Not that the people I knew were bad or anything like that, I thought to myself. Each and every one of them was a star, just like Aleistair Crowley had said. Not a star like a stupid make-believe Hollywood movie star, but a star like a star in the night sky that shines out true and clear against the awesome blackness of space, twinkling bravely with its own indefatigable individuality. That’s what people are essentially like, I realized. They sparkle bravely without realizing that they are sparkling. They sparkle without meaning to, as they carry on with their normal everyday lives. Everyone has their individual qualities, qualities that shine out, from time to time, from under all the ubiquitous fucked-up stuff. Though maybe, it occurred to me a minute or two later, it is also true that these rays of pure individuality shine out less and less as time goes on. Until one day, perhaps, they don’t shine out at all anymore, and the person becomes a caricature of who they had been in better days – a distorted and dreadfully dull imitation of an echo of a copy of something that used to be great. A long time ago. The thought was a sobering one.
I thought about Speedy Pete again. There was something heroically wonderful about Pete, although it was kind of all twisted up. The wonderful stuff was just outweighed and distorted and generally buried by all the other stuff. I remembered his way of drumming up enthusiasm, even under the direst of circumstances: “Never mind all that,” he would say, “We’ll get something together. You’ve got a tenner in your hand and I’ve got a fiver in change in my pocket, and between us we’ll have enough for at least 15 blues and a couple of cans each. It’ll be paradise man, you’ll see. Paradise.” Speedy Pete was the paradise man – always looking for paradise, always happy to have company when taking a trip there. His enthusiasm was undeniable, and his genuine love of company, someone to share paradise with, was also undeniable. Not that this stopped him being a completely fucked up bastard, of course. You still wouldn’t really want to run into him on the street, or worse still – perish the thought – get trapped in his council flat with him after he had just necked a handful of speckled blues…
I was starting to feel in a bit of a philosophical mood at this point. All anyone ever really wants is just to be happy and have a good time, I reflected to myself – with some slight lack of originality, admittedly. So how come it always fucks up so badly? How come it always ends up like this? Why do we all get so hideously, grotesquely screwed up? Why am I always walking around like an aimless idiot, feeling like shit, not knowing where I am going, thinking weird thoughts? I remembered the line from the Kevin Ayers song – “It begins with a blessing, but ends with a curse…” That about sums it up, I thought.
At this stage, as often tends to be the case with me, I was simply walking for the sake of walking. I kind of like walking – I go for long walks when I am at a loose end and don’t know what else to do. It helps. As I walked and walked it would sometimes happen that I would come back to myself. Not too much, just a little bit perhaps. At such times I felt like more of a free agent, I felt a bit freer. I felt more like a person in fact. It seemed to me when this happened that I had some sort of global awareness, an awareness of the whole thing, the bigger picture, of real, genuine life – or whatever you wanted to call it. At such times life seemed to mean something, or at the very least it seemed to almost mean something, although I couldn’t say exactly what. The feeling was never strong enough for that. But it was definitely an improvement on how I usually felt, which was not free at all, and more or less completely unreal, in a fucked-up kind of way that I couldn’t make any sense of at all, let alone try to describe.
I had almost reached the entrance to the Ashmole Estate. If I took a short-cut through this estate I would find myself before very long on the Dorset Rd, and the sprawling South Lambeth Estate, which was pretty much home territory for me. One of the things I noticed whilst walking around aimlessly in the way that I was so prone to doing was the way in which the place-names that you aren’t very familiar with all seemed so strange. The more you thought about them the weirder and more outlandish they became. What the hell kind of a name was Ashmole, anyway? “Ash-Mole”? Like “Ass-hole”? The Ass-hole estate? The name gave me the creeps, somehow – although I freely admit that this is a bit of an extreme reaction. I felt a shudder run through me – what bugged me was not so much at the weirdness of the name, but the obvious (to me) fact that nobody living there realized that there was anything strange or spooky about it. They didn’t have a clue. They never gave the name of the place they lived in a second thought – they just carried on as normal. They never saw the fact, which I saw so clearly, that ‘Ashmole’ was actually a ‘spook’ name, and it would have done no good whatsoever for me to try to explain this pertinent fact to any of them. I knew very well that if I did try to explain any such thing whoever I was talking to would just stare at me as if I was a total weirdo. They would look at me in a funny way. I have experienced that type of look many times and as a result have long since learned to keep my mouth shut about this kind of thing.
The reason this business with the name played on my mind so much – it occurred to me – was that it illustrated a general principle. The general principle in question being that any of us can, and undoubtedly will in time, get used to anything, no matter how bizarre or freakish or spook-like it might be. In other words, however perversely unnatural your situation might be, it will all the same, before very long, start to seem perfectly natural to you. That would go a long way to explaining most of the people I knew, I thought. And I didn’t exclude myself from this list. We were all just freaks who didn’t know we were freaks; we were all spooks who lacked that one crucial bit of information – the information that would help us to know that we were actually only just sad, bizarre, grotesquely fucked-up ghosts or echoes of ourselves, and not real at all. I found this idea (or possibly insight even) to be both extremely funny, and at the same time deeply disturbing.
As I walked I considered this matter more deeply. Would it really be possible, I wondered, for people to adapt to anything at all? Literally anything? I couldn’t see any reason why not – after all, that was the whole point of the principle, that human beings are infinitely adaptable. Would it be possible then, I wondered, to adapt to a situation that was appallingly awful so that even this fucked-up situation got to seem normal? I presumed it was possible. But suppose – just for the sake of the argument – that there was such a place, or such a state of being, as hell, then would it be possible to adapt to that? Could you adapt to being in hell?
I couldn’t work this one out. It kind of freaked me out, but in a perversely exciting way. My first instinct, as I have said, was to answer in the affirmative, but something about this didn’t seem right. The whole point about hell is after all that it is completely off the scale in terms of fucked-upness, that is to say, the point is that it is infinitely fucked-up. But to be normalized to something means that we have got used to it, and that implies that we are somehow comfortable with it. That is what didn’t sound right to me because being comfortable with hell seemed to me to be a ridiculous contradiction – hell surely was the one thing that you just couldn’t get comfortable with. But then again – came the immediate counter-thought – maybe you could get comfortable with hell. Maybe that was what hell as all about – getting used to something that was truly horrible. Maybe that was the horror of it. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know what to think. It was a conundrum.
But maybe I was going down the wrong track here, I reasoned patiently to myself, after another few minutes of quietly walking down Kennington Park Road. Maybe this was a fruitless line of inquiry. Maybe what I should be thinking about was not the pain of hell and the possibility of adapting to that horrendous pain, but the possibility of adapting to pointlessness, or to futility, or to just general, all-purpose, plain old-fashioned dumbness. Maybe it was possible to adapt to spookishness, to unreality. Maybe that is what we were all busy doing, in our own little ways?
As soon as I got onto this line of thinking I could feel my interest sharpening – this was a much more promising approach to the Principle of Adaptation. I had the unmistakable feeling that I was on to something here. It had the unmistakeable ring of truth to it. It also, at the same time, had the unmistakeable ring of something that was genuinely grotesque. There were, it seemed to me, huge possibilities here – huge possibilities of getting hideously, unbelievably screwed up, that is. I found the grotesqueness of this ‘adaptation’ concept deeply fascinating and for a moment something almost came clear for me. Something that wasn’t just interesting in general philosophical terms, but which had a real relevance to me and my specific personal situation as it was at this very instant. I frowned, feeling as if I was on the edge of what seemed like a whole new way of looking at things. And then that moment passed, and nothing came clear after all – I was left feeling just generally crappy, I was left feeling confused and demoralized in a low-grade, ambient, almost imperceptible sort of a way and totally lacking in any sense of direction. Pretty much the same as usual really, it occurred to me. Helplessly stranded amidst the ubiquitous background radiation hiss left by some utterly unthinkable ancient catastrophe.
I felt deflated and perplexed – what the hell was all that about, I wondered. I had missed something important there, but I had absolutely no idea what it was and it niggled at me like the beginning of a bad tooth-ache.
I walked on right by the entrance of Ashmole Estate. I just couldn’t handle going into the place the way I was feeling. And I didn’t want to go back to the squat on Wandsworth Rd. I had to sort something out, but I didn’t know what that ‘something’ was exactly, apart from the obvious fact that it had something to do with my head. I wouldn’t sort anything out if I went back to the squat, I knew that much. I would just end up getting stoned or smacked out or wired on speed or spaced-out on bad acid, or whatever, and then I would promptly fall straight into a very well-established rut. I would end up doing the same old stuff I always do, and thinking the same old thoughts I always do. And that, I could see very clearly indeed, would do me absolutely no good at all.