Monthly Archives: February 2013

Vanishing Point and the Golden Rule (by way of Immanuel Kant)

I remember once becoming absurdly excited in Princes St. Gardens in Edinburgh – that was just where I chanced to be, not the cause of the excitement – when I realised that an interesting thing happens if you number the dimensions in the reverse of the conventional order.

My brother had once explained the concept of the fourth dimension to me by saying that it was ‘at right-angles to the third’ which he elucidated by explaining that, as a point drawn out in one direction gives a line, so that line, moved at right angles to itself, generates a plane surface, which in turn generates a volume when moved at right angles to itself; hence the next dimension, the fourth, must involve performing an identical operation with a cube.

This I found pleasantly bamboozling: I could follow the first three steps of the procedure perfectly, yet with the fourth there seemed nowhere left to go; yet I convinced myself that dwellers in a linear or planar universe would experience the same difficulty at stages two and three. Later, when the same brother suggested that the fourth dimension was Time, I formed some notion of a cube moving through space and leaving a sort of cubic trail behind it – which was the direction I was headed in when I started thinking about Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, here . There is a similar though less marked suggestion of movement in time in this picture, where Miss Kate Ward has admirably captured the headlong speed of my Dursley-Pedersen:

Dursley-Pedersen at speed

John Ward at speed on his Dursley Pedersen, photographed by his daughter Kate

But in Princes Street Gardens it struck me that if we begin with volume as the first dimension – and picture a cube, say – we can abstract a second dimension from that by attending to one of its surfaces and ignoring the rest; then by the same method, we can consider the edge of that surface in isolation to give us a line – from where, if we wish, we can go to its end, and arrive at a point – but that is, indeed, the end, and there is literally no point in going beyond it.

I still consider that a neat manoeuvre, though nowadays I am more interested in the point you end up with than in the doing away with the need for any further dimensions.

Duchamp’s nude shows a temporal sequence as a spatial one, and that is consistent with our normal usage, which is to talk about time in spatial terms – we speak of a length of time, a short time, a space of time and so on, and we use ‘before’ and ‘after’ – which denote spatial relations – to speak of temporal ones.

It is clear that the ideas of space, time and movement are bound together: indeed we use movement through space (which takes time) as a way of thinking about time, even where no movement through space is involved – and since we developed film technology, we have reinforced this with time-lapse photography, so that we see flowers opening and closing, buildings being erected, even carcases decaying – though in fact there is movement there, without change of location, though it is normally too slow for us to perceive as such – we only notice that there has been a significant change from an earlier state to a later one, without detecting it from moment to moment.

But could you arrive at the notion of movement (and so of time) in a world of immutable Forms, such as Plato envisages in his Republic? The Forms are timeless and unchanging, but if they are distinct and separate (and extended, for how else could we picture them?) it would seem that they must occupy space and there must be distance between them; and where there is distance, there is surely the possibility of movement, and so of time, even if there is none actually?

However, we have introduced another element here, the one that Berkeley drew to our attention: a perceiver. To picture a world of timeless forms is to do so from some point of view, a particular location within that world, and it would seem to be from there that the notion of movement arises – and indeed, might we go further and suggest that it is location that gives rise to the concept of space?

Does a point imply space? in other words, is even a point – location without extension – sufficient to require the whole of infinite space for it to be located in, or is that just a product of our thinking being tied to a three-dimensional model to start with?

But there is some sleight-of-mind here: we might picture a point in space from which we look outward, and so gain some sense of depth and distance, but in what direction are we looking? more to the point, what are we looking with? It seems we have smuggled in an eye, albeit an invisible one – though you might well ask how you can have an eye without a lens, an iris, an optic nerve – and some sort perceptive apparatus at the other end of that nerve.

This leads me to Kant, and his observation that ‘space, time and causality are the mode and manner of our perception.’ Hume – whom Kant spoke of as having roused him from his dogmatic slumber – had suggested that the only way we could arrive at an idea of causality was through observing invariable succession – we see that A is invariably followed by B and in time conclude that A causes B. This is not a very satisfactory account, and it is thoroughly demolished by Schopenhauer, who points out that the most familiar and invariable succession of night and day does not lead us to suppose that one causes the other.

It is, however, the best you can do if you want to insist – as Hume did – on the empirical principle, i.e. that all knowledge is derived from experience, via the senses. What Hume failed to grasp, as Schopenhauer pointed out, is that perception is an intellectual act, not the passive process Hume supposed it to be – the mind works on and arranges the data supplied by the senses – in fact it makes sense of them.

The stepping stone between Hume and Schopenhauer is Kant, who realised that causality was not something we derived from experience, but rather a pre-requisite for making sense of it – it is, if you like, part of our intellectual apparatus; and it is not alone – he couples it with Time and Space, grouping all three together as ‘the mode and manner of our perception’ and putting forward the notion that, far from being derived from experience, these three are the means by which we make sense of experience itself. In this, they have been likened to a set of spectacles that we cannot remove, even when we realise that they  condition all that we see. We are therefore in the frustrating position of knowing that the world as we know it exists only for us (or those similarly equipped) which is the truth that Berkeley realised with his esse est percipi ; what the world is actually like in itself (i.e. unconditioned by the apparatus of space, time and causality) we cannot imagine.

This is what started, like a hare from its form, the ding-an-sich or thing-in-itself which Schopenhauer eventually ran to ground (with the aid of oriental philosophy). Schopenhauer’s brilliant move is to point out that, while the world as it is known to us via the senses is indeed much as Kant suggests, a world of representation, of objects-for-the-subject, conditioned by our intellectual apparatus, that is not the sole aspect we have access to – if we turn our eyes inward, as it were, we become aware that there is, in ourselves, a sort of privileged glimpse of the inner nature of the world, the very thing-in-itself – namely, the Will.

For Schopenhauer, we as individuals are self-conscious outposts of a single and otherwise blind and unconscious Will which is manifested everywhere and in everything and whose sole aim is to exist. This has echoes in our own day in the ideas of the evolutionary biologists, that we are in effect the mere by-product of our genes’ determination to reproduce ad infinitum. It is not of course original to Schopenhauer, who derived it from his reading of ancient Eastern, particularly Indian, philosophy.

Schopenhauer draws pessimistic conclusions from this: effectively, all that self-consciousness has done is make us helpless spectators, aware that we are embodiments of a will that we cannot control but which rather drives us: all we can do, at best, is to quiet the will, to turn away from existence (though Arthur himself was happy to keep going to what was then the ripe old age of 72). Nietzsche, who saw himself as a disciple of Schopenhauer, takes the idea in a more sinister direction: we can embrace our situation, and recognise that the will takes us beyond good and evil – if we are strong, we should follow its promptings wherever it leads us and glory in it, rejecting the ‘slave mentality’ of judaeo-christian thought, which he saw as essentially a conspiracy of the weak to keep power from the strong. You do not need to go far beyond Nietzsche (he died, insane, in 1900) to find the horrors to which that ultimately led.

Yet this interpretation seems to turn on a needlessly pessimistic interpretation of the nature of the Will coupled to an erroneous aggrandisement of our own status – both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche assume that, in coming to consciousness in Man, the Will has attained its highest form of existence (though Nietzsche might qualify that by adding ‘so far’). However, if we look more closely at the judaeo-christian tradition which Nietzsche dismisses and at the Eastern thought that Schopenhauer derived his ideas from, we find a different way of looking at it – having looked into ourselves, and seen that we are embodiments of a single will (and might that will not be higher, rather than lower, and ourselves just waking into it, not yet fully comprehending it?) we can then look outwards again and see others not as different from ourselves but essentially the same – which is the foundation of compassion and the Golden Rule which characterises all the great belief systems – ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’ – or, if you prefer, love your neighbour as yourself  – (because that is what, in effect, he is). (For an excellent and inspiring 10’ talk on the Golden rule, click here. )

Leave a comment

Filed under art, bicycles, philosophy, theology

A true likeness?

If you are not familiar with art history, a painting titled ‘nude descending a staircase’ probably conjures an image of a naked person halfway down a stair, poised in the act of moving from one step to another; but what Marcel Duchamp gives us is this:


Here, by way of contrast, are two decently-clad Irishmen, my maternal grandfather and his brother:


If we were asked ‘which is the more natural or realistic portrait?’ most people, myself included, would (I suppose) choose the second – after all, it shows two men whom we would recognise were we to meet them in the street (an unlikely eventuality, I grant you, since both are long dead), whereas it is arguable whether or not Duchamp’s picture even shows a recognisably human figure; and yet –

Is there not more truth in Duchamp’s picture than if it showed a naked figure as I have described above, poised on a particular step? And is there not a great deal more convention and a great deal less realism in the photograph than we at first suppose? After all, a nude descending a staircase starts at the top and passes over every step till it reaches the bottom; and if we want to insist on ‘descending’ as the key word rather than ‘nude’ then there is a great deal more of the descent in Duchamp’s picture than the conventional version I have described.

There is descent of a different sort in the photograph, but we don’t see much of that, either: just as I am descended directly from one of these men, both of them have a line of descent stretching back through their parents to time immemorial, a descent which has, in a variety of senses, made them the men they are; and then of course there are the more immediate forces that have shaped them: all that they have done and been, the sum of their experiences, their memories, all the connections they have made up to the point that picture was taken – rather like the structuralist model I have described here they are defined by what surrounds them and what has gone before them as well as by what they are in themselves; yet we see none of that – only the particular pattern of light they made at one instant in time. Is that a just representation of these men?

Is this, wonderful though it is, truly ‘a self-portrait, aged 63’ of Rembrandt van Rijn?


It was painted in the last year of his life and it is marvellously expressive, for not only is Rembrandt a great artist, but we are skilled readers of faces – so we can certainly see much of the man’s character and outlook there; but his self? the near-totality of all that he was from birth?

Could we not envisage another kind of portraiture altogether, one that showed (to stay with the structuralist idea) everything apart from the actual person that shaped or influenced or was part of him? Thus we might have his childhood home, his school, and a host of people – parents, grandparents, siblings, children, friends, lovers, enemies even, along with significant events and experiences. (For an example of a similar sort of alternative portraiture – and much else of interest in that line – see here)

To be sure, this would be no less of a convention – an agreed way doing something – but would it be any less valid or truthful?

(Strangely, this brings to mind a poem by Seamus Heaney, the last line of which can still move me almost to tears: From the Republic of Conscience – perhaps it is because in writing this piece originally, I mused on the fact that in signing a photograph for a passport application, we attest that it is ‘a true likeness’ of the person shown)

But there now – I have come all this way and not arrived at the thing I really wanted to discuss, which was space, time and Immanuel Kant – another day, perhaps.


Filed under art, philosophy

Rage, semiotics and structuralism.

I occasionally allow myself to become exercised about things out of all proportion to their importance. Take, for instance, the signs that have for several months now been on the stretch of the A904 between the Forth Road Bridge and the works for the new additional bridge, which for some reason is called the Forth Bridge Replacement Crossing:

I am enraged every time I see them.

I know I shouldn’t be, that it is a matter of no real importance, but there is a kind of clumsy stupidity implied in them which annoys me. Every single thing about them is wrong: the shape, the colour, the wording – they are as deficient as it is possible for a sign to be, yet doubtless the woeful creature responsible for them thought the message could not be clearer.

Ah, but it could. If the sign was circular, with a red border round a white background on which the number 30 appeared in black, it would convey with authoritative force that the speed limit in that area is 30mph. It would do so because, in this country, all speed limit signs are of that pattern.


A sign of that sort is all that is required here.

Instead, we have one whose shape and colour suggests that it conveys information about roadworks instead of instruction about a mandatory speed limit. And the wording, far from being clear, is a mixture of falsehood and redundancy, and serves only to sow confusion. Take that first word, ‘New’. These signs have been in place for several months now: you might argue that the limit to which they refer was new on the day they were put up, and may have remained so for a short time after – a matter of days, a week at most; but by now it is certainly false. But why is it there at all? The novelty of a speed limit has no bearing on its validity. If you are inclined to be charitable, you might say that the intention is to alert the driver to the fact that the limit has changed from what it was formerly, but there are several objections to this.

The first is that, in any case, it is the responsibility of the driver to heed the signs – though he is entitled to expect them to conform to the accepted convention. But here, the word ‘new’, in combination with the shape and colour, makes the sign misleading – the driver is led to think that it is a warning of things to come, not a statement of what presently obtains. This is reinforced by the lack of any conventional speed limit signs to say unambiguously what the limit actually is. If the aim was to alert the driver to the change, then surely a conventional sign with an additional ‘new limit’ would have done that? But instead we have – as the last, unexpected line of the message – ‘IN FORCE’ – words which are entirely redundant and have only been added because, having chosen the wrong shape of sign, the writer is now concerned to reinforce the message that the right shape of sign would have conveyed immediately and at once. (And while we are on redundancy, why specify 30 mph? all our speed limits are in miles per hour)

I think that is what annoys me: the whole thing is a series of bungling attempts to disguise a fundamental flaw, attempts which, instead of remedying the fault, serve only to draw attention to it, like a lazy shop assistant trying by ingenious devices to force your foot into a boot that is too small (such things do happen: see here if you doubt me).

Interestingly, this little matter sheds some light on two areas often thought obscure: semiotics and structuralism. Semiotics (or semiology) is the study of signs and how they convey meaning. This case illustrates well the important role of conventions: once we are agreed that a particular pattern of sign conveys a specific meaning, the pattern itself communicates that much more powerfully than words (indeed, as a general rule, our signs use symbols to convey meaning, and where words are used at all, it is in a supplementary role).

Structuralism is the idea that meaning is created along two axes, the horizontal and the vertical. Thus, in a sentence, any word is related horizontally to those on either side of it, and this helps define its meaning – so that in English, ‘The cat sat on the hat’ means something different from the same words in another order ‘the hat sat on the cat.’ But the vertical axis relates any word to all the words that could have stood in its place, which also help define its meaning – so in the sentence quoted, ‘the cat sat on the hat’ has an element of surprise, since we might have expected ‘mat’ rather than ‘hat’.

This opens up an important strand of meaning that we commonly ignore, namely that what a thing means to us is defined as much by what it is not as by what it is – and we see that in the case of the signs, where the fact that the rectangular red sign with white letters is not a round white sign with a red border and black numbers is what weakens and confuses its message and undermines its authority, for all the apparent clarity of its content.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Shadow and the Stone: reflections on the mechanism of metaphor

shadow of Pedersen bicycle on grass
I mentioned elsewhere that there is a puzzle in our use of metaphor to expand our range of thought: if we think of the unknown in terms of the known concrete, as Vita Sackville-West has it, how does that get us anywhere new?

I think I have the answer: it is by a process not unlike doing sums by proportion – ‘z is to y as y is to x’.

Let us take as a common-sense index of reality a rock or stone (we think of Dr Johnson striking his foot against one ‘with such force that he rebounded’ in his attempt to refute Berkeley). If I say to you, ‘what I’m talking about is as real as that stone over there’ then you have a very clear sense of what I mean: it is not some phantom that is going to disappear as I approach it, it is real and solid and there.

But suppose I go on to say, ‘in fact, what I’m talking about is even more real than that stone,’ then you will reasonably ask for an explanation: ‘how can that be?’

‘Well,’ I say, ‘think of it like this: you see that shadow cast by the stone? Well, in terms of reality, what I’m talking about stands to the stone in the same way the stone stands to its shadow.’

(This is, in effect, a summary of Plato’s celebrated simile of the cave, which seduced me when I was 14,  and indeed of his whole Theory of Ideas or Forms.)

Notice the ‘active mechanism’ here: it is the relation between the stone and its shadow, which is one of logical dependence: you can have the stone without the shadow, but not the shadow without the stone: so the stone has the quality of being real and independent, whereas the shadow is totally subservient, incapable of independent existence. The trick is then to slide this relation across, so to speak, so that the qualities of the shadow are now attributed to the stone, so tying it, like a shadow, to the thing beyond – the ‘super-real’ Form or Idea – to which the stone’s qualities are now transferred; thus the bridge does not vanish halfway into mysterious fog, as I supposed – we are offered a very clear idea of how it is attached to the other side: the span we are asked to imagine is simply a duplicate of that we already know, between the shadow and the stone.

There is still an element of trickery here, though – we appear to derive our notion of reality from the very thing whose reality we are invited to deny: it is a kind of transfer of allegiance – as if we were told ‘the way you feel about that stone – how real it is – well, it’s all right to feel that, but really you should be feeling it about something else, something beyond the stone, this Idea I was telling you about.’ But it is clear that this ‘transfer of allegiance’, from what we know and see in front of us to something beyond, cannot be the start of the process – it requires, as a condition, some doubt or dissatisfaction with the world as it appears to common sense.

Plato marshals a range of arguments to justify that doubt and underpin that dissatisfaction: one is the celebrated ‘bent stick’, which is worth mentioning, not for its force as an argument, but for the neat opposition it makes between the senses and the intellect. Plato observes that if we put a straight stick in water, it appears bent; and although we know perfectly well that it is still straight, no amount of reasoning will enable us to see it as straight – so the senses are deceived by appearances, but the intellect alone can arrive at the truth.

This twin division – between appearance (false) and reality (true), the senses (deceptive and inferior) and the intellect (superior and reliable), is fundamental to the whole of Plato’s philosophy and so has had an enormous influence not only on European philosophy, but the whole of Western culture. I am now inclined to think that as an influence it has done more harm than good – it is a false dichotomy, and has resulted in a mistaken adulation of the academic, the intellectual and the rational to the detriment of the instinctive and artistic.

What makes this particularly ironic is that the doubt or dissatisfaction Plato requires as a starting point is not in fact arrived at by the arguments he puts forward – those are all after the fact; the doubt is already there, and its root is instinctive, intuitive rather than rational (In saying this, I do not mean to say that what is intuitive is without reason – on the contrary, there must be reasons, and we should seek them – but we must not forget that it is an intuition, a feeling, that starts us on that quest, not a reasoned argument).

What, then, is the source of that doubt or dissatisfaction? It is an anxiety, if not as old as the hills, then surely as old as humanity itself: the jarring contrast between our soaring imagination, which seems to make us masters of all we survey, and the pitifully brief span we are allotted to exercise it, succinctly expressed in Latin as

ars longa, vita brevis

which Chaucer translates as

the life so short, the craft so long to learn.

Shakespeare touches on it in Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

The concluding phrase – ‘quintessence of dust’ – recalls the admonition of a couple of days ago, on Ash Wednesday:

Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.

It is the exasperation that makes Ecclesiastes lament:

Vanity of vanities, the preacher says, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit has a man from his labour under the sun? One generation passes away and another comes: but the earth abides for ever

and again:

For here is one who has laboured wisely, skilfully and successfully and must leave what is his own to someone who has not toiled for it at all.

(I note in passing that the sentiments expressed by Ecclesiastes are very similar to those that occur in Horace’s poetry – I wonder if Horace was familiar with the text, or if it is just further evidence of the universality of such feelings?)

likewise, Yeats speaks of the heart as

sick with desire 
and fastened to a dying animal

The underlying theme is the same : all is fleeting, nothing lasts – as Hopkins has it, in his inimitable style,

How to keep – is there any any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or
brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep
back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty… from vanishing away?

while Drummond of Hawthornden, another favourite of mine, gives us this fine expression of the inherent fragility of our greatness:

when he is in the brightest meridian of his glory there needeth nothing to destroy him but to let him fall his own height; a reflex of the sun, a blast of wind, nay, the glance of an eye is sufficient to undo him *

There is little need to labour the point: wherever you look, in any literature in the world, I am sure you will find it.

I think this sense of outrage at the impermanence of life, that all is fleeting, nothing stays, that there is never enough time to realise the great potential which we sense within us, that all we love is too soon taken away from us, is what makes us idealise immutability- a quality that Plato attributes to his Forms, and one commonly attributed to God. It explains also our desire to memorialise ourselves – consider the pyramids – and perhaps the allure that gold, the incorruptible metal, has for us.

But I begin to wonder if we have got this right. The dynamic is preferable, surely, to the static; stillness has its attractions, but what delights is movement, flow, improvisation, invention, creation –

Πάντα ῥεῖ – ‘all things flow’ or ‘the world is in a state of flux’ as Simplicius summed up the philosophy of Heraclitus. Perhaps we need to come at our dissatisfaction from a different angle and find new images to express our ideal.

* I had a notion that this referred to a personal experience of Drummond’s in falling from his horse, but I find the words proved eerily prophetic – it was in fact his grandson, who “having improved himself by travelling abroad… became a well-bred, polite, and accomplished gentleman [but] unhappily received a stroke upon the head by a fall from his horse, soon after his return to his own country, which, though it did not destroy his understanding, yet affected him so much that he contracted a dislike to business, and in a great measure retired from the world during the remainder of his life.”

Leave a comment

Filed under language-related, philosophy

‘With shabby equipment, always deteriorating…’

We live in an age of infrastructure: we take for granted an underpinning layer of nigh-magical technology, much of it electronic, on which our day-to-day lives rely; occasionally we are visited by anxiety lest it should fail – as the result of a solar storm, perhaps, such as a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859.

The Carrington Event was noted mainly for its marvellous effects (it produced aurorae so bright that one could read by them, and some people thought it was morning) though it did cause a widespread failure of the telegraph system, which must have resulted in considerable disruption in Europe and North America; but considered against the effect of a similar storm today, its impact was minimal.

The reason is simple, yet striking: though the world of 1859 was (in parts) recognisably modern in a way that the world of a century before was not, it was a world lit by gas, fuelled by coal and powered by steam – electricity had yet to be harnessed, and the main supply of oil was obtained, not by drilling through rock, but by harpooning whales.


This brings home to us the astonishing fact that, however transformative our present-day technology may be, the greatest transformation of human society by far – the Industrial Revolution – was wrought with implements of almost primitive simplicity: hand tools, pick and shovel, human muscle and (actual) horsepower.

This thought occurred to me when I was meditating on that most transformative of all things, the human imagination, and its principal instrument, language.

You could probably say that language and humanity are coeval: it is language that makes us human, that has enabled us to do all the marvellous things we have achieved in the brief blip of geological time we have existed for – language underpins it all; it is our ultimate infrastructure, if you like.

Yet it is still pick-and-shovel technology: though capable (in the right hands) of expressing great complexity of thought, the mechanisms it relies on to do so are few and simple, and the chief of them, as I have said elsewhere, is metaphor.

Metaphor works by using a structure or set of relations that is already familiar to give us a way of thinking about something new that we are trying to understand. As I have indicated elsewhere, there is something puzzling in this: if the only way we can come at the unknown is by expressing it in terms of the known, how do we progress? if we describe  what we do not understand in terms of what we do, how is our understanding increased? It can seem like an increasingly elaborate structure built on a narrow foundation that never widens – which is what troubled me when I was young and thought (wrongly, I believe) that all our metaphors relied ultimately on spatial relations, and that a world of objects and space was implied in all our thinking, which must necessarily have a limiting effect on what we could think.

These days I see it from a different perspective: I find it reassuring that language is always being strained to breaking point whenever we try to think of difficult things or big ideas – as Eliot has it in Burnt Norton :

Words strain,

crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

will not stay still.

and, later, in East Coker :

each venture

is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

with shabby equipment always deteriorating

so that we arrive where we do by a kind of sleight-of-mind trickery, such as Wittgenstein describes in proposition 6.54 of the Tractatus:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

As I say, where once I found this worrying, I now find it reassuring and indeed exciting – it means that our knowledge – particularly of the large and important things – is much less certain, much more provisional than we pretend.

Consider, for instance – as I mean to do in another post – a distinction we probably think clear-cut, between what is real and what is imaginary – is that something we can be sure about?

Leave a comment

Filed under language-related, philosophy

An Each Uisge (The Water Horse)

written as a “Fearie Tale” for Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Winter Words Festival 2013

(where it was admirably read by Dougal Lee on 2 February (an auspicious date -James Joyce’s birthday))


– Looks as if it was fished out of a canal, I say.

He doesn’t like that, the man behind the counter, a big fellow with a beard and a shaggy black mane, gloomy as his shop; probably thinks I’m trying to lower the price, but really it was just an observation – it does look as if it has spent some time under water, and you always think of canals when you imagine people pitching old bicycles into water (along with supermarket trolleys and bedsteads, for some reason)

– There’s no canals near here, he says.

Apart from the Caledonian, I think, but say nothing, fearing to give offence – after all, he is a native, by his accent: I have only lived here twenty years, which round here means you’re scarcely in the door. And he looks the touchy sort who might on a whim decide to sell me nothing at any price – how else to explain a shop that does so little to accommodate the buyer? Nothing priced, everything piled up in no sort of order, enamel basins, umbrella stands, coal-scuttles, standard lamps, stuffed birds in glass cases, a zinc bath full of clocks – and my object of interest, a very big, very old bicycle frame.

– There’s a box of bits goes with it, says the man, after we have agreed a price.

I shake my head. I do not want a box of bits. I already have enough bits at home – all I need is a frame. What I want to make is a straightforward bitsabike – bitsa this, bitsa that – a mongrel concoction I can have up and running right away. I am not interested in assembling a period piece, for the simple reason that I can see myself in two years’ time, the bike still incomplete and unused, while I scour the country for those last few original components that will add the finishing touch, without which it simply won’t be complete. I have been here before, you see, and know all about the siren lure of authenticity. But the bearded fellow is stubborn.

– It belongs with the bike, he insists. Included in the price.

Then let me have the frame for less, I think, but say

– Too awkward to carry: I haven’t a car.
– I’ll bring it round. Are you far?

Far enough, as it happens, but that doesn’t bother him. He seems anxious for me to have it.

– It all goes together, he insists.

There is an edge to his tone that suggests further refusal would be unwise. For a moment, I am stubborn enough to resist – why is he so eager? but the shop is remote and the man is bigger than me, of an uncertain temperament, and I do want the frame – so what if I have to take the bits as well? It’s not as if he can make me use them!

Once I’m on my way – I insist on taking the frame with me, in case he has second thoughts – I realise that all he was anxious about was clearing a bit of space – he could certainly do with some!

Yes, that’s all it was, I’m sure – why should there be any sinister motive?


Well, the bike is a great success. I’ve rigged it as a fixed gear – no freewheel, so if you back-pedal, it goes backwards – in theory; in practice it serves instead of a rear brake. The sensation is quite different from a normal bike: you work with it, rather than controlling it – it’s more like a living thing. You really need to concentrate when you ride it – no bad thing – which has a peculiarly liberating effect: on my other bike I always set out to go somewhere; on the fixed I’m content to let it take me where it will.

If only I could persuade my publisher to take a book on fixed-wheel cycling rather than Highland folklore!

– It’s just not the right book for me, I moan to my agent. I’m a rational man, a member of the Humanist Society: how can you expect me to write about kelpies?
– Any book your publisher actually wants is the right book, says she. What’s a kelpie?
– A malignant spirit that haunts lochs and streams in the guise of a horse. If you climb on his back, he carries you off to his watery lair and tears you to pieces.
– O good, you’ve begun your research. Keep at it, she says, and puts down the phone.

But keeping at it is not so easy, now that I have the fixed gear bike. I go where it takes me, cycling for the sake of it. Today I noticed an inviting gap in a wall and nipped through it, on impulse. I found myself in a wood with lots of little tracks twisting in and out among the trees and in a moment I had the sensation of being completely (and agreeably) lost. It’s remarkable how even well-spaced trees (silver birch for the most part) still cut down your view in any direction, and then of course there are the bushes which crowd in on you, more than head-high. I must have been in there for a good half-hour or more, yet I do not think I ever used the same path twice. I was surprised to find just now, looking at the map, how small a patch of ground it occupies; roughly triangular, bounded on all sides by houses. I wonder why it was never developed?

My research proceeds in a desultory fashion. One kelpie story (I’m a bit stuck on them, for some reason) gave me an idea – in it, the rider saves his life at the expense of his hand, which he has to cut off because it won’t let go of the kelpie’s mane. That put me in mind of the old punishment for thieves, and made me wonder if the whole kelpie thing wasn’t perhaps intended as a discouragement to horse-thieving. The Kelpie, of course, is a shape-changer, able to assume whatever form he thinks will tempt the unwary traveller – how might he appear nowadays? Maybe I could sell my publisher on the idea of rational explanations of Highland folklore? Worth a try!

Well, good news and bad news: I fear I have succumbed to the temptation of the “box of bits”. I can plead necessity in my defence, but only partly. When I went to take the fixed out this morning, I found that the front wheel was badly out of true, and indeed closer inspection showed that several spokes were broken. How could I have failed to notice that yesterday? The machine is virtually unrideable. So there was nothing for it but to raid the famous box, which I had stowed in the cellar as soon as the bearded one brought it – out of sight, out of mind, or so I thought – but it got to me in the end! The good news? I found a pair of wheels that, for all their age, were remarkably straight and true – and with wooden rims, would you believe! I was only going to use the front, but then I saw the rear was rigged with a fixed gear too – in fact, it probably predates freewheels – and they do sort of go together. It means I’ve had to discard the front brake, which I meant to do anyway – makes me more at one with the bike (or more at its mercy, if you prefer). And it rides beautifully.

Back to my wood again! It really is extraordinary how quickly you lose all sense of direction there – even when you must be close to the perimeter, you never seem to see the outside world: when you stop (I try not to) you could be in the heart of a forest. (I suppose it could be the remnant of an ancient forest – just one of those left-over bits of ground that never got built on, for some reason)

Something else that contributes to the illusion of expansiveness, I’ve realised, is the variation in level within the wood – though the land around is pretty flat, among the trees are unexpected dips and hollows. That’s something you notice on a fixed-gear without brakes: a sudden descent can be, well, exhilarating – excitement mingled with just a touch of fear. On one occasion I was hanging on for dear life, twisting and turning among the trees, bumping over exposed roots, skidding on fallen leaves, when at last (though it can only have been a matter of seconds, really) the ground levelled out and I found myself at the bottom of a deep dell, with some sort of pool just visible through a grove of trees. It was so unexpected that I wish now I had stopped to take a look around, but I was a bit high after my crazy descent and didn’t want to cool down.

When I got home, I felt so exhilarated with my ride – the new, or should I say old wheels have made such a difference to the ride – so responsive, almost as if it was alive – that I decided to restore the rest of the components. I’d no sooner made my mind up to do this than I was suddenly fearful that none of it would be usable – the cellar felt so damp (something I’ve never noticed before) that I was sure it would be all rusted; but to my surprise, though it felt wet to the touch – a protective layer of oil, perhaps? – it was all in remarkably good condition: all the metal parts are finished in some sort of dark coating of a kind I haven’t seen before, so I suppose that’s kept them good. I have to confess that I put it all together in a sort of frenzy, as if it was the one important thing I had to do – not an opinion my publisher or agent would share, I’m sure! Anyway, it’s completely authentic now, apart from the saddle – there was none in the box. I’ll have to keep an eye out for something suitable.

On the book front, I find that (according to some authorities) the kelpie is strictly speaking a river spirit: its counterpart that haunts lochs and pools is called in Gaelic an Each Uisge (the water horse) and is by all accounts a much more dangerous creature, far surpassing it in cunning and malignancy.


An odd experience this morning: I was out on my other bike and decided to try it in the wood. For some reason I could not find any of the entrances I normally use (there are several, all a bit hidden away – gaps in walls, or up lanes between houses) and had to go in by the main route, a tarmac path. Before I knew it, I was through to the other side, with no opportunity to turn off having presented itself. Yet in the afternoon I went back on the fixed, through the usual hole in the wall (which I found with no bother). I ended up in the dell again, but I must have been mistaken about the water – there was no sign of any (unless, of course, there is more than one dell?).

I think I must be working too hard. I realised today that over the past week or so I have been conducting a series of experiments without ever admitting to myself what I was doing. In the mornings, I try to reach the wood on my other bicycle, yet rarely seem to make it – on one occasion, a man I didn’t like the look of went in just ahead of me, so I made that an excuse to turn aside; another time, there was a formidable black dog lurking in among the trees, apparently without its master. If I do get in, I never seem to stay long – there doesn’t seem anywhere to go, apart from the main paths which just carry you straight through. Yet returning on the fixed-gear in the afternoon I can happily lose an hour just roaming – and I never seem to meet anyone.


There is something a bit edgy about being in the wood, now that Autumn has set in – the low angle of the sun makes you think how soon it will be dark, and there are scarves of mist lying on the damp ground. I have established that there must be two dells, because this afternoon I saw the water again, beyond the grove of trees. I would have stopped to investigate but the light was going and I was troubled by the absurd notion that I might get lost – I say “absurd” because I know perfectly well that the wood occupies only a small area and any determined attempt to leave it would succeed; and yet there is a strange reluctance to do anything like that – you feel you have to stick to the paths, like some sort of game, so you always spend much more time in there than you intend. It takes a real effort of will to come away.

Reflecting on these things in the comfort of my armchair, I realise that in all this there is an element of complicity on my part – I allow myself to be deflected when I am on the other bike – it is almost as if I am searching for an excuse not to go in – just as I play at being lost on the fixed wheel, when all the time I know I could find my way out if I wanted to. I’m sure there’s a rational psychological explanation for it all, and that it’s bound up with this blasted book I am managing not to write.

The only progress I’ve made is the discovery that, according to some sources, the Each Uisge sometimes had a human accomplice – this would be someone who had struck a bargain with it to save his own life. In return, he had to promise to keep the Each Uisge supplied with victims. I wonder if that could be rationalised as some hard-case employed by local horse-owners to protect their beasts? I suppose such a one would be paid by results, and wouldn’t be above a bit of entrapment to line his own pockets, luring likely lads into temptation by pretending to collude with them, only to turn on them? It would be easy to see how countryfolk would come to regard such a one as a sort of devil’s accomplice –

But who’s that at the door at this time of night?

Well, that is a turn up for the books! The man from the junk shop! He hovers outside on the step, holding something in his hands that I can’t make out. I invite him in. He crosses the threshold and thrusts a package at me, done up in brown paper and string.

– Thought you’d be wanting this, he says. I came across it in the shop – it belongs with the rest.
– Thank you, I say, somewhat taken aback.

His gaze lingers a moment at some point behind me, where I know the bike is leaning against the wall. There is an odd glint in his eye that reminds me of our first encounter in the shop and makes me eager to see the back of him. Only when he’s out the door do I turn my attention to the parcel. What can it be? It’s certainly heavy enough.

Well, how about that? It’s a saddle! It certainly looks authentic, though I can’t say I’ve ever come across a cover like that – it isn’t smooth, like leather, it has a sort of fell to it, like some sort of animal skin.


Funny how these things always take longer than you think – a whole morning just to fit a saddle! But I have to admit it looks well – and so inviting! Once you were on that, you feel you’d never want to get off! I was all ready to go – make the most of the daylight – when I saw the other package on the floor – just a small thing, in a twist of the same brown paper the saddle was in – I must have dropped it there last night. Bit of a mystery – seems to be caked in black wax, but these two projections look familiar – of course, they line up with the holes in the head-tube – it must be a badge of some sort! There now, it’s slipped into place, must be some sort of spring fitting, it seems quite secure – but I’ll need to get that wax off to see what it is.

Mm, no maker’s name – that’s a bit unusual – but the badge design is certainly distinctive – someone should be able to identify that for me. Must send a picture to the Boneshaker, the VCC magazine. How would I describe it? A sort of hybrid creature: the rear half is a fish, its scaly body twisted round in an improbable but artistic loop; the forequarters are those of a horse.

How it gleams!

That is it finished, now.

Pity there isn’t a lamp-bracket: I really ought to rig a lamp before I go. The light fails insidiously on these November afternoons; the colour seeps out of everything, and before you know it, all is dark.




Filed under bicycles, works