Caught by the River

Goodbye Lockdown

Michael Smith | 7th June 2020

From St Leonards-on-Sea come more experimental fragments of lockdown writing, courtesy of Michael Smith.

The Quiet Lovely Light

I lay in bed, waking up slowly, looking at the gentle light through the curtains, listening to the coo of the pigeons recolonising the windowsills of the white seafront terrace that is just another cliff to them … I get up to bang on the window and scare them off, but why bother, I think – I’m fighting a losing battle for territory against them, nature reasserts itself, takes its course regardless of us, and if the Lockdown of 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to let go a bit. 

I got out of bed and granted myself the small luxury of a leisurely graze on the headlines over several stovetop coffees, taking my sweet time … and for the first time in a while, I felt simple rather than complicated, my mind was quiet rather than restless, I felt the stillness of something, rather than the lack of something … for once, everything felt just right.

It was a time to relish the quiet moments: when sun-dappled shadows play across the white pages of an open book resting on the kitchen table in the afternoon sun … pottering through afternoons like long lazy daydreams, gazing up at the skylight, watching the drift of the clouds, the deep blue day rolling out like an ocean before me, my flat like a cabin on an ocean liner; lazing on the couch seeing the sun cast a luminous window-shaped silhouette that gently moved across the wall and got redder before it came to rest, marking the passage of another perfect afternoon … 

And then later, I lay back on my bed and I saw stars … the moon kept me company through the open window, I watched it arc silently across the sky for hours, while my mind glazed over in moronic bliss, with nothing but the gentle hiss of a solitary car somewhere off in the distance, and the throb of the pelican crossing like my seaside street was lost in some strange familiar dream, and I drifted off to sleep … 



It was week 4 or 5 of the Lockdown, a sunny Sunday. My parents drove down to give my boy some new clothes, in exchange for a wrap of yeast, some zero zero flour, and a few other bits that used to fill the empty shelves of the supermarkets. We hadn’t seen them for at least two months and they’d driven an hour to drop the clothes off. We really wanted to see them, obviously, and we’d been emailing a lot in the days leading up to the visit. I presumed we’d have a chat with them from the safety of the car, but they were too worried to wind the window down. They waved frantically from behind the glass. My little boy waved back from the front door, then hid his head in the doorway, upset. My mam looked like she was about to cry as she kept on over-waving. The stuff was exchanged via the boot, more like a drug deal than a family visit. They drove off. I had no idea when we’d see them next. I was left wondering what the fuck had just happened.

Later that night, sitting in the flat, I may as well have been stranded on the moon. I stumbled upon a Youtube documentary about Alain Aspect and his famous quantum physics experiment, and found it strangely consoling. The experiment itself was fairly simple, conducted in an ordinary university lab in the Paris suburbs in the 1980s, but the results confounded and revolutionised the world of physics, and ended up forcing a fundamental re-think about the way the world works, about space, time, and the relationships of the things we imagine inhabit them … 

The experiment was designed to study the way particles interact; it shows what happens when two particles that have been bound together – in an atom, for example – are separated, and what happens to their relationship afterwards … in Alain Aspect’s lab, and in countless laboratories since, they fired a lazer at an atom, smashing some electrons off it like snooker balls, and then observed how these electrons behaved in isolation afterwards … the mind-boggling thing was that they remained “entangled” even when they were no longer physically connected: if you affected one particle – changed the direction it was spinning in, say – the other particle mirrored the first, simultaneously, like they were reflected images of each other … weirdly this still happened no matter how far apart they were; it was still be the case if they were halfway across the world from each other. This effect has been replicated in countless experiments since, and it has been proven beyond doubt that no matter how far apart the particles are, it is instantaneous – but as we all know, nothing can travel faster than light, including information, so how can the first particle be communicating with the second one about its changing state instantaneously? 

The fundamental re-think the experiment provoked went something like this: the mistake we naturally make is to assume the particles are two separate things communicating with each other, or even to imagine they are two separate things at all. “Entanglement” suggests that the particles are ultimately aspects of the same thing, still part of the same system, a continuum of unbroken wholeness. 

The metaphor they used to illustrate this idea stuck with me: imagine someone looking at a fish in a rectangular tank for the first time, someone who has no idea what a fish tank is or how light is refracted in it. Not being familiar with the optics of fish tanks, he mistakes the two refracted images of the fish he can see on the front and side panels of the tank for two separate fish, but the weird thing is, whenever one fish moves, the other one seems to do exactly the same thing; their correlation is a mystery to him, but it never occurs to him that both images are just different manifestations of the same underlying reality behind the two different panes of glass. So it is with our entangled particles, different aspects of the same thing that is still invisibly whole beyond the illusion of time and space. 

I think about Alain Aspect’s entangled particles as I gaze across a ghostly afternoon at a world in Lockdown, the strange mid-afternoon moon hanging pale beyond the baby blue horizon, and I wonder if my afternoon is somehow inextricably connected to the afternoon of Alain Aspect’s experiment, and to all the other ghostly afternoons in eternity, and whether I should feel strange and lost, as I often do, sad not to see my mam & dad and the people I love, or whether the people who touched us once are somehow touching us still, and all those moments that we shared together are never really lost, but are still an intrinsic part of us, closer than the passage of time and the distances between us … 


In Love With The Light

On a brilliant blue day like this, the diamond dazzle of the sunshine on the sea, the white Corbusian concrete against the azure depths like the colours of a Greek flag, St Leonards becomes a town transformed, and I am in love with the light. It caresses my face and freckles my arms, and when I close my eyes it rests warm on my eyelids, bathing me in its orange Buddha glow. 

Buddha reached enlightenment. Born Again Christians see the light. At the Sermon On The Mount, Jesus was transfigured before his apostles, “And his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.” Our language for transcendence has always been the language of light. 

As I walk through a world transformed by its radiance, the mystery of light intoxicates me; it seems like the very secret of existence, and I want to know it, to understand it … later, at home, on my Google searches, I try to read about the science of light and quickly end up scratching my head … it was apparently no easier for Albert Einstein: “Fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no closer to answer the question, ‘What is light?’ Of course today every rascal thinks he knows the answer, but he is deluding himself.” 

The mystery he tried to unravel was immense: when we look up in wonder at the unimaginable vastness of the night sky, and we think how mind-blowing it is that the light from that distant star up there took a million years to reach us, Einstein was the first person to realise that this is only true from a certain point of view, the point of view of human beings, bound by the laws of physics to live in a world moving slower than the speed of light … from the point of view of the light that is racing towards us from that distant star, however, things seem entirely different: at the speed of light, those million long years and that vast unimaginable distance between the surface of the star and the retina of your eye collapse down into a timeless, spaceless instant – from the light’s point of view, its million light-year journey is instantaneous, immediate, its beginning and its end are the same thing.

That’s not my flaky interpretation, it’s one of Einstein’s key insights, and it underpins the technology of your sat nav or your phone or your internet connection – the faster you’re moving, the less time you experience, until at the speed of light, time shrinks down to nothing. The same thing happens to space – it shrinks in the direction you’re moving, squashes up in front of you like an accordion, tighter and tighter the faster you get, till at the speed of light, it disappears completely. And so the unimaginably vast journey through what we experience as time and space from that star, 300,000 kilometres a second for a million years, was instantaneous for the light, was no journey at all, its beginning and its end were like two hands clapping, two hands with a whole universe inbetween them.

The language of the mystics is the language of light. For the ancient Egyptians, the golden rays of the Sun were the overlap of our material world and the divine world beyond. Turner’s last words were “The Sun is God.” When I see the sunlight, my instincts say the same. The science also seems to tell us that light transcends the world of time and space, that it literally exists beyond the parameters that define the material world we are bound up in and make our way through, a world that somehow unfolds and manifests out of the eternal and infinite Now inhabited by light … have I got the wrong end of the stick here? Answers on the back of a postcard please …

What is light? Do other people even think about these things? I’ve fumbled with this mystery ever since the Sun started warming the world again at the beginning of the Lockdown, staring out of my window, perplexed, trying to read books I can’t understand, while I bathe in its transcendent immaterial radiance … in the infinite stretch of the Universe there must be another bloke thinking about all this, sitting by a starry window on a distant planet, asking the same question a million years from now … but for the all-seeing Sun, we’re both asking the question in the same timeless instant, the same timeless instant all across the universe, everywhere and everywhen His rays enlighten.


Arrows With No Target

Blaise Pascal once said “All man’s problems stem from his inability to sit in a quiet room alone.” Not me. I’ve got a real talent for staring at the walls and doing fuck all.

No Zoom chats pretending it’s just like being down the pub. No Instagram photos of the bread I’ve started baking, frantically trying to keep up some smug pretence of my Picture-Perfect Life. I’m trying to stick to Pythagoras’ advice: “Be silent, unless what you have to say is better than silence.” 

Throughout this Lockdown, I’ve found the trick has been learning to just shut the fuck up for once, to spend my time staring at the pretty silhouettes of window plants migrating across the room, thinking about the light, about the space and time it moves through … it’s been lovely knowing I can think about all this stuff for as long as I want without a practical or even a coherent conclusion being required at the end of it all. The mind is used to thinking as a form of problem solving: there’s normally a result required at the other end of it all, a peanut for the monkey solving the lab test. Week after week I have found myself thinking towards no purpose, thinking about ancient prehistory or relativity or quantum physics, with the luxury of these thoughts not having to go anywhere, just thinking for the sake of it, loitering without intent, with no peanut at the end of it.

I promised myself early on I wouldn’t chastise myself for not writing my masterpiece during the Lockdown – all I’ve managed is this – fragments, arrows with no target, ideas taken for a wander, in the same way the artist Paul Klee, in his delicious phrase, loved “Taking a line for a walk”


Goodbye Lockdown

Floating through this weightless world, the days dawdled and the weeks raced by … by 8 weeks in, time had lost its familiar flow, devolved from a linear kind of time into a circular kind of time, simplified into a repeating arc of sunlit silhouettes of windows drifting across the wall till they got redder and rested, every day the same …

But this simpler state of being could never last, and just as soon as I got used to it, it started evaporating – normal life began creeping back in like daylight through the curtains of a darkened room, the first sounds of traffic after a silent night, unstoppably building towards rush hour, and I felt like a man woken up too early who couldn’t get back to sleep … and with a sinking feeling, the floating world soon felt the inescapable gravity of the busy working world pulling it back to all the clatter and the churn …

Michael Smith, Spring  2020, St Leonards-On-Sea