecture. There’s stretches of immaculate grass, and a battered old trawler boat alongside Felons Brewing Co to commemorate the journey of the four felons—runaway prisoners who sailed from Sydney to discover the Brisbane River. Thousands of weekend beers are unknowingly tipped in their favour.
The Wharves are quieter in the morning, peppered with couples and families sipping lattes as they take in the views. As we pass under the gigantic cross-stitched underbelly of the Story Bridge, approaching the sprawling base of the first city skyscraper, we take a sharp left onto the City Reach boardwalk, which runs about a kilometre south along the eastern edge of the city, constructed of solid wood, polished chrome railings and torpedo-like concrete posts with little lights that illuminate the walkway at night. Across the river to the left is the lanky peninsula of Kangaroo Point and the Story Bridge, and to the right are the skyscrapers of the city, towering over waterfront bars, cafes, and restaurants. After five minutes we reach the majestic Customs House, a heritage-listed, classical style building with rows of Doric Greek columns set against a sprawling two-story colonnade, cream-coloured sandstone facade, and a lime-green umbrella dome that makes it one of Brisbane’s most handsome buildings, particularly at night when flood lamps repaint it an ivory gradient. The building opened in 1889, having originally been built for the collection of customs payments, and now a function venue and restaurant. When it was constructed, the building was an object of public pride³, becoming one of the city’s most loved landmarks. Even when overshadowed by skyscrapers seven times its size, Customs House wrenches your gaze and begs to be admired.
As we continue south along the boardwalk, the garbled murmur of tourists fills the air, as they recharge themselves in the slew of riverside restaurants and cafes. This is a popular area known as Eagle Street Pier, originally a gateway for visiting ships, now a gateway for visiting tourists. At night this area buzzes with locals who guzzle booze in its riverside bars and glance at the tumbled Christmas tree overhanging the river. The area is also home to the Kookaburra Queens II cruise boat—a 30-metre long, 3-story paddle wheeler, which would look more at home on the Mississippi than the Brisbane river. With its distinctive white beech posts and red cedar design, it looks like somebody has plonked a Queenslander house on the river and asked it to float. The vessel was named in honour of the bird that is “never seen to be drinking water,” in the hope that it’ll inherit the same future.
It becomes quieter again as we distance ourselves from Eagle Street Pier, save for the occasional thrashing of a cyclist, and the alarming rattle of wooden beams as they whoosh past in a flurry of colorful lycra. The boardwalk ends at the northeastern corner of the City Botanic Gardens, a voluminous 200,000m² of grassy splendour, filled with cycads, palms, figs, bamboo, mahogany, macadamias, jacarandas and dragon trees, with placards to identify and explain each, and sprawling frog-filled lagoons accosted by ducks, red-nosed Moorhen, lapwings with blades on their wings, cormorants, skittle-coloured lorikeet, damselflies, water dragons and beaky bin chickens taking a well deserved break from garbage rustling. The wonderful diversity of the gardens come from the actions of curator Walter Hill, whose experimental planting program in 1885 led to the creation of the botanical paradise that you see today. The site is considered so beautiful, and so culturally important, that the Queensland Heritage Register describes it as the “most significant non-Aborginal cultural landscape in Queensland.” It’s a cornucopia of flora and fauna—another priceless Brisbane gem that makes the Banana Break Walk such a joy.
As we enter the gardens from the northeast entrance, we join a shaded path that hugs the perimeter, just a little elevated from the river. In this corner of the park you can usually find an older Asian lady in an airy blouse of flowery chintz, wearing jet black sunglasses, taking slow and deliberate steps in what I assume to be some kind of meditative walk (possibly Tai Chi). Despite the flurries of people whirling past, jabbering, giggling, and Instagramming, the lady’s face is a picture of serenity. I like to think that any time we visit that northeastern corner of the park, she’ll be there—the Oriental spirit of the Botanic Gardens, demonstrating our beautiful capacity for peace. In sharp contrast on our left is a Scottish cannon sitting on the crest of the bank, shipped to Brisbane in the 17th century to defend the new colony of Queensland⁴, and somehow making the meditating lady seem even more honourable.
We continue on the path, the occasional beam breaking through the whispering canopy, creating dances of light on the criss-crossed pavement. Across the river on our left, the golden cliffs of Kangaroo Point rise up like a formidable defense, its volcanic rock dotted with fluorescent early morning climbers determined to overcome its craggy face, barely perceptible through the haze of the morning sun. We loop right with the formation of the river, skirting the southern end of the peninsula, until a lofty brick stage appears—Riverstage, a 9500-capacity venue that opened in 1989, and plays host to some of the world’s best musical talent. Riverstage’s sloped, amphitheatre-style layout allows even the shortest of hobbits to get a decent view—a symphonic feast for Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses alike—with the crest of its hill only 50 metres from the stage. It somehow achieves the task of feeling intimate while also holding ten thousand people. We’ve enjoyed some serious musical debauchery at this venue, and will continue to do so until our backs and knees can no longer support us.
With Riverstage behind us, we exit the gardens under the sprawling branches of a Banyan Fig Tree, which in its thirst for ever-more water, grows mutant-like vertical roots from the upper-ends of its branches that stretch down to the ground, and to continue with the Tolkien metaphors, looks like an Ent from outer space. When my folks were visiting from the UK a couple of years back, my mum was amazed by the weirdness of its vertical roots (branches in England usually grow upwards).
The path splits into a few directions at this point—right and up towards the Queensland University of Technology, its glass and silver campus shimmering in the morning sun; straight ahead towards the western flank of the city, or left over the Goodwill Bridge, which is where we head. A green canopy of branches stretches over the start of this footbridge, which at night, twinkles with fairy lights, delighting party goers as they leave Riverstage. I was once scolded by a policeman on this bridge for not wearing a bicycle helmet, and forced to walk the bike home because he said I “couldn’t risk it,” as if I were riding a Vincent Black Shadow. This is one of Australia’s many nanny state laws—infringements on personal freedom, based on the assumption that the average person is an idiot who must be protected from himself. The list of bicycle-related fines in Queensland reveals the absurdity of it all. Some of my favourites include:
Riding a bicycle while not astride the rider’s seat facing forwards ($133)
Leading an animal while riding a bicycle ($133)
Riding a bicycle within 2m of the rear of a moving motor vehicle for more than 200m ($133)
You can even be breathalysed on a bicycle, and get penalty points on your driving license. This wonderful convict-descended nation seems determined to expel the once-cherished larrikin, to become a nation of—what? Docile law-abiding subservients, who’d sooner thrash their own mothers than slam their foot on the accelerator? Spineless toadies whose lungs would never feel the pungence of a mammoth choof hit? Thankfully, there’s still plenty of people in Australia who realise that nanny state laws are to be broken, and fuck the fines.
As we descend towards South Bank the Queensland Maritime Museum appears, which my dad insists we visit whenever he’s over, spending hours wandering around the decommissioned frigate that sits in the dry dock, and chatting to the rickety sailor who once served on it. Our path loops back towards the river, emerging onto the southern tip of the South Bank Parklands, where more tourists are satiating themselves with breakfast and magnificent views of the city. To our right is the River Quay Green—a semi-circle patch of grass on the riverbank that hosts free live music on Sundays, where you can sip booze and listen to the trilling of a twenty-something singer.
We continue through the shaded parklands, passing a little man-made stream lined with stones, leading to a shallow and colourful pool area where toddlers dart and delight in the jets of water shooting from the ground. Soon enough we reach the main lagoon of the parklands—a 100-metre stretch of water elevated from the riverside promenade, making it feel like an infinity pool, and skirted by a small man-made beach. 11 million people visit this area every year—they say you should keep your mouth closed if going for a swim.
Our twisting bougainvillea-clad path takes us past the South Bank Piazza—a 2000-seat amphitheatre that never seems to host any events. In the seven years I’ve been in Brisbane, I haven’t seen a single person in there, or anything being advertised, which is odd considering its prime location. You could put a wind-up monkey on its stage and people would probably sit there and watch it.
We exit the park into Brisbane’s cultural precinct, which includes the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA)—something for everyone when a summer storm comes rumbling. We once saw Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi at QPAC, whose achingly beautiful performance sent scores of people to sleep, jolting awake to realise they’d spent $100 for an uncomfortable nap.
We cut left through the middle of the cultural precinct onto Melbourne St, finally turning away from the river, and after thirty or so minutes of streetwalking, with legs and minds aching from the effort, we arrive back at our apartment on Montague Road, gratified and charmed with all that the wonderful Banana Bread Walk has given us, and feeling lucky to call Brisbane home.
My fiancé and I went to the Hunter Valley last weekend, one of Australia’s original wine regions in New South Wales, rich in volcanic soil from eruptions that took place 300 million years ago. When in wine country, it’s necessary to go on a tour to learn about the uniqueness of every winery, and taste the deliciousness on offer.
Our tour was on a Sunday, and as luck would have it, we were the only people, which meant we had the tour guide and cellar hosts to ourselves—a private tour but without the $600 price tag. Given that we had the full attention of our hosts, and as polite humans who always want to make the best possible impression, we felt obliged to offer our full attention in return. Our previous wine tours had always been in groups, with the hosts attention divided among many of us, granting us pause to daydream, pass the odd comment to each other, or play with our phones—something impossible on a private tour without being rude. Whenever I find myself thrust into a one-on-one position such as this, I seem to make a lot more effort than usual, so rather than the cellar door host giving their usual demonstration of their wine, which always seemed a little mechanical during group tours, it felt more like a personal conversation between the three of us. We concentrated on what they were saying, asked questions about the little things that interested us, and found ourselves engaged in rapt conversation like a group of old friends. Aside from learning about their wine-making process and the unique flavours, we learned about how climate change and the bushfires had affected their businesses, how they got into the wine-growing game, what they did as their younger selves, whether they expect their children to follow in their footsteps, what their favourite wines were, and more. When leaving each winery, I felt liked and appreciated, as though we’d made an excellent impression on our host, who had enjoyed our company as much as we’d enjoyed theirs.
My fiancé and I have the kind of disposition where we want people to like us, even need people to like us. It reveals our insecurity, but there’s a strange beauty behind it, because it causes us to make a great deal of effort with people, which leads to fulfilling conversations, confidence, and on the odd occasion, friendships. I hate the idea of being disliked by anyone, and so when I find myself in a situation where full engagement seems courteous, I find myself asking questions about the person’s life, which often progresses to a pleasant conversation that we both enjoy. My desire to be liked and appreciated compels me to behave in ways that make me liked and appreciated, and given that human relationships are one of our most fulfilling endeavours, I realise that my insecurity isn’t so bad after all. Or I’m misreading my social life, and people think I’m an annoying twat.
I finished the wine tour in a state of blissful confidence, somewhat due to my blood/alcohol level, but mostly due to the connections that my fiancé and I had made with the cellar hosts. Whenever I find myself in this mood, and attribute it to my concerted effort over the course of the day, a contrast is revealed between the amount of effort I make to impress strangers, and the amount of effort I make to impress the person I love the most: my fiancé. Strangers mean little to me, and my fiancé everything, so why do I behave in such an illogical way? This is not to say that I mistreat my fiancé—I strive to make her happy because I love and need her—but I don’t put in the same amount of concentration and effort as when I’m sat at the bar of a unknown winery owner, which is madness! The very fact that she’s my fiancé makes her seem secured, as though she’s forever mine, assuming that when my complacency becomes an issue, I’ll always be forgiven, but unaware that every act of forgiveness takes an indistinguishable chunk out of our relationship, carving out a horrific hole that becomes impossible to fill. It’s bizarre that the comfort and security of a devoted relationship causes you to lessen your effort, when you need even more effort to keep it alive. Marriage, a dog, and kids can add excitement, but if the complacency isn’t dealt with, if we can’t forgo our laziness and muster the same level of effort as for a stranger, or the effort from our first date, isn’t the relationship doomed? If we’re so damn motivated to create a bond with strangers, we should be motivated to create a stronger bond with the person who we love more than anyone else. Instead, we assume that the bond is unbreakable—that we’ll never love anyone else as much as we love each other, and we end up relaxed to the point of being in a coma. The fact that my fiancé loves me doesn’t mean that she’ll always love me.
Sometimes it can seem easier to talk to a stranger than your long-term partner, given that you know nothing about the stranger, and a lot about your partner. Unless you want to irritate them with repetition, the hundreds of questions you can ask a stranger aren’t available to your partner. But even those who have celebrated golden wedding anniversaries don’t know everything about each other. We develop and mature over time, and possess a rich and fascinating internal life, which remains hidden unless asked about. And this is the stuff we want to talk about more than anything else—conversations that conjure a wonderful sense of meaning, masking the unforgiving meaninglessness of our existence, and bonding us to each other like glue. The reason that we talk about the weather is because talking about the weather might lead to us talking about the stirrings of our souls, and when we’re in a loving relationship, we can skip the weather and jump straight into the good stuff. We won’t have meaningful conversations with our partners all the time, but unless we recognise that our complacency isn’t forever tolerable, and that we must make the same effort with our partners as we do with strangers, those conversations will be forever lost.
If our partner has enough emotional intelligence not to make us feel like idiots (most of the time), we should be comfortable and motivated enough to broach our most desired topics. There’s plenty of questions to ask a stranger, but they aren’t the kind of deep questions you can ask your partner. I can have a conversation with a stranger that makes me feel liked and respected, but it’s difficult to have a conversation with them that makes me feel loved, desired, and needed. That conversation is reserved for the person we adore. We end up taking one of the most precious and wonderful things in the world for granted: a soul-stirring conversation with the guardians of our hearts, that makes us cherish each other all the more, and only to be had through concerted effort—the kind of effort that we put into making strangers like us, but leading to something much more beautiful.
In the summer of 1996, when I was about 13 years old, my buddy Neil got himself a handheld video camera. For a group of impoverished teenagers, it was a thing of wonder, and the first thing that our group of friends wanted to do was to fake an embarrassing fall, so that we could post the video to entertainment show You’ve Been Framed. For those unfamiliar with the program, it features a string of home-video gaffes such as people falling off tables at weddings, dogs running headfirst into bushes, and children using footballs to splatter ice creams over their dads’ faces. If we were able to stage a convincing fall, where one of us trips at just the right time and bundles into the unforgiving concrete, we might become television stars!
The stage was our usual spot for playing football—a vacant, semi-detached house with a large windowless side, which we could blast the ball at without complaint. Most of the game was played in the road itself, with only the goalkeeper on the footpath, slightly raised up on a kerb. The plan was for Lee—the oafish, bravest lump of our friendship group—to line up a shot on goal, trip on the kerb, and crash into the pavement. It was full-proof.
With the camera rolling, the ball was passed towards Lee, and the confusion caused by the charade made him trip on his own feet, and his great mass of flesh was sent flailing into the air, followed by a spectacular clattering onto the footpath. We watched the clip again and again, until our cheeks and sides ached from laughter. The clip never did get featured on You’ve Been Framed, but it didn’t matter—that little moment of joy was what we really needed. I loved my group of friends, and wouldn’t have changed anything for the world.
Having close friends and spending time with them is arguably one of the best aspects of human existence, but despite being awash with technologies that allow us batter our chums with messages, photographs, and video clips, people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel regularly lonely¹. A third of Britons say the same¹. In Japan, there’s half a million people under 40 who haven’t interacted with anyone for at least 6 months¹. A study from the General Social Survey showed that between 1985 and 2004, the people with whom the average American could discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of Americans who had nobody to discuss important matters with tripled⁵. Since the 1970’s, American teenagers have been meeting with their friends significantly less—roughly half as much as they used to⁶.
The problem is so urgent that scientists have declared a “loneliness epidemic”, with great concern for the public’s health. Lonely people are 30% more prone to stroke, or to develop coronary artery disease². People who are blessed with supportive relationships have lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety². Shockingly, loneliness carries a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity³. The people sitting in their homes pining for human connection are 32% more likely to die than those who have friends⁴.
“A robust body of scientific evidence has indicated that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease morbidities.”
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra³
As a teenager in the 90’s, if I wasn’t in the mood for galavanting the streets with my friends, I stayed inside and entertained myself with reading, television, or Super Mario Bros. Eventually, I’d get bored and go out anyway. Today, we’re faced with an onslaught of solo entertainment, of anything we could possibly imagine. We can spend eight hours absorbing the spectacular neon storytelling of Stranger Things, or committing virtual murder on Call of Duty. We can listen to a fascinating Joe Rogan podcast, as he quizzes a guest about the spiritual benefits of ingesting magic mushrooms. We can shift into zombie mode and scroll through our Instagram feed, with an endless number of adorable puppies to light up our cute receptors. We can fire up a virtual music studio and compose a thundering techno track. Or we can strap on a VR headset, leave this cruel world behind, and forge virtual friendships instead. There’s a form of entertainment suited for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more accessible.
With so much guaranteed entertainment at our fingertips, why bother with the effort of interacting with real people, with its risks of mediocrity? Human interaction is a roll of the dice—you might win and end up with closer friendships, or you might lose and lumber home dejectedly, after having bored your companions to sleep with stories of your dog’s anarchistic bowel movements. Being a conversation conjurer is a tough job, particularly if you have a problem with being vulnerable, or a burning desire to be always right. Even the most confident socialites fail from time-to-time, temporarily blighting the group with awkwardness, until someone in better form steps in to relieve the tension. Moments such as these can drive us away from our companions into the soothing arms of the latest Netflix sensation, pleasure all-but guaranteed, and not a social faux pas in sight. But despite its many excellent benefits, Netflix isn’t going to keep you warm at night, or lend a sympathetic ear for your creeping sense of sadness. It can’t offer concerned advice about your burgeoning drinking problem, or innocently tease you about the additional weight that has found its way onto your face. It can only entertain you, and while it’s a champion in its field, it doubles up as a devil that steals away the time needed to fortify friendships, and stave off loneliness.
Measuring up to modern entertainment is tough. My conversation doesn’t have the depth of an episode of The Wire. It doesn’t transport you to an entirely new world, weaving a beautifully-constructed narrative that portrays the precariousness of being a resident of Baltimore. It isn’t as thrilling as gunning down outlaws on Red Dead Redemption 2, nor does it offer the same sense of achievement. Reddit’s most popular posts are all funnier than me. Why settle for something subpar, when you can have something sublime? But as we hide ourselves away in our homes, distracting ourselves with all-singing all-dancing entertainment, our sense of loneliness swells. The descent into social isolation isn’t accompanied by a melancholy solo violin, but the optimistic chimes of candy being crushed, amusing you into solitude, one lemon drop at a time. In the small window of downtime when YouTube counts down to the next autoplay, you might receive a whispered internal reminder of your social isolation, followed by cravings of human connection, difficult to alleviate after years of rejecting invitations in favour of sofa-bound inertia. Can we be blamed? Social interaction can be a messy business—entertainment is anything but, and can even be addictive. One only has to witness the madness of a teenager having his World of Warcraft account deleted to get an idea of how important entertainment is for some people.
The advance of technology provides new opportunities to gratify us, with artificial intelligence being used to create even more potent forms of entertainment. As we happily sign up for brand new apps in exchange for unbridled access to our personal information, artificially intelligent systems are able to gorge themselves on our data, producing models that accurately predict the most effective way to entertain us. Data gurus PricewaterhouseCoopers predict 2019 to be the year of media personalisation⁷, with refinement and filtering of our entertainment becoming more popular, allowing us to curate endless hours of tailor-made fun. This is like injecting steroids into an AI system. As we endow it with unbridled access to our preferences, it can use that information to offer up even more enthralling forms of entertainment. Eventually, and oh-so-gradually, we might find ourselves transformed into the chair-bound blobs from WALL-E, thoroughly entertained, but lonely beyond belief.
Back when the world was black and white, our grandparents would huddle around the radio as a family. Since then we’ve gained access to the television, VCR, game console, online news, Compact Discs, MTV, the world wide wide, talk radio, DVDs, blogs, the iPod, social media, smartphones, and more. The plethora of entertainment now available to us has quashed the possibility of boredom, but makes the forging and maintenance of solid relationships a secondary thought, as though it’s more important to be entertained than loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we become exposed to even more forms of entertainment, bigger and better than before, we may find ourselves slipping further into isolation, delighted by rainbows of colour and sound, but estranged from the only thing that can offer us a treasured sense of belonging: our fellow humans.
In a few short weeks, I’m about to re-enter the world of unemployment, with the intention of moving to a writing-based career. At this point, what bothers me most isn’t the sudden lack of income, or the fear of measuring up in an unfamiliar endeavour, but the fakery that tends to accompany job interviews. These rare and awkward encounters seem to me like a game of poker, in which I’m trying to convince my opponents that I have a full house, when in honesty I have little more than a pair of two’s. The deception required to bluff through a job interview, persuading your potential employers that you have all of the necessary tools to bring value to their company, is something that I’ve always loathed. What I’d really like to do is put all of my cards on the table and say “this is what I have, and I’m a nice guy who gets along with most people. Can I have a job please?” Nothing contrived or rehearsed—just pure, unadulterated honesty.
Given our species’ penchant for putting on appearances, such a situation seems foolishly utopian. Certain scenarios require us to dance the dance that has been chosen for us, or withdraw from society completely to live on our own terms, like Viggo Mortensen’s character in the wonderful Captain Fantastic. But in my experience, the varied situations that I’ve undergone during my time as a regular, city-dwelling homosapien have proven to be best tackled by being honest, as often as possible. People just seem to like you more when you’re straight with them, and those who mutter offended scoffs can go and boil their heads. This isn’t giving yourself license to act like an arse—politeness and social niceties are essential for emotional creatures such as ourselves, with the capacity for horrific violence. It’d be impossible to make friends or get along with anyone if you’re staring them down with a chimpish grin.
“Masks beneath masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull.”
With honesty, all manner of playacting is made redundant, and with it, all of the exhausting responsibilities required to convince the world of your brilliance. It’s the relief a theatre actor might feel when stepping away from their persona for the evening, unshackled from the obligation of remembering lines, striking poses, and fabricating emotions. Instead, every emotion is allowed to rise naturally from the depths of their soul, rather than their intraparietal sulcus—a part of the brain used when acting a role¹. New-found legitimacy engenders a wonderful lightness, as though we’ve been wearing heavy work boots for most of our lives, and have just swapped them for obscenely fluffy, Merino-wool slippers. Given the stress required to live a life of pretense, the buoyancy of honesty might even extend beyond the metaphorical, as stress makes you gain weight. As every little morsel of chicanery dissipates into the ether, our relaxation increases, until we feel able to navigate the world as unapologetically ourselves, in full defective glory. As if by magic, the words that we were previously too frightened to mutter come bursting forth, with little worry about whether it splits our audience in two, or whether we’ll upset the sourpuss in the accounts department. Honesty can have the same effect on our inhibitions as a glass of the Hunter Valley’s finest Shiraz, and feels comparably soothing. In fact, as I’ve gotten older and become gradually more honest, I find that alcohol has much less of an effect on my inhibitions, because they no longer have such a ferocious hold to begin with.
I can’t begin to imagine how much energy I’ve wasted in my life trying to paint the “perfect” picture of myself. 300 hash browns worth, at least. The kicker is, regardless of how perfect you assume your behaviour to be, there’s always a select group of people who’ll continue to dislike you. With honesty, those people are lit up like the Star of Bethlehem, which you can quickly turn your back on in pursuit of something a little more your style. Most people seem well-equipped to detect pretentious behaviour anyway—trying to hide your faults can have the unfortunate effect of bringing them into the limelight. Why not just cut the bullshit and be yourself? No longer will there be any requirement to paint yourself cool, admirable, smart, capable, attractive, or anything else that society deems important. Think of the brainpower that you’ll save for something that’s actually worthwhile, like watching season three of Stranger Things.
“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.”
The universe can be a pretty cruel place to exist, especially during those uncomfortable moments when we reflect on our own mortality, and what the hell it all means. Slipping into a role for which society would give a boring and predictable thumbs-up is dangerously easy, putting us on a cookie-cutter path that might destroy our uniqueness. The more honest that we are with ourselves, the likelier we are to discover off-roads that could lead us places that feel wholly authentic. We’re born into a greyscale world, devoid of any intrinsic meaning. Honesty is a paintbrush that allows us to colour the world with meaningful vibrancy—we know which colours make us wide-eyed, and we can use that knowledge to paint our masterpiece, with no instruction needed from a higher authority. Only when we muster the courage to be honest can we carve out a meaningful path for ourselves.
“Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”
At times, reality can be a tough cookie to crack. Our existence as unique, separate beings makes us prisoners of our own subjectivity; we understand reality in terms of our senses, and from what others say about it. If everyone went about their day lying through their teeth, it’d be a lot harder for us to determine what reality actually is. Our brain’s interpretation of our senses would become king—a mediocre choice for a mass of tissue that has a ton of biases, uses mental shortcuts to make decisions, and can hallucinate the most fabulous nonsense imaginable. The level of honesty within our species plays a large role in determining our understanding of the world. If Google decided one day that its maps should only be 50% honest, you might find yourself in the middle of the desert, wondering where all of this sand came from. We owe it to our fellow humans to give them an accurate reflection of the world, whether it’s an external, shared truth such as the weather, or an internal emotional truth, like the grouchiness you’re feeling after last night’s tequila competition with a rustic hidalgo from Guadalajara. With truth comes clarity of vision for all.
“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking…”
Bending the truth only seems necessary in times of peril, when the stakes are extremely high. You probably wouldn’t want to tell a suicide-risk friend that their new haircut makes them look like a deranged poodle, lest they make a beeline for the nearest precipice. The loveable robot TARS from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is programmed with a 90% honesty setting, claiming absolute honesty to be an unwise approach for dealing with emotional human beings. I’d argue that 99% is the preferred setting, with the 1% reserved for those rare moments that dishonesty seems to be the correct moral choice. Anything greater seems to be unnecessary, exhausting pretense—strapping on a straitjacket and a plastered smile. In an era infected with all manner of falsity—Donald Trump; tampered elections; fake news; climate change denial; the efficacy of Capitalism; Flat Earth theory; anti-vaxxers, and much more—honesty isn’t just chicken soup for our souls, but a moral necessity, to give us the strength to claw our way out of this filthy bog of crock into which we’ve fallen.