The Stoneheart Problem


Once there was a people whose hearts were made of stone. They looked in every way just like ordinary people, and their hearts worked just like ordinary fleshy hearts, except that the stone hearts made little grinding sounds as they pumped blood. That sound was enough to tell the stone-hearted people apart, if you listened closely.

For a long time – oh, hundreds of years – the stone-hearted people were euthanised at birth. Stories were told about the terrible things that stone-hearted people would do if they weren’t killed: the hidden bands of stone-hearted people who stole and ate children, the forest-raised escapees who could turn your own heart to stone with just one touch, the distant island where the stone-hearted people were building terrible weapons with which to wage another war on good, normal flesh.

But every so often a kindly or cowardly or guilty mother or father would, when they heard the grinding inside the chest of their newborn, hide their stone-hearted baby away. They learned to make special bindings from rabbit-fur that could dampen the sound of their child’s grinding heart, as long as they all remained careful. Usually, the hidden stone-hearted people would be found out sooner or later and got rid of. But, every so often, one hidden stone-hearted person would survive and, even more rarely, would find and recognise another stone-hearted person, and they would have hidden stone-hearted children of their own.

The families of stone-hearted people stayed hidden. They knew all too well their history, how whole villages of stone-hearted people were discovered and then removed from the world. Many families died. Many stone hearts were ground into dust (because the dust of a stone heart made a medicine that could cure any sickness, so it was said). But, again, some survived, and some became village healers, or teachers, or minor functionaries of local government, their stone hearts bound safely beneath their furs, and in that way, quietly at first, people began to say different things about the stone-hearted people.

Obviously they couldn’t feel as ordinary people could – but did that truly make them evil? What was ‘evil’, after all? Naturally, the sound of their stone hearts grinding was sickening to the soul, and doomed them to a poor excuse for a life, but weren’t they more worthy of pity than hatred? Of charity, even? Under the encouragement of the hidden stone-hearted, certain fashionable types among the wealthy classes began to set up foundations to study the phenomenon of geobiology, which led to charitable colonies where stone-hearted people were permitted to live under supervision, which led, in the fullness of time, to a certain kind of freedom for the stone-hearted people, and a certain kind of pride among those who called themselves Stonehearts.

It must be said there were some few among the stone-hearted people who thought they were changing their lot in a different way. Once or twice a laboratory was burned down, and there were bombings of government facilities which led to more than a few casualties. But most of the stone-hearted people looked down on these unfeeling rebels, and called for patience, fortitude and persuasion by example. After all, look at what their arguments had already won.

Thus, little by little, the stone-hearted people became part of ordinary society. Not its most welcome part, because the incessant grinding would set anyone’s teeth on edge, but a part nonetheless. Stonehearts made good farmhands, it was said: something about their greater muscle density, or their natural understanding of minerals in the soil. Their occasional outbursts and little rebellions were soon put down. One or two of them were capable of really quite fascinating art, and their peculiar outlook did sometimes offer an insight that a trained philosopher could make good use of. But they weren’t, of course, proper people. Their hearts were still made of stone.

Many stone-hearted people settled for this state of affairs. They had survived for hundreds of years and they weren’t about to risk that now, whatever the rebels might say. Some stone-hearted people did still argue that they deserved things like representation in government, or money to build better houses for their poor, but when they did they were met with the same old arguments: Your stone hearts can’t feel as ours can, so there’s no point wasting that on you. Your hearts don’t need what a real heart needs.

And so those same stone-hearted people, patient and strong, worked hard to become philosophers, lawyers and writers of books. They developed a wealth of scientific evidence that stone hearts and flesh hearts were functionally the same, with the same feelings and thoughts and needs. They developed complex legal arguments that showed that the rights of stone-hearted people were and had always been fundamental to the way the government worked. They wrote rich and deep books that questioned the very difference between stone and flesh, that undermined even the reality of a stone heart’s grinding sound. And the stone-hearted philosophers and lawyers and writers of books presented their case, and asked for things like representation in government and better houses for their poor, but when they did they were met with the same old arguments: Your stone hearts can’t feel as ours can, so there’s no point wasting that on you. Your hearts don’t need what a real heart needs.

‘But we’ve proved it!’ said the philosophers. ‘Extensive experiments have found no functional difference between a stone heart and a flesh heart.’

‘Well, I’m sure your science is very clever,’ came the reply, ‘but I’m not so stupid as to be conned into thinking there’s no difference when I can see it with my eyes and hear it with my ears.’

‘But we’ve proved it!’ said the lawyers. ‘The principles which guarantee your rights can in no logical way exclude our own.’

‘Well, I don’t understand your tricksy legal talk,’ came the reply, ‘but obviously different people deserve different things, and we all know the differences between us.’

‘But we’ve proved it!’ said the writers of books. ‘There is no understanding of reality which can coherently account for a true division between stone and flesh.’

‘Well, I don’t know about all that fancy thinking,’ came the reply, ‘but obviously there’s a difference, because I can hear your horrible heart grinding away right now.’

Once, a philosopher lost her patience. ‘I can’t talk about this with you any more!’ she said. ‘You’re not capable of listening to reason!’ She became angrier still, and then she was taken away, because stone-hearted people are very dangerous when they’re angry.

Ten years later, at the next Great Convocation on the Stoneheart Problem, the philosophers and lawyers and writers of books presented their newest and best arguments, even more refined and persuasive than they had been ten years before, and again they were rebuffed. Two philosophers and one lawyer were taken away this time, and there was much discussion in the salons of fashionable society as to whether a Convocation should be risked again. It was, though, scheduled for another ten years’ time.

It was shortly after then that I left that place, and, although ten years have passed and many more since, I cannot say for sure what happened next. I have heard mixed reports. Some have told me that a great Stoneheart thinker presented an argument – if not at the Third Convocation, then maybe at the Fourth or the Fifth – so convincing and so confounding that the whole Hall rose to its feet in applause and ushered in a new era there and then. Some have told me that all the philosophers and lawyers and writers of books gave up their arguments and joined the rebels in their secret caves, waging a bloody war. Some have told me that that war was lost and that the stone-hearted people were once again removed from the world. But, of all the people who have travelled from that place, most have simply told me one thing: that, all these years later, in their Great Convocations the stone-hearted people and the flesh-hearted people are talking still.

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Image by Steve Parker, licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0.

Flaneur: Day 4


FLANEUR is a little project I’ve made for the BBC’s Contains Strong Language: a randomly-generated writing-exploration game that you can take part in. Each day of the festival I’ll be taking a randomised wander around Hull and posting a little poem about it. Head to Mixital to get your own instructions for a surprise, write a response, and share it with us. I’ll be reading and chatting about the responses on BBC social media channels each afternoon.

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Who walks in rain beneath the four great houses?
Who walks at this time in the rain beneath the three towers?
Who walks at this early hour on this sabbath morning under the sign of rain below the four monuments to living?
Who walks the five ways?
Whose movements carve a seal in the rain beneath the five pillars?
Whose movements are a prayer this morning through these offerings to the ground?

Who moves here now?


My Instructions

1. Disobey the next instruction.
2. Consider what the people around you might be thinking. Decide if you want to keep going.
3. Find the nearest wall and touch it for four minutes.
4. Walk towards the moon for seven metres.
5. Go intensely southeast for the count of thirteen.
6. Take the fourth left.
7. Find the nearest traffic light and write down a description.
8. Find the nearest bird, then follow it for nineteen seconds or until you lose it, whichever comes sooner.
9. Meander in the direction of home for a while.
10. Wheel northeast for one hour.
11. Go northeast for a while.
12. Stop, find a comfortable spot, and write a long poem about your thoughts.
13. Head back.

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Wander and Poem Notes

My early disobedience got me very turned around, and so the instructions in the end led me on a grand loop that cut transects through different parts of outer Hull. I strode through tower blocks, more affluent semi-suburbs, housing estates, parks and the other ordinary design of a city. It was raining, quite hard, and something about the rain and the early hour and the quiet Sunday morning made me feel, there’s no other word for it, ecstatic. The ecstatic poetic mode comes quite easily to me, and it’s what I often fall into when writing quickly — I don’t know if it’s growing up going to a lot of churches or overdosing on Shelley and Blake too young.  For this poem I wanted to get to the majesty and magic of an ordinary city on a wet day, the possibility of holiness everywhere, perhaps even more present here, and to do that I had to cut the language right back to simplicity. The high tone is in the syntax, but I need the words to be as transparent as possible. This is the poem I’m most happy with from the week. Thanks, Hull.

Flaneur: Day 3

Poetry, Uncategorized

FLANEUR is a little project I’ve made for the BBC’s Contains Strong Language: a randomly-generated writing-exploration game that you can take part in. Each day of the festival I’ll be taking a randomised wander around Hull and posting a little poem about it. Head to Mixital to get your own instructions for a surprise, write a response, and share it with us. I’ll be reading and chatting about the responses on BBC social media channels each afternoon.

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A piece of blue industrial plant — a cherry picker — stands outside a modern redbrick building. In its plate glass window, a brownstone church is reflected.


Shuttered redbrick sports a lush          burst of weeds like spring pubes,
thick and bolshie — daddy, shove          your hand in says the winking
closed circuit camera, the razorwire          black as best silk sheets.

          …harling split to old stone     poly rags    yellow squirts
          wonky corrugated topper    nettle bush     hunks of river mud…

“Post,” they call this, post         -industrial, -ironic worn iron signs, as though
it were not live with pigeons           purring their war. The mill dock shrugs,
takes wild new bubbling paint,          gnashes its gums and grinds joy.

hull bridge

The site described in the poem: a semi-derelict mill and grain store, and an old cantilever bridge across the Humber.

My Instructions

1. Meander away from the sun for a while.
2. Roll backwards for thirteen seconds.
3. Go northwest for five minutes.
4. Look.
5. Take the third right.
6. Watch.
7. Wait.
8. Roll towards the largest building nearby for a little while.
9. Look.
10. Stop, find a comfortable spot, and write a poem about where you’ve been.
11. Head back.


A map showing a short and wonky walk through central Hull.

Wander Notes

A short one today, as I was showing the BBC’s Vanessa Scott around FLANEUR — but even the short instructions gave us a few pleasant surprises. Walking with someone else slowed me down and made me look more closely for interesting things. We got lost in the back alleys of the shopping centres, possibly (accidentally!) setting off a burglar alarm (I swear we just walked into a car park), ambled into and out of a gorgeous old theatre mews, found ourselves in a redbrick industrial estate, and ended up next to a gigantic grain store and old mill building, Maizecor. I’m finding that things always get most interesting once we’ve crossed the A-roads that ring Hull city centre, but even the centre has a strange and quite lovely jumble of architecture: Victorian and Edwardian grandeur, redbrick industry, 60s brutalism, 90s shopping streets and contemporary culture-led plate glass architecture all compete for space.

Poem Notes

I’m wary of artists’ fetishisation of post-industrial architecture and dereliction — there’s something patronising about it, something that fails to understand what the loss of city centre industry means. These buildings can be scary and sad, but I love them. And I want them to bite back. I wanted to ask this building how it was feeling in the world, and the answer seemed to be: rude and dangerous and old and sexy. I’m happiest with the first three lines, and maybe the poem should be cut to just that — it gets looser as the poem goes on, and I don’t need to explain as much as I do. But I loved meeting this building so much that I had to keep writing down the words.