PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 2004 - MARCH
London Cross, London Cross, London Cross is taking up all my time. This is because I’ve been doing the central area which is so dense with streets and buildings of interest. I was writing two or three times as much per mile so to speak, and to do so, I was having to research many more topics. My folder for the first walk has about a dozen files in, and my folder for the sixth walk, which was a third of the length, has four dozen or more. I was due to head off today for walk six, from the British Library to Archway, but there was a covering of snow on the ground, and I decided I should revisit the stuff I’ve already written, and see whether I can pull together a letter for publishers. Now I’ve talked to everyone about London Cross, it’s become more important - it’s the thing I’m now doing. But, actually, I just began it as a trial, and I never meant to speed ahead this quickly. And this afternoon, I’ve looked over the first 6,000 words, It doesn’t seem very substantial, or very good, so - after my two or three intensive weeks on central London - I’ve come down to earth about it. Also trying to draft a letter for publishers has sobered me up as far as the project’s attractions. It’s not easy to explain it on paper, simply and quickly, and it’s hard to escape the idea that no publisher will want it because they’ll not be able to understand who might buy. And I’ve no idea. I wouldn’t buy such a book. When I write, in the draft letter, that London Cross is a mixture of travel writing, travel guide and Schlott’s Miscellany (a book of random facts that was a hit last year), it only invites one to think that because it’s such a mixture, it serves no purpose, and consequently no market. Although I have been having fun writing it, I got a wave today of that horrible sinking feeling I get whenever I realise that no one will ever read what I’m writing; and that, sometime, in the next months or couple of years, I’m going to prostitute myself back in the real world.
Clare Short’s gone awol. A woman scorned, it’s so obvious that she seething simply because she allowed Blair to sweet talk her into staying on during the war once Robin Cook had resigned. But, she’s so transparently out to get Blair, that even her once-upon-a-time allies have lost patience with her. She went to the press with a story about having seen transcripts of bugged conversations involving the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Since this is an intelligence matter, and she only knows about it because of her role in the government, she has no business compromising our intelligence operations. And now, because the Attorney General has written to her advising that she might be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, she’s shown that letter to the press as well.
Haiti’s gone awol. Rebels amassed so much popular support that the country’s president fled over the weekend. French and American troops have gone in to try and restore order, but I’m not clear what they intend to do. As far as I know, Haiti was and is a democracy, so, under international law, they should be paving the way for the elected leader to return. I’ll have to read up more about it.
And the weather’s gone awol - all cold and frozen; I’ve been cold for days.
Yesterday, Adam and I went to Mum’s for lunch, for roast beef, which was delicious. Julian’s family were there too. We arrived early and went for a walk across the Heath, talking most of the time, and for a coffee at Polly’s in south Hampstead. And then, in the evening, we went to the cinema to see a Western called ‘The Missing’. It was exciting at times, a story well told. Adam thought the title a bit pretentious.
I’m really tired of my Dark Ages teacher, Caroline Jones, so I’ve decided not to go on the one field trip of the course to Sutton Hoo and West Stow. I probably wouldn’t duck out if it was closer to home, but it’s five-six hours driving, there and back to Suffolk (and probably costing £25-30 in petrol), and I don’t like the people in the class much either. Jones is young and not very intelligent, and she just reads her essay style notes (which she’s cribbed from books, not at all thought through). And she doesn’t fully understand the limits of her own knowledge, so when she’s asked a question, she quite often gives an answer qualified by ‘probably’ or ‘I should think’. Which is not to say I haven’t enjoyed the subject - which is Medieval History rather than Medieval Archaeology. I’ve tried to read around her lecture notes, to try and give a more solid sense of the work, so far it’s been the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, but we’re moving on to the Normans tomorrow. I had never fully appreciated the importance of this period, the dark ages, in Britain’s history, and the interplay of various cultures, not least the reconquest of Europe by Rome, through religion.
I’m enjoying the Plants and People course much more. It fits in so much better with my interest in evolution, for example, and in plants and gardening. Last week, for example, we studied the role of nutmeg and tea in shaping the lives of peoples and continents, and how islanders in Polynesia were affected by having been able to sail to South America and bring back the sweet potato. In fact, I’ve got Jared Diamond’s book off the bookshelf to see if I can’t make some links between his take on the development of the modern world and that put forward in Hobhouse’s book ‘Seeds of Change’, which I’ve just started to dip into. Hobhouse is a much less disciplined writer than Diamond, and not as easy to read, but his book seems to be a classic, and an authority on the importance of quinine, sugar, tea, potato, cotton and coca in history.
I should record that Adam had his haircut in half term, around 19 February, and that I desperately need a haircut.
I’ve just been for my run. It’s a while now since I’ve run the whole circuit; my stamina ability seems to have taken a step backwards. Perhaps I’m running faster. I don’t know. I still don’t enjoy it, the panting, and the feeling of my lungs being restricted, but I do like the feeling afterwards - it’s not a strong feel of well-being, just a light and airy feeling of fitness. I suppose it’s the jogger’s high. Also it’s worth noting that I get headaches very infrequently these days. Although frequent headaches stopped years ago, when I gave up coffee, I still used to get them when I was socialising sometimes, or when I went out for the day, walking around London. But I don’t seem to get those types either, which makes me wonder if there isn’t some connection between headaches and circulation health (heart, lungs, oxygen circulation).
However, I do seem to have developed an obsessive trait of playing with my moustache or beard hair while reading, so much so that I stop and cut individual hairs every few minutes. The same is true when I’m writing in fits and starts. If I consciously stop, it soon starts again when I lose my conscious self in the reading. My conscious self catches me, and stops and then a minute later the same thing is happening. And if I’m not fiddling with a stray hair, I’m scratching my scalp. Somehow this is also connected with breathing, I’m sure, but I don’t know what to do about it. Certainly the regular running and yoga don’t seem to have made any difference.
It started hailing during my run. The ground was suddenly covered in little dots of white, and by then hailstones had lodged in my hair. I got to thinking about what early man must have thought about hail stones. They don’t come very often, so they must have been a surprise. But each man couldn’t interpret them separately (say if the hailstones wrecked a crop and was thus interpreted as punishment for some personal wrong-doing or similar) because the same thing would have happened to a neighbour. No, it must have been left to the church to interpret the signs in a way linked to the actions of the community or society.
Monday 15 March 2004
Last night and this morning, I’ve watched ‘O Brother, Wherefore Art Thou?’, a Coen brothers film with George Clooney. It’s one of those films that was so well reviewed that I meant to see it in the cinema. Finally, it was shown on TV and I recorded it. Oddly, just a few days ago, I was particularly entranced by a song I heard on Radio Three’s ‘Late Junction’ - it was so distinctive, two women singing country music in harmony with a banjo, I think it was. I hear a lot of weird and wonderful music on Radio Three, but this one stuck in my mind. I couldn’t work out whether the women (two sisters, whose name I forget) were actually singing a fraction of a second out of time with each other or not, and if so whether this was normal or unusual. I just don’t know. I’m sure it’s the same singers who feature in the Coen movie, whether once or more than once, I’m not sure, and whether that’s the sisters on the stage in one scene or not, I don’t know either. The main reason I don’t know, is because when the credits rolled on the film, the broadcaster squeezed them up on to one side of the screen (to make way for something else on the other side) and they were unreadable. Perhaps I’m the only person left in the world with a small screen.
But it IS a fun film, spiky and funny, stylised (fields full of hay and woods full of autumn leaves!), with Clooney’s acting comic and half-way to comic-book. But it’s the music, and the sudden appearance of people singing everywhere in the countryside, that probably makes the film as good as it is. I’m sure there’s a lot in it which I didn’t understand, a lot of references to US country life which passed me by. In a way it was as if the Coen brothers had blended some of the elements of the magic realism genre in Latin American writing to film-making about US country music.
The news has been dominated by the train bombs in Spain last week. I think they killed around 200 people. The Spanish government tried to suggest they were the work of ETA, but it’s become clear that they were almost certainly planted by Al Quaeda. The British media dispatched its top journalists to revel in the details, and for days we had endless reports from Madrid. But, to my mind, the media always goes too far in reporting such tragedies. I tried to explain this to my mother on the phone, but she’s been dosed up with all the reports, so how can she dismiss them. But it’s a question of proportion, and the media covers such tragedies in a way that distorts reality. In the three days that the news was dominated by these 200 deaths, how many other people died across Europe, died in Africa, etc. I know this sounds like a crass and obvious thing to say, but it’s really true. By giving this tragedy so much more attention than any other tragedy across Europe in the same time period, the media is glorifying Al Quaeda is making them believe they are more important than they really are, that terrorism is more important than it really is, and encouraging them. Having been stoked up by the media, the politicians can hardly turn round and suggest the bomb deaths aren’t as important as all that, and so they get sucked into the game of playing the story up. But what should be happening is that we should be putting the deaths by terrorism into perspective, comparing them with deaths by other means: crossing the road, heart attacks, plane crashes. I mean what are the risks of me, as an individual, dying from a terrorist attack, as compared to any other means - very very small.
And as if to demonstrate conclusively how inept (this is not the right word, nor is corrupt, nor is stupid, misdirected might be better, but I’m not sure the right word exists) the media has become, here are two further points about the Madrid bombs. Yesterday, on Sunday, the Spanish voted for a new government. Despite being bombarded with news about the hustings in the US for a democratic candidate (a very long time before the actual election), we have been given absolutely no information about the elections in Spain. I know nothing about the political differences between, and priorities of, the main parties in Spain. Why? Our laws in this country are more directly affected by Spain than they are by the US, and yet we have 100 times more information about the US election process than about the Spanish one. And this lack of information was thrown into sharp focus by the large amount of information about the bomb attacks. Secondly, because of the bomb attacks, and, possibly the Spanish government’s attempts to throw the blame on Eta, there was a huge swing in voting patterns, and the government lost the election to the socialists (even though until a few days ago the election was considered a foregone in favour of the sitting government, led by Aznar). Everyone believes the sudden change in voting behaviour was caused by the consequence of the bombings. But, but, but (and I’ve written this very hurriedly - which is the problem with diary writing, I never stop to argue and write my ideas down well) ousting of the government like this is a most terrible thing, for it gives the terrorists an incredible power, and shows them that a few well-placed bombs a few days before an election can create political chaos and lead to the voting in of a softer government! But my second point is this: no politician or reporter in the media has had the courage to write about this consequence of their obsessive coverage of the tragedy.
I did an eighth London Cross walk on Saturday, from Crouch End to Southgate, which leaves me only one more to do on the South-North route. It was a long day, and the tape took me ages to type up yesterday. And today I must press on with the writing.
21 March 2004
It’s been a blowy weekend, but this Sunday morning - which happens to be Mother’s Day - the sun is glancing through the scudding clouds every few minutes.
I saw my mother yesterday. She gave me shepherd’s pie for supper, and I took her to see a Peter Flannery play at the Tricycle Theatre called ‘Singer’. It was a very flawed play, written long before Flannery’s success with the TV series ‘Our Friends from the North’. In ‘Singer’, Flannery tries to make a connection between how Nazi treatment of Jews led to some of them becoming nasty people with how Thatcherism was doing the same. But it’s way too ambitious a project, fundamentally flawed anyway; plus he tries to emulate Shakespeare with prologues and asides to the audience. If the play had simply been about Singer (loosely based on the famous slum landlord Peter Rachman) and his life, then it would have been OK. Indeed, both Mum and I agreed that it could have ended with act one, which is when, historically, Rachman dies. The main actor looked very like Sasha, and some his characteristics were also similar.
Mum spoke to her mum, Cissy, on the phone when I was there. She had sent her flowers via Marks & Spencers. And Adam is with Barbara today, who is probably mourning both her parents.
On the radio I listen to a few minutes of the morning service. A Jamaican priest (I suppose she was a priest, since she was leading the service) told us about how her own mother had left her in Jamaica when she was tiny, and they’d only met again when she was eight or nine ‘and we’re still working things out, even today’, and about the ‘difficult behaviour’ of her son. Who the hell let this woman on the radio to allow her to moan about her family to the world, as though by doing so, by being so honest, she was making herself so righteous.
Yesterday was not a particularly good day. I did the last S-N walk on the 300 easting, but it was the dullest of the nine walks, with almost no saving graces. I won’t mind if the writing is short because the other walks have given rise to more writing than I expected: one - 6000, two - 6100, three - 6700, four - 8400, five - 12600, six - 11600, seven - 9300, eight - 9500. And, they’ve all been written in a week, except for an extra period of ten days in the middle. So when I finish walk nine during the coming week, I’ll have written 75,000 words - certainly book length - in less than three months!
But then I got another quick rejection of Kip Fenn in the post yesterday. I’m getting through the publishers rather quickly now. Transworld and Jonathan Cape returned my manuscripts within five days. Having trawled through the ‘Writers and Artists Yearbook’, I compiled a list of 12 publishers that I could write to. Six have now rejected my submission, with not even a kind or generous word. So now I’ve gone through all the agents, and half the publishers, and not one single one of them has made any remark, whatsoever, about the book. What will I do when I’ve completed the round of publishers? Neither have I had any response from the three friends to whom I gave the book: Fiona, Julian, Brooks. Should I be reading the writing on the wall: is the book useless, badly written, unreadable, boring, worthless?
There must be something seriously wrong me. I don’t understand why I feel so good most of the time. I have no partner, I have very few friends, I spend most days entirely alone. I have very little social interaction. I have no job to speak of, no money coming in. And yet, I rarely feel depressed - and when I do, it’s invariably about Adam, about not having managed to inculcate him into understanding certain things (about hygiene for example, and dress, and behaviour) and not having managed to guide him towards more self-discipline and involvement with people doing real things (I mean in a sport or an activity of some kind).
While in the uni library last week, I read a review of David Sloan Wilson’s book on religion as evidence of group selection. I love having access to so many academic journals again. I read articles about history, evolution, psychology, politics, archaeology, some of which are in stock (although it’s damn annoying - the current journals are placed along a corridor which has a very noisy ramp along which people are always passing) and some of which are online. There is a network system allowing students online access to hundreds and hundreds of academic journals - it’s just a pain to have to read them on line. So, not only have I read, recently, the review of Wilson’s book (thereby reminding myself what was in it, and learning about its limitations) but I’ve also read a long critique of the recently-accepted wisdom on population demographics in the late medieval period in England (about which I knew something because of the biological anthropology MSc)
It’s a beautiful morning, the sky clear, and the sun bright. It feels like Spring.
Last night I had a eureka moment. I was only half awake, and it’s probably like those moments of scientific clarity I used to get when I was stoned, but I tried to hold it in my head, and I promised myself I would write it down this morning - something I’ve now remembered to do. Often, as last night, in the middle of the night I arrive at consciousness, driven there by a need to go to the toilet. But during this process of becoming conscious I experience something akin to being locked in a mental maze, as though I keep thinking the same thing - it often seems like a problem - and cannot find any way to resolve it and move on. It’s as though my mind won’t let me escape from this bit of thought. It’s a bit like when a gramophone records sticks, and keeps playing the same bit of a song over and over again. This is how it seems once I am conscious and remembering some part of what was happening in my mind, before waking.
Now the insight I had last night was that one way to explain this would be to consider that the mind has a MOTOR, but that this is only engaged during consciousness. (I’m having great difficulty trying to put this in words.) Thus, while my brain is still asleep, unconscious, the motor is not engaged (I’ll leave REM sleep out of this for the moment) and, as it starts to come back to consciousness, like a diver emerging out of the water and back into the air, the motor is not yet engaged and so the mind is aware of something, but is stuck on that something because there is no motor to drive thought onwards. I thought this would also explain why, when one is stoned, consciousness so often sticks on one idea, or one object for so long - because the cannabis is slowing down the motor, helping to disengage consciousness from the motor. Yes, one of my problems in trying to write this is that consciousness is far too broad a term - inadequate for my purposes here. I mean there is passive consciousness and active consciousness. Thinking, as in driving the motor of the brain somewhere, is hard work; while watching television is not. These are very different forms of consciousness, and without trying to pin down a language for them - which I’m not going to do here and now as I spend a few minutes on this diary entry - I’m not going to get very far. Basically, though, one can imagine a Conscious Unit which can be a) not working (asleep), b) passively reacting to stimuli (watching television, talking), or c) directing thought, behaviour through over-riding b). What if c and b were really very different, but because they are so integrated in our awareness of them, we do not appreciate, scientifically or individually this difference.
I need to get on with London Cross today.
I started LondonCross on 15 January - that’s when I did my first walk. On Saturday 20 March I did the last walk (of the South-North section), and this morning I’ve finished the first draft of the text. It’s 75,000 words long. It’s taken exactly 10 weeks!
Paul K Lyons
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