By The Landlord
"The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions …" – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"The greatest gift is a portion of thyself." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
There's a possibly apocryphal, though also just as likely true anecdote about pizza featuring the 1990s midfield footballer Jason McAteer, who variously played for the Republic of Ireland, Bolton Wanderers, Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Tranmere Rovers. Though not quite in the top tier of players, McAteer was a loquacious, sometime popular figure, a bit of a character, but also the many tales about him highlight that he was not the always shiniest penny in the jar when it came to intelligence. The story goes that the Liverpool team were enjoying a meal out, and when the waiter brought Jason his serving, he asked the player whether he wanted his divided into four or eight slices. "Nah!" he replied, "I'll just have it in four - I'm not that hungry!"
Another division difficulty scenario was set on the return flight from a European game. The destination's timezone was one or two hours ahead of the UK, so on the way back in terms of departure and arrival times, it appeared to be a much shorter journey. "How come it's much faster on the way back?" mused McAteer. After a certain amount of confusion, he was soon satisfied with this obvious conclusion: "The pilot! He knows a shortcut!"
Simple, or not? Life certainly isn't, and having to divide things up within it is a constant preoccupation. Our existence, from cells to planets, is made of fractions and portions, not merely in physics and mathematics, but in everyday matters – money, food and other possessions, as well as space and time, with regular difficulty in getting it right. "The one who divides can't choose", is a mantra I've heard sometimes when around a hungry table, when one person is slicing up the hot dish or cutting the cake in a hopefully democratic way. Obviously it's a deeply flawed practice (just look at the world …) but fractions are a key part of society's necessity to share.
So this week our topic is all about dividing the whole, the one, into something less (or in some ways more), whether that's halves, quarters, eights, sixteenths, or smaller, or indeed any other portions not divisible by two and in any dimension and any words associated with them. It's a constant life management skill, as well as a matter of personal perspective. So is my glass half full or half empty?
We are constantly measuring our possessions and time by fractions, but like the confusion of Jason McAteer, does that also echo wisdom of Confucius? As he put it: "Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated." But are fractions and portions also a matter of philosophy and subjectivity as well as empirical fact?
Take part of Zeno's Paradox, for example. The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea (490–430 BC) had many paradoxical theories, one of which can be explained by the idea of a cat walking across one side of the room to another. In theory for it to arrive at the opposite wall, it must first get halfway, then travel half of the remaining way, leaving a quarter of the journey left. Then it must travel a further half of what remains (i.e. an eighth of the total distance), but then half of that, and then half of that reminder, ad infinitum. So in theory, because it must travel infinite halfway-left distances, it will never actually arrive. That's one way of looking at it. The other is that if it's one of my cats it will likely stop and lick its bum, roll over, and then scamper off anyway. But Zeno's paradox is also a phenomenally useful excuse for procrastination, and never quite finishing the task set out before you.
Music itself is of course, naturally made up of fractions - divisions of time and tone, from the slow breath of a semi-breve to the steady heartbeat of a crotchet, often four to the bar, to its many faster subdivisions, time signatures, to the 12 semi-tones of a chromatic scale, or even quarter tones in some music. Obviously though we are not looking for songs with any of these particular things, such as those with semi-quavers, which is more or less every song, or even hemi-demi-semi-quavers, which are bloody fast. It is more about mention of words to do with fractions and portions in all lyrical context that counts, but if musical divisions somehow support this topically than that's a bonus.
Mathematical fractions and division might also come into play, whether that's mention of three-quarters, two-thirds, seven-eights, or equations pertaining to them. And there are also many words in the language that apply to fractions. Here at the Bar we may serve songs in pints, but as last week's topic poured out, another word for pint is octarius, from the Latin for the word 'eight' because a pint is an eighth of a gallon. So whether imperial or metric, centimetre, ha'penny or hundredweight, if it refers to a fraction of or portion of something, it's in the running.
Wrestling with these ideas and more, some fascinating guests have now appeared at the Bar to add their perspectives. Striding in, wearing a big coat and leather boots, here's Leo Tolstoy: “A man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he thinks of himself. The larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction.”
That's a ratio that's worth remembering. And talking of seeing how the world is divided in a unique, personal way, here's that superintelligent woman of the early 19th century, Ada Lovelace, the brains behind Charles Babbage's work, and in many ways the original builder of the computer. A true genius, the daughter of Lord Byron had her way of thinking and doing things, with a speed of thought that could not be measured by anyone around her.
"Owing to some peculiarity in my nervous system, I have perception of some things, which no one else has; or at least very few, if any ... I can throw rays from every quarter of the universe into one vast focus," she says.
Perhaps that's something that extremely gifted people share – an ability to instantly divide up a complex world into smaller pieces, so to them it slows down, and becomes clear, whether that's in thought, or movement, whether you're Ada Lovelace instantly calculating complexity, or Bruce Lee moving gracefully through the air like a leopard, but as a blur to everyone else. Or as the simple Keanu Reeves suddenly suddndly says in the Matrix, "I know fung fu."
Photography is also a form of dividing the world up into fractional moments. Here's perhaps one its greatest talents, Henri Cartier-Bresson, explaining what that means. "To take photographs means to recognise - simultaneously and within a fraction of a second - both the fact itself and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one's head, one's eye and one's heart on the same axis." Snap.
And in the biggest picture, humans, and our planet are but a tiny fraction of the universe. On the scale of 4,500 billions years compressed into a day, as put by many authors such as Bill Bryson and scientists such as astronomer Sir Martin Rees, we arrived barely over the minute to midnight. And if that time was expressed as a full year, assuming Earth will continue until the sun decides to eventually explode, the entire 21st century, when we might have the power to change everything, is quarter of a second in June - a tiny fraction of that history. But never mind. What are you doing tonight?
Perhaps the answer is to search for songs about fractions and portions, whether that's using just a tiny proportion of our unused brains, and music collections, or more. So then, so has not to encroach on any of the many half-, quarter- third-, eighth-and more themed songs out there, but rounding back with the Jason McAteer Tranmere Rovers connection, the beloved team of band and frontman Nigel Blackwell, let's lob the ball back to this very clever lyricist and far more than fractionally brilliant Half Man Half Biscuit, with this popular song about the difficulties of dividing up a gig running order. Who's going on after Crispy Ambulance?
And so, helping bring together divisions into one whole, in the form of playlists, I'm delighted to say that this week's clever calculator is the perfect whole number in guru form, ParaMhor! Deadline is this coming Monday at 11pm UK time, and playlists published on Wednesday. Together let's divide it up, and then conquer it.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.