home....................APRIL 2010 - UPDATES

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..APRIL 7th - The Stretched-out Brain...APRIL 8th - Art ...April 14th - On Short Stories ...April 20th - Volcanic Blurt

27th April

In Defence... of this website

(or 'Solipsistic Reflections')

 

 

 

For a long time now - more than a decade - I’ve indulged in three principal hobbies. In order of priority they’ve been: Idling, Walking (plus biking & swimming in summer), and in equal 3rd place: reading and writing (and associated activities). I don’t watch a lot of telly nor do I surf the net much.

Only when Rod started a website in 2003 specifically for me to write on did I really begin writing. I wrote stories, essays and all kinds of weird stuff… divisive political as well as egotistic autobiographical. Most of it still exists... as I guess you've noticed.

Now and then I glance back at some of this all-too-frequently pretentious clap-trap – best described, I reckon, as intellectual masturbation…. which, like teens do of the physical variety on xtube and elsewhere, I do of the literary kind on this site - which I suppose makes it the intellectual (or literary) equivalent of juvenile exhibitionism; ie: "Look how BIG I am, how VIRILE!". Not that there's much here that's especially intellectual or literary. When I glance at some of it (archive or recent), I realise I'd be hard pressed to favourably compare it with what an amateur hack-writer might manage to churn out.

Occasionally, I search around the net to see if I can unearth for comparison the scribblings of other aspiring-amateurs. They too, I see, in their naive innocence, aim to create something half-decent that might catch the eye of a not-too-discerning reader. And when I find one – Hell, do I wince! What dull pretentious drivel! For instance, try here... or even worse: HERE! That’s when I reflect more objectively (and painfully) on how THIS site must appear to others - quiet probably, I end-up thinking, their wince would dwarf mine by mega-miles... should anyone perchance stumble on these pages (an unlikely prospect, I'm strangely contented to imagine).

Egoistical Tosh’ – what a fine title for the site! And a bit more to the point than 'New-Sedition' (such were once my hopes: for the subversively political, anarchical, anti-establishment items herein).

And there was me thinking: I wonder if I can present a few nicely polished clever-clever opinions and insights to the world so everyone who discovers the site will tell their friends what wonderful pages to visit for all kinds of entertainment, wisdom and advice…

So if anyone thinks that I, the author of all this mush, am somehow unaware of how crude, tacky and unprofessional it is, don’t be fooled. I know only too well – and it’s not especially pleasant either. Unfortunately, it’s about the best I can do – or is without a fierce editor or else dedicating a lot more effort than I have so far to the project (nor do I intend – time being so short).

If you’re an accountant, let’s say, and for the first time in your life at age 45 or so, you try painting landscapes or sculpting animals or some other unfamiliar creative task, learning a musical instrument even, then unless you possess some innate special skill you’ll probably experience precisely this somewhat discomforting deficiency I'm suffering.

The problem is that even to achieve what appears to the layman as simple standard average quality... be it a painting, sculpting, writing or whatever... a fair modicum of skill is required - more than you'd think - including, crucially, the ability to view one’s own work objectively (this is an ability I strive in vain to achieve more than any).

The obvious question is: So why do it? Mainly because it amuses me (in the broadest sense of the word). But also to see how far I can develop my powers of articulation – as a kind of challenge to see what I’m capable of. This may not be much, as it turns out (after more than a decade), but if that decade of practice (albeit skimpy and intermittent) had been from age 15 to 25, say, when the brain is growing and forming, then that would have made all the difference. You only have to glance at the background of a handful of successful artists/musicians/writers to reveal this little-known yet obvious fact. But I also write to keep my brain lubricated and awake.

I confess too that the pretension of advertising myself as being the brainiest, wisest, most astute, composed and contented person on the planet is a possibility that has not slipped my notice - though to whom I'm advertising and why might present a bit of a mystery. If you reflect for a moment, though, you’ll realise that such bragging and posturing is precisely the behaviour of someone with an acute inferiority complex. This is true – yet I don’t feel inferior… I suppose it’s subconscious?

Consciously, I couldn’t give a monkey’s dick where I fit-in regarding the hierarchy of wealth, intelligence, power… etc. What’s it to me? As I have for the past two decades, I live my own life, retired on the south coast, free to go about as I please, enough company-pension and savings to not have to work…. I reckon I’m onto a winner. I feel like I’m on permanent holiday. In a mo, when I’ve uploaded this dirge, I’m going to get the bike out and trundle along the coastal path to Eastbourne – or at least to that BIG marina there, though I may continue on to the downs before turning back; depends on how energetic I feel, the strength of the wind and so on. It’s forecast for sun here all day, 21-degC and light winds. Perfect. Sod all this writing tosh. Soon the sea'll be warn enough to swim….

A year ago from now almost to the day, me and my friend S went to Spain. I drove, S navigated. After a couple of days in Paris, we took the N10 to Bordeaux then crossed the Pyrenees to Pamplona – the same route Hemingway took in the 1950s on his final visit there. Although Tennessee Williams speaks well of Hemingway when they met (despite reservations when Ken Tynan offered to introduce him), I don’t think I’d have liked Hemingway, not after fighting on Franco’s side against the socialists - although I’ve enjoyed several of his books. They let him in, though, and without jibes or condemnations. Clearly a forgiving lot, the Spanish.

So now - reflecting on last April's luxurious dip in the pristine tepid waters of Alicante - I turn to the trusty velocipede… the self-same one, I might add, that I rode from Okefenokee to Tallahassee a couple of decades ago... Fabularse!

Cheers

Phil

Tuesday 27th April 2010

 

 

April 20th

THE GREAT VOLCANIC BLURT

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The figure of 24,000 was mentioned a few days ago for the number of aircraft-flights each day throughout Europe alone.

In a timely biographical documentary on BBC4 last Sunday (ie, 'Beautiful Minds') the subject was Jim Lovelock and his work. The other day, in a letter of reply to our local MP here in Hastings, I mentioned Lovelock because of his devastating conclusions on what this colossal ongoing pollution means for the future of the planet.

Back in the early 70s I worked in a lab at a scientific instrument company in Cambridge where for a few months Jim Lovelock was a consultant scientist. It was for his invention, the electron-capture-detector, that Lovelock’s skills were sought. In principle, the detector is a simple device where the emissions from a radioactive cylinder are received by a central probe, amplified then measured. By absorbing electrons, gasses passing between the cylinder and probe alter the signal. The detector, which is extremely sensitive (Lovelock claimed more sensitive than a dog's nose), is fitted to the exit of a tube into which a mixture of gasses - ie, a sample of atmosphere - have been injected and separated-out according to molecular structure during transit through the tube. The system, called a gas chromatograph, is calibrated using known gasses.

These details were not included in the documentary, but I think are worth mentioning to help understand the significance of Lovelock's conclusions - which I reckon should be taken pretty seriously by politicians (unless we're content to accept cataclysmic consequences across the planet). As I point-out in that letter, and as most people know, islands are already going under in the Indian Ocean. What, I wonder, is the cost... I mean just the financial cost - quite apart from the hassle and dangers for anyone living on those islands?

Airlines, who doesn't know it, dump vastly disproportionate quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. If on a normal day there are 24,000 flights throughout Europe alone - where nearly all transport could be ground-based - why, I'd like to know, are they allowed to operate this phenomenal number so freely when by doing so they are contributing so inordinately to Global Warming?

Ultimately, politicians everywhere are generally in charge. By ignoring or deferring the CO2 problem they are helping a handful of wealthy businesses at the expense of billions of people - and the risk of making much of the planet uninhabitable. In the same way that they love to help the BIG RICH banks, for decades they've been helping airlines... by failing to tax their fuel... and they're helping outfits of all nationalities who wish to cheaply & quickly move stuff around the world, and they're helping travel agents who arrange all those cheapo holiday hops, etc. Like primitive little kids, politicians (ie, business) have no wish to consider tomorrow. The rest of us don't come into it - until they want re-electing (when it really makes no difference who gets elected). And only the distant 'fringe' Green Party dare suggest taxing aircraft fuel.... knowing they should actually enforce a halt to all these unnecessary flights - until someone invents a plane that runs on hydrogen.

The actual cost of these flights will ultimately turn out to be colossal - easily €trillions, probably beyond measuring... True, aircraft account for only - is it 12% - of all emissions... but 12% of untold €tns is still a stupendous sum - not to consider the non-economic costs. Why is almost everyone - except climate scientists and a few people on the edges of Green politics - oblivious to this? Or are they, as humans are so prone to do in the light of unwelcome facts, behaving like the proverbial ostritch... that is, like the mad driver who declares: "I'm doing OK... besides, accidents happen only to other people."? Whatever else, we're heading for a terminal crash - or, as Lovelock suggests (his most optimistic estimate), 5-billion of us are.

So I suppose we (or should I say politicians?) in the comfortable northern 'West' imagine our offspring will scrape along OK while mayhem presides elsewhere. Highly unlikely, is my guess. But we'll see... or they will - the offspring. As Kurt Vonnegut famously replied when asked what his message was to the new generation: "I hope you'll forgive us." (Highly unlikely, I'd guess again - though I imagine what he's really saying is: 'Don't copy us and find yourselves leaving the same message... to no-one!')

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APRIL 14th A Little Item On Short Stories top
 

 

After informing Rod that I’d pasted his highly favourable review of ‘Zen Among The Asteroids’ (Zata) onto a dedicated page linked from Zata, he emailed me to say (among other things):

“Your stories are a bit like a naughty kid who pretends and plays along to the teacher that he is thick, but actually he is showing the teacher up for not seeing his brilliance!”

For me, this observation/comment is entirely complimentary (what else?) - though I guess the word 'brilliance' might be a slight exaggeration. Although I could well do with a few criticisms – from which I might really learn something – it does have a definite warming effect to realise that at least one person notices and enjoys the merits (deliberate or otherwise) in one’s effort... though maybe the word ‘effort’ is inappropriate here because the kind-of effort involved more resembles that of taking a dip in the sea on a hot day in August. Which doesn’t make positive responses any less welcome – especially when I'm inclined perhaps to be excessively self-critical, dismissing much of what I write as badly-written trash (which all too often it probably is).

Besides which... due to concentrating on other issues, I’ve failed to respond to an important question Rod has put to me several times:

“Do you ever have the effect that a story you read from another author consumes you and is on your mind all the time?”

The answer is YES, but rarely as powerfully as described in the review, though frequently to a moderate extent. What's important to me, as much as being quickly gripped or finding some weighty meaning or other, is 'tone of voice', which can be the most gripping quality of all, and of which there are many variations. Dostoyevsky's 'A Strange Man's Dream', for instance, and his deeply introspective 'Notes From the Underground', are both profound existential first-person narratives, though in totally different tones. Hesse's fable of an aspiring artist 'The Wicker Chair', his perceptive 'Iris' and his autobiographical 'A Guest at the Spa' and 'The Interrupted Class' are all fables of a kind, but also contain Hesse's unique 'voice'. So too for his reflective ' The Day at Kareno' and its poignant sequel 'The Music of Doom' - these lure and subtly disarm the reader with an inviting jocular 'tone', quite apart from the poetic harmonies Hesse weaves into the prose. On the other hand several of Tennessee Williams' short stories spell out some stark realities with understated insight - 'The Malediction' for example, or 'The Angel in the Alcove', while Gogol's outstanding 'The Overcoat' - of which Dostoyevsky is reputed to have said, "We have all come from under The Overcoat." blends humour with 'symbolic humanitarian messages' (ie, Belinsky - leading critic of the time); or how about Lermontov's earthy 'Taman' which begins:

Taman is the foulest hole among all the sea-coast towns of Russia. I practically starved to death there, then on top of that someone tried to drown me. I arrived there late one night by....

These have very different 'tones of voice' yet all are gripping and linger in the mind, those specifically mentioned have remained with me for decades - as others mentioned below. And you can never beat actually READING a story. This is because, in contrast to watching a film, the kind-of almost unconscious imaginative participation that accompanies reading (and hearing) seems, curiously enough, to remain more firmly in memory than anything you might view on a screen... at least, it does for me. With Chekhov's evocative 'On The Way' (sometimes translated as 'On The Road') - in my view, among the best ever short stories.... even surpassing, I reckon, his intellectually masterful 'The Bet' - Chekhov’s ‘tone of voice' seizes you instantly so you get the sensation of being suddenly in the scene, and drawn along as though you're watching everything from a dark cupboard through a spy-hole (like the protagonist in Barbusse's ingenious novel 'Hell' - touched-on here in my item on 'Freedom')

Then there’s the weird allegorical 'Anderson's Fairy Tales' - some of which are simplistic, while others are impressively artful and, like Chekhov, Hesse and Dostoyevsky in particular, but many others too, they have the power to affect your mind for weeks or even years afterwards. Some can permanently alter your whole outlook and direction in life. Hence, presumably, the old maxim that 'the pen is mightier than the sword'.

Though what better to shake the brain awake than those two great yet absurdly brief parables from Kafka: ‘Before The Law’ and ‘An Imperial Message’ - each covers hardly more than a page, but after several decades my brain still reverberates from them...

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I could list perhaps more than a hundred excellent short story titles that have made me think for some while afterwards. The one’s mentioned above came instantly to mind. There are several greats from Scott-Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker. There's a brilliant one I recall: ‘A Letter and a Paragraph’ from a guy called Henry Cuyler Bunner (1855 – 1896), and there's Thurber's 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', Saroyan’s superb ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’ and his best of all, I reckon: ‘Seventy Thousand Assyrians’ (which I think I've seen called 'The Barber's Uncle')... all these are masterpieces. Moravia’s weird erotic tales present another angle, and of course Asimov with his astounding Robot stories…  the list goes on and on: Giono, Bukowski, Borges, the outstanding Raymond Carver - esp 'Where I'm Calling From'... and many by obscure authors like Russell Banks and William Hauptman, or those not especially renowned for their short fiction: Henry Miller and Richard Ford... etc.

If one cares to search the Net then most of the best stories can probably be unearthed... or if not now then 50 (or is it 70?) years after their author’s death (when copyright ceases).  GOOD HUNTING... try here for starters...

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April 8th This item is dedicated to Art… top
 

 

Here’s a weird question: Is the authenticity and quality of an Art maximised through the artist being unconscious of his/her inherent skill during the creative process, or by the precise opposite?

At 16 I leaned to drive a car. And since that time I can hardly recall feeling other than well-adapted to driving – which means when I drive I'm not really aware I'm doing it – that is, not the details. If an unusual situation arises I automatically give it full immediate attention while my ‘auto-pilot’ takes care of the basics. Less practiced drivers would need to attend more to those basics, reducing their ability to creatively handle a new situation.

There’s a recording of an 18-year old Yehudi Menuhin giving a rendition of 'The Gypsy Waltz'. The sounds cascade like a series of wild spontaneous explosions of energy - yet there’s an exquisite order to it all. The underlying notes seem too fast for conscious control. A similar impression emanates from some of Dostoyevsky's writing. ‘The Landlady’, for instance, shows this spontaneous, natural, harmonious, yet liberated and fresh individuality. It can often be seen in the debut novels of writers who later become recognised for their unique style. The paintings of Cézanne, van Gogh, and many others likewise. Each convey this same unique sense of controlled freedom, which in the case of paintings renders the image somehow more real than life itself – as though, in addition to the scene as it stands, the pictures contain symbolic insight, even perhaps into the painter’s unconscious… which can stir emotions that might otherwise lie dormant in the observer’s unconscious (or ‘collective unconscious’).

When I've driven through cities such as London, New York and Paris I’ve tasted what I believe was the mood experienced by those painters while at their easels: a kind-of uplifting creative energy in each little ‘manoeuvre’ – as with other creative activities, you can lose yourself in the luxury of it so it eventually becomes a kind of stimulant, a kind of drug. It can be exhausting too; pleasurably so (like sex even). With driving though, however intricate and deft one’s manoeuvres, the creative joy is exclusively of the moment because unlike other creative pursuits no record remains – any record lies only in memory… or on film, or what’s written about it like for that notorious driver-genius Neal Cassady.

I'm talking about inherent skill here. As everyone knows, driving in a city is usually tedious and overborne with hassle: delays, monotony, fumes etc. When I worked in London and drove there regularly, I learned to partially overcome these drawbacks by imagining the windscreen as a huge TV monitor. Instead of getting heated in some snarl-up, I was engaged in a make-believe video-game where only crashing was forbidden… otherwise I could do as I liked (so long as I kept an eye out for cameras and cops)! Such were driving conditions in 80s London!

Now take the art of 'writing': If I'd begun working at it when I was 16 instead of 30-years later, I reckon I'd be getting pretty good by now (though, being a typical idler, I’ve actually done very little since being 46 – that is, compared with what anyone justifiably calling themselves a writer might have done). The same would go for learning a musical instrument if I’d tried that instead.

Because I failed to practice when young (only ever writing technical reports), I lack the crucial deep-rooted familiarity that results from something leaned in youth. So the scope for creative flourishes is much less. This means I'll rarely if ever experience the spontaneity of creative flow that makes possible the kind of gripping original prose that renowned writers like Hesse, Kafka, Gogol.... etc, or to a lesser degree thousands of contemporary writers whose publications are frequently lacklustre, are able to create.

So things are different with me. How many people do you know who contemplated retirement at the age of around 5? How many planned (or kept in mind) their eventual ‘escape’ like I did?

I guess by 'escape' I mean from the proverbial rat-race, though that sounds simplistic, almost juvenile - and such phenomenon as the 'rat-race' were unknown to me (at least in the form they are normally seen) as a mere infant when I first began to formulate my plan.

But how many people, fit, well and contented, do you know whose ambition, for most of their life, has been to have no ambition? I used to think most people were like me - it was just that they were scared to follow their ideal. Nor (if I furtively questioned them) would they confess… though confess what? An underlying idleness? A yearning for big change? To this day, for all I know there may well be many people like me: fundamentally idlers, yet who (perhaps incongruously) relish change. Though equally possible, there may not be. I've met a few, but only a few... weird, methinks, how guarded most people are - except strangers, people you meet for the first time and by chance on some neutral territory remote in every way from their (and your) usual milieu... and who you'll probably never see again. That's when you get to know people for real - not, that is, the silly quirks we all have of various kinds - but the authentic essence of a person: when they reveal their life and philosophy, warts 'n all, to you with startling clarity and concision - and you can see it fits...

I met this Aussie guy in New Zealand.... then there was this New Zealander in Aussie... and the American in Tas... or take that German I met in the US... as for the one at Byron Bay... though Alice Springs, that was something else... but I guess the American in Tas was... well, if not the most impressive, then definitely... yep, definitely, like all these amazing people: Great!

 

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April 7th

The Stretched-out Brain

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I think it was about a year after my impromptu visit to the Science Museum when I was ~13 (which I reflect on in ‘Outer Space’) that I went again to London, this time to see the dinosaur skeleton that famously stands in the vast entrance hall of the Natural History Museum.

dinosaur..dinosaur

I was not disappointed. I spent some time walking around that awesome brontosaurus (or apatosaurus, or diplodocus even?). It towered above me like some austere oversized artwork. For a while I tried to imagine this amazing animal with its flesh intact, alive and moving about. But – as with the Harrods' ‘Automated Living Area’ a year previously - one can stare at, contemplate and walk around a single exhibit for only so long. Soon I was compelled to investigate some of the less impressive exhibits in the rest of the museum.

And suddenly I was gripped by a show-piece which to me was as powerful as that basic Milky Way exhibit in the Science Museum a year earlier - and to most people would appear, I imagine, as unexciting. It was, simply, a life-size model of a human being - in see-through perspex:

nervous systemNothing especially spectacular there, you might think. Except, as in the picture (though in much greater detail), the head contained a brain from which emerged a brain-stem and spinal chord and thousands of thinning strands of nerve fibres dividing and separating as they stretched throughout the body. You might see bundles of wires fanning-out like this if you peer into the back of a large computer-server.

There was nothing else showing; no skin, no muscles, no bones or other organs – just a brain, from which (as explained in the accompanying blurb) was drawn-out elongated nerves that were the very nerves comprising the brain itself. 

While I stood mesmerised, other people walked idly past - taking little more than brief cursory glances as they continued apparently unmoved to the next exhibit. As for me, it was impossible to stop my mind racing. I no longer noticed the perspex human-shaped envelope. The brain and emerging fibres stood out so vividly in bright red against the plain white backdrop, that now it was all I could see - because I’d somehow awakened to the fact that this, in essence, is all we are.

Strictly, we are only our nervous system. Everything else: skeleton, skin, muscles, various organs and so on, are there to support our actual selves which resides somewhat nebulously within what I now stared at in that unadorned display.

Then, as I looked around at other people, I began perceiving them like this too: as in that display, without supporting peripherals. Maybe it was like perceiving a computer naked of its box and screen and other add-ons necessary for practical functioning.

Later, walking in the street, my perception flipped again to this bizarre mode of seeing. Can you imagine how it might feel to perceive people as just brains floating along maybe 2-metres above the street with their thinning bundles of nerves hanging to almost pavement level? Can you imagine when you stop and talk with someone what it's like to reflect that you’re actually talking only to a brain with it’s hanging bundle of nerves – all else, all you can see, everything, merely life support, protection, appearances? 

It’s a weird concept - and quite startling - especially when you come to it for the first time as I did that day when I was only 14. But as with my grappling to comprehend the scale of the Milky Way (and other phenomenon of outer-space), here was another key angle on existence to be integrated into my juvenile mind. And I clearly remember reflecting on this mind of mine as it thought these things: existing within one of these brains and the straggling array of fibres flowing out like a myriad tentacles.

Further reflections, I recall, led to other weird avenues. For instance, when I touch something with my finger-tip, I'm actually touching with the part of my brain (nervous system) that's stretched to just below the skin of my fingertip. This seems obvious from the sensation: the feeling doesn't appear in my head, but at my fingertip - although for other parts of my nervous system to respond, the signal takes longer (logically enough) than if the touch was, say, to the end of my nose.

Another reflection in a completely new realm: How can one of these ‘floating’ brains ever become so disoriented or flawed so to desire the destruction of another? Or even to cheat another? Survival is one thing, but what cause can possibly justify one 'floating' brain in creating misery and pain for another 'floating' brain - except basic malfunction?

This perspective, especially, left me feeling a kind-of pity for all human beings (myself included, I suppose), for their shortcomings, their blindness, their vulnerability, their overwhelming and essentially tragic immaturity that lingers and lingers through untold millennia of unnecessary suffering as if this one aspect has somehow ceased to evolve. In this respect we humans appear stuck, despite our huge neocortex - which seems scarcely evident in the most dominant (flawed), to whom the rest of humanity are either indifferent or else absurdly and disastrously subservient.

Only yesterday (April 6th 2010) in a radio discussion, a couple of well-experienced coroners revealed similar poignant insights into the frailty of our human condition … how these men had developed so much more respect for life and took so much more everyday care than most of us because, from years of frequent witnessing of the minutiae of death, they were intensely aware that our lives are balanced a mere hair’s breadth from demise - freak accident, illness, whatever...

How many other weird perspectives, I wonder, might one reflect on that have the power to further open our eyes - on ourselves, our predicament, other creatures and their predicament, the Earth, its profound indifference.... the Milky Way…. the Universe….?

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Now for a beer - so the brain can get stretched-out in the metaphorical sense too...

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