September 29, 2005

Finders weepers

I walked out of Barons Court Underground station on Monday morning already tired enough for Friday. It had been an insomnia night from about half-three in the morning onwards: destroying all the rest that I had had over the weekend. I fought for sleep for an hour or so, in skirmishes, in between bouts of television-watching: after that I fought with the television itself, which had responded to my purchase of a brand new aerial with alarming ingratitude, going off station whenever I switched it on and making me retune it, at some small hour, short of sleep and temper.

By the time I had been able to sleep, it was too late for any sleep worth having. I could have used a morning off - or a week, a month, a period indefinite - but had instead to drag myself, three-quarters conscious, from East Dulwich to Hammersmith to open up the library. I cannot, in that state, have been entirely alert. But I was still, apparently, more alert than some. As I turned right out of the station and came close to the road, I heard a gentle thud, the sound of padding breaking an object's fall, and noticed that on the near side of the road, a wallet had fallen to the ground. A fairly fat wallet by the sound of it, a lot of leather, wrapped, by the look of it, around a fair few notes. Nobody else seemed to have seen it fall - not even the driver of the car which promptly ran right over it.

There were two men who had just finished crossing the road just before the car went past, and though I had not seen which one of them was the owner of the flattened wallet, it had to be one of them or the other. So rather than ask either of them directly - I wasn't sure that I was capable of coherent speech, or even of remembering that such a thing existed - I tried to get their attention by waving my arm in the direction of the errant article and trying to activate my speech centres in order to emit some form of noise. To let them know that something of moment was occurring, like an animal warning the herd of an approaching predator. Eventually I managed to muster something to the effect of:

Er, excuse me, your, er, your, er,

and erred my way through a few more syllables until both of them had looked round and one of them had realised the object, apparently undamaged by the car, belonged to him. He could also, presumably, identify the object as a wallet, which was more than I could manage that particular morning. I had managed to approximate the concept of a wallet close enough to suggest a purse, but despite realising my error and recalling the word in mid-utterance, I had been unable to refine it any further. It was not a morning when I could manage exactitude: everything was blurred.

No matter. Despite descending almost to the level of an evolutionary ancestor, I was able to make myself understood - and even, with a further wave of the arm and a sympathetic grunt, perhaps the human side of simian, acknowledge the thanks of the grateful owner of the fallen wedge. I walked on. I walked through the cemetery that leads up to the hospital next to which I work (I always rather like that walk and the conjunction, hospital and cemetery representing before and after) and assured myself that even if I achieved nothing whatsoever in the current week, which seemed entirely possible, I had at least made my contribution to humanity. I had earned my place on the planet. I was ahead of the game.

It was, in fact, not until several hours later, sitting in the foyer at the Barbican and about to catch a moment's sleep, that I realised I could have picked up the wallet myself. Nobody else had seen it fall. Nobody would have seen anything, save a man picking up a wallet that, they would have have assumed, belonged to him.

It was, as I say, a fairly fat wallet. You'd expect it to be: Barons Court is not the poorest part of London. If there are notes in a Barons Court wallet then more than likely there's a few of them and more than likely those are notes of a sizeable denomination. I could imagine rationalising it to myself: if you're in a position to lose loads of money, it usually means you can afford to. Nobody with a fat wallet is gong to be poor if they lose it. I could have told myself about all the breaks I've never had and how I owed to myself to take advantage when I had the chance.

I could have told myself anything: once you start off down the road to rationalising, once you find yourself resorting to rationalising, then it doesn't matter much what your rationalisation actually is. It merely matters that you have one. I've never much been skilled at the art of believing what suits me rather than what's true. I've cost myself dearly in the past through the lack of that common characteristic. On Monday morning I cost myself a wallet.

I wonder if I would have taken it if I had had presence of mind enough to think of it. Probably not. I've had the opportunity before. Just a few months ago, I was walking down the steps at South Kensington Underground, changing from the Circle to the Piccadilly Line, when I heard a clatter at my feet and a mobile phone came skittering down the stairs. It was a rather better phone than I possessed and with the exchange of my SIM card for the one inside, it could have been mine. Instead, I phoned round some of the numbers on its directory until I got a message to its owner: he turned out to work at one of our sister hospitals along the road and came to collect it later the same day.

Or there was the time when, living in Thame, I got a bus back from Oxford, after a football match and a subsequent spell down the pub, and after a while noticed through the beer that the young Korean tourists at the back of the bus had got off, but had left a camera on the seat. I appropriated it immediately and took it back to my room, playing with the zoom lens, taking a few photos on the film they'd left inside. The next day, I went back into Oxford on the same bus service and handed it in to the police station.

But that was different. in each instance, I had reflected: I had asked myself whether or not I wanted to keep what I had found and decided I did not. In each instance my motivation was partly asking what I would like somebody else to do if I lost something important: "do as you would be done by", the premise on which civilisation depends. (The likelihood that they would probably keep it is of lesser significance, since "do it to them before they do it to you" is the premise on which civilisation is denied.) But more importantly it was about myself. How I would feel. Did I want to be using a camera for several years afterwards and every time I used it, think "this is a stolen camera", have that thought spoil everything, have that thought interfere with everything as I if I were Raskolnikov? Not me. Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me. Or, better, I will remove that cup myself.

But this was different: there was no impulse to claim the object found as mine by dint of fortune. There was no twinge of conscience because there was no triggering of the moral turmoil that makes the conscience twinge. And this, I think, is what is bothering me. For where is the credit in doing anything which you have not decided for yourself? Do you reject Satan? they used to ask (and presumably still do) at Catholic services like baptisms and Confirmations: one can scarcely answer "yes" when the thought of doing otherwise has not occurred. You cannot Do The Right Thing if you have devoted no thought to what the right thing and the wrong thing might, in practice, be. In fact, it leaves you in the same position as Alex in A Clockwork Orange. As the chaplain says:
Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?
To which the answer is, surely, yes, certainly yes, if only because there is no virtue in simply doing what you are told, except for the virtue implicit in obedience - and even that virtue is absent when that obedience is automatic. It might seem in some way virtuous to have no compulsion to sin, as if one had purged oneself of an imperfection, but to me, it is the opposite. Rather the ill-considered act than the act unconsidered. Rather the man who behaves foolishly than the man who has forgotten how to be a fool.

Well, all right, I was tired: but not all day, and not so tired that I didn't reflect on what had happened and what I felt about it. But it took all day before it occurred to me that I might have acted differently. I'm not so sure that that's a lack of sleep or an excess of ethics, it just strikes me as a lack of imagination.

September 25, 2005

I met a man who wasn't there

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I wish that man would go away

There's a story I used to tell about being anti-social. When I was living in Brixton as a lodger I had the upstairs room in a three-storey house. On the middle storey there were two other rooms, at ninety degrees from one another on the landing: the one immediately opposite, if I came down the stair, belonged to Janet, the landlady, while the one to the left was, for a long time, free. I had occupied it at the beginning, when there was a longer-standing tenant in the upstairs room, but on their departure, I moved upstairs. I was the only tenant for a while, before, eventually, the other room was filled.

I wished it otherwise. I am reclusive, which is a difficult way to be when you live in a city that allows you no proper accommodation unless you are well-off. I do not much like to talk to other people unless I know and trust them very well. In truth, I can't. I cannot make small talk, cannot ask how are you?, cannot, certainly, say pleased to meet you without churning up inside and wanting to be left alone. There are, presumably, words for this, phrases incorporating the term Disorder, descriptions masquerading as diagnoses. But whatever you call it makes no difference from my point of view. I find it very difficult, often impossibly difficult to socialise in the way that most other people would consider normal, and if I'm asked to do so I just clam up in discomfort. For this reason, I didn't want another lodger - and when another one arrived I found it very hard. It is hard to be a recluse in the middle of the city. If you want to be a hermit, you really need to find yourself a cave.

Anyway, prior to the arrival of this other lodger - so the story went - there had been somebody else, for a short time, maybe a month, occupying the other room. I never knew them. I never knew their name. I never knew their name because I never spoke to them. Not once, not even a hello. Perhaps a nod in response to a good evening? Possibly. I couldn't really remember. I kept well out of their way - and, of course, the more I did so, the more awkward it became. Keep it up for only a few days and you can still plausibly claim that it was just coincidence, you happened to be out when they were in, you happened to be in a hurry when you weren't. But keep it up for weeks and you have to explain why they've moved into a house with a madman in the attic.

Fortunately the dilemma was resolved without ever becoming intolerable. They didn't stay for long. After a while, perhaps a month, they seemed no longer to be there. In truth, when I started to think about it, I wasn't sure I'd ever seen them. I didn't pursue the question. I didn't ask after them. I was just relieved that they were gone and that - for a while - I could resume my reclusive residence without disturbance, just me and an unobtrusive landlady and a couple of companionable cats. And occasionally when discussing my lack of socialibility with other people I would roll out this story as an example of my unwillingness to interact with those I do not know.

Beware of what you do not know: there's more of it that you might think. On Thursday I took up an invitation to go round for dinner at my old place and meet the new cat (an occasion for which I naturally dressed up in my newest shirt and finest tie, since one always likes to make a good impression on meeting a new cat). During dinner we were talking about new lodgers and old, ones I had known and ones who I had not, how long they had been there, what they were doing now and what rooms they had occupied. So I brought up the story of the lodger who I never talked to and whose name I never knew. I brought it up: I went right through it and then I went right through it all over again, because Janet didn't have the faintest idea what or who I was talking about. Over the course of a few minutes, it became apparent that if I had never met this lodger, or could not name them or put a face to that non-existent name, the explanation was straightforward: they had never existed in the first place. There had been no other lodger. They had never been there. In one way or another, I had made them up, imagined them. I would have hallucinated their existence had I ever been sure I'd seen them.

Thinking about it, as straightforward explanations go, this was not the most straightforward I had ever come across, nor the most comfortable. I understand how, writes Winston Smith: I do not understand why. One question was, what was I thinking of? Another was, why was I thinking it? It's one thing to be under a misapprehension, that somebody else might be moving into your house: it's another thing entirely to think they have. You might make up all sorts of stories about somebody you've never seen, but even that is not the same as their not being there in the first place. Boo Radley was not as Scout and Jem imagined him: but Boo Radley was really there.

September 20, 2005

Duck, you sucker

You have to be careful watching television later in the evening: the programmes start running into one another and you lose track, even without channel-hopping, of where one stops and other one begins. On General Election night in 1997 the last programme before the coverage started on BBC1 was Blackadder, the episode in which Baldrick stands for Parliament to frustrate the plans of Pitt The Younger. A few minutes later and the BBC were announcing that exit polls suggested there was going to be the largest majority since the General Election of 1812 - or something to that effect - and I had a momentary problem as my brain found itself unable to work out whether the previous programme had actually finished yet.

I had a similar problem last night, having lain in bed watching Jonathan Ross on Film 2005 before turning over to BBC2, who were hosting News 24 for the rest of the night. There was something about British soldiers dressing up as Arabs which I was sure I remembered from Lawrence Of Arabia and I started wondering if it was an hommage, in much the same way as, when one gets older, one listens to a new generation of pop groups and hears not the bands themselves, not the songs themselves, so much as the bands and songs that have influenced them.

I was still musing on this question, half-asleep, when they started talking about a prison rescue in which a wall of the jail had apparently been demolished "accidentally", in itself a hard thing to get your head around when you're close to sleep, since it is surely rather harder to do such a thing accidentally than it is deliberately. No matter. I was still trying to work out whether this was from Blazing Saddles or Support Your Local Sheriff! when I nodded off.

Somebody at the BBC must have nodded off too, since when I woke up and turned on BBC Breakfast they'd forgotten about the Iraqi casualties that they'd mentioned the night before - and indeed the comments ("barbaric aggression") of the governor of Basra. But it mattered little. Sleep had settled my mind and I'd realised the chaps had been restaging the scene from A Fistful Of Dynamite in which James Coburn helps Rod Steiger release his comrades from jail, and the latter's gang, on horses, pull down the side of the jail with ropes.

September 18, 2005

What I have written

It was Open House yesterday, so I went to Peckham Library. I'd never been before, which struck me as strange given that I'm a member of the library and live on a bus route that stops there, given how celebrated it is, award-winning, unorthodox, striking. I wasn't that impressed, if truth be told. The front of the building is covered in a grille which led me to ask whether it was up temporarily for repairs, while the furniture may be striking to look at but actually appears to be constructed mostly of stapled-on veneer, cheap to construct (the whole building only cost five million pounds) but expensive and tiresome to have to keep repairing. There is no air-conditioning, inconvenient in a building whose windows do not appear to open - and while the rear of the building is attractive, a few days before somebody had seen fit to lob something hard through one of the coloured windows from which its pattern is constructed. They were not, apparently, caught on the security camera that was specifically positioned to monitor incidents such as this, because there was no film, nothing inside the camera. There's a thinly-disguised metaphor there.

The metaphor was made more explicit by the fact that the library was anything but overstocked. Contrary to the claims of the bluff and ignorant Tim Coates, this has nothing whatsoever to do with a perverse desire of librarians to spend our budgets on computers rather than books, since the money for its PCs came in its entirety from elsewhere, from the government's budget for the People's Network: the emptiness of the shelves is a consequence of the emptiness of Southwark Council's coffers. The shelves were full of gaps, and messy from the lack of shelvers: books out of place, books on top of other books, books upside down, books the wrong way round. It was all I could do to keep from reshelving the place myself.

I might even have given it a go had not very the first book I saw been written by me. I had wandered over first, by instinct, to the chess section (794.1 on Dewey) and found it shelves with Sports and Games - and first on the shelf, the right way up and right way round, was a book I wrote some seven years ago. I was startled to see it: I might have been less surprised if the shelves had been more heavily stocked, if it had been just one item among many, but as it was, one of the few, I was surprised to come across it. I picked it up and turned straight to the label: it had been borrowed often enough, though not in the past year. I thought for a moment about borrowing it again, out of ego, or a sense of humour, but I thought better of it, put the book back and walked away.

I put it back after realising I didn't wasn't to open it again, didn't want to read the text, didn't want to see whether it still held up, didn't want to see whether I thought it was mature or juvenilia, didn't want to see whether I liked it or agreed with it, whether I would change it or leave it as it is, whether I was proud of it or embarrassed by it, whether I thought that it had been worth my writing or worth anybody's reading. I didn't want to dig myself up and look at myself: it had been written by a different person in a different place under a different name.

I didn't even have to say leave it to myself: it just seemed disconnected from me. We are linked to our earlier selves by all sorts of threads, by the people we have known and continued to know, by the things we have built and created, by the things that we have made, when they have lasted. But these things happen all along a conscious timeline, conscious to the person who lives along that line, relating each new person, each event, to the ones that have gone before, to the ones that will come after. No life is lived entirely in episodes. No life consists of isolated particles: you have to hold on, hold on, keep hold of the rope, keep hold of it even when it is whittled away to no more than a thread. But I lost that thread, somewhere, somewhere shortly after the autumn of 1998, long before the autumn of 2005. I put myself down somewhere and could not find myself when it was time to be picked up again.

So I find myself looking at a book from seven years ago and thinking not I wrote that but rather did I really write that? I suppose I did. I supposed I'm pleased I did. There it is, written, done, made, there to be judged, neglected, rediscovered, abandoned, left alone, spoken of. It happens: it exists. The one who wrote it is part of a different world, but the book itself is not. That is what I do now. I provide and preserve, I maintain the past so that it is not lost, I preserve it until it becomes of service to the present. I - he - was a writer then and I am a librarian now. But what I have written stays written.

September 16, 2005

Flow my years

I walked down to the Thames at lunch today. I was tired, tired from travelling to work, tired from looking at a screen, tired because it is Friday and my tiredness has been accumulating through the week. So I took myself across the Fulham Palace Road and picked my way though the edges of Hammersmith until I located the Thames Path and, with it, the Thames. It was a little muddier this afternoon than I expected, but it was the Thames nevertheless, carrying with it a quiet, an untroubled quiet which was what I had been looking for. The breeze was on the colder side of fresh, but there was still sufficient sun to compensate, allowing me to stay there, comfortably, admiring the Harrods Furniture Depository on the opposite bank to mine, or Hammersmith Bridge, eccentric in its park-fence green, linking the two.

Although there is traffic on the bridge, and with it the potential of speed, of rush, of reminder of the city and the world of work, it is slowed down by the bottleneck that the bridge represents - so it cannot hurry, as the river will not hurry. You feel safe there, on the bank, relaxed, released. Your eyes close and the wind laps, like the water laps against the bank, against your face. Time, and its oppression, no longer applies. People pass, but do not bother you. All is peace.

I walked back to the library a little later in a state of some bewilderment, having realised that, although I work just a few minutes' walk away, I had not been down to the river in all the time - four years in January - that I have been working here. Perhaps I had been there once, I reckoned. Certainly no more than that. Certainly not almost every day, as perhaps I should have done. I must have been sleepwalking, these past few years, to have missed it - to have not thought, often, shall I go down to the river today? Come in, go home, do the same thing in between - and then, when finally leaving, never know what manner of place it was you left. Never know the peace and quiet of the river. When you sleepwalk, you sleepwalk from restlessness. You sleepwalk because you never know the places one can rest.

How time does pass, more swiftly than the river. To the left, further down the bank, just at the furthest point still visible before the river bends away again, I could see Craven Cottage, where I first saw a match in February 1977, missing Rodney Marsh (if memory serves) because of a car crash the week before. I was there again eight years later when it was colder than I have ever been at any other football match (save one). My fingers were too cold to turn the pages of the programme: the wind that blew off the Thames that day was Arctic in its purpose, if not, quite, in its intensity. Whenever I have been to Oakwell - which is before it looked like this - it has rained directly in my face, giving me the option of either taking off my glasses and being unable to see the match, or leaving the glasses on and being unable to see the match without a set of windscreen wipers for my lenses. It is a punishment of a sort: I was there the same day as the riot in Trafalgar Square which put to death the poll tax. I must have been looking for peace and quiet back then too. I must have always been a sleepwalker. But Oakwell was just annoying. It was not perishing like Craven Cottage.

There was one colder day, I said. The Manor Ground played host once to an under-19 international between England and Denmark at a time when the clock on the Osler Road stand, obscurely, alternated between displaying the time, which we normally needed to know, and displaying the temperature, which normally we didn't. Except on this one occasion, when it showed a temperature of six degrees below freezing, that number being almost equal to the number of spectators who were able to stick it out for the whole match. They might as well have played it on the concrete floor of a warehouse used for storing frozen meat.

In professional terms, most of the players were never heard of again: it's a wonder any of us were heard again after that night. The supporters huddled: the players either shivered or ran around as frantically as they could. The clock, however, kept its normal pace, as unhurried, as measured as the Thames at Hammersmith.

It was only a couple of years later that it stopped, for reasons mechanical (and reasons financial, preventing its repair) rather than reasons climatical. By this time the football club was being run by a lawyer, who billed the club for his time, at an agreeable rate per hour, which he was able to sign off on his own recognisance. He was, therefore, in the happy position of being able to set his own rate of remuneration - and authorise his own payment - despite the fact that it was someone else's money he was spending and receiving.

I remember taking much exception to this arrangement and suggesting, at a meeting with supporters, that if he was to be paid by the hour than the payments should only be authorised provided they were measured and recorded by the long-stopped clock.

September 13, 2005

When the evening is spread out against the sky

There was a sunset Wednesday last week over Paignton that I think Turner might have liked: arching across the fading sky in successive colours of the spectrum, from a red over the hills at eye level right through the repertoire until it segued into black above my head. I saw it from the sea, or at any rate from a boat that I had taken for a trip across the bay, eschewing the football, with all its noise and conflict, for the sounds of waves against boat, of engine against waves. For the sight of natural splendour and of human insignificance.

It was not the deepest of reds, not a blood-red, not a red of foreboding. It was almost the red one associates with the Rockies: it had that texture, that dustiness, that adaptation to the yellow of the sun. Where they met, higher up the sky, it merged into the yellow, creating a thin band of orange at the border: and then the yellow appeared to disappear into the distance, being higher, so seeming further, but also being lighter, emptier, tending to an almost invisible, almost absent white. Above that, overhead, to the east where night had already started, came the darker colours, the blues and indigos, the violet-becoming-black. It spelled out the spectrum and counted out time: it showed what had gone and what was to come.

As if we were on the brink of entering a cave, the point - rather, the line of darkness appeared almost exactly above us: to the one side, darkness smothering all colour, to the other, colour defying the darkness. But it seemed a tableau, a painting, rather than a progress, for the air was windless, still. There was not, not any rate within the sky, any sense of movement: what there was came only from the boat and from the sea beneath it and beside it. The sky, itself, appeared to be in stasis: there need be, perhaps, no what was to come. Just the red, filling the half of the sky that was not yet lost. Filling it, or appearing, by dominating it, to fill it, glowering - I was going to say - in the portion of the sky that it retained. But not quite glowering, because it was so peaceable. So quiet, so gentle, so attuned to the ease of evening. Perhaps even dominating is too strong a word. The sky was infused with red. Red upon red, red in patches covering other reds of different shades, red insinuating itself everywhere, red impressing itself upon your eyes, and even if you closed them, impressing itself into your mind's eye instead.

What made it all the more striking, all the more insistent, was that there were several streaks of cloud - of long clouds, clouds a mile or more from tip to tip, across the panorama, long streaks of cirrus that scraped across the sky much like the first marks of a paint scraper against a wall, but longer, harsher, almost from one edge of the sky right up to the other. But these streaks, reflecting the sky above them, gave the strange impression of having been dipped in red, like wool in dye: but then inverted, so that, instead of staining the bottom of the clouds, the red stained the top, the upper half, and, being set across that whitest of all whites, stood out against that background all the more.

What completed the impression of stillness, of the appearance of a painting, was the presence of a small number of small, fluffy clouds, dotted about the vista like an afterthought, like a change of mind in the artist. They must have been closer to us than the other clouds, because rather than merging into it, they seemed to be placed over the red-stained cirrus, neither touching it nor reflecting any colours. As if they made up a different layer of the sky, much as an artist, working in oil, might add another figure to a painting. It had the same quality as you see in an oil painting, where two different figures overlap, try to occupy the same space in the viewer's eye, but seem not to come into contact with one another, for one is, in fact, painted over the other.

That was the first impression that they made on me, but there was another, underneath. Obscured, much as the smaller clouds obscured the view behind them, but something communicating the same quality of separation I had already detected. I thought awhile before realising that they reminded me of fingerprints on glass. On the glass of a display, a glass dome around a clock, a glass case in a museum. As if the whole sky - or the half of it that had, as yet, resisted night - as if the whole picture of red upon red, of red into yellow, of red-stained white, had been preserved, had been saved from the night into which it would otherwise dissolve, and had been placed, for our pleasure and its protection, into a giant glass case, invisibly occurring between an unknowing Paignton and an apparently unmoving night.

September 05, 2005

Say again?

According to the schedule at the multiplex cinema in Paignton, The Cave contains moderate intense horror and violence.

September 02, 2005

The fear of God

I do not believe in God. That's not an absence of belief, it's a belief. I believe, strongly, that there is no God, there is no such thing as God, there is nothing in existence that can be described as God. I do not "happen" to disbelieve in God: there is no "happen" involved, unless the Creator, on His Mighty Whim, chose to endow me, for a Laugh, with a strong dense of disbelief in His Own Existence. However, He did not. He could not have, since He does not exist.

In truth, it is more than a belief, though Thought For The Day would have you believe that it is less. It is more than a belief because it is a scientific opinion, based on observation, based on an understanding of the nature and origins of the universe. It cannot, as far as I can see, be verified, but it could, one supposes, be disproven. It adheres to the principle set out by Popper: at very least, it applies the principle set out by William of Occam. There is no reason to postulate a God in preference to assuming his absence, since to do so is simply to complicate the problem, to introduce an extra element. There is no reason for God, except for the service performed in fulfilling our fears, in satisfying our emotional needs. There is no reason in science or in rational thought to think that a God-being exists. There is no God.

Still, how much harm does it do to believe in God? Little enough, just left at that. We all think irrational things and believe things we should not. If one of these is God, what of it? In itself it is rather less harmless than the belief that you might win the Lottery. It is like a pub discussion on whether Godzilla would beat King Kong in a fight: your influence over the outcome is nil, your chance of finding out the answer rates no higher. Where there is no influence, there is no harm. It's not belief in God that matters. It's belief that God is good.

For where, one wonders, would that come from? Why would God be good? What would good mean anyway, in the context of God? Why would an entity so different to us in scope and nature share our conception of good, or have such a conception in the first place? Why would that good apply to us? You can speculate about it, but you cannot prove it, or demonstrate it, or even give any reason why it is any more than a hypothesis absent of substance. Yet people do more than that. They bow their heads. They kneel. They prostate themselves. They pray. They spend their lives in such a manner. They do all these things on the basis that, so they say, God is good.

It would be more truthful to say that they do so on the basis that God is powerful. He is all-powerful, therefore we must appease him, worship him, butter him up, flatter him as one might fawn over a monarch or a rich man. (I am prepared to do all these things for a benefit of a cat, for a cat has substance, but to do them for God?)

The fundamental reason for declaring God good is that God is powerful. We praise him because we fear him. What He does is good, not because it is good but because we declare whatever God does to be good. It is God's free pass. It is his amnesty. It is his ticket to ride.

What a magnificent scam, you may think. Any of us would love to have the same exemption for an afternoon. Who knows how many enemies we could dispose of, how much looting we could carry out and be praised for our great love and wisdom when we did so. It would be wonderful. This, perhaps, is really why people start their own religions, not so much for the money as for the impunity. For that, in truth, is God. He is not good. He is impunity. He is right in whatever he does, and must be thanked for it.

The most appalling, the most self-destructive example of this I ever came across in person was the novice I met in a psychiatric institution five years back, this very month. She suffered, appallingly, grotesquely, from depression. For which, she told me, she thanked God. She thanked God for letting her experience the agonies of depression. She actually thanked God for letting her experience the agonies of depression. No parody of religion could possibly have been so frightening or so grotesque.

One can, I suppose, expect no better from a religion whose most holy symbol is a man dying in agony while crucified on a cross. But the fault, at root, is the conception of God as good. If what he does is good, then those who suffer must be evil. Or they must benefit, in some way, from their suffering. The novice benefitted from her agonies. The bearer of a cancer either benefits from their destruction or has merited their pain.

There is, of course - this is another benefit, another Special Recommended Feature of divine impunity - no need to explain why any of this is good. It just is. One cannot discuss Celestial Ethics. One cannot find them wanting. This does not, naturally, prevent the advocates of God (all self-appointed, naturally, as a non-existent entity can hardly appoint advocates of his own) from making it their business - making it, literally, their business, their living and employment - to tell us daily what is good and what is not in the eyes of the Deity. Let the Deity, however, carry out an act that otherwise we would consider supreme wickedness - the aforesaid cancer, say, or a tsunami, or the drowning of New Orleans - and suddenly the rules are changed. Rather than knowing the will of God, we cannot know the will of God.

We are, however, permitted to speculate upon his motives. Does he punish, or are his motives beyond mere human reason to understand? (If they are beyond mere human reason, one might ask, if we don't understand why he's done it, then what's the point in doing it?) After the tsunami I was travelling on a London bus - a popular location, it seems, for religious encounters - when two or three men came up to the top deck and invited the weary travellers to consider their likely fate. Specifically, as I recall, the fate of Britain, in its wickedness. In the light of the destruction that the wave had wreaked.

If one were to follow the logic of these emissaries, they must surely mean that the tens of thousands who had drowned on the fringes of the Indian Ocean must, therefore, have deserved it. Must have done something to deserve it. But, in their generosity - or in the generosity of the God they served - they said that they didn't actually know that. Indeed, they weren't even saying that. "We cannot know", they said, "whether this was sent by God as a punishment". It just might have been. God's motives and purposes were, just for once, unclear.

I assumed, therefore, that what they were trying to sell me was Pascal's Wager: that we should repent just in case the tsunami was the anger of a vengeful God, his thirst for human blood not entirely sated by his activities in Genesis. I refrained however, from debating the point with them, not least because I was too busy restraining myself from making the point that I really wanted to: how dare your God, your murderous God, wipe out all those innocent people? And how dare you come onto this bus and justify this foul and evil entity?

But the question, of course, could not be asked. Because it is not open to question, whether God is good. God is good. He is good, by virtue of being God. And we call him good, not because he is, but because we fear him.

They fear him, in Louisiana, in New Orleans and in Baton Rouge. For only fear of God can explain the prayer of the mayor's emergency co-ordinator, Irma Plummer. It is a bizarre and terrying prayer, and it has disturbed me as much as any of the sights I have seen of the devastation inflicted on the poor of New Orleans. In the field of religion it has disturbed me as much as anything I have come across since my conversation without the novice.

Ms Plummer's prayer proceeded thus:
You have reminded us of how strong you are and we yield and acknowledge that.

Right now, Father, we pray first for your protection and your grace which is unceasing and unfailing ... I don't even know what to ask for today, Lord. I don't even know what will beset us today.
That first line. Read that first line and ask yourself what it means. You have reminded us of how strong you are and we yield and acknowledge that. It means God has done this. It means God has inflicted this on us. It means we bow before your might, O Lord. It means God is Great.

God, it is acknowledged, is the cause of their misfortune. Of their dispossession, of their disease, of the deaths of their friends and relatives. So how shall we respond to this monstrous act, this declaration of war? We shall respond by saying what we know to be entirely untrue. We pray first for your protection and your grace which is unceasing and unfailing.

We do what? We pray first for your protection? Who from? From God himself? We pray to the murderer to protect us from his propensity to murder? Shall we really? Can you think of anything more stupid in the world than that? And how shall he provide this protection? With his protection and [his] grace which is unceasing and unfailing. Is it? Is it really? In what possible sense is it either unceasing or unfailing?

It could not have ceased more, it could not have failed more, if some Supreme Repo Man had come round earlier, waved a few unpaid bills and an authorisation from the baliffs and had cut off the supply of divine grace and heavenly protection. There has been no more grace and protection in New Orleans these past two days than there has been drinking water. Not, anyway, from God. From each other, maybe. But not from the sadistic and vengeful and murderous God.

So, why pray to this God, why beseech him, why seek his grace, why petition his pleasure? For no other reason than that he is sadistic and vengeful and murderous. That is why. At your peril, you fail to flatter the rich man. At your own risk, you forget to genuflect in front of the King. We call those good who we fear. Were they good, we would have no need to fear them. But we call God good because we fear that he is not. We fear him. We fear him in every way.

So our sacrifices to him - our sacrifices of intelligence, of sense, of self-respect - are made for the very same reason, the reason as old as the existence of human society, that human beings have always invented Gods and praised them. The same reason the caveman made sacrifices to the Sun God for fear that the Sun God might not rise. We praise them because we fear what they may do. Please don't kill me, we grovel at their feet. We kneel to them and beg: please let me live.

I am not as disinclined as once I was to accept that. Sometimes it is necessary to live upon one's knees. Everybody kneels, and everyone beseeches. But I draw the line at kneeling to God. Because among all the kings and tyrants, among all the despots and destroyers who have ever lived, God stands out for one reason above all. Not in the extent of his destruction, nor even in the longevity of his wickedness, great though they are. No, he stands out because of all of them, he is the only one who does not exist. Like the Urban Spaceman, he does not exist. Unlike all those other kings and despots, he is not even worth begging for your life.

The Mayor's emergency co-ordinator is wasting her time. Just like the caveman with his Sun God, she is wasting her time. She fears God, all right. You have reminded us of how strong you are. Fear is her motive and fear is at the forefront of her mind. But she is wasting her time in fearing this particular God. For while it is a vengeful God, while it is indeed an angry God, it is an impotent and pointless God as well. A God can do and undo nothing, when he does not exist. It is a God who cannot even save you from what he has done. So what earthly good is praying to a God like that?