Be The Miracle
Fearful sceptics have bewitched us into believing that it’s absurd to believe in humanity, their perverted tyranny twisting our minds such that a show of solidarity from a stranger is ‘a miracle’
And welcome to the afterglow.
There’s train strikes this week: 40,000 rail workers united to protect their pay and working conditions against extraction by private shareholders.
In January, rail minister Huw Merriman admitted that, not only would it have been cheaper to settle the dispute months ago, but that the negotiations were being used to suppress the pay of all public sector key workers, including teachers and nurses. Ouch.
But that’s all by the by.
For the purposes of this story, the train strike merely explains why I was in my car at Southampton Airport Parkway and why vehicle delivery driver Arthur was standing on the M27 slip road holding his red trade plates.
I checked my mirrors and thought, ‘That’s a crap place to hitch,’ before pulling over and hitting my hazards.
Arthur ran up, pulled the door and chucked himself into the passenger seat.
He’d forgotten about the strike and found himself stranded after delivering a Motorway car to their depot in Eastleigh.
‘I don’t normally hitchhike,’ he said. ‘It was only fifteen minutes, but I had a bad feeling standing there — I’m very grateful.’
Arthur’s next job was to pick up a Hyundai Ioniq from an industrial estate outside Poole and take it up to Tamworth — a 180 mile drive in an electric car with 106 miles’ charge.
‘Normally I don’t touch electrics — something always happens and you’re left sitting around for hours. I didn’t clock this one.’
Seeing as I was on my way back to Bournemouth anyway, it was easy to save Arthur any more trouble. And I got to learn a little about the vehicle delivery trade.
For Arthur, it was all about supplementing his pension and getting him out of the house. A long day for £230.
This isn’t his usual patch. He normally operates in the band of territory south of Birmingham and north of London — ‘It’s much easier when you know where you are. I haven’t been to Poole since my honeymoon, 1975.’
Arthur’s phone rang: ‘Yes, love?’
His partner, Chris, was checking in and I got to hear Arthur’s take on his morning.
‘No, thanks, love, I’m fine, it’s all good now. This chap’s picked me up and I’m on the move. Good thing too — I was feeling a bit down back there, stood on the side of the motorway. Then along comes this miracle.’
I laughed. Not a bad way to start my day, being called a miracle. But it also made me wonder how we’ve come to be ruled by sceptics.
Arthur was standing on the side of a road rushing with cars driving his way. Every single one could have picked him up. It should be no surprise — much less a miracle — that someone stopped for him inside quarter of an hour. And yet he’d been anxious.
Sceptics are those who doubt their own humanity and the humanity of others.
Sceptics are those who believe that we’re not all in it together, that we’re not all playing for the same Team Human, that, contrary to all evidence, we’re not sociable animals, our nervous systems constantly regulating to each other.
I’m currently reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn Of Everything. It’s a remarkable work that will transfuse into my stories over the coming years. But one idea jumped out today: we humans are only fully self-conscious when we’re talking, laughing, rolling, relating with others.
But sceptics would rather believe that we’re each autonomous and independent economic units, acting in our own self-interest to the exclusion of others, certainly others beyond our immediate genetic milieu.
They couldn’t be more blatantly, even biologically, wrong, but somehow their scepticism has cast a spell over society.
Fearful sceptics have bewitched us into believing that it’s absurd to believe in humanity, their perverted tyranny twisting our minds such that a show of solidarity from a stranger is ‘a miracle’.
The good news is that the journey from false sceptic to true believer is no more than a single step.
All you need do is pronounce the believer’s creed: ‘I believe in my own humanity and the humanity of others’ and you’re ready to perform what those ridiculous sceptics have convinced us are fantastic miracles.
Of course, we can’t be miracles to everyone we cross, not all day every day. But keep your eyes open, hold out a hand, drop a smile and, from time to time, be the miracle.
For those of you new to these pages, hello 👋 My name is David and I’m a writer, outdoor instructor and cyclist-at-large with Thighs of Steel. I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better.
Sometimes I pick up hitchhikers.
Welcome to edition 352.
Writing In Public: Memory & Desire
While discussing the relationship between my favourite Heraclitus quote and cycling around Britain for the second time, a two-time acquaintance suggested I read a short article by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.
The four pages of Notes on memory and desire (1967) are clearly written for the psychoanalyst, but are fertile ground for anyone hoping to write a bicycling memoir.
‘Memory,’ Bion declares, ‘is always misleading as a record of fact.’
Meanwhile, opines Bion: ‘Desires distort judgement by selection and suppression of material to be judged.’
Again, horribly accurate: the halo effect being just one of a panoply of cognitive biases where our desires corrupt our conclusions.
Memory & Desire = Bad Bad?
Bion is pretty damning about the effect of memory and desire on the workings of psychoanalysis:
Memory and Desire exercise and intensify those aspects of the mind that derive from sensuous experience.
However inconvenient the distortions of memory and desire may be for psychoanalysts, they are good things for the writers of bicycling memoirs.
Cycling around the coast of Britain is indeed a sensuous experience and anything that intensifies that experience can only help the sensationalist storyteller.
Stories would be pretty dull if the writer’s fallible memory didn’t trim the facts, nor desire distort, select and suppress.
However: where Bion gets interesting is in his discussion of the ride itself, especially for those of us who repeatedly cover the same ground.
Staying Present = Improv?
Bion uses the metaphor of the psychoanalytic session, but I’m pretty sure he was talking about cycling around Britain twice when he wrote:
sessionbike ride attended by the psychoanalystbicyclist must have no history and no future.
What is ‘known’ about
the patientBritain is of no further consequence: it is either false or irrelevant. […] The only point of importance in any sessionbike ride is the unknown. Nothing must be allowed to distract from intuiting that. […]
psychoanalystbicyclist should aim at achieving a state of mind so that at every sessionride he feels he has not seen the patientBritain before. If he feels he has, he is treatingriding the wrong patientride.
Staying present is not only the work of the psychoanalyst, but also the bicycling memoirist and, of course, our old friend Heraclitus:
No man can step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
Every landscape, every town, every human and beastly interaction is happening for the first time, every time, and the ride is an embedded, embodied improvisation: ‘Yes, and…’
Improv, like a good bike ride, only works when you’re open, creative, responsive and curious — four ways of saying the same thing — to what’s inside you, what’s around you, and to your partners and props on the stage.
SIDE BAR: Keith Johnstone, RIP
Keith Johnstone, who taught so many actors, directors and comedians the games of improvisation, died last week.
There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.
That’s a quote from Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (neat summary here by James Clear).
Impro For Storytellers, his second book, perceptibly changed my life after picking it up at random from a shelf at Oxford library in 2003. The subtitle is ‘The Art Of Making Things Happen’. It works.
There is, of course, more to improv than The Cult Of Yes, And... As Keith Johnstone points out in this 2017 interview, ‘a story that only says yes is a very limited story form […] A master improviser can do what they like’.
The point is to help your partner in the improvisation, not to try to screw them up. A lesson worth holding onto. Thanks, Keith.
Staying Present With Notes
The only difference between a good improviser and a writer is that the writer takes notes. Which Bion would have hated.
Somewhat grumpily, Bion declares that notes should be ‘confined to matters that can be recorded’, i.e. bugger all.
Instead, Bion commands us to obey his number one rule:
Do not remember past
sessionsbike rides. The greater the impulse to remember what has been said or done, the more the need to resist it. […]
The supposed events must not be allowed to occupy the mind. Otherwise the evolution of the
sessionbike ride will not be observed at the only time when it can be observed — while it is taking place.
Here, from time to time, the bicycling memoirist must respectfully disagree.
Writing, on my typewriter, eyes up, following the fluency of my fingers, helps me observe and recall my experience of the world around me in more detail, not less.
Like this, from my ride diary back on 2 August 2020:
Sunny lanes. Pandora told me about how Airbnb is ruining Athens so she can’t live in the areas she used to. She also told me about Halloween Alley Cat Races.
We detoured through a prison and passed another group of cyclists.
‘What were those cyclists pointing at?’ she asked.
‘They’re turning right,’ I said.
Nothing serves noticing more than notating. And nothing serves the reader more than writers who notice.
From Desire To Curiosity
I’ll leave you with a note on how Bion’s desecration of desire pertains to the bicycling memoirist.
Bion’s second rule for psychoanalysts is this:
Desires for results, ‘cure’ or even understanding must not be allowed to proliferate.
My initial response was YES. Desire for a particular result takes us out of an experience.
I teared up reading the end of Mark Beaumont’s book about his round the world record attempt, but that was the tension release triggered by the climax of a hard-fought result. His desire for the world record overtook any sense of experience: I remember nothing of his ride and I suspect he scarcely does either.
The reason I rode around Tunisia the year after I first cycled the coast of Britain was precisely because I wanted to take it more slowly and prove to myself that I could indulge experience over ‘getting there’.
Irritatingly, Bion would seem to be correct again: desire interferes with experience.
Then I paused: is this not a cop-out?
Freed from spontaneous impulses of desire, the bicycling memoirist is also excused from courage to retreat into their shell of individual experience.
A sign pointing the way to Twatt Church. A conversation overheard. A rumour passed around of a quarry camp. The salt wash scent of the ocean. The intriguingly lengthy queue for a hot stone bakery.
Are these petty squirts of desire not also the ripe ingredients of adventure?
There is nuance to Bion’s declaration. Yes, desire for a particular result takes us out of an experience, but it must be distinguished from our healthy desire to experience more: it must be distinguished from our curiosity.
Desire is forcing our way into a house: never going to end in anything better than a cricket bat to the belly. Curiosity is gently pushing on the door and seeing whether it opens, with a smile.
Thanks to everyone who responded to my first Writing In Public post on Coasting. Thanks in advance if your mouse is right now hovering over the Reply button.
Special thanks to two-time acquaintance CW for introducing me to the insane ideas of Wilfred Bion and for leading me through my own memory and desire.
Days Of Adventure 2023: 8
Three Small Big Things At The End
1. The Progress Network
You already read a newsletter that comes out on a Friday 🥰, here’s one that comes out on a Thursday.
We don’t have to wait for a media transformation away from scaremongering to start believing that we have agency over where society goes.
The Progress Network is the reason I found this article: The UK now ranks as one of the most socially liberal countries in Europe – new research.
This data is based on the World Values Survey, which also found that, among citizens of wealthy nations, the British have some of the most positive views of immigration.
2. QUIZ! Are You Smarter Than ChatGPT-4?
Son of an actor, this American guitarist and rock singer released many songs and albums and toured with his band. His name is ‘Elvis’ what?
Your options are:
His name is Elvis Presley
3. Bracket Fungi
Credit: Marin Mushrooms on Instagram.
That’s all for this week. I feel very lucky that I get to sit here and write to all 542 of you, picking up these words from 50 countries around the world.
Thank you for reading and I hope you found something to take away with you.
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There’s also a tier where you can pay £50 or more. Whatever you choose, thank you.