life

The Luddite and The Intellectual Hermit

A Luddite and an intellectual hermit walk into a pub.

“What will you have, gents?” asks the barman.

“Possibly an aversion to the deceptions of progress,” the Luddite replies.

“Sorry, sir,” says the barman, “we don’t do those fancy cocktails.”

The Luddite

Sorry, that’s a bad twist on an old joke. Two things recently had me thinking about the way of the world today. First was an announcement that the team I work for is invited to experience the developments of another team involved in producing virtual reality solutions. In case we are in any doubt as to what this involves, the email included a couple of images, one showing a scene which could be a screen capture from a very dull video game, and the other some bloke, looking blindly towards the ceiling, wearing a set of Oculus type goggles.

Unusual for me, I can’t raise much curiosity or enthusiasm for the prospect. In my imagination I can predict the illusion of experiencing being on the inside a very bad video game, the trick being the screen’s eye view adjusts according to feedback from the relative position of the goggles. As with a magician’s trick, when you work out how it can be done, it loses all potency to be awesome.

Or, to put it another way, reality does the trick way better: the scene around us is brilliantly rendered, and it all moves about precisely as we move our senses relatively to it. The only thing is we take it all for granted and there’s no smack about the chops moment, no “awesome!”

Though really I feel my slight aversion to this stems from a building annoyance that “expert” people in my field are surrendering their imagination to the machines, and we are obliged to follow suit. I’ve met those now who can’t visualise from concepts and basic drawings – they need to see the 3D model. Visualisation was once an essential skill in the job. In a generation, it will be obsolete.

The Intellectual Hermit

I saw another inspiring article in the news yesterday. It was about hermits. Real life, modern day hermits. Haven’t you ever once in your life contemplated a life as a hermit?

The story focuses on two quite different hermits. The first is Christopher Knight who, in 1986, aged 20, took himself off to a wood in Maine, USA, never to be seen again for 27 years (actually, he did meet a lost hiker once and exchanged a simple “hi”). He lived in a tent, stole what little he needed to survive and thus he was caught in a trap by the police investigating these thefts. He said his decision to hide away was a desire to be alone, free of the world. There was no incident, traumatic, shameful or otherwise, in his previous life which caused this; it was just in his nature.

The second hermit is the Christian, Sara Maitland, who lives alone in a self-built house on a moor in Scotland. The reason she gives for her chosen lifestyle is ecstasy. Solitude is “total joy”, she explains. You know, I can relate to that.

Even so, I don’t think I could handle it for a prolonged length of time, never mind a whole lifetime. It’s not the risk that solitude can easily tip over into loneliness; you could just pack it in and move back. It’s the physical hardship which appears to come with it – working for survival. Unless, like Knight, you steal.

An idea then came to me about intellectual hermits. In his poem, To Althea, from Prison, Richard Lovelace, incarcerated in Gatehouse prison for political dissent in 1642, around the time of our English Civil Wars, writes the final verse,

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage:
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

I can’t think of anymore to add to this notion of freedom, in love, soul and mind, except let us contemplate that thought for a while.


On Hermits – why this man became a hermit at 20 (BBC News stories)

To Althea, From Prison (Richard Lovelace, 1642) – (wiki)

images: “Occulus” wearing guy (top) and Sara Maitland, in Scotland (below)

The Unfathomable Workings of Memory

“Warner!”
The name just popped effortlessly into my consciousness like a long forgotten disc might drop randomly onto the platter of a mechanical jukebox. It made me feel like dancing…

He used to be this guy I worked alongside decades ago and, up until now, I could only remember him as Tom. His face, however, remains as a composite of several similar faces I have met over the years and will stay so, unless I happen to see him again. It’s unlikely and as the passing years have grown long, soon I’m wondering if he is still alive. I believe there’s a good chance but probably I’ll never know.

I did try to Google his name and scrolled down, as much as I could bear, looking for a recognisable face amongst the endless mugshots of strangers. Unless you’re searching for the bleeding obvious, search engines are an utter disappointment now, a complete waste of effort. Too superficial, populist and trivial. Like the arm-banded kid too afraid of the deep end.

The point about Tom, why I remember him, albeit vaguely, is that he was a rare deep guy. Even in the twiggy branch of the knowledge industry in which we were employed, he impressed me with his erudition and free-thinking. He was an interesting guy to talk with.

But how and why does the memory do that; why does it play such games. I hadn’t forgotten his name, as I thought for years, it was just misplaced somewhere in the grey matter. Buried. And, yes, jammed: I could almost sense a physical blockage and the frozen cogwheels up there if ever I try to recall a name or a word. Memory is a mysterious function but I bet Tom Warner would understand something about it.

Six Books for a Desert Island #4

My previous choice, A Kestrel for a Knave, could also fall into the “kitchen sink” genre, and probably also the “modern classic”. Then it would satisfy three of my favourite choices with regards to a novel.

“Kitchen sink” is a term which, to me, indicates a social commentary of the least privileged and those who are held back, for various reasons, in western society. Protagonists are often depicted as outsiders. It’s quite a broad scope, from profound seriousness or comedy, and so makes it difficult to choose a best example.

The L-shaped Room (Lynne Reid Banks)

I’ll pick this to avoid risking an all male six (though an all male set would be unintentional). I remembered the story from the film adaptation – a lot of this genre have made it into film or drama. I was surprised how good it was as a novel. In short, it tells the story of a single woman, Jane, who gets pregnant and is turned out of home by her father. She finds the eponymous room to rent in the small ads and befriends two other tenants, a young, wannabe, though idling, author, Toby, living upstairs, and a young, black musician, John, in the room next door.

We are introduced to other characters though the story focuses on the desperate and friable relationships between these three, expressed through the voice of Jane, and their cynical landlady, Doris, living downstairs.

I think the period and setting is important to its context. Post war London shortly before the beginning of the optimistic and more liberal “swinging sixties”. Abortion is not yet legal and the contraception pill is not available. Sex outside of marriage is still considered indecent, never mind the consequences of it producing a child. Prejudice and intolerance are norms and quite acceptable.

I’m not sure whether all “Kitchen sink” novels are confined to this period and whether they are quintessentially British and of the lower classes. It could explain its attraction for me: there but the for the grace of God go I, sort of thing.

alternative excellent reads;

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe

“I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.” Young and dissenting factory machinist, Arthur Seaton’s individualistic battle with the world around him. Does he win it in the end? “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow

Vic and Ingrid work for the same firm. When Ingrid gets pregnant after their first tryst, Vic does “the honourable thing”, but the consequences of life thereafter are not what either would have hoped for.

This Sporting Life by David Storey

The story of Arthur Machin, a working class man’s rise through the professional sport of rugby league. Ruthless for success, but insecure in love.

And a special consideration for,

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

As I say, I don’t know if “kitchen sink” extends beyond these shores but this American novel would come close to the spirit of it.

The Joy of a Random Segue and of Reading at Odd Moments at Work

On Music

I’ve said I’m back working. Just for a bit, hopefully, as I realise I am genetically unsuited to it. However, as into each life a little rain must fall, so too does every cloud have its silver lining.

In the hour long drive at each end of the day, I’m enjoying listening to my playlist again. Ever since I owned a car and had audio fitted – a twenty-five quid diy job for my first car, I remember – I’ve always loved listening to music while driving. At the start, it was tape cassettes; a fiddly process at the best of times and always a risk of the machine chewing up your favourite recording. Thank Apollo! for digital and the invention of the USB memory stick, a thing half the size of a thumb which holds 750+ songs and that’s only half its capacity. I plug it in the car’s audio and request “Shuffle” and it plays my favourite songs in a random order.

I could make my own playlists, as I did with cassettes. The problem with this, for a perfectionist like me, is getting the segues right so that the mood of the music flows. This is not as simple as it sounds and it’s a good reason to leave it up to the mindless machine. However, even the uncultured gadget occasionally delivers beautiful segues and makes me think, I must make a note of that. But I never do. I haven’t worked out how to make notes while driving along.


On Reading

I’ve also started to grab an odd moment at work to read. This might mean the last ten or fifteen minutes at the end of lunch. It’s easy to think, ah, ’tisn’t worth getting out the book, or tablet, for such a short time, but I’ve found it is.

Reading at different times of the day and in different environments is surprisingly a different experience to normal, I find. Habitually, I tend to read last thing at night. Contrary to what experts say about reading off an illuminated tablet, I don’t find it induces insomnia. I actually find I’m nodding off and though I’m following the text, there’s a point when I’m not taking anything in. This isn’t really a good way to read at all but, in a busy day, it’s the only time regularly available.

At work, I find these moments where there isn’t much else to do. It’s not time to get back to the grindstone but lunch is eaten and I’ve done all my personal chores like checking my finances, answering personal emails, and shopping. It may be just ten minutes but out comes the iPad and I kick back and read a few paragraphs, and I realise it’s a different kind of joy. And whatever it is I’ve read stays firm in my mind, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?


image of person reading by Blaz Photo via Unsplash.com

Venus is Hell

I dropped in on the BBC iPlayer app the other day. It’s been a while as I’ve not been enthusiastic about BBC TV for a long time; it’s played too safe and formulaic.

However, Professor Brian Cox’s latest presenting vehicle, The Planets, caught my attention. The CGI graphics in the previews reminded me of the artist’s impressions of the imagined landscapes of real planets, which featured in the weekly encyclopaedia I was given as a kid. They might have been illustrated by Angus McBride who did the mythical beasts I blogged about before, but I don’t actually know. The landscapes were quite fanciful and earth-like, with graceful though strangely coloured clouds, and often featured multiple moons or planetary rings in the sky.

The Planet‘s planets are a whole different ball game. Based on real information sent back by probes, it shows a stark and horrifically hostile environment on each of our terrestrial neighbours. Venus, for example, is described as “Hell” compared to Earth’s heaven, while Mars, hoped to be the most plausible for human colonisation, appears like a sad, dead wasteland.

I’ve long held the impression that life is a fluke, an extreme, long odds, outside chance and that it ought not to have happened at all. It required a very special set of conditions: a place in the solar system goldilocks zone; the right sized planet; the right amount of essential elements, in the right proportions; water, existing in three states; a magnetic field; and probably a whole host of things I haven’t considered. The fact that life has existed here for billions of years, long enough to enable selective evolution to develop complicated lifeforms, and somehow avoiding a natural catastrophic annihilation may be regarded as a miracle. Though I enjoy science fiction, I’ve often found the facts far more impressive.


On science fiction, I’ve had this idea about the perfect afterlife when a soul is free to wander wherever in pleases. Mine would love to fly to other planets just to see how they matched up with those artist’s impressions.

But then the other day I had a crisis of doubt. How do souls, or ghosts, work? Without a body, they have no sensory perceptions and won’t see, hear or feel anything externally. They are all imagination, aren’t they? Oh well, back to the drawing board…


image: imagined, the brief life of a Venera probe on the surface of Venus, a reality Hell (from The Planets, BBC)

Talking to Strangers

Thanks to umanbn (Mark Hodgson) – whose drawings blog I follow – for highlighting the Humans of New York project, which is fascinating. Brandon Stanton is a photographer who explains the project in his “About” page;

“Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010. The initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants.”

In essence, he takes someone’s portrait in the street and gets them to tell their story, a little bit about themselves, and transcribes it below their picture. I see some of those guys are really keen to talk. They must feel a need to tell their story. It’s probably a good deal.

What began in NY has now extended beyond the US; I’ve been reading a few pieces from within Europe. People from all over, happily talking to a stranger with a camera.

I don’t know if he’s approached any Londoners. It’s been a while since I thought about myself being a Londoner but casting my thoughts back, I’m not sure many would easily reveal their personal history to a complete stranger. We hardly dare make eye contact. London is a busy, crowded place and you have to create a kind of privacy within.

It reminded me of a time in my youth when I had to use the public bus to get to work. Normally, you’d look for two empty seats together so you sat alone; if there wasn’t any, you might prefer to stand in the aisle rather than take a seat beside a stranger. But sometimes you’d take a chance, especially if the journey was long.

So I sat down besides this guy, a very vocal, slightly drunk, probably, middle-aged Irishman, and he immediately began telling me his life story. When he felt he’d exhausted that subject, he went on to tell me my own life expectations – even though he didn’t know me from Adam! He invented all kinds of bollocks, all of it implausible. I mean, I ought to be famous by now, as rich as Croesus, and a great political statesman to boot. It was excruciating at the time – but funny afterwards.


I’ve just remembered, our BBC have done a similar thing with The Listening Project, a series of short interlude pieces recorded for radio. I think they set up a recording booth in a chosen place and people go in, often in pairs, to talk about themselves.

The whole world wants an opportunity to talk, it seems. They ought to start a blog.


Humans of New York

The Listening Project (BBC)

image of two people on bench in Osaka, Japan, by Andrew Leu via Unsplash.com

The Opportunities of Old-Age

a writing prompt piece

As a freelancer, I moved around, but there were one or two places I’d return to because they were better places to work. In one such place there worked these two guys. They were of a similar age, worked in the same team and were, in every sense, workmates, almost companionable. They were both humorous, and one especially so. Often they were like a comedy duo, The Odd Couple, Laurel and Hardy, that kind of thing.

Well, I left and then went back and only one of them was still there. The funnier one had retired. In fact, both had reached retirement age but the remaining one had negotiated to stay on, part-time, two days a week. He told me, it got him out of the house; out from under his wife’s feet; gave him something to do; earn a little pocket money. I thought he was crazy. I’d watch him at his desk looking disengaged. Occasionally his eyes would droop, and then close. At four-thity on the dot, he would go home.

Then one day the other guy popped in. He was passing the office and thought he might as well show his face; it was a face beaming from ear to ear. He said something funny which I’d heard before. He said, looking back, he didn’t know how he ever found the time to go to work. In retirement, his hours were fuller, and, I had the impression, with a greater sense of purpose and enjoyment than when he had to work.

Working is for mugs. The trouble is, we’re all mugs and there’s little to be done about it. Just don’t plan to be a mug all your life.

(284 words)


written for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie’s Tale Weaver prompt #222 – “The Opportunities of Old Age”

Perspective

I don’t believe anyone isn’t familiar with the scene in the Irish comedy series, Father Ted. It’s in the episode where the three priests are holidaying in a caravan in a field during inclement weather, so they are stuck indoors. In the brilliant scene, Father Ted is sat across the table from the young dimwit, Father Dougal, and on the table is a toy set of plastic farmyard animals.

The scene opens with Ted picking up two toy cows and he says to Dougal,

Okay, one last time. These…,” showing Dougal the cows, “are small,”

then gesturing to the window, he continues, “but the ones out there…are far away.” Then deliberately more slowly, he hammers it home,

Small. Far away.”

And Dougal’s face says he simply doesn’t get it. And for a long time neither did artists, this illusion of perspective. Even today, artists make mistakes in perspective.


Technical drawing was probably my favourite class in school because a lot of the tricks involved in drawing geometry absolutely fascinated me, and this included the way to do a perspective representation using vanishing points, or VPs, and projection lines. Of course, revealing the working out – these points and lines – isn’t often desirable but I think it looks beautiful, probably because it shows an understanding.

An important benefit of practicing drawing and fine art, and even photography providing it’s not done carelessly and superficially, is the way it encourages the practitioner to see things accurately, and to notice things in relationship with other things.

And it doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve got this germ inside your mind, I think it expands into other aspects of life: abstract thought, philosophy, innovation and generally understanding of most things. Everyone ought to try a little perspective representation, once in a while.


inspired by and written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge #83 – “Perspective”.

image: from The Book of Perspective by Jan Vredeman de Vries, (1604)

Here’s that scene from Father Ted,

Beyond #writephoto

Everything alive here, now and before, is the favour of the sun; its light and warmth. In the cold of late winter, before the spring, before the earth has warmed and, in its turn, warmed the air which remains chill to our senses, our sun can give its warmth directly: the wonderful experience of feeling its heat on your body as you walk outdoors, or through a sunlit window as you sit.

To think of all the sentient creatures of the world which have sensed this too. From the time of insects energising their gossamer wings for flight, and upon the scales of giant lizards, the dinosaurs, and the feathers and down of early birds, then the mammals and us.

It is believed, with the irreversible stresses we have placed on the Earth, that the next life forms will not be organic but cybernetic, in order to survive the heat and extremes of the environment. What will a cognitive machine make of the sun’s radiant energy, if it analyses it through an electronic sensor chip, with artificial intelligence; or even senses it at all? What meaning will such an experience have for the soulless beyond?


written for Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo #writephoto challenge – “Beyond”.

The Road Gang

We are settling into village life more and more and I received a nice email thanking me for my participation in the village tidy up. There were about a dozen of us meeting up last Saturday morning. We each had a pair of gloves, a hi-vis tabard, a plastic sack and one of those extended picker devices operated by a trigger so we didn’t have to keep bending down. Then we scattered to different points of the compass to pick litter.

The last time I went on litter patrol was at school. Then, it was seen as a punishment for some trivial felony, like refusing to wear a school cap or picking one’s nose in religious education. Although there was the ecological and aesthetic benefit to school, the purpose behind it was more humiliation.

But on this occasion it felt good and worthy. It helped that the morning’s weather was mild and sunny, and my stretch of road offered high views across the fields where there were sheep and lambs and cattle.

It was a big sack and I was worried I’d not fill it and look like a worthless newbie on my debut. So I busied myself with every speck of paper and dog end I could spot while my companions strode forth and were soon almost out of sight. I needn’t have worried; a little past the village welcome sign, I found all sorts of discarded detritus. Mostly, it was the expected soda pop cans, coffee cups and drink cartons, occasionally a takeaway container and a burger meal bag. I did find the broken remains of a car accident which filled up the sack to breaking point – I knew then I wasn’t to fail.

The oddest things I picked up in the space of an hour were, a large medicine bottle with a prescription label, an empty economy bottle for hair conditioner, a plastic box for small tools – the places for pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches etc. were clearly indented – a race competitor’s number label, 106 – I hope she or he wasn’t disqualified for losing this – and a pair of cut down denim jeans.

I got the hand of the extended litter picker eventually but I will say a thank you to all those considerate individuals who crush their cans before throwing them out the car window. Crushed cans are a lot easier to pick up with an extended litter picker than uncrushed ones – these tend to slip away as soon as they’re clamped. So, thank you crushers! A little thoughtfulness in a world of mindlessness makes life a little better.

Yeah, right.