Ideas are the most powerful gift we have


The idea is everything. Ideas are the most powerful thing we have. Our ability to act on our ideas – to make them real, to see where they might take us – is the greatest gift we have.

Imagination – and the exploration and realisation of ideas that it enables – is at the core of what makes us human. So says Brian Eno. Ideas are what separate us from animals. When children play, he argues, “they’re growing out of being animals and they’re becoming humans.” Eno elaborates:

“When a child is saying ‘let’s pretend’, what they’re really saying is ‘let’s imagine’. Imagining is possibly the central human trick. That’s what distinguishes us from all other creatures.”


Can you imagine a world without words? Words provide us with a vital tool to express and communicate our ideas to others. To me, Twitter is the human mind made manifest through words. Twitter connects you immediately to a vibrant global hub of ideas.

One of my favourite things on Twitter is Robert Macfarlane’s “word of the day” series. It is an endlessly joyous truth of the English language that there will usually be a very precise word for that idea you’ve always wanted to express but just can’t quite put your finger on. Macfarlane does great work in sharing such words with the world.

Case in point, a few weeks back, Macfarlane gifted us the word “undersong”, defined thus: 

“Word of the day: "undersong” – the underlying sounds of a landscape; the ambient murmur of an environment, often hard to hear or tune in to.“


Undersong is a word I’ve been seeking my whole life. It can be tricky to do, but sometimes working to dissociate what you’re hearing from your other senses can bring wonderful rewards. Without knowing (up until last month) that it was called "undersong”, I’ve long loved concentrating on the sounds you hear when walking through tunnels on the London Underground. Focusing just on what you hear in tube tunnels creates an extraordinary, echo-laden sound picture of random snatches of chatter, disembodied announcements and mechanical groanings, all moving to the muffled percussive rhythm of softened footfalls.

Endless coffee

Yesterday, I got to tune in again to the undersong of the Underground. I had a hugely enjoyable day off in London. I got to visit the odd calm of the self-contained, microcosmic legal village that is Temple, there to sup coffee with the wonderful, witty and wise Sean Jones. We chatted about married life, comics and being alert to the warning signs of midlife crises. Post-Temple, I took myself to lunch at Tokyo Diner (and, gentle reader, should you wish to see the food, please click here), and thence to the BFI, to see the documentary David Lynch: The Art Life.


David Lynch may well never have heard the word “undersong”. But each of Lynch’s films from Eraserhead onwards is alive with undersong. Lynch puts an extraordinary amount of work into the sound design for each of his films, creating a richly textured and deeply unsettling sound world that is uniquely his own.* Uniquely Lynchian.

As the documentary’s title suggests, Lynch has devoted himself to the art life. He defines this as a romanticised vision of spending one’s life drinking endless coffee, smoking endless cigarettes, and painting endlessly. His devotion to the art life is total and ongoing. There are beautiful sequences of the modern, seventy-something Lynch – fag in mouth, coffee to hand – immersed in artwork, or playfully building toy cakes and other objects from imaginary worlds with his lovely three-year-old daughter.

I knew my stuff sucked

I love Lynch’s description of his early commitment to the art life, even in the face of parental disapproval and the stark limits of his talents before they were fully developed:

“I knew my stuff sucked, but I needed to burn through, I needed to find what was mine, and the only way to find it is just to keep painting, and keep painting, and see if you catch something.”

For Lynch, the art life is about exploring and expressing ideas in their purest essence. He talks about how his paintings and his films seek to create a world that makes his ideas manifest, no matter how bizarre they might be.

It was an oddly Lynchian experience to take my seat at the BFI for this film. I was the second person to arrive. The vast, all-but-empty cinema with sharply illuminated red velvet curtains**. Brian Eno’s deeply immersive Music for Films*** album played over the speakers, mixing with the sounds of people slowly filtering in to create a unique undersong, a living, vibrant, Lynchian moment.

I walked out of the cinema in the calmest, most meditative state, the bustling undersong of rush hour Waterloo oddly muted and distant. Entering into and indulging the world of ideas and imagination can take you to extraordinary places.

Ideas are the most powerful thing we have. Our ability to act on our ideas – to make them real, to see where they might take us – is the greatest gift we have.

Where might your ideas take you today?



* David Lynch’s The Air Is On Fire album gives a perfect introduction to the undersong that characterises his film. But no shame if you find it’s not a sound world in which you want to wallow.

** See pic of said curtains at top of page.

*** The miracle of modern technology makes it possible for me to share this wondrous record with you, gentle reader. It almost beggars belief, but Phil Collins plays on this record. But please don’t let that put you off listening to it!


All photographs on this page by mjcarty (with the exception of my screengrab of Mr Macfarlane’s tweet, of course).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s