Archive for February, 2013

BTTCover Well, goodbye to another one. I’ve enjoyed getting to know Phil and Adrienne, but they’ve reached their conclusion now and wanted to be set free. I put it up on Feedbooks this evening and will be watching with interest to see how it does in the coming weeks. My thanks to all those who have mailed me to say you’ve read my stories – it really does mean a lot. I hope you enjoy reading this one as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

The blurb:

Phil Sampson gets more than he bargained for when he finds himself being driven out to view a house by the chilly, taciturn estate agent, Adrienne Divine. There’s something about her that unsettles him, something unsettling about the house too. As for the effect he has on Adreinne,… well, least said the better.

Both bearing scars from past traumas, both apparently drowning in the obscurity of their small lives, little do they know they’re about to a discover a truth about themselves that proves there’s no such thing as a small life at all,… if you only know how to live it properly.

A bit of shameless self publicity, I know – but hey, it’s not like I’m selling anything.

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Once upon a time I bought a house. It had been in my good lady’s family for generations, passed through the hands of several elderly relatives, and by the time it came to us it was in need of modernisation. One of the first jobs was to install double glazing. This required us to endure the peculiar methods of a long line of double-glazing salespersons, one of whom I remember, sat me and my good lady down in our front room and subjected us to a couple of  hours of death by Powerpoint presentation – or what passed for it back then.

His windows were terribly expensive, and we were so bamboozled by his convoluted facts we had no way of deducing if those costs were justified. What was also puzzling was that if we agreed to the installation, and then ten years later, on a certain day, if we rang a certain telephone number, we would get all our money back. What? Get our windows for free? How does that work then?

Whatever the merits of this scheme, we were so cross and impatient by the end of this presentation, I’m afraid to say we bundled the man out of the house without so much as a cup of tea. His departure was hastened, I recall, by my equally frustrated son, then about eighteen months old, hungry for his bedtime story,  hurling Thomas the Tank Engine books at him as he went.

The next salesman was a pony tailed, oily, orange tanned sort of man who drove a bright red sport’s car. My good lady was already bristling when he stepped over the threshold and he hadn’t said anything yet. But his speal was much more succinct than the previous chap – just a quick measure up, a brief explanation of the style and construction of the windows, then a straight forward price. I was astonished and relieved by how easy the process had been this time. I was astonished too by the price because it was a fraction of the other quotes we’d had, but now I was wondering to myself, how on earth they could do it for that? There must be a catch! Darn it, what shall we do?

I left it a few days, in the hope my intuition would guide me through what was quickly becoming a bit of a minefield, where logic and reason were no guarantees of avoiding a ripoff. So then I had the idea of  telephoning the pony-tailed salesman and politely asking him if I could just confirm a few facts about his windows – thinking to discover the catch as to why they were so inexpensive. But it was as if I’d insulted his mother. He became rude at once, even aggressive – calling me stupid, that I had sat for an hour while he’d explained all of this and now I had the gall to ring him up and ask the sort of basic effing questions I should have asked him before, when I’d had the chance,…

Yes, indeed. He was very rude. But I sensed something else was going on here, something I couldn’t see, something lurking under the surface, and rather than take his tone personally, get all cross and hurt, as perhaps I should have done, I took a step back inside myself, puzzled, and I tried to see the bigger picture.

There’s the story of a king who goes by night in disguise to seek the counsel of a humble monk. While in the presence of the monk the king assumes an air of deference, while the monk, a happy-go-lucky, ragged, impoverished character, teaches the king the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Then one night the king says, okay I’ve got all of that, but what I’m really struggling with now is this concept of the Ego. What is the ego? What’s that all about? At which the monk laughs, apparently in disbelief, and says what kind of a stupid question is that?

Of course at this point the king drops all pretence, calls the monk rude names, says he’s just a destitute monk and how dare he speak to the king like that? To which the monk says, now that, your majesty, is everything you need to know about the ego.

Returning to my rather more prosaic story about the double glazing salesman, I don’t know what caused that momentary gap to open up between what should have been my natural reaction of hurling back some retaliatory insults, before slamming the phone down and fuming in hurt and humiliation for the rest of the day, and what I actually did, which was to make a calmly reasoned guess at the likely truth of the matter:

He’d made a terrible mistake in the price he’d quoted me for those windows – and as far as commission went, all he’d be getting was a good telling off from his boss for the error. His only hope of recovering his position was if I didn’t take him up on the offer, which was by then already legally binding on his firm – so he insulted me, thinking to lever up the lid on my ego and give it a good slapping, then my ego would tear up the quotation – after all a sale lost was better than a sale he couldn’t afford. I thought about it, but then I took a risk that this peculiarly egoless entity I’d discovered lurking inside of me wasn’t too far off the mark; I forgave his bad language, and accepted his offer.

Double glazing companies come and go, proving like nothing else the Buddhist adage that all forms are impermanent. The firm who offered me that money back guarantee after ten years folded after just two – so I don’t suppose their magic money-back telephone number is still working now. The one that actually fitted the windows did better,  lasting around five years, but at least the windows they fitted are still looking like new after – oh, it must be fifteen years now.

I did see the pony tailed, orange tanned salesman again – he came to make some final measurements before the windows went in. I won’t say he had that tail between his legs, but he was a little sheepish. He did however have the good grace to apologise for his rudeness on the phone. I mumbled something about it being okay, that it sounded like he’d been having a bad day, and not to worry about it. He didn’t mention the price and I didn’t rub it in.

I don’t know what he’s doing now, but I trust he’s found a way of moving on. I’m sure there are those who enjoy manipulating egos in order to get what they want, but it sounds like a tiresome business, and dangerous too because a roused ego can cause a normally placid human being to become physically violent. But it can be dangerous too in that every now and then you’re going to come across someone who’s ego’s too sluggish to be of much use in your machinations, or it’s like smoke and only vaguely there at all, because then they might see through you and the best you can hope for when that happens is that someone genuinely lacking in ego would never think to hurt you.

Of course that I can look back on all of this and still feel a smug glow of satisfaction proves my own ego isn’t quite so far beneath the surface as I’d like to make out. I’ve a long way to go then along the path of spiritual realisation – sure I know that – but in my defence I’d also argue it’s better to have begun the journey even if I’ve got nowhere at all, than not realise there’s a journey to be made in the first place.

So, beware, once you start to lose your mind, you’ll discover there’s potentially as much wisdom to be found in ordering double glazing, as there is in the whole of the Tao Te Ching, that even men with orange tans and red sports cars can become, for a time, your most important gurus.

Good night all

Enjoy yourselves, but stay safe.



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A forgotten poem!

Beadnell 2011


Between the tides

I find myself caught
Between the tides,
Surrounded by a shallow sea,
With you,
Your heartbeat unfamiliar
But not unkind.
And me, as always, slow to dance
To rhythms I cannot comfortably circle
With my hips.

But we are not trapped here.
This  loneliness is finite,
Familiar in its melancholy.
Transient as birds.
And though the distant shore,
Of all we know seems lost,
It is not blackness,
Nor treachery that waylays,
More a friendly fate,
I think.
One that in kindness cannot give us up
As flotsam tossed to rot again,
In mud.

Take then my hand my love,
Until you feel the dance in me,
And I in you.
And let us make the rhythm
Of our selves
Once more our own.


Thanks Adrienne – I thought you’d forgotten.

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woman reading letterNothing happened today. There was no news, no carnage, no politicians to be called to account, no food scares, no financial ruin. There was no one to hate, no one to pity.  The nation breathed a great sigh of relief and we all drove to work in soft sunshine, with lighter hearts, skipping along like children let out of school early. A gentle hush settled over hill and vale, I saw my first Snowdrop,… and the world felt like a much better place.

The opening of an impossibly optimistic fantasy novel? No,… our regular news and current affairs programming was off the air because of a strike by journalists, and oh,… what a relief!

I’m sorry. I know it’s important to keep up with current events, to be able to understand and talk knowledgeably about the world. But there’s also a terrible downside, being inundated daily with crap that you can’t do a damned thing about. You begin to form a picture of a world in which nothing good happens, and it doesn’t matter that it bears not even a passing resemblance to the world you personally experience, you feel cowed by it, intimidated, depressed, goaded into cynicism, even afraid to venture abroad for fear of having your head cut off by blood crazed trolls.

So I don’t buy newspapers. I don’t watch the TV news, preferring nowadays to get my snippets in controlled bursts, through my iPad. I read the news briefly, with a cold, objective eye, digest the main points, then turn to the blogs I’m following because they’re so much more interesting.

For example, yesterday evening, I learned about a play in which Freud’s fictional final consultation was with the writer CS Lewis. It sounded like a fascinating idea, but the writer who saw it had felt let down by it. I also read about Innis Oirr, one of the remote Aran isles, off the west coast of Ireland and how the way of life there has changed over the centuries. Then I read about the pope and his reportedly unsympathetic views regarding people who might be labelled gay, bisexual or transsexual.

I realised I knew very little about CS Lewis and have now chased down some more very interesting information about his life that syncronistically informs something else I’ve been thinking about. I also mused that although my grandfather is from the west of Ireland I’ve still not visited his birthplace, and I really must do something about that.  I also pondered on the fact that religious teachings are too often defined so narrowly they cannot hope to encompass the rather more eclectic nature of the human condition. And is that right or wrong?

This is so much better than being blathered at by assertive media types, evasive politicians and pontificating pundits. Through blogging you realise there’s a whole ecosystem of ideas out there, and you can get involved in shaping it simply by writing your own material. But like anywhere else there are abusers in the blogsphere. They contribute nothing, yet expect the globe to laud them in return, catapult them to the dizzy heights of celebrity. A bit like the conventional media then.

Case in point: something odd happened last night. I put my piece up on “Photographing Ghosts”, but in the process managed to lose all the text, so what I actually posted was just the title. I was wondering how on earth that had happened, and whether it was worth sorting out, or if I should just delete the lot and go to bed,  when my iPad started pinging like it had gone mad. Before I knew it I had 3 likes for that piece – which was very gratifying but of course I could claim no credit for my literary prowess because all I’d posted was a blank page.

What was that all about then?

Among the rules of successful blogging the most important is that, apart from posting our own sincerely intended content, we should also take the trouble to read the work of other bloggers who catch our eye, and comment on their blogs as we might in making polite conversation with strangers. If you really like the work, then “like” it. If you consistently enjoy the musings of a particular blogger, and you want a regular dose of them, then you “follow”. What could be simpler?

But it seems some of us are sitting at the gates of WordPress’s “what’s new!” list and “liking” anything that wanders through, even “following” with no more motivation than the hope or expectation we’ll get liked or followed in return. This indiscriminate technique is the same as jumping up and down like a petulant wannabe, shouting “Look at me! Look at me!”. Are  we trying to get ourselves into WordPress’s currently hot list perhaps? Maybe from there we believe it’s only a short step to a slot on whatever passes for our nations top celebrity chat show?


You cannot be serious. Real blogging is for those with something to say, and who are perhaps denied any other voice. If you’ve nothing to say, if you’ve only web farmed stuff for content , or “products”, or yourself to “sell”, then shut up and go away.

Blog because you like to write, because you like to present ideas, and see what ideas ping back at you. I blog about writing fiction, about the creative processes, the psychology and even the underlying spirituality of it, and if some of my readers are tempted to have at look at my stories while they’re at it, then all the better for my ideas, but I’m not selling anything, not courting my own celebrity here. I’ve been writing for thirty five years now  – I can walk into a bar anywhere in the world and no one will know who I am. And that’s the way I like it. I don’t know how to transform a blog into a WordPress hottie, and to be honest I don’t care. I’d rather remain obscure than lose my virtue vainly trying to escape it. I blog because I enjoy the debate and because that debate informs my own ideas, and because also, crucially, it paints a very different picture of the world out there than the one I get from the TV news.

I’m currently following around 12 blogs. This doesn’t sound like many, but I do read the postings from these authors, and I allow their musings to tickle my own thoughts and if you follow too many, you’re not going to find the time to do any of them justice. And it’s in doing justice to the blogs of others, even in a small way, that enables the blogsphere to collectively reflect, and more importantly to inform the global zeitgeist. Thus begins the slow fight back from a position where our views of the greater world are dominated by an entirely negative and sensationalist press.

I’m glad nothing happened today.

It’s was nice hearing myself think for a change.

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southport pier

More pale winter sun today, tempting the crowds out to the coast, and to Southport. Indeed the crowds along the promenade and pier this afternoon were extraordinary in their density for the time of year – but even more extraordinary: these people were simply out enjoying the air.

They were not shopping.

There was a lot of pre credit crunch investment in the architecture here, particularly along the sea front and the Marine lake, much to please the modernist eye, and the photographer. I’ve been coming here for fifty years, so you’d think I’d know all the angles by now, but I rarely make a visit to Southport without my camera – even when I’m shopping. The light is just too tempting. Yes,… the secret’s out: I’m a camera buff, and that most annoying of species: the amateur photographer.

To get the geek speak out of the way, I’m currently shooting with a Canon G12, at the higher end of the compact market, with a 1/1,7 sensor – a relatively modest 10 Mega Pixels, and a practical, rather than an extensive x5 zoom range. I’ve been using it for about a year and I’m enjoying my photography with it. I didn’t want a larger sensor DSLR camera  – those bigger sensors are certainly capable of jaw dropping impact, but on the whole the cameras they’re fitted to are just too hefty for my taste these days, and, like my old 35mm SLR kit, I’d I know I’d simply end up leaving it at home.

So what is it about photography then? Is it art?

“No, you just press a button and shoot.”  Or so I was told recently. It’s easy to take a photograph. Why make such a fuss about it? I suppose the short answer to this is yes, it’s very easy to take a well exposed photograph under a wide range of lighting conditions nowadays – the technology of the digital camera really delivers on that score to the extent that you don’t really need to know what’s going on in terms of exposure or aperture for it all still to work. You can be a complete noob and still get a picture of whatever you’re pointing at.

But the “art” of the camera is very much what it was in the days of Cartier Bresson, or Ansel Adams. Beyond the technical details of imprinting an image on a photosensitive medium, certain images simply have a greater visual impact than others. You can follow certain rules of composition, colour, contrast, sharpness, detail, and so on, but the secret of a good image is still elusive, still enough to separate the snap-shot taker from the photographer. It’s all in the eye, not only shooting what the photographer sees, but what perhaps the non-photographer would never see in a million years, until it’s hanging on the wall.

Me? I’m not that good. I began with Soviet era Russian 35mm kit, and mountain photography. I did place some transparencies of wild places with a walking magazine thirty years ago, but they never paid for them, and those pictures have yet to appear. Like my writing, my other “arts” have never been very much in demand. I also used to bore my friends and relatives with slide shows of places they’d never want to go to in a million years, but I’ve grown up at last and these days my photography is more of a private affair. I have a Flickr account for the shots that really mean something to me, but also it has to be said a growing portfolio of the same dull old scenes shot year after year and spread across a couple of portable hard-drives just aching to be dropped or deleted.

Mountain shots these days are conspicuous by their absence, unfortunately. Grinning snaps of my offspring from years one to eighteen, are more the norm, also the “what we did on holiday” pics. But there still the others – the ones where nosey parkers flicking through my camera are left nonplussed. Their flippant comments embarrass me, because I do not wish to appear self absorbed and I can hardly tell them what I’m looking for in those pictures are the ghosts of something other than what can ordinarily be seen.

There were ghosts on Southport pier this afternoon. They wandered up, took my arm a while as I walked, and they promised me a thaw was coming. That there are better days ahead. I didn’t capture this very well on film – couldn’t even tease it out in Photoshop –  indeed my ghosts are mostly camera-shy.

But it was good to have their encouragement all the same.

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snake creeps downI’ve been missing my Tai Chi of late, focussing instead on Kung Fu which I don’t seem to be making much headway with, grading nights coinciding with family emergencies of one sort or another with a regularity that seems almost fated.

The Tai Chi is something I’ve withdrawn from the more public arena of the class, and adopted more now as an integral part of my private life, practicing in the garden of a summer’s eve as a pleasant after-work wind down, or as a Saturday morning energy booster. But it’s winter now and it’s been a while since I was out there – and doing a compact freestyle in the kitchen while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil doesn’t really count. All that does is annoy the hell out of my good lady when she catches me at it, and I’ve grown kind of shy about doing it.

But I was tempted out this afternoon by the pale winter sunshine and the thermometer nudging its way above 10 Celcius. There were even little clouds of midges sunning themselves among the evergreens. But the garden isn’t at its most welcoming this time of year. I found the lawn thick and squidgy with moss, the pond choked with duck-weed, and the borders filled with the dried and dead remains of last year’s glory. There was also about a mile of fence, all lichen stained now, a luminous green instead of a rich brown cedar stain, and when I looked up at the roof line, I spotted we were missing a couple of tiles, torn loose in winter gales and now no doubt lurking in the gutters.

To be fair it was probably like this in the summer too, but there’s something about this time of year that makes you focus on the shabby imperfection of it all and makes life seem only the more burdensome.

Anyway, I warmed up, then ran through the Chen Style short forms that I know – the 11 and the 18, pausing afterwards in the post stance while I caught my breath and began to feel the juices loosening, and the palms tingling. Then I ran through the Old Frame, the 74 moves coming one after the other with the kind of memory that lives in the muscles, rather than the brain. It was imperfectly done, a bit wobbly, but not too bad after such a long break. Then I closed with the Yang 24, and a bit of Heaven and Earth Qigong – putting the energy back in the box, as we used to call it, pressing it down to the root, somewhere under that moss-throttled lawn. Then I opened my eyes to see we were still missing those tiles, and the pond was still thick with weed so I slunk back inside where the air was warm, feeling none the better for any of it.

Too cold for Tai Chi? Well, it’s still winter after all and I’m not expecting Snowdrops until next week, but there’s another kind of winter – one we carry in our hearts and that can take more than spring to thaw because the seasons of the heart keep a different kind of time.

At this point in my story, I decided to cut and paste from the notes app on my iPad, into WordPress, because it looked like we had the makings of a blog piece here, rather than simply a first circle diary kind of thing. But “Control C” on an iPad’s not the same as on a PC, and I lost the whole of it, stared at the blank screen a while, wondering if I could piece it back together from memory, figured I probably could, but then wondered if it was worth the effort.

Decided it was.

Graeme Out

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noseThe short answer to this question, when I first posed it back in November, was a cautious yes.  I’d been anosmic – no sense of smell – for several years. A visit to my local sawbones had proved futile, yielding only a steroid nasal spray that made me ill. So I tried acupuncture and after about six weeks, my sense of smell came back! Hooray!

I enjoyed about three weeks of smelling the world again – and the world smelled good – even when it smelled bad. So I rushed to press and blogged about how successful I’d been and wasn’t this acupuncture business amazing.

I spoke too soon, because it disappeared again, even though I was continuing with the acupuncture. Twelve weeks later, it had shown no signs of re-recovery and the acupuncturist finally sacked me as a hopeless case. I was very disappointed – not just to be left anosmic, but because having those pins stuck in me had become the highpoint of my week. Sounds strange I know, but you need to try it.

Anyway, the longer answer, right now, appears to be: maybe acupuncture doesn’t work for anosmia, or at least not in my case, or rather not in any meaningful, long term sense.

Reluctantly, I returned to the sawbones with my tail between my legs. He wasn’t impressed by my acupuncture story.

“But it came back,” I assured him. “It definitely came back.”

He admitted it was curious, but still told me off for not having gone to see him sooner and for wasting time  on new age nonsense. No surprises there, I suppose. Then he sent me away with a prescription for some powerful antibiotics.

A few weeks later, I was still anosmic. I also had a bad stomach and had  contracted the worst chest infection I’ve ever had in my life – because antibiotics are a bit of a blunderbluss, swatting dead any harmful bacteria, but blowing a hole in your immune system while they’re at it, leaving you wide open to anything else that’s going.

So I waited for all of that to clear up, then went back to the sawbones. This time he said my septum was very narrow.

“What? Oh, sure, I know, but it’s always been like that doc, and I can breathe through it very well – breathe through it all the time because I meditate and do Qigong and stuff – and I used to be able to smell very well through it, and if you remember last November I told you when I was having acupuncture,…. my nose was obviously working, narrow septum or not so,….oh,… never mind.”

He was looking a bit blank by now, like I was speaking Esperanto, so I shut up and let him grumble some more about my suspiciously narrow septum.

Now I’m off to see the Ear Nose and Throat specialist at my local hospital. The sawbones is favouring surgery for that deviant septum. He tells me the surgery’s nothing to worry about. I tell him I’m not worried at all because no matter what the outcome of the ENT diagnosis, nobody’s going to be sticking a scalpel up my nose. It may be useless for smelling the coffee but it works very well in other respects, and I’m for leaving it well alone thanks very much.

So I was feeling a bit glum about the whole business, but the very next day I experienced a minor epiphany. I was in the works canteen when I found myself staring in disbelief at the guy  next to me.

“You all right, Mike?” he asked, a little worried.

“Em,… yes. You’re having fish and chips?”

He looked down at his tray in order to confirm the obvious. “Yes.”

I couldn’t believe it. They smelled great! So did the coffee I had with my lunch. So did the canteen, which was suddenly filled with the rich fatty smell of cooking odours.

I walked away puzzled. It’s November since I last smelled anything.

When I got home, I flipped the lid off the coffee jar, stuck my nose in deep and took a long luxurious draw on the contents,…. nothing.

My nose, it seems, has a quirky sense of humour.

Graeme out.

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Lady of the Lake - Ullswater - 2004In the summer of 2004 I took the old steamer, The Lady of the Lake, from Glenridding, Ullswater, as far as the jetty at Howtown, then made my way on foot into the remote valley of Martindale. There, on a bend, just before the narrow road gives out, there stands a massive yew tree, one of the largest and oldest in England. In its shadow lies the lovely, lonely old church of Saint Martins where, on a plain headstone, I chanced upon the following inscription:

Here lies the body of Andrew Wilson. Traveller. Orientalist and Man of Letters. Author of The Abode of Snow. Born at Bombay April 11th 1830. Died at Bank House Howtown June 8th 1881

I’m guessing many a pilgrim must have pondered this headstone in the hundred and thirty years it has lain there, but  for me it was to become a particularly significant encounter. My later thirst for knowledge of this man’s life was, and remains, something of an obsession. In 2004 I was soaking myself in various oriental and mystical philosophies, and therefore  open to all manner of related connections.  It was for this reason the word Orientalist struck home first, followed by the title of the book, which I recognised as a romantic phrase often used to describe the Himalaya – roof of the mystical east.

The grave of Andrew Wilson - MartindaleI took shelter in the chapel from the sweltering heat for a while, made some notes, then continued on my walk, pondering this odd syncronicity and telling myself I’d look that book up when I got home. It proved to be the beginning of a long journey of discovery. Indeed, it’s fair to say that through his work, much of it now obscure, this lost Victorian man of letters has become a kind of guru to me. I am broader now, deeper, and much less attached to things that simply do not matter than I was when I first did that walk. This is not to say  Wilson alone is responsible for this change in my outlook, his being just one of a company of voices, but he’s certainly been by far the most congenial companion along the way and I still take great delight at turning up yet one more snippet from my researches into his life and work – no matter how trivial.

The son of John Wilson, a famous Indian missionary and founding father of Bombay in the 1830’s, Andrew actually spent much of his early life in and around Edinburgh where he’d been sent to escape Bombay’s terrible insanitary conditions, and the risk he would follow his siblings to an early grave. His education took him to the Edinburgh Academy and then, like his father, along the path of training to be a minister in the Scottish church. But a profound crisis of faith caused him to veer off course, into what appears to have been a very modern kind of European Buddhism – a philosophy espoused by the likes of Schopenhauer and other gurus of the later German romantic period. Deeply troubled, he abandoned his training and took up a career in journalism, eventually editing newspapers in India and China, as well as the UK. But it’s in his personal works, rather than his day-job reportage that I have sought the man, and a very interesting man he turned out to be.

The Nineteenth Century saw many writers who were far more prolific and materially successful than Andrew Wilson, while as a traveller, there were others far more ground-breaking. It’s  for this reason he does not feature at all large in the role-call of Victorian celebrity. He enjoyed some public recognition with the appearance of The Abode of Snow in 1875. Sadly though, increasing ill health prevented him from building upon its  success. While he continued to write to the very end, his later years saw him slip into relative obscurity and disability, his retirement from the world’s dusty byways being funded by the writing of penetrating, and sometime acerbic critiques of other people’s books. Whatever his qualities as a writer, mealy mouthed he was not.

The Abode of Snow is the best introduction to his work, though it catches him at a point in life when he was very ill indeed – barely able to walk and with every breath he took being an effort of steely will. It is an account of a six month trek in the Himalaya, beginning on the sweltering plains of India in the summer of 1873 and rising to the borders of Tibet, then along the valleys and mountain ridges to Kashmir. It’s been described justly as one of the most epic journeys ever undertaken on horseback, a journey he began more in hope than in expectation that the cooler air of the higher altitudes of the northern frontier would restore his health.

Throughout the early stages of his narrative we get the impression he was not entirely confident he would survive, but survive he did, returning temporarily rejuvenated, to pen his memoirs, initially for serialisation in Blackwood’s magazine, but later for publication in book form. The result is at times an intensely personal travelogue, deeply reflective, but it is also typical of his work in that it provides us with  an entirely unaffected description of what was then a very remote part of the Victorian world, including the varied cultures and the people for whom those seemingly inhospitable wastes were home. The book found favour with a pubic greedy for romantic tales of exotic travel in corners of the world that were already fast disappearing under the steady march of Victorian imperialism. He had far more to offer this genre, but his own eccentricity and ultimately a return of his ill health meant the public was to hear no more of Wilson’s extraordinary travels.

Some time after publication, a copy of the Abode of Snow found its way into the hands of the novelist George Elliot, who read it aloud to a gathered company of friends in the drawing room of her home at Rickmansworth. Afterwards, in a  letter to John Blackwood, editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, she said: “But what an amazing creature is this Andrew Wilson,…”

When I first encountered Wilson I was naïve in imagining a linear life’s path, from Bombay to Westmorland, which had seemed curious enough to me, and worth investigating, but in fact I discovered his footsteps had circumnavigated a world of steam trains and sailing ships with  breathtaking dynamism – from India, to Hongkong, to China, America, and India again. He finally settled at Bank House, in those days a humble small-holding, where he rented rooms and penned much of the work that was to become the Abode of Snow. The place is still there, though nowadays it’s better known as an annex of the Sharrow Bay Hotel, beautifully situated overlooking Ullswater. By a strange quirk of fate then, you can still rent rooms there, but at rates I suspect Wilson would have found beyond his means. I also suspect he would find that amusing and worthy of a witty, or a philosophical aside, illustrated, as was his way, with a few lines of apposite poetry, deftly plucked from his prodigious memory.

Bank House - HowtownIt was here, at the age of 51 he endured a long and distressing conclusion to the illness that had dogged his steps for much of his life. Unmarried, childless, he passed away attended only by his landlady and was buried just a mile or so up the road at the Old Church of Saint Martins. This plain and lonely old chapel would be abandoned shortly afterwards, leaving Wilson – Orientalist, writer, thinker and prolific traveller – to rest in peace and final obscurity.

Most of his other works – his earlier travelogues from his days in China, Baluchistan, Switzerland, and Sutherland, also his poetry – are difficult to find, being published anonymously in Blackwood’s Magazine from 1857 onwards. You can uncover them  with the help of Wellesley’s guide to 19th century periodicals but one needs a dogged determination and even a slightly obsessive attitude to get at them properly. Most of those vintage periodicals however are now freely available online,  and I found them well worth the effort – and the tiny font –  not only in fleshing out Wilson’s entry in the dictionary of National Biography, but in experiencing more of that genial charm one encounters from a reading of the Abode of Snow – also his beguiling wisdom, a thing that manages to strike a curious balance between Victorian no-nonsense rationalism, and full blown nature-mysticism.

He was not universally admired in his day, being criticised by The Times as too sympathetic towards the Chinese, perhaps understandable at a time when our armed forces were busy setting fire to large parts of the Orient. Then, on passing through the United States in 1861, when commenting on the opening stages of the Civil War, he dismissed Abraham Lincoln rather sniffily as a small man caught up in large circumstances – a phrase I beg my American readers to forgive as a momentary aberration. Then there was an early stint as Editor of the Hong Kong “China Mail,” during which his journalistic recklessness landed him in court on a charge of libel. Duly found guilty he was fined the eye-watering sum of £1000 and bound over to keep the peace – this at a time a when decent salary was around a £300 a year.

Mealy mouthed, no. Recklessly outspoken,… at times, yes. But among his fellow literati he was much respected, spoken of with great affection, and viewed as something of a wayward genius, even a curiosity, with many a drawing room gathering of his old Edinburgh school chums beginning with the words: what news of Wilson?

I could fill a book on this subject, and probably will do one day, for the half a dozen people besides myself who would find it interesting,  but I’ll end this little homage here with Wilson’s own words. On the nature of life, he was no more eloquent than in this excerpt from a contribution he made to Blackwoods Magazine in March of 1858, titled Stories from Ancient Sind:

Experience and reason assure us that the fabled spontaneity of  perfect life is only a sickly dream; for the law of life is but the law of growth and labour; the golden ages of the past have germed in pain and grown with difficulty into full wide-branched glory; and behind every civilisation we find no primeval paradise but only the seething swamp with its slimy brood, the low tangled jungle with its self destroying life, and the hoary salts and the petrified flames of the pathless desert….

…So the world wends; in the light of life onwards, and backwards again under the cold inevitable shadow of death, and its life is ever beautiful and mystic, freshly joyous or infinitely sad, to the imagination of man, for it is in the nature of the human spirit – its highest exercise and noblest prerogative – not to confine itself within the narrow limits of its petty personalities,…

Andrew Wilson 1858

The Abode of Snow is still in print. You can also get an ebook copy for free from the Internet Archive here.

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qwyut hjuit dfgty akitl ghjki gthu akjhu laksj tiueo oiurt

Sorry dear knee jerker. No, I do not follow, unless you talk to me, unless you interest and intrigue me, unless you win me.

Graeme out.



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BTTCoverAs my latest novel nears completion I’m faced with the usual question – the one I refuse to admit to myself  I ask every time I pass this way. But I’ll let you into a secret: ask it I do. Do I give it away like all the rest? Or do I look at the alternative: do I solicit an effing publisher this time?

Hmmm. Tricky.

I’ve gone so far as to investigate the lay of the land in terms of conventional book-type publishing and find that things have at least changed since last I passed this way. The nature of the game has entered the twenty first century. Okay, publishers still won’t read unsolicited work – they’ve subcontracted this out more or less exclusively to literary agents, but you know what? Those agents have given themselves a face-lift. They accept submissions by email now! Someone must have died! They have actual faces – very attractive faces too,… gods and goddesses every one of them – at least according to their glossy websites – each of them devoted to the deliverance of your muse’s pleasure. I don’t think. They even tell you what they want, what they’ve seen too much of lately,… but most of all what they’re absolutely gagging to see  right now! Honestly! It sounds so helpful, so positively, excruciatingly,… ugghh,… unknown-author friendly. Doesn’t it?

So why do I hesitate? Is it just a subliminal resistance born of past frustrations, now sunk to the level of a Freudian inhibition? Am I denying myself the chance of published authorship and a million quid in the bank – cutting my literary nose off just to spite my face? Or am I simply so very much older now than when I first began this journey? Is is not more that I simply refuse to play the same old sterile game? My history is precious to me, unknown to nearly everyone, unfathomable,… what I’ve experienced, what I’ve felt. Valued by none, probably. Trying to make that sound important has always felt undignified, especially since it’s not actually important or significant –  my past, my  life –  only that certain observations in the course of living my life, certain events, might find resonance with others whose lives are similarly obscure. It might,… I don’t know, validate their own existence, simply by virtue of the fact that I’ve felt it too.

E mail makes it easier to submit one’s work willy-nilly, I admit, but you’re still going to wait six months for a decision on acceptance, and I could have had a couple of thousand downloads in that time which equates to a greater degree of acceptance for me. I know finances are tight at the minute, but they’re not so tight I’d want to prostitute my muse again to that glossy airbrushed machine, a machine that never gave a flying fahuka for anything I ever wrote.

They say writers are like busses. Publisher/Agents  never need to chase them because there’ll be another one along in a minute. So be my guest, please step ahead of me in that infinitely long queue of wannabes because  I don’t wanna be. I’m off the bus route – always have been. I’m going nowhere perhaps, but always loving the journey for the indescribable beauty of the scenery.  And then again, I remember sitting in the library in my little northern village copying the addresses of agents and publishers from the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook I couldn’t afford to buy. I was nineteen, didn’t stand a chance, yet was so sure I was on the cusp of greatness, looking for the one magical address to send my recently returned manuscript off to yet again.

I take pity on that young man. I send him my blessings, and keep faith with him. He wanted to be able call himself a writer, not realising that by the simple act of writing, he had already fulfilled that ambition.  What I sought over and above that was independence and immortality. But those were childish dreams. Meanwhile fate granted me a means of earning a living. It put a roof over my head, and gas enough to warm away the winter chill while I tapped out my muse’s desire. And it granted me the internet as a means of delivering my words directly to others. No pay of course, but then I am not a professional and do not prostitute my muse.


Dear angel-faced literary agents, whispering your sweet nothings on your newly minted websites,…

Between the Tides will not be appearing on your slush-pile, no matter how much you assure me you’re gagging for it. It’s finished. I draw a line under it. Now. Not in six months, or two years time of frustrated self examination, waiting on your glib replies.

I move on.

Graeme Out.

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