Saturday, 28 February 2009

893 - Guy Aged Fifteen On The Metro...

...was talking to a couple of friends, and said, "I'm an 'ist'... everything I do is an 'ist'." Then he paused and had a thought, which he sounded out with the others. "That makes me a rapist!" he said.

At the time, I was reading Susan Greenfield's book, i.d. - about the way (possibly) that our sense of identity is changing in the 21st Century. A very pertinent, but very highly-strung book, I'm thinking.

Here's what I had just read:

"If the Seven Deadly Sins are the behaviours through which we each establish our unique identity, it follows that in contemporary societies, where the individual identity is encouraged, the significance and dread of sin are greatly diminished. Conversely, such behaviours would have been, and sometimes still are, perceived as undesirable, 'deadly' indeed, in societies where, and at times when, the significance and nurturing of individual identity were, or are, not paramount, as in fundamentalist societies." (p.153)

I don't want to comment on the validity or otherwise of Greenfield's argument, not yet. I've not read it in full, and the book is controversial. My gut feeling is that any theory which starts by isolating an issue, like identity, from its context, such as a developing cultural trajectory, runs the risk of introducing dichotomies into the resulting analysis, and rendering the organic inorganic (not in itself a particularly original thought!).

But here are some commonalities between the event and the text, as they strike me.

The teenager was concerned with his identity. He felt trapped by his attempts to define himself. Everything had already a word to define it. However he chose to act, it would be fitting a pre-existing expectation pressed upon him by the world around him. He did not want this, which is why, exasperated, he sought the humour in it.

Greenfield has proposed two poles by which identity is defined. The first is individualist, modern, Western. The second is communal, traditional, fundamentalist. The poles are such that what is 'sinful' to one is the acme of identity to the other. She is proposing a moment in Western culture whereby the individualist pole is no longer obviously in the ascendent. The propensity to polarise is itself part of the Modernist identity - part of the 'ist'-ifying identity of which the teenager is making fun.

The teenager jokes that he is even a rapist. He is obviously not a rapist, but again, the joke reveals an insecurity. Listening in, it occurs to me that the way he declares this deduction, twice over, and to an awkward response from his girl friends, which he doesn't handle brilliantly (and why, at fifteen, should he?), suggests he is not happy with pressures either to over- or under- sexualise his identity. Also that there may indeed be something in the way Greenfield, avoiding theology, nevertheless links identity formation to concepts of sin and the structure of societies.

It occurred to me, because I share the guy's awkwardness with labels, that when I reject a label violently, I am being 'ist'-ist. Because of this:

The tail end of Modernism, which, from one perspective, is about atomising the world into its barest components, culturally as well as scientifically, has been left holding a mass of isolated data-units. Every data-unit, or word, has become an 'ist', simple because we've analysed the big 'ists', like Fascism or Marxism, into their smallest constituent parts. No wonder we have become so sensitized to the use of language.

And therefore, perhaps political correctness can be redefined as an aversion to some of these mini-'ists'? As sexism is the arbitrary favouring of one sex over another, political correctness (and its reactive opposite) is the favouring of one arbitrary set of words over another. The mindset sets words against each other. Our culture has become labelist, verb-ist, identity-ist.

The teenage guy gets this. As in the sixties the great civil rights movement was against racism, perhaps what we are seeing now is the birth of a civil rights movement against ist-ism. Against any attempt to pit identity against identity. Or the labelled against the unlabelled. And because it deals with labels, it embraces every single civil-rights movement that has gone before.

I think this is more important, the more I think about it. I think this is very important indeed. I feel as I close this post that I am onto something big.

894 - Whitley Bay Culture Quarter

A quick nod to Culture Quarter, who seem to be making good their commitment to the community-based regeneration of Whitley Bay through inventive and public promotion of arts and culture in the area.

They've opened an office opposite the Playhouse in the abandoned newsagent just up from the arcades on Marine Avenue. Plans are permanently on display at the office, and an invitation to contribute ideas.

They are advertising a Public Meeting on 3rd March to set out their plans, which I hope to attend.

Today (28th February) is the second of their Mind Sports Taster Days at the Berkeley Tavern, also on Marine Avenue. This offers a chance to play a variety of board games in a public(ish) space, runs from 2.00 till 8.00pm, and is free (though I guess you buy your own beers). By my watch it kicks off in around forty minutes. It's drop-in - you don't need a full-on six hour commitment to attend!

I'm wanting to maintain a degree of objectivity towards Culture Quarter, until I know a bit more about them, though it's hard not to be partisan when they keep coming up with great ideas...

895 - Simon Beaufoy in the North East

Simon Beaufoy spoke, at the Darlington Arts Centre last night, as a key-note speaker at The Story Engine - the Third Northern Screenwriters' Conference. That's Hollywood to the North East of England in five days. He's a down-to-earth, Oscar-hugging, boat-dwelling, beer-swilling, gent!

His interview, by conference organiser Ian Fenton, concentrated on four films he'd written across his career, culminating with Slumdog Millionaire, launched with The Full Monty, and bridging Among Giants and This Is Not A Love Song.

After revealing that his recent Golden Globe award sits in a thousand pieces at home (though you'd have to chase him for the full story), he proceeded with a detailed strip-down of the processes which brought these movies to the screen. It was an incredibly insightful evening: good psychological nuts-and-bolts, writer's life stuff, with plenty of input from delegates.

I was at the conference to learn tricks about story-making from some of the best and most innovative story-tellers you'll find. These are some of the insights I'll take from Simon:

On adapting Slumdog: that adaption should strip a book to its soul - what is built up from then on, what is woven back onto the piece in its movie form, comes second. Simon is up-front about this when speaking to authors. He travelled to the Mumbai slums to find the soul of the book in the people he interviewed there. He used a trick from his days as a documentary film-maker: to find the heart of a place, ask its people what they would film if they held the camera. Slumdog became a movie about romance, about gangsters, about the naive and glorious generosity he found amidst the violence of Mumbai.

On place: that place is a character and films are about character. So place is considered from the word go in the development of his scripts. In Slumdog it was Mumbai; in The Full Monty it was Sheffield. The Full Monty is as much a hymn to Sheffield as a depiction of male disenfranchisement and the humour that arises from it. The movie is bleak, under all the great gags.

A great question from one of the delegates on Monty: now that we are back in a recession, does this change the way we view the film, no longer nostalgic for the characters, but empathetic? For Simon, you could tell, this question was the reward of the evening, something new for him to ponder after the event, and his answer illuminated because it was about the transparency with which he let us see his pleasure at the questioner's acute insight. You knew that the film had always been about the solidarity he felt with the men he was depicting, their resilience, their pain and fortitude. Political, he said, with a small 'p', meaning a very big 'P' indeed.

Finally, on This Is Not A Love Song, a guerilla piece of film-making that was the first to be released on the web simultaneously with its cinema showing. It lost money, which stymied the production of similar low-budget, on-line movie releases for a media generation, because it became the target of a hacker protesting the need to pay a subscription fee to view the content. It seemed, from the clip shown, to be a raw and very, very exciting piece. The crew behind the film shot, edited and released it in (do I remember?) sixteen weeks, holding down two jobs each (the writer was also the caterer), on digital cameras, and at a minimum wage.

But there was the film, and after a couple of days where the sheer exuberant potential of on-line films and an accompanying 'just do it' mentality had been showcased, here we could see someone at the top of his game, forced in 2002 to push the medium as far as he could, first to protest against the lumbering machinery that was holding his creativity in abeyance, and second, to do something new, truly democratic, hand-held, bright.

There were more insights, of course, but these I found particularly relevant, and directly applicable to my own 'just do it' vision for storymaking, real-life, real-time, without cameras or the crossing of any cultural threshhold, on the streets and in the houses of Whitley.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

896 - Story Engine

Recovering after the high that was the first day of this.

Great to hear from commissioning editors and writers about the very real changes that the internet is bringing for media industries new and old.

Even more exciting to sense that I'm riding the same wave, with the big idea that I am having - somebody called me a pioneer today. I feel like a pioneer, and that can be bloody scary (and lonely). But how could I have it any other way? This ride is a thrill and a passion.

Very vague (sorry). Nouvelle Vague (double sorry - bad pun for film buffs). Will blog more about my big idea and the Story Engine Script-Writing Conference at the weekend.

897 - A Child's Letter

Folded up four-fold and footprinted, caught in a gateway along the road to Whitley Metro, a child's letter, on paper torn from an exercise book, dated 23.02.09:

On the first fold:
Front: My letter to Hayley
Back: Do not touch it please

Opened out fully:
Do you want to come to my birthday party?
So do you want to say yes or no?
Circle one of these words -

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

898 - Whitley High Street, Saturday

899 - The Belvedere, Saturday

Some beautiful photos from Saturday night, here on Dave Armstrong's blog, and here on Sid Smith's. Mine are from earlier in the evening, before the sky got all apocalyptic. The light picked the buildings on Whitley Bay High Street out in gold leaf. This is of the Belvedere.

I dug around a little (a very little) and found a thread on a genealogy site which mentioned that the Belvedere is built on the plot on which Whitley House once stood. The grounds of Whitley House are, remember, where Whitley's Great Ox grazed.

The thread is worth checking out if you're interested in local families and contains one or two nuggets about the buildings on the street.

Monday, 23 February 2009

900 - In Which I Go All Mulder (3)

Some odd events to do with prayer and intention.

Starting with a qualified apology about the religious language, in case it sounds freaky, or presumptious, or out of place. In what I'm about to write, I'm not out to persuade, and the language I used at the time I'm repeating here because I used it at the time. I talk about prayer, and especially the verbal kind (evangelical Christians call it 'intercession'), but aspects of it'll sound familiar, perhaps, to people from other spiritual traditions, like Wicca and Buddhism, where maybe it is referred to as something else.

And there may be a Black Swan explanation of it all which does not require anything other than coincidence and the laws of nature. But I'm not here trying to unpick subjective elements from objective ones. This is partly because the very reason I've experienced some of the things I have is because I motivated myself to go about engaging with them the way I did, a phenomenon that cannot help but be both subjective and objective. More subtle analysis can (and will!) follow in later posts.

Here's what happened, anyway.

After the shower experience that had pitched me into questioning reality, and, perhaps because it was to hand, after I had immersed myself into the evangelical Christianity that offered to mediate it for me, I realised pretty soon that this was a hook, line and sinker gig.

I began to seek out books and experiences which would demonstrate to me, to others, to the God that I had committed myself to, that I was in it for the long haul. I found myself exploring prayer, which I have come to understand as engagement at its deepest level with the reality we can reach out and touch, in such a way, perhaps, that that reality is affected by our actions.

Four uncanny events, on each occasion I ventured to the edge of my inhibitions, encouraged me to believe this.

First, at Uni, emboldened (though not beyond the point of uncertainty) by stories of men and women asking God to intervene in the world, on my own one night I prayed the first thing that came into my head. A kind of bargain - give me something to pray and I will say it (give me something important to pray, God, and you'll get what you want). What I would get was the validation that my prayer was worthwhile. The risk, of course, was that I would say something stupid. Tentatively, with as much conviction as I could muster, I opened my mouth, and without preparing the words, found myself saying 'I pray for the victims of the train crash'. Single sentence. I rolled over and went to sleep. I woke up to catch late night radio news of a train crash in Europe. Only two dead, though many injured.

Then, as a passenger on a car journey past the Chichester Sainsbury's in 1993, I sensed some kind of weight, a gathering of - what? intention? in the atmosphere around the place. Although I understood I could articulate a prayer, nervously I didn't. I'd been shocked by my experience of the train-crash prayer. Within a day or two, though without injury to anyone, the supermarket had burned down.

Third, in Bognor, summer 1994, I bought tickets to travel for a fortnight's break from L'Arche. By this stage, much of my interior life was caught up in a process of negotiation and imaginative acts of life rehearsal, in the light of theology and the God that that theology argued for. On the way to Bognor station I felt the same sense of weight. Whatever it was, it led me to break my revery and, choosing words a bit more carefully than before, to pray (and forgive the stiltedness!) "Lord, if the IRA are to bomb this town, at least let it be for a good purpose." Whilst I was away, this happened. It was the last IRA bomb found in mainland Britain. The shock of an IRA blast in a small seaside town, in which, amazingly, no-one was hurt, and the resilient response of the town, led directly to the IRA abandoning these tactics.

How to make sense of this? How to make sense of this when you are, of your own volition, within a church community that encourages the belief in effective prayer? When these events, though rare, maintain an internal consistency? When you are aware that any attempt to explore these things in public debate risks notoriety and misconstrual? Was the prayer effective? Who knows, objectively? What sense do you make of the not knowing?

When I left Church, in those magical weeks of grief, midsummer 1995, I was in great panic that the devil had some grip on me. A door-slam at midnight and I'd be sure I was being watched. It was as if I was operating at an acute spiritual pitch, and conspiracies that others had told me of in my church years rang horribly true. Though on the edge of madness, I was steered from it by the visit of an local crisis team, who interviewed me, and assured me that, though I wasn't insane, carry on as I was doing and I might end up so. I'd scared myself towards the release of disassociation, but the crisis team scared me back, so that I was like a rabbit zig-zagging.

On the last occasion I want to speak of, I was sat in one half of the kitchen, my mother preparing lunch at the other end. I was half aware of the door of the washing machine, open and empty. If I was damned, there'd be nothing to stop the world unravelling around me. I could be pulled every which way. I started to sense a build-up of intention, which focussed itself, as I focussed in, on the washing machine door. The windows were closed. The air was stuffy, absolutely still, and my senses were alert. If I was a puppet, the devil, anything, could have me nudge that door by thinking of it, and it would move. And you've guessed it: as I engaged, gave myself up to, the world around me and the door, the door moved. No more than a millimetre. Scalded again, I leapt away.

I list these experiences, and these, and these, to make the point that there is a state of being where positivism - an understandable trust in the material world - becomes uncertain. I don't want to go further than that, not here, and probably - given the choices I've made, and the fulfilment I find precisely in the openness of uncertainty - not ever. Unlike Fox Mulder, I'm no longer in pursuit of a truth that is out there. Nor do I believe the truth is purely subjective, within. I won't cart my own load of dogma onto your patch, and just dump it there.

Though I do want to tease at these events in future posts, and one or two others like them, and especially to begin to ask whether they can be shared in any meaningful way, as a church or coven might, or a covey of storytellers. The possibility is there. That's all, right now, I believe I'm confident to say.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

901 - Interlude - Whitley Bay Dusk

In which I break the run of posts started here for a beautiful dusk sky, hoping that, if it is at all symbolic that my hundredth post should be of Whitley Bay as it fades into the evening, there are 900 posts left to go on this blog, and just as surely as night falls, it will lift with the rising sun. (Anyway the nights are fun in Whitley Bay.)

Friday, 20 February 2009

902 - In Which I Go All Mulder (2)

A handful of dreams, the common denominator being that they seem to involve experiences of the future.

Perhaps these fall into the category of random coincidences. Or perhaps both dreams and subsequent events are part of a single delusion. Maybe there is a conspiracy of friends (or aliens) planting ideas and 'arranging' events - as someone once suggested to me on Richard Dawkin's site - so that I'm caught in a kind of human or suprahuman Truman Show (I desperately hope not! Far too much effort...). Maybe I'm in a two-way (though feels pretty one way) conversation with a God with a penchant for plot-spoilers. Or maybe (seriously) there's something about consciousness and the nature of reality that gives everyone unity across their lifetime - some personal, or even interpersonal, vantage point, accessible in dreams, in which content from past, present and future intermingles.

See what you think.

In the dream from my childhood I return to, I stand this side of a vast river, which itself sweeps across shelves of rock, and is edged on the far side by mile-high cliffs. A strong wind picks up and carries the water flow, driving it faster, if this were possible. There's a sense, which I had the day I dreamt it, that the other side of the river is beyond this life, and for another time.

Then, at university, caught in the expectation that a Christian God brings truth in dreams, I decided, in 1992, to talk about a couple to friends, when they seemed particularly sharp (the dreams, though the friends were, too, of course...) and when I had nothing else to say. The two I spoke about were, first, of a print of a portrait of the queen - this one, I think - in a student common room, with a presentation label beneath it from a particular reverend gentleman; second, of two trees - one a mural dessed in handprint leaves, and the other, small, of fir-cones stacked three or four high, tied with red ribbons, and held stable by an arrangement of wooden struts which criss-crossed one another at the tree's base. The handprints and the ribbons had names written on them.

What was remarkable was that, on each of the two occasions, subsequently, that I spent a night in communities I had never been to before, expressly to determine whether I might join them for a while, I found these objects where I was staying. The portrait was hidden at the back of a wardrobe in the disused former student's room I was given prior to an admissions interview at St John's College, Nottingham, in 1994. When I turned it around, I found on the back a label, with presentation details and the name of the donor written on it. The tree mural and the fir-cones were both used by L'Arche Zacchaeus, a house in Bognor Regis, to symbolize, firstly, all the current and former members of the whole L'Arche Bognor community, and secondly, specifically, those of the members in the house where I was staying, current in the summer of 1992.

Finding these objects, in the context of a religious decision-making process, was, on both occasions, uncanny, but it seemed sensible for me to take them to mean that, whatever decision I made about whether to join the communities or not, I was at least, at point of decision, at the 'right' place. And on both occasions, subsequently, I chose to join the communities.

I didn't always tell my dreams to others. One freaky dream, which unrolled just as I dreamt it, was of a young male stranger, arms swinging, who walked up to me on Barnet High Street, thumped me on my arm, said something like 'You're one of us now', and walked on. This chilled me. I had just walked away from Church. It was 1995. I was in something of a trance-like state as I searched for some sense of normality in the weeks following that decision. Joan Didion, I think, captures the state beautifully in the title of her book, on grieving, 'The Year of Magical Thinking': I was thinking magically. Then this event - dreamt of, again, a long time previously - manifested itself like a moment of real and fearful magic, out of the blue in broad daylight. After years of evangelical thinking, it seemed to me that the young man, in some form of insanity, was mouthpiecing demonic voices to me, pressing the consequences of my decision to walk away from Church upon me. And I kept walking.

And finally an inconsequential dream, of Doctor Who books in a newsagent, glossy covered, in sharp focus. Doctor Who was a childhood hero and I'd collected all the Target books as a boy. This was in the early 90s, after the series had been discontinued, and the stories were no longer fresh in my mind. Again, in the weeks after leaving Church, I came across a run of these books - new ones, freshly covered, written by fans perpetuating the myth, and looking just as I had dreamt them. Kind of embarrassed, I didn't know what to make of such a dream, though perhaps, now that the series is continued again, and my passion for narrative and deliberate myth-making awakened, the story's power to inspire, and the nature of the Doctor as a strange embodiment of kindness and infinite possibility, gives this experience of dream and twinned event greater resonance. Dunno. ;)

Actually there was another dream, I think - though because I spoke to no-one about it I am less sure - more recently, of a trip to a mattress factory and a high building with tropical plants growing up its centre. Of me and E and peacocks amongst the plants. On our trip to Majorca last year we stayed in this building - a hotel - and were invited as part of the holiday package to just such a factory. This time, trusting that there was no right or wrong decision a God might be asking me to make, and not unduly concerned I'd be missing a demonstration of mattress-construction, I decided not to talk E onto the trip. Instead we walked to a high promitory, overlooking the resort, and I read Marina Warner on Signs and Wonders as E slept in my lap.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

903 - In Which I Go All Mulder (1)

As promised, the first of three posts documenting a bunch of weird stuff. This time, a bit of history, including a couple of 'conversion' experiences. Next time, a handful of dreams. Finally, some odd moments to do with intention and prayer.

Readers who know me well will know that after a pretty average child and teenagehood I did a slightly less average (if still, I have to admit, fairly cliche-ed) thing and, at York University, in my first term, threw myself into the pursuit of Christianity. I'd sat in a student kitchen, listening to a Christian Union girl tell us her life story, and a day or so following, had taken a shower during which, looking upwards, I'd experienced something like light breaking into my head and body. The sense that the limits by which I had defined reality up until then had been fractured, was so powerful to me, subjectively, that I sought out the God crowd in an effort, as much as anything, to get back on an even keel.

Over the next six years I pretty much immersed myself in Christianity, proceeding, from active involvement in the Christian Union, to a first year after my English degree in a Catholic religious community with people with learning difficulties; a second attached to a charismatic Baptist church, and a third at an Anglican training college. On the last day at the college, the 'loose canon' tutor who had welcomed me in, and who I respected (and still respect) deeply, looked me in the eye, with my parents present, and told me that one day I would be a vicar.

Immediately after which, back with my parents, I walked from church, from Christianity, the whole kit and caboodle, and spent the next eight years walking. Periodically I would be overwhelmed with a sense of guilt, loss, and fear, which I learnt to deal with by distracting myself, sleeping it off, or allowing my girlfriend, who became my wife, to talk me back down (or up) to earth.

Then, at Christmas 2003, having redefined myself as a librarian and illustrator, I found myself again at my parents' house, with my wife away on the other side of the world. I'd travelled earlier in the day by train and (it doesn't matter about the details) when I went to bed that night I was despairing. I remember pulling the duvet up to my nose and simply lying, no more emotional or intellectual fight in me.

At 3.00am that morning I woke to the sense that I was surrounded and permeated by Love. Here's the part of the story where a Christian might say 'God called me back' or 'I decided to return to the Church'. But I had no sense of demand, simply an impression that whatever could enter my despair and lift it so fully had to be Love, had to be natural; that if there was a God, and God was promising anything other than this, I didn't really want or need it. What I found, what I still find, is the mental, emotional, bodily, spiritual space, proactively, to explore being me, alone and in relationship with wife, family, friends, and all the rest.

I bargained a little, that night. Using the old evangelical language - with which, suddenly, I was at ease, even as I left it behind - I found I could talk the Christian talk; at the same time I had new words, a love of science and cultural analysis, which had given me a home outside this subculture. I decided I'd take the risk that, since it obviously had no problem with my despair, Love would stick with me, and, as I'd survived pretty well for eight years outside institutional religion, would never submerge myself in it again. At the very least, it would freak my wife out. I knew I could go back - if I felt the call, I would - but what a fantastic adventure, instead, to take a chance on something new.

I've read widely since, and more and more I meet people, often from a church background, who are making similar journeys to me. It all seems to tie in with the growth of globalisation, social networking sites, an appreciation of emergent theory, organising without organisation, non-hierarchical thinking. And as well as being very new, very postmodern, these ideas are also pre-Christian, pre-agriculture even: very, very old indeed. There is continuity, and security in them, as well as revolution.

I'd claim the title of vicar for myself, if I didn't prefer the term storymaker. Eight years out of church has been my training and I really, really don't feel the need to jump any more professional hoops. But I remain engaged with Christianity, especially to support those who are uncomfortable within it, or who, having been faced with similar decisions to me, have decided to remain in or return to it.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

904 - A Resolution

After my last post I found myself caught in a bit of a dilemma. It's probably fairly typical. In simple terms, how autobiographical did I want this blog to be? I want to talk about experiences I've had that could make me sound potty. I want to explore where they lie according to criteria such as religious orthodoxy, mental health, and probability. Then, maybe, to ask whether and how they might occur communally (that is, to a group of people, a town even) as well as personally.

Eventually I want to ask under what circumstances, if any, and if it is possible, it could be considered positive action to precipitate them.

It seems to me that the risk of being shot down in flames is worth taking. So over the next three posts (taking the blog to its hundredth entry) I'm going to present some seeming
'inexplicabilities' which are core to my sense of identity. Future posts to refer to them, these posts simply to present them, as I experienced them, as concisely as possible. But I want, over the long term, to be ruthless with myself, scientifically rigorous.

Not sure what I'll conclude (that's half the excitement!), but all comments and input welcome.

Friday, 13 February 2009

905 - Living In the Now?

I've been reading Susan Greenfield's new book on identity in the 21st Century, and am intrigued by the arguments she makes for the similarities between childhood and schizophrenic minds.

Her take is that schizophrenia shares, with childhood, symptoms of 'living in the moment', due to malfunctioning and undeveloped prefrontal cortexes respectively. She notes that excessive openess to other people and experiences, and a failure to distinguish between reality and dream sensations, or to block sensations out, are common to both.

These are aspects I recognise, to a greater or lesser degree, codified or in search of an explanation, from my own religious experiences, though I'm less disposed to label them negative. I find some grounds for this in Hugh Brody's analysis of the hunter-gatherer mind as intuitive and focussed on immediate experience, on decision-making on the hoof. After all, the whole religious quest is summed up in many traditions as 'living in the now' (Jesus' 'Why worry?' speech is an example) - and Brody argues that hunter gatherers have not been prised from this mindset by the dominant, farmer alternative.

It seems to me that anyone serious about exploring their spirituality or religion must investigate their experiences in the light of the latest neuroscience and psychology. The fear is that these disciplines can over-medicalise, and that mental health, especially, is sensitive ground for our society. I therefore approach the task with some trepidation, particularly because it makes sense to write about these explorations here, in public.

But not to explore the deepest parts of yourself? To put reputation ahead of art? of life?


Thursday, 12 February 2009

906 - Snow At Last!

Here's Whitley Bay Station at midday.

907 - The Art of a Library

There's an autobiographical book by Francis Spufford called The Child That Books Built. Books built me, too. And now I am building a library.

In fact, books built my family - both sides. My mother's family was, and still is, involved in publishing. Long ago they opened one of the first public lending libraries, in Glasgow. My father's double great grandfather was a poet (not a great one) in Blackburn, and, for a while, was Librarian at Blackburn Mechanics Institution. A contemporary described his home as being 'literally wainscotted with books'.

So it's in the blood, I reckon; in the genes, though I wonder what exactly that might mean. My earliest play memories are not of books, but Stickle Bricks. But from mid-childhood onwards I surrounded myself with books; camped behind the sofa with them; carried them with me on holiday, and to university (where someone perceptively suggested I was addicted to them); fashioned them into my professional life as a librarian.

A book, for me, is a shared space, where the tracks of my mind cross the tracks of another. Though the words themselves, and the surface meanings (and the texture, and white spaces, and weight) are objects, they are objects in relationship, and it is that relationship that gives the experience of reading its intimacy and wider meaning. The longer you read, the closer you and the author of your book get, till you share the same experience, and in some sense are of one mind.

A library, gathered over time, and partially or wholly read, is therefore the node of a community, speaking in analogue, the way that the Web can be a digital community. On my shelves I place Steven Pinker, William James and Karen Armstrong, alongside Clive James and Naomi Klein. Perhaps they talk in other forums too, face to face (though this is hard across generations and social divides), but when I read them alongside one another, at least in my mind, they speak together for me. And when I add my words to theirs, and place them in some accessible form, like this blog, or a conversation I have with friends, the community is perpetuated, and opened up to feedback and new voices.

A library is steam-punk cyberspace.

Whitley has a public library, forty years in temporary accommodation. Its coastline extends north to the home of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Its cycle-tracks and waggonways cut inland to Newcastle, where the Lit and Phil was set up as a private library, to serve the same mechanics and worthies as the Blackburn library my triple-great grandfather served in. Newcastle has webcammed a bold new library, due to open Summer 2009. Back in Whitley, the local library is set to move, away from its site in Whitley Park, the park where Thomas Bewick drew his Great Ox, the Ox set to be commemorated in poetry by school kids and adults at the end of March.... You can walk from Whitley to Newcastle, Whitley to Lindisfarne, sure of company much of the way. And the great readers, if neurologists and anthropologists are to be believed, have always been great trackers: they use the same mental capacities.

Not sure where this is leading. Save to suggest that Libraries, like walking and the growth of civilisation, are an art and an organic thing, and seamless with our past and digital future together.

908 - Yesterday

E made me a Birthday/ Anniversary cake!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

909 - Er...

Yesterday I wrote:

Tomorrow (which is my 38th Birthday - and seventh wedding anniversary) I'm going to map my own meaning-making journey onto this synopsis.

...which, on reflection, would be an utterly boring thing to do on one's birthday or wedding anniversary.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009

910 - A Narrative Life (General)

Quote from i.d.: the quest for identity in the 21st century, by Susan Greenfield:
It's almost as though the period of excessive plasticity in childhood is a one-way street: there is huge potential for anything and everything to leave its mark, almost literally, on the brain. As the brain matures, however, we start to evaluate the world in terms of what has gone before: now there is a two-way street between the outside and our personal memories. Many of the haphazard experiences, the deluge of disconnected events that were the hallmark of our early years, are 'forgotten' as the synapses that subserved them are pruned away in favour of a clear, connected, conceptual framework for how we see ourselves, the rest of the world and our life story as a 'connected chain': a narrative. But an increasingly prevalent tragedy [Alzheimers disease] is that this sequence of events can be thrown into reverse gear.

Susan Greenfield researches Alzheimers disease and the physical basis of consciousness at Oxford University. She's also director of the Royal Institution. So she knows what she's talking about.

I like this quote because it describes our lives in terms of their development as meaning-making (for which, read story-making) machines. Tomorrow (which is my 38th Birthday - and seventh wedding anniversary) I'm going to map my own meaning-making journey onto this synopsis. Finally I might have a go, in a couple of days, at mapping Whitley's meaning-making in the same way.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

911 - Tynemouth Station

The mirror, used by the Metro driver to cast his or her eye back along the flank of the train, at this angle catches the station bridge, lit by sun against a cloud heavy with snow.

912 - Tynemouth Flea Market

Today, with in-laws, between snow-flurries.

Friday, 6 February 2009

913 - Humpty Dumpty

Another slide from the box I bought at Tynemouth Flea Market a year or so back. The first can be found here.

I wonder if Humpty Dumpty is still around? I still miss my giant, moth-eaten mouse, Mousie, who visited Gran's toy hospital many times over the years, only to be 'lost' the year I went to university, by Mum in the process of bedroom reclamation....

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

914 - 42 Days To Ox Mass

Plans for the Whitley Festival of the Great Ox are probably taking shape. There's a newspaper report here (which I referred to in Post 942), and a little publicity in the ether.

The Whitley Bay Chamber of Commerce are planning the event for 28th March. An ox sculpture based on a sketch by Thomas Bewick, framed in iron and decorated with flowers, will be paraded through town. Poetry competitions will run alongside.

I think it's a great idea. And mischievously I've suggested the Space Rabbit - a splash of paint that just happens to look like, well, ... - should caper, Lord of Misrule-ishly, around its heels. But I'm wondering if the Chamber of Commerce know quite what they are doing.

Karen Armstrong writes very powerfully about myth-making. Last year she won a TED Prize for her work on religion and the need to take it seriously. I'm reading her 2006 book, The Great Transformation, in which she suggests that the most powerful myths arise to help people make sense of the times they are passing through. Arise? More than that, are created, by poets, storytellers, artists, priests, everybody.

She identifies a hole in our myth-making. The grand Western myth of Christianity has largely been abandoned in the face of technological advance and a hard-nosed critique of its claims. It needs radical reworking if it is to satisfy a multicultural world, traumatized by world wars and environmental rupture. And I can't help but feel that Whitley's festival is an attempt to do something similar, on a local scale.

Think about it. It's not just that it's a bit Wicker Man, in a kitsch way. Its institution by the Chamber of Commerce and their choice, as core symbol, of an ox fattened for sale and slaughter on land belonging to the lord of the manor, fits perfectly as a myth about successful capitalism. It is easy to see that a town in need of regeneration could turn to such a festival in the hope that its drawing-power might hoist us out of economic and cultural gloom. And if it does so, great.

But, as Karen Armstrong points out, myths that don't serve their purpose get subverted, abandoned. The Eastern Mediterranean, between four and three thousand years ago, was home to a pastoral civilisation whose rituals were peaceful and celebrated life, agriculture and pageantry. Then the civilisation collapsed. Greek myths, birthed in the turmoil that followed, are darker, full of the vagaries of fate. They expressed the experiences of their time far more effectively than processions and fatted calves. Was this a bad thing? Perhaps not, because out of the trauma, over the next five hundred years, grew the Greek civilisation that inspires us today.

My question to the Whitley Chamber of Commerce is, does the current climate look like one in which a myth about successful capitalism is going to ring true? If it does, then proceed with the procession, flowers and poetry, undaunted. It will be a popular success. But if it sounds a bit hollow, then consider reworking the myth a little. Straining against people's sense of the true state of things is poor quality witch work. Put a bit of dark in, a bit of chaos, like the Greeks did. In the long run it will be more effective.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

915 - Cardy

Cardy, cardy, cardy, cardy, cardy

(Sorry Jackie, couldn't resist!)

Monday, 2 February 2009

916 - Orange

Samuel Coleridge got Xanadu when he dreamt a poem. I got this:

This is an orange
In a white cardy,
Eating eel pie
And feeling mardy.

Go figure. (Found image here.)

Though actually the muffling of a perfectly round, freshly scented fruit in a white wool fash-catastrophe would make anyone feel mardy. I sense I am dreaming I just need to let me be...

Sunday, 1 February 2009

917 - Frost Bunnies

Watching the snow colony gather in tiny granules on the promenade outside Rendezvous Cafe's wide arched window. In not-quite-lives shorter than mayflies they fall as we drink tea and coke inside.

They shiver with excitement, in scurries and swirls, one moment a giant William Morris doily, the next wracked into a brief drift against the embankment wall opposite.

In the darkening chill they are finally whisked out and down the prom, until, a sharp plume, they burst over the sand, and dissolve their droves in the sea.