Monday, 24 February 2014

1950s driving test

According to Anna Massey’s memoir, Telling Some Tales, it was a bit easier to pass your driving test in 1955. ‘My examiner was a nervous man who asked me if I knew that I’d driven through a red light,’ Massey writes. ‘I told him I thought it was green, and he said “Fair enough,” and passed me.’ (p. 54)

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Examined Life

I enjoyed Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life, a series of case studies culled from his quarter of a century working as a psychoanalyst. They are like surreal short stories that end with insights and aphorisms, a bit like Raymond Carver crossed with Adam Phillips. In one chapter, ‘How paranoia can relieve suffering and prevent a catastrophe’, Grosz writes:

‘Paranoid fantasies are a response to the feeling that we are being treated with indifference … they protect us from a more disastrous emotional state – namely, the feeling that no one is concerned about us, that no one cares. The thought “so-and-so has betrayed me” protects us from the more painful thought “no one thinks about me” … It is less painful, it turns out, to feel betrayed than to feel forgotten … paranoid fantasies are often a response to the world’s disregard.’

For Grosz, what we need most of all – far more than limitless praise or love – is the sense of being attended to, of being noticed, listened to and worried about.

I’m writing a book about shyness, and it occurred to me after reading this that shy people might be more inclined to paranoia, because they find it harder to make an impression on the world, and are more likely to feel unnoticed, overlooked, invisible. But I don’t think I have ever suffered from paranoia. Instead, I have what seems to me to be – although I suppose I would say this, wouldn’t I? – an entirely rational sense of my own insignificance.

Friday, 14 February 2014

You are my fellow feeling

I’m not really a fan of Valentine’s Day, but it did make me think of this. In June 1948, Alan Turing and a small research team at Manchester University persuaded a stored-program computer to work for the first time. Turing became a proselytiser for artificial intelligence, believing that this ‘mechanical brain’ would one day be able to compete on equal terms with a human brain - to the extent that it would be able write sonnets as well as Shakespeare, although he conceded that the comparison was ‘a little unfair’ because a sonnet written by a machine would be better appreciated by another machine. Using the 1951 model of the Manchester computer, nicknamed the Blue Pig, Turing and his colleague Christopher Strachey created a programme (using algorithms for building sentences and synonyms for love from Roget’s Thesaurus) that could produce love letters, such as:

Darling Sweetheart
You are my fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns to your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking.
Yours beautifully


Honey Dear
My sympathetic affection beautifully attracts your affectionate enthusiasm. You are my loving adoration: my breathless adoration. My fellow feeling breathlessly hopes for your dear eagerness. My lovesick adoration cherishes your avid ardour.
Yours wistfully

M.U.C. stands for Manchester University Computer. He/she sounds like a keeper.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Customers who bought this item

I’m not sure why, but in a bored moment I went on Amazon to track all my past orders, to see if it could tell me something about what I’ve actually been doing for the last 15 years of my life. I discovered that the first book I bought on Amazon was on 25 March 1999: Cynthia Ozick’s Fame and Folly. That was back in the days when the internet was steam-powered and you had to dial it up and it tutted for a bit and then responded if it felt like it. I bought 13 items in 1999 and things carried on at that manageable pace for the next few years. As late as 2006, I only put in 11 orders. I must have still been two-timing Amazon with bookshops, an online-shopping commitment-phobe. I kidded myself that I was a recreational user, that I could kick the habit any time I wanted. But then things got out of control. I started buying birthday and Christmas presents and non-books, weird things like earplugs and hot water bottles. Perhaps the tipping point came when I bought my first big ticket item, an iPod, on 20 January 2007. There was no going back from there. Last year I put in 87 orders – and they often included multiple items. Yes, I am the reason your indie bookshop closed down. It’s my fault that low-paid workers have to walk 20 miles a day in vast warehouses to fetch my orders while computers track their every move. I claim to be angry about big companies employing vast teams of accountants to dodge corporation tax – but as it turns out, I’m not.

It’s an evocative and slightly melancholy list. By clicking through the years I can see my nephew and niece growing up: Doctor Who Sonic Screwdrivers and Harry Potter Interactive Wands give way to Nintendo Wii games and One Direction pencil cases. I can see all my brief passions and interests flame up and then fizzle out. I note that I have bought five USB sticks, as they progressively get lost or they become bent and decrepit. Every single order I put in, in some small way, was an investment in the future. I must have thought on some level that it would make me more knowledgeable, more productive, more interesting to others, happier.

That was my life in 548 orders.

Soft Estate

Last Thursday, I went to Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre to see Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts talk about their book Edgelands. I was pleased to hear they actually wrote the book together in motorway service stations – something it has in common with the Meg and Mog books, which were composed by Helen Nicoll and her illustrator, Jan Pienkowski, at Membury Services on the M4. Their talk formed part of a series of events tied up with Soft Estate, an exhibition of the work of Edward Chell and other artists who are interested in motorways, the areas around them and other types of edgeland.

Soft Estate is the Highways Agency term for the landscape around motorways and trunk roads which offers a refuge for wildlife. As long ago as the late 1960s, conservationists began to realise that the motorway verges could serve as nature reserves, particularly in the arable south where pasture was disappearing rapidly. When the M1 was finished in 1967, the conservationist Michael Way coordinated a botanical survey of the entire roadside verge between Hendon and Leeds and discovered that, just like the railways, the motorways were eco-havens. Pollen and seeds hitched a ride on car bumpers or blew along the wind tunnels created by moving traffic and roadside cuttings. In 1974 the nature writer Richard Mabey – who contributes an essay to the Soft Estate book - calculated that there were nearly half a million acres of roadside verge in Britain, an area of land bigger than the statutory nature reserves. By now the UK had joined the Common Market and prairie farming was about to grow fat on European subsidies and the Common Agricultural Policy – so more hedgerows vanished and nature again retreated to the roadside verges.

In fact, the roadside verge is really the modern equivalent of the hedgerow – although it has yet to acquire its Edmund Blunden, the poet and conservationist who in 1935 misquoted King Lear’s fool to foretell that ‘when there are no more English hedges, and the expedient of barbed wire has carried the day everywhere, “There shall the realm of Albion / Be brought to great confusion.”’ We normally think of verges as the motoring equivalent of a screensaver, an endless green sward interrupted by the occasional abandoned tyre or stray plastic bag. Yet as Mabey showed, it was part of an ‘unofficial countryside’ that was valuable almost because it was so unnoticed and unloved. The roadside was deceptively diverse, cutting through every type of landscape and geology, and including not only the grass embankments but also the balancing ponds and settling pools needed to drain the carriageway of rainwater, which often attracted wildlife. It was the dogged, unlovely nature of the roadside - from the rare fungi and algae that thrived in the drip-zone under crash barriers to the wild flowers that flourished on the poor-quality soil of the verge – that made it ecologically important.

Edward sent me a copy of the book of the exhibition and there are some beautiful-looking things in it, including his own paintings of roadside verge plants made with road dust, and some lovely oil-on-shellac-on-linen paintings of motorway service stations. I’m still hoping to get along to the exhibition, which has a couple of weeks left to run. Details are here: