Distant, oyster mosques: Autumn 2019
Distant, oyster mosques: Autumn 2019
Rick Amor, The Unfinished Span 2005 – 2006
As I sit here, with my hand cupped around hawberries and burred, electrical blood, I am formulating the rules of a new game.
Players: A tenth as many as t metres of green lane you have to play in (Round down).
Playtime: As long as your shoulder holds up, or the backroads.
A note: I can only recommend playing this in the England, where hedgerows still seem plentiful (enough for stupid games, at least), and where the stakes remain low. There’s very little that can do you serious damage, in an English afternoon, without concerted effort on your part: you would have to gnaw it like a pub roast, or let it in under your clothes, to cause a death on the pitch.
“Behavior itself ccan become a material. Can we compose with behavior? Can we train to be behavior writers?”
“Behavior as a volatile material”
“Natural selection improbably organizes the highest order of order, an organism, and keeps it from collapsing into inert material for as long as it can. Growing a consciousness means dealing with undertainty. We know now that the uncertainties produced by the entropic forces of reality have a secret shape. Probability, simulation, narrative, are the tools to model this shape.”
“[Art]… induces mutant outgrowths in the mind… [it] is not a thing, it is more like an interface, a stimulus or irritant, for rehearsing new neural activation patterns.”
“We can imagine the first among them to grow a consciousness. Overwhelmed and lonely, worse than hearing ghosts: seeing yourself on the first inner expedition, wandering toward unending mental horizons of poissible pasts and futures with no stable author or design.”
“cognitive science reveals 1) that humans are biased, deluisional, habit-prined, socially motivated, and possess a very anthropocentric sense of scale, space and time; 2) that these qualities are completely natural, and have served us well more often than not.”
A boy within a hat, within a shadow, within a beach, within a man, within a frame, within a wall, within a museum, within a city, within a former kingdom, within a current kingdom, within a camera.
Swansea Museum, May 2019
Every few months or so I make another one of these sculptures. The entire process usually takes about ten minutes, and I expend very little conscious thought or care over it. It’s barely the making of art: more of a sort of onerous, three-dimensional doodling. Each sculpture is carved (not carved, excavated) from a lump of chalk, ranging in size from the length of my hand to the size of my head. I pay far more attention to sourcing the chalk than working with it. It comes from a particular beach on the North Kent coast, a two-hour drive from my parents’ house. If you know me well – if we have spent one of my recent birthdays together, for example – you will know which beach I mean. I go alone to gather a new, personal silo of raw material once a year; usually at Christmas when there are fewer people on the beach to ask me what I am doing.
I have never found chalk like it anywhere else in the country. While I’m not long-lived or patient enough to see it in action, I would guess that the detritus from the eroding cliffs is being proceded along the shoreline, muddled from one wave’s palm to the next, until it is as smooth and grin-white as the wind farms blistering in their mile-long furlongs on the horizon. When I go there, I first of all walk to the beach’s far end with a Bag For Life and then slowly pick my way back, searching the strandline for candidate lumps: not too small that I cannot work them, and not too large that I cannot carry them. I still overstretch my arm, and my car’s suspension, when I bring the bag home and process its contents: there really is no better verb for it. This process is soothingly algorithmic, with three main steps:
1) I take up a chunk of chalk, and see if it stands steadily on one of its sides. If not, I chisel a flat edge somewhere, so that it won’t roll off a mantlepiece.
2) I take an electric drill with a very wide-bore bit (depending on the size of the chunk) and very carefully and slowly excavate a smooth tunnel right through to the other side.
3) I give the whole thing a quick clean to get rid of any loose sand, grit and worm castings: the chalk is so soft that it can be finished with the calluses on my hand and some warm water.
I have just worked my way through 2020’s batch: some are bound for friends – those who find them as pleasing as I do – while most of them have been installed around our own (relatively) new house. With one in my eyeline in most rooms, I was gently forced to realise that I had almost no idea why I had sculpted them, and continue to sculpt them. ‘Sculpt’ is a word that feels haughty when applied to this sort of fiddling, restless asemia, but I suppose it’s even haughtier, in a way, to insist that it isn’t sculpture. It’s undeniable that the work has its reasons, and its results: thinking over it now, I’m surprised at just how complex those reasons can be, and how many facets this simple manufacture can have. There seems to be a long list of tiny roles that these mindless little eggs have been performing in my life, without me quite realising it. In every aspect, they’ve become a reproducible docket of my cares, my pleasures and my pasts: like any self-respecting art, or egg, I suppose.
“That the world of letters might meet the world of bits is the ultimate terror and dream of everyone who is foolish enough to look for a place in both of them.”
“In Gamelife, Clune argues that games build an exoskeleton of cool, steady logic around a human world obsessed with warm, weird experience. By “logic” I don’t mean “reason,” by the way, but structure and repetition. Pattern. A way of doing things. If used properly, logic can help stanch experience’s tendency to oversupply sensations — the source of all torments — by explaining them as part of a larger cosmic order.”
“Clune knows that logic underlies games in the form of numbers, which do what language cannot: they couple directly to the machinery of the universe rather than mediating it through human-made symbols.”
“A book about the power of games is almost a practical joke. It shows how inept games are at doing the cultural work its advocates — myself included — ascribe to them.”
Lichen (possibly xanthoria parietina), wherever in England or Scotland I spent my 30th birthday.
Nathalie Miebach, Hurricane Noel
3D Musical Score of the passing of Hurricane Noel through the Gulf of Maine, Nov 6-8, 2007.
I am now just getting on with it and making a start on the actual coding of my virtual godlet. This is something which, historically, has been completely beyond my grasp; I find it usually very difficult to begin making anything until I’ve spied some sort of syzygy happening in my head; until all the spheres of my thinking on a topic are in alignment. Of course, all of you sensible people know that this is a rare event, certainly one which I have yet to witness in my lifetime, and when one is dealing with computer code it is a lost cause. Unlike natural language (in which I might ask you, for example, ‘what’s the smell of parsley?’), it is impossible to predict with any certainty whether what I ask of a computer will be understood in any sense whatsoever. Putting aside the complications of dialect, translation or channel, if we take human beings as, in small part, information processors, we see that they share certain expectations of semantics; a human response to a sentence that contains the words “what” “smell” and “parsley”, in that particular order, will be understood by the asker to some degree, even if it is not the response they were looking for. And once we have that basic understanding parlayed between us, the originator of the sentence can always return to the words at any point and prune, snip, train, trellis, topiary, coiff or shave them as needs must. As long as the inherent meaning of the sentence remains, or a new one is established, the individual parts may as well be the follicles, or foliage, that those verbs signify. They are components to be easily styled, removed, augmented or bouffed without destroying the trunk of the meaning.
This ideal consensus on language, which means that a first draft of most written natural language can stand alone as a parseable piece of work, rarely migrates to the context of computer code. The difference, I think, comes in the nature of the processing of the two different language-modes. When I am writing a natural sentence, the biological computers receiving and transmitting it are close to one and the same, within an acceptable degree of wet, mystic tolerance. My brain (that of the speaker/writer) and your brain (that of the hearer) have subscribed to a communal pattern of interpretation that we can agree upon, and which allows a fuzzy, thick-as-thieves, nod-and-wink as to the inherent meaning of the shared transcript without an exact, binary translation of what I, the speaker/writer, completely meant.
With a digital computer, not the case. We often speak about the problems of having computers recognise natural language, but there is still discrepancy in handing computers instructions written in supposedly-formalised programming languages. A programming language is, to a similar degree, a human construct; the computer must always translate what I am typing into a machine code that can actually be executed on its physical components. No matter how automated the instruction there must always be, as far as I can tell, a clumsy, mucky human defining something somewhere in the chain of proscription. Therefore no matter how precise and elegant that negotiating language, it will always be dictated by an entity entirely alien from the one that must understand it. Even a single line of code can contain errors of typing, syntactical heuristics that humans understand ‘just because’, not to mention assumptions as to the computer’s ability to ‘know what we’re getting at’. With all of these rules-of-thumb and degrees of error, it is always very likely that the code we have written, which we believe is hermetic and executable, will just grind the program to a halt, with no real indication as to why. As I am starting to understand, we cannot assume the computer to be another language-using entity like ourselves; though it has been created by minds like my own, I and it do not share a jot of common sense, lexical generosity or culture. It cannot (as yet) fudge my statements into something that it can understand ‘just because’. It instead operates with a mathematical unambiguity, through a language “clearer and more precise than the spoken languages like English or French” 1 in the words of J.W. Forrester; a statement that I can agree with, even if it glosses over the paralysis of self-expression that such a language presents to the creator.
It’s taken me quite a lot of space here to write through my ideas to the point at which I can say the following; if it has to be this way, and you do have to work with such an unimaginative, taupe correspondent, then it’s best to find out where you are making mistakes and assumptions (the stuff of imaginative discussion) very early on in the process, before your ways of working get too cozy and the relationship starts to sour.
It is the start of the second term of my PhD, and as well as thinking about the above I have become sick of talking about my work without having anything post-verbal with which to illustrate it. I have already begun to fiddle about with Construct 2, a development environment for HTML5 games which has a very sunny, persistent manner in asking me for money. I’m still not its biggest fan; instead of coding scripts directly (as I’d become used to in Gamemaker: Studio) a Construct 2 game consists of ‘event sheets’, lists of conditions and actions chosen from a fractal series of menus that could have been hand-coded in about one-third of the time. It does have its advantages2, but my main reason for using it lies in its native support for Google’s voice recognition API. I have put together a small prototype of knole’s titular creature, consisting of some non-committal artwork and some basic looping functions. The voice recognition is already installed; with no work on my part, my deity has its oracle, its psychopomp, a form of priesthood. It can hear the prayers of those that speak them near its (that is, your) microphones.
I haven’t implemented any feedback or reactive behaviour into this prototype. What is important, at this initial stage, is to test my approaches to creating some illusion of life. Without a conscious decision, and apparently ignoring the fact that my character is divine, I have begun by encoding a semblance, a performance, of breathing and blinking. I suppose I settled on these two functions for several reasons:
This ‘architecture’, my chosen way of theoretically constructing and organising the encoded ‘self’ of my creature in programming language, is based very much on the principles of Behaviour-Oriented Design, a method of building believable computer agents developed by Dr. Joanna J. Bryson, now of Princeton and Bath universities, during her PhD.
To over-simplify her work, agents (let’s call them ‘creatures’) in this system have separate modules of ‘behaviour’, self-contained micro-programs that chug along quite happily on their own within a large network of other independent behaviours until called upon by something called a ‘reactive plan’. Such a plan is a series of rules which determines which behaviours ‘run’, influenced by both internal and external factors. In the mammalian metaphor of my creature its behaviour, its goals and its ‘plan’ for acting can be influenced both by stomach-aches and thunderstorms, depression and the sight of dew.
In the argot of BOD, then, my prototype’s breathing and blinking are action patterns influenced by a drive selection. In these foetal stages, my creature’s low-level drive could be said to be ‘stay alive’, ‘collect air’ or even ‘pretend to be a living animal’; however I choose to frame this drive, it leads to the creature prioritising, over all others, its breathing behaviour. In more complex agents, there are many arenas of conflicting drives, all of which jockey for priority throughout the agent’s existence. For now, though, we have only lungs and eyes, and even those only function in the most mechanistic, abstract fashion. There are no other factors to consider in its behaviour; it has no concept of fear, because I have not told it what it must do when it experiences the thing I call its fear; it has no concept of hunger, because I have not told it what food is nor that it should crave it. I might not imbue it with these things at all. But for the moment, with nothing to constrict its throat, it hangs there and breathes; in and out, without, very literally, a care in its world, forever.
If you have a copy of Construct 2 you can download the .capx file from knole’s Github repository and look at how these primitive actions are structured for yourself. Though I am currently using BOD for my theoretical applications, I haven’t encoded that architecture into the prototypes yet; Construct 2’s event sheet architecture doesn’t lend itself to it incredibly well. The creature as yet doesn’t have a concept of ‘staying alive’, which might be the thing which compels it to breathe; or a concept of ‘irritation’, or anything to irritate it in the first, place which might cause it to blink. It does these things because it is told to do them, without causality of any kind.
Looking at the functions themselves, at the moment there are no biological simulacra encoded into the architecture; only logical process. Each drawn component of the creature’s face (its brows, its eyes, the various segments of its nose) are separate objects, all of which move at certain rates, in certain directions and up to certain thresholds, simulating the motor functions of a face. These movements are controlled by separate breathing and blinking event sheets, but the values of all of these rates, thresholds and directions are stored separately as number variables within each object itself. There’s a smidgen, then, of BOD’s modularity, but I’m not quite there yet.
This is how the breathing functions, in pseudo-code:
-> Start 'breathe in';
-> if creature is 'breathe in'
and face (less than) upper threshold,
move face up @ preset rate;
-> if face is upper threshold, 'breathe out'
-> if 'breathe out'
and face (more than) lower threshold,
move face down @ preset rate
-> if face = lower threshold, 'breathe in'
And so on, in a contented loop. The blinking happens concurrently, shrinking and growing the eyes at a much swifter but randomised rate. While I did not test whether the two behaviours would interfere with each other, they seem to make good subliminal bed-mates. What is most important about this architecture is that it is extremely adaptable; every component’s movement, the threshold of that movement and the rate that it moves can change. Once the god has things that it can react to, whether that input be vocal, tactile or otherwise, these inputs can change those numbers, and so complicate its behaviours. The passing of time could make the creature’s eyes droop and sag with tiredness, or a tender finger run along its jowls might make it hyperventilate.
Though in this prototype I sought to bring my way of thinking, my authorial, human language of ‘creatures’, ‘wants’ and ‘breaths’, around to the precise concepts of the computer, to perform a translation between myself and the machine as an initial lemma, the next and important step is to use this mathematicised abstraction of my godlet to explore the shared vocabulary of the human mind that I share with my audience; that emotive syntax of smelling parsley. Even in these very early stages I am witnessing the tabula rasa that coding a creation presents; how everything, every preconception and grant taken, must be explicitly stated there in the code. I cannot write what I like; the rules of grammar in programming are far more ironclad than in English, and everything must be stated very dully and fully before I can begin to play with them. But it is not dull to do so; I am getting excited at how the creation of every single element of this creature’s internal world assumes my authorship. What reasons will I give the creature for breathing? What will irritate it into blinking? What will I tell it to like, and what will I tell it to hate? It will be interesting to start realising some of the principles of BOD into the work.
Of course, this translation is going through several different exchanges now; from my brain to the computer and back into the brain of you, the ‘reader’ of the creature’s face. But it is in that final process, from the computer language into the language of your imagination, that the most telegraphing effect will take place; a sharing of semantics between myself and you. The computer is no different from any other artistic media; I am using it as a vector for significance, relying on our shared animalisms, our closed-circuit sentience, to provide a system out of which all of the personal peculiarities of you witnessing the creature, as part of your particular life, might arise. There are some things that I can predict about your reaction (that you will see my thresholds and rates as the breathing and blinking of a being, rather than as maths) but there are other things that I cannot. I would be interested to hear your initial reactions to the prototype, but I’m happy to report that most of the people that I have shown it to are very taken with it, even at this simple, allegorical phase.
People’s eyes are drawn to its reassuring, regular, cyclical movement, even its lack of reaction. Though there is as yet no sound to accompany it, when I look at my silent godlet I hear behind my ears a wheezing, sucking snort as it draws the nonexistent air inside. Through the movement of the simple lines that make up its nose, people will into being the three-dimensional chambers and membranes that such a nose must have in real life. My tutor even said that it was ‘hypnotic’ to watch. It’s an odd feeling, using digital, documented architectures to test what is, in the end, an organic sort of computation; a parsing of subtle, inexpressible data, garlanding and enmeshing the code with imagination and inference, like fronds of laurel on bobbed curls.
Unlike a computer, the human brain will always compile something; it will never lock entirely. Even when we give it such an impoverished test as this, it cannot help but engorge it into a plump, living deity, pregnant with pauses, expectant to begin.
Pompeii was a great Roman city, as every British schoolchild knows. It rode the back of the world on pillows of black soil, its crop thick, its people rich, and the mountain Vesuvius at its back quiet, for most of the time. Like my classmates I defined it by its fall, the story passed down as a morality tale when really it was a combination of geographical necessity and geological ignorance. I never really thought abut that moralising element of my education until today, and I find it distasteful. The British public school system has a strange relationship with the Romans, at once venerating them as entirely countable generations have done before them, as well as seeing the era as a wonderful tool for teaching about the folly of pagan greed and fallen beauty, like a painting where an Imperial port is decked in ivy and Renaissance costume. I do not think it is coincidence that the elves have taken their place in our intellectual imaginations.
One of the most idiosyncratic elements of the Pompeii story, aside from the causted molds of human beings in their last moments, which are so incredibly sad one cannot believe that nature created them, and instead they must have been made by the same man who makes the waxworks at Madame Tussauds and placed there as a metaphor, is the graffiti that was left behind by these reductions. The city was forgotten for thousands of years, and now that the concept of “misery tourism” has caught on, the arbitrary palimpsest of thousands of real people has been preserved, whereas anywhere else they would be covered up by something boring, like a beautiful fresco or a row of statuary.
Reading the translation of some of this graffiti, I see the same things that I remember from school (the knob jokes, the timeless catalogue of vaginas, questioning of virtue, accounts, lists, and more accounts; did you know that the first piece of recorded writing in human history was a bank statement?) but now there are other, more subtle things that appear, that escaped my notice when I was younger. Now I not only see the ephemera of people who were just like me, but I see a world that, while not digital, operated on the same soupy principles as our current Internet Age, principles that we feel are entirely modern but are, as with everything, borrowed.
The first half of my rather clumsy titular designation refers to the popular image-sharing website Imgur. For the complex, snobbish cultures of the internet it is a latecomer, Reddit’s nursing home, where memes and viral content are nurtured in a more homogenised, more instantly judgmental atmosphere. Imgur’s comment ranking system showcases a far more interesting strata than the images themselves; most are drek (this will always be the case, and has always been the case, with any culture, and for people to think otherwise is to rifle through memory dishonestly).
Imgur and Pompeii, if the portmanteau did not clue you in already, have much in common. Moment to moment, as is the nature of binary-based technology, and thus all technology in our civilization, Imgur performs a new archaeology upon itself – it moves forward constantly, onto the newest image, the newest comments, the most popular comments, a constant fakir’s rope (and I do not mean that unkindly) winding up on itself into the ceiling. Paradoxically, the site is never anything other than an archive for the human viewer; the actual nano-state of the website is a concept only. In logging into the site we view a flash-caught set of motifs. Using this metaphor, it is easy to triangulate Pompeii and its graffiti, not just in its archival nature, but its content; the racism, the sexism, the plumber’s language. But there is another point of contact that I have noticed. I call it “the strive for relevant community experience”. Or the Imgeii Effect.
I’m not sure if it is a linguistic meme or not, but on Imgur there is a formula which is resolved in the comments of almost every image on the website. It goes:
I am [profession or lifestyle relevant to image] and I can confirm that [original opinion or previous statement is correct].
I have no way of knowing if these people are who they claim. For there to be heart surgeons, volunteer mental hospital volunteers, undertakers, ex-prisoners and a thousand other professions represented on a website mostly populated by twenty-something students is dubious. For some, there is an intense interrogation process (which on Reddit is actively encouraged by the site’s moderators), for others instant dismissal (though this is actually quite rare) and for many rather blind acceptance. Their viewpoint is assumed into the milleu with all the others, but with a slight mirth of interest in the general millpond that is more than most commenters can hope to affect in a lifetime of online interaction. To call the activity of this website a millpond is only to extrapolate the activity to the scale that such communities operate at, with millions of active users. For one person to even register in its quotidian operation is remarkable.
Looking at the sort of Pompeiian graffiti that has survived the two thousand years since it was enscribed, this Effect is definitely prevalent. Here are a few examples (all from Pompeiana):
Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.
Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls.
Gaius Valerius Venustus, soldier of the 1st Praetorian cohort, in the century of Rufus, screwer of women.
I will admit, it is hard to find examples that do not have a scatalogical element. And one may argue that there is little difference between what I am positing and the universality, in time and space, of the “I woz here” desire for immortality. But what is interesting here is that much graffiti references not only the enscriber’s (or the subject’s) name, but often their position in society. Their job, their military rank, their friends or wives or husbands or lovers form a part of their title. Pompeii, like Imgur, like the web, like any society, is a network, an interaction of thousands, if not millions of people. A name is not enough, because everybody has a name (and now every user of the web has a portrait, a luxury once reserved for royalty). All of these scribblers, and their interactions, have been archived effectively for analysis, and the archive can be distilled into a clear verbal competition, a subtle jockeying for position, that same fakir’s rope that constantly rises faster than people can scale it.
In a society like Pompeii, reputation was everything. How one was thought of by others may not have affected your moods or self-opinion, but it did affect your audience, your friends, your standing and how much you influenced the millpond of day-to-day, furious activity. For a slave who visited a brothel, who knew that he could not stand on the Cardo Maximus and have his opinions heard or heeded, could write in his stall, on the pillar, the peristylum or the flagstone, and not be ashamed of his slavery. His slavery was what brought him to the brothel, and money, at least in those days, could not buy you performance, not even the richest senator. The earthy proclamation is better suited to the earthy individual, anyhow; the natural justice is sweet.
Turning to Imgur, we see Pompeii sped up past the rate of evolution. The size of the community means that affecting any change that is noticeable is a monumental achievement. Creating a meme that sticks is not about the content of the meme, but its relative immortality. And those that cannot create, legitimize. Reddit has its own subset of these people; the Ask Me Anything sub-Reddit, where people from marginal or esoteric professions answer questions set by the Reddit community. This was made more widely famous recently when Obama created one, but the (self-appointed) interviewees range from McDonalds employees and disaster survivors to those with physical deformities. These are not professions, in the strict sense, but they are markers by which an internet hungry for material correlatives will judge a person. They are a point of view that is not commonly heard in the homogenised web, and will be listened to if only out of penny-shop curiosity. For the interviewees, or the commenters, the reaction of their fellows is less important than the fact of the reaction itself. One’s unique position in life, whether formed by the curvature of one’s spine, one’s job or one’s bad choice to drive on an icy motorway, can often provide a relevance, a kink in the rope, that will allow one to rise above the warm crush that we all inhabit.
My daily lunchtime walk most often takes me out through Swansea’s Maritime Quarter, a tight, mostly white little knuckle of flats, restaurants and shops built out on the cold, curled land between the Bay on one side and the old South Dock on the other. It was built to be an isthmus between the regeneration zone to the east, beyond the mouth of the Tawe river, and the city itself. The barrages and sail bridges and swing locks across the various bodies of water (marina, mudflat, fountain, salmon ladder) were built, but the regeneration is slow, the land still hoarded, the money tied up in university pension schemes and dissipating EU aid. In consequence, for the last thirty years the Quarter has been a sort of placeholder peninsula. If you go there (and you do not live there) there is nothing to do but walk about it and through it and then go back the way you came. It’s easy to tell the people doing this, because they put all their efforts into projecting the air of somebody in transit, on their way to parts much farther; the streets of the Quarter are merely a way to convey themselves. Places like the Quarter are not the sorts of places that wry, intelligent, urbane people are supposed to linger, or to like. Its architectural style is Early Travelodge Devotional; everything is rusting starkly in the salt air; the only plants allowed to grow are those that have proved themselves, genetically, to tow the line, and bear primary, ornamental, poisonous fruit; and the paving goes everywhere right up to the root boles of the still-young birch trees which line the not-quite avenues. The only responses that such places are supposed to elicit are repulsion or a psychogeographic fascination.
Usually, I’m no different; I think far too much about the time I had to walk from the train station to the coach station in Milton Keynes, and still silently enumerate all the ways it reminded me of Nuremberg or a gigantic, antiseptic kidney dish. I am not the sort of person to let modern architecture off lightly. Yet I cannot help but love the Maritime Quarter without cynicism, and without much concern. It is my favourite place in Swansea, in particular the Maritime Walk which runs between the retirement apartments and the concrete sea wall. For one thing, it is uncommonly quiet. These sorts of developments are always built at a scale which is only slightly unhuman, like a stable or a portico; there’s something distinctly American about it, even though access for cars around the Quarter is mostly restricted. However, even if I see ten, twenty, thirty other walkers or joggers or strollers or cyclists, they are soon swallowed by the acrage. I don’t want to label it as one of Marc Augé’s non places, as that would be to wilfully ignore the lived furniture of the place; bikes threaded through the railings, the sound of woks from every other window, the Fisher Price castles on the balconies filling with sand and pigeon eggs. It is not a dead place in the way that Augé meant, because for these (mostly unseen) people it is a some-place; a new place, perhaps, in as much as that remains a crime. But it does have that weightlessness that Augé’s term describes; for me, with no friends living here, the excessive streets always moving me on, the shallow steps, wheelchair ramps; it is a place of easy accessibility, of non-committal passage. I can move as loose as light through it. And how the light moves too; it’s a luminous sort of place, where the glow from the Bay pinballs about and finds it way, briefly, into unlikely wells; dazzling me from restaurant smoke hoods, the bells of motorbikes parked in the shade, the hot incense-point of a plane-wing making its way over Cornwall. As on a ship, anything that isn’t battened down seems to eventually find its way out of the bailers, whether it’s light or people or Tesco delivery vans or smells or rubbish or dust or sand. Sometimes, on a narrow service street as I scud back to my office, away from the lunar curve of the beach with its sidewinders and its terriers running and North Devon headshy in the distance, I am delivered a brief present, some pleasant smell that has no origin, and slips off just as quickly: rich Chinese food; fish heads mellowed; toothpaste; always seeming to suit the sort of day I’m having.
I think what I most love about this place is that it presents a constant challenge of interpretation. The Quarter was built in 1987, and like most of the developments of its era the elements of public art which were incorporated into the budget can easily appear as cynical adornments, fulfilling some long-gone statute of public responsibility; sofa-cushion money for incongruous steel sails, quartz fish, aggregate mermaids, Mooreish statuary, herm-like dedications to frigates and destroyers bearing the names of local coves. When we see ‘public art’ like this, in a place like this, we are tempted to hate it as a betrayal, an afterthought, propaganda for some unthinking ideology, standing for everything but that which they represent. I try and avoid this easy response, and look past the unweathered brick, and think of Exeter Cathedral, and its great eastern door which I used to walk past every day when I lived there; and how it was utterly festooned with saints, as subtle as Times Square or Piccadilly Circus; now smoothed into mystic wallpaper, rather than theological advertisement, by acid rain. The curse of the recent leads to other, specialist thoughts as well; thoughts that something centuries-old would never prompt, even though it should. When I’m in the Quarter, I’m constantly trying to separate my experiences into two categories: those the architects wished for me, in their blueprints and impact studies, and those which have arisen in me, there, today, as unintentional as a breeze. I never asked that of a cathedral; I just loved it unconditionally and unthinkingly, and trusted it implicitly. Every uplifting impression, every angle of light, seemed carved and deliberated by yeomen, hoisted there on oak cranes for my personal revelation. We don’t allow modern, municipal architects, just building buildings, that same vision.
I constantly try and divine, every time I move through the development, at a pace I usually reserve for train platforms, whether what I am feeling, seeing and thinking was intended in some way. Did the architects intend for the wind to pull you up the stepped streets to the waterfront, like an exoskeleton, so that you barely have to use your muscles at all? Did they intend for the water of the quays to be visible from the Walk, so that on both sides of your route there is water, one side wild, one domesticated? Did they intend for the Bora-Bora-lime-green render on eastern walls to, between three and four o-clock, lend the western walls the colour of a sea-cave ceiling? Or is it all an intentional fallacy? And if so, what should I think about the place now, that it so beautifully and uncomprehendingly does it anyway, in fact?
Every time I come there is something new to consider. I’ve been walking here for over a year, and I’ve only just this previous week noticed these cartouches, set both at head and double-decker-bus height in the walls of the Maritime Walk apartments. There are probably fifty of them all told, some directly facing the sea and the weather, and others tucked at acute angles in the lees. It is these sheltered examples which tells me the subject matter of the rest; rigging, lightships, eyelets, bladderwrack, an aesthetic that might have been lazy pastiche, or maybe deep allusion. I can only assume that those facing the sea were designed along the same lines, because they have been carved from such soft stone that, in just over thirty years, they have been eroded almost completely. Some have even gone back in beyond the line of the building itself, nibbling into the very beginnings of stippled, concave grottoes.
What am I to think? I find it hard to believe that the developers didn’t know that sandstone would erode this quickly, particularly in sea air. We aren’t used to thinking of legacy when it comes to these modern developments: there is always the creeping sense that they will be gone the next time we look, and replaced with something better, or not at all. I’m trying very hard, but something in me still rebels at the idea of a modern housing development being built with its ruin value in mind. Did some planning official (probably only just retired, still reachable by email, over all these years) sit and think about inconstancy, the movable coast, the softening of years, and impregnate their contribution with this almost-futile, barely-glimpsed mark of commentary, deferred until the very end of their career? Or is it just a touch of ill-planned neglect, as accidental and emergently delightful as the coverlet of sand that lifts up from the dunes every day, despite the best efforts of hoardings and sweepers and dykes, and shrouds the corners of streets like the reaches of Aladdin’s cave?
In the Peak District Visitor’s Centre, at the foot of Kinder Scout with its flannel of runtish rock across its brow, there is a moulded plastic map, the shale, tracks, scarps and peaks coloured in such dingey hues that it looks as if the victim of a steam-rolling has been lain out on a table built expressly for their shape.
It has the texture of traumatised skin, and colours that might once have been siloed blood and jaundice and minor moles of a white body. There are greens in the cracks and seams where elbows and armpits have been mangled. It looks disgusting.
But then you peer in closer, you prise out the names. Tigwizzle. Mam Tor. Castleton and Edale and Hope, and from there tiny signposts to Manchester, Sheffield and Derby. On the road atlas which we brought with us, this area of England is satisfyingly free of roads. You imagine that it is a portion of the land which has not been corsetted yet, and from every cave and crack will come a resounding, grunting pleasure, like a tight pair of trousers being unzipped, ever so slightly, under the table.
But then, you come actually here, and you see the warnings that are not contained on that horrible map.
And right at the foot of this victim of machinery and lottery money is a crusty little divot, a crack that has not been quite ironed out, and which provides the egress for all the leaking fluids of Britain’s first National Park. That spigot is Dovedale, and when you drive here over the kahuna fields, it is far more beautiful than the stained crevice that represents it.
If you drive north from Birmingham or London, Dovedale, and the nearby village of Ilam, are some of the first reassurances that things will become a little more interesting, geographically. The grass is always lush when it does not have altitude to contend with, and Ilam is the last homely house of domestic angles and easy slopes. The village is one of the younger attractions of the area, having only been laid down in Saxon times, and the church, which we did not visit, is rumoured (because to me it is only a rumour) of a acid-nibbled font necklaced with men and wyrms, ragnaroking in its darkness. The rest of the village is one of these wonderful lightning-utopias erected from one man’s bizarre vision, all Swiss-style chalets and tight gardens. The man’s palace is now a youth hostel.
The Dove lives quite happily in a gully next to the village; this area is limestone, of course, a rock we are blessed with in abundance. The land in which we bicker about the sun and our feet was once a tropical reef at the bed of a sea a few thousand feet deep. Unlike up on Kinder Scout, where the stone only tolerates the water by the subclause gravity imposes upon it, here there is a deep unzipping. If you let me, and accept that water is wily, then you can accept that limestone is stupid, and believes what water says about love, and lets it into its delicate, complicated clothing.
And the hooks and eyeholes and clasps and zips do not do up again so easily. The limestone is riven open for all of us.
As you walk upriver, closer to the last skimpy layer of earth, you come across a hill. It is called Thorpe Cloud, after the nearby Viking exclave of Thorpe, and its name is truer than you think. Cloud comes from clud, meaning hill, and that heavy umph that it implies is truer, and I prefer it. I can never imagine this hill floating away, full of water. It will sit here forever, I think.
If you walk up its slopes, coiffured into matts by sheep, at the summit there is a little depression, just big enough for two or three people to lie down. You can see Ilam in the distance, and the frustrating ratios of people hanggliding versus people dragging hangliders back up to the tops of the nearby peaks. You could eat leftover curry there, like we did, and spoil a Gothic moment for an older man.
At some point you would look down. The river draws the eye, like something glazed.
At the foot of Thorpe Cloud the Dove enters the dale. There are a set of stepping stones here, where like me you might fall in, your jacket puffing up like a spatchcocked cat, and you might start to worry about how quickly you can get your drowned phone into a bowl of rice.
It is a long walk down from Thorpe Cloud to the river, and as you go there is more and more poverty to the vegetation; the heather grows less thickly, its suburbs relegated to plants such as lily-of-the-valley, saxifrage, helleborine and mountain everlasting. Once you reach the flat and the riverbank the path goes flat and broad, transfixed through England’s pelvis. As you wander there are rock formations that have the same names such things have everywhere; Dovedale Castle, Lover’s Leap. The trees clinging to their sides are trimmed back by the National Trust every year, to keep the shafts proud. Precious dribbles slalom the slopes, feeding into the main flow, and here and there are caverns where the sand boils and the water seems sugar-seasoned.
When water smarmed its way in here, it also convinced the land to get its ears pierced, and how those holes have stretched. We climbed up a transmogrified waterfall of boulders to reach the Dove Holes, through a victory arch the precipitation left. In the past they were inhabited by paleolithic scientists and Roman shepherds, but now just birds, angry and laxative. The water stagnates and atrophies, wincing at every little drop from the ceiling above. Somebody had lit fires there.
I have been to Dovedale several times, but never at the height of summer, and so I will always remember the water as, to put it mildly, bastard-cold. I have never seen the ash trees that now coral the slopes, full of those creatures that once sieved this path for phytoplankton, in anything other than a steely baldness. And given the baldness of that map so far north, shorn of all its reference, I think that this is how it should be. We sat on the riverbank by the car and ate ice cream, and as it sparked inside my teeth I extrapolated it up and up, into the sky, making it three miles thick and advancing south.
This is the gate to the interesting, and it is so much better seen from the very pit of it.
My teeth stopped hurting after a while, and we drove south again, into a boredom.
The most alarming infection rate of all.
I never saw the beater who brought the pheasants to Cob Cottage and slung them over the wall, like panniers full of cooling lunch. In my mind they are an utter stereotype, one I don’t need to describe to you, one that we can all picture as they disappeared around the keystone of the house wall and up the slope and into the fields. It was some sort of day, weather-wise, warm I think, and the riflers had not needed any excuse; they had sent the beaters rifling through the furze. You often heard the munch of the guns off in the hills, though you never heard the bird’s response. They die in far greater numbers than the riflers would ever want to eat; that is, in greater numbers than zero. Pheasants can be rustic meals, but not many people profess to enjoy cooking them. To get any sort of taste you have to graft onto them the fat of other, less-rigourous animals; the little that the birds possess has the colour of bronchitis. In fact, the whole carcass, once it’s skinned, looks like the cautionary tale of a lung.
In that part of the world, and in this time of the world, such gifts over the garden wall are commonplace. On the shoot days, once the trigonometry had been had, once the long machines had been loosed and exercised, once it had all been worked out to a certain number of decimal places, all of the houses that border the fields and woods are left entire braces of dead birds by the retreating beaters, who swiftly pick their way back home to something tastier.
We had been sunbathing in the small walled garden next to the track that led up around the cottage, up the hill and under the kitchen; we were lain beneath the small, avuncular crab-apple right in the centre of the lawn. It was only a little patch, but the grass had such a tog and was pleated right up to the stones of the wall so that it felt that we were actually bathing in a manger of water, bedded and plugged in motionless algae. The man who owned Cob Cottage, who I already found terrifying and who would later spoil everything and lose himself the house, the importance of love, everything, told me with what might have been expertise (I didn’t know him well, and never came to) that the birds needed to be rested in the fridge for at least an night before we butchered them. The plural there was assumed; the women who I was with in that house were not asked. I didn’t see the pheasants, in particular my pheasant, until the next morning.
The sun was gone the next day, and though it didn’t rain there was a bitter curl of wind coming over the lip of the garden. As I dressed up inside, with everybody who would be staying indoors that day idly and impatiently tugged the lapels of my fleece, lovely hot breath in my ear, telling me that I had nothing to prove to him, that I did not have to humour him and that we might have a nice day ourselves, instead. That he might do all six himself. In that anteroom it felt as if I was preparing for a duel, or an execution; certainly that I might never be seen again if I stepped through the kitchen door, back into the garden that I had loved the day before.
We were all being pathetic; the idea of pulling these murdered things into modules was upsetting me even as it was exciting me. At this point in my life I still ate meat, and had for a long time felt like a charlatan; a stuffed breast. I saw this brace of opportunities, slung into our deep self-satisfaction, as a way to be the cyclic creature that I had always wanted to be; a Möbius intestine, keeping my refuse, my usage, my vileness, hermetic in one perfect unimpeachable bracelet of being.
This placed a lot of responsibility with those birds that even then were chilled to their middle, completely foreign, queued for us outside.
I was nearly buckling as I walked out, under the scaffold that the thatcher had put up, and met him on the lawn.
The deckchairs had been tidied off, even though they had not been in the way at all, and the crab-apple looked planed and newly installed; as if it had not been there yesterday. He stood with a plastic margarine tub full of knives and looked immeasurably content. He had already finished four of the birds while he had been waiting for me, and now stood listening to the stream and the bugle of children on the near horizon, flush with his extraordinary life, snugly fitting what he had chosen to do with it.
At the top of the tree were two gnarled joists that I had not noticed before, mortises that twisted away from each other at near-perfect right angles. On each hung a pheasant by its neck, knotted through a length of twine. He had taken the dun, colour-of-the-world female, allowing me to luxuriate, to sightsee, in the roomer male. I thought it inappropriate to couch it in terms of all those comparisons that I could make (its rosemary neck, its yoghurty nibs, its Quetzalcoatl brow) but I could not help it; we are often incapable of seeing these animals as anything other than communications at us that must be answered. The female on the other side of the trunk, a bird that the male had probably never known, failed to respond as nature intended.
We set to work, trying not to look at each other around the ridiculous gibbet he had made, while the women inside occasionally, languidly glanced from the kitchen window, further and further disintegrating into the mist rising from the words they were saying, and the stock they were making. It was so cold inside the bird.
I could now, removed from that day, really ramble about that pheasant, up and down; I could tell you what its grain bladder reminded me of, how its guts moved in my hands, about the colours and the textures and the evacuating smells and the tricks of gravity and the things he said to me that were warm and encouraging; but it would just be something to write. It’s a very easy thing to do, and it is hard to do well. What I think I might focus on, instead, and what is interesting me these days, is the process by which I felt that I understood a small part of that pheasant in parting it from itself, and how that feeling of understanding, if not understanding itself, made me extremely unhappy.
I have been reading about birds recently, but I have also been reading about computers, specifically in the work of Joseph Weizenbaum; Weizenbaum was a computer scientist and co-founder of that discipline, and thus excellently placed for his later jeremiads against the use of easy, lazy metaphors when speaking about computers and their relationships to the greater world. In Computer Power and Human Reason, Weizenbaum delineates the ‘computer metaphor’ which, even by 1976 when the book was written, had in his view begun an uncontrollable, Utopian replication through the populist imagination, cloning itself into every conceivable topic of thought. As we had come to understand how computation worked in the first half of the twentieth century, and began to experiment with ever-more-powerful applications of computers, it became very tempting to see every aspect of the world as a pronounceable system in which individual parts work in unison to produce an output, just like a computer. Such a temptation, Weizenbaum thought, could lead to only a barren justification for acts of unhumanity and inhumanity, both catastrophic and commonplace, and a gross misunderstanding and dilution of the truth of the world. To quote the book’s closing lines, “what could it mean to speak of risk, courage, trust, endurance and overcoming when one speaks of machines?”
Like all metaphors, I think, and as Weizenbaum thinks, the ‘computer metaphor’ is an exercise in abstraction; applying an idea to a disparate context, and then using that idea to deduce a new census, a Solution, to each disagreeable aspect of that context in turn. A mind is like a computer, we still say, so let’s debug it. Society is an algorithm, so let’s re-write it. The result of such systematising, in Weizenbaum’s view, are almost all bellicose and leviathan; wars, massacres, napalm clinging to the jaws of babies. Applying his ideas it is hard to say that we have moved out of this conceptual bind in the last forty years; this metaphor is still applied, irresistibly, to every aspect of our lives, the only difference perhaps being that it is as much the preserve of commercial bodies as academic ones these days. I watched the stream of a panel discussion from a game developer’s summit recently, in which a group of A.I. developers stated that the production of “content” (that is, what is actually in the game, such as character, dialogue, narrative) by human beings is too unpredictable and slow a process, and that by applying the up-and-coming metaphors of A.I. a ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ might be found; automated systems that generate new stories, new motivations, new characters and plots from sophisticated, seismographic algorithms. A story is, after all, just a program run from initial rules. So, let’s run it.
Such metaphors, whether they are about computers or not, are comforting to anybody wrestling with soft, indistinct problems or trying to understand something enormous, as I was on that day. It was tempting then to frame that process of butchery, of revelation, of biology, in so many different ways. There was, for example, an intimacy I felt as I dressed, or rather undressed, the bird’s body; I had to touch its neck a lot, and felt the hungry veins there; it seemed to shrug off its pelt willingly as I cut into the interdermal membrane that kept it dry inside a heath. I had never been so close to any animal, not even a pet; I had never been permitted. It exposed its dimpled pecs to me, though that implies volition, and I went further in I flicked at the precious glans of its heart, not thinking how that would have felt in life. I also felt and focused on this gradation of insides, me inside clothes inside a garden inside a pheasant inside something else entirely, and there was a sort of sense made there. My hands were so cold by that point that I had to dip my gory fingers into the mug of tea that had materialised beside me. Hanging there, I saw it most as a delicate, interpolated network of things, horripilating in the wind that was getting up. Most of its systems were not working, and I was snicking off the interconnections, making sure that they could never work again. And that is how the computer metaphor got into the small space between me and my pheasant, and I started to see that word ‘system’ again and again. It was easy after that, and just horrific.
The man, who had done far worse things than this, came around from his own bird, once he was satisfied that I had cleaned right the way back to the spine. The last thing to do before decapitating it for the oven was to clip off the feet. They were lax and loose, signal-less, the most immovable things that I had ever seen; covered in mismatched, yellow crazy-paved scales. They looked painful. There was a smile on the man’s face, a normal smile, and he told me that he had just that moment made a decision not to try and trick me. I was happy about that, but confused. He brandished wire-cutters, clamping the bird’s ankle between the blades, and he told me that if he had been feeling cruel he would have told me to hold the foot as he snipped. I didn’t, and I watched what happened next. As the blades sheared through the bone with the sound of a ripped stocking, the claws suddenly curled in of their own accord, all the way tight into a fist. He told me that it was just the tendons spasming and reacting to pressure, and that when he had first done this, with another man, he had been told to hold the foot, and when it held him back he had screamed.
I am trying so hard, and I did try then, to dispel the overlapping solomonic circles of metaphor that surround this bedraggled (though perhaps something needs to be alive before it can be draggled), poor (how?) organic matter that I see as a bird. I am trying not to rely on the easy, elegant translations of sexuality, cookery, cartography, class, fraternity and most of all logic that I could perform upon this article of the environment that I might call a bird. Most of all, in that unifying clench of its foot, in which an input is reacted to, I am trying not to see it as a machine. It’s too reductive and Cartesian, a denial of the bird’s terror, the crime committed against it, the indignities it has suffered; an enormous assumption on my part, and unfortunately an enormous comfort. The feedback loop was too tight; there was too much correlation between the tweak of the wirecutters and the sad reaction of the innards; I had already lain out the IF->ELSEIF->ELSE patterns that such a toe-curling implied. And even now all this time later it becomes hard to see the life that once imbued this apparatus as anything other than a self-perpetuating circuit or, even worse, a performance of life, with no back to it.
I felt sick by the time I had finished, and the feathers snagged about the lawn for days.
Weizenbaum states that a metaphor is only useful, and not harmful, if it enriches both the contexts which it utilises. I am not sure whether this is the case here; the bird is dead, it has helped me to understand some other thing a little better, and makes me see systems everywhere and wish to replicate them, no matter how incompletely. But even with everything taken apart and itemised, even in seeing the far bus of its lungs, I worry that something is missing from my model; and, even more horrifically, I worry that there is not.
I drove that pheasant halfway across the country to glaze it, wrap it in bacon (I didn’t think this much about the pigs) and eat it. It was too hot, and too dry, and a waste.
Yesterday I had a brief, thumping feeling of longing. I don’t know what I longed for, but for a few seconds I would have given anything to have it back.
I still cannot work out which component of that moment it was that triggered the feeling; if I knew, it might have given some clue as to what it was I wanted. Was it the grey, stretched light at 7.23 in the morning? The reflection of the corrugated shed roof in the shower partition? The angle of the shower partition (looking at it, around 23 degrees off the norm)? The rising huff of a pigeon, like oatmeal being drawn agonisingly up a straw? That bloody tinnitus in my ears, carouselling around since I was a teenager? The linoleum on my cracked heels? The freshly-vinegared mirror, streaked with newsprint? The gloomy depths of the bathroom, the high window? The reflux in the boiler? The straining glow of the lupins? The tiles painted? Octopus, white, seahorse, white, white, conch, white, eel?
Stupendously I shed three tears, for whatever it was, and then it passed. The moment dissembled for good.
The leg-curlingly dark pool, in light sharp enough to cut your feet on: Nantcol Waterfalls, under Rhinog Fach, Snowdonia.
“The Great Irish Famine is surrounded by controversy, silence and shame. Scholars, politicians and commentators argue about what happened and who was responsible. The voices of the million men, women and children who died of hunger and disease in cabins, by roadsides, in bogs and ditches, in workhouses and fever hospitals are absent. If each of these people who died because of this Great Famine could write the stories of their experiences and feelings, we could not bear to read these accounts. And it is almost certain that their narratives of the Great Famine would clash with ours. The first great silence relates to the Famine dead.”
Crowley, John et al. Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Cork: Cork University Press, 2013, p. xii.