Over and Out

man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885I’m not in writing mode at the moment, so this will likely be brief. I don’t know what’s happened, but without the muse to fire me up, writing is pointless – blogging, self publishing novels, one after the other, editing, re-editing, re-self-publishing – it’s a kind of affliction, an obsession, this keeping going for no particular reason, but I fear I’m in danger of finding the cure to it. Some would call it writer’s block, but that’s to suggest there’s a whole wealth of unwritten stuff as yet jammed up behind a great chockstone, and you’ve only to loosen it and then,…

The trouble is, I don’t think there’s anything there any more -nothing behind the chockstone except a hollow ringing void. I find there is nothing I want to say, except of course that there is nothing to say. My current work in progress is stuck at 80K, and though I like the characters I don’t know what they want from me now. They’ve led me so far, but I really don’t care what happens to them, and they’re obviously not bothered about my cold shouldering either or they’d be panicking and telling me what they want to do. I could get all mystical about it like I sometimes do and say my muse has temporarily flown, and I’ll be fine when she comes back, but there’s an older side to me that has no patience for that kind of talk, and he’s been gaining the upper hand of late. I’d rather get in my little old blue car and drive it into the sunset than write another damned word.

And as I write these next damned words, I’m watching the word count – we’re up to about three hundred now – and I’m thinking if I can get it up to six hundred that’ll be a nice short blog piece, and they tend to do better because no one wants to read much more than that unless they’re seriously bored, or psychotic. So I realise it’s the stats I’m serving and gaming, and that’s never a good idea. It’s the same as consumerism, only without that microsecond of orgasm that comes with actually owning something shiny and new.

My most influential piece, according to those stats, is still the one about verruca’s. It will perhaps end up as my entry in the who’s who of people who weren’t anybody: his kids had verrucas and he put tea-tree oil on them. No, seriously, it works. But if you’ve not got a verruca, why should you care? I suppose that’s it with readers and writers. The readers are after the answers to their problems, and the writers tease everyone, making out they have the solutions, when actually they don’t – they’re just bound up in their own problems, and wanting to share them with any damned fool who’ll listen. But I feel like I don’t know anything any more, at least nothing that’s of any value to anyone else. So I’ll shut the hell up for a bit, turn my back, and see if it makes a difference to anything.

Maybe I should read The Power of Now again?

But I’m actually reading Ballard at the moment – his last novel, Kingdom Come, a typical Ballardian dystopia which isn’t too far away from where we’re actually living now. I also have Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka, Snow by Orhan Pamuk, and The Last Jet Engine Laugh by Ruchir Joshi, all to read, plus anything else I blunder into at the charity shop in the coming weeks. Reading is as good an escape as writing.

I merely swap the one for other.

Sounds like a plan.

Over and out.

mending clock 5I was walking along a corridor in a familiar office block, thinking to myself: what if I found some money on the floor? How would I reunite it with its owner? If I put up a note to say I had found ten pounds, anyone could come to me and say it was theirs, that they had lost ten pounds, and how would I know they were telling the truth? So I thought I could write a note instead saying I had found some money, without saying how much, and leave it to others to tell me what they thought they had lost. But this wouldn’t work either. Would anyone know exactly how much they had lost? And if they said they had lost fifteen pounds, would it be reasonable for me to say the ten pounds I had found was not at least some part of what they had lost? How would I best write that note?

This conundrum of hypothetically lost money and the note announcing it was a thing I pondered for no reason. I had not found any money. I had not lost any money. My mind had simply begun to ruminate on the problem spontaneously. There was nothing strange in this; I often ponder spurious things for no reason. I’m sure I’m not alone in doing so. And the punchline? Well, it was then I came to a notice pinned on the wall, and it said: Money found, please contact,…

To the rational mind, it was a coincidence, or I had perhaps seen the notice before, but registered its presence only subliminally, in other words without actually being conscious of seeing it. The latter explanation is more tenuous, but I admit it is plausible. To my own mind though, there is another explanation and has to do with the mysterious nature of time. It also requires a less rational approach and that we allow for the possibility we can sometimes be influenced by events that have yet to happen, that my pondering on the question of lost money was prompted by the as yet future sighting of the notice announcing lost money.

My anecdote hardly qualifies as evidence of déjà vu. All such occurrences are, by their nature, anecdotal and therefore inadmissible in the court of the scientistic pedant. And yes, I could have made my story up – I am a writer of stories after all. I suggest you have no choice then but to be sceptical, unless something similar has happened to you, for only then are the non-peer-reviewed anecdotes of time anomalies of any interest. And I bet most of you reading this have experienced something odd about time and the occasionally back to front sequencing of events.

It’s happened to me before. I find the dream a good place for encountering the influence of events that have yet to happen. I once dreamed repeatedly of a time – twenty past seven – then woke groggily from a deep sleep to hear my wife telling me I was going to be late, that it was already twenty past seven.

It doesn’t happen a lot – just now and then. I mean, I’m not a freak or anything. Moreover, you don’t have to believe in any of this. I’m not claiming a penetrating scientific insight, now will I be attempting an explanation. But if it’s happened to you, you may find such musings of interest.

For a time, between the world wars, the question of time anomalies, time slips and dream precognition were pondered openly and in all seriousness by intellectuals, by artists, writers, poets, and the general pre-soap opera public, all of them inspired by publication of a book called Experiment in Time, by J W Dunne (1927). Post war however, it was a fascination the popular world quickly grew out of. I don’t know what happened, but dreams, precognition, time anomalies and such were suddenly embarrassing topics of conversation to be having at parties. Instead we became ensnared in the theories of Freud, at least in so far as they pertained to advertising and trivial want, and we became docile consumers thereafter, with never questioning thought in our heads as regards the nature of time and reality. But the question has not gone away. And the anecdotes continue to mount. Can our thoughts be influenced by a future event? Can we visit the future in our heads before it happens?

I come back to Dunne and his book “Experiment with Time”. In it Dunne writes about time anomalies, and a kind of low level dream precognition. Then he presents a theory which attempts an explanation but which reads like a textbook exercise in geometry. I was always good at geometry, but try as I might Dunne’s lecture on it doesn’t make sense at all. Only the anecdotes stick. Thus Dunne manages to be both visionary and annoying at the same time.

Priestly (JB) writes of Dunne along similar lines in “Man and time” (1964), in which he too explores the time-haunted world, while wisely avoiding too much theorising and geometrical diagrams. Priestly had plenty of his own time-slip anecdotes, plus an archive of anecdotes sent to him by the public. Priestly is more content to rest in the philosophy and the mystery, that these things happen, and we don’t know how or why, only that it opens a door into the unknown through which many things become possible. We are wise I think, to follow his example.

But the critic will argue it’s absurd to claim we can see the future, because by seeing it we might then take steps to avoid it. But if we’ve seen it, how can we possibly avoid it? This attempt at paradox is rather a feeble one, however, presupposing as it does a single linear line in time. It does not allow for the idea of multiple lines, of the possibility that what we see of the future is only one possible version of it. We take our permission for such speculation from the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and by so doing also usher in a semi-scientific basis for our idle postulations, but without actually explaining anything. Quantum Mechanics is endlessly useful for us dreamers in this respect. We can use it to prove anything.

This is where the way becomes strange and all explanations equally valid. If these slips in time are real, and I have no choice but to accept they are, it points to something perhaps, to a future evolution of consciousness where the actual nature of time is revealed and becomes useful to us. Or it may be there’s just something a little frayed around the edges of the consciousness we posses, that it is only an imperfection that allows sporadic glimpses of a place outside of time, beyond the curtain so to speak, a place we do not belong and can never explain within the limited paradigm of which we are a part and spend our entire lives.

But if we are trapped for the most part, in a purely linear flow of time, while being capable of more, we must ask ourselves what purpose does it serve, this self imposed imprisonment, this pedestrian view? And what nightmares would it unleash, were we ever to break free and see the universe as it really is?

mariaWe spend on average around eight hours a day staring at a screen. We are also moving our lives online. Much of the paperwork essential to identity and legal responsibility – certificates, documents and such – are no longer printed and posted out to us, but digitised, stored in “the cloud” and accessed through our computers.The same goes for entertainment: photographs, music, video, books, games,.. they are all losing their physical nature, becoming digital and accessed through a device.

On the one hand this is very convenient, but I wonder if I am alone in finding it also slightly disturbing. Is the “place” I actually I live becoming irrelevant. I can be removed to the other side of the world tomorrow, yet pick up the online elements of my life without missing a beat. But what kind of life is that, exactly? And what if I were to lose access to this information? Clearly I would still be alive, but it would be as if I had not existed before – no records, documents, pictures, words, music,… nothing to show for my life.

What is it then in life that defines us?

In the haste to digitise, it feels like we’re shovelling the earth out from under our feet, feeding the machine with everything we deem necessary to our being, indeed to civilisation itself – our memories, our laws, our art, our possessions. We do this because it is efficient, but at the same time it minimises our concept of home to the point where it risks disappearing altogether. Is this what we really want?

The elimination of the home would suit the machine-based global corporate intelligence. After all, businesses no longer deem it necessary to advertise their actual physical location. Corporate location is a flexible concept – here today, there tomorrow, depending on the market, on whatever is most efficient. This is made all the easier since these corporations no longer make anything. Employees too must therefore step onto this conveyor of placeless, facelessness. We interview for a job in Manchester UK, end up working out of an office in New York, but much of the time we are in the air between any city you care to mention, anywhere in the world. And the higher we climb within this corporate intelligence, the more placeless, faceless, and the more homeless we must become.

In the globalised world of work, it doesn’t matter your home for most of your life is an aeroplane seat and a plastic hotel room. It doesn’t matter your world is contained behind a single anonymous window in a glass and concrete edifice that is both anywhere and nowhere at the same time, because your true window on your world, the only world that’s beginning to matter is your laptop, your handheld, your ubiquitous touchscreen interface. We are increasingly viewing our world from within the machine, not because the machine serves us, but because we have fallen inside of it.

Yet when I look through all those Instagram and Flickr streams, the imagery speaks of a love of place, a love of the world beyond the screen. I see sunsets, lakes, trees, mountains, cities too – even the grungy bits – also a love of home, of private places, private spaces, places with a physical location that’s familiar and means something. I see coffee cups on tables, fruit in a basket, pets, loved ones, and all the things we own and take pleasure in – our cars, bikes, clothes, our fancy wristwatches, an old valve radio that sits in defiance of the times, a guitar, a battered but exquisitely comfy armchair. How much of this, I wonder, is a lament for what we are in danger of losing?

Religious teachings tell us material things do not matter, that in fact it’s spiritually limiting to identify one’s sense of self with stuff. So the machine might argue it is doing us good, rendering such symbols of identity obsolete, stripping them from us, leaving us nothing tangible of ourselves but our skins. But it’s also through stuff we exercise our sensual enjoyment of the world.

The coffee tastes good, the leather of the watch strap smells exquisite, as does the jasmine and the autumn leaves. The sunset over the ocean stills us with its palpable silence. The sound of the leaves on the trees in the breeze, the feel of the wind in our faces,… we cannot digitise these things. Is what I see online a nostalgic lament for a world that is slowly slipping through our fingers?

The machine is unashamedly and woodenly Victorian in outlook and function. As such it is like all the machines that have gone before it – amoral and unconscious. Get too close to such a thing and it will tear your arm off, because it’s not smart enough to know you’re there at all. Its function is profit through the algorithms of increased sales and internal efficiency. And to the machine the most efficient solution for the human beings who serve it is for us to exist in a form of semi-suspended animation, in rented, minimalistic, cell-like rooms that cater for the basic bodily functions, while allowing us to perform those few tasks remaining to biological entities via whatever interface the machine comes up with. And when we fall on the wrong side of the efficiency equation, we find ourselves erased, our access denied.

We think our memories, our increasingly digitised lives are becoming safer, more secure, that the online world, the machine, even provides us with a kind of immortality, that those precious old family photographs are safer scanned and held online than kept in a dusty old shoebox, vulnerable to fire and flood. My blog, my Instagram feed will outlive me, yes, but now I’m wondering if their function will only be to serve as a last cry, the lament of an inmate locked inside a machine. For a long time I have seen my future bound up with this thing. Now I am wondering if I should find ways of escaping. Were it not for the voice it grants my creative urges, I would run screaming. Or is it that we find more the secret to what it means to be alive by reflecting on the machine which is essentially dead.

We must remember we are only permitted this storage for our online personal belongings in exchange for permission for the corporate computers to scan and plunder it in order to profile, locate, and target us for advertising. It’s a crude exchange and, like anything else in business and technology, liable to a step change when something new comes along. When the clever, faceless, homeless corporate brains work out a way for product adverts to be subliminally and legally transmitted directly into our heads, then all the computers holding all our lives, so meticulously recorded by ourselves, will be deemed inefficient – at which point, unless we pay for their upkeep, they will be deleted. And when we die, and the direct debit bounces back,… yes,… deleted.

So when you are posting pictures of the things and of the places you love, when you are writing about your life to your imaginary reader, do not mistake the picture or the writing for the life you lead. It’s obvious really, the online life lacks the sensuality that makes us human. So beware this digitisation of the world. Question it. And in the mean time make your homes with impunity, fill them with your idiosyncratic nick-nackery, smell the coffee, stroke your pets, make love, go out and watch the sun setting,… be what your are. Be sensual.

And remember,…

We are not the machine.


There was this guy I knew called Zack. He was late middle age when I met him, some twenty years ago now, long white hair, a bit shaggy looking with a few day’s growth of silver beard showing through a deeply tanned face. He had the sunbaked lines of a long life’s journey worn into him, but worn smooth, not jagged-angry with the struggle of it, more of a surrender into humility and compassion.

He was sitting cross legged in a hut, in an old orchard gone wild. There were wind-chimes and dream catchers and the scent of jasmine. Koi swam ponderously in a shallow pool by his door. It was all very Zen.

I could feel myself relaxing even before I shook his hand. His smile was winning, infectious, his laughter gentle, beguiling. His eyes, a touch on the shy side, missed nothing. As with many of his kind, I felt sure he could see right through my outer layers, felt sure, of all the so called shamanic guru types I’d met by then, this one alone could restore me to myself. So I told him my story, blurted it out like so much junk I was in a hurry to be rid of, and then I waited.

He thought for a long while, nodding to himself as he ran back over my tale, then took a piece of rock from his pocket – a piece of clear quartzite, roughly hexagonal, a couple of inches long.

“You want this?” he asked.

I’d no idea what special powers it was supposed to have, but yes, I wanted it. I fancied I could sense its energy from afar, my body tingling in anticipation of its healing balm.

“How much?” I asked.

“Fifty quid,” he said.

That was a lot of money for a piece of crystal.

“So, you want it or not?”

I swallowed, nodded, handed over the cash. The crystal settled in my palm, and I felt it warming me. He didn’t say what I should do with it – I mean if I should keep it next to my skin or something. Instead we drank tea and chatted about nothing really, just this and that – about the weather, the news. I think he liked me. I was already feeling better than I had in years, just being with him.

As I was leaving he turned to me and said. “Listen my friend, you need to eat better, exercise more and work less.”

Sure, I knew that. I’d been slowly killing myself, telling myself I couldn’t help it, that even though the answer was right in front of me I simply couldn’t get a handle on myself. I was like a runaway train – bound to leap the rails sooner or later. I needed someone on the brake, because it seemed I was too scared to touch it myself.

“What about the crystal?” I asked. “What do I do with it?”

He shrugged. “Do whatever you like. It’s just a piece of rock. Pretty though.”
He smiled mischievously, then held out my money as if to offer it back while his empty palm extended for the crystal’s return. I looked at the crystal, realised of course that’s all it was: just a piece of rock, that I might have paid a couple of quid for it in any bonkers New Age store. I would not find myself nor any kind of peace in it, nor in any material thing.

I felt humble. “It’s okay,” I said, slid it down into my pocket. “I’ll keep it.”

It was a valuable lesson, a turning point, brought about as usual in the most underhand way. It was a good investment though – he didn’t charge me a penny for his wisdom after that, asked only for my occasional company. Zack lived to a ripe old age, and I had the pleasure of knowing him up the end. He died with an easy heart, and smiling.

I still have that piece of crystal.

ambulance7-240x181I wonder how much we take our National Health Service for granted? Recently, I fell foul of a minor ear infection, so,.. phone call to my GP’s surgery, appointment that same evening, bottle of drops on prescription, infection gone in a few days. No work-days lost to feeling ill and with an ear the size of a balloon, like last time when I left it too late. Success? Well yes, absolutely, minor treatable ailments are dealt with efficiently and mostly for free, but things are far from rosy with the NHS.

I had another brush with it over the Easter weekend, this time not so positive, accompanying someone suffering from sudden and severe stomach pains to the A+E department. There being no GP cover over the weekend, I tried the national 111 service for advice, only to find it permanently engaged – not what you want when someone is writhing in agony beside you. I tried several times, concluded the service was useless. So I tried NHS online instead which took me through a question and answer of the symptoms and it said we should go to A+E, so off we went.

At A+E I discovered an overpressed and hopelessly outnumbered staff, holding at bay a waiting room of walking wounded – the limping, the swollen, the bleeding, the moaning, the coughing and the wheezing,… you can imagine.

Two hours of abdominal agony later, while buttock shuffling on bum numbing hard plastic chairs, an apologetic nurse explained the average waiting time was now six hours. This was not the wait for treatment, not the wait for my companion to be told he had a burst appendix, or reassured it was only trapped wind. This was the wait for assessment, for prioritisation, for triage. The wait for actual treatment could be another six hours. It was by then four pm and the system had collapsed. My companion’s face fell open in disbelief. How could he wait that long and in such pain? Well, we had no choice.

Upon hearing this news half the room cleared, suggesting many who use A+E departments don’t really need to be there, but that’s another story. My companion insisted he was in need of medical attention, and I didn’t blame him, so we held on. By now a softer seat had been vacated, allowing a more comfortable slump into semi-comatose agony. In the opposite corner sat a man who had been hit in the face with a three by two, literally quite a bruiser, beside him another with his arm in a make-shift sling after breaking up a separate bout of fisticuffs. They swapped stories with ribald humour. In the hallway stood a convict handcuffed to a Prison Officer.

Time passed. No names were called. I wondered if there’d been a terrible accident somewhere, a mass shooting, a massive motorway pile-up to bring on such a crisis. But it was just a regular Easter Saturday in A+E with no staff. A possible twelve hour wait? I wondered what state I would be in by six am tomorrow morning, let alone my ailing companion. Would his wait for an examination be shortened if he collapsed unconscious, rolled onto the floor? Dare I suggest it? Would anyone even notice?

He did not collapse. We waited another hour, then my companion began to feel a little better, well enough at least to walk slowly to the reception desk. There he withdrew his name and we went home, either to recover more comfortably in bed, he said, or die there in peace. I’m glad to report he was pretty much recovered by morning.

Most of us, fortunately, do not spend much time in hospitals and are therefore shielded from the current state of the A+E crisis. It’s plain they are cash starved, undermanned and struggling, being readied for privatisation. Given the overarching plutocratic trend in western politics, this seems inevitable, perhaps even overdue. Perhaps an Easter Saturday in A+E paints an exaggerated picture, but I am left with the indelible impression it may already be too late to do anything about it.

My children will leave university with £40,000 of debt, virtue of another crisis, and they will inherit a national healthcare system in such turmoil as to be useless to the point that even the evil of privatisation, of healthcare for profit, will seem the only viable solution to its ills. Our country is actually very wealthy, about 7.2 trillion according to the office for national statistics, and growing so it puzzles me the constant harking on about how much we have to cut pubic funding in order to save our skins, and how the vast majority of us are a lot worse off than we were. The middle classes are disappearing with the outsourcing of their traditional jobs, and the working class is losing its safety net while the moneyed minority pocket the nation’s wealth and drive about in motor cars worth more than my retirement pot. It gives one pause.

Driving to work this morning there was a car spun off the motorway, landing on its roof, an ordinary family saloon, glass everywhere. A little distance away was a bent Mercedes of the swanky company executive variety. A haze of blue lights surrounded them in a pouring rain that was streaked with snow – a bad morning for an accident. An ambulance made its way through traffic, doing its best against an ebbing tide. Pray God I thought, we never reach the stage were the paramedics want a swipe of your plastic first before they’ll touch you, and where the guy in the Mercedes gets priority because he has a gold health card in his wallet. Then I remembered the despair of an overwhelmed A+E on Saturday and hoped they were more fully staffed this morning. Rich or poor, when crisis hits, we all need the NHS.

So do be careful out there because the last thing you need in the current climate is to end up in A+E.

vinegarSocial media can enhance human interaction, it can inform, connect, communicate to a degree previously unimaginable. It can also amplify the most shallow depths and allude to meaning where there is none. It can delude and degrade the experience of life, so we must always ask ourselves the question: what is a thing for? What good is it? What harm can it do?

Our real lives are incidental to our dreams. My dreams are a vignette of my aspirations; my romantic inclinations and my work as a writer. My real life, beyond the vignette, is more the realm of cold water, hairy bath-plugs, washing up, and shirts that need ironing.

But isolated counter-images are highly emotive. They interrupt the mundane, they resonate, hold back the blink reflex for a moment while we freeze-frame and take note – a pattern, a combination of colours, or contrast, a shape,… these things are mysterious. We want to capture them, to preserve them in a jar and Instagram is that jar.

But given the means of recording those freeze frames, of presenting them, this does not prevent us from dishonesty by omission. We self edit, and thereby create an idealised life stream in order to impress the imaginary “other” with how cool, how stylish that life is, entirely void of the mundane. It is a fiction.

Today, I’ve spent the day in Freudian mode, analysing the dream sequences of others on Instagram and have discovered human frailty and human insecurity as evidenced by the force of its denial, by its over-compensatory claims to the contrary. I am in good company then. But there is also beauty here, beauty in the visual fictions we create.

Sitting in a cafe at the weekend my eye was drawn to the colours and shapes of a vinegar bottle, some sachets of sugar, a salt and pepper pot. Ignore the surroundings – the smeared egg on the plate, the spilled coffee grains, the squished potato on the tile floor – these things are not attractive, so we exclude them. We draw a frame around them, as around our lives, simplify the shapes, play with the composition, look for the golden ratios,.. out comes the Droid and,… snap.

Instagram provides a platform for such vignettes, also a set of filters and basic manipulation tools that seem designed to accentuate the romanticism of an image, but which real life has a way of filtering out. I don’t know by what magic this is achieved. I have spent many a fruitless hour on Paintshop trying to sprinkle this same effect over my photography, while Instagram achieves it with a few buttons and sliders.

But as with all social media there is the danger of valuing one’s life by the number of likes or followers – translate as “audience”. This is my life, as evidenced by this bottle of vinegar, and it must be worth it because I have a massive audience, thus my every freeze-frame is capable of reaching and influencing the lives of many others. We aspire to become actors in our own soap opera, our own willing Truman, gullible sacrifices to a global audience of voyeurs.  We must be vigilant then, and remember life is not art, that the person is not the portrait, or we risk tumbling into the delusional void of crass superficiality.

We all know life is lived entirely out of shot, yet subliminal feeds like Instagrams are interesting, especially when we focus on the whole, rather than upon its parts. Instagram is about the blink of the eye, it is about those moments when we have not brought our camera with us, when all we have is our ‘phone. And with it there is the potential to capture the most intimate, the most fleeting of moments, to collect them, to create a visual journal of our life’s journey. In the early days ‘phones came with poor cameras, but this is no longer the case.

So, I’ve spent the day with Instagram, populating a tentative mosaic of image-ined life. Shapes, colours, emotions, mystery, joy, longing, passion. The images in my stream do mean something to me, they do attempt to convey something, an aspiration perhaps to vignette the bits of life I value, but mostly I think to try to convey the beauty I find in the ordinary. Yes, an emotive sunset over sea or mountains will stir the heart, and most I think would agree such a thing is beautiful, but we can find beauty in the simple things too, in the every day.

Actually I’m no longer sure about that vinegar bottle. I think it looks ridiculous actually – whatever was I thinking? I may just edit that out, tidy up the romanticised notion of my life. Instagram is very good at that.

Of course it’s also good at shoving in your face the life-streams of today’s chosen celebrities, and one must therefore ask the question by means of what algorithm does Ronaldo out trump Zendaya, and who the hell are these people anyway, and how far would I have to scroll down to find the equally fictitious life-stream of Michael Graeme?

Dusty old guitars

The process of forgetting is sometimes more a matter of adaptation to circumstances than mental decay. There are things I have taken great pleasure in, but which I no longer indulge, and have largely forgotten. Adaptation is the only reason I can come up with for such self denial. Anything else makes no sense at all, and mostly what I tell myself I’m adapting to is lack of time.

Listening to this opening piece (Bach’s Lute Prelude, BWV 1006) by the guitarist John Williams, I’m reminded how much the guitar once meant to me – the colours, the tones, the varied and emotive pacing. The expression here literally catches my breath and brings tears to my eyes, but then the classical guitar was once my greatest love. I was a student of the guitar for many years, but the time to practice became progressively beyond my means as life and work matured into the routine of decades. It is a pleasure I have largely forgotten now.

I never aspired to mastery of this particular piece, though I once made a good fist of Bach’s technically easier Lute Prelude, BWV 999, after hearing it played by Narcisso Yepes on his stupendous ten stringed guitar. I no longer have that recording. I wore the original vinyl out and have searched everywhere for it to no avail. But here it is in the hands of  another master, Julian Bream (a quaintly staged recording from 1962):

It took me a year of practice to grasp even the fundamentals of this piece. There were moments when I fancied I sounded not unlike Bream, or Yepes, but mostly I would fumble my way like any third rank amateur. I only played it fluently the whole way through, once. It was a defining moment, a moment of great satisfaction. I would have been around forty years old. It was about then the process of forgetting set in.

I began my studentship at the age of six with a cheap junior guitar of dubious manufacture, and from then to the age of fourteen learned only how to make a noise with it. The guitar is a difficult instrument and not everyone has the fingers for it, but I loved it for its difficulty, that an instrument of such size and apparent simplicity in construction could enable such beauty in tone and expression. To listen to a piece of classical guitar, is to experience not just the one voice, as with a solo violin, it is to experience an entire ensemble. My love of music is owed to the classical guitar. Here, it says – this is what music can do to you, now go and see what else you can find.

At the age of fourteen, I received my second instrument, a lovely Japanese Moridaria, purchased cheaply from the girl next door, who had given up on it. With this guitar I began to find more harmony around chord improvisation, also some beginners tunes with the help of books. My fingering was nimble enough and quick, but I lacked a good teacher to take me where I wanted to go.

I had been advised by now, however, music was not my forte, at least according to my school music teacher – a miserable, shouty grouch of a man. Intellectually then, music remained an inaccessible mistress, locked away under his tutelage – indeed it was no more than a source of weekly terror. Privately though, and perhaps bloody mindedly, I persevered with the guitar because it was romantic, and I had in mind it would be a sure way to impress a certain girl, should I ever get close enough to her, and have my guitar handy. Oh, the optimism of youth!

I would take lessons, of course, one day, but for now other studies were pressing, squeezing out the time I needed for such an indulgence. As soon as my O Levels were out of the way, as soon as I had done my HNC, my HND, as soon as the nerve shredding years of the Engineering Council Examinations were over – then,… yes, then I would take time to devote to the study of something I loved, rather than something I merely needed.

But by this time I was twenty five, and that’s too late to be doing anything serious with the guitar. I made a start anyway, took myself and my old Moridaria to an evening class, and there met LW, a teacher who was a classical guitarist of mesmerising skill and exquisite tone. She was also of a much sweeter disposition and considerably better looking than my old school music teacher. I signed up with her for private lessons, and discovered music was my forte after all. I had the ear she said, and the rest was just practice. So, I bought another guitar, a serious instrument for a beginner – a Cuenca, from the region of Castilla-La-Mancha in central Spain. It has a beautiful, rich tone,… and between it and my teacher, at last I became a proper student of music!

Thanks to her I could read by now and, with persistence, could work through the beginner’s repertoires of Sor , Giuliani, Dowland, and the collected Estudios of Segovia. I once heard Segovia’s Estudio number 5 – actually Sor Op 35 No 22 – played in the precinct of my local town, a hairy guy in a trench-coat, playing with the power of a God and the expression of an angel. Of all the buskers that day, he was the only one turning heads, and this a northern working class market town, on its late 80’s  uppers.

I paused to listen, felt different for the experience, felt inspired. My teacher added that piece to my repertoire, bless her, and it remains among my favourites. But the lessons petered out. My teacher and I were by now engaged to be married,… to other people. Her teaching was replaced by babies, my studentship by the slow erosion of the mundane. I have not seen her in a quarter of a century, but have only to close my eyes to hear her play.

I persevered in private, trying to maintain fluency in those pieces I knew, but without time, without practice, first the fluency, then the shape memory falls apart. Few pieces remain now. I still have the guitar, still treasure it as a symbol, a talisman, but it gathers dust. It’s years since I had the courage to pick it up and relive those days.

I would never have been able to play like Williams, or Bream, or Yepes, or my own teacher – was never even competent to play for an audience of family or friends, nor yet still that particular young lady, had I ever been granted the opportunity – the music would go, robbed by self consciousness.

I close with Julian Bream and another transcription from Bach:

Listening to Bream, I think my favourite among all the greats, I am reminded the masters are there, not to be copied, or lived up to in the competitive sense. They possess something most of us do not, a divine gift to which few can ever aspire. But what they do is grant the rest of us the inspiration, that such beauty is still within the scope of human expression, that so long as some of us at least are capable of attaining such sublime heights as these, there is sufficient hope and meaning in life that, even amid its darkest of days, makes it worth the carrying on.

One day I shall dust off the guitar, and see what I remember of it.

One day, when I find the time.

Meanwhile my thanks to John Williams, to Julian Bream, to Narcisso Yepes, for their their mastery, and their continuing inspiration, and to LW for her life changing tutelage, brief though it was.

I can only hope her guitar is not as dusty as mine.


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