Saturday, 11 January 2014

The World In A Shell

Shell, front view

Shell, seen from above, showing the dragon
           Here's yet another of my mother's old ornaments. There are two of them, as a matter of fact. My Grandmother Price bought one for her daughter, and one for her daughter-in-law, my mother.
          My mother liked 'the shells' much more than my aunt. When my aunt grew tired of her shell, she gave it to my mother.
          They are 'Woolworth's Specials', made of plastic. I loved them. I loved peering in at the little house, with its water-wheel, and the rather blobby person who is watching the boat sail by. I liked to speculate on what would happen when the shell closed.

          You might just be able to see that, in the second shell, there is a rather blobby animal, which might be a cow or a donkey, or even a large dog, instead of a blobby person. I cared nothing for the blobbiness. Instead, I was entranced by the fact the blob had a little bridge to enable it to cross the little river.

          I don't think my attachment to these oddments is purely sentimental. I think it's a link to a kind of thinking I was much given to as a child. The clue was in that 'what happened when the shell closed?'
          Here is something else I was much given to pondering as a child - 

          There was always a bottle of this around in my childhood. For those who don't know, it held a sticky brown fluid. You put a teaspoonful in a cup, and added hot water, to make alleged coffee - the only kind of coffee I ever tasted, until my aunt (who had been led away from the true faith of tea-drinking by her Polish husband, and was a hardened coffee-addict) introduced me to the real stuff.
          But the label - you will see that, on the tray in the picture is a bottle of camp coffee. And on that bottle of camp coffee there must be a label showing exactly the same scene as on the real bottle. And on that bottle must be another, even tinier label - and on that bottle - and so on, down into infinity.
            (I once told my partner about this, and he said that years before, on leave in Scotland, he'd gone along to a party given by some people his sister knew. There was an old man sitting in a chair by the fire, and that old man was the man who'd modeled for the Scotsman on the bottle of Camp Coffee. I think he owned the company who made the stuff. All Scots, I tell you, sooner or later meet all other Scots.)
          But, back to infinity on a label. I spent many hours, as a child, pummelling my brain as I tried to imagine just how small those pictures within pictures within pictures within pictures became.
          Many years later, I came across Flann O'Brien's entirely mad 'The Third Policeman,' which features, among many mad things, a policeman (though not the third one), who halts an attack of one-legged men by painting his bicycle in a colour no one had ever seen before, and riding it past them. They are so disconcerted by the sight of an unknown colour that their campaign collapses.
          I nearly did my brain an injury trying to imagine a colour no one had ever seen before. The best I could come up with was a kind of muddy purple - which really wouldn't do at all. Everybody has seen muddy purples. - But it highlights the difficulty of getting outside your usual frame of reference. Is it ever really possible?
          Answers - if you have them - and unknown colours - by first class snipe, please.


madwippitt said...

There's Terry Pratchett's Colour of Magic - Octarine - too ...

Did you ever do the mirror thing when you were a kid? Where you set two mirrors up almost opposite each other and then place an object between the two, and they multiply into an infinity of other worlds?

Delivered by albatross: no snipes currently on the email run.

Joan Lennon said...

I think it would be out the other end of the spectrum from octarine, just between blue and black - that incredibly dark blue you get at the exact moment before winter dusk turns into full night, which I consistently miss seeing. (It has to be right away from any street lights or house lights.) It suggests shyness, or perhaps slyness. Bit of both, maybe.

I love your Woolworth's shells!

Anonymous said...


I'm from the West Midlands, but moved to Zurich some years ago. They speak a sort of German comparable to broad Glaswegian contrasted with Received Pronuciation English here. The infinite miniturisation reminded me of one of the first 'dialect' songs I heard in Switzerland by the late Manny Matter, the Swiss version of a Mike Harding or Jasper Carrot. It's called 'The Hairdresser'. Basically he sings about sitting in the chair at the barbers and then noticing that there is a mirror behind him which shows a reflection of himself from behind with yet another refection of the mirror behind and so on.

This goes on and on, until he reports that he leaps from the chair with only half a hair cut and flees from the 'meta à priori' perceived reality of the parallel universe of the barbers!

Here's the link to the original song. If by any chance you know a little German, forget it, you won't understand a word unless you can speak Swiss German. However, knowing the basic story (context) in advance is half the battle and allows one to enjoy the song. Now that's a very interesting point!


manxli (Sue's half Polish Cousin)

Anonymous said...

Oh by the way. Flann o'Brian's Third Policemen had me in stiches as a teenager but 'At Flight Two Birds' was really strange. Did Flann O'Brian use funny substances by any chance?


Anonymous said...

Oh and another thing...

How do I know what you experience as 'blue' is also waht I experience as 'blue'. We have a word for it but we still can't know. Applies to all other words too when you think about it. They all depend on social context.

There is a genetical aspect too. We men only know 'red' 'orange' 'yellow' etc.. whilst women have thousands of tones such as 'maroon', 'peach', 'azure'. Why is that? Only kidding!


=Tamar said...

The bicyclists would have to be able to see the color or the trick wouldn't work. Many languages don't have specific words to distinguish between blue and green, even though the people speaking the language can perceive the difference. Possibly the bicyclists' culture didn't distinguish between the bicycle's color and a different one that they used the same word for, and they had an argument about how to describe it. I once owned a vehicle that was an odd shade of purple that looked black to some people.

=Tamar said...

P.S. If you want to find an example on the internet, try to distinguish among "lavender", "lilac", and "violet", keeping in mind that the state flower of New Hampshire (USA) is the "purple lilac" but the plant breeders have developed many different shades. To be completely muddled, use Google Images to search for examples and look at several pages' worth.

Susan Price said...

Very interesting comments! - thanks to all.
Madwippit, your comment was delivered magnificently by albatross - a much better choice than snipe. How could octarine have slipped my memory? - though I think Pratchet says it's something like orange, so there's our frame of reference sticking its corner in again.
Joan - now you've made me want to see that beautiful shade of blue. I know there is an elusive and very lovely blue-green to be seen in glaciers, and in the currents of cold water that run off them. You can see the blue-green streak in other streams.
Tamar and Coz - I think you're getting into semantics, and what we CALL a colour. Enough of us agree on what is, say, purple and what is not to say that there is, indeed, 'A Colour Purple.' And then there are various degrees of purpleness, which we call violet, lavender, mauve, grape etc.

But what Flann O'Brien was talking about was an entirely new colour, one that didn't have any existence in our world at all. It isn't a shade or a tint of an existing colour.

The Policeman had fetched it, if I remember rightly, from a sort of cellar full of lockers in the basement of the Police Station. You could open the doors of these lockers and watch things from outside our world falling past. The narrator recoils in horror from the utterly indescribable shapes he sees emerging from the roof of the locker and drifting through the floor. This is where the policeman gets his paint, and the one-legged men collapse because their brains cannot comprehend, in any way, what that colour is. (What this makes the policeman, one, two and most definately, three, is a moot point.)
As to what O'Brien was on, I gather it was a mix of Guinness and Quantum Physics - a heady brew.)

=Tamar said...

Octarine is, according to Rincewind, a sort of disappointing greenish purple.
The brain doesn't care what it perceives because it's a mechanism with some habit patterns as programming; it's the daytime mind that tries reject what it can't label easily. Discussions of perceptions that are difficult for the daytime-mind to accept generally devolve into vagueness because the indescribable is just that, even for the more open minds. Western language doesn't have the words for it; I'm told that some Tibetan Buddhist monks have specific descriptions of some experiences but just learning the language wouldn't make the meaning clear; one would have to have the experiences to understand the words. But I think I did perceive ultraviolet in a meditation once, and it was darker than the pictures I've seen that purport to show it. My brain represented it as a sort of glowing-black-not-black, then gave up and made a symbolic image.
I'm serious about the general disagreement about what "purple" means, though; there is no agreement even with pictures.

Katherine Langrish said...

Your Camp Coffee label reminds me of the 'Last Visible Dog' in Russell Hoban's marvellous 'The Mouse and His Child' - where a tin of Bonzo dogfood has a label of a litle dog in a chef's cap carrying another tin of Bonzo dogfood with a label... prompting the existential question: What is beyond the Last Visible Dog?

And I remember an Enid Blyton book, possibly The Mountain of Adventure, in which the children come across a mysterious underground fire burning in a completely new colour: there was a picture in my copy, which I tried to colour in using a mixture of every coloured pencil I had, and I still wasn't satisfied!

Penny Dolan said...

Good to be reminded of his wild wit.

A mild thought:I am reminded that Flann O'Brien has one of his characters amazed at rumours about a "great lamp in the sky", such as had never been seen in his part of Ireland. So maybe blue - as of a blue sky - could be the colour, as in "not grey and full of rain?"

Eternities: I have two sets of mirrors facing opposite each other home here for just such a fascinating purpose.

Susan Price said...

I love that this noodling about a plastic shell has unleashed such a flow of fascinating comments!

Tamar - I must have been confused by my own response to 'octarine' which somehow sounds orange to me. So it is 'a disappointing greenish-purple.' Odd how purple gets in there when we try to imagine new colours. Did Pratchett make it greenish because green would oppose the red in purple? - Though that would actually tip it towards black.
I do see what you mean about the brain being a mechanism, and it being our waking mind that makes the difficulties - though that takes us into long wrangles about just how separate are brain and mind/soul. - But I would love to get a glimpse of the Ultraviolet you saw!
Kath - I'd forgotten the Last Visible Dog, but another friend reminded me of him yesterday. I love The Mouse And His Child! - and I love your story about trying to colour in the non-existent colour! - Obviously this 'new colour' thing concentrates all the best minds.

Penny - 'wild wit' is exactly right for the man O'Brien. The book you quote sounds like The Poor Mouth, with its 'eternal nocturnal Corkoduragha downpour.' (I've probably spelled the place-name wrongly.) A teacher friend read that while away on a trip with schoolchildren, and said he had to stuff his fist in his mouth to stop himself roaring out loud with laughter and waking them. For years afterwards he would suddenly demand of people, "Ffwhat is yoor nam?"
I must see if I can find another mirror...

=Tamar said...

I rather like the conceit that the color they had never seen before was blue sky! It would be awful in real life (and was tragic in the SF short story), but in this context it's funny.

Anonymous said...

A thought:

Sue said that Flann O 'Brian was on a heady brew of Guinness and Quantum Phiysics! Well I've just consumed 3 cans of Guinness (with widget, coz that's all you get in Switzerland) and it occurred to me that Sue has a point. Flann O'Brian maintained, that if a bike was ridden by a person, it would absorb characteristics of that person. Now this is very 'in' with modern philosophers in Quantum Physics and particularly appealing when one has imbibed. It is the Quantum Physics explanation of Polretgeists for example. i.e. Events get 'recorded' in the objects surrounding the events.

I beginning to think that his work was a turning point of history. Bear in mind that Niels Bohr, Heisenberg ( of cat in box fame) etc... were contemporaries of Flann.


Anonymous said...

Sorry , Schrödinger propsed the dead (or not dead) cat in box. ooops...


Susan Price said...

Heisenberg was the 'Impossibility' bloke - and Einstein couldn't understand his theory!
Brian O'Nolan - Flann O'Brien's real name - was a highly intelligent man - he'd have to be to devise his plots - and took a keen interest in the science of his time. In The Third Policeman one of the coppers is making boxes inside boxes, which get tinier and tinier until they can't be seen - but there are still boxes inside them! And he has - I think he calls it a 'lance', which has a point so sharp that it's invisible. Then there are the half-human bikes, of course...Once a bike is more than 75% human, it becomes a dangerous thing...

I told you it was mad.

O'Brian also wrote of a scientist, De Selby, who conducts all sorts of weird experiments. He has devised a way of travelling by sitting in a chair and looking at postcards - which is all about the nature of time and space. A great deal of O'Brian's writing is riffing on ideas from Quantum Physics.
He also wrote a column for the Irish Times, under the name of Myles Na Gopaleen. His account of how unemployed ventriloquists got out of control in Dublin is one of the funniest things I've ever read. Not many writers can make you laugh out loud when you're on your own, quietly reading, but O'Brian could.

=Tamar said...

Musicians will tell you that instruments pick up characteristics from their players. That's one reason why they like to obtain instruments that were played by great musicians; they say it helps their own playing.

Susan Price said...

Haunted instruments! Spooky!