PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 1984 - JANUARY
2 January 1984
Yes - a simple transition from one year to the next. Not unlike the last transition - the change made easy by the anaesthetising effect of television. But it - television - wasn't as good this year, which made it more difficult to justify the watching. And now, god, just listen to the media, the papers, the television, the radio, all of them obsessed by the four digits 1984 made infamous by Orwell. If he was still alive today he'd need an agent. Can you imagine the number of interview requests that would flood in from all over the world. Horrific. Even media people that do nothing vaguely connected to Orwell find themselves, like me, unable to avoid some comment. I'm not even sure if I've read it - but I seem to know a lot about it. Doublethink and Thought Police.
I've lain in bed a lot over the last ten days, and I've tried to assess the last year, but I don't get very far. My achievements have been on a material plane I suppose and mostly I've consolidated the big changes that took place at the beginning. The house. No complaints there. I enjoy having the space immensely. A lot of the year's leisure time was taken up running around junk shops looking for furniture. There was the change in the job which gave me better conditions but placed me in a less interesting work environment. This is a dead end job and I feel desperate to find more satisfying work, especially now that other areas of my life are improving. In terms of travel, I did a lot. Ireland, Berlin, Antibes, Venice, Paris. I found myself more involved with Bel. Some angst gone - but so was the need to write. Overall, life became duller and safer.
There has been a coup in Nigeria. The coupmasters claim that corruption is chronic in the civilian orders and the country is on the verge of bankruptcy. The recent elections which gave the government a massive majority, they claim, were rigged. The overall feeling, it would be true to say, is that this is a blow of the highest order against democracy in Africa. One World Service commentator noted that power corrupts soldiers just as easily as civilians. But 'The Guardian' carried a story by a leading left Nigerian intellectual describing how undemocratic the democratic elections were and the detailing the extent of corruption in the country.
5 January 1984, Aberystwyth
Most of yesterday I spent driving from London to Maenllwyd. I took the A40 to Oxford and then followed the A34-A44 route to Rhayader. After months and weeks of apprehension over locking myself away with 20 loonies in a barn miles from anywhere on John Crook's Western Zen Retreat - here on referred to as WZR - I finally found myself making the trip with a bootfull of sleeping bags and pullovers. I travelled slowly, determined to take some photographs on the way. It was a pleasant journey but my mind kept returning to WZR and projecting myself into a dozen different scenarios, and how I would act, and what I would say, and whether I would run away. Altogether I'm giving the whole thing too much importance.
The A44 took me through delightful Cotswold villages. I'm not sure I've ever been to the Cotswolds before. I had no memory of the beautiful limestone buildings. Just before reaching the area, though, I pulled up in a lay-by outside Chipping Norton where a spectacular old building looked deserted and deserving of photographs. It was an old factory of sorts, with tower and chimney, and which had once used water power because channels of water - now weeded up - went right up to the factory walls. All the windows were shuttered or boarded up. I was not content to take pictures just from the outside because I had seen from a distance the low sun streaming through the halls of the factory, and felt there would be shapes and patterns and shadows worth catching. I did find a way in, and used up most of the film trying to capture the industrial desolation.
In Worcester a cup of tea cost me ten bob.
So there I was stopped outside the Mid-Wales Tavern to refresh my memory on how to get to Maenllwyd when I noticed, at the top of the paper, that the retreat did not begin until the evening of the 5th - I was a whole day early! I spend some silver in the telephone box where I've stopped to call Bel and tell her about my wasted nervous energy. I resolved to head for Aberystwyth, and, on the way, picked up a hitchhiker. His car had broken down. He manufactures barbed wire.
Now I'm in the National Library of Wales trying to research information about people with remarkable memories. It is a remarkably hard task. For a start there is no subject index, and the various leads through the word 'mnemonic' have led me to useless books, such as 'The Mneme' by Prof Richard Semor. My best leads so far come from Encyclopaedia Britannica. But through the subject index for the London Library I discover there is a French book entitled, in rough translation, 'The psychology of the great calculators'. The 19th century saw some studies of hypermnesia but I haven't managed to trace any yet. Through Swiss Cottage Library I've ordered a translation of a Russian book 'The Mind of the Mnemonist'. The reading room here at the National Library of Wales is full of stripped pine.
10pm Friday 6 January
In the lightless, warmless attic of John Crook's Maenllwyd retreat I write by torchlight whilst others take tea before going to bed. This is the first chance I've had to write anything since arriving. Although we don't talk it's quite claustrophobic. After one day frankly I'm bored. Out of 18, there are only two or three who are not retreat freaks. And the sad truth is that Crook himself is a Buddhist freak. I have just attended what can only be described as a church service - we prayed for all those who suffer in the world! The day was split between walks over the hills (alone) and meditating. We do not talk except to help in some task or other. I feel an unwilling victim of religiousness. More about Zazen, Kundalini and the black sheep fight tomorrow.
A nuclear holocaust dream. An explosion at sea, with a mountain of black cubic rocks rising out of it. I was trying to pretend that nothing was happening but then became aware of radiation arriving. I run to find Bel, so that I can be with her with I we die. I see globules of metal rolling down the banisters of an escalator. And there is some debate in my mind as to whether I/we might get away by catching a plane.
I am writing in patches, scared somebody might come in. For someone reason, I feel guilty about writing this diary.
Ah, we've progressed to Koans. 'Who am I?'. Now there's a dumb question to ask me. I love talking to myself - I mean about myself. Communication sessions they're called. We team up in pairs and for five minutes at a time we listen to each other. My answers are glib. I can say what I like and the other person listens. But the walks are the best. Today I went to a very beautiful old oak forest, where the trees were bare and small - myriad layers of bare twisted branches stretching away in every direction. Oh the freedom granted a hiker by wellingtons. Fearlessly I walk through swamp and stream, cowshit and mud. I can go anywhere.
Had a little talk with guru Crook who told me to concentrate on spaciousness and not worry too much about the Buddhism. I'm being a good boy, but the meditations seem increasingly purposeless.
So far, I've engaged with Ralph who I like. A social worker in Plymouth, he truly came here to get away from it all. There's another guy - I can't remember his name - who's higher up in the hierarchy to enlightenment because his koan is 'What is my true nature?' He talked about not expecting the flash of enlightenment, just waiting patiently till it comes!
Now we're getting into the full swing of the communications sessions and I fear that unless I fly I'll swing. The breakfast bell has gone, I must run. Outside it is white with cold. I have a pain in my lungs.
The communication sessions have taken over. There are a million and one ways of defining who I am, but old Crook says it is not a definition we want but an experience. In these sessions, I find myself trying to tailor my answers to the person who sits before me. Mike is a bit of an ostentatious buddha, he's the one who's always asking for more meditation instead of rest. With him I found myself talking in metaphors because I thought he'd like them. Then after Mike I had the orange person, the one who talks about love. The food is good and the atmosphere polite. The attic where I sleep is damp.
My head begins to ache. I feel very weary but next up is Bhagwan-style dynamic meditation. That's much more exertion again. The spontaneous ah-ha experiences, as Crook puts it, have begun. But they all come from confirmed ah-ha experiencers. It's so similar to the conversion experience I experienced around the Christian circuit when I was young. The teacher/mentor/missionary inspires complete confidence that something will happen which paves the way for it to happen. And, it never struck me before how similar the chanted mantra 'om' is to the sung 'amen' in Christian prayers.
The end is in sight. Yesterday was a miserable day, with the question 'Who am I?' ringing endlessly. The clouds came over and brought snow and darkness, and my head tensed up in response. Today, it is lighter and airier. This morning I had interview no 2 with Crook. He asked me who I was. Is there no other question in this world? I told him it was a secret. This was an ah-ha experience I had this morning during the Tibetan humming. (Tibetan monks skim over their mantras tending to hum the words rather than read them. I recall my visit to the monastery near Leh, and humming isn't a bad description for what the monks do. But it seemed very banal, and monotonous.) So I told him it was a secret and then he asked me if I really knew who I was. I said yes.
I know distinctly who I am, and did so with clarity before I came. Here, however, I've looked at the question from dozens of different angles, and lost sight of the clarity because, because I've felt a need to resolve certain areas of my life. However, it's fairly clear they can't be resolved simply. Perhaps it would be useful to list these areas of 'Who am I?' that are significant. The secret - the man who can't let loose information about himself except in a controlled sense. The negative - the man who sees through everybody's game, ascribing it to pointlessness. The selfish lover - the man who only gives when there's equal or greater return. Endless metaphors come to mind from the countryside - rivers I can't cross, streams I can't find the source of, footprints in the snow - oh do go on.
It's the last evening and I've skipped the action yoga - all that pumping of the lungs. Ralph has skipped too, and we sit like small boys, playing truant, whispering in the dormitory.
We've packed our bags and put them in the cars. In a few hours we leave for our separate lives. The bell has gone. We must to our last Zazen session. Zazen is simple meditation - an emptying of the mind and letting thoughts happen. Watching.
Wednesday 11 January
Crook came through with a heavily religious message in the end, asking us to take back into our environment what we had learned and to apply it. It seems the religious aspect of Buddhism keeps him going - the will to make the world a better place, to at least use one's power and influence in that direction. I think he sees the need for Buddhism, for such a universal good, because otherwise there would be no reason for what he does.
On the first day I think it was I saw two black sheep having a fight. Facing each other head on they took a couple of steps back, a couple of steps forward, paused, and then locked heads for a few seconds. They repeated this ritual several times. I never knew sheep to be so active. Who am I? A sheep trying not to be a sheep.
There was plenty of mirth yesterday concerning our re-entry, so to speak, into ordinary life. But indeed the metamorphosis from Paul the monk to Paul the chemicals reporter was not been difficult. Leaving Maenllwyd I was quite stoned on consciousness but it soon wore off. I can't resist telling colleagues/friends the details. In one sense they are amusing. Now, here in the office, I don't feel anything strong about the week. I say to people it was worth doing, it was different and that Crook was a lovely man. I know that it is easy to dress oneself in a cloak of saintliness, but it is much less easy to retain mastery and to make oneself vulnerable as well. He kept remarkable control and direction through the five days, never for a moment appearing to be anywhere but with the group. Here's my summary of the people involved: Crook the wise; Mike the ostentatious; Di the reckless; Ralph the friend, the wit, the orange; Pat the cook, the giver, the doctor; John the disciple, the treeman, the hillman; George the elder, the talker, the smiler, the grinner.
At the office I have a new boss, and he wants my room. Trotter is now in charge of our world. It means more direction in our work, but more of it, work as well that is.
Joining the British Library was easy this time. No hassle. They gave me a card for five years.
Thursday 12 January
Place an orange in a cage of house flies and the flies continue to buzz around as if nothing had happened. However place an orange which has had its skin slit into a cage of house flies and they go crazy, dying eventually some hours later. Driving along a country road, a pheasant flies out of the hedgerow immediately across the path of my car at windscreen level. Instinctively, I shield my face - the presence of the car is completely unknown to my instinct.
Sunday 15 January
THE MODERN WOMAN
The likes of the modern woman is in confusion. I have written before about the turmoil and conflict in women I know, and especially how a few years ago they accepted pornography as a liberating vehicle but now have turned through 180 degrees to hold the opposite view. Well, Germaine Greer has jumped on the bandwagon. In a leading article in 'The Sunday Times' review, she confesses to the world that women are no better off because of the sexual revolution. She kicks out at contraception and free love deciding for no sex instead of bad sex. I went to see 'Masterpieces' by Sarah Daniels at the Royal Court. It was billed as a play about pornography. I found it about five years outdated, and totally lacking in perspective. It was aimed at agit-prop support, and made simplistic connections between misogynist jokes, pornography and snuff movies.
Of the recent slides I've had developed, the only ones with any potential are not of Berlin or Venice but of the Willesden cemetery. I took some close-ups of gravestones with autumn fallen leaves. The shape and colour of the leaves form a rich contrast with the stark grey white of the stone. I thought to take some pictures through the seasons and tie them up with the pictures of the funeral directors. Also I look for ways of reviving my interest in B&W and how to make interesting the oft-seen views of the high road. How to immortalise Kilburn in photography. Also . . . I'm wondering whether there'll be a revival of still-life art. Shall I photograph my typewriter, my bowl of fruit, my ruffled duvet?
Monday 23 January
A week full of visitors.
I spent most of the weekend busying myself with the house. I cut up and bracketed the old pine table and fixed it to the kitchen wall so I now have a good working surface. The other major task of the weekend concerned my new encyclopaedias. During the week, I'd advertised (in the personal column of 'The Daily Telegraph') for a modernish edition of the E.B. At 7:30am one morning, the phone rang and I answered it half asleep. An old woman's jittery voice asked me to be so kind as to tell Mr Williams, if he should ring, that Sarah Cox was thinking of him. Before I could say anything the nervous voice had told me that Mrs Williams was quite ill. I asked what this had to do with me. She then asked me if I didn't know, and I said no. She apologised and rang off. Later on a chatty scatty woman rang. I went round and she sold me the latest edition in perfect condition for £225. Anyhow, they needed housing. Jo Sinclair gave me a bookshelf - a simple rugged thing but mostly wood. It's perfect. I rearranged the study and by evening it was completely lined with books.
Finally, after endless searches, I found a book about people with extraordinary memories. Fred Barlow wrote a book in 1951 called 'Mental Prodigies'. The bulk of the book is about human calculators but there's plenty about memorists too, and lots of leads. I haven't spent long looking at it yet, but it's already clear to me that many of the people found to have remarkable memories were considered in general to be idiots in other ways.
Wednesday 26 Jan
I was bored today in work today, and I didn't have my journal with me, so I wrote a poem:
This poetry dies some lives For I have known it do so And leave the body living For comfort and death are twins Attired as foes but wearing the same expression
Andy comes in and we talk about careers. He is eight years my junior but maturer than I was at his age. But he has the advantage of knowing and listening to elders. Nobody ever talked to me in the way I talk to him (or I never listened), adviceful so to speak. I talk to him about being directionless, yet he sees me as a strong and independent individual. It's comforting but of little other use since one's opinion of oneself depends completely on where one sets one's norms.
Opposition to Maggie T grows in the back benches. Heath seems to be enjoying a resurgence of popularity, and Pym is sharpening his wet claws. Friction is arising at the interface between central and local government. The so-called rate-capping bill has drawn the wet's voice and abolition of the metropolitan councils is likely to do the same. The government feels a need to curb the spending power of local authorities and to curb the power of larger city conglomerates, particularly the GLC. The GLC is, of course, mounting a strong campaign in its own defence - as any organism would fight against extinction. The powers of the GLC, it is proposed, will be dispersed among the boroughs and, where necessary, quangos set up to run services. I think the GLC has brought a spark of life to the capital. Buskers in the tubes, festivals on the South Bank, a more efficient transport network. When Livingstone first took over he needed taming - but he was tamed and now he's doing a good job. I would not want to lose the City Lit, which is funded by the GLC (my class was cancelled because of a demonstration against the government's proposals. On the other hand, I would be fairly happy to see Brent Council's attempts to extort a record percentage of rates out of homeowners harnessed.
All my leads towards persons with remarkable memories fizzled out. I looked at four of the books referred to in 'Mental Prodigies' by Fred Barker only to discover that Fred had sucked all the relevant info out of them. There was nowhere else to go. For example, the most interesting possibility was a book by Prof E E Wood called 'Memory Training'. I knew it contained a chapter entitled 'The Memory Men of India', but when I eventually got hold of it, I found Fred had reproduced all of it. So I've still found nothing about the mind of a man incapable of forgetting.
Andrew and Rosie dropped by lat night. How nice that friends still ring the doorbell uninvited. We talk a lot of housy housy business, about tax and mortgages.
Sunday 29 January 1984
From the Swiss Cottage library I finally receive a book 'The Mind of a Mnemonist' by A R Luria, and this is more or less what I've been looking for. It is a detailed study of a man, called S, with a remarkable memory for facts and strings of objects or numbers or just words. But more than just looking at what he could do, the book analyses how he did it, how his mind worked and how it affected his personality. The book purports to be about the man as well as his ability, but, in fact, apart from a glancing mention of his family, it tells us little about his life, and relations with people. But, but, but it tells a lot more than any other book.
The line, 'And all manner of things shall be well', from Elliot has been surfacing in my head.
I finished reading William Golding's 'Pincher Martin', although I never summoned sufficient concentration to do it justice. He is a brilliant writer. The book tells, in exact detail, of the few days of experienced by a shipwrecked man on a bare rock in the ocean. I made bridges to Becket's work. There was no restriction of language as in contemporary Becket, but the bareness of subject was similar and there was some repetition that reminded me of Becket. It might be called a neo-realist style, where everything described in detail is important. In the case of Golding's story, everything is plausible but the detail of body movements and rock shapes is unnatural. His writing is as clean as a whistle and saunters melodically. It is music, perfectly constructed and imaginatively composed.
Monday 30 January
There is a new series on Channel Four called 'The Heart of the Dragon'. It is a 12-13 part series about China. The first programme attempted to encompass all of China's history from Confucious to Mao. It was a simple synthesis of the evolution of the people and emperor. But most startling, most mind boggling, most mind blowing, was to see the camera pan across the intact revelations of a tomb 2,200 years old. An entire army was buried with its emperor, its horses and servants, and with clay replicas of them all which exist intact today. Extraordinary. I remember seeing magazine articles about its discovery. The film also informed me about the chaos caused by Mao and how China came to a virtual standstill when he died - yet he is still worshipped and revered. Like Eva Peron. How manipulable people are when they are powerless. The great strength of Britain is its ponderous evolution of democracy. The people here have more power than most countries in the world. OK, I, personally, feel powerless in relation to the other 50 million on this island but those who have more power than me are accountable. The right is ours - important point - but more important we have the knowledge of that right in our hands. Breed democracy slowly and it is a weighty bureaucracy of good. I feel drawn to mention this night's 'Panorama' as well - simply because it's fresh in my mind. It was entitled 'Maggie's Militant Tendency' and examined the links between the right wing of the Conservative Party and the neo-Nazi fascist organisations that exist in Britain (one, Focal Point, I think, is run by a historian David Irving). Here is an example of democracy disallowing any deviation from democracy. It is a powerful entrenched democracy because it believes in openness of government. It is very difficult for anti-democratic elements to grow; they are hounded out of sight as soon as they are large enough to warrant a newspaper article or 'Panorama' programme.
Andraz came round and we talked about the usual things. I gave him frankfurters and potato salad. He's so funny, not being able to eat anything spicy and declining tea and coffee after five in the afternoon because it hinders him sleeping. He wears a mammoth fur hat with flops and a chunky leather jacket. I devised an ad for 'The Bookseller' to try and find him some map drawing work but it didn't attract a single call.
Paul K Lyons
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