Food For Thought

The late Patricia Highsmith’s diaries were published recently. Highsmith is the author of The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers On A Train among many others. She wrote a mean short story too – mean in every sense of the word – some of which I read a while back. The following is a spoof of the kind of thing she came up with.  

Vernon had read somewhere about how ancient Aztecs – or perhaps it was Mayans – would eat the hearts of brave enemies so that they might absorb their courage. He was sure too he’d read something about how, on the same principle, consuming the flesh of intelligent creatures endowed the consumer with whatever intelligence the creatures had originally possessed. He read some strange things, he knew, but had become fully convinced that in principle these facts must be true. As he was, he felt, averse to cannibalism, he researched what would be the most intelligent animals one might reasonably devour. He supposed that dolphins and chimpanzees were off limits – though hadn’t he read of an African tribe that considered chimpanzee a delicacy? – and discovered an article that suggested intelligent life had evolved twice-over. Next to humans, it said, cephalopods were considered to have the greatest intelligence. Apparently the octopus brain was diffused throughout its body and therefore to eat it did not entail ingesting lumps of grey matter. Rather, it could be taken into the body in a soup or stew made from the entire organism.

The next set-back, he was disappointed to discover, was that octopus soup was not readily available in any of the stores near to where he lived. However, after further enquiry, he was pleased to learn that a Japanese restaurant in the next town specialised in such a dish. Accordingly, he determined to travel there on a daily basis, Sundays not included, to take his evening meal. He was surprised, though pleasantly so, to discover that octopus soup had a certain piquancy to it, reminiscent of a crab paste he had once tasted. He found it eminently palatable and for the next sixteen days, Sundays not included, partook of cephalopod consommé.

He would have continued with his regime for longer if not for a peculiar development. While his intelligence and capacity for deep thought had, he was pleased to say, improved considerably as a result of his new diet, he discovered on rising on the seventeenth day, that unsightly red blotches had appeared all along his arms. He was further dismayed, on swinging his legs from the bed, to see that the same marks ran from ankle to thigh.

Doctor Highsmith was at a loss to explain them. ‘Probably a virus of some sort,’ she said vaguely, washing her hands after what Vernon considered to be a perfunctory examination.’Or an allergic reaction to something. If I didn’t know better, I might even say you’d contracted plague – ring-a-roses and all that,’ she joked; impertinently Vernon thought. He wondered if his new diet could have played a part in his condition, but considered it best not to mention it to the doctor. He had, he knew, already surpassed her level of intelligence and did not therefore expect her to understand.

He was further alarmed two days later, however, when the red blotches had assumed a more three-dimensional appearance. They looked now rather like miniature, red-rimmed volcanic craters. He counted sixty-four in total, a neat multiple of eight. They were not painful but had blossomed so that his normal pasty flesh tones were all but obliterated with zig-zagged rows of the little craters. They somehow looked familiar and so he returned to his Encyclopaedia Animalia and the pages relating to cephalopods. Yes, that was what it was; the craters were like the suction cups on the arms of the creatures. He was not unduly alarmed; it was perhaps only to be expected after consuming so many of them and he was sure the symptoms would pass. His confidence was shaken a little though, when he caught himself adding an excess of salt to his food. It was rocked when he noticed that when passing water he was instead emitting a blue-black substance, indistinguishable from the ink secreted by octopuses themselves.

He was on the point of dialling Doctor Highsmith again when he was struck with a stabbing pain in his right arm. He rolled up his shirt sleeve to discover the entire limb had now a deep gash of glistening crimson, running its entire length between the rows of suction cups. Each side of this channel appeared to be on the verge of parting company with the other. His left arm was the same. He dared not look at his legs. He took up the telephone again but was shocked to discover that his lips had hardened around his mouth to the point of being beak-like. He was simultaneously overtaken by an urgent and compulsive need to visit the coast.

He drove to the sea – he knew not how – and abandoning his vehicle, tore off this clothes with what remained of his hands. He ran, gulping for air, to the cliff top. Launching himself from its prominence he entered the water, eight limbs trailing behind a now bulbous body, and disappeared beneath the surface.



He came from out of nowhere. Myalgic was his name, but he was more commonly known as The Scourge . He was dressed in an impenetrable armour, shining shades of metallic blue and purple, like a beetle’s carapace. He towered over me and despite my own superhuman powers, overpowered me with one blow from the back of his axe. The first wave of unbearable pain swept over me as, in that same instant, my arms, from shoulder to finger ends, became as iron, rendered immoveable, while the muscles of my back twisted into knots of corroded steel. My legs likewise were seared, down to my toes of shattered bone, inside my own inadequate armour. I was being broken from the inside out; every part of my body succumbing to an agony unlike any I have never known.

And then he moved on, leaving me there, smashed into innumerable agonised pieces, defeated.

That was years ago. The pain has not left me. Yes, I have days when it abates, but always it returns with vengeful severity. I cannot, will not, allow it to prevent me from living as fully as I might – of course not – but my days of using my abilities to serve others are gone, ending the day Myalgic The Scourge descended and conquered the world; my world.

Very Naughty Children

Remember when you were a child in primary school and the whole class was kept in at playtime because one or two individuals couldn’t behave themselves? Remember how unjust that felt? You’d done as you were told, as had most of your classmates, and yet there you were, stuck inside while other groups played out. All because of the actions of a few. When I became a teacher myself I vowed I would never do this to whole classes of children. Those who couldn’t behave would be the ones to face the consequences of their actions, not those who had. To the best of my memory, I kept this promise.

The sense of injustice I felt as a child when I was punished because of others’ misdemeanours returned this week, when UK health secretary Sajid Javid threatened the entire country with a Christmas lockdown if more eligible people didn’t take up their Covid booster jab. The ‘booster’ amounts to a third shot because, it turns out, the effects of the first two vaccinations last only six months. I have my booster booked for tomorrow. And yet, having done the right thing for myself and others, I could still be faced with the prospect of having Christmas curtailed because, according to Sajid Javid, too many people have been naughty children and haven’t done as they were told.

If this is the case, might it not be because the populace as a whole has grown tired, not to mention altogether sceptical, of politician’s promises about Covid?

       ‘Lockdown for three weeks to flatten the peak of the epidemic’ we were told by the Prime Minister in March 2020.

       Lockdown again, for a month, in November 2020, this time to protect the NHS.

        Stay locked down for over six months.

     Keep your distance, wear a mask, get tested – with which we all complied – and we’ll stop the infection from spreading.

       Get the injection and we’ll soon see off this pandemic;

       Get a second and save grandma;

     Vaccinate your children and erm… we’ll soon see off this pandemic (again).

      Get the booster jab and you can have Christmas. (What will it be after another six months? ‘Have your fourth shot or we won’t let you go on holiday’?)

While these measures may have been effective (the fact we’re still being threatened with lockdowns might suggest otherwise), the means by which we have been coerced into compliance has been through blackmail and bullying. Only a couple of days ago, NHS chief Amanda Pritchard claimed that hospitalisations are currently 14 times higher than they were this time last year. This was a lie. They are considerably lower, as the government’s own data shows. (Regrettably, Ms Pritchard neglected to mention that the NHS itself has been responsible for the deaths of about 11,600 people who caught Covid while in hospital for other ailments.)

I’ll be having my booster and I’ll be having Christmas too, regardless of what an authoritarian career politician and inept NHS chiefs tell me. If we have learnt anything as a result of the pandemic about those who govern us it is that they really do not have the first idea what they are doing. Nor do they know how to manage people. Bullying, blackmailing and punishing the whole class because of a few naughty children is not the way.

Religion Is Bad For You. Always.

There is no upside to religion. All of them, not just Christianity (though certainly including it.)

Religion makes its adherents judgmental. Those who don’t share their beliefs are ‘other’. Consider the terms that religion has spawned to describe non-believers: infidel, heathen, goy, kafir, lost, dissenter, apostate, scoffer, profaner, blasphemer, paynim, idolater, deviant. Needless to say, none of these is designed to flatter. If not being ostracised – ‘be not unequally yoked with unbelievers,’ says Paul with his usual magnanimity – then non-believers are viewed as sinners in need of redemption or enlightenment, as souls to be won, fodder for evangelism. Never as people to be respected or accepted for themselves.

Religion causes its adherents to abandon their critical faculties, accentuating their irrationality so that even those with some intellectual capacity sacrifice it to subscribe to a primitive, superstitious mind-set. They believe in miraculous resurrections, eternal life, covenants with the gods that necessitate the genital mutilation of children, prayer, ‘prophets’, demons, spirits, pantheons of supernatural beings and myths about the end of the world. There’s no evidence for any of this fantasy material, yet the believer trades in their good sense to embrace all of it to one degree or another.

Religion cultivates delusion. Otherwise intelligent believers are convinced their god talks to them in their heads while they, in turn, are capable of projecting their thoughts into the deity’s mind. They take part in rituals they believe appease him, assume  specific body positions and dress up in items of clothing they think, for some unfathomable reason, will help them gain favour in his sight. They believe they’re possessed by the spirit of the deity that enables them to do miraculous things, not least survive their own deaths.

Religion discourages thinking for oneself. Believers are told, either by a ‘holy’ book or by those who claim they know gods’ thoughts, what they should think about vaccinations, abortion, women, homosexuality, politics, guns, the significance of climate change, the state of the world and all those godawful infidels. Woe betide the believer who dissents from the views of their particular cult or sect.

Religion compels its adherents to deny reality. Believers are in a constant state of denial: about the world, evolution, education, the rights of others, the fact people can be moral without religion and death itself. They deny that the universe and nature are as they would be if there were no gods; that religion has contributed nothing to our understanding of the world, has discovered nothing, invented nothing. All of this is the equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and singing na-na na-na. Who needs facts when you’ve got third rate fantasy?

Religion causes hatred. There are those within every religion who seek to eliminate their enemies. They fly planes into buildings, shoot and stab innocent people in the street because they regard them as profaners or blasphemers, and call for the death penalty for those they regard as deviant.

Religion prevents people from being themselves. It convinces them they are worthless sinners in dire need of forgiveness and then imposes an inauthenticity on them. It makes them assume a role that reflects, or so they think, the nature of their saviour or prophet. It’s all an act, held in place by the collective pressure of fellow believers, in churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and kingdom halls. It is not life affirming but life denying. It is a lie.

Anyone care to defend religion? One particular version of it? What has your pet religion contributed to the world? What good does it serve?