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Mornington Crescent

We all have voices in our heads. I don’t mean just our own, though that’s a voice, too. I mean that some people by dint of tone, use of language and principles they live by have a recurring influence on how we think. In the mind’s eye they can be conjured up to talk to us, even when they are no longer around. Last week the jazz musician Humphrey Lyttleton died at the age of 86, and his was one of the voices in my head.

His death was big news here among a large but particular section of British society. For many, it wasn’t so much as a musician that he was being mourned, though he was a very talented player and band leader. ‘Humph’ also had a long career as host of a brilliantly witty radio programme called “I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue”, the self-styled ‘antidote to quiz shows’. Humphrey was the wry, dry and double-entendre (ring)master overseeing two teams of equally witty comedians. The show was a series of activities and radio party-games that were irreverent, playful and often had a ridiculous take on the language and habits of the British.

One of the most surreal parts of the show was a game called ‘Mornington Crescent’. The rules of Mornington Crescent were never explained, though they were often obliquely alluded to. The game appeared to be simply a sequence of to-and-fro namings of London streets and underground stations. The game was won when one team managed to outwit the other by somehow navigating to the last stop, always Mornington Crescent; the place in question being a part-time tube stop on the Charing Cross branch of the Northern Line.

I loved this game at first because it seemed to be played with absolute authority and adherence to a set of esoteric rules. I suspect I was not alone in that for a long while I actually thought it to be a real game with real origins, and I’ve no doubt you can Google for both. But your belief will be false and your search will be in vain, for the beauty of Mornington Crescent is the fantasy that it is real.

I love Mornington Crescent precisely because it illustrates the way that meaning is ascribed to something not by it being ‘true’ in any objective, factual and empirical way, but via the space created by the idea of its existence. You can be in on it either by believing it, or by not believing it – it’s just as much fun whichever way.

I suppose this is partly on my mind now because of the voice that introduced it and and partly because I am reading around systems theory at the moment. With that in mind, of particular interest are the ideas of the anthropologist and social scientist Gregory Bateson.

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