Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk? by Chris Green
The tall stranger in the Duster overcoat appeared out of nowhere. He was wearing a broad-rimmed sheriff’s hat complete with campaign cord and silver star. I felt this was odd. This was a sleepy West Somerset coastal resort, not Washington County. Perhaps he felt the hat made him look interesting and would help him to get noticed.
‘What do you think it is that makes things happen?’ he asked.
At first, I thought he must be talking to someone else but there was just the two of us there. Who was he? What did he mean? Why was he asking me this? I was just enjoying a quiet moment watching the tide come in. It must have been the school holidays. Spring probably. The waves, I recall, were huge.
‘Do you mean, in the big scheme of things?’ I asked, feeling that his question was an unusual opener to a conversation.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘If you like. In the big scheme of things.’
‘We elect people to represent us and they pass laws and other people in other countries do the same,’ I said, trying hard to remember the explanation our Ethics teacher, Mr Jenkins had come up with. ‘We agree with the way some countries do things but not the way other countries do things and according to relative size and strength, we form alliances and trading blocks. Sometimes there’s a disagreement over ideology and then a war and one side vanquishes the other and makes them do what they want.’
‘Very good! But that’s on a political level,’ the stranger said. ‘That’s what the history books tell you happens. That’s what you read in the papers. That’s surface detail.’
‘Well, some see a different man in the sky to others and they fight about whose man in the sky is the best,’ I said, trying to inject a little humour into the exchange.
‘Indeed!’ he said. ‘But how does it all work on a practical level? What are the mechanisms?’
‘There are improvements in technology and new inventions that bring about change,’ I said. ‘But I suppose innovations are primarily to sell new products to make investors rich.’ Old Josh Jenkins had told us this was the principal reason there were technical advances. To fuel capitalism, the money needed to move around faster and faster, he had said. Other than this, new technology was often developed to win wars.
‘That’s how it all works, is it?’ the stranger said.
‘It’s cause and effect,’ I said. ‘Action and reaction. All certainty in our relationships with the world rests on the acknowledgement of causality, wouldn’t you say?’
‘That’s what you’ve been told, is it?’ he said. ‘That determinism explains everything? All I can tell you for now is there’s more to it. One day, you will find out.’
With this, he took his leave, presumably off to do some strange sheriffing somewhere else. I couldn’t help wondering who he was, why he was there and what he meant. I was only sixteen. What was the purpose of him putting me on the spot? Was he a conspiracy theorist? New World Order and the Seven Sisters? Was he talking about magic? Lord of the Rings and all that mumbo jumbo? Uri Geller and spoon-bending? Or was he just a smartass?
At the time, I may have mentioned the episode in passing to Mick and Keith or Roger and Pete before we went off to smoke dope and listen to Pink Floyd or Dire Straits or whatever was current back then. Apart from music and dope, girls were pretty much the only thing that pre-occupied us. Perhaps I was on my way round to Annette’s to do some ….. revision. I may have told her about the mysterious man but I’m certain we didn’t labour the point. At sixteen, you do not dwell on things for long and the curious encounter was soon forgotten. So much so that as time passed, I was not even certain it had really happened.
Stovepipe hats have not been fashionable since the nineteenth century. So it was strange to come across a man wearing a shiny black one in Vivary Park in Taunton, especially as we were in the middle of a heatwave. 1990 was turning out to the hottest year on record. Following a minor misunderstanding, Tamsin had gone off to stay with her mother in Madeira for a few days and I was taking our Irish Setter, Bono for a walk when the tall stranger appeared. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. In his tall hat, he looked completely out of place. It was not even a Lloyd George style topper, it was a proper vintage Victorian stovepipe. Apart from the hat, he was dressed unseasonally, wearing one of those long overcoats. The overall effect was to make him look like a giant. To cap it all, he was carrying a black violin case. He approached me and struck up a conversation.
‘Don’t you recognise me?’ he said.
It suddenly occurred to me this was the same fellow I had met on the beach all those years ago. He had the same faraway look in his eye, the same pallor to his skin, making it seem almost translucent. There was no mistaking him. I told him I remembered him.
‘Have you worked it out, yet?’ he asked.
I tried to recall our earlier conversation. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to have worked out.
‘You thought everything could be explained by causality,’ he said.
‘Actions, ideas, even things we put down to synchronicity can probably all be explained by cause and effect,’ I said.
‘As in a sequence of events, you mean?’ he said. ‘Chain reaction, butterfly effect.’
‘That’s right,’ I said. All action and reaction.’
‘Action and reaction, eh? That’s Newton’s Third Law, isn’t it,’ he said. ‘And you think you can apply that to everyday life?’
‘More or less,’ I said. ‘Things chug along from day to day, one thing follows another in your chain reaction.’
‘Things chug along?’ he said. ‘H’mm That’s an interesting view. That’s the way it works, is it?’
‘Everything is loosely connected and each thing that happens affects many others so what we have is a complex web of actions and reactions,’ I said.
Hatman wanted to up the stakes.
‘What about when a seismic event takes place?’ he asked. ‘Something, for instance, like the Berlin Wall coming down last November. Can that be explained by cause and effect? Action and reaction?’
‘I would say that is a classic example of cause and effect,’ I said, rising to the challenge. ‘The East was poor, the West was rich. People in the East were finding this out and wanted some of it. The Soviet Union was losing its grip. Gorbachev was liberalising the Party and freedom groups all over the Eastern bloc were taking advantage of this. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. With forces chipping away at East German institutions, it was only a matter of time before the Wall fell. It was the final step in a chain reaction.’
‘I’m afraid you are falling into the trap again,’ he said ‘Like you did the last time we spoke. You are just looking at the surface detail. To understand the way things work, you will need to dig deeper.’
Bono, meanwhile, had run off behind the bandstand to investigate another dog. He had an unfortunate habit of doing this and not coming back. I went over to put him back on the lead. When I returned, the stranger had disappeared. I could hear a violin playing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, softly in the distance.
The encounter left me perplexed. Who was the mysterious stranger? Why had he picked me? Was I perhaps just one of many unsuspecting people he tried to convert? But convert to what? What exactly was his message? Was he trying to say in his cryptic way that everything was pre-determined? Or that there was a hidden force, an all-powerful master of the universe? He was certainly peculiar but somehow he didn’t come across as a religious zealot. I could not imagine him calling door to door on a Saturday morning with an associate and a handful of thin pamphlets promising to put you on the path to salvation. Perhaps we were back with magic and the supernatural and he was suggesting the real driving force for everything that happens was something mystical. Perhaps he was trying to tell me I needed to familiarise myself with some arcane Oriental wisdom in order to transcend the mundane. But what was it about hats?
Each time I saw someone wearing an unusual hat, I thought it might be him. Bandanas, deerstalkers, turbans. Coonskins caps, fezes, zuchettos. In the street, at concerts, at the races, everywhere. Carnival parades were the worst. But as months went by with each sighting turning out not to be him, the memory of him faded.
I had all but forgotten him when, around the time of the millennium, he appeared again, this time in the Science Museum in Kensington. He was dressed in a black damask robe and a mortarboard. It was a lighter conversation than our previous ones. Moving on from the passing of time, we talked about the walrus and the carpenter and cabbages and kings. We touched on Cheshire cats and mad hatters. Did I realise Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and his work was full of hidden meanings, he wondered? I told him I had always thought he was writing about drugs. ‘
‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ he asked.
I wondered if perhaps he had the answer to the age-old riddle but at that moment, Tamsin returned from her visit to the Natural History Museum next door and he disappeared. I got the impression that beneath his bold exterior, he was rather shy.
We were back on the topic of the driving forces behind world events at our meeting in the bar of The Jolly Slaver. It was the year of the smoking ban, I recall because I had just come back inside after a cigarette when the stranger accosted me. He was wearing a superhero cape and a wizard’s hat. He wondered if I realised yet that things were never what they seemed. The discussion about what lay beneath carried over to our next meeting at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in Glastonbury, Somerset. He was wearing a tricolour beanie hat with his white suit. I think he may have been disappointed that I did not appear to always understand what he was trying to tell me.
He was always vague about what exactly his role was. His explanations for everything were frustratingly cryptic. Each time he appeared, I wanted to ask him why he had selected me. Why did he keep coming back? But each meeting was inadvertently cut short. Time, in the abstract sense, seemed to be a subject that kept coming up in our brief exchanges. He kept pressing me on what I thought time was? I have always had an unusual perception of time. I have frequently had to ask people what the order of past events was. When did we do this, when did we do that? Had we done this before that? More often than not, I appeared to have got it wrong. Tamsin was forever correcting my apparent temporal discrepancies, suggesting that I ought to keep a diary. My historical record frequently seemed out of synch with that of others. If I was like this now, I sometimes worried about what I would be like when I was older.
‘You keep referring to cause and effect,’ he said, the last time we met.
It was in the dining car on the Orient Express. Tamsin was resting back in our carriage. He came and sat beside me. He wore a sombrero vueltiao and big black sunglasses.
‘These chains of events, if that’s what you want to call them, can be unimaginably complex,’ he continued. ‘With so many crazy people in the world behaving irresponsibly, things can easily spiral out of control.’
I agreed there were some volatile leaders. In my view, most politicians were dangerous. It seemed to go with the job.
‘Without appropriate intervention, the world would have been blown to pieces by a catastrophic event by now many times over,’ he said. ‘I am one of a group of quantum gnostics whose aim it is to prevent such calamities escalating. We operate in the margins. It is our job to correct the course of rogue chains of events. Frequently, we are called upon to do so retrospectively in order to keep the boat afloat.’
Was he referring to specific events or was he generalising? Was he suggesting that he was able to go back in time? I didn’t get the chance to find out as before I had the chance to ask these questions, Tamsin came looking for me and the stranger upped and left.
‘Who were you talking to?’ Tamsin asked.
I tried to explain but she did not seem to be listening. She was more concerned with finding out what was on the menu.
Following the meeting on the Orient Express, I began to question whether time was, in fact, linear. The stranger had planted a seed of doubt in the conventional wisdom of a timeline where a series of events progresses regularly from beginning to end. Certainly, my perception of time was not linear. It had never been like that. I was all over the place with times and dates. I discovered I had some backup for the idea. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity suggested that there was no conceptual distinction between past and future, let alone an objective line of now. Also, he argued there was no sense in which time flowed. Instead, all space and time was just there in an elaborate four-dimensional structure. Furthermore, apparently, all the fundamental laws of physics worked essentially the same, forward and backward.
If this were the case, then did this also put the very idea of cause and effect into question? If there was no objective flow of time, might causality also work backwards, effect now becoming cause? Or like Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter and March Hare, having fallen out with Time, might we too be stuck at 6 pm forever? The very concept of time might, of course, simply be an illusion. Everything could be happening simultaneously, with or without interventions and corrections by quantum gnostics. Everything that has ever been and ever will be could be happening right now.
There are so many ways of looking at it, I don’t see what is really going on in the cosmos ever becoming clear to me. Reality itself is a slippery concept. All things considered, it seems reasonable to assume strangers turned out in whimsical headgear are likely to appear anytime, anywhere.
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved