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IMG_20160206_224252The genesis for this book was a TV interview by the journalist John Freeman, for the BBC in 1959. It was to be the last book to bear Jung’s mark, though it is in fact a collaboration between Jung and several of his closest colleagues in the psychoanalytical movement at that time – namely Joseph Henderson, Marie Louise Von Franz, Jolande Jacobi and Anielia Jaffe. Snatches of that original interview appear on You tube from time to time, to be shot down by the copyright police, then to reappear. You can try here, but the link may be broken any time. It’s an important interview. Freeman sounds somewhat dated with his BBC accent, even a bit stuck up, but his respect for Jung is clear and his questions are spot on. Jung is utterly compelling.

The result was an even bigger mailbag for Jung and the realisation there was a hunger for his ideas outside of the rarefied and to some extent privileged realms of psychoanalysis. It was Freeman who later approached Jung with a view to him writing a book, this time aimed at a general audience – the book that was to become “Man and his Symbols”. According to Freeman, Jung listened to him patiently for a full two hours, then said no. For Jung all of this was coming at a time in his life when he knew his own time was running out.

Then, Jung had a meaningful dream. In the dream he was speaking to ordinary people in a marketplace – literally to the man in the street – and the people understood him. So, he had a change of heart, decided there would be some value in writing such a book after all, but insisted it was to be a collaboration. He would write the opening keynote section, titled “approaching the unconscious”, while the remainder would be left to his closest colleagues.

Jung passed away in 1961, ten days after punching in the final full stop. The book itself wasn’t published until 1964.

Jungian psychology has a potentially wide application, far beyond the analytical couch. Private analysis is strictly for those who can afford it of course, and this is to be regretted, but anyone with sufficient motivation can uncover the basics and the basics are this: if we want to restore a sense of direction and meaning to our lives, if we want to understand the world in a truly global context, we have to re-establish relations with our unconscious mind, and we can do this simply by paying attention to our dreams.

In our conscious lives we identify objects by the names we give them, but the dream deals with symbols. Symbols are objects too but their names are not as important as the emotional charge they carry. The dream speaks to us in the language of symbols and we can learn a great deal about our selves by paying attention to our dreams and the symbols that arise. But there’s more – for Jungians the unconscious mind has both a personal and a collective dimension. On occasion then we find things surfacing in our dreams of a deeper, mythic nature. These things may be of significance to us personally, or they can be prescient of happenings in the world at large. No one teaches us our old stories any more, least of all what they mean, and for Jungians a knowledge of myth, of the stories told since the earliest of times, is invaluable in understanding what is going on, both inside the individual, and in all the trouble spots of the globe that suffer under man’s influence.

There are many decent introductions to Jung, but I find this one the most accessible. His work is widely embraced now by the self-improvement movement and there’s hardly a single new age fad that is not in some way reliant on ideas that first came out of Jung’s head. But a reading of his deeper works does make for occasionally disturbing reading. The book was written at a time of dire tensions between the West and the USSR – an escalation in weapons technology that threatened to wipe out the world ten times over. But for the cold war of 1964, you can read the middle eastern crisis of the latter day, and the analysis, in Jungian terms is the same, and compelling, that what ails the West, then and now, is a loss of soul, that what we see nightly on the TV news is merely a reflection of the very thing we are incapable of seeing in ourselves. The message of Jung, outlined so succinctly in  Man and his Symbols is as relevant today as it ever was.

Much of the thinking of Jungian psychology does not chime well with the rational world and he can attract the most vehement and irrational criticism. If you are of a rational frame of mind, yet drawn to psychology at all, it will probably be the work of Freud you prefer. But for the soulful and the spiritual wanderers, and for those just trying to understand the ills of the world from a global perspective there is much in Jung to guide your path, also to explain the experience of your own life and to guide you around the occasional pothole.

So, how in touch are you with your own unconscious? Well,… tell me, do you recall what you dreamed of last night?

waughEdwin (Ned) Waugh was born in Rochdale, Lancashire, in 1817, the son of a shoemaker. He worked first as an errand boy, then became indentured to the Rochdale bookseller and printer, Thomas Holden. He was self educated, picking up whatever learning he could from the books his father kept at home. As a young man he became a journeyman printer, his travels taking him all over the country. A rags to riches story? Not quite. By the age of thirty, he was back in Rochdale, his health shot to bits by addiction to alcohol and snuff. He was also broke, and his marriage was on the rocks.

After a promising start, his life was in ruins. Many in this position would not have made forty, but Ned began to write, and through his writing discovered not only solace and healing, but succeeded also in turning his life around. He kept a personal diary, also dabbled in prose and poetry, submitting pieces to the Manchester press. He met with only modest success at first, but in1856, he published a poem written in the Lancashire dialect, called: “Come whoam to thi childer an’ me”:

Aw’ve just mended th’fire wi a cob;
Owd Swaddle has brought thi new shoon;
There’s some nice bacon-collops o’th hob,
An’ a quart o’ ale posset i’th oon;
Aw’ve brought thi top-cwot, doesto know,
For th’ rain’s comin’ deawn very dree;
An th’hastone’s as white as new snow;-
Come whoam to thi Childer and me.

And so it goes on – a loving housewife’s lament, trying to entice her husband away from the pub and the company of friends, back to hearth and home where she and the children are missing him. And his eventual, equally loving reply:

“God bless tho’, my lass; aw’ll go whoam,
An’ aw’ll kiss thee and th’childer o’ round;
Thae knows, that wherever aw roam,
Aw’m fain to get back to th’owd ground;
Aw can do wi a crack oe’r a glass;
Aw can do wi a bit of a spree;
But aw’ve no gradely comfort, my lass,
Except wi yon childer and thee.

The poem was an instant success, and Waugh was suddenly making a tidy living as a man of letters.

Dialect does not always travel well beyond those regions in which it was written. The only dialect poet of any wide renown is the Scot, Robert Burns, who, like Waugh, wrote verse in the language as it was actually spoken in his day. Dialect is more than just a funny way of speaking – it possesses a quality that conveys the spirit, the individuality, and the character of a people, far more than is possible with standard English. To be English is one thing, to be from Lancashire is quite another.

I was introduced to Waugh by chance some thirty years ago, when rambling along the Rossendale Way, east of Edenfield – an area known as Scout Moor. This is a wild and windy spot, its shaggy, treeless hills scarred by old quarries and mine-workings. Atop the moor, close by the levelled ruins of Foe Edge Farm, there’s an impressive memorial. This is Waugh’s Well, dedicated in 1866. It’s an evocative spot, a place he’d come to write his verses, then test them for their lyrical quality by reciting them to the accompaniment of his fiddle.

When I first visited these moors I was impressed by their exhilarating outlook and their grand isolation, but things are rather different on Scout Moor today, the last decade having seen the area transformed by the erection of some twenty six giant wind generators. These awesome beasts now dominate where once there was only the wide open sky, and instead of the imagined strains of Ned’s violin we have the steady mechanical chop-chop chopping of blades wrestling energy from the wind.

Whatever the arguments for or against such things, they are symbolic of a changing world and a reminder nothing is immune to progress. Even the words we use, and the way we say them are subject to change. As populations become more mobile, our regional accents become diluted, and our dialects, our unique regional variation on the language itself, is lost, left only to a handful of revivalist entertainers in their quaintly parodic costumes of clogs, waistcoats and flat caps.

When I was a kid, the older generation spoke the dialect fluently, spoke it in the pubs, the workplace, in the streets and at the football grounds, but I don’t hear it spoken at all now. I’m losing what bit of it I had too. When I first read Come Whoam, I struggled with it.

The thing with dialect is it’s an oral tradition and doesn’t always translate well to text. Dialect poetry in particular harks back to an era when folk would turn out on a wet weekday night to attend public readings of poetry. Reading Waugh now stirs the ancestral memory, it loosens the frigid grip of standard English, it restores a sense of regional connection, but sadly mine is the last generation for whom spoken dialect will have any relevance at all as a living thing.

For me Waugh’s story is first of all a reminder of the healing power of creative expression. But it also reminds us the working man is not the ignorant, page three gazing buffoon popular culture would have us believe. Given an equal chance – or even sometimes denied it – anyone is capable of finding a means of expression that touches others, be it through writing prose or poetry, painting or music. It will not always bring riches, but it always adds immeasurably to the richness of life itself.

I leave the last word to Waugh:

“If a man was a pair of steam-looms, how carefully would he be oiled, and tended, and mended, and made to do all that a pair of looms could do.  What a loom, full of miraculous faculties, is he compared to these—the master-piece of nature for creative power and for wonderful variety of excellent capabilities!  Yet, with what a profuse neglect he is cast away, like the cheapest rubbish on the earth!”

Ned Waugh died at New Brighton on the Whirral in 1890, aged 73.

For the full version of “Come Whoam”, and a handy translation of those tricky words: click here.

For more on Waugh’s writing: click here.

Reet then. That’s me done.
Aw’ll be seein’ thi.

hubberholme churchReligion is a big thing in human affairs. Unfortunately much of what we hear about it in the media dwells upon the negative – the violent, the bigoted and the perverse. Religion indeed, for all but those who practice it, can seem uncompromisingly repulsive, and at times a very dangerous thing indeed.

My own repulsion from village church going as a child was more on account of bum-aching boredom and a failure of religious language to connect with the affinity children have for the magical dimension. Any potential I might have had for awakening to the more traditional forms of religious expression was blunted, and though I remain sympathetic to its aims, I remain also, at least thus, far immune to evangelism. What I see of religion then will always be from the perspective of an external observer, and the first thing one notices from the outside looking in is that there is a clear dichotomy between matters of spirit and religion.

Those who break with religion scatter into a number of camps. There are those who rail against it aggressively for the rest of their lives, while others don’t think much about it at all, residing contentedly instead in the rational ephemera of the material world. Others set out to roundly disprove the claims of the religious life, only to conclude from their deeper studies on the matter there’s perhaps something in it after all. Thus they are drawn back, supercharged, into the fold, often to number amongst religion’s stoutest champions.

And there are others who spin off into the eclectic and mystical avenues of the so called New Age. This is a potentially dangerous field of study, but there is ground to be made from it. Of course the term “New Age” is a misleading one. We might think it started in the Sixties, with flower-power, LSD and fornicating hippies and all that, but its origins and its underlying philosophies go back much further, to the encounters of western minds with eastern thought in the nineteenth century, also further still to the European Romantic movement, and further, along the trail to where our written accounts peter out on the edge of the impenetrable, into folk religion, into paganism and myth.

The “New Age” is often dismissed as a childish aberration, invention of decadent, spoiled westerners, purloining from the world’s faith traditions the things they like, while ignoring the things they don’t. This may be so, but in its defence I would add what the New Age seeks above all is connection, it seeks the metaphors, the symbols that would translate the words of all spiritual traditions into a single, inclusive and coherent story of life.

MinotaurusBut is such a thing possible? It might seem unlikely with so many stories now purporting to be the word of God, but the work does enable us to pare away the obfuscating trimmings of culture and power politics, to reveal the underlying spiritual ideas. And religions, when mined deep this way, do reveal themselves as essentially the same at root, no matter how different in the flowering of their liturgies – at least if interpreted with a broadly sympathetic and impartial mind. And from such analysis comes a thread, like the thread of Theseus, laid to lead him safe from the labyrinth of the beast man. This thread is the Perennial philosophy, written of with such eloquence by Huxley, a philosophy first taught to us at the knees of Thoth in the days of ancient Egypt, and an enduring idea in the philosophies of the east throughout history.

But while all these things might seek to explain the world, and with diligence we might uncover them and learn them and quote their tenets by rote, the one thing they possess that is exactly the same in each case, is that the philosophy, the thought, the state of mind, the belief, if you will, must be lived for it to mean anything.

Belief is a difficult and a dangerous word. We must have a reason to believe that goes beyond fear – fear that if we do not say we believe, we will be punished until we say we do; fear that if we do not say we believe, we will be ostracised, that we will not be accepted into the group, that we will be stoned to death, our heads cut off, our living bodies set on fire. True belief is about seeing, it is about feeling, it is about an innate knowing.

Belief, in its broadest terms, is an inner knowledge that while the Cosmos will remain for ever pretty much a mystery to us, it is not indifferent to our lives, and it is benign. It is at least well meaning in the general thrust of its direction. Also there are ways we as individuals can make representations to it, and in return receive wisdom, guidance and comfort, like a lamp in the darkness. If we can accept such a thing, if we can go with the flow of it, then we align ourselves with the Cosmic will  and are rewarded with a sense of peace that is rooted in the soul.

This means living a life in one sense always at least partially through the eyes of the Cosmos and measuring our actions accordingly. It makes a difference to the feel of life, to live that way, but it is not essential to life, and even once found and enjoyed, it is easy also to fall away from it, if not exactly to lose faith, but to forget its power to heal in times of personal crisis. The science fiction writer PK Dick was once asked if he could define the nature of reality, and he replied that reality is simply the bit that’s left when you stop believing in it. Stop believing in the spiritual dimension, the physical life, reality, goes on pretty much the same. So who cares?

durleston wood cover smallBut the spiritual life does add immeasurably to the nature of reality, to the way it is seen and felt and experienced.  In my story “Durleston Wood” the protagonist is an agnostic teacher working at a Church School, and to maintain appearances he attends church every Sunday. If all it takes to be a Christian is an hour a week, he tells us, then even he can do it. But our hero has a secret, is cohabiting in the depths of Durleston wood with a dark skinned girl called Lillian, a thing that would upset his largely irreligious, bigoted, and racist fellow church goers. Religion has done little to educate them in the ways of spirit, or even basic decency towards others. But then as Lillian says, the religious life is easy, it is spiritual matters that are much more difficult.


maisondulacAnyway,… there she was, centre-stage, hemmed in between a pair of frightful old waxworks – namely her parents, Monsieur and Madame Lafayette. Madame was one of those jowly old dames who appear permanently displeased, while her husband had the dry, superior air of an old-school academic. Madame had just noticed something on her dessert spoon and, with one eyebrow arched in disapproval, was tipping the spoon towards her husband for him to inspect and share in her low opinion of the standards they were having to endure. I caught the word, ‘sale’,.. dirty! He shook his head and tutted in dutiful dismay. Personally, I’ve never known a better presented hotel than La Maison, and since it so clearly failed to measure up to their expectations I supposed nothing ever would.

Gabrielle had the look of a child that night, and she was so quiet, so undemonstrative, she went unnoticed between her more animated parents. She was pale, looked even a little sickly, and was dressed in an unflattering blouse and an unfashionable skirt that would have better suited someone her mother’s age. This was in stark contrast to the Italian girls on the neighbouring table who were dressed, shall we say, less modestly but considerably more in vogue. However, like the Italian girls, Gabrielle was hardly a child – she must have been in her early thirties – yet she appeared shrunken, the full bloom of her womanhood arrested, and she had become instead a flower rendered papery thin and transparent for want of sunshine.

The only hint that all was not lost was her hair, which had the colour and the fertile sheen of a freshly opened chestnut. It would have been voluminous, I thought, except for now it was severely fastened up. Surely if there was any spirit left in Gabrielle, it had fled her body years ago, and resided now exclusively in those lovely chestnut tresses. What a pleasure it would be, I thought, to see her let that hair down, and let the spirit of her secret self flow back into those sickly bones.
Her eyes never left the table – not even when her parents spoke to her, and I noticed Madame had the habit of fussing with Gabrielle’s table setting, as if the girl could not be trusted to leave things tidy. I found this deeply irritating, though I don’t know why because these people were nothing to me. All the same I wondered how she managed to bear it so patiently.

After dinner I lingered over coffee, watching as she left the dining room, still captured safe between them, noting also how she walked with a pronounced stoop, as if wary of low ceilings, that she was embarrassed by her height, afraid to rise up to the stature of which she was surely capable. And beneath the rather ill fitting clothes, I’m ashamed to say I joined the dots and reconstructed the outline of an attractive figure, generously curved,… curiously desirable,…

Actually, although it might read like a story, this incident is taken pretty much from the observations of a lone man in the dining room of an hotel. Namely me. It also forms the opening of my novel “The Last Guests of La Maison Du Lac”, written decades later, and by which it becomes more of a half-truth, before blurring out altogether into the realms of a purer form of fiction.

Her name was probably not Gabrielle, nor did I see her again after she left the dining room that evening. But the impression of her lingered subliminally, and she was to provide a powder keg of inspiration for a further two hundred thousand words, much later in life. It was an English hotel in reality, but I moved it to Switzerland, fashioned it roughly along the lines of another place I’d stayed in on Lake Lucerne. I did this because the dining room of that Swiss establishment had a view of the lake and a snow capped Pilatus, which I renamed because location wasn’t important in the geographical sense – only a dramatic and mysterious remoteness.

Then in April 2010, as I penned this opening, an Icelandic volcano, the Eyjafjallajökull, erupted and for a period of 6 days, grounded every aircraft in northern and western Europe. This bit is also true, but if I’d made that bit up – I mean about the eruption – no one would have believed me because it was too fantastic. It was the first time since Bleriot the skies were empty of flying machines – a sudden and extraordinary thing that caused chaos. This gave me permission to try other unsettling ideas, like how about an X class solar flare which combines with the outfall of that volcano to produce an electromagnetic pulse, one that that wipes out every microchip in the northern hemisphere? Cars, planes, computers, memory cards, watches, everything electronic,… gone! Overnight.

And then again I was thinking about buying an old car, an MGB, a vehicle that predates just about every modern convenience. In the end I didn’t buy it, but it got me thinking how such a vehicle would be unaffected by  electromagnetic pulses, and I’d find myself being the only visitor to La Maison not now stranded. But what kind of Europe would I find outside the calm oasis of La Maison, and with a thousand miles of uncertain roads to drive between me and Blighty? And what if the peculiarly oppressed Gabrielle came to me and asked that, when I leave, will I take her with me, because she wants to escape her monstrous parents?

What kind of story would that then be, I wonder? And how much stranger could I make it?

Writing is a melting pot of seemingly unconnected ideas, encounters, events. They all go into the pot. Life and memory stir them. Reflection over the keyboard produces strange, sometimes alchemical effects as these disjointed things, sometimes decades apart, join to form an unexpectedly coherent and informative narrative. It’s as if our lives are not played out solely in linear time – that what happens today might not make sense right now, but only later when tacked onto something else that happens twenty years later. Truth or fiction? Well, it’s a bit of both usually, the boundaries blurred, smeared out across time and space, and the writer doesn’t care. It’s just a story after all.

You can link to the novel from the right of the page. It’s free. No sweat. I had a great time writing it. On the Richter scale of fictional strangeness, I put La Maison at around a nine. And boy that Gabrielle,… she really was something else.

Keep well.

Talking to cars

Mazda under cover I take a breath, click the clicky thing and I say: “Radio?”

The car responds. Female voice. Mature. Slightly bossy. “Radio.”

“FM?”

“FM,… frequency please?…”

“Ninety three.”

Pause. The car computes, and then: “Not possible.”

I try again: “Radio?”

“Radio.”

“FM?”

“FM,… Frequency please?….”

Best 1950’s BBC accent now: “Ninety three.”

Pause,… “Tuning,…. Eighty three. Not possible.”

“What? No,… I said NINETY THREE,….”

Clearly this voice recognition thing has some way to go. It isn’t exactly one of the stand-out features of the Ford Focus. Instead, I fumble for the little preset button that takes me to 93 FM, and Radio 4.

Radio 4 annoys me these days, but everything else on the radio annoys me more. I prefer silence as I drive, but my commute is long and boring, and sometimes I like a companionable background babble for a change. We are half way through my commute, about 7:45, traffic at a standstill, sleety rain, just coming light. I’ve had the car a few days and we’re still getting to know one another.

Radio 4 is broadcasting a political interview. Both the politician and the interviewer have tones like cheese graters. Prickly. Abrasive. Adversarial. I don’t want to arrive at work already irritated, so better to turn the radio off, but – and lets be honest here – I don’t know how to turn the radio off.

It’s either this or Rock FM.

“Radio?”

“Radio.”

“Off.”

“Not recognised.”

The voices drone on. In the end I turn the volume down all the way. That will have to do for now.

The voice of the car makes me feel like a dimwit. I daresay I won’t be talking to it very much.

And I’m missing old Grumpy.

Grumpy is now living in Wales. I know this because his new owner rang last night to ask about the service book. I thought I’d left it in the car, but it turns out it’s still in my hall-table drawer. I don’t know how the new owner got my number. I didn’t sell Grumpy to him. I traded Grumpy in to the dealer for a pittance, because Grumpy needed work, and I hope they did the work before selling the car on. The dealer must have passed on my number which was naughty of them, but they’ve like as not already sold it round the world anyway, so it hardly matters. And the new owner seems pleased with Grumpy. I’m glad he’s found a good home. Ages since I was in Wales.

The Focus is a decent car and, in the main, looking pretty sound. The blurb extols the virtues of this new-fangled Ecoboost engine with twin clutch automatic transmission – claims I can get 40 mpg in mixed motoring. But 36.4 seems to be the limit so far, even driving with a feather touch, and I was getting that out of Grumpy without trying. And Grumpy had a bigger, older engine, and a dull old torque converter gearbox. One wonders at the fuss and blather. Still, the Focus is half the road tax of Grumpy, and that’s the equivalent of a couple of tyres.

I’ve not seen it properly yet in daylight. Not even sure of the colour – sort of blue-grey. I bought it in the pouring rain, and it’s been raining ever since, except on the few occasions when it’s been dark. That’s what it’s like. Wintertime. The commuter mule is mostly invisible. You go to it in the morning, demist it, brush away the snow, scrape the frost,.. whatever. Then it conveys you to the dayjob at an average speed of 22 miles per hour.

But it smells nice inside, smells of “new car”, a scent you can apparently buy, and which the dealer has clearly been very liberal with. It’s comfortable, quiet, plenty of poke when you want it,… and the dashboard lights up very prettily indeed. The transmission is strange – the odd bump and shuffle, but I think this is normal for a twin clutch auto. Yes, it’s fine. It’ll do.

But,…

It does not exactly make me smile.

I have another car, not for commuting. It spends much of the winter in the garage, gathering dust, avoiding the wet and the frost. What with one thing or another I’ve not been out in it for a couple of weeks. It’s my old Mazda MX5. It’s noisy, has a gearbox that takes an hour of running before it’s silky smooth; it has an engine as tight as a duck’s bottom unless you shamelessly thrash it. It smells of venting battery and damp, is brutally hard sprung, clatters over the bumps, rattles your teeth, and the rag-top is fraying,…

The rain stopped briefly on Sunday, and a winter sun peeped through just long enough to dry the roads. So I backed the Mazda out and took her for a spin to keep her limber. She warmed quickly and began to enjoy the road. Yes the Mazda enjoys the road. I know she does. I feel it in her bones. Smooth she’s not, quiet she’s not, but, oh,… what a joy that Mazda is to drive.

And yet,…

This morning the frost was layered thick upon the Focus while the Mazda slept in, snug beneath her blanket. It was a hard sheen of ice with jewelled drops, and a fine fuzz of dendritic growth on top, like a snowy fungus. It all was a glitter under a shivery clear skied dawn. Two clicks on the dashboard and the heated front and rear screens had the car ready to go in a minute. The ice capitulated.

“So,” says the Focus, “you want to go? Well come on then. Stop messing about. Quit blathering about the road-poetry of that flipping Mazda. Let’s go!”

The back roads were a sheen of black. The Mazda would have tested my nerves and risked a nose-dive into the ditch at the first bend. With the Focus I dared to test traction with a dab on the brakes. It responded with the sure footed grind of ABS, came crouching to a straight line stop. Safe as houses.

“Well, what did you expect?” it says. “High drama? Pirouettes?”

And then: “Listen,” it says, “What you get with me is the A to B. I’m about getting you there when getting there is what matters. That flighty little Mazda is about catching up all the bits you’ve missed inbetween, and only when the sun is shining.”

Makes sense at last. Respect. If I’m not careful I’ll be giving it a name.

Just waiting for one that sticks.

man writingImagine a man who lives on a tiny island no one has heard of. He has a small pension from a lifetime of labour in the mills, but now spends his time in a little house, writing poems. When they are finished, he writes each poem out one last time in his best handwriting, on sheets of cream coloured Basildon Bond paper. Then he rolls them up, seals each in a beer-bottle and casts them into the sea. He does not put his name to his poems.

Old age catches up and the man eventually dies.  His notes, his books, are thrown out with the rubbish, his house re-let. No one even knew he was a poet.

Now, imagine another man who lives in the thick of the city. He’s worked at a long line of minimum wage type jobs by day, and by night he writes poems. When they are finished, he sends them off to literary magazines. All are rejected. None are published. He perseveres in the hope his name will eventually appear in print, but it never does. He does this not so much to court fame – poetry is hardly the best way of doing that – but rather because he feels seeing his name in a literary magazine would be to validate the legitimacy of his thoughts, his feelings, his way of seeing the world.

Eventually, like the other guy, he dies. His notes, his books are thrown out with the rubbish, his house re-let. No one even knew he was a poet.

Both of these are romantic stories, all the more for their ending in apparent failure – neither man’s name ever becoming known, each remaining obscure, their life’s labours amounting to nothing.

But let’s think about it for a moment.

Of the two, the first man, the islander, seems least concerned by obscurity. That he offers his finest to the sea has the feel of a spiritual act, an act that betrays a greater level of transcendence than the second man who seeks validation all his life, and never finds it. So whose is the greater failure? Can either be said to have failed at all? Can anyone actually fail at life?

So, the first man seems further along on the journey of self discovery than the second. The second man’s life is a journey of self discovery just the same, but one hampered by the mistaken belief that such a self can only be “discovered” in the approval of someone else – an editor, a publisher, a literary type.

The first man is not an undiscovered literary genius. He’s actually a less talented poet, technically, than the second. His poems are laboured and over-long. Had he sent them to the magazines they would most likely not have merited a second glance anyway. But, as anyone picking up one of his anonymous little bottles will tell you, his work was sincere. He asked questions of the universe, made attempts at answering. Sometimes the answers came, and he felt a tingle of revelation. Sometimes not.

It was the same for the other guy.

This is how most of us write. It’s a lonely business, but no different to anyone else. Everyone, writer or not, poet or not, artist or not, famous or not, is caught up in the riddle of their own obscurity, in the apparent meaninglessness of their lives – even the famous are unknown to all but themselves. How we solve the riddle is the secret to making peace with life. And writing.

When we write then, the ideas we work with must pass the test of satisfying first a need within ourselves. Our work is a question we pose, and for which no one else has an answer that’s going to mean anything to us. The answer must come of itself, through us, either literally as a revelation, or more subtly as a shift in consciousness, like a gate opening, allowing us to pass through to pastures new.

Of course some of us, by fluke, luck, unstinting application, or literary contacts, will have our work published, but it’s important to realise this does not alter the fact of our absolute obscurity, and no amount of successful work or books under our belt will ever satisfy the very human pining for self vindication. Between 1995 and 2005 I published twenty short fictions in Ireland, and they’ve made not a jot of difference to anything. I’ve published nothing since, and that hasn’t made a difference to anything either.

For the famous writer, what the reader will come to know of him is not the truth, only the pseudonymic myth. For the famous writer, obscurity is all the more galling then for there being any number of people who think they know you, when they don’t know you at all.

One’s life’s adventure can only ever be a personal journey, shared by none, known by none, not even from the journals we keep. Loneliness, emptiness – these are things banished only by the company we seek – friends, family, even the animals we care for. But the inner self, the self that has us write, is separated from something more than human. And it seeks reunion. It seeks the source.

The man who tosses his poems into the sea is not belittled by obscurity. He lives the imaginative life to the full and is kept company by it for as long as he lives, and writes. That is his meaning, his purpose, his journey. The second guy’s life is heroic, persevering in the face of rejection. It is the archetypal story of the writer’s life. But the second guy must take care not to lose sight of what he’s writing for. He must take care to avoid his craft descending to the level of a war against rejection and obscurity, because that’s a futile task, a lost cause, one that risks blocking access to the source. This too is his story, and though not a failure, it is a less than noble outcome to a life’s labours.

Without the imaginative life to support him, the writer risks having little worthwhile writing about.

 

Time Machines

IMG_1982Clocks and watches, wind-up ones, are a hobby of mine. I’ve collected a lot of them over the years. As a mechanical engineer they fascinate me and serve also as a reminder of the skill of past generations. Out of my collection, I’m favouring a Roamer Anfibio at the moment, a retro gents dress style in gold plate, manufactured around 1967. I picked it up off Ebay for twenty quid. The winder is a little worn and the stem doesn’t hold position when you need to adjust the time any more, but it has a quality movement that keeps faultless time. Not bad for a watch that’s been ticking for fifty years. I also think it’s rather smart.

But here’s the thing: it was something my son said in passing while I peered at the innards of an old and ailing clock. Why this fascination for the machines of time? I gave a vague answer, regurgitating something I’ve explored before, something about the watch or clock face being a mandala, symbol of the self, and an invitation to explore the meaning of my life in relation to time. This is one answer, certainly, though perhaps a little over-clever. But my son came back with a much simpler, more accurate one:

The clock or the watch projects an unsettling influence, but one to which I am addicted. Meditative teachings try to anchor us in the present moment, have us observe it, and bathe ourselves in the feeling of being one with it, one with timelessness. This is the right place to be. But the function of the timepiece is to disrupt this stillness and propel us into the future, to remind us of the time “now” but only in relation to the time remaining before some event for which we must not be late, or by which time we must have begun or completed a course of action. To consult the watch or the clock is like lobbing a stone into the still waters of the present moment.

Day to day, we live by the clock. Its fingers close down on one deadline after the other. We have no choice in this. The world we have built is a machine in which we each play our part – our actions, our presence, all timed by the clock; it determines the mechanistic efficiency with which we perform. In particular, those of us still caught up with a day-job have no choice because faulty timing in this respect will get us fired. But I’ve noticed even those souls now safely retired, and for whom life has the potential to return to the eternal blissful, timeless present, will invent artificial deadlines that they might still live by the clock, still live permanently with their minds fixed always, and anxiously, on some point in the future – be it ten minutes, or ten hours or ten days from now. Perhaps then it’s more accurate to say it is the future that’s our addiction. We simply can’t get enough of it.

In my own life presence, though much sought after, is rare. It is enjoyed occasionally, and usually out of doors where traces of man and his machinery are scant. Such moments are cherished, but easily lost. All I have to do is look at my watch, and I am at once transported into the future which really isn’t a place our heads should be caught up in for very long at all. In the search for stillness then I have unwittingly surrounded myself with enemies, these machines of time.

So to finish,…

A little poem about time:
Stop the clock

I would grasp the moment as it circles,
Carried on the fingers of the clock.
Hours,
Minutes,
Seconds from now.
Anticipate its coming,
Split the second,
And again,…

Too late.
Missed.
The moment passes,
Slips between my fingers,
Fades into the past,
Is gone.
Never in fact,
Existed,
At all.

But if I half-close my eyes, and breathe,…
I find
The moment
All around.
And in such presence,
I might even glimpse
The essence
Of an eternal self.

To hold such a moment,
Is not to anticipate,
Nor is it to grasp
At the sweep of time.
It is,…

To stop the clock,
To remove the fingers,
One by one,
Leaving only the circle,
Of their former sweep,
By which to enter,
Stillness.

fingerless watch

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