Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Desert Island Books

I was recently challenged to pick ten of my favourite books via Facebook. As always, this seemed a good opportunity to do a blog, and I've decided to pick five fiction and five non-fiction tomes for my selection. These are in no particular order. Here goes...

1) 1984 – George Orwell (1949) – I originally read this for my GCSE English course at school. The ideas of the book have permeated into society so much that we don't even notice them, such as Big Brother representing the surveillance state and Room 101 being somewhere tortuous. These two phrases have even given their names to television programmes, of which I infinitely prefer the latter. As we sign up for million-page user agreements that nobody reads, granting technology companies access to literally everything, the book serves as a timely reminder that the route we are on may not be the wisest. Often perceived as being purely about communism, the author intended to satirise any totalitarian state, and this could equally mean complete control by the money men. A scary book for teenagers at least.

2) Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1932) – This dystopian novel was written fifteen years before Orwell's vision. Here, society is divided into groups based on intelligence, and intelligence is governed at birth by the deliberate provision or starvation of oxygen. I've no idea if this is scientifically possible, but the main point is that an ignorant savage is perhaps more free than intelligent people living in such a controlled society. More warnings for our technology obsessed era, and the book seems to prompt the question: just because somebody has the luck to be more intelligent, does that give them the right to a better life?

3) Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell (1936) – Some of the notions in this book may make us shudder these days, but I guess the author was trying to show that the ideology of the American Civil War wasn't as clear cut as we find comfortable to believe. The book is divided into two halves and after the first half one presumes that most of the action is over, but this is not the case. All in all, we have a stinging morality tale where the narcissistic central character, Scarlett O'Hara, gets her just desserts. Frankly my dear...

4) The Shining – Stephen King (1977) – Having loved Stanley Kubrick's film for many years I didn't imagine that the book could be even better, although I knew that it was certainly different. Here we get glimpses into Jack Torrance's past, providing clues about the real-life demons that gradually turn him into the familiar psychopath from the film. The book also focuses a lot more on his son's supernatural 'gift.'

5) The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (1890) – Coming up with a fifth fiction choice was tricky as there are just so many options, but this was one of the first 'classics' I read. The book opens with a collection of witticisms about art (which is always a good start) before plunging into the story where a man's debauched life merely ages a portrait of himself rather than his physical body. Deemed shocking in its time, the only part that drags is the chapter where the author seems to relentlessly list the physical aspects of various expensive items, but I guess that's creativity for you.

6) Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson (1995) – This book has to be included as it inspired me to start writing myself. Other amusing UK travel books had been written before, such as Tom Vernon's 'Fat Man on a Roman Road,' but this one seemed to jack up the humour giving a more diary-like feel to things, with a tone of indignation ('Where the **** is my sustenance?') mingling with the factual discoveries. Sadly my own attempts at the genre were completely blanked by the literary world and those dreadful bookshops beginning with 'W,' and I will forever cower in the shadows of this leviathan.

7) Revolution in the Head – Ian Macdonald (1994) – A must read tome for Beatles fans, although I often disagree with the author's views, for example he is quite disparaging of the White Album (my favourite). Nevertheless, his thoughts on the individual Beatles' outlooks as expressed through the lyrics, production and chord structures that he analyses is second to none. The writing is almost as prosaic as the songs at times and some of his phrases make me laugh out loud, such as describing Maxwell's Silver Hammer as 'sniggering nonsense' for example. Sadly the author committed suicide, and the generally dour prologue about soulless modern music in a vacuous era is perhaps a clue.

8) Journey into the Whirlwind – Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) – Translated from the original Russian edition, this is a harrowing account of a communism supporting journalist who fell foul of Stalin's brutal paranoia. I literally couldn't put this book down as I followed Eugenia from a comfortable life into the jaws of hell, torn from her family, plunged into prison and then exiled to a remote labour camp where death is pretty much guaranteed. Like 1984, another shocking lesson from history, except this one is for real.

9) A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking (1988) – I could include several more mind-blowing books from the popular science genre such as The Never Ending Days of Being Dead by Marcus Chown, but this is the one that really brought astrophysics to the masses in a palatable way, touching on human concerns such as our place in the universe, freedom of choice and the familiar question of 'why are we here?' The opening section on the fundamentals of astronomy is pretty easy going, but keep pressing on to the particle physics and you'll realise that the universe is far more bizarre than you ever imagined. Also worth trying is The Last Three Minutes by Paul Davies.

10) Status Anxiety – Alain de Botton (2004) – We finish with the most modern book on this list. We live in a world that seems hell-bent on making us feel bad about ourselves and the fight-back starts here. There is nothing particularly revelatory, but this book certainly reminds us that there are many other ways of looking at things. He looks at the issue through everything from religion to art and creativity, and if none of that works, the fact that we are all going to end up six feet under might be the reality injection of choice. If you enjoy this, 'Happiness' by Richard Layard and 'Happy' by Derren Brown both seem to sing from a similar hymn sheet; the first looks at economics while the second focuses on psychology.

Well, that's ten for you. Don't forget new unknown authors too. If you fancy a collection of hopefully mind-blowing short stories that pre-dated TV's Black Mirror anthology, try a download of Conundrum by Adam Colton (originally published as two paperbacks in 2009 and 2011), or if you fancy some humorous UK travel, Stair-Rods & Stars / Mud Sweat & Beers will appeal to walkers, cyclists and campers, while England and Wales in a Flash / Bordering on Lunacy will appeal to lovers of the coast. Physical copies are available on Amazon, but sadly you won't find them on the shelves of the High Street bookshops, although they can order them for you. If they say they can't, hit them over the head with an ISBN catalogue! Unlike the Murphy's...

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Norwich and Marriott's Way - a Norfolk Cycling Perambulation

My first cycling trip away this year took place in June, when I decided to explore the disused railway lines of Norfolk. The £58 price of a return to Norwich from Kent surprised me, especially as I'd saved no small sum by breaking the ticketed journey in half at Manningtree in order to use a railcard. Oh, the arcane ways of the railways! When I reached Stratford domestic station an announcement incessantly repeated 'Would Inspector Sans please go to the operations room immediately.' There were some emergency announcements too which they then announced were only a test and that there was no need to evacuate. This made me wonder if the incessantly repeated sentence was merely a coded warning to staff of a potential 'real life' emergency, made nonsensical so as not to panic the passengers.

I changed trains at Colchester and unusually a girl asked if I wanted a burger heated up. I've never tried a cold one, but if this is a delicacy in Essex, so be it! I was impressed upon my arrival in Norwich, as the stately station building seemed like a mini version of Lime Street Station in Liverpool. I headed up towards the castle mound, which was quite an incline for the relatively flat county of Norfolk, eventually getting my bearings to pick up the Marriott's Way Heritage Trail, a 26-mile loop named after the chief engineer of the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway, William Marriott. Apparently M&GN was nicknamed 'muddle and go nowhere' by passengers.

My route passed over the River Wensum on a footbridge and there was a short footpath section through the former railway station at Hellesdon. The scenery was much more diverse than I'd expected, having previously found the western part of Norfolk to be flatter than your average pancake.

At the village of Drayton, Station Road was signed as private, so I took a V-shaped course via the village centre which was very pretty. Initially Marriott's Way continued via a wooded cutting. The bridge over the dual carriageway A1270 marked the half way point to Reepham (pronounced 'reefam') according to the sign. It was then very wooded, with a parallel lane to the right. I stopped for a rest and a guy in a van nearby had a woman's voice on loudspeaker; it was very loud indeed and I wondered if the caller realised she was being broadcast. In this age of data protection perhaps the driver had a duty to inform her!

Beyond was a long wooded descent. There was a detour near Attlebridge where a station is now private. The route still seemed rural when passing industry and an old man gave me a good old fashioned 'how do?' at one point. I soon came to Whitwell and Reepham Station where there is half a mile of restored line. I got a Guinness at the bar and sat on a bench while a group of motorcyclists met up. There is much for the rail enthusiast here. The trail beyond to Reepham itself via the big loop of Themelthorpe had a rougher surface and I read somewhere that this bend that linked two different lines was once the sharpest on the UK network.

I detoured into Reepham, which had a quaint village centre, to use the shop. I then consumed three quarters of a pork pie and an iced coffee drink in the churchyard which once contained three churches. Two remain and appear joined together.

I took a back-street back up to Marriott's Way and then rode the last six miles to Aylsham via Cawston. Aylsham has a very nice market square, and naturally I called into a pub to write up these notes. World Cup football was on TV and a band were setting up and winding wires around a young lady who seemed to be getting in their way. With 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' as a sound-check, my attention was diverted from Ronaldo and chums, although most folk resolutely kept their eyes on the ball.

Upon leaving I walked through the churchyard and got a spring roll in a Chinese restaurant. I then biked to a wood to the south of the town via a suburban cycle way and across a field on a footpath. It was a very comfortable place to camp and I had a brief territorial wander before getting into the sleeping bag.

I awoke at 5.30am. Natural light seems to restore me to a lark's sleeping pattern from the annoyingly impractical owl's hours that I usually gravitate towards. I got up at about 6.30 and rode back to Aylsham town centre, picking up the Bure Valley path which runs beside a narrow gauge railway. This reminded me of the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch railway in Kent, and path and rails share the track bed amenably, unlike the two pigeons that were fighting furiously on a bank. I was unable to intervene in an 'Oi, you two, cut it out!' kind of way as the rails were between me and warring birds. As it leaves the town, the line goes through the only railway tunnel in Norfolk. The path goes over the top.

This path was narrower than yesterday's trail and rougher. There had been a light shower while I was in the sleeping bag, but now it came on quite strong. I headed for the top of a cutting and set my tarpaulin up, preparing for the worst, but it soon eased and I was on my way again.

The route presented me with a long slow climb via Coltishall to Hoveton & Wroxham Station. The main line joins just before the station and there is a book shop on the platform of the narrow gauge station. I found my way to the centre of Hoveton which was awash with tourists and headed for a pub to consume the obligatory breakfast in a conservatory, looking out towards the Broad. After a visit to the tourist info centre, I decided to head for the small village of Spixworth. Crossing the Broad via a bridge, I was then in Wroxham and I had to use the pedestrian crossing to disrupt the endless flow of cars in order to get across the main road onto Church Lane. Eventually, I found myself on a track which became quite bleak and open. Once back on lanes, I phoned my friend Simon Crow, a very nice chap who writes exceedingly gruesome horror novels; he lives in Norwich. I waited for his arrival on a bench in Spixworth, just a few miles north of the city. His fiancée, drove us to a pub about a mile up the road which looked more rustic than the nearest alehouse. The conversation couldn't have been too excruciating as I was kindly given a lift back too!

Reunited with my bike, I continued west along the lanes via Horsham St Faith and Horsford, where I picked up Dog Lane, which turned into another bridleway and became quite rutted through an evergreen forest. It then detoured south to the dual carriageway A1270 and I rode the parallel path. I eventually branched off northward into another wood on a byway. There was a steep climb which I walked up; I wasn't expecting to be relegated to Shanks' pony at all in Norfolk, but this climb was of the 'no messing' variety. The path then continued next to a fenced off compound and went across the middle of a field, more like a footpath than a byway by now, but legal to ride I hasten to add.

I used the lane to get to Attlebridge, but was devastated to find nothing there as I was tired and thirsty. I'm not sure why I am always so surprised to find this! In desperation, I pounded along the main road to the next village - Lenwade. The garage shop was just closing, but just as I thought my ride was descending into farce or starvation, I found a pub a bit further up the road. I had a pint of lemonade and a Cromer crab with salad and warm bread. The landlord was lively and welcoming and the gents' loos were outside (very 'retro').

I then rode down to the common, but it wasn't common enough as the gates were locked, so I headed up a lane back to Marriott's Way and turned east in search of a place to camp. After a few miles I decided to camp at the top of a cutting. As I settled down, I heard a noise which I was a bit worried could be a tree creaking as a large trunk had fallen nearby.

I was back in 'owl mode' as I snoozed until 8.45 the next day, when I packed up and headed east on the cycle way. When I got to Drayton I headed for a café. It was very busy so it took a quite a long time to get each of my two pots of tea, but they gave me extra items with my breakfast which was delicious with black pudding and scrambled egg. Sorry vegans.

I then rode the remaining miles to Norwich, riding a bit of the river path from the end of the trail and chaining my bike up by the bus stops near the cathedral. A young man was going ballistic on his phone at some poor unfortunate soul – not the best intro to the city for me! Eventually I met up with Simon again and he explained to me that there seem to be more 'characters' in Norwich on Sundays than the rest of the week, before showing me the market square where I think I can remember buying a book on interpreting dreams when I was thirteen. Thirty years later they still make little sense but I view them more like free entertainment.

After a visit to a café which seemed church-like inside, we walked up to the castle on top of its mound and had a brief look at the two main shopping centres before gravitating towards a Wetherspoons pub. My father is something of an enthusiast of these pubs; I have yet to come near to his tally but usually relish visiting a branch of the chain that he's yet to discover. Our final place to visit was the cathedral with the grave of Edith Cavell outside. Edith was a British nurse who saved lives on both sides during World War I but was sentenced to death by firing squad for helping 200 Allied prisoners escape from German-occupied Belgium. Not quite on a level with crossing borders to flee a country, my journey home was nevertheless epic, starting at 5pm, with me finally walking through the door of my home just before midnight. This was largely due to some high jinks involving throwing things onto the electric cables. High jinks; low IQ. I had a notion of wanting to visit Colchester, but I didn't mean sitting for two hours on the station in the hope that a train might eventually come along. The café stayed open late to accommodate the masses and consequently saved my sanity. Well, the can of Guinness did at least!

If you enjoy reading the write ups of these trips, there are plenty more to read about in my book, 'Stair Rods and Stars.' The digital editions of most my books are now free, so why not have a look on Kindle, iBooks, etc. and go 'the full cycle?'

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Desert Island Discs (2018 Edition)

A few years ago I wrote a kind of 'Desert Island Discs' for this blog, listing ten of my all time favourite albums. As I was recently nominated on Facebook to do exactly this, I thought I'd post an updated list. I say updated; as you'll see the centre of gravity seems to be about 1971! The first three albums and descriptions are the same as in my 2013 list, being perennial favourites, whilst those further down the list are works that I've come to appreciate more since I last blogged about this. In keeping with the BBC Radio 4 'Desert Island Discs' tradition, I have made sure one classical album is included, replacing Beethoven's 3rd Symphony (from last time) with a bit of Gershwin.

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (1973). 'Money' is about the only song on this album which receives regular airplay (usually edited because of the rude word), but the album spent 6 consecutive years on the UK album chart. All human life is explained in the lyrics. 'Time' is particularly apt. If I had to pick a second PF album it would be a tough choice between 'The Wall' and the totally bonkers 'Ummagumma'.
[High point for me: the segue from Time into Breathe (Reprise)]

The Beatles – White Album (1968). The sequel to Magical Mystery Tour (which in turn followed Sgt Pepper). On this album, the Beatles did whatever they felt like with no constraints towards commercialism. Styles vary from folk to Charleston to country and western to heavy metal, and 'Revolution 9' simulates the effect of waking up during a series of bizarre dreams, before Ringo lulls us back to sleep with 'Good Night'.
[High point for me: the segue from '...Bungalow Bill' into 'While my Guitar Gently Weeps' (George's finest)]

Bob Dylan – Bringing it all back home (1965). Lyrically I think this is Dylan's masterpiece. You've got 'Mr Tambourine Man' and 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', but for me the highlight is the verbal deluge of 'It's alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding'. This album is half folk and half rock – both sides of Mr Zimmerman's oeuvre. For a second Dylan choice, 1996's 'Time Out of Mind' comes close, but so do about ten others!

Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971). The Stones emerged from their brief dabble with psychedelia with what I regard to be their three finest albums; Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed and this one. Opening with Brown Sugar, which amazingly still gets radio airplay in these more politically correct times, the classics keep on coming. Wild Horses heralded further 70s ballads, but it is the extended jam of 'Can You Hear Me Knocking?' which really highlights the band's musicality. The final four tracks show that even at their most decadent, the Stones could be amazingly mellow. The album's conclusion, 'Moonlight Mile,' is a little-known classic that deserves regular airplay. Great for sitting round a camp-fire!

Led Zeppelin III – (1970). Whilst 'IV' had the all-time classic (Stairway to Heaven) and the world's most sampled drumbeat (When the Levee Breaks), 'III' is an album of two halves. The first half opens with the archetypal Zeppelin of Immigrant Song and includes the 7-minute blues epic 'Since I've been Loving You' as well as 'Out on the Tiles' (similar to 'Good Times, Bad Times' from the first album), but it is the relaxed folky second half that surprises, particularly Tangerine and That's The Way. Great for sitting round a camp-... oh I've done that one!.

David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). In younger days, I was a bigger fan of this album's predecessor, Hunky Dory, for it's eclecticism and Rick Wakeman's piano playing. However, for pure escapism, 'Ziggy' is a masterpiece. The first three tracks run together like a trilogy, as do the final three. The filling is equally good. Bowie starts out theatrically with Five Years and Mick Ronson's soaring guitar solos excel throughout. It's a bold statement, but this album provides a rare glimpse of something beyond the mundane.

Travis – Good Feeling (1997). I saw Travis perform as a warm-up band before they were famous and dismissed them as 'Oasis wannabes.' I was wrong. 'The Man Who...' gets all the plaudits, but this was the group's raw debut. Like so many on this list, it's an album of two halves. 'All I Want to do is Rock' is a simple, yet rousing opener and 'Tied to the Nineties' sums up how we may have felt at the time about what now seems to have been a 'classic' decade. The love songs come thick and fast at the end. Travis have never seemed so impassioned since, although once they unplugged the guitars and found a formula, they would achieve stardom.

The Kinks – Muswell Hillbillies (1971). The Kinks' 'Arthur' album of 1969 has never been far from my CD player, but just a couple of years later came this little-known classic. The songs are something of a catalogue of disorders, dealing with alcoholism, anorexia and anxiety (and that's just the 'A's), but the subjects are always dealt with humorously, and Ray Davies even recommends a good old fashioned cure for all – 'have a cup of tea!' A folky feel pervades and sadly the pub that appears on the album cover is now in a state of disrepair. The opening track sums it up; it starts quietly, when the drums kick in they never sounded better and then it builds to Ray's deranged shout of 'I'm a 20th century man but I don't wanna be here.' Brilliant!

John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band (1969). Before we got the 'John as a saint' persona (which he never courted), we had this – a raging diatribe against all society's norms. This would have been something as a shock for those who remember the Beatles as lovable clowns from their early years. Working Class Hero is a classic, although I would advise a '12' certificate if you have kids. 'Look at Me' is a very nice introspective acoustic track, and in case anybody was hoping for a continuation of the Beatles career, John laments 'The dream is over' on the penultimate track. After some activism, John would settle into family life before his tragic demise, and comparing the relaxed feel of his final songs with this album is like comparing chalk and cheese.

George Gershwin – Piano Concerto in F / Rhapsody in Blue / An American in Paris (1924-1928). The version I have features Daniel Blumenthal on piano and may have even been the first classical album I appreciated. 'Piano concerto in F' always returns fatalistically to the same dramatic orchestral chord, with variations that include the bluesy second movement and a high-speed summary of all that went before (the third movement). An American in Paris includes the orchestrated sound of car horns before mellowing into its more famous romantic theme, and Rhapsody in Blue has an opening that is perhaps second only to 'Beethoven's fifth' when it comes to fame, but entertains with around twenty minutes of piano dominated themes.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Thoughts on Dream Phenomena

Apologies to those who enjoy the cycling narratives, etc. They will return as soon as the weather picks up. For now, I'm continuing with the 'psychology' theme of my last blog.

I've been interested in dream phenomena since a very young age. One of the first dreams I remember involved thinking I'd woken up in my bedroom aged about 7, only to find various animals appearing in my room, at first as a faint outline and then vividly. In the end, I got out of bed and went to open the door to the landing, only to hear my mother's voice say, “Don't come out. There's snakes out here.” Then I woke up.

How many childhood stories end with that twist? - Alice in Wonderland for a start! In fact, I recall being told at school that this was a kind of 'cop out' cliché ending to give a story when you don't know how to finish it. Well, it worked for Lewis Carroll.

I guess the opposite of the phenomenon of thinking you have woken up when you are still dreaming is what is known as 'lucid dreaming' - when one becomes aware of being in a dream. The natural reaction is to try to wake yourself up, but this invariably seems to fail. After a while, you realise that the best thing to do is to go with the flow and try to manipulate the dream itself for your own entertainment.

My grandfather used to state emphatically that he never dreamed at all, in spite of the impossibility of this, and indeed, for those who don't even remember their dreams such phenomena will sound almost like having a fight with your own mind. I remember as a child having lucid dreams and thinking I was forcing my eyelids open with my fingers, when of course I was laying motionless all along.

In later years, I used to have a similar experience on a regular basis, thinking I'd got out of bed to put the light on, only to find that I was still in total darkness. This was normally the give-away that it was a dream, so rather than panic, I used to open the patio doors and go for a wander around the village where I lived, until my brain was ready to wake me up. Of course, I had not left the safety of the bed in reality.

Winding the clock back to childhood, I remember staying at my grandparents' house and seeing a pneumatic drill being used in a dream while I was there, only to wake up and realise that the sound was in fact my alarm clock going off. My grandparents used to have a 'teasmade' (basically an alarm clock that wakes you up with a cup of tea) and perhaps I heard the kettle boiling while in a dream-state when I dreamed that I could see the tea infusing within the teapot! In both cases, it amazed me how quickly the brain can incorporate an external sound into a dream. In fact, what can seem like hours in a dream is really just a matter of seconds.

This may be because the dream contains the important moments of a sequence of events but not all the boring stuff in between. A dream tends to flick between one event and another more like a film does, rather than playing out an actual 'minute for minute' timeline. The Christopher Nolan film 'Inception' makes good use of this time distortion factor by creating months of time by means of a dream within a dream within a dream within... you get the idea!

Lucid dreams can be particularly fun when you're trying to prove to yourself that you're in a dream by catching your brain out. For example, trying to find the answer to a question that you know nothing about. This could mean picking up a book on an unfamiliar subject and trying to read it, or having a conversation with somebody who is supposed to be an expert on a topic that you know little or nothing about.

A lot of these ideas ended up in some of the stories in my Conundrum anthology, from somebody being stuck in a dream and unable to wake up to another character who invents a machine that can record dreams and ends up unable to distinguish them from reality. It's free to download from most online retailers if you fancy some unusual stories with a (usually dreamlike) twist.

One particularly disturbing experience is sleep paralysis. This occurs when a person is partially asleep and partially awake. Thus, the paralysis that stops a person from acting out their dreams is in full effect but the brain is active.

Far more scary sounding than it actually is is something called 'exploding head syndrome.' This seems to occur in a half-asleep, half-awake state, and involves hearing all kinds of explosions or loud sounds that seem to be coming from within the brain. It's a real thing (see Wikipedia) – I personally experience it sometimes when I first drop off to sleep and the sound normally resembles rushing waves over a high pitched ringing. Sounds bizarre? It is - not my idea of fun at all!

A more common parasomnia (occurrence within sleep) is somnambulism or sleep-walking. I had a brief dalliance with this in my teenage years. I used to wake up during the experience at the opposite end of the room to the bed, disorientated. When I got my first job of cleaning windows, I even woke up finding myself attempting to clean a non-existent window in my wooden bedroom door.

As you can see, I've had a lot of these experiences and I'm not sure if it's simply a case that if you suffer from fairly poor sleep you're more inclined to 'get the lot.'

But why dream at all?

The most sensible theory I've encountered is that dreams merely occur while the brain is filing away information from the preceding day. This would make sense to me – when we sleep badly, we cope pretty poorly with things – perhaps the brain is just in a state of confusion, like a teenager's bedroom. And you're expecting it to find solutions in that kind of chaos?!

What we experience as dreams mostly occur during periods of rapid eye movement (REM), where the eyes move around beneath the eyelids as if the dreamer was awake. This is one of five stages of sleep which vary from shallow to deep, with REM sleep as a kind of fifth 'bonus' stage.

All in all, I think remembering dreams adds a dimension to life that many are not even aware of. How much creativity has been inspired by dreams for example, from music to literature, and from films to art? The bible is filled with dream stories, so it would seem that the ancient people were far more interested in these night-time adventures than most folk are today. It's true that people believed that dreams contained premonitions, a view that few would share today, but this isn't to say that dreams have nothing to offer the dreamer at all.

The brain can often find solutions to problems while it's doing its filing, and the dreamer merely has to ask what the specific things within the dream mean to them personally and join up the dots. Sometimes the idea is helpful; other times just 'bleeding obvious.' I used to often dream of travelling on a train, only to find that there were no rails beneath it and then later there was no train at all – I was just walking along a disused track-bed. It seems fairly obvious to me that this implies a lack of a clear direction or a sense of not reaching any particular destination fast. Thankfully I don't have that dream now, so either I've found a direction or resigned myself to not having one!

Peculiarly, I have noticed that many dreams seem to exist in a time-warp. I hardly ever dream of being at my current home, or even the one before that. Time and time again, my dreams seem to take place in my parents' house (pre-2000) or my grandparents' house (pre-1997). My old jobs also seem to feature quite heavily too. I wonder if the experiences of early life merely have a greater impact on the mind and therefore the brain interprets everything through these memories.

Another thing with dreams is that the brain never seems to accurately replicate a real-life location. Normally the dreamer just accepts what the brain is presenting as reality, but upon waking realises that the scene was pretty far off the mark. I guess these dreamscapes are like the vaguely familiar pictures that the mind conjures up when imagining a location in a book - generally our personal idea of what is being described roughly takes on features of familiar places. I also find that people rarely look the same in dreams and that often a person can morph into somebody else completely half way through the dream without me even realising. Yet conversely, I find that music sounds astonishingly real in dreams, as do recognisable voices.

Whilst dreams are often dismissed as having little value these days, it does seem to me as though they give us a glimpse of how the brain actually works in interpreting the real world. On that thought, I'll let John Lennon have the final word on the matter, with a line from what is perhaps his most popular song (Imagine); - “People say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.”

Indeed, there are over seven billion others.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Thoughts on Spatial Synasthesia

It's been a while since I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard if you're pedantic about your metaphors) - in Britain in winter there aren't a great deal of biking adventures to document (too cold and damp), so I'm going to talk about something completely different – a phenomenon known as synaesthesia.

Ever since being a child I have always viewed numbers as positions on curving lines, and it was only about 12 years ago that I realised that most people don't actually do this. To me, the numbers one to twelve are represented by positions on a clock face (logically) and then the numbers 13 to 20 run vertically from the 12. Then each set of ten is a circle, loosely based on the clock face with the 6 at the bottom, but with the zero at the top. Each set of ten (21-30, 31-40, etc.) moves progressively to the left and then curving upwards from 60 to 100. The hundreds, thousands, hundred thousands, millions, billions, etc. and powers of ten follow the same pattern, except that the 1-6 on the clock face are upside down, so 600, 6000, 6 million, etc. occupy the central point of an S shape. I fear I could be losing my readership now, so I'll move on...

The practical implication of this is that I view every event in my life as a position, either located at the number which was my age at the time, or the number of the year at the time. If I think about my time at primary school in terms of my age, it occupies the clock face from 5 to 11; if I think of primary school in terms of the years (81-86), it occupies the right hand side of the '80s' circle, from zero to six. It may seem a bind to view things in this way, but it does make it very easy to remember such things as the years songs were released, as naturally they all have their positions too. Thus, I always relish the music round in a pub quiz!

It isn't just numbers that work this way. Days of the week, months of the year and the alphabet are the same. Saturday is always at the bottom of the circle for me and Tuesday at the top - the days run anti-clockwise. With the months (also anti-clockwise), the circle is a bit distorted - January is at the top right, then there is a long curve left and then down to August at the bottom left. Then the autumn months stack up vertically on the right hand side – well, it always feels uphill to Christmas, doesn't it?

Even the alphabet brings to mind a curve like an oxbow in a river. A-D occupy the first curve on the left hand side, E-R occupy the bulging middle curve and S-Z  take up the final curve on the right. As you can see, the letters aren't evenly spaced - there is both logic and no logic to this way of thinking!

Thanks to the Internet, I discovered that this mode of thought is called 'spatial synaesthesia.' It is thought that as babies, our senses are a mishmash of inputs, where sounds can be perceived as colours, words as smells, etc. Most people lose these cross-associations entirely, but it is thought that those who don't lose all of them are 'synaesthetes' (yes, that's a real word!). Thus some people associate certain numbers with colours. If you put a triangle of twos in a grid of fives, most people will struggle to see the pattern, but somebody with 'grapheme-colour synaesthesia' will see the triangle straight away, as it will appear a different colour to them. Some people even associate personalities with different numbers. As a child, I can remember thinking of the number 5 as very mischievous (along with the colour yellow) and the number 7 as very respectable, but for me, these associations no longer exist.

I have never had the 'seeing sounds as colours' experience myself (although I believe some folk try to induce such phenomena illegally), but some of my favourite music albums do always bring to mind a shade. Sorry, my references are very old, but Pink Floyd's Ummagumma album and The Beatles' Abbey Road (both from 1969) both bring to mind a dark green shade to me. But if you think about it, do we not all associate certain colours with certain moods, and therefore the music that invokes such moods? There is a whole genre called 'the blues' after all.

Some synaesthetes see all kinds of patterns when they hear music, which isn't anything vastly different from the kind of graphics you can get your computer to generate to accompany music. Indeed, certain songs do bring to mind a kind of illustration to me, such as the guitar noises in the creepy middle section of Pink Floyd's Echoes invoking thoughts of strange spiky lines springing up from the ground (another 'Stone Age' music reference for you). The musician Richard D James (aka Aphex Twin) is known to have been inspired by his synaesthesia (as well as lucid dreams) to have created soundscapes such as those in his 1994 album 'Selected Ambient Works Volume II.' The Russian author Vladimir Nabokov was also a known synaesthete by the way.

Back to the curving lines again, the songs on albums I've had a long time always seem to be arranged down one side and back up the other, like a loop, or alternatively as two parallel sides joined across the middle like the letter N. I guess younger synaesthetes would not have these perceptions as modern music formats don't have 'sides' in the way that vinyl records or cassettes did.

This may all seem very odd to somebody without such neural connections, but to a certain extent, I think everybody experiences a kind synaesthesia when they dream. The brain is filing away information during dreams, but in a way where everything is jumbled up. People from different eras of your life can intermingle for example, and places never seem quite the same as in reality. An experience I sometimes get is one of waking up laughing at some words that were said in a dream, but when I recall the words, there is nothing remotely funny about them. It's as though they have different associations to the subconscious, and therefore their own code of humour.

Well, I could write an entire article about dream phenomena too, but we'll leave it for now. I could be back with something along those lines soon, or indeed another biking write-up when we've moved a little downward and to the left along the circle of months!

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The Brampton Valley Way & Northamptonshire - a Cycling Perambulation

I've got another cycling narrative for you, and this time we're off to exotic Northampton. Having undertaken this trip in mid-September, the weekend in question seemed like the last chance to undertake a short camping adventure in 2017.

I alighted from my train in England's second biggest town without 'city' status after Reading, although locals will still tell you that the epithet 'largest' belongs to Northampton. Heading north along suburban roads, I spied a corner shop. However, with none of those 'animal fat' fivers and tenners in my pocket, my options were a 50p charge for using a card or a cash machine that charged £1.85. Considering I only wanted a can of soft drink, I ditched my own advice to support the little man and headed for Asda instead. The shame!

I then took a path behind some houses and industrial units out to a road, bridged the railway and picked up the Brampton Valley Way, -an old track-bed I'd cycled this time last year and wanted to revisit. According to Wikipedia, the railway line closed relatively late in 1981 – I guess we can't blame Dr. Beeching for this one.

There are lots of little viaducts over fields on the route and a couple of miles where the path runs beside a preserved section of the line. The scenery of gentle rolling hills is 'pleasant in an unspectacular way,' to apply William Cobbett's quotation about my own local area in Kent to a different county. However, I soon had to shelter beneath my tarpaulin on a bank during a shower. My blind optimism about the weather had failed me. After the weekend I would know once and for all whether to trust the forecast and if a high of 14 degrees and a low of 7 degrees is tolerable for my basic kind of camping.

Although I'd ridden through them last year, the two tunnels of 450m and 418m were still a bit scary, with no lighting as you head towards that distant arch of light at the other end. However both paled into insignificance compared to the pitch-black Netherton Tunnel on the Birmingham Canal network which I cycled last year – at 1.7 miles, this really got the pulse racing. I did pass one other cyclist as I rode through, so perhaps I'm not the only one who relishes a ride where you see absolutely nothing!

While I was telling you about that, we've passed into Leicestershire and arrived at Market Harborough (roughly twenty miles north from my starting point), I headed for Wetherspoons. I enjoyed this pub much more at 5pm, than last year when I got there mid-evening and found it to be packed to capacity. I sat in a booth, charged my phone, dried my tarpaulin and wrote up my notes on the journey so far. As time progressed the voices around me got louder and the language grew more colourful. Time to go!

I picked up a lane eastward which was like a switchback ride with all its undulations. The views were pleasant as dusk fell, and I rode a brief semi-circle through the small town of Desborough. Now heading south, the next town I reached was Rothwell, where I got a delicious kebab and some supplies in a shop. A woman was having an argument with herself as I ate sitting on a wall. I suppose it's one way to make sure you always win in a debate! The town was certainly lively for a place of its size and I had a wander around the square, pausing outside the church to listen to a brass band inside.

It was dark as I rode the lane towards Kettering (north side). After passing a huge industrial building that reflected the streetlights around it, looking like a streak of sunset in the sky from a distance, I took a gravel path which curved into the woods, and found a place to camp. I was a little worried as the cold ground was sapping my heat by 10pm and the temperature was to drop another four degrees. Wearing my coat in the sleeping bag solved this, although the drips from the trees weren't particularly welcome.

The following day I got up at about 7.45 and rode into Kettering. There was a handy cycle path by the road nearly all the way to the centre, which on an Sunday morning was as silent as one of those tunnels. Lacking imagination, I headed for McDonalds for breakfast. Beyond, my ride presented me with a long climb up from crossing the River Ise to the little town of Barton Latimer.

My route back to Northampton mostly consisted of one long, relatively flat lane, which would put many Kent B-roads to shame in its directness. The ride to Little Harrowden and past Sywell Airfield was stunningly quiet apart from the odd passing cyclist, but once I hit the edge of Northampton this all changed. The five-mile, gradually descending suburban road to the centre reminded me of the A5 going into London.

Sadly, my reliance on big chains continued as I headed for another Wetherspoons for lunch. This one was called The Cordwainer (which means shoemaker) and I sat upstairs and tucked into an avocado bagel and salad. An old man had joked about being a gentleman for not pushing in front of me at the bar. Obviously the requirements for being a gentleman these days are less stringent than of yore! The lack of a queuing system is a common problem with these large pubs (I've walked out my local branch before). The bar steward usually asks 'Who's next?' and about a dozen people reply. The largest one then invariably gets served first.

There were no such problems in Northampton on a Sunday lunchtime, and after a couple of pints I merrily wended my way to the station and put the lid on my camping trips for 2017. There are plenty more to read about in my book, 'Stair Rods and Stars.' The digital editions of most my books are now free, so if you've enjoyed this narrative, why not have a look on Kindle, iBooks, etc. and go 'the full cycle?'

Monday, 18 September 2017

The New Forest & Bournemouth - a Cycling Perambulation

The journey from Kent to the New Forest by train is something of an epic, although remarkably cheap if you travel along the South Coast via Brighton and Southampton. I alighted at Brockenhurst, with the feeling that astronauts must get after travelling to the moon and first setting foot on the lunar landscape as I headed south along a B-road. My aim was to cycle a former railway track-bed to Ringwood, but a sign said 'Residents Only' (or words to that effect) at the point where it left the road. So I decided to ride a big square to get onto the route further west, encountering my first New Forest ponies under a bridge. I then recapped the eastern end of the track-bed and it turned out that perhaps the sign had been aimed at vehicles rather than bikes, for I passed many other cyclists oblivious to this prohibition.

Resuming a westward course, after a few miles I reached the remnants of a station where an elderly couple warned me so that I didn't ride over an adder. The old man remarked that it looked beautiful, but having never been a huge fan of snakes I politely voiced a counter-opinion! We watched it slither away into the long grass, and breathing a sigh of relief, I continued. Yet, within a few minutes of resuming my ride, I nearly rode over another one. The snake coiled upon itself in defence and I vowed to get well out of this area before thinking about camping. Later, when I crossed a lane, the way it curved up the hillside reminded me of the shape of the snake, but I found this much more attractive (sorry, nature lovers!).

At the end of the track, I turned right towards the village of Burley and took a short cut up Honey Lane (a pleasant name for a muddy track). About six ponies were coming the other way, like a family out for an afternoon stroll. After more lanes and a short resurgence of the track-bed, I headed into Ringwood. A hiker asked me for the very specific amount of £1.50. Thinking he might be homeless I took pity, but afterwards felt that I might have been conned. It's always so tricky to know what is the right thing to do in these situations.

To the south of the town, the railway route continues westward, now named the Castleman Way (or Castleman Corkscrew due to its circuitous route to take in as many towns as possible between Brockenhurst and Poole). It bridged a few rivers and was a straight, lightly forested route, at times running as two trails side by side.

I decided to stop at a pub in the village of West Moors. Relaxing with a pint, I took in the vibes of the radio station which was playing non-stop rock classics. The bar staff said they receive mixed opinions from their customers but thanked me for my complimentary feedback (guitarist's pun intended). I enjoyed a healthy salmon dinner before moving on.

The route beyond deviated from the old rail route, using various woodland tracks, eventually steering me onto the main road into Wimborne Minster. At Leigh Common, I headed into the woods in search of a camping spot. There was a trail on a wooden platform over wetlands – the longest of its kind that I've seen. I eventually made my bed beside a fence. Some young men in fields nearby seemed to be getting drunk, and when they went quiet, some noisy teenage girls started shrieking with merriment. Naturally, I kept as inconspicuous as possible until my eyelids grew heavy and the revelry subsided.

It amazed me that the footpath behind the fence was busy even before it got light. After some dozing, I packed everything away and rode into Wimborne Minster, choosing a Polish cafe for a traditional English breakfast. I had a look inside the minster before taking a course southward from the town, accidentally frequenting the ladies' - twice! The funny look I got the second time was what gave the game away.

Rejoining the track-bed, which now began a long descent towards Poole, tiredness began to encroach, so I stopped for a rest in a wooded glade near where the path bridges the mighty A35. I used my rucksack as a pillow and actually dozed, dreaming in sounds only (strange things happen when asleep in the woods!).

After the bridge there were some estate roads (these look the same in every town) and soon after I got a bit lost, finding my way through Upton Park, to a path which ran along the top of Poole Harbour. The harbour is often claimed to be the second largest natural harbour in the world after Sydney. This upper part is also a nature reserve (read 'covered with algae'). When I reached Poole 'Old Town,' I decided to explore. The Lower High Street was very quaint, but further up were all the usual stores (like those suburbs – the same in every town – except in my home town where far too many shops are displaying 'To Let' signs to befit the 'boom town' epithet often bestowed upon it). I returned to a pub in the quaint part and took in the vibes of the beer garden, after watching an elderly couple drink up rapidly and leave having been blasted with rave music from the juke box inside. I knew it was a mistake when they came in and sat right beneath the speaker.

The next part of the ride along Poole Harbour was the day's high point, with views to Brownsea Island (site of Baden-Powell's first scout camp) and the Purbeck Hills across the water and a pleasant green ever to my left on the landward side. However, disappointment followed at the end of Shore Road – I wanted to ride the sea-wall to Bournemouth but bikes aren't allowed on the esplanade in July and August. An RNLI collector ventured, 'You're probably wondering why we are here?' I replied, 'To be honest I'm wondering if I can bike along this sea-wall!' His response was informative, so I put some coins in the bucket before pounding eastwards along the leafy cliff-top roads instead, gently curving, with a suspension footbridge over one of the 'chines.'

I breezed through Bournemouth and on to Boscombe, where I saw the first signs of High Street decline on this trip. I imagine that Internet shopping is to blame for the traditional High Street's struggles along with the perpetual recession and the continued policy of lower tax for businesses locating out of town. I also saw a 'Doctor Who' style police box at the start of the pedestrian area. Maybe such a TARDIS could whizz me back to a time when our High Streets were buzzing!

The rest of the ride took me through interminable suburbs as far as some woodland near the village of Hurn. Here I made the pivotal decision to go home. The threat of rain for most of the next day was one reason, but I was also nearing the New Forest again; as the afternoon progressed I would soon need to find a camping spot and there is a ban on wild camping across the whole of the New Forest (and who would want to with all those snakes?). So another adventure drew to a close. There are plenty more to read about in my book, 'Stair Rods and Stars.' The digital editions of most my books are now free, so if you've enjoyed this narrative, why not have a look on Kindle, iBooks, etc. and go 'the full cycle?'