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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Whitby Reflections

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Powerful songs of innocence are those of waves on a shallow beach, sucking sand in their greedy tows; of children shrieking in fun; of the bleep of arcade machines; of the clatter of unfolding deck chairs. Songs of colour and pattern, too, are those of the bright yellows, reds, and blues of spades, and kites, and rubber boats and, as the evening and the tide close in, of the temporary archaeological shapes of a day's activity: names in the sand, mounds of collapsed castles, holes, paw and footprints. These are the songs of my childhood holidays in North Yorkshire, a monastery of happiness visited ritually every year for the thirteen years of my pre-sexual youth.

Try as I have to recollect some chord of anxiety that might once, just for a moment, have been played on me, lodging itself in my unconscious like a chip between the teeth, irritating this harmony of happy activity, I cannot. And so, returning now, a decade after my last visit, experience kicks me in the gut. Maybe it was naivete, or the fact that when younger my eyes were for the shore only, ignoring the periphery of the town through which we had to pass, but Whitby today is busier, harder, greasier than I ever remember.

Photograph of a seaside town reflected in a shop window, behind which are lewd souvenir t-shirts

Seagulls, sirens wailing, police the skies, whilst pulled up on the kerb real CCTV vans observe stags stagger, stripped to the waist, raising arms in bold, gorilla-like movements of mating when their group intercepts that of middle-aged women, with their disintegrating fairy wings, here for a hen weekend. A puppeteer plays his puppet playing a piano, his call for "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands" answered by a drunk, who sways and stomps, to the applause of an elderly couple on the bench behind him, and eyed by their grandchild standing warily in front. Suddenly, a cheap plastic football lands amongst the performer's wires, kicked by a group of lads across a busy main road. He barely looks surprised - probably he had seen them coming with a well-trained peripheral eye - and carries on. The child cries.

Then something else catches my candid eye, one which merges the two perspectives of innocence and experience I had falsely constructed in my mind. A burly man, tattoos vining their way up his arms, tips his Oakleys back onto his shaved head, leans back against a white wall, closes his eyes, and licks at a fluffy ice cream. Retrospectively, I realise that the seaside is a place where habitual guards come down, less because of alcohol than because of the common denominator of the childhood holiday, in which the ties with which parents hold their kids slacken in that hundred-meter space at the fringes of our country; it is this memory that relaxes the muscular divisions of class and sex, and the regular rules of social engagement, that govern life inland and in older age; this is why in seaside towns people seem to lose all road sense, crossing brazenly in front of traffic, as if they expect still that mother's hand to tug them back if they take a risk too far.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:27 pm


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