Monthly Archives: April 2015

McCartney’s in my brain and won’t come out

Jet_Let_Me_Roll_It_CoverIt’s 4.30am on a Saturday morning and I spring awake to the sound of guitars, keyboard and horns, followed by a Paul McCartney cry.

“Jet! Jet!”

My wife lies sleeping beside me. In the distance a dog barks. All else is silent.

It’s all in my head. An early morning earworm. But it wasn’t just that one morning; as I write this, five days later, I still can’t get ‘Jet’ out of my head.

Paul McCartney, as he was singing a song in a London studio 41 years ago, is lodged in my auditory cortex. Every time my brain hits idle mode (more often than I’d like to admit) he re-appears, ‘daaa-daaa-dada, Jet!’

What was a four minute listen on my morning commute one day last week has morphed into a hugely frustrating brain itch.

I’ve written about earworms previously. In most cases they disappear after 24 hours, having been pushed out by something else. But McCartney’s song about his dog (or his pony, or David Bowie – take your pick) is stuck there.

My usual trick to dislodge it, of playing another earworm or anything very catchy, hasn’t worked – though I’m still afraid to push the Big Red Button and listen to ‘Guantanamero‘. I’m not one for anagrams, but research suggests that solving one could work. Or, it emerged this week, chewing gum – not a favourite habit of mine either.

Which brings me to my final hope – the theory that reading a book helps. This is interesting. In recent days – the ones which have coincided with my McCartney itch – I’ve skipped reading. Could this be the cause?

FullSizeRender (3)Music psychologist Dr Ira Hyman has suggested the ‘good book’ solution, stating: “The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge. If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head.”

Hyman suggests that an alternative is to learn to sing the song in its entirety, as earworms have been linked to incomplete fragments of melody that the brain tries to resolve. But there’s no way I’m doing anything as reckless as that with a hook-heavy Paul McCartney song.

So it’s back to a book. Maybe I’ll start with the one on the left. Then again…

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Thousand of books, nothing to read

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Shopping paralyses me.

Not in the ‘lost male in home furnishings’ way (although I once managed, embarrassingly, to lose myself in a Macy’s outlet), but more the ‘holding two items in either hand and sweating’ way.

The excess of choice, the thousands of single items to choose from – in this shop, on this day, NOW – jam my circuits and lead me to walk away, empty-handed.

Take last weekend. With an hour to spare in London, I headed to the Charing Cross Road to browse the bookstores. I’d even drawn up a short list of potential buys on my phone – what could possibly go wrong?

Some 45 minutes, and four bookshops, later and I am standing in the middle of Foyles, staring up at three floors of books above. Everywhere I look there is something I could read, hundreds of potential purchases within metres, including everything on my list. I thumb through the H’s of Fiction, make a half-hearted stab at browsing the wall-to-wall Poetry before I shuffle off, stomaching an odd mix of indecision and anger.

And it’s not just books. Every time I enter a record shop I’m confronted with this same tyranny of choice – hundreds of albums I want to listen to but will never have the time to hear.

debtA ‘first world problem’? I don’t think so. I want less consumer items in my life, not more (our apartment is crammed with books and CDs as it stands); a used album is just as good as a new one.

Shortly after my book trek, while picking through a pile of CDs in a Soho record store I thought of a tweet posted by Brian Eno days earlier: “I realise the reason I like playing records (as opposed to CDs) is that they’re short…I want less music.”

I never believed I’d reach a point at which I want less music, less books, less choice. But it’s happened. Faced with a tsunami  (and that’s before we get to the infinite distractions of the Internet) of writing and music, film and TV drama, my reaction now is to step back.

Walking back to my hotel last Saturday, along Marylebone High Street, I spotted an Oxfam shop. I stepped in and made straight for the books’ section, a small collection in a corner of the store.

The choice was minimal but there, on a shelf, was one of the books on my list – The Debt To Pleasure. Without the temptations of a dozen other titles, it stood out – a £2, 20-year-old paperback.

It was the easiest buy I’d made in months.

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‘I started to imagine another me somewhere’

Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, NYC Pic: Anish Kapoor

Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, NYC
Pic: Anish Kapoor

“Turning all this over in my mind, I started to imagine another me somewhere, sitting in a bar, nursing a whiskey, without a care in the world. The more I thought about it, the more that other me became the real me, making this me here not real at all.”

– Haruki Murakami, ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’

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So how are the other Cormac Looneys doing?

The one I left in my early 20s studying in the library at Trinity College? The one I last saw as he walked to La Taqueria in The Mission in 1998 to pick up dinner? The one who cursed the cold as he slipped half an hour behind while descending from the Zumsteinspitze in 2010?

They’re fixed in my memory, set in linear time.

But are they? Is each one where I left him, back there in my past? Did they move on too, just like this me did? How did their lives develop? Are they happy? Are they alive?

They exist – if you believe (or understand) the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This concept suggests that multiple versions of me exist, living an infinite number of  lives, succeeding and failing, living and dying, in parallel with the Cormac Looney who is currently typing these words on a screen.

pic1Each version of me that I can recall (in fact, an infinite number – more than I can comprehend) lives on, as an alternative me. The me that walked to the taqueria is as real as the me who didn’t and who is typing these words.

This begs an unsettling question. As Murakami’s character asks, which one of these is the ‘real me’? Is the ‘real me’ somewhere else, and the me existing here in Dublin in 2015 just a quantum shadow? Does a ‘real me’ exist? Can a ‘real me’ exist?

Am I the total of an infinite number of Cormac Looneys, all bar one of which I will never be aware of? Am I universal? Am I immortal (given that at any given moment I can both die and not die)?

This is all possible, indeed it’s scientifically undeniable.

But one final piece of the jigsaw remains, without which the mind-bending wonder of many worlds remains just an almighty cosmic tease.

How can I be aware of these other me’s?

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The right notes – music to read by

FullSizeRender (1)Back in the early 2000s I worked a night shift job. Each morning I’d return to the house I shared with three others at 4 or 5am, and read for a hour in bed before turning in.

I’d always believed that reading, like sleeping or writing, was best done in silence. But there’s silence and then there’s 4am silence. The coastal suburb I lived in was pin-drop quiet.

And so I picked up a new habit – I’d play music as I read. The only condition was that the music had to be quiet – not solely in terms of volume but also by way of sound.

I spent most of those early mornings listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. The slow surges, whale-call noises, absence of percussion – all served to fill the lingering silence of an early summer morning in Clontarf.

The music also helped me, it seemed, focus on what I was reading. The subject matter might have differed (two of the books I read at that time were Crime And Punishment and a popular biography of Irish Arctic explorer Tom Crean) but the effect of music was the same. Like the ambient hum of one’s body heard in a sound-proofed room the music lingered, just out of feeling but present, while I read.

Brian Eno. Detail from 'Music For Films' sleeve

Brian Eno

The use of music as an aid to reading is a well-covered topic. This week I was brought back to my pre-dawn reading sessions when I encountered a post by Sam Jordison on the Guardian’s Books blog. Much of the article concerned how we can battle ‘aural sludge’ – distracting and loud daily noises -when reading.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deep read amidst loud noise – even custom-made soundtracks are unlikely to help me.

But the article led to me to ask: what other music worked like Selected Ambient Works, Volume II did, as a reading aid?

In the 12 years since those night shift days I’ve encountered only a few: a Naxos collection of Chopin’s piano works, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and, perhaps, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

The ‘x’ factor in each of these recordings is hard to pin down. Perhaps the tidal feel of the music in each set of recordings is the key; or perhaps the absence or mere suggestion of a beat which, when present, is no faster than my resting heart rate.

Whatever their key is they all work to break ground, coming through silence to open my ear and eye and mind to absorb the words.

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