Minimal minimalism

I’m clearing out my house in preparation for the big move. As it happens, I’ve also been reading about minimalism. Surprisingly for someone who hoards books and hankers after new gear, I’ve found minimalism appealing. It’s a good counterbalance to consumerism as it invites us to question what we really value and what we can live without.

I can live without a redundant laptop and an old PC I built to study (and play games) on; a huge second hand bass cabinet; a broken bass guitar; a budget mountain bike with dodgy gears;  a fine collection of cables and phone chargers; a year and a half’s worth of New Scientist magazine; a few too big shirts and pairs of jeans that I never wear; a handful of books; a stack of notes on poems. Hmm, not that much as it turns out. There weren’t many difficult choices here. Maybe I’ll be braver on the second pass.

Where I think the minimalist mindset will come into its own is in forcing me to doubt future purchases. Yes, I couldn’t throw away my years old Nintendo GameCube and the games I played with friends until the wee small hours. I’m a bad minimalist… but while I’m still attached to that old machine, why would I need the latest PlayStation?

I have a box full of guitar pedals and analogue gear. Most of these haven’t been used since I was in a smoky rehearsal room or playing gigs in Birmingham. No doubt I could emulate these sounds digitally and save myself some space. Somehow, fiddling with ASIO drivers isn’t quite as cathartic as a stompbox. My attachment to this gear offers some artistic limitations. I could upgrade to the latest tech but would that still be my own aesthetic?

A lot of this stuff was bought at a time when I thought all income was disposable income. Especially the books. A couple of nights ago I was browsing gratuitous pictures of bookshelves, thinking about ideas for a new home when we find one (books are counted as one category of things and this category is allowed to be unreasonably large). I realised that I was lucky enough to neither want much more than I have, nor want much less. There wasn’t a new ideal to strive for, be it consumerist or minimalist. The junk on the shelves was my junk and that meant it was purely up to me what stayed or went.

Kant, and Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

I’ve started Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics MOOC on Coursera. I’m probably most sympathetic to Kant’s thought, particularly his idea that we should…

Always recognise that human individuals* are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.
– Immanuel Kant

Singer gave two objections to this which he framed as being fairly mild problems for Kant, and a third, put forward by Derek Parfit, which is more serious.

The first objection gives the example of a postman employed to send your letter to a friend. Singer said that the postman was clearly a means to your end, yet this did not seem wrong. He was able to justify Kant here by saying that postman had elected to be a means, was being compensated for his work and so this was fine. I’m tempted to say that by electing to be a postman, the postman is fulfilling some kind of limited professional end for himself rather than passively and exclusively fulfilling other people’s ends.

The second objection went as follows: if on a cold and windy night you were to walk behind a crowd of people, placing them between yourself and the wind, you would be using them as a means without their consent and yet this seems harmless. I feel that this is a broad interpretation of the word ‘use’. There’s no harm or disadvantage to the crowd they would not experience otherwise. You are in fact using your own body to position yourself more than you are using their bodies to block the cold wind. In addition, the consequences are so small that there may barely be an ethical issue here. If we treat this as a life or death case it becomes more clear cut that Kant could be right. Think of penguins huddled together against winter storms: if those experiencing the warmth of the middle don’t take a turn on the outside periodically, many in the colony will die.

The third objection, put forward by Derek Parfit, is more troubling. I would say that it does not invalidate Kant’s idea, but possibly marks a point at which we need to shift our approach to a balancing act in order to do the least harm and, hopefully, the most good. Parfit imagines that you are inside a crumbling house with your child and an unconscious stranger named Black. The only way to save your child from the falling rubble is to use Black’s body as a means to block the rubble. You know that this will save your child and you know that it will also crush one of Black’s toes. Because of the balance between the potential good and the potential harm, it is fairly clear that most of us would sacrifice one of poor old Black’s toes. Singer pointed out that we can play around with the balance of harm and good until the right course of action becomes unclear. Not many of us could cheerfully break both of Black’s legs knowing that John Stuart Mill had given us the thumbs up. (Perhaps this is where the importance of intention comes in).

But imagine that Black regains consciousness. He is in agony with a crushed toe. He speaks enough of your language to make you aware that he has a child in another building who also needs to be saved. Unfortunately, you can’t fathom where the building is and Black is now unable to walk himself. Not only are things looking bad for this child but you’ve also crushed poor Black’s toe. Objectively, the net harm is now greater because you violated Kant’s principle.

From Black’s perspective, you have wronged him in the worst way. That probably wouldn’t change your actions, but we are left in the domain of consequentialism: your action will be right or wrong depending on just how bad the outcome is for Black.

To conclude, if you find yourself justifying using a person as a means to an end it seems to me that you’re already in a very extreme situation, and possibly a purely hypothetical one. Seek to do the best you hypothetically can.


*The discussion about how far we can use animals as a means to an end promises to be thought-provoking and very challenging.

Nostalgia for the nameless


My parents are leaving the town I did most of my growing up in. Recently, I found myself thinking about the stream that runs through the woods behind my old school, behind retail outlets now boarded up.

As schoolboys, my friends and I were in the habit of building dams. Our method was simple and cheap if not effective. We threw branches and stones and shopping trolleys into the neck of water and watched eagerly to see how it changed. We were captains of industry diverting the flow in tiny unforeseen ways. The after-school light punctured the canopy and gilded the swirling currents as they flowed on through hidden parts of the town.

For some reason, we made great efforts to blockade these hidden brooks and tributaries. It makes me smile to think of our Lord of the Flies sub-society constructing its primitive infrastructure  on the other side of the stream while people parked their cars and shopped for electronic goods.

I’ve had no reason to think of this until now. It’s a place you’ll never know unless you live in that town, and even if you do know of it, you’d never visit it on a busy weekend when you’re back to visit friends. Similarly, there are people I recognise in that town whose names I’ve never known. That makes a place feel like home. I suppose we go on a night out sometimes to bump into acquaintances as much as to be with close friends.

Those were the days. The irony is that these are the days, too. If I remember today at all, it’s likely that I’ll look back on it with warm feelings. I might say ‘I wouldn’t go through that again’ when thinking of an ordeal but when it comes to memories of being in a place, with certain people, at a certain time of year, I become nostalgic. It isn’t that I look back favourably on the past. It’s that I can better appreciate what I had. There is only one regret: to not know what we have when we have it.

Nameless places. Unlocalities. It’s the way we live now that many places are intended only to perform a function. By comparison, even Victorian sewers were more built with more love than many of our public buildings. Despite this, it’s usually possible to find something around you to appreciate. There’s a strange beauty in the unloved: the weeds and dry grass bordering the truck depot; the shabby post office and its decades-old fittings. Places like these have an unassuming charm. They don’t ask to be appreciated. They are what they are. Nobody charges you to see these things. Nobody misses them.


Runner’s High

Probably the fittest I’ve been was in my middle teens when we would play tracker in Somers’ park, chasing and fleeing from each other from morning until teatime. Exercise is easy when you don’t even know you’re doing it. We’d run miles in a day and much of this was at a full sprint as we tried to put as many corners between us and the pursuer. I didn’t often hide in the tunnels of bushes or in the large oak (christened the No Rope, No Hope Tree) preferring to have as many escape routes as possible. It was basically fartlekking all day. When we wanted a larger game, we’d move to Uffmoor Woods. Sometimes we wouldn’t see each other for an hour. The chases could go on and on until the runner managed to get out of sight and earshot. I’d stop running when I wanted to and then sprint off without complaint. There was no set route: I took each turn as it came. By day this seemed like the only natural thing to do; in my night thoughts I’d worry that anything could happen to one of us whilst we were separated.

Somewhere along the way running became exercise for me. It was tied to ideas of getting fitter and, lately, of posting better times in organised races. One of the pleasures of the last few years has been running with my friends in an amiable, mild-mannered wolf pack of thirty-somethings. I’m not as fit as I could be and there have been periods when I’ve let it slide but I’ve managed some regular miles every year since.

This year I entered my first races. The first big one was the Edinburgh Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon, running with Dan and Jenny at the start of this year. It was wet and windy but invigorating to have bands playing by the side of the course. The locals were cheering too: I saw a mother and son banging pots and pans on their doorstep in Leith. For most of the race I was trying to catch up to Dan. We’d started (too quickly) together but he began to outpace me. It wasn’t until two thirds of the race in after a portaloo pitstop that I gave up trying to catch sight of him and decided to run (survive) my own race.

As I approached the ‘1 mile to go’ DJ booth, Mr. Brightside started playing. Something about the familiar intro gave me THE SHIVERS as Owen Meany would say. A runner’s high. In Eat and Run, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek describes this as ‘satori’, ‘the sudden, Zen-like clarity that comes when you least expect it, often when your body is pushed to the limit’. Scott Jurek’s limit is clearly way, way beyond my own. I found this concept the most interesting in his book. Satori means ‘consciousness’ in Japanese… perhaps as if you were experiencing consciousness itself.

What brings on a runner’s high? I’ve only felt it that once while running. It was a kind of elation, hard to describe. Running naturally calls you back to the moment. Even as your mind wanders over the day or what you’re going to eat after you’ve showered, your awareness is brought back to your footing, deciding which turn to take, slowing your pace to conserve energy. This is very similar to the aim of mindfulness meditation: returning your awareness to the present moment by focusing on the breath. When I had my runner’s high in Edinburgh, I’d been keeping a close eye on my breathing and pace. Why that song? Perhaps my body was briefly tricked into thinking I was in my early 20s and dancing in Subculture again. The beat and arpeggio are uplifting. It’d fill the dancefloor at 1am but it’s never been a personal favourite. Even though I’d dance along with everyone else on a night out it’s not something I’d choose to listen to on my own. Maybe the appeal of ‘Mr. Brightside’ at that moment was that it helped me to feel that I was just one of the other runners losing myself in a collective experience. Maybe it was simply the atmosphere of the city and the race. I finished in 1:48.

I ran the Basingstoke half marathon in October. This course is more scenic than most town or city-based courses and the countryside is spectacular and… undulating. It was a hot race. Old ladies manned water stands at the end of their driveways. Kids squirted us with super soakers as we ran through a village. Their dads trained hosepipes on us. All magically refreshing but there was no runner’s high this time. After the category four hill at Farleigh and the big dipper my legs were fairly dead. I tried to capitalise on the last three downhill miles but it was all I could do to keep going. My legs wobbled as soon as I was on the other side of the finish line. I had to sit in a chair for a minute or two. We’d spent several weeks training on the course and had seen deer and kites as the autumn sun went down and we grew increasingly and happily depleted. My time on the day was 1:45.

The half marathon distance appeals to me: long enough to be demanding, requiring training and commitment; short enough to be manageable and inclusive. I’ve signed up to two more and a 20 miler at the start of next year. I’m hoping to improve on my times not by training ridiculously hard – life is busy at the moment – but naturally: by eating a bit better, running regularly and having a bit more race experience. I want to get back to that playful approach to running that I had when I was younger. I’m trying not to worry about times too much, focusing on enjoying the training and the race itself. I have a bit more to say about running and time but I’ll leave that for now.

What to make of all this? I suppose I’m turning towards wholesome pleasures. It should help that I don’t drink as much as I used to, certainly not as much as a 26 year old who’d just started working in academic publishing. Back then I might have left the office on a Friday and drank from 5:30 until the bar staff were putting tables on chairs. Training was consistently inconsistent. I’d run 5k every night at times, then nothing for months. Now we’re all a bit older, we’re more likely to socialise by jogging for a few miles after work or going for dinner and ordering green tea, perhaps a beer or two. That’s usually enough these days… apart from recently at Pete’s wedding where I got blotto on golden ale and smoked a Cuban.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

When Jackson Pollock was asked, of painting, “How do you know when you’ve finished?” He replied, “How do you know when you’ve finished making love?”

I’m about to try The Rialto with some poems, having worked on these particular pieces for around two years on and off. At various times I thought they were ‘nearly there’ but after a cooling off period I would dive back in. There were tendons to be stretched, forests to manicure, buried machinery to be unearthed. At a recent work in progress meet up with some friends, I announced that a poem was ‘basically done’ only to spend the next two weeks making one small adjustment after another.

But what does it mean for writing to be ‘finished’? Digitally published texts can be edited at any time and even traditional books are frequently revised between editions and printings. There are three versions of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind: 1799, 1805 and 1850 (published posthumously). Paul Valery claimed that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”. Auden agreed with Valery. He also believed the most painful type of poem for the poet to be “the good ideas which his incompetence or impatience prevented from coming to much”. He revisited some of his published pieces many times over his career. I’ve carried the Valery quote around for a long time but I don’t necessarily agree. There is a point at which the forces in a poem pull the rubble into a whole, like a planet pulling itself into a sphere.

How much landscaping should you do once this has happened? A good rule of thumb might be if you can read your poem without wanting to make a single change. Put it aside for an hour. A night. Show it to someone without having to explain or apologise for it. Work on something else for a few weeks. Inspiration is ongoing: it can grow steadily or quickly, like grass. Your subconscious mind holds on to things long after you’ve put them down. Writing goes deeper and is more mysterious than we think.

The ideal would be to combine the spontaneity of your first thought with patience and clarity. After all, what you have on the page may only be a framework for what you really intend to say. Emanuel Lasker, the great chess master said, “If you find a good move, look for a better one”. You may have a good line, but is there something better? You should be prepared to ask that question for a long time. This means living with the work. Waiting. A poem is a journey. You will cover unexpected distance before it is done. A good amount of that distance is time. Seasons change. A new landscape takes shape.

Am I sure that these poems are finished now? Yes. Maybe. I’ve been celebrating a friend’s birthday with a few ales so my judgement might be impaired. I’ll sleep on it one more night.