Divided (somewhat arbitrarily) into “scenes”, and deriving from some thoughts on AI, and a desire to use the “perpetual motion” game in a story – and with a debt, I now realise, to this scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is another story of mine from nthposition perhaps stronger on idea than execution. I am trying to recall exactly why I used Carlow, which I now occasionally visit for work but didn’t in 2010, as a setting. I have a whole slew of unfinished and fragmentary stories set in British redbrick universities, for some reason.
Scene 1. Concourse, Mandela Building, University of Manchester. Twenty years ago. Late in the Day.
A Socialist Worker Student Society stand. Posters: “No free speech for Fascists! Stop racist Irving!”
SWSS person: (half-heartedly, without much hope of the words getting through) Please sign our petition against Fascists.
Me: I will. (goes over to stand to sign)
SWSS person (more hopeful, but a lot of people have signed these in the past and no one has turned up to the meetings before) There’s a public meeting on Wednesday at 1 o’clock on this. We are going to organise a bus to Oxford to picket Irving’s speech.
Me: I’ll be there.
SWSS: What’s your name?
Me: Tom. Tom Borrow.
Scene 2. Her Majesty’s Prison Ford. Now.
Life is very simple if you just follow the instructions. Or rather, life can proceed very simply if you just follow the instructions. There’s a difference.
I’ve discovered a game that is a lot like life. Its called Perpetual Motion, and also, unflatteringly, Idiot’s Delight. Here we play a lot of patience, or rather I do. “Here” is a prison. It’s not like the prisons of one’s imagination, or of films or TV. This is an open prison, where along with various fraudsters, tax avoiders and drunk drivers, I while away the months before release. It won’t be long now, what with time off with good behaviour, although “with good behaviour” is a rather redundant phrase. This is probably the least dangerous prison one could imagine – you’re far safer here than on the streets.
And yet, and yet… self-pity is never very far away. I may be imprisoned for a crime which, technically, I did do, and which I have never denied, but I will always plead moral innocence. This alone separates me from my fellow inmates, who tend to maintain their technical, factual innocence, while retaining great pride in what they apparently didn’t do.
Anyway, Perpetual Motion. You take a deck of cards, shuffle it well, and deal out four cards face up. If you have any pairs, or a three of a kind, you take the relevant cards and move them to the leftmost pile. If you happen to have four of a kind, you pick up all four cards and set them aside in their own pile. They are out of the game. You then continue to deal out cards in the four piles, each time moving to the left if you have doubles or triples, or removing them if you get four of a kind. The whole point of all this being to set aside all the cards; to have nothing but a series of four-of-a-kinds.
When you have finally dealt out the deck, you pick up each pile, put them together and begin again (without shuffling) After a few turns, you’ll realise that this game takes a very long time – hence “Idiot’s Delight.” Although the name probably also has something to do with the fact that the game, unlike some other forms of patience, does not involve any decision making or anything other than the blind application of the rules. After not too long, you will begin to get twos and threes of a kind, and by putting all these cards in the same pile, you think that you are preserving these combinations, and soon you will be well on the way to finishing it off. But you aren’t. When it comes to dealing them out, you will end up separating these pairs and triplets. You begin to realise that getting four of a single kind is as far away as ever. And this is what I love about the game. You diligently deal and deal, at times getting hints of the desired outcome, and then you realise that you aren’t making the progress you thought.
That doesn’t mean you are making progress. And some day, with enough patience, the cards will reveal themselves in neat foursomes. So, if you just keep following the rules, things will reveal themselves to be have a pattern, a shape – but it will take a long time.
Scene 3. Carlow Town, many years ago.
To be shot in sepia tones, and accompanied by haunting Irish melodies of resistance.
Kant once said that two things caused him to wonder – the starry sky above him, and the moral law within him. My first memory of the moral law within is from when I was six years old, hearing my father arise at 4am for the early shift in the beet factory. Semi-consciously, he would repeat little sentences, like “another day, another dollar”, or “A fine day, he says” or “Early to bed, early to rise”. The one that stayed with me was “to have lived so long, and to have done so little harm” which seemed to be said with a little more conviction, even satisfaction, than the others.
We lived in a knot of mean little terrace houses on the edge of Carlow town. They had been built as workmen’s cottages in the Edwardian era. My father went into the sugar plant as a boy and left a redundant man. My parents, and then my brothers and sisters, accepted this not just without anger or bitterness or quieter desperation, but not even with what could be dignified as stoicism. They responded with pure and simple blankness. This was life, neither good nor bad but just life, and to be met in a silence that was neither consent nor protest. Except for those morning mutterings from my father. To have lived so long, and to have done so little harm. Later on in life I rejected the philosophy it represented, but I always respected it. I never found out where it came from, despite a lifetime of reading moral philosophy, ethics, and even (following the principle of knowing your enemy) religion.
And first do no harm was, at first, my guiding moral light. It was the principle that led me to abandon the studies in mathematics that I had won a scholarship to the University of Manchester for, as I did not want to be involved in an activity that might lead to military or criminal applications. I would, of course, see no distinction between the military and the criminal. My parents must have been astonished, but they accepted this as they accepted all else. With blankness. They slid out of my life as the events that followed proceeded.