Monday, 29 December 2008

Does Nobody Else Do This?

I used to do a lot of long-distance rail journeys, travelling alone. One of the ways I amused myself was to imagine a motorcycle keeping pace with the train. It was entertaining looking for routes through trees and between fields. One had to allow the occasional Steve McQueen style leap across a fence or hedgerow, but only where the lie of the land made this remotely feasible. I was a biker at the time, and felt this excused such mild fantasising. Not long ago, though, I met someone who rode, who said they did the same thing with an imaginary horse and rider.

I mentioned this as we drove home on the M25 last night, and Bob remarked that he sometimes imagines himself grinding on the central reservation crash-barrier. There was a pregnant silence until he added that jumping the gaps was fun, and we realised he was talking about skateboarding. I see now that transport corridors are paralleled by a phantasmagorical revving, galloping, grinding horde of shadows. It is they, not the passing vehicles, that stir the daisies on the verge.

There is an equivalent to this in typography, which I became aware of when I had the job of editing a newsletter. It involves the gaps between printed words. Sometimes, like pointing in amateur brickwork, they join up in successive lines, so that the eye can trace a wandering white track down the page. If text was chocolate, these are the fault lines that it would break along. Typesetters call these 'rivers', and they become a particular problem if you are using narrow, fully justified columns, because bigger spaces have to be used to juggle the words into position.

It turns out, according to the Today Programme, that there is a bit of the brain (there usually is) devoted to this sort of pattern recognition. It is suggested that we need it to spot predators concealed amongst leaves and grasses.

Like looking at a cartoon of two faces and seeing a Grecian urn, once the eye becomes tuned to spotting rivers they can pounce out at you in an unwelcome way. If you don't see them, try slitting your eyes so the words blur. In boring meetings, as a change from doodling, I have been known to draw routes down through the text of reports and briefing notes, from top to bottom of the page. The more direct the route, the better.

So there you have it. A way to make even Jeffrey Archer novels entertaining. Look on them not as literature (I know, I know), but as puzzle books, every page a new challenge.

Is there anything you do which 'normal' people might find peculiar?


  1. On train journeys I imagine small model planes or space ships flying alongside the train and in my mind I try to direct them through trees and other obstacles without crashing them. I need to start reading more books on trains... though I draw the line at Mr A.

  2. I was going to recommend 'Branch Line Diesel-Electric Shunting Engines in the North Riding, 1962-1971', then I saw what you meant...

  3. There are lots of things I do that normal people might find peculiar. I'm going to keep them to myself.

    Great post. I sometimes work as a sub-editor, and a particular art director I occasionally work with likes to berate me about rivers. Rivers and widows.

    I liked the line 'It is they, not the passing vehicles, that stir the daisies on the verge.' Beautiful.

  4. I also used to do a long commute and never thought about imagining parallel movers alongside the train - I used to daydream and the time just flew.

    I do have something peculiar I do, although I never used to think it was so odd until Mr FF and his ma told me otherwise. I can (sort of - it's hard to explain) visualise how many letters are in a word without actually counting them on my fingers. For instance, if we were doing a crossword and Mr FF said 'how many letter are in telepathically?' (which is what he actually said),I instantaneously replied 14. I've been counting long words in books ever since I can remember and have absolutely no idea why.

  5. No, I don't think I've ever done that either, but it's a nice idea- I'll try it next time. Although not sure what this biker is going to do when we go under the tunnel!

    I have this thing where I watch which foot, left or right, the person in front of me uses on each step. I make a split-second assessment of the person in front of me, and if they are someone I think I should "follow in the footsteps of" I use the same foot as them on the same step, and if not (like if they look ill or evil or something), I make sure I change foot. I do this whenever I follow someone up or downstairs. Which is pretty much at least twice a day on the tube. I think I should switch to the biker thing asap.

  6. As a child and passenger in a car I always imagined a man on a regular push bike or a skateboard travelling alongside our car, it's enjoyable but after a while quite stressful! Similarly, I used to create creatures to dance on the head of the person in front of me at church.

    I also am incredibly distracted by the patterns in texts, although only when I'm not at all interested in what I'm reading.

  7. I have been wracking(racking?) my brains but I don't think I do anything strange. I love all the things everyone else does and I have noticed the gaps in the text but didn't know they were called rivers. I can whistle continuously, being able to do it on the inward breath too. Is that normal? It's not at all related to all the other things but it is all I can thing of! From now on I will be imagining all sorts of people travelling alongside my train though, that is when I am not reading the latest J.A.

  8. When I am frightened of doing something I pretend that I am somebody else I know who can do it fearlessly. It also works when I'm not very good at doing something, too. You should try it- it works!
    i also pretend that my job is a soap opera. this helps with terrible colleagues. You just think to yourself on the way to work, "I wonder what ........ will be doing this episode?' It makes life hilarious instead of miserable, because the awful things they do are usually just as extraordinary as the things the actors in Eastenders get up to!

  9. Steve - I quite like the idea of small flying things. They'd overcome some of the navigational problems.

    Hattie - Spoilsport! Oh yes; widows and orphans (I never did know which was which).

    Fancy - That's a really interesting skill. Perhaps you should have been a quantity surveyor or something. I count when very bored. For example, there are 76 panes of glass in every window in Dunvegan Kirk. (One day some complete stranger is going to stop and ask me, and I'll surprise them by knowing).

    Daisy - I like your 'following in the footsteps' thing. The instant character assessment must be achieved on an almost molecular level. Or pheromones, or fashion sense, or something. You'd make a good climber; following in the footsteps of the person in front is a good way of minimising effort on steep ascents.

    Mega - I am enchanted by the idea of the creatures dancing on people's heads. Like angels on pins. I think you should do a painting of them.

    Well I can't whistle inwards, as it were, so no, I don't think it's normal. You would have made an excellent Clanger. What a multi-talented lot we are!

    Helen - That sounds like brilliant psychology (I pretended to be someone who could spell just then, and it worked!) I think that's why I loved 'The Office' so much; it was completely true to everyone's office experience, but reminded one that the tedious or disfunctional are also funny.

  10. This has been an excellent post, BroTob - I've loved reading all the comments. Aren't we a unique lot - or are we? (cue for mysterious music on the aeolian harp)

  11. Me? Anything peculiar? Certainly not!
    Well......apart from the fact that most of the time I am doing something entirely different in my head to what I seem to be doing....and occasionaly my body will do something which reflects that!
    Love the post.
    I shall be trying out the paths through words one next time I am stuck in a meeting involving endless boring paperwork.....

  12. No. I am totally and utterly normal.


  13. Hi………
    Absolutely fantastic post! Good job!
    Great! Keep posting
    Good week………
    " A Happy New Year''

  14. Fancy - Thank you. Funny, I thought it was rather a silly one. It just shows, the most interesting thing about a blog is the people who read it.

    Justme - Multi tasking with a vengeance! When you play the word path, remember not to shout 'Yesss!' triumphantly.

    Laura - Now that we know to be untrue! (but modesty becomes you!). Here's to new doors opening in 2009, worthy of your talents.

    Susan - Thank you for visiting. I am in absolute awe of your six blogs. Your vegetable art, pencil art, cake art and photography are all breath-taking, and I love the descriptions of your daily life. I don't understand how you find the time to do any of it, let alone read other blogs. Happy New Year to you too.