Category Archives: Philosophy

I Know What I Like

In which The Author doesn’t know about Art

One of the few subjects I haven’t written about in this blog over the years is Art.There’s a good reason for that.
Apart from visiting a couple of exhibitions of work by friends, the time I met Brian Eno in London (but that’s another story!), and the day Martin H. and I stumbled into an exhibition by Sir Peter Blake (see Starless and Bible Black), my involvement with the world of Art has been pretty minimal.
This is partly because I have no artistic ability whatsoever. At least I made a stab at learning to play the guitar before giving it up as a bad job. That entitles me to comment on music, in my opinion. Art, though, was a complete washout from the start.
At school, I parted company with Art as a subject as soon as I possibly could. To demonstrate exactly how piss-poor I am at putting lines on paper, I once came 33rd in the internal exam – and there were only 31 of us in the fucking class. Having said that, I later went on to piss the Maths O Level and do A Level Pure Maths. Unlike our Art teacher, presumably.
During my second first year at university, we had a lecture on children’s drawings. As part of the session, Gareth M. asked us to draw a house, a horse and a man.
My friend Siân D., who was sitting next to me, drew an elaborate mansion with substantial grounds. I drew something that looked like the opening titles of Play School circa 1973:
My ‘horse’ and ‘man’ efforts were even worse, believe me!
Gareth came around the room, looking at our masterpieces in turn. When he saw my laughable attempts at realism, he (understandably) laughed.
‘You draw like a five year old.’
I replied, ‘Gareth, that’s the highest praise anyone’s ever given one of my drawings.’ Then I told my ‘Coming 33rd in Art’ story, and everyone else laughed.
My schoolboy frustration and anger at not being to draw the simplest object has long since evaporated. I’ve learnt to accept the fact that I have no ability in this area, and moved on. Art and I parted company over three decades ago by mutual agreement, and hardly ever miss each other.
I’ve got a number of friends, like Alwyn, Ceri, Kathleen, Marian, Liz the Good Twin, Pam B., and Martin H., who effortlessly demonstrate extreme skills with pencils, a brush, pens, or (nowadays) a graphics tablet or image rendering software. Other friends of mine have an innate talent for playing musical instruments. Some of them (sickeningly) can do both. I admire their expertise in the same way you’d admire a performance by a great actor. Of course I envy them their gifts, too, but that’s just natural. You have to know your own limitations. I discovered mine over thirty years ago.
I could spend a thousand words raging about my shortcomings in these areas, in the style of Stephen Fry’s beautiful tirade against his tin ear in Moab is My Washpot. But I’m not going to. I can wield a camera with half-decent results, and that’s good enough for me.
Having said all this, I’m not a complete philistine. I appreciate a good painting, but I have to be able to see what it’s meant to be. However, during the twentieth century the visual arts largely went down the road of abstractionism, or (worse still), what Kim Howells memorably described as ‘conceptual bullshit’.
I tried reading Robert Hughes’ famous study of modern art The Shock of the New many years ago. I almost followed his line of argument from Impressionism up to and including Post-Expressionism. I started to get bogged down when he reached Abstract Expressionism, and gave up entirely when he got to a pile of bricks (Carl Andre’s famous ‘sculpture’ Equivalent VIII). I freely admit that I just can’t see the point of it at all.
When Rhian and I were at the V&A last year, we were able to see the famous Raphael cartoons. They, to my mind, represent truly great painting – huge, ambitious, hyper-real, and memorable. There’s no doubt in my mind that Raphael was a genius, and his paintings have endured simply because they’re stupendous works of art. (Like Leonardo’s cartoon, though, they weren’t especially funny…)
I’ve decided to write this entry for a couple of reasons. Jeremy Vine has a semi-regular feature on his Radio 2 show called ‘My Favourite Painting’. A listener nominates a work of art, then comes on the phone and explains why s/he loves it so much. (It doesn’t make for great radio, naturally, but the pictures in question are on the BBC website so that you can check them out for yourself.)
I’ve had a quick look, and there are six pictures on display. They all seem to be fairly old-fashioned (conventional) representational paintings. Mr Vine’s own nomination is Las Meninas by Velasquez. There’s a John Singer Sargent, a Renoir, a Stubbs, and (perhaps surprisingly) a David Hockney. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is in there, but that’s the most avant-garde of the six. I don’t know whether the idea’s run out of steam, but they’re the only ones currently on the BBC website.
I think I’m right in saying that (so far) nobody has nominated anything by Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, or any other abstract artist. I’m not even sure whether anyone’s suggested works by Picasso or Dalí yet. David Hockney alone represents the twentieth century. (I suppose I must have missed the features about Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville.)
It could just be that the public is naturally conservative (with a small c) when it comes to artistic trends. I’m sure I read somewhere that Britain’s most commercially successful artists are Beryl Cook and Jack Vettriano – who are hardly at the cutting edge of the avant-garde. Then again, I’ve never heard anything by Schönberg, Stockhausen or Steve Reich on Your Hundred Best Tunes. We seem to instinctively shy away from anything that’s too challenging, too unfamiliar.
Maybe, though, the real extremes of modern art/music/theatre are just like the Emperor’s New Clothes. The cognoscenti rave about them, while everyone else (the uninitiated) realises that there’s nothing much to be impressed by.
That was the impression I got on Saturday night, listening to a three-hour programme on BBC 4Extra about surrealism and comedy. It was presented by two people I’ve never heard of before. Their terribly laboured links were symptomatic of the continuity style the station seems to have adopted over the past eighteen months or so. Maybe they were trying to be surreal. They certainly weren’t funny.
There were – of course – extracts from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (most of the Argument sketch, and a brief clip from another sketch) which have been played to death.
There was a fairly recent item presented by Terry Jones, about Le Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris. It has presented the same two plays by the Romanian absurdist Eugène Ionesco every night – except Sundays and public holidays – since 16 February 1957. (It beat The Mousetrap into the record books some time ago.)
There was a half-hour’s worth of ‘edited highlights’ of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer presenting a show on Radio 1. If I needed a disincentive to ever tune into the BBC’s premier yoof station, that was it.
The presenters interviewed one of the guys from The Mighty Boosh, too. They left me completely cold. I admit that I did laugh a couple of times, but mainly when they were playing some clips from Kenny Everett’s radio show, broadcast way back in the early 1970s.
Hearteningly, they name-checked Vivian Stanshall and Syd Barrett. Their music could definitely be classified as surreal, if only because they were close to insanity a lot of the time. During the piece on Le Théâtre de la Huchette, they played a clip of an avant-garde French jazz combo, which reminded me of very early Gong (see Leaving No Turn Unstoned). Daevid Allen gravitated to France after leaving The Soft Machine. Perhaps the unfortunate Syd Barrett should also have relocated to Paris, where this sort of thing seems to have made its spiritual home since before the Great War. His ill-fated solo career might have taken a whole different path.
However, the rest of the three hours’ content (to me, anyway) simply wasn’t funny, or clever, or surreal.
Because I’m not sure that surreal is synonymous with simply ‘silly’, as the 4Extra people seemed to think. Surrealism is a whole subset of art, drawing on the Freudian theory of dreams and the unconscious, the Dadaists, the absurdists, primitivism, the poetry and art of psychiatric patients, nursery rhymes, cut-ups, and a whole host of unconventional ways of juxtaposing symbols and ideas. It isn’t just talking what appears to be dope-addled shit into a radio microphone for five minutes.
Surrealism in Art covers many bases, too. I know Salvador Dalí is generally accepted as the master of the surreal, but I’d like to nominate another painter as my personal champion of the waking dreamscape. The Belgian artist René Magritte (1898-1967) may not be as well known as Dalí, but his distinctive style has influenced everything from book jacket designs to advertising campaigns.
I first (knowingly) came across Magritte’s work in about 1989, on the Penguin edition of John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing. (It was one of the set texts when I was working in Blackwells, so I got to see it a lot!) The front cover featured this mysterious painting:
La clef des songes (The Key of Dreams), 1936
That, I think, was my first conscious encounter with Magritte. I realised later that OMNI magazine had reproduced a couple of his paintings to accompany short stories in the early 80s, but they obviously hadn’t registered with me at the time.
Magritte’s influence had even featured on advertising billboards in London while I was there in the mid-1980s. The Greater London Council was threatened with abolition, and had mounted a campaign to warn Londoners of what would happen if it disappeared. One of them featured a full-face view of a suit and a bowler hat, but where the man’s face should have been, there was a brick wall instead. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was almost pure Magritte.
La Grande Guerre (The Great War), 1964
La Grande Guerre (The Great War), 1964
The bowler-hatted man, often with his face obscured or with no face at all, is one of the recurring themes in Magritte’s art and features in a series of paintings dating from his late period. Magritte himself was often photographed wearing this trademark headgear.
My next encounter with Magritte came when I was reading Douglas R. Hofstadter’s landmark book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An eternal golden braid, also while working in Blackwells. Prof. Hofstadter devoted several pages to a discussion of Magritte’s art, and especially The Key of Dreams, The Use of Words, and other variations on this theme.
L'usage de la parole I (The Use of Words I), 1928-9
L’usage de la parole I (The Use of Words I), 1928-9
This is a classic example of what philosophers of language call the ‘use-mention distinction’: of course it isn’t a pipe, it’s a painting of a pipe!
Kurt Gödel’s great 1933 breakthrough in mathematical logic is one of the three threads which Prof. Hofstadter entwines in his huge and fascinating book. It was based on the realisation that mathematical statements could be encoded as numbers and then operated upon as numbers. By breaking down this use-mention distinction, it was therefore possible to modify logical expressions by logical operations. Alan Turing’s work took this idea further, devising a theoretical machine which was capably of modifying its own instruction set while following that same instruction set. I’m using that machine now. So are you.
Magritte was also exploring – and blurring – the distinction between levels of meaning in some of his paintings. (As Robert Anton Wilson was fond of saying, ‘the map is not the territory; the menu is not the meal’.)
Prof. Hofstadter’s analysis of Magritte’s work inspired me to learn more about him. As a result, I bought my first ever art book: Suzi Gablik’s monograph on Magritte, in Thames & Hudson’s very affordable World of Art series.
While I was looking through it I realised that I’d seen a fair number of his paintings before, without ever realising it. The GLC poster I remembered from my student days suddenly made sense. So did the cover of the Pan paperback edition of Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex:
La clef de champs (The Key to the Fields), 1936
La clef de champs (The Key to the Fields), 1936


Some 25 years after I first discovered him, I still think Magritte is the one Surrealist painter whose work I have a chance of understanding. Dalí was technically brilliant, of course, but I’ve always found his dreamscapes too unreal for my liking. Max Ernst’s paintings fall into a similar category. (Jasmin from Stuttgart introduced me to Ernst; in return, I introduced her to Magritte.) I’ve always felt as though they were trying too hard to be challenging and confrontational.
That’s not to say that Magritte’s work is comforting. Far from it – some of his paintings are extremely shocking, like this 1945 version of Le viol:
Le viol (The Rape), 1945
Le viol (The Rape), 1945
The female nude also features in a number of disturbing paintings entitled Le magie noire; is the statue becoming human, or is the woman slowly petrifying?
Le magie noire (Black Magic), 1934
Le magie noire (Black Magic), 1934
When Magritte isn’t subverting our ideas of the body, he’s playing with our preconceived ideas of what imaginary creatures would look like. Take the mermaid, for example – every Disney fan knows a mermaid is half woman and half fish. Only in Magritte’s world would this conventional interpretation be turned literally upside-down.
L'invention collective (Collective Invention), 1953
L’invention collective (Collective Invention), 1953
As a rule, though, Magritte’s visions of the unconscious world are usually far less self-consciously bizarre. He doesn’t aim to shock (often!), and his chance meetings of mundane objects and anonymous people seem to be much more like the dreams I experience myself.
Les objets familiers (Familiar Objects), 1927-8
Les objets familiers (Familiar Objects), 1927-8
I don’t remember my dreams as often I’d like to, because some of them would make fantastic science fiction stories (or even episodes of Doctor Who), but they do feature recurring themes and places.
In the same way, Magritte’s work often features unexplained juxtapositions of unrelated objects. In addition, the same objects recur many times, as in his series entitled Le jockey perdu:
Le jockey perdu (The Lost Jockey), 1940
Le jockey perdu (The Lost Jockey), 1940
This is the sort of dream world I can relate to from my own experiences. I don’t claim to be an expert on Magritte’s work by any means. Sometimes I think I admire his technical ability more than his finished paintings. In fact, I find some of them to be rather childish (yeah, I know – ironic, isn’t it?) Instead, his work appeals to me precisely because of its repetitive nature. Like my own recurring dreams, his use of the same symbols in varying combinations hint at the deep underlying structures and seldom-used connections in the unconscious mind.
The one painting of Magritte’s which I’ve highlighted here was drawn to my attention in Gödel, Escher Bach. If I were to nominate ‘my favourite painting’ for Jeremy Vine’s show, I think it would be this one.
La condition humaine I (The Human Condition I), 1933
La condition humaine I (The Human Condition I), 1933
The painting on the easel has perfectly captured the exterior world on the artist’s canvas. It’s a scene which any landscape artist would be proud of. But there’s another layer of meaning here: the artist’s work is itself only part of a wider picture, captured by a second observer.
And the scene on the artist’s canvas is just a snapshot, a slice of Spacetime translated into two dimensions. By the time the first brush stroke has dried, the world outside the window has changed.
The Impressionists realised this, and their paintings attempted to capture constantly shifting light and shade, and the movements and transitions of their subjects. Impressionism was a direct response to the rise of photography, which put conventional landscapes and portraits within the reach of everyone’s ability. Whereas everyone could have a single slice of Spacetime, only the painter could show the constant flux of the Real World.
But in Magritte’s world, not only has the view through the window changed in the time it’s taken the artist to paint it. There’s an almost seamless transition between the edge of the painting and the view outside. It’s almost seamless because that’s the way that we, too, perceive the world. By the time I hit the ‘Publish’ button on this blog, the people around will have changed. The conversations in the background won’t be the same. Our five-sense world is constantly in flux, and by the time our brains have processed the data flooding in from all sides, the outside world has moved on.
The human brain, like the painter, is unable to truly capture the fluidity of the world. All that we can do is try and make sense of an ever-changing series of snapshots, discrete slices of Spacetime, and hope that our mental representations are as close to the Real World’ as possible. And that’s the human condition in a nutshell, isn’t it?
There’s another possible angle on The Human Condition which this painting demonstrates, too. Presumably Magritte himself could be depicted at work on his canvas, adding yet more distance between the world outside the window and the end-user of the painting. Could we even paint someone in a gallery, admiring the painting? How many levels could we introduce between the outside world and the viewer of the scene? Just how far down the rabbit hole do we have to go before we actually reach the Real World?
Robert Anton Wilson recalled accidentally catching a play on television, in which the actors were performing an extremely naturalistic script. He watched it for a few minutes, quite engrossed. A few minutes later one of the actors stumbled over a line.
A voice off screen shouted ‘Cut! Take five!’, and everyone relaxed. Some of the crew came into shot, the make-up people hurried on to the set, the director stepped up and discussed the scene, and so forth.
This all went on for a few minutes until, halfway through a sentence, one of the people stopped talking. A voice off stage shouted, ‘Cut! Take five!’
The screen faded to black and the credits rolled.
Wilson said that, if the same thing had happened a few more times, it would have been analogous to the Buddhist idea of ‘awakening’.
To me, at least, Magritte’s painting is the visual equivalent of this TV play, and probably the closest visual interpretation I’ve found to ‘awakening’. I nominate it as my favourite painting, and I also nominate Rene Magritte as the only surrealist whose paintings really work for me. After all, I may not know about Art, but I know what I like.

Making One’s Own Luck

In which The Author wonders about the Cosmic Order

If you’ve read the previous entry On the Up, you’ll already know that I’ve won tickets to see Roger Waters performing The Wall at Wembley on Saturday. If you haven’t read it, I’ve won tickets to see Roger Waters performing The Wall at Wembley on Saturday. (I’ve said it twice because I still can’t believe it myself.)
I know it was a prize draw, and that in theory my name had exactly the same probability as anyone else’s of emerging from the metaphorical hat. However, when I consider the events of the past week or so, I’m wondering if there’s some truth in the old saying that you make your own luck. Let me explain …
I’ve been a Pink Floyd fan since I was in school, but have never had the good fortune to see them live. Lots of my friends have seen them (some lucky people like Chris T. have seen them more than once). For my part, the nearest I’ve got is watching their live DVD Pulse a good number of times. The only time I’ve ever bought a record or CD on the day of its release was on 28 March 1994. It was their final LP, The Division Bell.
However, I was responsible for skewing the results of the Battle of the Bands in the Black Lion on 2 July 2005, the night of the Live 8 concert.
It was an event which seemed tragically like déjà vu for those of us who remembered Live Aid. Before I’d left Cardiff that evening, I’d watched part of the BBC coverage in the Queen’s Vaults. At one point I texted The Piss-Artist Formerly Known As My Brother. I said something like, ‘I didn’t think I’d live to see this sort of thing become necessary again.’
When I got to the Black Lion, Battle Royale was well under way. In between sets in the pub, Rob C. (see Death of a Clown) and Andrew C. patched the live TV feed through to the big screen so that we could watch the proceedings at Wembley. After a bunch of third-rate groups like Razorlight, who were massive at the time but who now (thank Goddess) seem to have vanished without trace, the moment I’d been anticipating for over twenty years finally happened: Pink Floyd came on. I remember saying to one of the lads standing nearby, ‘I’ve waited my whole adult life to see this.’
It was a hugely emotional moment for fans the world over. David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Rick Wright and Nick Mason were sharing a stage for the first time in over two decades. Bob Geldof had somehow persuaded Messrs Gilmour and Waters had temporarily put their differences aside for a one-off performance. In fairness to him, the guy deserves the fucking Nobel Peace Prize just for managing that!
They had only just got going when Bronwen’s band Freaky Fortnight decided it was time to start their set. The older people in the crowd howled them down, and they abandoned their instruments to join us in watching this historic reunion. I remarked slyly to Bronwen, ‘I’ve waited twenty years for this – it won’t hurt you to wait twenty minutes.’
Pink Floyd’s performance was brief, powerful, and sublime. There were tears in my eyes at the end of their set, when the four band members stood together, their arms across each others’ shoulders, after a heartbreaking performance of Comfortably Numb. I heard one young lad tell his girlfriend, ‘My dad was right; they’re not bad, are they?’ It made me feel rather pleased, I must say. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as turning someone onto something you love, but which they’ve never experienced before. It’s especially great when that ‘something’ is not harmful, like drugs, but positive, uplifting and immensely rewarding, like a classic film, a great book, or timeless music
When Craig came along with the bucket to collect the voting slips, I threw a handful in. So did some of my friends. We’d all written Pink Floyd on them. Craig tallied the results and announced them at the end of the night, adding, ‘A lot of people seem to have voted for Pink Floyd.’
I shouted, ‘They were the best band tonight, mate!’ Everyone laughed. but they knew I had a valid point.
When Rick Wright passed away, just under five years ago, it marked the end of a musical era, much as John Lennon’s death had when I was fourteen. It meant that I’d never get to see the band I’d loved for thirty years.
Now I’ve explained this, it won’t surprise you to learn that when the National Express newsletter pinged into my inbox, offering the chance to win tickets to Mr Waters’ show, my entry was in like a shot. It would be the nearest possible alternative to seeing Pink Floyd themselves. How could I pass up an opportunity like that?
I mentioned Battle Royale last week, when I wrote about my friend Rob C. in Death of a Clown. I told how we’d first met at a karaoke night in the same pub, when Rob decided to show me exactly how to sing National Express by the Divine Comedy. Please bear that fact in mind as you read on …
On Sunday, Andy Tillison posted a long status on Facebook. Andy and I met over twenty years ago, when he was the main songwriter, singer and keyboard player with the Yorkshire-based band Gold, Frankincense and Disk Drive (see Our Friends in the North.) Andy’s now one of the presiding spirits behind the Tangent, a mighty pan-European Progressive Rock band. He still lives in Yorkshire, but he’d been down to ‘that London’ for the Prog Awards ceremony in Kew. On his return to the safety of his cottage in the Dales, he wrote about his adventures in the Big Smoke. Andy’s piece was at once a passionate defence of an often-maligned musical genre, and a humorous and humble account of finding oneself surrounded by one’s heroes. Here’s a brief extract:
Looking around at the famous faces was worrying. I kind of realised that some hanger-on-to-1979-NME “everything must die so that punk may live” journalist could probably have wiped the genre from the face of the earth with a dodgy batch of Salmon Mousse. Rick Wakeman [Yes] was right behind me, Ian Anderson [Jethro Tull], Dave Brock [Hawkwind], Steve Hillage [Gong], Steve Hackett [Genesis], Robert John Godfrey [The Enid] – Jeez!!! – if anyone had told me when I was at school that I’d be at this thing I’d have not believed them.
I showed Andy’s status to Martyn E. on Sunday, and to Martin H. yesterday, before sharing it on my own Facebook. I said that I was an old hippy and wasn’t ashamed to admit it. Last night, in the pub, I was talking to Lauren B. about music. I told her that I’ve always been a frustrated keyboard player. To illustrate the sort of music I wanted to play when I was seventeen (and all my mates were into either heavy rock or proto-Goth post-punk), I decided to spend a quid on some songs, if only to break up the usual routine.
I selected ‘Burn’ by Deep Purple, ‘Lucky Man’ by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and finally ‘Any Colour You Like’ by Pink Floyd. Lauren was absolutely blown away by the magical organ-bass-guitar-drums instrumental, which was my dream piece when I first heard the LP at the age of fifteen.

I referred to setting up some sort of Morphic Field in the previous entry. It was a jokey reference to Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of Morphic Resonance when I wrote it some twelve hours ago. However, now that I’ve thought about it a lot, maybe there was more to it than just a throwaway remark. I want to run some individual facts past you. It’s not an exhaustive list, but a set of edited highlights. Have a look at them as they unfold (in no particular order.) Bear with me for a few minutes. Then let’s start putting the pieces together and see whether a picture emerges:
  • The competition was run by National Express.
  • The song which Rob and I had a karaoke sing-off over was called ‘National Express.’
  • This happened at our first meeting, at the Black Lion, which also hosted Battle Royale.
  • Rob was partly responsible for making the videos which entertained us in between sets at the qualifying heats.
  • The final of Battle Royale took place on the exact day of Live 8, when Pink Floyd stole the show.
  • Bronwen and the rest of Freaky Fortnight laid down their instruments so that we could watch Pink Floyd’s last ever performance with the great line-up.
  • Bronwen’s current musical project uses the name Little Eris.
  • Eris is the Goddess of Chaos, to whom I’ve referred frequently in this blog and elsewhere.
  • The tattoo of the Goddess on my right shoulder (see Shot Down in the Night) was taken from the cover of Undoing Yourself with Energized Meditation by Christopher Hyatt, PhD, who shared a publisher with Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson.
  • A portion of the same picture forms the header to this very blog. I like to think of it as a representation of Eris herself. Maybe the artist, Denise Cuttitta, intended it as such. Maybe not. Perhaps I should try and email her and ask her …
  • The Cult of Eris plays a major part in the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
  • Robert Anton Wilson’s books played a vital role in opening my mind to the possibilities offered outside conventional scientific approaches.
  • My inability to type the title of Dr Wilson’s book Cosmic Trigger gave rise to the name which I use in this very blog, my email addresses, internet forums, and (very occasionally) chat rooms.
  • Robert Anton Wilson’s own writings inspired Vicki F. and I to write Quantum Silliness, as well as being a major influence on parts of Dodge This.
  • I sang ‘National Express’ on Thursday’s karaoke night, as my own way of saying goodbye to Rob on the day of his funeral.
  • Yesterday I confessed to being an old hippy, who therefore (almost by definition) would give his right arm to see Mr Waters perform live.
  • Andy Tillison’s long piece about Prog Rock forced this confession from me.
  • I’ve literally just remembered that it was Andy himself who turned me onto Douglas R. Hofstadter. He recommended that I should read Metamagical Themas, which then led me to Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and my first encounter with Zen Buddhism, amongst other key ideas which have influenced my thinking over the years.
  • In The Expert System, I said that if I ever applied for Mastermind, one of my specialist subjects would be Pink Floyd.
  • Last week, I asked Rhian if she’d help me to mug up on Doctor Who since 2005 – my other chosen specialist subject – as I’ve decided to apply for Mastermind after all. If I’m accepted, I’ll need a second specialist area as well. Guess what it would be …
  • We were listening to Pink Floyd on the jukebox last night.
  • I was telling Lauren about Dodge This last night.
  • Rhian and I were talking about going to see a show in London last night.
  • I’ve just checked out a notification on Facebook. Three or four status updates down, the official Pink Floyd fan page has just posted the cover to the LP Wish You Were Here.
  • On Saturday, I will be there.
I’m going to ride my own train of thought for the rest of this entry. Why not come with me? The buffet car’s open, serving hot and cold drinks and a wide selection of food for thought. Jump aboard and enjoy the trip…
There’s a New Age idea called Cosmic Ordering which has been doing the rounds for quite a few years now. It’s been espoused by a number of famous people, most notably in the UK by the TV presenter Noel Edmonds. I don’t know that much about it, but it seems to be an extension of the old creative visualisation idea. (This can be summed up by Psychic TV’s refrain from Guiltless: ‘See it, and go for it!’)
Its proponents believe that if you want something, you just need to focus your thoughts on your target and you’ll achieve it. It’s basically the same message that the Temple Ov Psychick Youth was transmitting thirty-odd years ago. (See Zigzagging Down Memory Lane.) Sceptics might say that it’s a fancy new name for wishing on a star. Either way, I’ve been thinking about it a lot today. As Kurt Vonnegut Jr would have said, Listen:
In late spring this year, I spotted a new face among the Aberdare daytime crowd. He was tall, quite well-built, several years younger than me, wearing jeans and an army surplus jacket, with a backpack on the ground at his feet, and a hand full of pamphlets. He also had a very distinctive hairstyle. I’d seen people like him in Cardiff on several occasions, but they were usually dressed a bit less conservatively. They were members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), better known as the Hare Krishna movement.
[A digression: A group of ISKCON members used to come through the centre of Cardiff every so often, clad in their saffron robes, chanting and tinkling their little finger cymbals. (That was how I recognized the hairstyle.) One day, Laurie and I had had a particularly bad morning in work. We’d been for a pint, and we were standing in the fire corridor of the old Dillons shop eating our lunch. Laurie was having a sneaky cigarette, leaning out of the window overlooking the busy shopping street below, and we were comparing notes on the general idiocy of customers so far that day. In the distance we could hear the rhythmic chanting of ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Krishna Krishna,’ growing louder as the devotees approached our block behind the old St David’s Centre.
As they passed beneath our vantage point, Laurie looked at me and said, ‘Right, tell Keith I’m not coming back, I’m going to join the Hare Krishnas.’
I said, ‘Hang on a minute, mate, I’ll have a piss and come with you!’]
I’ve been interested in Eastern philosophies for a very long time, but I can’t remember exactly how I first started reading about them. My interest was certainly energised by Douglas R. Hofstadter’s discussion of Zen Buddhism in Gödel, Escher, Bach, but the spark was there a long time before that. Although I’ve done a bit of reading around the subject, I’ve never gone into it in any depth.
However, I’d been dipping in and out of a book by the Indian-American doctor Deepak Chopra called Synchro Destiny. Dr Chopra comes from a medical family (his father was a renowned cardiologist) and his writings are a brilliant (if controversial) synthesis of Western and Eastern traditions: a blend of modern medicine, alternative therapies, and cutting-edge physics. I bought his book before I finished work, when the first wave of significant coincidences in my life was reaching a peak. I saw it arrive in stock and thought that any new theory of meaningful coincidences must be worth investigating.
The ISCKON chap and I made eye contact as I approached him, and we smiled at each other. Most people in town were walking straight past him, but I stopped and said ‘hello.’ I know this will sound a bit crazy, but something told me that I needed to talk to him.
Anyway, the Man from ISKCON (there’s a TV series just waiting to be made!) wasn’t at all preachy or zealous. His name was Steve, too, which augured well for the rest of the conversation. We started off by chatting about the Beatles, and especially George Harrison, whose involvement with Eastern religion was another early seed for my own interest in the subject. I told him about the train of unfortunate events which had led me to my current situation (see Everything Changes), and he was very sympathetic. That was why I was walking around Aberdare on a Friday lunchtime, after all, instead of finishing my coursework and revising for my final exams. Steve was distributing copies of Chant and be Happy, an introductory guide to meditation, which includes interviews with George Harrison and John Lennon, in exchange for a donation. It was a done deal.
I gave him a two pound coin for the book, which was all the change I had on on me, and we started chatting about life in general. He was based in Swansea, and gave me a card for a new cafe which had opened in the city centre. I explained about the lack of public transport, and he agreed that it wasn’t a great situation. However, ISKCON have another cafe in Cardiff, not far from the Rhymney Brewery pub which Rhian, Rowland and I had visited in Death Warrants. I said I’d try and call in next time I was in town. (Needless to say, I haven’t been there yet. Martin H. and I were going to visit it a couple of weeks ago, but he had a stomach bug on the day and we’ve postponed the idea for a while.)
I’ve told you previously (in Meet the Parents) about the bizarre career path of my old friend Ian W., who now teaches Buddhist meditation in Cheshire. His life was on a very low ebb when he was in his late teens and early twenties, and he managed to pull himself up and out of the trough he’d found himself in. After seeing how Ian was able to transform his life, it made me a lot more receptive to spiritual ideas. Chatting to Steve reminded me of a brief chat I’d had with Ian on one of his flying visits to Cardiff a number of years ago. Without any undue pressure, Steve managed to give me quite a bit of food for thought. I was glad that we’d met, and again I had a gut feeling that our ‘chance encounter’ was anything but chance.
We parted company after ten minutes or so, and I had an idea. A couple of doors from the Prince there’s an independent bakery, which sells wholewheat vegetable pasties. I knew that in India it’s considered a gracious gesture and brings you good karma if you offer food to holy men. The shop had two veg pasties left, so I bought them both. I kept one for myself and walked back to Steve, who was trying vainly to attract anyone else to talk to. I gave him the other pasty as a snack to munch on the train home, wished him well, and we parted company again.
I went for a walk around town, keeping an eye out for Martin, who’d said he was making his way up. I spotted him about ten minutes later, deep in conversation with Steve. Steve had told him about our chat, and remarked on the fact that I’d bought him some lunch. Martin had said, ‘That must be my mate Steve – it’s the sort of thing he’d do.’
The three of us chatted for ages, and Steve produced another book from his bag. It was a lovely hardback edition of the Bhagavad Gita, with parallel Sanskrit and English text and a commentary. He asked me if there was any chance that I could get it onto the shelves at Aberdare Library; Martin had told him that there was a serious lack of material relating to any faith other than Christianity. He’d said that I was ‘well in’ with the Library gang, and I promised I’d ask Steven and Judith if they could give it a home. We said our farewells again, and headed to the Prince for a chat. Martin told me afterwards that he’d also felt oddly ‘drawn’ to talk to the distinctive visitor. He’s a good bit older than me, and was a teenager during the Flower Power era. I suppose he felt more comfortable than most people to talk hippy mysticism on the main street in Aberdare.
I was as good as my word when it came to offering the book to Steven and Judith. I haven’t checked the shelves, but I’d be surprised if it’s there. In retrospect, I wish I’d offered it to Paul in Hirwaun Library, who’s got an enquiring mind and a ‘can-do’ attitude to stock acquisition, or even added it to my own collection (although I would have felt uncomfortable about doing that).
Anyway, both Chant and be Happy and Synchro Destiny have been living on my little coffee table, and I’ve been dipping into them both a lot recently. I’ve found Dr Chopra’s book a bit difficult to follow in places, but it’s made a change from wading through pages and pages of statistics about Bizarreness in dreams, which is a major part of Josie’s thesis. (It’s rated on a scale from 0 to 7, apparently. Some nights I can manage at least an 8.)
I haven’t started chanting yet – Valleys houses have thin walls, remember, and I don’t know what the volatile couple next door would make of it. However, the insights offered by George Harrison and John Lennon are fascinating. I can easily see why people who had everything in their lives could get tired of materialistic pursuits, and turn their attention to spiritual matters, especially at the height of the anti-Vietnam War campaign and the start of the Flower Power movement. There’s more to life than money, big houses and fast cars.
Martin’s been noticing a lot of coincidences and/or synchronicities as well recently, as though we’re approaching another peak. I’m toying with the idea of starting an open blog where people can log their own observations, rather like Josie’s Dream Diary project which formed the basis of her PhD work. If we were to compare the frequency of coincidences with external factors (phases of the moon, say, or sunspot activity, or even major sociopolitical upheavals like the Arab Spring), would we find any correlations over time? It’s definitely worth thinking about …
Out of the blue, while we were talking about psychology last night and spirituality, Janis brought up Dr Chopra’s name. She’s never mentioned him before. Was that happenstance somehow part of a Morphic Field, which managed to trigger a massive shift in the Cosmic Order, which then resulted in my phone call from Sophie at National Express this morning?
I’ve scratched the surface of this subject before, most notably in Mere Coincidence (a phrase I borrowed from Robert Anton Wilson. It’s how orthodox scientists explain away unexpected results that don’t fit neatly with their theories.) Am I experiencing (again) what the protagonists in Ian Watson’s novel Miracle Visitors call ‘The Phenomenon’? Does my own awareness of it directly link me in to some higher power/deep structure of the Universe/God/whatever? Personally, having pondered this all night, I don’t what to think any more.
Have a look at my list of bullet points again. It’s not just a chain of events – it’s a web of events, interconnected across Space and Time: listening to the Beatles and Pink Floyd as a schoolboy; meeting Andy Tillison through my connections in the Valleys Anarcho-Punk scene; encountering Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist concepts in books about popular science; reading books which looped me back to Science Fiction concepts from my teenage years; the whole sub-web of Robert Anton Wilson-related developments; meeting Rob at a karaoke night; forcing everyone to watch Pink Floyd during the Battle Royale final; meeting my namesake from ISKCON in Aberdare; writing The Expert System, in which I mentioned my potential Mastermind subject; receiving the email from National Express; Rob C.’s sudden death, which led me to write Death of a Clown and sing National Express on the day of his funeral; Andy’s weekend account of rubbing shoulders with his own musical heroes; playing with the jukebox in the pub last night; this morning’s phone call …
It’s all too massive to contemplate. There simply doesn’t appear to be a logical explanation for all of these seemingly unrelated things to have led to this point.
I know the little space at the bottom of my blog invites you to leave comments, but this time I really would welcome your feedback. Please, tell me whether you agree with my analysis of the situation, or if you think I’m assigning significance to insignificant unrelated events. If you’re on my Facebook friends list, please don’t just put a comment on the link there. I’d like your opinions to stay forever visible as a companion to this particular entry. As I’ve said at several points throughout this blog, I no longer discount anything. I’ve experienced way too many coincidences (synchronicities?) over the past twenty-odd years to dismiss them out of hand. After reading this, I wonder if you’ll agree with me.