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Archive for March, 2010

National Guitar

For years, Paul Simon’s line about the “Mississippi delta, shining like a national guitar” had me thinking about the idea of a guitar for the nation, represented somehow in the shining delta. I could picture the delta from the air, or from space, glinting in the sun. I couldn’t quite see the shape of a guitar in the shape of the delta, but never mind. Lyrics can be obscure, and that’s OK, I thought.

I didn’t know then that there actually was such a thing as a “National” guitar: a type of guitar called a National. I don’t know much. But I discovered it through the Pete Atkin song National Steel. They’re metal: shiny. They glint in the sunlight. Like a delta. The Mississippi delta shines like a National guitar. I think there may be one on the album cover of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (but be careful, you really shouldn’t trust me on that).

It happens a lot, and I don’t mind, that I discover that whole chunks of what I think are actually based on ignorance, misunderstanding, inattention, deafness or stupidity. It’s reassuring to see that it happens so much to me, because that means it isn’t so shocking when I see it happening with other people. They’re fools, but that’s OK: so am I.

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I asked a group of Geography students this week about climbing mountains. Most of them said that they did it for the view from the top, that they wouldn’t bother doing it in the fog, and that if there was a choice between an easy path and a hard path they would take the easy path. I was surprised.  I climb a mountain for the activity of climbing the mountain.  To “engage with” the mountain. If the mountain is foggy, that’s fine, we’ll enjoy the mountain in fog. If there’s a challenging path probably it will give me more, so I’m happy to check that one out. The Road Less Travelled. A  mountain in the fog is still a  mountain. I was thinking later about what they’d said, and  about our motivations for other things.  Using their logic I guess they’d assume I was writing this blog so people could read it. Well I don’t think that’s so, either.  As far as I know probably nobody but me reads this. I write it to engage with the material, not for the outcome of it being there to be read.  Why do I put it online then? Writing something that might be read by somebody else, even if that’s not terribly likely, makes you write differently, just as being forced into rules writing a poem in a particular style forces you to write differently. There is some kind of inspirational constraint at work.  So it being there to be read does make a difference, but it’s not the point. The fact that there may be a view from the top does make a difference, but it’s not the point.

I remember Richard Feynman talking about sending off a letter, and he referred to sending it off “into the void”. That’s a bit what this is like,  sending stuff out into the void.

So I’m sitting here on the shore, or on the mountain top, in the fog, looking out into the void. Ideas float in, and if you don’t catch them they’re gone again. If you do catch them they change shape as soon as they come out of the fog and into your hand. You can’t catch them. So you sit in the fog feeling them slip through your fingers. The students didn’t ask (they weren’t that kind of group), but if they had done, that would be a fair answer to “So, why do you climb mountains?” Perhaps I climb them to feel them slip away through my fingers.

Of course it’s not true. But that is one of the constraints of writing online.

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Something I tried in a tutorial this week went down quite well with the students. It was part of my series of tutorials geared towards helping students to see the world differently, to realise that there are different ways of looking at the world, and to appreciate that what you see depends on how you look. In previous sessions I had them look out of the window and tell me what they saw, and I got them to read “The Little Prince” and think about what St Exupery would see when he looked out of a window, and I talked to them about how the observations that we make when we look at the world depend on  our expectations of what the world should look like. For example, I get them to think about how we start by looking at things (making observations, collecting data, noticing the world around us), then move on to interpreting those things we’ve seen, and finally arrive at conclusions or answers or what we might call a ‘view of the world’. So ‘data plus interpretation leads to conclusion’. Or ‘looking plus thinking leads to opinion’. Then I get them to consider, looking back to the left hand end of that sequence, how we decide what to measure, what data to collect, what to look at, what to notice. They agree that it will in fact depend on what I had put at the right hand end of the sequence: our view of the world. So then they realise it’s not a line but a cycle. We then consider whether it is a closed loop where our views will never change because we only notice things that our viewpoint leads us to consider relevant, or a spiral where noticing new things causes us to develop our view enabling us to notice more new things. We end up agreeing that we need to open our minds to new viewpoints to enable us to notice new things and break out of our closed loop of myopic ignorance. This can then lead on to discussions about how we acquire “new views” and I introduce the outrageous idea that the students might do some reading. So, anyway, what was it that went down well this week? It was when I tried to illustrate my point using a camera. I asked the students in little groups to plan a photograph of the tutorial. They all came up with sketches of people sitting round the table in front of the whiteboard under the windows. ‘Great,’ I said, ‘so now take the photo’ and I handed them a camera. But the camera I passed round had a 300mm telephoto lens attached. Looking through that camera the best they could see was a corner of somebody’s head, or a fraction of a chair. It was fun (for me and for them) as they realised that  their vision of the tutorial had been based entirely on their “usual” perspective, and seeing it through this new lens they saw a whole different set of things. They couldn’t photograph the whole group or the whole room, so they started noticing much smaller things, noticing little details of things. They started looking at the room in a whole different way because I forced them to a different viewpoint.

So, next week perhaps the wide-angle lens? No, that’s exactly what they’ll be expecting.

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I met somebody new this week, and when I first met him I was under the impression that he was a sculptor. I noticed his hands, and I thought yes, those are a sculptor’s hands. It turns out that he wasn’t a sculptor at all. So now my map of the world has these hands just hanging there uncategorized. I think Carlo may actually have been a former aircraft engineer. So does that mean that those were “former aircraft engineer’s hands”? I don’t have a place for those. I don’t have a file or a drawer labelled “former aircraft engineers’ hands”. I don’t know what to expect of such hands so I don’t know whether Carlo’s fit the role. Were those echt aircraft engineer’s hands? And what, anyway, do I really know even of sculptors’ hands? Who was I to say “ah, yes, those are just so, exactly as they would be”? We rush to judgements on the basis of so little knowledge. In the short period of a day or so when I thought that Carlo’s hands were those of a sculptor, I looked carefully at my own hands and wondered, of what type of person would these appear to be the hands? What should I tell somebody that I was, in order for that person to say “ah, yes, those are exactly the hands of such a one”? And I really couldn’t say. Of me, and these particular hands which I know well, I cannot rush to judgement. Somewhere, somewhere between me and Carlo, perhaps there is a middle ground where I would be able to say something useful. A middle ground of just the right amount of knowledge. I thought that REM sang “I know too much”, but they didn’t, it was “Oh no, I’ve said too much”, so that doesn’t help here. T.S.Eliot wrote: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm aus’ Litauen, echt deutsch” (I am not Russian, but Lithuanian, real German), which helps a little more.

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Interrogating the ordinary

Somebody said to me this week that their idea of geography was different from mine, because they were “interrogating the ordinary”. Or they might have said “interrogating the obvious”  – you’d really think I should have remembered, but perhaps I was distracted from exactly what they were saying because I was too busy thinking about it, and disagreeing with them. I think that interrogating the ordinary is part of what I do, too. But then, many people do want to be different, and to define a patch for the way we think that is different from how other people think. Certainly most geographers I know are like that: very keen to say how their way of geography is different from somebody else’s. Oh no, I’m a cultural geographer, so I don’t see things the way you do, you’re a physical geographer. Here’s a label that I am attaching to you: live by it, as I will assume you to do. So anyway the next day I gave a talk to a bunch of strangers and I started with “Hello: I’m a Physical Geographer and I interrogate the ordinary. Human Geographers do the same thing”. I suppose the difference comes when we choose which things are ordinary, and which of the ordinary things are worthy of interrogation.

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The lost chord

Sitting in the supermarket cafe thinking about the lost chord and imagining the 1950s I noticed the aisle signs: DVD, mobile phone, frozen chips. This is not the 1950s. But it’s funny how quickly what we are thinking can speed away from the first idea that set us off. Why was I thinking about the ’50s when The Lost Chord was written in the 1870’s? And so often, for me at least, that first idea turns out to have been a misunderstanding. Trains of thought that were set off by a line from a song, which turns out to have been a misheard line. So your long internal perambulation on a theme from a song by Pete Atkin turns out to be based on a line that never actually was, other than in your faulty ears. But now, for me, that non-line remains the inspiration for a distilled thought. Clive James (sticking for a moment with the Pete Atkin example) wrote “most of our knowledge will drop away after we have condensed from it the principles which will connect into a view” (Cultural Amnesia, 2007). But it wasn’t necessarily “knowledge” from which we condensed the view. And when whatever it was – perhaps a misheard lyric or a misread sign – does drop away, and all we are left with is the viewpoint that we have distilled from it, what status does that viewpoint have? I can’t recall the music, but I know I like the tune. These are dangerous times.

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No, not that road

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Jack Kerouac here. Well, probably not much. I suppose it isn’t really a total coincidence that I called a new blog “On the road” while I had a new copy of Kerouac’s book lying around in the room, but equally there was no deliberate connection, no implication, no reference intended. I haven’t even read Kerouac yet, or at least not much of it, and from what I have read so far his road, except in the barest essentials that we all share, does not seem a lot like mine. I am wondering though, about how much of what we do is driven by things we don’t notice, and whether I would still have thought of this title for the blog if Kerouac hadn’t  crept through the corner of my eye into the corner of my subconscious? And would I be writing such long sentences if I wasn’t in the middle – or not yet even the middle but only somewhere, deep in a subordinate subclause, from where the middle is still several volumes away – of reading Proust? I am also wondering, now I’ve brought it up, about how far any of our roads are really different from anybody else’s. There are a lot of different journeys underway on the M6 tonight. It isn’t necessarily the road that defines the journey.

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