Sunday, 14 December 2008
Horse Hospital, Lighthouses and Seven Degrees of Separation from a Novel
Went to a Christmas beano held by Salt Publishing in London at The Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury. A strange place reached by a very narrow steep ramp with upright slats every yard, I presume to allow the sick horses to gain some purchase on the stone floor. Odd that they should site a horse hospital upstairs but then when it became a horse hospital in the eighteenth century, London was a crowded cheek by jowl place and all those horses pulling cabs and carts and coaches presumably needed somewhere to go when sick. The city on a Friday night was still cheek by jowl and the pub opposite was packed with people decked in mistletoe and holly and Santa hats. I am at an advantage in crowded pubs as I can a) see the bar and b) see the exit and the loo signs. However I suddenly remembered why I find big cities at once exciting and annoying there are too many people funnelled into too little space.
I once did an essay on the psychology of crown behaviour back in the mists of academic time and it was quite scary stuff, people in crowds act differently, there is a tension between individual survival and the pack/herd instinct. People if frightened enough will stampede like cattle and also the closer people are packed together the more individual inhibitions will decrease relative to the extent of the incursion into their personal space. Everybody has a notional personal space around them, derived from personal and cultural factors. There is the famous study of United Nations cocktail parties where the movement of people was mapped and those from cultures where personal space was minimal were constantly driving back those from cultures where personal space was very important. This created a sort of wave motion in the room,some advancing to decrease personal space whilst they talked to someone and those retreating to maintain it.
In the seventies I had a serious accident which involved me in wearing a neck brace which prevented me from lowering my chin. Now at my great height there is either a great deal of chin lowering going on to talk to people when standing up or as I usual do I take a few steps back to decrease the angle that any person I am conversing with has to tip their head. So with the neck brace a considerable amount of personal space was required if I was to hold a conversation where I could actually see the person I was talking to. Some people did not get this they advanced, I retreated, my smaller friends at the time could be literally standing under my nose and I could miss them. I tried to maintain the quiet dignity of a magnificent lighthouse at the time, revolving slowly to scan the room at parties. I became very atune to lighthouses as entities, that is why when I met Miranda Landgraf another writer, through a writing award scheme, I was fascinated by her wonderful book based on her grandfather’s experience of going mad in a lighthouse in Ireland and his subsequent incarceration for years in an institution standing motionless gazing out of a window like a human lighthouse. You can read extracts from the novel here, it is beautifully written and a fascinating story.
See how my mind works I start with sick horses, lurching from there to busy cities, crowd psychology, personal space, broken necks and seamlessly into lighthouses and from there to a book…see you are never more than seven degrees of separation from a book or a poem. Forget the seven degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon try it with literature.
I was sad to hear of Oliver Postgate’s death this week, there was a wonderful homage to him in the Guardian. It was essentially the simplicity of his animation and the almost hypnotic narration he provided that makes him special. It is the old adage that you can give a child a large cardboard box and with imagination it can become anything, Postgate allowed a child room to manoeuvre with their imagination, he allowed a child to suspend their disbelief which fosters imagination. So often the media seem to think that children need the visual and narrative to be watertight. I think most children are born with huge amounts of imagination and disbelief comes to them naturally it is only as we grow older that we often find the imaginative leap harder. I could believe a lot of things, I could imagine a great deal but so often I have to keep cross checking as to whether I am being gullible, naïve or not acting like an adult, whatever that act may be. It’s probably why I still feel comfortable watching Bagpuss , the Clangers or Noggin the Nog; not because of some nostalgia fest but because it taps into the bit of me ( and of many others I suspect) that can so easily believe mice talk and a soup dragon exists.