Thursday, 17 April 2014

Mirror, Mirror, Under the Table

Are you Leonardo da Vinci?  Probably not.  But can you mirror write?

There are two ways of doing this.  One, which was taught to me by my geography teacher (Mr Styles, I think), is to use your left hand (if you’re right-handed).  That’s quite easy.  The other, rather more interesting, way is as follows:

Get a piece of paper and hold it underneath a table or other flat surface.  Visualising the paper as if it was on top of the table, write on it (holding the pen upside down, obviously).  Left to right, forming the letters normally.

I’ve tried it, and it works – at least in principle.  My attempts so far are too embarrassing to show you, but they are definitely in mirror image.  I’ll keep practising, and publish my inverted version of ‘Finnegans Wake’ once I’ve mastered the technique.

Neurology is weird and wonderful.  Remind me to tell you about the physiotherapy ‘mirror box’ sometime.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Influential Albums #3

The 5th Dimension: The Magic Garden 1967

Here it is on Spotify: The Fifth Dimension – Magic Garden

Jimmy Webb is best known for his evocative songs for Glen Campbell – ‘Galveston’, ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ – and before that, the two albums with Richard Harris (cheekily recycling Rex Harrison) which yielded, amongst other lesser known chunks of grandiose kitsch, the seven minute soft green icing of ‘McArthur Park’.  Later, he’d pluck up the courage to sing with his own voice. (Check out ‘P. F. Sloan’, a loving tribute to an otherwise forgotten seventies non-iconic singer-songwriter, recently nicely covered by Rumer.)

Before any of that, though, he cut his teeth on two albums with the unlikely vehicle of this superficially manufactured vocal group (three guys, two girls, no stars).  The first contained the bouncy ‘Up, up and Away’ but was otherwise unmemorable.  The second was a masterpiece.

‘The Magic Garden’ is primarily a break-up album, in the form of a song cycle.  It’s framed by a ‘Prologue’ and an ‘Epilogue’, with the words “Have you tried love?”, which I remember thinking was a clever trick, spoofing some kind of soap powder advert.  In between, ten songs take you through the famous four stages of love – exhilaration (‘The Magic Garden’); doubt (‘Dreams/Pax/Nepenthe’*); resentment (‘The Worst That Could Happen’); and bitter resignation (‘Paper Cup’), with thematic links between tracks. 

There are a couple of anomalies – ‘Ticket to Ride’, although a stomping version, juts out a bit like a leftover from an earlier meal, and the coyly titled ‘The Girls’ Song’ is clearly a technical exercise in out-Burting Bacharach.  But these are minor blemishes – and they both fit into the story, actually.

And the sound!  Believe it or not, it was the first record I ever heard on stereo headphones.  Perhaps for that reason, or perhaps chemical enhancements played their part, but I had never heard music so deeply and widely before outside of a concert hall.  I like to think that it was mostly due to the sheer quality.  World-class production (the legendary Bones Howe) and performances (Hal Blaine’s ubiquitous West Coast ‘Wrecking Crew’), and of course the 5th’s finely honed vocals.  Slap on the cans, press the pedal to the metal and catch track 7, ‘Requiem: 820 Latham’.**


Influential?  Well, it certainly was on me.  I spent the next twelve months trying to write Jimmy Webb songs – multi-structured, symphonically chordal, cryptically personal, cynically romantic.  I failed, of course, and no-one has ever heard them: but the attempt justified the failure.



*Jimmy could do cryptic titles with the best of them.

** Like I said.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Ceiling Space

Rereading ‘Master and Commander’, I came across the following phrase:

“Hanging tables appeared, dropping instantly from the beams …”

What a brilliant idea, I thought.  Although my dining room is certainly bigger than some, much of the floor is taken up with a large table which is used, usually, for no more than two hours per day.  If the table were suspended from the ceiling, the floor space could be put to all sorts of other purposes, such as, I don’t know – a dance floor?

It’s not a new idea of course.  Patrick O’Brian has rarely been faulted on historical accuracy through the twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels, so I’m certain this practice was commonplace in the eighteenth century Royal Navy, especially in a cramped misshapen little brig like the ‘Sophie’.  I first read this book in about 2004; but I realised today that the idea was by no means new to me even then.

In the kitchen of the house, 37 Watcombe Road, where I spent the first eleven years of my life, there was a thing called the clothes rail.  It consisted of, I think, five long wooden slats, held together by two cast iron davits, lowered and hoisted via a system of pulleys and ropes which were secured to a cleat on the wall.  The rail would be lowered, loaded with damp washing, and hauled back up to ceiling level for it to dry.  (If the clothes ended up smelling a bit of fried fish or boiled cabbage, that didn’t matter much in the 1940s.)

The kitchen of my present house must have had one of these devices too at some time, because its cleat is still there, just by the hall door.  I hang spare keys on it nowadays.

Sunday, 16 March 2014


I used to have a big, deep pond in the back garden.  It was there when we bought the house, and over the years it evolved – fountains and waterfalls were added, various aquatic plants were introduced, the fish (which had come with the deeds to the house, it seemed) bred and multiplied and died and got taken by passing herons.  Blanket weed grew, was raked out, thrown into the compost.  It was an ecosystem of sorts, I suppose, but not a properly sustainable one.  Ecosystems, especially micro- ones, don’t thrive on neglect.

One day, about ten years ago, I looked at the nasty green swamp and said: “Let’s fill it in.”  Viv agreed, but was compassionately concerned for the fish.  As luck would have it, providence was on our side – a friend had just moved into a new home which had a pond, and was keen to stock it with goldfish.  And so it came to pass.  Our fish got fished out, well most of them, and somehow found their way to Caro’s pond, where they thrived.  (Until recently, when she decided to fill hers in; but that’s another story.)

At the time, I remember feeling some concern for the frogs.  Some years earlier, we’d been sitting out late on a warm humid evening enjoying the tail end of a bottle or two, when suddenly about twenty-five frogs leapt out of the pond and scuttled off into the undergrowth.  Half a minute later lightning flashed, thunder clapped, and a deluge descended.  “Those frogs know something,” I thought (and said, to anyone who’d listen, for months afterwards).

So when the Great Pond Fill-in started, I worried a bit about how they’d fare without their swamp.  Viv reassured me: “They’ve been around longer than us.  They’ll survive.”


This evening, about an hour ago, I wandered out into the garden for a ciggie, and heard an unmistakeable sound from the undergrowth.   I came in, started to write this, went out again just now (I wanted to be sure), and heard it again. 

Hope spring’s eternal.  

Friday, 7 March 2014

How Dare They!

The BBC, that is.  I was a bit perturbed by the announcement that BBC3 will sometime soon cease to be a television channel – but the suggestion by Danny Cohen (head of television) that BBC4 could follow it has me chewing the carpet.

Now, I don’t watch much television, and none of what I do watch is on BBC3; most of it is on BBC4.  (There are two main reasons for my admittedly atypical viewing patterns: firstly, I follow the quality; secondly, I refuse to watch adverts.)  But that’s just me.  What’s truly important here operates at a much more basic level. 

The BBC’s charter, as I understand it, obliges them to be a ‘public service broadcaster’.  The clue is in the last word.  I don’t think streaming a channel exclusively on iPlayer can truly be described as ‘broadcasting’.

What about people who don’t have internet access?  Or don’t happen to own an internet-ready television?  Or who would rather watch on their antique TV set than on their laptop, but (like me) lack the technology to join the two together?

I just about accepted, a few years ago, that I’d have to spend money once digital, without consultation or compensation, became mandatory.  (It meant I had to buy a new set, but the old one was nearly done for anyway, and it was a welcome boost to South Korea’s economy and the U.K. imports industry, not to mention John Lewis.)

But the doublethink that will lead me, in the future, to being unable to watch television on a television – well really!  Public service? 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

History of the Universe, Part III: Towards Civilisation

Now that you’ve learnt how to think (see Part II), here’s how to become civilised:

Hunt and gather until you’ve used it all up.

Move somewhere else and repeat.  Invent nomadism.

Notice that when a seed drops from a plant, sometimes it sprouts.  Invent agriculture.

Invent tools, and pay people to make them for you.  Gather together and invent towns.

When other towns grow too close, merge with them, share skills and resources, and invent nations.

When other nations grow too close, subdue them.  Invent war.

Conquer enough other nations to form a civilisation. 

Believe that your civilisation will last forever.  Wait.


‘Fail again.  Fail better.’



Friday, 28 February 2014

History of the Universe, Part II: Thinking about it

Right, this shouldn’t take long.  Because you can’t think about the absence of thought, can you; so how can you think about its origin?  And of you can’t trace its beginning, how can you map its history?  It’s like the old Irish joke: “You shouldn’t really be starting from here.”

Stanley Kubrick had an answer: a big black monolith suddenly appears amongst a bunch of hitherto thoughtless hominids; its mere presence triggers Thought – and we jump-cut 2,000,000 years.  It’s a masterly bit of myth-creation, but it begs the question.   Whoever put the monolith there must have thought about it first.

I think of thought (ha!) as boiling down to two words: ‘why’ and ‘if’.  ‘Why’ looks to the past, trying to explain, ‘if’ to the future, trying to predict: the important thing is that to be thinking, you have to be able to do it with your eyes shut.

So, the history of thought?   Well, from Kubrick’s apeman’s realisation that if he used that bone in that particular way, then this consequence would ensue; through the discovery by the likes of Socrates that you could think about the abstract as well as the particular; all the way to the boundless scope of artistic imagination and the consciousness-expanding potential of digital technology – there’s certainly been a lot of it.  (And I haven’t even mentioned ‘Deal or No Deal’.).

But I’m not sure thought itself has really changed that much.  It’s broadened its range of subject matter, obviously; but has it expanded its basic toolkit?  Has it deepened?  Did we become better thinkers over the millennia, as we civilised ourselves?