One quiet and overcast morning in 1979 I cycled past the market square in Cambridge, England, toward the university chemistry laboratory while the fruit and veg traders were busy setting out their stalls, again. “Every damn day,” I thought as I rolled quietly past. “They do the same thing every damn day,” as a sudden wave of gloom swept through me. How could anyone get up each morning to do the same damn thing every damn day, after day, after day, after day? And I now recognise that these momentary thoughts as I passed Cambridge market were the early waves of a transformative neurological tsunami. By the time I had reached the old wooden laboratory bench to continue my doctoral research, I knew that I would have to try to do something different with my life than chase the regular jobs in academia and industry that my peers were busy hunting and that I was being encouraged to prepare for. And so I did something different, and whether that was for better or worse cannot be known. Had it not happened I would not be living here, in this little Perthshire village where I now reside, and would not have been typing these words or thinking these thoughts. And now a transformative tsunami may be swelling again, I think. A welcome one, encouraged in by my deliberate opening of the flood gates in my mind to try to let it all arrive. So I may leave this place alone for a while, but I will be back, I think. But the I of today will have no control over what those of my tomorrows may decide, I reckon; so, like all of us, I must let the waves in my mind take me where they will. I am not convinced that I have, or ever did have, any control over any of it at all. I certainly don't know.
Things that I think people get mistaken about: They mistake mysteries for god(s); they mistake infatuation for love; they mistake friendship for love; they mistake selfish gratification for love... but that's enough about love (although I could go on); and they mistake opinion for certainty; and they mistake bad for good; ugly for beautiful; wrong for right and false for true. Oh and deception for sincerity, oh yes... a big one that. Although of course I may be mistaken... But god(s) and love(s) are the things most misidentified by most mistakes, I suggest. But I keep making the mistake of thinking that anybody else gives a damn about what I think. And I was mistaken for a woman once, when aged 18 with wild hippy hair and wearing a long coat when a youngster approached and asked me: "Have you got the time missus?" I decided to get the hair severely cut back after that.
Dead flowers and leaves, clustering and tumbling beneath my rake on the wet grass. The desiccating autumn shapes of nature, leading to thoughts of geometry, and symmetry. And despite what we often say in astonished admiration, no flower has perfect symmetry, if we look close enough; but it is obvious that the rules of perfect symmetry guide every flower's creation. No star or planet is a perfect sphere, yet the principle of perfect sphericity obviously determines their shape. In the geometry of nature we see the clearly evident ruling principles of geometric perfection, yet there is not perfection in any one single case; although the trend towards perfection emerges sharply in the averaging of ever-more samples. The imperfect approximation of perfection in individuals reveals the guidance of the perfect rules throughout. Everywhere we look, we can see the pure and perfect mathematics of the universe that we discover and describe with our simple symbols, but struggle to understand. Just like everything in our universe, that we discover in ever-refining detail, but still struggle to understand.
Sleet arrived today. The first sleet of the season, portender of snow. Soft slushy mixtures of wet water and flakes of ice in the process of melting, falling on my head and cheek and nose, and telling me that nothing and nobody can break the cycling of the planet around the sun; or of the sun around the galaxy; or of the galaxy around its neighbours; or of everything around everything else. Nothing. As sleet arrives and slides down the surface of my nose.
All is quiet of the western front, and eastern, and northern, and southern fronts. The guns that are people's minds and mouths and tippety-tappetting fingers on keyboards have fallen silent. It is the first hour of the 12th day of the 11th month, and I am alone here, lying in the dark, with no other conscious mind aware of me. Alone, again, as we are all and always alone, really, even in the midst of a chat, or an embrace, or a fight. Locked in. Deep and dark inside a skull. Alone... Thank goodness. And goodnight.
When interactions turn into confrontations is it due to misunderstanding or one person being cussed, stroppy, oversensitive, stupid, whatever? Or both people? Moi aussi? Surely not. But I have been butting metaphorical heads with the one who seems to take any query about almost any aspect of their activities as a challenge or criticism or complaint. On Armistice Day another needless skirmish broke out, but we will be friendly again soon, I suspect. But anyway... The First World War eh? Why did that start? Was it inevitable? Was it all just due to a big misunderstanding or perhaps an accumulation of little misunderstandings? I don't know much, actually I know almost nothing, about it. Why should I? It's over. Everything is over. Absolutely everything that ever happened. Is over. Even that moment there, see? It's gone. Consequences, however, may arrive. Tomorrow.
Armistice Day... It sets me thinking, and not for the first time, that my father killed several people in wartime; both my grandfathers killed people in wartime; and I can be fairly sure at least one male ancestor from every generation all the way back has killed people in wartime, possibly all of them. Four great grandfathers, then eight great-great, then 16, 32… as the generations of killers multiply. Like most people of my age I come from a long line of killers, but I have not killed anyone and nor has my brother, making us a generational first, I expect. And I am unlikely to have to kill anyone in the time I have left. So maybe things are slowly improving. Maybe things can only get better, overall. I hope. I will take two minutes of silence now, to ponder.
We all have a cast of key people who are more or less always in our consciousness, a cast of family and established friends. For me it is quite a small group - my lady, daughter and son are centre stage, then what we could call the man who plays golf, and the man who used to play golf, the good doctor friend and… well really, that’s about all. I am a very self-contained and selective fellow in social interaction. I am generally very content to be alone. But then around that central and fairly stable cast there are the regular characters that flit in and out of my awareness, arriving on the stage of my mind at some point each day, including some who read these words and others whose words I read. And more dynamically, there are the ever-changing characters of the moment - the people who may be friends or enemies or neither, but who are a significant part of the current petty drama that is my life. And new ones come and go stage left and stage right every day, all with something to do, and something to say.
And the man who was ignoring me seems to be ignoring me a little less, which I thought strange, but positive, since the "coming to a head" time may be approaching. And in my naivety (perhaps) I mentioned this to someone, only to hear her cynical mind declare, "Ah, but I think I know why that may be." And she explained why she felt that the man who had been ignoring me might be greatly needing my help with something soon, and he could hardly beg for help from someone he had been blatantly ignoring, could he? Ach how disappointing, if true, that the wheels within the wheels of human interaction should turn to such devious effect. But we shall see... Me, and the man who is, or maybe was, ignoring me.
The young girl who had the rather dramatic panic and anxiety attack described on the 3rd of November was back where she should be today, smiling and calm and saying, "I'm much better." Which is what happens, mostly, not too long after we think that things can only get worse. There is generally a calm approaching from the outside of any storm, but we cannot see it when the storm is all around us. We should try to remember that the calm is out there, coming. Unfortunately I didn't help the young girl much this afternoon, by troubling her mind with further difficult issues about the things I am paid to convey; but she was able to shake her head with a smile at the challenges, rather than run away screaming. So that is progress, I hope. And so to tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow... through all the tomorrows, until these troubles are all in her yesterdays, I hope.
Yesterday's entry reminds me of the bizarre issue that arose with an international governmental project, for which I was contracted to research and write a guide of good practice. The most crucial information within the guide was to come from working groups meeting across Europe. These were scheduled to deliver their reports by the end of some specific month, yet I was soon told that the text of my guide had to be available some months earlier than that. I pointed out that this presented a problem that would seem to require the intervention of a time machine, but I was made to feel I was being awkward. I persisted with my awkwardness, however, until some inadequate fudge was arranged allowing a guide based only on "preliminary conclusions" to be published. Thus a guide appeared as the masters required, although without proper input from the deliberations of the working groups that had been expensively set up to determine the content of the guide. But the masters were happy, for a guide with a nice glossy cover was in their hands in time for a press conference and distribution. I doubt if they ever read it.
The esteemed but retired official from the European Commission was a worried man as he approached me in a fine hotel in an old city of Europe on the evening before an international jury of experts would meet to decide which institutions deserved some awards. My role as a consultant researcher and writer on the project had been to summarise the achievements of the most deserving candidates, for consideration by the jury of experts. The chairman of the jury was holding my summary paper and saying, “There is something rather crucial missing. You have not said who should win.” So, feeling rather puzzled, I said, “That’s what the jury is for, surely?” And the old bureaucrat looked at me as one would look at a naive young child and declared, “You cannot expect these people to decide for themselves! You need to make recommendations.” So I said “Oh.” Well actually I said much more, indeed I was told I was rather rude to the prestigious official, who was actually standing before me in his fine silk pyjamas and dressing gown at the time. My childish naivety, even though I was aged 43, had clearly disturbed his plans for a good sleep. But after an argument with this man far grander than myself I cancelled my own plans for an hour or so in the bar with my colleagues and went instead to sit in my room and type out my recommendations, which I made in great haste, and without the benefit of any particular expertise at all. And then I slept, as did the chairman and members of the jury. I think there were fifteen of then in all, each representing a different country. And in the morning the jury of international experts who had been flown in from all parts of our wide European Union and had been wined and dined and accommodated in order to make their decision, all received, scanned and quickly decided to adopt my recommendations. And the meeting was soon closed, and I typed up the jury’s decisions for the press release, and a good time was had by all. It paid for my house, that project. And it taught me a lot.
My wife is dancing provocatively on a table-top surrounded by cheering and chanting men and she is waving at me as I stand bemused and hurt in the corner of the room. Yes, she is waving at me as if she thinks this is acceptable behaviour, and now she is kneeling down and beckoning some of those dreadful drunk and leering men over to her and... Oh my goodness what the hell does she think she is doing now! And my anger and shock is rising and... Oh... I am in bed... It was a dream... And she is sleeping peacefully by my side with her soft face turned towards me on the pillow, but... although I have just realised it is a dream, my mind is still full of anger towards her. How could she behave like that? Oh, but she didn't, remember? It was a dream. I am confused... And I prop myself up a bit, lean back on my pillows, and think about how difficult it can be to shake off the effects of a dream, for I often wake up worried, or angry, or depressed as a result of the complete and utter nonsense that my dreaming mind has created; and even as I then bathe and breakfast and perhaps head out in the car towards the day's real events I can find the effects of the dream still lingering and so difficult to shake off. And oh look... The lady... She has opened her eyes now and those big brown discs are looking at me all innocent and sweet. Has she no shame? Oh... it was a dream... But still, she had better behave herself today. I will forgive her, because it didn't really happen, but still... I'll be watching.
I recounted today, in the context of an academic discussion about protein plaques in the brain, the tale of the time my dear dad lay in a hospital bed and informed me that Richard Branson and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been to see him. Apparently the Chancellor wanted him to sort out the economy while Branson needed the railway network fixed, and my dad said, "I can't take all that on my plate Andrew, lying here like this." Which interested me, because he was clearly aware that he was in a hospital bed but was unaware that only madness could make him think that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Richard Branson would have visited him to ask for such help. So I rather thoughtlessly asked him, "Why are you here in bed like this dad?" I was just fascinated by the contradictions going on in his mind. And he immediately declared, "Because I have just been taking on too much! And that's what I told them. I can't solve everybody's problems can I?" And today I was talking about a process that may clear away those tangled protein plaques, and wondering if it will become available soon enough to stop me from being visited by politicians and billionaires in seek of help as I lie in a hospital bed. And also wondering what the new process might have done for my dad had it been available for him. And would it have been better to try for the fix or just to let things run their course as a once fine mind disintegrated toward oblivion?
My lady has a childhood diary and we opened it up recently and flicked through the few pages with writing on them, dating from summer days so very long ago. The first entry says, "Got up. Went out to play. Had tea and watched telly." The next day's entry says, "Got up. Went out to play. Had tea and watched telly." The third entry says, "Got up. Went out to play. Morag and Sheila came home for tea." The simplicity and lack of excitement continued for a few weeks until the entries ceased. But she has another diary from when she was aged 19, which has much more written in it and there is an entry that says, "Went to the Union dance with Morag. Met a lad called Andrew. He said he will phone me." Ah... Poor girl. She has never escaped.
A firework burst in the darkening sky. Oh... Guy Fawkes Night. History... Plotting... Torture and execution and... as I was driving homeward, I just then glanced to the east and noticed the ancient island castle that bears the old stone window ledge I had recently leaned on, which is a rather significant old stone window ledge as it was the one that the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots looked out over each day to offer up her prayers not long before her neck was severed by the executioner. And I had been standing on the same spot and looking through the same gap in stone, but thinking rather different thoughts I’m sure. Which immediately made me think of "the beheading stone" on a small hill a few miles to the west that I had visited recently, and had gazed down at the several harsh straight marks across it made by a heavy axe slicing through a life. Which then made me recall the museum not far to the north where I had stood just last month, looking at the many similar cuts across the dark hard wooden executioner’s block that, if I recall the description correctly, was used for the last ever judicial beheading in Scotland. Oh… last ever? Well so far… Then catching a glimpse of the old castle’s walls again I recalled the pale plaster death mask of Mary Queen of Scots that I could view within minutes if I just turned off the main road. I did not turn off, but I recalled that she had been fixed up to look remarkably peaceful for a woman who’d just had her head lopped off. And these little flashes of thoughts about memories of history made me suddenly recall how I had followed a slightly inebriated young lady at a wedding in a different castle, not far away, and had heard her dismissively chanting out, “old stuff, old stuff, old stuff,” as she pointed at each old artifact she passed while staggering onwards to her next new drink. And then I snapped my attention back to the white lines on the surface of the M90, rushing toward me and slipping away, toward and away, toward and away... as the wheels beneath me turned and I moved on toward the new, away from the old, toward the new and away from the old, unceasingly.
I have circled our sun for sixty and a half years. That may not be unreasonably long, by some standards, but I had expected to be dead by now. If not dead then miserable. I did not expect to find happiness in growing older, but rather suddenly I do seem to have. After a few years of fearing each added month I have recently felt a growing sense of liberation as I begin to welcome the advancing time, and view it as a fresh opportunity rather than a spiralling toward the doom. I no longer have to build my path to adulthood, for that is done, and fast receding. I no longer have to prove anything to anyone, except, perhaps, myself. Children have been made and raised and funded and launched, apart from still and regularly needing lunched. My lady is here, but happy in herself, while still tolerating my affection. Nobody really needs all that much from me any more, except myself. I appear to have emerged into a new morning that seems to offer me the chance to largely do what I want for the first time in so long. It is very strange, this old new dawn, this quiet reborn... Although… pretence may be the secret of our sanity. Pretending we are sane, not least pretending to ourselves. Deluding ourselves as much, or perhaps much more, than we delude others. Are we not all mad inside? I think that I may be. Oh yes… I think… I think… I think… And I still play childish games inside my mind each day, whatever and wherever that mind may really be. If I were to dwell on it I would be worried. Oh, but here I am dwelling on it. Am I worried? Perhaps the fact that I am not currently worried may be the sign that I have finally attained a blissful state of mad. I have experienced some of the far from blissful states, and I have seen others in their own anguished states of mad, albeit mercifully interspersed with many times of seemingly contented madness. My father, when he truly and officially went "mad" was content enough apart from in the brief moments when he realised that he was mad. Therein may lie the secret. To be mad, yet to be unaware of our madness, and sufficiently mad to find that fun, or just not too bad. And thus, instead of sad, I’m glad.
The man approaches me. He drops his head down and turns it to the side. He is ignoring me. We were friends. I know why he is ignoring me. I look at him but he keeps his gaze averted and walks past, awkwardly. It is a shame. It is complicated. People are complicated. A complicated mixed-up mess of ever-changing thoughts and attitudes and emotions. I walk on thinking about why he is ignoring me, and what might happen when everything finally comes to a head. It is a shame. It is complicated. The time of resolution may be approaching, but we will never again return to being friends.
A young girl, in distress, standing crying and gasping for air, as I approach. I know her. So I ask her what is wrong. Panic attack. Anxiety. Can’t cope. So I lead her down to a quiet place where we can sit on soft seats, and fairly quickly she calms. So many of us, I ponder, as we talk, are just not equipped to live this life, at least at times. And I tell her it happens to many of us, sometimes. And she settles, until we part, and she moves on. But she does not appear where she should in the afternoon, although she said she would. This November. This growing grey November, when I eventually drive home through fallen leaves, and I think, of young girls and old women, and boys and men, and age and life, and springtime, coming, I hope. And I cope.