Off the Rails

You might expect that, now I am at leisure and living beyond the end of that line, I’d have had lots more opportunities to write, and would be producing blog posts by the dozen – but in fact it’s not been until now that I felt one coming on. It’s partly the need to reorientate my perspective on everyday life, while at the same time getting to grips with all the jobs around the house and garden that have been neglected until now. And of course I don’t any longer have that strangely stimulating combination of movement, crowding and solitude which, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, daily train travel provides. So far I’m actually finding less time to read, rather than more – a matter I shall have to put right.

But, behind it all, I do feel some sort of altered perception quietly forming itself. I’m finding a quiet pleasure in repetitive, mentally undemanding tasks – maybe many of us need more of this sort of offline activity in which to make some sort of space to stretch our mental limbs. However for now, I’d just like to revisit my first week of retirement, which was something in the nature of a holiday. We did a little bit of gentle travelling which gave me plenty of opportunity to just look, in the spirit of innocence that I wrote about last time. And so here are a few highlights, revisited with the help of some photos and not too much commentary.

The middle of the week saw us in Sussex, up on the South Downs. I hope this picture, taken in the high clump of trees known as Chanctonbury Ring, gives a feel of the day:

Chanctonbury RingAnd a few days after this rare rural idyll, we were in  a city – Norwich, which I often visit for family reasons. Like all cities which have a long and rich history but are still thriving, there are piquant juxtapositions of old, young (and perhaps middle aged) wherever you look. Here’s one I happened to record:

In NorwichOr there is just the old – sun on the cloisters at Norwich Cathedral:

Norwich Cathedral cloistersAnd in the cathedral itself, there’s an evocative artwork by the Brazilian sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco:

Ana Pacheco sculptureWe are told it’s based on a scene from Virgil’s Aenead – Aeneas carrying his father from the ruins of Troy. I found it quite compelling – it’s the size of the faces, and the way their expressions are rendered, that commands your attention. The style seems like a blend of contemporary and medieval, giving a sense of the timelessness of the emotions depicted; and the cathedral setting adds to this. It put me in mind of some of the topics I’ve thought of writing about here: current attitudes to religion, and how humans and their ways of thinking can change (and also how they don’t change) across time.

More about the artwork here while the exhibition is on.

Iceland – the Joker in the European Pack

Commuting days until retirement: 57

Rift ValleyA few days’ break from the daily commute for a first visit to Iceland: enough time to discover that, while every country is unique in one way or another, Iceland has more claims to uniqueness than most. The rift valley shown in the photo above illustrates one aspect of this: Iceland itself straddles the American and Eurasian tectonic plates of the earth’s crust, and the land masses either side of this valley are being dragged apart at around an inch a year.

Marteinn Briem

Marteinn Briem in full flow

It was a young former history student, Marteinn Briem, who gave us our first sense of the country’s character.  At the age of 25 he has, in the past year, set himself up entirely independently to conduct walking tours around Reykjavik. This isn’t just a matter of describing old buildings and memorials (although he does that too, in an off-beat and entertaining way). During the two hour walk you’re given a multifaceted guide to Icelandic history, culture and politics, with highlights ranging from an Icelander’s view of the banking crisis, through stories about the elves (see later) to a virtuoso performance of the extensive set of Icelandic vowel sounds. Nothing is charged for any of this – Marteinn simply invites donations, but claims that recommendations on TripAdvisor are even more valuable to him. I’d encourage you to take his tour if you ever visit – his website is at

My first impression of Icelandic people was of a polite, Scandinavian sort of blandness; but if Marteinn Briem hadn’t already dispelled this for me, I think I would have soon come to detect more in them. Historically they have not been an independent country for long; first colonised by Vikings a thousand plus years ago, they were a dependency of first Norway and then Denmark for some 700 years until 1944, when their occupation by the Allies, while Denmark was under the heel of the Nazis, led to their eventual independence. So while what ties they have are mainly to Europe, they are obviously set apart geographically. Their language, sounding to our ears Scandinavian but with a certain alien twang, is famously hard to learn and derives originally from Old Norse. The Sagas originating from that early era are at the core of Icelandic culture, and it’s said that the language in which they are written is perfectly understandable to modern Icelanders, while of course Old English texts from that period are incomprehensible to today’s English speakers without extensive training.

Icelandic handwriting

Some Icelandic handwriting

In the world there are around half a million Icelandic speakers – approximately the population of Sheffield. As in most countries without widely spoken languages, virtually everyone is fluent in English; but of course Icelanders can be more confident than most that no outsiders will understand their native tongue. Walking around Reykjavik, visiting cafes and shops, you are aware of Icelanders switching smoothly and effortlessly between English (mostly) and their own language as required, so that a private local community is effectively preserved amidst the onslaught of tourists such as ourselves. I didn’t detect anything hostile or xenophobic about this; just the understandable desire to guard national identity. In all but a few cases the friendliness with which we were received seemed quite genuine.

Polar bears

Polar bears as sales assistants

But this peculiarly Icelandic ambivalence is understandable especially in the light of recent history: the banking crisis affected the country more radically than most; the Icelandic kroner crashed, and as a result cheaper travel to the country has now caused tourism to take over from fisheries as the country’s principal industry. And Icelanders are quite adept at drumming up trade. In Reykjavik polar bears – fake, stuffed or animated – are on hand to attract us into the shops, as my photo shows. And no matter, as our guide Marteinn pointed out, that no real polar bears live in Iceland. The joke is on us, the tourists; but there’s no malice involved.  This was underlined for me when, as I lined up for my photo, taken across Reykjavik’s main shopping street, waiting for the cars to pass, I realised that they had stopped to let me take it. I can’t think of any other cities where that would happen.

Neither can I think of any other cities that offer such contrasting sights in a small area. There are ostentatious and confident modern buildings, such as the concert hall that overlooks the harbour, clad in coloured strip lights that coruscate at night like sequins on a dancer’s dress. But much of the city consists of the traditional clapboard houses painted in contrasting colours, seen here from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja, the cathedral that stands on the central hill – itself a pretty remarkable piece modern architecture.

Niew from Hallgrímskirkja

View from the Hallgrímskirkja


The Hallgrímskirkja

Once back in the street, and getting a bit cold and footsore, we took refuge in one of the warm, welcoming, cluttered cafés where we could have hot chocolate or traditional lamb soup. By this time I had collected in my camera more images that suggested the somewhat askance world view of Icelanders; here are two examples of the quirky murals to be found all over town.


Murals, or graffiti – whatever you prefer to call them

The explosive and unpredictable nature of Iceland’s physical environment must be a factor in the national character. There was the famous volcanic ash cloud of spring 2010 when, according to Marteinn Briem, the volcano (with the appropriately unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajökull) had erupted in the south of the country, and the ash cloud blew south. As a result European air traffic was grounded while Icelanders could fly around their country as normal; this gave rise to much innocent schadenfreude.

A geyser

The original ‘Geysir’, from which we get our word ‘geyser’

We found the natural phenomena to be just as capricious as the Icelanders themselves: the Northern Lights refused to show, even on the few occasions when the sky partially cleared. However we did see a geyser. My photo of one blowing may not look that impressive, but you should view it with respect – your intrepid blogger undertook a 6 hour return coach trip, and it then took a 400 metre walk and a ten minute wait in a driving blizzard to land this image. As I say, a country where it’s normal for boiling steam to erupt from the snow must be bound to confer some contrary characteristics on its people.

The elf rock

The elf rock in Reykjavik

Not surprising, perhaps, that unseen life is popularly attributed to the landscape. The elves, or ‘hidden people’ are often spoken of, having something of the nature of the leprechauns of Ireland. Last year a construction project was held up because a large rock which had to be moved was said to be important to these mysterious beings. The story is that more than one piece of heavy equipment brought in to move the rock inexplicably malfunctioned. The solution was arranged by someone who claimed to be able to communicate with the elves, and promised them that part of their rock would be given a home in the centre of Reykjavik – and there it stands, as our guide Marteinn proudly showed us. (There was also a BBC report about it.)

Ísafjörður peninsula

The Ísafjörður peninsula

I noticed how Marteinn and most of his compatriots who mentioned the Huldufolk, or hidden people, left you with a carefully cultivated sense of uncertainty as to whether they actually believed in them. My feeling was that this was an expression of the subversive Icelandic sense of humour – as well as a useful draw for tourists. All this added to the impression of Iceland as a sort of court joker to the rest of the world; even the map of Iceland has the Ísafjörður peninsula in the northwest, appearing like rakishly worn cap and bells. The country is historically linked with Europe but claims the licence to mock its failings – a Fool to Europe’s King Lear.

The Unknown Bureaucrat

The Unknown Bureaucrat

What summed this up for me was a sculpture that stands near the centre of Reykjavik: it’s called The Unknown Bureaucrat, and in characteristic Icelandic fashion it celebrates the notional worker who gets things done and keeps everything functioning – but at the same time pokes fun at him. Maybe it also appealed to Duncommutin because he saw himself in it: only three months remain before I drop my brief case and free my head from the big stone block of work and commuting in which it is embedded.

The Vault of Heaven

Commuting days until retirement: 250

Exeter Cathedral roof

The roof of Exeter Cathedral (Wanner-Laufer, Wikimedia Commons)

Thoughts are sometimes generated out of random conjunctions in time between otherwise unrelated events. Last week we were on holiday in Dorset, and depressing weather for the first couple of days drove us into the nearest city – Exeter, where we visited the cathedral. I had never seen it before and was more struck than I had expected to be. Stone and wood carvings created over the past 600 years decorate thrones, choir stalls and tombs, the latter bearing epitaphs ranging in tone from the stern to the whimsical. All this lies beneath the marvellous fifteeenth century vaulted roof – the most extensive known of the period, I learnt. Looking at this, and the cathedral’s astronomical clock dating from the same century, I imagined myself seeing them as a contemporary member of the congregation would have, and tried to share the medieval conception of the universe above that roof, reflected in the dial of the clock.

Astronomical Clock

The Astronomical Clock at Exeter Cathedral (Wikimedia Commons)

The other source of these thoughts was the book I happened to have finished that day: Max Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe*. He’s an MIT physics professor who puts forward the view (previously also hinted at in this blog) that reality is at bottom simply a mathematical object. He admits that it’s a minority view, scoffed at by many of his colleagues – but I have long felt a strong affinity for the idea. I have reservations about some aspects of the Tegmark view of reality, but not one of its central planks – the belief that we live in one universe among a host of others. Probably to most people the thought is just a piece of science fiction fantasy – and has certainly been exploited for all it’s worth by fiction authors in recent years. But in fact it is steadily gaining traction among professional scientists and philosophers as a true description of the universe – or rather multiverse, as it’s usually called in this context.

Nowadays there is a whole raft of differing notions of a multiverse, each deriving from separate theoretical considerations. Tegmark combines four different ones in the synthesis he presents in the book. But I think I am right in saying that the first time such an idea appeared in anything like a mainstream scientific context was the PhD thesis of a 1950s student at Princeton in the USA – Hugh Everett.

The thesis appeared in 1957; its purpose was to present an alternative treatment of the quantum phenomenon known as the collapse of the wave function. A combination of theoretical and experimental results had come together to suggest that subatomic particles (or waves – the duality was a central idea here) existed as a cloud of possibilities, until interacted with, or observed. The position of an electron, for example could be defined with a mathematical function – the wave function of Schrodinger – which assigned only a probability to each putative location. If, however, we were to put this to the test – to measure its location in practice, we would have to do this by means of some interaction, and the answer that would come back would be one specific position among the cloud of possibilities. But by carrying out such procedures repeatedly, it was shown that the probability of any specific result was given by the wave function. The approach to these results which became most widely accepted was the so-called ‘Copenhagen interpreatation’ of Bohr and others, which held that all the possible locations co-existed in ‘superposition’ until the measurement was made and the wave function ‘collapsed’. Hence some of the more famous statements about the quantum world: Einstein’s dissatisfaction with the idea that ‘God plays dice’; and Schrodinger’s well-known thought experiment aimed to test the Copenhagen interpretation to destruction – the cat which is presumed to be simultaneously dead and alive until its containing box is opened and the result determined.

Everett proposed that there was no such thing as the collapse of the wave function. Rather, each of the possible outcomes was represented in one real universe; it was as if the universe ‘branched’ into a number of equally real versions, and you, the observer, found yourself in just one of them. Of course, it followed that many copies of you each found themselves in slightly different circumstances, unlike the unfortunate cat which presumably only experienced those universes in which it lived. Needless to say, although Everett’s ideas were encouraged at the time by a handful of colleagues (Bryce DeWitt, John Wheeler) they were regarded for many years as a scientific curiosity and not taken further. Everett himself moved away from theoretical physics, and involved himself in practical technology, later developing an enjoyment of programming. He smoked and drank heavily and became obese, dying at the age of 51. Tegmark implies that this was at least partly a result of his neglect by the theoretical physics community – but there’s also evidence that his choices of career path and lifestyle derived from his natural inclinations.

During the last two decades of the 20th century, however, the multiverse idea began to be taken more seriously, and had some enthusiastic proponents such as the British theorist David Deutsch and indeed Tegmark himself.  In his book, Tegmark cites a couple of straw polls he took among theoretical physicists attending talks he gave, in 1997 and again in 2010. In the first case, out of a response of 48, 13 endorse the Copenhagen interpretation, and 8 the multiverse idea. (The remainder are mostly undecided, with a few endorsing alternative approaches). In 2010 there are 35 respondents, of whom none at all go for Copenhagen, and 16 for the multiverse. (Undecideds remain about the same – to 16 from 18). This seems to show a decisive rise in support for multiple universes; although I do wonder whether it also reflects which physicists who were prepared to attend Tegmark’s talks, his views having become more well known by 2010. It so happens that the drop in the respondent numbers – 13 – is the same as the disappearing support for the Copenhagen interpreation.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the notion of a multiple universe as a reality has now entered the mainstream of theoretical science in a way that it had not done half a century ago. There’s an argument, I thought as I looked at that cathedral roof, that cosmology has been transformed even more radically in my lifetime than it had been in the preceding 500 years. The skill of the medieval stonemasons as they constructed the multiple rib vaults, and the wonder of the medieval congregation as they marvelled at the completed roof, were consciously directed to the higher vault of heaven that overarched the world of their time. Today those repeated radiating patterns might be seen as a metaphor for the multiple worlds that we are, perhaps, beginning dimly to discern.

*Tegmark, Max, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Allen Lane/Penguin, 2014


Commuting days until retirement: 432


Wikimedia Commons / Patrick J. Lynch. Adapted

A break from philosophy, now, while we explore another discipline, one which I had not heard of before today – not under that name, anyway. I had the BBC’s Today programme on the car radio this morning, and there was an item about what it was like to live in an airport, with reference to the fugitive American whistleblower/spy, Edward Snowden. One of the participants in the piece was the writer Will Self, described as being a lecturer in psychogeography at Brunel University. This did get me listening more intently – I was intrigued as to what exactly he was teaching. It sounded like geography as taught by some of the teachers I remember from school. (To be fair, it was probably my lack of aptitude as a pupil that helped drive them to the brink of insanity.)

So the presenter started by asking, quite reasonably, “What is psychogeography?” Self’s reply was couched in such mind-numbing sociobabble that I was none the wiser. Instead I had to go to the BBC website later and find the recording, so that I could have another try. Here’s what he said:

Psychogeography is essentially the idea of purposeless transits across the urban context in order to deconstruct the commercial and political imperatives of contemporary space… [presenter: “Perfect”] …Well, yes, that’s it in a nutshell.

A rather hard nutshell to crack. Here’s my attempt at a translation:  A psychogeographer wanders about towns and cities, ignoring all the upfront messages and propaganda that the establishment would have you accept, and looks instead at what is really happening, in human terms. Maybe it’s rather like psychoanalysis: instead of accepting what the city tells you at face value, you delve into its messy, scatalogical subconscious. The difference, perhaps, between visiting an expensive restaurant and rummaging through its dustbins – you’d certainly learn a lot more of interest from the latter.

Here’s an alternative (in both senses of the word) definition, from Time Out magazines’s Bluffer’s Guide to Psychogeography.

A mélange of history, geography, pretension and psychology invented by ’50s Gallic eggheads, who described it thus: ‘The study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ Basically, it means making stuff up about London.

I suppose you can forgive Time Out for being a bit London-centric, even if the subject was invented by Frenchmen. The ever-helpful, ever-earnest Wikipedia fills this in a bit, tracing its roots in Dadaism and surrealism, and identifying a central figure in its development in the fifties as one Guy Debord. The article allows itself to quote his biographer thus:

This apparently serious term ‘psychogeography’ comprises an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both.

I begin to warm to the subject. And it does indeed seem from the Wikipedia article that much of the present day psychogeographical activity is centred on London: there are all the writings of Peter Ackroyd, and also a mention of Iain Sinclair makes me realise I have read him. His book London Orbital derives from a walk around the route of the M25, London’s orbital motorway, in which he explores life close to the ground, as it were, beneath the headline developments.

There are so many books in our house, so badly organised, that some of them disappear into the mélee and aren’t easily found again, and unfortunately that has happened to Sinclair. The same goes for what I remember as a very charming book in a similar vein, Christopher Ross’s Tunnel Visions: Journeys of an Underground Philosopher. The “Underground” is literal here – he took a job for a year and a half as a station assistant on the London Underground, where he studied, and entertainingly reported on, the oddities of human life in that environment.

However I have managed to unearth Leadville by Edward Platt, which does what Sinclair did for the M25 on the main road which leads westward out of London. And on my to-be-read pile is Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley: two poets explore (in prose) those areas, largely created by commercial activity which are not quite urban, and not quite rural. A selection of chapter headings gives you the idea: Paths, Containers, Landfill, Sewage, Canals, Ruins, Mines, Airports, Piers. It strikes me that I have even dabbled in the area a little in this blog: see Memento Mori.

And perhaps psychogeography’s credentials as an academic subject are underscored by the sniping between its practitioners. I dipped into the Amazon preview of Self’s book, derived from a newspaper columns and simply entitled Psychogeography, but much of the contents didn’t seem terribly urban. And sure enough, in a Guardian Interview, Sinclair says:

For me, it’s a way of psychoanalysing the psychosis of the place in which I happen to live. I’m just exploiting it because I think it’s a canny way to write about London. Now it’s become the name of a column by Will Self, in which he seems to walk the South Downs with a pipe, which has got absolutely nothing to do with psychogeography. There’s this awful sense that you’ve created a monster.

But you don’t have to be a writer to be a psychogeographer. It so happens that last night we watched a TV programme about the French/American photographer Vivian Maier. Again new to me – in fact she was obscure and unknown throughout her life, which ended a few years ago. Working as a children’s nanny in New York and Chicago, she spent all the time she could wandering the streets with a camera, and amassed countless thousands of marvellous photographs, many of which remained undeveloped at her death. She was secretive and solitary, and although something of a hoarder, she never owned her own place of dwelling, and had nowhere to keep her archive. Instead she paid to keep it in storage throughout her life, and soon before her death it was sold off when the fees got into arrears. This was when it was discovered, and has since been split between various owners and become immensely valuable.

There’s no question that her pictures got under the skin of the urban landscape: favourite subjects include down-and-outs, or any faces whose mood and character come right out of the picture, including many children. Although a recluse with little social contact, she seemed to have the knack of getting close to her subjects, both physically and psychologically, despite her cumbersome Rolleiflex camera. Other subjects include landscapes, found abstract patterns or any objects or scenes which appealed to her eye. There is a whole series of self-portraits, always with a portentous, even disturbing feel to them.

The website for her work is here: And the TV programme is on BBC iPlayer until early August.

Venice and the Hand of God

Commuting days until retirement: 460

Venice02It’s now two weeks since the Venice visit I mentioned last time, and I haven’t had sufficient reflection time to conjure up a blog about it, or about anything else for that matter. But looking at some of my photos has brought it back to mind – so here we go.

Venice06It has been the first time my wife and I have gone there together, if we discount an impossibly hot day spent there 12 years ago with the children, who then still were children. This time, among the beautiful, ancient architecture and the rampant tourism, it struck me how there is nowhere else I know that history mixes so intimately with brash modernity. Everywhere you are surrounded by the fading grandeur that Italy does so much better than anywhere else. Like a party of very elderly ladies on Blackpool beach, the clustered buildings wrap their gothic dignity about them, persisting serenely among the seething bees’ nest of tourist activity that has its focus in the scrum of St Mark’s Square.

We approach the square on a warm day over a crowded canal bridge, and as we climb the steps we are buffeted by our fellow tourists’ backpacks and factor 10 smeared elbows. Just as Venice05we reach the top, the Bridge of Sighs comes into view, and there’s a frenzy of digitally simulated shutter clicks. On we go, and brave the queue to get into the Doge’s Palace, then being rewarded with its gorgeous art and architecture. We pass under Tintoretto’s spectacular battle scenes, and before leaving walk through a long succession of halls filled with vicious medieval weapons of war. They shift your perception from Venice as a graceful old lady, to appreciating it as a city state jealously guarding its position in the rivalry and commercialism of the middle ages.

On, and out into the warren of alleyways among the buildings packed between the canals. Muscular men scurry around the strolling tee-shirted and camera-clad visitors, dragging laden trolleys of goods to restock the tourist shops. The background sound is of the canal water slapping against the mildewed brickwork, where pink stuccoed gothic descends into its muddy, hidden foundations. We take a vaporetto to see the city from the water, and my first, uninspired photo from the boat turns out to have an addition I don’t notice when I took it:

Venice04It adds something to what would have been an unoriginal image – the hand of God? Well if  so, it’s conspicuously absent thereafter. One day and a few mosquito bites later, we set out for some of the outer islands. On Murano there are the glassblowers, nonchalantly practising their lifetime, unfathomable skills in front of us gawping tourists.

Burano1And then Burano, where we are struck by the leaning church tower, which I hadn’t known about. Well, the hand of God has had hundreds of years to do something about that – but no luck.

This island is known for its colourful houses – apparently if you want to paint your house here you have to apply to the local authority, which will graciously assign you a colour. We spent some time wondering whether the washing hung out at the front (very Italian) was deliberately colour co-ordinated with each house.

Burano2Next stop, just opposite Burano, is the peaceful, rural island of Torcello – seeming particularly quiet and pastoral after Venice itself. My only pious intention of our visit was to go to the church of Santa Maria del Assunta, one of Europe’s oldest. It boasts spectacular 11th century mosaics over the altar. I was lucky enough to see these, nearly 30 years ago, on a work trip, and wanted to refresh my memory. We realised the time had got to 5.45, and our guide book said it was open until 6. But the sign when we got there, in English: Last entry 5.30. We tracked down the man in charge, but he was adamant. No go. So the hand of God was not willing to make another appearance on our behalf.

Ah well – next time, perhaps – if He grants me another 30 years.