Reach out and grab ya
There's a Diary piece in the latest London Review of Books, all about the Tour de France, in which the author, Graham Robb, tries to explain how a professional cyclist needs to avoid being distracted by the slightest thought - "on a long, fast ride, the run-of-the-mill cycling brain can turn the tiniest flaw into a grinding, unignorable obsession." He quotes from The Rider, by Tim Krabbé, author of The Vanishing, on the cyclist's mind:
Its almost perfect lack of surface structure ensures that it strikes nothing that might end up in the white circulation of thought....a pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone.I read this just after I'd got back from the British Chess Championships - quite appropriate, as Krabbé is a chessplayer and writer himself - and that's right, I thought, that's what it is: the inability to clear the mind which I was writing about before, the distraction of thought, its maddening intrusiveness. I mentioned anger, magnified and otherwise (actually, I'm not sure I have any "otherwise") but other things, other distractions, break in when I need them least, when I am standing back and calling for a calm appraisal of the balance of forces.
So its almost always, when I am trying to think clearly rather than hard that this happens. Thinking not necessarily, or even usually, about the calculation of variations, but more likely trying to achieve some perspective, a calm assessment of the position distanced from immediate tactical considerations. A stocktaking, an appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses, actual and potential, of each side's position, a reminder to oneself neither to panic or to be overconfident, for each side has chances.
When the struggle is at its peak and all that either side cares about is "I go there, then they go there", it is not so hard to concentrate (though harder to think well!) when circumstances leave you without any alternative. The product of panic can be clarity: immediacy does at least have the virtue of making one prioritise, become alive to dangers, disregard the trivial. Nothing concentrates a man's mind more than the knowledge that he is to be hanged in the morning.
But when more abstract effort is required, then the creepy-crawlies come. The thoughts, the externalities, the distractions. The trivia. The anger, the magnified anger, that as well, but mostly the trivial and irrelevant which unignorably obsess my mind when I want it to examine advantages of time and disavantages of space.
Earworms are the worst. You can imagine how they might easily distract and dull a cyclist's mind, adapting themselves well to the rhythm of the ride until the ride itself adapts to their own rhythm, the mind dulled until the dissonances in the race without are erased by the smoothness of the tune within. And this affects the chessplayer too, who may not want a mind almost emptied quite as much as the cyclist may, but who certainly wants a mind that can be emptied of distractions. The absence of mobiles, of chatter, of traffic and of smoke, all rendered pointless by some unsummoned melody and its inescapable lyrics.
The lyrics. It would have been bad enough having Abracadbra going through my head even if I had not replaced Miller's own notoriously dreadful lyric with something worse of my own inadvertent devising. More than once last week I found myself, while sitting at a chessboard in the Spa Centre at Scarborough, humming a melody to myself with a lyric presumably inspired, though not improved, by its topicality:
Moqtada, Moqtada al-Sadr
I said it was something worse. I suppose it would have been worse still had I mixed the two and kept the original last line.