Archive | December, 2015

Time Cast Anew

31 Dec

And so another ‘new year’ approaches. Except that it doesn’t, really. In truth, one day just follows another. Like most people, though, I still get sucked into it. I write down those resolutions. We humans seem to need these artificial divisions, so that we can impose meaning on the formless future. It’s ridiculous, of course. If we’re to influence at all the shape our lives, we need to take action every day, not just on one evening of the year.

It was a beautiful winter’s day here in East Anglia, so I went for a walk along the river bank. The path passes through a post-industrial landscape before reaching the open countryside. I actually find the ugly part more interesting than the pretty section (as you’ll see from my photographs). And walking always helps with contemplation, I find.

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Time flows seamlessly like a river and has no natural divisions.

One resolution that I shall make is to finish off my current manuscript in 2016. I resolved that for 2015 too… but it is getting closer. It’s an unwieldy thing, neither fitting into any neat genre nor following the conventions of what a novel should look like. So I probably shouldn’t add finding a publisher for it to my resolutions for 2016. Life isn’t at all like a riverside walk, of course, with its predictable stages and landmarks. We have no idea where it will take us. We make plans. Sometimes they come off. More often, they don’t. We shall see…

Giant hogweed, doing its best to resist the council's efforts to eradicate it.

Giant hogweed – some things man just can’t control, however hard he tries.

It so happens that the next 12 months may well have more significance for me than would normally be the case. For once, that artificial time frame may well mirror actual events in my own life that could have a profound impact upon it. For there to be any chance of this actually happening, though, I shall need to work to hard throughout the year. I’ll report back in 366 days’ time…

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I know where these steps will lead me. Life, on the other hand, could head in any number of directions.

So here’s wishing both of my readers a Happy New Year, in the pretence that time isn’t a continuum and that events magically change as a result of the numbers we impose on the universe. I hope that at least some of the things that you have planned for 2016 will come to fruition and that you’ll look back on it as a good year.

All text and images © PSR 2015 [the last of…]

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Judging the Contents by the Cover

10 Dec

Don’t judge a book by its cover, so we’re told. But how often have you been attracted to a book or an album, purely on the basis of its cover? Did you buy it without having read or listened to any of it? And did you come to regret it? There was a time, of course, when you couldn’t hear an album before buying it. You couldn’t read a tenth of a book before making up your mind about it. It’s not even twenty years ago, but it seems unimaginable now.  The internet has so utterly transformed our experience of the world.

Man strides through his high-tech world but he remains at heart a primitive creature. Although I don’t share the conservative implications of evolutionary psychology, I do believe it offers a powerful explanation of the way that we behave. The human psyche developed over hundreds of thousands of years and snap decisions played an important part in this. Survival depended upon them in less ‘civilised’ times (the term is used advisedly here, in the light of the last two thousand years of human history). Many of our modes of thinking and acting were evolved for the Savannah and not the city. Is that member of another human group hostile or friendly? Will he fly or fight? You have two seconds to read his face. Does that silhouette belong to a cave bear? There are five seconds in which to retreat to safety behind the fire. These days, the big predators are either extinct or safely behind bars in zoos, relegated to our subconscious. Only the microscopic ones inside our bodies still provide a threat. Those and ourselves, of course, with our dangerous machines and materials, our conflicts and violent crime… In these man-made contexts – crossing the road, deciding whether or not to walk down an unlit alleyway at night, entering a shattered building in a war zone – snap judgements remain essential.

A column of cotton-wool clouds

A column of cotton-wool clouds

It’s surprising how often snap judgements still prove useful in a variety of other contexts. As mentioned, I’ve found this to be the case with two important things in my life, music and reading. Sometimes, the cover of an album or novel just looks right. When I lived in Lincoln, there was a chain record store called MVC (it’s long gone now, I suspect). Among the racks of CDs, I saw the cover of the splendidly named Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot by Sparklehorse. A ridiculous clown mask was hanging against a blue sky filled with cotton-wool clouds. It fascinated me. And then there were the titles – Ballad of a Cold Lost Marble, Most Beautiful Widow in Town, Sad & Beautiful World… I made a snap judgement. And when I bought it, the music turned out to be a revelation. It remains one of my favourite albums. I can’t even begin to describe its beauty – Mark Linkous’ fragile voice croaking out those surreal lyrics, the understated instrumentation, the underlying, aching sadness of it all (MVC also had a copy of Work Lovelife Miscellaneous by David Devant & His Spirit Wife, the name and cover of which similarly intrigued me – it turned out to be entertaining but nowhere near as good). The same was true for the unnerving cityscape on the cover of Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy. I’ve referred before to this Hungarian novel from the 1970s. For some reason, someone had left the book out on top of the others on a shelf in the fiction section at Waterstone’s (don’t even get me started on synchronicity…). Again, I made a snap judgement. Metropole, it transpires, is an enigmatic and compelling read and happens to contain one of my favourite scenes from any book.

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The cover of Karnithy’s Metropole looks something like this… but in which city are these buildings?

I can think of numerous other examples. We enter someone’s living space for the first time. We scan their bookshelves for a few moments and we make a judgement. Or I walk into W.H. Smith and look at the covers of the books there and they tell me instantly that I don’t want to read them. It’s like love at first sight. Do you believe in that? I’ve experienced it several times, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend its outcomes. Many of the people that I’ve become good friends with over the years appealed to me straight away, upon first encounter. As soon as I walked into my house to view it, I knew that I wanted to live there. By chance, a search result brought you to this blog post and you made a snap judgement to click on it. The three of you still reading at this point can nod sagely…

These judgements can mislead us too, of course. We can completely misread another person through initial impressions, for good or bad. Impulsive decisions can backfire (how well I know this). And anyone with an ounce of intelligence knows that judgements made on the basis of ethnicity, disability and so on are deplorable. Should we not judge a book by its cover, then? The problem is that it’s hard not to. How do we override several hundred millennia of human experience? And all too often, these judgements turn out to be the right ones.

All text and images © PSR 2015