My previous post (Lessons from a Mousehole) on where I live in Cornwall was very well-received by many people, especially those interested in sustainable communities. The question arose inevitably however, ‘Can it really be that good?’ The short answer is yes, communities can be healthy, and sustainable, even in this day and age. The longer answer has to acknowledge that nothing is perfect and that, yes, there are problems. So this post is an exploration of those dark corners, bearing in mind that there is nothing exceptional about these corners, that in fact they can exist – and often do – in any community. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, ‘every front has a back’.
A fellow researcher was told by a fisherman recently that Newlyn (two miles from Mousehole) was a ‘drinking village with a fishing problem’. I suspect it would be an exaggeration to say the same about Mousehole; but there is an aspect of it that which is similar, manifesting in one of the main problems I have experienced here: noise. Like many of my neighbours, I get woken in the early hours of the morning by drunks conversing – and, occasionally, fighting – right outside my window. The very streets I accoladed in the previous post for their narr0w, twisting nature, so abhorrent to cars and friendly to pedestrians, reveal their flip side: that they force people to be closer together even when not desired, such as at two o’clock in the morning. Furthermore, some of the old houses like mine have been divided into flats, their floors and walls too thin to separate fully the lives of the various occupants. Last year I had a genial neighbour who would fall asleep in front of his television quite regularly, and the sound was so present in my bedroom I would have to crash out in the sitting room to get away from the noise.
I didn’t mind doing this so much as the sitting room has a superb view over the sea, and every time I woke up to the sound and sight of the ocean, I could pretend I was on holiday. This refuge however is no longer available to me, because of another dark corner: microwaves. In an appropriately darkly humorous way I find it ironic that so much fuss is made about phone masts, yet people have invited the devil into their homes through their use of cordless phones. The bases for these operate in much the same way as a mobile phone mast, and transmit microwaves in our homes 24/7. When I have clients who can’t sleep I often advise them to simply switch off the wi-fi at night and replace their cordless phones with corded ones, and they usually have no problems after that. It’s common consent that signals from wi-fi, cordless phones, mobiles etc. are harmless but this is ill-founded; there is plenty of academic, let alone anecdotal, evidence about the harmful effects. If you’re interested, the Powerwatch website is a good place to start. In my case, I found I was experiencing arrhythmia, something entirely new to me, which would dissipate when I left the room, and vanish entirely when I left the house. I checked the room using my array of gadgets and found there was a source of microwaves I hadn’t been aware of before, coming from right beneath the sitting room, and it was quite powerful. This is a difficult problem to resolve as one can’t just ask neighbours to replace their phones, particularly when they’re not an officially acknowledged health risk. (In a similar way, I am as disturbed now by all the mobile phone use in train compartments, as I once was by the smoking. It seems we’re determined to do damage to our bodies one way or another.) The way forward may be putting matting down on the floor with carbon paint, but it’s pricey and needs to be done right. So currently I am living Howard Hughes-like (but without the money) solely in my bedroom, and (unlike HH) spending as much time as possible away from the house.
Which leads to another dark corner: magnetic fields. Again Powerwatch is a good source for background material on this. In their book ‘Killing Fields in the Home’ they document how old infrastructures can lead to stray and net currents in our streets, resulting in unusually high magnetic fields. To give an idea of the scale of the problem, when I work on a person’s house I would advise them to take measures if the fields in their bedrooms are 50 nanotesla (nT) or more. It never comes to that, as rarely are they even as high
as 5 nT. In a place like Mousehole, with the currents straying between electric sub-stations via old pipes etc., the fields vary between 100-500 nT, usually at the higher end of the scale, in the daytime. Unlike with electric fields, there is no shielding realistically possible against magnetic fields. The health risks of these fields are varied, and of course not widely acknowledged, and I was uncertain if they were manifesting here – thinking maybe our healthy lifestyles by the sea were counteracting adverse effects – until someone mentioned the prevalence of dementia in the village. Statistically, I don’t know if it’s any higher here than anywhere else but the remark did inspire me to find out if there is a link, and there are plenty. You can get a glimpse of some of the research available at: Magnetic fields . Here the levels drop down a little late at night, so we do have that respite. Mind you, I have been losing my keys a lot recently…
Now where was I. Ahh yes, dark corners. Well, noise and electromagnetic pollution are of course challenges faced anywhere there are people today, and so is the next subject I would like to look at. Putnam in ‘Bowling Alone’ (see previous post) as one of the strongest advocates of community cohesion, has one chapter titled ‘The Dark Side of Social Capital’, but even he understates I think just how much pressure can come from any group of people to conform. He does talk about exclusive social capital, where the cohesion can be high but is strongly conditional: examples would include churches or clubs with specific interests. Here, certainly there are churches, and there are also pubs where the conditions are certainly that you can afford the price of alcohol these days, but also that you drink. In contrast, I waxed lyrical in the previous post about how inclusive social capital manifests in the very streets of Mousehole, where we all keep running into each other and usually have time for a chat, but there is a catch. One person here described it as something like random dark pulses that run through the community. In India they recognise this aspect of societies and refer to it actually as a ‘dark wind’ that manifests destructively, like an emergence from the deep collective unconscious. Here it may be only experienced as the dark pulses referred to, glimpses of what people call the ‘straw dogs syndrome’ after the infamous Sam Peckinpah film, shot (funny how they use the verb ‘to shoot’ for camerawork) just up the road in St Buryan. The term ‘straw dogs’ is a reference from the Tao Te Ching about ‘form without substance’, redolent also of T.S Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’: ‘We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men/Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw’. Eliot was vociferous about the emptiness of modern man, decrying a lack of value in a world rampant with materialism. Thus, the dark side of social capital is any unconscious gathering of people, as in gangs – whether overtly violent or confined to gossip, they marginalise the individual, make them a target – and this dark side is in all of us. As Philip Zimbardo constantly emphasised in his ground-breaking ‘The Lucifer Effect’, it is not a question of ‘How can they commit evil?’ but more ‘How can I commit evil?’ The heart of darkness is in all of us.
And thus I come to what I guess is the main point of this meandering text: that all these problems – from electromagnetic pollution to the dark side of group dynamics – are not particularly to do with Mousehole at all, but are pandemic. Tolstoy famously said, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ I’ve always been puzzled by that line, as in my experience it’s the other way around with people in general, and have been struck by how when a group’s individuality really shines it is incomparable with any other. So yes, Mousehole is by no means perfect, but is facing the same problems you are too, and its individuality, its uniqueness, remains strong.
(As a postscript, just before reviewing this post prior to publishing, I have now returned from a two week break to find that the magnetic fields are now sometimes exceeding 1000 nT since the cables have been repaired by the electricity company, and the drunks still wake me up in the wee hours. I may – ironically, given my championing of Mousehole as a resilient community – be forced to move out yet.)
Late this summer I went with a friend to have a look at some of the crop formations in Wiltshire this year, something I used to do regularly over ten years ago. I always thought this phenomenon would become bigger and more organised, especially in England, and indeed a new information centre (http://www.cropcircleaccess.com/) has been formed, organised in such a way that farmers get compensation for any losses sustained by visitors and by the formations.
As it turned out, we were too late, the pick of the season were gone and we settled for a nonetheless fascinating time in Avebury. Since the 1990s I have had a lot of encounters, exploring this phenomenon, and a lot of adventures which maybe one day I’ll relate in a book. Each formation I went into – ah, Freudian slip there. I meant to say ‘went to’ but the truth is one enters these places in order to understand them, it’s not just a case of visiting them like a tourist. Of course, there are many views and theories regarding this phenomenon, and an amazingly high number of people who are convinced they have the whole truth, whatever that truth is. People in the past have slipped up here regularly, pronouncing formations ‘authentic’ which were then proven to have been done by hoaxers; or hoaxers claiming to have done some which demonstrated complex geometrical theory, knowledge which the hoaxers did not actually possess. And then there are the farmers, many of whom I spoke to, who were very aware of when people were and were not on their land at night. Sometimes the formations appeared when they were adamant no one had been there. Personally, I’m not bothered what is causing the formations – and there are a lot more now, it’s a worldwide phenomenon, many of which are not reported even on the internet – I am more interested in how they are aesthetically and experientially. Here is a case in point:
The images here are taken from http://www.greatdreams.com/numbers/777coin/777coin.htm which really goes to town with esoteric analysis. My own take on these is more direct.
Both formations appeared near Barbury Castle in Wiltshire in May 1997. Soon after they appeared, I saw them on the internet and immediately dismissed them as hoaxes’. The cog formation was simplistic, and the Tree of Life could have been taken from any basic book on magical symbols. They were obviously done by people who had nothing better to do that night. (What’s wrong with just sleeping, I don’t know.) However, I myself had nothing better to do that day and so decided to go and take a look. ‘It got me out of the house’. The weather as I recall was pretty horrendous, and had been all week, so it wasn’t going to be pleasant driving. I also had a television advert stuck in my head. The advert showed two children sneaking into their father’s office and accessing the computer, where they find a programme going into all the details of a supposedly amazing car. As they’re doing this, they don’t see their father arriving home, looking stony-faced and serious – not a man to be messing with. He enters the house silently, then surprises the children who look up from the computer – BUSTED! Then his face relaxes into a smile and he says, ‘What do you think?’ about the car on the computer, and the children relax. It was an annoying advert to get stuck in my head, like one of those jingles that just won’t leave, and I had no idea what it was doing there. But it accompanied me for the whole trip.
I didn’t have the precise coordinates of the formations but had found Barbury Castle on the map, and as it was an Iron Age fort high above the Wiltshire landscape I figured I could see the formations from there. I was half-right. The ‘cog wheel’ was visible to the west but not the Tree of Life. As an experiment though, I decided to dowse and see what I could pick up. I had done so before around formations and often sensed (Third Eye-wise, that is) a vibrant straight line of energy emitted from these formations in the past. Here indeed I found a line emanating from the cog wheel and running across/through the castle. The line seemed to be bright silver in my mind. I walked around the castle until discovering another silver line, this time more towards the north. I was convinced it was coming from the Tree of Life.
On driving back down from the castle, I went first to the cog wheel. Inside the formation I experienced none of the ‘bliss’ that often accompanies visits to these places, but a sense of paranoia, that I was being watched. I was happy to leave, then went to the field where I’d sensed the other silver line coming from. It turned out it was a field of rapeseed. I still couldn’t see the formation, and this was where it struck me how near-impossible it must have been for people to have done this symbol. The crop was too tall to see over, yet ‘they’ had supposedly managed to do their art in the middle of the night, in a storm, without leaving footprints and without any lights being seen by the farmhouse on the hill overlooking. In broad daylight, I couldn’t see more than a couple of feet and although I was being careful not to damage the crop, every step I took left a clear print in the mud. On top of all this, I still couldn’t see the formation but was being guided to it purely through dowsing.
When I did step into the first of the kaballah stations, it was like magic. And yes, it was blissful. As I wandered around from station to station, I realised I had truly entered the symbol, I was experiencing its truths. Accompanying this revelation was another one about that stupid advert that kept going round and round in my head: it was about the Patriarch. Personally I had always been hugely sceptical, cynical even, of the world’s dominant patriarchal religions including Judaism, but the advert – and the formation – were teaching me about the positive side of a patriarchal spiritual discipline. The father smiles, revealing his softness and warmth under the stony visage of duty and responsibility, that he wasn’t a bully. And the bent path between two of the stations – not so obvious in the photo – that provided extra fuel to the detractors, as it suggested the circle makers had made a mistake – I experienced that now as a signature, like a flourish in a Chinese character adding the individual’s own energy or ch’i to the symbol. It was the ‘mistake’ that made it not just a textbook copy. I came away from this formation, still not caring whether it were done by people or not – though becoming more inclined towards believing the latter now – but grateful for the chance to experience so much. As for whether it’s ‘real’ or not, what does that even mean? The experience was certainly real.
Let me depart with a few more to enjoy without getting your boots muddy!
Two years ago I moved to the charming fishing village of Mousehole in West Cornwall, England. I knew from the start there was something different, when I was on the bus one day from Penzance. I had miscalculated in that it was the school bus, which I usually avoid wherever I am due to past encounters with feral kids in London and other places. This time, however, I was in for a surprise. The first thing was that the kids were not in cliques, they all talked to each other across the usual divides of age or class. Secondly, they weren’t talking about computers, television or any of the subjects I tend to overhear. They were discussing what time high tide was, what the waves were like, temperature etc. That evening I could hear from my apartment yells and shouts. I went for a walk and there at the harbour mouth, as the sun was setting, I saw loads of kids gathered in their wetsuits, plunging into the water. The youngest were being overseen by the oldest and were leaping into the harbour, but the oldest were climbing onto the tall harbour walls and diving into the sea outside. It was a stunning sight, as they stood silhouetted against the setting sun before braving the waters beneath; and the sense of camaraderie between all of them quite apparent. Walking along the harbour front, I encountered a young girl of about six years old, totally unaccompanied. I had never met her before, but dauntless she looked at me, and said ‘I think I’m going in tonight.’ ‘It’s a bit cold, isn’t it?’ i asked. ‘Yes, but I really want to do it.’ And we walked on in our separate directions.
This latter experience may horrify parents and carers everywhere, that a child can be left alone to wander the village like that; they may even be concerned that the other kids were plunging into the sea unsupervised – what would Health and Safety say? – but it is indicative of the very strength of the community here, that there is such a sense of trust and relaxation – qualities sadly missing in most of the places I find myself working in. So what did Mousehole get right, and how?
A bit of background first. It’s commonly stated that the village’s name comes from the nearby cave or the tiny harbour entrance, so small it’s like a mouse hole; but actually the Cornish pronunciation is ‘Mowzil’, and the older spelling ‘Moeshayle’ means ‘Young Women’s River or Estuary’. It had a strong link with Phoenician traders, whose path between the tin mines and their ships, is still remembered today south of the village. 1595 might be its most famous date, still remembered by ‘Spaniard’s Point’ also south of the village, when four Spanish galleys parked in the bay and fired heated cannonballs into the cottages, razing them to the ground. Two of my neighbours still have the cannonball that originally wrecked their house, as if the walls were rebuilt around it! Centuries later, during the Blitz , children from an East End Jewish school in London were sent to live in Mousehole. One lady actually remembered this from her childhood, and told me they were fascinated as children by these new arrivals, so cocky and self-assured, so different from how they’d been brought up in the West Country. This latter anecdote is significant in that it indicates just how rich in diversity this place can be, which is really the point of this paragraph – the wealth of history and experience exhibited in such a tiny area. Today, fishermen and tradespeople live next door to artists and writers, and there is a constant influx of visitors, adding to the colour.
This latter could be seen as a problem. As impressed as I am now by the community cohesion here, long-time residents tell me it’s nothing compared to what it used to be, as the majority of the houses are now second homes. Families who want to settle here full time can rarely afford to. One woman told me in winter she is surrounded by empty houses. There are other issues. For instance, we are down to only one non-tourist shop which is also the post office – valiantly kept open in all weathers by the owners and supplying all the basic needs that can be crammed into such a small space.
But actually this impresses me even more, that Mousehole is still thriving despite all the challenges of modern society. So I return to my original question: what did it get right? In my work as a community development adviser, I have learnt a lot simply by living here, over and above all the books read and lectures attended. So here, in brief summary lest this blog get overlong, are some of the key positive factors that Mousehole exhibits;
The Taming of Cars: The narrow twisty streets make it not impossible for cars, but very very difficult. You have to be very sure you want to drive here to do so. This means most people – particularly visitors who don’t know the secret parking spaces – will choose to park outside the village or arrive by bus. Those who do venture into the streets have to drive slowly and carefully. This means people are free to walk and converse in the village. Yes, people actually talk to each other! But still, if you really want to bring a vehicle into the village, then you can do it. No banning of vehicles or draconian signage is necessary.
Other Transport: There is a regular bus service to and from Penzance. For those of us who do not have cars, this is a huge plus. The service continues to midnight, so late arrivals in Penzance by train need not be concerned about being stranded. (Interestingly, I’m fairly certain it is the huge popularity of Mousehole with tourists that has kept this service running.) As well as the bus, there is also a designated cycle route that goes all the way to Penzance and beyond. So although there are few shops in the village, a ten minute exhilirating ride by the sea will take you to the next port of Newlyn where they are more numerous.
Diversity; This has already been mentioned, and is a strength in that all needs can be met within a very small area, whether practical, artistic or even mystic! And it makes for a much more interesting life.
Security: People feel safe here, as I hope I’ve illustrated with the opening story. Again this is largely because of the architecture. Not only does the prevalence of people rather than cars mean we all look out for each other, we can’t help it, but there are another two factors in place which sociologists are well aware of: First, the numerous gathering places, not only the pubs and cafes, but the streets themselves, and the harbour. We talk to each other and can’t help being aware, at least to some extent, what is going on around us. Secondly, there are plenty of windows facing into the streets – yes, you are being watched. That little girl wandering by the harbour front earlier, was much safer than was evident – and without the need of CCTV or more police. (For more on ‘natural security’, see the Jane Jacobs book below.)
Nature: I remember in Australia someone saying to me, that it was a country which never let you forget who was in control, and it wasn’t Man. This same attitude is prevalent in Mousehole, where Nature is in your face pretty much all the time. Recently there has been a movement in ecological circles to put a price on the biodiversity and well-being gained from natural areas, and even though those prices are incredibly high, the real truth is that it is incalculable. In cities kids are growing up with the belief that vegetables come from supermarket shelves, there is no such illusion here. Those with gardens often grow their own, otherwise people are still catching fish, and there is a rich variety of seaweed available, rich itself in nutrients. Though only a few of us know how to cook it properly, that might change! So there is some security of food supply here, which is important, but the main point I am making is that closeness to Nature brings about dividends in itself. People here are generally happy. During a wild storm two days ago, i walked into the newsagents which had the door wide open. ‘It’s wonderful even on a day like this,’ I commented. ‘Absolutely,’ was the reply. And that is the common attitude here, that we are living in an incredible place, and we are grateful, even for the storms.
Neighbourliness: That architecture, whether planned or incidental, is important to encourage community cohesion has already been covered. There are more subtle things that can help too. ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ is the saying, and by that one can infer that a fence cannot be so weak or non-existent (and I’m talking metaphorically here) that everyone is in each other’s faces; but nor can it be so insurmountable, like a high wall, that you have no contact whatsoever – the balance has to be got right, and here it is mostly right, in that we have our individual spaces and lives, but there is someone there when you need them.
Myth and History: A strong, realised past whether factual or legendary can help bind a community further. In addition to the colourful history already alluded to, there is the famous story of the Mousehole cat that saved the village. Once a year before Christmas the entire village is covered with lights and decorations, celebrating the holiday and the story. In fact, the Mousehole Lights are so famous themselves, even more visitors come to see them – in the dead of winter, the notoriously dead zone for tourism. The streets fill with life, and resemble more a Spanish town (ironically) than any English I can think of; people mingle and chat and a good time is had by all.
Mousehole has survived invasions, storms and recessions. Long may it continue to do so, and perhaps even pass on some of its lessons to those who are willing to learn. For those who are interested in research on social capital, community cohesion etc., all the following books are invaluable. I include also the book, written by his sister, about Jack Pender, one of the many excellent artists this place has produced. The book has a very personal history of Mousehole that is impossible to find anywhere else. Good luck in finding it though! Maybe some elusiveness needs to be retained.
Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg
How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
Jack Pender by Sylvia Pender Johns
Many years ago, when I was tackling Einstein’s theories on relativity – just for fun, you understand – my mind-set collapsed when trying to grasp one basic fact the author (not Einstein) was stating: that when you really comprehend the implications of time being the fourth dimension and perceptions of speed and time being only relative, you had to accept that here-now was only here-now, not anywhere else. This meant, the author went on, that our idea of a here-now on the other side of the galaxy – that somewhere out there an alien was having a cup of tea or whatever it is that aliens do – in this present moment, was an illusion. Only the here-now as I’m typing this (or, for you, as you are reading this) exists. The inference therefore was that nothing out there was real. This blew my mind, because even though I grasped and accepted as much as possible the constraint of light speed, and that travelling long distances through space was not feasible within my lifetime, I tended to draw comfort on the belief that somewhere out there across the universe, things were happening independent of me – great, exciting things that we could only imagine through science fiction tales such as Star Wars.
Since grappling with that concept – that here-now is only here-now, not somewhere else – I have tried to retrieve that statement from the writer but have never managed to find it, even doubting at some point whether he was the source, if it weren’t in fact someone else, or if perhaps I had imagined it. I don’t know, and I don’t know any relativists I can interrogate on this issue; but strangely the mystical – even the quantum-physical – assertion that only here-now exists, or possibly nothing exists, I have no problem with subjectively. I can feel, I can experience the truth of that even if I can’t articulate it. Put it in an Einstein paradigm though and my brain short-circuits.
The flexibility of time I grasped fairly swiftly. I was also swayed by the poetry of it, the way in which gravity and acceleration slow down time, or in other words stretch the space-time continuum. This seemed quite magical to me, although it was science: how time is faster on the top floor of a skyscraper than the bottom floor, that a watch rotated at an extreme speed would be slower than a watch that was stationary, that the moon did not so much pull at the sea as stretch time out… Pure magic.
It was with this in mind that I created the character Adagio in our comic Omni. (Yes, in case we’ve all forgotten, this blog started out as an offshoot of our brilliant comic ‘Omni, Man of Nothing’, which we are still working on and which you can visit at Omni .) Adagio is one of a group of time manipulators, all based on the Laws of Relativity, and his particular gift is the ability to – you’ve guessed it – slow down time. ‘Adagio’, in case you don’t know, is the instruction to play ‘slowly and carefully’ in classical music. I personally tend to prefer Andante sections of music, but there was no call for a ‘moderately slow’ character in our little group of superheroes, so Adagio turned up instead, walking at sunset along a beach, deeply at peace with himself.
Adagio would be a superhero pretty much at this moment in our society, acting as a counterpoint to the frenzied drive to do everything faster. Recently there was an experiment done on electronic addiction by universities around the world, where volunteer students were asked to do without email, computers, television and – horror of horrors – mobile phones for something like 48 hours. Those observed were very quickly showing classic withdrawal symptoms. One girl I saw in the programme, walking along a beach (where else?) said she could see it was beautiful around her but couldn’t appreciate it because she was worrying about the emails and text messages she hadn’t received. This drive to know more, faster and faster, with more or less complete disregard to the quality of the information being communicated, can be linked to the perpetual global panic buying of the latest computers, mobile phones etc. When I saw that 3 million computers being thrown on landfill sites every week, I didn’t believe it till I checked the figures and saw they added up. Psychologists talk about ‘problem recognition’ where a person feels fine with their life till they see something for sale that is so new and exciting they now feel their life is incomplete till they own that object; also ‘reference anxiety’, where you feel content with what you have until you observe that a neighbour or friend has something that is ‘better’. These two stress-factors strike me as corner stones of capitalism, where growth is always best and you are never satisfied. All of this conspires to the speeding up of time; of subjective time that is.
Do you remember when you were younger, and the summer holidays seemed to stretch out forever? Or, less wonderfully, the time spent in detention seemed to stretch out forever? The contrast between our childhood perception of time and our grown-up perception, has been attributed to the way in which a child’s heart usually beats faster than an adult’s, therefore the relative time external to the child lasts much longer; whereas for the adult ‘the days just seem to shoot by’. Professor Alan Dix at Lancaster University sums it up quite poetically: ‘As we age the exceptional and magic of our youth becomes the everyday and mundane and as we recall the recent years they seem less full, less time filled, than the earlier. The similarities and repetitions of the past decay the present, so like rust the base events of the normal fade into the soil of our memories.’ Professor Dix’s website is the first I discovered on searching for ‘Slow Time’ on the internet (Ecosia, not the carbon-spewing Google) and it’s something of a gold mine. Take a look for yourself at Slow Time and try the slow time spreadsheet if you have the inclination, or time.
Professor Dix’s poetic sensibilities continue with this advice: ‘But we can sometimes fill our moments of boredom by resignifying the insignificant: seeing the intricacy of a spider’s web or the smile of a passing child. Like rehearsing our memories can counter the decay of forgetfulness rehearsing our presents can counter the decay of carelessness.’ Essentially he is talking about meditation, though he doesn’t use the M-word. Using whatever meditation technique rocks your boat – or more accurately, slows down the rocking – the brain can slow down from its day-to-day Beta rhythm of worries and calculations, to Alpha or even slower. Then indeed, external time can appear to slow, and one can regain something of eternal youthfulness. Try it now. Notice your connection with the chair, with the ground. Notice what sounds are around you now. Notice your breathing. Observe your breathing for a while. Notice what thoughts are racing around in your head, and allow them to do so, let them go on their way. Sit. Be still.
Okay, you can come back now! But this technique and innumerable others are available whenever you too want to be a superhero and slow down time. You can act on this in daily life too. Ignore the people pressing behind you at the supermarket, and take a minute to engage with the person at the checkout, acknowledge them as a human being. Drive at – dare I say it – the proper speed limit, or even (!) slower. Every now and again don’t check your phone or your emails for a day. Try doing nothing for a while, not even watching TV.
The main character in the hilarious film ‘The Tao of Steve’ bemoans the fact that in America if someone doesn’t do anything they’re called a slacker, whereas in the East they’re considered a Buddha. Yet we don’t have to incorporate eastern mysticism to enjoy stillness. As referenced in the popular ‘Eat Pray Love’, the Italians have a phrase for it: ‘Dolce far niente’, the sweetness of doing nothing. The Puritan work ethic demands that we have to strive for that ideal before we deserve it. Other cultures know better. And yes, our hero Adagio in ‘Omni’ is, as it turns out, Italian. Viva Italia!
As someone who has had to work on and explore landscapes a lot over the years, particularly ancient ones, I nearly always came away from Bronze Age and Neolithic sites haunted by a sense of mystery. I’m hardly alone in this. People write books in their thousands on subjects such as Stonehenge and Avebury, as if prompted to by a need to make sense of these mysteries; and people all over the world respond by wanting to read about these various theories and explanations. Or at least watch them on the History Channel. There have been several ‘final explanations’ for the architecture at Stonehenge for instance, but the more interesting studies on all these sites, at least to my mind, acknowledge that there is much they do not understand.
Whereas there are numerous theories for each site, often pointing out connections with eclipses and the seasons, for instance, I was often puzzled by what inner forces could compel people to pool such enormous collective effort
to establish these sites; and, also, why these particular places. Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, shown above, is an an obvious defensive position, and has a particular ambience that draws visitors; but other places, such as the Rollright Stones here are not in such obvious strategic positions.
I am not going to enter into all the arguments about stone circles here, but want to remain with the question: what inner forces could compel people to create these beautiful, often quite complex structures in these particular locations? We are looking particularly at those sites created in the Bronze Age or earlier. Wittenham Clumps, for example, was built in the late Bronze Age and is almost out of those parameters, whereas the Rollright Stones were earlier in 2500-2000 BC, well within them.
My reason for wishing to comprehend something of the inner forces at play here was largely because I had done a lot of research at university on such things in the modern age. I had come to the conclusion that we are living today in the midst of what I call a Psychopathic Infrastructure. Here (Ecopsychosis) is a PDF copy of the original essay on the subject, in case you are interested in the details and sources, but in a nutshell here is my theory: About 1 in 150 people are born psychopathic. What that means is that they are incapable of feeling any empathy at all for others. As they grow up, they learn to imitate emotions without actually feeling them, in order to fit in. It should be emphasised here that most psychopaths are not killers, despite how the media portrays them; but they are interested, obsessively, in power and will do anything to get it. Our current social structures actually favour them, particularly within corporations. What this means is the psychopath will invariably rise to the top, pretty much unchallenged. Here I should warn not to jump to conclusions – some world leaders could indeed be psychopathic – a few recent ones come to mind – but the real power may not lie on the public stage, but behind it.
Once I started to work out just how our society functions in these terms, a lot of things became clear, including the architecture of the last hundred years or so. These tall thrusting structures are indicative of ambition, greed, and – let’s face it – phallic power; and responsible for creating a soul-less landscape where the only thing that matters is winning. We have created a world without magic.
There are numerous architects (like Christopher Day for example) who work and publish books in order to counteract this decline into a cold, unfeeling landscape but they are few and far between; and architecture is compelled by deeper forces that most architects rarely seek to understand, though the more creative ones are often blocked and frustrated by unimaginative and short-sighted decisions made by councils and funding bodies.
I’ve done a lot more research since writing the essay (which now seems woefully incomplete) but I was perplexed by one question continually. I had, to my own satisfaction at least – and many people seemed convinced when I explained the idea – shown how psychopaths are essentially running the world, and how we have fallen into line behind them for a very long time: but what about before? If the Psychopathic Infrastructure exists now, what preceded it? The missing link was to be found in the controversial and renowned book ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’ by Julian Jaynes. This book proved to be a goldmine, explaining a lot of what puzzled me in the past. Not only regarding the creation of particular structures and temples in particular places around the world during the Bronze Age and earlier, but even the strange language of Homer’s ‘The Iliad’.
There is too much to explain here – even googling Jaynes will only give you a glimpse of what the book offers – but, in another nutshell: Jaynes argues that early human beings were what we would today call schizophrenic i.e. listening to and obeying voices that they could hear within their own minds. This Schizophrenic Infrastructure was every bit as complex and multi-layered as our society today, albeit with very different inner forces compelling people to do what they did. These inner voices were accepted unconditionally. As one of numerous examples, when Achilles confronts Agamemnon in ‘The Iliad’, asking why he did something atrocious, Agamemnon simply replies ‘Because the gods told me to,’ and Achilles accepts this totally. Imagine if someone put forward such an argument today! (‘I smacked him in the face, Your Honour, because Apollo told me to.’)
The shift from this ‘bicameral’ society took place at different periods in the Earth’s history, but in the Middle East it was marked by the extremely violent and oppressive rising of the Assyrian Empire from about 1380 BC. Prior to that, Jaynes also points to the birth of writing – i.e. the externalisation of our inner world – in Babylon in about 1790 BC.
There is a scarcity of evidence about what actually happened during the Bronze Age. I asked a local historian once about the Bronze Age inhabitants on Dartmoor, and he was unusually candid, saying: ‘We know there they were here, then they weren’t, and that’s about it’. So we can’t know very much for sure, but once I processed Jaynes’s considerable tome, a lot about it made sense to me and it felt right. At last, I had a working theory on what preceded the hidden forces in our current society, granting some sort of explanation as to why particular places were chosen and what was built there. Even strange evidence such as the huge bluestones in Stonehenge being transported all the way from Wales, made sense. You would do such a thing, no matter the effort involved, if the gods told you directly in your head to do so.
To finish – and I have to finish here at some point – it is worth pointing out that it is not a question of one Infrastructure favouring another. Each were appropriate for their time, and had different advantages for that time. Without the decline of the Schizophrenic Infrastructure, for instance, we could not have had the rise of consciousness globally that flowered so incredibly in what has been called the Axial Age, when Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the Greek philosophers emerged between 800 and 200 BC. And, hey, would we have anything like all the machines that make our lives so interesting today, without the Psychopathic Infrastructure to support their development?
The real issue for me is now how to recognise and counter the destructive tendencies of a society’s infrastructure.
In our current predicament, it is worth remembering that a civilisation that is capable of giving us towering chimney stacks spewing fumes into the atmosphere is also capable of extraordinary achievements, both scientific and artistic. To illustrate the latter, I have here selected the atrium of the British Museum (I don’t have a lot of photographs of beautiful modern architecture, as it turns out), a place which ironically houses a lot of material from the pre-Psychopathic Era.
My final question, as I – like so many others – am drawn again and again to the evocative landscapes and artefacts of earlier civilisations, is what will remain for others in the future to come and appreciate?
It’s so long since I did an update, and also quite long since I did a post, I thought I should at least do the former, albeit a very brief one. In fact, it’s getting hard to remember that this blog started off as an addition to a comic book started way back in the mists of time. There have been many twists and turns along the way.
As far as the comic (‘Omni, Man of Nothing‘ in case you don’t know!) is concerned, Pramada and I have both been so busy with travelling and other work, I’ve gotta fess up and admit we ain’t done much. It’s always there though, at the back of our minds, and the dominant item of discussion whenever we get to speak and now and again I’m granted glimpses of Pramada’s astonishing new artwork. We’ve also been contending with environmental survival issues in our different ways – the Earth does have a way of demanding our attention – with California threatened with repercussions from the tsunami, and myself dealing with dramatic, beautiful, and unprecedented lightning storms in Portugal that wiped out our electronic infrastructure for a while.
For me though, the part of my brain reserved for writing (most of it) has been pretty much full with novels old and new, my quest for a literary agent, and an exciting new film project started just over a week ago. This latest work has returned me to London for the time being. I have also just been visiting Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, home of the literary dynasty of the Sitwells, so here are a few pretty pictures:
So those are my excuses, and I’m sticking with them! All the same, I do have a bit of space in my nonce for another post, which I’ve been developing and may even get to put up here soon. It will even have more pretty pictures. See you then.
One of the most notorious stage directions in theatre is: ‘Exit pursued by bear’, from ‘A Winter’s Tale”. Actually for Shakespeare this is quite verbose, as more often than not his directions use even fewer words, one of the most common being… ‘They fight’.
We cannot possibly know what the fight scenes were like in Elizabethan theatre, whether they demanded as much specialist knowledge as they do now in theatre and film. What we do know is that when they go wrong they really go wrong. I saw a production of ‘Macbeth’ once in Stratford. It was directed by the usually reliable Adrian Noble, and would have been fine if it were not for the melodramatic fight scenes, so over-the-top they had us chuckling throughout. Finally, when Macduff burst through the floorboards to confront Macbeth, he was greeted not only by an indignant Macbeth but also by howls of laughter from the audience. We should have been in awe, not in stitches. It was one of the rare times I actually checked the credits to see who the fight director was, and discovered that he had previously worked on the comedy series ‘Blackadder’, which made a lot of sense.
As long as we have the technology to watch movies – who knows how this world will turn out – we will be able to appreciate and even study the choreography of their fight scenes, and give credit where credit’s due, at least to some extent – for it is not always clear how much is decided by the director, the choreographer, the fight director and even the actors. It’s a collaborative process – all we can really surmise is when it works and when it doesn’t.
Is it even important? Joss Whedon - creator of ‘Buffy’, ‘Dollhouse’ etc. – once said they put so much emphasis on story and character development, when it came to a fight scene, they’d think at the last moment, ‘Oh yeah, we’d better put in a fight now’. This is a surprising statement, and not that believable – I suspect some modesty is at play here – because you can witness some spectacular fight scenes in his series ‘Angel’, where the protagonists use the walls, the ceilings, anything in bizarre three-dimensional dances that must have required considerable forethought. A later episode ‘Waiting in the Wings’, where the Angel team go to the ballet for the evening, seems a natural development: also, one of the actresses, Amy Heckerling, was a ballet dancer herself, and the lead dancer in the production, Summer Glau, consequently became a big star in movies and TV. In its sister show, Buffy and her cohorts and her enemies may not have always provided quite the same balletic qualities in the fight scenes, but there is a subtle language going on. (It’s not always ‘Let me answer that with a head-butt’.) In Year One our heroine is clumsy, uneven in her fighting; Year Two sees more confidence and ease; Year Three she meets the ‘dark slayer’ Faith who has a tendency to jump into lethal situations without any procrastination; by Year Four she has incorporated this and other techniques into her own style, even jumping into Hell not knowing if she’ll get back – by Year Seven she has accumulated all this knowledge and more techniques into her own style, always adapting, always thinking on her feet. Her fighting has become her language.
Fighting as dialogue has always been a staple of comics. When Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ films came out, as much as comic fans may have enjoyed them, there was general disappointment at the titular character himself: whereas in the comics, Batman was always defined in part by his grace and skill in combat, this was sadly lacking in the films. The villains were great, but somehow the quintessence of a good comic book was still absent. It was clear that cinematographers, and subsequently most of the world, continued to misunderstand how comics worked. The first sign of a change was the release of ‘Blade’, where the movements of the main character seemed absolutely right. But a film about a daywalking vampire was bound to be too bloodthirsty for mainstream audiences. The real change came with Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’. Singer seemed to understand the deeper ramifications of the comic, very cleverly and disturbingly opening with a scene in a concentration camp, then having the climactic scenes set symbolically and ironically on Ellis Island.
But it was the fight. It was the fight on Ellis Island between Wolverine and Mystique that told me comics had finally arrived in cinema. Brutal, deadly, elegant and beautiful, as the two danced and wove between each other, eluding and parrying, blowing mock-kisses, kicking and cutting – this was how it had always been done on the printed page. There was something uplifting about the experience.
In ‘Avatar’ when Neytiri first appears in front of Jake Sully to save him from the pack of wolf-creatures, she launches herself into the fight as if flying. Her opening move is akin to a ballet leap. Throughout the movie, the Na’vi fight with a grace illustrating their harmony with nature, in contrast with the corporate-sponsored marines. Furthering this contrast, the Na’vi fly on huge bird-like creatures, the human soldiers using hard metallic machines for their ‘shock and awe’.
Also, the Na’vi would move amongst the trees, using verticality as much as horizontal movement. This is interesting – and tribute to James Cameron’s detailed envisioning – because research a few years ago came to the conclusion we are doing our backs in by living two dimensional physical lives. Think about it. We design our pavements, our homes, our offices, to be as flat as possible. But we evolved amongst the trees and our spines rejoice in flexible movement. And when we’re not living in flatland we’re sitting in cars or other vehicles, forcing our spines into more unnatural positions. Kids know better – I knew one whose preferred mode of transport across the classroom was leaping across desks – so when they’re ‘monkeying around’ we should maybe learn a thing or two rather than admonishing them. Apparently some offices have adapted their terrain as a result of this research, incorporating uneven carpeting, hillocks in corridors etc. I wonder what the mailman, let alone Health and Safety make of that.
Even as chimpanzees, we would climb. A biologist would say to seek food or safety, but a poet would take it further. It is said that Nijinsky appeared to defy gravity when dancing, staying suspended in mid-air longer than was theoretically possible. And this is what good fight scenes are like when the grace of dance is brought in. It is about defying gravity. In this way it is not about real life, it is about the poetry of real life.
W. B. Yeats seems to capture this perfectly in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’:
|I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
W.B. Yeats (1865 – 1939)
It seems therefore that a good fight scene may require experience and realism if authenticity is required, such as in a convincing war movie like ‘Platoon’ – but for science fiction, theatre, or anything requiring a strong dose of imagination, then poetry has to be brought in so that the line between fighting and dance becomes so fine it is invisible.
Then, gravity may be defied.