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mariaI’ve just noticed my novel “Between The Tides” popping up for sale on various strange websites, adult sites, the sites you hesitate to click on, so I refrained from further investigation. It used to happen a lot with Amazon too, my stuff getting stolen and sold by pirates. The first couple of times this misappropriation and misrepresentation bothered me deeply. It used to feel like a violation.

It’s my business if I decide to give away a novel I’ve spent years writing, quite another if some n’er-do-well cuts and pastes it and charges $5 for the download, but for all of that it concerns me less nowadays, and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. I hasten to add “Between the Tides” is not an “Adult” novel. It’s a contemporary literary romance, so anyone paying their $5 and expecting pornographic rumpy pumpy are going to be disappointed.

Technology opens up all manner of possibilities, not all of them for the better. The Internet enables many, like me, a means of self expression, changing the definition of what publishing actually is, and I count this on the plus side. But on the other there’s a million new ways of exploiting the innocent, of scamming them, hurting them, even enabling new forms of global warfare with whole nations trying to shut down each other’s essential infrastructures, like electricity or air-traffic control. And its effect on global politics is only just becoming apparent, sophisticated algorithms undermining the democratic process and swaying election results in favour of the plutocratic moneyed minority.

I’ve always been a progressive when it comes to technology, but some of the visionaries driving it now are clearly nuts, also unfortunately incredibly rich and powerful. Technology changes lives, brings about revolutions in the way we live and work. These revolutions used to take centuries to come about, then it was decades, now it’s down to a few years. The pace of change is accelerating, and some visionaries, real live CEOs of Silicon Valley companies, extrapolate a future where the time for change is compressed to zero. They call it the Singularity, and it’s at this point everything happens at once.

Really, forget religion, the techno-visionaries are quite evangelical about it. The Singularity is analogous to the Second Coming, or the End Times, or the Rapture. It’s at this point, they tell us, machines will become conscious beings in their own right, and we will have achieved immortality by virtue of the ability to “upload” our minds into vast computational matrixes, like in some hyper-realistic massive multi-player online role playing game.

But given the darker side of technology, is this something we really want? I’ve only to watch my kids playing GTA to know it’s the last place I’d want to be trapped for eternity. Or perhaps, given the inevitable commercialisation of the meta-verse, our immortality could only be guaranteed provided we obtained and maintained sufficient in-game credit, and when we ran out, we could be deleted. Thought you’d be safe from market forces when you died? No way, the visionaries are working on ways of it chasing you into the afterlife.

Certainly our machines are changing how we live at an ever accelerating pace. Meanwhile we remain essentially the same beings that walked the planet two thousand years ago. Whether or not you believe it’s possible to preserve your essential thinking being by uploading it to a computer depends on how you imagine consciousness coming about in the first place. There’s the mechanistic view, that the brain is a computer made of meat, so as soon as we can make a computer as complex as that, Bob’s your uncle. But I’ve never been of that view, so I’m able to rest a little easier that my afterlife will not be spent avoiding evil bastards in a GTA heaven or keeping up the payments on my immortality.

In the matrix, there’s nothing I can do to stop the bad guy from stealing the book I’ve written, but he cannot steal the one I’m writing nor, more crucially, my reasons for writing it. Such a thing transcends the mechanistic world view, a world view that’s a century out of date, yet still cleaved to by the technocracy with all the zealotry of an Evangelical Preacher. The technocracy long ago deconstructed heaven and transcended God with their own omnipotence, but what they’re offering in its place now makes less sense for being all the more transparently absurd, and for the simple fact that machines do not come for free, that those who own them are paid by those who do not. Bear this in mind and our relationship with machines will remain balanced, and correct. Forget it, and the machine will eat your brain long before you get the chance to upload it.

 

s-port cafeSouthport, Easter Saturday afternoon. I’m crossing the square in front of the Town Hall, thinking of lunch, when a woman steps out of the crowd and offers to pray for me. I thank her kindly, but tell her I couldn’t possibly put her to so much trouble.  She hands me a leaflet which I fold and pocket with a parting smile.

The town looks poor still, nearly a decade after the crash. There is an eerie Parisian beauty about Lord Street, but it is long past that time when people dressed up for Saturdays in town. Some make the effort but they stand out now, look ridiculous even in their finery, like peacocks strutting among pigeons. Or perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I only notice the haggard expressions and poor pigeon-clothing we wrap ourselves in. Or is it a myth, this hankering after a nostalgic vision of an England that never existed – and really we have always looked and dressed this way?

In Chapel Street, the air is lively, cut by the jangle of buskers. And there’s this wizened beardy guy shouting passages from the Old Testament – the end is nigh, that sort of thing. I note he has a bigger crowd than the buskers. But he sounds angry. It’s our stupidity perhaps he takes issue with, our refusal to be saved? Whatever that means.

It’s unkind to make rash judgements of course but I have an instinctive aversion towards angry, shouty people. And I’m only here for the cash machine, so I can pay for lunch.

Lunch is a ham and cheese and mushroom toastie. They put it in fancy bread and call it a Fungi Pannini. It grants it a certain altitude, but it’s as well not to get too carried away with these things. Obviously, I am not a gastronome. Still, it’s flavoursome, and nicely filling, and the coffee is deliciously aromatic. This is my reward after a week of six-thirty get ups, and long days that are leaving me increasingly knackered. It’s worth the wait, and the sheer quiet pleasure of it revives my spirits.

I take out the ‘droid for company. Out with it comes the leaflet from the lady who offered to pray for me. She’s wanting me to join her Evangelical Church, but it’s not really my scene. They’re heavy on the healing stuff – a long list of things they can cure by faith, but the small print cautions me to seek medical advice as a first recourse. The legal escape hatch is somewhat deflating. Even the religious fear litigation it seems. Does this mean that for all of  their assertiveness this afternoon, they lack the courage of their convictions?

I flick through the headlines on the ‘droid. The Times and The Mirror seem excited by the possibility of nuclear war. Meanwhile the Guardian has its knife in the guts of the leader of the opposition. The collective subliminal message here is that we can forget any realistic prospect of a return to calmer, more reasoned discourse. Instead we shall be distracted from ongoing economic and political turmoil by increasing talk of war. There are historical precedents for this phenomenon and we should not be surprised. These are ancient daemons, hard to outwit, filled with an infectious loathing.

I have no particular business in town other than lunch, but I visit the bookshop while I’m here. I’m looking for something by Sebastian Barry. They have nothing in the second hand section. They might have had him among the new stuff, but I do not buy new books any more – my little contribution to Austerity and my own knife in the guts of the economy. I’ll find the book I want for a couple of quid in a charity shop, when the time is right.

sport pierMeanwhile, it’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon. The trees on Lord street are budding and there is blossom aplenty. But there are more angry voices here, more shouting about God. The words are incoherent but the tone is clear: Fess up, submit, or else!

I escape up Scarisbrick Avenue, heading towards the light and the sea, but there are drunk men here with pints of beer. They are staggering, arguing volubly, incoherently. Fuck this, fuck that. Fuckety fuck it. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It’s not yet two pm, the sun a long way from the yard arm. There is no wisdom in such heroic quantities of beer, no real escape in it from the misery of latter day working lives. Only hope and the dignity of decent wages will cure it, and both are in short supply.

Along the front, by the King’s Gardens, the greens are littered with chip cartons and cellophane wrappings. It’s my eye again, black dog stalking, showing me only the decay, the despair, the sheer hopeless void of it. The pier affords an arrow to the sea. The sandy tide is in, a scent of briny freshness at last. I walk the bouncy boards at a brisk pace, breathe in the sea, take it down deep as the only bit of the day worth holding on to.

Well, that and the coffee, and the toastie.

Small pleasures amid this talk of God and War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The little roads of the Lakes are more demanding on the vehicle and on the nerves than those of the Dales. They zig-zag into the sky and follow tortuous routes, hugging the fells with steep russet and rock on one side, and fresh air on the other, not always fenced. The gulleys are deep. Drop a tyre off the tarmac and you’re going to struggle to get it back on. Do that at speed and you’ll damage the car, do it on the fresh air side of the road and there’s a chance you’re going to roll down the fell. Perhaps I exaggerate, but that’s the impression these roads leave you with, that you’d better be sharp about your wits.

They are among the most sporting routes for the recreational motorist, also for the motorcyclist and the cyclist. They are also “get-to” routes for the hillwalker, delivering him deep into the heart of the Lake’s more splendidly mountainous regions. They seem even narrower to me now than when I first drove them thirty years ago. It’s as if the fells are trying to squeeze them into impassable threads, erase them with the passage of time and harsh winters. They’re busier too, and cars these days are much bigger, much heavier, much fatter than they were. And basic motoring skills have been replaced with electronics that’s useless in these off-grid places.

Even with a proliferation of pull-ins for passing, you’re going to struggle at the busier times. You’re going to find cars parked in them, rendering the way impassable. Meet a blimp-like SUV coming the other way and it’s going to gawp at you like a zombified wildebeast, unable to go forwards or back, so you’ve got to remember each passing place as you pass it, and be prepared to back up, let these dumb creatures safely by, since they are incapable of working out how to do it for themselves.

I speak of course as the only perfect driver in the world.

Maybe I’m just older, but the narrow Lakes roads are not as much fun as they used to be, mainly on account of the usage they’re getting now. They’re also in poor shape. I took the Mazda over the little route from Great Langdale to Little Langdale recently, found the road frost-broken and deeply potholed. I bottomed the car in one hole, scraped the sill. Then I got stuck behind a bulbous Focus ST too, boy racer at the wheel, going at a walking pace, afraid to scratch his car. If you’re wanting to drive these routes, come early, keep your fingers crossed you meet nothing coming the other way and come in a well sprung, small car with lots of guts.

But for all of that they’re very beautiful roads to travel, allowing for many an intimate contact with the sublime nature of the Lake District mountain landscape. It’s better by far of course if you can muster the energy to put your feet on the ground and haul your bones up the paths, get yourself in among the secret folds of the hills, but the little roads give you at least a taste of it.

I remember a week in Austria, surrounded by mountains on an awesome scale, like in a depiction of fairy-land. The following week I was in the Lakes, thinking it would seem tame by comparison, but I discovered all it lacked was the vertical scale, having lost nothing whatsoever of its visceral power. The impact of somewhere like the Austrian Tryrol is obvious in its scale and sheer vertical brutality, while the Lakes engages at a deeper lever.

The power of the Lakes is in part in its age. These are among the oldest of mountains. They are hard rock, worked by weather on a geological time-scale that’s as near to infinity as makes no difference to mankind. They are also worked by mankind who has beetled among them for ten thousand years. And their impact on the senses is in their compactness, so much beauty and drama, darkness and light, fell and field and lake, all of it encompassed in the graceful turn of an eagle’s wing*.

The road threads its way by Blea Tarn, a shallow depression nestled in the palm of the land, fingers and thumbs of crag curling skywards all around, then it dips into the Little Langdale Valley, affording its most spectacular views of a sublime loveliness. A hairpin-junction at the bottom grants the choice of ways: left for the village, and escape to the broader routes through Elterwater, or right for the long and equally narrow road up by Three Shire’s Stone, then Cockley Beck, Wrynose, and Hardknott, all the way to Eskdale if you’ve the nerve for it. Many drive these ways for the challenge, for the sheer exhilarating thrill and beauty of it. They are the ultimate test of confidence in yourself and in your machine, but I wouldn’t recommend it on a weekend afternoon, or a Bank Holiday.

The Mazda escaped its rough treatment on the Little Langdale road with only cosmetic abrasions, easily mended, and my love affair with open-topped motoring enables me to put this minor wounding into perspective. It was a pleasurable drive, somewhat spicy, a drive I imagine could only be topped on a thundering old English motorbike, or a fly-through by Tornado jet.

thumbnailOnline social media highlights and exploits our universal human vulnerability, that we all want to be someone. We all want to be recognised, liked, admired, and generally believed to be an awesome human being because we think that, in the acceptance of our awesomeness, we’ll find escape from the horror of anonymity and obscurity in the face of inevitable death. Of course it won’t work.

We are none of us really anybody in this narrow sense. Even those admired and cow-towed to are no different to anyone else. They have their own problems, their own duel with death, one they’ll eventually lose like the rest of us. Then they’ll be forgotten, and even so little as a hundred years from now, no one will care. Many a good and talented man has gone to his grave unknown. It’s a sobering realisation, one we must face and understand why an obscure life is not necessarily a wasted one.

One of the pictures I recently put up on Instagram got forty likes. Experience tells me it’ll not get many more. It’s a about my limit, and seems to be a function of the number of people you follow and the amount of time you’re willing to spend liking other stuff, or somehow gaming the system. But it’s no big deal. It is, after all, just a picture of a hat. Sure, pictures of other people’s hats can garner tens of thousands of likes, and how they do that remains a mystery to me, but it’s still just a picture of a hat and as such will never confer immortality.

My Instagram account leaks a few clicks over to the blog, which in turn leaks a few clicks over to my fiction, which is why I’m on Instagram in the first place. It’s also why I blog. They are both subtle lures to my fiction writings, coaxing readers now and them into my fictional worlds. But my stories are not important either, at least not as influential tools to shape the zeitgeist, nor even just to trumpet my awesomeness. I leave that to others, more savvy, sassy, whatever, and dare I say, more celebrated for their craft.

My thoughts are perhaps too convoluted for a sound-bite culture to make much sense of, and I’m conscious too my outlook, though sincere, may be no more than a mushy blend of pop-philosophy sweetened by archaic Romanticism. The importance of the work then lies only in what it teaches me, and I’m coming to the conclusion what it’s teaching me is how to recognise those useless egotistical compulsions and to rise above words, that the forms of thought we pursue so doggedly throughout our lives, are just shadows of something we will never grasp. It’s not a question of lacking intellect, more that the brain is altogether the wrong shape to accommodate what it is we crave.

You don’t need to write to reach the same conclusion. You just need to live your life as it was given to you, and develop a mindful approach to it. I’m not talking about that self-help-how-to-be-a-winner-in-life kind of mindfulness either. It’s more simply an awareness of our selves in life, and the way we react to situations, and how we can tell if those reactions are the right ones or not, if they contribute to a general transcendence of this fear we have of living, or dig us more firmly into the mire of it.

It might sound as if I’m some way along the path towards nihilism, but nihilism isn’t helpful, other than as a place to bounce back from. Yes, so much of what we are capable of seeing is indeed unimportant, but the world is also rich with a transcendent beauty we are equally capable of recognising, at least in its more lavish manifestations, say in the natural world. And perhaps progress in the right direction is simply our ability to find such transcendence in smaller and smaller places. Indeed perhaps the ultimate success in life, the ultimate awesomeness, is the attainment of absolute obscurity, and the ability to sit alone, quietly, to stare closely at your thumb nail and go:

WOW!

The Lavender and the Rose book coverOdd,.. one tries to live in the present, but as a writer I am often called back to visit with previous parts of myself, to revise my more obvious errors and of course to explain,…

Now, it’s a strange thing for an author to say, I suppose, but I don’t know what to make of the Lavender and the Rose, even a decade after publication, and a decade before that in the writing, but there it is. The sexual stuff, the eroticism, the menage a trois, the tantric thing – really I should no longer be troubled by it, being now rather more mature in years, but I still am, because on the surface at least I’m a regular kind of guy, unused to channelling that kind of thing.

The whole mad tome of it went up on Smashwords in 2013, and with hardly a peep  from them until just recently when they’ve begun nagging me over the chapter numbers – two chapter fours, no chapter three,.. blush! Self editing can be a nightmare can’t it? But what the hell, who cares? It’s not exactly as if I’m up for the Booker is it?

Anyway,… I made the changes, resubmitted to their meatgrinder thing, because, well, even though the download rate is poor on Smashwords, I still have a great respect for the ethos of the site. And in making the changes I came across the postscript I added after the last revision which I’d forgotten about, and quote in full here:

Thank you for reading this story.

I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Although a work of fiction, the Lavender and the Rose charts a long period of deep reflection and psychological change for its author. The ideas expressed here were an exploration of the potential of human imagination, as told through the eyes of the main protagonists, who either were or became Romantic and mystical in their outlook – as did its author. A decade in the writing, the person who penned the opening chapters was not the same person who now writes this postscript. In revising the story for this new Smashwords edition, I have been able to remind myself of the turning points and the key ideas I now hold to, but which would have been incomprehensible or even preposterous before I began this journey.

Romanticism does not sit well in the modern materialistic world. The former abhors the latter, and the latter does not take the former at all seriously. But while materialism is a philosophy that well suits the simplistic machinery of world trade, it steals from human beings the simple magic of living. It is therefore a philosophy that cannot help but be ultimately pessimistic in its outlook, that human beings, human hopes and aspirations be viewed as perishable and meaningless concepts.

But, like the old Romantics, I suggest the world cannot be properly revealed unless it be through the lens of the imagination. It is imagination alone that colours the world, personalises it, opens it up for a more intimate dialogue. It restores our spirit, and reveals an optimistic and benign undercurrent which propels us more certainly along the course of our lives. More, it reconnects the individual life to its sense of purpose in an otherwise overwhelming and seemingly unknowable world. Through the Romantic eye, the world becomes, if not knowable, then at least sensed at a more vital level than that revealed by a knowledge of its materials alone, for materials are dead things. Through the Romantic eye, however, the world lives and breathes, and smiles at the wonder of it all.

Without it, the world frowns and suffocates in a self imposed insignificance.

Michael Graeme

Autumn 2013the sea view cafe - small

It’s a reminder, not just to me, but to all of us who write that in the broader dissemination of our work, no matter how much we desire it and strive towards it, it is always secondary to the simple fact that primarily the person most important in the writing, the person most satisfied, and most healed is always gong to be our selves. This alone is sufficient reason for our persistence.

Four years ago? Is that right? And did I really begin the Lavender and the Rose a quarter of a century ago? Sure I did, but equally I find everything I said still stands, even though the author is now a stranger to me, and that’s a relief. Time then I returned to the present – to where I really am, lost in the continuing mystery of my life, as expressed in the mystery of  the Sea View Cafe.

 

It was not the best day to be visiting Malham. There was a hill-run or something and every parking place was taken. Runners, brightly attired jogged off up the fells and officials with their hi-vis jackets and windmill arms directed traffic. Thus my humble plans for a walk around the fabled cove were scuppered for having nowhere to ditch the car.

Malham’s the sort of place you don’t arrive at in passing. It’s a long drive in, and a long drive out to anywhere else, so walking from another venue looked like it was off the menu as well. But the sun was shining, I was in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales on the first warm day of the year, and I had the top down on the little blue car, so there was no way this could be described as unfortunate. I simply needed a fresh plan for the day and I decided on a drive.

I know, I’d already driven about sixty miles to get to Malham, most of that along the arterial A59. But driving like that’s hardly a pleasure – more of an A to B kind of thing, and not altogether healthy in an open-topped car. I’ve seen the A59 from altitude during a winter-time inversion, the length of it overhung with a sickly brown haze, which is why nowadays I keep the top on as far as Gisburn.

No, what I meant was a different kind of drive.

I took the little road from Malham across the tops to Arncliffe. Initially tortuous as you climb from the village, the road settles to a smooth narrow ribbon snaking through a fine, scenic wilderness, one where roadside parking is prohibited. The narrow upland routes, and the little passes of the Yorkshire Dales provide some of the finest driving you can imagine – single track roads threading across spectacular dun coloured tops, bristling with limestone outcrops bright white in the sun. It’s almost a lost concept, the pleasure of a drive, I mean as our roads clog up and everything becomes urbanised as the built world squeezes out the green, and that brown haze spreads to overhang and poison more and more of everything.

Imagine if you can, simply enjoying the feel of a vehicle in motion, the white noise of tyres over rough tarmac, snicking up and down the gears to catch her on the hairpins, the sweet vibrato note of the exhaust echoing from drystone walls, then the sudden cut to silence as you rattle over the cattle grid and emerge into an open wilderness. And there’s the scent of it – clean air, hills, grasslands, rocks, running water.

It is a poetic experience, and you can still find it here.

The little blue car is an old MX5, with 85k on the clock, a cheap roadster, picked up second or third hand. We’re embarking on our fourth season together now, seasons of ease and smiles. The little road made me smile, the purr of the car as it took the hills made me smile, her tenacious grip on the bends made me smile, the sunlight glinting off Malham tarn made me smile, the deep, sublime cut of Yew Cogar Scar near Arncliffe made me smile. There was a lightness to my being as I drove, having quite forgotten I’d set out that morning with the intention of walking, and had failed.

I paused at Linton, sitting in warm sunshine on the banks of the Wharfe, by the falls. There I ate lunch, lingered by the ancient stepping stones, lulled into a meditative calm by the wash of the river. A guy was fly-fishing in the midst of a mirror-black pool where the river swings wide and into shade. Then I drove home,… and it struck me again, coming back once more to the roar of the arterial A59, the unwholesome, diesel stench of it, and the contrast with the peace and the unhindered clarity of the Dales. It emphasised at what dreadful cost the built world turns.

Along the urban byways and highways, everywhere we look we see the imposition of our thoughts in our shaping of the environment. There are attempts at beauty in architecture, but too often also a waste of graffitied despair, overhung by this brown haze as hope dissolves to premature corruption. Only where the A roads do not yet penetrate, where the way remains narrow, can we still squeeze through, slip back into an earlier time, and to an England where the land lies less marked, less troubled by our troubled thinking.

man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThere is a danger in holding on too tightly to the rational senses that we close ourselves off to more subtle life experiences, experiences that cannot be measured or explained by reference to the material sciences. But equally there is a danger in letting go, of assigning mystical, magical properties to things that have more mundane explanations, we risk simply making fools of ourselves.

So, which is it to be? Holding on or letting go? There is a middle way of course, but it’s difficult to discern unaided. Training in the esoteric disciplines can help, as can self-styled teachers and writers of books, but it’s difficult to know who to trust, who among the gurus is truly wise, or simply on an ego-trip. Fortunately for the layman there are also spontaneous experiences of the mind – mystical experiences – which reveal the subtle, psychological, spiritual dimensions of reality, experiences that blur the boundary between what we think of as our selves and the reality we inhabit.

It’s also apparent from the observation of human behaviour, most of us are born preprogrammed to overlook this subtle aspect of our nature even though, paradoxically, the journey of our lives is richly seeded with opportunities for recognising it. What also hampers us is we cannot think our way to the mystical experience, even if we want to. The mind is so fogged up with thinking it misses the point. Mystical experiences are most commonly triggered in meditative states when thinking is subdued, or they can happen unexpectedly, for no apparent reason at all, but we cannot “think” our way into them. However we manage it, the Mystical experience is a sudden and inexplicable falling through into a state of mind that is impossible to imagine beforehand, or adequately describe afterwards, but one that is nevertheless impossible to ignore.

But having been presented with the subtle nature of reality, it raises more questions, chief among them being the nature of our place in that reality. The mystical experience is a visionary and expansive state and, once experienced, the rational mind must allow it, though it may at first try to explain it away as a mental aberration. Only when dissatisfied with the more mundane explanations will it finally come round to an acceptance of something missing in our understanding of nature. But here again the problem is we fall back on rational thinking for explanations of what that missing understanding might be.

The mystical state suggests the underlying nature of things is one of infinite possibility, that thinking along certain lines collapses our potential experience of reality to within the limits of what our thoughts allow. We grant a pattern of our own imagining to the universe, and our reality takes that form, but this is not to explain the totality of our potential experience,  it is only to limit it to within bounds that are psychologically acceptable or permissible, given our inherent limitations.

At the ground level the mystical experience is therefore best reflected upon, and lived in spirit rather than too deeply probed, or pursued, or we risk simply losing ourselves in an infinite and ultimately unknowable void, or we restrict its potential to either a collective or a personal myth by weaving a descriptive story around it. The experience however, does grant us the sense of an intimate connection with all there is, even if we can no longer explain it or feel it with the clarity of the initial experience. And to live in the spirit of that experience raises our perspective of life, sets us on a journey that deflects the ego from its more destructive habits – chiefly the imposition of our own will over that of others.

When we see the universe as infinitely interconnected, we see the intimate relations between things, people, events, dreams. By contrast, living the purely rational life, the connections are severed and we see nothing. To live life blind to the connections is to risk being insensitive to those situations where our actions cut across the fate of others, whether we mean to or not – insensitive also to the idea that to act in certain ways, deliberately, at the expense of others, is to diminish both them and ourselves. Therefore the only wise course open to us in any situation is that which enriches the universe as a whole, or at the very least gains nothing for ourselves that comes at the expense of any thing or any one else.