Rose-Tinted Eyes

“Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips” – Laurence Olivier. (Quote taken from a wonderful New Yorker piece by Roger Angell.)

My eyesight’s never been good, but it was never bad either. When I was a kid, I guessed it might be bad (my dad was four-eyed all through my childhood, until the 90s when he started forcing the primitive contact lenses of the day into his battered orbs) but the reason I pestered my mum for eye-tests wasn’t that.

I wanted to have glasses because intellectuals wore glasses. It’s like I was psychically connected to Pol Pot but had come to different conclusions – instead of wanting to murder all the intelligentsia, I wanted to be them. I was much younger than him, of course, and much less bitter. So the first time I sat in that big leather chair and the man slipped the glass discs into the metal frame with a “better or worse” each time, I was nervous and happy.

And it turned out I needed glasses – not much, but enough to get some cheap NHS plastic specs that looked like they were extruded from the husks of iridescent insects. They didn’t suit me – for years they wouldn’t suit me – but my dad has pictures of this hairy-headed stick insect with the fat head and the chitin eyes.

The glasses helped, a touch. But the weird thing is that they just twisted everything slightly better into focus. Without them, I can see detail at distance and up close equally well – but it’s just blurred. It’s not like it gets more blurred further away, it’s just that closer than a certain point it’s sharp, like a camera lens with a broken focus ring. I suspect I’ve misunderstood something fundamental about the operation of eyes and this is just how everyone experiences the world. But until someone tells me so, I’ll just say that I can see imperfectly better without glasses than I really should be able to.

Perhaps connected to that twist, my eyes have always been odd. Not merely the short-sightedness, nor the colour-blindness, but the interpolation of elements into the world. It would be fairer to say that my brain is odd, to be fair – the interpretative bit is somewhat out of whack, being certain about things it has no right to be. Anything man-height on the street – parking meters, cable boxes – is interpreted as a person, even with my glasses on.

But with my glasses off, ach, it’s a whole nother world. Larger objects get that interpretation, mountains become bent giants, trees become flowers. It’s a psychedelic world at times, especially if I’ve had a few drinks. And a beautiful sky is still a beautiful sky.

What’s notable though, and what prompted this, was that it does something beautiful to people. The reinterpretations of people, particularly women, can be delightfully generous. When I look at an older woman without my glasses on, my vision just fills her in as she might have been when she was younger. Wrinkles are smoothed away, cheeks are filled out, curves are smoothed. I get to see her, as Olivier says at the top there, as she sees herself, “Seventeen with red lips”.

Older men… I see as older men. Men’s body shapes change when they hit an age, especially with the milk-fat Western diet, and the loss of hair is distinctive. But in a rare man, I see that flexibility of foot and spryness of movement, and conceive them as younger than they are.

Similarly, with certain young gangly men, it’s less generous. It fills them in as old earnest men, the sort of gentle English beanpoles we’ve all encountered, particularly if their body language has been aped from an old father. I can think of two slightly-stooped young men I know, who my side-vision tells me need a nice cup of tea and a biscuit.

Now, my eyes are getting worse. I can’t deny that I need my glasses to type now, which I never really needed two years ago. And a companion to this is that these interpretative illusions are happening more. I regret the loss of acuity, obviously; my success in my profession is partially based on vision and accuracy. But I can’t help enjoying the way that it’s making the world more fantastical and beautiful.

In Flight: Cloud Palaces

And a puff of cloud beneath, and the world is gone. London, rigid in its rows of suburban houses, grey and brown like a tired corpse, vanishes with a sigh. I look down at the passing clouds and I imagine them opening again, to reveal: flocks of dragons drifting beneath, mammalian muscles rippling beneath scaled shoulders; a 2D sprite landscape, like the top-level of a Mario game; just a descending void, perhaps with the straggly rubble of treetops growing sideways from the clouds; endless dark mountain peaks, sharp like birds’ beaks; a quite-white lunar surface, dust still settling; a face, immensely huge and hungry, looking back at me; a sea of Jorgumundr-scale world snakes, slowly writhing, nomadic peoples living and dying on their slimy backs.

Cloud artefact
Another cloud artefact. This is not the sun. The sun is 90 degrees to the left.

Something that can’t be real swims in front of my dreaming eyes; a single, faint brown straight line, that spans the cloudscape far below (though below, side and above vanish the longer you look at the clouds, along with scale and meaning). Moving my head doesn’t shake the image, nor blinking; it’s not ocular or on the window, but it seems to be tracking us.

Perhaps it’s a contrail from an engine or wing, but it seems to be far below. There are no other lines quite like it elsewhere in view, but there are other straight lines elsewhere on this lead-white lunar surface, cutting into the fluff like stream into foamed milk. This line though, it’s impossible to tell how far away it is. It’s obviously super-imposed on the surface below, but whether it’s close or far is hard to tell. Leaning to peer through another window, I see that it shifts slightly but that’s just an effect of our movement; it is travelling with us. Yet distant clouds do seem to block it; either that or, as we’re progressing, it’s fading.

It must be an optical illusion, yet I’ve never seen anything like it. That moment of incomprehension, of struggling to understand, makes me think of cargo cults, minds blasted by the godmen from the air, of the parodic predatory bird-planes of early Nemesis: The Warlock, and of science fiction heroes contemplating impossibly alien tech. Future shock is a very real thing; as Lovecraft realised, there are scales and structures the human mind struggles to comprehend, that it eventually accepts but doesn’t understand. Think of your feelings on gravity, gravity that doesn’t make sense, that can be approached only by analogy to gravity itself (the ball in the rubber sheet view of spacetime). Your mind has abandoned the struggle early here, stopped asking because it doesn’t understand the question or the answer. I’m getting that with a single brown line.

The landscape of the flight doesn’t help though; shifting codes of interpretation that defy scale. Is that an iceberg or a snowcone? A shrub or a redwood? A boulder, a house or a hill? American flits between snow and desert and mountains and inhabitation so fast, without a sign of life beyond a dusty straight line road, that it’s hard to believe 300,000,000 live here.

Holidays in the Kaiber Kush

All dreams begin and end with an elipsis… …so I’m feeling a bit lonely right now. My friends have all bummed off and left me to entertain myself, except one who I’m just walking up to the top floor of the hotel to say goodbye to, before I go and find something to do. We get to the top floor, and it’s a bit like an modernist pub, with banquette seating and high windows that show arid, impossible old mountains scraping at the air. It turns out my friend is meeting a buncha people including Peter Kay, the northern comedian, so I do my balloon trick (something involving a highly-inflated balloon and pratfalls, as far as I can remember) and Peter Kay outdoes me, without even getting up, by punning about balloons, whilst doing a trick where the balloon cord is trapped under his buttocks.

To the tune of: Leadbelly – Ham An’ Eggs

All dreams begin and end with an elipsis… …so I’m feeling a bit lonely right now. My friends have all bummed off and left me to entertain myself, except one who I’m just walking up to the top floor of the hotel to say goodbye to, before I go and find something to do. We get to the top floor, and it’s a bit like an modernist pub, with banquette seating and high windows that show arid, impossible old mountains scraping at the air. It turns out my friend is meeting a buncha people including Peter Kay, the northern comedian, so I do my balloon trick (something involving a highly-inflated balloon and pratfalls, as far as I can remember) and Peter Kay outdoes me, without even getting up, by punning about balloons, whilst doing a trick where the balloon cord is trapped under his buttocks.

The landscape is like this, but more craggy.

Deflated, I say goodbye and head downstairs. I head out into the sunbathing area, which is a big crescent of white sand crammed with cheap loungers, that backs up against the brick walls of the hotel. The hotel looks awfully like a power plant converted into a villain’s lair; it isn’t, but it just looks like that. I sit on a lounge and, wondering what to do, stare at “the pool”. It’s a horrible oily dark colour and they’ve just poured water between the (obviously imported) sand bank and the hotel’s thick circle wall. I was thinking about a swim, but now I’m not; especially as a passer-by points out the ominously large outflow in the wall.

Poached egg dish
Good Eggs.

So I go for a walk instead, passing through a gap in the cyclopean wall. Outside, there’s a mountainous desert, with sand-riddled rocks pushing their red extremities up through a thin layer of grey sand. Looking back the hotel is totally alien to the landscape but also very much the focal point of it – how I always imagined Gormenghast to squat in its environs. I go a little off the track, and am just turning to empty some receipts out of my pocket. When I turn back, I’m on a precipice; thinking now, I realise it’s a flashback to climbing Mount Olympus mixed with crawling to the edge of Masada. I have bad vertigo – I can’t go near edges – and here I just collapse into a squat and wait for the feeling to go enough that I can move. There’s a hole worn in the red sandstone that has an excellent view of a desert floor far below. I’m completely concealed from the road here, and I hear lots of noise, shouting and clashes; the hotel’s been attacked! I stay hidden in my cubbyhole.

Abruptly, through another hole to my right, a square pan appears and an Arabic voice instructs me to cook some eggs for their leader. They’ve found me. Quickly, I poach some eggs, and a floating Wii-style icon starts moving them around, feeding them to an unseen face. He mops it all up, though it’s strange to see poached eggs slice themselves open; they’re perfectly cooked, thankfully. Next the rock fades and a strong, handsome woman’s face appears. Beneath it is a name in stone-cut Cyrillic – Katerin – as I realise my next challenge is Katherine the Great, my focus sort of zooms in on her, as her skin turns the colour of blue frost. I imagine there are more dictators waiting – and I get cooking…

Dream Instrumentalism

Not Quite a Khazar
Not Quite a Khazar
I dreamt of a musical instrument last night.
I was on a train stuck between cities, heading for the engine and the drivers, and I passed a family of khazars, entertaining themselves by taking turns on it.
I had to push past a shtarker in traditional dream dress, a white archaic tunic with red piping, his small flat red cap pinned to the side of his head, focussed on a lugubrious old man playing.
The instrument was a like a clockwork squeezebox a cubit long with a rubbery grey bald human face at one end and a limited keypad at the other.
They played it by struggling against the clockwork and bellows; it only played one tune, which sounded like something from Kroke, and which I was humming when I woke up.
The artistry, as I saw later when a wizened granny took over, is in putting your own interpretation on the tune by distorting the sounds.
She kinda stretched and crushed the head to distort the sound, made it sound childish and whiny, like a nursery rhyme.
He played it straight and slow, hardly touching the face, so it sounded sonorous and, yes, meaningful.
My brother says, it’s like the interpretation of a song, theme and variations, that’s all we can ever do…

The Dreams In Which I’m Dying

To the tune of: Mad World by Tears for Fears.

Dr Greg Slaps Me Awake
Dr Greg Slaps Me Awake

First Dream (Nightmare): Mass Effect 2 interactable highlight encapsulating a plastic dinner tub, endlessly tesselating and overlapping.

Second Dream (Nightmare): A hole through the tiled splash wall behind the cooker in our old house, a hole that’s like something has bored/burned through wood but it’s tiles. Me and my mum lever the tiles off and there’s two openings behind the plaster. The right one is an old cast iron oven door and, when we open it, there’s still a fire in there, reassuringly glowing. The left one is the source of the bored hole and it’s like a flap in a wooden panel, with a little finger hole for access. We don’t open it.
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On meetings of minds.

At the start, chance happenings – two good brains happening on each other, meeting by renown and word of mouth. Nothing else, no writing. Then, with writing, papyrus passing from palaces of the kings as edicts, the only minds that were known. Then writing widens, concepts are allowed and others than the kings have raw materials to communicate over long distances. Books are born, but not correspondence – that is solely by couriers, word of mouth and long-distance travellers. Ideas are communicated but not refined by the best, only by the local leisurely.

Then writing becomes commonplace and the brains start to gather at cities. Support networks spring up to bring the best and brightest to the palaces to work – and they take themselves. True meetings of minds begin – the bright spark of Athens, Rome and its poets, Constantinople, then the reflected glories of palaces and monasteries, running in parallel. Parchment becomes cheap, correspondence and letter-writing springs up, from Rome onwards, the mental community becomes wide and slow, with fast-moving hubs.

As the population grows, travel becomes no longer just for trade and war, but for exploration and self-improvement – by the 17th century, poets, thinkers, musicians and so on can move between the courts and gain fame in several places – Handel, Descartes, Leibniz and the rest dance between kingdoms, meet and share wealth. Slowly the speed and wideness of renown increases til it peaks, in the early 20th – a small number of wealthy talents hopping between Bloomsbury and the Algonquin – Pavlova, Chaplin, Gertrude Stein – but still separated by transatlantic difference.

After that the number of minds blossoms, the world becomes soaked with them and great ideas become hard to disseminate – the mixtures of medias, the cheapness of communication, gradually reduces fame. A century passes, greatness weakening. Now I see great minds online lost in the noise, spreading themselves thin for a grasp at glory, but connecting their with their compadres, albeit perfunctorily. Communities struggle into existence, ideas spread and die rapidly, alienation from the locale is easy but not complete. Where next?

The Modern Trogloditarian

Somedays you wonder if there’s any point opening your eyes. Despite the miracles of daylight saving, when I get up to go to work it’s dark. In our cramped flat trapped between the motorway, tube lines, and ‘retail parks’ (such a horrible word, evoking branded daffodils and planting gold to harvest tat), it’s brown outside the windows, and even darker in our windowless bathroom. I shower, get dressed and head out into the snow, reflecting meagre light. As the tube heads under Hampstead hill, there’s a rosy glow spreading.
I get to work. I sit at a desk. I work through lunch. Outside the great ten foot windows, it’s light, clouds dance, the De Beers’ chairman’s helitaxi winds up on the next rooftop and wap-wap-waps him back to his estate over us city-bound scurriers. It gets dark, early. It’s night. I finish work, late, again. Homeward.
The snow is still heavy around our home, deep and crisp and deadly, patches like teflon and glass, spots where idiots have tried to wash it away with water. The street-light outside our house is broken. Inside, it’s cold and dark. The boiler’s broken. I huddle up to the lamp for warmth and wait for morning.