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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).

Library

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.’

‘Really?’

‘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.’

‘He?’

‘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.

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Philip Pullman and Me

La Belle Sauvage

The Book of Dust Cover – completely beautiful

It was my first day of work at the British Gas call centre. I’d got the job through an agency and wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Rumour had it that the seats had sensors on them so they knew when you weren’t at your desk. This was all put into an algorithm for the team leaders to check you’d spent enough time in front of your computer screen, headset on, actually working. There was to be no hiding out in the toilet.

We were having our mass inductions. A Team Leader called Darren (I think) strode confidently into the room. He was around five foot six with a thin body and hollow cheeks. He bulked out his frame with an over-sized suit and power shoulders. He was enthusiastic as he introduced himself and told us where the fire exits were in case the building caught fire during the induction.

‘Ok guys,’ he said. ‘I want you to imagine you’re on the phone to a customer and they think there’s a gas leak. What do you do?’

He looked around the room for raised hands. You fool Darren, I thought; none of us are here to participate. We’re taking this crappy job to get money and do smallest amount of work possible. We’re not going to play your stupid games. But to my surprise, hands were going up. Darren nodded to one.

‘Open the windows.’

‘Good. Great answer. Yes, open the window. That way, if there’s any gas it can be let out through the windows. What else?’

‘Don’t turn on the lights.’

‘Yes! Really good. Does anyone know why you shouldn’t switch the lights on?’

‘Because it can cause a spark,’ said several voices around the room.

I was horrified. Why was everyone trying? It was as if they wanted to do a good job.

Of course the reason for this, as I discovered some years later, was because they were good people and I was a twat.

‘Brilliant!’ said Darren. ‘Great stuff. Yes, turning on a light switch can cause a spark that can ignite any leaking gas. Ok. Maybe it’s best to have a break at this point.’

We’d literally been having our induction for about fifteen minutes. Over hot drinks people talked and started the process of getting to know one another. I stewed in a corner. I hated this. I didn’t want to be here. I’d only got a job because, about a week previous, my mother in her exasperation at my not working had called me a Fat Lazy Ginger Slug. Just think about that for a second. A Fat, Lazy, Ginger Slug. From a mother to a son. A slug! Have you seen those things?! But it worked. That very same day I was back in the job market and The Novel was on pause.

Orange slug

Ginger Slug

In fairness, The Novel was really just a phrase I used to spend every day eating cream of tomato soup and watching Spongebob Squarepants. But surely this, being told the stuff about gas leaks I’d been taught in school at the age of eight, was a bridge too far. I had a Batchelor of Science degree in geography from Swansea University – did they not realise this?

Break over it was back to work. I can’t remember the second part of the morning but at lunch I trekked across Cardiff city centre to Waterstones and saw on one of the tables a book called Northern Lights by an author called Philip Pullman. You should never judge a book by its cover but this cover, with a golden compass-like instrument surrounded by weird symbols, drew me in. I paid for the book and took it to the rooftop café of the David Morgan department store.

David Morgans

David Morgan

Don’t bother looking for it; it’s not there anymore. It’s now a TK Maxx – quite a fall from grace for a prestige boutique store that once employed none other than Michael Aspel.

Michael Aspel

Aspel getting a tour David Morgan’s

But I used to go there a lot, to the top floor, where you could hide away and look out across the Hayes, at all the people rushing around.

I bought myself a tea and sat down with my new book. And was immediately transported. The very first sentence had a strange new word in it that piqued my mind: dæmon. I didn’t know what this was, other than Lyra had one and its name was Pantalaimon. I had no clue that the idea of a soul existing as the form of an animal outside one’s body would give me, later, some of the most moving moments I’ve ever read in books. I was hooked by the meeting that takes place in that opening in a re-imagined Victorian Oxford, by the the talk of a mysterious element called Dust that had supposedly been discovered by the mysterious Lord Asriel during an expedition to the North and how, through this Dust, he’d found a city that existed in another dimension.Northern Lights cover I sat there and read and the time ticked by until it was time to go back to British Gas. But I didn’t want to go back to British Gas. I wanted to stay here and keep reading. Dramatically, I told myself this was a watershed moment. I was going to choose a job or a book – a career, or something else. And of course there was the added frisson of a wrathful mother thrown into the mix.

I chose the book.

I read all afternoon and took the train into town until the end of the week, pretending to go to work, when in fact I was going to the rooftop café to read Northern Lights and then, after that, The Subtle Knife. I was completely in love with these books. They were so rich and dense, but such page-turners as well. After I finished The Amber Spyglass, the last in the trilogy, I was devastated. But I knew what had to be done. I needed to write my own epic trilogy of YA fiction. And so began a two year period of The Beginning of all Things, the story of a mysterious group of figures who could alter the laws of physics to stop evil from penetrating and overwhelming the world. Unfortunately, it was rubbish. But I did feel that I cut my teeth writing that book (I only completed one of the three).

In the meantime I kept an eye on what Philip Pullman wrote, devoured Lyra’s Oxford and had tears in my eyes at one sentence in Once Upon A Time in the North relating to Lee Scorseby’s gun. About five years ago (I think, it could be a little longer, or a little shorter), I couldn’t sleep and found myself trawling in the depths of the night the forums of Philip Pullman’s official website, which he used to post on from time to time. And I came across an entry mentioning something called The Book of Dust. I kept searching. The Book of Dust, like Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, seemed to be a companion piece to the His Dark Materials trilogy. But this book was going to be much bigger than the other two companion pieces. It was, I learned, a major project. That the title contained the word Dust made me really excited. The theory of Dust was, for me, one of the most compelling things about the original books. I was overjoyed and became, as I am wont to do, obsessed with this new book. I Googled it at least every month but nothing seemed to be happening. About a year later there was another nugget of information: Pullman had said that he was now spending all his time on the novel. I knew his technique. Every day he goes to his shed (actually, he no longer goes to his shed as he’s moved) and writes three pages longhand in his notepad. That’s his day’s work. Sometimes he writes them quickly, sometimes it takes him nearly twenty-four hours. But every day he writes three pages.

Pullman was on Twitter and every few months I Tweeted him: Can you tell us about the progress of the Book of Dust? And occasionally he would. The answer was always the same. “Today it is three pages longer than it was yesterday.” So I knew this book was going to be huge. I often thought of it, growing by three pages a day, for many years. It would be over a thousand pages. This was music to my ears. But still no news. It was only this year, 2017, that news of The Book of Dust broke in the mainstream. And it was no longer one book but three! I could not wait. Because David Morgan’s closed in 2005 I knew I would be unable to relive the ceremony of beginning this new trilogy in the rooftop café so I interviewed new venues. The winner was the Costa Coffee on Park Place, opposite Cardiff University’s Main Building. It was a red brick Victorian building with warm décor that reminded me of the Dark Materials world. Added to this, it had opened around Christmas time, the time I first read Northern Lights. Bear in mind I started planning reading Book of Dust there around 2012. I know it’s quite pathetic but these small rituals are what I live for. Last month, the Costa on Park Place closed. The building is to be demolished. So I won’t be reading the novel there. For some reason, this really distressed me for a good few weeks. But eventually I moved on and started thinking of alternatives. My new frontrunner is Café Zest in Howells – another old world department store, in a hidden corner on the second floor where you can disappear into the city. The book has been out for three days now. I ordered a signed copy from WHSmith and the orders have been messed up so I haven’t even got mine yet. I’ve picked up copies in Tesco and Asda and have managed to restrain myself from reading more than a few lines but from the opening paragraph I already know the world of the originals is still right there. I’m copyediting a new book at the moment so have made the decision to not start The Book of Dust (or La Belle Sauvage as this instalment is called) until I’m finished because I want to give it my full attention. I’ve waited the best part of a decade; a few more days won’t hurt.

Those original books have become something more to me, just as a song helps crystallise important moments in a life, so these books did the same for me. They came along at a time when my journey could have taken a completely different direction had I not bought Northern Lights and returned to British Gas. Not a better life, or a worse life, but a different one. Perhaps beyond the Dust that universe is playing out right now.

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Classic Form Custard Slice

Custard Slice Classic

The Classic Form. It has everything.

 

Managed to find myself a classic form custard slice the other day, on a day trip to Monmouth. What’s happened to custard slices these days? I first noticed the change around 2003. The classic form was being slowly replaced by a newer, more “continental” version, not dissimilar to the way native red squirrels were out-competed by their larger cousin the grey, when they first arrived on these shores from America in the 1870s. The deep mustard yellow of the classic form custard had given way to a more vivid, lemon yellow, a ludicrous colour. And the pastry had switched from short crust to the less satisfying filo. Whereas the classic form could be turned on its side and sliced easily (see photo) the newer form went into structural meltdown under the weight of a knife. This was in part due to the strange molecular shift that had taken place in the new custard. The older, classic form held together well, a tightly-compacted mass held within a strict latticework of chemical bonds. The 21st Century custard is like mush, as if the classic form has undergone a kind of trauma, as happens to shale deposits under the liquefying pressure of fracking. Taste. In the classic form there are layers of sensation: from the sweetness of the pastry that melts into the indulgent stodginess of the custard with the high note of the icing coming through at the end. That “pilgrimage” of taste is lost in the Y2K Slice. Now it’s just a slimy coldness from start to finish. The pure aesthetic of the Classic, the contrasting colours, like the flag of some exotic Caribbean island, has been replaced by various shades of cream. I still eat them, don’t get me wrong, but they have fallen way down the league table. The Classic Form is hands down my favourite food and I have watched silently its sad demise in this new technological, globalised millennium but finding this treasure up a side street of the sleepy farming town of Monmouth has awakened a fight in me. We must bring the classic form back. What else is the disintegration of the Classic population than the beigeing of our society, the sliding creep towards mediocrity we see across all art? Whale populations across the globe are rallying; conservation efforts can work. Get round your grans’ houses. FORCE her to make the custard slices of your childhood. We can do this. As my great hero Barack Obama (also, I assume, a massive fan of the classic form custard slice) always used to assure us. Yes. We. Can.

Custard Slice 2000s

The Y2K slice. Just look at it. What a mess!

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My Brain Experiments and the Phosphene – A Halloween Blog (Part 3/3)

overhead-light

A few nights later the headaches still hadn’t eased, the sense of dizziness remained. I decided I wouldn’t be helping out with the brain experiments at the university any more. I’d started taking long walks because I was becoming restless at night. That same feeling of something being close wouldn’t go away. But despite this I was compelled to walk at night. I felt consistently uneasy and to curb the headaches I was taking painkillers all day and they were making me zoned out. I thought about contacting Carl and telling him what I was experiencing but knew it was pointless. The dull pain and fried feeling were nothing to do with the experiment. They were to do with whatever it was I was now convinced had followed me out of that room. Carl could do nothing for that. I researched phosphenes but nothing like what I was going through was to be found anywhere in the literature. I wondered if I had somehow psychokinetically brought something from some other place and even though I knew how patently ridiculous that was, the feeling wouldn’t go away.

My sleep had changed. I could no longer remember my dreams and I was falling so deeply into sleep that when I woke up it was almost as if I’d drifted so far away I hadn’t been in my body at all. This might have been due in part to the volume of painkillers I was taking. I was also losing weight quickly. Despite these deep sleeps I was exhausted in the days. By the time I finished my day job and then my shifts in the library at midnight I was drifting across the road, trying to keep my eyes open on the drive home. And all the while the pervading sense of a presence being near.

Christmas came and went but the festivities did little to rouse me from the malaise that had descended. I was cranky and was snapping at people in work and at home. My girlfriend said she was worried about me but I’d just respond by shrugging or mumbling something under my breath.

The university would email me from time to time to take part in more experiments but I didn’t respond. I noticed the messages from Carl had dried up entirely. In the weeks and months after the experiment he’d been dropping me the occasional line to check I was ok. I never replied to him.

Then, one night, at the end of January, I was out walking. It was well past two in the morning and it was sleeting. I’d taken to walking for two or three hours at this point, waiting until Amy had gone to bed so she didn’t realise I was staying out so late. Sometimes she’d wake up when I got back and sometimes she would ask the time and I’d tell her it was half twelve or one o’clock and to go back to sleep. That night I felt like I could walk forever. My route usually took me around the housing estates because I felt too unnerved to wander off onto the trails and nature reserves that surround my house. But that night something was different.entrance-to-canal The presence, which was now so familiar that I hardly even noticed it was pushing me towards the canal that ran behind the abandoned mental hospital. Along either side of the canal grew tall tress, that leaned over the water like a cathedral archway and as I moved beneath them the light from the streets was soon absorbed and I was near complete darkness. Almost immediately the presence drew close to me, behind my back and it pressed something like a hand to the back of my neck. Pain shot through me and down my face in the exact way it had all those months ago in the lab. It buckled me at the knees and I fell, almost into the dark waters of the canal.

I heard a breathing now, behind me, shallow and trembling. Where the presence had made contact with my neck I felt a coldness and a flowing, as if I were bleeding. I put my hand there but it came away dry. But there was a sensation on my hand, of a vapour moving across it, out of my neck. Something was flowing out of me. I could feel it. The best way to describe it is was as if my body had a kind of meta-webbing right the way through it, something beyond science but which will essential to my existence as Rhys Thomas, all the way down to my fingers and toes, and that meta-webbing was being drawn out of my through the back of my neck. The feeling was, truthfully, awful. It was so far removed any experience to which I can relate that it couldn’t be said to have been painful, but something beyond that, like the feeling when a dentist is trying to pull out your teeth, but right through my body. I was paralysed by it. canal-dark

The breathing behind me grew louder as whatever it was gathered strength directly from me. A survival instinct kicked in. I had to do something. With all the effort I could muster, I managed to break the grip it had on me. Quickly, I turned, and as I did I saw the shape, dark, with a grey border, like the phosphene I’d seen in the experiment but bigger. The diamond shape was human-shaped now, but more massive, and it was floating, its feet pointing downwards. It had long arms that reached out to me ask if it were begging. Its head, tilted to one side had a darkness in the lower half, a gaping mouth. It was there for a second. It reached out its hand and pressed it slowly against my face, firing that electrical pain down it. It’s not real, I kept telling myself; it’s not real. My brain created it, my brain created it. The world blazed white and then the darkness came back, and the presence was gone.

The next morning I suddenly felt better. It felt like spring had arrived early. For the first time in months there was a warmth in the sunlight. I stopped going for walks at night. I wasn’t tired all the time. The memory of that night by the canal faded quickly, as if it wasn’t real but hallucinatory. I attributed the lifting of the pall to the change of weather – I figured I’d just been grouchy and achy because I was working hard and it had been a long, cold, wet winter. My migraines had disappeared so I spent the next month kicking my co-codamol reliance that had developed since the experiment.

A few weeks after that I received an email from the TMS Lab Manager at the university. She was asking about Carl, asking if I could go to her office. Suicides in universities are more common that you realise but not widely publicised for obvious reasons. Carl had thrown himself from the top floor of the psychology building, down the stairwell, hanging himself with a length of hosepipe. The Lab Manager only told me this after probing about what had happened with my experiment in the basement. I told her nothing had happened, other than it was stopped it early because of the pain. When she told me the date Carl had died I knew at once it was the same night I’d been at the canal but I of course did not mention this. Up until I was told of the suicide I had all but erased that night from my memory.

Apparently they discovered in Carl’s office a hand scrawled journal filled with incoherent babble about something following him. The TMS Lab Manager showed me the journal. The handwriting was neat at the start, the first page being dated the 13th October, the same date as the experiment in the basement hence the Lab Manager’s request to see me, but got messier later on. There was a lot of stuff about wave particle duality in quantum theory and matter emerging from nothing and then disappearing again. But the thoughts were not ordered or coherent. It looked like the ramblings of someone going insane. By the end it was dark lines of black ink scratched deep into the page and there, in the scrawl of the final entry, a vaguely witch-shaped form, a coherent darkness against the darker chaos. I handed the journal back to the Lab Manger and looked out the window of the 5th floor, across the university buildings at the golden leaves sweeping across the lawns of the war memorial gardens and said I couldn’t help. Things come into existence, then they go away again into the fabric and it’s only our minds that create any meaning.

THE END

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My Brain Experiments and the Phosphene – A Halloween Blog (Part 2/3)

Statue.jpgThe year was drawing on. The leaves on the trees were changing colour and falling. I turned up to meet the PhD student, who we’ll call Carl though that wasn’t his real name, one evening after work. The sun was setting earlier and the golden leaves were being blown by a strong wind across the street. Carl met me in reception. Tall, thin and blond, with a ragged knitted jumper, skinny faded black jeans with turn ups, and Doc Martin boots he looked like an arts student from the 90s. He shook my hand and smiled nervously.

My last experiment had taken place on the fifth floor of the psychology building but this one, he said, would be in the basement. He led me down a dark stone stairwell with metal handrails and along a dimly lit corridor to a poky little office with desks and chairs from the 1960s. There were some beaten up old books on a wooden shelf and a couple of threadbare chairs.

We went through the safety questionnaire again and then he explained what was going to happen.

‘Ok. You’ve have tCDS but this experiment involves TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation. I’ll be stimulating small regions of your brain through magnetic field generation. The coil in the device will produce electrical currents that we’ll fire into your brain. Are you afraid of the dark?’

This question caught me off guard. ‘No.’ Like anybody I’m afraid of the dark if I’m scared but generally it’s okay.

‘This experiment will take place in darkness.’ I hadn’t expected that. ‘The hope is that when I apply the current you’ll be able to see a phosphene.’

‘I don’t know what a phosphene is,’ I said. sky

‘A phosphene is a shape, or a form, that appears before you. It’s not real but it will seem real. Your brain creates it. It might take the form of a circle or light or a shape. Everybody has different ones.’

‘Like a patronus,’ I said, trying to lighten the mood, that had suddenly become serious.

‘No, they’re not like patronuses,’ he said, po-faced. ‘If you look behind you, you will see a chin strap and some vices that we’ll use to keep your head steady when the experiment is taking place.’

When I told people about my last experiment where my arms had twitched involuntarily they said I was crazy and now I was starting to see what they meant. But I was here, deep underground, and I would feel stupid if I dropped out now. Plus, I wanted to the money. Carl strapped me in, with my chin in a small bucket so that I was facing the wall. The vices clamped on to my temples. Then, the same as last time, he applied the current with the machine and parts of my body twitched without my knowing: my arm, my foot shot out, my leg vibrated. I told him I was in no discomfort, and this was true, but I did think the twitching was stronger this time.

‘I’m going to switch off the lights now,’ he said, from the corner of the room. And he killed the lights. I heard him approach me in the darkness, not saying anything. I felt his presence behind me and by this time was extremely disturbed.

‘I’m going to apply the current,’ he said. ‘If you see a form then let me know.’

The grey rod collected its electricity and fired it through my skull into my brain. In the darkness it shocked me.

‘Are you ok?’ said Carl.

‘I’m fine. I was just surprised.’

‘Ok we’ll try again.’

Leaves on Lawn.jpgThe second shock was as strong as the first. It felt like a flash. Something sparked up in front of me. Didn’t it? I couldn’t be sure but it felt like I’d seen a darkness against the greater darkness of the room. It was like an elongated diamond, spread lengthways with a vaguely silver outline. The shape of it wasn’t geometrical though, it wasn’t simple. The edge of it rippled, like it was being blown by a phantom wind. I didn’t say anything to Carl. I couldn’t be sure I’d seen it or if it was just my mind playing tricks. The next shock was stronger than the first two. It was so strong it felt like a condensed scream accompanied it. The form was there again and this time it was more defined. I started.

‘Ok?’ said Carl.

‘I think I saw something. I don’t know. How do you know if you really see it?’

‘You should just know,’ said Carl. ‘Did that one hurt?’

‘It did, a little. I think. I don’t know. I’m happy to try again,’ I said. I was fascinated now. I wanted to keep going.

‘We’ll try again,’ he said.

I waited for the next spark, holding my breath. When it came a shocking pain cracked down my face, like a lightning strike, splitting either side of my nose and carrying on in two distinct lines to my jaw. More shocks ran down my arms. I jolted violently in my seat and at the same time caught a glimpse of the floating diamond shape. In that microsecond it looked like it was turning, and that there was the idea, at the top, of a head, face. I created it with my brain, I told myself to stay clam. It’s…not…real.

‘Ok I think we’re going to have to stop the experiment,’ said Carl.blurry-leaves

I heard him run back across the room to the light switch. As the light flooded the room everything seemed normal again. Carl hurriedly released me from the head grip and asked again if I was ok.

‘I’m fine,’ I said, though in truth I felt a little frazzled. I didn’t want to tell him this because I might want to do more experiments in the future and one of the safety questions was, Have you ever had an adverse reaction to TMS. But I did tell him about the pain in my face.

‘There are nerves in the face,’ he acknowledged. ‘If I hit them it won’t do any lasting damage. Maybe the current was too strong.’

‘That’s fine,’ I said.

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By the time I got out of the building it was dark and rain was spitting in the wind. I walked down to my car along the now empty street. I felt-light headed, like I was drunk, but I was bound to feel like this after a disturbing experience like the one I’d just had. The sensation of something following me could also be explained away by me being a little out of it. Whenever I turned around nothing was there save the autumn leaves blowing in the wind.

The light was eerie, not quite the right brightness, too bright around the streetlights, too dark in all the other places. I got into my car and checked my mirror. I stared for several minutes, convinced that something was there, lurking. I could feel it. But I was being stupid. It wasn’t real. I started the car and went home.

TO BE CONCLUDED…

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My Brain Experiments and the Phosphene – A Halloween Blog (Part 1/3)

20161026_190314

Around eighteen months ago I was strapped for cash. I’d been working nights at C—— University’s physics, engineering and astronomy library and had access to the bulletin boards on the university’s intranet. Late one night I was trawling the site when I came across an ad to get paid for taking part in some brain experiments over in the psychology and brain imaging centre. The three month summer break was coming up and I’d have some extra time so why not? I’d recently taken an interest in neuroscience so I fired off an email to the Lab Manager.

One week later I was walking through the doors of C—-C, the university’s brain unit, and down several sets of stairs underground where the MRI scanner was housed in a concrete tomb, around which the rest of the building had been constructed. The MRI technician ran through the safety procedures and, as instructed, I removed anything metal from my person.

‘So this is basically safe,’ I said to her.

‘Oh yeah. I’ve had like seventeen of them.’

This seemed like a lot of MRI’s to have.

The study itself involved being inserted into the scanner for two hours and just relaxing. This was perfect for me. They were checking differences between the brain activity in a “normal” person and sufferers of schizophrenia. There would be heavy banging sounds from the gradient coils but I was given ear plugs for these and I could watch a DVD or even fall asleep. I selected Planet Earth from the choices and went into the room that housed the scanner, an intimidatingly large tube of metal with a narrow bed in the centre which could be moved in and out of the machine on a set of small runners. The technician was behind a thick glass partition and spoke to me through a headset, telling me when the machine was being switched on and when the bangs were about to begin. But in truth it was fine. It wasn’t as claustrophobic as I’d thought because a mirror above my head was reflecting the TV screen behind the machine so I wasn’t even aware I was in an enclosed space. As the enormous magnets in the machine were switched on the spinning nuclei of all the hydrogen atoms in my body aligned on their axes into a state of quantum coherence. The technician pulsed radio waves through my skull into my brain, forcing the aligned nuclei to exist in the spooky quantum state of superposition where they spin both left and right simultaneously, as expressed in terms of probabilities until observation takes place. As all this happened inside my head I watched happy penguins skimming on their bellies across the ice of Antarctica, and then fell asleep.

When it was all over I asked the Lab Manager if there were any more experiments I could take part in.

‘I haven’t got any at the moment,’ she said but they’re often looking for people to help in TMS experiments.’

‘TMS?’

‘Transcranial magnetic stimulation. It’s a handheld machine they use to stimulate your brain, far less intimidating than an MRI machine. There’s a database you go on. I can ask them to contact you if you want.’

‘That’d be great,’ I said.dsc_0116

My first day of experimentation with TMS was a simple study to test the effect of blood glucose on cognitive tasks. I had to refrain from eating for a few hours and then conduct some memory tests whilst receiving tCDS, transcranial direct-current stimulation. I sat in a chair whilst the TMS Lab Manager went through the safety procedures. I had to complete a couple of lengthy questionnaires to check it was safe – Have you ever had an adverse reaction to TMS or tCDS? Have you ever had a seizure? Are you claustrophobic? Do you have any metal in your head? Have you had a stroke? Are you taking psychiatric or neuroactive medications? And other unsettling questions. I answered no to them all and we could continue. The Lab Manager inked some dots on to my face and scalp and explained that whilst I was taking part in the cognitive tasks she would be firing an electric current directly into my brain. I said that would be fine. Before we started she needed to do some tests. Standing behind my chair she held up a grey rod about a foot long with a C-shaped tube on one end. She counted down from three and fired a current in. Nothing happened.

‘Tell me if you feel anything,’ she said.

‘I didn’t.’

She fired again but this time my left arm twitched without me doing anything. I felt something run from my neck to the end of my middle finger. It was strange. Something had entered my brain and without permission had taken over my motor faculties. But more than that, along with the shock I was hit instantaneously with a catastrophic sensation of insignificance, as if I’d just had unlocked the fact that we are really nothing but electrical signals flowing down puny muscles and meat on the surface of a tiny rock in a vast cold universe that has no purpose. In the grand scheme of things we are nothing. But mostly it was tingly

‘I felt that,’ I said, smiling to let her know everything was A ok.

She marked the area of my scalp where the current had been applied. She repeated this a few times, increasing and decreasing the strength of the current and moving the rod to different areas of my skull until she was happy, and then we conducted the experiment. It was an odd experience and maybe after it took place I had a gentle headache but this might also have been a phantom pain born of paranoia. In theory I shouldn’t have a headache. But it was just two hours of work and the money was pretty good. It’d pay for a meal out with my girlfriend, Amy. halloween-vortex

 

‘Are there any other studies coming up?’ I said, later.

‘There’s a PhD student looking at phosphenes. I can hook you up with him.’

I didn’t know what a phosphene was. ‘That’d be great,’ I said.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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The Time I Went To Watch Regina Spektor and What Happened

When Regina Spektor released her supreme album, Far, and was playing in London I of course bought tickets. Two tickets, one for me and one for, let’s call him Rafe. Rafe is a very dear childhood friend of mine who lives in London. I would usually stay with him at that time. He lived above a chiropractor’s in Oakwood and I would look forward to sleeping on the top of the market air mattress.

 

There I was with my travel pack, riding into town on the Megabus. There is always that frisson of excitement when Old Lady Thames comes into view between the towers of London and this time was no different. I met up with Rafe and we had a few drinks whilst he told me about his new Australian girlfriend, who was a very passionate person. We finished our drinks and headed over to the Hammersmith Apollo. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Hammersmith Apollo but it has the most beautiful flyover outside it that you really must see.

Anyway, Regina was on great form. I had fallen in love with the album when it came out but played live the songs really shone. Blue Lips I remember being a highlight of the earlier songs in the set. Around half way through the concert I felt a tug at my arm. It was Rafe. We’d both had a fair bit to drink by this point and he was slurring a little.

‘What’s that?’ I said.

‘I’ve gotta go.’

‘This is some kind of sick joke,’ I said.

‘My new girlfriend has texted and she said she needs to me to go over there. She said she’d be passionate with me.’

‘You can’t do this, Rafe,’ I said. ‘I don’t know how to get back to your flat.’

‘Yeah you do, it’s easy,’ he said. ‘Sorry, sorry.’

‘But you have an eighteen year old Italian female as your flatmate and she doesn’t know who I am and I can’t just turn up there – she’ll think I’m a lunatic come to kill her.’

‘No no no,’ he said, ‘it’ll be fine. It’ll be fine.’

And that was that. Off he went into the night. I returned my attention to Regina. Ah, what a great concert that was. When it was over I threaded my way through the streets and underground tunnels of the great city and, eventually, all fun completely disintegrated after over an hour of travel, I arrived at Rafe’s flat.

My worries about the Italian flatmate resurfaced. She might be up there now, watching TV or reading or book and all of a sudden a strange drunk was about to bowl in saying he’s Rafe’s friend and it’s ok to spend the night in a flat which has no locks on the bedroom doors.

I checked the windows upstairs. The lights were out. I’d just get in there like someone in the SAS, make myself a delicious glass of refreshing water, and get to bed. She’d be none the wiser. And the plan went off without a hitch. The flat was silent and dark. I crept along the landing, past her closed bedroom door, clutching the glass of water I’d made in the downstairs kitchen. I got into Rafe’s room and breathed a sigh of relief. I was pretty hammered by this point and fell asleep right away.

I was awoken the next morning by the sound of my phone ringing. It was Rafe.

‘I’m late for rugby. You need to get my kit and bring it to Richmond.’

‘Where’s the kit?’

‘In the airing cupboard in the bathroom.’

‘No problem,’ I said.

I ended the call. I’d already decided not to shower or anything because of the Italian flatmate so I’d be gone soon enough and the episode would be over. Nobody would notice my not being showered – I was, after all, travelling on the Megabus. I got all my stuff ready and listened at the door for signs of the Italian girl stirring. There were none. This was going to be simple. I’d grab Rafe’s kit and get the hell out of dodge. The perfect crime. I edged open the door and poked my head out. The coast was clear. I tippy-toed across the landing and into the bathroom, silent, like a cat. In the bathroom I spied the airing cupboard in the corner and headed over. ‘Oh my,’ I remember remarking to myself, ‘this is a very deep airing cupboard.’ Rafe’s kitbag was on a shelf right at the back, about three feet away. Wouldn’t it be funny, I thought to myself if I went in here and then the Italian girl came in just as I was in the cupboard. A wry smile and a shake of the head at my amusing thought and I entered the airing cupboard. I collected up Rafe’s bag and at that moment I heard a noise. The landing. Oh no. But, of course, oh yes.

It was one of those airing cupboards with slats so you could see through into the main area of the room. You’ve all seen them, whenever there’s a perve in a film perving on someone. In came the eighteen year old Italian in a white bathrobe. I watched her through the slats. I was now in a crisis point. I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t just stay here and wait in secret whilst she got showered, wait whilst she dried off and went about her toilet… could I? I could spare her modesty by cowering in the back of the airing cupboard, I thought, just as a cowardly rat might find cover under a pile of rotting food. But then I thought, no that would simply be too insane. There was no choice.

I psyched myself up, slung Rafe’s kitbag across my back, took a few deep breaths… and leapt out of the airing cupboard. There was a moment. A brief second where our eyes met before the she realised what was happening. I stood there, she stood there. I thought about what to say, how to explain this. But what words could there possibly be? The answer is of course obvious: none. So instead of speaking I lunged towards the door. The Italian was between me and the door so she thought I was lunging for her. Weirdly, she didn’t scream, she just stepped towards the toilet as I flew past. I yanked open the door and ran across the landing, thinking, what the hell must she think? It took longer than I thought to get across that landing and down the stairs. I could feel her eyes staring at my back as I thought to myself, well, Rhys, this is going to be a real low point in your life.

I finally got Rafe his kitbag. He found the story very amusing. I told him he had to explain what had happened but he said that wasn’t going to happen. With that I headed back to Victoria but I had a few hours to kill so I detoured to 221b Baker Street for a visit to the Sherlock Holmes museum, which was absolutely awesome.

Me in 221b

Here I am in Holmes’ chair at 221b Baker Street – Superb

 

 

 

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