Birkacre DecemberI could tell you a tale of bright, frosty mornings, but mostly the season is grey, broad sweeps of colour and contrast washed out, leaving a world on the verge of hibernation, in a soft tissue monochrome.The camera struggles with the bigger picture now, trees and moss and fallen leaves and mud all merging into shades that seem but a fraction of tone apart. It squints to discern them, and the usual post processing tricks that digitally deepen the dynamics fail to work, at least not without making the lie even more obvious. Instead we must seek interest in its isolated macroscopic scraps of colour, but if we are to send our camera probing to that level, curiosities, we had better be prepared for what we find.

The camera sees a scattering of seeds on a fencepost, left there by humans for birds. We want the birds to survive, and in wanting it we feel better about ourselves. The seeds shine like miniature pebbles and speak of a glowing altruism, of valuing the small creatures but it makes for an odd juxtaposition with world affairs which betray daily the fact we struggle with the bigger picture and cannot extend such fine sentiments to our own kind.

RSCI left some coins in the begging bowl of a homeless guy in Stratford upon Avon, home of the Bard, Union Jack mugs, fridge magnets and international tourists. In the camera of my mind, those coins looked like seeds scattered. But I’m told you shouldn’t do this, give money to the homeless. Buy him a sandwich instead, I’m told – he’ll only spend the money on alcohol. But it was a bitterly cold afternoon, and raining, and if he wanted a bottle of whisky to keep out the cold, then he could have it with my blessing.

Meanwhile, we visitors took shelter far across the divide, in the bookshop at the Royal Shakespeare Centre (3 books for £21). The homeless man had enough coin for a cup of tea. To be sure, the story of December reveals uncomfortable details. I tried a picture of the RSC, but it was too tall to fit the landscaped frame, and I was in no mood to make a portrait of it.

Closer to home, the camera of my mind spies Santa stuff, and animatronic reindeer in the garden centres. But the myth of a secular Yule needs little analysis before revealing the trap we’re in, that we’re only useful to the world if we’re spending money, that if we’re no longer economically active we’d be serving society better if we were dead. The greeting cards tell their comforting lies of bright frosty mornings, snow covered hills and cosy cottages – thatched of course – smudge of carbon footprint rising, and all cosiness within. I flick back to the mind’s eye photograph of the homeless guy sitting on the pavement in Stratford, and the sound of Santa’s canned carolling makes me want to scream.

The camera of the mind spies the supermarkets, the crowds thickening in their fear of being without parsnips on Christmas Day, while arrayed by the door the camera sees those “support your local foodbank boxes” – gift the blessing of survival this season of good will – a tin of soup to one more needy than yourself.

It’s true, our own kind are going hungry, and not just in the famine places, the war torn places, it’s on the streets of our provincial towns as well, a stone’s throw from the RSC. Yet we’re persuaded the poor are undeserving, that they are drug addled, lazy, immoral, that they have brought it upon themselves, and we would sooner feed the birds. It’s so easy to fall now, and nothing to catch you on the way down. Dickens would recognise our world. He would look at the iPhone and at the beggar starved at the rich man’s gate and lament that in a hundred and fifty years we have made no progress at all in the things that are most important.

Beware looking too closely into the details of December. It does not reveal a comforting picture of our world. Better we set the camera aside, take refuge in the monstrous myth of Santa perhaps while the truth is he’s just lie we tell our children. Or do we grow up, see things for what they are, for what they have to tell us about the way we live? At the very least we must must reject the temptation to see any of this any of this as normal and allow it to settle in.













dowserCurious incident recently – a science blogger learns of a water-company engineer dowsing a field for a broken water pipe. She blogs it with a skeptical slant. It’s picked up by the news media who add their own spin: UK water companies wasting money on “witchcraft”. Nice one!

That little “ping” of Witchcraft on the radar then brings out the great showboating battleship, HMS Skeptic, guns blazing. Arch celebrity skeptic and CSICOP* notary Richard Wiseman is on the BBC’s Today program, reminding us of the idea-motor and confirmation bias stuff – how we’re all so thick we can’t tell when we’re being duped. Presenter John Humphrys mischievously recounts his own successful experience of dowsing, and thereby earns further snippy headlines in the following days’ newspapers. Wiseman responds by saying Humphries would have kept his anecdote to himself had it been unsuccessful (confirmation bias), and a fair point, though this hardly discredits the idea either since Humphrys’ attempt was successful.

When asked, most UK water companies admitted the use of dowsing, but then quailed at the sight of HMS Skeptic anchored ominously offshore, so they back-tracked, emphasising instead how they invest vast sums in proper scientific solutions. Their field engineers “might” employ a bit of dowsing on the side, they said – but in a strictly personal capacity. I smiled at that, imagining the emails then sent to all those engineers to get with the corporate message, and to get rid of those bits of bent coat hanger.

It’s a while since I studied the paranormal in any depth, but it’s a fascinating subject. It’s an area in which the gullible can easily find themselves lost and duped, but equally, it’s a field that could yield the most profound advances in our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Also of interest to me is that cohort of professional celebrity skeptics and their oftentimes simplistic arguments which start from a baseline of: this cannot possibly be true and thereafter work towards a rational explanation, no matter how weak. When all else fails, they call into question the honesty or the sanity of the persons presenting evidence in favour of paranormal phenomenon, also those simply writing about it in anything other than derogatory terms. Anyone actually claiming paranormal prowess will be mercilessly torn to shreds.

True, dowsing has been debunked by scientific trials – at least those trials selectively quoted by skeptics. Skeptical debunkers it seems are as prone to confirmation bias as anyone else, since other studies do lend credence to its efficacy. In more prosaic terms water company engineers probably use it on the quiet because it has worked for them in the past, and they are not uncomfortable using it again simply on the basis they have no rational explanation for how it works. Engineers are pragmatic people.

Me? I have some technical training, which I mention here only to demonstrate that, although I regularly indulge in literary fantasy, I am not entirely without the ability to think critically. In spite of that I once made a twitching stick from a birch twig, held it like dowsers do while I walked a stretch of path through a meadow. Why? Well, I was curious, and why not? What happened? Well, mostly nothing. But at various points the stick twitched in a very disconcerting manner, no matter how steadily I tried to hold it.

My explanation, part technical, part speculative, is that it was responding to the unconscious movement of my hands. This is programmable to a degree by the idea-motor effect, just like the skeptics say, but not in all instances. To dismiss it as such is a little disingenuous. Personally I favour the idea that the body is responding to discontinuities in the local geomagnetic field, caused in turn by anomalies in underlying geology. Although hardly proven, it is, at least, an interesting avenue for study, how the body might be sensitive in this way, and how it might connect to the electromagnetic energy matrix of its environment.

Nor is this as far-fetched as it sounds, since recent squeaky clean scientific studies suggest birds navigate the earth by seeing, or sensing its magnetic field using quantum coherence effects. It’s not a great leap then to suggest we might also possess the same ability, perhaps unconscious, or in most of us atrophied beyond all practical use. Yes, it sounds a little strange, but only if you’re thinking along narrow lines, and only if you adopt the rather unscientific position that anything straying beyond the materialistic and strictly mechanistic paradigm is all “witchcraft” and can’t possibly be true.

Skeptics should also bear in mind witchcraft is a well established spiritual practice, and as such, to use that term in a pejorative way is disrespectful to those practising it. So mind your language, and remember the more shrill one is, the more likely you are to win over only those as shrill as yourself. And that’s no victory for common sense at all. It’s simply another form of fundamentalism.

View story at Medium.com

*CSICOP – Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

mazda night journey HDR

It doesn’t feel like I’ve had the little blue car for long, but it’s getting on for four years now. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure I’ve had from driving it. I’ve discovered the roads have a sway to them not felt since my motorcycle days, the sunshine is brighter and, top down, the air is a dream of freshness, and all this is to say nothing of the places I’ve discovered with it – especially in the Yorkshire Dales, just a short hop from home, and a place for which the car seems to have been especially built.

For years now the remoter dales have echoed to the burble of its exhaust note, as the little blue car wandered with a tenacious grip and a surprising vigour, given its fifteen years. I’d thought it would last for ever. But then I noticed it was suffering from tin-worm in the back wings, and sills. A previous owner had already patched it, and quite neatly, but the sills are bubbling through again, and I’ve had an advisory on the MOT.

The cost for a decent repair is far in excess of what the car is worth. So at the moment it’s tucked up, looking forward to just one last summer on the road before the breaker’s yard. I couldn’t sell it on without pointing out the work that’s needed, which will surely put any casual buyers off. An enthusiast with a knowledge of welding and body repair might take it on, but at most five hundred quid is what I could, in all fairness, get for it.

Sadly this is the way most old MX5’s go. They are like butterflies, built for warmer, drier climes, not the persistently wet brutality of roads in Northern Europe, nor especially its salt caked winters. Rationally, it makes no sense to invest any more in it. I mean, goodness knows where else the rust might be lurking – the body shop talked of common issues with the forward suspension, further advisories on the MOT and costs in excess of five hundred at some point in the future.

It’s a thing to ponder over winter, and quite sad. She runs well, has only 86,000 on the clock, and might in all other respects have another ten years of pleasure ahead of her, but there we are. All good things must come to an end.

“I’d bite the bullet and get it done, mate,” said the guy in the body shop. “These cars are becoming classics. It’ll be worth it in the long run.”

Nice guy, and an infectious enthusiasm, but he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Oh, I know he’s right, but classic cars are holes in the road you pour your money into. They take all your love and patience, and repay it with an ever more temperamental drift into old age and irritability. But for a short while at least, heaven for me has been a little blue car with a roof you can fold down, and a twist of dales country road warming to dust, under a hot summer sun.





great hill dec 2014 sm

Above the town a patch of green,
Shoulders aside the black brick line,
Holding up the sky.
All sour grass and brambles,
And the russet crumbs,
Of dried fern,
Dotted with the pastel shades,
Of plastic,
Wrapping up
The still moist remains
Of long preserved dog turd.

And like impacted wisdom teeth,
Gone green with age,
Shy outcroppings of grit-stone
Rise from mud.
Their weathered flanks are raw
With the scratchings of passing blades,
Etched deep now by the acid
Of three hundred years
Of rain.
Quiet as ghosts, patient as death,
This patch of green,
Looks down upon the sprawl of man.
And waits its turn again.

cuchulain at the beach

Second Life, Linden Labs’ massive multiplayer online role playing game – the game that isn’t a game – has been around for a long time now. My “avatar”, Cuchulain Graves, is ten years old, which makes him positively geriatric, and, sadly, no wiser for his years. But his logins still work, his belongings and bank balance are intact. Everything is as it was since last time he briefly checked in, years ago. He’s not aged at all of course, looks about twenty five. As a timeless projection of my inner self, I’m fond of him, though it’s hard to say why.

But now I think I finally get it.

Cuchulain opened a few shops in the early days, stocked my novels, but nobody came because there’s no market for books in the virtual world. So he built a space-ship instead and blasted off into the upper layers of the multi-verse, a place free of scripts and server lag. Claim to fame? He was once interviewed for a pretentious three part blog-series on the life of an unknown scribe. The interviewer was a certain Eileanne Odisarke, a curious cross gendered alt, whose own adventures pretty much reflected Cuchulain’s.

Wandering aimlessly that early Second Life universe, they encountered many an eccentric soul: academics, psychologists, hippies, drunks and other cyber-utopians. But they’ve all gone now. The times in-world are spent alone these days, among vast shopping malls, entirely empty, or plodding roads that lead both to and from nowhere. It’s a lonely place, especially for one identifying as male – better to engross oneself in simply building stuff than to expect much by way of meaningful encounters, or perhaps Cuchulain is simply as misanthropic as his alter ego. Or is he mine? I forget.

Second life denizens take pleasure mostly in dressing up and dancing, also flirting and “cyber sex”. But it seems an isolated business. I mean, who are these people, really, sitting behind computer screens, and why aren’t they out dressing up, dancing, flirting and having sex,… for real? Why would one prefer the imagined over reality, unless any meaningful reality is denied them somehow? Or am I simply over thinking, and none of it means anything at all? That is the question!

It’s still interests me, psychologically, but no one else is seeing it in those terms any more, and I recognise my enduring fascination might well be pathological. After all, some people see fairies, but it’s better to consider first how much one has drunk before considering the fairies to be real.

That Second Life endures is perhaps the only interesting thing left to be said about it. And I suppose it will endure so long as its business model allows it to. Like anything else man-made, it’s dollars that make it happen, dollars that keep it alive. Unlike real life, where the entire universe was pre-formed without our involvement, everything we see in Second Life is the result of human thought, human imagination, and therein lies both the miracle and the weakness, the human mind being as self-destructive and defective in its thinking as it is endlessly creative.

It was touted as a place to meet others, to express oneself, but other forms of social media do it so much better now: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – all post-date Second-Life, and are better at facilitating mass discussion around topics of real-world concern, to the extent they are now, for good or ill, shaping real-world events.

If we want to get really existential about it, some secular versions of the afterlife describe an inter-dimensional realm formed by the collective imaginations of the disembodied entities dwelling there. This sounds a bit like the virtual reality of Second Life too, except an afterlife where motivation is derived from over-inflated self image, and virtual coinage doesn’t sound like much of a reward for our primary life’s labours – unless of course our purpose is to learn to outgrow such things.

As Cuchulain, my projected self, sits upon the virtual Second Life beach to watch the virtual sunset, it’s easy to see his existence has no reality, no illumination at all, without a greater self, me, to bear him witness and grant him the sense of all that he is feeling. Much harder to grasp is the realisation of the awareness bearing witness to my own self in this life, and without whom, or which, my own reality has no illumination either.

Though it may not have been intended, bringing one closer to such an awareness is, I think, however indirectly, and long in coming, the one important lesson Second Life can teach us,… and therein, perhaps, lies its meaning.

Doing just just fine

man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885It’s better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and lose oneself – at least according to the literary critic Cyril Connolley (1903-74). He spoke in the context of conventional publishing and literature, but its a sentiment that applies equally well to the online world today.

It’s interesting, writing online, writing into this semi-void. It’s not quite as vacuous as the double line spaced MS with SAE submissions thing which inevitably, and all too reliably floated back home to the total oblivion of the file drawer. In the online world we find there are readers. Some will read us, some will merely like us, perhaps fishing for their own readers and likers. It’s polite to reciprocate, but only if we genuinely connect with our fellows, are inspired by them in some way or provoked into thoughtfulness. Otherwise we lose our integrity and the void, sensing our lack of virtue, will tear us apart.

To survive, to endure, life or writing, is not to judge ourselves by our approval ratings. I think we all know this, but it’s easy to forget, easy to slip back into unskillful ways of thinking. Much better to write for our selves.

But which self? This is the important question.

The most dangerous thing we can do is fall foul of the fallacy that the online world can confirm our search for self worth. It cannot. Some pieces I post garner maybe half a dozen likes from other souls, some interested readers, others merely opportunistic reciprocal “like” fishers. Some posts garner no reaction at all. But the “likes”, the “follows”, genuine or not, cynical or not, don’t matter. They are Connolley’s public and in courting their attention we forget our selves.

The self is our only true companion. It is our mother, our father, our one true love. But this is not the self we think we are, not the primitive self that craves self worth. It is the self that recognises, above all it’s thinking, there is a wiser and all seeing self, who is the watcher of our thoughts. This is the timeless self who grants us the awareness we are even thinking at all, and it is this self for whom we write.

This is the self, symbolised if you like by the archetype of the stern but fatherly English teacher, marker of all our essays, whose approval is hard won but worth the effort. The silence of the void is irrelevant then if we can but open up the channel between who we think we are, and the silent watcher. The silent watcher knows when we have grasped something vital, and we are rewarded, irrespective of the usual forms of approval.

We do not write online to make money, or become famous. I’m sorry if you aspire to writing for a living, and live still in hope of an email from one of the big six, inviting you to partake of white-toothed celebrity, but there we are. You would be better to choose more lucrative work – almost anything will be more lucrative than writing. Yes, you will suffer much by way of humiliation at the hands of  Philistines, but nothing so dehumanising as the quest for gold in a world where there is none. We write to seek the reflective pings of like minded souls, but primarily we seek a way back to the silent watcher whose approval alone has the power to still the existential storm, and to grant us the biggest prize of all: that regardless of our circumstances, we feel comfortable in our own skins.

It’s disturbing to contemplate the possibility we are alone in life and our lives don’t matter. Writerly types, arty types are more vulnerable than most to judging their value as human beings through the reaction to their work, and at some point if we are not to go insane we must come the revelation that actually it’s true: we don’t matter at all, that the world can manage very well without us, or even without ever having heard our name.

To make peace with that is the challenge of the individual life. We must each cross the existential wilderness alone, and there is no guide other than to seek the stillness within ourselves, and eventually then we will hear the voice that tells us – you know what?

Actually, we’re doing just fine.

enduring-love.jpgI find Ian McEwan’s novels accessible on a number of levels, like the skins of an onion. You can read him superficially as the writer of intriguing and imaginative stories peopled by entirely believable characters, or you can peel back a few layers and read more deeply about the whys and wherefores of the human condition. And you can keep on peeling back as deep as you like, or in some cases as deep as you dare.

With Enduring Love though I stepped in a puddle early on, was completely wrong footed, possibly because of my own inner workings, but partly also on account of some quite deliberately laid plot red herrings that had me thinking too deeply, or not,.. maybe.

The opening is dramatic enough – innocent strangers drawn suddenly together by a bizarre ballooning accident in which the protagonists leap onto the ropes of a fast ascending balloon in order to save the lives of the balloonist and a child tossed senseless by freak winds. The balloon passengers escape but the would be rescuers hang on to the ropes a moment too long and are carried upwards, each then letting go as the ground falls away and their nerve fails, landing shaken but unhurt – all except for one man carried too high and hanging on until the last, when he falls to his death.

Had all rescuers hung on, the death might have been prevented, or they might all have died. Who knows? But with this opening scene McEwan raises questions about our fallibility and how the every day actions of innocent people can have profoundly disturbing consequences for both themselves and others.

The main protagonist – one of the would-be rescuers – Joe Rose, is a science writer and a deeply rational man. He’s also conflicted, not just by the incident and his involvement in it and his feelings of guilt at the man’s death, but by his job which he has come to see as a parasitic profession when what he really wants is to be a scientist doing real pioneering work instead of just writing up the discoveries of others. After the accident, another of the rescuers, Jed Parry, a young man of almost messianic religious beliefs, begins to stalk Joe, speaking of loving him and wanting to bring Joe to God.

This is where I was legged up by the story, suspecting Joe Rose of being that most sneaky of plot devices, the unreliable narrator, and Parry’s obsessive stalking as basically an invention of Joe’s, that Parry’s coming was in effect a manifestation of Joe’s unresolved inner spirituality come to break his rational materialism which was souring his life. Anything else and the story would for me have simply been a thriller – about an unhinged stalker and how nobody believes his victim until it’s too late. This seemed a little too prosaic, so I congratulated myself on spotting the deceit early on.

More fool me!

Parry leaves frantic messages on Joe’s answer machine – but Joe deletes them so he cannot offer them as proof of Parry’s maniacal fervour. Parry writes long letters to Joe, but Joe’s wife remarks the handwriting is similar to Joe’s. Parry waits, rain and shine outside Joe’s apartment, but always slinks away when there is a chance Joe’s wife might spot him. Joe complains to the police but, like his wife, they think he’s deluded – no one else has seen Parry.

In this light we view Joe’s dogged pursuit of the facts only as an accumulation of evidence of his own dangerous unravelling. As his paranoia deepens, the cracks begun to show in his marriage – he irrationally suspects his wife of an affair, they argue, fall apart. Finally, convinced of the possibly imaginary Parry’s malign intent, Joe acquires a gun.

But then it turns out Joe was right all along, the we, the reader, Joe’s wife and the police were all wrong, that Parry was outrageously – though not altogether convincingly – real and dangerous, taking Joe’s wife hostage and ushering in a tense thriller-like finale.

Hmmm,… weird!

You’ll find lots of revision notes and crib sheets online about Enduring Love. This suggests it’s been pored over quite a bit by critics and lit students over the years. They’ve turned it inside out torn it apart line by line for its essential meaning but I can’t find any that work with the premise Parry’s stalking was imaginary. The Enduring love of the title, the notes tell me, can be seen as the enduring love of Joe and his wife who eventually muddle through to a happy ending, also the love that Parry professes for Joe, but I’m confused by both of these since the former pretty much fell apart except for a rather unconvincing end-notes denouement, while the latter was clearly delusional.

What would have made more sense to me was for the enduring love to have been that of the love of God Parry professed to be bringing to Joe, that in spite of Joe’s hard headed rationalism, there was something of the spirit abiding all the while in him, in all of us waiting, enduring, attempting all the while to temper his egoic materialism, which his wife described at one point as the “new fundamentalism”. This was a novel about the conflict for the soul of mankind, the fight between materialism and spirit, however you want to define it, and then suddenly,… it wasn’t. Joe’s ego, his materialism, scientific materilaism won out to an altogether more bleakly trite conclusion.

Okay, I was wrong about much of what I read, but then there’s a lot about literature I never got, at least according to the Spark Notes and my grade D “O” Level in the subject (Ha! The fools). Still, should we always accept verbatim what others think? It depends who they are, I suppose. It can be useful as a guide when mulling over a piece of work, but I find the critiques are better read afterwards, in case they colour our expectations too much and render us blind to what our own minds are capable of taking away. I can only say there’s something deeply strange about Enduring Love, but that’s no bad thing.

A terrifically engaging book that really made me think! I got a lot out of reading it, even though it turns out most of that, like Parry’s fervour, was delusional in the end.