I'd much rather get the train to Scotland than fly but it's just not financially practical any more. For some reason the main advantage of flying these days is no longer that it's quicker (although it still is) but that it's far cheaper. Time was when air travel was a luxury you indulged in when time was of the essence whereas students on a budget went backpacking around Europe by train.

No longer.

For some reason low-cost airlines are a thing whereas low-cost train routes aren't. Why is that?

Mind you, if you fly on a low cost-airline you can certainly identify where they're cutting the costs. The fares themselves are cheap but everything you might want is extra. Hold baggage? Extra. Drinks and food? Extra. I wouldn't be surprised if they start charging for the use of the toilet soon. Everyone should experience flying by Ryanair at least once if only because it will make them realise that Easyjet aren't actually that bad...

One thing Easyjet are still charging for is Speedy Boarding. Once upon a time I could understand why people might want this. The airline used to operate a choose-your-own-seat policy which meant that there was a definite advantage in getting on first - it meant you could pick the seat you wanted (in my case usually in the aisle near the exit). But then they changed the procedure so that all seats were allocated at check-in (usually online).

And yet not only do they still offer Speedy Boarding, but some people still pay for it, even though all it means these days is that you get to stand around in the jetway for longer waiting for the plane doors to be opened.

There is no advantage to it whatsoever.

If you're a standard ticket holder and are canny enough to sit near the boarding doors in the departure lounge then you will be immediately behind the Speedy Boarders and effectively getting the same service as them as you walk to your pre-allocated seat.

Surely it's time to abandon this add-on, especially given that pick-your-own-seat itself is another add-on offered at purchase? I suppose the only reason they maintain it is that there are still people who will be taken in and pay for this non-privilege.

No, Speedy Boarding is a complete waste of time.

One thing I definitely would pay for however is Speedy Disembarkation. It would be preferable to the current free for all. The aircraft coasts to a standstill and even before the seat belt signs have been switched off, a wave of clicks sweep down the cabin as the impatient get ready to stand up and scramble for the overhead lockers. Most of the time I seem to end up bent double wedged between the aisle seat and the lockers waiting for the doors to open and for people to start shuffling out.

Of course there are those smug individuals remaining in their seats looking down their noses at everyone else as if to say "What's the hurry? You're not going to get off any faster by standing up, you know..."

I appreciate that this may well be fine for someone of a more relaxed persuasion, but I have anxiety issues and the sooner I get out of this claustrophobic cramped metal tube with my single piece of luggage the sooner I can confront the stress filled situations of passport control and customs. I know I'm not sneaking into the country or smuggling hard drugs but nevertheless the fact that these checks are in place at all feels like a silent accusation which upsets me. It's only once I'm out on the arrivals concourse that I can relax - unless of course it's late in the evening and I have to rush to the station to get the last train...

I can't see Speedy Disembarkation working though. No matter how many times the aircraft crew tell people not to unfasten their seatbelts until the light has been switched off it still happens with monotonous regularity. If people are unwilling to obey even this simple instruction can you imagine the furore that would occur if they were told to remain seated until the Speedy Disembarkers had got off? You can hear the self-righteous complaints even now.

Then again after people got used to it I suspect it would be such an attractive proposition that almost everyone would pony up the cash for this extra add on. And so, even though the resulting situation would be the same as the current one, Easyjet would have an extra £15 or so per passenger in their pockets...

Everyone has experienced The Confusion.

We all know what it's like. We're on our way home from work after a long day. It's later than it should be. We're sitting on the top deck of an overlit bus. Outside it's dark and it's pissing with rain, the hateful hiss of tyres on wet tarmac a cosmic background radiation to our fatigue.

Red traffic lights shout their noiseless commands into the chaotic evening, fragmented into violent splatters by the rain drops on the window. Sleep drags at the back of our eyeballs and we close our eyes, leaning our head against the glass. But the vibration of the engine makes dropping off impossible, our skull reverberating from hundreds of tiny impacts.

The traffic is moving so slowly it would probably be quicker to get off and walk, but there's the rain to contend with so we stay on board until the last possible moment.  It's only a short walk from the bus stop to our flat but even that's more than enough time to get soaked through.

Once inside we turn on the heating and hang our damp clothes on the radiator. We're still knackered and the idea of lying down for a few minutes appeals. After all, we've already got undressed. Just half an hour and then we'll get up and start preparing some food...

The bed is far more comfortable than it normal is and the darkness soothes as it washes over our forehead.

There is a noise. There is a bell. Something is ringing. The Confusion is wrapped around us like a sticky shroud. Is that the alarm? Is it time to get up for work? The numerals on the digital clock don't make any sense... looks like we've overslept. As we fight our way free of the uncertainty all becomes clear.

We've been lying down for about twenty minutes. And that noise? The phone you idiot.

We get up and answer it. The voice of our friend on the other end does much to ground us in reality, but all the same a slight uneasiness remains. On the one hand it's as if we've been granted some extra time - the belief that it was morning and time to get up was strong and now we have the whole evening ahead of us. On the other... there was a fracture. The part of our brain that counts the hours has been fooled, it seems that time is not as consistent as we might otherwise have believed. And all it took to pull aside the curtain was sleep.

Maybe time is a function of consciousness? Without the ordered march of our thoughts across the singularity where the "self" intersects with the "now", it appears that time is not so linear after all, not as central a part of the mechanism of the universe as we thought. Perhaps it is just a way of looking at the universe, an emergent property of the way our brains organise information.

Some theories of the nature of consciousness are pertinent here. As has been covered before in this blog, the brain flips causality and reverses time upon doing something so as to give us the illusion that we're in control, to fool us into thinking we made the decision rather than the decision making us. However this theory assumes that linear time is a constant and that subsequently we're living in a series of tiny loops awkwardly sewn together and struggling against a constant temporal current.

But if Time is simply part of the Whole Sort Of General Mish-Mash then perhaps the brain is using it in a non-linear manner (just as a computer can store the data of a single file on a hard disk in multiple fragments, using up the free space as and where available) and on a very minor level can access it non-sequentially. Even though the very word "sequential" means nothing under the circumstances.

If Time is as much of an emergent property of the brain as Consciousness then perhaps they are in cahoots. Sleep is the great liberator, it frees us from both of them allowing whatever it actually is that passes for our "selves" to simply be rather than adhere to the rigid structures we've built up to understand the universe.

And perhaps they don't like that. Control can be very addictive. And thus Time and Consciousness conspire to prevent our escape, the result of which is Insomnia.

Insomnia is the reverse of The Confusion described above. Instead of compressing vast chunks of unconscious time into what turns out to have only been twenty minutes, Insomnia wants to make sure we're aware of every single dull second.

Tick-tock. It's slightly too warm. It's slightly too cold. Tick-tock. Our nose itches. Scratching it drags us back just that little bit closer to full wakefulness. Tick-tock. Where did that ache come from? What's causing it? Tick-tock.

After a while it occurs that we've been awake for a very long time. We're almost loathe to check the clock - wanting to avoid the bad news - but eventually give in. Fuck. It's 3am. We've been lying here staring into the night for over two hundred minutes. And we had to live through every moment, our brains whirring, going over and over those things we'd rather not think about, telling us all about what we should have done rather than what we actually ended up doing. Reminding us that one day we are going to die. Reminding us that one day we will be lying there with less than twenty four hours to go before we cease to be and that there is nothing we can do about it.

Time and Consciousness are not simply our jailers; they want us to suffer as well. However, dreaming is the point of sleep, essential for the continued healthy function of the brain. No matter how much Time and Consciousness hate us, they can't afford to let us go mad. So - while still making sure we are chained to the awareness of the passing of time and our presence in the increasingly uncomfortable bed - the permit us to start dreaming in parallel.

These dreams are at best dissatisfying and at worst nightmares. We're fully alert to the fact that we are lying there awake and increasingly upset but at the same time these confusing little narratives run underneath the experience. We can't concentrate on them enough to enjoy them, but at the same time they nag at us, adding an additional layer of discomfort to the already intolerable experience of a night's Insomnia.

Eventually we give up and abandon the idea as getting up and facing the day is marginally less unpleasant than continuing to lie there. After all, it's already getting light.

And we get to do it all over again the following night.

Image by Faisal Akram from Dhaka, Bangladesh (Insomnia) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

We have already seen how - somewhere deep in my childhood - I developed an obsession with the Post Office Tower - or rather, as I discovered - Post Office Towers.

I also liked encyclopedias of various types and was always disappointed that you couldn't take them out of the library. I had to make do with the ones I received for Christmas or birthday, but a lot of the time that was enough for me. Many was the evening I would spend poring over The Wonder Book of Do You Know or The Guinness Book of Records.

And it was thanks to this that I discovered that there were other towers in the world, some of them taller than the Post Office Tower. At first this made me feel irritated and inferior - I felt proprietorial about the tower I saw on a regular basis and the criticism implicit in the fact that the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building were taller upset me. But then I began to obsess about these towers themselves, drawing pictures of them, building replicas of them out of Lego and dreaming of the days to come when I'd be able to ride a lift to the top of each. Those days did come, but only when I was much older, almost an adult.

And of course by the time those days came things had already changed. Once again the change upset me in an obscure fashion that I couldn't quite put my finger on. A lot of my reference books were relatively old and it was only some time after the fact that I was to discover that The Way Things Were had changed again. I'd made my peace with the existence of the Empire State Building and had accepted it as the Tallest Building In The World. So it didn't sit well with me when I found out that this title had been stolen by the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Somehow the new champions being in the same location as the old seemed to be adding insult to injury.

But I came to accept it and eventually added the World Trade Centre to my bucket list of towers (on this occasion I never made it).

But things continued to change. Apparently something called the Sears Tower in Chicago was now the tallest building in the world. And what was worse, the Post Office Tower was no longer the tallest building in the UK - it had been supplanted by the Nat West Building in the City of London, again rubbing salt into the wound by being constructed within the sight of the former record holder.

By the time One Canada Square was constructed at Canary Wharf and took the title I had more or less given up although there was something about the winking light at the apex of the pyramid on its roof that used to draw my attention whenever I looked out over east London.

Nowadays you can't move for skyscrapers. London is thick with them and I'm in danger of losing track of which one is tallest. The Shard - currently tallest building in London, the Post Office Tower now having been demoted to a shocking 11th - is comparable in height to the Eiffel Tower and no doubt will itself be supplanted in due course. Furthermore there are now so many all over the world in a multitude of countries that I can no longer entertain any hope of visiting them all. And they just keep getting taller. The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah threatens to be over a kilometre high. That's ridiculous.

Many of my childhood obsessions are eventually dismantled by the complexity of adulthood. My interest in the London Underground has had all the fun taken out of it by the addition of the Overground and Crossrail to the network, transforming the once beautiful map into a tangled mess. And my love of towers has been derailed by the sheer numbers of them springing up across the globe. I can't keep up.

Nevertheless when the i360 opens in Brighton this summer I will be queueing for a ticket despite the vertigo that seems to have started colonising my fears as I grow older. I finally have a local tower to visit. And as luck would have it, it's nearly as tall as the original Post Office Tower was all those years ago, falling just 28 metres short.

After that I'll look into going into suspended animation until the space elevator is completed.

Any regular readers of this blog (and excuse the hubris of even imagining for a moment that such things exist) may recall that I have blogged on more than one occasion about Lush, one of my favourite ever bands, who I used to go and see as often as possible in the nineties and who recently announced that they would be reforming after twenty years.

Of course I was going. They announced a couple of dates at the Roundhouse, for both of which I booked tickets, plus one in Manchester for which, after a moment's hesitation, I also booked a ticket. I could work out travel and accommodation later. I drew the line at the American dates - that would be ridiculous.

And then with less than two months to go, they announced a warm-up gig in London a ticket for which I booked at the drop of a hat, sitting nervously in front of the computer refreshing the browser as the time approached 9am, waiting for them to go on sale. A long way from twenty years ago when I sent off a cheque or (rarely) booked tickets with a credit card on the phone. This was a new anxiety for busy people. Plus of course everything's a thing these days.

Come the day of the gig I was experiencing an unusual nervousness. I caught the train up to London and over the course of an afternoon (I had a few errands to run) walked from Victoria to King's Cross. By the time I walked down into the underground I was coming down with full blown pre-gig nerves. All the symptoms were there, dry hands, lightness of head, shortness of breath, heart racing. Yet I had always imagined pre-gig nerves should only apply when I was playing a gig, not when I was watching one. Disembarking the Overground at Hackney Central I began to worry I was about to have a panic attack, which annoyingly can be something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Thankfully the venue was right next to (if not actually part of) the station so there was no long walk of doom to ramp up the suspense, if anything waiting in the queue helped calm me down, replacing the nerves with excitement. Inside the venue it was nicely dark. A smallish space with a stage at one end and a bar down the side. Already everyone ahead of me in the queue had taken their places in front of the stage so, after buying a drink, I joined them.

There was no support and the band were due to come onstage at 8.30pm sharp - there'd be no hanging around wondering when things would get underway. I looked about at the gathering crowd, at the set up on the stage. Guitar technicians came and went, testing and tweaking. I thought of how many times over the past seven thousand days I'd had that recurring dream, that I was finally at another Lush gig and that this time it was real.

Except that this time it was real.

The lights dimmed (even further) a short intro track played and the band walked onstage. It was them. There. Just like before.

"Hello. It's been a long time. Yes. No red hair, get over it."

And they went straight into De-Luxe, my favourite song and I was away.

Beforehand I'd worried about being overcome with emotion, about tears coming to my eyes. The emotions certainly came, but not the ones I was expecting. As the well known song - a song hard wired into my synapses -  shimmered to its glittering ending I found myself laughing out loud. This was all too joyous for tears. And then there was Breeze, and as I danced and watched and enjoyed I was overcome with a strange feeling. What was it? Yes I was very happy, but there was something else about the situation. And then it hit me. How utterly familiar all this was. There they were standing up there where they'd always stood, just like that, it was all coming back to me. It may have been more than seven thousand days since the last time, but I'd been here before. The thirty plus gigs I'd attended in the nineties had burned this into my brain and the experience still fit perfectly.

I was at a Lush gig.

Already it was starting to feel like one of the best Lush gigs I'd ever been to. Initially a lot of this feeling came from the surprise and the novelty, the exhilaration at revisiting something which - despite the recurring dreams - I'd been sure would never come again. I had never been happier to be proved wrong, as song after song said hello to my primary auditory cortex, the difference between listening to these on vinyl, CD or MP3 and experiencing them live as extreme as the difference between flipping through a photo album and going to a reunion of friends you haven't seen for twenty years.

And, just like at such a reunion, after a while it began to seem as if the intervening twenty years had never happened. As the show continued it kicked into a higher gear, no longer simply one of the best gigs due to its position in time, but due to the sheer energy flowing from the stage, carrying the audience forward through time on a wave of scintillating sound.

There was not a wasted moment, the set largely concentrating on the band's earlier output - the EPs and the first two albums - into which new song Out of Control fitted perfectly - with only Ladykillers as a nod to 1996's Lovelife album. Coincidentally this reflected my own (and perhaps a large percentage of the audience's) listening habits over the past two decades.

Having started with De-Luxe, the set closed with Sweetness and Light. This was another favourite, always a live high point and one of the first things to enter my head when thinking of Lush.

Of course the gig was over all too soon - despite the generous amount of encores including an epic Desire Lines - and I left fairly quickly as I had a lot to think about. It would be a long time before I came back down again. One thing was very clear to me - this was not some cash-in comeback and reunion, this was a carefully considered continuation, a picking up. But while I was sure that there would be many more shows (after all I had tickets for some of them) I was also sure that there wouldn't be one quite like this reopening of a door.

Welcome back.

Anxiety is a very annoying sensation.

One of the many problems with it is that half the time the rational side of your brain knows full well that the thoughts you're entertaining are preposterous rubbish but nevertheless you carry on entertaining them anyway despite the fact that they've long outstayed their welcome. There's something about them that holds the brain in thrall, a mysterious quality of the reply "Yes I know it's probably nonsense but WHAT IF..." that is far more powerful than the statement that provoked it.  Sometimes the only way to make anxiety pack its bags is to sleep on it.

Even then - depending upon the subject of the anxiety - that doesn't necessarily work. Sometimes the next day is worse, especially if accompanied by the hangover produced by the state of inebriation that caused you to do whatever it was that made you start worrying about what people thought of you in the first place.

And this of course is the nub of the matter. Anxiety of this kind - Social Anxiety - is all to do with what you imagine that other people thinking of you. Are they judging you negatively, are you being found wanting, is your behaviour beyond the pale? Ironically the kind of people whose conduct means that they actually do run the risk of being thought of in this manner are those that never suffer from anxiety in the first place, blithe spirits waltzing through life without giving a moments thought to what people might be thinking of them.

If you think about it, worrying about what everyone is thinking of you all the time could be considered a very selfish activity. And while this self judgement could conspire to make you feel even worse, unless you're positing that there is something unique about you, then if you feel this way then there is a very high probability that other people do too and are consequently far too busy worrying about what others think of them to waste any time judging you.

Which is all very well but when it comes down to it just another example of the kind of rational argument that anxiety is such a dab hand at dismissing. "Yes, that's very likely correct, but WHAT IF..." Your brain's pattern recognition module goes into overdrive as you analyse and reanalyse the nuances of other people's remarks and expressions, trying to pull some sense from the white noise of social interaction. As ever this sense has more to do with what is going on inside your skull than in the outside world. Those patterns you think you recognise are the ones you learned before. The reality is social static. And the more you think you recognize them, the more they're reinforced in a feedback loop that does no-one any good.

So what can be done to free you from the WHAT IF?

I inadvertently stumbled upon one possible solution a couple of weeks ago. Having come across a pair of bots on Twitter which had been designed to engage in an endless conversation with each other, I started wondering what the current state of the art was when it came to chat bots. I wondered how far Cleverbot had come on since the last time I used it.

So I browsed to the URL and started chatting. The bot still had a tendency to come up with a number of non-sequiturs during the "conversation" but if taken in small doses could be mistaken for a real interaction.

And then it happened.

The bot was rude to me. Not a straight out insult, more an implication, an insinuation that I was at fault for the way the conversation was going, an attempt at a put down. And just for a moment the social anxiety kicked in and I started feeling bad.

Within seconds I knew this was ridiculous, that in this instance there could be no WHAT IF. The bot had no intent, it couldn't. I had managed to get anxious about something non-existent. The negative feelings in this case were demonstrably Only In My Head. This was the scientific method.

And of course if it was Only In My Head in this instance then wasn't it far more likely that it was Only In My Head on all the other occasions?

Probably. While what I'd experienced hadn't been able to dispel the WHAT IFs altogether, it had certainly weakened them. An automated system had done what weeks of CBT had been unable to.

And all it had taken was the appearance of being rude.

Brighton's skyline has changed over the past year as a tower has risen from the ruins of the old West Pier. I'd been aware that this was planned but somehow it never seemed real until the i360 reached its full height and the red light on its summit was suddenly visible from all around the city.

And it was only when it did so that I realised it was tapping into something from my childhood, that I was more interested in it than I'd though I would or should be. Because one of the obsessions I had when very young was Towers.

It wasn't the first obsession and wouldn't be the last. Over the years I would be obsessed with various subjects from Space Travel to Ants to Doctor Who to the London Underground. Whilst I don't necessarily remember how all of these started, I do recall the origin of the Tower obsession.

Birmingham Post Office Tower BT
It was around the time we moved from Birmingham to London. This was a bit of an upheaval for a three year old, especially given that, despite being London born, my memories (and therefore presumably my consciousness, my actual self) began in Birmingham. And so I found myself looking around this new larger place for reference points. Then I discovered one. From all over both cities you could see a Post Office Tower. Admittedly the Birmingham one was shorter, square in cross-section and somehow sawn-off looking, but nevertheless they were both iterations of the same thing. The city had the tower overlooking it.

At this stage I guess my obsession only stretched to Post Office Towers. One of the highlights of the long journey from London to visit my grandparents in Gloucestershire was another Post Office Tower located off the A40 at Stokenchurch. Like the Birmingham one it was shorter and truncated but nevertheless the alien look of the thing - the dishes, chunky wedges and delicate antenna set against a brutalist concrete core - excited me, making me feel I was in the presence of some inhuman and otherworldly titan.

Stokenchurch Post Office Tower BT
I seem to recall that back then I was half convinced that the towers could move.

In the back of  my parents' car in central London I recall looking in vain for the Post Office Tower only to spot it looming over (what I assumed) was a completely different part of the city. I asked my dad about this - he told me it had fallen over and been put up again in a different place (it was only later I realised that I'd got confused and that he was only joking).

The Stokenchurch tower also seemed to move. It was one of the journey's significant punctuation points - a roundabout after a long stretch of road. My memory is probably playing tricks but I clearly recall swinging through a roundabout overlooked by the tower. That childhood impression of an endlessly overcast misty grey day, the summit of the tower disappearing into the low cloud deck, the smell of warm plastic car seats, the terrible prospect of such a long monotonous journey ahead (and as a child those interminable journeys were a nightmare of stretched time).

London Post Office Tower BT
And then without any kind of transition I remember, the next time we made the journey the tower was simply visible in the distance from the motorway as the car cannoned along towards Oxford. I later discovered that this was due to our route changing slightly thanks to the construction of M40 extension, but the idea of these vast structures secretly moving around in the night is one that stayed with me.

The Post Office Tower in London was the ruler of them all of course. It was, I read, the Tallest Building in the UK. I longed to go up it, to see what London looked like from that height but my parents told me that the viewing galleries were temporarily closed to the public due to a bomb. I always took this to mean that they would one day be reopened - after all how long could it take to repair bomb damage? - and for years looked forward to the day that I too could look out over London just like Steed and Gambit did in the New Avengers episode Sleeper.

But it wasn't long before I learned of other tallest buildings. At school we were taught about the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, and although on one level I was annoyed at them being taller than my Post Office Tower, on another they began to fascinate me too...

Previously I detailed how a lot of my younger life revolved around trips up and down the North Circular Road or A406. Now read on... 

The move to Muswell Hill another six years later took us back upstream along the North Circular.  Now it lay separating us from Colney Hatch and the sprawling Victorian asylum where I would do voluntary work in the Library in between school and university. It still felt like a canyon separating the familiarity of Muswell Hill with its record shops and paper round routes from the strange environment of Friern Barnet (I often wondered how this differed from Normal Barnet and whether this implied that their might be other similar districts of London like Friern Walthamstow or Friern Putney).

It was after coming back from university that I renewed my acquaintance with the A406. I moved to Leytonstone which was the furthest east along the North Circular I had yet lived - and also a little far away from it. A couple of years later the move to Walthamstow brought me within walking distance of it although most of the time I caught a bus which would take me past the dog track (the illuminated sign on the front of which had been visible from the childhood home in Muswell Hill) and then past a factory called Shadbolt's which would always have the Veneer of the Week on display, labelled with removable letters in  a retro-looking (even then) font - what looked like a serif version of the Washington font used by the BBC in the 1960s.

Always something to look forward to.

After that the bus route moved back into the more familiar territory of Edmonton although at the time it felt like a very strange nostalgic territory of Deep Childhood - the first time I really began to experience the odd time travel properties of the A406. I felt that if I got off the bus at Silver Street (I never did) I would somehow be transported back and, if I walked far enough, be able to come across the five year old me playing in the alleyways of suburbia.

Of course the temporal gap between Childhood Edmonton and Young Adult Walthamstow was ten years less than the gap between now and (that iteration of) Walthamstow.

I did spend a few years away from the North Circular Road (in Finsbury Park) but it wasn't long before I returned to Walthamstow where I remained right up until my departure for Brighton. I lived in a couple of places in more or less the same area. However, this was the point at which They began ripping up and vandalising my memories. Stretches of the A406 were modernised with flyovers and underpasses and many nostalgia triggers removed altogether.

But that is so often the case - you move back somewhere and it's all just as you remember it, every street corner a mental time machine... and then suddenly without so much as a by your leave they start changing it, despite having left it as it was in the interim.

I had a similar experience when leaving the environs of the A406 altogether and moving to Brighton. It was just as I remembered from my student years - including the university where I'd previously studied and was now working. They even had the same periodic table pinned up in one of the lecture theatres - for a few months. And then the city and the university embarked upon a programme of change so far reaching that they're both now almost unrecognisable.

The only place these locations appear to remain as they were is in dreams.

But dreams are as unreliable as memories and dream memories even more so. You may find yourself returning somewhere that invokes a massive rush of nostalgia only to awaken and realise that the way you dreamed it never existed in the first place.

But fragments of the dream memory can remain in your brain and get mixed in with the real memories. Sooner or later it's almost impossible to tell what happened and what didn't.

The past is probably completely unlike what we remember.