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The Blue Lagoon, Buxton

Picture by Simon Harrod at Flickr, taken in May 2012

This fêted age of infinite information renders us vulnerable to a blizzard of spin. Some of this is deliberate and state sponsored, some of it is mere tittle-tattle. But as Churchill once said, a lie can be round the world before the truth has even got its pants on. It pays therefore to be careful how we interpret what we see, read and hear.

Newspapers are the least trustworthy sources of factual information, no better than gossip. We all know this, yet are happy for them to feed our own particular prejudice. The online gossip-mills too are manipulated to dramatic effect by the same nefarious actors. But at a time of crisis when we’re hungry for facts, such misdirection  undermines confidence and spreads fear.

Some newspapers took delight in reporting the fate of the Blue Lagoon in Derbyshire this week. This is an intriguing little beauty spot, near Buxton – its most striking feature being its beguiling Caribbean-blue waters. The newspapers tell us that to prevent people from gathering there, flouting social distancing rules,  the cops poured black dye into it.

Whilst correct, the facts here are spun by omission. They make it sound like the act of a police-state gone mad. Worse, they sound like a reckless piece of ecological vandalism. It takes a little more digging to learn the cops often do this at the Blue Lagoon. They do it in collaboration with the local council to stop people from swimming there. Why? Because, with a Ph close to that of bleach, the lagoon is toxic. So, the first story aims at shaking public trust in the police at a time when that trust needs reinforcing. The other story shows the police in a struggle to protect us from ourselves. Which story you prefer depends on your innate prejudice and political leanings.

Facts are those things that don’t change. They do not dance around with fancy hats on. This makes them lacking in novelty in a world that craves novelty. We crave it day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, and it makes facts boring. Spinning the facts is what the press, the politicians, the propagandists and the gossip-mongers do. So, we should be mindful never to take anything at face value. Once we deviate from rules and scientific fact, the truth is always something we’ll have to dig for.

Facts – the full facts – enable us to make up our own minds. And what’s so interesting about any form of mass media are the ways in which others can use it to make up our minds for us. One mouth. Many listeners. So, be sure you know who you’re listening to and remember how the omission of certain key facts in the telling can change a story completely.

Lets be careful out there.

Curve ball

 

So, the Derbyshire police reveal in dramatic fashion what I’ve suspected for a while. The cops have put surveillance tech into the air via the ubiquitous drone. It’s less expensive than a chopper but it can still read a car number plate or spot a person from miles out. It might even be able to read your face. And when the cops read a car number plate of course, they know who you are and where you live. The bad guys should look out then, except the cameras aren’t always used for catching the bad-guys.

I’ve been critical of people resisting this “lockdown” (hate that word), exasperated when I see people taking to the hills en-mass when we’re told to stay at home, except for “essential” journeys. But it has never been made clear what is and is not an essential journey. And now to see this tech unleashed on sparse numbers of non-criminal members of the public in order to “shame” them for taking a walk, well,.. it’s pulled me up short. More, it will be one of my abiding memories of this crisis, along with others that are starting to leave a bad taste, like how only the rich and famous are able to get a Covid-19 test. And all the while the usual sycophantic organs of the fourth estate are drumming up the Dunkirk spirit, assuring us we’re all in this together when we’re clearly not.

Freedom in the hills has always been a fundamental necessity for many. A journey to the hills might therefore be interpreted by such folk as essential for one’s sanity. Me too.  And we’re confused. Many of us are still expected to travel to work when we’d rather not, given the risk to which it exposes our selves and our families. But employers are thinking about longer term business viability and profits. That’s another interpretation of what’s essential. What’s the difference here?

So,.. the Derbyshire police shame members of the public for taking a walk away from home. But it didn’t look to me like they were risking increasing the spread of this contagion very much. They might have fallen, yes. They might have crashed their cars and needed the emergency services, tying up already overstretched resources. I get that. But something doesn’t feel right here. This feels like a distraction from other issues.

The real risks are what our health workers are exposed to daily on account of the shocking inadequacy of their protective equipment, also commuters being forced to share public transport, still travelling to jobs that employers are allowed to interpret as essential. Essential for whom? Where are the police drones shaming the slashed NHS budgets? Where are the police drones shaming employers for making people go to work, when they could and should be working from home?

If the Derbyshire cops have this technology, all the constabularies have it and they’ve been trialling it for years. But its deployment in the midst of this crisis is both crass and high-handed, and it exposes far more than was intended. Yes, it might scare people off the hills for fear of that sinister eye in the sky, scare them back to their homes, but it also tells me we should be very careful of our freedoms in future. We should beware allowing others to define, in the longer term, what is and is not a necessary action. Near martial measures such as these are quickly imposed and accepted by the public as necessary for our protection, but how quickly will they be eased?

When, in the coming weeks, the death toll from coronavirus escalates, be careful of who gets the blame. Yes, we should all be exercising close to home now, not driving out to the hills like we used to do. But the height of the death-curve will not be the result of that handful of walkers in Derbyshire interpreting their own essential needs as they have been left to do. Nor will it be the occasional lovers gone out to watch the sunset or post Instagram selfies. It’ll be the result of millions forced to work and commute in the name of profit, and our health workers having to improvise their own protective gear from bin bags.

I shall bear this period of isolation as best I can. I will stay at home, because I understand it’s necessary. But I’m not stupid either, and I know a curve ball when I see it.

warrendale 1

Farewell, you northern hills, you mountains all goodbye.
Moorland and stony ridges, crags and peaks, goodbye.
Glyder Fach farewell, Cul Beig, Scafell, cloud-bearing Suilven.
Sun-warmed rocks and the cold of Bleaklow’s frozen sea.
The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains.
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine,
And you drink and you drink till you’re drunk on the joy of living

Ewan MacColl – The Joy of Living

The scenes of massed hikers flooding Snowdonia at the weekend prove we must keep our exercise local from now on, and for the duration of this crisis. Local means whatever you can do on foot, or bike from your own doorstep, and at a good distance from others. It means an hour round the block. It does not mean travelling to Wales or the Lakes, or the Dales to find a hill and get away from things like we used to do. Chances are you’ll end up in a traffic jam.

It’s a grim prospect for me since it means I won’t have a hill under my feet again until this thing is over, and that could be next spring. So it is indeed farewell to my northern hills and mountains for the time being. But needs must, and it’s not all bad news; there are other things we can do.

Social distancing is nothing new to me. Indeed, I’ve been doing it all my life, and as I get older I make less apology for it. Others pester for Skype connections and I’m thinking: what the hell? Can’t folk manage for a minute on their own without moithering others? And then if everyone in my locale takes their exercise around what dreary bit of green I’ve got on my doorstep, it’s going to be unbearably busy. So I’m looking at my garden now and seeing it with fresh eyes. I’m seeing it as my sanctuary of solitude and, as March goes out like a lamb and the blossom swells, it’s also the ideal place for a bit of Tai Chi and Qigong.

I began Tai Chi fifteen years ago. I practise Chen style, which led to Kung Fu for a while, but for the last few years I’ve been doing Qigong. Qigong is a technique with a focus on the breath and mindful movement that’s well suited to our turbulent times. I tried to do a bit in my garden today, but found myself assailed by the noise of my socially retarded, self-entitled neighbours’ beatboxes. So, yes, there are still challenges, but we’ll make do, and I have ear defenders.

Distractions aside, how to do you begin Qigong if you’ve never done it before? Well you can go look on YouTube. There are gurus on there as thick as hikers on the Watkin Path right now. But you can do no better than to find somewhere quiet and stand for a bit. Breathe slow and deep, not with your lungs, but with your belly. Then raise your hands and close your eyes.

How do you know your hands are still there? Well, if you focus, you can feel them. Now, on the out breath, try to induce a feeling of relaxation, and breathe into your hands. I don’t mean by blowing on them. I mean mentally. As you breathe out, breathe into them with your mind. Notice how the feeling intensifies. Weird, isn’t it? Do that for a bit until you get bored. And then do this:

Thank you, Master Lam. You’re a legend.

This method is the most impressive Qigong technique I know. It looks simple but is the hardest in practice. Standing for just ten minutes takes a monumental effort at first, so try it for five. It also raises a buzz in your hands faster than any other practice. What is that buzz? I don’t know – I’m not going to use the Chi word here. It could be vascular. It could be the nervous system. All I know is if you hang your mind onto that feeling, it gets stronger, and it’s deeply relaxing. And if the mind is relaxed, it’s not thinking about anything other than how relaxed you’re feeling.

And that’s a good thing in trying times.

However you manage your social distancing,…

Be well.

Graeme out.

Sigmund_Freud_1926_(cropped)I had a feeling in my water the government was going to issue a strict “stay at home” order last Friday. So, after work I swung through Rivington in the West Pennines – my local beauty spot. I was thinking to get a little open air social distancing, before the clamp-down. I was not the only one.

The Great House Barn at Rivington is a popular watering hole and a favourite of mine. But the advice was to avoid cafés, for risk of infection, so I drove by in search of a quiet pull-in, further up on the moors. I was amazed to see the Barn was packed out, the car-park full and spilling over onto the roadside. There were people, kids, dogs everywhere. Indeed, it reminded me of a Bank Holiday weekend, a time when Rivington is better avoided because of the crush.

Social distancing they were not, and I wondered why. The advice has been clear enough. It’s to save your life, or save you enduring a distressing bout of illness. Is it that we no longer believe a word we see or hear any more? Are the post-election utterings of politicians taken as the same vacuous nothingness? Are the hysterical headlines of the press all meaningless noise? (I mean who can blame us on either score) but what else explains the fact so few people are taking this seriously?

I found my quiet pull-in, managed a brief walk in the sun. It all looked spring-like, but there was a chill wind taking the sweetness out of it. Plus, the trails were thick with weekenders, and they walk so damned slow it’s like they’re barely alive. Their dogs were also loose and bounding up to sniff your balls. So much for social distancing.

“Aw, don’t worry, he’ll not hurt you, mate.”

It was not an enjoyable yomp, more like a turgid commute up the M6. I returned home frustrated, feeling unclean. It was as if the panic buyers were now hogging the countryside, greedy for the very air we breathe, hanging their bags of fido-turds as they went. Social distancing from now on means going no further than my garden gate.

The clampdown came that same night. But it was not as severe as I’d expected, more a polite request for the pubs, clubs and café’s to shut. So then my local shop was at once cleared out of beer and wine. I suppose now the pleasure seekers are holding their gatherings indoors. In every country this plague has visited, the health services have collapsed, and medical staff have died saving the lives of others. Our lack of caution is blind, irrational and selfish. It puzzles me.

Since Friday, I’ve been thinking hard about this social distancing thing. We’re advised it’s fine to go out for some exercise, that fresh air and the countryside is good for you. But there is also a danger here, that there will be tens of thousands of people every weekend making a rush for the same open spaces. Then there will be the exodus of the caravanners, and the holiday-homers, off to the remoter places to hole up and wait the plague out. The risk there is resentment of the locals, on whom we descend as we overwhelm their modest health provision.

So we need to stay at home, walk round the block – at midnight if need be, to avoid each other, provided there is no curfew. 2020 is cancelled – well except for my garden, which will be very tidy indeed this year. And I will use the time to deepen my practice of Tai Chi.

Freudian psychoanalysts have a very pessimistic view of human beings. They tell us we are slaves to a thing called the id. This is an unconscious, primitive drive that craves simplistic gratification in whatever form it can get, a thing at odds with logic and reason. Then there’s the super-ego. This is unconscious too, but contains the balancing forces of guilt, shame and morality, preventing the id from destroying us in wild orgies. And then there’s the ego. This is the conscious bit which tries to reconcile the forces of the id, the super-ego and the demands of society. But generally speaking we’re a lost cause unless we can sublimate the resulting tension into some form of creative endeavour. Or we go mad trying, or more likely we succumb to the id, to its selfish and unthinking drive for pleasure. And we behave like idiots, like sheep in its siren pursuit.

I’ve never been a fan of Freud because he doesn’t offer us a way out, and that’s always frightened me. His work shines a light on our stupidity, our gullibility, on our neuroses and the reasons for them. But most of us, he says, are lost causes. We are irrational, unreasoning automatons. We are slaves to desire, and blind to the consequences of our actions. He saw right through us, shook his head.

And I see now, he was right.

Image1I know, it’s a drag. We’re already suffering from Covid-19 fatigue in the UK and it’s not really hit us yet. We’ve all seen the pictures of those selfish people hoarding toilet paper. But there are stories too of great generosity, of people reaching out to others. Still, this endless panic buying it to me proof western society is incapable of even the most modest forms of Socialism. Society is too enamoured by now of greed and looking after number one. So all us bleeding heart lefties might as well shut up and self-isolate with the rest.

It’s been quite a sobering experience seeing the yards of empty shelves at Tescos, like it’s the Zombie Apocalypse, and it’s tempting to be pessimistic of course. But then there’s the story of the woman pushing leaflets through the letterboxes in her community. She’s offering to help the elderly with shopping or anything else they might need. She’s contacted by an old lady who wants to know how much the good Samaritan charges for this service. That the service is free is quite beyond her understanding. We do not expect kindness, and when we receive it, we’re stunned by it or we’re looking for the con.

As for the official response, I’ve been trying to get behind our political leadership and do as I’m told. This hasn’t been easy, having spent the latter part of 2019 campaigning for the Labour party. Then I spent the early part of 2020 aching for the Tories to screw up over something – probably BREXIT (Remember that old thing?). But they cannot screw up over this. They have to get this right, yet I find myself a little worried we seem to be making up our approach on the hoof. I listened to the PM tonight who thanked us for our cooperation and our patience thus far in these trying times. But from what I’ve seen of the way the populace has been reacting what we need more than anything is a kick up the arse.

Yes, we’re good at muddling through, but there is nothing about the British that frightens this bug. We are not immune to it on account of our thick skulls, but until this evening the pubs and restaurants were still open. People were advised not to got to them. But people – especially young people – have a tendency towards thinking they know best. As a result the PM closed them down tonight. By now thougha good many of our blase, partying, booze imbibing, socialising types are positive for Coronavirus. They don’t know it yet but they’re spreading it to their nearest and dearest, also to that unfortunate stranger on the bus. But that’s fine, after all it only kills old people and old people aren’t important in a consumer driven economy .

The scale and the sweep of this thing is beyond imagining. The sooner we take it seriously, the sooner we get over it. But it’s also having unexpected effects. This evening I saw one of the most right wing Tory administrations in British history announce financial measures to safeguard people and jobs and these are measures few socialists would ever have dreamed possible – all be they temporary. Suddenly, aftyer decades of being told there is no money, there is more money than you can imagine. The world is on its head.

Meanwhile the shelves at Tesco are empty tonight; toilet paper yes, of course, all gone, but also booze. I checked while I was in there looking for a cucumber (don’t ask). No whiskey, no wine, no beer – shelves as bare as those for the household cleaning items, and the milk and the bread. The PM shut the pubs so – hey! everyone’s partying at home tonight – with friends. We’re so stupid I’m amazed we’ve survived this long.

But I was in luck. There were plenty of cucumbers.

Graeme out

[Stay safe – keep your distance, and wash your hands.]

pier sunsetThe further away from home we look, the uglier the world we’ve built appears. More, our technology gives us a window on every corner of it, so we can top up each moment with the sheer misery of our collective suffering. It’s hard to avoid it.

It presents a dilemma for the writer. Do we tell it like we see it? Do we offer up the mess of the world for all to shudder at? Do we write stories in which our characters suffer and then die? Or do we look for the goodness, for the beauty? Do we write stories of cheerful outcome for our readers to escape into? Do we fashion for them fictional plots where everyone strives for happiness and everything works out fine?

By describing the suffering, do we help perpetuate it? By providing a pleasing escape, do we mislead our readers into underestimating the power of the forces of darkness? As self conscious individuals it’s hard to see how we can have any effect at all, but I’m beginning to think we are more influential than we know. I don’t mean as lone writers in isolation – that would be egotistical – but more together, collectively. So pick your side: light or dark, and write.

The Internet provides a voice for many an otherwise unknown scribe, like me for instance. Through blogging, and posting our stories online we find a readership and that has to be a good thing, but the Internet reveals also a darker side to us. We’re all shocked at how vicious it is, and the lesson of the last decade has been how influential it is as well. People take their lives because of the vile stuff that’s written on here. In the bear-pit of politics, elections are won and lost. Lies are spun into truths, truths smeared into lies. Entire groups are labelled as “undesirable” and showered with hate. But if the dark side can use this weird medium to such a powerfully nefarious effect, why can’t the light effect an opposite change in the Zeitgeist?

Darkness feeds off the suffering of others. That’s what sustains it. It’s what directs the darkness to inflict ever more suffering. The light is different. It doesn’t want to hurt anyone. It gains its energy from nowhere but the goodness of the heart, but is itself vulnerable to damage. In writing of the darkness then the light must take care not to be dimmed by it, and we must always offer the reader a way out.

I look at the comments on You Tube and, even though they are not aimed at me, I am deeply hurt by their depravity. This is the darkness breaking through, and all the fell creatures that dwell within us come out to create suffering, then feast on it. There seems little point countering such darkness by blogging cheerful poems about daffodils. Or bunny rabbits. Or the joys of spring. But if that’s what we of the light want to write then we should, because we’re all the light has got. Each of us with our own little lantern, we are the stars bringing light to an otherwise impenetrable firmament. We are the only thing making it worth while anyone lifting their eyes from the sorry earth at all.

I know, hate and fear-mongering go viral every day, while the light languishes unnoticed, but put pen to paper anyway. After all, it’s not like you have a choice, is it? And remember if you are not of the dark, then you are of the light. So be the light, and write.

May you stay safe, and healthy,

Graeme out.

girl with green eyes

I’ve been walking from supermarket to supermarket all day again, chasing rumours. It’s the last thing any of us were expecting, this a run on toilet paper. I always imagined the end of the world would be aliens or crashing meteorites. But this? Well now I’m down to my last half-roll, my feet are killing me and if I don’t score this time I’m going to be needing new shoes as well.

Of course by the time I reach the next place the shelves are empty, except for a single pack of twenty four. It sits there, fat and fluffy, taunting me. They’re asking thirty quid for it, but I won’t see that kind of money until payday, unless the bastards dock me again, in which case I won’t. And I don’t need twenty four – four’s plenty for now. Anyway, I’d likely get mugged for them on the way home, a big pack like that. So I’m standing here, weary from the search, and this girl comes up looking like she’s after the same thing.

She’s dressed cheap, but she’s pretty, like a princess in rags. I’m dressed cheap too, but not worth a second glance. When she sees the twenty four pack she lets out a sigh, no doubt thinking the same as me. Then she weighs me up, wonders if I’m going to make a grab for it. But I shrug, step back a little.

“Too steep for me,” I tell her. I’m smiling my best ‘I’m harmless’ smile, but that doesn’t always cut it with girls. Man, she’s pretty. Did I tell you that? Looks sad though.

So then I say, “we could always,…”

“What?”

Hear that? There’s a sharpness there, like she’s at the end of her tether. I suppose we’re all a bit that way now, what with one damned thing after the other. But she’s short of more than toilet roll, looks pinched and hungry, like she’s not eaten for days. Sure, I’m skint, but she’s worse off.

“I was thinking we could go halves.”

She shakes her head. “That’s still fifteen quid on bog roll, innit.”

I know what she means. Fifteen quid. Take your choice: try to feed yourself all week, or wipe your bum.

So I say, “Well, we could always wait a bit. See if anyone else turns up. Split it with them too. That way we get the price down a bit more.”

“Worth a try, ” she says, then sits on the floor, lithe as a dancer, shrugs. “Nothing better to do anyway.”

So I join her on the floor, drop the goofy smiles. Sure, some girls prefer a guy to come across like a sour git, and maybe that’s worth a try as a last resort, but it doesn’t exactly come easy for me.

Then the security guy comes along and wants to know what the problem is. She’s a feisty one, tells him to f&@k off and leave us alone. But he’s only doing his job and I can see there’s no real malice in him, so I apologise and explain our plan. He weighs us up and decides we mean no harm, tells us we’ve got twenty minutes, then we’re out.

Her name’s Ella and she’s a student. I was a student too, once upon a time. Now I’m a zero-hours slave with no prospects and fifty grand of uni-debt I’ll never pay back. And right now I’m sitting here looking to organise a union all so’s we can afford the dignity of some bog-roll. Hey! Small beginnings, right?

Ten minutes though and nothing,.. then this guy comes along, well-dressed, looks like a high roller. I’m worried he’s the type who can splash thirty quid on the twenty four pack – rip-off or not – and not think about it.

“You guarding those or what?” he says.

Hear that? Assertive type. Boss class.

So I explain the situation. He thinks on it for a bit, then grabs the pack and walks off with it. Look at me. I’m dressed like shit. Who’s going to listen to me? So what am I supposed to do? Ella calls him an effing bastard. I’m thinking the same thing, but say nothing. Then he comes back, looks contrite, says he’s sorry. So I reckon I’ve misjudged him; he’s a middle class salary man, that’s all. It makes him a sitting down slave rather than a standing up one, like me, and he’s desperate for bog roll like the rest of us. Okay, so I’m a soft touch.

“I’ll split it with you,” he says. “Eight each. Eight’s plenty for anyone.”

I explain to him that while that’s a good idea, and very decent of him, a tenner’s still too much for the likes of me and Ella.

The the security guard comes over again, tells Ella to mind her language, checks his watch, tells us we’ve got five minutes. I’m worried the high roller will divvy up the thirty quid now and leave us to it. After all, the middle classes have only so much patience for the precariat, and who can blame them? Man’s got to wipe his arse, hasn’t he?

“Four will do me,” I tell him. “You pay the thirty quid, like you were going to. We’ll give you a fiver each. Then Ella and me get four rolls apiece.”

He has to think about this. Basic maths isn’t his strong point and he’s looking for the trap. Ella’s not happy either.

“I’m not paying a fiver for four bog rolls,” she says.

“But it’s our best shot, Ella, and I’m fed up chasing this stuff around.”

The guy’s worked it out now and he’s up for it, and Ella’s persuaded it’s this or nothing too. So we follow him through the tills under the beady eye of the security guard. He pays, and we divvy up our fivers to him. Then we split the pack on the carpark, and he lifts the lid of his Beamer to stash his take.

I’m wanting him to go now so I can get a minute with Ella on her own – pop the question, like. I’m thinking I can afford to buy her a burger or something, but she’s looking at him with big eyes and doesn’t seem to notice me any more. Then he invites her for a coffee as if I’m invisible to him as well. Sure, that happens a lot.

Quick as you like she’s in his car and they’re driving away. Okay, I don’t blame her. She’s got something to give a guy that I’ve not, and a girl’s got to live the best way she sees fit. Sure, a decade of austerity and skid row will do that to you, so who am I to judge? I only hope she’s the sense to get what she wants from him first, before she lets him have what he wants from her.

So in the end I didn’t get the girl, which isn’t much of a story I guess and no surprises there. But I plucked my share of bog roll from a system that seems ever more intent on denying me my dignity. I count that as a plus, and small things are important now. All it took was a little grass-roots organisation, and sure as hell no one else is going to do it for us. So remember that. It might come in handy later on when things get really ugly, and we’re fighting over tins of beans.

[Thanks for reading – and I promise, hand on heart: no more riffs on the subject of toilet paper]

Graeme out.