Plato Rides the Batong Line

(GEEKY DRINKING GAME: Ganbei a small bottle of Tsing Tao every time you spot a time travel reference ‘cleverly’ hidden in the following entry! Yes, I apparently have that much time on my hands.) (No, that isn’t one of them.)

“The barman says “We don’t serve faster than light neutrinos in here!” Then a neutrino walks into a bar.”

Back in the UK, I was a pretty voracious reader. I used to love scouring the charity shops for trashy sf and horror paperbacks. Finding deals like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician for a quid each, (in the same freaking shop!) made me feel like I was cruising at 88 miles an hour, pulling a trick worthy of the unscrupulous book-dealing con-man played by Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate.

I kind of wish I had brought more books out East with me. It isn’t that English language books are unheard of here, not at all. Wangfujing has two huge bookstores, including one specifically for foreign language books. Page One and the Bookworm in Sanlitun are both veritable treasure troves. A friend of mine was even lucky enough to discover a copy of The Alchemist at the ‘Paradise Time Travel Book Shop’* conveniently located down the same mist-shrouded hutong as the shops from The Neverending Story, Gremlins and about half a dozen episodes of The Twilight Zone.

English and American food is slightly cheaper here than in the UK. English and American clothes are about the same price. But English and American books are shittingly expensive, as if all of the book shops are run by the unscrupulous book-dealing con-man played by Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate.

Since moving to Beijing, I haven’t read as much as I usually do. I work long hours and I try to enjoy the city and the company of my friends during my days off. There’s a tendency for us foreigners to live in the moment here in the  because none of us really know how long we’ll be here, like travelers on different streams, whose craft occasionally intersect ever so briefly.

One of the places that I always try to read is on the subway. Up until recently, I was teaching a class once a week at the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) in Wudaokou, a two-hour commute from my home in Tongzhou. Everything about the class was a gigantic pain in the anus (which is why I don’t teach it anymore), but the silver lining of a four-hour round trip was that I got a lot of reading done.

As well as trashy science fiction paperbacks, I like reading things that actually teach you something or open your mind to another person’s point of view. Some of my favourite writers have totally differing political opinions and world views from my own. Sometimes that’s part of the appeal. One of the reasons I love the performing arts is because of the experience of pretending to be someone else for awhile, like the guy from Quantum Leap or the fella who finds the portal behind the filing cabinet in Being John Malkovich.

Reading can also be a sort of medicine. Somebody told me that they even prescribe some psychology and self-help books on the NHS now. If it’s true, it doesn’t surprise me, but we’ll see how long that one lasts under the Tories shall we?

Something else I’ve had a passing interest in for the last few years is quantum mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, I am no Leonard Suskind or Nassim Haramein, I just like trying to get my dumbass layman’s head around how the universe might work. I recently made friends with a colleague over our mutual love of physics when a TV news report led to the following Bill & Ted style conversation:

Me: I fucking love quantum mechanics.
Him: Me too, believe it or not.
Me: No fucking way!
Him: Yeah, man.
Me: Sweet!

I have been re-reading a very strange and mystical e-book, written by a man with an incredible (and almost certainly made-up) life story that makes him sound like the Dos Equis bloke. He has no academic qualifications except for a Phd from the University of Bonkers. His e-book is about how he basically found a way to kill reality in the face when he discovered (from someone else who actually did research) that we are all living inside a giant hologram. It’s a bit like the book written by the mad old lady from Donnie Darko, only this one is real and apparently serious.

I believe that the universe is a bloody strange place. I believe that reality is only ‘reality’ because of the way it is perceived. I believe that most people spend their lives plugged into the matrix or sitting around in Plato’s cave complaining about the weather when all they have to do to see the sunlight is wake up or turn around. I remember once lying in a park in Northampton, looking at the University campus when I suddenly realized that if I turned 180 degrees, I would actually have a more interesting view: trees, dogs, multicoloured kites. I wondered at the time how many people could have a slightly better life or worldview if they were willing to make a metaphorical 180!

The world itself is a very, very small place. I absolutely love Carl Sagan’s speech about the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ on which we live ( The seaside at Dongdaihe is much of a muchness compared to the seaside at Mousehole or Mablethorpe. The view I have seen from the Great Wall of China is not that different to some of the views in Wales or Cornwall, and neither is the feeling of connection and satisfaction.

I’ve always loved the nineties TV programme Northern Exposure. There’s a cheesy line in that where someone describes Alaska as “not a state, but a state of mind.” I no longer understand why anyone with means would use their geographical or temporal location as an excuse to be unhappy.

Learning never used to be important to me. We moved around a lot when I was younger. I went to seven different schools and I hated all of them. Every evening my mum would ask if I had homework and every evening I’d lie and say that I didn’t. Whenever I was given a detention I didn’t show up to it, and eventually my teachers just gave up on me. The only time I ever did any written work at home was when I finally enrolled at university, and for that I was rewarded with a filmmaking diploma. In fact, it was scribbling essays on stuff like Twelve Monkeys and The Butterfly Effect that helped me to realize I wanted to be a writer. Even then the lowest mark I ever received on the course was for my scriptwriting, because my tutor thought it was too weird!

I never even enjoyed reading, except for comic books, and the occasional Sylvester McCoy-era New Adventure. I mostly just enjoyed staying up and watching sci fi shows on late night cable, which is why I never had time for homework (I was too busy watching Star Trek episodes where Kirk had to run over Joan Colins with a bus, or Picard had to wrestle android heads from Mark Twain). It was only when I realized that I wanted to write that I also realized I had damn well better try to figure out how the universe works. I think it was a pretty good decision, because it means that I occasionally catch myself “lol”-ing at geeky jokes, like: “The barman says “We don’t serve faster than light neutrinos in here!” Then a neutrino walks into a bar.”

*(My misplaced emphasis when reading the shop sign led me to believe that it was a ridiculously specialist place where I’d be able to read up on Einstein’s theories and maybe even rekindle my nerdy passion for Sylvester McCoy-era New Adventures, but it’s actually the third word alone, ‘travel’, that tells you what sort of books to expect. The first two words are just a name. Even so, it reminded me of a joke: “The barman says “We don’t serve faster than light neutrinos in here!” Then a neutrino walks into a bar.”)