Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Matchstick Men

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Red Right Hand
He went into a rich bookseller's shop,
Quoth he! we are both of one college,
For I myself sate like a cormorant once
Fast by the tree of knowledge.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge - The Devil's Thoughts

L.S. Lowry* - 'Where the viaduct looms like a bird of doom.'

I took a little walk to the edge of town recently. I went across the tracks, inadvisably following in the wake of some unknown force. A ghost, a god, a man, a guru? I haven't been able to ascertain its nature, but I know that its influence is insidious and relentless, and that it's coming for you next. I didn't have to travel far, it should be noted - a couple of clicks and I found myself in a place of closed roads and broken pavements. I could hear you still, far above, travelling the high road. I could just about make out the sound of your traffic over that of the shifting, cracking viaduct of our daily commute.

As I set out to recount this short, fearful journey, I am torn between giving a truthful account or fictionalising the events I witnessed. I have decided to leave the matter open to your interpretation, and simply to preamble my tale with this warning: Any ficitionalisation you perceive is designed to protect you from a grimmer truth.

The first things I noticed there were humming wires channeling secret threats from living room to living room, and twitching net curtains in the windows. Groups of men stood around fires on street corners. They seemed to share their knowledge through codes I could not read. The words they spoke to me were polite, and their directions always truthful as I followed the spectre past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks - but their eyes spoke of mistrust, and the whispers behind my back all sounded like a name (His? Or this disappearing land's?).

Next I came to a forum where actors played upon a stage - comedy or tragedy, I could not tell, but it was clearly scripted. It involved lies and counter-lies, frightful premonitions and light-hearted shrugging, insinuations, innuendo and intolerance. The audience played their part. They were to make an important decision at the end, to choose their own adventure. Both options too, it seemed to me, were already scripted, and neither would offer a satisfactory resolution. I suspect they knew this, but the absence of self-respect is fertile ground for self-loathing and self-deception. The worst of the rhetoric wasn't on the stage but on the far edges of the gathered audience - unheard, unheeded heckling. New groups arrived and others left. I followed some away from this hateful scene, through the ghettos and the barrio and the bowery and the slum, in search of the mysterious shadow.

As I trailed them, I watched arguments and fights break out between some of these groups. It seemed odd to me that they should argue at all, let alone fight. It was clear they had already chosen their favoured outcome and were not to be convinced otherwise. I realised then that they too were scripted, as were their fights, rehearsed in nightmares, in dreams, in heads and on TV screens. Armed only with arguments half-heard from the stage play, which they aped with immaterial inaccuracies, embellishments, and changes of tone, they were as unlikely to be convincing as they were to be convinced. I saw no agency, only microscopic cogs in a catastrophic plan, and I pushed on to find the director and designer of this spectacle.

Finally, I came to the dreadful scene that made me turn back. A body lay in the road around which a crowd had formed. I saw some men hurl abuse at it. I saw others repeat the nonchalant shrug of one of the play's characters. I saw men accused of murder who could not have committed it, and one excused of it before the blood had dried on his hands. I saw men shirk all responsibility, and one man take it all, unafraid. I saw competing groups engage in a tug-of-war with the body until some of the stage actors arrived and reclaimed it as their own, a bit player who would now serve well as a prop. There were mourners too, but true grief is too quiet to make a wire hum.

In my mind, there could be no mistake then that the phantom I'd pursued was the Devil himself, whose darling sin is pride that apes humility. I tried to speak out, but every sound from my mouth drew only ire from all sides. I left, in fear for my safety. Such is that fear that I nearly remained silent altogether, but I have chosen to tell you this tale, teacher, because you and I are the light that went out, down there. Be he ghost, god, man or guru, our absence is what he preys upon, replacing hope with fear. If we allow the wholesale substitution of mimicry for acting and of action for narrative, of soliloquy for dialogue and of fame for talent, of homogeneity for diversity and of popularity for purpose in our classrooms, the parts we don't reach can only grow. They will grow in the shadows of the viaduct we built, until they bring it down.

I came back to tell you this, and found him busy at work on us too. There, upon the viaduct, a stage is erected, and actors come and go upon it proffering false choices. A small crowd has already gathered, cheering and jeering on cue. Will you join them, or will you come back with me, down there below the viaduct, just a couple of clicks away, to start helping those who are lost find their way back?

This Way Up: But faith! he'll turn a corner jinkin, / An' cheat you yet!** 


* L.S. Lowry sketching Stockport Viaduct, from Wellington steps. Copyright: Crispin Eurich. Contact The First Gallery, 1 Burnham Chase, Bitterne, Southampton SO18 5DG Tel. (02380) 462723 email: Margery@TheFirstGallery.com.
** Address to the Devil, Robert Burns, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/address-to-the-devil, accessed 21/06/16. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Numbers In The Dark

With thanks to Italo Calvino

Paolino ran his fingers along the keyboards, trailing his hand behind him as he walked down the bank of computers, then turned to watch each screen light up a soft digital blue. Locked screens shone like barred windows. It was otherwise dark in this room of the office block. His mother was running a vacuum cleaner next door, and he had nearly finished emptying the dustbins, pocketing all the discarded pens and pencils that, for one reason or another, didn't reflect the professional ethos of the company's workers.

As each monitor in turn realised his cruel trick, or grew bored of waiting for an input, and switched back to its dormant black, and the light dimmed in the room, Paolino sat in a chair at the head of the row. Surveying his loot and estimating its playground value, he recalled meeting one of the workers.

"One day, they won't even need us to sit in front of them. They'll do all the work themselves."

"The computers?"

"It's only a matter of time. The algorithms already do all the hard work."


"Don't ask me, kid. I just type in the data we get from the examiners."

"So the computers will type themselves?"

"They won't need to. They'll mark all the papers in the first place. Hell, I'll be damned if they don't teach the children too."

Recently arrived from Italy, whence his father hadn't followed, Paolino was adapting to British culture faster than his mother. He could hear her, next door, singing 'La donna è mobile...'. The humming of the Henry, low, then high, as it moved back and forth across the polyester carpet, provided the rhythm. He was tempted to block the sound out with his Spotify playlist, but another sound interrupted him.

Despite all admonishments from Signora Pensotti, Paolino had remained a stubbornly curious boy. The boredom of his nightly shift shadowing her at work had done nothing to temper this. Having now distinguished the intermittent pacing and furious typing from the steady stream of other sounds filling the nocturnal office block, Paolino would not be deterred from further investigation. The animated cacophony emanated from a small office further down the corridor, and as he moved closer, the muffled stomping and clatttering were complemented by an agitated murmur. The door had no windows, so he waited for a lull and knocked.

"Come in."

Tentatively, Paolino opened the door.

"I'm emptying the dustbins, Sir."

"Please yourself, lad."

The man was older, balding, with a lined, friendly face whose eyes spoke incongruously of deep concern. He sat down and watched as the boy emptied the bin into a large black sack, all the while casting furtive glances around the room.

"You're a nosy one, aren't you?"

"Sorry, Sir."

"It's nothing to apologise for, though it'll get you nowhere. I've been nosy all my life and look where it's got me."

"This is a big company you work for, isn't it, Sir? You're very lucky."

"Ha! A big company, yes."

Paolino could scarce understand it, but he detected a dissonance between the man's laugh and the look in his eyes. The old man, in turn, could see the boy had rumbled him but lacked the language to ask the question that would satiate his curiosity.

"What's your name?"

"Paolino, Sir. Paolino Pensotti. From Italy."

"Well, Paolino Pensotti from Italy, my name is Eddy. Eddy Lorenz from America. It's a pleasure to meet you. I suppose you want to know why I'm so... infuriato."

"Is it because the computers are going to take your job, Mr Lorenz?"

"You are an astute boy, Paolino, but no. It is because they're all wrong."

"The computers are wrong?"

"Right down to their little Pentium cores."

"They make mistakes?"

"Oh, no, Paolino. They perform perfectly, but they were wrong from the start. Look."

Eddy tapped at his keyboard and turned the screen around to face Paolino. He could see a chart. Its red line, with enough small peaks and troughs to bring an image of piranha teeth to his mind, climbed steadily from bottom left to top right of the screen. With another rattle of the keys, the graph disappeared, to be replaced by an endless procession of numbers such as Paolino had never seen.

"These numbers go all the way back to our first data entry clerk. There never was another one like Barbara Blackburn. The most conscientious data entry clerk there's ever been."

The old man sat down and rubbed a hand over his smooth scalp.

"And yet this infallible woman, this genius, on 8 June, 1991, made a mistake. A stupid mistake of two fine grades. A 4a that should have been a 4c. And nobody realised. Only I know about it, and you're the only person I've told. I suppose you could go around telling everyone, and nobody would believe you. You're just a child, but now you know that everything's wrong. Over the years, do you know what that mistake of two fine grades has become? Billions! Billions! The computers can grind out numbers all they like. The mistake is at the core, beneath all their numbers, and it's growing bigger and bigger!"

He turned the monitor back around now, played his keyboard one more time and the machine's whir stopped. The monitor went black. In the shadowy room now lit only by a desk lamp, Paolino could still see numbers dancing in the dark.

"The company's grown big, huge, with thousands of shareholders, subsidiaries around the globe, and all of them grinding out nothing but wrong numbers. Whole nations base their education decisions upon them, erecting school systems to rival each other for a share of the future for their young people. And each one is built on bad foundations, like that famous tower in your homeland. The whole world is distorted by this mistake, the only mistake in the life of Barbara Blackburn, that giant of data entry, that genius of the keyboard."

Eddy Lorenz stood up then. He looked over at the boy and the look in his eyes changed. There was harmony once more in his face. It was all smile as he said: "And do you know what I think? I think she did it on purpose." He grabbed his jacket and walked to the door, looked back and added: "You and I have never met, never known each other." And then he walked out with a gait Paolino thought of as leggiero, humming 'La donna è mobile...'.

After a few moments, Paolino turned off the desk lamp and, dragging his black sack behind him, returned to his mother.

"And where have you been this time, figlio mio?"

"Oh. Just... Being curious."

"You're incorrigible! Now, let's get you home, Paolino. You have school tomorrow."