Around the World in Eight Hours

Below is the full thread of my mini-adventure on 29 April 2022, an analogue for Phileas Fogg’s famed voyage, but contained within central London. I’m truly grateful for the enthusiasm people showed for it!
It’s 150 years this year since Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days. Today I shall embark on my own voyage of homage, on foot, visiting places related in some way to every country Phileas Fogg went to. But the twist is it’s all in central London. #londonfogg 🧵 Image
So at 10am I bring you: Around the World in Eight Hours. I blame @politic_animalfor catalysing this misadventure with his #bus24 and #train24 voyages. Please follow this thread or #londonfogg to watch my knees give out over 20+ miles of London walking…
With London being such a cosmopolitan city, on this tiring trek by foot I hope to show you some interesting corners of history, literature and geography. Google says my route will be at least 21.6 miles and take 7 hours and 27 mins (with no stops). The game’s afoot… #londonfogg
The adventure begins at the Reform Club, where Phileas Fogg fictionally agreed to wager that he could circumnavigate the world – in the age of rail and steamers – within 80 days. (Trollope’s similarly named 1867 novel Phineas Finn also features the club. Phishy?) #londonfoggImage
The Reform Club (Verne: “a huge building in Pall Mall”) was founded by political progressives in 1836, supporters of the Reform Act 1832, which improved access to the vote (unless you were female or poor…). The premises still here was modelled on a palace in Rome. #londonfoggImage
After Phileas made his £20,000 wager, he had to pack – well, his servant Passepartout did. “We’ll have no trunks; only a carpet-bag, with two shirts and three pairs of stockings for me, and the same for you…” – so first he went home to 7 Savile Row. #londonfoggImage
Verne wrongly said 7 Savile Row had been playwright Sheridan’s address (that was No. 14, later home to fashion designer Hardy Amies) but he was right that these 1730s houses formed “a fashionable address”. In Fogg’s era the Royal Geographical Society was at No. 1. #londonfoggImageImage
This is my #londonfogg version of Passepartout, by the way: a document wallet with some spare socks! 🧦 Image
Kazakhstan already! Oops, wrong story. #londonfoggImage
Fogg and Passepartout only had 10 minutes to pack, before dashing (by cab) to nearby Charing Cross station. (Google says it will have taken me 29 minutes to get here from the Reform Club via Savile Row – I’ve done it in 26) #londonfoggImageImage
Distances from London are measured from the site of Charing Cross (see #bus24!), originally the last of the Eleanor crosses built by the mourning Edward I in 1294 and destroyed by Cromwell. The nearby cross here now is a Victorian fiction, like Phileas Fogg himself. #londonfoggImage
Fogg dashed to Dover (London has a Dover Street with many cultural links, with past lodgers including Anne Lister of Gentleman Jack fame and Chopin, plus the world’s first telephone call was made at Brown’s Hotel) but let’s head for France. #londonfogg
Oops: I’ve already dropped my scribbled itinerary somewhere! Let’s hope I can rely on the Baedeker of my mind. #londonfogg
How to represent France in London? South Kensington is something of a French quarter now. There were the Huguenots of Spitalfields. Or there’s Paris Garden near Blackfriars (but south of the river so not allowed). But instead I have opted for a 0.9 mile dash to… #londonfogg
Petty France (from ‘Petit’). This was another Huguenot settlement, of wool merchants. It later became York Street after one of the less controversial Dukes of York but it reverted to the original in 1925. It was the first London street to be paved for walkers like me. #londonfoggImage
John Milton, Jeremy Bentham and William Hazlitt all lived in this house (not at once 🙂). The passport (Passepartout?) office was in Petty France 1952-2002. The brutalist Ministry of Justice is here today. #londonfoggImageImage
London offers a bottomless well of international stories – here’s one found in passing in St James’s Square en route to my second French area… #londonfoggImage
Where gaslighters congregate? #londonfoggImage
But we can see a bit more of France and a first taste of Italy, both in Soho, where French and Italian communities have had long links (and long drinks). French Huguenots settled here in the late 17th C. and the 1893 French church is still in Soho Square. #londonfoggImage
The French House in Dean Street has only had its name since 1984 but as the York Minster it was still known as the French pub for decades. After France fell to the Nazis in WW2, Charles de Gaulle hung out here (as many boozy London writers and artists did later). #londonfoggImage
Oh and let’s not forget Maison Bertaux in Greek Street, whose founder fled Paris in 1871, just a year before Phileas Fogg travelled through the city by train. #londonfoggImage
London still has an Italian quarter and that’s where I’m off to next – but on the way here’s a sign of another of London’s Italian communities, still in Soho, where political refugees began to gather in the 1860s. (Gloucester Road has an Italian bookshop, BTW.) #londonfoggImage
Five miles walked so far, slightly ahead of (lost) schedule, fuelled by a delicious pain au choc from Bertaux. #londonfogg
St Peter’s Italian Church, opened 1863, is a focal point for London’s Little Italy, around Clerkenwell Road and Saffron Hill, and is modelled on a basilica in Rome. This area even had a local Godfather, Charles Sabini, 1888-1950 (he popped up in Peaky Blinders). #londonfoggImage
(Side note: apparently saffron was originally grown in Saffron Hill in the 14th century to disguise the taste of the rancid meat eaten by Londoners! It was later where Dickens set Fagin’s den. #londonfogg) Image
Phileas Fogg hurtled through Turin and down to Brindisi for the steamer to Suez. London has a Turin Street in Bethnal Green and a Turin Road in Edmonton – too far for me today – but not even a building that I can find named after Brindisi. Prove me wrong! #londonfogg
On the theme of London streets, London has adjacent ones named after Fogg’s next two destinations: Suez Road & Aden Road, in distant Enfield (plus Suez Avenue, Brentford & Aden Grove, Stoke Newington). But my Egypt – 1.7 miles from St Peter’s – takes me south-west… #londonfogg
Thanks to British obsession with Egypt since the late 18th century, London has many connections with or nods to (or looted artefacts from) Egypt. I could hotfoot to Cleopatra’s Needle, Richmond Avenue in Islington or Highgate Cemetery, say, but instead I’ve come to… #londonfogg
The rather modest entrance of 170-3 Piccadilly, called Egyptian House. Today it is aptly home to the Egyptian State Tourist Office – but this 1906 building stands on the site of a London phenomenon: the Egyptian Hall, built here a century beforehand. #londonfoggImage
Egyptian Hall – London’s 1st ‘Egyptian’ building – was created by collector William Bullock (whose Liverpool Museum had been nearby), and packed with art and relics. In Fogg’s era it hosted the celebrated magicians and debunkers of spiritualism Maskelyne & Cooke. #londonfoggImage
(Apparently the two statues in the previous picture still exist, guarding the private goods lift of the Museum of London! #londonfogg)
Phileas Fogg steamed through the Suez Canal, which had only opened 3 years before his fictional visit, and down the Red Sea to Aden, which was then an outpost of British India. Today it’s the capital of Yemen. London has a Yemeni Community Association in Kingston. #londonfoggImage
But my canal will have to be the 1801 Paddington Basin, and my Yemen is represented nearby – London’s only Yemeni restaurant, the Queen of Sheba in Bouverie Place. (‘Monsieur Bouverie, c’est moi?’) The legendary biblical queen is claimed by both Ethiopia and Yemen. #londonfoggImage
Fogg got his visa stamped in Aden & promptly returned to playing whist. But his servant took more interest: “Passepartout… sauntered about among the mixed population of Somalis, Banyans, Parsees, Jews, Arabs and Europeans who comprise the 25,000 inhabitants of Aden” #londonfogg
11 miles walked so far – feet hurt! But am only 1 minute behind schedule 🥾#londonfogg
After Aden, Fogg continued his voyage by sea to Bombay (Mumbai) and then by train (& elephant) to Allahabad and Calcutta (Kolkata). London has a Bombay Street in Bermondsey and Calcutta Road in Tilbury, but my longest stretch of the day (2.8 miles) takes me to… #londonfogg
India House at Aldwych is home to the High Commission of India, in geographical terms incongruously next to Australia House. India House opened in 1930 and is adorned with emblems for the 12 provinces of the British Raj era. #londonfoggImageImage
Getting the train to Southall would perhaps be more Indian, more fun and more tasty. Another time! Though thank you @huel for inventing a meal I can have on the hoof. #londonfogg
Fogg left India by steamer, down through another vital shipping channel, the Strait of Malacca, to Singapore. London’s Singapore spots are the High Commission in Wilton Crescent & the nondescript Tourism Board in Regent Street, which I’m taking as the easy option. #londonfoggImage
Verne noted: “The island of Singapore is not imposing in aspect, for there are no mountains; yet its appearance is not without attractions… the town… is a vast collection of heavy-looking, irregular houses, surrounded by charming gardens rich in tropical fruits…” #londonfogg
And thence to Hong Kong – a British colony from 1842 to 1997 – and Shanghai. The obvious – and nearby! – place for me to go is London’s Chinatown, centred on Gerrard Street (a street with connections to John Dryden, Dr Johnson and Joshua Reynolds). #londonfoggImage
Verne: “Docks, hospitals, wharves, a Gothic cathedral, a government house, macadamised streets, give to Hong Kong the appearance of a town in Kent or Surrey transferred by some strange magic to the antipodes.” Chinatown maybe offers the same magic t’other way around. #londonfoggImage
London’s real Chinese history was focused in Limehouse in the East End, home to many Chinese sailors (and the Victorian fascination with opium dens) until bombing in the Blitz. Modern Chinatown only dates from the 1950s. Its 2016 gate is in the Qing dynasty style. #londonfoggImage
Another short hop brings me to the Japan Centre in Panton Street, a food hall and retail centre which has been here since 1976. (Crouch Hill has a Japan Crescent; the Japan House cultural and design centre is in Kensington; Holland Park has the Kyoto Zen garden.) #londonfoggImage
(Some Japanese London trivia for you: in 1921 Crown Prince Hirohito sat for a portrait at Augustus John’s house in Chelsea. And the Albert Hall hosted the first ever sumo wrestling tournament outside Japan, in 1991. #londonfogg)
Verne describes Yokohama as “where all the mail-steamers, and those carrying travellers… put in” and Passepartout enjoys its “sacred gates of a singular architecture, bridges half hid in the midst of bamboos and reeds, temples shaded by immense cedar-trees…” #londonfogg
The Tardis ain’t what it used to be. #londonfoggImage
From Yokohama, Fogg took a 20-day crossing to San Francisco, and thence across the USA to New York by rail. I fancy a drink at the American Bar in the Savoy – but it’s shut. (Luckily I checked before committing my feet.) #londonfogg
Other slices of America in London include Benjamin Franklin’s house on Craven Street; various properties in Grosvenor Square have US links (including the former embassy, now in Nine Elms); and Joe Allen’s restaurant founded in 1977. But I’m off to the City… #londonfogg
My feet asked me to take this pic. 18 miles so far. Still on target though. #londonfoggImage
More slices of London history. #londonfoggImageImage
Seething Lane. Crutched Friars. My feet really are making a point now. #londonfoggImage
America Square is now dominated by modern buildings but it was originally built 1768-1774 by George Dance the Younger, it seems to celebrate Britain’s colonies in America and house some of their merchants and sea captains. Banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild lived here. #londonfoggImageImage
A stone obelisk stood in its centre, at least until the 1950s. The square survived the Blitz, but a 1944 V-1 strike caused major damage and no original buildings survive. Roman walls were rediscovered during construction of 1990 office complex One America Square. #londonfogg
Sadly I couldn’t access the chunk in the basement but the office manager has kindly just taken me round the corner to this. #londonfoggImageImage
And in a nearby building, this! #londonfoggImageImage
(Verne: On arriving in San Francisco “Passepartout observed with much curiosity the wide streets, the low, evenly ranged houses, the Anglo-Saxon Gothic churches, the great docks, the palatial wooden and brick warehouses, the numerous conveyances… #londonfogg)
From America, Fogg went by steamer to Ireland, then took the train from Queenstown to Dublin. The City of London has Ireland Yard, where Shakespeare bought a house in 1613, and 9 years earlier some of the Gunpowder Plot plotters had plotted. But I’m not going there… #londonfogg
Here’s the London Stone, psychically propping up the metropolis, in a happier location now than last time I saw it years ago. #londonfoggImageImage
London has Queenstown Road and Dublin Avenue. Nope, not there either. The north London Irish community of Kilburn is too far, as is the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith. Instead, my feet take me to… #londonfogg
What *claims* to be the first ever Irish pub outside Ireland. A sign used to say it was founded c.1700 by Mooney & Son at the Boar’s Head, 66 Fleet Street – and the first to serve Guinness. But the plaque outside was riddled with fictions… #londonfoggImage
Now it seems the sign has gone and – I wasn’t expecting this – the pub is no more. A dusty Mooney carving marks the doorstep. So it goes. #londonfoggImage
The site was also associated with the Bolt-in-Tun inn next door, and only became Mooney’s Irish House in 1895 & The Tipperary c.1968 (not after WW1 as claimed). An excellent article by @zythophiliac(…) provides the facts behind the… blarney. #londonfogg
Signs of old Fleet Street types. #londonfoggImageImage
Back to Britain. Fogg landed in Liverpool (London’s Liverpool Street & Road were actually named after early 19th C. prime minister Lord Liverpool, who had chuff all to do with the place). His train would have taken him to Euston, but the book doesn’t mention it. #londonfogg
Euston Station first opened in 1837 and was expanded in 1849. By Fogg’s time the London & North Western Railway connected Liverpool and London directly. Verne says the journey took 6 hours but Fogg ordered a special train, taking 5 and a half. Today it’s half that. #londonfoggImage
The final push, past a suitably Foggish hat shop. #londonfoggImage
Back in London, Fogg believed he was 5 minutes late for the deadline – “having steadily traversed that long journey, overcome a hundred obstacles, braved many dangers… to fail near the goal” – so he just went home to Savile Row. #londonfogg
Having miscalculated the date, Fogg won his wager after all and hotfooted it back to the Reform Club… #londonfogg
So here I am again, after 23.3 miles of walking and 7 hours and 19minutes. So I made it! Now to Mr Fogg’s Society of Exploration (@MrFoggsGB) to celebrate! Pip pip. #londonfoggImage
PS. If you’d like to read about one of the real-life adventurers who inspired Julles Verne, my weekly history-themed newsletter is about exactly that and goes out this evening. @gethistories). Thanks for following! #londonfogg

Shaking spears at each other

To question, or not to question. That is to be…

A recent conversation at LiveJournal prompted me to revisit the whole ‘authorship of Shakespeare’s works’ malarkey. As I commented there, I had always been firmly convinced that the Man from Stratford wrote the plays, and found things such as Baconian ciphers preposterous (in fact, I even found one of the typical ones worked just as well with bits of Waiting for Godot...) – but seeing Mark Rylance’s play ‘The BIG Secret Live—I am Shakespeare’ made me much more doubtful. Such is the power of drama, eh?

Anyway, I’ve spent some time reading the (often venemous) claims of the Stratfordians vs the Anti-Stratfordians, if only to get my head round the actual evidence and what seems to make most sense. I find it hard to find unbiased summaries of the arguments, so I’ll at least attempt something like that here, albeit very briefly. I recommend this page at for the Stratfordian arguments (HT to Colonel Maxim) and this free, new PDF ebook from (despite it’s occasionally ad hominem approach – “Anti-Shakespearians … hardly smile, perhaps a characteristic of an obsessive mind.”). For the other camp, the only major work that isn’t trying to advocate for a specific alternative author is Diane Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthox Biography – a useful page listing her 10 key criteria for what makes Shakespeare a biographical oddity also contains responses and counter-responses, which begin to sound like Woody Allen’s Gossage and Vardebedian. Another Anti-Stratfordian has posted a very useful chronology listing documents which reference ‘both’ the Man from Stratford and the Writer of the Works.

Aaaanyway. As far as I can see the main anti-Stratfordian points are:

  1. There is no  evidence of WS’s education (but of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and at most one can simply say this supports neither camp’s argument)
  2. There is no direct literary correspondence with WS during his lifetime
  3. There is no direct evidence that WS was ever paid to write or that he received patronage (despite his requests of the Earl of Southampton)
  4. There are no extant manuscripts in WS’s hand (other than six shakey – hurr – instances of his signature, three on his will; and a much-argued-about Thomas More manuscript)
  5. There is no direct proof of his authorship during his lifetime.

The Anti-Stratfordians also like making a big deal over most legal (non-literary) documents spelling his name Shaxper, or Shackspeare, or various others without the middle ‘e’, while almost all of his works are attributed to ‘Shakespeare’ or ‘Shake-speare’ and similar variants. I don’t find this compelling either way as there are always counter-examples. I’m also ignoring the fact that WS’s will makes no mention of books or other literary matters, as this doesn’t prove anything one way or the other.

Back in the folds of academe, the Stratfordian case is supported thus:

  1. There was an actor called WS in the company that also performed the plays of ‘William Shakespeare’.
  2. The actor was also the WS from Stratford-upon-Avon. The chap from Stratford also had shares in the Globe Theatre.
  3. There is an abundance of evidence in the First Folio (from 1623, seven years after the death of the Stratford chap) that the playwright was the same man as the chap from the Midlands.

These three points are problems if you hold that:

  1. There could have been a conspiracy by actors and writers in the company to pretend the Stratford actor was also a gifted writer
  2. An interlineation in the Stratford man’s will giving money to two fellow actors was added later by someone else
  3. The only evidence during WS’s actual lifetime is circumstantial (true enough) and that a conspiracy (see 1) saw to it that the First Folio was a cover-up.

Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi and others are behind a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ about the author’s identity. I think in a very pedantic sense it is possible to say that it is possible to doubt that the man from Stratford wrote the plays, based on the admittedly unusually patchy documentary record. So they’re right there is ‘room for doubt’. But ‘how much room?’ is maybe the real issue.

Ultimately it all seems to boil down to two alternatives, and which one you find more palatable or least strange:

  1. A lack of direct evidence during the Stratford man’s lifetime for his authorship of the works
  2. A conspiracy of numerous writers and actors to maintain the cipher of ‘William Shakespeare’ as a cover for a person or persons unknown.

But as Charlie Brooker brilliantly expounded, all conspiracy theories rely on a triumph of paperwork over human reliability.

I’ve tried to be fair to both sides here, but I have to say I’m now back in the Midlands, as although (1) is at times troubling, and makes Shakespeare forever a man of mystery to some degree at least, (2) is just silly. I think. Probably.

Address to Burns

It’s Burns Night tonight. I’ve dredged this up from my files for 2002:

Address to Burns

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face
Great poet o’the chieftain race
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place:
Wordsworth, Shak’speare, Scott.
Yon Sassenachs cannae cut your pace –
Ah love them no’ a jot.

In Alloway ye wis a bairn
Your pa a gairdner in Ayr’n
Ye met your first love there:
Nelly wis her name.
Tae paper thus ye put your pen
Tae give her fame.

Ye exercised your hurdies well
Intae your welcome airms there fell
Muckle lassies in your spell:
Eight bastards sired.
An’ then ye married: jist as well –
Ye must hae been tired!

And so ye clapped your pen once mair
Intae your walie nieve, and there
Wis wroght sic vairses fair
As ony man could mak –
Sae far aboon the skinkin’ ware
O’Coleridge and Blake.

An’ yet, as every rustic must
Or noble aye, ye came tae dust
An’ six feet under ye wis trussed
Frae your feet tae your heid.
But as I’m English, I’m not fussed:
Your doggerel is ‘deid’.

Burns? Pah! In England we should celebrate Browning night on 7th May!

The patron saint of procrastinators

A single blog post by one person I admire greatly, John Crowley, about another, Coleridge, has brought back in a rush all the haphazard things I love about the latter (and it turns out I’ve written briefly about them both before here). Crowley quotes some of this passage:

You have not above 300 volumes to write before you come to it— & as you write perhaps a volume once in ten years, you have ample Time, my dear Fellow!— Never be ashamed of scheming — you can’t think of living less than 4000 years, & that would nearly suffice for your present schemes—/To Be sure, if they go on in the same Ratio to the Performance, there is a small difficulty arises/but never mind! look at the bright side always— & die in a Dream!

The “dear fellow” he is talking to is of course himself, mocking his own tendency to scribble endless ideas for books and other projects in his notebooks – something I can relate to dearly.

Here’s another quote from the same year, 1804, collected in Anima Poetae:

This evening, and indeed all this day, I ought to have been reading and filling the margins of Malthus. I had begun and found it pleasant. Why did I neglect it? Because I ought not to have done this. The same applies to the reading and writing of letters, essays, etc. Surely this is well worth a serious analysis, that, by understanding, I may attempt to heal it. For it is a deep and wide disease in my moral nature, at once elm- and-oak-rooted. Is it love of liberty, of spontaneity, or what? These all express, but do not explain, the fact… From infancy up to manhood, under parents, schoolmasters, inspectors, etc., our pleasures and pleasant self-chosen pursuits (self-chosen because pleasant, and not originally pleasant because self-chosen) have been forcibly interrupted, and dull, unintelligible rudiments or painful tasks imposed upon us instead. Now all duty is felt as a command…

A time will come when passiveness will attain the dignity of worthy activity, when men shall be as proud within themselves of having remained in a state of deep tranquil emotion, whether in reading or in hearing or in looking, as they now are in having figured away for an hour…

His defensive stance on being allowed to dream is the tip maybe of an iceberg of agonies about his lack of output – but he still managed to outcreate most people, and much as some (far from all!) of his poetry is fantastic, I think it’s his prose which should be his lasting monument. He almost created a genre by himself – fragmentary reflections, allusions, digressions (all of which were what attracted him to Borges).

Some day I’d like to collect his thoughts of this kind into a ‘defence of dreaming’… But I probably won’t. And maybe that’s the point.

The warp (stop all the clocks)

has already broken the news (and spoilered my anecdote!), but I’m going to drone at you anyway…

The world won’t be the same without Ken Campbell’s drawling of the words ‘glossolalia’, ‘Neville Plashwit’ and ‘gastromancy’, and walking his dogs on the Walthamstow marshes.

Permit me to trot out a personal memory: and I were chatting to Ken (for it is he) in the bar before a show a few years ago and I speculated whether any of the material was the same as in the last show of his I’d seen. He replied in his remarkable nasal way: “As Newton said about Jesus, he was made of different stuff.”

As he said it, he was pathetically counting out dozens of pennies to see if he had enough for a drink, so I stepped in and got him one. It was, beloved readers, a coke. Ned Sherrin and Alan Coren never told stories like this, eh?

I can still remember some of Macbeth in Vanuatu pidgin thanks to Ken, and that’s a life skill to treasure – though remembers more than I do.

Actually, I’ve also stalked him along Green Lanes with another friend, but that’s another story.

I guess we’ll never get the History of Comedy Part Two now. Sniff.

Maybe if I keep working on my already prodigious eyebrows I can do the tribute act some day.

The music of the warming spheres

So, when I was coaxed out of the house last night, little did I know I’d end up discussing Borat with climate change guru Mark Lynas in a village pub.

It was after a talk he gave in the same village hall (Ramsden) where I went to a previous talk on climate change (which I wrote about here and here). Lynas is an excellent speaker and very accomplished at effortlessly marshalling bucketloads of data, as well as fielding complex questions without pause. He provides an admirably sane view of the whole issue, very much from the perspective of a scientist rather than a campaigner. My only worry is that he is over-optimistic about human psychology, ie a reliance on co-operation between nations (though I don’t really doubt that his solutions are at least possible). To me the issue smacks heavily of the prisoner’s dilemma, and the evidence from studies of that doesn’t suggest co-operation is a likely strategy for people in a world where fighting habitually takes precedence over common sense.

He’s also an entertainingly sarcastic sod, and it was fun talking with him. (I’ve only just discovered he was two years below me at Edinburgh, too). My lingering memory of the evening – other than the talk itself – is of the crazy, beer-filled notion of turning his book Six Degrees (a documentary version is being broadcast by National Geographic next week) into a musical. I can’t help thinking about it. It’s horrible, but it could almost work. Mark, get your people to talk to my people. Or, better, get them to sing.

Epi phenomena – do doo de do do

So, I’ve finally finished Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop. I is a strange loop. I am a strange loop.

This is something of an achievement for me as it’s the first time I’ve actually read all of one of his books – I’ve read most of Gödel Escher Bach, Metamagical Themas and Le Ton Beau de Marot, but never quite all of ’em. Anyway, that’s enough italics for now.

It’s a funny sort of book – essentially it rehashes the core argument of GEB, and forms a defence of epiphenomenalism, which is not exactly a new position nowadays (and GEB itself was written in the late 70s). It’s as much an ‘intellectual autobiography’ as anything, bringing in many personal tales, particularly the death of his wife, albeit with a big and slightly confusing chunk in the middle about Gödel’s revolutionary overturning of Bertrand Russell’s endeavours to bolster the foundations of mathematics. DRH makes the same points over and over again, sometimes superfluously: that we work at the abstract level of patterns and defining physical phenomena in terms of tiny little particles is no hope in our quest to understand ourselves – but that ‘we’ emerge from those nonetheless; and that consciousness is a ‘strange loop’ of self-reference inevitable when a pattern-obsessed organism has a sufficiently broad range of categories identifiable by it.

Although this is far from as dazzling a book as GEB, and is really an oldish man now saying ‘yes, but you weren’t listening the first time’, the way he tells things – anecdotes, analogies, allegories – is what makes him so much more interesting than most ‘philosophers’. (Though next time the publishers really ought to stop him thinking he can design the book as well – the pictures in here are pretty bad.)

Let’s hope he doesn’t get interviewed by Jim Naughtie, though, who was bumbling his way through whether a restored Cutty Sark is still the real one this morning…

Stripped of charm

Genealogy is always a double-edged sword. Within minutes of being entertained to find that one set of my great-great-great-grandparents ran a canalside pub in Middlesex… I discovered that it’s now a strip joint next to an industrial estate.

Clare as mud

Last year I observed that I don’t often read the same author one book after another – the exception was Iain Sinclair (see here and here). He’s the exception again. Hot on the heels of Edge of the Orison I’ve felt compelled to read Rodinsky’s Room (co-written with Rachel Lichtenstein).

The first follows John Clare’s ‘journey out of Essex’ – ie his fugue from an asylum at High Beach in 1841, walking penniless, driven by lost (and unregainable) love, the 80 miles to his village north of Peterborough. I can’t remember feeling so inspired and gripped by a book in recent times, such that I’ve fixed anyone who’ll listen (or won’t) with an ancient mariner’s stare and proceeded to prate about it. Sinclair’s form, for me at least, gets ever better with each new non-fiction book he writes – while his fiction (though I probably will tackle Dining on Stones when I have the stomach) gets more unwieldy and unfathomable.

The Clare book is self-indulgent at times, especially with a fruitless quest revolving around his wife’s genealogy, but I loved it throughout nonetheless – the usual blend of coruscating sideswipes at modern blandness, fused with elegiac tones and swathed in his psychogeographic obsession with making connections: Sinclair is the real Dirk Gently.

I’m still in media res with the Rodinsky book – more on that some time soon.

I was there

A trip to the Design Museum, for the splendid You Are Here exhibition. A festival for geekish poring. Along with the inevitable Tube map delights, highlights for me included:
– Adrian Frutiger’s Symbols and Signs – Explorations foldout chart
– The works of Richard Saul Wurman, Otto Neurath (hurrah! my old chum Basic English) and Annegrete Moelhave
– John Adams’ 1679 map of road distances between UK towns and villages
– Joseph Priestley’s invention of “charts of biography”
– the unlabelled maps comparing metro networks across the world

Much Googling to be done, frankly, and much else of interest besides, but:
(a) no catalogue!!
(b) as J pointed out, er, didn’t the design of the exhibition (not to mention the dreadful Design Museum website as H has already observed) somewhat let down the premise. A major missed opportunity, given that the structure of the exhibition itself was so blurred.

I also discovered the works of Edward Tufte, which I shall be tracking down, especially his essay about PowerPoint being the death of reason, a long-cherished philosophy of mine.