Programming essentials (programming)

  • Posted at 4:40 pm, March 28th, 2014.
  • Posted in Programming.
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Programming essentials

In the following, I will outline—in the simplest language possible—what the basics of programming are. This will form the first in a series where I aim to take you from the basic concepts to writing useful little programs in a real programming language in the minimum amount of time. For this introduction, however, all you need to do is read: I hope that this article demystifies what is, in truth, an empowering and very simple tool. If nothing else, like mental health issues, it doesn’t deserve the stigma that is attached to it. I hope you find the following interesting: please visit codecademy for interactive tutorials. It’s my very favourite website, and can literally take you from non-programmer to professional. Try Ruby is a beautiful and simple way to start programming within 10 seconds: give it a go! As always, feel free to contact me or leave a question if you’re interested.

In the examples, I have used real-life examples to highlight how these simple structures define the way we interact with computers and websites.

Key terms

All of the following are found in any programming language; once you know them, you quite literally have the keys to all programming languages. You do not need to memorise these terms: they are here merely to help you understand the examples below. Think of them as a useful glossary: it is the examples which outline the logic of programming. — If you are interested in learning how to program, then these terms are, I think, nice, concise definitions.

  • Strings—strings are alphanumeric data stored within quote marks (” or ‘).
  • Integers—whole numbers (1, 2, 3,000,001).
  • Floating point numbers—decimal numbers (3.1, 4.5454, 1001.4343).
  • Variables—store strings, integers, floating point numbers or other variables within them. (In some languages, the variable type must be declared [e.g. int myVar] whereas in others they do not [$myVar in php or my_var in python].
  • Array/list—a more complex data type which stores a series of data that are connected in some way. For example, one might wish to collect a list of ages. Rather than use an endless series of variables (e.g. lauras_age = 6, martins_age = 7, etc.) one might choose to use an array, a list or a more complex data type known (in python) as a dictionary, or a tuple. So we might have an array or list known as ages, which contained the data: 6, 7, etc. For a more intuitive version, we could use a dictionary, also called ages, which stored the name of the person as a key and their age as a value: Laura, 6; Martin, 7, etc. Arrays are essential to all programming languages, but there are variants (arrays in python are known as lists, whilst dictionaries and tuples also possess an important role in that language).
  • Functions—reusable blocks of code which, like variables, allow a programmer to focus their attention on one part of their code in order to affect multiple parts of it. Added to this, functions take arguments.
  • Arguments—these are passed into a function (usually in the form Function(arguments)) and allow the function to do work on the given argument. Often, there will be vital information inputted by the user (such as a number, their name, etc.), thus forming an argument which will be passed into the function. I will cover functions and arguments in a later argument.
  • Loops—the bread and butter of programming. These perform trivial tasks which a human could do, but which would require too much time to do. There are a number of variants, such as the if/then, the do/while and the for loop. Whilst the if/then is an essential condition of logic, other languages operate best using other types (python, for example, is profoundly centred around its use of the for loop to iterate over various lists). Loops are the most powerful aspect of programming, and far from being unintuitive and intimidating, they are based on very simple logic. The genius of computing, and the genius of the programmer’s mind, is the ability to concatenate (that is, string together, or chain) various loops. See the example.
  • Functions of the language—think of these like the verbs of programming. These are functions defined not by you, but by the writer of the language. These are ‘reserved’ and cannot be overwritten. Without these functions, there would be little one could do. Simple examples are the print function, which literally prints a string or number to the screen. Another common (but not universal) function is the reverse function. Given a string, the reverse function simply reverses the string. A programmer would then print the result to see the string reversed. Thus: “Hello” reversed would be “olleH”. This is, of course, something you or I could do with ease, but why not let the computer do it for us? Given huge lists of data, the advantages become clear very quickly. — An important note: the following simple example is actually a concatenation of functions. An even more likely thing to do would be to would be to store the reversed string as a variable, and then print that—more on that below. — Included within every programming language is also the ability to perform math operations (+, -, *, /).
  • Boolean logic—an off-putting name for something brilliantly simple. In short: is something True or is it False? Profound, indeed: and also key to programming. See the examples below.

 

Idiosyncrasies

Given that the above are present in all programming languages, one aspect that scares newcomers is the seeming endless series of nuances to learn. This indeed requires a need to memorise, but the process is made quick and painless through a) an understanding of why a language possess the stylistic features it does, and b) through actually coding. There are numerous resources to aid you in this, but the fact of the matter is that the moment you evolve from computer user to computer programmer, your world changes: your mind becomes aware of the great possibilities available to you. No matter how small or trivial the task, the fact that you are controlling the computer—rather than feeling frustrated and limited by its inability to read your mind—changes your relationship to it. Start small, and keep that focus: the most complex processes are only ever a series of infinitesimally small series of tasks. All of that is done with nothing but a keyboard and some code.

  • Python—by far the easiest and most useful language to learn. Not only does it avoid punctuation wherever possible, it actually builds in readability to its philosophy. Indentation and whitespace matter in python, leaving the code incredibly logical and beautiful. This is known as a high-level language (or scripting language) and, as such, is one of the easiest to learn. I shall code examples in future articles in two different types of languages to essentially fast-track you and show you how the core of all programming languages are the same. (Python is named after “Monty Python”, and its tutorials and programmers tend to have a similar sense of humour.)
  • PHP—this, indeed, isn’t really a programming language at all, but it is one of the most widespread languages used. The page you’re reading now involves php. So does nearly every interactive website on the world wide web (interactive being defined here as ‘receiving user input and changing a website in response’; uploading a photo to Facebook and then seeing it is a simple example of this). Howeverthough PHP isn’t a ‘real’ programming language, its punctuation and syntax borrows from the traditional style (which is, I believed, derived from the C programming language, which is what your computer’s operating system is, for the most part, coded in).
  • More examples coming soon.

Examples

These examples are written in a language-neutral style: that is, they express the basic programming, rather than the idiosyncrasies of a language.  For now, just try to focus on each example and see how intuitive and useful it is. Think about how the code saves everyone time, and is at the same time wildly powerful. I will present specific examples in PHP and python at a later data. It’s the basic thinking behind programming that scares people, I think—as if it is somehow foreign to them—so here, I want to get across how simple it really is, using real-world examples.

1. Strings

"I am a coder."

— This represents a string. If this string is used, only the content within the quotes will be worked upon. So:

print "I am a coder."

— would quite simply print the content: I am a coder. — Intuitively, this line is valid code in python; in PHP it would be written:

print "I am a coder.";

— where the semi-colon tells the computer that a line of code is, in essence, completed. This notion is common to most languages.

2. Numbers (integers and floats)

2

— This is an integer. Note the lack of quotation marks. If these were present, the number 2 would be a string.

print 2 + 2

— this will print the result: 4.

print "2" + "2"

— this will print: 22. Why? Because “2″ is the same as “a”; it is treated as a character, not a number.

print 3 + 1.3

— this will print: 4.3. Both 1.3 and 4.3 are floating point numbers.

3. Variables

x = "I am a coder."

— here, we use the variable x to store the string “I am a coder.” We assign the variable name. In most cases, you would try to use a variable name that hinted at the content, e.g. profession = “I am a coder.”

Why would we want to use variables? Quite simply, they save time. To use a common real life example, let’s look at the common use of usernames. Ignoring the intricacies, in simple terms, we want to take a user’s unique username (input) and tailor the look of our website (output) to reflect the user’s username. Visit your Facebook page: see the endless references to yourself? Your name, your picture, etc.? All of this data is stored as a variable. When you think about it, this is not only useful, it is necessary: it would be impossible for the website to literally re-write its data for every given user. What happens, then, is that a variable is used throughout. If we imagine a super stripped-down version of your facebook homepage, this is the salient programming behind it all:

username = [input]
print username
print username + "'s photos"

— here, we have a simplistic rendering of a login page: that familiar place where you type in your email or username and your password. In essence, what happens next is that the website takes your username and tailors the website around that input. The next line represents, for example, the name on your homepage. In my case, that would read “Lucas Labern”; in yours, it will present you your username. The genius of this, of course, is that the code merely reads “print username”: yet it presents a unique response to every single person who uses the website. A more complex example in the third line shows how a variable can be mixed with strings. The code “print username + “‘s photos” would, for me, print: Lucas Labern’s photos. — How? We understand the print function, and we also get the username aspect, but what’s the “+ “‘s photos” about? Well, the “+” simply concatenates (that is, adds together) the things on either side of it. Because the content ‘s photos is a string, they must be in quotation marks. (Don’t be confused by the mixing of quotation mark and inverted commas: the quotes are for the programming language, whilst the apostrophe is for our eyes only.) As you can probably guess, this third line of code will present a result very unique to you, and unique to the next person: this is the power of variables.

x = "Hello"
x = "Goodbye"

— one of the key features of a variable is that it is mutable (that is, it can be changed endlessly). If you’ve ever changed your password, something like this will have been the case:

password = "password1"
password = [user input]
print password

— where the print password will print out the data you typed in—having literally wiped its memory of the previous password.

4. Functions

I will provide a very simple overview of functions, as I will address this in a later article. A function, though it may sound intimidating, is really something we are all familiar with. Say we wish to square a number (that is, times it by itself). Though it might appear that we are doing something different every time (1 * 1 is nothing like 2 * 2), really, the same function could be distilled into the following:

def Square_function(number):
     print number * number

— this is a valid function definition in python. “def” is a keyword which means “I want to define the following:”. “square_function” is the name of the function being defined, whilst the “(number)” part represents the argument passed to the function. This function, as you might have guessed, takes whatever number is passed to it, and multiplies it by itself. [The "number" keyword represents a special type of variable. By passing the argument "number" to the function, we are—at the same time—assigning the value to that variable. Thus, "number" stands for whatever "number" was assigned to. In some cases, "number" will have been assigned earlier: in many, however, the argument will be the result of some input (such as a prompt).] Vitally, this is only a definition: in the same way that assigning a value to a variable doesn’t use the variable, neither have we used our function yet. To do so, we pass an argument to our function (note “number” is replaced with an actual number):

square_function(2)
4

— here, the first line sees us call the square_function on the number 2. The second line represents the output of 2 * 2, which is 4. The brilliance of the function—like variables—is that, having defined our function once and only once, we can call it infinitely. Rather than having to type out:

print 5 * 5
print 4 * 4
print 3 * 3

— we need only use:

square_function(5)
square_function(4) 
square_function(3)

5. Loops & boolean logic

if 2 == 2:  
     print "2 is equal to itself"

— here we have a nice and intuitive use of an if statement. Don’t worry about the ==. Simply put, this piece of code checks if 2 is equal to 2—which of course it is—and, if that is the case, prints the code following—in this case, a helpful reminder that the laws of nature are intact. (We use == to check identity, because the = sign is already used to assign value to a variable.)

Now, what was that boolean logic about? In essence, the “is 2 equal to itself?” code doesn’t care whether 2 is actually equal to 2. All the code (and by extension, the computer) cares about is whether the statement is True or False. If the statement is true, then the piece of code following is executed (that is, performed). But what if the statement is false?

if 2==3:
     print "2 is equal to 3"
else:
     print "2 is not equal to 3"

— can you guess what this does? First things first: the statement (is 2 equal to 3?) has changed, but the syntax/structure hasn’t. It’s very intuitive, I think you’ll agree. In the same way you live by the following:

if I am hungry: 
     get food
else: 
     don't get food

—the code takes the statement and, based on its truth value, performs one of the possible options. In this case, we have a simple if/then, but we can also provided an else if condition.

if 2==3:
     print "2 is equal to 3"
else if 2==4:
     print "2 is equal to 4"
else:
     print "2 is equal neither to 3 nor 4"

— here, the computer asks itself if 2 is equal to 3—which it isn’t—and then asks itself if 2 is equal to 4—which it isn’t. It then resorts to the last statement, which really reads “if neither of the above statements are true, do the following”. (Note that the print statements need not be related to the statements assessed for truth: I have done this merely to express the simplicity of the logic.) It should be clear, with a little thought, to see how powerful such a system can be. For a final example, let’s return to a common Facebook dilemma:

if username is set:
     print username
else:
     take user to registration/login page

— here, you see the underlying logic behind every failed login attempt. It’s this incredibly simple if/then logic that lies behind the apparent complexity of many website and application behaviour.

We can, of course, test far more complex statements—but the structure remains the same:

if 2 + 2 = 4 and 5 == 5:
 print "Things are as they seem."

— here, you see a test of two concatenated statements. For the code to be executed, both 2 + 2 = 4 and 5 == 5 must be true. If either of them is false, then the code won’t ruin.

You can imagine how to expand outwards from these simple beginnings. Remember that the complexity is always human: the computer only ever works in terms of on/off, 1 or 0, true or false. Once you realise this, you realise that you, too, can code. — After all, you perform infinitely more complicated tasks every single day.

[I will write further examples on the for and while loop at a later date.]

[I will address arrays, functions and idiosyncrasies in a further lesson.]

I hope you have found this useful. As I said, I will write lessons that build upon these foundations and will give you a proper grasp of actual programming languages. If you feel that you have grasped what is written here, then I would encourage you to think about the creative possibilities of programming, if nothing else. I guarantee it’s nothing like you think: if you spend as much time on a computer as most people do, then your life can be directly improved by taking control of that screen in front of you.

The Venom of the Recluse (poem)

  • Posted at 5:30 pm, March 22nd, 2014.
  • Posted in Poetry.
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Can you blame a man, who
Is able to ingest
His favourite drug
And still impress you?

What, exactly, are the
Repercussions
Of a being so content
And comfortable

That he, “inebriated,”
Moves amongst you—
And yet stands out
For the right reasons?

If you think he doesn’t notice
Every pause and stare,
As his mind triple-double tracks,
He considers you a second species:

He, who, though rarely in sight,
When present, dictates his time and space:
The only thing he cannot control
Are the expressions on his face.

And yet, we know, projections place
Meaning on his features:
To you, perceptive; To him,
You are simple creatures.

Unfolding as sound intentions do,
Can we help but remark
On the remarkable?
Not often enough.

“Selfishness,” with its
Pejorative overtones,
Is a religion:
He worships it.

Yet in his rare, but passionate, appeals
To instil the same in you,
There we find the problem:
Ambition is an illness for you.

Your body rejects it:
You pretend, pathetically,
Pathologically—
Pure pretence.

What, then, do you expect?
Focus is his strength;
So in the rejection of his aid,
You dig your social grave.

We return: little yellow pills
Dispense the pleasure.
In these, he finds friendship—
And, ironically, the happiness you crave.

He seeks it not, but finds it there—
Why? Because his life is programmed
Rightly: to write, to inspire;
To warm others by the light of his own fire.
Only then comes pleasure.
—And you? Why talk about it any longer?

Success matters.
Indeed: failure is universal.
But here’s a secret not often admitted:
The temporary failure of successful people
Is more interesting than the inevitable failure
Of those who never try, and hide
Behind their own weakness. Yes:
Failure is a surprise to some—
The bulk of life, for others.

Sleep and His Cousin (play)

  • Posted at 6:30 pm, March 18th, 2014.
  • Posted in Play.
  • 1 Comment.

Sleep and His Cousin

A one-act play by Luke Labern

Dramatis personae

THE DREAMER, a young man in bed

SLEEP, the God of sleeping

LABOUR, the proud God of achievement

INERTIA, the God of laziness

ALARM CLOCK, an aggressive bedside object

A simple scene: a single bed, located in a bedroom with a window (through which we can see dawn), a chair on the opposite side of the room, facing the bed. THE DREAMER is in the bed, fast asleep, in traditional sleeping gear—the absurd hat included. In the chair is SLEEP, dressed all in white—yes, dressed in a sheet. With no eyeholes.

SLEEP: [over the sounds of DREAMER’s gentle snoring] I love my job. Look how peaceful he is. Just whiling away the hours: no pain, no exhaustion, no struggle. Earthly bliss. Why should anyone ever get out of bed? — He’s not missing out on anything, because he’s got his dreams. There is no money where he is. No morality, no obligations, no need for ambition. He has already fulfilled what it is that’s required of him: he’s asleep. And he loves it. There’s no denying it. When he’s awake, he longs for me. My simple, restorative powers are undeniable. When he’s lying there, half-awake, between waking and dreaming, he’s reminded of his childhood. All of these problems he’ll face when I leave— they could be avoided. Read more…

A Day in the Life of OCD (short story)

  • Posted at 6:30 pm, March 10th, 2014.
  • Posted in Prose, Stories.
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A Day in the Life of OCD

By Luke Labern

 

One. Two. Three.

No, you didn’t do it right. Do it again—or else your father will die.

No, you didn’t do it right. Try again.

There. Go about your business.

I make my way out of my bedroom, pirouetting on my left foot. I close the door to, having just tapped the handle three times with both hands. Only then can I step on the ball of my right. I head downstairs and make breakfast.

I have fifteen minutes to leave in order to make the train.

I take the collection of pills I need—the one for anxiety, the one for the chronic arthritic pain, the one to restore my serotonin stores, and of course my vitamins—and place the bread in the toaster. Seven minutes left. Where did the time go?

My coat is on; I do up my laces and notice that my big toe has poked a hole in my trainers. They were very expensive; I don’t know if they were worth it. Why they had to have such a soft material on the top, I don’t know. Two minutes left. What? How can I do it all in that time?

Toast is burnt. I rush to get the margarine out of the fridge; I drop it on the floor. One minute left. I get the toast out of the toaster and it burns my fingers. Fucking hell. I like my toast softer than this. It’s on, it’s on. Let’s go. Time’s up.

I stroke all the cats—I want them to purr.

No, you need to make them purr. Or else—

I can’t! I don’t have time—

The first cat purrs. Two more.

Thank God the cats love me—they’re all purring.

Is the lounge door locked? Yes.

Double check it.

It’s locked.

Check it. Tap it. Three times.

One. Two. Three.

Two minutes late.

I step into the porch and make sure the inner door is closed, though somehow as I feel the handle pull to, clearly signifying that the door cannot be opened by any being without opposable thumbs, I feel curiously as though the door is somehow liable to fly open the moment it is out of my sight. A strange emptiness inside; an anxiety.

Now the front door. I step outside and close it behind me. It makes a solid slamming noise, rattling me, and I turn the handle thoroughly, dramatically, to make sure that my photographic memory pictures this moment when the anxiety sets in five seconds from now.

It’s closed.

Is it? Check it.

One. Two. —

Your finger slipped. Do it again.

I’m late!

Or else your—

Oh, shut up.

One. Two. Three.

Three minutes late.

I close the gate and latch it, but it doesn’t quite catch. I need all three layers of security—I can’t let the dogs escape. If I was there, sitting on the train, or in my lecture, and the dogs had escaped, running around town, straight into the main road? I can’t be responsible for that. I love them too much.

Twenty steps down the road, I feel my legs wobble.

Are you sure you closed the door? Isn’t it, in fact, wide open?

I turn around—the gate is closed. But what if the door isn’t? What if my nascent memory of the door being closed is really one of the thousand other times I’ve closed the door? I need to make sure.

I run back: it looks closed. But I must be sure.

I close it.

One. Two. Three.

Five minutes late.

I’ve now got seven minutes to make the train, and it takes me six and a half minutes to reach the station. I also have to buy a ticket.

I won’t make it if I don’t run. I hate to run for the train. Everyone in town is looking at me, and I’m barely awake. Why is it that even though I’m semi-conscious, having woken up in the middle of a dream—oddly, at precisely the moment I was about the receive some good news—I’m still able to process the endless number of rituals I must perform?

Passing the corner—look in the barbershop window. Or else.

The weightlifting belt in my bag is digging into my spine, but I don’t have time to readjust it. I start jogging. My shoelace becomes untied. People are looking at my shoes: there’s a great hole in them—in both of them—and I’m wearing white socks, which looks absurd when juxtaposed against the black material on the top of the trainers.

Oh, fuck ‘em—I’ve got to catch this train. I’ve got enough to worry about. If they don’t like my fashion, that’s one thing I don’t care about.

I look at the clock tower—it reads twenty-five past, which is the time the train leaves, but I know the clock is fast. Why that is, I don’t know. It’s incredibly unhelpful. I pass the kerb on the roadside, as I always do—for only then can I have any hope of having a good day. A car is coming, but I stubbornly hold it up as I follow my path. I’m late, and I need the opportunity. A car can stop and accelerate at will, making up the speed at a later point. I’ve got real speed limits, dictated by what’s permissible in a place like this. I could sprint, but I don’t want to offend my knees.

I make the train with thirty seconds spare and head to my usual seat at the far end of the train. The toast has been in my hands all this time. Already over-cooked, it is now cold. Enjoy your breakfast.

I flip open my book. Finally, a period of relative silence. All except the third stop. There, the train will be flooded with many people. Many people who will sit next to me, disturbing my privacy. I am really no in the mood for that.

The train journey passes—no one sits next to me, although an odd man and his son sit in the chairs adjacent. This is, of course, the “new” trains. The old trains that have been painted, which possess no tables, no toilets and no privacy. Naturally, with this less efficient, less pleasant and less helpful train come increased train fares. But whatever: I’d pay more if I could sit in a little space on my own. I’ve got to get my reading done.

They are speaking in a foreign language. That’s fine. Except the consonants are too hard—far too harsh. Now the son is looking at me. What does he want? I place the book down on my lap and stare back at him. The caffeine is working now; I’m awake. I don’t feel so vulnerable. In fact, I feel like myself.

We hold eye contact for a few seconds longer than is usual, and he turns away, apparently frightened.

They get off at the stop before me. I relax. I get off at my stop and look at the clock overhead. I’ve ten minutes to complete a twelve minute journey into the university—but this time I’m not running.

Why is it that my only options are to be two minutes late or forty minutes early? Either way, I’ll be tired. Either way, I’ll be flustered. Either way, I’ll be pissed off by the time I make it to the seminar.

No problems on the way; no problems in the seminar. The same silent classroom, though. The same stupid answers, when they are proffered. This seminar leader—or teacher, as she would otherwise be known—is particularly sharp. She snaps. Looks as if she doesn’t want to be there. Every time. Is clearly unhappy with the students, and the material. Seems only to care about her “research”, which strikes me as particularly unimportant. I’m beginning to wonder if those who stay on to work in academia do so purely because they don’t know what they want to do with their lives. Why is it, then, that they become so… arrogant?

The seminar finishes. Time to head to the gym.

Yesterday, I was so excited about it. I felt limber. I was very focused, and ready. Incline barbell press—five sets, six to eight reps. Pull ups supersetted with one arm dumbbell shoulder press—five supersets. Shrugs, barbell curls, pressdowns. Not my usual workout—I’ve been trying a new lower-volume, higher-frequency approach.

Why is it, then, that I feel so exhausted? I’ve headed into the toilets to get my knee supports on—and, sitting there, I feel completely unable of anything. I can’t deny that it all feels like a grind, and that, despite my best efforts and the many hours of planning I perform when alone in my free time, when it comes to the day, something has gone wrong. I can’t sleep, or I wake up in the middle of a dream; I rush and almost miss the train. The seminar or lecture goes particularly badly.

No: no more of this nonsense. No excuses. The right music will get me going.

I find the appropriate song and head to the gym, the pre-workout supplement bubbling in my veins.

I approach the gym complex and perform the same ritual: headphones out first. Student card out of the wallet—before I enter the gym. Or else.

‘Thanks,’ I say, laconically, to the woman working the front as she takes my student card. Now this is something to lament—why is it always this woman working? She is a particularly sad being. Sad in multiple senses. She has a particularly prominent jaw that seems to jut out of her face. I don’t care about that: how people look is almost always nothing to do with them. The problem is that she cares. She is clearly obsessed about it. She was clearly bullied. Clearly tormented. And she clearly spends much of her free time thinking on it, and cursing her luck. To exist, but to exist with just one problem. A problem which, whilst it is really very minor in the scheme of things, nonetheless ruins her experience on earth. But I don’t care: I don’t care what she does in her life, particularly. I just hate interfacing with her.

She’s so sad—so miserable. I’m laconic: I get that. I don’t like small-talk with people doing their job. She, however, reacts very badly to this. It is quite obvious that she despises me.

‘Thnkyou,’ she mumbles under her breath, refusing to look me in the eye.

I take the little key; they hold your student card hostage whilst you’re in the gym. Always looking for a chance to blemish your record. It’s the number 57. Not my favourite number, but perhaps my favourite locker will be free.

It isn’t.

Christ—perhaps I’m going to have a bad workout.

You won’t have a good workout: you haven’t got your locker. Don’t you know that your luck depends on that?

I stow away my things and place the padlock through the locker’s handle.

I spin the numbers round.

One. Two. Three.

I pull on the padlock to make sure it’s holding.

One. Two. Three.

Into the gym I go: my sanctuary. At least, that’s what it is on the good days.

 *

I leave at exactly thirty minutes past the hour—I have a train to catch.

Now quite high, my muscles swollen, my body sweaty, my mind cleared of much of the anxiety that had built up like psychological lactic acid, I am rushing again. This is pleasant rushing, however—as pleasant as rushing can get.

She’s still there. Does she ever leave?

I pack up my stuff, sling it over my shoulder and look at the clock above her head. I’ll make it.

‘Cheers,’ I say as she hands me my card back. (I said ‘thanks’ before, so I can’t say it again.) She doesn’t reply.

I leave the gym the same way I do every time I go there: exhaling deeply, leaning, almost falling through the door and casting one glance back. I stumble out of the miniature porch and make sure to avoid the metal grate. If I step on it—well, I simply can’t.

It’s thirty-four minutes past the hour when I reach the bottom of the first hill; I’m on time.

Just before the train station is the overpass, which I am passing under. Once again that man is there. Every time, with his absurd, blank express he is there with his long coat, its tails signifying that he thinks he is worthy of such a piece of clothing. He is handing out leaflets to who-knows-what promotion. Do I look like I give a fuck? Of course I don’t. Whilst I remember him—how could I ignore such a stupid person, continually getting into my way when I’m rushing to get the train—he does not seem to remember me. More specifically, he does not remember that I never take leaflets about nightclubs. I couldn’t care less. If I did frequent them, I’d avoid the one he was advertising precisely because it associated with him.

Whilst I usually raise my hands up, gesticulating with the intention of expressing ‘No thanks’—which I consider polite—this time I leave my hands by my side and walk straight past him as he holds the leaflet out to me.

I see his bag up ahead, a typical, typical bag that one finds at this university of mine. It’s a thin piece of material, shaped like a handbag, with a poorly-drawn doodle of a dog. I have the overwhelming urge to kick it and send it and its contents—namely, another five hundred leaflets—flying, but I resist.

I get to the station and I’m right on time. I sit on the window ledge and look at the many people on the other side. I’m the only person on my platform, and I know they’re looking at me. Good for them.

The train pulls up and I slump down on my seat, quite exhausted.

The day is over now—the working part anyway. The chores have been completed, my body has been posed a question which I hope it will answer by improving, and I can get to work on reading when I get home.

The rest of the day and the evening passes smoothly.

 *

Bedtime.

Make your shake. Take your melatonin pill. Brush your teeth. Shower.

Exhausting chores—why did I think they were over earlier? I wonder how much of my time is spent doing these things. Is it any wonder I’m exhausted when my supposedly free time is marred by exhaustion?

All done. To bed.

Turn out the light on the landing.

Press the switch with your forefinger: don’t let it touch the edge of the light-box. Only the switch.

Click.

No: you failed. Do it again.

I go to—

No—you have to reset it.

How do I do that?

Press the switch on three times.

One. (On. Off.) Two. (On. Off.) Three. (On. Off.)

Try again.

Click.

Now, place your fist to your chest—now place your palm over your chest—now straight both of your triceps with equal tension. You only have one chance to do this; this cannot be reset.

I do it successfully; adequately. Usually I do, but sometimes I don’t. It sets the tone for the following day. How? I don’t know.

I am not superstitious, but these rituals nag at me. If I don’t perform them, I worry about what might happen. Death. Chaos. Failure. If I do succeed in them—if I do perform them—then I at least have a chance. It used to be the case that these rituals were positive: do this and you’ll be the greatest…

Now, however, they are almost universally negative. Do this and this awful thing might not happen.

It is not that I think—rationally—that those things will happen as a result of my not performing the ritual; it is simply that, impulsively, I don’t want those things to happen. So I perform the ritual anyway. To silence my mind. Of course, like all powerful and dangerous things, once a rational being gives in and does it, they are faced with the obvious and inevitable problem: that they will be asked to do it again.

And if one does something once, they are very likely to do it again.

In the case of these rituals, it is incessant. I have been performing some of them for years—literally since I was first conscious. Others occur spontaneously, bubbling up to fit certain circumstances. If I overcome—that is, ignore—some of the rituals, others likely bubble up to take their place.

Regardless, I spend a lot less time thinking about them than performing them.

Touch the door handle three times. With both hands. At the same time. Make sure the door is closed.

One. Two. Three.

Time to try and fall asleep now—time to rest, so that I can do this all over again tomorrow.

 

 

You Know You (poem)

  • Posted at 6:30 pm, March 8th, 2014.
  • Posted in Poetry.
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And in the end
The truth was that
You knew it all
Along: Don’t over complicate.

What was in your mind
Was good enough for you;
What more can you ask
For? Pure and breathing truths.

The “secret”, then, was just to
Live, and be open in art;
No one can deny what
Happened. The torture is over.

You were born to do it:
Take great pleasure in that.
Focus on what’s real—
Ignore all others.
You know
You.

“Marijuana” (extract from Definition)

The following is an extract from a novel that is currently on hiatus called Definition, which I was writing during September-December 2013. The extract is chapter 3 from Part II on the effects marijuana can have on creating a strong bond between friends and family, and on the positive effects the drug has.

3

Marijuana

 

‘I’m no good at this,’ Christopher said, screwing up the rolling paper he had been working on.

‘I’ll do it. I think the way I do it is easier.’ William was two years younger than his brother, but their ages were largely irrelevant; they were more like twins. William was taller, by a few inches; Christopher was rather plump around the face. This was how the majority of people told them apart.

‘I must admit, you’re pretty good at rolling spliffs.’

‘It’s not a spliff,’ William corrected him; ‘it’s a joint. A spliff is marijuana and tobacco—a joint is pure marijuana.’

‘Oh, right. You know, we should get a bong. I saw them for sale, there’s a shop called “Smoker’s heaven” in town. It’ll cost about a fiver each, I reckon.’

‘Can you imagine if Dad saw it!’ William had by this time already crafted a perfect cylinder out of a new rolling paper.

‘It’s Mum we should worry about,’ his brother said, frowning. ‘How have you done that so quickly? You’ll have to teach me.’

‘It’s pretty simple, Chris. There’s no need to do it the way you were doing it—like I said, there’s no tobacco. Remember when I used a pen? I wrapped the paper around it, licked and sealed it, and already had the perfect shape.’

‘What about the roach?’

‘Oh, yeah—I cut the roach first, using a piece of card. You just make sure it’s rolled up tight enough to slip into the cone you make.’ He paused to lick the paper, leaving it to dry for a few moments. ‘Now, though, I don’t need a pen. I do the roach first, then I wrap the paper around that—it forms a cone by itself. Then I take the cut up cannabis and drop it inside—using one of the scissor’s blades to pack it however tight I want it.’

‘Then you twist it at the top?’

‘You’ve got to twist it at the top,’ he laughed. William completed their evening’s entertainment and held it aloft.

‘That’s a work of art,’ his brother said, smiling.

‘You think?’

‘Absolutely. Now let’s smoke it!’

They boys, already similar in their appearance, grinned an identical grin, and prepared to smoke. They were in the infancy of their smoking career. Like many boys their age, they had tried alcohol—for that was the one legal drug that really allowed one to escape the banality of modern life—but neither had found it anything more than a rite of passage. Neither liked alcohol, or its effects—it was just the thing to do. When one of Christopher’s friends had offered them ‘some green’, the elder Paper boy’s heart began to beat—he immediately purchased an eighth and brought it home. He had paid extra to have it pre-rolled into three spliffs. The first, he nervously smoked when the house was empty one weekend—he coughed, and spluttered, and had the best night of his life.

Quite literally, his life was changed. Over and above the half an hour of psychedelic bliss (which could never be repeated) in which time appeared to slow down, colours became more vibrant, and Christopher found himself more a philosopher than ever, the very idea that there was a plant that could instantly turn a dull day into a pleasant one, or a stressful night into a calming one, was a profound discovery. Before smoking it, he, like everyone else unacquainted with the mysterious substance, was worried by the apparent dangers it posed to his mental health.

Upon actually trying the substance in question, however, he found it not only harmless, but to have a range of beneficial effects that he might consider his entire life without fully exhausting.

In short, Christopher learned a valuable lesson: that his experiences mattered more to him than the words of others (which were often spoken for a reason other than to spread truth).

Excited as he was, he gladly introduced his younger brother to the drug—who was, of course, affected not only by the drug and the positive effects already mentioned, but by the gratitude he felt for his brother. Though they were never ones to introduce age into the bargain, this was one scenario where William was eternally thankful for his elder brother. It was a moment that strengthened their bond—they were not just brothers, but friends.

‘I just can’t believe it’s illegal,’ William began, passing the joint to his brother. Christopher inhaled, held the smoke for three seconds, and slowly exhaled, enjoying the sight of the smoke. There was a tactile pleasure there; almost as if the smoke was relaxation incarnate.

‘Of course it’s ridiculous. Did you know the Prime Minister smoked it when he was at Eton?’ Christopher laughed at the absurdity of it all.

‘Why doesn’t that surprise me? “Do as I say, not as I do,” right? What a joke.’

‘It would be a joke—if there weren’t people in jail. It’s ridiculous. There are people on “cannabis watch”—you know, Harry got caught smoking near the barn in his car, and they put him on it!—and their futures are going to be affected. The people in charge organise the country so that you need all these bloody documents… degrees, CVs, all that; and in the process they make life so boring that you can’t help but want to escape. Most people drown themselves in alcohol, but the few who find this magical plant get threatened by the law?’

This was not merely the rambling of a stoned young man; it was a point many, many intelligent and passionate people were dying to see a politician answer honestly.

‘I’ll never understand it,’ said William, finishing off the joint; ‘they’re quite happy to drink their whiskey at night, but it’s not all right for us to smoke a joint? Is it any wonder…’

Christopher looked at his brother, pointing downstairs. It sounded as though their mother was coming up the stairs. False alarm.

‘Is it any wonder that there’s such a difference between the generations?’

‘Well, I’ll make damn sure my kids know how to unwind with the right drugs.’

‘And smoke with their uncle,’ William joked.

So the conversation continued: relaxed, enjoyable, philosophical. The brothers had never been the sort to fight one another—not since before they were teenagers—but to anyone who considered them there and then, it was quite clear that when they were left alone, to smoke a drug that did nothing but enrich their lives, their relationship was made all the more rewarding. Of course, with time, they would separate, and find themselves spending more time with women—but these memories could never be taken from them, and both considered these times (a little bit of rebellion and bonding under the old family roof) some of the best of their lives.

The brothers laughed into the night. In time, they would come to smoke a little more, and sample the myriad dealers that lived in their area, each with their own preferences for strains, weights and customer service, but for now, the boys spent the entire evening focused around the single joint.

‘Shall we play some Pink Floyd?’

Fruits (short story)

  • Posted at 6:20 pm, March 6th, 2014.
  • Posted in Prose, Stories.
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I

Sow

Bastards.

The lot of you.

But I include myself in that; I am one of you, and together we are all bastards. It is precisely because I am one of you that I know how awful the rest of you are: though I don’t subscribe to that nonsense that ‘all people are equal’, I do know that we all have the same faults. Or, at least, there are some faults that all people have. What are they? The very things people acknowledge, but never change, or perhaps more nefariously the things some people refuse to acknowledge.

Laziness. Unoriginality. Delusion.

This is what I can’t stand. And like I said, it’s because I am all of these things; I embody these things. For the first twenty years of my life, I was sure that I was different. I knew that I was destined for great things: how could I not be? I was smarter than all of those around me. I caught on to things quicker. When a hoop was produced for me to jump through—you better believe I jumped through it. And not only that, I smiled as I jumped through it. In that moment, I experienced bliss. I looked at the face of whomever it was that held the hoop—usually a teacher, or someone in power—and in that moment, I looked into their eyes. I was searching for a ‘well done’; a look of appreciation. I thought I got it, or at least I used to when I was very young. But, intelligent man that I was, I also saw something deeper there. More troubling. I didn’t realise it at the time, probably because I had been taught to do what I was told, but I could see that there was a reproach in those eyes.

As I now understand much too well, it was a look of sadness.

In the look of that authority figure, who had set the task so nonchalantly—whether it be a test, an equation or a question—was that look of knowing. They knew that, as able as I was, there was really nothing more for me to do. I was so able. Too able. And this was all they had for me: a silly little hoop to jump through.

Yet I didn’t know that at the time. I would complete my jump, land on the other side, brush myself down and carry onto the next thing. Perhaps another little hoop—never greater than the first—but usually nothing. That was it; the day was done. I now realise that those hoops were put there not only to purposefully waste my time, but they were there to satiate my ambition… without encouraging it. Certainly, it’s easy to trick the ambitious man (no matter how intelligent he is) if you make him feel as if he is achieving something, even though he is not. All one has to do is paint their small achievement as a small step on the path to success, when in reality you divert him away altogether. The nature of time is such that each day feels incredibly unimportant: no one really knows how they achieve anything great, for there is no way for human consciousness to expand past the day. Indeed, we become so tired that we need sleep at the end of every day. We are able only to plan ahead, roughly, and hope that have chosen the right path in our blindness. We feel much more comfortable looking back at the past precisely because it’s not something we are able to change.

Look how bitter I am. As I said, though, I wasn’t bitter at first. I was hopeful, and confident, even inspired. I would jump through hoop after hoop, through all the layers of education necessary—even the supposedly optional higher education, despite the fact that the things I wanted to do were closed off to a man who did not have a degree in his hand—until I reached the grand age of twenty-one. It was at this point that, at the height of my powers, I realised I was really exhausted.

But why? I had felt that it had been so easy: how, or why, was it that I felt as though I could handle nothing more? Perhaps it is because I realised that my ‘education’ had not been designed to instil me with the tools necessary to achieve what I really wanted to, but instead had been designed to subtly teach me to accept the orders of those in power: to jump through these set of hoops and to be grateful for the wage I got at the end of it.

What I never learnt was how to become the one with the power.

I had never earned a penny in my life: I had refused to work because I wanted to focus on my education. That was the very activity that was to guarantee me success in later life—and here I was, two decades old and feeling completely exhausted. I felt undermined: where had my energy gone? It had been spent on these little tasks; these hoops. I realised very quickly, after a short burst of euphoria, that the very activity that was supposed to have strengthened me had crushed me.

My body was not stronger for having jumped through hoops: my knees were arthritic, my ligaments were on the point of tearing and my bones would creak all through the night.

I was twenty-one, but I felt sixty.

I had put in enough work to deserve my retirement—but I was only supposed to be starting upon the work.

Needless to say, I wasn’t up for it. I hadn’t earned a penny yet, let alone a pound, but I wasn’t going to start at the bottom and work my way up. I wasn’t at the bottom: I had been at the top of my class the entire time. And I had gotten there through talent, but mostly through hard work.

I knew immediately what I would do. I was intelligent enough to see the state of things: I had been born into the world without choice, and had been brought up largely without a decision. Of course I was thankful to be literate, and to have benefitted from the culture in which I had been immersed—but was I then really beholden to that society? Was there anyone in particular that I owed something to? My parents were the logical choice: I treated them very well; as well as I could do. I was a focused, a ‘driven’ individual, and for that reason an anti-social one—but I gave my parents what joy I had. Apart from them, however, I could not find any one person that I owed anything to: the state was not a person. I had broken no laws, and had in fact aided my peers wherever possible: was that no aiding the state?

What more did they want from me?

I addressed these questions to myself, but of course they were really rhetorical: there was no one asking anything of me. It appeared as though it was my decision to leave.

What tempted me the most was the issue of money. I was an ambitious man, indeed—but when I reflected on the way things were, I started to look within and found that what I really wanted was the fruits of my labour. I wanted to be in control of my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet to work for someone else would be to lose control in doing what someone else told me to (despite any reservations I had) and also losing control in the form of putting money into the pockets of my bosses. And why? Precisely because they were the authority.

I saw no way of manoeuvring without losing the dignity I had amassed. Make no mistake: those who work hard, even if they do not possess financial wealth, make up for it with great stores of dignity. Often, this lies just beneath the surface. They will gladly be told what to do, will accept commands from above (despite there being no justification for it whatsoever) and will take pay cuts without question—but attempt to step on their dignity in any way that does not involve money, and they will roar, and they will very likely crush you. And why? Because dignity is real: money is not.

Indeed, it was money that lay behind all of this. And I do not subscribe to the thesis that ‘money is the root of all evil’: for it was the very thing that gave these people the opportunity to become powerful. It was simply that they did not make the most of their opportunity. Their education had been too successful: they felt that they were one of those to whom life happened—when the reality was that all it took to become powerful was the belief that life was something they could control.

And I do not think ‘power’ is the problem; certainly, there is nothing morally off about it. All I wanted was power: the power to control my own life. If I wanted to work, I wanted the chance to work: if I didn’t, then I shouldn’t have to.

Money, however, took this away from me. Aged twenty-one, at the great turning point of my life, I realised that the freedom I had always assumed was mine—the one I acquired at birth—had been taken from me, piece-by-piece. What did I need to do to regain it? Earn money. With each pound I saved, I would be clawing back the chance at freedom: if I spent it, I would be spending my freedom. And then I would have to earn it back again.

If I wanted to travel, I needed money. If I wanted to enter a new country, or sail, I would have to purchase a passport and a ticket. There would be no building my own boat. The wood I might need was not mine to have; the tools would have to be bought; the places I wished to sail to would ask me for my purpose of visit.

As I write this now, I see the answer clearly: I have made the right decision. The only decision I really could have made. But it took me thirty years to come to this decision: yes—I caved in.

My passion, my dignity, my sense of ambition—it all crumbled. I became scared. This, I believe, was due to an inherent weakness. I had learnt only to jump through hoops; at the first sign of hardship (let alone this major decision) I had nothing to offer. For a few brief weeks, I thought I had made a sensible decision in attempting to bridge the gap.

Yes, I thought; I will use my intelligence to earn lots of money. I will embrace business, I will become the man with power: I will come up with something that will earn me lots of money, and I will thus have earned lots of freedom.

Yet that quickly faded: pressure mounted on all sides. ‘Why haven’t you got a job yet?’ ‘How are you going to pay for rent?’ ‘Buy some new clothes; you’re not fitting in with the latest fashion.’ ‘You’ll never get a job if you wear that.’ The questions came from all: my parents, first and foremost, who, although intrigued about my plans to make lots of money, were wholly committed to the view that they—and thus, their offspring—were not one of the people who would ever be rich. The only ones who could become rich were special people, and neither they nor I were special. That was their thinking: and, though I resisted it at first, my hurt and my ambition eventually gave way, and I took a job.

I was indeed the lowest on the ladder; I hated it, I hated myself and I hated my past. All that I had dreamed of was now a waste: I would not be achieving it. Perhaps the cruellest realisation, and the one that really constructed a ceiling barring me from ever looking upwards again, was the fact that I had essentially doomed myself.

If I had only accepted my position in society in the first place, I might have found myself in a better place. If one is going to accept wages (and thus hand over the keys to their life), one might at least aim for the highest wages. I, on the other hand, had stuck fast to my simple, but apparently impossible, dream of controlling my life—and as a result, I had wasted my entire youth and was now stuck with the minimum wage.

What did intellect matter anyway, when those who ascribed to the way things were with good behaviour found themselves in a far better position?

So, as I turned twenty-two, I found myself a sensible job, with a sensible (that is, low) wage doing something I didn’t much like, but that I was more than able to do without thinking about it.

That, after all, was the key: thinking was the problem.

So I began the phase of my life in which I discovered I was more than capable of the very things I had always disliked in others: laziness, unoriginality and delusion. Yes: I was extremely lazy. Performing my job as I did, I became lazy in all areas of life. I would wake up each day, head to work as if on a conveyer belt, fit snugly into my work station and—at a brilliantly slow pace—would start the day’s work. It was almost as if when I arrived the last of my energy was converted into a sort of waking sleep. I was very likely the most productive worker, and yet I put in so little work that it’s almost embarrassing. The most amusing part of it all is that I was never called out. No, I was never praised—but I was never criticised, either. Laziness, however, is what I realise I exemplified: I paid little attention to my hygiene, my out-of-work interests (hitherto known as my life), my ambitions, my dreams—none of these seemed to exist anymore. When I finished work, I felt a refreshing sense of relief; it was almost a feeling of freedom. Of course, I did nothing with it: I returned home to watch television. Books, which I had always found great pleasure in, became irksome to me. My eyes were tired from my day’s work; television did the work for me. I didn’t even have to move my eyes from left to right. Television was so kind that it presented the moving pictures for me. And if I closed my eyes, it would talk to me. I missed nothing.

Soon enough, the few hours that comprised my evening (or my free time) quickly passed and I had to get some sleep—otherwise I wouldn’t be able to perform my job the next day. It now strikes me that I should have tried to go without sleep: I’m quite sure that I could have done my job in my sleep. I may even have died from sleep exhaustion; I wonder if they would have noticed a corpse sitting in my workstation instead of me.

Unoriginality, this second vice, was of course inevitable: what scope is there for originality if one is performing the same function day after day? I now realise that there were people possessed of some originality around me—the ones who leapt over me in the corporate ladder. Surely they must have done something original to do so; must have come up with a new idea, or saved some time. Perhaps they realised that certain jobs, or certain workers, were really a waste of time. Luckily, I always kept my job.

I can understand how this must be quite difficult to understand—how could I have gone from being truly ambitious to collapsing in the space of a year? It didn’t happen quite so fast, but it didn’t take long. There was something particularly stifling in the building where I worked, and in the city where I lived. The route I took each day seemed to become part of the job itself, passing as I did the endless stream of people who looked like me, dressed like me and had the same numb expression on their faces. Yes, it was part of the job—except I didn’t get paid for it. In fact, one of the last interesting thoughts I remember having (and this was over three decades ago) is that I was sure I had earned my wage within the first hour or two of arriving for work. I wondered where the last of my money went—to whom did it go? I’m still not quite sure; I always wondered why I didn’t profit from it. Perhaps this mystery is why I found myself becoming lazier and lazier and less original: nothing was really needed from me except the bare minimum.

The process was very quick, as I said.

I fell into a coma.

What do I mean by this word, ‘coma’? Precisely the usual definition: I lapsed into unconsciousness, and I did not possess the power to awaken. It was, in that sense, quite different from sleep—although the few pieces of information I received from my senses represented a sort of nightmare to the young man who had grown up with such high hopes. I was not conscious; I really believe it is impossible to call oneself conscious if one does the same thing, day after day, whilst ignoring the worries that the deepest part of us acknowledge. The same things we all feel so passionate about in youth—the time when we are unblemished, and passionate, and not yet resigned to the way things arethe way things have to be.

When one finds oneself rising for the thousandth time, looking slightly worse for wear, a little more tired, a little less enthusiastic, to perform the same job, the same arbitrary function—safe only in the knowledge that, if one can keep their job, they will be performing that same function for many years to come (although the one great worry is if one will indeed keep their job)—yes, if one does all these things and no longer possess any recognition of their own ability to change these circumstances… then that person is not conscious. They have forsaken their own ability to control their lives. Though I am loathe to say anyone ever loses control of their life—for where else can our notion of responsibility come from?—it is in these tragic circumstances, which are so much a part of the way things are, that a human being comes closest to losing control. Though my memories of this period of my life (the great bulk of my life) are foggy, the images that appear to me are almost always of those who seemed utterly resigned to their fate. It is written in the faces of all who think that life is out of their control:

They laugh, they speak and they smile as though they were as free as the day they were born—but hiding behind these apparently genuine emotions is tiredness, a certain exhaustion. World-weariness. It is very likely that they have convinced themselves that they are indeed happy with their lot in life, but at certain times—usually in that moment between one emotion and the transition to the next—that they reveal something about not only themselves, but the world they live in. They immerse themselves in the comforts of the society in which they live, and though it really is true that they are free (at least free to succeed, and thus earn a little of their freedom), they do not believe it. And because they do not believe it, they are not.

And I was one of these people. My life now is almost over; my youth was stolen by ambitions that I did not fulfil. For so many years, I existed in a heightened state of awareness: ready and willing to fight off all those who said that I should fit in, and give up on my ambitions. I remained true to the identity I felt was not so much crafted, as really written for me—but when the time came to stand strong, the moment when I really had to decide what to do with my life… I succumbed. The notion of going without the comforts I had become reliant on, if only for a few months, seemed impossible. I now realise that if I had only been brave, and had relied on my wits, I could have made it: I could have been the man I dreamt of becoming.

But I took the job.

And, in a sense, I reprogrammed myself. I began to immerse myself more and more into the company. My ability to stand apart from the corporation, the set of documents and words, the pretence that was the entity for which I worked—all of that faded. Within months I would no longer wake up thinking of my life: I would think of what work I had to do. I did not spend my time dreaming of my future: I dreamt of how the company would evolve, and how I could increase the speed with which it grew. In under a year, my autonomy ceased to exist.

I struggle to trace it all: for it is impossible to relate the story of how one lost consciousness. I remember only what happened before, and where I am now, having escaped it: the great bulk of my life is indeed foreign to me.

What I do remember, precisely because it aroused and alerted me, if only briefly, to the change in myself, was the period in which I met and fell in love with my wife. Here, too, in abstract, I can only cringe: for I was determined never to marry. ‘Why would I do such a thing?’ I used to argue; ‘Why add a legal document to something already difficult to terminate?’ I said this not with bitterness, although I did feel some resentment towards the break-up of various earlier relationship (who doesn’t?), but quite simply; logically. ‘If the love between two people, or at least the bond they share, cannot keep them together, why should the paperwork of a marriage? If such a thing is necessary to scare them into staying together, they almost certainly should not do such a thing. Why make a split more acrimonious, more painful, more drawn-out? Why add the numbing artificiality of legal proceedings to the most painful emotional trauma one can experience?’

So, I married. Read more…

Where Is My Mind? (essay)

  • Posted at 4:27 pm, January 26th, 2014.
  • Posted in Essay.
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The issue of thinking about the mind races off in various directions depending on one’s approach. For example, one might think of the mind simply in conversation (where everyday life would be the material explored); one might approach it from a neurobiological view or one might approach it from a philosophical view (and here, either in the strict academic sense, or the more literary approach I will be following here). Whilst studying the Philosophy of Mind at university, I was at first put off by the fetish analytic philosophers seem to have for defining things, naming them P, B1, P* and then creating neat propositions (which I find reductive, in many cases), using these in order to argue vehemently with someone else who is obsessed on a single tiny point and usually completely wrong. Yet the more I read, the more I began to get into the subject and ignore the errors of those writing, finding a comfortable place where I was able to use my particular background (as dual philosopher-artist, rather than straight philosopher) to bring some originality to the subject. A number of thoughts that arose, whilst I listened to my lecturer recite endless formalised arguments, struck me as not only interesting, but important. Here, I shall not try to explore the subject at any length, but simply state and explore some of the interesting little facts I think will be interesting to anyone remotely interested or fascinated but what’s going on up there. Particularly one. As this is the case, I will simply state the major factor I think is really worth thinking about up front, as simply as I can:

Your mind isn’t where you think it is.

Regardless of whether you think “the mind” and “the body” are two separate types of things, or whether you think “the mind” in some sense derived from “the body” (i.e. the brain), there is feature of being a human that we tend to forget—simply because we are so used to being vehicles of perception, rather than reflecting on how we perceive. Namely: your mind isn’t where you think it is. In short, I guarantee that you think your thoughts feel (in some sense) as if they are “around the head”. Am I right? I certainly feel that way. Whilst I am writing this, I can see not only my computer screen, but also my hands typing, and other objects in my peripheral vision. I am thinking—I know that much. And, I must admit, it certainly feels as though my thoughts are within—or at least near—me. This is my key point: thoughts are not inside our bodies. There is no place where the mind connects to the body. The reason why we think our mind is around or in our head is because vision is the dominant sense. That is, we believe our thoughts are in our head because that is where our eyes are: and our eyes completely dominate the way we interact with the world. (To add to this fact, we know that our brains are right behind our eyes—which, as it happens, is purely because our eyes need to be connected to the brain, and having them as close to the brain as possible makes a lot of sense, evolutionarily speaking.) Read more…

On Proust (essay)

  • Posted at 7:59 pm, January 20th, 2014.
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“But it is sometimes just at the moment when we think that everything is lost that the intimation arrives which may save us; one has knocked at all doors which lead nowhere, and then one stumbles without knowing it on the only door through which one can enter—which one might have sought in vain for a hundred years—and it opens of its own accord.”
       — Marcel Proust, Time Regained, p. 898

This passage highlights much of what I love about Proust, and what I attempt in my own writing. Here, Proust gets it right. Note that immediately, I blur the line between Proust and the narrator, Marcel. The use of the narrator possessing the same name as the writer immediately raises the issue of autobiography. Proust, of course, wished only for the text (rather than biographical concerns) to matter. I sympathise with this, to an extent. Despite this wish, I see the text as the purest part of Proust; that is what I am interested in both in reading and writing. Writing, and especially novels, are the place where I come to find out what the real substance of someone’s existence is—whether a great from the past, or myself. In breaking down the brilliance of this passage, I shall highlight the components in order of importance and assess their cumulative effect.

The primary component of this passage that makes Proust so unique, and the very thing I aim for in my writing, is the nature of the content. This passages is not plot: it is philosophy. The passage opens with a short slice of wisdom: “it is sometimes just at the moment when we think that everything is lost that the intimation arrives which may save us.” This is fiction, indeed; but this is the sort of sentence which is unique to the novel, yet is also largely missing from many texts. In fact, there are whole novels which avoid any use of this effect. These are the novels I criticise, for focusing on simplistic entertainment without seeking to get at deeper truths. I find modern literature in particular suffers from this lack of incision. Yet this is precisely why I write: to get at what it is to be human. It is in these brief moments of wisdom that the author behind the text speaks directly to the audience—even if they are separated by hundreds of years. The use of the first-person narrator is, of course, helpful here: it lowers any form of curtain blocking us from Proust. We know it is him telling this, though framing it via the context of the story.

My love for Proust stems not only for his inclusion of these moments, but the fact that he writes the book in order to write them: the story and characters inset in the novel are there almost solely to give Proust a framework to dole these moments of wisdom out. The address gives it away: the narrator does not even phrase the wisdom as “just at the moment when I thought…”; the address is to every reader, to “us”. We find the pronoun “one” used here as the philosopher’s tool of choice in addressing all of humanity at once.

The initial slice of wisdom is then expanded via the use of analogy. Here, Proust uses the familiar imagery of doors, in which the choices we make in life lead us down particular paths. He also adds an extra point here, though it is subsumed at the level of the analogy. The equivocation of the initial wisdom—the use of “sometimes” and “may” imparts this effect—is overwritten here. The reason the others paths did not work is because this was the only door open to us. This has overtones of a belief in fate, though the point works equally as well when we consider the only course rather as the best course. Life, of course, is full of these moments of serendipity—and Proust captures this magic in this passage.

The content and execution, then, is typically philosophical—Proustian, or Labernic. A fact about the way life is, embedded in a fictional text. The form of the piece is equally unique. This passage is one sentence; the standard “snaking” Proustian sentential unit. We find here one semi-colon and one pair of hyphens. The initial thought contains the little aphorism; following the semi-colon we find the analogy of the door, and within the set of hyphens we find the hyperbolic statement that one “might have sought in vain for a hundred years” in finding the door. The overall effect is beautiful. It demonstrates not only Proust’s ability to pick out something true about the world, but his mastery of the language and of thought. It is one thing to speak wisdom; another to so subtly explore it and carry such delicate wisdom across various clauses. Certainly, there are elements of Proust that are not for everyone—and no person or artist should ever attempt to replicate the work of others. Yet by understanding what it is that a genius does so well, one can seek to stimulate that quality in their own work, and add it to their own unique strengths. The world as I see it is crying out for more writing like this—though the principles seen here could be utilised in various genres, not just the novel. True originality is always in desperately short supply.

The combination of this content, this mode of thinking and writing, and the actual form Proust uses, is where his genius lies. He blends together all of the crucial elements that we so admire in fiction: having something to say, having the bravery to say it, and being original in doing so. That is what makes him stand out, and is also what makes him an inspiration to those who, though driven by grand ambitions to create masterpieces, look around them and see only a mass of mediocrity surrounding them. Proust proves that artistic integrity, along with originality, always has a chance of being recognised and appreciated—even if only by young, passionate artists born 110 years later.

Welcome to 2014

  • Posted at 4:44 pm, January 13th, 2014.
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It’s been a while.

For me, 2013 was the toughest year of my adult life. It has always been one of the great features of my existence that whenever life is going well, my art has too. Similarly, if my art is not going well, that is evidence that my life has not been going as smoothly as I would like. You need only glance at the portfolio page to see that 2013 was a barren year. However, though mistakes were made, lessons were learned. My output may well have been what I consider criminally low, but I have learnt much about life, and myself—much that was at first brutal, but now is something I am extremely proud of.

One thing that has not changed is my unwavering faith in my writing and myself.

To that end, a number of incredible opportunities were presented to me towards the tail end of last year (it wasn’t all bad—far from it). These things are so wonderful in nature that they almost single-handedly justify every decision I have made—certainly as regards my notorious position on employment (that is, what constitutes “work”, and what one means by “time well spent”). I shall not reveal all too quickly, or rather I shall wait until things are set in concrete before I declare anything in public. Regardless, there is much work to be done before then. That is where this website comes in. I would like to justify what has happened in the past 18 months, and then explain what I plan for the future. Though no reader yet takes this website, or my career, as seriously I do, I feel that I owe it to those who may have missed my work.

What happened?

In 2012, this website was the spine of my existence. I made no secret of the fact that 2012 was the greatest year of my life; it is no coincidence that this website, and the work ethic it inspired in me, was a large part of that. During the summer of that year, with the London Olympics proving that the entire nation was undergoing one of the great moments in recent times (certainly since I have been born), I began work on my first novel, The Protagonist. For nine solid weeks, I wrote 2,000 words a day. Those were probably the best nine weeks of my life. Not one day went by when I did not hit my target. Not one day when I didn’t feel I was doing what I am here to do. Regarding novel writing, I was as good as thought. Regarding “reality”, or more precisely, the world of publishing and of linking my individualist mentality with the idea of a society at large—I was completely at a loss. In 2012, I realised that, as mature as I was, I was not yet mature enough. I was too excited by fulfilling the first of my great dreams (writing a novel) to actually succeed in the second (getting my first novel published). I did not write a second draft; I sent the novel off, in its incredibly raw form, to one agency. It was read, but returned. At the time, this was crushing. The sort of questions that have always plagued me (“Am I not good enough?” “Am I not as good as I thought?” “Perhaps this isn’t going to happen…?”) came back in full force. Very quickly, the leisure time that that summer represented was over. The Olympics channels that had been my daily source of wonder before my writing began, clicked off. Forever. University started again—the miserable second year. I was not published; in fact, I felt further away than ever. I had done the work, and written a huge book—but my great dreams had not come to life. I now realise that I have, and always have had, the tools; what I lacked was the maturity and knowledge of how to construct a path to those dreams.

The second year of university began. Some particular domestic turmoil pierced all optimism; I was essentially a zombie. However, I threw myself into my second novel—The Nihilist. At the time, I unreasonably assumed that my lack of publication was due to the nature of my first novel, rather than the lack of polish I had given it. I started this new novel with a specific set of goals: for it to be shorter, more compact, more “traditional”, yet still retaining the unique essence that I know exists in me, but that can only be translated and preserved in my novels. I completed it in March 2013, and promptly repeated my mistakes. Though I once again set it out—raw—I did received some positive feedback. Yet by sending it out raw, there was no way I could have succeeded. If there is one mistake that has defined me thus far, it has been my unwillingness to work on old projects. I have always been focused on the next project—a reflection of my attitude in life. The past means nothing to me: the present and the future are all I really care about. But that is no way to create stunning pieces of art; not polished pieces of art.

Shortly after receiving the bad news regarding my second novel, I spent around five months in a sort of personal hell. One word alone can capture every element of that period: nihilism. Pure, complete, thick, total nihilism. I need not expand on it here—there is much to come on that subject. Regarding this period, however; the website, with its focus on short stories and poems, fell away. I had put little effort into growing the website. I had received no traffic because I sought no traffic. I relished the isolation of novel writing, for the most part—but I hated knowing that no one was reading my work. I will always write, for I would surely die without it—but to write something to help others and for it to be left unread, is perhaps the greatest torture that can be inflicted on me. The sole pleasure I had was in knowing that eventually someone would read it. But that was not good enough; it was a tough time, and I began to question the model I had chosen. That period, however, is over. Novels—amongst other things—are still the great monuments by which I measure my life and achievements. The important thing that I now realise is that this website is just as important.

What will happen

If there is one thing that makes someone of an artistic temperament feel worthy of life, it is to be prolific. A look at my portfolio, or the music page, will show that I have put into practise the great maxim that “potential means nothing; only achievements matter”. Enter: 2014. Following last year, I now have a totally clear picture of my function as a human and writer. I will continue to write novels, along with other big projects (to be announced): but I will complete these projects. I will revise them, polish them, and work at getting them published. Certainly, this is the one element of the lifestyle I have found most unnatural—but the brutality of the past 18 months have made me a far wiser and more resilient person. I know what to do; I will do it.

Thus, I am able to entertain all that I love. Those works will be written—but so too will shorter works. So too will more personal entries. Not diaries—far from it. Yet blogs like this; that which is relevant to my art. If I could have had access to my favourite artists, I would have greedily followed their daily life, and attempted to interact with it. I have already wagered my entire life on the idea that I will succeed in my decision to be an artist (if there is really a choice in it at all), so I can see no reasonable criticism stinging me. If I am judged unworthy of such an outlet, then consider me unfazed. I am a naturally reserved person, and it is for these reasons that I have shunned social media (particularly the telling outbursts of emotion that one later comes to regret). I know equally well how artificial one’s internet appearance is: it is merely a projection of how one wishes to be viewed. In a place such as this, however, I shall not fall prone to any of these unfortunate traits: I have already bared my soul in every work of art I have ever created, and I am equally adept at using the shadows to my advantage.

One thing I am very clear about: if you have visited this website, then you deserve access to the eponymous author at the heart of it. I have no qualms about it; I have much respect for those who visit my site—I even respect those who view it to spite me. This is a rapidly changing world, but I am glad that the spoken word still possesses as much power as always. A website like this is the natural modern extension of it.

So: what can you expect? Details will be worked out, but I have thought long about how to structure the website (and even longer on its design, which I only now feel represents both the unique spirit of the site, and the aesthetic I have always desired for it). I believe this is the best design the site has received yet. I have always been happy with the content-oriented approach, but have been unhappy with the overall feel. Naturally, I reject the idea that I would pay or use someone else’s theme; I do everything I possibly can on my own, in all areas of life. Finally, I think I have made the breakthrough. The overall structure of content is the same as ever: links across the top, with a portfolio and about page accompanied by the latest essays, stories and poems, with the music page having a stationary listing to be manually updated. I have improved the readability everywhere possible, with lots of line-spacing. Single posts are wide, whereas the home page is slightly constricted to allow for the sidebar to provide newcomers with a brief overview of the website and a search bar. If you have any criticisms, please let me know.

This, then, is the content this website will provide (with at least two creative items a week):

  • Blog posts. As I hinted at: this will now not only be a place for my work, but a place for me to unveil what it is that interests and tests me—things that I do not wish to write about. I am most excited about this element of the site: I wish for it to grow in stature, and eventually pull in some decent traffic. I want this to be a place for all those who wish to see what it is like not only to be a writer in the modern world, but to me. I am utterly resistent to letting myself be exposed on other websites—but I am quite happy to do so here. The move, as always, is yours: if you come here, you know what to expect. (Or maybe you don’t…)
  • Poems, stories and essays. As before. I love to write, and I love to have people read my writing. I love people to comment and discuss what I’ve spoken about. I am not one to comment on some other site, for I feel I will be lost amongst the crowds. If my opinion is sought, then here is the place to see it: if it is not sought, it will not be heard.
  • Other writings. In 2012, I hinted at other types of writing—reviews of my favourite music, and so forth. This is something I intend to make good on. Expect a lot of passionate reasoning on The Beatles and Pink Floyd, and especially on television shows. (This will be a unique approach, I assure you.)
  • Music. It has always been a great dream of mine to have all my music concentrated in one place. I’m not quite there yet—for it is scattered across various hard-drives. Of the nominal albums I have compiled, however, this is now true. Please visit the music page to see an overview of the music I have created (and will create in the future). As ever, everything is free to download. I have sample tracks from each album; visit my soundcloud accounts to see more.
  • Big projects. This is something I have been thinking about. I am as yet unsure how I regard the big projects I have worked on. Extracts are available from my first novel, and I think they will be from my future projects. The main problem I have is that it would be unwise to have various copies of my lifeblood floating around the internet; I shall need those copyright manuscripts to make my living. This is still a debate in progress.
  • Various forms of distribution. I am thinking here specifically of ebooks and .pdfs. I would like to have much of my work available free—collections of stories and essays, for example. Of course, making them official ebooks and selling them on Amazon would allow me to track stats in a most satisfying way. More to be thought of here.
  • Social media. I have been reticent on all forms of social media. Now that this website is very much alive, I shall be using them more—with the express purpose of growing the traffic here, and engaging with all those who read (or listen to) my work. I shall be using facebook, twitter and tumblr. As such, any shares, tweets or reblogs on the respective communities is more than graciously received. It is the greatest favour you can do me, other than reading my work. I thank all those who have done it in the past, and pre-emptively thank all those who will do it.

I hope to have provided you with an overview of all that has happened since this website essentially “went offline” for all intents and purposes—and to have explained my plans for its future, which begin today. As my career grows, I see this website becoming even more important: a great writer should welcome the internet. The key is to remember that it should never be intimidating. The internet is a powerful tool, if one is confident; I hope to make this a constant example of such a usage.

Thus, I welcome you to the new lukelabern.com, and invite you to read, share and engage with me here. I hope 2014 is as good a year for you as I am sure it will be for me.