The sound of silence

For Borges, the core of reality lay in books; reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogue begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end.
— Alberto Manguel, With Borges

During the solitary months and years spent writing a book, it can be easy to forget that it will – if you are lucky – live a social life: that your book might enter the imaginations and memories of its readers and thrive there, that your book might be crammed into pockets or backpacks and carried up mountains or to foreign countries, or that your book might be given by one person to another.
— Robert Macfarlane, The Gifts of Reading

This blog has echoed to the sound of silence over the past few months. Yet never has the tapping sound of my keyboard been so furious. A post today by Neil Usher – Ink in the well – prompts a brief return.

Neil has recently completed writing a book. In telling his own story, as is often the way with these things, he manages to tell many other people’s stories too. The lengthy writing process that actually begins long before a word is written. The reading, research, conversations and reflection. The preparation and organisation. Finally, the writing itself.

Like Neil, I too have just finished writing a book. This time as a ghostwriter. It has been a fascinating experience into which I have injected far more of myself than I expected to. The journey started some fourteen months ago with a visit to Copenhagen and time spent with the authors, Chris Shern and Henrik Jeberg.

The intervening months were filled with video calls, independent research and analysis of interviews recorded by Chris and Henrik. Gradually, a structure for a book emerged to which they agreed. There followed a planning period during which I created a ‘live’, constantly evolving, structural document that reflected chapter titles, thematic content, external references, cultural and historical considerations, and interviewees to be covered.

The writing was compressed into a short time frame, often with me writing two chapters a week. As always, writing was a process of discovery. I worked within the loose framework provided by the structural document but gained insights, made discoveries, through the juxtaposition of interviewee stories and references to sociopolitical and cultural trends and ideas.

It was over all too quickly. As has been the case with Neil, I have been left hungering for more. My editorial work and advisory role on other book projects provides some succour, but I am already planning the next book. Most likely an essay collection. So the blog silence may continue, but the writing never stops. Especially as, for me, writing always begins with reading.

The story slows as it picks up details, digresses towards fresh evidence; perspectives multiply as the dread moment nears, as if one of them might divert the course of events at the last instant.
— Brian Dillon, The Great Explosion

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.
— Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Return of the Vikings will be published in English towards the end of the year or early in 2018 by the Danish publisher DPF.

Masks

I was called Mask, I was called Wanderer
— Anonymous, The Poetic Edda

The path to the truth is doubled, masked, ironic. This is my path, not straight, but twisted!
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

We’re all tricksters. We have to be, learn to be. Dissembling, signifying, masking.
— James Sallis, Bluebottle

A woman and a man stand before a camera. Each puts on a mask indicative of the other’s gender but otherwise Noh-like in its lack of expression. In donning the masks, they feel that they are stripping themselves of who they are. Through voice, gesture and movement they inhabit new characters, assume different personalities, unfamiliar behaviours, and venture into the unknown. They are creating art but, for at least one of the participants, the experience is visceral, unnerving.

Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, from which this scene is taken, is a novel concerned with revelation, unpeeling and identity. Its protagonist is the artist Harriet Burden. Harry is overshadowed by her famous art-dealing husband, and she is stymied by what she perceives as institutionalised and systemic gender prejudice and inequality. This affects galleries, critics and the viewing public, whose own opinions are often informed and shaped by the other two.

Following her husband’s sudden death, Harry gives vent to her simmering frustration, embarking upon an extended experiment she refers to as Maskings. This requires subterfuge on her own part, the cooperation of a select few and a high degree of creativity, as she produces works of art for three distinct exhibitions. These are The History of Western Art, Suffocation Rooms and Beneath, each fronted by a male artist, Anton Tish, Phineas Q. Eldridge and Rune, respectively.

Harry experiences life as wife, mother, grandmother, lover and artist. Each role requires her adopting a different character, putting on the appropriate mask. Her experience of life is one of hyphenation, embracing, sometimes confounding, familial, workplace and societal expectations and norms. ‘All the world’s a stage’, as Jaques phrases it in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. ‘And all the women and men merely players; / They have all their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts’.

Through her role-play with Rune before the camera and, on a grander scale, her self-masking with the figures of the three male artists, Harry takes this notion of perpetual performance to another level. She challenges and subverts what masks represent, what they mean, how they both hide and reveal identities. Her grand plan is eventually to make public the Maskings project, announcing herself as the true artist behind the men’s work.

Mask[Photo credit: Outside the Marlowe, Richard Martin, September 2014]

The novel is presented as an act of investigation, of ongoing academic research. Harry’s experiment is unravelled retrospectively through posthumous access to her journals and notebooks, as well as through interviews with those who were close to her. It is an act of unmasking that fails to answer the question, ‘Who are you?’ Behind the masks are yet more masks, ciphers, the ephemeral.

In one of her notebooks, Harry observes, ‘The Greeks knew that the mask in theater was not a disguise but a means of revelation.’ With the mask, we hide in plain sight. The parent takes on a role, for example, simultaneously admonishing and educating a child. Hiding the humour they might find in the situation, but displaying their own values and beliefs in the guidance they impart. They are both showing and obfuscating themselves.

The business executive, the politician, confronted with crowds and cameras, hides behind technical jargon, smokes and mirrors, a carapace of expertise. Yet they show other masks in different contexts, with different people. One mask replaces another. All is metamorphosis and shapeshifting. It is in the many performances that they reveal who they are. The courtroom, dinner table, conference podium, sports field or despatch box are all as much a stage as any walked on by a professional actor.

That is not to suggest that performance and the adoption of masks is the work of the con artist. Rather, it highlights that human identity is not rigid and fixed, but malleable and ever-shifting. We are all chameleons. Every experience we have, every interaction with another person, book, work of art, changes us in however small a way. They modify the masks we wear or endow us with new ones entirely.

Each person we encounter understands us, labels us, in slightly different ways. They associate us with whichever mask it is that we have faced them with. This creates a tension between perception and reality, our self-image and how others categorise us. It is a situation all too familiar to Harry. At the moment of revelation, as the woman behind the three exhibitions makes public what she has done, there are many who do not believe her.

The masks win out. The performance continues. Which recalls the celebrated line from John Ford’s western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ Our fictions carry more weight, perhaps more truth, than our realities. An experience all too familiar to the author behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. In trying to hide behind a blank mask and let the books speak for themselves, the author has unwittingly created an industry of whispering and conjecture.

In The Neo-Generalist, we suggest that where you go is who you are. For the curious, responsive and connective, the answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ is ‘Not the same person I was yesterday.’ The context shifts and so do the masks we choose to wear.

The face of a person is a mask, and the person, in truth, is a role, not the one who plays the role.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools

I believe that in fiction one pretends much less than one does in reality. In fiction we say and recognise things about ourselves, which, for the sake of propriety, we ignore or don’t talk about in reality.
— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia

the mask that smiles
at acquaintances, that hides and upholds
the gulfs between them.
— Emma Sedlak, The Man in the Mask

The three Cs

Cooperation is the foundation of human development, in that we learn how to be together before we learn how to stand apart.
— Richard Sennett, Together

Specialization and cooperative exchange are revealed as the routes of self-interest.
— Mark Pagel, Wired for Culture

For creative advancement, change is essential. And while all creative exchange will have a cooperative element, competition on the whole takes a slight edge. This may seem counterintuitive, since we generally yearn for order, unity, and connection. But progress depends on disorder and fluidity. Sometimes the best aids to our work are people who knock us most off balance.
— Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two

Last week, an opinion piece by Geoffrey James was published in Inc. James argues that ‘collaboration creates mediocrity’. Attention-grabbing headline aside, his article focuses on the effects of workplace environment and unstable personal relationships. It is informed too by the tendency to pigeonhole and classify.

No workplace, no relationship, is entirely collaborative. Our interactions and experience of the world are more nuanced than that. Rather, there tends to be a continuum ranging from competition through cooperation and on to collaboration that reflects constant contextual shifts in what we do alone and together. The Inc. article points to workplace distrust, choosing to frame it in terms of the bubbling resentment of the mediocre rather than positive competition that can help everyone improve.

Movement from competition to collaboration or cooperation usually reflects varying levels of trust. The more collaborative the endeavour, the higher the level of trust. Collaboration is about common purpose and shared goals, whereas cooperation is about unions of temporary convenience which can be mutually beneficial during the pursuit of different objectives. Competition is both divergent and convergent in that it involves different groups pursuing the same thing in different ways. Such competing groups are inherently distrustful of one another.

3Cs

Truly collaborative organisations can be quite fluid, with ever-shifting responsibilities, as individuals both lead and follow, adapting flexibly to changing needs, sometimes guiding, sometimes being guided. Collaboration by default entails learning and development, so mediocrity should be quickly addressed either through personal development or ejection. If mediocrity is retained, then collaboration is probably not what is happening. A label misapplied. This, at core, is the issue I have with James’s argument.

I am currently working on a book with Chris Shern and Henrik Jeberg about Nordic leadership. What has become apparent from our many conversations and the numerous interviews they have conducted are the societal differences regarding trust and, by extension, collaboration.

In most Nordic countries, trust is implicit. It is baked into social interactions, evident from an early age in the education system and the encouragement of collaborative projects. In Anglophone countries like the UK and the US, on the other hand, greater emphasis is placed on competition. Trust has to be earned in these countries. Distrust is the norm, particularly distrust of ‘the institution’ as embodied by corporate and political leaders. Just witness the reaction this week to Theresa May’s reasons for calling a general election.

In a country like Denmark, it is perfectly acceptable to leave a sleeping child in a pram on the street outside a café. But in the US, for example, such action can lead to prosecution for neglect and the child being put into the care system. In the Nordics, implicit trust establishes an expectation that others will do the right thing. Elsewhere, where distrust is endemic, everyone is suspect. These worldviews inevitably shape different cultural approaches to and perception of collaboration and cooperation.

Writing about the peloton over the past few years has helped clarify my own thinking about competition, collaboration and cooperation. The nuances are neatly reflected in the activities that take place in the breakaway. This usually forms early in a road race, with a group of cyclists from different teams pulling away from the main peloton.

Members of the breakaway will temporarily put aside competition with one another and between their respective teams to work together. Their first objective is to stay away from the peloton, building a substantial time gap. Each member of the breakaway will have different personal objectives. Some will be working towards a stage win, others will be working on behalf of another team member behind them. Others still are simply seeking several hours of television exposure for their team’s sponsor. Cooperation is an arrangement of mutual benefit, which will once again give way to competition as the finish line nears.

Sport is a rich source of examples from the competition–collaboration–cooperation continuum. Another comes from yesterday’s announcement of the British and Irish Lions rugby union squad, which will be touring New Zealand in June and July. The squad is comprised of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These are themselves representative teams, and in Ireland’s case is one which bridges the national borders between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, playing all its home games in Dublin.

The players in the Lions squad, therefore, already participate in an array of allegiances and relationships that will be further complicated. Some play together at club level but compete with one another internationally. All have to put aside intense club rivalries when they represent their countries, and now will have to overcome national differences in pulling on the Lions red jersey. Each will be competing with several others for a place in the starting line-up, or at least a role in the test squad. Yet, despite all this, they will need to cohere as a group, collaborating with one another, pursuing a common purpose.

Valdis Krebs often encourages people to ‘connect on your similarities and benefit from your differences’. This is the glue of a collaborative endeavour like the Lions, that will nevertheless feature elements of competition and cooperation too. Humility and servant leadership are essential, trust is everything, and those who lead must also learn to follow. This is neatly symbolised by the award of the captaincy to Sam Warburton for the Lions tour. His Welsh national captain, Alan Wyn Jones, will have to follow his lead, as will Rory Best the Irish skipper, working with others to form a supportive leadership group.

Collaboration is about collective strength, implicit trust, common goals and constant learning. It is about the relationships not the physical or digital spaces that enable them.

An aspect of open collaboration literacy which may seem counter intuitive is that of competition.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

The connected workplace requires collaboration as well as cooperation. Both collaborative behaviours (working together for a common goal) and cooperative behaviours (sharing freely without any quid pro quo) are needed, but most organizations today focus their efforts on shorter term collaboration. However, networks really thrive on cooperation, where people share without any direct benefit. Modelling cooperation is another important leadership skill in the connected workplace.
— Harold Jarche, Adapting to Perpetual Beta

Today, open sharing and collaboration are proving better long-term corporate strategies than sequestering research and development. Hiding one’s secret formulas suggests to the public—and to investors—that the company is depending on the innovations of the past and fears it won’t continue to develop new ideas into the future. Its best days are behind it, and now all the company can do is play defense. In contrast, the confidently innovating company shares its developments in the hope of incorporating the insights of others.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Addendum: Why triangles? It is the loose shape often formed by a peloton during a road race. I think of it as something fluid rather than a rigid structure.

Legacy thinking

All that remains is legacy.
— Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors
— Jonas Salk quoted in Liam Fahey & Robert M. Randall, Learning from the Future

This cycle is now a cardinal component of my existence. It makes me part of an ancient tradition and gives me a role in the landscape.
— Robert Penn, The Man who Made Things Out of Trees

When Kenneth Mikkelsen and I first discussed a book project, we were drawn to the notion of polymathic generalism. This we contrasted with the prevalence of deep specialism. Our breakthrough came when we realised that distinction was a distraction.

The neo-generalist lives in-between. They deny easy labelling and classification. Theirs is a world of both/and rather than either/or. They are both specialist and generalist. Multidisciplinarians who adapt to context, deriving interdisciplinary benefits through their willingness, their need, to bridge, elide and blur.

What they know depends on accumulation, remixing and mash-up. They fit in no specific box, belonging to all things and no thing. They are simultaneously of the bridge and of the node, serial masters caught in the detail, curious explorers drawn to the big picture.

In The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth and I represented the movement and restlessness of this figure with a continuum. We visualised this as an infinite loop or Möbius strip. Our contention was that such an approach helped break down arguments founded on polarities, establishing nuanced connections that embraced both similarities and difference.

Often the apparent poles were found to be striking in their resemblance. In our thesis, for example, polymathy could be said to be the serialisation of hyperspecialism, the polymath being a specialist multiple times over. On the political spectrum, it could be argued that the extremes of Fascist and Communist dictatorships also shared many similarities. The richness, the variety lay in the in-between of these continuums.

We approached the topic of neo-generalism from a variety of different angles. One of these considered leadership, and helped us to gain further understanding of another continuum relating to time.

Legacy Thinking

Legacy thinking is about respecting the past, acting in the present and serving the future. It is about being a good ancestor, taking into account future generations, the environment and sustainability in the decisions you make and the actions you take. But it is also about being a good descendant too, learning from and building on what went before, avoiding the repetition of mistakes, enhancing the advances and innovations, preserving the stories and adding new pages to them. The legacy thinker is historian, playmaker, futurist.

The neo-generalist leader, exercising legacy thinking, is required to be a time traveller. They must look forwards and backwards at the same time. Like the cathedral builders of old, they are stewards of a future that they may never experience themselves, servants to the generations of grandchildren and great-grandchildren that will follow them.

this legacy, eager to be given, yet no one wanting to carry its burden
— Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much

Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not the all of me, whose long making
Is so much of the past.
— Oodgeroo Noonuccal, The Past

We are strung between the point of ending and
the point of having started.
— Jack Underwood, The Anatomy of the Hammock

Where can it be found again,
An elsewhere world, beyond

Maps and atlases,
Where all is woven into

And of itself, like a nest
Of crosshatched grass blades?
— Seamus Heaney, A Herbal

In chapter 10 of The Neo-Generalist, we include stories from a range of people in sport, business, activism, science, the military and politics who have adopted a legacy thinking approach to leadership. These include Al Smith, Charles Handy, John Michel, Robin Chase, Anand Mahindra and Geoffrey West.

Memory’s assembly

Since I first started reading, I know that I think in quotations and that I write with what others have written, and that I can have no other ambition than to reshuffle and rearrange.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity

Books, conversations, and perceptions enter us and become us.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

Her consciousness, at this point – she was forty-three years old – was so crammed full not just of her own memories, obligations, dreams, knowledge and the plethora of her day-to-day responsibilities, but also of other people’s – gleaned over years of listening, talking, empathising, worrying – that she was frightened most of all of the boundaries separating these numerous types of mental freight, the distinctions between them, crumbling away until she was no longer certain what had happened to her and what to other people she knew, or sometimes even what was or was not real.
— Rachel Cusk, Outline

All remembrance of things past is fiction.
— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition

A clear December morning. With a new road bike awaiting in the shed, it was all too easy to convince myself that the conditions were perfect for a morning ride. As I left the last houses of our small coastal town behind me, the white fields that lay ahead, heavy with frost, made me silently question why I was on the road at such an early hour. It would be some time before the sun effected any change on this wintry landscape. Meanwhile, the chill worked its way to my bones.

The only sound as I climbed up the slope into a neighbouring hamlet was my own laboured breathing. Its smoky plumes offset by the blueness of the sky and the ice particles twinkling on trees and rooftops. The road gradually shifted from incline to false flat, and all of a sudden I was sliding along it, separated from bicycle, both of us on our sides atop the asphalt.

Of course, as James Sallis contends, our memories are more poets than reporters. Much of what I have just related happened on a frozen morning in December 2008, but it is not a real memory. The details have been filled in, revisited, rewritten with the passage of time. That particular cycling route is one I have ridden often since then, gathering more information about landscape, road layout, housing.

Consciously, I recall being upright and then suddenly sprawled in the middle of the road. The fall itself is blacked-out, redacted. I then remember checking for damage to myself and machine, briefly talking to someone at the roadside, remounting and coming off the bike twice more as I gingerly made my way home. Whenever I think about this particular ride, I always experience regret. Regret for having headed out on a road bike in such icy conditions. Regret for endeavouring to complete a circuit when the safer thing to do would have been to turn around and head home the same way I had come.

What remains missing from my recollection of that day is the initial fall itself. That moment of hitting black ice, losing control of the bike, falling, becoming unclipped from the pedals. Yet my body retains a trace of it, my unconscious too, even if my conscious mind does not. This takes the form not just of road rash on my right knee but of physical sensations too.

It is normal, after a long bike ride, as I rest on the sofa or sit at my desk, that I feel my leg muscles twitching, almost as if they are still in action, turning pedals, climbing hills, struggling against the wind. On the days immediately following the crash, however, a combination of unconscious images and muscle memory pulled me from sleep on several occasions. With each recurrence, I awakened suddenly, sensing that I was falling again. My body and unconscious mind were bridging the gap in memory, filling it with vivid snippets, sensations and imagination.

The story of my crash, then, is a mixture of fact and fiction. Whatever I perceived as reality was laid down in my memory, the brain serving as computer. But those dream effects have blended with it over time, the computer serving as a mixing table. The story has become more finely crafted with each telling, diverging ever more from what was experienced in the moment.

But is that not always the case? Our memories accumulate not only what our eyes see, but signals from other sensations and emotions as well. These fragments become associated with images, books, phrases or locations – time capsules, if you will – the accessing of which can serve to unlock the stored but ever-fluid memories. The sharing of the stories changes our memories too as friends and family add their own perspectives, their own accounts, in Rashomon-like retellings of the same event. The boundaries between my memories and their stories blur.

I am reminded of an observation in The Neo-Generalist: ‘we are all an assembly of what we have read, the people we have met, the places we have visited, the conversations we have had, the work we have done, the shared experiences and recollected histories of the communities in which we live.’ Our pasts travel with us, constantly reinserted into the present, experienced again, in new ways, adapted as we too undergo change.

What I read, hear, see, imagine, dream, discuss becomes me. Where I go is who I am. But that identity is always changing, affected by the journey itself. Our memories are contrails gradually dissolving, and what we carry with us are comfortable fictions.

Time’s whispers are suspect, memory forever as much poet as reporter, and perhaps this is only the way that, retrospectively, imaginatively, I make sense for now.
— James Sallis, Moth

Accumulated experience always alters perception of the past.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Remembering is an act of creative reconstruction rather than simple replaying. Every time a memory is recalled it is re-formed, and in the process it becomes mingled with the stories of others and shaped by our own anxieties, desires and imaginings.
— Ian Leslie, Born Liars

Memory, as it happens, is a fairly unreliable search engine. It’s fuzzy and utopian, honoring an imagined past over a real one.
— Jessica Helfand, Design: The Invention of Desire

Memory, which dives into our sunken libraries and rescues from the long-lost pages only a few seemingly random paragraphs, chooses better than we know.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity

Out of time

Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

We’re well past the end of the century when time, for the first time, curved, bent, slipped, flashforwarded and flashbacked yet still kept on rolling along. We know it all now, with our thoughts travelling at the speed of tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph. We’re post-history. We’re post-mystery.
— Ali Smith, Artful

Five minutes later roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present tidily blossomed.
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

The 2016 film Arrival is a narrative of decipherment. Humans are intent on understanding the purpose of the recently landed aliens, which have appeared at twelve different locations on Earth. To understand, one requires language and communication. But one has to be mindful of the pitfalls of how language is interpreted. One person’s signifier does not always marry up with another’s signified.

In another recent film, Paterson, a Japanese visitor to the protagonist’s home town likens poetry in translation to standing under a shower wearing a rain mac. Nuance and beauty are lost. Misunderstanding is all too easy, which is one of the points on which humanity’s response to the aliens hinges in Arrival. Where some read weapon, others intend gift.

Arrival‘s lead character, Louise Banks, starts communicating with the aliens via single written and vocalised words. They respond with the occasional guttural noise, but primarily with ideograms. The first breakthrough for Louise and her colleagues comes with the realisation that these ideograms are complex combinations of words and phrases, which form full sentences and paragraphs.

The key discovery, however, comes when Louise alone encounters one of the aliens, nicknamed Costello. Where the linearity and structure of much human language is bound to time, Louise learns that the aliens’ language is non-linear. They are without the constraints of time as we perceive it. Her own fluency in their language unshackles Louise from the limitations of human time. With their language, she gains the ability to time travel, seeing into her own future and that of humankind. Past, present and future are simultaneously available to her. She is out of time.

In a starkly different approach to time, the citizens of Aldous Huxley’s futuristic 1931 novel Brave New World are slaves to the clock. Their happiness depends on it, rigidly following a routine of work and pleasure, both physical and chemically induced. These are rarely chosen, usually prescribed. Humans are produced in batches, and effectively have battery lives. They are created to fill designated functions, their own chemicals harvested once their use-by-dates have passed and their bodies have been incinerated.

Language – in the form of mantras, anodyne phrases, belief systems as sound bites – is imposed on the humans of Brave New World at different stages of their infancy and youth. This is achieved via hypnopaedia, a form of teaching through voice recordings heard during sleep. The citizens are conditioned to accept caste, brainwashed ideologically, and placed in thrall to the Fordian factory clock of Brave New World‘s global society. Only those on ‘uncivilised’ reservations or exiled to island communities in far-flung localities like Iceland and the Falklands are able to escape the clock’s tyranny.

Out of Time

All of which cultural musing stirs up reflections on my own temporal conditioning and experience. From late 1999 to the end of 2014, I lived the life of a commuter. A daily four-hour, door-to-door round trip from home to office and back again. The same faces on the train, the same seat occupied. The same coffee routine. Days filled with meetings and largely pointless correspondence. An eating, vegetating and sleeping routine that was far from healthy until the weekend’s release.

To be honest, I never got used to it. From the period 1993 to 1999, I had been home-based, first as a research student then as a freelancer. Office and commuting life was a shock to my body clock, to my introversion, to my effectiveness. I disliked the way time was regimented and controlled. It disturbed my desire for reflection and creative quality, which I preferred to the produce-on-demand, quantitative busyness that I encountered in each of the public, private and non-profit organisations I worked for during the next fifteen years.

Financial considerations aside, the option to return to freelancing in late 2014 was an attractive one, not least because it enabled me to dedicate myself to activities I am passionate about: writing and editing, both producing myself and helping others to realise their literary ambitions. But there has been another side effect that is relevant to my ongoing exploration of time and memory under the #timeplease tag.

Freelancing has taken me out of time, at least time as I had come to know it as a commuter. The experience is somewhat different too as a forty-something to that of my twenty-something self in the 1990s. The day, of course, remains topped-and-tailed by family routine: wake-up alarms, meals, dad-taxi services. But otherwise, as a writer and editor, I find that my work can be done at any time. Sometimes there are early morning flurries, at other times inspiration takes hold late at night or during a midday walk on the beach.

In many respects, I am always working. But I do not mean that in an onerous way. Reading a book is work; it is research regardless of the subject matter or genre. Riding my bike or standing under the shower or mowing the lawn are all part of ‘office time’; periods for reflection, sifting, testing out phrases, composing. My interaction with clients is asynchronous, only occasionally regulated by in-person meetings or video calls. These are with people dispersed around the globe, in Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, Romania, the US, the UK. Change the place, and the clock changes too.

Family life provides a loose sense of structure, as do project deadlines. But otherwise the commuter’s distinction between weekdays and weekends, morning work and evening work, all dissolve. Which raises questions about my post-commuting relationship to time. Is time as I experience it throughout a 24-hour period always linear? Or is it determined by my engagement with other people? At certain points bound to the clock, at others unbound from it?

Do I reconnect with linear time only when I have a meeting, a call, a train to catch, or as the scattered members of my family begin to return home? When I write, lost in flow, scanning both the fictions and facts of memory, blending fantasy and reality, what aspects of time am I navigating? Finally, to what extent is all of our perception of time entwined with both language and our communication with others?

My sense is that, as with Louise in Arrival, our experience and perception of time is multifaceted. It can be linear or cyclical or boundaryless. Our physical and mental conceptions of it can diverge. Yet through language, spoken and scribed, we can in some way anchor ourselves to it. We are both in and out of time.

Our conscious brains invent the concept of time over and over again, inferring it from memory and extrapolating from change. And time is indispensable to our awareness of self. Just as an author does, we construct our own narrative, assemble the scenes in a plausible order, make inferences about cause and effect.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

So emotion, fear, age, isolation, body temperature and rejection can all affect our perception of the speed of time, as does concentration, or ‘attention’.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Likewise the spinning wheel turns, cyclical time revolving to draw out the linear time of a thread.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Writing itself

We use words like a tree uses light:
there is a process we don’t see but do.
— Jennifer Kronovet, With the boy, with myself

I need to be discovering it as I am writing it.
— Paul Auster interviewed at Senate House

When something assembles itself that fast, it’s clear that it’s been composing itself somewhere in the unknowable back of the mind for a long time. It wanted to be written; it was restless for the racetrack; it galloped along once I sat down at the computer.
— Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

The ride passed in a blur. Clearly, I had been functioning at some conscious level, aware of traffic, stopping at lights and junctions, checking over my shoulder before manoeuvring. But the details were instantly lost. I had arranged to meet my family at a country house in Cheshire but had opted to ride my bike there rather than pile into the car with the rest of them.

The ride, however, turned out not to be one of natural appreciation and contemplation but of rapid, free-flowing composition. As I left the Manchester suburbs, words and sentences bubbled up from hidden depths. I engaged in a form of mental moulding, crafting paragraphs, revising and editing, frequently delighted by the mash-up of long-standing thematic interest and the recently read or experienced.

It was a process of creation, fuelled by memory fragments. An assembly of disparate pieces, and their shaping into something coherent. By the clock, the ride did not take long, perhaps 30-40 minutes. But as a writing experience it was timeless, unquantifiable. As soon as I had located the family car, I leant my bike against it and fished out my smartphone. I needed to catch the butterfly of this fully formed blog post before it flew away and was lost to me for good.

I spent several minutes typing on the phone’s screen, further editing and refining, but making minimal changes to what had taken shape in my head during the ride. When we returned to Manchester later in the day, I topped-and-tailed the piece, as is my wont, with some relevant quotes and posted Knowledge horizons to this site. It is a post that has woven through it motifs about knowledge, sense-making and detection, identity, and the distrust of expertise; the subjects of numerous conversations and research, feeding a book project that I was then beginning to work on.

Changes of scene, pauses, cycling or walking, switching from non-fiction to fiction or poetry, re-familiarising myself with an old film or book… all of these can have an uncorking effect either alone or in conjunction. The experience of this particular bike ride was unique in that I captured a complete blog post during it. Nevertheless, both before and since that day, I frequently have had to punctuate bike rides and walks with sudden stops to capture notes and ideas. I have also experienced the benefits of a two-week holiday as the prelude to an immersive writing experience that produced the bulk of my first book.

What I tend to find, however, is that I truly discover what I want to say in the act of writing. That writing itself can be relatively quick, albeit the end product is slowed a little by the subsequent editorial and review process. The really hard yards, though, are made during the research period. Everything I read, everything I watch, every conversation I have, therefore, is work – most of it of a highly pleasurable variety. At the initial point of consumption, I rarely know when or where it will come in useful. Which is why, for example, over the past few years, I have taken notes on all the books I have read.

Art in its broadest definition – painting, poems, plays, films, songs, novels – provides a sense-making lens, helping me, with a few twists and turns, to make kaleidoscopic pictures of my own. I re-read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being for pleasure on holiday, having read it for the first time in the 1980s. I had no clue when I picked it up again that it would unlock so much, that it would give shape to a blog post that would suddenly emerge from the mist during a bike ride. A past artefact released memories, which intertwined with and shed light on recent ideas.

The seed planting and cultivation happened subconsciously. But it was writing, even writing in my mind while astride a bike, that allowed me to harvest what had subsequently grown.

It may simply be that artists know they don’t control their work. When you paint or write or compose, things happen that you don’t understand. I have often felt that writing fiction is connected to dreaming, a state of altered consciousness, during which material I didn’t know was there begins to assert itself, to take over, which may explain the bizarre feeling I have had on occasion that a text is writing itself.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

The insight presumably occurs when a subconscious connection between ideas fits so well that it is forced to pop out into awareness, like a cork held underwater breaking out into the air after it is released.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity

In that state, I do not know what I am doing, I do not know where I am going, but I do know that I have to take the journey and follow wherever it goes.
— Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity

Ambiguity detected

The appeal of the detective reflects a desire for resolution of ambiguity in a complex world. The narrative momentum, the reflection of the detective, the surprises and the twists, are all satisfying to us in this way. What I would love to see you explore is the morality and philosophy of the detective as the ‘one good purposeful person’ even when riding boundaries of social acceptance, pushing into the noir world and even playing the antihero. As much as we need the resolution of ambiguity, we need the satisfaction of detectives to whom we can look up in times of ambiguity.
— Simon Terry, Blog comment

Desire is the engine of life, the yearning that goads us forward with stops along the way, but it has no destination, no final stop, except death.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

It is human to clutch at simple answers and shunt aside ambiguous, shifting realities.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

In Together, his study of cooperation, Richard Sennett highlights a transformation in sociable behaviour that characterised the medieval era. Education and commerce witnessed the emergence of the professional, and with it a shift in ethics and behaviour from chivalry to civility. The aristocratic knight was usurped by the lawyer, the doctor, the banker, the merchant, as the Renaissance paved the way for our modern world.

Even as the relevance of the knight and his chivalric code faded, though, the figure persisted as a cultural archetype. Tales of King Arthur’s court, for example, and the legendary adventures of its knights, particularly the quest for the Holy Grail, endure today both overtly and covertly. The ethics and philosophy of the early middle ages are not entirely lost, for they remain packaged in narrative form. The myth of the solitary hero is maintained even in an age where collaboration and cooperation are the norm.

Interestingly, concurrent with the shift from chivalry to civility was the democratisation of words. No longer was the written text the preserve of Latin speakers, monks and the clergy. The printing press enabled the dissemination of ideas to a wider readership. With the printed book, knowledge could be quickly codified and shared at an unprecedented scale, and in contemporary as well as archaic languages. Stories, like genes, had always been carriers of culture. Now, though, they could be written down and read by many people in diverse locations, not just verbalised and heard in communal assemblies.

In the middle of the 20th century, Raymond Chandler was a purveyor of words whose interests straddled the boundaries between the chivalric and the prosaic, whose hardboiled narratives exposed the darkness and corruption hiding behind civilised veneers. In his 1944 essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, Chandler focuses on a particular type of modern professional: the private investigator. Like Arthur’s knights, this is a figure who constantly embarks upon quests, for missing items, more often for missing people, thieves, kidnappers, blackmailers, murderers.

‘The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.’ Chandler sets out the template for his own series of Philip Marlowe novels, in which the intrepid detective, time and again, ventures into the mean streets in service of both client and a personal sense of honour and morality. Yet, for all of Chandler’s protestations, there remains a sense that the detective is themself tainted, their heroism a deceit, self-perceived and projected for consumption by others.

Detection

The lineage, extending back through Arthurian legend and on to Ancient Greece, does little to dispel this unease regarding the ‘heroic’ detective. Whether it is the myth of Oedipus, the first detective, the tale of the Fisher King or the story of Jake Gittes in Chinatown, there are shared motifs, common themes. The realm is corrupted, a wasteland requiring regeneration, with the central figure either implicated in its decline or impotent to effect change. Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle, but commits the crimes of patricide and incest. Gittes uncovers Noah Cross’s criminality but is unable to bring him to justice, a passive bystander to the death of the woman he loves, herself the victim of Cross’s incestuous abuse.

Joseph Campbell’s hero adventure model, with its foundations in Jungian theory, suggests that each journey is one of self-discovery. We venture into the labyrinth and find ourselves at its centre. The Minotaur is our shadow, part of our identity. This applies equally to the knight’s quest as to the detective’s investigation; their curious pursuit, assimilation and assessment of clues.

Sometimes the Minotaur, the darkness, triumphs. In Angel Heart, for example, Harry Angel discovers that it is himself he has been seeking, that he is responsible for the horrific crimes he investigates. Similarly, in Memento, Leonard Shelby is the true object of his own search, his memories conveniently corrupted or discarded as he transforms into serial executioner. In Blood Simple, the venal private investigator Visser, enacts and fabricates crimes, falsely apportioning blame, murdering at will.

Even Chandler’s own creation, Philip Marlowe, becomes executioner in Robert Altman’s 1970s reworking of The Long Goodbye. His personal code of ethics have become so skewed, his sense of betrayal so intense, that he feels able to take the law into his own hands. A move echoed by Richard Bone in Cutter’s Way, even if he holds his friend’s dead hand to the pistol that murders the corrupt patriarch.

In many respects, the 1960s and 1970s shifted the game. Chandler’s knightly detective was shown to be out of time, an anachronism unsuited to a context of political intrigue and investigation, public inquiries, impeachment proceedings and warmongering. The establishment was rotten at its core, and the true detectives were shown to be investigative journalists, like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, wielding typewriters and pens rather than guns.

A new pattern was revealed that continued through the subsequent decades, amplified in recent times by cyberleaks and whistleblowers. The more that is revealed, the more new questions arise. Answers obfuscate rather than illuminate. The simple is rendered complex. The detective is as ill-defined, as difficult to pin down as the mysteries they investigate. Lew Griffin both writes and is written, a fiction within a fiction. In Pynchon’s novels, his male detectives lose themselves in drug-induced hazes while his female investigators lead themselves to the edge of paranoia.

Yet, for all that, there is something appealing about this investigative figure. Or at least those who have ventured into the labyrinth and either conquered or integrated the Minotaur. Their thirst for knowledge, inherent curiosity, pattern recognition and sense-making capabilities, as well as their aptitude for narration, for working out loud, have much to commend them. What they lead us to in most cases, though, is not resolution of ambiguity but rather an acceptance of and comfort with it. They are not heroes, just regular folk, like you and me, deriving temporary and contextually convenient understanding of an ever-changing world. Civilians retaining a hint of the chivalric, the romantic, in the modern day. As ambiguous as the ambiguities they detect.

Ambiguity asks: Where is the border between this and that? … But ambiguity is inherently contradictory and insoluble, a bewildering truth of fogs and mists and the unrecognizable figure or phantom or memory or dream that can’t be contained or held in my hands or kept because it is always flying away, and I cannot tell what it is or if it is anything at all.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

The immediate result of this formal change is that the detective no longer inhabits the atmosphere of pure thought, of puzzle-solving and the resolution of a set of given elements. On the contrary, he is propelled outwards into the space of his world and obliged to move from one kind of social reality to another incessantly, trying to find clues to his client’s whereabouts.
— Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler

There’s no completion in patterns,
For patterns are constantly restitched in new patterns.
There’s no completion in history, which kneels
bare and mute at the feet of the future.
— Alan Lightman, Song of Two Worlds

This post was written in response to the challenge laid down by Simon Terry in the blog comment cited at the top of the page. I picked up his gauntlet and enjoyed the provocation. It continues a conversation we started a few years ago, which initially resulted in The detective. The topic is also central to chapter 9 of The Neo-Generalist.

What are you reading?

Hello, he said. What are you reading?

Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.

Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
— Ali Smith, Autumn

Books are produced by books more than by writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.
— Ali Smith, Artful

What are you reading? The question Daniel poses, the elucidation he supplies, to the youthful Elisabeth in Ali Smith’s latest novel brought a smile to my face. The smile of the serial book reader, film viewer, sports fan and flâneur, that wandering observer of people and environment.

As I have aged, as my interests have broadened and diversified, my own reading habits have evolved. Gone are the days when I would dedicate myself to one book at a time. Now I have several on the go simultaneously. A constant game of hopscotch, jumping back and forth, left and right, from one text to another. This apparently random pattern punctuated by the occasional serendipitous delight; one book of poetry, for example, offering an insight that enriches my understanding of the thesis of a non-fiction tome.

Daniel’s question made me wonder about the reading habits of other people. So I Tweeted: What are you reading? One book? Several simultaneously? None? Interested for a possible blog post. A few generous people spared their time to respond. Some in writing, some with photographs. A shared moment of bibliophilia, new discoveries and recommendations. The online conversations that ensued were numerous, which made a pleasant change from the broadcast-and-run fare that pervades many digital timelines.

One striking thing about the responses was the commentary regarding book piles waiting to be read. There was an intimation that some people queued books in the same way that others might organise the songs they are about to listen to on Spotify. It reminded me of Umberto Eco’s notion of an anti-library, of the reader surrounding themselves with a large number of unread books, constantly anticipating new knowledge, new pleasures.

ali-smith-books
[Photo: What am I reading? Ali Smith. Often and in volume.]

What soon became evident was that I am not alone in my reading habits. The majority of respondents also appeared to be juggling multiple volumes at once, some mixing paper and digital, others veering more towards the physical book. The breadth of subjects covered was breathtaking.

Fiction was a mainstay: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, Pedro Páramo, Snow, A Breath of Life, The Circle, Roadside Picnic, Autumn, The Hours, Dhalgren and The Break, among others.

I was gratified to find that poetry appeared more frequently than I had anticipated, in several cases introducing me to new books to track down over the coming months. Collections by Rumi, Ted Hughes, Sharon Olds, Jo Shapcott, Andrew Greig, W. S. Merwin, Lynette Roberts and Kate Tempest were mentioned.

Non-fiction books were numerous, some selected simply out of curiosity, others relevant to workplace interests or academic research, others still as a source of culinary inspiration. This included Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, The Craftsman and Together by Richard Sennett, several biographies (Bruce Springsteeen, David Bowie, F. W. Taylor), and assorted books on science, technology, neo-generalism and business.

Many people professed that they tackled some books at speed, racing from cover to cover, whereas others they lingered over for months, dipping in, reflecting, putting to one side again. Essay, poetry and short story collections appear to lend themselves particularly well to the latter tendency. What is clear, though, is that many of us read both fast and slow, our consumption of a book determined not only by context and preference, but also by genre and how the book is written.

A detective novel, for example, regardless of its length, draws the reader in and accelerates them towards the final page and resolution of the mystery. Sennett’s homo faber books, on the other hand, are opaque and challenging, requiring protracted engagement with his ideas. They are not quick reads. Some books nourish over an expanse of time, others offer the quick fix of a fast-food snack. Both have a purpose, meet a need.

What united us all, in this momentary reflection on reading habits, was a love of the written the word. An appreciation of its capacity to entertain, enlighten and enthuse us in the pursuit of yet more books to read. As Daniel suggests, books provide a lens through which we make meaning of the world that surrounds us. We are always reading, with or without a book in our hands.

I found books and places before I found friends and mentors, and they gave me a lot, if not quite what a human being would.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Giving and sharing books became a system for putting ideas out into the world.
— Michael Pye, The Edge of the World

All bookshops are compasses: when you study them they offer you interpretations of the contemporary world that are more finely tuned than those provided by other icons or spaces.
— Jorge Carrión, Bookshops

I am grateful to the following people for their Twitter responses: Mark Gould, Mike Cosgrove, Maggie MacDonald, Patricia Sutherland, Jono Byrne, Sarah Storm, Meg Peppin, Tom Graves, Tony Jackson, Simon Heath, Sharon Richardson, Mark Storm, Simon Terry, Helen Tracey and Erik Meyers.

Collage

Humanities? Law? Tourism? Zoology? Politics? History? Art? Maths? Philosophy? Music? Languages? Classics? Engineering? Architecture? Economics? Medicine? Psychology? Daniel said.

All of the above, Elisabeth said.

That’s why you need to go to collage, Daniel said.
— Ali Smith Autumn

Collage is an institute of education where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange.
— Ali Smith, Autumn

Who am I? Where am I? What am I?
— Ali Smith, Autumn

As the stumblings of the Trump press office have demonstrated repeatedly, words matter. They are both imbued with meaning and open to interpretation. Any crossword enthusiast will recognise that a single word can be burdened with an array of definitions even before their metaphorical usage is taken into consideration. They are pregnant with possibility, adapted to nuance, context and inflection.

Novelist Ali Smith captures this beautifully in her most recent novel Autumn. We time travel with her protagonists Elisabeth and Daniel backwards and forwards through various moments in their respective lives. As Elisabeth blossoms into her early teens, the eighty-something Daniel assumes the role of mentor and guide, questioning, challenging, having a catalytic effect on his protégée’s future.

Walking and talking together, they paint with words. Smith is an extraordinarily visual writer, often incorporating the description of photographs, paintings and film scenes into her narratives. Sometimes, as is the case with How to be Both and Artful, the images which adorn the covers of her books are reconstructed through her prose. With Autumn, the work of pop artist Pauline Boty is significant to the lives of each of the two protagonists, one of the many connections that bind them together.

my-colouring-book
[Picture credit: My Colouring Book by Pauline Boty]

Boty often made use of collage techniques in her artworks. Daniel’s word play with the term establishes a bridge between the paintings he describes to the young Elisabeth and their conversation about her future education. Elisabeth speaks of going to college when she is older. Daniel, a trickster, urges her to go to collage instead, where she can combine multiple interests and embrace multidisciplinarity.

Having so recently published The Neo-Generalist, reading these passages had a pleasurably jarring effect on me. In the chapters titled ‘Provincial Punk’ and ‘Shoring Fragments’, borrowing from punk culture, the Modernists, a variety of writers, artists and interviewees, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I explore how our lives, our identities, are an accumulation, remix and mash-up of interactions, lessons, memories and roles, characterised by fluidity and adaptiveness. In ‘Picaresque Tales’, we examine alternatives to established 21st-century education practices.

Smith distils all these ideas into a single word. Collage. An artwork. A descriptor. A place. An experience of learning for us all.

Maybe “self” was a free variable with no bounded value.
— Michael Chabon, Moonglow

She didn’t truck much with conventional ways of dividing up the world—black/white, male/female, gay/straight, abnormal/normal—none of these boundaries convinced her. These were impositions, defining categories that failed to recognize the muddle that is us, us human beings. “Reductionism!” She used to shout this out every now and then.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Punk, in turn, celebrated the fragment and the conjuncture. Torn clothing, for example, reassembled with electrical tape, chains, or safety pins, privileged the collage, rather than the seamless whole. Contrary to the alleged timelessness of artistic truth, punks celebrated the ephemeral quality of the commodity. Contrary to the rectitude of virtuosity, punk bands openly flaunted their haphazard musical skills.
— Randall Doane, Stealing All Transmissions