Wednesday, 28 January 2009

918 - Pride and Sympathy

We keep a visitors' book, and ask our friends to write a note in it when they come to stay. This is from Lucy, included with her permission because it's honest and a little bit of town history:

"...We came up to see E and Steve and stay with them for the first time, but we also came to take a little peek into my ancestory. My Gran grew up in the Station Hotel where we had a beverage or two [on Saturday night] and my dad spent his early years growing up on North Parade, a terraced street that my great grandad built. Being proud of my family I was probably biased in my opinion of Whitley Bay, which I feel is a beautiful seaside town in need of sympathetic regeneration to bring it back to the busy resort I visited as a child..."

E and I are incomers. Another twenty years and we still won't be local. But we already feel a similar mix of pride and sadness when we show the town off.

It's fading on our watch. But the true value of it all is the community held by and holding the town, and Lucy and Pat reminded us of that at the weekend, both by their enthusiasm for the history, and by their company. Thank you, both of you. It's been great to get to know you better. And to learn the rules of meshi-mishi (sp?). Rematch!

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

919 - Sloth Man

Dug this up in a stack of papers I was sorting.

Sloth Man is hanging from a surveillance camera down by the Spanish City Dome when a heinous crime takes place beneath. What will he do? To be continued...

[Click for larger image.]

Monday, 26 January 2009

920 - Jesmond Allotment

On the way into Newcastle from Whitley Bay (walk; Metro; walk)

Friday, 23 January 2009

921 - Purely Mischief Making

Shirley Hughes, Up and Up (Bodley Head, 1979)

Does anyone else think the crotchety scientist from this fabulous picture book, about a little girl who eats a chocolate egg and finds she is able to fly, looks just a tiny bit like Richard Dawkins? (Who I think is wonderful, by the way.)

922 - On Love [Working note 3]

Everything can be described in terms both of its acme and its opposite. Pick your opposite.

White is an overload of colour, and a negation of black; the removal of pigment from a white light, or the switching of that light on.

Love is a selfless giving, which promises, thereby, self-fulfilment. Therefore its pursuit is pure selfishness and selflessness both.

So the Love Meme possesses two contradictory definitions. Both are in themselves satisfactory: together they create a tension which can only be resolved by appealing to the experience or event of love. This is what it is, because it is what it is.

There's something about intention in the examples I give, perhaps because intention is about a viewpoint. It depends where you are looking from as to whether the interrogation light illuminates or blinds. And only an objective viewpoint allows for light, defendant and inquisitor in clear and co-equal display.

I guess there are two equal and opposite ways to achieve objectivity. The first is to step outside the experience: to become an observer. The second is to so step in that one becomes embodied in each aspect of the experience. One feels the fulfilment of love and also its full expense.

Perhaps the rhetorics of science and religion represent, in this way, a deliberate shuttling to and fro between objective and subjective experience of life (this is, I think, what Mary Midgley is articulating in her book Science and Poetry). They start from opposite poles, and it is not that they meet halfway, so much that each learns to describe itself, both in its own terms, and in the terms of its opposite.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

923 - On Slumdog, Seven Stories, Aidan Chambers and the Stuff of Life

Leaving the Tyneside after watching Slumdog Millionaire, E and I bumped into Elizabeth Hammill and her husband, who also know a good story when they see one. Elizabeth was, with Mary Briggs, a co-founder of Seven Stories, The Centre for Children's Books (a great article about which, by author Adele Geras, is here).

I was fortunate enough to work for Seven Stories for four years, after qualifying as a librarian, and before going self-employed as Artist, Explorer and General Wastrell. It's one of several cultural jewels in Newcastle's Ouseburn Valley.

Apart from anything else, Seven Stories reawakened in me a love and appreciation for story-making. And not least because it introduced me to the work of Aidan Chambers and his wife, Nancy. Between them they are publisher, editor, librarian, author, teacher - a couple whose passion for Children's Literature has blazed a trail since before 1969. A couple who, as it is beautifully put in Aidan's biography, have been in conversation since they first met.

Aidan hales from just outside Chester-le-Street. His first name resonates the spirituality of Northumberland (three government buildings in Newcastle, including the tax office, have adopted the names of the Northumbrian saints, Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede, for, one can't help thinking, rather more mundane purposes). His own spirituality, addressed in several of his powerful stories for teenagers, is both experimental and experiential, and has not come pre-packaged in buildings, boxes or books. Seven years a monk, he left in 1967 to pursue his vocation as a writer (no contest, he declares).

Writing about his sixth novel, This Is All: The Pillow-Book of Cordelia Kenn (2005), he says that life is about nothing other than love and coming to consciousness (the quote's at the back of the paperback version, which I don't have!). It seems to me that through his writing he has midwived love and consciousness in many a reader - not least E, who quoted Cordelia Kenn on her PhD thesis, and credits this book as giving her, for the first time, the understanding that a novel is much much more than a fast-paced adventure (though at times the book is certainly that, too).

Love and coming to consciousness. A life's work. I can go with that. Steeped as I currently am in questions about reciprocal altruism and the evolution of religious sensibility, this brief insight, that love breeds consciousness, and consciousness, love, offers one wiser man's reflection on the moment at which life transcends game theory, and in so doing allows the transformation of scientific rhetoric from doctrine to poetry.

No monk or saint has offered more.

924 - A Morning in Newcastle

Hunter-Gathered in Newcastle this morning:

2 buttons (large blue coat; smaller blouse (?));
1 ash-silver leaf;
1/2 a folk lyric (I would if I could, my darling boy;/ I would if I could, my darling -/ Sovereigns turn my closer world:/ Your hand on my heart's a far thing/ (Your hand's not worth a farthing.);
1 unsolicited hug on Northumberland Street.

Other stuff too, but these made my day.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

925 - Love Memes and Data Leaks

In Post 932, I started to pull some ideas together about Love. I defined it as the quality of expending oneself for another, with no thought of cost to oneself. I wondered why it was not explored in greater depth by neuroscientists, by which I guess, I meant, I wondered why I had not heard more reference made to it in the books on neuroscience, anthropology and evolutionary and positive psychology that I enjoy reading.

Well, there's at least one book: Why We Love, by Helen Fisher, an anthropologist. Richard Dawkins refers to it approvingly in The God Delusion. I'd like to hunt it down.

Dawkins is making the case that in the same way that romantic love tips us head over heels, so does religion. He wonders if religion is a result of our capacity to love one another misfiring in response to the wrong stimuli. In fact, a whole barrowful of misfirings, in response to a barrowful of the wrong stimuli, not just those related to love.

He proceeds to describe in detail how units of cultural inheritance may perpetuate themselves, by natural selection and random drift, in the same way that genes do. These units are, of course, memes. Religions might be collections of memes, replicating themselves the way viruses do, riding on the firings and misfirings of our neural networks, without necessarily bestowing benefits upon ourselves. My ears pricked up as I read Dawkins' exceptionally clear summary of memetics. When I started to write about data, at the beginning of the week, I was on meme territory.

If data are the raw components of information out of which culture is formed, memes are specific collections of data organised to replicate themselves within that culture. If all data leaks, or in Dawkins' expression, drifts, then no mere meme-barrier is sufficient to firewall an idea against change induced from the outside. Just as a virus can insert itself through a cell-wall into the DNA of that cell, so can a meme within a fundamentalist ideology.

I like Richard Dawkins, a lot. But where he is unremittingly negative about religion, using his insights I reckon I can be a bit more positive. The definition of Love I started with is a cultural unit. In that it defines one's highest fulfilment as the fulfilment of the needs of others, it bestows a sense of purpose and well-being on oneself. A community behaving in such a way acts reciprocally, and everyone's needs are, as far as the environment renders it possible, met. The cultural unit at the heart of such a culture is passed on. Therefore it is a meme.

If Love, so defined, is a meme, it is closer to the DNA of an optimally functioning human being than to a self-interested virus riding piggy on the DNA's back. But just as genes don't work in isolation, nor do memes.

Central to Dawkins' idea of genetic transfer is that genes that can co-opt elements in their environment to work for them stand a better chance of survival than those that are exposed to attack on all sides. So genes have evolved to build a casement around themselves - the phenotype - us. And if the environment fluctuates, the gene that can create a responsive phenotype is the one that succeeds. Draw a direct parallel: memes that survive exist within cultural phenotypes, the most successful of which can respond to changes in their environment. Sometimes a gene can ditch most, if not all, of its phenotype. Major geological catastrophes result in the decline of huge numbers of species, but result in subsequent speciation of the survivors to fill newly available environmental niches. Why should we not expect the same thing to happen culturally?

Here's a theory. Religions such as Christianity have evolved as cultural phenotypes designed to perpetuate the Love Meme. No meme is more successful than this, because no meme satisfies its host psychologically at the same time as he or she is satisfied physically (by the efforts of others loving the host, and by the host's efforts, seeking to remain healthy in order best to love others back). Christianity is a fairly successful phenotype, but if all it is is the co-option of various cultural values and stories designed to carry and protect the core value of Love, then, should those accretions no longer prove useful, they may be ditched and replaced by others without harm to the Love Meme itself. Given the vast and incremental weight of cultural (including scientific) achievement gathered over two millenia, it would actually be surprising if new cultural phenotypes were not to be tried and found successful. The language and culture of genes and memes may well furnish just such a new phenotype. I hope so.

The question remains, is Christianity (for instance) any more than the Love Meme in Judaeo-Roman cultural clothes? What of its claim to be a revelation of God? Here the hard question must be asked by Christians, if John was content to define God as Love, and if Love is defined as that which gives all without thought of itself, then is there any need to explain spirituality as anything other than one's subjective experience of a loving reality? Though a hard question might also be asked by atheists: if subjective reality includes a genuine experience of the divine, even if understood in terms of a cultural phenotype, provided it does not contradict the core message of the Love Meme, should it really be dismissed out of hand?

Speaking dualistically for a moment, Spirit might be something different to the material world, I guess, but if its essence is Love, materially expressing itself in that world, then miracles and other funny stuff can only ever be an added bonus.

I've made it my business to understand the way Love works. It's really all my business. If it is a key phenomenon of humanity, time spent developing new ways of talking about it, celebrating it, passing it on, cannot be a wasted activity, can it? If it really doesn't meet our core needs for survival, we should know about it, sooner rather than later. If it does, then the more of it around, the better. I guess that makes me a vicar of sorts, but at this stage in our cultural development I don't think the endorsement of a particular religion is helpful. Probably ever thus. Somebody will pay me for what I do, if I ever need the money.

Monday, 19 January 2009

926 - Data Leaks

Like Fame costs, and shit happens, and E= M(C squared), this should be taught from birth.

Data leaks.

It's the micro-level law of the Information Age...

[Examples to follow, after nephew is made to feel at home, and nappy, which is leakier than a Home Office, changed...]

Friday, 16 January 2009

927 - Two Coffee Table Books

For your delectation, from Whitley Bay, two books so new they've not been written, let alone published. But I reckon there's good mileage in them:

First, The Whitley Bay Coffee Table Book of Allotments - an extended photo-essay documenting allotments from the North East to Nicaragua.

And second, The Whitley Bay Coffee Table Book of Dashboards - an extended photo-essay documenting dashboards around the town, and the paraphenalia that people keep on them. From superman mugs to copies of lad's mags, to nodding Elvises and Eastern Gurus, check out the average white van and you'll find out there's no such thing as an average white van dashboard!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

928 - The Bay and Homi Bhabha

Homi K Bhabha writes controversially about globalisation and multiculturalism. A snap sentence from the back of his book The Location of Culture (2nd ed. 2004) says that he argues 'that cultural production is always most productive where it is most ambivalent and transgressive'. An interview online, by W.J.T. Mitchell, says of him that 'he has told people exactly what they didn't want to hear, at the moments they didn't want to hear it, in a way that has been impossible to ignore'.

This is interesting, from his preface to The Location of Culture, about the writer V.S. Naipaul:
It was the ability of Naipaul's characters to forbear their despair, to work through their anxieties and alienations towards a life that may be radically incomplete but continues to be intricately communitarian, busy with activity, noisy with stories, garrulous with grotesquerie, gossip, humour, aspirations, fantasies - these were signs of a culture of survival that emerges from the other side of the colonial enterprise, the darker side. (pp. xii-xiii)

He quotes Naipaul on

the Trinidadian.... a cosmopolitan.... a natural anarchist, who has never been able to take the eminent at their own valuation. (p. xiii)

I may be reading too much into him, but his ideas strike a chord. They help me make sense, first of my own cultural journey, and second, of Whitley, to which I was attracted because of its edgy seaside town location.

My own journey has taken me into Evangelical Christianity and back out again. Although I found acceptance and comfort in its monoculture, I wasn't prepared to give up my identity to it. I left, struggling with enormous issues of guilt, in despair, and believing I'd committed an unforgivable sin. It took me many years to accept that a loving God (if one exists) has no problem with guilt or cultural rejection. Bhabha would say, I suspect, that my experience of Christianity was one of cultural colonisation on an individual level. Gradually I let myself be colonised, until, at the last, I protested. But by that stage I was complicit in the process of colonisation, and had let go of any sense of an alternative culture I might measure myself by. I experienced fragmentation, followed by a gradual redefinition of identity, in a manner I instantly recognise in Bhabha's analysis of Naipaul's characters above.

I also recognise, in his analysis, commonalities between the postcolonials he describes and the mature, softly anarchic, arctic tribespeople described by Hugh Brody. And I wonder, therefore, whether the process encouraged by the early Christians, of commitment to an impossible story, till one is forced to allow the shattering of one's reliance either on one's newly adopted or one's prior culture, is calculated precisely to bring one to a recognition of one's hunter-gatherer mind, in the sense that this is, in Brody's words, "humanity's most sophisticated combination of detailed knowledge and intuition" (The Other Side Of Eden, p.306).

Which brings me to Whitley Bay. Though predominantly white and working class, it too, like the India Bhabha comes from, has experienced waves of cultural colonisation, many of which it has enjoyed and conspired in. Adopting the long-term role offered to it of a thriving seaside town, in the early half of the twentieth century, it also allowed physical colonisation by holidaymakers on a week by week basis. Now, however, this adopted identity has been withdrawn, to be replaced by one defined by the harsher, and as yet, poorly understood cultural pressures of globalisation. Does it hold tight to the vestiges of seaside glory; or recognise its power-base is gone, and seek a new identity as a dormitory town serving Newcastle? Or is a third, 'hunter-gatherer' option open to it?

Bhabha and Naipaul might indicate there is. One that admits to despair, but proceeds 'towards a life that may be radically incomplete but continues to be intricately communitarian, busy with activity, noisy with stories, garrulous with grotesquerie, gossip, humour, aspirations, fantasies'. That sounds like the Whitley I sense around me. A survivor's tale, profoundly spiritual, anarchic, natural and new. It would not be so easily managed from outside, but it would be truer and more valuable to the wider region because of it.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

929 - 3.00am

Wee small hours in Whitley. No lights on in the houses down our street. Driven downstairs by the scratchy cough-demon in my throat, I meet Timmy, our cat, by the kettle. Two small fires of intention in the kitchen. I'm after tea; Timmy's after food, fussing, probably.

It's easy to anthropomorphise. He's after the door in the kitchen, opened, by me, into the rest of the house, a venture I'm reluctant to allow him to make. There is a stand-off at the door-jamb. We look at one another.

I use my beastly power to shut him kitchenside. He uses his to express disdain, turning to his food bowl, forgetting the unattainable. I'm left on the wrong side of the door.

Monday, 12 January 2009

930 - On Love [Working Note 2]

'exposure to an experience of Love' [932]

Life is an exposure to the experience of Love. No rewiring necessary.

Friday, 9 January 2009

932 - On Love [Working Note]

Let's forget supernatural. Let's not talk about God. Let's just spend a little time with Love.

Conceptually: the quality of expending oneself for another, with no thought of cost to oneself.

What might an understanding of Love do for one's take on the world? Particularly with reference to neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity, conceptually: the quality, in brain science, by which neurons responding to internal and external environments form new networks and pathways through the brain's architecture, to a greater or lesser extent restructuring it. We read because of our capacity to rewire ourselves, says Maryanne Wolf, in her book 'Proust and the Squid'. Norman Doidge, in 'The Brain that Changes Itself', says, I think (though I haven't read the relevant bits yet) that psychoanalysis encourages similar positive rewiring, enabling recovery from trauma, for example. In other words, ideas encourage physical healing.

So exposure to an experience of Love, if Love is about unconditional self-giving, could precipitate permanent change in a person. That change could be physical as well as cultural. And the concept need not be precipitated by anything supernatural: as an idea, it has a weight of its own.

I don't understand why more neuroscientists don't explore the nature of Love. Instead it is left to religious people, who have their own language and culture, and a reputation, if not a track record, for late adoption of scientific ideas (if not the benefits that those ideas bring them, like better nutrition and home entertainment systems).

One would think that the systematic investigation of a concept capable of encapsulation in a four-letter word and a three-word definition, regardless of its source or cultural providence, which held the capacity, universally, to transform, affirm and overturn value systems simultaneously, would appeal, the way the Holy Grail might, were it to turn up in a Harvard, MIT or Cambridge lab, handles cocked akimbo, with a sign saying 'Test me' at its lip.

The neuroplasticity of Love. You heard it here first ;)... [...Unless Norman Doidge has got there ahead of me!]

933 - Into Great Silence

I saw the film (trailer here) last night at the Star and Shadow. The good people at the cinema handed out free soup before the showing - chockful of Jerusalem artichokes, with whole peppers and spices I couldn't identify. Third time of watching this open hearted documentary, which catches, in light beautiful, the life of a community of Carthusian monks.

The first time I watched the film was with E, in 2007, at the Tyneside. "You didn't tell me it was a subtitled film!" she protested. "It's about silent monks - " I defended. "There are no subtitles!"

(To sell Whitley to film buffs, the town is within forty minutes, by public transport, of two multiplexes and three arthouse cinemas - four, if you count the Playhouse which, until it shut for refurbishment, played Brit flicks alongside summer blockbusters, between its caberets, comedy and Am Dram.)

Into great silence. Zeitgeist films, blurbing the movie, wrote:

One of the most mesmerizing and poetic chronicles of spirituality ever created, ... [it] dissolves the border between screen and audience with a total immersion into the hush of monastic life. More meditation than documentary, it’s a rare, transformative theatrical experience for all.

For me this has been the case.

But I come back to Whitley to a different kind of silence. Two more big-name shops are going from the High Street: Marks and Spencers, and (sadder) the local family firm T & G Allan.

Now that the Co-Op has downsized, and Woolworths, shop-soiled, be-shuttered itself, the four empty premises, all between St Paul's church and Fitzgerald's, stand like dead front teeth in a broken gob.

"Bring in the artists!" I said, talking about it at the Star and Shadow. I meant, let's be defiant, rave at the wake, find new life and foster it. Clara, who heard this, was right to press: "People have lost their jobs. They are really, really desperate." Someone else said, "The shops sold commercial tat." (And he was right, too.)

Into great silence. Grief before new life.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

934 - Everyone Needs a Shed

Typo from yesterday's post:

Every night shed be on the floor shaking what she'd
...which is a really naff way into a post about a beautiful thing. Whereas I could have opened the post by recalling the conversation on Monday night with A and K, when A admitted, in his first floor maisonette, that all his home missed was a...

...though still, in all honesty, that's not the kind of shed I mean, either.

The shed I'm talking about is this one. Chickenshed. And the twenty or so independent theatre projects, around Britain and the world, who share its inclusive vision.

On Tuesday, before we returned to Whitley, E and I were taken to its Christmas Show, a home-produced Lemony Snickettish telling of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' - a punk/goth version of the title song, framing a tale of lost rings and family redemption.

There were a number of cracking songs, a fanfair of great set pieces, within the show, but the finale, with actors and actresses of all physical and mental abilities on stage (650 people involved in the four casts and their support, who rotate, a night at a time, through the show's winter season), speed-thrashing the blazes out of the twelve day countdown, whilst the audience stamp and bop along, has toned all my hope-muscles for 2009.

Chickenshed is like L'Arche, a community I was fortunate to be a part of in the early nineties, in that it refuses to define us by our abilities. The result is a community driven by utopian ideals, which proves itself, against the odds, day by day. No theatre I have ever seen moves me like the work that Chickenshed produces.

There is a satellite project in Darlington - Steam Shed. And there is a project in North Tyneside, called the Learning Disabilities Federation North Tyneside, with which I am happy to volunteer, in which I recognise the same ethos.

Hey, perhaps we could set up a shed in Whitley? A theatre-group for all abilities, at home in the refurbished Playhouse?

Everyone needs a shed.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

935 - Back in Town

Guess who just got back today?
Those wild-eyed boys that had been away
Haven't changed, haven't much to say
But man, I still think those cats are great

They were asking if you were around
How you was, where you could be found
I told them you were living downtown
Driving all the old men crazy

The boys are back in town

You know the chick that used to dance a lot
Every night shed be on the floor shaking what she'd got
Man when I tell you she was cool, she was red hot
I mean she was steaming

That night over at Johnny's place
Well this chick got up and she slapped Johnny's face
Man we just fell about the place
If that chick don't want to know, forget her

Friday night they'll be dressed to kill
Down at Dino's bar and grill
The drink will flow and blood will spill
If the boys want to fight, you'd better let them

That jukebox in the corner blasting out my favorite song
The nights are getting warmer, it won't be long
It won't be long till summer comes
Now that the boys are here again

The boys are back in town

[Lyrics by Thin Lizzy. Good to be back in Whitley. And yes, the nights are getting warmer...]