Archive for September, 2009

The Trials of Parenthood

Yesterday evening, as my good lady and I were relaxing after our respective tussles with the insane world of work, number 2 son came with plaintive cries of woe that he had misplaced his geography worksheet, which was due in tomorrow morning. Shortly after this, number 1 son casually let it drop that he had gained a “D” in his biology test. This was after 9:00 PM, when both offspring should hopefully have been in bed, it being a school night, a time when parents could hopefully throttle back and indulge in a naughty but very nice treat of Monday night wine. Throttling back was abandoned and yours truly and good lady engaged instead in angst ridden conversation over how effective we were being as parents – and how could we let such things happen?

This evening, Tuesday, I made a wry comment at the tea table, regarding the above and asked both numbers 1 and 2 son not to break such news again at that time of night. We had a laugh, and I judged everything to be cool. Number 1 son repaired his bedroom to continue homeworking, while number 2 son said he was off on his bike to the corner shop for a can of pop.

I was concerned at the failing of the light, but judged he had enough time to get there and back before he became invisible to motorists. I told him to be careful, as I always do –  a parental reflex, but something worried me – I can’t say what exactly. You have to give them room, give them freedom, I thought. You worry. You can’t help it. You’re a parent. But you have to give them room. Five minutes later he’s standing at the back door, looking stricken, blood dripping down his face and arm. Fell off his bike. Hit his head on the road.

A normal evening becomes at once an emergency, because this is my son, and he’s bleeding.

Cleaned him up with a towel, tried to be reassuring, though I’d not a clue how serious it was. Tried to ascertain the extent of the damage. Not as bad as I had feared. Just one small, but worryingly deep and gaping cut in his temple. Some bruising, looked painful, but number two son, though shaken seemed stoically brave. Not much blood for the depth of the wound, but weeping strangely. I felt sick and slightly faint but I bottled it up, because the lad needed a dependable parent. Right?

Accident and Emergency department? Possible 4 hour wait? Yes? No? Yes? No?

Informed good lady, who was just settling down with deep sigh in front of the TV that Number 2 son required immediate evacuation to hospital A+E. Informed good lady also that regrettably, although husband was capable of driving in all haste, required also attendance of good lady in case husband, sweating profusely and feeling slightly queer, flaked out at critical moment.

Car with dodgy gearbox and recently repaired cooling system fired up. Drove like bat out of hell.

Staff at local A+E  department marvellous – a couple of lovely ladies who glued number 2 son’s gashed head together with smiles and reassuring jollity. Good lady kept number 2 son company for this bit – father remained in waiting room. In and out in 30 minutes.

Hopefully all is well now. Number 2 son sleeping peacefully. Must keep head dry for next five days.

Next time he can tell me he’s tipped his school bag in the river, and number 1 son can admit to playing truant for the last few years, and I promise I won’t bat an eye. There’s nothing like a trip to A+E with a bleeding child for resetting one’s  perspective.

Read Full Post »

Vauxhall Astra at RivingtonSo, I’d promised the car a clean up and a run out at the weekend. I don’t seem to have done any serious damage. The gearbox is noisy from cold but it’s changing gear okay and running smoothly once it’s warm. Hopefully this will be sorted when the new gearbox it fitted.  Anyway, the plan was to drive over to Southport around mid-morning for the annual Air Show, but I hit traffic at the little bottleneck village of Croston, still about ten miles out. I crawled for five miles before finally admitting defeat at Mere Brow, and turning the car around. I’ve never seen traffic like it! Maybe the publicity for this event was unusually wide reaching this year – I don’t know – but it seemed as if the whole of Lancashire was heading into Southport this morning.

No 2 son, (13 yrs) riding shotgun for the day, was understandably gutted and his expression broke my heart. How do you make up for missing the spectacle of the Red Arrows and other assorted jets flying flat out over Southport sands? Well, it’s not easy, but you could always head up to Rivington and go looking for conkers instead, followed by a deluxe hot chocolate at the barn. This met with unexpectedly enthusiastic approval, so off we went.

Rivington’s not the best place to head to either if you want a quiet run out – especially on a Sunday. This is a very special little place, and it’s on everyone’s list of R+R destinations, hereabouts, so, although I’ve yet to encounter a traffic jam heading into it, finding somewhere to leave your car when you get there can be a problem. However, a little local knowledge opens up a number of possibilities, and I rarely struggle. So, while the queue to Southport Airshow snaked for 10 miles across the plain of Lancashire, No 2 son and I donned our boots in the shadow of the Pennines and went in search of chestnuts.

Unlike the airshow, which we went to for the first time only last year, conker gathering has been an annual ritual for as long as I can remember, and is one the seasonal events I set my internal calendar by. I’m not telling you where we gather conkers because, as every lad knows, these are places that should be kept secret. You’re always a bit anxious approaching your favourite little location, come conker season because you never know if it’ll be a bumper crop this time or a famine, or if the locals will have stripped the trees bare before you’ve arrived.

chestnut rivingtonThe trees are just beginning to turn now, and the chestnuts, although not exactly abundant, were plenty enough to keep No 2 son happy. grubbing about in the undergrowth. Indeed at one point they were raining from the trees, already cracked open, and landing uncannily close, as if the squirrels were intent on repelling boarders. Having said this, it took a little while to find our first one, after which the pickings seemed to come easier. It’s hard to explain the satisfaction of finding that first chestnut – the rich brown colour, the freshly varnished sheen set against the pale green, and the smooth, sensual feel of it as you roll it in the palm of your hand. Lad’s stuff, I know, but it really does your heart good.

And the hot chocolate at Rivington Barn? 10 out of 10 as usual!

I trust those of you who made it to the air show weren’t disappointed. I’ll have to set off earlier next year – or I may just go conker hunting instead.

Read Full Post »

Sunset, Lancashire, England September, 24 2009Well, I picked up the car yesterday after over a week in the workshop.  The gearbox is still goosed and I’ll have to take the car back in to have it replaced when the new one arrives from Vauxhall. All of this is just a temporary fix then, but at least I’m rolling again.  What seems to have been happening is the radiator was leaking water into the gearbox, which steamed off and turned the gearbox oil to brown slime. You’d no idea the car was losing water because there’s no temperature gauge to  warn you and the first you know about it the thing’s boiling over – though I had the added excitement of a blown hose. I think Vauxhall have a recall on this one now  so if you’ve got a new model Astra auto, like mine, I suggest you get it into your local dealer for a checkup. Anyway, the  car looked mucky, bird pooped and sad when I picked it up, but I’ll cheer it up with a wash, a polish, and a run out to somewhere nice at the weekend.

I arrived early at the dealership and had to hang about for the place to open. Also hanging about was the driver of a massive car transporter – a smart, well groomed chap of late middle years, who came over to me for a chat. His job involved a weekly round of the North, picking up cars from Grimsby, then delivering them to various garages, then back down to Grimsby, for more cars, and another round of deliveries. We talked about sat navs and motorways and all sorts of things really. He was a skilful conversationalist, unlike yours truly, who’s a bit lost once he lifts his fingers from the keyboard. The guy was subtly testing my local knowledge and sucking out bits of it that might be useful to him – like what was down this road, and do you think I’ll get my rig down there?  He had a light touch and it was a pleasure to talk with him – unlike the Taxi driver who drove me over, who didn’t say a word, drove aggressively, like he had the devil on his tail, and the car in front was just a figment of our imagination.

Like the Taxi driver, the transporter guy had a job to do and not much time to do it in, but he had such an easy going way about him I  could imagine him slipping through all sorts of problems and coming out the other end still smiling, and still on time. It’s all a question of personality I suppose, but I think this business of our approach to life is important, and of the two characters I encountered this morning, I know whose version of the world I’d prefer living in.

Speaking of “approach”, you can see this in the speculative fiction genre I seem Hell bent on targeting again. I fired off that story at long last, but I’m not sure now it was a good idea. I’ve been perusing some of stuff in the mag’s archives and really, my stories don’t seem to fit at all. These other stories were far more gritty and edgy than mine. They also deal with themes that are frequently horrific to me, and depressing – like my bird pooped car. They take you places I’m not sure I want to go – which I guess is the mark of good fiction, but there seems to be no room for anything more optimistic any more. Look they’re saying, this is going to make you physically sick, but it’s how things are going to be for us in the future, so toughen up, because we’re all doomed, and the future is no place to be looking forward to at all. I noticed this same thing the last time I researched the genre, and it’s no different now. I wonder if I should really be calling my stuff speculative at all?

My characters are usually confused and possibly slightly mad (okay a bit like me). They see the world in an odd sort of way,(a bit like me) but they have a positive take on life.(most of the time, I hope). They’re driven by the promises of  love, happiness or enlightenment. (okay, got me there too). They want to be happy, and they usually find happiness, though not in the place they originally thought they would. (Hmn) They have to change, be flexible in their thoughts, and bend with the wind. They don’t live in cities. They live in places where there’s green grass and trees, and open meadows you can wander through at your ease without fear of getting mugged by some muppet with a knife.

Conversely, much of the speculative genre consists of gritty urban decay, drug taking, deviant sex, muck, and cruelty to others, either criminal or state sanctioned – not the sort of stuff I’d be happy letting my mother or my kids read. Maybe it’s like that in parts our cities – I don’t know because I don’t spend that much time in them, but the impression I get from reading the press these days (and know this isn’t true) is you’re likely to have your tyres shot out for merely passing through.

I have tried to inject this kind of “attitude ” into my writing but I always end up feeling either ridiculous, or perverted because I simply don’t believe in it and I’m left wondering if I’m living on the same planet the authors for whom this kind of stuff comes most naturally. Are they all just so much younger than me? Admittedly, their work is in demand, so who’s right here? Or have we simply gone so far down the rocky road of rational ruination, there’s no longer any room for optimism, love or enlightenment?

I’ve often thought the difference between literary fiction and any old pap is that the “any old pap” story tends to have a happy ending, while the literary story will avoid it all costs, even if the result is incomprehensible and more like a blown raspberry to the reader, than a rounded piece of writing. Now, I’m hardly the best judge because I failed my O-Level English Lit. I hadn’t a clue what was required and I hadn’t a clue how the other kids knew what the answers were. I’d never heard of study guides, and realise now they were just copying what they’d been told to say about all this stuff, by the literary experts who’d put the guides together in the first place. Bathsheba Everdene (famous novel heroine) thought this because blah di blah di blah and these are the key quotes that prove it, right? Meanwhile I just read the stories, and the plays and the poems in isolation and thought to myself: “What?”

It seems I’m still doing it.

What’s all this building up to? Not sure yet – but I’ve often been struck by the fact that the leading establishment thinkers in the west, our philosophers, our writers, or whatever, seem pale and sickly from staring into the abyss. We look to them for advice, for explanation, and they just shake their heads like Corporal Frasier in an episode of Dad’s Army and tell us: “we’re all doooo-med.”

I’m reminded of Alfred Russel Wallace, the guy who, independently of Darwen, came up with the theory of evolution. Wallace was deeply disturbed by the implications of it, as many were, because it seemed to eliminate the spiritual dimension from life. Suddenly, the mystery of life was reduced to a blind mish mash, and these feelings of moral, intellectual and spiritual superiority possessed by mankind were basically delusions, or tricks of the mind which somehow merely conferred upon us an evolutionary advantage in some way that wasn’t – and still isn’t – clearly understood.

Wallace said that if we eliminated the spiritual dimension, if we concluded there was no actual point to existence, and if we continued developing society on that basis then we were sunk, because there was something in us that demanded we pay attention to the spiritual, the religious life, and we ignored it at our peril.

Carl Jung said pretty much the same thing. He called it the religious function. If you ignore it, he said, suppress it, denigrate it, or otherwise mess about with it, it’ll make you ill, as an individual, or collectively as a species. You’ll become depressed, pessimistic, irrational, riddled with psychoses, or just plain mad.

Wallace sought to redress the balance in his own life by looking into spiritualism – many of his contemporaries did the same. It seemed to offer tantalising proof of the continuation of some kind of existence after death, which suggested to him there must be something more to evolution that we’d yet to understand. Of course the establishment simply thought he’d lost it – there’s nothing like a whiff of spiritualism to get the rationalists sharpening their knives is there? Anyway, for all of that the ideas of spiritualism seem to have done little to substantially alter the way most of us actually see the world since Wallace’s day.

Admittedly I’m not that well up on spiritualism, because I’m too much of a scaredy cat to look more closely at it, but certain things like for example the Myers Cross Correspondences, the writings of Patience Worth, and the Scole incident are not so easy to explain away, yet we set them to one side in the hope that the dust of history alone will discredit them for us (it couldn’t have been true and anyway it was such a long time ago we’ve no way of reliably knowing for sure now, have we? So it’s best just to let it go, old chap). While I think part of us wants to believe in such things, another part of us does not and is perhaps (in part) genetically predisposed to reject them.

I suppose this is understandable, and necessary. If we all knew with absolute certainty that life went on after death, in whatever way – either some psychological continuation of existence on another plane, or perhaps another incarnation on this one, that the transition to it could be painlessly arranged and even pleasant, then I think a good many would be queuing up to give it a try. But that doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.  In this way then, our rational thinking ensures a healthy circumspection, it keeps us focussed firmly in this life because, well, it might be the only one we’ve got and we shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to want to leave it.

So, I picked up my car, had a chat with this guy, got thinking about our approach to life, which led me on to the doom and gloom in much of the  speculative fiction I’ve been reading recently, and then somehow shunted myself into the buffers of spiritualism.  But there’s a point, I think. It’s like what I was going on about earlier this week in my post on the Garden Buddha: it’s pretty much our lot in life to deal with its attendant suffering, but there’s no sense in making a virtue out of it, or making things seem worse than they really are. All right – we shouldn’t let go of our sense of critical reasoning, or we can end up believing in any old rubbish, and if the scientific evidence tells us something is the way it is, then we have to be respectful of that. However we shouldn’t hold on to our rational senses so tightly that we are no longer moved by the mystery of existence, or we’re going to end up  believing in nothing at all but the sum total of three thousand years of western rationalist philosophy, which seems only to be telling us that you suffer and then you die.

And I really don’t believe that.

Do you?

So. Step back from the brink. Smile. Go take a walk in the countryside, far away from your city walls. Go and see what the world looks like from the top of a hill. Nurture love. Make love, dammit. Go find a beach, take off your shoes and socks and let the sea wash over your toes. Plant a tree. Hug a tree. Look up into the sky at night and let the stars amaze you.

In my stories I may occasionally point out what I see as the rocky road to rational ruination, but I won’t try to break your heart by leading you any further along it than I think we need to go, because it’s taking us in the wrong direction, and I have another destination in mind altogether.

Read Full Post »

garden buddhaSome time ago now, my good lady was a guest at a church service in London. The sermon, she said, with a mischievous twinkle, would have interested me because it began with the showing of two pictures, side by side, one of Christ nailed to the cross, and the other of the Buddha, serenely floating on a cloud. However, this was not an example of ecumenical harmony  – indeed it was quite the opposite. The illustrations were used to show how Christ was very much involved in life, quite literally nailed up and suffering on account of it, that this was what life was all about: being in the thick of things, and really suffering. As for the other fellow, well just look at him: floating about serenely, eyes closed, completely out of it. How involved is that? One is living with suffering, the other is avoiding life by retreating into a sort of cloud-cuckoo land.

Now, I was a little surprised by this as I’d imagined the various religious genres were less prone to taking a pop at one another these days, though I suppose of all the non-christian religious icons that might have been chosen for such undeserved denigration, Buddha is probably the one least likely to have taken offence.

Anyway, for a moment, I found myself feeling quite cross, which was surely what my good lady, had playfully intended. I was cross because the vicar or the speaker, or whoever this person was had obviously missed the point and was demonstrating only their ignorance of Buddhism. Moreover, as a spiritual leader, they really should have known better than to speak in such an ill-informed way about another tradition. Surely, no one understands the nature of suffering, its reality, and its causes, more than the Buddhists! Also if it’s possible by analysis to root out the causes of suffering, eliminate it as much as is possible, and live a happier, more peaceful life as a result, as the Buddhists suggest we can, then what’s wrong with that? How could the speaker not have understood this? I mean, it was ridiculous! It was a cheap shot, playing to an audience of the already converted. How antiquated! How perfectly,….. medieval!

Then as if he’d been sitting up on the back row of the theatre of my mind, I heard Buddha break out into an enormous belly laugh, not at news of the sermon, but at me, at my crossness. I saw the joke, and laughed too, laughed at myself. You let it go. You recognise the snare, you disentangle yourself from it before it’s had time to do you any damage, and you move on.

I’ve been studying Buddhist and Taoist philosophies now for about a decade,  looking for parallels in  various western humanist ideas, and trying to apply the stuff I’ve picked up in both my basic approach to living, and also in trying to understand life a little better. I’ve had a small statue of the Buddha in a corner of my garden for several years,  but this is more on account of his role as a cultural icon, than a religious one  – I bought him from a garden centre. I’ve certainly never considered myself to be a Buddhist, because I always reckoned there was so much more involved than I probably had time for, and I wasn’t sure I really “got” Buddhism that well anyway. I have some books, I explore meditation, I sometimes seek out the Dalai Lama on You Tube, but it doesn’t make you a Buddhist, does it? I mean, I don’t want to be pinned down, and labelled as anything really. I’m not that familiar with the Buddha’s Dhammapada, and find myself more naturally drawn to Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Also, it has to be said, I rather like the idea of Lao Tzu putting all his wisdom into those wonderfully enigmatic verses, before disappearing into the sunset with a dancing girl, and leaving us all to it. (at least that’s what I heard)

For a moment though, after Buddha laughed, I realised I understood more about Buddhism than I’d perhaps given myself credit for. It crystallised, and in the letting go of my childish pique, I became a  Buddhist – at least for the moment – if not actually a real one, then perhaps a sincere garden one, one who has gained much spiritual,  psychological and philosophical mileage from reading the ideas of a character, who, in modern times has sneaked into the West in disguise as this cultural icon, rather than an overtly religious one.

Conversely, I failed to understand why picture of the suffering Christ was spiritually superior.  Perhaps someone can enlighten me? To suffer is to live? I don’t think the Buddhists would argue with that one, but there seemed to be a suggestion that it was somehow more virtuous to suffer, and unrealistic to seek an end to suffering – that indeed this could only be achieved by retreating from the world into a kind of meditative bubble in which we might as well not be alive at all.

But meditation is not an escape. We do not hide in our meditation – indeed, psychologically speaking, the opposite seems the case to me, most of us only able to get by in our day-to-day lives by hiding all sorts of things from ourselves, all the time. There is nothing more fantastical therefore, than the perception of reality many of us weave for ourselves. Meditation, on the other hand, gives us a chance to step aside from the illusion. In meditation we seek to achieve nothing at all for a while. We just stop. And if we stop often enough, the mind begins to simmer down a bit, and eventually, when we’re not meditating, we begin to see things differently, and react to situations differently, because a part of the mind that was subdued before, has the chance to get a word in edgeways now. Meditation then, is not sitting on a cloud and hiding from reality. It’s about establishing for yourself a subtly different view of what that reality is.

Our actual life is no different. We still suffer. We have the same disappointments, shocks and upsets as before. Family and friends pass away unexpectedly, we still get ill, crash our car, lose our wallet, the doorbell rings in the middle of our tea and there’s some evangelist trying to convert us to their particular brand of religious extremism, our computer gets a virus, and we break our wristwatch. Then there are more subtle  forms of suffering that one might call self-inflicted, and are  caused simply by the way we view the world through the distorted lens of our attitudes, beliefs and prejudices.

Buddhism then does not change the things life throws at you. It just makes you see them differently, so you suffer less emotional damage as a result. And of course seeing things differently dissolves our unhelpful attitudes and our petty prejudices, so that self inflicted suffering, at least, ought to be attainable by all but the most benighted of souls.

The Buddhists say we suffer in life because we’re attached to it – not just to life, but to the details that make up our lives. Things can never really be the way we want, they say, because things just don’t last. They are impermanent, yet we try to fool ourselves into thinking everything’s going to last for ever, and that certain things are valuable enough to be worth pursuing at any cost – money, fame, material goods, or even less tangible things like love, health, happiness, or the respect of others. The pursuit of anything gives rise to feelings of passion, excitement and greed but once we have attained something our desire for it vanishes, to be replaced by the fear of its possible loss. Its loss is inevitable, eventually: whatever it is, it won’t last, but we still cling to it.

What can we do then? Well, according to the Buddhist method, if we can accept our troubles are caused by our desires, then naturally we can reduce our troubles by desiring things less, by recognising more the impermanent nature of the world around us and the things in it, and getting less worked up by unhelpful ambitions to hang onto things for ever, be they stuff, states of mind or even just ideas about the way things are. If we can find a way of looking at life dispassionately, if we can recognise the impermanent nature of things, and be less inclined towards attachment, that is the secret of a happier life. Happiness therefore is not hanging on against the odds – it is letting go. The pursuit of happiness is inherently self defeating and the secret is that the giving up of one’s ambitions to be happy, leads to the greatest happiness of all.

As with all the things I witter on about, they should not be looked upon as self-evident truths, or beliefs that I wish to force down the throats of others. They are merely the things I think, and, in the words of the writer Flannery O’Conner, I tend to write in order to see what it is that I think. And I have been led to think this way because I find that if I apply these thoughts, I feel a little better, and fancy I can sometimes see a little further than the end of my nose  – which is really the best any of us have to go on.

To live is to suffer, sure, but the idea that it is good to suffer any more than we have to sounds more like self-indulgence to me.

Michael Graeme


Read Full Post »

The Author's practice Jian "Meadow"

Every grown man needs an excuse to play with a sword. Tai Chi gives you  the perfect opportunity, but there are dangers involved, and they might not be the ones you expect. Swords can be sharp, obviously, but anyone practising Tai Chi with a sharp sword is an idiot and shouldn’t be doing it, so that’s not what I’m talking about here. A Tai Chi practice sword looks like the real thing, feels like the real thing, twangs like the real thing – indeed in all respects it is the real thing – but it’s never sharp, so it’s not cutting yourself you need to watch out for.

What I’m talking about, is getting caught up in the mystique of the sword.

East or West, there is perhaps no greater symbol than the sword. Although they’ve been pretty much out of date since someone invented the machine gun, they still possess a powerful allure. They are phallic and suggestive of the masculine, of Yang, of  Ego.

I am reminded of a scene in Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”, when the rakish Sergeant Troy is beguiling the coquettish Bathsheba with his swordplay, and if there was ever a more erotic sex scene written in a book without actually being written, if you know what I mean, well that was it. As for the ego bit, well,… I noticed when I began my general Tai Chi practice it was just about the uncoolest thing a father could ever have done, in the eyes of his teenaged sons – possibly even worse than dropping his trousers on the Town Hall steps, but when the sword turned up it became another matter entirely.

Swords, it seems, are cool.

Already then, we’re on dangerous ground.

I’m told there is a tradition that the first sword you ever own, you must give a name to it, and it was interesting to see the names chosen by those of us in my little Tai Chi group, who purchased them. We had names like Slasher, Hacker, Killer, Sting – then we had the more romantic ones like Thunder and Snow, and Green Destiny of course. Mine was Meadow, for reasons known only to me, but already,  you see, we are getting caught up in the mystique of the sword. We are personifying the it, we are bestowing upon  it properties it does not really deserve. If we’re not careful we’re going to end up feeling that by the very wielding of this instrument, we are calling down all the powers of heaven and earth.

In short, what we end up doing is idolising the sword.

It’s the standard Chen Form that I do, and like the rest of the Chen repertoire it’s a good thing to practice because it gets you breathing hard, swinging this 32 inch length of steel around. It gets the blood pumping, and it gets you twisting about in ways you’re probably not used to doing if, like me, you sit behind a PC all day.

But do you feel mystical?

I wondered if I would. But actually, you don’t.

Sometimes, I feel slightly stupid when I’m out in the back garden and the microlights are buzzing me. I also admit to feeling slightly  vulnerable when the police chopper circles my house, and I’m half expecting the armed response team to follow – but mystical no. You’ll feel a bit funny when you pick up a sword, perhaps for the first time, and it’s probably best to just get this phase out of the way as quickly as possible, then you can move on with your practice.  Like the rest of Tai Chi, to the uninitiated, there might seem to be something mysterious about it, but truly there’s not.

The Chen Long Sword or Jian, has a certain shape, obviously, a certain length and, of course, a certain feel, a certain balance in the hand. These physical properties make it move in a way that is all its own, and the sword form was developed in ancient times to exploit these characteristics, so it could be wielded in battle in an effective way.

That’s the top and the bottom of it.

If you’ll allow me a moment’s digression, I once worked in a factory alongside a taciturn old curmudgeon, whose task it was to pass on to me, his green apprentice, the wisdom of his long years as an engineer. He told me that in engineering, all I had to remember was that all there really is is cutting metal, and the rest is bullshit. Well, when it comes to swordsmanship, all there really is is surviving and the rest is,… well you know how it goes? But if we’re not in the business of relying upon the sword for our survival, then what are we doing, apart from wading up to our necks in the bullshit? Well, as far as I can tell, as a student of not that many years,  we are using it simply as a tool for teaching us the feel of harmony.

Later on the in the practice, one encounters the Broad Sword. This is an altogether different weapon, one that wants to move in a completely different way to the Jian, and therefore demands a different form. In both cases, though, we learn to move the body in ways that achieve harmony with the weapon. If we can develop a feel for the practice weapon, then this might render us sensitive in other ways, so that we even become aware of the balance and the harmony of movement in our limbs alone. In this way, the sword informs the open-handed form, shapes it, smooths it – renders it more sensitive.

Ever watched those masters on You-Tube and wondered how they manage to achieve that magical “look”.


But you won’t achieve harmony by calling your sword Hacker or Meadow or anything else, or inventing some other kind of ritual to go with it. You achieve it simply by picking the thing up and  doing the form, over and over and over again until you’re so sick and tired of it, the last thing you’re going to feel is mystical. In a bygone era, men stepped out onto the battlefield with nothing but a sharpened piece of iron between them and their maker. It’s understandable then that the swordsman might have invented certain good-luck rituals and superstitions – anything to give you the edge, to make you mindful to keep your nerve when the other guy was losing his. But this is 2009 and those days are long gone. In the western world, sharp swords are wielded only by warring teen gangsters in our benighted cities, the blunt ones by those of us who seek solace in the traditional practices of the east, and in the quest for physical and, dare I say, spiritual harmony?

Michael Graeme


Read Full Post »

temperatureI used to know a lot about cars. It’s what happens when you’re young, not earning much, but need to be able to run one to get to work. You don’t take it to the garage every year for a service because you can barely afford the insurance, right? So,  you do it yourself – the full works: oil, plugs, points and a tune-up. Brakes worn? You strip them down on the driveway, rain or shine because you’ve no other choice, and replace the pads yourself. You make mistakes, but you get yourself a Haynes manual, and you learn as you go along. The only things I didn’t do for myself were fit new tyres and exhausts.

True, cars were simpler in those days and you could keep them running without reference to a computer program, because computers were for space-ships, but now things are different. Cars are complicated, and time always seems too short to bother much with them. You pump the tyres up, keep a lazy eye on the water  level – which never seems to change anyway – and that’s about it. Consequently I now know very little about them. Twenty years ago a rattling sound as I set off of a morning wouldn’t  have been much cause for concern. Anything really, expensively, serious  would show up in the temperature gauge, right? If the engine’s running hot, it’s a bad sign – even I remember that! Spot it soon enough and you can usually sort it out before disaster strikes, and the AA man has to tow you away.

Nowadays though, such things as temperature gauges are dispensed with, at least on my ’07 model Astra. But you tell yourself it’s okay, there’s probably a little light that’ll come on if the engine’s running too hot – maybe even a fussy voice telling you to pull over at once – cars are so full of sensors and alarms these days it wouldn’t surprise me. But no, not even when the steam starts to rise does a light come on, and by then it’s too late and the damage is done. Your two year old motor is a wreck:  head gasket, radiator, all the plumbing – oh, and a new gearbox as well.

A temperature gauge would have told me ages ago there was something wrong, and I’d better get it checked out. Instead, all I had to go on was that niggly rattly sound as I moved off of a morning,  otherwise the car seemed to be running fine.

So, it’s getting up for a week now and my Astra’s still in the workshop. There seems to be no quibble over the warranty, even though there are so many parts on order I’ll be surprised if there’s anything original left under the bonnet at all. But it looks like everything will be repaired,  and the car will eventually roll back out onto the road to live again. All it will have cost me is a few taxi rides. Whether I will ever be able to trust this vehicle again is another matter. This would have been an astronomically expensive repair, and had the car been just a few years older it’s debatable if it would have been worth paying for it – maybe better just to ask the dealer to make me an offer for what was left of the thing, and get myself a simpler kind of motor.

How to wreck your car without trying? Well apparently it  happens now and then.

I’m just glad I did it before the warranty ran out.

Read Full Post »

DSCF3040Well, it began on Monday morning when I picked up my old Rolex, gave it a wind and then felt the spring break.


Sounds so decadent doesn’t it? “Bust my Rolex”.

In my defence I should say it was the cheapest one they made at the time, 1981 to be precise – well not quite the cheapest  – I went for the one with the Jubilee bracelet instead of the leather strap. It was the year of my 21st birthday, and the watch was a sort of present to myself. That same year the first DeLorean sports car rolled off the assembly line, Diana Spencer married the Prince of Wales, and the very first Space Shuttle, Columbia, was launched. All iconic in their own ways, and the eighties turned out to be no less auspicious for yours truly.

But why the Rolex? Well, a teacher I’d had at school, whom I’d simultaneously hated and admired, had been fond of flaunting his Submariner, and I’d eventually come to look upon such things in those days as a sign of attaining manhood, or success – or something. So, determined to have Rolex one day, I left school and saved up bits and bobs out of my apprentice’s wages over the following years. Couldn’t afford the Submariner in the end, but I always liked the one I got and it’s been a loyal companion over the years. But anyway, I’ve bust it now. It’s repairable of course –  but  I’m not in the mood for the expense at the moment, and I’ll be relying on my back-up Timex for a while.

Of course, these things come in threes:

The second thing came on Friday night when the antivirus software flashed up dire warnings about a wriggly-worm that had apparently eaten its way into the hard-drive of my main machine. I spent the whole night sorting it out and managed to lose my XP  administrator’s login in the process. It’s all sortable of course, but hardly the way I wanted to spend my Friday night.

Vauxhall Astra 1.8 Elite Auto (2007)The third thing came on Saturday morning, on the way home from the Tai Chi, class when my car, a fairly new  – and up to this point quite lovely 1.8 Litre Vauxhall Astra, began steaming, stinking and spluttering. It required a tow from the AA man who suspected I’d blown my cylinder head. I’d burst a hose which is unusual enough on a car that’s only two years old, but the brown sludge that had sprayed all over he engine compartment and left a nasty stain on the A59, near Longton was a mixture of coolant and engine oil – which is a very bad sign indeed!

I ended up at the nearest Vauxhall dealer – workshop closed – left my keys with the  helpful young man on the sales desk and got a taxi home. No idea when I’ll see the thing again. I’ve still got a year to run on the manufacturer’s warranty, so I’m hoping it’s covered.  If it’s not, if there’s a get-out clause, if it is the cylinder head, and the fault’s not covered, then Christmas is obviously cancelled for this year.

This really does take the biscuit.

I’ve never been so completely let down by a car before in thirty years of driving, and that includes a long string of really old bangers in the early days. I bought this one last year, the newest and most expensive vehicle I’ve ever owned. It ran like a dream for the first 12 months, but has been making niggly noises for a while, when starting up from cold. The mechanic I asked to check it out made me feel like a bit of a girl, when I tried to describe these noises, and he just shrugged and told me it all seemed fine to him – don’t know how he missed the oil in the water though – don’t know how I missed it either! But what could possibly go wrong with a car that’s only done 30,000 miles?

I guess these days there’s just so little about a modern car that’s user serviceable, as they say; you don’t lift the bonnet from one year to the next and just assume it’s all taken care of with your annual visit to the workshop. It’s just one more example of how we are becoming less and less self reliant – more and more dependent on so called professionals who have no more idea than you half the time, but just a better set of tools.

Well, they say these things come in threes, and I’m hoping that’s it for a bit now. It’s Sunday night – just spent the whole of a fine and sunny Sunday glueing skirting boards onto my newly plastered conservatory, and now I’m contemplating the return to work while at the same time looking back over the week’s ups and downs. What can you learn from a week like this? Well, we’ve all had them  and I suppose there’s not much else to say except the old adage: “Sh$t happens” of course. You can be bowling along quite happily, not a care in the world and then suddenly loads of things need sorting out, all at the same time. It’s irksome, it shakes you  up, sets you back. Now, by far the worst of these incidents for me is the car, of course, because I’m stuck without it – can’t even get to work – to say nothing of the possible cost of fixing it. So what do you do? Well it’s easy to panic, throw your hands up and cry “woe is me”. But it’s really better to disentangle yourself, like the I Ching tells you – just say to yourself, well, I guess it’ll be okay and things’ll look a whole lot brighter this time next week when I’m looking back on it, than they do right now trying to guess what darkness is up ahead. Then, whatever mess it is you’re in, you seem to end up slithering out of it. Your bank balance may be all the poorer but at least your peace of mind is intact.

Sure, the car’s screwed, and I don’t know when I’ll see it again, but I had a darned good chat with the taxi driver who brought me home – talked about nothing really – just chit chat, but it lifted my spirits and was a real pleasure. Then, when I finally made it home, my wife’s aunt, bless her, loaned me her car for as long as I needed it.

Michael Graeme


Read Full Post »

Harrock Hill - harvest 2009Once you lose your grip on your rational senses, open a chink, so to speak, in your armour of cold, hard reason, there’s no telling where it’s going to end. For some reason I’ve found myself caught up in the Crop Circle thing this summer, but my researches have left me feeling a bit dizzy. It’s far safer to say they’re all fake and have done with it, but as soon as you start poking around the apparent evidence, things are not so clear-cut. So you open the door a crack and in pours the whole gamut of charlatans, psuedoscientists, grand-standers, new agers, geomancers, tricksters, punters, doomsdayers, UFOlogists… you name it, they all find a reason for poking their noses into Crop Circles and they stand around yammering at the tops of their voices so that us ordinary folk haven’t a hope in hell of coming anywhere near the truth of it.

Anyway, I’ve backed away from it now – dipped my toe in just long enough to put up a piece on my website http://www.mgraeme.ic24.net/The Rivendale Review Pages/crop circles.html and now I’m hiding from all the other stuff I’ve touched on in the process. I think there’s a genuine mystery here, but the evidence is hard to pin down, since by far the majority of circles are fakes, but it’s been fun, if a little disconcerting, exploring the dark depths of otherwise sane people’s belief systems.

In the process of it all I ran into that old chestnut, dowsing – part of the geomancers toolkit – and I’m tempted now to have another look at it, though my previous forays weren’t exactly  productive, in that I was unable to connect with it in suffcient depth in order to write anything sensible about it. It connects with my own interest in the body’s so called subtle energy system, but so far there’s nothing I can hang my hat on, so I’ll just keep surfing for while longer until I fetch up against an interesting angle.

Meanwhile the year passes, the harvest has been gathered in, and we busy ourselves with the day to day. The evenings are drawing down and the garden centres are getting out their Christmas knick nacks. The thought of going through all of that again leaves me feeling slightly nauseous, but what can one do?

Michael Graeme


Read Full Post »