Dating, walking, coffee pots on the brain. Pop songs made of lists. Elastic time. The undeniable importance of forgetting. The happy therapist.
FOR MANY WEEKS life was filled up. A season of changes and long walks stole Kaput’s time for typing. This story from back then starts with a lost object.
….If you go into the woods, any day of the week, you’re almost guaranteed a surprise.
It’s the weekend. He travels across London by train to Epping Forest. She meets him from the station and leads the way. The autumn leaves are pale yellow and red. They walk deep inside the woods, past dark ferns and clusters of wild flowers, to a clearing on a hill, where they find a pub and stop for tea. She goes to the toilet. On her return to their table, she tells him there’s a machine in the women’s selling mini vibrators.
Pocket rockets, he replies, as if he knows anything.
I guess. I’ve never seen that before.
He smiles broadly and she politely mirrors him. They both look down at the table. He searches for the subtext. Does mention of sex toys mean tonight’s the night? Or could it be a hint to contrary, that sex will continue on as a solo event?
|on the Essex Borders|
As they leave the pub, her plan is to head further along the winding bosky tracks. He looks for his hat in his coat. He checks all pockets and then backpack. But the dark grey beanie is nowhere to be found. He goes back inside the pub. Scans the table. Under the table. The chairs. The ledge by the window, with its premature Christmas lights pinned in a crooked line. He asks after the hat at the bar. The young man serving, who has a face like an angel, but could quite easily be wicked, smiles and says, I’m afraid not.
Where’s it gone, he says, like she’s supposed to have the answer. I did bring a hat, yes?
You did, she says.
He turns around in a circle and flaps his arms in a preliminary gesture of defeat. He gazes back at the the pub. He could return inside, again; go check the table, again; under the table, again; ask the malevolent young waiter a second time round. But he knows by this point he’d be half way to madland – which isn’t a good look.
No. He shakes his head. He is not going to chase. This isn’t going to happen. It’s a snap decision. And he’s sticking to it.
But it’s your hat, she says.
He shrugs. He looks across the pale blue sky towards its edges, where the light is starting to turn grey and pink. They do not have all the time in the world. They’ve just spent the last hour or so crossing the forest. The lost hat could be anywhere. He wants to be off already, walking with her deeper into the trees. He wants this so much more than he wishes to be frantically searching and keeping his date waiting. The search fever doesn’t appeal – of course it doesn’t. The fever of a confused pursuit of something mislaid while lacking the belief in any chance of success. Frantic is guaranteed. You become absorbed by what is lost. You know the object continues to exist somewhere and therefore you keep on trying. The longer you search the harder it becomes to peacefully let go. You may eventually be successful. Or you may continue to look everywhere. And then it gets worse – you start the search all over again, convinced you might have missed the object because you weren’t fully engaged by the hunt first time of looking. But now you are determined to be totally engaged – to be single-minded. She will notice him becoming increasingly frayed, flustered and exasperated, possibly snappy, his cool long gone, and by now their date will be at risk of damage, if not ruin. He will be torn between these anxious thoughts and the inner certainty that the stupid sodding hat has to be somewhere!
No. He doesn’t want any of that. It’s chilly, he says, but his head’s good for it. I will survive.
But it’s your hat, she says for the second time.
It’s fine. I bought a new one just the other day. It’s in the post, actually. Expected to arrive Monday.
Briefly she looks down at her black ankle boots with a disappointed face that passes. They descend a slope toward a broken beech tree lying on its side.
On Wednesday, she drives back to the forest during her lunch. The trees are extravagantly golden in the midweek sun. She returns to the pub and gets his hat. The waiter looks surprised that someone travelled all this way for a hand-knitted beanie. On the drive back, she listens to a song about a man not sure if he’s dreaming he’s a plowhorse, or a plowhorse dreaming of being a man.
Meanwhile, across London, as she visits the woods, he’s on the move in Westminster.
Every weekday lunchtime he speed walks around the streets for ten minutes. The plan being that it’s good for his health. His arms not quite pumping, but almost, he goes down Medway Street, then left into Monck Street and all the way up past the dark brick of the Emmanuel Centre, before he turns right into Great Peter Street. At the zebra crossing, the traffic is backed-up by a young woman in a lemon coat walking slowly, nose in her phone. Shortly, he turns right again into Tufton, then left into Dean Trench Street, where the sun makes a shadow in the shape of a sauce jug on the side of a red house. He remembers being seven years old and smashing a large white milk jug, six saucers and seven plates, and his dad exploded.
He enters Smith Square, the handsome Georgian enclosure with the large ugly church in the middle. He thinks the church looks upside down. He keeps to the left hand pavement, goes round the square and out again, and heads along Dean Stanley Street to the park by the river. He doesn’t know the name of the park, this small patch of green sitting under the shadow of Parliament.* He walks around the perimeter anti-clockwise and then stops at the river wall to look down at the Thames. The water takes the light from the sky and holds onto it. His eyes track right across St Thomas’ on the opposite side; scrolling past the hospital buildings as far as Lambeth Palace, and then rising up the approach to Lambeth Bridge.
The bridge where he cycles every day is in his mind’s eye – he can see an image of it as he types these words. But the bridge isn’t actually inside his head. The brain is a grey squelchy amalgam of neurons and chemicals. Neuroscientists have looked for pictures in our brains and they haven’t found any. So what is he seeing this second as he writes?
His gaze pans left from the bridge, following the river downstream to directly beneath the brick embankment where he is stood. The tide is low, revealing a sandy beach. There’s a dinged, washed out oil can half buried in the sand, some pieces of driftwood laid out as flotsam, and a single large gunboot. It’s always a lone boot in such displays. (The lost shoe is happy, said Nabokov. Does the lost shoe even want to be found?)
He turns his back on the river and crosses the grass in a diagonal, bringing him to The Burghers of Calais.
The sombre complex sculpture by Rodin was completed in 1889 and depicts the ending of the siege of Calais of 1346. The English army had surrounded the port city and starved its citizens into submission. As Calais prepared to surrender, England’s King Edward III agreed to spare the inhabitants further punishment, if the city’s leaders gave up their lives. The six burghers of Calais were instructed to walk out the gates carrying the city keys and wearing nooses around their necks. Rodin’s group sculpture presents a moment of bravery, agony and dread as the men prepare to meet death. You might walk straight past the celebrated piece by the river – he had on several occasions. Or you might linger and find Rodin’s blend of detail and emotional weight engrossing.
On this autumn day in the sun, he walks round the bronze sculpture – closely observing the faces and fabrics from front and sideways, but also taking it in from behind. He then circles back to the beginning, where he is joined by a family from overseas, including two young boys dressed identically in yellow and black. One of the boys tries to climb onto the small plinth but his dad barks at him to stop.
Rodin’s sculpture, put simply, lies on the cusp of the traditional and the modern. The bronze cast next to parliament is one of several copies permitted by French law dotted across the world, from Copenhagen to California, Tokyo and New York. He thinks of Rodin from old photographs seen in exhibitions, with his long bohemian beard and a grey smock. Once again, these images are in his mind as he writes, and yet they are not in his brain at all.
He circles the sculpture for an additional survey. He covers the flank leaning to the north side, the western rear, the south side, and then back to the eastern front. Having looked closely at the statue from all angles, he still cannot perceive these various aspects in one instant. It is impossible to bring the entirety of the six burghers together in a single view. It seems wrong to him that this is so. This basic incontestable fact of life bothers him rarely, but today it feels like a great loss: that we never see the complete object at the same time. We never see a whole object whole. This statue with its men dragging their feet; this bronze representation of six tortured souls, constitutes a three dimensional object in actuality that perceptually, in truth, he will only ever see from different angles during separate intervals of time. Never will the whole statue be seen completely in the moment.
This doesn’t stop him from trying however. He walks around the statue a third time. But much quicker, with his eyes fixed upon the bronze, careless of where he’s putting his feet. He even considers sprinting. A memory from childhood wells up of doing something similar with a statue in Russia, on a family trip to Moscow when he was little. Even as a child he knew it was futile; although he tried all the same. But you won’t capture the world this way.
As a large party of tourists arrives in front of the statue to take turns to pose and be photographed, it’s really not the time to sprint. He circles the statue for one last round. His head starts to spin a little. He feels dizzy. He should go buy some lunch to eat at his desk while reading the sport. The dizziness is annoying and makes his ears hot. This would not be a great moment to lose consciousness and suddenly cut to black…
The next morning the alarm goes off in the room at the other end of the flat. He walks to the phone and it’s loud. He presses snooze and returns to bed with the device still in his hand. He gets back to sleep immediately it seems.
The alarm goes again. But that can’t have been ten minutes. It was surely much longer. With the phone clutched in his fist, he presses snooze a second time, and again he falls back to sleep. He’s good with daybreak snoozing.
The alarm goes a third time. So soon. That can’t have been ten minutes. Felt like no more than a few seconds.
These two ten-minute intervals are supposed to be identical in duration but they can’t be, they’re simply not the same. The phone says that they are though.
He gets out of bed and goes to the toilet. He sits there, gazing at the creases of his palms. He thinks, you woke up again, didn’t you? But exactly who woke up? Presumably me, the same you from yesterday, the same person who fell asleep last night.
By now, he’s left the toilet and is standing in the kitchen. He doesn’t remember leaving the bathroom to get here. He stands in the arch of the doorway. The fridge makes a low hum, but otherwise it is early, and quiet, and the world is still.
Except the modern home is never still, but a homeland swarming with living organisms. There are all kinds of microbial communities in your kitchen. In his fridge live cold creatures, microbes that previously only survived in the Arctic. But then electricity came along and these cold guys were able to shack-up with him in south London. And in all the other fridges of south London. The same with the microbes in the oven that previously only existed on the equator.
And it continues. He opens the cupboard to get the coffee beans and there is the salt grinder. There are desert microbes in the salt grinder for sure. There are currently microbes native to the geysers of Iceland swimming in his hot water system as he runs the tap for water for his coffee. He looks at the clock hanging above the stove and wonders how much dry fungi is lodged inside the plaster, waiting to eat out the wall.
His eyes return to the tap over the sink and the dishes from last night that he washed before bed. Yes, that was me who sensibly washed up last thing. And this is still me who’s feeling glad now that we did.
He admires the outline of the clean dishes, the shape of the tidy mini-structure of white plates, the light grey saucepan, the cleaned fork, knife and spoon. He fast cuts across to the far counter to review the line up of jars where the teas live, plus the sugar, and the linseed he puts on his breakfast. The jars are striped orange, white and black, and striped olive, white and black; plain slate; frosted glass; and simple white. Next along is a pen holder in the shape of a frog that was a gift from the Annoying Son years ago. Above it, hanging from a nail in the wall is a miniature electric guitar that’s also a ruler but primarily a beer bottle opener. It is red and also came from the Annoying Son.
He tidies the dishes away and returns the cutlery to the top drawer. As he places the sharp knife in the tray he remembers he dreamed last night of a beast with claws who died.
He puts two handfuls of coffee beans in the grinder and presses the switch. The grinder makes a loud noise and he distracts himself gathering up the pieces of his morning coffee pot. It’s a Bialetti stovetop coffee maker and he’s had it for years.
Every Monday at Mindfulness, one of the regulars describes to the group his daily ritual involving a similar coffee maker. The man stands in his kitchen early each morning and closely observes the pieces of his coffee pot. He places the three parts on a large wooden chopping block, positioning them as a kind of still life, as he seeks to be in the moment – hoping for no thoughts at all for several seconds at least.
But he never manages the no-thoughts part. He says he finds the arrangement of the pieces of the coffee pot too pleasing to look at – becoming absorbed by their presence, by their relationship to each other, he says, and with his view of them in the morning light. And always he thinks, wouldn’t it be nice to make a sketch. And as soon as he considers making a drawing, he feels he is no longer in the moment. A layer has come between his head and external reality, and he gets cross for having thoughts when he didn’t want any.
Today, Wednesday, standing in his own kitchen, he has become similarly absorbed and observant while preparing his morning drink. Adding the ground coffee and warm water, singing a song (The sweet geography descending from your eyebrow to your toe), he wonders if across town, the other side of south London, the guy from Mindfulness is captivated in his kitchen, doing the same.
Preparing to place the Bialetti on the heat, he rotates the coffee pot 360 degrees. He sees it all, but not all at once. The pot goes on the stove. He watches the jet burners, contemplates the blue flame, the brushed grey stainless steel in contrast to the dark cast-iron rack. He pulls focus outwards to the tiled splashback behind the stove, to the grey and black speckled counter, the plain wall painted linnet white, the blonde kitchen cabinets, the storage basket high-up with the kitchen roll sticking out the top, the pale blue clock.
He wonders if it’s true how some say that all objects only exist via their relationship to each other. He remembers something he read. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the object (any object) a ‘vacuous actuality’. Whitehead described objectivity as an impossibility and the singular item to be intrinsically hollow, defined entirely by its context and through its interrelation with other things. (Whitehead is the second status quote of this blogpost. The first was by Nabokov.)**
Could it be we all see a different coffee pot? There are neuroscientists, many neuroscientists, who will tell you that we are not conscious beings directly experiencing the world as it is. That the ‘exterior existence’ that we see is actually in our brain. Each living soul’s consciousness, some argue, is our own private picture show.
But does the brain housed inside the head really invent the world, again and again? Open up any live human skull and inside you will find grey neural matter that’s soft and damp. Most certainly there will be nothing in there resembling a coffee pot. You can peer inside his head as long as you like, but you will not find even an image of a coffee pot. Consciousness is not just some film show going on inside his head. It cannot simply be neural.
In other words, the neuroscientists, these brilliant people, are speaking from inside a plausible paradigm they can’t justify. The neuroscientists are telling a story.
The coffee starts to bubble and rise as some of the boiling liquid spits out the spout like a hot spring.
At this stage, faced with all these hard questions, apparently we don’t seem to know what consciousness is and therefore reality. All this before breakfast.
He puts hot milk in his coffee and stirs with a teaspoon and wonders if it will taste as good today as it tasted yesterday.
For now, what is happening both inside and outside the brain seems equally of value. There’s the coffee pot; there’s his brainwork; and thirdly there’s the process of observing. This is what’s going on, he thinks, lifting the round blue-grey mug that he will never observe from all sides at once. This is it: Consciousness. Leave it at that.***
He moves from the kitchen into the front room. He sits down at the table to drink his coffee. It’s hot. At first he must sip. This sipping encourages thought. As he sips, he remembers more of his dream from in the night. That the beast who perished in his nightmare was an ex boss, who expired because his claws grew too sharp. Before then, the ex-slave driver considered himself a good person because his claws were blunt. But he couldn’t stay alive with scissorhands that sliced and gouged and drew blood, and so he passed away in a bloody mess.
He sits on the stiff-backed chair with the coffee all finished and wants to dispel thoughts of blood and claws, to dispel all thoughts in fact as he tries to be mindful. He closes his eyes and manages two clear-headed inhalations. But on the third breath, he starts making lists for the day ahead. He thinks of what clothes to wear. He remembers that he will need to buy milk later. He better make a calendar reminder to stop at the One Shop this evening on the way home. Before then, he must go to the pharmacy close to work. He can do it on his fast walk at lunchtime. He must also book cinema tickets for Friday. Also email about the gift he ordered and then finish his online grocery shopping. He should add bin bags. (He will also need to do some actual paid work today.)
At bin bags, both large and small bin bags, he terminates the shopping list and returns his attention to his breath. He sucks in deeply. He draws the breath inside his lungs and feels his belly swell, pushed tight against the elastic waistband of his tracksuit bottoms. He follows the breath returning up through his lungs, then out of his mouth, and almost makes it to the next breath with a clear head… And then turns to thinking about the football. He wonders who will win tonight; and when, if ever, an English club will lift the European Cup again. (He still calls it the European Cup. But not in company.) Which English club? He thinks it’s fairly obvious which club, and it isn’t Chelsea.
He starts listing former European Cup winners, completely not paying attention to his breathing – winners from the 1980s to present day: Notts Forest, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Hamburg, Liverpool, Juventus…
He often recites football lists in bed at night to get to sleep. He doesn’t want to sleep now having just woken and allows himself to drift away from football across to films. It’s almost the end of the year and therefore time to round up the best in cinema of 2018. So, there was Black Panther, Loveless, The Phantom Thread, Lean on Pete, Leave No Trace, Roma.
He washes out the mug and the bowl and disassembles the coffee maker to rinse through. He wonders if recently he’s read too many novels with lists, the kind of fiction where the author has their narrator itemise everything under the sun. Here’s Karl Ove Knausgaard on shops:
Outside the car windows, Malmö began to materialise… We drove past supermarkets, car dealers, shopping centres, petrol stations… sports shops, clothes shops, shoe shops, electrical dealers, furniture shops, lamp shops, carpet shops, eyewear shops, bookshops, computer shops, auction houses, kitchenware dealers. Picture framing shops. Chinese restaurants, Thai restaurants, Vietnamese restaurants. Mexican, Iraqi and Iranian restaurants, Turkish and Greek restaurants…
And on: Cafés, cinemas, a concert hall. Theatres, an opera house, nursery schools, record shops, bus stations. Unemployment offices, linen shops, a hospital, an old people’s home, doctor’s surgeries. Opticians, ear specialists, heart and lung specialists. Dentists, orthopaedists, psychologists, psychiatrists…
And on: Funeral parlours, DIY shops, home interior shops, photo shops, banks, yoga centres, pubs, flower shops, health shops, amusement arcades, tobacconists, camping and outdoor stores, children’s clothes shops, baby shops…
And on: car rental firms, pet suppliers, toy shops, churches, mosques, schools, information points. Hair transplant institutes, law firms, advertising agencies. Hair salons, nail studios, chemists, clothes shops for fat people, surgical appliance shops, workwear dealers, garden stores, exchange bureaus. Musical instrument shops, computer game shops, bus card kiosks, radio, TV and hi-fi dealers, sausage stands, falafel bars, suitcase and bag shops. ****
Listing objects is an established modernist tactic. Lists frequently come up at the art gallery too. Conceptualists enjoy compiling. (But then, who doesn’t? More on that later.) The British artist Jeremy Deller often works with lists. Deller gathered up a detailed inventory for The History of the World (1997–2004 ), his hand painted flow diagram connecting the genealogy of acid house with the history of British working class brass band music. ‘It’s about Britain and British history in the 20th century and how the country had changed from being industrial to post-industrial,’ says the artist, who recently published a list of steps to follow to quit Facebook. The quit-list was scrupulously precise and printed on pink flyers which were handed out at train stations in London and Liverpool.
|son of a coal miner|
Another Time, Another Place (2013) is a further iteration on the list. This time, Deller carefully transcribes the family tree of Bryan Ferry. The work is currently to be seen on the wall at Tate Britain. He often goes to look at it during lunch. Reaching back through five generations, the family tree features the names of sixty-seven people born in Britain between 1809 and 1945, concluding with the entry into the world of Bryan Ferry, September 26, 1945, Washington, County Durham, England. Ferry’s occupation is listed as singer. Next to the singer’s name is the record sleeve of his solo album of 1974, Another Time, Another Place. Deller has made similar artworks out of the family trees for singers Shaun Ryder and Noddy Holder. The artist considers these works as meditations on the progress of British industrial history, as well as the meaning of fame, pop, and what it is to be a fan.
|no matter how big I blow this, you can’t read it…|
He thinks Deller’s work is entertaining and clever. He often finds conceptual art conceptually interesting but lacking that certain swell of pleasure. But he keeps coming back to the gallery to look at Ferry’s family tree.
|can’t throw you away now…|
Once upon a time, Bryan Ferry was a prodigious writer of list songs. When pop’s Pop-Art poet was at his most vital and wordy – through the early to mid 1970s – lists flowed from his pen like liquid gold. Virginia Plain (Take me on a roller coaster, Take me for an airplane ride, Take me for a six day wonder); Mother of Pearl (Submarine lover in a shrinking world); Do the Strand (Had your fill of Quadrilles/The Madison and cheap thrills/Bored with the Beguine/The Samba isn’t your scene). Then came Ferry’s extended haunted sex catalogue for In Every Dream Home a Heartache. And best of all, at the very apex, Ferry wrote Editions of You:
So love me, leave me, do what you will
Who knows what tomorrow might bring?
Learn from your mistakes is my only advice
And stay cool is still the main rule
Don’t play yourself for a fool
Too much cheesecake too soon
Old money’s better than new
No mention in the latest Tribune
And don’t let this happen to you…
The list song is a mini pop staple, its own sub genre – from 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover to A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, to Life During Wartime, to Biggie Smalls with Juicy (It’s all good, baby, baby). There are antecedents of the list song stretching far back into the history of cultural production. Also known as the laundry list song, or catalog song, from Lions After Slumber to We Didn’t Start the Fire, all kinds of information gets piled up lyric by lyric, line by line. The list song is a modern day extension of the ancient oral tradition of songlines, of legends and myths, but may also be considered a variation of the catalogue aria at the opera and a legacy from showtunes for sure – You’re the Top, Favourite Things, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better). The list in pop tunes continues down the pop decades, through California Girls, What a Wonderful World and Reasons to be Cheerful; Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen; Losing My Edge with LCD Soundsystem; and the Pet Shop Boys and Left to My Own Devices.
For this last song the edgey singer-narrator awaits good news from his lover, dragging through the minutes detailing the banalities: When I get home, it’s late at night/I pour a drink and watch the fight/Turn off the TV, look at a book/pick up the phone, fix some food…
Lists are good for waiting it out – Maybe I’ll sit up all night and day – killing time until the future finally arrives. But also bringing the future closer; as if the anticipated is actually on a string, you just need to know how to pull.
Cut to the end of the week. Friday night. They go for another walk, this time through a park in the centre of town. What is this shared drive to go back into the woods, of a dark evening, windy and wet? (A naughty night to swim in.) He looks into the trees and thinks of The Bare Necessities as another example of the catalogue song, as he leads on to ask if she ever makes lists. She says not really. She points to her temple as they pass under a Victorian gaslight. She says it’s all in here. He thinks, are you sure? But he resists saying so – this isn’t the time for talking consciousness and where it’s really at.
He’s quiet for a moment. It must be a relief. He is momentarily surprised to be walking closely with someone who doesn’t do lists. (What might this say about her stance on hope?) He wonders how many former lovers were equally indifferent to lists. He starts totting it up. He can think of two who weren’t really that big on them. And then another ex who loved a neat inventory, who worshipped the Post-It, who dreamed one day of finally taming her chaotic universe via to-do lists.
Lists can be seen as a memo to a future self, a statement of intent in the current moment to always be functioning and capable of taking life on. A good self makes lists, we hope; a self free of shame and above failure; an efficient human who’s a happy soul. This happy soul-person may of course fail to materialise, never existed, or simply stumbles and fumbles to come up short. In this sense a list might turn out a fake note, or a withering reminder of yet another failure.
Lists do things for him. Like railways tracks for thinking. Lists are reductions. Life in contour waiting to be fleshed out. Or a sketch for a life never to be properly lived. Lists are extensive records of the lived past. We should donate our lists, listicles and tallies, add them towards a contemporary culture bank at the V&A. Upload his Apple Notes at a kiosk in the museum entrance lobby. The data would be for posterity’s sake. Less of an encapsulation of his particular spirit, and more a snapshot of the times in which he lived, and shopped, and loved, and walked.
Lists live on the cusp of Next, or Just Gone. Lists imply a belief that he should have what he wants. They hitch him to good things yet to happen, and in this way lists suggest hope.
|don’t get your hopes up|
Hope turns out more complicated than he realised. Hope was the last thing left in Pandora’s box of cursed objects. The box was dispatched by the gods to punish mortals for the theft of fire from heaven. According to Hesiod’s legend of ancient times, with the opening of the box all kinds of evil was released into the world – famine, disease, death. And at the end of this list of desolation, tick ticking away at the bottom of Pandora’s container was hope.
The ingenious punishment of hope tricks humans into thinking life might turn out well after all. Nietzsche was down on hope as profoundly wicked. Life is simply a litany of ‘endless suffering’ according to the cheerful young Friedrich, and hope conspires to conceal this harsh reality. In Human, All too Human, Friedrich excoriates humanity for failing to do the right thing – which is to just give up and die. For struggling on regardless, all because of devious hope. ‘The best thing is for you never to have been born’, he writes. ‘The next best thing is to die soon.’
Later, further into his adult life, with more years under his belt and a sharper sense of the clock running down – realising therefore that it might be better to extract some value from existence, Nietzsche alters his position on hope. The ironic philosopher now compares hope to a rainbow, a rainbow of promise that helps one to go on living – living being something Nietzsche no longer considers the worst possible decision. Hope’s rainbow, suggests Friedrich, is perhaps a necessary illusion, like art – two things that make existence more agreeable, drawing us into the future.
Rewind. To a hot afternoon last summer. Walking up the steep hill near home, lugging a heavy bag on his back in the baking sun, he watches a bare-chested man on a bike go flying past heading the other way. The bare-chested cyclist is freewheeling down the steep hill at high speed with no hands on the handlebar. This bare-chested legend is balancing a large pizza delivery box in one hand and holding his phone in the other while staring into the screen intently. To be clear, this bare-chested daredevil is hurtling at high speed towards a junction where cars jostle and switch lanes without warning – cycling no hands, face in his device, oblivious… He wants to talk to this man. He wants them to have a conversation about the future. And hope.
But the cyclist is already long gone. As he continues walking up the hill, listening out for a crash, he admits he envies the rider. Of course he does. For being skilled with going downhill no hands. For being so cool in the heat. For not giving one about risk.
In your twenties you think you’ll never run out of road as time seems so long. But time is elastic.
|meta is better than lesser|
At an art gallery, passing through the show to get a drink in the bar, he stops in front of a video installation by Metahaven. He reads the panel blurb on the wall, which suggests the human experience of time ‘is changing in this new digital era of near-constant connection.’
He wonders about this. Haven’t we been rethinking time for quite a while already? You don’t need to be digital to know the times are changing. We all sort of instinctually get how time has various gears and different velocities. This is something we experience at gut level, but equally doesn’t make any sense while we continue to remain so attached to rigid clocks.
St Augustine complained at being ‘stretched out on the rack of time’ – this infernal unyielding torture trap. (Another status quote.) But this notion of time as a chain of equal links, or a continuous flow is open to doubt. At Tate Modern, at Christian Marclay’s The Clock, characters from cinema and TV linger in waiting rooms or railway stations as the clock ticks slowly. Until the film clip changes – to a synchronised bank heist, maybe – and suddenly the clock races as time runs down. Time flies in the heat of a high-pressure robbery. Or with a bomb set to explode any second now. At the end of Goldfinger, time does not crawl just accelerates wildly while James Bond hurries to kill the megabomb at Fort Knox.
Across town at the audiologist, it’s not quite an action movie as the technician resets his hearing devices. She says she has two minutes to pair the aids with his new phone via her laptop. She talks as she gets to work. She struggles opening the battery hatch on the first hearing aid. Now she drops the battery on the carpet. And then fumbles getting it back inside the mechanism. And then her laptop is also fiddly, as well as very slow, she says. As the 120 seconds run down, he starts to feel tense. He asks if they have long enough. The audiologist smiles, she says sometimes two minutes can be a long time.
Time is elastic, remember. Time is up in the air. Roll back to an evening in the early autumn, back when it was still warm like summer. In the audience at a London Review talk, in the back row at St George’s, Holborn, it feels close and stuffy as the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli announces that everything we know about time is wrong.
|the theoretical physicist in caricature|
As he kicks old time up the pants, Rovelli, who once appeared in a Disney cartoon, chuckles then clears his throat. Time is not a flow, the multi-faceted Italian reports, not a series of equal units scrolling past. Physicists have known this for a century says Rovelli, in case the audience didn’t realise, but the general population is only catching up in stages. Time stretches and time contracts – not all intervals of time are the same, some take longer than others. ‘Up there,’ says Rovelli, pointing to the vaulted ceiling, but he means up there in space, ‘time goes a little bit faster than down here.’ So this hunch we all of us had all these years turns out to be correct. Rovelli, man of quantum gravity, confirms it: time really accelerates and then time also really dawdles. ‘It passes at different speeds depending on where you are and how you move.’
And then also there are those occasions where time almost stops, or ceases to matter as we move out of its range. Their walk in the park in central London, early evening after dark, when he sat with her under a tree in the rain – that night when they stepped out of time, two characters dissolving into another dimension after a long day at the office.
In the royal park that night, they broke free from much of the stuff that adds up to what we usually call daily reality – unfazed by the rain and the low black sky, the dark avenues of trees, the muffled unidentified sounds coming from the bushes; unconcerned even by the strange man in the dark coat stood under a nearby tree.
Somehow, the strange man didn’t matter. They passed him on the way to the bench, when he quickly turned his face away, pointing himself towards the tree under the hood of his quilted black coat. They didn’t even baulk at his strange behaviour. All through their stay on the bench, while they sat together, the man hung around close-by, a shadowy presence, ghost at the banquet, apparently glued to his phone, but simply silent and almost immobile. It should’ve been too creepy. But they didn’t care and then eventually it go so wet they stood up and drifted away.
Coming out of the park, crossing the stream of black cabs and walking into a bar, they stepped back into time. In the bar they ordered wine and the toilet’s electric hand dryer sounded like the start of a Radiohead song.
They parted at a Tube station on the concourse between the southbound and northbound platforms of the Victoria Line. While her train arrived in a flash, he had to wait several minutes for his service, checking his watch, and then his phone, pulled into the normal flow of seconds and minutes and departure times.
A woman standing close to where he was waiting got in a tangle and dropped her bag. Some of the contents sprayed across the platform floor. Scattered coins rolled over onto the tracks as he crouched down and handed back some of her things, a tampon, a comb, a shopping list on the back of an envelope.
We must learn how to think without time, says Rovelli – as his hour-long talk concludes. But how so, with all these lists and clocks and watches and timetables and phones?
Life might be looked at differently, perhaps, as a network of events not necessarily ordered by time. We may wish to quit thinking of Time as this big deal. No longer this external universal absolute, but simply as something that lives inside us all. Time is the memories, time is the lists stockpiled in our brains, time is a means for grouping our internal states.
|blue sky thinker|
It’s another week in the middle of autumn. He cycles to Bloomsbury, to the hospital in the square with the church where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married. He locks his bike under a tree stripped bare as a council refuse truck comes around the corner and shrieks in his ears.
He has come this side of the city to meet with Doctor Sleep. He brings the consultant up to date on his stupid bad dreams before shifting to a wide angle view, becoming philosophical as he lays out some of Rovelli’s ideas on time. He draws upon the Italian physicist as back-up – but also to make himself sound intelligent – as he tells Dr Sleep that lately his memory’s been a major let down.
Our brain is a machine that collects memories, he tells the consultant. Only my brain’s stopped collecting like it used to. So, what is that about? If time is a part of the biological structure of the brain, he declares, then how do we make sense of the day as our memory slides?
Dr Sleep listens respectfully. He nods occasionally while waiting for the short, frothy speech to conclude. After a pause, Dr Sleep pulls out a piece of paper from the top drawer of his desk. He takes his pen and sketches a basic illustration of human memory function.
Dr Sleep says the first thing we need to remember is that it’s important to forget things. He cites the grisly case of S. A Russian journalist from the 1920s, S possessed near total recall with a brain that sucked up all the information going, whether he wanted the data or not. S was treated by the neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, who observed that his patient’s freakish, involuntary capacity for remembering virtually everything made his head hurt. Over time, S became tormented by this gift that was a curse. He wrote out long lists of the endless facts in his brain and set fire to the lists in a bid to clear his mind. But the bonfire of memories didn’t work.
|Short Term & Long Term Memory (Sketch by Dr Sleep)|
Dr Sleep says losing memories is the correct way of living. He points to his simple sketch of the human memory system. Our short term memory (STM) is located in the frontal lobe – the thinking brain. Short term memory is also known as working memory. It is here that new information from the outside world is first received.
We have limited room in short term memory, says Dr Sleep, speaking slowly and patiently. STM is not a holding bay but a process centre where new data is evaluated. He explains that if the information looks useful, it will be passed along to be stowed in the brain’s long range parking section – known as long term memory (LTM). However it is important to realise that if the information is rarely deployed, then it might be disposed of, sent back from LTM and departing the brain via STM.
Dr Sleep says we have six to seven blocks of STM and these blocks are in fact quite small. He says, Think of this memory facility as the RAM on your computer, which is limited and with nothing like the vast hard drive capacity of LTM. If we are anxious about forgetting things, we use up one of our blocks of STM through worrying. And then we’re more likely to forget. But it’s worse than that, he says, Because once our short term memory is engaged with thoughts of lost data, it doesn’t work so well managing the fresh data coming in. As we start to remember less, we grow more worried. And with more worry, there is less space for working memory to operate, as we use up another block pointlessly. And so on…
The patient frowns. So, it spirals?
Dr Sleep nods and puts away his pen. He pushes the piece of paper across the table towards the patient. Memory function worsens the more we worry about it. Try to remember this.
The patient looks at Dr Sleep. He says, If it is more about anxiety than biology, then what are we to do – just stop worrying?
Dr Sleep smiles. His teeth are very straight. He says, It’s not easy. We must watch out for anxious thoughts and turn them away.
|every time I see a bicycle without an adult on, I despair for the future of the human race|
And finally, onwards for the last visit of the blogpiece…
Two days later, two days on from Dr Sleep, early morning in the rain, he crosses the park, the park with the small memorial to Felix Mendelssohn, as he heads for his last session at therapy.
It is his sixth time with the therapist with the happy face. He sits across from the younger man and folds his arms tightly. It might be a defensive position, but he doesn’t feel defensive. The therapist is wearing pink socks and Velcro shoes. He is too early in the life cycle for Velcro, surely. Or is he too late?
They’re unpacking memories from childhood. The happy therapist usually doesn’t look back. But today he asks him to narrate the first coherent scene from his life.
He announces with a strong voice that his earliest memory is his fifth birthday. He is seeing it all again now as he types. He is looking from a first person point of view towards a cake in a room with all the lights switched off. With just the five candles on the cake glowing orange, blue and silver, the surrounding faces are heavy with shadow and warped and vague. He is precisely five years old today, sitting on an armchair and raised up by a large heap of cushions and pillows, with his broken right leg encased in white plaster. To see the cake, his eyes must travel up then over the end of the leg, across the toes sticking out the frayed ends of the plaster casing.
The cake is getting closer. He will soon blow out the five candles in a hurry. He will forget to make a wish, but pretend otherwise.
But wait a second, stop. As a first memory this makes no sense. He tells the happy therapist it’s not true. His fifth birthday party with his leg in plaster can’t be his first ever recollection, not if he also vividly recalls breaking the limb in the first place (thrown loosely across the stream by his dad at the end of the meadow, in the meadow on the farm where he was born). He’s certain he remembers his leg going crack. (All the latest on memory theory suggests that the bit about the leg going crack was probably added to the legend years later.)
The happy therapist frowns. They talk it through. They agree his brain reordered the timings at some crux moment in his development and it’s been fixed this way for so long that there’s no reshuffling the pack. He can tell the therapist isn’t as fascinated how more and more time’s looking suspicious. Time as an external absolute doesn’t stack up. Time as something different, time as a biological event located inside each one of us, this is an idea that is starting to win him round.
He says so to the therapist, as he lowers his eyes to the floor, to the space between them, to the ugly rug made of thick stripes of orange and brown. His eyes follow the horizontal stripes to the edge of the worn oblong, to where the underlay of base lino takes over on the way out the door. The lino is the colour of pale green sludge. Only in the NHS.
Beside the exit is a red house brick the therapist uses for a doorstop. He asks if it’s a registered NHS brick? Has it been cleared as fit for use as a doorstop? Was there much paperwork? The therapist cracks up. He thinks a laughing therapist is a good idea.
The laughter ends as fast as it arrived. The space left behind feels full but leaky. In this dreary room they seem to meander outside of time; regardless of the happy therapist’s preoccupation with the temporal. Across their six sessions together, the therapist has repeatedly returned to time; like he has past, present, but especially future, on the brain. You must engage differently with time, urges the therapist; to be ready for new times; equip yourself for periods of disruption and dislocation; start getting your head round longevity, because longevity is coming. (Like winter.)
Often the therapist steers the discussion into the future and what to do about change. He wants to tell his short-term therapist he has his doubts about change, that maybe we don’t have control over our lives. Not over our emotions. Certainly not other people’s emotions. That perhaps it would be a better idea to just leave it, to stop fussing and let things play out. But he doesn’t say any of this. Instead he sits silently, gazing over the guy’s shoulder into a dark patch of wallpaper.
The therapist stares at him. He tilts his head at the latest silence that’s growing. Finally he breaks the stillness. You’ve come a long way, he says brightly. It sounds like a 70s TV commercial.
He looks into the eyes of the therapist and thinks, you would say that. After all, treatment provided by the state must be weighed, measured, and then reported.
At this he checks himself and regards the man opposite kindly as the therapist continues talking, summing up their six weeks together. And he thinks, you’re a nice person, doing a good job, trying the best you can.
Their time is up. The two men stand and shake hands and he walks out the building. Only when he gets to his bike and bends down to put the key in the lock does he realise that his flies are undone.
* The small park next to Parliament is called The Victoria Tower Gardens
** Alfred North Whitehead
*** On consciousness and the consciousness problem, Riccardo Manzotti
**** Knausgaard quote taken from The End, Book 6 of My Struggle. He read all six volumes. Even the four hundred pages on Hitler.