Lower Thames

My dad was a beat PC along the lower stretches of the Thames. He also rowed for the Met. I asked him for stories about corpses on the river for something I’m writing about  and he sent this. I want the psychogeographic cop memoir to be a thing in 2016, please. 

The freeboard or gunwale of a sporting rowing boat is about twenty centimetres, maybe thirty on a sturdier boat. You sit low in the water and get to know it intimately. The modern oar blade is shaped like a cleaver, for maximum leverage, but we used the old-fashioned Macon spoon blades because they don’t catch the flurries and uncertainties of the tidal water. You can get it clip on an unseen mud bank and not get caught up.

The Met boated from Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club, on the Isle of Dogs and directly opposite Greenwich pier. The best time was either side of low tide as the wash of faster boats dissipated across the mudbanks and the really big boats could not operate at this stage of the tide. In theory the bigger boat gives way to the smaller.

The problem is that once they are going they can’t stop and they can’t move out of the centre channel, so the rower needs to be aware and get out of the way. This is no place for an untrained cox and even more difficult for the lone sculler. You will hear other boatmen call out ‘have a look, sculler’ when the river is busy or there is a problem in sight. There is no aggression intended; it’s just that everyone covers each other on the river.

The Met were paying guests of Poplar and this was sometimes an uneasy relationship. The club had been formed by Thames watermen and dockers. They were tough men who remembered the last dock strikes. They were hugely protective of their river-craft and access to their river. They were mainly old style socialists and many were open to a bit of small scale ‘venture-capital’ if it came their way. Mixing with the Old Bill was a matter for delicate diplomacy, although we all had the same pragmatic and physical approach to life’s problems. And the river bound us together once afloat.

We included members of the River Police in our club. I always felt they were a bit like the French Foreign Legion: there is no career path after the boats and most came to forget. There is little activity other than to pootle up and down, doing nautical stuff and rescuing the occasional body. It follows that this was a haven for eccentrics. We used to row heavy boats with these guys. These were similar to naval whalers, which are clinker built with a rowing crew of five. In the old days the odd man in the bow had to handle the harpoon! These things were dreadful to row as you had to bend from the waist and stand into the oar, however they could handle rough water and were designed for the open sea. The advantage was that our men knew the river and its banks intimately, plus it was their beat, so nobody on the river crossed the Thames Division.

The Thames is tidal to some extent all the way up to Lechlade. This means an upstream current twice a day set against a continuous flow of ground water. At any time one will be stronger than the other. There will also be some point, some region or stage of the river where this action levels out. A point where the two currents are roughly equal, a floating object would move up and down, but generally settle down and stay put.

The lower part of river between Tower Bridge and the Thames barrier, just beyond Greenwich, had this quality. The pool of London extended just up from Tower Bridge where there was the last of the deep water and the lower pool was by Wapping Reach, just below the Tower. This was as far upriver as the big ships could sail, as marked by the HMS Belfast today.

On these waters, you would be in a form of stasis, moving at the cusp of the tide, a watershed. The groundwater is in constant interchange with the tide. There is no sense of winning or losing, just flow. When you physically travel on it, when you row it, you have to work with this flow. It has its own time and its own strength; you have to comply, to work with it. You lost sense of clock time. Perhaps this was its attraction, the way it enforced compliance to the equilibrium of change. All very Zen, really, and well put in a koan attributed to Ikkyu: ‘If you think you really come and go, that is your delusion. Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and no going.’

That koan was about death, as are many deliberations on the river. Although I never considered it as doom-laden as Dickens, or gibbet-strewn as in pirate times, trade and property had to defend their capital and frighten the lower classes, and they defined the lower river as a place of fear.

The peculiar equilibrium of the Lower Thames, with its opposing currents and tidal shifts, meant that strange fates awaited corpses washed up there. The oddities of the way the river worked could be adapted for professional purposes.

If you drop a corpse into this environment there is a three-day rule. When the body goes in it will initially float, and then sink. It might get caught up somewhere, but it usually goes down. Then the gut starts to brew up and the body will return to the surface, generally after three days. Until these gases dissipate, the body will float for a while before settling back down. Usually it will be found and recovered – but not always. This is probably why so many murders and thrillers have the bodies cut up, although this is probably more cliché than common practice.

Nonetheless, anyone who has died on the river was treated with great dignity and respect. There was a small unit at Thames Division, headquartered at Wapping Stairs, who tracked down the identities of those who had committed suicide, or had just been retrieved from the water. You couldn’t deal with this without a grim humour and a pragmatic approach. Suicides were ‘jumpers’ and bodies were ‘stiffs’, although this was rarely an accurate term as rigor mortis held no sway after the body came back up.

It was also said that the body could move around of its own volition when convenient. In the language of the McCarthy trials, I was never and did not know anyone involved in such practices. But if a body did not need to come ashore at any particular time, why hurry it? There was every chance that it might wash up somewhere better prepared instead.

The protocol was that if a body was afloat in the river, Thames Division dealt with it. If it was washed up on the foreshore, the riparian division dealt with the case. If it was a sudden death with no suspicious circumstances it was a uniform job, for the finding officer to deal with. If there were suspicious circumstances the CID were informed and took over.

The site of the body could even become a crime scene – inconvenient with a rising tide. For the humble PC, the first scenario could mean hours with a smelly corpse and a nasty, inconvenient attendance at the autopsy for continuity of evidence. The local D.I. had the authority to declare a ‘special event’; the time immediately after a murder was known as the ‘golden hour’ when memories are fresher and suspects still close. Therefore, the local CID boss had to be able to authorise extra overtime and cancel leave. This meant overtime, lots of overtime. Overtime was the oil that lubricated the machine of investigation.

So, in a spirit of pure speculation, an innocent body might get washed up and stranded at low tide, perhaps only just held there by a snagged strand of clothing on a piece of wire from a drowned shopping trolley. For the night duty PC, this body might be too dangerous to recover, or might even float away from his reach and back into Thames Division’s remit. Or it might quietly go with the flow and onto the next Division’s foreshore. On the other hand, for the cash-starved night duty detective, it could present an honest opportunity. The slightest evidence of foul play would mean a murder enquiry and his or her first claim to be part of the murder squad.

The Lower Thames was a vibrant and feisty place, a place of work, travel and opportunity and even escape. It had an exoticism. When they closed down a warehouse in Shad Thames to demolish and develop what is now Java Wharf, the wooden floors gave off an intense smell of the spices which had been stored there for centuries and had leached into the woodwork and structure of the building, and pervaded the surrounding streets.

The river leaves the tight walls on its banks along this stretch and starts to meander, dropping its mud and detritus on the way. It opens out and breathes a bit, like a commuter leaving the tension of the city and loosening his tie on the train home. The mud contains traces of all the lives and industries of the city, some of them pretty grim: effluent, nitrogen run-off from fields, antibiotics and other drugs from human and agricultural use. Rowing near the River Lea, where there were discharges of dry cleaning fluid, it was understood that if you fell in a quick shower was matter of urgency. All of this stuff is deposited in the mud banks, mostly on the inside of bends, the sorts of places where, if you were unlucky, a body might wash up. The mud of the Lower Thames has seen all sorts of things.


I’m on holiday, a family holiday, with my ex-partner who comes here every year and our children, who are dozing off norovirus in bed. From the balcony of our room you can only see trees. I do not know what most of them are – the palms are, obviously, palms, and the car is parked beneath the tendriled shade of a vast banyan, but the others are just trees, unidentified parts of a vista. The managers of the hotel have taken the precaution of removing the coconuts from the palm trees lest they decapitate guests but, aside from that, the immediate visual impression is arboreal, an illusion of nature.

There is sound rising behind the trees: the trickle of water feeding the pool, the repetitive brush strokes of the man whose job it is to sweep leaves from the flower beds, a Sisyphean task carried out with relentless, fruitless efficiency, and the steady thud of dance music.

By dance music I mean the sort of dance music that Roger Scruton now famously disapproves of – the sort characterised by repetitive beats and informal, solipsistic dancing. Scruton claims that the more traditional sorts of dance, with their formalised movements and social mediation of human interaction, are the more enjoyable, and that if only the young deluded folk who go raving out of mindless habit would try them they’d find them superior.

Scruton would no doubt be dismayed by the scene here. India, with its rich cultural heritage, not least in the sphere of music and dance, is losing its youth to the techno parties. The banners for the electronic music festival up the road consist largely of home-grown DJs, and you can’t drive within a five-mile radius of it for the duration. It is a phenomenon remarkable for both speed and scale and it looks terrifyingly as though everyone might be enjoying themselves – at the beach parties there is little evidence of looming existential crisis at the hellscape of atomised dancing.

I first came to Goa twelve years ago, when the party scene that had metastasised from the first Western hippy settlers was entirely Eurocentric. Everyone flew in on charter flights from northern places and pretended that they hadn’t and that they’d been there all along like the proper travellers, who rented beachside shacks and had started to get quite brown. People aspired to the highest level of travellerdom, which was as far as the going native bit went, and had the odd Ganesha embroidered on their bag, and otherwise seemed to ignore their host culture. Encounters with Indian people at raves consisted mostly of interactions with the chai ladies. There was a New Year’s Eve party, an uncomfortable mismatch of worlds, in which a lot of Indian men got very drunk and unpleasantly gropey in what I assume they mistook for a sexual free-for-all. It all felt quite dysfunctional: it is all very well to have utopian visions, and the hippy and trance scene were full of those, although it is not entirely clear what they involved apart from dancing, veganism and the cultivation of unusual mushrooms, but there needs to be something in it for those whose land your purported utopia inhabits.

Things have changed. Ten years ago, on a second visit, I struck up conversations with amicable ravers from Delhi or Mumbai, but there weren’t many of them and they were all male, and on the back foot socially in a still-Eurocentric world. Now, there are ten times more Indian men than women at the parties, but the women are present, and attired in the manner of the international raver, or perhaps in the international manner of the raver, since the habits trample the illusion of the nation-state: comfortable footwear, which must, critically, be bike-appropriate, for the best parties are invariably inaccessible without a motorcycle journey and a long walk, and shorts or leggings and a vest top. There is no space for concerns regarding the modesty of one’s shoulders on a sweaty dancefloor. When it gets busy on the roads, which it does in a way that shrieks peak anthropocene at eleven o’clock at night, clouds of red dust hang in the hot air along with the petrol fumes of thousands of bikes, and it is common to see girls dressed to party on their bikes, faces swathed in scarves to keep the dust out of their hair and face so that only a small eye-slit remains, a sort of reverse niqab situation. As a Western woman, the presence of the Indian party girls makes you feel invisible in a way that you did not before they arrived, and the invisibility feels good.

There is nothing to assuage colonial guilt like the new prevalence of the Indian middle classes on the party scene, as though the presence of the locals on the dancefloor dilutes the reality that as a Westerner you live like a king in the bubble afforded by the roll of currency you changed on arrival. The locals on the dancefloor are rarely local – the local locals are busy working, taking advantage of the busiest time of the tourist year, and the numberplates on the party bikes are from neighbouring Maharashtra and Karnataka, the affluent young professionals of Mumbai and Bangalore. Taking days off to party at a time is an issue of socio-economic rather than racial privilege these days, as perhaps it ever was in India.

For the last decade or so, Goa was the party destination for Russians and Israelis, the latter often on leave from military service and accordingly letting off steam, so that they gained a reputation from the more chilled raver factions for being unduly aggressive. This year, at least right now, at the peak time between Christmas and the New Year, neither are in evidence: the recession in Russia has hit hard, and word on the street is that the Israelis were increasingly refused visas out of fear of terrorist attacks.

It was certainly disconcerting to arrive at a beachside shack in the evening with a jetlagged seven-year-old in tow to encounter an airport-style metal detector. If only the Russians and Israelis could be there too the place would, I suppose, have made the ideal substrate for an angry Daeshophile: add a smattering of assorted Europeans and the new, newly decadent and mostly Hindu upper classes from the most Westernised Indian cities and there’s little not to hate.

The oddity of it, though, is that as far as party scenes go the psytrance world is pretty austere to the point that its more dedicated adherents can be extremely dull, and more interested in proselytising about correct recycling practices than recounting anecdotes of fear and loathing on the road to Siolim. There are no Caligula-style orgies to be found, no silver platters of cocaine, remarkably little drunkenness. The blessing and the curse of psychedelics lies in moderation – at the point where stonedness can’t go any further you will collapse in a corner, involuntarily dancing with your hands or toes, possibly talking nonsense, but that is as far as the dissolution goes. Upon reflection, that is not quite fair: some people claim to have spiritual experiences when dancing in which they become one with a great cosmic mind and that sort of thing, which, when you think about it, is a sort of extreme Withness.

The ingestion of psychedelics is key to the Goa school of raving because it is quite hard to get the point of the music without them: you can hear the fast repetitive beats underpinning it and the rest sounds like sped-up intestinal noise. For a long time, all psytrance acts had names seemingly snatched from cell biology textbooks so that the names of DJs on a flier – I misremember them more than a decade on as things like Metaphase, Telomere, Endoplasmic Reticulum – could look like an exam cribsheet on acid, or, more accurately, DMT, since the Terence McKenna-style machine elves that tended to populate them too are for some reason more of a tryptamine phenomenon.

The character of psychedelic music – and this applies to psychedelic rock music as well as psytrance – is that it contains a lot of unfolding detail. This means that the obvious patterns you can pick up in straightforward 4/4 techno or garage rock do not seem to be there, because there are loads of patterns coexisting in it, because the person who made it took a lot of acid and lost track of the time. This makes it inaccessible at first – it can seem a bit like obnoxiously revved-up white noise. Once you patiently tolerate it for hours and hours or, preferably, get stoned, the patterns start to emerge. It seems as though the drugs enable you to expand your expectation of where to find the patterns that we interpret as being musical. Once you have learned how to do this, it is then possible to apply that particular type of musical pattern-recognition when not stoned. The greatest danger here is mistaking ordinary background sounds – the rhythmic commuter trains passed on the way home from a big night out, the chatter of monkeys in the trees, the swell of waves – for music, so that the world at large takes that shape, but it is a pleasant risk to take.

No doubt this is where Scruton’s beef with techno comes from: he sits in an inveterate line of people cross about new music whose newfangled patterns evade them. Perhaps he should drop some acid. The issue of the quality of the experience still remains.

Scruton talks about “being-with” as the benefit of dancing that gets lost with the old formalities that governed it. You could be-with whoever the village or your father’s gaze would allow you to be with, but the governing social morality of your small world would be ever-present.

In the less constrained settings of the night-time dancefloor, you are being-with in a more extensive way – with the immediate coterie of your surrounding ravers, and with yourself, and, at the risk of sounding hippyish, with the music and the notion of a world in which it is possible to snatch moments of pure introspective pleasure alongside other people who are doing the same thing, and with whom there is an unspoken sense of fraternity. What Scruton fails to see is that it is possible to do being-with on a greater scale beyond the romantic or familial. The early M25 rave scene was a great social leveller for precisely this reason: hippies and yuppies and brickies had that moment, and their acknowledgement of its mutual enjoyment, in common.

It is unlikely that Scruton is acquainted with the millennial comedy series Spaced, but the episode in which its protagonists go clubbing is spot on in its depiction of how the being-with of raving works. There is the moment where they – it is implied – drop the E and the music suddenly makes sense; where, upon spilling a pint over a very big man, a moment of terror sublimates into a matey hug; where previously unspoken acknowledgements of friendship and affection are laid bare.

Before rave culture took off, going to a club was traditionally a sexually predatory activity that carried the risk of a drunken brawl. Dancing was a performative activity in which the aim was to attract a mate or elevate one’s social capital. I’m sure the cry of neoliberalism will continue to be levied against rave culture but it does look a little like an evolutionary improvement on the mating-dance. And how different are those other traditional dances from the mating-dance anyway? They are the mating-dances that hail from a time when the community decided who you could mate with.

At least Scruton is upfront about his conservatism, because nothing is more conservative than the belief in the beneficence of small-town family values. Perhaps he’d think that those Indian party people will come to their senses before long and abandon the dancefloor and its illusory freedoms.


I recently stumbled across the work of Victorian philologist/theologian Max Müller. The existence of philologist/theologian as a descriptor is delightful enough as it is, but I was particularly drawn by the way in which the study of language, and in particular the limitations of language, influenced Müller’s theological interests.

Müller saw religion as a defect of language. He argued that there was a perceptual faculty, aistheton, that was able to contemplate the existence of the infinite, so that rather than being restricted to the phenomenal realm of sense-data we could intuitively get that there was something bigger extending beyond it.

Müller held that very early language, like the early Sanskrit of the Vedas, had a greater depth and flexibility of meaning, largely because the language was more simplistic and there was less of it so it had to do more and express more.

It therefore got used with broader brush-strokes and more poetic licence. It was more metaphorical. Central to this metaphorical form of representation was the description of bits of the physical world – mountains, rivers, the sky etc – as being active rather than just sterile stuff.

Müller called these sorts of big things semi-tangible objects: you could see and grasp bits of them but underpinning that was the knowledge that there was more of it that you could not see. The vastness and not-quite-perceptibility of the natural world was therefore embedded in this sense of aistheton, of a bigger infinite thing beyond the things we see.

For Müller, the development of language that was more tightly focused on picking out nouns – bits of stuff – in what it was describing and concomitantly less metaphorical in those descriptions left a gap where the infinite had previously lurked.

Once you just called a mountain a mountain and a river a river and the dawn the dawn and it was just a thing, you needed to find another way of making it rich with meaning again. The next phase of this was animism, where you take the noun Eos, the Dawn, and make it into a name, so that the Dawn is a person imbued with a mixture of anthropomorphic and dawn-like properties. You have yourself a god.

Müller thought this was a pretty simplistic approach to religion: you lost the sense of wonder and gained a soap opera with a cast of embodied nouns. How was this a conceptual improvement on the magic of metaphorical language, which was poetic and broad rather than denotational, and capable of glimpsing the infinite?

To generate a noun called God and fit all of those attributes into a thing is just as crude as turning Dawn into a character – you end up thinking you understand it, that it is possible to hold and define. Müller lionised the apophatic approach of Buddhism, or certain Buddhist traditions: you can only describe what you are describing by setting out what it isn’t. Müller was a dude.

Anyway, I started thinking more about aistheton. I like it as an idea. I started to wonder if that might be what we’re after when we climb a mountain or wade along the edges of a river or perceive a dawn: the idea that the richness and vitality of something beyond the immediate frame of our perception is present.

Our contemporary disorder of language is guilty of the same drive to object-making that Müller identified over a century ago. We went further and ditched the god-noun, which is probably no bad thing. Our perceptual frames have shrunk back even further, though: the ready supply of synthetic novelty on screens, online, in the weird leisure scenarios of late capitalism have withered away our capacity to dig for richness beneath surface appearance.

Maybe aistheton, now, is simply to be present in a moment unfed by technology and to peer beyond it, and remember that there is a world beyond it whose unfolding detail is vast and limitless, like a river or some other semi-tangible object; maybe it is the ability to hold the world, or anything in it, as something that can not quite be held.

At Frieze

In the queue for the lift at Regent’s Park station I could hear a series of pops, which I now realised were tiny explosions of air extruded from chewing gum in the mouth of the head behind mine. It belonged to a student whose face was perfectly expressionless and flat apart from the rhythmic mandibular manipulation of gum, as though the bottom of her skull had different wiring. I was swept across the Marylebone Road in the wake of a vast French exchange, and into the perimeter of the park where the white-and-black hoardings of the art fair had set themselves up.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. It would be a lie to say that I went there naively hoping to see some art. I had a sort of idea that there might be some interesting insights into material things that, upon closer inspection, are not quite what they seem, that being the mainstay of uncanniness. I had a sort of idea that that was what most contemporary art was about, the manipulation of the appearance of things so that the reality exposed behind it had unexpected qualities.

I queued in a long corridor to ditch N’s old UN rucksack, which was so vast and obviously not handbaglike that there was no way it was coming in. An affable security man remonstrated with people holding, or claiming to hold, VIP tickets; another security woman worked the queue, sniffing out people who didn’t need to be there, terrierlike; people who had all thought a great deal about what to wear walked past in the strange stiff uniformity of movement that besets the self-conscious.

It was like a slick conception of an airport, one of those glassy, glossy airports that Tyler Brûlé would get exercised about. Through security, on the other side, artside, the gates were marked out with big-brand gallery names in which objects noisily jostled for attention alongside all the people.

Eventually I got through and could see the objects. They weren’t as interesting to look at as the man dressed in maps and a lampshade, although perhaps he had set out to be an object anyway. There were huge geometric trompe l’oeil patterns, smarter that the neon throws at a psytrance rave but essentially the same sort of idea, blurry tits and lips and cunts, possible attempts at encapsulating the cosmic and any number of inverted or perverted things – an upside-down drum, banging itself, a head-shaped vase bearing a cactus. You take a thing and put it out of context and then it becomes weird, or at least edgy.

The problem with edginess is that it operates on a basis of sense, which is the slipperiest sort of basis for anything at all: as soon as you chase it successfully and fix it, it has ceased to be edgy and is merely kitsch, which is where edgy goes to die. Perhaps what you have to do in order to avoid this paradox is avoid adopting what seems to be edgy now and, instead, speculate what might become edgy in the future, so that with a bit of semiotic investment your social capital, in reading the trend-led cues around you, sublimates into the cultural capital of canny curation, which you can then sell on. If my theory was correct, its outcome here was a vast inflatable cartoon cat juxtaposed with a photographic close-up of a man, or men, seemingly masturbating in football shorts.

I soon tired of the art and looked at the passing figures instead. The people, insofar that they were people, for some of them had a ghostly presence, moving through the space or at least appearing to do so without actually being present in it, all had strange faces. There were men with caricature eyebrows and noses, like clownish Groucho Marxes, in crazy glasses, loud glasses, dark glasses; women balancing heads on improbably pointed bodies with too-tight cheekbones and eroded facial musculature, as though they all had the same surgeon who speciality was the uncanny valley, the nearly-but-not-quite mimicry of human form and movement that forms the sweet-spot of unheimlich.

I sat by the tables outside where tree-trunks emerged from the floating floorboards and everyone spoke either earnestly in German, or ostentatiously in English, like the American man with a faketanned plasticine face who leaned into me leerily as he passed and said “Nice chapeau,” the foreignness of the noun italicised to impress. I drank sugarless green juice, which, though expensive, was remarkably effective at clearing my hangover, and watched them.

It was as though the extremes of social stratification peculiar to the concentrations of wealth in cities like London had evolved their own posthuman species. Perhaps some new Lamarckian process would see lines of straw-boatered prep school children wander the streets behind the park, gender dimorphised into overdrawn features for the boys and beatific facial paralysis for the girls, children whose newly divergent metabolisms would now run entirely on capital, liquid capital, so that the indignity of eating need not trouble them.

It was not yet clear what would happen to the restaurants in this eventuality, when the need for food abstracted from food finally reached the point of nonfruition where it ceased to be food altogether, and became instead a holographic representation of the memory of food or something like it. That would need work. Perhaps the new congregations would all take place in the consumption of art, at endless private views, where new tweaks to the Krebs cycle would see capital transformed enzymatically, deep in the mitochondria of wealth, into social and cultural analogues ready for transfer and exchange.


I had a free twenty-four hours and a hangover. I hadn’t slept well in a while. I needed to be in the North on Sunday morning and ended up in Manchester, largely because I could, and because I knew nobody in the city.

Mist was beginning to pool in the road when we drove home from a party the night before, and the morning was shrouded in it. Inclement weather carries a broader variety of affects than I had noticed before: low cloud and low pressure is flattening, a downer, while strong wind and heavy rain beat refrains of the nested comforts of home. Mist is mysterious, as though the two are etymologically linked, and a sense of adventure creeps out of it. I got fernweh.

It rolled like half-formed hay bales across the fields on the way to Hereford station. I was certain of the rightness of leaving home now; I had a sense that something was up, that the train ride would sort me out. I had a deal with myself that I work on trains, and it is a deal I never break. The hills of Shropshire rose and fell, and I wrote, half-heartedly at first, peering over the laptop at the Long Mynd, and by the time the train passed the plump suburbs of Cheshire the sun was out and I had made sense of it all and the trip felt vindicated.

And the deal, then, was that I got to do fun stuff. I wandered through cafes and tried on too much lipstick and went dancing, alone, which is the best way to do it. I wandered through the city, half lost. The lostness was a key bit of the attraction, for the city was a stranger in that way that cities, like people, can be handsome or ugly, friendly or menacing, and vary in their knowability.

The not-knowing, the way that streets and buildings carried no embedded meaning for me, and simply presented themselves as paths and vistas, made it possible to see the shapes and patterns that make cities beautiful when they are. I took terrible blurry pictures of their geometries on my phone, and thought about the nature of geometry, or tried to. The tiredness made my mind soft, and it softened the shapes around me too so that streetlights had an aura and cars left a trail.

The natural world has its own geometries, some of them obvious: a pinecone’s perfect spiral in Fibonacci sequence, the six-pronged star of a snowflake. And then there are the subtler ones, the fractal repetitions of shapes that you get upon magnification, the patterning of the secondary structure of proteins where the chain of amino acids forms bonds at regular intervals to create a helix or sheet.

Proteins are manufactured in the endoplasmic reticulum and packaged in the Golgi apparatus – the industrial organelles, the Manchesters of the cell, built out of long factory production lines. I fear at this point that the overextended metaphor will be taken for anthropomorphism, which is on balance fine: production, like geometry, replicates itself across all scales of existence, and if you want to tag it as mistakenly human-centred the human part of that assumption is all yours. Back to geometry.

There was a whole row about geometry that happened in the nineteenth century, at the same time that much of Manchester’s architecture came into being. Old-school Euclidean geometry was being ditched and dismissed as “planimetry” – a system that worked only self-referentially in the unreal confines of the flat plane. The new geometers were getting their teeth into new forms with new methods that better described the complexities of spacetime, or so the story went.

The new geometers thought that Euclidean geometry with its neat forms created a conceptual trap in which the world was thought to correspond to geometry, and when the world, or at least spacetime, appeared to correspond to any of the new geometries that better described its curvatures and folds the assumption that the world must be shaped like a geometry somehow persisted. It would simply be too strange to see the geometries as shapes that only ever existed in the human imagination, and from which we sought out mirrors in external data, or created external things in their image.

But what fantastic objects we created from them. The repetitions of shadowed railings on steps, so that the lines of the railings fell diagonally across them; the diminishing lines of steel struts beneath a bridge, backlit from the road; an alleyway between the hooped part-moons of railway arches and the striplit planes of a multi-storey carpark, bridged by a vertical fence that opened precisely halfway along.

And, strangest of all, in the last cheap hotel in town, which looked like it might have been repurposed out of student halls that gave the kids strange dreams, a vast pendulum hung and swung in perpetuity in an octagonal space in the lobby. Maybe the human capacity for folly sets us aside from the rest of nature; I’m not at all sure about that, though.

Idealism, stupid

A strange thing happened yesterday. I was at a conference full of scientists and none of them thought materialism worked.

This strange phenomenon might seem a little less strange in the context of the conference being a conference about psychedelics, but still. People were talking about DMT, its mechanisms, its applications to our understanding of how consciousness works and how best to analyse the peculiar visual and perceptual trends common to people using it, regardless of their cultural background or setting.

One of the common threads of discussion was whether it made more sense to take these visions and perceptions (all of which tend to invoke elves, in much the same fashion as the old northern European shamanic traditions) at face value – the elves are real entities out there in the world and DMT offers a way into seeing them – or as a sort of mental construct.

Conventional materialism would fall into a bit of a hole here, because if you agree that stuff in consensus reality, like the table and chair in front of you, are actual real things, it troubles the question of how real the real things are. Problem is, the elves have all the same apparently real qualities as the real things. If the real things are real, you are in danger of finding yourself believing in elves: not a respectable materialist position to hold.

At the end, I asked the speakers which metaphysical position was best fit to make sense of the elf story.

Idealism, said Andrew Gallimore, as though it were obvious. Which, to anyone who has taken psychedelics, I suppose it is. And to people who have chipped away at the thorny issues of establishing mathematical and philosophical fixity, and concluded that it doesn’t really work unless you keep on changing the script in an attempt to account for the unaccountable, too. The philosophy festival I work for finds more of these people each year. And, perhaps more significantly, idealism is a position that sits with increasing ease for the mostly lay audience. We might have got over God, but there is an inchoate folk metaphysics out there that thinks naive realism is a bit silly upon inspection.

I gave a paper last week on The Hunting of the Snark and Flatland which wasn’t really about either book but the backdrop of developments in Victorian metaphysics. Both, I argued, alluded to the story of an attempt to project what seemed (as it always does, for philosophers love nothing better than to reinvent the wheel) like the New Speculative Realism out of new mathematical techniques, and its ultimate collapse. The unhuntable Snark turns out to be the ineffable Boojum; the Zen master of a non-man, the Baker, who succeeds in meeting with it is sublimated into thin air in something like an encounter with the Absolute; the proliferation of additional possible dimensions in Flatland, which then starts to sound a bit like a DMT trip, results in the impossibility of any particular perceptual account of the world being mind-independently true.

What I would now like to know is which particular flavour of idealism Gallimore was on about. Even if we’re agreed that the notion of a fixable mind-independent reality is a bit silly, there are different ways of understanding that too. Where are we headed? Later speakers alluded to holism or monism, in the guise of spiritual practitioners like Gurdjieff and Steiner whose followers, in my admittedly limited experience, tend claim special insight by virtue of their guru having uncovered it, as though the entire histories of Eastern and Western philosophy alike weren’t a thing. Do we see mind-dependent reality as a big, interconnected cosmic mind, or do we take a more austere line?

I also got excited about how it might be possible to take an idealist position and create a consciousness-as-GUI metaphor in which different modalities of consciousness take hold, like layered operating systems, when different phenethylamine or tryptamine-based neural networks are fired up. More on that soon.

Nature, naturalists and naturalism

Observing the Great Nature Schism, as it is unlikely to be called in the future, I found myself thinking about naturalism too, in both its philosophical sense as the empirical study of the material world and its literary sense as the supply of detail to create a staged impression of the material world.

It seems as though the sort of writing the avengers of the correct, pure type of nature writing are advocating, at least on the surface of it, is mimetic writing. It is as though we need more writing that seeks to identify the fine detail of things – in this case living things that are not human – and to pin them down in the collector’s case of Nature Writing. If you muddy the pursuit of mimetic detail with things that are less pindownable, like allusions or ideas or, heaven forfend, sub-plots, the illusion of the text providing an image of reality falls apart a bit.

It’s not just the professional naturalists who seem to like naturalism. Most readers do. We like something concrete that feels authentic and real. It reflects a more general literary trend over the last hundred years or so, which is the relentless pursuit of naturalism in fiction and non-fiction alike.

Erich Auerbach famously saw this as a good thing – that it was somehow more honest and demotic to create pretend detail to furnish the reader’s perception of a scene. But Mimesis was written in the 1940s, when the full impact of the new technologies of television and film, among other things, had not yet been fully realised.

One of the outcomes of access to instantaneous and granular televisual detail is that it makes reading feel a bit like hard work. And if reading is hard work, reading that necessitates a bit of imaginative stretching is bloody hard work. When I read the early chapters of Mimesis, I feel mournful not for our ancestors’ lack of literary technique but for our desiccated imaginations. I recently considered adapting the Satyricon into a contemporary setting and was struck, among other things, by the lack of narrative detail in it. Once upon a time, the act of reading involved a fair amount of furnishing too.

I’m not going to get stuck into Mimesis, tempting as it is, because Terry Eagleton did a much better job of it twelve years ago and I therefore wouldn’t dare. But I do think that Auerbach’s pursuit of the really real struck a chord in a post-war world that was increasingly industrialised – and thus nostalgic for an imagined idea of authenticity, like the pure, big-N Nature – and also a bit intellectually lazy thanks to the more passive pleasures of watching telly.

[Auerbach sees a progressive political project in the fall of high art, which, given the Wagnerian fasco-epic predilections of his immediate cultural predicament seems fair enough, but the flipside of it is ideological in its own way. Perhaps we could note, in counter-example, that the apparent realism of the novel lends itself, in a similar fashion to film, to an efficacious provocation of emotive responses. It makes it easy to construct an apparently convincing moral framework and to sell it. This can work for good and for bad.]

The rise and rise of the exhaustive biography is, perhaps, the literary apotheosis of this search for the Real. Somehow, the mimetic detail of a novel doesn’t quite cut it. We need a mimesis-upgrade to historical fiction, so that rooting it to a Real Time and a Real Place makes it more comfortingly real to read. But the fictive element of fiction then becomes disconcerting. Let’s cut to the chase and go for biography instead.

I think something analogous, if not similar, is going on with nature writing. Rather than looking inward to the imagination for the constant supply of detail that readers increasingly appear to need, or outward to the realm of ideas, it is naturalistic detail that is the only valid sort for the nature police. It requires a particular exhaustive specialist knowledge honed by years of love and attention to detail that the rest of us might never even know was there.

The nature of looking closely at anything is that you unpack new bits of detail with every close-up: it has a fractal quality. There is also a magic to the worlds you can find within it, and a further magic to the notion that I am certain must occur to most readers of these sorts of books that somebody was able to develop the love and attention to detail in order to write it in the first place.

But there is something else going on. There is a pursuit of fixity and a desire to tell, journalistically, the truth in a precarious world in which a new wave of extinction promises to render the diversity of non-human species more precarious than ever. We tend to place value on scarcity, and the existential threat we pose to the non-human natural world makes it seem all the more precious by virtue of its precarity. When trees, hedgerows or wildflower meadows appear not only exceptional but finite it seems like an important political statement to try one’s best to capture them as they are now. We need to create a representation of their material reality because it is a reality that looks as though it might slip away terrifyingly soon.

And I get all of that. It all seems sound. But it isn’t what art should necessarily be about. And it also isn’t the case that a thing exhaustively created to provide a full, round picture of something that feels real is really real. It is only ever a mimicry of the great outdoors, framed by human aims.