Alex James: 'Panpipes are just odious. The fanfare of the insane'

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The Independent Online

It's pretty soggy out there, and the nights are creeping in.

It's pretty soggy out there, and the nights are creeping in. It was dark by the time I was ready to run over to meet my wife, Claire. She was hiding from the builders in the next village. We've got a lot of builder types making messes and asking technical questions. It's not what a girl needs.

I really needed the exercise, but it's dangerous on country roads at night. I must admit I've squashed the odd rabbit. It's the same feeling as swallowing a fly, squashing a rabbit: it's over so fast. Yeuck. With safety in mind, I went through the lighting-up options. Torches have started to accumulate since we moved to the country. I have several favourites. The billion-candle-power B&Q special that recharges from the mains was not an option for this cross-country traipse - too bulky. There are lots of really good big lamps on the market. Hurricane lamps only cost about a tenner, and the juice is cheaper than batteries. I eventually settled for a combination of a strap-on headlight and a flashing rear bicycle light in my left hand, which I could wave at cars overtaking me.

By the time I'd got to the road I'd hit my stride and it was brilliant. It was completely dark apart from the cone of the headlight and the wink, wink of the red strobe, silent except for the disco beat of my footfalls. The world just fell away into the darkness. It felt like I was motionless and weightless. The darkness was big and lovely and I just kept on running towards it and it was safe and it was good.

I went to Reading on the train. It was nice. The train stops right in the middle of town, I walked out of the station and there was a music shop right there. Brilliant. I got a glockenspiel, a music stand and some panpipes. Panpipes are just odious. The fanfare of the insane. I thought I'd have a closer look at some. They apparently communicate directly with the subconscious mind, inducing calm, and making us hold for longer on the telephone and linger longer in the supermarket. On inspection a set of panpipes is not as nasty a thing as I imagined it would be. They work the same way as blowing into a bottle. It's just a little row of stoppered tubes of varying lengths. In fact it's the most primitive, naïve, simple instrument you could possibly design. Maybe that's why our subconscious mind helplessly and desperately clings to that sound in our daily struggles in the techno-jungle. I've also become quite absorbed by a big, parpy brass horn that's lying around. It's a marching-band instrument that used to belong to my dad, called a euphonium. It makes whale noises and your ears shake when you hit the bottom note. If they played that in supermarkets we'd all be marching round with smiles on our faces.

Anyway I was in Reading in the first place to meet a robot man, Kevin Warwick. He's a cybernetic professor at the university. We sat in his sunny office to discuss the possibility of building a robot that can play the guitar. He seemed to think that the guitar bit would be simple and the tricky bit would be what it looked like. It's funny, but that is always the difficult bit with guitar players. I'd brought an orange with me. I thought an orange for a head would be a good look. It was something he hadn't considered, but he showed me an absolute beauty he's working on that has a human skull-shaped head. A very rock look. The skull has a very clever arm and can pick its nose, or something. It was all very cool. We had some swarms of little robots whizzing around our feet and in another room hip-looking super-students were designing droids that would cross the campus and collect the departmental mail from reception. It was like a really big Meccano set.

Why did I do French when I could have done this? Why is RE compulsory when we could have compulsory robot design? Creative, constructive, technical. Brilliant. Better than art, robots.

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