Everything we know is wrong

As I sat in the canteen of Leeds college of art waiting for Phil Kirby to turn up I tucked into a festive turkey sandwich complete with stuffing and cranberry sauce. The sandwich was a free gift, courtesy of Creative Networks, a monthly networking event hosted by the art college. Tonight was their Christmas party and instead of the usual guest speaker there would be various performances from a band of obscure entertainers.

It felt like I had arrived way too early. The PA system was still being inexpertly assembled with occasional feedback howls whilst a thin crowd of entertainers and administrative staff floated about the echoing room. I was not too early though, it was simply a poor turn out, possibly due to a combination of the unknown quality of the performers, the thin covering of snow outside and the threat of yet more snow to come. I turned my attention onto the sandwich I had clasped in my hands. The chunk of white French loaf sliced down the middle then loaded with a grey and red goo made the sandwich look like a scale model of an Egyptian barge and I eyed it suspiciously.

I don’t like turkey but if there is no alternative I can just about manage breast meat. On this occasion, there was no alternative. I had been surprised when, at the counter, I was confronted with this one option. There was usually a vegetarian choice. Ah well, maybe Christmas requires strict conformity to the festive spirit (a substance, I am reliably informed, that was invented by a Japanese business man).

The eating of it however was not as bad as I had feared; I found no veins of fat or gristle in the meat – something I loathe.

Eventually Phil came into the canteen flanked by a man and a woman. We spotted each other and exchanged waves before he came over to my table and introduced his friends, Samantha and Richard who had both been at the previous nights party at the Temple Works.

Ah, the Temple Works party… It was the best party I had ever attended. Everything about the evening was magical, from the first moment of walking up the street in south Leeds and seeing this exact replica of an Egyptian temple covered incongruously in snow, to the last moment of parting from my new found bohemian friends. It had been a gathering of the cognoscenti of Leeds, all the artists and writers in the surrounding area who had adopted this remarkable building as a fitting venue for their creativity. Inside it was like a set from The Golden Compass; most things were grounded in reality but then something odd would appear and suggest this was ‘our’ reality. I remember being in a cosily lit room, wood panelled and furnished with desks and chestnut red chesterfields invitingly illuminated by adjacent floor lamps. All around, on any available flat surface, lay chocolates and various puddings, ready to eat for any guests who cared to help themselves. I was in the pudding room of the party and several groups of people stood or sat around these confectionaries earnestly discussing the important topic of the day – their equivalent of ‘dust’. The evening kept seesawing between reality and surreality. Despite the quality and quantity of the food on the tables, conversations were the real food at the event, and everyone seemed to have something interesting or remarkable to say, so unlike my day to day experiences living in a small West Yorkshire town.

The impromptu carol singing, complete with hard hats, in the adjoining vast empty space of the factory floor merely added to the joy of sharing a collaborative experience with co-conspirators.

On a high I bid farewell to my new comrades and hastily arranged the meet up with Phil for the next cultural event in Leeds that was the Creativity Networks Christmas bash the following day at Leeds College of art.

I should have known it could not have possibly equalled the sensational party at Temple Works but that wasn’t going to stop me from attempting a repeat performance.

So, back at the college of art, Phil, Samantha and Richard left me sitting at the table and went off to gather their free food and drink. Sometime later they returned. Samantha and Richard were fully laden with provisions.  Phil however, was empty handed and sat down furiously at the table. I asked him why he hadn’t got a sandwich and a perplexing bit of news was revealed to me.

The turkey, it turned out, was ersatz.

Ah-ha! Now it all made sense – the lack of a vegetarian option, the lack of fat and gristle – the meat was a fake. Not a bad attempt at mimicry, I thought. But for some reason, Phil found the deception highly offensive.

“What is the point!?” he hissed. “I refuse to be a party to such a futile gesture.”

This took me by surprise and I asked Phil what the problem was. He looked at me like I was stupid.

“Don’t you see? It’s vegetarian,” he said. “ They took perfectly good vegetable matter and tried to turn into something that looks and smells like meat to feed to vegetarians who eschew meat. What’s the point?”

Various answers tried to promote themselves eagerly in my head – fun, cleverness, why not? Maybe it was for the benefit of meat eaters who dismiss vegetarianism out of hand – but none of them seemed strong enough to withstand the fury of Phil’s reasoning and so I remained silent.

The evening was irrevocably doomed after that. The canteen remained stubbornly bereft of a proper audience and even the planned entertainment produced only more disappointment – jugglers that habitually dropped balls, announcements that could not be heard through the badly configured PA and exotic dance routines that mystified the mute watchers.

Eventually, Phil’s hunger and ire had gnawed at him for too long and he announced his immediate departure for a local hostelry. We all decided to cut our losses and agreed to accompany Phil in his exit. As we were leaving something remarkable happened on the stage, something I had never seen before.

A solo dancer performing a complex routine that was Asian in origin was providing the entertainment. It was incongruous in this venue as nearly everyone in the audience was not from Asia and thus had difficulty in understanding the point of it all. It was a bit like an Asian comedian trying to tell jokes to an uncomprehending white audience and all the jokes falling flat. Suddenly the dancer got heckled. But here was the strangeness; a dancer heckled him. With dance moves.

The heckler got up onto the stage and in silence, added their own interpretation to the music. It was the weirdest thing. It only lasted a few seconds and there seemed to be no animosity behind it but what a strange story it produced.

As remarkable as the incident was I had bigger issues to contend with. As I walked across the snowy car park in the dark I pondered the ticking philosophical bomb that Phil had handed to me. What was the point of ersatz turkey?

My overall, day-to-day philosophy was already on shaky ground. It’s main motif was the story of Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly and trying to come to terms with the possible alternate reality that he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man, dreaming. Now I had the added problem of another possible reality; that Chuang Tzu (or the butterfly) were only pretending to be who they appeared to be and were, in fact, neither.

As I started my car and wiped the falling snow from my windscreen I could sense that the turkey sandwich incident had jammed my Richter scale of existential doubt into number eleven. As my scale only goes up to ten, this was essentially off the scale. I sat in my car staring at the drifting snowflakes kissing my windscreen and marvelling at the impossibility that every single one of the snowflakes was unique. Every single one. Throughout all of history. The numbers defy our imagination.

This thought reminded me, yet again, that everything we know is wrong.

There is no point to anything.

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