A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Month: June, 2014

A point of listening

If a tree doesn't fall and there's no one around...?

If a tree doesn’t fall and there’s no one around…?

When I was 15 or so, I had to do work experience. Clearly my only experience of work till then had been teachers, so I ended up helping in a class at my old primary school for two weeks. There I met William, a 5-or-6-year-old whom I was asked to read with because he was struggling a bit. Every time William encountered a word he didn’t know, he would say something instead. “The cat sat on the something.” “The ball something over the something bridge.”

That’s all I remember about William, if his name was even William, but I remember him every time I try to read a French book in French, which is something I do considerably often considering I am not very proficient in French.

I was reminded of all this today at an event called Points of Listening 6. I had not been to any of the previous five, so was not sure what to expect. What happened was really lovely. Daniela Cascella performed a reading of various texts – written, cinematic, acoustic. We were at the London College of Communication, and had been led through the building, around which students were strewn like fashionable throws or functional objets d’art, to a small, rather warm room with three arcs of seats and the curtains drawn.

Cascella began with film and sound of a gang of motorbikes being ridden round a (presumably Italian) city, their engines recapitulating the undulating monotony of televised Formula 1 races. Then we heard the sound from the opening credit sequence of Kiss Me Deadly. Then we saw the opening credit sequence of Kiss Me Deadly and understood more or less than we had understood from the sound alone.

The piece was called ‘Borders’, and from this opening position of credits marking a boundary of sorts between not understanding and understanding a situation, Cascella defined, developed, decayed, regained and recycled a sequence of cyclical themes to the end of the world and back.

In amongst it, she said she had read a 500-odd page book by a seminal French anthropologist; a self-anthropology, if such a thing is even possible. But to add to the monstrosity of the tome, she revealed that she does not read French very well and there is no English translation. So, she took it to the British Library and sat with it, reading, sometimes without understanding but still able to enjoy – perhaps more so – the objectiveness of this text. “Le chat s’assit sur le something.”

Talking to aliens

In the Q&A afterwards, Cascella mentioned that she had been discussing recently the topic of talking to aliens. Without going in to details, she told us the conclusion she and her interlocutor had reached was that we are always talking to aliens.

And then I put up my hand and spoke.

This never happens. It’s not that I don’t have interesting thoughts when listening to talks and performances, and it’s not that I am not grateful to the speaker or performers who inspire those thoughts. It’s just that I have this internal damping mechanism that suggests it is enough to have the thought or feeling: maybe jot it down in a notebook somewhere; expressing it would serve nobody well.

Alcohol has been known to override this mechanism but I had not been drinking today. Perhaps it was the opportunity afforded by being granted honorary alien status that enabled me to speak.

I was at another conference on silence last week, since which it has occurred to me that you have to listen in order for there to be a silence. An unheard silence is just another tree not falling in a philosophical wood. Perhaps, then, you also have to speak in order to listen.

So I spoke and made a point or two.

Points of listening, I hope.


The case of the demented Labyrinth

Having succumbed to self-pity last time, here’s a more constructive response to my Alzheimer’s feature: the short story version!

Image: Hephaestian Studios

Image: Hephaestian Studios

I don’t know if I was born in it or brought some time later, but my first memories – all my memories – were in the Labyrinth. Alone, but not lonely, and there were myriad opportunities to step outside or look out of the windows and interact, talk to others, fall in love, create, have effects on the rest of the world. Equally, as I grew older, I liked to retreat into the cool depths of the maze, clear away the cobwebs and do a cryptic crossword or read a detective story. Poe, Dickson Carr, Takagi – classic locked room mysteries were my particular delight.

But at some point, daylight withdrew and my comfortable corners became too dim to see. It became harder to navigate the Labyrinth and I reached doors and windows less often. The paths had become overgrown with fibrous masses. I tried burning them away but nothing worked. They constricted my way, eventually blocking off whole sectors of my inner life. Glimpses of the outer world made little sense now, though I strove to make connections, even if they were absurd. A kind of nausea gripped my head, not my stomach. I stumbled around, often with my hands over my eyes, forced to take torturous routes around the obstructions, missing the comforting familiarity of my old ways, until I would curl up in a ball with my head in my hands despairing of it all.

I saw faces I recognised – my parents, or my children, perhaps – and wanted to speak to, but the only way to reach them would be to turn away and search down some forgotten pathway for a secret passage and when I turned my head I began to doubt I had even seen them at all and would be taken along another path to a distant memory or a fragment of degenerate fantasy. There were paranoid flickers of others, too, unrecognised; ghosts in my Labyrinth trying to find me, perhaps. I would find scraps of thread crudely woven from the overgrowing fibres and discarded as useless, not mapping the way out but compelling all the same. I would follow some of the longer ones for a while, hoping, while traces of music led me on, but whether to the outside or deeper towards the centre I wasn’t to know.

At last, I stopped trying to find an exit. It brought me only grief.

When I came to the centre, there was the Minotaur, its breathing ragged, an upside-down A on its forehead, a double-headed axe in its hand. The brute looked like death. We raised our axes, each intent on destroying the other, but when my axe fell, it struck only glass. My reflection shattered the mirror and sealed my fate.