The rainbow over the city, a bright autumn afternoon, the train journey home. The rainbow sits against a grey sky, over the brown river, it seems to shift as the train crosses the bridge, to align itself with the windows of the train allowing all passengers the best possible view. Children press their faces against glass, are told the story of the pot of gold. They imagine running through trees or alleyways, snaking through undergrowth, towards a rainbow that continually slips further away, for it resides only in their minds, conjured by evolution, light dispersed through raindrops, where blue wavelengths slow, red allowed to speed through. Keats believed that philosophy would ’empty the haunted air’ and unweave the rainbow, but there is no rainbow to unweave, only the patterns of light speeding into the retina, the dazzle of consciousness, the frenzy of being.
I’ve known Eugene since school, but we became closer after his time at university. He studied philosophy and was good at explaining complex ideas in a few words. Through conversations with him I was able to pick through the various philosophical schools, thinkers, major works. Those giants of what we called ‘Western Thought’ who were, until then, no more than vague figures to me, became more delineated: Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein.
We often met in the pub and have one such evening’s conversation exchange transcribed in a diary, scribbled almost illegibly, maybe because of drink, or because I needed to get everything down before I forgot it.
Eugene had told me what I now realise was a famous story of Dr Johnson’s meeting with George ‘Bishop’ Berkeley. Berkeley, the idealist, believed nothing could be known other than through the senses: if it cannot be perceived, it does not exist. Eugene gave several examples, which, in my inebriated, or excited state, or indeed both, I scribbled down.
The blue of the sky is blue that exists only in the eye, or as we now know, in the brain. Colour is produced in the mind, does not exist in the world.
The sound of a car passing. These are vibrations the mind converts into sound. Without the mechanism of our ears, we would not hear. Fish, for example, ‘hear’ with the ‘lateral line’ – this is more like our sense of touch, they sense the vibrations directly rather than hear them as sound.
The heat of chillies is an interaction between the chemicals in the chilli and receptors. Birds and shrews lack these receptors, therefore they don’t sense any heat when eating chillies. Is the heat intrinsic to the chilli? Nope, it is caused by an interaction. This, I think, is what Berkeley was getting at.
But after leaving the pub I remember my head swirling a bit, feeling angry that the external world could be denied. I told Eugene he should test this theory by walking in front of a car. No, he wouldn’t of course. So I kicked a wall, my shoe bounced back, and it hurt.
But Eugene was prepared for this. The wall is made of atoms, he explained, or at least, that’s how we describe material objects. Our body responds to these atoms just as we respond to chillies. An infinitesimally small creature could weave between the atoms, just as neutrinos do. We have evolved to sense the world in order not to discover reality, but to survive. We do not, for example, see beyond the colour spectrum, and many animals hear frequencies which we cannot detect. Does that mean those sounds don’t exist? Well, they don’t exist as sounds for us. And there are frequencies imperceptible to any living thing. Are they sounds?
Even now, many years later, I am not convinced of Berkeley’s argument, but neither can I refute it intellectually. It is one of those systems that is watertight, like a submarine. Don’t open the hatch, you’ll drown everyone inside.
But when I feel the warmth of the sun, or arms around me, when I taste coffee and feel it waken my thoughts, none of this matters. What I feel is what I feel, and what I know or don’t know doesn’t bother me that much. Philosophy is a game. Einstein said the definition of madness was repeating the same experiment over and over again and expecting a different result. This is how I feel about philosophy, except there never is a result. You go over the same arguments but always achieve the same outcome: a slight discomfort mixed with annoyance and bafflement. Put Bishop Berkeley back in the cupboard, give me the warmth of the sun.
We are not who we were. Bone cells are replaced every seven years to ten years, skin cells last mere weeks. We are not who we were. We learn, we remember, we forget, we breathe in new air, digest food, exhale, sweat, excrete. We are not who we were, we are ever changing. A recollection remakes a memory, creates it anew. Like the Ship of Theseus, each part replaced until nothing of the original remains, then we have a full complement of new parts. And yet we have a name, and stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell ourselves become more important, maybe too important. The stories of who we are, how we are not who we were. We cling to irrational narratives, conspiracy theories, anything that threads reality together, makes signals from the noise, patterns in chaos. We are atoms, string vibrations, empty space. We are the memories we remake every day, the songs we sing, the shopping lists, the contents of our fridge. We are our perceptions, our thoughts, however fleeting. We are the green of the shallows, the bellow of the bull, the sweetness of custard, the black of a pencil line.
Free markets can operate only when there is sufficient information. Economic actors are rational and when given correct information will act accordingly. Irrational behaviours will be punished by the market, and eventually wiped out. Adam Smith’s theories are still espoused by free marketeers, often wealthy individuals who have benefited from privilege and large inheritances. But what his adherents fail to recognise is that today’s world is very different from the world Smith describes. Today we have far too much information.
Smith’s financiers gathered at the coffee shops, where the information they studied on any morning was finite. Today information might as well be considered infinite. How is it possible to be rational when the amount of information exceeds our ability to process it? The answer, I assume, is to impose some sort of limit. Given too much information we have to impose a filter, a heuristic, a rule of thumb.
Now I imagine him, King Thumb, a squat, fat monarch perched on his throne. He’s still a young man, but spoilt. He enjoys his food and is rarely to be seen without is face shining with grease. He likes a slice of raw beef for breakfast, a poulet or two for a mid-morning snack. He constantly makes demands upon his staff. Every day he must tolerate audiences with the most despicable people: his Prime Minister, who he loathes, other government representatives, provincial politicians, eccentric inventors, ambassadors. Even worse are the children, some which may or may not be his. Their mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. There are too many of them. So, he decides, he must create a simple rule, the Rule of Thumb. From hereon he will only allow any more than one minute of his time to someone who makes him laugh, and specifically, make him laugh by wearing an amusing hat.
If they can’t be bothered finding a hat that amuses me, he says, then why should I give them any of my precious time? This decree is passed without opposition, and, unconcerned about unintended consequences, the king remains oblivious to the sudden emergence of a new generation of milliners. Hat shops open in the streets and squares surrounding the palace. These shops in turn create new textile industries, promote expeditions to distant islands in the hunt for exotic feathers. Universities open new design departments. To wear an absurd and ridiculous hat is to demonstrate your association with the king. Hats that make bizarre noises, hats that fart. Hats crawling with monkeys that shoot an arc of piss in several directions. Hats that release a exploding cloud of butterflies, a hat that contains a dwarf dressed as jester, a hat that falls open and reveals a statue of a hated monarch of a neighbouring country, naked, with a tiny penis. A hat that depicts King Thumb as a handsome, virile knight lancing effete dragons and foreign ambassadors in the rectum.
One in every ten amuses him, and these lucky subjects are granted an audience. For those that fail to gain access, they have to rethink their approach. Their choice of hat did not amuse His Majesty. They must do a little more research, see which hats make him laugh, apply themselves to studying the market. Certain milliners seem to have more success than others. Those that do expand, those that fail, close down.
But King Thumb soon gets bored with the his grovelling subjects wearing hats that look so similar, he begins to tire of it all, and without notice, changes his rule. From now on he will see only one subject every day, and this will be determined by the ridiculousness of their footwear. Milliners close down. Cobblers, not usually noted for their imagination, advertise for designers, creative minds who can come up with ludicrous ideas for boots and shoes. But within days King Thumb has changed his mind again. It’s Thursday, he’s decided he’d like to see his subjects enter the throne room on stilts. By the following Monday he wants to see them juggling.
Dr Chang believes in state intervention. He has worked in steel for ten years, and now, as a consultant to the government, is trying to persuade General Sang that now is the time. The country can only rise from its peasant economy with state investment.
Like Concorde! laughs General Sang.
Concorde was beautiful, Chang replies, courteously.
But a business failure! Sang says.
Dr Chang takes a breath. He has this one opportunity. He knows he must win the argument. Consider, he says, the industrialisation of the Soviet Union.
I am not Stalin! the General snaps back.
No sir, he says. You are not Stalin. Then think of the Apollo missions, says Chang.
Where do you suggest we go? chuckles the General. To Mars?
No, no. Of course not. Chang bows his head, unable to meet the General’s eyes.
The pyramids, says Chang. He hears the General’s breathing suddenly slow. Their construction unified the people. It gave them direction, a cause. The pyramids have stood for five thousand years. Think of state intervention as more than a profit making exercise. Think how it could bring the people together, make them proud, it will glorify and unify the state.
Yes, says the General. Excellent.
Chang remains silent. Maybe the General is imagining pyramids, or his people happily engaged in some cohesive task, unified in their objective.
We must build a great mausoleum, says the General.
Using slaves, says the General. Just as the pharaohs did. Dr Chang, I shall put you in charge. And thank you for illuminating me.
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are having breakfast in their local cafe. They’ve been working hard on some plans for the year to come and are exhausted. War is looking old. He moans that he’s feeling worn out and he needs some time off.
Pestilence, a nervy young man with bad skin, fidgets, taps a spoon on his mug of tea. He likes a cigarette, but won’t smoke in front of the others as they’re all such health and safety fanatics. ‘I’ve been busy too,’ says Pestilence, ‘and still on minimum wage.’ ‘Give up smoking then,’ says Death, nodding towards Pestilence’s nicotine stained fingers. ‘That’ll save you a few quid.’
Death’s yogurt and muesli arrives, the waitress smiles, winks. ‘She fancies you,’ says War. ‘Well,’ replies Death, ‘is it so unlikely? Look at these cheekbones. I take care of myself. I eat properly, exercise, meditate. And most importantly, I think good thoughts.’
Famine, huge, bearded, folds his big arms and looks towards the counter. ‘Hey Miss? Where the fuck is my bacon sandwich?’ War shakes his head, frowns. ‘Why are you so confrontational?’
Pestilence starts biting his nails. He needs to eat, but his full English is going to take ages. He can see the chef through a hatch at the back of the cafe. The chef looks hot, stressed, overworked. The waitress brings War’s toast. ‘Sorry the other orders are taking so long,’ she says. ‘We’re having a bit of a problem with the hob. Gas keeps going out.’
Death finishes his muesli, wipes his mouth with a paper napkin. ‘Right, as you lot are going to be here for at least another half hour I’m going out for a quick walk. It’s a beautiful morning, don’t want to waste it.’
Famine sighs. ‘I’m fucking starving.’
As Death steps outside there’s a flash, then a huge pulse of sound throws him forward, into the road. He hears glass splintering, rubble crashing, then, as he lies sprawled, he turns his head: there’s a dust cloud where the cafe had been. And in that same second he sees the bus bearing down on him and braces himself for the moment he knows will surely come.
The Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ is dated 1915. It’s a work that signalled an end to representation, the simultaneous birth and death of abstraction. Malevich’s work until then was a series of experiments, he plays with various styles, but suddenly, ‘Black Square’ shuts all that out. From then on, Malevich is a ‘Suprematist’, he uses only flat geometric shapes, avoids the illusion of pictorial depth. The ‘Black Square’ can be seen as a door closed on the world and a turning inwards towards a universe of ideas – a refutation of empiricism and a nod towards rationalism. Or it can be seen as a self-absorbed, egotistical desire for attention. Malevich’s adherence to Suprematism lasted until the late 1920s, when, maybe under pressure from the state, (he was jailed for two months and accused of ‘formalism’) Malevich began painting people again. Suprematism denied the world, was a journey into the frozen wastes of intellectualism. At the end of his life he craved warmth, maybe. But a recent examination of ‘Black Square’ has revealed that Malevich painted over the year of its composition and scrawled another date in order for it to appear as if his revolutionary artwork was made earlier than it really was. Malevich was transparently seeking a place in art history, and it worked. Once he had achieved that ambition he returned to what he really loved: painting people.
Some moved on all fours, like bears. Others slithered around, believing themselves too lowly to walk. A few attempted flight, but never achieved more than a glide, and then there are those who burrowed, those who swam, a few who swung through trees. There were the eccentrics: the rollers, the cart wheelers, the ones who hopped like frogs. Many have reconciled themselves to becoming like plants, rooted to the spot, living off sunlight, water and whatever minerals they could absorb from the soil. A large minority embraced petrification, shutting out the world completely, turned inwards into a dark, meditative silence. But we wanted something more, a dispersal, a complete loss of self. We learnt how to fragment ourselves, diffusing our physical forms into mists, spray, clouds. We discovered this intermingling of our substances was serenely joyous, ecstatic, erotic. We became lovers, or more than that, love itself.
Half way along the main thoroughfare we found ourselves in a dark, wood panelled pub with a maze of corridors converging on a dusty, silent bar, where a shadowy figure emerged to serve us.
We sat alone in a partitioned alcove, drank warm beer and shared some Golden Wonder crisps. What, we asked ourselves, was the wonder of them? And at the same time, we answered that question. The wonder was why they existed at all. And then, returning to the bar for a second round, I saw the display of Fuse bars, Tooty Frooties, tubes of Toffo and Polo Fruits.
Scattered across tables were beer mats advertised Watney’s Red Barrel, McEwan’s Export and Colt 45. On the wall hung signed black and white photos of celebrities, many we did not recognise, some we did: Marty Feldman, Anthony Newlay, Joan Sims.
It was then we began to feel slightly uneasy. Nothing in here seemed to exist in the world outside. But here we were, eating Golden Wonder. Did these crisps still exist? If they did, this was our sole connection with the present. If they didn’t, then we were trapped in the wood panelled hell of the nineteen seventies along with chicken in a basket, tank tops, Pebble Mill at One, the Austin Maxi and Margaret Thatcher.
I typed ‘Golden Wonder’ into my phone. I still had a signal, so if we were stuck in the seventies, at least we could communicate with the future. But, yes, it was clear: the company prospered, their product range extensive: Ringos, Chippies, Quarterbacks, Awesome Oinks and Spicy Bikers.
We finished our drinks and tried to remember the way out. Somehow we believed that a wrong turning would take us down into a labyrinth of cellars and dank tunnels from which we would never return. But a gleam of light drew us on, a waft of cool air, traffic noise. We ran into the streets, gleeful to be back in post-lockdown, racist, fragmented, corrupt Tory Britain, a country of decent coffee, craft beer, Netflix, Thai green curry, vast inequalities, low pay and infinite choice.
When rising sea levels transformed the peninsular into an archipelago, it was clear that people’s freedoms would have to be curtailed for the benefit of all. There were too many people and there was too little space.
Each adult was allocated an area of sixteen square metres, a four by four square in which they could choose to do what they wished. If they wanted a house, a hut with an allotment, a Japanese tea house with a Zen stone garden, that was their decision. The wealthy built upwards, blocking the light of their neighbours. The poorer inhabitants tried to be productive, growing vegetables or keeping hens. Some formed collectives, sharing a house and opening shops, cafes, pubs, a school, a cinema, a theatre, a sauna, a Geological Museum, even a zoo. The grid of alleyways running between these squares was only suited to walking, so vehicles were prohibited. The beaches, or what remained of them, were still public space, and here the people gathered to attend meetings, concerts, community events.
There were several years of calm forbearance as the population of the Archipelago settled into a new way of life. Wealthy dwellings were limited to four storeys. Open fires were prohibited. When a home owner died without leaving a will, the land was expropriated for growing food. Couples were limited to two children. The economy of the islands, while it didn’t prosper, seemed to work well for everyone. It was the end of the age of the motor car, and this was accepted. But if one thing suffered, it was sport. Football, rugby and cricket were just about possible, played on the beach when the tide was out. Golf, however, was not suited to the sand. A beach was one big bunker. Sand was the golfer’s nightmare. Golfers mourned the loss of their sport, sat together in the cafes remembering games they had played, shared videos and photographs, constructed miniature courses in their tiny houses and played with clubs no bigger than matchsticks. Golf became something they loved but could no longer practise, and as the years passed the reality of the game was replaced by all that remained, the memories, the collections of tarnished trophies. Golf became a cult, as bound up in symbolism as any religion. The tee was a grail, the clubs weapons used to fight off demons, the greens and fairways a paradise they would yearn for, as they looked out, with despair, on to the barren wilderness of ocean and the encircling bunkers, the hell, of sand.