From Ages to Ages

Back in the 1990s I had a small midi studio set up in my flat in Ealing. I’d just bought a new keyboard, and was experimenting with using an Alessis sequencer which allowed me to record layers of music, something that today anyone with an iPad can do easily, but which then was something altogether new. I’d had a series of tape recorders, but these, like the Teac 4 track, were huge machines that needed careful handling. This new set up was like a sketchpad: I could leave it running all day and wander in, listen, add a track, edit something, go back out.

I’d always thought I would start a big project at some point, and had an idea of creating something based on the work of Welsh writer Arthur Machen, whose fictions were set in that part of London I now lived. But despite having the idea, I could not find a way to start. Whatever I tried seemed cliched or laboured. But then one afternoon a couple of friends came over. We had a few drinks, I showed them my set up. Neither of them were musicians, but they were captivated by the sounds that keyboard, sequencer and sound modules could make. So I let them play about for a few giddy minutes. I saved what they did – a scrambled series of semi-tones. I forgot about it.

But a few days later, resuming my search for a way to begin my magnum Machen opus I retrieved their sonic doodles and listened. I cleaned it up, added a few bass notes and realised this was the beginning of something. I developed it over the next few weeks and then, perhaps because of warmer weather or work or boredom, I put it to one side.

Three or four years later I moved to south Wales, bought an Atari computer and Cubase software, a sampler, some new sound generators, and once more woke the Machen project out of its hibernation. I worked on it for a year or so, and once more, shelved it.

This pattern repeated itself over two decades. I’d buy a new set up, develop the piece, forget about it. This went on until last year when I decided to buy some studio time, and finish the thing. ‘From Ages to Ages’, a sort of three act ‘musical lecture’ (it’s hardly an opera) was eventually finished in May 2016, twenty five years after it was born in the flat in Ealing.

I lost touch with the two friends whose delightfully naive playing gave me the eerie theme I use in the opening sections, but their curious little melody weaves its way through the hour of music that is ‘From Ages to Ages’. I’m very proud of it, but have put it away now and more or less forgotten about it. It’s time to start something new.

 

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Bird Brains

In his huge, extraordinary book The Master and His Emissary Iain McGilchrist writes this:

“If you are a bird…you solve the conundrum of how to eat and stay alive by employing different strategies with either eye: the right eye for getting and feeding , the left eye for vigilant awareness of the environment. More generally , chicks prioritise local information with the right eye and global information with the left eye.”

Information from the right eye is relayed to the left brain, and the left eye to the right.  The left brain is responsible for focused attention, and the left brain for more or less everything else but particularly, vigilance.

The more focused your attention, almost by definition, the more likely you are able to ignore the world around you.

In Syracuse in 212BCE Archimedes, concentrating on the geometry of conic sections, failed to hear the approach of Roman soldiers, who killed him moments later. Concentration can block the world out. Focused thinking, particularly when we’re trying to solve a problem, obliterates everything else.

Intelligence is a measure of focused thinking. The testing and examination regime of the English and Welsh education systems rewards the focused thinker at the expense of the mind that is more open, less able to follow a line of thinking, more likely to wander off into a daydream. Yet the daydreamers are often the creative thinkers, the ones who need time, not pressure, to succeed.

Liam Hudson, writing in 1966, grasped this in his book Contrary Imaginations. He developed a series of tests to show that the focused thinker, (he used the term convergent thinker) although able to solve mathematical and closed problems, was not so able to find creative solutions. Very often, the vigilant thinker (Hudson calls these divergent) those whose brains, for whatever reason, are more likely to wander, can provide endless solutions when the focused thinker, the one on the hunt, can find very few.  The convergent thinker, says Hudson, tends towards maths and sciences, the divergent towards the arts.

Guy Claxton, in his 1998 book Hare Brain Turtle Mind suggests that the regimented learning model of recent times prevents the unconscious mind from finding answers. Creativity is blocked.  And as Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary elucidates, what is at stake is of paramount importance.

In the test driven school system, the focused thinker is the winner. In turn, these students achieve results, gain university places, the higher paid jobs.  Think of the terms ‘target’ ‘aim’ objective’ – which mode of thinking do these suggest? It’s obvious. The education system has built in prejudice.

It follows that positions of authority and power are often filled by the focused, convergent, target driven thinker, who assumes that the way he or she learnt must be the only way, and so the process is continued.

Meanwhile, the creative thinkers, the vigilant, divergent daydreamers and creators, are squashed, their talents exiled to the remote and undervalued regions of the education system. It’s a waste, and it’s damaging, and as I hope to explore in a later blog, one contribution to the growing epidemic of mental illness.

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Unhappy Child, Unhappy Adult

A recent Radio 4 programme ( ‘Unhappy Child, Unhappy Adult’ ) looked at a study conducted in the USA that suggests acute childhood experiences (ACEs) are a major cause of serious illness in later life.  The criteria for what constitutes an ‘acute childhood experience’ are listed here  – but briefly it means abuse and neglect.  The study showed that 50% of 69 year olds with no ACEs are free from serious disease. Of those with 4 or more ACEs only 20% are without serious disease.

This is fascinating enough. And also deeply worrying. Childhood poverty is increasing dramatically in the UK, and whilst we can’t assume that poverty causes abuse and neglect, only an idiot would imagine it plays no part.

But what the programme revealed next was even more incredible.  When the data was explored in more detail the researchers were astonished to discover that the very act of completing the ACE questionnaire reduced a subject’s likelihood of visiting a doctor the following year by a dramatic 35%.

The study suggests the importance of early intervention.  Even the most hard headed capitalist can see how early intervention will reduce costs to the health service in later years. But even more significantly the study suggests that exploring early childhood experiences with adults will decrease their need to see their doctor at all.

Stress makes us ill and for some of us talking about our lives helps us heal. How long will it take for these messages to reach the policy makers?

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Hare Brain, Turtle Mind

Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Turtle Mind revolutionised the way I saw the world. I was a primary school teacher when I read it and everything he wrote in that book made sense. Certainly it made much more sense than the rubbish I was bombarded with from successive education ministers.  Claxton’s essential message is this: that the mind is more absorbent, more elastic when it is not stressed, tested, questioned, or rebuked. We don’t know what we know. That by being relaxed and not uptight we can access knowledge denied to us when agitated.

Since the book was published education policy has moved in completely the opposite direction than Claxton advocates. Testing children has become the most important weapon in the English and Welsh education armoury.  And if a subject cannot be easily tested, then it is considered, almost by definition, peripheral. Meanwhile those children who are good at tests continue to do well, those that have strengths that are maybe not so easily testable, fail.

When the tests are reported to parents, used as a means to assess schools and teachers, then the pressure exerted makes it almost impossible for pupils to learn in the manner Caxton advocates.

And those children who are good at tests go on to become the bureaucrats of the future and uphold the regime in which they have succeeded. Often these very same people are the least able to consider any other means of running an education system.

Claxton’s book led me to other writers who have explored a similar theme. There are many of them whose books are read by teachers and parents and whose message brings hope.  There’s Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings , David Eagleman’s  Incognito, Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. These are all significant people whose books are a summary of a life’s work. But do minister’s take notice? Nope.

Despite the growing evidence to suggest that education policy is utterly misguided, the same philosophy of education predominates. As I write the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is embarking on introducing tests in Scottish primary schools. Even in Scotland, a country the ONS describes as the best educated in Europe, the government is concerned over international comparisons. In Wales, the former education minister, Leighton Andrews, staked his reputation on reforms (largely based on a dreary an unimaginative diet of testing and comparisons) but then resigned on a trumped up unrelated matter ‘of principle’ before he could be held to account when those same reforms failed to work.

International comparisons (for example the PISA tests) put pressure on administrations. Ministers don’t want to be seen to fail. They want to maintain their lucrative positions and their power. They panic. The panic is contagious. Schools are inundated with new policies, new curricula, new tests. Heads panic. Teachers get stressed and panic. Pupils get stressed and panic.  And this, according to Claxton is the perfect recipe for failure.

The system itself is failing.  There are those students for whom the testing system works. But for many, and these are often the creative thinkers, the dreamers, the innovators, it is not just failing them, it is actively undermining them. Claxton’s book, and the message it carries, should be read by everyone with a stake in the future.

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Extreme Babbulary

Wednesday June 10th: I presented a series of eight workshops at St Thomas Cantilupe School in Hereford.  Eight Babbulary workshops, one after another. It was a challenge, and one that I accepted in order to determine whether the core content of the workshop could extend across the primary age range. The answer is that, with a few tweaks, it can. The nursery pupils laughed at the silly sound effects and slapstick mime, but bobbed about to the rhythm and syllable sequences and were genuinely very nice to me. Meanwhile, at the other end of the age range, the Year 6 pupils were almost as keen to submit to the nonsense, and once they realised this was a joint exploration, were quite gleeful. They were happy to launch the Pencil of Destiny into the Balloon of Nastybad, and restore peace. They seemed fascinated by the presentation I gave on my favourite words – for example, the word turkey (the animal) is dinde (of India) in French, and simply peru in Portuguese. Perhaps the pupils in the middle, the seven and eight year olds, were the most reluctant to accept the lunacy of the enterprise, one child declaring, right at the end of the day ‘what was that all about?’ A question I took as the highest compliment.  I’ve always thought experience is the best means of learning anything, (how do we learn to talk?)  so I want the workshops to be sensory as well as conceptually challenging. I don’t tell the children what it is they are going to learn because each will take away something different, or, in the case of the child who asked the question at the end, go away wondering what it was all about.

There was one major flaw in the proceedings, however, and that was my tendency, later in the day, to confuse one workshop with the next (they were in thirty minute slots, one after another) so I often forgot to include something because, mistakenly, I thought we’d just done it. (Not realising it was covered in the previous workshop!) It got very hairy towards the last two sessions, when my head was beginning to spin, and the children (having spent the day in other workshops) were spinning too.

But a hugely positive experience, and wonderful, lively, interesting children.

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My Struggle

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s  A Death in the Family  is the first of six volumes provocatively titled My Struggle.  This first volume deals with Knausgaard’s early youth, and the death of his father but it’s the way Knausgaaard sets about this that makes it so evocative.  He wants to include everything; and in the same way as Borges’ Funes the Memorious never forgets anything he sees, nor does Knausgaard.  Or like Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose novels record the surface of the world in labourious detail, so Knausgaard’s preference is to present us with the quotidian and the incidental,  but it’s the accumulative effect of layers and layers of this that makes the novel so powerful, immersing the reader in Knausgaard’s soupy universe.  There are moments when I couldn’t help but feel I was walking beside him, or that he is writing about my life, certainly his descriptions of his first experiments with alcohol, his first crushes, the disappointing parties, the dreadful bands he played in and the music he listened to. And Knaausgaard is a pitiful mess, sometimes, certainly he is no hero, and his inability to raise himself above the everyday, something he occasionally does with philosophical digressions, is somehow charming.  He imbues everything, every gesture, whether opening a bottle of beer, rolling a cigarette, taking something out of a cupboard, laying a table, pouring a drink, with such filmic observational precision.    ‘What you see every day is what you never see,’ he says, but Knausgaard captures every detail.  It’s no wonder his writing reminds me of  Ingmar Bergman; the slow, slow pace of things, the deliberation, the angst.  This is full of angst. Poor Karl Ove. He cries throughout the second half of the novel, sometimes with embarrassment, sometimes without fear. But crying is good, and perhaps if Karl Ove weren’t so sensitive, he wouldn’t have produced such a fine book.  It is a masterpiece of its own genre, kitchen sink, real time, plotless and written in such simple language, it sometimes feels less than what is.  Because it is remarkable, and, if I still feel the same after I’ve read the second and third of the six volumes of My Struggle, this ranks alongside some of the most astonishing literary achievements of our times.

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Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’

I don’t understand poetry.  But I’m not sure I know what I mean by the word understand.  Poetry doesn’t get me anywhere. I never feel as if I’ve learnt something that I didn’t know before, although I wonder what I mean by know. Sometimes a feeling is captured and held there and for a few seconds at least you think you know what it means.  This isn’t to suggest that the poet meant the same things.  The poet can only do so much.  Yet Paterson’s Rain exists in a class of poetry that does everything for me. I find it intellectually interesting but it has an emotional, almost physiological impact, it gets me in the gut.

‘We come from nothing and return to it’ is the first line of Phantom V. It’s not a particularly illuminating nor original thought and Paterson puts it quite baldly: but this thought is threaded through other poems in this collection with far more nuance and subtlety – and when his own children are the subject matter, the poetry becomes fragile, beautiful and permeated with aching grief. In The Circle Paterson’s son struggles to paint a picture, but at the same time his water jar captures an echo of the universe. In placing the child in such a vast cosmography, his efforts are simultaneously futile and colossal. The Swing touches on a similar theme – the moment of a child’s existence between two eternities:
I gave the empty seat a push
and nothing made a sound
and swung between two skies to brush
her feet upon the ground.
I’ve never read anything so gracefully poignant. My favourite poem of the collection (The Rain at Sea) I am not close to understanding: its power is its mystery.

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The Hill of Dreams

Dominating the reclaimed marshlands of South Wales, Twm Barlwm stands as a barrier against potential invaders. I grew up below that mountain, in Newport, and every Good Friday a group of friends would undertake a strange pilgrimage to the top, an Iron Age hillfort, with its dome like construction at the summit.  We used to call it the twmp, or the pimple, but from a distance its not difficult to see the mountain as a reclining woman.  The pinnacle of Twm Barlwm is more like a nipple.

In The Silbury Treasure Michael Danes maintains that the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, and neighbouring Silbury Hill, the largest man made mound in Europe, is a Neolithic monument to procreation: the hill is a womb, the site, according to Dames, depicts a woman giving birth.

Neolithic peoples were the first farmers, and were well aware of the cycles of the seasons.  They sowed and they reaped, and the invention of agriculture gave rise to settlements of much greater complexity than those that preceded them.

Perhaps Twm Barlwm is a similar construction, on a gargantuan scale.  You can see the mountain from across the channel, in Bristol.   The Romans built a fort and amphitheatre at Caerleon, just a few miles to the south of Twm Barlwm.  I’ve often wondered if it was a base to lay siege to the mountain,  Twm Barlwm, Tump Bellum, hill of war.

I left Wales to go to art school in London.  There I discovered a tiny subculture of writers, poets and musicians who were admirers of the late nineteenth century Welsh mystic and author Arthur Machen.   Machen grew up in Newport, but his writing life did not begin until he moved to that same suburb I found myself, Acton.

His London Adventure is my favourite book of his, but here I want to concentrate on The Hill of Dreams, which begins with this wonderful sentence:

‘There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened.’

The Hill of Dreams is Machen’s fantasy of his childhood, and the hill is, of course, Twm Barlwm.  It fictionalises Machen’s boyhood, much like my own, and his departure to London, where he attempts to make a living as a writer.

What pervades his books is a sense of the uncanny, of a belief that something more lies behind reality.  I read his books at a time when I was struggling to move forward.  On the evening I moved into a new room in a shared flat, it was a bitter winter, the heating failed, the pipes froze, as I was attempting to finish my first novel, a strong wind burst the window in my room, and when I reached down for my unpacked bag to find a jumper, I discovered the flat’s cat had pissed in it.

The cat’s owner had named it Crowley after the occulist, Aleister Crowley.  Crowley (the man, not the cat) was an admirer of Machen, but the admiration was far from mutual.  Aleister Crowley, I imagine, was the sort of man who would urinate in your bag and find it funny.  For weeks after I smelt of cat piss.  It felt like Crowley’s curse.

That first book was never published, but I did get a few encouraging responses form publishers.

Returning to Wales one spring, I decided to look for Machen’s childhood home, a rectory in Usk.  I went with a couple of friends.  It rained all day, and we got soaked.  It was April 1986.  A few days before the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine exploded, nuclear radiation rained down over Wales, a ban was placed on sheep and cattle movement that wasn’t lifted for four years.  Again, I had been pissed on. But this time it was serious piss.

During those difficult years, the struggle to make my way in the big city, Machen’s books brought me great solace.  His trails were my trials, and his victories, I hoped, would soon be mine.

Unlike Machen, I returned to Wales, and to the hills: the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains.  I find great comfort in their vastness and beauty.  Those early years of living under the spell of a mountain still permeate my every waking moment.  From Twm Barlwm to Pen y Fan, the mountains of Wales are all hills of dreams.

 

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Ramblings and Digressions

I found myself looking at antiques. In an antique shop. The owner, hidden behind a wall of stacked furniture, was observing me in a large mirror. At first I mistook his reflection for him, and nodded a greeting. When I realised I was addressing a reflection, I peered around the barricade and smirked. He responded with minimal interest. I was a prospective customer, but he could barely acknowledge me. I was interested in the Windsor chair, but it was too late, I couldn’t overcome my embarrassment now, and walked directly out. This was Abergavenny, a place I tend to look down upon.

I look down upon Abergavenny from the three mountains that surround it. The Sugar Loaf, The Skirrid and The Blorenge. The last of these has an ascent so steep it is almost vertical. You climb on all fours, but standing up. The summit of the Blorenge can also be reached by road, which dilutes the achievement a little, but up there, with lungs screaming for air, this is what you get.

IMG_2565

The Skirrid can be seen at the foot of the rainbow, and at the foot of the Skirrid, is The Walnut Tree Inn. I love The Walnut Tree.

I fell over on the Skirrid, a long time ago. I thought I had broken a rib. On presenting myself at A&E  at the Royal Gwent Newport, and complaining of chest pains, I was immediately rushed into a cubicle and sensors placed on my chest.

Only the night before I had been drinking in the Church House, a pub at the Handpost, just outside Newport. The Slowboat Takeaway is just up the road, and above that is a small flat where Green Gartside used to live. I used to see Green wandering the pavements. He was quite famous then, and I never understood why he had chosen to live back in Newport. I don’t think he ever wrote a song about Newport, or the Slowboat.

I was drinking alone  in the Church House, a pub near the Handpost, just outside Newport, when a bloke slumped down next to me and asked if I could buy him a drink. He was in a bit of a mess, pissed, but seemed  good company.  I bought him a pint, and he began telling me how hard his life was, how he couldn’t hang on much longer. He told me he was doctor at the Royal Gwent, and although I had no reason to doubt him, I did. He looked bedraggled, and after all, he did ask me to buy him a pint.

I’m covered in sensors, wondering why no one will just take my word for it, that this isn’t a heart attack, I’ve just done something to my rib, but the ECG is blipping away and the doctor rushes in, unshaven, squitty eyed, and it’s him, the guy I was drinking with night before. He didn’t recognise me, of course. I was going to tell him about our encounter, but decided not to.

The rib took months to heal, and I can’t think of the Skirrid without thinking of that fall. The day of my fall I’d climbed the hill with my parents, neither could manage it now, they are both approaching ninety, and live just around the corner from the Church House.  I was there just last week. My mother is very unwell, and my dad cares for her full time. He’s usually very perky, and full of rambling, digressive stories. But last time I saw him he looked weak and frail and was sorry for himself.  It was his 87th birthday.

“I’ve lived long enough,” he said. I gave him a hug when I left. It was hard.

But today I’m in Abergavenny, making my way to the car park after walking out of the antique shop. I get in the car, drive home. On the radio Iain Sinclair is talking about WG Sebald. I love both writers. Sebald’s Austerlitz is one of my favourite books.  I prefer it to The Rings of Saturn, which many people consider his masterpiece. Sebald was a walker, and his books are often ramblings in both senses. Sinclair spoke of Sebald devotees who try to retrace his steps and fail. Sebald was a storyteller, Sinclair reminds us.

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Watercress v Shouting

I won’t go into too much detail, but I recently undertook a psychometric test.  There were something like one hundred and seventy questions, ranging from “I enjoy theories” to “I hate parties”.  As the test proceeded, so my positive responses were clustered together, as were my negative answers.  So things I like (books, people, shouting and watercress) all appeared in the same question, forcing me to make a distinction.  Similarly, all the things I hate (golf, getting up, Wotsits and rabies) were thrown together to make me differentiate between them.  Imagine if you were asked whether you hated Wotsits more than rabies, could you decide?  Rabies is nasty, but you are rarely offered any.  Wotsits, they pop up all over the place, those horrible, disgusting, floury, yellow puke pods.

At the end of all this, I had to sit in a room with an expert who told me how nuts I was.  She laughed until she cried as she described the huge variations in my responses.  “You are a silent loner,” she said.  “You sit outside of the circle, looking in.  You hate Wotsits more than rabies.  That’s very weird.”

“Ah,” I replied, “but I love watercress more than shouting!”

She filed my report away and told me, no, I couldn’t have a copy.  For once in my life, I wish I could have been normal.  It must feel so good.  To like people more than poetry, and parties more than stationery.  I can only wish.

But as I spend hours alone, making things up, it is unlikely that the outside world would consider me a balanced, rounded human being.  I am not, and I don’t want to be.  I want to the eccentric that I am, because in that way the world is an endlessly entertaining series of the bizarre, the surreal and the utterly incomprehensible.  If I were organised and rational, possessed of that dubious quality ‘common sense’, then I am certain I would be incapable of dusting myself off and walking away after a computerised psychometric test had determined I was an introspective watercress loving loner.

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