Urban novelties: How Bristol itself became a short story

<em>These Pages Fall Like Ash</em> turned a city into a fantasy novel, making Sarah Ditum see her home with new eyes.

The idea of wandering, experiencing, discovering a city is lost to a time before smartphones. Now, you're very likely carry on your person a computer capable of mapping your route from point to point so you never get lost, and once you get there, connecting you to somebody you already know. Wherever you go, your world can can be constrained to the scale of the five-inch screen in your pocket.

Storytelling experiment These Pages Fall Like Ash is billed as a reinvention of the paper book in a digital era, and it is. The fragmented episodes of the story (a collaboration between academic Tom Abba, arts collective Circumstance, and fantasy novelists Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway) are delivered as downloads from Raspberry Pi terminals dotted around the city of Bristol. To help you interpret the world you gradually uncover, the price of the ticket also includes a wood-bound notebook containing a glossary, some scraps of supporting narrative and a cryptic list of the locations where each chapter can be found.

The story itself is a collaboration between these media, the paper and the pixels. The notebook is a beautiful object – the teasing use of revelatory cutouts and concealing blocks of black censor's ink remind me of BS Johnson's Albert Angelo. But over the course of the experience (I think experience is the right word for These Pages Fall Like Ash), it is overshadowed by an even more impressive physical artefact: the city itself.

The story itself is a subtle, watery reflection of the real environment – and in Bristol's case, that means drawing heavily on its geography as a port and river city. The story suggests a time of flood in the future, when the walkways you move across will be drowned and the urban landmarks reinterpreted to suit the needs of an odd and alien culture. These Pages Fall Like Ash makes it necessary to attend to the streets you walk through, if only because what you are invited to imagine is so starkly different.

You see the river and the ghost signs, the ancient pubs and the not-so-ancient university buildings more sharply as you make the effort to see something else entirely in their place. Early on, it becomes clear that the fiction involves two cities sharing the same location, with lesions between them that allow some kind of exchange between the characters; and then you realise that you and every other participant in Pages Fall is helping to shape the outcome of the story.

This shared experience has the strange effect of creating a small, transient community in the city. People walk around with their faces pressed to their portable screens as ever, but for once, we are all peering into the same world rather than a magnified version of our own psyche. At waypoints of the story, we gather and exchange hints of what is to come and where to go next, taking pleasure in sharing the hidden places of Pages.

The accomplishment isn't quite perfect. Not every terminal was working or accessible when I took my tour, and the whole narrative was more than my flaky iPhone battery could take in one charge. Even with a longer lasting device, this would be a work of more than one day – and perhaps rightly so, because the episodic structure makes it a story to be lived in through the retracing of familiar streets, rather than one to be devoured at pace. These Pages Fall Like Ash works in the way works of the imagination should, though: it is something to get lost in, even if you think you know the terrain.

These Pages Fall Like Ash is now over, but the creators have plans for similar events in other cities.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times