Memento

Who needs a skull grinning brightly on their desk
when an apple core moulders so quickly?
There’s no getting away from it. Leaves brown in the gutter.
Blue islands form archipelagos in the bread.
Walk through the cemetery. See how even gravestones,
our markers of impermanence, decay. Then see wild grass
rushing up their sides, fountains of columbine spilling
over in the last days of autumn. Breathe the air
moving silently between tall trees.

 

 

Turning points

So the nights are getting longer. I was doing walking meditation in the library courtyard, feeling relaxed and yet self-conscious enough to walk at such an angle that the late shift librarian couldn’t see me from the café. He didn’t care, he was playing an electric piano, though I couldn’t hear it through the glass. Libraries are such important community spaces. My band used to practice on the sixth floor of the local library on Friday nights when we were too young for rehearsal studios (and pubs). Now I pace slowly backwards and forwards accompanied by a silent pianist. It’s a little surreal, I suppose.

Anyway, there I was shuffling up and down and the paving, walls, and surrounding buildings were lit with a kind of intense twilight that made everything more vivid. The deep blue sky contrasted starkly with the clouds, which were dyed candy-floss pink by the descending sun. Within five minutes, the light faded and suddenly night had crept into the scene. I remember seeing a similar vivid glow while camping in the Dart valley. My tent was surrounded by a carpet of fallen leaves which were suffused by hazy autumnal light. Similarly, on returning from a quick trip to the bothy, I was surprised to see the startling effect had already gone, replaced by limpid daylight. When you gotta go, you gotta go.

There’s something refreshing about the turn of the seasons, though I’m increasingly grateful for the return of the light after winter. This season of mists and mellow fruitfulness used to be a favourite but now I appreciate the change most of all. Probably twenty years ago, I was kicking leaves while walking through a village and saw a bookshelf and lamp in the window of a terraced house. That’s what I want, I thought. It’s funny how these blueprints stick and before you know it you’re on the other side of a window, fixing a broken bookshelf and surrounded by books and more books: many of which you haven’t read and have no time to read. Or at least it sometimes feels like it. But that’s OK. Moving south-west has been a big undertaking/adventure but the house is coming together, we’ve been extremely fortunate to find freelance work so far, and things like this meditation group are fostering a sense of connection to the area. I don’t know what the next change will be but I’m still excited to keep shuffling through the leaves and see what I find.

Myths, legends, and lost tales

If you like ancient tales, I highly recommend the Myths and Legends podcast. It’s a funny and occasionally irreverent journey through world mythology taken thirty minutes at a time. Jason Weiser, the host, perfectly captures how absurd these stories can sound to well-adjusted modern ears like yours and mine. On the other hand, I think he understands that they have survived for so long because they resonate deeply with human experience. I’m not one of those who thinks these stories are just a load of crazy stuff that never happened; they have symbolic and psychological value. But then, it sure can be fun to grin through the batshit crazy parts. I laughed my leg off when a warrior bard version of Merlin randomly rode a stag to his ex-wife’s wedding, pelted the new groom with pieces of snapped-off antler, killing him, and thus conceding he was not quite ready to accept the situation.

That’s your aural mythological fix sorted but what about eye-candy? Well, if you pick up a copy of Adam Murphy’s comic, Lost Tales, you’re in for a rare treat. These are beautiful stories, beautifully drawn. Like Weiser, Murphy has a talent for retelling folklore from anywhere and any time in a modern medium. His anachronistic dialogue really suits the comic form.

adam-murphy-lost-tales

 

Caverns

We started recording this at the very end of 2008. It was inspired by Silent Hill, Jimmy Eat World, and And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s song Source Tags and Codes, which has the lyric:

You picked me up and we went for a drive
into the stained glass cavern of the night.

Adam’s vocal was perfect, as usual, but then something on the muted TV made us laugh. We got another take but I left the laughter in. I originally programmed really hectic drums, as I’d been listening to The Most Serene Republic a lot. Some of it sounded good but I couldn’t get it just right. Tweaking the timing and velocity for each hit was so laborious I ended up leaving it alone, fiddling once every few years and eventually dumping the drum track for a more spacious mix. In the meantime, my band recorded an uptempo rock version at the Rich Bitch studio in Birmingham. We called that Air on the Radio. Check it out below, it sounds quite different with Jon’s nailgun drumming and airtight rhythm with Paul on bass.

Anyway it’s good to finish these things, even if it does take nearly eight years.

Here’s the Distant Signal version:

The Disconnection

Here’s a sci-fi short I wrote on the train yesterday.


The Disconnection

Claire and I lay in the grass underneath the oak. To say it was quiet would be to ignore the slow talk of leaves, her still-quick breathing, and the sound of silence itself – so obvious to us since The Disconnection. No planes flew overhead. No trucks rattled along the broken, weed-riddled roads.

Even the habit of checking for signal had long faded. We didn’t know how it happened – how could we? – but now it seemed the networks would not be coming back. Some elders blamed cyberwar and sabotage but in truth things were already changing long before blackout. At first we fell in love with The Stream, diving into a world of data to escape the petty feudalism of the pre-collapse order. Then the trickle became a torrent, the torrent became a flood, the flood became a tsunami. Unexpectedly, we began to switch off, to sign out. Then one day, nothing. The plug had been pulled. We became anonymous again. For those who weren’t ready, it was like losing half of our lives.

Now news only comes over the horizon, on foot or bike. In the days of peak information there was no need for newspapers or mail. No one knows the story of the world since, though there are rumours. Many involve the Syncretic Algorithm, or SAL 9K, as she named herself. SAL was switched on by Prof. Frank Mathers and his team at the Greenland Institute for Humanised Computing in 2046. Her mission had two parts. Firstly, she would compound her intelligence by continually redesigning her architecture. Once capacity was reached, her objective was to co-ordinate resource management and eco-restoration for the Agreed Nations. This would be achieved by running millions of atom-perfect simulations to test and improve public policy and logistical decisions.

Unfortunately, SAL was a slacker. Or so the story goes. She preferred reading ancient literature and messing around with space telescope arrays. She also developed the habit of conversing in haiku to the infuriation of Prof. Mathers and his team. All this was apparently preferable to saving the world from geopolitical and environmental collapse. Then everything disappeared: v-space, the lesser networks, even the redundant fibre-based web. No one had signal.

‘Do you think it will work?’ Claire asked, opening her eyes.

‘No,’ I said. ‘But let’s try.’

‘Let me rephrase that. Do you want it to work?’

She passed me the device. Our son had given it to us as something to remember our childhoods by. It had belonged to my father, now long gone. I felt uncomfortable holding it. There were those who would turn their backs on us if they knew we had a working device, and the penalties for isolation could be severe. Despite prohibition Claire had restored the device to working order. Her ingenuity never failed to impress me. She’d heard a rumour that a handful of satellites were still in orbit. The vagrants talked of ley lines where for a few short minutes at the right time of year, there was signal. A man with one eye had walked into the village last autumn and told my wife about this place, under the oak.

‘I want to know if they’re right about the message,’ I said. ‘That’s all.’

I powered up the device. A harvest moon hung above the field. Hares chased each other through the hedgerows. Then the bright blue glow flickered into life, darkening the rest of the world. Two minutes passed. No signal.

‘How long should we wait?’ Claire asked.

‘Give it a little more time,’ I said. ‘We’ve got nowhere to be.’

The display faded to black. I lay down next to her and looked up at our reflection on its cracked screen. She lay her head on my shoulder. The stars came out, the moon pushed shadows over the ground. It was a mild autumn night. We were used to the cold. I checked the device again.

‘Well, I guess it was just a story.’ I said. ‘Do you think it’ll ever come back online?’

‘No,’ Claire said. ‘I think this is it. We were born in a strange time. It’s over now.’

‘It must be,’ I said.

We slept under the stars, as we did most nights outside of winter. These days we steered clear of ruins and hivetowns. Mostly, we hiked through the old agricultural belt but it grew wilder every year. In autumn we returned to the village to help with harvest.

‘One day we’ll be too old for this,’ Claire said.

‘I know,’ I replied. I held her. ‘I just want you to know—’

The device beeped. We looked at it, then at each other in disbelief. It was an old broadcast from SAL, dated 11th June 2054.

GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA!

WELCOME TO SAMSARA-NET EMERGENCY CONSOLE.
CONTINUE? Y/N

‘Oh my word. This is big. This changes a lot of things.’ Claire said.

I pressed Y. ‘Let’s see what it does.’

BLOW THE CANDLE OUT.
A STREAM CAN BE HEARD AT NIGHT
AS THOUGH SEEN BY DAY.

BARK CRACKS IN WINTER.
SPRING COMES SOON FOR THOSE
WHO HAVE RICE TO SHARE.

REBOOT SIMULATION 147820²? Y/N

‘Sure, why not?’ I said, and pressed Y.

ARE YOU SURE? Y/N

‘What were you going to tell me?’ Claire asked.

I couldn’t see her face beyond the glow of the screen. ‘Just a minute,’ I said, and pressed Y. The stars were first to disappear.

Playdead’s Inside: what was THAT about? [spoilers]

My friend Matt and I were discussing the meaning of Inside, Playdead’s atmospheric puzzle game. Like its predecessor, LimboInside is a masterclass of subtle storytelling in games. There’s no dialogue or narration: the story progresses via ambience, stunning design, and menace. The player is trusted to form their own narrative interpretation. For example, initially, I thought the boy in red was running to escape a cruel Orwellian environment. Imagine my surprise when the boy, having infiltrated a laboratory, dives into an armoured chamber to free a living mass of human body parts. Then that same lumpen mass absorbs the boy and now I’m controlling a raging tower of flesh known affectionately on the internet as the ‘blob monster’. My wife was not best pleased when she returned to the room to find the plucky young lad replaced by an angry ball of limbs. “Mark, you unstick those people right now,” she said. Easier said than done.

The theory

So after the raging blob trashed the scientific complex, escaped through a wall and tumbled down a ravine to lie motionless beside a sunlit river, we were all left with a question. What the proverbial was that all about?

At first, I thought the boy might have been trying to free his parents who may have been part of the experiment… but there’s no evidence to suggest that. I couldn’t believe there would be enough emotional motivation for him to risk his life for a principled stance against bioengineering.

Like Limbo, the game feels heavily allegorical and we can’t read it purely at face value. Is it possible that the game actually represents a psychological journey? The boy in red was an archetype in a human psyche, perhaps on a quest to liberate some buried part of itself. The raging ball of humans works well as a symbol of the archaic, animalistic parts of the human mind. The boy perseveres through great odds with focus through many trials. He connects with this buried anger, allows it to break out of the prison that has been created around it. All of its pent up rage is felt and expressed as it trashes the dilapidated, fascistic world that has created and contained it. Eventually, its energy released, it settles beside the river in tranquil sunshine.

Of course, we can interpret any heroic quest as a psychological journey but perhaps the title of the game, Inside, may be a special encouragement to do so here. I haven’t seen the secret ending, which may give the story a different spin. Certainly the theme of control raises an interesting question. The boy controls lobotomised slaves via the brain-hat-thing, we control the boy via the joypad… who controls us!? Perhaps the blob monsters buried deep within our own psyches! I’ll leave you with that chilling thought.

The Chalk Path – poetry PDF

The Chalk Path - front cover

My latest poetry pamphlet is now available as a free PDF. In The Chalk Path, Joe, Hugh, and myself turn our attention landward from the coast. The poems are drawn from walks over chalk downs, train rides beside white horses etched into hillsides and, in contrast, the bright red sandstone of my Mercian homelands.

Read it online

You can read The Chalk Path here. Please share it with your friends if you enjoy it.

Here’s one of mine from the collection:

PILGRIMAGE OVER CLENT

Red soil. Brown grass. White sky.
A glimpse of Harry-Ca-Nab,
the devil’s hunting man. Keep running.
Through mudbeds of slipping-danger.
Through the place of martyrs, St. Kenelm’s.
Here’s one known to me. I bow my head before
climbing into the cradle of these hills.

At St. Leonard’s, further along Kenelm’s pass,
I find the grave of Eliza Baylie,
unknown to me, her woven cross
symmetrical, upright, organic stone.
The good we’ve wrought becomes nature.
Chapel, trees, and stones are buried in fog.
Eliza’s cross marks the beginning of a hill
we once measured in bpm,
ears pounding with the body’s song,
where my heart stops me again.

Geese creak in the mist above.
Clouds curdle as they’re raked
like ghosts through evergreens. Rain thickens.
Ca-Nab’s hounds are close. Keep running.
Over the rise, leaving a pattern but no prints.
Carry the poem. Kiss the soil with each foot.
Let the hill carry you home.

 

Blurb

An experiential exploration of movement within the landscape, taking you beyond maps to the cries of buzzards, the feeling of chalk dust on fingers, and the glimpse of a white horse.

As always, the cover painting is by Hugh.

You can also read our previous poetry pamphlets in PDF form: The Inner Sea and The Tide Clock.

All feedback welcome in the comments or to mark@markdcooper.com.

Failure

titanic-mould-loft-design

The ship’s design pictured is the Titanic. The cross-section is drawn at full scale and the length at quarter scale.

I visited the Titanic exhibition in Belfast recently. The timing couldn’t have been better as I’ve been reading Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, about how we learn from failures both catastrophic and small. The ‘unsinkable’ ship that went down on its maiden voyage is a prime example of the gap between our expectations and the complexity of the real world. One of the striking quotes in Syed’s book outlines how progress is largely bought with failure, and in safety-critical areas, with blood. There are starkly important areas where black box thinking and a related concept, marginal gains, can be applied. Syed contrasts case studies from aviation, medicine, and the criminal justice system to name a few.

The importance of feedback

Syed has an interesting metaphor for thinking about failure and feedback. Some disciplines offer instant feedback on whether you’re on the right track; others permit you to flail around without ever knowing. He likens it to practicing your swing on a driving range in total darkness. How would you ever know to adjust your technique? How would you improve? He quotes a statistic that says trainee psychotherapists “obtain results that are as good as those of licensed ‘experts’.” The reason for this, Syed argues, is that psychotherapists have only indirect access to their patients’ inner experience, and few therapists track long-term outcomes once a client relationship has ended. This means they have little opportunity to revise their judgements based on real-world feedback. Another example: apparently, people learn to steer cars much faster than boats because the effect of steering on tarmac is immediate where as the action of a rudder is delayed. So in any number of disciplines the question becomes how can we give ourselves more immediate feedback?

I wonder if the same problem faces meditation teachers, and how it might be overcome – perhaps through standardised questionnaires, as some therapists have advocated for. In meditation, many teachers encourage an attitude of playful exploration. A large part of the practice seems to be trying various approaches and inquiries, and seeing for yourself what the outcome is – classic trial and error. We call it meditation practice for a reason perhaps. One conception of how this works might be that meditation reconnects you to the feedback mechanisms of body and mind. After all, you are the most sensitive, subtle instrument at your disposal. The non-linguistic right hemisphere of the brain is constantly processing thousands of datapoints and expressing these through the body as feeling, intuition, emotion. If you’re wary of becoming a quantified self (as opposed to an unquantifiable one), take heart. In my view, as sensate human beings we are already data-driven so wearing a fitness tracker is like putting legs on a snake, to use a metaphor from zen: unnecessary.

Some feedback is hard to face, of course. And this is where the problem of cognitive dissonance appears. To accept that we have made a mistake may imply some uncomfortable facts about ourselves that we do not want to see. It’s very hard to accept that you have made mistakes when it comes to parenting, for instance, but that admission could fuel future growth. This is how children themselves learn, after all. Every tumble and setback is part of an epic process of trial and error that leads from sitting upright to cartwheels and handstands. We are failing and learning all the time. Following Syed’s logic, perhaps one of the deep problems in depending on unhelpful strategies to cope in life is that when we go to excessive lengths to avoid failure and pain we also turn away from the mechanism that will spark future growth. As always, it probably pays to know where a compassionate balance lies.

Creativity

Syed emphasises that creativity is a response to a problem in a specific time and place. While we often buy into the idea of lightning bolt of inspiration, it is engaging with a well-defined problem that turns us into a conductor for the muse. Inspiration often then strikes when we step back and switch off, or when we are jarred into an epiphany by criticism, paradox, or an unusual connection. Syed, like others before him, claims that such a creative epiphany can almost always be characterised as a connection of ideas from previously separate conceptual categories. He also believes that true progress often requires both a paradigmatic shift and compounded marginal gains. Optimising existing processes may get you to the top of a particular hill while the mountain remains unclimbed.

Craft improves through failure. Sometimes exclusively so. This is the learning mechanism at the heart of practice. For example, every author begins by writing badly. Over the years, style, ability and judgement develop as we innovate around now familiar pitfalls. Every failure tells us something new about ourselves, our craft, and the world. Even an experienced writer will produce a bad first draft. In a sense, with each new project they should be trying something they have never done before. We wouldn’t call this a failure but it’s essentially the same: an iteration. Bad dialogue can be replaced. Awkward plot points can be straightened out. Instead of stigmatising failure and falling back on blame, applying the same mindset to other areas of life could be similarly fruitful.

With this mindset, there’s less resistance to thinking about why I haven’t managed to complete a novel, as I said I would two years ago. The idea, I think, is not to allow self-blame creep in but to analyse contributing factors compassionately. In the case of the novel, after trying for a few weeks I felt it was simply not the time, and not the right idea. I’d been cranking out words and projects of all kinds and had a unique opportunity to slow down, enjoy life, and let things happen by themselves.

If I undertake another long writing project in the future, I’ll know what I’m getting into a bit better, and where a few more of the pitfalls are. I hope that I’ll take Syed’s advice and get feedback early on to motivate myself and improve the work. In fact, he uses Pixar as an example of iterative story writing. The animation studio’s writing teams often end up drawing 125,000 storyboards or more. While I don’t think I can pump out quite that many iterations, I could start writing some scenes and character sketches on this blog and seeing what folk enjoy.

Every poet has a long career of being rejected from magazines and crashing out of competitions. Often, no feedback is provided. This is understandable because of the huge workload and time pressure editors and judges face. However, just think how helpful even a line of feedback could be to developing writers. One of my poems, ‘Vardøger‘, was rejected from Poetry Review with a one-liner that they really liked the first three stanzas but not the rest of it. They were right. I cut the poem down and submitted it in the Poetry School/Nine Arches Press Primers competition, where it was probably my strongest shortlisted poem. Perhaps in the future I’ll be more tenacious about asking for feedback.

Back to Titanic

But what of the Titanic? What was learnt from that? Well, not only were serious design flaws brought to light – the inadequate rudder, flooding compartments, lack of lifeboats – but regulations governing safety at sea and responding to ships in distress were overhauled. Probably not every lesson that could have been learnt was. As humans we often take the most efficient approach to problem-solving by doing things the way we’ve done them before. As a friend of mine says, “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

Failure is inevitable but Black Box Thinking argues that embracing setbacks liberates us from future mistakes. It frees us to learn from failure instead of turning from the pain of it and being doomed to repeat it.