Saturday 31 December 2011

Happy New Year

It's that time of year again, when we are invited to examine the last twelve months and tot up the hits and misses; a perfect occasion to gaze regretfully back over a year of lost opportunities and to look forward with misgivings and dread to the failures that await us in 2012.

In terms of number of days lost to depression, 2011 was certainly one of the best yet. How else do you calculate the relative value of a year in a convenient, scientific way? Allow me to offer up the benefit of my experience. To gain a useful perspective over the year's mistakes and disappointments, I find it handy to do two things. Firstly, make a list of everything you told yourself you would achieve, but didn't. Be as exhaustive as possible, and include both ill-defined desires that went unfulfilled and specific undertakings that you simply botched.

Secondly, and more importantly, compare whatever paltry wins you might have clocked up with the extravagant successes of those who are closest to you. Observe how certain of your friends or family appeared to breeze through the year, sweeping up accomplishments and accolades as they passed, driven by the sort of deep-seated goal-oriented ambition and resolve that you lack.

When making New Year's Resolutions for 2012, remember to add unfulfilled resolutions from previous years to your list. Thus, each January the list grows incrementally, and you will start to carry around with you an ever-lengthening litany of self-disenchantment, the burden of which will eventually become absorbed into your daily habits in the form of a personality trait.

In the forthcoming year, in addition to my usual New Year's Resolutions – become good at backgammon; finish my translation of Gustave Le Rouge's paranormal sci-fi horror epic Prisoner of Mars (1911) and its sequel, War of the Vampires (1912); eat more chickpeas – I have promised myself that I will copy the tactics of people who achieve personal success without appreciable talent or effort. I resolve to toady up to attractive and influential people, and to jump on board projects that bring fame and popularity rather than what I have pompously and prissily insisted on up until now: a dubious, so-called 'artistic integrity'. I shall strive to be more ruthlessly go-getting and mercenary. I shall stop arbitrarily seeking out any distinction between actual news and mere personal opinion in what I read, thus gaining a hitherto unrealized reputation for passionate political conviction. Finally, I shall bury any misgivings I have about myself, hide my real feelings and express myself as though I am unconditionally, uncritically convinced of my own brilliance. Already I feel that 2012 will be even better than 2011.

Happy New Year from Tingtinglongtingtingfala!

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.

Friday 11 November 2011

Cider Philosophy

We’d had quite a lot of the 6.5% Satdownbe Cider, pressed locally at The Square and Compass, Worth Matravers, Dorset. Baz and I managed to worry Rob by explaining to him not only that there was no such thing as reality, but that this had been proven repeatedly by scientific experiment. We talked him through the two-slit experiment. Individual electrons fired randomly at a screen with two slits in appear to go through both slits simultaneously, as if they weren’t particles at all, but waves (the patterns produced on the other side of the screen show that they have, apparently, ‘interfered with themselves’). It is only when you make a measurement to see where exactly the electrons went that they go back to behaving like particles. And you can wait as long as you like before doing so. You can come back the next day, or next week or a million years and the electrons will only decide where they were at the moment you make the observation. There’s no cheating: at a quantum scale, human observation itself actively determines where the electrons are. What’s more, according to a principle called the Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser, you can’t ask a computer to make the measurement for you. If you drag the data to the wastepaper basket before looking at it, the electrons continue to seem as though they drifted through both slits, like a wave. Only when the world is observed by a human does it take on any reality.

We continued the discussion on these lines, noting that even objects as heavy as gold atoms and molecules of buckminsterfullerene had been shown to behave with quantum uncertainty. And so broad is the probability curve governing the orbits of electrons, that right at this moment the chances are that one of the atoms in your body has an electron with an orbit that extends as far as the Moon, c.240,000 miles away. Think about it: a (admittedly minuscule) bit of you is, right now, probably on the surface of the Moon.* Rob sat very quietly (which is highly unusual for him) with his head in his hands.

Rob is correct to be concerned about the non-existence of reality. It is a wee bit alarming to suppose that everything you thought you knew to be the case is just a subjective fantasy. Why, then, bother getting out of bed in the morning? Why carry on with any task, or uphold any relationship? That’s quite a depressing idea. It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to extract ethical questions of the ‘What should I do?’ type from scientific questions such as ‘What the hell is going on?’, even if no direct connection is to be made. The history of the formula ‘science says x therefore we should do y’ is a turbulent one, encompassing some well-meaning as well as some deeply flawed ideologies. This is largely because the moral minefield is as shapeless and confusing as a quantum field, and science is easily co-opted and distorted.

On the other hand, I have always been a big fan of the philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC), who deliberately sought to build an ethical philosophy out of a natural one. His espousal of atomism (the idea  that the world is made up of microscopic individual parcels of matter) fed directly into his programme of living without fear through learning, and prizing friendship above all else. It’s hard to argue with that. The epicurean philosophy is certainly a comforting one. His description of perception, for example, specifically guarantees that the impressions we receive through our senses are bona fide, in exactly the way the two-slit experiment contests: an impossibly thin film of atoms (today we would call them ‘photons’) is given off by the object and strikes the observer’s eyeballs. According to Epicurus, what we see is literally what we get, and vice versa.

Being an epicurean (in spirit, at least) leads me to be biased towards those theories that allow for positive outcomes. Scaremongering ideas seem to breed from theories that have sprung up precisely to fill a moral void left by an absence of a law-giving deity. I don’t mean to imply we should hide behind rose-tinted spectacles, only that grey-tinted spectacles give an equally misleading impression.

This is, for me, the primary implication of a universe that is co-created between object and observer: we are both liberated and empowered to change the face of reality and be changed by it. The two-slit experiment implies that our selves and the world we see around us are enmeshed in each other. For some, the dissolved self is undeniably a frightening prospect. They may be absolutely right, but it also reminds us not to project fear and hatred into the world – we are a part of it. Even the epicureans were forced to reassert human free will by introducing quantum uncertainty – in Latin, clinamen – into their otherwise flawless logic.

Baz sensed that Rob’s mind was about to be blown, so he back-pedalled a bit. He wasn’t, he said, trying to claim that reality didn’t exist at all. He just meant that the objective part of reality might account only for 50 per cent of the bigger picture that is co-created by ourselves. He went on to associate the two halves of the universe with observer/object, or male/female, and yang/yin.

It’s an attractive cosmology, but I’m not entirely convinced. On the basis of my experience of language, particularly stories (which are one of the things the universe could be said to be composed), it appears to be 99.99 per cent imagination, held together only by the slenderest thread of reality. But these are discussions for another night of cider drinking.

* I am unable to supply scholarly citations for any of the facts in this blog entry. In the course of our drunken conversations, we have agreed that we can get away with almost any unlikely nugget of bullshit if we preface our assertions with “I think I read somewhere in New Scientist . . .”

Monday 24 October 2011

Am I a Theorist or a Seeker?

Like you, I'm a selfish person. Every so often, though, I am bewildered by my own uncharacteristic generosity.

About ten years ago, I managed to assemble a set of Neil Oram's novelizations of The Warp, in three volumes: 1. The Storms' Howling through Tiflis, 2. Lemmings on the Edge and 3. The Balustrade Paradox. (Ken himself appears at the end of volume 3, in the guise of a distinctly malevolent gnome.) The books were much harder to get hold of then than they are now, and I had to follow numerous and lengthy false trails and disappointments. However, once I eventually had all three books clutched in my hot little hands, I barely skimmed through them before handing them over in a carrier bag as a gift to my friend Baz. I still don't know why I did that, but presumably it felt like the right thing to do at the time. I'm seeing him in a couple of weeks' time, in Dorset, so I'll take the opportunity to ask him if he ever read them. I have recently replaced the copies, and am waiting for an appropriate time in my life to tackle them. My feeling is that, since I went through the 1998 Warp at The Albany with Oliver Senton, the books, though obligatory, are not top-priority.

In the meantime, I've been feeling quite Campbellish since the Jeff Merrifield book Seeker!, so it's time to begin filling in another long-overdue gap. (I am a strict completist, which means I am reluctant to start reading a book by any particular author unless I reckon I have a decent chance of finishing everything ever written by them or about them.) This comes in the form of the Illuminatus! audiobook, again in three volumes: 1. The Eye in the Pyramid, 2. The Golden Apple and 3. Leviathan. The entire thing ('unabridged') is available performed by Ken himself and the astonishing Chris Fairbank, and the recording clocks in at over 32 hours. I'm listening to it in half-hour bursts on my way to and from work. My walk to work actually takes 45 minutes, but after 30 of this stuff, my mind is full to bursting and can't digest any more.

I'm simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by conspiracy theorists. But I believe that what Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson are celebrating in these books is not the smug certainty that conspiracy theorists indulge in, but rather the free-wheeling open-ended journey of the conspiracy seeker. Theorists have an answer to everything. There is no piece of new evidence that cannot be plastered or squelched into the existing thesis, no matter how potty. Errant data is spirited away so that theorists can proclaim themselves the guardians of secret knowledge. Seekers, however, delight in the uncertainty of the errant data, for it means that whatever gluey theory had allowed itself to coalesce through lazy thinking, now has to be reappraised. They seek a world that regains its childlike sense of wonder on a regular basis. The discovery that your world-view is entirely unsupported – bare instants after you thought you'd glimpsed what was really going on, who held the cards and pulled the strings, or managed to get a toehold on the bigger picture –  is certainly liberating. The feeling is akin to the moment of weightlessness at the apex of a roller-coaster, when your sense of what is up and what is down vanishes. In that instant, your identity vanishes with it, and you are free.

Does that explain why, at the crucial moment I had The Warp books in my grasp, I let them go? Does the selflessness that comes at the split-second of zero-gravity uncertainty allow feats of uncharacteristic generosity? Or, was I frightened of what I would find if I gave the books too much attention, or of literally losing myself in their contents? And is my hardline completism a subconscious effort to account for, and weed out, what appears to be errant data? In other words: deep down, do I consider certainty or uncertainty my greater enemy?

Friday 30 September 2011

Letters from Conrad

After my dad retired, he got into the habit of writing letters to his relations and friends, which he kept up for most of the 1990s and early 2000s. They were surreal, funny and occasionally brilliant. Some form an imaginary set of 'Practical Guides', while others chronicle a series of adventures with recurrent characters. By and large, they deal comically with his experiences as a 'senior citizen' coming up against an increasingly unfamiliar world. He satirizes modern pop psychology, New Age mumbo jumbo, corporate-speak and bureaucracy. He also caricatures himself as antagonistic, pedantic, insecure and meddlesome. They form a honest yet sly self-portrait.

People often suggested that he should have them published, either as a little collection of comic essays or as a regular column in some magazine or other. But for one reason or another, Dad was reluctant to do so. Perhaps it's just as well, as it's hard to imagine what sort of audience there would be for this sort of material. Not everyone 'got' Dad's humour. Many of the letters are politically incorrect, and his satirical portrayal of women is particularly barbed, but there is no malevolence or prejudice. Above all, Dad liked instigating arguments, so any provocative sentiments must be understood as part of a mischievous, Liverpudlian irony. It helps if you imagine them being read out in his lilting voice, which alternated between a clownish, mocking faux-grandeur, and an earthy bathetic drawl. Sadly, we no longer have his voice, but the letters remain.

Although Dad never published the letters, he was generous at distributing them, so I have no qualms about sharing them now. They are not in any way private. If you wanted to be added to his mailing list, you only had to ask. As each installment was completed, he would fill your name at the top of the letter and post you your very own copy. At the height of his output, Dad would send out a dozen copies of each letter at a time. Essentially, Dad was a blogger, though the word didn't exist back then. (He made a few attempts to get the hang of using the Internet, but it evolved faster than he could grasp its intricacies, and the overwhelming weight of rubbish it contains taxed his patience.)

With the idea of a blog in mind, I dug out a folder full of these letters from Dad's filing cabinet. In his inimitable handwriting, there were some scrawled attempts to number and organize the letters, on scraps of paper and Post-It notes. The dating of the letters is in most cases impossible to determine or rationalize, as he would put the current date on any letter he sent, regardless of whether he had written it years previously. My aim in transcribing them is to tidy up the lapses in spelling, grammar and syntax (faults he would leap on and hold jubilantly up to ridicule if he found them in anyone else's writing), but I will otherwise leave them exactly as he wrote them, including his occasionally eccentric layout and punctuation.

Some of the letters are duplicates or contain repeated material, and I will be asking those of his readers who were more careful in keeping these treasures safe them to supply me with copies of the many missing ones. When I've completed editing and posting the (approximately) fifty comic letters, I may add other bits of Conradiana. There are writings on economics and on philosophy, tongue-in-cheek letters to the Ealing Gazette and angry ripostes to the Guardian.

Accordingly, I'd like to invite you firstly to get a yourself a drink, and then to enjoy the inaugural post on a new website – – a curiously high-tech memorial to my dad. I have tried to keep it as simple as possible.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Writing: Activity or Passivity?

I’m busy these days. After a relatively inactive bit of my life between last year’s and this year’s Edinburgh Festivals, I’ve suddenly got a lot of projects on the go – some of which I initiated myself; others of which have unaccountably come hurtling in my direction. I like being busy. If I weren’t busy, I’d be lazy, which is another way of saying I’m bad at organizing my time. One of my hypocrisies is that I admire people who manage to cram lots into their day, but I very seldom get annoyed with myself when I fail to get things done. Sleep is as good a waste of time as any other, and I enjoy that – but I’ve even gone so far as to congratulate myself when I’ve succeeded in pissing away an entire weekend in front of the telly.

The only time I get frustrated with myself is when I don’t have enough energy to do everything I want to do. Occasionally it’s occurred to me that I should take more exercise, eat more healthily, drink less, in order to raise my energy levels generally. But you and I both know that’s not going to happen. The fact is this: you always find energy to do the things you enjoy the most, just as your stomach always finds room for dessert after a heavy meal. My annoyance at myself for feeling tired is far more to do with the fact that it means I’ve been doing the wrong things. Uninspiring jobs, even the simplest ones that don’t require any effort, leave me exhausted. By contrast, give me a good film to watch, or an impro show that dares to express its own uniqueness, and I begin bouncing around and talking too fast, even though I’ve just been sat in my chair for an hour and a half. I don't need bags of excess energy in order to enjoy a good rehearsal or improvabout.

What about the sedentary activity of writing? Does writing energise me? Not always. But by thinking about it in terms of energy levels, I have learned that there are two types of writing. Most of what I write, on this blog, or in my Diary, in the White Notebooks, or elsewhere, is about stuff. The stuff happens, or I think it, and then I see it as a useful duty to write it all up, to fix it in place. I put off this kind of writing. I fall behind in it, then have to put extra time aside to catch up on it, which I resent, because it prevents me from doing the things and thinking the stuff I like best. This kind of writing wears me out, and becomes tedious. But every so often, once I get started with pen or keyboard, once I overcome the sense of it being a chore, the fear of the blank page and the chains of purpose and meaning, writing becomes active. The task of keeping a record gives way to the creative business of making stories. And I speak here of the microscopic dramas that play out within the syntax and semantics of a sentence as well as the big narratives that I vainly seek to impose upon my prose (behaving as if I were the author of language itself rather than a bit-part actor making the most of the few brief lines I have be assigned). Writing can and should be an activity, not a passivity, one that’s as energizing and as delightfully purposeless as swimming. What matters is not what gets written and what doesn’t, but freedom, wonder and involvement.

I should definitely try to put more time aside for swimming. But when? I'm so busy. Yawn.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

A Visual Dictionary of Edinburgh Fringe Comedy

Well, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is upon us again. This year's Fringe Programme is fatter than ever. More than a third of it is taken up with comedy – 136 pages, with up to twelve shows advertised on each page. For the average Festival-goer, this is an intimidating amount of choice. To help you navigate your way through what's on offer, Tingtinglongtingtingfala is pleased to announce the forthcoming Visual Dictionary of Edinburgh Fringe Comedy, grouping the thumbnail pictures that illustrate every show in the programme under easy-reference headings. Once I began finding categories by which to classify these pictures, it became hard to stop. Please bear in mind that is is a work-in-progress, which may not be complete until long after the Festival has finished. Here is an initial, highly limited selection, just to whet your appetites:



"Badly Drawn"


"From Above"

"Gazing Over There"

"Implied Nudity"

 "One of Us is More Important"

"Open-Mouthed Shock/Surprise/Disgust"

"Wearing a Funny Hat"

"Künt and the Gang – Free!"

I hope you find this useful.