Some more thoughts on how we come to know ourselves

I’ve been thinking recently about consciousness, about how we come to be aware of ourselves and of the world. In a passage which I think can also be taken as a broader metaphor for how we develop our perceptions of reality, Karl Marx somewhere describes the workings of the economic system (capitalism) in the following terms: the enormous machine is housed inside a building which we can never enter. We can only look through a number of tiny windows – inevitably, only one at a time – to surmise how the whole apparatus might work.

(He might go on to say that we can also study what the machine produces, which is to say immense wealth on the one hand and immeasurable misery on the other. He might say that, but unfortunately I can’t track down the quote.)

The following, from the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, describes the view from the inside:

“At the very beginning, the infant is in a state of ‘primary unintegration’: unconnected feeling states and without even a rudimentary ego.”

In one of his most famous quotes, Winnicott also says that “there is no such thing as a baby” – there is only a collection of needs that must be met by the baby’s environment, which in the very early stages is its mother. It’s mainly through the relationship with her that the infant develops a sense of itself as a unified being.

In both cases, the first from outside and the second from within, we can’t perceive a unity. In developing our self-consciousness we rely on others’ reflections of ourselves to develop our sense of who we are. We learn about ourselves by looking at others, particularly when they’re looking at us. Where we feel a muddle of physical and mental sensations, they perceive a unity. For Lacan, the mirror stage is when (starting around twelve months) we start to recognise externally-generated images of ourselves. Some people get stuck in this phase, never surpassing their obsession with their own reflections.

It’s a staggering experience to witness the first flickerings of the awakening of consciousness. In the beginning our brand-new daughter was just a jumble of nerve endings united by a vague sense of need. Then she learned that she has a voice, two organs that let in light, a mouth and the opposite of a mouth. She still has little use for her hands; her favourite part of herself are her breasts, which she has no way of knowing aren’t part of ‘her’ body. She’s very much in the phase of not knowing she exists and (although her eyes are not yet able to focus) she looks to us for clues about what she is. We will tell her what and who she is, and she will tell us what and who we are.

In fits and starts I’ve been reading the novel ‘How to be both’ by Ali Smith, which describes the flowering of adult consciousness in a teenager in the midst of the brutalising world of social media. Our daughter is (hopefully) tens of thousands of days away from (whatever survives of) that, although our initial plan of keeping all connected devices out of her sight proved to be absurdly unrealistic. (I’ve tried to explore these issues here). The fact that nowadays so much of our notion of who we are and what we are worth is mediated by these black mirrors means that we obsessively try to control what we share of ourselves and what is shared of us in order to create a self-portrait we can live with, or at least one that doesn’t trouble or shame us too much.

It’s interesting, therefore, to consider what perceptions visitors to this website (the overwhelming majority of whom haven’t met me in person) receive of me as an individual, and how my perceptions of their (your) perceptions affect my perception of myself. (I’ve tried to articulate the relationship between self-consciousness and social-media-as-spectacle here.) It’s startling to realise that tens of thousands of people are simultaneously reading your thoughts. Most will just be fleeting visits but it’s gratifying to read the extremely thoughtful and often bewilderingly generous comments of those who say they’ll be back – after all, every creative act is an attempt to create unity in the form of the community of those who experience it. As for the experience of having an article go viral the week before my first child arrives, it’s thanks to my daughter that my head is still attached to my shoulders. Anything that can happen online is inevitably of secondary importance when compared to the birth of a new human being.

We also learn who we are through the mass media, which teach us morality tales about who we should and shouldn’t be and how we should and shouldn’t behave. A lot of those offered up for public approval and/or opprobrium are paranoid and/or sadistic caricatures, grotesquely insecure narcissists who seem to have got stuck in the mirror stage and who depend on media exposure to feed their bloated but poorly-nurtured and hence ultimately insatiable egos. I hope that what I write here isn’t perceived (that you don’t perceive it) as a manifestation of any burgeoning megalomania on my part, but rather as an honest (albeit from now on more occasional) attempt to usefully explore aspects of our shared reality and, in doing so, create a community of those who share those perceptions. As for any impulses I might harbour towards world domination, I confidently expect to take first prize in the World Nappy-Changing Championships to be held later this year. I just hope that I won’t fall asleep on the podium.

Why I write (but won’t be doing so much of it in the near future)

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“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall” – Cyril Connolly

One of the main things you’ll find on this site is a collection of pieces inspired by visits to Mexican cities and places I visited during our year in Mexico. They consist mostly of observations and reflections which I hadn’t seen written down elsewhere, and which I therefore take to have something original about them. Some of them I’m very pleased with, others are a bit silly, and most have very little to do with the city in question. I hope they will not be taken as failed pieces of travel journalism, as that wasn’t my intention in writing them.

I’ve always found the thought of writing somewhat daunting, because I used to have difficulty rationalising my reasons for doing it. For most of my life presenting what I write to others has seemed like the height of arrogance and presumption. Now I understand that all writers to some extent fear that they will come across as callow, naive, incoherent, pompous, ignorant, friendless or depressed etc etc etc. Many write against all that. Inevitably it’s partly a question of getting better, at working hard at producing things that are more enjoyable and/or insightful than I did before. Although there may be people out there who would prefer me to shut up, the voice in my own head telling me not to write is louder. Nevertheless I find it pleasurable to write as I do, and doing so helps me and maybe others make sense of life and the world.

I started my first blog when I was in China, and within the smallish world of foreign bloggers in and on China it was gratifyingly successful. I used to enjoy getting comments and starting debates. Over time, as is the pattern with blogs, my interest dwindled. In the meantime I have tried sending things for publication but I’ve come to understand that my style is too particular, personal, and digressive, often based on guesswork, sometimes deliberately obtuse. I had the vague idea of turning the Mexican pieces them into a book, but then got carried away with a novel which I didn’t finish. Which is not to say it won’t come back. I don’t really know the first thing about novel-writing but I do know that the second thing is that it’s messy and it takes a long time.

One insight into writing that’s always stayed with me is Raymond Carver’s remark that he became a short story writer because he had young kids so couldn’t focus enough to write novels. Although when I first came across that I’d never even thought about being a parent, we now, twenty five or so years later, have an actual pram in the hall. Maybe what I’m trying to do here is get myself into a position where I can write short stories. ‘They’ do say you should write about what you know. A friend recently sent me a Bukowski poem that makes much the same point*. Some writers write down everything all the time, and that’s the raw material for their work. I noticed in Guanajuato that that’s what Thomas Pynchon seems to do. In my case I believe that becoming a parent will teach me to write less but better**.

Personal experiences are extremely easy to write about. Writing something like this was an exercise in memory. Hence the difficulty of writing a novel. The fact that I had a topic and a vague plot made it feel a bit like trying to climb a mountain starting from the peak when the mountain didn’t even exist yet. I learnt that instead you have to build the mountain yourself and then climb up it, paying particular attention to minute crevices and potential pitfalls. I don’t think I’m good at that. I tend to miss nuances and subtleties. At the same time, writing can help me improve. It also makes me a better reader. I like what Geoff Dyer said about photography, that it teaches you to pay attention when you’re not taking pictures. Right now, at this time in my life, I need to start paying better attention to details. I also need to get better at inventing and telling stories. Writing is a way of learning to write, and also about learning to live. (I apologise if that previous sentence reminded anyone of Alan de bloody Botton.)

I know I have some bad habits, some tricks I overemploy, like sarcastic asides and wacky digressions. I’m come to accept that they are part of my ‘voice’. (Martin Amis argued that voice and style are the same thing. Don’t bother reading ‘Yellow Dog’.) The nicest thing anyone ever said about my writing is that I have a ‘fascinating voice’. The most demoralising was in a writing class at university, when the tutor called a short story of mine ‘sub-Douglas Adams’. I know that these tropes, quirks and divagations can be irritating and off-putting. Like in John Lanchester’s description of a young but ill-fated superstar footballer in ‘Capital’, people quickly learn your tricks and anticipate them. They lose their effect. I need to work hard on developing a wider range of voices. Extremely skillful writers like Thomas Pynchon have a huge array of styles at their disposal***. Apparently in person Pynchon is a brilliant verbal mimic. That’s another skill I need to develop if I’m going to be the kind of parent I want to be.

One means of becoming a more attentive writer and human being is to immerse myself in poetry, which is language at its most alert and charged. I find poetry to be a constant struggle, but one with immense and intense rewards of concentrated wisdom, not always at a level that can be articulated even in conscious thought. The poems that I’ve read and studied have definitely made me a better writer, even if I still don’t really know how to go about writing one myself. The novelist José Saramago said that he wrote novels because he didn’t know how to write essays; in the same way, I see whatever it is that I post here as the raw material for poems I don’t know how to write.

I believe that if I can write differently it will help me see and act differently, particularly to escape the prison of my own thought and enter more deeply in the lives of my fellow beings. It can help me develop patience, guile and subtlety, to use more refined tools than irony, hyperbole and pathos/bathos****. I’d like to write in a way that’s not zany and glib, but earnest though entertaining. (In the words of Pynchon: ‘Be cool, but care’.) Writing is an extremely powerful tool for transforming all aspects of consciousness and reality. As my former neighbour Iain Sinclair says, there is something magic about the act itself and the effect it produces.

I believe in books. I believe in the wisdom of writers. Although I have friends who believe in the power of the Good Book, I tend to think there are many more than one. I think writing stories encodes a very deep human wisdom far beyond the control or comprehension of any single human being. Without wanting to sound too much like Salman Rushdie, we are made up of an infinite number of stories. Our DNA is a cosmological narrative. (Next week or so I will witness the birth of a whole new universe.) As Proust exemplified, a single second, a momentary sensation contains several books. Writing can be a form of meditation (another way of explaining why you won’t hear from me very much over the next few months).

In any case, what do I do with all the things my life and my privileged education have taught me? How do I share what I’ve experienced, noticed and imagined? Writing for me is about remembering what I’ve learnt while simultaneously learning new things about myself and about the world. It’s a means of remembering and of thinking. Both David Harvey and Geoff Dyer have said that they write books to learn about new subjects. Writing is also a way of paying attention to language, particularly to metaphors, to ways of thinking that we don’t even know are there, and creating new ones. All these questions, of learning, language, memory and identity are about to take on a new depth and a fresh intensity. I hope to have the time to write what some of it is like, but for all that I’ve said here our baby will have more priority than my blog.

*Maybe Bukowski was one of ‘them’!

**It would obviously be pretty dang evil of me to blame an as-yet-unborn child for nipping my writing career in the bud. Notably, it was a man who came up with that thing about the pram in the hall. Speaking of which, whether you have kids or not this is a lovely read. Incidentally, although I’m sure Trump has never heard the Cyril Connolly quote, I’m sure he’d identify with it, and who can help but pity Barron Trump right now? And speaking of Trump’s family, this is priceless.

*** One impulse for writing longer-form things comes from wanting to know how the works of my favourite novelists work, to investigate what a novel really is.

**** …and also footnotes.

 

Tale of Two Donalds: Winnicott on the infant Trump

The renowned pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott died in 1971, when Donald Trump was 24 years old. This article is an excellent short assessment of his life and achievements. A central element of his thinking is that the analyst should take on the role of the mother and repair parts of the psyche that were damaged in early childhood. He wrote of his own work:

I find it useful to divide the world of people into two classes. There are those who were never ‘let down’ as babies and who are to that extent candidates for the enjoyment of life and of living. There are also those who did suffer traumatic experiences of the kind that result from environmental letdown, and who must carry with them all their lives the memories of the state they were in at moments of disaster. These are candidates for lives of storm and stress and perhaps illness,

In preparation for the birth of our first child I’m currently reading Adam Phillips’ biography of Winnicott. On doing several passages struck me as relevant to understanding the other Donald, the one who is now (nominally at last) one of the most powerful people in the world.

While Winnicott is admired for his gentleness and intelligence, Donald Trump is not. It is certain that the latter has never heard of the former, as he doesn’t read books. It’s possible that he has never read a single one. Neither has he read the Constitution of the country he now (on paper) governs. He doesn’t have the time. He may have never even sat through an entire film: in Mark Singer’s then-funny now-not 1997 New Yorker profile of Trump he writes:

We hadn’t been airborne long when Trump decided to watch a movie. He’d brought along “Michael”, a recent release, but twenty minutes after popping it into the VCR he got bored and switched to an old favorite, a Jean Claude Van Damme slugfest called “Bloodsport,” which he pronounced “an incredible, fantastic movie.” By assigning to his son the task of fast-forwarding through all the plot exposition—Drumpf’s goal being “to get this two-hour movie down to forty-five minutes”—he eliminated any lulls between the nose hammering, kidney tenderizing, and shin whacking.

According to Russell Brand (who has met Trump), the new “President” is “a wanton baby”. Reading about Winnicott makes me think we should take this seemingly glib assessment seriously. There’s been a lot of speculation as to his precise mental condition. His cognitive faculties and emotional temperament appear to be only slightly more sophisticated than those of an adult pig, although there is evidence that pigs do experience some measure of empathy for the suffering of others of their species. I know that when Jon Ronson wrote The Psychopath Test his express intention was to ensure that people should not go throwing the term around with wild abandon, but his book is a very useful primer on the subject, and although some have claimed that Drumpf is nothing more than an absolutely appalling human being, the fact that he was the hero of Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho’ tells us a great deal*.

I’m not a psychologist, and obviously have never spent time with Trump. I hope I never will, and I pray that my daughter will never meet him or anyone remotely like him. It’s possible that he should be in a controlled environment where his access to other people is strictly limited. Instead, thanks to the bitterness and puerility of those who voted for him and the cynicism and apathy of those who refused to oppose him**, he will be dealing directly with people who have the authority and means to destroy humanity. His delusions will not be contained but given full expression: after all, as Jacques Lacan said, the madman is not only the beggar who thinks he is King, but also the King who thinks he is King.

His supporters, if there are any that are capable and honest enough to read through an entire 1,000-word article, may feel that a man who punches his own sons in the face and openly talks about being sexually attracted to his own daughter is not a priority for clinical attention. Anyone who has such an attitude clearly has their own issues they need to address. For those who are not yet so immersed in the Trump cult mentality, the following quotes from and about the work of Winnicott with regard to early infant development may give such people a further opportunity for reflection on just what kind of fucked-up creature is now in charge of the most powerful nation on earth.

Trump’s tweets: In a baby’s life there are long periods when he is just a bundle of disparate feelings and impressions and he doesn’t, as an adult would say, mind that this is the case as long as from time to time he comes together and feels something.

Trump the climate denier:

Real development can only come out of, and is the process of finding, belief in the environment.

Psychotic patients are notoriously and maddeningly oblivious of bombs, earthquakes and floods.

Trump the sociopath: He wants to know how much damage he can do, and how much he can do with impunity. Then if he finds that he can be physically managed, he starts to test by subtlety, putting one person against another, trying to make people give each other away, and doing all he can to get favoured himself.

Trump the sadistic baby turned authoritarian adult: Fascism is a permanent alternative to puberty.

And my personal favourite: Fascism, delinquency, rage, misogyny, alcoholism are only the symptoms of poor childhoods that the collective will have to pay for. The road to a better society begins in the nursery.

There you have it: Trump is stuck at some point in his infant development. He is by no means a mature adult, and he certainly should not be anywhere near political power. And if you’re still unconvinced by what I and Donald Winnicott have to say on the matter, don’t take our word for it: have a listen to Trevor Noah.

* – in the words of the New Yorker, Drumpf “exhibits levels of egotism rarely witnessed out of a clinical environment”; meanwhile the ghost-writer of one of “his” “books”(‘The Art of the Deal’) says openly that if he were to write it now he would simply call it ‘The Psychopath’.

** I really hope that the sorrow that such people feel today is commensurate with the extent of their betrayal.

UPDATE: It’s not only Trump that doesn’t know how to read, his supporters don’t either. I posted this article in a pro-Trump Facebook group and within ten minutes it looked like this:

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The Great “Earthquake” Swindle

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If you believe this, you’ll believe anything! Notice btw that it comes from a *government* website.

It’s telling that the global warmist lobby, with their constant bombardment of fake news about floods in Thailand and drought in Africa (make your mind up, guys!) go out of their way to cover up the real stories. It turns out that those “doctors” would have you believe that “cells” within your “body” can go bad and ultimately “kill” you were lying. That’s right: “cancer” doesn’t exist. It’s a hoax that’s been played for decades, one perpetrated by the government and the mass media and believed by all those who don’t dare to question what they’re told. These are the same people who tell you that the President of the United States is married to an immigrant or that it’s (as one of these so-called “pediatricians” told me in person last week) “an act of grave irresponsibility” not to get your child vaccinated! Thank god (another fake news story that I bet you fell for!) that we have Facebook and Twitter so we don’t have to believe their bullshit any longer.

But even worse than so-called “climate” “scientists” and “cancer” “doctors” are this bunch of self-appointed experts who call themselves “seismologists”. This is a fancy name for people who want you to believe that the “earth” (which other “scientists” will tell you is as round as a baseball! – but that’s another story) can tremble and shake like a blancmange! The official story (and I can tell you, I’ve studied this in some detail) is that it’s caused by (try not to laugh) “sudden movements in the Earth’s crust”. Well I’m going to tell you a personal story, something that “happened” to “me” just this “morning”, which will show that this whole “earthquake” racket is no more than yet another official libtard hoax.

We went to our local “hospital” for a checkup with someone who calls himself a “gynecologist”. This shyster is paid thousands of euros of taxpayer’s money to tell us that as a result of a little cuddle time me and my “wife” enjoyed several months ago she is now “pregnant” and is going to have a “baby”. While we were “there” we visited another “couple” who apparently have just “given birth” (there was no actual evidence of this; there was a very small human being in the room and two beaming but exhausted new “parents” but there could be any number of explanations for that). After a few minutes of “conversation” (I noticed that the “baby” was pretending to be asleep the whole time) the “father” character drew our attention to the “fact” that the “water” in a bottle on the “bedside” was “shaking”. Sure enough, it “was”; I then “looked” at the “curtains” and they appeared to be moving – which obviously raised my suspicions! Then I “felt” with my “body” that the whole “building” (we were on the “eighth floor”, in the so-called “maternity department”) seemed (I’m being very careful with my language here!) to be “trembling”. I suddenly felt quite “scared”. Our “friend”, the new “mother”, checked on her “iphone” and said something about “the “epicentre””(it’s depressing to see how all this quakist jargon has wormed its way into the heads of ordinary sheeple) being near a place called “Rieti”, which I knew at once to be a lie, because although I’ve seen the name on a so-called map and noticed it on the front of “buses”, I’ve never actually been “there”.

We made our excuses, and “left”. I dread to think what fairy tales that baby will grow up hearing. They’ll probably tell it all the usual pseudo-scientific nonsense about “water” being “wet” and about how it gets “dark” at “night”. Personally I’m glad that I’ve seen through all that crap. As soon as “my” “child” is “born” I’m going to tell him the truth: that “hospitals” do more harm than good, that “teachers” do nothing but lie, and that so-called “parents” are the least trustworthy people he’ll ever meet. I’m also going to make sure he understands that whatever information he receives through his “eyes”, “ears”, “nose” and “fingers” is almost certainly bullshit, and that the last thing he should ever do in life – even worse than putting any faith in “experts” – is to use his “brain” to interpret the world. And you can stick your Dr Seuss, Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl books back where the sun don’t shine. I won’t be reading him any “bedtime stories” (in any case, if you believe that human beings “need” to “sleep”, quite frankly you’ll believe anything -and as for “breast” “milk”, don’t get me started on that junk!). Instead he’ll be staying up all night with me getting the real story from my good friends at Breitbart, Infowars and Wikileaks. I want my “child” to be brought up on a solid diet of the truth.

NB: This is a work of satire. In reality the only thing more dangerous than seismic activity is climate denial. They both serve to destroy the foundations of our existence.

Buying a pushchair? Read this first!

img-20161216-wa0005Are we ready, Chiara asks.

Of course we are, I respond. We’ve reached that state of grace all couples arrive at exactly seven weeks before the scheduled birth of their first child, when everything that can be taken care of has been and it is now time to relax. Nothing can surprise us from this point on; there is nothing we haven’t already anticipated, either before or after the birth. There are no more decisions to be made and no more tasks to be carried out. All we have to do now is wait for exactly seven weeks and then pop along to the hospital, where they will give us a bag with a baby in it. We’ll probably just have to sign a piece of paper or something; after all, this is Italy. The only other thing we have to do is to choose the pushchair.

Now among all the tricky aspects of preparing for impending parenthood, this is by far the most complex. It shouldn’t be; there are after all only three companies which manufacture passeggini: Inglesina, Chicco and another one I can’t be bothered to think of the name of right now. The problem is that between them they have over 65,000 separate but essentially identical models. It appears to be an agnotological product range, designed to spread doubt and confusion to the point where prospective mums and dads are driven so insane that they are happy, indeed grateful, to hand over the price of a roadworthy second-hand car. I’ve noticed over the last week or so that when we’ve seen a freshly-born child we are far more likely to coo over the buggy than the baby itself. It’s always tempting, after getting the how-old-is-it-does-it-make-a-lot-of-noise preliminaries out of the way, to bombard the proud parents with questions about their pram. Then there’s YouTube and its sottomondo of buggy-demonstration videos, none of which feature any actual babies. The products themselves have all been given bastard portmanteaux of words such as urban, rural, walker, stroller, runner, jogger, all-terrain, duo, doppio, duopoly, duology, trio, el tri, trilogy, threesome, quad, quinny, compact, kompakt, kompact, smart, mini, maxi, espresso, flat white hazelnut macchiato…a simpler choice would appear to be the one called Zen, but then do we go for Zen Light, Zen Life or Zen Lux, all of which happen to cost exactly €600. Personally I’d like one of the ones you can fold up and fit into a backpack, because this would suit my (ahem) ‘lifestyle’*. But then there’s my wife’s ‘lifestyle’ to consider. Plus the baby’s ‘lifestyle’, which will presumably for the time being revolve around eating, crying, soiling itself, getting cleaned up, soiling itself again, giggling and getting pushed around by its parents**. But what will we push it around in? All of the makes and models are modular (like the DELTA!), meaning you get all three out of pram, pushchair, and carseat***. Not that we have a car, and we’re not planning on getting one, because that would send completely the wrong message to the child about how to live, which means we need a special pushchair for forcing our way on and off the 170 bus when it finally deigns to show up****. I’d also like to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight, preferably from about 12 years ago when I used to go jogging all the time, which means getting one of the running options. I believe there’s even a model designed in conjunction with British Military Fitness (which is competitively priced at €600), although actually the Crossfit one also looks good, in fact it comes with six months’ free Baby Krav Maga lessons for an all-inclusive price of (you guessed it) €600. Obviously given our lifestyle needs we’re going to have to buy more than one, which means we will also need to get a bigger apartment to store them all in. I bet there are six-month-old babies who can show off entire garages full of gleaming luxury strollers and have whole teams of servants who fine-tune them and who get horse-whipped if the baby’s first word isn’t ‘lamborghini’. After all, Prenatal does have a VIP range, giving the lie to the now-laughable claim that we are all born equal; indeed a moment’s ‘research’ reveals that, yes, we could indeed pay much more than €600 if we so desired or could afford. I’m sure Godiva do their own range of strollers, and I’d be very surprised if Marlboro hadn’t got in on the act*****. However, our needs are more modest, partly because we happen to live in a small flat with a tiny lift, which means we’re looking at one of the light/lite/compact/kompakt/smart ranges with a wingspan of less than 50”, which luckily narrows the choice down to only 30,000 separate options. Or maybe we can get one that is specially designed to be used only inside the lift, but nowhere else, and then another intended for people whose lifestyle involves getting into the lift, and a third aimed at that specific market segment which prioritises departing lifts.

I suppose it’s easy to see why the all-terrain models are proving increasingly popular. The other day I saw a photo from Aleppo of a woman running, pushing her child in a pushchair, escaping the Russian bombs. It was a heartbreaking photo, and for once it didn’t occur to me to look at the make or model. I think I did, however, spend slightly longer than usual thinking about her plight and if there was anything I could do to alleviate it. We are enormously lucky to be able to spend time thinking about pram-related nonsense, and it’s even fun, if exasperating, to do so. We’re also very fortunate to be having a baby at all, as there are so many people who have to pass through the purgatory of IVF, paying a great deal more than €600 in the process. Plus there are very many wannabe parents for whom the idea of funding the upkeep of a child is about as realistic a prospect as buying a second home on the moon. So we’re privileged in number of ways, although personally I tend to think my main blessing in life is that I do not have to work in the marketing department of a pushchair company.

I was, of course, joking at the start. I know that these will be some of the busiest few weeks of our lives. For one thing, I’ve got to try and get my hands on a photo of Chiara in a carrozzina to put at the end of this article******. Then I’m planning to produce a piece based on my experience of migrating between countries centring on particular songs which have marked my trajectory. After that I want to finish a thing I’ve had in the pipeline for a while about the street where we live. It’s going to be a difficult few months but I’m sure at some point Chiara will be happy to stop moaning about her back pains for a few minutes and lend me a hand. They say that having a blog is one of the most stressful experiences you can go through in life, so it’s essential that we work together on getting through the next few months and end up with something we can both feel really, really proud of.


* This word is intended to be pronounced similarly to the way in which Natalino Balasso pronounces ‘Farmville’ in this video. Or ‘smartphone’ in this one.

** Maybe we should leave the whole passeggino-buying decision for another thirteen or fourteen years or so, just in case she decides to become a goth or something.

*** You can in theory buy all the individual components separately, except for the fact that for the carseat one you also need to buy an adaptor, but you can’t find the adaptor anywhere online, and none of the supposed stockists stock the adaptor, so you have to buy all the components together, for €600. It takes a lot of googling and a huge amount of swearing to get to the point where you find this out.

**** Mind you if we do at some point decide to give up on Rome’s ancient, crumbling and bad-tempered public transport system and buy a car on the basis that she needs one even if we don’t, at least we can put the debt to the planet on her karmic balance sheet rather than ours. We could then offset our guilt about this by refusing to buy her a smartphone until she’s at least 21 years’ old. It’s important to think about such things in advance.

***** People who read footnotes but are disinclined to google things for themselves will be astonished to learn that there 247,000 results for ‘Marlboro strollers’.

****** I was partially successful:n-1-one-year

Naming a child

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Someone recently asked me for advice about what they should name their child. Actually that person is my wife, and the child is ours, or will be, in about two months’ time, but we don’t have a name yet.  It feels like a major responsibility, like writing a one-word poem for a stranger to have tattooed on their forehead; as Louis CK points out (WARNING: contains very obscene language),  you can call a child whatever you like. It seems to me we have a simple choice. We either:

Give her a name with meaning

In this way we could preload her up with a default value or something that has importance for us. This would, of course, be nice for us, but perhaps not so pleasant for her. Hence while we’ve been thinking of Maya (because she was conceived in Mexico), I worry that according to playground logic other kids will nickname her Maialina. Kids are like that. Gaia has also been an option but it might be a leetle beet depressing for her growing up and hearing about how she’s in the process of total collapse. I mean, we all are to some extent, but let’s give her a chance to get born and do something about it without somehow feeling that she’s got that particular burden on her shoulders alone.

There are other nice messages to pass onto the child and, through her, to the world, like Grace, Serenity or Justice. Or ones that represent the times in which she is born, like Crisis, Cookie Warning or #F*ckTrump*. However, it’s essential to remember that to imbue a child with a heavily meaning-laden name is to expect her to carry that burden throughout her whole life. In some ways I admire the idealistic/acid-addled flower children of the late ‘60s who gave their kids names like Starchild or Moonprancer. However, since that decade is nowadays the most heavily-commercially exploited of all time we might as call her Body Shop or Lush. Clearly giving her a name like Patience or Serenity is just asking for trouble as she one day becomes embroiled in relationships with other humans (including, presumably, us) who will inevitably test both. Alba and Aurora both sound a bit fascist to my ears. Although we both want her to do well in life we’d hate it if she came to represent the rebirth of the white race. Nowadays it’s fashionable to raise your children to be gender-neutral. Such is the case with Russell Brand, who did however then go on to choose the name Mabel, which is not going to do his kid any favours on the football field. In any case all the suggestions here sound like the names of characters in Dynasty. If there is such a concept as power-naming, someone should definitely deinvent it.

My own name has never done me any great favours. Any Derren Brown-style gains made by my introducing myself with the words “Hi, I’m Rich” are generally offset by the impression created by my evident inability to iron my clothes properly. As it happens one name I really love, and one that has a great deal of significance for me, is Chiara, but apparently that’s also not an option either. Then there are the names of significant relatives. One of my little nieces goes by the name of Heather, and she was very pleased when I told her that in various other languages her name is Erica, which happens to have been to be the name of her great-grandmother. Just by chance I once had a Chinese student who had chosen Erica as his English name**. I explained to him that it was also the name of my paternal grandmother, and he was delighted. China’s like that: I also had students called Killer, Adolf, Blue, Jamily and Ruál (named after the famous Spanish foobtaller). Given that la fagiolina, as she is currently referred to, spent the first few months of her gestation in Bangkok, we could give her a Thai name, like Bumsick or Porn.

Those names, of course, make sense as part of a culture. Separated from their cultural context the choice of some ‘exotic’ names can sound arrogant, pretentious, and, well, a bit Essex-y, giving the impression that your parents, and by extension you, are making a claim on cultural qualities which you have no right to. Shanti falls into that category. You might as well call her Unique, Élite or Notachav. Imagine someone spending their whole telling new acquaintances “it means humble in, er, Sanskrit”, and having to explain once again that no, she wasn’t brought up in a Sanskrit-speaking household. I wouldn’t want her to be called something that David Beckham would have as a tattoo. I personally quite like the name Pondicherry but it does sound a bit colonial, like the name Addis for an Italian. Plus some of my more off-the-wall suggestions are immediately vetoed as it’s luckily not just me making the decision.

Nevertheless given that my wife’s Italian, I’m English (and A Bit German), and we’ll probably spend more time in Spanish-speaking countries, we would like something that works in different languages, perhaps Una, Ana,or Zöē. Maybe to give her a headstart in life we should just call her Ambilingual. We both quite liked the name Día until I remembered it’s also the name of a cut-price Spanish supermarket, so it would be like calling her Aldi or Eurospin. Also to be avoided are the names of students and ex-girlfriends. I have had hundreds of the former and…some of the latter. I certainly don’t want her to remind me of some sulky Portuguese teenager who failed First Certificate in 2002 because she could never be bothered to do any homework.

The second option, then, is to give her an ordinary name. A name is a badge, a tattoo, a mark of distinction, and also a vessel. The person it carries or contains is what gives it meaning; the name need not be special because the person it identifies will be, in her own way, like every one of us, physically and spiritually unique, and she doesn’t need a wacky name to remind her and everyone she meets of that fact. Choosing a name may feel like writing a one-word poem, but ultimately the name is not the poem. The person is the poem. I suspect that the final decision will be made in a spirit of total exhaustion and bliss, and we will probably end up giving her the name that we knew we would choose all along. We just don’t know what it is yet. She will let us know, when the time comes, which name she has chosen for herself.

 

* This will be sorely tempting if – and this is a distinct possibility – she happens to be born on the day of his inauguration.

** I think his Chinese name was Ben or something.