Police Cars and Oracles

Exploring the limits of self-knowledge...

I find that poor sleep negatively affects my mood like almost nothing else.

Recently, I found myself driving to a gig after an eventful weekend.

I’d been to a university reunion the previous evening and had gotten up early after a late night catching up with old friends.

I’d already done three hours of driving and was pretty exhausted, heading for three more hours of cover songs at a pub near Bolton.

It’d be an understatement to suggest that I wasn’t quite in the mood.

To get to Bolton you have to split off the ring road that circles the city of Manchester and take the A666 - the Devil’s Road.

The section of the A666 that bleeds into Bolton is known as St. Peter’s Way.

Despite all this heady religious symbolism, the road itself is a lesson in the underwhelming.

It’s a 50mph speed limit, carefully controlled by average speed cameras which - having been driving up and down it for about 17 years - I’m not convinced actually work.

Especially after three hours of driving, the tendency is to speed up and slow down upon encountering each new camera; to weave, dodge and undertake. Anything to truncate the pain.

This time, however, things were different.

There was a police car, leisurely cruising down the inside lane.

And, as any motorist will know, a police car on a road projects a strange electro-magnetic field around itself in all directions. It generates a new local reality because, whenever a police car is in sight, everyone else drives much more slowly and far more carefully.

I imagine the policeman in his police car must eventually see the road in a different way to the rest of us because the dynamics of that road literally change by virtue of his presence.

He is a celestial object (quite appropriately, for St Peter’s Way) able to warp the surrounding space-time by virtue of his significant social gravity.

It struck me, in my sleep-deprived, self-pitying state, that we probably all have the same effect on our surroundings to a lesser or greater extent.

Whenever we enter a situation, we subtly exert our own influence on it. We can’t know what that situation might have been like, were we not part of it.

We can’t see the different ways people respond to others and subtly recalibrate their behaviour when we aren’t there because, by definition, we aren’t there.

We only ever witness one version of the world: the one which contains us at its centre.

It goes some way towards explaining the irresistibly corrupting effect of power and fame. Imagine living a life where you have been celebrated and influential from a very young age.

Every time you walk into a room, the behaviour of everyone there is transformed to some extent. The volume of conversations, the body language, the focus all shifts.

But you, of course, know nothing else. Like the policeman in his police car, surrounded by slow, obedient drivers, this is just the way the world around you always is.

Other people are always nervous, or excited, or intrusive, or desperate to please. In your universe, that’s just how other people are.

Of course, the policeman finishes his shift, or gets into his own car on a Sunday, and experiences the same swearing, beeping, speeding and undercutting as the rest of us.

Which, I imagine, injects him with a stiff dose of reality.

But none of us are really able to do the equivalent in our lives.

Famously inscribed above the entrance to Oracle at Delphi is one of the most famous imperatives in the western cultural tradition: ‘Know Thyself’.

But how is possible to truly ‘know thyself’ when the world is rarely willing to give you the objective feedback you might need?

These unsettling thoughts have definitely intensified since I became an independent musician, and intensify even further when I’m knackered.

Mainly because I now move in the same circles as plenty of other independent musicians.

And, I’ll be honest, some of them are not very good.

Their songs are forgettable and self-indulgent; they don’t deliver them very well and they aren’t especially skilled, charismatic or insightful.

Some of them, of course, are terrifyingly brilliant.

But, for me, the ones that are brilliant will never be a terrifying as the ones that are just plain mediocre.

Because they remind me of the police car on the A666.

The rest of the room slows down and adjusts itself around them - it politely applauds and congratulates; it offers up compliments that seem genuine but aren’t; it likes their Instagram reels and shares their latest single and books them for gigs because they’re nice, and willing, and won’t ever upstage the headliner.

The scariest thing about lacking self-awareness in a world which won’t always give you the honest feedback you need is that the un-self-aware are, by definition, blind to their own lack of self-awareness.

Which means you could be one them.

Or, more pressingly for me, I could.

And if I was, how would I know?

I suppose this is why it’s ultimately invaluable to surround yourself with people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth.

But, then again, we are constantly bombarded by stories of people who defied their critics, naysayers and non-believers to go on and enjoy incredible success.

And these stories only serve to increase the likelihood of a misguided individual refusing to believe someone who might, quite correctly, be telling them that they're wasting their time.

Maybe there’s a balance to be struck somewhere between self-belief and self-knowledge that allows one the confidence to persevere in the face of uncertainty, but ensures one doesn’t become one of those X-Factor auditions we all still Youtube; comically deluded and dangerously average.

And maybe one day I’ll find it.

Probably after a decent night’s sleep.

Keep dreaming,


Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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