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It was Pablo Picasso who said: all children are artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. The fact that so many of don’t is a serious problem – it was me who said that last bit, not Pablo – and I don’t mean ‘serious’ economically or politically. I mean we risk making our souls sick. Another fine artist, the writer Kurt Vonnegut said of art, and I paraphrase slightly for artistic purposes: it’s not a way to make a living, more a way to make living bearable.

In 2006, he wrote to Xavier High School in New York by way of reply to pupils inviting him to come and speak at the school. He was one of many venerated authors so invited, and the only one to reply, which perhaps says much about the majority of venerated professional authors. Vonnegut declined to visit on account of his great age, but the Xavier Letter is now legendary, and encapsulates very well his philosophy regarding the true value of art – not as a means to make a living, nor to gain approval, or praise, or fame, but on a more fundamental, vital and deeply personal level, to experience what he called ‘becoming’.

Here it is, read aloud by another fine old artist, none other than Gandalf the Grey:

We can think of life in very complicated terms, I know I often do. Indeed we can make it as complicated as we like, or we can pare it down to more manageable proportions, perhaps even to something akin to a Zen Haiku, instead of Wordsworth’s Prelude, and that Haiku might say something like: we’re born, we fart around for a bit, and then we die, but inbetween we have a chance to grow some soul – I’m paraphrasing Vonnegut again, but he definitely said fart, though not in that letter to Xavier High School. And the best way to grow some soul is through the practice of art, any kind of art that takes your fancy.

But the problem with art is you cannot write an app to do it. And since the endgame of unbridled Capital is to complete the grand project of reducing the entire world to nothing more than the sum of its parts in pursuit of maximum profit, then art – and especially amateur art, which neither computes, nor ever pays the bills – is going to get itself rubbed out. It’ll be dropped from all the school curriculums as those fiendishly clever little chaps with their apps pare the money down until only Maths and English and Science survives the reckoning, these being the tick-in-a-box, sure-fire CV gold-star employability type subjects.

Then we’ll all spend our days between birth and death writing yet more little apps to hang off the iron brain of the human universe. And it’ll be a profitable place, that universe, at least for those who own the iron brain, but it will also be a place without much soul, a place where the farting will have become everything of value, and where none of us will be anything other than robots made of meat, and valued not a jot, and where life for anyone with a brain, and a longing for some kind of meaning – which is just about all of us – will become utterly unbearable.

So,… by all means value your Maths and your English, and your Sciences – I know I do – and make no mistake, their diligent pursuit makes for a decent pay-packet in return, even in these most straightened of times – but do art as well, and experience the mystery and the magical, intangible rewards of ‘becoming’.

Write that poem. Dance that dance. Sing that song. Don’t do it for money, or praise or fame.

Do it for yourself.

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secret scriptureI’m coming at Sebastian Barry from all angles. I read his earlier novel, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (1998) many years ago, fell headlong then into the snare of Irish history, a history that both fascinates and terrifies, the history of Ireland being as violent and as turbulent as my own life has been peaceful and uneventful.

And then I picked up the Last Scripture:

What can I tell you further? I once lived among Humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of two or three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

So Rosanne McNulty tells us in the The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is a hundred years old, and has been the patient of an insane asylum since her twenties, but for no reason her psychiatrist, the kindly Doctor Greene can adequately get at. Her records have been lost and no one seems to remember anything about her. And unlike many of the sad demented creatures in his care, he finds Roseanne articulate, and gifted,… but also elusive. Told between the pages of Rosanne’s secret and not always reliable diary, her “accounting of herself”, as she puts it, and the pages of Greene’s daybook, we learn of a woman deeply wronged. We learn of the fiery divisions of the Irish civil war, and of a pathological theocratic religiosity that has turned people into stones of unfeeling cruelty, all in the name of a dubious respectability, and an ungodly godliness.

In spite of her great age, there remains sufficient evidence of the beauty she once possessed. Indeed Roseanne’s beauty was always a knife to her throat. Married to Tom McNulty in her youth, but disapproved of by his mother, Roseanne is wrongly suspected of infidelity, and banished by the McNulty clan to a lonely existence in a tin shack on the edge of nowhere.

The parish priest, affronted by her refusal to convert to Catholicism becomes her Nemesis. He petitions Rome and has her marriage annulled, so Tom can wed again. Roseanne is nominally a Presbyterian, though not religious, but identity is everything in the Ireland of the nineteen twenties and the thirties – Catholic, Nationalist, Protestant, Loyalist,… your choice could get you a bullet in the back, or a price on your head. And for a woman labelled “immoral” by the priesthood, the fate could be even worse,…

Tom’s brother, Eneas, haunts the story in the background. Briefly a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for lack of other work, there’s now a price on his head and he spends his life on the run, but makes a brief appearance in Roseanne’s story, sufficient to leave her with child, before he disappears for good into the conclusion of his own tumultuous history, as told in “The Whereabouts”.

The next thing we know Roseanne is committed to the asylum, the fate of her child unknown. And now the asylum is crumbling, like Rosanne’s own life, stumbling towards it end. Doctor green must oversee the removal of his charges to a new hospital, or put as many as possible out into the community in order to save money. Will Rosanne survive moving to a new place after so long in the old one? And if she has been wrongly committed, as Green begins to suspect, how can she possibly be released at so great an age, and with no one to own her?

Roseanne and Doctor Greene have known each other for a very long time, but for all the natural sympathy and mutual respect between them, he knows very little about her life before the asylum, her secrets held close to a degree he finds almost pathological. Slowly, and in the midst of his own private tragedy, and personal failings, Greene begins to unpick the mystery of Roseanne’s life,…

Winner of the Costa Award in 2008, this is a well loved story, much respected by critics. There is a film version knocking about but I’ve not seen it. It’s not well spoken of and a rotten tomatoes rating of just 32% suggests much subtlety was lost in the translation. If you haven’t encountered the book yet, do look out for it. It’s a deeply moving and life-affirming story, beautifully written.

jackdaw

As the summer heat and the grass-fires fade into the fast scattering smoke of imperfect memory, I feel the usual September blues coming on. They are born of too long spent in the academic grind as a young man. Twenty five when I finished, and still, in my late middle age, am unable to shake off the jitters in anticipation of the fresh term ahead. And even though I’ve not set foot in a place of learning since, all it takes is that first deepening of the light and a return of dew upon the grass to set my nerves on edge. But added to that this year I sense a smouldering anger, an irritation rising from the collective unconsciousness, and it feeds an anxiety in me that is resistant to the various meditations I practise. And of course, what I feel, internally, the world provides confirmation of in the realm of daily experience.

There was a kid driving a car this morning, coming at me on the wrong side of the road, fast, around a bend, the small vehicle wobbling at the very limits of its stability. Fast, fast,… live it on the edge, for tomorrow we may all be dead! I don’t know how he missed me.

Later, on the motorway, an entire string of vehicles were cutting in, one after the other as I approached the exit slip. My assailants were reckless, hurried, impatient to get on and seemingly oblivious to my presence as I tried to moderate my speed, and judge my gap within the usual perhaps over-cautious parameters. But to hell with caution, no time for that now, to hell with everything! Zip, zip, zip,.. squeeze it in, ramp it up. Another moment may already be too late!

And money,… money is in your face everywhere on the roads. Have you noticed? And it’s greedy, bullying, intimidating. I had £50K’s worth of Porsche SUV, tailing aggressively close for long miles down a twisty road. The limit was forty – there have been sacrifices enough to the God of recklessness here – faded flowers by the roadside to mark the fallen – but the Porsche wanted more, wanted me out of the way, slow, lumbering old fart that I am.

Push, push, push,… faster, faster, faster.

And then there was the little boy this afternoon, dashing out between parked cars, right into my path, his mother screaming, both of us thinking it was too late. I stopped dead, stood the car on its nose. He was fine. I wasn’t. He got off with a scolding and wept, as I nearly wept. I pulled over a little further on and waited for the blood to stop roaring in my ears. The car is on the drive tonight and won’t be moving all weekend. There’s something in the air just now and I don’t like it.

News headlines assail me every day. I would ignore them but I’m fixed in their glare like a rabbit, unable to look away. Yet there is so much noise in them now, and so slickly delivered, the delivery of news has become news itself, feeding back on itself until the last thing we hear is this almighty squeal before the very tissue of our skins rupture, and then we no longer see, or hear, or feel, or trust in anything any more. Vulnerable. Invisible, my presence, thinning like moorland smoke. Dissipating into nothingness.

How about a bit of gallows humour: To save money, the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off! It’s an old saying. I remember it from the downsizing, de-industrialising nineties. But there is no tunnel and there never was a light at the end of it, just darkness of varying shades, a blank wall upon which to project our various and individual fantasies of what we believe our lives to be. And none of it was or is or ever will be true.

A little Zen wisdom for you. It pops up unexpectedly in my Instagram feed, the universe perhaps delivering the teaching I most need right now: You must meditate for at least ten minutes every day, unless you feel you’re too busy, in which case you must meditate for an hour.

Nice one. Don’t you just love Zen?

I understand. Break the cycle, don’t read the news. Its infernally discordant noise will shatter the crystal vision of your soul. And we must mind our souls above all else, examine more closely the present moment and find ways of sinking ourselves into it. It doesn’t mean the world will go away, but we will find ourselves more firmly anchored in it, so its storms can be weathered with greater magnanimity.

And then the world will no longer seem quite so dangerous a place to be.

AmsterdamNovel.jpgAlthough it took the 1998 booker prize, Ian McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ was far from being universally liked. Critical opinion was divided, and perhaps a little heavier on the negative, some pundits wondering how it was even nominated, let alone that it took the award. It was with some trepidation then I picked it up, all be it some twenty years after publication. But I enjoyed it, though I’m prepared to admit this says more about me than the book, or maybe some of the heat has died down in the mean time and the novel has grown into itself. It goes to show one should never be put off by bad reviews, no matter how erudite.

In a nutshell the story opens at the funeral of one Molly Lane, formerly a beautiful fashion photographer, grown old and stricken by a slow withering malady that ended in madness. Two of her former lovers join the gathering to pay their respects – the ageing Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday editor of a struggling London Tabloid. Neither want to go the way of poor Molly, so resolve to see each other out, should the need arise, by way of euthanasia, which had recently (then) been legalised in Amsterdam.

Long time friends, they are united in their contempt for Molly’s husband, the rather dull and overly protective George Lane. They’re also aghast at her rumoured liaison with Julian Garmony, Conservative Foreign Secretary, an otherwise odious man touted as the next PM. When George discovers, among Molly’s effects, photographs she’s taken of Garmony dressed in women’s clothing, he offers them to Vernon for publication in his seedy rag, both men believing the resulting scandal will bring Garmony down. But Clive argues that no matter what any of them think about Garmony, publishing the pictures is morally indefensible, also a betrayal of Molly’s trust. This causes a rift between him and Vernon, and through a series of further misunderstandings, they wind up as bitter enemies.

Although Clive seems at first the more sensitive and likeable character, he’s actually quite a shallow and self centred aesthete. While out walking to clear his mind for composition, he witnesses a rape, but does nothing about it, and doesn’t report it either, seems actually to consider it of only passing importance and hardly relevant when compared with his artistic ambitions. He’s already mentioned the incident to Vernon, and given their later spat, Vernon seizes upon the admission as an opportunity for revenge, and dobs him in to the police.

Of the subject matter, perhaps euthanasia is the one we’d think of as being ripe for moral dissection here, and I admit I thought this was where McEwan was taking us, but he ends up using it as more of a plot device. The business of the closet transvestite politician is more unexpected – publication resulting not in the scandal Vernon (and perhaps we) are expecting, but rather the opposite, that instead it fleshes Garmony out, at least in the public eye, as the more sympathetic and wronged party – so if anyone gets the last laugh it’s him.

The actual denouement of the story was flagged quite early on, so I had a fair idea how things were going to end between Clive and Vernon – you can probably guess yourself. I’d hoped I was wrong because that seemed the least interesting outcome. I suppose, ever the optimist, I was holding out against their pettiness and stupidity and hoping for a reconciliation in Molly’s honour. There’s an element of farce too in the twists and turns, which many critics seem to have taken offence at, claiming the humour fell flat or wasn’t at all funny, and that was true in a way – transformed by the moral vacuity of the protagonists into something far more sinister, and lent instead an abrasive edge to the story that really got under my skin.

If you’re a fan of McEwan you’ve probably already read this one and have your own opinions on it. If not, don’t be put off by the poor reviews.

It’s a short read, and well worth it.

pardiseThe gurus tell us the purpose of life is to awaken. We become aware of our unconsciousness, and the general unconsciousness of others, and in the process come to see the turmoil of human existence from a different perspective. What appeared incomprehensible to us before then makes sense, but not in a way that would make sense to anyone else not similarly awake, even if we tried explaining it to them. Or so the theory goes. Most of us are asleep, all the time, I get that. We’re ruled by primitive instincts and faulty thinking, and we identify too much with forms, be they thoughts or things. And it’s these same things, on the grand, collective scale, that drive the perpetual turmoil of the world.

We can all experience the occasional moment of awakening, but then the Sandman comes along, perhaps nowadays in the form of our mobile phone, and we’re back flicking through the dross of our chosen news bias, and the beguiling freak-shows of the various online media. It seems that even when we wake up, it’s all too easy for us to fall asleep again, that unless we are permanently on our guard, like monks sequestered in caves, we are always at the mercy of our inferior natures. And who wants to live in a cave?

It’s not a promising scenario then, because until the majority of beings awaken, things will never change and it seems unlikely it will happen now, locked as we are in this massively dumb and ever burgeoning iron brain of ours. Yet I have always imagined a greater awakening must be our eventual path, because just a handful of enlightened non-egoic beings can make no difference to anything but themselves. They have to be like a virus, a contagion that infects the earth and brings about a sweeping change, otherwise they suffer the same fate as the rest of us when we drown in our own poison and the lights go out, and the earth turns itself against us in a death of heat. I suppose then their only advantage is they’ll be less cut up about it.

Still, against all reason, I trust in the contagion hypothesis if only because you feel better, personally, if you stay on the bright side of things. It may take another hundred years, but the way I see it, we are part of a process in which the universe is becoming aware of itself, through us, and if it cannot complete that process here, it will go on elsewhere. Then all life on earth, the whole staggering sweep of human history will be as if it had never been, and the universe will awaken to itself instead on one of those intriguing exo-planets our telescopes are revealing left, right and centre these days, where the dominant species might be slime-dripping Octopods with swivel-eyes on stalks, and never a dark thought, but only love for their fellow beings.

The notion of any meaningful awakening flies in the face of the unconscious forces that dominate life on earth, the zeitgeist suggesting we are falling ever deeper into sleep, unconsciousness being worn instead as a badge of honour, and the most repulsive, and unhinged of characters raised up as our champions. Still, the gurus tell us this will not always be so, that they detect a wave of awakening, though from my own perspective, in the post industrial wasteland that is the north of England, it’s hard to keep faith with the idea. But stranger things have happened recently – just in entirely the opposite direction.

The first stage of waking up is the sense there’s something wrong in the world – and I think we all get that – but what we miss is the fact there’s also something mistaken in the way we see ourselves. We have an idea of our selves as a being existing in time, that we’re made up of memories, aspirations, fears, wants, loathings, desires, which are all essentially thought processes that trigger either positive or negative emotions.

In order to be happy we assume we must think of ways to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives. But this is to live locked in an unconscious life. True happiness, say the gurus, is achieved only through the cessation of thinking and in the silence that ensures, recognising the primary awareness underpinning our being. So by its very definition, continually thinking of ways to be happy is self defeating. And that’s the trap we’re in.

Familiarity with pure awareness is rare because we are not taught to recognise it, or value it, or even to know it is there. Instead we busy ourselves with the mess of the world, upset ourselves with it, try to think our way out of it, when all we have to do is pause for a moment, look inwards to the silence and recognise in that silence the ever-present companionship within us.

We find it in meditation, also in moments of devastating loss when the Ego is temporarily crushed, and we find it in moments of connection in the natural world. Indeed, the natural world is a special case. It stirs us, fills us with an inarticulate longing, because what we’re seeing, what we’re feeling is that hidden part of ourselves reflected back. And the more we seek it out, this awareness, the happier and the more fulfilled we are.

Of course, the story of our lives may not change. If we are born poor we might still always be poor. If we are born into violent circumstances, to despotism, to oppression, we may still be at the mercy of those things. But we will at least have reconnected with the truth of our own being, and it’s from there we change the world, and the universe awakens to itself, one mind at a time.

What bit o’ brass there is these days,
Has been raked up by the few,
While bits of grubby copper’s
All that’s left for me ‘n you.

An’t gaffer’s got us number see?
So we’re at ‘is beck and call.
We’d gladly tell him t’ shove it
But we’ve got no rights at all.

So he’ll call us up in’t morning
With a measly bit of time,
Then tell us when we gets the’er,
He’s gone and changed ‘is mind.

So we sez, what about us travel, like?
And he sez don’t come that with me,
There’s plenty more where tha’s come from,
So tha’ mun take it, or tha’ mon leave.

So we fairly tugs us forelock, like,
And we quietly slings us hook,
While us thoughts is turning darkly,
To the pages of us book.

We keeps this little book dost see?
Stops us burstin’ into flames.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down,
But tha’ mun write down all their names.

It’s not like tha can do ow’t else,
Or like tha’s ever gonna win.
But when tha’s passin through them pearly gates,
Tha’ mun quietly hand it in.

No, there’s not much brass around these days
And its been taken by the few,
While bits o’ grubby copper’s
All that’s left for me ‘n you.

Peter Loo

1819

long long wayIn this centenary of the first world war we’ve not been short of moving commemorations, and then there’s always a wealth of literature to remind us as well, and for me there’s been no more powerful and insightful an evocation of those awful years than Sebastian Barry’s 2005 novel “A Long Long Way”. Unlike other Great War fiction, which tends to treat the United Kingdom as a uniquely Anglo-centric affair, this story follows the life of Willy Dunne, a young Irishman who enters the war by way of volunteering for the Dublin Fusiliers.

We’re reminded that the Ireland that entered the war, was not the same Ireland at the end of it. At the beginning, largely Catholic Nationalists from the South were encouraged to join up, the thinking being their fighting alongside Ulster Protestant Loyalists from the North would speed Ireland towards a more harmonious transition to Home Rule. But then came the 1916 uprising when Nationalist ambitions took a more aggressive turn with an uprising that was put down by brutal force of arms. So, while Willie Dunne and his fellows were away fighting for King and Country, and dying in vast numbers, news was reaching them of the same King sending gunboats up the Liffey to bombard the Hell out of Dublin, and executing fellow Irishmen as traitors.

Thus, on top of the horrors they face on account of the war itself, they must now come to terms with the bewildering loss of all certainties at home. They enter the war as part of the United Kingdom and the Empire, are waved off by their countrymen as heroes, but end up despised by many of those same countrymen for their service to a uniform that is suddenly seen as an oppressive force against Irish freedoms. As the war grinds on, and the troubles deepen, they also lose the trust of their fellow (non-Irish)comrades-in-arms, facing casual racism and suspicion as well as the more familiar horrors of war hurled at them by the Germans.

At home on leave, Willie witnesses the shooting of a young rebel, and in a letter to his father, expresses his confused sympathies for the boy’s needless death. He’s looking to his father for comfort and reassurance that all will be well in the end, but his father, a police superintendent and a staunch Loyalist, considers the rebels to be traitors, and disowns Willie on account of his sympathy. So Willie has the sense of having lost his father’s love, as well as all he has come to think of as home, that even if he survives the war, there is nothing for him to return to.

While the turbulent history of Anglo-Irish relations is a story in itself here, Barry holds us to the view of the world through Willy Dunne’s bewildered innocence and its gradual loss – loss of love and homeland, and all in a cause that grows more opaque and futile as the years wear on, so that in the end all that’s certain is the terror of the war itself, a dwindling number of surviving comrades, and memories of intense friendships born of war in the flicker of an eye, then lost in moments of horrific violence. Meanwhile, the enemy, though certainly feared for their ferocity, are blurred out to an almost abstract concept, rarely encountered face to face, and spared even the venom levelled at Willy and his mates by their own side.

This is not an easy read, in part because we know Willy is doomed, that the manner of his death is merely an event in the future we must work towards, and largely irrelevant anyway because Willie has been dead from the moment he joined up, the story of his brief young life thereafter being more a foreshadowing, an account of the slow hollowing out of his soul. The imagery of this most brutal war is as vividly portrayed here as any I’ve read elsewhere, but I felt its grotesqueries were brought to a more painfully sharp relief by the incongruous lyrical beauty of Barry’s prose, also that additional layer of the almost unbearable shredding of Willy’s inner being as everything that grounded him as a boy sinks into the mud as surely as his mates sink one by one into the mud of an obliterated Belgium.

As war fiction of the cautionary kind, this novel scores very highly indeed, bringing humanity front and centre and cherishing its innocence in the face of the unspeakable evils and the sheer stupidity that we all know stalks the world still. Also, coming at us as it does from such an unusual angle, it highlights all the more the futility and the tragedy of those years. I found it an awe-inspiring, deeply moving read.

May the ghost of Willy Dunne for ever haunt us all.