Connect Magazine Bard’s Eye View March 2004

Bards Eye View

I’ve been having my brain tested recently. Well, part of it. I’ve been taking part in an experiment on synaesthesia set up by a Speech Therapist at Marjons in Plymouth. Synaesthesia, if you’ve not come across it before, is ‘the evocation of one sense impression when another is stimulated’, a sort of cross-wiring of the senses, e.g. seeing music or tasting colour.

If you want to know the sound of one hand clapping you send for a Zen master, but when you need an informed opinion on the smell of the Moonlight Sonata or the colour of Tuesday, call in a synaesthete. Mine is the most common form of synaesthesia – experiencing words as having colour – so I can tell you that, for me, Tuesday is off-white with a hint of green. Not bright white like Saturday, or bluelilac white like Thursday, and quite distinct from the travel-brochure blue and blood orange of Monday and Wednesday on either side….Anyway, you get the picture.

The experiment is an attempt to discern at what point in the processing of language the crossed wires kick in, and I’ve been taking part because a) I’m a ‘synaesthete’, b) I like the attention and c) I’m deeply committed to rolling back the frontiers of scientific knowledge. When it comes to enlarging our collective understanding of the mind’s mysteries my motto is ‘Anything I can do to help as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me’ – which sounds noble in Latin.

So I went to Plymouth and sat and listened to a series of spoken sounds, not all recognisable as words or syllables. My task was to identify the colour corresponding most closely to each sound from a large laminated colour chart with subtle gradations of tone and hue. It was exacting, and fascinating. The process heightened my awareness of my own crossed wires and provided an insight into why I so enjoy writing – I just like the sight of my own voice.

It reminded me too how much I’ve always fancied the job of naming the colours on paint swatches. Better still to name them from a synaesthetic perspective: Instead of peach, aquamarine and magnolia people could paint their rooms in bold shades of ‘scandal’, ‘unguent’ and ‘carnivore’, or even in the more subtle hues of ‘twelfths’, ‘chlamydia’ and ‘banker’.

It’s always nice to feel you’re contributing to science.

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A student of Permaculture once told me that it’s important to listen to a new patch of land for at least a year before you start to work it and thereby impose on it your own ideas, structures and plants. I can see the merit in that, but I also feel it’s important to strike a balance between, on the one hand, listening to the land and, on the other, listening to your wife. My wife isn’t one to lay down the law, but nor is she slow to express a preference, and it’s great when I happen to agree. So that’s how I came to be laying down a lawn on a little triangle of unpaved ground in our backyard without having consulted the land at all.

Buying turf from a garden centre seems a strange, unnatural thing but laying it is very satisfying – somewhere between fitting a carpet and putting on a poultice. And the land didn’t seem to mind. In fact I’m sure I picked up a gentle sigh and an ‘Mmmm, that’s better.’ My land-listening antennae tuned in pretty quickly after this experience, and the land wasn’t slow to offer comments on the rest of our outdoor activities, not merely responding to what we’d done but even making suggestions: ‘Maybe a picnic table over here by the clematis’, ‘that one’s definitely a weed, trust me’, and once, ‘isn’t it time for a nice cup of tea?’

It’s important to be honest with yourself with this kind of deep listening and use rigorous self-questioning to determine what’s the true voice of the earth and what’s merely your mind’s own wish-fulfilling chatter, delivered in a slight regional accent. It helps to look back at what the land suggested and see if it still feels right afterwards. In our case the picnic table is great by the clematis, the plant in question was a weed, and we really did need a nice cup of tea. So case proved, I think.

Interestingly there wasn’t enough turf left at the first garden centre to complete the job so we had to buy another four rolls elsewhere. This has led to a subtle two-tone lawn effect which is incongruous but pleasing. If it helps you to form a picture I’d describe them as stroppy green and eco-gloom respectively. Or, speaking synaesthetically, as ‘buoyancy’ and ‘frankmuir’.

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Finally I wanted to tell you about the Westcountry Storytelling Festival, to be held this year at Hood Manor, Dartington from Aug 27-29, bank Holiday weekend. If it’s half as good as last year it’ll be twice as good as any other festival you go to this Summer. And that’s hype. But it’s well-meaning hype, it’s with-your-best-interests-at-heart hype. It’s hype motivated by a sincere desire to point Connect readers toward life-enhancing activities that help release endorphins into the mind/body system and bring together left and right hemispheres of the brain. And, okay, yes, it’s also nakedly self-interested hype because a) I’m performing at the festival and b) I’ve been promised a fiver for everyone who comes along on my recommendation. Yes, a fiver.

And it’s for this reason alone – not because the festival brings together an exceptional array of acclaimed storytellers in beautiful yurt venues with music, workshops, kids stuff, campfire sessions and wild’n’free sex (NB I made one of these up) – that I urge you to come. Don’t be shy, ‘phone 01803 863790 or visit to book your ticket and find more information. And tell them I sent you.

If just twenty Connect readers answer my call I stand to make £100. Think of it! How often do you get the opportunity to help a poet in the perennial quest for increased puchasing power? Tragically infrequently, that’s how often. It’s rare that I end a Bards Eye View with any kind of moral message, but I’m moved to observe here that ‘Together we can make a difference’. If only to my disposable income. Thank you.

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