Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Unassisted Human Flight

A few days ago: I'm standing in a drably decorated room with dark walls and a thick carpet of indeterminate colour. It is furnished with a series of three or four squat 1980s-style pine coffee tables, each one surrounded by four low, chunky, square armchairs upholstered in orange fabric. It is a waiting room, but for what? My guess is that I am in a travel agency, but travel agents don't have waiting rooms, do they? The room is empty of people, but the smell of tobacco lingers in the air, combined with that of cheap air freshener.

The armchairs and tables cover almost every square inch of floor space, so moving among them is awkward. I step up on to one of the tables, and, with a single bound, I leap over the two armchairs in between so as to land neatly on the next table. It is an impressive jump, accomplished with ease. A thought occurs to me, and I decide to see if I can jump over an entire table/chair arrangement and land on the next-but-one coffee table. This too is done effortlessly. I seem to glide through the air, setting myself down on the my target as light as a feather. That's unusual, I say to myself. I'm not usually so athletic and graceful. The only plausible explanation is that . . . I'm dreaming. There's one way to test whether or not this is real: if I can hop from this table and successfully fly the entire length of the room to land on the table at the far end, I can be absolutely certain this is a dream.

Sure enough, I am carried weightlessly across the entire distance. This is a dream, I tell myself, and not just any dream! This is a lucid dream, a dream in which I am conscious that I am dreaming. I am completely free to explore this fictitious consequence-free world as I choose. Aware that such dreams are often short-lived, arriving shortly before my eyes open, I put my time to good use. I tell myself that to attempt to leave the room will almost cause me to wake up. I allow myself to hover in the air, and begin a series of drifting and spinning manoeuvres in this unlikely waiting-room setting, all the while being careful not to bank too steeply or turn too fast, as any sudden events will shake me out of my dream. My curiosity, however, gets the better of me, and I decide to have a go at floating upside down. The unusual sensation is vivid enough to wake me.

I've read that in order to have lucid dreams on a more regular basis, you should get into the daily habit of checking whether or not you are dreaming. Scan your surroundings ten times a day with an eye for the implausible. Pinch yourself in the street. When the ingrained habit is repeated in your dream, so the theory goes, you can gain awareness of your dreams and direct them freely.

The dingy waiting room is a novelty, but the method of aerial propulsion is as old as I can remember. In every one of my recurrent dreams of flight, I have become airborne by jumping up over an object and then allowing myself to drift, as if I had pitched myself at just the right angle to be carried on a gust of wind. Both the method and the dreams certainly date back to my early childhood.

The year is 1983. I am eight years old and I am attending Gurnell Middle School. (My education career is complex. I was at Gurnell for only three years in between Montpelier Primary School and City of London School for Boys. Gurnell no longer exists. It is now Hathaway Primary School.) Among the many contradictory aspects of that strange school are its playgrounds, consisting of paving slabs bordered by grass, tarmac basketball/hockey courts, and two large grass fields bordered by gnarled old hawthorn hedgerows, of which the back field is out of bounds. (The first pornography I ever set eyes on was found among Gurnell's hawthorns, in the form of magazines left there by anonymous adult benefactors.) In between the paving slabs and the basketball courts are two landscaped knolls of grass. It is on the steeper of the pair that I am conducting my experiment.

I have recently begun reasoning as follows. The theory that unassisted human flight is impossible is just that: a theory. While it may be claimed the human body is unsuited to flight, grown-up physicists and engineers have given up too soon. Might it not be the case that the only thing required for people to fly is for the correct angle of trajectory to be found? The optimum angle, which makes flight possible, might be prohibitively narrow for practical purposes – a matter of a fraction of a fraction of a degree – but if it existed it would be worth finding? Am I not ideally placed to search for it, being a skinny eight-year-old with an entire lunch-hour to kill? And so, for an entire hour, I run up the knoll and fling myself from the top of it, only to tumble back to earth, landing safely but suddenly on the grass on the other side. (By the end of the hour, I have recruited a couple of gullible recruits to my project.) Not once in the whole lunch hour do I or my assistants fail to hit the ground. The result of the experiment: inconclusive.

While it is far easier to contemplate a large-scale transformation through a single, dramatic act (such as the invention of the aerofoil wing) than it is through the patient trial-and-error exploration of available options (How many frogs must be kissed? Ten thousand? Ten trillion?) it is nonetheless intriguing to speculate that this transformation lies under our very noses, attainable perhaps only from exactly the right angle, or less than a millimetre from where we are now, but in a dimension separate from the three we normally inhabit. The world of dreams, in which unaided flight is possible, might be closer than is commonly supposed, especially if we learn how to dream lucidly every night. Ask yourself what criteria you apply to determine whether or not you are awake.

But time will always be a factor. Memories, such as the one I have reconstructed about a lunch-hour at Gurnell Middle School in 1983, are made out of the same substance that dreams are. They fade as quickly as they form, and we must preserve them through telling, though they become less lucid, less real, each time they are recounted.

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