Wanting to know everything

The best thing about thinking is – no one can see you doing it. Well, they might suspect you are thinking about something, but not exactly what. You can walk through a shopping centre with a movie playing invisibly in your head. Thwack! You just knocked out a heavily built baddie with a giant fish. Yah-hee! Using your superpower – advanced tumbling – you somersault from one end of the centre to the other, while humming the tune of Star Wars, as crowds cheer and applaud. Come on – you know we’ve all done it. Right?

As I may have written before, I wouldn’t like anyone to see inside my head. Not because it’s creepy or too embarrassing – okay, the somersaulting thing was a bit strange – but because there’s too much going on, and I feel it would only make sense to me. It can be dizzying at times: even worse than tumbling. My problem is – I’m interested in everything, and I struggle to think about only one thing at a time.

It’s difficult to talk or write about being interested in everything, without coming across as someone who is trying too hard to be clever. Like a ‘know-it-all’. I’m not that. I realise it means someone who thinks he knows everything but clearly doesn’t, or someone who shows off about how much he knows. That’s not me, in either case. In fact, I think I know very little. I’m forever reading and trying to learn, and often it’s about quite heavy stuff. Yet, the more I learn, the more ignorant I feel. So, I read some more – to try to fill in the gaps. But that just leads to me spotting more gaps. I’m like the proverbial kid on a long car journey, looking out the window and asking: What’s that? What’s it for? How does it work? Why is that man trying to hit that other man with a giant fish? I put that one in to test you were still awake. Most of you passed. Gold stars will be handed out to those of you who get through the next few paragraphs.  

I was taking a break the other day, from writing a book, in my study/library/ cat-den, and I’d just sat down to try to finish reading Samuel Bjork’s Norwegian crime novel: The Owl Always Hunts at Night. It’s difficult for me to think about only one book at a time. So, I was immediately comparing Bjork’s novel, which is gripping, with his first book: I’m Travelling Alone. I decided – both books are equally gripping. Each one is about a hunt for a serial killer and there’s the same partnership of detectives: Holger Munch who is large and conventionally clever, and Mia Kruger – who is smaller and spookily clever. Like all interesting detectives, they are troubled souls. And, as I thought about them, I was also thinking about another great crime writer, Ian Rankin, and his troubled character: Detective John Rebus, based in Edinburgh. I’ve always found those novels fascinating. Great plots and characters who live and think and realistically worry alone in a flat at 3 am. Those stories once helped me to survive for months on the dole, along with Tesco’s cheap diet Coke (17 pence a bottle), and cheap mild cheddar cheese.

This account of what I was thinking about, in my library/study/cat-den, probably makes it seem as if I was thinking about one thing after another. Sometimes, I was, but mostly – it is like one layer on top of another and another. And I was also thinking about – the nature of psychopaths and some psychology articles I read recently, and John le Carre’s recent death at the age of 89, and his wonderful style of writing which transcends ‘spy writing’, and great crime writers of the past who transcended their own ghetto of ‘crime writing’ – Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And again, it might seem that I was thinking about these things one after another, or at least separately, but the point is – my thoughts from different layers generally float around together and swap places when I or they decide. And another thing is – I’ve only listed a small fraction of what goes on in my head at any one time. To get anywhere close to it all, I’d need a much bigger list of thoughts and layers. Or, to get an idea of how much is going on at the same time – imagine one of those fantastically detailed pictures on the front of a jigsaw puzzle box: a crowded street, and the views through shop windows and into buses and cars, and with hundreds of people milling around; and then – turn the whole thing into a movie. Then, mix in a few other movies, with or without tumbling people or giant fish. Now, that’s more like the inside of my head.

So, I was sitting in my chair, trying to read a crime novel but with a lot of other stuff buzzing around inside of my head, and suddenly: KAPOW! A cat appeared beside me. It wasn’t a cartoon cat: it was real, it was Nergal. (Although, apparently there is a cartoon called Nergal.) She nudged my book aside with her nose, in that dismissive way cats do when they want attention, and curled up on my lap, purring loudly. “So, you’re awake now?” I said to her. Nergal looked up at me as if she felt very sorry for a creature of such obviously low intelligence. She purred sympathetically. I laid my book aside and stroked her. We had a largely one-way conversation about the rain. She did most of the talking. Slowly, I unwound. Sitting with Nergal is one of the few everyday things I do to unwind. My breathing seems to slow down with her purring. You might think that my thinking would slow down too, and I’d stop thinking about so many different things. Unfortunately, not. That only happens if I fall asleep, and sometimes not even then. Mostly, I watch layer after layer of words, pictures, ideas, and movies floating by or mixing in my head. And I notice other flotsam continually arriving, including a mental list of books.

As I sat with Nergal, I had let my gaze wander around my packed bookshelves. I’ve never counted them, but there’s a lot. I looked at one row of eight large volumes: the Collected Letters of T.S.Eliot. (I’ve tried to explain my interest in this poet here. ) Each book of letters is between 800 and 1000 pages long. I’ve only read the first volume (the revised edition which covers 1898 to 1922); and I’ve begun on the second. Other volumes will be published, adding to this mountain range every couple of years. Eliot lived and wrote up to 1965, and the volumes are only up to 1938 so far. I thought – it’ll take me a long time to climb those. Instead of being pleased at my intrepidness (I don’t think that was ever a word, but it is now), I looked around other shelves to see other mountains I’ve decided to climb. I’ve long had a desire to read ‘everything’: a fairly impossible quest. It doesn’t stop me trying.  So, I spotted Robert Caro’s monumental 4 volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. (A fifth and final volume will come out if Caro lives long enough to complete it.) For no reason I can remember I read the third volume first: Master of the Senate. It contains a terrific expose of the power and limitations of political wheeling and dealing in the US Senate. I’m reading the first volume now. And then, I spotted other mountains I have begun to climb: a trilogy on the life and struggles of Martin Luther King, by Taylor Branch; works by Freud, Kipling and Hegel; and more novels, science books, and books of poetry than I have the time to list here.

My strange desire to read and know everything is sometimes useful. Of course, I never get anywhere near my overall goal, if it can even be called that, but an unquenchable thirst to find things out can help in lesser quests. I spent a bizarre decade gathering thousands of bits of information in order to uncover a network of spies. And my obsessiveness helped me to represent people whose welfare benefits were stopped. Like my colleagues, I revelled in tracking down obscure medical and legal facts to help people regain an income which should never have been stopped. And more recently, I’ve sometimes managed to mould a few layers of my multi-layered thinking into a piece of writing: an article, or poem, a blogpost, or a book.

When I was a child, I noticed that the sky always seems to blend perfectly into the surface of the earth or with the blue horizon of the sea. Everything was a part of one seamless beautiful picture: birds and clouds in the sky, long grass in the fields, tall trees. Snow. Sunlight. And me watching. And all the questions which arose in my head.

Being interested in everything can be a bit of a curse at times. There’s much too much to think about, and if you think about too many things too often, it can be like hearing too many noises: it becomes one loud noise – like white noise. And then, I don’t want to think about anything at all. I only want to be in a quiet place, at peace.

Peacefulness comes in different shapes and sizes. Often, these days, for me – peace is cat-shaped and sounds like purring. In the past, peace was shaped like a bridge, with seven giant arches and a cool river and shade below. Winding paths, woodpeckers, and the tiny tracks of voles on mud by the river’s edge. A place where time was as soft as a cat’s fur, and you could stroke each moment. Thick, leafy bushes hiding trails. The fast flow of the Dichty in the winter. Much slower waters in the summer. That special sound of the river, like a faraway church bell. It  reminded me of my mum, playing Clair de Lune on the piano. The sound of not needing to know everything or much of anything. It was enough just to be alive.

Harvey Duke

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