Seen Sign

Sign spotted at a friend’s house, in the smallest room in the house, no less. Made me think of blogging.

I know that you believe
you understood
what you think I said,

but

I am not sure
you realise that
what you heard is
not what I meant.

Library of Babel

Some friends of mine returned from the land of the Pharoahs with a beautiful blue vase. It was wrapped in newspaper, the page covered in curls I do not understand. The box below caught my eye.

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I post it on these pages without the faintest idea what it says. It could be a short news report, a sports result, an obituary, a religious edict, or an advert for a washing machine.

My grandmother found the following inscription inside a notebook belonging to her brother, my great-uncle. Apparently the writer was a young Indian man, a student friend, who stayed with the family in Bargoed, in Glamorgan, for the summer.

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It is signed and dated 1937, and we don’t know what it means.

Is it really necessary to find out? I think it could be a shopping list, but my grandmother hopes it is a message of kindness to her brother, from a young man who was shown hospitality in a strange land. My great-uncle was struck down by a heart attack thirty-five years ago.

It is as though these papers belongs to Schroedinger. Someone will be able to decipher them, but for my grandmother and me, the meanings are in our imagination, and perhaps we should keep them that way. Perhaps the true answers will throw up more questions than they solve.

Imagine the Arabic speaker, or the Urdu speaker, who cannot read English. They might stumble across this page, read the images that they understand, and be baffled by the words that surround them. What fantastic meanings might they believe my paragraphs to contain?

In Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastic Library of Babel, he imagines a vast library, which he calls The Universe. It holds every possible combination of letters, every possible book. It is the collected works of the infinite group of monkey typists, complete and unabridged.

If a number of possible languages use the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library allows the correct definition a ubiquitous and lasting system of hexagonal galleries, but in other vocabularies library means bread or pyramid or anything else, and these seven words which define it have another value. You who read me, are you sure of understanding my language?

So it is with my salvaged scraps of paper, hastily scanned and posted here. Those of you who are bilingual, and would translate them for me: please do not. Yours is only one possible language, and one possible interpretation. There are countless others, locking away their secrets, the ramblings of a people who may never have existed, yet whose history is chronicled meticulously, in some book in Borges Library.

Armistice Day

Pure blue skies. People in anoraks and kilts gather in a traffic island, next to a pub and a billboard that advertises insurance. Vehicles stream past, ignoring the throng.

Then, at one minute to eleven, the policemen step confidently into the road to stop the traffic. The pedestrians pause and look towards the gathering in the centre of the junction. A lone piper plays The Last Post. The traffic lights keep changing, from green, to red, to amber, and back to green again. But nothing moves.

Royal Mile Pub

So there I am enjoying listening to the folk musician, when suddenly my view is blocked by a group of tourists posing for a photograph. They are Swedish, but that is incidental. When they group together for the portrait, they wait until the distinctive red-eye flicker betrays the imminent shutter release, and then they pull a series of mirth-inducing expressions. One sticks his tongue out, another gives some sort of thumb-and-pinkie rock gesture, while a third opens her mouth really, really wide. They lean against one another.

Once the flash has been and gone, they inspect the staged chaos on the LCD screen and chuckle over their antics. Then their expressions return to normal, and they look back at the musician.

“Hey man, its easier to smile than it is to frown, you know!”

Just because I am not smiling, it does not mean that inside me, my heart does not leap with joy.

Running Amok/Ambling Along

Bridge, by Tommy Perman

I recently attended the opening of Running Amok/Ambling Along, an exhibition by a friend and colleague of mine, Tommy Perman. His work centres around the idea of urban spaces, and how mandkind interacts with these environments.

At the event I was reminded of the organic nature of cities. I am entertained the thought of one set of people building something; then some other people extending it in a different archtectural style; and yet some more people knocking half the walls to reuse the space for something else. These mutated forms are what humanity has created as a collective, over centuries. They are as much a part of our history as the perfectly preserved stately homes under the control of Historic Scotland and English Heritage.

I enjoy revelling in these thoughts when I look at the antiquated prints one finds on the walls of pubs (which are themselves buildings that have gone through many uses and users). I like picking out the landmarks which remain, and the features which have been pushed aside due to the march of progress.

I see Tommy’s drawing in this tradition. Perhaps future generations will look at them, then close their eyes, and try to imagine what life was like in the twenty-first century, “the olden days”.

The word for today is meme…

An old letter to a sibling, part of a word game we played for a while. Added here for convenience. I do realise that ‘meme’ is a well known phrase online, often referring to those online questionnaires which purport to read your soul, and categorise you into one of twelve easy soundbites. I prefer memes in their covert forms, ideas with a momentum of their own. That is when they are at their most potent, and their most fascinating.

The word for today is meme, pronounced ‘meem’. A meme is an infectious idea. The best adverts are memes. Charismatic politicians use them. They plant a word, a phrase, or a concept into your head, and it circles around and around like an eel swimming in a pond. Eventually, they hope, the phrase that they have planted becomes some sort of truth for you. You believe what they have told you. Other memes of this kind tend to be songs, the kind that you hear on the radio in the morning, and find yourself singing, or whistling at work. If, at the end of the day, your friends and colleagues have begun to hum the same tune, you know you have a meme on your hands and you would do well to sing some other song, just to be rid of it.

The memes that burn themselves onto your brain in that way are the very obvious kind. They do nothing but annoy you. More powerful are the subliminal memes – the kinds they use in the most sophisticated adverts. They need not show anything more than their logo in a certain situation, for us to associate the two. Before we know it we actually believe that the swoosh makes us more athletic, or the golden arches make us better parents. Memes can be very sinister things, more harmful than drugs because once infected, there is no comedown, no hangover that sobers you up. They stay.

Thankfully, memes can be altered once they are inside you. Culture-jamming is the art of fucking with other people’s logos (I have a McShit™ t-shirt). You take their idea, twist it, and then send it back into society. Your idea hooks onto the back of theirs, and wherever the multi-million pound logo travels, hopefully your idea will too. You plant a seed, which flowers inside others.

One day, when humanity progresses, we will still have conflict. But instead of catapulting vast quantities of ordinance into random market squares, as we seem to be doing at the moment, maybe we will engage in meme-warfare. Thousands of egg-heads will be employed in the bowels of the Pentagon, devising the most fiendish meme possible. When they have it, they will encode it into an innocent turn of phrase, or maybe a child-like picture, and send a lone agent provocateur behind enemy lines to set it off. If you give a computer a sum that works out at infinity, it will cause an internal error and stop working. Likewise, once a meme has been set off inside a military or economic unit, that unit will cease to function and collapse from within. Tell one person in Basra or Tikrit that Saddam Hussein wears a nappy to bed, and three weeks later you find the entire Iraqi government collapses without a shot fired.

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote an amazing story called ‘The Zahir’. It is only nine pages long. Apparently, the Zahir is the name Argentines give to an ordinary coin, and the narrator receives one in his change, in a bar. Inexplicably, he finds himself captivated by the coin, until he can think of nothing else. He remembers that in India, Zahir means ‘Tiger’, and that there was a legend about a man who spotted a magical tiger, could think of nothing else, and ended up painting tigers all over the walls of his cell in the lunatic asylum! The Zahir is a destructive meme. (Borges thinks that by thinking of the Zahir you will eventually learn a truth about God – and trying to think about God is the ultimate meme-bomb).

So, memes are like viruses. They grow and germinate inside one head, and then they work their way out of one mind, through the lips or maybe through a pen, and into another mind through the eyes and ears. I like to imagine that ideas are in fact alive. They feed on brain cells and breed. When two ideas – memes – meet, and argument ensues between their hapless human hosts. If two memes meet inside a brain, well, their battle is your insomnia.

I love the thought that memes could be another type of life. But the thought that amuses me most is this: the idea of memes… is a meme itself! Ever since a friend of mine mentioned the word to me some weeks ago in a pub, I have been thinking about them, passing the idea on to those who will listen. When it came to sit down and write about a word for you, o best beloved, there was really no other choice I could make.

Stephen of The Trains

All vagrants have their haunts and their tasks, which they pursue like Tantalus. Most will wander around a particular district of the city, though some will haunt the sewers and crypts below. One or two men walk the earth, preaching their crazy philosophies, selling their crude drawings and foil sculptures, or maybe urging people to repent before tomorrow’s Armageddon.

Stephen wanders around train stations some of the time, but most of the time he will be found on a train. I first met him on the long haul down to Exeter one spring afternoon in 99, but since then I have seen him on a couple of suburban services out of Victoria, and once, I think, getting off a train at Derby. A good friend of mine claims, astonishingly, to have seen him in the restaurant car of the Glasgow sleeper.

Stephen does not sit down when he gets one the train. Or rather, he does sit down, but not immediately. He roams the carriages, back and forth, searching out the person he is destined to meet. Sometimes he will make several passes before he finds the seat he is looking for.

And then a mobile phone rings.

When the shrill tones chime throughout the compartment, Stephen will settle himself down next to the phone user, the callee, and begin singing the mobile phone he has just heard. I guess this must be rather boring for him most of the time, singing in a literal monotone, although in my case (oh yes, I was one of them) he got to sing the first eight bars of the Imperial March by John Williams.

I kept the encounter of this strange man to myself for a few years, until I overheard someone else on a train telling their neighbour about this man, whom they had also encountered. I could not resist changing seats and joining the conversation, and it was there that I learnt Stephen’s name. As soon as I got home I wrote a letter to the Times newspaper concerning him, and received several replies from those who have been disconcerted by his impromptu appearance and performance in reaction to their mobile ring-tone.

The sub-community of people who have met him has grown, and there are several theories as to why Stephen has embarked on this mission. Some people with little imagination suggest that the ring-tones are so annoying that he has been sent mad, and his odyssey is an active protest. This does not sway me. Such a person would engage with his victims, shout at them, or at least explain his motives. Stephen simply sits down, sings in pure tenor, and leaves as soon as the call has been completed, leaving the person in a state of bewilderment.

Others suggest, cynically, that Stephen is actually twenty or so people, secretly employed by the rail companies to prevent people using mobile phones on trains. This is ridiculous, because the companies would never have the imagination, nor would they spend that sort of money on a hair-brained scheme. Furthermore, I have corresponded with several people (some might call them fans or followers) who all describe Stephen in the same way, a description in keeping with my own encounter: Long hair, big nose, bow tie. He is only one person, of that I am sure.

My own theory is that he is a music lover, and sees the tones as a simple form of the art. Perhaps he sees the rings as the purest, tightest form there is, where the composers have to work with only eight notes (nine if you include the silence) and five lengths of time from the brieve to the semi-quaver, and his mission is to seek out masterpieces within the theme. Or perhaps, which is the more likely alternative in my opinion, he loathes Nokia’s rape of Beethoven’s Seventh.

And I am left with a dilemma. Do I turn off my telephone when I board a train? I still find it very hard to do so, despite my former embarrassment at the hands and vocal chords of this enigma. I think that if my telephone rings, then perhaps a man in a bow tie will come lumbering down the aisle, and I may see him again, and ask him what he is doing. I have a notion that to switch of my telephone is to deprive Stephen of his work, to deny him fulfilment.

I find myself taking the train more often nowadays, even if it is inconvenient and expensive to do so. I wear a bow tie when I travel, and always carry my telephone in my top pocket, ready to ring. One day it will do so, and Stephen will be there, singing beside me.