Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

In the hectic time leading up to the publication of Rustblind and Silverbright, our anthology of railway-themed slipstream and horror, I have invited short blog contributions from the authors included in that book, which I will be publishing at irregular intervals over the next month or two.  Next in the series is Eibonvale regular Douglas Thompson with a characteristically metaphysical and thoughtful musing on the nature of the familiar railway station . . . 

Stations are How Towns Dream.

by Douglas Thompson

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Stations are how towns dream.

If you are lucky enough to have one of those Victorian ones left over, not crushed and brushed away under the onslaught of sixties modernism and brutalism that swept through our world like a rabid brontosaurus and lurched off around the corner of our minds in a hazy childhood cloud of half-remembered concrete dust. If you have a real station building with timber trellised eaves and cast-iron fretwork of interlacing beams like corset work, you’ll know that you are licensed to dream there, and that as you do: the town and all the long-dead men who built it are dreaming with you.

At its station, the limits of a town’s identity cease in a wistful demarcation, a petering out, and the town dreams of being by the seaside, or at the foot of a Highland glen. The station dreams of being Euston, Paris Gare Du Nor, Istanbul, a gateway to the Orient, its cool marble slabs spattered with the exotic spices of foreigners gabling in obscure tongues like music. The word ‘gay’ becomes somehow innocent and playful again under the canopies of a true station, built in the golden age when the world first became aware of itself and its true extent. There is something forever festive and celebratory in the architecture, like frozen flags and buntings. We are all going somewhere, or someone much beloved is coming home again after a long trial. An exciting beginning or a happy ending.

In stations, the buildings themselves dream that they are not bound to the ground by foundations, that like us they might up sticks, gird their loins, and shimmy off towards the far horizons drawn by the sight of a wistful puff of summer cloud that says “Escape”. Station architecture dreams of timber bathing huts by the seaside, of Alpine villas and the bracing air of snowfields and natural springs.

And what of the towns themselves that we glimpse from these stations as we pass on through in the train? We see them from above, we see their roofs beneath which their citizens sleep in harmonious rows like well-behaved children.  Their dead sleep there too, in their graveyards, and the dead have left their stories woven around the thousand chimney pots like drifting smoke. The living citizens each think they are unique and new as they walk around like little toy soldiers and dolls in their perfect town that the dead have left them. But bit by bit, the buildings themselves and the stories they have encoded, re-take the citizens in their dreams as they sleep at night, and make them one with the town itself, the town’s true, immortal character. History repeats itself like a stained-glass window through which each day’s new sun must shine. The colours change but the pattern is so beautiful that it creates itself, it seems always to have existed, as all great art must.

A town is a living entity, which while its citizens themselves must know birth and death, it can know neither. People are like light bulbs, newspapers, matches, a tide of necessary ephemera which comes and goes, swept in and out at its stations. What is left behind and what endures is the town, its spirit and character and hope, the character of humanity and of the earth itself, which is indomitable and indestructible. Therefore never despair of your own life and fate, but know this: that you are not the matches burnt or the paper discarded on the wind. You are the town itself, its very bricks, part of it and all of it.

A town is a living person, and its station is where it dreams.

Visit Douglas Thompson at http://www.glasgowsurrealist.com/douglas

In the hectic time leading up to the publication of Rustblind and Silverbright, our anthology of railway-themed slipstream and horror, I have invited short blog contributions from the authors included in that book, which I will be publishing at irregular intervals over the next month or two.  Next in the series is David McGroarty, author of the story Stratford International, who points to the strange parallel world of the London railways that you might be forgiven for never even noticing . . . 

 

The Gibson Square Vent

by David McGroarty

Gibson Square Vent

If you ever visit Gibson Square in Islington, you will see a cute little neoclassical structure in the centre of the north lawn. For a while last year I would take my two sons through the square on our way to school and nursery. I didn’t pay much attention to the building until my eldest tugged my arm one day and asked if he could go inside it to see the butterflies. I had been thinking it was a particularly ornate toolshed, and I told him so. “What are those?” he asked me. The roof of the building is a mesh dome, like you might see on an aviary. What had taken my son’s interest were the small, dark fluttery shapes clinging to the wire. But they weren’t butterflies.

The stretch of the Victoria line that runs between Highbury & Islington and Kings Cross station is unusually long, and runs directly beneath the residential areas of Pentonville and Barnsbury. The ventilation shaft at Gibson Square was intended to be a more utilitarian affair, but the local gentry formed a pressure group and petitioned the London Transport Board to produce something more in keeping with the area. The folly – not a butterfly house – was designed by Quinlan Terry in the style of a Greek temple.

The Victoria line is a mighty piece of railway. The most intensively-used rail service in the UK, it carries more than 30 trains per hour at peak times – and 200 million passengers per year. It connects three major mainline terminals and the commercial centre of London’s West End. And it is almost entirely invisible. Standing among the town houses of Barnsbury, the swanky offices of Fitzrovia, or the tall trees of Green Park, you tend to forget it’s right under your feet. This is true of London’s public transportation system more generally. It is a marvel: a vast, intricate people-moving machine which keeps itself largely hidden from view until it is needed. It exists almost as a parallel city, one with an entirely transient population, that weaves itself in and out of the one in which people live and work.

Those dark, fluttery shapes caught in the mesh roof of the building that isn’t a butterfly house in Gibson Square… from time to time one shakes itself free and lands nearby on the lawn. They are pieces of newspaper and leaflets and crisp bags, torn, shredded and black with soot. I imagine that these artefacts have escaped through this hidden fissure between the two places and have been somehow unable to survive the transition.

If you find yourself in London, it’s worth staying attuned to these parallel cities and the places where they intersect. I once stood waiting for a District Line train, convinced I was underground until flakes of snow began to drift from somewhere above onto the platform. The two worlds leak into each another in surprising ways.

Find David McGroarty at www.davidmcgroarty.net 

In the hectic time leading up to the publication of Rustblind and Silverbright, our anthology of railway-themed slipstream and horror, I have invited short blog contributions from the authors included in that book, which I will be publishing at irregular intervals over the next month or two.  First up is Nina Allan, who starts things off with a brief examination of the magic of trains . . . 

 

Of Trains and Books and Stories – Haunted by Rail

by Nina Allan

Strangers on a Train, Anna Karenina, Murder on the Orient Express, Railsea, The Taking of Pelham 123, The Station Agent, The Manchurian Candidate, The Lady Vanishes, Horror Express, The Glamour, Brief Encounter, 3:10 to Yuma – you’ll immediately spot what these classic films and novels all have in common, and no doubt you’ll have your own favourites to add to the list. And once you’ve done that, you can perform an interesting experiment: try and replace the train in your favourite railway story with a motor car.

You’ll find that you can’t do it. Even if you can, you’ll sense that the character of that book or movie has been altered in some fundamental way, and at great detriment to the atmosphere of the story. If Anna had travelled between Moscow and St Petersburg in a chauffeured limo she’d never have met Vronsky. Guy would certainly never have been inveigled into a murder plot by the obsessive Bruno if he’d driven to meet his wife instead of taking the train, and whoever heard of hunting giant moles from the back of a Nissan Micra?

Taken simply in terms of plot, railways offer a whole variety of opportunities for drama that are denied to you as a writer if you take to the road. The opportunity for encountering total strangers, for one. The time for idle fantasy about your travelling companions, the chance to gaze out of the window at the passing landscape and the architecture of unknown towns, to study the people, clustered closely together on the station platforms. You can write letters on trains, read on trains, have conversations, discard contraband, secrete monsters, murder guards, hide from your pursuers. As with the list of train books and stories itself, the possibilities are endless.

It is a lot more than simple mechanics though. There is a poetic grandeur about trains that is almost entirely absent from road transport. You might use a sports car to indicate the arrogance of a character, or financial impetuousness, or sexual garrulousness, but aside from Stephen King (Christine, From a Buick 8, ‘The Road Virus Heads North’) I can’t think of many writers who have cared enough about cars to make them the linchpin of their stories. Cars are prosaic, pragmatic, a convenient means of transport from A to B but little more. A train is a complex milieu, a contained hierarchy, a world in miniature. In Christopher Priest’s novel Inverted World, a city becomes a vast train travelling on rails that have to be laid perpetually in front of it as it goes along, rolling forward towards an unreachable destination. In Robert Bloch’s story ‘That Hellbound Train’, the train that carries the night mail becomes a metaphor for eternity in the company of the devil.

When you travel by road, there’s no time to think. Conditions inside a car are cramped and oppressive, the view is mostly restricted to the oil-streaked, potholed surface of the tarmac strip you’re travelling on or the rear bumpers of the vehicle in front. The landscape of motorways is the landscape of ruination, of defeat, of service stations and superstores and ubiquitous brand names. Revelling in homogeneity and the deadpan of concrete, the destructive, invasive architecture of roads is by its very nature ugly. The repetitious drone and grind of cars moving along a dual carriageway beats inside the skull like the noise of a hammer drill. Your temper rises, your desperation for fresh air increases, your head is filled only with thoughts of escape, of how long it will be before you reach your destination.

Train journeys we remember as rites of passage – it’s no accident that JK Rowling has her young wizards make the journey to Hogwarts by rail rather than by road. The train passes through the human landscape not as a thief but as a guest, its hypnotic clack-clacking insinuating itself inside the spaces of the mind like a mantra for dreaming. The railway’s architecture of bridges and tunnels, stationmaster’s houses, viaducts and depots and platforms and level crossings are part of the language of poetry and above all, memory. Even the rails the trains run on are of a pleasing design, silvery in the moonlight, glistening snakes of time, economical both in terms of the space they occupy and the cost to the environment.

The opening of a new railway line is an opening up of new opportunities, not just for physical travel but for the life of the mind.

  • The longest railway bench in the world is on Platform 1 at Scarborough (152 yards)
  • The longest railway bridge in the world is the Danyang-Kunshun Great Bridge, a viaduct on the Beijing to Shanghai high speed railway in China (540,000 ft)
  • The longest station platform in the world is at Gorakhpur Station in Uttar Pradesh (1,324 m)
  • The longest freight trains in the world are to be found in North America and often approach 4km in length
  • The longest passenger train in the world is the Ghan, the 1,200 m train that runs the north-south route between Darwin and Adelaide

Statistics like this haunt the imagination. They command attention. They demand story.

The very first train journey I remember was on the London tube. I was four years old or thereabouts, travelling with my mother and two-year-old brother between Euston and Victoria on our way to visit my grandmother in Goring-by-sea. My brother dashed out on to the platform two stops early and my mother had to dash out too, to yank him back. It’s difficult to remember when I realised I was in love with trains, not just with the business of travelling on them but with the paraphernalia that we call Railway – route maps, platform tickets, trackside buddleia and cow parsley, the sharp tap-tap-tap of a pair of smart city shoes traversing the platform of a suburban station on a baking afternoon in mid July. Edward Thomas’s lines on Adlestrop, Richard Rodney Bennett’s music for the Orient Express as it rattles out of Constantinople at the start of its fatal journey into crime. All these things and many others. Model trains too, with their miniaturized perfection, their cool iron heft, their secret, steamy delight at being held in the hand. I never owned a model railway but I had friends who did, who allowed me to access their made-to-measure kingdoms of scaled down rails, of papier maché fortresses and moulded housing stock, who showed me how, if you pull the attic trapdoor firmly shut behind you once you’re inside, you can persuade yourself that you’ve entered another world.

The story I’ve written for Rustblind and Silverbright opens a window into just such a world. It also reveals the dangers that lie in closing that attic door too tightly, in forgetting that there is a world beyond it after all, that by being in thrall to one you run the risk of losing your place in the other.

Mainly though it’s a story about magic, because trains are magic in motion. It’s a story about being haunted by rail.

Visit Nina’s blog at http://www.ninaallan.co.uk/

Looking Back on Blind Swimmer

Posted: June 22, 2011 by eibonvale in Articles


Blind Swimmer

The idea behind the anthology Blind Swimmer was a simple one really – a chance to bring together all the authors the press had worked with or would soon be working with and thus create a kind of self-portrait of the press itself – a sampler.  It is no surprise then that Blind Swimmer occupies a very special place for me – as a retrospective of this still young press and as a moment of taking stock – not to mention as a consolidation of the Eibonvale ‘family’.  I resist the description of ‘editor’ of this book, which has been bandied around – it was a collaborative project on every level.

The reaction that book is getting is still intriguing me though and I can’t resist discussing it a bit here.  Some have called it one of the best anthologies of 2010, as already trumpeted elsewhere on this blog and which naturally makes me very happy.  However, the reactions to the book have been rather more complex than that and the reviews it has received have been an education in themselves – an exercise in how diverse and personal reviewers are as much as anything.  Every reviewer finds some stories to single out – but never the same ones.  That’s the crucial thing.  Every story in the book has been loved by someone – and every story in the book has been hated by someone.  No exceptions.  To either.  The original hope for the book was to provide a challengingly diverse collection – stories in a dizzying variety of styles and timbres.  That in itself was symbolic of the press’s ambitions, which are to be fundamentally unpredictable and varied, open to anything interesting on any level (not simply literary elitism), and yet at the same time united within that diversity on levels far more fundamental than mere matters of matching up with some genre-based or scholarly ideals.  And judging by the response to the book, that has come closer to succeeding than I ever dared hope.  Operating on a slightly different level to some, it is almost as if Blind Swimmer has been tweaking people somehow – poking squarely at their individual expectations of what an anthology of stories should be and generating a weird mix of ire and love and downright confusion in the process.  I consider this a far more interesting and successful reaction than if everything in the book was universally raved about.

Blind Swimmer remains above anything else – above any strange games that it chooses to play with people – a simple expression of the Eibonvale Family – the amazing writers we have been lucky enough to work with.  And needless to say, I am looking forward to continuing (and expanding) that family in the future.

David Rix

A Glimpse of the Numinous

Posted: June 25, 2010 by jeffgardiner in Articles

I’m thrilled that Eibonvale Press are going to publish my short story collection and would like to thank David Rix for his encouraging support. All authors want to know that their writing is being read, or even having some kind of effect upon each reader. Whilst still in my excited state I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore the title of the collection – ‘A Glimpse of the Numinous’. It is my attempt to express the idea that our world is not just a material world, but one of wonder, mystery and the unknown. Those elements can be frightening or awe-inspiring.

The artist M.C. Escher once said: ‘The reality around us, the three dimensional world surrounding us, is too ordinary, too boring, too common. We yearn for the unnatural, or the supernatural, the impossible, the miraculous.’ Fantasy provides our modern, materialistic and so-called ‘enlightened’ culture with a sense of spirituality or a numinous mysticism. The word numinous implies religious awe inspired by the presence of a deity, and fantasy can be awe-inspiring, stimulating the reader into an imaginative and spiritual understanding of our complicated and mysterious existence. Fantasy has its roots in mythology and, like many religions, is attempting to see beyond the mere physical reality of our world. Two great individuals who have helped us to put these ideas into words and whose works have been invaluable to literary critics are Carl Jung, one of the founding fathers of Psychology, and anthropologist Sir James Frazer, both of whose works lead to archetypal criticism. What both Jung and Frazer show is that ritual, dreams and by extension, fantasy literature, tell us a great deal about the inner workings of our mind and soul. In a sense fantasy is offering us something similar to that of religion: not competing with it, but likewise challenging us to look closer into the realms of imagination and spirituality. Our souls can be touched by the creative arts. Fantastical and imaginative leaps of faith help to give symbols and images to those things most difficult to understand. Myth, art and symbolism are human attempts to understand our incredibly complicated world and existences.

Carl Jung claimed that, “All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy”. In Modern Man in Search of A Soul (1933), Jung stated that in attempting to understand the unconscious psyche we must also study dreams, mythology, religion and visionary literature, i.e. fantasy. He names particular texts such as The Arabian Nights and Faust, and also cites authors such as H. Rider Haggard and William Blake. For Jung, visionary literature offers “glimpses of chaos” and cannot be easily explained in logical terms, but rather through the profound effect they have upon the individual human spirit. Jung explains at length how the individual’s soul finds a voice in his own imagination and dreams, which then connects him to the “collective unconscious”: the spiritual, primeval bond that unites all human beings together and where we experience the sense of the numinous. If we are to find God anywhere, it will surely be in a creative, emotional realm.

Jung also identified archetypes that exist within the collective unconscious that provide us with mythological symbols to express our deepest fears, desires and emotions: to help explain the inexplicable. These archetypes recur in stories, myths, legends, art and literature and include familiar characters, such as warrior, wise man, mother, saviour and trickster. Jung’s psychological theory of types is a useful way of identifying the deeper mythological resonances within a text and to see that fantasy is not mere child’s play or escapism, but art that speaks to us on a grand and important scale. Michael Moorcock has explained how he employed such symbolism in his own novels, concluding that, “When we read a good fantasy we are being admitted into the subterranean worlds of our own souls”.

Whilst Jung showed the psychological appeal of fantasy, J.G Frazer demonstrated how fantasy has analogies to rituals in his study of magic and religions, The Golden Bough (1890, abridged in 1922). The study shows in detail how the patterns of myth and romance are echoes of rituals, particularly those of fertility overcoming the wasteland, or the death and resurrection of a messianic figure or scapegoat. Frazer makes extensive connections between different cultures, traditions and ages, concluding that similar patterns emerge in responses to the natural world. Fantasy begins with imagination, the primitive depths of the human mind, which has always been fascinated with superstition regarding the world and divine power. Ancient myths and religious belief systems have created pantheons of gods, demons, heroes and monsters to symbolise the origins of creation and explain the workings of the universe; to personify good and evil; and to help moralise and legitimise power. We can also clearly see how myth and religious, sacred writings have created a potent source of fantastic imagery whose influence is easily detectable in much literature and art.

Frazer explores the development from magic to religion, giving useful, if very general, definitions of each. He sees magic as the manipulation of “impersonal forces … by the appropriate ceremonies and spells”, whereas a religion is “a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them”. Then Frazer traces certain myths in order to provide evidence that certain archetypes and ceremonies have always existed and continue to do so. He identifies the messiah archetype as one celebrated in most cultures who need to explain “the fluctuations of growth and decay, of reproduction and dissolution, by … the death and rebirth or revival of their gods”. The symbol of the messiah goes back to early heathen magic, originating in myths that attempt to express the human desire to understand the annual cycle in nature, from the fertility of spring, to the sterility if winter as told in the myth of Persephone and the Arthurian legends. Frazer compares the Egyptian worship of Osiris and the ritual of Attis to the Christian belief in Christ’s resurrection, and claims to have discovered a striking resemblance that would account for the practice of replacing pagan festivals with Christian ones, such as our Christmas Nativity of the Son allaying the winter solstice Nativity of the Sun.

This thesis was expounded further by Frazer’s disciple Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance (1920), who showed the link between ceremony and romantic literature more explicitly. She was particularly fascinated by the Grail legends and their similarities to fertility rituals and after convoluted argument concluded that literary romance had its origins in primitive, mysterious cult ceremonies. The romantic pattern she identified is the familiar one of questing knight seeking a redemption that will renew the sterile land and his dying fisher king.

Like Jung, Frazer has identified not only archetypes that work on the level of universal imagination or collective conscious, but also demonstrates the importance to all cultures and individuals the essential place of spirituality and the desire to comprehend the supernatural. In The Golden Bough, Frazer reminds us of the importance of mythology and rituals, warning us not to dismiss them as primitive: “To stigmatise these premises as ridiculous because we can easily detect their falseness, would be ungrateful as well as unphilosophical”. The same warning would be pertinent to anyone who rejects fantasy.

A much more mystical justification for the appeal of romance and mythology is given by the poet Robert Graves in The White Goddess (1948). His theory is that the language of poetic myth is linked to ceremonies in honour of the Moon goddess. His book examines romantic poetry and connects Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse mythologies. For him the function of poetry is like that of fantasy – to inspire awe: “the experience of mixed exaltation and horror”, which is excited by the presence of the Muse or goddess. Much of the book is taken up with lengthy study of arcane alphabets, cryptology and numerology, particularly the druidic tree alphabet so full of riddles and hidden symbols. Graves even considers the “Holy, unspeakable name of God” and the meaning behind the number of the beast. His conclusions remain mystical and ambiguous, like the subject he is studying.

Unfortunately, our culture is losing its soul and sense of mysticism, and seems to be suspicious of anything linked with the supernatural or ‘primordial visions’. However, some of the best of world literature can be described as ‘visionary literature’ including great works by such authors as Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Herman Hesse, William Golding, Michael Moorcock, Robert Holdstock and Ben Okri. Their fantasies are visions that inspire a sense of awe and spirituality on many different levels: Hesse is obsessed with personal mysticism, whilst Moorcock paints on vast canvasses depicting gods and worlds engaged in eschatological battles. Fantasy today plays the same part that myths used to and they contain important truths and statements that we would do well to consider and allow ourselves to be challenged by.

My plea for fantasy to be taken seriously, or even stronger, that fantasy provides us with a more potent art-form than realism, echoes Nietzsche’s call for the reawakening of Dionysus – exciting and dangerous, but also life-affirming, challenging and full of spiritual energy. In the end, literature is not the same as reality, only a response to it, but it should also be a response to the complex reality of the human soul: and this tantalising ‘glimpse of the numinous’ is what fantasy can provide for us in our secular society.

Never

Posted: June 7, 2010 by eibonvale in Articles

I have missed these ranting non-fictions in my busy, work-absorbed days. Of course, that in itself deserves a rant – but I wont because most people know all about that anyway.  And most people agree.  But that’s fine.  I have plenty of other stuff to talk about, so it is with a small warm feeling in my heart that I settle down again and start typing . . .

In this case, I want to point my guns at something pretty fundamental:  The concept of ‘never.’

And its close cousin, zero.

Actually, zero is quite an alien concept.  It was a long time indeed before it really entered our awareness.  I am not sure where and with who zero first came into use – but I do know that the mathematical concept at least eluded the ancient Greeks, with all their sophistication.  Even now it typically takes human babies at least 3-4 years to grasp the concept.  But what about ‘never’?  What are we to make of that?  Is that a recent concept too?  Something that came to us as a relatively late development, like zero?  True ‘never’, as the concept of an absence, is actually quite a sophisticated concept, since it involves an awareness of things that ‘are not’.  An imagination and story-telling ability in a way.  But of course, a new concept quickly comes along with the idea of ‘never – never as an instruction as opposed to an imaginary concept.  Something that is ‘never done’ or which ‘should never happen’, which is somewhat different and involved a moral judgment.  As an instruction or self-instruction, the word implies a sense of how to do things – a primitive ‘law’ or ‘creed’ attitude almost.  So perhaps one can speculate that the instruction ‘never’ and the first primitive ideas of morals, codes and ‘ways to do things’ more or less evolved together.  And these days, of course, we have evolved the concept of ‘never’ into more and more ‘sophisticated’ forms.  We have laid down a system of laws that has only grown more and more complex and detailed – and all based on this basic concept.  However, in all that evolution, we seem to have overlooked one rather important point that people are only just beginning to realise.

‘Never’ does not actually exist.

Philosophically, socially, even scientifically, the term is just a meaningless infinite – and we don’t live in an infinite world in that sense.  The mere concept of ‘never’ is a fallacy – something that contradicts its own attempt at meaning.  Never is an absolute – and it is easy to demonstrate that an absolute is something that does not exist in the world around us.  Science used to think it was absolute, but with the rise of quantum, m-theory and the most complex and esoteric areas of modern physics, those absolutes are crumbling.  An example is the speed of light, which used to be though of as a constant and absolute – one of the great absolutes in fact – so much so that it has become one of our most fundamental measuring utilities.  Light speed is 670,616,629.45 miles an hour and a light year is therefore 5,878,625,373,183.61 miles.  Wrong.  The slowest light has been observed to move is, I think, about 38 miles per hour – and many areas of physics now seem to be pushing towards ways to break the upper limit and exceed ‘light speed’.

In terms of human behaviour, ‘never’ crumbles much more easily than in science.  Humans cant do [such and such].  Humans shouldn’t do [such and such].  And, above all, ‘I would never do [such and such]‘ and ‘You should never do [such and such] . . . all these are fallacies.   Let’s just think about what ‘never’ means.  ‘Never’ is an expression of infinity.  It states that in all the vast life of the universe, in all its immeasurable complexity – and more to the point, in the vast and just as immeasurably complex world of humans and human behaviour – this thing, concept, action, event, whatever, WILL NOT happen.  How, I ask myself, can any human being ever dare to use the word?  What is actually meant of course is ‘I cannot imagine this happening’ or plainly ‘I don’t want it to happen’.  But that is a different thing entirely, and neither eliminates the thing from possibility, which has to be remembered.  When applied to a moral or a law, whether personal or cultural, the same thing applies and the same results are achieved.  ‘Never’ states that such a thing may NEVER happen – never be justified I suppose, in this case – to infinity.  No circumstances, no matter how convoluted, can justify it and therefore it is an absolute evil, regardless of circumstances.  For the same reasons, this simply does not fit analysis.  How can anyone or any system claim to have understood the complexity of humanity to the extent of applying an infinite to it?  Such a claim is inevitably a lie – and yet this is what humanity tries to do in almost the whole of our history and life.

Of course, so far, I could be accused of nitpicking.  Taking the word too literally perhaps?  But to my mind, the fact that ‘never’ does not actually exist – and, if you will, that ‘never’ does not actually mean never even though people pretend that it does, is of crucial importance.  In a way, it invalidates the whole thing, because if it is a lie, then where does that lie stop? What’s the point of saying or believing in never at all? In my own approaches to things, I always like to follow thought processes and ideas through to their conclusion if I can (bloody hard though), and the realisation that never doesn’t exist, opens up a huge world of possibilities.  Thinking about things in a world without absolutes changes one’s attitudes to almost everything – both on a personal and a cultural level.  It means the overthrow of absolute right and wrong – absolute beliefs and absolute ways of doing things.  It is as defunct as the concept of evil as an absolute. In fact, I defy anyone to think of any possible thought or action or event that justifies the term never.  Anyone who says ‘I would never do that’ instantly starts me thinking of circumstances when such an action would indeed occur – and always they are there somewhere.  It may be unlikely or undesirable.  The thought of that actually happening to you might be very distressing even – but the fact that it is not impossible means that it could happen, and as such, should be thought about and accepted as such.

A silly example from a recent conversation on this very subject:  “Well – I think I could say that I would never change my name to Nigel.”  “Suppose I offered you a million pounds?”  “Oh – well – in that case . . .”  Of course – I am not going to offer a million pounds – so this friend will, in all probability NOT change his name to Nigel . . . but still, the word never does not apply.  Another example.  The vegetarian who insists they would never eat anything with eyes.  Well – point one: I am sure you would if reduced to desperation.  Being able to really choose what you eat is very much a luxury and if you are starving you will eat what you can get and discover how profound human needs are, believe me!  Point two:  Almost certainly you will have ALREADY have eaten things with eyes.  I once saw a statistic for the number of tiny spiders etc that are accidentally swallowed while asleep.  That may or may not be true and no one seems to agree on the number – though I don’t have too much of a problem believing it.  Those tiny spiders get everywhere and could easily end up falling into your mouth while asleep.  But what IS undeniable is the number of tiny things – spiders, insects, mites etc – inhaled or taken in with food etc, either on your plate or in the factory.  Most of them have eyes and know how to use them.  So once again, ‘never’ bites the dust.  A more extreme example:  ‘I would never kill someone’.  True – you are probably not likely to and don’t want to – but even something like that is perfectly possible if the circumstances were right.  It is a part of being human.  It is an interesting if macabre mental exercise to analyse yourself by imagining such possibilities and what could lie behind them.  They are always there and finding them can tell you a lot about how you work and how the world as a whole works.  Much better than blanket ignoring the whole subject because you don’t find it ‘acceptable’, don’t you think!  And MUCH better than blanket condemnation of something because you don’t really like to think about it.  That’s the worst of all.

Under what circumstances would you commit a murder?  What would drive you to suicide or rape?  What would make you like a soap opera?  And don’t come back with never for any of them – never doesn’t exist, remember?

These, of course, are extremes.  The same thing applies to such things as ‘I would never eat cabbage’, ‘I would never visit Ipswich’ or ‘I would never sleep with you’ . . .

What I am saying, in a nutshell, is that surely it is better to think things through and accept the possibility of unusual things occurring – along with their likelihood and desirability – and thus accepting them as valid.  Without ‘never’, suddenly ‘perhaps’ becomes closer and more inviting.  And ‘perhaps’ is a lovely word.  Much more refreshing and open-minded than ‘never’.  ‘Perhaps’ is a word that signifies thought and consideration – and striving towards understanding of a situation based on its own characteristics.  Perhaps – perhaps not.  But at least you are thinking about it.

The same thing holds true on a cultural level.  And of course, the cultural incarnation of ‘never’ is the law and justice system.  The problem with this ‘never’ attitude here – to regulating what people do – is exactly the same as personal condemnation (only more destructive.  It is like a polyhedral form – a solid shape of flat, regular faces, that is struggling to be a sphere.  All history has demonstrated that human life is not a thing of regular shapes – those absolutes again.  To begin with, the system of laws was simple – like an icosahedron perhaps.  Big simple concepts of absolute ‘do not’s shaped like triangles.  But of course, as humanity progressed, it began to realise that humans actually weren’t icosahedral!  So the system was refined.  More faces were added and it became more varied.  And so the progress has continued.  In its constant struggle to accurately fit the world, the legal system has added more and more faces of increasing complexity until now we are presented with a ridiculously protracted and draconian monster of a shape with thousands and thousands of faces on a myriad different shape.  An insane mass of complexity that it is impossible for any one person to understand.  True – it is a lot more round than the original icosahedron – but one of the basic features of a polyhedral form is that no matter how much you truncate it and add new faces, it can never equal a sphere.  To do that, it would have to become infinite – like ‘never’ itself – and I have already insisted that infinite is not a safe concept for humans!!

‘Never’ is a polygon.  A concept that is great for maths – but is of limited use for describing the real world.

Humans have curves.

It’s a simple concept.  Get used to it!  No matter how much detail you write into a rigid system to try and make it fit – it can never approximate a curve.

That said – and it really isn’t that strange an idea – why is it that humanity seems so keen to chain themselves to these absolutes? Even though they are fake, and most people know it somewhere in their hearts.  People seem very blithe in accepting the bondage of a polyhedral law and personal outlook – a world of ‘thou shalt not’s, never and zeros.  It’s an ancient instinct – to try and regulate how the world works.  I suppose people try and seek comfort in it – forging a kind of world where at least people know how things function, what to do and what not to do . . . but the comfort of what is still a false idea?

At least – they accept it perhaps until they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of it.  Caught on a vertex, perhaps.  Then they realise how dangerous a polyhedron can be!  But of course, no one pays any attention to them then . . .

There seems to be a wind of change breathing through the UK, however – and perhaps elsewhere.  You can feel it in the message boards and blogs.  An exasperation is developing against a system of laws and society that is seen as increasingly rigid and unhelpfully absolute – exasperation as yet another zero-tolerance policy is announced or yet another ban is slung out to try and reign in the small part of what is banned that is actually harmful – slowly eroding all our respect for the law in the process.  So perhaps people are finally beginning to chafe against the bonds of the polyhedron.  And perhaps this means that eventually the out-dated rigid system that surrounds us, so reliant on zeros and nevers to cure all ills, can be overthrown and replaced by something that fits us much better.  Something curved, perhaps.  It is about time.  Humanity is quite capable of making the step forward that is required.  I am not talking about some esoteric utopia.  We could do it tomorrow if we wanted.  It simply requires an understanding and acceptance of the human system – how people work, and how complex our interactions actually are.  And that ‘never’ doesn’t exist.

Never say never!!

Why do science and the fantastic have to be at odds?  Or, to put it another way, why should the questioning mind of science and the irrational and imaginative mind be somehow opposite sides?  I don’t think science and the irrational contradict at all to be honest.  Both are inevitable parts of the human condition, so why is there a feeling in some quarters that they are incompatible?  Or somehow damaging to each other?  Myself, I am a scientist AND a fantasist at heart after all!  And quite happy to be both!  I see no contradiction.  Anyone who knows me at all, knows how I love the irrational and the random!  But there’s nawt wrong with science and learning about the world either!!  And, more importantly, that eternal questioning of the world.

Though of course, how the human race as a whole uses science is another matter.  Science didn’t cause humanity’s problems.  How the culture as a whole uses (or fails to use) what science tells us is what landed us in all our messes.  Big companies, the military, the governments, politicizing everything, those idiots who treat it as a kind of substitute religion or as a weapon – all that is pretty ludicrous and does little service to either science or the wondrous irrational depths of the human mind!  Indeed, I think any real scientist has nothing but contempt for that rubbish.  It’s worth remembering though that everything is a dance of ideals and corruption.  Art can become propaganda.  Writing can become bogged down in mainstream prostitution.  The visual medium can even become the TV (shock, horror)!  And science can become corrupted into something destructive or a tool for something else (climate change debate anyone?).

Another annoying thing is the way that science can be treated as some kind of elite thing that ‘ordinary’ people can neither understand nor trust (look at the craziness surrounding the LHC for proof of that!).  It was that kind of attitude that led to the fall of the library of ….Alexandria…. and all the disastrous consequences of that.  Science became something elite and rarified – abstract and removed from ordinary life – and when the revolution came nobody had any compunction whatever about just burning the building to the ground, causing almost unthinkable damage to the entire history of human culture since then.  Essentially taking us back to a ‘comforting’ world of unthinking and unquestioning blindness that lasted centuries and which we STILL haven’t fully emerged from.

Take Richard Dawkins for instance – he was a great guy once.  Had some very interesting things to say.  It was him who created and defined the term ‘meme’ – the “postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena” (Wikipedia) – and where would we be in art and culture without that?  I find memes infinitely fascinating and very interesting for my own writing.  Now though he just seems to have got bogged down in some pointless battle that means nothing.  I can’t see why religion and science have to fight at all!  They have nothing to do with each other.  Religion shouldn’t try and explain reality and science shouldn’t butt into people’s fantasy lives.  Of course though, in a way, Dawkins has taken on a distinct cultural role that many of us are very glad to see filled on some level.  In the great debating chamber of the world where, for a long time, all we heard is one party hammering away, he and others have suddenly stood up on the other side and started hammering right back.  Both yelling and slagging each other off and going purple in the face.  But maybe he will provide a kind of balance – two extremes rather than one and, out of those two opposing forces, some new sense may one day emerge.  But, in taking on that role, he has rather left ‘science’ behind and entered a world closer to politics.

In contrast, look at Carl Sagan, scientist and novelist.  Of course, he was very much a project of his times and science has moved on a lot since his heyday.  But he still remains one of the best examples of the scientist who has never lost that sheer awe and sense of poetry about how the world works.  Sagan’s approach is filled with wonder and the desire to know – and also an admirable ability to avoid becoming dogmatic and to consider the far-out with reason and sense.  I shall also be forever indebted to him for adding one rather less familiar entry into the list of humanity’s flaws – blind obedience of leaders.  Which again goes right back to that thread of unquestioning acceptance that I mentioned earlier.  For all we talk about the horrors of war and the vast tides of political forces, the fact remains that some individual person had to fly the Enola Gay – some individual person had to arrest those Jews and send them to ..Auschwitz…  And some individual person had to release the gas canisters.  So Sagan’s point is a very significant one, even today.  Perhaps especially today as our privacy and liberty are eroded like never before.  As a species, we never seem to be able to ask ‘why are we doing this?’ or ‘why are we putting up with this’ and – well – stopping it.  Instead, as a group, we just grumble about those leaders even as we still blindly follow them.

I dunno – I believe in science, even though I am a fantasist at heart!  I look at the world out there, and I want to know about it!  I want to see what happens down deep.  I want to see the bottom of the deep sea and I want to KNOW what that bizarre thing that the Eltanin photographed is – and I am quite happy knowing it isn’t an extraterrestrial artifact (it’s a sponge – and isn’t that amazing?  A sponge that looks like that?  Sitting in the middle of the pitch black abyss?  That causes a throb like any surrealist painting).  I am also quite happy knowing a bit about the human dream patterns, surrogate religious urges and etc etc that makes us so keen to believe in extraterrestrials and UFOs.  I also want to ‘see’ a Bose-Einstein condensate (though it can never be seen under any circumstances because light kills it instantly).  They make those things by holding a few atoms in a magnetic field cup – I mean, if that doesn’t stretch the imagination, what does?  A few atoms in a virtual cup?  I LIKE knowing why an airplane wing lifts, because looking at the damn thing, it seems to have no right to get off the ground at all – it’s as big as a warehouse.  The Japanese recently tested a new experimental air break system on their shinkansen train – looks JUST like their bloody cat ears!  A cat eared air break?  Bloody marvelous!  And I like knowing how it works (or doesn’t, as it turned out) as well as what it looks like.  [link: http://x--kh-r.narod.ru/nekomimi_shinkansen.jpg]  And I like knowing the mating habits of leopard slugs (you would not believe . . .). It is just a part of the awe of nature and the world.  I mean – where would we be without that wonder?  It’s a part of us!!!  As kids we like to poke around under logs seeing what is there and how it works.  That’s what freakin’ science is!  (heheh)  And we ask questions.  And for me, questioning everything is just the most important thing in the world!  Without questions we wouldn’t have any art either – or much else!

Yet for some reason that blind acceptance remains programmed into us – slowly the questioning and the awe dies, thanks to some kind of cultural pressure – and that’s so sad! That’s the death of science right there before our eyes.  That’s the flames licking through all the knowledge of ancient times in the Alexandria library and about to plunge us into a grotesque dark age.  What is this stupid urge people have to accept everything?  Without even thinking about it!  Personally, I blame that one single trait for a vast percentage of the misery of human life both now and throughout history.  And it is so nice that, in spite of everything, some people still manage to overcome that – and make Bose-Einstein condensates or put ears on a train to see what happens, or look under that log or under that ocean and maybe see something that nobody else has ever seen before.  And it is also so nice that people can cast their minds free and dream up worlds of the imagination or human activities for us all.  Whether it is surrealist art or extreme ironing, guerilla knitting or Lovecraftian horror stories.

Without science, we are effing FINISHED, mate!  It’s that simple.