An Entropic Discourse

I cannot recall when I first noticed him. He was just
another unremarkable face in a sea of unremarkable faces
waiting for the 07:06 to Bournemouth. He had an air of
eccentricity about him, which I concede made him somewhat
memorable: the burgundy cravat, the walking cane, long
woollen overcoat and leather gloves were only missing a
tophat and a monocle to complete the Dickensian picture.
Alas, they never materialised.
As a regular commuter, one gets to know the faces of those
with which one shares two-or-so hours a days’ drudgery.
One develops the tiniest of relationships with those whom
at least outwardly show some kind of mutual recognition.
That relationship consists in the main of that most
British of fraternal or sororal greetings, the Slightly
Inclined Head. The Slightly Inclined Head – no more than
3mm and accompanied by a feint tightening of the lips –
receives the standard reply of the Slightly Raised
Eyebrows. Again, no more than 3mm and accompanied by the
feintly tightened lips. The lip manouvre is deliberately
ambiguous, it could easily represent a de facto smile or
grimace, depending on the context. I have heard it said
that the British are masters of understatement and that
this sort of behaviour is a symptom thereof. I say that we
are socially lazy and genetically misanthropic.
At some point my relationship with him progressed from
bleary-eyed recognition to Slightly Inclined Head,
although again, the lines are blurry.
Like a peculiar word you take note of for the first time,
or an actor in a film, after that I started to notice him
a lot. Sat near me on the train, or walking between
Birmingham New Street and Birmingham Moor Street stations
in the morning, or in the coffee shop at Derby station. I
started to get a feel for his character.
He was the kind of rabid old coot that would wave
maniacally at a young, headphone wearing man on the train
to catch his attention. The young man would inevitably be
worn down and remove his elaborate sonic headdress to see
whatever the matter might be. He would then ask the young
man to what he was listening and wait politely while
receiving the information back. He would inevitably then
proceed to tell him precisely why his tastes were
incorrect and what to do to remedy them.
He was never vitriolic or scathing, in fact, he was
positively constructive with his commentary. Though, if
one were to observe him closely, he was barely concealing
a wry smile.
Once on a whim, an insatiable curiosity and the
opportunity granted by a late train and a missed
connection, I followed him after the train arrived in New
Street. I must admit it was a very compulsive thing to do
and quite out of character for me, I’m not often taken to
following people around covertly or otherwise. I was
merely interested to see where the gentleman worked. I
fancied it to be one of the upmarket law firms near the
cathedral. I was wrong, apparently, as I tracked him as
far as Moor Street Station, but in a stampede of urgent
commuters, he was lost.
The next morning, I could only find a seat at a table on
the train. I tended to avoid them as inevitably someone
would sit opposite making relaxing impossible. How could
one stretch out one’s legs when there was the slightest
chance they may brush another’s? I drew the hardback novel
I was reading from my rucksack and began to engross myself
in the prose. As I feared, the seat opposite became
occupied, I allowed myself the merest glimpse of my fellow
from under hooded eyes. It was the self same gentleman. I
looked up and in a pique of incongruous behaviour I spoke.
“Good morning,” I said.
“No,” he replied quickly, looking out of the window at the
bland white walls of the station.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“What for?” he replied turning to me with a mischevous
“I, er…” I stumbled. “No I mean, I’m sorry I didn’t
catch what you said.”
“I said ‘no’,” he replied. “Implying that no, it isn’t a
good morning, inferring that your statement, ‘Good
morning,’ was a question, which in all likelihood it was
My brow creased ever so slightly at his rapid delivery.
“Worry not good man,” he said in my rescue. “I understand
the sentiment to which you were alluding, and good morning
to you also,” he proferred his gloved hand which I shook
absent-mindedly. “Pleased to meet you, my name is Alaric
FitzHenry Montagu.”
I opened my mouth to reply but was cut short.
“I am an historian, of sorts, or more correctly a polymath
whose particular current interest is that of local
history. Though, not my own local history, that of the
county of Derbyshire but local to where I am currently
investigating. I suppose, if one thinks about it, that all
history is in fact local to someone or other.”
He stared off into the distance as the flooded fields of
Derbyshire rolled past in the grey light of misty January
“Quite,” I said, after working my jaw silently for a
“Although, again, I suppose history is probably not that
accurate a description either. More a kind of
philosophical science of history,” he said turning back to
I raised my eyebrows in query.
“Entropy,” he said.
“Entropy?” I replied.
“Indeed,” he said. “Entropy. Physical, social and perhaps
“That is your pursuit? How so?” I asked, my intrigue
overcoming my fuzzy morning head. The last glass of
Laphroaig was probably one to far last night.
“You are familiar with the word?” he asked.
“Entropy? Of course, the tendency of a system to fall from
order into chaos.”
“Specifically the measure of the disorder of a system,” he
I nodded my agreement with the accompaniment of a slight
tightening of the lips. It is truly astonishing how much
that little gesture can convey in the correct context.
“Society suffers from the effects of entropy,” he began,
steepling his fingers. “It is visible, if one cares to
investigate, on every level, microscopically or indeed
macroscopically. Take the fall of the Roman Empire for
example. If you were to study it, as I have done, you
would also conclude that social entropy was the ultimate
downfall. Conversely to that grand example, housing
estates in impoverished areas of towns and cities in the
UK, are also affected by social entropy. As the area
becomes less desirable, families move away, or die off
which makes the area even less desirable and the cycle
continues until the area falls into complete disuse. Do
you follow thus far?”
“I think so yes,” I replied. His reasoning was sound,
although I was a lacking in the definition of his terms. I
dared not interrupt his flow however. In fact, I doubt he
even noticed me speaking.
“Once a thing falls into disuse, take the housing estate
example once more, it falls into disrepair, then to
dereliction and then eventually, to pieces. Physical
entropy. Everything, on a long enough timeline, tends to
dust, correct?”
“I guess so,” I replied.
“No need to guess my man, it is a fact. Or at least as
close enough to a fact as is possible,” he said. “These
things are obvious, though perhaps you have not heard them
put in these terms before.” I hadn’t. “There is a third
phase of this entropy however, which is less tangible. It
irks me somewhat, as a man of science, but thus far I have
been unable to describe it better. The third component is
that of spiritual entropy.”
I looked at him blankly, one eyebrow raised.
“I see you too, look upon me as a crackpot,” he muttered,
losing some of his exuberence.
“Not at all, I am merely unfamiliar with the term, ” I
said. Although I did think he was a crackpot.
He perked up again, “with the increase in social entropy
in any given area I have observed a build up of a certain
kind of energy. Not a physical energy you must understand,
measured in Joules, but a spiritual kind of energy. I call
it Gesweorc.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, the word strange to my ears.
“Gesweorc,” he said again with a rolled ‘r’. “It is an Old
English word meaning a kind of dark mist, but it can also
mean a prison.”
“Umm,” I murmured.
“It is doubly fitting. If one were poetic, an attribute to
which I hold no claim, one might say it were a sort of
manifestation of evil.”
“I see…” he was certainly tending towards the lunatic
end of the eccentric spectrum.
“It collects in these abondoned places. As society starts
to decline, caused by this entropy, that energy that bonds
us as humans into our groups and factions, decays into
gesweorc. This geweorc then collects, it attracts itself,
like mass interacting with mass. It tends to collect in
those places where social entropy is at its highest, the
abandoned places.”
“Like a field in the middle of nowhere?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “For the social entropy of a place to be
high, it must first have had a demonstrably high level of
society as it were, for it to decay from. So an abandoned
industrial quarter of a city for example, would be high in
entropy, as it was once a bustling and community led area,
now lying in ruin.”
“I see, like a derelict school then?” I asked.
“Precisely!” he said with gusto, lifting slightly from his
seat as he did so. “Cities are the natural home of
gesweorc. The more people and the more dysfunctional the
community, the higher the social entropy and thus, the
higher the amount of gesweorc.”
“What does it look like?” I asked. Alaric looked at me
like one might regard a simpleton.
“What does it look like? One might as well ask what energy
looks like, or why does a bird green. It doesn’t mean
“Well, I mean, how does one, how do you know it’s there?
Can one measure it?”
“One cannot no, but I can,” he said with a triumphant
smirk. “With a device of my own design.” He
absent-mindedly fondled the knob of his walking cane as he
spoke. “So as gesweorc attracts gesweorc, it snowballs and
grows larger and larger. It begins to leak out and corrupt
the good spirits and the sense of community, leading to
further entropy. Almost feeding itself, if you like. The
French call it ‘ennui’. It can be overcome though, things
are not all as bleak as that.
“For example, in Britain after the First World War morale
was very low. Gesweorc almost consumed us entirely, but
luckily, or unluckily, depending on one’s outlook, the
Second World War caused us to pull together as a country,
dissipating or converting the gesweorc back into that
positive energy that binds us humanfolk together.
“Since then though, we have been in gradual decline. A
decline that has turned sharply downwards since the
euphoria of the millenium’s turn. Since then I have been
collecting data, measuring, extrapolating.”
“Is that what you’re doing in Birmingham?” I asked.
“Indeed,” he said. “Over these past months I have been
slowly zeroing-in on the largest concentration of
gesweorc. Why Birmingham? Well, Derby is too small and
easy, Nottingham is too well-maintained. Birmingham is
fairly unique in its juxtaposition of affluence and
desolation. Its colourful and industrial past meant that,
at least historically, it has held a community spirit that
rivals almost everywhere else that I can conceivably get
to by public transport. It is also becoming increasingly
disenfranchised and the social decay is tangible. I have
never read such levels of gesweorc anywhere else.”
“Have you found it then? This… concentration?”
“Almost, I believe,” he said. “I suppose it would have
been more prudent to seek lodgings in the city, but
knowing what I know, I would rather be far away from it,
hence my travelling here every day.”
“Is it dangerous?” I asked.
“I do not believe so, though it is impossible to say as
one cannot contain it in order to test it.”
“Whereabouts is it?” I asked. Something in his voice had
made me believe what he said. Like David Attenborough or
Stephen Fry, he could have told me oranges were made of
bacon and I’d have believed him.
“Ah, that would be telling!” he said. “You shall simply
have to wait until I publish my paper on the phenomenon.”
Just then the announcer informed us that we were
approaching New Street Station, and dispelled our moment.
Unfortunately, I was pushed for time to meet my connection
across town and so had to bid Alaric FitzHenry Montagu
adieu. He tipped an imaginary hat at me, and swept from
the carriage somehow avoiding the human traffic I got
snarled up in.
As I crossed the road outside Moor Street, emerging from
the leering overhead monstrosity that was the Bullring, I
caught a glimpse of him in the distance, heading towards
the old Curzon Street Station, long abandoned. I suppose
that made sense as a place for the gesweorc to collect. It
was after all, a busy and vibrant station from the 19th
Century up until the sixties. I imagine the social entropy
there is quite high. I found myself thinking in these
strange terms and shook my head. I had a train to catch
and some serious work to do.
Incidentally, I never saw Alaric again. I kept an eye out
for any scientific papers that he may have published for
several years afterwards, but I saw none. I tried
searching for him in the telephone book and on the
internet to no avail. I managed to find mention of his
family, they were traceable back to the thirteenth
century, which was quite exciting in a way. It was as if
he had disappeared.
Eventually though, my interest in Alaric fell, like the
Roman Empire, to entropy and dereliction.