It’s a wind-blown Saturday afternoon in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A new restaurant called Ratz, with an international theme has opened on Bradbury Place. The display menu boasts a wide variety of exotic dishes from around the globe. The exterior has an attractive sand blown, glass fascia, with a world map etched large onto it. Above the door, a sign reads in bold italics: “Intercontinental Brasserie“.
I’m peering through the gap between Africa and Asia to have a look at the décor, when a voice next to me suddenly says: “Anything good on the menu?”
I turn to my left and stare into the crystal blue, inquisitive eyes of an unknown stranger. They belong to a man; who is middle aged and slightly disheveled with longish, unkempt blonde hair and an unshaven, tanned and slightly wrinkled face. He’s wearing a two piece, dark blue rain suit and he’s pushing an over-used, blue bicycle. Over the handlebars hang an array of white, crinkled plastic bags, the contents unidentifiable.
“Oh, it looks pretty good” I decide to answer cautiously. “Not too sure about their prices though…”
“So where are you from”, he asks, with that familiar thick Belfast accent, the emphasis being on a slightly drawn out “you”.
“Southern Africa, originally.”
“From far away then” the man replies slowly and pensively. “Do you read much?”
It’s an out-of-blue question and I respond somewhat evasively, not too sure what to make of it. “Some. When I have the time”.
The man persists: “What is it that you like to read?”
After a flash mental scan I recall one or two books which I had recently more or less worked my way through. I decide to mention a philosophical novel and a popular psychology title – the type of reading you could find at any local charity store or high street book seller.
He listens attentively and I notice what seems to be a kind of perceiving, analysing quality to his gaze. Then, with a smile he says: “My name is Clarence, and what is yours“,
“They call me Jack around here.”
“Well, you sound quite well-read, Jack.”
“Clarence’s bicycle is blocking the way slightly and a well dressed, elderly couple steps around us, while carefully glancing him up and down. “Reading is just a hobby of mine, I guess,” I say.
“Oh, there are worse hobbies to have” says Clarence matter-of-factly. Have you ever heard of a book called “Time Journeys, a Search for Cosmic Destiny and Meaning?” It’s a good start to get you interested in physics and the possibilities of time travel. It’s by a man called Paul Halpern. Or, alternatively you could try “The Arrow of Time” by Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield. The tag line reads: “A voyage through science, in search of Time’s Greatest Mystery!”
Clarence becomes animated as he continues. “Think about this: Why is it that time moves forward, but not backwards? A slight pause. Did you know that Einstein once remarked: “The distinction between past, present and future is an illusion?” If so, Jack, should we consider time-reversibility a possibility?” Raised eye brows. “So, subjectively we interpret time as uni-directional, right? But, if the concept of chaos shows us that the future is open, it also points to the past being open, which means it would not result in an arrow of time.” Short pause. “So in theory we should be able to go back in time. Or maybe, we should ponder the possibility of a safety-mechanism having been built into the universe, to deny us from doing exactly that!”. Expectant look.
Slightly stumped, I say: “Erm, well, I couldn’t say, Clarence, but those are certainly very interesting points to ponder. I’ve always enjoyed a good read and a good think, but don’t really get much time for it these days.”
“Ah, a modern conundrum Jack, but life experience and reading are the keys to wisdom, and unlike experience, reading is free.” Clarence reaches into one of his plastic bags and brings out a pack of booklets with yellowish and blue covers, banded together. He removes one, returns the rest, turns the booklet over and starts scribbling something on the back with a blue ball point pen. “Now, if that’s down your alley, you might also want to seek out a book called “The Frontiers of Complexity” by Roger Highfield. It deals with how complexity relates to evolution, ecology and cosmology and even touches on artificial intelligence. Very insightful.
While speaking, Clarence jots down the titles and authors as he continues: “Another title worth mentioning is “Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through parallel universes, time warps and the 10th dimension.” It’s all in the name. You can find it right here in the city library – in fact all of these books are there – this one is in the science category on the second floor, in the back aisle, it should be on the 3rd or 4th shelf, on the left – I think. It’s written by Michio Kaku, a Japanese writer”.
More people walk around us and Clarence moves his bike out of the way to prop it up against the wall, while using the seat to press on, as he continues. “But those are all very scientific, Jack. Equally interesting and depending on whether you have the time…” broad smile. “Aye, more on the human side of things, I could recommend “The Quark and the Jaguar.” It’s about human adaptive systems, like language, culture, creativity, consciousness… aspects of human learning systems which are constantly in a state of flux. There’s even a section on our world ecological dilemmas with questions about sustaining a future for the human race and the biosphere. For instance: Can man naturally re-adapt to a more harmonious balance with our planet? Considering how modernized and industrialized we have become? Quite topical wouldn’t you say.”
I’m about to respond to Clarence’s question, but our voices are drowned out by loud engine noises as a bus draws up. The now more blustery wind tugs at the hair and clothes of the disembarking passengers and causes leaves to roll and skid audibly along the pavement. A disposable paper cup lid, with a straw through it, lifts off, spirals upwards, gains altitude, and floats past us, then changes course to head up and away across the road. A couple of shops down from where we stand, in our direct line of sight, is a popular greasy spoon with heavenly smells of fried fish and chips. This and the gnawing hollowness in my stomach confirm my decision to cross the five meter divide to fast food gratification after our conversation. The Intercontinental Brassiere would have to wait for another day.
Some of the bus’ passengers enter The Plaice, the double-decker pulls off and Clarence’s voice becomes audible again: “…you ever heard of electro-acupuncture, bio-resonance and scenar, Jack?”
I shrug a definite no.
“Okay, now this is real ground breaking stuff. You can read about it in “Virtual Medicine.” Its an overview of how ancient practices such as Chinese acupuncture and others are now being harnessed and integrated with electronic technologies. So, these new devices are in effect cutting edge, virtual, and holistic healing systems – the perfect marriage of the traditional and the modern! Amazing, really. Here’s some background -Scenar was originally developed for the Russian space program and what it does is it teaches the body to heal itself by using what they call biofeedback. What’s astounding is that it can actually read the body’s energy and then help to predict or determine and also cure diseases. Now, until recently this might have been considered quite alternative or new age, but it’s all becoming mainstream. The researcher and author is a doctor by the name of Keith Scott-Mumby”
Clarence has filled an entire page by now and he turns the booklet over. “Here Jack, let me pose another question: Might there possibly be a link between quantum theory and consciousness? I mean, would you say that consciousness could possibly be scientifically explained or interpreted?”
I must be looking very perplexed, because Clarence says: “Oh aye – if you’re ready for a real paradigm shift, then read a book called “The Quantum Self.” The writer makes a case for quantum processes being directly responsible for our subjective awareness.” A long pause. “That one certainly got me thinking too. Well worth a read. Also, keep an eye out for her other book, “SQ: Connecting With Our Spiritual Intelligence.” She proposes that we all have a natural higher consciousness which may be laying dormant and unexplored within ourselves, and that the first steps towards activating it is to become much more self-aware of our place in the universe and our necessary interaction with nature.
“Could you please make a note of the author, Clarence?” I ask.
“Certainly, it’s by Danah Zohar.”
“I was thinking of getting dinner soon, Clarence. Would join me? We could continue our conversation over a meal and a mug of tea.”
Big smile. “Oh no, Jack. Thank you. I’m well looked after and had something just before I left. I’m not going to keep you too long. I have a few more people to meet today, but let me jot a few more titles down.”
Moments pass as Clarence continues to make notes in the empty spaces on the third page of the booklet. “Before I forget, Jack. Since we’re on the subject of food, sea-food for that matter, I’ve got to mention “The Omega 3 Connection” by Andrew Stoll. I’m sure you’ve heard how fish oil is considered to be excellent brain food, but there’s much more to it. Omega 3 is the ticket to mental health, for anybody and everybody. It should be part of our regular staple diet and the research in this book proves it. Keeping in mind, that amongst other near magical traits, it has the ability to restrict Alzheimer’s from developing and has proven very effective in treating depression”.
“How long will you be in Ireland for, Jack?”
“Oh, it’s indefinite for the moment, Clarence. I haven’t decided yet.”
“Okay, there’s a book here in the library you simply shouldn’t miss out on. It’s called “Ingenious Ireland.” Mary Mulvihill took six years to put it together. It’s a fascinating county-by-county tour of the island of Ireland. It covers everything from history to inventions, mysteries and myths, fossils and discoveries and science! You’ll need to spend time with it though as it has about 500 pages.
Short pause. “Well, there you go Jack! So now you know exactly what to read on your travels. When we meet again, maybe you can suggest some reading material for me… and when you’re in a far-off destination next time, send me a post card, will ye? I’ll put my address down here for you.”
Realizing that our impromptu meeting is soon coming to an end, I say: “I definitely will Clarence and thanks a million for this, I mean it. It’s been absolutely fascinating.”
“No, no need to thank me Jack; this is just what I do – for the community, you know. I was diagnosed with a condition a long time ago, which would have affected my ability to lead a normal life. But, I was advised by my doctors to read as much as I could, all the time, to help me focus my mind and it worked, Jack! It was my salvation and we don’t need to suffer from an ailment to read, now do we? Besides, what we choose to focus on is what we become aware of…”
“Well, that’s me Jack! I’m off.” Clarence hands the booklet over and climbs on his bike. “All the best! Browse through the rest of that when you get a chance. Everything you need to know about British Bonds is in there. The best returns for your money – and you stand a good chance of winning a prize every month too. I’ve won a few times!” he says looking back, as he cycles off on his way up University Avenue.
I turn the booklet over and see: “N&SI Premium Bonds, 50th anniversary. Pick up your Anniversary Prize Draw leaflets to find out more.”
As I turn to enter The Plaice I look at my watch and realize that almost an hour and a half have passed. Inside I find a table close to the window and while watching passers-by, questions of random chaos and chance meetings dance on my mind.
Loosely based on events in 2005.
(Names have been changed)
By Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café