Archive for March, 2014


White throated dipper

I drove back in time at least two weeks yesterday. Around my home village, on the sleepy plains of West Lancashire, the harbingers of Spring are maturing nicely – hawthorns greening and the first crop of daffodils already looking spent. But an hour north, in the Yorkshire dales there was a colder, harder feel to the air. Here, the hawthorns were bare and frigid, and the watery sunshine I’d woken to had become more of a watery grey with spitting rain and a sleepy clag hugging the hills.

I was bound for Ingleton, a little dales village which has been drawing tourists since the 18th century. I was en route for the famous waterfall trail. Largely unknown outside of Ingleton until the 1860’s the waterfall trail takes in a series of some of England’s finest falls – a four and a half mile circuit of breathtaking beauty, and an absolute must for anyone visiting the Dales on holiday. There is a catch though – it’s not free. At the time of writing there’s a £6.00 per person charge. I’ve noticed a lot of grumbling about this in various forums, and while I wouldn’t normally condone the private ownership of our natural heritage, and the charging of fees to see it, I think the waterfall trail is special case.

Difficult of access and in places downright dangerous, this trail couldn’t possibly cope with the visitor numbers it sees without special attention to the paths, or they’d be churned to slime in a season, and people would be lost regularly – drowned, swept away or dashed to bits in the rocky ravines that truly are the stuff nightmare. As a walk it might be classed as easy to moderate, meaning anyone who can put one foot in front of the other and climb a flight of stairs is probably up to it. However, without those well maintained walkways, this would be a serious scramble and off limits to all but the hardiest and footsure.

So I paid my £6 with a glad heart and drove onto the carpark. Huge carpark, and I was the first one on it. I therefore had the luxury of choosing my spot and picked out a fairly private bit with a nice view of the river. I was pulling on my boots when the second car arrived. He had almost as much choice as I, but decided to squeeze his car in next to mine with barely a wafer between them, then opened his door clumsily. Bang!

“Oops, sorry mate.” He checks his door. “No damage.” He pulls on his coat and bumbles off to the toilets.

Had it been me I would have preferred to park some distance away; with so much room available it makes no sense to crowd others, or maybe I’m more of a misanthrope than I think, and others more naturally gregarious. People confuse me, and while I think I have made some halting headway over years in analysing myself, a lifetime of observing others has taught me nothing. I moved the car before the clot came back and delivered old grumpy another crack.

money tree

Money tree, Swilla Glen

The walk begins by following the river Twiss upstream through Swilla Glen, a beautifully mossy, wooded ravine. The first feature of note here is not a waterfall, but a fallen tree-stump covered with an armour plating of copper coins that have been knocked into it. It’s a custom you see a lot in Yorkshire. If this were Lancashire there’d be someone with a pair of pliers pulling the coins out. I’m not sure of its origins but suspect something pagan, a distant folk memory perhaps of paying ones respects to the water-faery, for good luck or healing – or so my romantic imagination insists. The real reason is probably far more prosaic.

Apart from the clumsy clot on the carpark, my luck was holding and the heavy rain that had been forecast was so far limiting itself to a light drizzle. There was still a lot of water coming down the glen though and I could hear the Pecca falls thundering long before I saw them. I have stood by the Pecca falls when the air has been shuddering and the ground shaking. The volume of water and the energy behind it is an awesome spectacle – one of the attractions of falls worldwide of course, but none more so than here. The walkways and bridges manage to get you in really close to these falls and you’ve only to imagine tourists scrambling over lichen slick rock to appreciate the sense in paying for a bit of maintenance, some steps and a stout barrier between yourself and certain death.

pecca falls

Pecca Falls

But the most famous and picturesque of the falls lies further on. This is Thornton force. Unlike the Pecca falls, which are squeezed in raging white torrents down a deep rocky ravine, Thornton force spills its thunderous way in the wide open. Take my picture it says, or paint me. But photographs can’t do it justice – they shrink it to a fraction of its true size, and they silence its throaty roar. I have sat and stared at Thornton force on a summer’s day and lost myself in it. A fine, double cascade – no one passes by here without a feeling of wonder – yet all it is water falling.

thornton force

Thornton force

We leave the ravines of the Twiss above Thornton force and climb to the Twistleton scars. This is the exposed bit and if you’re going to catch the weather it’ll be here. And it was. I caught a cold wind and a stiff back hander from the rain which gave me a good soaking, until I was able to dip down into the valley of the Doe and the down-stream leg of the walk. The falls here I think have a more subtle beauty about them. The vale is more densely wooded, more intimate, more sylvan, the rocks more heavily lichened, the water white and more dancing, as it makes its jolly way.

beezley falls

Beezley falls

The upper falls here – the Beezley falls, are a photographer’s delight, with such a fascinating number of twists and turns, every step revealing a new and ever more dramatic picture, but again the camera shrinks them to an atom, robs them of every spark of life. The pictures I’ve included here must be enlarged in the imagination a hundred fold, to the accompaniment of a deep, rumbling roar, and the song of birds.

The last of the falls on this spectacular trail is Snow Falls, another impressive and powerful cataract, though hidden at first by the deep ravine through which it passes, and one views it almost in retrospect. Before this towering curtain of white water, I noticed a bird, perched upon on a low rock, surrounded by leaping torrents. Binoculars showed it to be a dipper, rather a beautiful, playful little thing, mostly black, white throated, with a russet cap and waistcoat. It would occasionally go wading, swimming in the eddies, diving, then bobbing back up to its rocky perch. The dipper is a well named bird.

The gorge which ends with Snow Falls struck me as something akin to the gates of hell, a terrifying place where only madmen would venture voluntarily, but here was this beautiful little bird, unafraid, undaunted by the din. Perfectly adapted to its environment, it did not see the falls as I saw them – magnified and personified through the imaginative apparatus.

after twistleton

It’s significant, I think that people have flocked to Ingleton, and places like it, for centuries. We come and gaze wide eyed at the scenery, blinking as if at some alien world. We are amazed by it because we are not quite one with it. Were we ever to become truly one with it, we would become like the dipper, a thing of innocent beauty in itself, gambolling amid great beauty, but entirely unconscious of it. Like the tree that falls alone in the forest and makes no sound, because there is no one to hear it, it is mankind who lends an eye to show the world how beautiful it is, and a heart to reveal what mysterious joys such beauty can inspire.

So, two significant encounters – the clot on the carpark, and the dipper. I learned much more from the dipper, but then I’ve never been very good with people.

Graeme out.

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dunneIt’s about quarter of a century now since I first encountered the book “An Experiment with Time” by the former gentleman-designer and aircraft pioneer, J W Dunne (1875-1949). In 1902 Dunne had a dream about the eruption of Mount Pelee, on the island of Martinique, shortly before it happened for real. He did not dream of himself being present during the eruption but, more crucially, of picking up a newspaper at home and reading about it. Why crucially? Well, Dunne concluded the dream was not a presentiment of the disaster itself, but of his own action of picking up the newspaper. Dunne had seen himself at a point in his own future. This incident spawned much private theorising on the nature of time and existence, which in turn led to a series of very popular books, the first of which was “An Experiment with Time”, published in 1927 and which has been steadily reprinted ever since. This book suggests that in certain mental states – dreams or hypnogogic imagery – we are all capable of a form of first hand precognition of ourselves at a point days or weeks in our own future.

When we dream, we often recognise the influences of the recent past playing out in the dream narrative. But what Dunne suggested was that if we paid sufficient attention to our dreams we would find unequivocal influences from our immediate future as well. Dunne picked up a newspaper and read of the eruption in Martinique, but that event had already imprinted itself in his consciousness sufficient for it to appear as a fairly clear influence in his dreams some time previously. Dunne professed no psychic abilities and was rather disturbed by the prospect that he might be “gifted” in this way. Rather than assume this to be the case however, he chose instead to pursue the idea that the ability was in fact latent in all of us, and that all we have to do is make a record of our dreams in order to realise the truth of it.

Having made this startling observation, Dunne then began to puzzle over what it revealed about the nature of time if a part of us was indeed capable of seeing into the future. The familiar stuff of fiction and pseudo science, precognition – if true – has some serious implications for our understanding of the nature of reality. We might dream of ourselves in a situation we’d like to avoid – say a fatal accident – and decide not to get out of bed that day, so altering a future we had apparently already witnessed. But if we have already witnessed it, how can we avoid it? This is one of the paradoxes which cannot be reconciled in a deterministic universe, which suggests our futures are fixed, but which Dunne’s observations apparently bull-doze aside.

Was Dunne right? Can we dream of future things? As experiments go, the protocols Dunne uses and describes in “Experiment with Time” wouldn’t pass muster in modern parapsychological research, but his examples are compelling, and anyway, we can all sit down and make an accounting of our own dreams and decide for ourselves, so I decided to take a look at mine. It took several months, but sure enough my own little experiments with time revealed a number of intriguing de-ja-vous experiences. The first was a dream of myself sailing down an industrial backwater, on a canal boat. The following evening, when channel zapping on the TV, I zapped into the scene from the dream. Another was a dream of walking along a beach with peculiar dune formations, then of visiting that beach quite by chance some time later, a place I’d never been before. There were other incidents, most of them undramatic – indeed quite banal – but sufficient to convince me Dunne was not a crackpot, and that he had indeed revealed something peculiar, not only about time, but of our place in it.

Scientifically speaking  dream anecdotes do not equate to data and you must bear that in mind dear reader while reading this exposition by a self confessed mystical fiction writer. Sure enough Dunne met with serious opposition in academic circles on both the scientific and philosophical fronts. Among writers though, especially those of a mystical bent, and non-academic philosophers, and indeed the general public, his theories became very popular.

A man who knew Dunne and had the pleasure of discussing these ideas with him personally was the author, playwright and broadcaster J B Priestly. Priestly’s book Man and Time (1964) deals in part with Dunne’s work and in my opinion does a better job of exploring the philosophical issues. Unlike Dunne, however, Priestly wisely avoids any home-spun theorising on a scientific explanation. Such theorising however was to be Dunne’s undoing.

Dunne’s first rate technical background meant he was unable to let his experiments rest without coming up with a detailed conjecture involving maths and charts that explained it all, text-book fashion – at least to his satisfaction. Thus Dunne plunged headlong into a field that few theorists at the time were equipped to deal with, and duly came a cropper. He speculated that while the conscious mind experiences time linearly, the unconscious can plunder images from any point in our life from birth to death. We therefore exist, he said, for all time as an infinite number of moments whose direction lies at right angles to the familiar direction of time’s arrow, a series of “serial” moments. We never die, argued Dunne, because although we do exist somewhere at the point of death we are also still young, somewhere in time. Although I’m personally open to such a notion, it is vulnerable to philosophical attack, and Dunne was to spend much of his later years locking horns with learned critics, gaining the reputation of a bit of a crackpot.

Suffice it to say, he was never invited to expound upon his ideas at the Royal Institution, and while this may not be without sound reason, it’s a pity his actual observations were thrown out with the bath-water of his dubious scientific theories. It remains an awkward fact, I believe, that we do sometimes dream of things that are influenced by events we have yet to encounter. Where this leaves us in terms of an understanding of the nature of time and our place in it is no more certain now than it was when Dunne first dreamed of the eruption of Mount Pelee in 1902. Indeed it’s probably best not to think too hard on it, but it is interesting. Writers of course are free to speculate and plunder his ideas at will for material. As well as Priestly, he was an influence on the Sci Fi writer Robert Heinlein, and of course on more obscure scribes such as yours truly – see my story The Choices.

We can of course make a great deal of sense of the universe from the perspective of reductionist thinking. We paint a very convincing picture of a materialistic and mechanistic world, and for the day to day stuff this is fine – we get by – but we also do well to bear in mind that this is not the real nature of the universe at all. It’s much, much stranger than our physical senses perceive it. How strange? Well, how strange can you imagine it?

An Experiment with Time – 1927 J W Dunne (1875-1949)

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rivington village greenThere are certain experiences which cannot be shared, yet they number among the most exquisite moments of our lives. Fleeting and unexpected, they can lift us from a dark place, and remind us that sometimes the best company we can ever keep is our own.

I took a walk this afternoon by the Yarrow reservoir at Rivington. It’s a walk I know well, a circuit of about an hour from the village green, across meadows, along an avenue of chestnut trees, then up by the shimmering mirror of the reservoir. The sky was full of contrasts today, from a stormy grey, to a deep blue and then a luminous white, and the whole of it in flux, pressed into motion by a stiff wind. The sun was intermittent, warmish when it put in an appearance, but the day still requirde several layers of clothing to keep the heat in.

Under the sun, the colours were strong – the yellow heads of daffodils and the gorse almost aglow. The periods of sun were fleeting though, dogged at every turn by a sluggish overcast that rendered the land at once flat and cold, the colours muddy, the gorse and the daffodils winking out of notice – hopes raised, then dashed, then raised again. Walking alone, I kept an eye out for splashes of emotive light, or a pattern in the bark of a tree, or the curiously purposeful line of an old stone wall I might have walked past a thousand times, yet never noticed before.

lines of light

The moments of pure light were too brief to capture properly with a camera. By the time I’d switched the thing on and focused, the land had breathed and the mood of it changed to something else entirely, but I persisted, fiddling with apertures and metering, and waiting patiently for the sun to come out from behind the clouds. There were few people about – I’m lucky having the flexibility in my working patterns to have these Friday afternoons to myself. I saw just one other walker out and about. We passed, heading in opposite directions, exchanged friendly nods and the north-country Owdo. Two men, each alone, each viewing the land in their own way, taking from it whatever jewels of imagination it offered them.

On solitary walks like this I can summon imaginary companions. At such times my pace slows, becomes meditative, and my conversations – not spoken aloud – can lead me into interesting depths of the psyche, or they can defuse knots of angst and stress. They’re not real, these imaginary entities, not spirits. I call them ghosts, but they’re more shadowy than that – daemonic in a way, or splintered parts of me I have lost along the way. But today was not one of those days. My Friday afternoon pace tends to be brisk, and I take the inclines at a rate that I can feel in the muscles, because I want to be stronger for the next time I tackle Ingleborough, later in the year. So I wasn’t trailing any ghosts today, nor expecting any moments of revelation.


It came as I was walking by the Yarrow. A period of muddy overcast lifted suddenly as the late afternoon sun was reflected in rippled cobalt waters, making starbursts through the still stark black branches of leafless birch and rowan. Then came a heavy shower, like glass rods through which the sun’s rays shone in cool shades of yellow and silver. I was arrested by it, transfixed by the light and the sparkling air, and mood of the moment. I didn’t even bother reaching for the camera, because I’ve been fiddling with cameras for forty years, and I know there are certain things a camera cannot capture.

Had anyone been with me, they would most likely not have seen or felt it quite the same way, and their presence would have subtly altered my relationship with reality, rendered me less sensitive to its moods so I might have missed that moment altogether. I alone saw it, I alone felt it, that moment, this afternoon, by the Yarrow reservoir. But it wasn’t me – it never is in such moments as that. I seem only to lend the universe my eyes so it might look upon itself and see its own beauty. I felt a shiver, knew I had experienced something good, something worth remembering. The moment passed, and I went on my way.

An hour later I was in town, among the cars and the shops, people buying stuff, people in cafes bent over their Smartphones, traffic wardens stealing up on haphazardly parked vehicles. I bought fresh valves for my leaky radiator and a length of hose to help drain the system down, tomorrow. But I’m glad I took a turn around the reservoir first.

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nondual awarenessOne of the milestones along the path of the soul is the realisation of the non-dual nature of the psyche, indeed of reality itself. Many traditions describe this state, and it’s possible by careful study of the writings of their wise men to form an idea of what it might mean, intellectually. But the intellect alone cannot fully grasp it, nor can it fully accept its reality. The non-dual state must be experienced for it to have any meaningful effect on a man’s life, and the way to attaining that experience cannot be written down in any detail. Pilgrims can be pointed in the general direction by others who have gone before, but the experience itself is always a matter of chance, an accident. It’s just that some pilgrims are more accident prone than others.

You don’t have to be monk or a saint to experience it, though this helps. You can fall into it at any stage of life, and you don’t even have to be meditating. It can even happen when you’re not ready, when your mind is still rigidly rational in its outlook. But this can also leave you in a very strange place, questioning both the validity of what you experienced in the non-dual state, and questioning too the nature of the reality you have always believed to be unassailably firm.Thus, instead of celebrating one’s brush with non-dual awareness, one ends up pathologising it, dismissing it, saying we were simply off our head, that the concepts revealed in the non-dual state are simply so far at odds with the reality we daily perceive and understand, they cannot possibly be true. So we hide from them. We cover them with intellectual detritus and a fog of words.

I’m not sure if this is normal.

Others talk of an instant conversion, like a light-switch, and once it’s on, brother, it’s definitely ON! Personality changes wrought by the experience can be dramatic and overwhelming both for pilgrim and loved ones alike, to say nothing of embarrassing. Some feel called to greatness, even martyrdom as a result of their psychological shift, but others don’t. Others become even more confused than before.

The non-dual state is characterised by a dissolving of the boundaries between the individual and the world of form, yielding the devastating insight that there is no “other”, no “out there”, that we are both what we feel ourselves to be, as well as being whatever we are looking at. This is not to say we become one with the mountain because this implies the mountain has an independent existence in the world of forms. It’s more fundamental than that; we are the mountain, and, bizarre as all of this might sound, none of it comes as a great surprise to those plunged into the experience – more it’s like the remembering of something we have always known, but somehow forgotten.

Some would say the purpose of our lives is simply to awaken to this state, to renew our acquaintanceship with the hidden hyper-reality that is our natural heritage. But this cannot be the whole story.

The nature of reality as revealed in the non-dual state suggests that anything is possible, that our own reach knows no bounds. But if that’s true, then what are we doing here? In flesh, my furthest reach enables me to scratch my bottom and change a lightbulb. The experience in flesh is rather more limited then, also fraught with emotion. The experience of the non-dual state, by contrast, is liberating, it is to be embraced by an infinite loving wisdom and a boundless compassion, while the experience of the flesh is one of imprisonment, loneliness, disappointment and desire.

There must be a very good reason for us being here if we’re missing out on all of that. But what is it?

I’m not going to answer this question because I really don’t know, and can only speculate like anyone else. But there is a clue, I think in the fact that the experience of non-dual awareness occurs at a point in time that is neither past nor future, but at the singularity of their interstices, in the “now”. Past and future are psychological constructs, neither of them existing as anything other than memory or anticipation. The closer we can bring our minds, in the day to dayness of our lives, to that present moment, feel our presence in it, the less we fear the future, and the less we lament the events of the past, and the more we feel our aliveness and our interconnection with all things. Our purpose in life then may be nothing more than to achieve a sense of presence in whatever we happen to be doing at the time.

The rest is unimportant.

Or so I tried to tell myself this evening as I took a spanner to my leaking radiator valve. But no amount of presence would lessen the dripping to a rate that might be contained by an old biscuit tin until morning. Non-dual awareness wasn’t much help either, the sense that the aged leaking valve and I were one – although as metaphors go we we’re pretty well matched. What I really needed was not a sage but plumber. What use is non-dual awareness when my radiator valve is leaking? Answer that and I think you’ve covered just about everything a man could ever want to know.

leaking radiator

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tao of tinnitus cover - smallIt’s a while since I wrote anything on this subject, and until recently I’d largely forgotten what a big part of my life tinnitus used to be. A constantly ringing ear is definitely no joke, but in my own case I think I was fated to get it, because without it I would not have been forced down the path of investigating Traditional Chinese Medical theory. Nor would I have discovered Tai Chi or Qigong, which I believe were helpful in controlling my tinnitus. But more than that, the Tai Chi and Qigong have gone on to become a part of my life, to the extent that I no longer feel complete unless I’m practicing. The sense of calm-tingly-quietude that comes after even half an hour of practise is a very special thing indeed.

From the western medical point of view, there is as yet no cure for tinnitus – this in spite of the so called “evidence based” ad-served “miracles cures” we see online, at the cost of many thousands of pounds. But think about it, if there really was an evidence based, double blind tested reliable cure, it would already be available on the National Health Service for free. Given the degree of distress caused by tinnitus I’m sure health professionals are as keen as anyone to develop a lasting cure for it, but as of yet we don’t have one. Any other treatment therefore,  of the “alternative” variety, and more especially those treatments that cost a lot of money, we have to approach with considerable circumspection, and with our quack radar fully operational. We live in a materialistic society which means, sadly,  its would-be leading edge entrepreneurs aren’t interested in your suffering at all. They are only interested in your money.

Imagine my dismay then when I discovered a young man of my acquaintance suffering from tinnitus, and who had grown desperate enough to blow £40 on an ebook that promised miracles, but which, after a load of useless flim-flam delivered nothing. He knows of my own journey with tinnitus, but his rational mindset would not allow him to accept the efficacy of ancient mind body techniques that are essentially free. I understand this, because I didn’t believe in them either, and anyway the idea of having to practice something every day in order to remain free of tinnitus seemed just too onerous, requiring far more discipline than one has time for on top of all the other daily demands.

£40 is a lot of money for any book and I’d expect a lot from it in return – like the meaning of life perhaps. The scam-bells should have been ringing, but he was desperate enough to punt a day’s wages on it. The experience left him feeling only more empty and desperate. It reminded me how vulnerable I’d been during the darkest days of my own tinnitus, and I remembered too how, if you felt there was even a half chance an unbelievably expensive book, or a weird gadget would contain a single thread of wisdom that might set you on the path to recovery, you’d gladly pay up.

My response to all of this is another ebook, but this one is free. My book is based on my experience of tinnitus and, while offering hope, doesn’t promise miracles. It lays out a regime of simple meditation and qigong exercise for restoring calm, which will hopefully clear up the tinnitus in the process, or at least bring it under control to the point where you feel you can get by. All the techniques, all the information you need is freely available online. My book points you in the right direction, offers some side notes to get you going, and says yes, this worked for me.  It does not mean it will work for you too,… but it might.

My family still roll their eyes at my “alternative” outlook, and I accept that I may be something of a Qigong bore, but my experience of these methods has always been positive at least in terms of restoring a sense of well-being, and in any case I believe it’s better to be on one’s feet and doing something rather than lying flat out under a cloud of depression, doing nothing. But my main point here is you don’t have to risk your life’s savings on it as well.

If you’ve got tinnitus and you’ve surfed in looking for information, my little book at least gives you something positive you can try. If it doesn’t work, you can call me a quack but at least it hasn’t cost you any money. The downside to Qigong is that in order to realise its benefits, and to stay well, it must be adopted as part of a daily routine. Most of us will either simply not believe in it, or we’ll tire of the early sessions, and we’ll give up on it long before the benefits have set in. It therefore doesn’t suit everyone, but those who do take it up, and stick with it, speak well of it.

Click the pic to get the download. This book is served form my public Dropbox folder and will always be free. If you find it for sale anywhere, let me know and I shall wish down a shed-load of bad karma on the miscreants.

My success with Qigong is not unique. Other meditative methods, like Yoga also report positive results with tinnitus, attenuating the volume of the ringing, calming the associated anxiety and dealing also with the feelings of despair. The emotional dimension of sickness is not to be underestimated, and any method that addresses it is worth investigating. Yoga may suit you better but my knowledge of Yoga is limited to the gleaning of information on meditative breathing. I’m  lacking a good teacher in my area to get me going with it any further, otherwise I’d probably become a Yoga bore as well. Which brings me to my final point: if you need help getting going, or in finding the motivation to practice regularly, there’s no substitute for joining a class, if you can find one.

Tinnitus puts us in a dark place, a place where trusted forms of conventional medicine cannot help. The problem with Traditional Chinese Methodologies, like Qigong is that many of us of us simply don’t believe in them. We try everything else – medicines, the “top” specialists, even professional looking clinics with their “miraculous breathrough” adverts in the so called respectable press. We tend only to come back to the meditative methods when everything else has failed. Perhaps it’s only then we feel able to devote sufficient time and effort to the method, because we’ve nothing to lose. It would be better if more of us could give these methods the benefit of the doubt earlier on. They won’t cure everything, but by returning us to a sense of inner wellness, they free the body from the negative effects of our emotions, so it is better able to heal itself.

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blake-newtonI understand that not everyone is interested in enquiring into the nature of things, but what concerns me of late is the denigration of those who do. I’m not talking about intellectuals whose job it is to make professional enquiries into this or that, but ordinary souls who are simply interested in stuff. Being of an enquiring mind myself, I find this denigration is itself interesting and perhaps even culturally significant.

For a while now I’ve been asking the question: are interests are dying? And by interests I mean simply: hobbies. At a job interview nearly forty years ago, one of the first questions I was asked was: What are your interests? Back then it would have been photography, cycling, shooting, Origami, making Airfix kits, making balsa-wood aeroplanes, slot car racing, Judo, drawing, reading – to name but a few. None of these things had anything to do with the job I was applying for, but a wide range of interests and the ability to speak about them was considered a good thing back then. It certainly gave us lots to talk about, and I got the job.

Of course, as we age, adult responsibilities take their toll, and my hobbies have been pruned back somewhat, old hobbies have fallen away and news ones have been embraced, with writing foremost among them, and what hobbies remain to me still provide an outlet for an energy that finds its satisfaction in no other way.

I remember my father, a blue collar working man, with his insatiable interest in local history, from the Victorian engineering of mines, to prehistoric concepts of time and measure. He spent years investigating what he believed to be a neolithic calendar site on the West Pennine moors. To aid in this thesis, he taught himself mathematics, ancient astronomy and celestial navigation. He also liked to shoot and fish, studied geology, read Plato and Milton, and he wrote stuff. My father was never going to change the world with his interests and they had no bearing on his job as a colliery deputy. I think it was more the case that he found himself in them.

If you type train spotting into the Google box you’ll be a long while scrolling down to the original meaning of the word. Train spotting now means something else entirely, due in no small part to the Danny Boyle film of the same name whose brutal depiction of Edinburgh drug addiction so excited the critics at the time, and continues to inform popular culture. But train spotting was and remains a very particular hobby. That men will go out with notebook and camera to gather “intelligence” on railway engines and rolling stock seems pointless, but then most hobbies are like that. I am not a train spotter, but I understand the motivations of people who are.

What hobbies are, in fact, is an outlet for the innate and often quite humbling intelligence of ordinary men and women. Certified intelligence, in terms of school leaving or graduate qualifications, is not necessary. My father left school at fourteen without any formal qualifications, but following his interests he was motivated to take up the study of A levels at night classes in later life. These classes weren’t taken with an eye to professional development, but more as tools for the development of purely personal aims and interests. He expanded himself into the world of his interests, as I expand myself into mine.

Geek is a word I don’t approve of. Dress it up how you like it’s mainly used in a pejorative sense, and is pointed at anyone with an excessive (translate as pathalogical) interest in a technical or intellectual field – the implication being someone who is socially ill adjusted, non-mainstream, possibly even autistic. Of course in a hi-tech world where so few have any idea what’s under the bonnet of their computers, the geeks have begun laughing their way to the bank, but not every geek wants to transform their interest into a multi-billion dollar business. Use of the word geek in popular culture underlines for me the denigration of the very idea that it is normal for a human being to be interested in anything.

My youngest son is a keen guitarist, and through his interest has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the development of popular music and both the history and the technology of guitar construction. It’s perhaps counter-intuitive then that he considers the formal study of music at college to be a drag, nor has he any ambition to form a band so he can make it big on X-factor. It is the interest itself that absorbs him; it is the block on which he hones his intelligence. My eldest son follows the sport of motor racing in minute detail and lives for each fresh season of Formula One. He revels in the statistics of points and lap times. It was this passion that provided the lure which had him navigating his independent way across Europe to Monza last summer at an age when I would have lacked the confidence to do so. In short these are developmental issues. Through hobbies and interests we see the development and the maturing of intellect in ways that a more formal education cannot address.

But my fear is that as our civilisation has matured these past decades, the plethora of interests available for pursuit has atrophied to the extent that the question I was asked in that interview forty years ago would now be met with an embarrassed silence. For many, the majority pastime is merely keeping up with social media, and the presentation of a false face to the world of ones imagined peers. And then again many otherwise intelligent people turn each evening to the world of soap opera, which can occupy the mind from six until nine p.m, each weekday night, mesmerise it in a never ending formulaic cycle of dramatic conflict and resolution. Try as I might, I cannot classify either of these things as hobbies, since they are each in their own way capable only of suspending the activity of the mind, rather than encouraging any thoughtful application of it. They each create an artificial reality of simple rules and boundary conditions, beyond which one need not stray.

To scratch build, and then fly a model aeroplane requires the development of a set of skills on a par with those of an aeronautical engineer, and all this in someone whose dayjob might involve nothing more technical than selling insurance. Pointless perhaps, but intelligence is infinitely transferable and an intelligent citizen is better equipped to cope with the real world than one who is untrained in the critical application of whatever intellect they possess. The intelligent citizen does not accept uncritically the tritely emotive headlines of newspapers with their constant calls to arms, their vilification of innocent minorities, and their scaremongering over one spurious health issue after the other.

In Aldous Huxleys dystopian novel “Brave New World” the citizenry are sold a fantasy that they are happy to believe in, and over time have lost their ability to question why things are the way they are. They are happy, of a fashion, and they simply don’t care that they are living lives that are essentially sub-human. Unquestioning and uncritical they are vulnerable to the forces that control them, and so easily suggestible they can be fed any lie and they will wholeheartedly believe in it, because they no longer possess the confidence nor indeed the independence of their own minds.

I am a defender of the hobby and all who would be branded as the geeks of this world. It’s an unfortunate turn of events that a young person indiscreet enough to advertise their liking for collecting stamps, or coins or Meccano, would find themselves hate-mailed by uninteresting trolls on that Freindface thing, but I know which of the parties would be capable of holding the more interesting conversation, and of spotting the weaknesses in the arguments put forward by their own society. It is the geeks who bring about change, the geeks with their eclectic interests who will be the first to question the order of things, while the trolls prefer instead to wallow in the mud of their unexamined lives.

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mg roadster at glasson

A change in working practices has ushered in a new and unfamiliar flexitime regime. Not everyone is happy with it. Change is hard, but so far as I can work out, it now means the fifteen or twenty minutes I used to work beyond my contracted hours, for nothing, are now automatically totted up by the clocking machine. Minutes make hours and hours make days, and once a month the machine tells me I’m due day off. I’m therefore more than happy to embrace the new. Indeed  this is nothing short of a miracle and I’m enjoying it while I can before what I can only describe as a significant managerial blunder is discovered and flexitime scrapped post haste. Anyway, thus it was on Friday morning, I found myself nosing through someone else’s commute and heading north on the M61 for pleasure, instead of south for dollars. And all this without digging into my holiday ration!

A forty minute run took me to Glasson Dock, a small harbour on the Lancashire coast, tucked up and away in the estuary of the Lune. This is an area of mud banks and salt marsh. The Victorians picked the only decent stretch of beach hereabouts and built Blackpool on it while the rest remains an untamed morass rich in cockles and birdlife. My parents would bring me to Glasson when I was a child and I’d never tire of it, the marina presenting an ever changing carnival of vessels, large and small, from the sleek to the eccentric. It hasn’t changed much in forty years, and is still a popular picnic spot for day-trippers.

vessel, glasson main basin

I remember the old Manx ferry King Orry coming aground here in the winter storms of ’76. A fine looking boat, and quite a spectacle throughout that year as attempts were made to float her off again. Strange things happen here – a boat was sunk in the dock when I arrived – and there’s a sense that Glasson is such a temporal anomaly it shouldn’t exist at all in the modern downsized post industrial world. Yet exist it does – indeed it appears to be thriving. It has the feel of a smugglers port too – stories of illicit cigarettes and other drugs coming ashore here, or so the papers say. It’s difficult of access by sea with a narrow, snaking, shifting navigation channel but this hasn’t prevented a busy trade in grain and fertiliser, with scrap and broken bottles going out for recycling to the Continent, also coals to the Isle of Man.

Landscape wise, this is as lowland as you can get – salt-marsh with the occasional plug of clay on which the ancients built their farmsteads and waited out the seasonal floods. Bleak is a word that comes to mind, but the mild late February sun that morning painted Glasson with a smile. I needed a change, and today was the day. I’d even ditched my usual fluorescent mountain jacket and rucksack – changed them for a more traditional waxed jacket, with voluminous pockets for my kit. A flat cap completed the farmer Giles look. I sense a change in me – the way I dress is a harbinger of something else, coming back to a self perhaps who is at the same time much younger and yet so much older than I am now. But whoever he is seems companionable enough. The theme for the day was “amble at our leisure” and neither of us argued about it.

lancaster canal

Waxed jackets are a bit old fashioned now, modelled on what is essentially a nineteenth century oiled-cloth technology, they won’t take anywhere near the same kind of soaking that even a cheap modern waterproof will withstand with ease. They also have an image problem, being associated with the four by fours and green wellies of the county set. But I like them for lowland rambles – they’re comfortable and naturally breathable without a lot of high tech gobbledeygook. They last well, too. I’ve only recently binned my thirty year old Barbour after finally discovering it in a mouldy knot in the boot of my car. I replaced it with a much cheaper make, but one with plenty of pockets for camera, bins and map.

The map was instantly to hand on my ‘droid – a bad idea in the mountains and much frowned upon by the rescue teams, but permissible here, I thought. People have come to grief in the hills because their phones go flat and they’ve no paper back ups. We’re also tending to rely on GPS for telling us where we are, and the fear is that as the generations pass, our map-reading skills are going to perish and we’ll effectively be clueless without batteries. Used wisely though, the technology is helpful – no need to second guess where that right of way leaves the road and skirts someone’s property. No need to wonder how far you are away from base. A glance at the phone and x-marks the spot, and the GPS tracker always has the map homed in at the right bit for you – no need to go flipping through pages and pages of it to find yourself. It amazes me that even five years ago, this technology was beyond the means of the masses. Now it’s every day. But make sure you have a paper back up.

The walk took me from the marina basin down a short length of the Lancaster canal, past the parish church, to the first bridge, where I picked up the quiet country lanes that took me south – School Lane, Jeremy Lane and Moss lane. A mile or so of road walking then led to the first of the squelchy meadow paths, skirting the little coarse fishery at Thursland hill, then further south, the way heavy going now across increasingly soggy meadows and along muddy, tractor weary green lanes. A dogged persistence pays off though and we finally emerge on the coast, overlooking the impressive salt marshes of Cockerham.

The paths hereabouts, though not exactly overused, are all fairly well marked, which is always a good indication of how welcome you are as a stranger. By contrast I was brought up in an area where footpath signs tended to disappear overnight and where landowners were insensitive to a people’s need for green.

The salt marsh at Cockerham was a revelation – a wide open sky, miles of mud and a tranquil sea reflecting a soft yellow sun. It also reminded me of a line in a song by Kate Bush; something about the sky being full of birds. This was my first sight of the sea in a long time, and a refreshing picture it made too. We’d had heavy rains which, coupled with spring tides, had left the place with a drenched look. The tide was sneaking in again now, and all manner of waders were settling down for an incoming bounty. I counted oystercatchers, and curlews among the ones I knew, plus a million others in gay variety, making me wish I was more of a twitcher so I could have named them all.

On the downside this stretch of coast sees a lot of trash washed up – all manner of gaudy plastic, caught up by the sea, and a good deal of it hurled over the flood banks by recent storms. You could patrol this coast every day and fill a truck with it and the next tide would wash up even more – a seemingly never ending bounty of human detritus.

approaching cockersands abbey

From Cockerham my route picked up the Lancashire coastal way, which keeps to the shoreline for a couple of miles as far as Marsh Lane, then cuts back inland and leads us home to Glasson. There are a few secret caravan parks along the coast here, tucked in behind the defences – snug weekend bolt-holes, but looking vulnerable to tide and weather, I thought – also washing up their own flotsam of empty bottles of cheap booze. One of the most impressive bits of the walk was the section of lush green meadow that sweeps down to the sea and which was the former site of Cockersands abbey.

In artistic terms, the scene here loses its profusion of details, becomes much simpler – almost abstract – a vast plane of green, then the sea, and a pale, clear sky. In human terms I feel we take on a greater significance in such a landscape by virtue of our mere visibility upon the land – no longer hidden among the corners and the brickways and byways of the built environment. There was certainly an exhilarating feels to this section, excepting the bit where the farmer was spraying slurry – but then anosmia has its advantages, leaving me serene in contemplation of the view, when others might have been gagging for air.

cockersands abbey chapter houseThe abbey’s mostly gone now, levelled but for the forlorn little chapter house which by some strange quirk of fate remains in a state of almost perfect preservation. The tens of thousands of distinctive red sandstone blocks from which the abbey was constructed, back in the 1100’s, have been recycled over the centuries, into the flood defences. You can easily pick them out as you walk along, standing out from the concrete of more modern times. It seems the blocks that once protected this part of England from the tides of Biblical of sin, still provide service today, helping to keep out the sea. Indeed the impression I have is that much of the farmland hereabouts is merely on loan. The sea could take it back any time it wants.

Throughout the walk, away from the lanes, the meadow ways were soft with rains, and the going heavy. Seven miles had left my feet rather weary, so I was glad to see Glasson again come lunch-time. And lunch, at the Lantern O’er Lune cafe, was the biggest all-day-breakfast I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of demolishing. What with that, a decent walk and some much need sea air, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open on the drive home.

marsh lane

I was later found asleep, mid afternoon, passed out in the conservatory at home, basking in warm sun and sweet dreams.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a Friday.

Flexi time rules okay!

Here’s a map of my route.

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The way of the soul is not a straight line. It’s more of a spiral whose focus is centred very much in the core of the mysterious completeness of our being. We find a reference in a book and it fascinates us for a while, but our monkey mind moves us on before we’ve got to the bottom of things. Then we find ourselves, years later, turning up that same reference, that same idea once more, as if it were again the most precious thing, and we have made no progress in the intervening time at all. But if we think about it, we’ll realise, this time around, we are a little more receptive, we make a little more headway, move a little deeper in. Perhaps we weren’t ready before; it was just a passing glimpse, something interesting, or even useful for a time, but ultimately beyond our grasp – until now when we come full circling back. Again.

Seeking the soul in our selves requires a degree of stillness. Attaining stillness we are able to observe life from a detached perspective and make more considered judgements without the anxiety of being bound up in the seemingly ruthless flow of time. If we have attained stillness, we can extract ourselves, even in the midst of crisis, and see things unfolding that we might otherwise miss, so when we are brought to act we do so more skilfully. And it is through stillness the soul speaks most clearly to us, through stillness, her wisdom is more readily integrated into the pattern of our thoughts and our lives so that at times we act spontaneously, in ways we do not understand, but which we know are right.

The meditative arts all seek to attain this prize of inner stillness. The mind becomes calm, the obscuring sediment of our thoughts settle out, and we regain clarity. Clarity feels calm. It feels like an hour plucked out of the split second, allowing us to observe the world with a mindful detachment even as we are carried along with it. But finding stillness isn’t easy, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Chinese art of Zhan Zhuang.

Attaining stillness through Zhan Zhuang is one of those ideas I encountered some years ago, and to which I now find myself full circling back in search of a greater familiarity and depth. Zhan Zuang, or standing like a tree, is a unique form of qigong, taught for thousands of years. The tree stands still, rooted in the earth, unmoving, yet by imperceptible degrees it grows strong. The method was brought to the west by Lam Kam Chuen, whose book “The Way of Energy” has been a long time resident of my little library. I touched upon it briefly, once, extracted some knowledge from it to incorporate in my own varied and somewhat half-assed practice. Now though, via a chain of serendipitous events, I find myself exploring Zhan Zhuang anew.

What better way to attain stillness than by literally standing still?

Why would we do this? What use is stillness in a fast moving world? What use is it to retreat into the mindful moment when to truly engage with the roller coaster of human affairs can be so exhilarating? Well, there are times when that roller coaster makes us ill, and then it’s wise to step aside from it for a while. But the roots of stillness go much deeper.

Although we are each of us a unique individual, filled with our own promise, there is another side to us, more primitive, one that is less thinking and feeling. This is no more apparent than when we enter the noisy crowd of our fellow man and become once more a pack animal surfing the psychological tides of the collective will. The violence of crowds is well known, that the shadow of man is more easily provoked when we run in large numbers. In such situations, we can find ourselves doing and saying things that would be unthinkable were we in that slower time of solitude. We can become spiteful, violent, racist, bigoted,… a crowd can even commit murder, and feel itself justified.

But to develop stillness is to install a safety fuse, a thing that blows of its own accord, allowing us to distance ourselves from the unskilful excesses of the instinct driven-crowd. It gives us back to ourselves, it teaches us to recognise again our own face in the midst of noise, that we are the awareness behind the chatter of our thoughts, that we are the stillness upon whose shoulder sits the monkey mind. We are in short the voice that takes us out of the crowd when the crowd is moving in the wrong direction.

During Zhan Zhuang, the monkey mind is forced into a more intimate awareness of the sensations of the body and of the breath, leaving it little opportunity for flitting through the treetops, swinging on the vines of one associative thought after the other. To stand still for thirty minutes – as still as a tree – is a thing I have yet to manage. Indeed it takes great determination, more determination than I as yet possess. But even in much smaller doses, it’s one of the most powerfully energising forms of qigong I know.

Noise and movement come easily to us. Indeed they seem so integral to our way of life, the vacuum of stillness is disturbing to us now. Attaining stillness is hard, and finding it in the modern world is vanishingly rare, but it’s important we don’t lose touch with it because it’s thorough stillness we realise more accurately the way of the soul, and become, in the same breath, more essentially human.

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