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Archive for December 2nd, 2013

Posted December 2, 2013
  Posted by in Uncategorized

President George W Bush is an extremely clever person. Common sense does not support this statement. We have all seen the President on television losing election debates to John Kerry, being unable to say ‘nuclear proliferation’ and losing his place in his notes.

The common sense approach would say: ‘I see Bush making a fool of himself. Therefore Bush is stupid.’ But common sense is the ability to link two concepts together. It is also the inability to link more than two concepts together. Common sense has, in the past, given us some wonderful two-concept logic.

The earth looks much bigger than the sun. Therefore the sun goes around the earth.

Men have the most power in society. Therefore men are more intelligent than women.

Metal is more dense than air. Therefore metal machines will never fly.

There are thousands of examples. Some of them are useful. None of them contribute to our understanding of the world. When we look at Mr Bush mumbling and grinning, the immediate impression is that here is an unintelligent man, out of his depth in the world of real problems and international complexities.

When we see our own Prime Minister, we are aware that behind the way he presents himself are such things as image consultants and speechwriters. The way he dresses, his body language, his hairstyle, the characteristic pauses in his speeches are all determined by advisors who have studied exactly what will appeal to the British electorate. He is an actor presenting an image determined by a team.

The nature of democracy forces David Cameron to do the same. The charade of Mr Cameron riding his bike to work only to be followed later by a chauffeur-driven vehicle bringing his work was not something that he initiated. In order to win as many votes as possible, political leaders need to convince people that they are the sort of person by whom they would like to be led.

In a way, shouting at Mr Blair for sending troops to Iraq or tutting at Mr Cameron for environmental hypocrisy is like seeing a soap actor and punching him in the face because he did nasty things in last night’s episode. A political leader’s public face is not the same thing as the person. This brings us back to George W Bush.

Mr Bush is the figurehead of the most profitable conglomerate in the history of the world. Behind the Presidency is the vast wealth represented by members of the Republican party, their companies, their allies and their financial interests. I don’t know the exact reason that the United States invaded Iraq. It appears that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Nor did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction.

However, there were power, votes and money involved. A measured time before the 2004 elections, President Bush appeared on an aircraft carrier in front of the slogan ‘Mission Accomplished’. His approval rating soared. He was seen as decisive. He had done something about the terrorists.

Whatever damage was to be done by the war, Mr Bush needed it. Democracy does not demand that the winner is popular most of the time. He just has to get enough votes on that day every four years when the people draw their crosses on a piece of paper. Starting a project that will benefit millions but will take 20 years to show the results may not be to the advantage of any politician. The voters will see expenditure and no results on polling day. Better to make a grand gesture at the right time, even if it benefits nobody.

Everyone over 18 gets the vote in a democracy. Everyone. There is no test to see if you understand the issues before they give you your form and send you in to decide the future of the country. It is not what politicians say that determine how you get their message. It’s how you hear it. Those people who decide what is on television and radio or in the newspapers are the ones who give us the information on which we base our voting preferences.

The Sun is the newspaper with by far the greatest circulation in the UK. The Sun has exerted an enormous influence that on past elections. Politicians need to tread carefully to win the approval of The Sun’s owners and editors if they want a chance in the next election.

And who reads The Sun? If you have ever read the political coverage in this paper you will know that its readers are not those who know or generally care what is going on. Tiny articles, the main points underlined, sensationalist headlines, all overshadowed by the allure of Page 3. And this is the major source of information for the great heartland of British voters.

It is similar in the US. The coastal university cities vote resolutely against Bush. Anywhere with a significant intellectual presence votes Democrat. Most people who know a reasonable amount about politics or issues don’t vote Republican unless they have money invested in the great Bush conglomerate. It’s the great mass who votes for him. These are the people who read their equivalent of The Sun, who want to be entertained, who want to be represented by someone like them. Not someone who speaks in sentences that they can’t understand.

Bush is like them. I don’t know who he really is but the genius of his image is that he’s the good ol’ boy that everyone can relate to. Yes, Bush seems to make a fool of himself. If you look closely, you can see that he spends a lot of effort drawing attention to his foolish acts.

When Bush addressed this year’s graduating class at Yale University, the part of his speech that was reported everywhere was the message about being able to become President with a C average. At the National Press Club dinner, the Bush team hired a lookalike comedian to stand next to the President and make fun of his most famous mistakes. Bush even mispronounced ‘nuclear proliferation’ as his script said. I laughed. Why shouldn’t I? I was being entertained by the world’s highest paid actor and comedian. Look at it on Youtube.

George Bush is not going to be deterred from his process of gathering the most votes possible by people thinking that he is stupid. There is too much wealth and power riding on his act. The fact that people around the world laugh at him is not something that bothers him. He is far too clever to be influenced by people who can have no effect on his ambitions. He could certainly act in a way that would show his real intelligence. But then he would lose his appeal to middle America. He would be just another politician using fancy words to confuse them. He would no longer be one of them.

In 1988 Dustin Hoffman, one of the great actors of the time, appeared in the film Rain Man as an autistic man. His Academy Award-winning performance was many people’s first exposure to autism. Believing that George W Bush is stupid is similar to believing that Dustin Hoffman is autistic because you have seen Rain Man. It is like punching that soap actor who beat his wife on TV last night. It is like thinking that Princess Diana was a saint. It is like believing that Iraq has Weapons of Mass Destruction. It is common sense.

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Posted December 2, 2013
  Posted by in Uncategorized

The concept of common sense has a long history. In a criticism of democracy, Plato used the idea of doxa (a root word of orthodoxy, a partial synonym of common sense) to indicate the common beliefs of the populace. Athenian democracy was based on the common sense belief of one man one vote, so long as that man was male, owned property and satisfied a number of other criteria. I shall return to democracy later.

In late Roman times common sense became a synonym for truth with the expression of vox populi, vox Dei ascribing a sort of infallibility to the voice of the masses. This equivalence of mass wisdom with the dictates of omniscience reached its popular apogee with Tom Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense. This used biblical references to convince Americans of what they already believed, hence conflating vox populi with vox Dei to provide the foundation of what has led to current dictionary definitions of common sense.

Religion is an example of a regional form of common sense. There is a commonality of belief, lent standardisation by the presence of a text or oral tradition. For people in one place, common sense is praying to God or you will go to Hell, for others it involves performing the rituals of one’s totem to ensure favourable conditions in the future. For others, common sense is buying Rolex, Dior and Armani to give the right impression to the world. Ask them why they’re doing it: it’s common sense.

An Oxford Dictionary definition of common sense, ‘Good practical sense in everyday affairs’ is a shifting concept that relies for its definition on the indefinable word of judgement, ‘good’. Going further into the Oxford definitions, we find the qualifier ‘general sagacity’. The use of the term ‘general’, indicates that this means ‘commonly accepted’. Webster says ‘beliefs and propositions that – in their opinion – most people would consider prudent and of sound judgment, without reliance on esoteric study or research, but based upon what they see as knowledge held by people “in common”’.

Dictionary definitions are by necessity superficial, an invitation to an etymological and epistemological investigation rather than an end point. Einstein is alleged to have said “common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” This is a decent approximation to a definition from developmental psychology of socialisation. How we are socialised determines what we see as sense. The common sense of hard work leading to greater reward is different from the common sense of doing obeisance to a God leading to greater reward. The changing nature of common sense through the ages is not merely a function of changing technology – it is evidence that common sense is not wisdom.

I prefer my own definition: common sense is the inability to link more than two concepts. Linking two concepts has its place. This device does not work. These two sections have come apart. If I rejoin them, this device may work. But similarly: You have a cold. You went out on a windy day yesterday. The wind gave you a cold. This is a problem. When it comes to anything more complex than a simple 1 + 1, common sense does not work. Avoiding, as Webster points out, anything involving research or specialist knowledge, common sense is the absence of wisdom. It is where such expressions as “too clever by half” and the mystifying “no better than she should be” originate; the source of the tall poppy syndrome – the distrust of anything that is not common sense.

Common sense has a comprehensive history of blocking advances in knowledge. The magnificence of the renaissance lay in its transcendence of common sense. Religious orthodoxy lost its grip on the legal prevention of wisdom. People were comparatively free to wonder whether the earth went around the sun or how blood moved around the body. The foundations were laid for people to think in the abstract – could rotation be described in mathematical symbols, could disease be caused by things that were too small to be seen, could heavier-than-air things fly if you made the air move differently? – without being burned for the general edification of the commonsense public.

We can see common sense expressed in the tabloid – and often in the broadsheet – press. It is common sense to say that we should lock criminals up and throw away the key. It is common sense to want taxes to be lowered. The two are mutually exclusive concepts in practice but people do not want to know this. The Archbishop of Canterbury made a supremely reasoned speech about the nature of global conflict including, among many explorations, wondering what could be gained if there were a forum for governments to speak with leaders of so-called terrorist groups. Journalists picked up on this point as one of the few that could be understood by the common citizen and reported it under headlines like ‘Archbishop says we should bow to terrorists’. Editorials in the Daily Mail and The Sun said that The Archbishop was not using common sense. They were right.

This leads us back to democracy, the concept of rule by the common people. Clearly, this is unwieldy and we tend to use representative democracy. The process of convincing enough people to vote for a candidate belongs in the realms of psychology. If people behaved in a manner dictated by common sense, we would not need the discipline of psychology. People act in interestingly predictable ways depending on concepts that are far removed from common sense. Eating at MacDonalds, buying Windows, wearing Dolce e Gabbana – none of these make objective sense. However, they are perfectly commonsense because advertising aims perfectly as an appeal to common sense, no matter how much we like to protest that advertising does not work on us.

One’s choice of candidate in an election is the result of advertising. It is tempting to say that one makes one’s choice based on the policies of that candidate. While it may be true that one’s perceptions of those policies contribute to one’s choice, it is not possible for any one person to understand fully the economic principles, the technological advances, the research projects that need funding, the legislative process, the issues of hospital management, and all of the other areas that contribute to these policies. This includes the candidates themselves. No matter how intelligent Barack Obama might be, he must rely on the judgments of specialists to formulate what he says he stands for.

But those policies are not necessarily what he stands for. The aim in a democracy is to gather votes. Obama said what he said in order to solicit the number of votes required to win office. If something that he truly believed had to be done would not be consistent with common sense, he would not be able to say it. His speeches did appeal to common sense – sweeping rhetoric, grand promises, occasional bits of gossip about the Republicans.

In any case, the policies did not matter. I spoke to a lot of people in the US about the election and it was the personal qualities of the candidates that were mentioned. Sarah Palin was taken seriously, a little incredulously by some, but they referred to her loyalty, her appeal to the common people, her family values, rather than any policies. She was not a drag on the Republican vote. In fact, the eventual showing in the election was a significantly higher percentage of votes to the republicans than had been indicated in polls prior to Palin’s nomination as Vice-Presidential candidate. Why? Common sense.

Obama did not need policies. Nor did George W. Bush. It is received wisdom, common sense, to say that Bush is stupid. This seems very unlikely if one digs a little deeper than the common sense ‘he looks stupid + he says stupid things = he is stupid’ approach. He managed to be the figurehead in two winning elections. In the first, he had to use questionable practices to get the required percentage, but the fact is that he won the presidency against Al Gore, a man considered by all to be more intelligent than Bush. In the second election, he easily defeated John Kerry, again a candidate who gave the appearance of being much cleverer.

This gave Bush eight years in power. During this time, members of his family and alliances developed a network of profitable business deals and establishments over the globe. The legislation for this was passed under Bush’s administration. The Iraq war resulted in fortunes being made as contracts for security and reconstruction were awarded to Bush allies. I am not saying that the war was initiated for this reason; simply that it resulted in great profits for a select group of people. Now Bush is free from the onus of reelection, he can pardon people who it is in his interest to pardon and appear reasonably intelligent without it harming his chances of getting votes. I don’t know if you have been paying attention but his recent statements on the bailout of the US motor industry have revealed a profound understanding of complex economic principles, coupled of course with the need to protect the personal fortunes of some of his family’s inner circle.

All of the evidence of Bush financial dealings is in the public domain. However, people don’t care. It does not fit into the realms of common sense. What people want to know is that he is a man of the people. People want to be represented in government by someone with their interests, not necessarily the people who are intellectually equipped to lead. People in the huge central portions of the US have again voted republican but McCain did not have the popular, good ol’ boy appeal of Bush.

John F Kennedy famously made a massive error of judgement during the Cuban missile crisis. He said, “We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors…. We’re not going to have any search for scapegoats … the final responsibilities of any failure are mine, and mine alone.” His popularity increased immensely. Social psychologists explained this with the startling finding that people actually trust politicians who make mistakes and admit it more than those who appear perfect. Bush appeared anything but perfect. He connected well with the majority of US citizens. People voted for him despite the objective knowledge that his policies were not the best for them.

This is a manipulation of common sense by intellect. Psychologists did a wonderful job of advising Bush on how to retain popularity and stay in a position to get unpopular legislation passed. He put on an act for eight years. Not believing that someone could do that is to misunderstand what a candidate does in order to achieve election. Obama’s public face is not his real one. To think so would be common sense. It is no coincidence that as broadcast media have taken over the machinery of electioneering, actors have become more prominent in politics. Ronald Reagan. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The reward for being a politician is potentially much higher than that of being an actor. Why wouldn’t a political party employ specialists to find out what most appeals to common sense, then present that to the voters? Thinking that this does not happen is akin to believing Dustin Hoffman to be autistic after a viewing of Rain Man. What you see is not what you get. There is too much at stake.

Common sense is a powerful tool and the temptation to conform to common sense is strong. I see it as more of a barrier than a useful manifestation of humanity. Common sense provides a reasonable guide to how to fit in, how to have comfortable, ultimately meaningless conversations with unchallenging people. If you want that, it is there as a blueprint for social survival. It remains as a barrier to thought that really means something, to communication that might result in an advance in understanding.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of common sense is the depressingly common utterance, “That’s the problem with common sense. It’s not common.” This is generally followed by a knowing chortle and a pause to invite assorted nods and monosyllabic expressions of support. That, to me, is common sense – the inability or unwillingness to engage intellectually with a concept: to fall back on an unthreatening, commonly accepted truism that has no logical or reasonable basis.

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Posted December 2, 2013
  Posted by in Uncategorized

I read it the other day in an interview with a liberal agnostic: “It’s presumptuous to be an atheist”. This is probably the most presumptuous thing that I have ever read. What else can you call it when someone tells a group of people what they should believe? It is equally presumptuous for an adherent of a religion to thunder about the truth of God, or the wisdom of Allah, or the infallibility of Jahweh, or the omnipresence of the Rainbow Serpent.

At some point in every belief system based on religion comes the point at which we stop trying to find out more because it is the will or the doing or the ineffable nature of a supernatural being. This is superstition. That is not a value judgement; it is simply the definition of superstition.

Atheism is a belief system. It is the only belief system that is compatible with science. With an atheist viewpoint, one can continue to investigate the intricacies behind any phenomenon without reaching the block of a god whose works passeth all understanding. Nor does one encounter that comforting bottom line of the agnostic, “Of course, there could be a god doing all this,” followed by a self-conscious chortle.

Agnosticism is the ultimate in political correctness. It is having all of the bases covered. “I’m an agnostic – the personification of tolerance.” It is the belief equivalent of a knowing smirk. It is the excuse for lacking conviction. It is the ability to retract any statement to which anyone takes exception by shrugging and saying, “Well, I don’t know if I really believe that,” then being friends with everyone again.

Agnosticism can underlie a perfectly reasonable set of beliefs. The ability to recognise the limits of one’s ability to know may be useful. If an agnostic postulates a supernatural presence based on evidence and intellectual process, it may be reasonable. However, the default acceptance of a deity created in the millennia-old crucible of power struggles for the tribal minds of those who must be controlled for political ends is intellectually indefensible. A true thinker is not an agnostic who accepts the possibility of the Christian God because that is in the essence of the society in which she was raised.

Similarly, it is unreasonable to have a belief in a deity because someone else believes in that deity. Richard Dawkins converts few people to atheism with his hostility toward theists. However, his points are based on evidence and an argument that can be explained and followed. When one asks believers in a god what are the foundations of their beliefs, the outcome is that it depends on faith. There the argument is expected to rest. The protagonists should now shake hands and heads with a due appreciation of the transcendent nature of higher things.

But faith is the antithesis of reason. The existence of a god lies in faith. In the absence of evidence, faith contradicts the logical process. Just as I reject an illogical argument, a premise based on no evidence, or any subjective assertion with no support, I must reject faith as a basis for a belief. This is why I must reject agnosticism for an agnostic viewpoint admits of a precept resting entirely on faith.

It is not presumptuous to be an atheist. It is the only reasonable world view of a person who is prepared to assert the value of reason.

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Posted December 2, 2013
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“You’d be a great Dad.” People say it to scare me or bully me or stop one of my rants.

“You’d be a great Dad. You’re such a good teacher. Kids love you.” No they don’t. Teenagers tolerate me. They like to argue with me. I teach Biology and Psychology, what you are and why you want to kill/snog your parents. Why you’re fat and why that makes you feel bad. Why wouldn’t they like that?

But kids mean babies. Those squalling, shitting, utterly selfish objects with signs of life but none of the advantages. It’s years before you can brainwash them enough to come up with a reasoned critique of the Oedipus Complex or use selfish gene theory to explain why they’re so genetically similar to bananas. By that time, they’re coming home and saying things like, “Sorry about the car,” or “Hey Dad, guess who’s pregnant?” If I got an ASBO, I’d just laugh it off, push dead rats through some letterboxes and move to Leeds amongst other people like me. If my child gets an ASBO, I’ll have to do something about it.

ASBO prevention is expensive. At least one parent at home during the critical period so they form secure attachments. House with the right postcode so OfSTED doesn’t confirm your bad parenting with a Special Measures tag. £8000 a term because you still can’t believe that a place with the word ‘comprehensive’ in the title can churn out anything but fodder for the courts and hospitals, which my taxes pay for. You can’t win with kids. If they succeed, they’re a success. If they don’t, I’m a failure.

Something happens to women at different stages of a relationship. Whenever it has looked like getting serious, I have always had that earnest, eye-contact moment where I tell them how important they are to me but how having children would be a violation of my personal principles.

“Yes,” they say, invariably. “It’s you who’s important to me. Not some kid who doesn’t even exist.” After a few years, their hormones forget their old loyalties and band together in support of their selfish genes.

“You know how we agreed that I would get a vasectomy? I’ve made an appointment for next… What’s the matter?” After the tears, tantrums and emotional blancemange, I make a phone call to cancel the snip. The baby is ahead on away goals and he’s not even a twinkle.

My wife was fifteen years younger than me when we got together. She gave me the respect due my advanced age and wisdom. “Of course I understand. If you haven’t had children for this long, there’s nothing I can do to change your mind. I’ll just have to accept it.”

Obviously, that was when neither of us thought we would last for more than a month. Eight years later, we looked at each other. We had moved countries, lived together for years and had conjured compatibility from somewhere. “Er, yes,” I said. “I suppose it would be reasonable to think of getting married.” She launched herself at me with a gratifying display of goal-orientation and we were married within a few months.

A barely decent interval later, she was in tears.

“What’s the matter?” I said with generic male insensitivity.

“You don’t want children.”

The first shot had been fired.

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Posted December 2, 2013
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From the moment we alighted on the platform at Guangzhou and a young woman grabbed Stephanie’s breast and hissed, “Change money!” we could see that we would be faced with some unanticipated cultural differences. Some of the most drastic were related to opposite ends of the digestive system: food and toilets.

My first experience of a Chinese public toilet was in Guangzhou. The residue from a diet of snakes, frogs and crazy spicy jellyfish had started to work its way through my intestines. It was a tiled hall with the usual squat toilets. However, the wall around each slot in the ground was only knee-high. I presumed that the Chinese sense of privacy would protect my frail western dignity. This was a foolish assumption because the Chinese had no compunction at all about watching how a round-eye would conduct himself in this universal human rite, especially, I found, when the crucial wiping ritual began,

However, that was in the future. I lowered my jeans and unfamiliarly colourful (to local observers) underthings and squatted. As I did so, I noticed that the products of one’s efforts passed along an open channel until they joined the communal flow in a wide sewer passing next to my cubicle. I was privileged to observe the fruits of everyone’s labours bobbing by as I strained to add to the produce of the good people of Guangdong Province.

But where were the solids? As I looked, the yellow-brown flow seemed free from the sorts of lumps I would have expected. I remembered vaguely hearing that during a drought, official instructions were relayed to the populace asking them to eat less in order to shit less and hence use less water to flush away the evidence. However, although this was the dry season, this establishment had a continuous and copious flow of water conducting the faecal exodus to browner pastures. The markets were clearly overflowing with produce and the patrons of sidewalk restaurants had not been notable for their restraint.

Meanwhile, my self-satisfied western middle-class turds surged along the channel in their stately way, unaccustomed to such public acclaim. The occupants of the cubicles downstream allowed themselves exclamations of “Wah!” and “Oh!” in recognition of my achievements. Why, I wondered again, was the incidence of solids so low? I was later to achieve conformity in the liquidity of my actions.

When Stephanie joined me outside the Museum of Modern Motions, she reported that the exposure of her white bum had been greeted by open laughter. Fortified by our foray into the sharing nature of our new culture, we set off in search of tickets for the ferry up the Pearl River.

The ferry turned out to be a rather comfortable way of getting about. One’s ticket entitled one to occupancy of a rectangular wooden tray, an open square in the wall of the boat through which one could look out onto the river, and about 60cm of vertical space. Visually, it brought to mind images of the slave trade but conditions were excellent for the couple of days it took for the trip. Food was brought around by agents of free enterprise who would board the boat at rough piers and leave a little further downstream after they had managed to get their produce into the hands and mouths of the passengers. It was tasty, filling and sent one rapidly to the ship’s facilities.

Unlike the Guangzhou publics, these were housed in a small wooden room at the back of the ferry. Their whereabouts was advertised by the presence of an odour and their proximity indicated by its potency. One’s offerings slipped down a pipe through which the curious could observe the passing of the river water not far below. This went some way to explaining the lack of people swimming, although the amount of people fishing should perhaps have guided my choice of menu items on subsequent days.

Apart from infrequent journeys to the back of the boat, this was an ideal way to travel. Boats chugged past with interesting cargoes, water buffaloes worked slowly in the fields on the river banks, and basic agricultural vehicles carried people and goods parallel to us. The thick air pollution scattered the sunlight into a gorgeous sunset and darkness descended on the boat.

In the morning we came to a halt for which everyone except us was prepared. Apparently the dry season meant that the river was no longer navigable but a bus was available to take us the rest of the way to Guilin. The bus was a far less spacious and romantic form of transport, but it meant stopping for what we had formerly accomplished on board.

On our first stop, we hunted for a toilet. The familiar smell made itself evident so we headed for a small building, only to discover that it was a soup restaurant. This confusion occurred several times in southern China and we never really learned to distinguish the two by smell. This didn’t stop the soup tasting all right, but it did make life a bit of a lottery.

We eventually discovered the toilets, which were two wooden enclosures in the middle of the field in which the bus had parked. I entered the men’s facility and found that it was a trench with a plank balanced lengthwise along it. I took up a position in the centre of the plank and commenced action. Soon, there was a man each side of me smiling in a friendly and curious manner and causing the plank to move in a disconcerting manner. I finished the business at hand with a wiping procedure that caused my plankmates to make some unexpected adjustments to their balance. Then I stood up to find my progress blocked in both directions. Not wishing to inconvenience anyone, I bounded forward from the plank onto the solid ground a few centimetres ahead. I realised as my feet left the plank that the elasticity of the wood would be exercised by my actions. Determinedly, I headed purposefully out of the enclosure, leaving behind the aggrieved sounds of men having to manage their ablutions on a vibrating bit of lumber.

Menawhile, Stephanie had found that the sight of her bum had again occasioned merriment among the female occupants of the lavatory. On the bus, we were aware of pointing and giggling while one elderly man clutched his occasionally squawking chicken by the legs and glared at me until the next stop.

Apart from anything else, Guilin was a food paradise. You chose your roadside restaurant on the basis of whether you liked the look of the livestock outside. Then you chose the animal that you wanted and waited until it was brought to your table. Proprieters would playfully put snakes down my shirt in an unsuccessful attempt to get me to pay to eat them. Bamboo rats would put their necks against the bars of their cages to be scratched. Fish would flop out of their plastic bowls and splat impatiently against the concrete floor until they were put back in. Freshness was not an issue.

It was at Guilin that I first noticed a certain liquid character developing in my bowel movements. Studiously ignoring this, I bought exciting bamboo-wrapped packages from people on the street, unwrapped them and ate them. Things were usually delicious, whatever they were.

We congratulated ourselves on the cheapness of our train tickets to Wuhan. They were for hard seat class and the trip was 17 hours, but as long as we had seats, we knew we would be all right. We got to the station early and sat down on our packs. The waiting room filled up. I wondered why we were not permitted to go onto the platform. There was still an hour until the train was to arrive and already the waiting room was a crushed mass of people. Time passed slowly and more people squashed into the mass. People were beginning to press towards the gate onto the platform. We stretched and prepared ourselves. It would be good to get onto the train so we could sit down and relax.

The gates opened without warning and the crowd surged out. People were sprinting as hard as they could onto the platform. We reached the gate and saw streams of people running into a tunnel. We followed at a more sedate pace, wondering why they were so desperate to get to the train. We emerged from the tunnel at the tail of the crowd and watched people pack themselves through the carriage doors. People were shoving and fighting to get onto the train. Apparently, it had come from Kunming in the south-west and was already full by the time it reached Guilin. Now it was clear why people had been hurrying.

Eventually we forced our way onto the train. Not only were there no seats, but we were unable to find any standing room. Finally realising why the ticket clerks had not at first believed us when we had said that we wanted hard seat tickets, we shoved our way through the mass using our packs as soft battering rams, wondering if we would find a few square centimetres to stand in. Seventeen hours stretched infinitely ahead.

Unbelievably, we found an empty space. It was right outside the train toilet. We interpreted this as a good omen, owing to the increasingly precarious nature of our digestive systems. A man at the end of the carriage had managed to find a position on a small sink. He squatted impassively on the edge of this sink and did not move for several hours. Why would he go there when there was this nice area in front of the toilet? It might smell a bit, but surely it was better than crouching on a sink.

It wasn’t too long before we found out why this space had been left empty by the experienced train travellers. On a train this full, there was a constant stream of clients for the small toilet. Either the plumbing was inadequate or people’s aim was bad, but the cubicle began to fill with fluid. My one visit to the facility showed that the plumbing consisted of a pipe which allowed anything dropped in it to fall onto the track, so I eliminated the bad plumbing hypothesis. However, the train swung wildly from side to side when moving at speed so this may have accounted for the fluid build-up. There was a metal lip about ten centimetres high which acted as a door sill. This kept the fluid inside and made us determined not to use this toilet. However, as the ordure level rose, the occasional splash allowed liquid to escape and send out exploring fingers towards our packs. I caught the eye of the sink man. He shrugged. Clearly, we would know next time.

The splashes became more frequent and we were wondering whether to brave the crush of the carriages to look for another space. We knew that the only areas available would be outside toilets just like this one. We were by now standing with our packs balanced on our shoulders and hoping that the waste level would not reach above our thick boot soles.

A man with a uniform and peaked cap appeared and barked at us. We had no idea what he was saying but we could see that he was asking us to follow him. We knew this would be difficult and we had no idea what trouble we might be in but we went with him. The population density was such that we had to lift our 25kg packs over our heads and carry them at arms’ length over the curious crush.

After traversing several carriages and several hundred people, we felt hands taking our packs. We didn’t know where they were being taken but there was nothing we could do about it. We kept moving forwards in the general direction of our packs until we reached a part of the carriage where there were two empty seats. Several people stood around smiling and waving us towards the seats. They were a vision of paradise. Unbelievingly, we sat down and were enveloped by a large number of curious people who turned out to be from Hainan Island. News of two foreigners about to be covered with human waste had apparently reached this part of the train and they had decided to rescue us. This was the first of many incidences of amazing generosity we met in China.

One man in our group of saviours spoke English. He was learning it at university and wished to take every possible opportunity to practice. This was just a few months before the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and people were willing to discuss politics freely. Sadly, my knowledge of Chinese politics did not extend beyond the Long March and I had no idea what the effects of the Cultural Revolution had been. I was soon enlightened. Our English speaker related a series of tales of humiliations, economic disasters and forced relocations. Still, as we passed close to Mao Tse-Tung’s birthplace, nobody was prepared to say anything stronger than to suggest that he may have misguided at this time. People were hopeful about their prospects as the political climate appeared to be moving towards greater liberalisation.

We had Christmas cards in our packs so we extricated these and wrote cards for as many people as we could on the train, then had to explain the changing significance of the Christmas festival. Towards dawn, I fell asleep on the long-suffering man beside me. When I awoke hours later, I realised that he had not moved at all although he must have been desperately uncomfortable. Furthermore, I had left him with a pool of dribble on his jacket. Still, I suppose that compared to the Cultural Revolution, the discomfort I had imposed was short-lived.

Wuhan was not at its best in mid-winter. Snow and ice covered the streets. The ground was cold and hard and nothing was growing in this season, in contrast with the wealth of food available in the south. We had not seen any domestic animals from the train for hours before we arrived in Wuhan so we were wondering whether there was any meat available.

We were debating this when we heard a loud sound like dozens of cats meowing. We looked around and a man rode past on a bicycle piled high with tiny cages. Each cage held a complaining cat. Clearly, these were not pets. We had seen people cleaning the occasional dog carcass by the river in Guilin, but here dog and cat meat was a staple food.

Wuhan was a fascinating conglomeration of three cities at once separated and linked by branches of the Yangtse River. Toilets were interesting and varied and all shared a sub-zero chill which made using public facilities an experience to avoid. We saw no other westerners and from the reaction of the people, they hadn’t seen too many either. Everywhere we went, crowds gathered to watch us. Our necessary visit to the biggest coat market in the world was accompanied by several dozen curious onlookers.

We were nearing the end of our stay there and needed to have a good meal before embarking on a 24-hour train trip to Xian. This time we had hard-sleep berths which meant that we actually had a sleeping place booked. However, we would need to have some food inside us before the trip.

The restaurants near the railway station did not look promising. One of them had tablecloths and clean floors so we went in. I peered through a curtain at the back of the restaurant to see what there was to eat. Hanging from hooks was a row of dog carcasses. I was sure we had eaten dog several times before so I didn’t bother Stephanie with my discovery and we sat down to a meal of rice and heavily salted dog.

Wuhan had been the opposite of rock bottom for my intestines. It was a bustling trade centre full of interesting characters and sights, which I could only enjoy if I knew there was a toilet nearby to accept my liquid offerings. I knew there was a toilet at the railway station so I was feeling relatively secure.

We stood outside, taking advantage of the last few minutes of daylight. Yet another crowd gathered to watch us. Stephanie began to blow her nose. More people gathered. Why was this strange foreign woman putting her snot into a piece of cloth? A group of men on the outskirts of the crowd began to giggle and spit. Tired of having had every move observed for the past fortnight, Stephanie snapped.

“All right everyone. Gather round. Watch this.”

The crowd moved in closer and more people arrived. One of the giggling men splashed a big gob onto the asphalt.

“You.” Stephanie pointed at him. “You need this more than anyone. Watch what to do.”

She unfolded a miraculously clean handkerchief.

“Look at this. You hold it in your right hand…” The gathering nodded expectantly. “…place it against your nose, and…” She demonstrated what to do.

“Here it is…” She displayed the results to the audience. “…and now you fold the hanky and put it away. No gooey messes on the ground.” She finished with a flourish. “Thank you very much.”

The crowd stayed exactly where it was, an impenetrable ocean of expressionless faces. “Let’s go in.”

We walked into the huge station. The pressure was building in my lower intestine but I didn’t want to face the toilet yet. Experience had yet to tell me that the cleaners tended to work early in the day and things went downhill from there. We found a space in a cavernous waiting room and settled down in the human sea to read about Xian.

I was studying a map of where the hotels were when the book was gently lifted out of my hands. A group of people began studying the map. Other people were curious so the guidebook moved to them for their perusal. It took a full twenty minutes for my Lonely Planet to complete a circuit of the waiting room before it was put carefully back in my hand and I got on with looking for accommodation.

Eventually it was time. I was having an anal crisis. I felt like a tyre inflated far beyond the recommended pressure and disaster was looming. I stood up and made my bent-over, stiff-legged way down the stairs towards the inviting characters that meant ‘mens’ toilet’, the first Chinese I had learned to read. I joined the straggle of men trying to reach our evil-smelling goal.

In that peculiar way that human psychology works, now that relief was in sight, the crisis became worse. I could feel enormous pressure inside and my internal gurgling sounds were now loud enough for my neighbours in the surging queue to turn alarmed gazes on me. The effort to keep the liquid torrent inside was too great to bear; the temptation to just relax and damn the consequences was dangerously tempting.

I ratcheted up the resistance another couple of notches and held my breath. Was it going to hold? A few seconds of quivering effort and the crisis was past. I was sweating and weak but my trousers were unsullied. I was close to the entrance now. It was completely dark in there. The men coming out held their arms out in front of them like horror-film zombies, and they blinked comically when they emerged into the light. I failed to notice that they all had wet feet.

The smell intensified until it was difficult not to retch. I could not afford to start vomiting as this would have directed energy away from the need to concentrate all efforts on keeping that vital sphincter shut. I was through the doorway now. I couldn’t see a thing in front of me. The men around me began a low grumbling.

The floor began to slope downwards. I was swept around a corner by the human current. It was now dark all around. I had no idea where any cubicles or drains or holes in the ground might be. I became aware of the liquid washing around my boots. Obviously, nobody else had any idea where the usual ablution plumbing was either.

I knew I had to go through with it. The pressure seemed to have receded from crisis point but who knew how far I was from the next panic? I moved further towards where I supposed was the place where I might reasonably empty my bowels. The depth increased. I felt cold liquid splash over the top of my boot onto my leg. Soft, solid things bumped against me. My sphincter tightened up to withstand industrial levels of pressure.

My resolve deserted me. My overriding drive was to get out of there immediately. I turned and splashed in the dark through a crowd of protesting men. Swimming against the tide, I reached the first corner. I could see light ahead. Hope surged in my breast. I struggled slowly but determinedly towards the faint glow and emerged into the waiting room – a delightful sight.

For the entire 24-hour trip to Xian, I felt no desire at all to visit a toilet.

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