Two films I saw, by Park and Östlund

It was really nice that Chapter Arts in Cardiff teamed up with the London Film Festival this year, screening films months ahead of Oscar season, and I was lucky enough to catch two showings: Triangle of Sadness by Ruben Östlund and Park Chan-Wook’s Decision to Leave.

Triangle of Sadness is very much a film of the times, with glorious depictions of how grotesque the super rich are. It was hilarious, riotous and beautifully made, with brilliant performances all round but especially from Woody Harrelson who plays a socialist sea captain on the super yacht where the first two thirds of the film takes place. It’s already won the Palm d’Or at Cannes and given the current climate I feel it’s a bit of a shoe-in for Best Picture at the Oscars, and well-deserved too because it is outstanding. My one gripe would be the ending, which I felt had a really good opportunity to hammer home its message but didn’t take it.

It’s a social commentary about the rich poor divide handled in a really outlandish way, much like the films of Bong Joon-Ho.

The two best Korean film directors working today are Bong and Park, both of whom conduct the symphony of actors, light, camera, sound, design and score on a level only achieved by the greats. The difference between them seems to come in their themes. Bong takes the wide angle view of society whereas Park zooms in on the minutiae of the darkness in human beings, and Decision to Leave is his most intimate film yet.

It tells the story of a detective following a case in which a woman is implicated in the murder of her husband, and he falls in love. Part crime thriller, part simmering romance, it is an extremely beautiful film to look at, with fewer audacious camera moves that in his Vengeance days, which means that when they happen they are all the more powerful. One shot at the top of a mountain is literally breath-taking. I don’t want to say too much about the story but although it’s superficially low-key by his usual standards I found it profoundly beautiful.

So, for the big rowdy social commentary Traingle of Sadness will be the go-to film of the year and for the beautiful intimacy of humans hearts it will be difficult to top Decision to Leave.


Bill Gates is… Satan?

The church where my strange encounter took place

I had to drop the offcuts of our new carpet to a fringing company because the cats absolutely love lying on it so we thought we’d get them some mats made so they can lie on them in the living room. Incidentally, the carpet is made from 100% reclaimed fishing nets and is excellent (it’s the Sedna range from SCS and half price at the moment). Anyway, I’m already off track.

As I drove home I decided to try a shortcut through some lanes, as I often do and it never works. After about twenty minutes of being lost I crested the top of a tall hill and came across an old church. How did a church like this get so far out in the wilds? I parked up and went to have a look around. The views from the churchyard were spectacular – all across the Bridgend region to the coast. The weather was warmer than it had been for months, with just a light breeze, and I felt extremely tranquil.

The view from the churchyard

I read a few of the tombstones in the graveyard and placed my hands to the church wall, which was warm to the touch. As I turned to leave a figure appeared at the entrance gate, and it was staring at me. It was a man, around sixty, thickset. He was leaning on the gate – the churchyard’s only exit – and his eyes were cold as they regarded me.

‘Is the church still in use?’ he said.

My heart rate increased. ‘I think so,’ I said. ‘There are signs to wear masks so it must have been used in the last year.’

‘It’s a beautiful building,’ said the man. ‘That church has stood there for the best part of a thousand years. But what’s Christianity now? It’s all Satanism these days. Like Bill Gates. If you have the vaccine – that’s the mark of the beast.’

Oh joy, I thought, I am in the middle of absolutely nowhere, penned into a churchyard by a psychopath. I looked at my car parked ten yards behind him. Could I jump over the wall and make a break for it?

‘People tell me I’m just a conspiracy theorist and you know what I say to them?’ I shook my head. ‘I say that’s exactly what people would have said to Noah.’ A faint smile cracked across his lips. He was looking for my approbation, for me to appreciate his intelligence.

‘That’s right!’ I declared. ‘They would have said the exact same thing to Noah wouldn’t they! I’d never thought of it that way before!’


‘Yeah,’ he nodded enthusiastically. ‘I keep telling people, this vaccine, funded by Bill Gates, is a genocide. Research the – (he mentioned an organisation here, a secret cabal, but I can’t remember the name). They’re trying to reduce the world’s population.  There’s, what, eight billion people on earth? They want five hundred million. They did the first world war – that was a killing era – and they did the second war, which was also a killing era, but they can’t do world wars anymore because the weapons are too powerful. So what do they do?’

‘The vaccine?’ I said.

He nodded. ‘They haven’t even done real trails,’ he said. ‘I researched it on the internet – BBC and HTV (I enjoyed him using the old regional name for ITV) are owned by Bill Gates – and the results from the trials won’t be in until 2023. And all these millions of people are taking the vaccine. Not me. You won’t see me having it. Not after what happened with thalidomide and people being born with little arms and legs.’

A lot of the things he said were completely non-sensical but I’m recording them here near enough how he said them – I’m not going to write fake words to fit in with what he was trying to say. It’s was very garbled, his thread of thought jumping around all over the place, inconsistent and often contradictory.  

‘When you get home now look up Brand New Tube and look up these doctors.’ And he named three doctors, the names of whom I can’t remember apart from somebody called Dr Vernon Coleman.

‘Did you say YouTube?’ I said.

‘No, Brand New Tube. Because YouTube is so censored you need to go to Brand New Tube now to find the truth.’

(When I got home I did look it up – it’s a real site where people like David Ike now host their videos.)

My opinion of my new friend was changing. I was still worried about being murdered, sure, but I also kind of liked him. I liked how enthusiastic he was because someone was listening to him, even though I was only doing this because I was somewhat scared. As he spoke (and he spoke for about thirty minutes without a break) I remembered my own fascination with conspiracy theories around the turn of the millennium. I used to listen to Talk Radio when I couldn’t sleep, which was pretty much every night, and absolutely loved it when they had psychics on, or Ufologists or even a rare visit from the big man himself – the Ikemeister. This was around the time he believed the world was being run by shape-shifting lizards. Even though I desperately wanted something magical and mysterious ti be behind the shittiness of the world I didn’t actually believe the conspiracies of the time, but I found the people talking about them absolutely fascinating. There was something wide-eyed and innocent about them that I was attracted to. I used to buy books about conspiracy theories. Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods was a favourite, along with Gods of the Dawn by Peter Lemesurier and Alien Base by Timothy Good. I even bought The Biggest Secret by David Ike, a book so impenetrably non-sensical that it’s impossible to read and which I had to give up on before I got to the bit about the lizards.

A selection of my conspiracy theory books

These were the days when conspiracy theorists were viewed as harmless nuts. They were independent people, forging their own path, in their minds the chosen few bestowed with a secret knowledge nobody else could see. In their minds they were the special ones. We all want to be special, we all are special, but if we don’t feel special enough sometimes we find our own ways of achieving this state of grace in peculiar places.

Brexit, Trump and the internet put paid to the harmless aspect of conspiracy theorists of course but here was a man who made me pine for the good old days. The salad days when reading about aliens and lizard kings was just a fun way to pass the time and maybe a chance to find ideas for novels. The rise of the conspiracy theory could be seen as the biggest disrupting force of the millennium, even more so than the internet if you consider the toppling of the political class an indication of true disruption.

‘I told my neighbour Kelvin not to have it and he said but I want to have it because I want to go on holiday so I need a health passport and I said to him that’s just another way they can control you. He had it and I asked how it went and he said he felt tired and achy. Anyway, six hours later in the middle of the night he’s being taken to hospital in an ambulance isn’t he. Alright, they released him the next day but he could have died. He’s about the same age as me – I’m sixty-one – a fit and healthy guy. I said to him, “are you going to have the second dose?” and he said yes! Crazy.’ He shook his head. ‘Crazy.’

He then went back to talking about the doctors he wanted me to look up on Brand New Tube. ‘I tell everyone about it,’ he said. ‘If I save just one life then it’s worth it.’

‘It’s certainly interesting,’ I said, using my old tactic of trying to buddy up to potential aggressors. ‘What was it called? Brand New Tube?’ I still wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t a murderer. ‘I’ll check it out! I haven’t had my vaccine yet so it sounds like I need to watch this.’

This was a lie. Not that I was going to watch Brand New Tube – I was lying because I have had my vaccine! It was a full on lie! I was lying to him partly because I was scared of being murdered but also, in truth, partly to humour him. He seemed so happy in his delusion that to burst his bubble or even gently prod at it seemed cruel and unnecessary.

His eyes lit up when I told him I’d follow his lead. It seemed to dislodge something in him. He threw his coat over his shoulder and stood up from the gate. By not challenging him (and, in fact, actively supporting him!) I had probably done some great harm to democracy but at least he was happy, right? Right?

‘And if you believe it,’ he called over his shoulder, ‘make sure you tell as many people as you can.’ And off he trotted back down the hill. As I watched him go I felt relieved but also regretful. I should have talked to him more but didn’t. I didn’t even get round to 5G! If only I’d had more time.    

Make sure you tell as many people as you can.

Well, my friend, here it is. I hope I have done you justice, and when you ultimately commit your massacre I hope you think of that man in the churchyard on the top of the hill who gave you the confidence to continue your quest just when you were losing faith.


Pubs in Wales and Coronavirus Thoughts

A lot of people are really annoyed at the pub closures in Wales in the run up to Christmas but in their defence the Welsh Government really have no choice. The first role of a government is keeping the health of its people safe and so in this respect there is nothing they can do about it.

They’re trying to stop the rapid transmission of COVID and so they look at how best to do this. Where do large numbers of transmissions occur? The first five places that come to anyone’s minds are: hospitality, schools, hospitals, supermarkets and universities. Many people feel that pubs have been made the scapegoat – why close pubs when supermarkets and schools remain open? But it’s not true that pubs have been the scapegoat.

Supermarkets are different from pubs for three reasons. They are bigger, people are in them for shorter periods, and people wear face masks for the entirety of their visit. In pubs and restaurants people don’t wear masks apart from when they’re not at their seats, and they stay for much longer periods. This is the crux. The virus does not limit itself to two meters and it lingers in the air. If you think of pre-smoking ban pubs – remember how the smoke distributed itself evenly; that’s what the virus does. It hangs in the air of the whole pub (because pubs are small and poorly ventilated) for at least 15 minutes and probably longer. If someone with the virus is in a pub for two hours the virus is in that pub, in the air, for the length of that visit plus fifteen minutes. Anyone in that pub is exposed and breathing in those droplets (this doesn’t mean they’ll get COVID but risk is massively increased).

Schools are a different matter. They’re the same as pubs in terms of size and time periods – the difference is that pre-teens don’t transmit the virus as easily. This is borne out in evidence, that you can see in a report that Nature published at the end of October. However, it now seems that teenagers can spread it, and this is dangerous and risky by the government – they have prioritised the education of children above the hospitality sector for right or wrong. Although even here there is a difference because schoolkids wear masks inside.        

The news has misleadingly reported that supermarkets are proven breeding grounds for the virus. This is because the NHS contact tracing app has shown people with the virus have visited these places. It doesn’t mean they’ve spread it.

There is no evidence that supermarkets are places where transmission rates are high. Isabel Oliver, Director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England, said, “Common exposure data does not prove where people are contracting Covid-19. It simply shows where people who have tested positive have been in the days leading up to their test and it is used to help identify possible outbreaks.”

In a supermarket the mask prevents the virus particles spreading so totally, the space is much bigger, and the shorter nature of visits means the virus is not in the air for such a long period. That is why supermarkets are almost certainly safer than pubs (but still not that safe, remember).

The evidence for transmission in the hospitality sector is, sadly, much more solid. The policy paper from which the Welsh Government made its decision is clear. The R Rate has only been able to be brought under 1 for sustained periods (and the same is true all over the world) where big restrictions have been placed on hospitality. UK epidemics stopped only in areas where Tier 3 or above restrictions were imposed. Where hospitality restrictions were more limited, the virus was not controlled. The same paper demonstrates similar results in China, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea. The CDC has also found the same results in America.

The major problem is that the biggest superspreader events occur overwhelmingly in hospitality venues (they also occur in hospitals and care home but not in education settings, and the closure of healthcare facilities is not an option). These events are so incredibly dangerous and HAVE to be avoided at all costs. If superspreader events get out of control we’ll go into freefall.

Of course, schools, universities and supermarkets are definitely risk areas. Personally, I’d have closed schools and universities and gone for zero COVID, but the point is that the hospitality sector does offer up to the virus a disproportionately high risk of superspreader events and nothing will change that fact.

I won’t dignify the opinion that 0.2-2% of our elderly and vulnerable population are expendable (just as I won’t dignify the wilful ignorance of someone saying, “How does the virus know the difference between lemonade and lager) – The Welsh Governement are right to do what they’ve done. But that doesn’t mean they’ve done it in a good way. They’ve announced £180m to help hospitality businesses, and this is good, but they should have by now told those businesses how they will be helped, and by how much – people’s livelihoods and mortgages are at stake here. For the government to make this decision, in my opinion they have to ensure that not a single job is lost, and that all pubs, cafes, etc, but also the SUPPLIERS of these venues are fully compensated. This is the busiest time of the year for hospitality and whilst the health of the population has to come first, the living standards are a close second. They have to be protected and there’s plenty of money to allow this to happen – we bailed out the banks, we can bail out the pubs at a fraction of the cost. Give all businesses the same amount of money they earned in the December of last year and make redundancies illegal so that wages can be paid.

The government were also too slow to publish the reasons behind their decision making. It would have been easy for them to let us know their reasoning on the same day as the announcement.  

There is also concern that pubs might close permanently. There is no need for this to happen, but only if the government handle the situation correctly. The imminent arrival of the vaccines should (massive fingers crossed here) mean that we will defeat the coronavirus. At some point in the (hopefully) near future life will return to normal. When this happens the demand for pubs and cafes will be exactly the same as it was pre-COVID. We will need to same number of pubs. Possibly even more so – there’s bound to be a bit of boom when we know we can go out again without running the risk of killing our parents and grandparents.

Nobody wants this to be happening but it is. Left unchecked the virus will be cataclysmic – every single virologist in the world knows this. We’ve come so far but we can’t drop the ball at this late stage. How many times have we watched southern hemisphere teams snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against us in the last five minutes of a game? That’s where we are now as a nation. One last big effort and everything will be OK.  


The Greatest TV Show Ever Made (it’s The Sopranos)

Tony Soprano

Amy and I just finished re-watching The Sopranos and, for me, it’s the single greatest TV show ever created. I saw a Facebook post the other day saying The Wire is the most important show in television history and that’s hard to disagree with. The critic Mark Kermode made the point that whereas we watch TV to see the characters change The Wire is the only show where it’s the viewer that changes. But The Sopranos is just so good.

In this golden age of prestige TV I’m yet to find a show that comes anywhere close to these leviathans of artistic expression and social commentary. For me, it’s always been The Wire and The Sopranos duking it out for the top spot and after this re-watch I think it’s the Sopranos that nudges it.

The Wire is an incredible show with rich and varied characters, it takes us through the strata of Baltimore society from bottom to top, and that is why it’s so important.

But art isn’t only about importance. The Sopranos offers up social commentary aplenty, especially as a pre-cursor to Trump’s America – Tony’s crew would all want to Make America Great Again (at one point a character suggests the building of the wall) – but it’s The Sopranos that does the bigger themes of religion, family and betrayal bigger and better than The Wire. It’s also more intense for longer periods, and it’s funnier. One thing new prestige TV often fails at (but not always, for example Girls and Orange is the New Black) is humour, the writers forgetting that in real life people regularly makes jokes, do unintentionally funny things, and also find things funny, including their own tragic lives.

The Sopranos is also more cinematic. Whilst the Wire has those big industrial establishing shots, especially in Season 2 in the docks, as well as the unforgettable images of the red brick low rises in Season 1, the Sopranos directors screw in the wide angle lenses far more often and open up that grand bigness of the American landscape, be it countryside, city or industrial. They also use more cinematic techniques like push ins, vignette lenses to darken the corners of the screens, jump cuts, cross fades, and Scorcese-like sound mixes where moments of time are slowed down and plunged into silence before a dramatic moment, or an epiphany for a character. These often ostentatious flourishes help elevate the piece above the more gritty Wire and make for, overall, a richer, more sensory experience.

The Sopranos also has that final scene where every single element of the show is turned on its head, and that also demands the viewer to do some heavy-lifting – it does not patronise us.

But of course, the major component The Wire lacks is an era-defining central performance, which James Gandolfini delivers like a mountain above the foothills. His performance is absolutely enormous and incredibly nuanced all at the same time. He brings more to the character of Tony Soprano than any writer ever could. How does he imbue such a truly terrible person with such heart? How does he make someone so awful so appealing (even if we don’t like to admit he’s appealing?). How dare he get us to care about him so much? The acting in both shows is uniformly incredible (shout outs to Edie Falco as Carmella and Clarke Peters as Lester) but I don’t think anybody can argue that James Gandolfini is a colossus. It’s still absolutely gutting he died so young.

The Wire has no equivalent. This is in part the show’s intention with its Dickensian omniscience but it’s that central figure of Tony in the Sopranos that ties the whole piece together and makes it so satisfying: The individual of The Sopranos versus the abstract concept of society in The Wire – art vs message (although both have enormous amounts of both). As a human being I am of the opinion that whilst the head is important, it’s the heart that will always win out when it comes to art and, more often than not, life itself.


Some thoughts on Grand Hotel by Regina Spektor

I’ve always loved songs that are stories, and Grand Hotel is so evocative. The images Regina Spektor creates are so memorable – I often think unbidden of little devils lying on a misty lawn in spent ecstasy after a killing spree, a scene that takes place in this song. The hotel could be in New York – after all, I always see Spektor as being a bridge between Bronx cool and Manhattan loft studio culture – but for me it’s in Russia. This might be because I know Regina Spektor left the motherland during Perestroika and I think of her songs as falling into one of two categories – New York evocation or the epicness of the Russian mythos that stems from the country’s great size and extreme climate, and which is reflected in its literature.

I picture the hotel as the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, a building that kept up its appearances even after the revolution, mainly because Party leaders came to enjoy its offerings. There’s a funny legend that when the Bolsheviks stormed the building in 1918, rather destroy the wine in the cellar they removed all the labels to ensure egalitarianism amongst the vintages.

There are also devils in the story that emerge from hell via a spring beneath the foundations, a theme that follows in the tradition of Gogol, Bulgakov and Dostoevsky (although I’ve never read The Brothers Karamazov). I’ve listened to Regina Spektor so much during lockdown and the more I do the more I wish she’d turn her attention to the act of novel writing.


A soul made with the radiant warmth of human beauty

When my sister and I found out that my mother was going to visit our grandmother’s grave alone we changed our plans and decided to go with her to Bridgend – the former industrial town where she’d grown up. I can’t even remember the last time I’d been to the grave but it would have been my gramma’s birthday on 1st March and my mum and auntie go once a year to leave daffodils.

I’d never realised how close the cemetery was to the two houses my mother had lived in until she got married. All three locations are within a stone’s throw of each other meaning that my gramma Chrissie lived most of her life and now rests forever in a space on earth just a few hundred metres across.


As per tradition my mother had brought a bunch of daffodils, which I clipped and placed into the little pot on top of the grave. It was a cold, blustery day but I cut the stems at different lengths so that the shortest would be at the edge of the pot and the tallest in the middle. Only just in bud, they should bloom beautifully by St David’s Day.

We wandered around the graveyard, past the pretty little chapel in the centre, before making our way across to Austin Avenue, the street where my mother had lived until she was fourteen. On the way she told us one of her classic childhood stories of poverty. According to her lore she owned one rollerskate as a child, on top of which she would place a book, and on top of which she would place herself so that she could zip down the hill towards Wildmill. This is a step up from another childhood tale where she purportedly wiled away hours of her weekends with, ‘just a stick and a leaf.’


The house on Austin Avenue where my mum lived until she was fourteen

Austin Avenue wasn’t that familiar to us as kids because gramma had moved to Coity Road around the corner by the time we came into the world. My sister couldn’t remember ever having been there but I recall visiting my gramma’s friend as a child for tea and cakes. It’s a small street of small terraced houses – unassuming, sleepy, almost as if it’s jutting out of the world into a lacuna of calm. It’s funny how certain places have a soothing effect on the soul and this small patch of earth – even though I very rarely go there, and even though it’s not particularly attractive – does it for me. Perhaps the place itself fuses with those memories of a happy childhood to become an anchor of safety in the heart. There was a chip shop just off the junction of Cemetery Road and Coity Road where we used to buy chips to take to gramma’s house, where we’d eat them with Daddy’s tomato sauce. I distinctly remember it was Daddy’s because I hated it. The chip shop is still there, as is the tyre fitting place opposite the house on Coity Road where we’d stay on weekends and play bagatelle, toast bread over the fire with a toasting fork and walk down the main road (even though we were only about eight) to buy Beano comics.


This strange gap between two houses on Cemetery Road is a public footpath. It turns right at the end and runs behind the houses on to Austin Avenue.

My gramma Chrissie was an incredibly kind person, the archetype of the sort of grandmother everybody wants in many ways. Hers was a soul made with the radiant warmth of human beauty. Around her I felt safe and loved. In the last few months of her life she came to live with us and then, right at the end, she was cared for in hospital. I still remember the day she died, when I was twelve. It was the first death I had known. We were being looked after by a neighbour and I had a vague feeling that something was about to change, and also a sensation of acceptance even before I knew for sure – my soul trying to cushion the blow before it struck. My parents came through the front door and I asked how gramma was and my mum told me – this I remember most clearly of all – that, ‘She’s gone with the angels.’

Although it’s a cliché I went to my room and started punching the boxing ball I had up there. In my defence I was far too young to know this was a cliché. I was so close to my gramma that the situation felt impossible, that this couldn’t happen. My mother followed me up and threw her arms around me and that safety which had passed from my gramma to my mother put its arms around me too. Because this happened to me at such an important developmental age I sometimes wonder if the effect of her death, the way it split me open, was the acute sensitivity I have towards other people’s feelings that has both plagued and beautified my whole life.

On the way home I drove into the back lanes behind Coity Road and found the park we discovered as children. At the time we’d been visiting my gramma for years so the discovery of a hitherto unknown park within walking distance was an almost magical event. I got out of the car. After the heavy rains of the last few weeks the clear skies and biting wind were a welcome respite. And when the wind died down the sun was finally warm on my body.


Why is the Book Better than the Film?

The unique relationship between the reader and the writer

A friend recently pointed out the fact that no-one ever says, ‘Did you see the film? It was much better than the book.’ Undoubtedly true (let’s ignore The Shining and other notable exceptions for now) and it got me thinking about why this might be the case. Why is the book always better than the film?

Consider the following passage:

The man walked into the room with his little brown dog running in circles around his legs. The room was sparsely furnished with just a red chair in one corner and a potted tree in the other. The walls were painted brilliant white and from the ceiling hung a single modern light-fitting.

This is how a scene may begin in a novel, or in a film. But there is a difference. In the film the viewer would see the room exactly as it is. A red armchair chosen by a production designer would be right there, unequivocally real, as would the potted tree and the light-fitting. An aesthetic choice has been made by the designer and the director and presented to the viewer. The man would have been cast by the casting director and the dog chosen by an animal trainer. The viewer knows what the man looks like with his aquiline noise and thin face; they know he is wearing a white suit with a brown greatcoat on top. In short, as far as imagery goes, the viewer has no autonomy over the scene – all the work has been done for them[1].

In the novel, however, this is not the case. The reader is given cues but the full picture is painted in by their own imagination. The red chair could be a plastic canteen chair, or a wingback, an easy chair, or an exercise in sleek Scandinavian minimalism. The plotted tree might be coniferous, a lollipop bay tree, or perhaps a Japanese acer. What breed is the dog? A Pomeranian? A terrier? Maybe it’s a young Labrador. The writer does not stipulate and yet there it is: a small, brown dog of the reader’s own choosing. There is no description of the light-fitting whatsoever. What does the man look like? Is he big or small? Lean or stocky? What colour is his skin? Even though the process is unconscious, the reader decides.


In a movie the director and their crew do the entirety of the work. What arrives in a viewer’s mind when watching a film is 100% the effect of the filmmakers. Aesthetically, nothing is left to the viewer. And it is commonly believed that in a novel the writer bears the same burden as the film director, but this in fact not true – a writer only brings the reader so far along the way. It is the job of the reader to complete the vision that arises in their mind. In short, the work is shared between the reader and the writer. The reader is required to add a part of their own imagination into the mix. Could it be that this dynamic is the reason reading affords such a rich experience? Is this why books are always better than the film?

The exercise of the human imagination is unique in the canon of experience. It requires real heavy lifting in the machinery of your brain, necessitating our neurons to fire signals along many disparate pathways of the brain to bring forth neuronal ensembles (one for a red chair, one for a dog, one for a man, and so on) which all have to be choreographed together without a visual cue, calling on parts of the brain far away from the region that produces the images, and having all these millions of cells and the chemicals and electrical signals zipping between them to come together in a perfect symphony of synthesis. The reader moves characters through a world that is entirely imagined inside their heads. It’s like an all-body work out, and, similarly to such exercise, it makes us feel good.

When a reader reads they exercise their imagination. They make their own aesthetic choices in every scene. The red chair in the corner of the room is precisely the type of chair they want to see, the tree is the exact species that needs to be there for maximum enjoyment of the scene. They are the film director, making these choices so that the vision in their mind is aesthetically perfect for them – something a film director can never do because people’s individual tastes vary. The reader has autonomy within the art – they are the artist. And that brings rewards.

Every book anybody reads is aesthetically perfect because they created it themselves based on their own tastes. There are undoubtedly many more reasons why reading provides such a singular depth of pleasure but surely the reader being included in the creation of the vision must play a part. There is a unique and intimate relationship between reader and writer and together, just the two of them, they create whole worlds.

[1] Of course, a viewer does do work – they interpret actors’ feelings, and think about the themes, they are left to deal with the emotional heft a director delivers, but this is also true of all artforms including the novel.


Grow a Climate Tree and Save the World!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we can make a difference on a personal level with climate change. It’s really difficult to get a message out there that can really work, because actually it’s a bit depressing for people to be told the best thing you can do is significantly lower your living standards. The best things any person can do reduce their carbon/methane imprint is fly less, give up meat and have fewer children. But I think people find it too bitter a pill to swallow. These options are not about DOING stuff, they’re about NOT DOING stuff.

So I thought about this, about DOING instead of NOT DOING and I came up with one thing that everyone can do, which is easy, cheap, fun, and which could save the world. And that is to grow a climate tree. Trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they photosynthesise so if every person in the world added one tree to their garden, or farmland, or community space, or on derelict land, or in a pot in their flat, or if there’s an initiative in villages to plant a whole wood according to how many people live in that village, we’d have 7.3 billion more trees in the world.

The really good news is that young trees suck up more carbon than old trees so even though your tree might be small or in a pot, it will be doing its job very nicely. If you can plant a tree in your garden great, but if you’re worried it might burrow under your house then just stick it in a big pot.

Climate trees need to be grown from seed, or saved from death. Think of John Hammond in Jurassic Park who was present for the “birth of every little creature on this island.” You can take ownership of your tree. Not only is it fun, but also trees in garden centres already exist so we wouldn’t be adding new trees, if that makes sense. A climate tree needs to be specifically brought into existence as your gift to the planet. And you need to look after it no matter what.

I have this image of families having little pots in their gardens corresponding to the numbers of kids and parents in the house, maybe even with a little green bows tied around the branches to show they’re climate trees. Climate trees for loved ones no longer with us, or trees for our pet cats and dogs and rabbits and even the greatest animal there is – the capybara, if you happen to be the custodian of one of those guys.

Anyway, I’ve decided to start it all off by buying these dead looking acers, that were about to be thrown, and I’m going to post pictures of how things are coming along with them.


I’ve also ordered some seeds of a zelkova tree, because one of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami, nearly always has a zelkova tree in his books. I’m probably going to post updates and more info about how good tree planting is later on as well so watch out!

If you think this is a good idea please give it a go and post about it to try and get other people involved!

This isn’t to say that doing other stuff isn’t important, planting your own tree is just a piece in a big, complicated jigsaw puzzle, but it is a statement that you care. And that tree WILL take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. If you have any doubt about the effect trees have on CO2, take a look at the Keeling curve, which shows how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere.

Mauna Loa 1960 - Pres Met Office

Ignore the fact it’s going up and up and up! Instead notice how it goes up in a jagged line. Where it drops each year, that’s because it’s summertime in the northern hemisphere, where most of earth’s land is (68%). The extra leaves on all those plants takes a noticeable chunk of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere – that’s why that dip happens.

There’s also brand new science that has calculated how many trees we would need to plant to stop catastrophic climate change, and the GREAT news is that there is easily enough land on earth to do it, without negatively impacting agriculture. But that’s for a future post.

It’s very easy to think you’re too small to make a difference, that there’s no point so why bother, but I don’t believe that. I believe that everybody can make a difference and that nobody should give up hope or think that they’re hopeless, and you can make a difference. You might think one tree is just a drop in the ocean, but as the last line in my favourite book says, “what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” You can make a difference with the simple act of growing a tree. So get planting! And then tell your friends.



Coconut Milk 69p

mdeI was in Home Bargains the other day and they had tins of coconut milk for just 69p. 69p? I thought. I’ll have a bit of that. I bought four tins and went straight home to tell Amy. She didn’t care. Over the next few days most of the people I told about the bargain also didn’t care, or feigned interest at best. Determined to prove my point about how great a deal I’d got on the coconut milk we drove to Tesco for a price comparison this afternoon. (Amy didn’t realise we were going for a price comparison – she thought we were just getting cat food.)

I’m an “asker” in a supermarket. Not point in being a “looker.” Luckily, someone had just smashed a jar of bolognaise sauce and a member of staff was standing guard. He thought he was going to have a five minute break standing over that sauce. Little did he know that I was approaching him from behind.

‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Do you know where the coconut milk is?’

Here we go, I thought. Here we go. The staff member took me to the next aisle over, where the coconut milk was kept. Unfortunately Tesco had sold out of coconut milk this afternoon, but that was fine, as I could see the price,on one of the white price tags they slide into the miniature pricing hoarding beneath their goods. £1. Great stuff. Actually, this was cheaper than I thought – I thought they were more like £2, but I’d made a saving of 31p x 4 \ £1.24. I turned to show Amy, who had of course gone off down another aisle.

‘Ah, we haven’t got any mate,’ said the staff man.

‘Ah well, no worries,’ I said, grinning to myself.

‘I’ll just check on the system. I can get some from the warehouse.’

‘Oh, it’s OK. Don’t worry about it.’

‘Actually, we’ve got some in another part of the store. On that wall there.’

I didn’t even want any coconut milk. But this guy was determined to sell me some.

‘Excuse me mate,’ came a voice from behind.

I turned around to find a muscular gentleman leaning on his trolley.

‘Did you say you was looking for coconut milk? How many do you want?’

I looked into his trolley. He’d absolutely cained all the coconut milk. There were about twelve tins in there. He picked two out of his trolley.

‘Do you want one? Two?’

I felt the eyes of the Tesco staff guy staring expectantly at me. Here we were in a moment of camaraderie, the three of us. There was a real sense of bonhomie in the air, and how often does that happen in Tesco? Of course, one of we three knew the awful truth.

‘Honestly mate, don’t worry about it,’ I chuckled. ‘I’m alright.’

‘Go on mate,’ he said, holding out a tin.

I was thinking fast. I could have taken a tin off him and then got out of sight and dumped the tin on a shelf. But this guy obviously wanted the coconut milk and it wouldn’t be fair to do that to him. As we stood there I found myself thinking, what on earth am I going to do here? Was I going to come clean about the price comparison? I was not. The plan was already formed in my mind: I was going to walk away without saying anything. As I carried out my plan, feeling their eyes following me as I disappeared around a corner, I thought to myself, well, at least it wasn’t as bad as that time I got caught creeping across my neighbours’ lawn.


David Bowie’s Blackstar and the Oddness of Alchemy

I listened to David Bowie’s last album a couple of weeks ago. I’d heard it before, I’d bought it when he died, and had given it a few listens then, but I’d never sat down and really listened. I’d watched The Prestige the day before and was reminded how, at his best, there was something sublime about Bowie, something magical; he had that unparalleled ability to create a dissonant harmonic between cold and warm, uncanny and familiar.

As he walks across the Faraday cage to enter the film as Nikola Tesla it’s hard to think of a better introduction to a character in any movie. When I first saw the film in the cinema I didn’t know he was in it so when he burns the screen, and puts his special edge in the atmosphere, I, along with everyone else in the theatre, sensed the upping of the stakes, the shift from good film to great. That Bowie then sits down with Hugh Jackman and has a lengthy discourse on the atrophying nature of obsession is perfection. It reminded me of other Bowie films, and that little hit of Other he gives them. There’s no way Labyrinth would have entered the cultural lexicon had Bowie not been in it, bringing his weird alchemy. And that’s not to mention the impact of his musical legacy and performance art, which I won’t go into here because it’s been written about better than I ever could elsewhere. Anyway, the next evening, I sat in the armchair in my office, plugged in my over-ear headphones, and listened to Blackstar, the album he dropped (pre-dating Beyonce) just days before his death. It opens with Bowie singing a haunting lyric, sung in a hymn-like, plangent tone:

In the villa of Ormen, stands a solitary candle. In the centre of it all. Your eyes.

Late at night, cold winter at the window, it’s hard not to be moved by the sonic farewell given to us by one of the world’s great culture icons. It’s inaccessible for long passages but there is always the shock of brilliance here and there. By the end of the album, Bowie sings in a minor key, ‘I can’t give it all, I can’t give it all…’ This was of course a dying man singing. The album, and first track, are called Blackstar – the name ascribed to cancerous lesions. It is a melancholic way to end the album, as if he is failing now, unable to be the force he once was: I can’t give it all… Until he completes the lyric, the music shifting into a major chord, symphonically rendered as he finishes… Away. I can’t give it all away, is the last line Bowie recorded. The last word: Away.

When it was finished I sat there for a moment. And started the album over again. In the villa of Ormen, he sang. Lies a solitary candle. I picked up my phone and googled Ormen. Or maybe it was Ørmen, a village in Norway. A superb article I found on the Guardian’s website that attempted to untangle the mysteries of Bowie’s last album noted that his girlfriend went to the village in 1969 to make a film. Had Bowie visited? In 2013 he wore a T-Shirt with the words Song of Norway on it, the name of the film. Another theory cited Ormen being the Norwegian word for serpent. In the villa of the Serpent. Bowie had been through occult phases and was a disciple of Aleister Crowley.

I picked up the album booklet and flicked through it. The lyrics are written in black letters on a black backdrop. They are discernible only when you hold the booklet at the right angle to the light, because the words are gloss against matt. And there are some photos too. One is a striking portrait of Bowie in profile, the collar of his coat turned up as if it is winter, the sky behind him on fire.

Bowie Blackstar

The photograph of Bowie in the Blackstar album art

 I couldn’t help but be struck by how similar it is to the cover of his album, Low, but here he is facing the other way, and he is older, almost like Dorian Gray staring at the portrait, two photographs inextricably linked across the decades. And, don’t forget because maybe this is important for later, Low was the first of the Berlin albums, the era in which he spent lots of time in Germany, mixing with a huge number of artists behind, and in front of, the iron curtain.

Bowie Low

The cover of Low

 The picture is strange, almost blurred but somehow maintaining focus at the same time, as if viewing it is to see through the eyes of somebody going slowly blind. I grabbed my magnifying glass. There was something there but it was too small to see so I brought the picture to my microscope and took a closer look. Though invisible to the naked eye the picture is laid on top of a repeating pattern of tiny circles. Circles, going on and on and on. Circles in mysticism represent the never-ending nature of things, the recycling of elements as they disappear into black holes, the same elements that are formed in the birth of stars. Energy is neither created nor destroyed; it simply moves from one form to another. A snake eating its own tail. The immortal nature of all things.

Moving back to my armchair I flicked through the booklet again. I kept coming back to the lyric, In the villa of Ormen. There was something familiar about it. A Google search brings up little about the Norwegian village, other than it was referenced in the song. The Wikipedia entry is just a few lines. It stands on the Østfold railway line. A station was opened there in 1914 but has since fallen into disuse. On Google Earth it appears as just a few farmsteads dotted either side of the 110 highway, south of Lake Skinnerflo, a popular birdwatching spot. Why would this be familiar to me?

And then I remembered something. This summer past I worked in the library stores of Cardiff University, principally moving old PhD and MPhil theses from an old site marked for demolition to a new temperature and moisture-controlled one. Before shelving each thesis in its new home I dusted them down with a microfibre cloth, a process that involved wiping the covers and spines before opening the folio to clean the end sheets, particularly where they are glued to the covers as this is the point where mould can take hold. It was a time-consuming procedure and, because of this, I was paying attention to the titles. The Status of Teaching of Fine Arts in Secondary Schools in Baghdad, Iraq by Abdul Jabbar Mustafa Al-Bakri (1989), The Propagation of MM Waves in the Atmosphere by S J Pickard (1984), Covalent Hydration in Complexes of N-Heterocyclic Molecules by C T Hughes (1983).


The temperature-controlled library store I was working in

 There are so many niche entries into the most obscure corners of academia I found it hard to understand how we carry this great weight of data forward in one piece – what knowledge, along the way, has fallen between the cracks as we advance our species down just the one line of scientific Truth? On my phone I’d started making notes of some of the more exotic titles and, if they piqued my curiosity enough, I would sneak a glance inside. Now, in my office late at night, I scrolled through the notes on my phone. And that’s when I found it:

Alchemy, Christian Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Mesmerism and Occultism in Norway by Andreas von Weston (1973).

I’ve recently started a new job in Public Engagement at the School of Pharmacy but during my lunch break the day after I listened to Blackstar I popped along to the stores. It was raining hard and the storm battered the iron roof of the building that housed the theses. The light in the aisle where I had shelved the von Weston PhD had blown (which is weird in and of itself) so I had to find the spot with the light on my phone. The book wasn’t there.

Being back in that book bay had jump-started my memory, and why this thesis in particular had been different (apart from the title). It had been tied shut with a length of twine that, over the years, had grown brittle and thin. I’d had to snap the twine to get into the book. But that did little to explain why it was now missing.

I went into the office of the Operation’s Manager, and asked if there had been any rearranging. The wind battered the building and made it rattle. She told me that there hadn’t but that I’d missed some drama. A few days before a tree had fallen and smashed one of the small windows. A white cat had got in and seemed to have been living there for a couple of days until they found it – several mouse and bird carcasses had been discovered scattered around the stores.

I went home and decided to Google Andreas von Weston, to see if the PhD had been digitalised. It is the goal of many universities to digitise all of their old theses. I was in luck. But at the same time I couldn’t help but notice the news article of von Weston that came up on the feed. The article gave a potted history of the man. Following his PhD he had gone on to become an esteemed Professor of Ancient History at Universitetet i Tromsø – Norges Arktiske Universitet or The Arctic University of Norway, the world’s northernmost university. But the news article wasn’t about his academic career. In early 2016 he mysteriously disappeared. This was strange to his friends (he was unmarried) as he lived a cloistered life of academia and had, according to those who knew him, never taken a holiday.  The article went on to explain that some months later his body was discovered – and this is where things get strange – on the shore of Lake Skinnerflo, the body of water that lies just north of Ørmen. I devoured all the stories I could find but because they were written in Norwegian it was tough going. Google Translate only gave me snippets.

I downloaded the PDF of his PhD and started reading. It was a dry, lengthy treatise on esoteric theories of alchemy and various other magicks, as well as, I saw, the philosopher’s stone and immortality. For centuries, the philosopher’s stone was the holy grail of alchemy. An alchemical substance that had the ability to turn base metals into gold, it could also be consumed orally to cure sick patients and also, so the story goes, to grant everlasting life. As I read on I couldn’t help but notice von Weston consistently referring to an esoteric text called the The Dragon Tree of Midas, an ancient work from the fourteenth century by a famed esotericist called Wolfgang Freidrich Mőller. Mőller belonged to an obscure sect of scientist monks who called themselves the Monks of Alkahest – Alkahest being an alchemical solvent supposedly able to break all substances into their component ingredients, I discovered.

I couldn’t stop now. I went to Cardiff University’s Voyager, its library search tool. Unbelievably, they it. Even more unbelievably, it was the last existing copy. It was housed in the Special Collections and Archives, a department buried in the basement of the Arts and Social Sciences library; a treasure trove of rare books and relics. I went along. It’s in a sealed off part of the library but as a staff member I have access. I asked the librarian there, an elderly gentleman in a smart burgundy cardigan and grey Farah slacks, if I could take a look at The Dragon Tree of Midas and he looked at me inquisitively.

‘You’re the second person who’s asked for that book in the last week,’ he said.

I asked him who else had requested it and he said a strange young man. This of course struck me as an odd way to describe somebody so I asked him what he meant.

‘Well I remember him because he was… strange. He was handsome but… there was something about him. He was wearing a suit with a long, black overcoat. And he was holding a black, wide-brimmed fedora. I remember that.’

‘That doesn’t sound that strange.’

‘It wasn’t that. You know when you get a feeling about somebody? His face was odd, like he was wearing a mask. A life-like mask. Very strange.’

‘Did he see the book?’

‘He was a public member so I couldn’t let him in. It’s funny. When I looked it up, the book had been embargoed for mould when it first arrived, and the embargo had been held in place for decades afterwards.’


‘Strict orders of the old Vice-Chancellor. Of course, when he retired the embargo was lifted and we were able to house it properly. And now two people comes asking for it at the same time.’

Just then, a woman came up behind me, another member of staff returning from lunch.

‘They got that cat,’ she said.

The man glanced up at me. ‘Had a problem with a cat getting in here,’ he said.

‘A cat?’ I said.

‘Found him in here one morning. Beautiful thing. Perfectly white all over.’

‘How could you find him in here? The place is locked off from the rest of the library and temperature controlled – everything’s sealed. There’s no way in.’

‘That’s not exactly true,’ said the librarian. He went on to explain there is a small lift, too small for a human but big enough for a box of books, much like a dumbwaiter in a restaurant. I found it unlikely that a cat would get into the library and then jump into a lift. I’d even go so far as to say it’s impossible. But I wasn’t here to worry about cats. As the elderly gent showed me to the book I said it was strange how a rare book like this would find its way to Cardiff University. He told me that, in fact, Cardiff is a prestigious university in the field of theology, but that when he got back to his desk he’d check its provenance for me.

Special Collections

Part of the Special Collections in the Arts and Social Science Library at Cardiff University

The Dragon Tree of Midas is a thick, heavy volume with tough vellum covers and parchment leaves. Its edges are sprayed gold and deckled. A bronze lock keeps it shut but the key has long been lost and the lock mechanism has failed so you can open it with your fingers. There is a chain at the spine, which shows how old the book is – spines as they appear today only existed from 1535 onwards. Before that books weren’t stored on shelves (scrolls were, but not books, at least not spine up as they are now) but in the carrels of monks – each book had its own desk; it was the monks that moved around. The chains were used so that the books couldn’t be moved. Inside is a title page with different-coloured letters. A dragon frames the title, flowing around it in a circle. After a table of contents we get to the book proper. It is handwritten in a tiny, delicate script that leans from left to right across the page. There are the scars of mould that has long since died back. There are many drawings of geometrical shapes depicting the chemical make-up of base elements, up to more complex molecular structures. It is written in Latin, which I don’t understand, but one thing I did notice was the repetition of a couple of words: medicamenta chymica.

Obviously you can’t check books like The Dragon Tree of Midas out of the library, but I needed to run it through a Latin translation page and so I did the only sane thing – I put it in the little lift and pressed the up button before going to leave the Special Collections section. The elderly librarian was sitting in his place at the reception desk and stopped me as I passed. I thought I’d been caught but instead he said to me, ‘I looked up your book. It came from Trondheim, purchased in 1974 by one,’ he squinted at the computer screen in front of him, ‘…Andreas von Weston.’

I collected the book from the lift, made sure no-one was looking as I left, and tossed it over the top of the magnetic scanners to catch it on the other side. It’s a simple enough way of getting books out of a library, not that I’d ever recommend that of course.

Next, I scanned the pages into a handwriting program that turned them into computer text, which I then ran through Eprevodilac, a Latin translation programme, painstakingly copying and pasting the text into a new, English version of The Dragon Tree of Midas MS Word file, to my knowledge the only English language version that exists. The whole process would probably take me a couple of months but by yesterday I’d scanned about a quarter of the book. Of course the Latin translation isn’t perfect but it’s workable – it kind of made sense – and I’d started emailing the day’s pages to my Kindle and reading it at night.

It begins with a lengthy history of the author, written by himself, of how he grew up in the Black Forest where, during a long hike he took when he was a boy, so he says, he… (sic) “happened across a wizened old woman who had in her home a set of instrumentations of the most scientific. In a misen (bowl) of (pewter) she concocted what she told the boy that was me was (chemical medicines).”

But the words “chemical medicines” read on the original page in Latin, which I cross-checked the next day, as medicamenta chymica. It was this “substance” that would consume Wolfgang Freidrich Mőller’s life. He became an apothecary in Germany, an iatrochemical pharmacist in fact, where he worked under the guidance of Jochum van Helmont, apparently a revolutionary chymist who inspired Martin Ruland the Edler’s Progymnasmata alchymie, a hugely influential tome of alchemical esoterica. Mőller was obsessed with re-creating whatever it was he’d seen that day in the witch’s cave and slowly, so he tells the reader, he started to do just this.

The book is written strangely, not in the way a linear narrative as would be told today. It keeps alluding to stages that occur later in the book. So we learn, right away, that Mőller believed he had discovered a substance that could cure any ailment, including ageing. Every few paragraphs he keeps coming back to this substance, his medicamenta chymica. Reading the book reminded me of a tide moving up a beach, each wave breaking just an inch further up the sand before drawing back into itself. Total coverage. The final substance, that would be revealed in the last chapter, could not work alone. Before granting everlasting life to whomsoever might consume it, a series of stages must be completed. Were the patient to imbibe the medicamenta chymica on its own it would poison them. The patient must be prepared via a staged progression, much in the way the body can be trained to build resistance to certain bacteria if they are present in the environment when growing up. He called the path of these stages the Pilgrimage.

It was fascinating and I found myself reading late into the night several times a week. The title, The Dragon Tree of Midas, referred to an experiment Mőller claimed to have created whereby he “planted” a “seed” of gold into a “soil” of chemicals, tended to the seed for several months, before the gold started to use the soil to expand out, creating more gold, building new atoms around itself from the ambient chemistry in the way an organic seed becomes a plant using the nutrients of its soil. The success of this experiment, Mőller said, was proof of concept for the philosopher’s stone. If one could transmute base metal into gold, as he had done, why could one not – with the correct “alkahest” substances – transmute the human form from mortal to immortal?

This seemed very weird to me. Surely if this experiment had been conducted, it proved that alchemy was not the pseudoscience we think of it as today, but something more. I googled, and came across a scientist named Lawrence Principe who, in the 1980s at Johns Hopkins University, gathered some experimental blueprints from old alchemical texts, and mixed specially prepared mercury with gold, placing the soft mixture at the bottom of a flask before burying it in a heated sand bath. As the experiment progressed, he went into his lab to discover that the mixture had grown up out of the flask, into a tree-like structure. Made of gold.

I kept thinking about how the dead-ends that science had taken before returning to the path of progress that has given us the modern world. What if the dead-ends weren’t dead-ends at all? The more I read, the more this idea seemed to have traction. Newton had based his work on optics on earlier alchemical theories, Robert Boyle – one of the founders of modern chemistry – built his hypotheses and truths on the back of the alchemist, Daniel Sennert.

One chapter in The Dragon Tree of Midas was particularly strange. Mőller describes how, on the fourteenth stage of the “Pilgrimage,” the patient, “might transfigure the basic essence of self from the human to the animal.” Now. I don’t think he was talking about animal shapeshifting. Alchemists often used esoteric language like this as metaphors for chemical processes (earth, wind and fire are translated as oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, for example), but I was unable to decipher this particular passage. It got me thinking. If the constituent parts of an animal could be rendered into its component amino acids (linked to the theory of Vitalism; see later) then, according to alchemical lore, the amino acids could be reformed into any animal. We know this is theoretically true – that’s what stem cells do. I’m not saying for a second that shapeshifting via alchemy is possible (obviously), but it’s a cool idea.

It was weird to think how all of this had started with me listening to Bowie’s final album. I recalled the album cover of Low. It wasn’t the only link with Blackstar. The harmonica instrumental from the 7th track on Low (A New Career in a New Town) is recycled into a track on Blackstar – that final, beautiful refrain, I can’t Give Everything Away. Why was Bowie thinking of Low so much during the making of Blackstar? Was it too far a leap to think that the Occultism that was floating around the highest echelons of power in 1930s Germany was still alive in the Berlin of the late 1970s? Or was he just reflecting on a fond period of his life where he kicked drugs and found nirvana in the melting pot that was the Berlin art scene of that time?

There are thirty-three stages in the Pilgrimage and I had read as far stage seventeen when something happened that stopped my studies. Amy had gone to London for a publishing party so I had the house to myself for the night. I’d intended to crack on with The Dragon Tree of Midas. After work I ran some errands in the spitting, wind-tossed rain, picked up some dinner, and it was dark and cold by the time I got back to my house. There’s a sensor outside out front door that triggers with motion to turn on the porchway light but tonight it didn’t work. Fishing my keys out I managed to get the door open. A gust of wind blew it open before me and a few autumn leaves raced past up the hallway. They drew my eyes into the house and I dropped my bags when, against the window at the back of the house, a figure, silhouetted in the window frame, moved into the darkness. I swore and fumbled for the light switch, fear putting a drumbeat in my heart. But when the light came on there was nobody in the room, save for a snowy white cat. The relief was immediate. It was Alaska (as me and Amy know him because he’s so white), a local neighbourhood cat. But why was he in my house? We’d never even been able to get close to him for a fuss. He came up to me, his tail upright, and I noticed it wasn’t Alaska but a cat I’d never seen before. Alaska has green eyes but this cat’s eyes were not green. They were different colours – one green, and one blue. Seemingly as unhinged by the sudden interruption to its day as I was, it went to get past me to the open door. That’s when I realised its eyes weren’t a different colour. One of its pupils was dilated, as wide a saucer, whilst the other was the more familiar feline slit. The cat rushed past me and into the night.

I stood there for a second before calling my own cats. But they didn’t come. I couldn’t find them anywhere downstairs and it was very odd because ordinarily they’d be standing over their food bowls by now looking at me expectantly. It was only when I got into the bedroom that I found them. All three of them were curled together in the open wardrobe. If you knew my cats you’d know how out of character this is for them. Especially Aniseed, who usually won’t let Henry or Sheldon anywhere near her. Now they were all cowering together in a cupboard. I gave them their food and, as cats do, they soon went back to normal, coming and going through the cat flap, scratching the back door to get back in. But it had unnerved me, not least of all because both the Arts library, and the stores, had reported white a cat getting into their buildings around the same time activity was taking place around alchemical textbooks, one of which was now sitting on my bedside table.

I took a shower, ate my dinner, texted Amy a couple of times, and went for a long walk before the call of The Dragon Tree of Midas became too strong for me to ignore. I couldn’t resist doing what I did next. Here’s the thing. If you remember, von Weston’s original PhD thesis had made many allusions to Mőller’s text. In fact, having now familiarised myself with the original Dragon Tree of Midas, I knew the von Weston PhD had outlined all the stages of the Pilgrimage. Apart from the final one. Von Weston said it would be foolish to keep all the stages in one place because the power one could control with this knowledge was too great. Yes, he had ordered the only copy of the original tome (with all of the stages) to Cardiff University but, I had discovered, he had never taken receipt of it. By the time booked arrived from its previous home in Bali, von Weston had been dismissed from the university’s academic staff in a scandal over an affair with a student, a scandal he vehemently denied in the few news clippings of the incident I found on the university’s Micro Fische. He had been replaced by a Professor Theraj, who had been waiting in the wings and who, wouldn’t you know it, had been missing since January 2016, the same time that von Weston was being fished out of Lake Skinnerflo. Had von Weston ordered the last remaining copy of The Dragon Tree of Midas to destroy it? And why had the VC embargoed it for all those years? To keep it away from the person who superseded von Weston – this Professor Theraj?

Because I’m so impatient I’d already scanned and translated the last chapter of the Dragon Tree of Midas. I had intended to read it at the end, in the correct order, but I had a sense that time was running out. Usually we sleep with the bedroom door open so the cats can come and go but tonight, it was closed. I picked up my Kindle and started reading. Google translated the opening line:

“In the old ancestral grand house of Ørmen there shone a single streak of light.”

Any hint of sleep dissipated. I knew this final chapter would describe how to prepare the final mixture that would grant eternal life – Mőller’s medicamenta chymica – but I hadn’t even glanced at it. I had no idea it would open like this. Suddenly things were clicking into place. Before letting my mind get ahead of itself I read on. Up until this point many of the alchemical preparations Mőller described for the stages of the Pilgrimage involved earthbound metals and elements – zinc, manganese, iron, potassium, etc. But now, at the end, one needed to mix gold with, what Mőller called, “the dust of broken Nibiru.” I needed to check but thought I recognised this word. My recognition was confirmed with a quick look on my phone. Nibiru is a hidden planet that orbits the black hole at the centre of our galaxy, rather than the sun. Many doomsday cults worship this secret planet, postulating that it will collide with earth and destroy mankind at some point in the near future. Oh, and goes by different names. Some call it Nemesis. And some call it Blackstar. Though the stuff of tinfoil hat conspiracists, here it was being referenced in an ancient text and, moreover, that it had been broken apart at some point in the distant past. However, as I said earlier, these old alchemists were fond of mystifying things, hiding behind a lexicon of ancient mythology. I’d found an online dictionary for alchemical phrases and the dust of broken Nibiru was in there. It was how they described iridium. Iridium is a very rare element on earth, but is common in asteroids. If iridium is found on earth, it more than likely has an extra terrestrial origin i.e. it is the remnant of meteors fallen to earth. When the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs struck earth, it exploded on impact and left a thin layer of iridium around the whole planet as the dust from the cataclysm settled back from the atmosphere to terra firma. No dinosaur skeleton has ever been found above that line – strong evidence for the asteroid impact theory of extinction 66 million years ago. I Googled “Asteroid Ørmen” and the only result returned was under, “Scholarly Articles Relating to Asteroid Ørmen.” Because I’m a member of Cardiff University staff I have access to academic journals that standard Google users don’t. There was only one article, published in the Norwegian Journal of Geology in 1972:

Evidence of asteroid impact in Southern Norway Ref: 59.299, 10.900.

I checked the grid reference. Sure enough, it was Ørmen. More precisely, as I switched to satellite view, the grid reference was in the direct centre of a strange, perfectly oval woodland just to the east of the 110 road. The shape of an eye. The article provided evidence of an iron and nickel-dense bolide striking the earth on the 6th June in the year 666. Historical documents reported a fireball in the night sky being viewed and recorded from areas as far away as Oslo on that date. On that night, the seat of power – the old manor house in, yes, Ørmen – was destroyed. Levelled by some heavenly force. Deposits of iridium were found all around the site in concentric circles, and remote sensing showed topography in keeping with craters that have been heavily eroded oover time. When I say concentric circles, the map of iridium deposits in the article shows oval shapes expanding outwards from the impact site. This phrase caught my eye: “The richest concentrations of iridium found on earth to date.”

This was unbelievable. My heart was beating. I read on. It was necessary to mix the gold shavings with x9 measure of the iridium that came from, specifically, the iridium-rich asteroid that struck Ørmen. Leave this compound for one lunar cycle before adding a x3 measure of calcium carbonate solution and drink 1/128 Aum over the course of three hours (an Aum being 32 gallons). Drinking metal shavings should kill you but, according to Mőller, this won’t happen because of the resistance the body has built up over the course of the Pilgrimage. Instead, vitalistic properties (vitalism is the study of the soul – the idea that “life” is some strange force that exists beyond chemistry and physics) are brought down to their base building blocks and remoulded into something that can never die. And that was that. A thirty-three stage progression to everlasting life? Or the ramblings of a mad man? Clearly I wasn’t the only person who gave the theory some credence – who was the other person trying to get their hands on this only-surviving manuscript of The Dragon Tree of Midas? And what was the white cat with the strange eyes? Obviously I had, by this point, some idea of who this mysterious person was but, even now, I can’t bring myself to write it because it’s too preposterous.

Instead, I’ll just tell you what happened next. I fetched all my cats into the bedroom, closed the door again, put the book under my pillow and fell asleep. My house was all locked up – there was no way anybody could get in – and if that cat did come back it wouldn’t be able to get into the room because not even sentient cats have the strength to open doors.

When I woke up, in the middle of the night, I could just make out the shape of a man, willowy thin, coming towards the bed in the darkness. He leaned over me.

‘Don’t do this,’ I said. ‘You don’t want to live forever.’

‘Give me your hands,’ the figure said, his voice wavy and ethereal.

I did as I was told.

And then the man said, ‘You’re wonderful.’

I turned my face towards the figure. I could see two squares of white moonlight in his eyes. I should have been terrified but I was not. This thing standing over my bed, beyond the otherness, was kindly. I sensed this kindness keenly.

‘You mustn’t worry,’ he said. ‘I have simply moved to my 193rd iteration.’

I thought about these words, until I understood that this man, whoever he was, was already immortal. ‘So why do you need the book?’ I said.

‘It is not for me. It is to protect it from another. Somebody would use the Gift in ways I do not. You must be a very diligent member of staff. Taking that twine off a fifty year old PhD.’ I recalled its brittle, dusty nature. ‘Of course, that lifted the curse for anybody already on the Pilgrimage.’

I understood immediately. The curse had been preventing certain people – who, I didn’t know – from reading the thesis. ‘But the PhD was online. They could read it online.’

‘Ah, yes, the digital age. Not so fiercely modern that it can circumnavigate the old magicks. Even in the ones and zeros of the Internet the curse held.’

‘So I?’

‘Inadvertently. Yes. He was able to read it. All apart from the last chapter of course. Hence why I am here now. For the book.’


‘The old professor.’

A new world was opening up before me, a tiny crack of a door opening, and beyond an infinity of something happening behind the scenes that we in our busy modern lives turned away from centuries ago.

‘Theraj?’ I said.

‘All will be well. Soon the danger will pass. The opportunity to press against the Grain will close when I take hold fully of the new iteration. I’m just glad I got to you first.’

I thought of the mysterious Professor Theraj, the man who had replaced von Weston, and who had been missing since January 2016. So he wasn’t dead after all. Who was he? What kind of powerplays are happening beyond our understanding? I wanted to say something more to the being that stood over my bed, but I found myself overwhelmed.

‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘You don’t need to say anything, I already know.’

And with that, I drifted off to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, the sky was a crisp winter blue. I rolled over and Sheldon hopped up on to the bed and nuzzled up to me, hoping for breakfast. I reached under my pillow but I don’t know why. I knew the Dragon Tree of Midas wouldn’t be there. And it wasn’t.