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Thus Spake Portmerion

March 15, 2011

….actually, not true. For once, I listened without fidgeting and kicking the seatback of the person in front. Except during the breaks, over breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, in the bar, walking on the beach, on the bus, where I talked too much – I blame the coffee – listened and enjoyed the company of a group of interesting and informed people. I’m sure that was the point of the Editorial Intelligence ‘Names Not Numbers’ symposium, hosted in Portmerion by my extraordinary friend, Julia Hobsbawm.

Back from the Clough Ellis vision of Italianate Arcadia, setting for the surreal 1970s spy series, ‘The Prisoner,’ I struggled to synthesise what I heard, present it as a General Theory of Universal Knowledge, flog it to a New Age business publisher, save the planet, buy myself a converted trawler with a bikini bird crew and bother Japanese whalers (with the bikini bird crew pole dancing round the mizzen mast).

Frankly, I was plaiting sawdust until this morning, stuck at the general theory of universal knowledge bit, and not for the first time. The whole save the planet/get some cash/buy a trawler/bother the whalers with pole dancing sirens scheme looked as dead in the water as my chances of becoming foreign policy advisor after telling Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, another Portmerion guest, that the UN resembled a second rate, more corrupt, version of FIFA. Then I awoke to the epiphany that we are names, not numbers. Every life form on the planet has a unique individual identity, dignity and purpose. Nature indiscriminately abhors entropy. Humans, the last, lunkheaded twirl of the evolutionary dice, persist in the deadly fallacy that they are above, not a part of, creation. Their high-handed, cack-handed interventions, based on mathematically impossible attempts to exclude uncertainty and randomness from the infinite possibilities afforded by an ever-expanding series of variable circumstances will, by nature, always generate unforeseen, counter-intuitive consequences. The more binary data we collect, the greater the hubristic illusion of control in a quantum universe. We are the deadly meddlers, psychopathic intellectual delinquents with yottabytes of information but no understanding of the tendency of exosystems to deliquesce. Or something along those lines.

Just then another thought hit, me like a great wave biffing a Japanese nuclear plant: ‘Jesus, it’s 8-30 already. I need to walk the whippet. I’ll park this stuff until I’ve seen what the others have written and knock something off tomorrow after I’ve bought a few robots and done Waitrose.’

Firing up my ecologically incorrect 1972 Beetle convertible, partly compensated by its unique interior rainforest microclimate of continual damp and lichens, I was soon yomping round Hampstead Heath, London’s last great wilderness, with no sighting of any other native species apart from George Michael and packs of exotic dogs and their walkers, dressed for the mild weather in North Face Arctic survival parkas. Coffee beaker in one hand, dogpoo bag in the other – careful which one you lift to your lips – I relegated the Mission to Explain to an internal rant about Arsenal’s inability to grasp the essential notion that the purpose of football was not to create the perfect balance sheet but to win the occasional trophy. I was considering whether a latter day Christopher Marlowe would have substituted the tale of Arsene Wenger’s Icarean 49 match unbeaten run followed by six years of no silverware for Tamburlaine the Great when I thought I saw a huge white airbag, bouncing at great speed across the manicured blasted wasteland. As everyone who wasted time in front of the TV in the 1970s instead of revising knows, whenever he tried to escape Portmerion, the Prisoner was engulfed then herded back by a giant chewing gum bubble. The genius of the series was the ambivalence as to whether the village, its inhabitants and the sheepdog bubble itself (called Rover) were real/partially real or whether we were observing the Prisoner’s dream state, induced by his captors to find out how much he knew. Was this why I had been transported to Portmerion

Hardly. I didn’t put my hand up once to ask a clever question, fearing the bubble would drag me out as soon as I brought tin robots or whippets into the Big Conversation but nobody noticed, much less dragged me off in an airbag. My engulfing bubble on the Heath was the dread of explaining to Julia that despite inviting me to the most stimulating and sometimes surreal weekend I have spent for a very long time, in the company of some of the most stellar minds in this or any other chiliocosm, my tendency for transference activity was once again getting the better of me. For example, revelations from Nassim Taleb that the best laid plans of mice and men always conform to SNAFU were merely reinforcing my resolve to arse around in life and achieve little. My new best friend Sylvia Earle’s plangent exposition of the wanton destruction of our oceans moved me almost to tears but didn’t stop me from discussing 1950s American nudist postcards and the vanishing folk art of ice cream vans when I sat next to the great lady at dinner.

I walked on the beach with Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted and Sylvia Plath, two of my favourite poets, an original bard herself and a painter of profound physical and psychological depth, discussing big motorbikes (Frieda rides one, in mitigation). At breakfast with Human Rights diva Baroness Helena Kennedy I turned the conversation to Glasgow hardmen. I simply frolicked in the anarchic slipstream of my heroine, Miriam Margolyes. But I was one of the lads, to all intents and purposes. The genius of Portmerion is partly the geniuses but also the Thusness of the whole shebang. We’re all names, not numbers, individuals with collective responsibility to do the best we can. Julia’s genius is her understanding of the palette of personalities.

The overarching message, if there was one, was probably wasted on me, like the time I met the Dalai Lama and spent the few seconds in the presence of a Realised Being wondering if he was wearing a Casio or a Rolex. But if you get the chance, go to the Editorial Intelligence Names Not Numbers Symposium. For a taste of the Portmerion conversation, listen to The Forum on the BBC World Service. Make an effort to see Beeban Kidron’s documentary on the Devadasi. iPod the EI podcasts. Read anything by Frieda Hughes and Sylvia Earle’s ‘The World is Blue.’ Imagine Simon Schama having a bloody good knees up in the bar at 2 am then delivering a multidimensional summary of all the big ideas of the past 2500 years six hours later. Try to understand Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan then imagine he was sitting next to you on the bus, which, by the way, was one of those executive football team coaches with leather seats and a big round sofa at the back with loads of snacks and Sky TV . . . Jesus, is that the bubble again? Be seeing you.